Let’s start with the elephant (well, lobster) in the room: it would somehow be wrong of me to write a review of Valpy Street without at least a passing nod to its most (in)famous previous incarnation. Those hallowed halls were the location where I ate the worst meal I’ve reviewed so far and, I think, an indication of how far the spot had fallen since its earlier success – still discussed fondly by many Reading residents – as Chronicles. Indeed, the new owner is in fact the old owner; fed up of seeing the site go through one sad iteration after another he decided to come back and reinvigorate the handsome basement rooms (the story goes that the last straw was an application to turn the premises into a lapdancing club).
It looks so nice now that I didn’t even suffer any flashbacks. The upstairs – a grotty sandwich bar back when this was Valentino’s – is now a little bar area looking out onto the street. But really, it’s all about the downstairs: there’s something about a cellar restaurant, especially with winter on the way, that feels somehow snug and exclusive and they’ve made a really good job of doing it up (Farrow and Ball paint: check, exposed brickwork: check, tongue and groove panels: check). The furniture is attractive, the tables are a decent size and there are some nice booths along one side which adds to that feeling of cosy seclusion.
I’ve heard good things in the months since Valpy Street opened, so I was surprised to trot down the stairs on a week night to see it pretty empty, with only a few tables occupied. The menu had lots to tempt, with an interesting range of starters hovering around the seven pound mark and more conventional bistro-style main courses (lamb shank, duck breast, two types of steak) generally weighing in around fifteen pounds. Reading it, I realised that this is the kind of restaurant Reading is missing, because we don’t really have any mid-range independent bistros. You either go for much more informal, cheaper dining, you move up a price bracket to LSB or Forbury’s, or you opt for a chain. Please let this be good, I thought to myself.
Would my prayers be answered? The starters gave me my first clues. Pan fried scallops came with peas and onion, crispy chorizo and beurre noisette, a pretty classic combination. Normally they also come with soft herbs (no, I’ve no idea what that means) but I was with my coriander-phobic companion so we missed all the herbs out to ensure there was no meltdown. The scallops – three medium ones – were pretty decent, cooked in the browned butter and nicely textured so they were lightly caramelised on the outside but still yielding within. The peas and onions and chorizo reminded me a bit of petit pois a la francaise, but without the indulgent cream which always makes me feel so guilty about ordering it. They worked quite well, especially the touch of salt and warmth from the chorizo which lifted the dish pleasantly. Not the prettiest dish to look at (it all looked a bit plonked on the plate) but a good start.
The other starter was one of the most intriguing things on offer – tempura soft shell crab with an Asian influenced salad of shredded cabbage, carrot and mooli. It was the only time that the menu wandered away from its firmly European sensibilities, but it sounded so good on paper that I had to try it. Broadly speaking, it was a success. The salad was full of crunch and zest with an awful lot going on, especially with a gradually growing heat from the deep green shreds of chilli. I liked the presentation, with the toasted sesame seeds dotted round the edge of the plate.
If anything, the salad upstaged the crab sitting on top of it. I’ve always loved soft shell crab – possibly the only member of the animal kingdom that might have caused Charles Darwin the occasional moment of doubt – and this was pleasant but the batter wasn’t quite tempura, lacking the crisp lightness I was hoping for. It was also dinky almost to the point where you felt like you weren’t so much eating it as bullying it. All good, then, but possibly a touch on the nouvelle side.
You couldn’t say that about the gigantic piece of onglet which turned up when the mains arrived. I’d ordered it rare (the waitress suggested rare or medium rare) and rare it came. My mistake, to be honest: onglet can be a tad chewy and it definitely needed a bit longer. To her credit, the waitress came back to check on the food and quickly twigged that I wasn’t happy – so she sent it back for a little more time under the grill which improved matters considerably. The salad it came with was delicious, just dressed rocket and thinly sliced red onion: not something I would normally choose but which really went perfectly with the steak. The chips were thick and wedgelike, but sadly not terribly crispy.
When ordering the waitress asked what sauce I wanted (blue cheese, red wine or peppercorn) and so I also had a little copper saucepan of peppercorn sauce. This was really lovely but I didn’t find out until the bill arrived that I’d been charged nearly three quid for the privilege. Now, I don’t mind paying extra for a sauce but I definitely felt like this was a little sneaky – there was no mention of the sauce on the printed menu (there is on the website, curiously) and the waitress didn’t say that there would be a charge, so I felt a little hoodwinked. Overall it pushed the cost of the dish over the twenty pound mark, and therein lies the real problem: onglet is a cheap cut, and for that money I could have had better meat from CAU – a little less of it, maybe, but better quality and cheaper.
Herb crusted hake was less successful. It was a pleasant – if not massive – piece of fish and the herby breadcrumbs on top of it were lovely, although I was surprised to find skin on the bottom of the fillet. But everything else didn’t quite work. It came with “bacon lardons” (are there any other kind?), little halved new potatoes, cabbage and leek and all of them were decent if inoffensive. But the herb broth, which I was hoping would bring the whole thing together, was largely a flavourless stock. More than anything else I ate that night, or anything I’ve eaten for a while, it felt like home cooking rather than restaurant cooking. If I’d eaten it at a friend’s house I’d have said nice things, but for just shy of fifteen pounds it wasn’t something I’d rave about when eating out.
I can’t quite remember why we ventured onto desserts after eating so much steak, but venture on we did. Tarte tatin is one of those French classics that’s difficult enough to make at home that I’d never bother (that’s what restaurants are for). Truth be told when it arrived I wondered if the chef had ever seen one before, let alone cooked one. It was the oddest looking tarte tatin I have ever seen; eight or nine thin slivers (not slithers, for the record: why do so many restaurant reviewers get this wrong?) of unpeeled apple on a pastry base with a caramelised coating and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. If anything, my photo makes it look more generous with the apple than was actually the case. To my shame, I still ate it all because – as everyone knows – pastry plus sugar equals tasty. But it was an amateurish kind of tasty.
Valpy Street’s website says that the menu is “locally sourced where possible” – that may be true in general, but the fact that nothing local turned up on the cheeseboard made me wonder if those words were there because they thought it was what diners want to read. Having got that whinge out of the way, it was an interesting selection none the less: on paper, at least. In reality, it was perhaps slightly less so. Saint Maure de Touraine was a pretty likeable goat’s cheese, but the tommette de savoie was mild verging on apologetic, a quality it shared with the Fearn Abbey, a Scottish brie-like cheese. What the board was crying out for was some contrast – a salty, crystalline cheddar or Comte that could exfoliate the roof of your mouth – but no such luck.
Last but not least, there was Blue Monday, made by that chap out of Blur with the floppy hair. I’m more of a Graham Coxon fan myself, but to give credit where it’s due the cheese was spectacular – intense, savoury and delicious. I’m glad I ate it last, but even having it last it highlighted how bland all that came before had been. All the cheeses were maybe not as close to room temperature as they should have been (nor, now I come to think of it, was the dining room), but at least they weren’t fridge-cold. The accompaniments smacked slightly of overkill. There were a lot of crackers but no variety, so they were all sweet which didn’t really work with most of the cheeses. You also got a huge ramekin of onion chutney – far more than you could possibly eat – some celery which I suspect is left by almost everybody and some grapes. This was definitely a case where less would have been more, although I would have liked the advertised quince jelly which was nowhere to be seen.
This is all sounding rather glum, isn’t it? Perhaps I should lighten the mood by saying that service – the incident with the peppercorn sauce aside – was properly delightful from start to finish. Both waitresses were bright, personable, knowledgeable and full of opinions about the dishes. And if it didn’t always come off that felt more the kitchen’s fault than theirs. As I said, I was also impressed that they swooped in and sorted the problem with my onglet – some serving staff would ignore those vibes (the way you can never get attention when you want to pay up and scarper, for instance) but they could clearly tell I wasn’t happy and managed the situation perfectly.
Another positive: the wine list isn’t bad at all, with nothing over forty quid and plenty of interesting choices available by the glass. We tried a selection, including a really good, heady Malbec and a cracking Pic St Loup, a Languedoc red. Viognier, always a favourite of mine, was also extremely drinkable as was the cheapest white on the menu, a bright Spanish number from Extramadura. I would have had a glass of dessert wine with the tarte tatin, but they’d run out of one and the other was priced pretty aggressively for only 50ml. The LBV we ordered to accompany the cheese was nice but not surprising – maybe it would have tasted better paired with more interesting cheeses. The total bill came to ninety-one pounds, excluding tip, for three courses, two glasses of wine each plus that port. An odd experience: nothing on the menu was particularly expensive, and yet somehow that still felt a little steep.
Reading really needs a restaurant like Valpy Street. An affordable, mid-market independent bistro is very much one of the places that’s always been missing from town. And, frustratingly, they’ve got many things right – the room is lovely, the menu looks brilliant on paper and the service is spot on. The menu has some bright ideas to draw daytime trade in, too, with lunchtime “pots” for six quid and a selection of upmarket sandwiches. But the evening menu – despite some moments of promise – didn’t set my world on fire. But all is not lost, because the management has proved they can do this. The menu has already changed substantially since launch, to the owner’s credit, and he didn’t even officially launch the restaurant until it had already been open for a month (a very soft launch indeed, in fact). It feels like he’s playing the long game, and on that basis I wouldn’t rule out Valpy Street rethinking some of the menu and pricing and fulfilling that obvious promise. It’s a tougher market out there than it’s ever been: Reading’s dining scene has changed significantly since Chronicles closed in 2008 and the competition has got better. I just hope Valpy Street can do likewise.
Valpy Street – 6.8
17-19 Valpy Street, RG1 1AR