As far as hospitality is concerned, one of the hardest things you can do right now is give somewhere a bad review. For much of last year many reviewers, professional and amateur, thought that you shouldn’t do it at all. If you didn’t like somewhere, they said, you should maintain a dignified silence and write instead about the places you like. I’ve never subscribed to that point of view: it’s somewhat Pollyanna to only talk about the brilliant, and warning people about the iffy is every bit as much of a public service.
Nonetheless, bad reviews remain the trickiest to carry off. I don’t mean a hatchet job. I know those are fun to read – they can be fun to write – but somewhere has to be really awful to justify one of those. For instance, I went to TGI Friday or Taco Bell with an open mind, but both times it soon became apparent that it was going to be one of those nights, and one of those meals. But opportunities to write that kind of review are vanishingly few and far between: I don’t choose anywhere confident that I’ll have a bad time, rubbing my hands at the prospect.
The rest of the time, if you don’t like a meal, you’re putting the boot into an independent business. Somebody’s baby, some people’s livelihoods. It can feel like kicking a puppy. So you try and be constructive, get the tone right, find good stuff to offset the bad. Some of my attempts at this have worked better than others, although I’ve definitely softened over the years. And this year, the review I found the most difficult was when I had takeaway from O Português, the new Portuguese restaurant on the Wokingham Road.
O Português had looked great on paper – I really wanted to like it, but I wanted to like it more than I did. Some dishes showed promise, others were less successful. The one that came in for the most criticism was my other half’s grilled chicken, which she dubbed “a carcass covered in tasty skin” with “more bones than Cemetery Junction” (this is a trick, incidentally, we all use with negative reviews: if you’re quoting someone else, you can at least play the good cop).
I really didn’t enjoy publishing that one, but to their credit the restaurant got in touch with me about it and took my feedback constructively (to my face, anyway: privately they might have called me every name under the sun). They agreed that some of their dishes maybe hadn’t travelled as well as they should, and they hoped I would give them another try once restaurants were allowed to reopen. I told them I would.
I couldn’t help but think of Thames Lido, where I’d eaten in May. I put a few pictures up on Instagram, saying some dishes were good and some could have been better, only to get an unsolicited direct message from the chef there. “May I suggest you don’t go out so much and cook a bit more at home? I’m sure we’d all love to see the photos” The difference in attitude couldn’t have been more stark.
Additionally, one of O Português’ devoted customers got in touch advising me that I should give them another try. She was Portuguese, and was a big fan of their food. She told me that there was nothing better than grabbing a prego steak roll from them and eating it straight away in Palmer Park. Put that way it sounded like a lovely thing to do, so I decided to pay them a midweek visit and try O Português properly, in the flesh. My accomplice this week was my friend Nick, who I met a couple of years ago on Twitter through our mutual admiration for car crash Tory election candidate Craig Morley.
The building that houses O Português used to be Colley’s Supper Rooms, and then Bart’s and a purgatorial-sounding place called Smokey’s House, but it looks somehow right as O Português, on the corner of the Wokingham Road and St Bartholemew’s Road, one of the handsome streets on the perimeter of Palmer Park. They’ve done a good job with their outside space on both sides, and I’ve often walked past over the last few months envying people sitting outside with a cold Super Bock, enjoying dinner with friends.
We asked for a table out front of the restaurant, to make the most of the remaining rays of sun. The interior looks relatively unchanged from when it was Bart’s, with two dining rooms, a bar and a separate counter with cakes and pastries. I got the impression that O Português was a little bit of everything, somewhere you could go for a galao and a cake, lunch, a full on meal or a few drinks and that aforementioned steak roll. The main difference is that indoors it’s table service, whereas if you’re eating outside you go up to the counter, order and pay. Maybe they’ve some people do a runner, but it felt like a strange distinction.
O Português’ menu isn’t available online (except the bits of it that are on delivery apps) but the hard copy we looked at had plenty to tempt at a wide range of price points. The petiscos start at three pounds and go up to around seven, where they overlap with a separate, smaller, section of starters. Main courses start at nine pounds but go all the way up to twenty. Our waitress told us which dishes they didn’t have that day – it’s always strangely reassuring to know that they sell out of some things, and when they’re gone they’re gone.
I’ve been on duty with plenty of different people by now, and they all have different styles. Some seem oblivious to the experience, like my friend Jerry. Some, like my friend Reggie, get self-conscious and worry about being quoted saying something that casts them in a bad light. But few throw themselves into it with quite as much gay abandon as Nick: I always let my companion pick their food first, but I think he took it as a personal challenge.
“Let’s have the snails and the gizzards” he said, a sentence I’ve never heard before and will probably never hear again.
“Have you ever had snails or gizzards before?”
“No. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?”
I explained that maybe we should try one or the other but not both, and I scuttled up to the counter to order our starters.
“What are your gizzards like?” I said (a sentence, at a guess, that the woman behind the counter had also never heard before). “I’ve had ones in the past which are really firm and meaty, and others that can be a little rubbery.”
“I don’t really like them much, we have other dishes that are better.” Well, you had to credit her honesty. Our drinks came first, so Nick and I nursed a Super Bock each – not on draft the day we went, sadly, but lovely and refreshing all the same.
“This reminds me of the first beer on holiday” I said, thinking fondly of trips to Porto and Lisbon.
“There’s something about that first beer” Nick concurred, and talked about the relative benefits of Efe, Mythos and Estrella (or more precisely, how much we missed holidays where you can drink those beers) before concluding that, however many IPAs and DIPAs we might clock up on Untappd we probably couldn’t tell any of those Eurolagers apart in a blind taste test.
“It’s funny how every country has its own lager – more than one, usually – but Britain doesn’t have one” said Nick.
“I suppose we have Carlsberg – brewed in the U.K. by Danes. That’s as close as it gets.”
Our first starter to come out was that legendary prego steak roll, cut in half to allow sharing. I’m can confirm that my Portuguese correspondent was right on the money about this, and it was a superb place to begin. The roll seemed to be a cut above the slightly wan one I’d had when I ordered takeaway, and the steak in it was gorgeous – thick, tender and liberally studded with garlic. I could easily have eaten one of these to myself, and at four pounds fifty it was hard to imagine a better value lunch in Reading.
We’d also chosen the salt cod salad, a dish which was just as delicious in a completely different way – firm flakes of bacalhau, with almost no bones, a few bits of it slightly blackened, in a fantastic tangle of sweet peppers, the whole thing strewn with parsley and mixed with oil and vinegar in a way that balanced sharpness and fruitiness perfectly. All it needed was some more of that bread to mop up the last of the dressing, although that was our mistake for not ordering some (“I’d have that cod and peppers starter again right now”, Nick texted me this evening as I was in the middle of writing this).
Still, every rose has its thorn, and in this case our metaphorical thorn was a large bowl of very small snails which looked like it had come from a beachcomber rather than a kitchen. The only times I’ve enjoyed snails they’ve been much bigger, drenched in garlic butter and cooked in such a way that the shell is the only real evidence of what you’re eating. These, by contrast, were still poking out of their tiny houses, feelers glaring at you, which was disconcerting. Getting them out of the shell with a bog standard dinner fork was a challenge, although Nick developed quite an aptitude for it.
“You can’t fault the portion size for three quid” said Nick. “How many do you think are in here?”
“About a hundred? That means each one costs about three pence.”
He soldiered on for a bit – to my shame, I couldn’t go near them – before giving up after he’d eaten about a dozen. “Still, it’s not like we’ve wasted a lot of money. I’m glad I’ve tried them.”
Sitting there on the edge of the park, at a table bathed in sunshine I got that feeling that restaurants are so good at supplying – and which I need more than ever – of being elsewhere. The other table outside was occupied by some young Portuguese chaps, and when I went in to order our mains I waited while a group of people at the counter had a vocal disagreement with the restaurant staff in Portuguese. Goodness knows what it was about, because I couldn’t understand a word. But it was huge fun to watch – Portuguese sounds like Spanish spoken by Sean Connery – and it reminded me of that quote about not caring what language an opera is sung in so long as it’s one you don’t understand.
Eventually one of the wait staff took me over to the bar to place my order. “They didn’t like one of their dishes, so they were claiming it wasn’t fresh” she said, rolling her eyes. I ordered our main courses and a couple of glasses of vinho verde and refreshingly, she downsold me (“the most expensive one is too dry, have this one instead”). She was right, too: it was beautifully fresh with a tiny hint of effervescence on the tongue.
Our mains took half an hour after that – a little on the slow side, though we brought it on ourselves by ordering them after we’d finished our starters. Both were knockout. Nick had chosen the espetade de carne, a whopping skewer of beef and pork which came with rice and chips. The chips were lovely, crispy things – probably from a pack but none the worse for it, and much better than the takeaway chips I’d tried earlier in the year. But of course the meat was the feature attraction, and really nicely done. The pork was good, if slightly on the dry side, but the beef was magnificent – very well seasoned and a little pink in the middle. Nick was happy – and, because he couldn’t finish it, it so was I.
I was delighted with my main course. Octopus doesn’t feature often on menus and when the wait staff told me it was fresh, not frozen, I had to order it. I’m used to eating octopus which has been cooked on the grill (after plenty of marination), but O Portugues’ was exceptionally tender – braised, at a guess – swimming in oil and garlic and covered with a layer of soft, sweet onion. At nineteen pounds this is one of the most expensive main courses they do, but it was such a joy to eat. Only the accompaniments let it down – I liked the garlic roasted baby potatoes, but the array of veg felt a little overcooked and unremarkable. Something roasted, more Mediterranean, would have worked better.
We had one more beer and as I went up to pay I told the staff how much we’d enjoyed our meal. He asked me to put something on Facebook to that effect and I promised I would. Service was excellent all evening, and when I told them that the snails were the only thing we hadn’t loved the waitress who had warned me off the gizzards said “I don’t like snails either”. It was that kind of place: no-nonsense, candid but with plenty to be proud of. Our meal – three starters, two mains and three drinks apiece – came to seventy-six pounds, not including tip, which strikes me as decent value. We dashed to the Weather Station in time for last orders, and found a very strong imperial stout with which to finish a marvellous evening.
I’m so glad I went back to O Português. When I first reviewed their takeaway they’d barely operated as a restaurant, and they were – like many hospitality businesses – just muddling through, getting through one day at a time. I suspected that their food, eaten in, could be markedly different, but even so it really cheered me to see them doing what they do so well.
They remind me of the best of Portuguese food that I’ve had on my travels – completely unpretentious, slightly unsung but, at its best, up there with anything you can eat in Europe. I love what they’ve done creating a little corner of Iberia on that little corner of the Wokingham Road, and I can well imagine sitting outside one lunchtime before the last of the good weather leaves us, steak roll in one hand and Super Bock in the other. What could be finer than that, except braised octopus or that fresh, sharp salt cod salad?
Best of all, because every day is a school day, I learned a valuable lesson by going back to O Português. I paid them a visit because they were so grown up about my feedback last time around – no meltdown on social media, no passive aggressive direct messages, just a quiet determination that they would and could do even better. It’s a salutary reminder: good restaurants are always doing their best, growing, learning and evolving. Fingers crossed that restaurant reviewers never stop doing that, too.
O Português – 7.7
21 Wokingham Road, Reading, RG6 1LE