I get a fair few requests to recommend somewhere to eat in Reading. And when I do, I can usually come up with something: if you tell me how central it needs to be, your budget, what kind of food you like and how many of your party are vegans, or vegetarians, or coeliacs, I can find you somewhere suitable. It’s very rare that I’m completely stumped.
But there is an exception to that, which I suppose you could best describe as the Special Occasion Restaurant. It used to be called fine dining, before that phrase became a term of abuse. But special occasion restaurant probably sums it up better – somewhere you want to go to spoil yourself, or treat someone, or celebrate anniversaries, birthdays, engagements or exam results. Yet even describing it that way makes me realise what a niche and endangered species it might be.
The thing is, a lot of restaurants can make an occasion feel special. It’s what they’re meant to do – the good ones, anyway. And isn’t special occasion dining a concept that has outlived its usefulness, as eating out becomes a special occasion, full stop? After all, we’ve staggered through two and a bit years of Bad Times, and summer has come to an end just in time for Even Worse Times to hove into view. I mark a special occasion these days by bunging the central heating on.
That said, it’s too early to say whether the latest coming storm will hit all of hospitality, or whether parts of the sector will fare better than others. Casual dining might be protected, in terms of demand, although it will have less of a buffer against rising costs. Chains may have enough of a war chest to see them through, as they did in the pandemic. But what about the top end? Is this a luxury people will forego, or will people ring-fence those kinds of meals? I imagine many restaurants, both new and well-established, are asking themselves those questions with some anxiety, especially with their peak trading period a month away.
I have to say, though, that even before the pandemic Reading never really boasted that sort of restaurant. In the town centre, the closest we had were places like Forbury’s (which, back when it was good, was very good), Cerise and London Street Brasserie. Only the latter is still going, although it’s not always felt quite special enough, I think. Further out of town we had Mya Lacarte which, in its early years, was terrific but faded away and closed. And I suppose we have Thames Lido. The location is special, if nothing else.
So for that kind of meal, people have always gone further afield – to London, which isn’t far in the scheme of things, or to one of the pretty pubs between here and London that trouble the Michelin and the Good Food Guides. Or out Henley way, for dinner at somewhere like Orwell’s: not Henley itself, mind you, as its upmarket restaurant Crockers closed its doors for the last time last month. “People won’t pay for fine dining but restaurants like Côte Brasserie do really well here” said the owner. “I have never been so badly disrespected as I was in Henley”: someone’s not going to get tapped up by the tourist board any time soon.
So where do I recommend, these days? Well, my go to used to be the Miller Of Mansfield in Goring – very pretty, terrific food and accessible by train if you all want to drink – but then it closed at the start of January (cause of death: greedy landlord, as usual). Since then I’ve struggled a bit, telling people there are better options further afield; the last time someone asked me, I suggested Goat On The Roof.
So that’s the thinking behind this week’s review – could Maidenhead’s Seasonality be a suitable option? The compact family-owned restaurant, run by husband and wife team Wesley and Francesca Smalley, got a rave review in the Guardian back in July and that, combined with the short sample menu on their website, made it look like an intriguing prospect. I never need much persuasion to hop on the Elizabeth Line, stopping only for a pre-prandial pale at A Hoppy Place, so I booked a table for Friday night with some anticipation. Could I finally find somewhere of a standard similar to places like Marmo and Caper & Cure without having to trek over to Bristol?
Seasonality was a short walk from the train station and, at first glance at least, was pretty unassuming. The dining room’s best feature were the big windows that I imagine let plenty of light in, but by nightfall, without that glow, the place was neutral and a little spartan. The only exception to the muted furniture was a weird-looking marble bar area, a little like a kitchen island, where you could perch side by side on bar stools and stare at the wall together: they tried to seat us there but I politely asked if perhaps we could have a conventional table instead.
The evening improved from there, and Seasonality do one thing of which I approve heartily, seating couples at adjacent corners rather than opposite one another so you both get a good view of the space. The place was quiet when we arrived, but by the end of our meal every table was occupied (except that weird kitchen island – another couple was seated there but made a break for a real table the moment one became vacant).
“It’s a bit dark” said Zoë, who is always better at critiquing the decor than I am. “I don’t understand why none of the lights are on over the window seats.”
The menu was a mixed bag – attractive but small. Based on the name (not a huge fan of the name, incidentally) I imagine the menu changes at least four times a year but I hope they tinker with it more frequently than that because otherwise it has decidedly limited replay value. Three starters, three mains, three desserts. A few snacks to start you off and a couple of sides. Starters just under a tenner, most mains twenty-five quid, desserts the same price as the starters. That’s your lot.
On the plus side, that means that in this review you’ll read about the majority of what was on offer, but the minus is that if you enjoy the delicious agony of narrowing it down, or if you’re a vegetarian or a vegan, or find that the menu happens to contain one of your flat-out no-nos this might not be for you. I gave Zoë the first pick of each course, because manners, and I was delighted that in at least one case she went for the option I fancied least, giving me at least the illusion of choice.
The wine list was small and perfectly formed too – something like four reds and four whites, maxing out at forty quid. Ironically this is an area where I often think less is more, so I was happy with that and our bottle of Morgon, which was about thirty two pounds, had plenty of fruit and just enough about it to bridge the gap between the mains we went for. But before all that we started with a couple of things from the “snacks” section of the menu. The bread was lovely: two quadrants of a little loaf, still warm from a little gentle toasting and spot on with a pat of cultured butter (from Ampersand, who used to supply butter to Geo Café).
Better still was the other snack – sheets of lardo dotted with figs, grapes, sunflower seeds and micro herbs. This was the moment when I realised the evening would be nothing if not interesting. The salty whack of that lardo tempered and toyed with by a whole palette of other flavours and influences – the bright sweetness of fruit, the freshness of little leaves of mint – was a true delight, and unlike anything else I’ve tried this year. Besides, look at it: it’s like an edible Kandinsky.
More fascination was to follow, not least because Zoë’s starter, which I’d dismissed as very much not my bag, knocked it out of the park. “Tunworth Cheese Soup” hadn’t appealed to me – a soup, made of cheese? – but more fool me: what turned up was a soothing bowl of lactic lusciousness, comforting but not too heavy, scattered with the crunchiest croutons and finished with verdant spots of olive oil. I used to have a friend who said she never ordered soup in a restaurant because every mouthful was exactly the same. Ordinarily I would have agreed with her, but with this masterpiece that was rather the point.
By comparison my starter felt like a good idea not executed right. On paper a potato and Jerusalem artichoke fondant with mushroom ketchup sounded right up my alley, but the flavours and textures of this dish were out of whack. Maybe it was the balance of the potato and the artichoke, but the whole thing had an oddly spongey feel to it without any crunch or crispness. The outside had no upside.
That made it feel a bit like a vegetarian fishcake, and there was nowhere near enough umami punch from the underpowered mushroom ketchup to lift it. Only the fennel, which I thought might be pickled, broke up the beige and reminded me of Bristol’s lovely Caper & Cure where I last had it. The starter we didn’t try was bergamot cured trout with oyster custard: only three options on the menu and I’d picked the wrong one.
Mains reassured me that my starter was a blip. Mine was a beautifully cooked piece of hake topped with tightly curled, muscular brown shrimp and served on top of a ribbolita of coco beans, croutons and cavolo nero – more broth than sauce but still absolutely bewitching stuff. I thought I detected more of that fennel chucked into the mix, which I found a little strange – the dish didn’t need it and with a menu so small it seemed odd to have duplication.
Similarly the “Cookham greens” we ordered as a side – a tranche of cabbage a bit like a hot wedge salad – was drizzled with a dressing or sauce that looked very similar to the one that had adorned my starter. But even with those minor quibbles, the hake was a great dish. Could I think of anywhere in Reading that served food like this? Not really.
Zoë’s main showed more of that imagination and skill and again, had one truly impressive component. Venison was really nicely done, although pairing it with radicchio made it feel, and look, surprisingly insubstantial. But what saved the day was the other element of the dish, a bowl of salty, savoury, spiced venison keema topped with – another genius touch – something called “crispy potato” which, to me, had the feel of puffed rice (unless of course it was meant to be puffed rice, in which case the potato had gone AWOL).
The forkfuls of this I was allowed might have been my absolute high point of the meal, yet even so those two separate parts, the fillet and the keema, didn’t cohere into a single dish so in that sense, enthralling though it was in places, it didn’t entirely work. Seasonality does a set lunch Wednesday to Friday for a ridiculously reasonable £18 and when I last checked it included a roe deer keema pie and hispi cabbage: now that I could eat every week for the rest of my life.
The wine list included a few dessert wines so once we’d finished our mains and our bottle of red we grabbed a Sauternes and a Pedro Ximenez (both impeccable) and ordered dessert. Again, Zoë had first choice and again she chose better – a slab of cake studded with hazelnuts, surrounded by a moat of deep chocolate sauce and crowned with a sphere of smooth, indulgent nut butter ice cream was just a superb plate of food. I wouldn’t necessarily thank you for a sticky toffee pudding but I might well beg you for one of these.
Despite seeing them mangled on Bake Off the other week (they’re a favourite of Brexiteer ghoul Prue Leith) I didn’t really fancy îles flottantes so I opted for the other option – the vicissitudes of a tiny menu again – the crème brûlée. Now, I must say that this is something I almost never order because I can nearly always find something I’d rather eat.
It’s a blessing that I did, though, because it was the nicest I’ve had in ages. It had perfect texture, a wonderful note of tonka and a little freshness from the fig leaf – so much more to it than plain old vanilla – and a caramelised lid with a perfect snap and a wonderful burnt sweetness. I’d forgotten how enjoyable that first tap of the spoon can be, and everything that comes after. I also liked the palmier unceremoniously dumped on top of it but, again, it didn’t really go and felt like two desserts uneasily merged into one.
I haven’t talked much about service, but it was good and friendly if perhaps slightly lacking in polish. Little things like not taking cutlery away, or not bringing it out, along with just a general feeling that they were very agreeable but slightly on the green side. At one point the chef came out and talked to a few tables, which was wonderful to see, and I got the impression that a fair few of Seasonality’s customers are regulars. I can see why, too.
Our bill – for four courses, a bottle of wine and a couple of dessert wines – came to a hundred and seventy pounds, which included a twelve and a half per cent service change. Grace Dent’s review in the Guardian said that a meal including drinks and service at Seasonality costs around forty pounds a head: either prices have rocketed in just over three months, or Grace Dent is on mushrooms. I know which my money’s on.
So does Seasonality do enough to become a serious prospect for Reading residents wanting to treat themselves? Yes and no. There are a fair few things in the latter column. The service needs more polish, the room is a little unspecial. The narrowness of the menu is going to be a big problem for some people, and I saw lots of little quirks that need ironing out – dishes that didn’t completely work, or didn’t come together, a certain amount of duplication which felt jarring across such a small menu.
Yet despite that Seasonality has a real charm and real skill that thoroughly won me over and made me want to come back sooner rather than later. There is imagination and talent on display in spades across that menu – in that phenomenal lardo dish, in the depths of that Tunworth soup, in my majestic hake or Zoë’s wonderful hazelnut cake. Those real highs, those fireworks, make me think that it would definitely do you a turn if you wanted to go somewhere different to celebrate – especially if you were getting there by train.
So although it’s not yet the finished article, I think Seasonality has more than enough showstoppers and jawdroppers to merit a visit. I keep thinking about the very best of what we had and trying to imagine anywhere in Reading that can quite match it, and the answer is that I can’t. The high points reminded me far more of places in Bristol than in Reading, and anybody that reads the blog will know how much of a compliment that is. So I will be recommending this a lot in future, because it proves something I’ve long suspected. You don’t need a special occasion to eat at some restaurants. Some restaurants are the special occasion in their own right, all by themselves.
Seasonality – 8.7
26 Queen Street, Maidenhead, SL6 1HZ