This is probably quite hard to believe, but every now and again I get offered a freebie; I receive an email talking about a restaurant that’s just about to open and I’m asked if I’d like to go along, on the house, and review it. They’re usually attractive offers, and they’re often places I’m interested in going to, but after some deliberation I’ve always said no.
I did ask the question once on Twitter: could a review ever be truly reliable if you know the person writing it hasn’t paid for the meal? The replies I got were interesting, but nearly everyone was dubious – a few people said I’d trust you to be impartial, but I wouldn’t generally trust paid reviews, which is lovely, but most people remained unconvinced. How would you know you weren’t having a different experience to a paying customer because the staff knew they had to be on their best behaviour, they said? And even if you went anonymously, however hard you tried wouldn’t you slightly be pulling your punches because you’d got your food for free?
All fair comments. A lot of people think that food bloggers set up their blogs mainly to get free food, especially in London where PRs are keen to generate as much buzz for their newly opened (or opened some time ago and dangerously close to falling off the radar) restaurants. This issue has reared its ugly head again recently after an incident where a London blogger, invited to review a bakery, was unimpressed with the level of freebies offered in return. She insisted on more macarons, the bakery told her to take a hike and then she spent her own money and threatened to give them a bad review (via Instagram, which is apparently where it’s all going on).
Both sides took to the internet to fight their respective corners and Twitter went into spasm for about six hours, which is an eon in Twitter terms. Everybody weighed in, from bloggers (saying “that blogger has let the side down”) to restaurateurs (saying “bloody bloggers”). Even the Observer’s seasoned restaurant reviewer Jay Rayner weighed in, saying that it’s not enough to be impartial but you also need to be seen to be impartial. Well, I think he might be right.
Anyway, this week’s review – and ER’s first sponsored post – is… Revolution! Only kidding. But Revolution did approach me several months ago inviting me to review them. Despite their reputation for droves of students downing vodka shots of an evening, they said they’d been growing their food offering for the last couple of years and they were keen to have a second opinion on it. I said no, nicely, but I made a mental note that I should head over there at some point. I also noticed that their menu had a surprising number of vegetarian options, another point in their favour.
It’s a very long time since I went to Revolution, and I was surprised by how, well, tasteful the interior was. It’s been given the full retro-meets-shabby-chic-meets-industrial makeover and the dining room at the front is really quite pleasant – a big wide open space, all sturdy tables and copper lampshades with a banquette down one side and mismatched Chesterfields along the other. Going on a Monday, when it was largely empty, it was hard to imagine the nocturnal horrors that Revolution probably sees every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. I’d persuaded two people to come with me for once (I know! Gluttons for punishment!) so we grabbed an attractively tiled table for three and started flicking through the menu, dished up on a very à la mode clipboard.
The menu was interesting – it had far more stuff on it than you would expect Revolution to be able to execute, but there were also touches which made you think “but what if they could..?” Little things here and there, from goats cheese bonbons to n’duja balls, from chorizo ketchup to chilli and fennel pork. It still revolved around the ever-present small plates and the ubiquitous burger, but there was also pizza, burritos and – randomly – a chicken katsu curry. Revolution’s website has pictures of all of them and more (I only saw them later in the course of writing this up, but that might be just as well: some of them verge on the pornographic).
I was determined to order both a vegetarian starter and main at Revolution (just this once, not making any promises for the future) so the first thing I tried was oaky smoky houmous, which I imagine is a dish invented by Billy Ray Cyrus. It was nicely coarse, topped with sliced spring onion and a solitary sun dried tomato; I got more nuttiness than oaky smokiness, truth be told. It came with crudités and dough sticks. Carrot and green pepper were crisp, fresh and eminently suitable, the red pepper was a bit on the flaccid side. None of them came close to the dough sticks – little white fingers like the tiniest baguettes in the world. Of course they were the best bit: there was no vitamin C in them whatsoever. Overall it reminded me of my friend Jane: really lovely, means well, ever so slightly dull (don’t worry, it’s not her real name and she doesn’t read this anyway).
The other starter, shared between two, was the “street food crate”, a wooden, well, crate, filled with pots and tins of food, as is the fashion pretty much everywhere in Christendom right now. Having done that regulation piece of anti-hipster sneering (and rolled my eyes at the mention of street food somewhere that isn’t on the street) it’s only fair to go on and say that most of it was really quite nice. Pulled beef (another sneer) sliders (yet another sneer) were very tasty and well done with a little heat. The doughdogs – bockwurst snugly wrapped in a little pocket of something like pizza dough – were maybe a little closer to mystery meat than I generally like to get but they had a nice hint of smoke and I didn’t leave any.
Buttermilk fried chicken had a thin coating and was a tad bland (and all four strips came fused together, which was a pity) but again it was enjoyable enough. “Viper dusted fat chips” were very good thick chips, irregular, crunchy and quite delicious. You also got “BBQ crackling puffs” which were little hot fragments of pork rind – pleasant but ever so slightly pointless, and two rather than the three advertised dips. One was the “big easy mayo”, which one liked and the other was a hot spicy number with a whiff of bourbon in it, which the other liked (a sort of Jack and Mrs Sprat of sauces). This all came to thirteen pounds and there were no complaints with that.
Any feelings of deprivation suffered through eating vegetarian at Revolution vanished when my main course arrived. Margherita Napoli pizza, from Revolution’s summer specials menu, is billed as “a margherita pizza like you’ve never eaten before” and it actually lives up to that billing – in a good way. The pizza base was probably the best I’ve had in central Reading – crusty, chewy, reassuringly irregular and glistening with extra virgin olive oil. The tomatoes tasted fresh, not like the intense pureéd flavour of standard pizza toppings, and there was a generous amount of garlic in the sauce too. A dusting of coarsely ground black pepper made the whole thing sing. This is how good it was: not only could I have lived without the faffy micro basil shoots, I could even have foregone the mozzarella. Can you believe that? It made me feel that all the other stuff you can stick on a pizza is just window dressing, and as a devout non-vegetarian I’m rather surprised to be saying that. I just hope Revolution’s management doesn’t look outside the window and realise that summer is already over.
Having fulfilled the vegetarian obligation, the other two orders were for burgers, and they were pleasant but didn’t match the starters or the pizza. The “Brooklyn chicken” came with more of that buttermilk fried chicken (and if I’d thought it through I would have ordered something different), a few pieces of it rather than the single breast I’d been expecting. The good quality streaky bacon was perfectly cooked at one end and a bit limp at the other. The smoked cheddar and fried pickles (the latter cooked in something like panko breadcrumbs I think) were lovely but the chipotle sauce had gone awol and the whole thing just didn’t quite work.
The “Smokin’ Bacon” had the same problem, bacon going from floppy to perfect like some kind of gastronomic colour chart of how a rasher should be cooked. The burger was cooked through rather than pink, but despite that it was well seasoned and nicely tender and the smoked cheese worked much better in this burger than the Brooklyn chicken. There was apparently some of the previously mentioned chorizo ketchup (I still think it sounds like an absolutely magnificent idea) but the jury’s out on whether it was really noticeable or noteworthy. There were also some Wotsits in there – “I think it’s just for novelty value”, my companion said. Both burgers came with some skin-on chips, whose main purpose was to be Ed Miliband to the David of the fat chips that came with the starters, and some forgettable coleslaw (they probably referred to it as slaw but I point blank refuse to follow suit, and don’t start me on this “mac n’ cheese” nonsense).
Service throughout was absolutely superb, especially considering that there was only one visible member of staff and he seemed to be working the whole room. Despite that he was impossible to fault – personable, friendly, with opinions on the food (a particular fan of the Brooklyn Chicken burger, as it happens) and genuinely apologetic about some of the delays, even though we were in no hurry – perhaps most diners at Revolution are. In fact he was so apologetic that we did get a freebie after all; to make up for us having to wait for our mains he brought over a selection of six vodka shots. I think that would normally cost twelve pounds, and I can particularly recommend the fruit salad and peach flavoured ones (well, I wasn’t going to turn them away).
Apart from the impromptu vodka we drank a mixture of beers (Vedette in bottles, Staropramen on draft) and a couple of glasses of a good, fruity Malbec. It seems odd to say so little about Revolution’s booze offering and to focus on the food: I wonder how many of their visitors do that? One thing I did have in common with most visitors to Revolution is that I passed on dessert – the delights of the “fluffwich” (I’ve read the menu and I still have no idea what it is) will have to wait. The total bill for three people, with two drinks each, came to fifty seven pounds not including tip. We went on a Monday when there are half-price offers on a lot of the main courses: without that it would have been seventy-two pounds.
Revolution has been around such a long time that people probably don’t expect to eat there. I never thought I’d end up writing a review of it. But actually, if you judge it compared to its direct competitors, RYND and Oakford Social Club, I think it emerges from that pretty well. There’s a little more to the menu than the relentless tide of pulled pork and burgers. The room is much more welcoming. The service was far more impressive than I could have predicted (especially compared to the Oakford, where I always think they hire people for their ability to talk to each other and ignore customers). And the food? Well, some was really good – that pizza, again – and some was just decent. But for this kind of dining, at this price point, in this location that isn’t bad going at all.
So I’m not going to rave about Revolution, because it isn’t that sort of place. I’m not going to urge you to go there at all costs. It’s not the hot new thing (and nor, for that matter, am I). But what I will say is that I liked my meal there, and I’d go again; I fancy trying their brunch menu, or having that pizza again for a weekend lunch. And now, you tell me – if you’d read this positive, constructive review and then, at the bottom, you’d seen that bit in italics saying I dined courtesy of Revolution, but all opinions expressed are my own: would you have believed me?
Revolution – 7.1
12 – 16 Station Road, RG1 1JX
0118 958 7397