Lincoln Coffee House

Reading’s changed a lot in the last few years, but in many ways the café scene has changed the most of all. Actually, I remember when it was all fields: no big chains, just old school frothy coffee and stewed tea merchants like Platters and Chelsea Coffee House (of that generation, only Rafina really remains). Then came the big players: Coffee Republic (remember them?); Costa; Starbucks and Caffe Nero. Not to forget the upstarts: Picnic and Workhouse. But still they keep coming – so now we have Shed and My Kitchen, Nibsy’s and Tamp Culture. And there are more recent arrivals, rare outposts of small chains, like Artigiano which opened just before Christmas and Yumchaa – almost alone in specialising in tea – in the Oracle. Oh, and Siblings Home in Caversham, opened less than two weeks ago and looking like an intriguing mixture between a Hoxton café and a branch of Labour And Wait. Back in the nineties, every time you looked there seemed to be a new pub in Reading. Twenty years on, it feels like we might soon be saying the same about cafés.

The one that always seems to get forgotten is Lincoln Coffee House, a way down the Kings Road, past the library and a little out of town. I admit I do enjoy making the less obvious choices, and I have a soft spot for the underdog, but actually I picked Lincoln for this week’s review for two very particular reasons. One is that they specialise in bagels, and I’ve always had a fondness for a sesame seeded bagel. The second, just as importantly, is that I’ve never much cared for coffee, but I’ve long felt that Lincoln probably does the best tea in Reading.

Admittedly that’s not a big challenge, but even so I’m fed up of paying two quid for a bag and some hot water or, worse still, two pounds twenty for the same bag in a little more hot water. I can see the expertise in a properly made cup of coffee but it’s so rare to get good quality loose leaf tea in a pot that Lincoln should be applauded for that if nothing else, even if their selection of teas isn’t huge.

I’ve realised recently that a lot of my reviews talk about the restaurant being a “long, thin room”. I’m afraid Lincoln is another of those (maybe it’s all the Victorian property in Reading), but it’s attractively done, with a smart wooden counter on one side and a tasteful tiled grey wall behind it. Along the other wall are some rather fetching stylised drawings (a bit reminiscent of Simon Drew) about coffee and chocolate, two of the things of which they’re particularly proud.

It all falls down a bit with the furniture – all high stools and boxy tables which seem somewhat haphazardly laid out (the tables for four just don’t really seem to fit in such a narrow strip of space). The window ledges would be lovely places to perch and watch the world go by, but the tables are so badly arranged that it’s a struggle to sit at them.

As I said, I’ve always liked a bagel even though they seem slightly out of fashion – like goatees and Friends, they were huge in the 90s but nobody seems quite as interested any more. The only other place in town that used to do them, Bagel Shaq, closed down (possibly due to crimes against spelling) and now, if you really do find yourself craving a bagel, it’s either Lincoln or the little booth in the station whose name escapes me.

The bagel selection is quite a compact one – a few breakfast options and less than half a dozen others – but I didn’t mind that at all. I went for the “Manhattan Munch”, chicken, bacon, avocado and Swiss cheese all toasted in a sesame seed bagel. It was delicious – creamy avocado, salty bacon (cooked well, no rubbery rind here) and diced chicken in mayo topped with melted Swiss cheese. The other choice, the pastrami melt, was also very tasty – wafer thin pastrami, Swiss cheese, a little piquant red onion and glorious vinegary slices of gherkin, another weakness of mine. Presentation was also very pretty – on a slate (I know they bring some people out in hives but they’ve never bothered me) with a little pile of salad. I’m not a huge fan of friseé, but it was at least nicely dressed.

Manhattan

So far all good, but here’s the problem. A bagel is not a big thing: even taking into account the hole in the middle, they’re no bigger really than a bread roll. Traditionally, what they lack in diameter they make up for in depth – I’m talking Scooby Doo style, inches of filling barely contained in the bagel, the contents messily spilling out. For the OCD among you, the bagels at Lincoln are not like this: the filling in the Manhattan Munch was a finger’s width deep, the pastrami in the other bagel was gorgeous, but it was wafer thin and only a few wafers thick. When those two bagels, eaten on the premises, come to £10 that’s a bit of an issue, and it’s not one that putting it on a slate can overcome.

Still, there’s always the tea: Lincoln’s tea is by Waterloo Tea Company, from Wales of all places, and Lincoln offers a selection of green teas, black teas and rooibos (I’m not even going to attempt the plural of that word – rooibosses? rooibos? I seem to have attempted it and it’s all gone wrong: let’s move on). No Earl Grey, which would have been my first choice, so on this visit I had Assam, loose leaves in an attractive glass pot with an egg timer to tell me when it had finished brewing. The timer probably made it a little too strong for my liking – my fault rather than Lincoln’s, I’ve always preferred my tea baptised rather than steeped – but I was still very happy with the rich, smooth, almost malty flavour. I just wish I’d poured it sooner.

I’m told that the latte was very good – “better than Picnic and not as good as Tamp” – although apparently there wasn’t any latte art (surely only hipsters care about that?) The beans, I’m told, come from Nude: maybe that means something to you, it’s all Greek to me. Another thing worth mentioning is Lincoln’s impressive hot chocolate – made with real high quality single estate chocolate flakes rather than artificial-tasting powder. I didn’t have one on this occasion, but from past experience they’re bloody magnificent (I also have a friend who swears by Lincoln’s mochas, so there’s that too).

Service was a bit confusing with a total of four people behind the counter at one point or another, but it was very enthusiastic and engaging. I was delighted to see quite an influx of people while I was there, including more than a few regulars. Lunch for two – two bagels, two drinks, came to a touch over fifteen pounds.

I’m not entirely sure who Lincoln is aiming for with its location and its pricing, and I’m not entirely sure it’s me. A way out of town, surrounded by office buildings, closing at 5pm Monday to Saturdays and closed all day Sundays, it may be that actually they’ve decided to cater to takeaway sales for local workers rather than the sit-down, eat-in lunch trade. If that’s the case, all power to their elbow. But for me personally, I felt that – however much I liked what they’d done with the space and however tasty the bagels were – they weren’t doing enough to put up a fight against their competitors in town, chains or independents. I could get an overstuffed sandwich from Pret or a fresh Cornish pasty from Picnic, less than five minutes down the road, for less money and I don’t think I would have compromised on quality. They still get huge credit (and a couple of points) for making an effort with the tea, and I’d go back there for drinks if I was in the area, but overall the bagel seems to be an appropriate metaphor: all very nice, yet it feels like there’s something missing.

Lincoln Coffee House – 6.6

60 Kings Road, RG1 3AA
0118 9507410

http://lincolncoffeehouse.co.uk/

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Beijing Noodle House

Because I have a policy of not reviewing restaurants the very minute they’ve opened, opportunities to be topical are few and far between. I’m not always good at seizing them – I’ve always regretted not visiting Pau Brasil last year while the World Cup was on, for example – so there’s no way I was going to miss out again this week.

I’m not talking about pancakes, by the way. I’m still convinced that pancakes, like cooked breakfasts and roast dinners, are best enjoyed at home; even when a restaurant does them well, it never quite recaptures how good they can be in the comfort of your own kitchen. Something’s always not quite right: the sausage isn’t good enough, the baked beans are claggy and don’t have Worcester sauce in them, the beef’s a tad leathery or (most unforgivably) there aren’t enough roast potatoes. At their best – especially with roast dinners – they can be a high-end reimagining, an enjoyable one even, but it’s just not the same.

That’s never truer than with pancakes. Just writing this I am remembering them – fresh from the pan, sprinkled with sugar and lemon juice, rolled up and scoffed greedily while someone is busy cooking the next one. No restaurant can match that. Plus when you have them in a restaurant you get a pancake, emphasis on the singular. Where’s the fun in that?

No, the other thing that happened this week was the Chinese New Year, only yesterday. It got me thinking again about the disappointing lack of good Chinese restaurants in Reading, and then I remembered one of the recommendations I’d received: Pete, the proprietor of Shed, had suggested I review Beijing Noodle House. He raved about some of the Indonesian specialities and the “mouth watering pork dumplings”. Pete strikes me as a man who knows his food – anyone who’s ever tried Saucy Friday can attest to that – so how could I go anywhere else on this of all weeks?

Actually, my first reaction to the recommendation was “is that place still open?” I used to go to Beijing Noodle House a lot, back in the day (I was especially partial to their duck fried noodles). Then, back in 2008, it was gutted by fire; I can’t remember how long it was closed for, but when it reopened I had moved on elsewhere and it never occurred to me to return. Heading up West Street on a weekday evening and going through the front door felt a little like bumping into an old friend and having to make excuses for not having been in touch.

The first thing that struck me about the room was the pictures on the wall. They are enormous (one pretty much covers an entire wall), an odd mishmash of Oriental and European art. You almost couldn’t take your eyes off them, so huge were they, and I’m no Brian Sewell but I don’t think the proprietors are going to take them to a filming of Antiques Roadshow any time soon. Apart from the mind-boggling art? Well, it’s a bit run-down. The dark wood tables are a little too low so you end up hunched over your food, everything is a little worn and has seen better days. An electronic neon sign in the window flashes “OPEN”. The place mats are thin, plastic and tacky – mine, for no reason I could think of, had a photograph of chips on it. It was just tatty enough that I looked up the health and safety rating from the council, and was hugely reassured to find that they’d given it five stars.

There’s no menu online but there are a lot of noodle options – as ramen, as fried noodle, as udon or vermicelli, in soup or not. More noodle combinations, in fact, than I knew existed. You could probably figure that out for yourself – the clue’s in the name after all – but there was a lot more to the menu than that. I also spotted plenty of rice dishes, a good vegetarian section and, on the back, a range of Thai and Malaysian dishes. I couldn’t see any main courses costing more than seven pounds. As always with a very big menu I felt spoiled for choice, and sadly as usual with a very big menu I also wondered how many choices contained spoilers.

No way to find out except to dive in, so we ordered several of the starters. “Grilled Pork mouthwatering dumplings” (yes, that’s a direct quote from the menu) were every bit as good as Pete had suggested they would be. There’s often an air of the mystery meat about dim sum filling which puts me off, but these – more like gyoza than steamed dumplings or pork buns – were full of coarse, subtle pork. They were beautiful combined with the clean, delicate taste of the ginger vinegar dip. Four felt like a snip at just under four pounds.

Beijing starters

The chicken satay was also very good: you could say it’s hard to get satay wrong, and you’d probably be right, but I liked this a lot. The chicken – three decent sized skewers – was maybe slightly cooked into toughness but that just gave me an excuse to heap on lashings of the satay sauce, which was nothing to look at but deceptively impressive, with just enough slow-building chilli. Last of all, crispy seaweed came with cashews on it rather than the traditional grated scallop (did you know that the pink powder was grated scallop? I didn’t) and was also delicious. The nuts added a savoury toasted note which meant it wasn’t artificially sweet the way seaweed can be – not that that ever stops me polishing it off, mind.

I ordered the duck fried noodles partly for old time’s sake and partly because the menu goes out of its way to say that the duck is marinated and freshly cooked and you can have it boneless if you prefer. When it arrived I felt that mixture of nostalgia and anticipation. It looked just how it used to, back when I used to come here, but was it as tasty? After all, your tastes move on, change, develop: could it possibly have been as good as my memories of it?

In a word: yes. Possibly better, in fact. The duck – and you get loads of it – was glorious in big, tender slices. Not crispy, which might put some people off, but not with the thick layer of fat that might deter fussy eaters. The spring onions, peppers and beansprouts still had the right amount of crunch with the soft noodles and the duck, and everything was coated in a beautiful dark sauce which was more than soy but impossible to split out into its component parts. I was smiling from the first mouthful to the last, and wondering why on earth I’d left it so long. It was just over six pounds, and I’d pick it over a yaki soba from Wagamama nine times out of ten.

Beijing noodles

I also wanted to try something from the less conventional side of the menu, so I went for the nasi goreng. This turned up as a huge heap of rice (indeed, the translation from Indonesian is simply “fried rice”) liberally interspersed with prawns and pieces of chicken breast. The sticky, lightly spiced rice was dotted with peas and on top were a few thin slices of spring onions which felt like not quite enough variety to make every mouthful exciting. That said the meat was generous enough to have a prawn or piece of chicken in every forkful and the flavour was good, if a little bit repetitive (I rarely order risotto for the same reason). Still, five quid for a really tasty plate of rice is incredible value and it made me want to try more of the more unusual dishes (nasi lemak, the national dish of Malaysia, perhaps, or possibly beef rendang).

Beijing nasi

Someone pointed out my really poor track record of ordering desserts in 2015, and I’m afraid it’s true. I didn’t do any better here: I could have gone for some ice cream, or toffee banana with sesame seeds, but somehow I felt like I’d eaten two courses with no need of a third to complete them. The whole thing – three starters, two mains, a Tsing Tao and a large glass of anonymous, cheap and perfectly drinkable red – came to under thirty pounds. I haven’t mentioned service and that’s deliberate – not because it was bad but because it was almost unobtrusive. It’s just not that kind of restaurant: they ask you nicely what you want, they go away, a little later they bring it and they leave you to get on with enjoying it (actually when I put it that way, it sounds pretty good). Besides, how could they ever compete with the wall art?

I’m delighted that I enjoyed Beijing Noodle House. I can’t think of many places in town that are so cheap and so enjoyable, and when I looked at the menu I had real trouble narrowing it down to two main courses, so it probably won’t be long before I return to fill in the gaps. I really wanted to like it, because of all those happy memories, but as a realist I’m not sure I was expecting to like it as much as I did. It’s also a great example of how good food in an iffy room is always going to beat iffy food in a good room. Maybe one day Reading will have an equivalent of “Where Chefs Eat”: if so, Pete should definitely claim this one for his entry.

Only one thing troubled me: I was one of only two tables the night I went, although someone else did poke their head round the door for takeaway. West Street has felt increasingly like a ghost town recently, with Vicar’s closing just before Christmas and rumours that Primark is considering relocating to Broad Street. I can only hope my curse doesn’t strike and Beijing Noodle House doesn’t close shortly after receiving a glowing review from me. I know I say this a lot but use it or lose it, because otherwise one of these days the question will still be “is that place still open?” but the answer will be no.

Beijing Noodle House – 7.2
13-14 West Street, RG1 1TT
0118 9078979

http://www.hongbeijingreading.co.uk/

Alto Lounge

I like to bang on about service in restaurants, but this week it occurred to me that I might be part of the problem. After all, I talk about service, but if you look back at my other reviews it’s usually tucked away near the end. It’s the penultimate paragraph, stuck between the desserts and the summing up, sharing space like uneasy housemates with the bit about How Much It All Cost.

For some reason it’s difficult to write about service in detail unless it’s bad, and when it’s bad I feel guiltier about going into detail than I would about a disappointing dish. Funny how the human face of a restaurant, even though it’s what you see, attracts less comment than all the faceless people toiling away in the kitchen.

So, to redress the balance, even if only for one week: the service at Alto Lounge was some of the best I’ve had in a long time. The two women working the night I went were an absolute joy: friendly, likeable, helpful and interested. They stopped me going up to the bar to order more drinks when my food had just arrived, even though technically Alto Lounge doesn’t do table service. It properly felt like they wanted to make sure I had a good evening, and when I settled up and left the goodbyes were so genuine that it made me want to go back.

I was especially impressed with the service because I wasn’t expecting it to be quite that good. Alto Lounge is a casual dining place: not quite a restaurant, not quite a café, not quite a pub. It sits on the main street in Caversham, along from Waitrose and opposite Costa Coffee (in fact, looking at their other Reading location, in Woodley, you might think their policy for new branches is just find somewhere near a Waitrose).

I’ve had people recommending Alto Lounge’s breakfast to me, but it’s always felt like a bit of a trek out of town for the first meal of the day. However, the rest of the menu felt like it warranted further investigation. For a start, there was a tapas section (Reading really is missing out on tapas) and also, with my New Year’s resolution in mind, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of vegetarian options. Yes, it’s that week of the month.

I liked the interior of Alto Lounge. It’s dark without being gloomy, the walls covered in cool posters and Tretchikoff prints, retro without feeling naff or calculated. The furniture was reminiscent of Bill’s (I wonder if they get their school-style chairs from the same supplier?) but the atmosphere was buzzier and more intimate.

So, great service, great atmosphere and a lovely room. I suppose the Hollywood ending here would be for me to rave about the food, you could all add it to your list of reliable, affordable places to visit in town and we could all go on with our days that little bit happier. I’d love to be able to do that, but reality is never anything like Hollywood and so it proved here. We started with tapas – Tuesday is “Tapas Tuesday” at Alto Lounge and you can get three dishes with a glass of house wine for under a tenner – which might have gone some way to explaining the crowds (they also have “Cheeky Monday”, but I don’t ever want to be the sort of person who has a “cheeky glass of wine”, so I didn’t pay it too much notice).

The tapas at Alto Lounge is a good example of how authenticity isn’t everything. So for instance, the pick of the bunch was shredded pork in sticky sweet five spice with a sprinkling of coriander – about as Spanish as I am, but very tasty all the same. The beetroot and feta tortilla wasn’t bad either – more a frittata than a tortilla, with not much egg and lots and lots of chunks of waxy potato which dominated it somewhat. I liked the feta in it, which added the salt it needed to save it from blandness. I quite enjoyed it, even if it was about as Spanish as someone who went to Barcelona once on a city break. Last but not least, the lamb koftas with grated carrot and tzatziki were gorgeous – the lamb coarse and well-seasoned, the texture just right and the tzatziki respectable and fresh. Gorgeous and, well, Greek. On a normal night these three dishes would cost a little over nine pounds – great nibbles if you were here for a drink but, perversely, not brilliant value as a starter.

Alto_tapas

No, where things really went wrong was with the mains. The falafel burger sounded perfect on paper – sweet potato falafel, halloumi, roasted peppers and tomato chutney, the kind of dish that, well-executed, could stop a diner missing meat for good. In reality it was out of balance in every way. The falafel burger was a big hockey puck of a thing (“it looks a bit Findus” was the dubious feedback from the other side of the table) and, possibly because of the sweet potato, tasted oddly soapy. The texture was smooth not coarse and, because it was so huge, it was too much fluffy middle and not enough crunchy edge. The slice of halloumi, by contrast, was the thinnest I think I’ve ever seen (let’s face it, nobody has ever looked at a dish and said “you know what, that is way too much halloumi”). There was a little smear of chutney and some peppers – and a lot of raw red onion which I could have done without – but overall it was hard, hard work. The coleslaw with it was in an oddly thin and watery dressing, the fries (allegedly skin-on) felt like oven chips. But the burger was the Achilles heel – I could have forgiven everything else if the falafel had been up to scratch.

AltoBurger

The winter vegetable risotto was similarly disappointing. On the bottom was a layer of plain, unflavoured, unseasoned risotto which had been cooked for so long that it lost any bite and was claggy, like wallpaper paste. No shallots or garlic in there, either. Next up was a layer of winter vegetables which, dare I say it, I suspect had been roasted, then chilled, then microwaved. Some were hot and chewy, some were cold and chewy and most of them were – again – flavourless. On top of that was a handful of rocket with a few slivers of hard cheese, which I think was Parmesan, sprinkled with a few seeds.

I ordered this dish thinking it was vegetarian – although it’s hard to tell – the menu doesn’t actually list the vegetarian options (it says there’s a vegan menu, no mention of a vegetarian one). Nor does it mention that this dish contains Parmesan, for that matter. Perhaps I am being too tough and were I a real vegetarian I would know to ask, but it still felt – to me at least – neglectful. Even with the cheese it all tasted largely of nothing and, worst of all, I can (and do) cook a considerably better risotto at home. The best bit of the whole dish were the five crispy leaves of fried sage; a little touch that suggests all is not entirely lost in the kitchen.

Altorisotto

I liked Alto Lounge so much, and I so wanted them to recover from the mains, that I wanted to order dessert. But when push came to shove, I couldn’t do it. The selection is limited to five options you see pretty much everywhere (brownie, treacle tart, apple pie, cheesecake, sticky toffee pudding) and it felt more meh than menu. So we paid up – dinner for two with three tapas, two mains, a couple of glasses of wine and a few ciders came to thirty-five pounds – and said our goodbyes.

Normally first impressions are everything, but actually with Alto Lounge it’s the last impression that has stayed with me. It was sparsely occupied when I turned up, but by the time I left only one table was free, and looking back through the windows from outside it had the warm, welcoming glow of a place you want to visit. Almost a trick of the light, but not quite. How I wish I’d liked the food more. No, that isn’t right: how I wish the food had been better. I actually can see myself coming back, but more in its capacity as a bar. I could quite happily grab a table with some friends, open a bottle of wine or get the ciders in, play cards or a board game and keep ordering tapas until I was full. Maybe that’s what they are aiming for, but as a restaurant it doesn’t quite cut it. I’m sad that I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it – but maybe you should go, even if only once, just to see how much great service makes you want to overlook.

Alto Lounge – 6.5
32 Church Street, RG4 8AU
0118 9473522

http://www.thelounges.co.uk/alto-lounge/

Oakford Social Club

First things first, Oakford Social Club (from hereon, just the Oakford, or my fingers will get sore) is part of a chain. I know it feels like the original hipster hangout – mismatched furniture, craft beer and live music – but it’s part of the “Castle” group of Mitchell and Butler, an “eclectic urban pub” according to their website (a group which also includes the Abbot Cook, out at Cemetery Junction). And the food at the Oakford is by “Ruby Jean’s Diner”, a chain within a chain found in a number of those pubs, offering a selection of Americana classics. Anyway, chains aside, the Oakford does what I have thought for a while is probably the best burger in Reading. Let’s not mess around and play games: I still think that.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone in Reading has never been to the Oakford. But just on the off-chance that you’ve beamed to town from, say, Mars, it’s a big attractive building right opposite the station that is a darned sight more attractive in this incarnation than its predecessors “The Forum” (nothing funny ever happened on the way there, not that I can remember) or the Flyer And Firkin, with its enormous Jenga set, the sort of thing that was thought to be a great idea in pubs in the 90s. It’s broken up into lots of discrete areas – the one at the front is probably the most suitable for dining – and it’s dark and atmospheric, although after a certain time, when they crank the music up I personally feel like leaving (that no doubt says more about me than it). In any case, it’s a relatively quiet place to grab an early evening midweek bite to eat, which is what I did on this occasion.

The burger menu at the Oakford is extensive. The majority of options are beef based, though they do chicken and veggie burgers, too (and the selection of coloured tongs on the grill suggest they’re quite strict at keeping these separate). I went for a beef burger but I was led astray by their selection of toppings and fillings. I know some of you will be downright disgusted at me and I know as a reviewer I should be ordering things on the menu that the majority of people might want to eat. But on this occasion I’m afraid I ordered what I really fancied, namely – the squeamish might want to look away now – the beef burger with peanut butter and fried egg. Judge all you like, but I bloody love peanut butter. The fried egg appealed too – it’s one of those things I’d never cook at home, but when throwing calorie caution to the wind it seemed pointless to turn one down.

The burger itself was a coarse patty, still pink in the middle, juicy and soft with barely any seasoning. It came in a glazed bun with crisp iceberg lettuce and a slice of firm tomato (no slimy salad here). Truth be told the peanut butter was a little overwhelming, so the egg was a bit lost in the mix, but I still loved it. There was just enough mayo in there for it to hold together but not enough for the whole thing to slide around like Bambi on the ice. If you prefer, you can design your burger with whatever toppings you fancy – including burnt end chilli, the ubiquitous pulled pork and bacon, blue cheese and avocado, to name but a few – and, unless you’re really greedy, a tailor made burger will come out costing less than a tenner. All good, right?

Sadly, this is where the fun ends. The burger was served in a paper-lined plastic basket (so hip!) with fries which were on the undercooked side, meaning instead of being crispy and fluffy they were firm but wan. In fairness, from personal experience they’re usually better that this but they were still pretty disappointing. The basket had a slightly convex bottom which meant that cutting the burger with a knife and fork (purely because the burger was really big: I’m not too prissy to pick up a burger with my bare hands) was a bit like eating on top of a Pop-O-Matic with no chance of rolling a six.

OakfordBurger

Much as the temptation was to order a second burger (I was drawn to one featuring emmental, Thousand Island and pickled onion Monster Munch: I couldn’t work out whether it was going to be stupendous or horrendous) I thought for balance I should try something else as well. The rest of the menu wasn’t quite so tempting – a couple of macaroni cheese dishes (called, of course, “mac n’ cheese”, which makes me feel a bit stabby), a couple of salads and the potentially insane, possibly inspired “Wafkin”, chicken with bacon and maple syrup served between two waffles rather than in a bun. Instead, I went for southern fried chicken.

One of my food regrets (and there are many) is that so far I’ve never tried proper fried chicken in America. Unfortunately, it turns out that another of my food regrets is that I’ve now tried the Oakford’s take on it; I’d love to be kind, but it failed on every level. The coating was soggy – the photos make it look a lot crispier than it was, but it didn’t cover the whole of the chicken and what there was slid off the chicken, wobbly and not that appetising (ironically it stuck like glue to the bone on the underside of the breast). It was pretty bland, too – the Colonel’s recipe may remain a closely guarded secret but I can’t see anybody tracking the Oakford down to get hold of theirs.

Bereft of the unappealing skin, all that was left was the chicken, and it too was nothing to write home about. The legs felt like they needed a bit longer, the breast felt like it had had too long. The worst thing about it, apart from the nagging feeling throughout that KFC would have been easily ten times as good, was knowing that I was eating something so terribly bad for me and I wasn’t even particularly enjoying it. If sinful food isn’t fun, what’s the point?

Oakfordchicken

On the side we had a basket of tempura vegetables with chipotle jam. These were a mixed bag: the red peppers and mushroom slices were nicely done, the batter was lovely, light and crisp and the jam – although chilly from the fridge – was like a firm smoky sweet chilli sauce and a nice accompaniment to the veg. What was odd were the colossal bits of cauliflower – more than a floret and only slightly smaller than a fist – which were far too big to be interesting. One of them was so huge that I didn’t want to attempt it without a chainsaw. Disconcertingly there was a big pool of oil sitting at the bottom of the paper when we finished which made me wonder quite how much fat I’d just eaten.

After all those wasted calories it seemed like dessert would have been the final nail in the cholesterol coffin, so we skipped it. Nothing on there even remotely tempted me – the dessert section of the menu is simply entitled “Chocolate”, so it might not tempt you either (although I imagine some people might snigger at one of the options, maturely dubbed “The Threesome”). The total cost was twenty five pounds for one course and one soft drink each plus the shared side. There was no opportunity to tip and, really, no call for it. Service is basic here – fair enough, it’s a pub after all, not a restaurant – but when the tempura vegetables came out without their chipotle jam I had to ask for it and remind the member of staff serving exactly what went with the side dish I’d ordered. It felt like I knew my way round the menu better than he did.

I fear for the Oakford a little: it has a great spot in town, a lovely building which it’s made the most of, and for a long time it was the only place in town with its particular kind of scruffy, offbeat shtick. But all that feels like it’s changing: the Greyfriar, RYND, Milk and the new-look Turtle all offer different iterations of what the Oakford does and are challenging the monopoly it’s had for years. And that market only gets more crowded. Coincidentally, Pavlov’s Dog reopens tonight also offering burgers and craft beers; this London trend shows no sign of dying out here in Reading just yet. The recent news that some of the Oakford’s live music is moving to other venues suggests that it wants to reposition itself but, for me, their food isn’t good, diverse or interesting enough to be a big part of that. So yes, it’s probably the best burger in town – right now at least – but for how long? Because it used to be one of the best places in town to start a night out too – but I imagine they also said that about the Flyer & Firkin, back in the day. Still, the Oakford’s potential loss is our gain: it’s good that Reading moves too quickly these days for anybody to take anything for granted.

Oakford Social Club – 6.6
53 Blagrave Street, RG1 1PZ
0118 9594267

http://www.oakfordsocialclub.com/