The Botanist

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“I’ve been having a think about a pseudonym for the Botanist review,” said the WhatsApp message. “What are your thoughts on Reggie?”

The Artist Currently Known As Reggie is a relatively new friend who’s been a reader of the blog for some time, and he specifically collared me asking to accompany me when I reviewed the Botanist, mainly because he thought that without his moderating presence it would get an utter shoeing.

“I know what you’re like, you’ll turn up thinking it’s crap and it will get a bad review” he told me over pints in the back room of the Retreat a few months back.

“That’s not true. I’ve always been clear that it’s impossible not to have preconceptions, all you can do is be up front about them and try your best to bear them in mind.”

“You said it was crap” he countered.

I took a sip of my pint of Bumble Bee and thought about it. Perhaps he was on to something. I’d gone there one late Saturday afternoon in November with my mum and my stepfather after a lovely day out in Guildford. Just for a drink – we didn’t order food – but I hadn’t been impressed. All the tables seemed to be reserved, our drinks took forever and cost lots, my Bloody Mary was nothing to write home about and a little wheelbarrow of food turned up at a neighbouring table. A wheelbarrow! There was fake greenery everywhere and what might have been buckets or watering cans hanging from the ceiling. It did rather make my teeth itch.

Worse still, I’d specifically gone on Twitter to moan about it. And it didn’t take long for people to pitch in with similar views. “Food on a spade? So contrived” said one. “It’s a Harvester with a hipster makeover” said another. “I hate it. It looks like Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen came all over it”, memorably, said a third. And in fact, my preconceptions preceded my visit: as long ago as September last year I was saying that I’d had lots of good meals out recently and that “I need to redress the balance by reviewing The Botanist.”

“Hmm. You might have a point.”

“Exactly, and that’s why I’m coming with you.”

He was already there when I arrived, and my first reflection was that everything wasn’t quite as it seemed. The interior was less over the top than I remember – yes, there was fake greenery and there were lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling encased in jam jars or some kind of weird upside-down baskets with handles. And there was someone strumming away on a guitar at the front (the sign outside said “Live Music Every Day”, which I suppose might be an incentive for some people). But despite that, I actually quite liked it. It’s a big space broken up into rooms with corridors and partitions – the bar area on the right, the tables for eating on the left. I even quite liked the zinc-effect topped tables and the sturdy chairs.

And Reggie? He looked the same as usual, but did he look like a Reggie? I thought about this as I took my seat. He didn’t look like Reggie Kray, or Reggie Yates, or Reggie Perrin. What did a Reggie look like anyway? Reggie is considerably younger than me, a proper metrosexual – slim, neatly-trimmed beard, hair properly coiffed, nice checked shirt. Looking at him, I felt like perhaps I should have made more of an effort.

“What are you drinking?”

“A pint of Amstel. Don’t look at me like that, I was rushed at the bar and I couldn’t decide. Christ, you’re not going to put that in the review are you? Don’t tell them I drink Amstel, they’ll think I’m a right chump.”

“You do know how this works, right? We order food and drink and I write down what we had and what we thought about it. I can’t pretend you’re having something else.”

(Later on Reggie lightly ticked me off for threatening to order a cocktail. Maybe he was trying to save my reputation in return.)

The menu managed to have loads of things on it which looked positively edible without ever once especially tempting me. The starters were a greatest hits of things you can order in pubs and restaurants all over the country: houmous, calamari, chicken wings, falafel and so on. There was a barbecue section, and a comfort food section, some pies and – and this is considered so important by the Botanist that it’s trademarked on their menu – “Our Famous Hanging Kebabs”. I found it surprisingly hard to make a decision. The best of menus read like a setlist, the craziest like a jukebox. This, on the other hand, was reminiscent of Heart FM.

“You’re not allowed to have the Scotch egg” said Reggie, “Because if you do all you’ll do is go on about how it’s not as good as the one at the Lyndhurst.”

I smiled. Was it true, or just funny?

“Are you on commission or something?”

Reggie shrugged. “No. I’ve been here a few times, I just happen to like it.”

It took quite some time to finally come off the fence and decide what to order – enough time to order a drink, wonder if it would ever turn up, wonder some more and then eventually take receipt of it. The Botanist has an extensive range of beers from around the world (in a natty menu like a little paperback book) but I have a soft spot for Alhambra and its distinctive green label-free bottle as it always takes me back to my holidays in Granada, so I had to order it. It was as blissful as I remember – Reggie didn’t think much of it, but he hasn’t been to Granada (not yet anyway: I may have spent some of the meal waxing lyrical).

“Oh my god, you’re going to write about how long they took to bring your drink, aren’t you?”

I decided that if I wasn’t before, I definitely was now. I also wondered whether the waitress thought Reggie and I were on the least likely Tinder date of all time.

Reggie and I both wanted the baked Camembert to start. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, as I’ve never been anywhere where it wasn’t done as a sharing starter, but in the Botanist it comes as a helping for one. Reggie very kindly let me have it (such good manners!), and I still wasn’t sure after eating it whether he’d done me a favour. Rather than being studded with garlic, or herbs, or served with chutney, this one came with a “smoked bacon and crispy onion crust” or, to give it a more accurate description, vaguely salty brown dust. It wasn’t bad – you can’t go far wrong serving someone a whole cheese in my experience, unless it’s by Dairylea – but I would have liked it hotter and more gooey and I’d have liked more toast. Also, the Camembert still had paper underneath it, which made eating it more challenging than I’d expected. Half the fun is attacking the last bits right in the corners of the box and piling them onto good bread, but not on this occasion.

“It’s not bad.” I said. Reggie looked a tad relieved.

I think Reggie may have ordered better with a reliable staple, the chicken liver paté. There’s only so much you can say about paté, but it was a good example: earthy and nicely smooth. It allegedly had rum in it – I couldn’t spot it myself, but I liked it all the same. It came in a ramekin topped with a thin layer of “green peppercorn butter”, which seemed to be clarified butter left to solidify and some peppercorns. Probably pointless, but it filled space in the menu description. I didn’t get much fig in the fig chutney, it seemed like a pretty generic fruit chutney but again, it was none the worse for it. I’m not bitter, but Reggie got more toast than I did.

We ordered another beer – a second Alhambra for me, a pint of Sam Adams for him – and the mains turned up in reasonably short order. Reggie had gone for the “famous hanging kebab”, a lamb kofte. I still can’t quite get my head round that description: most people wouldn’t knowingly eat something described as hanging, and the main things famous for hanging are the Gardens Of Babylon and possibly Ruth Ellis. I suspect it’s served this way, on a skewer suspended from some kind of contraption, looming like the kebab of Damocles over some chips, for effect. But it felt like a gimmick to me, even after our waitress poured peri peri sauce over it from the top and we watched it drizzle down. I will say this for it: it did smell pretty spectacular.

I took a few photos, discovering in the process that it was impossible to take a picture of the hanging kebab which didn’t look like a dick pic.

“Here, let me.” said Reggie. His picture was better.

Once he’d taken all the balls – sorry, this isn’t getting any better is it? – off the skewer and all the flim-flam faded, what you were left with was a serviceable, ordinary lamb kofte. The meat was oddly coarse and bouncy – not at the stage of being mechanically recovered but lacking the texture of great kofte at, say, Kings Grill or Bakery House. It was okay, but certainly not worth the epithet of famous (but then, how many famous people these days are worth that either?). The chips – described in the menu as “properly seasoned” – were okay, no better or worse. I wasn’t sure anybody should boast in their menu that dishes were properly seasoned: shouldn’t that be a given?

My dish was the flattened rump steak, marinated in chilli and garlic. You only had the choice of medium or well-done, so obviously I went for medium. I really liked the taste – the time spent marinating showed, and it left a bit of heat on my tongue. There was, in fact, only one problem: it was lukewarm even when it got to the table, and with such a wide surface area most of it was cold by the time I got to it. On another night, I might have sent it back – but that’s always the risk you run with steak. As Reggie pointed out, without a hint of I told you so, you have to trust a kitchen with steak otherwise you always run the risk that you’ll be eating your dish immediately after your companions have had theirs. It came with a tomato, which in fairness was quite tasty and properly cooked, and a truly delicious roasted flat mushroom, when I eventually located it.

“Isn’t there meant to be a mushroom with it?” said Reggie.

“There is,” I said, “It’s hidden under the watercress.” That tells you something about the size of the mushroom: Portobello it wasn’t.

We didn’t fancy dessert so we paid up, when we could eventually attract attention. Our meal for two came to sixty-one pounds, which includes a rather cheeky twelve point five per cent tip. As always, it’s optional but stuck on the bill in such a way that you’d feel like a right shit asking them to leave it out. The service was friendly but slow, and probably worth ten per cent but not worth twelve and a half. Unworthily, it made me especially pleased I hadn’t ordered any cocktails: perhaps I’m too old for this sort of thing.

Afterwards, we went for another couple of drinks and a debrief in the front section of the bar (where, I must say, the service was considerably better – if still slow). It’s an odd part of the Botanist because the tables are those pub tables with integrated benches you expect to see outside in a beer garden. Maybe it was their way of continuing the horticultural theme. Reggie and I compared notes, and I think he was pleasantly surprised that our provisional ratings weren’t as far apart as they could have been.

“It wasn’t that bad, was it? I wouldn’t come here any later in the week than a Wednesday, but it’s pretty decent for what it is. I’d come here for a date or a drink with mates, that sort of thing.”

“No. It’s okay – not amazing, but not terrible. But I wouldn’t object if I was dragged here again. I was just hoping it would be like Ha! Ha! used to be, back when it was down the Kings Road where House Of Flavours is now.”

Reggie nodded as if he knew what I was talking about, and I suddenly felt really old, because when Ha! Ha! closed on the Kings Road and moved to the Oracle – which was the beginning of the end for them – I’m pretty sure that Reggie was still in school. But never mind – I knew what I meant, and some of you with long memories might too. I still miss Ha! Ha!, and I still think Reading badly needs a nice bar where the music is just loud enough, the furniture is just comfy enough and the food is just good enough (in a similar mould, I still miss Sahara, long since morphed into the unlikeable Be At One). The Botanist isn’t that place, but despite that I’m sure it will do reasonably well. So a qualified success as a meal, and I don’t know if I’ll go back. Might ask Reggie to come out on duty again, though. Not sure we’ve heard the last of him.

The Botanist – 6.6
1-5 King St, RG1 2HB
0118 9595749

http://thebotanist.uk.com/locations/reading

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Honest Burgers Competition: the results!

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Did everyone have a good Christmas? I hope so, whether you spent it in or out, with your nearest and dearest, with your partner or on your own. If you were out I hope you were lovely to whoever looked after you, if you were in I hope people helped with the washing up and if you were at someone else’s house, well, I hope you helped with the washing up. I hope you’re replete from mince pies, or Christmas pudding, or mint Matchmakers (now we’re talking – can’t be doing with dried fruit myself) or a Terry’s Chocolate Orange, even if they’re far smaller than they used to be.

No restaurant review from me today – it’s difficult to imagine eating out in the foreseeable future, although I’m sure I’ll be back on duty early in the New Year – but fortunately one person who was busy over the festive period was John Luther. Not only was he soaking up the plaudits on Christmas Day, with South Street Arts Centre being named the best thing about Reading by Explore Reading, but on Boxing Day he very kindly sat down to judge the Edible Reading Honest Burgers competition.

I was bowled over by the quality and quantity of responses we got. From entries celebrating Reading F.C. to the Nag’s Head, complaining about the traffic on Cow Lane or celebrating our past and present the range of entries was really impressive. Maybe Two Rivers Press should consider a book of Reading haiku, because from ER readers alone I read entries celebrating the much missed doughnut stand on Broad Street, the 17 bus route and the whiff of ganja outside Reading Minster (which, uncannily, I sniffed earlier this week).

I’m so relieved I didn’t have to judge the competition, but fortunately for me John stepped up and did an absolutely sterling job. He even described the experience for me, appropriately in haiku form:

Judging these haiku
With all their well-seasoned words
Has been such a thrill

Anyway, without any further ado here are the ten winning entries, along with John’s comments.

WINNER 1: Madeleine Adams

Cheeselogs and Elvis
The Turtle and After Dark
Our town (not city)

John says: This one has a nice rhythm and I liked the use of “our” in the final line, bringing writer and reader together.

WINNER 2: Laura Balogh

Summer’s haze long gone,
Oxford Road bleak winter sun,
Nag’s warm lights invite.

John says: This one is unashamedly “Poetic” with a capital P, but has such a great final line. The line seems to exude the warmth it talks of.

WINNER 3: Greg Davies

Delightful Reading
A tall, stylish Elvis sings
about some biscuits

John says: It’s very difficult to be playful in so few words, but this charmingly pulled it off. It connected Reading’s past and present, whilst making me smile.

WINNER 4: Katherine Findlay

Town, not a city
Famous for beer, bulbs, biscuits
Better than you think

John says: This one just had a precision that I liked. Matter-of-fact and concise.

WINNER 5: Sam Houlden

The Nag’s fire burning
Young and old, welcome and warm
This place feels like home

John says: Although seemingly about the Nags Head (again!) it seemed to me that this is about Reading as a whole too, and what can be more important about a town than calling it home?

WINNER 6: James Menhenitt

Murty, Hunt, Harper
Kits, Little, Sidders and Doyle
One hundred and six

John says: For any RFC fan this will bring back great memories. The last line tells the story of a whole season in five syllables.

WINNER 7: James Parkin

Invasion of them,
Music, Mud, Mayhem and Beer,
Reading Rocks each year

John says: We can’t avoid the Reading Festival and this Haiku summed up the madness really well, with great use of alliteration and even a rhyme (the only entry that did).

WINNER 8: Donna Sibley

Are You Listening?
Jelly, giants, Nags, on Thames
Nomad, Lido, friends

John says: Ostensibly a list, but a great list! All very contemporary and unique to Reading (apart from the Thames!). Iconic community organisations, festivals, events and businesses that lead nicely into the final “friends”, including us all.

WINNER 9: Ian Sutherland

Reading on the Thames
computers are the future
3 Bs are the past

John says: This is another one that was amazingly economical with its words, summing up the past and present of Reading’s commerce very effectively.

WINNER 10: Janine Turner

The lion stands still
Surrounded by ruins, sun
Setting, drink in hand

John says: This feels really rich as three time zones play out within the three lines – the ruins (Medieval) surrounding the lion (Victorian) and then the writer (or reader?) surveying the scene (with a drink) in the here and now. Clever.

Congratulations to all the winners! I’ll be in touch with all ten of you about how to claim your prize. And commiserations to anybody who entered and didn’t win – the standard really was incredibly high.

All that remains is for me to wish you all a very Happy New Year. I’ll be back in 2018 with visits to all sorts of interesting places – stay tuned to find out where…

Richfields Deli

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Normally I end the year with my annual awards. It’s a great opportunity to round up the year in restaurants and tell you my favourite starter of the year, my favourite main course, the whole shebang. Not this time, though, because it hasn’t been that kind of year: I had nearly twelve months away in retirement and finally came back in the summer, two (count them!) house moves and many life changes later. So instead you get one last review from me but, because this time of year is always a reflective one, there’s a bit of navel gazing to get through first. Sorry about that: I’ll try to keep it brief.

This year has been full of wonderful discoveries. The ever-changing menu at the Lyndhurst, for one – a recent visit featured a terrific crab and leek gratin with a parmesan crust, just crying out to be forked from the ramekin onto toast oozing with butter. Pretty much anything at Namaste Kitchen, my restaurant of the year, from firm paneer in a light spiced batter to the best chow mein I think I’ve ever eaten (I went last weekend only to find they were too busy to fit me in – I’ve never been so pleased to be turned away from a restaurant in all my born days). Or, of course, the continuing brilliance of Georgian Feast, whether it’s their beautifully tender lamb and tarragon stew offset by sharp plums, their glorious spiced chicken thighs or the khachapuri, soda bread stuffed with a blend of three different cheeses, one of Reading’s food wonders (and just as good heated up in the oven the next day with a hefty helping of Branston pickle, take it from me).

But the year has also been full of other brilliant experiences, all of which have made me love this town and its community even more. Blue Collar turned Forbury Gardens into the best place in town on countless sunny summer weekends. The Reading Fringe transformed the town into a hotbed of high and low culture: I watched Born To Sum in the Rising Sun Arts Centre with my totally baffled friend Dave, and skulked on the sidelines of All We Ever Wanted Was Everything at Public, desperately hoping not to be forced to participate (“I loved it” said my mother afterwards in the bar, “all those angry young people in smoky rooms, it took me right back to the Sixties”).

And there was more. I spent a Bank Holiday Sunday in the Retreat at their impromptu cheese festival, the table in the back room groaning with cheeses from all over Europe, home made black pudding sausage rolls there too, and I wound up sitting on the bench outside passing round a bottle of Sauternes to friends and strangers alike. I sat in St James’ Church and took in the sweep and ambition of Matilda The Empress, a production which redefines the kind of thing Reading can offer. I finished the year at South Street watching Singalong-A-Muppet Christmas Carol, preceded by the chaotic spectacle of one half of Shit Theatre crossing the stage on the back of makeshift camel John Luther while Frankie’s “The Power Of Love” played in the background. It was one of those times when I wished I’d been on drugs: at least I’d have had an excuse.

Oh, and I sat in my garden in the morning sunshine, drank tea, ate toast and Marmite and read my library book. Such a small thing, maybe, but nonetheless a moment of peace which didn’t always seem on the cards this year. Another thing to be thankful for.

And, of course, I started reviewing again. That’s another area where I need to be thankful to lots of people – to everyone who came back after my hiatus and read, retweeted, commented or said such lovely things on social media. To Pho and Honest Burgers for working on reader competitions with me so I could finally give something back to you all, and for all of you who entered those competitions. Last but not least, I owe a big debt of thanks to everybody who came with me on duty and helped me to review a restaurant: from beer friend Tim to meat fiend Ben; from my wise and occasionally withering mum to girl about town Izzy; from old friend Mike to new friend Claire. I couldn’t have done it without them – and who knows who might get pressganged (or asked nicely) in 2018.

For my final review of the year, I wanted to find somewhere that sums up what I always look for in an establishment – somewhere small, independent and distinctive, somewhere that deserved more exposure and a wider audience. Somewhere good in the less fashionable parts of town, where the rents are lower and where it’s easier for interesting things to evolve and develop (it’s no coincidence that most of Reading’s best independent restaurants grow and prosper away from the town centre).

The place that jumped out of my list, which had been mentioned by a few people on Twitter, was Richfields Deli, a little joint on the Caversham Road just down from the Moderation. As I understand it, it used to just be a café doing sandwiches, but it expanded and reopened early in 2017 and when it did, so did the menu, offering “Breakfast, Brunch and Street Food”. Leaving my reservations to one side about serving street food in a building (let’s be charitable, as it’s Christmas) it looked interesting, so I turned up, shaking the rain from my brolly on a dreary Sunday afternoon. I had my friend Tim in tow – he used to live nearby, and said he had happy memories of the place.

My first impressions were good. It is a surprisingly spacious place, which has been opened out into a front and back room and it’s all very nicely done with wood floors, tasteful blue walls and some very fetching art hung up (I would quite happily have taken some of the more abstract examples home with me). A long bar connected the two rooms, with some attractive-looking cakes on the counter and a blackboard above with an extensive list of drinks, shakes and smoothies. Many of the tables were occupied by friends and families, enjoying brunch. I also noticed from another chalkboard that Richfields sold an impressive range of local beers, although it seemed a bit baffling to do so when the place closes late afternoon.

The menu was so big that it would probably take two or three visits to get a representative impression. I worried that it was too big – a good brunch section, grills, salads, sandwiches and a range of burritos. I was still unconvinced that it constituted street food but it was hard to dispute that the menu was definitely well-travelled: pancakes and maple syrup from the States; brisket and kimchee from Korea; tandoori chicken roti and a full English breakfast. On another day I might have ordered any of those things, but the Gaucho cheesesteak sandwich was calling to me. I love a Philly cheesesteak sandwich, but moreover the menu had just enough hints that the dish might be special – the steak was from Jennings, just across the bridge, and it had been marinated in chimichurri. Tim was also tempted by that dish, in which case I might have had the halloumi and Portobello mushroom burger with lime and chilli dressing, but ultimately he settled on a classic cheeseburger. “I can’t help it,” he said, “I really fancy a burger.”

But first, the drinks. Tim had a large coke, which gratifyingly came in the iconic glass bottle rather than from a can or a siphon. I had a large latte – I approached it with no great enthusiasm, and I’d probably have gone for a mocha if it had been on the menu, but I was very pleasantly surprised. It didn’t taste burnt and was nicely balanced: not one for purists, so not in the same league as places like Tamp or Workhouse, but a really pleasant coffee. Better than Costa, for starters, and streets ahead of the milky grimness I’d endured at Tipsy Bean a few weeks back.

While we waited for our sandwiches I enjoyed relaxing at my table, catching up with Tim who had all sorts of gossip, and checking out my surroundings. There was a twinkling white Christmas tree in the corner and the whole place had an atmosphere I really liked. Not scruffy, not trying too hard, not trying to mechanically extract hard currency from hipsters or students, just calm, pleasant and tasteful. It made me realise how rarely, in the box-checking world of food trends, you come across a place like that.

“The owners aren’t in today,” said Tim, “it’s even better when they are. They’re a lovely couple.”

I also checked out the food at the other tables, because that’s something I struggle not to do, and I found I had more food envy. The breakfasts looked marvellous – big thick rounds of black pudding, nicely cooked sausages, caramelised on the outside, and fried potatoes which looked like they’d been cooked from scratch rather than tipped out of a bag in the freezer.

“The breakfasts are really good.” said Tim.

“Better than Alto Lounge?” I asked. One thing I know about Tim is that back when he lived round here he did love an Alto Lounge breakfast.

“Yes, even better than that. Although Alto Lounge does this fantastic sausagemeat patty, I can’t get enough of those.”

Just as I thought my hunger would completely get the better of me, our food arrived. My sandwich was a thing of real beauty: a generous, nicely baked baguette absolutely crammed with steak, cheese and peppers. The picture might not do it justice, and makes the steak look a tad grey, but it really wasn’t. You got lots of it, and it was tender and delicious. If I was being critical, I’d have liked it to have more chimichurri to lift it, but even so it was really difficult to take exception to it in any way. I ordered extra onion rings and they were little compact things (like you used to get from the supermarket) rather than big greasy battered hoops of onion with the batter falling off. If anything, that made me love them even more.

“These taste like those onion ring snacks you get in the shops” said Tim, spot on as usual. Again, this was really no bad thing.

Tim had gone for the burger with jack cheese (rather than blue cheese) and it looked pretty good from where I was sitting. There was the regulation standard issue brioche bun, burger sauce spread on one half, and the patty seemed decent. There was also gherkin – always a favourite of mine – and Tim had ordered onion rings, although it was a little disappointing that they were served on the side, rather than on top as the bacon or cheese would have been. I think Tim had food envy at my sandwich, but even so he seemed happy enough with the burger. I didn’t get to try any, but it looked good and although not served pink it seemed perfectly cooked in the middle, not dried out or grey.

“Is it as good as, say, the Oakford?” I asked him.

“Oh, it’s better than the Oakford.” he said between mouthfuls. “I just wish it was a bit bigger.”

It was an interesting point. The burger was nine pounds and came with fries, which made it reasonably competitive but possibly on the slightly pricey side given the size of it (that said, there’s a lot to be said for a burger you can actually eat with your hands). My sandwich, which I really enjoyed, was ten pounds and however much I liked it I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t also say that it was a bloody expensive sandwich.

Service was kind and friendly – ever so slightly amateurish, but in a way I found impossible to dislike. It took a while to figure out that you have to order at the counter, so we sat there like lemons for a bit with staff wandering past our table before figuring that out (they were very apologetic when this became apparent). They totally forgot to cook our fries, and the waiter said “sorry, I’ll just put them under”, wandered off and came back with them piping hot about five minutes later. They felt shop-bought – nice enough, but having seen the fried potatoes I’d hoped for better. But when a place builds up goodwill you can get away with slips like that, and I found I really didn’t care about the mistakes. I was comfy and cosy, the rain was battering away on the pavement outside, Christmas was around the corner, I was having lunch with a very good friend and I was eating a truly splendid – if costly – sandwich. Lunch came to just under twenty eight pounds for the two of us, not including tip. It cannot be denied that it was a pricey lunch, and that’s probably one of the only reasons the number at the bottom of this review isn’t higher.

So, Richfields is almost the perfect example of the kind of place I’m looking for when I review restaurants and cafes. It’s independent, it’s small, it deserves more recognition and it’s in an unsung part of town (even more unsung now Papa Gee has upped sticks and moved to Prospect Street). But then Papa Gee kept going for ten years just down the road, so maybe there’s enough local custom to keep Richfields in business. I did find myself worrying about it slightly – the Mod next door does proper sit down lunches, the Gorge is competition for breakfasts and, on Sundays at least, Georgian Feast does a chicken wrap which is probably better and cheaper than anything you can get at Richfields. I have a sneaking feeling there will be fewer independent restaurants in town this time next year, so more than ever we need to spend our money to preserve the kind of town we want to live in. I’ll make an effort to go back there for brunch next year, for exactly that reason. I hope Richfields has a happy and prosperous 2018 – and actually, that goes for all of you too.

Richfields Deli – 7.1
211 Caversham Road, RG1 8BB
0118 9391144

http://richfieldsdeli.com/

Competition: Honest Burgers

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Regular readers might remember that back in August I ran my first ever readers’ competition in association with new kid on the block Pho. They contacted me in the run up to opening their Reading restaurant, initially asking if I wanted to go in and review them based on a comped meal. I said no, and instead we ran a competition together judged by Claire, the editor of Explore Reading. It all went swimmingly, and ER reader Aden had by all accounts a very nice meal there with three guests of his choosing. I’ve still not been on duty (I plan to turn up when they least expect it) but the nice thing about Reading is that there’s more access to reviews than ever before, so you can see perspectives on Pho here, here and here: a mixture of comped reviews and those where the writer paid her way, so you can decide which is more to your taste.

Anyway, Honest Burgers contacted me recently with a similar offer, and again I said that I couldn’t take them up on a comped meal. What became clear though, from my correspondence with them, was that they have a commitment to Reading’s independent scene unlike most chains I know of: their Reading branch, only the second outside London, will serve a special burger incorporating Barkham Blue from just down the road and roasted red pepper chutney from Reading’s very own Nomad Bakery. There will also be a special pale ale from nearby Wild Weather Ales which can only be found in the Reading branch and selected local pubs (I get the impression they rather enjoyed the process of researching it, and became quite a fan of the Nag’s Head into the bargain: this lovely piece by Wild Weather gives you some idea). Not only that, but Honest have also shown an interest in Reading’s independent websites, giving this great interview to Explore Reading in the run-up to them opening on Monday 18th December.

Anyway, more importantly they’ve also decided to team up with me to give ten readers the chance to win a pair of the Reading special burgers and a can of the Reading exclusive King St Pale from Wild Weather. Not a bad Christmas present, eh? Now, I like to make people get creative and work a little for competition prizes rather than just do a prize draw, so here’s what you need to do to win:

I want you to send me a haiku about Reading – to ediblereading@gmail.com – by 11.30am on Friday 22nd December.

Haiku are dead simple: they just have to have five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line and five syllables in the third and final line. They don’t have to rhyme or anything, and they just need to capture a moment or something about Reading, whether it’s the grand majesty of the Maiwand Lion, the frustration of being stuck in the traffic on the IDR for the four thousandth time, the buzz and bustle of the Oxford Road or the joy of spotting Reading Elvis in town waving his LP. I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with, and with ten prizes up for grabs your odds have to be pretty good, right? And really, don’t be shy. It’s just a bit of festive fun: nobody is expecting you to channel Basho or capture a sense of perfect Zen stillness in Caversham, I promise.

As usual an excellent competition prize requires an excellent judge and I’m delighted to say that John Luther of South Street has agreed to step in and judge this one. As the man responsible for programming at South Street, bringing the best and most innovative theatre, live music and comedy to Reading, John’s artistic credentials are second to none and I can’t think of anyone better to pick the prizewinning haiku (and, if you win and can’t decide who to take with you, I hear he’s really keen on trying the new burger: just saying).

Only one entry per person, but otherwise the usual terms and conditions apply: the judge’s decision is final, no correspondence will be entered into, the price of your burger can go up as well as down and if you enter after the deadline your entry won’t count but you may still be charged. Other restaurant bloggers are available. Thanks again to Honest for working with me on this. I really hope you give this a go in the run up to Christmas – how long can it take to write seventeen syllables? – and wish you the best of luck.

The Queen’s Head

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This review is going to break a couple of golden rules. Let me explain, killing quite a lot of the magic in the process.

First of all, when you’re writing a review it always helps to have an angle, an “in”. So you look at the niche a restaurant fills, or find your reason to go there. Where’s the so what factor, you ask. They spent loads of money on doing up The Three Guineas, but is it any good? Is Franco Manca the kind of chain we want round these parts? Does Reading finally have a quality wine bar in the form of Veeno? What’s so special about Caversham? I could go on, but I won’t – certainly not about that latter one anyway (who knew that Caversham had its own equivalent of cybernats? Not me, that’s for sure). You get the idea.

No such joy with the Queen’s Head, the subject of this week’s review. It’s been there for yonks. It’s a pub that does food. It’s been the twin of the Moderation (which I reviewed pretty much four years ago) for a long time. No angle to speak of. I did briefly consider working in a tired link to the newly announced royal wedding; after all, there are pictures of Liz and Phil around the place, on some of the flyers and, most incongruously, on the doors to the loos. But it felt tenuous at best – almost as tenuous as GetReading proudly announcing “Prince Harry and Meghan Markle to marry in Berkshire.” (well, yes – in Windsor, nowhere near that lot). Still, I suppose it makes a pleasant change from promoting Aldi’s new festive jeroboam of Lambrini for under a tenner or whatever quasi-advertorial guff is clogging up the Sidebar of Silage this week.

As it happens, I used to drink at the Queen’s Head long before its current incarnation, back at the very start of the millennium. I lived in a shared house on Stanhope Road (the nice end, not the end with a police helicopter permanently stationed above it) with my then partner and my housemate Richard. Richard frequently had very loud intercourse in the room next door, or played FIFA on his Playstation (the grunts, in both scenarios, were disturbingly difficult to tell apart). To escape – from all of it, truth be told – I would slope off to the Queen’s Head with a schoolfriend, drink cider and try to fool myself that I was still a carefree student, despite those days being far behind me.

Back then it was generally called The Nob and there was a big back bar full of students and a smaller front bar full of old duffers. Despite being somewhere between the two I tended to gravitate to the former, which is especially ironic given how much my taste in pubs has changed. Going back years later on a weekday night the place was unrecognisable – the two rooms had been knocked together, opening the place out. A big welcoming bar spanned the two. I preferred the room to the right, all exposed brickwork, but it was full so I sat in the smaller, white-walled room to the left, which used to be the front bar. I was where I belonged with the old duffers at last, albeit fifteen years too late.

Incidentally, this is where I point out that I’ve broken the second of the golden rules I mentioned at the start. I always used to get exasperated by Proper Restaurant Critics like AA Gill and Giles Coren who spent the first half of a review wanging on about things that had nothing to do with the food. You could pinpoint where in a Gill review the food first came up, usually around the third to last paragraph if you were lucky. Coren routinely humblebrags about going off to lunch with David Baddiel or the editor of Esquire, or rants about something for half of his word count before getting to the point. But now I think maybe I understand: maybe when you review somewhere every week you do eventually reach the stage where you think to yourself: Oh Christ, what am I going to say about this one?, and then you’re in some kind of meta Twilight Zone of restaurant reviews.

Anyway, that’s enough of that, back to the room. I seem to recall it looked more Thai shortly after it opened, with big carved wooden bar stools and various pieces available to buy. It’s definitely scaled back now, and the tables are predominantly big anonymous looking square wooden things. There’s still some Thai art on the walls, but otherwise you could pretty much imagine that you’re in a pub. And it felt more like a pub that did food than a restaurant disguised as a pub. I liked that. I was there with my friend Izzy, fresh from her holiday in New York. No angle there, either: we partly picked the Queen’s Head because it was easy for both of us to get to. Even as I looked through the menu, sipped a crisp pint of Pravha and waited for her to arrive, I sensed that this week’s review might prove a challenge.

The menu is a mixture of South East Asian and traditional pub food, and is almost identical to that of the Moderation (I had a look online later: the Mod’s menu is slightly bigger, but only slightly). This might be the rising price of food, or the looming Brexit, but everything was a little more expensive than when I’d been to the Mod last: nasi goreng, for instance, which used to be a banker of a main course for less than a tenner was now eleven pounds fifty. It being a Tuesday, the Queen’s Head also did a selection of curries each for six pounds which struck me as a bargain, but in the interests of ordering dishes you could definitely try when you visit we decided to forego the obvious bargains and stick to the normal menu.

I have a bad habit of ordering some kind of assortment of starters at this kind of place so to buck the trend I ordered the Indonesian chicken satay, having been informed on Twitter that it was the best of its kind in Reading. It looked good and from the moment the first meat came off the skewer I knew it would be close to that billing. The chicken was so tender that I couldn’t figure out whether it was thigh or well-marinaded breast, and four skewers didn’t feel ungenerous. It had a heat which made its presence felt by the end, but only at the end: nicely done. But I did find myself wondering where the satay was. It was served under the chicken rather than on the side, but I was surprised by how little of it was. There were also dark squiggles of something salty, savoury, almost chocolatey.

“It’s nice,” said Izzy after tackling the skewer I’d popped on her plate, “But I wouldn’t say it’s the best satay I’ve had in Reading.”

I thought briefly about the sadly-departed Tampopo and ate my acar awak (Indonesian pickles, apparently). They tasted mostly of nothing.

I lucked out compared to Izzy who chose the prawn tempura. On the menu this sounded fantastic, with mee grob (crispy noodles, according to Google), fried garlic and sweet chilli sauce. Now, this may be a bit pedantic but batter and breadcrumbs are not the same thing and what arrived were straight prawns served in panko breadcrumbs, not a light and crispy batter. They were served on something that might have been mee grob but which was for decoration, not consumption. I didn’t spot, or smell, any fried garlic and the sweet chilli sauce could easily have come from a bottle. Christmas might have been on the way, but this felt distinctly like supermarket party food. Izzy liked it, I struggled with the way it had been missold: I can’t believe it’s not batter, you could say.

The mains came soon after, as Izzy was halfway through making me feel pangs about New York, a city I’ve never visited (I made a few remarks about wanting to feel like I was in a Woody Allen movie, which got the kind of eye rolling they deserved). Izzy had wanted to order the beef and ale pie, and I’d very much wanted to see what it was like, but it wasn’t on the menu the night we went. Instead she’d gone for chicken with wild mushroom cream sauce although, no doubt in a tribute to Meg Ryan in Katz’s Delicatessen, she’d asked for it with mash instead of crushed new potatoes (and, before you ask, no – she didn’t do that impression).

It was a partial success. The chicken was nice, seemingly beaten flat, although I wanted it to be bigger and with a crispy skin. It was dwarfed by the big pile of perfectly acceptable mash under it, and I think it probably would have worked better with crushed potatoes, although that was Izzy’s responsibility rather than the kitchen’s. The sauce was nice, and the mushrooms may even had been wild, although I didn’t get to try enough of them to figure that out. There was some wilted spinach underneath it, although it really could have done with more veg to put paid to the rest of the sauce. The really bizarre thing about the presentation was the square of balsamic vinegar (and a visible green trace of olive oil) drawn around the whole thing. It didn’t make it look good, and it just made the bits at the edges taste weird. All in all, although it was far from unpleasant, my main reaction to it was to be glad that I’d ordered something else.

I’d ordered the nasi goreng because the Moderation’s version has always been one of the great Reading dishes and I wanted to see if it was as good as I remembered. Well, more fool me: this is 2017, and nothing is as good as we remember any more. But it was still rather nice – a huge pile of spiced rice strewn with firm prawns, strands of chicken and green beans, topped with a nicely cooked fried egg. Some ultimately superfluous prawn crackers, more of those pickles and a naked chicken skewer – without any satay, contrary to the menu – rounded out the dish. I liked it but didn’t love it and weirdest of all, it felt too big (something you’ll rarely hear me say about a main course). By the end of wading through it, it was going cold and not quite as appealing. I think I wanted a little less of it, costing a little less and tasting of a little more, possibly without some of the whistles and bells.

We didn’t have dessert, partly because the selection was narrow and not that tempting – chocolate brownie, Eton mess, sticky toffee pudding. But also, they missed their window in the half an hour or so between us finishing our main courses, them taking the plates away, bringing the dessert menus and remembering to ask us if we wanted anything. Service was a bit like that in general: pleasant but wayward. I wasn’t sure whether you ordered at the table or at the bar, and based on the way we were looked after I’m not sure I was the only one. Still, I had a lovely evening, even if it made me want to go to NYC far more than it did to revisit the Queen’s Head. Dinner for two – two courses each, two pints of Pravha, a diet Coke and a Hendricks and tonic – came to fifty-three pounds, not including service.

The problem with not having an “in” in a review is that, correspondingly, you also struggle with an “out”. The Queen’s Head is a nice pub in a lovely area and it does perfectly pleasant food. It didn’t rock my world or blow my mind, and I’m not sure it’s worth a trek across town (it’s certainly not if you live close to the Moderation). If I lived nearby it would be a welcome added bonus, and I’d probably enjoy a summer beer in the garden, or their quiz night. But in the list of great things about that part of Reading, eating at the Queen’s Head would finish below “living close to Progress Theatre”, “being able to walk around the lake on campus on a sunny day” and, of course, “living on New Road” (I wish!). Not a bad nasi goreng, but not that great a review. In more ways than one.

The Queen’s Head – 6.7
54 Christchurch Road, RG2 7AZ
0118 9863040

http://www.readingpubcompany.com/home.html

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/

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/