2020: The Year In Review (Part One)

This time of year is usually a happy one at ER HQ. Amid all the wrapping and card-opening, the chocolates snaffled from behind advent calendar doors and the frantic round of socialising in the run-up to Christmas Day, I invariably take time to sit down and write my annual awards. Who cooked the finest main course I’ve had all year? What’s the best new restaurant? Who’s really aced their social media this year? It’s a lovely thing to do, to mentally digest all those wonderful meals one more time and to celebrate everything – and there is so much – that Reading does so very well. After all, you don’t have to listen to Chris Tarrant up on stage, battered at the microphone, to be proud of Reading. Thank God.

As with everything else about this mixed-up year, it draws to a close very differently to every other year we’ve lived through. I know lots of people cautiously returned to dining out over the summer, and did so again when we entered Tier 2 with all its arbitrary restrictions, and I’m certain that Reading’s restaurants are eternally grateful for that, but I’ve stayed home and relied on takeaways and deliveries. Apart from a few drinking sessions at the exemplary Nag’s Head at the height of the summer I’ve not really been out and about; it’s hard enough to remember what having a starter in a restaurant feels like, let alone to flip through the mental Rolodex and work out which was the best one of the last twelve months.

And yet it doesn’t feel right to say goodbye to 2020, much as I know we’re all dying to, without putting something up on the blog. So this is partly a round-up, partly a reflection and goodness knows what else, as we prepare to move into an uncertain future. A vaccine is on the way and the orange knobber across the pond is on his way out but, on the flipside, we have no idea how (or how hard) we’ll get clobbered by our delectably chlorinated oven-ready Brexit.

And now we have a second strain, a third wave and, at the time of writing, a dress rehearsal for the New Year as the rest of Europe proves that it’s actually quite easy to close your borders and take back control. They say it’s the hope that kills you, but I can’t imagine anybody dying of that next year. Let’s look at many of the reasons to be cheerful instead: it’s the season for it, don’t you know.

Goodbyes, but fewer than you might think

(Do you like the headings? Neat, aren’t they. A few people have told me I should use this sort of thing more often to break up the interminable text, and who am I to argue: let’s see if they catch on.)

Obviously it’s very sad when restaurants close. That should go without saying, even this year when we’ve all had to become a bit numb to Bad Stuff. It’s especially sad when an independent closes, or a restaurant you like, or a restaurant that seemed to be doing well, but even when it isn’t the end of somebody’s dream, when it’s a faceless chain, it still leaves people – some of them really good at what they do – looking for new jobs. I still think the real damage will be felt next year but for now, we can at least take comfort in the fact that the number of closures this year was far smaller than you might expect.

Most of the casualties have indeed been chains and often it’s been the second branch of a chain where Reading has more than one: the Kings Road Zizzi; the Broad Street Prêt; the St Mary’s Butts Pizza Express. In the latter case it’s a far nicer place than the one in the Oracle, but at least if you have an emotional attachment to the brand you can still get your Pollo ad Astra without leaving town (do consider Papa Gee, though: they’re on Deliveroo and everything).

One restaurant even came back from the dead: I’m not a diehard fan of Carluccio’s but I still felt sad when it closed early in lockdown as a result of the chain collapsing. And even though it isn’t high on my list of places to visit next year I found it heartwarming nonetheless when it reopened in September. I’ve had enough really enjoyable evenings there (including, surreally, my last restaurant meal before the first lockdown) that I wanted to feel like another one was at least possible. And, for now at least, it still is.

A couple of restaurants changed their names while doing the same kind of food in such a way that you couldn’t really be sure whether they had closed at all. So I honestly don’t know whether Persian Palace is to Persia House what Snoop Lion is to Snoop Dogg, or if Spitiko is in any way a different beast to Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus (probably not, though, given that the restaurant’s Facebook page is now called “Ketty’s Spitiko”).

I certainly couldn’t venture an opinion on whether Gulab Indian Kitchen is any different to Miah’s Garden Of Gulab and I definitely couldn’t speculate as to whether it has anything to do with previous attempts by the owner of Garden Of Gulab to get round losing his alcohol licence by making a new license application under a different name. All I will say is that if you’re part of the very niche section of my readership that just can’t get enough of Indian restaurants with the word “Gulab” in their name, 2020 hasn’t been as complete a bin fire for you as it was for the rest of us.

Probably the most high profile independent closure has been announced but won’t happen until next year, when we say goodbye to one of Reading’s longest-running restaurants, Standard Tandoori on Caversham Road. Standard Tandoori, which has been open for forty years, is closing in the spring as the owners want to retire, so those of you addicted to their (locally) famous “super dry fry” will have to look elsewhere for a new favourite dish.

It does make you wonder which old-timer restaurants might not make it to the end of 2021 – could it be the year we say goodbye to the Bina and Rafina Lounge? Part of this, of course, is down to the circle of life in hospitality – for new restaurants to open, existing restaurants have to close, and indeed a new restaurant is already lined up to open in the Standard Tandoori site following refurbishment (more on that later). Speaking of new restaurants…

In with the new

Opening a restaurant is a brave thing to do at the best of times, in the best of years. It takes a long time to start to recoup your initial costs and approach a break even point, and a fair amount of restaurants don’t ever get that far: it’s hard to find a consensus online about the percentage of restaurants that fail in their first year, but even on conservative estimates it’s high enough that hospitality is not a business for the faint-hearted. That makes it all the more surprising that quite a lot of new restaurants have opened in 2020 – again, more than you might expect – with more still in the pipeline.

Some are trying to turn around what could charitably be described as cursed sites – the kind of buildings that seem to be on ley lines guaranteed to ensure the failure of hospitality businesses. Take the old site of the Warwick Arms on the Kings Road, for example. It rebranded as Bali Lounge, and when that closed it reincarnated as a gastropub of sorts called the Biscuit & Barrel. Then, like some hyperactive Doctor Who of the Reading restaurant world, it became Cardamom, the second branch of a mini-chain of Indian restaurants (the other one’s in Pangbourne) before very quickly rebranding again – this time as King’s Kitchen, also an Indian restaurant.

That takes us up to early 2020, but later this year it changed its name yet again, becoming The Aila, a Nepalese restaurant and bar. By the time a vaccine has been rolled out and I am ready to review restaurants again I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it has changed its name again. Possibly twice.

Another new opening in a cursed site is Madoo, an Italian coffee shop which has opened on Duke Street opposite the Oxfam music shop. You may know this site better as the boarded up shop that used to be Project Pizza or, if your memory is longer, the boarded up shop that used to be It’s A Wrap.

But in fairness, the reports I’ve had so far (including from Reading’s resident Sicilian in exile, Salvo Toscano) suggest that Madoo might be a dark horse. The toasted gorgonzola sandwich is meant to be decent, they use scamorza in quite a few of their toasties and they sell some goodies – cake and biscuits – to take away (if they stock any giandiuotti I shall have to pay them a visit sooner rather than later). Let’s hope Madoo manages to make a go of the site – it may benefit, sadly, from the closure of Panino (another long-standing Reading business) on the other side of the road.

One last ill-starred spot is the old Colley’s Supper Rooms site on the Wokingham Road, up by Palmer Park. This was reborn as Bart’s, a steakhouse that left me a little unmoved, before closing and reopening as the salubrious-sounding Smokey’s House, a restaurant described by Get Reading as Cheap and cheerful family grub. Perhaps unsurprisingly given that glowing writeup, Smokey’s House failed to catch fire and now, in its place, we have O Português, a – yes, you’ve guessed – Portuguese restaurant.

This could be a wonderful thing, if it’s done well. I’ve been to Portugal a fair few times and it’s very much the unsung hero of European food, with dishes and wine that can easily match anything in Spain. And it’s some time since Reading had a Portuguese restaurant (Nando’s doesn’t count: it’s South African), the last one being O Beirão up on the Basingstoke Road. O Português must be pretty confident, anyway, as so far they’ve dispensed with a website or even having a menu up outside the restaurant. I had to go on Just Eat to get a look at what was on offer: one section of the menu is entitled “Vegetarian & Children”, which rather gives the wrong impression.

O Português’ menu is, at least, available somewhere online. That’s more than you can say about Raayo, the new cafe which has opened on Friar Street just along from Hickies. They have set up a website, but the nicest thing I can say about it is that it feels a tad underdeveloped. The menu is lacking in the kind of detail especially fussy customers might want – what dishes are available, how much they cost, that kind of thing. And what’s Raayo’s USP? We use fresh ingredients to make our food very tasty and yummy says the website, which will leave all of Reading’s dastardly restaurants and cafés using stale ingredients to make their food rubbish or middling quaking in their boots.

I know this might sound unkind, but it comes from a place of genuine concern. Raayo, like all hospitality businesses, is going to need all the help it can get in a crowded, competitive marketplace to stay alive; in 2020, and especially in 2021, this kind of approach just won’t cut it. I imagine they’ve had some quiet days since they opened – you’d think they would have offered plenty of opportunities to at least get busy on social media.

Also new, also a café and also on Friar Street, albeit at the less attractive end down by German Doner Kebab and the Hope Tap, we have Bru. Instagram announced that they opened their doors for the first time last week, although they haven’t updated their website to reflect that (isn’t it always the way?). Bru serve their own gelato, handmade by them in Leicester, so if that turns out to be good – and especially if it turns out actually to be gelato – that could be a real addition to town. Their menu also offers a “Grinch hot chocolate” which is a really disconcerting shade of green and something called a “wafflepop”, which I assume is like a normal waffle but hundreds of times more twee.

Other cafés have been far more polished. The Collective has opened just opposite the Griffin and is an altogether more well-realised affair: very Caversham and very chic, with a stripped-back, almost Nordic look. The name is about the only Marxist thing about it: part-café, part lifestyle shop and part grocer, it will be interesting to see whether they manage to do more with that concept than their spiritual predecessor, Siblings Home. The Collective has already been featured in Muddy Stilettos, which probably tells you more about it and the market it is aiming at than I possibly could. If you like that sort of thing, you’ll probably like that sort of thing.

One restaurant, although not new per se, has pursued such a different direction that it might as well be a completely new establishment. The Corn Stores, which underwhelmed me last year as an upmarket steak restaurant, made a dramatic switch this year when it hired Liam Sweeney, previously sous chef at Nottingham’s Michelin-starred Alchemilla. The complete revamp involved moving to a compact, regularly-changing tasting menu, a clear statement of intent that owner Rarebreed Dining was shooting for central Reading’s first Michelin star. The decision to start using sourdough bread from RGBread, the bakery run by Geo Café, was another sign of Sweeney’s ambition. Speaking of the Corn Stores…

The idea is you put the headings between the sections

I did wonder what would happen to restaurant reviewing this year. I’ve taken nine months off, and you all have the withdrawal symptoms to prove it, but Reading’s influencers tend to be younger and braver (and, I would guess, with no underlying health conditions). They’re a lean and hungry bunch. But just as the pandemic has made many of us reassess our values, would it change their views about how they reviewed restaurants and which restaurants to review? The early signs were that it might, with at least one local blogger musing about whether it was right to take free food in the middle of a global crisis, or to support chains.

That didn’t last very long, as a number of comped reviews and enthusiastic Instagram posts have cropped up since then. Movie night at the Last Crumb was just too hard to resist it seems (maybe they were showing Weekend At Bernie’s, in which case who can blame them) as was an opportunity to scoff free grub at the new and improved Corn Stores. Oh well. Times are hard and who can begrudge people the chance to cut down on their weekly expenses: won’t somebody think of the influencers?

Anyway, I can’t bring myself to entirely complain about people getting free meals at the Corn Stores, because it introduced Reading, and the world, to possibly the finest restaurant reviewer writing today in English. I am of course speaking of Hugh Fort: I think we all knew he had talent, but none of us could have predicted just what a towering giant he would become in 2020. My friend Sophie told me last week that she decided to eat at the Corn Stores on the night before the start of the second lockdown entirely on the basis of Fort’s masterful review for Berkshire Live.

“I knew that if Hugh Fort didn’t like it, it was probably the place for me.”

“It’s not that he didn’t like it, more that he just didn’t understand it.”

“Yes, that’s exactly what it was.”

Where to begin? There’s so much to enjoy about the review that I doubt I can do it justice. Someone on Twitter described it as “accidental Partridge”, but it’s so authentically him that I suspect Alan Partridge might instead be an accidental Hugh Fort. Fort wrote incredulously about eating Liam Sweeney’s food in a way that suggested even a Harvester might be a tad fancy for him. And it wasn’t just the food, either. Fort doesn’t drink, and he writes about booze as if he doesn’t understand that either. A sniff of his girlfriend’s cocktail “suggested to me it was the sort of thing that you could drink a lot of without realising it was full of potent liquor, which seems to be the point of cocktails.” Has anyone ever seen him and Viz‘s Mr. Logic in the same place?

But it was when talking about the food that Fort really came into his own: his uncle is Great British Menu judge Matthew Fort, but the apple has fallen a long old way from the tree. I loved the way he put mocktails and palate cleanser in inverted commas, as if to say “this is what the kids are calling them, apparently”. Fresh oysters and Reading town centre were apparently “two terms that aren’t exactly associated with each other” – why am I not surprised that Fort had never heard of London Street Brasserie? – but Fort gamely gave them a bash, before “wolfing down” “a couple of tasty potato croquettes”.

The Corn Stores put a picture of that dish up on Instagram a week or so later, patiently explaining that they were in fact pig’s head croquettes, no doubt involving painstaking cooking and assembly. But never mind that, because they clearly didn’t touch the sides for our roving gourmand (perhaps he didn’t even chew). That Fort couldn’t tell the difference between dense shreds of perfectly-cooked pig and, err, mashed potato might be my single favourite thing about him.

The most quoted section was Fort’s baffled encounter with duck liver parfait and brioche. “The idea is you put the parfait on the brioche” he explained, possibly more to himself than the rest of us. I’d like to imagine that an earlier version of the review also contained a paragraph reading “the idea is that you cut the food into smaller pieces using the knife and fork provided, before placing it in your mouth, chewing it with your molars and swallowing in order to allow the process of digestion to take place”. But of course that would mean some editing or proofreading had taken place, and this is Berkshire Live we’re talking about.

And what did Fort make of it? “I quite liked it… I think someone more generally into parfaits would really enjoy it.” “Fine dining anywhere often takes you out of your comfort zone” he added, although Fort’s comfort zone might well begin and end at Gregg’s, or one of those Rustler microwaveable burgers. You know, really fancy shit.

I think it was the Guardian‘s John Crace, or it might have been the Independent‘s Tom Peck, who said that 2020 was the year that satire died. You no longer have to come up with anything yourself, you just have to become a stenographer because the stuff virtually writes itself. So much as I could carry on dissecting Fort’s erudition, I suspect nothing I could say will top the experience of reading it in its entirety.

I’ll leave you to enjoy the rest, including his shock at eating a steak without chips and his girlfriend’s exciting main course, apparently “duck with Aylesbury duck”. That part reminded me of another blinding passage I read in a restaurant review this year, which said “the fish had light and crispy batter which was dusted underneath with Indian spices from the Indian spices. This gave it a subtle spicy flavour, but nothing too spicy”: somebody probably needs to ask Santa for a thesaurus this year.

Some artists create one perfect piece of work and then walk away, knowing they will never top it. I fear Hugh Fort may be such an auteur: I keep looking, but there is no sequel. I’ve read his blistering piece about “the new Hena spice ketchup everybody’s been talking about” (spoiler alert: I don’t know anybody who’s even heard of it) but it’s just not the same.

In it, Fort reviews a curry sauce which, it turns out, you can’t buy in supermarkets in Reading to see if it’s as good as McDonald’s curry sauce which, of course, you can’t buy in supermarkets in Reading. To cut a long story short, Fort thought the one you can’t buy in Home Bargains was slightly nicer but that neither of them was as good as ketchup – and he used the phrase “to be honest” twice, so you know it’s the real deal. Let’s hope 2021 brings more restaurant reviews from Fort: even the fact that the food was free does nothing to tarnish his brilliance.

In with the new (continued)

Sadly we don’t know what Hugh Fort would make of the other new restaurants to open in Reading this year (just imagine, though), and our influencers haven’t bothered with them yet, presumably because they haven’t been offered the chance to do so for nothing.

Quite a few of them, though, are starting to build some good word of mouth reports. A prime example is Banarasi Kitchen, an Indian restaurant trading out of the Spread Eagle pub on Norfolk Road, between the Oxford and Tilehurst Roads. A friend tells me she has gone there pretty regularly this year and has given it rave reviews, and it coincides with the Spread Eagle starting to make a bit of effort on Instagram: I shall be making my way there to check it out at some point in 2021.

Another pub with a chequered relationship with food is the Fisherman’s Cottage, down by the Kennet on the edge of New Town. It’s most famous for having played host to the superb and badly-missed I Love Paella – they left in acrimonious circumstances in summer 2018 and this summer the old management left the pub. It has now reopened under chef and restaurateur Cigdem Muren Atkins, who was born in Turkey and has run hospitality businesses in the Dominican Republic and Bodrum before pitching up at the Fisherman’s Cottage.

It has real potential – the pub can be a lovely spot, especially in summer – but time will tell whether Muren Atkins can keep enough craft beer available to keep the previous clientele happy while working on a food offering to win over diners. Her current menu feels quite generic, with a mixture of curries, stir fries and standard pub fare (yes, burgers). Personally I’d like to see a few more Turkish dishes on the menu – Reading has never quite anywhere that captures how beautiful that cuisine can be, and you need to head to Zigana’s Turkish Kitchen in Didcot for that.

Or it may be that La’De Kitchen, which opened this year in Woodley, will save me from the questionable pleasures of a train trip to Didcot. Although the blurb describes it as a Mediterranean restaurant the menu on their rather glossy website has loads of Turkish dishes on it – borek, pide, guvec and of course a myriad of kebabs. It turns out that this is La’De’s third branch, the slightly incongruous final part of an unlikely threesome: Muswell Hill, Pangbourne, Woodley. I have several readers who have thoroughly enjoyed takeaway from the Pangbourne branch, despite the slightly sharp pricing, so I shall look forward to trying it for myself.

And you don’t need to head out to Woodley to try a plethora of grilled meats: Tasty Greek Souvlaki opened on Market Place in May, in the old Mum Mum site. Again, I’ve heard plenty of good reports of their food (albeit with one or two detractors) with the giros particularly worth trying, by all accounts. I was on the verge of heading there for an al fresco lunch on one of the last warm weekdays of the year – and writing it up for the blog – when we went into a second lockdown, so it just wasn’t meant to be. Hopefully it will still be trading next year when I return to reviewing in earnest.

A new establishment to file under “hmm” is one of the victims, along with HRVY off of Strictly Come Dancing, of the Great Vowel Shortage Of 2020. MNKY Lounge – whose name somehow fails to combine the glamour of Donna Karan New York and the prosaic quality of Alto Lounge – has opened on Erleigh Road where the Fruitbat Bar (and more recently vegan café bar Vego’s) used to ply its trade.

Will this fare any better? I’m not sure. Every time I’ve went past over the summer the tables outside were packed with people drinking but life in Tiers 2, 3 and 4 (let alone the Tier 14 we’ll probably be in by mid-January) may be a different matter. I went on to Just Eat to scout out their menu (their website – yes, it’s another one of those – simply announces that it’s “coming soon”) and I didn’t see anything that looked like it couldn’t have fallen off the back of a Brakes lorry.

Before taking my leave of you, it’s worth reminding you that there are always, always new cafés and restaurants in the pipeline. Nothing ever stands still. So in the New Year we can expect to see Chaiiwala, sometimes apparently described as “the Indian Starbucks” opening on the Wokingham Road just up from I Can’t Believe It’s Not The Garden Of Gulab Gulab Indian Kitchen. Mansoor, my man in the know who introduced me to Cake&Cream and its magic samosas, tells me that Chaiiwala is worth a visit for its karak chai and its chicken kebab rolls: that is recommendation enough for me.

We’ll also see Flavour Of Mauritius opening in the Standard Tandoori’s current location on Caversham Road. Currently a mobile caterer, Flavour Of Mauritius hit the news over the summer when, like a number of other local businesses, they chose to donate free meals to NHS staff, the emergency services and charities helping those in need. I’ve heard positive noises from ER readers who have ordered takeaway from Flavour Of Mauritius in lockdown, so fingers crossed they will revitalise the site and bring something new to Reading’s restaurant scene.

Oh, and Wendy’s is allegedly opening on Friar Street: place your bets on whether we’ll see any enthusiastic Instagram posts about square burgers, the word AD squirrelled away at the very end. And that reminds me that Tortilla has opened on Broad Street, near the Oracle entrance – I should have remembered earlier, but somehow it feels hard to care.

And another Turkish restaurant opened down the Oxford Road in between me starting to write this round-up and hitting the publish button. We also may or may not get a branch of LEON, just like we were meant to get branches of Byron and Busaba a few years ago. If this year has taught you anything, it’s that nothing can be guaranteed to go completely according to plan.

Anyway, that completes the first section of my round-up of 2020. Come back next week for Part Two, when we’ll see if I can sum up how Reading’s restaurants have survived the year without using the word “pivot”. Maybe we can turn it into a drinking game.

2 thoughts on “2020: The Year In Review (Part One)

  1. Local foodie

    You should, when allowed, try a new one on Deliveroo “The Kitchen”, it trades out of a pub in Earley. Handmade burgers with a twist, locally sourced ingredients. Very nice.

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