I like to think, by now, that I’ve got a pretty good idea what people are interested in reading about on ER. You love a hatchet job, you want to hear about restaurants and cafés in the centre of Reading and, perhaps more than anything, you like the discoveries: places you’ve never heard of or would never have considered going to which get good reviews. You’re not so fussed about places that are too far away and you don’t much like wishy-washy reviews where I like somewhere but don’t love it. Am I close?
So, with all that in mind I headed off to Henley (bad) to review somewhere that I was hoping would be a bit of a find (good). Well, to spoil the ending for those of you who don’t scroll down and back up again, it wasn’t a find. But don’t worry, because it was so bafflingly bad that you might stick around anyway to read the rest of the review (good for you, regrettably bad for me).
I almost went to The Square a few months back on my last visit to Henley, but the blinds were ominously drawn. At the time, I worried that it had closed down and I’d missed my chance to try out this attractive looking Portuguese place in a prime location on the market square. It later transpired that I’d worried unduly (they’re just closed on Tuesdays). I took that to be a good sign, signifying that they were doing well enough to give the staff a day off. More fool me: sadly when I went back this time, it was open.
Inside it wasn’t exactly busy – four other tables were occupied when we turned up on Saturday night, peak time for any restaurant. That probably should have rung some alarm bells, as should the fact that when I phoned to book a table at very short notice the chap on the other end of the phone didn’t even need to take a name. I must have been having an off night, because I sat down, Spidey senses resolutely tingle-free. Perhaps I was deceived by the surroundings: it’s actually quite a nice dining room, with dark wood tables and floor, the walls hung with fishing nets filled with shells, sea-themed pictures around the room. That makes it sound like Old Gregg’s boudoir, but in reality it was more rustic fisherman chic.
The menu was bewilderingly big, with large sections for fish, seafood and meat dishes. Again, I took encouragement from one of the waiters coming out with a good-looking platter of fresh fish and shellfish to show what was on offer. There was also a section of speciality dishes for a minimum of two people to share, all described as “rice pots”. I asked one of the waiters to tell me a bit more about those and even now I’m struggling to remember what he told me (a combination of his mumbling and the vagueness of his response). They sounded a bit like paella, and he particularly recommended the lobster version (“we put a lot in”, he said), so in the end we went for that. We were told this would take thirty-five minutes to cook, so he practically sprinted to the kitchen to tell them before coming back to take the rest of our order. Maybe, with hindsight, he was worried that we might change our mind.
We ordered some bread with sardine and tuna paté to tide us over and this is where it all started to go wrong. I don’t normally photograph the bread, but here I just had to. I was expecting a basket of crusty bread with a couple of small ramekins of paté. What arrived was seven anaemic slices of what looked like part-baked supermarket baguette with some catering packs of butter and paté. The “paté” was Portugal’s answer to Shippam’s (something I’ve not eaten since about 1985), smooth to the point of being unidentifiable. In fairness, even if it wasn’t pleasant I suppose it was authentic: it’s almost exactly what I was served at O Beirão, Reading’s Portuguese restaurant. But there it was free, and here I was paying three pounds for the dubious privilege.
What The Square also seemed to miss was that the bread was completely insufficient for the spreads it came with. I would have minded the three quid less if I could actually have eaten it all but there was so little bread that doing so was impossible without piling the paté ludicrously high. I just hope the restaurant has a cat who could make use of the leftovers. Not terribly appealing: I prayed that the starters were going to be an improvement.
They weren’t. First up was the chouriço assado, described as “flame grilled Portuguese sausage, served in traditional cookware”. I was hoping for something a bit like Spanish chorizo cooked in wine, all salty and coarse with those delicious brick-red juices at the bottom. I was very far from correct. What I got instead was simply awful: a gigantic horseshoe of chorizo, served on a pot in the shape of a rowboat which is quite hard to describe. It sort of rested on the “seat” with some liquid underneath – I dread to think what – which had been set alight to flambée the sausage (flambée the sausage, come to think of it, sounds like a euphemism for something unspeakable) just before it reached the table.
The outside was slightly charred in places but the real problems came when I cut into it. Not that that was easy, because it was served on a flipping boat shaped pot with no suitable surfaces on which to do the deed. I sawed away (trying to rest the sausage on the seat) and chewed a couple of slices for a few minutes, although it felt like longer. It was both grisly and gristly. I inflicted a slice on my companion, who unsurprisingly didn’t thank me for it. The next slice was almost entirely a big white globule of fat and that, I’m sorry to say, is where I gave up. All the metaphors I could use to describe this dish would remind you – very quickly – of whatever you ate last, so let’s leave it at that. I put down my knife and fork and waited to see if anyone came to check on us. They didn’t.
The other dish was king prawns wrapped in Portuguese bacon and pan fried. It was four decent sized prawns cooked nicely and indeed wrapped in bacon. The heads and tails came off cleanly and the prawns tasted of their component parts, no more, no less. There were also a couple of needless sections of red, green and yellow pepper. This wasn’t bad by comparison with the chouriço, but you could say the same about a Fray Bentos. I was hoping for some juices, but there weren’t any. I didn’t mop-up the non-existent juices with the remaining bread they hadn’t given me.
The waiter returned to clear the plates and looked baffled by the almost entirely uneaten sausage. I tried to explain what I hadn’t liked about it. Doing so briefly was something of a challenge. He shrugged. I was worried that I hadn’t explained properly, so I had another go. More shrugging. The plate was taken away, with no apology or offer to take it off the bill or anything else. Then he asked whether I wanted to order something else, but with no indication as to whether I’d be paying for that or not. We then reached a consensus that, as the main course was quite big, I probably wouldn’t need a starter. The whole thing was a truly bizarre interchange. It was rendered even more bizarre by him asking if we wanted to keep our half-finished tubs of tuna and sardine paté: as there was no bread left I’m not sure what he thought we were going to do with them.
On to the main event then – the lobster rice pot, at forty-five pounds for two one of the priciest things on the menu. We were brought lobster crackers and those little picky-outy-lobster-bit tools (apologies for blinding you with technical terms) and I realised that I had naively expected the kitchen to do some of the hard work for us. My mistake, I suppose. Anyway, the large pot was brought to the table and the waiter ladled out a portion for each of us.
The lobster, admittedly, was good. Very fresh and, when it was eventually possible to pick up the shell (which was as hot as Hades, of course), generally the flesh came away very easily. The meat was tender and delicate and it did look to me like we had a whole lobster between us. That’s where the good news ends. The rice, fluffy long grain, had been cooked for too long so there was no bite there. The sauce was a generic stock with some coriander to try and give it a bit of freshness.
I’m beginning to sympathise with the trouble the waiter had describing it, but I suppose he could hardly have said “it’s a very bland rice dish with some lobster in it”. I can though, because that’s what it was. Was it a forty-five pound dish? Put it this way – at the peerless Bird In Hand in Sonning Common I could have a whole lobster to myself for twenty-seven pounds, so to pay roughly the same for half a (not very big) lobster and some flavourless rice seems cynical. If this is a signature dish, you have to worry about the restaurant’s handwriting.
To drink we had an Appletiser (for the driver) and a very nice smoky glass of Portuguese red. If the restaurant had been good I would have regretted not being able to mount a concerted assault on the wine list. If it had been good we would have had a dessert and I would have wanted a port – a lovely rich vintage, or a sweet, subtle tawny. As it was, much as the meal could only have been improved with alcohol, I was glad we could cut our losses and leave.
As so often, the moment I started to actively dislike the food the waiter tried a little harder to be nice. In the early stages he seemed to struggle to communicate, whether that was describing the menu or explaining what we could do about The Dismal Sausage. After that he was a lot more attentive, asking whether everything was okay with the main course, whether we needed any more drinks, whether we wanted dessert and so on. But of course the damage was done by then – and most of the damage was done in the kitchen rather than front of house. Proof that their intentions were better than their delivery came when the bill arrived; dinner for two came to sixty three pounds (the chouriço had been taken off).
So there you have it: this week I went out of town to a restaurant which I hoped would be a find and turned out to be a disaster. And this is definitely not about Portuguese food, which is probably what frustrates me the most. Portuguese cuisine deserves a better ambassador than The Square: Lisbon is an absolutely incredible city full of great cured meat, fantastic fish and seafood, and magnificent cheeses, not to mention the stunning wine. Having been there I don’t understand why it doesn’t have as good a culinary reputation as any European capital. I can only imagine it’s because of places like The Square. I want to be kind, but everything I ate was either iffy or average. Every average thing I ate was expensive. And worst of all? I’ve just spent two thousand words telling you not to go somewhere you’ve never heard of and wouldn’t visit anyway. That sticks in my throat even more than the chouriço did.
The Square – 4.9
10 Market Place, Henley-on-Thames, RG9 2AH