Café review: Café Yolk

When I started to re-review venues this month, I had a couple of criteria in mind when deciding where to go. The older the review the more sense it made to return, to see whether things had changed. But also, the stronger my feelings at the time the more I thought I should try a restaurant again. With the places I liked, like Pepe Sale, I wanted to see whether they had stood the test of time. But even more interesting, I think, were the ones I’d enjoyed less. 

If they’d survived all this time then either they’d fixed whatever the issues were, or – and this is more likely – I was plain wrong about them at the time. And this brings us neatly to Café Yolk, which I first visited in November 2013. At that time I didn’t get the appeal, and I said so, and it generated the first controversy on this blog as a number of people lined up in the comments to tell me how very wrong I was (one of them, it turned out, worked for Café Yolk, a fact he neglected to mention at the time). 

I didn’t do it to be controversial – clickbait was barely a thing in 2013 – but it was my first experience of putting my head above the parapet, and it prepared me well, for example, for saying, a couple of months later, that I reckoned Sweeney & Todd wasn’t much cop. This was before culture war was a thing, back in the mists of time when you could express opinions on the internet without being hit with a tidal wave of bile. They were more innocent days. 

Anyway, nearly eight years has passed, and in that time Yolk has expanded, thrived and embraced social media. It has a dedicated fan base, many of whom would no doubt read my review from 2013 and not recognise the place I described back then. In the intervening years a friend of mine raved about Yolk, so I went there with her and had some far happier meals. And more recently, a number of people have told me on social media that I really ought to give it another go on duty, so I headed there on a sunny weekday for lunch with my other half Zoë in order to check it out.

First things first: I love what they’ve done with the place. In its early days Yolk was a small, cramped room with a handful of tables outside. They’ve spent a lot of money on a very tasteful expansion which has really transformed the corner of Erleigh Road and Hatherley Road – with a conservatory area with seating on both sides and an additional bright yolk-yellow awning covering more tables on the Erleigh Road side. 

Not only is it nicely done, but it vastly increases their seating. The open windows in the conservatory area, where I was seated, meant it was well ventilated, making for a brilliantly light, airy space. Good in summer, good in winter, covered when it rains and very Covid-appropriate: but more importantly, it just looked and felt good. Sitting on a battleship grey banquette, the whole thing almost felt Parisian to me – as close to Parisian pavement culture as you’re going to get in Reading, anyway.

The menu has been sensibly streamlined since 2013. Back then it featured omelettes and burgers and felt slightly all over the place, but now it’s centred firmly on breakfast and brunch, offering a full English, eggs Benedict, pancakes and French toast and a handful of other dishes. Only their biggest breakfast, the “Canadian”, tops the ten pound mark, while everything else hovers between eight pounds and a tenner.

Another change since my first visit: Yolk has done a lot of work, especially this year, teaming up with local suppliers. Coffee is now supplied by Anonymous and bread and pastries come from Rise Bakehouse. This is fantastic to see, although I do think they’re missing a trick by not making something of that on the menu. You order and pay at the counter so I went up to do exactly that, noticing while I was there that Rise’s attractive-looking cruffins were on display on the counter but not covered. That would have put me off ordering one even before Covid came along: such a shame, as this would an easy thing to fix.

The coffee came first, and it was properly lovely. Using Anonymous was an inspired choice and my latte was excellent – beautifully made, silky, without any bitterness. Not only that, but it was a huge coffee and a genuine bargain at two pounds fifty-five; I’m struggling to think of anywhere where you can get a coffee so good for so little. I’ve long thought that East Reading is lacking places where you can get a really good coffee. I’ve always frequented the AMT in the hospital – it has brilliant staff and their Froffee (an espresso milkshake) is a thing of wonder – but it’s nice to know that there’s now a credible alternative.

I had ordered the breakfast burger, which has always been my favourite thing on the Yolk menu. It looked every bit as good as I remembered – a golden brioche stuffed with a sausagemeat patty, well-done back bacon, an omelette and orange-looking American-style cheese. You used to be able to get one of these for the princely sum of six pounds fifty but that conservatory isn’t going to pay for itself, so the price has been upped to nine pounds fifty and they throw in a portion of herby fried potatoes, which I suspect come from a packet. 

That all sounds curmudgeonly, but I enjoyed it every bit as much as I remembered, if not more so. The bacon was superbly salty, the patty splendidly coarse and the cheesy stodge of the omelette added a comforting balance. The whole thing was a bit like an upmarket McMuffin (or Fidget & Bob’s knowing take on it, the O’Muffin), although I’d have preferred the floury firmness of a muffin to the brioche bun, pretty though it was. Even the herby potatoes had plenty of heat and crunch, perfect dipped in a little ramekin of brown sauce. Truly, I had ordered well.

There was only one problem, which was that Zoë had ordered less well. On paper, her dish had sounded fantastic – avocado on sourdough toast with salsa, lime and red chilli, topped with a fried egg and some bacon. And it looked the part: if you were judging on the photos alone, her dish looked far nicer than mine. But – and we’ve all known at least one person like this over the years – it’s not enough to be good-looking if you don’t have any substance to back it up.

“This doesn’t feel like a dish, it’s more like a collection of ingredients. They’re good on their own, but they don’t work together.”

Zoë sounded more like a restaurant blogger than I did, although in fairness it’s hard to sound like a restaurant blogger when your mouth is full of delicious breakfast burger.

“I’ll be honest, I was expecting your avocado to be smashed. And why have they put one of your pieces of toast on top of the other?”

“The menu didn’t say it was smashed, so I wasn’t sure it would be. But with the lime and the chilli, it has the ingredients of smashed avocado, they just haven’t smashed it. Maybe they think smashed avocado is a bit past it.”

“Not in Reading it isn’t.”

“And they haven’t buttered the sourdough toast, so it’s really dry. The only thing giving any moisture at all is the egg yolk.”

“I don’t understand why they bought in good sourdough and didn’t butter it.”

“I know. And nearly all of it’s cold. My toast is cold. I mean, the egg was hot once, but it wasn’t by the time this arrived. Only the bacon’s hot. Maybe they were waiting” – she shot an envious look at my plate – “for your burger to be finished. The salsa’s good though.”

To get over the brunch disappointment, Zoë had a chocolate chip milkshake which redeemed matters. I turned down offers to try it – she hadn’t wanted even a mouthful of my brunch – but I eventually relented and I could see why she liked it so much. 

“This has the coldness that was missing from your milkshake at Smash N Grab a few weeks back. Thank god I’ve had this. I only ordered the avocado on toast because you told me to.”

“I didn’t tell you to order that!”

“No, but you had the breakfast burger.” That envious look again. “And I knew we couldn’t order the same thing.”

The interesting thing was that in the time we sat in the conservatory, I saw five other tables order: at all but two of them at least one person ordered the breakfast burger. Was it a signature dish, a lucky guess, or had they been similarly disappointed by other dishes? I was half tempted to ask them, but thought better of it. Our meal – two brunches, three coffees and a milkshake – came to just over thirty-one pounds, not including tip.

Service, by the way, was good. Yolk has been hit especially hard by pings from the Covid app: I’ve seen posts from them on social media saying they’ve had to reduce their capacity because they didn’t have enough staff, and I imagine that’s because they serve a predominantly student customer base. But although they were rushed off their feet – Yolk never seems to be anything less than busy – they were friendly and efficient throughout.

Unquestionably, the Yolk of 2021 is a very different beast to the smaller café I visited the best part of a decade ago. The fit out is excellent, and they’ve made it a wonderful space to hang out with a tiny touch of Saint Germain des Pres about it (even if Zoë and I were a far cry from Sartre and de Beauvoir). The coffee is superb, and the breakfast burger deserves to be up there on any list of Reading’s iconic dishes.

And yet it did feel a little like Yolk fell a tiny bit short on the things that would take it from good to great. It doesn’t make sense to have wonderful cruffins out on display where people, masked or unmasked, can breathe all over them. It doesn’t make sense to deconstruct smashed avocado and dish up all the components without making it into the brilliant dish it should be. And it really doesn’t make sense to go to all that trouble to seek out good sourdough and then dish it up cold and dry. Yolk strikes me as a place that has bought the best, but doesn’t quite grasp how to get the best out of it. And interestingly, that was also the feeling I vaguely had eight years ago.

None of this will matter, of course. Café Yolk will keep packing them in, because it does what it does pretty well, and I imagine most of its customers won’t notice the things I picked up on, or will notice and don’t care. That’s fair enough, and I fully expect that Café Yolk will be going strong in eight years’ time. If I’m still running this blog in 2029 I’ll pay it another visit, and I’ll probably find this review as inaccurate as the one I wrote all those years ago. And between now and then, I can see them selling me rather a lot of takeaway coffees.

Café Yolk – 7.2
44 Erleigh Road, Reading, RG1 5NA
0118 3271055

http://www.cafeyolk.com

Pub review: Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen at The Butler

Opening and running a restaurant is hard work. You have to find premises, sort out a lease, decide your concept, pick your staff, choose your suppliers, design your menu, set up your social media, get people through the door, get them to come back, replace your staff when some of them leave. The list goes on. 

That’s at the best of times, but the last year has hardly been that. Now you can add in navigating the complexities of furlough and bounceback loans, applying for grants, retaining your staff, getting your head round the rule of six, track and trace, “hygiene theatre” and having to close or reopen at the drop of the hat based on government fiat and what tier system is in use this week. And you can also bung in asking people nicely to wear masks so they don’t risk infecting your unvaccinated staff and closing because you have been pinged, or because your staff have and you don’t have enough left to be able to trade. It’s hard work. I sometimes wonder why anybody does it.

Most people dip their toe in the water rather than diving in at the deep end, and there are many ways to do that. One of the most common is to start out doing street food. Get a gazebo, go to some markets, build a reputation and one day you might open your own place. Take Vegivores, which has made a roaring success of its site in Caversham. But sometimes street food is the place that exposes the gap between your daydream of feeding adoring crowds and the harsh reality of getting up early in the morning only for everything to go wrong, as this touching post from a recent Blue Collar alumnus shows.

Another route is to use someone else’s premises, the “cuckoo” approach. One of the most successful exponents of this is Anonymous Coffee, who have had coffee machines in the Tasting House, Thames Tower, Curious Lounge and the Grumpy Goat without setting up permanent premises of their own. Many people in hospitality have taken this path, from Bench Rest serving food in the Tasting House to I Love Paella, operating out of a tiny kitchen in the Oxford Road branch of Workhouse Coffee. But the most obvious synergy, if you can ever forgive me for using that word in any context, is between chefs in search of a kitchen and pubs in search of a chef.

When this works, it’s a dream. The pub wants to serve food, but doesn’t want to cook it. The chef wants to cook, but doesn’t want his or her name on a lease quite yet. And so over the years we’ve been treated to I Love Paella cooking out of The Horn before graduating to the Fisherman’s Cottage and Caucasian Spice Box (now, of course, Geo Café) operating from the Turk’s Head and later from The Island, still one of the most surreal Reading establishments I’ve ever visited. I fondly remember I Love Paella’s salt cod churros, or Caucasian Spice Box’s ajika chicken, and I may not have loved The Horn or the Turk’s Head, but the food was so good that it didn’t matter.

I got wind recently that a similar arrangement was in place over on the edge of West Reading at the Butler in Chatham Street, where an outfit called Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen had popped up and was offering a full menu of Caribbean classics. I have fond memories of the Butler: it’s a handsome building which has stood proud for many years surrounded by the architectural chaos of the old Chatham Street car park with its curving Brutalist concrete walkway and the gleaming apartment buildings that have sprung up more recently, much like the house from Up. In this week’s scorching weather I couldn’t think of a better place to try, so I headed over with my friend Graeme, last seen enduring imaginable horrors at Taco Bell.

“Don’t you want to know where we’re going?” I said as we made our way down Broad Street. In the run-up to our visit Graeme had steadfastly told me that he only wanted to find out on the day.

“No, I like a surprise. Anyway, we’re heading in the direction of KFC, so I can still dream.” Graeme has a love of the secret blend of herbs and spices that exceeds even mine: when he was recovering from Covid at the start of the year, the first thing he asked for when he was past the worst was a bucket of the Colonel’s finest.

“I have a good feeling about this place, don’t worry. I hope it will make amends for that quesadilla.”

“Nothing on earth can make up for that.” 

I felt like pointing out that he did volunteer to come to Taco Bell, but I thought better of it. But Graeme’s mood lightened immediately when we rounded the bend of Chatham Street and he saw the board outside the Butler advertising Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen. “This is great! I love Caribbean food.”

I hadn’t realised how much outside space the Butler has, but it turns out there’s quite a lot. There were plenty of tables out front in the unforgiving sun, a happy few of them sporting parasols, and initially I though it might have been fun to eat dinner with the background hum of the Chatham Street traffic. But I found out when I went in to grab a menu that there was a courtyard out back, a lovely little sloping space with a little more shade, and so our decision was made. 

The pub and the kitchen run separately, so you order your drinks at the bar and your food out back, where the kitchen operates out of a different building. The menu immediately presents a couple of problems: one is that you sort of want to eat everything, the other is that because the three most iconic mains can be served in small or large sizes ordering everything is almost a realistic possibility. None of the large mains come in over fourteen pounds, most of them are closer to eleven, and there are both vegetarian and vegan options in the form of macaroni pie and a sweet potato curry respectively.

The “sides and nibbles” section is brilliantly flexible, giving you the option to order starters, have extras with your main course or even, potentially, just go for a sort of Caribbean tapas where you try it all. The majority of them hover around the six pound mark. We sort of went for a mixture of all three of those approaches – although it soon became apparent that Graeme’s appetite was even bigger than mine, which pretty much makes him my ideal dining companion (on the walk over he was complaining about having gone up to a thirty-six inch waist in recent months: if I ever slimmed down to a thirty-six I’d probably go on a week-long bender to celebrate).

“We have to have plantain as one of our starters” he said.

“I’ve always struggled with plantain. I think it’s because I went off bananas in 1999, the year I did the cabbage soup diet so I could fit into my suit for my brother’s wedding.”

Graeme gave me an indulgent look, as if he couldn’t work out which of those two sentences was the most moronic.

“Okay, we can skip the plantain, but we have to have some of the handmade patties.”

“Salt fish?”

“Exactly.”

We narrowed it down to just the four starters and two mains and I wandered over to Stevie and his partner, who were sitting at one of the pub tables waiting for orders. It transpired that they didn’t have any patties, and after a little more to-ing and fro-ing our order was placed. 

“My friend thinks we’re going to still be hungry after this lot” I said, and she laughed.

“He hasn’t seen our portions.”

Our food came to forty-eight pounds, not including tip, and once I’d got that sorted Graeme wandered into the bar and got us a couple of very satisfying pints of Neck Oil. Really, it was perfect. The sun was shining, I had good company, a cold beer was in front of me and food was on the way. I had that feeling that this could be my next favourite place: it doesn’t often happen, maybe once every couple of years, but I could feel that familiar, dangerous sensation of my expectations gradually rising. Only what appeared to be a gathering of Reading’s Socialist Worker Party in the corner was slightly incongruous. What were socialists doing picking a pub whose name was the embodiment of servitude to the ruling classes? I guess the hard left has never been known for its sense of humour.

Our starters were uniformly excellent, even if the salt fish patties had to wait for another time. I’ve always struggled with chicken wings, but these were magnificent stuff – ten of the blighters for seven pounds, all wonderfully crispy, all yielding plenty of meat and all bloody delicious. The menu describes them as “dark rum glazed”, and that wasn’t quite true: instead they came unglazed with the dark rum sauce lurking at the bottom of the foil tray. It might have been a happy accident, but I preferred it that way – less messy, more crunchy and you could still dredge bits of chicken through the sauce and fully appreciate how sweet and boozy it was; I wouldn’t be surprised if that sauce had turned out to be 90% rum.

“Those are magnificent” said Graeme as we made inroads into the big pile of napkins that had also been brought to our table. We’d also gone for the most expensive of the starters, coconut island shrimp. These were coated in panko breadcrumbs and coconut and served with a little tub of scotch bonnet aioli. I really enjoyed these too – the texture was more fluffy than firm, but you got a good helping of plump prawns. They could have done with more of the aioli, which I liked, but our cutlery basket also had a trio of hot sauces with it so we tried them with the Baron sauce which was almost luminous yellow and very hot indeed.

“I could come here and eat these starters tapas-style every day” said Graeme, and I couldn’t have agreed more: I was already beginning to wonder when (it was no longer an if) I’d be back. That decision was vindicated by our third starter, some truly beautiful beef and jerk pork dumplings which skipped the velvet rope and headed straight for my mind palace of happy food memories. The texture of these was spot on – the filling firm and fiery, the dumpling caramelised on one side – and plonking them in the dark soya dip was hugely satisfying. Everything went perfectly with a cold IPA, too: on a hot day like that, I couldn’t think of anywhere I’d rather be.

I felt that our mains continued the momentum nicely, although Graeme wasn’t quite so sure. I’d let him pick first and he’d chosen the curry goat, which arrived in a massive portion, on the bone. Initially I’d wondered whether the plastic cutlery – more hygiene theatre – would be up to the job, but Graeme deftly demonstrated that keeping the meat on the bone would have been more of a challenge.

“I don’t know what I think of it. It’s not quite a chip shop curry sauce, but it’s quite sweet.”

I was allowed to try a bit and for what it was worth, I loved it. There was definitely a fruitiness to it, but also a heat that slowly built, and the meat was stunningly tender. It was great to see some sprigs of thyme in there too, adding a little complexity. That said, I’ve always had a sweet tooth, so maybe this was more my kind of thing than Graeme’s, although he did tell me that in a previous job he came into contact with lots of Caribbean families and was always being given Caribbean home cooking to try, so perhaps he’d been spoilt by that. In any case, any issues with a slight lack of heat were easily rectified with a slug of that highlighter-yellow hot sauce, and all was well.

Personally if I’d ordered the curry goat I would have been delighted. Instead I had to slum it with the jerk chicken, and by slum it I mean lord it. The menu claims that the chicken is marinated for twenty-four hours and drum-cooked with pimento wood, and it really looked the part: that beautiful bronzed colour and all that phenomenal crispy skin. It felt like I had the best part of a whole chicken in front of me, and the taste was superb – smokey, almost leathery, with depth of flavour that can only come from time very well spent. Eating it, there in that courtyard, off a paper plate with a plastic knife and fork I felt transported, in the best possible sense. It reminded me, in some way I couldn’t place, of eating grilled meat at a roadside ocakbasi in Turkey, of being somewhere else.

“It wasn’t bad”, Graeme said later, but I do think it was a tiny bit on the dry side.”

“I didn’t have that problem, most of it was perfectly soft.”

“That’s because you deliberately gave me a dry bit” he said. “And it was a bit without skin.”

He might have been joking, he probably was, but many a true word’s spoken in jest and I didn’t quite know him well enough yet to judge. Was I just a bad sharer?

The accompaniments were also terrific – rice and peas, all present and correct, along with a tangy tangle of pickled escovitch peppers and onions, and sticky slices of plantain which completely converted me to the stuff (“didn’t I tell you?” Graeme said, enjoying it every bit as much as I would have). But the other real beauty was the side of macaroni pie we’d ordered on the side, a glorious claggy, cheesy, comforting dish with a splendid crunchy crust. Before I ate it I questioned just how interesting it would be to have a main course of the stuff: afterwards I could well understand the appeal.

Our meal finished, both of us surprisingly full, we finished our beers and headed off to the Nag’s for the post match analysis. I would have been tempted to stay for the people watching alone – by this point a chap had turned up and greeted virtually everybody in the courtyard with the term “comrade” – but Graeme, a centrist like myself, had seen enough. 

On the way out I stopped to tell Stevie’s partner just how much we’d enjoyed our food. She had done a top notch job of looking after us all evening and she seemed really pleased with the feedback, although she accepted it with the serene confidence of somebody who knows their food is good. They’d been trading for a couple of months, she told me, and things were going well, especially as the Butler was hardly known as a food pub. She said they were going to go on Deliveroo from the following day, and we promised to recommend the food to as many people as we could.

I’m sorry, as usual, to have gone on so long. But for once I feel slightly less guilty, because I wanted to try and capture the excitement of the meal I had. Seeing someone starting out, at the beginning of a journey, not knowing where it will take them or their food is exciting. And it’s exciting to get to try it early on in that process. It takes me back to all my favourite discoveries in all the time I’ve spent writing this blog, and it reminds me that Reading’s food scene never loses its ability to surprise – that there’s always potential for the next thing to be the next big thing. And when that happens, you just know it. That scorching evening on Chatham Street, I knew it.

When I got home and explained how good my meal was to Zoë, she expressed her chagrin that she’d missed out on this one. And then we got our diaries out and tried to work out when we could visit it next. The chances are pretty strong that I’ll have been there again by the time any of you make it to the Butler. Next time I want to try those patties, the roti and the chicken curry (and everything I had on this visit, even though I know that’s impossible). If you get there before me and order any of the things I didn’t try, please tell me how good they were. Make me jealous: you know you want to.

Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen – 8.1
The Butler, 85-91 Chatham Street, Reading, RG1 7DS
07780 829127

https://www.facebook.com/ChefStevieAnderson
Delivery available: via Deliveroo

Restaurant review: Pepe Sale

“I’m looking forward to the full Edible Reading experience” James said when I met him at the station. He made it sound as if joining me to review a meal was some kind of theme park. The Edible Reading Experience: you have to be this smug to ride.

“It’s nothing special. There are just two rules – don’t mention the blog when we’re in the restaurant and take photos of everything you eat. Zoë’s meeting us there. Do you want to know where we’re going?”

“Don’t tell me, I don’t want to spoil it.”

“I’ve saved a good one for you. And it’s the perfect one to review this week – it’s a revisit of the first place I ever reviewed, and it came under new management last year. And it’s an Italian restaurant, which is topical after last night. Let’s hope they don’t gloat too much.”

“Sounds perfect” said James, and we ambled through town, past the side of the Broad Street Mall. James is unflappable, but he almost did a double take. “Ah, you have a Taco Bell.”

“I’m afraid so. Its popularity is a continuing mystery to me.”

Later James told me that Taco Bell’s beef is only technically 88% beef because it contains so much other gubbins. He’s full of useful information like this – with hindsight I don’t know why I didn’t invite him to come with me on duty before. He likes the finer things in life: this is a man who flew to Korea for a weekend just to learn how to cook Korean barbecue, a man who has converted his garage into a micropub. Just the person to bring along to bolster my “man of the people” credentials. 

He was also the perfect person to take to Pepe Sale, the subject of this week’s review: he’d joined Zoë and me on holiday in Bologna two years ago and we’d rhapsodised together over ragu and porchetta, each meal as superb as the last. Our last holiday before lockdown was with James and his other half Liz in Copenhagen, eating magnificent food, attending a wild beer festival out in the docklands, stumbling out of brewpub after brewpub, enjoying the driverless subway trains and being too smudged to appreciate the Design Museum. We talked about coronavirus on that holiday, but with no real appreciation of what was coming, unaware of the gathering storm.

Although Pepe Sale changed hands last year the buyers kept that news quiet, presumably because they wanted a smooth transition and to retain as many regulars as possible (perhaps wisely: I remember the panic a couple of years ago when Pepe Sale showed up as for sale on a listings website). It became more apparent this year, as previous owner Toni Sale set up his “Pasta Academy”, running classes out of his gorgeous-looking kitchen, and the new owners made a small but significant change by opening on Sundays. Prior to that, Pepe Sale only opened on one Sunday every year, namely Mother’s Day. 

A few people told me last year, after visiting Pepe Sale, that it didn’t feel the same: not necessarily better or worse, but that something had changed. And that made sense, really. Toni was a big presence in the kitchen, his wife Samantha ran front of house superbly: with both of them gone, it was bound to be a different experience. When I looked at all the restaurants I’ve reviewed, trying to gauge which ones needed a repeat visit, Pepe Sale was high on the list. And so, nearly eight years after my previous review, Zoë, James and I went on a Monday lunchtime to see how different it was.

Visually, you’d barely notice the restaurant has changed hands. The decor is unaltered, all high-backed chairs and marble-topped tables. The restaurant is split-level, with the smaller space up top looking out on Queens Walk and the lower level a bigger room that I’ve always found harder to like. The only real difference was that the space by the front door where Toni used to roll fresh pasta every day has been replaced by another table. No specials menu either, that I could see, which was a shame – although it might have been because we were there on a Monday lunchtime.

I might find myself saying “it might just have been that we were there on a Monday lunchtime” many times during this review, so let’s take it as read from now on. The three of us were the only customers that afternoon, and there was a nicely sleepy pace to things with our waiter (the only staff member that I saw) giving us plenty of time to sip our water, read our menus, catch up and eventually get round to making our choices.

“Were you celebrating last night?” James asked him, ever the diplomat.

“I had four Peronis and a bottle of pinot grigio” he said, his eyes smiling, even if you couldn’t see a grin behind his mask. “But I wanted England to win. I’ve lived here for so long, and my kids were born here. My little boy was devastated this morning.”

The menu hasn’t been changed one iota under the new management, so it’s virtually identical to the one I ordered from back in 2013 and probably much the same as it was when they opened. The wine list, though, printed on the other side of the menu, was far smaller than the one I’m used to. Pepe Sale’s wine list was always a selling point – a huge range, across all price points, the majority of it coming from Sardinia. It’s now a one pager, although it’s all still Italian. Perhaps Pepe Sale has a separate, bigger wine list but if so, I wasn’t shown it and I didn’t think to ask; I can well believe, though, that the events of Brexit might have reduced the amount of wines the restaurant can economically import. 

In any event, we had a very nice red from Piedmont called Otto Bucce, which was peppery and smokey and felt like good value at around twenty-seven pounds. We took those first happy sips, we broke off pieces of rosemary-studded pane carasau and we began the serious business of chatting and gossiping. Italian music was playing in the background – another change, I think – and even though James, technically, was the only person who was on holiday, somehow we all felt like we were. I love it when restaurants do that to you.

Before our starters arrived, there was a spanner in the works: our waiter materialised to let us know that they were out of avocados. Would we like to order something different, or wait ten minutes while they nipped out to get some new ones? We opted for the latter, and all I can say is that I’d like to know where they bought them from. It certainly wasn’t a supermarket – I’ve lost count of the number of times a “perfectly ripe” avocado meant “perfectly ripe in a couple of weeks” – so I’m guessing they nipped round the corner and got some from the kerbside cornucopia of the Oxford Road’s magnificent Best Foods. 

Anyway, Zoë’s starter of avocado and mushrooms in a dolcelatte sauce was a marvellous, indulgent thing and easily worth the additional wait. The avocado was ripe and buttery and the sauce, which added just enough salt and funk, was so good that Zoë looked ruefully over at the empty bread basket and wished she’d saved a couple of pieces to mop it up.

James ordered a starter I ate on my visit all those years ago, mozzarella baked in radicchio with anchovies, olives and cherry tomatoes (if you want a pointer that Pepe Sale resolutely resists trends, here it is: burrata is nowhere to be seen on the menu). James enthused about it and although I didn’t try any, it looked as good as I remembered. As a rule I think the worst thing you can do to mozzarella is heat it up, but there’s something about those precious parcels of molten cheese and bitter leaf that’s properly charming, especially teamed with the hit of anchovy and the sweetness of little tomatoes. 

If that description makes you think I was suffering from starter envy, you’re probably right. I had gone for malloreddus, a Sardinian pasta speciality, which are best described as halfway between gnocchi and conchiglie, tightly curled shells, in a spicy tomato sauce with chunks of sausage. Everything worked, on paper – the sauce had a good heat, it clung nicely to the pasta and the sausage tasted decent. But somehow, it started to feel like a chore by the end, a tiny bit one-note compared to the other starters at the table. Perhaps I’d have felt differently if the sausage meat had been crumbled, finer in texture, rather than big slices of the stuff.

There was a nicely civilised pause between courses, and our mains arrived just as we were ready for them – a relief, as kitchens without much to do often rattle off the next set of dishes quicker than you’d like. Zoë picked an absolute banker from the menu, chicken breast, stuffed with mozzarella and sage and wrapped in pancetta. Again I found myself gazing in envy at a pool of molten mozzarella and wishing I’d played it safer: I was allowed a forkful which reminded me what a solid, classic dish it was (it also made me miss the saltimbocca at sadly-departed Dolce Vita, halfway across town and many years ago).

James chose a dish I’ve never ordered, wild boar cutlet in a tomato sauce. It looked the part – a handsome slab of meat cut into three in a deep sauce with plenty of cherry tomatoes (“I’ve picked the two tomato-lovers’ dishes” said James). But he wasn’t wild about the texture – “it’s not a soft meat, put it that way” – and found it tougher and chewier than he’d have liked; a sharp steak knife would have helped matters along.

My dish, sea bream, was also close but not quite there. The fish was beautifully cooked, two lovely fillets with tender flesh and crisp skin, and it’s hard to go wrong with anchovies and olives (and beautifully chopped shallots). But the thing I always loved about Pepe Sale’s fish dishes was the sauce, a rich fish fumet fragrant with wine, and this felt a little thinner than I remembered. It wasn’t a bad dish by any means, but lacking a little oomph. Had it changed, or had I?

All of us went for a selection of vegetables and these were well-judged – nicely crunchy potatoes sauteed with rosemary and perfectly al dente carrots and broccoli; Pepe Sale, more than any place I can think of, taught me the virtues of not overcooking your veg.

The dessert menu is also unchanged, and is a mixture of Italian, generic and Sardinian dishes, all reasonably priced. I was tempted by the basil panna cotta, another old favourite, but James and I both went for the sweet ravioli. They were every bit as delicious as my happy memories of them, fried squares packed with gooey ricotta and orange zest, the whole thing drizzled with sweet syrup and topped with more strips of fried pastry and a little snowdrift of icing sugar. Looking back at my picture of this dish from 2013, and the mozzarella starter for that matter, I’d say this kitchen puts more effort into plating now: the camera loved it as much as I did.

Zoë’s choice was the tiramisu, and again I was allowed just enough of it to wonder if she ever ordered a bad dish. I suppose there are no surprises with tiramisu –  you know it will be boozy and rich, all cream and coffee and chocolate, and this one was no exception. “I liked it a lot, but it did make me cough” she said later. “It’s the dust of the cocoa powder and my dodgy lungs. That’s why I was never allowed Dib Dabs as a kid”. 

Our meal – three courses each, some bread, a bottle of wine and a trio of amaros to help our desserts go down – came to just over a hundred and thirty pounds, not including tip. Pepe Sale is currently running a promotion where you get 20% off your food bill Mondays to Thursdays, and without that it would have been over a hundred and fifty pounds. Looking back at my 2013 visit a similar meal for two came to eighty pounds, so prices have definitely crept up – although that’s only to be expected and our meal still felt like good value.

As we settled up, I asked our waiter how business had been since they reopened in May. He told us that they were busy at weekends, solidly booked in fact, but things were still sluggish during the week – an experience I suspect is shared by many of Reading’s restaurants. He added that having Reading’s ill-advised quarantine hotel at the end of Queens Walk had hardly helped matters, although things were recovering now. 

It did make me think about whether people would feel comfortable eating inside on a busy evening – the tables are reasonably spaced but there are no screens, and although the front of the restaurant has big double doors which could be opened for ventilation they stayed resolutely closed during our visit. It’s a shame they’ve never put any tables outside, as their neighbours ThaiGrr! and Bierhaus have chosen to, but I guess that part of town can be a bit of a wind tunnel at times. 

We carried out a debrief over beers in the garden of the Nag’s Head, and there was less consensus than I expected. Zoë was the most positive about her food, but I think she ordered better than the rest of us (“that starter was great, but you know I love the ‘shrooms”). James was more equivocal, put off slightly by the toughness of that wild boar. I was somewhere in the middle, but in the back of my mind I was thinking that the food was almost exactly as it always was, and I couldn’t decide whether that was a good thing or not. We discussed it a little further, but then we were interrupted by a positively operatic fart from a shaven-headed gentleman at the table behind us which sounded like Brian Blessed molesting a tuba. We dissolved into fits of laughter, and that was that.

I feel a bit for Pepe Sale’s new owners. Talk about a no-win situation: if they make sweeping changes they’ve have messed with an institution, if they don’t they risk preserving it in aspic. And yet the restaurant barely changed in many years, so you can understand them not wanting to muck up a winning formula. I think it misses the specials and that wider wine list, and I sincerely hope they’re still making their pasta on the premises, but all in all it feels like the new owners are worthy custodians of the food: everything I had felt up to the standards of previous visits, and if anything the focus on presentation is stronger now.

And yet there’s so much more to a restaurant than the food. Aside from how Covid-cautious customers would feel eating in Pepe Sale, it’s safe to say that the real test of a restaurant is how it copes on busier evenings, whether the service and the kitchen can step up a gear to deal with the demands of a packed dining room. But not just that: it also depends whether that magical transmutation happens, where instead of just being a room full of people it becomes a wonderful buzzy place, a club where you’re lucky enough – if only for one evening – to be a member. At its best, Pepe Sale always did that. The new owners will face far sterner challenges in the months ahead than our chatty table of three on a Monday lunchtime. My fingers are crossed that they are up to them.

Pepe Sale – 7.8
3 Queens Walk, Reading, RG1 7QF
0118 9597700

http://pepesale.co.uk

Restaurant review: Smash N Grab

Even this week, a full month after it opened, there are still queues outside Wendy’s on Station Road. I walked past on my way back through town around half-four on a weekday afternoon and was surprised to see a line of people waiting outside, desperate to get their fix. I guess all those puff pieces in Berkshire Live must have had the desired effect – who needs to pay for advertising when you have a local churnalism website desperate for copy? – but I still found it mystifying. Could the Baconator (all 960 calories of it) really be so amazing that a town collectively loses its shit? It seemed far-fetched.

The obvious thing to do this week would be to review Wendy’s: it’s been open for over a month by now, and there’s been so much hype that you might reasonably want to know what it’s like. But instead, you get a review of Smash N Grab, a little burger hole in the wall on Cemetery Junction, because I’m stubborn like that. And, to be honest, if you’re a regular reader of this blog there’s at least an outside chance you’re stubborn like that too. Wendy’s doesn’t need anybody’s help, not with our local media shilling for them, but even if Smash N Grab turns out to be good, in that location, it’s going to need all the help it can get.

The location in question is the little hut just next to the building that used to be the Granby: it’s now branded as Sprinkles Gelato, although the dessert place lies vacant, having closed at some indeterminate point last year. You could be forgiven for thinking that nothing survives on the junction, given that the Smash N Grab site used to house Caribbean takeaway Seasons, and after Seasons ceased trading another business called Hungry Hut opened (and duly closed) on the premises. 

Smash N Grab opened earlier this year, and its thing is smashed burgers. Smashed burgers, for the uninitiated, are burgers where the patty, rather than being carefully shaped, is smashed onto the griddle. The idea is that they are flatter, thinner and more irregular, meaning more surface area and more intense flavour from the Maillard reaction, that magical caramelisation that happens when meat meets heat. An occasional trader at Blue Collar called Boigers does smashed burgers, but in Reading the fashion is still for fatter, juicier, more conventional burgers, so I thought it would be interesting to see what the fuss was about. 

The thing that clinched it, though, was looking at how Smash N Grab operated online. Not on social media, although they have a well looked after Instagram account which regularly puts up very fetching pictures of their burgers. No, what impressed me was how they handled their Google reviews. They had gone in and replied to a lot of them and it was clear from what they said that they’d thought a lot about how to go about things: which buns to use, how to make the burger easier to eat, whether to make their own fries or buy them in.  

They also said something in passing that properly landed with me. It’s tough being the small fish, they said. So I decided to pay them a solo visit before the England semi-final while Zoë was working a late shift. I strolled down Erleigh Road, past MNKY Lounge festooned with bunting emblazoned with the flag of St George, big screen outside and its seats beginning to fill up. It was a warm, sunny early evening, and the air was thick with excitement and expectation – mainly, truth be told, from people who weren’t old enough to have experienced much football-related disappointment.

Although Smash N Grab really is just a small hut with no room to eat in, they’ve done a good job with the space outside which has four tables and would seat about a dozen people in total. The menu is incredibly straightforward – you pick your burger (mostly beef, although a couple of chicken options are available) and you can either turn it into a meal by adding fries and a soft drink for two pounds or fries and a shake for four. Smash N Grab’s beef is Angus and halal which also means that bacon isn’t an option with these burgers, although they do offer optional halal beef bacon which I didn’t try. The shakes are the other distinctive feature of the menu: they’re “cake shakes” which, from a Google, means that they contain milk, ice cream and, well, cake. They are, and I’m sure this won’t surprise you, an American thing. 

I felt like it needed to be done, largely because it was there, so I ordered their classic double cheeseburger, “The Regular”, with fries and a chocolate cake shake; it came to just shy of thirteen pounds. I paid at the counter and they told me they’d bring it out, so I took my seat outside and enjoyed the buzz of Cemetery Junction, watching the cars rushing home in time for kick off and the people wandering past, toting carrier bags laden with lager. 

Two young chaps, one with a crate of Budweiser, the other with a crate of Foster’s, sat outside waiting for their burgers. One was wearing an England shirt, and they smelled strongly of Lynx Africa and the unassailable confidence of youth. Or at least I thought so, until one of them complained about the front page of The Sun saying that the final was bound to be between England and Italy. “They’d better not jinx it” he said. Of all the things to take against The Sun for: still, you’ve got to start somewhere.

My cake shake turned up first, and although I did my best to wait until my meal had arrived curiosity got the better of me. It was very thick and chocolatey – it definitely tested the wide cardboard straw to its limits – and the chunks of cake in it felt pleasingly like cookie dough. It was a tiny bit synthetic-tasting, but that wasn’t offputting. The experience of drinking it reminded me a little of reading Take A Break on an airplane – hugely enjoyable, partly because I do it so rarely, but by the end I was glad it wasn’t a habit and I felt a tiny bit grubby (that’s not necessarily a bad feeling in moderation by the way: I’m happy that I tried it). 

If I had a constructive criticism – and constructively criticising a cake shake feels a bit like expressing the opinion that Mr Blobby might want to consider pastel colours i.e. somewhat missing the point – I would say that the shake needed more ice cream in the mix. I wasn’t sure it had any in it, but it would have made it a little thicker and a lot colder: what’s a milkshake, if it doesn’t give you head freeze?

Several forceful slurps into my milkshake a lady brought out my burger and fries. Let’s get the fries out of the way first – they weren’t good. They looked the part, from a distance, but up close quite a few of them had grey patches and weren’t too appealing. Smash N Grab is quite up front about the fact that they tried making their own fries but it was just too time-consuming: that’s absolutely fair enough, but they should consider buying in better ones. Not only that, but from the smell when they were frying and the taste when I tried them it felt a little bit like the frying oil had been round the block too many times. I didn’t eat many of my fries: the meal had quite enough calories already without adding empty ones.

Happily, the burger was another story. It was everything a burger should be but rarely is – well constructed, easy to eat, lots going on without being too busy. The patties had great texture – plenty of crinkly edges, charred and caramelised crenellations – and, crucially, they didn’t drip everywhere but were nowhere near dry or crumbly. There was a glorious layer of orangey American plastic cheese, slightly caramelised too from contact with the grill, and there were thick, crunchy pickles to add sharpness. A little caramelised onion relish gave just enough sweetness, and the whole thing was finished beautifully with Smash N Grab’s special sauce which threw a little heat into the mix.  

Like I said, plenty going on, but somehow it all worked together very nicely. Even the bun – sesame seeded, big enough to hold the contents and firm enough not to get soggy and fall apart – was well chosen. It was by the company that supplies Blue Collar’s Meat Juice with burger buns, which gave me confidence that they’d put as much thought into their burger as Meat Juice did (which is a lot). Honestly, I thoroughly enjoyed my burger, as you can probably tell by now. Halfway through the meal I wish I’d gone for the triple-decker “Beef’d Up”, so next time I’ll skip the shake and give it a try. “That’s what I would have had” Zoë told me. “Go hard or go home”. She probably had a point, although my arteries would probably have gone hard too.

As I was putting my empties (and most of the fries) in the bin, the owner came out and asked me how it was. I told him I liked it, which was largely true, and asked him how long they’d been trading.

“Four months.”

“And how’s business?”

A little shrug. “We have good days and bad days. It’s difficult, with town opening and closing.” As fortune cookie-sized summaries of what it’s like to be in hospitality in 2021 go, it took some beating. It’s tough being the small fish, indeed. I thanked him and went on my merry way, off home to watch England prove that sometimes it’s tough beating the small fish, too.

I really hope Smash N Grab do well. If it felt hit and miss, which it slightly did, the plus is that the core of their offering, the main thing they do, is pretty good. I liked my burger a lot, and I appreciated the care and thought that went into it. I’d definitely have one again, possibly their “Green Destiny” with garlic mayo and green chillies, which sounds rather marvellous. Their fries weren’t great, but that’s fixable, and although I had mixed feelings about the cake shake (I’m getting that sensation of grubbiness again just thinking about it) you can have a very nice meal there without one, if the idea doesn’t float your boat. 

They definitely add something to Reading’s food scene, especially in East Reading, and although you probably won’t feel like eating outside in the dead of winter they’re on delivery apps as well. I’m very glad I went there instead of Wendy’s: it feels like a better accolade for Reading that it has the first ever Smash N Grab, that the chap who owns it wanted to open here, than that we have the country’s first Wendy’s. It was the right thing to do this week – and every week, for that matter – to go to Smash N Grab instead of Wendy’s.

Looking back at this review I see I’ve done the classic feedback trick of talking about the things I enjoyed, the shake and the burger, either side of describing the chips. There’s a term for that: my other half, memorably, calls it the “shit sandwich”. It may well be a shit sandwich, I agree. But gladly, Smash N Grab’s burger is anything but.

Smash N Grab – 7.0
124 London Road, Reading, RG1 5AY
0118 9666743

https://www.smashngrab.co.uk
Delivery available: Via JustEat and Deliveroo

Restaurant review: London Street Brasserie

This week’s review marks a new first for the blog, the first time I’ve re-reviewed a restaurant. Well, sort of: I’ve re-reviewed places before, but normally it’s because they’ve changed hands, even though the name has remained the same. This is often the case with pubs – so, for instance, I’ve reviewed the Lyndhurst three times, the Fisherman’s Cottage twice. The room and furniture were identical on all my visits, but the management, the team in the kitchen were completely different. So of course you’d view it as a separate business – just as, at some point, I’ll review the Corn Stores again, because what it offers now is a world away from what I ate when I went there last.

But some restaurants, particularly ones that stand the test of time, go through phases under the same ownership. The menu shifts and changes, the personnel in the kitchen will too, front of house stars will come and go and, over time, a restaurant can become the hospitality equivalent of Trigger’s broom. There are golden ages and doldrums. The best example I can think of is Mya Lacarte – in its prime, with Matt and Alex running the front of house and Remy Joly in the kitchen, it was an unbeatable place, but no incarnation after that managed to match those halcyon days.

When you’ve been at this lark as long as I have, the odds get shorter that places will change so much that a fresh look is overdue. Many places I’ve reviewed have since closed – correlation rather than causation, I promise – but many have made a go of it and flourished. Take Coconut, for example, or Valpy Street: are they really the same restaurant as they were when I first went there, not long after they opened? Is another visit in order?

I can’t think of a better example of this than London Street Brasserie, the subject of the third review I ever wrote. Even by then, the restaurant had been going for more than ten years – now, in 2021, it’s over twenty years old. Many chefs and front of house have passed through its doors since 2000 and some have gone on to open or work in other restaurants, in Reading and beyond. It’s still probably the town’s best-known restaurant and the Reading venue people are most likely to consider a special occasion restaurant. 

It’s also, as I discovered recently, a restaurant about which many people in Reading have an opinion. I went there in May with family, not long after it reopened, and when I posted pictures of my food on social media plenty of people had something to say. “I ate there recently and enjoyed it so much that we went again last week. Have the poached pear next time you go!” said one person. “I’m heading straight for the sticky toffee pudding once we’re double-vaxxed” said another. But it wasn’t unanimous: “I’ve never had a decent plate in all the times I’ve been” was a third opinion. My previous review is nearly eight years old – a lifetime ago, in so many ways – so it felt like the right time to head back, on a weekday lunchtime, with my other half Zoë.

It’s still one of Reading’s most attractive buildings, sitting by the river with a view of the Duke Street bridge, and its ground floor terrace out back, where we sat, is one of Reading’s finest al fresco spots, especially when the sun is out. The terrace has just under twenty covers, and can’t be booked, but the ground floor dining room is also a very pleasing space, although some of the furniture is starting to look tired.

So far, so pretty much the same as ever, but a look at the menu shows how things have changed since 2013. LSB’s set menu was always impressive value at two courses for sixteen pounds, but over the years that has crept up to the point where it’s now twenty-two pounds (you can mix and match the set menu with the à la carte if you want: set menu starters cost eight pounds and mains are seventeen). The prices on the à la carte are higher too – most used to nestle around twenty pounds, the majority are now closer to twenty-five. 

This isn’t at all an issue per se: we need to get used to paying more for food, and restaurants have to cover their costs, now more than ever, but it does mean that LSB isn’t necessarily the value proposition it once was. We ordered a couple of dishes from each menu, to put both to the test, and made inroads into a very enjoyable New Zealand pinot gris – fresh, aromatic and far from dry. It cost forty-two pounds – a hefty markup, as it’s fourteen in Majestic, who I think have supplied the majority of LSB’s wine list for as long as I can remember. The restaurant slowly began to fill up with friends lunching and several tables of men in suits, all making a beeline for the set menu’s fish and chips. Nobody else was sitting outside – it wasn’t the warmest of days, so they must have thought us eccentric.

Starters came quicker than I’d have chosen, but were so enjoyable that it didn’t matter. Zoë’s, from the set menu, was a pretty and inventive thing, a summery salad of vibrant watermelon, candied cashews, shredded sugarcane chicken, the crunch of beansprouts and wonderfully fragrant coriander and mint. With so much going on, all that sweetness and salt to juggle, it was a real triumph to get it right, and the kitchen nailed it – although my favourite bit was the salty, crispy chicken skin in shards on the top. I say my favourite bit: I was allowed one forkful and I was grateful enough for that. You get a similar dish on the à la carte with crispy duck instead of chicken, but I can’t imagine that it’s significantly better, especially at eleven pounds.

By contrast, my starter, from the à la carte, felt like the kind of dish that belonged on the set lunch menu: arancini aren’t hugely expensive things to make, so the margin on this felt wider. You got three of them for a tenner, each with a little molten core of taleggio, and they were competent but unexciting. I didn’t get a lot of truffle, and the best thing about the dish was a terrific verdant pesto which really elevated the dish. But the parmesan crisp that came with it was only halfway there – plenty of parmesan, but no crisp. Instead it was a little tough and leathery, although it still tasted the part.

LSB wasn’t busy on a weekday lunchtime, but I was glad they didn’t rush us and that we got a good break between courses. That was indicative of the service in general – excellent, attentive, very friendly. They clearly gauged that we weren’t on a working lunch where we needed to be in and out in an hour, and after the swift arrival of our starters everything settled down nicely into a gentle rhythm. And really, there are few better places in Reading to sit outside and enjoy a leisurely lunch: only Thames Lido really matches LSB for atmosphere, but the Lido’s food has never wowed me.

My main, from the set menu, was African spiced rump of lamb with “barely (sic) couscous” and harissa. It was a gorgeous-looking plate of food – in the past I’ve thought plating wasn’t LSB’s strong point but these dishes really did look the part – and it was good but not quite there. The lamb had next to no pinkness at all, and I was relieved that it had any tenderness under the circumstances (they brought one of those big wooden-handled knives some restaurants give you for lamb or steak: as so often, it wasn’t actually very sharp). I didn’t see any evidence that the lamb had been spiced, although it went very well with the delicious – if mild – harissa sauce and, incongruously, another dollop of that excellent pesto. The roasted vegetables were superb, but the couscous had been pressed into a puck which made it a bit too dense to enjoy: fluffier would have been better. 

That all sounds a bit grumpy, but it was still a very enjoyable dish. On this set menu, it was decent. Back in the day, if this had been part of a sixteen pound set lunch menu, you’d have been ecstatic. But if it was hard to make up my mind about that dish, Zoë’s was even trickier. Venison, haggis, roasted champagne grapes and shiraz jus: it sounded fantastic, but could it be worth twenty-seven pounds?

It looked stunning, in fairness – the picture below is Zoë’s rather than mine but rarely have I seen a dish that looked so much like a still life (of course, that might just be the grapes). And there was a very generous helping of haggis underneath that venison. I’ve had venison with red fruits before, many times, and even with chocolate on occasion, but serving it with the pop of grapes – less sweet than you might expect – was a very interesting touch. The venison itself was exceptional, far more expertly cooked than my lamb, and every element on the plate was in harmony, bound together by a nicely sticky jus: I’d have liked more of the jus, but then I tend to want more of everything. A really wonderful dish, premium in more ways than one, and yet… was it unreasonable to expect it to come with some carbs at that price?

We’d solved that issue by ordering a side of oxtail macaroni cheese, which proved to be the missing piece of the jigsaw: it provided the carbs missing from Zoë’s dish and went some way to solving the food envy brought about by the gulf between her main and mine. It had a beautifully deep, savoury flavour, with plenty of soft strands of oxtail, an awful lot of cheese and a splendid crunchy top. Not cheap at seven pounds fifty, but worth absolutely every penny – and I’d rather pay more for a side and it be memorable than bung money at bulking out a meal with something unremarkable.

The pricing of LSB’s desserts is a bit random: the desserts on the set menu are all six pounds, and those on the à la carte tend to be around seven. There’s some duplication between the two dessert menus, because four desserts appear on both, enough cross-pollination that I didn’t really understand why LSB doesn’t adopt a single dessert menu with consistent pricing. 

I had acted on the recommendation I’d had previously and ordered the poached pear, and I didn’t regret it for a second. Often when I’ve had poached pear it’s been poached in red wine and is a wintry, comforting dish. LSB’s rendition was more refined and more summery, the fleshy, amber-hued pear was sweet with vanilla and easy to cut into long tranches to eat with a very accomplished vanilla parfait. The chocolate crumb felt a bit there for the sake of it – dust on the plate is always a bit faffy to eat with everything else – and the chocolate sauce, similarly, felt more of a decorative smear than of practical use. But even so, it was an excellent dessert and I was glad I moved away from my comfort zone (the Snickers cheesecake had been calling to me) to give it a try.

Zoë had stayed firmly in her comfort zone with a favourite of hers, the dark chocolate nemesis (on the set menu and the à la carte). It’s essentially a brownie in dessert’s clothing, a wedge of cake which, like a brownie, has a crust on top and a softer, gooier core underneath. It was very good, and the salted caramel ice cream with it was very nice, but it was still, fundamentally, a brownie. If you subscribe to the school of thought that a brownie is an acceptable dessert, this was probably the one for you.

Our meal – three courses each, one side and a bottle of wine – came to just over one hundred and twenty pounds, not including tip. If we’d both stuck to the set menu we probably could have shaved around fifteen pounds off, but LSB is no longer the bargain it once was. That’s fair enough: a lot has changed over the last eight years and, like LSB, I’m probably worse value than I used to be. I certainly, like LSB, look a tiny bit tired – but then, given the last fifteen months, who doesn’t?

I didn’t know what to expect when I turned up to LSB on duty this week. It’s always been a place where I’ve tried my best to suspend my critical faculties and enjoy my meal – you know, the way most people do most of the time. I’ve eaten there numerous times over the years, for big meals with family or smaller soirées with friends or partners. I’ve even, on occasion, eaten off their set menu as an early evening solo diner. But I’ve had so many different experiences there that I honestly couldn’t have predicted whether my meal this week would be delightful or disappointing.

Having a long-running relationship with a restaurant is like having an old friend – you may see them on good days and off-days, but you overlook the latter. After all, you go back a long way. As it turns out, I’m inordinately pleased that I had such a good meal at LSB. It would have made me sadder than I’d like to admit if Reading’s grande dame was resting on its laurels, or had given up trying after a gruelling year of opening, shutting, reopening and re-shutting.

But nothing could be further from the truth: at twenty-one years old LSB is all grown up, and still a very good restaurant for grown-ups. To go there and have such a good meal – not perfect, not unbelievable value for money, but nonetheless interesting, clever and well-executed – made me feel hopeful that when we fully emerge from this and return to something like normality Reading’s other institutions will endure. We’ll still have John Lewis, we’ll still have Shed and we’ll still have London Street Brasserie, Reading’s first and foremost proper, special occasion restaurant, standing proud. I don’t think I care about whether Reading is a town or a city. But I find I very much care about that.

London Street Brasserie – 7.9
2-4 London Street, Reading, RG1 4PN
0118 9505036

https://www.londonstbrasserie.co.uk