Restaurant review: Goat On The Roof, Newbury

I was late arriving for my reservation at Goat On The Roof: one thing I haven’t missed in the two and a half years since the pandemic is the panic caused by trying to get somewhere on time when our rail network refuses to play ball. There were no strikes on that bright sunny evening, but I stood by the departures board watching trains being repeatedly pushed back or cancelled. I texted Graeme, who was joining me for dinner, saying it was touch and go. “Let me know if it all goes tits up” he said, a man whose own plans had also been wrecked by the railways one too many times.

In the end I found a seat on seemingly the only train heading west in the foreseeable future and gazed out of the window as Reading turned into West Berkshire, the train trundled past the sixties flats of Southcote and out into the countryside. This was my commute every day for about a year, and although I never missed the job in Newbury I always liked how contemplative the journey could be.

I liked the landmarks, too. The weird Harrods warehouse plonked by the tracks in Thatcham, looking deeply incongruous. The business parks of Theale, far from the cutting edge. Midgham, so bucolic with the lovely Rowbarge just round the corner. And the slightly vulgar view of the racecourse, a sign that your voyage was nearly over. I felt like a modern-day Philip Larkin in The Whitsun Weddings, albeit without the racism, the womanising, the enormous jazz collection.

Alighting at Newbury I remembered how much I liked the place and how enjoyable it had been to knock around town after work. Their main outside space in the Market Place, was occupied by a Bill’s and a Wetherspoons, but it still looked very fetching on a summer’s evening. Besides, what did Reading have in a similar location? An overflow car park for O’Neills, defiling the space where the 3Bs used to be.

Graeme was already at Goat On The Roof when I arrived, hot, flustered and en retard, but he’d grabbed a table and had a gin and tonic on the go, because he’s no fool. Walking over to join him I was struck by what a tasteful room it was: good furniture, plain panelled walls, art dotted here and there. The site used to be Japanese restaurant Arigato, and before that it was a bank – that shows in the proportions of the room, the almost full-length windows bathing the room in light.

I was worried that the lack of soft furnishings would make it a deafening room in which to spend an evening, but actually it wasn’t problematic. And it could easily have been, because the place was pretty much full on a Friday evening: not bad going for a restaurant which opened less than three months ago.

While we peered at our menus, the owner came over and asked whether we’d eaten there before. When we said we hadn’t, he proceeded to “explain the concept”: now, this normally induces some eye-rolling but Goat On The Roof’s concept is an interesting one and goes some way to explaining why this week’s review is from Newbury rather than somewhere closer to home. 

They were a British tapas restaurant, he said, and that meant a reliance on British ingredients, ideally organic, sustainable and as local as possible. And that feels like an intriguing idea: we have some great ingredients in this country, and some magnificent producers, but many restaurants don’t bang that drum as loudly as they could. It’s an apposite idea in the wake of Brexit, too, with many ingredients trickier and costlier to import than ever, so if this turned out to be a well-executed, well-considered stratagem rather than a gimmick it could make for an excellent meal. Besides, I’ve been moaning for years that Reading didn’t have a credible tapas restaurant, and for some outrageous reason nobody had deemed this sufficient incentive to open one.

Anyway, the concept was all well and good but what were we going to eat? The menu did an excellent job of selling practically every dish, and I was pleased to see that it was already different from the one I’d seen online. It was divided into sections for nibbles, vegetable dishes, fish, meat and cheese and prices varied quite widely: most of the meat dishes, for instance, were north of a tenner whereas veg dishes were closer to seven pounds. 

“Do you have any questions about the menu?” asked the owner.

“Yes, what’s the ‘Barbed Dart’?” said Graeme.

“It’s a quail’s egg, red pepper and anchovy threaded onto a skewer. You put it in your mouth and pull the skewer out and eat it all in one go, and it’s an explosion of flavours. Don’t eat the skewer too though” – he said this in a manner which suggested it was well-rehearsed – “That bit’s very important.”

After he’d left us to our deliberations, Graeme leaned forward. 

“I like all of those things, but I’m not sure I can be bothered with it.”  

“I feel the same! So I guess we agree on some dishes for our first wave and hold some back for a second wave. That cabbage with black garlic and pangrattato sounds nice, or perhaps the tomatoes with pesto.”

“I suppose I could be a grown up and eat tomatoes. I hated them as a child, and I’ve only got used to them recently.”

“But these are from the Isle Of Wight” I pontificated. “They’re sort of legendary, they’re some of the only tomatoes we grow in this country that taste of anything.”

“I’m quite comfortable with us not ordering anything from the vegetables section, you know.” 

Again, I remembered why Graeme was one of my favourite dining companions: I must invite him to join me more often. I also remembered that Graeme’s wife was a vegetarian – although apparently a recent holiday in Madeira had turned her into a pescatarian – so he was probably looking forward to an evening going off the rails.

But first, wine. Goat On The Roof’s wine list was a superb, fascinating thing, Everything was European, British wine was well represented and there was a strong selection of orange wines and natural wines (would you have put money on Newbury, of all places, becoming a hotbed for natural wine?). Prices started at twenty-five pounds and climbed sharply after that, although a good proportion were available by the glass. On another day I might have tried the Welsh Pet Nat or an Austrian red, but Graeme had seen something that caught his eye.

“They have a Grüner Veltliner on the list, and I really love a Grüner.”

That was good enough for me, and the fact that it was a natural wine swung it for sheer curiosity. The natural wines I’ve tried have always been on the challenging side, with more funk than I’d personally choose, but this one’s cloudiness belied a wonderfully fresh, balanced wine. Before I’d finished the first glass I’d made a mental note to seek it out, and within a couple of days I’d taken delivery of a couple of bottles. That’s how good it was. (One of the websites where I found it said “you can neck it from a mug if you want, such is the vibrancy of the wine” – no: it’s good, but not so good that you’d abandon your standards.)

Our first wave of dishes was an excellent start. Anchovies, from Cornwall apparently, were marinated boquerones-style rather than salty, but they had a real zippiness to them, lifted with lemon, mint and chilli and completed with custard-yellow oil. It was a deceptively dense portion – although Goat On The Roof’s plates are far from ugly their general principle is to pile things high. Neither of were quibbling though, and the bread we’d ordered – workmanlike, not exceptional – saw more of the oil than the butter which came with it. Hats off, too, that the butter was at room temperature.

Also piled high on a plate rather than painstakingly spread out on a board was the fennel salami. Again this made the portion look smaller than it was, so maybe not the most considered approach, but the salami was perfectly coarse and laced with fennel and I liked it very much. Their charcuterie comes from Trealy Farm, a relatively big name which used to supply to Mitchell & Butler pubs back in the day. Even so, it was gorgeous stuff: I looked them up online when I got home, too. 

I suspect Trealy Farm also provided the lardo which came draped on top of a scallop ceviche, a dish from the specials menu. Graeme was impressed with this dish, but I was more circumspect. The quality of the scallops was top notch, and it had a wonderful cleanness which was almost led astray enough by the lardo. But it needed more of the advertised gremolata to add contrast and colour – without that it was a little too white, a little too pure.

The last of our initial quartet was a classic tapas dish, ham and cheese croquettes. Graeme was drawn to this because they’d used Old Winchester, a fantastic cheese that can rival any manchego, and I thought these were well done – a smooth, glossy béchamel with just enough ham to lend another dimension. I used the last of my bread to scoop up the snowdrift of grated cheese left in the dish.

Our second wave of orders was even more successful than the first, and chanced upon three stone cold classics on the menu. The first of these was Goat On The Roof’s take on patatas bravas (which of course they call “Crispy Potatoes, Spiced Tomato Sauce, Garlic Mayo”, presumably because their concept precludes speaking foreign on the menu wherever possible). 

I’ve had patatas bravas in a lot of places, and Goat On The Roof’s are right up there with the best. Often they’re just not crispy enough, or they used to be but they wilted under the onslaught of a lake of bravas sauce and aioli. These were absolutely spot on – incredible texture, not overdressed and perfectly balanced. At five pounds seventy they’re also arguably the best value on the menu: if you go, insist on having one to yourself.

Also exceptional was the pork belly with rhubarb compote. The pork, fried until crispy, reminded me a lot of chicharrones I’ve had in Malaga, so skilfully cooked that you didn’t mind in the slightest about spearing a cube that was more fat than flesh. I’ve not had pork with rhubarb before but having tried it I wonder why it took me so long – the sharp tartness of the rhubarb being exactly what was needed, harmonising with the pork rather than drowning it out. Again, small plates for sharing are all very well but order one of these, tell your companions they wouldn’t like it and eat it all on your own: whoever you’re at dinner with will get over it.

The last standout dish was the soused mackerel – a gorgeous piece of fish cooked as little as they could get away with, with a quenelle of relatively restrained horseradish cream (and a pointless piece of something like melba toast). This was very much the kind of dish where you took as small a forkful as you could each time and savoured every bite, and the fact that Graeme and I shared one between two is a tribute to our powers of restraint. 

We also had the chorizo (the menu does speak foreign here, presumably because “Deep Red Paprika Sausage” would have looked weird and wrong) cooked in cider. It came with a hen’s egg – they were oddly specific about that – which was soft boiled and rolled in some kind of crumb. I liked this dish, probably because the chorizo was also from Trealy Farm and they’re very good at what they do, but at eleven pounds fifty it felt a little on the sharp side. But again, it was good enough that you didn’t hold a grudge.

The dessert selection was much narrower. I’ve always held that you can share your small plates all you like but dessert is meant to be your own personal kingdom: if people are good, or lucky, they can have a forkful but any more is pushing it. I gave Graeme first choice and after much deliberation he chose what I thought was a gorgeous dessert – local strawberries, shiny and sticky with maceration, a perfect sphere of sorrel sorbet perched on top. The forkful I had was properly beautiful, and I’d ordered it I wouldn’t have complained.

Graeme did, but that’s more because my order, the chocolate mousse, was phenomenal. This seems to be a staple in tapas restaurants and many places – Arbequina in Oxford, or Bar 44 in Bristol – do it extremely well. But often it will be poshed up with salt or olive oil, a thin bit of toast or some torta de aciete. By contrast Goat On The Roof plays it very straight – and if their mousse isn’t going to win any prizes for aesthetics it more than makes up for it with the taste. It was a glorious swirl of milk and white chocolate with a handful of raspberries and I can happily confirm that it’s the perfect way to end a meal.  Not that we did end the meal there, because we had some fudge as a petit four (the vanilla one was okay, the coffee one cracking) but you get the general idea. 

Our meal – a couple of gin and tonics, all those small plates, a stonking bottle of wine, desserts and fudge came to just shy of a hundred and sixty pounds, including an optional twelve and a half per cent service charge. Service, incidentally, was excellent: it’s a very young, very enthusiastic, very positive team and they have the enthusiasm that comes with starting something new and very accomplished which is quite unlike anything Newbury has, or Reading for that matter.

After our meal we repaired to the excellent Catherine Wheel which has lovely outside space and, more importantly, a little outdoor bar selling over fifty kinds of gin. We nabbed the last free table and proceeded to drink really rather a lot of gin while Graeme berated me about my good luck in the dessert sweepstake.

“You did a Jedi mind trick on me, admit it.”

“It was more like Derren Brown. Did you not notice that in the run up to ordering I kept talking about the sorrel sorbet? Sorrel sorbet. Sorrel sorbet.

Graeme grimaced, but I could tell he wasn’t really resentful. Probably. Besides, it was time to try another gin; I told him to surprise me and when he came back with a strawberry and balsamic concoction I couldn’t tell whether it was reward or revenge. A few gins later we weaved our way to the station for the last train home at the end of an evening well spent.

So why isn’t the rating down there higher, you might ask? The honest answer is I’m not entirely sure. Part of it’s the cost. Small plates restaurants do this – the prices of every dish are always clearly advertised, and nobody’s holding a gun to your head. And yet at the end there’s always a moment where the bill arrives and you wonder how you spent quite that much. 

But also, Goat On The Roof was almost too polished. That’s what gives away how British it is. That’s not a bad thing per se, and if Goat On The Roof feels like it’s been there firing on all cylinders for a lot longer than three months that reflects very well on them, but it slightly lacked the exuberance I associate with tapas at its best. I’ll go back, I’m sure, but I’m not desperate to get it in the calendar. Although, on the other hand, pork belly with rhubarb compote.

The next day, I got a text from Graeme.

“I still think you used some kind of Jedi mind trick on me.”

“This is not the dessert you’re looking for”, I replied.

He sent me the applause emoji in response. But I wouldn’t have been surprised if, on the other side of the phone screen, he felt like telling me to fuck off. 

Goat On The Roof – 7.7
1 Bridge Street, Newbury, RG14 5BE
01635 580015

https://goatontheroof.co.uk

Pub review: The Dairy

Three months ago I wrote about the quiet revolution taking place at Reading University’s bars. Park House, always one of Reading’s best kept secrets for an al fresco drink, underwent a surprising but convincing transformation this year: out went the cheesy chips and in came a menu that made all the right noises – listing suppliers, talking about provenance and using both local producers and the university’s own beef. 

I went, I tried it and I was pleasantly surprised – so much so, in fact, that when I put together my updated list of Reading’s best spots to eat outdoors Park House bagged a place. Some people missed the cheesy chips, apparently. But there’s no accounting for taste: some people are going to miss Boris Johnson. 

But could lightning strike twice? That was the question Zoë and I asked ourselves after I met her from work and we ambled to the Dairy on a golden midsummer evening. We strolled past the Turks Head (you can tell it’s glorious weather when even sitting outside the Turks looks tempting), past the sedate, leafy thoroughfare of Kendrick Road, and I thought to myself that it was moments like these I should be storing up in my head, so I could turn them over in my mind when the clocks went back and the feeling of sun on my skin was a distant memory.

The Dairy also revamped its menu in 2022 and makes the same claims as Park House when it comes to where they get their ingredients from. Bread from Waring’s, eggs from Beechwood Farm, all the right noises, all that jazz. But I was particularly keen to see if the Dairy had raised its game because, to be honest, it could easily have done so just by buying in some ready meals from M&S. 

Or, for that matter, Asda. My previous visit to the Dairy on duty, back at the start of 2019, had been a grim experience with lukewarm, chewy curry and a chicken burger which, underneath its modish charcoal bun, was as wan and tasteless as Jacob Rees Mogg. So, did lightning strike twice or was it more a case of fool me twice, shame on me? I can honestly say I approached the Dairy with no real hunch as to how this one would play out. 

On another day I would have sat indoors – the Dairy has a lovely room off from the main bar – but as it was so sunny we plonked ourselves outside. I’d hesitate to call it a beer garden, but out the back of the Dairy it has plenty of tables which catch the sun nicely. They’re big tables, with deep benches which can even accommodate a rear as sizeable as mine, so they’re more suited for bigger groups than a tête-à-tête, but we weren’t going to let that stop us.

The Dairy’s dinner menu is relatively compact and in three main sections – stuff from the grill, burgers and hot dogs. But the main thing that jumps about it, from a casual reading, is how cheap it is. The dishes from the grill are about six quid, burgers are nine pounds and hot dogs are seven. Rather confusingly the cheapest dishes come with a couple of sides and a sauce, the more expensive ones with a single side. If there’s logic there I don’t see it, although most of the sides only cost a couple of pounds anyway. I don’t see how it can’t be subsidised, and I’m not sure how they make money on it, but you would struggle to rack up a bill here. 

It’s only later, when I was back home and leafing through the Dairy’s Instagram feed, that I realised this menu has been slimmed down from their launch menu at the start of the year. It’s especially a shame because it’s almost like someone looked through the launch menu, marker pen in hand, and struck a big black line through anything that looked particularly fun: so farewell to the jerk plantain and halloumi skewers, the beef burger topped with smoked pork belly and blue cheese, the brined fried chicken with pickled watermelon and the fish dog with crispy fried goujons, tartare sauce and chilli crushed peas. 

See what I mean? What was left was the menu equivalent of the Golgafrincham B Ark, and I’m hoping at least a few of you will get that reference. But none the less even if dinner turned out to be a mistake it at least wouldn’t be a costly one. And besides, the Dairy still has an amazing range of local beer with options from Wild Weather (the excellent King Street Pale), Siren, Phantom and Academia lager from Double-Barrelled, which is brewed exclusively for the university.

I went up and ordered our food, along with a half of cider for me and a half of Take Nothing For Granted, a Siren collab with Brew By Numbers, for Zoë (she loved it, by the way – if you see it, try it). The whole shebang came to just shy of twenty-two pounds, which is crazy money for dinner and a drink. I did feel though that the chap behind the bar didn’t understand the menu all that well and it was a bit of a struggle to explain what sides we wanted with what dish. 

“Don’t I get to pick a sauce to go with mine as well?” I asked. 

“It comes with barbecue sauce” he said. 

“Should I take cutlery or do you bring it out?” 

“Either is fine.” 

I didn’t have unwavering confidence that what we’d ordered was what would turn up – and it wasn’t, entirely, including that barbecue sauce which was nowhere to be seen.

Anyway, let’s talk about the food. I’d gone for grilled, smoked chicken thigh which comes with a couple of sides – and because I’d had a big lunch that day I decided to eschew the carbs, picking chipotle slaw and Boston beans with bacon to go with it. Now, the first thing I should say is that they brought me chicken breast by mistake, as you can probably tell from the photo underneath this paragraph. But the second is that I promise it wasn’t quite as boring as that photo makes it look.

I mean, I was hoping that it would come with the skin on, all crispy from the grill. While we’re at it, I was hoping that it would taste or feel like it had been grilled at all, which this didn’t really. I was also hoping it would taste as if it had been smoked (over hickory wood chips, according to the menu), and this was resolutely a smoke-free zone. Instead it was a slightly pale, largely naked chicken breast speckled with a few sesame seeds. And yet despite all that it wasn’t unpleasant; if you came at it with low expectations, which I sort of did, you’d probably quite enjoy it, especially at the low price of just over six quid. It really could have done with some barbecue sauce, mind you.

The Boston beans made up for that, and were one of the high points – a mixture of beans, chickpeas and peppers in a sweetly tangy sauce with big slabs of bacon thrown in for good measure. If you eat at the Dairy after reading this review (and you might) these are well worth tacking on to whatever you order. They do a bacon-free version too, and actually though the bacon was nice enough it would have largely been the same dish without it. The chipotle slaw, on the other hand, was not good. I don’t really mind whether coleslaw comes in mayo or vinaigrette, and a chipotle mayo would have been lovely: but raw shredded veg with neither, just shrouded in acrid dust, doesn’t do it for me. If I’d known it would be like that, I’d have risked the fries.

Zoë had gone for the brie and bacon burger, and visually it looked decent – a tall stovepipe of a thing with a thick wodge of fridge-cold brie sandwiched between two patties, the whole shebang resting on a sturdy slice of tomato which Zoë fished out in short order. 

“They don’t tell you it’s going to be two burgers, the menu doesn’t really tell you a lot” she said, with a hint of suspicion, probably because she was mulling over the risk that they’d also smuggled in some unwanted gherkins. “I know what you’ll say about this – you’ll say that the slice of brie is too thick and it hasn’t melted.”

“Not at all – nobody ever complains that a burger has too much cheese on it. What’s it like?”

“It’s not bad. It’s not an Honest or a Smash N Grab, but it’s okay for nine pounds. The texture’s a little strange though, a bit dry and crumbly.”

Again, it wasn’t until later when I was looking through the Dairy’s Instagram that I saw their writeup for this dish. In it, they say this burger is “made with local beef and part mushrooms” and “more sustainable than any burger you will try” – but what did that mean? Was it cut (or, rather, diluted) with mushrooms? It would explain the slightly spongey texture but again, why did the menu omit this detail? Was this about sustainability, or cutting corners? A nine pound burger is all very well, but most people would pay more to have the real deal. It was all very odd. Even the bun looked like a bog standard bap rather than the promised brioche: maybe they’d run out.

Zoë had cannily picked the most expensive side, the smoked macaroni cheese (four pounds on its own, fact fans). And again, it was quite pleasant with a good golden crust. But smoked it wasn’t. Better, I thought, was a nibble of macaroni bites – four hefty breadcrumbed spheres of macaroni cheese which were deeply enjoyable and provided the spritz of fun my dinner badly needed, given the naked chicken and dusty coleslaw (and these, by the way, did come with some barbecue sauce). Not in the same league as the same dish at Bracknell’s Blue’s Smokehouse but, crucially, bigger and a darned sight cheaper. Next time I’m drinking at the Dairy I might order some in preference to a packet of Piper’s.

All this added up to a slightly underwhelming meal, a mixture of inconsistency, inaccuracy, basic errors and wasted opportunities. And it was a completely different experience to eating at Park House in the spring: by contrast it felt like like the Dairy had got the hang of writing a menu that read well, even if the most attractive dishes had gone missing in action, but that they perhaps hadn’t realised that the dishes then had to live up to the promise of the words. 

Very few of them did, but I do have to say in the Dairy’s defence that if something seems to good to be true it almost always is. The Dairy is one of the most aggressively priced restaurants I can think of in Reading, and if you aren’t sure how they’re making their money something has to be going on. Whether that’s adding mushrooms to your burger mix, or making coleslaw without mayo, something is always going to give. 

And if the mark at the bottom of the page isn’t quite as low as you’d expect it to be, that’s precisely because the Dairy is a cheap and cheerful option and I’m partly judging it on that basis. It could arguably be more cheerful, but it couldn’t be much cheaper. And as Zoë said at the time, whatever you thought of the food it did at least feel like a Brakes lorry hadn’t played any role in proceedings.

Never the less, I’m sure I will drink at the Dairy again before the summer’s out, and even if this meal wasn’t stellar I thank my lucky stars that it was nowhere near as harrowing as the one I had at the Dairy back in 2019. But next time I might grab dinner at Kungfu Kitchen first, before meandering down the hill for what remains an excellent selection of local beers in what’s left of the sunshine. In that respect at least, the Dairy is still hard to beat.

The Dairy – 6.7
Building L14, London Road Campus, Redlands Road, RG1 5AQ
0118 3782477

https://www.hospitalityuor.co.uk/bars-and-pubs/the-dairy/

Restaurant review: Miyazaki, Maidenhead

We were on the train to Maidenhead, Zoë and I, and both of us realised that neither of us had been to the town in the best part of twenty years. Travelled through it on countless occasions, of course, as everyone has. Changed trains there a couple of times to go to Marlow, too – usually for indifferent meals out, come to think of it. But had either of us ever got off a train there, exited through the barriers and explored the place? I didn’t think so, and nor did Zoë.

We were there to visit Maidenhead’s shiniest, newest hospitality venue – not a restaurant, but the second branch of Windsor’s craft beer bar A Hoppy Place. Zoë wanted to write it up for the magazine she edits and having had her plans to attend the grand opening thwarted by the train strike, she was keen to pay it a visit as soon as humanly possible. 

But where to eat beforehand? Maidenhead looked to be the town that restaurants forgot. A rummage through Tripadvisor – don’t judge, there was virtually nowhere else to look – suggested that most of Maidenhead’s restaurants were actually in the town’s affluent satellite villages. But then I guess if you lived near Bray or Cookham Dean, would you really go into Maidenhead of a night out? The town centre boasted a Kokoro and a Coppa Club, but I couldn’t say I fancied either of those known quantities.

And then I remembered my physio, who lives in Maidenhead, recommending Miyazaki to me. It’s a little restaurant at the unfashionable end of town which has been serving up Japanese food to the people of Maidenhead for something like seven years. No fuss, no drama, just uniformly good reviews on Tripadvisor and Google, all of which gave the vague impression that Miyazaki’s fans were quite comfortable with it remaining a well-kept secret. I phoned up on a Friday evening and was pleasantly surprised to find that they could fit in a booking for the following night.

It wasn’t the loveliest of walks from the station, and I sense that there’s an awful lot of development under way in Maidenhead. Miyazaki was on a little run of shops and restaurants, rubbing shoulders with pizza and kebab takeaways, just past the purgatorial horrors of “The Honey Pot” (remember when Reading had one of those?) and the thumping music of an O’Neill’s already in full swing. “There’s a reason why they always have an O’Neill’s near the train station”, said Zoë sagely. 

Once we reached Miyazaki, though, it stood out like the opposite of a sore thumb. Nestled between joints called Sizzlers and Tennessee Fried Chicken, a building site on the other side of the road, it looked completely out of place. No garish shop front, no big red letters and brightly-lit laminated pictures of the food on display like its neighbours, just a simple space. 

Inside, the neutral, unfussy tables couldn’t have seated more than twenty people at a push, and the long thin room was beautifully lit, the light from the summer evening pouring in through the curved, graceful floor to ceiling window. Tasteful prints and drawings were dotted on the plain white walls. Just two other tables were occupied when we got there at quarter to eight – which saddened me a little. But it was a very hot evening, and the restaurant was doing a roaring trade in takeaways, neatly packaged and on the table by the bar, waiting for delivery drivers to pull up outside and take care of them.

Miyazaki’s menu was the kind that reassured you instantly. Some people, spoiled by the compendious likes of Sushimania or Yo! Sushi, would have found it restrictive but I liked the fact that it did what it did, and didn’t try to offer everything. Just three types of sashimi, a few more nigiri and just over a dozen sushi rolls in two different sizes. There was also a selection of side dishes, along with a very small selection of what you might call mains – three curries, two different noodle dishes and a range of udon soup noodles. 

And even with such a restrained selection I saw dishes I’d never heard of or tried. Yasai kakiage, a sort of vegetable tempura fritter. Sunomono, a crunchy, vinegary cucumber salad. Chicken nanban, a deranged-but-inspired-sounding dish of fried chicken in a tangy coating, served with, of all things, tartar sauce. If I have one regret about this meal, it’s that I can’t tell you what those three taste like: I’ll know after next time.

Instead we stayed on safer ground, but we were richly rewarded all the same. Salmon sashimi was as perfect an example as I can remember – rich, smooth, glossy diamonds of perfect pink, just needing a dab of soy to perfect them. We liked it so much we ordered another portion. Mackerel sashimi was a little less successful: the skin looked like it had been torched, and the slight tinge of vinegar suggested it was cured rather than raw. I liked it more than Zoë did, which might have been a factor in us ordering more salmon.

Sushi rolls kept up a high standard. With a relatively compact menu a lot of these were variations on a theme, but even so I enjoyed everything I had. The small avocado maki were the kind of dish I could gladly eat every day for the rest of my life, and the avocado was splendidly buttery – ripe but not overripe, no hint of those telltale brown edges that always fill me with sadness. 

Larger spicy tuna rolls with a little dab of fiery red sauce inside had a surprising kick, as did the pale ribbons of ginger on the plate – it’s always encouraging to see this more natural colour, rather than the standard-issue hyper-real pink ginger you so often get. And assembly was pretty good: there were a few ragged bits of nori here and there but generally they were put together deftly, and just the right size that you could eat them in one glorious go.

All the larger sushi rolls hovered around the eight pound mark, which struck me as very good value. Another set with both avocado and salmon were probably my favourite, and so much more than the sum of their parts, speckled on the outside with black and white sesame. I’m always reminded, when I eat food like this, how nice it can be to eat something almost-virtuous, so pure-looking. That feeling always dissipates by the time the next portion of fried chicken comes along but it’s nice to experience it all the same, however fleeting. 

It helped, I’m sure, that the setting was so pared-back and ascetic, but also it’s so rare – for me at least – to find really healthy food that I actually like. By this point it was nearly quarter past eight and we were the only customers left in the restaurant, and I would have felt guilty about keeping the staff if it wasn’t for the still-steady stream of takeaway dishes coming out of the kitchen. Their work was far from over, so Zoë drank a second bottle of Sapporo, I had some sweet, fresh plum wine in a glass tinkling with ice and we ordered one last wave of dishes.

Doing so proved, if nothing else, that the period between fried chicken dishes – in my life, at least – is never that long. Karaage chicken is a staple order of mine, in Japanese restaurants and anywhere else I can find it on a menu, but Miyazaki’s was one of the best I’ve had anywhere. Normally it comes plain with some mayo on the side (and I’m absolutely fine with that) but this had been tossed in a tangy red sauce which took it somewhere even better. All soft thigh meat, crunchy coating and gnarled edges with a little spike of heat, it was up there with the nicest things I’ve eaten this year. Chicken gyoza felt a little more boilerplate, but even boilerplate chicken gyoza are still better than the majority of things you can pop into your mouth. 

It’s a shame that I saved the worst til last, but our final two noodle dishes suggested that the kitchen’s strengths lay elsewhere. You can have soba or udon noodles with chicken katsu, fried prawns or vegetable korroke, but either way the underlying dish didn’t quite come together. My soba noodles – a neatly petite portion – were nice enough I suppose, but the sauce they had been lightly stir fried in had a slightly off-putting sweetness when I was hoping for more savoury depth. And my three breaded prawns, tasty though they were, didn’t feel like they really went; I resorted to eating those with my fingers and then ploughing through the noodles, but it didn’t feel like a cohesive dish, or a hugely enjoyable one. 

I think Zoë picked better with the katsu chicken, which was nicely done, but other than the gauge of her noodles her dish was subject to much the same problems. These two dishes are only available at dinner time, but to be honest when I go back I’ll probably just order more sushi, because that felt like where Miyazaki truly excelled. Or I might just leap into the unknown reaches of the menu, and see whether Japanese fried chicken with tartar sauce is as chaotic and magnificent on the plate as it is in my imagination. Either way, I also plan to sample their extensive and impressive selection of sake.

I know it’s a little perverse of me to review a restaurant in Maidenhead this week, because Reading has had two Japanese restaurants open in quick succession: Intoku, where the Tasting House used to be, at the end of May and Iro Sushi, replacing Raayo on Friar Street, at the beginning of July (a third, You Me Sushi, opened a few doors down from Iro yesterday). But I thought Miyazaki was worth exploring, because restaurants that have been doing their stuff for years with no fuss are often overlooked in favour of shiny new places. Or, possibly, bandwagon-jumpers. 

And it was right that I did, because Miyazaki is quietly splendid and well worth celebrating. I’m not inclined to let those final two dishes detract from what was a truly wonderful meal a twelve minute train ride from Reading in surroundings that really couldn’t be more incongruous. Service was flawless, the room has a sort of touching humility which I liked very much and if our meal wasn’t cheap – it came to just over ninety pounds for all that food and a couple of drinks each, not including tip – it was worth every penny. 

And if you need somewhere to go in Maidenhead for a post-dinner drink, I can thoroughly recommend A Hoppy Place which has excellent outside seating and had two phenomenal imperial stouts on keg when I visited, both of which I enjoyed a great deal. You could go to O’Neill’s instead of course, but you don’t need to leave Reading for that, although you would need to take leave of your senses. I will get to the likes of Intoku and Iro in due course, but the standard they have to reach has already been laid down, in a little sanctuary a matter of minutes away on the Elizabeth Line. And if they turn out to be disappointing, I know exactly where I’ll go to get over it.

Miyazaki – 8.1
63 Queen Street, Maidenhead, SL6 1LT
01628 785377

http://www.miyazaki.co.uk

City guide: Bruges and Ghent

Last week’s feature on al fresco dining got a fantastic response from you all, and is already, at the time of writing, the most popular piece I’ve published on the blog this year: thank you so much to everybody who read it, commented, recommended it and passed it on. And after the week we’ve had I have high hopes that it will come in handy for a while yet – in fact the weekend it came out I had dinner outside the Lyndhurst one night, Buon Appetito the next. So if reading it made you feel hungry I can assure you that writing it had much the same effect.

Anyway, by contrast this week it’s one of those pieces that’s a bit more niche, that will only interest a handful of you, so apologies in advance for that. But I had such an enjoyable week in Bruges and Ghent last month that I thought it was ripe for a piece, especially because my last guide to Ghent – the first city guide I ever wrote on the blog – is a creaking three and a half years old. But both cities are well worth visiting, both are gorgeous and ridiculously easy to reach by Eurostar and both offer a holiday unmarred by the flight chaos we might well see for the rest of the year.

Of the two I would say Bruges is smaller, quainter and (even) more beautiful, although it’s very touristy and decidedly sleepy of an evening once the coachloads of day trippers have moved on. Ghent is bigger and more sprawling, with much more of a big city feel – its historic parts are reminiscent of Bruges but it also has street art, a modern art gallery, a design museum and more of a craft beer scene outside the traditional Belgian pubs. You could easily do Bruges in a long weekend, Ghent might keep you occupied longer. But they’re half an hour apart on the train, so you could easily (as I did) make a two centre holiday of both.

Oh, one other thing before I get started – this is only based on places I went to on this year’s visit. So my piece about Ghent from 2018/2019 is potentially still worth a read, it’s just that I can’t vouch for places like Brasserie Du Progres, Oak, Otomat and Barista (I bet they’re great, though). I can however guarantee that the pastries from Himschoot are as gorgeous as they ever were: they’ve even opened a few additional branches since I was there last.

Bruges

1. Bruut

Bruut is in a handsome building next to an absurdly beautiful bridge overlooking the canal, and inside it’s all rather convivial – leather chairs, fetching tiled floors and exposed light fittings. But there are a few al fresco tables by the side of the bridge with that gorgeous view, and that’s where I sat when I ate one of my meals of this (or any) year. Chef Bruno Timperman offers a no-choice, no-substitutions set menu for lunch or dinner and comes out to introduce and talk through many of the dishes himself. And put simply, the man is a wizard: I don’t normally talk about chefs in my blog but this is all very much in his image and it’s very much his show.

Nothing I ate was short of dazzling, and there were almost too many highlights to mention, but a steak tartare made simply with high-grade beef, salt and milk to draw out all the flavour was a tender, mineral miracle. A pre-lunch nibble of prawns, cooked whole and dusted with a vivid raspberry power was like nothing I’ve ever eaten. And our dessert, cherries halved, hollowed and filled wih rose-coloured chocolate, topped with discs of elderflower jelly and sitting in a cherry gazpacho dotted with cherry balsamic, will live in my memory for an extremely long time. My only regret is not taking up the wine pairing – although in my defence it was only lunchtime, and the beer list has some superb lambics on it which made for an excellent alternative.

Bruut, Meestraat 9, Brugge
https://bistrobruut.be/en/

2. Assiette Blanche

More classic and formal and a little less cutting edge, Assiette Blanche has an attractive wood-panelled dining room and the meal I had there was absolutely top notch. They have a set menu or an a la carte (although you can sort of switch between the two) and the set, for dinner, starts at a reasonable forty-four Euros for three courses.

The dishes here are generous – robust but not clumsy, but certainly not a fiddly-plated exercise in nouvelle nonsense. I enjoyed the whole lot but my particular favourite was a monkfish saltimbocca – the flesh firm and pearlescent, the guanciale it was wrapped in providing the salt and smoke. The whole thing was on a bed of prawns and fregola, cut through with a dressing sporting just the right amount of vinegar. A white chocolate and rhubarb dessert, complete with a sweet, sticky syrup that spoke of time well spent, wrapped things up with a perfect bow.

Assiette Blanche, Philipstockstraat 23, Brugge
https://www.assietteblanche.be/nl

3. Café Rose Red

From hearing Zoë talk about Café Rose Red I was expecting to like it a lot, and I wasn’t disappointed. A rather attractive room, all red walls and roses hanging from the ceiling, it had a decent if not incredible beer list and an interesting range of options on tap. I’d heard good things about the food and so we ordered a few bits and pieces to graze on. The assorted cheese and charcuterie was surprisingly disappointing, but I think the trick is to go for dishes that the kitchen has cooked rather than simply dished up: the kibbeling – battered chunks of fish with a mild, soothing tartare sauce – was the equal of any similar dish I’ve had in Andalusia.

Incidentally, the café is part of a hotel and from what I can see the rooms upstairs look well appointed and excellent value – next time I go to Bruges I have a pretty good idea where I’ll be staying. 

Café Rose Red, Cordoeanierstraat 16, Brugge
https://www.rosered.be/nl/

4. ’t Brugs Beertje

I probably would have liked Café Rose Red a lot more if I’d liked ’t Brugs Beertje a little less, but that was never going to happen. The Little Bear is arguably the Belgian watering hole elevated to its ultimate form, a little conspiratorial place with a great selection on tap and an eye-wateringly brilliant list of bottled beers, including some Belgian breweries I’d never heard of and a “vintage” section which gave you the chance to try dark beers and lambics which had been properly cared for across the best part of a decade. I had a Cuvée Delphine from 2013 by De Struise which had the kind of depth and complexity that haunts your imagination for a long time after you’ve taken your final sip.

But more than the impressive selection, it just felt like the perfect place to stop, drink, eavesdrop, people-watch and potentially get into random conversations. The room at the back, complete with plaque to original Belgian beer spod Michael Jackson (not that one, a different one) was nice too, but the front room was where you wanted to be, at a table with your favourite person, making inroads into that excellent list, in no hurry to be anywhere else. It reminded me of the Retreat in its previous incarnation under Bernie and Jane, when it stocked shedloads of Belgian beers – and always the right glasses to go with them – and it made me miss the Retreat of ten years ago, too.

’t Bruges Beertje, Kemelstraat 5, Brugge
https://www.brugsbeertje.be/en/home-2/

5. Vero Caffè

Bruges has lots of nice-looking patisseries where the priorities are the cakes and pastries and the coffee, though perfectly pleasant, plays second fiddle. I went to one on my final morning in the city and we waited ages to get served and even longer to get the bill: the pain au chocolat was good, but not that good. Far better, in a pretty little square with some lovely outside space, was Vero Caffè. It also sells excellent squidgy brownies, exactly as you would like them, so it gets my vote.

Vero Caffè, Sint-Jansplein 9, Brugge
https://www.facebook.com/VeroCaffeBrugge/

6. Cherry Picker

Come for the music, stay for the atmosphere! is the slogan of this record shop in the east of the city. Come for the music stay for the coffee, more like, because it served possibly my favourite coffee in Bruges. I love places like this – it reminded me of Truck Records, out on Oxford’s Cowley Road – and I’d have happily whiled away longer sitting outside or inside with a good book. They do cocktails and beer too, although precisely how much they expect you to put away before they close at 6pm is anybody’s guess.

Cherry Picker, Langestraat 74, Brugge
https://www.cherrypicker.be

Ghent

1. De Superette

Whenever I researched places to eat in Ghent, De Superette always came up but for some reason I’d never taken the plunge and booked a table there. And then on this visit I did and in the run up to going I looked on TripAdvisor (as you do) and had a bit of a wobble. Lots of people said it was overrated, or expensive, or small portions or suchlike.

Well, I overcame my fears and went and was rewarded with a superb meal which made me wonder what all the naysayers were carping about. It’s a bakery by day and pizza place by night, offering a really compact selection of pizzas and a little tasting menu of small plates to start you off. It was the kind of place you wanted to click your fingers and teleport back home, just round the corner from where you lived, and the clientele – a huge range of ages and types of groups – were all clearly having a marvellous time.

And the food was excellent. The small plates were clever, inventive and cracking value – glorious, just-cooked peas with guanciale, a moutabal brimming with smokiness, a clever gazpacho studded with pine nuts. And then the pizzas turned out to be some of the best I’ve had anywhere, all fluffy crust and supercharged clusters of ‘nduja. I left full, happy and determined to return. The table next to us, on the other hand, ordered two pizzas between five. Maybe it’s people like that who complain about small portions: if so, I have a really simple life hack they’re welcome to borrow.

De Superette, Guldenspoorstraat 29, Gent
http://www.de-superette.be

2. De Lieve

De Lieve featured in my previous guide to Ghent and I’ve eaten there on every single visit. Between my last visit and my latest, though, something happened: De Lieve was recognised by Michelin and awarded a Bib Gourmand, their badge of affordable high quality food. And the De Lieve I went to in 2019 was absolutely the kind of restaurant that gets a Bib Gourmand, but the De Lieve I went to last month feels like the kind of restaurant that’s aiming for a star, and that comes with pluses and minuses.

So it felt like the tables were that little bit closer together, the prices were that little bit sharper and the portions were that little bit smaller. The quality was still top notch, don’t get me wrong – my carpaccio of hamachi was a delicate, pretty, subtle dish, but by the time I finished it (a few seconds later) I was thinking about the bag of paprika Walkers Max back at the apartment and wondering if I’d be breaking into them in the not too distant future.

Fortunately balance was restored with a delicious Basque t-bone with rosemary gratin and a deeply pleasing jus, and a cracking tarte tatin completed an enjoyable, if pricey meal. It felt to me like bumping into a friend after a few years to find they’ve had very good, very expensive plastic surgery done. You know they look great, but in the back of your mind you think was that really necessary? Still, if you’ve never been it’s definitely worth considering on a visit to Ghent: I just miss the days when they had a puck of divine black pudding on the starters menu.

De Lieve, Sint-Margrietstraat 1, Gent
https://www.eetkaffee-delieve.be/nl

3. De Rechters

Still my favourite place for traditional Belgian food, De Rechters is a chic, contemporary-looking restaurant which is far better than it needs to be given its plum spot next to St Bavo’s Cathedral. On this occasion, for the first time, I got to sit outside in the sunshine and it made a good meal, if anything, even better. We drank Orval, and Zoë pointed out to me that her beer and mine were bottled on different days, which explained why mine was fizzier than hers: I love it when she goes full Raymond Babbitt about beer like that.

Never having had moules in Belgium – I know, such an oversight – I had some as a starter, cooked simply with thyme and they were plump and fragrant. But next time I’ll go the whole hog and have them as a main with garlic and cream, which for me is the only way really to eat moules, dipping your bread and frites into the sauce until you are truly replete.

The frites, incidentally, were a bit wan on this visit – which is a shame, because frites are something Belgium does better than practically anybody. But the stoverij, beer slow-cooked in beer until the whole thing is a symphony of dark brown, almost-sweet ambrosia, is worth the price of admission alone. You can get frites anywhere but beef like that requires patience and skill, both of which De Rechters has in abundance.

De Rechters, Sint-Baafsplein 23, Gent
https://derechters.be/nl/

4. STEK

On my holiday in Belgium I tried to learn from previous trips away and put a strict rule in place: one big meal a day. Maybe all of you already do this when you go on holiday, but sadly I’ve never been great at restraint and although it means I’ve eaten some amazing food it does make the post-holiday Monday comedown a downer of epic proportions. What do you mean I can’t have sherry at lunchtime and go to a restaurant? I’ll rail to nobody in particular. Make my own meals? Who does that?

On the plus side, it meant I could discover Ghent’s brunch scene, and that in turn meant a thoroughly worthwhile visit to STEK, an achingly cool cafe halfway between the centre and the modern art gallery. Inside it’s all plants – a lot of monsteras and plenty of other flora I wouldn’t recognise – and outside there’s a serene terrace, a proper secret garden with plenty of space where you feel nowhere near a big city. It reminded me a bit of the surprise you get when you walk through the Boston Tea Party on Bristol’s Park Street to find that massive garden out back or, closer to home, the bang-up job the Collective has done with its outside space.

Since I was embracing lunch and brunch I decided to go the whole hog and order the avo toast. Mine came with superbly crispy, curled, caramelised bacon, a fried egg with the yolk still runny, shoots and leaves and a little side salad and it was as pretty as its surroundings. It tasted phenomenal too, and the coffee wasn’t bad either. Maybe there are pluses to having a lighter lunch after all.

STEK, Nederkouter 129, Gent
https://www.stekgent.be

5. Take Five Espresso

My absolute favourite coffee place of the holiday was Take Five Espresso in the centre of Ghent. I never completely decided whether I preferred being inside, sat up at the big windows watching city life bustling by or outside in the sun (their seating is dead clever, making full use of the public benches on the street). What I did work out though was that their lattes were magnificent and that by the end of my trip it was hard to imagine being caffeinated anywhere else. It was the epitome of café chic and I enjoyed it a great deal. I never tried any of their food, but you can blame Kultur, the excellent bakery next door (and their pain au chocolat) for that.

Take Five Espresso, Voldersstraat 10, Gent
http://www.take-five-espressobar.be

6. Clouds In My Coffee

Clouds In My Coffee is one of the most stylish cafés I’ve seen in roughly a decade of going to Europe and seeking these places out. Quite aside from the Carly Simon reference, which manages not to be naff, the inside is truly gorgeous, like something out of Living Etc. From the street it looks small (and is surprisingly hard to find) but through the back is a wonderfully light, airy extension and beyond that another of those idyllic secret gardens that Ghent cafés seem to all have up their sleeves.

Did I want a coffee? Absolutely. Was my latte delicious? Of course it was. Did I look at the menu and wonder if it was too early for an Aperol Spritz? You bet I did. And did I feel like I was soaking up design tips for the duration of my visit? Yes, along with thinking Why doesn’t Reading have anywhere like this? The only drawback is that Clouds In My Coffee is the epitome of the best house on a bad street: Dampoort, where it lives, is an up and coming part of Ghent that, from my visit, has more upping and coming to do (the cafe’s website calls it a “multicolour fuse”, which I think is nicely poetic). The walk there from the tram stop involved walking through an Aldi car park and, for an awful moment, I thought I’d wandered through a wormhole in space and found myself on the outskirts of Basingstoke. Still worth a visit though, if only to go somewhere that fitted in about as much as I did.

Clouds In My Coffee, Dendermondsesteenweg 104, Gent
https://www.clouds9000.com/en/cafe-gallery

7. Het Waterhuis aan de Beerkant

On my first visit to Ghent, at the tail end of autumn 2018, I rather liked Het Waterhuis aan de Beerkant, a tall building by the canal (aren’t they all?) with rooms across several floors: the room right at the top reminded me of mid-90s boho drinking culture in a way which somehow summoned up memories of Bar Iguana. But it wasn’t until I went back on a hot July afternoon that I really got what the fuss was about – sitting at a sunny table, overlooking the canal, surrounded by other afternoon revellers of all shapes and sizes it was an extremely agreeable place to while away a few hours and sink a tall, cold Brugse Zot on draft. We don’t have a word, really, for what time spent like that is like but I believe the Dutch describe it as gezellig.

Het Waterhuis aan de Beerkant, Groentenmarkt 9, Gent
https://www.facebook.com/Waterhuis-aan-de-Bierkant-171209319595287/

8. Gitane

I waxed lyrical about Gitane after previous visits to Ghent, and it’s still one of my favourite watering holes. But, like Het Waterhuis aan de Beerkant, it was a decidedly different experience on a hot and sunny day: everybody was chattering away at tables which fill the street outside and if you’re forced to sit in, as we were, it made for a slightly Marie Celeste moment.

No matter: it’s still a great place for a cosy drink, all wood panels and tiled floor, and if the list is less compendious than those at Ghent’s more feted bars and pubs it makes up for that with some really interesting choices from some of Belgium’s less established breweries. I had a cracking New England IPA from Brouwcompagnie Rolling Hills which married East Flanders and the Eastern Seaboard very harmoniously indeed.

Gitane, Meerseniersstraat 9, Gent
https://facebook.com/100054309860476/

9. Dulle Griet

The two other “proper” Belgian pubs in Ghent, both with compendious beer lists, are Trollkelder and Dulle Griet. Both are idiosyncratic to put it lightly – I had a drink sitting outside Trollkelder only slightly put off by the weird models of trolls eyeballing you through the window. I liked Dulle Griet better, although both are an experience and you should at least try a drink in one of them. It’s named after Mad Meg, a figure in Flemish folklore who led an army of women to storm the gates of hell. Whether that explains the decor and all the weird figurines hanging from the ceiling I have no idea (I wouldn’t want to do their dusting, put it that way) but it made for an interesting and characterful place to stop for an afternoon beer, especially as they had Westmalle Dubbel, a Trappist favourite of mine, on draft. Given that they boast over five hundred different beers on their list, you’d probably find something to enjoy here.

Dulle Griet, Vrijdagmarkt 50, Gent
http://www.dullegriet.be/en/

10. HAL 16

HAL 16 is a food hall and brewery out towards the docks, and is a perfect place to visit whether you like beer, food or ideally both. I think it used to just be the tap room for local brewery Dok Brewing, but there have been some changes and it now shares the space with three different food vendors: think Blue Collar, but even more cool. There’s also a branch of the excellent bakery Himschoot just round the corner, terrific coffee from the nearby OR Espresso Bar and a beer shop – De Hopduvel – which sells all the beer (and matching glasses) you could possibly want for your trip home.

I had already bought a Dok Brewing glass from a shop in Bruges by then, because I was already a fan. Dok does some truly lovely beer and there are something like thirty taps at HAL 16, with a mixture of beers brewed on the premises and fascinating stuff from breweries I’d never even heard of: the highlight of this visit was a stunningly dank DIPA from Virginia’s Aslin Beer Company. But the other reason to come here is for the food from RØK (they like their block capitals in this part of town) which smokes and grills meat, hispi cabbage and anything else they think might be good.

On a previous visit in 2019 I had a huge, smoked, blackened pork chop, fresh off the grill, which ducked under the velvet rope and went straight into my gastronomic hall of fame without passing GO or collecting £200. This time round it was all about the lamb neck, tender and moreish, scattered with salt and served with a puddle of aioli and a properly zingy salsa verde. We made the mistake of ordering pizza from another vendor first and then picked up the lamb dish from RØK just before their kitchen closed, but when I return – and I will return – I’m ordering everything on their menu, even if it leads to a Mr Creosote situation.

HAL16, Dok-Noord 4b, Gent
https://www.hal16.be

Feature: Al fresco dining (2022)

This is, believe it or not, the third edition of my guide to the best places to eat al fresco in Reading, and looking back on my previous guides to this subject, it’s safe to say that they’ve not aged as well as I might have liked.

From my Class of 2015, three of my choices have ceased trading and one of the others, the Allied Arms, has lost much of its appeal for al fresco dining since the Pizza Express next door closed down. It only really made the list because of the strangely luxurious experience of having a pint of Thatchers Gold in the beer garden with a Pollo Ad Astra from just down the road; it was, it occurs to me now, a gastronomic moment very much frozen in time and of its time, every bit as much as enjoying cocktails and a burger outside Santa Fe or sitting on the balcony at Dolce Vita.

My more recent version of this list, from 2019, hasn’t fared an awful lot better. Dolce Vita, of course, has closed, and I know some people in Reading mourn its loss as much as I do. But other places have dropped off my list because they’ve been surpassed: take Bhel Puri House, whose food you used to be able to eat in the Workhouse courtyard. And you still can, but the courtyard has been desecrated by the Mercure Hotel, who tore it up with a plan to put in some horrendous decking, were told to cease and desist by the council and left it half-done and completely fucked, one of Reading’s loveliest sunspots turned into a guano-encrusted perpetual building site. 

Some places didn’t make the cut this time because although the surroundings are still excellent, the food no longer lives up to them. Thames Lido is a wonderful place to sit and look at the pool but the food has always been inconsistent and they’ve managed to mislay two head chefs in less than a year (they now have a “restaurant director” instead, whatever that is). After one hit and miss meal too many – which is all the meals I’ve ever had there – it’s no longer a place I can recommend. 

But let’s focus on the positives: for my money there are more, and better, places to eat outside in Reading than ever before. Part of that is down to Covid, I suspect, and places wisely investing in Covid-proofing their restaurants or pubs as best they can. And some of it is just our good fortune that many of our newer establishments have put thought into this, just as many of them have put thought into the delivery experience. Places that have perfected eating in, eating outside and takeaway, which includes a handful of the places on this list, truly represent a triple threat. 

That means I have a bumper selection for you, a baker’s dozen of the best places in Reading to enjoy food and drink outdoors. With one notable exception they all serve their own food, and I think you have a decent span of restaurants, pubs and cafés, and of food at all price points. And best of all, they’ve been picked on merit rather than because they reviewed well on TripAdvisor or paid money to be featured, like other local publications I could name. So without further ado let’s get into it: I have a feeling a list like this could be especially handy this year, and for that matter in the hot summers yet to come.

1. Blue Collar Corner

This list is in alphabetical order, but either way I’m sure it will surprise few people to see Blue Collar Corner at the top of it. In the four short months since it opened, Glen Dinning’s permanent site on Hosier Street has already established itself as a Reading institution. And if claims that “it’s just like being in London” are a little brash and reductive it’s definitely true that the site, with its shipping containers, street food vendors, buzzing tokens telling you your dinner is ready and a well-stocked bar with many excellent Double-Barrelled beers (and the superb lager they brew exclusively for Blue Collar) feels like nowhere else Reading has seen, and like nowhere anywhere near Reading either for that matter.

Blue Collar has picked a mixture of the star players from its weekday markets to run permanent kitchens at the site, which means you can choose from pizza at Sarv’s Slice, bao buns from YouBao or the near-legendary fried chicken from Swindon’s Gurt Wings. The Taco Tree, an offshoot from Vegivores, completes the quartet. In truth when I’ve attended I’ve found it difficult to stay away from Gurt Wings’ incredible JFC (karaage-style fried chicken) with Lost In Translation, their gochujang and sriracha combo sauce. But Sarv’s Slice is also well worth trying – their carbonara pizza, in particular, knocked my socks off.

I suspect I’m far too old and shabby to make a night of it there, but it’s a great place for a sunny lunch at the weekend or an early evening dinner before sloping off to the pub, leaving the young and the beautiful to enjoy their cocktails. I feel I fit in far better at Blue Collar’s Wednesday and Friday markets, which earn an honorary mention on this list – Fink’s mezze box, with chicken shawarma and falafel (because why should you have to choose?) is a go-to there. Or you could join the seemingly infinite queue for Sharian’s jerk chicken: I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the people standing in the line at half-one have been waiting since midday.

Blue Collar Corner, 15 Hosier Street, RG1 7QL
https://www.bluecollarstreetfood.co.uk/blue-collar-corner

2. Buon Appetito

I rediscovered Buon Appetito last year, and it turned out to be one of my finds of 2021. But it’s this year that it’s become a proper happy place for me. It has fantastic outside space , and there’s an awful lot to be said for heading there after work, bagging one of their tables and waiting for your pizza to arrive.

It somehow feels, despite being on Chatham Street and a mere stone’s throw from the Oxford Road, that you could be in mainland Europe. Perhaps it’s the luminous orange glow of an Aperol Spritz bathed in sunshine, or maybe it’s the soundtrack of soft easy-listening cover versions of chart hits. Or it could just be the warmth of the welcome or that first bite of my favourite Reading pizza, all bubbled crust, capers and anchovies. Whatever it is, it adds up to something magical.

Best of all, unlike many places on this list, Buon Appetito is truly future-proof. It has cover and powerful heaters, and it will continue to be a great shout later in the year when the weather, as it inevitably will, turns to shit. Come to think of it, I had a distinctly agreeable al fresco meal in Buon Appetito last January, when anywhere else would have been inhospitable. One last thing: if it’s on the specials menu, save room for their brilliant pistachio tiramisu.

Buon Appetito, 146-148 Chatham Street, RG1 7HT
https://www.buonappetitoreading.co.uk

3. Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen (at the Butler)

Many years ago, I Love Paella (either at the Horn or during its halcyon days at the Fisherman’s Cottage, before the acrimonious parting of the ways) would have been a shoo-in for a list like this. Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen is very much its natural successor, a great example of a pub showing some imagination, getting a talented chef in and becoming much more than the sum of its parts.

Sitting under a parasol in the back garden of the Butler – also on Chatham Street, as it happens – nursing a pint of Neck Oil and devouring some jerk chicken dumplings was one of the best al fresco experiences I had last year, or any year for that matter. And that’s before you factor in the chicken wings with a dark rum glaze, the phenomenally deep, smoky jerk chicken or an infernally indulgent slab of macaroni pie. If you want to make someone in your life jealous, go there without them and send them photos: the picture above is from the last time my other half did precisely that. I was green with envy, but I had to applaud her: Bob’s your uncle, Fanny’s your aunt and Stevie’s your chef.

Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen, The Butler, 85-91 Chatham Street, RG1 7DS
https://www.facebook.com/ChefStevieAnderson

4. The Collective

You might well expect me to put Geo Café on this list – the coffee is fantastic, the pastries are out of this world and the Orangery out the back is a lovely, quirky place to enjoy both those things. But, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I class the owners Keti and Zezva as friends so I will have to recuse myself for that reason. But in any event The Collective, at the other end of Caversham’s Church Street, fully deserves a spot on this list.

Their outside space is a beautiful, credible, grown-up piece of work and it creates an atmosphere which positively encourages you to linger, grab another coffee (and maybe one of their superb brownies) and just enjoy the experience of being part of a buzzing café culture not quite like anywhere else in Reading. I just came back from a holiday in Ghent where I went to a couple of fantastic cafés – they take coffee seriously there – with gorgeous, sophisticated outside space, and I can’t think of a higher compliment to pay The Collective than that it very much reminded me of them.

The thing to have there, if you ask me – and maybe you didn’t, but it’s my blog – is the French toast with bacon and maple syrup. But I’m long overdue a return visit to try out the chorizo ‘nduja hash, which sounds like a mixture of all the nicest things.

The Collective, 25 Church Road, Caversham, RG4 7AA
https://www.thecollectivecaversham.co.uk

5. The Last Crumb

Another terrific al fresco venue, the Last Crumb has really cemented its place in Caversham since it opened in 2019 and it has a lovely garden with benches and booths which catches the sun nicely. It might not have as extensive a range of drinks as some of Reading’s other venues, but they’ve done wonders with the outside space and it remains a great spot for a contemplative pint (especially of cider, where their range is a little more fun).

Food at the Last Crumb is not extensive: they’ve decided to do two things, burgers and pizza, and that’s pretty much it. But for what it’s worth they do both of them well and their pizzas are a pretty decent rival for the highly rated Papa Gee just down the hill. I think they still serve them on a metal bin lid which means they go cold quicker than they ought to, but on a scorching hot summer’s day, sitting outside, I imagine that won’t bother many people.

The Last Crumb, 76 Prospect Street, Caversham, RG4 8JN
https://dodopubs.com/locations/the-last-crumb/

6. London Street Brasserie

LSB: the great survivor and what the youth of today might refer to as the “OG” (although what would I know?) of Reading’s al fresco dining scene. It doesn’t have an awful lot of outside space, but what it does have is a classy, tranquil spot by the water and one of the town’s best sun traps. I ate on their terrace a couple of times last year and yes, I know it isn’t as cheap as it used to be. I know the set lunch is no longer the bargain it once was. I also know, believe me, that of any three dishes you eat there one will be great, one will be nice and one will be meh.

And yet it still has something. It still feels special to me, in a way the Lido has never managed, and authentic even when it’s not entirely at its best. It’s where I tend to go with the bits of my family who are even more determined to eat outside than I am, and the place has made several really happy memories for me since the pandemic began. Put it this way – it’s the only restaurant that’s made every single iteration of this list. I wouldn’t bet against it cropping up next time I write a piece like this, too.

London Street Brasserie, 2-4 London Street, RG1 4PN
https://www.londonstreetbrasserie.co.uk

7. The Lyndhurst

Will he ever stop going on about the Lyndhurst? you’re probably thinking to yourself. And yes, I’m sure one day I will. When their food stops being incredible and inventive and ridiculously good value. When they stop being curious about other cuisines and other restaurants, when they stop ordering food from other places, taking it apart, putting it back together and adding it to their menu, souped-up and completely unmissable.

True story: the Lyndhurst read my takeaway review of Osaka, ordered the karaage chicken I’d written about, enjoyed it and then decided to make their own version. It was absolutely incredible, some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had anywhere, and I enjoyed it for months until they took it off their menu. And then they brought it back recently and it’s even better than ever. I’ll stop going on about them when they stop doing things like that. I’ll stop going on about them when I order the same dish there twice and they haven’t improved it, subtly and iteratively, between visits. I’ll stop going on about them when their curry night isn’t the best way to spend a tenner on food and a pint in Reading on a Thursday night.

Until then, I’m afraid you have to put up with stuff like this. The Lyndhurst’s terrace seats maybe fourteen people at a push, but if you get a table there on a warm day – with a pint or a glass of their gorgeous Riesling, and a menu – you honestly feel like you’ve won at life. Next time you’re there, try the monkfish with Bombay potatoes before they take it off the menu. It’s a beauty.

The Lyndhurst, 88 Kings Road, RG1 4DG
https://www.thelyndhurstreading.co.uk/

8. The Nag’s Head

For my money the Nag’s is Reading’s finest beer pub, and for a long time I thought that was all that it was (not that there’s anything wrong with that). And that’s still the case – the keg selection is superb, and there’s always a great spread of beers from our local breweries, let alone fun stuff from further afield. But when I reviewed the food last year I was delighted to find that they’d given a lot of thought to it – a stripped-back, easy to execute menu that doesn’t involve burgers or fish and chips, or microwaves.

So instead you get brisket or pulled pork rolls, from the smoker which starts running early doors. Or toasted sandwiches from the Croque Shop, a Brighton business that the owners of the Nag’s liked so much that they asked them to supply their pub a long way from Sussex. There are sausage rolls, too, although nothing’s stopping you ordering some pork scratchings into the bargain, apart from possibly restraint or dignity. The Nag’s, Buon Appetito and Chef Stevie form a beautiful little triad, proving again that West Reading is where much of Reading’s interesting food developments are taking place.

The Nag’s Head, 5 Russell Street, RG1 7XD
http://www.thenagsheadreading.co.uk/

9. O Portugues

Just to prove that West Reading and Caversham don’t have the monopoly on great al fresco dining options, the next three choices are all from the east side. O Português, on the edge of Palmer Park, has a decent terrace and a menu that does its best to transport you to Lisbon. The menu can be challenging in places (don’t have the snails) but if you pick well you can be rewarded with some cracking food – from prego steak rolls honking with garlic to a vibrant salt cod salad singing with parsley and red peppers. One of my readers told me that one of the best ways to enjoy O Português is with their octopus salad, some bread to mop up and a cold pint of Super Bock on draft. Put like that, it sounds unimprovable.

O Português, 21 Wokingham Road, RG6 1LE
https://www.facebook.com/OPortuguesInTown

10. Park House

My most recent discovery to make this list is Park House, the University bar on campus. It’s always been one of my favourite places to grab a pint in the sunshine – either before or after a happy amble round the Harris Garden, which has become one of my very favourite parts of Reading. Their beer is ridiculously cheap and Double-Barrelled, Siren Craft, Phantom and Elusive are invariably represented, along with relatively local breweries from slightly further away.

But what’s changed this year is the introduction of a great, compact, sensibly priced menu using local suppliers and beef from the university’s own farm. It transforms it from a nice spot for a drink to somewhere you could happily settle in for a session and have an enjoyable meal into the bargain. The things to pick there are the smoked pork ribs, the excellent, clever and nicely balanced confit duck salad and more of the smoked pork ribs. Possibly with a chaser of the smoked pork ribs.

Park House, Whiteknights Campus, University of Reading, RG6 6UA
https://www.hospitalityuor.co.uk/bars-and-pubs/park-house/

11. Smash N Grab

Reading’s best burgers, for my money, can be had from a little shack on Cemetery Junction with a handful of outside tables. Husband and wife team Farooq and Uzma run Smash N Grab and despite almost packing it in earlier in the year they’ve decided to stick at it and are working hard on improving their outside space and expanding their menu.

I’m glad they’ve reconsidered, because their smashed burgers really are superb – beautifully done, deeply savoury things with fantastic texture and contrast. Smash N Grab are active on social media and have been frank about the challenge they face, with their neighbours and competitors Fat Twins building a huge structure outside what used to be the Granby Tavern to block their light and the view of the restaurant (seemingly without getting planning permission). So they need all the support they can get – and their burgers really do deserve a far wider audience.

Smash N Grab, 124 London Road, RG1 5AY
https://www.smashngrab.co.uk/

12. Tasty Greek Souvlaki

Another great example of restaurants as travel agents, Tasty Greek Souvlaki has made a huge contribution to Reading’s food scene in a short space of time since opening in 2020. And I really love sitting outside with a cold bottle of Fix (the glasses, frosted, are from the freezer) watching the world go by. The tables are seated side by side looking out on Market Place, which somehow makes the whole thing feel more Continental, and it has that brilliant effect where you know you’re in Reading, but you somehow feel elsewhere.

If you’re there in a pair or a four it’s really hard to beat the mixed grill, which is a cornucopia of meat – souvlaki, gyros, keftedes, pork belly and sausage – with something for everybody. But if you’re eating solo, the merida platter of crispy, salty gyros meat with chips, fluffy pitta and tzatziki is one of the best and best value meals for one you can find in Reading. And it’s a great place to dine solo: at some point I’ll put together an updated version of my feature on the best tables for one in Reading. When I do, expect Tasty Greek Souvlaki to be on it.

Tasty Greek Souvlaki, 20 Market Place, RG1 2EG
https://tastygreeksouvlaki.com/

13. The Castle Tap

The Castle Tap doesn’t have a menu per se: I think you can get a cheeseboard there, but that’s it. They have done a great job on their outside space in lockdown, like their neighbours the Nag’s Head, and it’s a brilliant place to enjoy a beer or a cider on a balmy evening (their beer list is compact but always has something interesting on it, and they put a lot of effort into their cider selection).

And yet last year, the Castle Tap was the site of many of my favourite al fresco meals. Because to encourage you to stay there and keep enjoying their wonderful space, rather than sloping off to the likes of Harput Kebab, the management actively encourages you to order from Deliveroo and eat it in their gorgeous garden. They even, if you ask them nicely, give you the postcode for the back of the pub on Anstey Road, so your rider can almost drop it to your waiting table. A tub of chilli chicken from Kokoro or a red pork curry from ThaiGrr!, eaten in the sun with a great beer in front of you and the promise of more to come: little is finer than that.

The Castle Tap, 120 Castle Street, RG1 7RJ
https://thecastletap.co.uk