One of the things that’s always made TripAdvisor a patchy guide to restaurants is that it’s always had a rather loose definition of what a restaurant is. It used to be the case that restaurants and cafés were all lumped together, so the ten best restaurants in Reading included the likes of Tutti Frutti and Tamp Culture. Cafés tend to do better than restaurants on TripAdvisor: the algorithm is a numbers game and cafés, after all, get more customers. On one level, there’s nothing wrong with this – Tutti Frutti and Tamp are both great places – but on another it doesn’t help when deciding where to go for dinner.
TripAdvisor, possibly recognising the problem, made some changes recently to divide establishments into “Restaurants” and “Coffee & Tea”. In principle this should have improved things, but if anything it’s even more confusing because it’s been somewhat randomly applied. So places like Picnic and Workhouse – not restaurants per se, but certainly much more than just hot drinks – are now in the “Coffee & Tea” section, and yet Nibsy’s, Tutti Frutti and My Kitchen are still, apparently, restaurants. Your guess at the rationale behind this is as good as mine; I think they might have used a Magic 8-Ball.
The effect of those changes, random and incomplete though there are, is to clear out some of the noise in the TripAdvisor rankings. It’s also why I went to the Reformation this week, because now that many of the cafés have been taken out it is – with the exception of Quattro – the highest rated restaurant in Reading. Not only that, but people I know whose judgement I trust recommended it. Nothing fancy and nothing pretentious, they said, just pub classics done very well indeed. Sometimes that’s all you want, so I got in the car on a sunny day and went up the A4074 past the sites of triumphs (The Pack Saddle) and disasters (The Pack Horse), taking the next right for the village of Gallowstree Common.
Despite the photo on the website, where the building looks more suited to a horror novel than a restaurant review (the village name would be strangely appropriate, come to think of it), the Reformation is another of those handsome country pubs that I’m always banging on about. There’s a nice garden at the front (on the quiet main road) with pub tables and little shed-ette for smokers (very civilised). Stepping through the door has the opposite effect to the Tardis – I was expecting a massive restaurant but instead got a pretty small pub. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, but so many pubs these days have turfed out the drinkers in favour of diners that seeing space for only twenty covers in the dining room struck me as unusual (in fairness, there’s also a conservatory although it was nowhere near as cosy and inviting). The décor was the usual mix of Farrow and Ball paint tones and mismatched furniture, with witty quotes and the signatures of the Kaiser Chiefs, amongst others, on one wall (it seems they’ve played a gig there). It felt like a pub with the right balance between restaurant and local boozer.
Having checked the menu online before coming out I knew that this week was going to be vegetarian week. Arriving at the pub, however, I was disappointed to see that the menu had changed when the website had not. Of course it’s good for menus to be regularly refreshed but on this occasion is meant that my tantalising veggie main, picked off the menu on the website (lightly spiced bubble and squeak cake, creamed spinach and peas, paneer, soft poached egg – doesn’t that sound good?) had been replaced by what was basically mushrooms on toast. I’m nothing if not committed, though, so I soldiered on. I also knew I would not get another chance this month to live up to my veggie promise.
But all that was to come. I was tempted to go full vegetarian and order the baked Camembert to share, but I couldn’t persuade my companion to go for it and eventually I ruled it out as not being a sufficient test of the kitchen’s skills. Instead, the deep fried whitebait with garlic mayo was a near miss of a consolation prize. The whitebait were crispy and the portion was generous but the mayonnaise didn’t have the courage of its convictions (nowhere near enough garlic) and the fish themselves were incredibly salty. All a little bit out of whack, and then to cap it all the Camembert turned up at another table and I realised I’d made a big mistake (huge): it looked bloody lovely and generous (huge).
The potted local rabbit was a lot more like it. A beautiful little ramekin of shredded meat but packed with loads of other things too – ever so finely diced carrot and cornichon, rosemary, juniper berries. Just lovely – fresh and clean with just enough of a vinegary edge to stop it being cloying. There wasn’t enough toast (or, as the menu called it, “chargrilled bread”) – there never is with this kind of thing – but the salad was beautifully dressed and went nicely with the remaining rabbit. After all, you can only pile it so high on a piece of toast before it looks a bit silly.
The next course meant my appointment with the aforementioned mushrooms on toast. They were cooked with wild garlic and Madeira cream, sprinkled with Stilton crumb and then topped with some salad leaves. It was fine but no more than that; if I’d cooked this at home I’d have been happy with it, but as a main course it left something to be desired. The bread was nothing special, the Stilton crumb wasn’t terribly cheesy and as a texture it just got swamped by the sauce. The salad wasn’t dressed so I ended up mopping the plate with it – serving it on the side would have made more sense, instead of putting it on top as a cheffy gesture. The mushrooms and garlic were tasty enough, but I couldn’t shift the feeling that I’d eaten a supersized starter, and twelve pounds for this felt a bit much. If only that paneer had still been on the menu.
Ironically the other main, which was far more successful, was in essence a supersized breakfast. A glorious spiral of pork belly, like a Swiss roll for carnivores, came on top of a hash of firm potatoes, sweet leeks, rich crumbly black pudding and punchy, piquant chorizo. If that wasn’t enough (and it would have been) the most gorgeous soft-yolked fried duck egg was perched on top of the whole lot, ready to release liquid gold at the touch of a knife. If you’re not hungry reading all that then this really isn’t the dish for you but if you are believe me, it more than lived up to that billing. It was a symphony of pork products, although you probably didn’t want to think about just how bad for you it was. I finished nearly all of it – a little wobbly section of pork belly was never going to get eaten, but I had no complaints.
The wine list at the Reformation is one of those fantastic ones where many are available by the glass, where you can have 125ml, 175ml or 250ml and where you aren’t penalised for smaller measures. Close to my perfect wine list, in fact – all they had to do was offer 250ml and 500ml carafes and they’d get a gold star for wine alone. We tried three in total: the unoaked chardonnay was smooth and creamy, the Gaillac fresh and sophisticated and the Languedoc red (the cheapest red on the list) was the kind of robust unpretentious wine you could glug all evening. Really impressive stuff, and far better and more interesting than countless wine lists I’ve come across recently.
So, two good dishes and two disappointing ones. In those circumstances, having dessert felt as much like a tie-breaker as a chance to indulge further. I was tempted by the cheeses (a great British selection by the superbly named Pong of Bath including Lincolnshire Poacher, one of my favourites) but the call of the school dinner was as so often too difficult to resist. Besides, little cheers me up quite like sticky toffee pudding. Alas, again it was close but no cigar. It was on the generous side but it was far too sweet (even for me) and there wasn’t enough butterscotch sauce or enough ice cream. I chose ice cream over cream but on reflection cream would have been a better option to try and tone down the onslaught of sugar.
It reminded me strongly of those tinned Heinz steamed sponge puddings that were such a treat in my house back in the 80s. That’s not entirely a criticism – I could go one right now, in fact – but I think I expected better. And that was a problem throughout the mail, in hindsight – however good it was I think I frequently expected better. That might have been my fault for reading TripAdvisor or listening to some of my foodie friends, but whoever’s fault it was it still fell flat. I always finish sticky toffee pudding, but I left some of this; the uncleaned plate had a certain sadness to it.
Honours ended up even though, because the lemon posset was beautiful. It had the lightness and sharpness that had been missing from the STP – a perfect way to refresh the palate after the richness of the belly pork. If I was being fussy I would have liked a bit more of the shortbread crumb on top (although that might have run the risk of turning it into an upside down cheesecake), the physalis was a pointless adornment and the icing sugar was too – but I feel I may have been quite fussy enough already, so let’s just say that I liked it a lot.
My mixed feelings about the food were, if anything, made even sharper by just how brilliant the service was. The waitress was lovely throughout – knowledgeable about the menu, full of ideas and recommendations and genuinely enthusiastic about some of the choices we made. Even though it was just a random visit on a weekday evening she lifted it and made it feel a bit like a special occasion. She was so good, in fact, that I started to doubt myself: maybe it was me, rather than the kitchen who was having an off-day? Could all those positive reviews really be mistaken? It felt like a real puzzler. The meal for two – three courses each along with three glasses of wine and a soft drink – came to sixty-four pounds, not including tip.
You’ve probably gathered by now that I wanted to like The Reformation more than I actually did. And there was stuff to like, don’t get me wrong – that rabbit, the service, the smoker’s shed, the witticisms on the walls – but it felt very much like the cliché of a meal of two halves; had I foregone the vegetarian main, perhaps the number down there would be higher. So, this isn’t the rave recommendation you might expect from TripAdvisor, but a cautious suggestion that the Reformation is worth consideration next time you feel like a drive in the country and a meal in a pub. It’s not completely unqualified, though: if you love meat it’s probably worth the trip and the superb welcome, but if you’re a vegetarian who likes a decent portion (you lot snickering at the back can just cut it out) then you might want to give it a miss. The funny thing is that despite the fact that some of the dishes were disappointing I still left wanting to go back. Like a darts player who keeps hitting fives and ones I feel like I just need another shot and I’d get the treble twenty. So yes, I’ll be making a return visit. And I will order that bloody Camembert, just watch me. Even if I have to have it all to myself. Don’t think I won’t.
The Reformation – 7.2
Horsepond Road, Gallowstree Common, RG4 9BP