Siblings Home

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Some of my readers have told me that they’re members of the “scroll down and scroll back up” club. They look at the rating first, then they go back and read the review. Just to level the playing field for everybody just this once: I absolutely adored Siblings Home. It opened on Valentine’s Day, appropriately enough, and if I’m not careful this review might end up reading a bit like a love letter (don’t say you haven’t been warned).

Siblings Home is tucked away on a sidestreet just off the main drag in Caversham. It’s a two minute walk from Costa Coffee, but in all other respects a universe away: the front is a beautiful double-aspect room with lovely light from those big, big windows. Inside, it’s full of reclaimed wood and old school furniture, exposed lights hanging from the ceiling. I know – what I’ve described sounds like all sorts of restaurant and café clichés, but Siblings Home is a very different beast: it’s clearly been done with love by someone with a very good eye (and, I’d guess, nowhere near as much money as the big chains) so what could seem like a piece of calculated bandwagon jumping is actually a beautifully warm and considered space.

It all feels a bit Labour And Wait, like someone has found a great café in Hoxton or the North Laine and, through some magical realism variant of Control X and Control V, had dropped it incongruously on a street corner in Caversham (I spotted a stool that had “David Bowie” written on it in Tippex, which only reinforced that impression). I couldn’t think of anywhere even remotely like it elsewhere in Reading, just places that had aimed for this kind of look or feel and missed by varying degrees. When I got there on a weekend morning there were already a bunch of hip young (and not so young) things inside, drinking coffee from chunky mugs and luxuriating in the warm word bath of the weekend papers. Aside from the front room there are two others: one full of homewares you can buy to take home and a little back room which has extra space for customers.

Of course, all this only works if the food is good and by this stage I was hoping against hope that I wouldn’t be sitting through another depressing knockout victory for style over substance. The menu, on a blackboard behind the counter, looked promising and made all the right noises: a few breakfast options revolving around toast, granola or muesli and just four sandwiches, all either available in toasted sourdough or piadina, a thin Italian flatbread.

In the interests of research, we tried both types of sandwich and soon realised that substance was going to triumph over style on points. Chorizo, Jarlsberg and mushroom in toasted sourdough was downright marvellous: the sourdough was sliced thinly enough for the insides to melt properly and the outside had been lightly buttered (I think) for better toasting. The flavours were excellent; nice, thin piquant chorizo with a decent amount of creamy Jarlsberg and, last but not least, the rich, earthiness of the mushrooms. A little sprig of thyme had been pressed onto the outside of the toastie, and that attention to detail, that interest in fresh ingredients and that understanding of flavours, in such a little thing, made me love Siblings Home even more. It also came with a salad I actually wanted to eat – a little red chard and rocket, lightly dressed, along with some tartly sweet cherry tomatoes adding zing and colour. Having it done so well and so simply here just made me realise how many other places bugger this kind of thing up. All the salad got eaten, which is the lunchtime equivalent of a standing ovation.

SibSour

The piadina was just as delicious. The flatbread had been folded into a shape something like a tricorne, and inside it was packed with firm salty halloumi, fresh crunchy red pepper and oodles of pesto. I didn’t know what to expect from the piadina itself but the texture was magnificent – not brittle like a tortilla or spongy like a panino, it stood up to the grilling perfectly. The whole thing together was a wonderful sandwich – no wasted space, that perfect blend of salty and sweet filling right up to the edges, every mouthful an utter delight. At the end I took the rest of my salad and used it to mop up the last of the pesto on my plate – which is probably the lunchtime equivalent of an even longer standing ovation. Both sandwiches cost four pounds fifty and were made there and then behind the counter rather than sitting there waiting for someone to order them: again, I was reminded how many places in Reading offer so much less for more money.

SibPiadina

The drinks were excellent, too. Siblings Home serves proper leaf tea in proper pots, with vintage mugs to drink from and milk served in little glass inkwells (you might find that a little twee but by that stage I was completely charmed by the whole thing). My Earl Grey – from Martyn’s of Muswell Hill according to the blackboard – was very nice indeed. The latte, on the other hand, got rave reviews although I’m told it was much more like a big comforting café au lait than a little, intense, densely frothed latte (my companion started to wax lyrical about coffee in Paris at this point, and truth be told I zoned out and paid more attention to my paper). The only misfire was the pain au chocolat which wrapped up proceedings. I really wanted one but it was dense and chewy where it should have been light and flaky. No matter: by then I already loved the place and was in a distinctly forgiving mood. Besides, surely it was my fault for not going for the chocolate brownie or the intriguing-sounding pear and lavender cake?

Service was spot on from start to finish. The young lady serving was bustling about bringing drinks and making up sandwiches but managed to be really friendly and chirpy and when our plates were cleared by one of the titular siblings she seemed genuinely pleased that we’d enjoyed our lunch. The enthusiasm was infectious – I left wanting to come back, soon, and to support them by spending money (and having lovely food and drink. I’m not completely altruistic). The bill, for two sandwiches, two rounds of hot drinks and a pastry was twenty pounds. We could have spent less but were in no hurry to leave: I could quite easily have grabbed some magazines or got out my Kindle and settled in for far longer.

Although I’m no Mary Portas, it’s worth briefly mentioning the other arm of Siblings Home because the shop in the middle room sells lots of lovely things, also clearly put together by someone with a very good eye and an excellent contacts book: from plain, timeless, practical earthenware mugs and dishes to sturdy, beautiful chopping boards, from cacti to cards, from bars of chocolate and jars of local honey to handsome woollen blankets. My one regret is that I didn’t pick anything up – but in my defence I was already a bit giddy from having such an unexpectedly fantastic lunch and things could easily have got out of control.

When you review somewhere every week, this lark can get a bit dispiriting. Mediocre or muddled places, poor food and service, unimaginative concepts, mean-spirited portions, bad execution: they sometimes make me wonder whether my standards are just too high. Maybe my lofty ideals aren’t realistic, and Reading is just like everywhere else and we should buckle down and accept our lot – chains, 2 for 1 vouchers, Groupon deals, making do – and getting on the train to Oxford or London if we don’t like it. But then I go somewhere like Siblings Home that just gets everything right – no fannying around, no cobblers about “artisan products”, no box-ticking attempts to be everything to everyone. Instead, a small, sensible range of simple, excellent food in a beautiful, stylish room along with friendly, enthusiastic service. It makes me realise that it can be done, even if I’m sure the people at Siblings Home make it look a lot easier than it really is. This place reminds me why I started writing this blog in the first place. And finding it is a little bit like falling in love, all over again.

Siblings Home – 8.0
16 Hemdean Road, RG4 7SX
07956 567872

http://www.siblingshome.com/

Artigiano

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Let me paint you a picture: one of the reasons the dining scene in Reading can be a confusing place is because many establishments don’t seem to have decided quite what they want to be. So you get indies like Nibsy’s which look so polished in terms of their presentation and branding that you could easily imagine they’re part of a chain on the one hand, and chains like Bill’s that are trying really hard to look independent on the other. When even the Gregg’s on Queen Victoria Street is sporting fake exposed brickwork to try and look bang up to date, no wonder people can feel baffled.

But it’s not just about appearances, there’s also a degree of multi-tasking involved. So we have pubs that do Thai food, wine shops that do charcuterie, cafes that also sell home accessories. Part of it is also about trying to offer something all day to justify those high rents: the chains are good at this, so the likes of Carluccio’s, Bills and Côte will go effortlessly from breakfast to lunch through to dinner, keeping the tills ringing all the way to closing time (everyone’s at it, in fact: this week Pret A Manger announced that it was going to trial serving evening meals in one of its London branches). Part of it though is about trying to widen appeal, and it’s a hard balance to strike – if it works, a place looks like a brilliant all-rounder. If it doesn’t, it has an identity crisis.

Artigiano is a very good example of this in action. It’s a café by day which morphs into an altogether different venue in the evenings, so you can have coffee and sandwiches at lunchtime, tea and a cake in the afternoon and then, as the sun goes down, the emphasis moves to wine, craft beer and nibbles, with a side order of occasional live music. It helps, too, that it’s been so attractively fitted out – all hard wood, smart mid-century inspired furniture and industrial fittings (yes, and exposed brickwork, naturally).

It stands out a little at the less swish end of Broad Street. Get Reading recently wrote a very interesting piece, prompted by Primark’s impending move into the old BHS site, that said the dividing line was anything west of Waterstones – and much as I love wandering round Clas Ohlson I think they probably have a point. So, Artigiano is an independent with the polish of a chain, in one of Reading’s less attractive locations, trying to cover all bases at all times. That’s quite a challenge: can they pull it off?

It was packed when I turned up over the bank holiday weekend looking for a spot of lunch and I could see why. They’ve done a good job of breaking it up into sections with lots of different furniture styles from functional for eating to comfy for drinking. The ground floor, to me, feels a little more sterile whereas the upstairs is much softer and more welcoming (and if you can grab one of the tables for two on the first floor by the window you get a terrific view of Broad Street). They also have quite a lot of tables outside, and the weather was almost nice enough that they didn’t feel ludicrously optimistic.

The lunch options were limited to ready-made salads (in the fridge next to the counter) and sandwiches, which were laid out across the counter next to the range of cakes. Personally I found that offputting: I’d prefer everything to be wrapped or covered as I’m not a fan of sneezemuffins or coughcake. I soldiered on regardless (maybe it’s just me – let’s just say that you don’t want to know how many times I wash my hands every day). It’s very much a café experience – no table service, so the sandwiches were plated up there at the counter and we took a table number for our hot drinks which followed later.

The sandwiches were generally tried and tested combinations rather than bursting with innovation: cheese ploughmans, “New York deli” i.e. pastrami and cheese, falafel wrap (it seems to be a legal obligation for sandwich chains to dish up cold falafel these days even though cold falafel are a sad parody of how falafel should taste). The most interesting-looking one was roasted vegetables with both houmous and sweet chilli sauce – I didn’t order it, I regretted it and then when the sandwiches I did try were both disappointing I consoled myself with the thought that it wouldn’t have been good anyway. We went for a chicken caesar wrap and a chicken and bacon baguette, and the waitress serving asked if we wanted them toasted. I found that plain odd: I can understand lobbing things in a panini press where there’s cheese involved but otherwise it seemed an eccentric move to try and put what is essentially a chicken baguette in a toaster. We declined.

The bacon and chicken roll was labelled as a “chicken club”. As far as I know a club sandwich is usually a double decker on sliced bread whereas this was a single decker wholegrain baguette. The bread was OK – it looked nutty but tasted surprisingly plain (especially compared with the “artisan bread” at Pret or the fresh sliced bread at Picnic, both of which are top notch). Inside was a meagre smear of mayonnaise, a single layer of lettuce, sliced tomato and some chicken and bacon. Both meats – the chicken in disturbingly uniform slabs, the bacon a pair of floppy strips – had the appearance of being pre-cooked catering food and were glacially cold. Artigiano’s website makes much of the quality of its ingredients but it really didn’t feel that way from where I was sitting: I found myself wondering just how freshly assembled this sandwich had been, and more to the point what exactly it had been assembled from. Worst of all, it was so dry, so tasteless and so disappointing that half of it was left on the plate at the end: carrying on would have just been throwing worse calories after bad.

ArtiBag

The other sandwich, the chicken Caesar wrap, did get polished off – although that was more a sign of its diminutive size than its deliciousness. It was in two short halves, which were even shorter when I realised that a lot of each end was taken up in a big stodgy clove hitch of tortilla with no filling. As for the filling there was, it aspired to inoffensiveness: the shredded chicken was clean-tasting, if bland, but there was no Caesar dressing that I could make out and certainly no Parmesan. The lettuce was nice enough (although really, how exciting can lettuce get?) and there were some small bits of bacon scattered throughout – less than I would have liked, but by now “less than I would have liked” was becoming a theme.

The suggestion was that this also contained sun-dried tomato, and on a very close inspection I could just about find what might have been the tiniest pieces of sun-dried tomato known to man. The implication seemed to be that they had someone in the kitchen whose sole job was to cut sun-dried tomatoes into almost undetectable pieces: if so, they really need to devote their considerable knife skills (or laser skills – they may well have used one instead) to something else. The only thing that wasn’t less than I would have liked was the cost – four pounds fifty felt like an astonishing amount of money for such a small, ordinary sandwich. The price was also the reason why, although this aspired to be inoffensive, it was destined not to get there.

ArtiWrap

So, that’s all the bad news. The good news is that the tea and coffee were brilliant. The tea was proper loose leaf tea in a sensible, generous pot with a removable strainer basket: I managed to get two decently brewed, un-stewed cups out of this and it was gorgeous, fragrant Earl Grey. I’ve not been to Yumchaa yet, but on current form this is my favourite tea in Reading – so much better and more generous than chains like Pret or indies like Picnic and even Lincoln. I’m reliably informed that the coffee was delicious too – with a hint of liquorice but without any burnt note. It was two pounds seventy five, whereas my huge pot of tea was two pounds thirty. I make that tea one, coffee nil – even if that puts me out of step with ninety-five percent of Reading.

Service was friendly, although most of it happened at the till (and this largely consisted of cutting the sandwiches in half and plonking them on a plate). When the drinks were brought over there was no chirpy “enjoy your lunch” and there was also no goodbye holler as we left shortly after. I’m sure that on previous visits there has been more warmth and welcome, but this time it all felt a bit blank and flavourless. Like the sandwiches, in fact. The bill for two sandwiches and two hot drinks was a touch under fifteen pounds, and we both left distinctly peckish.

So, all-rounder or identity crisis? Visiting Artigiano was a frustrating experience, partly because there’s so much to like and it’s good at many things. The tea and coffee are well worth trying. The cakes, which I’ve enjoyed on a previous visit, are also very good. The selection of craft beers, ciders and wines is rather nice and on a weekday night the upstairs still feels like a cool little bolthole that the rest of Reading hasn’t cottoned on to yet. But I’m not a coffee reviewer or a bar reviewer: I’m a food reviewer, and on that basis Artigiano didn’t work for me. If I wanted somewhere small and independent I’d go to Shed. If I wanted somewhere polished and consistent I might well eat at Pret A Manger. Artigiano didn’t feel like it competed – in terms of cost, quality or service – with either of them. And I haven’t tried Gregg’s, despite the lure of the fake brickwork, but I wouldn’t put money on Artigiano being better than that either. So would I go back for food? Put it this way: Artigiano starts with art and ends with a no, and so does this review.

Artigiano – 5.3
81 Broad Street, RG1 2AP
0118 9500703

http://www.artigiano.uk.com/reading.html

L’Ortolan

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Despite Reading being a pretty affluent town it’s always been short on Michelin stars. There’s a gathering around Bray (Orion’s Belt, if you like) and the two star Hand and Flowers out at Marlow but the only truly local “star” is L’Ortolan, in Shinfield (so close, it’s RG2 which I guess makes it our Alpha Centauri). As with most people I expect a Michelin star to make a restaurant fussy and pricey – although if Michelin themselves are to be believed, stars are awarded for food alone and, technically at least, have nothing to do with table linen or waiters in waistcoats. Even so, driving into the countryside to try L’Ortolan gave me a sense of trepidation: not just about whether the food would be any good, but also about whether I’d be up to reviewing it.

Stepping over the threshold of Ortolan is like stepping inside a machine; the smartly dressed, suited staff are everywhere, taking coats, ushering customers to the bar, bringing drinks, wiping up invisible spills from the hardwood floor, plumping cushions. Everything looks impeccable, like a modern day clockwork Downton Abbey. Over a drink in the bar we were served canapés on a slate, just enough to get our tastebuds firing. Michelin starred dining is full of these bits and bobs – pre-pre starters, pre-starters, pre-desserts – and these were a nice enough introduction. There were little airy crackers with potato and onion, a thin wooden cone full of maple and truffle popcorn, the maple hitting you first and the truffle sneaking in at the end. The best of them were goose and foie gras croquettes, smooth and rich, Eton Turkey Twizzlers.

People often say it’s possible to eat affordably at a Michelin starred restaurant (normally, ironically, in a review where they’ve made no attempt to do so) so we were both picking from the lunchtime prix fixe. Three courses, with three or four choices per course, comes to thirty-two pounds: or it will do, at least, if you don’t pick one of the dishes with a five or ten pound supplement. Narrow, yes, but not so narrow as to be constricting, with lots of interesting choices to make. So we sat in the bar, sipping our pre-prandials, feeling pampered and making our decisions. Only when our orders had been taken and our glasses were empty did we go into to the restaurant proper: places like L’Ortolan are very good at letting you take your time.

Being taken through to the dining room revealed two rooms, one on the austere side, and the other, a conservatory room with a tented ceiling, harking back to the Raj. I was glad to be sat in the latter as it felt a little more relaxed. Tables in both rooms were the same, with smart linen, a fancy glass plate at each setting (soon whisked away, which begged the question of what it was there for) and comfy if slightly awkwardly angled velvety seats.

A big bowl of bread soon arrived and we tucked in while waiting for our starters to arrive. The best of them was a small treacle baguette, which was a golden saffron colour inside and slightly sweet with a hint of black treacle, The other breads – sourdough, focaccia and a small seeded roll – were nice, if not quite at the same heights, and there was plenty of room temperature butter (stinginess with butter is one of my bugbears, but then I do like a lot of it).

Before our starters arrived there was a pre dessert – an espresso cup of soup (isn’t it always?). This was a rich but light mushroom velouté which had a hint of truffle, a tiny sourdough crouton and a deliciously sweet and sour pickled mushroom. I enjoyed it so much that fighting the urge to clean the inside of the cup with a piece of bread was quite a titanic struggle; I didn’t want to let the side down with all the other genteel tables around me.

The starters were both beautiful to look at. The duck liver (introduced as foie gras when brought to the table) with blood orange and basil marmalade was heavenly, even for something so sinful. The liver was just cooked with a slightly caramelised outside. Next to it was a small dome of creamy duck liver parfait with pain d’epice crumb, all lovely and gingery. On a slice of flattened puff pastry were neatly laid slices of blood orange, resting on some of the marmalade. The marmalade itself was more like a curd, a thick smear of it (they do love smears in restaurants like this) on one side of the plate. Ordering this involved paying a five pound supplement, but it was a good decision: it was the best thing I ate all afternoon, and writing this makes me want to have it all over again. In particular the sweet richness of the liver with the tart blood orange was fantastic, and not a combination I’d ever have imagined before.

OrtDuck

The other starter also looked gorgeous, but looks were the main thing going for it. On paper, confit salmon, pickled cucumber and ketjap manis gel sounded terrific but what turned up had a strong air of seeming like a good idea at the time. The salmon was lovely – subtle, fresh and breaking into flakes with no effort at all (which took me aback, since it looked so much like sashimi). And I wouldn’t have minded it being so petite, if it had had more interesting things on the plate to pair it with, but I wasn’t that fortunate. The pickled cucumber, big indelicate chunks, had almost no sweetness or sharpness so was watery and bland. The ketjap manis gel was sweet and intense. But the rest? Well, it felt an awful lot like sludge to me: swirls of two different other sauces spiralling round the plate, a little heap of horseradish snow and micro herbs strewn all over the shop. Wetness, wetness everywhere. Towards the end I found some sesame seeds – strong, intense, delicious – submerged where they were almost unnoticeable and beyond rescue. It was the sort of plate you never quite clean: it looked like a Pollock once I was finished. They brought more bread after that, and I started to wonder whether I’d need it.

For main, the rump of beef was as lovely as the duck liver. It was three very pink (as requested) slices of beef with smoked pommes Anna on a red wine jus with bone marrow hollandaise. Underneath the beef was half a roasted banana shallot, a few pieces of tenderstem broccoli, two cubes of dense beef and a creamy mushroom sauce, dotted with mushrooms. The rump itself was a little tough under the knife but tender when chewed. The potatoes were wafer thin and richly flavoured (almost like the potatoes my mum used to cook in with the roast beef when I was a kid, although the Michelin inspectors never troubled my mum’s kitchen – or yours, I’d imagine). The shallot was sweet and the mushroom sauce was intensely flavoured. There was only one blot on the copybook – one of the cubes of beef, a big layer of fat running through it, was far too tough to cut or to eat – but apart from that, it was perfection, a high-end reinvention of a Sunday roast, where each ingredient was so concentrated and intense that size simply did not matter.

OrtBeef

The other main had sat up and begged to be ordered when I saw the menu: loin of lamb, Parmesan gnocchi, sweetbread popcorn, confit tomato. Again, it looked absolutely gorgeous, and the lamb was beautifully cooked, what there was of it anyway. But again the rest of the dish underwhelmed. The confit tomatoes were the best, little bright-coloured flashes of sweetness. The sweetbreads were an Eton reimagining of KFC popcorn chicken – nice enough but maybe not the surprise I’d been hoping for. The gnocchi was one single chewy wodge whose main role in proceedings seemed to be to show off how delicious the Pommes Anna on the other plate were. And, of course, more little spheres and splodges of sauce – along with, randomly, a smear of something that tasted like goats cheese. Oh, and more of those sesame seeds. I’ve never believed that food should ever be too beautiful to eat, but unfortunately this was more fun to look at than to eat. There was a ten pound supplement for this and I’m not really sure why, because it was smaller, lighter and far less special than the beef.

OrtLamb

More freebies followed with an impeccable pre-dessert: a little shot glass with creamy coconut rice pudding at the bottom, little cubes of rum jelly above it and a layer of passion fruit mousse at the top. I could quite easily have eaten a dessert sized portion of this. Not for the first time in a high end restaurant, I wondered why the free stuff always seems to taste the best. Maybe because it’s “free”: I know, ultimately, it isn’t but sometimes the mind is quite happy to let itself be tricked.

For dessert I simply had no choice but to have the cheese: I’d seen the cheese trolley wheeled past on several occasions while I finished the previous two courses and it was impossible to resist. There were a mind-boggling twenty cheeses on offer – going from the hard cheeses, past goats cheeses and on to some softer-rinded cheeses with varying degrees of stinkiness – all of which were explained in detail by the captain of the trolley, a really personable young man with obvious enthusiasm for his charges. I was allowed four, which were served with super thin slices of bread and crackers, and a choice of chutney and truffle honey. There were also grapes and celery just in case I wanted to offset some of the calories, although I’d given up counting by that point. The ones that stood out for me were the Burwash Rose, a rich, tangy, semi soft cheese with a rind washed in rose water and the Blue Murder, a Scottish blue so ripe it was in danger of running off the plate (or, rather, slate) and, for that matter, out of the building. The latter was particularly good with some of that honey, although the truffle couldn’t stand up to the cheese itself and was close to undetectable. This plate also attracted a five pound supplement but the variety was so good (perhaps not in the hard cheeses – I was hoping to see a really good Gruyere or Comte, but it was not to be) and the portion sufficiently generous that I didn’t begrudge them one bit.

OrtCheese

The other dessert was chocolate and cardamom ganache with orange curd and mint ice cream. Unlike many of the things I’d eaten, that was a pretty good description and – for the only time in the meal – what turned up was roughly what I’d expected to see. It was bliss: a long thin rectangle of smooth, glossy ganache, powdered with cardamom, was just gorgeous. The mint ice cream – green, fresh garden mint, a million miles from bright green mint choc chip – was so fantastic I didn’t want to pair it with anything else. The orange curd zinged with sweet sharpness. Best of all, perhaps, was the kitchen’s reinterpretation of Mint Aero – three little chunks of fluffy chocolate which imploded in the mouth, a piece of culinary pyrotechnics. Just beautiful. And, in case you’d forgotten the kitchen has a Michelin star, some pointless micro leaves.

OrtChoc

I knew the wine list would sting, and it did. As I was driving, the initial plan was to order wine by the glass but the prices by the glass were so punitive – seven or eight pounds for 125ml, easily a tenner for 175ml – that we decided it would be better value to get a bottle from the bottom end of the wine list and picked a Cote du Rhone for thirty-seven pounds (to give you an idea, that’s the fifth cheapest red they sell by the bottle). I was feeling really pleased with my bargain hunting until I got home, did some research and found that the same bottle retails for eleven pounds. Still, there was no bitter taste at the time.

Service was excellent, if a little cool. There was a constantly rotating team of waiters which served plates, cleared plates, poured wine and poured water, which gave the feeling of being continuously “served” but without a lot in the way of interaction. It was exceptionally well-run, just a tad emotionless. A few of the waiters – the captain of the cheese trolley, one of the waiters who topped up our glasses – seemed to have a little more charm, it’s just a shame that this was the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps customers at Ortolan (who do tend to be older and middle class, based on the clientèle when we were there) expect service of the “seen and not heard” variety, or perhaps my expectations have been skewed by too much casual dining. I would blame Michelin – lots of people like to – but I’ve eaten at other starred restaurants which felt a lot less, well, starchy.

The total bill, including a 12.5% “optional” service charge, for two drinks from the bar (one of them soft), a bottle of wine and three courses was one hundred and forty five pounds. So, I tried to eat cheaply at L’Ortolan and I have to say it’s just not really possible: we could have saved twenty pounds on supplements but even then it would be pretty difficult to get the bill under a hundred pounds unless neither of you were drinking.

I found L’Ortolan such a mixed bag that it’s difficult to wrap it all up in a neat and easy conclusion. I almost feel like there were two different meals here: the duck liver and beef were fantastically well-judged, well-balanced, generous and delicious dishes where it felt like there was more to them than expected. The salmon and lamb was the opposite – too delicate and light without enough oomph to stop them from being damp squibs. I guess the question is, if you went to L’Ortolan, which of those two meals you’d get. If it was the first, you’d be evangelising to friends, but if it was the second you’d be wondering what the fuss was about.

I think in the back of my mind I was partly comparing the prix fixe at L’Ortolan with the a la carte somewhere like Mya Lacarte and thinking about differences in the food, the execution, the ideas and the experience. In a straight-out comparison, I’m not sure L’Ortolan would win out very often, however stunning the building, beautiful the dishes, plentiful the freebies. Maybe that’s about me and the kind of dining I prefer, so disregard it by all means: it’s worth going to say you’ve gone, and you’re unlikely to have a bad meal if you do. But, to me at least, it still felt ever so slightly like eating in a machine – and good restaurants are a broad church of many things, but I don’t think machine is one of them.

L’Ortolan – 7.8
Church Lane, Shinfield, RG2 9BY
0118 9888500

http://www.lortolan.com/

River Spice

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The single question I get asked most often, apart from where to eat, is “what do the ER ratings mean?” I’ve often wondered whether to devote a separate post to this, or to leave it an enigma. The thing is, lots of people like ratings. They want to know whether a film that’s just come out is a 4 star film or a 5 star film, and I can see why: back when I read reviews but didn’t write them I wanted to know that too. Now that I write one every week, I can see it’s more complicated than that. How can you sum a whole experience up in a mark out of ten? If I could go back and start again, I’d be tempted to miss out ratings altogether. But would I go through with it? After all, they might be difficult to decide on, they might prompt head-scratching and disagreement but, like I said: lots of people like ratings.

I’ve always hoped that the ratings on ER work a bit like those on music website Pitchfork. I can read a Pitchfork review of an album that’s rated, say, 8.0 and absolutely know that it won’t be my cup of tea (because of references to, for example, Krautrock – how exciting!), or I can read a 6.2 and rush out and buy the CD. It’s no different with restaurants: the ratings are an interesting conversation point, but there are so many other factors involved. Is it your kind of food? Is it going to be any good for vegetarians? Is it buzzy/quiet/fancy/unpretentious enough for you? Is getting to the location a faff?

Another thing I often get is people saying that my reviews are too harsh, or too kind (sometimes I get both bits of feedback about the same review) or people saying that the review doesn’t read like the rating, that the words feel like an 8 but the rating says 7. Well, I suppose if I’ve been somewhere I liked and you didn’t you’ll think I’m harsh. If I’ve raved about somewhere that left you unmoved you might think I’m too charitable.

A complicating factor is that, over the time I’ve done this, I’ve felt increasingly like being constructive. These are small independent places, mostly, and they’re trying their best – even if their best isn’t that good. I don’t have the appetite for hatchet jobs, and I know that’s disappointing because, like ratings, people really like them. So, and hopefully this will be my last word on the subject of ratings: if you read a review and it makes you feel like trying the restaurant, do. If it doesn’t, don’t. Does that sound fair enough?

This has all been uppermost in my mind because I had such a disappointing meal at River Spice (you may have scrolled to the end, in which case you’ve probably already figured that out). It might have been especially disappointing because I arrived with high expectations: several people had recommended River Spice to me as equal to House Of Flavours, my current benchmark for Indian restaurants in Reading. Enough people recommended it, in fact, and in glowing enough terms that I spent a lot of the meal wondering if it was my fault rather than the restaurant’s.

Early signs were good – it’s an interesting location for a restaurant, at the end of the Caversham Road, facing onto the river (I can see it would be a lovely spot in summer). The room is clean and modern with nice big tables, good cutlery and crisp white napkins. The welcome was polished and professional and although only a handful of tables were occupied on a Monday night, the other diners did seem to be regulars. The menu made me look forward to what lay ahead, full of dishes I’ve not seen at other restaurants in town: tandoori duck and monkfish, grilled ostrich. There were plenty of seafood and fish curries, too. The conventional options were relegated to a section near the end called “all time favourite dishes”. Order them if you must, but we can do much better seemed to be the implication.

Well, maybe they can but that wasn’t my experience. The poppadoms were perfectly pleasant – light, not oily, easily broken into shards – and gave no hint of the disappointments to follow. I know a lot of people think bad, stale poppadoms suggest a bad restaurant (the culinary equivalent of a canary in a coal mine, perhaps) but sadly the reverse isn’t true. It was downhill from there.

King prawn suka, for instance, sounded so delicious on the menu: king prawns in tamarind, garlic, honey, chilli, salt and turmeric. On the plate it looked and tasted unremarkable – two prawns coated in a red gloop, as sweet and fruity as jam. I love tamarind sauce, but there was nothing to offset it and certainly none of the complexity promised by the rest of the ingredients. The rest of the plate was padded out with lukewarm salad – maybe that distracts some of the diners from the fact that they’ve just paid over six pounds for two prawns and something disconcertingly like cranberry sauce, but for me it had the opposite effect.

RiverPrawns

The other starter was chicken nakazat, tandoori skewers flavoured with chicken and nutmeg. It was two decent sized pieces of chicken with a strong taste of garlic and a faint whiff of disconcerting cheese – they looked cheesy and tasted cheesy even though I couldn’t see, from the menu, how this would have been possible. The menu said this dish was “delicately spiced” but I think they may be understating just how delicately. It wasn’t actively bad but I couldn’t see how anyone could get excited about it, especially if they’d tried something similar at Bhoj, House Of Flavours or indeed Pappadams.

RiverChicken

The food was so dull to eat, so dull to recall and so dull to write about that I can’t help but feel this must also be dull to read. It’s not going to get any better, I’m afraid: the mains were pretty mediocre too. The best of them was the gost kata massala, braised lamb with sliced onions, ginger, garam masala and garlic. When it arrived I had my reservations, mainly because the lamb was in such thick slabs that it called for a trust in the kitchen which, by this stage, I just didn’t have. As it turned out, the lamb pulled apart nicely, not quite as tender as it could have been but nothing for the molars to trampoline on either. The sauce was nicely savoury but again, was bland. Almost like gravy, in fact, and this felt more like a casserole than a curry – that might have been all very well on another night but it really didn’t feel like what I’d signed up for.

RiverLamb

The low point was the Goan fish curry. I was impressed to see monkfish appear prominently on the menu, rather than the softer fish (mahi mahi or the like) you often see on Indian menus, and the prospect of having it cooked skilfully in a tandoor was an exciting one. The reality of having it cooked by River Spice, however, wasn’t: the five (count them – I did) pieces of fish had a texture somewhere between cotton wool and mattress. They sat forlornly in the middle of a big puddle of yellow creamy sauce – again, emphasising just how far this dish was from getting your money’s worth (thirteen pounds, if I’m not mistaken). The sauce was thin and bland without any of the sweetness of coconut milk or the kick of any spice. Again, the menu said it was prepared with “delicate” spices: on that basis perhaps I can legitimately say that I delicately eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, delicately exercise or am delicately learning French.

RiverMonkfish

The ultimate sauce test is whether you want to mop up the rest with a naan or rice. The lamb dish passed – just – and the Goan fish curry failed with flying colours. The pilau rice doesn’t really merit a mention, and nor does the keema naan, except to say that it was disturbingly circular and not the more irregular shape of naan I have eaten elsewhere. Make of that what you will: by this point I was almost past caring. The wine – a glass of malbec and a glass of shiraz – were okay. Maybe if I’d drunk a little more I’d have disliked the food a little less. Desserts were all ice cream based but I really felt like I’d spent quite enough money at River Spice already: the whole lot came to just over fifty pounds, not including tip.

Service started out quite stand-offish: despite only two other tables in the restaurant it felt like it took a very long time to get noticed to order food. Ironically, it was roughly at the point where I realised it had been a bit of a wasted evening that they started being really nice to us. It’s almost like they knew I was going to go home and write this and they wanted to make me feel an utter shit about it. If so, I’d say they can count it as a partial success – I do feel like I’ve just spent fifteen hundred words kicking a puppy but average food is average food, even when it’s dished up by nice people. You could ask why I didn’t send any of it back, but the truth is none of it was inedible. It just never felt especially worth eating.

So, you’ll read all this and look at the rating and think I was being kind. Or you’ll have been to River Spice and you’ll think I’ve been harsh. That’s the nature of these things. But nothing I had was dangerous, or offensive, or badly cooked: it was just dull. Would I go back? No. Reading has too many Indian restaurants for anyone to have to put up with mediocre food. Maybe they were having an off night, perhaps I was, but the main memory that sticks with me is that Goan fish curry – rarely in the field of Reading dining has so much been spent on so little food for so much disappointment. So have I been too harsh? If you really want to find out then go for yourself. But I can’t say I recommend it.

River Spice – 6.1
206 Caversham Road, RG1 8AZ
0118 9503355

http://www.riverspicereading.co.uk/

Papa Gee

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I’m not sure many people know that Papa Gee even exists. I was out this week with a friend who lives just round the corner from it and I casually dropped into conversation that I was due to go to a restaurant in his manor. First he asked if it was the Mod. Then he guessed at Standard Tandoori. When I shook my head again and said no, it wasn’t Casa Roma either he was stumped. “But there isn’t anywhere else round by me.” he said.

Well, there is: there’s Papa Gee, a small Italian place which has somehow been plugging away at the restaurant game for ten years. I used to walk past it on my way back from Kyrenia or Mya Lacarte and think is that even a real restaurant? The lights always seemed to be off, and I’ve never met anybody who’s eaten there. Even my friend, a local, had never heard of it. Surely a restaurant can’t survive for ten years if no one has ever been?

It’s not the loveliest place, and (apologies to my friend if he’s reading this) not in the loveliest part of town. The Caversham Road is a busy street for traffic but it’s far from the footfall of the town centre and only really comes alive during Reading Festival week. Papa Gee has no real view, no garden to speak of and is pretty anonymous-looking. So why am I reviewing it? Well, you can blame Tripadvisor for that: the reviews are very positive, with repeated claims that it serves the best pizza in Reading. Could the pizzeria I’ve been waiting for all this time really be attached to the not hugely appealing Rainbows Lodge Hotel? Probably not, I thought, but I was too curious to stay away (and hopefully by now you’re curious too).

Passing the bigger, more polished places on a Tuesday night made it very clear that not many people eat out in this part of town during the week; Casa Roma and Standard Tandoori both had three of four tables of guests but were far from busy. Papa Gee’s, on the other hand, had people at seven of its dozen or so tables. At the risk of sounding creepy, I did watch most of the diners leave and only one table was occupied by hotel guests. The rest seemed to be locals. A good sign, right? The interior of the restaurant was very basic with small tables laid with cutlery and paper napkins, signs painted on the window and food themed pictures on the wall. It reminded me of something Marco from Pepe Sale said to me once, that Italians are much more interested in the food than the room. Another good sign, I hoped.

The menu at Papa Gee’s is huge, one of the biggest of any restaurant I have reviewed. It’s a bit bonkers, too: if you want to get an idea of it, look on the website. It has a mixture of fonts, some rather eccentric spelling, some comments in inverted commas after some of the dishes (Buonissimo it says about one of them, Simply Delicious is the commentary on another) and a few – very – random photographs dotted through it. Reading through it I couldn’t decide which to do first, frown or sigh. Fortunately, the waitress was superb: I said I couldn’t decide what to order and she asked me “are you in a pizza, pasta or meat mood tonight?” I asked her to recommend one of each and she did so right away – strong opinions, firm preferences, no nonsense. Suddenly my urge to either frown or sigh had vanished.

The first starter, funghi ripieni, however, jumped off the page – a dish so appealing that it kicked off a bout of plea bargaining (you can pick mains first as long as I get the funghi etc.) It was worth the battle: what arrived was a single field mushroom, stuffed (or, rather, topped) with gorgonzola and mozzarella on a bed of rocket, the whole thing drizzled with balsamic glaze. The mushroom had the balance just right – cooked enough to be soft but not watery. The cheeses were also perfectly balanced – creamy but with enough of a salty tang of blue. The balsamic glaze added just a touch of sweetness. This was divine: simple, unfussy and heavenly.

PapaShroom

Picking a second starter wasn’t so easy – who wants to be understudy to a dish like that? – but I thought that the prosciutto and mozzarella would be an interesting choice just to see what their basic ingredients were like, even if it hardly tested the kitchen’s skills. This wasn’t quite as successful. In fairness, the headline acts were both good: the ball of mozzarella was cold, fresh, firm and clean-tasting and the ham – two slices – was nicely salty. I didn’t for a second think it had been freshly sliced but it didn’t quite have that chilly plastic-wrapped texture you get in many restaurants. The green and black pitted olives on top were decent if not wildly exciting. The salad, though, really put me off: more undressed frisée (why places dish up bitter leaves with the texture of wire wool I’ll never know). It was also a bit brown round the edges, which was the final nail in the salad coffin for me. I’d rather have had more of the rocket and balsamic than this rather sad pile of space-filler leaves. This was seven pounds fifty and felt – to me at least – like too much margin and not enough fun.

PapaMozza

I went to Papa Gee fully intending to have a conventional pizza, but I was undone by the waitress’ recommendation, namely the calzone Napoli. I rarely have a calzone but she made such a good case that I found myself swept along with her enthusiasm. I’m delighted I did, because it was magnificent: a big folded pizza absolutely stuffed with meat and cheese, like the best Breville ever. As with the mushroom starter, this was a dish all about balance. It was filled with ricotta – not usually my favourite cheese, and not one I’d have on its own, but its fluffy mildness made perfect sense with the intense, thin slices of strong, salty salami. It was all bound together with that glorious molten mozzarella and – just to finish things off – the occasional surprise of a hidden basil leaf. (“Gaetano likes to put basil in everything” said the waitress when I mentioned how much I liked it, “He’s trying to convert everyone”). But the topping – or filling in this case – is only half the battle because, to quote the great Meghan Trainor, it’s all about that base. Papa Gee’s truly is splendid: crispy and bubbled at the edges but thin in the middle, with just a little note of sourdough saltiness. I could have eaten it on its own, and I did notice diners at other table rolling up their pizzas, as you should be able to do but so rarely can.

PapaCalzone

The waitress didn’t recommend my other main course, but the menu did: after the description of scialatiello (fresh, thick spaghetti, king prawns, olives, “cappers” (sic), anchovies, chilli and cherry tomato sauce) it says “Delicious”. This felt to me a bit like when you order food and the waiter tells you that you’ve made a good choice: funny how, even if you eat out a lot, a little of that sort of validation goes a long way. When it arrived I wished that I had ordered the pizza because it looked a little underwhelming but I tucked in nonetheless – in for a penny in for a pound. Reader, I loved it: the spaghetti, thicker than any I’ve ever seen, was nicely al dente and tasted freshly made (to my amateur taste buds, anyway) and the tomatoes were crushed rather than pulped, so it had more texture than your average bowl of pasta. The mixture of flavours in the sauce was fabulous and gave the opportunity for all kinds of combinations. There were only two king prawns but in the sauce there was a respectable amount of smaller prawns and the hit of chilli at the end of each mouthful was enough to give it a bit of bite without ever becoming overwhelming. It’s another great example of how you shouldn’t judge on looks – the pictures on Papa Gee’s website look unspecial, and my photos do too, but good food is not a beauty contest. I’d eat this again in a heartbeat (if I managed to avoid the lure of that pizza base, that is).

PapaPasta

The dessert menu is short and sweet (indeed) with five dishes plus ice cream – not gelato, which struck me as a missed opportunity. I picked just one dessert – the baba – a rum soaked sponge, filled with Nutella. This was so much more delicious than I expected, and by this stage I expected it to be pretty good. It was a light vanilla sponge, airy and open a bit like a buttery brioche, soaked in rum that I think had been sweetened, served split down the middle with hot Nutella spread on the insides. On top of this was a squirt of, err, squirty cream, a fan wafer and a preserved cherry. The cream, wafer and cherry were completely pointless – put there by the chef because he wanted to dress the dish, I think. It really didn’t need them (like I said, not a beauty contest) and this was worth eating whatever it looked like: the sponge was rich and boozy and the Nutella filling was effectively a choc and nut sauce. Simply gorgeous. My dining companion didn’t fancy a dessert so had an Amaro (one of those Italian digestifs that tastes simultaneously medicinal and faintly dangerous) and raved about that instead.

There’s not much to say about the wine list – it’s small but perfectly formed, with only one wine over twenty pounds (and that’s a barolo, so fair enough). We picked a nero d’avola which wasn’t half bad: nicely juicy, full bodied and very affordable at eighteen pounds. Service was very relaxed, with the one waitress happy to recommend food and chat. She was casually dressed – I’m in two minds about whether that bothered me, I feel like it shouldn’t but on some level it did – but she knew the menu inside out and showed genuine interest and concern to make sure we were enjoying everything. The total bill, for two and a half courses each with a bottle of wine and a liqueur, was sixty pounds. Yes. Sixty quid. Both mains were cooked fresh to order, and each one cost less than a tenner.

I think Papa Gee is a real find. It’s a gem of a restaurant: unpretentious and unfussy, serving really good food, friendly and relaxed and an absolute steal. Why don’t more people know about it? Or is it that people do know about it and they’re determined to make sure the secret doesn’t get out? Not sure. Either way, I’m already planning my return visit – no, I’m not telling you when, don’t be daft – so I can try more of those pizzas with that amazing base (I’m particularly drawn to the “Nonna Amalia” with Neapolitan pork sausage and wild broccoli tips). Yes, the location isn’t brilliant but that’s what taxis were invented for – and besides, there’s always the prospect of a post-dinner snifter in the Mod or the Greyfriar. So is it the pizza place I was dreaming of? You know what, I think it might be.

Papa Gee – 7.8
138 Caversham Road, RG1 8AY
0118 9556906

http://www.papagee.co.uk/

The Baskerville, Shiplake

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I take reader requests and recommendations really seriously. There are two big reasons for this.

First, I think it’s important that I review places you want to know about. If there’s somewhere you’ve always wanted to eat in but you don’t want to risk it then I’m your… err, lion. If somewhere new opens – or reopens – and you want the low-down then I’ll do my best to be your mane (oh yes, lion puns a-go-go) source of info. Secondly, I’m not omniscient. I know a fair bit about Reading’s restaurants but I can’t cover everything – especially outside the town centre – without your help. That’s where the recommendations come in: if you like the places I rate, and you tell me somewhere is good then I’m more than willing to give it a visit, because I trust you to be discerning.

It’s not always successful – I must find a way of thanking the person who said “I’ve always wanted to know if Picasso is any good” – but generally I reckon it works well. I’ve discovered lots of good places I wouldn’t otherwise have visited, and hopefully you might have too. Anyway, last week’s review was a good example of the first type – and it seems like lots of you wanted to know whether a London Street Brasserie chef can cook outside his natural habitat. This week’s review is the second type: last month reader Steve Smith recommended The Baskerville as an alternative to the highly-rated Plowden Arms. It was so good that he drove all the way from Aldermaston, he said. Does Shiplake really have two pubs doing excellent food?

The Baskerville certainly fits into the “handsome boozer” category (I’m a real sucker for these, as you might remember). In the centre of Lower Shiplake, it’s a few hundred feet from the train station in one of those villages the Thames Valley seems to specialise in (you can see the Eye-Spy book now: handsome boozer, cute cottage, smart Georgian house, wisteria…), the kind of place I daydream about moving to after a leisurely lunch and a bottle of wine.

The pub is a smart redbrick building with a small cosy bar room at the front and the larger restaurant area out the back, perhaps an indicator of where their priorities lie. Although it’s a big room it’s nicely broken up into sections and the beams are strung with fairy lights, a lovely touch. It was full for most of my time there, with the larger tables in the centre filled with families having Sunday lunch out and the smaller tables around the edge dotted with couples. There was a nice buzzy atmosphere (lots of awfully well-behaved children, too: Shiplake must be that kind of place). In summer I can see it would be even more popular with parents – the garden has one of the biggest wooden play areas I’ve ever seen (I wanted to go outside and play, and felt a little sad that I was too old for all that).

I’ve said many times that putting a menu together is a real art – finding the middle ground between too much choice (how do they cook it all well?) and too little (I don’t fancy any of these) is difficult. Goldilocks would have been very happy with the choices here: six starters, five mains, three Sunday roasts, four desserts and a cheeseboard felt just right. At each step there were two or three dishes I would be happy to order, an interesting mixture of the conventionally pubby and the more imaginative. Also – and this is unusual round here – the menu had some information about provenance, so you got an idea where some of the ingredients came from.

My smoked salmon starter was more on the pub classics side. A generous amount of thick, rich, smoky salmon (from Wren and Hines in Billingsgate Market, according to the menu) served in a ring around a lamb’s lettuce salad with capers and some slices of blood orange. The vinaigrette was, according to the menu, whisky and dill but against the strongly smoked salmon I struggled to discern it. At least it was inconspicuous rather than AWOL, unlike the beetroot listed on the menu which was nowhere to be seen. In fairness, I only realised this when sitting down to write this review, which suggests the dish didn’t miss it. The blood orange was a touch too sharp (I pulled a face when I ate it on its own) but nice against the salmon and salad; although leaving the pips in the orange was a little off-putting. If anything, the salad was generous without being interesting (although, like most people, I struggle to get excited about salad) especially as there was bread, too: a few slices of a gorgeous seeded granary. I couldn’t help wishing I’d just had the salmon, that bread and a really good butter: sometimes more fuss means less fun.

BaskSalad

The other starter – caramelised shallot tarte tatin with Cornish brie – was a glorious string of words on a menu that made me come over a tad unnecessary. The reality was less thrilling, partly because more of that salad had been unnecessarily dumped on top of it. But the biggest disappointment was eating it. Going from the first to the third mouthful was a case of going from oh, this is lovely to this is a tad sweet before ending up at I appear to have accidentally ordered dessert. The whole thing was totally out of kilter – the balsamic dressing was sweet, the roast figs were sweet, the onions were cloyingly sweet… the overall effect was like gargling neat Ribena while listening to that song by Daniel Bedingfield (you know, the one with the falsetto. Ick). What’s frustrating is that it needn’t have been that way: it needed a better chosen, saltier cheese to stand up against the torrent of sugar, but the brie – ripe though it was – was too bland for the job.

BaskTart

On to the mains, then. The standout here was chicken Balmoral: stuffed with haggis and wrapped in bacon, served with rumbledethumps (Scotland’s answer to colcannon) and a whisky and mustard sauce. The chicken was spot on – still moist but cooked through – and the haggis had that earthy, peppery taste I adore: I know it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but I love the stuff, and you don’t see it on menus often. There was a side dish of vegetables that appeared to come with most of the mains – roasted carrots and parsnips, steamed broccoli and cauliflower. The parsnips in particular – all sweet and sticky-soft – were fabulous, but all of the vegetables were well cooked, not boiled into mushy oblivion. The sauce was more mustard than whisky, but worked beautifully with everything. The only disappointment was the bacon – it wasn’t cooked anywhere near enough and much of it ended up discarded on the side of the plate, pale pink and rubbery. Maybe that’s the price you pay for tender chicken.

BaskChick

The other main was that unusual thing, a vegetarian dish I actively wanted to order: blue cheese and chestnut mushroom pasta with leeks, baby spinach and toasted walnuts. I could see literally nothing to dislike about this in theory, but again the execution was disappointing. The pasta – campanelle, I think – was good, the right shape to pick up the sauce and cooked only slightly further from al dente than I’d liked. The leeks were soft and sweet. The chestnut mushrooms were good, although they’d have worked better chopped finer. The toasted walnuts added crunch. So much potential from the supporting cast, but the star didn’t turn up: there wasn’t enough sauce, and what sauce there was clung to the bottom of the dish as if in hiding. I was expecting that rich tang of blue cheese, little bombs of salt scattered throughout, but it was so bland it was hardly there at all. It was inoffensive, a blue cheese dish for people who don’t really like blue cheese. But really, who’s the target market for that?

BaskPasta

After two large courses it was tempting to get the bill, but I know I’ve been letting you down lately, so I ordered dessert. I hope you appreciate the trouble I go to to give you a well-rounded review (especially as it has the knock-on effect of giving you an increasingly well-rounded reviewer).

The sticky toffee pudding is a pub staple and, even though it gets served on a fancy square glass plate, The Baskerville knows better than to the mess with a classic. The pudding itself was moist, gently spiced and all middle (I prefer middle to edges when it comes to cake). The perfectly spherical ice cream ball was balancing on the requisite pile of crumbs with a mint leaf on top (I think there must be some legal requirement for this style of presentation: it’s inescapable these days) and on the opposite corner was a small jug of toffee sauce. It was textbook, and I loved every spoonful: plenty of sauce, a big wodge of cake and a dollop of ice cream. Well rounded indeed.

I also loved the bitter chocolate tart, all class and cleverness. The ganache was rich, dark and smooth, but with a hint of orange shot through it, working beautifully with the pieces of blood orange on top. All of it went nicely with the cinnamon ice cream, which tasted so good that I happily overlooked its oddly elastic texture. The pastry, dense and buttery, was gorgeous and – just as importantly – not so thick that eating it with a fork involved a series of high risk manoeuvres to stop pieces from wanging across the table. If the rest of the meal showed some inconsistency, the desserts redeemed a lot.

BaskChoctart

It’s a shame I was driving, because the wine list had plenty of bottles around the pocket-friendly twenty pound mark, a sure sign that it’s been well thought out. Fortunately, the selection by the glass was decent too and I liked both the reds we tried, although the French pinot noir was probably the pick of the bunch.

Service was excellent from the moment we entered to the moment we left, which is largely down to the restaurant manager, a friendly Scot who appeared to be everywhere at once. He worked hard without ever making it look like work at all, a rare talent: he made the right noises when we ordered food, had an opinion about the wines and was on hand to give pointers and just be generally charming whenever he was needed without ever hovering or outstaying his welcome (I’d also like to think that the Scottish influences on the menu came from him, for no reason other than because it would be nicely fitting). The other staff – mostly young ladies – were also helpful and friendly, just without the polish of years in the industry. The bill, for three courses for two, two glasses of wine and a pint of very refreshing shandy came to seventy five pounds. So not the cheapest, although we did come away full.

The big problem with The Baskerville isn’t in the pub, it’s a little over a mile down the road. When a village has a pub that does food as good as the Plowden Arms a neighbour has to pull something really special out of the bag to compete, and I think The Baskerville almost manages it but not quite. I think, sensibly, it’s aiming for bigger portions of slightly more conventional food in a bigger, slightly more conventional room, and it clearly has a regular clientele who appreciate that. But, for me at least, although I enjoyed much of my meal I found it hard to imagine driving past the Plowden, turning right and going here instead. I’ve tried really hard to avoid two things in this review. One was to make lame jokes about Sherlock Holmes, and the other was to compare this pub to the Plowden Arms. I’m afraid you’ll have to forgive me because, like The Baskerville, I’ve only partly succeeded.

The Baskerville Arms – 7.3
7 Station Road, Lower Shiplake, Henley-on-Thames, RG9 3NY.
0118 9403332

http://www.thebaskerville.com/

The Lyndhurst

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One of the most interesting pieces of food news of 2015 so far was announced by AltReading when they confirmed that the new chef at the Lyndhurst would be Tom Evans, who at the time was senior sous chef at LSB. Now generally, I’ve never been a big one for chef worship. I know to some people they’re like rock stars or footballers and when they step down from a restaurant (like Alan Murchison at l’Ortolan) their replacement is hotly anticipated with a friseé (geddit?) of excitement. But for me they’re a part of what makes a restaurant great – a big, important part, but still only a part.

The Tom Evans news was particularly interesting, though, because one thing Reading really needs is a pub which does good quality affordable food. Had my letter to Santa had the desired effect after all? At the risk of introducing a football analogy we may all come to regret, I couldn’t wait to visit the Lyndhurst and find out whether their new signing would score a hat trick or (stop sniggering) be pulled off at half time.

I’ve always felt quite emotionally attached to the place: I used to love it in its previous incarnation (their rolled, stuffed pork belly was one of the best Reading dishes you’ll never get to eat) and I was really sad when it closed. Then when it reopened just doing Pie Minister pies and curries cooked offsite by an unnamed Reading restaurant (rumoured to be House Of Flavours) I was cautiously pleased but there were still rumours that it was only a temporary respite from closure. So it’s nice to see it showing some ambition and investing in new ideas.

Inside it’s pretty much the same as it ever was – slightly spruced up but still a proper pub without pretensions: charming rustic wooden tables and cosy padded pews. On a quiet weekday evening I was starting to wonder if I’d made a mistake, with both the pub itself and the specials board looking rather empty (a real disappointment as on a previous visit the specials had looked like the most interesting bit: pulled pork and pearl barley risotto and haggis on toast were both tempting prospects).

The basic menu is short, almost spartan: three “small plates” (or starters, as most normal people still call them) and five mains. As always, I’d rather have a pared down menu that gives me confidence than an encyclopaedic one that saps it, but even by my standards it was on the minimalist side. The other thing that’s worth pointing out about the menu is that Tom Evans’ name appears all over it, with references to his secret recipe ketchup, home made burger sauce and tartare sauce and the sausages he makes daily by hand; the management is definitely setting a lot of store by their star player.

So, having said all that, how could I resist the “GIANT hand made sausage rolls”? The word “GIANT” was in a bigger font than everything else on the menu, to make the point I imagine. It was partly right – just the one sausage roll but it was indeed huge; served on a wooden board with a ramekin of the aforementioned ketchup it was quite a sight to behold. The taste was pretty good too – light, flaky pastry wrapped round substantial, coarse sausagemeat, peppery and lightly spicy. The sauce divided opinion: I couldn’t really tell it apart from Heinz, the person I had dinner with thought it was streets ahead (maybe if you go you can tell me which of us is right). So all in all not half bad, although I was struck by the contradiction of something that was neither small nor on a plate appearing in the “small plates” section (yes, I’m a pedant, I know). At seven quid it almost cost as much as the mains, so the price wasn’t that small either.

Lyndhurstroll

The other starter was “posh mushrooms on toast with Parmesan”, and there was a lot to like here too. I wouldn’t say the mushrooms were posh (ironically the posher mushrooms are, the more likely they are to be wild – I suppose it’s a bit like the Bullingdon Club) but they’d at least been well brought up: nicely savoury in a rich, slightly creamy sauce. The kitchen hadn’t been stingy with the parmesan either, so it was festooned with shavings. But the dish had feet of clay, because all of that was served on cheap white toast which couldn’t stand up to all those juices and just went soggy and claggy. It either needed to be better toasted or just literally made of sterner stuff: what a difference a slice of sourdough would have made (you know, posh bread). Still tasty though, and a good example of how to charge less than a fiver for pretty cheap ingredients without anyone feeling ripped off.

Lyndhurstmushrooms

The mains are almost a greatest hits of pub food: fish and chips; burger; sausage and mash; ham and chips; steak. In fairness, there were also two vegetarian mains on the blackboard, one of which – a walnut and blue cheese gnocchi – looked more imaginative than the usual, but I wanted to go for the classics to see what the kitchen’s spin on them would be.

The fish and chips were actually fishes and chips: two very lightly battered fish fillets which were a mile away from the Moby Dick style challenges served at other establishments. These were lighter and more delicate, though the fish itself wasn’t cod – it was a smaller fish with thinner flakes rather than the thick-flaked, white-fleshed fillets you get elsewhere. The menu was mute on what sort of fish it was but it did say that the chips were hand cut and the fish was “guest ale battered”. I couldn’t tell that the batter had any beer in it, but either way it was decent enough.

The chips were much tastier than they look in my (admittedly terrible) photos – I judged them on the colour and thought they were overcooked but in fact they were properly crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside (that will teach me for being a chip racist). The mushy peas were the standout for me – they tasted bright, green and full of spring with a touch of mint, a million miles away from a tin of Batchelor’s (if the kitchen ever makes a pea soup I might just ring up and reserve a vat). Even my dining companion, who claims to hate mushy peas, loved them: that’s how good they were. The tartare sauce was also pretty good – although, again, I felt a bit guilty that I didn’t find it significantly better than shop bought. And that’s kind of how I felt about the whole dish, really – not significantly better than fish and chips at other Reading pubs. Not significantly better, truth be told, than the fish and chips the Lyndhurst used to do.

Lyndhurstfish

The other main was a burger (I know, I know – like I said, it’s a short menu). Actually, this was probably the surprise package for me: I liked it far more than I expected to. The burger itself – lovely and thick, almost pink (although not as pink as I’d have liked) – was clearly very good quality meat. It was also a sensible size which meant you could actually eat it with your hands, although once you’d started woe betide you if you tried to put it down. Also inside the brioche bun – a real one, rather than a sesame seed bun with delusions of grandeur – were several thick crunchy slices of gherkin (a personal favourite of mine) and the best bit, a terrific burger sauce which added a welcome hefty whack of tang. I was surprised by the big pile of naked salad it came with, though. I doubt anyone eats that, and it shouldn’t have been beyond the kitchen to dress it.

Lyndhurstburger

Service was friendly and efficient. Everything came quickly, I felt like they were proud of the food and they genuinely wanted to make sure I liked it. But, as often, eating in a pub it’s difficult to say much more than that. The tables are pre-laid with cutlery in vintage pots and there’s table numbers on wooden spoons, so it’s clearly very much still a pub rather than a restaurant, which felt as it should be.

I’m afraid, yet again, there was no dessert. After two substantial (if not GIANT) starters and mains I might have considered a dessert if there had been something suitably delicate, but the only dessert on the menu was a sticky toffee pudding. I was tempted: I think the STP at LSB is one of the finest school dinner desserts in all of Reading, but had I eaten it I think I’d have fallen into a lard coma. So I skipped it, and I’ll make up for it next time. Promise. As it was, the total bill for two starters, two mains and two pints of cider came to thirty-five pounds, not including tip.

Time for the post-match analysis. If I was giving marks for potential, the Lyndhurst would do brilliantly. It’s the right idea at the right time, and there are so many encouraging signs: a sensibly sized menu, a small range of specials, a cautious approach of not doing too much too soon. But I don’t think they’re quite there yet. The food doesn’t feel as accomplished as I expected: some of the little touches, like the sausagemeat and the mushy peas, are excellent, but some of the basics – the fish, that white toast – aren’t as good as they should be. I was concerned that I’d see all flair and no graft, but I went away feeling I’d experienced too much graft and not enough flair. All in all, this was a debut that was promising and frustrating in equal measure.

That sense of the place being a work in progress extends to the pub, too. There’s still some work to be done on the décor – some of the stools have their foam padding breaking free, and let’s just say the loos could do with a bit of care and attention – but the chalkboard art above the bar is very now. I hope the pub gets the time it needs to become the kind of place it’s aiming to be (I understand they plan to give the exterior a facelift, too) and the kitchen gets the time to produce the kind of food it’s capable of. A lot of that depends on them doing good trade, so – to mangle my footballing metaphor beyond all recognition – perhaps we all need to take one for the team and eat there to give them that chance.

The Lyndhurst – 6.9

88-90 Queen’s Road, RG1 4DG
0118 9617267

https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Lyndhurst/519640051447288?fref=ts

Lincoln Coffee House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manhattan

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

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

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

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

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

Lincoln Coffee House – 6.6

60 Kings Road, RG1 3AA
0118 9507410

http://lincolncoffeehouse.co.uk/

Beijing Noodle House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beijing starters

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

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

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

Beijing noodles

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

Beijing nasi

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

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

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

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

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

Alto Lounge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alto_tapas

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

AltoBurger

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

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

Altorisotto

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

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

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

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

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