Honest Burgers

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This week, Explore Reading and I are publishing simultaneous reviews of Honest Burgers. You can read Explore’s verdict here.

I’m no expert on Where Reading Is Going. I read our “Vision For 2050″ (which seemed to have precious little to do with Reading) and was none the wiser. I don’t understand what “Reading UK CIC”, “Living Reading” and the “Business Improvement District” actually are, or what they’ve achieved, and what with having an actual job I never get to attend cultural talks at 6pm on campus or the First Friday Club in Brown’s listening to the movers and shakers.

I’ve never been to the Reading Cultural Awards or the Pride Of Reading Awards (Danyl Johnson’s one guaranteed gig every year). I wasn’t on the bus to Tate Modern recently to join a discussion about the arts in Reading, almost exclusively peopled by Reading folk, in London. I have no idea why we keep appointing people from out of town to run our cultural events instead of our excellent home grown talent. Answers on a postcard for all of the above, please, to the usual address.

It does strike me though, in my ill-informed way, that Reading’s at a bit of a crossroads. What kind of town do we want to be? We could try to emulate somewhere like Bristol, with its blossoming cultural scene, superb market, brilliant food scene and countless independent shops. I love Bristol partly because it doesn’t try to be a lesser clone of anywhere. It ploughs its own furrow and – this is something Reading could really learn from – is fiercely proud of its culture, its history, its traditions, even the accent.

Alternatively, we could simply become Zone 8 – added to the Tube network through Crossrail, with all the London chains expanding here and all the trends eventually arriving here too, a few years after they’ve stopped being hot. With the snazzy new Westgate Centre up the road in Oxford, we finally have some local competition. We may have a Franco Manca, but they have a Pizza Pilgrims. Oh, and Oxford has a Leon and a Thali Kitchen, neither of which currently operate here. The big brains of Reading must worry about how to guarantee their supremacy (it all reminds me of the legendary Reading On Thames take on Downfall).

Where does Honest Burgers fit into that narrative? Not another chain, said some people when they announced they were coming to Reading. Not another burger restaurant, said others. But Honest is a more interesting beast than that. For a start, if it is a chain it’s a very small one – predominantly in London apart from a branch here and in Cambridge. The expansion seems slow, careful and considered rather than the result of a huge injection of capital and a relentless business plan (the way that all chains tarnish).

Their story’s an idiosyncratic one, starting in Brixton Market, getting a huge publicity boost from shrinking violet Jay Rayner, and sticking to some resolutely uncommercial decisions from day one, most particularly to make their chips on the premises every day. The other interesting thing about Honest is their commitment to localism – working with producers to offer a special burger at each of their outposts, exclusive to that branch. That extends to Reading, where they’ve worked with Two Hoots Cheese and Nomad to supply Barkham Blue and red pepper chutney for a Reading burger. They also approached Wild Weather Ales, who brewed a special King St Pale for Honest: it’s served at the restaurant and a few other Reading pubs.

In the interests of full disclosure, I had a few dealings with Honest in the run-up to their opening. I recommended local suppliers to them (including Two Hoots and Nomad), told them about our great pub and café culture and pointed them in the direction of other websites like Explore Reading which covered their launch so well. But the only freebies I accepted from them in return were prizes in the competition I ran in December, because I wanted to reserve the right to visit them on a weekday night, my trusty sidekick Tim in attendance, and decide for myself what Honest added to Reading’s culinary scene. Further evidence of Zone 8, or a different kettle of fish altogether?

Honest’s respect for the town extends to the building they’re in. They spoke in interviews about falling in love with the space – half Brutalist, half Victorian – and they’ve done a terrific job of turning it into a restaurant. It’s a building I walked past countless times without noticing it but now it’s hard to imagine it was ever anything else, let alone the branch of Barclays I opened my first account in over twenty-five years ago.

The main dining room is broken up beautifully into sections – booths around the edge for two and four people, all perched at windows looking out on to the street, long tables for solo and communal dining in the middle and more conventional seating (and banquettes) further up. The bar area – up a steep set of stairs at the Market Place end – looked a lovely place to spend time, although it was empty when I visited. The quality of the work is really impressive – striking light fittings rather than tired exposed bulbs, a gorgeous herringbone parquet floor running the length of the room and attractive hexagonal tiles marking out the perimeter where the booths are.

By the time I arrived Tim was already seated at the set of tables nearest to the pass and, above the racing green tiles, I could see burgers ready to be taken to customers. There were only a few chefs on duty, all rush and fuss, but even watching them you got an idea of just how well-oiled a machine Honest’s kitchen is. It helps that the menu is on the border between simple and simplistic – a chicken burger, a vegetarian burger and half a dozen beef burgers, all served with rosemary salted chips. Add a handful of sides, a selection of sauces and that’s your lot.

“Lovely in here, isn’t it?” said Tim who’d been to Honest a few times already and was enthusiastic about accompanying me on this trip. “I like to say it’s hip without being hipster. You can use that in your review.”

I figured I better had: it was about the third time he’d said it in the past few weeks. I also tried a sip of his beer, the King Street Pale.

“Isn’t it great? It’s like alcoholic Lilt.”

“Well, I guess. But it still tastes like beer.” I said, waving someone down and getting a pint of lager: Fullers Frontier, which was perfectly pleasant and just about under a fiver. Tim did the face that meant You’ll never understand beer, and I in return did the face that means I know, and I’m fine with that (we’ve perfected those over many pub and restaurant trips over the years).

Tim initially wanted me to order the Reading burger. I can kind of see why – it had local roots, it sounded very nice and, I suppose, I had a small hand in it. I decided against it for a few reasons. It felt too obvious, for starters. Also, I knew all the other reviewers would try it, and I like being different. But most significantly, all of Honest’s blurb was about the beef, so I wanted to try the burger in a more traditional setting, to taste the ingredients singing with as few backing vocalists as possible. So I went for the Honest, which is their equivalent of a bacon cheeseburger.

Tim, who had already tried a couple of things on the menu, decided to order the special, the “Disco Bistro”. By the time this review goes up, you’ll have about three days to try it before it’s replaced by something else, but I figured it was a good shout because, again, it says good things about Honest that they’re always experimenting (besides, there’s no arguing with Tim once he gets an idea in his head).

This really is fast food; our burgers arrived less than fifteen minutes after we ordered. My first bugbear was that it came on an enamel tray with a knife but no fork, although we requested them and got them very quickly. Without a fork I’d have needed far more napkins than the handful at the table. And although there was a knife I’m not sure it was really needed as my burger was just the right size – and depth – to pick up and eat with your hands, which feels like a rarity nowadays.

The patty was really rather good. Beautifully seasoned, with just a little salt coming through in each bite, perfectly pink on the inside but properly cooked and with plenty of char on the outside. Honest makes much of the fact that their beef is chopped rather than minced and it shows in the texture – coarse without being mealy or crumbly. The decision to use good mature cheddar was also a welcome one: I know bright yellow American cheese is authentic, but it’s always left me cold. The brioche was firm enough to hold together and made eating the burger really easy.

So far so good, but for me the Honest didn’t quite work. I’d have loved onion in it, but instead it (and the basic burger) come with caramelised red onion chutney. The sweetness was cloying and felt like a bum note. Similarly the pickled cucumber could have been brilliant if it had lent a sharp, vinegary tang but instead was sweet and inoffensive. I found myself wishing their classic burger was just a little more classic.

Tim on the other hand had gone for a full whistles-and-bells, kitchen sink burger. The “Disco Bistro” had pineapple and bacon jam, burger sauce, cheddar and pink onions. It sounded like it would either be triumph or disaster: Tim loved it.

“This might be the best burger I’ve had here.”

“It’s not too sloppy with the pineapple jam?”

“No, not at all, and the brioche holds it together beautifully. Those pink onions are amazing, and you get just enough bacon in the jam.”

I also really enjoyed the chips. A lot of reviews I’d read said they were too salty, and I’d had reports to that effect, but on the night I visited they were about right. I’d have liked more rosemary coming through, but you couldn’t argue with the texture or the quality of them and they were especially good dipped in the bacon gravy. Yes, we ordered bacon gravy: a recommendation of Tim’s from a previous visit.

“It’s a lot nicer than last time I came” he said. “It’s thicker and better for dipping.”

Bacon gravy is such a beautiful concept that its existence is almost more important than minor details like what it tastes like. I liked it but I wasn’t completely bowled over – it was still a little thin, if salty and meaty (and I wasn’t sure how much of it was bacon – the menu says it’s bacon gravy, the blackboard says it’s “beef and bacon gravy” and it felt more beef than bacon to me). The other issue with it is that it comes in a shallow enamel dish which means it goes cold fast, something you could probably say about most of the meal. In fairness, Tim and I had a good go at making sure none of it had the chance.

The onion rings were more successful – huge hoops of onion and batter, perfect on their own, let alone dipped in the gravy. A note of something in the batter – possibly fennel seed or cumin – added a little complexity and, impressively, they didn’t feel heavy or greasy in the slightest. We shared a portion of these, and by the end I’d say we were nicely full without being unpleasantly stuffed. If I’d had room I might have gone for a salted caramel milkshake, but I figured there would be other times. Dinner for the two of us came to almost bang on forty pounds, not including tip.

I haven’t mentioned the service, but it was unobtrusively good. The restaurant was very full on a weekday night – buzzy but not deafening – yet the staff never seemed fazed at all and did a good job of looking after a large amount of tables without letting anything slip. Honest have clearly put work into this, and I appreciated the fact that the staff were friendly without being cheesy or overfamiliar, or upselling, or any of those other bugbears that so plague casual dining. Hip without being hipster indeed: perhaps Tim was right.

I’ve never been the biggest fan of burgers or the burger trend (it’s just a sandwich, as I like to say), and I went to Honest curious to see whether they could do enough to overcome that. I’m delighted to say that they did. Honest is a very particular type of restaurant – it’s not one to linger in, and their emphasis probably is on getting you in, feeding you from a relatively limited menu and getting you out again. But to their credit they do that without making you feel like a commodity or making the food into an afterthought: I admire that about them.

Normally in this situation I would say “it’s not for everybody” but actually, Honest has pretty wide appeal. I could see myself eating there pre-theatre, grabbing a quick meal on my way home from work, meeting up with a friend pre-pub or having a big lunch, and that’s before we get on to the very tempting-looking weekend brunch options. I do wonder what it will be like come summer, and how exactly the top bar will end up being used on evenings and weekends, but it definitely adds something to Reading. I’d say it’s far and away the best burger in Reading – miles better than 7Bone, and if I was Handmade Burger Company right now I’d be very nervous indeed – but moreover Honest is somewhere you might actually visit in its own right.

I don’t know what the future holds for Reading – whether we’ll ever strike out and celebrate our identity the way Bristol or Brighton do or whether, under the business-centric influence of our nebulous quangos we’ll just become a creeping extension of London. But I hope Honest heralds the shape of things to come, and if we do get new restaurants they’ll pick up a little of what makes Reading so special. After all, the guys from Honest came here and fell in love with the Nag’s Head – and those are exactly the kind of restaurateurs we want, if you ask me.

Honest Burgers – 7.3
1-5 King Street, RG1 2HB
0118 3593216

https://www.honestburgers.co.uk/locations/reading/#

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Gooi Nara

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I first went to Gooi Nara in late 2016; I was on what I suppose you could loosely have classed as a date, with somebody I suppose you could loosely have classed as a vegan. I sat there trying to sound enthusiastic about tofu (not a skill I’ve ever mastered, truth be told) and then I ate my disappointing bibimbap while all around me, the other diners were wolfing down Korean barbecue, grilling a plethora of delectable looking meats on the hot plate in the middle of their tables. They all seemed to be really enjoying themselves, and as the weeks passed I came to think of that evening more as a metaphor than as an actual meal.

Naturally I wanted to take a more suitable dining companion when I went back on duty and, on reflection, there was only one suitable candidate – my friend Claire. Not only had she actually been to Korea but, in her review of Korean restaurant Soju for her website Explore Reading, she’d been responsible for teaching me pretty much everything I knew about Korean barbecue (admittedly not much).

Much has happened since Claire last accompanied me on a restaurant review, most significantly that Explore Reading had begun publishing restaurant reviews. A lot of people have asked me if I mind that, and of course I always say I don’t mind in the slightest, Reading benefits from a variety of restaurant reviews and that it’s not right for one site to have a monopoly. That said, it’s a running joke between Claire and I that she’s going to take me down; first she took on Alt Reading, which finally announced that it was quitting – for the time being, anyway – this week, and now she’s coming after me.

I’m mainly joking, of course. Mainly. In the run-up to our trip to Gooi Nara I make some gags about how it will be like the infamous dinner at Granita where Tony Blair and Gordon Brown agreed when the former would stand down in favour of the latter. After doing the joke I realise I’m not entirely comfortable being cast as everybody’s favourite grinning war criminal.

“I’ve always had a soft spot for Gordon Brown,” says Claire, “but then I like an underdog.” It made sense, on reflection: we each spend a lot of time championing Reading, so perhaps we both do. In any case, I strolled up the hill to the restaurant on a quiet Monday night with no plans to announce my retirement.

I’m always struck by how often I start a description of a restaurant by saying “it’s a long thin room”, like it’s the equivalent of “it was a dark and stormy night”. Well, brace yourself, but Gooi Nara is indeed a long thin room, but a surprisingly attractive one. One side was covered in slate-effect tiles, with a couple of wood stores in the wall that would no doubt come in completely useless in fuelling the fake fire showing on the wall-mounted widescreen television. The other side was a vibrant burnt orange, with oblong shelving units populated, in a slightly OCD manner, with little objets. There were dark wooden beams spanning the ceiling, such a pleasant change from the ten-a-penny industrial pipes and bare bulbs which always give a place a slightly unfinished look. I really liked the place.

“It’s funny, I wouldn’t necessarily say this is authentic Korean, but it has that feel about it” said Claire. “It’s sort of homely, but in a good way – even down to the windows.”

The first surprise came when I looked at the menu. Gooi Nara has a sister restaurant in Guildford called Sushi Nara, and as a result I was thrown to see that aside from a Korean menu there was also a whole menu of Japanese dishes – sushi, sashimi and the like. It was tempting to order some, because Reading still needs an excellent Japanese restaurant and Taberu, on the Oxford Road, is still doing delivery only at the time of writing. On reflection, though, I decided to remain steadfast: I had turned up to eat Korean barbecue, and eat Korean barbecue I bloody well would.

Not that you have to do that, of course: the Korean menu alone was massive. There were plenty of starters, although some, like takoyaki (octopus balls) and pumpkin korroke felt like they were on the run from the Japanese section of the menu. There were soup dishes and rice dishes, noodle dishes and hot pots and – as I remembered from my previous trip – plenty of tofu and bibimbap. But the trick with barbecue, Claire told me, was to order your meats of choice, cook them on the hot plate in front of you and dip them in vinegar and sesame oil before placing them on a lettuce leaf, adding kimchee and beansprouts and then wrapping the whole thing up and popping it in your mouth. I’m not the biggest fan of finger food, but put that way it’s hard to imagine a more enjoyable way to eat.

Before that though, we tried one of the starters I had my eye on – the seafood pancake. It turned up cut into squares, on a paper doily on a wicker serving dish, a bit too fiddly and faffy (“We Want Plates need to be told about this” said Claire, waspishly). It was a little fiddly too to pick up with chopsticks and dab into the dish of dipping sauce which, as so often, was too small to be useful. That all said, it really was lovely stuff. Claire told me these were made with wheat flour, but if anything the texture was so starchy that it reminded me of a potato cake – more like a latke than a pancake. Despite that, it wasn’t heavy at all, and the spring onion throughout gave it texture and freshness. I got squid in the pancake, and I may have missed the shrimp – we all make mistakes – but the menu also advertised octopus and I’m pretty sure I’d have noticed that. Still, the pancake was seven pounds fifty, so if it seemed too good to be true, perhaps that’s because it was.

The support act out of the way, it was time for the feature attraction. The waiter came and switched on the hot plate at our table, the meat arrived and, not for the first time, I wondered how anybody ever managed to convince themselves that they enjoyed eating tofu. We’d decided to try all three of the main food groups – pig, cow and chicken, don’t you know – and the first to go on the barbecue was the spicy sam gyup sal, long thin slices of pork belly, deep-red with marinade, a veritable bar code of meat and fat. On the hot plate, the smell was terrific and the transformation beautiful, and Claire and I took it in turns to poke and turn with the tongs until it was impossible to hold back any more (I spent most of that time banging on about the Maillard reaction, and Claire spent most of it nodding and humouring me).

It tasted even better than it looked or smelled, and I loved the ritual of coating it in vinegar and sesame before tenderly resting it in the centre of a lettuce leaf, topping it with brick red kimchee and devouring the whole lot. The kimchee added sourness and crunch without being quite as fiery as some kimchee can be. The spice on the pork, again, built to a crescendo rather than went off like an explosion, and the whole thing was the kind of dish that you can’t help but grin while eating.

It would be a lazy piece of observational comedy to say that you’re basically paying money to cook your own food, but that would be to underrate the service; every time a hot plate got too crusted with meat and residue to use, the waiter would come along, deftly hook it out with a nifty device and pop in a new one. He also gave us advice on what to grill in which order, and regularly kept us topped up with bottles of Asahi (Claire offered to give me a crash course in Soju, but then said it was basically vodka, at which point I found myself really fancying a cold beer).

“Do you know how they clean these?” said Claire, probably well aware that my answer, inevitably, would be no.

“No.”

“They use a lemon. You just scrub the hot plate with a lemon and it all comes off.”

I found myself thinking of those colour supplement adverts that tell you vinegar has magical powers and can clean pretty much everything around the house.

“So, the pork is better than Soju, I think” said Claire, “although here they bring it already cut into strips and at Soju they sort of bring it in a big slab and you cut it up yourself with scissors.”

It would be an even more lazy piece of observational comedy to say you were expected to chop your food as well, so I decided not to mention it. In any case, more meat was on the way. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the ju-mul luk (the beef) when it arrived, because it was in thick cubes and I had been expecting thinner slices. But any doubts I had were caramelised into oblivion as the beef sizzled on the grill, the coating of garlic and sesame searing and producing the most glorious aroma. It was far more tender than its thickness might suggest, with a splendid whiff of garlic which lingered long in the memory (and possibly even longer on my breath).

Last of all, we went for the chicken bulgogi gooi, thighs marinated in soy and sesame. These were probably the most disappointing thing we had – it had been sliced too thinly and broke up into very small pieces on the barbecue. It also had less marinade, so it was the only thing to keep sticking to the hot plate and burning. Still pretty good, but just a bronze medallist in this setting.

“It’s a shame really, because bulgogi is the thing in Korean restaurants” said Claire.

“And it’s the one thing they could have brought out whole” I said. “Just imagine laying a marinated flattened thigh out on that hot plate.”

“The chicken is definitely better at Soju, but the rest is probably better here. And that pork is incredible.”

Claire was right about that. I was also struck by just how good value everything was. Each plate of barbecued meat was a hefty, generous portion and the chicken and pork only cost seven pounds fifty. Even the beef was still less than a tenner. We’d ordered three different plates, but two people could easily get by sharing two – well, two people where one of them wasn’t as greedy as me, anyway.

“You can tell this is good”, I said, “because I’m already trying to work out what I’ll have when I come back.” In my mind, I was already mentally choosing between the feather blade beef and the prawns with lemon and pepper and – predictably – deciding it really wouldn’t be a crime to order both. And possibly a bibimbap. But there were limits even to my hunger, so we stopped there. All that food and six bottles of Asahi came to sixty-eight pounds, including a pre-added ten per cent service charge which I had no problem at all paying.

On the walk down the hill to the Hop Leaf for a post-meal pint and debrief, I asked Claire how she would describe the clientele at Gooi Nara.

“Oh, it was mixed. The table behind us were clearly Chinese – I heard them talking – but the big table nearest the loos were definitely Korean. And this restaurant is near the university, so I expect they get a lot of university students.”

Claire had effortlessly clocked all the other diners, their nationalities and the likely market for Gooi Nara’s food, all while pretending to listen to me talk about the Maillard reaction. She’d had her back to the lot of them. It was like something out of The Bourne Identity, and not for the first time I found myself thinking that if she starts reviewing restaurants regularly it might be the end of my blog. It was a suspicion compounded when we compared notes in the pub about what ratings we’d give Gooi Nara: they were a cigarette paper apart.

I’ve thought a lot about the right word for my visit to Gooi Nara since the meal, and it boils down to a really simple one: it was fun. Fun is an underrated quality in eating out, I think. So much about restaurants is either po-faced or functional at the moment, and when it’s not it’s the type of enforced jollity and zany fun that always reminds me of mandatory corporate away days. But Gooi Nara was properly enjoyable from beginning to end, with an element of playfulness that set it apart from the formula of starters, mains and dessert. I can imagine going back with a big group of people and mucking in, although the one thing I would say is that the barbecue takes up a lot of space on the table, so things could get decidedly cramped in a bigger group. But that aside, Gooi Nara comes highly recommended and I’m really looking forward to going back. Having fun, eating great food and making new friends: I wouldn’t be at all disappointed if this visit, too, becomes as much a metaphor as a meal.

Gooi Nara – 7.9
39 Whitley Street, RG2 0EG
0118 9757889

https://www.facebook.com/GooiNara/

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

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/