Wellington Farm Shop, Stratfield Saye

I’ve written before about how hard it is to get a decent brunch in this town. Since then Bluegrass has opened and does a surprisingly good range of breakfast options, especially if you like pancakes, or the sweet-salty union of bacon and maple syrup, but apart from that your main options are still the chains (principally Côte and Carluccio’s, in my book). And yes, I know I should probably try The Gorge, or Munchees, or even the caff at the Cattle Market, but the fear of disturbingly smooth sausages and highlighter-pen-pink flaccid back bacon has always put me off.

It’s a shame, because a full English is such a treat, especially when somebody else is making it for you. I probably have it about twice a year, but when I do I really want it to be good. It needs to be, really, when you consider all the salt, fat and calories in it. And I’ve never really reviewed one before, partly because I’ve long suspected that, like roast dinners, the very best ones you can have out will still only come a close second to the one you could rustle up at home. Having said all that, Wellington Farm Shop has been recommended to me several times for breakfasts, it’s a short drive out of town and I woke up one fine sunny Sunday morning hangover-free and with a hankering for dead pig. And that’s why you’re reading this review today.

They serve breakfast until half-eleven, and turning up at around quarter past I found the place in full swing, with a queue at the counter and most of the tables occupied; we had to share a long table with another couple who very kindly let us perch on the other end of it. You walk through the farm shop, with its amazing array of deeply middle-class products (meats, cheeses, pickles, wines, blankets, shower gel, room diffusers… it was almost as if Boden had opened a supermarket) and end up in an attractive whitewashed room with lots of neat but rustic wooden tables, chairs and benches.

The signs on the wall make much of the fact that they use lots of produce from the farm shop, and the local area, in the café’s food, so I was particularly looking forward to trying out breakfast. The menu was also sensibly quite limited – no eggs Benedict here, just a full English, a lighter version (the “Montague”) featuring poached eggs and thin streaky bacon, scrambled eggs with smoked salmon or a bacon or sausage butty. The bread apparently comes from Bon Appetit bakery in Pangbourne; I’d not heard of them, but I was looking forward to trying it out.

I was told when I placed my order that we’d probably be waiting about half an hour for our breakfasts – I wasn’t sure whether this was because they were especially busy, or if it was always like that, but I was happy to wait so we took our seats and watched the hubbub around us. It seemed to be an especially popular place for families, and it was nice to see so many people enjoying breakfast together (especially when it’s a meal I so rarely get to have). I already had a positive feeling: everyone seemed so happy, and surely so many people couldn’t be wrong?

The drinks arrived fairly quickly, so we had something to keep us going. I’m told the latte (the coffee is from Reads Coffee in Dorset, apparently) was okay but nothing special, slightly bitter with a thin texture which didn’t really suggest good milk heated into glossy frothiness. Earl Grey was a bag in a pot rather than loose leaves, slightly better than Twinings but nothing to write home about. I didn’t make a note of who it was by, which tells its own story. Breakfasts actually turned up in around twenty minutes. We both went for the Wellington breakfast (basically the full English), one medium and one large. The main difference was that the large contained two of everything – bacon, sausage, hash brown, egg, black pudding – although what this ultimately meant was that one of us got to be twice as disappointed as the other.

Now from this point onwards I’m going to struggle to be constructive, and I’ve never been good at the feedback sandwich, so let’s get the positives out of the way first. The hash browns were lovely. I’m not sure who they were by – they were sort of equilateral triangle-shaped – but they were truly delicious. They reminded me, in fact, how much I love a hash brown (although, on that note, Bluegrass does even better ones). The brown sauce, by Stokes, was also gorgeous, deep, rich and fruity. Of course, the café doesn’t make it but it’s a smart move to serve a breakfast so mediocre with a sauce which can do its level best to conceal that.

That’s largely where the good news ends. From that point onwards, it was downhill all the way. The baked beans were pleasant but lukewarm – and when you have so little to do with baked beans you can at least get them on a plate hot. The sausages looked the part, but cutting into them they were curiously smooth and homogeneous. We were eating in a farm shop, and I couldn’t quite believe these were the best sausages they could lay their hands on. It made me think of Greens of Pangbourne, or Jennings in Caversham, both of which do infinitely better sausages (as, for that matter, do Sainsburys). Bacon was even worse. Thick, flaccid slabs of back, more like anaemic gammon than decent bacon, with salt but no smoke or crispiness. I couldn’t finish mine, even after I’d taken off the rubber bands of fat. I know bacon, more than anything, is a matter of personal taste (crispy smoked streaky for me, ideally) but this felt like iffy food poorly cooked.

WellingtonBreakfast

Speaking of poorly cooked, let’s talk about the fried eggs. They weren’t so much poorly cooked as barely cooked. One, in fact, was so barely cooked that the white hadn’t set. It sat there on my plate like ropy snot, putting me off completely. The black pudding was variable – some was nicely cooked and crumbly, the rest was in a big thick slab and felt like it hadn’t had long enough. The mushroom was half a Portobello – it had been cooked in that it wasn’t raw, but there was no juiciness, or stickiness, no sign that anyone had salted or peppered it, or shown it any love at all. It had gone into a frying pan (let’s hope, anyway) in vain. Ditto for the tomatoes – they had been cooked, but were bland and tasteless. Just to stress again, we were eating in a farm shop.

Last but not least, I’d like to exempt Bon Appetit Bakery from any criticism. Their bread was quite lovely, beautifully seeded and truly delicious with some salted butter melting on it. But the farm shop couldn’t even get that right, because you got a single small slice with each breakfast. Toast is vital to a full English: it’s what your yolk seeps into, what you load your baked beans onto, it plays a crucial, central role. One slice to accompany all that – admittedly truly average – food seems poorly thought out at best, stingy at worst.

I didn’t finish my large breakfast, my companion finished her medium one. We both felt like we had wasted a lot of our calories for the day; really, no meal is quite as disappointing as a poor cooked breakfast. The whole thing came to just over twenty pounds. Service was minimal, friendly but not very effective; at one point the waitress offered to bring over another cup so the two of us could share the large pot of Earl Grey, but we never saw her again. Maybe they were busy, that would explain why she didn’t return. Explaining why they were busy in the first place? Well, that’s beyond me.

So there you have it: I ventured out of town to try and find somewhere where the sausages weren’t bouncy and the bacon wasn’t pink and floppy and I found Wellington Farm Shop Café, where they were exactly that. Perhaps I was missing something, because it was incredibly popular. Perhaps it’s me. Breakfasts are an incredibly personal thing, and the sausages and bacon (and mushroom for that matter) I described might be right up your alley. But I’m still daydreaming about somewhere in Reading that does coarse, herby sausages and rich, crumbly black pudding. Somewhere that serves thin, crispy streaky bacon (and plenty of it) and golden scrambled egg scattered with freshly ground black pepper. Somewhere with limitless toast where they butter right up to the edges. Somewhere, in fact, like my kitchen but without any washing up.

Oh well. Until then, you’ll probably find me in Bluegrass.

Wellington Farm Shop – 5.2

Welsh Lane, Stratfield Saye, RG27 0LJ
0118 9326132

http://www.stratfield-saye.co.uk/wellington-farm-shop/farmshop-in-store/farm-shop-cafe/

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Feature: 20 things I love about Reading

No review this week, I’m afraid. Every now and again work is just too busy, or holidays get in the way and it’s just not possible for me to get to a restaurant (not somewhere new, anyway), form a critical judgment and knock out a couple of thousand words. But I couldn’t leave you completely in the lurch so instead I thought I’d do a bit of a departure – a feature which isn’t entirely about eating and drinking.

As regular readers will know, I absolutely love Reading and if there’s one thing that really cheeses me off it’s people running it down. So this week I’ve decided to do one of those Buzzfeed-style articles that are all the rage with the movers and shakers and give you a not remotely exhaustive or definitive list of the things I love about this eccentric, deceptively characterful town of ours. Hope you enjoy it, and by all means chip in in the comments section with everything I’ve forgotten to mention, or the things that would make your personal list. Ready? Got a cup of tea handy? Right, off we go!

1. John Lewis

JohnLewis

I’ve always felt that John Lewis is the closest thing Reading has to a cathedral and, like many Reading folk no doubt, I’ve always had an almost visceral loyalty to it as an institution. I’m not sure there’s any more heartwarming experience than strolling down Queen Victoria Street to see its distinctive façade and clock coming into view (although it’s just as distinctive from the Oracle side with its weird, almost pagoda-like sloped roofs).

But, of course, it’s really about what’s inside and what’s inside is everything you could possibly want. I know everyone is sad about Jackson’s closing, and that’s fair enough, but really, John Lewis is the place you can buy whatever you need from duvet covers to board games to scented candles to cameras to pretty much anything else. Whenever anyone asks me “where should I go for X?”, the answer’s nearly always John Lewis.

It’s not quite as lovely as it used to be since they dolled the place up, but it does give rise to one of my favourite John Lewis stories. When they did their refit they got rid of the grand old curvy lifts like pods that took you from the top to the bottom of the department store. The new ones, which I don’t like so much, are your stereotypical glass boxes but – and only John Lewis would do this – they let the staff name them. Have a look next time you’re in one of them.

And before you say anything: yes, I know, it will always be Heelas to me, too.

2. The Retreat

The recent hoo-ha about whether Reading served lots of bad beer spectacularly missed the point that not only does Reading have a magnificent beer culture, punching well above its weight, but it also has some of the finest pubs anybody could hope for. I know purists might well pick somewhere else, and we could be here all day debating, but The Retreat is probably my favourite. I’ve had some magical evenings here, there are always interesting conversations going on all around you and it’s a truly lovely place to drink a pint, eat some jalapeno pretzel pieces and chat with friends, play cards or just read a book and watch the world go by. Especially nice if you happen to be there on a night when ukulele practice is going on, I find. Oh, and the landlord is a twinkly delight.

3. Dolce Vita

I’m not sure there’s anything to say about Dolce Vita that I haven’t already said, but as a place to go for any kind of meal in Reading – big ones, little ones, even solo ones – it’s pretty much impossible to beat. The food is a great combination of reliable favourites and regularly changing nice surprises, the service is uniformly downright superb and it literally never lets me down. It’s almost the only restaurant left in what’s currently still called The Walk (but will no doubt soon be called Atlantis Palace or some other such horror) but whatever you think of the rather baffling way that mall is managed, I think they’re too sensible to muck with Dolce Vita.

4. South Street

21SouthStreet

No surprises here, I’m sure; I was delighted when South Street was saved, and just as delighted to watch a whole community come together to fight for it. Over the years I’ve seen all sorts of things here, and I can’t think of an arts centre that puts on such a brave, eclectic and consistently interesting programme of events. So I saw Alan Carr here before he was famous (he was exceptional) and Mumford & Sons (I was dragged to that one). But I’ve also seen one-person shows about hair extensions, or driving a clapped-out car to Rome, or about orbiting the moon on your own. I’ve seen folk music and cabaret, political comedy and, most recently, an amazing woman with Tourette’s make a whole audience shout the word “biscuit” in the sonic equivalent of a Mexican wave. I can’t imagine all that happening anywhere else.

5. Reading Museum

I have a real soft spot for Reading Museum. Every time I go I seem to find something new, and every time I go I realise it’s far too long since I last went. The changing exhibitions are always interesting, there’s lots of interactive stuff for kids, it gives you a proper sense of place and, of course, there’s the full size replica of the Bayeux Tapestry (or, to try to appeal to Buzzfeed readers, “one of the first ever graphic novels”). It’s well worth going for the guided tours of the tapestry every Saturday when the enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff whizz you round it explaining that it’s actually an embroidery and telling you the fascinating story of how Reading came to own a copy – and how close to destruction the original came (you also find out how the prim Victorians who made the replica knitted some y-fronts on the copy to ensure there was no full frontal nudity: fun for everyone).

6. Tutti Frutti

I’m sure pretty much everyone loves Tutti Frutti and it’s not a controversial choice. But it belongs on this list. My friends who drink coffee say Tutti Frutti’s is surprisingly good. The ice cream is knockout, whether it’s peach and amaretto, or Kinder Bueno (phwoar!) or Greek yoghurt and lemon curd (double phwoar!) or some of the more interesting experiments like blue cheese and honey (don’t knock it til you’ve tried it). But also, it’s about the service. Paul and Jane are both lovely – he is like an old-fashioned shopkeeper and she is a hyperactive whirlwind of enthusiasm and delight. The people they hire are unfailingly friendly and interested without being fake. I’m no fan of the soulless hangar that is the new Reading Station: give me the slightly crumbling, tacky bit with Tutti Frutti in it any day.

7. Launchpad

Launchpad

Homelessness in Reading is an increasing and increasingly upsetting issue. Launchpad do incredible work in this area, and so much more. I wouldn’t eat at Cosmo for anybody else.

8. The After Dark

I’ve been going to the After Dark for longer than I care to remember, as I suspect have many of its regulars. I love their Eighties night (which is, let’s face it, on most of the time) – where else could you experience Crash, You Can Call Me Al, and 99 Red Balloons in quick succession? I love sitting in the back bar with an ill-advised double and mixer (because, as they like to remind you, the After Dark’s drinks prices haven’t changed in a Very Long Time) watching the great and the good preparing to make a serious assault on the north face of the dance floor, no doubt murdering the chorus of Take On Me in the process. I still love evenings that end up here, even if it’s a decision that doesn’t seem quite so sage the following morning. Oh, one other thing: some of the times I’ve gone recently it’s been worrying quiet. Use it or lose it.

9. The architecture

QueenVictoriaStreet

So much of it is lovelier than it gets credit for. So, in no particular order: John Lewis, the Town Hall, Queen Victoria Street, the Oxfam Bookshop, Waterstones on Broad Street. Seriously, just look up some time. And then there are all the beautiful streets and areas further out from the centre: Eldon Square, School Terrace, New Road, The Mount, the alms houses off Castle Street. I could go on.

10. The first pint of the year in the Allied Arms beer garden

You know the year is changing for the good when that magic moment arrives. You finish work, you’re in town, you go to the Allied and it’s warm enough to sit outside without the heaters on. Usually only just, of course, so you sit there in your coat convincing yourself that it’s plenty sunny enough. But the point is that that first al fresco drink is seminal, because soon after that there will be long lazy Friday evenings there, trying to bag one of the sunny tables at the back, taking it in turns to thread your way to the bar and come back with an array of pints and packets of pork scratchings, Monster Munch, Scampi Fries and Quavers. The jukebox is playing something good (unless some prog-loving spoilsport has put on Shine On You Crazy Diamond, as Allied regulars are wont to do) and you can almost convince yourself that this summer is the one that will last forever.

11. The Salvation Army brass band playing Christmas carols

At the other end of the spectrum, Christmas in Reading for me isn’t about the festive food materialising in John Lewis, or our worryingly tacky Christmas lights going up. No, it’s that wonderful moment on a Saturday in November when you reach the front of Marks & Spencer to find the Salvation Army brass band, in a little throng, spotless in their uniforms, parping their way through In The Bleak Midwinter. I defy you to sit through that and have your cockles unwarmed.

12. Pepe Sale

Pepe Sale was the first restaurant I ever reviewed for Edible Reading, and it will always have a special place in my heart. Some of that is about Marco, the supernaturally charming front of house: sometimes I just want to kidnap him, take him home and have him talk to me while I make myself baked beans on toast; I’m not sure how anyone could not like him. But of course, it’s more than that. It’s also about the fresh filled pasta, the music bread with oil and rosemary, the antipasti with a single salty piece of fried pecorino on top, the roast suckling pig with light, crispy crackling. And a bottle of a cracking Sardinian red, and a glass of Mirto Rosso after (or instead of) dessert. Like Dolce Vita, it’s a good example of how a restaurant, if it’s terrific enough, can flourish in the unlikeliest of locations, like a beautiful flower poking through a crack in the pavement.

13. The Nag’s Head

NagsHead

The Nag’s Head is the perfect example of how a pub should be run. It’s almost never empty, it has a constantly rotating array of beers and ciders and everyone in there is friendly, happy and having a fantastic time. Sharing tables with strangers is positively encouraged and I’m yet to have a bad evening there. In summer, you can even sit outside, an experience so pleasant that you can quite overlook the fact that you’re basically drinking in a car park. They don’t really do food but the pies aren’t bad and the pulled pork sandwiches are also meant to be pretty decent. On some of my most recent visits I’ve seen a chap there wearing a t-shirt saying “DRINK MEAD AND PRAISE ODIN” and drinking his ale out of some kind of horn, or a tankard made up to look like a hollowed out skull. What, I ask you, is not to like?

14. Not going to the festival

Walking through town on festival weekend, going home and having a shower. Can’t beat it.

15. The Reading Forum

I love the Reading Forum so much. Back in the old days, there used to be the Reading Post, and its website was easy to comment on and lots of people did. But as it changed, I think more and more people ended up at the Reading Forum talking about everything from shops, to restaurants, to local news, from the Reading Bridge to the journalistic standards of some of our local websites. In the interests of full disclosure, I put a link to my review up every week and there’s always some discussion. People don’t always agree, but they’re unfailingly lovely about me spamming them. Best of all, discussions frequently meander off topic, so I’ll post a review of a restaurant and it will gradually morph into a conversation about somewhere long closed, or what a pub used to be called, or something completely different. I absolutely love that.

16. Reading Minster

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Many people have never been inside Reading Minster, which I think is a real shame. The volunteers who show you round clearly genuinely love the place and it’s got some real history to it. Some of it dates from the tenth century and when Reading Abbey was destroyed, some of the pillars were rescued and moved to the Minster, along with some other materials. One Saturday evening last year, I was wandering past it when I found it was open late at night, so I stepped in off the street and found an oasis of calm. Lit candles were placed along the aisle and around the altar, soft music was playing and the whole thing was quite exceptionally beautiful. I couldn’t believe that a minute away was the pulsing noise of Pavlov’s Dog, or the Purple Turtle, two places which wouldn’t feature on this list. But Reading Minster definitely belongs on it.

17. Forbury Gardens

Well, it’s just handsome isn’t it? Another of those milestones of summer is when Forbury Gardens stops being somewhere you just walk through and starts being somewhere you spend an afternoon, lolling on the grass, reading the paper, watching people significantly younger than you having what they class as fun and just relaxing in the sunshine. I love afternoons like that, just as I love Reading’s rather eccentric celebration of Bastille Day in the Forbury every year. But – and if you’ve read the one about the Salvation Army you probably already know this – I also especially like Sundays in summer when a brass band camps out in the bandstand and fills the air with music.

18. Eclectic Games

EclecticGames

I could have mentioned many of Reading’s independent retailers – The Grumpy Goat, perhaps, Shave and Coster or Adrienne Henry. But I’m not sure Reading has a more touching success story than Eclectic Games. I’ve been shopping there since it was under the horrendous seventies obelisk that was the Foster Wheeler building, and I’ve followed it to the market square and now into its new home on Smelly Alley. I’ve bought so many wonderful games there (Munchkins, Codenames, Ticket To Ride, I could go on…) had so many excellent recommendations from Becky and Darrell and, as a result, had so many thoroughly entertaining evenings. Seeing them completely demolish their fundraising target when they moved last year was a heartwarming example of how sometimes Reading is on to a good thing and more importantly, that Reading residents know that.

19. Progress Theatre

Tucked away near the university, Progress feels like a better-kept secret than it should be. I’ve seen so many top-notch productions there, from Entertaining Mister Sloane to Proof to God Of Carnage. I especially love sitting up at the back (legroom, don’t you know) watching everything unfold on the stage, watching something intimate yet brilliant. That’s before we get on to another of Reading’s best annual events, Progress’ outdoors Shakespeare at Caversham Court. Merry Wives Of Windsor was one of my favourite nights out last year.

20. Kyrenia

I’ve often said that restaurants aren’t about the best food per se, or the best room, or even the best service. They’re about where you have the best times. And, for that if nothing else, this list wouldn’t look right without Kyrenia on it. I mean, it is some of the best food in Reading (the kleftiko alone would guarantee that, or the chargrilled octopus). And it is some of the best service. And actually I love the room, especially if you get a table in the window looking back into the room with all its bustle and happiness. But more importantly, it’s where I’ve had some of my best times. Put it this way: I’ve reviewed a lot of restaurants for Edible Reading, and many have been very good. But Kyrenia is where I go on my birthday.

Sanpa, Wokingham

It’s funny, Wokingham is less than ten minutes away from Reading by train but in all the time I’ve been writing ER I’ve only ever been there twice. My last foray out, to try relative newcomer Jessy’s, wasn’t an unqualified success but there was something about the town that I really liked and I figured it was about time I gave it another shot. Arriving on a beautiful sunny day, with spring in the air (and my step, for that matter) it seemed like things were looking up. There was a market going on in the pretty square with stalls offering fresh bread and, erm, bird seed. A beautiful retro van was selling crepes, and there was some kind of craft fair going on in the town hall. Even the masonic hall was open for the day, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Since I’ve never really been the kind for secret handshakes, I wandered up to Sanpa instead. It’s a tapas place I’ve had recommended by a couple of people and it’s on Peach Street, which sounds attractive but in reality is quite a busy road made up of unappealing Sixties concrete offices and shops. But that said, Sanpa was definitely the nicest thing on the street, with some barrels and stools out front and a crowd of people loitering in the doorway. I was worried that maybe I should have made a reservation, but I was soon shown to a table for two (and so was the crowd, who hadn’t reserved either).

The interior is basically two rooms, one at the front and one at the back separated by a deli section in the middle. The décor is simple and basic, although none the worse for that, and blackboards on the wall give details of some of the new dishes on the menu (and mentioned churros, which automatically gave me a reason to consider coming back). Much of the downstairs was full when I got there, and it was only later on when I wandered up the stairs in search of the bathrooms that I realised they also had a perfectly pleasant third room up there; it was also filling up by the time I left. If Sanpa was a well-kept secret, there were certainly quite a few people in the know.

Although on Friday and Saturday night Sanpa does a set menu, the rest of the time it’s largely tapas. That suited me fine, because I ruddy love tapas. What’s not to like about ordering lots of different things to try, going out on a limb and getting lucky with a dish you maybe wouldn’t risk if you knew you had to commit to a massive plateful? Also, on past experience, there’s often that wonderful moment at the end where your food has largely gone but you get to dip bread in the brick-red oily remains of the dishes – juices and spice and garlic and tomato. Heaven. As it turned out, the menu at Sanpa had a lot of things on it which make me happy and put me in a holiday frame of mind. So naturally I ordered them.

A good example of that was chorizo in cider. Normally it comes as thick discs of chorizo, browned on the heat in a pool of that brick-red sauce, but this was something altogether different: four whole short, stubby sausages, soaked through with the cider (and honey, according to the menu, although I couldn’t taste it), lightly charred on the outside. The texture was a revelation – all crumble, no bounce – and the taste was even better: salty; piquant; juicy and sweet all at once. It was the first dish to arrive but it was so good that I didn’t finish the last of the chorizo until close to the end of the meal. I was saving it in case it turned out to be the best dish I had (it wasn’t).

SanpaChorizo

The cured platter of was a much simpler affair. Some thin slices of chorizo, some cured ham and five manchego wedges, fanned out on top like a “ta-dah!”. The chorizo didn’t look much (to be honest, I wasn’t really sure I fancied it when it arrived) but it tasted so much better than that, rich and smoky with pimento, melting in the mouth because it was so thin. The cured ham was exactly how I like it, with a nicely dry, almost leathery texture, not greasy or shiny and floppy. I ate it the way one should eat good jamon, curled up into a little rosette, and it was spot on – earthy, moreish, with an almost caramel note. The manchego was, for me, the letdown; I prefer mine to be almost crunchy with salt crystals, crumbly and brittle, but this was a touch too smooth and creamy. Still good, don’t get me wrong, but it was more like the sort of manchego I accidentally buy from the airport on the way home than the sort I enjoy when I go to Spain.

SanpaPlatter

The true highlight of my lunch was the gambas al ajillo. The menu talks about peeled prawns and “mildly infused garlic and dry chilli oil” but that pedestrian description doesn’t do the dish justice at all. I know my writing should speak for itself but, just this once, look at that picture. Lots and lots of firm, juicy prawns in a rich, oily sauce, rich with parsley, just enough chilli to taste without being overpowering or mouth-tingling and with sliver after sliver of beautiful, beautiful garlic, shedloads of the stuff, cooked to be soft but not squidgy. It was profoundly good: I love garlic so very much and being able to scoop up several translucent slices of garlic and load them onto my fork before spearing a prawn made every mouthful of this dish a wondrous, wordless delight. Less than seven pounds, and easily one of my dishes of the year so far.

SanpaPrawns

Well, it could only be downhill from there I’m afraid. Next up were the patatas bravas – a staple that, really, I’m not sure we needed. The potatoes were perfectly decent cubes, nicely fried and served with a dollop of spicy tomato sauce. All perfectly decent, but it missed the mark in comparison to the other dishes. It probably never stood a chance in this company, but it wasn’t as rich as the chorizo or as fabulous as the prawns so it felt a little bit sad, and something of an also-ran. I wish I’d tried the tortilla instead.

SanpaPatatas

Finally, the random item picked off the menu at the last minute was tigres (not tigers: that would be illegal). The menu, bafflingly, says “If you have ever been to Spain, you’ve most likely tasted ‘Tigres’”: I have and I’d never heard of them, but maybe that’s just me. They were billed as stuffed and breaded mussels, a description that didn’t really give me any idea what to expect. In the event, they were four mussel shells filled with chopped mussels in a herby, creamy sauce which tasted, to me, like béchamel, all topped with breadcrumbs. To put it another way, it was like a potato croquette with mussel in. Served in a mussel shell. That you scoop out with a teaspoon. If that description appeals to you then you’d enjoy these; I quite liked them, but my companion took one look and decided to leave me to it. The flavour was nicely creamy and I enjoyed the crunch of the crumb, but they were a bit on the rich side and we’d over-ordered, so they didn’t quite get finished.

SanpaTigres

The finale, as I predicted at the start, involved taking chunks of toasted bread, ripping them open to expose the fluffy insides and dunking them in the sauces from the chorizo and the prawns. I chased every last sliver of garlic round the dish until it was loaded onto the bread and greedily eaten. I rolled my eyes in pleasure at those last pieces of bread soaked with the intense sauce from the chorizo. It’s exactly how this kind of meal should end, even if it meant I had no room for churros for dessert. No matter, there’s always next time.

We drank a glass of the house red wine each, a juicy rioja that worked nicely with pretty much everything. It was a struggle not to keep going and see off the rest of a bottle. I was a little sad, though, to see no sherry on the menu: if I had I’d have been tempted to order one at the start as an aperitif. The total bill, excluding service, was just shy of forty quid. Service throughout was lovely, not over the top, just friendly and welcoming. When I was settling the bill at the end, at the counter, the owner (I think) was asking if I’d been before and whether we’d enjoyed our meal, generally being downright charming. I must confess, I was quite taken with the whole place.

Things went downhill after that. I couldn’t find many shops I liked the look of, and the market was very small. The craft fair, in the beautifully over-the-top town hall, was mostly stuff at the twee end of the spectrum. The heavens opened and I was caught, sans umbrella, unsure about what to do. I considered going for a drink but the independent coffee place didn’t grab me (not being a coffee drinker and all), and I certainly wasn’t going to set foot in “The Grape Escape”, an establishment which seems to be applying the sincerest form of flattery to Reading’s Tasting House. Even the lovely Italian delicatessen which used to sell ‘nduja had rebranded as “The Slaughterhouse”, and seemed a bit more butch and a lot less lovely. It was as if Sanpa was all of the sunshine in Wokingham and once we’d walked out the door the clouds gathered and it was time to go. So we trudged in the rain back to the train station and decided we’d seen enough of Wokingham. But we talked about those prawns all the way home, and I figure Sanpa alone might be enough to get me back there before too long.

Sanpa – 8.0
6 Peach Street, Wokingham, RG40 1XG
0118 9893999

https://www.facebook.com/Sanpa.Store/

Dhaulagiri Kitchen

I never go anywhere expecting to have a bad meal – I mean, why would you? – but if I’m honest there are occasions where I step through the front door of a restaurant and I get a bad feeling right from the off. The welcome is disinterested, or the furniture is tired, or the menu looks uninspiring or the music is awful. I’ve not even eaten anything yet, but from that point onwards I’m hoping that my preconceptions can be turned around. Sometimes they are, but usually they’re not: for some reason if it looks like an iffy restaurant and it feels like an iffy restaurant, more often than not it turns out to be an iffy restaurant.

Of course, conversely there are times where you just get a good feeling from the moment you take your seat. But this isn’t so straightforward; I’ve been to many places that looked right and felt right, places where the menu makes you hyperactive with indecisive excitement but still, there can come a point in the evening where you realise you’ve settled down to a duff meal. When that happens I chalk it up to experience, I make mental notes, I come home and I write a review where I try to be kind, knowing that most of you will look at the number at the bottom, possibly skim the rest and say – to yourselves, to friends or to other halves, Well I won’t be going there then. Them’s the breaks. They can’t all be hidden gems. They can’t even all be gems, let’s face it.

The reason for all this preamble is that Dhaulagiri Kitchen won me over right from the start. I liked it, I wanted it to succeed, I was rooting for it. And as a result, because I like an underdog and I wanted it to do well, eating there was a surprisingly nervy experience, a bit like walking a culinary tightrope except that I wanted them, rather than me, not to put a foot wrong.

It’s a little spot at the top of the Basingstoke Road, where Portuguese restaurant O Beirão used to be, and the first surprise was that none of the décor had changed. So it was still neat little tables with red-checked gingham tablecloths, and it was a bit odd to think that last time I had sat there I was eating piri piri chicken and drinking house red from a terra cotta cup. But somehow it still felt homely, warm and welcoming. A lively group of six was in one corner talking and placing their order, and we were shown to a table by a smiling, happy waiter.

The service at Dhaulagiri Kitchen was so good that I want to talk about it a lot, and it was another reason why I instantly liked the place. I was asked things I’m not usually asked – how I am, where in Reading I’m from, how I found out about the place. I was told things I’m not usually told – what’s good, that everything is made on site, how proud they are of their food and their pickles (they had me at pickles – I love pickles). In the course of the evening they constantly checked up on us, asking us if we needed anything else, bringing unsolicited glasses of water, offering advice on the menu. It’s a proper family business, one of them told me towards the end of the evening, and the chef and all the staff are related. It seemed like a happy place to work and that rubbed off on the kind of place it was to eat in: it felt like eating with family in a way that restaurants so rarely do.

Technically it’s a Nepalese restaurant although the menu goes wider than that, so there’s some Nepalese food and some more generic Indian dishes. I took some advice from the staff and I generally tried to steer towards the Nepalese options, which got a brilliant reception from them and yet more interest and questions. Had I tried momo before? Did I like the thali? I also got loads of detail about what went into the dishes, more than I can remember and repeat here. The enthusiasm was infectious, and again I found myself hoping against hope that the food could even begin to match everything else.

They brought us a couple of poppadoms while we waited for our orders to arrive, and impressively they were free. I liked them – still warm, light and crispy – and I liked the dips they came with too. I doubt they make their mango chutney but it was paler and more interesting than many I’ve had in Indian restaurants, but more importantly the lime pickle (did I mention I like pickle?) was sour, sweet and salty; a veritable triathlon for the tongue.

We tried to stick to Nepalese for the starters, and it was about this point that I stopped worrying about being on a tightrope and just started enjoying myself. Sekuwa was three stonking big hunks of baked lamb, deliciously spiced and tender without being pink. I absolutely adored it and shared some reluctantly, especially as the waiter had by this point brought me what he called mint sauce but which was in fact a raita which set them off perfectly. But it was worth doing so I could also sample Dhaulagiri’s chicken momo – something I wanted to do if only to compare them with those at Sapana Home.

DhauLamb

Normally I’m all about pan fried momo, with that slightly caramelised, crispy exterior, but I found this positively changed my mind. Here they come steamed, five neat parcels with a small bowl of spicy chilli sauce. The filling was subtler and more delicate than Sapana’s and, although I hate to admit it because I love Sapana’s momo, all the better for that. The chicken was mixed with finely chopped onion, lemongrass and chilli (and probably other flavours that I’m not quite sophisticated enough to detect) and really, the whole thing made me delighted that I’d sacrificed some of that glorious lamb after all. Both starters – and you might want to read this twice in case you don’t believe it the first time – were less than four pounds.

DhauMomo

The mains came just as I was beginning to feel peckish again and I was really looking forward to the thakali thali, another Nepalese speciality and one the waiter got properly animated describing to me. It truly was an embarrassment of riches. There was a chicken curry, tender pieces of chicken, not a bone in sight, in a thin but savoury gravy. There was a delicious vegetable curry, big firm pieces of cauliflower and cubes of potato, all cooked to still have bite as well as flavour. Fresh spinach came flash cooked with the crunchy surprise of soy beans and a note of sesame. There were what I think were pickled radish (more pickles!) and another pickled vegetable which almost looked like bark but was dried and marinated and packed an awful lot of flavour into a deceptively small helping. Only the dal disappointed – I think this is a Nepalese thing because I remember being unmoved by Nepalese dal in the past, it had a note of evaporated milk and was a bit too grey and gloopy for my liking. A minor criticism though, really, when the plate had so many things to try, combine and enjoy. I was delighted later, when asked if I had enjoyed it, that I could be so unreservedly enthusiastic, just as the waiters had been.

DhauThali

The chicken makhanwala was meant to have butter, fenugreek and cashew nuts in it, but if anything it was dangerously close to a korma, the Ronan Keating of curries. It just about managed to pull it off by being just a little more interesting (although being more interesting than Ronan Keating might not be much of a challenge). So there was an almost marzipan hint to the sauce – perhaps the cashews were ground, because I certainly didn’t find any whole ones – and just enough complexity that I didn’t feel I’d sold myself short. Would I have it again? Maybe not, given all the other wonders on the menu, but I certainly wouldn’t say I was disappointed. I had a plain naan with it – I’d always pick naan over rice, I think – and it was spot on if not out of the ordinary. But that is, after all, what you’re looking for from naan bread and it was perfect for scooping up spare sauce from both main dishes.

DhauChicken

We drank a Cobra and a Diet Coke, which tasted exactly how Cobra and Diet Coke taste, and the whole meal came to thirty-two pounds, not including tip. I couldn’t help thinking, as I paid the bill, that it was almost exactly as much as I’d spent on eating at Handmade Burger Co. the week before; that realisation made me want to stand outside Handmade Burger Co. handing out flyers to Dhaulagiri Kitchen.

Normally I would say that one of my only regrets is that I was too full to have a dessert but, looking back, I don’t think I was offered one and looking at the menu I’m not sure they do them at all. Instead the waiter asked if we wanted a coffee, we said no and again there was that warm exchange of enthusiasm: we were delighted to have had such a lovely meal, they were delighted to have had happy customers. It’s the transaction all restaurants are aiming for, and when it goes as well as that it hardly feels like a transaction at all. They’ve been open for about four months, and they said it’s going reasonably well with locals, although I can see that a restaurant in a spot like this might need all the help it can get.

So yes, sometimes you go to a restaurant and everything looks good, and you spend half the meal worrying that it won’t live up to your expectations, that beneath the veneer something will go wrong. But don’t worry, because this isn’t that story. This is the story of a place that looks nice, isn’t flashy, wins you over and does exactly what a restaurant should do: cook you nice food, be friendly, take care of you and make you feel like the world is a slightly better place. Stories like that are some of the best stories there are, and as a restaurant reviewer they’re my favourite stories to tell. As I left I promised the waiter that I’d tell some friends about Dhaulagiri Kitchen: hopefully I’ve kept my promise.

Dhaulagiri Kitchen – 7.8
63 Basingstoke Road, RG2 0ER
0118 9759898

http://www.dhuaulgirikitchen.co.uk/

Handmade Burger Co.

There was a story doing the rounds last month about fifteen restaurant operators eyeing up Reading with a view to opening in the town. Beyond that the specifics were vague – who were they? Where exactly were they hoping to open? – but that didn’t stop it being picked up by one of the local sites (on a slow news day, perhaps) which reported it as “fifteen national food chains” in talks about moving in. As a result, I saw a little bit of discussion and speculation on Twitter, but I couldn’t bring myself to be hugely excited. I’ve never subscribed to the “chains bad, indies good” theory of restaurants – nobody who’s eaten at both Côte and Picasso could buy that for a second – but I do think it’s true that when you look at what Reading really needs, more chains wouldn’t really be at the top of the list.

That’s not to say that some chains aren’t wonderful things, or that Reading wouldn’t benefit from them; I finally went to Wahaca recently, and it’s every bit as good as everyone says. I’d love to see Busaba or Leon set up a branch in Reading, for that matter. But I’d rather see an independent bistro, or a bakery, or a little Vietnamese place, or a sushi restaurant, or any of a dozen types of establishment which just don’t fit the chain mould at all. But maybe, even having said all that, I’m being too harsh to the chain restaurants. After all, there are good chains and bad chains, big chains and small chains. So this week I decided to give one of them a try – and because it’s both ages since I tried a new chain and ages since I had a burger, one option on the Oracle leapt out and simply demanded to be chosen.

Handmade Burger Co. wasn’t the burger company Reading was hoping for when LSQ2 gave up its spot right on the edge of the Oracle; back then, everyone was clamouring, rightly or wrongly, for Gourmet Burger Kitchen (except me, I wanted – and still want – a Byron). But when HBC opened in late 2012 if at least sounded more interesting than GBK: a small, family-owned chain that had, if the website is to be believed, grown out of a single branch in Birmingham. Who doesn’t like a rags to riches underdog story? I didn’t go back in 2012, but since then it has grown to 25 locations across the country and, again if you buy the blurb on the website, makes its burgers from scratch using 48 fresh ingredients delivered 6 days a week. Well, it all sounded worth a shout to me – and after all, restaurant websites are always a really good indicator, aren’t they?

Going in on a weekday evening, the thing that struck me about the room was how many tables they had crammed into quite a cavernous space. It’s very high-ceilinged (all the other pitches in that row are two floors) but the tables are really jammed in together, especially in the middle of the room. The décor was quite nondescript – all very plain tables and chairs, but it didn’t feel like a table for two was quite big enough for two people and to make matters worse, the neighbouring table for two wasn’t especially far away either. The tables with banquettes were better, but we didn’t get shown to one of those and I didn’t have the energy to ask for one. That said, people like the place: I arrived early on a weekday evening and by the time I left the restaurant was largely full. Would I have wanted to arrive when the place was full and try to have a conversation in a big echoey packed room with a very limited amount of soft furnishings? Well, this probably makes me sound about a million years old, but: no, not on your nelly.

The model works in much the same way as Nando’s – you get shown to a table, pick what you want from the menu, order at the bar, collect your drinks and wait for your food to come to the table. The basic burger comes with a dizzying number of topping options, or you can have a chicken burger, or go bunless, or have a gluten free bun, or have it in a pitta, or even (how random is this?) in a Yorkshire pudding. Or you can have a vegan burger. Or a veggie burger. Or something a bit like a burger but on a skewer. The possibilities are, if not endless, a lot less finite than I would personally choose. It really does cater for everyone. Everyone who likes burgers.

HBC’s new menu, and indeed the board outside, proudly boasted that they now do something they touchingly refer to as “dirty burgers”. The website doesn’t define exactly what this means and how or why they are dirty (although surely it’s not a literal sanitary description), nor did the menu. A little pamphlet folded away inside my cutlery tin also talked about the burgers but again, there was no real explanation beyond them being “juicy, messy and full of flavour” (as opposed, presumably, to the dry, tidy, bland offerings elsewhere on the menu). But I am a marketing department’s dream, and they were in a little boxed off section with their own fancy typeface, and so I went for the “D.B. Fried Onion” figuring that it was worth a try.

“Watch out with this, it’s dirty” said the waitress as she put it in front of me (not something you ever want someone to say to you while bringing food to your table, in my experience), although she also didn’t explain exactly what this meant. It was in the Five Guys style of presentation i.e. wrapped in foil and looking for all the world like it had been sat on. When I opened it up, I still wasn’t sure this hadn’t actually happened. It was a pretty bog-standard, fairly uninspiring cheeseburger. The patty was thin, flat and grey – thin enough that you could see why no effort had been made to cook it anything less than well done. The fried onions were tasty enough, although they lacked the true caramelised sweetness of really mouthwatering fried onions. There was lots of gooey orange processed American cheese, my favourite kind on a burger, but it just wasn’t enough to rescue it. I didn’t mind the “fresh buttermilk bun” (why HBC doesn’t call it brioche like every other restaurant I have no idea), but overall it was inoffensive and disappointing. I’ve seen dirtier episodes of Antiques Roadshow, put it that way. Oh, there was also some “jalapeno slaw” and a bit of gherkin but it looked like such an afterthought – as you can maybe tell from the picture – that I just couldn’t be bothered.

HBCDirty

The “dirty burger” section of the menu also offers the horrors of something called “Hipster Chips” and I’m afraid this is where I do have to stop for a little rant. No, no, no, no, no. First of all, “hipster” is something other people call you, not something you call yourself (I tell you what, I’m such a hipster, me, said no one ever). And second of all, it is never, ever a term of endearment. So I didn’t order them, and I can’t tell you what chips with sriracha mayonnaise taste like, because they might as well have been called “Look What A Zany Wanker I Am Chips”. I mean, credit to HBC for calling them chips rather than fries, but it’s not enough. So instead I had some “Denver Chips”, which were topped with pulled pork, barbecue sauce and melted cheese. There was a bit of pulled pork, though not masses, a lake of enamel-strippingly sweet sauce and some curls of cheese (some of which had melted and some of which, worryingly enough, hadn’t) and underneath a poor abused pile of average chips which deserved better. I didn’t eat them all.

HBCChips

From the not-so-dirty menu the peanut butter and bacon burger sounded less obviously dirty but still good. Sadly it simply wasn’t dirty enough. First up the bun looked like a common or garden burger bun – pale and wan with a few sesame seeds on top. It was dry and crumbly and not at all like the sourdough bun I expected, as advertised on the walls of the restaurant (perhaps “sourdough”, like “artisan”, is just something people say to waste space on menus nowadays). But let’s not focus on the bun, let’s focus on the filling because that’s where this really disappointed. The burger was thick – oddly much thicker, it seemed, than the “dirty burger” – resolutely far from juicy, and bland. There were one or two rashers of unremarkable bacon without much salt or smoke. I was hoping for a big dollop of peanut butter on the burger, slowly melting into a savoury, nutty satay, but instead I got a minuscule smidge hidden underneath the lettuce leaf. It’s almost like they didn’t want me to be able to taste it. But never mind, because you did get lots of chilli jam. Too much, a big, sweet liquefied pool of the stuff dripping out of the side. So much of it that it really should have been called a “chilli jam and smoked bacon burger”; except of course, if it had been called that I wouldn’t have ordered it, just as I dearly wish I hadn’t ordered this.

HBCBurger

I also had a side of chips which hadn’t been slathered with pulled pork and barbecue sauce, instead coming with rosemary and salt. This was my chance to find out what the chips were like before they got mucked around with, but again it was far from a success. They were soft and flaccid, a bit like chip shop chips that had been sitting around too long. There was loads of the salt and rosemary on them and the rosemary was lovely, but the salt was in huge rocks that you couldn’t really disperse or even eat with the chips. Much of it was left in the bowl afterwards. But then much of the chips were left, too, because they were just too squidgy and boring. That’s a damning indictment; I never leave chips. Sit me in front of a bowl of chips and I will peck away, even if I’m not hungry, and suddenly they’ll be gone. Not these.

When I saw that the menu had malted milkshakes I knew I had to have one, because I bloody love a malted shake. So I had a malted vanilla milkshake. Really, I wanted a peanut butter one, but I resisted because I am profesh and I thought double peanut butter in a single review would not be profesh (also, my dining companion was one of those oddballs who loathes the stuff). It was huge, served in one of those big tin milkshake blending glasses. There were a few discernible dots of vanilla but otherwise it mostly reminded me of the white ice cream of my youth – ah, the wonders of not-especially-Italian Gino Ginelli – not actually truly vanilla flavoured, but vanilla-esque. There wasn’t nearly enough malt for my liking but the malt was only an extra 30p so at least I didn’t feel hugely ripped off. My guest had an Erdinger weissbeer because he really fancied a beer. He didn’t finish it, because I really fancied cutting my losses and leaving.

Service throughout was actually pretty good, for what is essentially a pretty low-frills restaurant with limited table service. The young lady at the bar enthused over the peanut butter burger – it deserves to be tried, apparently – and was friendly and chatty and the other ladies bringing plates and checking up on us (then removing the clothes peg from our table number, another of those subtle ways of indicating that we had been processed) were also really nice. But, like I said, you order at the bar, you pay in advance and you have to fetch some things like soft drinks yourself, so the service can only be so good. I wonder how many people actually tip on paying, before they’ve had any service, or put money in the jar on the way out. I wonder, too, how enjoyable it must be to work in a restaurant run to this model. Dinner for two – two burgers, two chips, two drinks – came to thirty-four pounds and was done and dusted in about thirty-four minutes.

I’m not really in the target market for burgers: as I’ve said many times, they’re just a sandwich. But I can see there’s a time and a place for them, and I like to think I can tell the difference between a good one and a bad one. I was puzzled, though, because I have a friend who is a huge burger connoisseur – I mean, he travels for burgers the way I travel for sushi, and then some – and last time he went to Handmade Burger Co. I heard he thought it was much improved. Well, I’m not sure how bad it was before or if I was just extremely unlucky but it’s hard to see the appeal; there’s not much in the way of charm or atmosphere, the burgers were disappointing and at that price you could do far better in the Oakford or even Five Guys (and, I’m guessing, CAU for that matter). Fifteen restaurant chains circling Reading? The news still doesn’t thrill me, but it’s hard to imagine they couldn’t do better than this.

Handmade Burger Co. – 5.3
Riverside, The Oracle Shopping Centre, RG1 2AG
0118 9588106

http://handmadeburger.co.uk/our-restaurants/find-a-restaurant/handmade-burger-co-reading/