The Three Tuns, Henley

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If you’ve been reading for a while you might have gathered that I’m a big fan of Reading. I think it has a lot to offer – although sometimes it only rewards those who make an effort – and I get quite annoyed at people who slate it. As a town is it what you make it. What it is missing, though, is a town centre pub that does really good food.

We have great pubs. What’s not to like about finding an empty booth in the back of the Hobgoblin (yes, I know it’s not called that any more but does anyone call it by its new name?) on Friday for a quick after work pint or getting a table outside at the Allied when the sun is shining and someone has apparently picked out all the prog rock tracks over 6 minutes long on the juke box (and there are a lot – the jukebox at the Allied seems to think music stopped somewhere in the mid 80s, with a few eccentric exceptions). We have some great restaurants. But what we don’t have is that combination of the two – somewhere to get a decent pint and a decent meal, preferably at a reasonable price. Possibly the closest, although it was still far from perfect, was the Lyndhurst Arms, but then that went and closed, which means I’ll never get to review their amazing stuffed pork belly (if you’ve ever tried it you’ll know I speak the truth) let alone go there after work again for a quick drink and end up staying for dinner.

This leads me, eventually, onto this week’s review. Yes, it’s a pub with a reputation for good food but no, it’s not in Reading. Previous trips out to Henley have proven that this kind of pub is a beast usually only spotted in the countryside, preferring the fresh air and customers who are prepared to drive (or are lucky enough to live nearby) instead of folk who would rather take public transport and have a drink. The Three Tuns is a different animal altogether, though: it’s in Henley centre, right on the market square (a big tick for that) and you can get there from Reading on the train in about half an hour (a second, smaller, tick). Of course, from past experience that’s no guarantee that it’s any good, but I turned up full of optimism.

As a venue you could easily miss it. It’s a sliver of a building tucked between Machin’s the butcher and an anonymous clothes shop. Inside it’s broken up into a number of rooms, all wooden floored and low beamed. Our table was in the middle room where most of the diners end up, in a space seating about sixteen people.

The menu here is healthily short. Five or six starters, mains and desserts with most mains under fifteen pounds and if you fancy it there’s a “pub favourites” menu which offers two courses for sixteen quid. We started with a basket of bread. This came with a generous ramekin of gloriously rich sticky caponata (like Italian Branston and one of the nicest ways to eat aubergine, though that might not be saying much) and two discs of – admittedly rock hard – dill and lemon butter. Both were delicious, though it wasn’t long before our starters arrived so we didn’t quite get the chance to savour the bread. I’d specifically told the waitress we were in no hurry for anything, so this should have rung warning bells.

The buffalo mozzarella wrapped in pancetta was perfect. It was deceptively large – a whole ball of mozzarella – served with a proper dressed salad with sun dried tomatoes, pine nuts and shavings of parmesan – just in case a whole mozzarella wasn’t cheese enough (like Tony Blackburn I can’t turn down extra cheese). The pancetta was generous enough to really taste but had been stripped of most of those fatty bits on the edge that can double as unwelcome dental floss. Served on a little wooden board, as is the fashion these days, it was a bit tricky to eat but I managed, even rescuing a few scraps which fell quite literally overboard. Ten second rule and all that.

Mozzarella

The salt cod croquettes, from the pub side of the menu, were just as good. Three plump croquettes, crispy yet soft inside, came with a little dish of beautifully yellow aioli. If anything I’d say the aioli looked more striking than it tasted, but it was still just what you wanted to dip a nice big forkful of croquette into. I know that croquettes, like fishcakes, can be a way for some kitchens to make lots of money flogging you what’s essentially mashed potato, but when it’s this good you just don’t mind – and, of course, salt cod is one of those ingredients where a little goes a long way. Clever stuff, and a bit of a culinary win-win.

The mains kept that standard up. Poached brill on a chorizo and butterbean cassoulet, from the specials menu, was a hit. My favourite part was the cassoulet itself, rich and tomatoey with a bountiful amount of chorizo giving the dish the salty, smoky taste that it needed. I could happily have eaten this without the fish – plain, poached fish is a bit like Orlando Bloom, lovely to look at but ultimately not very interesting (I guess I just like crispy skin and when it’s not there I feel a little short-changed). That said, it was generous to a fault – which definitely sets the Three Tuns apart from many restaurants who confuse “healthy” with “diet option”. It was perfectly cooked, but the seasoning was a tad strange – it was topped with dill, which might have gone with the fish but was jarring with the cassoulet.

Brill

The other dish was guinea fowl breast (“pan roasted”, apparently, which is a new one on me – I thought you pan fried and oven roasted things, but there you go) with potato hash, madeira jus and some of the nicest peas in the world. They came in a little casserole dish of their own, still with some bite, with big hunks of bacon, meat from the guinea fowl’s leg – a bit like confit duck – and braised lettuce which also still had some crispness. I could just eat a bowl of those peas now, I can tell you. Again, the supporting act was more interesting than the main event, but I didn’t mind: the guinea fowl was tasty enough (I have a soft spot for a chicken supreme, as it happens) but everything it came with turned it into a really satisfying dish. It even had me hankering for autumn, despite being on their summer a la carte.

Guinea

The wine list at the Three Tuns is compact, too – a dozen or so whites and the same number of reds with half of those available by the glass. We picked a bottle of durif (an Australian number – also known as petit syrah, if the menu is to be believed) which was phenomenal. Rich, fruity and a bit smoky, it was dangerously easy to polish off a bottle between two. It went brilliantly with the guinea fowl and just about didn’t clash with the cassoulet, thanks to that chorizo. Pretty impressive for just under thirty pounds, too.

Service throughout was excellent. The staff manage that clever service trick of being really good at what they do and on top of everything while also making it look easy and casual. When asked about the dishes our waitress knew the menu inside out, and we also got the “oh yes, good choice” that everyone wants to hear when picking what to eat. I like to feel that the staff have a vested interest in what their customers order and it definitely felt the case here.

The kitchen, sadly, was not quite so perfect. Whilst the food was excellent it came out too quickly: not quite so fast that you wanted to make a scene, but quick enough to disappoint slightly because I’d turned up wanting to make a leisurely evening of it. I’m always surprised by how many good restaurants get this wrong, and it’s not as if they seemed to want to turn our table. You’d think waiting staff would realise something has gone wrong with the timing when they’re asking what dessert you want and you still have half a bottle of red wine left to drink. So we did what anyone in that position should do, and kept them waiting: red wine with fish might be a little dubious but red wine with dessert definitely isn’t on my to do list.

But, of course, we did have desserts because everything up to that point had tasted so good and they were worth the wait. The pot au chocolat was knockout – again, a generous portion of quite a dark, firm mousse, rich with orange zest, cardamom and just a little hint of chilli lurking under all that. Deceptively complicated and yet so simple-looking, it was one of the nicest desserts I’ve had all year. The (I think) rosemary shortbread on the side added nothing, but only because the flavours in the pot au chocolate were pretty much unimprovable. Even a glass of dessert wine couldn’t do it.

Chocolate pot

I also wanted to try the cheeseboard because it’s not something I order often enough in restaurants (partly because there’s so much to remember! Five different cheeses? Pasteurised and unpasteurised? Cow and goat? Will they notice if I make some notes on my phone?) The Three Tuns cleverly takes the less is more approach: just three top notch British cheeses, which makes it awfully hard to resist. Barkham Blue is a local classic (possibly the best blue cheese in the world), Lincolnshire Poacher (not so local) is a really cracking hard cheese and Stinking Bishop is famous for its whiff. On this occasion the Bishop was more like “been working on London and the Tube was a bit sweaty” than properly stinking and, if I’m honest, all the better for it. A bit younger and richer – and firmer – rather than beating you over the head with all that gooey stench. If I had criticisms (and sadly, I did) they were too cold to properly release all that flavour and the biscuits were a bit uninspired, but even so it was a generous helping and washed down with a glass of ten year old tawny it made for a great way to round things (and me) off.

Bread and butter, three courses, the cracking bottle of red and a couple of snifters with dessert came to a hundred and ten pounds, not including tip, so it may be a pub, but the prices aren’t quite pub prices. But is it worth it? Absolutely. Almost flawless food, a great wine list, brilliant service and one of the cosiest, nicest rooms I’ve eaten in in a very long time. Obviously there are a few things I’d change – I’d have liked my food to come out a little slower, I’d like there to be a direct train from Reading to Henley or, better still, I’d like to pick it up and drop it somewhere in the middle of Reading. But maybe part of the magic is that I can’t. So until Reading gets a pub that can do food of this standard, somewhere that is in the middle of town but feels like it’s out in the country, I’ll be back. Tons.

The Three Tuns, Henley – 8.4
01491 410138
5 Market Place, Henley on Thames, RG9 2AA

http://threetunshenley.co.uk/

Round-up: the year in similes

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I’m sorry, but there’s no new review this week. The thing is, I’m off on holiday and going to restaurants in another country tends to make going to restaurants in Reading rather an impossibility. And I’m sure you wouldn’t want to read reviews of What I Ate On My Holiday (besides, it’s quite nice to eat off duty once in a while and not have to make mental notes of everything. Trust me on this.) So please accept my apologies, but this is the first break from reviewing I’ve had since last Christmas and I figured a break would do me good.

That said, I didn’t want to leave you without a post this week. I wanted to put something up. I’ve already reviewed the ten best dishes of the last year, so what else could I do? Fortunately, racking my brain and re-reading the reviews from past twelve months, something occurred to me. I use a lot of similes, don’t I? I thought. This was only reinforced by reading the reviews of some of my favourite dishes: it’s true. I seem to love similes like… someone who really likes similes, like… well… similes fail me, put it that way. So why not sit back, enjoy the year in similes… ready?

Bread
“The toast was thinner, whiter and cheaper than Miley Cyrus.”
(Café Yolk)

Burrito
“The chipotle sauce didn’t come through at all, leaving me wondering if I’d asked for the wrong one or if the staff just hadn’t glugged on enough. The cheese didn’t register. But I suppose these could be viewed as fussy quibbles about what was basically a big edible pillowcase stuffed with a lot of quite good things (they also do a smaller version, presumably for lunchtime and less ambitious eaters, and a larger version – presumably for Eric Pickles).”
(Mission Burrito)

Chicken
“I didn’t finish it: there didn’t seem any point, when every mouthful was the culinary equivalent of the One Show.”
(The Bull On Bell Street)

Cocktail
“The “Bloody Caesar” – a Bloody Mary variant featuring clamato juice, lime, horseradish and sherry – was all citrus and no tomato, thinner, sharper and more joyless than Gillian McKeith.”
(Bel And The Dragon)

Feijoada
“It wasn’t going to win any beauty competitions – half the plate covered in brown mush, a quarter covered with rice and a quarter covered in greens, a beige pie chart”
(Pau Brasil)

Flatbread
“…you also have the flatbread it’s all served on – gradually soaking up that sauce and those juices, waiting until enough meat is gone that you can roll it up, like a magic carpet, and eat it without dignity, savouring all those flavours and maybe, just maybe, dripping a bit of sauce into the bottom of your polystyrene container.”
(King’s Grill)

Gooseberry jam
“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.”
(The Catherine Wheel)

Kachori chaat
“It was in many ways so alien to what I normally try in restaurants that I felt a little bit as if I’d just eaten the national dish of the Moon.”
(Bhel Puri House)

Lamb terrine
“I did feel apprehensive about eating it, though, because I was expecting something coarser and all those chunks (such an unattractive word), bound together with jelly felt like a Damian Hirst starter at best and Pedigree Chum for poshos at worst.”
(Cerise)

Noodles
“The only real misfire was the other side dish; fried noodles turned out to be wide, flat, almost completely undressed, clumpy noodles which transformed into rubber bands within minutes of being brought to the table.”
(Art Of Siam)

Omelette
“A good omelette is thick, seasoned, gooey in the middle, folded over and full of wonderful things. What I got instead was a thin frittata, no seasoning, cooked completely through and rolled into some kind of surreal egg spliff.”
(Cafe Yolk)

Onions
“Onions are as cheap as can be, so how could they possibly be one of the tastiest things I ate all evening? But it’s true, I promise: sizzling, continuing to cook at the table, soft and sweet, spicy and caramelised, coated in all those juices. They were incredible, and we pounced on them like yummy mummies hitting the Boden website come sale time.”
(Bhoj)

Ribs
“The meat practically jumped off the bone without needing any encouragement, leaving the bone as white and dry as the Queen’s Speech.”
(Blue’s Smokehouse)

Roast suckling pig
“The crackling – light, salty and sinful – was how I imagine Quavers would taste in heaven.”
(Bel And The Dragon)

Sea bass
“This was closer to the sort of food I was expecting at Malmaison: Jack Lemmon to the burger’s Walter Matthau, granted, but I liked it a lot.”
(Malmaison)

Of course, to use yet another simile, you might feel that reading this post is a bit like sitting down to an episode of Friends to find that you’re watching that one that pretends to be a new episode but is actually made up of loads of clips of previous episodes that you’ve already seen (you know the one I’m talking about). If so, I’m not sure I can blame you – so tune in next Friday when I’ll have a brand new review for you. Just like a restaurant reviewer.

Round-up: One year of Edible Reading

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A slightly different round-up this week; I’m not going to do the usual summary of past reviews. I’m not doing restaurant news this week either, because there isn’t much news: the places which are due to open (CAU, Rynd) are still due to open and nowhere has closed that I know of, unless you’re devastated that Reading has lost one of its two Bella Italias (and if you are, I’m not quite sure why you’re reading this). We do have a gluten free café opening on Cross Street, so there’s that I suppose, but that’s all. Instead, it’s a chance to round up a year in the life of Reading’s restaurant scene, because Edible Reading is one year old.

There have definitely been changes in the last year. As always, we’ve seen a steady churn of restaurants opening and closing: we’ve said goodbye to some, like Kyklos and the Lobster Room, and hello to others, like La Courbe and Coconut. I was sad about Kyklos – it never lived up to its potential, but some of the dishes were good and the service was excellent, and it would have been lovely to be able to eat Greek food (a really underrated cuisine) in the centre of town. The new boys are also a mixed bag – La Courbe does brilliant food but never quite feels like a restaurant, and Coconut isn’t quite distinctive enough to offer something different in a town with plenty of options already.

The more interesting arrivals have been in Reading’s cafés: with My Kitchen and Lincoln Coffee opening in the centre there have never been more alternatives to the hegemony of Coffee Corner. If you add in the other lunch possibilities, like Bhel Puri (another welcome opening in the last year), and the other contributors to Reading’s coffee scene (those lovely chaps at Tamp Culture), this is an area where things definitely feel like they’re changing for the better. I’m just sorry that Cappuccina Café, with its delicious banh mi and pasteis de nata, didn’t stay the course too.

There’s more to food culture than restaurants, and this too is one of the more promising signs over the last twelve months. Reading now has a top-notch wine merchant in the shape of the Tasting House, and The Grumpy Goat offers a mind-boggling range of beers and many of the area’s delicious cheeses. The recent spate of supper clubs in the area also shows that food has never been as important to Reading as it is today, and although we still don’t have enough street food at least we have the artisan market on Fridays, even if the opening hours are plain silly. It’s a start, anyway.

Anyway, I was wondering how else to best round up the year, and then I realised: I am totally out of step with the zeitgeist. Journalism these days is all about lists – you only have to read a Buzzfeed link to figure that out – and I haven’t done a single list all year! What was I thinking? So, without further ado, here’s how I’d like to sum up a year of Edible Reading, with a list. Reviewing restaurants is all about reviewing meals, evenings, experiences – and sometimes that misses the point that there can be great dishes tucked away even in middling meals. So to redress the balance, here for your delectation, in sort-of-alphabetical order, is a list of the ten best things I’ve eaten in the last year while reviewing restaurants for the blog. Zeitgeist here I come!

1. Yum gai yang, Art Of Siam. This salad is all about contrast (and not at all about leaves and lettuce). The chicken is perfectly soft and cooked and the vegetables seem to be purely there for texture as nothing, but nothing, stands up to the flavour of the dressing. It has tons of heat – enough chilli to require a glass of milk or at least a handkerchief – but also has the tartness of fresh limes to create a liquor in the bottom of the dish that’s worth spooning up because it is so fab. The flavour is super intense and salty and is enough to render even me speechless (or that might just be the chilli).

2. Lamb karahi, Bhoj. The little silver bowls of meat at Bhoj remind me of spice bowls in an eastern market which seems very apt for this dish. The lamb (and “juicy baby lamb” at that) has been cooked for so long that it falls apart into shreds at the lightest touch of a fork and the sauce is much drier than the usual British-Indian chunks-of-meat-in-an-orange-sauce affair. Here, it’s more a sticky, rich, spiced gravy with the odd cardamom pod for accidental-eating fun. Order one for yourself because you won’t want to share. I did, and I still regret it now.

3. Chilli paneer, Bhel Puri House. I could never turn vegetarian – it’s just not in my nature – but this dish at Reading’s only (to my knowledge) vegetarian restaurant is so good that adding bacon wouldn’t improve it. High praise indeed! The small cubes of paneer are marinated in chilli and fried. That’s it. But, my goodness, they’re so good! The layer of lettuce underneath is pointless and if you accidentally eat a green chilli thinking it’s a green bean (I mean, who would make such a mistake? erm…) you realise where all the heat comes from. Not so hot that it burns and tingles but enough to make every sticky cube worth fighting over.

4. Bread and butter, Côte.
Bread. Such a simple thing, right? But at how many places in Reading can you get truly decent bread? A two quid basket of bread at Côte is six diagonal slices of what is arguably the best bread in Reading – crispy and slightly chewy on the outside, fluffy and malty on the inside. It’s served with a little pot of room temperature salted butter which melts as it goes onto the warm bread. If you’re canny it’s worth splitting each finger of bread into two to make the most of the surface area. It’s a perfect amuse bouche before getting down to the serious business of ordering (and when you do, Côte’s tuna niçoise also came close to making this list – just saying).

5. Chips and mayonnaise, The Eldon Arms.
A bowl of chips is another simple pleasure that’s often done terribly. Whilst the French fry has its place, proper chips should always be thick cut. In the Eldon the chips were served without pomp, without daft toppings or being put into a pointless gimmicky tiny frying basket: not affected, just bloody delicious. Thick cut, crispy on the outside and fluffy on the outside. Simple. Then served with a bowl of proper (there’s that word again) home made mayonnaise which had enough garlic in it to make enemies the next day but with no fanfare to announce its arrival because, in the chef’s eyes, it was just mayonnaise. It saddens me greatly that the Eldon is closed, and the burgers got all the plaudits but strangely it’s the chips I miss most.

6. Chicken lahsooni tikka, House Of Flavours.
Chicken tikka is one of those dishes that has entered the British lexicon, a shorthand for Indian food that so often gets abused and made into something cheap. This, though, is nothing like the chicken tikka flavour you’d get in a Pot Noodle (and, regrettably, I know this for a fact because I had one recently – never again). The chicken, marinated in spice and yoghurt, is as soft as butter, as if it’s only just been cooked through, no more. The spices are rich and smooth and best of all, in my opinion, there’s lots of garlic too. A squeeze of fresh lemon juice over the top to give it a bit of zing and you have, in my opinion, about as perfect as starter as can be.

7. Mixed grill, La Courbe. What’s not to like about a restaurant that can serve up meat in this many different ways and for them all to be really good? The lamb kofte is soft and herby, rather than hot. The chicken is marinated in ginger and cooked so the inside is soft but the outside is caramelised. The grilled lamb comes flavoured with cinnamon to give a slightly sweet taste and cooked so it’s just pink but still soft. The dollop of houmous on the side was surprisingly average, but the superb tabbouleh also deserves special mention: fresh, clean and green.

8. Tuna tartare, Malmaison. Like I said, even bad meals can contain brilliant dishes and despite the gloomy surroundings this dish shone brightly in the Malmaison firmament (only partly because of the glass plate they served it on). The tuna was super fresh and went perfectly with the avocado, truly ripe with that delicious buttery taste. The wasabi and slivers of pickled ginger on the side were perfect dotted onto a forkful of tuna and avocado, and the sesame dressing drizzled round the edge had a slight sticky sweetness which made it worth mopping up. If only the rest of the restaurant had lived up to the food.

9. Crab ravioli, Pepe Sale. As the first restaurant to get the ER treatment it pleases me greatly that Pepe Sale makes it onto this list. The crab ravioli is on the specials menu so often that it should become a standard, especially as it’s so good. The ravioli is perfectly cooked, just al dente, and made fresh that day on the marble counter just inside the door. The fluffy crab inside is more generous than it needs to be (but then that’s probably how Pepe Sale has maintained a loyal following for the past fifteen years). The tomato and cream sauce is rich but not overwhelming so a bowlful feels like a treat not an overindulgence. A year on, one of the first dishes I reviewed is still one of the very best.

10. Fried chicken, rice and peas, Perry’s. Perry’s, despite its size, is one of the more intimidating places I’ve eaten since I started ER. I’m glad I went in, though, because it does food that I would struggle to get anywhere else. The chicken is seasoned, coated in flour and fried and then served with a generous helping of rice and peas. Calling it rice and peas is one hell of an understatement, mind. This a side dish on the scale of your mum’s best stew – rice and peas cooked in stock, herbs and spices that are too numerous for me to identify. There’s plenty of chilli in there but the whole flavour is more sophisticated than plain old chilli suggests. Even if it wasn’t an amazing dish in its own right, I’d want it on this list because, more than anything, it symbolises food I would never have eaten if I hadn’t started this blog.

Getting that list down to just ten dishes was no mean feat – no room, sadly, for the ribs at Blue’s Smokehouse, the churros at Tampopo, the truffle ravioli at Ruchetta and countless others. It just goes to show how much good food is out there in and around Reading if you know where to look – and sometimes even if you don’t – despite our reputation as a clone town.

When I started Edible Reading I did wonder if there was enough here to keep me going. A whole year of weekly reviews, the majority of them in central Reading, suggests that I may have been worrying unduly. Without a doubt, the best thing about the last year has been the involvement from everyone who reads the blog – commenting, passing on reviews, Retweeting and getting involved with the conversations. And even now, every time someone tells me they’ve tried and loved a restaurant after reading an Edible Reading review it absolutely makes my day. So please don’t forget to request places you’d like to see reviewed – and if you think I’m missing that one great dish that you order time and time again, add your two pence in the comments box.

King’s Grill

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Let’s start with the chicken. It’s glorious; straight off the grill, lightly charred on the outside yet tender inside from the marinade. It’s frustrating having to eat it with nothing but a plastic fork (even a plastic knife would have been something) but it’s so perfectly cooked that even a plastic fork can break it into smaller pieces. The lamb, if anything, is even better – juicy, savoury, no fat, no suspicious bounciness. The lamb kofte is just as good, minced but pleasingly coarse rather than turkey twizzler smooth, the herbs and seasoning bringing out every bit of the lamby goodness.

Both kebabs are topped with salad – crisp iceberg and crunchy red cabbage – all fresh rather than wilted and forlorn. The mint sauce, perfect with the lamb, is sweet and thick. The chilli sauce has less kick than I thought it might, which is a relief, but is smoky and delicious. A mixture of the two, with a mouthful of the meat and some texture from that salad, is heaven. The garlic sauce is creamy and rich without being overwhelmingly garlicky – all of the plusses without the halitosis horror the next day. And, let’s not forget, you also have the flatbread it’s all served on – gradually soaking up that sauce and those juices, waiting until enough meat is gone that you can roll it up, like a magic carpet, and eat it without dignity, savouring all those flavours and maybe, just maybe, dripping a bit of sauce into the bottom of your polystyrene container.

King's Grill - kebabNo, I’m not joking: this really is a review of King’s Grill, the kebab place on King’s Road. You know, the one next to the picture framers.

I considered all sorts of restaurants to review for the one year anniversary of Edible Reading. The French Horn, so beloved of the late Michael Winner, with its proper old-school starched linens and starchy service by the riverbank. L’Ortolan, which has a Michelin star. Orwell’s, whose chef has won one in the past and probably will again. It would have been easy to book one of those, dress up and eat pretty, seasonal, precise courses and carefully selected wine – and I probably will some day – but somehow it didn’t feel right for this week. Besides, none of them are actually in Reading and there’s a reason this blog isn’t called Edible Berkshire.

So I chose King’s Grill because, believe it or not, it’s all about the fundamentals – and King’s Grill gets those as right as anywhere I’ve been in the last year. There are only six seats, retro faux-leather stools looking out over a sidestreet and (if you’re really lucky) Reading Library. There are only a few options: lamb shish, chicken shish, kofte (you can have lamb or chicken doner, or a burger, if you like that sort of thing: I don’t). But it’s scrupulously clean – I swear every time the staff aren’t cooking or serving they seem to be wiping or cleaning – and the service is unfailingly polite. And those shish and kofte are cooked perfectly, served up fresh and bloody gorgeous. It’s a room with seats and pleasant service in which you can eat marvellous food; as good a definition of a restaurant as any I can think of.

It’s not all perfect. Chips are standard fare – I’d be amazed if they aren’t frozen – although they’re nice enough when added to that edible magic carpet at the end. Houmous is thick, claggy, slightly tahini-infused wallpaper paste (I only ordered it to try and prove that there’s something at King’s Grill for vegetarians: silly me, there isn’t). But the cornerstone – well marinated meat, cooked skilfully by people who know this stuff like the back of their hand, rushed from the grill to a warm flatbread and topped with crisp, fresh virtuous salad – is right on the money.

Of course, I’m well aware that most people who go to King’s Grill won’t eat in. They won’t sit at those stools. They won’t even necessarily be sober. They’ll roll up at one in the morning, needing to line their stomachs, and they’ll have a doner with lashings of chilli sauce and a few of those odd pickled chillies they insist on plonking on everything, and they’ll probably regret it in the morning. But that’s not the point, because King’s Grill is far better food than drunk people deserve – and as a pit stop, unfogged by booze, early on a school night, it’s as good and fresh a quick option as you’ll get anywhere else in town. People will gladly go and sit at Mangal and pay twice as much to sit down and eat something very similar, but if you’re in a hurry King’s Grill is unbeatable.

Dinner for two (two large kebabs, some chips and that forgettable houmous) came to fifteen pounds. The kebabs were six pounds each and, for me, if you compare that with Five Guys, or Handmade Burger Kitchen, or even Mission Burrito there’s only going to be one winner. I feel like King’s Grill is a well-kept secret – a few times I’ve seen waiting staff and restaurateurs from other places nipping in there after closing time. There’s a reason for that, put it that way.

For me, the biggest irony of all is that in London, people rave about restaurants which don’t take reservations. Restaurants which specialise, which do a very limited range of dishes but with consistent excellence. Places where there are only a handful of seats and you have to get there early to avoid disappointment. The capital is littered with them, and people queue round the block to get into them. But you know what? We already have one right here in Reading. It’s terrific. You should go.

So yes, I’m sorry if you were expecting a two thousand word review of a fine dining venue, full of plates that look like art (and my photos of them which, err, don’t) along with a blow by blow summary of the amuse bouche and the pre-dessert. Except actually, I don’t think I am: there’s a place for that kind of restaurant (and it’s a pity that central Reading doesn’t have more of them, but that’s another story), but – this week of all weeks – I reckon made the right choice.

King’s Grill – 8.0
16 King’s Road, RG1 3AA
0118 9500220

Art of Siam

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I love eating out, really I do, but sometimes even I get a little jaded. The constant search for new places occasionally takes its toll, and from time to time Reading can feel like Indian after Italian after chain after chain. So for this week’s review I looked at the lovingly prepared, generously suggested list of dining options and I’m sorry to say that I really struggled to pick. The rain was bucketing down on and off and the thought of toddling over to Caversham or venturing out into the Berkshire countryside just didn’t appeal. What to do?

So I chose Art of Siam probably for all the wrong reasons; because it was conveniently central and because I couldn’t remember the last time I’d paid it a visit. I did make myself a promise this time, though: no starter platter, no pad Thai, no dishes that I’ve reviewed before in other places. I’m not always the most imaginative diner in a Thai restaurant, something even I know. This time, I told myself, it’s all going to be different. Besides, I imagine that any Thai restaurant worth its fish sauce will be able to rustle up a those dishes with the chef’s hands Thai’d (I know, I’m sorry) so it probably isn’t the best way to judge the kitchen.

On entering the almost empty restaurant on a rainy mid-week night I had conflicting feelings of comfort and trepidation. The dining room is the same as I remember from my first visit what must be ten years ago – beautiful wood panelling lining the walls, a scattering of Buddhas and a gorgeous wooden lattice covering the ceiling. Even the shuttered windows looking down on King’s Walk are attractive. Only a few things – like the rickety rattan chairs, several of them taped or repaired – make the room look a little tired. Apart from that, the effect is like stepping into a movie set; at once splendid and a tiny bit contrived. The tables are all set with branded Art of Siam plates (and wineglasses), elaborately folded cloth napkins and forks and spoons. It really is a gorgeous place to eat dinner – marred only if you get one of the seats overlooking the somewhat municipal corridor leading to the kitchen.

Service was quick, enthusiastic and a little, well, amateurish. In my quest to order something different for once I wanted plenty of advice only to find that the waitress didn’t really know her way around the menu. When I asked what was in some of the dishes, to help me choose, she suggested that one chicken dish contained onions and peppers, whereas another contained peppers and onions. Further questioning gave the impression that all the dishes were pretty much the same, in levels of vagueness if nothing else. When pressed she confessed that she had been working there for less than a week and so went off to ask the kitchen more about the dishes but even then, the answers didn’t make anything clearer.

Later on, what purported to be our mains turned up – except they bore no relation to what we had actually ordered. We looked at them slightly baffled for a minute or so and the waitress then swooped and carried them off to another table (which was especially galling as they looked delicious). The whole experience was friendly and pleasant but utterly chaotic, which left me thinking that the whole meal was going to be something of a lottery.

My sinking feeling didn’t last long, anyway, because – probably through luck more than judgment – the starters were very good indeed. The more conventional of them, toong tong, were essentially big fat wontons filled with minced chicken and prawn. So far, so conventional, but the filling was absolutely top notch. None of that disturbingly bouncy, gelatinous pinkness I’ve had at many other restaurants – instead, the filling was beautiful, dense and firm. The plum sauce they came with felt like an anonymous sweet dipping sauce, but it still added something to the dish (I was expecting plum sauce as you’d get in Chinese restaurants, probably wrongly, so was a tad disappointed). No starter in a Thai restaurant would be complete without a bit of vegetable sculpture so of course this was also accompanied with a flower made out of carrot. (I’ve never been hungry enough to eat one of these. Not yet, anyway.)

Thai

The standout dish though – not just among the starters but in the whole meal – was yum gai yang, or chicken salad. I’ve never had Thai salad before because, well, it’s salad, but this was in a different league. It was salad in the sense that it wasn’t served with a thick hot sauce, not in the sense of lettuce and tomato and celery. Instead I got slices of warm, freshly grilled chicken dressed with lemongrass, galangal, chilli and lime juice. The bits and bobs of vegetables it came with were merely for texture because it was all about the amazing dressing which was the perfect balance of hot and sour – just the right side of bearable heat and just the right side of enjoyable sharpness.

Maybe it’s just my lack of imagination in Thai restaurants, in fact I’m sure it is, but I’ve not had anything like this before. It was absolutely stunning – a dish I keep thinking about, remembering and wanting to have again, even though it made my lips ever so slightly numb, made my tongue blaze and made me order a cooling glass of milk. It was a funfair ride of a dish – I was shaken at the end but a little bit of me, in the back of my mind, was shouting “Again! Again!”

Thai2

Mains could never live up to that, but to their credit they weren’t far off. Pla chu chi, lightly battered white fish in a red curry sauce, was one of the biggest dishes I’ve been served in a long time. The sauce was a good one, although a little less generous than I’d have liked – especially after such a fiery starter – so not much to tip onto the rice (I’ve long thought the best bit of most Thai meals is that mixture of sauce and rice you end up with towards the end of the meal). In amongst the fish were slices of chilli big enough to kill a small child plus a dollop of coconut milk on top – just in case you hadn’t realised this was a rich and unhealthy dish.

Thai3

Gai phad bai kraprao, despite the long name, was probably the simplest dish I had: chicken stir fried with fresh chilli and Thai basil (and onions and peppers, not that that marked it out from the other chicken dishes on the menu by the sounds of it). Even so it was lovely with everything done just right: thin, tender slivers of chicken, soft sweet onions and a sauce which was more interesting than I was expecting, savoury and salty with a note almost of something like aniseed. Again, it was light on the sauce – I admire them for not drowning their main courses with gloopy sauce but it did leave me feeling my coconut rice (pleasant but unremarkable) was a tad underdressed.

The only real misfire was the other side dish; fried noodles turned out to be wide, flat, almost completely undressed, clumpy noodles which transformed into rubber bands within minutes of being brought to the table. I’m still not convinced that they really were fried, because they felt more like they’d been steamed into a state of abject surrender, but the waitress assured me they were. I pretty much left them, although I had quite enough food so it wasn’t a tragedy (the waitress offered to take them back to the kitchen and get them to re-fry them so I could take them home, which is very sweet but does rather miss the point).

The wine served here is allegedly exactly the same as in Thai Corner which makes me wonder if Monsoon Valley has managed to secure the only shipping containers that make it safely across to the UK. I say allegedly as it wasn’t the smooth easy drinking red I am used to from Monsoon Valley but after a couple of chilli-soaked slices of chicken it hardly mattered. It was just enough to take the edge off without getting silly on a school night. The total bill for two starters, two mains, two side dishes, two glasses of wine (and one absolutely indispensable glass of milk) was forty-three pounds excluding service – a steal for the quality of food and the boundless flavours on offer.

If I didn’t review restaurants, and I’d been going out that rainy midweek night, I’d have gone somewhere tried and tested. I’d have had something I often order and I’m sure I’d have liked it well enough. And some nights that’s what you want, something comfortable and reliable. But I’m glad I didn’t. I’m glad that – for all its Italians and Indians and chains – Reading’s restaurants still have the capacity to surprise and that by going somewhere you’d taken for granted and forgotten all about, by taking a chance on something you wouldn’t normally order in a million years, you can still be ambushed by a wonderful meal. I hope you try it some time, if not in Art Of Siam then somewhere else. Either way, make the most of this because heaven knows, you won’t find me recommending the salad very often.

Art of Siam – 7.7
2A/3A The Walk, King Street, RG1 2HG
01189 512600

http://www.artofsiamuk.com/reading/aboutus.php

Malmaison

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So many elements go to make up a great restaurant, so many different things to get right, so many plates to spin at once. It’s fair to say that very few restaurants in Reading have perfected all of them. So you can go to a rather unimpressive room, like Bhoj, and have a knockout curry. You can go to Cerise and have beautiful food but be a little unmoved by the service. Or you could head to the Abbot Cook and sit in that wonderful room wading through their underwhelming food. This makes reviewing restaurants difficult: how do you weigh all of those different factors? But I always thought that the food comes first; if the food is great, nothing else can be that badly wrong. And I really believed that, too, right up until last week when I went to Malmaison for dinner.

Because the food at Malmaison really is great; I didn’t try anything I didn’t like. Take the starters, for instance. Tuna tartare was both beautiful and delicious: a delicate roundel of chopped tuna on a bed of chopped avocado with a soy dressing drizzled round the edge (which tasted more of sesame than the advertised lime but was none the worse for it) with a few neat slices of pickled ginger and a squirt of gentle wasabi, like a wasabi mayonnaise. This was just delightful; fresh, zesty and with the other flavours not overwhelming the fish. Not an ungenerous portion, either, when it would be easy to make this kind of dish stingily nouveau. It was impossible to take a picture because of the glass plate but who cares? Food’s there to be eaten, not photographed, and this was perfect.

The fritto misto was almost as good: beautiful prawns, the most tender squid I’ve had in Reading and some really tasty pieces of yellow courgette in a light, greaseless batter. Good enough, I’d say, to eat on their own – which might be just as well because I wasn’t wild on the sweet chilli sauce they came with. That felt more of an Asian, tempura-influenced choice when I was hoping for some aioli or even a fresh salsa verde to plunge my food into. But none the less, it was gorgeous – and again, not the mean portion I was expecting (I have to say, I went to Malmaison with some preconceptions: that my food would be pretty, prissy and pricey).

Fritto

Could the kitchen keep it up with the main courses? As it turns out, yes they could. The “le French” burger was similarly lovely. Served in a glazed brioche bun with a decently rough patty of beef, still pink in the middle, this was how burgers should be. Despite the slices of brie and the caramelised onions this managed not to be sloppy – just juicy from the meat – and the sweet and salty flavours worked beautifully. It was also, and this almost never happens nowadays, possible to actually eat it with your hands.

The accompanying skin-on frites were perfectly decent, though I got the impression the staff aren’t used to serving vinegar as it came in a ramekin with a teaspoon and was of the white wine persuasion rather than good old Sarson’s. On the side was the tiniest copper saucepan with a tomato ketchup in it of unknown origin (it had green bits in but tasted like Heinz to me). It was rather unnecessary for this burger, so I wondered if it was there to meet expectation, rather than to actually eat. Still, it didn’t detract from what was a top notch dish: it was sixteen pounds, which I know is a lot, but it just about felt on the right side of the border between extravagantly indulgent and “they saw me coming”. Just.

Burger

The sea bass was a conventional, safe brasserie dish but there’s no harm in keeping things simple and everything about it worked: two nice pieces of fish, cooked well (no crispy skin though, which was a bit of a shame) served with a delicate mix of firm, smoky, good quality chorizo, mussels, sautéed new potatoes and vinaigrette. This was closer to the sort of food I was expecting at Malmaison: Jack Lemmon to the burger’s Walter Matthau, granted, but I liked it a lot.

Bass

So, you’ve read this far and you might be thinking about booking a table, right? Well, get to the end before you make up your mind, because literally everything else about this restaurant made me want never to return. Let’s start with the cardinal sin. The waiter came to the table after we’d finished our starters and took the plates away. About two minutes later they returned with our main courses.

“Oh! That’s very quick.” I said. The waiter gave me what was probably a blank look but might have been him mistakenly accepting my congratulations.

What do you do at this point? You can’t send it away, so you don’t have any choice but to sit there and eat it. But it just prompted other questions, like: were they cooking our mains the moment we started eating our starters? Was someone standing at the door to the kitchen watching us with a stopwatch? If I’d chewed a bit slower would my main course have been sitting there on the pass for ages? However you looked at it, this was plain poor: the Malmaison is not, from the menu – dishes and prices – somewhere you go for a quick meal. If I’m spending that kind of money I want to be there for a couple of hours, whereas if I want my meal to take forty minutes I’ll go somewhere else and I’ll spend a lot less. I could make excuses for them – it was a Sunday, they weren’t busy – but really, this was inexcusable. It’s called the hospitality business, and having two courses on a conveyor belt in less time than it takes to watch an episode of Game Of Thrones feels pretty inhospitable to me. Besides, just because I ordered a burger doesn’t make it fast food.

I might have told them this if the waiters had shown any interest in my experience, but they didn’t. In fact service in general had a completely disengaged feel: no smiles, no friendliness, no connection at all. I genuinely think there were people sitting at the bus stop outside London Camera Exchange, visible from my table, who had as much interest in me having a good meal that night as the serving staff at Malmaison. This is one of Reading’s few higher end restaurants and, again, when I’m spending that kind of money on food I at least I want to feel liked. I want to feel like the staff care about the food and the customers (or can pretend well enough to convince me, that’s fine too). I want it to be a pleasure talking to the staff: many of Reading’s excellent restaurants – Pepe Sale, Dolce Vita, Mya Lacarte, Kyrenia… I could go on – get this right, but I’ve had better service in a lot of chain restaurants than I did at Malmaison. (It’s a real pity because based on past experience, the staff in the bar are completely the opposite.)

Countless other people have complained about the darkness in Malmaison but, even so, it’s worth repeating. The room is dark. The walls are dark. The tables are dark. It makes eating (and photographing) the food an extra challenge, even though we managed to pick a table with some overhead lighting. The chairs are big and squidgy, so much so that when sitting I ended up with my knees higher than my thighs and it felt like the table was up under my chin. This is not conducive to a comfortable, relaxed meal. And there’s no atmosphere at all – which takes some doing in such Stygian surroundings. It has the feel of a restaurant which relies largely on expense accounts, which makes no sense when the food is so good.

I suppose I should talk about wine and dessert. The wine list is cleverly structured and priced and one of the things that’s done well. We had a half litre carafe of a Brazilian Riesling/pinot grigio blend which was really nice; off dry, fruity and juicy with a touch of apples. It would have been nice to try more from their wine list – and we probably would have done if they hadn’t been in such a phenomenal hurry to get shot of us. Similarly, after eating two courses in quick succession we were too full for dessert, although in any case the menu wasn’t too inspiring, being the usual mix of ice cream, sticky toffee pudding, crème bruleé, cheesecake and other bog standard box tickers.

The bill was seventy-five pounds including a discretionary tip of 10% that isn’t really discretionary unless service is bad enough for you to make an exhibition of yourself in front of other diners. The whole process, beginning to end, of eating at Malmaison took approximately fifty minutes. So, is good food enough to justify overlooking all the other faults in a restaurant? I’m sure you’ve read all this and decided for yourself, but put it this way: I can’t imagine circumstances in which I’d go back. As I tried to get out of my almost-sat-on-the-floor-chair the couple at the next table joked about how uncomfortable the furniture was, and we shared a little moment about what an odd room it was. I think they enjoyed their experience more than I did, although their food if anything arrived even faster than ours. That was the most interaction we’d had the whole time I was in Malmaison, which by my reckoning makes it just mal.

Malmaison – 6.5
18-20 Station Rd, RG1 1JX
0844 693 0660

https://www.malmaison.com/locations/reading/brasserie/

Pau Brasil

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I so wanted to like Pau Brasil, probably more than any other place I’ve reviewed so far. So many people have urged me to try it, and on the approach up Mount Pleasant I could understand why – it’s a beautiful, two-storey, whitewashed building with vibrant cornflower-blue windows and doors, the Brazilian flag flying from the first floor balcony. I’d defy anybody to walk past it and not feel like going in, and on the day I visited the tables and chairs outside made it look even more inviting. It seems like it’s been dropped into that neighbourhood from a parallel dimension, only a few doors down from Whitley Street with its parade of takeaways and convenience stores.

Inside, the welcome was every bit as friendly as the façade. We took the table next to the balcony in the nice, airy upstairs room – it’s nothing fancy or special, mismatched furniture and basic tables, but a lovely bright space where I could easily imagine whiling away some time eating Brazilian food. The owner brought the blackboard with the daily specials and we sipped on peach and lemon tea, our ice cubes melting at breakneck speed, while we tried to decide what we wanted. And, as with all appealing menus, we wanted everything.

Pau Brasil offers a range of petiscos or salgados (the Portuguese equivalent of tapas) and they all looked good, so on the advice of the waitress we had the platter, a portion of bite sized petiscos to share. She cautioned us that it was on the small side, which wasn’t really true – whatever you might think of Pau Brasil you can’t fault them for their generosity.

When they arrived, they were the first indication that eating here might not be an unalloyed delight. The best of them was the salt cod fishcake – beautifully crisp outside, soft inside and nicely balanced between the salt cod and the potato used to bulk it out. If I’d just had these, and the surprisingly pleasant glass of white table wine I washed them down with (a snip at £3), it would have been a lovely afternoon snack – but the other petiscos weren’t in the same league.

The beef reminded me of a Lebanese kibbeh, nicely coarse but on the bland side. The chicken dumpling was a bit like a miniature Findus Crispy Pancake, with an orangey crispy coating filled with minced chicken which was perfectly okay but not exactly exciting. The prawn rissole was the same but filled with a sort of mayonnaise-y prawn dollop: pink, gooey, lacking in flavour. But the oddest thing was what the petiscos looked like: there was something about their uniformity of shape that made me wonder if they’d been made fresh on the premises. The chilli sauce they came with, however, was home made and had quite a kick. The tiniest dab was enough to give a whack of heat – I was glad that the waitress warned me that it was hot to save me from doing myself harm.

Petiscos2

In the spirit of trying as many different things as possible we attacked the main courses from both ends of the menu, trying the lighter and heavier options. What can I say about the banana, cheese and cinnamon toasted sandwich? Put it this way: if you read that description and thought “I like the sound of that” then you’d probably like it, if you think it sounds wrong then it won’t be the dish for you. It was exactly the sum of its parts with no element of surprise. Decent, again, but the cheese was a bit too mild to balance out the sweet banana and the cinnamon wasn’t quite strong enough to make the whole thing interesting. The bread was plain white sliced and the whole thing had the overall feel of something I would make at home if I was in a hurry and short of ingredients.

Feijoada is the national dish of Brazil, so I felt it would be wrong not to try Pau Brasil’s version. It wasn’t going to win any beauty competitions – half the plate covered in brown mush, a quarter covered with rice and a quarter covered in greens, a beige pie chart – but I figured that wasn’t the important thing about a hearty stew like this. The problem was that it tasted largely how it looked. Well, that and the meat: hunting for bits of pork turned out to be quite a challenge. Most pieces were thick with gelatinous fat, very few were fat free and there weren’t a huge amount of them in the first place.

The rest of it was pleasant enough, but not very strongly flavoured. The beans weren’t bad, and the fat and some smokiness had at least made it into the sauce. The greens – salty, shredded and with just a little give remaining – were delicious, easily the best bit. But at the end I looked at the pile of wobbly leftovers at the edge of my plate and felt that, for ten pounds, it just wasn’t good enough.

Feijoida

Really wanting to like Pau Brasil meant I also really wanted to give them a chance to make things right with dessert; normally, when a main is that disappointing I would just settle up and leave. Pasteis de nata almost did the trick – delicious, warm custard in that gorgeous flaky nest of pastry, sweet cinnamon on top. They were quite, quite lovely (and a bargain at £1.30). Again, I could happily go there just for the pasteis, if I lived in the neighbourhood.

Tarts

The bill came to pretty much thirty pounds, not including service. I spent more than you have to because I wanted to try a wide range of dishes, but as usual you could easily eat here for far less. Service was terrific throughout, to the extent where I started to worry about how to write this review about two minutes after I left.

I’m not going to say that Pau Brasil is a bad restaurant. It is a lovely place, staffed by friendly people, offering something completely different – proudly independent and clearly doing very well. It just happens to be a restaurant I can’t see myself visiting again. If I lived nearby, on a weekend afternoon I might grab one of those upstairs tables and have a coffee and a pastel, or some of those salt cod fishcakes, and read a book, maybe: I could imagine doing that. But too much of the food just wasn’t to my taste, and however nice a room is, however great the service is, the food is always going to be centre stage. If I want meat, sauce, rice and greens I can’t imagine I’d ever pick Pau Brasil over, for example, Perry’s (or even Shed, on Fridays). If I wanted a toasted sandwich I’d make my way to My Kitchen (or Shed, again).

Sometimes I really regret choosing to give restaurants a rating, and this is one of those times. I’m sure by now you’ve probably made a decision about whether Pau Brasil sounds like your sort of thing. The mark is an irrelevance. And you’ve probably also made a decision about whether it’s my sort of thing, and you’re probably right about that. All I can say is that on this occasion it’s given with a heavier heart than usual, because this is as close as I’ve come so far to wishing I could overlook disappointing food. Anyway, I’m sure no score from me will disappoint them half as much as that 7-1 scoreline, just under a month but almost a lifetime ago.

Pau Brasil – 6.1
89 Mount Pleasant, RG1 2TF
0118 9752333

https://www.facebook.com/paubrasiluk

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.

Blues1

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).

Blues2

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).

Blues3

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).

Blues4

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.

Scotch
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/

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