Feature: Al fresco dining (2019)

The thoroughly unseasonal spell of sunshine we had recently got me thinking about spring, waiting just round the corner. Tea and toast in the garden, the magnolia flowering, having a coffee outside Tamp or in the Workhouse courtyard and watching the world traipse past. That in turn made me remember, further down the line, the harbingers of good times ahead: the beer festival weekend; “just the one pint” after work in the Allied Arms garden morphing into a long, messy evening; Saturday afternoons stretched out in Forbury Gardens with a good book; the glorious golden slide into summer.

It’s nearly four years since I last published a feature on al fresco dining in Reading, believe it or not. But, as with everything else in this town, much has changed in that time. Dolce Vita and the Plowden Arms have closed, robbing us of some of the best food for miles around and one of Reading’s nicest sun-bathed spots. Forbury’s and Picnic – which also made my list four years ago – are not what they were. The market menu at Forbury’s seems to get more expensive and less special with every passing year, and Picnic isn’t even open on Sundays any more.

Finding establishments to replace them has been harder than you might think. Reading has some great outside spaces but generally, the places lucky enough to own them do not serve good food. The roof terrace at the Thirsty Bear, for instance, is a nice spot and a natural sun trap, but the pizza’s iffy. The Hope & Bear, the artist formerly known as the Abbot Cook/Upin Arms/Jack Of Both Sides, has a very pleasant garden – if you can get past the hum of traffic from the London Road – but the food has never been anything to write home about.

Then, of course, you have places that do decent food but where the space isn’t quite up to scratch. Many of these are chains: it would be lovely to eat outside at Carluccio’s, say, but that spot on the edge of Forbury Gardens sadly never catches the sun, so what should be a great opportunity to have an Aperol spritz and some antipasti becomes a chilly affair. Similarly, the space out the front of Franco Manca is okay, but hardly inspiring. I still enjoy eating at the Lyndhurst, but that little terrace looking out on to Watlington Street feels a tad lacking, more for a pint than the full dining experience.

For my money, Reading lost its finest al fresco dining spot last year when the Fisherman’s Cottage decided to dispense with I Love Paella. When that happened we lost the opportunity to eat salt cod churros and empanadas, patatas bravas with chicken thigh and piquant sauce and so many other glorious dishes in the sunshine with a pint of something cold, fizzy and refreshing. The pub now gets one hundred per cent of the food takings – bully for them, but I definitely won’t be back. Even if the dishes didn’t taste bad, eating there would feel in bad taste.

All that preamble is to say that the list you’re about to read might be Reading’s best al fresco dining options (or at least a conversation starter: your mileage may well vary) but I have to add the disclaimer that they are far from Reading’s best dining options. There’s invariably a degree of compromise involved – you can have an almost Meditteranean lunch, you can have fantastic food, but you can’t necessarily have both. But on a hot and sunny day, when everybody is in shorts and you have a glass of something cold in front of you, maybe that doesn’t matter so much.

Oh, and since starting writing this feature the sun has gone in and the heavens have opened. I can’t help but blame myself, but I still hope this will come in handy in the months ahead.

1. Bhel Puri House

Small plates in the sunshine.

The courtyard outside the George Hotel, just off Yield Hall Lane, catches the sun beautifully in the summer. By day most of its clientele are enjoying coffee, cake or quiche from Workhouse, and in the evening you’re more likely to see patrons of the hotel bar sitting outside enjoying a pint and a fag. But the real trick – at lunchtime or dinner – is to pop in to Bhel Puri House and ask them to serve you in the courtyard.

There’s very little that can match sitting on one of those benches, soaking up the sun and enjoying Bhel Puri House’s almost-legendary chilli paneer, spearing a cube of cheese on a caramelised strip of pepper before popping it in your mouth. The Punjabi samosas are still as gorgeous as the day I first tried them and the crispy bhajia – thin slices of crispy potato with an almost-sweet bright orange carrot chutney – are equally beautiful.

Last year, as summer was coming to an end, I stopped at Bhel Puri House on my way home after work on Friday and enjoyed the courtyard one last time before the clocks went back. Normally I have a mango lassi, but on that occasion a pint of Estrella from the hotel bar seemed like the only sensible option. I’ll be there again as soon as spring is well under way.

Bhel Puri House, Yield Hall Lane, RG1 2HF

2. Bluegrass BBQ

Reading’s best al fresco brunch.

Another Reading restaurant with a sunny terrace going to waste is bland uber-chain Bill’s. It has a great location next to Reading Minster, but I really couldn’t recommend anybody eats there, not even for brunch. I know it has its fans, but I infinitely prefer crossing the churchyard and going to Bluegrass on Gun Street, which has a terrace by the Holybrook which catches the sun and which few people seem to know about.

Once you’re installed, they do one of the best brunches in Reading. Many like the pancakes, but I’m always drawn to the Smokehouse breakfast there. I’ve enthused about it before but really, it does everything very well: the bacon is smoked, salty, streaky and crispy, the sausages are terrific quality and the hash browns are an absolutely joy, especially smudged with a bit of barbecue sauce before eating. If you’re there in the evening, the brisket chilli is a revelation and I really like the southern fried chicken (although maybe not with the waffles and maple syrup). I can see that dinner in the sunshine with a really good beer could make for a lovely al fresco evening.

Bluegrass BBQ, 15 Gun Street, RG1 2JR
https://www.bluegrass-bbq.com/

3. Côte

Continental, albeit canalside.

There are plenty of Oracle chains with space outside, and come the summer they are frequently rammed. Franco Manca and the Real Greek both have decent outdoor areas, and that’s before we get to the delights of eating outside at Nando’s (chicken thighs, medium, with rice, peas and extra halloumi, garlic peri peri on the side, since you asked), an experience which always feels a little like being on holiday in the UK. Many of the Oracle’s al fresco options – including Nando’s, sadly – can feel a little purgatorial. I do however have a real soft spot for the tables for two right in front of Côte (not, I should add, the ones at the edge of the waterside) where you can sit side by side, drink rosé, eat from the reasonable a la carte or the crazily reasonable set menu, and gaze out on the world.

Côte’s food is consistently good, and you won’t go far wrong there, but the specials are always worth a look (especially if they have skate wing on there, probably the nicest thing I’ve ever eaten at Côte). The charcuterie board is a lovely choice at any time of year, but in warm weather the tuna nicoise salad remains one of the best ways to feel slightly virtuous while eating out. Sitting with a view of the canal (technically a river, but if it looks like a canal and feels like a canal…) watching a parade of frazzled shoppers-to-be wander past shouldn’t really work, but for some reason it does. On a good day, when you have one of those tables and the sun is beaming down, you can feel like one of the luckiest diners in Reading.

Côte, 9 The Oracle Centre, RG1 2AG
https://www.cote.co.uk/brasserie/reading

4. London Street Brasserie

The original and best.

The only restaurant to make my list both in 2015 and today, London Street Brasserie has a nice outside area looking out on the river (and the often less than salubrious goings-on near the manky car park on the opposite bank). But that aside, it’s actually quite an attractive decked area which catches plenty of sun, and as the evening light starts to fade there are blankets to keep you warm. Many years as Reading’s fanciest restaurant (a title which has only really been challenged in the last year or so) means that in some respects the food is secondary to the whole experience. As with Cote there’s a set and an a la carte menu, but the better option is nearly always the set which offers an impressive range at a reasonable price: eat there at lunchtime or before 7pm to take full advantage.

Over the winter I became very attached to their haggis and duck egg on toast with HP jus – Reading’s ideal breakfast, disguised as a starter – and the fish and chips, also from the set menu, remains one of my favourite main courses at any price point. The a la carte always feels like more of a gamble at prices which are beginning to feel a little on the steep side for what you get, but the salt and pepper squid is a reliable dish and it’s hard to go wrong with venison and (yet more) haggis. The only thing that stops me gushing about LSB, apart from the pricing, is the consistency: it’s definitely a place which has the occasional off day, but at its best it’s still one of Reading’s finest places to have a meal in the open air.

London Street Brasserie, 2-4 London Street, RG1 4PN
http://www.londonstbrasserie.co.uk/

5. Thames Lido

For burning calories vicariously.

I have struggled to love Thames Lido, and I haven’t quite managed it yet: on every one of my three visits there’s been something wrong, either in terms of service, food or value for money. On one visit the gin and tonic was spendy and unspecial, on another the set menu was a little bit mingy for the money and on my last visit, the ox cheek (allegedly a signature dish) was claggy and undercooked. The service has always been consistent only in its inconsistency, although with Alex – who used to charm the socks off everyone at Mya Lacarte – now on board, that might have changed.

I know I sound like I’m moaning, but here’s the point: when I had lunch there last summer it was such a lovely spot that I put my reservations about the food to one side. The sun was shining, the surroundings were Instagram-perfect (there’s a reason it shows up there so often), my Spanish cider was cold and crisp and watching people braver than me doing lengths somehow helped me to work up quite an appetite. It simply is a gorgeous place to eat lunch, provided you relax your standards somewhat, and probably the single best view of any restaurant in Reading. I think it succeeds despite, rather than because of, its food, but I seem to be swimming against the tide in that respect. It’s the only swimming I plan to do, anyway: I’d much rather sit in the warm, order something nice and leave all that to people better qualified than me.

Thames Lido, Kings Meadow Park, RG1 8FR
http://www.thameslido.com/

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The Miller Of Mansfield, Goring

I decided that, this week of all weeks, I needed to catch a break. I’d been nearly broken by icky glazed duck, by grotty kebab meat hiding under squeezy cheese, by skanky burgers and lukewarm chips, by (admittedly good) food brought out at breakneck pace. There was no denying it: I was long overdue a good meal. I was after a sure thing, or as close to that as you can get in the world of restaurants. So this week I made for Gare Du Ding and I hopped on a train to Goring. I intended to try out the Miller Of Mansfield, the much-lauded not-quite-restaurant-not-quite-pub which won the Good Food Guide’s Restaurant Of The Year a few years back.

My companion this week deserved a good meal even more than I did: I went to the Miller with John Luther, who runs South Street and was first seen on this blog last September enduring a truly iffy Lebanese meal at Alona. I still occasionally have nightmares about the wobbly shawarma there, and my other half sometimes shows people the picture of it on her phone, the equivalent of the contents of Compo’s matchbox, or Alan Partridge’s top drawer at the Linton Travel Tavern. In fact, I think she may have done so at the last ER readers’ lunch, which poor John attended: talk about insensitive. After that horror, I wasn’t sure John would ever want to be invited back, so when he asked to join me again I decided I’d take him somewhere truly promising to make amends.

Goring is a lovely place, and the train there was full of well-to-do folk who seemed disgusted by John’s and my conversation about – yes, I’m afraid so – Brexit. The Miller is a short walk from the station and even on a dim and drizzly winter evening I was reminded of what a beautiful, prosperous village it is. It’s a big handsome building, warm and welcoming, and on arrival we were given the option of eating in the pub or the restaurant. The pub was cosier, although some of the tables felt more suitable for drinking than eating, but I actually decided to sit in the restaurant because I felt that restaurant prices felt more well-matched to sitting in a restaurant. Funny how the mind works, sometimes.

I did wonder, later on, if I’d made the wrong decision: the dining room was nice enough, if a little nondescript, and a big table was laid for about a dozen people. We were sat near the back – well, almost, as we were sat next to a screen which had been put there to make the room seem smaller (I could make out another two tables beyond it). That meant that John had a view of pretty much the whole room (and all the people-watching opportunities that came with it) and I was sat looking at a screen. It felt a little unspecial, but perhaps Goring was the kind of village so prosperous that the Miller wasn’t seen as a special occasion restaurant, the kind of place where people were happy to sit in the pub and pay twenty-five pounds for a main course.

Looking at the menu, when it eventually arrived (“I just realised these might enhance your dining experience” said the waitress who brought them over ten minutes later, quite winningly actually) made me think that if the food lived up to its promise then I’d also have been perfectly happy to pay twenty-five pounds for a main. All sorts of good stuff jumped off the page – smoked almonds and Comté as a nibble, gravadlax with crispy quail’s egg, soy glazed monkfish with confit pork, the list went on and on. Just as well, as I’d told John he could choose first (atoning for that shawarma again) so I also had to work out my plan B: I didn’t need it for the mains, but I had to rely on it for the starters.

Before that, we had to choose a wine. We both fancied a white, and the list had lots of appealing choices well before silly money. We were torn between a Grüner Veltliner (“my wife’s favourite”, John told me) and an Albarino, but ended up opting for the latter so it wouldn’t feel too much like rubbing it in when John got home and told Mrs Luther all about it. John then started telling me a story about drinking Albarino in Spain – “they pretty much hand it out for free over there” he said, and I pointed out that the wait staff probably wouldn’t fall for that. Goring, after all, is very much not the continent. Anyway, the wine was superb – fresh, lively, almost-sharp – and felt decent value at just under forty pounds.

We were nursing it for a while because, again, it felt like some time before anybody returned to take our order – a shame, as we could gladly have been picking at some nibbles by then. The couple at the table next to us wandered off out front leaving half of their starters still there on the table, and I unworthily wondered to myself if they’d notice a smidge of it going missing. This was well before the boisterous table for twelve turned up, so it wasn’t as if the restaurant was rushed off its feet, but the whole thing felt a little odd.

Anyway, enough quibbles: let’s move on to the food, because it was easily special enough to make you turn a blind eye to any glitches in service or being seated facing a screen. A little loaf of sourdough came to the table with churned butter and whipped bacon butter – all of these were fantastic but the taste of smoked streaky sneaking through in the whipped butter was nothing short of sorcery. The gougeres, a pair of little savoury profiteroles packing a real punch of blue cheese, were an absolute delight.

We’d also ordered a venison sausage roll, which came with home-made brown sauce. It was just under a fiver and really quite generously sized: I can be a very greedy diner, but even I would struggle to describe it as a nibble. “We have a rule in my house that whoever cuts has to choose last” said John, before dividing the sausage roll into two such unequal halves that I almost felt guilty scoffing the bigger one, until I remembered that he was having the oxtail croquette and I wasn’t. It was phenomenal, the venison lean and dense and again with a beautiful whiff of wintry woodsmoke. The brown sauce was heavenly, although the sausage roll really didn’t need it. “It almost has too much sausagemeat” said John; I managed to avoid doing an obvious double take.

The second nibble was less successful. The rabbit rillette itself was delicious, full of rich strands, the whole thing topped with a truly beautiful sweet jelly that felt like it had a touch of something like Sauternes in it. But the “lavroche crackers” were long, thin, impractical and just not worth the bother. We put some of the rillette (not an easy thing to spread on a brittle, narrow rectangle of cracker) on them before giving up and sticking the rest on the sourdough, which is possibly where it should have been all along.

The starters, if anything, were even better. John had the oxtail croquette, which meant that I had a side portion of envy. It was a single, beautiful thing which came on a bed of parsnip puree, served on a dish which looked alarmingly like a section of tree trunk. By this point the lighting in the Miller had reached a level which would defeat all attempts at photography, and my picture of this dish was so bad (disturbingly so) that you’ll have to take my word for it. It was dotted with little blobs of dill and shallots, and the taste I had was properly fantastic, deep in flavour with shreds of magnificent beef. “This is like a really middle class Findus Crispy Pancake”, I said: John nodded, probably humouring me.

I had chosen the cauliflower lasagne, and although it didn’t live up to the croquette it was an intriguing dish. More of an open lasagne, really, but I wish there had been more of the cauliflower and less of the hazelnut, which was billed as a “hazelnut crumble” but felt coarser than that and took over the whole thing more than I’d have liked. It was saved by a truly astounding caper and raisin puree which simultaneously managed to taste of both and neither, a mind-bending sort of agrodolce which transformed the dish into something rather special. I don’t even like raisins, but I could have eaten this until the cows came home.

Somewhere between the last mouthful of the starters and the arrival of our main courses, John and I ran out of wine. So we asked nicely if somebody could bring us the wine list again. It didn’t arrive, and I seem to remember we asked again, but even as our main courses were brought to the table we had to ask again and a very apologetic waitress returned with the list. We ordered straight away – a glass of New Zealand pinot noir for me, some Picpoul de Pinet for John – mainly because I was worried that if we didn’t we might never see wine again (both, incidentally, were cracking).

In fairness, by this time the large table nearby was in full swing and I can see that would take up a lot of time and attention. But even having said that, the service throughout – although never less than lovely – was a little more slapdash than I’d expect from food at this level. When we were served by Mary (who, along with her husband Nick, owns the restaurant and who runs the front of house) everything was brilliant, but when she wasn’t there the rest of the wait staff somehow went missing in action.

But anyway, let’s return to the food (again) – because it redeemed a multitude of sins and because my main course, one of the best things I’ve eaten in a long time, was specifically recommended by Mary. Breast of wild duck came served on a heap of sauerkraut (one of my very favourite things) with thin discs of sweet beetroot sitting under the whole thing. The duck was as tender as any I can remember, and perfect on a wintry night. I could eat sauerkraut until it came out of my ears, and this was joyous, as was the glossy sauce (made with duck heart, according to the menu) that brought it all together.

I might have liked the accompanying croquette to have a little more duck leg and a little less spud (I’d been spoiled by my taste of John’s starter) but that might have been just me. But no matter, because even better was the little pan of “duck crackers” brought to the table – they looked like prawn crackers, they had their texture too but the taste, all duck and smoke, was a little miracle. I let John try some, and tried not to be too smug. Again, I’ve not put my crappy photograph up because, however badly I may have written this, my words are still better.

John’s main course, in any event, was no slouch. His sea bream came with greens, crispy capers (one of the finest things in the world, if you ask me), a very good tartare sauce and something called “salty fingers” which is a sea vegetable a little like samphire. I did a Google image search of salty fingers as part of the research for this review and was relieved that it didn’t throw up anything dodgy (the infamous Leslie Grantham webcam still, for instance): perhaps it was just my dirty mind that led me to fear the worst.

John was a big fan of this dish, and from my forkful I could completely see why. “It has just enough greens,” he said, “although if I’m being fussy I wish the skin had been properly crispy”. We also ordered some chips – because Mary had told us they were good – and she wasn’t wrong, although under the circumstances they were probably excessive. They defeated John anyway, leaving him too full for dessert. But since I saw one on the menu that I just had to try, I ordered it all the same and told the waitress that she could bring two spoons. “We’re not a couple though” I told her, almost certainly unnecessarily.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from “chocolate custard” – I was hoping the emphasis would be more on the chocolate and less on the custard – but what arrived was far more beautiful than I can describe and hundreds of times more appealing than the photo below makes it look. The texture was like crème brulee, or a mousse with no bubbles, not as dense as a ganache but no less rich and intense for that. On top was a sheet of tuile rich with salt and sesame and the whole thing was dotted with little spheres of bright sweet orange.

John is an awfully well-mannered dining companion – he took the smaller half of the sausage roll, he let me finish the rillette, he practically apologised to the wait staff for them not having brought us the wine list yet – but even so I was relieved when he put down his spoon and gave me a clear run on the rest of the dessert. It was properly magnificent.

While we were waiting for our bill to arrive (and finishing off some beautiful, chewy macarons with vanilla custard which had been brought as an extra treat) we compared notes. John told me he was mentally already planning a trip back with his wife, and in truth I had also been trying to work out a good excuse to return. John knows his restaurants – we swapped stories of great meals we’d had, talked about places on our hit list and talked about how we should beetle off to London one weekday when we were both free and have lunch at Medlar, my favourite London spot, right at the unfashionable end of Chelsea.

“That’s always a sign of a really good restaurant”, I said, “that before you’ve finished meal one you’re planning meal two.” And although John and I both ordered well, the menu was littered with roads not taken – not only that, but I knew perfectly well that by the time I visited the Miller again the menu would probably look completely different. Dinner came to one hundred and forty pounds, not including tip, and personally I didn’t resent a single penny of it.

I often complain that Reading is lacking a true special occasion restaurant, and that even the options nearby are either too unspecial, too fussy, too full of themselves or just too difficult to get to. The Bottle & Glass in Binfield Heath, The Royal Oak at Paley Street, The Crown at Burchetts Green even: somehow they all fall short, to the extent where my family often congregate at the Crooked Billet in Stoke Row when they want to celebrate a birthday.

For me, the Miller Of Mansfield comes closest to filling that gap. I know the service was a little haphazard, and I struggled to warm to the room, but it’s so genuine and likeable that none of that seems to matter. More importantly, the food reaches heights that render all of that somewhat of a moot point. I went expecting to like it a great deal but maybe not love it and, based on other reports I’ve had, I wondered if I would leave slightly hungry. Well, none of that came to pass, and instead I have a new place to go for celebrations, blow-outs or even just decadent midweek dinners with a new friend. All that and it’s only thirteen minutes from Reading by train. What more could you ask?

The Miller Of Mansfield – 8.5
High Street, Goring, RG8 9AW
01491 872829

https://millerofmansfield.com/

Wau, Newbury

One thing I’ve often pondered, writing this blog, is the holy trinity you always have to bear in mind when eating in – and assessing – a restaurant: the food, the service and the room. They all have the power to transform your experience. Take Dolce Vita, for example, which closed last year: some of the food was great, some of it (the pizzas and pasta, in particular) could be distinctly middling. But the service was so brilliant that I found I never really minded – a night there could feel like having friends cook for you, in a home from home, in the same way that some pubs (The Retreat, in my case) feel like having a second living room.

I’ve also thought for a long time that if the food is good enough, you can overlook blips in service. I’ve made no secret of my love of the food at Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen, but it can’t be denied that the service has never attained the same heights, with some churn in staff and some elementary mistakes here and there (no, I haven’t quite finished that mango beer, for example, so please stop trying to take it away). When they first opened, it was easy to pass it off as teething troubles or growing pains, but once a restaurant has been trading longer you expect a little more.

The room I’m not so fussed about – I agree with Marco Marchetti, the dapper and wise waiter at Pepe Sale (who’s now hung up his Larry Grayson-style spectacles and moved to Kent, I’m sorry to say) who once told me “we Italians don’t care about the room”. It’s nice to eat in a beautiful room. It’s nice to look at, say, Coppa Club and think “haven’t they done a great job fitting this out?” but when the service is comically bad and the food is indifferent (as it is at, say, Coppa Club) it really doesn’t redeem things. That might be my age, or the fact that I’m not in London: I’m sure some people are dazzled enough by eating somewhere Instagrammable like Sketch or Bob Bob Ricard, but it’s not for me.

But first and foremost, I’ve always believed that food is what matters. If the food is good enough, everything else is secondary. It stands to reason, doesn’t it? Except that this week the review is of Wau, the Malaysian street food restaurant a stone’s throw from Newbury station, and following my visit there I’m no longer so sure.

I found myself in Newbury one weekday evening with my regular dining companion (and close personal friend) Zoë, and after a couple of drinks in the Catherine Wheel I reckoned Wau was the obvious candidate for an evening meal. I’d been once last year and had a terrific meal, and when I put pictures on Instagram loads of people came out of the woodwork to tell me how great Wau was. You don’t see Malaysian food in many places round Reading (although the Moderation often does a few dishes, including nasi goreng), and it was less than five minutes from the station, and I happened to be in Newbury after all, so I decided to go back on duty and try it out again.

Speaking of the room, Wau’s is pretty unprepossessing. At the front are high tables with high stools, and further back are lower tables with still-ubiquitous Tollix chairs. The bar runs along one side of the room, with the kitchen at the back: not an open kitchen per se, but from some tables you get a pretty good view of what’s going on through the glass door. I think there are more tables round the corner, past the bar, although I wasn’t seated there.

The first problem happened when we arrived and the waiter tried to seat us at one of the precarious-looking high tables nearest the door, for two people. They didn’t feel at all like a relaxing place to eat. Could we sit at one of the bigger, lower tables further back, I asked? He looked at me like I’d asked for his date of birth and his mother’s maiden name, or enquired about whether he’d ever considered letting the love of Jesus into his life. It was a Tuesday evening at 8pm, and only one other table was occupied: they burnt a fair bit of goodwill umming and aahing before reluctantly letting us sit at a table for four.

The menu at Wau looks good, and has been recently updated. It’s divided into “Steamed and Grilled”, small plates costing between four and eight pounds, “Rice and Noodles” and “Curry”, which are larger plates costing between ten and thirteen pounds. I took this to be the dividing line between starters and mains – and the menu definitely encourages you to think that way but, as I was to find out, the reality is a bit more haphazard. But all that was yet to come at the point when we ordered three starters (a combination of greed and hunger), two mains and a couple of side dishes.

“The dishes will all come out when they come out, is that okay?” said the waiter.

It wasn’t, really, and I should have made more of this because it’s a real bugbear of mine and I’ve disliked it ever since Wagamama decided to make it a selling point. That approach feels like it’s geared entirely towards the convenience of the kitchen rather than the experience of customers. How presumptuous, I’ve always thought: we’ll make your food in the order we feel like it, and you’ll take what you’re given. Who’s paying who in this scenario? I often wonder.

“What does that mean exactly?”

“Oh. In this case you’ll probably get the squid first, then the pork belly, then the satay, then the beef rendang and nasi goreng and the other bits” he said. This didn’t really inspire confidence, because it was exactly the sequence in which we’d ordered everything, but never mind. What’s the worst that can happen? I reckoned.

Well, here’s what happened – and I’m sorry if this makes for a dull paragraph, but it’s taken from the time stamps of actual photos taken on my and Zoë’s phones: we sat down just after 8 o’clock. At 8.10 we poured our bottles of Tiger beer and placed our order. At 8.19 the salt and pepper squid (a starter) arrived, followed at 8.20 by my nasi goreng (a main). At 8.21 the pork belly starter and the sambal beans (a side dish) were brought to the table. At 8.24 Zoë’s beef rendang turned up, and at 8.25 our final starter, the satay lamb skewers, materialised. So within fifteen minutes of ordering they had brought almost everything we had ordered, all in the space of five minutes. Quite how it would have all fitted on the table for two they originally tried to fob us off with I have no idea, but it turns out that “the dishes will come out when they come out” actually means “they will all come out at once”.

I got that it was a slow night, but that didn’t seem like much of an excuse for the kitchen staff throwing the kitchen sink at trying to get us out quickly. And that’s when I realised – you can say it’s all about the food, but eating out isn’t about eating food, it’s about having a meal. A nicely paced meal, where you can take your time over what you eat and look forward to what you’ve ordered next without worrying about everything going cold before you get to enjoy it. It was utterly ridiculous, and all I could think was: why aren’t the serving staff a little embarrassed by all this?

I say that we had nearly everything we’d ordered. Zoe ordered roti canai to use to scoop up the rendang. That never arrived, so we asked for it again. It still didn’t arrive, so we asked for it again, again. It reached us ten minutes after the rest, too quick for your main courses to follow your starter but not quick enough for your side dish to follow literally everything else you had ordered. I’ve never known, and I’m choosing my words carefully, a clusterfuck like it.

The saddest thing of all is that the food was, almost without exception, gorgeous. The salt and pepper squid had so much freshness and texture, and was dusted with tons of good stuff. The pork belly – a really generous portion, precisely balanced between the crispy crunch of roasting and the tenderness of the meat under the skin – was a beautiful dish, perfected by dipping it in the sticky, savoury soy sauce. The satay lamb was my least favourite of the three, but even that was cooked beautifully and the satay sauce was as deep and rich as any I could remember. Would that I had got to enjoy those three dishes as a trio, without worrying about my nasi goreng going cold, but it was not to be.

Actually, the nasi goreng was my least favourite dish of the evening and, sorry to say, I don’t think it was anywhere near as good as the one served at the Moderation and the Queen’s Head. At those places you get chicken and prawn, but at Wau you have to choose and my choice, the chicken, was oddly bouncy in texture. Weird plating, too – the sunny side up egg should be on top so it can ooze its yolk into the rice but this – probably a little overcooked – was stuck on the side like an afterthought. I left some of this dish, although that was probably more because it didn’t stay hot enough for long enough, not with so many other things to try. I left the prawn crackers, although I’m told they were a reasonable substitute for the roti which nearly never came.

One of the nicest things we ate was the side dish I’d ordered to come with the nasi goreng (although, in reality, everything came with the nasi goreng). Sambal green beans had a beautiful amount of crunch, having been no more than blanched, and coated in Malaysian shrimp paste, perfectly brick-red and savoury, with just enough heat and lots of complexity: I could easily have eaten more than one plate of these.

I was familiar with the beef rendang, Zoë’s choice, from a previous visit but really it was every bit as delicious as I remembered – so much so that I regretted my nasi goreng from the first forkful to the last. The sauce was glossy and sweet with coconut, but with more than enough edge to save it from being even remotely saccharine, but more importantly the beef had been properly slow-cooked so every piece surrendered into strands. It would almost be worth going to Wau and just ordering this dish, which come to think of it might also be the only way to ensure that you get to eat it at a time of your choosing.

I also really liked the roti, when it eventually came out – lovely and buttery, and just right to wrap around that beef, even if it made for a slightly messy experience. It came with a little dish of dipping sauce which was pleasant enough, but not really needed under the circumstances.

I’ve already talked about the service, but of course the real test of service is how they handle it when matters are less than perfect. So when we were asked how our food had been, we said that it was very nice but that really, we hadn’t wanted it to all come out at once and that if we’d known we would have insisted that it didn’t, or perhaps ordered our starters first and then our mains. It’s fair to say that this rather fell on stony ground. That’s just how people eat in Malaysia, the chap told us – all the food comes at once and everyone pitches in, sharing everything.

It’s fair to say that I wasn’t entirely convinced by this argument, and I said so: I could possibly understand it with a big group of people, but there were two of us. Why did they divide their menu into starters and mains, I asked? He pointed out, again in a manner best described as unapologetic, that they weren’t called starters and mains (which, having looked at the menu, is true: but if you have the small dishes at the start and the bigger items partway through you definitely give that impression). Then, finally, came the non-apology so popular in the post-truth times we live in.

“I’m sorry if you feel that way”, he said. Well, that makes everything better then.

After that a lady came over who I think was the owner or manager, and we had exactly the same conversation, only more pleasantly. She promised that they weren’t trying to rush us or move us along or turn the table. That’s all very well, we said, but if so why bring all the food in the space of five minutes? We were then told again about how people all share food in Malaysia, which was doubtless true but, in Newbury, wouldn’t it make sense to put something on the menu explaining the concept or at least get the waiting staff to clearly explain how it worked? Normally they did, she said, which didn’t explain why the chap who took our order – the same man who had served me on a previous visit – had failed to do so either time (on a previous visit we got our starters, then we had our mains, and everything went as you might expect).

The thing we were at pains to point out, again and again, was that the food had been so good, but the way it had been brought out robbed us of the opportunity to properly enjoy it, and ourselves for that matter. But by this point I was beginning to feel like one of those TripAdvisor reviews in human form, and found myself eagerly wanting the conversation, and the experience, to end. The manageress was also sorry we felt that way, and agreed to take something off the bill. That turned out to be ten per cent, which to me didn’t quite feel like enough, and our meal – with that discount – came to fifty-four pounds, not including tip. That was for three small dishes, two big dishes, two sides and two beers – and we still tipped ten per cent, though with hindsight I don’t really know why.

You could indisputably eat well at Wau – if you happened to be in Newbury, close to the station, and preferably in a hurry. Even then, I would advise you to be unambiguous about what you want to eat and the order in which you want to eat it. But those are a lot of caveats, a lot of hoops to jump through, and I could hardly blame you if you read all this and thought thanks but no thanks.

The real shame of it is that so much of the food was terrific, but the overall experience left a nasty taste that no amount of skill in the kitchen can cancel out; food might be the most important element of any visit to a restaurant, but it turns out that it’s service that transforms it from mere food into a meal. All that makes this almost impossible to rate but, to give you an idea, I reckon the experience at Wau must have easily cost it a mark. I hope they iron those problems out, but I doubt I’ll be back to find out. If you decide it sounds like your sort of thing, you’ll have to let me know.

Wau – 6.8
49 Cheap Street, Newbury, RG14 5BX
01635 528877

http://www.waumalaysian.co.uk/

The Dairy

It was love at first sight when I first laid eyes on The Dairy. I’d been paying a visit to the MERL on Upper Redlands Road earlier in the day and I’d dimly remembered that The Dairy, one of the bars which was part of the University, was just down the road. I’d never been, so in the spirit of adventure I did a bit of research, checking out the sadly departed Matt Farrall’s excellent article on the subject for the Whitley Pump). Later that week, I dropped in for a drink.

When I got there, I was thoroughly charmed. It took a bit of finding – it’s pretty much completely unsignposted, and you access it by going up a ramp only to find an unadorned door with a simple plaque next to it saying “The Dairy” in a plain, municipal-looking font. Once I got there, though, I liked the look of the place: it’s made up of two big rooms with clean, white walls, sizeable tables (high ones in the main room, lower ones in the back room), comfy furniture and a wide array of decent beers on keg, including four different craft lagers and representatives from many of our local breweries: Siren Craft, Wild Weather and Elusive, not to mention other breweries like New Wharf and XT.

It’s a university bar, but it was open to the public and seemed to have a pretty varied clientele. Not only that, but even without a student discount you could get a pint of good, well-kept craft beer for around three pounds fifty. I found myself making a mental note that this could make a great place for board games nights with friends, or for a quiet pint on the evenings when I fancied a change of scenery from my usual haunts (it was sleepy on a week night at the start of term).

Then I spotted the menu. Now, normally I would never have considered The Dairy as a venue for a food review, but there were lots of interesting touches on the menu which made me wonder. Jerk chicken, curry mutton and Jamaican vegetable stew all looked different from the usual fare and even the burgers, complete with a very now charcoal brioche, seemed slightly out of the ordinary. I took a picture of the menu and resolved to come back to see if this could be the kind of hidden find which always lifts my spirits.

Returning on a Saturday evening with my partner in crime Zoë, The Dairy was much more obviously a student bar and was far busier. I felt a tad decrepit grabbing a stool at one of the high tables, and then swapping it for one better equipped to support my child-bearing hips. That feeling wasn’t helped by looking around to see hordes of young people watching the big screens, playing pool, eating all-day breakfasts (not something on the menu I had ever considered ordering, in all honesty, and especially not at eight o’clock at night) and generally not appreciating that they were slap bang in the middle of the best years of their lives.

I wandered into the back room to see if any tables were available there, but was greeted by such a wall of noise that I thought better of it. I did spot one gentleman at another table who was even older than me, and that reassured me enough to grab a menu. Broadly speaking it divided into two sections (unless you count a very small selection of starters and salads and – of course – that all day breakfast): world food and burgers. We quickly decided to try one of each and I went up to the bar to place the order. None of the dishes costs more than a tenner and once you hand over your card (the whole place is cashless) they give you a little gadget which buzzes when your food is ready, signalling for you to go and pick it up from the hatch. Easy peasy.

The first warning bell rang when the gadget buzzed, no more than ten minutes after placing my order; that felt quick enough that I wondered whether a microwave had been involved. I approached the hatch to find the food had been set down in front of me, but with nobody on the other side to greet me. The shelves behind were full of stuff from Brakes, another disconcerting sign. I would have just taken the dishes and gone back to the table but one of them, the mutton curry, was missing the advertised naan bread and mango chutney. Instead there was a small bowl of what appeared to be giant, wan-looking chips, stood upright. I waited, but nobody appeared, so I said “excuse me” as loudly as I dared and a lady wandered in from what I assume was the kitchen.

“I’m sorry, but I’m waiting for a naan bread” I said, doing the English thing of apologising for expecting to receive what I had ordered.

“It’s a mistake with the menu” I was told tersely. “It’s wrong. You don’t get naan bread, because it’s a Caribbean curry. These are yuca fries.”

Never mind, I thought, carrying everything back to the table and picking up some cutlery from the bar. The mutton curry was Zoë’s, but I managed to try enough of it to dispel the rumour that it had been microwaved: surely it would have been hotter if that was the case. The meat was a tad chewy – not undercooked per se, but not enjoyable to eat and the spicing in it was probably best described as subtle. It was definitely luke-warm, though, and for nine pounds the portion felt a little on the mean side. I didn’t try the yuca fries (although I did google them to find out that they were made of cassava) but Zoe ate a few without any real enthusiasm. They looked like the kind of thing you might use to insulate a loft.

“What do you reckon?” I asked.

“It’s just not hot. To be honest, I’d rather go to Clay’s.” She had a point – I would far rather have spent a little more and had an infinitely better curry elsewhere. I had a feeling the list of places doing a better curry than The Dairy – and this in itself was pretty alarming – probably included Wetherspoon’s. Still, I’ll say this for the mutton curry: it wasn’t the chicken burger, which is an early front runner for the single worst thing I’ll eat in 2019 (let’s hope it bags that prize, because I don’t really want to think about what, if anything, could beat it into second place).

The charcoal brioche was weirdly, cloyingly sweet. The bacon – back, cooked to miserable limpness – was indifferent and salty. The burger itself was breaded and I’m not sure whether it was baked or fried but the coating had the texture of an asteroid with no discernible seasoning: the chicken, once you got to it, at least recognisably had started life as a fillet but after that it had been not so much cooked as mistreated. The thin slice of American cheese on top had been completely unmelted by the lukewarm contents of the brioche. I wasn’t sure how the kitchen had managed to overcook something, yet it still wasn’t hot: I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

The “barbecue glaze” underneath it had the sort of gloopy sweetness which gave me bad flashbacks. There was something odd about the taste of the fries: it could have been that they were tepid, it might have been that they were stale, it might have been something else altogether. Running through the possibilities in my mind started to bring on reflux. I left a fair amount of this dish, and most of the fries, and things have to be pretty bad before I do that.

If the food had been good, there would have been more drinks. We would have checked out the dessert section of the menu and ordered the churros (“plain and caramel filled… served with butterscotch sauce”). But the food wasn’t good, and I needed to leave before I was completely put off The Dairy as a watering hole, and for that matter put off churros for life. The meal, along with a ginger beer and a very pleasant pint of Eisbar, a “Vienna style lager” by XT, came to just shy of twenty-two pounds. Service at the hatch had been pretty perfunctory, but the bar staff had been lovely and friendly (and one of them was very apologetic about it being her first shift). The whole thing seemed to reinforce my overall view, namely that The Dairy was a great place for a quiet drink but that nobody should consider eating there.

As we left, I was torn between feeling a little queasy and really wanting to eat some chocolate, or at least something that didn’t taste of the chicken burger. In the end I thought better of it, but that burger sat uneasily with me for the rest of the evening.

“I suppose the obvious comparison is the Oakford” Zoë had said while we were waiting for our food, before anticipation transmuted into disappointment, and I think in many ways she is right. For cheap, cheerful burgers, at least – although having done some research since the burgers at the Oakford are a little more expensive, mainly because fries are extra (though I don’t think anybody in their right mind would pay extra for The Dairy’s fries). But really, I couldn’t think of a good comparison: where else would the food have been quite so underwhelming?

I don’t know whether The Dairy’s dishes do come from a Brakes lorry (from the section of the website marked “for students”, perhaps), and you could say that I should have known better than to expect great food from one of the university bars. All I can say is that I was taken in by the menu, but more to the point I wrongly thought that the pride The Dairy had put into its drinks offering would be matched by the food. So I do have a new favourite watering hole, along with a salutary lesson that even after over five years of doing this I remain more than capable of making the wrong call and picking a duffer. I still recommend going to The Dairy for a nice pint if you’re in the area (and the benches out the front might be lovely on a summer’s day). Just make sure you’ve eaten beforehand.

The Dairy – 4.6
Building L14, London Road Campus, Redlands Road, RG1 5AQ
0118 3782477

https://www.facebook.com/londonroadcampus/

German Doner Kebab

The new year always presents a myriad of opportunities, doesn’t it? A fresh start (unless, like pretty much everyone I know, you’ve been struck down by one of the many virulent bugs doing the rounds). A chance to change your ways, shed unhelpful old habits and bin off toxic former friends. And, of course, it’s a time to embrace every passing fad for self-improvement, whether that’s kicking the booze or going vegan for thirty-one teeth-clenchingly joyless days. Fuck that, I thought, I’m off for a kebab.

Not just any kebab, I should add, but a German one: German Doner Kebab has been plying its trade since last April, at the grim end of Friar Street near the Hope Tap, the latest creepy topless bar and the big Sainsbury’s (Brutalist on the outside, faintly Stalinist on the inside). Now, I’m not snobbish about kebabs: I’ve always thought that, done right, they can be darned delicious and the best ones, cooked well, are more than acceptable eaten sober.

Generally, in fairness, I mean shish kebabs – there’s something about chicken or lamb cooked there and then on a charcoal grill that’s difficult to beat (let’s face it, there’s a reason I’m always singing the praises of King’s Grill). But a chicken or lamb doner, sliced thinly, cooked on the hot plate to add a little crispiness and mixed with ribbons of iceberg and a really good sauce? That’s the stuff of – admittedly slightly guilty – dreams.

More recently that has tended to be the shawarma at Bakery House, or gyros on holiday in Greece, but I still fondly remember the golden age of growing up in Woodley and having a doner from the van parked up by Bulmershe school, or, years later, stopping at the sadly departed “Kebab Kingdom” on Cemetery Junction.

That was twenty years ago, but I can still remember the crunch of the red cabbage and the kick of those pickled chillies like it was yesterday. Come to think of it, I can remember when you could eat in at Ye Babam Ye, in the bit which is now Up The Junction and just to prove that everything comes around again eventually, here I am in 2019 sitting at a table eating a doner kebab, the hot new (old) gastronomic trend. Maybe they’ll rebrand Wimpy next.

My accomplice for this review was the author of pub blog Quaffable Reading, a man who prefers to be referred to as Dr Quaff (honestly, these anonymous bloggers and their pseudonyms: it’ll never catch on). I had accompanied him last year when he went to review The Retreat, my beloved local pub, and this was part of a sort of exchange program where he joined me to review German Doner Kebab and in return we then went on to a pub afterwards so Dr Quaff could review that. You might say that we approached things in the wrong order: I couldn’t possibly comment, although you might have an idea of my view by the end.

Dr Quaff is – and he didn’t offer any financial inducement for me to say this, I promise – superb company with a huge range of stories which managed to be both funny and interesting. But he also has a surprisingly donnish air (that time up at Oxford, perhaps) and made for a very suitable co-pilot on this visit. He was also willing to order all the things I didn’t, which made for a refreshing change as I’m used to having my second choice of everything on the menu.

The interior managed to be a chic take on a traditional fast food restaurant. The overwhelming theme was monochrome – big black and and white photos of Berlin landmarks (the television tower especially caught my eye), a huge image of the Brandenberg Gate along one wall and smart black button-backed banquettes and booths. But there was also a flash of orange bringing the whole thing to life: you really couldn’t fault their branding.

“It looks very much like McDonalds tries to these days” said Dr Quaff, at which point I had to admit that it was a very long time since I had been to one, and even longer since I’d paid attention (still, he has kids). We ordered at the counter and plonked ourselves at a booth in what was, for a school night, a surprisingly busy restaurant.

The menu gave a wide range of options, from quinoa salad to tempura cauliflower, all the way to… no, really, it’s basically just doner meat. Doner meat in a brioche bun, doner meat in a flatbread, doner meat in a wrap. Doner meat in a quesadilla, doner meat on – yes, really – nachos. It was the doner equivalent of that scene in Being John Malkovich where everyone just walks around saying “Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich” all the time: doner, doner, doner.

You can get the doner-based dish of your choice for roughly five pounds, or add fries and a drink for two quid, and for vegetarians there is a veggie kebab containing the suitably vague “mixed veggie pieces”. Even the choice of doner meat (beef, chicken or “mixed”) is more specific than that. Personally, I found it weird that there was beef but no lamb, but I decided to reserve judgment.

The first dish to turn up was the lahmacun (or, in this case I suppose, “beefacun”), a thin flatbread smeared in something which may have been beef or possibly just the memory of beef, folded over and served with three dips (chilli, garlic and burger sauce) along with a rather hopeful wedge of lemon. When I started this I quite liked it, but as it cooled down and started to taste more of itself I found I rather cooled down too. But taste of what? I wasn’t really sure – certainly not of beef, and hardly of spice either. It also went soggy quickly which made dipping it in the sauces largely a waste of time. “It’s sort of like a keema nan” said Dr Quaff, and although I knew what he was driving at it still felt like a disservice to keema nans everywhere.

Dr Quaff had also gone for a side dish, the doner nachos. It was a classic example of the old adage that just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should: I don’t think the combination of tortilla chips, jalapeños, American squeezy cheese and doner meat is one the world was waiting for.

The beef doner meat, and this was a theme funnily enough for the rest of the meal, was plain bad. It didn’t taste like any beef I’ve ever had, and that includes some pretty dreadful beef: even overcooked into shoe leather the way my former mother-in-law used to do it at least vaguely tasted of beef. This, though, had no texture, so was just limp ribbons of the stuff, a disconcerting shade of beige and looking nothing like beef. It could have been shaved off a cow, a sheep, an actuary or E.T.: if you’d told me it was Soylent Green I wouldn’t have been remotely surprised.

Normally when I put photos of a dish on the blog I do a little editing to try and make them look as good as possible: their culinary best selves, you could say. With the doner nachos I just wanted to do my best to make them look exactly as they did in the restaurant. Adding warmth and saturation would be like adding a Snapchat filter to a Tinder profile picture.

“I thought they’d be smaller” said Dr Quaff. I was just glad I only had to have one forkful.

More of the doner meat was to follow in the main attractions. I had a mixed kebab in their signature toasted flatbread, while Dr Quaff had it in a lahmacun wrap. In terms of a vessel for the meat, his was a much better plan – completely contained, easier to eat and much less messy. I also think, overall, Dr Quaff enjoyed the whole thing more than I did: he also pimped his fries so, for fifty pence extra, he got “flaming fries” which were dusted with something which contained paprika but also hints of something like Chinese five spice. “It’s funny”, he said, “because it feels strange to pay fifty pence extra, but it’s definitely worth it”.

By contrast, the toasted bread had a very pleasing waffly texture but was open, which meant that everything would have fallen out if I’d tried to eat it with my hands. This did work to my advantage though, because I managed to remove much of the beef doner meat with a fork (and to think I was always bad at Operation as a child) and focus on the chicken. It was infinitely better: for a start it definitely felt like it might once have been attached to an actual chicken, and along with the salad and red cabbage it began to feel like something I would eat from choice.

I’d paid extra for feta, because friends in the know had told me that was the thing to do, but it didn’t feel like it added an awful lot. The fries were nondescript – in the fast food hierarchy they were better than KFC fries (but so is everything else, including not having fries) but worse than McDonalds or Burger King. I didn’t really have strong opinions about any of the dips – if pushed, I guess I’d say I quite liked the burger sauce because you don’t see it often enough these days, but I’m not sure the fries made it worth going for the meal deal. Nice to have a Coke in the classic glass bottle, though, even if there weren’t any glasses provided to pour it into.

Service was functional and perfectly polite. I had to ask for a fork, I had to ask for a glass, I had to ask for a straw (I’m afraid it was plastic) when they didn’t have a glass, but all of those requests were handled nicely. It’s not the sort of restaurant, really, where you notice service unless it’s terrible, and it wasn’t. Not doner nachos terrible, anyway, but that’s a new level of terrible I wasn’t expecting to encounter in 2019. Let’s hope the year gets better from there. My dinner came to eleven pounds, while Dr Quaff’s, with his fancy chips and freakish side order, came to closer to thirteen.

After our meal, Dr Quaff and I sat there for a bit debating the merits of German Doner Kebab. He was (and is in general, I imagine) much kinder than me – I think he found things to like and could imagine going back, although I’m not sure when or how often. For me, it falls down in far too many places. It’s more expensive than KFC and cheaper than Honest Burgers, but if I wanted fast food in the town centre where I could sit down I would, without exception, pick one or the other over German Doner Kebab. And if it’s that kind of food you’re after – if you really, really need a kebab – German Doner Kebab doesn’t do anything that isn’t executed far better by either Kings Grill or Bakery House.

I could manage a chicken doner wrap there, at a push, but as a quick choice in town a lot of restaurants would have to close before it even made my top 10 (come to think of it, Nando’s is just down the road: judge all you like, but I love a Nando’s). So what – or who – is German Doner Kebab for? I’d love to be able to answer that question for you but, truth be told, I’m stumped. Put it this way: I still maintain that you don’t have to be drunk to eat a good kebab, but even if I’d emerged from a boozer several pints to the good after an evening with the author of Reading’s finest pub blog, wild horses would be unlikely to drag me back to German Doner Kebab.

German Doner Kebab – 5.4
106 Friar Street, RG1 1EP
0118 9589998

http://www.germandonerkebab.com