Pan, Wokingham

I was beginning to think I was cursed and that you’d never get a new review. My first attempt involved a Reading restaurant which, it turns out, is closed on Mondays. That fact came to my attention on the Monday night I was due to review it, seconds after I arrived at the pub across the road and met my dining companion for the evening. I’ve been doing this for nearly six years, and you’d think I’d know better.

Attempt number two was no better: I picked a restaurant out of town to visit with my old friend Al, mainly because every time we’d ever been there it had one amazing dish on the menu which was worth the price of admission alone. A destination dish and a destination restaurant all in one, truly the holy grail of restaurant reviewing. But, of course, on the Friday that we went there for lunch that dish – a glorious, massive pie for two, glossy, deep rich sticky beef lying in wait under a golden bubbling suet crust – was nowhere to be seen. I chalked it up to experience and had the fish, but where on earth was I going to review now?

Salvation came in the unlikely form of my friend Richard. We were due to meet up for a midweek dinner in Reading, and a couple of days before he sent me an apologetic WhatsApp. He could only get a babysitter for part of the evening, it said, and would I mind meeting in Wokingham, halfway between Reading and his place in Sunningdale? I sensed the faint knock of opportunity, and that’s why you’re reading a review of Pan today.

I’ve known Richard for many years, and wanted to bring him along on a review for ages. He’s the campest straight man I’ve ever met, a gleeful drinker, outrageously bitchy and downright good fun. He looks ever so slightly like David Gest might have done if he had (a) avoided all that shocking plastic surgery and, more importantly, (b) not died. He was a huge support to me when I joined Team Divorce a few years back, and I’ve always loved my evenings with him when he can swing a babysitter (his high-powered ex-wife is always away on business, pressing the flesh in Milan).

As for Pan, it looked like the most interesting thing to happen to Wokingham in some time – a pan-Asian restaurant opening in the space vacated by the Teak House (a Thai restaurant) offering a constantly changing monthly menu of small plates from different countries. The pictures on Instagram looked tempting, the word of mouth was promising and the menu online – all octopus, monkfish yakitori, slow braised pork and ramen – made me truly impatient to visit. Richard said it looked perfect, although I wondered if that might be because he has a much smaller appetite than me.

The website, and the pictures I’d seen made me think Pan would be a sleek, black, minimalist space, but going in it looked very much like it was still the Teak House, visually at least. There was a small bar and counter, and a small dining room up a little set of stairs with, surreally, a handrail like a banister separating it off (Richard leaned against it for much of our meal: it looked wobbly). The front room must have accommodated about a dozen diners, although there was a bigger room further into the restaurant: on our visit this had been laid out for a very large group which arrived partway through our meal.

“Have you been here before?” asked the front of house (which, on our visit, was very much a one man show) as he handed over our menus.

“No, this is our first time.”

“We’ve been open for six months, what took you so long?” he said with a smile. I liked that cockiness: it felt quite unlike Wokingham, if nothing else. “Our menu is small plates, like tapas, and two dishes per person should be enough.” I must confess I was sceptical about this, but maybe that’s because I’d been planning to try as many things as I could get away with.

“Do you have a wine list?” said Richard, somewhat betraying his priorities. The chap smiled again.

“I am the wine list.”

Again, a little confident but not jarringly so. In any case, we started with a couple of bottles of Kirin while we looked through the menu. It being March, the menu had changed completely from the one on the website (“this month we’re doing south Indian dishes”, our waiter told us). All the dishes were priced between four and eight pounds, and most of them looked tempting, with the possible exception of “chicory salad” which felt like a fig leaf for killjoys. The really noticeable thing on the menu, though, was the general absence of carbs: I had a feeling four dishes wouldn’t be anywhere near enough.

The first dish was a beautiful start – broccoli with chana dahl houmous, a clever fusion. I’m used to dipping stuff in houmous (after I’ve poured a lake of extra virgin olive oil on top of it, naturally) but having it here as the base for a heap of well-cooked purple sprouting broccoli was a very nice touch. The houmous had brilliant spice and flavour, and as a statement of intent this was hard to beat. But even this dish, with hindsight, was a taste of things to come: I expected the bowl to be slightly deeper and when my fork clanked against the bottom I did have an “is that all there is?” moment. It wasn’t to be the last time.

Shortly afterwards the kitchen sent out our next dish, crab wontons. “Too sweet” was Richard’s verdict, and I was pretty sure he wasn’t talking about me. He was right, though: they weren’t unpleasant but they were hotter than the sun and the crabmeat inside did feel too sweet with nothing to balance it out. Possibly the advertised curry butter might have offset this, but it lurked uselessly at the bottom of the plate and it was too difficult to dredge the wontons through it. Worth six pounds fifty? Probably not, and the glass plate felt like it might also have been inherited from the Teak House rather than bought for Pan, because the presentation felt a little fussy and old-fashioned.

I very much liked what came after that, flatiron steak with “kukurmutta ragu” (I Googled it: it’s mushrooms). The mushrooms lent a beautifully savoury note to the whole thing and any reservations I had about the steak were banished by the pink middle and the perfect texture. I wasn’t convinced it needed all that yoghurt, and serving it with paper underneath was a little odd, but even so it was one of my favourite dishes of the evening. Richard wasn’t so impressed, but by then I’d told him I was going to refer to us in the review as “Pan’s people” and he’d given me the first of many withering stares (“Bitch” was his response).

I found it odd that the dishes had been designed for sharing, but none of them came with spoons for us to dish up onto our plates. I asked and the waiter brought some over, but in a way which suggested that they’d never been asked before. “That was very nice, thank you” I said as he came to take our empty plates away. “You sound surprised” he replied, and again I couldn’t quite decide whether that confidence was charming or grating.

I’d been particularly looking forward to the charred carrot dish, mainly because Pan’s Instagram feed had a stunning image of what I imagined was something similar – a huge vibrant jumble of carrots, blackened on the outside, sesame seeds and coriander. I don’t think I was expecting five pieces of carrot, or for three of them to turn out to be unadvertised sweet potato (one of my least favourite things). Despite that I did enjoy them – the menu said they’d come with pearl barley and parsley, but instead they were accompanied by some kind of thickened yoghurt and tiny slivers of crispy fried chilli. It was an interesting dish, and the textures in particular were lovely, but I couldn’t quite shed the feeling that at five pounds, each piece of carrot or sweet potato had cost a quid all by itself.

Finally our last dish turned up, tandoori chicken legs with bhurani raita. I enjoyed this: the flavours were spot on and the chicken was nicely done, although I didn’t necessarily get much garlic in the pleasingly mint-green raita. Richard was less convinced – “this feels more like a dish you could get in lots of other places” – and either way it was a little difficult to justify two hardly colossal chicken legs at just shy of seven pounds.

“That was lovely” I said as the waiter collected more empty plates.

“I know”, he said. Hmm.

Despite having had more than our regulation two dishes per person, we ordered more. If there had been more carbs on the menu – some noodles or rice or anything that might fill you up – maybe I wouldn’t have needed to but as it was I was still distinctly peckish. We also ordered a couple of glasses of orvieto which was pleasingly crisp but far from bone dry. The waiter wasn’t kidding when he said he was the wine list, so he ran us through the choices – all by the glass, three or four whites if I recall. No prices were given, but I checked at the end and these were six pounds each, which didn’t feel unreasonable. Not having a list and picking after a chat with your waiter felt like the sort of thing I ought to enjoy and endorse in theory, but having done it I found it made me feel somewhat uncomfortable: too English by half, perhaps.

Throughout our meal I saw our waiter coming out of the kitchen with multiple plates of the same dishes, dropping one at our table, one at a neighbouring table and so on, and I realised that even if I was still on the hungry side I could see how this model might work beautifully for Pan. And every table in the front room was full of enthusiastic customers, so maybe it was just me who was beginning to find it a parade of not enough food for a little too much money.

I’d really fancied “cod shashlick with satay crumb” on the menu, but the waiter told us it had run out so we ordered the replacement dish, smoked trout with ginger and lime. For me, this just didn’t work – the tastes that accompanied the fish were sharp, fresh and interesting but pairing it with smoked trout felt like a strange choice. I’m far from convinced that smoked trout features heavily in South Indian cuisine: it clashed with everything else going on and the whole thing felt like a dish made with ingredients that were lying around (all very Ready Steady Cook) rather than something carefully put together. I guess, of course, that the thing with smoked trout is that you don’t have to cook it, so again convenient for the kitchen but not necessarily great for diners.

I did enjoy our final dish, a mixture of butter beans and chickpeas topped with a baked egg. Finally, a hint of the carbs I’d been craving! But even here I could see how all the dishes felt like riffs on a theme – the green squiggles matching those on the broccoli, probably the same yoghurt as we’d had on the steak, definitely the same little slices of fried chilli as had come with the carrots. Although I quite enjoyed it, and I’d have loved it if it had been the first dish I tried, by this stage I did feel like I could see the joins, as if I’d spotted the Wizard Of Oz behind the curtain. Pan passed itself off as being imaginative and varied, but a lot of work had been put into managing the experience.

I insisted on a dessert – partly because I was still hungry, and partly because the waiter told me that the chocolate brownie came with a sesame seed creme Anglaise. Normally, I don’t hold with brownies being dessert – and again, what I got differed from what was described on the menu – but this really was lovely: three dense, warm cubes of brownie with a beautifully light custard and plenty of sesame (although I thought it could have stood more).

We’d asked what we could drink with dessert and the waiter said “I’ve got some really good Filipino rum: let me bring it over”. He returned with a bottle and two little glasses full of ice and left us to it, an experience which felt faintly continental. Richard practically inhaled a glass and topped himself up.

“Hurry up and try some! This is fantastic.”

It was: ever so slightly honeyed and with a beautiful note of oak. Richard took a photo of the label, shortly before surreptitiously refreshing his glass. (“There’s no line on the side or anything” he said, with the expertise of a man who used to raid his mother’s drinks cabinet.) I loved it, although I did feel guilty about having more. How much did it cost anyway? There was simply no way of knowing, not until the bill arrived.

When it did, our whole meal – seven small plates, four beers, two glasses of wine and that rum – cost eighty-seven pounds, not including tip, and the rum was just under eight pounds in total. I made sure we tipped generously, mainly because I suspect Richard was literally drinking their profits. We then sallied forth into the Wokingham night in search of a place that could serve Richard more wine, although when we got to the pub Richard also ordered a packet of peanuts and a bag of pork scratchings: that probably tells its own story.

It’s interesting, as small plates restaurants start to jump the shark in London, that we get a swathe of them round these parts like Pan and Bench Rest, which I reviewed last year. Pan shares some of the problems that Bench Rest has: however nice the service is, the interior feels like it’s designed for a very different type of establishment and however nice the food is, the dishes are either too small or too pricey or both. But with Pan those problems were amplified – everything felt like not a lot of food for quite a lot of cash, and the interior and the plating lacked the sophistication the menu aspired to. But on the other hand I love the concept, I ate some really interesting food and combinations and I can see what they’re aiming for. It felt like a work in progress, but I do wonder if Wokingham is forgiving enough to give Pan the time it needs to become the restaurant it wants to be. I hope so: definitely if Pan was in Reading I would be following its evolution and going back to see how things progress.

And Richard? According to his Instagram he was in the gym the next morning at seven am, living the dream. His verdict was less nuanced than mine: will go back for free rum though, he told me on WhatsApp. The language of Shakespeare: I must find out when his babysitter fancies doing some more overtime.

Pan – 6.7
47-49 Peach Street, Wokingham RG40 1XJ
0118 9788893

https://www.panrestaurant.co.uk/

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Feature: Al fresco dining (2019)

The thoroughly unseasonal spell of sunshine we had recently got me thinking about spring, waiting just round the corner. Tea and toast in the garden, the magnolia flowering, having a coffee outside Tamp or in the Workhouse courtyard and watching the world traipse past. That in turn made me remember, further down the line, the harbingers of good times ahead: the beer festival weekend; “just the one pint” after work in the Allied Arms garden morphing into a long, messy evening; Saturday afternoons stretched out in Forbury Gardens with a good book; the glorious golden slide into summer.

It’s nearly four years since I last published a feature on al fresco dining in Reading, believe it or not. But, as with everything else in this town, much has changed in that time. Dolce Vita and the Plowden Arms have closed, robbing us of some of the best food for miles around and one of Reading’s nicest sun-bathed spots. Forbury’s and Picnic – which also made my list four years ago – are not what they were. The market menu at Forbury’s seems to get more expensive and less special with every passing year, and Picnic isn’t even open on Sundays any more.

Finding establishments to replace them has been harder than you might think. Reading has some great outside spaces but generally, the places lucky enough to own them do not serve good food. The roof terrace at the Thirsty Bear, for instance, is a nice spot and a natural sun trap, but the pizza’s iffy. The Hope & Bear, the artist formerly known as the Abbot Cook/Upin Arms/Jack Of Both Sides, has a very pleasant garden – if you can get past the hum of traffic from the London Road – but the food has never been anything to write home about.

Then, of course, you have places that do decent food but where the space isn’t quite up to scratch. Many of these are chains: it would be lovely to eat outside at Carluccio’s, say, but that spot on the edge of Forbury Gardens sadly never catches the sun, so what should be a great opportunity to have an Aperol spritz and some antipasti becomes a chilly affair. Similarly, the space out the front of Franco Manca is okay, but hardly inspiring. I still enjoy eating at the Lyndhurst, but that little terrace looking out on to Watlington Street feels a tad lacking, more for a pint than the full dining experience.

For my money, Reading lost its finest al fresco dining spot last year when the Fisherman’s Cottage decided to dispense with I Love Paella. When that happened we lost the opportunity to eat salt cod churros and empanadas, patatas bravas with chicken thigh and piquant sauce and so many other glorious dishes in the sunshine with a pint of something cold, fizzy and refreshing. The pub now gets one hundred per cent of the food takings – bully for them, but I definitely won’t be back. Even if the dishes didn’t taste bad, eating there would feel in bad taste.

All that preamble is to say that the list you’re about to read might be Reading’s best al fresco dining options (or at least a conversation starter: your mileage may well vary) but I have to add the disclaimer that they are far from Reading’s best dining options. There’s invariably a degree of compromise involved – you can have an almost Meditteranean lunch, you can have fantastic food, but you can’t necessarily have both. But on a hot and sunny day, when everybody is in shorts and you have a glass of something cold in front of you, maybe that doesn’t matter so much.

Oh, and since starting writing this feature the sun has gone in and the heavens have opened. I can’t help but blame myself, but I still hope this will come in handy in the months ahead.

1. Bhel Puri House

Small plates in the sunshine.

The courtyard outside the George Hotel, just off Yield Hall Lane, catches the sun beautifully in the summer. By day most of its clientele are enjoying coffee, cake or quiche from Workhouse, and in the evening you’re more likely to see patrons of the hotel bar sitting outside enjoying a pint and a fag. But the real trick – at lunchtime or dinner – is to pop in to Bhel Puri House and ask them to serve you in the courtyard.

There’s very little that can match sitting on one of those benches, soaking up the sun and enjoying Bhel Puri House’s almost-legendary chilli paneer, spearing a cube of cheese on a caramelised strip of pepper before popping it in your mouth. The Punjabi samosas are still as gorgeous as the day I first tried them and the crispy bhajia – thin slices of crispy potato with an almost-sweet bright orange carrot chutney – are equally beautiful.

Last year, as summer was coming to an end, I stopped at Bhel Puri House on my way home after work on Friday and enjoyed the courtyard one last time before the clocks went back. Normally I have a mango lassi, but on that occasion a pint of Estrella from the hotel bar seemed like the only sensible option. I’ll be there again as soon as spring is well under way.

Bhel Puri House, Yield Hall Lane, RG1 2HF

2. Bluegrass BBQ

Reading’s best al fresco brunch.

Another Reading restaurant with a sunny terrace going to waste is bland uber-chain Bill’s. It has a great location next to Reading Minster, but I really couldn’t recommend anybody eats there, not even for brunch. I know it has its fans, but I infinitely prefer crossing the churchyard and going to Bluegrass on Gun Street, which has a terrace by the Holybrook which catches the sun and which few people seem to know about.

Once you’re installed, they do one of the best brunches in Reading. Many like the pancakes, but I’m always drawn to the Smokehouse breakfast there. I’ve enthused about it before but really, it does everything very well: the bacon is smoked, salty, streaky and crispy, the sausages are terrific quality and the hash browns are an absolutely joy, especially smudged with a bit of barbecue sauce before eating. If you’re there in the evening, the brisket chilli is a revelation and I really like the southern fried chicken (although maybe not with the waffles and maple syrup). I can see that dinner in the sunshine with a really good beer could make for a lovely al fresco evening.

Bluegrass BBQ, 15 Gun Street, RG1 2JR
https://www.bluegrass-bbq.com/

3. Côte

Continental, albeit canalside.

There are plenty of Oracle chains with space outside, and come the summer they are frequently rammed. Franco Manca and the Real Greek both have decent outdoor areas, and that’s before we get to the delights of eating outside at Nando’s (chicken thighs, medium, with rice, peas and extra halloumi, garlic peri peri on the side, since you asked), an experience which always feels a little like being on holiday in the UK. Many of the Oracle’s al fresco options – including Nando’s, sadly – can feel a little purgatorial. I do however have a real soft spot for the tables for two right in front of Côte (not, I should add, the ones at the edge of the waterside) where you can sit side by side, drink rosé, eat from the reasonable a la carte or the crazily reasonable set menu, and gaze out on the world.

Côte’s food is consistently good, and you won’t go far wrong there, but the specials are always worth a look (especially if they have skate wing on there, probably the nicest thing I’ve ever eaten at Côte). The charcuterie board is a lovely choice at any time of year, but in warm weather the tuna nicoise salad remains one of the best ways to feel slightly virtuous while eating out. Sitting with a view of the canal (technically a river, but if it looks like a canal and feels like a canal…) watching a parade of frazzled shoppers-to-be wander past shouldn’t really work, but for some reason it does. On a good day, when you have one of those tables and the sun is beaming down, you can feel like one of the luckiest diners in Reading.

Côte, 9 The Oracle Centre, RG1 2AG
https://www.cote.co.uk/brasserie/reading

4. London Street Brasserie

The original and best.

The only restaurant to make my list both in 2015 and today, London Street Brasserie has a nice outside area looking out on the river (and the often less than salubrious goings-on near the manky car park on the opposite bank). But that aside, it’s actually quite an attractive decked area which catches plenty of sun, and as the evening light starts to fade there are blankets to keep you warm. Many years as Reading’s fanciest restaurant (a title which has only really been challenged in the last year or so) means that in some respects the food is secondary to the whole experience. As with Cote there’s a set and an a la carte menu, but the better option is nearly always the set which offers an impressive range at a reasonable price: eat there at lunchtime or before 7pm to take full advantage.

Over the winter I became very attached to their haggis and duck egg on toast with HP jus – Reading’s ideal breakfast, disguised as a starter – and the fish and chips, also from the set menu, remains one of my favourite main courses at any price point. The a la carte always feels like more of a gamble at prices which are beginning to feel a little on the steep side for what you get, but the salt and pepper squid is a reliable dish and it’s hard to go wrong with venison and (yet more) haggis. The only thing that stops me gushing about LSB, apart from the pricing, is the consistency: it’s definitely a place which has the occasional off day, but at its best it’s still one of Reading’s finest places to have a meal in the open air.

London Street Brasserie, 2-4 London Street, RG1 4PN
http://www.londonstbrasserie.co.uk/

5. Thames Lido

For burning calories vicariously.

I have struggled to love Thames Lido, and I haven’t quite managed it yet: on every one of my three visits there’s been something wrong, either in terms of service, food or value for money. On one visit the gin and tonic was spendy and unspecial, on another the set menu was a little bit mingy for the money and on my last visit, the ox cheek (allegedly a signature dish) was claggy and undercooked. The service has always been consistent only in its inconsistency, although with Alex – who used to charm the socks off everyone at Mya Lacarte – now on board, that might have changed.

I know I sound like I’m moaning, but here’s the point: when I had lunch there last summer it was such a lovely spot that I put my reservations about the food to one side. The sun was shining, the surroundings were Instagram-perfect (there’s a reason it shows up there so often), my Spanish cider was cold and crisp and watching people braver than me doing lengths somehow helped me to work up quite an appetite. It simply is a gorgeous place to eat lunch, provided you relax your standards somewhat, and probably the single best view of any restaurant in Reading. I think it succeeds despite, rather than because of, its food, but I seem to be swimming against the tide in that respect. It’s the only swimming I plan to do, anyway: I’d much rather sit in the warm, order something nice and leave all that to people better qualified than me.

Thames Lido, Kings Meadow Park, RG1 8FR
http://www.thameslido.com/