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.”
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
Delivery available: via Deliveroo