N.B. As of August 2020 Zero Degrees has reopened.
I remember being quite excited when ZeroDegrees opened in Reading, around five years ago. My father raved about the Bristol branch, and he knows good food when he sees it. And yet when I went there, shortly after it opened, I remember a few disappointing visits. It ought to be good. As a family run mini chain of “brewpubs” with an emphasis on good food and innovation (according to their website) it should fit right in to the Reading restaurant scene in the same way that Bill’s (for good or bad) has been welcomed with open arms.
Despite this I decided to give it another try for the blog. Maybe I’d been too harsh on the place in the past. And after all, if I ruled out everywhere that had given me a dodgy salad once upon a time there wouldn’t be many places left to review.
The interior of the restaurant is light industrial – bare redbrick walls, blown up vintage photos of the brewing process and on the balcony above the kitchen you can see the brewery itself, all steel vats, pipes and glass. Nice. The tables themselves had a weird, slightly tacky feel, like they had been refinished with the wrong varnish. No matter, the waiter was friendly enough and we ordered a couple of drinks (a glass of sauvignon blanc for me and a pint of wheat beer for my guest) while we looked over the menu. For an empty restaurant it took a long time for the drinks to arrive but at least it gave us time to pick some food. The sauvignon was, well, fine. Nice enough: although I did have to send back the first glass as it was cracked, something the waiter didn’t notice. The wheat beer was served with a slice of orange and was, I’m told, light and refreshing. (I didn’t ask to try it, beer really isn’t my thing.)
The menu at ZeroDegrees is a strange beast: it’s almost exclusively pizza, pasta and mussels. So far so good, you might say, but it’s almost as if they found these limitations frightening and decided to offer as many different pizzas as possible. I counted almost twenty on the menu, seemingly carrying out a world tour through the medium of pizza. So there’s a thai green chicken pizza (topped with glass noodles), a crispy duck pizza (topped with crispy tortillas, naturally), “Mexican sausage”, whatever that is, and teriyaki chicken. The mussels had slightly less of an identity crisis, although even then a Thai green curry option was available.
The crostini starter (to share) was nice enough: sort of a garlic bread version of a four seasons pizza. The four slices of bread were thickly sliced, crispy on the edges and generously topped with “bruschetta” (which turned out to be cherry tomatoes, black olives and garlic), parma ham (which was generous to a fault), smoked salmon with mascarpone, and a very small strip of goat’s cheese. This came with a big pile of rocket and some parmesan which was slightly tough, as if it had been sliced then left out to dry. The rocket was a sad thing which seemed to be there for no other reason but to fill space: undressed and a little dishevelled, a few brown bits, a few tough leaves. I like rocket as much as the next person, but the next person would have left this rocket, and so did I.
I tried to get the waiter’s attention to ask for some dressing, but he was busy elsewhere. In fact, despite there only being about three or four tables occupied on a Bank Holiday lunchtime, service was best described as omni-absent: always lurking behind a pillar or in the kitchen when you wanted someone. When he came to take the plate away I noted that he didn’t ask how it was. I never know whether this is a lack of training or a conscious decision not to ask a question you might not like the answer to. Still, this was only a £7 starter and it went between two well.My guest’s main was the roasted garlic chicken pizza (“garlic chicken, red onions, parsley, white wine garlic sauce”). The dough was not unpleasant, if a little on the thick side, and the chicken was tasty although it wasn’t at all what either of us was expecting: roasted garlic chicken somehow suggests chicken that has been torn in some way, whereas these were pale chunky blocks of chicken that looked like they had been fried in a pan. The flavour of the sauce was nice, if incongruous – you don’t realise how integral tomato sauce is to a pizza until you order a pizza without it. He didn’t finish it, which is something of an accolade for ZeroDegrees as I’ve never seen him leave pizza before.To contrast I had the moules mariniéres, one of their signature dishes; a kilo pot served with fries, mayonnaise and ketchup. This is one of my favourite things, when it’s done right. I like a big bowl of mussels, plump and juicy and then the delicious soup at the bottom filled with shallots and cream and herbs that you can’t help but keep eating even though you know it’s a big bowl of cholesterol, salty and fatty. I love the bit towards the end, when all the shells have been discarded and there’s just you, the sauce, a spoon, some bread to dip and some skinny frites to pour in, even though you know you should probably stop.
Just typing that paragraph makes me realise how far from that ideal the ZeroDegrees mussels fell. They were fine. Fine. Nothing more. I dug around with my spoon and could find nothing, no shallots, no herbs, just a salty, creamy liquor with no real depth to it. If I contrast this with the moules served at Côte, another chain, on the riverside (which they only serve when in season) they came out sadly lacking. I managed to flag down my waiter and asked about the absence of onions and herbs and was told that the garlic and onions are ground into a paste and cooked with the mussels. This might have been true, but if it was there was little evidence in how it all tasted. I ate half, in the end, and a fair few frites, but I left the rest. I just didn’t see the point – as a dish it was like a novel where someone had torn out the final chapter. Even the mayonnaise and ketchup came in those little paper cups I associate with much cheaper restaurants.
I grabbed my cleansing towelette (no finger bowl here), cleaned up and asked for the bill. I couldn’t even muster the enthusiasm for a dessert, especially considering that just one item says “home made” on it, suggesting the rest are shipped in frozen from Brake Brothers or suchlike. When the waiter took away half a bowl of mussels and half a portion of frites, his curiosity once again deserted him.
So, I think I’m pretty much in the same place with ZeroDegrees as I was just after it opened. It should be marvellous, but it isn’t. Reading could do with an independent place that serves pizza and moules, but Zero Degrees isn’t it: the ethos behind the chain is great but it just doesn’t carry through to the food. The waiter seemed a little out of his depth (he was so young and innocent that I wanted to look after him rather than be served by him, which is all very sweet but really not how it should be) and in a big open restaurant with only four occupied tables, good service should be easier than this.
I think the best I can say is that ZeroDegrees is OK. The food (one shared starter, two mains, one drink each) came to £45, including the “optional” 10% service charge they add on. I’m not sure I’d have tipped otherwise, and I doubt I’ll pay it another visit.
ZeroDegrees – 5.4
9 Bridge Street, RG1 2LR
Telephone 0118 959 7959