It’s been a month since I started publishing takeaway reviews, and the feedback has been fantastic: I really appreciate all the social media posts, comments, Retweets and emails from people who have discovered new places to order from as a result. It’s lovely, too, that so many people have told me that reading a new review every week makes life feel a tiny step closer to normality. I feel that way too, and by my reckoning we have at least another six more reviews to look forward to after this one before lockdown is eased to the extent where we can all eat outside once more, assuming that the weather – and those pesky virus variants – play ball.
I said that I would predominantly focus on restaurants I haven’t previously reviewed, which means that the last month has been one leap into the unknown after another – some very good, some terrific and some best forgotten (I actually had a very nice email from the Forbury Hotel inviting me in for a comped meal when they reopen and asking me to take my review down in return: you can probably guess how that discussion went).
By contrast, this week’s review is a return to an old favourite, and about as close to a home fixture as you can get on this blog. The Lyndhurst, the gastropub on Watlington Street, is the closest restaurant to my house, and by my reckoning I’ve probably ordered takeaway from them more in the last year than from anywhere else. And that means that I do have to add a caveat before we get under way: the team at the Lyndhurst have hosted one of my readers’ lunches, so I am not anonymous to them.
Even so, I’ve seen enough of their customer service, and looked enviously at enough photographs of their dishes taken by other people, to be confident that I don’t get special treatment as a paying customer. In fact, the Lyndhurst is so modest about its cooking that I fully expect them to be amazed to see themselves featured in the blog this week. It frustrates me that they never shout as much about their food as I’d like them to, so I’ll just have to do it for them.
So why the Lyndhurst this week? Their delivery has always felt a bit of a well-kept secret. They started it in the summer and they continued to offer it on the side when they reopened as a restaurant in July, although it never felt like something they promoted very strongly. I made regular use of it in the second half of last year, and had emotional reunions with many of my favourite dishes: the phenomenal chilli beef nachos, their superb katsu chicken burger, that Scotch egg.
But the Lyndhurst never stayed still for long, so new dishes were always cropping up. There was a chicken dish with a stunning morel sauce that blew me away, another with both pork belly and presa Iberica which livened up several wintry Saturday evenings in front of Strictly and a take on poutine featuring confit duck that had instant classic written all over it. But when Reading went into Tier 4, followed swiftly by a third national lockdown, the Lyndhurst decided to take a break. January passed without a peep, and I found myself worrying about what the future held for them.
Worrying unduly, as it turned out: at the start of February the Lyndhurst announced that it was returning for takeaways. The menu looked good, too, with the old favourites still in place – burgers, fish and chips, the legendary nachos – but supplemented with brand new dishes many of which, like chicken tinga tacos, steak arepas and feijoada, showcased a new Latin American direction.
That in itself might have been enough to prompt me to review them, but the clincher was that gradually over the last few weeks the Lyndhurst have been ramping up their delivery options. Initially the pub only delivered to the surrounding areas, but when they relaunched on the 4th February they specified that they would deliver within a mile of the pub. Last week that delivery radius was extended to two miles, which opens it up as a realistic option to people across Reading.
I live just down the road, so I’ve been able to try their food all along, but I thought it was time to review it so everybody else could see what they might have been missing out on. Besides, that whole modesty thing (again) means that most people probably don’t know that the Lyndhurst delivers that far afield. The pub has started mentioning it, almost as if in passing, but sometimes on social media talking isn’t enough and you have to do a little more: not the hyperactive look-at-me-look-at-me style of some businesses, but at least raising your voice somewhat.
The Lyndhurst serves food on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and on Sunday lunchtimes. I booked in a delivery for Saturday evening relatively early in the week and spent a few days idly looking at the menu, trying to work out whether to go for the tried and tested or whether, in the spirit of all those leaps into the unknown, I should pick dishes I knew less well. But I didn’t finalise my order until Saturday lunchtime, because the Lyndhurst also supplements their regular menu with a small selection of specials and I wanted to wait to see what they were.
The Lyndhurst uses specials cleverly, as a way of testing dishes that may graduate to the permanent menu. Not only that, but they told me a little while back that apart from the core dishes they were thinking of changing everything on the menu on a regular basis. So technically much of the menu could class as a special, and it’s possible that by the time this review is published some or all of the dishes I ordered may have been replaced.
Even without the specials, the menu is just the right size and, cleverly, it only loosely distinguishes between starters and mains. Prices range from about eight to fourteen pounds, with most dishes hovering around the ten pound mark. You can tell, from the pricing and the dishes, which ones are technically starters, but when you’re ordering takeaway and everything comes at the same time those distinctions are less useful.
What is helpful, though, is how smartly the menu has been put together: many of the Lyndhurst’s dishes – tacos, nachos, Korean chicken wings – make excellent sharers, which makes it a lot of fun for bigger households. It also helps – and I know this from extensive personal experience – that portions across the board are really generous. By way of illustration, and bear this in mind when you see the pictures further down, I have pretty large dinner plates. Everything the Lyndhurst dishes up, without exception, manages to make them look small.
Tempting though the specials were, I had got it into my mind that this might be one of my last chances to try some of the dishes on the main menu, so I made my selection, paid the Lyndhurst and spent the rest of my Saturday happy in the knowledge that dinner was taken care of. It arrived bang on the dot at the requested time, and the paper bag which came out of the insulated box was perfectly hot and full of goodies. Laying them out on the kitchen worktop I was struck by the effort that the Lyndhurst puts into its packaging – everything was sturdy, well thought out and recyclable, and everything held its heat superbly.
My previous experience of feijoada – a Brazilian stew with beans – was at Katesgrove’s Pau Brasil where I’d found it gelatinous, stingy and bland. Nobody would accuse the Lyndhurst’s version of any of those things – it was a meaty symphony of a dish, deep, rich and absolutely delicious. I had it shortly after they added it to the menu and at that point it felt a little bit like they’d thrown the kitchen sink at it – so many different types and cuts of meat, along with chunks of sausage that felt suspiciously close to frankfurters. But the Lyndhurst is always tweaking, revising and improving, and the version that arrived on Saturday night was an impeccable v2.0, streamlined with all the kinks ironed out.
There were big, tender pieces of meat along with several ribs, all of which shed their bounty with minimal persuasion, and many more slow-cooked, tangled strands. The black beans added bite and texture, and the crowning glory – pretty much literally – was a good slab of pork belly, soft and yielding underneath but with an exemplary salty layer of crackling on top. I think the Lyndhurst understands how to cook pork belly better than any kitchen I can think of, and the whole thing added up to an embarrassment of riches.
It came with fluffy white rice, deep, verdant shreds of spring greens and – a good flash of colour in a predominantly brown dish – a few slices of orange. I didn’t realise these were a traditional accompaniment to feijoada but it turns out that they are, and having eaten them with the stew I could completely understand why. This dish costs thirteen pounds fifty, and at that price I somehow felt as if I was conning the Lyndhurst, even though they’re the ones who set it. If it even remotely sounds like your sort of thing, I strongly advise you to grab some before it comes off the menu, to be replaced no doubt by something equally splendid.
The other “main”, so to speak, was the steak arepas. An arepa is a Venezuelan dish made from ground maize dough, a little like a bun made of cornbread, and my previous experiences of them had been mixed to put it lightly. I’d had them in Reading a long time ago, when we briefly had a Venezuelan restaurant called Arepas Caffee, and I renewed my acquaintance last year when Pabellon brought their award-winning arepas to the Blue Collar-hosted British Street Food Awards.
I could tell that Pabellon’s were streets ahead of Arepas Caffe’s, but both times I found them hard to love – there was something fluffy, almost woolly, about the texture that I just couldn’t take to. But the Lyndhurst’s version was absolutely a case of third time lucky.
Eating my steak arepas I was struck by how often it’s the sandwich, not the filling, that lets a dish down – I’ve lost count of the amount of brioches I’ve waded through that disintegrate long before the burger is finished, or bread that simply doesn’t have the oomph to live up to what’s stuffed between the slices. No such problem with these arepa – they were robust, burnished things, perfect for holding together and with a beautiful flavour that worked alongside, rather than fought against, the filling.
And there was certainly no problem with the filling either: tons of steak, most of it tender, a couple of bits slightly chewier, with rocket, red onion and a combination of two sauces that elevated the whole shebang. One was a deep, dark spicy sauce a little like mole that gave the dish punch and heft, the other was a bright, tangy chimichurri that deftly nudged the contrast dial (little tubs of both were provided in case you wanted even more: I did).
This is again a good point to talk about the Lyndhurst’s generosity: one arepa would be a fantastic steak sandwich, accompanied by the Lyndhurst’s chips which are, for my money, the best takeaway chips I’ve ever had anywhere, all crunch and rustle and salt. You actually get two arepa for your money, and “money” in this case means the almost comically generous sum of ten pounds fifty. I said it earlier on, but I have big dinner plates: look at this picture, and see if you can see much room left on this one.
Our third dish was the chicken tikka naanza, and this felt like the only misfire of the meal. The chicken tikka itself was beautifully done, but the naan felt heavy rather than fluffy and generous though the topping of cheese was, it felt dangerously close to just being a chicken pizza. I would have liked to see a more unconventional tomato base with fire and spice in it, a lighter, crustier base, a bit less emphasis on the cheese and the chicken being given more of a chance to shine – and perhaps a raita on the side rather than the garlic mayo that came with it. The Lyndhurst’s garlic mayo is incredible, don’t get me wrong (so good you’ll wish you’d saved it for your sandwich the next day), but it felt like a misstep.
That said, it wasn’t a bad dish by any means: even the Lyndhurst’s less outstanding dishes are better than many restaurants’ star players. More to the point I think the fault probably lies with me, because it delivered absolutely what it said on the tin. I just think, with hindsight, that what it said on the tin perhaps wasn’t for me.
Our three dishes came to just under thirty-two pounds. That doesn’t include a delivery charge – the Lyndhurst doesn’t charge for delivery, but you do have to spend over twenty-five pounds unless you’re ordering for collection. That said, you absolutely can and should tip them – which I always manage to do, usually after a decidedly Mrs Doyle exchange with them where I insist that I will and they insist that I mustn’t. Their food is crazy value, to the extent that I worry about them making a profit, so tipping is the least I can do.
And for those of you considering delivery, it’s really very easy to spend twenty-five pounds with the Lyndhurst: I see they’ve added a black pudding Scotch egg to their specials for this weekend, so just keep adding those until you’ve passed the threshold (and if you find yourself with more black pudding Scotch eggs than you can physically eat, just let me know and I’ll meet you on the street corner of your choice).
I make no bones about being so unreservedly positive about the Lyndhurst. I think we’re incredibly lucky to have such a good, inventive kitchen in town constantly experimenting and innovating, doing brilliant food which is simultaneously very unfussy but involves a huge amount of thought and hard work. They can be apologetic and reserved about their food in a way that reminds me of Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen, Reading’s other great food introverts – perfectionist, always critical of their own efforts and deeply uncomfortable with bigging themselves up. And yet on quality alone, their food – like Clay’s – shouts from the rooftops.
It will be all I can do not to get in touch with them between finishing writing this and it being published on Friday morning to book another delivery slot for Saturday night – in fact, they single-handedly present one of the biggest obstacles to my ongoing project to keep making those leaps into the unknown, ordering from new restaurants and different kitchens, trying to unearth more gems for you, boldly going where no restaurant reviewer has been before. But that’s my problem. On the other hand, if you live within two miles of Watlington Street and you feel even remotely peckish you suddenly have one fewer problem than you did ten minutes ago: if that’s you, I truly envy you.
88 Queens Road, Reading, RG1 4DG
Order via: Direct through the pub, Thursday to Sunday