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/

Oakford Social Club

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

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

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

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

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

OakfordBurger

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

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

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

Oakfordchicken

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

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

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

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

http://www.oakfordsocialclub.com/

Mangal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mangalstarter

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

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

MangalMeat

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

MangalMoussaka

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

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

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

http://www.mangalreading.com/

Jamie’s Italian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mushroommusic

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

Caponatabruschetta

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

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

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

Supersalad

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

Porkragu

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

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

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

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

Misugo, Windsor

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

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

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

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

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

Sashimi

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

Maki

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://misugo.co.uk/

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