The Sushi Maki, Newbury

I spotted The Sushi Maki earlier this year, on a trip to Newbury to pay a return visit to Brebis, one of my restaurants of last year. I literally did a double-take when I walked past it, on the market square: A sushi restaurant? In Newbury? Not only that, but it looked lovely – lots of little tables with people huddled round them on tasteful wooden seats which looked like a cross between chairs and stools, along with a row of diners lined up at the bar. It was bright and buzzing on a Saturday night, and I did that thing I often do when I pass a restaurant I like the look of: I slowed down to a stop outside the menu, read it and made an extensive mental note before moving on.

This is a pipe dream I know, but I occasionally daydream about getting some cool Edible Reading business cards printed and dropping them off surreptitiously in restaurants and cafes to try and spread the word. Although I can picture the front perfectly (the lion logo, printed on crisp good quality card stock) the words on the back are harder to imagine. Would it just have the website link? A quick biography of some description? One thing you could definitely include in the blurb, though, is this: Will travel for sushi.

Well, if you live in Reading you kind of have to (once you’ve tired of Yo!, anyway). But I don’t find that a hardship, because I just adore the stuff. Done well, sushi is a real art form – in the literal sense – and so once I clapped eyes on The Sushi Maki I knew that going back was inevitable, if only to see whether it could supplant Misugo, my go-to sushi restaurant in Windsor, in my affections. After all, Newbury is an awful lot easier to get to – a nicer train trip, out through the beautiful West Berkshire countryside, with none of the horrors of changing at Slough.

Returning for a weekend lunch visit the place was much more serene, but if anything with less people you could see even better what a little, tasteful restaurant it was: a handful of high tables, seats at the window and along the bar, capacity for barely more than twenty people. Smart without trying too hard, a look I particularly admire. Each place was laid out with a small bowl for soy sauce, a red paper napkin and a pair of chopsticks – just the right side of the divide between pared back and austere.

I once read somewhere that in Japan restaurants specialise, so you’ll get a sushi restaurant, or a yakitori restaurant, or a ramen joint. In that sense if no other, The Sushi Maki is authentic: the menu is small, without the distraction of bento boxes, rice or noodle dishes, katsu curry or big plates of tempura. Instead it really is practically all sushi and sashimi, mostly familiar combinations with a few daily specials up on the blackboard behind the bar.

Now, from here on in it starts to get tricky. Much as I love sushi, it turns out that it’s quite difficult to write about, mainly because it’s all variations on a theme – rice, fish and, well, some other stuff. And there’s only so much you can do to lift the monotony, especially when the main other thing you’re eating is sashimi which is made of, err, the same fish you’ve just had in the sushi, most likely. So if what follows is a bit too much like a list I’m sorry, and you’ll have to take my word for it that it was more fun to eat than it was to read about.

We started with the sushi roll selection – four lots of four sushi rolls, the daily special up on the chalkboard. Some of this was downright beautiful like my favourite, the crunchy tempura prawn, all light clean flavours, a swoosh of teriyaki on top with – and I’ve never tried this before – what seemed to be crisped rice on the outside. The same technique was used in the spicy tuna roll, which was equally tasty (although it looked like there was mayonnaise inside, which I found a tad strange). Snow crab and cucumber rolls had that jarring mayo too but even so they were a delicate delight, with shreds of crab meat and laser cut slim batons of crunchy cucumber, specks of white and black sesame seed dotted around the outside (how I love sesame!). Last but not least, the salmon and tobiko roll was probably the closest to the kind of thing you’d pick off the conveyor at Yo!, salmon and avocado on the inside but loads of tobiko – bright orange roe – on the outside (not everyone will like the idea of that, but I take a certain childlike glee in feeling those tiny spheres burst between my teeth). That selection, sixteen pieces for fourteen pounds, felt like decent value.

SushiMaki1

We did go for a second round of sushi, out of pure gluttony. I had to have the spider crab roll because soft shell crab is one of my favourite things in all the world (how do these poor creatures survive when they’re so fragile and so delicious? I’ve always wondered) and it didn’t disappoint. The crab was lightly battered and fried – fairly recently, I’d guess, because it was still warm – and formed the centrepiece of big, thick sushi rolls topped with more of the teriyaki sauce and, in something of a kitchen sink approach, more of that tobiko. Only the avocado maki disappointed – the avocado was in big buttery chunks, but the maki weren’t well rolled and the seaweed didn’t quite meet perfectly. Still, bad avocado maki is better than no avocado maki, or indeed good most other things (except Frazzles. Gotta love Frazzles).

SushiMakiCrab

Oh, and we also had something called “sunshine roll”, mainly because of the name, with sweet prawn and cucumber inside, pieces of salmon sashimi draped on top and some more teriyaki sauce and tobiko to finish it off. This was so big that biting into it would have caused it to collapse, so instead I simply distracted my companion (“is that a wolf spirit fleece that woman is wearing?”), unhooked my jaw and gave it my best shot. I just about pulled it off. Anyway, the sunshine roll was quite nice, if not standout, and by this point I did feel like I was just eating something which felt like a slightly different permutation of everything I had eaten before. And that was the problem with the sushi in general, I think. It was nice. It was pretty. It was delicate. But it was all a bit lacking in distinct personality. Or maybe I just ordered too much of it, although I’m struggling to process the concept of too much sushi.

I also tried the sashimi, out of a combination of completism and gluttony. It was all good quality, beautiful sections of marbled fish and, just like the sushi, tastefully presented. But here I was mainly struck by how much you paid for how little. So the usual suspects, the salmon and tuna, were both lovely specimens – but three pieces of the latter cost you five pounds fifty. The mackerel (three pieces for a fiver) was also delicious and came topped with spring onions in soy, one of the only attempts to jazz up the presentation at all. Again, I liked it but I was very aware that down the road in Windsor you get more sashimi for less money, and you also know it comes from the fishmonger practically next door.

SushiMaki2

The drinks were good. I had a couple of thimbles of sake (50ml each, apparently) that had a gorgeous almost sweet taste which became even better once I’d started eating the sushi, all smooth with just a hint of banana. It was at room temperature and personally I’d have preferred it chilled, but maybe that’s me being a sake heathen. My companion has a thing about drinking beer with sushi – your guess is as good as mine – and apparently the Asahi was lovely. Service throughout was polite and quiet, almost shy, although neither the waitress nor the chef appeared to be Japanese (and neither was the name on the license, to my Western mind). The restaurant was busy with groups, lone people and a fair bit of takeaway trade but I never felt ignored or neglected and the total bill for rather a lot of food, plus two drinks each, was sixty-four pounds excluding tip.

So, a nice lunch then. But nice enough? Hmm, probably not quite: at some point in the meal – possibly in between the first batch of food we ordered and the second, failing that definitely between finishing the second batch and the bill arriving – I started to realise that The Sushi Maki was not going to become my go-to sushi place. It’s not a bad restaurant, by any means, and if it was in Reading I would probably go there quite often. The people of Newbury are lucky to have it right in the centre of town, and I can see it would be a good place for a light lunch, but I couldn’t imagine spending an evening there or it being a destination of itself. I found myself longing for the low tables at Misugo, the atmospheric lighting, the wider menu. Eventually, I just found the stools a little bit too high and uncomfortable, the tables a little bit too cramped, the sushi a little too pricey, and I’m afraid that’s the moment – pardon the pun, but it’s been coming for the whole review – when the scales fell from my eyes.

The Sushi Maki – 7.3
23 Market Place, Newbury, RG14 5AA
01635 551702

http://www.thesushimaki.co.uk/

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Coppa Club, Sonning

This is my second attempt to review Coppa Club. The first time, I went on a winter night last year only to be escorted to a table for two next to the big French doors, a table so cold that it could turn tomato soup into gazpacho in minutes. I asked to be moved and slack-jawed confusion broke out among the black-shirted serving staff. Minutes later I was told this wasn’t possible, even though I was pretty sure I could see other tables were vacant. When I said thanks but no thanks and voted with my feet, I’m not sure they even noticed me leaving. Perhaps there was nothing they could do, but it would have felt nice if they’d tried, suggested a drink in the bar or pointed out when a suitable table might become available. I couldn’t work out whether they were fazed or unfussed, but either way I was in no hurry to go back.

In the meantime, friends of mine have enthused about the place. More for lunches than dinners, I was told, but even so I got a steady stream of positive feedback which made me think it was time to give it another chance. And it’s the kind of place I see appearing in my Twitter feed all the time – lovely pictures of well-presented dishes, not to mention one of the most attractive dining rooms I’ve seen in a long time. So eventually, now that the days are getting warmer, I decided I could leave it no longer. Besides, after the delights of all you can eat dining I found myself pining for something clever and delicate.

And yes, it really is a beautiful room. It ticks all the boxes without looking studied or cynical – a bit of exposed brickwork, granted, but some lovely furniture in muted greens and blues, button back banquettes and beautiful burnished geometric metal lampshades (no bare swinging hipster bulbs here, thank you very much). It feels like someone has thrown money at this place – how very Sonning – until it started to bounce off, and that prosperity starts out very alluring, although by the end of the evening I could see how it might get a little smug.

Turning up on a Sunday night I was delighted to get one of the booths. There’s a blue banquette running along the middle of the room but the booths, which are closer to the exposed brickwork and the bar, were nicer and cosier. Quite roomy for two people, too, although if there were four of you in one you’d need to get along reasonably well. That seemed a bit of a theme in general, actually – looking at the tables for six I found myself thinking that they’d more sensibly seat four. Perhaps that’s why, on my previous visit, they weren’t prepared to find anywhere else for a table for two to eat. Perhaps, too, packing diners in is how Coppa Club could afford to spend so much money on refurbishing the place (or perhaps I’m being a bit harsh, in which case I’m sure some of you will tell me).

I liked the menu enormously, and it felt like it had just enough things to pick between without being bewildering. It reminded me a lot of places like Jamie’s Italian, so I wasn’t entirely surprised later when doing some research to discover that the chef at Coppa Club has worked there. It’s a more compact menu than at Jamie’s, but still presented a few complicated decisions – to share or not to share, to order pasta, that kind of thing. Horse trading took longer than usual, which was just as well because getting anybody interested enough to take an order did too.

Now, normally I talk about service right at the end of a review as part of wrapping things up but with Coppa Club I really feel I have to make an exception, because it was so uniformly poor every step of the way. Don’t get me wrong – it was friendly and affable, but beyond that they managed to get pretty much everything wrong. You could never get any attention, despite it not being a busy night. The starters turned up immediately after they were ordered, at the same time as the nibbles we’d ordered to tide us over. Getting someone to bring the bill at the end was a challenge, as was paying it once it had been brought to the table. Many of the serving staff seemed to have been trained to completely ignore customers altogether, usually while walking past or near their tables, and when I left after what felt like an eternity settling up I saw one of the waiters chatting to his friends at the bar.

I don’t take any pleasure in saying this, but it was especially jarring considering what a lovely room it was and how good some of the food turned out to be. And that’s not even getting on to some of the things which, although they bugged me, might not be deal-breakers for you. I regularly saw waiters leaning right across diner A to serve diner B, something which (in my book at least) you really should not do. Another thing, which may sound minor to you, was about where we were sitting. The booths were open on one side (the side nearest the other tables) but closed off on the other, and behind them was a little corridor section where the serving staff could get water, wine, glasses and so forth. Our waiter kept taking orders or handing us wine over that barrier, which just felt downright strange, like talking to your neighbour over the garden fence without ever having been introduced. Perhaps this is a new trend in informal dining which has passed me by, but I just didn’t like it: it felt more like laziness.

Let’s move on to the happier subject of the food, because some of this was really pretty good. The nibbles – deep fried gnocchi with parmesan and truffle oil – were pleasant (although I’d have enjoyed them more if they’d arrived some time before the starters – sorry to keep going on about that), little breaded nuggets of tasty starch. The truffle oil, as so often, added an olfactory tease that never followed through when you actually ate the food, but never mind.

CoppaGnocchi

Better was the fritto misto – a very generous helping of squid and white fish, seasoned and dusted in what might have been semolina flour, along with a solitary prawn and a slice of scallop. This was very nice stuff – far better than many places’ efforts at fritto misto – and my favourite bit was the small pieces of squid, all crispy tentacles with that rough, savoury coating, texture triumphing over taste. The tartare sauce it came with was quite nice but maybe a little too sophisticated, too Sonning, for my taste. I reckoned it needed more vinegar and acid, more gherkin or capers or – starting to drool now – both, but I’m a sucker for pickles and it might just be me being a Philistine.

CoppaFritto

The other starter, “beets and ricotta bruschetta”, was lovely; a single slice of ciabatta-like bread with a layer of bright pink whipped ricotta topped with cubes of beetroot. That alone would have been enough to meet the job description, but there was a little more: wafer thin beetroot crisps in red and gold on top to add another level of texture, then some pretty salad leaves dressed with olive oil (I think) and cheese shavings, because cheese shavings make everything better. I liked it a lot: refreshingly clean but with that earthiness that beetroot brings, all dark and zingy. It was a dish that looked like winter but tasted of spring, and it made me long for longer days.

CoppaBruschetta

The starters had come so quickly that I was worried I would be out of Coppa Club in next to no time, but thankfully they slowed it down for the mains. If anything, this gave me and my companion a chance to play spot the difference between my glass of entry level Syrah and her glass of more expensive Shiraz (we couldn’t really find one, which is maybe why I try not to say too much about wine). It also meant that the mains arrived pretty much when we were ready, probably the only piece of good timing about the whole evening.

I’d found choosing a main at Coppa Club surprisingly difficult. My companion had already bagged the pizza, having pasta as a main felt a bit too monotonous, ordering the burger felt like it would have been a poor show and I wasn’t in the mood for a whole fish on the bone, lovely though that sounded. So the lamb chops – described as “scorched fingers” on the menu, perhaps that’s a draw for some people – won by default and, in hindsight, I’m delighted that they did. This was a dish for people who like meat and fat – three long, thin, chops with a square of tender meat at the end but, more importantly, rich seams of fatty meat along the bone, caramelised, melting and utterly delicious. I wouldn’t describe myself as the world’s biggest carnivore (although I know several people with a decent shot at that title), but some nights you just want red meat and iron and this was that night and that dish was in the right place at the right time.

CoppaChops

It wasn’t perfect, mind you. The chops were so long and thin that eating them was unwieldy, as was pushing the bone out of the way when you were done. They came with watercress, which I can take or leave, and a salsa verde which fell into the same trap as the tartare sauce. I could admire it, this glossy smear of fresh mint and oil, but I wanted some vinegar in there, some sharpness to stop my mouth being coated with fat (I’m well aware, writing this, that I’ve gone to Coppa Club and said that two of the dishes could have been improved with jars of sauce from Colman’s: judge away). What did improve the lamb, immeasurably, were the “rustic potatoes” – little roasted potatoes, all crunchy corners and fluffy insides, festooned with Parmesan and shot through with green shards of fried sage; if they’d put those on the “nibbles” section of the menu I might have started and stopped right there.

CoppaPots

I really wanted to try pizza too, to see if Coppa Club was up there with all those pizzerias I daydream of dropping in Reading, and whether the “slow proved, sourdough base” would live up to billing. Well, sadly not really. The base was too thick in the wrong places, no bubbly edges and a stodgy, rather soggy middle. It tasted decent enough, but it was lacking that chewy, moreish flavour I expected from a sourdough base. There was a bit too much cheese, in my opinion, although I guess that’s better than the alternative. I went for the “Coppa Club Hot” and the ‘nduja on it was delicious, super-intense, punchy, salty, almost acrid. If only there had been more – I know a little goes a long way but three small teaspooned dots of it across the whole pizza still felt a little mean. The spicy salami was less successful, a bit more simple in flavour (although still with loads of heat) but personally I’d have liked it a little more crisp; maybe that would have happened if the pizza hadn’t been so thick. My guest didn’t eat more than half – after three slices I was told that it didn’t seem worth eating the rest of what was essentially a dolled up pepperoni pizza.

CoppaPizza

We didn’t stay for dessert – nothing quite appealed enough and by then I had been sufficiently irritated by my experience that I was quite comfortable leaving. A shame really, as one might have helped to tide me over in the inordinate wait for getting and paying the bill. Even waiting to ask for the bill, dessert menus in front of us, was an odd experience; one of the waiters cleared my folded napkin as he passed our table without actually speaking to us or making eye contact (which is quite hard to do, I think). In the end we had to call out to a passing waiter, who seemed to be cleaning up rather than actually, um, waiting. Dinner for two came to fifty pounds near as damnit and – and I almost never, ever do this – I did not tip.

At the end of the meal my companion and I were discussing Coppa Club, not entirely sure what to make of it. I said I preferred it to Jamie’s Italian, my companion thought Jamie’s was better. We both agreed that if Coppa Club was in an easier location to get to we’d probably go back, but that it wasn’t quite enough to prompt a trip out to Sonning. Above all, the service baffled us both – how can a place work so hard at everything else and get that wrong? Since coming back, mulling it over and sitting down to write this, the power of Google has revealed several enthusiastic reviews of Coppa Club, with a few bloggers going and thoroughly enjoying it. Some of them had some of the dishes I had, so it was strange to read people waxing lyrical over the fritto misto, or the lamb chops. Only one of the reviews specifically said that it was comped, so it might be that people spending their own money really loved Coppa Club and I – with my slight grouchiness about service and seating, with a rustic potato on my shoulder – just took against it. But I wasn’t won over; there’s something irksome about a place that, however nice it might be, isn’t as good as it thinks it is.

Coppa Club – 6.8
The Great House, Thames Street, Sonning, RG4 6UT
0118 9219890

http://coppaclub.co.uk/

Cosmo

How do I sum up the experience of eating in Cosmo? How can I possibly distil such a complex experience, so many different types of food, into a single review? Well, maybe I should start at the end of the meal. There were four of us round the table (I know: people actually wanted to come with me!), looking at our largely empty plates, feeling a mixture of remorse and queasy fear about how our bodies would cope with what came next. Tim, chosen for this mission because he is one of the biggest gluttons I know, paused for a second and said “I don’t think this place is going to help anybody have a healthy relationship with food.”

There was further silence and the rest of us tried to digest what he had said (trying to digest, it turned out, would be a theme over the next forty-eight hours).

“I don’t really feel like I’ve eaten in a restaurant this evening.” Tim went on. “I just feel like I’ve spent time smashing food into my mouth.”

I looked down at the leftovers on my plate – a solitary Yorkshire pudding stuffed with crispy duck and topped with hoi sin (it was my friend Ben’s idea and it sounded like a brilliant plan at the time) and started to laugh hysterically. It might have been all the sugar in the Chinese food, the sweet white crystals on top of the crispy seaweed, but I felt, in truth, a little delirious.

“Nobody should leave a restaurant feeling this way.” said Ben, possibly the other biggest glutton I’ve ever met and a man who has never, to the best of my knowledge, left a restaurant entirely replete. We all nodded, too full to speak. I can’t remember who got onto this topic, but there was a general consensus that we were all dreading our next visit to the bathroom and then, having said all that and paid up, we waddled out onto Friar Street and into the night.

Alternatively, maybe I should sum up the experience of eating at Cosmo by recounting the conversations on Facebook the next day. I won’t name names, but we had I had to sleep with a hot water bottle on my belly to aid with digestion, along with I still feel ill, not to forget the more evocative my burps taste of MSG and – look away now if you’re easily shocked – I just did something approximating to a poo and it wasn’t pretty. Tim was feeling so grotty that he worked from home, all of us felt icky and found ourselves daydreaming about salad or vegetables – you don’t see many vegetables at Cosmo, you know – and hoping for some time in the future when the meal was a distant memory.

The thing is that if I started to sum up Cosmo that way you might just assume that I went with some greedy pigs, we all ate too much, made ourselves poorly and have nobody but ourselves to blame. So maybe I should start more conventionally at the point where we walked in and were escorted to a Siberian table for four right at the back, close to the emergency exit, far from daylight. You go in past a display of bread and vegetables in little baskets (I can only assume this is a heroic piece of misdirection, or some kind of in-joke) and then you wind up in some kind of windowless all-you-can-eat dungeon.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of Cosmo, may I first express my undying envy before going on to explain: it is indeed a gigantic buffet where you can consume as much food as you like for two hours before your time is up and you are asked to leave. Serving staff constantly circle the room while you are up at the cooking stations, whisking away your old plate so that when you sit down you can almost forget just how much food you have consumed. I bet you’re getting peckish just reading this, right?

All major cuisines are represented, provided your idea of major cuisines is largely Chinese and Indian. There are other things on offer – sushi, pizza (or, as Tim referred to it, “random pizza”, when he stuck a slice of one right next to his crispy duck pancake), a big wodge of unappetising pink gammon you were invited to carve yourself, something described as “beef stew”, I could go on – but the general theme is pan-Asian. The “pan” might be short for “pandemic”.

The experience of eating at Cosmo is very different from a traditional meal where you all sit down at a table, decide what you want and then chat away while someone cooks and brings it to you (it’s very different in the sense that Ryanair, for instance, is very different from British Airways). I would say there were very few moments where all four of us were sitting down at once: instead we were frequently prowling from one cooking station to the other, finding things to stick on our fresh plates, wondering if our choices went with one another, wondering whether it mattered, wondering where Ben got the idea of sticking crispy duck in a Yorkshire pudding like a massive demented vol-au-vent (You haven’t lived until you’ve put sushi, Yorkshire pudding and rogan josh together on the same plate said someone on Twitter – hi Pete! – in the run-up to my visit: all I can say is I still haven’t lived, and I’m fine with that).

When we were talking, most of the conversation revolved around one of three topics, namely “this dish isn’t half as bad as I thought it would be”, “try this, it’s truly atrocious” or, and this one was mainly led by me, “what possessed you to put crispy duck in a Yorkshire pudding?”

When you get to Cosmo you’re a bit like a kid in a sweet shop at first (although who over the age of six wants to have dinner in a sweetshop?). The other way that the experience is different to a normal meal out is that as the evening wears on, the mood gets slightly more deranged. Maybe it’s the cumulative effect of all that sugar, maybe it’s the body’s way of expressing Vitamin C withdrawal symptoms, or maybe it’s my fault because I collated a list of all the things people had recommended and I was insistent that we try them all. It was like an I-Spy book or something, and I directed people with military precision: You, go get some sushi. Tim, check out the prawns with ginger and spring onion. I’ll hit the teppanyaki station. Meet you back here in a couple of minutes. All right, let’s move out! If that doesn’t sound like fun then take it from me, the element of co-ordinated planning and being in it together was probably the most fun thing about the evening (well, that and bonding over our bowel movements the next day).

Finally, let’s talk about the food. Between us we ate so many dishes that it’s difficult to go into forensic detail about everything, but as a general rule I’d say the things I expected to be good were poor and the things I expected to be dreadful weren’t quite as bad as I feared. For instance I had the teppanyaki station recommended to me, so I made sure I had some seared scallops (or, more literally, a scallop cut into thin slices and griddled) and some very thin steak wrapped around enoki mushrooms, also griddled. The scallops were pleasant if basic, the enoki tasted of nothing but oil and the steak, if it tasted of anything, tasted of oily mushrooms. Similarly, I went to the grill station and asked for something off the bone and they recommended the pork. It still had a bone in it and I watched the chef slice it on a board before handing it to me. It was some miraculous cut of pork that was made only of bone, fat and crackling, presumably from a pig which had spent its entire life lying down.

CosmoTeppan

What else? Well, Tim pronounced the samosas and spring rolls as “rubbish” (nothing in them, he said), an adjective he also applied to his lamb rogan josh. I tried a bit of the latter and I tended to agree, the lamb and the sauce felt like they had spent their whole lives apart before being stirred together at the last minute, no depth of flavour in the meat, nothing you couldn’t do yourself with a jar of sauce from Loyd Grossman. The tandoori chicken was apparently dry. The most derision was reserved for the “crab claw”, something made of goodness knows what, a wodge of awful, indeterminate homogenous beige material not dissimilar to a washing up sponge. Tim disliked his so much he insisted that Ben try one and Ben, a man I have never known to turn down food, had a mouthful and abandoned the rest. The sushi was also judged to be pretty grim, claggy and flavourless, soggy seaweed and all.

CosmoBuns

There were some slightly better dishes. The chicken satay was nice enough, although certainly no better than chicken satay I’ve had at dozens of other places in Reading and beyond. The stir fried green beans were thoroughly enjoyable, although that might just have been the novelty value of eating something that was actually green. We all quite liked the char siu and the black pepper chicken, although again not enough to tell people to make a beeline for Cosmo just to eat them. The steamed pork buns divided opinion – some of us liked them, some found them just too sweet. Again, China Palace undoubtedly does them better, and China Palace is itself arguably nothing special. Tim liked the pad Thai, and Ben seemed not to mind the southern fried chicken. The crispy seaweed was lovely, but then I could eat crispy seaweed all day. Also in the Chinese section were some miniature hash browns with spring onion: they were about as out of place as I was.

CosmoPork

Before I went to Cosmo someone very wise on Twitter – hello Dan! – said that he treated the place as an all you can eat duck pancake meal. I think this might be the best way to approach Cosmo: again, it was okay rather than amazing but perhaps the trick is to find a dish that never lets you down and stock up on that. We all started on this dish and a couple of us went back to it later on when the other options ran out of appeal. There was also crispy pork, also for pancakes, and I was a little concerned that the pork and the duck didn’t taste quite as different as they could have done. Still, even if it was a bunch of faintly meaty fluffy strands it hit the spot in a way that most of the other dishes couldn’t.

CosmoDuck

“It’s important not to be snobby about Cosmo.” said Ben towards the end of the meal as he ate his trio of miniature desserts, three little sponge cakes (he was the only person to have any dessert – he wasn’t a big fan of them, though). Maybe he’s right: there’s undoubtedly a place for this kind of restaurant and a market for it, which is why there are queues outside it at the weekend. It’s cheap – all you can eat (which, by the end of my evening, had mutated into “all you can bear”) for fourteen pounds on a week night. I can also see it would be perfect for parents, for big groups, for indecisive people or, and I sometimes forget how many of these there are in every town, not just Reading, people who Just Don’t Like Food That Much.

In my ivory tower, enthusing about the likes of Papa Gee, Perry’s or Pepe Sale it’s easy for me to forget that some people just want to get fuelled up somewhere like Cosmo before going on to one of Reading’s many characterful chain pubs, and I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. And perhaps that’s the point of Cosmo full stop – it doesn’t serve the best of anything, but if quantity and range are the most important things then Cosmo is the place for you. I’m just glad I don’t ever have to participate again, and if that makes me a snob I suppose I’m just going to have to suck it up. Maybe I should get a t-shirt printed or something.

I didn’t mention the service, because it isn’t really that kind of place, but what there was was pleasant and entirely lacking in the kind of existential despair I would experience if I had to spend more than two hours in Cosmo. I’ve saved the cost of the meal until last, for good reason. Dinner for four, including two glasses of unremarkable wine and a couple of bottomless soft drinks, came to seventy pounds. But more importantly, and this is what makes it the most expensive meal I’ve ever reviewed for the blog, it cost ER readers over a thousand pounds. Yes, people made over a grand’s worth of pledges (not including GiftAid) to Launchpad to enable them to continue doing their incredible work for the homeless and vulnerable in Reading, work which has never been more badly needed than it is today. And if you haven’t donated yet, but you enjoyed reading this review, it’s not too late: just click here.

So, veni, vidi, icky: I went to Cosmo, just like I promised I would, and I had a pretty iffy meal, just like you thought I would. No surprises there, and that might well be why you sponsored me in the first place. But now the after-effects have subsided, when I look at how everybody rallied round and chipped in, and most importantly when I think about what all that money will achieve for our brilliant town, it’s hard to imagine I’ll have a less regrettable meal all year.

Launchpad

Cosmo – 5.0
35-38 Friar Street, RG1 1DX
0118 9595588

http://www.cosmo-restaurants.co.uk/locations/reading/

Feature: Dining elsewhere

This might be hard for you to believe, but Reading isn’t perfect. Even I, with my bad habit of standing on the virtual soapbox and shouting about its best bits, know that. I’ve talked in the past about all the types of restaurants I’d love to see open in Reading, from indies to (some) chains, but this week instead of a review I thought I’d go one step further and talk about some of my favourite restaurants outside Reading. These are places I would love to pick up and plonk somewhere in town, even if I know in my heart of hearts that they wouldn’t necessarily fit in.

This is by no means a list of the best restaurants anywhere, by the way. Often your favourite restaurant isn’t necessarily the best – the food might not be as flawless, the service might not be as polished, but simply put your favourite restaurants are the ones where you have the best times. Your mileage, should you ever get to one of this lot, will undoubtedly vary. And it’s not definitive, either: I missed out countless places in the interest of limiting this to half a dozen, including little bistros in Paris, sweet sun-kissed tavernas on Greek islands, Michelin starred joints deep in the Cotswolds and establishments from Toronto to Glasgow, from Prague to Istanbul. Loving restaurants is a wonderful thing, I think. Loving lists the way I do also brings a lot of joy. But trying to combine the two, it turns out, is rather an agonising pursuit.

Pierre Victoire, Oxford

(Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor)

Reading doesn’t really have a proper French bistro. A few places have come close (and Brebis is only a train ride away) but you’d hope a town the size of Reading could sustain somewhere like Oxford’s Pierre Victoire. Originally part of a now defunct chain (which at one point included Reading, so maybe we don’t deserve another after all) this place has thrived by offering some great classics, an amazing value set menu (where starters and desserts are only two quid each. No really) and proper French service – you know, the sort where they always seem slightly amused by you but want to charm your socks off none the less.

Despite being a pretty big restaurant, getting a table here is a real challenge unless you’ve booked ahead (which I singularly fail to do) so I sometimes end up eating here at lunch instead of dinner, just to make sure I do get to try it. On my most recent visit I tucked into a gorgeous quenelle of smooth chicken liver pate followed by a big stainless steel pot of moules marinière with skinny fries. I also nicked some of my companion’s potato rosti (sitting underneath a splendid, crispy confit duck leg) which would have been worth the price of admission alone. Lunch for two, including a crazily reasonable half bottle of Côtes du Rhône, came to thirty-six pounds. Thirty-six pounds! The tables are all squished together – which normally would annoy me, but here I like it because of the people-watching potential – and I never leave without wishing I could put Pierre’s in my pocket and bring it back on the train with me. Reading could really do with a little more ooh la la, n’est-ce pas?

Great Queen Street, London
Great-Queen-Street-Interior(Photo from the restaurant’s website)

I know that London is arguably the most exciting dining scene in the world right now. I know that every cuisine is represented, to dazzling effect, and that every month new places open, shifting the dynamic of the place ever so slightly. It must be lovely to have all that on your doorstep to choose from, from the high end to street food with every permutation in between. I know all that, and yet – and I know this will make me sound like a hick from the sticks – I have had so many disappointing meals there you would not believe.

I follow the critics, I ooh and aah over the meals (both the pictures in the papers and the ones they paint with their effortless sentences) and yet I’m so often underwhelmed. Whether it’s a neighbourhood restaurant a little off the Tube network, an old stager offering faded but charming grandeur or Michelin starred luxury on the top floor of some tall building, I often end up on the train back from Paddington thinking “what am I missing?”. Probably a lot, but what it means is that when I do go in I want to find somewhere central, reliable and decent that I can book in advance, where I won’t have to queue round the block for hours or spend two hours pretending I’m having more fun than I am.

At the moment, for me, that place is Great Queen Street. Just off Drury Lane, part of a group which includes legendary Waterloo gastropub The Anchor & Hope and Oxford’s Magdalen Arms. It’s just perfect – dark, clubby, welcoming and totally disinterested in being cool. The menu is the kind of unpretentious list where you want to order practically everything and the wine list is full of inexpensive delights (plenty from the Languedoc, I’m happy to say). Last time I went, I shared a chicken, leek and tarragon pie, all rich creamy filling topped with flaky pastry but with that beautiful slightly soggy layer just beneath, like a business class Fray Bentos, and I liked it so much I nearly wept. I would say that once you eat there, you’ll never go back to Sweeney and Todd – but to be honest you could say the same once you eat at Sweeney and Todd.

Bosco Pizzeria, Bristol

Despite discovering (if that’s even the right word, seeing as loads of you told me you loved it but just didn’t want me telling everyone) Papa Gee last year, I am still yearning for a comfy neighbourhood pizzeria. Well, I sort of found one, but the problem is that it’s on the Whiteladies Road in Bristol. And I always seem to end up there when I visit Bristol, despite it being a city with so many amazing restaurants (Wallfish in Clifton, for one, or the wonderful tapas restaurant Bravas). It’s not even Bristol’s coolest pizzeria – the up and coming Flour And Ash has taken that title – but it remains one of my favourite places to eat.

I’m normally there for lunch, but it’s the kind of restaurant that has perfected offering something for everyone, whether it’s small groups, dates or family outings. The menu is brilliant, with great antipasti (especially the burrata and coppa – to be honest I could gladly live off some combination of those two) leading up to the genuine highlight, the pizza. The base is light, chewy, ever so slightly charred and bubbly. The toppings are simple but steer clear of cliché. And – no small thing this – I love the service. It’s tattooed, passionate and informal (or, in a word, “Bristol”). I do rather collect pizzerias, especially abroad (La Briciola in Paris, Linko in Helsinki, I could go on) but there’s something about Bosco. Writing this now I can imagine sitting at a window table with some montepulciano, waiting for my pizza to arrive. And as much as I love Papa Gee, its slightly down at heel style and all, I’d love to see somewhere like Bosco dropped into one of the empty sites in the centre of Reading. That would be gert lush.

Bodegas Castañeda, Granada

Granada is the true home of tapas, where every alcoholic drink is accompanied with a small plate of free food, be that a basic wedge of tortilla or a helping of salty, crumbly manchego. If you love food then that alone is reason enough to visit, even without a visit to the beautiful Alhambra, the stunning Moorish fortress which stands sentinel over the city from its position at the top of a very steep hill. Well, that and the sherry. And the wine. And the more sherry.

Anyway, Bodegas Castañeda is in the heart of the city (one street along from, confusingly, an inferior establishment with almost exactly the same name) and, for me, it epitomises eating in Andalucia. Yes, there are still free tapas (the habas con jamon, broad beans with rich, savoury nuggets of ham, for instance) but the clientele here knows that the stuff you pay for is worth the jostling at the bar, which runs almost the entire length of the shallow, wide room. The staff, a wry bunch of super-efficient, slightly hangdog aproned men, serve sherry from large casks, pouring with a flourish that is more for entertainment than taste, and watching them work as a unit always fills me with admiration (and, probably more importantly, gratitude).

You need your wits – and your elbows – about you to eat at Bodegas Castañeda, but the rewards are enormous: simple, savoury slices of the delicious jamon that hangs over the bar, thick pieces of mojama – cured tuna – topped with almonds and drizzled with olive oil, the saltiest bacalao draped over the smallest slices of bread, an embarrassment of riches. My mouth is watering now, something of a Pavlovian reflex which I get almost every time I think about Granada. All that and you can eat and drink like royalty (and get royally sloshed) at Bodegas Castañeda for less than forty euros, provided you’re happy to muck in and try speaking a little Spanish. Believe me, it’s worth the effort.

Bonjardim, Lisbon
BonjardimI love Lisbon so much, and it has a much underrated food scene. Of course, there are the famous egg custard tarts and the port – everyone knows about those – but there’s so much more to it than that. Beautiful seafood, surprisingly good cheeses, petiscos that give any tapas out there a run for its money and my personal favourite, ginjinha, a rich sticky cherry liqueur sometimes served in (and you might want to brace yourself for this bit) an edible chocolate cup. Drink the liqueur, destroy the evidence, eat some chocolate into the bargain: trust me, some messy nights can begin this way.

Despite that, my favourite restaurant in Lisbon is in many ways one of its most basic. Bonjardim isn’t far from Rossio station, with a restaurants and tables on both sides of a little alley. It’s known as “Rei dos Frangos” (the king of chickens) and they aren’t kidding, because that’s what you order if you know what’s good for you. A whole spit-roasted chicken for two turns up with some slightly unnecessary chips, and it’s the most glorious, amazing, intoxicating thing. The skin has been rubbed with lemon, salt and oil until it’s almost brittle with the intense taste of wonderful crackling. Underneath, the meat is perfect; there’s a little pot of peri peri sauce you can brush on, if you feel that way inclined, but I’ve never seen the need. You just sit there, in the evening warmth, eating chicken and drinking wine or a frosted pint of Super Bock, watching the hawkers and the buskers wandering past on a seemingly eternal loop. Maybe we won’t ever get the weather, and it’s probably just my fanciful imagination, but I can picture something like this on Queen Victoria Street.

Can Paixano, Barcelona

I could have picked so many places in Barcelona for this piece. One of the finest meals I’ve ever had was in its Michelin starred restaurant Cinc Sentits, a meal so amazing that I wrote down every single course I ate in the tasting menu and for months after I could just get out the piece of paper, look at it and sigh. But last time I went, I found the strangest thing – the less informal a place was, the more fun I had.

So although I enjoyed the proper old-school glamour of the “rich man’s paella” at Set Portes, the real delights came from the stand-up tapas joints, places like El Bitxo and the venerable El Xampanyet, where the waiters effortlessly swish from table to table offering to top you up with cava (and people think the Italians have a monopoly on offers you cannot refuse). This reached its apex at Can Paixano, a little bar on the edge of the old port on a seemingly lifeless sidestreet – a long thin room with no discernible furniture where people jostle at the bar for saucers of cava at little more than a Euro a glass. Meat hangs from the ceiling and the no-frills menu behind the grill tells you what’s on offer. You order some chorizo or morcilla and sip your drink (slightly off-dry rose cava for me, since you asked) while it’s sliced and grilled or fried in front of your very eyes. Last time I went, a group of young Irish chaps were there, clearly unable to believe their luck having chanced upon the place completely by accident. I bet they were wishing their home town had somewhere a little like Can Paixano: I know I was.

So, those are some of my favourites. Why not chip in in the comments section and let me know some of yours?