So many elements go to make up a great restaurant, so many different things to get right, so many plates to spin at once. It’s fair to say that very few restaurants in Reading have perfected all of them. So you can go to a rather unimpressive room, like Bhoj, and have a knockout curry. You can go to Cerise and have beautiful food but be a little unmoved by the service. Or you could head to the Abbot Cook and sit in that wonderful room wading through their underwhelming food. This makes reviewing restaurants difficult: how do you weigh all of those different factors? But I always thought that the food comes first; if the food is great, nothing else can be that badly wrong. And I really believed that, too, right up until last week when I went to Malmaison for dinner.
Because the food at Malmaison really is great; I didn’t try anything I didn’t like. Take the starters, for instance. Tuna tartare was both beautiful and delicious: a delicate roundel of chopped tuna on a bed of chopped avocado with a soy dressing drizzled round the edge (which tasted more of sesame than the advertised lime but was none the worse for it) with a few neat slices of pickled ginger and a squirt of gentle wasabi, like a wasabi mayonnaise. This was just delightful; fresh, zesty and with the other flavours not overwhelming the fish. Not an ungenerous portion, either, when it would be easy to make this kind of dish stingily nouveau. It was impossible to take a picture because of the glass plate but who cares? Food’s there to be eaten, not photographed, and this was perfect.
The fritto misto was almost as good: beautiful prawns, the most tender squid I’ve had in Reading and some really tasty pieces of yellow courgette in a light, greaseless batter. Good enough, I’d say, to eat on their own – which might be just as well because I wasn’t wild on the sweet chilli sauce they came with. That felt more of an Asian, tempura-influenced choice when I was hoping for some aioli or even a fresh salsa verde to plunge my food into. But none the less, it was gorgeous – and again, not the mean portion I was expecting (I have to say, I went to Malmaison with some preconceptions: that my food would be pretty, prissy and pricey).
Could the kitchen keep it up with the main courses? As it turns out, yes they could. The “le French” burger was similarly lovely. Served in a glazed brioche bun with a decently rough patty of beef, still pink in the middle, this was how burgers should be. Despite the slices of brie and the caramelised onions this managed not to be sloppy – just juicy from the meat – and the sweet and salty flavours worked beautifully. It was also, and this almost never happens nowadays, possible to actually eat it with your hands.
The accompanying skin-on frites were perfectly decent, though I got the impression the staff aren’t used to serving vinegar as it came in a ramekin with a teaspoon and was of the white wine persuasion rather than good old Sarson’s. On the side was the tiniest copper saucepan with a tomato ketchup in it of unknown origin (it had green bits in but tasted like Heinz to me). It was rather unnecessary for this burger, so I wondered if it was there to meet expectation, rather than to actually eat. Still, it didn’t detract from what was a top notch dish: it was sixteen pounds, which I know is a lot, but it just about felt on the right side of the border between extravagantly indulgent and “they saw me coming”. Just.
The sea bass was a conventional, safe brasserie dish but there’s no harm in keeping things simple and everything about it worked: two nice pieces of fish, cooked well (no crispy skin though, which was a bit of a shame) served with a delicate mix of firm, smoky, good quality chorizo, mussels, sautéed new potatoes and vinaigrette. This was closer to the sort of food I was expecting at Malmaison: Jack Lemmon to the burger’s Walter Matthau, granted, but I liked it a lot.
So, you’ve read this far and you might be thinking about booking a table, right? Well, get to the end before you make up your mind, because literally everything else about this restaurant made me want never to return. Let’s start with the cardinal sin. The waiter came to the table after we’d finished our starters and took the plates away. About two minutes later they returned with our main courses.
“Oh! That’s very quick.” I said. The waiter gave me what was probably a blank look but might have been him mistakenly accepting my congratulations.
What do you do at this point? You can’t send it away, so you don’t have any choice but to sit there and eat it. But it just prompted other questions, like: were they cooking our mains the moment we started eating our starters? Was someone standing at the door to the kitchen watching us with a stopwatch? If I’d chewed a bit slower would my main course have been sitting there on the pass for ages? However you looked at it, this was plain poor: the Malmaison is not, from the menu – dishes and prices – somewhere you go for a quick meal. If I’m spending that kind of money I want to be there for a couple of hours, whereas if I want my meal to take forty minutes I’ll go somewhere else and I’ll spend a lot less. I could make excuses for them – it was a Sunday, they weren’t busy – but really, this was inexcusable. It’s called the hospitality business, and having two courses on a conveyor belt in less time than it takes to watch an episode of Game Of Thrones feels pretty inhospitable to me. Besides, just because I ordered a burger doesn’t make it fast food.
I might have told them this if the waiters had shown any interest in my experience, but they didn’t. In fact service in general had a completely disengaged feel: no smiles, no friendliness, no connection at all. I genuinely think there were people sitting at the bus stop outside London Camera Exchange, visible from my table, who had as much interest in me having a good meal that night as the serving staff at Malmaison. This is one of Reading’s few higher end restaurants and, again, when I’m spending that kind of money on food I at least want to feel liked. I want to feel like the staff care about the food and the customers (or can pretend well enough to convince me, that’s fine too). I want it to be a pleasure talking to the staff: many of Reading’s excellent restaurants – Pepe Sale, Dolce Vita, Mya Lacarte, Kyrenia… I could go on – get this right, but I’ve had better service in a lot of chain restaurants than I did at Malmaison. (It’s a real pity because based on past experience, the staff in the bar are completely the opposite.)
Countless other people have complained about the darkness in Malmaison but, even so, it’s worth repeating. The room is dark. The walls are dark. The tables are dark. It makes eating (and photographing) the food an extra challenge, even though we managed to pick a table with some overhead lighting. The chairs are big and squidgy, so much so that when sitting I ended up with my knees higher than my thighs and it felt like the table was up under my chin. This is not conducive to a comfortable, relaxed meal. And there’s no atmosphere at all – which takes some doing in such Stygian surroundings. It has the feel of a restaurant which relies largely on expense accounts, which makes no sense when the food is so good.
I suppose I should talk about wine and dessert. The wine list is cleverly structured and priced and one of the things that’s done well. We had a half litre carafe of a Brazilian Riesling/pinot grigio blend which was really nice; off dry, fruity and juicy with a touch of apples. It would have been nice to try more from their wine list – and we probably would have done if they hadn’t been in such a phenomenal hurry to get shot of us. Similarly, after eating two courses in quick succession we were too full for dessert, although in any case the menu wasn’t too inspiring, being the usual mix of ice cream, sticky toffee pudding, crème bruleé, cheesecake and other bog standard box tickers.
The bill was seventy-five pounds including a discretionary tip of 10% that isn’t really discretionary unless service is bad enough for you to make an exhibition of yourself in front of other diners. The whole process, beginning to end, of eating at Malmaison took approximately fifty minutes. So, is good food enough to justify overlooking all the other faults in a restaurant? I’m sure you’ve read all this and decided for yourself, but put it this way: I can’t imagine circumstances in which I’d go back. As I tried to get out of my almost-sat-on-the-floor-chair the couple at the next table joked about how uncomfortable the furniture was, and we shared a little moment about what an odd room it was. I think they enjoyed their experience more than I did, although their food if anything arrived even faster than ours. That was the most interaction we’d had the whole time I was in Malmaison, which by my reckoning makes it just mal.
Malmaison – 6.5
18-20 Station Rd, RG1 1JX
0844 693 0660
4 thoughts on “Malmaison”
Yea, I had a similar experience – a waitress who actually looked pretty annoyed to be serving a group of 8 of us, and who was very huffy when we hadn’t all decided what to eat when she first came round. The food was good, but if the tip wasn’t on the bill already, it would have been zero.
Good review. I’ve had the same experience, but refused to pander to the Britishness of letting them get away with forcing me to pay a tip. I took it off the bill and told them why. It doesn’t seem like it made a blind bit of difference if your review is anything to go by!
I picked up a couple of vouchers for Malmaison during the Reading Food Festival after trying out one of their burgers (which was fantastic). I remembered thinking at the time that the people serving up at the festival were really friendly so was very surprised to read this review – so much so that I nearly didn’t go. But the voucher’s promise of Reading biggest Sunday lunch and the looming expiry date convinced me and my other half to go along.
First impressions weren’t great, if I’m honest. When we walked into the lobby and saw a buffet set up just inside the door we felt like we had walked in on someone’s private event, and the restaurant was absolutely dead save for two people in the corner looking equally as uncomfortable as us – considering that we were promised the Sunday lunch to end all Sunday lunches, this wasn’t encouraging.
We were shown to a table (thankfully under some lighting) and were further confused by our waiter – I thought it best to present the vouchers at the start of the meal and he gave me a confused look before heading off to check ‘whether these are OK’. A female waitress then replaced him asking if we wanted any extra drinks – I asked her what had happened about my voucher as I wasn’t particularly keen on staying if my deal wasn’t going to be valid. She apologised and reassured me that the vouchers were indeed fine, and it turned out to be the real turning point of the whole experience.
The ‘unlimited hors ‘oeuvres’ might conjure up images of the unlimited salad bar at a Harvester but wow, they couldn’t have been further apart. A wide variety of excellent quality cured meats being freshly carved along with cheeses, a massive side of poached salmon surrounded by the smoked and cured variety, various olives, rustic breads, a few pasta dishes and fresh salad to boot. It was enough to fill a dinner plate. I nearly went back for a second round but thought I’d better hold off in case the mains arrived in the middle of eating. To my surprise, the waitress came back to us and asked us if we were ready for the main course or if we wanted anything else first (I should add that we had the option of ordering omelettes and soup along with the buffet itself). We decided to go for it and the mains arrived within a couple of minutes.
My roast beef was perfectly pink and full of flavour, coupled with a really tasty gravy, well-cooked carrots, green beans and parsnips, and a nice big yorkshire pud. Great stuff. My other half’s corn-fed chicken was equally nice, very herby and moist, with the added bonus of a chipolata sausage and stuffing.
My partner wasn’t up to a dessert by this point but I went for the ‘Mal Hot Chocolate’, which was a deep bowl/mug filled with vanilla ice cream, topped with white chocolate mouse/cream, a few chunky marshmallows and supplied with a jug of hot chocolate sauce. It was glorious.
This ‘mini’ review seems to be spilling over a bit now, so I’ll just conclude by saying that I left Malmaison actually pretty content and confident that I’d come back another day. The roast dinner normally costs £19.99 per person for the unlimited starters, main and desert, and from what I experienced that seems like damn good value for the quality of food you get. The atmosphere and room itself isn’t the best and all but one of the waiting staff were pretty disappointing, but the meal itself was great and I haven’t been that full leaving a restaurant in a long, long time!
That is a mini review! You should start a blog too, I reckon 🙂
Good to know the Sunday lunch option there is impressive. I’m often asked to recommend Sunday roasts in Reading and it’s not an area where I have much expertise so that’s good to know. I might go back to try that some day…