Thai Table

One thing I rarely talk about in these reviews is the background music, but with Thai Table I really feel I should make an exception. There are some places where it’s perfectly normal to hear a muzak version of “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” – in a lift for example, or in the toilets of a shopping mall (more Broad Street than Oracle). Or, for that matter, in Room 101. But I wasn’t expecting to hear it in Thai Table, a smart Thai restaurant just the other side of Caversham Bridge. I’d like to say that it was an isolated incident, but during my meal the vocals-free mangled hits kept on coming. It was as if Kenny G was in the room with us, and surely nobody wants that. Well, except Mrs G perhaps.

I wasn’t expecting to find myself in Thai Table, truth be told. It’s been on my list for eons but I still find it a little difficult to motivate myself to review Thai food – it’s rarely terrible but rarely stellar, and Reading’s Thai restaurants can feel much of a muchness. But then I happened to walk past it on my way back from Progress Theatre’s excellent production of Merry Wives Of Windsor in Caversham Court Gardens (no, I hadn’t seen that one either) and the view piqued my interest. Gone was the chunky, dark, rustic furniture I remembered and instead the interior looked warm, buzzy and contemporary, all snazzy geometric prints and clean, simple chairs and tables. I made a mental note to move it to the top of my list, although if I’d known about the music things might have been different.

The first thing that struck me about the menu was the front page. It’s not every menu where the proprietor’s little spiel gives you his email address and invites you to contact him, and it’s not every menu that he appears to have signed by hand. Silly, perhaps, but I liked this. It felt touchingly old school. Aside from that the menu looked much like most Thai menus – generally well described with a few interesting chef’s specials but also many of the usual suspects. Some of the items were described as signature dishes, which I also found interestingly old school.

As is traditional, we had some prawn crackers first as we watched dishes turn up at the table next to us and wondered whether ours would look (and smell) as good as that. They were a known quantity as ever, but they came with a little split bowl of sweet chilli sauce and plum sauce. Both were nice but there was so little of either, and the dish was so awkwardly shaped, that it was almost impossible to dip the crackers in; a nice idea slightly gone to waste.

The first starter was the pet pet squid. Sounds strangely Geordie, doesn’t it? Bits of this were very well done. The small curls of squid – fresh, not bouncy – were cooked in one of the best batters I can remember; it was superbly light, crispy and bubbled and it didn’t come away from the flesh the moment you took some cutlery to it. But it wasn’t perfect: it wasn’t seasoned and I didn’t get any of the aromatic Thai herbs it was meant to be cooked with. Instead, there was yet more of the ubiquitous sweet chilli sauce and lots of herbivorous padding – I didn’t eat any of the shredded white cabbage or the curly parsley and I assume nobody eats the carrot “flower” unless ravenous beyond words. Most bafflingly, the menu gave this dish a three chilli rating but there was almost no kick to it at all. But, for all that, you could have far worse starts to a meal than fresh, beautifully battered squid and sweet chilli sauce, so it felt a bit churlish to complain.

ThaiSquid

We also had Changmai sausage, which as you can see from the picture was a sausage. Cut into slices. So far so bad buffet, but it was a really, really interesting dish to taste. The menu says it’s home-made and I’ve certainly not tried one like this – with ginger and spices and (I think) some lemongrass. The texture was coarse, almost crumbly without being dry and the whole thing was like a holiday for the taste buds. I liked it a lot, but again, the rest of the stuff on the plate felt like pointless faff: iceberg lettuce, this time, with thin sticks of fresh ginger. A very promising beginning: I was starting to understand why the owner was prepared to sign the menus.

ThaiSausage

After this we sat with empty starter plates in front of us for some time, and they were only taken away about a minute before the mains arrived, presumably because the serving staff suddenly realised that new plates were on their way.

Beef massaman was described on the menu as a signature dish, so I felt I should give it a try, but in truth I ordered it with some hesitation. One thing I’ve learned from eating out is that some restaurants use the words “slow cooked beef” with almost poetic licence: I still remember beef rendang at the Moderation, with all the texture of a trampoline, or my last meal at Tampopo before it closed where I had to send a beef dish back because it was like trying to eat a branch of Clark’s. But again, Thai Table passed the test: big chunks of perfectly braised beef which broke into delicious shreds.

That alone would have delighted me, but the sauce was just as magnificent: Massaman curry can often be sweet and unsubtle, but this was a world away from that with proper heat and a bit of spice, maybe not as much complexity as I was expecting from the menu but still a big Thai hug of a thing. Even the firm new potatoes and the toasted fragments of cashew worked perfectly. Normally my favourite bit of a Thai meal is pouring the sauce on to the coconut rice and eating it at the end, but this challenged all that because every mouthful was marvellous: I could have eaten it every day for a week.

ThaiMains

Stir fried chicken with black bean sauce sounds a bit prosaic on paper, but in practice it was also superb. Part of that is about the veg rather than the chicken. I loved the barely cooked cauliflower, the florets the perfect shape to capture the sauce. I also liked the sugar snap peas, with similar well-judged crunch. And the black beans themselves, beautifully intense, firm and slightly nutty rather than pulpy mush. And that’s before I get to the sauce – so rich, garlicky and salty (there was some oyster sauce in there too, which probably explains it) that by the end I was tilting the bowl to get the last drops onto my spoon. It wasn’t easy – the bowl was a shallow one in the shape of a banana leaf – but that wasn’t going to stop me trying.

After the main courses our plates were cleared a little quicker, and we waited for someone to bring us the dessert menu. By this point I wasn’t hungry, but I was at least curious about whether the desserts would match that high standard and, crucially, whether they would appear on a menu that wasn’t laminated and didn’t have garish photos on it. No dessert menu was forthcoming. We waited a bit longer. Still no dessert menu. The group at the table next to us, also bored of being neglected, asked for a dessert menu. They got one, but it didn’t jog the memory of the waiting staff about whether anyone else might want to see it. Honestly, if it wasn’t for the onslaught of sax classics playing in the background I’m not sure how I’d have coped. And that was the problem with service for the whole evening: it was never rude, it was never unpleasant but – for most of the time – it was never there. We gave up and settled up instead.

To drink we had a couple of beers (they have Chang and Singha, both of which were good) and a couple of glasses of Thai white wine, Monsoon Valley, which was really lovely – off-dry and almost a little syrupy in the mouth. The wine list actually had a fair few bottles I would have been tempted by on a different night – an Australian shiraz, a German Riesling and a Fleurie among them – most of them under twenty pounds. Our bill came to fifty-six pounds, not including a tip.

A friend recently asked me to recommend a Thai restaurant – she has a friend visiting from France who has specifically asked for Thai food. I told her that if the food’s more important than the room she should go to Art Of Siam, but that if the room is equally important she should head for Thai Corner. I have to say, I’m now tempted to contact her and tell her to pick Thai Table instead. The food was fantastic – the best Thai food I’ve eaten in Reading – and had me revising my list of go-to restaurants in town. The room is cool and contemporary. But here’s the drawback: the service felt like an afterthought, a necessary evil to get the food out and the bill paid but with little thought given to making the customers feel welcome. Is two out of three good enough? Meat Loaf would say so. But he might think differently if Kenny G ever got round to covering any of his songs.

Thai Table – 7.7
8 Church Road, RG4 7AD
0118 9471500

http://www.thaitable.co.uk/

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Nibsy’s

You can’t talk about Nibsy’s, I don’t think, without using the G word: I considered writing this whole review and only mentioning gluten – or the lack of it, I should say – at the end, but I decided that it just wasn’t possible. Besides, it’s a big part of how Nibsy’s markets itself (their slogan is “for the love of coffee and all things gluten-free”). Personally, I’ve never had a problem with gluten but I know many people do, and I’m sure a lot of them thought it was an absolute godsend when Nibsy’s opened last summer.

You can however, I hope, write about Nibsy’s without being patronising about gluten free food. Whatever you think about the rights and wrongs of an increasing number of people adopting a gluten free diet, I reckon the food at Nibsy’s deserves to be judged on its merits and not patted on the head as “not bad, considering”. Besides, if anything I’ve generally found that menus that specifically exclude something tend to be more imaginative to make up for it – take Bhel Puri House for example, where you could easily eat all manner of delicious food without realising that everything is vegetarian – so I turned up with an empty stomach and an open mind for a long overdue lunchtime visit.

The first thing to mention is that Nibsy’s looks very different from most of the other independents in town. There’s nothing shabby chic about it: in fact, it could teach most chains a thing or two about presentation. Everything is smart and professional looking and the branding is beautiful, from the writing on the windows, to the mugs, to the packaging for the sandwiches and salad. Although I sat outside, soaking up the sun, the interior is lovely and gets everything right: the furniture is mismatched without being scruffy, it’s cosy without being dishevelled and immaculately clean without being clinical. You only realise how difficult this balance is when you see somewhere like Nibsy’s do it so well.

I get the impression from Nibsy’s Facebook feed that the menu changes on a regular basis. It’s pretty wide – a range of sandwiches, toasted and untoasted, and a couple of salads in the fridges and a quiche behind the counter. We ordered a toasted sandwich and a slice of quiche and were told that the sandwich would come out quicker. This struck me as odd – if you know the quiche takes longer to heat up and you’re serving two hot dishes why not synchronise them and start the sandwich later? Inevitably this meant that we got to try our dishes after the other, instead of having the companionable lunch we were expecting. I thought that was a pity: I might have been “on duty” but it’s not all business, you know.

The toasted sandwich contained a generously gooey helping of mozzarella, some lovely salty black olives and good quality sundried tomatoes. Nothing complicated there, you might think, but with toasties it’s all about the balance and the execution and both were impeccable – I’ve had far too many toasted sandwiches in Reading where the inside is lukewarm or the outside is charred and Nibsy’s didn’t make either mistake. Apart from being slightly denser than usual, I didn’t really notice anything different about the bread – it helped that it was perfectly golden and crisp (I think some butter had been spread on the outside before grilling, which – in my book at least – is how you make a perfect toastie). I loved it from start to finish: if anything my only reservation was that, because it wasn’t the biggest sandwich in the world, start and finish were a bit closer together than I might personally have chosen.

NibsyToastie

The feta and spring onion quiche arrived a mere moment after the sandwich was done. C’est la vie. It was well worth waiting for, though. The pastry was crisp and crumbly (you would never have known it was gluten free, in my opinion) and the filling was fabulous – incredibly cheesy, chock full of spring onions and also with some red pepper and (I think) rocket. Honestly, it was terrific and (I’m happy to say, given the size of the toastie) extremely generous. I wasn’t so convinced by the salad that came with it, however – a big pile of iceberg lettuce. Personally I think of iceberg as the triumph of texture over taste, so I was surprised to see it used here, especially with nothing else in the salad to liven it up. It was dressed, at least, but even then it wasn’t terribly exciting, so I left most of it.

NibsyQuiche

Having heard many rave reviews of Nibsy’s cakes I felt I’d be letting the side down if I didn’t order a few to try the full range of options (although, in the interests of full disclosure, I ought also to declare that I am an enormous – in both senses – fan of cake). The range is impressive: a plethora of sponge cakes, shortbreads and brownies to equal anything you’d find over in Picnic or Workhouse. It was extremely difficult to narrow it down, and a bit of me is still wondering now when I can try the coconut praline cake, or the orange and almond cake, topped with shiny, sticky slices of bright fruit.

Instead, I tried the lemon drizzle cake, possibly the biggest misfire of my meal. Unlike most lemon drizzle cakes I’ve had this wasn’t a loaf, rather it was a layered sponge with lemon curd in the middle. I think maybe lemon drizzle was a misnomer as I didn’t detect any drizzling, no glorious layer of crackling sugar on top, and apart from the lemon curd it lacked the tart zinginess I was expecting. If anything, it was more like a slightly dry Madeira cake – not bad in itself, certainly not bad enough to complain about but not what I was expecting. Not good enough to finish eating, either, and that’s a sad thing to say about any cake.

NibsyLemon

Redemption arrived in the form of the chocolate brownie. “Quite a lot of people don’t finish this” I was told as it was brought to the table, a big slab of cocoa-rich badness. Well, all I can say is that those people have a level of restraint I will never master, and they probably find it easier to buy clothes than I do. It was truly superb – rich and dark without being too bitter or too sweet. I was lucky to get a corner piece so I could properly appreciate the contrast between the crumbly, chewy edges and the soft middle, almost like a ganache. No nuts, no chocolate chips in there – nothing that would distract you from something so perfect. I ate it with a lot of joy and a little too much haste, and by the end I had no regrets about possibly missing out on anything else.

NibsyBrownie

On the side we had Earl Grey and a latte. The Earl Grey – unbranded, so I don’t know who it was by – was served in a small teapot, bagged rather than loose, and was good enough for me to have a second pot (and that was even before I knew the lemon cake would be on the dry side). I’m told the latte was very good – not quite as good as Tamp or Workhouse, better than Picnic or My Kitchen, pretty much up there with Tutti Frutti. There’s not a huge amount of interaction in a café but the service was friendly, smiley and efficient, the glitch around timings aside. The total bill for two lunches, two pieces of cake and three hot drinks was twenty-one pounds. I think that’s pretty much fair enough: if anything was slightly on the pricey side the quality easily made up for it.

If it’s hard to review Nibsy’s without mentioning the G word, it’s even harder to sum up a review without using it. But let’s put to one side for one minute the fact that, for some people in Reading, this is the only place they can realistically go and have lunch without worrying, and judge Nibsy’s on its merits. Good coffee. Good tea. Tasty toasties and a quiche I’m already fantasising about eating again. A brownie that can match any other brownie in town. A huge range of other cakes, tantalisingly in view just down the culinary road less travelled. The only G word we should be using here is great. So yes, on its merits Nibsy’s is an excellent addition to Reading’s food scene and, whatever your dietary requirements, you should consider going there next time you either want lunch or afternoon tea. They may have taken one ingredient out, but to me there isn’t anything missing.

Nibsy’s – 7.7
26 Cross Street, RG1 1SN
0118 9597809

http://www.nibsys.com/

Miah’s Garden Of Gulab

There’s been lots of change in the world of Reading restaurants recently. Wolf, offering “Italian street food” – if such a thing exists, and I have to say I’m skeptical – opened not long ago on Broad Street. Not far away, lunchtime sushi and noodle joint Itsu opens soon in the spot at the John Lewis end of Queen Victoria Street; even if you don’t like sushi it’s got to beat the crimes against the English language perpetrated by previous occupant “Fone Bitz”. A short stroll down Chain Street, Argentine chain CAU is now open for business in its innovative split level pitch next to the Holybrook. And if you stroll past CAU and into the Oracle, Manhattan Coffee Company is now trading on the top floor (an independent in the Oracle! I know! How did they pull that off?).

The thing I notice most often about new places is that they’re packed. Every time I go past CAU it’s rammed, often on both floors (it’s not the biggest of restaurants, and seems even smaller when it’s full of people). We like novelty value – we upgrade our phones every couple of years and, it seems, we enjoy upgrading our restaurants too. I like shiny new things as much as the next person, but something about this troubles me: what about all the tried and tested stalwarts? It’s a fine line between classic and dated – not moving with the times is one thing, but being left behind by the sheer rate of change is another.

For many years the mainstays of Reading’s Indian restaurant scene were Bina and Standard Tandoori in Caversham and the Garden Of Gulab on the Wokingham Road (and the much-missed Sardar Palace on Cemetery Junction – mind-boggling décor and bottles of Chateauneuf du Pape for fifteen quid: I loved it there). Annual reviews in the local paper, references to John Madejski hunkering down for dinner, the occasional award – their primacy was undisputed. But recently something else has changed: when GetReading published the shortlist for its inaugural curry awards earlier this year none of them was anywhere to be seen. In their place were the pretenders to the throne: River Spice, Bhoj, House Of Flavours.

House Of Flavours was the eventual winner and it’s hard to deny that it deserves its success; it’s a brilliantly run restaurant, the food’s immaculate and the location is perfect. But I couldn’t help thinking about the old guard. Surely they hadn’t gone bad overnight? I always complain about how people should use it or lose it (a sentiment as true of South Street Arts Centre, incidentally, as it is of I Love Paella) but what if I didn’t go to a place like Garden Of Gulab only to find one day that it wasn’t there any more? So my choice this week was made.

The interior conforms to the classic formula of many Indian restaurants: the bar at the front, with a small waiting area for people collecting takeaway, and the dining rooms beyond. There are three in total and all of them looked clean, presentable and a little dated, although the one at the front was reassuringly busy for a weekday night. It makes much of its awards and certificates, which are all displayed in the waiting area, and in fairness they win them on an annual basis: shortlisted for the British Curry Awards year after year and with a couple of TripAdvisor certificates too. I was determined to give the menu a chance to impress me by moving away from the standards and seeing what the kitchen had dreamed up to supplement them. There was plenty there: a full range of interesting-sounding combinations (some with pictures of the food, which wasn’t as heinous as it might sound) and a couple of very credible vegetarian options.

First though, the traditional poppadoms: light and warm, served with no less than six different dips. Miah’s seems proud of these, although they do charge you a quid for the privilege which feels slightly cheeky. Of them the mango chutney was quite thin and unremarkable, as was the raita. My favourites were the lime pickle – sharp, sour, almost salty – and a beautiful heap of grated coconut and carrot which was sweet and savoury all at once. Things had started well, although that extra quid lodged in the gullet somewhat.

GulabPop

I decided to try a mixture of the traditional and the unconventional for starters and Indian tandoor pool, broccoli and cauliflower grilled in the tandoor, sounded too good to miss. I love the way Indian cooking can bring vegetables like these to life and I was genuinely fascinated to see what turned up. The dish was meant to come with milk cake, pimentos, olives and ginger. Forgive my ignorance, but I have no idea whether it did or not and I’ve eaten the bloody thing. There were slices of what I assumed was paneer, and certainly tasted like paneer. Was that the milk cake? Based on my Googling, I don’t think so. There were also little wedges of what I was pretty certain were potato. Not mentioned anywhere on the menu, but I got a second opinion and my companion thought they were potato too.

I didn’t see any pimento, olive or ginger anywhere. The broccoli and cauliflower had no char or texture to indicate they’d been cooked in a tandoor, if anything they seemed steamed. The whole thing was in a lake of sweetened sauce and topped with a random slice of lemon. It felt like an ill-advised attempt at the Masterchef invention test, or a Bollywood remake of cauliflower cheese. It felt, to be honest, like a mistake.

GulabPool

My other starter was the mixed starter for one, and this is the point where things went awry. My dining companion won’t eat raw coriander; it’s fine cooked, but raw I’m told it tastes like Fairy Liquid (it’s genetic, apparently). So we clearly pointed that out when placing our orders. Now personally, I don’t think this is asking too much: the recipe didn’t need to be changed, the sauce didn’t need to be modified, just no leaves sprinkled on the top as it left the kitchen, thank you. But it seemed like perhaps it was: the dish came out sizzling away but as the scented steam cleared, before the plate even got to our table, it was obvious that the dish was festooned with coriander.

What to do? Well, we did what any self-respecting Brit would do – we apologised for the fact that they hadn’t done what we asked and sent it back. Two minutes later a new plate came out – except it wasn’t, it was the same plate, just with some of the leaves dusted off (or maybe they removed them with tweezers – however they did it, it was only a partial success). Feeling a mixture of embarrassed about our fussiness and determined not to give in, we sent it back again. When the waiter came back to the table I couldn’t tell whether this was a reunion or a new meeting, but the dish that was put in front of me was lukewarm and weirdly oily. There was almost no coriander, but by this point the lack of coriander wasn’t enough of a selling point on its own: it needed to be perfect and it just wasn’t.

The other starter had long been dispatched by this point so, having had enough, we told them we didn’t want the mixed starter any more and they took it off the bill. By this point my companion was on the borderline between exasperation and apoplexy and I was starting to realise that a mistake like this doesn’t just ruin a course: it can ruin an evening, too. The waiters seemed either uncomprehending or annoyed by our ingratitude – not sure I wanted to know which.

The saga has a bizarre postscript: they then brought the mixed starter again. My companion was geared up to explode when they ever so nicely apologised and told us it would be on the house. It was a small sheekh kebab, some chicken tikka and a whopping onion bhaji, dressed with the usual pointless bit of salad and one of those lemon squeezers like my mum had at the back of the kitchen drawer. Was it worth all that palaver? No, not really. The chicken tasted good but the texture was off-putting – unnaturally soft and smooth to the point of feeling (but not tasting or looking) undercooked. The kebab was pleasant but didn’t stand out in any way from those I’ve had at a dozen other Indian restaurants across town. I liked the onion bhaji – coarse and nicely spiced – but not enough to have waited three iterations for it. And although it was nice to get a freebie (makes a change), I’d rather they’d got it right first time, or at least fixed it properly first time.

GulabMixedNoCoriander

The mains arrived shortly after my second starter was taken away (although in fairness they did ask if we wanted to wait). Lamb shank was probably the most successful dish of the evening but even this wasn’t without its faults. The good bit: it was a huge hefty shank – nobody’s going to go hungry ordering this – and the sauce was beautiful. Smoky, spicy, hot, earthy and dense, thickened with lentils, packed with cardamom pods and pepper it was everything I was looking for in a sauce. Scooped onto the naan or jumbled up with the rice it was truly delicious.

But the lamb needed ever so slightly longer – you could eat it, and there was lots of it, but that extra time would have added the final touch of softness, made it truly collapse to the point where it too could be mingled with that sauce. The nan bread, too, wasn’t faultless – too small, thick and dense where it needed to be thinner and airier. I barely ate half of it, and once I’d finished the whole thing I just wanted to click my fingers and be at home, in some pyjamas with an elasticated waist, lying in the recovery position and digesting the whole lot like a python.

GulabLamb

My other dish was murgh jeera adrath, chicken breast in cumin, ginger and honey sauce. Again the chicken had that jarringly soft texture which made it a little unappetising, and it seemed exactly the same shape as the pieces in the starter. It was unsettlingly homogeneous, in fact, and once I realised this it rather put me off it. The sauce was interesting but, again, a bit sweet and slightly lacking in complexity: honey, cumin and ginger is an intriguing combination but it worked better on the page than on the plate. “It tastes like the kind of curry you’d order if you don’t particularly like curry”, said my companion, not without good reason. The peshwari naan ordered to accompany it, however, was heavenly. Rich and jammed full of sweet sticky coconut, I found it easy to chomp through a lot of this at the expense of the curry. I couldn’t understand the blood-red colour of it; I wondered if the head waiter’s firstborn had been sacrificed in order to appease the coriander gods.

GulabChickenMain

We didn’t have many drinks – a reliable pint of Kingfisher, a mango lassi which felt a little too thin and straightforward to have been truly made fresh and a ginger ale (the last mainly because of its renowned ability to aid digestion) and the whole thing came to just over forty-six pounds, not including service. You’ve probably already got an idea of service from the rest of the review, but the incident over the starters was a turning point: before that they were off-hand and a bit remote, afterwards they were genuinely lovely and couldn’t do enough for us. My companion thought it was a tacit acceptance that they’d taken their eye off the ball. I think it’s because my companion can be pretty terrifying when crossed.

So, what have we learned? Personally, I’ve learned that if they’d brought out some starters without coriander this review would have been half the size and the meal would have been twice as enjoyable. Maybe the review would have been twice as enjoyable, too. I’ve also learned that when a restaurant fixes a problem slowly or badly it can be worse than when they don’t fix a problem at all. But I’m not sure what else I’ve learned about the Garden Of Gulab: I might not have seen them at their best, but the restaurant all those certificates praise in the waiting area didn’t feel like the restaurant I ate at that night. Maybe, after all that, the real difference between the young pretenders and the old-timers is the newcomers have the hunger and the drive to build up a customer base and keep it.

Miah’s Garden Of Gulab – 6.7
130-134 Wokingham Road, RG6 1JL
0118 9667979

http://www.miahs.co.uk/restaurants/garden_of_gulab/

The Bird in Hand, Sonning Common

I’ve been thinking about going to the Bird In Hand for ages. It’s been sitting there on my list and I was saving it because I always had a sneaking feeling it would either be really special or crashingly disappointing and I half didn’t want to find out which. There seems to be a bit of a recent trend of country pubs round here taking a detour to Italy – like Buratta’s near Twyford (although I’ve always been a bit deterred by the fact that they’ve spelled “burrata” wrong) and the Red Lion at Mortimer Common – but something about the Bird In Hand felt like it might have star quality.

I normally talk far more about food than I do about chefs, but the Bird In Hand’s back story is an interesting one; the landlord, Santino Busciglio, cooked at various Michelin starred restaurants in London and appeared on one of Gordon Ramsay’s TV shows (don’t worry, the one about good restaurants rather than the one about cockroaches in the kitchen and eighteen page menus where all the sauces come out of a packet) before taking over the Bird In Hand, which reopened at the start of the year.

If it wasn’t the back story, maybe it was the website: in the course of my pre-visit research I decided that it was the most appealing menu I’d seen for a long time. The modish typewriter font made my eyes hurt, but looking beyond that it was an embarrassment of riches – a dizzying range of small sharing dishes to start and then a set of mains which divided their time evenly between Sicily and South Oxfordshire. Braised beef brisket pie rubbed shoulders with roasted sea bream, burger buns cohabiting with focaccia. I almost wanted to keep it on my list forever as some halcyon ideal of what a countryside pub could be, but my curiosity got the better of me so, during the hottest week of the year, my car pulled up outside and I prepared myself to deal with triumph or disaster.

The place has been done up recently and it really showed, but it also achieved the rare trick of managing to feel like a pub that serves food rather than a restaurant which pays lip service to local drinkers. The interior was lovely in that kind of studied rustic way that smart pubs are these days, with a decent-sized chic dining room, but it was completely empty because we’re British and know to make the most of whatever summer weather we actually get. So everyone was sitting outside, under the parasols, rejoicing in the beauty of a sultry English evening. We joined them, marvelling at the red kite circling above and I realised as I sipped a crisp cold pint of cider that choosing from the menu was never going to be an easy task.

It’s actually a cleverer menu than you realise at first – although the twenty or so stuzzichini dishes could seem bewilderingly huge, a lot of them contain components which also turn up in the mains, so you have to carefully pick through and decide how best to try as many different things as possible. We limited ourselves to sharing three before moving on the mains; I deeply regretted not ordering the grilled neck of treacle pork, the crab salt cod and ricotta fish cakes or the chick pea fritters, but it’s a good menu that forces you to make hard choices.

My favourite of them was a couscous salad with green garlic, yellowfin tuna and wild mushrooms – a bloody gorgeous bowl of deliciousness. The couscous was Israeli couscous (the bigger stuff that’s easier to eat and doesn’t go absolutely everywhere the moment you try to eat it), there were lots of little wild mushrooms studded through it, along with sweet cherry tomatoes and plenty of pieces of light, fresh-tasting tuna. It was the first thing I ate and it set a trickily high standard for everything that was to follow.

BirdTapas

Caponata was also good: I’ve always been a huge fan and the Bird In Hand’s version was slightly different to ones I’ve had in the past. The aubergine was firm rather than stewed into sticky submission, there was more of a starring role for the celery in the dish and the balance was much more interesting – a more closely-fought battle between the sweet and the sour – than I was used to. Again, it felt like perfect summer food, and I could gladly have eaten a bowl of it on my own.

The least successful of the starters was the trout two ways (line caught Avington rainbow trout, for any provenance buffs out there). Half had been cured in vodka, little beautifully-coloured strips arranged in a whorl. It was pretty but insubstantial. The other half, hot tea smoked, was served on a little smudge of spinach pureé and I liked it but I didn’t love it – it was powerfully smoky but that flavour wasn’t as deep or complex as I’d hoped it would be and, like the cured trout, it was almost over before it began. By serving it two ways, it felt like neither one thing nor the other: I admired the technique a great deal, but it felt a little unrewarding for six pounds (at the risk of sounding like a heathen, I would have liked some bread with it, but there wasn’t enough of it to put on bread anyway).

Plenty of promise in the starters, then, and the mains delivered on it. The menu has so much for vegetarians (plenty of starters and three tempting mains, including a field mushroom and green garlic pie which I would have ordered on a slightly cooler day) that I felt duty bound to try one of them, so I went for the strozzapretti pasta with aubergine caviar, basil, vine tomatoes and salted ricotta cheese. The pasta was al dente and the aubergine caviar (a bit misleading that, as it had collapsed into something approximating to baba ghanoush by the time it was served) was smoky with a touch of citrus and rich enough to make this a very substantial main. There was also some clever chilli in the sauce which built over time and the generous heap of salted ricotta – so nice to see a kitchen advertising a vegetarian dish without blotting their copybook with Parmesan – on top rounded it off nicely. It was still a bowl of pasta, and I think they always run out of steam when eaten as a main course, but it was probably the best vegetarian main course I’ve had this year. I was also impressed to see how much on the menu was gluten free – almost a third of it, and none of it felt like it involved any compromises.

BirdPasta

The other main turned out to be the perfect synthesis of Sicily and South Oxfordshire, the Bird In Hand’s cover version of fish and chips. The hake was in glorious light batter (billed as Parmesan tempura, although I didn’t really detect that). The chips were crunchy thin straws of courgette, beautifully seasoned and fried, all taste and no oil. And the peas – well, it was a fantastic pea puree, as intense and green to taste as it was to look at. I don’t even like mushy peas, but I couldn’t get enough of this. If I did have a criticism, and it’s only one, the presentation of everything on top of the pea puree made it difficult to make the most of the superlative accompaniments – a lovely piquant pimento ketchup and (a lovely touch, this) a ramekin of malt vinegar jelly. Everything I had had been tasty, but this was clever too.

BirdHake

On a lovely, sunny evening it felt like a waste to head home without making some inroads into the dessert menu, and my companion still had quite a lot of a glass of white wine to finish. Impressively, the Bird In Hand has about ten wines by the glass, nearly all Italian, all costing no more than £3.50 for a small glass or £20 for a bottle, another little detail that made me warm to the place. I didn’t try any, being the designated driver, but I’m told that the Cataratto (an organic Sicilian white) was positively medicinal on a hot day.

This is probably the right place to mention the service, which was the closest my evening came to letting the side down. Sitting outside meant that you ordered at the bar – and when I did Santino, who was working behind the bar, was charm personified and clearly a big hit with locals and diners. He could sell any of his dishes to anyone and was brilliant at bringing the details to life: the tuna cooked with orange zest, the burrata which was arriving later in the week, the salami he gets from small producers in Italy (I imagine he has built up quite a good contacts book), the ice cream which was all made there on the premises. He also lamented the end of the English asparagus season, a subject very close to my heart. The table service was a lot more erratic: the young waiter who was doing the fetching and carrying had a lot to do (serving in the garden means a lot of distance back and forth with plates) but wasn’t the canniest of workers, often bringing out food then returning to the kitchen empty handed despite our empty plates having been in front of us for quite some time. It didn’t mar the evening but I did reach the stage where I had half a mind to taken them inside myself, and that isn’t how it should be.

Santino recommended the ice cream, so naturally I had to try it. They’re all priced by the scoop and, interestingly, the prices all differ so, for example, pistachio is more expensive than chocolate which is more expensive than vanilla. I had two scoops of malt barley ice cream, and I think – no offence to the likes of Tutti Frutti – it’s probably the best ice cream I’ve had in this country. The texture almost defied description because somehow “smooth” isn’t enough but, raiding the thesaurus, smooth is all there is. It was so rich and glossy, with almost a burnt toffee note from the malt, that I just didn’t want it to end. Except I also wished I’d only had one scoop so I could try the chocolate as well: what did I say about good menus and hard choices?

BirdIce

Believe it or not, I’ve saved the best for last. Sfinci, Sicilian cinnamon doughnuts, might well be my dessert of the year so far: three rough little clouds of fried batter, crisp on the outside, soft in the middle, dusted with a little icing sugar and cinnamon and served with the richest, creamiest pistachio ice cream. The irony: in Reading we’re used to being bombarded with a message saying “lovely hot doughnuts, nice and fresh” and yet so many people never get to eat anything of the kind. I was told when I ordered them that they would take fifteen minutes and I’m not sure I can think of a better way of spending fifteen minutes than waiting for that dish.

BirdDoughnut

The total bill, for three courses each, two ciders, a wine and an Averna (it looks like Coke, tastes like cough medicine and, with lots of ice and a slice of orange, is one of the best digestifs you could hope for) was seventy six pounds. Considering the number of separate moments in the meal which had a wow factor, I reckon that was money well spent.

Having written this blog for nearly two years, I’ve come to realise is that life is full of mysteries. Why do cafés persist in putting your napkin between the cake and the plate, thereby guaranteeing you can’t use it? Why is Prezzo always full? Why are the plates for Picnic’s salads so small that it’s almost impossible to eat the salad without dumping half of it on the table? Cosmo: why?

But the biggest mystery of all to me is that people just don’t read the reviews of out of town places – I know, thanks to the joys of WordPress, that every time I publish one quite a few readers decide to take a week off. That’s a real shame, because those people won’t get to find out about the Bird In Hand. They won’t get to experience little flashes of wonder of like the ones I had – that first taste of couscous, wild mushroom and tuna, the tang of the salted ricotta, the big silly smile at something with the texture of jelly and the taste of Sarson’s. That ice cream. Those doughnuts. But never mind – because if you’re reading this you’ll know, and maybe you’ll go. That’s good enough for me.

The Bird In Hand – 8.3
Peppard Road, Sonning Common, RG4 9NP
0118 9721857

http://birdinhandsonningcommon.com/

I Love Paella

N.B. I Love Paella stopped operating out of Workhouse Coffee in January 2016. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

There are a number of places in Reading that people have asked me to review that aren’t quite restaurants: a couple of supper clubs, for instance, or the training restaurant at Reading College. I’ve so far not reviewed them because I’m not sure how useful it would be to write about a menu that changes at every single sitting. Who’s to say that one visit would be representative of what’s on offer? With Reading College in particular it also seems a little unfair to review chefs in training – I wouldn’t have wanted to share my GCSE coursework with the outside world, let alone have some snooty blogger bitch about my handwriting, my meandering essays or my poorly drawn graphs.

I Love Paella is that most unusual of things here in Reading: a pop-up restaurant. It operates out of the Oxford Road branch of Workhouse Coffee as part of a laudable project by Workhouse to encourage independent businesses. It’s slightly different from the supper clubs, though, in that it has regular opening hours (from Friday afternoon until Sunday afternoon) and a reasonably stable menu. They’ve not been going long but their enthusiasm on Twitter is infectious, so I thought that if Workhouse can do its bit to support little start-ups, the least I could do is to hop on a trusty number 17 bus one evening and head west to check it out.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must also confess I also had a sneaky side trip to the new improved enormo-Lidl (other supermarkets are available) next to Reading West station, because a friend had recommended their £8 Pouilly Fumé to me. They didn’t have any but I was extremely tempted by some retro biscuits. Have you forgotten how good Gold Bars taste?

The seating inside, as you’d expect, is more suited to coffee drinkers than to people stopping for an evening meal, with mini tables and stools along the windows and a big, high bar area in the middle, but it’s comfortable enough. I Love Paella doesn’t have a license so – having done our homework – we took along our own bottle of wine (not from Lidl, I might add) which the waiter gladly opened for us. I say waiter, but let’s call him the owner – he was the only person we saw working there all evening, and I got the distinct impression that I Love Paella is a one man operation.

The menu is, well, confusing. There’s a blackboard by the counter which lists all the options, except that I suspect they weren’t doing some of them that night, and there were a few specials which weren’t on the blackboard – and we ordered a couple of these because they sounded so good. I got the impression that the owner genuinely decides to cook and try new things on a weekly basis, which is brilliant, but just to be slightly hyper-critical I would have thought the whole point of having a blackboard is that you can easily update it whenever you need to. Being hyper-critical might become a bit of a theme during this review because, as I was to discover, finding anything to criticise at I Love Paella is quite the challenge.

That said, I should also point out that the name, I Love Paella, is a tad misleading. It’s one thing on the menu but the rest of the menu is a mixture of salads, montaditos (small sandwiches) and coques (I felt too awkward asking for one, and good luck Googling one – it turns out they’re a bit like tacos). I pretty much wanted to order everything but showed a little bit of restraint – not much though, as you’ll see when I run through what arrived. The pacing was beautifully done, just as it should be for this kind of dining, so items arrived here and there, just as we’d finished one dish and were ready to move on to the next. I liked being able to watch the rest of the Oxford Road go by, drink my wine and meander through the food on offer – a nice contrast from having tapas in Andalucia where you’re normally rammed at a bar, sherry in one hand, wielding your elbow like a deadly weapon (which, as it happens, mine is).

First up was the goat’s cheese salad, recommended by the owner: a generous plate of frisée, lambs lettuce, radicchio, walnuts and cherry tomatoes with balsamic glaze and a huge slice of pan fried goat’s cheese on top. Not the most complex dish in the world, and very much the sum of its parts but that didn’t make it any less tasty; the combination of the sweet glaze, the walnuts and that creamy, slightly oozy cheese was particularly lovely. A big part of me wanted to see the log of cheese that slice had come from but I was jolted from my reveries about a giant caber made out of cheese by the arrival of the next dish.

ILPSalad

Pulled pork empanada doesn’t do it justice. I’m so bored of pulled pork I can’t even tell you – it’s everywhere. Even at Reading’s street food festival last month everybody was flogging the stuff. I just want to see some unpulled pork (and some unsalted caramel while we’re at it). But the point is that I Love Paella’s pork was a million miles away from the sweet, sticky, saturated America version you can find everywhere. Instead it was fine shredded strands with clever spice and heat, Private Eye to most places’ Take A Break. The pastry was gorgeous too, a corn shell which reminded me of the empanadas I once had at Arepas Caffe – but this was miles better than that, light and golden and slightly sticky underneath. It was absolutely crammed with filling, and even then I bitterly resented having to share it with someone else (when you go – and I hope you do – have one to yourself).

ILPEmpanada

Next up was the legendary paella (which we did order two of – it is the name of the establishment, after all). This may not have matched the heights of the empanada but not much does – it came in a cute miniature paella pan, a decent portion of vividly yellow rice with prawns, lots of pieces of squid and a solitary mussel with a wedge of lemon and the crowning glory, a dollop of extremely good aioli. I’m sure paella experts – and I’m not one – would have an opinion about whether it should have had chicken in it, or chorizo, or peppers. But who really wants to go to dinner with a paella expert? Just imagine. Speaking as a relative novice I loved it. The squid was lovely – firm and yielding, not at all rubbery. The rice still had some nutty bite to it and the flavour was beautiful. But the highlight of the dish had to be spearing one of those prawns, dipping it in the aioli, eating and grinning. I did that quite a lot.

ILPPaella

Next up was the enigmatically named “Cuban sandwich”. This, truth be told, was really just another vehicle for that fabulous pulled pork – a toasted panini with pulled pork and cheese. The panini was nice and crisp, the cheese was melted (something you should be able to take for granted with a panini but isn’t always the case) and the pulled pork was just as spicy, rich and tender as before. If this had been the first dish I ate I’d have fallen a little bit in love, but as it was it just reminded me that I should have ordered another empanada. What’s the Spanish for l’esprit d’escalier?

ILPSandwich

I could have – should have – stopped there, but the problem with ordering all your food right at the start is that restaurants have a nasty habit of bringing it out and expecting you to eat it. So I had to soldier on through the final dish. It didn’t even have a name: I got the impression it was something dreamed up on the day because the owner had some extra chorizo to use and was looking for something tasty to make. Oh my goodness. This was a long piece of puff pastry studded with small pieces of chorizo and cheese and then baked into melty-submission. It was like a particularly suave sausage roll – rich and piquant and very, very decadent. It might have lacked the sophistication of the empanada but, in terms of pure happiness, it was right up there.

ILPRoll

Service throughout was friendly and enthusiastic, with the owner patiently explaining the dishes that weren’t on the menu as well as the ones that were. When the restaurant was busy he was run off of his feet bringing over plates or assembling take away bags but it was still a far warmer welcome than I’ve had from many well-established restaurants and most chains (a lot of them should head over to I Love Paella and pick up some tips – like how to actually look pleased to have customers, for a start). The total bill for one salad, four small dishes and two small paellas was just over twenty-five pounds (it’s worth noting here that they don’t take cards and all the ATMs within 100 yards or so charge for withdrawals, so take cash with you). Admittedly, we brought our own wine and I don’t think we were charged corkage but by any standards you care to name that’s an absolute steal.

So, here’s the hyper-critical bit: I don’t like the name. I just don’t feel like it really sums up what the place is about. I’d like to have seen more variety in the menu. Very little of it felt like true tapas; I’d have loved to see the kitchen serve up some garbanzos con espinacas, or some tortilla, or a selection of really good jamon. And I also wasn’t quite sure if this was a lunch venue or an evening venue – most of the dishes felt more like lunch dishes, so if you want to explore I Love Paella you might be better off doing that on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. It was nowhere near busy the evening I went, with a few tables and a couple of people dropping in to pick up takeaways.

When I talked to the owner he said he had plans to widen the range of food and hopefully expand the opening hours. But to do that he needs customers which, of course, is where we all come in. I really hope he gets them, because – and I’m sure you figured this out some time ago – I absolutely loved I Love Paella. It’s not just that the dishes were so tasty, although they were. It’s not that the service was so good. It’s not even the fact that I felt so at home sitting at my table, drinking my wine and daydreaming of Seville or Barcelona (no mean feat in RG30, let’s be honest). What really struck me about I Love Paella is how consistent it was. Everything was good, it’s a small menu, it changes fairly regularly and I just felt utterly confident that I could have ordered anything on it and had an excellent meal. That’s down to many things, but it doesn’t feel like beginner’s luck to me.

I Love Paella – 8.2
Workhouse Coffee, 335 Oxford Road, RG30 1AY
07707 641694

http://ilovepaella.co.uk/