“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