The best of Reading

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A few weeks ago I was having a drink with a Reading sceptic. Everyone knows at least one person like this: you almost certainly do, or maybe you are one (although if you are, reading this must be a bit like the experience I have on the rare occasions when I click on something by Richard Littlejohn). For instance, I used to have one friend – note the use of the past tense – who constantly whinged about Reading and how underwhelming it was. Even Portsmouth, where she used to live, was better, she said.

Once, bored by this recurring theme, I asked her whether she’d ever been to the Progress Theatre, taken in comedy at South Street, done the art Open House weekends in Whiteknights or Caversham, read Alt Reading or been to a gig at the Oakford, or indeed anywhere. The answer to all those questions was no: she had to get a babysitter to go out in town of an evening, she said, and she’d decided in advance that none of those things justified the expense. Whose fault was it, I wonder, that she found Reading so disappointing?

Anyway, I was strolling back along the canal with this particular Reading sceptic and, ever so nicely, she said that I made a good fist of sticking up for Reading and banging the drum for Reading but implied that really, I was just rolling a turd in glitter. She challenged me to name half a dozen places worth eating in Reading and I managed it, after a fashion, but I felt uncomfortably put on the spot. Perhaps I was just a little rusty, my well-prepared speech about how much I love this town gathering dust on the shelf.

The way some conversations do, it weighed on my mind for days. After all, if I can’t mount a convincing defence of the place after nearly three years of reviewing independent restaurants here, things must be pretty bleak mustn’t they? And it’s true that lately I’ve found myself on the train to Oxford a lot, eating brunch at the Handlebar Café, having a spot of lunch at Pierre Victoire or enjoying (well, loving actually) dinner at Branca. Each time I’ve been there I’ve walked past a new, interesting place – tapas restaurants, bakeries, little wine bars. I’ve even contemplated what it would be like to write Edible Oxford, and I felt a little guilty when I realised how fun that sounded.

Things happened the following week which quite restored my faith. On Thursday, I took a friend to the Fisherman’s Cottage for dinner. It was Tapas Thursday, and you could get a bottle of Estrella with a dish of crunchy bravas and rich aioli for a fiver, or failing that try a dinky sandwich filled with plump, smoky chorizo. I watched the pub fill up with people eating and drinking and I felt a tug of pride that I Love Paella, which I’ve been going to since it just dished up a handful of dishes at Workhouse Coffee down the Oxford Road some evenings, had grown to this and found a home where it was appreciated and where it belonged perfectly.

My friend doesn’t eat fish, and initially grizzled about the prospect of going to a place called I Love Paella, but when the chicken paella materialised in front of us, packed with plump beautifully seasoned thighs, his reservations vanished. It was a truly brilliant evening: for some people, cooking is how they show love but for me, with my negligible skills in the kitchen, it’s always been about finding nice places for people to eat. We stopped by the Lyndhurst for a drink after that. “You must try the Scotch egg some time”, I told him because, even with a full stomach, I couldn’t help myself.

The following night I was meeting my dad and I took him to the Turk’s for Georgian food from Caucasian Spice Box. If you think I’m gleeful when I eat a dish I love, you should meet my dad: he may well be where I get that from. And his face was a picture as beautiful dish after beautiful dish arrived at our table – coarse meatballs like faggots strewn with pomegranates, spiced chicken thighs with a sauce made from ground walnut, slices of soda bread stuffed with firm yet elastic cheese, a little dish of jonjoli, green tangy strands which were like a cross between seaweed and capers.

As my dad sighed, declared himself replete and asked them to box up a couple of chicken thighs to take home to my stepmother (just before helping himself to another baklava) I realised how lucky I am to live in a town with such brilliant, diverse, independent offerings.

I’ve lost count of the amount of times I go to another town, find a restaurant and think “if only this was near me I’d eat there all the time”. But the grass is always greener, and the truth is we have loads of those kind of restaurants here. So, all in one place, here’s a list of bite-sized reviews of the best of Reading: ten independent restaurants I’d recommend to anyone – new to this town, or a long-standing resident – who wants to discover the kind of food we have here. If you’re a regular reader then apologies for telling you things you probably already know but, if you’re not, this might be a decent place to start reading the blog.

Anyway, if all else fails, it’s a handy link you can send to any Reading sceptics you might not have converted yet. Hope you enjoy it.

Bakery House

The perfect example of the kind of restaurant I like – unfussy, unpretentious and serving brilliant Lebanese food. Houmous studded with shreds of roasted lamb, tiny pungent sausages, a whole boneless baby chicken crispy from the charcoal grill, puffy pittas still full of air like edible balloons ready to be dipped in sauce. You’ll reek of garlic the next day, but the chances are you won’t care. (82 London Street, RG1 4SJ)

Bhel Puri House

Reading’s only vegetarian restaurant and still a great place to go for lunch when you don’t want sandwiches. Nearly always full of families enjoying Indian street food, the service is lovely and the chilli paneer – cubes of caramelised cheese peppers – is one of the very best things you can eat in Reading. It’s always worth picking something as a punt from the menu, because when it works it can be a revelation, but if all else fails the Punjabi samosas are delicious. In summer you can eat in the courtyard it shares with Workhouse Coffee, one of Reading’s best natural sun traps. (Yield Hall Lane, RG1 2HF)

Caucasian Spice Box

Some of the nicest, friendliest service in Reading and a kitchen which does what restaurants should do but rarely manage – offer a short menu with no duffers where everything is worth a try. Georgian food is an eye-opener to anyone like me who has had rather jading experiences of food from Eastern Europe, and Caucasian Spice could easily convince you that you have a new favourite cuisine. When I go, I find it almost impossible to veer from the meatballs (probably the best I’ve ever had) and the spiced chicken thighs. But if you’re vegetarian the bean stew is also very tasty indeed, and if you’re taking someone who’s can’t see past pub food they can eat the very credible fish and chips while you give them the mother of all food envy. There’s usually beautiful baklava after you finish your mains (a lovely touch) and although they don’t promote it the pub also serves Georgian wine which goes beautifully with everything. (The Turk’s, 31 London Road, RG1 5BJ)

Dolce Vita

Dolce Vita has a nice space and warm, welcoming service: going there always feels a bit like a cross between eating out and eating at home, especially if you become a semi-regular. Some of the main menu doesn’t do it for me – there are better pizzas elsewhere in Reading, and I’ve occasionally found the pasta a little overcooked – but many of the meat dishes are spectacular (particularly the saltimbocca), the set menu is uniformly packed with interesting stuff and if there are any Greek dishes on there they are always worth snaffling. The perfect example of how a good restaurant is so much more than the sum of its parts. (19-23 Kings Road, RG1 2HG)

I Love Paella

I’ve waxed lyrical about it already but I Love Paella and the Fisherman’s Cottage has turned out to be such a perfect marriage that it’s now almost impossible to imagine one without the other. Tapas Thursday, with a constantly changing range of miniature dishes for – no, this isn’t a misprint – two pounds is the best day to go, but in my experience any day is a good day to eat I Love Paella’s food. The eponymous paella is a thing of wonder, but so are the grilled goat’s cheese with tomato jam, the stunning empanadas and the perfect combination of two gastronomic wet dreams that is ILP’s salt cod churros. (The Fisherman’s Cottage, 3 Canal Way, RG1 3HJ)

Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus

I celebrated my thirtieth birthday in Kyrenia, as it was then called, so long ago that Tony Blair was still Prime Minister (and it’s not just the prospect of being thirty again which makes me look back on those days with nostalgic fondness). It may have a different name now many years later, but the place has aged a lot better than I have. It still has the same beautiful, elegant, simple décor. It still has tables packed close enough together that you feel like you’re sharing an evening with strangers in a good way (and apologies if you’ve ever had a table near one of my birthday celebrations) and the big windows at the front steam up. It still has tremendous service from people who have been working there all this time. And, most important, from salty firm halloumi to chargrilled spirals of octopus, from soft succulent kleftiko to firm, porky sheftalia, it still does magnificent food. (6 Prospect Street, RG4 8JG)

Kobeda Palace

One of the most unprepossessing places I’ve ever been on duty, Kobeda Palace still feels like a well-kept secret despite my attempts to publicise it. When I first went I was seduced by the kobeda – wonderful kofte kebabs cooked on the grill and dished up on huge, hand-stretched naan. But on return visits I’ve found myself completely addicted to the karahi chicken – served on the bone with a sauce resplendent with ginger. Buy as much of that as you can persuade your companions to share – they sell it by the half kilo – and make sure you get a giant naan to use to scoop up every last mouthful (or, if you can’t persuade your companions, do it anyway: I did). Oh, and a jug of mango lassi is five pounds. Five pounds! (409-411 Oxford Road, RG30 1HA)

Papa Gee

Papa Gee, more than anywhere else, was the sleeper hit of Edible Reading. I never thought it was a real restaurant, expected to find it a bit of a joke and lo and behold, I had to quickly pack away my sneer as it became apparent that I was eating easily the best pizza not only in Reading, but for miles around. The pizza is still the reason to go, whether you opt for the fiery fun of the “Sofia Loren”, all chilli and sausage or what’s always been, for me, the ultimate pizza: the “Napoli”, with anchovies, garlic and (in my case) extra capers. But last time I went they had a brilliant new street food section on the menu, and it’s still worth picking up some of their zucchini fritti even if they don’t go with anything else you’re having. Papa Gee’s fate is in question, as Easy Hotel wants to buy the premises they’re in and sling them out after over ten years making the best of that unpromising location. Go while you can, show your support and let’s hope Gaetano either stays put or finds better premises; I daydream that one day he’ll replace TGI Friday in the Oracle. (138 Caversham Road, RG1 8AY)

Pepe Sale

The original and best, the first place I ever reviewed. Ignore the interior (although it’s less ugly than it was four years ago, and they’ve finally put up some decent artwork). Instead, lose yourself in the food – fresh filled pasta, roast suckling pig, a whacking great piece of fillet steak on rocket, chicken wrapped in pancetta, antipasto topped with a single crispy piece of fried pecorino. If they have an off night I don’t think I’ve ever seen it, and if you get served by Marco you can truly watch a master at work at the front of house. (3 Queens Walk, RG1 7QF)

Sapana Home

My restaurant of the year last year and still one of my favourite places to grab a quick solo meal right off the train at Reading. Always doing a buzzing trade with Reading’s Nepalese community, you should make a beeline for the momo (pan fried chicken for me, thank you very much). Personally I can eat all ten of the blighters, although existential sadness starts to set in after momo number six – that makes me sound like Lou Bega, I’m afraid – when I begin to realise that my gorgeous meal is coming to an end. But you could do a lot worse than trying some of the other dishes too. Chicken fry is quite magnificent, the chow mein has grown on me after initially being somewhat indifferent and, best of all, the samosa chaat is absolutely gorgeous – warm chunks of samosa, yoghurt, tamarind, crunchy sev and smiles. (8 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1TG)

The thing is that, as with any list, you could just as easily take exception to what’s been left out as to what’s been included. So I didn’t find room for a trio of excellent Indian restaurants in the shape of House Of Flavours, Royal Tandoori and Bhoj. I couldn’t make space for Reading’s higher end choices, London Street Brasserie, Forbury’s, Cerise. I skipped our fine lunch and coffee scene, so I’ve neglected to mention Shed, Workhouse or Picnic. No Mya Lacarte, Nomad Bakery or The Tasting House, either. It’s terrific, on reflection, that making this list involved deciding who to omit rather than desperately scrabbling around to find ten names which barely fit the bill. This town has an increasingly unfair reputation for chains when really, the best of Reading is all about the independents, doing their bit to make our town individual and idiosyncratic.

More importantly, there’s a bigger gap. Because the other thing that’s left out of this list is the plethora of new restaurants that have opened. Each one has its own context in Reading, its own narrative and it raises its own questions. Does 7 Bone really do the best burgers in Reading, and will they be good enough to withstand the arrival of Honest and Byron in the future? The Lyndhurst posts beautiful pictures of its dishes, but can it really become Reading’s first destination pub for food? Is Gooi Nara’s Korean barbecue worth the trek up Whitley Street and will Soju be better when it opens downstairs in Atlantis Village? Is Bierhaus an inspired idea, or a gimmick in search of some decent food? Does the Crown On The Bridge’s refurb offer a reason to cross the river? Are Firezza’s pizzas a serious rival to Papa Gee’s? For that matter, are the Fox And Hounds’? What about the Thirsty Bear? So many questions, no answers. If I was sitting at home or in the office reading this, I’d want to know. Not just that: I’ve written it, and I still want to know. It feels like a book with the next chapter missing.

And that, as you’ve probably figured out by now, can only mean one thing.

It’s time to come back.

Feature: The 2016 Edible Reading Awards

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Bowie, Brexit, Trump, Desmond Carrington retiring from Radio 2: whichever way you cut it, it’s been a year to forget in many ways. 2016 has been the year when many brilliant people lost their lives and our country, closely followed by the U.S., lost its senses. By this point, you probably all just want to set your out of office autoreply, plough through some snowballs – and by the way, 11am isn’t too early for a snowball – and hang in for grim death all the way to New Year’s Eve desperately praying that no more terrible things happen (not the Queen, anything but the Queen!).

You might wonder why I’m choosing to publish my awards just before Christmas. After all, you could say that my blog is also a casualty of The Year That Hope Forgot; I downed tools in July and since then Reading’s diners have had to rely on word of mouth, the magnificent Reading Forum, TripAdvisor or – usually a better alternative to TripAdvisor – sticking a pin in a map of Reading with your eyes shut in order to decide where to go for dinner. Honestly, this year.

The thing is though, this is the time when we need most to focus on the good things out there. I know that from personal experience; I won’t wang on about it here, but for every awful thing that has happened there has been a brilliant thing too, for every disappointment an equal and opposite wonderful surprise. It might be Newton’s law for the conservation of sanity, or it might just be my rose-tinted spectacles but I honestly think it’s not all bad. Now more than ever, we need to recognise that: as a friend said to me recently, if you don’t look you’ll never see it.

Reading’s restaurant scene is a good illustration of that. Last year I remember complaining that there were still no town centre pubs doing nice food. And now we have I Love Paella cooking at The Fisherman’s Cottage, Caucasian Spice Box at the Turk’s Head and The Lyndhurst reopened with a new team, a new menu and some interesting offerings. You can now eat German food, or Korean barbecue, or scoot across the river to Caversham and get beautiful bread and some of the most innovative vegetarian food for miles around.

There’s more excellent news. The good cafés – the C.U.Ps and the Tamps – are prospering and flourishing, despite our proliferation of Neros and Costas. There are far more food markets in town than before (and Blue Collar Food, which I visited recently for the first time, is so good that it’s almost cured my scepticism about street food). And longer term, we’re even going to get some half-decent chain restaurants when Busaba, Franco Manca and Byron open on the ground floor of Jackson’s – although I’ve given up hoping that The Stable or Grillstock will ever make good on their promise to expand to Reading.

So with that in mind, let me dust off this microphone, quickly seal these envelopes (Rymans’ finest, don’t you know) and get proceedings under way. Fasten your seatbelts, and scream if you want to go faster!

SANDWICH OF THE YEAR: The Cheesy One, Caffeine & Cocktails

CaffeineSandwichWell, I could have given this award to Shed again and heaven knows it wouldn’t have been undeserved. But the problem with being consistently excellent is that after a while it’s not enough, and apart from a few minor tweaks Shed’s menu has been pretty much unchanged this year. I was tempted to give the award to Sam’s Wraps for their huge (and impressively cheap) jerk chicken wraps, although without the hot sauce they add to them which I’m pretty sure contains depleted uranium. And actually, surprisingly, I was very tempted to break the habit of a lifetime and give some credit to Pret which despite being a chain has regularly given me half decent things to take to work (jambon beurre with a shedload of gherkins, take it from me) or eat during a weekend lunch with family (the falafel and halloumi hot wrap, usually).

But the one I liked best, believe it or not, was the cheese toastie from Caffeine and Cocktails. Ironically the one time I went on duty they managed to muck it up, but every time I went before and after it was really lovely – three different terrific cheeses, on dead good bread with onion chutney and mustard. Nothing more to it than that, but sometimes a sandwich is about making simple things well. Every time I ever go to there for lunch it’s empty, which makes me worry that the food will eventually become seen as an afterthought. So go while you still can, before they decide to prioritise cocktails over caffeine (and sandwiches) for good.

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Jeera chicken, Royal Tandoori

RoyalStartersWhen I went to Royal Tandoori on duty I liked a lot of it but I loved the jeera chicken the best. You have to like cumin, because the cumin is the star of the show, piled high on the glorious, tender chicken, so high that it crunches under your teeth, so fragrant and wonderful. They say it’s a starter, but it’s a huge portion and I sometimes think the only thing that distinguishes it from the curries is that it doesn’t come in a sauce. But when there’s that much going on you just don’t care about that. Since then I’ve found myself in Royal Tandoori an awful lot: it’s one of my family’s favourite restaurants and I’ve come to appreciate the brilliant service and the wide range of interesting flavours (and the cashews in their biryani). But the jeera chicken remains my first love.

Special mentions have to go to the Scotch egg at the Lyndhurst (four pounds and so good it’s easy to justify it as a bar snack even if you aren’t eating) and the brilliant, brilliant salt cod churros at I Love Paella. Any other year, the latter probably would have won – a bit like Hillary Clinton, I suppose.

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Caucasian Spice Box

I really, really like Caucasian Spice Box. I’d heard loads of rave reviews from the food markets but my first exposure was when they did a brief residency at The Horn while Enric – of I Love Paella fame – was inconsiderate enough to leave his customers in the lurch for weeks by going off and getting married (honestly, this year!). I went and I was just wowed by the range and subtlety of the flavours, from bean stew which may have looked like beige paste but was absolutely crammed with savoury wonder, to bread stuffed with gooey, elastic cheese to spiced chicken thighs and bright yellow, shiny pickled baby squashes. Then they moved across town to The Turk’s Head and I’m happy to say the food is as amazing as before. Incredible value, too: the “Special Day Feast” – those fabulous chicken thighs, that cheese stuffed bread, a sharply dressed salad, some aubergine and walnut rolls and a spiced walnut sauce (which makes houmous look stodgy and bland) comes in at just shy of eleven pounds. Go, go, go!

Honourable mentions in this category go to German restaurant Bierhaus, which was far far better than I expected it to be, and Nomad Bakery, which was every bit as good as I expected it to be.

LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Shed

It’s still Shed. If I have a lunch break, and I’m working from home, nine times out of ten I’ll go to Shed. Everything I said last year is still true, and I have nothing to add. Everywhere else needs to up its game, or they might as well keep the trophy.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Chicken paella, I Love Paella

ILPPaellaA lot of the contenders for this award were on the spicy side. The karahi chicken at Kobeeda Palace for instance, a beautiful and undemonstrative curry in a place not known for its curries. The dumpak lamb in Himalaya Momo House, which comes with a little lid like a Nepalese pie (although I was particularly impressed by this, in truth, because I hadn’t known about the lid and so had Ordered Pie By Mistake). And I also had half a mind to include the pan fried chicken momo from Sapana Home, for reasons which will become apparent later on. If they hadn’t gone and taken it off the menu the braised lamb parcel at Henley’s Little Angel – the standout dish from an otherwise indifferent visit – might also have taken the crown. I loved it, even though I had no idea even as I was eating it how I might describe it in a review (it’s kind of a meatball slash faggot slash steamed pudding slash I don’t know it’s just a big dome of meat and, you know, stuff, and it’s really gorgeous).

But for me, I Love Paella’s chicken paella is the one. I always liked the seafood paella they did when they were at Workhouse Coffee, but it wasn’t quite what I was after. When they moved to The Horn and I saw the menu, chicken paella was the one dish I knew I had to order. On that first and many subsequent visits, it’s always knocked my socks off: salted without being salty, rich without being flashy, ambitious without being gluttonous. All those gorgeous chicken thighs would be the best bit if it wasn’t for the glossy, perfectly cooked rice, packed with beans and peppers. And that in turn would be the best bit if it wasn’t for the crunchy, caramelised rice you got to eat right at the end once you’d lifted it off the paella pan by having a good old scrape with the metal spoon. I’ve taken a fair few people to I Love Paella this time, and every time I wasn’t sure whether I was introducing them to the paella or the paella to them. Yes, I love it that much.

SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus

Otherwise known as the Artist Formerly Known As Kyrenia although, unlike Prince, Kyrenia simply changed its name this year rather than ceasing to be. When I found out about the name change, I was worried that the restaurant had lost Ihor, the front of house who has always made Kyrenia such a brilliant place to eat. I was assured that it hadn’t, and in fact when I’d gone there for my birthday it had been Ihor looking after us even though the restaurant had changed its name by then. Many restaurants manage to make service look so difficult with lots of staff (I don’t like to focus on the bad when I’m giving out awards, but I’m talking about the likes of C*ppa Cl*b here), so it’s lovely that Kyrenia – balls to calling it Ketty’s, I’m sorry – does such a stupendous job with no more than two people waiting all of its tables. Every time I’ve been this year I’ve felt cared about, fussed over and spoiled but more impressive than that, they have the rare gift of being able to make everyone at every table feel special. I hope the new management has got the memo that 2017 needs to be an awful lot better, and I hope they don’t mess with that winning formula.

Also worth mentioning are two of Reading’s Nepalese restaurants, namely Himalaya Momo in Caversham Park Village – a real gem with friendly, kind, engaging service – and Dhaulagiri Kitchen on the Basingstoke Road where the people looking after me were an absolute delight.

DESSERT OF THE YEAR – “Snicker”, Royal Oak Paley Street

OakSnickerI’ve never been a big dessert fan. It’s the course I’m most likely to skip, or swap out for cheese. In some restaurants – Thai, Indian, Chinese – I’m never sure it’s worth having. In others – pubs in particular – it can feel like they’re playing it safe or going for things they don’t have to cook on the premises; also, is chocolate brownie really a dessert? It feels unlikely. My test for these things is always: is a dessert really going to bring me more joy than a Tutti Frutti ice cream or even a Toffee Crisp? The answer, very frequently, is no.

So this is a rare victory for the very top end in the ER awards. I think desserts are where really good kitchens, especially Michelin starred ones, come into their own and the Royal Oak at Paley Street’s take on the Snickers bar is a classic example of how to do this right. On Masterchef they like to whaff on about “processes”; I don’t know about that, but look at how much work must be involved in making this. I’ve never adhered to the whole “it’s too pretty to eat” school of thought, but even I can see you would easily have a pang of guilt about just how quickly you can gromph down one of these compared to how long it took to construct. I didn’t order this, so I only had a couple of spoonfuls of my companion’s, and even that was enough to win it this award. I’m not sure I’m in a hurry to go back to the Royal Oak, but if I did I’d probably just order this. Three times.

OUT OF TOWN RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR – Branca, Oxford

I’ve eaten in quite a few splendid places outside Reading this year. I had delicate, stunning stuffed courgette flowers at Opera Tavern in Covent Garden. I had steamed Korean buns from Khao and Bao in Bristol, stuffed with fried chicken and kimchee, eaten by the harbourside with a pint of cider. I ate Japanese food in Oxford’s Taberu, down the Cowley Road in an area where every visit throws up a new piece of gentrification. I probably had my meal of the year in a converted bus station in Lewes at The Hearth, where I rejoiced in the perfect (and I don’t use that word lightly) Napoli pizza with stinging, vinegary capers, salty anchovies and intense, almost shrivelled black olives. The chocolate and salted caramel tart afterwards sent me into raptures.

But for the place I’ve been back to again and again, Branca easily wins this award. It’s buzzy and stylish and it’s full of North Oxford’s beautiful people, whether they’re doting well-behaved families, or affluent, well-dressed older couples enjoying meals away from their empty nest. Also, several times this year, it has played host to me. Everything is impeccable there, from the focaccia to the pizza, from the confit duck to the beautifully cooked tranches of firm white-fleshed fish. The desserts are beautiful, the coffee is good, the wine is served by the carafe and the salted caramel brownie bites are equidistant between ganache, cake mix and paradise. House prices being what they are, I can’t afford it to be my neighbourhood restaurant but it doesn’t matter: a day return to Oxford is just over six pounds with a railcard, and I’m mighty good at pretending.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR – Sapana Home

I was tempted to give this award to Cosmo. Not because of the food (be serious!) but because of what it represents – a whole community of readers and followers clubbing together to raise an awful lot of money for vulnerable people in Reading, albeit by forcing me to endure an almost unending cavalcade of culinary dross in a windowless room. Although I did discover the delights of crispy duck served in a Yorkshire pudding (stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Heston: my friend Ben wipes the floor with your crummy bacon trifle).

But no, it has to be Sapana Home this year. And in the process of giving this award, I also have to offer an apology: when I went to Sapana on duty, a long time ago, I was unimpressed. I loved the momo, I didn’t much like everything else. So I kept going back for the momo, and as I did something magical happened: every time I went I ordered something else from the menu and I discovered that a lot of it was good, whether it was chicken fry, delicious cubes of chicken with hot sauce and rich, green spring onion, matcha fry, spicy little crispy fish somewhere between a sardine and a whitebait or samosa chaat, warm pieces of samosa mixed with chick peas, potato and crunchy sev, all topped with yoghurt and tamarind sauce.

And then, of course, there are the momo. They truly are magnificent, whether you have them pan-fried and slightly caramelised on the outside, deep fried and begging to be dipped in the sauce or – and this was another revelation this year – steamed and bobbing in a beautiful hot tomato soup with chilli and red onion, festooned with fresh coriander.

The next magical thing that happened was this: I found myself eating in Sapana Home more and more. Off the train from work when I couldn’t face going home and cooking, or quickly in town before joining friends down the pub. And I took to introducing friends to Sapana Home – my friends Ben and Tim who both pronounced themselves momo fanatics, my vegetarian friend Clare only last week (Sapana is very good for vegetarians). I took my mother there shortly after her birthday: she loved the place too.

I haven’t even mentioned the beautiful mango lassi, always blended by hand, the warm enthusiastic welcome or how oddly proud of Sapana I was when I turned up at one point this year to find that they’d redecorated, knocked down a wall and opened the front room up with more light and slightly more tables. But there you have it. My restaurant of the year is always the one where I’ve had the most nice evenings and the best times and for 2016, amid all the turmoil and horror in the world outside, Sapana Home has been that place. I don’t know what next year holds: whether Trump and Russia will usher in our downfall, whether a hard Brexit will leave us all mired in negative equity, whether we’ll all finally get over burgers or whether I’ll write some more restaurant reviews. But I do know that, whatever it has in store, you’ll often find me in that unpretentious dining room on Queen Victoria Street, two doors down from Gregg’s The Baker. If you’re looking for New Year’s resolutions, you could do far worse.

Round-up: the last few months

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Well, it’s been four months since I stopped writing reviews on ER, and three months since I published anything on the blog. It’s a weird feeling: the keyboard is dusty, my writing muscles are flabby and unflexed and, of course, life has gone on. Free of the constant need to keep visiting the new, I’ve been able to relax and enjoy eating at my favourite places, whether that’s grabbing momo at Sapana Home on the way back from work, guzzling beautiful massaman beef at Thai Table (I’d quite forgotten how good it is) or my occasional midweek treat of chicken biryani from the lovely Royal Tandoori. I’ve hopped on the train and discovered new favourite restaurants elsewhere (the peerless Branca in Oxford, I’m looking at you). I’ve even been known – conceal your shock if you can – to make the occasional trip to Pret, to Nando’s or to (judge all you like) KFC.

It’s been liberating, as has slowly starting to eat again without having to wonder If I Like It or Whether It’s Good Value, to be able to visit a restaurant without thinking about its concept, its relationship to food trends, without imagining how the final paragraph will read before the final mouthful has been swallowed. This must be how English Literature graduates feel when they finish their degrees and try to learn how to read for pleasure again although I suspect that, just as Jason Bourne can never forget all the emergency exits in a bank, I’ll probably never be able to read a menu without thinking “how much?”, “that won’t work” or “not that AGAIN”. Oh well, c’est la vie.

Anyway, not only has my life gone on, but the culinary life of Reading has moved on too. With that in mind, I thought it might be useful to offer a little round-up (just like old times!) of all the changes since I hit publish last. Here’s hoping that it’s useful.

Closing

The big surprise was RYND, which closed in August at very short notice. I was never a fan, although I admired the way they ran their Twitter feed (apart from the occasional passive aggressive favouriting of Tweets by me saying I wasn’t a fan) and I liked the way they tried to offer something different by showing films, putting on comedy and all that. I suppose once Bluegrass opened just down the way doing actual proper pulled pork and burgers RYND lost much of its USP and perhaps the name stopped looking edgy and cool and started looking like someone had accidentally switched on caps lock by mistake.

Also closed were, err, most of the places I reviewed in Wokingham by the looks of things. Gluten-free Jessy’s – a place I’d really wanted to like, without any real success – became trading-free Jessy’s, and Jackson’s California Lake stopped doing its high-end food in the evenings while the chef looked for somewhere more suitable. Again, a pity but not a tragedy.

We also lost My Kitchen & Coffee in September, forced out I suspect by the plethora of similar places in town. I feel for My Kitchen, because although I quite liked it it was always the bridesmaid, never the bride when I was picking somewhere to have lunch. The food wasn’t quite good enough, the room wasn’t quite attractive enough and the coffee certainly wasn’t enough of a draw. I remember when C.U.P. opened everybody said that Reading wasn’t big enough to support another coffee place: at the time, I thought they were wrong, but maybe they were right and My Kitchen, the weakest link, paid the price.

Oh, and Ed’s Easy Diner in the Oracle closed too – but if you’re sad about that I’m not quite sure why you’re here.

Moving

Another interesting trend, which made my old reviews a little bit tricky to edit, is the musical chairs that has gone on over the past few months as restaurants moved house in the hope of ending up in a better neighbourhood. First to move was Bhoj, which went from its home down the Oxford Road (next to SkunkWorks, fact fans) to a spot a couple of doors down from Pepe Sale. I’ve not been since the move, but everyone who has gone has told me two things – that the food is as good as ever and that it’s a bit dead there. I hope that shift works out for them (Reading without karahi lamb would be a far poorer place), and perhaps they’ll benefit from better parking there if nothing else.

Back in Wokingham, Sanpa Stores moved from its spot on Peach Street to the building vacated by the unfortunate Jessy’s. Again, I’ve not been but that’s a good move because it’s a lovely building with lots of period features (listen to me, I sound like an estate agent) and the food at Sanpa – especially those fantastic garlic prawns – deserves a far wider audience. Fingers crossed that they continue to do well.

Last of all, Reading’s original nomad I Love Paella moved to its third address in a year, leaving The Horn to relocate at The Fisherman’s Cottage. An interesting tradeoff – The Horn is widely thought to have a bit of a rough clientele in a good area whereas the Fisherman’s Cottage, now all craft beer and beards, linked to the Greyfriar in some nebulous way I don’t fully understand, has a lovely clientele but is in a bit of a rough area (I walked down Orts Road once: it was like being in Grand Theft Auto: Reading). Well, I’m sure they’ll flourish there – I for one would eat I Love Paella’s food in a bus shelter, if that was the only option.

Winning

A couple of awards worth mentioning, both of which tell you a lot about the establishments in question. Back in September the Reading Retail Awards gave Restaurant Of The Year to Himalaya Momo House, a move which made my heart sing: I love that place (the award was sponsored by Deliveroo, which is a bit like Nigel Farage judging Exchange Student Of The Year, but never mind). Then in November Restaurant Magazine gave Coppa Club one of its “R200 awards”. Was it for best food? Best décor? Best service? No, of course not: instead the Sonning establishment won “Best New Scalable Concept”, which essentially means they are going to pop-up soon in ex-branches of Strada all over the country. I don’t know about you, but this is exactly what I’m looking for: why go to a lovely restaurant when you can get in on the ground floor of a seriously whizzy scalable concept? Sign me up!

Opening

Reading has been surprisingly blessed with quite a few new establishments since I last wrote, all in the last few months. First of all there was Public Reading, in the spot vacated by RYND, a “new concept” involving games, craft beer and burgers served by “pop-up caterer Relish”. Well, where to start? I mean, it’s only a new concept if you’ve never been to, say, the Nag’s Head or the Lyndhurst, both of which have had board games knocking about for yonks. For that matter, it’s only really a new concept if you’ve never been to or heard of Hoxton or Shoreditch, have never read the Guardian, never watched Nathan Barley etc. etc. But beyond that it sounds suspiciously like SMASH (note again the over-enthusiastic use of caps lock) which has brought together the unholy trinity of craft beer, artisan pizza and – yes, I’m afraid so – table tennis. I’m sure Public Reading is lovely if you like that sort of thing, but personally I’ll be in the Nag’s eating some dry roasted peanuts, drinking a pint of Stowford Press and playing Cards Against Humanity.

Where else? Anatolia Restaurant has opened where Faith Kitchen used to be before it got shut down – I’ve not been but I’ve heard good reports, although it only has to be better than Mangal was and sadly that isn’t difficult. Speaking of the Lyndhurst, that has reopened too with an interesting and promising menu. The chicken burger I had on my first visit was okay, but the toasted cheese and marmite sandwich was a very nice touch and I’ve rather got hooked on their Scotch eggs with brown sauce which are a glorious synthesis of firm sausagemeat and spot-on runny yolk and a real treat at only four pounds. Nice cloudy cider, too.

One of the most interesting openings was Gooi Nara on Whitley Street in October, bringing Korean food (and specifically Korean barbecue) to Reading. One to take your carnivorous friends to, I think: there’s a hot plate in the middle of every table and a menu packed full of dead flesh for you to order and cook there and then in front of you. I went in a smaller group and was unimpressed by the dolsot bibimbap (I hate to say it, but Coconut’s was better) but I felt I hadn’t ordered brilliantly and would gladly go back and try it again. Lovely kimchee, incidentally, and the interior is very handsomely done.

Perhaps even more significant was Nomad Bakery – confusingly named as it’s not really nomadic and much more than a bakery – which also opened in October. It’s a bakehouse and café on Prospect Street in Caversham, on the site formerly known as Delicious, and a very interesting prospect indeed. Run by Pop-Up Reading, with the considerable assistance of Reading’s redoubtable Caversham Jam Lady it’s rather a powerhouse of Reading’s food scene, offering superb bread, jam, a regularly changing menu of specials, some homewares and spectacular fudge by Reading’s Hartland Fudge (the After Eight fudge, topped with emerald-green minty crystals, rather rocked my world recently). I’ve only been once, because it’s not really my side of the river and I’m not at that end of town for lunch often, but everything I tried was jolly decent and friends of mine are huge fans (“better than Ottolenghi” was one particular paean of praise I heard recently). Also the menu is largely vegetarian, although you could be most of the way through your lunch – and utterly delighted with your choices – before you realise that.

Revolucion de Cuba finally opened in late November, in the old HMV building on Friar Street. This prompted a huge amount of nostalgia from me for the good old days when Friar Street had a massive HMV and the Friar Street Bookshop rather than a string of nacky pound shops, a derelict mall and the questionable delights of Lola Lo. But all that said, I went to Revolucion de Cuba a little while back for a quick drink and what they’ve done to the place is really quite impressive. It’s a lovely fit out, the live music was a really pleasant surprise and the menu looked decent. Could it be the closest we’ll come to Wahaca, or is it a huge spot waiting to become Sodom or Gomorrah on a Friday and Saturday night? Time will tell.

Last of all, bringing us bang up to date German restaurant and bar Bierhaus opened last week on Queen’s Walk, between Pepe Sale and Bhoj (an area my stepfather likes to wryly refer to as “the demilitarised zone”). It’s not a cuisine I’ve ever had much exposure to, but you’ve got to give them credit for trying something different so if you want big steins of beer, bratwurst, schnitzel or (if this tickles your pickle) pork knuckle then Bierhaus might be the place for you. I know people who are keenly anticipating this one, although I’ve also heard gripes from the CAMRA brigade that it only does one German beer on draft (shows what I know because I heard that and thought: how many do you need?). I’m glad it’s managed to open before the end of winter because that all feels like wood-panelled comfort food to me. I’ve not been myself, but the picture of the schnitzel, sauteed potatoes and sauerkraut I saw on their Facebook page made me peckish.

Of course, that’s not all because there are always new places in the pipeline. So at some point we’ll get a branch of Comptoir Libanais, the Lebanese chain restaurant. In the Oracle’s latest attempt to squeeze returns out of finite space – because it’s all about the Benjamins with those guys – this will be in a new patch of the Riverside. Comptoir Libanais, good though it might be, opening just down the road from the terrific Bakery House reminds me of the time when Abercrombie and Fitch set up shop at the end of Savile Row. I hope Reading’s diners remember which side their pitta is buttered, so to speak.

And finally

Thanks to everybody who has told me they miss the blog, miss my reviews and all that. It’s brilliant to see so many people still stop by to read the lists and figure out where to eat next, or ask me for recommendations on Twitter, or click on the archive links when I send them out. I do keep being asked whether I’ll go back to it, or what I’ll do next. I’m still trying to make up my mind (I haven’t exactly been besieged with offers to write for other publications!) but I expect I’ll have a better idea in the New Year.

As soon as I’ve figured it out, I’ll let you know.

The last post

As you’ve probably gathered by now, the review of Jackson’s California Lake over a month ago is the last review on Edible Reading for the foreseeable future. I knew the blog was coming to an end: not enough town centre restaurants left, and I always wanted to stop on a high note before I was reduced to schlepping to Ask, Zizzi or – saints preserve us – TGI Friday. Originally I had a plan to slowly run things down, tackle a few last places and have a big party to celebrate (maybe even reveal my identity!) but a change in my personal circumstances means it makes more sense to stop now.

That might be for the best: looking at my list of places that remain, I find there’s very little regret. It would have been fun to review Rafina (might have to pop there for an omelette at some point), and I never quite got to Memory Of Sichaun to see if it was the Chinese restaurant Reading has long needed. But beyond that, it was largely breakfast places and cafes, with the more interesting options further afield in Newbury, Pangbourne, Wokingham, out in the shires. So I think I can safely say it’s time to knock it on the head.

I like to say this a lot, but the transformation in Reading since I began the blog three years ago has been marked. The local paper (pardon the pun) has folded, and the website which has largely replaced it doesn’t really cover local issues or culture in the same way, and certainly doesn’t do restaurant reviews. In its place we’ve had Alt Reading, the sadly departed and much missed Roast Dinners Around Reading, and me.

But look at the transformation in that time: a proper food scene is starting to emerge. So now we have independent shops like the Grumpy Goat and the Tasting House, producers like Caversham Jam Lady and Pop-Up Reading and entrepreneurial cafés like Tamp and C.U.P. In an ideal world, we’d have more good, successful independent restaurants in the town centre but even now, it isn’t as bad as all that: if you look beyond the Pizza Expresses and Stradas we have Bhel Puri House, Bakery House, Dolce Vita, Pepe Sale, Sapana Home and Papa Gee.

I recently went to The Horn to sit in the courtyard and eat delicious Georgian food from Caucasian Spice. Normally I Love Paella – another huge success story of the last three years – operates from The Horn, but Enric was on honeymoon and so Caucasian Spice stepped in. And the food was beautiful: flat breads filled with cheese, baby potatoes roasted with dill, butterflied chicken, bean stew. The owner was engaging and enthusiastic and – most crucially – busy. Trade had been good; it’s a tribute to our town’s growing food culture that Caucasian Spice can step off the sub’s bench and play a blinder. And now that I Love Paella is back, Caucasian Spice is going to move to the Turk’s Head. Life goes on, innovation continues and Reading’s residents get another amazing place to eat dinner. Everything is as it should be.

There are loads of things I will miss. The moment when I went somewhere new and realised it was that rare thing, a little-known gem that I love and that I’m confident others will too (it’s a bit like that moment in X-Factor – not that I watch it any more – when someone shambles up to the mic, you hear the first few notes and think “Blimey, they really can sing!”). I’ll miss that big grin I get when I order a truly perfect dish, or when I start planning my next visit long before the end of my first one. I will miss people telling me that they’ve picked restaurants for date nights, birthdays or even just to banish the midweek blues based on one of my reviews. I’ll miss the buzz and excitement of Friday mornings at half eleven, too – just like some of you, I was always at a computer hitting refresh, waiting for the review to go live so I could Tweet it.

That said, there are consolations in retirement. It will be nice to be able to go where I like and order what I want, not to have to worry about whether I’m eating the same dish as everyone else. It will be nice to be able to just visit the places I love without feeling like I should be going out on duty and hitting my deadlines (maybe one day they’ll have a plaque on a chair at Dolce Vita just for me). It will be nice to eat out a little less, I guess – kinder on the wallet and much kinder on the waistline. But it’s still a sad day, and stopping writing the blog is a decision not without regret.

I don’t know what the future holds, so I can’t make any promises. I will keep the blog updated in terms of closures (farewell to RYND and, ironically, Jackson’s California Lake) and name changes (the strange business of the disappearing Kyrenia as it very gradually morphs into Ketty’s). Funny story about that: when I went to Kyrenia last, a woman came to our table to take our card payment.

“Was everything okay for you?”

“Everything except one thing.” said my friend. “I don’t like the name Ketty’s. Kyrenia was a much better name. Why did you change it?”

“Because I’m the new owner and it’s my name.” came the reply. “I’m Ketty.”

Beyond that, I’m not sure. It’s possible that I may come out of retirement to review anywhere new that opens in Reading, if it’s exciting enough, but time will tell. I will stay on Twitter, though, (burbling on about crisp sandwiches and KitKat Chunkies, probably, because that’s my thing) and I’m always there if you want restaurant recommendations. It will be nice, too, to be able to be a bit more open about what I’m eating and where I’m eating it, without having to be all secret squirrel because a review is about to go up. Oh, and if I start any other writing projects, I’ll definitely let you know.

If I have a parting shot or a final thought, it’s one I’ve said many times over the last three years. Reading is a lovely place, but not a perfect one. It’s what we all make it, and the sum total of what we put in. Every one of us has a responsibility to spend our time and our money making it the kind of town we want, whether that’s going to a Pop-Up Reading event to buy their bread, or spending a little more on a bottle of wine from the Tasting House rather than getting some random multibuy from Sainsbury’s. If you want a town to have places like Papa Gee and Bakery House you need to eat at them, even if they’re slightly out of the way, rather than going to Pizza Express because you have a voucher or Wagamama because it’s on the Riverside.

And, of course, it’s wider than that. I just talk about food but we have theatre, live music, independent cinema, comedy and art which all need and deserve support. People sneer a lot – I’ve always hated that – and they focus so much on all the things Reading isn’t, how easy it is to get to other places from here. But I hope I’ve spent the last three years celebrating all the things it is, and all the things it could be.

Last but not least my biggest thanks have to go to all of you. The readership of Edible Reading has snowballed over the three years in a way which never ceased to amaze me. I always hoped that if I built it – Field Of Dreams-style – people would come, but maybe I didn’t quite anticipate the extent to which you would. It’s given me faith in the internet, faith in Reading and faith in people. The people who read ER are a brilliant, funny, committed, enthusiastic bunch. Any town would be lucky to have such people living in it; I’m so proud to have been a part of that.

Jackson’s, California Country Park

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Jackson’s stopped evening opening on 3rd September 2016. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

I’ve never quite worked out what the limits of the ER catchment area are, but Jackson’s has to be right on the edge. It’s only thirty minutes out of town but somehow it feels like a longer, more circuitous drive than that, out through Shinfield and past Arborfield before the countryside gets quite beautiful and the houses start to thin out. Then you go along Nine Mile Ride, turn off into California Country Park and suddenly it’s like being in Canada (or at least Center Parcs), all tall trees and wooden signs, Lycra-clad cyclists and healthy-looking types: types, in fact, unlike me.

The sun still flecked the leaves on a July evening as I made my way to the restaurant but I could completely see what it would be like during the daytime, full of families enjoying the great outdoors and the aforementioned cyclists taking a pit stop before heading on towards somewhere suitably pastoral. Jackson’s – next to the oddly named California Lake – tries to offer something at all times, so they do breakfast (all day, apparently: worth knowing) and sandwiches, burgers and jacket potatoes for lunch before morphing into a restaurant in the evening. And a Proper Restaurant at that, if the menu is to be believed, full of little touches and hints that make you really want to turn up and order everything.

The dining room is a big space full of chunky, solid, simple wooden furniture with white and red tablecloths. I assume the only things that change from day to night are the tablecloths and the mood lighting, little lamps sitting on rough-hewn rustic tables, but I imagine the space must be lovely at any time of day. I caught sight of the wood-burning stove and, for the first time this summer, found myself wishing it was ever so slightly darker and colder. Only two other tables were occupied, which was a tad awkward; they looked delighted that somebody had joined them.

I said the menu was full of little touches. Have a look at how they described our first starter if you don’t believe me: “Nutmeg and Thyme Confit Chicken Thigh, Chicken Broth, Crisp Skin, Wild Mushrooms, Broad Beans, Charred Corn & Spinach Foam”. Sounds good, don’t you think? And generally speaking it was. The thigh meat, soaked in the broth, was like the wonderful bit at the end of a roast dinner when you get to the last shreds of chicken, falling apart, soaked in rich salty gravy. Intensely good. The wild mushrooms were served as little splodges of purée that added creaminess but were otherwise a little lost. The broad beans – very large, very green, beautifully fresh – were top-notch. Only some of the corn was actually charred, but it added a nutty, chewy texture, nonetheless. No crisp skin, either, which is a great shame as they’re always two welcome words on any menu I look at. Last of all, the spinach foam added great colour (thankfully not too reminiscent of frogspawn) but not a lot else.

So, lots going on but did it justify all that complexity? No, not really. I could admire the creativity and all those – what’s the word they use on Masterchef? – processes, but I’d have been just as happy with a big ramekin of chicken, broth and broad beans, especially as the dish was too shallow for me to scoop up the remaining broth at the end.

JacksonsChickBroth

The other starter – “Sweet Pickled Heritage Carrots, Truffle Mayo, Poached Local Hens Egg, Summer Truffle, Parmesan & Honey Dressing” was more successful. A pretty, delicate, deceptively substantial dish it was built around those glorious spirals of sweet, crunchy pickled carrot and a mayo which managed to get those truffle notes just the right side of overpowering (although I do have a very high capacity for truffle). The parmesan shavings added grit and salt and the egg, poached just right, oozed enough golden yolk to bring everything together nicely. There were also pea shoots, which I could have done without (given the kitchen sink approach to the menu I’m surprised these weren’t mentioned) and little blobs of insubstantial dressing, also dotted with tiny pieces of truffle. Pickle, truffle, parmesan, poached egg: these are a few of my favourite things, and I loved this dish.

JacksonsCarrot

After two thumbs up for the starters I felt hopeful for the main event, and I was right. Well, half right: the confit duck leg was lovely. It was salty and rich with the meat falling away from the bone, exactly as it should be. The skin was perfectly crisp (nearly compensating for that chicken skin that went MIA earlier in the meal) with no flabby edges, almost how I think pork scratchings should be but so rarely are.

So far, so simple, but underneath the duck was where things got a lot more interesting; a pile of “young” peas (whatever they are, petits pois presumably) was given freshness and tang with fresh mint and crumbled feta. Some of the peas had also been puréed and served in pretty acid-green dollops which were surprisingly rich when smeared over a piece of the duck leg. The ham hock and potato terrine – a brick of potato with a layer of ham hock pressed as a seam through the middle – wasn’t such a hit. The potatoes were too hard and too lukewarm to be enjoyable and I ended up pulling out the ham hock to eat on its own; far from a punishment but probably not what the kitchen intended.

JacksonsDuck

Luckily, we’d ordered truffle chips on the side and my goodness, they were cracking: thick-cut, fluffy inside, tossed in parmesan and then sprinkled with what I imagine was truffle oil. But there were also dark speckles of truffle throughout the bowl and the whole thing gave off that distinctive earthy, dirty aroma (oh to be a truffle pig!). Five pounds for these, but worth the money and possibly worth the price of admission alone. If I was being critical they could have done with being a little crispier, but at the end there was a little tangle of truffly molten cheese which I scooped up with my fork and at that point, such minor quibbles faded into the background.

If they were the kitchen at its best the other main was the biggest dud of the visit. I wanted to try something more straightforward to test the range of the menu so I went for the chicken breast burger and here’s where things went awry. It was described as coming with parmesan, truffle mayo and double smoked bacon. Well, the bacon may have been smoked twice but it was put on my burger zero times, something I didn’t realise until it was too late to send it back. The chicken itself was lovely, slightly flattened and breaded, almost like a chicken Milanese, but the outside – bit of a theme here – wasn’t crunchy and crispy as it should have been. The Parmesan was a thin layer, almost more like a sauce than a discernible slice of cheese and that was good, although it made things rather soggy. No truffle mayo that I detected either, unless my tastebuds had been numbed to truffle by then. I suppose it’s possible. Nice brioche though, and the usual suspects – tomato, iceberg, right ahead, red onion – were joined by a row of little crunchy cornichons which almost redeemed matters. But really, this burger cost fourteen pounds and it just wasn’t worth that.

I do need to single out the triple cooked chips which came with the burger for two reasons. One is that they came in a Jenga stack. Now, some of you may not remember this but Jenga chips were the “food on slates” of their day. Everyone hated them, everyone railed against them and as a result I thought they had become extinct. I was so surprised to see them on a plate in a restaurant like this that I wanted to check the date on my phone to see if some kind of Quantum Leap oddness had gone on. But that aside, they were a sad and flabby bunch. Maybe it was the time taken painstakingly arranging them in a tower, maybe they just weren’t very good to start with, but they weren’t triple cooked. They were somewhere between once and twice cooked, I decided, before eating a couple which I would describe as barely cooked chips.

The dessert menu was full of interesting things but only one of us fancied one (that chicken burger had somewhat dampened enthusiasm). The first item on there really intrigued me, and when I asked for advice it was also the one recommended by the serving staff and that, in restaurant terms, is kismet, right there. Liquorice panna cotta with rhubarb and stem ginger might have been the dish of the whole meal. Yes, liquorice panna cotta. If you’ve ever tried the basil and balsamic panna cotta at Pepe Sale you’ll know that it’s worth taking a risk sometimes with flavours that don’t obviously go and this was definitely true here, especially after some of the inventive touches in the previous courses.

The panna cotta itself was dreamy – super thick, well set and extremely creamy. It had most delicate liquorice flavour to it, almost metallic in the mouth, nearly an aftertaste, the hint of something. I’m lost in a reverie remembering it, and clearly struggling to adequately describe even if you don’t like liquorice – and I’m not a massive fan – I’d still thoroughly recommend it. It came with an embarrassment of riches: dots of ginger and rhubarb purée; sweet, intense pieces of cooked rhubarb, crumbled stem ginger cookie and a scoop of rhubarb ice which somehow managed to be halfway between a sorbet (fresh and bright) and an ice cream (smooth and creamy). I don’t know how the chef came up with the idea to put those flavours together and I’m not sure I care. It doesn’t really matter: I just loved it.

JacksonsPannaCotta

Sadly I was driving so I only got to try one glass of wine; the carignan was a nice, rich red (good enough for my companion to have it as their second glass). I’m told that the Riesling was nice, fresh and not as good as the carignan. That was after some grumbling about the chicken burger, so I managed to be on the receiving end of both food envy and wine envy. Oh, and I had a diet Coke because after the glass of wine I wasn’t feeling particularly imaginative. Still, it came in a glass bottle rather than out of a syphon, and somehow that always feels like proper Coke to me.

Service was pretty good; the maitre d’ was charming and effusive and the other, younger staff, although not quite so engaging, also did a good job. Everything was nicely timed, too, which could so easily not have been the case on such a quiet weekday night: nothing came too quickly or too slowly, plates were cleared away when they should be and so on. Two starters, two mains and one dessert plus three glasses of wine and a soft drink came to seventy-three pounds, excluding tip. The starters hover around the eight pound mark and most of the mains are under fifteen quid. For food this imaginative, that’s pretty impressive.

What makes this gig, for me, is when I discover a gem. Ideally somewhere in the centre of town, although that gets increasingly difficult, but in any case somewhere wonderful – preferably independent – that you won’t have heard of, offering imaginative, fairly priced food. Jackson’s should be that, and it so nearly is. So why isn’t it? The food, by and large, and the service do indeed say that you’re in a Proper Restaurant. But the elephant in the room is the room itself: the owners have tried to make a step change from day to night but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was having dinner in a café.

I know this shouldn’t matter: I’ve always said that if the food is good none of the rest matters, so I’m troubled that in this case I find it does. Perhaps it’s because of the half hour drive. Perhaps it’s because the room was empty and lacked ambience. Maybe I would have felt differently if it had been full, on a cold winter night with the woodburning stove glowing and the table lamps shining, having dinner with other happy strangers in this little cabin in the woods. So a qualified recommendation from me: if none of that bothers you please go, fill up the restaurant, enjoy some really clever food at simple prices and keep them busy. Personally, I’ll go back when the clocks do.

Jackson’s – 7.3
California Country Park, Nine Mile Ride, Finchampstead, RG40 4HT
http://jacksonscalifornialake.co.uk/

0118 9730776

Sam’s Wraps

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I’ve wanted to review Sam’s Wraps for some time. It’s a proper Reading success story, starting out as a van on Broad Street before expanding to also take over the café in Forbury Gardens. Then, this year, came the logical next step: they took over premises in the town centre on Cross Street, the one that isn’t Queen Victoria Street but runs parallel to it, a funny street full of barbers and salons (and A Stitch In Time, the alterations place which has a special place in my heart). I would have reviewed Sam’s Wraps sooner but every time I’ve tried has been a Sunday and, despite the claims of the sign on the door, it’s never been open when I’ve strolled up to it. Even approaching it on a Saturday lunchtime I was half expecting it to be shut, and delighted when it wasn’t.

It’s a basic but tasteful place – a few tables in the front section and then another room out back, nicely lit through a skylight, with attractive, functional furniture. You order at the counter looking up at the menu, then take your wrap through and get stuck in. And the menu is limited in a way which is also appealing. The clue’s in the name, but there is a range of hot wraps (jerk chicken, piri piri chicken, curry chicken) and cold wraps (the main ones I remember were prawn and something called “vegatarian”, spelling which mightn’t fill you with confidence). I had the jerk chicken, my companion wanted to try the prawn but they had sold out so she went for piri piri instead.

The experience is familiar to anyone who’s ever been to Mission Burrito – the staff toast a 12 inch flour tortilla in front of you and ask you if you’d like it spicy. If you say yes, they take less than a teaspoon of innocuous looking chilli relish and smear it a molecule thick across the tortilla (more on that later). Either way they then spoon a really generous portion of chicken – slow cooked, in little dice – into the wrap from the chafing dishes behind the counter. You then decide whether to add cheese before choosing from a plethora of other fillings: cucumber; red onion; finely diced pepper; iceberg lettuce; gherkins; and jalapeno. Finally, you pick a sauce and then they assemble the whole thing, secure it with two carefully placed cocktail sticks, like sandwich acupuncture, pop it on a plate and off you go with it.

What this basically means is that the two wraps we had were similar if not the same, and both were bloody gorgeous. They’re huge things, and impressive value at four pounds (cheese costs fifty pence extra), but what also impressed me was just how well they were filled and what good quality everything was. We had the piri piri chicken – smoky and slightly hot but not mouth-stingingly so – with cheese, beautiful crunchy fresh peppers, strips of cucumber and sweet chilli sauce and it was a delight from beginning to end. The jerk chicken, by contrast, was with Reggae Reggae Sauce, cheese, lettuce and sweet, cold slices of gherkin and was equally good, although because I had this wrap with a smidge of the chilli relish by the end my tastebuds had been thoroughly nuked and my tongue felt like it had been put in a vice, doused in petrol and set alight. If you like heat, have the chilli relish and enjoy yourself, but if you’re in two minds give it a wide berth. Either way I’m not sure the cheese really adds a lot, especially for fifty pence.

Sam'sWrap

Oh, and I was dubious about how effective the cocktail sticks would be but the guys at Sam’s Wraps really do know what they’re doing, because they make it very easy to eat with your hands; also, once you get past a certain point in the wrap you can pull one out and feel ever so slightly like you’re playing Kerplunk.

I’m afraid that’s all there is to it, this week. I went to Sam’s Wraps, I tried two different wraps and they were absolutely splendid. I could tell you that I had a cup of Earl Grey which was nothing special. I could tell you that service, if a bit dour, was very efficient and well done; not much to do in a sandwich shop except explain and execute, but that was all present and correct. They even re-did the jerk chicken wrap after accidentally adding chilli sauce instead of Reggae Reggae (thank heavens they did, or it would have been hotter than the sun). I suppose I should tell you that the whole thing cost ten pounds thirty for two wraps and a solitary cup of tea, and that they really should sell bottles of milk if they’re going to serve anything with that chilli relish. But that’s it. Sam’s Wraps is not flashy, it’s not showy but it’s very good at what it does and without tapdancing it’s really rather terrific. If only the same could be said of this review.

Oh, and as I left I saw a big sign in the window saying “NOW OPEN SUNDAYS”. Bloody typical.

Sam’s Wraps – 7.6
8 Cross Street, RG1 1SN
0118 4379318

Sam’s Wraps

Smokin’ Billy’s

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It’s not good, on a Wednesday night, to be the only people eating in a restaurant. Immediately alarm bells start to ring: what does everyone else know that I don’t? Is it bad? Is it safe? What am I doing here?

Another good question is what year is it?, because although it’s 2016 everywhere else, in Smokin’ Billy’s it seems to still be 1995: there are nachos and loaded potato skins on the menu and a five foot high fibreglass model of Marilyn Monroe near the bar. All very glory days of TGI Fridays, I guess, and so 90s that I expected to leave the place to see Café Iguana in full swing opposite (how I miss the Rome toasted sandwich with garlic and herb potato wedges), to be able to head to Edwards’ or Bar Oz down by the train station for a final drink.

The Marilyn theme wasn’t confined to the statue: there were pictures and quotes from Marilyn everywhere (along with random electric guitars and Norman Rockwell prints on the walls) a testament to Smokin’ Billy’s previous incarnation as Monroe’s. According to the nice chap at the bar it was renamed nearly two years ago but otherwise very little has actually changed – same menu, same décor, same chef.

Looking at the menu I could quite believe that it was two years old, judging by how sticky it was. Popping to the loos down the badly lit corridor at the back (no signs on the toilet doors, incidentally, which could be tricky after a couple of drinks) it was apparent that the stickiness extended to the floor – so much so, in fact, that I could see my footprints on the laminate. That said, the kitchen looked clean and the Score on the Door was five out of five (I won’t lie: I was crossing my fingers when I came back to order, hoping the rating wasn’t also two years old).

It would have been wrong not to order the potato skins – many things from the Nineties have been rightly consigned to the rubbish bin of history (Noel’s House Party, Mad Dog 20/20, every record ever released by Jimmy Nail) but I think the time is right for loaded potato skins to make a comeback. Sadly, Smokin’ Billy’s is not the right stage for it: we ordered them topped with barbecue chicken and expected a thin crispy potato skin, hollowed out and filled with good stuff. The topping, such as it was, was reasonably good (hard not to enjoy barbecue chicken and cheese), but when the thing your loaded potato skin is loaded with is, well, potato you’ve accidentally ordered jacket potato as a starter. And nobody wants that, surely?

Billy'sPotato

Similarly the garlic mushroom and cheese quesadilla was more Ocean Colour Scene than Oasis. A Mexican toasted sandwich is a great idea in theory but this didn’t work in practice because the mushrooms were just a bit odd: leathery with a weirdly metallic aftertaste. I’m not sure how recently they’d been sautéed or whether that was the problem but something about them really wasn’t right. Hard to detect any other flavour in the quesadilla either, with the mushrooms singing so loudly and so very out of tune. Each starter, served on a massive plate which itself looked deeply 90s, came with a ramekin of sour cream topped with a slice of lime and sprinkled with paprika. Somehow the whole thing felt more Tex-Meh.

Billy'sQuesadilla

Another warning bell followed: the waiter cleared our plates away and offered to bring out our mains pretty much immediately. We managed to agree a five minute wait but I couldn’t help worrying and wondering that all that meant was that our mains were sitting on the pass gradually getting less appealing. After all, how could they be ready to come out straight away if they weren’t already ready? As it was, five minutes wasn’t enough to make me feel anywhere near prepared to eat more food: those jacket potatoes in disguise sat heavy on the stomach.

By this point my expectations were pretty close to the (sticky, laminate) floor, so I’m happy to report that the main courses were – if not exactly amazing – far better than I had feared. Pulled pork was pretty decent: served on the bottom half of a burger bun (a bit random, but never mind) the pork was properly shredded but with enough texture to see what it had been, and just about on the right side of moist and soggy, smoky and sickly-sweet. Only just, but I was expecting far worse.

It came with coleslaw (served in a lettuce leaf for no reason I can think of), sweet potato fries, mini sweetcorn cobs and onion rings. Most of it wasn’t half bad – the sweet potato fries, lovely and crispy, stood out and the onion rings were surprisingly good given that their uniform shape made me suspect they’d come out of a freezer. The corn on the cob though was actively awful: watery, chewy and – if I’m being really honest – strangely fishy-tasting. Not sure how you get that sort of flavour into a corn on the cob, by accident or design, but either way you really need to stop. I’d be surprised if it had been either fresh or freshly cooked. The orange slice on top of the pulled pork, however, was fresh. An baffling choice of garnish, I know, but at least it was easy to discard.

Billy'sPork

Another surprise: the burger wasn’t bad either. I am no burger purist and I’m sure if you were you could find plenty wrong with this one – it was served medium-well according to the menu but I thought it was more cooked through than that. But it was pretty pleasant, with loads of cheese (cheddar, I think, rather than a yellow American slice), some decent bacon, more of the onion rings and a barbecue sauce which, as with the pulled pork and the barbecue chicken in the starter, was nearly too sweet and synthetic but just about on the right side of the line. The bun was allegedly a brioche and managed the feat of looking like one without tasting like anything of the kind, but I didn’t mind it.

Only those diabolical mushrooms from the quesadilla, making an unwelcome return appearance, wrecked proceedings. But also, I really liked the chips, against my better judgment. Again, their regular shape suggested they’d been chipped in a factory, stuck in a bag and bunged in the freezer but they’d been beautifully fried – crunchy-fluffy and perfect for dipping in some barbecue sauce. Was what I experienced enjoyment or relief? Tell the truth, I’m still not sure.

Billy'sBurger

Service, from an idiosyncratically coiffed young man wearing what looked like a cravat, was friendly, chatty and personable. But we were the only customers so some of the lapses were hard to understand: it took a while to order, our mains were seemingly ready the moment our starters were finished yet after we finished our mains our mostly empty plates were in front of us for what felt like an eternity. I think he was chatting to his friend at the bar – which is lovely and all, but his friend wasn’t ordering food or paying a bill (an activity which also took longer than it should have done). And yet I quite liked the charming amateurism: as with everything else, I wanted to like Smokin’ Billy’s a little more than I actually could.

There was no drinks list (when I asked the waiter he said “but I can list all the drinks for you”, which kind of sums the place up) and when I got to the bar the selection of soft drinks was woeful (two flavours of J20, cans of red bull and fizzy drinks from the siphon). So I had tap water, which came in a jug with ice without having to be asked – although no water glasses, so I had to have it in a wine glass: yet more randomness. My companion had a pear cider, from a bottle (he didn’t trust the pumps). Both of us would probably have been a lot happier with a bottle of Hooch. Those were the days. The total bill came to forty pounds.

If I had gone to Smokin’ Billy’s in 1995 I would have thought it was amazing. The world was a more innocent place in the 90s and we were all so much more easily pleased. Ben’s Thai, Utopia, RG1, actual cinemas in town that weren’t grubby multiplexes, Orient Express down by the Antiques Centre, Trader’s Arcade… the list goes on and on. But in 2016 Reading is a more complex and discerning place, and although I was rooting for Smokin’ Billy’s I couldn’t help feeling that places elsewhere do these things a lot better. Bluegrass across the way has pulled pork sewn up. The Oakford does a better burger. Literally everywhere does better drinks. So if a friend or a colleague dragged me back to Smokin’ Billy’s although I might complain, I’d probably enjoy it while I was there, and tell myself I was being post-modern. But really, it made me glad to live in the now – still missing the 3Bs and Café Iguana, mind you, but delighted with how far Reading has come.

Smokin’ Billy’s – 6.5
61 St Mary’s Butts, RG1 2LG
0118 9573500

http://www.smokingbillys.co.uk/

Nirvana Spa, Sindlesham

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I’ve never reviewed the French Horn in Sonning, for one specific reason. Not the prices, although when starters hover around the twenty pound mark and main courses edge closer to thirty it does get harder and harder to say “hang the expense”, convincingly at least. It’s not the faffiness of the menu, although the French Horn’s Habit of Capitalising Pretty Much Every Word does lend Proceedings a Weirdly Dickensian Feel. It’s not even the fact that the menu seems to have an asparagus with hollandaise sauce on it all year round at twenty quid (is it flying first class from Peru?).

No, the reason I haven’t gone to the French Horn is that I’m reliably informed it has a dress code, and I just don’t do dress codes. It feels like a throwback, and something about getting into my glad rags just really rankles. I mean, I’m the customer aren’t I? And it’s not like I’d turn up in a crop top or a string vest, hot pants or swimming shorts; I’ve eaten at lots of lovely restaurants just the right side of well turned out and never been turned away, but when somewhere pompously announces they have a Dress Code (those Dickensian capital letters again)? Count me out.

What that means is that Nirvana Spa is probably the only place I will ever review which does have a dress code. And when I say dress code, I mean that you eat your lunch or dinner in a lovely white fluffy robe, your towel nonchalantly draped over the back of your chair and – in my case – your trashy paperback perched on the table. And if you go on a warm day, like I did, you get to do all of this outside, beaming at everybody else, similarly attired. This must be a bit like how it feels to be in a cult, or live in California (or both), I’ve always thought.

Sometimes I review restaurants and I’ve had a bad day first. I love writing reviews, but it’s a bit like a job – admittedly a job I adore – and there are times when you go and your heart isn’t one hundred per cent in it. Things are crap at the office, or the car failed its MOT, or you’re out of sorts with a friend, or Britain has voted to leave the EU and you still have to go out, eat with an open mind, take photos and write hundreds of words about what it was like. Hopefully you can’t tell in the words or the rating, if I’ve done it properly.

Nirvana is the other way round, if anything – it’s hard not to be happy when your most difficult decisions that afternoon are whether to read Hello! or OK!, whether to have the honeycomb tiffin or the salted caramel ice cream in the Roman Room, whether to go to the hydrotherapy pool or snooze on the heated terra cotta loungers. How can you have a bad meal under those circumstances?

On the other hand, I went on a long-booked visit the Sunday after the referendum result, when there was a weird atmosphere across the country. That weekend was like waking up hungover with The Fear, not entirely sure what you’d said or done or to whom. To complete the irony, Nirvana’s owner had sent a controversial mail to members only that week “offering them the opportunity to read” an article he’d written about how Brexit was a very good thing (I half expected to arrive to find bunting everywhere). So, a happy place at a sad time: what would lunch be like?

The menu at Nirvana has two options – either all you can eat from the salad bar (which also features a number of hot options) for fourteen quid or the a la carte menu which has starters, sandwiches, salads and main courses. The salad bar is included if you visit as a day guest rather than a member and really, I ought to have eaten from it to give you a representative view. But I’m afraid I was in need of cheering up so I didn’t, although I can tell you from past experience that it’s not half bad (and especially impressive for vegetarians and vegans where it gives a range of choice you’d struggle to match elsewhere).

Instead I stuck to the menu, deciding to kick things off with a selection of artisan (everyone’s favourite ubiquitous, meaningless word) breads for two. I was denied the opportunity of doing this when they turned up at exactly the same time as the starters, but none the less they weren’t half bad, especially at less than two pounds. All warm, some slightly toasted, a good array with the dark malted one, studded with seeds, my particular favourite. Butter was at room temperature (which always helps) and it was nice to have olive oil and balsamic although, as so often, nowhere near enough.

NirvanaBread

The starters were less impressive. We’d both gone for salads and I wonder whether they had decided to prioritise virtue over taste. Smoked chicken salad was presented in a way almost deliberately calculated to underwhelm – a fan of smoked chicken on one side of the plate, your salad on the other. Not mixed at all, and the salad also appeared to be barely dressed at best. What’s a real shame about this is that it had potential to be a lovely starter if done better – the salad was full of firm peas and crunchy beans and would have been beautiful with a bit more dressing and the smoked chicken, although a tad wan and floppy, did set it all off nicely. I seem to recall that the menu at Nirvana specifically says that you can ask for your salad dressing to be left off completely; it’s a pity it doesn’t also give you the option to ask for it be glugged on with abandon.

NirvanaChicken

Similarly, the baked smoked salmon salad was an exercise in restraint. A handful of salad leaves lightly dressed, topped with a thinly sliced radish (singular, I’m guessing) with a few chunks of salmon dotted round the edge. I was expecting a tangible piece of salmon rather than these chilly fragments and considering it was the most expensive starter on the menu (nine quid, since you ask) it felt miserly. It came with a wedge of lemon, just in case you weren’t feeling bitter enough, and a few de-seeded slices of chilli, mixed in as an afterthought. If I’d made this myself with bits from M&S it would have cost half as much and been twice as big. A shame, because what there was was nice, refreshing and light. I was just glad we ordered the bread.

NirvanaSalmon

After all that the main course was a beautiful, delicious surprise. Fillet steak came with a delicious, nutty pearl barley risotto which I adored. I’ve had pearl barley risotto quite a lot in Prague for some reason but it doesn’t seem to crop up on menus here much, a shame because it has much more about it than conventional risotto often does. There was also a solitary carrot – fair enough, I suppose – and two beautifully sweet, shallots which had been cooked into softness. The fillet itself was rare, exactly as requested (I went back to CAU recently and they, a specialist steak restaurant, still seem unable to get this right: Nirvana 1, CAU 0) and although I would have liked it to have a little more flavour, the texture was terrific. Finally, drawing everything together, what the menu described as “oxtail sauce”, rich strands of oxtail strewn on top of the fillet and all over the pearl barley risotto. Sixteen pounds fifty for that lot, and one of the most interesting ways I’ve had fillet steak for a very long time; if this dish had been on the menu at a restaurant near me I’d already be trying to contrive an excuse to go back.

NirvanaBeef

I also wanted to check out the lighter options on the menu, so we ordered a pulled pork wrap. This was just lovely: the thin flour tortilla was rammed full of really good pulled pork (smoky and sweet without being sugary as it so often is) with fresh, crisp, contrasting coleslaw. I liked the fact that it was served warm, too – so different from a cold claggy sandwich. It cost as much as the salmon starter, but felt like considerably better value. It came with a small leafy salad I didn’t much care for with a squiggle of creamy dressing, but perhaps I was just saladed out by that point, if such a verb exists. It might not have looked much in comparison to the fillet steak, but I thoroughly enjoyed it all the same.

NirvanaPork

Nirvana isn’t the place to order a dessert; you’re there all day after all, and saving some room for an afternoon snack is one of the only ways to break up the delirious monotony of being a modern-day lotus eater. So we finished our drinks (a decent glass of New Zealand sauvignon blanc for me and a rose cava for my companion), charged the meal to a membership card and ambled off in the direction of an outdoor jacuzzi. Two courses, that bread selection and a couple of drinks came to a smidge under fifty-five pounds. That doesn’t include service at Nirvana, but all the service there is smiley and friendly, on the informal side but none the worse for that. If they were elated or devastated about Brexit, they certainly didn’t give it away.

As I sat in the outdoor jacuzzi, wishing they let you drink bubbly in there, I did briefly wonder about whether you could separate Nirvana’s food from the overall experience of being at a spa for the day. I’m not sure. If you picked the restaurant up and plonked it somewhere else, aside from being perturbed that all your fellow diners were in robes, I think you would like but not love the food. Not just that, but some of the pricing seems strangely generous (that fillet steak main), some arbitrarily expensive (the smoked salmon starter). As so often, I wonder about the wisdom of giving a rating; I love being at Nirvana, I love eating there and yet eating there isn’t quite the point. But then I decided I’d thought about it quite long enough – the world outside appeared to be either taking back control or falling to pieces, depending on who you believe – and before long I would have to leave my hermetically sealed bubble and go back to it. I was glad my phone, with access to constant news, was stowed away in a locker.

Later on I did go to the hydrotherapy pool, by the way. Some of the massage jets weren’t working, and many of the handles you use to cling to the side were broken off. It’s been that way since the start of the year: it’s a shame the owner feels like he has better things to do than fix it.

Nirvana Spa – 7.3
Mole Road, Sindlesham, RG41 5DJ
0118 989 7500

https://nirvanaspa.co.uk/

Caffeine & Cocktails

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One thing I often complain about is big, bloated menus; huge things with a bewildering array of dishes leaving you to wonder how you can possibly avoid a dud. Indian restaurants and Chinese restaurants are especially prone to this, but actually it’s an issue in many restaurants. Like a CV, a menu should be short and to the point, it should advertise what you do well and it should never outstay its welcome. Just as nobody needs to hear about your Duke Of Edinburgh Award from umpteen years ago, I don’t think diners want a plethora of options knowing full well that the only way that kitchens can do them all is through the ping of the microwave or the sinister hum of the engine of the Brakes Brothers lorry. It’s no coincidence that the first thing Gordon Ramsay used to do in Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares was slash the size of the menu (well, that and criticise people’s omelettes).

I mainly tell you this because, if it gets nothing else right, Caffeine & Cocktails succeeds admirably in this department. Six options for breakfast, three options for lunch, two for dinner. Breakfast until 11, lunch until 3, meat and cheese boards from 3 until 6. Over half of the choices are meat free. There’s an elegant simplicity to this that I wish other establishments would learn from (although paradoxically Dolce Vita, right above Caffeine & Cocktails, has a colossal menu and I’m still yet to have a bad meal there). I turned up right on the cusp of eleven am with a companion, ready to sample both the breakfast and lunch sections to give as full a picture as I could.

Caffeine & Cocktails used to be Mix bar, a place I never much liked with horrible garden furniture (nobody should have to sip a cocktail sitting on a huge faux marble bench) and a ludicrous “private area” behind an unnecessary velvet rope. Every time I used to walk past after last orders I could see the clientele standing outside, clanging away on cigarettes, a relentless doof-doof-doof noise coming from the Stygian depths within and it made me long for my bed with a nice cup of tea, a hot water bottle and Just A Minute on the iPlayer. In short, it made me feel ancient.

The transformation is sleek and striking. It’s a long thin room with attractive parquet-effect tables, clubbable Chesterfields, a dark concrete floor, indoor trees, gorgeous herringbone tiled walls and industrial light fittings. It really is quite lovely without trying too hard (unlike, say, RYND) and a surprisingly pleasant place to while away time. Only one thing lets it down, and that’s the dreary sexism of the graffiti in the toilets. Marriage is a workshop… where husband works and wife shops”, said one quote in the gents’. Why did the Mexican push his wife down the stairs? Tequila said another. It feels a bit like they invited Donald Trump to the loos with some chalk and told him to go crazy, and that crassness really lets the side down. The irony – they have the most beautiful Aesop handwash at the sink, but you still leave the bathroom feeling unclean. The ladies’ toilets, if less positively offensive, are equally lazily stereotypical with references to diets, cocktails and Taylor Swift.

Anyway, let’s talk about the food. Caffeine & Cocktails only does three sandwiches and I went for “The Cheesy One”, a mixture of cheddar, Comté and Emmental with onion chutney and mustard, mainly because I’d been a couple of times shortly after opening, ordered that sandwich and always been impressed. Something about that mixture of cheeses, when toasted, really works – the gooey elasticity of the Emmental, the punch of the mature cheddar and the grit of the Comté is a holy trinity, perfected by the sweet chutney and the tangy mustard. So I was saddened to find that when my sandwich turned up it completely failed to live up to my happy memories – it was barely hot at all, the cheeses were still cold at the centre of the sandwich, the flavours failing to come alive.

It was definitely meant to be toasted, I could tell that by touching the bread, but clearly a half-arsed job had been done. It wasn’t that it had been cooked and left lying around, it had just never been cooked properly in the first place. And although there were quite a few tables occupied on a weekend morning, it’s not like they were rushed off their feet. Such a sad waste of potential: without the transformative power of the grill the sourdough, which should have been slightly charred, oiled outside and oozing within, was just a chewy, anticlimactic wedge. If I’d never had it before, I would have been disappointed. As it was, I spent the rest of my lunch wondering whether I was more or less disappointed because I knew how good it could be.

CaffeineSandwich

The toasted sourdough also made an appearance in the other dish I ordered, from the breakfast menu. This time it was topped with “smashed” avocado (how very Shoreditch, 2014) with feta and tomatoes. Studded through the avocado were a few pieces of chopped red chilli but even with this the dish was lacking in oomph and needed something – a touch of lime, some salt, mint, or a lot more chilli – to elevate it from quick make at home breakfast to something with more flair. That’s maybe a little harsh – the topping was nice, not ungenerous and the cherry tomatoes added beautiful sweetness. But the bigger problem was the bread – toasted sourdough really wasn’t (unless it had been wearing factor 50 at the time) so what should have been light and crispy was instead soft, tough and somehow dried out. Another attempt to find a great breakfast in Reading ended unsuccessfully, I’m sorry to say.

CaffeineSmashed

The drinks were a mixed bag. Loose tea is apparently from Good & Proper (Caffeine & Cocktails, Good & Proper… what is it with all these ampersands, I wonder?) and I’m sure it’s both those things but if you order Earl Grey you get a stump teapot full of hot water and a solitary bag of Twinings on the side. Basic verging on just not good enough, I’d say. Coffee is from Monmouth, and I’m reliably informed that the latte, while oddly thin and watery, tasted very nice. It was however, in keeping with all of the food, just not hot enough. The weird sugar, a mixture of white and brown cubes and lumps, also didn’t fill me with confidence. Lunch for two – a sandwich, a breakfast, a tea and two lattes – came to seventeen pounds. Service was nice and friendly, and maybe I should have given them the opportunity to prove how good it was by sending my food back, but I just couldn’t face it. I guess you’re more forgiving when it’s just a sandwich, or maybe the hassle just doesn’t feel worth it.

I’m inclined to be forgiving with Caffeine & Cocktails. I didn’t have the best of visits, but I’ve been enough times to know that they had an off-day when I turned up on duty. And there are definitely positives: it’s independent; it’s stylish without sacrificing comfort; it has that clever, sensibly compact menu. On the other hand, if you only do a few things you have to do them well. There just aren’t any excuses. I really wish they’d been on song because that toasted sandwich, at four pounds, is far better than anything you could get at Pret or Picnic for the same money (especially if you dip the corner of it in a little pool of their very tasty, beetroot-purple, sugar-free ketchup). It clearly adds something to Reading’s food and drink culture, to the extent where I even found myself wondering whether its cocktails could finally replace the sadly departed Sahara. So despite the misfire I’ll be back to give them another chance. I’ll pass on using the bathroom, though.

Caffeine & Cocktails – 7.0
Unit 5, The Walk, RG1 2HG
0118 3485103

http://www.caffeineandcocktails.co.uk/

The Little Angel, Henley

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I was really sad when I heard the news a few weeks back that the Lyndhurst had closed down, another casualty in the ongoing battle between landlords and pubcos. One thing Reading still lacks is a decent range of town centre pubs that do good food. It’s not all terrible: we have the Moderation (although it’s hit and miss, and a bit out of town); the Nag’s Head (just for the pulled pork rolls really, but they’re dead good); and of course I Love Paella at The Horn, but I had high hopes that the Lyndhurst might be that place. Well, it turns it out it wasn’t. Even before it closed it never quite got there, it lost its chef and despite its shiny refurbishment the last couple of times I went I felt like it had stopped trying.

I daydream that one day Reading could get an establishment like Bristol’s brilliant Bank Tavern, a place that still looks like a well=worn boozer but does a small range of beautiful dishes. But days like today that seems a long way off, so this week I headed to Henley, home of the wonderful Three Tuns, to see if lightning really could strike twice in the same place.

The Little Angel is not to be confused with the more well-known Angel on the Bridge in the centre of town (the one with the tourists, plastic cups and a nerve shredding seating area suspended over the river). The Little Angel is just the other side of that bridge, where the road forks between Wargrave and Remenham, yards from the boat clubs and the areas where most of the Henley Regatta excitement happens (if you class that sort of thing as exciting).

The pub itself is an attractive white building with a large conservatory painted in a muted olive green. We originally decided to sit in the conservatory – it was a hot day, and the open doors were very welcome – but eventually decided to move because it was such an ugly room. Maybe at night, filled with people and with the Moroccan lanterns hanging from the ceiling it might have been a lovely place, but daylight didn’t improve it. Instead you saw the mismatched tables and chairs, the scruffy unattractive tablecloths and got a slight sense of decline. It wasn’t inviting.

Back in the main pub itself things were much nicer, although still rather empty, and we got to have a good look at the menu. It had just enough flashes of variation – turmeric, cardamom and cinnamon spiced rice, aromatic duck broth, harissa marinated chicken – to lift it from the usual pub fare of pork belly, burgers, sausage and mash. Annoyingly, in the couple of weeks since I visited the menu has now changed completely: frustrating to experience as a reviewer, but good to see as a diner (although really, you ought to change your menu more than once every five months if your website is going to talk about your love of seasonal food). There were, in the pub’s defence, a couple of specials up on the board.

Originally we were tempted to start with a sharing platter but neither of them quite grabbed us enough, because they seemed to be one or two nice things from the starters section with a lot of padding (houmous, baby chipolatas, the kind of stuff you find in the “picnic” section of Marks & Sparks).

Instead I went for one of the more interesting-sounding starters on the menu. Spiced squash and goat’s cheese samosa was nice if not wildly exciting: two small samosas which tasted mainly of goat’s cheese, possibly because squash is too delicate a flavour to compete with all that salt. The pastry was thin and crisp with the sort of fluffy cheesiness inside that you’d expect from hot goat’s cheese. I was really expecting this to be lifted by the accompanying curried cauliflower purée, served as an arty smear on the side. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Unfortunately it didn’t bring enough punch to be worth adding – not enough spice, not enough flavour, lacking the courage of its convictions. Toasted almond flakes, always a welcome addition, brought a bit of much needed texture but even so it was hard to feel enthusiastic about the whole thing.

LAParcels

The chicken and guinea fowl terrine was also a dish beset with problems. There’s a fine line between subtle and clean-tasting on the one hand and bland on the other. I’m still not entirely sure which side of it the terrine fell on – there was a bit of tarragon, which I loved, but overall it was still a bit dry and softly-spoken for me. Drier still because the advertised focaccia really wasn’t focaccia. None of that moist, cakelike feel, no drizzled oil, no lovely oozy toasted texture. It was just bread. The last possible salvation, the balsamic fruit chutney, wasn’t really chutney. It was a small ramekin almost exclusively full of raisins (which I personally don’t like).

Also, I don’t normally complain about how dishes are served – slates, boards, they’re all fine with me – but I do like to have enough space to actually eat the blasted thing. No such joy here – all of it was crammed on to a small board as if it had been forced to walk the plank, and it was difficult to press your dry terrine on to your dry toast before sprinkling it with dry raisins without getting some overboard. If that doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, it’s because it wasn’t.

LATerrine

I’ve been to many restaurants where the starters were amazing, my hopes got raised and then a mediocre main turned up. That’s the nature of starters, it’s easier for them to leave you wanting more. But I’ve rarely experienced it the other way round, where an iffy starter gives way to an outstanding main, so by this stage it felt like our hopes had been way too high. We got as far as checking the train timetable to make sure we wouldn’t be caught in Henley for too long and planned a quick exit ready to be back in Reading for a digestif (well, pint) in the Allied before last orders. It felt like the Little Angel was going to be another lacklustre out of town pub no one would bother to go to, a review no one would want to read.

Then something remarkable happened: our mains arrived.

Harissa chicken was an interesting alternative to piri piri chicken, a supreme of chicken, juicy and yielding, the skin crisp but not overly so and the coating tasty but not fiery. A deceptively simple, nice thing. It came with chorizo dauphinoise, a new one on me and a salutary lesson in how to do something useful and tasty with the thin slices of catering chorizo that can so often feel like a let down. Here, discs of it were slipped between the layers of the dauphinoise, releasing their brick-red juices and adding an extra dimension. The potatoes were still a little dry (maybe the whole thing needed a tad more cream) but I liked it. Shredded mange tout, sitting underneath the whole affair, were really lovely – barely cooked, lots of crunch and sweetness and coated in something like chilli oil to add some heat (a side dish, of more mange tout with beans, shallot and chilli, was very similar). Not a hugely sophisticated dish, and possibly something you could recreate easily at home, but well thought out and well balanced.

LAChicken

The other dish was the find of the whole meal, and nothing like what I expected from the menu. “Braised, shredded lamb and rosemary parcel” was the description, and if that wasn’t entirely accurate I have some sympathy because I too find this dish incredibly hard to describe. Parcel suggests it’s wrapped in something (generally pastry, I suppose), but what I got instead was a big dome of shredded lamb (shoulder, I’d guess), rosemary, potatoes and vegetables, bounded by itself. What was it? I still don’t know. Not quite a faggot, not quite a steamed pudding, not quite a meatball, not quite like anything I’ve ever eaten. What it was, though, was delicious. Huge, hearty, tasty and utterly bewildering. It came with a lovely, rich, sticky jus, a sweet smudge of puréed carrot and plenty of heritage carrots – thick, perfectly cooked, a riot of orange and purple to stop the dish being relentlessly brown. I’m sometimes critical of websites like Alt Reading for reviewing plays you can no longer see, so I feel a bit bad about enthusing about this dish: again I find myself cursing the Little Angel for changing their menu so recently, because I wish some of you could have tried this.

LALamb

So, iffy starters, terrific mains… and the desserts? Well, I’m afraid we’ll never know: I chickened out. I almost wanted to retain that element of suspense, and I couldn’t quite bear the idea that the lamb parcel might turn out to have been a gorgeous fluke. A shame in some ways, as again the desserts looked more interesting than run of the mill; I was especially pleased to see no chocolate brownie on there, always such a lazy choice for kitchens (although guess what? They’ve since added one on the new menu). So we settled up – dinner for two, two courses and a glass of wine each was fifty-three pounds, excluding tip. The wines in question were a Chilean chardonnay – perfect for the sunny evening; cold, crisp and easy to drink – and a cherry-packed Malbec. Service was respectable, with a very chatty, friendly bar manager and a slightly shy waitress actually doing the fetching and carrying.

If the Little Angel was in Reading, it would be a lovely place to go on a weekday evening or a Friday night. Reasonably priced (starters around the seven pound mark, mains for thirteen), comfy, a menu showing signs of imagination. Forming a relationship with a regular restaurant is like a friendship – the first impression is good, you enjoy that first meeting, you want to know more and then eventually you’re prepared to overlook an off night. And I can see that if the Little Angel was nearby that could definitely happen: yes, the starters were a little disappointing, but inconsistency isn’t the worst thing to level at a kitchen when it’s also capable of moments of magic like that lamb parcel. Even out of town, I can see that it would be worth a trip if you’re out that way (and you like the look of their new menu, of course). Most of all, this makes me sad that Reading doesn’t have that kind of place quite yet: casual dining is still too much a market cornered by the chains. So next time I have a weekday evening free, off duty, and I want to eat out you’ll probably find me at The Horn. Eating paella. Doing my bit.

The Little Angel – 7.0
Remenham Lane, Henley-on-Thames, RG9 2LS
01491 411008

http://www.thelittleangel.co.uk/