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I must confess, I’d been in no hurry to visit Miller & Carter. Why? It’s a chain for starters (with nearly 40 branches, though I had never heard of it before it opened in Reading). A Mitchell and Butler chain at that, so part of the big faceless group that owns All Bar Ones and Harvesters across the land, not to mention the likes of the Oakford and the Abbot Cook. Then there’s the basic idea of it: a steakhouse is all very well, but perhaps a bit limited if your idea of dinner extends beyond meat and chips. Last but not least, I was put off by the pricing – I struggled to get my head round the idea of paying over twenty quid for a steak when I could go to London Street Brasserie for their excellent venison with haggis less than a hundred metres away for roughly the same price.

And yet, after all that, this week you’re reading a review of Miller & Carter. Why? Well, I’ve had it recommended to me more than once. Some people on Twitter told me they preferred it to CAU. Some restaurant staff told me it was where they liked to go on their rare nights off. And a friend of mine (who used to work in hospitality and is very particular) told me that on her rare date nights with her husband she often goes there to have the chateaubriand because they do it well and the service meets her exacting standards. Besides, sometimes it’s nice to do a review that doesn’t involve getting in the car or eating curry.

From the outside it looked quite swanky but I couldn’t make up my mind once I got through the door. It was all stripes and velvet and oddly it was carpeted, which struck me as either a very ostentatious or foolish decision (there were a few chips smooshed into the floor which suggested it was the former). The overall look was somewhere between a business hotel and an airport Wetherspoon’s, but either way it didn’t scream upmarket in the way I was expecting. It was huge, too: the sheer number of tables screamed “I’m a chain” in a way which wasn’t hugely appealing. Some tables – with booths and banquettes – were quite nice, others were right next to pillars and slap bang in the flow of traffic. You can probably guess which I ended up at. I might be the only one who was unmoved by the interior, though, because I overheard a member of staff saying that they are fully booked every Thursday, Friday and Saturday in the run up to Christmas.

The starters were slightly souped-up versions of dishes that you’d expect in a pub – chicken skewers glazed with bourbon, dusted calamari and cheesy mushrooms, for example – but a few sounded more interesting. I went for lemongrass and chilli tempura prawns because I hoped they’d be light but tasty and, truth be told, they were pretty good. The prawns did actually taste of lemongrass and the batter was nice and light. I didn’t get much in the way of chilli but there was sweet chilli jam (which tasted like every sweet chilli jam ever) which helped.

MillerPrawns

The prawns came with their tails on, which felt like an odd decision. I removed them with only minor tussles but felt like I lost a prawn’s worth of meat by not doing a decent job. It didn’t feel like it was asking too much to expect the kitchen to do that for me. Last but not least, there were some rocket leaves, wilting wanly, on top. That must have been a marketing decision (“you can’t send that out without some green on it!”) because it really didn’t add anything to the dish. So, nice enough overall but I did think I could just as easily have been in a Beefeater.

The other starter sounded marvellous: ginger glazed pork belly bites with an heirloom tomato salad. Bites suggests tender little cubes of meat, whereas what turned up were three pale strips of pork – a halloumi tribute band, almost – with black char lines on them and a salad at the other end of the long rectangular plate. In fairness, it tasted a lot better than it looked. The pork was tender, the ginger glaze pepped it up and the salad wasn’t bad. So why, when I got to the end, did I have an overwhelming sense of is that it?

MillerPork

It will come as no surprise to you that the main courses do rather dwell on steak, but there are lots of other options if you’re the kind of person who has to accompany a meat fiend to Miller & Carter because it’s their birthday, or because you’re making amends for forgetting your anniversary or suchlike. So they also do chicken, ribs, several fish dishes and – for the especially masochistic – three couscous and quinoa salads, one of which is the only vegetarian main on the menu. I feel duty bound to point all that out, but even so I ordered the steak because, well, it’s a steakhouse. Besides, as I’d had the chateaubriand recommended to me it would have been remiss not to give it a whirl (the fact that it leaves me with only one main course to review rather than two is, I promise, a happy coincidence).

It came on a wooden board with two sauces, two metal beakers full of chips, some tomato which was allegedly “balsamic glazed” but which I’d probably describe as “tepid and raw” and some “onion loaf” which was basically a bhaji which had got into an argument with Chuck Norris. The meat was meant to be the star of the show and it lived up to its billing, cooked medium rare as requested, charred and caramelised at the edges and giving way to tender and bloody as you got closer to the middle (the very core – vegetarians look away now – was almost Turkish Delight in texture). It came unsliced which I appreciated, because in my experience when they slice it it just goes cold quicker (and anyway, I prefer dainty slivers of chateaubriand given half a chance – dozens of them, in fact). It came with two round pats of parsley butter which were quite nice but, oddly, didn’t show any signs of melting on top of the steak. I guess that’s because they’d rested it.

MillerMeat

The chips were adequate skin on fries, nothing amazing, but the onion loaf was beautiful stuff and infinitely preferable to onion rings which always strike me as greasy and faffy. The sauces were at opposite ends of the spectrum. My companion had gone for béarnaise, which was spot on, creamy, full of tarragon, not split at all. Sadly I plumped for the porcini mushroom and black garlic sauce which was sludgy and didn’t really taste of either mushroom or garlic. Never mind – I did distract my guest (“is that John Madejski over there?”) to dunk an occasional forkful in the béarnaise. The best of the sides, though, was the “lettuce wedge”. This was literally a big segment of iceberg lettuce, sat in a bowl with some dressing and a sprinkling of cheese (garlic and parmesan on one, blue cheese dressing and crumbled Stilton on the other). It sounds a bit seventies I know, but in amongst the meat and fat it was very welcome to have something fresh and clean which added a bit of balance to the rest of the plate.

The wine list is quite a user-friendly one – most of the bottles under thirty quid are also available by the glass, although it ramps up after that. That said, I couldn’t help but compare it to the list at CAU, with its splendid range, and feel it was a little flat by comparison. We went for a one of the cheapest reds on the list, a bottle of malbec which was a touch over twenty quid and, in Miller & Carter’s defense, really very nice for an entry level red fruit, juicy and perilously easy to drink. I’m afraid we skipped dessert. I could say it was because we were stuffed from the steak (and it was a reasonably generous portion for two to share) but in truth it’s because the dessert menu, disappointingly, was exactly like a hundred other places. Chocolate brownie, sticky toffee pudding, crème bruleé and cheesecake were all present and correct, even with the smoke and mirrors of references to candyfloss and dark chocolate shards.

Service was really patchy. Some of the staff were likeable and warm, but after sitting down we had to wait a very long time before anyone came to take our order. The irony: we were sat at an unlovely table in an unlovely spot, with a constant flow of black-shirted waiting staff going hither and thither, and yet getting any attention felt increasingly, frustratingly difficult. They were reasonably busy for a weekday night, but they weren’t that busy. The massive pillar right next to our table (the restaurant equivalent of living next to a mobile phone mast) didn’t help. The waiting staff didn’t seem to look after particular areas, so we were served by three different people, all with differing skill levels. That said, our “main” waiter, a charming Italian chap with a goatee was spot on, checking up on us and twinkling at our choices (and looking ever so slightly like Tony Stark, which entertained me no end). Also frustrating was the pacing – we spent ages waiting for our order to be taken, but once it was everything came out just that little bit quicker than I wanted it to. For a relatively pricey meal it really didn’t take that long before it was all done and dusted.

How pricey? The total bill for two courses and a bottle of wine, excluding service, was just shy of eighty quid and this, for me, is where Miller & Carter really falls down. If you’re looking for steak, CAU is significantly cheaper. Not only that, but also the range of starters and non-steak dishes there is far more imaginative. On the other hand, if you’re just looking for an upmarket meal the money you would spend at Miller & Carter could go a lot further in so many other places – London Street Brasserie, Mya Lacarte, Cerise, even somewhere like Malmaison. So for Miller & Carter to compete it would really have to get everything right – textbook starters and beautiful steaks in a fantastic, exclusive dining room with top notch service. And, despite enjoying my chateaubriand a great deal, my evening didn’t come anywhere close to that. I can only think of one explanation for its popularity – it’s a menu firmly pitched slap bang at the middle of the comfort zone in a restaurant slap bang in the middle of the Oracle, never the dining choice of the risk taker. And that’s Miller & Carter in a nutshell: yes, you could do worse, but you could easily do so, so much better.

Miller & Carter – 7.2
Unit 5, The Oracle Shopping Centre, RG1 2AG
0118 9509961
http://www.millerandcarter.co.uk/restaurants/south-east/millerandcarteroracle

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