City guide: Montpellier (new and improved!)

“Montpellier? Not again. Didn’t you write about it back in March?”

Come on, you’re probably thinking it even if you’re not saying it out loud. And yes, you’re right. I wrote about the city in the Spring off the back of an impromptu visit prompted by a random conversation at an ER readers’ lunch with Phil and Kath, longstanding readers of the blog. And you can read that guide, if you want, and a lot of it still stands. It is an incredible city, a mixture of the old and the new, of biscuit coloured, sun-bathed houses and quaint little squares but also of craft beer and hipster joints.

It has beautiful green spaces, a very grand art gallery full of paintings of Jesus, pastoral scenes and tableaux from mythology, and a photographic gallery which, on my visit, was full of grainy black and white portraits of supermodels. But it also has street art everywhere, and street food to go with it. I read a stat somewhere that something like fifty per cent of the population of Montpellier is under thirty, and it feels like that: a city with more energy than almost any I’ve visited. It’s France’s eighth largest city, and yet nobody seems to know much about it. Well, I do now, and if you make it through this piece you will too.

Why an updated list so soon? Well, for no reason other than this: I went back. I spent a very happy week there on holiday earlier this month. And normally I would just make a few tweaks to my old article and leave it at that. But I ate so well, and drank so well, in so many places that never featured in my first guide (many of which surpassed the – already extremely good – meals I had back in March) that, rather than tinker around the edges, I decided to put together a mostly all new guide to the city. It is one of the best places I’ve ever been for loafing, for good food, for culture and to get a real feeling of a city as a living, breathing thing.

So if that even remotely sounds like your idea of a good time, have a read and maybe this will nudge its way on to your city break to do list for 2023. I know at least one reader of the blog found herself near Montpellier earlier this year and made a detour to the city, because she messaged me on Instagram to tell me she’d had a very enjoyable time working her way through my recommendations. Even if that happens just the once as a result of this piece, to me it will have been worth writing it. I can’t help it: I’m evangelical about the place now, you see, and it’s all Phil and Kath’s fault.

Where to eat

1. Abacus

Abacus is a tasteful, almost ascetic-looking restaurant on the edge of the Écusson, the old city. The dining room is gorgeous, but on our visit we sat outside on rue Terral enjoying the last of the evening sun and hearing the hum of the passing trams – and the following morning we had the insect bites to prove it.

The menu has a stripped-back simplicity to it too, with a choice of two, three or four courses and only a couple of options per course. I loved my tuna, barely even seared and full of clean mineral flavour (and the novelty value of hearing a Frenchwoman using the words Granny Smith – it was topped with crisp batons of apple – isn’t going to fade any time soon). Even better was a crisp pastry cigarillo crammed with rich roasted lamb, reminiscent of briwats I had many years ago in Marrakech, in another life.

Abacus
26 rue Terral
http://abacus-restaurant.fr

2. Des Reves Et Du Pain

Just at the edge of the old city, near Montpellier’s copy of the Arc du Triomphe, this bakery was my go-to for a morning pain au chocolat. A little place which only admits two customers at a time, the queue stretched up the street, particularly on Saturday morning when it felt like the whole city was there stocking up on bread for the weekend. 

But it was always worth joining. Even compared to the pastries elsewehere in Montpellier this was next level, with world-beating buttery lamination. Everything in there was beautiful – madeleines, danishes, focaccia and a glorious slab of pissaladiere topped with sweet, reduced onion and spiked with wrinkled, pitted black olives and strands of anchovy. Montpellier, like the rest of France, has the same density of good bakeries as Reading has Costa Coffees. Where did it all go wrong for us?

Des Rêves Et Du Pain
10 rue Eugène Lisbonne
https://desrevesetdupain.com

3. Ébullition

Ébullition was probably my pick of the new restaurants I discovered on my second visit to Montpellier, a peaceful space where everything – the room, the welcome, the food, the wine and the service – were close to unimprovable. This felt like food a whisper away from Michelin star status, a real mixture of skill and imagination and a level above most of what I ate in the city.

My starter, a symphony of tomatoes from confit to sorbet, all sweetness and summer, was one of the finest things I’ve eaten in a long time. Veal, breaded and rolled like flamenquin but with the genius addition of citrus, was an absolutely beautiful dish, served with a rich jus with the tiniest savoury hit of liquorice. They leave the jug of jus at the table so you can add more (which you do – repeatedly, unless there’s something wrong with you), something not enough restaurants do.

Ébullition
10 Rue du Pila St Gély
https://restaurant-ebullition.eu/en/english/

4. Green Lab

Green Lab is a falafel joint with two branches, one just off Place de la Comédie and my preferred one on rue de la Université. I associate top notch falafel with France after many happy meals at Paris’ legendary L’As Du Fallafel and Green Lab didn’t let me down. It offers a relatively compact menu of falafel pitas and platters with variations on a theme; my choice, the Silvergreen, was a beautiful Meditteranean take on falafel, with a pesto tahini and a goats cheese tzatziki. 

And if you think that sounds like cultural appropriation or vandalism, I’d say don’t knock it til you’ve tried it. It was a beautiful, multi-layered, ridiculous bargain of a thing bursting with enjoyable mouthfuls. A particular thumbs up goes to the sticky caramelised aubergine dotted throughout: is any vegetable more delicious in the right hands or more awful in the wrong ones?

Green Lab
2 rue de la Université
https://www.greenlab-mtp.fr/home

5. Hop Smash Burger

You might think it’s a bit naff to have a burger in Montpellier, and you might have a point. But I was there for a week and that meant seeking out a variety of lunch options, and after walking past Hop Smash Burger a few times and looking enviously at their Instagram feed I decided to go for it. I was rewarded by possibly the best smashed burger I’ve ever had, and given the options in Reading that’s high praise. 

My burger had two beautiful smashed patties with savoury, slightly crispy, crinkled edges, excellent bacon and whole grain mustard (which I’ve never had with a burger, but worked brilliantly). Oh, and cheddar, because we’re in France and so they don’t bother with plastic American cheese. Paired with some fries dusted in Cajun spice and topped with crumbled feta – another brilliant combo which was new to me – and a NEIPA made specially for the restaurant by a local brewery it was about as perfect a lunch in the sunshine as there is.

Hop Smash Burger
9 Rue du Puits du Temple
https://hop-smashburger.fr

6. JB & Co

A little hole in the wall on rue des Étuves with a solitary table outside, JB & Co is a very good example of how to succeed in business doing just one thing very well. It’s all about the jambon beurre here, and all you have to choose is which bread you want and which of their hams you want in it. The bread, as everywhere in France, is phenomenal. The ham, prominently displayed and sliced wafer-thin for you, is a joy. And of course there are just enough sharp, crunchy cornichons to bring the whole thing together. Yours for something like five Euros, and a better lunch on the run is difficult to imagine: I chipped a filling eating mine, but it was still worth it. Afterwards, they brought out a coffee and a little piece of freshly baked cake for us on the house, a great little touch. 

Back in Blighty a couple of weeks after my first visit to Montpellier I picked up a jambon beurre from Pret on the run for my train. I always used to enjoy them, but JB & Co has ruined them for me.

JB & Co
17 rue des Étuves
https://jbandco.fr

7. Le Couperet

On the first night of this trip to Montpellier, we planned to eat in a place called Rosemarie. It occupies possibly one of the prettiest squares in the old city and every picture they put on social media makes it look like an enchanting place to eat dinner under the stars. But they never responded to our attempts to book a table, so we cut our losses and ended up at Le Couperet, a French take on an American smokehouse, and I’m so glad we did.

They do two sittings every evening (including Monday, a night when many restaurants close) and they offer a menu which is delicious but limited. But you only need to find a handful of dishes you want to order, and that was no problem at Le Couperet. A selection of houmous and smoked artichoke dips started us off nicely and then they brought out a board groaning with the good stuff. Pulled lamb was terrific, especially with their homemade tomato relish, but the star of the show was a blackened pork rib, the bone dispensed with and the whole thing meltingly soft and tender. Le Couperet even smoked the potatoes used in their potato salad – how can you not love a place like that?

Le Couperet
3 rue des Tessiers
https://www.instagram.com/lecouperet/?hl=en

8. Les Freres Poulards

On my first visit to Montpellier, while drinking at the splendid Discopathe (more on that below) I spotted a rotisserie chicken restaurant opposite called Les Freres Poulards. If I ever come back here, I thought to myself, I’m having dinner there. Well, I did, and I did, and it was fantastic. A starter of coarse salami, sharp cornichons and agricultural terrine set me up nicely but the chicken was the feature attraction – a superb red label chicken cooked perfectly with tons of tender meat and crispy, gleaming skin. Add a little pot of sauce, juices and lardons and a hefty helping of potato dauphinois and all that’s left is to eat and luxuriate.

A British couple slightly older than us had taken the table next to us, and at the end of our meal we briefly got talking. They were here for a couple of nights passing through on their way back to their home in Spain. “What do you think of the city?” they asked and they were taken aback when we started waxing lyrical. It’s not very nice, one of them said, gesticulating at one of my favourite Montpellier streets. They were staying in what she described as the “Arab quarter” and they were wondering where the nice parts of Montpellier were. We directed them to the picturesque bits of the old city but, replete with beautiful chicken, looking at the beer festival taking place in the bar opposite, I couldn’t help feeling the whole place was wasted on them. 

Les Freres Poulards
27 rue du Faubourg du Courreau

9. Les Glaces MPL

Les Halles Laissac is one of Montpellier’s two covered markets, and although it has a plethora of food stands selling wine, charcuterie, cheese and all that jazz I was drawn to Les Glaces MPL which sells profoundly good ice cream. A massive array of flavours is on offer, and I can personally vouch for the salted caramel and my personal favourite, a stunning black sesame ice cream. Zoë went for chocolate and Nutella, although I think she slightly envied my more leftfield choices. 

On my second visit to the city I visited Les Glaces MPL most days and my favourite thing there was a strawberry confection shot through with mint and basil, summer in a cardboard cup. My only regret was that their tomato sorbet wasn’t on sale that day. The big names also have a foothold in Montpellier – I saw a branch of Amorino on my travels in the city – but I’d pick this place any day of the week.

Les Glaces MPL
Place Alexandre Laissac
https://www.lesglacesmpl.fr

10. Lipopette

Just down the street from Les Freres Poulards (above) and Le Discopathe (below) is Lipopette, another place on my hit list from visit one which I finally got round to on visit two for lunch on my final day. If I’d known how good it was I’d have bumped it up to an evening meal and really gone for it, because the menu was very clever and extremely wide ranging: you’d have called it fusion food if that term wasn’t so wanky. So Zoë had phenomenal croquettes to start, and I had crisp tempura prawns in a moat of black pudding purée leavened beautifully with something like lemongrass. The overall effect was baffling but profoundly brilliant. 

And then my main, the single best plate of food of my trip, played it far more trad with a creamy risotto, handfuls of the first deep amber girolles of the season and – oh happy day! – chicken thighs cooked to yielding with a perfect, brittle, crispy skin. If I could have got away with it, I’d have ordered it twice. Dessert was a dish called Hmm, c’est trop choco, là! which was, I’m delighted to say, chocolate upon chocolate upon chocolate.

Lipopette
7 rue du Faubourg du Courreau
https://www.facebook.com/barlipopette

11. Pastis

Michelin-starred Pastis is a simple but superb restaurant in the old city. I had lunch there on my first visit, in a very tasteful dining room that I would say is possibly the most beautiful beige space I’ve ever seen, the acceptable face of taupe. The menu here’s a surprise one (no swaps, unless you have allergies) but every one of the surprises was joyous. My highlight here was a dish made with local duck, served simply but accompanied with a bread roll hollowed out, stuffed with coarse, herby confit duck and then liberally soaked with rich, sticky jus. I left full and happy (and slightly smudged, after also putting paid to a knockout bottle of white Corbieres).

Pastis
3 rue Terral
https://pastis-restaurant.com

12. Reflet d’Obione

Arguably I’ve left the best til last: Michelin-starred Reflet d’Obione is the one restaurant I visited on both of my visits to Montpellier and each time the tasting menu with wine pairings, by no means the kind of thing I normally go for, blew me away. It’s a small, comfortable, hushed restaurant with the kind of attention to detail (and attention to customers) that gets you a star, although it’s only held one for a couple of years.

Chef Laurent Cherchi – young, intense and moustachioed – comes over to every table and the rest of the time bosses a young, extremely talented brigade. On my second visit we had a table in the front room, overlooking the kitchen, which gave you a fascinating insight into just how much work goes into delivering perfection. But the front of house is every bit as accomplished and polished, talking through the dishes and the wines with charm and enthusiasm with perfect English (although every thank you is greeted with a whispered je vous en prie).

Every dish I had, across two visits, was stunning and provenance was given reverence, with all the ingredients and all the wines being completely from and of the area. Highlights included the most stunningly executed fish with a gratin of pumpkin and a Day-Glo orange sauce, a langoustine brushed with the deepest, most umami civet sauce and served with a tangle of wild mushrooms and a magnificent dessert of figs served something like five different ways with a divine cream spiked with green anis. Rarely do I love a dessert this much which doesn’t involve chocolate; it came paired with a local vermouth which had notes of pine and rosemary (if you ask me) or canard de toilette (if you asked Zoë).

Reflet d’Obione
29 rue Jean Jacques Rousseau
https://www.reflet-obione.com

Where to drink

1. Bear’s House

In many other cities Bear’s House would be the craft beer bar in town and in that sense, it’s rather unlucky to be in Montpellier. A small bar on the northern edge of the old city, it had some decent outside space, enthusiastic and knowledgable staff and a good range of local beers on tap. They also have an impressive selection of cans and bottles from further afield, and I even spotted a few UK breweries in the mix. If you do happen to go to Montpellier as a craft beer fan – and I’ve not been to many small cities better for beer fans – you should definitely pay it a visit. Zoë is still rueing the fact that we missed a tap takeover by Cantillon while we were in town.

Bear’s House
26 rue de la Université
https://bearshouse.fr

2. Broc Café

Broc Café is a beautiful cafe on a street opposite the botanical gardens, and on my first trip to Montpellier it was very hard to walk past it without stopping for a drink. On my second visit I didn’t even attempt to do so, and we had a thoroughly agreeable couple of hours sitting on the terrace watching Saturday night come to life in the city. Unusually for this kind of venue they have an impressive selection of craft beer from local breweries along with wine and aperitivi, and a special mention has to go to the staff who are brilliantly helpful and friendly, very proficient at suggesting drinks you might not have considered and work like absolute Trojans.

Broc Café
2 boulevard Henri IV
https://broccafemontpellier.fr

3. Cafe BUN

Cafe BUN was my favourite coffee place in Montpellier with a great spot just off Place de la Comédie and plenty of outside space for watching the world go by. It was the trailblazer (Montpellier’s answer to Workhouse, I suppose) opening in 2013 as the city’s first speciality coffee house. I grew very fond of it during my first trip, and a morning visit there to plan the day ahead over a grand crème became a very happy fixture of my second trip to Montpellier. They roast their own coffee – I brought some home with me – and their latte was easily the nicest I had on my holiday. 

Café BUN
5 rue des Étuves
https://cafebun.fr

4. Coffee Club

I also enjoyed Coffee Club, a tiny place on rue Saint-Guilhem with a little space inside and a nice spot at the top of the hill. This felt a little more expat than Café Bun – it’s owned by a Brit, which may explain that – but it was still a really good choice if you wanted a morning off café au lait and to try something similar to coffee closer to home. Also worth mentioning, further down the hill, is the splendidly named Maisons Régionale des Vins et des Produits du Terroir, which has a faultless selection of local wine, beer and other delicacies so you can take a little bit of the Languedoc home with you when you leave.

Coffee Club
12 rue Saint-Guilhem
https://www.facebook.com/coffeeclubmontpellier/

5. Coldrip

Coldrip, on the northern side of the old city, is in another absurdly pretty little square and also gets plaudits online for its coffee. Having perched at a table outside I can completely understand why – my latte was wonderful, and Zoë reckoned her mocha (complete with a little ramekin of Chantilly cream) was up there with C.U.P.’s, something I didn’t previously think was possible.

The brunch menu owes more to Australia than France – lots of smashed avocado, halloumi and the like – and watching it turn up at other tables tested my resolve. But they had a crispy chicken burger on their specials menu the first time I visited and it turned out to be a perfect final day lunch, really nicely done with a deceptively tasty coleslaw full of brightness and crunch and a delightful seeded brioche bun. We made a beeline there for lunch on my return to the city and I had the most incredible pancakes topped with salty, crispy bacon. They bring a jug of maple syrup and leave it at the table, which strikes me as both very civilised and very decadent.

Coldrip
4 rue Glaize
https://coldrip-food-and-coffee.business.site

6. Couleurs de Bieres Nord

Couleurs de Bières Nord is a cracking little bar in, as the name suggests, the north of the city. It’s opposite the exotically named Stade Philippidès, and there’s something about watching people running round the track that really puts you in the mood for a cold, crisp beer. The list here skewed little more Belgian, but there were a couple of beers on tap by ZooBrew, a local brewery, and it made for an eminently suitable pre-prandial spot.

Couleurs de Bières Nord
48 rue du Faubourg Saint-Jaumes
https://www.couleursdebieres.fr/front-page/cdb/nord

7. Hopulus Brewpub

Often, and I don’t mean this unkindly, craft beer places (like craft coffee places) can feel a bit thrown together on a budget. The stools are uncomfortable, the interior is death by chipboard and we all convince ourselves that that’s absolutely fine because we’re purists. Going to Hopulus I was reminded that it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s a stunning space in the old city, all vaulted stone ceilings, like a cellar bar that happens to be on the ground floor. Like the next entry, La Barbote, they brew their own beers on the premises in a variety of styles and, also like La Barbote, they have a happy hour which will make you very happy indeed. I tried a Belgian-style quadrupel here and a blond lager and both sent me on my way with a spring in my step. They also do cheese, charcuterie and all the other wonderful things that just make beer that tiny bit better, and – crucially on a muggy September day – they have outstanding aircon.

Hopulus Brewpub
8 rue Collot
https://www.facebook.com/hopulus/

8. La Barbote

La Barbote was round the corner from my hotel on trip number two, it was the first place we stopped for a drink and I think we ended up there most nights for a snifter before venturing forth to our restaurant of choice. And actually, although it was perfect for that my biggest regret is that we didn’t stay there longer. It’s a microbrewery and they brew on the premises, offering a menu of a dazzling dozen or so beers at any one time. Everything I tried from them knocked it out of the park, from Tête Gourmande, their sweet but sharp pastry sour to their NEIPA Set The Controls, from a DIPA called Cortez to a thick impy called De Profundis with a nicely caffeinated bite.

It’s deceptively big and it filled up pretty much the moment people quit work every day, possibly because of an insanely good happy hour where a pint of anything costs you five Euros max until seven o’clock. Looking round it was a better advert for craft beer than so many equivalent places in the U.K. with a young and diverse crowd: if they have someone in the corner ranting about the Good Beer Guide I never saw them. They also do food in the evenings and I got to try their karaage chicken – it was magical, by the way – and some equally good, if messy, fish tacos. If you want a casual meal and a really good drink on the trip to Montpellier you’re surely planning by now, make a pit stop here: “it’s how Zero Degrees would be if it wasn’t shit” was Zoë’s verdict.

La Barbote
1 Rue des deux Ponts
https://www.facebook.com/labarbote/

9. Le Canotier

Le Canotier (the boater, apparently) is a little wine bar in the old city and we stopped there for pre-dinner glasses of Viognier and Minervois which I enjoyed very much. I felt thoroughly French sitting outside, sipping away and watching revellers wandering past in either direction, although that might have just been because of the sheer amount of passive smoking I was doing. Either way, I wish I could have stayed longer (and, possibly, inhaled less). 

Le Canotier
7 Rue des Trésorier de la Bourse
https://le-canotier-lounge.business.site

10. Le Discopathe

Le Discopathe was one of the happiest discoveries of my first visit to Montpellier. The walk from the old city back to our B&B went down Rue de Faubourg du Courreau, a scruffy, lively street reminding me of Waterloo’s Lower Marsh, and it quickly became one of my favourite parts of the city. Much of that was down to Le Discopathe, a vinyl and craft beer shop that sold records by day and served more of Montpellier’s excellent local beer by night. 

You grab a spot at one of the trestle tables outside, get yourself a pint of something hazy, a bière d’ici, and just enjoy that feeling of being part of a buzz and bustle bigger than you. Sacrilege and Brewing Bears are well represented – more on them below – but I also had a beautiful IPA from Brasserie le Détour. We became regular visitors during our holiday, and it was one of the happiest places in a city full of happy places.

On our second visit we got to explore some of the nearby restaurants (Les Freres Poulard and Lipopette, above) and when there’s a third visit there’s a nearby pizza joint called Pousse that I firmly have my eye on. But I also managed to fit in a couple of visits to Le Discopathe: it’s also worth noting that it’s one of Montpellier’s only craft beer bars that opens before about 5pm.

Le Discopathe
28 rue du Faubourg du Courreau
https://lediscopathe.com

11. Le Reservoir

Many cities have some kind of craft beer scene, and the template is a well-trodden one: some big warehouse either in an industrial estate or near the docks, on the edge of town, usually requiring a taxi to get to (our own Double-Barrelled follows in that proud tradition). Le Réservoir is not quite like that. It’s on the outskirts of the city, and our Uber driver, who turned up in an impressively over the top lipstick-red Tesla, had never heard of the place. But it feels properly in the middle of nowhere, with the distinct whiff of agriculture from its neighbours. 

It’s relatively new, and had the feel of a place built in anticipation of demand, rather than because of it. But inside it was positively splendid, with twenty taps nearly all of which are devoted to local beer. The space is shared by two breweries – Brewing Bears, which does more conventional IPAs, and Sacrilege who specialise in mixed fermentation beers and saisons with all sorts of interesting fruit and weirdness going on. We tried a bit of both, and had a really fantastic afternoon doing it. I’m sorry I didn’t get to go back on my second visit for an afternoon of craft beer and pétanque – apparently you can play it on the premises.

Le Réservoir
55 rue de Montels Saint-Pierre
https://www.instagram.com/lereservoirmontpellier/?hl=en

12. O’Petit Trinque Fougasse

This was a brilliant spot for a few glasses of wine, some cheese and charcuterie and a spot of people watching, along with a welcome opportunity to rest our feet after an afternoon of retail therapy. There are something like four reds and four whites available by the glass, ranging from thoroughly decent to bloody marvellous, and the small plates include sliced saucisson with a mild hum of offal, a gorgeous burrata with pesto, all manner of local cheeses and of course the eponymous fougasse studded with olive, which is flaky, indulgent and worth the price of admission alone. For beer lovers there’s a really well curated shop a few doors down called Deli Malt which offers an extensive introduction to Montpellier’s burgeoning craft beer scene and has plenty for you to squirrel away in your suitcase for the rueful journey home.

O’Petit Trinque Fougasse
12 Boulevard Ledru Rollin
https://www.trinquefougasse.com/petit/home

Restaurant review: Five Little Pigs, Wallingford

No blethering preamble for you this week, talking about the history of Reading’s food scene and putting things In Context (because there always has to be a Context). Things are much simpler this time around, because by the time you read this I’ll be off on my holidays and I just wanted to eat somewhere really nice the weekend before I went.

There’s something magical about the weekend before you go away, right from the moment you close the work laptop on a Friday afternoon: the knowledge that the weekend you’re about to have won’t be bookended by opening the sodding thing again on Monday morning, knowing that instead you’ll be at the airport, putting your phone and house keys in the plastic tray at security, browsing the duty free fragrance, daydreaming about that first holiday beer or glass of wine.

That’s why I found myself in Wallingford on Saturday afternoon with a reservation for Five Little Pigs that evening. Five Little Pigs received national attention earlier in the year when it got a rave writeup in the Observer. And whatever you think of Jay Rayner, his review of the place talked about deep-fried olives, a burnished toastie with cheese from nearby Nettlebed Creamery and a deep, savoury venison ragu. Reading that was enough of an incentive.

And besides, it’s not as if I had to go there with Rayner. Like most people, I have an infinitely better option: in fact, Five Little Pigs was on the list of restaurants I wasn’t allowed to review with anybody but Zoë (or, as she puts it, “not without me you fucking aren’t”).

Wallingford is a sleepy place, although remarkably easy to reach on the evocatively named River Rapids bus. It’s a very agreeable forty-five minute amble through Oxfordshire, out past Cane End, Gallowstree Common, Stoke Row. I expected Wallingford to be a little like Henley, or Witney, but it’s smaller than either with a couple of main streets, a pretty pub by the green and a really lovely wine shop, the neatly named Grape Minds. There’s also one of those antiques centres which is a succession of rooms full of tat and treasure in indeterminate proportions, and a Scandi interiors shop which mostly sells Farrow & Ball. The craft beer scene there is one bar with a fridge full of Phantom and Arbor Ales. That’s not to say I didn’t like Wallingford, but by the time our table was ready I was very much ready for it.

From the review I’d read I thought Five Little Pigs would be small but actually it was much larger than I expected. The front room, with the full length windows out onto St Mary’s Street, was a chic (if slightly chilly) space which was very tastefully done, an interesting mix of deep blues and golds and pastel shades from the art on the wall. It reminded me of places like Coppa Club, which isn’t necessarily a compliment. Further back was a longer, plainer room with banquetted booths. It’s a surprisingly hard space to photograph (as you can probably tell) but it was packed at seven o’clock on a Saturday night: a good review in the Observer will do that for you.

The menu read well and had plenty on it to appeal. Starters clustered around eight or nine pounds, and only a couple of mains were north of twenty. Plenty of it was local, too, with nearby cheesemakers, growers and butchers all namechecked. “We don’t have the pigs cheeks at the moment” said one of the wait staff, “but they may come in later.” I found that a bit confusing – were they being delivered by drone? – but decided it was best not to ask.

By that point a bottle of red had been opened, a really enjoyable organic Rioja, and I was about to reach that happy place where the food has been ordered and you know you’re safely in somebody else’s hands for the next few hours. Every table was full – with date nights, family gatherings and, in one case, an elderly couple who seemed to spend most of the evening glowering at each other. We were all going to have an enchanting evening. The Observer said so.

I felt a bit basic ordering the Scotch egg, but I can’t remember the last time I had one so it was calling to me from the menu right from the outset. It was one of the nicest things we ate all evening, so proved to be a happy choice : the sausagement was nicely coarse, with black pudding adding a little earthiness. And if I’d have liked the outside a little crisper, or the whole thing slightly less crumbly, the presence of a small pool of superbly tangy rhubarb ketchup mostly made up for that, as did the pickled pink onions.

“You win” said Zoë, tackling her ricotta on toast, which sounded great on paper but in reality was disappointing. “It’s all a bit dry” she said, and this is a woman who’s listened to me talking about my favourite Bob Dylan records, so she knows what she’s talking about. For what it’s worth I agreed – the ricotta was dry and anaemic, the cottage cheese of the Chilterns, and although the roasted cherries were an interesting idea they didn’t add enough of the moisture this dish needed. Literal cherries on top, yes, but sadly not figurative ones. “This could have been really nice with honey” was Zoë’s take.

We’d also ordered a third starter, broad bean fritters, because they sounded so magnificent. And they tasted gorgeous, with huge amounts of freshness from the mint and a dab of deep whipped beetroot on top. But plating it up with pea shoots and plenty of negative space couldn’t really conceal the most obvious thing about this dish, which is that it was minuscule; it was one of those times when I wish I’d popped a twenty pence piece on the plate before I took the photo so you could see just how small they were. We had this as an extra dish, but if this had been my starter I’d have been looking at everybody else’s, feeling profoundly robbed.

Things were well paced at Five Little Pigs, possibly because it was so busy, because our starter and our mains were about half an hour apart, for me close to the optimum interval between the two. I think Zoë chose better with the mains and her lamb rump with yoghurt, more of those roast cherries and what the menu calls “crispy potatoes” was the pick of the two. But even here, it wasn’t perfect. “Again, it’s dry” said Zoë. “The yoghurt is really good, but if anything it needs more of the cherries. They work better here than they did with the starters.” I agreed with that, although I thought the crispy potatoes were a standout, with a lot more texture than met the eye. But for me, the lamb rump was a little overdone. I found it odd, too, that they brought me a steak knife but not Zoë, when her dish needed it every bit as much as mine.

My rump steak was the most expensive dish on the menu, which always adds the potential for it to be the most underwhelming. It was a beautiful piece of beef and the cooking couldn’t be faulted – pretty much medium-rare throughout with beautiful caramelisation outside. But it was underseasoned, and surprisingly bland. The chimichurri underneath it had a pleasing zing, but ran out very quickly indeed. And after that the whole thing became a bit of a slog. There was some kind of puddle of juices at the edge of the plate, but it would be pushing it to call it a jus or a sauce. The best thing on the plate was a solitary mushroom cooked with cheese (again from Nettlebed) until it was salty and crispy, but when the star of the show plays such a brief cameo role, you’ve got problems.

Just to add to the onslaught of dryness, my triple cooked chips had decent texture – and were huge – but, again, they came without anything to add moisture. We’d ordered another portion separately, not knowing that we wouldn’t really need them, and I think in a restaurant with sharper service they might have talked us out of doing that. They came with a very good aioli but, as with the chimichurri or the beetroot ketchup, there was nowhere near enough of it. We asked for some more from a passing member of the wait staff. Five minutes passed and it didn’t materialise. We asked again and some time later, when the chips were nearly at an end, it finally arrived. 

We looked at the dessert menu because our bus wasn’t for another forty-five minutes, or at least that’s what I told myself. By this point the couple at the next table had both ordered the hake – which looked nicer than either of our mains – and there was a certain mesmeric quality to watching them push it round the plate in that way that people who don’t really enjoy food seem to do. 

Anyway, desserts represented a slight recovery. My chocolate delice was a brilliant wodge of deep, gooey chocolate with a sweet, almost-sharp smear of bright strawberry purée to cut through. The biscuit base underneath was so crumbly that it barely stayed in one piece, but I didn’t mind that at all. Zoë’s key lime pie had a similarly short base and I thought it was pleasant, but I’d probably describe it as “subtle”, which really isn’t what you’re looking for in a dessert. 

Zoë had her dessert with a Cotswold cream liqueur (although it turned up on the bill as Bailey’s, so Christ knows which it really was) and I had a dessert wine – from Graves of all places – which went beautifully. And well done if you’ve made it this far, because the truth about Five Little Pigs is that, sadly, by this point I’m even slightly boring myself. Our bill came to a hundred and forty-six pounds, including service, and then we went outside, got the penultimate bus out of Dodge, got home, had a cup of tea and went to bed. The end.

Last week somebody commented on my Facebook page about the review I did of Sauce And Flour. “I wish you’d stop doing reviews of places outside Reading” he said. “I prefer the Reading reviews. And after all, this blog is called Edible Reading”. I always find it interesting when people pipe up to tell me that this entirely free blog is somehow not delivering value for money, and after I politely told him that I’d review wherever I bloody well liked he deleted his comment. But there’s an important point here, believe it or not. I think it’s good to review places outside Reading because it gives you that all-important context (like I said at the start, there’s usually a Context). Otherwise how do you know if a place is good, or just good for Reading? 

And it goes beyond Reading. If I hadn’t been to the likes of Marmo and Caper & Cure maybe I’d have thought about Five Little Pigs very differently. But at the same price point, making similar noises, and even with some similar dishes, the difference is stark. There are better ways to spend a hundred and fifty pounds eating out than to go to Five Little Pigs. One is to go to Marmo, or Caper & Cure. Another, to be honest, is to eat at Tasty Greek Souvlaki four times. Five Little Pigs is probably an absolute boon to Wallingford, and on another night I might well have had a meal there I’d have enjoyed better. But in truth, I can’t see myself going back. 

So there you go: it turns out that restaurant reviewers aren’t always right. But as a regular reader of this blog you knew that already, didn’t you?

Five Little Pigs – 7.1
26 St Mary’s Street, Wallingford, Oxfordshire, OX10 0ET
01491 833999

https://www.fivelittlepigs.co.uk

Restaurant review: Sauce And Flour, Maidenhead

One of my oldest friends lives in Swindon. Someone has to. Whenever he comes to Reading he enjoys our street food, our craft beer and our shopportunities and he complains to me – at length – that it didn’t have to turn out like this. He reckons that there was a time, back in the Nineties when all that money hadn’t decided where to coalesce, when it Could Have Been Swindon. They had a House Of Fraser, well before the Oracle opened, and that designer outlet everyone used to get so excited about. And Reading – Heelas aside, of course – was a bit of a wasteland in the mid-Nineties. Things could have been very different. 

But the retail and hospitality gods smiled on Reading and, like many of us, they sneered at Swindon. We got the big names and the investment and Swindon, over the few decades, withered and died. It’s not all terrible: Darkroom Espresso is a great place to grab a coffee, Los Gatos in the old town is a tapas restaurant Reading would be lucky to have and a few doors down Rays does thoroughly likeable ice cream. But there’s a reason people who live in Swindon go to Bath, Oxford or Cirencester at the weekend, just as people from those places don’t pop over to Swindon of a Saturday.

The reason I’m starting a review of a place in Maidenhead talking about Swindon is that lately I’ve been looking at what’s going on in Maidenhead and starting to wonder if we might find ourselves in the Swindon role at some point in the coming years. Because although it’s early days, the businesses beginning to come to prominence in Maidenhead are the kind that you’d want to see in Reading instead of – hooray – a branch of Popeyes or our twentieth Costa Coffee. 

Take A Hoppy Place, a credible, nicely fitted out craft beer bar a five minute walk from the train station with close to twenty beers and ciders on cask and keg. Last time I went it was doing a roaring trade and making the most of its outside space, and it was a wonderful place to while away a few hours. And although Reading has a brilliant craft beer scene – bolstered by the new addition of the Grumpy Goat’s upstairs bar – there’s nothing on that scale in the town centre. 

And then there’s Seasonality, which recently got a rave review in The Guardian. It started in lockdown as a deli also selling heat at home meals, and has since morphed into a restaurant offering an interesting and inventive menu. It’s tasteful, gorgeous looking and independent: you could count the number of restaurants like that which have opened in Reading in the last couple of years on the fingers of one stump. With the winter we have looming, and the town’s famously charmless landlords, can you imagine one trying their luck here in the next twelve months?

Finally, the subject of this week’s review which might be the most interesting of the lot. Flour and Sauce opened in March as part of Maidenhead’s Waterside Quarter and seems, on paper at least, to be an example of a London trend that hasn’t so far made it this far west, the pasta restaurant. And by that I mean that, from a look at the menu, it seems to be modelled on Borough Market’s famous Padella and the hugely influential Bancone along with more recent imitators.

Those places – offering starters, a selection of pasta and not much else – have been one of my favourite trends of the last few years. They’ve given dishes like silk handkerchiefs with confit egg yolk or bucatini cacio e pepe iconic status and at their best they make for fantastic mid-priced casual restaurants. Throw in a negroni to start and a decent dessert at the end and you have the blueprint for a marvellous lunch or dinner: I’ve eaten at the original Bancone in Covent Garden a few times and never had a meal there that was less than splendid. So was Maidenhead boasting an example of this very London trend by virtue of its place on the Elizabeth Line? I wanted to find out.

It looked gorgeous from the outside, all white columns and full length windows. And it had the feeling of a fully realised concept, with clear branding, although something was niggling and bringing out my inner Mary Portas. Was it the name? Somehow it felt like it should be Flour And Sauce, both in chronological and alphabetical order. And the slogan – Wine Meats Dine – might have worked as a pun, but it didn’t seem to descibe what they actually did.

Going inside and taking my table brought out my inner Michelle Ogundehin. It was a big deep room but everything was somehow disconnected. The furniture didn’t match, but not in a charming way or even a calculated one, more as if they’d run out of stuff. I saw three different types of chair, one of which was the ubiquitous Tollix I associate with far cheaper food and greater discomfort.

Likewise the lampshades didn’t match, but not in a way that made sense – including the ones over the window seats which looked like grass skirts humping a lightbulb. There were some cheap shelving units from Ikea along one wall and a completely incongruous pine Welsh dresser at the back. It all felt thrown together, as if they’d opened in a hurry – and of course it might well have been. The faux marble wallpaper along one wall, already slightly peeling at the joins, might have gone on in a hurry too.

“It’s funny” said Zoë. “You walk in and think ‘this is nice’ but then the longer you look at it the more jarring it gets.”

I don’t think it helps that we got arguably the worst table in the place. The restaurant wasn’t really broken into zones, and we had the last free table – right at the front, near the open door. It was a bit chilly, and with people traipsing past in either direction it felt like eating in a corridor – especially when at one point a large group decided to stand right next to our table and chat to a couple eating up at the window for the best part of ten minutes. The window seats, by the way, are probably the best place to sit if you’re in a pair: the counter is lovely and deep, and you get a great view (and, therefore, superb people watching opportunities).

The menu was a little like the room – superficially attractive, but the closer you looked the more you wondered. At places like Bancone, the array of pasta dishes all involve different types of pasta which gives you a much wider range of choices. By contrast nearly all the pasta dishes at Sauce And Flour revolved around relatively similar shapes, and not too many of them, so you had multiple permutations of pappardelle, tagliatelle, linguine and bucatini which made up all but one of the pasta dishes on offer (the exception was a penne dish: what kind of a monster orders penne from choice?). I was hoping to see some ravioli, something like trofie or orechiette, a little more variety.

And while I’m whinging, the drinks list was irksome too. A reasonable selection of wine, but only one of each colour available by the glass. Come in a group or don’t bother, that seemed to say. And the pricing of the solitary red, white and rosé were absolutely nuts: the menu sold wine in 125ml and 250ml glasses with no option in between. And if you did decide you wanted a small glass of wine they stung you, with most of them costing only two pounds less than the large glass (I mean, you could say the large glasses were a relative bargain, but I suppose I’m a bit more large-glass-half-empty).

The irony wasn’t lost on me: I’ve moaned for years that not enough restaurants sell wine in 125ml glasses, and here I was in a place where it was one of the only options. But it felt badly thought out. There were two beers on offer, those ubiquitous macro lagers Peroni and Moretti. I took another look, thought fuck this and ordered a large bottle of San Pellegrino.

Would the food redeem matters? Some of it came close. We started with some thoroughly decent dishes from the starters menu and for a while I thought my tetchiness would be held in check. The pick of the bunch – of the whole meal, in fact – were the short rib beef croquettes: three beautiful specimens crisp of shell and packed with soft, yielding, slow-cooked beef. They were perched in a little moat of spiced mayonnaise which might have had a kiss of ‘nduja, and each had a slice of pickle draped on top which was more sweet than tart and tied things together nicely.

There were three of these and I let Zoë have the spare because she was so underwhelmed by the next starter, although I didn’t like it much better. Squid – “body and tentacles” according to the menu, which I think is TMI – was meant to come fried with ‘nduja but was actually in a thin, vinegary sauce with capers and no heat or seasoning. All the squid was bouncier than you’d like, and just made me think wistfully of better squid I’ve had in the not too distant past. It came with a long transverse slice of focaccia toast which was so rock hard that trying to cut it with a knife and fork left me worrying that half of it would ping off and hit the next table. A pointless blob of squid ink mayo perched on it, looking like a dirty protest.

Finally, I wasn’t sure what “warm buttermilk garlic bun & parmesan” would turn out to be, and the answer is essentially this: four giant dough balls. They were about as nice as giant dough balls can be, strewn with Parmesan and rosemary, and I squidged a piece into the sauce that came with the squid to verify that yes, it really was that dull.

Mains were better but, and this is rather a theme, not exactly as billed. My linguine puttanesca was solid, I think. The ribbons had just enough pleasing bite and the sauce, a combination of all my favourite things, worked well. It had the note of acidity from the capers, a pleasant hum of chilli in the background and beautiful, plump olives. I felt like it needed more anchovy, but then I feel that way about the world in general so this dish was hardly an isolated incident. I’d paid extra to have some yellowfin tuna in the mix and I think I spotted a couple of forkfuls, but that was it. Not bad at all, and not bad value at fourteen pounds, but in the wider context of the whole meal it was doing a lot of heavy lifting.

Zoë’s dish, slow-cooked duck ragu with tagliatelle, had sounded good on paper and she enjoyed it, but from what I tasted it didn’t quite work. Again, the menu was misleading: this didn’t feel like a ragu at all, and the pieces of duck leg I ate didn’t have that tenderness I associate with slow cooked sauces. This hadn’t been reduced for a long time in red wine and tomatoes, it was a white ragu if anything, but it felt like the duck had been added to the white wine and mascarpone right at the end.

And it tasted pleasant enough, but if I’d ordered it I’d have been disappointed: perhaps the kitchen’s other ragus – one made with beef shin, the other with pork and ‘nduja – showed off their skills better. Zoë couldn’t finish it – you can’t fault the portion size – but by the end the sauce had pretty much solidified which made it a challenge. I will say this for Sauce And Flour, though: both pasta dishes had the welcome crunch of judiciously added pangrattato, and it’s hard to completely take against a restaurant that does that.

We decided to try dessert, to give the place a fair crack of the whip. They too were pretty representative of the whole Sauce And Flour experience. Zoë’s tiramisu was decent, and she loved the mascarpone and the leftfield inclusion of Kahlua, but it was a lot more cream than sponge. It didn’t dampen her ardour for Buon Appetito’s magical pistachio tiramisu, put it that way.

I went for the cheese selection and for one person, for seven pounds, I thought it was generous. They have a big deli counter just along from the open kitchen so you can see the staff cutting and preparing the cheese plate, and maybe if I’d had better eyesight I could have worked out what they were. But with the exception of a gorgeous, crumbly Parmesan with decent age which I left until last, I have no idea what they were because the wait staff just plonked them down and sodded off (the menu doesn’t say, either).

The others were a mix of a soft cheese that might have been Brie but possibly wasn’t, a hard cheese that could have been pecorino but probably wasn’t and a couple of other cheeses which honestly could have been anything. Maybe it was the adrenalin, or maybe I was just high on life and drunk on San Pellegrino but I have absolutely no idea. I do know that they came with crackers which tasted a lot like water biscuits and a little dish of something the menu just calls “jam” which tasted of surprisingly little.

Not telling us what the cheeses were was pretty consistent with service in general: it wasn’t unpleasant or rude, just distinctly brisk and disinterested. Maybe it’s because they were busy, but it lacked warmth – and I’m not just saying that because I was sitting by the open door. For me, that was arguably the biggest drawback about Sauce And Flour because it’s the thing – over and above the quirks of the menu or that sore thumb Welsh dresser – that badly needs to be fixed. Our meal came to just over sixty-seven pounds, and included a ten per cent service charge I’m not entirely sure was warranted.

On the train home, Zoë and I mused about exactly what had been missing from our evening.

“The room wasn’t that bad, and some of the food was very good, but great service would absolutely transform that place” she said. And she’s right. Sauce And Flour is a curious beast. It looks, on paper, like an attempt to recreate those specialist pasta restaurants in the capital, but scratch the surface and I have a horrible feeling that it’s actually just a reasonable Italian restaurant with a more limited menu. Like the faux marble wallpaper, it might look the part from a distance but underneath, it’s already peeling. So we can relax: Reading isn’t missing out, not this time anyway. If you want to leave town to eat superb Italian food, take a train to Mio Fiore.

What it really made me think about was the glory days of Dolce Vita, at the height of its powers. I loved Dolce Vita, but let’s be honest: the room wasn’t the best in Reading, and a fair amount of the food didn’t quite live up to its reputation (mainly, ironically, the pasta and pizza dishes). But because of the service, you never cared about that. You’d go back time and again, and it always felt like having friends cooking for you. And if I’d gone to Dolce Vita and there had only been one wine by the glass, I wouldn’t have given a shit; I don’t think I ever went there without ordering a bottle anyway. Trends or no trends, Reading doesn’t need a Sauce And Flour. But there will always be room for another Dolce Vita.

Sauce And Flour – 7.0
4A High Street, Maidenhead, SL6 1QJ
07516 948421

https://www.sauceandflour.com

Café review: The Switch

You’ll find many people who live in Reading that love the river. The waterways that run through and bisect Reading define it in so many ways, whether it’s the feeling of elsewhere you get when you cross the water and head north into Caversham, the brilliant, slightly wild seclusion of View Island, the experience of enjoying an al fresco pint outside the Fisherman’s Cottage seeing the world go past or even just watching the infamous Caversham Princess wending its merry, noisy way past the Bohemian Bowls Club, itself situated on Fry’s Island, slap bang in the middle of the Thames.

In lockdown I became a bit of an aficionado, strolling down the river past Caversham Bridge and looking enviously at the houses on the opposite bank, wandering round Caversham Court Gardens and watching the river flow or even just having a quick amble across the Horseshoe Bridge before the sun went down. On a particularly clement day I did the thing I always told myself I should and schlepped all the way along the riverbank to beautiful, traffic-clogged Sonning. Walking through the church yard, the pub just round the corner, it felt nothing like Reading at all. It’s true: we are very lucky indeed that our town is situated at the confluence of the Kennet and the Thames.

But all that said, for me the greatest tributary in this town has always been the number 17 bus route, the grand thoroughfare that cuts through Reading from east to west. I’ve always thought that there’s an almost infinite variety to that bus route, the distinctive purple double decker starting at the Three Tuns in the east, gliding past the prosperous houses off the Wokingham Road, running alongside Palmer Park and darting across the iconic snarl of Cemetery Junction, snaking through town, past the library and the Broad Street Mall.

Then it makes its way down the Oxford Road, through all that bustle and life, the skleps and the biryani joints, the barbers and the Indian sweet shops, the stalls on the pavement groaning with fruit and veg. And at the roundabout just past the KFC, it veers left and meanders through Tilehurst, finishing up at the water tower, another of Reading’s most distinctive structures. In east Reading the gas tower has played host to its last birds, and there’s an eerie emptiness about the space where it once stood, but in west Reading they still have their landmark, beautiful and graceful as ever.

People used to talk about how you could do a pub crawl along the 17 bus route. And of course you can, if you have a burning desire to drink at The Roebuck, The Palmer Tavern, The Outlook, The Wishing Well and the Pond House. Good luck with that, if it’s your bag. But for me, the 17 bus route more represents an incredibly rich seam of excellent places to eat and drink, all of them dead easy to reach on a bus which runs pretty much every seven minutes. 

If you live anywhere near that bus route, you can get to all of these: Cakes & Cream; Tutu’s Ethiopian Kitchen; O Português; Smash N Grab; The Lyndhurst; House Of Flavours; Blue Collar Corner; The Nag’s Head; Buon Appetito; Oishi; Dee Caf and even Double-Barrelled. Who needs the Thames anyway? The number 17’s charms might be a little more rugged and raw than wafting down the river, but I know which is more accessible. More useful too, come to think of it. 

The subject of this week’s review is almost right at the western end of the 17 route: The Switch is the Tilehurst café on The Triangle, in the heart of Tilehurst Village. And alighting from the bus on a Sunday morning the first thing that struck me was that the place was packed. There was no danger of me breaking the news of The Switch to the waiting Reading world: that ship had sailed, and it didn’t look remotely like a café in desperate need of another positive review. 

And that’s because it isn’t one. It’s been open coming up for a year, and it’s clearly built up a following in Tilehurst – possibly beyond, too, because last week it won the “Prestige Award” – whatever that is – for best café in the south-east. Now, I’m always a bit dubious about these random awards, because there’s never much transparency about how and why they’re dished out. And, come to mention it, the wording of the piece announcing The Switch as a winner did sound like it had been knocked together by a committee on Mogadon. 

“An enormous amount of time and effort has been spent by Chef Antony and the owners to ensure the dishes reflect the local area, famous for its luscious fields and free range meats, which have been painstakingly incorporated into the food on offer” it said. Ah, the legendary luscious fields of Tilehurst that we’ve all heard so much about. “The judges were particularly impressed by the consistency of excellence that permeates throughout every experience diners encounter at The Switch” it continued. And you thought my reviews go on a bit!

Anyway, I’d heard enough good things to want to try it. And having looked at the menu online what didn’t strike me was how they’d painstakingly incorporated all those free range meats, it was more “this doesn’t half look like the menu at Café Yolk”. And I thought it would be an interesting east/west comparison to see how it compared to its rival at the other end of the 17 bus route.

It’s quite a nice space inside, a pleasant neutral room with one feature wall with a neon sign showing the café’s logo. And actually all their branding is well done, clean and contemporary – the whole thing shows the kind of consideration and maturity you tend to associate more with chains. But it was a gorgeous morning, so I managed to bag a table on the small terrace out front. As I said, the whole place was rammed so it was a case of jumping in someone’s grave to grab a recently vacated table – not bad going at half ten on a Sunday morning.

The menu didn’t exactly scream luscious fields and free range meats, but it read extremely well none the less. You’d struggle not to find several things to choose between here: it has the traditional breakfast options, as you’d expect, a range of dishes on the sweeter side involving pancakes or French toast, an interesting brunch section and, if you want lunch, a small selection of burgers which also looked worth investigating. Prices are on the higher side, with most dishes starting at a tenner and climbing from there, but I think I might need to stop saying that so much: all of our supermarket bills are climbing, so why would we think restaurants and cafés are immune from that?

I was flying solo for this meal, so looking at the menu was more painful than usual as it was largely a bunch of options I rather fancied but had to save for a future visit. Half ten was a bit early to eat the crispy buttermilk chicken thigh burger, I decided. And I’d had French toast with bacon the day before – it’s a hard life, I know – so that ruled that out. A classic breakfast was tempting, but The Switch doesn’t name its suppliers and in my experience a bad sausage ruins a good breakfast. And last but not least, I decided against the loaded hash browns, even if they did come slathered in bacon, devilled cheese, garlic mayo and salsa.

But first things first, and the first caffeine of the day. Like Café Yolk, The Switch started using Anonymous to supply their coffee. But when prices went up, the two cafés took markedly different approaches: Yolk switched to Kingdom and slightly raised their prices, while The Switch stuck with Anonymous and raised their prices by a little more (and a sign on the wall by the counter namechecks Anonymous). Tasting my latte on a sunny Sunday morning, it was clear that The Switch had made the right decision. It wasn’t a perfect latte, the milk felt a little thin and the latte art had gone missing in action, but the quality of the beans came through. I didn’t mind paying three pounds fifty for this, even if it’s slightly on the high side by Reading standards.

When I first considered reviewing The Switch, a couple of months ago when I instead visited Dee Caf, I made some hackneyed disparaging comments about smashed avocado on toast. So for my brunch I decided to eat The Switch’s smashed avocado on toast, and now I’m going to eat my words. It was a fantastic dish – streets ahead of similar dishes I’ve tried at places like Yolk and Picnic and the closest thing I’ve tried in Reading to unlocking the genuine promise of this dish.

What I loved about The Switch’s smashed avo is that although it looked busy on the plate everything there was there for a reason and had a role to play. I’ve eaten a lot of smashed avo where all that’s been done is bashing the blessed thing into submission, and sometimes not even that, but this was superior, beautifully ripe and creamy and shot through with lime. The bacon (back bacon, but you can’t have everything) was a salty, crispy joy, and you got a darned sight more of it than you did with the equivalent dish at Yolk. Ditto both of the poached eggs, which were cooked spot on.

But it was also about the supporting players. The whole thing was dotted with racing green blobs of The Switch’s very enjoyable chimichurri adding a little zip and heat – next time I might order something where this is more centre stage. The fragments of Parmesan crisp added texture and more glorious salt, and even the crispy onions helped to add fun and definition to the dish. I didn’t even mind the foliage dumped on top, and the herby potatoes were a welcome side helping of extra carbs. If they came out of a packet, as I’ve long suspected Yolk’s do, it was a significantly better packet.

This is a dish which often gets a bad press, and I’ve been known to contribute to that in my time, but this was a superb example of what it can be at its best. Without the bacon it costs just shy of a tenner, and with the bacon on top it was thirteen pounds. And yes, that’s on the high side relatively speaking but when it’s done like this you don’t really begrudge them. At that price it ought to be good, and happily it is. My brunch came to just over sixteen pounds, and I’d do it all over again on Sunday in a heartbeat.

I should mention service because The Switch was all over that too. They moved me to a table outside when I asked them nicely, and when they wanted me to move to a different table so they could push two tables together and accommodate a bigger group they asked me nicely. They brought out a bowl of water for a dog-walking table nearby, and seemed to effortlessly look after everybody.

They were a lovely, happy team and I imagine they were busy that day; as I left there were people waiting to jump into my grave and nab my table, just as I’d done earlier that morning, and I’m sure I saw a few couples walk past, scan the situation, wander round the block and try again. People talk a lot about the Londonification of Reading, but in many ways The Switch felt more London than a lot of Reading places that are trying really, really hard to capture that feeling.

There’s not a lot more to say this week, you might be pleased to hear. I had a terrific time sitting outside The Switch eating my brunch, drinking my latte and doing my people watching. The demographic was a darned sight more mixed than you get at Café Yolk, so there were parents with young children, couples and friends enjoying brunch on the Bank Holiday weekend and one large group made up of three generations, the oldest of which were talking about the cost of living crisis as if it was someone else’s problem – which, as boomers, I guess it was. 

So hats off to The Switch for building something with such broad appeal, and doing it so well. I don’t know whether the Prestige Awards have any real prestige, but regardless of that The Switch gets my vote. Normally with these things the temptation is to say “I wish I could pick it up and drop it on my doorstep”, but on this occasion I’ll refrain from doing that because it feels to me that it’s absolutely where it should be. Besides, it’s honestly no trouble to get there: it’s only twenty minutes from the centre of the best town in England, on the best bus route in the world.

The Switch – 7.9
19 The Triangle, Tilehurst, RG30 4RN

https://www.theswitchcafe.co.uk

Restaurant review: The Magdalen Arms, Oxford

Can you believe that this is the first time I’ve ever reviewed a restaurant in Oxford? Crazy, I know: it’s half an hour away by train and probably the place most readers ask me to consider when it comes to casting my net a bit wider. And yet, for a variety of reasons, I’ve never gone there on duty. For a long time, it’s because there was no gap in the market. Not because Oxford has a thriving local press – they have an iffy Newsquest paper and website, just like we do – but because it had a superb restaurant blogger, In Oxford, Will Eat, and she did such a good job that I had no desire to step on her turf. 

Then she got a job in Brussels, and I considered expanding north, but shortly after that I got divorced and took some time out. And when I came back, about a year later, loads of new Reading restaurants had sprung up during my hibernation – so many, in fact, that I had my hands full catching up with them all. So I got that under control and my thoughts turned to Oxford again, and then bang: along came the pandemic. The works always seemed to have a spanner in them, to the point where I wondered if it just wasn’t meant to be.

But a couple of weeks back I decided that life was about as close to normal as it was likely to be any time soon, and Zoë and I had a Friday off together, and Oxford was calling to me. It’s a funny place, in lots of ways: I lived there for four years in the mid-Nineties and back then the gulf between town and gown was so pronounced that it felt like a bit like my ex-wife and I sharing a flat for five months while the divorce got sorted: a deeply uncomfortable, unsustainable cohabitation between two very different halves. As a student, if you walked into the wrong pub – I did it once on my first week at university, and never repeated the mistake – you could almost feel the threat of violence in the air. Mind you, at nineteen I probably provoked that response often.

Nowadays it’s a city far more at ease with itself, and walking its picturesque streets on a sunny Friday morning it seemed the far bigger problem was tourists, a group locals and students regard with equal levels of animosity. Oxford is an interesting place to compare with Reading, because it has a lot of the things Reading does not – an excellent covered market, nice little enclaves of independent shops, areas like Jericho (which is what Caversham wishes it was) or the Cowley Road (ditto, but for the Oxford Road). 

It has a more upmarket mall, too, in the shape of the Westgate, and better, fancier chains than the ones we get saddled with. Pizza Pilgrims, Shoryu, Mowgli and Le Pain Quotidien all operate there. Our branch of Leon got canned and people are eagerly awaiting the opening of Gail’s where Patisserie Valerie used to be: Oxford has played host to both for years. And last time I checked, Oxford didn’t have a Taco Bell or a Jollibee. How on earth do they cope?

But it’s not as simple as that, because spending time in Oxford makes you realise that despite all its chocolate-boxiness it lacks things that we take for granted here in Reading. Street food, for one – the Covered Market is great but Oxford has nothing like Blue Collar, and the market in Gloucester Green is much more variable. Craft beer is another shortcoming – Oxford specialises in a certain kind of pub, popular with tourists, cask spods and “pubmen” (they’re always men), but it’s a struggle to find anywhere that serves more interesting stuff since The Grapes, the West Berkshire pub on George Street, closed at the end of last year, with the notable exception of Teardop, a nanopub in the Covered Market. It closes at half-five.

And what about restaurants? Well, this is another area where Oxford has never been considered quite as good as it should be. It has some cracking restaurants, and I’ve paid them many visits over the years: modern Italian Branca in Jericho, lovely family-owned Pierre Victoire on fairy light-strewn Little Clarendon Street, bright bustling Arbequina dishing up tapas down the Cowley Road and swanky Pompette out in Summertown. But those seem to be the exception rather than the rule, and beyond that top tier there are a fair few places trading on past reputation and others that just couldn’t make a go of it. 

That last category tells a story all on its own, because I’ve eaten at so many lauded restaurants in Oxford that that didn’t survive. Places like The Oxford Kitchen (it won a Michelin star in 2018: now it’s a delicatessen), or Turl Street Kitchen, the Anchor or even The Rickety Press, before the pub was acquired by Dodo Pubs, the owners of our very own Last Crumb. It makes you think: we get our sackcloth and ashes out because Clay’s is moving to Caversham – well, those of us who don’t live in Caversham do, anyway – but Oxford has a bit of a track record of not being able to support good restaurants. What’s that all about?

(I should add that if by some chance you’re reading this and you live in Oxford and I’ve got the place completely wrong, please go easy on me. Let me know all the great places I’m missing in Oxford, in the comments, and I’ll make sure I add them to my to do list. And do accept my apologies: I too live somewhere where we’re used to being misjudged.)

Anyway, for my inaugural Oxford review – just as with my first ever Reading review all those years ago – I picked a proper happy place. And I couldn’t think of a better establishment to start with: the Magdalen Arms is a gastropub down the Iffley Road with impeccable credentials, part of a group which includes the legendary Anchor & Hope on Waterloo’s The Cut and, for many years, Great Queen Street just off Drury Lane, a sadly departed favourite of mine. It’s a bracing walk over Magdalen Bridge, or you can just hop on a bus outside Queens College and be there in just over five minutes.

The Magdalen Arms has been trading in its current incarnation for nearly thirteen years and has been reviewed glowingly in every broadsheet you care to name, although not for some time. It’s reached the stage, I suspect, where it’s been doing its thing consistently for so long that it’s just become part of the furniture, a position I can identify with. Even as far back as 2010 Matthew Norman in the Guardian said “Being the best restaurant in Oxford may not be a glittering accolade”, proving that smug tossers talking the city down is by no means a new phenomenon.

Anyway, I’ve been coming to the Magdalen Arms for longer than I can remember. Usually for the pie, which serves two and seems mandatory to order in most of the reviews I’ve ever read. Arriving on a clement summer afternoon the pub was every bit as handsome a place as I remembered. It’s a big old place made up of two huge rooms – a gorgeous one at the front with deep red walls and an almost continental feel, and another at the back which I’ve never taken to. Most of the customers on the day we visited were sitting outside, so we got a cracking table next to the window. I was surprised to see the place so quiet – on a Sunday lunchtime it tends to be heaving – and although I wasn’t complaining I was slightly concerned.

The Magdalen Arms’ menu has always been relatively compact, but seemed more narrow than I remembered. You had a choice of five starters and a couple of larger ones to share, and just the three main courses alongside two options for larger groups. It meant deciding was simultaneously easier and harder than usual, an interesting dilemma, and the fact that there was no pie on the menu – anyone would have thought it was the height of summer – forced us to pick a Plan B.

But while we made up our mind they brought us some squares of their exemplary focaccia and a shallow dish of deep green olive oil, all grass and pepper, and from that point onwards all decisions felt slightly de-risked. That feeling was reinforced by the arrival of a bottle of petite syrah, an agreeable chorus of red fruits and spice, and I remembered that there’s little better than a leisurely lunch on a Friday with your favourite person, the sun pouring through the window and the rest of the world at work. Returning to a restaurant you love is one of the nicest reunions there is, and I realised it must have been three years since I’d sat in that room and made those enviable choices. It was all going to be okay.

We started with something I’ve always eyed up but never ordered, a Spanish sharing plate. It came looking like a still life, and the best of it was very good indeed. Pan con tomate, toasted bread rubbed with tomato and herbs, was bright and summery and I could have eaten an awful lot more of it. And the manchego, if slightly fridge-cold, was perfect with a little lozenge of quince paste. Padron peppers were nicely blackened, too, although I personally like to see the blighters studded with salt. By contrast, these were slightly underpowered.

The least effective parts, for me, were two of the mainstays of Spanish food. Croquetas were a pleasing shape and size but the inside was coarse, not a silky bechamel, and had a strangely sweet tang to it. They were pepped up with a dab of romesco (served in those comical cardboard tubs used for hospital meds), but the romesco didn’t have the punch it needed. Similarly the tortilla was okay, but just okay – cooked through, a solid slab of eggs and carbs. I’ve been spoiled by its gooer sibling on the Cowley Road, but it did just fine.

We were on safer ground with cured meats, although again these would have been even better closer to room temperature. The Jamon was coarse and salty, with a beautiful dry texture and the lomo, which looked more like coppa, was equally delicious. And there seemed to be two different kinds of chorizo – both were gorgeous but one had that glorious alchemy of meat, fat and pimenton down pat. The plate was strewn with olives, although I did find myself wishing for something like some caperberries to add the sharpness that was missing.

But it was a thoroughly respectable thing to eat. It certainly could have served more people less greedy than Zoë and me, and felt like reasonable value at thirty-three pounds, just about. It did get me thinking, because this is one of my favourite kinds of dishes to share and many places in Reading try to offer something similar without quite getting it right: only Buon Appetito, with its ridiculously generous antipasto misto, gets close.

Normally I would order a different main to my dining partner, but the menu at the Magdalen Arms was so compact that when we wanted the same thing I decided neither of us should go without. I’m so glad I did, because the Magdalen Arms’ pigeon ragu with pappardelle was one of the nicest lunches I’ve had in a long time. The pasta was just right, with exactly the right amount of bite, a perfectly starchy vehicle for a wonderful ragu with celery and a little nip of what I thought might be fennel. 

The pigeon had largely been slow-cooked into strands, although a handful of more stubborn clumps remained, but it was really no hardship to polish off every mouthful. If you have just one plate at lunchtime, it’s difficult to imagine something nicer than this – that includes the Magdalen Arms’ pie, by the way – and at sixteen pounds it managed the unusual feat of being cheaper than our starter; the more I think about it, the more I think that starter was meant to be shared between more than two people.

Oh, and we also had some chips with aioli: they didn’t go with anything but it’s hard to pass up chips with aioli. The chips were great – I think the food blogger chip cliché is to wank on about “rustle and snap”, whatever the fuck that is – and although the aioli was good it came in another of those mingy paper cups and I had to ask for more. Not that it was any trouble: service was terrific from start to finish, just as it always is at the Magdalen Arms.

You would think, given everything I’ve said, that we passed on dessert. But you’d be misjudging how thorough (or how gluttonous) I am. My ice cream was excellent and again – bit of a theme here – hugely generous, with an enormo-scoop of a deep, bitter chocolate gelato and a pistachio ice cream which felt to me, both in terms of colour and flavour, to have more of a marzipan note to it. I love the stuff, so I was happy if I’d been missold.

Ice cream is another of those things Oxford does well and Reading does not, so the Magdalen Arms’ ice cream isn’t as good as the stuff you can get from Swoon Gelato on the High, but it’s still miles better than anything you can get in Reading. And to reverse the trend, the Magdalen Arms’ Basque cheesecake was nice enough – and the roasted apricots were a nice touch – but I’ve had better at Geo Café from the rather literally named Reading Loves Cheesecakes.

Replete, with the post-lunch fuzziness that comes from a good bottle of wine, I could have happily whiled the afternoon away there, watching afternoon smudge into evening and seeing the pub come to life again on a Friday night, buzzing with happy diners. But I had my eye on a coffee from the brilliant Missing Bean, who have a roastery literally around the corner, and that stroll back into the centre wasn’t going to get any easier.

So we settled up and went on our way. Our bill came to a hundred and twenty-three pounds, including a twelve and a half per cent service charge. Not cheap, but not unreasonable – and the menu does have a set lunch every day including a small glass of wine for twelve pounds: if Reading had an offer like that I would probably use it often. Come to think of it Pierre Victoire also does a killer set lunch, so perhaps this is another one to chalk up as something Oxford does far better.

So, no real surprises here; the nice thing about having a long relationship with a restaurant is that, unlike romantic relationships, there’s something rich and deep about reaching that stage where you move beyond infatuation and into comfortableness. I expected to have a good meal at the Magdalen Arms, and I did. I knew it might be amazing, which in honesty it wasn’t, but I could be absolutely certain it wouldn’t be mediocre. Restaurants and pubs like that are to be celebrated, wherever they are, and I knew for a fact when I left on that Friday afternoon that I would be back, and hopefully before too long. But just to compare Oxford and Reading one final time, would I swap it for the Lyndhurst? Not in a month of Sundays.

The Magdalen Arms – 7.7
243 Iffley Road, Oxford, OX4 1SJ
01865 243159

http://www.magdalenarms.co.uk