I have a lot of sympathy for Bart’s: I visited them in the first week of 2014, one of the deadest times of the year for restaurants. If you’re a restaurant, all your potential customers are either enduring their first few days back in the office or making the most of the last precious time before work can no longer be avoided, still working through leftovers, groaning cupboards and packed fridges. And, of course, lots of your potential customers have resolutions in mind – spend less, eat less, exercise more – and none of those are exactly compatible with eating out.
It must be difficult working in a restaurant in early January. Bart’s only had two tables occupied for all the time I was there that evening, and I was at one of them. I bet they were wondering why they’d bothered opening at all. Was eating there similarly difficult? Well, yes and no.
Bart’s is a funny place, on the Wokingham Road between Cemetery Junction and Palmer Park. It’s a big restaurant, with a total of three dining rooms, one of which is used for private dining. On the night I visited, the main dining room was almost the only room that was lit, which led to an eerie feeling that you were eating in a restaurant which was only half-open. But the welcome was warm, the other diners (regulars, I think) looked happy and the room itself was comfy and not unattractive. The twinkling fairy lights behind my table lent everything a festive – if hyperactive – glow.
The service was lovely throughout: if my waiter was unhappy to be back at work so soon after New Year you would never have known, and he made conversation without sounding phony before leaving us to pick our way through the menu. It wasn’t a menu which filled me with excitement. I showed it to a friend before the visit and she said “that’s the kind of stuff you’d find in a Harvester” and that’s bang on: prawn cocktail, breaded mushrooms, steaks, lamb shanks, burgers, cheesecake and brownies, all present and correct. But that didn’t necessarily mean it would be bad, of course – those dishes are on menus for a reason, and well executed they can be delicious.
The wine list is short – a handful of wines by the glass – but all the ones we tried were delicious, and none of them cost more than a fiver. The Corbières was soft, fruity and unchallenging and the Graves was a little more peppery. I had a Chenin Blanc with my main course and that too was very serviceable. Another pleasant surprise came when the waiter brought over a couple of amuse bouches. They were an excellent start: guacamole topped with chives tasted fresher than I expected, and little cubes of chicken liver pate on slivers of Melba toast, along with some caramelised red onion, were also promising.
It was the last faultless course I saw from the kitchen, and therein lies the problem with Bart’s. If I was going to describe what they do, I’d say they make some really good food, they make some ordinary food, but the main thing they make are mistakes: too many mistakes, in fact.
The starters included the best dish of the night. The ribs were delicious: a reasonable portion, slathered in a sticky barbecue sauce and putting up no resistance to a fork, falling from the bone in meek surrender. I didn’t get much of the advertised paprika in the sauce but it was so delicious that I didn’t care. Even the salad was tasty – properly dressed (with a hint of rapeseed oil, I think) rather than just a pointless adornment.
The other starter was a let down – Bart’s describes its calamari as “overnight marinated, dusted in Chef’s special recipe flour and crispy fried”. It didn’t taste as if it had been marinated at all and the coating was nothing special, special recipe flour or no. There are better calamari to be had in many Reading restaurants – London Street Brasserie, Carluccio’s, Jamie’s Italian, even Bill’s – and cheaper calamari to be had almost anywhere. At that price – £8.50 for seven measly rings of squid – I did wonder what was in the marinade. Unicorn tears, perhaps.
The mains were also strewn with errors. The sea bream didn’t live up to the promise of the menu because, although the flesh on both generous portions of bream was cooked well, the skin was flaccid, not crispy as advertised. This was off-putting – not just because I love crispy fish skin, but also because it left me wondering exactly how this had been cooked. The mashed potato was meant to contain lemon, but I didn’t get any in what was a giant unfinishable mound of mash. I would have liked more haste, less speed, more lemon, less potato.
You can’t go to a grill house and not order a steak, so naturally I did. The twelve ounce sirloin was a gorgeous piece of meat, with very little fat or waste, well marbled and nicely seasoned. But – and this is an enormous but, in a steak restaurant – it was medium well rather than the medium rare I’d ordered. There’s no excuse for that – especially when the dish is your speciality and the one thing customers should be entitled to expect you to get right time after time. It’s not as if the kitchen was rushed off its feet, either.
What I hate most about getting a steak cooked wrong is that it gives you the most unpalatable choice of all: which is more important to you, eating at the same time as your friends or getting the dish you had ordered? To my shame, on this occasion I didn’t send it back, or complain. Maybe I was being charitable because I too had just worked on a day when I’d really rather not and I hadn’t exactly put in my most productive shift either.
The side dishes were a collection of mistakes expressed through the medium of vegetables. Sautéed potatoes weren’t anything of the kind, just baby new potatoes boiled and then flashed in the pan to have colour but no texture. Steamed broccoli with almond flakes were exactly that and nothing more. If the flakes had been toasted and the broccoli had been tossed in a little butter it might have been interesting, but as it was it was just florets, nuts and a strong sense of being underwhelmed.
If we’d left then, and we nearly did, this would have been a different review. But, against all odds, Bart’s redeemed itself through its desserts, which were extraordinary. Warm caramelised rice pudding with sautéed mixed berries was divine – a deep pot of creamy rice pudding with a middle later of something like a berry jam. On the top was a nicely bruleéd layer of sugar which gave a fabulous toffee taste to the rice pudding.
The other dish was recommended by the waiter. Poached pear in almond soup sounded interesting on paper, and more adventurous than most of the dishes on the menu. When it turned up it was glorious. The pear – although not huge – was soft, dark and delicious with the red wine and port it had been poached in. The “almond soup” was probably better described as liquid marzipan, creamy, grainy and sweet. I complimented the waiter on it and he told me that the soup was the chef’s own creation – and he looked proud on his behalf. One last mistake though, because it was too asking too much to expect Bart’s not to make one: the supposedly cinnamon ice cream, which would have been perfect, was plain old vanilla.
At the end of the meal the manager came over and asked us if we’d liked the meal. Slightly won over by the desserts and the superb service we said yes, at which point he brought over a couple of complimentary nightcaps and a form for us to fill out to get a loyalty card. I was a bit fuzzy on the details by then but it seems like you can become a member to enjoy various undisclosed benefits (I didn’t sign up, so I’m afraid I’ll never find out what they are), as well as twenty per cent off your next bill. Our bill was a hundred pounds, including service, for two people, three courses each and five glasses of wine, and I thought that was okay but not amazing.
I’ve thought about the meal at Bart’s a lot and I still can’t quite make up my mind about it. You can probably tell. Some of the food was really good, the wine was great, it was a nice cosy room and the service was excellent. But there were so many mistakes, all over the place, from the minor to the major to the fundamental. A steak house that can’t cook steaks as ordered is getting the basics wrong, and no personable greeting when you arrive is ever going to make up for that.
I wasn’t expecting great things from Bart’s – I walked down the King’s Road with a growing sense of dread – but in the end, even though it wasn’t a brilliant meal, there were plenty of surprises. I wasn’t expecting the best of their food to be as good as it was, or for the service to be so good. What I really wasn’t expecting, though, was to come away from it disappointed that I couldn’t rate them more than I do. Maybe they were just having a bad day at the office and suffering from New Year blues, just like I was, and I can’t rule out going back later in the year to see if they can do better. But going three times in fifteen months, like the local paper did? No. Not unless you paid me.
Bart’s – 6.2
21 Wokingham Road, RG6 1LE