One thing I often complain about is big, bloated menus; huge things with a bewildering array of dishes leaving you to wonder how you can possibly avoid a dud. Indian restaurants and Chinese restaurants are especially prone to this, but actually it’s an issue in many restaurants. Like a CV, a menu should be short and to the point, it should advertise what you do well and it should never outstay its welcome. Just as nobody needs to hear about your Duke Of Edinburgh Award from umpteen years ago, I don’t think diners want a plethora of options knowing full well that the only way that kitchens can do them all is through the ping of the microwave or the sinister hum of the engine of the Brakes Brothers lorry. It’s no coincidence that the first thing Gordon Ramsay used to do in Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares was slash the size of the menu (well, that and criticise people’s omelettes).
I mainly tell you this because, if it gets nothing else right, Caffeine & Cocktails succeeds admirably in this department. Six options for breakfast, three options for lunch, two for dinner. Breakfast until 11, lunch until 3, meat and cheese boards from 3 until 6. Over half of the choices are meat free. There’s an elegant simplicity to this that I wish other establishments would learn from (although paradoxically Dolce Vita, right above Caffeine & Cocktails, has a colossal menu and I’m still yet to have a bad meal there). I turned up right on the cusp of eleven am with a companion, ready to sample both the breakfast and lunch sections to give as full a picture as I could.
Caffeine & Cocktails used to be Mix bar, a place I never much liked with horrible garden furniture (nobody should have to sip a cocktail sitting on a huge faux marble bench) and a ludicrous “private area” behind an unnecessary velvet rope. Every time I used to walk past after last orders I could see the clientele standing outside, clanging away on cigarettes, a relentless doof-doof-doof noise coming from the Stygian depths within and it made me long for my bed with a nice cup of tea, a hot water bottle and Just A Minute on the iPlayer. In short, it made me feel ancient.
The transformation is sleek and striking. It’s a long thin room with attractive parquet-effect tables, clubbable Chesterfields, a dark concrete floor, indoor trees, gorgeous herringbone tiled walls and industrial light fittings. It really is quite lovely without trying too hard (unlike, say, RYND) and a surprisingly pleasant place to while away time. Only one thing lets it down, and that’s the dreary sexism of the graffiti in the toilets. Marriage is a workshop… where husband works and wife shops”, said one quote in the gents’. Why did the Mexican push his wife down the stairs? Tequila said another. It feels a bit like they invited Donald Trump to the loos with some chalk and told him to go crazy, and that crassness really lets the side down. The irony – they have the most beautiful Aesop handwash at the sink, but you still leave the bathroom feeling unclean. The ladies’ toilets, if less positively offensive, are equally lazily stereotypical with references to diets, cocktails and Taylor Swift.
Anyway, let’s talk about the food. Caffeine & Cocktails only does three sandwiches and I went for “The Cheesy One”, a mixture of cheddar, Comté and Emmental with onion chutney and mustard, mainly because I’d been a couple of times shortly after opening, ordered that sandwich and always been impressed. Something about that mixture of cheeses, when toasted, really works – the gooey elasticity of the Emmental, the punch of the mature cheddar and the grit of the Comté is a holy trinity, perfected by the sweet chutney and the tangy mustard. So I was saddened to find that when my sandwich turned up it completely failed to live up to my happy memories – it was barely hot at all, the cheeses were still cold at the centre of the sandwich, the flavours failing to come alive.
It was definitely meant to be toasted, I could tell that by touching the bread, but clearly a half-arsed job had been done. It wasn’t that it had been cooked and left lying around, it had just never been cooked properly in the first place. And although there were quite a few tables occupied on a weekend morning, it’s not like they were rushed off their feet. Such a sad waste of potential: without the transformative power of the grill the sourdough, which should have been slightly charred, oiled outside and oozing within, was just a chewy, anticlimactic wedge. If I’d never had it before, I would have been disappointed. As it was, I spent the rest of my lunch wondering whether I was more or less disappointed because I knew how good it could be.
The toasted sourdough also made an appearance in the other dish I ordered, from the breakfast menu. This time it was topped with “smashed” avocado (how very Shoreditch, 2014) with feta and tomatoes. Studded through the avocado were a few pieces of chopped red chilli but even with this the dish was lacking in oomph and needed something – a touch of lime, some salt, mint, or a lot more chilli – to elevate it from quick make at home breakfast to something with more flair. That’s maybe a little harsh – the topping was nice, not ungenerous and the cherry tomatoes added beautiful sweetness. But the bigger problem was the bread – toasted sourdough really wasn’t (unless it had been wearing factor 50 at the time) so what should have been light and crispy was instead soft, tough and somehow dried out. Another attempt to find a great breakfast in Reading ended unsuccessfully, I’m sorry to say.
The drinks were a mixed bag. Loose tea is apparently from Good & Proper (Caffeine & Cocktails, Good & Proper… what is it with all these ampersands, I wonder?) and I’m sure it’s both those things but if you order Earl Grey you get a stump teapot full of hot water and a solitary bag of Twinings on the side. Basic verging on just not good enough, I’d say. Coffee is from Monmouth, and I’m reliably informed that the latte, while oddly thin and watery, tasted very nice. It was however, in keeping with all of the food, just not hot enough. The weird sugar, a mixture of white and brown cubes and lumps, also didn’t fill me with confidence. Lunch for two – a sandwich, a breakfast, a tea and two lattes – came to seventeen pounds. Service was nice and friendly, and maybe I should have given them the opportunity to prove how good it was by sending my food back, but I just couldn’t face it. I guess you’re more forgiving when it’s just a sandwich, or maybe the hassle just doesn’t feel worth it.
I’m inclined to be forgiving with Caffeine & Cocktails. I didn’t have the best of visits, but I’ve been enough times to know that they had an off-day when I turned up on duty. And there are definitely positives: it’s independent; it’s stylish without sacrificing comfort; it has that clever, sensibly compact menu. On the other hand, if you only do a few things you have to do them well. There just aren’t any excuses. I really wish they’d been on song because that toasted sandwich, at four pounds, is far better than anything you could get at Pret or Picnic for the same money (especially if you dip the corner of it in a little pool of their very tasty, beetroot-purple, sugar-free ketchup). It clearly adds something to Reading’s food and drink culture, to the extent where I even found myself wondering whether its cocktails could finally replace the sadly departed Sahara. So despite the misfire I’ll be back to give them another chance. I’ll pass on using the bathroom, though.
Caffeine & Cocktails – 7.0
Unit 5, The Walk, RG1 2HG