Round-up: February and March

Another bumper couple of months here at Edible Reading, so it seems like a good point to stop, take a breather and review what you may have missed, along with the latest selection of restaurant news. Are you sitting comfortably? Got a nice cup of tea to hand, or coffee if that’s your preference? Maybe a biscuit too, be it a Custard Cream or a Choco Leibniz? Excellent, then I’ll begin (but not without saying that, if it is a Choco Leibniz, you can colour me envious). Let’s start with a summary of the most recent reviews…

Thai Corner, 7.0 – One of Reading’s longest serving restaurants, Thai Corner is still plying a busy trade at the end of town which has never been that fashionable. Is it a timeless staple, or an anachronism running out of steam? I went to find out, and the review is here.

La Courbe, 7.3 – You’re eating from square plates on square glass tables, sitting on square dated furniture in a cold room with no soft furnishings, the door open most of the time and smoke coming from the open kitchen. How on earth did this place get a mark of 7.3? you might wonder. Click here to find out.

Cerise, 7.9 – Everyone knows Cerise is one of Reading’s best, fanciest, most expensive restaurants – and yet nobody seems to know anybody who has ever gone. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to find out if the hype was justified, and my verdict is here.

Côte, 7.8 – Why did I break my general rule and go review a chain restaurant? Are all chains bad, or all independent restaurants good? And where should you be heading for breading in Reading? These, and so many other questions, are inadequately answered here.

The Pack Horse, 5.1 – I suppose my run of good luck had to come to an end eventually and a rare jaunt out of Reading, down the road to Mapledurham, gave me the opportunity to write about bad tables, indifferent service, invisible hearing aids, the fight against wobbliness and meatballs in faggots’ clothing. Can a single review knit all that together? Check the review out here and let me know.

Mission Burrito, 6.7 – Reading’s fast food scene was always a straight out battle between burgers and KFC until Mission came along and offered something slightly different. Independent, small, friendly and offering something you can’t get elsewhere in Reading? Is there anything not to like? The review’s here.

So, on to the restaurant news (and don’t think I haven’t noticed you scoffing another biscuit – nothing escapes me, you know). First of all, Al Tarboush, the Lebanese restaurant opposite TGI Friday, has closed. It’s not clear why, but I heard mixed feedback in the aftermath on whether this was a terrible shame or no bad thing. It was on my list to review, and I’m a bit sad I won’t get the chance now to make up my own mind; another reminder that restaurants close all the time and you shouldn’t put off going to one you’re genuinely curious about. Reading still has a Lebanese restaurant, in the shape of La Courbe, which isn’t perfect but definitely deserves support.

The site is going to become a new Italian restaurant called Casa Roma and refurbs have just completed. Their website is under construction and can be found here. It’s a brave soul that looks at Reading and thinks “what this place really needs is a new Italian place, right at the edge of town, on a site with a history of closed restaurants and no car park” but, you know, best of luck to them.

I had heard rumours that the Lobster Room had also closed, and wandering past they appeared to be true: the menu boards had been taken down and the lights were off. However, a sign has now appeared stating that they reopen on the 4th of April. It’s not clear whether they’ve closed temporarily for repairs, for refurbishments or to improve their recipe for the most expensive ravioli in Reading (regular readers may remember that it held the dubious honour of having the lowest ER rating to date: the review is here).

My Kitchen, mentioned in the last round-up, has now opened. It’s open until 7pm serving coffee, sandwiches, salads and cakes – I’ve not been yet but it would be good to see another independent competing in the market for lunch trade and taking some business away from all of Reading’s Costas, Neros and Starbucks. Their website doesn’t seem to work (always a bit awkward when businesses don’t get that right) but they do Tweet, here.

We have one other restaurant opening in the offing: the old Glo site on St Mary’s Butts is going to reopen as Coconut Bar And Kitchen. They’re currently recruiting for chefs and claim that they will offer an experience based on genuine street food from across the Far East. It sounds an awful lot like Tampopo to me but a lot will depend, as always, on the execution. Again, no website yet and the Twitter feed – here – isn’t really worth looking at yet. The same goes for the Facebook page, so it’s very much a case of watching this space and seeing what happens.

Also worth mentioning: nominations have opened for the Reading Retail Awards. There are categories for best coffee shop, best lunchtime venue and best restaurant and the defending champions are Whittington’s Tea Barge, Tutu’s Ethiopian Table and Côte respectively. If you want to nominate your favourite place, the form is here.

Finally, in the last round-up I mentioned Alt Reading, a new publication covering all aspects of independent life in Reading. They were kind enough to interview me recently for the site and asked me a variety of questions around why I set the blog up, what I look for when I review a restaurant and how I’d like to see Reading’s food scene change. I’m very lucky that they asked me such interesting questions and luckier still that they didn’t ask me anything really difficult, like my favourite cheese (it it Barkham Blue? or a really salty crumbly mature cheddar? a creamy buffalo mozzarella, torn and served with fresh tomatoes? I wish I’d never started this now). Anyway, for those of you who are interested the interview can be found here.

Right, that’s all for another month. See you all again next Friday for another impartial, reliable review of a Reading restaurant – and if you have somewhere you want me to review, you probably know the drill by now.

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Mission Burrito

Sometimes you just don’t want a sit down three course meal (this even happens to me – believe it or not). Sometimes you’re off to the cinema or out down the pub and you just want something quick, easy and tasty. And for years, in central Reading, your only real choice was who made your burger and whether it was chicken or beef – three McDonalds, three Burger Kings and a KFC are testimony to that. That all changed when Mission opened on the Oracle Riverside and gave diners another option which wasn’t griddled or fried and didn’t come with fries: the brave new world of burritos.

Mission is a mini-chain that started in Oxford and has slowly expanded – first to Reading and then further west to Cardiff via Bath and Bristol (someone there must really like the M4). It always makes me proud, as a Reading resident, when places decide to expand to Reading first; back in the days when Bill’s was new it felt exciting and cool that they opened here. But Bill’s is a big chain pretending to be a cuddly independent whereas Mission, for now at least, feels like the real deal, an independent that had a good idea, did well and has grown gradually and organically. But is it any good?

The plot that Mission has in the Oracle isn’t very big – it can be a bit of a squeeze to get a seat and the queue sometimes stretches out the door (a promising sign in itself) but it turns out Sunday afternoons are fairly quiet so I got there and had no trouble getting served or finding a seat. The room is pretty unremarkable – space along one side to queue until you’re up at the counter, and plain dark wood tables with long benches. Get in, get your food, eat your food and go. And that’s fine: I never understood when McDonald’s started introducing what looked like Arne Jacobsen chairs. Who eats a burger in one of those? (Not Arne Jacobsen, that’s for sure.)

Ordering involves all manner of choices. There are three types of dish – burritos, fajitas (which are like burritos but with vegetables instead of rice) or tacos, which are three soft flour tortillas rather than the rigid corn shells so beloved by Old El Paso (and so impossible to eat). There are then three types of filling – beef, chicken or pork. Or if you fancy paying through the nose for a dish with no meat, or are vegetarian and therefore have no choice, there’s vegetables. Then you pick your extras – guacamole or cheese (which cost extra) or pico de gallo and sour cream (which don’t). Finally, just to crank up the number of different types of combinations, you pick from one of three different sauces with varying degrees of heat. The possibilities, as Eddie Izzard used to say on that TV advert about recycling, are endless.

I make it sound really complex but it really isn’t too bad and the staff behind the counter, running a factory line all doing different parts of the process, are very friendly and efficient and in next to no time I was at my table tucking into my choice.

The burritos are big – a twelve inch tortilla liberally stuffed with rice, pinto beans (which had been “cooked in bacon” according to the staff, although I’m not sure what that entails), guacamole and the slow cooked beef. Rolled up and served in foil, it wasn’t possible to eat tidily unless you kept most of the foil in place. It’s not a delicate dainty meal but it wasn’t half bad: I loved the beef, rich and cooked until it had no fight left in it, and the beans, although not really tasting of bacon per se, were smoky and tasty. The guacamole was a little more disappointing – huge chunks of avocado, too coarse if anything, not distributed evenly throughout the burrito. The chipotle sauce didn’t come through at all, leaving me wondering if I’d asked for the wrong one or if the staff just hadn’t glugged on enough. The cheese didn’t register. But I suppose these could be viewed as fussy quibbles about what was basically a big edible pillowcase stuffed with a lot of quite good things (they also do a smaller version, presumably for lunchtime and less ambitious eaters, and a larger version – presumably for Eric Pickles).

The tacos are three thinner six inch discs which are assembled but left open. I had two with chicken and one with pork – just to cover all the bases, you understand – topped with lettuce, sour cream, cheese and a smidge of chipotle salsa. These were also delicious, if almost impossible to eat – you end up trying to roll the edges together but end up with a big sloppy tube, dripping sauce from both ends. (Sounds lovely, doesn’t it: who doesn’t enjoy a big sloppy dripping tube?) The chicken was particularly good, cooked until it was falling apart and perfect with the note of heat from the chipotle sauce it had been roasted in. The cheese, again, was a bit lost in the mix so you could easily leave it out and save yourself the princely sum of thirty pence but the sour cream worked well, offsetting the heat from the salsa. The carnitas was less exciting than the chicken: drier and lacking in flavour with no hint of the thyme or orange zest it had apparently been cooked with.

Mission - tacos

Dotted around the tables were bottles of hot sauce (because some people really like not being able to feel their lips) and big piles of paper napkins (because some people really don’t like to be covered in sauce). I avoided the former, because I’m not that kind of person, and enthusiastically embraced the latter, for similar reasons. That said, I did add a little hot sauce to my last taco and very nice it was too, even if it did require the use of yet another paper napkin. If you are on the fastidious side this might not be for you but if you like getting stuck in and don’t mind reaching the end of a meal looking like you need to be hosed down Mission might be right up your alley.

Drinks options are, unsurprisingly, limited but the Modelo, in a bottle, was exactly as you’d expect. The frozen margarita was I think a better choice – zesty and zingy without the rough edge that tequila can sometimes have, and surprisingly refreshing after the richness of the food.

Dinner for two came to almost exactly twenty pounds and the burritos, fajitas and tacos come in at just under the six pound mark: I was in two minds about whether this was good value (and I still am) although I am pretty sure it represents iffy value for money if you’re a vegetarian. If a vegetarian has to endure a burrito restaurant the very least you can do is give the poor sods free cheese and guacamole, and even that seems a bit stingy.

On reflection, I liked Mission but maybe not as much as I should have done. The food is good, the value isn’t unreasonable, the service is very pleasant and they have a clear proposition. They’re exactly the kind of independent place Reading needs and they do what they do very well. But I was left with the feeling that if a friend said “let’s go to Mission before the cinema” I wouldn’t object, but I’d be unlikely to suggest going there myself. It’s funny how sometimes a place just doesn’t grab you: I guess, like the sauce in my burrito, I felt a little warmth, but not quite enough.

Mission Burrito – 6.7
15A The Riverside Level, The Oracle Centre, RG1 2AG
0118 9511999

http://missionburrito.co.uk/

The Pack Horse, Mapledurham

This week’s review was meant to be of Kei’s, the Chinese restaurant in Lower Earley. I took the bus, past streets called things like Parsley Drive and Clove Close (it must be hard to be inspired when you have to name so many streets; back in the day it was the largest housing development in Europe) and reached the restaurant only to find that we’d been given the only table left. By the door. With the spotlight overhead gone. In pitch blackness.

Were there no other tables, we asked. Apparently not. Could they do anything about it? After some shaking of heads, a waitress returned with an ineffective-looking candle that had seen better days. And I, I’m afraid to say, turned round and left. I’ve been sat at many tables so awful that I’ve asked to move, and some so bad that I’ve accepted them reluctantly and complained all night, but only one so terrible that I refused to sit there at all, and that was the one at Kei’s. It was hardly a table at all, more a badly-lit symbol of their determination to make money out of two extra diners. So never mind, Kei’s. Maybe another time.

Instead, the following night I went to the Pack Horse at Mapledurham and something very similar happened.

This time, it was the opposite problem. The spotlight was working – too well, which meant that the person in one of the seats looked like they were competing on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? (picking a main course is difficult, but never that difficult). We asked if we could be moved. It shouldn’t have been a problem; there were loads of vacant tables for two.

“I’m sorry, those tables are reserved.” said the waitress, casually dressed in what have been a dress or just a very long t-shirt.

“This table was reserved too. And they’re not here yet anyway. Can’t you just swap them over?”

This was apparently a very difficult question (I didn’t realise at this stage but that was the shape of things to come from the service at the Pack Horse) but after much deliberation she moved us. Our reservation was at 8, the table they swapped was at 7.30. They never turned up. The table next to us was reserved from 7, and they never turned up either. I can only imagine that some people in Mapledurham have invented a time machine, travelled into the future and read this review.

Before that it all looked promising. The Pack Horse is a gorgeous pub on the A4074, about fifteen minutes out of Reading. The main bar is all beautiful wooden beams and brass over the fireplace, snug and cosy. The wine list has a default glass size of 125ml, and everything is attractively priced, encouraging you to drink as many different things as possible. The dining room is handsome, even if the tables are a little bit too small for two. But from the moment we took our seats, nothing else went right.

We started with some rustic bread, butter and rosemary oil, although we needed to order this twice before it actually turned up. It was unremarkable – the butter was unsalted and only just soft enough to spread, the bread heavy and hard work (maybe this is what “rustic” means). Only the oil was worth the trouble – sharp, fresh and green with a good whack of flavour from the rosemary. The bread came on a board big enough that they had to remove our pointless place mats; that’s how small the table was.

Our starters arrived about two minutes after the bread, another warning sign. What was called spiced lamb faggots with chick peas and tomato stew on the menu was a job for Trading Standards. Faggots should be big, coarse, earthy things; these were three tiny meatballs, with no spice in them. The chickpea and tomato stew was all chopped tomato and very little chick pea. I wanted a hearty bowl of food but instead I got a needlessly cheffy oblong plate with three puddles of underwhelming tomato on it, each topped with a minuscule sphere of meat-flavoured indifference. On top of each of those was a piece of deep fried pitta bread, for reasons which escape me. Worst of all, though, the whole thing was lukewarm. By the time I’d finished it, so was I.

Pack Horse - Lamb

Fig and thyme tarte tatin with goats cheese, pickled walnut, radish and pea shoot salad was equally misleading, so much so that I thought I had misread the menu. What I actually got was a goats cheese tart with a couple of big slices of pickled walnut on top. There was no thyme that I could detect, and no fig either. It was all salt and vinegar and no sweetness to offset it all (unless you count the drizzle of generic red jam around the edge of the plate: I don’t). The radish and pea shoot salad was just a nest of pea shoots, no sign of the radish. When I read the menu at the Pack Horse it was so huge that I had reservations about whether they could cook it all. It turns out they couldn’t: perhaps they had run out of some of the ingredients, or maybe the way they cook those dishes has evolved over time. The wording on the menu certainly hasn’t, though, and either way I felt short changed.

In a good restaurant, the starter makes you feel excited: I can’t wait to see what my main is like. At the Pack Horse, it was quite the opposite. I found myself wishing we’d ordered more straightforward mains, dishes a kitchen couldn’t mess up. As they took the starters away I ordered another glass of wine and we took bets on how quickly the mains would turn up; after all, everything so far had been so disappointing that surely this was the logical next step (one of us guessed five minutes, the other ten).

Our mains arrived roughly ten minutes later, both of them slouching towards mediocrity and barely getting there. The braised shoulder of lamb was like a bad cover version of kleftiko where you could make out the words but the melody was all wrong. It wasn’t quite cooked well enough or long enough, so bits of it fell apart but most of it was a struggle against wobbliness, and I do enough of that already. The rosemary jus was thin, watery and flavourless. The dauphinoise potato managed to be sinful without being any fun – all cream and no seasoning, the worst kind of empty calories. The spring vegetables had an air of supermarket stir fry about them. All in all, it was a depressing way to spend sixteen pounds – not inedible by any means, but stirring up bittersweet memories of this kind of thing done far better pretty much anywhere else.

The roasted cod with chorizo, tomato and white bean stew and basil lemon pesto dressing was equally uninspiring. The cod itself was a decent sized chunk, well cooked but also underseasoned. I was expecting the stew to be a hearty bean-filled affair but it seemed to be the twin of the tomato stew from the faggot starter, with a few small chunks of chorizo and beans added in. It had a little hint of chilli but not enough to make it interesting. On top of the cod was yet another nest of pea shoots and a single slice of chorizo, cooked until it resembled a tax disc holder. I tried to eat some, for the record, but gave it up as a bad job. There was a drizzle of pesto round the edge of the plate, cheffy style again, but it didn’t stand a chance against the chilli tomato stew so I can’t tell you if it was lemony or basilly, or if those are even real words. There was also some random fennel, so little that you couldn’t tell if it was deliberate.

Pack Horse - Cod

The final insult was twofold. First of all, they left our plates in front of us for well over ten minutes after we’d finished eating. Having to look at couple of plates with the leftovers of a disappointing meal, for that long, is almost as bad as having to eat it in the first place. We figured out that it took roughly as long to get rid of those plates as it had to bring them to our table. The irony: so quick to take our order, so quick to bring our starters, so quick to bring our mains. And yet the one time you actually want the serving staff to get their skates on they couldn’t be found for love nor money. It was the only slow element of the entire evening: from taking our seats to finishing our main courses took under an hour.

Better still, a waiter then came over with the glass of wine I’d ordered when they took our starters away. (Had you forgotten about that? You’re not alone: so had they.)

“I’m sorry, I ordered this some time ago. I don’t want it now.” I said.

The waiter put the glass of wine on the table. There was no obvious sign of a hearing aid.

“No, I’m sorry, I need to send this back.”

He shambled off with the wine glass, without saying a word. They still billed us for it, mind you, and we had to ask to get it taken off the bill. The bill, for two people, for bread, two starters, two mains and a total of five drinks, came to £63. We didn’t stay for dessert, because I had some chocolate in the fridge at home and a pretty good idea that they weren’t going to manage anything half as tasty as that. Service wasn’t included, and I didn’t tip; I think failing to tip, by and large, is deplorable but on this occasion there was literally nothing to reward. The waiting staff were there when you didn’t want them, nowhere to be seen when you did, knew little about the food and, with the exception of the literal, brought nothing to the table.

You’ll notice that I haven’t talked in detail about the wine, and there’s a reason for that: it wasn’t good enough to justify going to the Pack Horse. It wouldn’t have been even if they were selling magnums of Margaux for a tenner.

What I’ve realised, over the past six months, is that Saturday nights seem to be cursed for me. I went to Picasso on a Saturday night, and the Lobster Room, and in the Pack Horse the curse of Saturday night seems to have struck again. It’s an absolutely beautiful pub, but the menu is all wrong. They should either live up to the promise of those surroundings and cook skilful, imaginative food, or stick to a small menu of tried and tested pub classics. What they’ve done is neither: the food here isn’t actively bad, but it’s possibly even worse than that – a mediocre photocopy of good food, a menu which makes all the right noises ruined by execution which is totally out of tune.

The perfect punchline only came later when I was writing this review: I found out on the Internet that the pub used to be part of the Blubeckers chain, before they were subsumed into something called “Home Counties Pub Restaurants”. I went to a Blubeckers a few times – it was cheap, cheerful and nothing to write home about, a Harvester with ideas above its station. And yet, thinking about the meal I’d had at the Pack Horse it managed something I wouldn’t have thought possible: it made me nostalgic for Blubeckers. Any restaurant that can do that really isn’t much of a restaurant.

The Pack Horse – 5.1
Woodcote Road, Chazey Heath, Mapledurham, RG4 7UG
01189 722140

http://www.homecountiespubs.co.uk/packhorse/

Côte

Let’s get this out of the way at the start: yes, I know, Côte is a chain restaurant. You might have gathered (from my “Where next?” page) that I’m generally averse to reviewing these. Yet here I am, tucking into a meal at a great big Oracle chain restaurant. What gives?

What you might have missed is that I’ve always said that I’d consider reviewing a chain if I thought it offered something different or special. And, based on my past experience, Côte has always done exactly that. It opened back in 2011 and since then, for me, has become something of a staple. Last year I probably ate there as much as I did at any other Reading restaurant and it was reliable – never bad, always good, often excellent and sometimes great. We all need a restaurant like that sometimes, because eating out isn’t always about taking risks: every now and then you just want certainty.

Anyway, as ever it’s all about what a restaurant does on the night I turn up to review, so I did step across the threshold with a slight sense of trepidation. Were they going to have a bad night for once?

The downstairs space is a very nice room, broken up into sections with banquettes, booths and lighting orbs, making it simultaneously bright enough to eat in and cosy enough to feel intimate: no mean feat in a room which surely sits 100 diners. It does however mean, as we shall see, that photos are very poorly lit (you’ll thank me for not putting up one of the chocolate mousse, believe me). It also manages that rare trick of having large and small tables – including some specifically for couples – without leaving anyone feeling short-changed. It’s probably the prettiest dining room of all the Oracle’s riverside restaurants, although that may not be saying a lot.

I started with a basket of bread and butter while making my choices. Côte charges for its bread (a couple of quid) but it’s so good I can hardly blame then. You get a basket with half a dozen diagonal slices of delicious baguette – crisp and chewy on the outside, fluffy and crumpet-like inside, with a dish of salted butter. I think it might be my favourite restaurant bread in town: you could even say, with apologies to a certain business on Cressingham Road, Earley, that it’s the place to be heading for breading in Reading (actually, I should probably apologise to you for that pun as well). I’d love to know if they get it shipped in part-baked or if it’s made on site, but either way it’s worthy of a paragraph on its own. Thank goodness there’s no word limit.

The starters were equally tasty. Mushroom feuilleté was two slices of diamond shaped puff pastry filled with mushrooms in a creamy sauce. The bottom layer of pastry had soaked up the sauce and was rich and soft like a good English pie: a gorgeous combination. The top layer was less interesting, being all flakiness and air with no substance (I’ve got friends like that, but the less said about them the better). The menu mentioned “espelette pepper”: I couldn’t detect any on the plate and had to look it up. It turns out that it’s a type of chilli pepper – I’m not sure this would have worked, so I’m glad they left it out.

Mushrooms

The charcuterie board also didn’t disappoint, though it’s definitely a choice for the peckish. Most of the elements were terrific – the duck breast gamey without being too smoky, the duck rillette coarse and rich (I’ve got friends like that too, as it happens) and the saucisson just right. The accompaniments were also gorgeous – a couple of pieces of charred pain de campagne toast with a little olive oil soaking into them, a small pile of well dressed salad and – crucially – four crunchy, tart cornichons, perfect to wrap a slice of saucisson round and pop in your mouth. Who needs canapés? The only disappointment was the jambon – too smooth, too shiny, too supermarket. But it was a minor quibble with a starter which cost £6.50 and had so much to enjoy.

Char

I’ve always found choosing mains at Côte quite difficult, and on this occasion we ended up ordering two fish dishes, although they couldn’t have been more different. Côte’s tuna niçoise salad is one of my favourite lighter dishes in Reading, and is in danger of giving salad a good name. It’s full of interesting flavours and textures – new potato, peppers, green beans, red onion, cos lettuce and black olives – all mixed with a fresh and not at all overpowering mustard vinaigrette then topped with a just-hard-boiled egg, the yolk yellow and only just firm, and a perfectly cooked piece of tuna. The tuna deserves extra comment because other restaurants will fob you off with tinned or pre-cooked tuna but at Côte you get the real deal – a tuna steak which has been on a griddle hot enough to leave chargrill lines but where the inside is still pink. A rare treat, in both senses of the word.

Tuna

Sea bass with braised fennel and champagne beurre blanc was also faultless. It was a very generous portion of sea bass – two fillets of crispy salty skin and firm flesh – paired with surprisingly subtle fennel. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea but this was understated, more sweetness than aniseed. With so much culinary quietness going on (sea bass isn’t the punchiest of fishes) the beurre blanc had to be good and it was: creamy with bags of flavour and just a little sharpness. For less than fourteen quid I thought this was a knockout dish – no carbs, though, although having to order some frites was no real hardship.

At this point I ought to tell you how nice my white wine was, but sadly I can’t: instead we washed this down with a bottle of syrah. Not a conventional pairing, I know, but we both fancied red so we went with it anyway (and it almost went with the tuna – or that’s what I told myself anyway). It was a gorgeous bottle, very fruity and straightforward without being bland. It was also good value at less than twenty quid: in fact the wine list offers plenty of choice around that price point which is always good to see.

For dessert we both wanted a chocolate dish but I figured that wouldn’t make for the most interesting review (hard to believe, I know, but not everybody likes chocolate). In the end we split our ticket and went for one of each. The chocolate mousse was exactly that – and lots of it, too, packed into a big hefty ramekin. I liked it, although I think describing it as “dark chocolate mousse” is misleading, and likely to put people off who don’t like their cocoa solids in the region of 70% and above. In fact the top was dark, and dusted with cocoa, but underneath that it was all milk chocolate: on the dense, rich side, but delicious none the less.

The apple tart, for the non-chocolate fans among you, was an excellent example of the French classic. The base pastry was thin, crisp and sufficiently gooey with toffee to be a nice balance to the apples which were super thin and only just cooked so that they retained some of their tartness. The scoop of vanilla ice cream it came with was speckled with just enough vanilla dots to convince me it was the real deal, and was just about tasty enough to make me think it was worth having on the plate. A better accompaniment was the glass of Montbazillac I had – sweet but not treacly or cloying, and decent value at four pounds.

Côte is very good at service. On a Thursday night, the restaurant was full and turning people away, and yet they never seemed rushed or harassed and I never felt ignored or overlooked. Instead, it was attentive and smiley without being over-keen. Our wine glasses were topped up regularly (but not too regularly – a pet hate of mine) and the free filtered water is a nice touch. I think it’s a shame that the restaurant adds an automatic (but not compulsory) 12.5% service charge to the bill, given that this is one of the few places in Reading that really shouldn’t need to. I suppose it makes paying the bill less awkward, but even so it seems a pity.

The total for three courses each, a bottle of wine and a glass of dessert wine was seventy-five pounds, excluding tip. No clangers, no mistakes, no errors on the plate, just reliable very good food. They didn’t have an off-night, just as they never seem to, and I reckon this is as good a place in Reading to spend that kind of money as any – particularly if you’re risk averse. It’s worth mentioning, as I so often do, that you could easily spend less here – especially if you’re there before 7 o’clock, when their two course set menu is a tenner and constitutes mind-boggling value.

In the run-up to this review, I asked people on Twitter about members of the “Never Again Club”, restaurants in Reading that you’d been to once and would never visit again. The responses came thick and fast, and unsurprisingly many of them were chain restaurants: Giraffe (“blatantly microwaved”); Café Rouge (“makes French food bland and boring, quite a feat”); Frankie And Benny’s (“I would have been better off in McDonalds”); Five Guys (“insanely priced mediocrity”). The list went on and on.

And yet there were also a significant number of independent places in there – and heaven knows, I’ve reviewed enough terrible independent restaurants (I still have flashbacks about the tapas at Picasso or that ravioli at The Lobster Room) to know that neither side has the monopoly on quality. I sometimes think we’re making the wrong distinction: there are good restaurants and bad restaurants, some good chains and some bad independent restaurants. Côte is a very good, reliable, consistent restaurant. You can go there with a big group of friends for a blow-out, you can grab a quick dinner with a friend there before going to the cinema, you can have a nice tête-à-tête there on a Friday night with your other half. It just happens to be a chain.

The promise chains implicitly make is that you know exactly what you’re getting, and for better or worse my experience is that that’s nearly always true. The difference with Côte is that you’re getting something good. So it doesn’t belong in my Never Again Club, and I might have to think up another name for this kind of restaurant. The Again And Again Club, perhaps.

Cote – 7.8
9 The Riverside, The Oracle Shopping Centre, RG1 2AG
0118 9591180

http://www.cote-restaurants.co.uk/Cote_Restaurant_Reading.html