One of the editorial decisions I had to make when I started Edible Reading sounds like a minor one, but it prompted much deliberation. Not where to eat, or which font to use, or whether to put captions underneath my terrible pictures, but something more basic: where do you put the mark out of 10? I quite liked the idea, like Pitchfork for example, of putting the mark right at the top so you knew before reading whether I thought the restaurant was any good. In the end, I went with the conventional method of putting it at the bottom. The idea is that people read on to the end, curious about whether I’m going to turn out to be a fan of Pepe Sale, ZeroDegrees, London Street Brasserie etc.
Most of the time this works out fine, but the only exception is when you give a bad review. People love bad reviews, and I’m no exception; there’s a certain pleasure to be had from reading one. So I think I should warn you from the outset that this is a bad review. Picasso is not a good restaurant. I won’t go again, and I’d actively encourage you to follow my example. Got that? Right, on we go then.
I started out reviewing places I’ve been before – not new places, not unknowns – partly because I wanted to find my feet and partly because I wanted to pick places you might have been, so you could get an idea whether we liked the same stuff and you trusted my judgment. But this couldn’t go on forever, so I asked for suggestions about where I should go next. “Try Picasso”, someone said on Twitter, “I’ve heard mixed reviews and I’ve never been able to bring myself to try it.” Good idea, I thought. What’s the worst that can happen?
It turns out the worst that can happen is eating dinner at Picasso.
It’s one of those places, ironically, that ought to fill a gap in the market. Reading has never had a decent tapas restaurant, unless you count La Tasca (and, having eaten there before it closed, I don’t). Picasso has been going a long time, tucked away in a quiet little spot just over Caversham Bridge, so it must be doing something right. So I booked a table for 8 o’clock on a Saturday night and wandered across town, stopping in the Moderation for a pre-prandial gin and tonic. Eating somewhere you’ve never been before always has that feeling of excitement and anticipation, like that point at Christmas when you sit on the sofa, ready to unwrap a present in front of all your relatives.
The inside of Picasso, I would guess, hasn’t changed in over thirty years; basic furniture in a long thin room, pictures on the walls, cloth napkins, tables not too close together. A few tables were in dark corners, and I carefully avoided being led to one of those. Although it was unprepossessing I was determined not to judge the book by its cover: after all, Pepe Sale does great food and is never going to feature in Elle Decoration. The interior Picasso reminded me most of was the recently departed Nino’s, in Market Place, in fact, another old school restaurant where I’ve somehow never managed to have an inspiring meal.
Everything started well: the service in Picasso is very good, authoritative, old-fashioned service. The waiter recommended a Ribero Del Duero which was not on the wine list, was only £22 and was probably the best thing about the whole evening. He also – and this has to be a first – cautioned us against ordering too much food. Two tapas per person was enough for an evening meal, he said, so we should go easy on them.
In hindsight, I should have known at this point that something was amiss. Tapas are not meant to be big. That’s the whole point of them, and their whole appeal because it means you can try dozens of little things without being stuck with a giant portion of anything. After all, if you wanted that you’d go to a restaurant that served starters and main courses, wouldn’t you? A look at the menu proved that either the tapas were far too big or they were far too expensive: most of them were between eight and ten pounds. This is definitely the point where alarm bells began to ring, just as other couples started to take their tables. A lot of them had clearly been here before, though, so I must just have been worrying unduly. Mustn’t I?
When the tapas turned up it became apparent that they were both too big and too expensive, and worse still just not very good. A plato combinado of jamon serrano and chorizo was limp and insipid. The chorizo was barely an evolutionary step up from luncheon meat with a sun tan, bouncy and tasteless. The jamon serrano was even more of an insult, with the shiny dampness of something that had spent the previous few hours in a plastic catering pack of some description, each slice sandwiched between leaves of plastic. I wasn’t expecting them to have a leg of jamon hanging over the bar (hoping maybe, but certainly not expecting) but I did at least want to feel like this was good quality stuff. I could have walked back into town, gone to Marks & Spencer and got more, better, jamon for under three pounds. I finished it out of sheer stubbornness and almost immediately regretted it.
If the jamon was sub-M&S, the mushrooms with garlic butter were sub-Iceland, and even then I am probably being kind. A huge bowl of breadcrumbed mushrooms with a few visible patches of melted garlic butter was plonked in front of us, with a wedge of lemon in case you had pretensions about that kind of thing. Cutting them open they were flabby and damp, and the whole thing had the feel of party food at a party you wished you didn’t have to attend. A funeral, perhaps. We didn’t eat them all.
I looked again at the red wine. It was good, but it wasn’t that good.
The mains came almost as quickly as the starters had done, and were no better. Cerdo Asturiano was billed as pork fillet cooked in cider and cheese sauce. I was hoping for tenderloin, what I got was two thick slabs of steak with another slab of cheese melted on top of them. The sauce had no evidence that either cider or cheese had been used in it at all, it was the sort of anonymous red sauce that used to be made by Homepride and is now made by Dolmio. For all I know it could well have been. Accompanying it was a gigantic pile of fried cubed potatoes (presumably exactly the same thing you’d get if you ordered patatas bravas), some carrots which either came from a tin or had been cooked to closely resemble those that do, and some broccoli. It was clear that nobody left Picasso hungry, but that it was unlikely they left it satisfied either.
Swordfish in a cream, onion and mushroom sauce was just as disappointing. The swordfish was bland and flavourless and the sauce managed, if anything, to be less than the sum of its parts – thin, watery, with a hint of dill that might well have come out of a Schwartz jar. Swordfish, done well, is a beautiful thing but this was just boil in the bag cod in parsley sauce with delusions of grandeur. It came with the same piles of forgettable vegetables as the pork; in fact, I only took a photograph of one of the main courses but they were virtually identical, the single difference being which inadequate protein and sauce combination you’d been unlucky enough to plump for. The only things worth finishing in the whole restaurant, it seemed, were the wine and the experience.
It’s worth stressing what bad value Picasso is. Most of the tapas, as I said, were just shy of a tenner. The two mains were eighteen and sixteen pounds respectively. You can eat better for the same money in Reading without having to try very hard, and I’ve already reviewed two places where you can do exactly that. I couldn’t quite believe all the other diners in the restaurant didn’t appreciate this, to the extent where I wanted to stop by their tables on the way out and actively encourage them to go somewhere else next time. As I didn’t do that, I’ll have to console myself by doing it here instead.
I’ll say one thing for Picasso, it was mercifully quick. From sitting down to deciding to pass on the dessert menu took an hour and twenty minutes, on a Saturday night, a peak time for restaurants when people want to sit down and have an enjoyable, leisurely meal. The high point of the weekend when we want to sit in lovely cosy room somewhere, escaping from X-Factor and the contents of our fridge and being spoiled and taken care of by other people. There were lots of things about Picasso that were very very wrong, but the worst of all is how it betrayed that promise that every restaurant implicitly makes, that it will whisk you away from all that. It was like eating in a friend’s house, if your friend wasn’t a very good cook, had gone to about four downmarket supermarkets to get all the ingredients and tried to charge you eighty quid for the privilege. If you had a friend like that, you’d stop seeing them. If you knew a restaurant like that, you’d stop going. Believe me, Picasso is that restaurant.
Picasso – 4.1
6 Bridge Street, Caversham, RG4 8AA
Telephone 0118 9484141