Lincoln Coffee House

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Reading’s changed a lot in the last few years, but in many ways the café scene has changed the most of all. Actually, I remember when it was all fields: no big chains, just old school frothy coffee and stewed tea merchants like Platters and Chelsea Coffee House (of that generation, only Rafina really remains). Then came the big players: Coffee Republic (remember them?); Costa; Starbucks and Caffe Nero. Not to forget the upstarts: Picnic and Workhouse. But still they keep coming – so now we have Shed and My Kitchen, Nibsy’s and Tamp Culture. And there are more recent arrivals, rare outposts of small chains, like Artigiano which opened just before Christmas and Yumchaa – almost alone in specialising in tea – in the Oracle. Oh, and Siblings Home in Caversham, opened less than two weeks ago and looking like an intriguing mixture between a Hoxton café and a branch of Labour And Wait. Back in the nineties, every time you looked there seemed to be a new pub in Reading. Twenty years on, it feels like we might soon be saying the same about cafés.

The one that always seems to get forgotten is Lincoln Coffee House, a way down the Kings Road, past the library and a little out of town. I admit I do enjoy making the less obvious choices, and I have a soft spot for the underdog, but actually I picked Lincoln for this week’s review for two very particular reasons. One is that they specialise in bagels, and I’ve always had a fondness for a sesame seeded bagel. The second, just as importantly, is that I’ve never much cared for coffee, but I’ve long felt that Lincoln probably does the best tea in Reading.

Admittedly that’s not a big challenge, but even so I’m fed up of paying two quid for a bag and some hot water or, worse still, two pounds twenty for the same bag in a little more hot water. I can see the expertise in a properly made cup of coffee but it’s so rare to get good quality loose leaf tea in a pot that Lincoln should be applauded for that if nothing else, even if their selection of teas isn’t huge.

I’ve realised recently that a lot of my reviews talk about the restaurant being a “long, thin room”. I’m afraid Lincoln is another of those (maybe it’s all the Victorian property in Reading), but it’s attractively done, with a smart wooden counter on one side and a tasteful tiled grey wall behind it. Along the other wall are some rather fetching stylised drawings (a bit reminiscent of Simon Drew) about coffee and chocolate, two of the things of which they’re particularly proud.

It all falls down a bit with the furniture – all high stools and boxy tables which seem somewhat haphazardly laid out (the tables for four just don’t really seem to fit in such a narrow strip of space). The window ledges would be lovely places to perch and watch the world go by, but the tables are so badly arranged that it’s a struggle to sit at them.

As I said, I’ve always liked a bagel even though they seem slightly out of fashion – like goatees and Friends, they were huge in the 90s but nobody seems quite as interested any more. The only other place in town that used to do them, Bagel Shaq, closed down (possibly due to crimes against spelling) and now, if you really do find yourself craving a bagel, it’s either Lincoln or the little booth in the station whose name escapes me.

The bagel selection is quite a compact one – a few breakfast options and less than half a dozen others – but I didn’t mind that at all. I went for the “Manhattan Munch”, chicken, bacon, avocado and Swiss cheese all toasted in a sesame seed bagel. It was delicious – creamy avocado, salty bacon (cooked well, no rubbery rind here) and diced chicken in mayo topped with melted Swiss cheese. The other choice, the pastrami melt, was also very tasty – wafer thin pastrami, Swiss cheese, a little piquant red onion and glorious vinegary slices of gherkin, another weakness of mine. Presentation was also very pretty – on a slate (I know they bring some people out in hives but they’ve never bothered me) with a little pile of salad. I’m not a huge fan of friseé, but it was at least nicely dressed.

Manhattan

So far all good, but here’s the problem. A bagel is not a big thing: even taking into account the hole in the middle, they’re no bigger really than a bread roll. Traditionally, what they lack in diameter they make up for in depth – I’m talking Scooby Doo style, inches of filling barely contained in the bagel, the contents messily spilling out. For the OCD among you, the bagels at Lincoln are not like this: the filling in the Manhattan Munch was a finger’s width deep, the pastrami in the other bagel was gorgeous, but it was wafer thin and only a few wafers thick. When those two bagels, eaten on the premises, come to £10 that’s a bit of an issue, and it’s not one that putting it on a slate can overcome.

Still, there’s always the tea: Lincoln’s tea is by Waterloo Tea Company, from Wales of all places, and Lincoln offers a selection of green teas, black teas and rooibos (I’m not even going to attempt the plural of that word – rooibosses? rooibos? I seem to have attempted it and it’s all gone wrong: let’s move on). No Earl Grey, which would have been my first choice, so on this visit I had Assam, loose leaves in an attractive glass pot with an egg timer to tell me when it had finished brewing. The timer probably made it a little too strong for my liking – my fault rather than Lincoln’s, I’ve always preferred my tea baptised rather than steeped – but I was still very happy with the rich, smooth, almost malty flavour. I just wish I’d poured it sooner.

I’m told that the latte was very good – “better than Picnic and not as good as Tamp” – although apparently there wasn’t any latte art (surely only hipsters care about that?) The beans, I’m told, come from Nude: maybe that means something to you, it’s all Greek to me. Another thing worth mentioning is Lincoln’s impressive hot chocolate – made with real high quality single estate chocolate flakes rather than artificial-tasting powder. I didn’t have one on this occasion, but from past experience they’re bloody magnificent (I also have a friend who swears by Lincoln’s mochas, so there’s that too).

Service was a bit confusing with a total of four people behind the counter at one point or another, but it was very enthusiastic and engaging. I was delighted to see quite an influx of people while I was there, including more than a few regulars. Lunch for two – two bagels, two drinks, came to a touch over fifteen pounds.

I’m not entirely sure who Lincoln is aiming for with its location and its pricing, and I’m not entirely sure it’s me. A way out of town, surrounded by office buildings, closing at 5pm Monday to Saturdays and closed all day Sundays, it may be that actually they’ve decided to cater to takeaway sales for local workers rather than the sit-down, eat-in lunch trade. If that’s the case, all power to their elbow. But for me personally, I felt that – however much I liked what they’d done with the space and however tasty the bagels were – they weren’t doing enough to put up a fight against their competitors in town, chains or independents. I could get an overstuffed sandwich from Pret or a fresh Cornish pasty from Picnic, less than five minutes down the road, for less money and I don’t think I would have compromised on quality. They still get huge credit (and a couple of points) for making an effort with the tea, and I’d go back there for drinks if I was in the area, but overall the bagel seems to be an appropriate metaphor: all very nice, yet it feels like there’s something missing.

Lincoln Coffee House – 6.6

60 Kings Road, RG1 3AA
0118 9507410

http://lincolncoffeehouse.co.uk/

Beijing Noodle House

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Because I have a policy of not reviewing restaurants the very minute they’ve opened, opportunities to be topical are few and far between. I’m not always good at seizing them – I’ve always regretted not visiting Pau Brasil last year while the World Cup was on, for example – so there’s no way I was going to miss out again this week.

I’m not talking about pancakes, by the way. I’m still convinced that pancakes, like cooked breakfasts and roast dinners, are best enjoyed at home; even when a restaurant does them well, it never quite recaptures how good they can be in the comfort of your own kitchen. Something’s always not quite right: the sausage isn’t good enough, the baked beans are claggy and don’t have Worcester sauce in them, the beef’s a tad leathery or (most unforgivably) there aren’t enough roast potatoes. At their best – especially with roast dinners – they can be a high-end reimagining, an enjoyable one even, but it’s just not the same.

That’s never truer than with pancakes. Just writing this I am remembering them – fresh from the pan, sprinkled with sugar and lemon juice, rolled up and scoffed greedily while someone is busy cooking the next one. No restaurant can match that. Plus when you have them in a restaurant you get a pancake, emphasis on the singular. Where’s the fun in that?

No, the other thing that happened this week was the Chinese New Year, only yesterday. It got me thinking again about the disappointing lack of good Chinese restaurants in Reading, and then I remembered one of the recommendations I’d received: Pete, the proprietor of Shed, had suggested I review Beijing Noodle House. He raved about some of the Indonesian specialities and the “mouth watering pork dumplings”. Pete strikes me as a man who knows his food – anyone who’s ever tried Saucy Friday can attest to that – so how could I go anywhere else on this of all weeks?

Actually, my first reaction to the recommendation was “is that place still open?” I used to go to Beijing Noodle House a lot, back in the day (I was especially partial to their duck fried noodles). Then, back in 2008, it was gutted by fire; I can’t remember how long it was closed for, but when it reopened I had moved on elsewhere and it never occurred to me to return. Heading up West Street on a weekday evening and going through the front door felt a little like bumping into an old friend and having to make excuses for not having been in touch.

The first thing that struck me about the room was the pictures on the wall. They are enormous (one pretty much covers an entire wall), an odd mishmash of Oriental and European art. You almost couldn’t take your eyes off them, so huge were they, and I’m no Brian Sewell but I don’t think the proprietors are going to take them to a filming of Antiques Roadshow any time soon. Apart from the mind-boggling art? Well, it’s a bit run-down. The dark wood tables are a little too low so you end up hunched over your food, everything is a little worn and has seen better days. An electronic neon sign in the window flashes “OPEN”. The place mats are thin, plastic and tacky – mine, for no reason I could think of, had a photograph of chips on it. It was just tatty enough that I looked up the health and safety rating from the council, and was hugely reassured to find that they’d given it five stars.

There’s no menu online but there are a lot of noodle options – as ramen, as fried noodle, as udon or vermicelli, in soup or not. More noodle combinations, in fact, than I knew existed. You could probably figure that out for yourself – the clue’s in the name after all – but there was a lot more to the menu than that. I also spotted plenty of rice dishes, a good vegetarian section and, on the back, a range of Thai and Malaysian dishes. I couldn’t see any main courses costing more than seven pounds. As always with a very big menu I felt spoiled for choice, and sadly as usual with a very big menu I also wondered how many choices contained spoilers.

No way to find out except to dive in, so we ordered several of the starters. “Grilled Pork mouthwatering dumplings” (yes, that’s a direct quote from the menu) were every bit as good as Pete had suggested they would be. There’s often an air of the mystery meat about dim sum filling which puts me off, but these – more like gyoza than steamed dumplings or pork buns – were full of coarse, subtle pork. They were beautiful combined with the clean, delicate taste of the ginger vinegar dip. Four felt like a snip at just under four pounds.

Beijing starters

The chicken satay was also very good: you could say it’s hard to get satay wrong, and you’d probably be right, but I liked this a lot. The chicken – three decent sized skewers – was maybe slightly cooked into toughness but that just gave me an excuse to heap on lashings of the satay sauce, which was nothing to look at but deceptively impressive, with just enough slow-building chilli. Last of all, crispy seaweed came with cashews on it rather than the traditional grated scallop (did you know that the pink powder was grated scallop? I didn’t) and was also delicious. The nuts added a savoury toasted note which meant it wasn’t artificially sweet the way seaweed can be – not that that ever stops me polishing it off, mind.

I ordered the duck fried noodles partly for old time’s sake and partly because the menu goes out of its way to say that the duck is marinated and freshly cooked and you can have it boneless if you prefer. When it arrived I felt that mixture of nostalgia and anticipation. It looked just how it used to, back when I used to come here, but was it as tasty? After all, your tastes move on, change, develop: could it possibly have been as good as my memories of it?

In a word: yes. Possibly better, in fact. The duck – and you get loads of it – was glorious in big, tender slices. Not crispy, which might put some people off, but not with the thick layer of fat that might deter fussy eaters. The spring onions, peppers and beansprouts still had the right amount of crunch with the soft noodles and the duck, and everything was coated in a beautiful dark sauce which was more than soy but impossible to split out into its component parts. I was smiling from the first mouthful to the last, and wondering why on earth I’d left it so long. It was just over six pounds, and I’d pick it over a yaki soba from Wagamama nine times out of ten.

Beijing noodles

I also wanted to try something from the less conventional side of the menu, so I went for the nasi goreng. This turned up as a huge heap of rice (indeed, the translation from Indonesian is simply “fried rice”) liberally interspersed with prawns and pieces of chicken breast. The sticky, lightly spiced rice was dotted with peas and on top were a few thin slices of spring onions which felt like not quite enough variety to make every mouthful exciting. That said the meat was generous enough to have a prawn or piece of chicken in every forkful and the flavour was good, if a little bit repetitive (I rarely order risotto for the same reason). Still, five quid for a really tasty plate of rice is incredible value and it made me want to try more of the more unusual dishes (nasi lemak, the national dish of Malaysia, perhaps, or possibly beef rendang).

Beijing nasi

Someone pointed out my really poor track record of ordering desserts in 2015, and I’m afraid it’s true. I didn’t do any better here: I could have gone for some ice cream, or toffee banana with sesame seeds, but somehow I felt like I’d eaten two courses with no need of a third to complete them. The whole thing – three starters, two mains, a Tsing Tao and a large glass of anonymous, cheap and perfectly drinkable red – came to under thirty pounds. I haven’t mentioned service and that’s deliberate – not because it was bad but because it was almost unobtrusive. It’s just not that kind of restaurant: they ask you nicely what you want, they go away, a little later they bring it and they leave you to get on with enjoying it (actually when I put it that way, it sounds pretty good). Besides, how could they ever compete with the wall art?

I’m delighted that I enjoyed Beijing Noodle House. I can’t think of many places in town that are so cheap and so enjoyable, and when I looked at the menu I had real trouble narrowing it down to two main courses, so it probably won’t be long before I return to fill in the gaps. I really wanted to like it, because of all those happy memories, but as a realist I’m not sure I was expecting to like it as much as I did. It’s also a great example of how good food in an iffy room is always going to beat iffy food in a good room. Maybe one day Reading will have an equivalent of “Where Chefs Eat”: if so, Pete should definitely claim this one for his entry.

Only one thing troubled me: I was one of only two tables the night I went, although someone else did poke their head round the door for takeaway. West Street has felt increasingly like a ghost town recently, with Vicar’s closing just before Christmas and rumours that Primark is considering relocating to Broad Street. I can only hope my curse doesn’t strike and Beijing Noodle House doesn’t close shortly after receiving a glowing review from me. I know I say this a lot but use it or lose it, because otherwise one of these days the question will still be “is that place still open?” but the answer will be no.

Beijing Noodle House – 7.2
13-14 West Street, RG1 1TT
0118 9078979

http://www.hongbeijingreading.co.uk/

Alto Lounge

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I like to bang on about service in restaurants, but this week it occurred to me that I might be part of the problem. After all, I talk about service, but if you look back at my other reviews it’s usually tucked away near the end. It’s the penultimate paragraph, stuck between the desserts and the summing up, sharing space like uneasy housemates with the bit about How Much It All Cost.

For some reason it’s difficult to write about service in detail unless it’s bad, and when it’s bad I feel guiltier about going into detail than I would about a disappointing dish. Funny how the human face of a restaurant, even though it’s what you see, attracts less comment than all the faceless people toiling away in the kitchen.

So, to redress the balance, even if only for one week: the service at Alto Lounge was some of the best I’ve had in a long time. The two women working the night I went were an absolute joy: friendly, likeable, helpful and interested. They stopped me going up to the bar to order more drinks when my food had just arrived, even though technically Alto Lounge doesn’t do table service. It properly felt like they wanted to make sure I had a good evening, and when I settled up and left the goodbyes were so genuine that it made me want to go back.

I was especially impressed with the service because I wasn’t expecting it to be quite that good. Alto Lounge is a casual dining place: not quite a restaurant, not quite a café, not quite a pub. It sits on the main street in Caversham, along from Waitrose and opposite Costa Coffee (in fact, looking at their other Reading location, in Woodley, you might think their policy for new branches is just find somewhere near a Waitrose).

I’ve had people recommending Alto Lounge’s breakfast to me, but it’s always felt like a bit of a trek out of town for the first meal of the day. However, the rest of the menu felt like it warranted further investigation. For a start, there was a tapas section (Reading really is missing out on tapas) and also, with my New Year’s resolution in mind, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of vegetarian options. Yes, it’s that week of the month.

I liked the interior of Alto Lounge. It’s dark without being gloomy, the walls covered in cool posters and Tretchikoff prints, retro without feeling naff or calculated. The furniture was reminiscent of Bill’s (I wonder if they get their school-style chairs from the same supplier?) but the atmosphere was buzzier and more intimate.

So, great service, great atmosphere and a lovely room. I suppose the Hollywood ending here would be for me to rave about the food, you could all add it to your list of reliable, affordable places to visit in town and we could all go on with our days that little bit happier. I’d love to be able to do that, but reality is never anything like Hollywood and so it proved here. We started with tapas – Tuesday is “Tapas Tuesday” at Alto Lounge and you can get three dishes with a glass of house wine for under a tenner – which might have gone some way to explaining the crowds (they also have “Cheeky Monday”, but I don’t ever want to be the sort of person who has a “cheeky glass of wine”, so I didn’t pay it too much notice).

The tapas at Alto Lounge is a good example of how authenticity isn’t everything. So for instance, the pick of the bunch was shredded pork in sticky sweet five spice with a sprinkling of coriander – about as Spanish as I am, but very tasty all the same. The beetroot and feta tortilla wasn’t bad either – more a frittata than a tortilla, with not much egg and lots and lots of chunks of waxy potato which dominated it somewhat. I liked the feta in it, which added the salt it needed to save it from blandness. I quite enjoyed it, even if it was about as Spanish as someone who went to Barcelona once on a city break. Last but not least, the lamb koftas with grated carrot and tzatziki were gorgeous – the lamb coarse and well-seasoned, the texture just right and the tzatziki respectable and fresh. Gorgeous and, well, Greek. On a normal night these three dishes would cost a little over nine pounds – great nibbles if you were here for a drink but, perversely, not brilliant value as a starter.

Alto_tapas

No, where things really went wrong was with the mains. The falafel burger sounded perfect on paper – sweet potato falafel, halloumi, roasted peppers and tomato chutney, the kind of dish that, well-executed, could stop a diner missing meat for good. In reality it was out of balance in every way. The falafel burger was a big hockey puck of a thing (“it looks a bit Findus” was the dubious feedback from the other side of the table) and, possibly because of the sweet potato, tasted oddly soapy. The texture was smooth not coarse and, because it was so huge, it was too much fluffy middle and not enough crunchy edge. The slice of halloumi, by contrast, was the thinnest I think I’ve ever seen (let’s face it, nobody has ever looked at a dish and said “you know what, that is way too much halloumi”). There was a little smear of chutney and some peppers – and a lot of raw red onion which I could have done without – but overall it was hard, hard work. The coleslaw with it was in an oddly thin and watery dressing, the fries (allegedly skin-on) felt like oven chips. But the burger was the Achilles heel – I could have forgiven everything else if the falafel had been up to scratch.

AltoBurger

The winter vegetable risotto was similarly disappointing. On the bottom was a layer of plain, unflavoured, unseasoned risotto which had been cooked for so long that it lost any bite and was claggy, like wallpaper paste. No shallots or garlic in there, either. Next up was a layer of winter vegetables which, dare I say it, I suspect had been roasted, then chilled, then microwaved. Some were hot and chewy, some were cold and chewy and most of them were – again – flavourless. On top of that was a handful of rocket with a few slivers of hard cheese, which I think was Parmesan, sprinkled with a few seeds.

I ordered this dish thinking it was vegetarian – although it’s hard to tell – the menu doesn’t actually list the vegetarian options (it says there’s a vegan menu, no mention of a vegetarian one). Nor does it mention that this dish contains Parmesan, for that matter. Perhaps I am being too tough and were I a real vegetarian I would know to ask, but it still felt – to me at least – neglectful. Even with the cheese it all tasted largely of nothing and, worst of all, I can (and do) cook a considerably better risotto at home. The best bit of the whole dish were the five crispy leaves of fried sage; a little touch that suggests all is not entirely lost in the kitchen.

Altorisotto

I liked Alto Lounge so much, and I so wanted them to recover from the mains, that I wanted to order dessert. But when push came to shove, I couldn’t do it. The selection is limited to five options you see pretty much everywhere (brownie, treacle tart, apple pie, cheesecake, sticky toffee pudding) and it felt more meh than menu. So we paid up – dinner for two with three tapas, two mains, a couple of glasses of wine and a few ciders came to thirty-five pounds – and said our goodbyes.

Normally first impressions are everything, but actually with Alto Lounge it’s the last impression that has stayed with me. It was sparsely occupied when I turned up, but by the time I left only one table was free, and looking back through the windows from outside it had the warm, welcoming glow of a place you want to visit. Almost a trick of the light, but not quite. How I wish I’d liked the food more. No, that isn’t right: how I wish the food had been better. I actually can see myself coming back, but more in its capacity as a bar. I could quite happily grab a table with some friends, open a bottle of wine or get the ciders in, play cards or a board game and keep ordering tapas until I was full. Maybe that’s what they are aiming for, but as a restaurant it doesn’t quite cut it. I’m sad that I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it – but maybe you should go, even if only once, just to see how much great service makes you want to overlook.

Alto Lounge – 6.5
32 Church Street, RG4 8AU
0118 9473522

http://www.thelounges.co.uk/alto-lounge/

Oakford Social Club

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First things first, Oakford Social Club (from hereon, just the Oakford, or my fingers will get sore) is part of a chain. I know it feels like the original hipster hangout – mismatched furniture, craft beer and live music – but it’s part of the “Castle” group of Mitchell and Butler, an “eclectic urban pub” according to their website (a group which also includes the Abbot Cook, out at Cemetery Junction). And the food at the Oakford is by “Ruby Jean’s Diner”, a chain within a chain found in a number of those pubs, offering a selection of Americana classics. Anyway, chains aside, the Oakford does what I have thought for a while is probably the best burger in Reading. Let’s not mess around and play games: I still think that.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone in Reading has never been to the Oakford. But just on the off-chance that you’ve beamed to town from, say, Mars, it’s a big attractive building right opposite the station that is a darned sight more attractive in this incarnation than its predecessors “The Forum” (nothing funny ever happened on the way there, not that I can remember) or the Flyer And Firkin, with its enormous Jenga set, the sort of thing that was thought to be a great idea in pubs in the 90s. It’s broken up into lots of discrete areas – the one at the front is probably the most suitable for dining – and it’s dark and atmospheric, although after a certain time, when they crank the music up I personally feel like leaving (that no doubt says more about me than it). In any case, it’s a relatively quiet place to grab an early evening midweek bite to eat, which is what I did on this occasion.

The burger menu at the Oakford is extensive. The majority of options are beef based, though they do chicken and veggie burgers, too (and the selection of coloured tongs on the grill suggest they’re quite strict at keeping these separate). I went for a beef burger but I was led astray by their selection of toppings and fillings. I know some of you will be downright disgusted at me and I know as a reviewer I should be ordering things on the menu that the majority of people might want to eat. But on this occasion I’m afraid I ordered what I really fancied, namely – the squeamish might want to look away now – the beef burger with peanut butter and fried egg. Judge all you like, but I bloody love peanut butter. The fried egg appealed too – it’s one of those things I’d never cook at home, but when throwing calorie caution to the wind it seemed pointless to turn one down.

The burger itself was a coarse patty, still pink in the middle, juicy and soft with barely any seasoning. It came in a glazed bun with crisp iceberg lettuce and a slice of firm tomato (no slimy salad here). Truth be told the peanut butter was a little overwhelming, so the egg was a bit lost in the mix, but I still loved it. There was just enough mayo in there for it to hold together but not enough for the whole thing to slide around like Bambi on the ice. If you prefer, you can design your burger with whatever toppings you fancy – including burnt end chilli, the ubiquitous pulled pork and bacon, blue cheese and avocado, to name but a few – and, unless you’re really greedy, a tailor made burger will come out costing less than a tenner. All good, right?

Sadly, this is where the fun ends. The burger was served in a paper-lined plastic basket (so hip!) with fries which were on the undercooked side, meaning instead of being crispy and fluffy they were firm but wan. In fairness, from personal experience they’re usually better that this but they were still pretty disappointing. The basket had a slightly convex bottom which meant that cutting the burger with a knife and fork (purely because the burger was really big: I’m not too prissy to pick up a burger with my bare hands) was a bit like eating on top of a Pop-O-Matic with no chance of rolling a six.

OakfordBurger

Much as the temptation was to order a second burger (I was drawn to one featuring emmental, Thousand Island and pickled onion Monster Munch: I couldn’t work out whether it was going to be stupendous or horrendous) I thought for balance I should try something else as well. The rest of the menu wasn’t quite so tempting – a couple of macaroni cheese dishes (called, of course, “mac n’ cheese”, which makes me feel a bit stabby), a couple of salads and the potentially insane, possibly inspired “Wafkin”, chicken with bacon and maple syrup served between two waffles rather than in a bun. Instead, I went for southern fried chicken.

One of my food regrets (and there are many) is that so far I’ve never tried proper fried chicken in America. Unfortunately, it turns out that another of my food regrets is that I’ve now tried the Oakford’s take on it; I’d love to be kind, but it failed on every level. The coating was soggy – the photos make it look a lot crispier than it was, but it didn’t cover the whole of the chicken and what there was slid off the chicken, wobbly and not that appetising (ironically it stuck like glue to the bone on the underside of the breast). It was pretty bland, too – the Colonel’s recipe may remain a closely guarded secret but I can’t see anybody tracking the Oakford down to get hold of theirs.

Bereft of the unappealing skin, all that was left was the chicken, and it too was nothing to write home about. The legs felt like they needed a bit longer, the breast felt like it had had too long. The worst thing about it, apart from the nagging feeling throughout that KFC would have been easily ten times as good, was knowing that I was eating something so terribly bad for me and I wasn’t even particularly enjoying it. If sinful food isn’t fun, what’s the point?

Oakfordchicken

On the side we had a basket of tempura vegetables with chipotle jam. These were a mixed bag: the red peppers and mushroom slices were nicely done, the batter was lovely, light and crisp and the jam – although chilly from the fridge – was like a firm smoky sweet chilli sauce and a nice accompaniment to the veg. What was odd were the colossal bits of cauliflower – more than a floret and only slightly smaller than a fist – which were far too big to be interesting. One of them was so huge that I didn’t want to attempt it without a chainsaw. Disconcertingly there was a big pool of oil sitting at the bottom of the paper when we finished which made me wonder quite how much fat I’d just eaten.

After all those wasted calories it seemed like dessert would have been the final nail in the cholesterol coffin, so we skipped it. Nothing on there even remotely tempted me – the dessert section of the menu is simply entitled “Chocolate”, so it might not tempt you either (although I imagine some people might snigger at one of the options, maturely dubbed “The Threesome”). The total cost was twenty five pounds for one course and one soft drink each plus the shared side. There was no opportunity to tip and, really, no call for it. Service is basic here – fair enough, it’s a pub after all, not a restaurant – but when the tempura vegetables came out without their chipotle jam I had to ask for it and remind the member of staff serving exactly what went with the side dish I’d ordered. It felt like I knew my way round the menu better than he did.

I fear for the Oakford a little: it has a great spot in town, a lovely building which it’s made the most of, and for a long time it was the only place in town with its particular kind of scruffy, offbeat shtick. But all that feels like it’s changing: the Greyfriar, RYND, Milk and the new-look Turtle all offer different iterations of what the Oakford does and are challenging the monopoly it’s had for years. And that market only gets more crowded. Coincidentally, Pavlov’s Dog reopens tonight also offering burgers and craft beers; this London trend shows no sign of dying out here in Reading just yet. The recent news that some of the Oakford’s live music is moving to other venues suggests that it wants to reposition itself but, for me, their food isn’t good, diverse or interesting enough to be a big part of that. So yes, it’s probably the best burger in town – right now at least – but for how long? Because it used to be one of the best places in town to start a night out too – but I imagine they also said that about the Flyer & Firkin, back in the day. Still, the Oakford’s potential loss is our gain: it’s good that Reading moves too quickly these days for anybody to take anything for granted.

Oakford Social Club – 6.6
53 Blagrave Street, RG1 1PZ
0118 9594267

http://www.oakfordsocialclub.com/

Mangal

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It feels like eons ago, but back in December Reading was transformed into a winter wonderland. There was an ice rink and a festive funfair in Forbury Gardens. The area down by the Oracle Riverside, occupied by the prehistoric crazy golf course in the summer, became a German-themed bar selling Glühwein and Bavarian beer. The square outside the Town Hall became a festive market, with loads of cute little cabins offering a variety of food, drink, crafts and other goodies.

Sounds marvellous, doesn’t it? There was only one catch, which was that nobody was terribly impressed. Most reports of Forbury Gardens (it was opened by camera-shy shrinking violet and brainbox Joey Essex, which with hindsight might have been a sign) were that it wasn’t great: people said that ice rink was decent enough, but that the funfair around it was a grotty way to be parted from a lot of money very quickly, the main concession to the festive season being some makeshift tinsel antlers hastily attached to the horses’ heads. I’m informed that the Glühwein at the “Wundrmarkt” was synthetic tasting, and there wasn’t any outside heating: I always felt a bit cold wandering along the riverside and looking at people huddled at tables trying to have fun.

As for the festive market, well, I wandered round it several times with a growing sense of despair mixed with indignation. Many of the food stalls were selling almost exactly the same things – a few did hog roast, a few did mulled wine, the rest were an anonymous smudge of winter kitsch. Worst of all was the horror of “Quidsticks”, a stall offering a variety of meats on a skewer for a pound (including sausages, that food so frequently found on a skewer). If you were visiting the town by train it would have been one of the first stalls you’d clap eyes on: it just looked tacky. The decent stalls – the ones that reflected what Reading was really about, that had a genuine connection with the town – stuck out like a sore thumb. I felt for the Grumpy Goat, on the edge of the market, and for Reading’s brilliant milliner Adrienne Henry. By the end she had stopped bothered opening, and many of the retailers complained to the organiser.

Apologies for starting this review with a rant, but the thing that saddens me most about all of it is the idea – prevalent among many people who don’t love Reading the way I do – that we should be grateful for anything we get. I think a lot of people think we should be happy to have a Christmas market at all, even if it looks like Lapland’s answer to Moss Side. They think an ice rink is a great thing, even if it leaves our beautiful Victorian park looking like a war zone afterwards. They don’t go to Bath, or Winchester, and think “why can’t we have a beautiful event like that?”, they think “they deserve that stuff and we don’t”. And if there’s one thing that annoys me it’s that underlying attitude that average is good enough for Reading. We have some great stuff here, we deserve better and we should aim higher. After all, surely nobody looks at the Broad Street Mall and actually says “yes, that really is Reading’s favourite mall”?

I’m afraid this train of thought was very much set off by visiting Mangal this week, because it’s another good example of this phenomenon. Some people might think “isn’t it great that Reading has a Turkish restaurant?”, whereas I want to be able to say “Reading even has a Turkish restaurant, and it’s brilliant.” But I can’t, I’m afraid, because Mangal isn’t it.

It’s not a bad space, on St Mary’s Butts just down from Monroe’s and Coconut. It’s mainly one big room packed with tables and a raised area with smaller tables (which is where they sat me). I can’t help remembering its previous location, where House Of Flavours is now, and thinking that was a much better spot for them – partly because their charcoal grill was out where you could see it, filling the air with those tantalising smells and giving you an idea of what was going to arrive on your plate. Without that the restaurant felt a bit boxy and lifeless (although perhaps the belly dancing – on Friday and Saturday nights – changes all that).

The menu is a range of hot and cold meze – no real surprises there – along with mainly grilled meats as main courses. The meze which turned up first were solid and unexceptional: sigara boreki, tubes of filo pastry filled with feta, herbs and egg, was the best of them although still very much the sum of its parts. It conjured up memories of cheese pies on holiday in Greece, which was great, but divorced of those happy thoughts it was nice but unspecial. It did fare better than the houmous though – a fridge-chilly bowl of something which was virtually indistinguishable from a two pound tub of houmous from Sainsburys. I didn’t get any garlic, any smoke or any tahini, and a few little dabs of olive oil and a dusting of paprika were never going to transform it from duckling to swan. Another disappointment: Turkish pitta is a wonderful thing, dimpled, thickier and fluffier than its Greek sibling, but this was over-flattened, crispy and brittle.

Mangalstarter

For mains I quite fancied trying pide, the distinctive boat-shaped Turkish take on pizza, but confusingly although it features on the website menu it was nowhere to be seen on the printed version. Instead I went for the grilled meats, reasoning that this was where Turkish food really excels, but that too was no more than okay. Karisik izgara was a selection of barbecued lamb and chicken, and when it turned up it looked like an embarrassment of riches. But, like the Christmas market or the ice rink, it was mainly veneer. The best thing, the lamb kofta, was quite delicious – beautifully spiced, lovely, soft and tender. But the lamb chop was oddly bland – an awful lot of work to take off the bone, not at all pink and somewhat short on flavour.

Most of the chicken was also on the bone – a couple of wings and a couple of what looked like minuscule drumsticks – and I’m not sure it was worth the effort to get it off. The first mouthful of these triggered happy thoughts – that glorious mixture of tender meat, charred skin and the hint of smoke – but the first mouthful was pretty much all there was. Last of all, there were a few chunks of chicken breast; firm rather than tender, with no evidence of any seasoning or marinade. By the time I’d finished this, the pile of bones on the edge of my plate seemed almost as big as the pile of meat that had arrived. The accompaniments – some pleasant enough rice, a puddle of yoghurt and mint with an oddly artificial taste, a rock hard tomato which had apparently once had a skewer through it – added little.

MangalMeat

The moussaka was similarly disappointing. I like a firm moussaka made up of discernible layers, tall rather than wide, with different textures for each of the layers. Instead this was a large, flat ramekin which definitely had potato, aubergine, meat and sauce in but was so (and I can’t find a more charitable word for this) runny that it wasn’t massively appealing. The top was nicely browned and I even quite liked the little bit of pointless salad (mostly rocket, dressed with something that seemed to be a mixture of balsamic vinegar and sugar; sweet yet astringent) but the moussaka itself? It was fine. Hot as the sun and sloppy as a Jackson Pollock but taste-wise it was vegetables in a tomato sauce with a bit of minced lamb in. Here’s the most damning thing of all: unlike the hummus, I think a supermarket moussaka would have been better. It also came with rice, for reasons which I can only assume somebody understands.

MangalMoussaka

It would be unkind not to mention the service, because it was efficient, smiley and friendly; we were there early on a Friday night – before the belly dancing started – but I got the impression that they wouldn’t have been fazed by a much busier restaurant. And it could be that, or the atmosphere (or the belly dancing) that attracts people, because the restaurant had a reasonable amount of tables occupied already. But good service can’t redeem average food, and sadly that was all I had during my visit. I couldn’t help thinking that there were better places to have all these things: the mixed grill at La Courbe wipes the floor with Mangal’s version, and if all you want is lamb kofte you may as well head to Kings Grill and spend the change on a pint afterwards. Dinner for two – two starters, two mains and a couple of soft drinks – was almost exactly forty pounds.

I feel sad that I can’t say more good things about Mangal. It’s independent, it has great service, it’s already made enough of a go of its business to move into a better location, and it’s doing something no other restaurant in town offers. But if I recommended it on that basis, I’d be making the same mistake as people who are glad Reading got an ice rink, or a Glühwein bar, or a row of shacks selling hog roast underneath Queen Victoria’s unamused silhouette. Because it’s not enough, and we shouldn’t pretend that it is: whatever you do, however simple your food, whether it’s independent or not, irrespective of whether you have competition, ought to be amazing. Otherwise we’re effectively patting people on the head for having a go and saying that’s all Reading should expect, and I just don’t believe that. It’s all very well to say that the best is the enemy of the good, but I reckon – when it comes to Reading, at least – that the average is a much more dangerous adversary.

Mangal – 6.3
60 St Mary’s Butts, RG1 2LG
0118 9504039

http://www.mangalreading.com/

Jamie’s Italian

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January, so far, has been the Month of Eating Differently here at Edible Reading. It started with me revisiting the A4074 and discovering that not all “Pack” based pubs are the same (thank goodness). Then I went even further out of town to eat top notch sushi in Windsor. For the third review of the year it seems only right that I come back to Reading and, even more, that I tuck into food at one of our ubiquitous chains – just to prove that it isn’t only about the independent out of town places.

I picked Jamie’s because it feels like a restaurant that cares about ingredients more than your average chain; there’s always been a fair amount of focus on fresh seasonal ingredients and interesting flavours at Jamie’s, and as chains go it’s not huge compared to some of its Oracle neighbours (only 37 branches according to their website, compared to 90 Bella Italias and a whopping 430 Pizza Expresses, for example). On top of that I made a promise, a resolution if you like, that I would eat one vegetarian main every month and it seemed like Jamie’s would be one of the better options for that – after all, good Italian recipes with all those fresh ingredients barely need meat at all, right?

I can’t quite remember what Chili’s, the previous restaurant in this space, looked like. All I really recall is the 6 foot plastic chilli suspended from the ceiling, covered in a thick layer of dust. Jamie’s, in comparison, is clean, smart and very contemporary: the middle of the restaurant is all concrete floors and tin chairs but round the edge of the room it’s much more inviting, with red leather banquettes looking out across the other diners. A bit like being on Dragon’s Den but without Evan Davis’ irritating recaps (why does he sum things up mere seconds after they’ve happened? So annoying! But I digress).

It’s still a dry – and increasingly long – January for me so I tucked into an elderflower and pomegranate pressé while picking from the menu. That was when it dawned on me that I was going to have to go through with the vegetarian thing and that some of you, for any of a variety of reasons, have to look at a menu and mentally cross things out every time you go out to eat (for that I can honestly say that I salute you).

To start I had the baked chestnut mushrooms on crispy music bread with smoked mozzarella, thyme and Parmesan, and in an attempt to stick to the vegetarian side of the menu I swapped out the Parmesan for another hard cheese not made with rennet (although I didn’t check whether the mozzarella was suitable for vegetarians so this might have been a waste of time).

It was a surprisingly hard dish to describe – layers of music bread on the bottom with an intricate mosaic of thinly sliced mushrooms on top, dusted with the cheese, the middle section rich with gooey smoked mozzarella. I’d almost sum it up as middle class nachos, except that Jamie’s Italian has already beaten me to it by describing another dish on their menu as “Italian nachos” (crispy fried ravioli, in fact). But that’s what it resembled most – crispy music bread at the sides and the central section soggy with juices from the mushrooms and softened by the melted cheese.

Did I like it? I’m still not sure even now. It was like a book you admire without enjoying it: more interesting than it was tasty. It was probably a less satisfying way to eat mushrooms than the myriad of other options on the menu – stuffed into arancini, heaped on bruschetta, tumbled into fettucine – options which, as I worked my way through this dish, I couldn’t help wishing I’d ordered instead.

Mushroommusic

The caponata bruschetta, on the other hand, was as pretty as it was tasty. The caponata itself was lovely – the rich, smoky aubergines were diced and mixed in with tomatoes and pine nuts with a sprinkling of grated ricotta on top. I love the earthy, slightly sweet flavour of caponata and this was a very good one. The bread it came on was less of a success, being tough and difficult to cut (I ended up tearing it with my knife and fork instead). A bit more olive oil or less time under the grill might have been better. Sitting on top of the dish were a couple of small red chillis, barely cooked with their tops chopped off. I genuinely couldn’t fathom what they were doing there – they looked small enough to be properly explosive and I couldn’t see how they fitted in at all. I wondered if it might be some kind of homage to Chili’s – that was the only decent explanation I could come up with. I didn’t eat them.

Caponatabruschetta

The vegetarian main courses at Jamie’s, according to their website, amount to two – one pasta, and one salad. There are more if you’re prepared to forego the Parmesan, but the menu doesn’t make that clear so you’re relying on the waiter (“we don’t have a vegetarian menu”, he said, “but I can talk you through it”). Pasta in tomato sauce sounded pretty humdrum, and I’d already had mushrooms, so I went for the superfood salad, thinking that anything with the word “super” in the title couldn’t be all bad. Besides, the menu made it sound like it contained so much stuff: avocado; shaved fennel; candied beetroot; broccoli; cheese; pomegranate; seeds; and a “fennel blossom Sicilian harissa”. It just sounded like a party in a bowl, and I was genuinely interested to see what turned up.

What the menu doesn’t tell you is that that description suggests that all the ingredients get equal billing, and they don’t. So I really enjoyed the sweet chunks of candied beets. They were both delicious. I liked the shaved fennel, although it had been very finely shaved indeed and got a little lost. The two smallish spears of broccoli were just dandy. The avocado, served on top, was very nice – flashed under a grill I’d guess, from the lines on top, and ever so slightly warm. Where the stone had been there was a little reservoir with cottage cheese on it, and the smallest blob of harissa, which may have involved fennel blossom in some way but was just generic hot stuff.

But really, this was about the rest of it, including many things the menu neglected to mention. So yes, there were lentils and some pumpkin and sesame seeds in there, and the occasional bit of pomegranate, and lots of mint leaves (because Jamie’s loves putting mint in everything). But there was also a lot of quinoa, along with plenty of what looked like stubby grains of wild rice but, having researched it, may have been black barley. All that amounted to a big stodgy pile of heavy going, with nowhere near enough flavour to elevate it from chore to treat. When I told a vegetarian friend about this dish, she said “personally, if they’d said there was quinoa in it I’d never have ordered it”, which pretty much hits the nail on the head. Really, it was like the contents of one of those square plastic tubs you buy for lunch from M&S in an attempt to pretend to be a better person than you really are; if this was a party in a bowl, it was the kind where you started looking at your watch half an hour in because all the fun people had already left.

Supersalad

The other main was one of the specials – an “amazing ragu of pork with tomatoes, chilli, garlic and loads of herbs tossed through home made casarecce pasta” (I’m quoting from the blackboard here, so the trumpet blowing is Jamie’s and not mine). I was expecting a bowl of pasta with a thick sauce of tomato and pork in roughly equal measure, but what in fact arrived was a bowl of pasta with a lot of shredded pork in it (and I mean a lot: the meat was generous to a fault). All the other ingredients were present as described, but apart from being slightly watery there was no discernible sauce. This was just a meat and carbs dish: none of your five-a-day here. On top of the heap of pork was a spoonful of herby, lemony breadcrumbs which really did lift the dish but it was just one spoonful, and a little more would have given the dish a lot more oomph. As it was, you couldn’t fault it for quantity but overall I’m afraid it bored me and I couldn’t finish it. Nor could I face dessert afterwards, even if their chocolate brownie is, according to the menu at least, “epic” (I can hear the strains of that trumpet again).

Porkragu

Service was decent. The chap serving us was friendly enough and happy to pick out the vegetarian options but had the disconcerting habit of saying thank you after every single item we ordered, something which started to feel robotic very quickly. I wasn’t feeling a lot of love. I also wasn’t feeling the warmth, as there seemed to be a draught coming from the back of the room, whipping round our ankles. When we asked early on if there was a door open in the kitchen we were told that this was just the colder part of the room and that the other tables they had available wouldn’t be much better. On a freezing winter’s day in January I thought this was a very poor show, especially as it got even chillier by the time our mains came (another homage to Chili’s, perhaps?). The total bill for two courses and a soft drink each for two was forty pounds. That felt like reasonable value for the food, even if the experience wasn’t anything to write home about.

After the last two reviews, writing this feels like a bit of a comedown. I know I don’t need to eat out of town to get good food but when the better chains, which to me includes Jamie’s, let me down it can seem like the Oracle doesn’t have a lot to offer (appropriately the best of the Oracle’s restaurants, Cote and Tampopo, are right at the edge: it’s almost as if they’re trying to break away and escape). I feel especially sad for the vegetarians out there, because I think they should be entitled to expect better from a restaurant like this – so for vegetarians looking at a menu this size and seeing such a short list of suitable options I can only say sorry. I haven’t found an amazing place with loads of attractive meat-free choices that you’ll be rushing to visit. Not yet. But it’s only January.

Jamie’s Italian – 6.7
Unit 1, Riverside, The Oracle, RG1 2AG
0118 9070808

http://www.jamieoliver.com/italian/restaurants/reading

Misugo, Windsor

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At the start of the year, AltReading asked me to contribute to a piece about what people wanted to see in Reading in 2015. So I talked about some of the big gaps in Reading’s restaurant landscape – that we need a tapas restaurant, a pizzeria, a town centre pub doing simple, tasty, well-executed food and so on. It wasn’t until later that I realised that my list of gaps itself contained a gap: Reading doesn’t have a good Japanese restaurant. There’s Sushimania, which can be okay (when it’s not too busy – and woe betide you if it is, because a person can get very drunk on their house white waiting for the food to turn up. Take my word for it) and there’s Yo! Sushi. That’s it.

That partly explains why this week’s review is of a restaurant in far-flung Windsor, the furthest from Reading to date. The thing is, I suspect the reason I didn’t put a Japanese restaurant in my original wish list is that, for years, when I’ve wanted Japanese food I’ve got on the train and gone to Misugo instead. It’s a modest little place just opposite Windsor’s Firestation Arts Centre, about a ten minute walk from the station (a walk which takes you right past a very good fishmonger, a few doors down from the restaurant – something which might explain a lot). It’s nothing to look at from the outside, and pretty understated on the inside. Every time I’ve been (and I’ve only ever been at lunchtimes) it’s virtually empty: it’s rare to see more than one other occupied table. It also happens to do fantastic sushi.

Arriving on a Saturday lunchtime without a reservation, I was delighted to see that they had a booking for a big table, even if it meant that I didn’t get my usual seat next to the window. It’s a long thin room split across two levels and it really is very basic – plain wooden tables, plain wooden stools and simple, elegant (if atmospheric) lighting. But that simplicity feels like a bit of a hallmark which carries across into everything else – unobtrusive service and simple, brilliant food.

The menu is one of those big, tempting ones that requires several attempts in a single sitting (I envied the big table which turned up a little after I arrived – eleven fellow diners would give you the opportunity to try a lot of the options), divided into sashimi, sushi, small hot dishes, rice dishes and noodle dishes. They also do a small, if tempting, array of bento boxes if you want someone to make your tricky decisions for you: I didn’t, but the woman at the table behind me had one and it looked nearly enviable.

First to arrive was the sashimi, which was beyond reproach. If you’re used to Yo with its little dishes, a few small slices of salmon trundling round under a plastic dome on the belt, the sashimi at Misugo – in terms of the presentation, the range and the sheer quality – is like going from a standard picture to HD. So the salmon here came as four beautiful thick slices, beautifully marbled, fresh and clean, as soft as mousse. I’m no expert on sashimi, but I don’t think that marbling and that texture happens by accident or luck. The tuna was firm, meaty and distinctly unfishy (as odd as that sounds). If sashimi has never appealed to you then tuna from Misugo is the perfect gateway fish. Finally, the biggest revelation: four sections of mackerel, complete with shimmering skin. I always order the mackerel and it always blows me away, somehow strong and subtle all at once in a way few dishes (and few people, come to think of it) ever manage. We gently transported them onto our tiger-striped plates with chopsticks, dabbed them in soy, added ginger and popped them in our mouths, and then we were transported ourselves.

Sashimi

Sushi was every bit as good. Avocado maki were plump things, tightly rolled, each with a big fat core of ripe buttery avocado. But there was more going on: a hint of what tasted a bit like lime, tucked between the rice and the delicious green flesh. Again, this was a world away from anything you might pluck from a conveyor belt. Soft shell crab maki – the crab still warm as it reached our table – were gorgeous to look at, the crab almost looking as if it was making a break for it. All of a sudden I didn’t envy that table of twelve half so much, because it was difficult enough sharing these between two.

Maki

The waitress asked if we wanted another look at the menu and saying no felt like the worst kind of folly, so we rounded up more options and ordered again. Vegetable gyoza were gorgeous – lighter than they looked, like crispy islands floating on the smallest, subtlest pool of vinegary dressing. More maki – this time grilled tuna with mango – were also delicious, the tuna soft and the mango fresh and firm rather than soft and ripe as the avocado had been. A little drizzle of sauce over them added a deep, fruity note.

Last of all, the only misfire of the whole meal. Chicken yakitori looked the part – thigh meat threaded like a sine wave onto skewers, grilled, brushed with sticky sauce and scattered with sesame seeds. But they needed to be more: more well cooked – the slightly charred bits were a delight, the rest a bit of a chore – and with more of the gloriously smoky sauce. They were the only thing we didn’t finish, although by that stage we were too full to ask for dessert anyway. Anywhere else, it would have been a good dish, but Misugo had set the bar too high by then. I was sad that they played their worst song as the encore, but I’d loved the concert too much to hold it against them.

Being on the wagon in a Japanese restaurant, it turns out, is less of a hardship than you might think. I was tempted to try Calpico, a Japanese yoghurt drink (and if I’d known it tasted just like Yakult, which apparently it does, I definitely would have) but in the end I opted for something which was described as an “aloe vera soft drink” and tasted a bit like orange squash on a gap year. I liked it enough to order a second, at which point the waitress told me with a smile that you could buy it in Sainsburys, even going so far as to check which my local branch was.

Service was perfectly judged – polite, distant when you wanted to be left in peace but there when you needed it. Nobody at Misugo is ever going to make your teeth itch with excessive – or indeed any – mateyness, and they probably won’t ask whether you enjoyed your food either (most likely because they’re rightly confident that you will). But it was restrained and tasteful, just like everything else. Lunch for two – a total of three soft drinks and eight small dishes – came to £47 not including tip, which I thought was excellent. Even as I left I was wondering why I’d left it so long and when I could go back, and envying anyone for whom this restaurant was their neighbourhood restaurant.

Actually, that last bit might not be entirely true. It’s very tempting, when you eat somewhere great that isn’t in your home town, to say “I wish I could pick this up and move it to Reading”, but on reflection I’m happy to keep Misugo exactly where it is. I like Windsor. I like feeling excited about going there when I get on the train (even knowing that I have to change at Slough doesn’t put me off). I like strolling down Peascod Street, past the boutique called “Cognito” (that always tickles me: as an anonymous reviewer I feel I ought to go in at some point), seeing the fishmonger on St Leonards Road and knowing I’m nearly there. And, perhaps most of all, I like the fact that it’s close enough to get to, but just far enough away that I’ll never tire of it: a balance almost as fine as their food.

Misugo – 8.5
83 St Leonards Road, Windsor, SL4 3BZ
01753 833899

http://misugo.co.uk/

The Pack Saddle, Mapledurham

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Ah, the New Year. What a magical time it is! We know what day of the week it is again, chocolate ceases to be a food group and everybody has to go back to work. It’s ages until the council come to empty your bins and the glass recycling looks positively terrifying (it was the guests! The guests drank it all). What better way for me to commemorate this bleak state of affairs than to revisit the scene of 2014’s biggest culinary disappointment?

Well, almost. Amid all those awards at the end of last year I deliberately kept schtum on all the candidates for the wooden spoon, but the numbers don’t lie: my worst meal of 2014 was at the Pack Horse in Mapledurham, an outwardly pretty pub dressing up desperately ordinary food with faffy presentation and making me – and I can’t quite believe I’m typing this – nostalgic for the days when it used to be a Blubecker’s. After reviewing it, many people told me I had gone to the wrong Mapledurham pub: the Pack Saddle – similarly named but slightly closer to town – was the one to visit, they said. I wanted to believe them, but I still got nasty flashbacks as my car pootled down the A4074. Was it rising bile, or the memory of that wobbly shoulder of lamb?

Maybe the reason I didn’t go to the Pack Saddle last year is that I couldn’t find the car park. It was oddly difficult, involving an almost handbrake turn when we nearly missed the massive sign for the entrance (maybe it’s for the best that I’m having a dry January). Getting inside though, the pub was warm and welcoming despite not being all that packed: there was a heavenly smell of wood smoke and a handful of people were sat up in the beautiful panelled bar room. The dining room was down a couple of steps and I can imagine it would feel lovely and buzzy had it been occupied; sadly, the other two tables left shortly after we sat down so we sat alone in the dining room with just a portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, from shortly after the Coronation, gazing down on us. She looked a little disappointed. Perhaps I should have worn my tiara.

I really liked the look of the menu for two reasons. First, it was the right size: long enough that you felt there was plenty of choice but short enough that you could reasonably expect everything to be done well. But secondly, everything was just a little more interesting than it needed to be. Everywhere on the menu there were little flashes that suggested the kitchen knew what it was doing; chicken terrine came with pickled vegetables and Parmesan crispbread, beetroot was paired with goat’s cheese panna cotta, not plain old goat’s cheese. The fish main course was accompanied by a crab cake. The smallest hints of skill – nothing boastful, but enough that you could see them if you were paying attention.

My New Year’s resolution is to order one vegetarian main course every month and I nearly did it at the Pack Saddle. Crispy Parmesan polenta and filo roll stuffed with roasted vegetables sounded delicious and a cut above a lot of the unimaginative mains on menus I’ve seen (and since I made that resolution I’ve looked at a lot), but I was foiled: it was sold out. The alternative was mushroom risotto, but I have a feeling there will be a lot of chances to try that over the months ahead.

Won over by some of those flashes of skill on the menu, I did order a vegetarian starter. Balsamic glazed beetroot salad with goat’s cheese panna cotta was very much a sign of what was to come: beautifully presented in a way that at first sight looked haphazard but was in fact very orderly. What I got was a generous amount of sweet red and earthy golden beetroot, cut into eighths, interspersed with a few creamy dollops of goat’s cheese panna cotta and drizzled with narrow stripes of balsamic glaze. The panna cotta was salty, creamy and, again, earthy. I was expecting to get much more panna cotta and much less beetroot but the balance was perfect and felt like a much more reasonable portion for a starter. A few shards of parmesan crispbread were dotted about the plate which added some welcome crunch. It felt like so much more than the clichéd pairing of goat’s cheese and beetroot – lots of different things to combine, contrast and enjoy.

Beetroot

The chicken terrine was if anything even more pretty and precise: a bit of a theme at the Pack Saddle where the plating has a rather OCD air about it. A cylinder of chicken terrine had been sliced diagonally into two sections and stood on its end (perpendicularity, it turned out, was another quirk of the presentation). With it came little blobs of celeriac purée, more of that Parmesan crispbread and little spirals of pickled carrot, wrapped round a sprig of herb and leaves. This dish was a good illustration of why restaurant blogs can’t rely on photographs alone: from the picture it looks lifeless and prim, but in practice it was bloody delicious. The chicken terrine, beautifully compressed, tender, delicate meat was clean and fresh with a slight note of smoke from the bigger pieces of smoked chicken running through the middle. The pickled carrot, with a hint of lime, had wonderful crunch and the celeriac puree added just enough sweetness. Only the Parmesan crispbread fell a little flat – something lighter like music bread might have done the same job better – but it was a starter I wanted to begin again the moment I finished it.

Terrine

Of course if I’d done that I might have been too full for the main courses and – as it turned out – that would have been a shame. Fillet of sea bream was very good with the perfect balance of soft yielding flesh and super crispy salted skin. It was served, as is traditional these days, on bed of mash but, less traditionally, this was surrounded by a moat of horseradish veloute. I’m not sure I’ve had this combination before but I liked it a lot – the horseradish was mild and mustardy rather than full on hot and the mash was indecently creamy and generous to a fault. Nestled into the side of the mash, like a vertical limpet, was a mini crabcake (that perpendicularity again). This was less successful for me – it was a little plain and lacking the crispy texture promised by those breadcrumbs – but I admired the ambition, even if I wasn’t completely on board with the execution. All in all, the dish was lovely: although with all those potatoes and cream it wasn’t quite the slimline option offered by most fish courses. It also felt, at a smidge under thirteen pounds, like impressive value.

Bream

The other main course, saddle of venison, was wrapped in serrano ham and served – can you guess? – standing on its end. This was the case where the presentation seemed most surreal because it was leaning against a big block of boulangère potatoes as if it was a supporting feature rather than the headline attraction. The rest of the plating, again, was rather OCD with little circles of butternut squash puree alternating with wild mushrooms at worryingly precise intervals (a puddle of jus was confined to the right hand side of the plate). But anyway, that’s a pointless quibble because it was delicious and everything worked, separately and together, from the sweet puree to the pink, tender venison to the slab of potato, salty and softened with stock. The wild mushrooms were particularly welcome (I partly ordered this because so often, the mushrooms aren’t wild but the exaggerations on the menu are).

Venison

Normally at this point I tell you, in scant detail because it’s not really my area, about the wine. Because I’m on the wagon this month I will instead give you the far less thrilling news that the Pack Saddle offers a decent range of soft drinks including Belvoir and Appletiser, plus the overpriced orange squash that is J2O (just me?). The wine list – with its constant reproach of “look what you could have won” – looked interesting, with lots of new world wines, Chapel Down (an excellent English sparkling) and plenty of decent bottles for under twenty quid. I could see things which would have gone perfectly with the bream, and the venison, but then I started to feel a bit sad so I put the list down and enjoyed my elderflower pressé instead, with no gritted teeth whatsoever.

The dessert menu here is fairly traditional but after two interesting and clever courses it felt like the desserts would be more sophisticated than advertised. After all, that seemed to be what they do here: promise low and deliver high. I was tempted by the cheeseboard (the holy trinity of local cheeses – Barkham Blue, Spenwood and Waterloo – all world-beaters, all made in Berkshire) but I wanted to see what they’d do with the more obvious choices, so we went for chocolate brownie and carrot cake.

In most pubs, having chocolate brownie for dessert means getting a microwaved slice of Brakes’ brownie, a squiggle of chocolate sauce and a scoop of bland vanilla ice cream. In truth this wasn’t a million miles away from the brownie here, the one let down of the dishes. The brownie itself was sticky and rich (and home made) and had been cut into three slices and arranged in a zig zag. There was chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream although this time the ice cream was sat in a puddle of crumbs and the brownie had some dollops of cream with blueberries and raspberries nestling in them. Don’t get me wrong: it was tasty enough, and I ate every last scrap. But it didn’t match up to the earlier courses for creativity and excitement.

Brownie

The carrot cake was better, although the plating repeated the motif of little orange circles set out with frightening regularity. This time it was sweet carrot pureé, although I’d have been hard pressed to tell it from the earlier butternut squash purée in a lineup. The vanilla ice cream was pretty anonymous and the icing didn’t stand out, but what saved the dish was the cake itself – moist but not too moist, nicely spiced and with a slightly nutty texture to it. A perfectly nice carrot cake, but I was expecting more after the promise of the first two courses (my family make a better one, put it that way).

Carrot

Service throughout was excellent – something I particularly appreciate on a day like the first Saturday in January, when surely nobody really wants to be at work. The two staff that looked after us were both unerringly friendly and helpful – and also seemed to be genuinely delighted when they got positive feedback on the food. With the bar being busy and the restaurant being almost empty I worried that we’d either get pestered or ignored, but they did a brilliant job of making us feel looked after without being hovered over. The bill, for three courses and two rounds of soft drinks, was a touch under sixty-three pounds excluding service. All of the courses felt like excellent value: the venison, for example, was under sixteen pounds and easily as good as far more expensive venison dishes I’ve had in restaurants with higher opinions of themselves.

So, here’s to 2015. I’m sure it will be a lot like 2014 in lots of respects – good meals, bad meals, pleasant surprises, even wobbly shoulders of lamb – but at least there will be one important difference: driving down the A4074 won’t bring me out in hives any more. I think I might make another trip that way soon, just to be certain.

The Pack Saddle – 8.0
Mapledurham, Reading, RG4 7UD
0118 946 3000

http://www.thepacksaddle.com/

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 more restrained, yet 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/

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