The great lost ER review – the one none of you ever got to read – was of Smash, the craft beer, pizza and ping pong establishment on Gun Street. It’s a long sad story but essentially I went, I wrote the review and when I stopped reviewing because my circumstances changed it would have been inappropriate to publish it.
It’s a pity I never got to formally warn people not to go to Smash, but I suppose I can make amends now by saying that when I went the service was poor, they got the beers wrong, they got the pizzas wrong, when they got the pizzas right the pizzas were still very, very much wrong and that “barbecue pulled chicken fries” are a unique culinary hell I hope I never have to revisit (pulled? the chicken had barely even been chatted up). The TL:DR version of that review would just have said Don’t go to Smash: I gave it a rating of 4.0. I’m sorry you’ll never get to read it – I suppose it was my Edwin Drood, or – this one is for geek completists only – my Shada.
Anyway, now you’re all done Googling that, why have I decided to review Thirsty Bear and risk another diabolical craft beer and pizza experience? Well, I didn’t go without reservations, that’s true, but a bit of research suggested that even if Thirsty Bear was bad, it would at least be a different flavour of bad to the hipster-milking horrors of Smash.
It specialises in New York style pizza, which appears to be pizza so big you either have to share or order by the slice. The staff have been trained by “Fabio Ferranini, an award winning pizza chef”, and a Google of Fabio revealed that he was indeed a real person (although that isn’t necessarily a badge of pizza quality: so was Doctor Oetker). Not only that, but he did indeed come second in the 2016 European Classic Pizza Championships representing a restaurant called NY Fold in London.
By a remarkable coincidence, the menu for Thirsty Bear is absolutely identical to the menu for NY Fold, except that they’ve renamed all the pizzas after parts of NYC (I hope there’s a connection between Thirsty Bear and NY Fold, otherwise they might have paid Fabio for a bit of consultancy which largely involved pressing Control C and Control V). Anyway, all this “investigative journalism” – inverted commas deliberate – is by the by if the food is good, which is why I tipped up on a weekday night with my old schoolfriend and trusty sidekick Mike. He’d just returned from running a European coach tour that had finished up in Rome, which according to him made him the closest thing I had to a pizza expert.
There was an alarming omen as I approached Thirsty Bear on the night of my visit. Passing the site of the much-missed – by me, anyway – Kings Point, on a spot which Thirsty Bear, New York-style, would no doubt describe as the corner of Watlington and Kings, I spotted something unusual on the pavement in front of the hoardings. It was a single, perfectly intact, slice of pizza. I didn’t bend down to investigate: it may not have been that kind of pavement pizza but I still didn’t want to take a closer look. Even so, I couldn’t help but feel it didn’t bode well. Was it the cheesiest dirty protest of all time? Why did it look like it had been placed there so neatly? It was vexing.
Entering Thirsty Bear I realised immediately that I should have got there before Mike. He had picked a badly lit table on the ground floor, right under the giant TV screen showing Liverpool’s latest attempt to lose to a minor team from the continent – exactly the table you would pick, in fact, if you weren’t planning to photograph your food. So, from memory, the upstairs bit of Thirsty Bear is rather nice and the rooftop terrace is a lovely place to drink a pint on a summer afternoon. But I didn’t eat in either of those, so take that with a pinch of salt.
I can comment on the downstairs room though, less Brooklyn speakeasy and more run of the mill European sports bar. Apparently half a million was spent on the refurb (half a Purple Turtle, in other words), although looking round the place it was hard to see where it had all gone. The exposed brickwork and bear-themed artwork was all very well, but the furniture was somewhere between bland and weird.
We were sitting at a high table on what looked like stools but were actually benches seemingly made by glueing two stools together. The banquette in one corner was button-backed and welcoming, the other just looked like a blocky waste of PVC. It felt like they’d either run out of money or enthusiasm, possibly both. Most of all, it made me think of the interior of the Abbot Cook: mainly that it was done so much better than this. I wonder if they paid half a million?
“Sorry, I’ve started without you.” grinned Mike as he took a slug from his pint of Birra Moretti. The suitcases next to our table indicated that he was pretty much fresh off the plane.
“Celebrating downing tools, eh? When are you back at work?”
The grin broadened.
“Oh, not until the New Year.”
I knew that Mike worked half the year and kicked back in a skiing village for the rest of the time, but I didn’t realise that his last working day of 2017 was in September. We’d been to school together: where had I been going wrong? It was galling enough at work saying “see you next year” to people lucky enough to start their leave on something like the twentieth of December, but this was a whole other level. I resolved not to hate him, and not to try and let it colour my opinion of the food.
“At the end of my last tour this American couple asked if I’d mind them tipping me in UK currency so they could use up their last change. Do you know how much they ended up giving me?”
“Go on.” I said, half expecting it to be a pittance.
“Just over three hundred pounds! Shall I get you a pint of Strongbow Cloudy Apple?”
On second thoughts, maybe I should just focus on not letting it colour my opinion of the food, I decided.
Did I succeed? Well, it’s a good question. It’s possible that if I hadn’t been so jaded about Mike getting such an enormous tip I might have thought the arancini were an acceptable size, rather than ridiculously huge, bloated things drowned in a lake of what might pass for tomato sauce but was probably passata. I might have felt it was fine for the waitress to not blanch at us ordering two arancini and two lasagne balls, even though that was clearly too much for two people and bordered on upselling. I might have thought the lasagne balls actually did have “bolognese ragu” in them, rather than stingy, mealy, flavourless mince, an afterthought between the almost endless layers of pasta. It’s even possible that if I hadn’t been so distracted by the politics of envy I might have thought that both the arancini and the lasagne balls were indeed covered in panko breadcrumbs, with their distinctive flaky texture. Maybe it was a typo for Paxo breadcrumbs: it was at least possible given that the menu also spelled it as “lasagna”.
But no. Disappointing though the prospect of having to work for another three months before Christmas was, I could have been on top of the world and these starters would still have been mediocre at best. Well the arancini were, anyway: you can get better ones in Shed, in Jamie’s Italian and probably in Zizzi and M&S. The lasagne balls, though, were positively poor. I suppose you couldn’t knock the description though, because they plainly contained lasagne and they were, well, balls. But the menu didn’t say they’d come drowned in tomato sauce, and if I’d known I might not have ordered them.
Never mind: surely the pizza would be better. I mean, it rather had to be. We’d steered away from the pizza by the slice, mainly because it was sitting there under the lights and I wanted to give the kitchen the best possible chance to shine, even though I had reservations about a concept which forced you to choose between freshly made pizza in giant quantities and a wider range of pizzas which could have been sitting around for goodness knows how long. Confusingly, a specials board up at the bar suggested they were offering a greater selection of their pizzas by the slice – maybe that was a good idea, maybe not.
Mike and I couldn’t decide between two different pizzas. In the blue corner, there was the “Ellis Island” with stracchino (a fresh cow’s milk cheese), smoked salmon, smoked swordfish and rocket. In the red corner, we had the delights of the “Calabrisela” – they’d obviously run out of parts of NYC by this point – with ‘nduja and “buratta” (sic). “It’s a shame they don’t have the option to do half and half”, Mike had said, seconds before the waitress came to our table and said “you can have half and half if you want”. As so often, the menu managed to misinform.
Another piece of misinformation was to follow: a sixteen inch pizza, allegedly “perfect for two”, would easily have gone between three or even four people, especially ones stuffed to the gunwales on Paxo-clad spheres of iffiness. Would we have finished it all if it had been tastier? Possibly, but it wasn’t. To explain one of the reasons it was so disappointing, I need to go into some rather tedious detail: neither half we ordered had a tomato sauce base. It wasn’t clear from the menu that they wouldn’t, and I might have expected that for the Ellis Island but certainly not for the Calabrisela. The menu did, I later realised, have a symbol indicating that pizzas had a tomato base but – quelle surprise – some pizzas where the blurb said there was tomato sauce (like the “Lower East Side”) didn’t have the symbol and some pizzas which clearly would have had tomato sauce (the pepperoni one, for instance) didn’t carry the symbol.
Why is this important? Well, because without any tomato both halves of the pizza were even more stodgy. A hefty base you really had to go some to cut into and a thick layer of rapidly solidifying cheese did not make for an enjoyable experience at all, and for me if a pizza isn’t going to have a tomato base the menu – as it does at Pizza Express, or Franco Manca – really needs to spell that out in big letters. So was our pizza deliberately or accidentally disappointing? I don’t know, and I don’t even know which would be worse.
That aside, what about the toppings? Well, conceal your surprise but they were also unimpressive. At this point, I feel that Thirsty Bear deserves a little benefit of the doubt, so maybe it was burrata and not just big chunks of coldish mozzarella. It lacked the gooey middle I associate with burrata, but what do I know? And it may be that they’ve found some smoked swordfish which looks and tastes exactly like smoked salmon, that is even the same shade of pale pink.
Maybe. But it felt to me like all the things that made those pizzas exciting in theory just weren’t there in practice. Good smoked swordfish is wonderful, so is good burrata. I’m not sure it should be possible to take good swordfish and good burrata and make such average pizza. As for the other distinctive ingredients, the ‘nduja was acrid but didn’t have the complexity of flavour I associate with the best examples and the stracchino tasted and looked, well, like something I had best not describe. In fairness, the crust wasn’t bad, but by the end the main thing I wanted to do with it was throw it at somebody or something.
We left a reasonable amount, and I realised that all the other diners I had seen had taken at least some of their leftover pizza away in takeaway boxes. I didn’t quite understand why, and then I remembered the solitary slice, precisely set down on the pavement.
If this review truly reflects the meal I had, by now you must be longing for it to reach the end. Don’t worry, me too. So I should add that the Birra Moretti and Strongbow Cloudy Apple were both largely indistinguishable from such pints anywhere else, although the Moretti in particular, at four pounds ninety five, may have a slightly more bitter taste than usual. I should say that the service was actually quite pleasant (although the phrase “you really don’t need four of those balls for your starters” was conspicuous by its absence). And of course I should point out that our meal for two people with two giant disappointing starters, one giant disappointing pizza and four pints came to just under fifty-five pounds, not including tip.
So, neatly bringing us back to where we came in – as if on purpose – the TL:DR version of this review would say Don’t go to Thirsty Bear. Well, that’s not entirely fair I suppose; I mean, it’s better than Smash. And this might be the place for you, although I’ve thought about it a lot and I can’t see why it would be. If you want beer, I imagine there are better – and cheaper – places in town. If you want pizza there definitely are, unless you prize quantity over quality (in the interest of balance, I think Mike enjoyed this meal a lot more than I did). I did wonder about saying that you could at least sit on the roof terrace with mates on a sunny day and have a few slices of pizza and a cold pint and enjoy the sunshine, and then I remembered that the Allied Arms will let you slope off to Pizza Express next door and eat a Pollo Ad Astra in their garden. I really don’t enjoy saying all this, but there you have it: I just think Reading deserves more than this, and fortunately we have exactly that.
Thirsty Bear – 5.3
110 Kings Road, RG1 3BY