As regular readers may remember I have a long-standing policy of not reviewing restaurants in their first month, of giving them time to bed in and settle down. Bluegrass tested my resolve more than most, being that rare thing, a new independent restaurant in the town centre. Unable to stay away, I did try to visit before Christmas only to be told – on a weekday lunchtime, no less – that the waiting time was forty-five minutes. To be honest, I just laughed and left: no-reservations restaurants are a bad enough habit to import from London, but once people are queuing round the block for American barbecue we’ve surely got everything bad about dining in the capital without any of the redeeming features.
So I’ve been sitting on my hands for a month, dying to visit on duty and having to wait while the other reviews came in. They were a mixed bag; people seemed to like the food, but a lot of people really didn’t like the experience of eating at Bluegrass. In particular, their policy of making you order at the bar came in for a lot of criticism. I was a bit surprised by this – I’d have thought eating in pubs and, for that matter, Nando’s would have got people used to this, but it seemed not. Despite that, it was voted Reading’s new restaurant of the year despite having only been open for three weeks of 2015 (on a shortlist, to be fair, which didn’t include Bakery House). So I wasn’t at all sure what to expect when I went there one evening hoping it would be quiet and looking forward to making up my own mind.
They’ve done a good job of renovating the old Gurkha Square site (which I never really liked – there was always a smell wafting from it when I went past which was somehow more Pedigree Chum than haute cuisine) and inside it’s made up of lots of different little rooms across about three floors, as well as the terrace out back overlooking the Holybrook which I can imagine will be lovely come summer.
Despite this, I’m afraid I struggled to warm to the interior. The wood panelling and bar made from reclaimed planks and the old school chairs all feel a bit done before – perhaps if I’d been sat at one of the banquettes I’d have felt more kindly disposed, but the whole thing felt a bit clinical. Instead I was at a table with four chairs and four placemats but which felt like realistically it could only have seated two people with elbows. I wondered how much the floor plan had been influenced by margins.
The menu is all very familiar to anyone who’s been to Blue’s Smokehouse, or RYND for that matter – ribs, brisket, pulled pork and smoked chicken, along with a range of burgers and sandwiches (in fairness they also have what looks like a very interesting breakfast menu – itself probably worth a separate visit). Prices are very reasonable: the mains all hover around the ten pound mark and, the menu being what it is, it’s all about mains and sides rather than starters and mains.
I’d heard apocalyptic stories about waiting at the bar, and perhaps on a busier night it would have been horrendous, but when I went it wasn’t too bad. It’s not really set up for queuing though, as you basically have to form a line heading down into one of the dining areas, impeding passing waiting staff and customers. They also only have one till, which feels like a rather devil-may-care decision (perhaps their brisk trade will persuade them to reconsider). Service was pleasant enough but a bit on the gormless side – I had to explain to them what one of the drinks on their cocktail menu was, and they then told me the lager I’d ordered had to be changed and they’d bring my drink over. Five minutes later I went up, jogged their memory and went back to the table with a pint. Everyone was friendly but a bit aimless, as if they’d never expected the restaurant to be this popular and weren’t sure how to cope with it (which may not be a million miles from the truth).
Food came out very quickly – within ten minutes or so. Again, some people have complained about this but I think they just misunderstand what kind of restaurant Bluegrass is. Most things are already smoked and slow-cooked and are just waiting to be dished up (if anything, if it took any longer to arrive you’d be justifiably concerned). And although the meals came on the standard-issue trays I didn’t find this as annoying as usual, possibly because the trays seemed slightly bigger or probably because the paper they were lined with put up more resistance to cutlery than they sometimes can.
So, on to the food: pulled pork was really good. Very soft, cooked to the point of complete surrender, juicy and with a lightly smoked taste that was enhanced by adding a sauce. There are four different sauces on the table but we did need to ask one of the members of staff what they were because there was no description on the label or on the wipe clean placemat-menus. The Tennessee was my favourite – a sweet barbecue sauce with a Dr Pepper base that was nice to dunk a forkful of pork in.
Brisket I wasn’t so sure about – four thinnish slices which tasted better than they looked, but the bottom slice had taken marbling to the stage where the bits of recognisable meat stood out like an archipelago of flesh in a sea of fat. It might have tasted lovely all the same, but squeamishly I left some of it. The burnt ends were the pick of the bunch for me, cubes of beef cooked longer still, sticky with sauce and much more tender and appetising: I had one towards the end with some little crunchy fragments of chip and it was the best mouthful of the entire meal.
Most of the dishes come with fries and coleslaw. The fries were lovely: skin-on with some real crispiness and texture, not wan and flaccid like they can be at many places doing this kind of food. The coleslaw, though, was disappointing; I actually quite like mayo-free coleslaw but this added nothing but contrast. I wonder how many people actually finish theirs.
We shared two other sides. Barbecue pit beans – a portion I’d say was on the small side – had shreds of meat in there but overall had picked sweetness over heat, the wrong choice in my opinion. Corn on the cob, one of my favourite things in the world, was a little underwhelming – a touch overcooked, so that the individual niblets didn’t pop the way I anticipated and the advertised cinnamon in the butter was undetectable. Nice enough but (dare I say it?) Nando’s does better.
I’m sorry to say that the drinks weren’t really worth the trouble they took to order. The lager was quite nice, clean and crisp, but by the time it arrived the food was nearly upon us. The “cherry cola cooler” was a small Amaretto and coke in a jam jar. For four pounds fifty. I watched them pour some of a 330ml bottle of Coca-Cola into the jam jar and then, presumably, throw the rest away.
The general haplessness of the service continued when someone came to ask how the food was. I said it was quite good, which it was, and she put a magnetic bottle cap on the end of the table to show that we had been processed. And you do feel, in an establishment like this, like you’ve been processed rather than served. She also asked whether we wanted any water and I said we’d love a jug of tap water. She returned with a solitary glass of tap water (still, it’s the thought that counts). Actually, if it hadn’t been for the model of ordering at the bar I’d have had a glass of Malbec by then, but I guess Bluegrass has decided it’s happy to run the risk that people will order less drinks: an odd decision for somewhere which prides itself on its range of craft beers. As it was, we left – the advantage of paying up front is that you can do this quickly – and dinner for two came to thirty-five pounds, not including tip.
You’ve probably gathered by now that I wasn’t absolutely bowled over by Bluegrass. But in its defence, many of the criticisms of it are fundamentally missing the point: it’s a restaurant, Jim, but not as we know it. It is not intended to be a place where you settle in for an evening. Bluegrass is set up to have all its food ready to serve almost immediately and everything it does to channel customers is intended to guarantee a speedy turnaround. It’s a different kind of casual dining, and perhaps the shape of things to come – get people in, feed them, send them away and turn the table as many times as you can. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, not an awful lot wrong with the food and nothing wrong with going there, if that’s the kind of meal you want. But, for that reason if no other, it felt like a restaurant many may like but few will love. I still think that restaurants are all about the experience: the service, the comfort, that feeling of taking time away from your troubles (and the washing up!) while someone else looks after you and feeds you. For me, anything else is just one step up from Deliveroo.
Bluegrass BBQ – 7.1
15 Gun Street, RG1 2JR