This is probably rather a Michael Portillo way to start a restaurant review, but goodness, the train journey from Reading to Goring is rather lovely. From Tilehurst onwards the view gets prettier and prettier, all green fields and lush hills, the Thames on one side and the beauty of Basildon Park on the other. The names on the map have a touch of Watership Down about them: Harley Hill Wood; Harecroft Wood; Shooters Hill. My fellow passengers on the train looked particularly pleased to be commuting home from work, and surrounded by such splendour it was hard to blame them.
I was on my way to Goring because I’d had a tip-off: the Catherine Wheel, I was told, was a magical find in the country. Admittedly, the recommendation came from the pub itself but I decided that was no bad thing: if you can’t blow your own trumpet, why expect anybody else to blow it for you? So I got off the train, wandered over the footbridge and walked down Station Road, past house after house which – although physically close enough to touch – would always be a lottery win or an unexpected inheritance away.
First impressions were good: the Catherine Wheel is a proper old pub with no faux concessions to modernism, no Farrow & Ball facelift, no cynical gentrification. It was all low beams and dark furniture, rowing blades mounted on the wall. Another good sign was that many of the tables were booked when I arrived on a weekday evening – although the staff, friendly and efficient from start to finish, whisked us through the pub and found us somewhere to sit. It was a big, attractive, well lit table, albeit with a disturbingly tacky surface (it’s hard to completely enjoy a pint when you fear your bare elbows are going to stick to the table.)
I like to think I go to enough disappointing pubs these days to know a convincing menu when I see one, and the Catherine Wheel’s looked promising. Less than half a dozen starters, only slightly more mains and a handful of specials. The pub classics (fish and chips, steak, burgers) were all there but also some interesting touches: rabbit loin, crab tart, chimichurri sauce. If anything, I thought the starters were more inventive whereas the mains played it safe but even so, it felt a world away from the standard issue Mitchell & Butler pub menu.
First things first, though: a Scotch egg from the bar bites section of the menu. This took a reassuringly long time to arrive (“I’m sorry”, the waitress said, “but they take a while because they’re made fresh” – an apology nobody should ever have to make in a restaurant, if you ask me) and was worth the wait. It was billed as pork and chilli but seemed chilli-free to me: an irrelevant detail because the whole thing was truly magnificent. The pork was soft and herby, the egg spot on, the yolk still soft but not too runny, and the piccalilli simultaneously sweet and sharp. I ate it so enthusiastically that the gentlemen next to us ordered one as well; I don’t think they were disappointed, either.
Starters were more of a mixed bag. Crab and lime tart with coriander was a dainty thing, delicious if a little delicate (I suppose, in its defence, most things would seem delicate after a Scotch egg but there you go). That said, everything about it was well done – the little disc of pastry was crumbly and buttery and the filling was generous with the crab. I thought it needed more lime and coriander to really make it stand out (crab can be rather a subtle ingredient) but it was still an accomplished, if soft-spoken, dish.
The poached pear, candied walnut and Stilton salad was exactly what it said it would be. The pears were soft enough to yield to the edge of a fork, the walnuts were deliciously sugary sweet and the Stilton was creamy smooth, all on top of a pile of bitter leaves dressed in a sweet (honey?) dressing. I would have liked the Stilton to be more tangy and salty (or just more) to balance out the sweetness in the rest of the salad but provided you could resign yourself to having a very sweet starter this was really tasty and more creative than most restaurants, let alone most pubs.
The mains were well paced and came just as I was beginning to hope they’d turn up. From the specials board, duck breast came pink and carved into thick slices with roasted new potatoes, carrot pureé, broccoli and gooseberry jam. It was a near miss, if a delicious one in places. The duck was well cooked – nicely pink in the middle – but not well seasoned. Similarly the potatoes felt like a carby but slightly flavourless onslaught; a few less, properly seasoned would have been miles better. The carrot puree was tasty but so much of it on the plate came across as a little bit Cow & Gate, and like the duck it went cold very quickly. The star of the show, without a doubt, was the gooseberry jam. I wasn’t expecting it to be red, but it had the tartness of gooseberry and – this was the masterstroke – a nice spike of chilli. It absolutely saved the plate in front of me (it was the Tim Howard of the food world: it could have saved almost anything). I’d probably have eaten it smeared on a mattress, that’s how good it was.
The honey and soy marinated salmon was a dish of two halves. The salmon was cracking – still soft and silky in the middle but crispy, salty and blackened on the outside. When it arrived I thought it was burned, but I soon realised it was very cleverly cooked indeed. The honey was a little lost in the salt but that was no bad thing after the sweetness of the starter. The disappointment was what was underneath it – a bland stir fry of noodles, pak choi, bean sprouts and mooli. There was literally nothing to make that interesting, and any mouthful without a piece of that delicious salmon was a sad mouthful indeed. Such a shame, as it was a dish which could so easily have been improved with some soy, garlic, chilli, ginger or ideally all four. I found myself wondering if the chef had accidentally left something out, but didn’t dare ask.
The problem with a fully booked restaurant is that you keep seeing dishes arrive at other tables which aren’t yours. So I can confirm that the pulled pork burger (with crackling, apple sauce and crunchy chips) looked so good that the man at the next table caught me staring at it. The fish and chips, which turned up to the delight of the sixtysomething lady across the way, was a piece of haddock so leviathan that she and her companion both oohed when it was plonked in front of her. I had a distinct whiff of the culinary road not travelled, to the extent that I briefly started to wonder whether I really ought to visit twice before writing a review, before snapping out of it.
Service deserves a mention, because the Catherine Wheel didn’t get a thing wrong in this respect. Our waitress was tireless, knowledgeable and enthusiastic and seemed to be working practically the whole pub. Watching her was an object lesson in how to work your socks off and make it look effortless (quite a contrast to the commuters on the train earlier, who I imagine had probably spent the whole day looking flat out busy while doing nothing at all). We were too full for dessert – which is a shame, because I had my eye on the cheeseboard (from the superb Grey’s of Pangbourne, no less). Besides, the train back to Reading might only take fifteen minutes but they start to get less frequent as you get closer to the end of the evening. So we settled up: the bill came to just under sixty pounds, not including service, for two starters, two mains, a small glass of perfectly pleasant Rioja and a couple of pints, not forgetting that terrific Scotch egg.
So is the Catherine Wheel a magical find in the country? I think so. My food wasn’t perfect but it was definitely interesting, and I saw enough of the dishes arriving at other tables to get an idea that the kitchen had a good balance of pub classics and something slightly more creative for people who wanted to wander a bit further off the beaten track. Looking at their Twitter feed made me want to go back on a sunny Sunday afternoon: jazz, barbecues, pizzas in the garden. It would be easy in a village so pretty to just crank out microwaved staples and make money out of your captive audience: it says a lot that the Catherine Wheel is trying to do more than that while still being a good, traditional pub. If I lived there, I’d feel very lucky to have it as a local. Although to be honest, if I lived there I’d probably feel lucky full stop. On the way back to the station, as we passed the village hall, I heard the sweet strains of an orchestra practising: as if Goring wasn’t idyllic enough already.
The Catherine Wheel – 7.2
Station Road, Goring-on-Thames, RG8 9HB