Blue’s Smokehouse, Bracknell

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I like cheese as much as the next person, and a well-dressed salad on a hot day can be as perfect, in its way, as the most skilfully barbecued steak. In a sushi restaurant, practically the first thing I order is avocado maki, soft, buttery green flesh, surrounded by soy soaked rice. But the truth is I can’t remember the last time I ordered a vegetarian main, and if I order a vegetarian starter, it’s more from luck than judgment. So if you’re a vegetarian, I’m sorry if there isn’t always much for you in my reviews. And I’m doubly sorry this week, because Blue’s Smokehouse is a temple to meat in all its forms – they even sneak it into the baked beans, for crying out loud. So if you find all that offputting, I completely understand. I guess I’ll see you next week.

Still here? Okay, let’s do this.

A few friends (all men, all big meat eaters) have recommended Blue’s to me in the month or two since it’s opened. They’d even said it was worth going to Bracknell for (nothing against Bracknell, although the train station late at night is a cold and lonely place, even on a full stomach). Of course, I love a challenge (and I’m starting to like train journeys) so I felt I had to give it a try. And anyway, nowhere in Reading does anything like this – the closest, I suppose, is the food at the Oakford Social Club but even that is mainly burgers and fried chicken – so it definitely justified a trip out of town. I brought backup, more than usual, because enough people were interested enough in an “authentic American barbecue” restaurant to want to come along for the ride.

Blue’s isn’t far from the station but even so it’s a bit hard to find. Some of the roads seem to have extensive roadworks and I got a bit lost wandering past the back of a shopping mall and a Brutalist car park (one of the nearby offices is called “Time Square”, but I doubt it’s a happening place to spend New Year’s Eve). Once I got there though, things improved: the site is an old pub but since the makeover it really does look the part. The interior is lovely and deceptively large: faux rustic furniture, dark grey walls, industrial light fittings. I seem to use the word “handsome” a lot in reviews but it definitely fitted here.

Even with a pack of ravenous carnivores at my table, ordering was difficult because everyone wanted to try everything. Fortunately, the menu makes provision for the indecisive: many of the mains can be ordered as a combo, with two half portions costing 50% more than a single portion (no, I’m not sure about the maths, either). In the end we all did this because we simply couldn’t pick between the different meats on offer. The enamel mug of lightly spiced popcorn we were given to munch while we made up our minds was a nice touch, too. The food turned up pretty quickly – one of many things that reinforced that this wasn’t really a sit down, take your time and stay for an evening sort of place. I think we were expecting that – and were all starving – so it wasn’t a problem for us, but it’s worth bearing in mind.

Describing the mains is going to feel a bit like a parade of dead animal, but here goes anyway. The pulled pork was excellent: tender, shredded but still in tangible threads and lightly spiced rather than slathered in sticky sauce. I appreciated that – there is a tendency to drown the flavour of pulled pork in barbecue sauce but Blue’s knows better than to do that and lets the meat speak for itself. The brisket was just as good – delicious slices of tender, smoky beef. I’d heard from other people who had been that it could be a little on the dry side but mine was spot on. Both of these came with “Texas Toast” (which I’d never heard of but which Professor Wikipedia assures me is an actual thing) thick slices of what felt like brioche, buttered and surprisingly good at soaking up all the juices.

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The consensus was that the ribs were the best of the bunch; I’ve never had ribs as tasty and tender as these. The meat practically jumped off the bone without needing any encouragement, leaving the bone as white and dry as the Queen’s Speech. The flesh was beautifully smoked, the sauce was sticky and ever so slightly sweet and despite the roll of kitchen towel on every table (no napkins here) they could be eaten with cutlery, instead of the sticky-fingered, orange-faced way I’ve never truly enjoyed. All these came with fries and coleslaw which were fine if not stellar. The skin-on fries were somewhere equidistant between chunky and skinny and disappointed anyone hoping for either and the coleslaw (which was mayo-free) was a little sweet for my taste, in a meal which had enough sweetness already. Portion sizes, for the price, felt slightly on the small side (if you’re English, anyway – Americans would probably consider them verging on the miserly).

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Because we’re all very greedy, and were all very hungry, we ordered most of the sides. “Rib tips” were a disappointment. The menu says “we take the trimmed tips of the ribs, add sauce and return it to the smoker to cook just a little bit longer”, which sounds magnificent, but actually they felt like offcuts from the ribs. If they had spent extra time in the smoker it had had the effect of Superglueing what little meat there was to the bones. The onion bundle on the other hand was delicious. It looked a lot like the bits of fried food that get cleaned out of the bottom of a deep fat frier, but that didn’t stop us digging in. The menu said it was onion rings and strings but in the frying process all shape was lost and instead we got what was effectively an enormous crunchy bhaji. Last but not least, the beans: with added onions, pork, brisket and “a hint of bourbon and maple syrup”. Everyone else at the table loved them except me – I found it a bit strange to find chunks of meat floating in there. I got flashbacks to the mid 80s, Grange Hill on the television, Heinz baked beans with chipolatas on toast for tea (and that’s never a good thing).

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Oddly, there are no plates at Blue’s Smokehouse. Instead food is served on the equivalent of a McDonald’s tray, only black and with a sheet of greaseprooof paper between the plastic and the food. This was probably the thing which annoyed us all the most; as soon as the paper got greasy or wet it started to shred. I really don’t understand why they did this (are the trays not clean? will the food slide over the lip of the tray? are plates suddenly uncool and Blue’s are the only people who got the memo?) It didn’t look fun for the waitresses either: trying to stack four slightly bendy plastic trays of leftovers and bones up to take away without dropping anything looked like a level on “The Cube” waiting to happen.

Drinks wise we had a selection including a decent glass of malbec – smooth and very slightly sweet which made for very easy drinking – and a pint of real ale for my real beer drinking friend, who was quite tempted by the interesting sounding range of American craft beer – quite but not enough. (“I’m not drinking Blue Moon if they have it” he said, pulling a face, “that stuff’s horrible.”)

Somehow we managed to find room for dessert (I said they weren’t American sized portions and I meant it). Half of us had milkshakes that were so thick with ice cream that attempting to suck it up the straw caused a few red faces – literal, not metaphorical ones. They were superb, although Blue’s only offers milkshakes of the most straightforward ice cream flavours they sell: vanilla, strawberry, chocolate. The other half had knickerbocker glories made from the more interesting flavours on offer. These were also excellent, though they seemed to cater more for the kiddie end of the market – chocolate sauce, mini marshmallows – considering that the ice cream was decent quality (dulce de leche was especially delicious).

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Service was decent if a little, well, tense. Our waitress had a slight air of the rabbit in the headlights and it was difficult to get a smile out of her, even though she got everything right and didn’t have a problem making suggestions where we needed them. Maybe she was dreading the point where she had to carry four slippery trays back to the kitchen (she should have used a “simplify” and done it in two goes, I’m sure Philip Schofield would have let her). All in all the bill for four people with one drink each, dessert and more sides than we could reasonably eat was £106, not including tip. I think the general consensus is that we thought that was pretty good.

Standing on the chilly platform at Bracknell (having missed a train by three minutes we had to wait half an hour for another one – and that can feel like a very long time, it turns out) we debated whether we would go back. Opinion was divided: a couple of us were already planning a return visit, one of us was more ambivalent. And me? I’m not sure. If this place was in Reading I can see I’d be there all the time – partly because what they do is unique, and partly because I can see it would fit perfectly for quick, informal fun meals, maybe before carrying on drinking somewhere else. But is it worth trekking for Bracknell for? Perhaps once just to try it out, maybe regularly if you really, really like meat. But for the rest of us, and for any vegetarians out there who have made it to the end, you might find the temptation not quite enough, that empty platform just a little too unlovely.

Blue’s Smokehouse – 7.4
High Street, Bracknell, RG12 1DS
01344 867575

http://bluessmokehouse.com/

Round-up: June and July

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After another busy couple of months it’s time to take stock, recap the last batch of reviews and have a look at what’s going on in Reading’s food scene. Sit back, put your feet up, adjust the cushions and we’ll get started. All comfy now? Excellent…

Ruchetta, 7.5 – Easily the most expensive restaurant I’ve visited and reviewed, Ruchetta is a lovely house in a beautiful street with a menu appealing enough to send any hungry person into raptures. But is it quite worth the money? The $64,000 question (not literally, it’s not that expensive) is answered here.

Tampopo, 7.6 – I’d always dismissed Tampopo as another chain on the Oracle Riverside. Why go there, when you can just as easily and cheaply pop to Wagamama instead? It turns out there are a lot of reasons; go here to find out.

Tasting House, 6.8 – Is it shop? Is it a bar? Is it a restaurant? No, it’s Tasting House. The review, here, tells you whether it’s more Clark Kent or Man Of Steel.

Pappadams, 7.2 – In any other place, Pappadams might be the best Indian restaurant in town. In Reading, despite some lovely food, I think falls just short of that accolade. Read about why here.

My Kitchen, 7.5 – The lunch options in Reading seem to get more varied and interesting all the time. I went to My Kitchen to find out if it was a serious challenge to all those places on the legendary Coffee Corner. Sausage rolls, brownies and halloumi ensued: it’s all here.

Coconut Bar & Kitchen, 6.8 – One of Reading’s newest kids on the block specialises in yakitori skewers – a proper gap in the market. It’s an attractive room and they’ve obviously put work into the refit, but does the food live up to the venue? Here is what I thought.

The Catherine Wheel, 7.2 – In which Edible Reading became Edible Goring, through the magic of train travel. I was tipped off that the Catherine Wheel was a magical find in the country, and as it was less than quarter of an hour from Reading station I felt like I ought to put that to the test. My review – which includes Michael Portillo, Tim Howard, Watership Down and a mattress (sort of) is here.

It’s been a funny few months with very little in the way of openings and closings. Sadly, shortly after I reviewed it Cappuccina Café closed its doors for the last time (it’s a nail bar now, apparently next door to another nail bar). The sign outside said “It was genuinely a pleasure”. A real shame, as the time I ate there was also genuinely a pleasure and I know some of you will really miss their bánh mì.

I was hoping to confirm a comeback for the Eldon Arms: I’d heard – from the landlord, no less – that they were considering bringing back a restricted menu. Sadly, things have changed since I got that snippet of information – I now understand that the current landlords are leaving the pub and Wadworth has re-advertised it as vacant. Just as I thought I might get to try those burgers (or that delicious pulled pork) again, my hopes have been cruelly dashed. Such a pity, as it was a pub I could imagine spending more time in, good food or no.

The first opening that I’ve got wind of (that sounds disgusting, doesn’t it? let’s press on) is “RYND Bar & Kitchen” which is opening on 11 Castle Street, the site that used to be Club Evissa and before that was Dogma. (This “Bar & Kitchen” thing seems to be the new way to describe restaurants, doesn’t it? I can’t wait to book a “seat and cutlery” at one of them some time.) They’ve posted some pictures on their Twitter feed as they complete the fit-out of the interior, and according to their Facebook page they are currently recruiting “amazing, powerful, rhythmic, eccentric people” to join their team – including “Waiting staff who don’t mind getting weird”. Could be interesting: personally, “weird” isn’t high on the list of qualities I look for in waiting staff (and nor’s “rhythmic”, come to think of it), but what do I know? They are looking to open this autumn: their website is here, although there’s nothing to see at this stage.

The second one also sounds worth keeping an eye on: Faith Kitchen, down the Oxford Road, which promises authentic African food. It’s not clear from their Facebook page when they plan to open, and their website is under construction, but the success of Tutu’s Ethiopian Kitchen suggests that there’s certainly room for another African restaurant in Reading. I’m looking forward to paying it a visit.

There’s more to a town’s food scene than its restaurants and the other main event of the last few months has been a veritable explosion of supper clubs. For years, Reading’s only supper club was the excellent Friday Dinner Secrets, but all that has changed recently. Pop-Up Reading hosted its first night in June and is already building quite a buzz on Twitter, mainly by posting absolutely mouth-watering pictures of food (don’t look at their Twitter feed just before lunch. Or just after a disappointing sandwich. Or when there’s nothing in the fridge). They’ve also got lots of good coverage both in AltReading and Excellent News. More recently, I’ve got reports of a third supper club in Caversham; I don’t know much about it, but Secret Supper Club has recently set up on Twitter, so it will be interesting to see what they do. Have you been to any of Reading’s supper clubs? If so, what did you think?

Right, that’s all for this month. I’m off to go look at the Pop-Up Reading Twitter feed, get my M&S egg mayonnaise sandwich out of the fridge and let out an enormous sigh. You’ll probably be able to hear it from where you’re sitting. Don’t forget you can still suggest places for me to review here if there’s somewhere you’ve always wondered about; most of my reviews still come from reader suggestions so please keep them coming. See you here again next Friday at 11:30 for the latest review (I’ll give you a clue: it won’t be of this egg mayonnaise sandwich, which looks like a 5.0 at best…)

The Catherine Wheel, Goring

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This is probably rather a Michael Portillo way to start a restaurant review, but goodness, the train journey from Reading to Goring is rather lovely. From Tilehurst onwards the view gets prettier and prettier, all green fields and lush hills, the Thames on one side and the beauty of Basildon Park on the other. The names on the map have a touch of Watership Down about them: Harley Hill Wood; Harecroft Wood; Shooters Hill. My fellow passengers on the train looked particularly pleased to be commuting home from work, and surrounded by such splendour it was hard to blame them.

I was on my way to Goring because I’d had a tip-off: the Catherine Wheel, I was told, was a magical find in the country. Admittedly, the recommendation came from the pub itself but I decided that was no bad thing: if you can’t blow your own trumpet, why expect anybody else to blow it for you? So I got off the train, wandered over the footbridge and walked down Station Road, past house after house which – although physically close enough to touch – would always be a lottery win or an unexpected inheritance away.

First impressions were good: the Catherine Wheel is a proper old pub with no faux concessions to modernism, no Farrow & Ball facelift, no cynical gentrification. It was all low beams and dark furniture, rowing blades mounted on the wall. Another good sign was that many of the tables were booked when I arrived on a weekday evening – although the staff, friendly and efficient from start to finish, whisked us through the pub and found us somewhere to sit. It was a big, attractive, well lit table, albeit with a disturbingly tacky surface (it’s hard to completely enjoy a pint when you fear your bare elbows are going to stick to the table.)

I like to think I go to enough disappointing pubs these days to know a convincing menu when I see one, and the Catherine Wheel’s looked promising. Less than half a dozen starters, only slightly more mains and a handful of specials. The pub classics (fish and chips, steak, burgers) were all there but also some interesting touches: rabbit loin, crab tart, chimichurri sauce. If anything, I thought the starters were more inventive whereas the mains played it safe but even so, it felt a world away from the standard issue Mitchell & Butler pub menu.

First things first, though: a Scotch egg from the bar bites section of the menu. This took a reassuringly long time to arrive (“I’m sorry”, the waitress said, “but they take a while because they’re made fresh” – an apology nobody should ever have to make in a restaurant, if you ask me) and was worth the wait. It was billed as pork and chilli but seemed chilli-free to me: an irrelevant detail because the whole thing was truly magnificent. The pork was soft and herby, the egg spot on, the yolk still soft but not too runny, and the piccalilli simultaneously sweet and sharp. I ate it so enthusiastically that the gentlemen next to us ordered one as well; I don’t think they were disappointed, either.

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Starters were more of a mixed bag. Crab and lime tart with coriander was a dainty thing, delicious if a little delicate (I suppose, in its defence, most things would seem delicate after a Scotch egg but there you go). That said, everything about it was well done – the little disc of pastry was crumbly and buttery and the filling was generous with the crab. I thought it needed more lime and coriander to really make it stand out (crab can be rather a subtle ingredient) but it was still an accomplished, if soft-spoken, dish.

CrabThe poached pear, candied walnut and Stilton salad was exactly what it said it would be. The pears were soft enough to yield to the edge of a fork, the walnuts were deliciously sugary sweet and the Stilton was creamy smooth, all on top of a pile of bitter leaves dressed in a sweet (honey?) dressing. I would have liked the Stilton to be more tangy and salty (or just more) to balance out the sweetness in the rest of the salad but provided you could resign yourself to having a very sweet starter this was really tasty and more creative than most restaurants, let alone most pubs.

SaladThe mains were well paced and came just as I was beginning to hope they’d turn up. From the specials board, duck breast came pink and carved into thick slices with roasted new potatoes, carrot pureé, broccoli and gooseberry jam. It was a near miss, if a delicious one in places. The duck was well cooked – nicely pink in the middle – but not well seasoned. Similarly the potatoes felt like a carby but slightly flavourless onslaught; a few less, properly seasoned would have been miles better. The carrot puree was tasty but so much of it on the plate came across as a little bit Cow & Gate, and like the duck it went cold very quickly. The star of the show, without a doubt, was the gooseberry jam. I wasn’t expecting it to be red, but it had the tartness of gooseberry and – this was the masterstroke – a nice spike of chilli. It absolutely saved the plate in front of me (it was the Tim Howard of the food world: it could have saved almost anything). I’d probably have eaten it smeared on a mattress, that’s how good it was.

DuckThe honey and soy marinated salmon was a dish of two halves. The salmon was cracking – still soft and silky in the middle but crispy, salty and blackened on the outside. When it arrived I thought it was burned, but I soon realised it was very cleverly cooked indeed. The honey was a little lost in the salt but that was no bad thing after the sweetness of the starter. The disappointment was what was underneath it – a bland stir fry of noodles, pak choi, bean sprouts and mooli. There was literally nothing to make that interesting, and any mouthful without a piece of that delicious salmon was a sad mouthful indeed. Such a shame, as it was a dish which could so easily have been improved with some soy, garlic, chilli, ginger or ideally all four. I found myself wondering if the chef had accidentally left something out, but didn’t dare ask.

SalmonThe problem with a fully booked restaurant is that you keep seeing dishes arrive at other tables which aren’t yours. So I can confirm that the pulled pork burger (with crackling, apple sauce and crunchy chips) looked so good that the man at the next table caught me staring at it. The fish and chips, which turned up to the delight of the sixtysomething lady across the way, was a piece of haddock so leviathan that she and her companion both oohed when it was plonked in front of her. I had a distinct whiff of the culinary road not travelled, to the extent that I briefly started to wonder whether I really ought to visit twice before writing a review, before snapping out of it.

Service deserves a mention, because the Catherine Wheel didn’t get a thing wrong in this respect. Our waitress was tireless, knowledgeable and enthusiastic and seemed to be working practically the whole pub. Watching her was an object lesson in how to work your socks off and make it look effortless (quite a contrast to the commuters on the train earlier, who I imagine had probably spent the whole day looking flat out busy while doing nothing at all). We were too full for dessert – which is a shame, because I had my eye on the cheeseboard (from the superb Grey’s of Pangbourne, no less). Besides, the train back to Reading might only take fifteen minutes but they start to get less frequent as you get closer to the end of the evening. So we settled up: the bill came to just under sixty pounds, not including service, for two starters, two mains, a small glass of perfectly pleasant Rioja and a couple of pints, not forgetting that terrific Scotch egg.

So is the Catherine Wheel a magical find in the country? I think so. My food wasn’t perfect but it was definitely interesting, and I saw enough of the dishes arriving at other tables to get an idea that the kitchen had a good balance of pub classics and something slightly more creative for people who wanted to wander a bit further off the beaten track. Looking at their Twitter feed made me want to go back on a sunny Sunday afternoon: jazz, barbecues, pizzas in the garden. It would be easy in a village so pretty to just crank out microwaved staples and make money out of your captive audience: it says a lot that the Catherine Wheel is trying to do more than that while still being a good, traditional pub. If I lived there, I’d feel very lucky to have it as a local. Although to be honest, if I lived there I’d probably feel lucky full stop. On the way back to the station, as we passed the village hall, I heard the sweet strains of an orchestra practising: as if Goring wasn’t idyllic enough already.

The Catherine Wheel – 7.2
Station Road, Goring-on-Thames, RG8 9HB
01491 872379

http://www.catherinewheelgoring.co.uk/

Coconut Bar & Kitchen

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I’ve been handed a free yakitori voucher as I pass Coconut more times than I’ve been chugged outside Marks and Spencer. In the two months since it opened, Coconut has done a sterling job of making people aware of where it is (on the Butts. Don’t laugh) and what it does (yakitori, apparently) so is this long enough for them to have settled in and found their feet? Of course, there’s only really one way to find out.

Inside, past the young man in a pinny handing out those ubiquitous Coconut business cards, the restaurant itself is a long wide room with a bar at the front and smart seating further back. Seating is a mixture of booths, banquettes and high tables all in chocolate and that shade of lime that isn’t too hard on the eyes. I love a booth and on a weekday night it was quiet enough to grab one. At the time I forgot that I’d be taking photos or I would have sat on the other side, against the attractive white brickwork, under the skylight, but you can’t have everything.

The placemat menus list a total of fifteen different yakitori, mostly around the £4 mark. It seemed only fair to pick a selection and try them out, after all yakitori is their speciality (even if this was only supposed to be a starter).

The best of the bunch was the Kim’s Belly, four cubes of pork belly threaded onto a bamboo skewer then chargrilled just enough to make the meat tender without being chewy. This in itself was good but none too exciting until you add their “special Kimchi sauce”. This didn’t resemble the Korean kimchi pickles that most people would recognise but was more like a chilli sauce with hints of five spice and the slightly sour taste of lime. This lifted the pork enough for me to overlook the thick layer of fat that I had to cut off the meat before I was prepared to eat it (I am not sure my guest was so discerning – each to their own, I suppose). With two skewers on the plate this seemed like a generous portion for the price and was the best of the yakitori we tried. I wasn’t sure what the asparagus and yellow pepper was doing on there with the pork but I ate it all the same.

And the rest? The chicken teriyaki was decent enough but looked a lot like something I might have rustled up myself for a summer barbecue – the meat was thigh which had been bundled onto the skewers in varying sizes and looked a little, well, unloved. The spring onion had over-wilted in the heat and so became a bit limp but had just enough flavour to go with the chicken and the teriyaki sauce. Mongolian beef was much the same, with oddly shaped cuts of beef roughly pushed onto the skewers with chunks of red pepper and courgette in between. It was strangely inconsistent – most of the meat was beautifully tender and soft but a few bits were distinctly chewy. How two pieces of meat, neighbours on a single skewer, could be so different I have no idea. Overall they were good, but no better than a similar dish at Yo! Sushi or Wagamama – I was expecting more smokiness, more char, more complicated flavours.

None of this, though, compares to the disappointment of the shiitake mushrooms “flavoured with Japanese shichimi”. The yakitori menu has a picture of some beautiful mushrooms, cut in half, rammed onto a skewer, glistening with sauce and marinade: looking at them made me positively ravenous. These pale specimens were not them. They ranged from raw to flabby and it was hard to taste the seven spices over the coating of oil on the mushrooms – mushrooms which, incidentally, appeared to be bog standard chestnut mushrooms.

YakitoriYou’ll be glad to hear that the mains were a step up from the below par yakitori. Thai basil chicken was very pleasant, if the stuff of Thai restaurants across Reading and beyond. None the less, it was done well – a gorgeous rich sauce, nice bits of chicken (discernable chicken, not dubious bouncy chunks), fragrant cubes of aubergine and delicious crunchy asparagus, all served with some unremarkable coconut rice. All this would have been perfect if it hadn’t come on the same ribbed, rippled plates as the yakitori. For the yakitori, it made sense – little trenches for your extra sauce to drain away – but for eating a dish with rice and sauce it was silly, faffy and by the end made me want to hurt myself. Some people don’t like eating off slate, some people object to the wooden boards that are all the rage at the moment. For me, it’s plates like this: the sound of my fork scraping along the grooves was like nails down a blackboard.

ChickenMuch, much better was the chicken Dolsot Bibimbap (take that, spellchecker!) It was delicious. It was a “blistering hot” – the menu’s words, not mine – stone cauldron, sitting in a wooden frame (which makes it rather resemble a potty – sorry, but it does) filled with coconut rice topped with sautéed vegetables, chicken and an egg, sunny side up with a little dish of that kimchi sauce on the side. Random, eh? The waitress suggested that it was best stirred all together so I dutifully did the honours and turned it into what was basically a stir fry. Without the kimchi sauce the whole affair was magnolia fried rice, but the sauce transformed it into a really tasty bowl of goodness full of carrot, cucumber, mushrooms, shredded seaweed, cabbage and bean sprouts. (I think. I can’t remember in all the excitement). The sauce added richness and spice and maybe this makes me sound about five, but it was fun to stir in and mix up. Each forkful was different and towards the end the coconut rice became nuttier and slightly crisp in places as it kept cooking in the dish. I’m not sure I’d describe it as blistering hot, but I certainly wasn’t going to touch it and put that to the test.

BibimbapService throughout was good, if not notably so. The staff seemed to cover all of the tables so there was no continuity of service but everyone was friendly and happy to explain the idea behind Coconut and the yakitori. Despite that we decided not to go for dessert – partly because we were full but mainly because the dessert menu really didn’t look that interesting (crème brulée, a “trio of chocolate desserts”, ice creams of unspecified origin). Instead we finished up our drinks (a half decent Australian Shiraz and a Kirin Ichiban in a frosted glass, which rather reminded me of being on holiday in Greece) and got the bill. The total for four yakitori, two mains and two drinks was forty-one pounds which struck me as decent value (even if we hadn’t had a yakitori free – most of the mains are around a tenner).

I wonder how Coconut will fare. It seems to want to be a cocktail bar, do light bites (I saw a lot of yakitori arriving at other tables and I can see why – the mark-up on them must be very healthy) and be a restaurant all at once. The last restaurant in that spot, Glo, had quite a similar game plan and didn’t make a go of it. It’s also a surprisingly big place – the room goes so far back I half expected to walk all the way and emerge in Narnia – and that’s a lot of covers to fill in what I imagine is an expensive central location. Having eaten here I found myself wishing that Coconut was making more of its mains, because if they’re all as good as the best one I had they could properly compete with Tampopo and Wagamama – well, they could if they weren’t so obsessed with skewers, anyway. Still, I can’t rule out making a return visit and going straight for the bibimbap. Even if I can’t pronounce it.

Coconut Bar & Kitchen – 6.8
62-63 St Mary’s Butts, RG1 2LG
0118 9598877

http://www.coconutbarkitchen.co.uk/

My Kitchen

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When Cappuccina Café closed last month I confess that I kicked myself that I hadn’t visited it earlier. Independent places face a huge struggle to open, create a following and survive – something Reading’s many chains will never experience. So I regret the fact that I didn’t shout about Cappuccina Café sooner and visit more often (especially seeing as it turned out to be so good) and this week’s review is an attempt on my part not to make that mistake again.

I’ve been putting off reviewing My Kitchen, even though it’s been open for months, because of a disappointing visit shortly after it opened. But since then I’ve heard lots of accounts that suggest that they’ve found their feet (including rave reviews of some of their cakes), and their website makes all the right noises about local ingredients and freshly prepared food. So I went along desperately hoping that they could live up to all of that promise, and a little worried about the review I might have to write if they didn’t.

My Kitchen has a spot on one of the most beautiful streets in Reading; Queen Victoria Street has those beautiful red brick buildings on both side, wide pavements and a view of the fetching frontage of John Lewis. We loitered outside for long enough to get a table out on the street (quite a challenge in the sunny weather) and wandered in to order some lunch. Inside the cafe is a long counter with sandwiches, salads, soup and lots of cakes and above that a blackboard listing all the options. Along with the muted grey paintwork and mis-matched tables and chairs in the back it makes for an attractive space (although not one to spend time in on a summer’s day – it was punishingly hot in there).

I was impressed by the sheer range of options and I’m afraid, faced with all those choices, I rather froze like a rabbit in the headlights and broke one of the fundamental rules of reviewing: I ordered two things which were very similar indeed. So I should be telling you about the smoked salmon and horseradish baguette (which looked delicious) or the lentil soup, but instead you get to hear all about two toasted sandwiches. Sorry about that.

The goat’s cheese, red onion chutney and baby spinach panini was delicious: generously filled, the ratios all perfect and precise, salty-sweet and far too easy to hoover up. Granted, it’s never going to win any awards for originality, but it’s a classic for a reason. Toasted focaccia with halloumi, peppers and sweet chilli was also gorgeous – a lovely contrast between the soft, pillowy bread, the firm chewy halloumi and the crisp crunch of those peppers. If I was being critical I would have questioned whether it was really focaccia, and I would have said a tad more sweet chilli sauce would have really brought it alive, but I was enjoying it far too much to be critical.

To try and make amends for picking such similar sandwiches we also tried some sausage roll bites. It must be a sign of galloping food inflation that they’re described as “bites” because they looked like decent sized sausage rolls to me. They were terrific – not hot, and I’m quite glad they didn’t make a half-hearted attempt at heating them up. The pastry was spot on, light and buttery with a smattering of sesame seeds for decoration and the sausage meat inside was just wonderful – not suspiciously smooth, not offputtingly bouncy, just coarse and tasty, yielding herby porky perfection.

Drinks were good too, if more difficult to wax lyrical about. Twinings Earl Grey is Twinings Earl Grey, after all – although I did appreciate the attractive enamel teapot, which was a cracking pourer and contained enough for two cups. As regular readers will know, I’m not particularly a coffee fan but I’m told the latte was very nice indeed. (“not quite as good as Lincoln or Workhouse but a lot better than Picnic”, apparently). Actually, I liked the tableware in general – everything comes on those attractive white and blue enamelware plates which are very Labour And Wait, simultaneously very now and really rather timeless. It made me want to track them down and buy some for myself.

My Kitchen

I couldn’t go without trying one of their cakes. Having seen people rave about the gluten free chocolate brownie I felt it was my duty to try one, and it was a smart move. It was probably the best brownie I’ve had in Reading, a wonderful contrast between the crisp, brittle exterior and the soft, slightly gooey inside. The website says they deliberately use less sugar in their cakes and I like to think I noticed that – the flavour was full and rich and didn’t rely on sweetness to get its point across. My only complaint is that I agreed to share it; I won’t make that mistake again.

When I ordered the brownie the lady behind the counter said “ooh, good choice!” before dishing it up. I really liked that: enthusiasm counts for an awful lot. And I got a lot of enthusiasm from My Kitchen – the service was as welcoming as the food. Even with a queue of customers behind me the staff were friendly and chatty, and when they brought my sandwiches out they smiled. A little thing, maybe, but have lunch in some of the other places in town and check out how rarely it happens. All told two sandwiches, two sausage roll bites, a slice of chocolate brownie and two hot drinks came to just under £17. In fairness I went a bit mad and over-ordered so I could try things out, but in general prices are comparable to My Kitchen’s competitors on Coffee Corner.

I’m hugely relieved to be able to say that I really liked My Kitchen. In many ways they are following in the footsteps of Picnic, which celebrated its seventh birthday earlier this month (a mind-boggling fact in itself: I can’t imagine Reading before Picnic came along) but if Reading can have that many Caffe Neros it can definitely accommodate another place in the same mould as Picnic. I think I might even prefer My Kitchen, although it’s probably some form of weird Redingensian heresy to say so.

I’m not sure they are serving food that’s out-of-this-world inventive, but that’s not what they’re about – they’re about doing simple things well, and I’m all for that. It’s nice to have somewhere else to go for a quick sandwich or a slice of rejuvenating cake, and I really hope there’s a market for that because My Kitchen is the kind of place Reading needs, even if Reading doesn’t necessarily realise that. Or perhaps they do know it: when I visited, there was a scrum for the seating and I had to wait to grab a table outside. Fifty yards down Queen Victoria Street, two forlorn people were all that could be seen sitting outside Starbucks. Maybe the tide is turning after all. Just maybe.

My Kitchen – 7.5

29 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1TG
07403 588399

http://www.mykitchenandcoffee.co.uk/

Pappadams

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Planning which restaurants to review involves considerable deliberation here at ER HQ. Imagine me with a little rake pushing figurines round a map of Reading (and wearing a tricorn hat! I must buy a tricorn hat) and you wouldn’t be far from the truth. Should I review a pub this week? An Indian restaurant? A lunch place? Somewhere cheap, somewhere fancy? Time to go out of town?

This week’s review was meant to be of a pub. First I was going to review the Queen’s Head, but I checked the menu and it was exactly the same as the Moderation’s, which I’ve already reviewed, and I didn’t think a review which said “I went out of my way to have different things to last time but, you know, it’s pretty much the same” would excite anyone. Then I was going to review the Lyndhurst, but the menu didn’t inspire me (there’s something about the word goujon, and the way it’s used by English pubs, that undermines all the gastronomic beauty of the French language) and nor did the rather surly welcome behind the bar. So anyway, it was meant to be a pub this week but no dice: instead you get Pappadams.

Pappadams is a little place down the King’s Road, after the library but before you get to the architectural wonder that is King’s Point. It’s a small room which can’t seat more than thirty people, although there’s another bigger room upstairs (“we’ve got the World Cup on up there if you want to watch”, the waiter told us conspiratorially; it didn’t lure me up there). It’s handsome enough, if basic – square tables, nice comfy chairs, cloth napkins – with the huge glass front covered with a beaded curtain so you don’t feel like you’re eating in a goldfish bowl. When I got there on a Tuesday evening it was about half-full – mostly with Indian couples and friends.

I wouldn’t know a South Indian dish from a North Indian dish from an anglicised Indian dish, but the waiter was excellent at navigating us through the options and offering lots of advice, particularly on some of the Keralan specialities on offer. I found the menu quite endearing, with sections marked “from our fisherman’s net”, “from our vegetable garden” and “from our butcher’s farm” (a butcher and a farmer, I guess that’s one way of cutting out the middle man). The dishes are rated on the time-honoured chilli scale, although eccentrically things are either rated with zero, two, three or four chillies (only one dish, “Lamb Dragon” had four chillies – it sounds more like a masterpiece of genetic engineering than an actual main course, or maybe it’s both).

Starters were delicious although I couldn’t shake the feeling, maybe as a result of reviewing other Indian restaurants, that I’d had the same kind of things ever so slightly better elsewhere. Paneer shashlik was lovely, big squares of cheese, charred and chewy around the edges, sizzling on a plate with peppers and onions. The lamb tikka was less successful: the flavour was perfect, deep and intense, soaking into the sizzling onions underneath, but the texture was more tough than tender, requiring a lot more cutting and a little more chewing than I’d hoped.

Starters

After we finished our starters, something happened which happens very rarely in Reading restaurants. The waiter came back, asked if we’d enjoyed our dishes and asked how long we wanted to wait before the kitchen started cooking our mains. Why don’t more restaurants do this? I’ve lost count of the number of times my main arrives hot on the heels of my starter, leaving me with half a bottle of wine to polish off while telling waiters, with an increasingly rictus grin, that yes, I would like dessert but no, I don’t plan to order it until I’ve the rest of the wine in front of me, wine that was only there because they’d been in such a hurry to feed me. Even if Pappadams didn’t get brownie points from me for anything else, they’d get some for that alone. Service was excellent throughout. Early on I was asked if we’d like to move across to a bigger, better, freshly vacated table – another thing not enough waiters consider. They may not have won me over by inviting me to watch the nil-nil draw in the Mexico-Brazil match, but otherwise they didn’t put a foot wrong.

Mains were, well, divisive. We took advice from the waiter and went for two Keralan specialities. Fish mappas was an anonymous white fish (I’d put my money on tilapia, but not with any great confidence) in a sauce of coconut milk dotted with nigella seeds. I liked the sauce – so different from a Thai sauce, lacking that slightly cloying sweetness they can sometimes have – but the fish wasn’t for me. I like my fish to be firm, to flake, to have a little give but not too much. This was softer and mushier than I personally like it, but that might be a matter of personal taste. It all got finished, but that was more to do with the person opposite me.

The other dish, cochin kozhi curry, was even more divisive because I couldn’t quite decide whether I loved it or just liked it. A chicken dish, this too was made with coconut, although the sauce couldn’t have been much more different to the sauce that came with the fish. It was dark where the other was light, thicker and stickier where the other was more liquid. It had proper smokiness (almost with those notes of leather Jilly Goolden has spent a career trying to kid us into thinking she can spot in a glass of Rioja) and lots of clever aromatic flavours that came through a little further on. But here’s the problem: it was really, really salty. I could just about manage it (although it did cause me to gulp my mango lassi towards the end) but I can imagine other people would be put off by it. The chicken, unlike the fish, had the texture just right: putting up just enough fight and then falling apart under a fork. Both mains felt a little mean on the meat to sauce ratio, with a big bowl of sauce left over at the end after time spent fishing for the meat.

Mains

The side dishes were unremarkable. Rice with cumin was a little bland (although, compared to those sauces, most things would have been) and the paratha was thick and heavy compared to others I’ve devoured in recent months. Like so much of what I had that evening it was good, but I was left remembering that I’ve had better.

Where I’ve not had worse for a while was the wine. The house red was perfectly decent (no notes of leather – even Jilly Goolden would have struggled to locate them, I imagine). The white, on the other hand tasted slightly peculiar and not especially like wine (an achievement, I know). If I’d opened the bottle at home I would have poured it down the sink and I’ve rarely had wine that bad in a restaurant. After that we switched to other drinks – Cobra and mango lassi, more reliable staples. The lassi came with pistachio crumbled on top – a lovely touch, I thought. We didn’t stop for dessert (too full for gulab jamun, this time at least) and the whole thing came to just under £50, not including tip.

I feel for Pappadams. If you picked it up and plonked it in any of a dozen other towns it might well be the best Indian restaurant there. It just has the misfortune to be down the road from House Of Flavours and in the same town as Bhoj, and it strikes me as caught a little between the two. The prices and the décor are more like Bhoj, the location puts it firmly in competition with House Of Flavours. If you made Top Trumps cards of all three restaurants, I’m not sure Pappadams would win in any category (although it would come close on service). But that doesn’t quite do the place justice, because although the best is the enemy of the good the fact remains that Pappadams is a good restaurant. I can see myself going there when I fancy Indian food and don’t want the faff of House Of Flavours or the schlep to Bhoj.

As I left the waiter asked me if I wouldn’t mind putting a review on TripAdvisor if I’d enjoyed my meal, in a way that struck me as well rehearsed. I can understand why: it’s a packed market, and restaurateurs need all the help they can get. I didn’t, but I’m sure other people will. I hope they do, too.

Pappadams – 7.2

74 Kings Road, RG1 3BJ
0118 9585111

http://www.pappadamsreading.co.uk/

Tasting House

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The real challenge with Tasting House, as a reviewer, isn’t what you would think. The real challenge is explaining exactly what it is. It works rather differently to all the other places I’ve reviewed because it is, fundamentally, a wine shop. It’s a wine shop that also lets you taste a variety of wines and dishes up platters of charcuterie and cheese should you get hungry (“Sample. Stay. Shop” is how the website sums it up: alliterative, abrupt, accurate). It’s been open since September last year and I’ve been meaning to review it for ages, so I dropped in one drizzly weekend to give it the ER going over, even though I knew this would involve making the ultimate sacrifice: drinking at lunchtime.

The “sample” element of Tasting House is served by the “Enomatic” (a machine described as a “wine vending machine” by the chap behind the counter). It’s a self service system where customers buy a prepaid card, pop it into the slot at the top of the machine, grab a glass and dispense some wine. There are sixteen bottles hooked up to the machine (seven white, eight red and, if you’re feeling especially frivolous, one rosé) and you can pick a tasting measure (25ml), a small glass (125ml) or a large glass (175ml) depending on whether you want to taste or drink. The cost of each measure depends on the bottle in the machine with a taste starting from about 50p. Along the bottom of the machine is a card for each wine giving information about the grapes, the taste and what food they’d pair well with – another indication that this is as much about taking it home as having it with the food on offer.

I won’t go into the wines in any detail because by the time you read this they may well have changed. In total we tried four wines between us (drinking sensibly, honestly) from riesling to shiraz and really enjoyed the whole ceremony of button pressing, glass swirling, sniffing and pretending to know what we were talking about. Actually I really enjoyed most of them but somehow that’s not the point, because you get to try things without committing to a whopping glass and bad choices aren’t so disastrous. The staff were clearly very passionate and knowledgeable and full of recommendations for people who feel unsure about what to pick (though I’m ashamed to say that I pretended to know what I was doing – much like I do writing reviews, in fact).

For the “stay” part of the visit Tasting House does four different boards, either in singles or doubles, with an array of different charcuterie and cheese. I won’t go into the permutations (because there are a lot: I love a list as much as the next person but that would stretch even my patience) but you get some of five different meats on the one hand and six different cheeses on the other. Depending on what you order you also get various other bits and bobs – sundried tomatoes, chutney, cashews, olives and/or cornichons. This means that picking a board involves a bit of horse trading and can seem needlessly complex – it might be easier if they just let you pick a certain number of elements and get on with it. As it was, we ordered two different platters and tried to get as many different ingredients as we could, something which might have been easier with a spreadsheet.

I’m not going to list everything that passed my lips, either. Instead, let’s talk about the big hits and flops. In the first camp: the Waterloo, a gorgeous, creamy, buttery local cheese a lot like a very good brie; the salami which was rich, salty and almost crumbly; the chorizo, soft and lightly piquant; and my favourite, the coppa which was dense and dry with a hint of fennel seeds and black pepper. I also loved the houmous – thick and delicious – and the tomato chutney, which went beautifully with a crumbly chunk of Montgomery cheddar (and hats off to Tasting House for picking such a top-notch cheddar, too).

And the let-downs? The bread, for one: white, fluffy, soft-crusted and unremarkable, served in giant hunks for dipping in the olive oil rather than going with everything else. This was a particular shame for me because I’ve always thought good cheese really needs good bread or a decent cracker. The other big disappointment was the prosciutto which felt flabby, shiny and supermarket-soft. I wasn’t expecting pata negra carved by hand in front of my very eyes – although I wouldn’t turn it down, don’t get me wrong – but I did want something on a par with the salami and this wasn’t it. England does some great hams of its own (Cumbrian air-dried ham, for example) but if Tasting House isn’t going to dish up something of that quality maybe it should stick to the other charcuterie on offer.

Also, if I’m being picky I prefer my cheese to be at room temperature so that the flavours open up more: both cheeses were chilled if not chilly. Maybe this is something to do with health and safety but it did mean they weren’t quite as delicious as they could have been. Still, despite the misses if you wash it all down with a glass of shiraz you have a very pleasant (if not terribly light) lunch.

TH2Service was friendly and laid back without ever committing the cardinal sin of overfamiliarity. A bit too laid back, if I’m honest – the boards took a while to come, although that might be because they seemed a bit short staffed when I went. As it happened I didn’t mind, it fitted in with the feel of the place, it was a weekend and I was in no hurry to go anywhere. They played an interesting range of music, some I’d heard of and some I wanted to Shazam, and we sipped our wine and waited. It felt a bit like visiting a cool friend while they rustled up lunch for you from all the cool things in their cool fridge. (Did I mean “cooler friend”? Does this make me cool or uncool? I’m so confused.)

It’s a shame the furniture doesn’t make you want to linger more – it’s hard and basic, black metal tables and chairs around the room and wooden high tables and stools in the windows. Again, I felt a bit confused by Tasting House – they’ve extended their opening hours recently to 10pm but it doesn’t feel like a bar. I suppose it could work as somewhere to have a quick drink before heading on somewhere else, although you could stay there all evening if you’re suitably upholstered yourself.

I didn’t try out the “shop” part on this visit, though I was quite tempted to pick up a bottle of the riesling. The website states that they have over 200 wines in the shop which range from “everyday drinking” (under £10) to one I saw on the top shelf which clocked in at just under £400 (I suppose that might be everyday drinking too, but only if you’re the Sultan Of Brunei: even John Madejski probably wouldn’t drink that these days).

My bill came to seventeen pounds for two platters and I put twenty pounds on my card for wine – though there was still a fair chunk of that left (honest!). I do think that it’s a little unfair that diners can’t have wine with their lunch without having to make that upfront investment, although it’s canny on the part of Tasting House I suppose: it locks you into going back so you don’t let your money go to waste. So yes, I will go back. I can see myself popping in after work one evening and trying a few tasters or glasses of wine for what feels like no money at all. Maybe that will lead to another charcuterie board, maybe I’ll go on and eat something bigger somewhere else. Maybe next time I’ll stay long enough to figure out if it really is a bar, a restaurant or a shop. Actually I’m not sure I’ll get to the bottom of that, but it might be fun trying.

Tasting House – 6.8
30a Chain Street, RG1 2HX
0118 9571531

http://tastinghouse.co.uk/

Tampopo

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If I’m honest, I wasn’t predisposed to like Tampopo. It always felt like another link in the vast chain of chains on the Oracle Riverside, a bookend at the opposite end of the shelf to Wagamama. I found the concept a bit strange: food from throughout East Asia, a range of dishes from – among others – Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia. Can you imagine a pan-European restaurant, serving boeuf bourguignon alongside pizza, paella, fish and chips, moussaka, schnitzel and herring? If you can imagine it, and I can’t, would you really recommend that anybody go to it?

So I turned up ready to be underwhelmed, and was pleasantly surprised from the moment I walked in. Like Wagamama, Tampopo offers the threat of communal eating – long tables which imply that, if the restaurant is busy, you won’t be eating on your own. Unlike Wagamama, they’ve made some effort to make that seem less stark and unpleasant – tables feel more compact, the seating is made up of (surprisingly comfy) stools rather than large benches and the lighting is warmer and more attractive, giving the room a glow. On a Monday night there was no danger of sharing a table with anyone, but even if I’d had to it wouldn’t have felt like the end of the world.

The culinary first impressions were also good. Edamame were considerably more interesting than their counterparts at the other end of the Riverside, dressed in chilli and sesame oil and coarse flakes of salt. The wine that accompanied them was also very good – a viognier was light and peachy and the Gewürztraminer was delicious, fresh with (at the risk of sounding like something out of the Carry On films) a strong hint of banana. They do glasses in 125ml, too – something I wish more restaurants would sign up to.

Regular readers will be unsurprised to hear that I ordered the “Tampopo sharing platter” to start. I’m beginning to feel less ashamed about this habit, rationalising it as an opportunity to try as many different things from the kitchen as possible (that’s my story, anyway, and I’m sticking to it). And I’m unrepentant, because it was an excellent choice – a big black slate arrived at the table with six different items from the starter menu, neatly laid out in a grid, each with an accompanying dip or garnish.

StarterThe least remarkable were the coconut prawns – butterflied, breadcrumbed and served with sweet chilli sauce, they were the stuff of sharing platters everywhere. Everything else, though, was either a pleasant surprise or a very pleasant surprise. The chicken satay, for instance: so often a pedestrian space filler served up with some warm Sun-Pat, but Tampopo’s was a world away from that. The chicken was soft and tender (I wondered whether it might be minced rather than the fibrous fillet you usually get) and the sauce was deep, rich, chunky and much more savoury than satays in so many other places in Reading. The corn fritters made a pleasant change from the usual fishcake – lighter, taster and without the slightly disturbing sponginess fishcakes can have. The gyoza were plump and soft, full of minced pork, subtle and lighter to eat than they looked on the plate.

The last two were things I’ve not tried before. Goi cuon were cold, soft rice paper rolls packed with vegetables, noodles and coriander – fresh and clean, if almost impossible to eat tidily (whatever you think of a traditional spring roll, it’s at least easy to dunk in a dipping sauce). Bulgogi, Korean grilled beef, was also good, with a smoky char to it. It came served on a lettuce leaf which is meant to serve as an impromptu wrap – a great idea, although it did mean that the beef didn’t stay hot for long. That was fine though, because it didn’t stay uneaten for long. The only letdown was the kimchi that came with the beef – an oddly bland pile of cabbage without the eye-watering, intense taste I’m used to. It was the only place where the menu felt like it lacked the courage of its convictions.

I’m not one for listing the price of dishes in brackets in a restaurant review – there are other places you can go for that – but this one is worth emphasising: that selection of starters, for two, was £13.95. Pretty impressive stuff, and it built up a feeling of goodwill that the rest of the meal would have to go some to ruin. Good starters are like that.

Another nice touch came when the waitress – who was excellent all evening, friendly and helpful without being matey or patronising – took our empty slate (and extra napkins, because it’s messy stuff) away.

“Was that okay for you?”

“Yes, it was gorgeous.”

“I’m glad you liked it, it’s one of my favourites. I had it for lunch, actually.”

She was also full of good advice on which mains to order and came across as genuinely passionate about Tampopo’s food. Another waitress, later in the evening, asked what we made of the menu and showed real interest in feedback. She also told me that Tampopo was only a small chain (five branches, three of them in Manchester), and that Reading was the baby of the family, having only been open for three years. So much for my preconceptions about eating in a faceless chain – and in fact, a subsequent look at the website suggests that the owners either have a genuine passion for this kind of food or are phenomenally good at faking it. Either way I was struck that all of the serving staff felt like ambassadors for the restaurant, also a million miles from the experience in most chains.

Could the mains live up to the start? Well, not quite. Com Hué, a Vietnamese rice dish, was the biggest disappointment of the evening. It was almost like a Vietnamese paella – rice with chicken, squid and king prawns, along with coriander, red onion, spring onion and carrot. Bits of it were beautifully cooked – the squid in particular was more tender than I’d expected – but the overall effect was a bit restrained for my liking. I often worry with subtle food that it’s my fault for not having a refined enough palate, but the good Vietnamese food I’ve had has positively sung with flavour, whether it be mint or lemongrass or coriander. This had none of that, and I don’t think it was my fault. All the other dishes tasted of something, but this was food with the mute button on. I didn’t finish it.

Main2Happily, the other main course was streets ahead. Khao Soi, a Thai dish of chicken and yellow noodles in red curry sauce, was delicious. The sauce was creamy and coconutty with decent sized but perfectly soft pieces of chicken, the noodles were small enough to twirl and there were tasty crispy onion pieces on top. I was apprehensive because of the two chillies next to it on the menu but actually the flavour was well balanced with loads going on – a good whack of garlic and ginger with the creamy sauce taking the edge off the heat. This is the sort of curry I want to eat on a cold, wet night (and I probably will soon, Reading summers being what they are). What it reminded me of, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, was curry sauce from my local chip shop when I was a kid, when the chippie was a treat, all this eating out was a lifetime away and Thai food was still a few years from hitting our shores. I’m not even sure I’m saying it tasted like that, but it took me back to that magical time when foreign foods were new and exciting without being intimidating.

Main1The side dish was nothing to write home about. I went for wok fried greens – you have a choice of broccoli or pak choi in oyster or tamarind sauce. My broccoli was some kind of mutant strain that looked so much like pak choi that it’s almost impossible to tell apart from it, except for the presence of a few tiny florets. Even wilted it was almost impossible to eat with chopsticks and not quite worth the bother of doing so. A pity, really, because the tamarind sauce – like so much of the food at Tampopo – was really tasty, sweet and sharp at once.

I’ve always found desserts a bit of an Achilles’ heel in this kind of restaurant so I was amazed not only to find a few things I fancied ordering but to really enjoy them into the bargain. There isn’t much on the menu from the Philippines (just the one main) but they contribute one dessert – churros and chocolate (popular since Spanish colonial times, if you believe the blurb on the menu). These were some of the better churros I’ve had in this country; thin piped doughnuts with a good balance of crispy and chewy. Better still, the chocolate sauce was thick, intense and tasted of real chocolate, as opposed to the watery, synthetic chocolate flavoured sauce so often dished up with churros on the continent. They were perhaps a little over-zealously dusted with icing sugar but that was soon tapped off (nothing stands between me and fried dough, I can tell you).

ChurrosThe other dessert was another weakness of mine which I always order on the very rare occasions when I see it on a menu. Black sesame ice cream was gorgeous – there’s something about the hit of those sesame seeds in such a surprising context that really works. This wasn’t the best example I’ve had (a chunk of ice in the middle of it was disconcerting) but it was close enough for me. The other flavour I tried, cinnamon, was creamier and blander and mainly left me wishing I’d had two scoops of sesame instead.

Dinner for two – edamame, three courses, a side and a couple of glasses of wine – came to fifty-nine pounds, not including tip. Again, it’s worth mentioning what good value Tampopo is. Aside from those starters, which I’ve already enthused about, the most expensive main was £12. Neither of the desserts cost more than £3. The Oracle can be a punishing place for restaurants to make a living, and I was impressed by the balance between cost and quality here – and the service, which was miles better than at most Oracle restaurants I’ve been to (Browns and Pizza Express, I’m looking at you).

If I was summing up Tampopo in three words I think they’d have to be these: better than Wagamama. They occupy very similar spaces but Tampopo avoids everything that gets on my nerves about the latter: unforgiving lighting, unwelcoming furniture, the rote instruction that your dishes will arrive in a random order whether you like it or not (I can’t tell you how much this irks me) and the feeling that you are meant to eat your food quickly, leave and go to the cinema. Tampopo isn’t necessarily a place to settle in for an evening, and still feels like somewhere you’d eat before going on somewhere else, but it manages to make that feel like an experience in itself rather than a transaction. I will definitely be back, and in future when I go to a restaurant I might try leaving my preconceptions at home.

Tampopo – 7.6
The Riverside, Oracle Shopping Centre, RG1 2AG
0118 9575199

http://www.tampopo.co.uk/

Ruchetta, Wokingham

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There are two kinds of expensive meal. There are the ones where you know in advance that they’re going to be expensive, where you look at the menu beforehand, brace yourself, tell yourself it’s a special occasion. Then there are ones where you’re taken by surprise; maybe you order the really pricey main course you weren’t expecting to, or pick a really fancy bottle of wine, or throw caution to the wind and get a second bottle of the less fancy wine. However it happens, there are some meals where you get carried away, it all adds up and you get a little shock when you take that first look at the bill.

Why am I saying this? Because, to begin at the end for once, Ruchetta is the most expensive meal I’ve reviewed so far – and I knew it was going to be costly before I even stepped through the door. And why’s that important? Because when you know a meal’s going to be expensive, lots of things happen. The anticipation is completely different – I get excited about reading the menu, start looking forward to it (something that doesn’t always happen, believe me). But also, price inevitably becomes another dimension, and each dish is assessed not only on whether it’s good, but also on whether it’s worth the money. It’s only natural that the bar is set higher: after all, you can be pleasantly surprised by a ten pound lunch in the middle of nowhere, but it’s harder to be pleasantly surprised by an expensive meal in a beautiful little house in the prosperous market town of Wokingham.

It really is a beautiful house, too. I don’t know Wokingham well but Ruchetta looks very much like the kind of restaurant it ought to have, really standing out (if you think Reading has a lot of chains, you ought to walk round Wokingham some time). It’s slightly off the main drag in a tiny, nicely jumbled building with a mosaic of little rooms. I sat in the conservatory – partly to get better light for photos – and regretted that more and more as the evening went on, feeling rueful that I hadn’t chosen one of the more snug, atmospheric sections at the front of the house. That said it was a pleasant room with crisp white linen and smart white plates, although the tables do feel a little close together; I was glad the one next to us was empty, or else I would have felt very overlooked.

The menu’s one of the most difficult I’ve had to choose from. There is something magical about good Italian food at the best of times, but the menu at Ruchetta really is the kind where you’re aggrieved that you can’t have everything. We tucked into the bread basket (white and a brown which resembled sourdough, with good salted butter) and sipped our Prosecco in the early evening sunlight, haggling and agonising until the decision could be postponed no longer. If the waiter had arrived two minutes earlier, or two minutes later, you’d probably be reading a review of four completely different dishes.

I adore truffles, and I nearly always order them when I get the chance. The distinctive aroma was noticeable the moment I entered the restaurant and I reckon it subliminally influenced both choices of starter. The first was one of the simplest things you could have, truffle ravioli in butter and sage, and it was a delight. The pasta was al dente and richly flavoured with the earthy, dirty truffles. The dish was topped with thin slivers of parmesan and a handful of young sage leaves. But most importantly a whole pencil sharpener tub of those heavenly truffle shavings had been sprinkled on the top of the dish making the flavour even more intense. Eating it was close to an ecstatic experience, the forkfuls close to the end simultaneously magnificent and agonising.

Truffle pastaThe other starter called to me because it was just so unusual that I had to try it: baked white onion in sea salt, filled with truffle fondue with pan-fried foie gras and caramel. The foie gras was just delicious – a generous piece, soft and yielding, perfect with or without the smidge of sweet caramel. The truffle fondue was less successful – it was salty and tasty and rich with truffle, but very liquid and I really had no idea how I was meant to eat it. They didn’t bring a spoon, but I ended up finding one from a neighbouring place setting and improvising. I thought the point of fondue was to dip something in it, and without that something it was more like a very cheesy soup (I briefly pondered whether I was meant to use the foie but surely not: far too expensive to use as a glorified soldier). The quail egg didn’t really add anything and the white onion had been baked just enough that it made an excellent bowl but not enough that it made a sweet and tasty way to mop up the rest of your fondue. I’m glad I can say I’d ordered it, but it felt like was two starters, neither of which quite worked, joined at the hip.

Fondue

Nearly all the mains at Ruchetta are around the twenty-five pound mark, so it didn’t seem too much of a stretch to order the half lobster thermidor (twenty-eight pounds, and not even the most expensive dish on the menu). It was just lovely. The meat had been removed, cooked in the sauce, returned to the shell and topped with cheese. I loved the note of tarragon in it, which surprised me as I’m usually not a fan and didn’t realise it would be in there (like most people outside the Royal Family, I don’t eat lobster thermidor very often). It came with sauté potatoes, in thick slices rather than cubes, which were cooked well and left plain to keep the lobster as the main event. The side salad seemed lost in all of this: the tomatoes were a mixture of green and red but were pithy and lacking in flavour and was either undressed or underdressed, I’m not quite sure which.

Lobster

The other main, roasted saddle of lamb stuffed with spinach and garlic with lamb sauce and vignole (peas, artichokes, broad beans in mint and pancetta – no, I didn’t know either) was the most disappointing dish of the night. This is going to sound like a stupid thing to say, but the lamb was, well, too lamby. The taste of it was almost overripe, verging on agricultural, and drowned out the lighter flavours of the rest of the dish. It appeared to be stuffed just with spinach, which made for a soggy slog, and if there was any garlic in there I didn’t get it. The peas, artichokes and broad beans, potentially a symphony of spring flavours, were pleasant but bland because there wasn’t enough mint to lift them. Most damningly, it wasn’t particularly hot: the lamb, in particular, felt a bit lukewarm. Also, I know this was a light dish but it felt like it needed carbs of some kind. Not everybody who orders it is going to be lucky enough to be able to pinch some sauté potatoes from another plate, as I was.

Ruchetta is one of very few restaurants that offers wine in carafes; a terrific idea for when it’s hard to decide what wine to pick or if you don’t fancy a whole bottle of something. There are a few affordable wines on the list but nothing under the twenty pound mark, so the carafes aren’t as tempting as they normally would be (they’re also 425ml rather than the regulation 500ml, which somehow seems a little stingy). Because of this we ordered a bottle of Italian viognier (much crisper with more citrus than the French ones I have experienced) and a carafe of Barbera d’Alba which was red, robust and unremarkable. I knew we’d struggle to drink both but a carafe of the Gavi I had my eye on was the same price as the bottle of viognier which made me object to buying it (just because you know the restaurant is going to be expensive doesn’t mean you lose all concept of value, after all).

In the end we finished the red and with only half the white drunk the staff offered to cork it so we could take it home – a nice gesture, I thought. That was fairly typical, as service was excellent throughout. All the waiting staff had that charm which just stays on the right side of over-familiarity, something I associate with good Italian restaurants (and I think all of them were actually Italian, though I may be wrong) and they made sure we never felt hurried. In that respect, it definitely felt like a special occasion – nobody wants to be turned when they’re spending this kind of money.

Desserts, like the mains, were at opposite ends of the spectrum. Lemon posset was a glorious thing, wobbly and zingy, topped with cooked rhubarb and dangerously easy to devour. Everything in it should have been tart and sharp and yet it wasn’t (the grilled figs and little pearls of what looked like fruit caviar on the top did their bit to balance it out). The moist orange cake with citrus mascarpone was more prosaic. It was tasty enough and I was happy to eat it all but compared to the complexity of the lemon posset it seemed a bit basic. All the desserts cost seven pounds – an amount I was happy to pay for the posset but much more grudging to part with for the cake. Funny the calculations you make in your head when you know a restaurant is expensive. We also had a couple of dessert wines with these – a Labrandi and a moscato – and both were beautiful choices.

PossetI said at the start that there were two types of expensive meal. Well, as it turns out Ruchetta is both: the total bill for two people – three courses each, two glasses of prosecco, one bottle of white, a carafe of red, two glasses of dessert wine – was £160. This is the bit where I usually say “but it’s possible to eat far more cheaply”, but I’m not sure it’s entirely true of Ruchetta. Their set lunch during the week is a cheaper, but it’s still £19 for two courses. Sunday lunch is £32.50 for two courses. You could spend less, but I still think it’s the kind of restaurant where the size of your bill is always going to take you somewhat by surprise.

I also said at the start that when a restaurant is expensive the bar is set higher, and that’s why I can’t wholeheartedly recommend Ruchetta. There’s a lot to like: the service is terrific, produce and seasonality is clearly important to them (when I went there were lot of asparagus specials on offer. A lot) and the menu is a tempting, readable mix of classic Italian cooking and more creative, inventive dishes. But I’m not sure which restaurant Ruchetta is meant to be: the unpretentious neighbourhood Italian or the high-end destination restaurant. The pricing suggests the latter, but the execution of some of the dishes (the fondue dish, the lamb) and the way the tables are squeezed together feel more like the former. I was left wondering if someone had got carried away with the calculator when pricing the menu. I went expecting something really special and whilst I really enjoyed it wasn’t quite special enough. If these dishes were priced at the twenty pound mark and there was good wine for, say, eighteen pounds a bottle, I would be making my way to Wokingham again and again. As it is, it will have to wait for the next special occasion and hope that, in the meantime, I don’t find somewhere a little more consistent.

Ruchetta – 7.5
6 Rose Street, Wokingham, RG40 1XU
0118 9788025

http://www.ruchetta.com/

The Edible Reading Survey: The results!

When I had the idea to do the ER survey, it was just a bit of fun. I expected that I’d have to constantly nag for responses, or that nobody would do it (like throwing a party where nobody turns up). So I designed a few questions – maybe not the right ones, with hindsight – and knocked it up and put it up there with no great expectations. And? Well, for want of a better word, wow. The response has been incredible – in terms of supportive comments, Retweets and, most importantly, people filling it out and giving me loads of feedback. It was actually oversubscribed and I had to close it less than 3 days later because I had so many responses.

Originally I was going to leave it there but a few people on Twitter expressed an interest in seeing the results and actually there are some fascinating nuggets in there, so I’ve been persuaded to do a post letting you know what came out of the survey. If you’re not fussed don’t worry, there will be a new review up on Friday just like usual. But if you are, or if you’re nosy, or especially if you’re one of the people whose answers make up this set of results then thank you so much. You all make this worth doing.

How often do you read Edible Reading?

This was an amazing result: 47% of you read it on Friday morning when it comes out. I was astonished by this (and really very flattered). I always wanted it to come out at the same time every week, rain or shine, and this result really justifies that decision. 30% of you read it once a week and 15% of you read it a few times a month. More hardcore still, one of you reads it several times a week to decide where to go (thank you!) My favourite response was from Respondent No. 97, who said “Rarely”. More on her later!

Are the reviews too long?

I put this question in with real trepidation, having had a few snide remarks on Twitter about the reviews being too long. 91% of you think they are just right. Phew. Again, it’s a conscious decision to offer more than you get in the local paper or TripAdvisor and these results endorse that (nobody thought they were too short – me included!) Respondent No. 97 thought they were too long. Fancy.

What would you like to see more or less of?

The bottom line is that you want more of everything! On balance you wanted more or the same of all of the options I gave you – reviews of central restaurants, restaurants outside Reading, cheap eats, high end, round-ups and interviews or features. Since I can’t clone myself, the next step is to look at the most and least popular options. Based on that the thing you want most is more restaurant news and round-ups, followed by reviews of cheap eats, followed by more reviews of central Reading restaurants. That’s great because those are the main things I do, and again that makes me feel a lot happier about sticking mainly to Reading. You were a lot less fussed about high end restaurants (which I can completely understand) and reviews outside Reading – so although I do those from time to time I’ll leave that to others. The interesting one was reviews and features – currently I don’t do those on the blog. What would you like to see? A piece about where to get the best sandwich in Reading? Email interviews with prominent Reading people about their favourite restaurants? Answers in the comments field.

Respondent No. 97 wanted to see less of everything. Bit of a theme here, isn’t there?

Have you ever eaten somewhere because of an ER review? If so, was it accurate?

I hoped some people would say yes, but I don’t think I could have expected so many to say yes. 53% of you have eaten somewhere because of my review. 41% of you haven’t yet but say you plan to. Have a guess how Respondent No. 97 responded.

Of those of you that have gone somewhere because of an ER review, the next question was also a huge source of relief: 52% of you described the review as very accurate, and 46% described it as fairly accurate. 2% said not very accurate, none of you said not at all accurate. Taste is a very subjective thing, so I am delighted with that response.

Where else do you get information about Reading restaurants?

This one really surprised me. Of the people who replied, 81% of you use TripAdvisor. By contrast, only 28% of you use the local newspapers. I think this answer starts to make more sense when you look at what people want from a restaurant review (a few questions down the line). 17% of you said you used blogs, but most of the comments I got suggested that you think the Reading Post’s website is a blog; I bet they’d love that bit of feedback. Respondent 97 was a big fan of the Reading Post, as it happens.

I was a bit surprised that Respondent 97, who reads ER so rarely and dislikes it so much, took the time to fill out my survey. I was even more surprised when Respondent 97 had filled out the survey from a Greek IP address. It must be a coincidence that the Food Editor of the Reading Post was on holiday in Greece that weekend… mustn’t it?

Do you like ER on Facebook?

I think I’ve got some work to do here. 29% of you do, 13% of you plan to and 24% of you didn’t know ER had a Facebook page. I know not everyone likes Facebook, which is fair enough, but the FB page is starting to be a place people go to ask about restaurants or give me the latest gossip on where’s opening/shutting/reopening. It’s worth a look!

What’s important about a restaurant review?

Overwhelmingly, you want them to be honest, independent and informative. Those scored almost universally positively. That makes me proud that Edible Reading publishes honest reviews, good or bad, and isn’t constrained by the fact that somebody else has paid for the meal. It also explains why people are happy with the length of the reviews. I wonder whether the independence factor explains why the people who took the survey rely more on TripAdvisor than they do on the local press. Less important, but still overwhelmingly positive, were that the reviews are entertaining and detailed. The rating at the end polarised people – some people really liked it, some people thought it wasn’t very important, but the net score was still reasonably positive.

The last two results were a huge relief to me personally. Photography generated a surprising amount of indifference (as, I imagine, does my photography), and as for vegetarian options, the balance of opinion was that it wasn’t important. Probably just as well, because much as I can’t resist ordering burrata when it’s on the menu I can’t promise to order vegetarian friendly dishes in a restaurant on even a semi-regular basis.

What’s your favourite ER review?

I know, this question’s fishing for compliments. I’m sorry. But I was amazed that so many of you answered it, nominating a total of twenty-one different reviews! It was nice to see that so many of them had their fans, but the top three emerged quite clearly.

The bronze medal goes to The Eldon Arms – lots of fantastic comments about this, including “most surprising”, “I ended up having the best burger there” and the succinct, if surreal, “PAWK” (I don’t know about you, but I now have an image of someone a bit like the Cookie Monster who really really likes pulled pork).

The silver medal goes to Bhoj. There was a lot of love for this restaurant, and the review, a lot of it from people who would never have gone to it without the review. Examples include “I never knew it existed”, “highlights an otherwise pretty much unknown hidden gem”, “it made me try it – yum yum!” and “refreshing to see a low cost option reviewed favourably”.

But the gold medal – well, it’s about the only accolade the Lobster Room is ever going to receive now that it’s closed. Most of the comments here made me smile but especially “Extremely funny. The Fonz thumbs.”, “The Lobster Room, for bringing to life the awful goings on”, “The Lobster Room, for the sense of righteous indignation” and possibly the unimprovable “The Lobster Room (ouch)”.

So what have we learned? Most of you read the blog every week, you go to restaurants because of the blog and think it’s accurate, apart from the blog you rely on Tripadvisor, you want me to write more of everything, you really value independent honest reviews and you’re prepared to overlook my shoddy photography. But, to copy Springer’s Final Thought, what I’ve really learned is that what you like most of all is a rave review or an absolute hatchet job. I suspected as much! Tune in this Friday at half eleven (and I now know over half of you will) to find out whether this week’s review is either of those things.

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