Bel And The Dragon

I changed my mind about whether to review Bel And The Dragon several times. Initially I was all for going, and then I looked at the website: the menu looked suspiciously similar to the one I’d ordered from the last time I went there, well over a year ago. And that, in fact, was almost identical to the menu when the local paper reviewed it nearly two years ago. Bel’s website boasted a passion for seasonal, local, sustainable food – but the evidence suggested otherwise, so I decided not to bother. But then I was told that I might be being a bit harsh, and that the menu had changed only recently, so I decided to give them a chance.

There’s no attractive way to approach Bel And The Dragon, especially on foot. You can go down the canal next to some rather forbidding-looking blocks of flats, or down Kenavon Drive, past the questionable delights of the Toys R Us. Even the address, Gas Works Road, sounds grim. It’s a pity, because the building itself is handsome (I’m not sure what it used to be: Bel’s own website says it’s an ex biscuit factory which I don’t think is correct) and the inside is gorgeous too, with lots of banquettes and booths round the edges of a big bright high-ceilinged room.

Looking at the menu induced déjà vu because, as feared, the majority of it had indeed remained unchanged for two years, the mention of English asparagus the only concession to seasonality. The drinks we had while making up our mind did nothing to calm the sinking feeling. The “Bloody Caesar” – a Bloody Mary variant featuring clamato juice, lime, horseradish and sherry – was all citrus and no tomato, thinner, sharper and more joyless than Gillian McKeith. The house wine was even odder – the menu claims that they bring a magnum over, you drink as much as you want and are charged by the 125ml. In reality, what happened is that they brought 125ml and charged me, at the end, for 175ml (by which point I was too exhausted even to complain).

Service at Bel is the triumph of quantity over quality. At times the dining room had over half a dozen aproned types wafting around but they spent most of their time talking to one another and trying their hardest to avoid interacting with diners. They seemed to be having a lovely time, but I did wish they’d been more interested in making sure that I was, too. One was either a trainee or on work experience because her sole job seemed to be to stand there deferring to someone else: at one point I made eye contact and smiled (because I wanted to see the wine list) and she smiled back and then went back to staring off into space, seemingly her main skill. Perhaps she just thought that I really enjoyed being ignored: I suppose it’s possible.

So, I’ve bitched about the menu, I’ve bitched about the service, time to bitch about the food, right? If only it were that simple: some of it wasn’t bad, which makes this review harder to write than I was expecting. A starter of scallops, cauliflower puree and sherry caramel, for instance, was very good: four nicely cooked scallops, a generous helping of sweet puree and little crispy miniature florets around the side (and a scattering of micro herbs, because chefs still think we give a toss about micro herbs: I have no idea why). To put this in perspective, it was twelve pounds – as much as some of the mains – so it should have been pretty good but even so it wasn’t disappointing. I was so geared up, by that stage, for disappointment that not being able to be disappointed was almost disappointing in itself. I’m not sure if that’s a win-win or lose-lose situation.

Scallops

The burrata, on the other hand had been treated so badly that I fear the chef had never seen one before. It looked as if had been torn to pieces by an angry mob before being studded with slightly chewy thyme leaves and strewn on a plate with far too much beetroot. Sure, there were four types of beetroot and a few toasted pine nuts, but what should have been the centrepiece of the dish really wasn’t. Where I expect a burrata to be a soft, yielding pouch of rich, creamy delight this was a tough, abused poor relation. I don’t know what had been done to it prior to it reaching my plate but it had grown a thick skin to make up for it.

Burrata

Of the mains, roast suckling pig was a delight and easily the best dish of the visit. A healthy (or rather, unhealthy) portion of pork, cooked just the right side of dryness, came on a board with a little jug of rich, savoury gravy and some spiced apple chutney which added a bit of sweetness and moisture. The crackling – light, salty and sinful – was how I imagine Quavers would taste in heaven. But, inevitably, there were still disappointments. Bel’s menu says that they are very proud of their duck fat and thyme roasted potatoes, but on this evidence I can’t see why; there was no evidence of thyme and none of the gorgeous, rough, crispy exterior you get from a potato well-roasted in duck fat.

Pig

The side dish, ostensibly “cauliflower, smashed garlic and pecorino” was cauliflower cheese. No more, no less. If they’d used pecorino, and I’m not convinced, it was a waste of pecorino. The garlic just didn’t turn up at all (maybe because it was smashed). At eighteen pounds – with an extra three for the cauliflower cheese – it wasn’t quite good enough to justify the price: eating the dish felt a bit like watching the meter running in a taxi heading somewhere you don’t even particularly want to go.

The haddock, chorizo and white bean stew looked appealing when it came and the flavours didn’t disappoint but, after digging around for a moment, I realised that there was an absence of beans. I couldn’t find any. None. I asked one of the flotilla of waitresses about this and she said that perhaps they had been pureed into the sauce but she would check with the kitchen. Then she returned with another explanation… apparently the stew is cooked in a large pot and the beans all sink to the bottom so, on this occasion, when they served it up it just turned out that none made it into my bowl! Not one solitary bean. (No, I didn’t believe it either.) To make up for this the kitchen dished me up a generous side portion of beans, which just happened to be exactly as many as you would find in a tin. These seemed to be in a different sauce to the stew but I didn’t want to ask any more questions and was just grateful they turned up at all.

The stew itself was very pleasant with some decent sized pieces of haddock, quite a few diced bits of chorizo (though this was on the rubbery side, which suggested it was either poor quality or hadn’t been cooked for long enough) and an awful lot of celery. The advertised “smoked tomatoes” were instead three unsmoked cherry tomatoes which had been grilled for just long enough for their skins to split. Overall it was a decent dish, once the beans were in, but I wouldn’t say more than that.

Stew

Pricing at Bel is all over the place. The starters are an expensive bunch – most around the eight or nine pound mark – and the mains vary widely from the reasonable (my stew was twelve pounds, as is the fish pie) to the punitive (the idea that two people would really fork out sixty-six pounds to share a rib of beef on the bone is either hopeless optimism or exploitation, not sure which). But the desserts are all a consistent six pounds. The Valrhona chocolate mousse with honeycomb and popping candy was indifferent stuff. I got a lot of sweetness and no cocoa, which meant this either wasn’t Valrhona or was Valrhona hopelessly maltreated. The honeycomb just added to the relentless sugariness, as did the popping candy, and the three meagre raspberries didn’t have enough sharpness to put up a fight against it.

Chocolate

Eton mess was exactly as you would expect an Eton mess to be – a big dollop of strawberries (in April: so much for seasonal there, too), smashed meringue and cream. The only thing slightly elevating this above the sum of its parts were the tiny pieces of fresh mint that had been mixed in. The gigantic knickerbocker glory glass it came in took my opinion back down a notch, mind – I’d have preferred something more elegant and (I can’t quite believe I am saying this) smaller. Wanting a smaller dessert: hardly glowing praise, is it?

Three courses for two, with a Bloody Mary, a missold glass of house rosé and two glasses of red wine which aren’t interesting enough to merit any mention other than this, came to ninety-eight pounds. This includes an optional ten per cent service charge of the kind which is actually close to compulsory, as you’d have to make a scene and ask them to take it off (I was tempted to, but by the end they had worn me down to the extent where I just wanted to go: it turns out that indifference is contagious).

The best way of summing this up is that if you went to Bel you wouldn’t have a bad meal but you wouldn’t have a great meal either. I didn’t eat anything actively bad, and nothing made my heart sing. But – and this might be the clincher – you’re unlikely to have a cheap meal. I’m afraid, despite some tasty dishes, I still don’t see what Bel’s USP is, or why anybody would choose it for dinner. It’s not seasonal, it’s not particularly imaginative, it’s not good value and the inconvenient location and indifferent service wipe out any of the advantages of that lovely room. Perhaps I’ll go again when they overhaul their menu, in which case they should pencil me in for some time in 2018.

Bel And The Dragon – 6.6
Blakes Lock, Gas Works Road, RG1 3EQ
0118 9515790

http://www.belandthedragon-reading.co.uk/

Advertisements

The Abbot Cook

The Abbot Cook closed in April 2018 and is reopening later in the month as a new pub called the Hope & Bear. I’ve kept this review up for posterity and will review the Hope & Bear in due course.

The Abbot Cook is another of those pubs that falls into my “lovely old boozer” category. Since the end of its days as a tired student pub it’s been stripped back and refreshed to capture that shabby chic look that so many places have these days. At the Abbot Cook, though, it really works with the parquet wooden floors, fireplaces and sash windows. On a midweek night it’s busy enough to be buzzy but the music is still muted enough that you can have a conversation without yelling (yes, I know I sound old: I’m okay with that). The long bar offers plenty of decent draught beers plus just enough wines by the glass to make the choice a challenge. So the stage is set for a good performance. Right?

The first act didn’t come off too well. We picked a couple of conventional-sounding starters and shared because we couldn’t decide. The “roast chicken Caesar salad with croutons, anchovies and house Caesar dressing” was decent enough, if small, but crucially the anchovies were missing. I know a lot of people don’t love an anchovy but I think they’re an essential part of a Caesar salad, that salty tang that balances out the creamy dressing and makes ordering a salad worthwhile rather than just worthy. The rest of it was going through the motions, really, a handful of croutons, some decent roast chicken (cold, sadly, but you can’t have everything) and generous amounts of parmesan. But, in truth, all I really noticed was the anchovies that weren’t there.

Caesar

The salt and pepper squid with lime mayonnaise also disappointed. It was hard to tell if the squid was fresh because it had been cooked to the point of brittle crunchiness. The lime in the mayonnaise was presumably in the same place as the anchovies, and the mayonnaise itself was suspiciously white and thin and tasted of not much. The little pile of pub salad on the end of the plate wasn’t dressed and seemed a little sad, as if it were just trying to make the plate look fuller. I’m not sure that this was any better than the sad excuse for calamari that was served up by the ill-fated Lobster Room; at least that was identifiably squid.

Squid
We picked mains from the specials board just because they sounded a bit more exciting than the meals on their normal menu (which is the usual array: lots of different kinds of burgers, fish and chips, fishcakes).

The “pan fried Atlantic cod supreme with bacon, spinach and puy lentils” was a good example of how to ruin a lovely piece of fish. The cod itself was fantastic – cooked just right and falling into big, thick flakes (I would have liked a crispier skin, but it was a minor detail). The rest of the dish let it down terribly: there was bacon, but not the small crispy smoky pieces which would have worked well. Instead, you got huge undercooked floppy slabs of the stuff. There were lentils and spinach, yes, but what the specials board neglected to say was that there was cream – a lot of cream. Not a cream sauce, just cream. A lake of unseasoned cream, in fact: my mouth felt coated with the stuff for hours afterwards.

CodThe “chicken breast and Cornish brie in bacon, baby potatoes and red wine mustard sauce” was at least evidence that someone in the kitchen could cook. The stuffed chicken breast had a layer of sun dried tomatoes tucked into the brie through the middle and the bacon, this time, was cooked just right so that there were no rubbery strings. The potatoes had been pan-fried so that some of them were a little browned then a layer of steamed kale added before the whole lot was doused in a rich, creamy wholegrain mustard sauce. I didn’t get much in the way of red wine in there but it would have been overwhelmed by the mustard anyway. This is the sort of dish I would never cook at home because of the overwhelming calorie count: as a pub dish it was enjoyable, even if I was facing potato-geddon by attempting to finish it (I didn’t, but it was a close call).

Chicken

We took advantage of the wide range of drinks and tried lots of different things, reinforcing my view that the Abbot Cook was a much better pub than it was a restaurant. A pint of Blue Moon was spot on – subtle and refreshing with a suitably metrosexual slice of orange sticking out of the rim. The Sangiovese (is it me, or is this a wine that has fallen out of fashion? I haven’t noticed it on a menu for a while) was nice for starters but was bettered by the much cheaper South African Chenin Blanc I followed it up with; crisp and fresh but not too dry (I prefer my whites on the off-dry side, although I like to think I stop well short of Blue Nun).

I didn’t have high hopes for dessert after all that, so we hedged our bets and shared a salted caramel and chocolate tart. Again, the menu was being a bit economical with the truth: the base was crushed biscuit rather than pastry so I’d say it was a cheesecake rather than a tart. The caramel taste wasn’t particularly strong but the top was scattered with coarse salt crystals which worked really well with the dark chocolate ganache. The website for the Abbot Cook doesn’t say if the desserts are home-made or not. I’d love to be wrong, but I suspect it’s the latter and the plate is just dressed with that irritating zig zag of out-of-a-squeezy-bottle chocolate sauce to make it look otherwise. It’s a shame that one of the nicest things I had that evening probably had the least to do with the kitchen.

The service doesn’t quite compare to other restaurants because there is no table service. Staff at the bar were always really friendly and clearly happy to chat to customers, but service at the table was a bit more lackadaisical with the waiter, if you’d call him that, checking up on us quite late into each dish while calling us “guys” or, even worse, “friend”. I wonder if he thought he was in Hoxton or Brick Lane rather than Cemetery Junction: still, he was very smiley.

In all the bill came to sixty pounds for two starters, two mains, one dessert and four drinks; indifferent food representing indifferent value for money.

The Abbot Cook is another example of that sad genre I see an awful lot of: an attractive pub doing unremarkable food. It’s such a handsome place, in an area which is short of nice places to drink, but I struggle to think of it as a destination for food in its own right. I guess the food is good enough to eat there if pressed by a friend, but no more than that. It’s a real shame: the interior deserves better, and I remember when it first opened that it really seemed to have some culinary aspirations (although, in fairness, they are currently running monthly events matching food with beer which suggest a bit more ambition). These days the menu seems to be more about burgers and fried chicken which is aimed more at the student clientele of their previous incarnation. As one of the few pubs in Reading that has a decent garden (albeit on the sometimes very busy London Road) I know I’ll be back there for a summertime drink, but I’m no hurry to eat there again. Not until they sort their act out.

The Abbot Cook – 6.0
153 London Road, RG1 5DE
0118 9354095

http://www.theabbotcookreading.co.uk/

Dolce Vita

In a surprising move, Dolce Vita closed in June 2018. I have left the review up for posterity.

I don’t know how you approach a restaurant review, as a reader, but before I started this blog the first thing I did was check whether I knew the place being reviewed. If I didn’t, the whole process was a voyage of discovery, reading the review thinking Does it sound like my kind of thing? Could I get there? Would I want to? But when I’d already been to the restaurant in question it was a very different test involving a different set of questions which all boil down to one: Do you agree with me? And, of course, we all judge on that basis. I like people who like the things I like, just like everybody else.

This is especially the case when the reviewer has gone to a place you really like, one of your favourite places. Then you feel protective and read the review thinking I hope the restaurant don’t have an off night, or even The reviewer had better not pick on it. One of the things really successful restaurants do is make customers into loyal customers, and make those loyal customers feel like part of a club. At its best, it’s a tribal thing: look at the incredible loyalty inspired by Mya Lacarte, or Tutti Frutti.

Dolce Vita, I think, is another of those places. I’ve had a lot of people telling me I should go there – enthusing about the food and the service, saying that they return again and again. So, if you’re one of those loyal customers, reading this and preparing to bristle protectively on Dolce Vita’s behalf, you can relax: I really liked it.

Of course, you might approach restaurant reviews by going straight to the end and reading the rating first, in which case you already know that and are waiting for me to get on with it (I understand: I ruin some novels that way too).

Despite knowing Dolce Vita by reputation I’ve rarely gone there. It’s another restaurant that feels like it’s always been there, in Kings Walk, perched on that ledge above the outer reaches of the Oracle looking out over all the changes that have happened over the years (personally, I’ve tried to erase all memory of Brannigan’s, with its chilling boasts of “cavorting”). Yet it’s never really crossed my mind when deciding where to eat, because I just couldn’t remember if it was any good; a strange type of amnesia I don’t get about many places in Reading.

The dining room’s big, a long rectangular airy space with lots of light from the skylight and the patio doors leading out onto the balcony. I can imagine that, if the sun ever comes out for long enough, the balcony would be a lovely place to drink rose and eat summery food but there was no chance of that on this visit: it was wet and windy so we grabbed a table by the window and looked out at the rain-spattered furniture, daydreaming about what might have been. Speaking of furniture, this isn’t something most restaurant reviews talk about (maybe with good reason) but Dolce Vita has some of the most handsome dining furniture in Reading: solid oak chairs and tables that make some of the wobbly painted tables in otherwise good restaurants seem rather cheap.

The menu is huge, and makes no pretence at being anything else. You are handed a sheet of A3 and left to wonder how a kitchen can do all of those dishes well. It also feels like a mismatch – there are pizzas and pasta, unsurprisingly, but also several Thai dishes, a couple of Greek dishes (which may have found a home here after Kyklos, Dolce Vita’s sister restaurant closed down in January) and, randomly, a Scotch egg. This all gave me misgivings but I decided to stick to Italian and hope for the best.

The burrata suggested I’d done the right thing. It always looks like a little bag of treasure to me and so it proved, creamy and fresh, well matched by the grilled peppers and aubergines. The whole thing was brought together with a very nice tomato, chilli and mint sauce and worked very well. I did find myself wishing, though, that the vegetables had been freshly grilled and still warm rather than chilled. It was a nice dish, but didn’t involve much in the way of cooking.

BurrataThe antipasti was a very similar story, a great assortment of salami, pleasingly dry and savoury Parma ham, coppa and mortadella, along with some mozzarella, sundried tomato and two dips, an aioli with a hint of citrus and a very good tzatziki (oh, and some baguette – Did I forget to mention the baguette?) If that makes it sound like a lot of food that’s because it was. In hindsight, for a tenner, it was probably meant to serve two although the menu didn’t make that clear – none the less it was excellent stuff.

AnitpastiThe mains were nicely timed, turning up just at the point when I was ready. The Milan pizza – mozzarella, Italian sausage, wild mushrooms, caramelised onions, fontina and Grana Padano – was recommended by the waitress which made the selection process that bit easier. It makes such a difference going to a restaurant where the staff know what their dishes are and are prepared to state a preference, and that was pretty symptomatic of the excellent service in Dolce Vita in general (I also got great recommendations for wine and, later, for dessert). The pizza base was close to perfect – thin enough to be crisp but with enough thickness to have some flavour of its own and not just feel like transport for cheese and tomato. The Italian sausage was excellent, coarse and herby almost to the point of being fragrant and I loved the caramelised onion with the cheeses. For my taste I thought there were too many mushrooms but that’s probably just me.

PizzaIf the pizza was good, the veal saltimbocca was great. It was a generous portion of veal, three good-sized pieces, wrapped in Parma ham and perfectly done. The sauce promised Marsala but I didn’t get any of that, just lemon, white wine and lashings of sage: perfection. In any case, Marsala would have made the whole thing too sweet. Similarly, the truffled mash turned up without a hint of truffle and again, I didn’t mind. Too many flavours would have made the dish a mess, instead of the simple classic I got. The French beans, however, did turn up buttered as promised: a lovely contrast to many restaurants, even good ones, that dish up bland and naked vegetables. All that was seventeen pounds – not cheap, but I’ve spent that much on many worse dishes in Reading.

Saltimbocca

The wine, also recommended by the waitress, was a bottle of Montepulciano. I’m no oenophile, which is pretty obvious from my reviews, but I like to kid myself that I got plummy red fruit and a touch of black pepper. Even if I’m wrong, it was dangerously drinkable at just under eighteen pounds (and again, hats off to the waitress for recommending one of their cheapest reds: no sneaky upselling here).

Considering I visited on a weeknight, the restaurant was surprisingly full and buzzy with a real mixture of groups – dates and birthday parties and business dinners, all equally at home. I also heard some Italian being spoken at one table which I took to be a good sign. The service was just excellent all evening, which is something I’ve always heard about Dolce Vita; I felt like I got five star treatment but watching other diners and seeing the easy way the serving staff chatted to them all, it was obvious that everyone else was getting it too.

When you’re having an evening that pleasant it’s a shame to leave without having dessert, so we gave the kitchen another chance to impress. The caramel and Baileys bread and butter pudding (again, recommended by the waitress) was divine. Rich and sticky, studded with sultanas and served with a light vanilla custard, it was a trademark example of those upmarket school dinner puddings I’m so partial to. I couldn’t detect the Baileys and the caramel notes, if they were truly there, were subtle to a fault but even so it was a great way to end the meal. Well, that and a small glass of sweet, fresh Sauternes. The other dessert – Dolce Vita’s hazelnut praline tiramisu – might be my favourite tiramisu in Reading, and I’ve tried a lot. A nice firm slab of indulgence, not too big, with a little layer of crunchy praline hidden inside like a bonus feature. Almost unimprovable (although I did have a go by pairing it with a glass of vin santo).

The total bill for two, for three courses, a bottle of wine and a couple of glasses of dessert wine was ninety pounds – not cheap (although we did have a lot of food) but nothing felt like poor value. I think at least some of that is down to the service, which was up there with any town centre restaurant I’ve been to.

Like I said at the start, if you’re a fan of Dolce Vita you can relax – I had a great evening there. I still have misgivings about the frightening size of their menu (there was also a specials menu adding another set of bewildering options – including roast chicken pie – to the mix) and I’d probably stick to what I know they do well, but on the night I went they didn’t put a foot wrong, and they did it without any of the experience ever seeming mechanical. By the end, I found myself thinking that it would be so easy to come here on another evening later in the year, sit on that patio, soak up the last of the sunshine, have a few beers and a pizza and leave having spent less than twenty pounds. And if the summer ever comes, there’s a strong possibility that you’ll find me there one evening, doing exactly that.

Dolce Vita – 7.6
Kings Walk, RG1 2HL
0118 9510530

http://www.dolcevitareading.com/

The Eldon Arms

N.B. The Eldon Arms stopped serving food in May 2014. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

This week, not for the first time, I found myself thinking about how different the restaurant scenes are in Reading and London.

For the last few years London has been obsessed with burgers (a fixation it’s only just starting to recover from now) but Reading has never quite been gripped by burger fever in the same way. There was a slight frisson of excitement when Five Guys opened, but now it’s just part of the furniture and not even particularly full when I’ve walked past. The only people who got into the swing were one of our local papers. For a while it was a running joke that whatever restaurant it reviewed, one of the diners would order a burger – whether it was in a pub, an Italian restaurant or a brasserie. If an Indian restaurant had put a burger on the menu I expect they would have ordered it there, too (can you even imagine what that would look and taste like? I shudder to think).

Personally, I’ve never understood the appeal: a burger is all well and good, but ultimately it’s just a burger. A glorified sandwich, and by and large, I get enough of those at lunchtime not to want another one in the evening. Also, I’ve never really understood why people would order a burger in a restaurant which offers so many other things. I’ve never looked at a menu and thought You know what? I think I’ll go for the burger today. When I’m in the mood for a burger, I know that before even leaving the house.

Anyway, all this is just preamble to the surprising fact that I went to the Eldon Arms and, without ever intending to, may have ordered the best burger in Reading.

I’d heard encouraging things about the food at the Eldon Arms and remembered thinking “Really?” It’s not somewhere that’s ever stood out in my mind, a little backstreet pub tucked behind Eldon Square, a slightly scruffy old man pub which never quite had the range of drinks or the eccentricity to compete with the Retreat, or the polish to match the Abbot Cook. But I was told that it was under new management and that the food was worth a visit, so I figured a wander across town was in order.

The pub looks good – recently redecorated, it’s all clean white walls, although the furniture is still the classic pub chairs and tables that were there before. There is a good range of real ales on draught along with a couple of real ciders if you prefer still and rustic to fizzy and cold. The menu is a small affair: burgers on one side, pizzas, wraps and sandwiches on the other. I’d heard stories about the food being made from scratch and about the chef going out to get extra chickpeas from the supermarket because he’d run out of falafel (to be honest, that’s the story that made me decide to try the Eldon Arms).

This won’t be a long review, because we both had burgers and chips. So I can’t tell you whether the wraps are good, or the chicken and chorizo pizza (although I’m tempted to go back and give it a whirl). I can’t even tell you whether the falafel merited that dash to the supermarket. But I can tell you about the burgers.

Although they’re not served pink they’re delicious all the same – a healthy size without being freakishly huge, clearly decent meat, properly seasoned, hand-made in appearance. Everything about them was good quality without being faddish: no over the top brioche, just a good firm bun strong enough to stand up to its contents with what looked like a little dusting of semolina flour on top. The cheese was grated mature cheddar – I expected not to enjoy this, being a devotee of the cheap plastic orange American slice, but actually that strong flavour worked very well with the beef. The iceberg was thinly sliced, crisp rather than limp translucent ribbons of window dressing. The onion rings, tucked under the lid, were outstanding – so huge I had to take them out and eat them separately. The batter was light and crispy without being greasy, and when you bit into the ring the rest of the onion stayed in place (so often not the case, sadly, with inferior onion rings). A cheeseburger cost six pounds, and felt like good value at that price.

The other burger was the same but with pulled pork added, which cost two pounds more. Pulled pork, like beefburgers, has become devalued by its increasing popularity. M&S does pulled pork sandwiches now, a cold claggy parody of really good pulled pork. Everywhere seems to serve it with burgers nowadays and often it’s an underwhelming piece of edible bandwagon jumping. But the pulled pork at the Eldon is the real deal – slow-cooked for twenty-four hours until it’s just a mass of sticky, savoury strands in that barbecue sauce, sweet but not cloying. The menu also has a pulled pork roll which skips the beef and cheese completely and concentrates on the star of the show (and when I go back, I think I might have it).

Eldon - burgerI could be critical and say that some relish or a few gherkins might have been nice, but that’s only a minor quibble with the benefit of hindsight. At the time I was eating, I can honestly say there wasn’t a single thing I’d change. And that doesn’t happen very often.

The chips also merit a mention as they are probably the best pub chips I can remember having in Reading. Chips have also been ruined by food fad after food fad: skin on, fat, skinny, “hand cut”, dusted in parmesan and covered in truffle oil like cheap perfume, chefs have put potatoes through all manner of terrible things in the name of dining trends. The Eldon just does really good chips that don’t need to sing and dance about how impressive they are: crispy where they should be, fluffy where they should be, salty and tasty and unbelievable value at two pounds for a bowl big enough to easily serve two. And I love the fact that the menu doesn’t feel the need to tell me whether they’re double cooked or triple cooked – because they’re well cooked, and that’s all I need to know. They also come with the pub’s home-made mayonnaise, which is to Hellman’s what The West Wing is to The Only Way Is Essex.

There’s no need here for the staff to overdo things but they are lovely all the same – friendly, welcoming and happy to chat. The food is served on chunky white plates with paper napkins and fuss free cutlery because this is, essentially, fuss free food, no messing about. It just happens to be bloody good fuss free food.

Two burgers, chips and a couple of pints came to twenty-four pounds, although the potential ongoing costs of returning to the Eldon Arms can’t be entirely ignored. So yes, it was just a sandwich. And yes, it’s a trend whose moment has passed, a culinary hurricane that almost missed Reading completely. Despite that, I loved this place. I said at the start of the review that I know I’m in the mood for a burger before I even leave the house, and that’s still true. But thanks to the Eldon Arms, that might be happening a lot more often – and, when it does, I know exactly where I’ll be going.

The Eldon Arms – 8.0
19 Eldon Terrace, RG1 4DX
0118 9573857

http://www.eldonarmsreading.co.uk/