Tipsy Bean

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Why isn’t Caversham, you know, nicer? It’s supposedly the most prosperous, chi-chi part of town and yet wandering round there on a drizzly Saturday I couldn’t help but see it as a handful of streets largely lined with missed opportunities. It’s almost as if the presence of a Waitrose writes a cheque the rest of the place can’t cash. Yes, there’s a good pub (the Fox And Hounds, of course). Yes, there’s a decent butcher and a baker: no candlestick maker that I could see, although there is a terrific old-school hardware shop. And, as is well documented, it has a handful of decent restaurants – Kyrenia and the newly-installed Papa Gee, mostly.

But beyond that, it all felt a little flat. The precinct has been tidied up, but still has the same shops as before. Siblings Home – a perennial favourite of mine which felt like the kind of establishment Caversham ought to have – has closed down, now just a sad empty shell at the bottom of Hemdean Road. There is a large purgatorial Costa, if you want coffee. The independent bookshop has closed down too. There’s a delicatessen, yes, but it seems to be in a perpetual state of closing and reopening; I don’t remember ever having walked past when it was actually trading.

And what else? Up Prospect Street, past Bina’s dated façade, it was nail bar after nail bar and the delights of “BBs Hair Salon” (is it as good as “Just John” on Grovelands Road, that’s the question). This should be Reading’s Hampstead, or Reading’s Crouch End. So why isn’t it?

The two establishments trying to buck this trend both opened last year, within two months of one another and only a few doors apart. In the blue corner, there’s Nomad Bakery, offering sourdough bread and an innovative, constantly changing lunch menu with many vegetarian and vegan-friendly options. In the past it’s teamed up with semi-retired preserve-maker and market organiser Caversham Jam Lady, and brilliant fudge purveyors Hartland Fudge. A year on, its windows are still steamed up, it’s still full of happy families enjoying thoroughly virtuous lunches and Laura, the proprietor, continues to pop up at a variety of interesting venues offering tasting menus.

That would be the obvious choice, so instead this week I opted for its lesser-sung neighbour Tipsy Bean. Tipsy Bean opened last August with backing from ex-Apprentice winner, and former co-owner of sadly-missed Caversham restaurant Mya Lacarte, Yasmina Siadatan (although the exact nature of her association with the project was never entirely clear – and I’m none the wiser having Googled it). It aims to capture an all-day market by offering coffee and lunch before morphing into a wine bar and cocktail joint in the evening, and has decided to sum this up with a name which is possibly the only thing I’ve ever seen which manages to be simultaneously smutty and twee. I turned up with my trusty sidekick Tim (who is neither smutty nor twee) in tow to check it out.

The décor was bizarre and baffling. The front section near the big windows, with exposed brickwork and plenty of natural light, was nice enough but beyond that things got a little strange. The back room (and you can literally see the join) was another matter: the floor looked like unfinished chipboard, the ceiling seemingly made of disused pallets. Not in a calculated, knowing way, more in a manner that suggested they’d run out of money halfway through doing the place up.

Run out of ideas, too: the wall opposite the long bar (behind a handsome button-backed red banquette running the length of the wall) was just covered in mirrors. This can be a good way of letting light into a dark space, as anybody who’s read ELLE Decoration can tell you, but the overall effect is ruined when you scrawl slogans on them in childlike writing with bright pink pen. YOU LOOK GREAT! said one. SOUP OF THE DAY – WINE said another. Mirror Mirror on the wall, Who’s the TIPSYest of them all? said a third. Who has the biggest migraine, more like.

I’m afraid there’s more. Here’s a question for you: what do Marlon Brando, Cirque Du Soleil, The Beano and Banksy have in common? They all feature on the walls of Tipsy Bean, as part of a selection of pictures chosen seemingly at random. There were also the words “Margarita”, “Mojito” and “Tequila” on the walls in what looked like a mosaic made from dead mirrorballs. To top it all, an armchair was plonked in the far corner, completely on its own, with no tables or other chairs around it.

“It’s not shabby-chic, it’s not industrial chic.” I said. “What is it?”

“I don’t know. I wish I understood this place.” said Tim in reply, as if already hung over.

Still, it was doing a good trade with couples and families pretty much filling the front room and a few tables near the bar occupied, so we took our interior design hats off and had a look at the menu. It’s broken up into sections – Tipsy Sandwiches, Tipsy Boards, Tipsy Salads and so on – and although the tipsy motif made my toes curl, it was really good to see Tipsy Bean crediting and listing its suppliers, the majority of which were local. Meat is from Jennings, bread from Warings and cheese from the splendid Pangbourne Cheese Shop down the road. I was tempted by “Tipsy Pizza Bread” until I saw that it was nothing of the kind, instead being a variety of stuff on toast, so Tim and I both went for a toasted sandwich and a coffee.

“Shall we have some ‘Tipsy Sides’ as well?” I asked.

“Not sure I see the point. They’re just the component ingredients for everything else.”

As so often, Tim was right. We could have had some more bread and butter, or some more superfood crisps, or some grilled halloumi (there is a lot of halloumi on the Tipsy Bean menu), but they all felt a bit unnecessary.

The coffees arrived first – a latte for me, a black Americano for Tim, with a little heap of amaretto biscuits on the side.

“You should try one of these, they’re a nice touch.” I said.

“They’ve probably given us these to counteract the taste of the coffee.” Tim said. “It’s burnt.”

He was right. The coffee was properly bad – acrid, nasty, transport-caff stuff. Nowhere near as good as their neighbours in Nomad, but in all honesty nowhere near as good as Costa either. Given that coffee even features in the name of the place I was surprised that it was done this poorly – if they took the same approach to the “Tipsy” element as they do to the “Bean” all they’d sell would be Mateus Rosé and White Lightning.

Based on all this you’d expect the sandwiches to be woeful, and the signs weren’t good when they turned up on miniature breadboards. They came with “Luke’s superfood chips”, which turned out to be perfectly acceptable tortilla chips, free of gluten so that coeliacs and fad dieters also got the opportunity to feel ambivalent about them. There was also “Dudman’s salad”. Normally, I don’t make reference to my photos in the review but in this case I’d draw your attention to the picture below and say that, if anything, there was even less salad than the photograph would suggest. A shame actually, because it was nicely dressed and really quite enjoyable: this may be the first time I’ve ever said “I liked it, but I do wish there had been more salad”.

So, time for the surprise – the sandwiches were lovely. Simple, well-done and effective. The sourdough was golden on the outside, slightly oozy with butter and cheese. The prosciutto in it was good quality – dry, not floppy and plastic. And the cheese, although there wasn’t masses of it, was delicious. Also, it was a big old sandwich – using sourdough meant a sizeable cross-section, which in turn meant that it wasn’t gone in two bites as some toasties (at Nibsy’s, for instance, or Pret) can be.

Opposite me Tim waxed lyrical about his toasted Ploughman’s, with ham cheese and pickle. I wasn’t sure about the wisdom of heating up pickle, but Tim was very happy with the result. “It’s lovely”, he said, “ever so slightly caramelised. And it’s great ham and cheese.” I’m still not entirely sure whether our delight at the sandwiches was partly baffled euphoria because we expected them to be as half-arsed as everything else, or whether it’s because they were genuinely excellent. Maybe it was a bit of both. But to give credit where it’s due, my conversation with Tim for the next couple of minutes went a bit like this.

“That’s a good sandwich.”

Silence.

“It is, isn’t it. It’s a really good sandwich.”

More silence.

“Man, that’s a cracking sandwich.”

And so on. All well and good, but the sticking point was the price. My sandwich was six pounds, and six pounds for sandwich with a solitary layer of prosciutto and some cheese is very steep indeed, whatever the provenance of your produce. A little handful of salad and some gluten-free tortillas is insufficient smoke and mirrors to conceal that, especially if the mirrors have slogans scrawled on them in bright pink ink. Tim’s, presumably because it had the impudence to contain three ingredients, cost even more at six pounds fifty. To put this in perspective, those sandwiches are more expensive than Shed, than Pret, than Costa, than almost anywhere I can think of (maybe the ones at Nomad are even costlier: it’s a possibility, although hard to be sure as they don’t publish their menu online). Lunch for two – two coffees and two sandwiches – came to just under seventeen pounds, not including service. It’s hard to see that as good value, let alone a bargain.

Speaking of service, I should say a word or two about that. Everyone behind the counter was very young, perfectly pleasant and highly skilled at not being there when you needed them. It was impossible to attract attention to pay because they were all too busy standing behind the bar chatting away to each other, possibly because the lunch rush had thinned out by then. A couple of young women came in and went up to the counter to ask if Tipsy Bean was recruiting, and the staff were also too busy chatting away to each other to field that enquiry: I was tempted to ask one of them if they wanted to audition by getting my bill.

I wonder whether Tipsy Bean benefits from Caversham having so few nice places for lunch and coffee. If you picked it up and dropped it in town, I don’t think many would go there for lunch. Maybe it works better as a wine bar in the evening, but I really didn’t get it as a lunch spot. If anything, it made me feel a little sad for Caversham: I complain all the time about mediocre places being considered “good enough” for the town centre when we shouldn’t settle for second best, but until I ate at Tipsy Bean it never occurred to me that Caversham might have the same problem.

If only it had been better. That’s the price businesses pay for not being good enough: if Tipsy Bean had been better maybe we’d have had another coffee, or some cake, or settled in with a glass of wine and carried on chatting away. But if Tipsy Bean had been better, I wouldn’t be writing this. Instead we went for a stroll up to Balmore Park and took in the gorgeous view across town because, although Caversham might not be Hampstead, Balmore Park is definitely our Parliament Hill. And then we beetled off to the Fox And Hounds where, in true Fox And Hounds fashion they were playing wall-to-wall Bowie. Tim had a magnificent stout that tasted of chocolate and salted caramel, I had a fizzy cider like the heathen I am and we both wondered why the rest of Caversham couldn’t be more like The Fox And Hounds. Or Waitrose. Preferably both.

Tipsy Bean – 6.5
18 Prospect Street, Caversham, RG4 8JG
0118 9471300

http://tipsybean.co.uk/

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Kokoro

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I’ve been out on duty with all manner of people. Family, old friends, new friends, exes (well, they weren’t exes at the time, but you catch my drift). Vegetarians, carnivores, beer enthusiasts, gin fans. Indiscriminate human Hoovers and fussy eaters, fiddly diners and messy exuberant ones. Good sharers and bad sharers, conversationalists and head-down-plough-through-the-food types. They all bring something different to the table (no pun intended), because a meal is no more just about the food and the room than a portrait is just about the person being photographed. When I match a visit to a dining companion, when I’m planning a future review, I try to think about who would like what and whom I can picture in each venue. It’s like accessorising, only with humans.

On the other hand, I’ve never been out on duty on my own. You might think this odd: why not review a place without a plus one? It’s not as if – suspend your disbelief at this point – I’m so popular that I’m beating off potential dining partners with a stick. In fact, many’s the night I have no plans and can well imagine preferring dinner alone in a restaurant to sitting at home waiting for the timer on the oven to start its incessant bleeping (and, inexplicably, watching The One Show like the televisual car crash it is, somehow unable to change the channel).

I’ve written about the delights of solo dining before, but there really is great pleasure in a table for one, under the right circumstances. One of my meals of the year was dinner in Paris in June. I ate at a restaurant called Le Galopin, at a big table on my own, sitting by the window. A good table, too – the French admire solo diners far more than we do, I suspect (perhaps they think they have their priorities straight).

It was just a beautiful meal in every way; each plate came out just at the right time, each paired glass of wine was just so, and in between courses there was ample people watching to be done, both inside the restaurant and looking out on all the revellers, drinkers and hipsters in the Place Sainte Marthe outside. And if all else failed, I could always just pick up my book (Jonathan Unleashed by Meg Rosoff, fact fans) and almost feel intellectual. It was an early evening at the very beginning of the summer, and the air seemed full of possibility. I realised many things on that holiday but one of them was this: to take time to yourself and eat something lovely, to spoil yourself in that way, was just something I’d never done.

Of course, the challenge with reviewing a restaurant on your own is a more mundane one. It’s not just about picking a restaurant where you would feel comfortable dining alone, where you aren’t treated like a pariah or given the tiny shit table facing the wall, or plonked right next to the loo. No, when you’re reviewing alone it’s also about making sure you can try enough of the menu to give readers a representative idea of what it’s like to eat in that restaurant. It can be brutal enough to base a review on a single visit, but imagine also only basing it on a single dish.

So I decided I had to pick somewhere where you could realistically eat on your own but more importantly, where I could order enough dishes to give you an idea of whether it’s worth going there. That’s why Kokoro jumped out of my to do list. A relatively new arrival on Queen Victoria Street, where My Kitchen used to ply its trade, it’s sort of like Itsu but not as sterile (I always sense at Itsu that they’re just as interested in improving you as feeding you: if I want to be improved, I’ll read a novel). Kokoro does a range of sushi and hot dishes of varying sizes, it apparently always has a queue out the door on weekday lunchtimes and my experience of their Guildford branch has always been pretty promising. I figured it fit the bill perfectly, so I made my way there from the train home, through the drizzly streets, to grab a quick dinner before they shut at 7 o’clock.

The interior is very basic, no whistles and bells: high stools along a bar on the left hand side, plain pale low wood tables and stools on the right. When I got there, just before 6, it was almost completely full. At the back, behind the counter, were about half a dozen hot options, in stainless steel chafing dishes. You can have them in a “small” cardboard tub (which, as I was to discover, is plenty big enough) or a large size for a pound more, with either rice or noodles. Also at the back was a fridge with sushi, sashimi, salads and the like. Perfect, I figured: I could try something hot and something cold and report back on the whole lot.

I was tempted by the chicken katsu curry, huge flat breaded fillets that the staff snip with scissors before ladling on the sauce. But the most appealing looking dish was the sweet chilli chicken: brick-red and sticky, like sweet and sour but without the gloop. They dished it onto a mound of rice until I thought they surely had to stop, and then they added some more. I have a healthy appetite, heaven knows, but if that was a small even I might have been intimidated by a large.

It was a hit and miss dish which left me wondering what else I could and should have ordered. The chicken was gorgeous, the coating was every bit as sticky and piquant as I could have hoped (spicy enough, in fact, that it made my can of aranciata taste almost exactly like ginger beer). But where was the rest? I spotted one or two tiny bits of vegetable in there, so few they could only have made it in there by accident, possibly on the run from another dish. And although the stickiness of the dish was no bad thing, it meant there was no real sauce. At the end there wasn’t nothing coating the rice, just a few red flecks of chilli here and there, which meant there wasn’t enough reason to finish it. Maybe if I’d had it with noodles it might have been less unsatisfactory.

The sushi was also disappointing. Everything was cold and a little claggy with no real taste, except the avocado which – disconcertingly – tasted of banana (where had they got it from?). The California roll with inari had a tiny sliver of tofu and a whacking big frigid wedge of cucumber. What I think was breadcrumbed prawn had no crunch or excitement. And although they were decently rolled, the back of a couple of them was ragged, like I’d had an end piece of the roll they couldn’t be bothered to tidy up. Eight California rolls for four pounds is actually pretty good value, and if you were comparing this to supermarket sushi I think you’d probably be quite pleased. But comparing it to anything you could get in a restaurant – Misugo in Windsor, Yo! Sushi or even (I’m sorry to say) Itsu it wasn’t anything to write home about.

Service isn’t really the thing at a place like Kokoro, but what there was of it was quite lovely. The staff were friendly, kind, helpful and told me what the chilli chicken was when I pointed at it and said “I really like the look of that one, what is it?” Even nicer – and I’m only owning up to this so you don’t think it’s all savoir faire with me – one of them opened my sachet of soy sauce for me when I was patently incapable of doing so (see? You learn things about yourself if you eat on your own often enough, like your lack of elementary motor skills). My dinner came to eleven pounds for my chicken, my sushi and my can of San Pellegrino with its natty tinfoil hat.

The place Kokoro reminds me of the most, back in the mists of time in the 90s, was a little lunch joint in Merchants Place called Orient Express. This was back when you had the delights of Keegan’s Bookshop down there, before the eyesore of the Novotel and an apartment block called Projection East (as if that is any kind of satisfactory apology for tearing down the cinema). You could get a polystyrene container with sweet and sour chicken or fish and rice or noodles for four pounds, and you could take it to Forbury Gardens with your plastic fork and spend a very enjoyable few minutes wolfing it down. How little things change: the price has gone up slightly, and the containers are trendier, but the experience is much the same.

And it might surprise you, but I quite liked Kokoro. I’m not sure I ordered brilliantly, but I liked what they did and it is still, for what it is and at the price it is, a pretty good lunch option in Reading, if you manage to get a table. I’d be more likely to go back for the hot dishes than the cold, but I’m reasonably likely to go back. Maybe I’ll take a friend and have the katsu curry, but perhaps I’ll turn up on my tod with a book and my headphones and remember that company is great, but being kind to yourself can be even better.

Kokoro – 6.7
12 Queen Victoria St, RG1 1SY
0118 9561333

http://kokorouk.com/

Veeno

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As I’ve said countless times, I always find it odd when people complain about Reading. Part of that is just innate defensiveness I’m sure, but some of it is based on the fact that, as far as I can see, it keeps getting better. Whether the council or the Business Improvement Quango or our vision for 2050 (whatever that is – I’ve read the document and I’m still none the wiser) have anything to do with that is another matter but, in terms of food and drink at least, you could make a pretty good argument that we keep getting what we want.

Bored with having the same chains as everybody else? Here, have a CAU, an Itsu, a Comptoir Libanais, a Franco Manca, a Pho and a Real Greek, with Honest Burgers, Byron and Busaba on their way. Want a pub that does delicious unmicrowaved food? The Lyndhurst isn’t far out of town, and for that matter a short stroll down the canal brings you to the Fisherman’s Cottage – which also, by the way, fixes the problem Reading used to have with not having a decent tapas joint.

It goes on: I used to complain about the lack of good pizza restaurants in town and now we have more pizza than you can shake a stick at (although in some cases, shaking a stick at it is pretty much all you’d want to do). People also like to complain about how many cafes we have but they forget how few bad ones we have, or at least how few bad independent ones we have. I know things aren’t perfect, and they could always improve, but arguably we’ve never had it so good.

I do wish we had more genuinely independent restaurants in the town centre, and I wish our council had some ideas about how to encourage that rather than just charging small indies to have A-boards on the pavement (the less said about that the better). But for me, there is still one glaring gap: Reading could do with a truly brilliant bar that also does food. I suppose you used to call them wine bars, although that term seems to be lost in the mists of time, somewhere around the era when Del Boy tried to reinvent himself as a yuppie.

A few places come close. Milk has its moments, but it doesn’t do food or make much of its wine selection (it’s all about the rum with those guys). The bar at Cerise is prohibitive and always feels like a best behaviour place, not somewhere you could be scruffy or louche. The Malmaison has similar problems, despite numerous makeovers. The closest is probably The Tasting House, but it still feels more like a shop than a bar. It’s too well lit, too sterile and – most crucially – it closes ridiculously early. A good bar kicks out when the pubs kick out, not at 9pm.

This summer I went to Paris on holiday – on my own, like a grown-up! – and on my first evening I headed to Le Barav, a gorgeous wine bar in the Haut Marais. I sat outside with a glass of red and my book (Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari, since you asked), and watched people more sophisticated than me drinking and smoking and chatting, all chic and impenetrable. And I minded being a shabby tourist even less when they brought the food, a ramekin full of Saint Marcellin and honey, with a spoon I didn’t need and a basket of crusty bread which was the reason why I didn’t need it. And, as so often, I thought: how I wish Reading had this.

And yes, Europe specialises in these bars and Paris especially does, that’s true. But there are ones in the UK if you know where to look, from the fantastic John Gordons in Cheltenham to the Little Bar in Tooting, not to mention Gordon’s on the Embankment, the grande dame of those kinds of places. Last month I was in Bristol spending a Friday visiting a good friend and we spent a couple of very enjoyable hours in Bar Buvette. Wine by the glass, charcuterie, cheese, impeccable bread. You simultaneously could have been in Paris and couldn’t have been anywhere but Bristol, which is probably why I loved it so much. How I wish Reading had this.

All of this brings us to Veeno, which opened in August and looks, on paper at least, like it could fill the gap. It’s a wine bar, or “Italian Wine Café” according to their website, which does a range of Sicilian wines, many of which are from the family’s vineyard (must be nice to have a family with a vineyard: maybe that explains why there are now fourteen branches of Veeno across the country) along with a range of small plates, meats and cheeses. It sounded just the ticket, so on a weekday night I turned up with my mother – very generously taking an evening out from looking after her own vineyard – to check it out.

From the outside, it’s unprepossessing. It’s underneath an office building at the bottom of Valpy Street and like, for example, Forburys that means it has the potential to look quite unlovely. Veeno has decided to tackle this by festooning all the windows with fairy lights: I quite liked this, although I have friends who really aren’t fans. Inside it’s a surprisingly large place broken up into lots of rooms of different sizes. There’s a biggish communal area near the bar, a room out on the left with high stools around barrels, a couple of booths and even a private room out back which I assume is for tasting events. We sat in the more conventional dining area and if it wasn’t for the view out onto Valpy Street (admittedly framed by fairy lights) you could possibly have kidded yourself that you were on the continent. I liked the interior, although I was glad I wasn’t sitting on the banquette which looked to all the world like concrete clad in PVC.

The menu covers most bases, and looks the part – there are a range of meats and cheeses, lots of different bruschetta and a section called “spuntini” which covers “little snacks and appetisers”. The first slight warning bell sounded when I saw that these mostly hover around the eight pound mark, but I put that to the back of my mind. There are also a range of sharing boards, and I sense that they like groups to go down that route, but my mother isn’t the type of person to have her food picked for her, and neither am I. So instead we ordered a little of everything on the menu, sat back, waited for it to arrive and had a good old natter.

The best thing turned up first, and that was the salami. You get two for nine pounds, and we’d gone for finocchiona (salami with fennel) and truffle salami. Both were exemplary. You could smell the truffle salami the moment it was placed in front of us: some people never quite get on with its unique earthiness, just the right side of funk, but I love the stuff. Even better was the fennel salami, although again I know it’s an acquired taste some never pick up. Food like this is really all about buying, rather than cooking, so you do need to buy good stuff and Veeno certainly managed it here.

Was it worth nine pounds? That’s another story: I wasn’t sure. Maybe it would have been if the bread hadn’t been so woeful – four thin slices which felt like they had been left out for some time before being served. “I’m only eating these because I feel like you ought not to eat the meat on its own”, said my mum, and I suspect they only served them for the same reason. Bread should be one of the best things about eating this kind of food in this kind of bar, and this was woeful.

Another wonderful thing to do to bread is bruschetta, and another terrible thing to do to it is Veeno’s bruschetta. Two pieces of the same bread, smeared with nduja, for four pounds. The nduja was pretty good – what there was of it – but the bread was as indifferent as before and the price was difficult to stomach. There should have been more of it, or it should have cost less and all round it should have been better (the addition of a pickled onion cut in half and a caperberry was never going to fool anybody). It made me think fondly of the nduja at Oxford’s superb Arbequina, spread on slightly charred sourdough toast, the whole thing drizzled with honey and topped with thyme. That is made by a kitchen that loves food, but this felt like it was made by someone who loves margins.

Onwards, because we must, to the cheese. We’d chosen gorgonzola and scamorza, with high hopes of salt and smoke. What went wrong? The gorgonzola came in six neat balls, each topped with a walnut, and balls is exactly what they were. I know some blue cheeses are saltier than others, that Roquefort is not Barkham Blue, and I know that this might have been a gorgonzola dolce, but whichever way you cut it, it tasted of not much.

“That’s so disappointing.” said my mum. “I was hoping for something like the gorgonzola your granddad used to eat when I was a kid. It was beautiful stuff.”

By this point I thought my choice of venue had used up whatever brownie points I’d earned from my mum by pronouncing “bruschetta” correctly (“I hate it when people get that wrong”, she told me). But more indifference was to come – the scamorza was almost completely a no smoking zone. There was the slightest hint on the rind but really, it was even blander than the gorgonzola. It was more like a Maxi BabyBel, if such a thing exists, although in honesty I’d rather have had the real thing.

I’m afraid there’s yet more to dislike. The focaccia was dry and spongy and bore no relation to any focaccia I’ve ever had, or indeed to any focaccia at all. “Oh, you had the focaccia” said a friend of mine after I told her about the visit, “I don’t think it’s ever seen any olive oil”. She’s right, and it hadn’t seen any salt either. I couldn’t tell whether it was a little stale, or had been toasted, or had been toasted to conceal the fact that it was a little stale. I asked our waitress for some olive oil so we could at least dip the bread in it. She said yes, but it never turned up: by the time I realised it was never going to come I was profoundly past caring. Oh, and special mention has to go to the breadsticks, which crumbled rather than snapped and seemed to have no light airy middle, just a solid core of crunchy, dry exterior. Again, better breadsticks are available pretty much anywhere.

Last of all, the spuntino we ordered was tomino cheese grilled and wrapped in speck. Well, the cheese might have been grilled I suppose, but it came to the table pretty lukewarm and wrapped in speck which may well have come from the fridge. Maybe that’s what cooled the whole thing down. I was hoping for a glorious parcel of sticky oozing cheese with a casing of salty, crispy ham, but this wasn’t that. If you can make the combination of ham and cheese – wonderful separately and potentially sublime together – this boring, you really need to think again. Eight pounds for that, and again there was some sleight of hand to conceal the poor value. A couple of slices of that indifferent bread squiggled with balsamic glaze? Really, you shouldn’t have.

It’s especially sad to say this because service, by and large, was lovely: friendly, attentive and helpful, with the exception of the olive oil that never came. And the wine was very good too – my mum liked her prosecco (but then, my mum does like her prosecco) and both the red wines I had were excellent. “The Elegant”, a cabernet sauvignon, was exactly that: beautifully structured and fragrant, well-balanced and not too tannic. The other one, a Nero d’Avola Riserva, was truly knockout stuff, although at eight pounds fifty a glass you’d want it to be. The whole lot came to just shy of sixty pounds, not including tip, and I left feeling like I hadn’t really had a meal. “The gorgonzola was the real disappointment for me.” said my mum as she headed to the pub. I knew exactly what she meant but really, when it came to disappointment, where to begin?

I really wanted Veeno to work (and I’m tempted to give them a point for the fairy lights alone) but the truth is that somewhere in Reading does nearly all of these things better. If you want charcuterie and cheese, The Tasting House is a much more appealing prospect. If you want spuntini or focaccia, you’d be better off at Carluccios. So that just leaves the wine – and it’s good but somehow not enough (although the Italian craft cider, which I sampled on a previous visit, is also pretty nice). So I could see myself going back for a drink or two, but I’d definitely eat beforehand. Most of all, it just made me want to go to Waitrose and get amazing Bertinet bread, green grassy olive oil, good meats and fine cheeses and have some friends round. Like I said, this kind of food is about buying rather than cooking, and I have a sneaking feeling most of us could do just as good a job of that as Veeno without having to try that hard.

Oh, and on weekdays it closes at 10pm. What kind of a bar does that?

Veeno – 5.8
Minerva House, Valpy Street, RG1 1AR
0118 9505493

http://www.theveenocompany.com/veeno-reading-wine-bar/

Thirsty Bear

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The great lost ER review – the one none of you ever got to read – was of Smash, the craft beer, pizza and ping pong establishment on Gun Street. It’s a long sad story but essentially I went, I wrote the review and when I stopped reviewing because my circumstances changed it would have been inappropriate to publish it.

It’s a pity I never got to formally warn people not to go to Smash, but I suppose I can make amends now by saying that when I went the service was poor, they got the beers wrong, they got the pizzas wrong, when they got the pizzas right the pizzas were still very, very much wrong and that “barbecue pulled chicken fries” are a unique culinary hell I hope I never have to revisit (pulled? the chicken had barely even been chatted up). The TL:DR version of that review would just have said Don’t go to Smash: I gave it a rating of 4.0. I’m sorry you’ll never get to read it – I suppose it was my Edwin Drood, or – this one is for geek completists only – my Shada.

Anyway, now you’re all done Googling that, why have I decided to review Thirsty Bear and risk another diabolical craft beer and pizza experience? Well, I didn’t go without reservations, that’s true, but a bit of research suggested that even if Thirsty Bear was bad, it would at least be a different flavour of bad to the hipster-milking horrors of Smash.

It specialises in New York style pizza, which appears to be pizza so big you either have to share or order by the slice. The staff have been trained by “Fabio Ferranini, an award winning pizza chef”, and a Google of Fabio revealed that he was indeed a real person (although that isn’t necessarily a badge of pizza quality: so was Doctor Oetker). Not only that, but he did indeed come second in the 2016 European Classic Pizza Championships representing a restaurant called NY Fold in London.

By a remarkable coincidence, the menu for Thirsty Bear is absolutely identical to the menu for NY Fold, except that they’ve renamed all the pizzas after parts of NYC (I hope there’s a connection between Thirsty Bear and NY Fold, otherwise they might have paid Fabio for a bit of consultancy which largely involved pressing Control C and Control V). Anyway, all this “investigative journalism” – inverted commas deliberate – is by the by if the food is good, which is why I tipped up on a weekday night with my old schoolfriend and trusty sidekick Mike. He’d just returned from running a European coach tour that had finished up in Rome, which according to him made him the closest thing I had to a pizza expert.

There was an alarming omen as I approached Thirsty Bear on the night of my visit. Passing the site of the much-missed – by me, anyway – Kings Point, on a spot which Thirsty Bear, New York-style, would no doubt describe as the corner of Watlington and Kings, I spotted something unusual on the pavement in front of the hoardings. It was a single, perfectly intact, slice of pizza. I didn’t bend down to investigate: it may not have been that kind of pavement pizza but I still didn’t want to take a closer look. Even so, I couldn’t help but feel it didn’t bode well. Was it the cheesiest dirty protest of all time? Why did it look like it had been placed there so neatly? It was vexing.

Entering Thirsty Bear I realised immediately that I should have got there before Mike. He had picked a badly lit table on the ground floor, right under the giant TV screen showing Liverpool’s latest attempt to lose to a minor team from the continent – exactly the table you would pick, in fact, if you weren’t planning to photograph your food. So, from memory, the upstairs bit of Thirsty Bear is rather nice and the rooftop terrace is a lovely place to drink a pint on a summer afternoon. But I didn’t eat in either of those, so take that with a pinch of salt.

I can comment on the downstairs room though, less Brooklyn speakeasy and more run of the mill European sports bar. Apparently half a million was spent on the refurb (half a Purple Turtle, in other words), although looking round the place it was hard to see where it had all gone. The exposed brickwork and bear-themed artwork was all very well, but the furniture was somewhere between bland and weird.

We were sitting at a high table on what looked like stools but were actually benches seemingly made by glueing two stools together. The banquette in one corner was button-backed and welcoming, the other just looked like a blocky waste of PVC. It felt like they’d either run out of money or enthusiasm, possibly both. Most of all, it made me think of the interior of the Abbot Cook: mainly that it was done so much better than this. I wonder if they paid half a million?

“Sorry, I’ve started without you.” grinned Mike as he took a slug from his pint of Birra Moretti. The suitcases next to our table indicated that he was pretty much fresh off the plane.

“Celebrating downing tools, eh? When are you back at work?”

The grin broadened.

“Oh, not until the New Year.”

I knew that Mike worked half the year and kicked back in a skiing village for the rest of the time, but I didn’t realise that his last working day of 2017 was in September. We’d been to school together: where had I been going wrong? It was galling enough at work saying “see you next year” to people lucky enough to start their leave on something like the twentieth of December, but this was a whole other level. I resolved not to hate him, and not to try and let it colour my opinion of the food.

“At the end of my last tour this American couple asked if I’d mind them tipping me in UK currency so they could use up their last change. Do you know how much they ended up giving me?”

“Go on.” I said, half expecting it to be a pittance.

“Just over three hundred pounds! Shall I get you a pint of Strongbow Cloudy Apple?”

On second thoughts, maybe I should just focus on not letting it colour my opinion of the food, I decided.

Did I succeed? Well, it’s a good question. It’s possible that if I hadn’t been so jaded about Mike getting such an enormous tip I might have thought the arancini were an acceptable size, rather than ridiculously huge, bloated things drowned in a lake of what might pass for tomato sauce but was probably passata. I might have felt it was fine for the waitress to not blanch at us ordering two arancini and two lasagne balls, even though that was clearly too much for two people and bordered on upselling. I might have thought the lasagne balls actually did have “bolognese ragu” in them, rather than stingy, mealy, flavourless mince, an afterthought between the almost endless layers of pasta. It’s even possible that if I hadn’t been so distracted by the politics of envy I might have thought that both the arancini and the lasagne balls were indeed covered in panko breadcrumbs, with their distinctive flaky texture. Maybe it was a typo for Paxo breadcrumbs: it was at least possible given that the menu also spelled it as “lasagna”.

But no. Disappointing though the prospect of having to work for another three months before Christmas was, I could have been on top of the world and these starters would still have been mediocre at best. Well the arancini were, anyway: you can get better ones in Shed, in Jamie’s Italian and probably in Zizzi and M&S. The lasagne balls, though, were positively poor. I suppose you couldn’t knock the description though, because they plainly contained lasagne and they were, well, balls. But the menu didn’t say they’d come drowned in tomato sauce, and if I’d known I might not have ordered them.

Never mind: surely the pizza would be better. I mean, it rather had to be. We’d steered away from the pizza by the slice, mainly because it was sitting there under the lights and I wanted to give the kitchen the best possible chance to shine, even though I had reservations about a concept which forced you to choose between freshly made pizza in giant quantities and a wider range of pizzas which could have been sitting around for goodness knows how long. Confusingly, a specials board up at the bar suggested they were offering a greater selection of their pizzas by the slice – maybe that was a good idea, maybe not.

Mike and I couldn’t decide between two different pizzas. In the blue corner, there was the “Ellis Island” with stracchino (a fresh cow’s milk cheese), smoked salmon, smoked swordfish and rocket. In the red corner, we had the delights of the “Calabrisela” – they’d obviously run out of parts of NYC by this point – with ‘nduja and “buratta” (sic). “It’s a shame they don’t have the option to do half and half”, Mike had said, seconds before the waitress came to our table and said “you can have half and half if you want”. As so often, the menu managed to misinform.

Another piece of misinformation was to follow: a sixteen inch pizza, allegedly “perfect for two”, would easily have gone between three or even four people, especially ones stuffed to the gunwales on Paxo-clad spheres of iffiness. Would we have finished it all if it had been tastier? Possibly, but it wasn’t. To explain one of the reasons it was so disappointing, I need to go into some rather tedious detail: neither half we ordered had a tomato sauce base. It wasn’t clear from the menu that they wouldn’t, and I might have expected that for the Ellis Island but certainly not for the Calabrisela. The menu did, I later realised, have a symbol indicating that pizzas had a tomato base but – quelle surprise – some pizzas where the blurb said there was tomato sauce (like the “Lower East Side”) didn’t have the symbol and some pizzas which clearly would have had tomato sauce (the pepperoni one, for instance) didn’t carry the symbol.

Why is this important? Well, because without any tomato both halves of the pizza were even more stodgy. A hefty base you really had to go some to cut into and a thick layer of rapidly solidifying cheese did not make for an enjoyable experience at all, and for me if a pizza isn’t going to have a tomato base the menu – as it does at Pizza Express, or Franco Manca – really needs to spell that out in big letters. So was our pizza deliberately or accidentally disappointing? I don’t know, and I don’t even know which would be worse.

That aside, what about the toppings? Well, conceal your surprise but they were also unimpressive. At this point, I feel that Thirsty Bear deserves a little benefit of the doubt, so maybe it was burrata and not just big chunks of coldish mozzarella. It lacked the gooey middle I associate with burrata, but what do I know? And it may be that they’ve found some smoked swordfish which looks and tastes exactly like smoked salmon, that is even the same shade of pale pink.

Maybe. But it felt to me like all the things that made those pizzas exciting in theory just weren’t there in practice. Good smoked swordfish is wonderful, so is good burrata. I’m not sure it should be possible to take good swordfish and good burrata and make such average pizza. As for the other distinctive ingredients, the ‘nduja was acrid but didn’t have the complexity of flavour I associate with the best examples and the stracchino tasted and looked, well, like something I had best not describe. In fairness, the crust wasn’t bad, but by the end the main thing I wanted to do with it was throw it at somebody or something.

We left a reasonable amount, and I realised that all the other diners I had seen had taken at least some of their leftover pizza away in takeaway boxes. I didn’t quite understand why, and then I remembered the solitary slice, precisely set down on the pavement.

If this review truly reflects the meal I had, by now you must be longing for it to reach the end. Don’t worry, me too. So I should add that the Birra Moretti and Strongbow Cloudy Apple were both largely indistinguishable from such pints anywhere else, although the Moretti in particular, at four pounds ninety five, may have a slightly more bitter taste than usual. I should say that the service was actually quite pleasant (although the phrase “you really don’t need four of those balls for your starters” was conspicuous by its absence). And of course I should point out that our meal for two people with two giant disappointing starters, one giant disappointing pizza and four pints came to just under fifty-five pounds, not including tip.

So, neatly bringing us back to where we came in – as if on purpose – the TL:DR version of this review would say Don’t go to Thirsty Bear. Well, that’s not entirely fair I suppose; I mean, it’s better than Smash. And this might be the place for you, although I’ve thought about it a lot and I can’t see why it would be. If you want beer, I imagine there are better – and cheaper – places in town. If you want pizza there definitely are, unless you prize quantity over quality (in the interest of balance, I think Mike enjoyed this meal a lot more than I did). I did wonder about saying that you could at least sit on the roof terrace with mates on a sunny day and have a few slices of pizza and a cold pint and enjoy the sunshine, and then I remembered that the Allied Arms will let you slope off to Pizza Express next door and eat a Pollo Ad Astra in their garden. I really don’t enjoy saying all this, but there you have it: I just think Reading deserves more than this, and fortunately we have exactly that.

Thirsty Bear – 5.3
110 Kings Road, RG1 3BY
0118 9504439

http://thirsty-bear.com/

Memory Of Sichuan

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Early last year I received a lovely email from a woman called Claire. In it, she said that she’d noticed from my review of Chinese restaurant Happy Diner – now defunct, as it happens – that I’d wished I had a Mandarin speaker with me. As luck would have it, Claire had just returned from six years in Shanghai working for Time Out, and she kindly offered her services if I ever needed a dining companion who could decipher the (always more interesting) Chinese language menus in such places. In particular, she asked if I needed any help reviewing Furama, which had recently rebranded as Memory Of Sichuan. It was her favourite cuisine, and she said she could help me try out all the best dishes.

It was a brilliant offer, but back then I had a regular dining companion, and anonymity to consider, so I said thanks but no thanks. Eighteen months on, all sorts of things have changed – not least that Claire has gone on to become the editor of Explore Reading and the town’s Queen Of New Media. Things have also changed on my side, and now that I’m recruiting, cajoling and pressganging people to accompany me on reviews I couldn’t think of a better person to come and try out Memory Of Sichuan with me. Fortunately she said yes, which is why you get to read this review today.

In the run-up to the visit, I looked at the menu online, completely bewildered by the options. Pig’s ear, frog’s legs, tripe, duck blood curd: everywhere I looked there was something I didn’t much fancy trying. Who knew that China had quite such an amazing array of fauna and so few scruples about hacking it up and exposing pretty much any part of any of it to a direct heat source before dishing it up to customers? The descriptions of some of the dishes had definitely been lost in translation too, especially something called Sichuan Mentioning Surface (“ignore that”, said Claire, “those are dan dan noodles”).

I felt apprehensive as the evening approached, even more so when I reviewed the Trip Advisor reviews for some vague idea of what to expect. The general consensus seemed to be of disappointing food and service which was rude verging on openly hostile. Again, Claire was reassuring. Most of those reviews seem to be about the (less exotic) all you can eat menu, she said. “Besides,” she added, “brusque service is authentic. I once had a waitress tell me to fuck off. In China, if you’re not shouted at by waiting staff you’re paying too much money for your food.”

This, along with a promise that we wouldn’t order any offal, put my mind mostly at rest and so we turned up at the restaurant on a rainy weekday evening ready to take our chances. Claire was hoping for a Proustian reminder of the city she had left behind, I was hoping to make it through the evening without having to suppress my gag reflex. What could possibly go wrong?

The interior was about as nondescript as restaurants get, so much so that I struggle to recall it now. A carpet with one pattern, chairs with another. Biggish tables covered with crisp white tablecloths. It said conference centre more than restaurant: really, if you placed whiteboards in every corner you’d half expect a team building exercise to break out. A small smattering of the tables were occupied, and the vast majority of the customers were Chinese.

“Notice what’s different about this place?” said Claire.

I was stumped.

“No sofa. In all your other reviews of Chinese restaurants, you talk about the sofa at the front, but there isn’t one here.”

She was right: no takeaway on offer. I reflected on the menu at the same time as being impressed that she had done her homework. If anything, it was even more intimidating than it had been online – a huge thing, with far more dishes than I remembered. There were still more terrifying sounding dishes (“crab ovary with fired (sic) bean curd”, anybody?) and notes at the bottom of the page tersely telling you that the dish you ordered might bear no relation to the photographs in the menu: on reflection, I decided this might be no bad thing. One section, to ram this point home, said “NO Imagination on Physical Vision” in big stern letters in the middle of the page.

Even stranger was the other difference between the paper menu and the menu online: the prices had been massively hiked. Every dish we had considered ordering had gone up in price, usually by around three pounds. On one level, this is just one of those things: not all restaurants are brilliant at keeping their websites up to date. But on the other hand, Memory Of Sichuan had been open a couple of years at most, so it was hard to understand why they’d increase the price of some of their dishes by something approaching fifty per cent. And in some cases, it just made it impossible to pick a dish without the order sticking in your craw. Ten pounds ninety for sautéed green beans? How could green beans possibly cost that much unless they had either been covered in gold leaf or cooked by my therapist? It was almost worth ordering them just to find out, but ultimately we decided that this might well be how a fool and their money achieved a conscious uncoupling.

Of course, you probably reckon by now that this review is hurtling towards a horrifying denouement. If so, think again, because all of what we had was interesting, much of it was rather good and some of it was spectacular. The first dish to arrive was described on the menu as “Hunan mouthwatering chicken”, although Claire told me that this is often more literally translated on menus in Shanghai as “saliva chicken”. This didn’t raise my hopes enormously, but what turned up really was beautiful – tons of chicken with thin batons of cucumber, sesame seeds and peanuts, all sitting in a thin but potent sauce.

Claire told me that they boil the chicken and then almost blanch it in cold water to stop it overcooking and ruining the texture, and it really pays off – I was worried it would be rubbery, as chicken in Chinese restaurants can often be, but this was like the very best roast chicken a few hours later, when you want to cram it in a sandwich despite knowing that you’re still full. I’d say the Sichuan dish, though, might be an even better thing to do with the stuff. “The sauce isn’t as brick-red as I was hoping” said Claire, “but the flavour is all there.” And she was right, it was simply extraordinary: hard to describe, but almost like a grittier, earthier satay with none of the cloying sweetness satay can have.

This was also my first encounter with Sichuan heat. “It’s very different to what you’re probably used to” said Claire, “it builds up more gradually and it numbs the tongue.” She pointed to the black specks, Sichuan peppercorns. And it’s true – it was hot, but not excruciating, and the anaesthetised feeling in my mouth made me feel like I’d just crunched on a Tyrozet. But more to the point, it just tasted fascinating. I’d not had anything like it, and if I’d just looked at the picture on the menu I’d never have ordered it. I spooned more of the sauce onto my plate, tamped some plain white rice into it, made a pig’s ear of eating it with chopsticks and found myself excited about what was to come.

The two relative duds were, I think, the dishes Claire was relying on most to induce a madeleine moment. Ma po tofu, silken tofu in a spicy sauce with minced pork, managed to leave me nonplussed and Claire disappointed. “It’s not wobbly enough”, she said, showing that she’d spent long enough in China to forget that unless you’re talking about panna cotta or jelly, “wobbly” is rarely a good adjective in food. But the worst crime was that something so exotic could be so bland. Perhaps it was muted after the chicken (the chicken was a tough act to follow) but I didn’t see much to like about it. For my tastes, the tofu was pleasingly firm, but there wasn’t enough minced pork, there were no contrasts of texture in the dish and I wasn’t fired up to finish it.

Dan dan noodles are Sichuan’s traditional street food dish, and they’re named after the pole – carried across the shoulders with a basket at either end – used by the street vendors who originally sold the dish to passers-by, something that sounded a lot more interesting than grabbing an 80p Twix from the vending machine next to reception (a lot more likely to result in you actually getting any food in return for your money, too). Memory of Sichuan’s version was a little overcooked for my liking. I was assured this was authentic – there’s no word for al dente in Mandarin, after all – but even so lukewarm noodles didn’t hugely appeal to me. It wasn’t just me, though, because Claire was equally underwhelmed. Again, there was nothing pleasing about the texture, the sauce was a bit ordinary and neither the pak choi nor what I assume was more minced pork heaped on top. This dish also went unfinished, although that’s partly about the sheer quantity of food we ordered.

“That’s sad,” said Claire. “They can be much better than this. That’s basically the fish and chips and Cornish pasty of Sichuan cuisine.”

I think I’d rather have had fish and chips and a Cornish pasty, but never mind. Later on Claire described them to me as “mamahuhu”, a magnificent expression which translates as “horse horse tiger tiger” and, for reasons which I’ve had explained to me and forgotten, means “so-so” (maybe it’s because it’s neither one thing nor the other).

If we’d stopped there it might have been a sorry state of affairs, but the remaining two dishes were among the very best things I’ve eaten in Reading this year. First up, something the menu described as “Big Potted Cauliflower”. We’d ordered this instead of the eye-wateringly expensive green beans, but at nearly twelve pounds I was still half-expecting to be disappointed. But it was so much more than just cauliflower – firm but not crunchy florets, a ton of garlic, spring onions and, underneath, soy beans in a rich sticky salty-sweet sauce. On top were dark slabs of what I initially thought was aubergine. “No,” said Claire, smiling, “this is Chinese bacon. I used to dream about this stuff when I came back to England.”

What a dish! It had everything – so many different things to combine and so many perfect mouthfuls to construct. The bacon was almost a saltier char siu, and a piece of that, a small floret, some garlic, some beans and that sauce made for an almost perfect forkful (I’d moved on from chopsticks by then, mainly to make the most of this dish). Some of the best moments of this dish came right at the end, scraping the bottom of the pot and enjoying the very last of the beans, glazed in a sauce somehow simultaneously as sweet as honey and as savoury as Marmite.

If that was hard to top, the final dish came very close. Beef with cumin is again a pretty understated way to describe what I ate. Here’s the overstated way to describe it: impressively light clouds of tender beef, absolutely groaning with cumin. Beef is another meat I’ve always approached with caution in Chinese restaurants, but the texture of this was so delicate you almost didn’t know where it ended and the seasoned coating began. Claire told me that the wok will have been so hot that the beef spent next to no time there before being served up, and I could well believe it. Again, the dish was good right to the end, and once the last of the beef was gone I found myself wolfing down the strands of onion, just about cooked and again festooned with cumin. This dish, like the chicken and the cauliflower, was completely picked clean by the end.

Service was actually lovely throughout – quiet, deferential, not remotely matey but nobody told me to fuck off even once and there was certainly no shouting. It might have helped that my dining companion could ask for the bill in Mandarin and pronounce Tsing Tao properly, but quite possibly not. The bill, for all that food and two beers each, came to seventy-eight pounds, not including service. That’s a lot, but I would say that the food we had would definitely have fed three, if not four.

Later on Claire and I discussed the rating and we both agreed that it was problematic. Memory Of Sichuan is, it has to be said, on the expensive side. The room is pretty uninspiring, and the menu is so gargantuan that it induces the same kind of paralysis I get when I fire up Spotify. I couldn’t guarantee to anyone dining there that absolutely anything they picked would be good. Normally when I review a restaurant I am basing it on a single visit but, more than usual, I’m aware that I’m also basing it on this particular set of dishes, and not everyone will have a Mandarin-speaking accomplice to go with. All that weighs against the place (although it’s worth saying that the two disappointing dishes were also on the all you can eat menu, so perhaps just stay away from that).

And yet on the other hand, the three standout dishes here rank among the best things I’ve eaten in Reading – and if not the best, certainly the most surprising and unusual. Memory Of Sichuan is worth it, even if you just go once, to take your taste buds on a holiday. I’ve thought about those dishes pretty much every day since my visit, and that doesn’t happen often. So I’ll definitely go back, and I’ll try just enough of the things I know while adding something new each time. And if there are some duffers in there, so be it, because a relationship with a restaurant is a bit like any other relationship: everyone has off days. Towards the end of the meal Claire looked around and said “we’re the only Western customers in here eating from the Sichuan menu”. Well, we were that night, but I for one hope that changes.

Memory Of Sichuan – 7.6
109 Friar Street, RG1 1EP
0118 9575533

http://www.memoryofsichuan.co.uk/web/

Namaste Kitchen

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(A bonus dose of ER this week – I’m in the magnificent Explore Reading talking about my perfect Reading weekend. Read it here.)

I was at a wedding a couple of weeks ago: it’s the season for them, don’t you know. As the evening started to turn sharp and cold I was under a blanket, under a marquee, sipping my amaretto and Coke – don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it – and chatting to my fellow guests when one of them recommended that I try out Namaste Kitchen, the Nepalese restaurant operating out of the Hook and Tackle in Katesgrove. Funny that, I told him, I happen to be having dinner there next week: this visit was already planned by then.

“It’s really good, we went there the other week. What did we like?” he said, asking his partner across the table.

“The momos.” came the reply.

“Is there anything else I should definitely order?”

“All of it.” Helpful, I thought, although it did suggest you couldn’t go far wrong. Swings and roundabouts.

“And is it busy there?”

“It’s always full of Nepalese people but no, there’s usually plenty of room. I think lots of people don’t know it’s there.”

Just my kind of restaurant, the holy grail: somewhere independent, brilliant but unknown. Somewhere, much like Reading, deserving of wider recognition. By the end of the conversation, I was thoroughly looking forward to my visit and pleased with the odd coincidences which seem to abound in Reading. So many coincidences, in fact: I hopped in my taxi having had a chat with a stranger about a mutual acquaintance (“you know Matt? Do you get a word in edgeways?”), received a recommendation to check out local eleven-piece country band The Rumpo Kidz – how can you not like a band named after Sid James’ character in Carry On Cowboy? – and been advised that I really ought to attend the next Sunday Assembly.

I went to Namaste Kitchen with Mike, my oldest friend and one of the only people from school I still speak to. We’ve been friends for over thirty years, since the good old days growing up on the same suburban Woodley street, and nowadays he isn’t in the country often as he spends most of his summers running coach tours across Europe. He jumped at the chance of coming out on duty with me, and I figured if nothing else we could catch up on all the people from school I had seen at the wedding (was it that chap that bullied us or was it his older brother? The mind plays tricks). The timing was perfect: I figured it was in the stars.

The Hook and Tackle is a pub you could easily describe as having a chequered history. My pub expert friend reliably informed me that it opened in December 2015 and then closed in July last year. It reopened a month later, closed again in October and finally reopened this January: basically, it’s more open and shut than the case against Oscar Pistorius. It’s a handsome looking pub from the outside, a fetching shade of something rather Farrow & Ball, looking a tad incongruous at the bottom of Katesgrove, a stone’s throw from the IDR.

Inside, it was rather a game of two halves. On one side (the left as we went in), it looked more like a conventional dining room with high-backed chairs and menus at every table. On the right, it was more like a pub with round tables ringed with low tub chairs. A long bar connected the two. I knew that the dining room would be more conducive to eating but it was largely empty and much darker, so Mike and I grabbed a pint and sat in the window, enjoying the last of the summer sunshine. Besides, I figured my photos would come out better.

I half expected to order at the bar, so I was delighted when someone came to take our order. The menu was a big and slightly confusing one – some things were described as appetisers, some as starters and some were just listed without comment. I figured it was best to just order a whole bunch of small plates and share, so that’s what we did (and what I’d recommend, unless you think you’re intrepid enough to eat a number of small plates on your own, in which case you have my blessing – and a certain degree of admiration). There were a couple of set menu options for people who get especially territorial about food, although in my experience places like Namaste Kitchen aren’t necessarily for them.

Our waiter was lovely and charming from start to finish, and we got a pretty good idea that we’d be well looked after right from the beginning. I asked him if there was anything he’d particularly recommend and he smiled and said “all of it”, but this wasn’t a slack-jawed response of indifference from somebody who knew nothing about the food, more the beatific confidence of a person who absolutely knows that all the dishes are terrific (of course, I didn’t fully realise that until later, so let’s not jump the gun). I got some useful advice from him when we couldn’t decide which of two dishes to order, and he asked what experience I had of Nepalese food.

“I’ve been to Sapana, but I can see dishes on your menu that aren’t at Sapana. Are you quite different?”

“We are better than Sapana.” That smile again.

I didn’t have to wait long to realise that he wasn’t pulling my leg. From this point onwards, the meal was like a fireworks display – little dish after little dish came out, there were culinary explosions, we oohed and aahed and just as the last flickering lights died away, another dish took its place. First up, probably the most basic and complex dishes we were to eat. Aloo jeera looked pretty prosaic – cubes of potato scattered with cumin – but the taste was extraordinary, the potatoes rich with ghee, with all the taste of perfectly fried potatoes but with a softer, subtler texture. We grabbed cocktail sticks and speared and smiled, speared and smiled.

Next to it, the boneless chilli chicken was simply magnificent. Tender chicken came smothered in a hot, sour, complex sauce which, momentarily, rendered both of us speechless. It wasn’t crunchy, but it was coated – difficult to describe but impossible not to enjoy. We both knew better than to eat the chillies in the dish, lurking disguised as narrow green beans, but we fought over the onion, cooked until sweet and soft and just as worth devouring as the chicken. At this stage it crossed my mind that I, and they, might have peaked too soon. It turns out that I was worrying needlessly.

More was to come. Chicken bara was, according to the menu, a shallow fried patty made of ground black lentils stuffed with chicken. What came was almost like a fluffy savoury crepe, or a big flat veggie burger, or a huge round falafel or, most likely, something which completely defeats my powers of description but which I adored. I wasn’t sure it was stuffed with chicken except in the metaphorical sense that there was plenty of it: spiced, salty, minced chicken all over the top of it. It almost had the texture of a tortilla (to further mix culinary metaphors) and it was phenomenal with or without the relatively mild spiced dip served with it. “That was the biggest surprise of the meal for me” Mike said later, and I couldn’t but agree.

Paneer pakora was, by those standards, pretty straightforward – firm, subtle cubes of cheese covered in spiced batter and fried. But even here, when things are simple, the execution was superb. The whole thing was light, not heavy and leaden. The coating stuck to the cheese and the whole thing was beautifully matched with a sharper, spicier dipping sauce. My reference dish for paneer has long been Bhel Puri House’s chilli paneer, and – this is high praise – I almost liked this as much.

We ordered another couple of drinks – Cobra for Mike, Sharp’s Orchard for me (I’ve not had it before, but we can safely add it to the long list of Fizzy Cold Ciders I Like Which Are Not Strongbow) and then the momo arrived. The options here are steamed or fried rather than pan fried (I’ve since discovered that you can have them pan fried – or kothey – and very good they are too – ER), and the fried mutton momo that turned up looked gorgeous – golden, irregular, piping hot. The rough texture on the outside made me wonder if they’d been dusted with something, and cutting one open it was full of tender strands of mutton with a brilliant, deep flavour. I think it came with the same dipping sauce as the paneer, although I couldn’t say for certain. What I do know is that by the end of all this I was dabbing my nose in a distinctly undignified manner.

Every time the waiter took some plates away and asked how the food was, Mike and I overflowed with superlatives. He always asked if we meant it as if surprised and I think that must have been a reflex rather than an affectation, because he knew the food was good. I think maybe he was surprised that we knew it was good, too. Perhaps most of their clientele is from Reading’s Nepalese community: if so, they really are in on quite an impressive secret. After our last plate was cleared, we got to talking about the other dishes on the menu – unsurprisingly, because Mike and I had been planning our respective return visits to Namaste Kitchen since about halfway through our first set of dishes.

“I was very tempted to have the pangra (gizzard)” I said, “But last time I had it at Sapana Home it was really bouncy and not very unpleasant.”

“Ours isn’t like that. I’ll bring you out a small plate, and you can see what I mean.”

I am absolutely convinced that he had no idea we were there to review the place, and that he would have done the same for anyone. I’m also absolutely convinced that Namaste Kitchen doesn’t really know what a small plate is, because we got a hefty portion of gizzards – again, coated in something delicious, savoury and impossible to pinpoint and cooked until they became a chewy delight. And I use the word chewy after some consideration – they weren’t falling-apart tender, and they weren’t bouncily tough, but they had just enough texture and fight without having too much. They were almost like the chicken equivalent of pork scratchings and Mike and I, who thought we had eaten to a standstill, somehow found room for every last one.

“Each one tastes slightly different” said Mike, in raptures. “It’s like every mouthful has a different pocket of flavour.”

Mike can be a man of few words, but Namaste Kitchen brought out the poet in him. Actually, it brought out something even more dangerous: the restaurant reviewer.

The pangra was on the house, but the rest of our meal – five dishes, three and a half pints – came to just under forty pounds, not including tip. The most expensive dish we had, the chilli chicken, was seven pounds. All this took place in a pub many people don’t know about, a three minute walk from Reading’s branch of Wagamama where you can eat far less food for much more money without ever once shaking your head, gasping or feeling a milligram of civic pride.

At the risk of repetition, restaurants like Namaste Kitchen are why I do this. Places that should be full every night, doing something interesting and different, adding something to the cultural fabric of this town. I always hope that the next restaurant I go into will turn out to be the next Papa Gee, the next I Love Paella, the next Perry’s. For the rest of this year, I will be hoping to discover the next Namaste Kitchen, and it will make the comedown after a dispiriting meal even bigger knowing that I could have been sitting in the window of the Hook and Tackle reacquainting myself with that chicken bara.

Put it this way – I’ve been going to Sapana Home for years. I’ve eaten their momo many times. They won my Restaurant Of The Year for 2016, and right now all I can think to say to Sapana Home is: you’re no Namaste Kitchen. So I hope enough of you go there that the Hook And Tackle isn’t under new ownership again this year, because Reading would be a poorer place if you couldn’t eat this food.

I would end it there, but here’s a short postscript, because I did something I never, ever do. Two days later, after a few drinks in the Allied, I summoned my friend Tim and we headed to the edge of the Oracle, under the IDR and crossed the border into Katesgrove. I told myself I wanted to show off my new find to Tim, but I think I knew in the back of my mind that I just wanted to check that my senses hadn’t deceived me. I needed to be sure that it wasn’t a mirage. So we went, we sat in the dining room and we ordered almost everything I’d eaten the first time I went there.

You can all relax: it wasn’t a mirage.

Namaste Kitchen – 8.4
16 Katesgrove Lane, RG1 2ND
0118 9594617

https://www.facebook.com/Namastekitchenhookntacklereading/

The Edible Reading Pho Competition: the results!

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When I announced the first ever ER competition a few weeks back I couldn’t have anticipated the level of response – loads of you took part, sending me miniature essays about your favourite Reading food experiences.

And there was a real range – meals with family, meals with friends, dates and solo experiences (at least one after a trip to the pub, but more of that later). Some people mourned restaurants no longer with us, some talked about the power restaurants can have to win over reluctant parents. But the thing that struck me most was that many of you talked about how you had found your “place” after moving to Reading – whether that’s somewhere to eat as a vegetarian, eat with your family or find a little taste of back home. Food, friends, family and community: all so important, and reading the entries I felt very proud – of Reading and of all the people who read ER.

I’m really relieved that I didn’t have the difficult job of judging this competition and I don’t envy Claire, editor of Explore Reading, who kindly sifted through all the entries (without Strictly paddles, but maybe next time). I was determined not to let Claire off the hook though, so before I announce the winners I also asked Claire to give me 200 words on her favourite Reading food experience. Here it is:

My favourite Reading food experience occurred only a short while after I moved back to town. My visiting brother was convinced I was mad not to move to London. Determined to persuade him, and myself, otherwise, we spent the day at Inside Reading Prison, picked up beers at Grumpy Goat and drank at The Allied Arms. After, on the strength of an Edible Reading review, we wandered to The Horn. It was dark, there was football on, ordering at the bar became confusing. We were sceptical.

Then the chicken paella arrived. Steaming, squidgy, wet. Crunchy bits gleamed in the light. Chicken fell apart on the fork. I scraped at the bottom of the pan.

We ate in a reverential silence in the pub’s tiny, sun-dappled terrace. A grunting noise came from across the table. My brother shook his head: “This. Is. So. Good,” he said, “I should visit more.”

It was one of those days, and one of those dishes, that made me feel incredibly proud of Reading. And it’s where the bud of an idea for Explore Reading first popped into my head. I love that paella, but I also love I Love Paella for helping me find that.

Right then, on to the winners and the honourable mentions (try hard to imagine a really impressive drum roll at this point):

WINNER: Mya Lacarte, Aden Pearce

My favourite Reading food experience? That’s not easy, as I’ve had 98% of my meals in the last fifteen years there. Loads stick in the mind, but Mya wins out.

Mainly I remember laughing. A lot. It was the first time I kind of knew that the food was better than my palate could keep up with, and it ran rings round it. There’s where I realised something as mundane as a Scotch egg could be that tasty. I had pigeon breast that had more life than the bird could have seen when it still had its own wings. It was ridiculous.

It was our first anniversary and we’d never had that much care taken of us before. It may sound a bit pathetic but we really hadn’t. The staff were there when we needed them, gone when we didn’t. I wore a red leather jacket and they didn’t even laugh at me. It’s the little touches that made it.

I may have had better food, or better service, since. But that was the one for me. That’s when I realised what all the fuss was about food. It had been good before, but it was never this much fun…

Claire says: Each of these pieces shows some impressive writing and a real love of eating out in Reading. But for me, this entry picks up first prize because it beautifully captures the moment when your favourite dining experience can cause your whole world to turn.

This piece is full of joy: for eating out, for good food, for the power of those little touches. It spotlights everything I love about dining out and reminds me of my own first tentative dips into the food world. Afterwards you see things differently and you can’t wait to start putting your palate through its paces.

As well as all that, it succinctly remembers a sadly-departed Reading legend, Mya Lacarte. A very worthy winner.

HONOURABLE MENTION: Chennai Dosa, Charlotte Fergus

One night in May 2016 my partner and I invited our friends to try Chennai Dosa, our favourite restaurant in Reading. They had never tried dosa, so we decided to go for something fairly basic: the family dosa. After the waiters murmured amongst themselves that we were all crazy they agreed to cook it for us, and the 5 of us waited patiently for our meal to arrive. During this time a waiter brought over an extra table to add length for what was to come: a 2m long dosa stocked full of potato masala. With discerning looks from other customers (and some in complete awe) we proceeded to completely annihilate our meal, sharing and tearing with our hands and dipping into the fragrant chutneys accompanying the gargantuan dish. The crispy, ghee fried dosa was perfect, and the masala syncopated the meal with jazzy bursts of tomato spice. I remember feeling so happy to be with my friends, sharing a lovely meal and being content with our exciting lives full of love and adventure. The next day the real reason for my appetite emerged. I was carrying our baby Mabel, born 1st Jan 2017.

Claire says: I feel very warmly towards this entry, and not just because of its powerful closing line. The writer presents their food experience as a performance piece and the entry radiates with movement, atmosphere and excitement. I feel like a fly on the wall, watching the group tear into their dinner and, crucially, I want to go and tackle that family dosa with my friends.

HONOURABLE MENTION: Mr Cod, Matt Farrall

I had heard the fable of this strange spicy hybrid fish ‘n’ chip meal that would leave a memorable taste in the mouth and the burn of a Viking funeral in other parts, sometime before I first dare try it.

It must have been one in the morning one night when I stumbled into Mr Cod on Whitley Street absolutely famished after some half-marathon drinking.

I think it was £4.99 then and it came with a choice of cherry or apple pie or drink and a special dangerous looking pot of rude, red thick chilli sauce.

It looked like fairly normal fish ‘n’ chips in a beige polystyrene container although the fish did have a strange reddy/orange glowing hue.

The salty, spicy batter and tangy taste along with potent sweet thick chilli really was great after a drink with a nice portion of chips. It wasn’t like anything I had before and the fish was fine but hard to identify. All was well until the morning when my breath, head and stomach began to disagree. When you have a Mr Cod masala fish meal there is no return to normality – you won’t forget it.

Claire says: Another entry on a distinctly Reading restaurant, but this time of a very different kind. The writing is very funny; I chuckled out loud more than once. I’m not quite sold that I should go and try the dish, but above all, this tale of the unforgettable nature of Mr Cod’s masala fish shows that food doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive to be utterly memorable. As someone who once had an almost spiritual encounter with a 50p bowl of Sichuan sesame noodles, I am in total agreement.

HONOURABLE MENTION: Mission Burrito, Victoria Keitel

“Do you really want the habanero salsa? It’s spicy.”

The lady assembling my food at Mission Burrito was hesitant. What she wasn’t aware of was that the salsa, as hot as it is for most British palates, doesn’t come close to the tear-inducing heat of the ones in San Francisco, home of the Mission neighbourhood that Mission Burrito emulates.

“Yes, please.”

A dab was applied.

“More, please.”

Wrapped in foil, the burrito was placed inside a plastic basket. A mandarina Jarritos and a side of tortilla crisps finished it off.

Mission Burrito operates as a quasi-embassy for this Californian. The décor is cheerful with photographs of established Mission taquerias alongside artwork inspired by the city’s public transport system: the Muni. The menu is presented in orange and black, the local Giants baseball team’s colours. These little touches, perhaps unnoticed by most, make the experience of eating homier.

As for the food, Mission Burrito produces some of the most authentic flavours of Californian Mexican food in the UK. The produce is fresh and includes necessities like tomatillos and a variety of chilies to get the correct profile. While being a chain, it reliably produces CalMex food at a reasonable price.

Claire says: Reading often gets sneered at for our many chain restaurants. This entry proves chains aren’t automatically a bad thing. Again, it shows good writing, with a great storytelling narrative which kept me hooked. Overall, I’m left cheered that even the humble production line process at Mission Burrito can trigger that soothing taste of home.

Congratulations to Aden, who wins a three course meal for four people at Pho (go on, wear your red leather jacket, I dare you) and thank you to everybody who took part in the competition. Fingers crossed it turns out to be the first of many. In the meantime, I’ll see you all back here on Friday for a brand new review. You might well be interested in this one: it’s definitely my favourite Reading food experience of the last few months.

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/