Many years ago, in another life, I was spending a long weekend in Lisbon (remember when we used to have those?) and I had the good fortune to go on a food tour hosted by the journalist and writer Celia Pedroso. Every city – every country too, for that matter – should have an advocate like Pedroso, and anybody who went to Lisbon thinking that Portugal was all peri-peri chicken and egg custard tarts would have had their mind absolutely blown by a few hours in her expert company.
It turned out that Portugal had cheese and ham that could rival anything from Spain, had not only port but also wonderful rich red wines and fresh, almost effervescent vinho verde. We sat in a restaurant called Tagide, looking out over the city, trying petiscos, Portugal’s take on small sharing plates, which were every bit as delicious as any tapas I’d eaten in Andalusia. Then there was ginjinha, a cherry liqueur sometimes served in – just imagine this – an edible chocolate shot glass. Throw the aforementioned chicken and pasteis de nata into the mix, and you have the makings of a wonderful, unsung cuisine.
I came away from that afternoon thinking that Portugal, so often overshadowed by its Iberian cousin, might be the best-kept food secret in Europe. It’s well-kept enough, for some reason, that Portuguese food has never quite made it to these shores; London has never had a Portuguese invasion the way as, say, Peruvian food some years ago and, closer to home, in nearly eight years of writing this blog I’ve only ever reviewed two Portuguese restaurants. Both of them left me a bit baffled, to put it lightly: was it just that the food didn’t travel well?
All of this made me very curious indeed when the old Bart’s Steakhouse site next to Palmer Park, which was Colley’s Supper Rooms for many years, reopened as O Português. All the early signs pointed to a hearty, authentic Portuguese restaurant, and the restaurant’s social media output – all bilingual – suggested a wide and interesting menu, ever-changing daily specials and huge amounts of support from the local Portuguese community. With the exception of Deliveroo-only London imports like Burger & Lobster and Rosa’s Thai, O Português is probably the restaurant most readers have told me they want me to check out. They’re on JustEat, so on a quiet weekday lunchtime I sat down to pore over their menu and decide what to order for dinner.
Researching the menu was an awful lot of fun and involved having JustEat open in one browser tab, Google in another. It was both an education in Portuguese food and a reminder of how little I knew about it. The menu had a selection of just under ten starters, most of them hovering around the seven pound mark, and a wide range of main courses ranging from ten to twenty pounds. Some had descriptions, some didn’t, but I hadn’t heard of much of it and the more I researched the hungrier I got. Did I fancy arroz de marisco, seafood rice that might rival a paella, or bacalhau a bráz, a sort of salt cod scrambled egg dish with matchstick potatoes?
Everywhere I looked a different genre of gastronomic temptation was waving from the menu, shouting “pick me!”. And of course, the problem with looking up all these different Portuguese specialities was that Google always seemed to throw up the platonic ideal of each dish, a picture of every single one as its absolute best self. It partly wanted to make me order from O Português, it very much made me want to hop on the next plane to Porto and, perhaps most of all, it made me hope that ordering from O Português would make me feel less sad about the fact that I couldn’t so much get on the RailAir, let alone fly to Portugal at the drop of a hat.
I deliberated, I horse-traded with my other half Zoë and we placed an order for that evening – two starters and two mains, coming to just over thirty-six pounds, including delivery and service charge. Then we got on with our day, but every now and again, on our afternoon walk, I would remember that I had this takeaway to look forward to and I thought what I always think with these review meals: I hope it’s good.
We’d ordered our food to arrive at seven pm, and the JustEat experience was pretty efficient, painless and slightly early. We were told at just before twenty to seven that our rider was on his way, and he pulled up outside the house barely five minutes later. Most of our food was in foil containers with cardboard lids, all recyclable, and one dish we’d ordered was in polystyrene. At the time I thought nothing of it, but later Zoë said “considering it’s less than ten minutes down the road it’s just not hot enough” and, on reflection, I tended to agree.
O Português’ starters mostly read like unpretentious bar food and I was excited about trying them. The first of them, pica pau, was thinly cut pork or beef in a spicy, beery gravy with pickled vegetables: the name translates as woodpecker, and the idea is that you pick away at it with a cocktail stick while drinking a cold Super Bock (or, in my case that evening, a beautiful bottle of Alhambra 1925, a birthday present from a friend).
That sounds fantastic in theory, but O Português’ version was a bit challenging in practice. There was plenty of beef, most of it reasonably tender, but I didn’t detect any spice and next to nothing you could describe as gravy. Instead, there was a lot of pickled cauliflower and carrot, so much so that the sharp tang of vinegar was the main detectable flavour of the whole lot. I was inclined to give O Português the benefit of the doubt: I suspect this dish was reasonably authentic and probably just not for me. But I love pickles and I still found this a bit acrid; Zoë, who despises vinegar in all its forms, couldn’t cope with even a forkful of this dish. Strangest of all, it was a lot of food for six pounds fifty: if you liked it, you’d describe it as amazing value. If you didn’t, it was just cheap.
Fantastic in theory probably also sums up the other starter we had, another iconic Portuguese dish and again, meant to be robust rather than fancy. I had been tempted by the prego no pau, a “nailed” steak sandwich with garlic – apparently – literally hammered into it, but instead I went for bifana, which is probably the national sandwich of Portugal. And again, some of the problems with it may have derived from the disconnect between reading all about how amazing these could be in theory and then eating O Português’ in practice.
In the wonderful theoretical world of the internet, the pork loin used in a bifana is thin and marinated, soused in flavour. In the real world of the polystyrene container in my living room, the pork was thicker, drier and, it seemed to me, ever so slightly overcooked. There was a good pungent waft of garlic underneath the pork, but it felt like it had been added afterwards rather than cooked alongside it. Perhaps if I’d had this in a tasca somewhere in the Bairro Alto, I’d have loved it, but on my sofa it lacked that power to transport.
Zoë liked it more than me – “thank god for bread and pork” were her exact words, but that might be because she had so little time for her main course. She had gone for the frango grelhado, grilled chicken, thinking that it was a classic Portuguese dish and relatively easy to get right. Now, ordinarily in these takeaway reviews Zoë plays a relatively minor role. On this occasion, however, I’ll have to quote her extensively, because she disliked her dinner so much that I ended up resorting to grabbing my phone, opening the Notes app and taking dictation at numerous points throughout the rest of the evening.
“It’s a mirage” she started. “It looks like it’s going to be a delicious baby chicken, like the ones from Bakery House, but actually it’s just a carcass covered in tasty skin.”
The forkful Zoë had let me have taste indeed have a tasty coating and I’d rather liked it. I wasn’t sure it was better than Nando’s, and it definitely wasn’t better than the best roast chicken I’d had in Lisbon, but it wasn’t terrible.
“You know that bit of chicken I let you try? That was most of the meat there was on the whole thing. It had more bones than Cemetery Junction. And another thing: it tastes to me like it’s been reheated. It feels like a quarter of chicken you’d get from a chicken shop.”
I supposed it was possible. I knew, for instance, that Nando’s precooked its chicken before finishing it on the grill: perhaps O Português did likewise. As if to prove her point, she lifted the whole scrawny thing up. It dangled uselessly from her fork, as if from a gibbet.
“It’s tough in places. I think it’s been reheated. It’s the chicken I feel sorry for. If it’s going to die, it should at least give somebody some pleasure. And the chips are just cold and hard.”
They’d looked pretty decent and home made on the plate, but apparently not.
“What about the rice?”
“It’s okay, but it’s rice. How wrong can you go with rice?”
She had a point.
I’d picked my main having scrolled through O Português’ social media and when it turned up, it definitely looked the part. Arroz con pato, or duck with rice, sounded really promising. And again, it was a huge portion – tons of rice with what looked like shredded duck leg tumbled through it, and crispy slices of chourico and what looked like smoked pork on top. I mean, on paper, how good does that sound? And even looking at the picture below – well, it does look the part.
And yes, in theory, this dish should have been a standout. But there’s that word, theory, again: in reality it somehow managed to be less than the sum of its parts. The chourico was lovely and smoky (you smelled it the instant the lid came off the foil container), there was plenty of duck and even the smoked pork – which I’d normally approach with caution – was salty and tasty. But somehow, none of that flavour had made it into the rice and so the whole thing was heavy going.
And again, portion size and cost made for a confusing combination – this dish was eleven pounds, was far more food than I could physically eat and wasn’t tasty enough that I was remotely disappointed about having to leave some. If you liked it, it would be phenomenal value. It seemed especially odd compared to the chicken dish, which was also eleven pounds but, even by comparison, poor value. Poor value compared to Bakery House’s wonderful boneless baby chicken too, come to think of it.
Later, when we were emptying quite a lot of our dinner into one of Reading Council’s exciting new food recycling caddies, she pointed to a clump of something beige in the foil dish. “See that? That’s where I spat a chip out.” I’ve had some iffy chips in my time, often bad enough that I’ve not bothered finishing the portion, but spitting one out isn’t something I’ve ever had to do. The meal left a disappointment which lingered for the rest of the evening, only slightly redeemed by eating some phenomenal chocolate brownies (another birthday gift, as it happens).
I’ve really not looked forward to writing this review, and I’ve rarely taken less pleasure in saying that somewhere wasn’t my cup of tea. I so wanted to like O Português, and I very much wanted to be reminded of everything I love about Portugal. And I find myself in a difficult position because, despite having visited that country several times, I couldn’t even begin to tell you whether the dishes we ate were authentic. It might be that they were, and that I like Portuguese food less than I thought I did, or that they weren’t.
Or it could just be that the restaurant just had an off day. I don’t even know, really, which is the best case scenario, out of those possible outcomes. I’m sure that O Português has enough of a customer base that this is no skin off their nose, but I still feel sad that I can’t recommend them. I wished that everything I had eaten had been smaller, better and more expensive – and wanting all three of those things from a restaurant, all at once, is just not how it should be.
All I really know is that a small independent restaurant, pretty much the only one of its kind in Reading, cooked a meal I very much struggled to enjoy, and a large part of me dearly wishes this week’s review had reported different news. We still have no tapas restaurant since the sad departure of I Love Paella, and I’m yet to find a Portuguese restaurant in this country that feels like it does their food justice. If you want chicken perfected on a grill, Bakery House remains the place to beat. And if you want the closest thing to Portuguese food here, I’m afraid you’ll have to head to Nando’s. Nando’s isn’t Portuguese either – it’s South African, as a matter of fact – but you probably knew that already, didn’t you?
21 Wokingham Road, Reading, RG6 1LE
Order via: JustEat