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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.