Alona

I used to think the cardinal sin when eating in a restaurant was to take out a calculator when the bill arrived. You might know someone like this, someone who tots up exactly what they had and wants to pay for exactly that and not a penny more (strangely they’re often the same kind of people who neglect to add ten per cent to exactly what they spent – and not a penny more – when it comes to tipping). I don’t know anyone like that, or at least I don’t go to dinner with them. Paying for meals is like paying for rounds in pubs: sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind, but the only real way to be a loser is to keep count.

For years, I thought that was the worst thing you could do when eating out – well, that and being rude to the people serving you – and then an incident took place which changed my mind. I was on a double date at Comptoir Libanais, and we were meeting the other couple there at seven o’clock. There was some kind of mix-up and our dining companions got to the restaurant fifteen minutes early, and my date and I arrived at the appointed hour to find them halfway through eating their starters.

I was aghast. If you arrive early, ordering a drink is practically compulsory. Ordering bread and olives, if you’re peckish, is optional if you really can’t wait fifteen minutes. But starters? And this wasn’t just pitta and dips: the chap was ploughing his way through a portion of chicken wings as we took our seats. It was the first time I’d ever met these people so I could hardly say anything, but I spent the rest of the meal thinking Why is everybody acting like this is normal, acceptable behaviour? My date told me later on that I was being unnecessarily fussy, but I’ve never told another person who wasn’t shocked: if I’m ever elected to high office I might ensure that such conduct attracts a custodial sentence.

Anyway, company aside, the meal at Comptoir Libanais was forgettable. The service was comically bad, the food average at best and indifferent value to boot. My tagine (nothing like a nice authentic Lebanese tagine – as if there’s any such thing) was miserly and lukewarm, the couscous in huge clumps like only faintly edible asteroids. I hadn’t even wanted to go – it wasn’t my choice – and I felt like a traitor eating there when Bakery House was a couple of minutes away. It might not have a snazzy location on the Riverside, there might be no option to have alcohol with your meal (and the experience at Comptoir did rather make me want a drink) but Bakery House is the kind of independent restaurant Reading needs and deserves. I made a mental note to never go back to Comptoir Libanais on duty.

For a long time Reading only had those two Lebanese restaurants, and then I spotted Alona one Sunday afternoon as my taxi trundled up the Wokingham Road on the way to Nirvana. No website, no Facebook, but then I got reports on Twitter that Reading’s newest Lebanese restaurant was decent and might be up there with Bakery House; I needed no further incentive to hop on the 17 bus one evening and go there before word got out.

My companion this week was John Luther, who is responsible for programming at South Street and has done more most to shape Reading’s cultural scene. I’d wanted to take John with me on a visit ever since he judged my Honest Burgers competition last year – not only because I knew I’d be guaranteed stimulating conversation about all things artistic but also because I got a clear picture from John’s Twitter feed that he loves good food and craft beer. He was instrumental in bringing Craft Theory to Reading; he might be Bakery House’s most loyal patron (it’s effectively South Street’s staff canteen by now); he was Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen’s first customer: these things might not feature in John’s CV but they made him an ideal candidate to join me on duty.

It may be because Alona had been open little more than a month when we visited, but it looks pretty stripped-down. You walk in across the incongruous astroturf (they also offer shishas outside, apparently) and the counter on the right looks like standard kebab shop stuff with a brightly illuminated menu overhead. The dining room is on the left and is really very bare – plain tables, attractive tiles and not a lot else except a line of beaded lights at head height while changed colour throughout the meal like a hyperactive day-glo disco dado rail.

I asked whether we ordered at the table or at the counter and the answer was either or both: in the end we sat at the table nearest to the counter and asked nicely from there. The menu was like a pared down version of the Bakery House menu and prices were very similar, so you pay around a fiver for starters and mains hover near the twelve pound mark. Alona also does a range of wraps, presumably to eat off the premises. In fact, I saw more people turn up for takeaway than to eat in during our visit and only two other tables were occupied while we were there; eating under the functional lighting in such a stark place took on an increasingly Edward Hopperesque feel as the evening went on.

John and I valiantly did our best to try as many dishes on the menu as we could, and that meant rolling our sleeves up and tackling four starters. The first few arrived on a blue plastic tray, and we had to ask nicely for plates. The houmous kawrmah – one of two houmous options on the menu involving lamb – was very much a curate’s egg. The houmous itself was rather tasty and was clearly elevated by tons of tahini, if somewhat lacking in garlic.

“The olive oil with this is fantastic” said John. “Really fruity. But the lamb could do with more char.”

He was right: the lamb seemed appealing when it turned up but the look of it wrote a cheque that neither the taste nor the texture could cash. As happens too often on duty, I’d rather have had less and better. The pittas that came with it felt thin and almost stale, and weren’t a lot of help when scooping up houmous.

Grape leaf rolls (stuffed vine leaves, effectively) have long been a favourite of mine – I blame Corfu in the summer of 1987 – but these were unremarkable. The menu said they had meat in them (I was expecting minced lamb) but they were completely meat free. Excitement free too, really: you can get better ones in the chiller cabinet of M&S or the Co-Op, let alone in restaurants. I ate them because they were there, which is no real reason to eat anything.

The falafel on the other hand were decent, if not exciting (by this stage “decent, if not exciting” was starting to feel like a recurring theme). We’d ordered them partly to compare them against the Bakery House version (“a reference dish”, said John sagely) and they didn’t win out in that comparison: a bit too heavy, not enough texture on the outside and certainly no scattering of sesame seeds. But in fairness that’s a high bar, and these were passable falafel (“passable falafel”: a tongue twister up there with “day-glo disco dado rail”). I was more excited about the intense, shrivelled black olives and the sharp, salty pickles, which is probably not how it should be.

Chicken wings began the meal at an impressive £2 a portion, although as we were ordering them the man behind the counter stuck a 3 over the 2 up on the menu overhead. That was a little surreal. I managed to get over the whopping fifty per cent markup, but the chicken wings were also underwhelming – or, to put it another way, decent if not exciting. “There’s no sign that they’ve been marinated” said John, and that would probably have been forgivable if they had the beautiful, blackened char of a close encounter with a charcoal grill. But that hadn’t really happened either. We blamed the quantity of food we’d ordered for leaving some of these, but the truth is that we couldn’t really be arsed.

It was some time before we got round to ordering mains, partly because we were getting full and partly because the service at Alona was so relaxed you sensed it was all the same to them whether you were there or not. But mainly it was because the conversation was just so interesting and wide ranging: from family and friends to Reading’s cultural scene (“yes, we had Mumford And Sons at South Street before they made it big. They were pretty awful”) to the town’s rather interesting approach to awards, as exemplified by the decision to crown the Oracle as Reading’s premium cultural space (although I maintain that the beach bar, on a weekend night, is best viewed as some kind of performance art piece).

John moved to Reading fifteen years ago to work at South Street, and it was obvious talking to him that he loves our town every bit as much as I do. And I wondered for a second, probably fancifully, if we weren’t that different after all: trying to introduce the people of Reading to new stuff, promoting the plucky, the emerging and the up and coming, doing our bit to make the community we love a better place. But the parallels probably aren’t exact: I did have a swipe at the Hexagon at one point and he ever so nicely reminded me that without the Hexagon there could be no South Street, and that a good town needed both. Would I be so magnanimous about the likes of Bill’s or TGI Friday? I wondered. It seemed unlikely.

But then there might be something in it after all: “When people go to a Hexagon show, they know what they’re getting”, John said, “but when they come to South Street I hope they go away having been made to feel, or think, in a different way”. I still like to believe that food culture can be like that, even if you’re comparing Pepe Sale to Zizzi or Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen to Bina Tandoori. But what do I know? I’m just a restaurant reviewer.

Anyway, back to the food: we decided to share a couple of dishes from the grill, so we went for a mixed grill for one and a lamb shawarma. The former was so huge that although we were charged for a single portion I can’t believe they didn’t bring us a mixed grill for two by mistake. The highlight of this was the chicken shish, which got the balance just right, perfectly soft without sacrificing the texture outside, although there was still little evidence of marination. I was more dubious about the lamb kofte, which was a little bouncy for my liking (it was one of those kebabs where you’re wary of looking at the cross-section, put it that way). John raved about – and finished off – the lamb shish but I would have liked it more tender. We were agreed, though, on the lamb chops, which were unnecessarily tough and far from a highlight. Mixed grill? Mixed bag, more like.

All that paled into insignificance, though, compared to the experience of Alona’s lamb shawarma. You know that feeling when a dish is plonked in front of you and you actively don’t want to eat it? The last time I had it was in Paris last year when I was dished up a slice of terrine, jelly and all, which looked exactly like it had been extracted from a tin of Pedigree Chum. This lamb shawarma was a very similar experience – a plate full of wobbly, gelatinous meat which required a scalpel more than a knife and fork.

“I’m not sure that fat has rendered properly” said John, displaying a masterful talent for understatement. I felt like just saying “that looks repulsive” (which might also have been an understatement) but I thought better of it. We both gingerly picked through it, trying to find bits which required minimal dissection. It didn’t taste as bad as it looked – not much would, in honesty – but it was all cloves and no subtlety, a bit like drinking HP sauce from a shot glass and eating chewing gum at the same time.

After a couple of forkfuls I became extremely grateful both that John and I had already eaten a lot of food and that we’d ordered main courses to share. Imagine having ordered a helping of this to yourself and having to eat it in front of friends or loved ones: it didn’t bear thinking about. We left almost all of it, and I had my “oh, but I’m so full!” speech (complete with patting belly) prepared, but fortunately we weren’t asked about it. That’s not to criticise the service, which was actually really friendly and enthusiastic – and they generally did seem to want to know what we thought of everything – but service alone just isn’t enough.

Both mains came with a choice of rice or chips, so for completeness’ sake we had both. For completeness’ sake I’m also telling you that but really, they weren’t anything to write home about. There’s no alcohol licence at Alona either so we went crazy and had a bottle of water each, too. We settled up, paying the princely sum of forty-two pounds without service, and headed to the Hope & Bear for a pint and a debrief. That basically consisted of discussing Michelin starred restaurants we’d both enjoyed: it’s almost as if we were trying to take our minds off the shawarma. We were like Terry Waite and John McCarthy, chained to that culinary radiator.

Finishing by describing one of the worst dishes I’ve eaten this year probably puts an unnecessary downer on this review. To pull things back slightly: you could have a reasonable meal at Alona. If I’d had the houmous beiruty and the chicken shish, I probably would have thought it a pleasant, if unspecial, dinner. But even then I would have been struck by the mediocre pitta, and the standard issue chips, and I would have known deep down that I could have had a better, cheaper meal at Kings Grill. But based on what I had, the consistency just wasn’t there, and the range ran the gamut from “just above average” to “God, no”.

I really hoped not to end the review this way, but I can’t not say this: I can’t see a single reason why you’d go to Alona when Bakery House exists. When I think of the lamb shawarma at Bakery House, crispy, intense, generous and delicious (and I’ve done so many times, trying to wipe memories of Alona’s version from my mind), I realise there’s no comparison at all. They’re both lamb shawarma, but only in the way that Barack Obama and Jim Davidson are both humans. Alona isn’t Jim Davidson, not by any means, but my terrific evening there was down to the company, not the food. I hope Alona picks up and improves: with such an obvious, direct and superior competitor in the centre of town it needs to. Fast.

And, since someone will almost certainly ask: if I had to choose between Alona and Comptoir Libanais? I’d go to Comptoir Libanais – with somebody who waited until I got there before ordering.

Alona – 6.1
133 Wokingham Road, RG6 1LW
0118 9667000

(No website)

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The Bottle & Glass Inn

Are you sitting comfortably? Do you have a drink: a cuppa, a beer or a gin (whatever your preference is, depending on when you’re reading this) to hand? Well rested and alert? Good, because we have lots to get through this week. Eighteen dishes, four courses, plenty of photos – so much in fact that I’m not sure whether I’m writing a review or organising a school trip (quiet at the back, you two). I’ll try to rein in my tendency to be prolix, and you’ll have to focus. Right, let’s do this.

It’s my fault we’re in this position. I went out to celebrate the fifth birthday of the blog – no, we don’t have time for me to wang on about that either – and I chose somewhere which looked special on paper. The Bottle & Glass Inn, in the pretty village of Binfield Heath, out towards Henley, had been on my wish list for a while. It reopened last year with great credentials, taken over by the former managers of London’s Michelin-starred pub the Harwood Arms. By October it had received a Michelin Plate, usually a sign that the tire-sellers consider a place marked for Great Things. How often do I review somewhere that’s been mentioned in Country Life, very much Edible Reading’s spiritual twin?

The other reason we have much to discuss is that on this occasion I went out on duty in a four. So it was my mother, my stepfather, my close friend Zoë and I (a team of all the talents if ever there was one) who pulled up outside the Bottle & Glass on a Friday night, ready to celebrate and – hopefully – to be wowed.

It’s a gorgeous pub. It’s thatched and beamed (it’s a listed building, unsurprisingly) and the bar looks like the comfiest, cosiest place to nurse a drink. Like many such places, they’ve built a tasteful extension where they actually feed people. I’ve sat in such extensions many times (The Wellington Arms, The Hind’s Head, The Crooked Billet and so on) and however nice they are you always feel a little like you’re missing out. Even so, the dining room in the Bottle & Glass was rather fetching: big capable tables, tastefully painted walls, a rather fetching green tweed banquette. Not perfect, though – the lack of softness and the bifold doors along one side made the room more deafening than buzzy, and the fact that there was another room beyond made this one feel a little like a fine dining corridor.

I liked the look of the menu, but it wasn’t without its complications to navigate. I know my mother well, and she didn’t take to it from the off; she doesn’t like pickles and, in one shape or another, they featured in every starter but one. The other complication was working out who would order what. My stepfather gallantly, insisted that we should all order separate courses (“for the blog”, he said). But that, combined with multiple requests of “can I order last?” turned the whole thing into one of those logic puzzles where X won’t sit on the right of Y, can’t sit opposite his ex-wife Z and is wearing red so can’t sit on the left of A (pretty soon logic puzzles will just involve trying to plan a dinner party for 12 people with a total of 6 different food allergies/intolerances/preferences, or whatever you call them nowadays).

Anyway, we eventually got there. And goodness knows we had plenty of time, because apart from bringing our wine – a very nice, robust Cahors which was just the wrong side of thirty pounds a bottle – we waited a long time, almost half an hour, before anybody came to take our order. It was especially frustrating as the menu had things in the “snacks” section that we fancied, and it would have been lovely to at least have those, and some bread, while solving our logic puzzle.

More disillusionment came when someone finally arrived at our table. They’d just sold their last of the grouse, he told us (maybe if they’d taken our order a bit sooner…). Worse still, they had run out of double cooked chips. Would we like some boiled new potatoes instead?

“That’s not really a very attractive offer, is it?” said my mum. The young waiter smiled blankly at her.

“How does anybody run out of chips?” I said after he had gone, incredulous. “I can understand you only have so many grouse, but chips?”

“Well, we are eating late” said my stepfather dryly (we’d turned up at half seven). “I don’t understand how you can have three side dishes on a menu and run out of one of them this early on a Friday night.”

The bread was the first to turn up: soda bread, still warm, two little loaves between four. It looked decent, but breaking it open none of us was hugely impressed – the taste was disconcertingly reminiscent of pretzels and, like pretzels, these were on the dry and chewy side, lacking in seasoning. “The butter’s too warm” said my mother, and she was right, although we’d been given so little it seemed a moot point. “The bread at the Black Rat is much better” she added, referencing Winchester’s Michelin-starred pub – a reasonable point of comparison – and that reminded me of their amazing squid ink and parmesan rolls. This wasn’t a patch on that, and none of us raced through it.

Our snacks arrived not long after. The scotch egg was a beast of a thing, and easily divisible between four. It looked the part, and the texture was note-perfect but seemingly at the expense of the taste: like the bread it was under-seasoned.

The other snack was beetroot houmous, which was topped with more beetroot and served with sourdough which was verging on cremated. I liked the houmous, and it came with a healthy whack of garlic, but personally I’d have liked more of it and could have done without the extra beetroot. It worried me that the kitchen seemed worse at cooking toast than me (“the taste of carbon might have complimented the garlic” said my stepfather later, “but that feels more like happenstance than grand design”).

What with the burnt toast, the bland Scotch egg, the AWOL chips and the lack of grouse we all felt faintly mutinous by the time our starters arrived, so it was a relief to find that they were an improvement. Zoë’s was the pick of the bunch – a big, delicate-tasting piece of salmon, poached so that it broke into large, handsome flakes. The bubbled, crisped salmon skin on top was delicious and light, and the pickled cucumber was sweet rather than sharp. It was also unquestionably the most generous of the starters: I had a mouthful and was more than slightly envious.

My stepfather’s starter was my second choice on paper – bresaola with smoked bone marrow and summer truffle sounds like all the good things. My forkful suggested that the bresaola, hidden underneath everything else, was the star of the show but the whole thing was too bland when on paper it should have been so much more (it reminded me, in fact, of the unedifying two months I spent on Tinder last year).

I had chosen the terrine, a slim slice of ham hock and foie gras which, neatly, was both clean and indulgent. Everything else on the plate went so well with it – golden, plump, sweet sultanas, pickled girolles and some kind of crumb or dust which tasted of the very best pork scratchings with the texture of the beautiful, salty powder left at the bottom of a packet. There was also some “violet mustard” which tasted, as far as I could tell, of mustard. So many tastes and textures here – sweet, sharp, salty and, of course, foie bloody gras – and so much to mix and match that, for once, I didn’t even feel like I would have liked some bread with it. Well, mostly. Like the bresaola, it had a little bit of frisée on top, as if to say See? It can’t all be delicious, you know.

My mother chose the only pickle-free starter, which contained plenty of unadvertised capers: I’ll let you imagine how happy she felt about that. Billed as a salad of tomatoes with curd, black olive caramel and tomato tea it was a pretty, artfully stacked bunch of tomatoes along with an odd pastry disc which had been added for seemingly no reason. If you like tomatoes this might well have been the dish for you, but my mother was left baffled by it and so, to be honest, was I. It’s the kind of dish I wouldn’t have ordered in a million years, and tasting some didn’t change my mind (interestingly the Bottle & Glass’ Twitter feed has since shown pictures of this dish reworked, so maybe they too weren’t convinced by it).

By this point, I increasingly thought it unlikely that all four of us would leave completely satisfied. My mother might have taken against the place, but I agreed that her main course was a little disappointing. Denied the grouse, she instead had the chicken. Now, I often think chicken can be a surprisingly good choice in a high end restaurant (especially if they can get the skin right), but the Bottle & Glass served up a gigantic chicken breast, no crispy skin, the usual sticky jus and some charred sweetcorn. There was also black garlic, which I really liked but which my mother found too sweet (sweetness in savoury food, and why it’s beyond the pale, is one of the culinary hills my mother is prepared to die on). Honourable mention has to go to the Maris Piper terrine, a gorgeous stack of wonderfully cooked potato, like a miniature pommes boulangère. Why couldn’t they have rustled some of that up for us, if they’d run out of chips? My mother left a fair bit of the chicken: my stepfather polished it off.

My dish was not just venison, but smoked venison – two pieces, seared on the outside but decidedly pink inside (“I think that looks a bit underdone” said my mother, but venison like Turkish delight has always worked for me). I’ve never had it smoked before and it was a revelation: on that basis the Bottle & Glass’ menu could do with a lot more smoking and a little less pickling. It came with the regulation Michelin-chasing sticky reduction, a purée which might have been celeriac, plenty of roasted shallots and rings of onion, sweet and caramelised and – this may have been why I ordered the dish – almost-crunchy nuggets of black pudding. This was more like it, although it did feel like a dish for the depths of winter plonked in the middle of the summer.

My stepfather is wont to order fish on a menu, when it looks interesting, and he chose the plaice with samphire, mussels and fennel. As you can see from the picture it was a delicate thing and, although he liked it, it was a too delicate for me. I tried some, and you couldn’t deny that the plaice was brilliantly cooked and the fennel lovely and sweet, but I did find myself thinking: where are the carbs? And where’s the rest? There was a little blob of white – possibly the advertised sorrel butter, possibly not – but I would have liked a good beurre blanc with this, or even a beurre noisette. “It was a good low carb option”, my stepfather emailed me later when I asked him for his thoughts, “as THERE WERE NO CHIPS”. Quite.

Zoë’s main was the best of the lot. Lamb rump and shoulder (thank heavens they didn’t wankily call it “lamb two ways”) was a very generous helping of pink rump and the highlight, a gorgeous piece of slow-cooked shoulder which simply fell apart. I was allowed to try that, and it was so terrific that I regretted my own menu choice. It made my helping of venison feel a tad stingy, put it that way. It came with artichoke and hasselback potatoes (teeny tiny ones which, again, were never going to redeem the Great Chip Shortage Of 2018), and some manner of green puree – pea, perhaps? – which had been plated up in a manner best described as unnecessarily spaffy.

We ordered some side dishes: neither of them added much but bulk. The new potatoes were nicely cooked and firm and tossed in butter and mint – or, according to the menu, “mint butter” – but the whole thing was oddly sweet. The Binfield Heath courgettes (“are they from an allotment then?” said my mother, slightly scornfully) might have ticked all the provenance boxes but really, the advertised thyme butter was missing in action and however multi-coloured they were, they remained big chunks of watery blandness. The sides were four pounds fifty each, and the main thing they achieved was to make me really want some chips.

By this point we’d run out of Cahors and three of us drank small glasses of Barbera d’Asti – it was pleasant enough, if lacking in the body and complexity of the red wine we’d just finished. That said, it reflects well that the Bottle & Glass offers quite a few wines by the glass and that, generally, you aren’t penalised for having smaller glasses. In preparation for the desserts to follow, we also ordered a couple of dessert wines. The Pedro Ximenez was, as it usually is, a treacly, sugary delight. My Banyuls was less impressive, again feeling slightly thin and lacking in the complex almost-sweetness you get with the best examples. By this stage I really wasn’t sure what I made of the Bottle & Glass: a feeling the desserts, as it turned out, would only compound.

Continuing the trend of the evening, Zoë had chosen the standout, my mother picked the wooden spoon and my stepfather and I were somewhere in the middle. My stepfather’s cheeseboard was a pretty decent offering, I thought – Barkham Blue (it sounds ungrateful to say this, but it feels like Barkham Blue is increasingly ubiquitous on cheeseboards: the victim of its own success, perhaps), a crumbly Lincolnshire Poacher – to my money the equal of any mature cheddar you can lay your hands on – and Bosworth Ash, a very creditable goat’s cheese. I do admire a place confident enough to give you good helpings of a few cheeses – a lot of a little rather, than a little of a lot. Nice crackers and chutney, too.

I had gone, as I so often do, for the chocolate dessert and it wasn’t bad, although not what I was expecting from the description. “Chocolate cream” did form part of it, and it was pleasant enough, and then there was a big slab of something partway between a brownie and a ganache which rather dominated the whole thing. The best bit of it was the mint ice cream, perched on top – the sweetness that hadn’t worked with the potatoes went brilliantly here. Good enough, but not particularly exciting.

Zoë was delighted by her dessert, because you can call it a date and walnut sponge all you like but when it turns up hot with butterscotch sauce and ice cream it’s basically sticky toffee pudding. Having to listen to the raptures, this time, was slightly tempered by knowing that I never really get food envy when dried fruit is concerned.

Having said that, my mother – tackling a pleasant, slightly prissy apple parfait with elderflower ice cream – might have felt differently. It looked pretty and clean, but when you’ve sat through two disappointing courses the last thing you want is a chaste goodbye kiss of a pudding. Even the post-dessert treats they brought over: chocolate coated honeycomb and fudge (which I suspect I enjoyed more than the other three) couldn’t undo all the damage.

I couldn’t help feeling that it was a meal of two halves. For the first half, service was lacklustre and some of the food we wanted just wasn’t available. During the second half of the meal service became almost too solicitous, as if they knew they had some ground to make up. My suspicion was just that they were swamped for the first hour or so, and that suspicion was confirmed when we settled up: they’d had a huge number of orders for fish and chips, they said, and something about not having enough potatoes, and being short of chefs, and at that point I’m sorry to say that, nice though the waiter was, I stopped listening. Perhaps I’m being unfair – quite possibly I am – but at the level the Bottle & Glass aspires to it’s partly about expectations, and they did a decent job of limboing under mine. Dinner for four – three courses each, some pre-dinner snacks, a bottle and a half of red wine and three glasses of dessert wine – came to £285, including a pre-added 12.5% service charge. You could definitely eat for less, though, and for the quality many of the dishes felt like really good value: especially that lamb.

With a meal this extensive, multi-faceted and complex I find it takes more time to digest the experience than the food. And the sheer variety of food we tried meant that we all had subtly different experiences: Zoë loved her meal, and was saying that she’d quite happily take her mother there for dinner. My own mother, on the other hand, won’t ever return: “I’d sooner go to back to the Crooked Billet” she said, as we pulled out of the car park. I can understand both points of view, and heaven knows the Crooked Billet isn’t the only competitor in these parts. You’re also not far from the superb Bird In Hand in Sonning Common and the very serviceable Reformation at Gallowstree Common, not to mention Orwell’s in Shiplake (N.B. Since writing this I’ve been advised that the Reformation has closed).

This is a well-to-do part of the country, and diners looking for good food in a pretty pub have plenty of choices. I’ve changed my mind several times about the Bottle & Glass even in the course of writing this review. I went away feeling a little underwhelmed, and then as I thought over the food I found myself revising my opinion. Some of it really was up there with any dishes I’ve had this year (although, in fairness, not necessarily the stuff I ordered on this visit). But then I think about the confusion of it: you serve dainty, precise food and yet you burn the toast. You proclaim how local your courgettes are at the same time as you run out of chips (can you tell I haven’t got over that?). And that, sadly, is what has stayed with me about the Bottle & Glass. So I didn’t have the perfect meal to celebrate my birthday, not by any means. But as a way of marking five years of eating, analysing and writing? Somehow it’s hard to think of a more appropriate venue.

The Bottle & Glass Inn – 7.4
Bones Lane, Binfield Heath, RG9 4JT
01491 412615

https://www.bottleandglassinn.com/

Brewdog

Regular readers might remember that I first attempted to review Brewdog about three months ago, unsuccessfully as it happens. I came, I saw, I was told they couldn’t even take orders for at least thirty minutes and I sodded off. To the Real Greek instead, in fact, where I had a surprisingly enjoyable meal with my friend Steve. He still messages me occasionally just to talk about sausage (the one at the Real Greek I should say, although I think Steve has a soft spot for most sausages, so to speak).

I decided I would leave Brewdog for another day when my frustration had subsided and I’d forgotten some of the faux wackiness which had slightly got my back up – the almost illegible menu and the zany pun-ridden dish names like “Hail Seitan” and “Clucky This Time”. So I turned up with my old friend Mike on a Monday night to check it out, hoping for better luck this time.

Much was different from my last visit. In May, Brewdog had been open less than two months and there was still a huge buzz about the place. It had been fuller and louder, whereas going back now it was definitely a quieter proposition – although that might also be because I went on a Monday. Another difference was that last time I turned up on spec, whereas this time I had had already booked a table.

The site has a chequered history. It’s been the Litten Tree, a properly purgatorial chain pub known to many Reading residents of a certain vintage as the “Shitten Tree”. It’s been RYND, with beautiful interiors, rock-hard cheap seating and bandwagon-chasing knock-off American barbecue food. And most recently it’s been Public, a venue whose selling point – if you see this as a selling point – was to have board games, fussball tables and pool tables. I imagine the trendsetters went there but wouldn’t have been seen dead in the Sun, on the opposite side of the road, with its thoroughly charming bar billiards table: nowhere near ironic enough.

RYND, for all its faults, did a beautiful job of exposing the brickwork and then Public cocked it all up with cheapo tiles and wood panelling, so it was lovely to see that Brewdog had restored the room to something like its former glory. The large central room does feel like a beer hall, with long tables and – no surprises here – industrial light fittings. I’d asked for a booth, and it would have been nice to have been seated at one of the ones in the main room to feel more like part of things, but instead they put us in the smaller area off to the left, very much the overflow car park of the restaurant.

On my last visit, poor Steve and I waited at our table in bewilderment for easily five minutes before realising that nobody was going to come to ask us what we wanted. At the time, I wrote this off as my mistake, thinking that Brewdog was far more like a pub than a restaurant. But another difference with this visit was that a very friendly, smiley waitress came over and asked us what we’d like to drink. I have no idea whether that’s because it was quieter, or because we’d booked a table or for some other reason, and it slightly bugs me that I can’t tell you which of my two visits was more representative.

The menu was, well, burgers and hot dogs. And two salads. I couldn’t help thinking that Brewdog might have put more effort and imagination – albeit misplaced – into the names of the dishes than the dishes themselves. I had my eye on a burger from my extensive research – the “Jackpot”, with its winning combination of black pudding, chorizo and blue cheese – but I was also determined to let Mike pick first. I’m lucky that people want to come out on duty with me, so I always try to make sure they aren’t eating their second choice of starter or main.

“I quite fancy the ‘Chipotle Chorizo’,” said Mike, which made perfect sense: his mum is Spanish, after all.

“That’s fine” I said through gritted teeth, dying slightly inside as the prospect of sampling the Jackpot receded into the middle distance. “I’ll just have one of the chicken burgers instead. I love southern fried chicken.”

My first choice of chicken burger would have been the “Buffalo Chicken”, but we’d also decided to have some of the buffalo cauliflower, so I ended up going for the “Cluck Norris”: southern fried chicken and avocado. I had a sneaking feeling I had picked the menu’s equivalent of a chicken korma at this point, but the die was cast. Besides, why whinge about it to Mike when I could bide my time and instead complain to literally dozens of readers? Think of the delayed gratification, I told myself as I drank my pint.

I suppose I should at least attempt to talk about the beer, so here goes: there are a whole range of Brewdog beers on tap along with others in bottles and a range of other guest beers. Nearly everything crosses the five pound a pint Rubicon which, in fairness, probably stopped being any kind of meaningful threshold at some point last year; nowadays you just pay whatever they charge you and if you wince when they tell you how much your round is, you’re either in the wrong place or pubs just aren’t for you. The menu helpfully made suggestions about which beers paired well with each burger (Mike followed this advice, because he’s that kind of person and I didn’t, because I’m not).

Mike declared himself very satisfied with the Punk IPA and the Dead Pony, the latter specifically chosen to go with his burger. “They sell Brewdog on the continent”, he told me (Mike spends most of the year swanning around Europe running coach tours: I like to think he’s like a twenty-first century Robin Askwith, although the lack of stories of swordsmanship suggests this might be wishful thinking), “but it’s really expensive over there.” The punchline was left hanging in the air: I couldn’t be bothered to claim it.

My beers, from the outer reaches of the list, were more interesting I thought, although that doesn’t guarantee that my descriptions of them will be. I had a pint of Lighthouse by Windswept which I really liked, a “Kolsch style lager” (it means it’s kind of German, apparently – you know, like the Royal Family) which was crisp, clean and just the right side of the dividing line between bland and delicate. The Windswept website says it’s best enjoyed after abseiling or archery, which strikes me as a shame because it means I’ll never get to enjoy it in optimum conditions: never mind, I’ll live.

I followed it up with a pint of “#MashTag2018” which seems to be a beer that’s part crowdsourced through polls every year. The 2018 version, which presumably was chosen by Russian bots, was infused with hibiscus and yuzu and I liked it a great deal; the sharp citrus added by the yuzu made it smarter than the average beer. Mike had a sip and decided to order a pint of himself after he’d lapped me. He then decided that it was more fun to sip a little of it than to wade through a pint of it, which I figured served him right. Karmic payback for stopping me hitting the Jackpot, perhaps.

The burgers at Brewdog cost between nine and ten pounds and fries (or sweet potato fries) are extra, so in terms of price it’s probably largely on a par with Honest. It’s taken me until this point in the review to mention the H word, but they were very much in my mind as I had my dinner because, for better or worse, 2018 is the year that they’ve become the benchmark for all burgers in this town.

Here’s something you’ll rarely hear me say: the problem with my chicken burger is that it had too much chicken. It’s honestly true – the unremarkable-looking seeded brioche had two large coated chicken breasts in it. That might have been a dream come true if the coating had tasted of anything, but in fact it had almost no flavour at all. A real shame, because it looked the part and the texture was great, but in terms of taste it was like a mirage of KFC. This also meant that the whole thing was unbalanced because the things it really needed – the avocado, the coriander, the Cajun mayo – simply couldn’t put up a fight against all that bland fried chicken. With proper coating, less chicken and more of the rest it could have been world-beating, but as it was I actually left some of it. A knife stuck needlessly out of the top, Excalibur-style, and I couldn’t tell whether it was decoration or punishment.

Mike’s “Chipotle Chorizo” was better, but still unspecial. The burger itself – very much cooked medium-well – was crumbly and dry and left me, again, thinking wistfully of Honest at the other end of town. The chorizo was by far the best thing in it – coarse, juicy and piquant – but the chipotle mayo didn’t add a lot and the padron peppers felt a bit random. There was one in the burger and another impaled on top of the bun – that knife trick again. I felt like Mike had got the better deal, but only in terms of shades of meh. Speaking of meh, the fries were wan and disappointing, and I didn’t have any desire to finish them all. Mike had upgraded to the sweet potato fries – they cost fifty pence extra – and this was money well spent, although probably money better spent would have involved not having fries at all.

The bright spot was the buffalo cauliflower, which we both agreed was quite the nicest thing we ate all evening. Big firm florets in a hot, sour glaze, and easily more interesting than the feature attraction, a scene-stealing bit part. But even this wasn’t perfect – I liked the coating but I’d have liked it to be crunchier and stick to the cauliflower a bit better. And, when it came to it, we paid eight pounds for it, so it really wasn’t much cheaper than the burgers. Perhaps by this point I’d just run out of magnanimity: it’s distinctly possible. There was a vegan dip with it, which tasted like a photocopy of salad cream and might have appealed, if you were a vegan.

This is all getting a bit crotchety, isn’t it? I should perhaps focus on the service because it was properly lovely. Our waitress (or, according to the bill, “server”) was likeable and cheery without ever seeming fake or making us feel like miserable old shits, not that we needed any help in that department. Our bill for two came to just shy of sixty pounds, excluding service (and the menu, randomly, also gives you the option to buy a pint of Punk IPA for the kitchen: I’m not sure that would have improved matters, but it might have been worth giving it a whirl). At the time that didn’t feel like a lot, but looking back it feels like money extracted somewhat by stealth.

It’s probably obvious by now that Brewdog wasn’t my bag at all, but what surprises me is that I honestly expected it to be better. It has a small menu and I thought sticking to a few things might mean they did them well, especially when you think about how considered their brand is and how much attention to detail they’ve put into the building, and the fit out. So it’s disappointing that the food was so drab; if I wanted that kind of meal I’d go to Honest, and if I wanted that range of beer I’d walk slightly further out of town and make for the Nag’s Head.

Of course, it’s possible that Brewdog was aiming for the sweet spot on the Venn diagram where beer drinkers and food fans meet, but somehow I doubt it. It felt like the food was just there to tick a box rather than to properly complement the beer, and I found that a little sad. It felt a lot like a slightly less corporate Oakford Social Club, but when you strip away the beards the experience is much the same. What Brewdog really highlighted, for me, is one of the big gaps in the market left here in Reading. Since I Love Paella left the Fisherman’s Cottage, punters have been left with a pretty stark choice: you can have a fantastic range of well-kept beer or you can have brilliant food, but – for now at least – you can’t have both.

Brewdog – 6.2
11 Castle Street, RG1 7SB
0118 9568755

https://www.brewdog.com/bars/uk/reading

Feature: Table for one

What a difference three years makes: back in 2015, when I last posted a guide to solo dining, I waxed lyrical about it as an experience but, truth be told, I didn’t do it that often. Now and again when my spouse went away on business, mainly, or on the odd occasion when I had a day off to myself, but my experience of it was more limited than my paean of praise made it sound. It probably shows in the piece, because – despite my best intentions – it read more as advice and consolation for those who found themselves unfortunate enough to be eating alone, rather than a celebration of the joys of a table for one.

These days I have a far richer experience of eating on your own, at all points on the spectrum. Separation, divorce, self-discovery, solo holidays, working out that some of your friends aren’t actually friends at all: all that Eat Pray Love bullshit has many effects but one of them, for me, was to give me a far better understanding of the benefits of going to a restaurant accompanied only by a copy of Private Eye (and my phone, for when the cynicism gets too much). Fast forward three years, and I’ve eaten on my own all over the place.

I’ve been jammed in at the bar at a hot – in both senses – packed no-reservation London place on a weekday lunchtime. I’ve spoiled myself by ordering from the a la carte menu at Nirvana Spa, in my fluffy white robe, peering at my paperback between courses. I’ve dined at Pierre Victoire, pretending to pay attention to a magazine while really people watching North Oxford’s finest eating and chatting, imagining all those different lives intersecting, albeit briefly, with mine. And last year I spent the best part of a week in Paris on my own, reinventing old favourites and discovering new ones. A good table, a good view, a good glass of wine and a good book, alone but not lonely; I might not have learned to completely love eating alone, but I certainly came to appreciate it.

Closer to home, there’s a lot to be said for a table for one and lots of occasions where it can be a positive pleasure. The quick solo meal on the way to meet friends in the pub, especially people from the “eating is cheating” brigade (just me, maybe, but I’ve always found that a dreary philosophy to live by). The drawn-out lunch on a Saturday when you have the day to yourself. Or even just the moment – and this might just be me – where I get off the train at Reading station (or Gare Du Ding, as I keep calling it) and I just can’t be arsed to cook. The sun is shining, I have nowhere in particular to be and I think how nice it would be to treat myself before heading home.

Not only has my life changed a lot in the last three years: Reading has too. Two of my choices last time around are not currently trading. I Love Paella has left the Fisherman’s Cottage (in contentious circumstances: less said about that the better) and Dolce Vita has left Kings Walk, forced out by a greedy landlord who wanted to make more money. If Namaste Kitchen was still running its menu from earlier in the year it would have made this list, because I couldn’t imagine anything finer than going there and having a beer, a plate of paneer pakora and a chicken chow mein (one of the joys of eating solo, in a small plates restaurant like Namaste Kitchen, is not having to share food for once).

And of course, I still miss Georgian Feast (the artist formerly known as Caucasian Spice Box) back when they cooked from the Turks Head. It became a regular ritual for me to head over there and eat on my own for the first half of last year: meatballs, spiced chicken thighs, sharply dressed salad and cheese bread – oh, and a pint of Strongbow Cloudy Apple. At the time I was living in a truly awful one bedroom flat, and it felt like having friends cook for you which, after a while, I suppose it sort of was; sometimes you can tell a lot about a restaurant by how it treats solo diners.

The other way that this list has changed since 2015 is that it reflects the rise of what, for want of a better phrase, I would call the Good Chain. Smaller, smarter chains are coming to Reading and they can often provide a little bit of the intimacy of an independent restaurant with some of the polish you associate with a bigger establishment. I make no apology for including so many of them here, because I’m interested in good restaurants – and good restaurants to eat alone in – and it’s not my fault that Reading doesn’t yet have the kind of independents, especially in the town centre, that get this stuff right.

I eat alone less often these days than I used to, nowadays, but a good meal alone is still a wonderful act of self-care, provided you pick the right venue. No quibbles about splitting the bill, nobody judging you for ordering too much, or having the expensive wine. No rush, nobody to please but yourself, and all that people watching. So here are my current recommendations – I hope they come in handy, and if you’ve always considered eating out on your own a step too far I really would encourage you to give it a try.

1. Bakery House

The perfect combination of food and anonymity.

I’ve grown to love an early evening meal alone at Bakery House. I sit facing out into that long, slightly chilly room, sip on an orange Mirinda (it’s basically Tango) and wait for the food to arrive. Some days I’ll munch on maqaneq: little, punchy sausages – you get an awful lot of them. On others I might go for the smooth, rich houmous beiruty, glossy and packed with tahini, beautiful piled on a big bubble of pitta, fresh from the oven.

That done, I can look forward to the main event. I tend to order the lamb shawarma – a big mound of intensely flavoured shreds of lamb, with garlic sauce, chilli sauce and terrific vegetable rice. But then there are also the delights of the boneless baby chicken, all charred skin and tender meat, a holiday on a plate. What could be better than being so transported?

The service at Bakery House can verge on standoffish, grumpy even. In other contexts that might be frustrating, but there’s something oddly comforting about how anonymous you can feel eating there. They don’t care whether you’re in a big group, on a date or alone, they’re simply there to bring you food and to leave you in peace. They’re like the barber that knows better than to talk to you when he’s cutting your hair, and some of my happiest, most meditative meals have taken place at Bakery House.

Bakery House, 82 London Street, RG1 4SJ
http://bakeryhouse.co

2. Cote

Three courses, because you deserve them.

Cote, for me, is for the full solo three course experience. Sitting on the banquette looking out into the room is one of the best, most uplifting ways that you can say “I deserve this”, whether you’re ordering from the set menu or the full a la carte. The latter sometimes has some brilliant specials – confit duck, perhaps, or the rare treat of a skate wing swimming with butter and festooned with capers (there isn’t much in life that rivals flipping a skate wing over halfway through eating it and realising that you have the thick side yet to come).

The set menu really comes into its own on summer days, when you can sit at a little table outside, with a view of the canal. I like to drink a Breton cider, crisp and almost sweet, and watch the world go by while I make my choices. Some of the dishes are good, and some are great, but all are stupidly reasonably priced, and the act of eating before 7pm means that you’re likely to be finished before the light has faded and the best of the evening has gone. I used to think “if I tried hard I could imagine I was in Paris right now”, but these days I think “I’m so lucky to live here.”

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

3. Franco Manca

Comfort food, elevated.

When it comes to comfort, little can top cheese on toast – and if anything can, it might be Franco Manca’s sourdough pizza. I have a real soft spot for their anchovy and caper version (ask for extra anchovies, because although Franco Manca is very reasonably priced you do to some extent get what you pay for). That said, their standard margarita is also worth a go, topped with whatever extras they have on the menu that day (the picture above, coppa and Ogleshield cheddar, was a particular high point). Oh, and have a blue cheese or pesto dip, because it really does transform the whole thing.

Franco Manca is perfect for a quick stop, but it’s actually not hard to make it more of a treat. Some of the starters – especially anything with mozzarella (smoked or otherwise), burrata or fennel salami – well worth lingering over, as long as you can overlook the fact that most of them are stuff you’d put on a pizza taken off a pizza and served cold on a plate instead. I can, anyway. And finally, the chocolate ice cream is pretty decent as is my personal favourite, a crafty affogato.

When I first reviewed Franco Manca I liked the food and was sceptical about the room, mainly because it was impossible to hear your dining companion. It turns out that really isn’t an issue when you go on your own, which means that what could be a wall of noise becomes a strangely comforting hubbub. Sitting outside, on a summer day, is also a lovely thing to do.

Franco Manca, The Oracle, Bridge Street, RG1 2AT
https://www.francomanca.co.uk/restaurants/reading

4. Honest Burgers

Meat and potatoes.

I said the Good Chains had this eating alone business down pat, and you would struggle to find a better example of that than Honest Burgers. Much has been made, quite rightly, of what a beautiful job they did with the interior. And plenty has been written about the virtues of the Reading burger, making the most of our local suppliers. Not to mention the King Street Pale, a truly wonderful beer which even I, more of a lager fan, can neck by the pint.

Well, yes. But for my money, the best thing to do at Honest is forego the Reading special and whatever the flavour of the month is and let Honest do what they do best, which is serve cheeseburgers. I go for their most basic burger, topped with cheddar, and that way you can really taste the quality of the beef, the char of the crust, the hint of salt.

Your mileage may vary, but in any case it really is another fantastic venue to eat well and unfussily, especially if you have somewhere to go shortly afterwards. My stepfather has got into the habit of grabbing an Honest before taking in a movie at Vue, and he is a man who knows what he’s doing.

Honest Burgers, 1-5 King Street, RG1 2HB
https://www.honestburgers.co.uk/locations/reading/

5. Kokoro

Dinner on the run.

Kokoro is an illustration of what I call the “yaki soba effect”. Back when I used to go to Wagamama, I always ordered the yaki soba, a big heap of noodles with chicken and prawns and pickled ginger and plenty of good stuff. It never let me down, and became my takeaway of choice for a while. Then I decided I really ought to branch out, but every time I did my meal was plain disappointing – and, usually, I had to watch someone else eat yaki soba in front of me while I pretended to enjoy chicken katsu curry (a dish which always looks a tad too scatological for my liking).

Kokoro is the same – it’s all about the sweet chilli chicken. I mean, just look at that picture up there. Look at it! Doesn’t it make you peckish? A glossy, fiery deep red sauce (and these days they give you enough to coat the rice or noodles) with clearly visible garlic – the best kind of garlic, if you ask me – and piece after piece of tender, crispy-coated chicken. They serve it in either a medium or a large cardboard tub: the medium is quite big enough for anybody, but the large only costs a pound more. The whole thing comes in at the six or seven quid mark, and it’s one of the very best dinners on the run Reading has to offer. You sit at a basic wooden table, polish it off and watch other people come in and place their orders – usually for the sweet chilli chicken, unsurprisingly.

Last time I went, I decided to try the chicken curry instead. It had lots of tender, chicken thigh cooked into strands. It had an anonymous brown sauce which tasted largely of nothing. It was, in short, not the sweet chilli chicken, and that’s when I realised that I won’t make that mistake again. Kokoro also sells chicken katsu curry, but who on earth orders that? People who don’t like the yaki soba at Wagamama, I suppose.

Kokoro, 13 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1SY
http://kokorouk.com/

6. Sapana Home

Because the best things come in multiples of ten.

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Ten pan-fried chicken momo cost six pounds fifty at Sapana Home. They come on a plate, clustered round a little dish of hot dipping sauce, and when you have them pan fried they have a slightly caramelised exterior which seals the deal. A plate of Sapana Home’s momo, I think, can gladden even the heaviest heart. My favourite momo is the fifth one: before that, they pass too quickly and you eat them almost without savouring them, whereas after that you are maybe a little too aware that your pleasure – as most pleasures do – is inevitably coming to an end.

There are other dishes there I recommend, if you’re feeling greedy. The chicken fry is wonderful – pieces of chicken, spring onion and tomato with that same hot sauce. The chow mein, which is fundamentally the chicken fry plus noodles, is also splendid. And if you feel more adventurous I heartily recommend the samosa chaat, a glorious four-way pile-up involving samosas, yoghurt, crispy noodles and red onion.

Late 2016, when I took a break from reviewing restaurants, was a pretty bleak period in my life. Nothing was going right, and when I finished work and got back into town on the train I really didn’t want to go home any time soon, much of the time. What got me through many difficult days, back then, was a plate of momo at Sapana Home. It’s a little place, and it’s best to sit upstairs if you can, where there is daylight. The service is brusque but not unkind. There was a period when sitting there, eating momo and listening to the oddly comforting (if mindless) strains of Heart FM was truly my happy place.

If any further illustration was needed, it’s this. The photo above was taken last night: writing this made me want to go back, so I did. Things have changed a little since I last went: the music was classic Bollywood rather than commercial radio, and the momo (they now do lamb too, although I didn’t order them) were slightly less packed with filling, lighter and more delicate. It was like seeing an old friend after a while and realising they’ve lost weight. I did, for a moment, consider putting Kings Grill in this sixth spot instead. But I’ve kept Sapana Home on this list – it may be mainly for sentimental reasons, but momos six to ten were still as bittersweet.

Sapana Home, 8 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1TG
http://sapanahome.co.uk/

Tuscany Pizzeria

I don’t know how involved a review this will be; it’s hard to complicate a restaurant as simple as Tuscany Pizzeria.

I first had it drawn to my attention by regular reader Eleanor back in April: a pizzeria on the Oxford Road, she said, adding that it was “a choose your own toppings place I think”. I made a mental note to put it on my list and then a couple of months later Eleanor went there and Tweeted the kind of pictures that can’t help but make you hungry – huge pizzas with irregular bubbled crusts, plenty of cheese and all the toppings a person could hope for, the whole thing strewn with rocket. One of the pictures showed the front of the restaurant, with a blackboard on an easel outside saying that a twelve inch pizza was seven pounds, a fourteen inch pizza a tenner.

Surely it couldn’t be quite that straightforward, I thought, as I ambled down the Oxford Road in the sunshine with my very good friend Zoë, fresh from having enjoyed a sharp sour beer in the sunshine of the Nag’s Head, still Reading’s finest beer pub by some distance. But actually, when we arrived it did look just as no-frills as the pictures I’d seen had suggested: one table out the front, the word “TUSCAN” in block capitals above the big window, in a style which had probably aimed for rustic but had to settle for makeshift. The decal taking up much of that window promised “Gourmet Delicious Pizza Top Quality Italian Style”. Hmm, I thought.

Inside, the room had deep red walls with stuff on them best described as Italy by numbers: a picture of some Parma ham here, a drawing of the Leaning Tower Of Pisa there. The whole place couldn’t have seated more than ten people – well, more if you took one of the window seats, but when I was there somebody had helpfully leaned their bicycle against the window counter, making that impossible (in any case a laptop was open there, with the Tuscany Facebook page prominently visible on the screen). The pizza boxes on display made it clear that not all Tuscany’s customers chose to eat in. The tables were a strange sort of multi-coloured hue that looked like something Linda Barker might have dreamt up on Changing Rooms circa 1999.

Anyway, I liked it: it was small and intimate although, with no soft furnishings and most of the tables occupied, it also happened to be astonishingly loud. Most of what I heard, I think, was Polish: the owner of Tuscany is Polish, I believe, and so were most of the customers there on the evening I went (many of the reviews on Facebook are in Polish, too). Some might have been staff, all seemed to be friends of the owners. At the table next to me the group of four seemed to be tucking into something that looked like antipasti, even though I couldn’t see anything of the kind on the menu.

Come to think of it, I couldn’t see a menu anyway, just the counter where you went up and placed your order, which basically consisted of telling the chap how big a pizza you wanted and what toppings you wanted on it. Behind him, you could make out the place where he rolled out the dough and topped the pizza before sticking it in the oven (I didn’t spot whether there was a wood fired oven, but I suspected not). Zoë and I took it in turns to go up and place our orders and sat back down with a can of aranciata apiece: no alcohol licence here, although again, I think I might have spotted one of the chaps at a neighbouring table with a can of beer bought from one of the nearby shops. Again, I felt like I was in a restaurant where I just didn’t know the rules, or the rules differed depending on who you were, and I didn’t entirely enjoy that.

The toppings, incidentally, were a pretty wide range. The owner talked us through them – or the ones on display, anyway – at the counter . Most were reliably standard stuff: peppers, mushrooms, onion, olives, pepperoni, parma ham and so on. The only slight hints of the exotic were some artichoke hearts and friarielli, which is sometimes described as broccoli but is closer to turnip tops, a pizza topping I’d never heard of until I visited Papa Gee but which now seems to be everywhere. I noted, with disappointment, that I couldn’t see any anchovies or capers.

Tuscany’s Facebook page says that all of their ingredients come from Italy. I couldn’t judge that, and I certainly didn’t check any travel documents, but the olive oil was by Filippo Berio (whose Wikipedia page suggests they aren’t quite as Italian as you might think). Anyway, I didn’t care if the pizza wasn’t entirely Italian, here on the Oxford Road being served by a chap from Poland. I wouldn’t have cared if the artichokes were Spanish or the ham Albanian for that matter, provided the pizza was delicious. I didn’t vote to stay in the EU only to quibble about nonsense like that.

While we waited, I saw a pizza carried to one of the other tables and I found myself wishing it had been mine. It looked every bit as good as the pictures I’d looked at months before, with the added advantage of being both three dimensional and edible. But I also saw another dish arrive at another table, what looked like chicken with little strips of baked pizza dough. The chef had been cooking the chicken in a pan when I went up to choose the toppings for my pizza, and I wondered at the time what the dish was given that it wasn’t on the menu (and, of course, given that there was no menu for it not to be on) but I was too timid to ask. Soon after that our pizzas were ready and in turn we were asked whether we wanted rocket and parmesan on them. This was a nice touch, as was the fact that the parmesan was freshly grated onto the pizza before it was cut into slices and brought to the table (the only real element of table service at Tuscany).

Zoë had a twelve inch pizza and I, rather greedily as it turned out, had a fourteen inch pizza. If I was trying to describe the main differences I’d say there were two. First of all, the twelve inch pizza is put on a massive wooden board, cut into slices and then dished up onto a plate barely big enough to contain it. The fourteen inch pizza is just brought to your table on the massive wooden board. The second main difference is that the fourteen inch pizza is actually too big for most right-minded folk to finish, and that includes me. “I knew to just order a twelve inch,” said Zoë sensibly, “because I knew that was the size of an LP and that felt quite big enough.” Trust her to slip in a reference to music and be in the right, I thought.

The base was very good – properly thin, although the edges were more brittle and crispy than charred and bubbled. Not quite on a level with, say, Franco Manca but still pretty decent. What couldn’t be denied, though, was that Franco Manca looked properly stingy compared to this lot. Mine had sundried tomatoes, pitted black olives, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, parma ham and pancetta and although none of the ingredients could be described as exceptional (I’d have liked the olives, for instance, to be the wrinkly, salty kind that I truly love) the sum of the parts was still very good indeed. I drizzled basil oil on one half, garlic oil on the other and ate until I was full. Then I ate some more, then I reluctantly stopped.

Before that, I traded a piece with Zoë and apart from having – an unusual experience, this – envy that her portion was a little smaller than mine, it meant I got to enjoy hers, with lovely sweet shreds of red onion, pepperoni and mozzarella. Her pizza was basically mine without the airs and graces, a more robust meat feast you could say, and none the worse for it. “This is really good” she said between mouthfuls and, as so often, I found her rather difficult to disagree with.

As we were finishing the last of our slices, the people at the table next to me got up to leave and I took the opportunity to ask about the off-piste dish one of them had ordered.

“It’s chicken stuffed with cheese and wrapped with Parma ham” said the man. “He cooks it specially, if you ask him. He gets the chicken in fresh from just down the road – and I know it’s fresh because if he served me frozen chicken he knows I’d kick his ass!”

He chuckled, and I laughed along, wondering if ass-kicking was ever an appropriate thing to reference in a restaurant review. On TripAdvisor, perhaps.

That’s pretty much all there is to say about our meal at Tuscany Pizzeria. Once we’d finished, I settled up at the counter where our meal came to just under twenty pounds. The other diners had cleared out by then, so the owner came over and chatted to us a bit more. Tuscany had been open three months, he said, and they stayed late so they had quite a lot of takeaway trade when people headed home from the pubs.

“My landlord laughed when I told him I wanted to open a pizza place! He said that there were lots of pizza places on the Oxford Road, and I told him this wouldn’t be that kind of pizza place.”

He went on to tell us that business was good and that all their ingredients (“except the mushrooms, spinach and onions”) did indeed come from Italy. He showed us pictures of some of the dishes we hadn’t ordered – a pizza wrap (“lots of customers like this”) and pizza ripiena, essentially a pizza sandwich, like a calzone but without the fold. He sounded so proud of what he did that I started to think that he was right: this wasn’t that kind of pizza place. It was a different beast, and all the better for it. And then something occurred to me.

“Do you have anchovies and capers?”

He smiled.

“Of course I do. Next time you come in, ask.”

Smart guy: it’s precisely at that point that I decided there would be a next time. I could easily have been intimidated or deterred by Tuscany, and by the idea that other people could order different dishes and combinations, like unlocking secret levels in an arcade game. On another night, perhaps I might have been; I can definitely see that other diners might be, and this place won’t be for everybody. If you don’t live in West Reading, you might feel there are better choices closer to home, if you’re in the centre there’s Franco Manca and if you’re privileged enough to live north of the river you have Papa Gee (or, if you like that sort of thing, Quattro – or, I suppose, the Fox And Hounds).

But all that said, something about Tuscany actively made me want to fit in, to go again and to take advantage of all the other options. To try the anchovies and capers, have the ripiena, discover the secret password that lets you order the stuffed chicken or drink a cold beer at the table, brought in from elsewhere. I could see myself playing out my evening in reverse: going back with Zoë, having a pizza and then stopping by the Nag’s on the way home to enjoy more of their superb selection. That’s me, though: I can be that kind of stubborn so-and-so, and I like a kindred spirit. Even one who bloody-mindedly sets up a rather lovely, slightly incongruous Polish pizzeria slap bang in the middle of the Oxford Road.

Tuscany Pizzeria – 7.8

399 Oxford Road, RG30 1HA
07586 095400

https://www.facebook.com/Tuscany-Pizzeria-1971426149852568/