Cerise has been on my list to review for quite some time – mainly by reputation. And yet, in the run-up to visiting the strangest thing happened: I couldn’t find anyone who had eaten there. Everyone knew about it, of course, and some people had even had cocktails in the opulent basement bar, or a sneaky summertime glass of white in their secret garden. But the restaurant? A total blank. So I did some Googling, only to find the same thing: no reviews, not in blogs, not in guides, not in the papers. Apart from TripAdvisor, there was no evidence that anybody had been at all. I guess it’s always been awkward for them: the restaurant of the Forbury Hotel, right opposite a restaurant called Forbury’s, with the unfortunate consequence that people always think you’re talking about somewhere else. So, a restaurant everyone thinks is good but nobody has been to, the lesser-known member of Reading’s high end club. How could I resist a visit?
Actually, on arrival we spent more time in the opulent basement bar than I was expecting. Despite only two tables being seated in the whole restaurant we were asked to wait in the bar “for around ten minutes”, for reasons which weren’t made clear. We sat on the banquette, flicked through the wine list and ended up going for a Crozes Hermitages for £38. It was good, peppery and not too tannic – although given the dishes we eventually ordered, I rather wish we’d picked something more capable of standing up to them. We ended up staying there while we got the menus, read the menus, plea-bargained and made our choices, only taking our seats when they were close to serving our starters. I enjoyed that – I’m usually so wedded to the idea that you sit at the table, you give the waiter your order and you sit at the high-backed chair sipping your wine until the food arrives. It was nice to loaf, although I was still a bit incredulous that the waiting staff didn’t seat us right away.
The dining room in Cerise is in two halves – a small room along from the bar and a bigger room further through (opening out onto that secret garden I mentioned). On a quiet Monday night, they’d only opened the smaller room which can’t seat more than twenty people. I liked it – tasteful, well-lit, good chairs and nice big tables – although if I’d been at that table on a busy Saturday night I might have felt like I was sitting in a corridor. As it was, it worked well, giving the feeling of being in a smaller, more intimate place. There was bread at the table when we sat down and it was nice if not wildly exciting – two slices of granary, one of something poppy-seeded and (the most interesting) a sweeter onion bread. The butter was at the right temperature to spread, a small thing but something a depressingly large number of restaurants get wrong.
It’s a pet hate of mine when people say something is too beautiful to eat: nothing is too beautiful to eat, and if you really feel that way you should be in the Tate, not a restaurant. Having said that, the braised lamb shank terrine really was pretty – pieces of lamb, cubes of carrot, peas and big pieces of sweet leek, with another strip of leek around the outside. I did feel apprehensive about eating it, though, because I was expecting something coarser and all those chunks (such an unattractive word), bound together with jelly felt like a Damian Hirst starter at best and Pedigree Chum for poshos at worst.
All those fears dissipated with the first mouthful. Really there was very little jelly in it, just tender tasty meat and firm, fresh vegetables. The mint dressing drizzled around the perimeter was sweet and perfect and what I’d mistaken for cucumber were in fact little cubes of green waxy potato. Potato, lamb, vegetables, mint sauce… it was only by the end that I realised that what I was eating was a high end distillation of the kind of Sunday lunch enjoyed across the country every weekend. I won’t say it was deconstructed – because that’s a word nobody should see in a restaurant review – but I will say that it was delicious, which is far more important anyway.
The crab and salmon sausage was equally delicious (although, somehow, I found myself wishing they’d called it a “boudin”, because ‘salmon sausage’ just sounds plain wrong). Whatever you called it, it was delightful once you got your head round something with the texture of a sausage and the taste of fish. It came halved and resting on a little pile of cabbage which in turn was in a pool of dill sauce, peppered with tiny cubes of carrot. The sauce had a deep, salty flavour – so different from the sometimes insipid taste of dill paired with fish. On top was a little nest of salad shoots which didn’t really add anything to the dish (they never do, in my opinion) but looked pretty just the same.
The mains were an altogether more robust affair. What was described as “roasted crown of partridge, Brussels sprout’s and saffron risotto” had a lot more going on than that – so much so, in fact, that it was almost possible to forgive the wayward apostrophe. So there was partridge – gamey, nicely cooked on the outside, if ever so slightly tough – and there was a gorgeous risotto, strands of saffron visible in it, with just enough bite in the rice. But there was also what looked like a potato croquette, and there were smoky lardons, and smudges of pea pureé and a generous and intense jus. I was really impressed by just how many things were on the plate, all done well, without it becoming incoherent or too busy. It was, however, a very rich dish, and I can easily imagine that it would defeat someone less gluttonous than me.
The duck confit “with mixed bean and wild mushroom cassoulet, orange essence” was also not for the faint-hearted, another big bold dish. The duck itself was exactly as you’d expect duck confit to be (though personally I prefer the skin to be crispier). The cassoulet base was a beautiful jumble of beans, lardons and wild mushrooms in another gloriously savoury, expertly reduced jus, a wonderful wintry stew. As with the duck skin I would have preferred the lardons to be crispy and, as with the partridge, I did find the dish a little overwhelming towards the end. Amongst all those deep flavours the orange essence was lost to me; maybe it was overpowered, although it didn’t feel as if the dish missed it.
The side dishes, with hindsight, were a mistake. Not because they were bad – the chips were good, with the right balance of crispiness and fluffiness and the honey roasted root vegetables were even better; sweet, slightly spiced with that slightly fuzzy stickiness that comes from cooking them properly. But they weren’t needed, and maybe the waitress should have pointed that out (in fairness, we were hungry and insistent and I’m not sure we would have taken no for an answer). Even so, service just wasn’t like that. I was surprised that it didn’t quite match up to the food – the waitress was polite and pleasant but her English didn’t seem brilliant and it didn’t feel like she knew her way round the menu. That side of the experience wasn’t as polished as you might expect, given everything the restaurant had got right.
I was nearly too full for dessert, but in the end the prospect of brown bread parfait, with caramelised pears and peanut brittle was too tempting to resist. Again, that spare description didn’t quite do it justice: the parfait was in a cylinder, the outside studded with tiny nuggets of peanut brittle. The caramelised pear was terrific, served in an espresso cup with a buttery crumble topping. But the thick toffee sauce alongside the parfait was what made it special – rich, decadent, thoroughly wicked (much, I like to think, like most of the people checking into the hotel upstairs).
Pricing at Cerise is remarkably consistent – most of the starters hover around the ten pound mark, most of the mains are twenty pounds and all the desserts are just under a tenner. The bill was £110 for two and a half courses each, two side dishes we really should have gone without and a bottle of very nice wine. I know that’s a lot, but I didn’t leave feeling cheated.
Special occasion prices, then. But was the food special occasion quality? I think, on balance, the answer to that is yes. The room could be a little nicer, the service needs to be a little more impressive but the food makes up for much of that. The word that keeps jumping out of the review is “rich” and I think that does it justice. It’s properly indulgent, over the top, powerful food – not too clever, but just clever enough to feel slightly different – and for that kind of meal, I can’t think of anywhere in Reading that offers anything similar. I can see myself going again – more readily than I can see myself going back to London Street Brasserie or Forbury’s – but I can also see myself not eating much the lunchtime before and rushing home afterwards to undo the top button on my jeans. But everyone needs a meal like that from time to time. Don’t they?
Cerise – 7.9
The Forbury Hotel, 26 The Forbury, RG1 3EJ