Restaurant review: Zero Degrees

There is a parallel universe in which this week’s review is of ThaiGrrr!, the Thai place in Queens Walk whose takeaway I so enjoyed earlier in the year. I’d had a tip-off that the place was almost deserted early in the evening, and so I fully intended to pay it a visit and write it up properly. I’d like to live in that parallel universe. But in that parallel universe I didn’t walk into it and think “what in Christ’s name is that smell?” 

And it wasn’t just me – Zoë looked at me and said “this place smells like our old cat’s litter tray”. We waited a minute and the stench – no other word would do – did not abate. And it didn’t feel like an odour to which one could, or would want to, acclimatise. I bumped into the person who’d suggested ThaiGrr! the following day at Blue Collar and told him of our experience. “That’s such a shame, it’s never smelled like that when I’ve gone there” he said. Maybe they were having problems with their drains: I imagine at some point I’ll go back and give it another try. A couple of tables were occupied, possibly by people who hadn’t yet realised that they had Covid.

There’s another parallel universe where, having passed on ThaiGrrr!, we walked home and ordered a takeaway for me to review this week. I’d rather like to live in that parallel universe too, but I’m afraid on the way back we walked past Zero Degrees and Zoë, not unreasonably, said “that place has been on your list to re-review for some time”. And looking in the window it was practically deserted. That made it a safe place to review but, with hindsight, I should have taken the hint; when a restaurant that’s been trading for nearly fifteen years is dead on a school night, there’s probably a reason for that.

Zero Degrees probably needs no introduction by now, but I’ve often thought it so far ahead of its time that it wasn’t a trendsetter, more a lucky guess. Craft beer and pizza have both exploded in recent times, and yet in 2007 when Zero Degrees opened, a combination of microbrewery and pizza joint, it was relatively without fanfare. I visited it on duty in 2013, my second ever review, and it’s fair to say that I wasn’t impressed. “It should be marvellous, but it isn’t”, I said. In addition, and re-reading this I wonder if my trip there this week was via some kind of wormhole in time, I said “in a big open restaurant with only four occupied tables, good service should be easier than this”. Anyway, that’s enough foreshadowing.

It is a big, handsome space, you know – with genuine, not fake, exposed brickwork, plenty of room and a nice view out on to Gun Street. We sat close to the window and far away from the only two occupied tables, both of them hugging the wall. “Just imagine if someone like Clay’s had this site” I said to Zoë. By the end of the meal – sorry, more foreshadowing – that felt like yet another parallel universe preferable to this one. 

Back in 2013 the menu had felt huge and unwieldy – too big to execute well – and little had changed eight years later. Some of the abominations on the starters and pizza section had been removed, while others (like the pizza with “Mexican sausage” or the one with crispy duck, hoisin sauce and crispy tortillas) remained. In a concession to the food trends of the last few years, burrata and ‘nduja were visible in several places. 

But the menu still felt like it was throwing everything at the wall, exposed brickwork and all, and seeing what stuck: a plethora of pizzas, five types of mussels, vegetarian and vegan food lumped in with the salads like an afterthought and plenty of pasta and risotto dishes. Overkill. Maybe if they had fewer items on the menu they would have had more time for proofreading and wouldn’t be offering customers “faltbreads” or “Ceasar salad”.

Anyway, we ordered a couple of beers while looking at the menu, and this is where the trouble began. Because, despite only having two other occupied tables in the whole restaurant, our beers just didn’t arrive. And the person we’d ordered them with disappeared. He materialised about fifteen minutes later, with no real sense of purpose, and so Zoë managed to get his attention and said we were still waiting for some drinks. He indicated that he’d heard this and promptly vanished again. 

Another quarter of an hour passed, by which point I was starting to wonder whether the other two tables had been trying to settle their bills since mid-afternoon. Zoë took the unusual step of getting up and searching for the waiter to track him down and ask where our drinks were. When I reviewed Zero Degrees in 2013 I described the wait staff as “omni-absent”: some things haven’t changed.

Personally, I’d have taken this as an opportunity to cancel the beers, escape into the night and have that takeaway I was hoping for, but I was overruled. So over half an hour after we asked for a couple of beers, when they still hadn’t arrived and against my better judgment, Zoë told the waiter we were ready to order food. We had to explain the dishes to him a couple of times, as if he’d never heard of them before.

“I don’t understand why their wait staff aren’t trained to just hop behind the bar and pull a pint” said Zoë. Me neither. And worst of all, from that point onwards it really did look like our food might come out before our drinks, but the beers just pipped them to the post. Our waiter brought them about a minute before the starters, and had thoughtfully upgraded Zoë’s from a half to a pint. She was having one of their specials, a black lager, which was described as “meh”. “It’s pretty tasteless”, she added. 

I’d chosen a Radler, having enjoyed one enormously in Malaga earlier in the month, but if I’d had my eyes closed I honestly could have mistaken it for a San Pellegrino garnished with a measly slice of lemon: there was that little to it. By this point both the other tables had managed to pay up and skedaddle, leaving us literally the only customers there. Had they shot us a look of pity on the way out, or was that just my imagination?

I wanted the food to be good, and I did try to approach it with an open mind, but I’m afraid it was downhill all the way from there. Bad things are supposed to come in threes, but you got four arancini on a plate, pointlessly drizzled with balsamic glaze, presumably to try and add some – any – flavour. The inside was a pappy mulch, with none of the advertised pea and spinach and it was hard to even make out individual grains of rice. They felt to me like something you might choose not to buy in Iceland.

Worse – because, it turned out, that was possible – was the ‘nduja. I’m used to small quantities of deep crimson, ultra-potent ‘nduja, very much the mighty atom of Italian food. I’m not used to it coming in industrial quantities, dense and fridge-cold, in a ramekin, with a leaden, fatty texture, like rillette cut with chilli powder. It was woeful, and it came served with triangles of pizza bread (garlic bread according to the menu: the menu is fibbing). The bread wasn’t unpleasant but by the time you had applied a wodge of frigid red bullshit to it, what you were left with was a claggy horror of lukewarm bread and something claiming to be ‘nduja which showed no signs of ever, ever melting. I left a lot of this.

Finally, the legendary “faltbread”, which was meant to feature mozzarella, gorgonzola and truffle oil. It only had the slightest whiff of truffle, which itself was only detectable thanks to the almost total absence of blue cheese. So a small shit pizza, then, for just under seven pounds – the price, coincidentally, of a not-small, not-shit pizza from Franco Manca.

As with the meal itself, I’m keen to bring this review to an end as quickly as possible and not prolong anybody’s suffering. So the dish I’d chosen as a main course could be described as a not-small, still-shit pizza. I’d unwisely chosen “carne asada”, which involved rump steak, smoked cheese and a basil and coriander pesto; if you look at that description and think that sounds awful then congratulations, because you’re light years ahead of me. But awful it was.

The steak was in the form of leathery slabs, any give comprehensively cooked out of them. I was hoping in vain for some marination, praying that the beef would be thinly sliced, pink in the middle and maybe strewn over the top at the end rather than cooked through. More fool me. The pesto managed not to taste of coriander or basil: instead it felt like munching on a manky hedgerow.

The mozzarella was as much of a non-smoker as I was and the other attempts to add some interest, a crude salsa of tomatoes, red onion and avocado, didn’t work. Putting cold stuff on top of a pizza, as with the ‘nduja, just made everything lukewarm, and the avocado started to go brown not long after this was set down in front of me.This cost fifteen pounds: you can get an infinitely better pizza at Buon Appetito for less.

Zoë had chosen a dish she said was a banker at Zero Degrees, something called lime and tequila chicken tagliatelle which was, gastronomically at least, of no fixed abode. And although it was better than my pizza it still wasn’t great, the pasta overcooked and clumpy with no bite. I didn’t detect any tequila but then again, given how hard it seemed to get booze out of Zero Degrees I wasn’t exactly surprised. Like the pizza it was studded with acrid, tastebud-destroying slices of chilli, and like the pizza it was about as Italian as the Dolmio puppets. The chicken was in distinctly uniform catering pack-sized mini fillets: the first one I tried was decent, the second had a slightly musty taste, as if it had been reheated.

We didn’t finish our mains, and although the second waiter who took our plates away was better than the first, largely by virtue of actually turning up, he didn’t probe as to whether we’d enjoyed our meals. By this point my only real concerns were leaving as soon as possible, opening up whatever chocolate I had at home and getting back in time for the Bake Off final on Channel 4+1. Our bill for two, including a 10% service charge I was too fatigued to knock off, came to sixty-two pounds: the final insult. 

On the way home I annoyed Zoë greatly by pointing to restaurants on the Oracle Riverside and saying “we could have had a better meal here… or here… or here”. The only place I didn’t include in that analysis was TGI Friday. As we passed the Lyndhurst, Christmas lights on and warm glow coming from the windows, I couldn’t help myself.

“Just imagine what sixty-two pounds could buy you at the Lyndie.” 

“Oh for fuck’s sake, shut up” came the understandable response.

The funniest thing, though, happened as we were leaving the restaurant. We walked through the place to leave through the exit on Bridge Street, and the bar was full. Properly full. Every single table had people at it, drinking and chatting, and it turned out that the joke was well and truly on us: Zero Degrees had plenty of staff, they simply didn’t have any of them working in the restaurant that night. Perhaps Zero Degrees has just given up on its food. Having tasted it, that makes two of us.

Zero Degrees – 4.9
9 Bridge Street, Reading, RG1 2LR
0118 9597959

https://www.zerodegrees.co.uk/restaurants/reading/
Order via: Deliveroo

Takeaway review: Mama’s Way

Mama’s Way, the minuscule Italian aperitivo bar and delicatessen on Duke Street, has been on my list to review since it opened earlier this year. In the summer I briefly toyed with trying to grab one of the three tall stools outside, looking out on the shell that used to be Panino and sipping an Aperol Spritz, but it never quite happened. Anyway, reviewing it as a takeaway is a far better bet. After all, it can only seat three people outside and three people inside – up at the window, provided they get on famously – and so your best chance of trying their food would be to get on Deliveroo, as I did this week.

It is a shame, because it’s a wonderful spot. There’s something very continental about a venue so tiny – wander through Bologna and you’d find loads of Aladdin’s caves like Mama’s Way, selling cheese, or pasta, or porchetta sandwiches through a hatch. And if we were in pre-Covid times I’d probably have stood at the bar, elbows at the ready, enjoying that feeling of being somewhere else. But it’s 2021, and I imagine many people wouldn’t want to experience eating in at Mama’s Way for the time being, so here I am to try the food out remotely for us all.

It is a real Aladdin’s cave, by the way – all manner of cheeses and charcuterie, biscuits and breadsticks, pandoro hanging from the ceiling in readiness for the festive season, bottles of wine on one side and an attractive array of digestifs behind the counter (they sell multiple brands of Amaro, one of my favourite drinks). They even stock chinotto, that exquisitely bitter soft drink you can’t get anywhere else. And in my limited experience of buying from Mama’s Way over the counter they have an excellent variety of Parmesan, some of it aged for as long as 72 months: it’s doubtless improved more over the last six years than I have. 

Aside from doing food to eat in, and delivery food, and acting as a deli and wine shop they also have an online store, with free delivery if you spend over £29. Confusingly, they also sell “ready meals”, which include some of the same dishes as the Deliveroo options, so if you like something you’ve had as a takeaway you can, with a little foresight, spend half as much to heat it up at home yourself. This all makes sense – at a time like now you need to have as many hustles on the go as you can – but let’s get back to the point and talk about the takeaway.

The menu is relatively streamlined, and I imagine much of it is cooked up in the kitchen somewhere behind the counter. Starters mostly consist of cheese and/or charcuterie in some configuration or other, there are a couple of “build your own” pasta and sauce combinations and, strangely, four different soups. The rest is largely lasagne and pinsa, the Roman equivalent of pizza which is traditionally oval, made with a slightly different flour and has a slightly crunchier texture. Oh, and they also have a huge selection of their wine on Deliveroo, so if you fancy a forty quid bottle of Nebbiolo with your takeaway there’s nothing to stop you living the dream.

Starters tend to hover close to the ten pound mark, the lasagne and cannelloni are closer to twelve pounds and most of the pinse are between twelve and a rather steep seventeen pounds, although in fairness there are lots of interesting ingredients and combinations in that part of the menu, including lardo honey and walnuts, or Parma ham with the splendidly named squacquerone cheese (I’ve had it: it’s fantastic). I was having a takeaway on my own on a chilly night, so I decided to cover as many bases as possible by ordering pinsa, pasta and dessert. They were doing 20% off all food, so my bill came to twenty-five pounds, not including the rider tip.

Speaking of tips to riders, my main one to the guy who delivered my food would be “don’t store a hot pizza vertically”. Honestly, it was so ridiculous that it was more funny than disappointing: I’ve had many seamless delivery experiences this year, so I’m sorry to have to bring this up, but it does strike me as basic stuff and I’m not sure I’d be doing a decent job of this review if I didn’t mention it. Other than that, it was relatively smooth – I placed my order just after seven o’clock, it was en route twenty-five minutes later and it took about seven minutes to get to the house.

The fact that, say, the pizza was lukewarm or that the chilled dessert had been put in the same carrier bag as the hot lasagne is down to the restaurant, but the fact that my pizza had somewhat drifted in transit and that some of it was stuck irretrievably to the inside of the lid of the box is, sadly, down to the driver alone. Anyway, c’est la vie: I know the traditional curse is “may you live in interesting times” but an equally powerful one would be “may you spend far more of the year than you’d personally choose to trying to describe tepid pizzas on a restaurant blog”. Take it from me.

So, the tepid pizza then: it’s a real shame, because Mama’s Way use good ingredients and it does show in the taste. I’d picked a simple ‘nduja pizza and their ‘nduja is great – savoury, acrid crimson nuggets that pack a huge amount of flavour, far more so than boring supermarket ‘nduja. On this evidence I would buy ‘nduja from Mama’s Way, but I’m not sure that, on this showing I’d order a takeaway pinsa from them again. But I could tell, from what I ate, that if it had been hot it would have been formidable. 

The tomato sauce had a genuinely gorgeous fruity depth and the base, which was far thicker than the Neopolitan pizzas that are in vogue right now, was also excellent. Slightly randomly my order had included a couple of squares of bread in a paper bag: I’m not sure why, because they didn’t go with my lasagne and they sure as hell didn’t go with my tiramisu, but as a “look what you could have won” they were another salutary reminder that the raw materials Mama’s Way is using are promising. Eventually I admitted defeat, stuck the oven on and reheated the rest of my pizza. It was lovely, but if I wanted to heat up a pizza at home I’d probably just buy one from a supermarket at half the price.

If the pizza was frustrating, the lasagne was outright bad. It looked the part when I got it out of the bag, but what my picture fails to show is just how little ragu was involved in its construction. Have a look at the picture on Mama’s Way’s website, which suggests you’ll get four sheets of pasta with a generous layer of ragu in between each one. By contrast, what I had was, I think, six or seven layers of lasagne with next to no ragu anywhere to be seen. It was an odd kind of pasta millefeuille, which sounds more like a baddie from Harry Potter than anything you might want to eat.

The best bit of a lasagne is that crispy, cheesy bit right at the top – the corners, all caramelised – but that only works if plenty of cheese has been used and there’s hot ragu underneath. This was just a stodgy wedge of pure pasta, and the burnt bits were almost impossible to saw through. I threw half of it away. The sad thing is that what very little ragu there was tasted decent, with good depth of flavour – properly made, with finely chopped carrot in the mix. But when there’s that little of it on display, the fact that it tasted decent only made matters worse.

Deliveroo described this as a “lasagne Bolognese” (and, incidentally, the picture of this dish on Deliveroo also looks like it involves plenty of ragu). But if anybody served this up in Bologna they’d probably die of shame. The margins on this dish, even with a discount, must have been astronomical.

Just to add to the contrariness, one final twist in the tale – my tiramisu was lovely. Everything was in proportion with the perfect interplay of cream and sponge, booze and coffee, exactly as it should be. But again, it was a little on the small side at five pounds – not unreasonable with twenty per cent off, but I still couldn’t help but think of the giant slab of tiramisu you’d get at Buon Appetito for not much more. I think by that stage I was relieved that something was unequivocally good, even if it wasn’t unequivocally good value.

This meal felt like such a pity, and a proper wasted opportunity. You only have to spend a few minutes inside Mama’s Way to see that they have fantastic ingredients and produce, much of it impossible to get anywhere else in town. But somewhere along the way, something has gone wrong in terms of turning that into a menu that works and makes sense – for delivery, anyway. 

If they ever get larger premises, I would rush to eat there and have one of those pinse fresh from the oven, or just enjoy some of their antipasti with a good bottle of red. With the right site, they could be Reading’s equivalent to Bristol’s cracking Bosco Pizzeria. But would I order takeaway from them again? Probably not: the memory of that brick of lasagne, 10% main course, 90% murder weapon, will cast a long shadow.

Never mind. It hasn’t diminished my enthusiasm for what they sell over the counter, or my respect for them trying to do something different and turn a profit from such a tiny spot. And I’ll be back for some of that ‘nduja, and some squacquerone (for the name alone, if nothing else), and I’m long overdue a bottle of chinotto for that matter. They also sell coppa, probably my favourite charcuterie of all time, and I can even see myself picking up some guanciale to use in my own ragu at some point. It might not be as good as theirs, but you get an awful lot more of it. 

Mama’s Way
10-14 Duke Street, Reading, RG1 4RU
0118 3273802

https://mamasway.co.uk
Order via: Deliveroo, Uber Eats

City guide: Málaga (2021)

My previous guide to Málaga, from over two and a half years ago, was written at a very different time, after a holiday to the Spanish city with friends. It was, I enthused, a mini Barcelona that had it all: history; architecture; museums and galleries all over the place; a cracking food market; a beach; and food and drink that rivalled anything I’d had elsewhere.

I liked it so much that eight months later, while Zoë was on a beer drinking holiday with a group of her friends affectionately referred to as the “beer wankers”, I tried something I’d barely ever done before: I booked an Airbnb, booked some flights and took myself off there for a solo holiday. Zoë sent me pictures of her merry band, drinking lambic after lambic in cosy-looking bars or shivering in the town square, layered up to the max and probably turnt up to the max as well. I responded with well-lit pictures of sun-dappled tables, cold cañas of the local lager and fetching-looking food. It was November, it was twenty degrees and my shorts and walking sandals were enjoying one final hurrah before being packed away for six long months: what could possibly be bad about that?

Fast forward two difficult, turbulent years, and when we were picking the destination for our first holiday in aeons choosing Málaga was a quick and unanimous decision. And an excellent one: I don’t want to bang on about the C word too much, but there was something hugely comforting about spending four nights in a country where Covid rates were a tenth of what they are in the U.K., one where people wear masks indoors all the time without wanking on about being exempt or subjecting Twitter to their edgelord ramblings. They just do it: you know, because they’re not arseholes. 

On our first night in a bar, the woman sitting along from us replaced her facemask between sips of her drink. Even I thought that was a little hardcore, but it did suggest that she at least gave a shit about the rest of us. Anyway, I had four brilliant days eating and drinking in the sunshine in the company of good friends, living as free from fear as I can remember, and I returned fatter, slightly more tanned and with plenty of photographs, most of them of food. 

Originally I wasn’t going to write up this trip, but a fair few people have told me that they wanted to read this one and given that a few places have either closed or relocated since my last guide it felt like a good time. If you’re trying to work out where your next city break will be, this may help. Filling out the forms to get into Spain right now is relatively stress-free, and booking a Day 2 test for my return was surprisingly painless. 

And if you don’t fancy a trip to Málaga, I’m awash with tips for my next destination following last weekend’s fabulous readers’ lunch: the most difficult decision is whether to prioritise the beauty of Potenza, the food of Montpellier or the craft beer of Kaunas. Every table seemed to have a different suggestion for the best city break you’ve never had. It might, with hindsight, turn out to have been a deeply expensive meal.

Where to eat

1. Taberna Uvedoble

Still arguably the single best place to eat I’ve found in Málaga, Uvedoble has relocated this year to a bigger site, still close to the cathedral but just around the corner from its previous home. The menu is clever, modern and almost ridiculously easy to adapt to any group size or any event: nearly everything comes in small, medium or large so you can have one all to yourself or share it with your companions (or, for that matter, order a large and have it all to yourself).

The classics were all waiting for me on my most recent visit so I got to reacquaint myself with oxtail albondigas, the meat rich and falling apart, served on a bed of skinny chips. I also revisited the suckling pig brioche, topped with aioli and served like the most decadent savoury éclair imaginable. Asparagus came jenga-style with an artful smear of romesco, and little pucks of compressed, rolled lamb shoulder were phenomenal with couscous.

But my favourite dish there remains the fiduea, a dish Zoë simply refers to as “the nest”. A heap of squid ink noodles, as black as night, topped with gorgeous, pert baby squid and served with a pungent puddle of honking aioli. The first mouthful was close to a religious experience and I realised, sadly too late, that this was the dish where you should order a large and have it all to yourself.

Taberna Uvedoble
Calle Alcazabilla, 1
https://www.uvedobletaberna.com/en

2. Meson Iberico

Meson Iberico, in the Soho district near the modern art gallery, is almost the polar opposite of Uvedoble – a more traditional room, a more classic, less experimental menu – except for one thing: they both serve exceptional food. Meson Iberico’s menu is bigger and most things either come in a media or a racion.

It has a conventional dining room that you can reserve, and the four of us ate there on our last night having a really fantastic time surrounded by tables all occupied by Spanish speakers. But I had just as much fun on our first night, when it was just me and Zoë, standing outside when they opened at half eight and making our way to the bar (and if you don’t do that, good luck getting a seat). There you see all the bustle, watch the staff hard at work and really feel part of the spectacle, get an insight into how a great restaurant is a living, breathing thing.

Most of the food there is amazing, but I had a real soft spot for particular dishes. Spiced skewers of suckling lamb, served stunningly tender, came with a little pile of impeccable chips for a crazy four Euros. Morcilla was fragrant and perfect for grazing. And I absolutely adored the wild mushrooms, cooked simply in oil and garlic, the perfect advert for buying something good and mucking about with it as little as possible. On the second visit we ordered a huge plate of prawns, so sweet and plump, and made short work of them between the four of us. And the tortillitas de camarones, fritters studded with tiny shrimp, were the best I’ve eaten in the city.

Meson Iberico
Calle San Lorenzo, 27
https://www.mesoniberico.net

3. Gastroteca Can Emma

The find of this visit was Gastroteca Can Emma, a small unsung restaurant close to Málagueta which was recommended to me by Owen Morgan, one of the owners of the Bar 44 chain which serves terrific Spanish food in Cardiff and Bristol. Morgan has been to Málaga often (I imagine research is one of the most enjoyable parts of his job) and if he says somewhere is good, you try it out. I’m so glad we did, because a two hour boozy lunch there became one of my happiest memories of the holiday.

As with Meson Iberico, we were the only non-Spaniards there and we were treated to a knockout meal with many, many highlights. Tortilla with wild mushrooms and a whisper of truffle was an earthy delight, and a plate of miniature jamon croquetas was a magnificent – and eminently shareable – treat. I surprised myself by ordering something close to paella as a main – arroz mar y monte – and I’m so glad I did because that rich, sticky rice, bursting with meat, squid and prawns, was the standout dish among standout dishes. But we also had a quartet of mollete de calamares, simple fried squid sandwiches which were as good as anything I have eaten this year.

When we arrived, a group of Spanish ladies had got there before us and were already starting on the wine. When we finally got up and waddled away hours later, more than replete, they were still ordering more food and more drink. We had a theory that they replaced one of the women every thirty minutes when we weren’t looking until, like culinary Sugababes, none of the original lineup remained. Be that as it may, they were lunching legends: can I be them when I grow up?

Gastroteca Can Emma
Calle Ruiz Blaser, 2

4. Casa Lola

Deep in the old town, Casa Lola is a bit of a staple: I went there on my first ever visit to Málaga, and I’ve gone back every time since. We went for an early lunch on my first day and the place had completely filled up within half an hour, so it’s clearly built up a reputation.

It’s completely deserved. As usual we had a selection of pintxos which were quite delicious (any meal which features bacalao is on to a winner in my book). But on this occasion we wandered more into the outer reaches of the menu and were richly rewarded – with spot on miniature veal burgers in little tiger bread buns, and with chicharrones, crunchy, chewy nuggets of belly pork which made pork scratchings look distinctly two-dimensional, whiskery and sad. As I took the first sip of my rebujito I was wishing I could never leave: by the end of it I was frantically Googling whether I could somehow claim asylum.

Casa Lola
Calle Granada, 46
https://tabernacasalola.com

5. El Tapeo de Cervantes

El Tapeo de Cervantes was one of my favourite restaurants in recent visits to Málaga, and if it didn’t quite reach that standard on my latest trip, it still got pretty close. The original dining room is snug and cosy, and if you eat there you really feel like you’re in on one of the best secrets there is. On our latest visit we were in the larger, less charming dining room next door, although if I’d never been to the restaurant before I’m sure I would have been enraptured.

The food is still excellent, although they do that confusing thing of having a main menu and a sizeable specials menu with a degree of overlap between the two. Everything comes in medium or large, and some of the dishes were marvellous – secreto iberico with pineapple is combination you shouldn’t love as much as you do, and pig’s cheek stew on chips is like an Andalusian take on the Belgian classic stoverij. But a couple of the dishes – sweetbreads and octopus – were served a little too similarly on smoked mash, and some of the things we tried felt lacking in heft, tasty though they were. It’s still worth a visit, especially if you’re in Málaga for long enough, but perhaps no longer the first name on the list.

El Tapeo de Cervantes
Calle Cárcer, 8
https://eltapeodecervantes.com/en/

6. Meson Mariano

Meson Mariano is a traditional, family-run restaurant, all dark wood and beams, a million miles away from the clean contemporary look of Taberna Uvedoble. My holiday companions were a little (well, a lot) younger than me and when we went to Meson Mariano they were in a state best described as “visibly impaired”. Regrettably, that meant we didn’t order the full three courses – but it also means that they were so full that I managed to try a little bit of everybody’s meal and confirm my suspicion that Meson Mariano was a very good restaurant indeed.

The salt cod was beautiful, either served fried with tons of garlic or cooked in tomato with potato, but the meat was the real high point, whether it was shoulder of lamb on the bone (though so tender that it didn’t stay there for long) or bang-on sirloin with an astonishingly good goats cheese sauce. When I go back, I’ll try the deep-fried goats cheese starter: I remember it fondly from a previous visit.

Restaurante Meson Mariano
Calle Granados, 2

7. Mercado Atarazanas

Not content with being a mini Barcelona, Málaga also boasts a mini Boqueria in the shape of the handsome and hugely likeable Mercado Atarazanas. You can buy pretty much anything there – from just-landed fish to pig’s trotters, from freshly sliced jamon to salted almonds shining with oil. 

But the real draw, for me, is Central Bar in the corner of the market. There you can stand up at the bar, drink your vermouth or your caña and get stuck into the incredible array of fresh fish and seafood under the counter, or have charcuterie, cheese and all the other main Spanish food groups. On my most recent visit we had tuna steaks, cooked simply, scattered with salt and served up with sensational tomatoes and padron peppers, another exemplary illustration that less is often more.

But it wasn’t just about the fish: chicharrones de Cadiz were utterly delicious but a completely different kettle of pork to their Casa Lola cousins – less scratchings, more a high definition porchetta with fat that practically dissolved in the mouth. The four of us lunched like kings for just over a hundred Euros, and my only regret is that I didn’t find a way to go there every day.

Mercado Central de Atarazanas
Calle Atarazanas, 10

8. Heladeria Freskitto

A lot of guides to Málaga single out Casa Mira, the legendary ice cream parlour on Calle Marqués de Larios which has been keeping Malagueños cool for over a hundred years. And don’t get me wrong, it’s dead good, but my preference is Freskitto, a stone’s throw from the Picasso Museum. It’s a hole in the wall which does ambrosial helado the equal of anything I’ve tasted in Italy.

I love their dark, intense chocolate, their dulce de leche is a smooth buttery caramel without any salt muddying the waters, I have fond memories of their cinnamon ice cream and on this visit I heard good things about their Nutella and pistachio flavours from my companions. The texture has that splendid elasticity that marks out continental ice cream from its British sibling, and the taste is phenomenal. That Málaga is a city where you can eat and drink outside, have ice cream and pick up insect bites in November is as good an advertisement for the place as I can think of.

Heladeria Freskitto
Calle Granada, 55

Where to drink

1. La Tranca

La Tranca remains one of my favourite bars in the whole wide world, a scruffy and vibrant place which welcomes anyone who wants to drink vermouth or beer, eat good food and enjoy people-watching amid a crowd who all have the same laudable priorities. The music is Spanish, and the LPs behind the bar are a retro anorak’s dream. I can honestly say that this is a happy place at the epicentre of a happy place, and both my visits on this trip were superb fun.

Although you can drink beer or vermouth here my preferred drink is the aliñao, a mixture of vermouth, gin and soda which slips down dangerously easily. After a couple of them, you find your life goals slowly shifting from whatever they were before to “how can I buy an apartment within stumbling distance of La Tranca?” And that’s without talking about the food – wonderful four cheese empanadas with a tang of blue cheese or some of the best jamon I had on my holiday, sliced there and then and presented glistening on a board, waiting to be pinched between fingers and devoured.

On a previous visit, we’d bumped into an Italian singer-songwriter who had a long and fascinating story of jet setting from one European city to the next, la dolce vita in action. A tad randomly, we all follow one another on Instagram now, so Zoë took a goofy selfie of the four of us and sent it to him. “That’s really sweet of you!” came the reply from elsewhere on the continent in next to no time. “Enjoy the journey in beautiful Málaga. I miss it.” It has that effect on you, you see.

La Tranca
Calle Carreteria, 92
http://www.latranca.es

2. Antigua Casa de Guardia

This has always been, for me, the other place in Málaga to stop for a drink – a long thin room with a long thin bar where you pick from the sweet wines, sherries and vermouths in the barrels behind. They keep a running tab on your bar in chalk and as barely anything you can drink tops two Euros you do feel it’s rude not to stay for another, and another.

It’s standing room only, with only a few high tables, so settling in for a prolonged session is probably beyond most people, but to stand there sipping from your copa and watching the bar staff, all of whom feel like they’ve been doing this for years, is a quintessential Málaga experience.

Antigua Casa de Guardia
Alameda Principal, 18
https://antiguacasadeguardia.com

3. Birras Deluxe

Málaga has a surprisingly strong craft beer scene, and Birra Deluxe up on Plaza de la Merced became a firm favourite on this trip for a post-dinner beer or two. It used to be called something else, but it came under new ownership recently and they’ve properly spruced the place up, making it a decidedly agreeable place to try beers and shoot the breeze.

The staff are really friendly and full of recommendations, which meant that we got to try draft beer from local brewery Attik Brewing and some cans from their superb selection which features prominent Spanish breweries like Basqueland Brewing and Barcelona’s Garage Beer Co, along with other beers from harder to find breweries like Zagreb’s The Garden Brewery. My beer of the entire holiday was a chocolate macaroon imperial stout from Basqueland which will live long in the memory – chocolate upon chocolate upon chocolate, the perfect liquid dessert. 

Birras Deluxe 
Plaza de la Merced, 5
https://www.birrasdeluxe.com 

4. Café Central

Many people think the best churros in Málaga are to be had at Casa Aranda. And I tried them on this trip, and they have a point. But my heart is still with Café Central, on Plaza de la Constitucion, which does almost-salty churros which are crying out to be eaten – either the purist way by rolling them in sugar, or by taking the more indulgent route of dipping them in Nutella or dulce de leche. Either is great, both is better.

Café Central is another of those places that is perfect for a certain kind of people watching, sitting outside as people drift past, shopping or loafing or just enjoying the sunshine. But the people watching inside is its equal, because Café Central is up there with all those grand cafés in which European cities seem to specialise. A little plaque on the wall gives you ten different ways to have your coffee, from jet black through to practically all milk, although if you ask for something on that scale you do seem to get a blank look, so it’s probably best to ask for a cafe con leche like everybody else.

Café Central
Plaza de la Constitucion, 11
https://cafecentral.es

5. Mia Coffee House

If you want a “proper” coffee, by which I suppose I mean a Workhouse/C.U.P. cup of coffee, Mia does the best coffee I found in Málaga. It’s essentially another hole in the wall, with only a handful of tables inside, but the coffee is sublime, made with care and precision and served in attractive cups, sunshine-yellow to match the awning outside. It’s in a lovely little part of the city, opposite an exquisite church and right next door to the hammam, and it’s the perfect place to watch the city come to life in the morning.

I wanted some coffee to take home with me, and when I told the member of staff that I brew with an Aeropress she lit up enthusing about the Aeropress method. It turns out that the Spanish heat of the World Aeropress Championships takes place next week, and a barista will be there flying the flag for Mia Coffee House. Based on what I’ve seen, I fancy their chances: I left with a nice warm glow and a bag of beans for later on.

Mia Coffee House
Plaza de los Mártires Ciriaco y Paula, 4
http://miacoffeeshop.com

6. El Pimpi

El Pimpi is a Málaga institution, and I’m ashamed to say that I’d never visited it prior to this trip. A huge, sprawling bar with lots of little rooms and corridors, and a lot of outside space looking out on the Alcazaba, I surprised by how much I liked it. It was touristy, but not to its detriment, and it had all the things Antigua Casa de la Guardia was lacking, like seats, and toilets you could actually bring yourself to use.

My glass of Pedro Ximenez had that sticky, syrupy quality and the richness of thoroughly coddled sultanas and I would happily have stayed for more. There’s always next time, as I increasingly told myself as my holiday drew to a close. Antonio Banderas, a native of Málaga, is a big fan (he allegedly owns an apartment overlooking the bar), so there are a lot of pictures of him on display. A lot.

El Pimpi
Calle Granada, 62
https://elpimpi.com/en/

7. La Madriguera

La Madriguera is the other Spanish craft beer place in Málaga, on a street full of surprises. The bar two doors down called “Jamones”, with a logo based on the Ramones, seemed to have shut down since I last visited, and on the other side of the road there was a kiosk selling empanadas and an ice cream joint called “Dick Town” which specialises in genitalia-themed ice creams and, err, labial waffles. That’s nice.

Anyway, I was delighted to see La Madriguera thriving, and it gave me the opportunity to try yet more local beer with interesting stuff on tap from Spain and beyond. I managed to check out an IPA from local brewery Attik Brewing, technically based in Torremolinos, and another from even more local Bonvivant Beer. I even sampled a very drinkable DIPA from an Italian brewery called CRAK: I’ve never heard of them, but it’s only a matter of time before they cook up a collaboration with Dick Town. I’m only sorry I didn’t get to try La Madriguera’s food, too: their selection looked appealing and they’re all over their social media, so you can get a pretty good idea on Instagram just what I missed out on.

La Madriguera
Calle Carreteria, 73
https://www.lamadriguerabar.com/en/home/

8. El Ultimo Mono

Last but not least, El Ultimo Mono, which translates as “the last monkey” for reasons I still haven’t managed to figure out since I last visited Málaga. This was my go to place for coffee on the move on previous visits to Málaga, but like other venues in this guide it has moved location since I was there last. Its new home, tucked off a main street with no outside space, slightly lacks the charm of its old one, but the coffee is still rather nice and a sensible size for drinking on the go. A final reminder of some of the stark differences between England and Spain came when I paid: even with the pound hardly storming against the Euro, two coffees here cost about the same as a single coffee from the likes of Workhouse.

El Ultimo Mono
Calle Duende, 6

Takeaway review: Smashing Plates

Last month I had a very nice email from someone who worked as a commercial manager for Deliveroo Editions, telling me all about a new restaurant called Smashing Plates operating from Reading’s dark kitchen. And before we get started, let’s tackle the elephant in the room: I know, the name is a problem. It’s not as if it was my idea, so don’t shoot the messenger. Let’s all get that sigh, that cringe, that facepalm or weary shake of the head out of the way in unison right at the start of proceedings, and move on.

Anyway, the email described Smashing Plates as cool and “unorthodox” – only choosing to put inverted commas around the latter, as if the former was incontrovertible. Did I fancy running a competition for my followers, it asked? I could put a post on my Instagram telling people all about Smashing Plates, and if they liked my post, followed me and the restaurant and Deliveroo and tagged the person they really wanted to share the prize with then one lucky individual could win a £50 Deliveroo voucher to use at the restaurant of their choice. Did that sound like something I would be interested in? I mean, did it?

Did I want to give over my Instagram to pimping some restaurant I’d never even tried and ask my followers to give them and Deliveroo loads of free publicity just so that one solitary reader could win fifty quid? Hell no. Don’t get me wrong, I do run the occasional competition for readers, but I try and pick the partners for them carefully. I’m not that easily bought, or that cheaply. It struck me as especially weird that the prize was vouchers you didn’t even have to spend at the restaurant the competition was meant to promote. Who was doing the benefiting here – Smashing Plates or Deliveroo?

So I declined politely and no doubt they found many other Instagram accounts to team up with. In fact, I know they did: you don’t have to look far to find plenty of #ADs and #invites featuring the restaurant (although at least the social media posts declared them, unlike some prominent restaurant bloggers). But it did make me think about whether Smashing Plates was worth ordering, so I made a mental note to come back to them later. And here we are.

They’re almost a diffusion brand in themselves, launched by Neo Christodoulou, the co-founder of The Athenian (which itself was on Deliveroo in Reading a while back, if memory serves). Smashing Plates has opened in four venues across London, all of them previously branches of The Athenian, and has two dark kitchens, here and in Cambridge. 

I’d like to say that they have a distinct identity from the Athenian, but looking at both websites I’m none the wiser. The Athenian is all about using “the best ingredients, freshly and lovingly made to order”, they “source everything from our partners in Greece and here in the UK” and “environmental concerns are super important to us… we turn our cooking oils into biodiesel and our kitchens are powered by renewable energy”. 

Smashing Plates, on the other hand, says “The menu is seriously fresh and totally traceable. I know where every ingredient in every product has come from”, “our cooking oil… gets collected and turned into bio-diesel” and “everything is fresh, from start to finish”. Seriously – chalk and feta, these two. I wonder if they fell out and Christodoulou thought “I’ll show them… by copying their entire website”?

Smashing Plates’ delivery menu is small and centred on wraps and sides, gyros and souvlaki. It has slightly less range than their restaurant menu, but there’s enough choice that you don’t feel hemmed in. Perhaps significantly, real priority is given to vegetarians and vegans – so, for instance, you can have gyros with chicken, but pork isn’t on the menu and instead you can choose from halloumi, seitan or portobello mushroom. Most of the sides, for that matter, are vegetarian. They also do salads, loaded fries, skepasti (a gyros toastie) and a handful of desserts and if you fancy a Greek beer on the side you can get your Fix, literally and figuratively.

Nothing is too pricey, either – wraps and salads cost between seven and ten pounds, practically all of the sides are less than a fiver. I chose a wrap, a couple of sides and a dessert, which came to just over twenty pounds not including rider tip (they were doing 25% off food that night), sat back and waited.

Are you ready for the obligatory fuss-free delivery paragraph? Okay, here goes: I ordered just before eight o’clock on a weekday night, my driver was on his way twenty minutes later and in just over five minutes he was at my door. How far we’ve come from me obsessively checking the tracker and saying “why is he going down the Orts Road?” to Zoë as she rolls her eyes for the seventh time: perhaps this is what personal growth looks like. I particularly appreciated the fact that my hot food was in one bag and my cold food in another – if I’d known they were going to be that careful I might have ordered that Fix after all. Please drop us a review! was written on the bag in biro. How little they know, I thought.

Everything was hot and stayed hot throughout the faff of me taking it out of the bag, photographing it, photographing it again because one of my feet was in one of the photos and so on. The gyros – I’d gone for pork – was good but a little muted for my liking. It’s not possible to eat one without comparing it to Tasty Greek’s gyros wrap, and Smashing Plates’ version wasn’t quite at that level. The meat didn’t have that wonderful crispy caramelisation that comes from being exposed to a naked flame and then thinly sliced, and although it was still decent I knew I’d had better.

What was good though, was their signature smoked aubergine sauce. It made a surprisingly refreshing change not to have tzatziki in a gyros wrap and this supplied some badly needed depth of flavour – more sweet than smoky, in truth, but still welcome. I found myself thinking about Tasty Greek Souvlaki’s set-up and wondering whether an off the shelf dark kitchen on the edge of Caversham could match it. Maybe that’s why the gyros fell short. Perhaps, for that matter, it’s why they only offered one meat option for the gyros. Working within your limitations is all very well – I do it as a writer all the time, god knows – but in an ideal world other people don’t notice your limitations.

But Smashing Plates was saved by the sides. Panko chicken bites were marinated with oregano and smoked paprika and they really weren’t mucking around when they said that: opening the box you got a wonderful herbal hit of oregano, a refreshing antidote to all the many times I’ve walked through Reading in the slipstream of someone smoking a massive joint.

It was chicken breast rather than thigh but it wasn’t dried out or bouncy and the coating was crunchy and genuinely delicious. You got a hell of a lot of chicken, the tzatziki it came with was pleasant, if underpowered on the garlic front, and I thoroughly enjoyed every bite. Looking in the box afterwards I found loads of little crunchy pieces of coating – yes, I ate them all with my fingers, with no shame – and not a jot of grease. If they could do all this for less than five pounds, what on earth was Wingstop’s excuse for being so crappy?

I also very much liked the courgette and feta bites, although it was a little odd to get only five of these for a fiver as opposed to so much chicken. The blurb calls them “fluffy” which, if anything, does them a slight disservice. The first ones I had, from the box at the start of the meal, almost had the silky texture of croquetas, with a nice tang from the feta. And actually, as they cooled if anything I appreciated them slightly more. The flavour came through better, and they firmed up so you could tell, from a bite, just how much courgette and cheese had been packed into them. 

Oh, and I had dessert too, a vegan chocolate brownie. If you decide to give Smashing Plates a try, give this a wide berth. It felt like supermarket quality at best: no real texture to speak of, no contrast between crumble and squidge, and a salted caramel topping that just felt like badly sunburnt sugar. Three pounds fifty, too – I know that’s the going rate for brownies at the likes of Workhouse or The Collective, but theirs are bigger, and better, than this. What were you thinking ordering a dessert from Deliveroo? you might be thinking. You might have a point.

Despite the brownie, I found I rather enjoyed Smashing Plates. It’s true that you can get slightly better gyros from Tasty Greek Souvlaki, but my chicken bites and halloumi and feta bites were properly enjoyable, and different from anything offered by Tasty Greek. If I ordered again I would have a gyros because I’d feel that I ought to, but it would largely be an excuse to go crazy and order all the sides. They do another that’s halloumi with sesame seeds and maple syrup which is calling to me: I love all three of those things, and I really want to experience the centre of that particular Venn diagram.

It helps, I’m sure, that my meal was better than I expected it to be. On the sofa in my comfies at the end of a forgettable day, waiting for Zoë to come home from a late shift, the weather positively Baltic outside, it brought me a little joy. And that’s the thing about takeaways – they don’t always have to hit the heights. Sometimes you just want one fewer problem. Sometimes it’s just about that little bit of self-care, treating yourself while you sit in front of Bake Off (I’m rooting for Giuseppe to win) or Strictly (Team John and Johannes all the way). That, to me, is a decidedly orthodox pleasure.

And the silliest thing of all is that if I’d taken Deliveroo up on that competition, I might never have written this review. Some of you might have found out about Smashing Plates, if you happened to be on Instagram, and one of you could have won fifty quid. But I expect you’d have spent it elsewhere, because you probably wouldn’t have the foggiest idea whether Smashing Plates was any good. And that’s the point of this blog. I don’t know why influencers do what they do, although naturally I wish them all the best. But I do know why I do this.

Smashing Plates

https://deliveroo.co.uk/menu/reading/reading-editions/smashing-plates-editions-rea
Order via: Deliveroo only