N.B. The Lobster Room closed in March 2014. I’ve left the review up for posterity.
Sometimes, when you’re out in a restaurant, you get a certain kind of sinking feeling when you just know that you’re going to have a bad meal. I expect you know exactly what I’m talking about. Sometimes it happens when you’re greeted and seated, sometimes it’s when you look at the menu, sometimes when the first dish arrives. Whenever it is, though, it’s a terrible feeling because it nearly always comes too late for you to leave; all you can do is sit there, endure it, minimise the damage and chalk it up to experience.
I’ve been wondering at what point in my experience in The Lobster Room I first got that sinking feeling. There are a number of candidates.
It might be when I looked at the website, before I’d even made up my mind definitely to go there. There was something about the menu that flashed warning lights, although I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Perhaps it was the spelling mistakes (calamari was accompanied with sweet chilly sauce, which sounded a little, well, cold). Perhaps it was the slightly bizarre choice of words: Goan prawn curry came in a spicy coastal gravy, crab was served on an aromatic and flavourful hill of tagliatelle.
Or maybe the sinking feeling came in when I entered and went down the stairs to the cellar restaurant. The greeting was marked more with surprise than warmth and the waiter – voluminous white shirt tucked into Status Quo jeans – responded to the request for a table for two with a terse “sure”. You could see why, going in, and perhaps understand his amazement; at prime time on a Saturday night we were only the fourth table in there. The room, back when it was Chronicles, was a lovely subterranean space. There’s a certain illicit appeal about cellar restaurants, or should be, but The Lobster Room was empty and charmless. The furniture didn’t all match and the worn, tired-looking tables looked as if they had been inherited from Valentino’s, the previous restaurant to fail in this spot.
If it wasn’t then, I might have got the sinking feeling when our wine and water turned up. The wine glasses were chunky numbers with no delicacy at all and their contents were nothing to write home about. The sauvignon blanc was featureless, if inoffensive, but the Orvieto was just terrible – so watery and thin that I couldn’t be sure it hadn’t in fact been watered down. Both were almost cold. We asked for water and the same waiter – the only waiter we saw all evening, although he was hardly busy – wandered off out back and returned with two giant Stella Artois goblets full of water. One had ice in it, one didn’t; no explanation for this was offered.
You hear a lot of conversation in restaurants when there’s almost nobody in there. It soon became apparent that, apart from the couple having what seemed to be an extremely tedious date in the alcove opposite us, everyone else in the restaurant seemed to be there because they were friends with someone who appeared to be the owner, a blazered man who wandered randomly round the restaurant from time to time.
I had definitely got the sinking feeling by the time the starters arrived (no bread, despite the attractive picture of fresh-baked bread on the website). What was billed as lobster ravioli with lemon butter and caper cream was in fact ravioli buried under a huge wobbling mound of what looked and tasted like hot mayonnaise with a couple of capers strewn across it. At first I thought it was a generous serving of ravioli underneath a thin coating of sauce, but in fact the primary purpose of this gelatinous Hellman’s substitute was to conceal how few ravioli you got. It was, in fact, only one raviolo away from being lobster raviolo with lemon butter and caper cream, which means that each raviolo cost just over five pounds. By the time I realised there were only two of them I’d given half of one of them away, and even then I can hardly say I was cheated. The pasta was thick and rubbery and the thin smear of meat in the middle could have been Shippam’s Paste for all the difference it would have made, so overpowered was it by the hideous sauce. I seriously considered cancelling the mains and leaving after that; it’s hard to imagine any restaurant in Reading where you could so comprehensively waste ten pounds of your money on a single dish.
The other starter – the aforementioned calamari with “sweet chilly sauce” was, by comparison, stellar stuff, by which I mean that it was still not very good. A little dish of wan looking battered calamari, not unacceptably springy but certainly not tender enough to be fresh, with a ramekin of standard issue supermarket chilli sauce, it was the pick of the bunch mainly by virtue of not being such shocking value. But even then: this might have been excusable in a chain restaurant, but a place called The Lobster Room specialising in seafood? No, it was just nowhere near good enough.
The waiter approached the table with a Fonz-style double thumbs up as he came to take the plates away, but he didn’t actually ask if the food was any good. Maybe he was too smart to do so, or maybe the gesture was to congratulate himself for having shifted the most exorbitant ravioli in Britain; sadly I’ll never know.
Anyway, by this stage it really was a question, like watching the Royal Variety Performance, of how bad things were going to get before the end. This seems as appropriate a time as any to mention the background music, which was truly purgatorial. I’ve now heard lounge jazz cover versions of, among other things, China Girl by David Bowie, Sowing The Seeds Of Love by Tears For Fears, Don’t You Want Me by The Human League and – my personal favourite – Sultans Of Swing by Dire Straits. It was more old hat than nouvelle vague; I’ve left a restaurant for less, and I wish I’d had that much sense on this occasion.
The mains were no better. Fillet of monkfish with wild mushroom and pernod sauce was in fact three small pieces of monkfish tail, as much bone as flesh. Having endured the ravioli I can safely say that I was a lot wilder than the mushrooms accompanying this dish. The sauce tasted of cream and salt and the note of Pernod struggled and failed to break through. In the middle was a little heap (certainly not a “flavourful hill”) of vegetables – a few potatoes, some peppers which were just about cooked and some raw carrots. The closest these carrots had come to being cooked was having sat on a plate with something warm for a couple of minutes before being served up. That dish was sixteen pounds fifty and the best thing I can say is that it wasn’t the biggest rip-off of the evening.
The lobster looked attractive enough, but disappointed at the same speed as everything else. The crustacean, neatly halved, sat on a similar pile of vegetables as those that came with the monkfish. The tail meat was reasonable – if a little tough, which suggested it had been overcooked. The “butter garlic sauce” was almost non-existent, so I never got to work out whether this was meant to be garlic butter, garlic sauce or some novel hybrid of the two. There were a few stray flecks of green which had probably been parsley once upon a time and the meat in the single claw (this is news to me, but I seemed to have been served a lobster amputee) had shrunk back a lot, which also suggested that it may have been overcooked. The lobster crackers were wholly unnecessary as the shell was soft and bendy – I’m no expert on lobster but this struck me as wrong. Perhaps it had been left after cooking for too long or maybe there had been a microwave involved, I dread to think. At eighteen pounds this dish was – and I’m really sorry to put it this way – simply not worth shelling out for. It was very quick to eat, too, and so anaemic that I didn’t even need to roll up my sleeves; no wonder they didn’t bring a finger bowl to the table.
I’ve missed out so many sinking feelings. In fact, sitting in a basement restaurant having that many sinking feelings it’s a wonder I didn’t reach the Earth’s core. Here’s another one; we arrived at eight-thirty, and ordered. Our starters arrived at eight forty-five. Our mains arrived at nine. It’s almost as if they were in a hurry to serve us quickly so that we didn’t have the opportunity to come to our senses and leave. I’ve had slower meals in Nando’s, and better ones too for that matter. Anyway, it didn’t work because we did come to our senses, albeit too late: as you can probably guess, we didn’t stay for dessert.
All in all two glasses of wine, two starters and two mains came to sixty-two pounds. That amount doesn’t include service (which is appropriate, as neither did my evening). I can’t imagine The Lobster Room surviving in that location, with that service, with that food at those prices for much longer. You can get better lobster at Côte or at Brown’s, you can get better service pretty much anywhere, and if you’re going to spend that kind of money Reading has dozens of better alternatives. By the end of my time in The Lobster Room I began to think that the restaurant might just be a convenient tax deduction, or some kind of gastronomic equivalent of Springtime For Hitler. If that’s the purpose, it’s succeeding admirably, but as a place which serves good food at a fair price to customers it’s a very different story.
The Lobster Room – 3.3
17 – 19 Valpy Street, RG1 1AR