Ruchetta, Wokingham

There are two kinds of expensive meal. There are the ones where you know in advance that they’re going to be expensive, where you look at the menu beforehand, brace yourself, tell yourself it’s a special occasion. Then there are ones where you’re taken by surprise; maybe you order the really pricey main course you weren’t expecting to, or pick a really fancy bottle of wine, or throw caution to the wind and get a second bottle of the less fancy wine. However it happens, there are some meals where you get carried away, it all adds up and you get a little shock when you take that first look at the bill.

Why am I saying this? Because, to begin at the end for once, Ruchetta is the most expensive meal I’ve reviewed so far – and I knew it was going to be costly before I even stepped through the door. And why’s that important? Because when you know a meal’s going to be expensive, lots of things happen. The anticipation is completely different – I get excited about reading the menu, start looking forward to it (something that doesn’t always happen, believe me). But also, price inevitably becomes another dimension, and each dish is assessed not only on whether it’s good, but also on whether it’s worth the money. It’s only natural that the bar is set higher: after all, you can be pleasantly surprised by a ten pound lunch in the middle of nowhere, but it’s harder to be pleasantly surprised by an expensive meal in a beautiful little house in the prosperous market town of Wokingham.

It really is a beautiful house, too. I don’t know Wokingham well but Ruchetta looks very much like the kind of restaurant it ought to have, really standing out (if you think Reading has a lot of chains, you ought to walk round Wokingham some time). It’s slightly off the main drag in a tiny, nicely jumbled building with a mosaic of little rooms. I sat in the conservatory – partly to get better light for photos – and regretted that more and more as the evening went on, feeling rueful that I hadn’t chosen one of the more snug, atmospheric sections at the front of the house. That said it was a pleasant room with crisp white linen and smart white plates, although the tables do feel a little close together; I was glad the one next to us was empty, or else I would have felt very overlooked.

The menu’s one of the most difficult I’ve had to choose from. There is something magical about good Italian food at the best of times, but the menu at Ruchetta really is the kind where you’re aggrieved that you can’t have everything. We tucked into the bread basket (white and a brown which resembled sourdough, with good salted butter) and sipped our Prosecco in the early evening sunlight, haggling and agonising until the decision could be postponed no longer. If the waiter had arrived two minutes earlier, or two minutes later, you’d probably be reading a review of four completely different dishes.

I adore truffles, and I nearly always order them when I get the chance. The distinctive aroma was noticeable the moment I entered the restaurant and I reckon it subliminally influenced both choices of starter. The first was one of the simplest things you could have, truffle ravioli in butter and sage, and it was a delight. The pasta was al dente and richly flavoured with the earthy, dirty truffles. The dish was topped with thin slivers of parmesan and a handful of young sage leaves. But most importantly a whole pencil sharpener tub of those heavenly truffle shavings had been sprinkled on the top of the dish making the flavour even more intense. Eating it was close to an ecstatic experience, the forkfuls close to the end simultaneously magnificent and agonising.

Truffle pastaThe other starter called to me because it was just so unusual that I had to try it: baked white onion in sea salt, filled with truffle fondue with pan-fried foie gras and caramel. The foie gras was just delicious – a generous piece, soft and yielding, perfect with or without the smidge of sweet caramel. The truffle fondue was less successful – it was salty and tasty and rich with truffle, but very liquid and I really had no idea how I was meant to eat it. They didn’t bring a spoon, but I ended up finding one from a neighbouring place setting and improvising. I thought the point of fondue was to dip something in it, and without that something it was more like a very cheesy soup (I briefly pondered whether I was meant to use the foie but surely not: far too expensive to use as a glorified soldier). The quail egg didn’t really add anything and the white onion had been baked just enough that it made an excellent bowl but not enough that it made a sweet and tasty way to mop up the rest of your fondue. I’m glad I can say I’d ordered it, but it felt like was two starters, neither of which quite worked, joined at the hip.

Fondue

Nearly all the mains at Ruchetta are around the twenty-five pound mark, so it didn’t seem too much of a stretch to order the half lobster thermidor (twenty-eight pounds, and not even the most expensive dish on the menu). It was just lovely. The meat had been removed, cooked in the sauce, returned to the shell and topped with cheese. I loved the note of tarragon in it, which surprised me as I’m usually not a fan and didn’t realise it would be in there (like most people outside the Royal Family, I don’t eat lobster thermidor very often). It came with sauté potatoes, in thick slices rather than cubes, which were cooked well and left plain to keep the lobster as the main event. The side salad seemed lost in all of this: the tomatoes were a mixture of green and red but were pithy and lacking in flavour and was either undressed or underdressed, I’m not quite sure which.

Lobster

The other main, roasted saddle of lamb stuffed with spinach and garlic with lamb sauce and vignole (peas, artichokes, broad beans in mint and pancetta – no, I didn’t know either) was the most disappointing dish of the night. This is going to sound like a stupid thing to say, but the lamb was, well, too lamby. The taste of it was almost overripe, verging on agricultural, and drowned out the lighter flavours of the rest of the dish. It appeared to be stuffed just with spinach, which made for a soggy slog, and if there was any garlic in there I didn’t get it. The peas, artichokes and broad beans, potentially a symphony of spring flavours, were pleasant but bland because there wasn’t enough mint to lift them. Most damningly, it wasn’t particularly hot: the lamb, in particular, felt a bit lukewarm. Also, I know this was a light dish but it felt like it needed carbs of some kind. Not everybody who orders it is going to be lucky enough to be able to pinch some sauté potatoes from another plate, as I was.

Ruchetta is one of very few restaurants that offers wine in carafes; a terrific idea for when it’s hard to decide what wine to pick or if you don’t fancy a whole bottle of something. There are a few affordable wines on the list but nothing under the twenty pound mark, so the carafes aren’t as tempting as they normally would be (they’re also 425ml rather than the regulation 500ml, which somehow seems a little stingy). Because of this we ordered a bottle of Italian viognier (much crisper with more citrus than the French ones I have experienced) and a carafe of Barbera d’Alba which was red, robust and unremarkable. I knew we’d struggle to drink both but a carafe of the Gavi I had my eye on was the same price as the bottle of viognier which made me object to buying it (just because you know the restaurant is going to be expensive doesn’t mean you lose all concept of value, after all).

In the end we finished the red and with only half the white drunk the staff offered to cork it so we could take it home – a nice gesture, I thought. That was fairly typical, as service was excellent throughout. All the waiting staff had that charm which just stays on the right side of over-familiarity, something I associate with good Italian restaurants (and I think all of them were actually Italian, though I may be wrong) and they made sure we never felt hurried. In that respect, it definitely felt like a special occasion – nobody wants to be turned when they’re spending this kind of money.

Desserts, like the mains, were at opposite ends of the spectrum. Lemon posset was a glorious thing, wobbly and zingy, topped with cooked rhubarb and dangerously easy to devour. Everything in it should have been tart and sharp and yet it wasn’t (the grilled figs and little pearls of what looked like fruit caviar on the top did their bit to balance it out). The moist orange cake with citrus mascarpone was more prosaic. It was tasty enough and I was happy to eat it all but compared to the complexity of the lemon posset it seemed a bit basic. All the desserts cost seven pounds – an amount I was happy to pay for the posset but much more grudging to part with for the cake. Funny the calculations you make in your head when you know a restaurant is expensive. We also had a couple of dessert wines with these – a Labrandi and a moscato – and both were beautiful choices.

PossetI said at the start that there were two types of expensive meal. Well, as it turns out Ruchetta is both: the total bill for two people – three courses each, two glasses of prosecco, one bottle of white, a carafe of red, two glasses of dessert wine – was £160. This is the bit where I usually say “but it’s possible to eat far more cheaply”, but I’m not sure it’s entirely true of Ruchetta. Their set lunch during the week is a cheaper, but it’s still £19 for two courses. Sunday lunch is £32.50 for two courses. You could spend less, but I still think it’s the kind of restaurant where the size of your bill is always going to take you somewhat by surprise.

I also said at the start that when a restaurant is expensive the bar is set higher, and that’s why I can’t wholeheartedly recommend Ruchetta. There’s a lot to like: the service is terrific, produce and seasonality is clearly important to them (when I went there were lot of asparagus specials on offer. A lot) and the menu is a tempting, readable mix of classic Italian cooking and more creative, inventive dishes. But I’m not sure which restaurant Ruchetta is meant to be: the unpretentious neighbourhood Italian or the high-end destination restaurant. The pricing suggests the latter, but the execution of some of the dishes (the fondue dish, the lamb) and the way the tables are squeezed together feel more like the former. I was left wondering if someone had got carried away with the calculator when pricing the menu. I went expecting something really special and whilst I really enjoyed it wasn’t quite special enough. If these dishes were priced at the twenty pound mark and there was good wine for, say, eighteen pounds a bottle, I would be making my way to Wokingham again and again. As it is, it will have to wait for the next special occasion and hope that, in the meantime, I don’t find somewhere a little more consistent.

Ruchetta – 7.5
6 Rose Street, Wokingham, RG40 1XU
0118 9788025

http://www.ruchetta.com/

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The Edible Reading Survey: The results!

When I had the idea to do the ER survey, it was just a bit of fun. I expected that I’d have to constantly nag for responses, or that nobody would do it (like throwing a party where nobody turns up). So I designed a few questions – maybe not the right ones, with hindsight – and knocked it up and put it up there with no great expectations. And? Well, for want of a better word, wow. The response has been incredible – in terms of supportive comments, Retweets and, most importantly, people filling it out and giving me loads of feedback. It was actually oversubscribed and I had to close it less than 3 days later because I had so many responses.

Originally I was going to leave it there but a few people on Twitter expressed an interest in seeing the results and actually there are some fascinating nuggets in there, so I’ve been persuaded to do a post letting you know what came out of the survey. If you’re not fussed don’t worry, there will be a new review up on Friday just like usual. But if you are, or if you’re nosy, or especially if you’re one of the people whose answers make up this set of results then thank you so much. You all make this worth doing.

How often do you read Edible Reading?

This was an amazing result: 47% of you read it on Friday morning when it comes out. I was astonished by this (and really very flattered). I always wanted it to come out at the same time every week, rain or shine, and this result really justifies that decision. 30% of you read it once a week and 15% of you read it a few times a month. More hardcore still, one of you reads it several times a week to decide where to go (thank you!) My favourite response was from Respondent No. 97, who said “Rarely”. More on her later!

Are the reviews too long?

I put this question in with real trepidation, having had a few snide remarks on Twitter about the reviews being too long. 91% of you think they are just right. Phew. Again, it’s a conscious decision to offer more than you get in the local paper or TripAdvisor and these results endorse that (nobody thought they were too short – me included!) Respondent No. 97 thought they were too long. Fancy.

What would you like to see more or less of?

The bottom line is that you want more of everything! On balance you wanted more or the same of all of the options I gave you – reviews of central restaurants, restaurants outside Reading, cheap eats, high end, round-ups and interviews or features. Since I can’t clone myself, the next step is to look at the most and least popular options. Based on that the thing you want most is more restaurant news and round-ups, followed by reviews of cheap eats, followed by more reviews of central Reading restaurants. That’s great because those are the main things I do, and again that makes me feel a lot happier about sticking mainly to Reading. You were a lot less fussed about high end restaurants (which I can completely understand) and reviews outside Reading – so although I do those from time to time I’ll leave that to others. The interesting one was reviews and features – currently I don’t do those on the blog. What would you like to see? A piece about where to get the best sandwich in Reading? Email interviews with prominent Reading people about their favourite restaurants? Answers in the comments field.

Respondent No. 97 wanted to see less of everything. Bit of a theme here, isn’t there?

Have you ever eaten somewhere because of an ER review? If so, was it accurate?

I hoped some people would say yes, but I don’t think I could have expected so many to say yes. 53% of you have eaten somewhere because of my review. 41% of you haven’t yet but say you plan to. Have a guess how Respondent No. 97 responded.

Of those of you that have gone somewhere because of an ER review, the next question was also a huge source of relief: 52% of you described the review as very accurate, and 46% described it as fairly accurate. 2% said not very accurate, none of you said not at all accurate. Taste is a very subjective thing, so I am delighted with that response.

Where else do you get information about Reading restaurants?

This one really surprised me. Of the people who replied, 81% of you use TripAdvisor. By contrast, only 28% of you use the local newspapers. I think this answer starts to make more sense when you look at what people want from a restaurant review (a few questions down the line). 17% of you said you used blogs, but most of the comments I got suggested that you think the Reading Post’s website is a blog; I bet they’d love that bit of feedback. Respondent 97 was a big fan of the Reading Post, as it happens.

I was a bit surprised that Respondent 97, who reads ER so rarely and dislikes it so much, took the time to fill out my survey. I was even more surprised when Respondent 97 had filled out the survey from a Greek IP address. It must be a coincidence that the Food Editor of the Reading Post was on holiday in Greece that weekend… mustn’t it?

Do you like ER on Facebook?

I think I’ve got some work to do here. 29% of you do, 13% of you plan to and 24% of you didn’t know ER had a Facebook page. I know not everyone likes Facebook, which is fair enough, but the FB page is starting to be a place people go to ask about restaurants or give me the latest gossip on where’s opening/shutting/reopening. It’s worth a look!

What’s important about a restaurant review?

Overwhelmingly, you want them to be honest, independent and informative. Those scored almost universally positively. That makes me proud that Edible Reading publishes honest reviews, good or bad, and isn’t constrained by the fact that somebody else has paid for the meal. It also explains why people are happy with the length of the reviews. I wonder whether the independence factor explains why the people who took the survey rely more on TripAdvisor than they do on the local press. Less important, but still overwhelmingly positive, were that the reviews are entertaining and detailed. The rating at the end polarised people – some people really liked it, some people thought it wasn’t very important, but the net score was still reasonably positive.

The last two results were a huge relief to me personally. Photography generated a surprising amount of indifference (as, I imagine, does my photography), and as for vegetarian options, the balance of opinion was that it wasn’t important. Probably just as well, because much as I can’t resist ordering burrata when it’s on the menu I can’t promise to order vegetarian friendly dishes in a restaurant on even a semi-regular basis.

What’s your favourite ER review?

I know, this question’s fishing for compliments. I’m sorry. But I was amazed that so many of you answered it, nominating a total of twenty-one different reviews! It was nice to see that so many of them had their fans, but the top three emerged quite clearly.

The bronze medal goes to The Eldon Arms – lots of fantastic comments about this, including “most surprising”, “I ended up having the best burger there” and the succinct, if surreal, “PAWK” (I don’t know about you, but I now have an image of someone a bit like the Cookie Monster who really really likes pulled pork).

The silver medal goes to Bhoj. There was a lot of love for this restaurant, and the review, a lot of it from people who would never have gone to it without the review. Examples include “I never knew it existed”, “highlights an otherwise pretty much unknown hidden gem”, “it made me try it – yum yum!” and “refreshing to see a low cost option reviewed favourably”.

But the gold medal – well, it’s about the only accolade the Lobster Room is ever going to receive now that it’s closed. Most of the comments here made me smile but especially “Extremely funny. The Fonz thumbs.”, “The Lobster Room, for bringing to life the awful goings on”, “The Lobster Room, for the sense of righteous indignation” and possibly the unimprovable “The Lobster Room (ouch)”.

So what have we learned? Most of you read the blog every week, you go to restaurants because of the blog and think it’s accurate, apart from the blog you rely on Tripadvisor, you want me to write more of everything, you really value independent honest reviews and you’re prepared to overlook my shoddy photography. But, to copy Springer’s Final Thought, what I’ve really learned is that what you like most of all is a rave review or an absolute hatchet job. I suspected as much! Tune in this Friday at half eleven (and I now know over half of you will) to find out whether this week’s review is either of those things.

Round-up: April and May

I can’t believe it’s nearly the end of May already. We’ve had the beer festival (did you go? wasn’t the food rubbish!), the second of our two bank holidays is about to begin and summer is just round the corner with the promise of al fresco dinners and – more importantly – barbecues. And Pimm’s! Have you had your first Pimm’s of the year yet? There’s something magical about it, isn’t there – the fresh cucumber, mint, strawberries, the gently fizzing taste of summer in a long tall glass… Anyway, I’m digressing: it’s also a good point to stop and look back at the last few couple of months, both in terms of ER reviews and other restaurant news. Shall we? Excellent. Make yourself comfortable…

The Eldon Arms, 8.0 – A burger: a religious experience, or a sandwich blown out of all proportion by passing food fads from That London? Regardless of the answer, I think The Eldon may well do the best one in Reading. I checked it out here. (Sadly, the Eldon has now stopped serving food – see below.)

Dolce Vita, 7.6 – Dolce Vita is a hugely popular Reading restaurant, one of the longest running in town, and yet I’d rarely been. Was I missing out? The answer’s in the review, here.

The Abbot Cook, 6.0 – Another pub, just down the road from the Eldon, but it couldn’t have been more different. One had a slightly scruffy interior and belting food, the other looks the part but somehow managed to dish up flavourless food. The review is here – it also contains a lost waiter, a lake of cream and something which can only be described as potato-geddon.

Bel And The Dragon, 6.6 – A short walk out of town, with a lovely waterside location, Bel has the potential to be the perfect summer restaurant. So why isn’t it? I reviewed it here, only to find that neither the staff nor the dishes were full of beans.

Bhoj, 8.2 – Forget Mya Lacarte, ignore l’Ortolan: TripAdvisor says that Bhoj is Reading’s best restaurant. But people who go on TripAdvisor aren’t experts like newspaper reviewers and bloggers, so they can’t be right, can they..? Click here to find out.

China Palace, 6.3 – Does Reading have any good Chinese restaurants? Is an authentic restaurant the same thing as a good restaurant? Can dozens of Chinese diners be wrong? Click here for the answers to some (but not all) of those questions.

Cappuccina Café, 7.0 – If I told you Reading had a place that was half-Portuguese, half-Vietnamese, with a view of possibly the town’s ugliest pound shop you might think I was making it up. I’m not. Egg custard tarts, a broken dishwasher, delicious barbecued pork and outstandingly inefficient service: read all about it here.

On to the news. Casa Roma and Coconut Bar And Kitchen, both mentioned in previous round-ups, are now open. I’m getting good reports of both, and I’ll add them to the list, although as always I will give them time to settle in. From the website Casa Roma doesn’t sound any different to any of the other Italians in town (and I’ll take some convincing that that is an attractive dining room, from the photos) but if the food and service are good none of that will be quite so important. Coconut originally sounded like it was going to be a Tampopo clone but the website now makes it look much more interesting, especially the wide selection of yakitori which is something nowhere else in Reading does.

Not exactly a restaurant, but Tamp Culture has also started trading at the junction of Minster Street and Gun Street, by the Holy Brook entrance to the Oracle. It’s a small van serving coffee and a small selection of cakes, and my friends who like coffee tell me it’s very good stuff indeed. They roast their own beans and add to a burgeoning coffee culture in the town following Lincoln opening late last year. No website, but they Tweet here.

We have also – finally – seen the last of the Lobster Room. It closed, it took the menus down, it put a sad little notice in the door saying it would reopen but it was a death rattle, as it never did. In next to no time, it has already reopened as “Chronicles”, another Mediterranean restaurant (no website yet, but the menu on the door suggests a small range of pasta dishes, steak, grilled meat and fish). I don’t have any detail on whether it’s different proprietors to the Lobster Room, although they’ve kept the same phone number. Is it someone new trying to resurrect a classic Reading restaurant brand, or someone familiar trying to detoxify a different one? I guess we’ll find out – watch this space.

The other potential opening, much covered in the papers, is CAU which has applied to develop the area at the Holy Brook entrance to the Oracle (so not far from Tamp). The plans look quite impressive and would change that side of the Oracle completely. It’s not a triumph for independent traders and small businesses, of course, because almost nothing is where the Oracle is concerned: CAU is the more affordable sibling of the Argentian steakhouse chain Gaucho – a smaller chain with less than ten branches, but a chain none the less. They also do Argentinian flatbread pizzas, so if I was Zero Degrees I’d be saying a few prayers that the council doesn’t approve the application.

The saddest recent news is so hot off the press that it didn’t feature in the original edition of this round-up: the Eldon Arms has confirmed that it’s no longer serving food. They only had a small kitchen, and there just wasn’t enough trade to make the numbers stack up. It’s a real shame – pubs like the Eldon that do good food rather than buying it in off the back of a lorry are few and far between, especially those doing it with a small domestic kitchen. There’s a moral in there: if you find somewhere you like make sure you go there, or it might not be around next time you’re deciding on a dinner venue.

Back to the Lobster Room, briefly: Reading Borough Council uploaded its latest food hygiene inspection results this month. Much of the coverage focused on the Lobster Room which got a zero rating, while initially completely missing the fact that it was already closed. Island Bar and Café Madras also got zero ratings in inspections carried out last July and September respectively. Buffalo Grill, next to the Broad Street Mall, got a rating of 1 (meaning, apparently, “Major Improvement Necessary”) in an inspection from this February. Caversham greasy spoon The Gorge, inspected last November, also got a rating of 1 (maybe it is literally a greasy spoon). The Food Standards Agency takes great pains to say that these ratings are for information and don’t constitute a recommendation to eat at or avoid any particular establishment. That’s all very well, but if you’re planning to go to Buffalo Grill, Café Madras or The Gorge then, well, best of luck and rather you than me.

In the last round-up I mentioned the Reading Retail Awards which are your chance to nominate restaurants, coffee shops and lunchtime venues (did you? hmm?). This time, it’s the turn of the Pride Of Reading awards – nominations have just opened. There’s nothing around restaurants (which is a shame – I’m very proud of some of them, even if it’s just me) but there is a category for Cultural Contribution, sponsored by those renowned opera-goers, Grosvenor Casino. Don’t worry – I’m not asking you to nominate me. Absolutely don’t. Not on any account. Although I’m sure I’d have an excellent chance I’m anonymous and have no plans to turn up to an award ceremony in disguise just to listen to Danyl Johnson singing. However, if you do feel in the voting mood I think the team over at Alt Reading have done a brilliant job of making Reading a better place to live in the short time since they started publishing. They’ve already been nominated but it wouldn’t hurt to reinforce that by nominating them yourself.

Last but not least, and this is hardly news any more but it happened just after the last round-up, Edible Reading is now on Facebook. So if you’re into that sort of thing please go “like” it, feel free to share the reviews through Facebook and join in the conversations on the ER Facebook page. I’m told the reviews have even made it to the infamous “Caversham Gossip Girls” (if any of you are reading, hello there!). Thanks to anybody who’s spread the word about one of my reviews over the past couple of months – the site traffic seems to keep going up and it’s great to see more people getting involved.

Speaking of getting involved: last but not least, as always, please don’t forget that the majority of restaurants I review have been requested or recommended by readers. The details, as I’m sure you know by now, are here. See you next Friday, 11.30 (be there or be square) for the next impartial, independent review. Which restaurant will be next?

Cappuccina Café

N.B. Cappuccina Café closed in June 2014. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

Cappuccina Café wins one accolade right from the off; I think it might have the ugliest view of any café or restaurant in Reading. From my seat, through the glass front window, I could make out “Sam 99p” on West Street, with its rather hyperbolic slogan Yes! Everything’s 99p or less (it’s hard to imagine anybody walking past and actually saying that). Still, Cappuccina Café isn’t unique in having a bad view. From Picnic you can see the tables outside Munchee’s which house some of Reading’s most glamorous smoking al fresco diners. From the terrace at London Street Brasserie I once made out somebody on the grassy bank opposite urinating against the bridge (stay classy, Reading). None the less, I wanted to make the visit because Cappuccina Café is a fusion of Vietnamese and Portuguese and you don’t see that every day – not in Reading, not anywhere.

First impressions were mixed. It’s a very long room with the counter at the front, the kitchen at the back and the two overstretched waiters constantly doing a long walk from one to the other and back again. Only one person was serving when I got there, and he didn’t seem to be able to make up his mind whether to take my order or attend to the large pile of dishes in plain view in the sink, a pile which made me a tad nervous about ordering anything at all. As it was, he ineffectually pottered around in the general vicinity of the sink before coming back to check what I wanted (I had half a mind to tell him to do the washing up first). Was their dishwasher broken?

It’s a pity because the interior is quite handsome – smartish tables and chairs, a nice banquette along both sides of the room and tasteful tiled walls. There were plenty of cakes visible up at the counter and all of them looked distinctly tempting. I went on a Sunday lunchtime and it was full of families, most of them Asian – presumably Vietnamese, though I couldn’t tell for sure – all tucking into bowls of what I imagine were pho. Normally I’d take this as a good sign, but after recent experiences I approached things with a note of caution. The whole place did have the air of a crèche about it with plenty of kids roaming around – which ironically means this may be the most family-friendly place I’ve reviewed so far.

The general chaos continued well after I placed my order. One of the dishes I picked was bánh mì, the famous Vietnamese baguette which has been so popular in London over the last few years. It looked to me like the staff got a baguette out of the oven behind the counter, part assembled it behind the counter (next to the sink) and then took it all the way to the back of the restaurant, past my table, to add the rest of the ingredients. As a study in time and motion it was weird to put it lightly. To make matters worse, despite being (you’d hope) the easier to prepare of the two things I’d ordered it arrived a good couple of minutes after the other dish. By this stage we’d gone well past chaotic and were cantering into haphazard with reckless abandon.

When the bánh mì arrived I had waited so long, with such mounting despair, that I was expecting it to be indifferent. It should have been, because up to that point everything else was. To my surprise and relief, it was anything but. The barbecued pork was moist but not fatty, crispy, warm and utterly delicious. The menu said it was marinated in honey, five spice and lemongrass and I got all of that but especially the lemongrass. The shredded carrot (which I think was pickled), the little strips of cucumber and the daikon added crunch and yet more freshness, although the coriander seemed to be missing in action – a shame, because it would have fitted in perfectly. It was the kind of dish where you have a big grin after the first mouthful which lasts until well after the last, the sort of food that makes you shake your head in slow joy. It made me realise how underwhelming most sandwiches in Reading are – miserable clammy things, heavy and cold and soggy with mayo.

Banh mi

The grilled chicken with rice (com ga nuong) was so much more than the brief description would have you expect. The main attraction was a large leg of chicken which tasted like it, too, had been marinated in spices (including Chinese five spice and lemongrass) with a delicious crispy skin. For the size of the chicken leg there wasn’t a great deal of meat but what was there was moist and tasty, if a bit hard to get off the bone. On the side was a neat hillock of plain rice topped with a little pile of fried onions and a heap of pickled red cabbage and carrot which was just lovely with a forkful of chicken. The only out of place thing on the plate was the afterthought of salad, so forlorn and unloved that it just shouldn’t have been there.

Chicken

I felt it would be wrong to leave without also sampling the Portuguese section of the menu, so I went up and ordered a couple of pasteis de nata for dessert. These came warmed – again, in an oven rather than a microwave – ready to be dusted with cinnamon and wolfed down. For me, a Portuguese egg custard tart is one of the seven culinary wonders of the world, ideally fresh out of the oven, dusted with icing sugar and cinnamon and dispatched in two, maybe three mouthfuls at most. The pastry is light and flaky, the top golden brown and not quite burnt and the filling ever so slightly wobbly and flecked with vanilla. These weren’t like that – too firm, not warmed through enough, no icing sugar – but they were still pretty good, and a darned sight closer than I ever hoped to get in Reading, in a little spot on West Street with a prime view of the 99p shop. Pleasingly they were also ninety-five pence each, which makes them far better value than anything you could pick up in “Sam’s”.

Pasteis

The whole thing – bánh mì, chicken with rice, two tarts, a cup of tea and a soft drink – came to fourteen pounds. A comparable lunch would have cost just as much in Pret, Costa or Nero and wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good. To me, Cappuccina Café is part of something interesting happening to Reading’s lunch scene. All over the place independent cafes are springing up – from Lincoln down the King’s Road (coffee and bagels) to Arepas Caffe at the other end of West Street (Venezuelan food and churros), to Shed in Merchant’s Place (toasties and “Saucy Friday”) – not to forget the granddaddy, Picnic (salad and cakes). There’s no excuse any more for the laziness of going to the usual players on Coffee Corner. So yes, the service is iffy, the layout is a nightmare and they really need to fix their dishwasher, but with all that said I’ll still be going back to Cappuccina, and sooner rather than later. They have three other types of bánh mì and I fancy trying them all, collecting the Vietnamese equivalent of stickers in a Panini album.

Cappuccina Café – 7.0
16 West Street, RG1 1TT
0118 9572085

https://www.facebook.com/cappuccinacafe

China Palace

One of the joys of writing this blog is when people ask me for recommendations. It means an awful lot that you (well, maybe not you specifically, but you catch my drift) trust me enough to approach me for advice. Usually I’m able to help, but I do feel like I let people down when it comes to Chinese restaurants: I’ve been asked several times to suggest a good Chinese restaurant in central Reading and I couldn’t, because I just don’t know of any. And when I’ve been asked about China Palace, which is probably the best-known Chinese restaurant in town, all I’ve really been able to say is that I wasn’t a fan, although that’s based on a visit from some time ago. So this week’s review ends the (I’m really sorry about this pun) China crisis and kills two birds with one stone: filling a gap in my repertoire and meaning I can give you better advice on restaurants in Reading.

China Palace is one big room next to the Argos, on the outskirts of the Broad Street Mall (“Reading’s favourite mall” according to, well, the Broad Street Mall). It’s undeniably handsome with beautiful black lacquered walls and lots of tables, mainly large circular numbers with proper white tablecloths. I went on a Monday lunchtime and it was more than half full, a sign of a restaurant doing something right. Another promising sign was that the other diners appeared to be pretty much all Chinese: everything was shaping up nicely for a delicious, authentic meal.

When I arrived I was disappointed to see the tables laid out with dim sum menus; I’ve nothing against dim sum per se but it wasn’t what I’d gone there to review. Fortunately China Palace also offers their a la carte menu, though I did have to ask for it and look suitably helpless. The full menu is exactly that; huge and more than a bit terrifying, offering over 200 different dishes running the gamut from fully Westernised (sweet and sour chicken, crispy chilli beef) to those with more exotic-sounding ingredients (duck web or intestines, anyone?). In the end we were helped by the manager who recommended ordering from the dim sum menu to start with so we could then decide whether or not to order anything else. This struck me as genuinely kind, not only because he could see we were floundering but also because the dim sum dishes are three to four pounds compared to six pounds for an a la carte starter.

The manager picked some relatively user-friendly dim sum for us, steering us away from the tripe and chicken claws and the cheung fun being so expertly manipulated with chopsticks at the neighbouring tables. Prawn dumplings with salad cream (yes really, salad cream) were very tasty – a mixture of chopped and minced prawns, with finely chopped carrot and spring onion in among the relentless pinkness, shaped into dollops a little like misshapen potato croquettes and fried. I liked the taste – especially dipped in the salad cream, something I haven’t had in ages and am now experiencing nostalgic cravings for – enough to overlook the slight wobbliness under the crispy surface.

Vietnamese style spring rolls were even better and a world apart from what I was used to. The rice paper was finer and less stodgy than Chinese spring rolls and the contents far more delicate – so there were mushrooms and beansprouts and prawns but also beautiful fragrant lemongrass. The sweet chilli sauce they were served with was clear, fresh and subtle rather than the gloopy sugary hit you normally get. They were so tasty that we fought over the third spring roll with the prawn dumpling as a runner up. I lost. I’m not bitter (I may be a little bitter).

Dim sum 1

Possibly even better than the spring rolls were the steamed pork buns. I’m sure I’ve had these elsewhere and really not enjoyed them but my guest really fancied them so I was prepared (or forced) to give it a go. These were three fluffy dumplings, sweet and thick – rather like bread made with candyfloss, if that makes sense – filled with chopped char siu style pork in a rich meaty and tomatoey sauce. We picked them out of the steamer by hand and burned our fingers on the hot dough and our tongues on the filling because we didn’t want to wait. All of the dim sum came served in threes – the curse of the odd numbers, again – but after failing to win the prized third spring roll I made sure we split the last bun fifty-fifty. I wasn’t going to make that mistake again (see? not bitter).

Dim sum 2

All told those dishes cost us about ten pounds. I wish I’d stopped there, or flagged down the manager again before ordering the mains. I’m sure I’d have had a better meal if he’d picked our dishes. To be honest, I’d probably have had a better meal if he’d cooked them, too. I can’t even rule out the possibility that I’d have had a better meal if I’d gone into the kitchen and done it myself.

The sizzling lamb with ginger and spring onion wasn’t sizzling, literally or metaphorically. I was expecting it to arrive with a bit more theatre and be drier, rather than the rather slimy looking dish which turned up (my friends tell me they’ve had very similar experiences on match.com). The sauce itself was shiny and bland. All the ginger came from huge slabs of the stuff scattered throughout the dish which made the taste a rather binary affair: either it tasted of ginger and nothing else, or it tasted of nothing at all. The lamb was floppy slices of oddly textureless meat which didn’t taste of lamb and easily could have been lamb, beef or something created in a particularly unpleasant laboratory. I didn’t finish it and I didn’t regret it, and minutes later I couldn’t really remember anything about it except how unmemorable it was.

Lamb

The beef with golden mushrooms in satay sauce (from the “chef’s favourites” section of the menu, “favourites” appearing to translate to “a couple of pounds more expensive”) was better without being good. The beef was as grey as the lamb (if you had told me they were the same meat I would have believed you) but the dish was almost redeemed by everything else. The golden mushrooms turned out to be enoki, the skinny little pinhead mushrooms which grow in clumps. There were also, rather randomly, little pieces of pineapple which turned out to be a pleasant surprise. This was all generously distributed in a sauce which I suppose you could just about have described as satay if you were otherwise lost for words. It was inoffensive verging on pleasant but had no salt, no kick and no real oomph. For thirteen pounds fifty, I was expecting something considerably better. The dish was padded out with what I think were glass noodles, rendering the steamed rice a bit redundant. Except by then it was all redundant because the dim sum was quite nice, this was desperately average and I was already wondering how much I could leave without causing offence when I asked for the bill.

Beef

Getting the bill proved difficult (I had to ask twice). Getting served, except by the manager, proved difficult. Getting any kind of suggestions proved difficult. Getting a smile proved difficult. Getting a second glass of cabernet sauvignon (which was quite nice but felt, from the moment I ordered the first one, like a rookie mistake) proved difficult. Perhaps this is a sign of a very busy restaurant which was used to serving fast turnaround dim sum to the legion of diners there at that time of day. Or maybe this is a restaurant that is so successful that it doesn’t need to look after its diners. Either way I felt a little neglected. The bill for two, for three dim sum, two main courses and four glasses of house wine, came to £60. This included a compulsory ten per cent service charge. Seeing this as value for money proved difficult.

I’ve been thinking a lot about authenticity since I ate at China Palace. You can’t deny that it’s a very successful restaurant: the room seats 120 according to their website and was very busy when I was there. You also can’t deny that it would appear authentic: it was very popular with Chinese diners and I’m told that’s par for the course. But authenticity doesn’t automatically mean good – taste is all that really matters and for me, that’s where China Palace was a let down. Maybe my palate is too Westernised, maybe not, but I like to think I can tell the different between subtle and bland and for me there was way too much of the latter and nowhere near enough of the former. So next time someone asks me if I can recommend a Chinese restaurant in the centre of town I’ll say: No, not really. I suppose there’s China Palace at lunchtime if you pick dim sum carefully but otherwise, probably not. On the other hand, if authenticity is all that matters to you, by all means go there – and all power to you if you can convince yourself that you’re enjoying it.

China Palace – 6.3

43-45 Oxford Road, RG1 7QG
0118 9572323

http://www.chinapalacereading.com/