River Spice

The single question I get asked most often, apart from where to eat, is “what do the ER ratings mean?” I’ve often wondered whether to devote a separate post to this, or to leave it an enigma. The thing is, lots of people like ratings. They want to know whether a film that’s just come out is a 4 star film or a 5 star film, and I can see why: back when I read reviews but didn’t write them I wanted to know that too. Now that I write one every week, I can see it’s more complicated than that. How can you sum a whole experience up in a mark out of ten? If I could go back and start again, I’d be tempted to miss out ratings altogether. But would I go through with it? After all, they might be difficult to decide on, they might prompt head-scratching and disagreement but, like I said: lots of people like ratings.

I’ve always hoped that the ratings on ER work a bit like those on music website Pitchfork. I can read a Pitchfork review of an album that’s rated, say, 8.0 and absolutely know that it won’t be my cup of tea (because of references to, for example, Krautrock – how exciting!), or I can read a 6.2 and rush out and buy the CD. It’s no different with restaurants: the ratings are an interesting conversation point, but there are so many other factors involved. Is it your kind of food? Is it going to be any good for vegetarians? Is it buzzy/quiet/fancy/unpretentious enough for you? Is getting to the location a faff?

Another thing I often get is people saying that my reviews are too harsh, or too kind (sometimes I get both bits of feedback about the same review) or people saying that the review doesn’t read like the rating, that the words feel like an 8 but the rating says 7. Well, I suppose if I’ve been somewhere I liked and you didn’t you’ll think I’m harsh. If I’ve raved about somewhere that left you unmoved you might think I’m too charitable.

A complicating factor is that, over the time I’ve done this, I’ve felt increasingly like being constructive. These are small independent places, mostly, and they’re trying their best – even if their best isn’t that good. I don’t have the appetite for hatchet jobs, and I know that’s disappointing because, like ratings, people really like them. So, and hopefully this will be my last word on the subject of ratings: if you read a review and it makes you feel like trying the restaurant, do. If it doesn’t, don’t. Does that sound fair enough?

This has all been uppermost in my mind because I had such a disappointing meal at River Spice (you may have scrolled to the end, in which case you’ve probably already figured that out). It might have been especially disappointing because I arrived with high expectations: several people had recommended River Spice to me as equal to House Of Flavours, my current benchmark for Indian restaurants in Reading. Enough people recommended it, in fact, and in glowing enough terms that I spent a lot of the meal wondering if it was my fault rather than the restaurant’s.

Early signs were good – it’s an interesting location for a restaurant, at the end of the Caversham Road, facing onto the river (I can see it would be a lovely spot in summer). The room is clean and modern with nice big tables, good cutlery and crisp white napkins. The welcome was polished and professional and although only a handful of tables were occupied on a Monday night, the other diners did seem to be regulars. The menu made me look forward to what lay ahead, full of dishes I’ve not seen at other restaurants in town: tandoori duck and monkfish, grilled ostrich. There were plenty of seafood and fish curries, too. The conventional options were relegated to a section near the end called “all time favourite dishes”. Order them if you must, but we can do much better seemed to be the implication.

Well, maybe they can but that wasn’t my experience. The poppadoms were perfectly pleasant – light, not oily, easily broken into shards – and gave no hint of the disappointments to follow. I know a lot of people think bad, stale poppadoms suggest a bad restaurant (the culinary equivalent of a canary in a coal mine, perhaps) but sadly the reverse isn’t true. It was downhill from there.

King prawn suka, for instance, sounded so delicious on the menu: king prawns in tamarind, garlic, honey, chilli, salt and turmeric. On the plate it looked and tasted unremarkable – two prawns coated in a red gloop, as sweet and fruity as jam. I love tamarind sauce, but there was nothing to offset it and certainly none of the complexity promised by the rest of the ingredients. The rest of the plate was padded out with lukewarm salad – maybe that distracts some of the diners from the fact that they’ve just paid over six pounds for two prawns and something disconcertingly like cranberry sauce, but for me it had the opposite effect.

RiverPrawns

The other starter was chicken nakazat, tandoori skewers flavoured with chicken and nutmeg. It was two decent sized pieces of chicken with a strong taste of garlic and a faint whiff of disconcerting cheese – they looked cheesy and tasted cheesy even though I couldn’t see, from the menu, how this would have been possible. The menu said this dish was “delicately spiced” but I think they may be understating just how delicately. It wasn’t actively bad but I couldn’t see how anyone could get excited about it, especially if they’d tried something similar at Bhoj, House Of Flavours or indeed Pappadams.

RiverChicken

The food was so dull to eat, so dull to recall and so dull to write about that I can’t help but feel this must also be dull to read. It’s not going to get any better, I’m afraid: the mains were pretty mediocre too. The best of them was the gost kata massala, braised lamb with sliced onions, ginger, garam masala and garlic. When it arrived I had my reservations, mainly because the lamb was in such thick slabs that it called for a trust in the kitchen which, by this stage, I just didn’t have. As it turned out, the lamb pulled apart nicely, not quite as tender as it could have been but nothing for the molars to trampoline on either. The sauce was nicely savoury but again, was bland. Almost like gravy, in fact, and this felt more like a casserole than a curry – that might have been all very well on another night but it really didn’t feel like what I’d signed up for.

RiverLamb

The low point was the Goan fish curry. I was impressed to see monkfish appear prominently on the menu, rather than the softer fish (mahi mahi or the like) you often see on Indian menus, and the prospect of having it cooked skilfully in a tandoor was an exciting one. The reality of having it cooked by River Spice, however, wasn’t: the five (count them – I did) pieces of fish had a texture somewhere between cotton wool and mattress. They sat forlornly in the middle of a big puddle of yellow creamy sauce – again, emphasising just how far this dish was from getting your money’s worth (thirteen pounds, if I’m not mistaken). The sauce was thin and bland without any of the sweetness of coconut milk or the kick of any spice. Again, the menu said it was prepared with “delicate” spices: on that basis perhaps I can legitimately say that I delicately eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, delicately exercise or am delicately learning French.

RiverMonkfish

The ultimate sauce test is whether you want to mop up the rest with a naan or rice. The lamb dish passed – just – and the Goan fish curry failed with flying colours. The pilau rice doesn’t really merit a mention, and nor does the keema naan, except to say that it was disturbingly circular and not the more irregular shape of naan I have eaten elsewhere. Make of that what you will: by this point I was almost past caring. The wine – a glass of malbec and a glass of shiraz – were okay. Maybe if I’d drunk a little more I’d have disliked the food a little less. Desserts were all ice cream based but I really felt like I’d spent quite enough money at River Spice already: the whole lot came to just over fifty pounds, not including tip.

Service started out quite stand-offish: despite only two other tables in the restaurant it felt like it took a very long time to get noticed to order food. Ironically, it was roughly at the point where I realised it had been a bit of a wasted evening that they started being really nice to us. It’s almost like they knew I was going to go home and write this and they wanted to make me feel an utter shit about it. If so, I’d say they can count it as a partial success – I do feel like I’ve just spent fifteen hundred words kicking a puppy but average food is average food, even when it’s dished up by nice people. You could ask why I didn’t send any of it back, but the truth is none of it was inedible. It just never felt especially worth eating.

So, you’ll read all this and look at the rating and think I was being kind. Or you’ll have been to River Spice and you’ll think I’ve been harsh. That’s the nature of these things. But nothing I had was dangerous, or offensive, or badly cooked: it was just dull. Would I go back? No. Reading has too many Indian restaurants for anyone to have to put up with mediocre food. Maybe they were having an off night, perhaps I was, but the main memory that sticks with me is that Goan fish curry – rarely in the field of Reading dining has so much been spent on so little food for so much disappointment. So have I been too harsh? If you really want to find out then go for yourself. But I can’t say I recommend it.

River Spice – 6.1
206 Caversham Road, RG1 8AZ
0118 9503355

http://www.riverspicereading.co.uk/

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Papa Gee

Papa Gee has now moved to Prospect Street in Caversham, so some of this review is no longer in date. Bear this in mind if you decide to eat there (food’s still good though).

I’m not sure many people know that Papa Gee even exists. I was out this week with a friend who lives just round the corner from it and I casually dropped into conversation that I was due to go to a restaurant in his manor. First he asked if it was the Mod. Then he guessed at Standard Tandoori. When I shook my head again and said no, it wasn’t Casa Roma either he was stumped. “But there isn’t anywhere else round by me.” he said.

Well, there is: there’s Papa Gee, a small Italian place which has somehow been plugging away at the restaurant game for ten years. I used to walk past it on my way back from Kyrenia or Mya Lacarte and think is that even a real restaurant? The lights always seemed to be off, and I’ve never met anybody who’s eaten there. Even my friend, a local, had never heard of it. Surely a restaurant can’t survive for ten years if no one has ever been?

It’s not the loveliest place, and (apologies to my friend if he’s reading this) not in the loveliest part of town. The Caversham Road is a busy street for traffic but it’s far from the footfall of the town centre and only really comes alive during Reading Festival week. Papa Gee has no real view, no garden to speak of and is pretty anonymous-looking. So why am I reviewing it? Well, you can blame Tripadvisor for that: the reviews are very positive, with repeated claims that it serves the best pizza in Reading. Could the pizzeria I’ve been waiting for all this time really be attached to the not hugely appealing Rainbows Lodge Hotel? Probably not, I thought, but I was too curious to stay away (and hopefully by now you’re curious too).

Passing the bigger, more polished places on a Tuesday night made it very clear that not many people eat out in this part of town during the week; Casa Roma and Standard Tandoori both had three of four tables of guests but were far from busy. Papa Gee’s, on the other hand, had people at seven of its dozen or so tables. At the risk of sounding creepy, I did watch most of the diners leave and only one table was occupied by hotel guests. The rest seemed to be locals. A good sign, right? The interior of the restaurant was very basic with small tables laid with cutlery and paper napkins, signs painted on the window and food themed pictures on the wall. It reminded me of something Marco from Pepe Sale said to me once, that Italians are much more interested in the food than the room. Another good sign, I hoped.

The menu at Papa Gee’s is huge, one of the biggest of any restaurant I have reviewed. It’s a bit bonkers, too: if you want to get an idea of it, look on the website. It has a mixture of fonts, some rather eccentric spelling, some comments in inverted commas after some of the dishes (Buonissimo it says about one of them, Simply Delicious is the commentary on another) and a few – very – random photographs dotted through it. Reading through it I couldn’t decide which to do first, frown or sigh. Fortunately, the waitress was superb: I said I couldn’t decide what to order and she asked me “are you in a pizza, pasta or meat mood tonight?” I asked her to recommend one of each and she did so right away – strong opinions, firm preferences, no nonsense. Suddenly my urge to either frown or sigh had vanished.

The first starter, funghi ripieni, however, jumped off the page – a dish so appealing that it kicked off a bout of plea bargaining (you can pick mains first as long as I get the funghi etc.) It was worth the battle: what arrived was a single field mushroom, stuffed (or, rather, topped) with gorgonzola and mozzarella on a bed of rocket, the whole thing drizzled with balsamic glaze. The mushroom had the balance just right – cooked enough to be soft but not watery. The cheeses were also perfectly balanced – creamy but with enough of a salty tang of blue. The balsamic glaze added just a touch of sweetness. This was divine: simple, unfussy and heavenly.

PapaShroom

Picking a second starter wasn’t so easy – who wants to be understudy to a dish like that? – but I thought that the prosciutto and mozzarella would be an interesting choice just to see what their basic ingredients were like, even if it hardly tested the kitchen’s skills. This wasn’t quite as successful. In fairness, the headline acts were both good: the ball of mozzarella was cold, fresh, firm and clean-tasting and the ham – two slices – was nicely salty. I didn’t for a second think it had been freshly sliced but it didn’t quite have that chilly plastic-wrapped texture you get in many restaurants. The green and black pitted olives on top were decent if not wildly exciting. The salad, though, really put me off: more undressed frisée (why places dish up bitter leaves with the texture of wire wool I’ll never know). It was also a bit brown round the edges, which was the final nail in the salad coffin for me. I’d rather have had more of the rocket and balsamic than this rather sad pile of space-filler leaves. This was seven pounds fifty and felt – to me at least – like too much margin and not enough fun.

PapaMozza

I went to Papa Gee fully intending to have a conventional pizza, but I was undone by the waitress’ recommendation, namely the calzone Napoli. I rarely have a calzone but she made such a good case that I found myself swept along with her enthusiasm. I’m delighted I did, because it was magnificent: a big folded pizza absolutely stuffed with meat and cheese, like the best Breville ever. As with the mushroom starter, this was a dish all about balance. It was filled with ricotta – not usually my favourite cheese, and not one I’d have on its own, but its fluffy mildness made perfect sense with the intense, thin slices of strong, salty salami. It was all bound together with that glorious molten mozzarella and – just to finish things off – the occasional surprise of a hidden basil leaf. (“Gaetano likes to put basil in everything” said the waitress when I mentioned how much I liked it, “He’s trying to convert everyone”). But the topping – or filling in this case – is only half the battle because, to quote the great Meghan Trainor, it’s all about that base. Papa Gee’s truly is splendid: crispy and bubbled at the edges but thin in the middle, with just a little note of sourdough saltiness. I could have eaten it on its own, and I did notice diners at other table rolling up their pizzas, as you should be able to do but so rarely can.

PapaCalzone

The waitress didn’t recommend my other main course, but the menu did: after the description of scialatiello (fresh, thick spaghetti, king prawns, olives, “cappers” (sic), anchovies, chilli and cherry tomato sauce) it says “Delicious”. This felt to me a bit like when you order food and the waiter tells you that you’ve made a good choice: funny how, even if you eat out a lot, a little of that sort of validation goes a long way. When it arrived I wished that I had ordered the pizza because it looked a little underwhelming but I tucked in nonetheless – in for a penny in for a pound. Reader, I loved it: the spaghetti, thicker than any I’ve ever seen, was nicely al dente and tasted freshly made (to my amateur taste buds, anyway) and the tomatoes were crushed rather than pulped, so it had more texture than your average bowl of pasta. The mixture of flavours in the sauce was fabulous and gave the opportunity for all kinds of combinations. There were only two king prawns but in the sauce there was a respectable amount of smaller prawns and the hit of chilli at the end of each mouthful was enough to give it a bit of bite without ever becoming overwhelming. It’s another great example of how you shouldn’t judge on looks – the pictures on Papa Gee’s website look unspecial, and my photos do too, but good food is not a beauty contest. I’d eat this again in a heartbeat (if I managed to avoid the lure of that pizza base, that is).

PapaPasta

The dessert menu is short and sweet (indeed) with five dishes plus ice cream – not gelato, which struck me as a missed opportunity. I picked just one dessert – the baba – a rum soaked sponge, filled with Nutella. This was so much more delicious than I expected, and by this stage I expected it to be pretty good. It was a light vanilla sponge, airy and open a bit like a buttery brioche, soaked in rum that I think had been sweetened, served split down the middle with hot Nutella spread on the insides. On top of this was a squirt of, err, squirty cream, a fan wafer and a preserved cherry. The cream, wafer and cherry were completely pointless – put there by the chef because he wanted to dress the dish, I think. It really didn’t need them (like I said, not a beauty contest) and this was worth eating whatever it looked like: the sponge was rich and boozy and the Nutella filling was effectively a choc and nut sauce. Simply gorgeous. My dining companion didn’t fancy a dessert so had an Amaro (one of those Italian digestifs that tastes simultaneously medicinal and faintly dangerous) and raved about that instead.

There’s not much to say about the wine list – it’s small but perfectly formed, with only one wine over twenty pounds (and that’s a barolo, so fair enough). We picked a nero d’avola which wasn’t half bad: nicely juicy, full bodied and very affordable at eighteen pounds. Service was very relaxed, with the one waitress happy to recommend food and chat. She was casually dressed – I’m in two minds about whether that bothered me, I feel like it shouldn’t but on some level it did – but she knew the menu inside out and showed genuine interest and concern to make sure we were enjoying everything. The total bill, for two and a half courses each with a bottle of wine and a liqueur, was sixty pounds. Yes. Sixty quid. Both mains were cooked fresh to order, and each one cost less than a tenner.

I think Papa Gee is a real find. It’s a gem of a restaurant: unpretentious and unfussy, serving really good food, friendly and relaxed and an absolute steal. Why don’t more people know about it? Or is it that people do know about it and they’re determined to make sure the secret doesn’t get out? Not sure. Either way, I’m already planning my return visit – no, I’m not telling you when, don’t be daft – so I can try more of those pizzas with that amazing base (I’m particularly drawn to the “Nonna Amalia” with Neapolitan pork sausage and wild broccoli tips). Yes, the location isn’t brilliant but that’s what taxis were invented for – and besides, there’s always the prospect of a post-dinner snifter in the Mod or the Greyfriar. So is it the pizza place I was dreaming of? You know what, I think it might be.

Papa Gee – 7.8
138 Caversham Road, RG1 8AY
0118 9556906

http://www.papagee.co.uk/

The Baskerville, Shiplake

I take reader requests and recommendations really seriously. There are two big reasons for this.

First, I think it’s important that I review places you want to know about. If there’s somewhere you’ve always wanted to eat in but you don’t want to risk it then I’m your… err, lion. If somewhere new opens – or reopens – and you want the low-down then I’ll do my best to be your mane (oh yes, lion puns a-go-go) source of info. Secondly, I’m not omniscient. I know a fair bit about Reading’s restaurants but I can’t cover everything – especially outside the town centre – without your help. That’s where the recommendations come in: if you like the places I rate, and you tell me somewhere is good then I’m more than willing to give it a visit, because I trust you to be discerning.

It’s not always successful – I must find a way of thanking the person who said “I’ve always wanted to know if Picasso is any good” – but generally I reckon it works well. I’ve discovered lots of good places I wouldn’t otherwise have visited, and hopefully you might have too. Anyway, last week’s review was a good example of the first type – and it seems like lots of you wanted to know whether a London Street Brasserie chef can cook outside his natural habitat. This week’s review is the second type: last month reader Steve Smith recommended The Baskerville as an alternative to the highly-rated Plowden Arms. It was so good that he drove all the way from Aldermaston, he said. Does Shiplake really have two pubs doing excellent food?

The Baskerville certainly fits into the “handsome boozer” category (I’m a real sucker for these, as you might remember). In the centre of Lower Shiplake, it’s a few hundred feet from the train station in one of those villages the Thames Valley seems to specialise in (you can see the Eye-Spy book now: handsome boozer, cute cottage, smart Georgian house, wisteria…), the kind of place I daydream about moving to after a leisurely lunch and a bottle of wine.

The pub is a smart redbrick building with a small cosy bar room at the front and the larger restaurant area out the back, perhaps an indicator of where their priorities lie. Although it’s a big room it’s nicely broken up into sections and the beams are strung with fairy lights, a lovely touch. It was full for most of my time there, with the larger tables in the centre filled with families having Sunday lunch out and the smaller tables around the edge dotted with couples. There was a nice buzzy atmosphere (lots of awfully well-behaved children, too: Shiplake must be that kind of place). In summer I can see it would be even more popular with parents – the garden has one of the biggest wooden play areas I’ve ever seen (I wanted to go outside and play, and felt a little sad that I was too old for all that).

I’ve said many times that putting a menu together is a real art – finding the middle ground between too much choice (how do they cook it all well?) and too little (I don’t fancy any of these) is difficult. Goldilocks would have been very happy with the choices here: six starters, five mains, three Sunday roasts, four desserts and a cheeseboard felt just right. At each step there were two or three dishes I would be happy to order, an interesting mixture of the conventionally pubby and the more imaginative. Also – and this is unusual round here – the menu had some information about provenance, so you got an idea where some of the ingredients came from.

My smoked salmon starter was more on the pub classics side. A generous amount of thick, rich, smoky salmon (from Wren and Hines in Billingsgate Market, according to the menu) served in a ring around a lamb’s lettuce salad with capers and some slices of blood orange. The vinaigrette was, according to the menu, whisky and dill but against the strongly smoked salmon I struggled to discern it. At least it was inconspicuous rather than AWOL, unlike the beetroot listed on the menu which was nowhere to be seen. In fairness, I only realised this when sitting down to write this review, which suggests the dish didn’t miss it. The blood orange was a touch too sharp (I pulled a face when I ate it on its own) but nice against the salmon and salad; although leaving the pips in the orange was a little off-putting. If anything, the salad was generous without being interesting (although, like most people, I struggle to get excited about salad) especially as there was bread, too: a few slices of a gorgeous seeded granary. I couldn’t help wishing I’d just had the salmon, that bread and a really good butter: sometimes more fuss means less fun.

BaskSalad

The other starter – caramelised shallot tarte tatin with Cornish brie – was a glorious string of words on a menu that made me come over a tad unnecessary. The reality was less thrilling, partly because more of that salad had been unnecessarily dumped on top of it. But the biggest disappointment was eating it. Going from the first to the third mouthful was a case of going from oh, this is lovely to this is a tad sweet before ending up at I appear to have accidentally ordered dessert. The whole thing was totally out of kilter – the balsamic dressing was sweet, the roast figs were sweet, the onions were cloyingly sweet… the overall effect was like gargling neat Ribena while listening to that song by Daniel Bedingfield (you know, the one with the falsetto. Ick). What’s frustrating is that it needn’t have been that way: it needed a better chosen, saltier cheese to stand up against the torrent of sugar, but the brie – ripe though it was – was too bland for the job.

BaskTart

On to the mains, then. The standout here was chicken Balmoral: stuffed with haggis and wrapped in bacon, served with rumbledethumps (Scotland’s answer to colcannon) and a whisky and mustard sauce. The chicken was spot on – still moist but cooked through – and the haggis had that earthy, peppery taste I adore: I know it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but I love the stuff, and you don’t see it on menus often. There was a side dish of vegetables that appeared to come with most of the mains – roasted carrots and parsnips, steamed broccoli and cauliflower. The parsnips in particular – all sweet and sticky-soft – were fabulous, but all of the vegetables were well cooked, not boiled into mushy oblivion. The sauce was more mustard than whisky, but worked beautifully with everything. The only disappointment was the bacon – it wasn’t cooked anywhere near enough and much of it ended up discarded on the side of the plate, pale pink and rubbery. Maybe that’s the price you pay for tender chicken.

BaskChick

The other main was that unusual thing, a vegetarian dish I actively wanted to order: blue cheese and chestnut mushroom pasta with leeks, baby spinach and toasted walnuts. I could see literally nothing to dislike about this in theory, but again the execution was disappointing. The pasta – campanelle, I think – was good, the right shape to pick up the sauce and cooked only slightly further from al dente than I’d liked. The leeks were soft and sweet. The chestnut mushrooms were good, although they’d have worked better chopped finer. The toasted walnuts added crunch. So much potential from the supporting cast, but the star didn’t turn up: there wasn’t enough sauce, and what sauce there was clung to the bottom of the dish as if in hiding. I was expecting that rich tang of blue cheese, little bombs of salt scattered throughout, but it was so bland it was hardly there at all. It was inoffensive, a blue cheese dish for people who don’t really like blue cheese. But really, who’s the target market for that?

BaskPasta

After two large courses it was tempting to get the bill, but I know I’ve been letting you down lately, so I ordered dessert. I hope you appreciate the trouble I go to to give you a well-rounded review (especially as it has the knock-on effect of giving you an increasingly well-rounded reviewer).

The sticky toffee pudding is a pub staple and, even though it gets served on a fancy square glass plate, The Baskerville knows better than to the mess with a classic. The pudding itself was moist, gently spiced and all middle (I prefer middle to edges when it comes to cake). The perfectly spherical ice cream ball was balancing on the requisite pile of crumbs with a mint leaf on top (I think there must be some legal requirement for this style of presentation: it’s inescapable these days) and on the opposite corner was a small jug of toffee sauce. It was textbook, and I loved every spoonful: plenty of sauce, a big wodge of cake and a dollop of ice cream. Well rounded indeed.

I also loved the bitter chocolate tart, all class and cleverness. The ganache was rich, dark and smooth, but with a hint of orange shot through it, working beautifully with the pieces of blood orange on top. All of it went nicely with the cinnamon ice cream, which tasted so good that I happily overlooked its oddly elastic texture. The pastry, dense and buttery, was gorgeous and – just as importantly – not so thick that eating it with a fork involved a series of high risk manoeuvres to stop pieces from wanging across the table. If the rest of the meal showed some inconsistency, the desserts redeemed a lot.

BaskChoctart

It’s a shame I was driving, because the wine list had plenty of bottles around the pocket-friendly twenty pound mark, a sure sign that it’s been well thought out. Fortunately, the selection by the glass was decent too and I liked both the reds we tried, although the French pinot noir was probably the pick of the bunch.

Service was excellent from the moment we entered to the moment we left, which is largely down to the restaurant manager, a friendly Scot who appeared to be everywhere at once. He worked hard without ever making it look like work at all, a rare talent: he made the right noises when we ordered food, had an opinion about the wines and was on hand to give pointers and just be generally charming whenever he was needed without ever hovering or outstaying his welcome (I’d also like to think that the Scottish influences on the menu came from him, for no reason other than because it would be nicely fitting). The other staff – mostly young ladies – were also helpful and friendly, just without the polish of years in the industry. The bill, for three courses for two, two glasses of wine and a pint of very refreshing shandy came to seventy five pounds. So not the cheapest, although we did come away full.

The big problem with The Baskerville isn’t in the pub, it’s a little over a mile down the road. When a village has a pub that does food as good as the Plowden Arms a neighbour has to pull something really special out of the bag to compete, and I think The Baskerville almost manages it but not quite. I think, sensibly, it’s aiming for bigger portions of slightly more conventional food in a bigger, slightly more conventional room, and it clearly has a regular clientele who appreciate that. But, for me at least, although I enjoyed much of my meal I found it hard to imagine driving past the Plowden, turning right and going here instead. I’ve tried really hard to avoid two things in this review. One was to make lame jokes about Sherlock Holmes, and the other was to compare this pub to the Plowden Arms. I’m afraid you’ll have to forgive me because, like The Baskerville, I’ve only partly succeeded.

The Baskerville Arms – 7.3
7 Station Road, Lower Shiplake, Henley-on-Thames, RG9 3NY.
0118 9403332

http://www.thebaskerville.com/

The Lyndhurst

N.B. The Lyndhurst closed in June 2016. It’s since reopened, and there’s a separate review for the food there under the new owners. I’ve left this review up for posterity.

One of the most interesting pieces of food news of 2015 so far was announced by AltReading when they confirmed that the new chef at the Lyndhurst would be Tom Evans, who at the time was senior sous chef at LSB. Now generally, I’ve never been a big one for chef worship. I know to some people they’re like rock stars or footballers and when they step down from a restaurant (like Alan Murchison at l’Ortolan) their replacement is hotly anticipated with a friseé (geddit?) of excitement. But for me they’re a part of what makes a restaurant great – a big, important part, but still only a part.

The Tom Evans news was particularly interesting, though, because one thing Reading really needs is a pub which does good quality affordable food. Had my letter to Santa had the desired effect after all? At the risk of introducing a football analogy we may all come to regret, I couldn’t wait to visit the Lyndhurst and find out whether their new signing would score a hat trick or (stop sniggering) be pulled off at half time.

I’ve always felt quite emotionally attached to the place: I used to love it in its previous incarnation (their rolled, stuffed pork belly was one of the best Reading dishes you’ll never get to eat) and I was really sad when it closed. Then when it reopened just doing Pie Minister pies and curries cooked offsite by an unnamed Reading restaurant (rumoured to be House Of Flavours) I was cautiously pleased but there were still rumours that it was only a temporary respite from closure. So it’s nice to see it showing some ambition and investing in new ideas.

Inside it’s pretty much the same as it ever was – slightly spruced up but still a proper pub without pretensions: charming rustic wooden tables and cosy padded pews. On a quiet weekday evening I was starting to wonder if I’d made a mistake, with both the pub itself and the specials board looking rather empty (a real disappointment as on a previous visit the specials had looked like the most interesting bit: pulled pork and pearl barley risotto and haggis on toast were both tempting prospects).

The basic menu is short, almost spartan: three “small plates” (or starters, as most normal people still call them) and five mains. As always, I’d rather have a pared down menu that gives me confidence than an encyclopaedic one that saps it, but even by my standards it was on the minimalist side. The other thing that’s worth pointing out about the menu is that Tom Evans’ name appears all over it, with references to his secret recipe ketchup, home made burger sauce and tartare sauce and the sausages he makes daily by hand; the management is definitely setting a lot of store by their star player.

So, having said all that, how could I resist the “GIANT hand made sausage rolls”? The word “GIANT” was in a bigger font than everything else on the menu, to make the point I imagine. It was partly right – just the one sausage roll but it was indeed huge; served on a wooden board with a ramekin of the aforementioned ketchup it was quite a sight to behold. The taste was pretty good too – light, flaky pastry wrapped round substantial, coarse sausagemeat, peppery and lightly spicy. The sauce divided opinion: I couldn’t really tell it apart from Heinz, the person I had dinner with thought it was streets ahead (maybe if you go you can tell me which of us is right). So all in all not half bad, although I was struck by the contradiction of something that was neither small nor on a plate appearing in the “small plates” section (yes, I’m a pedant, I know). At seven quid it almost cost as much as the mains, so the price wasn’t that small either.

Lyndhurstroll

The other starter was “posh mushrooms on toast with Parmesan”, and there was a lot to like here too. I wouldn’t say the mushrooms were posh (ironically the posher mushrooms are, the more likely they are to be wild – I suppose it’s a bit like the Bullingdon Club) but they’d at least been well brought up: nicely savoury in a rich, slightly creamy sauce. The kitchen hadn’t been stingy with the parmesan either, so it was festooned with shavings. But the dish had feet of clay, because all of that was served on cheap white toast which couldn’t stand up to all those juices and just went soggy and claggy. It either needed to be better toasted or just literally made of sterner stuff: what a difference a slice of sourdough would have made (you know, posh bread). Still tasty though, and a good example of how to charge less than a fiver for pretty cheap ingredients without anyone feeling ripped off.

Lyndhurstmushrooms

The mains are almost a greatest hits of pub food: fish and chips; burger; sausage and mash; ham and chips; steak. In fairness, there were also two vegetarian mains on the blackboard, one of which – a walnut and blue cheese gnocchi – looked more imaginative than the usual, but I wanted to go for the classics to see what the kitchen’s spin on them would be.

The fish and chips were actually fishes and chips: two very lightly battered fish fillets which were a mile away from the Moby Dick style challenges served at other establishments. These were lighter and more delicate, though the fish itself wasn’t cod – it was a smaller fish with thinner flakes rather than the thick-flaked, white-fleshed fillets you get elsewhere. The menu was mute on what sort of fish it was but it did say that the chips were hand cut and the fish was “guest ale battered”. I couldn’t tell that the batter had any beer in it, but either way it was decent enough.

The chips were much tastier than they look in my (admittedly terrible) photos – I judged them on the colour and thought they were overcooked but in fact they were properly crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside (that will teach me for being a chip racist). The mushy peas were the standout for me – they tasted bright, green and full of spring with a touch of mint, a million miles away from a tin of Batchelor’s (if the kitchen ever makes a pea soup I might just ring up and reserve a vat). Even my dining companion, who claims to hate mushy peas, loved them: that’s how good they were. The tartare sauce was also pretty good – although, again, I felt a bit guilty that I didn’t find it significantly better than shop bought. And that’s kind of how I felt about the whole dish, really – not significantly better than fish and chips at other Reading pubs. Not significantly better, truth be told, than the fish and chips the Lyndhurst used to do.

Lyndhurstfish

The other main was a burger (I know, I know – like I said, it’s a short menu). Actually, this was probably the surprise package for me: I liked it far more than I expected to. The burger itself – lovely and thick, almost pink (although not as pink as I’d have liked) – was clearly very good quality meat. It was also a sensible size which meant you could actually eat it with your hands, although once you’d started woe betide you if you tried to put it down. Also inside the brioche bun – a real one, rather than a sesame seed bun with delusions of grandeur – were several thick crunchy slices of gherkin (a personal favourite of mine) and the best bit, a terrific burger sauce which added a welcome hefty whack of tang. I was surprised by the big pile of naked salad it came with, though. I doubt anyone eats that, and it shouldn’t have been beyond the kitchen to dress it.

Lyndhurstburger

Service was friendly and efficient. Everything came quickly, I felt like they were proud of the food and they genuinely wanted to make sure I liked it. But, as often, eating in a pub it’s difficult to say much more than that. The tables are pre-laid with cutlery in vintage pots and there’s table numbers on wooden spoons, so it’s clearly very much still a pub rather than a restaurant, which felt as it should be.

I’m afraid, yet again, there was no dessert. After two substantial (if not GIANT) starters and mains I might have considered a dessert if there had been something suitably delicate, but the only dessert on the menu was a sticky toffee pudding. I was tempted: I think the STP at LSB is one of the finest school dinner desserts in all of Reading, but had I eaten it I think I’d have fallen into a lard coma. So I skipped it, and I’ll make up for it next time. Promise. As it was, the total bill for two starters, two mains and two pints of cider came to thirty-five pounds, not including tip.

Time for the post-match analysis. If I was giving marks for potential, the Lyndhurst would do brilliantly. It’s the right idea at the right time, and there are so many encouraging signs: a sensibly sized menu, a small range of specials, a cautious approach of not doing too much too soon. But I don’t think they’re quite there yet. The food doesn’t feel as accomplished as I expected: some of the little touches, like the sausagemeat and the mushy peas, are excellent, but some of the basics – the fish, that white toast – aren’t as good as they should be. I was concerned that I’d see all flair and no graft, but I went away feeling I’d experienced too much graft and not enough flair. All in all, this was a debut that was promising and frustrating in equal measure.

That sense of the place being a work in progress extends to the pub, too. There’s still some work to be done on the décor – some of the stools have their foam padding breaking free, and let’s just say the loos could do with a bit of care and attention – but the chalkboard art above the bar is very now. I hope the pub gets the time it needs to become the kind of place it’s aiming to be (I understand they plan to give the exterior a facelift, too) and the kitchen gets the time to produce the kind of food it’s capable of. A lot of that depends on them doing good trade, so – to mangle my footballing metaphor beyond all recognition – perhaps we all need to take one for the team and eat there to give them that chance.

The Lyndhurst – 6.9

88-90 Queen’s Road, RG1 4DG
0118 9617267

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