N.B. As of August 2020 Malmaison has reopened.
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