Restaurant review: The Nag’s Head

I’m not sure there’s any such thing as the perfect pub, but I’m lucky to live near three that each embody different aspects of the platonic ideal of a public house.

The Retreat is arguably Reading’s best “classic” pub, even if its refurb last year made the toilets disconcertingly classy. The story goes that when the landlord of the Alehouse visited and saw the work the Retreat had carried out in lockdown he turned to Brian, the landlord, and said “thanks a bunch – now I really do have the shittest pub toilets in Reading” (apparently the Alehouse has done some work on them since). The Retreat lacks outside space, and the small beer selection is a little too cask-led for my personal taste, but it remains a wonderful place with a welcome like no other.

Then there’s the Lyndhurst, which does Reading’s best pub food, without question. It hosts burger nights on Mondays and curry nights on Thursdays, and boasts a menu full of staples like chilli beef nachos and katsu chicken burgers. And then there’s the icing on the cake: dazzling specials that tend to go on the menu Fridays and Saturdays and match any restaurant food anywhere in Reading. One week it’s skate wing topped with capers and crunchy croutons soaked in a sauce Grenobloise, another it’s lamb rump with an enormous slab of shredded lamb shoulder, breadcrumbed and fried, on the side. 

To round off the holy trinity, the Weather Station boasts a superb selection of beers, the vast majority of which are on keg, has a nice little courtyard out back where you can drink them and has really gone from strength to strength in 2021. It always has at least one sticky, strong, indulgent imperial stout on the list and some of the DIPAs and pales on tap are truly terrific (a special mention to Wild Weather’s Orange Lazarus, which is as refreshing a summer drink as you could hope to find).

Having said all that, over the last twelve months I’ve spent a fair amount of pub time on the edge of West Reading, where the Castle Tap and the Nag’s Head have done an exemplary job of adjusting to Covid and providing great converted spaces for al fresco drinking. When I finally emerged from the cocoon of that first ever lockdown for an al fresco alcoholic drink, it was the Nag’s Head I made a beeline for. But the Nag’s Head always had two drawbacks. 

One is that you couldn’t book a table, whereas at the Castle Tap they’ll gladly reserve you one outside. The other was that they never really had much of a food offering. That needn’t be be a problem. The Castle Tap is more than happy for you to order from Deliveroo and eat it at your table – they’ll even give you the postcode for the beer garden out back to use as a delivery address – but the Nag’s has always taken a dim view of that.

On one hand, it meant that the Nag’s Head didn’t bother trying to adapt to the constantly changing landscape of substantial meals, this tier and that tier. Life was simpler, if less lucrative – although the Nag’s also reopened later than its peers last year, sensibly spending extra time sprucing up their beer garden, so perhaps they could absorb those losses. But it also meant that they were closed for longer than some of Reading’s other pubs with outside space when they could have put together a menu, or invited a street food trader over, and continued to trade.

Anyway, when they reopened in April this year they were sporting a brand new food menu and a new smoker for pork and brisket. The menu was compact – not big enough to necessarily make the Nag’s a food destination in its own right, but aiming to offer enough choice that you wouldn’t have to face the invidious choice between leaving the pub to grab a meal or staying, getting shitfaced on an empty stomach and accidentally falling into Harput Kebab on the way home (and I’m not judging, because I speak from experience). And that kind of menu works: Zoë and I were having an early evening beer in the sunshine during her week off, and neither of us could face going home and cooking, which is why you get this review this week.

Before I talk about the menu, a little about the setup. Last year the Nag’s turned its car park properly into a beer garden, with plenty of well-distanced tables, some out in the open and some under marquees, with astroturf underfoot. It future-proofed them well, with the tables superb in sunshine but still usable in the rain, although having to take down the sides of the marquees to qualify as “outdoors” meant the wind could be mighty fierce. All ordering is at the table, with links to the beer list on Untappd, and payment is taken at the table, too. Although many other pubs abandoned table service as soon as they could the Nag’s is currently sticking with it, which I personally really appreciate.

The menu confines itself to three categories only – toasted sandwiches, sausage rolls and meat from the smoker. The Nag’s always used to offer the latter – pulled pork and beef brisket rolls – but the toasties and sausage rolls, a new move, are supplied by The Croque Shop, a business from Brighton. It’s an interesting decision to use them rather than a local supplier, although the pork and beef are from Vicar’s Game, probably Berkshire’s best-known butcher (it’s not all meat: there are vegetarian and vegan options for both toasties and sausage rolls).

Sausage rolls cost four pounds, the pulled pork and brisket are six pounds fifty and the toasties range from six pounds to nine, the most expensive thing being a Reuben made, slightly randomly, with pork belly instead of beef. You order the food along with your beer, but they take the order separately and you pay separately for your food when it arrives. Service is really very good at the Nag’s at the moment – months of running table service has really honed their skills in this area, and everyone who looked after us was friendly, personable and good at coming over just as we needed to order some more drinks.

Let’s start with the pulled pork sandwich, because it was good. Really good, in fact. You get a generous helping of the stuff stuffed in a brioche bun and topped with their own recipe barbecue sauce, and it’s a wonderful thing. So much pulled pork, to me, is a little bit claggy and gloopy, mixed in with the barbecue sauce and too often on the mulchy side. The Nag’s pulled pork, by contrast, was drier and not completely shredded – you could easily pull it apart, and the texture was spot on, but some of it was still in big, delicious doorstops. The barbecue sauce added more heat than sweetness, and there was just enough of it to compliment without overpowering.

It was so enjoyable, in fact, that I’m beginning to think a trip to the Nag’s without a pulled pork roll might be no kind of trip to the Nag’s at all. I enthused about it so much that Zoë ordered one herself with the next round of drinks and I had to look on enviously while she polished it off (admittedly an experience I’d been happy to inflict on her earlier in the evening). She used some of the accompanying crinkle cut crisps – Seabrook, at a guess – as a vehicle to transport some of the excess pulled pork into her gob, a trick I wish I’d thought of. I’ll try the beef brisket next time I’m at the Nag’s – or at least I’m telling myself that now – but the pulled pork roll is six pounds fifty well spent, and for my money one of the best sandwiches in Reading.

“You know the food at the beer festival? You know the crappy carvery they always have there?” said Zoë.

“I’m afraid so.”

“This is what the pork sandwiches at the beer festival should actually taste like.”

I really couldn’t disagree.

While I’d been gloating over my good choice, Zoë had tucked into a chicken, cheese and chorizo toastie from that section of the menu. Much as I’d love to use the pun “croque of shit” somewhere in this review, this was anything but – well made on good, sturdy sourdough that toasted well and full of decent quality chicken, vintage cheddar and nuggets of chorizo rather than cheap supermarket slices. Zoë was a fan – “this is as good as a Shed toastie”, she said – and we’ll have to take her word for it, because it was so good that I didn’t get a bite. At six pounds fifty it would compete with a Shed toastie on price, although it’s slightly smaller. But I think the pulled pork was probably better value.

In the interests of covering as many bases as possible, I also had a sausage roll. The most intriguing-looking one on the menu was pork, apricot and Stilton, and it looked the part – heated up in an oven rather than microwaved with nicely flaky, rustling pastry and a dense core of sausagemeat. And it came close, but if there was any Stilton in it I couldn’t detect it. I’d have liked it, for contrast against the sweet apricot studded through the sausage roll, but it was still decent even without it. If I’d known it was going to be a blue cheese free zone I might have gone for the pork, cheese and Marmite option – but who’s to say whether it would have turned out to have Marmite in it?

There’s not much point in saying a lot about the beers we had during our meal because the Nag’s (and the breweries it buys from) mix things up so frequently that anything I drank might well not be on when you’re there next. There’s a touch of ADHD about it, because you find something you like and they’re always on to the next thing (Siren Craft, it seems to me, is especially prone to this). But it would be remiss not to mention Woodland Battle Dance Exhibition, the newish DIPA by Double-Barrelled which is my favourite beer from them yet; it’s still on at the Nag’s at the time of writing, but who knows how long that will last?

It’s also worth adding that the Nag’s always has a good complement of beer from local breweries, with Siren, Double-Barrelled and Elusive well represented all of the time along with beers from smaller local breweries like White Waltham’s Stardust. It does make me wonder, a little, why their toasties and sausage rolls come from Sussex – but the toasties and sausage rolls are good, so maybe that’s why.

It was always going to be difficult reviewing somewhere after last week’s review, the best meal I’ve eaten on duty this (or any) year. But the Nag’s is the perfect choice, because despite being as different an experience as I can think of, the Nag’s does share some DNA with really good restaurants. Picking your suppliers carefully, having a compact menu which you execute superbly and matching your food to the atmosphere you want to create aren’t skills exclusive to restaurants: pubs and cafés need to get that right as well.

And I think the Nag’s has thought that out perfectly. It’s not destination food, but it’s just the right food to accompany a trip to the pub, or to try and stave off the inevitable hangover you can see on the horizon during a trip to the pub (I’m at the age now where sometimes I can sense the hangover in the post after a couple of drinks – that’s your forties for you).

The pulled pork sandwich is the pick of the bunch for me, but any of them would grace a drinking session and they offer an excellent change of gear from ordering a packet of pork scratchings and some Bacon Fries and opening them out on the table, pub tapas-style. And writing this, it strikes me that this is just typical of the Nag’s. They took their time deciding what to do about food while others tinkered at the edges or got street food traders in. But trust them, once they did get round to it, to do it properly.

The Nag’s Head – 7.8
5 Russell Street, Reading, RG1 7XD
07765 880137

http://www.thenagsheadreading.co.uk

Restaurant review: Marmo, Bristol

What’s your favourite restaurant? Your absolute favourite, I mean. I ask because a couple of weeks ago I was sitting in my friends James and Liz’s back garden in Bristol, drinking white wine on a sunny afternoon and having exactly that conversation. The wedding we’d been to the day before – on a Wednesday, no less – was that miraculous thing, a wedding where you’re not hung over the morning after, and so the day stretched out in front of us, feeling partly like a Sunday, partly like something else.

James refused to take part: he didn’t believe in picking a single favourite. So we talked instead about possibly allowing everyone to choose three. But if anything, that made it more difficult, because then you had to pick at least one from your home town and then you were forced to choose just the two restaurants from everywhere else you have ever been. 

Liz said that you couldn’t pick somewhere you’d only been the once, but that didn’t help either. Zoë started waxing lyrical about Eetkaffee De Lieve, a little gem in the sidestreets of Ghent, and I daydreamed about sitting outside at Uvedoble in Malaga, demolishing a little brioche stuffed with suckling pig. But which restaurant in Bologna to pick? And how could you leave out Paris? It was just too much of a puzzler.

“I think my favourite restaurant right now is Marmo” said Liz – with a hint of trepidation, because we had a table booked there that evening. And I understood that nervousness better than most, because there’s little as nerve-wracking as telling people that somewhere is good, knowing they’ve gone there because of you and then sitting there waiting to find out whether they’ve lost all faith in your good opinion. I get that all the time.

We went to Marmo with Liz and James’ friends Ed and Ben, a very entertaining couple they’d been telling me about for some time. It was clear straight away, as we took our seats at a Belgian beer bar in the old city, that they liked the finer things in life, which always makes me feel like I’ve found my tribe but also brings out the imposter syndrome.

On our walk to the restaurant Ed and Ben asked me which restaurants I liked in Bristol, and I couldn’t help but feel that this was a test. I didn’t go to Bristol often enough to be on top of the latest developments, but then I mentioned my love of the sadly departed Wallfish, a little neighbourhood restaurant a stone’s throw from Clifton Suspension Bridge, and there was a tacit nod that indicated that I might have just about scraped a pass.

Marmo is a single, buzzy room – all handsome white wood panelling and framed prints on the walls that you daydream about nicking (I also would have loved one of the branded wineglasses, come to think of it). There’s a tiny kitchen at the back, clearly in view, where all the magic happens. Our table was in the heart of things, close to the bar, and I tried to remember what this place had looked like in its previous incarnation as Bar Buvette, a wine bar I’d loved that made you feel like you were somewhere in the eleventh arrondisement.

The menu made you want to order everything, and was compact enough that we nearly did. There were a few snacks and then a 3-4-2 formation of starters, mains and desserts respectively, with one fish dish and one vegetarian dish on offer for each course. The menu looked carb light, but the waiting staff explained that you could have an intermediate pasta course to fix that, as the Italians do, or just have some bread. Starters were around nine pounds, the most expensive main was eighteen pounds fifty. The wine list – of which Marmo seems particularly proud – had a superb selection of red, white and orange wines, with a few producers I’d heard of and many I fancied trying.

In short, it was a menu to get lost in, and we did that while drinking glasses of Muz vermouth, served properly with ice and a wedge of orange. I loved it, and said that the tangy, fruity note in it was strangely reminiscent of brown sauce. There was an awful moment while I waited for someone to tell me I was talking bollocks, and then to my huge relief there was agreement around the table (Zoë didn’t enjoy the rest of the vermouth from that point onwards: “I tried”, she told me later, “but all I could taste was the vinegars”).

Aperitivi deserve accompaniment, so we kicked off with Marmo’s textbook sourdough. It came with butter, which no doubt would have been fantastic, but we were all more keen to dip it in smoked cod roe, perfectly salty and pastel pink, with a pool of olive oil at its centre. Also pastel pink was the mortadella, draped over gnocco fritto, little fried parcels of joy. I’ve never liked mortadella, not even in Bologna, but I loved it here; Marmo, like the best restaurants, can make you enjoy ingredients you wouldn’t normally look at twice.

We’d been torn between a couple of white wines – one from Jura which would have had more funk, and a more conventional Riesling from Staffelter Hof, a producer I recognised because one of their wines crops up on Clay’s fancy new wine list. I tried to palm the casting vote off to Ed, who clearly knew his wine, and he eventually plumped for the Riesling (I’m sure the fact that it was called “Little Bastard” was an unintended bonus). 

But then the staff came over and said that they only had one bottle of Riesling left, so we went for one of each. Those of us who tried the Riesling were delighted by its cleanness, the slight effervescence on the tongue. Those who decided to drink the Jura were pleased to have picked something so unusual, with agricultural notes of scrumpy and sherry knocking about harmoniously in the same glass. We all changed ends at half time, tried the other white wine and in the end decided that they were both terrific.

By this time the starters had turned up, and I got my first sign that I was in for an evening of sustained brilliance. I had gone for smoked eel, beautifully muscular and only lightly smoked, on an oblong of crunchy fried polenta. So far so delicious, but teaming it up with bright cubes of beetroot and blackberries with a balsamic sweetness was a killer blow. I could have eaten this all the live long day, and it left me wanting more – or, to be more specific, another portion. That’s what great starters do.

Although it was the most popular starter, a couple of us tried something else. Liz spoke highly of her marinated peppers, buried under an avalanche of Ticklemore, and I could see that I would have been equally happy with that. Ed had chosen the beef tartare, topped with chives and a slow-cooked egg yolk, flavour soaking into the bread below. How could you have food envy when you’d enjoyed your own starter so much? 

I was sitting between Ed and Ben – the kind of civilised couple who don’t have to sit next to one another all evening – and, being a civilised couple, they passed plates back and forth across me, or behind me, or through me so that neither of them felt left out. But I was having such a good evening that I was more than happy to be the proverbial dumb waiter. 

They were in the holiday mood – Ed’s mother was visiting their cottage in the Chew Valley over the weekend and then they were off to Cornwall for a well-earned break eating and drinking their way around that part of the world. They would spend much of the following week in their own favourite restaurants. I recognised kindred spirits, the kind of people – like me – who plan a holiday entirely around lunches and dinners, who enjoy going to places they know and love, experiencing the comfort, familiarity and total relaxation that comes with a pilgrimage like that. At the tail end of my own holiday, I couldn’t help but feel envious.

Given that Marmo was at least nominally Italian, I felt like we should have at least one Italian wine with our meal, so I chose a Tuscan red called Infraded, a deep, velvety Syrah. Ordering wine had been delegated to me by this point, but I was almost merry enough to be happy with that. Again, I felt like I’d committed a faux pas when the waiter told us this one was best served chilled, but Ed reacted with delight and I decided that on balance, I’d got away with it. It was, as you can probably guess by this point, predictably wonderful, and I made a mental note to see if there was anywhere you could buy some when I got home and Bristol was just a distant, happy memory.

The main courses brought more fireworks. I’ve always heard Mangalitza pork spoken of in hushed tones as the Kobe beef of the pork world, but I’d never tried it before so I was keen to pick it off the menu. It came in glorious marbled slabs, just-pink and tender with the most beautiful melting fat: eating it I could understand why the Italians got so excited about lardo, and the idea of eating fat on its own. It was served simply with a handful of other elements, a wonderful caponata given a fresh edge with the judicious addition of fig, some good oil and a little slick of yoghurt. It was as good a single dish as I’ve eaten this year: I looked over at James, who had ordered the same thing, and saw him lost in a reverent silence.

That silence was eventually broken by Ed telling a story from the time when he used to manage a bookshop in Oxford.

“We had lots of celebrities in while I was there, but the best rider we ever had was from Roger Moore. And Roger Moore only asked for two things.”

“Really?” I tried to imagine exactly what vintage of Château Mouton Rothschild would feature in Sir Roger’s demands. “What were they?”

“A bottle of Jacob’s Creek and a Pret crayfish sandwich. That was all, every time. And by the end of a signing he was always absolutely fucked.”

This couldn’t help but make me warm to the great man. And of course, Ed had a picture on his phone of him with Jacob’s Bond, although it wasn’t clear how much wine had been taken by that point. Ed’s main course was a very attractive-looking pollock dish with mussels, and although he was taken with it, it it didn’t give me any buyer’s remorse about the Mangalitsa pork. Liz had chosen the vegetarian option, a very accomplished spinach and ricotta ravioli dish. Again, although it looked the part, missing out on it didn’t fill me with regret.

There were only two desserts on the menu and we all fancied the same one, the chocolate and hazelnut fritter, so five of us went for that while Ed nursed a grappa. It was an exemplary way to end the meal, a deep, smooth chocolate mousse, sharpened with cream and sandwiched between layers of the lightest of batters. Looking at the picture, it resembles nothing more than a witty dessert take on the ubiquitous burger: would that it was anywhere near as easy to get hold of, but it seems you have to travel to Bristol. We accompanied this with a sweet, fresh and generous glass of Coteaux de Layon (always a better bet than Sauternes, if you ever see it on a menu) – although Zoë had a negroni, because she’s developing a taste for them.

If I haven’t talked much about service it’s because they were so good. Completely unobtrusive but always there when you needed them, really friendly and enthusiastic and very good at what they did. We needed to pay at the same time as ordering our dessert so Ed and Ben could make their taxi on time, and all of that was no trouble and very efficiently sorted. 

Our meal for six, including a discretionary ten per cent service charge, came to just over four hundred and ninety pounds, or something like eighty-two pounds a head. That might sound like a lot, but we really went for it – aperitifs, snacks, a three course meal, plenty of wine and dessert wine. You could spend less and I have no doubt you’d still have a superb meal, and if you find yourself in Bristol at lunchtime they have a set menu which is even more impressive value. But either way I had no regrets – a couple of nights before I’d eaten at Paco Tapas, Bristol’s Michelin starred tapas restaurant, where I spent significantly more, eaten and drunk considerably less and not had quite as much fun. You pay for a meal, but you pay for memories too.

Even as I was eating at Marmo, I knew that the marker had been set down for the rest of this year and probably most of the next: as complete, satisfying and perfect three course meal as I could imagine. I would go to Bristol to eat here again, and I would plan trips to Bristol just so I could. It’s not my favourite restaurant – if only because you can’t give that accolade to somewhere you’ve only eaten at once – but it was my favourite meal for a long time. And if you ever wonder why I don’t give out higher ratings more often, this is why. I save the big guns for the great meals, and this is the kind of standard Reading restaurants need to aspire to, slowly but surely. I still hope we’ll get there. But in the meantime, we’ll just have to hop on a train.

Marmo – 9.4
31 Baldwin Street, Bristol, BS1 1RG
0117 3164987

https://www.marmo.restaurant

Restaurant review: Bravas, Bristol

Last week I had my first holiday in eighteen months. Zoë hired a car and we headed to Bristol for a week of eating, drinking and relaxing, with a wedding conveniently plonked in the middle of our break. The feeling of being somewhere else, one I’ve previously had to conjure up by reading a novel, watching Call My Agent or eating in a restaurant, was even better experienced, in long last, in real life: I wish you could bottle it. Perching outside Small Street Espresso with a latte, watching a bunch of people who don’t live in my hometown going about their daily business was a little pleasure to savour, as was sitting in Left Handed Giant’s wonderful brewpub drinking glorious beer after glorious beer. 

This wasn’t a staycation, it was a holiday – but what it really was was heavenly. So it was enormous fun to amble round St Nick’s before settling down to a cracking lunch of American barbecue. Schlepping up Park Street, passing Bristol’s outpost of C.U.P. made me feel oddly proud of Reading. Walking down Park Street later, having saved just enough room for a Swoon gelato, was even better. Everywhere we went you could find excellent food, great coffee and brilliant indie shops in abundance. We spent an idyllic afternoon wandering round Bedminster, Zoë’s old hood, buying artisan chocolates and scented candles and looking at all the amazing street art. How I’ve missed buying poncey shit like artisan chocolate and scented candles. 

“It wasn’t like this when I lived here” said Zoë, and the thought crossed my mind that Bristol was far from Shangri-La when I lived there in the Eighties, back in the mists of time. Oxford is a lot better now than it was when I lived there in the early Nineties, come to think of it. Perhaps if I really wanted Reading to become a fantastic place to eat, drink and shop I shouldn’t bother filling out Reading UK’s latest pointless Surveymonkey questionnaire. Maybe I should just move somewhere else: that would fix it.  

Culturally, Bristol felt different too. Mask-wearing was commonplace, with many shops mandating it rather than using carefully chosen words like “expected” or “encouraged”.  As someone with a partner who proudly works in retail, I get especially cross that the great British public seems to think nothing of exposing those people to risk. One independent shop I saw had a sign up in the window: WE LOVE YOUR FACES BUT PLEASE WEAR A MASK, it said. Quite right too. 

But it wasn’t just the shops. The buses going past had signs saying that you had to mask up, a far cry from the fudge of Reading Buses. If Bristol did have mask deniers or anti-lockdown protesters they were where they belonged, namely out of sight.

Finding somewhere to eat on a Monday in Bristol can be quite a challenge, but we had a table booked at Bravas, a tapas restaurant just off the Whiteladies Road, which has always been one of my favourite places to eat in the city. I partly wanted to go back because I wanted to support the places I’ve always loved, to try and do my bit to help them survive. And clearly many of Bravas’ customers felt likewise: there was a chalkboard leaned against the front of the restaurant paying an emotional tribute to all the punters who had kept them afloat in the past eighteen months. I found it surprisingly moving, and I don’t even live there.

The council – more progressive, predictably, than their counterparts in Reading – had pedestrianised the whole of Cotham Hill, which meant that enterprising restaurants like Bravas had put up al fresco seating. This isn’t unique to Bristol, of course: Soho has been pedestrianised too, and I remember seeing pictures of Arbequina, a restaurant on Oxford’s Cowley Road, the pavement outside packed with extra tables. Is it that Reading just didn’t have any restaurants that could have benefited from a similar approach, or was it the usual failure of imagination by the powers that be?

In normal times I would have loved to sit inside at Bravas – the interior is conspiratorial, buzzy and surprisingly like being back in Spain – but all the things that make that room wonderful in normal times made me reluctant to eat there right now. Fortunately, after a short wait they managed to fix us up with a table outside, in a makeshift decked area (it was very pleasant, although you did feel slightly seasick every time climbed aboard, or disembarked).

Bravas’ menu was relatively small and perfectly formed, with a section of nibbles, cheese and charcuterie and then vegetable, seafood and meat tapas dishes – and some specials up on a board (I’m still sad I never managed to find room for the goat stew they were serving the day I visited). The way to approach a menu like this, I’ve always thought, is to work out all the dishes you absolutely to ensure you eat, divide them into groups and order each group one at a time, only ordering more when you’ve finished what’s in front of you.

So we did exactly that, and I made inroads into a fantastic G&T – made with local Psychopomp gin, olive and rosemary, a Bristolian take on Gin Mare – while we waited for our first dishes to turn up. Zoë was on a Negroni, which Bravas sweetens slightly with a dash of Pedro ximènez, because Zoë is more hardcore than I could ever hope to be.

The first thing we had fell slightly flat. Bristol is packed with excellent bakeries, and I expected Bravas’ bread to be more exciting, less dense and pedestrian. But the alioli it came with was pleasant enough, even if the golden colour slightly oversold it. Better were the jamon croquettes – others I’ve had have leaned heavily on the béchamel but these were sturdier and all the better for it. They were two pounds fifty each, or six for twelve pounds. Immediately after eating one I wished we’d ordered half a dozen, but that’s me all over. Manchego with rosemary was excellent too, especially with lozenges of membrillo to perk them up sweetly.

Things really got into gear with the selection of cured meats. I know all this is more about sourcing than cooking, but buying the right stuff is every bit as much a skill all good restaurants need. And this very much was the right stuff. The best of the bunch was a beautiful lomo, marbled with fat, more like coppa than the very lean lomo I’m used to in Andalusia. But the cecina was the equal of any bresaola I’ve tasted, and the salchichón was coarse and gorgeous. Best of all, it came with plump, sharp caperberries and sweet, tangy guindilla chillies to wrap in charcuterie and pop in your mouth. Better still, because of Zoë’s aversion to pickles I got to eat them all.

We’d ordered a tortilla and a dish with chickpeas and tuna belly, but there was obviously some kind of mix up, because instead we were brought two portions of the tortilla. They must have known something we didn’t, because having to share a single portion would only have caused trouble. It was one of the best I’ve had, soft but not gooey, sweet with potatoes and onions: few dishes can transfigure the everyday so completely.

The other vegetable dishes were disappointing by comparison. The eponymous bravas looked the part, and are a dish I’ve loved in the past – rather than cubes of fried potato, Bravas slices a whole potato lengthways and it looks very striking when brought to the table. But the texture was missing in action, the slices a little bit flabby and limp, lacking in the crispness that makes this dish so addictive. The bravas sauce with them was spot on, but the lack of fighting over the final slices of spud told its own sad story.

Worse still was the special, Isle of Wight tomatoes with rocket, capers and anchovies. Now, some of that is my mistake because I guess, in the cold light of day, when you look at that list of ingredients it sounds an awful lot like a salad. And a salad it was – heavy on the rocket, light on the tomatoes, the capers completely AWOL. And it wasn’t so much dressed as mulchy, sitting in a bowl with a little pool of what tasted like vinegar at the bottom. Given that we were in a tapas restaurant, and the tomatoes got top billing, I foolishly thought they would be the star of the show, as they would have been in Spain. More fool me, I suppose.

Things needed to improve, and fortunately they did with our last three dishes. Presa iberico turned up looking like a still life, served blushing in the middle, artfully dressed with charred rosemary and scattered with hefty salt crystals. And it was very good indeed, but it felt a little too little for too much at eight pounds fifty (although, to be fair, the following night we’d have a similar dish at Michelin-starred Paco Tapas that set you back twenty pounds). 

Cod a la plancha was more successful, a terrific piece of fish which flaked easily with a single artichoke on top, served with a gazpacho verde which felt a lot like a salsa verde to me. But half the fun of a piece of fish like this is a nicely crispy skin: our piece was missing half its skin, and what there was wasn’t crispy. Even so it was an enjoyable dish, although I couldn’t help wondering whether I should have ordered that goat stew after all. Finally, possibly the nicest dish of the meal: chicken chicharrones turned out to be nothing of the kind but just a superb plate of rugged, crunchy fried chicken, with a chilli alioli on top. I wish they’d brought us two of these by mistake instead, but that’s life.

Service was really stretched thin, and a little frazzled all afternoon. I felt for them, because it looked like they’d been badly hit by track and trace pings, to the extent where the chefs had to bring quite a few of the dishes to our table, and others. It was a real shame, and clearly not their fault – when you did get someone’s attention they were unfailingly lovely, but it could be difficult to flag someone down. I suspect we’d have drunk more if we’d been able to do that, but as it was we only managed another glass of wine each. The wine list, incidentally, was great, and both the wines we tried by the glass – a beautifully fresh chardonnay and gewurztraminer blend for Zoë, a robust, aromatic Rioja for me – were knockout.

The waiting staff were also particularly good towards the end of our meal when an elderly gentleman, dapper in overcoat and hat, wandered in from the Lebanese restaurant next door, took a seat at the table next to us, opened his polystyrene takeaway container and starting having at his kebab with a plastic fork. One of them came over and explained ever so nicely to him that the seating was reserved for customers of Bravas, and after they had some trouble getting this point across, patiently and politely, the intruder shambled off to munch on his lunch elsewhere: they earned every bit of our tip for that interaction alone. Our meal – all that tapas, a couple of cocktails and a couple of glasses of wine – came to ninety-two pounds fifty, not including service.

It’s tricky when you go to a restaurant you love and, by their high standards, they have an off day. I’ve enjoyed all my other meals at Bravas, objectively speaking, far more than this one. And yet this isn’t a normal time to weigh up restaurants, and Bravas seemed to be struggling with the pingdemic we are in, like so many hospitality businesses at the moment. 

Initially I was inclined to be more critical of the restaurant, but looking back I can’t help but remember the hotel we stayed in on our first night in Bristol. They’d given us a room up in the eaves where the bed was too big for the room it was in, so you could only really get into bed on one side. The other side, right next to the wall, had no bedside table and no lamp. The tiny TV was on a tiny chest of drawers in the corner which looked like it had been ransacked from an office closure. The 2019 version of me would have called reception and asked to see another room. It’s a life hack I learned from my ex-wife, who did it all the time.

But then I thought: I am away from home, on holiday, for the first time in a year and a half. I have a beautiful king-sized bed to spend the night in and a fantastic partner to share it with. There’s a huge claw-footed bath next door – I adore baths, more than I can say – and the sort of wet room and rainfall shower you could easily spend a long time in. I am fit and well, I’m double-jabbed and all things considered life could be an awful lot worse. And I never watch the TV in hotel rooms anyway. Really, who does?

So 2021 me stopped mithering about my hotel room, and in the same spirit 2021 me had a lovely afternoon at Bravas. It could have been even better, but I’ve spent eighteen months a long way from my best, and they had the decency to take me as they found me. The least I could do, under the circumstances, was return the favour. I dare say I’ll pay them a visit again next time I go to Bristol, and that day can’t come soon enough. In the meantime, I’ll work on being more grateful. It might make me a worse restaurant reviewer, but hopefully a marginally better person.

Bravas – 7.5
7 Cotham Hill, Redland, Bristol, BS6 6LD
0117 3296887

https://bravas.co.uk

Restaurant review: Monty’s Café

At the end of our lunch at Monty’s Café, the owner came over to our table with a little plate for my friend Jerry and me. It had a little macaroon and a baklava on it, a neat touch. So I asked him how long they’d been open, and he said that it was just about two years. And, as so often lately, I thought about what a gruelling two years that must have been for him. I thought that the summer of 2019 would have seemed so full of hope, because the beginning of things is always exciting. And the following winter might have been challenging, as winters often are, but then suddenly, as spring was almost around the corner the bombshell dropped that nothing would be normal again for a very long time. 

I was chatting to another friend recently who said “who opens a hospitality business in the middle of a pandemic?”. Well, yes – and yet some people do, even here in Reading. But I feel particular sympathy for businesses like Monty’s Cafe that open just before a pandemic and have to spend some of their first twelve months fighting especially hard to survive when, even in happier times, getting through the first year proves to be beyond many restaurants and cafés.

All that makes me particularly glad, and more than a little relieved, that I can find plenty of nice things to say about Monty’s Café. It’s a little café deep in the heart of Reading’s studenty area, at the other end of Hatherley Road to the considerably bigger – and busier – Café Yolk. For a long time I didn’t give it much thought because it seemed largely to be for takeaways, with limited space inside and out. But at some point over the last year or so they did some real work on their outside space, put a fetching grey fence around it and a covered canopy overhead, and the transformation was marked.

A while back when we had that insanely hot few weeks I remember strolling down Addington Road past Monty’s Café, seeing its terrace bathed in the sun and it looked like the kind of day café you get in Greece or Turkey, rather than just around the corner from the Royal Berks. And checking their menu added to that slight feeling of elsewhere – a mixture of brunches and Lebanese lunch dishes, where a dish was equally likely to come with cheap sliced white or pita bread. It made sense to differentiate themselves from Yolk, their more famous neighbours, and prices were considerably lower than Yolk’s too.

I turned up on a slightly less sunny afternoon with Jerry to find many of the outside tables taken, which gladdened me, by a mixture of friends lunching and solo diners tapping away on laptops over an espresso. It was a charming outside space, with a clear corrugated roof much like the one at Geo Café’s Orangery, and the furniture was tasteful. They also had an entirely contactless QR code-driven ordering process where you can fire up the website, pick everything you want and pay without ever having to go inside – very handy for people like me who have enjoyed table service in cafés and pubs and are in no hurry for it to end. 

The menu was pretty compact – looking at it, it was as if Early Café and Bakery House had had a child together. The small breakfast selection included falafel and halloumi, the sausages were lamb and the bacon was turkey. On the section marked “Sides”, moutabal, nachos and hash browns sat incongruously side by side. There was chicken shawarma and chicken tikka, and a range of sandwiches which involved taking almost everything Monty’s sold, with the exception of the hash browns, and sticking it in a wrap. If the menu had something of an identity crisis, it was nothing if not affordable. Nothing cost more than six pounds (not even the sole pizza on the menu, which had a section to itself).

We ordered a selection aiming to cover as much of the menu as we could, and the first thing to come out – our drinks – set the scene for what was to come. Lattes were huge things, easily some of the biggest I’ve seen in an independent Reading café, in sunshine-yellow mugs. If they weren’t quite at the quality of the Anonymous coffee sold at the end of Hatherley Road they were still pretty serviceable, and gladly free of that acrid note you often get at middling cafés. Fresh juices were similarly huge, and delicious. Mine sang with mango, while Jerry’s mint lemonade was enthusiastically received on the other side of the table; both felt like decent value at four pounds.

The moutabal was also enjoyable, and very keen value at just over three pounds fifty. Sometimes the smokiness can overpower moutabal but it was kept nicely in check, and there was a bit of a whiff from the judicious use of garlic. The whole thing was crowned with pomegranate seeds and a little pool of olive oil – the only thing that let it down was the standard-issue pita bread, which was a little thin and stiff for proper dipping. There wasn’t enough of it but we asked for a little more, Oliver-style, and it was brought over almost immediately, accompanied by a big smile.

Jerry had chosen the brunch and added some turkey bacon as an extra, possibly for the novelty value. The whole thing was nicely put together with the baked beans in a ramekin, a move which suits the OCD tendencies of some people, myself included. Jerry went on to tell me that he wasn’t much of a fan of baked beans, or hash browns for that matter – which did make me wonder why he’d ordered this dish – but it all got gleefully demolished all the same. Again, there were nice little touches everywhere – something which might have been paprika dusted on the hash browns, chives snipped onto the eggs.

You notice these things, and if the yolks weren’t necessarily super-runny on both of the eggs it didn’t seem to matter in the grand scheme of things. I personally would have preferred better toast and butter, but you had to weigh that against the wonder that was Café Monty’s lamb sausages – brick-red, very much like merguez and packing a nice fiery heat. Jerry also let me try the turkey bacon, which was similar enough to real bacon to be a more than adequate substitute. But truly, it was all about the sausages. I could gladly have eaten a whole plate of them – and the menu does give you that option, so bear it in mind if you visit. Merguez for brunch: what’s not to like?

“This will fill me up for the rest of the day!” said Jerry, very happy with his life choices. “Honestly, as you get older you do find you just have less capacity for food.” 

“This is why you’re so much slimmer than me” I replied. Jerry has twenty years on me, and I’m still waiting for anything to affect my capacity for food or my gradually increasing waistline: we’re now reaching the stage where I’m holding out for a tapeworm. “Does that mean you won’t have room for a few pints at the Park House bar later on?”

“I can always find room for that” he beamed.

My falafel and halloumi wrap came beautifully presented, all neat and ready to eat in a little paper sleeve. Again, it was unshowy but quietly delightful, everything in balance. That said, I’d paid extra to add the halloumi, and I think it needed it – the falafel were pleasant enough but I didn’t get the feeling they’d been fried there and then and crammed into the wrap while still hot and crispy, so it needed the halloumi for contrast. But what made it was the crunch of Lebanese pickles, perfect purple strips adding texture and sharpness, the icing on the metaphorical cake. This dish cost me four pounds fifty – good luck getting anything as enjoyable for that price at the other end of Hatherley Road – and was worth every penny.

“This is marvellous” said Jerry, as the sun made a half-hearted attempt to emerge from behind the clouds. “I could see myself coming here with a book and just having a coffee and a read.”

I knew what he meant. There was something about the space, and the uniformly warm and happy welcome we’d got from all three of the staff looking after us, that I rather found gave me the feels. Put it this way: I knew from social media that the café had closed earlier in the week for a short three-day holiday and that this was their first day reopened, but nobody there showed even the slightest sign of having the back to work blues. On the contrary, they seemed overjoyed to have customers, in a way that made me positively warm to the whole shooting match.

Our bill for two came to twenty-nine pounds, not including tip, but it would be very easy to spend an awful lot less. We’d already paid right at the start, so we said a jolly farewell before ambling up the hill in the direction of the Harris Garden, largely so we could pretend to ourselves that we’d in some way earned the pints waiting for us in our not too distant future. “I didn’t bring a bottle of wine with me this week” said Jerry apologetically as we set off, and I did briefly wonder if he’d been replaced with a Jerry impersonator.

Short and sweet this week, then, which is absolutely the right way to sum up somewhere like Monty’s Café. I love a place that doesn’t have tickets on itself, that does things simply and well and somehow, through some sort of alchemy, creates somewhere unobtrusively lovely. No brashness, no showing off, just quiet competence. 

Monty’s Café serves as an excellent reminder, too, that however much you might love food, it’s never all about the food. It’s also about the welcome, and the space, and how a place makes you feel. So yes, I could find establishments in Reading that do better moutabal, or better coffee, or a better breakfast. But the best can be the enemy of the good.  And I don’t think, on the other hand, that I could find somewhere that does all those things, the way Monty’s Café does, in such an agreeable, sleepy little spot. 

It’s somehow more than the sum of its parts, to the point where whatever number I lob at the bottom of this review won’t really capture what I’m trying to say. Hopefully you’ll pay more attention to this paragraph than the rating, and if you’re in the area one lunchtime you’ll go there, see what I saw and leave, as I did, feeling that all was right with the world. Apparently, according to the menu, you can get those sausages in a wrap, with pomegranate molasses and halloumi, and chips on the side. Just imagine.

Monty’s Café – 7.3
41 Addington Road, Reading, RG1 5PZ.
0118 3272526

https://www.emontys.co.uk
Delivery available: via Just Eat, Uber Eats

Takeaway review: Shake Shack

Well hello there! Welcome to this week’s review, where I go back to trying takeaways and search desperately for interesting things to say about Shake Shack.

I know my reviews never start this way. You’ve read enough of them by now, I imagine, to know the structure. I start with a preamble that puts things in context, talks about the place I’m reviewing this week and why I chose it. Is the new joint that’s opened the biggest and best? Why doesn’t anywhere in Reading do good food of this or that cuisine? Is the place I visited a few years ago still any cop? You get the idea.

Then I run you through the menu, and how prices range from bla to bla. If we’re in a restaurant, I’ll tell you what the room (or my table outside) is like, and if it’s a takeaway I tell you what I made of the delivery experience. Then I get out my Big Food Thesaurus, because every restaurant reviewer’s got one, and describe the dishes – spoiler alert, if it’s a takeaway it’s often not quite hot enough – trying to avoid wanky words like “bosky” or ones, like “unctuous”, that people bandy around without understanding what they really mean.

I also throw in some choice remarks from whoever’s eating with me that week. Because the more of somebody in the review who isn’t me the better, am I right? Usually that’s my partner Zoë, who’s much more quotable than I am. But Zoë is joining me for fewer reviews at the moment, because we’re going to a wedding in a couple of weeks and she wants to wear an outfit that, in her own words, “doesn’t come with guy ropes”. So other times a friend of mine comes along, and I might also spend some time describing them; these reviews don’t clock up their massive word count by themselves, you know. 

Anyway, then I tell you what the service was like, how much it costs and whether it was good value, and finally I inelegantly loop back to the preamble and tie it all together with a pretty bow. That’s the formula, and you’ve all flown with me often enough to know that perfectly well. Thanks for choosing my blog today: the emergency exits are here, here and here, and I hope you have a very pleasant onward journey.

My reason for opening the figurative kimono this week is that my takeaway from Shake Shack was so nothingy that it was a challenge to hold all the details in mind, like trying to recall a dream days after you wake up from it. At least with some dreams you actively want to remember them – winning the lottery for instance, being on holiday, or having it off with your favourite film star – but I doubt most people would long to dream about Shake Shack. I think I can understand why some “proper” restaurant reviewers spend the first half of their reviews talking about something that has nothing to do with the restaurant: they’re probably just bored.

Sorry, I should at least tell you something about Shake Shack first. It’s an American chain – yes, another one – that started life twenty years ago as a solitary hot dog stand in New York’s Madison Square Park. Restaurants like to make much of where they’ve come from when their back story is like this, possibly so you won’t pay quite so much attention to where they are now. 

And where Shake Shack is now is a big chain with two hundred and fifty locations worldwide, including ten in the U.K., the majority of them in London. They opened in the U.K. the same week as Five Guys, although Five Guys has spread further and faster, possibly because it’s backed by Charles Dunstone, the billionaire co-founder of Carphone Warehouse. That might explain why Five Guys has been ensconced in Reading for eight years, whereas customers only got to try their rival from late last year, when Shake Shack teamed up with Deliveroo Editions to start selling to the people of Reading from that dark kitchen near Phantom Brewery.

I ordered from them this week out of pure curiosity: just as with Rosa’s Thai, the other London import on Deliveroo Editions, I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. I can be as meh about burgers as the next person, quite possibly more so, but I always got the impression Shake Shack was more highly rated among burger anoraks than Five Guys, the Burger King to Five Guys’ McDonalds (although the burger chain people really want to see come to these shores is the elusive, much-fêted In-N-Out Burger). So I fired up Deliveroo on my phone on Sunday night to see if they offered something that the likes of 7Bone, Honest and Gourmet Burger Kitchen – now available on Deliveroo, surreally, from the kitchen of our local Carluccio’s – didn’t. 

If they did it wasn’t immediately apparent from the menu, which was streamlined and straightforward. You can have a burger, a cheeseburger or a “SmokeShack” burger (with smoked cheese and bacon) either as a single or a double. Their vegetarian option – there’s nothing at all for vegans here – was a fried portobello mushroom stuffed with cheese.  Double burgers come in at around nine pounds and you have to buy fries separately, which pegs the price pretty much at the same level as Five Guys, Honest and 7Bone.

They also did a chicken burger and nuggets, a “flat-top hot dog” (which looked genuinely unpleasant in the photo) and a limited edition selection of Korean-influenced dishes making liberal use of gochujang. Most of the chicken dishes on the menu were described as “chick’n” which did make me wonder if it was in fact, technically, chicken. A bit of research reassured me, but it still seemed like a weird, unnecessary turn of phrase. Anyway, we ordered a couple of burgers, a couple of portions of fries and some nuggets and the whole thing came to forty pounds, not including rider tip.

As is so often the way, everything happened either a little too quickly or not quite quickly enough. Our order was on its way literally twelve minutes after we ordered, and it got to the house in close to ten minutes. It was on the lukewarm side, but I don’t know if that was down to the rider or the packaging. Shake Shack proudly proclaims that all the paper used in their boxes is from sustainable forests: that may be true but it was pretty thin and didn’t look like it offered much in the way of insulation.

Zoë had picked the chicken burger – partly, it turns out, because she was a bit of an expert in this field. It looked pretty decent – a thick fillet with a crunchy coating and meat whiter than American teeth. She’d left the pickles out, owing to her long-standing aversion to vinegar, and replaced them with long crisp slices of raw onion, as a heathen would do. But she seemed to enjoy it, although she thought it needed to be hotter.

“It’s not bad. I’d compare it to the McChicken Sandwich – I used to eat that back in the day, and very good it was too. Then they they replaced it with something called the Chicken Legend in a ‘ciabatta roll’” – she conveyed the inverted commas through the power of disdain alone – “and that was rubbish. It’s dry as fuck, too much roll. It comes with a ‘cool’ mayo and I don’t like the taste of it. Now you have to have a chicken mayo sandwich from the Saver menu.”

“Don’t you have a mini fillet from KFC instead?”

“Not from the one on Broad Street” she said. I wondered if she was referring to the infamous rat incident from a few years back and then I remembered: she knew numerous people who had fallen ill shortly after eating there.

“Do you remember the McChicken Premiere? That one came in fake focaccia bread, and the advert had Dani Behr, dead behind the eyes, desperately pretending to sound excited about a chicken burger.”

“Never heard of it.”

I think Zoë ordered better than I did. I’d chosen the SmokeStack Double, the most expensive burger on their menu, a double patty with cheese, bacon and chopped cherry peppers. The way it had been packaged – part-wrapped but left open – might have been visually appealing, but it meant it was colder than it needed to be, and most of the cherry peppers stayed stuck to the paper when I picked the burger up. The remainder hung around, adding a sweet crunch that jarred with everything else.

Again, if it had been hot it might have been nicer, but I didn’t feel any real difference in quality between this and Burger King, let alone Shake Shack’s more direct competitors. The bacon was nice, the patties were reasonable – cooked well done, even though I hadn’t ticked the box to request that – but I struggled to think of a burger I’d had in Reading that left me as ambivalent as this. 7Bone may be a grease overload, but at least it tastes of something. Honest’s burgers are probably the benchmark. Reading’s street food options, whether it’s Boigers or the sadly-dormant Meat Juice, beat Shake Shack hands down day in, day out. And I couldn’t help but think of plucky little Smash N Grab, out on Cemetery Junction, infinitely more deserving of my money than this, even if their fries need work.

Shake Shack’s fries, by the way, are crinkle cut – that’s their shtick – and they weren’t bad, if a tad lukewarm. They were at least well salted, and I’ve always suspected that crinkle cut chips are just inherently better. Zoe had gone for the gochujang ones, which merely meant that they gave you little plastic pots of bacon and spring onions to sprinkle on top and a tub of gochujang mayo to dip it in. I’m not sure much sustainable paper was involved in all those tubs, and I’m also not sure it was worth the additional one pound fifty. “It’s real bacon though” said Zoë, her expectations low enough by this stage that this came as a pleasant surprise.

Finally, we’d gone for some of the gochujang “chick’n” bites. The menu said that these came with gochujang glaze and another tub of that mayo. I expected from that description that they would indeed be glazed, but actually they were coated and topped with a meagre drizzle of gochujang sauce which only covered three of the ten nuggets. The taste was actually quite pleasant: there’s a wonderful, deep, savoury note to gochujang, with a slight hint of fermentation and funk. But the texture was woeful, the coating soggy and pappy underneath, no crunch to be seen. The whole thing was so woolly and unmemorable that we left a fair few of them, including one weird mutant ubernugget that was as big as three normal ones. Imagine fried chicken you don’t feel like finishing. That used to be a lot more difficult for me to do before I ordered from Shake Shack. 

I found myself thinking of Honest’s recent Thai chicken special, fried chicken thigh honking with fish sauce and a honey sriracha glaze, topped with Thai slaw, ranch dressing and cheese. It’s one of the best things they’ve ever done, and one of the finest burgers I’ve had. I loved it so much I ate it twice – at the start of the month, outside, on Market Square, and again at the end, at home, after trekking into town to click and collect on the final day of the month, because I wanted to eat it one more time before they discontinued it. Compared to that, Shake Shack wasn’t even a parody. It was a travesty.

When I first finished my takeaway from Shake Shack I think I might have been in a salt and additive-induced coma. “It wasn’t that bad” I thought to myself, “except that it wasn’t hot enough. But if you lived north of the river, and they were close to you, it might be worth a delivery.” But now I now think that was the gochujang talking. Because really, Shake Shack feels like a boring, bland way of parting a gastronomic fool and their money. 

So if you live in Caversham, and I know legions of my readers do, don’t order from Shake Shack. Get your burger from the Last Crumb instead. If you’re out east, give Smash N Grab a go. If you’re in town on the right lunchtime, head for Blue Collar. And if you’re near the town centre, go to Bluegrass, or 7Bone, or Honest, or the Lyndhurst, or King’s Grill. Go to Burger King, for that matter. Go literally anywhere else, so that one day Shake Shack’s marketing people and the experts at Deliveroo Editions realise that a town with a vibrant food culture won’t be fobbed off with some mediocre pap just because it has a few restaurants up in London. That kind of bollocks might work in Basingstoke or Bracknell, but it simply won’t wash here.

I’ll leave the last word to Zoë, who summed it up neatly as she ruefully tackled one of those stodgy nuggets. 

“You’d be better off going to Gurt Wings, where you could get three massive strips and a fuckload of tater tots for the same money. That’s the thing, isn’t it? Indies do it better.”

They do. They nearly always do.

Shake Shack

https://deliveroo.co.uk/menu/reading/reading-editions/shake-shack-editions-rea
Order via: Deliveroo only