Restaurant review: Wilsons, Bristol

I’m sorry to start proceedings with what looks suspiciously like a humblebrag, but last month I was on holiday in Belfast and as a treat, we booked a table at Ox, one of the city’s Michelin starred restaurants. But it was a hugely disappointing evening, which will please those of you who don’t like humblebrags. Everything was not quite right; nothing was actively terrible, but the whole thing felt far from optimal. We left underwhelmed, slightly peckish and feeling as if our wallets had been mugged in a dark alley, and wandered away from the scene of the crime in search of a pint.

I’ve never understood people who collect Michelin starred restaurants – too humblebraggy even for me – or restaurant bloggers who loftily describe meals they’ve had as “easily one star food”, as if somebody died and promoted them to inspector. Get over yourselves: it’s just one set of opinions, from an organisation so shrouded in secrecy and obscurity that they make the Freemasons look like the Good Law Project. For what it’s worth, I’ve always thought the Bib Gourmand is a better indicator that you’ll have a good and interesting meal.

The subject of this week’s review is Wilsons, a little restaurant in Bristol which doesn’t have a Michelin star, but which served me one of the very best meals I’ve had in the last five years. Not only did it get everything right that Ox got wrong, but it made me think about what excellence in restaurants really means – and how little of it has anything to do with being fancy.

Take the room, for example. At Ox, we walked past the lovely, twinkly, atmospheric downstairs room – which had free tables in it – only to be walked up the stairs to an unlovely mezzanine floor, all hard surfaces and dead air, the overflow car park of hospitality. It was boiling hot, the aircon stayed resolutely switched off and even blowing out the candles didn’t seem to alert the staff to what a stuffy, unpleasant place it was in which to have a meal. Wilsons has just the one dining room. It’s plain, simple, dignified and stylish with nothing on the walls except chalkboards and a lovely stained glass sign hanging in the full-length window. Good restaurants, ideally, have no shit tables. Wilsons has no shit tables.

This extended through to the menus. Ox doesn’t have a menu, so you are surprised on the night. Instead, they hand you a rather pretentious-looking sheet of paper which lists all the elements and ingredients that will feature in your meal, without telling you how or where. The menu is on their website, so even as gimmicks go, it’s pointless. Wilsons also offers a single menu but it’s written on the chalkboard each day for everybody to see. You can have the whole lot for sixty pounds – twenty pounds less than Ox – or a stripped-down version at lunch for twenty five quid (I read a review where someone said “that’s less than you’d spend on a pair of socks”: I’m as fond of conspicuous consumption as the next person, but what a knobber).

A mystery menu wouldn’t be a problem if the service brought the meal to life. Again, Ox was disappointing: everything was mechanical and muted, and much of it was hard to hear in that unforgiving and joyless space. Detail was scant, and there was more warmth in the room than in the welcome. And again, Wilson’s was outstanding. All the staff abandoned zonal marking for the hospitality equivalent of total football, which meant that our dishes were brought by a huge variety of friendly faces.

All of them could talk with huge knowledge and enormous enthusiasm about every single detail of every single dish: a better reviewer than me would have taken notes. On another night in Belfast we went to Edo, an incredible tapas restaurant and our waiter, almost immediately after we took our seats, said “well obviously I know the menu inside out so I can answer any questions you have”: that’s how you do it.

The food at Ox was also muted and bland, but that’s quite enough talking about restaurants other than Wilsons. Let’s talk about their food instead, because everything was stunning, more or less. We went for the full monty, and it started with a beautiful, clever piece of work – a gorgeous feather-light gougère packed with cheddar and leek and topped with a little beret of pickled onion purée. The whole thing imploded in the mouth leaving nothing but joy, an accomplished disappearing act.

Bread was made by the restaurant and came to the table still warm with a puck of butter which the restaurant cultures itself. This was accompanied with a vivid little dish of cod roe, pastel pink with a little iris of bright herb oil. There was powdered something-or-other on top, and if I’d made notes I’d be able to tell you what it was. All of this was lovely, incidentally, although the bread was sliced a tad too thick which made it difficult to use all the butter and cod roe. Zoë ran her finger along the bowl, and I pretended to be shocked.

At the same time, we had one final snack which the wait staff playfully described as a taco – a chicory leaf with chicken liver parfait, preturnaturally smooth, topped with powdered beetroot and the pop of toasted pearl barley. So much effort gone into making something so small, gone in an instant but remembered for days: truly magical stuff.

The next dish was one of the best things I ate that day, which makes it one of the best things I’ve eaten full stop. A savoury custard made with squash was sweet, glossy and perfectly spiced. Again, texture and pop was beautifully added with seeds, toasted in some of the same spice mix. But then the other elements added layer on layer of complexity and cleverness – tiny shimeji mushrooms, pickled in sherry vinegar, and a mushroom consommé poured over at the table, submerging the custard under something phenomenally savoury. Again, if I’d made better notes I could tell you what the leaves were: sorry about that.

By this point we were a couple of glasses into a fantastic bottle of natural Gruner Veltliner (the same one, actually, that I’d had at Goat On The Roof: it’s far more attractively priced at Wilsons) and I was already beginning to realise that this food was like very little I’ve eaten in other restaurants. I couldn’t recall anywhere I’ve eaten where the flavours were so pinpoint, where things had been so refined and perfected to make everything taste of its truest, best self. And as it turned out, I hadn’t seen anything yet.

Next to come was possibly the most disappointing course. Jigged squid – I have no idea what jigging is, and this time it’s not because I didn’t take notes – came in a rich and salty broth with rainbow chard. The squid, cut into ribbons to resemble udon, was among the freshest I’ve had and this dish made me love rainbow chard, something beyond the talents of most kitchens. The broth bringing it together had absolutely everything, and again it was that precise, super-concentrated hit that makes you sit up and pay attention, eat more slowly, take it all in. But this was the first time a portion felt stingy and doubt crept in: four ribbons of squid, and it’s not a good sign that I counted them.

Was it enough to dumbfound your tastebuds if you left a restaurant hungry? And yet my tastebuds were so dumbfounded – not least by a little tuile made from squid ink, as black as night and dotted with herb emulsion (I probably should have mentioned that much of the produce Wilsons use comes from their garden). It was a perfect mouthful, in a meal full of perfect mouthfuls and in a world where the word perfect is much devalued, not least by me. “It’s like the best crisp ever” said Zoë, who usually sums these things up better than I do.

More was to come, and the fish course proper was a proper marvel. A little cylinder of pollock, a notoriously recalcitrant fish, was cooked bang on and topped with another symphony of herbs, alongside a silky parsnip puree, the whole thing bound together with a superb vin jaune sauce which delivered more salt and less funk than I was expecting. I’ve talked about the half-life of dishes before and this had a long one – each forkful carefully calibrated to prolong the enjoyment. But again, the lack of carbs troubled me. What was the point of these beautiful sauces, dips and oils when there wasn’t always the substance to transport them into your gob?

I should have trusted in the process, because the next course made everything right. Crown of pheasant, cooked and then, I think, finished on the barbecue, glazed with some kind of emulsion and dotted with the smallest, punchiest capers I’ve ever eaten was a thing of rapture, as was the pheasant sauce and the wedge of just-cooked cabbage (there was also something called Tokyo turnip, but I thought that was a Steven Seagal film so what do I know?)

But where are the carbs? you might ask. But this is where Wilsons completely won me over by bringing a bowl of the best mash I’ve ever eaten. It was, the waiter told us, fifty per cent potato and fifty per cent butter. He also told us this is the only way to have mash, and I fear he might be right. It’s profoundly ruined me for other mash: I’ve already used the words ‘silky’ and ‘glossy’ in this review, so to save me reaching for the thesaurus let’s just settle for ‘exceptional’ here.

And there was still time for one more extra, one more whistle and bell to show that the kitchen left no stone unturned. We were also brought two pieces of what the waiter called “Kentucky Fried Pheasant”, little nubbins of pheasant thigh coated in the restaurant’s secret blend, deep fried and then drizzled with a ranch dressing including some of the same spices. You might wonder who goes to all that trouble, and I wouldn’t blame you. Wilsons do, that’s who. I may never get to try Eton Fried Swan (once we have a republic I really think this is a franchise that could take off) but until then this will tide me over nicely.

Having had some of the best, most interesting courses of my restaurant-going life, presumably things would dip for dessert, right? They so often do, after all. Well, think again: Wilsons’ dessert was also a desert (or even dessert) island dish. On paper it just sounded weird – celeriac, fermented honey and truffle. And it might not have been to everyone’s taste, but it absolutely knocked my socks off. The celeriac was an ice cream, more a semifreddo really, with a pool of fermented honey lurking in its hollow. All around it were toasted grains adding crunch and sweetness, and then on top were little truffle shavings.

I don’t know who thinks to put all those flavours together, and it’s a highwire act where any of them could have backfired. But none of them did, and this is the dish, more than any other, that I’ve thought about since that meal. I’ve had parsnip ice cream before but never celeriac, and it worked better than I thought it would. But what I loved was the harmony. Truffle isn’t a team player, nor is anything fermented. But the kitchen deftly drew all of that together into something delicious, remarkable and perhaps slightly mad. And yet not a note was out of place.

Now in Michelin-land, if they haven’t given you a minuscule pre-dessert they tend to send you on your way with some petits fours. They’re not big but they are clever, and they’re another way of making you feel like you’ve had something for free even though all of that luxe is very much priced in. So I adored Wilsons for instead bringing over a hulking great canélé de Bordeaux for each of us.

Now, I’ve had these many times because Reading is lucky enough to have Davy of Wolseley Street Bakery fame, and this is one of his specialities which he supplies to various places, most notably Geo Café. I like a canélé. But this was a completely different beast, and I wasn’t in Kansas – or Caversham – any more. This had been elevated with whisky and tonka, and the sweetness and richness was like little I’ve experienced. This level of sensory opulence is something I associate more with fragrance than with food, and I can’t put it more strongly than this: if somebody sold an eau de parfum that smelled how that canélé tasted, I’d buy a bottle. They were so good I can even forgive Wilsons for putting the napkin underneath them, although I still think that’s baffling.

My meal – two aperitifs, a bottle of wine and all those terrific experiences and memories – came to two hundred pounds including service, and I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. If Wilsons did vouchers I’d just ask for some for Christmas, and as it is I’m struggling to imagine going to Bristol without eating there again. More to the point, I’m wondering how quickly I can justify going back. As it was, we left knowing it would take a while to process just how good our meal was, and fell into a beautiful nearby pub called the Good Measure which, as luck would have it, was doing a tap takeover by our very own Siren Craft. It was Friday afternoon, I was full and happy and I’d had a miraculous lunch. Life rarely gets much better.

I’m sorry-not-sorry for putting you through this catwalk show of beautiful dishes and purple prose. Sorry because it’s a lot to rattle through, and also arguably sorry if I’ve made you hungry (although, also, not sorry: this is what restaurant reviews should do). Sorry that I’ve rhapsodised about a restaurant that’s a train and bus trip from Reading. But also not sorry, because this is one of the best restaurants I’ve been to in years of trying, and that deserves to be mentioned. I’m sorry because Reading doesn’t have somewhere to match Wilsons and, in fact, I don’t think it ever has. But I’m also not sorry because when people ask me what Reading needs I might stop talking about tapas restaurants, ice cream cafés and good wine bars and just say: it needs somewhere like Wilsons.

Wilsons – 9.6
24 Chandos Road, Redland, Bristol, BS6 6PF
0117 9734157

https://www.wilsonsbristol.co.uk

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Restaurant review: Momo 2 Go

We’re on the home stretch now: Halloween and Bonfire Night are in the past, Christmas is on the horizon. This review is published on Black Friday, a day many of us would prefer not to acknowledge. It all adds up to one thing – we are close to having survived another year of interesting times, of pay cuts and price rises, of soaring expenses and the spectre of Covid, still lurking in the background. The future is uncertain – for our electricity bills, for our weekly shop, for keeping global warming below 1.5C, for our Twitter profiles – but for now, we’re all still here. Group hug, anybody? Actually, scratch that: who else needs a drink?

The New Year is always a time to look ahead and make great plans, but as a perpetual glass half empty type I find this time of year is when I look back and can see all the things I didn’t achieve over the last twelve months – the pounds I didn’t lose, the money I didn’t save, the books I never finished and the exercises from my physio I always found very good reasons not to do. But I never mope for too long – the sweet release of the socialising season, the festive beers waiting to be drunk and all the people to catch up with soon sweep all of that away. Besides, by Christmas Eve ITV4 (yes, it’s a thing) is pretty much wall to wall Carry On films, and you can’t mope watching one of those. I can’t, anyway.

As we approach the end of the year I also find myself looking at my to do list here at the blog. Forget shopping days: there are only a handful of reviewing Fridays left til Christmas and so many places I’ve not made it to yet. So how do I decide what to prioritise for the tail end of the year? Should I go back and try one of the interesting places that have sprung up in Wokingham, or another of Reading’s new sushi joints? Is the Secret Santa present my readers really want a piece where I go to Jollibee and dutifully endure that weird spaghetti dish with chopped frankfurters in it? And how about that new kebab place on the edge of the Broad Street Mall, immortally described by the Reading Chronicle as “Slow-roast Dubai restaurant Donor and Gyros”?

But there’s a particular subsection of my list that I feel deserves particular attention as 2022 shambles to an end. At the start of this year, when the weather was shite and our booster jabs hadn’t kicked in, I was still reviewing takeaways. But I know that what people really want, especially now life is a little more as it was, are restaurant reviews. And there are a handful of places where I had decent takeaways over the past couple of years but have never returned to try out the full eating in experience, blind spots that I ought to rectify.

In some cases there are reasons for that – Banarasi Kitchen has recently left the Spread Eagle pub to be replaced by a new Indian kitchen called Bagheera, for instance. I probably would have gone to Osaka by now, but for the fact that they had a one star hygiene rating for four months over the summer. Palmyra, which did me a very nice takeaway in the spring of 2021, only takes cash which rules it out of contention. Cash only in 2022, after two years that have all but killed cash as a going concern. “Fuck that” grizzled Zoë, as we walked away from it recently.

But I also had a fantastic takeaway from the subject of this week’s review, little Momo 2 Go down the Oxford Road, back in February – so good, in fact, that I’ve ordered from them several times since. Surely it was time to try it in the flesh? So Zoë and I wandered over on a midweek night to pay it a long overdue visit.

It’s a small, simple place on that row of shops just before the Reading West bridge, and the inside was humble and unceremonious – the walls cheery yellow above and dove grey below a haphazardly painted dado rail. The name gave a pretty clear clue that a lot of their trade is takeaway – in total they have a dozen or so covers, and a little bar and counter made up to look like a little hut. A fish tank glowed in one corner, with a few anaemic denizens drifting around in it. But I liked the room – it had a certain warmth, and the condensation on the door made you feel cosy. We were the only customers eating in that night.

The menu fitted on a single laminated sheet of A4, and half of that was the drinks selection. So very compact all told, especially compared to the likes of Kamal’s Kitchen or Sapana Home, although with many of the options you get your choice of pork, chicken, lamb or buffalo. There was nothing even approximating to a curry, and I liked that a lot, that they didn’t compromise. A small selection of specials on a blackboard over the bar added a few more choices, but without making matters difficult. And nothing cost more than a tenner, with the momo in particular looking impressive value at around seven pounds for ten.

Much of the menu is about your starch of choice – momo, chow mein or fried rice – with a final section marked “sides” which includes many things which don’t sound like sides. So the best way to approach this menu, as with Nepalese food in general in my experience, is to treat it as a small plates menu and share as many things as you think you can manage. And that’s exactly what we did.

Trying to make our choices and discuss things with our waiter highlighted that things wouldn’t necessarily be straightforward. Our waiter was absolutely lovely and friendly, but it was quite a struggle to explain and to understand. I wasn’t sure if this was because his English wasn’t the best, or because he was very shy, or because he was helping out for the night. Maybe Momo 2 Go really does do most of its business through delivery apps. Whatever it was, although I really liked him we did have to ask a few things more than once and explain that, for example, asking what was in a dish was not the same as saying we’d like to order it. In the end, I put him out of his misery and just Googled a few of the dishes, because it was easier.

The first dish to come out was one of the vegetarian dishes, aloo nimki. I hadn’t got an awful lot of detail about it from the waiter, except that it was quite spicy, but it was very interesting and unlike anything I’ve tried before. The aloo is potato, of course, small cubes of waxy potato at that, but the nimki – crunchy strips of pastry – were what gave the dish interest and contrast. I worried they’d be soggy under the weight of all that gravy, but they kept their integrity perfectly and made every mouthful interesting. This dish wasn’t a looker, and I wouldn’t say it held my interest to the very end – Zoë gave up long before I did, so she didn’t experience just how spicy it was – but I’m very glad I tried it.

By this point, gladly, a couple of very generous mango lassis had come out of the kitchen, which went a long way towards cooling matters. And I have to say, Momo 2 Go do some of the best mango lassis I’ve had – fruity, substantial and ice cold. Counterintuitive to have them on a cold November night, perhaps, but still an absolute treat. We both had another, and each times you could hear a blender whizzing away in the kitchen out back. No corners were cut.

One of my favourite dishes to takeaway from Momo 2 Go is their sukuti chow mein and I’ve eaten it a fair few times this year to mark the end of the working week. So I entirely expected to love it, and was surprised when it fell a little short. Normally it’s packed with veg, light and impeccably cooked and studded with nuggets of chewy dried meat (I’m guessing it’s lamb, but I might be wrong). So what went wrong this time? A few things, I think. It was a little light on the veg, a little clumpy and stodgy, and a tiny bit burnt. And what was the slight cheesy note in the sukuti? I couldn’t place it, but I checked with Zoë and it wasn’t just me. “Maybe they’ve used a rub” was her guess.

Chicken fried rice, which I’ve always fancied but never had before from Momo 2 Go, was definitely the weakest dish. The veg in this might have been fresh, but the peas and the perfectly diced cubes of carrot didn’t feel it. It also didn’t feel like the rice had really been fried, as there wasn’t much in the way of crispy caramelisation, and what chicken there was was underwhelming. If you added a bit of the hot sauce it came with, it was almost interesting, but almost interesting isn’t saying enough. “It’s all a bit Bachelor’s Savoury Rice” said Zoë, and I had to agree. Mind you, she used to feel the same way about paella.

Fortunately, things improved from there. Momo 2 Go’s fried lamb momo are up there with the best I’ve had in Reading, and are enough of a reason to visit the restaurant in their own right. They were ten large, featherlight balloons of light, crunchy fried dough stuffed with a substantial amount of fragrant, exquisite minced lamb. Cut, dip, eat, sigh, repeat. Just bliss.

It’s an irony that the restaurant is called Momo 2 Go, because having had these many times as a takeaway and having finally eaten them in the restaurant, hot and fresh, straight from the kitchen, the absolute worst thing you could do to these beauties is to have them to go. They deserve to be eaten there and then, not kept waiting for a single minute more than necessary. And even though we were full at the end of our meal, we nearly ordered more. Reading back over these paragraphs, I haven’t even come close to explaining how much I loved them, but maybe a glimpse of the picture below will fill in the gaps left by my inadequate prose.

Last of all, we tried something from the specials board, chicken fry. Now normally when I’ve had chicken fry in, say, Sapana Home, it’s not really fried chicken. It’s chicken which may or may not have been fried served in a sticky sauce with peppers and onions, not a million miles in fact from the chilli chicken I often order in Nepalese restaurants.

So I was surprised to get exactly what I’d ordered but not what I’d expected: there, amid the neatly corrugated slices of carrot and cucumber were beautifully light, superbly crisp nuggets of chicken thigh. What was this doing in a Nepalese restaurant? I have no idea, but I wasn’t complaining – although I was rather nonplussed. But to judge it as fried chicken, it was a good dip and a little more seasoning in the coating away from perfect. Reasonably close, though.

There isn’t a lot more to say about Momo 2 Go. Our waiter had relaxed a bit by the end of our meal and seemed delighted that we’d enjoyed some of the dishes so much, especially the momo and the chicken. I felt a little sad that I hadn’t tried some of my other favourite takeaway dishes from the restaurant – chilli chicken, or their superlative chicken choila – but there’s only so much chicken any one person can order. And although we were the only customers that night there was a regular flow of delivery orders hitting the till and riders turning up with their insulated bags. Our meal – all that food and four mango lassis – came to fifty pounds, not including service.

I wish I’d liked Momo 2 Go even more than I did, but I hope you can tell from this review that even with the missteps and the dishes that didn’t entirely work on the night I found myself very much in their corner. The service may have been shy and diffident, but plenty of good restaurants have the occasional shrinking violet and it doesn’t stop them turning out superb food.

I can’t recommend all of Momo 2 Go’s dishes with qualification, but I can say this – go there for the momo. Go there before a night at the Nag’s, or go there on the way home if you live out that way. I would gladly do so any day of the week, and I’d try some of the other dishes because it’s hardly an expensive gamble. I don’t think Momo 2 Go have put their prices up this year, so I’m not entirely sure how they turn a profit, but they deserve to.

I sometimes get told off for comparing restaurants I review to their competitors, but I can’t think of a better way to put things in context. Kamal’s Kitchen remains, for me, the benchmark for Nepalese food with a range of dishes and interesting choices which can’t be equalled elsewhere in town: just be careful if he gets out his Nepalese moonshine. And for convenience in the centre and for consistency, Sapana Home still commands a great deal of affection.

But judged on the momo alone, I think Momo 2 Go might beat the lot. It would be easy to end this review saying “I loved the momo, I wasn’t sure about everything else”. But with hindsight, that was essentially my conclusion when I visited Sapana Home on duty back in 2014. And what happened after that? I pretty much ate there every month for the next three years.

Momo 2 Go – 7.0
172 Oxford Road, RG1 7PL
0118 9586666

https://momo2go.co.uk

Restaurant review: Adda Hut

This week you get a simple, straightforward review of a simple, straightforward restaurant. But before that, I’d like to apologise to any of my readers in Woodley.

Because I’ve never reviewed anywhere in Woodley, in the best part of ten years. It’s one of those satellites of Reading that has escaped my attention. I made it out to Lower Earley – just the once, back in 2014 – although I can’t see myself going back any time soon. And this year, finally, I reviewed somewhere in Tilehurst, long an omission. But Woodley has never been on my radar. I’ve reviewed more places in Bristol than in Earley, Woodley and Tilehurst put together, a fact I know delights so many of you.

I assure you it’s not because I’ve taken against Woodley. In fact, I’ve always had warm memories of the place. The thing is, I grew up there – or pretended to – and it was the first place I lived when my family moved to Reading in the early Eighties. So I have happy memories of mucking around on the airfield, and walking the dog round Dinton Pastures, of going up the precinct and spending my pocket money in Beatties, the games shop. Of buying my teenage diaries from the Newscentre (and filling them with awful shite) and of buying new pairs of shoes every year from Milwards in time for the start of the school year. (You’d be better off wearing the boxes, my mum said most years: size twelves, you see).

I came back to Woodley after university and lived there until the late nineties and, with my schoolfriends who were also marooned there, we would go to the Bull & Chequers and drink to forget that we were stranded in suburbia. It was forever 1996, and someone in that pub liked to put enough money in the jukebox to play What’s The Story, Morning Glory? in full, from beginning to end. And that was nightlife: if you didn’t like it, you caught a coach to Utopia. Or on summer nights you could walk across Ashenbury Park to drink at the Land’s End and pretend you were in the countryside. And back then, I can’t even say I was that dissatisfied. That was enough, for a while.

Anyway, I thought Woodley’s role in my life was over and done, preserved in aspic, but then something happened which I didn’t expect: I got together with Zoë. She grew up on the same streets as I did, a few years later, and her parents still live there. So my past became, to some extent, my present and I saw Woodley afresh, through different eyes. And actually that was properly lovely. After all, it was an excellent place to grow up, and for all I know it still is. If I could tell eighteen year old me that he’d still be walking home past Bulmershe School in the summer of 2022 he’d probably have been horrified, but life is full of surprises.

One thing that has changed is that, at long last, Woodley has a few potentially interesting restaurants. Not that I ate out in Woodley as a kid – the treat was a takeaway from Hong Kong Garden, and a VHS from the video store next door if you were lucky – and for many years it was that or Red Rose, the solitary Indian restaurant (it’s still going). When the George, a bog standard Chef & Brewer pub, opened on the edge of town it was genuinely a source of excitement.

But nowadays Woodley has the highly rated La’De Kitchen, right opposite the Waitrose. It has a surviving branch of Cozze which has outlived the one in the centre of Reading. There’s a fancy-looking takeaway pizza place that looks a cut above Papa John’s and a dessert shop doing waffles, sundaes and milkshakes. And last but not least there’s Adda Hut, the subject of this week’s review. 

I picked it because it just looked different enough to be worth a try – its website talked about serving the food of Kolkata, and its menu was relatively small and focused, a bhuna and dhansak-free zone. My very old friend Mike, a drinking buddy from those Bull & Chequers days, was home staying with his parents for the tail end of the year, so he joined me there on a dismal, sodden evening, the shopping precinct lashed with wind and rain.

It truly was an inhospitable evening, the kind where nobody in their right mind sets foot out of doors, but even so it was jarring to arrive in an empty restaurant. I mean completely empty: one table was occupied by a couple of members of staff, one tapping away on a laptop and the other staring into space, but otherwise it was as dead as they come. It’s hard to judge a restaurant when it’s completely devoid of atmosphere – especially when it’s not their fault – but for what it’s worth I quite liked the room, all muted colours, wood panels and twinkling lights. We were the only customers all night, although I was relieved to see a steady stream of Deliveroo pickups.

As I said, it’s quite a narrow menu and that’s the first thing that alerted me that it might not be generic stuff. Ten or so starters, labelled “Calcutta Street Food”, a dozen meat and fish curries and a good range of vegetarian dishes. Two biryanis, which by central Reading standards is a starvation diet. But also, everything just looked a little out of the ordinary – lots of meat on the bone, plenty of fish dishes and many things I’ve just not seen anywhere else. 

It’s a dry restaurant, although they don’t charge corkage if you want to bring a bottle, so I had a very enjoyable mango lassi and we shared a jug of tap water – the decadence! – while we made up our minds. One of the two staff members, who had the air of being the owner, came over and answered our questions about the menu, making suggestions and recommendations and pointing out specialities. I would say we played it fairly safe but fortune might favour the brave, especially if you like fish on the bone as the menu has rather a lot of that.

I really enjoyed both our starters. Their speciality is Calcutta Fish Fry, but instead we went for the fish pakora and I don’t feel like I missed out at all. It was an impressively generous helping of fish in a light and only slightly spicy coating, with just the right amount of crunch. A crazy amount of food for six pounds, and a real plate of joy. It came with a sort of acrid mustard dip which I started out actively disliking but ended up constantly dabbing more pakora into, unable to make up my mind. Mustard sauce and mustard gravy appear multiple times on the menu, so perhaps that too is a Kolkatan speciality.

Even better, and my star of the night, were the mutton chops. Now, the description here is misleading. The wait staff told me that rather than being chops they were in fact croquettes of minced mutton and potato, breaded and fried. That made me expect something a little more like the mutton rolls I’ve had before but what turned up was bigger, better and nothing like that at all. 

Instead they were huge bronzed spheres, looking like arancini on steroids, with a permacrust which gave way under pressure. But if they looked like arancini, what they resembled more than anything was a Scotch egg where the kitchen has dispensed with the annoying faff of including an actual egg. Instead you just got a warming filling of lightly spiced mutton, almost haggis-like, and the whole thing was quietly beautiful. It came with two dips – a thin, red, spicy one which I loved and another which I would put good money on being ketchup.

“That was really good, and just big enough” said Mike. “I’ve got room for the mains.” This is why Mike is thin, and I am not: those starters were generous, but if they’d been twice as big I’d have had no complaints. By this point in the evening we’d spent the princely sum of twelve pounds.

Could mains live up to that? They came pretty close. Mike wanted to try the tawa mutton curry, and it looked the part with a thick, brick red gravy. And the gravy was the absolute best bit. I loved it – deep and sticky, with thin ribbons of slow-cooked onion that suggested someone had taken their time over elements of our meal. If I’d just had that gravy with rice and bread I’d have been a happy camper, and in that respect it reminded me of some of the very best Indian food I’ve had.

And the mutton wasn’t bad, but I was expecting slow-cooked meat that broke into strands whereas this was leaner, more tender but perhaps slightly less interesting. We practically finished it all, though. I left one piece of mutton which was bouncier than I liked, but between us we polished off every molecule of sauce.

What I liked about the fish curry we also ordered was that although it looked decidedly similar to the mutton curry – you might have struggled to pick them apart in a lineup – the taste was distinctly different. This was a thinner, sharper sauce studded with nigella seeds, and big wodges of skin-on filleted fish that easily broke up into smaller pieces. Equally intriguing, although the mutton had the edge, but best of all I honestly felt like these two dishes had different start and end points. Obviously you never really know what goes on in a kitchen, but I didn’t feel like Adda Hut was using gallons of chopped tomatoes and packets of curry powder.

When the sauce is that good, you need to have vehicles for it. Steamed rice was – well, it was steamed rice, you don’t need me to tell you about that – but they also serve an interesting range of breads. No naan here, but paratha and puri stuffed with peas or lentils. We ordered the latter and I absolutely loved it with both curries – just a smear of lentil inside the bubble of bread, but still beautiful torn into pieces and loaded with the last of that gravy. Spice levels were slow and subtle, which is not the same as bland: I was still dabbing my nose by the end.

Our bill for all of that, including a service charge, came to just over forty-five pounds. And when the bill arrived I wished I’d tried more – given their desserts a chance, or ordered a cauliflower curry on the side. I felt bad that their one table of the evening hadn’t spent more money. But I suppose what I’m really saying is that I knew there were things I could order next time.

“How long have you been here?” I asked as the man I thought was the owner came to take our payment.

“Just over a year.”

“And how’s Woodley treating you?”

“Pretty well, actually. The weekends are manic.”

That relieved me, and we headed out into the miserable squall for a post dinner drink at Bosco Lounge – somehow going to the Bull & Chequers would have been a nostalgic step too far. Bosco Lounge was buzzing, still sending food to tables at half eight, and a large group at some nearby tables appeared to be doing some kind of art class. We had a debrief where we both concluded that Adda Hut was rather nice in its quiet, unshowy way and that we’d positively warmed to the place.

Later on I ventured back out into the relentlessly hammering rain to catch my bus, and the lights were still on in Adda Hut, although the chairs were stacked and they were giving up for the night. Bosco Lounge had felt fuller than it deserved to be, and when I passed Cozze it was still doing decent trade. By contrast Adda Hut felt quieter than it should have been, and that didn’t feel right.

I started this review with an apology to my Woodley readers, but I hope I have enough of them to give Adda Hut a try, even if I don’t necessarily manage to persuade the rest of you to head out in the direction of RG5. Because as I rushed past it brolly up, on that miserable evening, I found myself oddly grateful to this little outpost that had served me and my old friend some decent, interesting food on a night when many restaurants would have been eyeing the front door and waiting to close. A hard winter is coming, and not every restaurant will survive it. I very much hope Adda Hut does.

Adda Hut – 7.5
101 Crockhamwell Road, Woodley, RG5 3JP
07447 552987

https://www.addahut.co.uk

Restaurant review: Seasonality, Maidenhead

I get a fair few requests to recommend somewhere to eat in Reading. And when I do, I can usually come up with something: if you tell me how central it needs to be, your budget, what kind of food you like and how many of your party are vegans, or vegetarians, or coeliacs, I can find you somewhere suitable. It’s very rare that I’m completely stumped. 

But there is an exception to that, which I suppose you could best describe as the Special Occasion Restaurant. It used to be called fine dining, before that phrase became a term of abuse. But special occasion restaurant probably sums it up better – somewhere you want to go to spoil yourself, or treat someone, or celebrate anniversaries, birthdays, engagements or exam results. Yet even describing it that way makes me realise what a niche and endangered species it might be.

The thing is, a lot of restaurants can make an occasion feel special. It’s what they’re meant to do – the good ones, anyway. And isn’t special occasion dining a concept that has outlived its usefulness, as eating out becomes a special occasion, full stop? After all, we’ve staggered through two and a bit years of Bad Times, and summer has come to an end just in time for Even Worse Times to hove into view. I mark a special occasion these days by bunging the central heating on.

That said, it’s too early to say whether the latest coming storm will hit all of hospitality, or whether parts of the sector will fare better than others. Casual dining might be protected, in terms of demand, although it will have less of a buffer against rising costs. Chains may have enough of a war chest to see them through, as they did in the pandemic. But what about the top end? Is this a luxury people will forego, or will people ring-fence those kinds of meals? I imagine many restaurants, both new and well-established, are asking themselves those questions with some anxiety, especially with their peak trading period a month away.

I have to say, though, that even before the pandemic Reading never really boasted that sort of restaurant. In the town centre, the closest we had were places like Forbury’s (which, back when it was good, was very good), Cerise and London Street Brasserie. Only the latter is still going, although it’s not always felt quite special enough, I think. Further out of town we had Mya Lacarte which, in its early years, was terrific but faded away and closed. And I suppose we have Thames Lido. The location is special, if nothing else.

So for that kind of meal, people have always gone further afield – to London, which isn’t far in the scheme of things, or to one of the pretty pubs between here and London that trouble the Michelin and the Good Food Guides. Or out Henley way, for dinner at somewhere like Orwell’s: not Henley itself, mind you, as its upmarket restaurant Crockers closed its doors for the last time last month. “People won’t pay for fine dining but restaurants like Côte Brasserie do really well here” said the owner. “I have never been so badly disrespected as I was in Henley”: someone’s not going to get tapped up by the tourist board any time soon.

So where do I recommend, these days? Well, my go to used to be the Miller Of Mansfield in Goring – very pretty, terrific food and accessible by train if you all want to drink – but then it closed at the start of January (cause of death: greedy landlord, as usual). Since then I’ve struggled a bit, telling people there are better options further afield; the last time someone asked me, I suggested Goat On The Roof.

So that’s the thinking behind this week’s review – could Maidenhead’s Seasonality be a suitable option? The compact family-owned restaurant, run by husband and wife team Wesley and Francesca Smalley, got a rave review in the Guardian back in July and that, combined with the short sample menu on their website, made it look like an intriguing prospect. I never need much persuasion to hop on the Elizabeth Line, stopping only for a pre-prandial pale at A Hoppy Place, so I booked a table for Friday night with some anticipation. Could I finally find somewhere of a standard similar to places like Marmo and Caper & Cure without having to trek over to Bristol?

Seasonality was a short walk from the train station and, at first glance at least, was pretty unassuming. The dining room’s best feature were the big windows that I imagine let plenty of light in, but by nightfall, without that glow, the place was neutral and a little spartan. The only exception to the muted furniture was a weird-looking marble bar area, a little like a kitchen island, where you could perch side by side on bar stools and stare at the wall together: they tried to seat us there but I politely asked if perhaps we could have a conventional table instead.

The evening improved from there, and Seasonality do one thing of which I approve heartily, seating couples at adjacent corners rather than opposite one another so you both get a good view of the space. The place was quiet when we arrived, but by the end of our meal every table was occupied (except that weird kitchen island – another couple was seated there but made a break for a real table the moment one became vacant).

“It’s a bit dark” said Zoë, who is always better at critiquing the decor than I am. “I don’t understand why none of the lights are on over the window seats.”

The menu was a mixed bag – attractive but small. Based on the name (not a huge fan of the name, incidentally) I imagine the menu changes at least four times a year but I hope they tinker with it more frequently than that because otherwise it has decidedly limited replay value. Three starters, three mains, three desserts. A few snacks to start you off and a couple of sides. Starters just under a tenner, most mains twenty-five quid, desserts the same price as the starters. That’s your lot. 

On the plus side, that means that in this review you’ll read about the majority of what was on offer, but the minus is that if you enjoy the delicious agony of narrowing it down, or if you’re a vegetarian or a vegan, or find that the menu happens to contain one of your flat-out no-nos this might not be for you. I gave Zoë the first pick of each course, because manners, and I was delighted that in at least one case she went for the option I fancied least, giving me at least the illusion of choice.

The wine list was small and perfectly formed too – something like four reds and four whites, maxing out at forty quid. Ironically this is an area where I often think less is more, so I was happy with that and our bottle of Morgon, which was about thirty two pounds, had plenty of fruit and just enough about it to bridge the gap between the mains we went for. But before all that we started with a couple of things from the “snacks” section of the menu. The bread was lovely: two quadrants of a little loaf, still warm from a little gentle toasting and spot on with a pat of cultured butter (from Ampersand, who used to supply butter to Geo Café).

Better still was the other snack – sheets of lardo dotted with figs, grapes, sunflower seeds and micro herbs. This was the moment when I realised the evening would be nothing if not interesting. The salty whack of that lardo tempered and toyed with by a whole palette of other flavours and influences – the bright sweetness of fruit, the freshness of little leaves of mint – was a true delight, and unlike anything else I’ve tried this year. Besides, look at it: it’s like an edible Kandinsky. 

More fascination was to follow, not least because Zoë’s starter, which I’d dismissed as very much not my bag, knocked it out of the park. “Tunworth Cheese Soup” hadn’t appealed to me – a soup, made of cheese? – but more fool me: what turned up was a soothing bowl of lactic lusciousness, comforting but not too heavy, scattered with the crunchiest croutons and finished with verdant spots of olive oil. I used to have a friend who said she never ordered soup in a restaurant because every mouthful was exactly the same. Ordinarily I would have agreed with her, but with this masterpiece that was rather the point.

By comparison my starter felt like a good idea not executed right. On paper a potato and Jerusalem artichoke fondant with mushroom ketchup sounded right up my alley, but the flavours and textures of this dish were out of whack. Maybe it was the balance of the potato and the artichoke, but the whole thing had an oddly spongey feel to it without any crunch or crispness. The outside had no upside.

That made it feel a bit like a vegetarian fishcake, and there was nowhere near enough umami punch from the underpowered mushroom ketchup to lift it. Only the fennel, which I thought might be pickled, broke up the beige and reminded me of Bristol’s lovely Caper & Cure where I last had it. The starter we didn’t try was bergamot cured trout with oyster custard: only three options on the menu and I’d picked the wrong one.

Mains reassured me that my starter was a blip. Mine was a beautifully cooked piece of hake topped with tightly curled, muscular brown shrimp and served on top of a ribbolita of coco beans, croutons and cavolo nero – more broth than sauce but still absolutely bewitching stuff. I thought I detected more of that fennel chucked into the mix, which I found a little strange – the dish didn’t need it and with a menu so small it seemed odd to have duplication.

Similarly the “Cookham greens” we ordered as a side – a tranche of cabbage a bit like a hot wedge salad – was drizzled with a dressing or sauce that looked very similar to the one that had adorned my starter. But even with those minor quibbles, the hake was a great dish. Could I think of anywhere in Reading that served food like this? Not really.

Zoë’s main showed more of that imagination and skill and again, had one truly impressive component. Venison was really nicely done, although pairing it with radicchio made it feel, and look, surprisingly insubstantial. But what saved the day was the other element of the dish, a bowl of salty, savoury, spiced venison keema topped with – another genius touch – something called “crispy potato” which, to me, had the feel of puffed rice (unless of course it was meant to be puffed rice, in which case the potato had gone AWOL).

The forkfuls of this I was allowed might have been my absolute high point of the meal, yet even so those two separate parts, the fillet and the keema, didn’t cohere into a single dish so in that sense, enthralling though it was in places, it didn’t entirely work. Seasonality does a set lunch Wednesday to Friday for a ridiculously reasonable £18 and when I last checked it included a roe deer keema pie and hispi cabbage: now that I could eat every week for the rest of my life.

The wine list included a few dessert wines so once we’d finished our mains and our bottle of red we grabbed a Sauternes and a Pedro Ximenez (both impeccable) and ordered dessert. Again, Zoë had first choice and again she chose better – a slab of cake studded with hazelnuts, surrounded by a moat of deep chocolate sauce and crowned with a sphere of smooth, indulgent nut butter ice cream was just a superb plate of food. I wouldn’t necessarily thank you for a sticky toffee pudding but I might well beg you for one of these.

Despite seeing them mangled on Bake Off the other week (they’re a favourite of Brexiteer ghoul Prue Leith) I didn’t really fancy îles flottantes so I opted for the other option – the vicissitudes of a tiny menu again – the crème brûlée. Now, I must say that this is something I almost never order because I can nearly always find something I’d rather eat. 

It’s a blessing that I did, though, because it was the nicest I’ve had in ages. It had perfect texture, a wonderful note of tonka and a little freshness from the fig leaf – so much more to it than plain old vanilla – and a caramelised lid with a perfect snap and a wonderful burnt sweetness. I’d forgotten how enjoyable that first tap of the spoon can be, and everything that comes after. I also liked the palmier unceremoniously dumped on top of it but, again, it didn’t really go and felt like two desserts uneasily merged into one.

I haven’t talked much about service, but it was good and friendly if perhaps slightly lacking in polish. Little things like not taking cutlery away, or not bringing it out, along with just a general feeling that they were very agreeable but slightly on the green side. At one point the chef came out and talked to a few tables, which was wonderful to see, and I got the impression that a fair few of Seasonality’s customers are regulars. I can see why, too. 

Our bill – for four courses, a bottle of wine and a couple of dessert wines – came to a hundred and seventy pounds, which included a twelve and a half per cent service change. Grace Dent’s review in the Guardian said that a meal including drinks and service at Seasonality costs around forty pounds a head: either prices have rocketed in just over three months, or Grace Dent is on mushrooms. I know which my money’s on.

So does Seasonality do enough to become a serious prospect for Reading residents wanting to treat themselves? Yes and no. There are a fair few things in the latter column. The service needs more polish, the room is a little unspecial. The narrowness of the menu is going to be a big problem for some people, and I saw lots of little quirks that need ironing out – dishes that didn’t completely work, or didn’t come together, a certain amount of duplication which felt jarring across such a small menu.

Yet despite that Seasonality has a real charm and real skill that thoroughly won me over and made me want to come back sooner rather than later. There is imagination and talent on display in spades across that menu – in that phenomenal lardo dish, in the depths of that Tunworth soup, in my majestic hake or Zoë’s wonderful hazelnut cake. Those real highs, those fireworks, make me think that it would definitely do you a turn if you wanted to go somewhere different to celebrate – especially if you were getting there by train.

So although it’s not yet the finished article, I think Seasonality has more than enough showstoppers and jawdroppers to merit a visit. I keep thinking about the very best of what we had and trying to imagine anywhere in Reading that can quite match it, and the answer is that I can’t. The high points reminded me far more of places in Bristol than in Reading, and anybody that reads the blog will know how much of a compliment that is. So I will be recommending this a lot in future, because it proves something I’ve long suspected. You don’t need a special occasion to eat at some restaurants. Some restaurants are the special occasion in their own right, all by themselves.

Seasonality – 8.7
26 Queen Street, Maidenhead, SL6 1HZ
07507 714087

https://www.seasonality.co.uk

Bar review: Monkey Lounge

It wasn’t the most clement of evenings when I left my house and wandered through the streets of East Reading in search of Monkey Lounge, the subject of this week’s review. It was already dark at six o’clock, and there was a distinct, thin nip in the air – not see-your-breath cold, but close enough to remind you what see-your-breath cold feels like. It’s really not a reminder I wanted. And the leaves on the pavement of Erleigh Road, usually a golden autumnal carpet to rustle and crackle as you kick them up with your shoes, were a sad and sodden mulch, the last vestiges of a dreary day of stop and start rain. Make no mistake: summer is over, and autumn will be over soon, too. Where did 2022 go?

Monkey Lounge had been on my list for most of 2022 without ever quite reaching the top of it. It’s just along from Café Yolk, where Reading institution the Fruit Bat Bar used to be (I think I drank there once, over twenty years ago, waiting for my washing to finish in the launderette next door), but it opened back in 2020, the year when nobody in their right mind would have opened a bar or a restaurant. 

And yet it’s still going despite everything stacked against it. And that, for me at least, includes the name: it was originally called MNKY Lounge – yes, all capitals – but they’ve sensibly changed their name to the longer version. And no, they have nothing to do with the Lounge group which counts Caversham’s Alto and Woodley’s Bosco among its members (it’s a wonder the group hasn’t sent Monkey Lounge a strongly worded legal letter, to be honest).

Monkey Lounge first came to my attention properly at the start of the year when they sent me a message on Instagram. They said that they were well known in East Reading for their gourmet burgers and warm hospitality and wanted to know if one of my team wanted to try a complimentary meal there (bless them for thinking this blog is a team effort, but I’ve never been one of those saddoes who pretends to have multiple writers cobbling this together).

I declined, as I always do, but I did ask them to tell me more about their burgers. And that was that, because they never replied. But I’ve kept an eye on Monkey Lounge’s Instagram ever since. And I have to say, and I mean this with all kindness, that nothing about it would necessarily induce you to pop in for a meal. A lot of their Instagram feed is sports related, telling you which European football fixture you can watch next on their big screens, interspersed with the occasional picture of their food. 

And the food didn’t look bad, but it didn’t make you want to drop everything and make dinner plans. Although having said that the consistent message on Monkey Lounge’s social media, to be fair to them, is that they think they do Reading’s best burger. It’s a proud boast: the competition is fierce. It’s probably not true. But – and this was running through my mind as I dodged the giant puddles on London Road, and the cars planning to drench me with them – what if it was?

I must have walked past Monkey Lounge a hundred times over the past couple of years without going in. They’ve done a nice job of the outside – it’s covered, and extends across the front of The Wash Box, that launderette, and although there were no heaters it looked like a nice place for an al fresco pint. The big TV fixed to the wall was blaring out sports and the branding still said “MNKY LOUNGE”, which felt jarring (come to think of it, maybe they risk being sued by Donna Karan, too).

But the big surprise was the interior. It’s nothing fancy, a long thin space split into two rooms separated by a ramp, all high tables and stools. But despite that, the longer I spent in it the more I appreciated it. Sitting in the middle section, near the bar, I liked the buzz of it – it was actually pretty full when I got there just after six, and the whole thing almost had a speakeasy feel to it. I wondered how many people, like me, had traipsed along Erleigh Road without ever considering going in.

The bar had a good selection of gins and an interesting-looking cocktail menu, although the beer selection was slightly underwhelming: a couple of options by Camden, Beavertown’s Neck Oil and Corona on draft. They also do their own lager, but I asked the woman behind the bar who made it and she didn’t know. “We’re out of it anyway, I’m afraid” she said.

The menu, on a pegboard behind the bar, offered a small selection of mains, half a dozen burgers and a few more pasta dishes. It was almost compact enough to raise my hopes, but not quite: could they really do all that well? Did their slow-cooked lamb shank really have nothing to do with Brakes Brothers? As I went up to the bar to place my order, I did so more in hope than expectation but I decided to order what I’d been told Monkey Lounge was good at and let the chips – Cajun fries, in this case – fall where they may.

But before I did that, something happened which slightly changed my mind. Because I saw one of the wait staff walk past my table on the way to someone else’s carrying a board piled with chicken wings. And I have to say, they looked good. Big, rugged things, with real substance. And so, out of nowhere, I decided to order them along with my meal. The menu gives you a choice of half a dozen or a dozen, and for an extra pound fifty you can have them tossed in Monkey Lounge’s signature hot sauce.

“Just how hot is it?” I asked the guy behind the bar.

“Oh, it’s pretty hot. Not too hot, if you know what I mean, but it’s definitely hot.”

None the wiser, I decided to go for it. In for a penny, in for a pounding as my other half is wont to say.

Everything arrived together, around twenty minutes later – a good wait, an encouraging one. And if I have one recommendation for you above all others if you come to Monkey Lounge – and you might – it’s to pay their menu respect by ordering your dishes one after another so you give each of them your full attention. Because, as I was to discover, everything merited it. Far more so, in fact, than I expected.

Take my burger, for instance. I’d ordered the Monkey Burger (even with all letters intact, the name of the place is a problem), and it was difficult to tell at first glance, or from the picture below, whether it was going to be any good. But from the first bite I knew I was on to a winner. I’m afraid I’m going to praise Monkey Lounge’s burger by telling you all the things it wasn’t. It wasn’t too big or too sloppy. It wasn’t too smooth or too homogeneous. It wasn’t too bouncy, or crumbly.

That might sound like faint praise, but I promise it isn’t. With burgers I often notice what the restaurant has done wrong, but being unable to find fault with their burger I could move on to all the things I liked. The texture was perfect – reassuringly coarse but keeping its shape, with a nicely caramelised crust. The seasoning was spot on without being overwhelming, and overall the impression was a burger made of good beef and not much else. It wasn’t pink, as is the fashion elsewhere, but it was none the worse for it. 

And everything that came with it was just right – a good slab of salty back bacon, well cooked, not wan and rubbery. Decent cheese – cheddar at a guess, rather than the plastic American stuff. Good burger sauce, crisp iceberg. And long transverse slices of pickle, adding just enough crunch and acidity. The best burger in Reading? This might be news to you as much as me, but it was up there.

The chips exceeded expectation, too. No restaurant makes its own chips, unless it’s Honest (or possibly the Lyndhurst) but that really doesn’t matter as long as you buy in the good stuff and cook it well. Again, Monkey Lounge did exactly that. And again, that’s a rare enough occurrence that it deserves to be mentioned. They were crisp and fluffy, none of them were manky or offputting and a little dusting of Cajun spice lent another dimension (although it would have been lovely if they’d crumbled some feta on them – I’ve tried that combination elsewhere, and it’s next level).

Just to nit pick, and because it’s the only nit I could pick, one of Reading’s burgers deserves a better bun than this. It looked the part, all bronzed and speckled with sesame, but it wasn’t up to the task of containing the burger so every bite just pushed the filling out past the edge. A little thin, too, but replacing it with something more up to the task wouldn’t be difficult. In the end I ended up eating the last of my burger with a knife and fork, like an awful human, but it was worth it.

The wings were pretty decent too. They were, as I’d already seen, hefty specimens with a thick coating – maybe a little too thick – but the meat underneath was yielding. But the winner here was the Monkey Lounge’s hot sauce, which I loved – a proper hot, sour buffalo sauce with a good kick that built over time. If I was working there and someone asked me what it was like, I’d say that it will make your nose run and, by the end of your meal, your eyes water. Possibly marginally more helpful than pretty hot, not too hot but definitely hot, but then I suppose everybody’s mileage may vary.

My burger cost a tenner. The wings – half a dozen of them – cost seven pounds. When I’d finished I had another sip of my Camden Hells and paused for a moment. Had I just had a rather good meal, at Monkey Lounge? It did feel like it. Originally I was going to leave it there and slope off into the night, but the staff were so lovely – asking if I wanted anything else, showing genuine interest in what I made of the food – that I went up to order dessert.

“That was great” I said. “I really enjoyed that burger.”

“Thanks!” said the barman. “It’s not what you expect to find here, is it?”

“Do you make them yourself?”

“Yeah, we do. I don’t think they make the chicken burgers, but the beef burgers are made fresh in the kitchen every day.”

There it was. Ten months after I’d first asked on Instagram, I finally had my answer from Monkey Lounge. There’s too much hyperbole on social media, so you get lots of hucksters calling their dishes famous or legendary, when they’re nothing of the kind, or saying that they do the best such-and-such in town when that’s just wishful thinking. But finding out that a boast like that isn’t a million miles from the truth: what are the chances?

Oh, for completeness’ sake, I did have dessert. It was a red velvet cheesecake, so essentially a cheesecake with added red velvet sponge, topped with a layer of solid chocolate. And however indecent that sounds, funnily enough, is pretty much how indecent it was. They may well have bought it in, as they bought in the chips, but it was so enjoyable that I didn’t care, this strange megamix of two desserts rolled into one, with a gorgeous, thick, sugary biscuit base. They even brought me a little ramekin of double cream, and I loved them for that. This dessert cost four pounds fifty.

Own up, you didn’t have high hopes for this review. And that’s fine: I didn’t either. And yet here we are, close to the end, probably all a little dazed and incredulous. But it’s good that life still has the power to confound – imagine how depressing the world would be if you already knew how everything would turn out, and the ennui that would ensue. But at the end of it all I walked home, back down the Erleigh Road, about twenty eight pounds lighter and positively delighted.

And I realised what Monkey Lounge reminded me of, more than anything. Back when I used to go to Prague on holiday with my old friend Dave, there would always be an evening where he dragged me to a sports bar so he could watch Liverpool lose to some team or other – this was in the Noughties, when they did that a fair amount.

And if you could find somewhere with a big screen, cold beer and something like ribs or a burger to fuel the rest of the evening you could be very happy indeed (appropriately enough, Liverpool were playing the night I ate at Monkey Lounge). And believe me, it’s a compliment when I say that Monkey Lounge rather reminded me of nights like that. I wish their beer selection was better, and the closer I get to fifty the more I prefer chairs to stools, but in the scheme of things that’s all minor.

I’ve always found it odd the way the English differ from our American cousins. They like to say things are amazing, or awesome. We, conditioned no doubt by far lower expectations, prefer to use a sliding scale of badness. So things can be very bad, or rather bad, or bad. And then, at the more favourable end of the spectrum, they gallop along from not all bad to not half bad to not bad, really not bad or, if we’re really raving with enthusiasm, not at all bad.

And I fear I’ve rather pulled that trick with Monkey Lounge by describing all the mistakes they didn’t make and the traps they didn’t fall into. That says more about me than it does about them, and they deserve a better peroration than this. I’m sorry about that. But honestly, I enjoyed it a great deal. It wasn’t bad at all: not in any respect.

Monkey Lounge – 7.7
30 Erleigh Road, RG1 5NA
0118 9664222

https://monkeylounge.uk