Competition: Pho

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A competition? I hear you ask. What’s all that about? Well, it takes a bit of explaining, but here goes.

I decided a long time ago that you would never see this sentence at the bottom of one of my reviews: My meal was complimentary but all the opinions expressed are my own. You see that a lot in some blogs, and I respect their choice, but for me it misses the point. Because yes, of course they’re your opinions – I’m sure none of these bloggers are sent copy to publish – but it’s really about the complicated interaction between your no doubt genuine opinions and not having to pay for the meal. Because free food (like other people’s chips) always tastes better, doesn’t it? And even if it doesn’t, the pressure – subconscious or otherwise – to pull your punches must be considerable.

So the path of the Instagram influencer, where you just post pictures of food and link to the restaurant and gush, or the trickier balance of reviewing free food on a blog and trying to keep your integrity and credibility in one piece, are not for me. I’m sure some people can pull it off, but I’m not one of them. As a result, you’ve missed out on comped reviews from, among others, Comptoir Libanais, The Real Greek and, err, O’Neills – and that’s just in the last month or so.

I’m sure if you Google you can find reviews by bloggers who made a different decision to me, and you might find them useful, but personally I’ll go later, spend my own money and write a different review without those dreaded italics at the bottom (except in the case of O’Neill’s, where I’ll probably pass if that’s all right with you).

Anyway, Pho contacted me with a similar question recently. Pho is one of the more interesting chains to move to Reading as part of our Londonification. I’ve never eaten in one on my trips to the capital, but I have very happy memories of Vietnamese food from eating in Glasgow’s magnificent Hanoi Bike Shop – all clean fresh rice paper rolls, hotpots and (conceal your surprise) glorious tofu made daily on site. The dish pho itself – a soup with noodles – is pronounced “fuh” and, I think, is an example of the cross-pollination caused by Vietnam’s French colonial past, being influenced by the French dish pot au feu. I’ve never had pho myself: I have some traumatic memories of pot au feu from many years ago, and I’ve always felt that pho, like ramen, in the words of food blogger Katie Low, combines all the disadvantages of eating both soup and noodles without any of the advantages of either. But Pho’s sound like the real deal, the broth taking 12 hours to prepare. And the rest of the menu looks very tempting, from tangy salads to fragrant curries (and you have to hand it to them for inventing a cocktail called the phojito). I’m also reliably informed that the majority of their menu is gluten free, which is worth knowing.

So anyway, I looked at the email from Pho and, instead of saying no nicely like I always do, I got to thinking: of course it would be wrong for me to accept free food, but maybe there’s another way. After all, it would be nice to give something back to ER readers who’ve been putting up with my reviews for the last four years. And there’s definitely been a buzz about Pho – not only were there queues down Kings Road past Workhouse on their opening day, but if they don’t achieve anything else they’ve at least vanquished another of Reading’s Burger Kings (only two to go!). So I asked Pho if they’d like to try something different and work with me on a competition, and I’m delighted to say that they agreed.

So, here’s the deal: Pho is offering the impressive prize of a three course meal for four people, with two alcoholic drinks per person for the winner of the first ever ER competition. All you have to do is write 200 words or less on the subject of your favourite Reading food experience, and send it to me – ediblereading@gmail.com – by 11.30am on Friday 25th August.

Now, I was tempted to judge the competition myself, but here’s the catch – as an anonymous blogger I know some of you, and I wouldn’t want you to be disqualified from entry. So I’m delighted to announce that Claire Slobodian, editor of Explore Reading, will be judging this one – and I’ll send all the entries I get to Claire anonymously to ensure complete impartiality. And while we’re on the subject of Explore Reading, it really is worth a look: it’s doing a fantastic job of covering all things Reading and filling a much-needed gap since Alt Reading went into semi-retirement. I thoroughly enjoyed the recent piece on our town’s surprisingly large range of museums, not to mention the new monthly pub reviews.

The usual caveats apply: the judge’s decision is final, no correspondence will be entered into, your home is at risk if you don’t keep up repayments on your mortgage, other brands are available yadda yadda yadda. I really hope lots of you have a crack at this, and I hope you agree that it’s a cracking prize. Many thanks to Pho for partnering (what a grown-up word!) with me on this.

Good luck if you take part, and thanks for reading!

7Bone Burger Co.

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I had it all figured out: I would go to 7Bone with my friend Ben, the biggest carnivore I know. A man who smokes his own burnt ends, a man who cooks gigantic barbecues in his back garden but omits the usual step of inviting people to help him eat the food. A man who, for years, had an annual Halloween festival at his house where he cooked the biggest piece of roast pork he could fit in his oven (he called it “Porkfest”: he has many skills but is never going to work in marketing). A man to whom Bluegrass BBQ has almost become a second living room. How, in all conscience, could I ask anybody else to try out Reading’s newest burger joint with me?

I say newest, but if there’s one thing you can guarantee it’s that it won’t be Reading’s newest burger joint forever, or indeed for long. The popularity of burgers, always baffling to me, shows no sign of abating. We’re going to get a Byron and an Honest Burgers, facing off at each other by Jackson’s Corner. Deliveroo Editions has just opened, giving you the opportunity to have Gourmet Burger Kitchen delivered to your house (provided you live in the RG1 postcode, anyway) from some shadowy central facility that I can’t picture without thinking of the headquarters of The Initiative in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. So 7Bone needs to impress, because its competitors are already waiting in the wings.

The week before our trip to 7Bone, Ben messaged me.

“I have decided that I’ll eat one of the vegetarian burgers.”

“This is a joke, isn’t it?” I replied. It had to be: Ben had no truck with vegetarianism (in fact I think he may even class it as a disease).

“Nope. I want to see if the falafel burger is any good, and if a committed carnivore like me thinks it’s good I’ll be doing your readers a huge service.”

I would have been a lot more impressed with Ben’s devotion to public service if I hadn’t noticed the following night that he was tagged at 7Bone on Facebook with his wife Lisa, no doubt eating his own body weight in dead animal. I picked him up on it when I turned up and took my seat opposite him. He sipped his beer and shrugged.

“What can you do? The kids wanted to go there.”

I wanted to point out that, funnily enough, Ben’s kids have never tried to drag him into an Itsu, but I decided it wasn’t worth picking him up on it. Instead I ordered a cider (Angry Orchard – American, apparently, crisp, off-dry and thoroughly enjoyable) then looked through the menu in the company of arguably Reading’s foremost expert: Ben probably knows more about that menu than most of 7Bone’s staff.

“That’s what Lisa had last time.” he said, pointing to the ‘Peter Green’ (a burger with chilli, cheese, mustard and jalapenos), “Or you could always have the ‘Robert Johnston’, that’s awesome.”

I found the names confusing. I could have understood if it was called Robert Johnson, although I still wouldn’t have associated selling your soul to the devil at a crossroads, with a penchant for truffled garlic mushrooms. And I could see that Peter Green was a blues guitarist, but if the theme was guitarists, what was the rationale for calling one of the burgers ‘Prince Charles Is Overrated’? (Overrated as a guitarist? I didn’t even know he played.) No wonder I felt a little lost.

There was also far too much dirt on the menu for my liking: here a “dirty spread”, there a “dirty spread”, everywhere a “dirty spread”. What with that, the “dirty slaw”, the “deep gravy” (what was it doing, quoting Sartre?) and the “naked raunch salad” the whole menu felt a bit unnecessarily pornographic. It reminded me of something my friend Tim said when I told him I was going to 7Bone.

“I can’t stand the way restaurants like 7Bone call everything dirty. They say ‘dirty’ but I just see ‘unhygienic’. Why would anywhere boast about that?”

Well, quite. Anyway, I ordered the ‘Robert Johnston’ (whoever he is – Wikipedia has a number of suggestions, none of which sound likely to crop up on a burger menu) and Ben ordered the ‘Juicy Boris’ – more smut! – the aforementioned falafel burger.

“So, you’re having a Boris Johnson.” said our utterly charming waitress, accidentally mangling and conflating our orders.

“That’s right.” said Ben, “I’m going to pop Boris’ juicy balls in my mouth.”

She seemed nonplussed by this. Then I suggested that if they ever did a ‘Boris Johnson’ they could put onion straws on top of the burger to simulate the hair and that’s when she accidentally knocked over my cider (it might have been the only way she could think of to stop us both talking).

They do a “red basket deal” at 7Bone where you get a burger and one of a set list of sides for a tenner, so Ben and I went for that – onion straws for him, chilli cheese fries for me. But because we both saw other sides we fancied, we also ordered some chicken fried halloumi and some truffled macaroni cheese (sorry, I just can’t call it ‘mac n’ cheese’ and besides, as Ben pointed out, mac n’ cheese will always be synonymous with Joey Tribbiani and that crime-fighting robot).

“That’s a lot of food” smiled our waitress, who by now had replaced my bottle of cider and apologised profusely. “I reckon if you finish all that I should give you twenty pounds.”

I advised her not to put that bet on the table: I’ve only ever seen Ben defeated by food once, and that was when I took him to Caucasian Spice back in the good old days when they cooked at the Turk’s.

“And I did the burger challenge at the Oracle.” said Ben, referring to that Kua ‘Aina thing they’re doing on the Riverside at the moment.

“Did you win?” asked the waitress.

“I was three chips away from finishing it within the ten minutes” he said, glowing with pride. I couldn’t tell whether the waitress was feeling amusement or pity, or whether she was wondering whether she could pass off knocking over two drinks as an accident.

I paid the room a little more attention while I was waiting for the food to turn up. It was very much from the 2017 restaurant lookbook – square tables, school chairs, naked walls, exposed concrete and bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Ben and I were easily the oldest people there and the banquette along one wall provided (with the exception of my belly) the only softness in the room. Sometimes this look feels considered – you might like it or hate it, but thought has gone into it. With 7Bone, it felt a little unfinished: especially the ceiling, which looks like they literally couldn’t be bothered to finish it off. Despite all this, I didn’t dislike it half as much as I expected to, although I wouldn’t have wanted to be there on a packed weekend evening.

On to the food, then. The big hit of the evening, for me, was the southern fried halloumi: strips of nicely seasoned and coated halloumi, delicious with the accompanying barbecue dip. The texture was perfect, the taste was brilliant and it was only later that I realised that, despite being made of cheese, they were the only thing that wasn’t cloying and mouth-coating. They do a veggie burger made with southern fried halloumi (the ‘Dirty Linda’, obviously) and I’d be tempted to have it if I went again.

Other sides were a mixed bag. Chilli cheese fries were decent enough fries with “steak chilli” (which looked suspiciously like normal mince to me) and smothered in a lake of American cheese. I would have liked more chilli – because it was actually rather nice – and less and different cheese. Some cheddar on top would have been perfect – to me, there’s a place for yellow plastic American cheese but it’s not on chips. The jalapenos on top added almost the only sharpness of the meal.

Ben loved his truffled macaroni cheese, pronouncing it “better than Grillstock in Bristol” (allegedly another restaurant which has defeated Ben through the power of portion size). I didn’t like it much – I didn’t think the truffle came through as strongly as it could and again, there was just so much cheese: a slick puddle of cheese, all texture and no taste. I’d have liked more truffle, less cheese and maybe something like breadcrumbs on top to give more texture. And, before you point it out, I’m well aware that observations like that might mainly give away that I’m just not the target market for an American style burger joint. Ben’s onion straws were very nice, I thought – crispy and not soggy (although he did squirt a big pool of mayonnaise next to them, so not for long). I’m not sure I’d have wanted a whole plate of them, but I enjoyed nicking a couple.

Finally, the burger. Well, I quite liked it – but not without reservations. The bun, which disappointed me on my only previous visit to 7Bone, wasn’t half bad. They are proud of it, from the look of their website, and proud that it’s not a brioche, and I can understand why because it stood up well to its contents. The burger was also very good, cooked slightly pink, the texture excellent, and I also liked the fact that the whole thing wasn’t so ridiculously huge that you couldn’t try and eat it with your hands.

But goodness, it was all so wet. With the American cheese, the truffle mayo and the garlic mushrooms in there, each bite pushed the remaining contents past the edge of the bun, making the whole thing more and more difficult to tackle. What I would really have liked was just a classic bacon cheeseburger with some tomato relish and gherkins, but that doesn’t even feature on the 7Bone menu. And the stuff in my burger didn’t compensate for the mess factor by tasting amazing – everything felt a bit bland to me, the truffle and garlic barely breaking through. Maybe my tastebuds were just too coated in cheese and grease to notice anything else by that point.

Ben handily had pretty much the same burger, but with falafel instead of beef. The falafel I quite liked – good texture and taste and possibly better equipped to resist (I probably mean “complement” but really, it was relentless) the cheese and the mayo. Ben loved it, but I think he loves practically everything about 7Bone.

“You’re missing the point.” he said to me between mouthfuls. “These aren’t meant to be dry burgers. They’re American style, like Sloppy Joes.”

“You did pretty well.” said our waitress as she took away our nearly empty plates. Ben finished almost all of his; I couldn’t polish off all my fries – or more precisely, I just didn’t want to. Ben pretended to have gone easy on her to save her the indignity of shelling out twenty quid, and we got talking. She was visiting the Reading branch on secondment, doing some fact finding in preparation for 7Bone opening a new site in Eastbourne (quite what the blue rinse brigade will make of “dirty raunch salad” I’m not sure, but that I’d like to see). Anyway, she did a brilliant job of looking after us from start to finish: if anything, the thing I’ll most take away from 7Bone – apart from the incongruous sight of Ben eating falafel entirely of his own volition – is the truly excellent service we received. Our bill, for two beers (Longboard – I had a sip of Ben’s and really liked it), one cider, two basket meals and two extra sides, came to forty quid, not including tip.

I sometimes worry that with places like 7Bone (or Franco Manca, last week) my review might boil down to “if this is your kind of thing, you’ll probably like it”. I suppose all reviews come down to that, but I’m more aware of it when I have reservations about a place. So, I didn’t massively like 7Bone, and I’ve been thinking a lot about exactly why that is, and whether it’s about them doing what they do badly or me just not liking what they do. It’s true that I’m not the biggest burger evangelist in Reading, and it’s true that I’m probably of an age and demographic where the quirkiness of the menu will bring me out in hives.

But the thing is, I like that informal style of dining, for all its flaws – I like Bluegrass, and I quite enjoyed Franco Manca. And I do like the occasional burger: the weekend before this visit I was in London visiting the Design Museum with my family and afterwards we stopped at Byron for dinner. The experience wasn’t perfect, but in terms of the room, the menu and the execution it was streets ahead of 7Bone. By contrast 7Bone felt a bit too deliberately edgy, a bit too noisy, a bit too pile ’em high sell ’em cheap and, crucially for me anyway, just a little too greasy. Don’t get me wrong – it’s far from terrible, but I don’t think I would go back in a hurry. And if I were them I would be looking nervously over my shoulder, because when the London chains hit Reading we may find out once and for all whether Reading really does have an infinite capacity for burgers. But what do I know? My friend Ben loved it, and he even slummed it with the falafel.

7Bone Burger Co. – 6.6

60 St Mary’s Butts, RG1 2LG
0118 9952094

http://www.7bone.co.uk/reading.php

Franco Manca

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I’ve long enjoyed referring to Reading as “Zone 8”, and one of the most significant developments in Reading’s restaurant scene during my time away was this description becoming less and less of a joke. Reading’s always been a chain magnet, but the latest wave of new and imminent arrivals has a distinct whiff of the capital about it: The Real Greek, The Botanist and Comptoir Libanais are already here; Pho, Honest Burger and Byron are on their way. A big Pret has sprung up just opposite the train station, too: by the time Crossrail gets here, people might alight at Reading and be unaware that they’re not in Kansas (or possibly Camden) anymore.

The one I was most excited about was the arrival of Franco Manca. For years I’ve been complaining that Reading could do with a really good pizzeria to rival the likes of Bosco in Bristol or The Hearth in Lewes. Then I discovered Papa Gee and found that I didn’t feel quite so deprived but even so, Franco Manca (along with the likes of Leon and Le Pain Quotidien) remained one of the chains I most wanted to see make it out west to Reading. I’ve been going to Franco Manca, in Brixton and Battersea, for many years and I’ve always loved their sourdough pizzas, gorgeous burrata and short unfussy wine list.

Initially they were going to open in the basement of Jackson’s, which I thought was a magnificent idea and a terrific way to bring a buzz to one of Reading’s most iconic buildings. But I guess they lost patience or got an offer they couldn’t refuse, because instead they have taken the Oracle’s shekel and opened where the Debenham’s restaurant – never reviewed on the blog, due to what I can only describe as a shocking oversight – used to be. It’s right next to The Real Greek, which extends the riverside and creates a little enclave for shoppers and diners to descend upon (it’s working, too: when I tried to book The Real Greek for a Saturday night to take my family out for dinner I was told it was already solidly booked.)

The space outside is nicely used and if the weather had been better I’d have been sorely tempted to eat in the sunshine, but I visited on an inclement weekday so I found myself waiting for a table to become available (in the spirit of another London trend coming our way, Franco Manca doesn’t take bookings). I managed to nab a table in the corner of the room, nearest the window, which gave me a good look at the room. It’s a big space: all square tables, wooden school-effect chairs and bare lightbulbs, the walls covered in what appeared to be upcycled pallets, no soft furnishings and nothing to absorb sound.

What this means is that, even tucked away in a corner, the experience was a cacophonous one. I’d come to Franco Manca with my friend Tim and the whole evening was marked by both of us constantly having to lean across the table and say “What?” “Pardon?” or “I’m really sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you to repeat that. Again.” The irony: here we were in a room full of young chatty diners and I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more geriatric. It’s the first time I’ve seriously considered taking an ear trumpet to a restaurant (although, depressingly, I doubt it will be the last).

The menu is a short one – a small range of starters (or “Bites”) and seven pizzas, two without a tomato base. The specials board lists some extra starters, two special pizzas – one meat, one vegetarian – and an array of extra toppings. I was a bit confused by the flip side of the menu which talks about all of Franco Manca’s ingredients but doesn’t make it clear whether you can order those as extra toppings or not, but maybe I’m just getting old and finding hidden complications in a very simple menu (an unwelcome theme is emerging here: have you noticed?).

While we waited for our order to arrive, Tim and I enjoyed something from the compact and bijou drinks list. There are a handful of wines, two beers and one cider (described as “No Logo”, presumably a tribute to Naomi Klein’s late 90s anti-consumerist classic). I had the cider, which was pleasant – sparkling and cold but with a slightly agricultural hint. The waiter brought it over without a glass and I had to ask him to come back with one, but not before my request was met with a slightly vacant look. Perhaps all the hip gunslingers drink straight from the bottle (and, for that matter, can understand every word spoken by the person opposite them).

Tim, last seen on this blog enduring the culinary Vietnam of a trip to Cosmo, is a Beer Expert. He has forgotten more about beer than I’ve ever known (although that’s not saying a lot: he probably forgets more about beer in a single day than I’ve learned in a lifetime). So I’m well used to him putting on his Serious Beer Tasting Face, taking a sip, knotting his eyebrows, smacking his lips afterwards and pronouncing it “okay, I suppose”, as he did here.

“Of course, they say it’s no logo but it’s by Shepherd Neame”, he added. “It might go better with the food, to be fair.” I nodded sagely, pretending to understand what he was talking about – a look I’ve perfected over many evenings spent hearing Tim wax lyrical about the Citra hop (whatever that is: I thought it was a dance from the Twenties, but apparently not).

My starter was uncomplicated and delicious, a wooden board with four thick, generous slices of coppa and a ball of mozzarella perched on some salad. I yield to nobody in my love of mozzarella served before it’s been ruined by heat – so cold, clean and fresh-tasting! – and this was a pretty joyous example. I also love coppa, beautifully marbled pork shoulder which I’ve always found more interesting than Parma ham (how I miss the days when you could buy it from the deli counter at Carluccio’s). Again, this one was damned fine. And you could quibble about how this was a triumph of buying or assembly rather than of cooking if you really were so minded, but to me it was a triumph of eating, which is far more important. Decent value at six pounds, too.

“You’re going to describe that as ‘generous to a fault’, aren’t you?” said Tim. “You always say that in your reviews.”

“Well I’m not now.” I said; later I looked back, and it appears that I do indeed always say that.

Tim was faced with something altogether more baffling. The specials board had described it as “Gloucester old spot baked sausage”, which could potentially give you the impression that what turned up might resemble, you know, sausages. But the use of the singular, with hindsight, was a clue. Instead, what Tim got was a slab of sausage meat that had been baked with a tomato sauce and dolloped with what might have been crème fraiche. The sausage meat was lovely – coarse and shot through, I think, with a smidge of fennel. But it was an odd dish and I’m not sure Tim would have ordered it if it had been more accurately described (perhaps as middle class sausage McMuffin only without the muffin, or Millennial meatloaf). Half the fun of sausages is the contrast in texture between outside and inside (I like mine like mummified fingers, personally) and that was missing here. Tim looked enviously at my starter, and I gave him some coppa and mozzarella to apologise for ordering better than him. If anything, I think it made matters worse.

The pizzas took longer to arrive than I expected, which was no bad thing although it was characterised by a bit more ineffectual service. I’d ordered a dip for my crust (or “cornicione” as the Franco Manca menu likes to call it) and there was some general chaos about which one I’d gone for – pesto, since you asked – which even led to the manager having to come over and ask me what I’d ordered. She was quite brilliant, bright and personable – but if anything, that just highlighted that the rest of the service had been a bit… well… I’m struggling to find a more appropriate word than “gormless”, so let’s just leave that there.

If I won the battle of the starters, I think Tim did better on pizza. His was a pretty classic combination – tomato sauce, mozzarella, and (according to the menu) both dry and semi-dry chorizo. And it looked good, although I did have some reservations; maybe I’m just greedy but it felt a little light on chorizo and what chorizo there was was so unevenly distributed that it looked like it had been dropped onto the pizza from a great height by someone with their eyes shut. Again, I wondered if I just wasn’t cut out for this new devil-may-care attitude and perhaps literally nobody else would be bothered by this. What can’t be denied, though, is that it was tasty: the crust was bubbled, blistered and light, the base top notch.

“Can you tell the difference between the two types of chorizo?” I said to Tim as he hoovered up his final mouthful.

“Yes.” he said. “One of them is short and fat and the other one is wide and thin.”

“Helpful stuff, Tim. I’ll make sure I put that in the review.”

My pizza, by contrast, just didn’t work. I went for one without a tomato sauce base and instead it came with yellow tomatoes, buffalo ricotta and spicy lamb sausage. It looked unbalanced to me when they put it down in front of me and it tasted unbalanced too: the tomatoes were sweet, the ricotta was sweet and although the sausage – something a bit like merguez – was genuinely fiery and delicious there just wasn’t enough of it to counteract everything else. Again, everything looked assembled at random and in this case it made for quite an unattractive pizza, with the sausage unpleasantly reminiscent of droppings and the ricotta looking disconcertingly like cuckoo spit (hungry yet?). The pesto dip was an excellent idea but in execution it just lacked enough salt and parmesan to offset the oil.

On a previous trip to Franco Manco just after it opened I had been absolutely enchanted by a lemon and rosemary cake with Greek yoghurt and honey, which has to be one of the nicest things I’ve eaten this year. I tell you this because, in keeping with the rest of the evening, they had taken it off the menu for this visit. So we skipped dessert, cut our losses, paid up and beetled off to the pub. The bill came to just under forty-two pounds for two, without tip. Both pizzas, and this will give you a clue as to Franco Manca’s popularity, clocked in at around eight pounds.

When I go for dinner on duty with a companion, I like to play little game at the end. We text our rating out of 10 to each other simultaneously, like some kind of digital gunfight, and compare notes. Tim’s rating was nothing special: he wasn’t impressed with Franco Manca. He said the food was good but not good enough to overcome the room and the service. He’d sooner go to Papa Gee, he said, and of course I felt a little bit proud of him for that. It quite outweighed his shortcomings when it came to describing chorizo, which after all is a niche skill in anybody’s book.

It might surprise you, based on everything that’s gone before, that I feel a little more kindly disposed to Franco Manco than Tim was. Restaurants are good at different things, and some restaurants can be good despite excelling at something which isn’t necessarily my thing. And there is a lot to be said for Franco Manca if you’re grabbing a quick meal in the centre of town, or you’re on a budget, or if you really like pizza. Or if you’re considerably younger than me (many people are, these days), wear a snapback indoors and don’t mind raising your voice to have even a rudimentary conversation with your mates. Or, now I come to think of it, if you want to eat somewhere good in the Oracle which isn’t Cote. The pizza, as long as you pick the right one, is good enough to overcome a multitude of sins, and next time I go I’ll stick to the tried and tested classic of anchovies, olives, capers and basil. Personally, I can see myself heading there at lunchtime on a sunny day, or having an early dinner there before ambling off to the cinema or Tuesday Music Club at the Global Cafe, full and happy, ear trumpet stowed away in my satchel.

Franco Manca – 6.8
The Oracle, RG1 2AT
0118 9952086

http://www.francomanca.co.uk/restaurants/reading/

Feature: Eating at the Reading Fringe

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Last week I took part in a live Q&A on Twitter about the Reading Fringe. It’s an amazing Reading institution, now in its fifth year and bigger than ever with 72 shows running across 14 venues over 5 days. I was more than happy to support it by answering questions for an hour; obviously some people wanted answers to the burning questions of the day (my favourite flavour is salt and vinegar, thanks for asking) but the best question I got asked was this – where should I eat before going to take in a show at the Fringe? It’s an excellent question, and I dashed off a few quick responses, but the more I thought about it the more I thought it might make a useful feature for those of you attending a cultural event in Reading for the rest of this week. So here goes!

Shows at the Penta Hotel, Smokin’ Billy’s, Public, The Butler or The Purple Turtle: Pepe Sale, Bhoj or Bluegrass BBQ

Many of these shows start at 7 or 7.30, so you need to find somewhere nearby that serves decent food and can feed you and have you out the door sharpish. Pepe Sale, as a restaurant right next to the Hexagon, has an impeccable pedigree of doing this so is well worth considering. It’s not the most attractive interior in the world but you probably won’t have the time to fully appreciate that, especially if you’re concentrating on the food. If you’re in a rush the pasta dishes are always a good bet (I’m a particular fan of the tagliolini with smoked salmon, saffron and cream).
Failing that, Bluegrass is another excellent option and has the additional benefit that you pay up front so it’s easy to scarper afterwards without having to flag someone down to settle the bill. When I first went it was all about pulled pork and brisket but the menu definitely has other interesting choices including the Southern fried chicken and most notably the slow cooked beef brisket chilli – watermelon slices and all – which has become my go-to dish there. Lastly, Bhoj is in its new home a couple of doors down from Pepe Sale and does some of Reading’s finest Indian food. Karahi lamb is my favourite choice here, although ordering from here prior to a packed performance might not be the most sociable thing you could do.
Oh, and don’t go to Smokin’ Billy’s to eat. You’d be better off grabbing a Pizza Express and eating it in the garden of the Allied Arms.

Pepe Sale, 3 Queen’s Walk, RG1 7QF (review here)
Bluegrass BBQ, RG1 2JR (review here)
Bhoj, 7 Queen’s Walk, RG1 7QF (review here)

Shows at Revolucion de Cuba, Milk, Waterstones or the Dome at Station Hill: Sapana Home, Shed, Kokoro or Nando’s

Sapana Home is still often my choice for a quick town centre meal and it’s a great place for pre-theatre because if you get there bang on six o’clock you’re likely to eat brilliantly and still make your show. I’ve written about the place so many times that I’m in danger of getting repetitive, but really, have any of the pan fried chicken momo, the samosa chaat, the chicken fry and the chow mein and you’ll have an absolutely fantastic meal. Sapana was my restaurant of the year last year and is still a favourite of mine. Surprisingly good for kids, too: my friend’s 10 year old son is a massive fan of the momo and can manage all 10 in a single sitting. Attaboy.
Some of the shows at the Dome are mid-afternoon and for those Shed and Kokoro offer good lunch options. Shed is great for kids, if you’re going to one of the kids’ shows there, and does a great array of sandwiches and salads (and the Top One – chorizo and cheese and jalapeno – remains one of the best sandwiches you can eat in the ‘Ding). Kokoro is newer, an offshoot of a small chain, and goes fantastic tubs of crispy chilli chicken or spicy thigh meat curries with rice or noodles or a range of sushi. Only a few tables, but again perfect for a quick meal where you rush in and out.

You can judge all you like, but I also have a soft spot for the Nando’s on Friar Street. Butterflied chicken breast, medium, with spicy rice and macho peas (or corn on the cob if you absolutely must) and garlic piri-piri on the side. Have a spot of sangria while you’re at it, because I always find it makes me far more artistically receptive: after a whole jug I’ve even been known to enjoy an episode of Sherlock.

Oh, and don’t go to Cosmo. Duck in a Yorkshire pudding is all well and good, but your digestive system will pay a terrible price the next day.

Sapana Home, 8 Queen Victoria St, RG1 1TG (awarded Restaurant Of The Year here)
Shed, 8 Merchants Place, RG1 1DT (review here)
Kokoro, 13 Queen Victoria St, RG1 1SY
Nando’s, 30-31 Friar Street, RG1 1DX

Shows at the Oracle: Franco Manca or Mission Burrito

The Oracle is not my favourite place to eat, and there’s only one show here (live music at 12 and 3 from Lisa Zimmerman who has the tough gig of interesting Oracle shoppers in German opera with a pop twist: good luck with that, Lisa) but even here you can have a decent quick bite to eat. If you’re keeping it old school you could do a lot worse than a burrito from Mission with black beans, shredded slow-cooked beef, salad, guacamole and smoky chipotle sauce. But if you want to try one of the newcomers, Franco Manca does very good sourdough pizzas with splendid crusts that are cooked quickly in the blisteringly hot oven. Try and keep enough time back for the rosemary cake with Greek yoghurt, you won’t regret it.
Franco Manca, The Oracle, RG1 2AT
Mission Burrito, The Oracle, RG1 2AG (review here)

Shows at South Street, The Rising Sun and Olympia Ballrooms: Bakery House or the Lyndhurst

The easiest choices of all, these: round this part of town Bakery House is almost the only show in town. My last meal there was a little disappointing but it’s the only bad meal I’ve ever had there and I still have faith in them to deliver gorgeous Lebanese food quickly in a nice unpretentious setting. If you’re in a hurry for a show you might be better off ordering plenty of small dishes to share in which case the rich glossy houmous topped with pieces of roasted lamb, the amazing falafel, the little succulent maqaneq sausages and the halloumi stuffed pitta bread are all worth a go. And if you have a little bit longer I only have three beautiful words to say to you: boneless baby chicken.

I reviewed the Lyndhurst recently and it’s the perfect spot for a show in that area, especially if you’re watching something at South Street. The menu changes too regularly for me to be able to make too many recommendations but you can’t go far wrong and at the very least you should consider the pink pickled eggs (the distinctive colour coming from beetroot) with a hint of star anise, the Scotch egg or the dead good fish and chips.

Bakery House, 82 London St, RG1 4SJ (review here)
The Lyndhurst, 88-90 Queens Rd, RG1 4DG (review here)

Anyway, I hope this is useful and that you seriously consider taking in a show over the next week or so, whether it’s stand-up, gig theatre, experimental theatre, music, chap-hop or (because Britain’s Got Talent suggests at least some people like this sort of thing) dance. The Fringe’s website is here, and tickets can still be bought in advance for the majority of the shows. Maybe I’ll see you at something: I fancy going to watch All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, and I might go get squiffy at the launch party tomorrow night. I’ll be the one in the Mexican wrestling mask.

The Three Guineas

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You weren’t meant to be getting a review of The Three Guineas this week. My companion for this week’s review was my friend Izzy, a veritable girl around town who I’ve known for yonks, and when I gave her a free choice of all the establishments on my to do list she went – rather to my surprise, to be honest – for the Crown On The Bridge, the pub on the edge of Caversham which has recently relaunched with a menu largely revolving around hot dogs and bangers and mash.

Despite this being a quixotic choice in the middle of a summer as hot as balls, I was happy with it. I figured I could meet up with Izzy, hear stories of her latest exploits on Tinder or Bumble (although based on her recent experiences I think she may have accidentally merged them into a single app called Tumble populated exclusively by a freakish parade of emotionally stunted men) and work in a few jokes about Izzy going on a sausage hunt. Really, it was too perfect: she could be Carrie Bradshaw, we’d have a good old gas and I’d get a review into the bargain (I’ll leave you to guess whether I’m more like Miranda, Samantha or indeed Stanford Blatch).

The day before the review, disaster struck: Izzy had had a good week at Weight Watchers and unlike most people, who would fall on a plate of sausages like a hungry beast to celebrate, this meant she wanted to be Sensible. Could we go to The Three Guineas instead, she asked? It has a very tempting looking poached salmon and vegetable dish. Leaving out the fact that, in my book at least, there’s no such thing, I agreed immediately. Are you pissed off with me? she asked. Of course not I replied, mildly pissed off. She knows me well enough to know I was fibbing.

When they first announced that The Three Guineas had protected status as part of the project to build the new station I was surprised. I’d always thought of it as a pretty skanky pub – with a handsome exterior, admittedly, but still not one deserving special treatment. I turned up on a warm day to review it and there were people at most of the tables outside soaking up the sunshine and drinking something fizzy and yellow (so, in that respect at least, very much like its previous incarnation).

But going inside it was clear that the refurb had been done very nicely indeed – the pub was broken up into sections, each with a slightly different feel, but done in a way where nothing was jarring. I especially liked the upper area with a tiled floor and stools, reminiscent of a railway brasserie somewhere much more glamorous and continental, and the dining area with its fetching deep red button-backed booths. I installed myself there, because it seemed to be the main part of the pub which did table service.

To my relief when Izzy came in, resplendent in hipster glasses and a ironically retro Fleetwood Mac t-shirt, she announced that she had eaten very little all day and was keen to make up for lost calories. I was far too pleased by this to say anything petulant about sausages (although I can’t say it didn’t cross my mind) so I bit my tongue and we scoured the menu to try and figure out how to best attack it.

I must say, I found the menu a bit uninspired, especially the main courses. It had the name of the pub’s head chef on it, but I’m not really sure why because I didn’t see much there – fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, burger, curry – that showed any signs of identity, personality or distinctiveness. More interesting was the array of nibbles around the four pound mark, which I assumed were small plates slightly smaller than a conventional starter. That was my excuse for us ordering three of them to share, and I’m sticking to it.

Cauliflower pakora was probably the nicest of the nibbles we ordered – beautifully cooked florets, still with a little bite, and a light and crunchy batter. In a theme that was to continue all evening, however, it wasn’t quite what you’d expect it to be from the menu. Instead of many small florets these were big old buggers, and the “almond coronation mayonnaise” they came with was more like a curry dip. As so often with these things, there wasn’t quite enough of it. Less successful, although still very tasty, was the black pudding Scotch Egg. “Not as good as the Lyndhurst’s” was Izzy’s verdict and I had to agree – it wasn’t at all bad but it was decidedly subtle, especially where the black pudding was concerned (I found it almost undetectable). Most surreally, the “popcorn chicken” was nothing of the kind. I was expecting an upmarket take on KFC and what I got instead was tasty, coated and seasoned pieces of chicken but with absolutely nothing about them that would make you think “popcorn”. They came with a mayonnaise which was meant to have tarragon in it, but I think the tarragon had gone the way of the popcorn.

Lots of quibbles there, but oddly I really enjoyed all the small plates despite the missteps and false advertising. The worst thing about them, though, was how much they made me look forward to the main courses, because that turned out to be the biggest piece of false advertising of all.

My main course sounded amazing on paper: “braised West Country shoulder shepherd’s pie”. It stood out on the menu, begging to be ordered, and the least I could do was oblige. What turned up, though, went past mediocre to verge on insulting. The ratio of filling to topping in a dish is a debate people could have all day. It can be dish dependent, too: if you gave me a rhubarb crumble that wasn’t at least fifty per cent topping, I’d be most disappointed. But, whichever way you want to look at it, a shepherd’s pie which is eighty per cent mashed potato isn’t going to impress anybody in their right mind. Surely this isn’t just me?

I didn’t realise this at first, so I kept taking forkfuls of the mash hoping to hit lamby paydirt, but lamby paydirt never came. When I finally scraped the bottom, literally and metaphorically, it was a thin layer of lamb bulked out with diced carrots which tasted of very little. The spring greens which came on the side were sorry, thin, lukewarm things. Izzy’s menu said that this came with red wine gravy, my menu didn’t: the kitchen clearly had my menu rather than hers. The whole thing cost fourteen pounds and had me ruefully remembering the kind of food that money got you in the Lyndhurst. Instead I had mash, cold cabbage, a few cubes of carrot, some strands of lamb and the unshakeable feeling that they’d seen me coming. They do a better shepherd’s pie in M&S for a fiver. I found myself wishing I’d ordered the poached salmon, and that’s a profoundly sorry state of affairs.

Izzy, after all that, went for the sweet potato, chickpea and spinach curry. It came with flat dippable naans and was topped with a splodge of raita. I tried it and didn’t mind it but it was hard to get excited. It tasted of the sweetness of mango chutney more than the heat of spice, and although I quite enjoyed my mouthful I wouldn’t have wanted to wade through a whole portion of the stuff. Was it better than something you could pick up in a Wetherspoon’s? I doubted it, somehow. Izzy liked it though, at least up to the point where I leaned over conspiratorially and said to her “I’m never happier than when a chickpea’s in my mouth”. That got a grimace, and no doubt a mental note not to come out on duty with me again.

Drinks, by the way, were pretty bog standard and inoffensive. I’ve read a fair few people complaining about the price of pints in the Three Guineas, but they have to recoup their outlay somehow and I fear it’s not long before Reading crosses the Londonesque Rubicon of five pounds a pint and never looks back (in fact, apparently the Thirsty Bear has beaten everybody else to it). I had a perfectly pleasant pint and a half of Cornish Orchard (four pounds eighty-five a pint, in case that makes you wince) and Izzy had a Hendricks and tonic followed by a Diet Pepsi. She specifically asked for cucumber in her G&T and when it arrived the cucumber was a few wispy strands which had presumably gone through a spiralizer. The overall effect was more like algae: truly random stuff.

Service for the first half of our meal was from a young chap who seemed genuinely terrified every time he approached our table. I don’t know if it was his first day, or if he was worried about dropping something – an understandable concern based on how he tried to clear our starter plates away. Maybe he was just struggling to look Izzy in the eye: I’m told some gents find this on the difficult side. For the second half of the meal though our waitress was fantastic – likeable, enthusiastic and engaging, a proper people person (“it’s so nice to look after dining customers”, she told us, “because otherwise I just end up going from table to table picking up empty glasses”). She managed to talk us into ordering dessert too, although this gave The Three Guineas another opportunity to prove that the only consistent thing about them was their inconsistency.

Izzy ordered the chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream. Now, I have a problem with this because I’ve always thought it’s a cake rather than a dessert. It might be that the kitchen at the Three Guineas agrees with me, because what turned up couldn’t really be described as a cake. It lacked the essential – to me, anyway – characteristic of having been – what’s the word? – baked. Instead what turned up was a vaguely rectangular wobbling slab of cake mix. If they’d tried harder it would have been a brownie, but then if I’d tried harder I wouldn’t have got a C in GCSE drama; you’ve got to stop making excuses eventually. “It’s very nice”, said Izzy, “but it’s just goo”.

My ice cream was three scoops, but the one on top was significantly smaller than the other two, like they’d given up partway through: if I’d taken the same approach as the kitchen, this review would abruptly stop here. Again, it’s a real pity because the ice cream was fantastic. It’s from Laverstoke Park Farm and had all the rich silkiness I associate with them – based, admittedly, on many a happy afternoon spent devouring their buffalo mozzarella. I loved the chocolate (what there was of it), I adored the salted caramel and I admired more than enjoyed the orange chocolate chip. But overall the ice cream was even nicer, I would say, than Tutti Frutti – especially in terms of texture. Even then, it rankled that the portion control was so haphazard and, even more oddly, when the bill arrived they’d decided to charge separately for each scoop, making it more expensive. The whole meal came to £64, not including tip.

As Izzy and I strolled across Forbury Gardens, heading to the Retreat for a post-meal debrief, we chatted about the meal.

“What rating will you give it?”

“I don’t know yet, I’ll think about it. The only real rule with ER ratings is that if it’s less than 6.5 I’d be unlikely to go back.”

“So is this right on the edge?”

“Yes, probably.”

Probably is about right, I think. I could see myself stopping there with friends for drinks, or popping in off the train and just wolfing down some of those small dishes. But I keep coming back to the mistakes, and god knows there were plenty. A shepherd’s pie which could almost have been made without the involvement of a single shepherd. A brownie which had never seen an oven. Cucumber like algae. Popcorn chicken which gave no clue as to how it got the name. I’m tempted to be generous to the Three Guineas because they’ve breathed life into a lovely old building, the interior looks great, and the service at the end was as good as any I’ve had in far more illustrious places.

But then I think about the money sunk into the place, and the prime location they have and I think that the food, overall, was just lazy. I keep coming back to places like The Lyndhurst, which get this stuff right and put proper thought into their food. And The Lyndhurst is flourishing despite not having the luxury of a captive, transient and (let’s be honest) possibly inebriated clientele to rely on. Why would I go to The Three Guineas when I can go there? So all in all I can’t recommend The Three Guineas, and that’s a real shame. Unless and until they sort out their food, they’re going to be wasting one of their best assets clearing glasses from tables, and Reading will – in some respects at least – waste one of its most attractive buildings.

The Three Guineas – 6.5
Station Approach, Reading, RG1 1LY
0118 9572743

http://www.three-guineas.co.uk/

The Lyndhurst

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I reckon everyone has their favourite part of Reading. Some people are firm Caversham fans, north of the river and delighted to be near to Nomad and close to a Waitrose (and who can blame them?). Others have a soft spot for the Tilehurst Road, or the Bath Road – I’ve often walked past Florida Court on the latter and wondered what it might be like to live there. Some are on Team Newtown or Team Oxford Road, defiantly proud of the bustle and scruff of those areas; one of my best friends moved up North and still sends me messages telling me how much she misses the Oxford Road and its many characters.

And of course, everyone has a part of Reading they daydream about living in but know they probably never will. Gorgeous roads up by the university like New Road or The Mount, for instance. The impressive sweep of School Terrace down by the canal, for me, is another. Or Eldon Square! Imagine living on Eldon Square, in one of those gorgeous big houses that hasn’t been turned into flats. You could turn a room into a library, have dinner parties around a big table (I’d have to make a lot more friends, but that’s beside the point). There’s one house, near the bottom of Kendrick Road, with a little drive and a tiny roundabout and its own lamp post like something out of Narnia: in another life, I quite fancy settling there.

Of course, this is just based on walking past those areas, seeing the glow in the windows in the evening or snooping on them during artists’ open house events. For all I know those houses are dingy, tiny and draughty, with damp in the basements and condensation on the single glazed windows every morning. I tell myself that to cheer myself up when I realise that isn’t going to be my life: those places are probably rubbish anyway, right? Maybe the people in the Lower Earley Mafia or the Tilehurst Massive have the right idea.

One of my favourite parts has always been the bit informally known as “The Village”, the area around Eldon Square and Watlington Street, bounded by London Road on one end and Queens Road and Kings Road on the other. Lovely redbrick terraced houses and little side streets rub shoulders with splendid boozers like the Retreat – we don’t have time enough to talk about how much I love that place – and the Eldon Arms, although I think that’s currently awaiting new management. There’s the gorgeous Polish Church, and the upholsterer on the corner of St John’s Road which never seems to do any business.

On the edge of the Village is The Lyndhurst, a pub which has always threatened greatness without quite getting there (I’m sure many of us can identify with that). It used to be owned by the same people as the Moderation and was a nice, if amateurish, place to go for dinner: my friends still rave about the rolled pork dish they used to do. Then it was cut adrift for a while before being taken on by a chap called Heath Thomas. He installed a chef from LSB and things looked promising, but a year later the chef had moved on and then Thomas closed the pub, claiming that Enterprise had hiked the prices to the extent that it was no longer viable (a pubco, acting like a pantomime villain? Surely not).

Anyway, the pub reopened late last year and something quite remarkable happened: they started putting pictures of their dishes on Twitter and they looked, well, beautiful. Not just tasty, but genuinely beautiful. I’ve stopped by many times since and although the interior – an unfussy L-shaped room with the same old tables, chairs and pews – was the same, it felt like a sea change was under way. The menu was never the same two times running. There was a cocktail menu, and they started showing films on a Sunday night. The gastropub, ironically, is the one tired London fashion which has never even attempted to take root in Reading: now the idea has jumped the shark have we managed to get one by accident? I wanted to know for sure, and I couldn’t think of a better place for my first review in almost a year.

Here’s a trade secret for you – in my previous spell reviewing restaurants, I invariably had the same dining companion. It helps: you trust somebody’s judgment, you bounce ideas off them, you can scrounge lots of their food if you ask nicely. Following a parting of the ways I found myself looking for new dining companions and I couldn’t think of a better way to kick off ER v2.0 than to take my mum out for dinner. So there was something familiar yet unfamiliar about sitting opposite her as she scanned the pub, sipped her gin and scrutinised the menu (“this chair is a bit low, isn’t it?” she said as she plonked herself on one of the pew-style seats by the window).

It’s a clever menu, I think: a small but tempting range of starters hover around the seven pound mark and very few of the mains are north of fourteen pounds. There were a couple of vegetarian or vegan options in each section, and not a mushroom risotto in sight. The mains in particular offered lots of opportunities to compromise, with more conventional steak, burgers and fish and chips mixed in with cheffier things. A smaller specials menu, under the bulldog clip, had another three options and I wouldn’t have put money on them being there the next day. The slogan said “It’s the little things we do” and I liked that: successful restaurants are about details, not big grand sweeping statements.

The last time I went to the Lyndhurst, under their previous management, I started with “posh mushrooms on toast”, which was some very nice mushrooms on what seemed to be a rectangle of Mighty White. The mushrooms might have been Caversham Heights, but the toast was the Dee Road estate. My mother ordered the equivalent dish as a starter and it couldn’t have looked or tasted more different: lovely chestnut mushrooms, firm not slimy, in a beautifully rich and garlicky cream sauce, the whole thing festooned with pretty micro shoots. I loved it, my mum liked it. I liked the way the sauce soaked into the soda bread, leaving you with soggy, savoury spongey bread at the end. My mum wanted something better able to cope with the juices. I thought it was a little on the small side, my mum thought it was just right. You’ll look at the picture, I imagine, and make up your own mind (it was taken by my mum and is therefore much better than mine – she’s a member of the Royal Photographic Society, don’t you know).

I couldn’t not have the Scotch egg, which was mainly for gluttony but which I kidded myself was for scientific purposes. This has changed a few times since I’ve been going: it started out being a normal sausagemeat Scotch egg (which I loved), and then they pimped it up to be (I think) a duck egg wrapped in duck meat, served with a brown sauce which, as I recall, had a genius hint of hoi sin in there. As long as you could overlook the slightly disturbing connotations of eating two generations of duck in the same dish – the ultimate mother/daughter combo, I suppose – it was a lovely dish. But the menu now is strangely non-specific (it comes “wrapped in a choice of meat”, whatever that is) and what turned out felt a little generic. I liked it, but I didn’t love it as much as any of its previous incarnations. Also, it wasn’t completely cooked through so not all of the white was set: I had to scrape some of it off and it sat there on the board like wobbly snot. The pea shoots, never my favourite salad garnish, weren’t dressed but I was sure they had been on previous visits. It’s the little things, perhaps.

So, not a home run on the starters but the kitchen really hit its stride when the mains turned up. I’d asked at the bar for recommendations and as a result I’d chosen the Cajun pork belly, not something I’d normally pick in a pub. What turned up looked fantastic and tasted even better. The pork, rubbed with spice, was dense and tender without being dry. What was described as “apple mash” was potato mash with clever hints of apple and vanilla, sweet but not cloying. The straw of crackling on top was done just right (the last one I tried in a pub had the texture of a dog chew). There was also a single crisp leaf of what I imagine was deep fried kale. The cleverest thing was a “pit bean croquette”, almost an arancino full of barbecue beans – and of course there was a sticky jus to bring it all together. I hate using wanky words like “processes” (so Masterchef) so let’s just say there was a lot going on, especially for thirteen pounds fifty. I’d have gone back and eaten it again the next day if I could.

My mother went for the main course I’d normally gravitate to – pan roasted chicken breast with gnocchi and pesto. Again the presentation was gorgeous, with the chicken sitting on top of a verdant green heap of gnocchi and strewn with yet more red micro shoots. And again, opinion was divided. My mum had nothing but faint praise for this one – there wasn’t enough pesto, what pesto there was was too much oil and not enough herbs, salt and parmesan. She reached for the salt grinder and seasoned the dish twice (“and I never use salt at home”, she told me – if you think I’m a harsh critic, perhaps this is where it comes from).

Personally, I liked it. I found the doughy gnocchi and the pesto delightful, thought the chicken was nicely done. I thought it was subtle rather than bland, though I appreciate that that can be a fine line. My one criticism (and it might have been because the chicken was roasted rather than fried) was that I would have liked the chicken skin brittle and studded with salt rather than ever so slightly flaccid – when it’s done well, chicken skin can be the very best thing about a dish like this.

We skipped dessert. It’s a compact dessert menu and, although I know the presentation is stunning, having seen the photos I still couldn’t bring myself to get excited about chocolate brownie – I’m afraid I subscribe to the “that’s a cake not a dessert” school of thought – or Eton Mess. Oh, and I should mention the drinks. I had a pint of Camden Hells and my mum had a gin and tonic (Whitley Neill – I had to explain several times that it wasn’t made by a chap called Neil from Whitley, although what a gin that would be: I dread to think what botanicals he’d use). Both were splendid. The whole thing came to forty-seven pounds, not including tip. Before you ask, of course I paid for my mum. What do you take me for?

Service was quite lovely throughout, friendly and enthusiastic (I might have chosen for my dishes to come out slightly more slowly, but that might just be me and it must be tricky getting that balance right in a pub). It must be easier to do service well when you know that, fundamentally, you’re serving up really good food and everyone seemed really proud of what they’re building at the Lyndhurst. That’s been my experience of the place in general, as it happens, whether I’ve gone for dinner or just turned up with a friend for a couple of gins – and they know their gin behind the bar, believe me.

I really like the Lyndhurst; I expect that much is obvious from what you’ve just read. It’s not perfect, but enough of it is extremely good that I want to go back again to see how close to perfect they can get. It’s a pub which does excellent food without falling back on clichés or just churning out dreary dude food like everywhere else in Reading right now. So yes, it has craft beer and yes, it does a burger if you want one, but there’s lots about the place that makes it a much more interesting prospect and not just another dead-eyed exercise in bandwagon jumping. Heaven knows, Reading desperately needs that kind of establishment.

The night I went to the Lyndhurst, one of my friends was eating out in Paris at Le Chateaubriand, a restaurant which regularly makes lists of the 50 best restaurants in the world. I’ve been, and I didn’t like it, but I didn’t tell my friend that because I didn’t want to piss on her chips. But, true to form, her messages suggested that she too had been underwhelmed by the whole thing: iffy service, slow pacing and flavourless food. I sent her pictures of my scotch egg and my pork belly and the reply came back: Holy shit. I want to lick the screen. So there you go – the day I went to the Lyndhurst provoked food envy in somebody eating in one of the best restaurants in the world: Reading 1, Paris 0.

After dinner, I took my mum to the Retreat for a pint and a debrief. We ended up in random conversations with the other locals in the front room, which always happens there and which I always love. Brian the landlord was a resplendent shade of brown – three weeks in Turkey, if you believe it – and as twinkly as ever. He winked at my mother so often that I thought he might have something in his eye (he’s a roister-doister, that one). It was the perfect end to the evening – and, not for the first time lately, I remembered that this really is my favourite part of town.

The Lyndhurst – 7.7
88-90 Queens Road, RG1 4DG
0118 9503888

http://www.thelyndhurstreading.co.uk

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.