Pub review: Park House

I try my best, doing this restaurant reviewing lark, to visit places I think are likely to be either good or interesting, or ideally both; with a few notable exceptions, I don’t go anywhere where I think I’m definitely going to have a bad meal. And even if I have my reservations, I try to turn up with an open mind, ready to find the positives in my experience, however difficult that is. Sometimes the gods smile on me and I have a run of beautiful meals, one after the other. And that’s brilliant – exceptional meals are easier to write about, and people enjoy reading about them. Conversely, the worst thing is a run of bad meals. A succession of stinkers. That does rather break the soul.

The worst run I can remember started at the end of 2019. It began with a truly awful dinner at TGI Friday, and continued with the grisly spectacle of doner meat nachos at German Doner Kebab. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was going to the Dairy, the university bar and kitchen just down the road from the MERL. I’d always loved drinking there, especially on a hot day, but the food was bloody awful. That made three cruddy meals on the spin and nearly two months without enjoying a meal on duty: it was the kind of vale of tears that makes you seriously think about chucking the whole thing in.

Then at the start of this year, there was a surprising development: the Dairy published a completely new menu on Instagram. And it made all the right noises – beef came from the University’s farm four miles down the road, eggs were from Beechwood Farm (did you know that Beechwood Farm was run by Reading University alumni? I didn’t) and all the bread was supplied by Waring’s. Not only that, but the menu was full of the kind of things you might actually want to eat. Crispy fried chicken and pickled watermelon burger? Brisket and blue cheese ciabatta? Jerk spiced plantain and halloumi skewers? Count me in!

Something was clearly afoot at the University because a week ago Park House, its bar on campus, published a brand new spring menu. Again, it all looked distinctly tempting, and again the provenance was called out, with the beef coming from the University’s farm and name checks for the excellent Nettlebed Creamery and the Cotswolds’ Hobbs House Bakery. (Not everyone was overjoyed, mind you: I really can’t believe you won’t sell cheesy chips any more, said one comment). Park House has always been one of my very favourite places for a pint in the sunshine, but was it possible that it also offered great, affordable food under the radar? Zoë and I ventured out on a sunny spring evening to put it to the test.

It’s truly a gorgeous spot, inside and out, one of those beautiful Victorian redbrick buildings Reading so specialises in (I think I read somewhere that it’s by Alfred Waterhouse, of Reading Town Hall and Foxhill House fame: I can’t find any evidence of that, but it’s definitely in keeping). It used to be the university’s Senior Common Room, and it still has a distinctly clubbable feel inside, all dark panelled walls and solid wood floors. You could imagine trying to have an intellectual conversation in those rooms, put it that way.

And if you failed it would probably be because of the selection of beers. Park House punches well above its weight with a range many Reading pubs would envy: a dozen beers and ciders with a range of cask and keg. And again, there’s a distinctly local feel with Siren Craft, Elusive, Double-Barrelled and Phantom well represented (in fact, the most exotic drinks on the menu are from Cotswold Cider Company, a colossal 39 miles away). It doesn’t surprise me that Park House has made it onto Reading CAMRA’s Ale Trail this year and the things we tried – a couple of pales from Siren and a mild from Elusive – were yet another reminder of how well served we are in these parts for beer.

Having praised the interior, we did end up eating and drinking outside for a couple of reasons. One was that Park House was distinctly crowded: 6 o’clock on a Monday, surprisingly, seems to be peak eating and drinking time. The other, more happily, is that Park House’s outside space is a natural sun trap, and further proof – if any were needed after visiting the Nag’s Head – that there are few car parks you couldn’t improve by turning them into beer gardens. It’s a proper happy place for me, and it’s where I had my first al fresco pint last year after the longest lockdown winter of all time (14th April 2021, since you didn’t ask). So, the scene was set: was Park House going to be a surprise find, or a disappointment of The Dairy 2019 proportions? It was time to find out.

There are separate menus for breakfast and Sunday lunch, but the rest of the time Park House offers a relatively compact lunch and dinner menu – more compact than I thought, because for some reason the “Crafty Grill” section, offering burgers and hot dogs, wasn’t available. I think it’s also a Sundays only thing. So actually you have a nicely streamlined choice in front of you – less than half a dozen starters and eight mains, one of which is just a bigger portion of one of the starters. The use of “starters” and “mains” might give you the misleading idea that you can order them all at the same time to arrive at different times: don’t try this if you go there, because I just got a blank look and a polite request that you order as you go. Still, it beats the Wagamama approach of bringing anything out whenever they feel like it.

I should also add that everything is ultra-reasonably priced: most of the starters hover around the five pound mark and the vast majority of mains are less than a tenner. Laudably, they’re also trying to include calorie counts on their menu, although this seems to be a work in progress and I for one would rather they didn’t bother.

I really wanted to try the rarebit on the starters menu: Highmoor is one of Nettlebed’s finest cheeses and the thought of it bubbling away on Hobbs House sourdough – for a smidge over four pounds, into the bargain – was a delectable one. But sadly it wasn’t available, and although I was disappointed that they’d run out of either bread or cheese I was also pleased to see that they didn’t try and pass off something inferior instead.

The pick of the starters, anyway, were the smoked pork ribs. They were huge, irregular beasts that came away from the bone cleanly, and I loved the decision to give them a dry spice rub rather than slather them in sauce – so you got mustard seed, what I suspect was cumin and even some honey notes in there. They were served with a wonderfully light and clean coleslaw, and even here you could see the attention to detail, with crisp thin batons of apple and scarlet slices of chilli which added more colour than heat. Like the ribs, the coleslaw was better than it needed to be, and that’s always a winning quality.

I loved this dish, and at just under six pounds it was the kind of thing you could order just because you had a cold beer it would go perfectly with, or because the sun was out, or because it was a Monday. If only all bar food was like this. I loved it so much, in fact, that we ordered a second portion to come with our main courses: maybe there were advantages to ordering each course separately, after all.

The smoked cod croquettes were less successful, which was a pity because they leapt off the page as something I had to try. It was just weird that they came without breadcrumbs: the picture of this dish on Park House’s instagram shows the croquettes breaded, but these were lacking a coating and looked weirdly naked, as if they’d been skinned. And that had an impact in a couple of ways – it meant they didn’t have that lovely crunchy shell, but also it meant that when you cut them with a knife they sagged and deflated, like a sad party balloon.

It’s a pity, because the bones of the dish were good, with a nice whack of salt cod and a fresh and tangy tomato salsa (although again, it could have done with more heat from the chilli). Only afterwards did I realise that maybe the croquettes had no breadcrumbs for the same reason that the kitchen couldn’t serve rarebit. I daresay that if you order it, you’ll probably have better luck than I did.

Mains were uneven too but, as with the starters, the best of them showed real imagination. Confit duck salad, Zoë’s choice, was a beauty – partly because of the confit duck, which is never not good, but mostly because of what it was paired with. It could have given salad a good name, because it had so much going on – ribbons of carrot and radish for texture, segments of orange adding bright sweetness and a welcome scattering of edamame. It was all brought together by a fantastic dressing with plenty of aromatic sesame oil in the mix.

What this had in common with many great dishes from far more lauded restaurants was that every forkful could be slightly different from the last, but every bit as delicious. In an ideal world I’d have liked the duck leg to be ever so slightly bigger – so I could have tried more of it – but for less than nine pounds it was hard to fault.

I wish my fish and chips had been equally hard to fault, but it wasn’t to be. The best of it was the fish itself – beautifully cooked, the batter light, lacey and full of delicious crenellations. But the chips, which I’m pretty sure were bought in, were a little variable with a few grey patches that put me off them. There were peas, if you like that sort of thing: I don’t especially, but they were just fine. Tartare sauce was good, but there wasn’t anywhere near enough of it. And for that matter, lovely though the fish was, it was on the slender side for just over ten pounds. I couldn’t help but compare it with the colossal slab of fried leviathan you get at the Lyndhurst for eleven fifty (the Lyndhurst’s chips are miles better, too).

All in all, our meal – three starters, two mains and a pint and a half each – came to just under fifty pounds. It’s worth calling out the price of drinks in particular, too – our beers and ciders came in at around four pounds a pint, a mile away from the rarified prices you’d get in town at the Allied Arms or Blue Collar Corner.

So Park House isn’t the home run it could have been, but it was none too shabby all the same, with bags of potential. If you went there and just ate the ribs followed by the confit duck salad – Zoe’s order, but then she always picks well, present company excepted – you might well come away raving about the quality and the value. And if you went on a day when all their figurative ducks were in a row, the rarebit was on the menu and the croquettes hadn’t been flayed alive, you’d be counting the days until a return visit.

But I easily saw enough to persuade me to recommend it. The thought that had been put into the menu, the little touches in some of the dishes, the fact that they didn’t just knock up a rarebit with second-string ingredients – all of these things couldn’t help but endear me to the place. And it’s still one of the best spots, on a sunny weekend afternoon, to go with a paperback, get a drink, top up your tan and maybe accidentally-on-purpose order some ribs, because it beats yet another humdrum packet of Pipers Crisps. Are they the best bar snack in Reading? Quite possibly.

Park House – 7.3
Whiteknights Campus, University of Reading, RG6 6UA
0118 9875123

https://www.hospitalityuor.co.uk/bars-and-pubs/park-house/

Restaurant review: Tasty Greek Souvlaki

Last year, when I emerged from my cocoon and began reviewing takeaways, my first choice was Tasty Greek Souvlaki on Market Place, the thriving restaurant occupying the site where MumMum used to be. It was the natural choice: it was the first (and arguably the most interesting) new restaurant to open in 2020, and one which had quickly embraced delivery as its best chance to ride out an extremely challenging year in hospitality. So I ordered my first on duty takeaway from them, and very nice it was too (you can read about it here). 

Tasty Greek Souvlaki is essentially a carnivore’s paradise, and the menu largely revolves around different quantities of different dead animals cooked in different ways: do you want them cut into cubes, threaded on a skewer and cooked on charcoal, or would you rather go for something a little more primal like chops? Or is your preference to have them pressed into a magical revolving pillar of constantly grilled elephant leg which is then shaved off in thin slivers and fried until crispy? Would you like it in a pitta or a toasted sandwich, with or without chips?

Some people would treat that series of decisions as one disgusted shudder after another. Those people, to be honest, are unlikely to eat at Tasty Greek Souvlaki, although I’m told the falafel wrap is decent (if not massively Greek). Personally, I found it too difficult to choose for a very different reason: I kind of wanted it all, so when I ordered takeaway I went for their mixed grill platter, which gives you exactly that. It was an embarrassment of carnivorous riches, it was a wonderful way of being transported to the Mediterranean without leaving your sofa. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, a cardboard box absolutely crammed with every which kind of meat.

I loved it, and ever since then the Big Box Of Meat has been a regular fixture at my house – not too often, because I didn’t want to kill the magic, but every few months on a night when we couldn’t face the cooking. It was always hot, it always arrived quickly and it never let you down. And it cost something like twenty-six pounds, which was ridiculously affordable.

But it was bound to be far nicer in the restaurant itself, plucked from the grill, loaded on to a plate and brought to the table without delay, and so I’ve been looking forward to a proper on duty visit to Tasty Greek for a long old time. Last Saturday, Zoë and I turned up just after midday for an overdue reunion with possibly Reading’s finest meat feast.

The restaurant looks fetching inside, and they’ve done a good job with it. I don’t know how big the kitchen was when it used to be MumMum, but it must have been huge because with that taken out and the open kitchen along one wall the place is surprisingly spacious. It doesn’t feel like a place to linger, necessarily – a little like Bakery House – but then it isn’t that kind of restaurant anyway: no starters, mains and desserts here, really, and just a couple of Greek beers in the way of alcohol. But it’s a nice room, with a splash of Hellenic blue on the walls.

I sat outside, though, and I really liked their outside space. It’s all tables for two, and they’ve done that Parisian thing of putting the chairs side by side, looking out on Market Place. I suspect it’s just as popular with people drinking freddos and smoking cigarettes as it is with people having lunch, but having experienced both souvlaki culture and coffee culture in Athens I’d say it’s pretty authentic in that respect. It’s a great spot for people-watching, too: all things being equal, on a sunny day you could almost convince yourself that you’re somewhere else. We slurped on our cappuccino freddos – creamy, bitter, thoroughly Greek – and waited for our food to arrive. 

We ordered the mixed grill, as I’ve already said, but if you don’t want a symphony of grilled meats for two at a bargain price (it’s leapt up to twenty-eight pounds since last year) there are plenty of other ways to consume smaller, more discrete portions of dead animal. Pitas cost about six pounds, skepasti (toasted sandwiches) and merida (platters) are around eleven pounds; when I put it like that, perhaps you can see why the mixed grill looks like a good shout at fourteen quid a head. There are salads too, but if you’re going to a place called Tasty Greek Souvlaki and ordering a salad I’d probably class you as beyond help.

There’s only so much even I can say about a whole plate of grilled flesh, so let’s get straight to that. It was huge – so huge that it barely fitted on the table – and a fair amount of it was sitting on a glorious edible carpet of gyros meat, so however much food you thought you had turned out to be nowhere near the full amount. As we ate and ate, it didn’t feel like we made any inroads. And it can’t be denied that it really looked the part – just look at the picture and, unless you’re vegan or vegetarian, tell me that nothing about it makes you want to dive in.

And one thing I really like about Tasty Greek Souvlaki, when I ordered their takeaway and now, is that nothing is an afterthought. The pitta was beautiful fluffy stuff, perfect for wrapping up meat, chips or both and dipping in the tzatziki or the special sauce (which mainly reminded me of burger sauce). And the chips are really good: when I reviewed their takeaway I said they were good at making you feel like they make their own chips, even though I’m sure they don’t. And they were even better straight out of the kitchen – crispy, golden and flecked with oregano.

And yet, with the meats I wasn’t quite as bowled over as I expected to be. Over the last year or so I’ve become accustomed to ordering takeaway from restaurants where previously I’d have eaten in and mentally dialling down my expectations, knowing it wouldn’t be quite so good, quite so hot, quite so crispy, quite so fresh. With Tasty Greek Souvlaki I was expecting the same phenomenon in reverse, but in reality the gap between delivery and eating in was far, far narrower than I thought it would be. And in some cases that slightly exposed the limitations of the food.

So the souvlaki, for instance, taken straight from the grill without any excuses or mitigation, were a tad bland. The lack of marination showed that little bit more, the pork souvlaki in particular was slightly tough and the tzatziki had to do quite a lot of heavy lifting to make it interesting. The slab of pork belly looked decent, but in reality it lacked crispiness or caramelisation and I found, partly because of the sheer quantity of food, that I didn’t want to finish it. None of those things felt like they’d been especially seasoned, either.

It wasn’t all bad. The kofte, with a little more texture and depth of flavour, I rather liked.  And the village sausage – scored, butterflied, almost-charred on the outside – was very enjoyable: I worried it would be pink inside or homogeneous but it was one of the hits of the meal. The biggest irony is that I’m often suspicious of sausages on restaurant menus because of the mystery meat potential but Tasty Greek’s MVP, the thing it deserves to be famous for, is its gyros, the very epitome of mystery meat.

I said this last time, too, but it bears repeating – Tasty Greek’s gyros, and especially its pork gyros, is for my money far and away the best thing they do. Ribbons and shreds of chicken and pork, by turns tender, golden and brittle, dense with savoury flavour and absolutely unmissable. This was the thing I could eat morning noon and night, this is the reason to come back again and again. Tasty Greek Souvlaki? They should have called it Legendary Greek Gyros.

There was a salad, too, so I should probably mention that. It was undressed and perfectly decent if you like an undressed salad; I suppose it serves as some kind of calorie offsetting for certain diners, and I almost wish I was that kind of person. Our lunch for two came to something like thirty-two pounds, not including service, and the amount of food we got for that money was just about the right side of obscene. Service, by the way, was brilliant: bright and friendly throughout, and you got the clear impression that the restaurant was a very happy ship.

Tasty Greek Souvlaki has undeniably been an enormous success, and nothing I could possibly say in this review will detract from that. In the space of two years it’s gone from plucky newcomer to a genuine Reading institution, the kind of establishment that feels on some level like it’s always been there, like the space it’s in was always waiting to become what it is now, its best self. 

And I do honestly come not to bury it but to praise it. If my meal didn’t quite bowl me over the way I’d have liked it to, that’s also a tribute to just how well their food adapts for takeaway. None the less, it remains the perfect spot for a quick casual dinner over a bottle of Fix with friends, the sort of place you could go pre-gig or pre-theatre if you’re one of those people doing gigs and theatre now. In that niche, it easily holds its own against the likes of Honest and Pho, and it’s more affordable too. And for lunch on a summer’s day, picking up a pork gyros wrap and eating it in the Forbury is hard to beat: trust me, I’ve tried.

I would sound a slight note of caution, though. There’s never room for complacency in Reading’s restaurant scene, because someone is always waiting in the wings to open their doors, take your customers’ money and steal their hearts. The only people hungrier than restaurant-goers, it seems, are restaurateurs. And if you needed the perfect illustration of that, here it is: not long ago La’De Kitchen opened its first express branch on Market Place, literally opposite Tasty Greek Souvlaki. Another master of charcoal, another king of grilling in the centre of Reading. A falafel’s throw away, across the road.

Is this town big enough for the two of them? Let’s hope so. 

Tasty Greek Souvlaki – 7.5
20 Market Place, RG1 2EG
0118 3485768

https://tastygreeksouvlaki.com
Delivery via: Just Eat, Deliveroo, Uber Eats

City guide: Montpellier

I never expected to find myself in Montpellier last month, as spring finally came to everybody’s rescue. Initially I was booked for a trip back to Malaga, a regular stomping ground, for warmth, sunshine and the kind of relaxation that comes from going back to somewhere you know well – no disorientation, no spending the first day finding your bearings, just the ease and delight of good meals in familiar haunts and lazy walks down well-remembered streets.

Anyway, a couple of things happened. The first was that Malaga was hit by unseasonal torrential rain, and Europe’s sunniest city became a cocktail of downpours and Saharan sand. Every day we checked Dark Skies but the forecast for the week we were there resolutely refused to improve. Granted, we’d probably have spent a fair amount of time sitting in restaurants and bars but the prospect of not getting any vitamin D hardly appealed, especially as at the time the U.K. was bathing in something of a mini heatwave.

The second was that I remembered a conversation I’d had at my readers’ lunch last November in the Lyndhurst. I was freshly back from Malaga that weekend, as it happened, and I got chatting at one of the tables with Phil and Kath about city breaks and how much we’d missed them since the start of the pandemic. And that’s when Phil and Kath let me in on the secret of Montpellier. It was a city they’d discovered by accident, on a stopover from Bordeaux to Marseille, but on discovering it they fell accidentally in love.

Phil and Kath went most years, they told me, and the more they talked about it the more indelible my mental note became. They’d never had a bad meal, they said: everything was beautiful and the city was a maze of tiny old streets, alleyways, squares and cafés, perfect for getting gloriously lost. So the week before my holiday I idly checked flights and accommodation and found that Montpellier was both easy and affordable to get to: less than two hours, direct, from Gatwick. I’ve had an idea, I said to Zoë. Half an hour later, everything was booked.

I’m extremely grateful that Phil and Kath came to that readers’ lunch, because Montpellier was everything they promised and more – a gorgeous city with loads to see and do (although I scratched the surface of that, because there were restaurants, cafés and shops that needed my urgent attention). The old city, L’Écusson, is indeed a wonderful maze of little lanes and sidestreets, with a tempting boutique, little square or sun-dappled restaurant terrace around every corner. But I also loved Les Arceaux, the area we stayed in, a little neighbourhood in the shadow (literally and figuratively) of the impressive aqueduct that looms over the west of the city. On our first morning there we went the market held under its arches, and wandered almost in a euphoric trance from stall to stall, wondering what it must be like to have regular, easy access to all that cheese, charcuterie, olive oil, wine and cider.

I don’t normally talk about accommodation, but the place we stayed was so agreeable that I must. Les 4 Étoiles is a grand 1930s house in Les Arceaux, and although it’s owned by Pierre it has been in his family for generations. The piano in the dining room belonged to his grandmother (there’s a framed picture of her over it) and Pierre encourages guests to play it: I didn’t, but I did hear notes shimmering through the house more than once. And our room was a luxurious but calm space, with a giant bed you could sink into. It had a little balcony and every morning I went out and looked down on the street outside, ecstatic to be elsewhere and, I suppose, somewhat at peace.

Pierre – chic, soft-spoken and unbelievably polite – was the perfect host, and breakfast in the dining room every morning was a delight, with good coffee, great bread from the bakery round the corner, local honey, fruit salad and pastries which I chose to consider mandatory. Our fellow guests were a real mix – from France, from Germany and from Belgium – and once I’d apologised several times for the English we had some fascinating conversations. It was interesting to get a different perspective: although I might consider the political situation back home tragic and rage-inducing, they were mostly amused by it. I expected them to be glad to be shot of us, as a nation, but if anything they were sad, and more than a little bemused.

Anyway, I had a fantastic week eating, drinking, shopping and generally being a flâneur, taking pictures with my new camera and enjoying a proper break for the first time in what felt like a long time. The food and drink scene in Montpellier was too big for me to even scratch the surface in four days, but every time I ruefully recognised that I wouldn’t get to visit everywhere on my list I mentally nudged items onto a different list, marked Next time. So with all that said, here’s my list of places to eat and drink in Montpellier – if it’s even half as effective as Phil and Kath’s sales pitch was to me, I’ll have done them proud.

Where to eat

1. Reflet d’Obione

Reflet d’Obione, near the Botanical Gardens (which, incidentally, I highly recommend) was a suggestion from Pierre and I’m so glad we took him up on it because our dinner at this Michelin-starred restaurant was the best I’ve had this year, and for that matter one of the best I can ever remember. 

The Michelin Guide does such a bad job of selling the place that we nearly picked somewhere else. It says that it “unobtrusively reconciles gastronomy and gluten-free cuisine, cutting the levels of fat and sugar”. How dreary does that sound? But in reality, their nine course tasting menu was a magical experience. Everything was clever, precise and beautifully judged, each course was completely driven by the area and the seasons and the wine pairings – again, all of them local – were an absolute dream. We were in that hushed, conspiratorial space for something like four hours, the pause between every course just right, and I never felt rushed, turned or an inconvenience.

The good dishes were too many to mention, but the very best of them will stay with me for a long time. Chicken came served simply with salsify, but accompanied with a miniature tart made with offal and one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever tasted, a smoked chicken broth like an intensely savoury latte, the rim of the glass dusted with lapsang souchong. Fish with an orange blossom butter was a beautiful surprise, as was a lake of Vieux Rodez cheese with gnocchi and truffle.

I was struck that here, dishes used a few ingredients in different ways but without overcomplicating things, so different from the almost needy parlour tricks you sometimes see in the U.K.’s starred restaurants. My last Michelin starred meal in this country was at the Woodspeen, and I feel like I’m sullying Reflet d’Obione a little by even mentioning the two in the same paragraph.

Reflet d’Obione
29 rue Jean Jacques Rousseau
https://www.reflet-obione.com

2. Pastis 

Pastis, also Michelin-starred, is a simple but superb restaurant in the old city. I had lunch there, in a very tasteful dining room that I would say is possibly the most beautiful beige space I’ve ever seen, the acceptable face of taupe. The menu here’s a surprise one (no swaps, unless you have allergies) but every one of the surprises was joyous. My highlight here was a dish made with local duck, served simply – that less is more thing, again – but accompanied with a bread roll hollowed out, stuffed with coarse, herby confit duck and then liberally soaked with rich, sticky jus. I left full and happy (and slightly smudged, after also putting paid to a knockout bottle of white Corbieres).

Pastis
3 rue Terral
https://pastis-restaurant.com

3. Terminal #1

Street food’s yet to hit Montpellier in a big way – possibly because the regular food is simply so good, possibly because they have two rather grand food halls which meet that need. But out past the edge of the city, past an architecturally interesting area called Port Marianne (think Montpellier’s answer to Kennet Island, only more glam) you find the Marché du Lez, a gentrified street food market with lots of permanent traders. It’s sort of like Blue Collar Corner after a few hundred protein shakes. 

It feels like they built the infrastructure before the demand was there, because it was pretty empty when I visited, but just round the corner was the beautiful and buzzy Terminal #1 where I had an excellent lunch. It was worth it for the starter alone – a clean, almost mineral tuna tartare topped with avocado and what can only be described as the world’s best crisp, and an equally fine tuna tataki, only just seared on the outside. Lamb three ways – chop, slow-cooked shoulder and samosa, accompanied by a lavatorial smear of sauce – was less successful, but it was still well worth the trip out of the centre.

Terminal #1
1408 Avenue de la Mer
https://www.terminalpourcel.com/en/

4. Braise

On our last night, we headed out on Montpellier’s fantastic tram network to Beaux Arts, apparently the bobo suburb of the city. I didn’t get to see it in daylight (a great shame: apparently the street art is amazing) but I managed to eat at Braise, a restaurant and wine bar with over 500 different wines, an open kitchen and a wood fire.

And if not every dish completely hit the mark, the best of it was memorable: grilled, smoked mackerel with cauliflower purée and sharp little florets of pickled broccoli; short rib of beef cooked deftly, soft and indulgent with a nicely astringent coleslaw; a cheese course featuring some of the best Comte I can remember. This was simultaneously the smallest and busiest restaurant I visited, and a completely tourist-free zone, so this is the place for you if you want to try something more cutting edge.

Braise
42 Avenue Saint-Lazare
https://www.braise-montpellier.com

5. Le Bouchon Saint Roch

A recommendation from Phil and Kath, Le Bouchon Saint Roch was our choice for our first meal in the city. And it was a really good one – the restaurant practically glows on corner of a square in the old city, a warm inviting place it’s difficult to resist. Inside, the decor was a quirky celebration of pigs and pork in all their forms and the barrage of quirky French 80s pop had Zoë reaching for Shazam pretty much every four minutes.

The food was robust, earthy, unpretentious and absolutely perfect for the first night in a new city. I went to town on a very generous plate of charcuterie and then got stuck into a crumbly, almost-sweet boudin noir with a caramelised slice of apple. Dessert was all about the classics – a rich chocolate mousse loaded with cream and a rum baba so booze-soaked that even Zoë couldn’t handle it.

Le Bouchon Saint Roch
14 rue du Plan d’Agde
https://www.le-bouchon-st-roch-montpellier.com

6. JB & Co

A little hole in the wall on rue des Étuves with a solitary table outside, JB & Co is a great example of how to succeed in business doing just one thing very well. It’s all about the jambon beurre here, and all you have to choose is which bread you want and which of their hams you want in it. The bread, as everywhere in France, is phenomenal. The ham, prominently displayed and sliced wafer-thin for you, is a joy. And of course there are just enough sharp, crunchy cornichons to bring the whole thing together. Yours for something like five Euros, and a better lunch on the run is difficult to imagine: I chipped a filling eating mine, but it was still worth it. Afterwards, they brought out a coffee and a little piece of freshly baked cake for us on the house, a lovely little touch. 

Back in Blighty a couple of weeks later I picked up a jambon beurre from Pret on the run for my train. I always used to enjoy them, but Montpellier has ruined them for me.

JB & Co
17 rue des Étuves
https://jbandco.fr

7. Des Rêves et des Pain

Just at the edge of the old city, near Montpellier’s copy of the Arc du Triomphe, this bakery was my go-to for a morning pain au chocolat. A little place which currently only admits two customers at a time, the queue stretched up the street. But it was always worth joining – even compared to the pastries at breakfast this was next level, with world-beating buttery lamination. Everything in there was beautiful – cakes, pastries (sweet and savoury) and even the granola: if I’d had more room in my case, I’d have brought some home with me. Montpellier, like the rest of France, has the same density of good bakeries as London has Pret A Mangers. Where did it all go wrong for us?

Des Rêves Et Du Pain
10 rue Eugène Lisbonne
https://desrevesetdupain.com

8. Les Glaces MPL

Les Halles Laissac is one of Montpellier’s two covered markets, and although it has a plethora of food stands selling wine, charcuterie, cheese and all the good stuff I was drawn to Les Glaces MPL which sells profoundly good ice cream. A massive array of flavours is on offer, and I can personally vouch for the salted caramel and my personal favourite, a stunning black sesame ice cream. Zoë went for chocolate and Nutella, although I think she slightly envied my more leftfield choices. The big names also have a foothold in Montpellier – I saw a branch of Amorino on my travels in the city – but I’d pick this place any day.

Les Glaces MPL
Place Alexandre Laissac
https://www.lesglacesmpl.fr

Where to drink

1. O’Petit Trinque Fougasse

This was a brilliant spot for a few glasses of wine, some cheese and charcuterie and a spot of people watching, along with a welcome opportunity to rest our feet after an afternoon of retail therapy. There are something like four reds and four whites available by the glass, ranging from thoroughly decent to bloody marvellous, and the small plates include sliced saucisson with a mild hum of offal, a gorgeous burrata with pesto, all manner of local cheeses and of course the eponymous fougasse studded with olive, which is flaky, indulgent and worth the price of admission alone. For beer lovers there’s a wonderful shop a few doors down called Deli Malt which proved to be an invaluable introduction to Montpellier’s budding craft beer scene.

O’Petit Trinque Fougasse
12 Boulevard Ledru Rollin
https://www.trinquefougasse.com/petit/home

2. Latitude Café

Of all of Montpellier’s little squares, one of my favourites was the almost ludicrously beautiful Place de la Canourgue. It’s more about the square than the bars on it, but on my first night I had a marvellous time sitting outside Latitude Café with a glass of pretty anonymous red enjoying those first sights and sounds of somewhere new. It wasn’t the warmest of weeks in Montpellier, but I can imagine that once summer is in full swing this would be a beautiful place for a morning coffee or to while away an hour with a drink and a good book. I did hear more English (and yes, I’m afraid, American English) at neighbouring tables here than anywhere else, so bear that in mind if that’s not your thing.

Latitude Café
5 Place de la Canourgue

3. Le Réservoir

Many cities have some kind of craft beer scene, and the template is a well-trodden one: some big warehouse either in an industrial estate or near the docks, on the edge of town, usually requiring a taxi to get to (our own Double-Barrelled follows in that proud tradition). Le Réservoir is not quite like that. It’s on the outskirts of the city, and our Uber driver, who turned up in an impressively over the top lipstick-red Tesla, had never heard of the place. But it feels properly in the middle of nowhere, with the distinct whiff of agriculture from its neighbours. 

It’s relatively new – another example, like Marché du Lez – of being built in anticipation of the demand, rather than because of it. But inside it’s positively splendid, with twenty taps nearly all of which are devoted to local beer. The space is shared by two breweries – Brewing Bears, which does more conventional IPAs, and Sacrilege who specialise in mixed fermentation beers and saisons with all sorts of interesting fruit and weirdness going on. We tried a bit of both, and had a really fantastic afternoon doing it.

Le Réservoir
55 rue de Montels Saint-Pierre
https://www.instagram.com/lereservoirmontpellier/?hl=en

4. Le Discopathe

The walk from the old city back to our B&B went down Rue de Faubourg du Courreau, a scruffy, lively street reminding me of Waterloo’s Lower Marsh, and it quickly became one of my favourite parts of the city. Much of that was down to Le Discopathe, a vinyl and craft beer shop that sold records by day and served more of that excellent local beer by night. 

You grab a spot at one of the trestle tables outside, get yourself a pint of something hazy, a bière d’ici, and just enjoy that feeling of being part of a buzz and bustle bigger than you. Sacrilege and Brewing Bears are well represented, but I also had a beautiful IPA from Brasserie le Détour. We became regular visitors during our holiday, and it was one of the happiest places in a city full of happy places. Opposite is a fantastic-looking rotisserie which immediately made it to the top of my list of restaurants to try on my next visit.

Le Discopathe
28 rue du Faubourg du Courreau
https://lediscopathe.com

5. Couleurs de Bières Nord

To complete our little beer tour of Montpellier, Couleurs de Bières Nord is a lovely little bar. It’s opposite the exotically named Stade Philippidès, and there’s something about watching people running round the track that really puts you in the mood for a cold, crisp beer. The list here skews little more Belgian, but there were a couple of beers on tap by ZooBrew, (yet) another local brewery, and it made for a excellent pre-prandial spot.

Couleurs de Bières Nord
48 rue du Faubourg Saint-Jaumes
https://www.couleursdebieres.fr/front-page/cdb/nord

6. Café BUN

Cafe BUN was probably my favourite coffee place in Montpellier with a great spot just off Place de la Comédie and plenty of outside space for watching the world go by. It was the trailblazer (Montpellier’s answer to Workhouse, I suppose) opening in 2013 as the city’s first speciality coffee house, and I grew very fond of it during my trip. They roast their own coffee – I brought some home with me – and their latte was the nicest I had on my holiday. 

Café BUN
5 rue des Étuves
https://cafebun.fr

7. Coffee Club

I also enjoyed Coffee Club, a tiny place on rue Saint-Guilhem with a little space inside and a nice spot at the top of the hill. This felt a little more expat than Café Bun – it’s owned by a Brit, which may explain that – but it was still a really good choice if you wanted a morning off café au lait and to try something similar to coffee closer to home. Also worth mentioning, further down the hill, is the splendidly named Maisons Régionale des Vins et des Produits du Terroir, which has a faultless selection of local wine, beer and other delicacies so you can take a little bit of the Languedoc home with you when you leave.

Coffee Club
12 rue Saint-Guilhem
https://www.facebook.com/coffeeclubmontpellier/

8. Coldrip

Coldrip, on the northern side of the old city, is in another absurdly pretty little square and also gets plaudits online for its coffee. Having perched at a table outside I can completely understand why – my latte was wonderful, and Zoë reckoned her mocha (complete with a little ramekin of Chantilly cream) was up there with C.U.P.’s: high praise indeed.

The brunch menu owes more to Australia than France – lots of smashed avocado, halloumi and the like – and watching it turn up at other tables did test my resolve. But they had a crispy chicken burger on their specials menu that day and it turned out to be a perfect final day lunch, really nicely done with a deceptively tasty coleslaw full of brightness and crunch and a delightful seeded brioche bun.

Coldrip
4 rue Glaize
https://coldrip-food-and-coffee.business.site

Competition: Kamal’s Kitchen

I’m delighted to announce an ER readers’ competition in partnership with Kamal’s Kitchen.

I can probably count on the fingers of two hands the truly game-changing restaurants that have opened in Reading since I started writing Edible Reading. That’s probably a feature in itself – maybe I’ll write it to mark ten years of the blog – but without question Namaste Kitchen would belong on that list. When I visited it, back in 2017, I knew I had eaten somewhere so good that it changed the terms of reference for what it meant to be a good restaurant in this town.

Namaste Kitchen was one of those fantastic places where everything came together. Operating from the Hook and Tackle in Katesgrove, it was a pub that served great food rather than a gastropub, with a menu of Nepalese small plates that meant you could turn up and eat yourself into a coma or pick at the most incredible bar snacks while watching the football. And it was unapologetically Nepalese too, offering some dishes – like bara, spiced lentil pancakes, or pangra, fried gizzards – that you just couldn’t get elsewhere. It wasn’t watered down, and it was all the better for that.

The chef was amazing, but the icing on the cake was Kamal, the affable front of house who kept everything ticking. He always recommended new things, he always sounded surprised when you loved the food (and you always loved the food) and he always stopped you from ordering too much. That was Kamal in a nutshell, and it’s something so many restaurateurs get wrong: he was more interested in making sure you’d come back next time than he was in making shedloads of money out of you this time.

I’ve written about this before, but that dream team lasted less than a year. Kamal left Namaste Kitchen, the chef went back to Nepal and the restaurant raised its prices and installed a tandoor. A couple of years later, Kamal opened Namaste Momo on the border between Woodley and Earley, this time teaming up with an ex-Royal Tandoori chef. The early signs were good (and the momo were never less than excellent) but the menu, split between Nepalese and conventional Indian food, never quite felt like a cohesive whole. A couple of years later, Kamal left the business.

Anyway, fast forward to 2022 and Kamal has opened his own restaurant on the Caversham Road, next to Flavour Of Mauritius in part of the building where Standard Tandoori used to live. This time, he’s been brave enough to put his name on the door, and this time it’s a family affair: Kamal and his wife are in the kitchen, and Kamal and his equally charming daughter run the front of house. It’s a nice room – stripped back, serene, humble. It feels like this could be the place where Kamal realises the potential that has been there since the Namaste Kitchen days.

The menu goes back to the territory that made Namaste Kitchen great – a range of small plates, momo and chow mein, with a handful of curries and a good vegetarian section. Fans of the bara and chatamari from Namaste Kitchen will find them here too. But there are also some new, really interesting dishes – deep fried lamb breast on the bone, for example, or a truly delectable pork dish with choy sum in a wonderful sauce that totally carries you along with it.

There are also some really interesting touches. On my visit, Kamal served sekuwa made with venison from the farmer’s market, and another beautiful venison dish almost like a tartare, clean, delicate and with a hint of game. If either of those ends up on the menu as a special, you should try them. But I was also very happy to be reunited with the tried and tested – the paneer pakora were as good as I remembered, the chutney fresh, zingy and spiky with heat. Equally delicious was the lamb sukuti, a crunchy plate of umami and spice which I could happily demolish multiple times in any given week.

The biggest surprise, for me, is an unassuming dish you could easily miss. Thhicheko Aalu is described on the menu as “potatoes fried, pressed and tossed with special sauce”. But that just doesn’t do them justice. Forget double cooked or triple cooked chips, this is close to the pinnacle of potato dishes – burnished and caramelised on the outside, all crinkly edges, yet soft and fluffy inside, the whole thing coated in a spice mix that contains a little bit of something like mouth-numbing Szechuan pepper. I’ve not tasted anything quite like this, and it has the makings of an instant classic. I was torn between wanting to know exactly how they did it, and preferring to keep the magic and mystique firmly intact.

That’s quite enough from me, so let’s talk about the competition. First prize is a meal for four people including drinks, up to a maximum value of £120. A runner-up will win a meal for two people, including drinks, up to a maximum of £60. That potato dish is £6, so alternatively you could turn up and keep ordering that until you’re full (that’s what I’d be tempted to do).

All you have to do is this: write me up to 250 words on the Reading institution you miss the most and why. It doesn’t have to be food-related (although it might well be) but this is your chance to wax lyrical about anything from the past, whether it’s the 3Bs, Mya Lacarte, 80s night at the After Dark, the “lovely hot doughnuts, nice and fresh” announcement, the crispy squid man at Blue Collar or even this blog, back in the days before it vanished up its arse. Knock yourself out! Email your entry to me – ediblereading@gmail.com – by 11.30am on Friday 15th April.

As always, to ensure impartiality I don’t judge the competitions myself. And this time I’ve managed to get a big name on board: fresh from her announcement about Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen’s forthcoming move to Caversham, Nandana Syamala has agreed to judge this one. Nandana, along with her husband Sharat, runs one of Reading’s most treasured culinary institutions, and I can’t think of anyone better to read all your entries about Reading institutions you have loved and lost.

Entries will be sent to Nandana anonymously and the results will be announced on Friday 29th April. And as always the judge’s decision is final: no correspondence will be entered into. Don’t forget, Nandana has only lived in Reading for four years, so this is your chance to make her envious of some of the Reading gems she may never have experienced! Thanks again to Kamal’s Kitchen for its generosity with the prizes and best of luck to you if you decide to enter this one. I’ll be back next Friday with another feature for you, before normal service resumes and I review some more restaurants. See you then.