Feature: The 2022 Edible Reading Awards

Well, we all made it through Christmas. Presents were wrapped, unwrapped and hopefully loved, fingers crossed receipts were not required. Drink was taken, if that’s your thing, and chocolate and cheese were eaten – not together, let’s not go crazy – and now it’s both sort of Friday and sort of no day at all. This is that final smudge of the calendar when time loses all meaning, whether you’re at work or not, and the only milestone left is New Year’s Eve. 

And après ça, le deluge: the diet, the budget, the unrealistic resolutions. So in the immortal words of none other than Peggy Lee, if that’s all there is let’s break out the booze and have a ball. 2022, the year of soaring bills and three prime ministers, like a shit set of Russian dolls where each one, inexplicably, was as bad as the last. Soon it will be gone, but probably not missed.

This is my first annual awards since 2019 and I’d forgotten how enjoyable they are to put together. It’s fun to remember all the great food you’ve eaten over the past twelve months and to celebrate, even if only in your head, just how much Reading has to offer. But it’s agonising too, because picking just the one winner and a couple of honourable mentions makes for extremely hard choices and means you have to leave out lots of really gorgeous plates of food. 

To give you an idea how difficult this was, here’s a selection of the dishes I just couldn’t find space for: Intoku’s unbeatable crispy squid, and the pork ribs at Park House, the perfect beer snack. Kungfu Kitchen’s epic sweet and sour aubergine, ThaiGrr’s divine fried chicken and Smash N Grab’s MacBook Pro burger didn’t get a look in. I had no room for the beautiful fried lamb momo at Momo 2 Go or their siblings at Sapana Home, couldn’t squeeze in Monkey Lounge’s excellent burger or Clay’s Kitchen’s village lamb. I nearly put in a Best Breakfast category too, just so I could mention Dee Caf.

So if you think I got these wrong, and on the law of averages you probably do, just bear in mind that it isn’t easy. In every category bar one my decision was exceptionally tough, and on another day each could have gone another way. So by all means disagree, but let’s celebrate the fact that there’s so much scope to disagree. We have a lot of strength in depth here in the biggest town in the U.K., and if nothing else I hope we can say the same when 2023 also draws to an end.

After this I shall take a couple of weeks off, but I’ll be back in the New Year with more of the same. 2023 will be a significant milestone in the blog as in August I’ll mark ten – yes, ten – years of doing this. Any ideas how I should celebrate? Anyway, without further ado, let’s get in to the nitty gritty of the particular ways in which I’ve called these categories wrong and who’s been robbed this year. Make sure you’re sitting comfortably, and let the dissenting begin!

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Thhicheko aalu, Kamal’s Kitchen

It was, in fairness, love at first sight; the first time I tried this potato dish at Kamal’s Kitchen in the spring I knew that I’d never eaten anything quite like it and that I would do so again many times before the year was out. These are discs of fried, pressed potato, textural perfection, covered in a potent but anaesthetising spice mix and I have evangelised about them to pretty much anyone and everyone all year. They’re actually simple and unadorned – no dip, no chutney, just a little extraneous salad – and yet this variation on the humble spud has a seemingly infinite variety.

Kamal served them at my readers’ lunch at Kamal’s Kitchen in the summer and they weren’t at their very best – having to cook a giant batch of them for nearly 40 people probably has that effect – and I started to worry that I’d got it wrong, like when you recommend your favourite novel to a friend and they hate it (Louise Williams, Excellent Women, circa 2010, since you asked). But it was a blip, and every time I’ve had them since has felt like coming home. In a year full of wonderful new gastronomic experiences, when I was starting to get jaded enough to feel I’d seen everything, this was one of my favourites.

Honourable mentions go to the Lyndhurst’s karaage chicken, another dish I have eaten far more times this year than I’d admit to my GP, and the unbelievable gobi Manchurian at Clay’s Kitchen. It’s a dish you think you’ve had and loved, and then you eat Clay’s version and realise all the others were pale imitations.

CHAIN OF THE YEAR: Shree Krishna Vada Pav

In a year when chains seemed better positioned to ride out the coming storm I was delighted when Shree Krishna Vada Pav opened on the Kings Road. It came with plenty of hype from the London food media, but this was a world apart from our other London arrivistes like Pho and Honest. I went and although it was a bit scruffy and crowded I thought it was an absolute riot. So it gets the award from me this year, for being every bit as enjoyable as The Coconut Tree, which opened the previous year, was disappointing. Next year we’re getting Popeyes and who knows what other horrors, but places like SKVP are vital for showing that there are chains and chains.

Honourable mentions go to the two arrivistes I mentioned earlier. Because say what you like about Pho and Honest, but if all chains were like them Reading in particular would be a much better place – although one in which it would be a lot harder to support independent businesses.


It was a happy day when I went to Madoo on duty, but my love for the place was a slow burner that grew as the year went by. Their toasted foccacia are lovely, their cannoli are great but most importantly, something about the place feels special. You honestly don’t feel like you’re in Reading, helped no doubt by the amount of Italian being spoken in there, the Eurohits on the radio and the general feeling of otherness. I popped in on Boxing Day for lunch and was just absolutely delighted to find they were open. Madoo isn’t perfect – the coffee could be better, the occasional toastie feels rushed and they still do that greasy napkin under the sandwich thing that drives me crackers – but sometimes you love something for its imperfections. For my sake I hope so, anyway.

Honourable mentions go to the gorgeous Cairo Café, which I loved but haven’t visited anywhere near enough this year, and Blue Collar. The original and best, rather than their fancy new place, because I’m a sentimental soul.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Monkfish with Bombay potatoes, the Lyndhurst

My brother visited from Australia in the spring, after a badly-timed visit in March 2020 was curtailed by the pandemic. And when I asked him if there was anywhere he wanted to eat while he was here, he had one request: the Lyndhurst. “Your photos always make it look amazing” he said, and so we booked a long leisurely midweek lunch there. And this dish, tender monkfish on a flattened cake of crushed, spiced potatoes with a bright green coriander and mint chutney, made me both ecstatic and proud of my local. We both ordered it, we both loved it. Like everything that the Lyndhurst does, it was a perfect plate – everything you needed was there, nothing more and nothing less. I had it a couple more times before they took it off the menu and every time it looked slightly different, was slightly better, because they never stop improving things. But I never forgot my first.

Honourable mentions go to Papa Gee’s pizza Sofia Loren, every bit as much a legend as the woman herself, and to Kungfu Kitchen’s deep fried fish in spicy hot pot. The latter is possibly Zoë’s favourite dish in the whole of Reading, but she usually lets me have some. My brother also wanted to eat at KFK so we went there on his last day in the country. He left full, deliriously happy and thoroughly bedazzled by Jo: the gold standard full KFK experience.


I so loved Seasonality. Having been to lots of restaurants a little like it nowhere near Reading, and constantly asking the question “why doesn’t Reading have anywhere like this?” it was a huge relief to find that at least there was somewhere like it, fifteen minutes down the Elizabeth Line. A compact, clever menu with plenty going on, prices that weren’t crazy – especially if you go at lunchtime – and some dishes that were just unlike anything I’d tried. I still think about the lardo dish in the picture below, and that was just in the nibbles section. I’ll be back there before too long.

Maidenhead also has the gorgeous Miyazaki, one of my favourite discoveries of the year and a true understated, classy little place. And another honourable mention, on the other side of Berkshire, has to go to Goat On The Roof where I had a terrific and eminently boozy dinner earlier in the year. My friend Graeme still goes on about the chocolate mousse I allegedly didn’t let him have.


I found this really difficult because I frequent two cafés in town, C.U.P. and Workhouse. But going to the C.U.P. on Blagrave Street, having their unbeatable dark chocolate mocha and gazing out of the window, or sitting outside in warmer weather, is one of my favourite contemplative things to do. It is, and I can tell you this from personal experience, a great place to watch people running the Reading Half Marathon. And it just about wins out over Workhouse by virtue of being a bit comfier, having better outside space and actual mobile phone reception. 

I do still love Workhouse though, and their latte has a special place in my heart (literally, I fear). An honourable mention also goes to Compound Coffee who not only do beautiful coffee but, uniquely in Reading, are open past six on account of being part of the Biscuit Factory.


I mean, it got the best rating I’ve ever given out for a reason. More than usual it feels a bit reductive to talk about it rather than just to say read the review but you’ve all got busy lives and maybe you’ve read the review already. Wilsons served me one of the best meals I can remember in my restaurant-going life, with so many elements and components, so much cleverness but no wanky trickery and no stinginess either. Other restaurant reviewers might bleat on about how it deserves a Michelin star, I’d just say that those accolades are nearly as worthless as the award I’m giving out now. But if you’re ever in Bristol at lunchtime or of an evening, I cannot imagine a world in which you’d regret going there.

Sadly there can only be one winner, but in any other year Bristol’s Caper & Cure would romp home with this title. Them’s the breaks. An honourable mention also goes to Oxford’s Magdalen Arms – I was there for a properly magnificent boozy lunch the weekend before Christmas Eve and can confirm that their chicken and mushroom pie is every bit as heavenly as the steak and ale one they do.


Buon Appetito was a happy place for me this year. If the sun was even remotely out when we’d finished work on a Friday or Saturday and if one of us could even remotely persuade the other that we couldn’t be arsed to cook, you would find us on the terrace there – me with an Aperol spritz, Zoë with a negroni and both of us with a big grin. I bumped into other ER readers there more than once and once, in a surreal turn of events, my nextdoor neighbours. 

And the food there is great – more on that in a second – and it does have a certain Balearic feel when you’re bathed in sunlight listening to music on the speakers, but what really makes it for me is the service. Zoë said to me that they work hard for every single cover and every single pound they get, and I think that’s true. But there’s more to it than that. The ease, the charm and the ensemble there is at the top of its game in a way I don’t remember experiencing since the golden age of Dolce Vita. Praise doesn’t come much higher.

Speaking of high praise, an honourable mention has to go to Kamal’s Kitchen, where Kamal is thoroughly affable and his daughter Kritika (who works there alongside studying for her degree) is an absolute natural at front of house. And I also have to mention Kungfu Kitchen, another family business. Nobody who’s had Jo looking after them forgets it in a hurry, but in her husband Steve and her two boys she has a formidable – and effortlessly charming – brigade.

DESSERT OF THE YEAR: Pistachio tiramisu, Buon Appetito

When I first tried this it was a special, just something they were trying. A tiramisu with pistachio cream and pistachio crumb crumbled on top. And I thought, well, it sounds interesting. But it wasn’t interesting, it was compelling. I love pistachio, I love tiramisu, it had never occurred to me to combine the two. Every time I went I asked if it was still on the specials, gladly every time I went it was and eventually it graduated to the main menu. And in all the times I’ve eaten it, or taken friends and said “you have to try this” it has never disappointed.

No honourable mentions in this category. I had some fantastic desserts on my travels but when it came to Reading, I only had eyes for the pistachio tiramisu.


When I first ate at Kamal’s Kitchen, I said something to him that might have sounded a little harsh. I said that Namaste Kitchen, his first restaurant, had been amazing but that he took too long to pop up again at Namaste Momo. And Namaste Momo, though its best dishes were great, was too inconsistent, too much of a mixed bag of Nepalese food and bog standard dishes you could pick up in Royal Tandoori. And then he left Namaste Momo and again, was dormant too long.

This is your big chance, I said to him, to make your mark and have the kind of restaurant you’ve always threatened to run. I’m glad you have your name above the door this time, I told him. I told him not to blow it, because this was his chance to be the fourth restaurant people talk about outside Reading. For all that we love our little bubble and the array of tempting options here there are three restaurants with reach outside our town: Clay’s, Kungfu Kitchen and the Lyndhurst. Your job, I told Kamal – he’d probably tuned me out by then – is to become the fourth place on that list.

Has he done it? Put it this way: he’s made an excellent start. Kamal’s Kitchen is a modest, unassuming room and nobody would describe it as a plum location but he is slowly, quietly and modestly building something rather brilliant. I’ve eaten there several times this year and each time the food is a little bit more assured, more superb. There are things I always order, because they’re unmissable, but slowly and surely I’m trying the rest of the menu and so far it has that breadth of excellence I remember from the Eureka moment when I first ate at Namaste Kitchen, over five years ago. I can’t think of a more deserving winner this year, even if he does know who I am.

Honourable mentions go to the excellent Cairo Café, which has the misfortune to be good enough to contend for all of these awards without quite winning any of them, and Intoku. If they sort the service, and based on my visit they really need to, they could redefine Japanese food in Reading.


This is a neat symmetry – back in 2019 I gave the Lyndhurst Newcomer Of The Year, three years on they win Best Picture, so to speak. I have eaten out so much more this year than I did in the previous two, and it’s been like waking up from a terrible dream remembering how much I love food and restaurants, eating, drinking, company and people watching. 

But so many of my most treasured moments this year have been made by the Lyndhurst – whether that’s lunch with my long-lost brother, over from the other side of the world, or lunch with my dad, or just a post-work dinner with Zoë because it’s curry night and our designated meal in the fridge suddenly looks nowhere near good enough. I’ve eaten there with good friends the night before setting off on holiday, I’ve even gone there and had lunch on my own on a random Saturday when Zoë’s working.

And I’ve had so many beautiful dishes – from their legendary nachos and Korean chicken wings to specials like confit duck, or rabbit stuffed with liver and wrapped in prosciutto. People who just look at their burgers, their curry nights and their Sunday roasts could easily miss the truth about the Lyndhurst: it’s an extremely accomplished kitchen which is always innovating. If they don’t have the reputation they should, for some of the best, most interesting and best value food Reading has ever had, it’s because they are so damned modest about it. And the times I’ve been there and they’ve said those magic words – we have the skate wing on specials – have made my month, without fail, every single time.

The first ER readers’ lunch of 2023 will take place at the Lyndhurst, just after payday at the end of the longest, drabbest month of the year, a month synonymous with self-improvement and privation (and, mostly, attempted self-improvement through the medium of privation). I can’t think of a better place to have it. It will only be the end of January, but from that meal onwards I’ll know that spring is on its way.


2022: The Year In Review

Remember when years used to be, you know, normal? Me neither, but the fact remains that 2022 has been a little closer to what we used to consider normality than the couple of years that preceded it. 2020 was the year of the pandemic, of lockdowns and contact tracing, takeaways and tiers. And 2021 was the year of oh-no-it’s-still-the-pandemic, but one where some of us took more risks, got on more trains and planes and ate in more restaurants. The year when most of us got jabbed and double jabbed, showed off our stickers like brave soldiers.

And this year? Well, it’s not like 2019 was but it’s closer to it than we’ve been for a fair old while. In 2020 we watched Matt Hancock stand at a podium and tell us we couldn’t go to restaurants, in 2022 we watched him sit on a stool somewhere in distant Australia and eat genitalia on primetime television. How things change: two years can feel like an eternity, in some circumstances.

And yet there are still echoes of the past; I read in the news this week that Covid is sweeping through China again, with case numbers through the roof. We could be back in winter 2019 in no time, and as someone who started the year with a partner not long ago discharged from the Royal Berks – exhausted, fragile and injecting blood thinners twice a day – I’m desperately keen not to go back to anything even remotely like that.

The other bit of the wider picture this year, of course, is the cost of living. Rampaging inflation and energy prices have squeezed everybody, from gas bills to supermarket shops, and after the damage done to hospitality by Covid – and our botched recovery from it – another crisis was the last thing our cafés, restaurants and pubs needed. Industrial action on public transport, preventing some people from getting into town centres when retail and hospitality hope to earn much of their money for the year, must feel like the final straw.

This is all very gloomy on the brink of Christmas Eve, isn’t it? I’m sorry, let’s rein that in. And actually if there’s one feature that all my annual roundups seem to share it’s being cautiously pleased that the year just gone hasn’t been so bad, accompanied by dire predictions that next year will be awful. So far I’ve been wrong, and I’d very much like to be proved wrong again this time round. So far despite rising rents, falling footfall, rising prices and those Covid loans kicking in Reading has lost far fewer restaurants than you might expect: fingers crossed that’s the shape of things to come.

We did lose a few, though. The Aila, whose opening I talked about back in 2020 in a site I described as cursed, closed recently and a supermarket has opened in its place. Chipstar, which opened almost a year ago to the day, closed before reaching its first birthday: many of us never got to try the place, but they’ve definitely had their chips all the same. And Friar Street’s Raayo, which also opened in late 2020, closed in June. I managed to get there before they did, and I rather liked their pulled pork, but conditions are tough out there. The lunch market is particularly challenging when people aren’t working in town during the week.

Other 2022 closures were almost more symbolic in their significance. Pizza Hut, which had been part of the Oracle since the Oracle first opened its doors, closed in September. And I’m not sure anyone was devastated, but somehow it, like Woolworths and Debenhams, represented something bigger than itself, a sea change in how and where people like to spend their money (is McDonalds now the only remaining survivor from the Oracle’s opening day? Answers on a postcard).

We also said goodbye to Cozze on the Caversham Road roundabout, in another site that can’t seem to hold down a tenant. I’m not exactly devastated about that closure, though it’s always sad when people lose their jobs, but if you want beige carbonara and highlighter pink desserts there’s still a branch in Woodley. I was much sadder to find Zest packing it in over at Green Park, although given their location it was completely understandable that they would call it a day.

And although it’s not in Reading I was also gutted to see Nick and Mary Galer leave the Miller Of Mansfield after their landlord Stonegate tried to up their rent by a whopping ninety per cent. Good old Stonegate: here’s your regular reminder that, apart from John Sykes, pubcos are probably the only people who watch It’s A Wonderful Life and find themselves rooting for Potter.

Speaking of pubs, two pubs parted company with their kitchens this year. The Spread Eagle said goodbye to Banarasi Kitchen and installed a new Indian restaurant called Bagheera in its place. It only officially launched this month, but the furniture looks plush and the menu, possibly, a tad generic; only time will tell whether it squanders the goodwill build up by Banarasi Kitchen. And I thought it was a real shame that Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen decided to leave the Butler this year: they decided to move to Liquid Leisure in Windsor, which then closed for a couple of months in tragic circumstances.

Sorry, it’s all got gloomy again. Let’s focus instead on the positives because there are plenty – and although it would be easy to just talk about the Americanisation of Reading town centre (something I may still do later) the class of 2022 is a far more interesting and varied selection than you might think. 

First and foremost there’s Blue Collar Corner, easily Reading’s most significant opening in four years or so which opened in March having spent much of the previous year lost in Reading Borough Council’s planning bureaucracy. With four permanent street food traders, a well-stocked bar from local favourites Double-Barrelled and plenty of seating, much of it covered, this was one of the most exciting developments in Reading for a long old time.

There were further challenges as summer came to an end: Blue Collar Corner lost Gurt Wings and The Taco Tree, its two anchor tenants, and one of the replacement traders barely lasted two months. But given an impressive winter refurb and a renewed focus on music and events you wouldn’t bet against Blue Collar making it through the winter. Besides, Gurt Wings is still in town every Friday.

Another of Reading’s most keenly-awaited new restaurants was Kamal’s Kitchen, which opened in the spring. This place is owned by Kamal Tamrakar, and I’m delighted that it finally realises the potential shown by his previous restaurant Namaste Kitchen. I haven’t reviewed it, because he knows perfectly well who I am, but all my visits this year have been a joy and he and his family did a magnificent job hosting the first ER readers’ lunch of 2022 in the summer.

I can’t talk about the new restaurants that have opened in Reading this year without mentioning the two big trends that took us all by surprise in 2022. The first was biryani restaurants becoming a thing, with Biryani Mama arriving in town and both Biryani Boyzz and Biryani Lounge opening down the Wokingham Road: all this on top of the handful of biryani places already trading at the very top of the Oxford Road. The other was sushi, with not one but three Japanese restaurants opening in Reading this year. Two on Friar Street – Iro Sushi and You Me Sushi – are virtually neighbours just along from Hickies. The third, in the old Tasting House building, is the accomplished but erratic Intoku.

Most of the other new openings in Reading this year, encouragingly, have been independent. On Market Place we got La’De Express, a fast food offshot of the very popular La’De Kitchen. Despite being right opposite Tasty Greek Souvlaki, and despite a recent scare where their windows appeared to be covered up, they are still trading. (N.B. I clearly spoke too soon, because as of 23rd December they definitely look exceptionally closed down.)

We got a couple of new places on West Street where Beijing Noodle House used to be – Chillim, a Nepalese restaurant I’m yet to visit and Cairo Café, which I loved. And just to give the “not another café” blowhards something to whinge about, we also got some more cafes: Black Sheep in the old Caffe Nero site on Friar Street (with another on the way on Broad Street), Gail’s in the old Patisserie Valerie site and an interesting new cafe/social enterprise called Barista & Beyond just off Chatham Street.

Where else? Well, another couple of brave souls have decided to sign leases with cuddly ol’ John Sykes, so we have The Churros Kitchen and Bánh Mì QB in whatever he is calling Kings Walk this week: the latter, incidentally, provided me with a very enjoyable meal on duty this year.

We also have a branch of Shree Krishna Vada Pav on the Kings Road at the edge of town (a small chain, but I loved my meal there) and possibly our newest restaurant San Carlo where Cozze used to be. Will San Carlo make a go of it where La Fontana, Casa Roma and Cozze – and that’s just the Italian restaurants that have failed in that spot – failed? Only time will tell, but it probably doesn’t bode well that they’re having to change their name to San Sicario after three weeks because of “confusion” with a national chain of the same name (or, perhaps, a cease and desist letter).

Oh, and we have a place called Doner & Gyros (they’re two separate things, don’t you know) that has opened where China Palace used to be: I will no doubt go there at some point next year to give you a cheap laugh and me dyspepsia. You might be looking forward to that more than I am.

The other big story of the year is two Reading institutions that have chosen to expand in very different ways. The Grumpy Goat opened its upstairs bar, which is great news for drinkers of an evening but also gives them a chance to serve their toasted sandwiches to more people and potentially expand their food offering still further. And Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen (although it’s now called Clay’s Kitchen & Bar, so keep up) has left its premises on London Street and has taken on the Baron Cadogan site in Caversham.

This latter is a huge move, and they’ve been transparent both about the need for crowdfunding and some of the challenges of managing the whole project. Their initial opening date in October has moved out, although they have hosted some food and beer pairing events in recent weeks, so we can expect to see them open in earnest early next year. It’s hard to imagine any new opening in Reading next year will generate quite as much buzz, in town or beyond.

No doubt we will be blindsided by other new openings in 2023, but so far the list of forthcoming restaurants in the public domain is less than exciting and is dominated by chains of one kind or another. So although Leon has finally given up on its plans to move to Reading, we will be graced with Zizzi offshoot Coco Di Mama just down from Tortilla. Rosa’s Thai is allegedly going to open on the ground floor of Jackson’s Corner, and where Gap used to be Reading will have a branch of Popeyes, the American fried chicken folks. Let’s hope it’s more Gurt than Wingstop. And we also have Marugame Udon jumping into Pizza Hut’s grave on the Oracle riverside. They do noodles and ramen and may or may not prove to be different from Wagamama. Is it bad that I’m not in a mad hurry to find out?

It’s traditional at this point for restaurant bloggers to waffle on about what 2023 holds for hospitality, but much like some evenings I used to endure down the pub back in the days before the pandemic, it’s impossible to tell at this stage just how painful it’s going to be.

People will have less money and restaurants will have higher bills, and those Covid loans probably still need to be paid back. But it’s anybody’s guess whether spending on eating out will get ringfenced or sacrificed. It’s even harder to tell what kind of treats people will still allow themselves, and whether it will be big ticket meals people cut back on, or casual dining, or just the daily latte. For myself I aim to keep reviewing every week, although I’m more conscious than ever of striking that fine balance between supporting independent businesses and being honest with readers about whether restaurants, in this climate, are worth the money.

I’m aware of what a huge privilege it is to be able to review restaurants every week, especially without having to stoop to accepting free shit, but I can honestly say that writing this blog brings me as much joy now as it did in those more innocent times, nearly a decade ago, when I started. And 2022 has been as happy a year of blogging as I can remember: I reviewed a few restaurants in a brief window at the end of last year, but this year I went back to restaurants in March (at the lovely Flavour Of Mauritius) and I haven’t looked back. Until now, of course, when I’m writing a piece looking back on the year. Obviously.

And I can’t recall a year with such a breadth of different restaurants in it. I visited some of the great places that opened in the pandemic, like Tasty Greek Souvlaki and ThaiGrr!, where I’d only ever tried their takeaway. I sampled newcomers like Banh Mi QB, Intoku and The Switch, trying some fantastic Vietnamese food, Reading’s best crispy squid and an excellent avocado on toast in the process. I finally made it to parts of Reading the blog had only ever talked about in passing: places in Tilehurst and Woodley finally got a review. 

And I also went further afield in Berkshire with trips to Newbury, Wokingham and a hat trick of trips to up and coming Maidenhead. In the process I had delicious mackerel – more than once – a fantastic chocolate mousse and some rather underwhelming pasta. And in Seasonality, not far from Maidenhead station, I discovered one of my finds of the year. Speaking of finds, this was also the year when I wrote a series of reviews from Bristol and gave out my highest ER rating of all time (a visit to Wallingford, following in the footsteps of Jay Rayner, was considerably less successful).

Incidentally, the reviews from Bristol were among the most widely read pieces I published all year, so I can’t thank people enough for giving them the time of day. I’m always mildly entertained when people pop up on Twitter or Facebook to tell me to stop reviewing places without an RG postcode: “your blog’s called Edible Reading” they always say, in a manner which has strong It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve energy. 

Never mind that: the incredible response to the Bristol reviews in particular has convinced me that there will definitely be more of those next year. And I would also sound a note of caution that for whatever reason – recession, price rises, risk aversion or Reading’s infamously charitable landlords – Reading is not the fertile crucible of culinary imagination it was five years ago. Unless something changes, I fear that the future has more chains in it, and more independents giving up or moving somewhere less expensive, which is literally almost anywhere.

It feels like a lot of the progress Reading has made in the last ten years is in jeopardy, which is my cue to say, as I always do this time of year, that our hometown, still the biggest town in the U.K. despite our council’s inept efforts, is what we all make it with our time and our money. So this year, perhaps more than any year, it’s worth thinking hard about how to foster and protect what you love, about buying the more expensive coffee or beer or toasted sandwich so that when I do my annual pontificating this time next year I’m not telling you that your favourite place has closed.

What a shame, I’ve been meaning to go there, you might respond. Go there now instead, while you can.

I would close by talking about all the amazing dishes I’ve had in the last year, but you have the return of the annual ER awards next Friday and I don’t want to spoil their thunder. So instead, a few thank yous. Thank you to my dining companions this year: my diverting friends Graeme, Sophie and Mike, and of course my infinitely patient other half Zoë who has put up with me dragging her to a variety of restaurants – the good, the bad and the iffy – and invariably ordered better than me. Without her, this blog would be a much poorer place (although, arguably, one with fewer expletives).

And finally, of course, I really must thank all of you. This is another thing I seem to say at the end of every year, but it was another record breaking year on the blog with more visitors and page hits than ever before (my favourite stat is that this blog has almost as many readers now, on a good week, as it had in the whole of 2013). And honestly, it wouldn’t be anything without your support – your reading, commenting, sharing, even lurking. Whether you try out restaurants I review, or come along to my regular readers’ lunches or just read it from time to time rolling your eyes and thinking “what a tool”, those page hits all count. 

So I hope all of you, whoever you are, have a fantastic Christmas – whether you celebrate it or not, however you mark the time – and a very happy New Year. As I said, there’s one more 2022 post from me next Friday when I dish out my annual gongs for the best food I’ve eaten this year. See you then?   

Restaurant review: Chalk, Wokingham

I’m thinking of reviving my annual awards in a couple of weeks. And although I don’t have a category for Restaurant I’ve Most Signally Failed To Review in 2022, Wokingham’s Chalk would win that one hands down if I did. A combination of train strikes, planned engineering works and inclement weather back in the summer has borked at least three attempts to get there for lunch, and I only managed to pull it off this week because the trains played nice and my old friend Mike, at a loose end that Saturday, kindly agreed to meet me there.

So why the multiple attempts, and why have I prioritised squeaking it in just before the end of the year? Well, I was long overdue a return to Wokingham – it’s been about a year since I visited Hamlet – and whenever I asked where was good in Wokingham, Chalk unfailingly came up. Nobody ever raved and said “oh my god, you have to try Chalk” but I never heard a bad word about it. It was lovely, I was regularly told, or really good. That might sound muted, but it’s also often how people describe under-the-radar places. I want you to know I think it’s good, it can say, but I also don’t want people to discover my secret

It’s in a very handsome building on Wokingham’s Broad Street, not far from either the town centre or the station; Montague House is an eighteenth century building with great bones, big sash windows and a space out front which looks like a terrific spot for al fresco dining on a summer’s day. From the outside it felt like a larger, grander version of Reading’s St Mary’s Church House, the home of Bill’s, and indeed it wouldn’t have at all surprised me to find Bill’s operating out of Montague House. In reality Prezzo used to have the site until they drastically slimmed down their estate in early 2018. Chalk opened there just over two years ago, just in time for that nationwide lockdown, the horrors of Tiers 1, 2 and 3 and the last minute cancellation of Christmas. Remember those halcyon days?

That they are still going strong – they were very busy when I visited on a weekend lunchtime – suggests they’ve built up a certain loyalty among locals. There’s not much on record about Chalk’s backstory or credentials, but two of the owners come from Fego, the small chain which operates in – how do I put this? – Muddy Stilettos country while the third, the head chef, has spent time at the Roseate in Reading. So that potentially places Chalk in the same bracket as Hamlet, with an accomplished chef trying to offer all day affordable dining to Wokingham’s comparatively prosperous clientele. Could they pull off that comparatively challenging brief?

The inside is a a warren of three connected dining rooms, the nicest of which is at the front looking out through those big windows. We were led to the one at the back and I found it harder to like. There were windows, but they looked out on some fences, presumably erected so you don’t have to gaze upon the Waitrose car park in all its quotidian glory. The overall effect made the room slightly gloomy. One wall had been zhuzhed up by putting some naked ceiling roses on it, like a parade of giant plaster Regency nipples. God knows what that was about.

When the menu was offered we were asked if we wanted to see the festive menu too, and although I didn’t hugely want to I had a look out of curiosity. It was a reasonable value three mains, three starters, three desserts job with the obligatory vegetarian option and a turkey roulade, but it held no particular appeal. Besides, it didn’t represent what you can order at Chalk the rest of the year.

The only problem, I now realise, is that going to Chalk at lunchtime in the run-up to Christmas is itself unrepresentative. The lunch menu’s narrower than the dinner menu anyway, to make way for a range of sandwiches, but because of that festive menu the lunch offering was stripped back still further. So it was a choice of four starters, three mains, a few options from the grill and three burgers. I mention this because, as will become apparent, the menu was a bit of a Jekyll & Hyde between the cheffy and the workaday – I suspect if you went for dinner in the New Year the cheffiness might come more to the fore.

We started off with a couple of very agreeable Aperol spritzes and something from the snacking plates section of the menu. Chicken popcorn was nothing of the kind, really, but it was six pleasant chicken nuggets, a sweet chilli sauce dip and some pointless pea shoots to make matters less beige. They could have been crunchier or crispier, and I wasn’t convinced the coating was exactly jumping with seasoning, but they were decent all the same and pretty generous at just over four quid. I raced through my allotted three nuggets.

“Do you want to share the last one?” said Mike. “My mum’s cooking me dinner tonight.” This, as I think I’ve said before, is why some people are thin and I haven’t been for the best part of twenty-five years.

The starters were an incongruous pair, a little like Mike and me. His goat’s cheese panna cotta (“can they make panna cotta out of goat’s cheese?” was Mike’s first reaction on reading the menu) looked respectable, a lozenge of the stuff resting on a carpaccio of beetroot with more of those slightly pointless pea shoots. Goat’s cheese and beetroot as a combination is hardly trailblazing stuff, but I thought it looked nicely done and I thought it was a nice touch to include both walnuts and pickled walnuts (incidentally, if you’ve never tried pickled walnuts I recommend them: all the fun of pickles without any of the drawbacks of walnuts).

“What do you reckon?”

“I mean, it’s okay. It probably looks more impressive than it tastes.” Mike can be somewhat economical with his words, I should warn you: wait until you hear what he made of his main course.

My starter, though, was the loveliest thing I ate at Chalk. Torched mackerel – two good-sized pieces – came just-cooked on a clever, interesting salad of seaweed and fennel tangled together, with a gentle hum of sesame. Pickled ginger in it too, apparently, though I didn’t detect that. Mackerel works well with these kinds of flavours, and I found there was a surprising amount going on, but I wasn’t sure it made sense to crown the whole thing with fronds of dill, a little Scandinavian interference in the otherwise Asian flavours. This dish, more than anything else I tried, represented what I suspect Chalk could be like the rest of the time, and on its own it was enough to make me consider going back. Good value at just over eight pounds, too.

We had a couple of glasses of wine while we waited for our mains to arrive. Again, the wine list gives hints at the kind of restaurant Chalk is most of the time, with prices ranging from an eminently sensible twenty-one quid to a couple of vintage clarets north of a hundred pounds and a 2014 super-Tuscan that clocks in at three hundred and seventy pounds. I wonder how many of those they sell? (Mind you, it’s only three hundred and fifty pounds retail). At the more affordable end of the spectrum Mike enjoyed a Malbec at just under nine quid and my white Rioja, closer to eight pounds, was surprisingly complex.

Mains were nicely paced but, as I’ve already said, from the more pedestrian end of a relatively pedestrian menu. I’d gone for a chicken burger, but the contrast with, say, the delicious chicken burger I’d tasted at Asado in last week’s review was marked. Chalk used chicken breast rather than thigh, and although they’d managed to cook it well without drying it out it still lost something in terms of the coating and seasoning.

Where Chalk did get things right, though, was in everything that came with it. Combining gherkins, jalapeños and pineapple relish could have been confusing, or overkill, but actually the heat, sweetness and sharpness synchronised beautifully. The only drawback was that something in it – insufficiently drained gherkins, at a guess – meant the brioche was soggy and not up to the task of keeping it all together.

Chips were pretty decent – skin on, quite probably from a packet, but good nonetheless. And I asked for ketchup and got a minuscule individual jar of Tiptree tomato sauce: fancy!

“What’s yours like?” I said to Mike. He’d gone for something from the grill section – a lamb chop which came with triple-cooked chips, mushroom, tomato and (how did you guess?) yet more of those ever-present pea shoots. Now, Mike didn’t let me try his food – there are benefits, you see, to going on duty with your partner rather than a friend, however long you’ve known them – so all I can do is tell you how it looked to me. I thought the chips, triple cooked or not, looked a darn sight better than the fries that came with my burger. The mushroom looked a little bit wrinkled and sad, and the lamb didn’t have enough pinkness or blush for it for my liking. I thought it was unlikely that the dish represented Chalk at its very best.

But fortunately, you don’t have to take my word for it because I asked Mike what he thought. Brace yourself.

“It’s okay. It’s lamb, and it’s a chop.”

See? I told you.

“You know I’m going to use that word for word, don’t you?”

“Sorry. The red wine jus thing I ordered is good with it, and I like the caramelised onions but yeah, it’s a lamb chop.”

A lot of the red wine jus was left in the ramekin: if I’d ordered this I’d have poured the stuff over everything rather than using it as a dip. This, too, is why Mike is thin.

We didn’t fancy dessert enough to go for it. The ganache tart with white chocolate, salted caramel and pistachio ice cream was very much my kind of thing but there wasn’t another dish on there that appealed: why ruin a perfectly good crème brûlée by adulterating it with rooibos, of all things? So we got the bill, which came to a hundred pounds on the nail, including a twelve and a half per cent service charge.

Now, I haven’t talked about service until now but it really was excellent from start to finish and that was one of the things I liked most about Chalk. Everyone was friendly and polite – when they greeted you, when they showed you to your table, even when you left. I think every single member of staff must have said goodbye to us. They were clearly working like Trojans on one of the busiest weekends of the year, and the only one in December not marred by the train strikes.

But it was more than that because Michelle, who looked after us according to my bill, had that skill I associate with really top-level service, of anticipating what you wanted moments before you realised you wanted it and materialising at the table just in time to provide it. Again, I got a clear picture that I maybe hadn’t seen Chalk at its most representative, and that was more my fault – and that of the damn season – than it was Chalk’s.

The rest of my afternoon in Wokingham was properly lovely, since you ask. We went to Outhouse Brewing, where the beer was good but the room was empty, and then Sit N’ Sip, where the beer was just okay and the room felt like one of the Lounge Group with ideas above its station. Mike took me through the contents of his Tinder – there’s no vicarious pleasure like it for the happily attached – and I wound him up by super-liking some individuals who really weren’t his cup of tea.

“I only get five of those a month!” he glared at me.

“And how many of them do you actually use?”

“That’s not the point.”

After that, wanting some ambience and the kind of companionable male bonding only sitting in front of the football can provide, we wandered off to the Crispin, possibly my favourite Wokingham pub. Despite being reasonably full from lunch we found room for some peanuts and some pickled onion Monster Munch, and we joined the throng watching Morocco beat Portugal.

There was tinsel everywhere, and all of us in a circle round the telly oohed and aahed and said “come on Morocco!” and really, I had the nicest time. Craft beer is all very good, but sometimes you just want a crisp, cold macro cider, your pub tapas opened out on the table in front of you and an old friend to whom you can say, with the easy comfort of a nearly forty year friendship, that was never offside.

Anyway, back to Chalk. Here’s a trade secret for you – whenever I finish a review, I scour through it to try and strip out all the words I’ve overused: not everything can be lovely, or terrific, or quite good (quite is one of the weasel words I use too often – is it good or isn’t it?). With Chalk, the word that sent me running to the thesaurus was decent. I took out quite a lot, a few I left in. In restaurants as in life, decent is a very good quality, an underrated one. But it does feel a bit like damning with faint praise.

And Chalk would be dangerously easy to damn with faint praise. When I came away from it, I sort of thought it was like an upmarket answer to Bill’s for people who want that kind of establishment but independent and not mediocre. But the more I think about it, the more I think that’s not fair. The interesting things I had on the menu were very interesting, well done and good value. And if there weren’t more interesting things on the menu, that’s not entirely their fault: for all I know, for that matter, their turkey roulade would have had me eating my words.

But I saw enough to think it’s worth a visit, and it’s probably worth me revisiting too. At a more conventional time I could have tried wood pigeon with salt-baked beetroot and blackberry jus or beef cheek with bone marrow jus, and over the summer, during one of my failed attempts to review the place they were serving skate wing, one of my very favourite things. So it’s a cautious recommend from me for a place that did a fair few things right, and gave me the impression they were capable of even more.

Anyway, it’s somehow fitting that Chalk is my final review of the year. It manages to both highlight everywhere I’ve been in 2022 and all the unfinished business that gets carried forward into 2023 in a single visit; it may not win Restaurant I’ve Most Signally Failed To Review, but it probably does win Restaurant Where I Didn’t Tell The Whole Story. I would say that you live and learn, but I’m not sure that’s a strong point of mine: none the less, I’ll be back at Chalk next year, when the tinsel is down and the relentless Christmas songs have stopped playing. I want to see how close it can get to what I glimpsed this time, but didn’t completely grasp.

Chalk – 7.2
31 Broad Street, Wokingham, RG40 1AU
0118 9798805


Restaurant review: Asado, Bristol

The venue for this week’s review was partly chosen as a result of circumstances: our train back from Bristol left mid-afternoon on Sunday, so we needed somewhere that would do a good lunch but not necessarily a leisurely one. For me this is where casual dining so often comes into its own, when you want something decent but not too expensive, briskly paced but not fast food. And this being Bristol, even that sector of the market is awash with attractive, interesting options so you never have to opt for the comfort zone of a chain restaurant. Could Asado, a burger restaurant at the top of the Christmas Steps, be the answer?

That arguably undersells Asado’s standing though, as if I’d merely looked at a map of the city and tried to find something affordable within walking distance. In fact, it has built a formidable reputation since it opened five years ago, with many people thinking it arguably does Bristol’s best burger (a title awarded to it last September – although only by the local Reach plc website, so perhaps not carrying that much cachet after all).

Its pedigree is decent too – the owner is an alumnus of Patty & Bun, who for my money served probably the best burger I’ve ever had. He moved to Bristol determined to offer something a little different, and Asado’s selling point when it opened was that the burgers were cooked over a wood-fired grill. The menu also had a mixture of traditional and South American influences, and the hype was considerable: this was back when Bristol had quite a few restaurant blogs, although the last review of Asado I can find from anywhere is nearly four years old.

Having survived the pandemic Asado made a properly leftfield move when it came to expansion – the owner decided to move to Barcelona, so they just opened a second branch there. As you do. There’s something quite admirable about that – I know we often look at restaurants outside Reading and wish they’d expand in our direction, but given a choice between, say, the Ding and Barcelona who can blame them for heading south?

Anyway Asado seemed to be thriving in its original branch, and although we were the first customers there when it opened at one by the time we left plenty of the tables were occupied with groups, big and small, working their way through the menu (and drinking cocktails in many cases, which made me feel about a hundred years old).

The restaurant is made up of two rooms – a narrow front room, also home to the bar, which has a snugger, more conspiratorial air and a back room which feels more open and spacious due to a lovely big skylight. Furniture was the kind of standard-issue mixture of distressed chairs and what looked like old school chairs, and the overall effect was a little like a classier version of Bluegrass BBQ. We sat in the back room, and what it gained in natural light it lost because of a certain lingering chilliness.

The menu was encouragingly concise, with a limited number of variations on a theme. So you can have the beef burger as it comes, or enhanced with pulled beef, pastrami or skirt steak. The chicken burger either comes with guacamole and chipotle mayo or with hot sauce (Warning! Hot is very hot, the menu said) and blue cheese dressing. There are two options for vegetarians, with the burgers made by Huera – from pea protein, as far as I could tell by Googling – with pulled jackfruit if you fancy it.

Both of those can be made vegan by request, although you miss out on the West Country cheddar: Asado makes much of using proper local cheese rather than plastic American slices. Burgers tend to range from fourteen to eighteen pounds and come with fries and slaw, and you can double up anything apart from the chicken burgers for three quid.

As is generally the case with this kind of restaurant the smaller dishes were labelled as sides rather than starters, although the woman serving us did give us the option of having them separately as starters if we wanted, a nice touch. Service, incidentally, was superb, bright and enthusiastic; she started out by complimenting Zoë’s make up, which is a great way of getting anybody on side. From what I could tell she was bilingual as well, because the Spanish names of our dishes were pronounced flawlessly and I’m pretty sure I heard her talking to a neighbouring table in Spanish.

She brought over a couple of beers for us – the draft beer here is by local New Bristol Brewery – and from that point onwards I felt in very capable hands. We tried the table beer, Three Falling (it’s three per cent ABV, you see) and I thought it did a great job of packing a lot of flavour into a pretty sessionable strength. By that point in the weekend I was simultaneously sworn off drinking for quite some time and thinking three per cent is hardly booze at all: it’s surprisingly easy to hold both those ideas in your head at the same time.

If I had a fiver for every time I’ve written Zoë ordered better than me on this over the last four years, I could probably review quite a few restaurants in 2023 without putting my hand in my pockets. And so it proved here, because the Pollo Libre, Asado’s (more) basic chicken burger, was fantastic. A lot of hefty chicken thigh, fried in a nicely seasoned, crunchy and craggy coating, would have been pretty unimprovable even on its own, but the extras took it just that little bit further. “This guacamole is great” said Zoë, “and it’s positively singing with lime”. I was allowed a bite, which was enough to confirm that she was right and to make me slightly regret my own choice.

I’d decided to go for the entry level burger, the eponymous Asado. It’s the most stripped-down one they do but it still has plenty going on with the patty, that West Country cheddar and plenty of different sauces – chimichurri, confit garlic mayo and ketchup and some pickled red onions on top. And I liked it just fine, but it didn’t blow me away as I’d hoped. Part of that might just be expectation management: I thought that the burger itself would have a wow factor from having been grilled over fire but I didn’t get a huge amount of char or caramelisation, or the smokiness I was expecting. And it didn’t feel to me like all those sauces were working in harmony – less might have been more, in that respect. I liked it, but I didn’t love it.

Credit to them, though, for making a burger that you could just about eat without unhooking your jaw, in a not-too-sweet brioche that had the structural integrity to keep it together. Perhaps I should have had it with extras, but I wanted to think that the burger could stand on its own two feet without that. Instead I had some of the smoky pulled beef on top of my rosemary fries and it was positively transformative – a beautiful tangle of savoury, smoky and sweet strands of slow-cooked beef that quite made my afternoon. You can have these on your burger if you order the El Don, and next time I probably would. The slaw, which was dressed rather than with mayo, felt a little underdressed and felt like it was there mainly for appearances. It did look pretty, though.

If that was the whole story, it might have been a little underwhelming but it was the sides and the extras that lifted Asado into more interesting territory. I’ve already raved about the pulled beef, but I also adored our grilled courgettes. Asado used to do courgette fritti but this was much more vibrant and interesting – batons of courgette just-cooked but blackened on the outside, striped with a well-balanced sriracha mayo. More virtuous than yet more fried stuff, but still indulgent. I could have eaten a bucketload more of this.

Speaking of fried stuff, the sides and bar snacks section of the menu featured croquetas with more of that pulled beef in them and morcilla nuggets – breadcrumbed spheres of black pudding fried until crispy and dished up with a chimichurri mayo. The latter are three pounds each or four for eight pounds fifty, and when we only asked for a couple the waitress asked if we were sure. And when we said we were she took our order, although I wish with hindsight that she’d said “Seriously, you should reconsider: they’re fucking amazing”. Because they were – the perfect snacking size, possibly two bites maximum of deep, delicious black pudding only slightly lightened by the mayo. If I’d known how manageable they were, I’d have ordered four. To myself.

And if I’d known how small they were, I would have made room for the four morcilla nuggets by passing on the chicken wings. They were decent enough, although again the smoke didn’t really come through on them at all, and I loved the sweetness of the pineapple and agave glaze, with a little heat. But they reminded me of everybody I’ve ever worked with who had short man syndrome: small and stubborn, to the point where however nice they might be you did find yourself thinking is this worth the effort? On balance, perhaps not. I could have had some of those pulled beef croquetas instead, or saved room for dessert. There’s only one on the menu, a passion fruit cheesecake, but I bet it’s marvellous.

With us done and dusted, all that remained was to settle up. Our meal for two with a couple of pints, probably more sides than we needed and including a needlessly low ten per cent optional tip, came to just over seventy six pounds. We were out the door more quickly than planned, so we wandered across to Bristol’s branch of C.U.P. on Park Street, a little slice of home from home, and sat outside with one of their peerless mochas, looking down the hill and imagining what it would be like to live in Bristol. Would it still be so amazing then, or is the grass always greener at the other end of the M4?

Summing up this review is difficult. My Bristolian readers (and it seems I have more than I thought) will probably already know about Asado and have firm opinions about it. Especially if they also read Bristol’s Reach plc website, which looks almost as trashy as ours. And for the rest of you, it’s a little more difficult. If you are absolutely mad about burgers I would say yes, you should definitely go. One of the best burger restaurants in Bristol is very likely, on paper, to be one of the best in the country. And if you happen to be in Bristol and you want a quick meal, not far from the train station, it’s very easy to give Asado an unqualified recommendation.

Is it enough to build a visit to Bristol around the way that, say, Wilsons, Marmo or Caper and Cure are? No, probably not. But that’s no bad thing. Not every restaurant can be Lionel Messi. Somebody has to be Luke Shaw, and there’s no shame in that. And it’s definitely a level above Honest, which is most people’s Reading benchmark.

“I saw you went to Wings Diner” said Gurt Wings’ James when I went to Blue Collar the following Friday for my regular dose of his Japanese fried chicken. That figured: Mr Gurt always has an eye out on Instagram and never misses a trick so he’d seen all my meals in Bristol, even the ones I didn’t write about.

“Yeah, it was really pretty good. Especially the Korean dip.”

“You know where you should go in Bristol? There’s a place called Seven Lucky Gods and their Korean fried chicken is out of this world.”

See? It never ends. Nonetheless, I made a note for next time.

Asado – 8.2
90 Colston Street, Bristol, BS1 5BB
0117 9279276

Restaurant review: Wilsons, Bristol

I’m sorry to start proceedings with what looks suspiciously like a humblebrag, but last month I was on holiday in Belfast and as a treat, we booked a table at Ox, one of the city’s Michelin starred restaurants. But it was a hugely disappointing evening, which will please those of you who don’t like humblebrags. Everything was not quite right; nothing was actively terrible, but the whole thing felt far from optimal. We left underwhelmed, slightly peckish and feeling as if our wallets had been mugged in a dark alley, and wandered away from the scene of the crime in search of a pint.

I’ve never understood people who collect Michelin starred restaurants – too humblebraggy even for me – or restaurant bloggers who loftily describe meals they’ve had as “easily one star food”, as if somebody died and promoted them to inspector. Get over yourselves: it’s just one set of opinions, from an organisation so shrouded in secrecy and obscurity that they make the Freemasons look like the Good Law Project. For what it’s worth, I’ve always thought the Bib Gourmand is a better indicator that you’ll have a good and interesting meal.

The subject of this week’s review is Wilsons, a little restaurant in Bristol which doesn’t have a Michelin star, but which served me one of the very best meals I’ve had in the last five years. Not only did it get everything right that Ox got wrong, but it made me think about what excellence in restaurants really means – and how little of it has anything to do with being fancy.

Take the room, for example. At Ox, we walked past the lovely, twinkly, atmospheric downstairs room – which had free tables in it – only to be walked up the stairs to an unlovely mezzanine floor, all hard surfaces and dead air, the overflow car park of hospitality. It was boiling hot, the aircon stayed resolutely switched off and even blowing out the candles didn’t seem to alert the staff to what a stuffy, unpleasant place it was in which to have a meal. Wilsons has just the one dining room. It’s plain, simple, dignified and stylish with nothing on the walls except chalkboards and a lovely stained glass sign hanging in the full-length window. Good restaurants, ideally, have no shit tables. Wilsons has no shit tables.

This extended through to the menus. Ox doesn’t have a menu, so you are surprised on the night. Instead, they hand you a rather pretentious-looking sheet of paper which lists all the elements and ingredients that will feature in your meal, without telling you how or where. The menu is on their website, so even as gimmicks go, it’s pointless. Wilsons also offers a single menu but it’s written on the chalkboard each day for everybody to see. You can have the whole lot for sixty pounds – twenty pounds less than Ox – or a stripped-down version at lunch for twenty five quid (I read a review where someone said “that’s less than you’d spend on a pair of socks”: I’m as fond of conspicuous consumption as the next person, but what a knobber).

A mystery menu wouldn’t be a problem if the service brought the meal to life. Again, Ox was disappointing: everything was mechanical and muted, and much of it was hard to hear in that unforgiving and joyless space. Detail was scant, and there was more warmth in the room than in the welcome. And again, Wilson’s was outstanding. All the staff abandoned zonal marking for the hospitality equivalent of total football, which meant that our dishes were brought by a huge variety of friendly faces.

All of them could talk with huge knowledge and enormous enthusiasm about every single detail of every single dish: a better reviewer than me would have taken notes. On another night in Belfast we went to Edo, an incredible tapas restaurant and our waiter, almost immediately after we took our seats, said “well obviously I know the menu inside out so I can answer any questions you have”: that’s how you do it.

The food at Ox was also muted and bland, but that’s quite enough talking about restaurants other than Wilsons. Let’s talk about their food instead, because everything was stunning, more or less. We went for the full monty, and it started with a beautiful, clever piece of work – a gorgeous feather-light gougère packed with cheddar and leek and topped with a little beret of pickled onion purée. The whole thing imploded in the mouth leaving nothing but joy, an accomplished disappearing act.

Bread was made by the restaurant and came to the table still warm with a puck of butter which the restaurant cultures itself. This was accompanied with a vivid little dish of cod roe, pastel pink with a little iris of bright herb oil. There was powdered something-or-other on top, and if I’d made notes I’d be able to tell you what it was. All of this was lovely, incidentally, although the bread was sliced a tad too thick which made it difficult to use all the butter and cod roe. Zoë ran her finger along the bowl, and I pretended to be shocked.

At the same time, we had one final snack which the wait staff playfully described as a taco – a chicory leaf with chicken liver parfait, preturnaturally smooth, topped with powdered beetroot and the pop of toasted pearl barley. So much effort gone into making something so small, gone in an instant but remembered for days: truly magical stuff.

The next dish was one of the best things I ate that day, which makes it one of the best things I’ve eaten full stop. A savoury custard made with squash was sweet, glossy and perfectly spiced. Again, texture and pop was beautifully added with seeds, toasted in some of the same spice mix. But then the other elements added layer on layer of complexity and cleverness – tiny shimeji mushrooms, pickled in sherry vinegar, and a mushroom consommé poured over at the table, submerging the custard under something phenomenally savoury. Again, if I’d made better notes I could tell you what the leaves were: sorry about that.

By this point we were a couple of glasses into a fantastic bottle of natural Gruner Veltliner (the same one, actually, that I’d had at Goat On The Roof: it’s far more attractively priced at Wilsons) and I was already beginning to realise that this food was like very little I’ve eaten in other restaurants. I couldn’t recall anywhere I’ve eaten where the flavours were so pinpoint, where things had been so refined and perfected to make everything taste of its truest, best self. And as it turned out, I hadn’t seen anything yet.

Next to come was possibly the most disappointing course. Jigged squid – I have no idea what jigging is, and this time it’s not because I didn’t take notes – came in a rich and salty broth with rainbow chard. The squid, cut into ribbons to resemble udon, was among the freshest I’ve had and this dish made me love rainbow chard, something beyond the talents of most kitchens. The broth bringing it together had absolutely everything, and again it was that precise, super-concentrated hit that makes you sit up and pay attention, eat more slowly, take it all in. But this was the first time a portion felt stingy and doubt crept in: four ribbons of squid, and it’s not a good sign that I counted them.

Was it enough to dumbfound your tastebuds if you left a restaurant hungry? And yet my tastebuds were so dumbfounded – not least by a little tuile made from squid ink, as black as night and dotted with herb emulsion (I probably should have mentioned that much of the produce Wilsons use comes from their garden). It was a perfect mouthful, in a meal full of perfect mouthfuls and in a world where the word perfect is much devalued, not least by me. “It’s like the best crisp ever” said Zoë, who usually sums these things up better than I do.

More was to come, and the fish course proper was a proper marvel. A little cylinder of pollock, a notoriously recalcitrant fish, was cooked bang on and topped with another symphony of herbs, alongside a silky parsnip puree, the whole thing bound together with a superb vin jaune sauce which delivered more salt and less funk than I was expecting. I’ve talked about the half-life of dishes before and this had a long one – each forkful carefully calibrated to prolong the enjoyment. But again, the lack of carbs troubled me. What was the point of these beautiful sauces, dips and oils when there wasn’t always the substance to transport them into your gob?

I should have trusted in the process, because the next course made everything right. Crown of pheasant, cooked and then, I think, finished on the barbecue, glazed with some kind of emulsion and dotted with the smallest, punchiest capers I’ve ever eaten was a thing of rapture, as was the pheasant sauce and the wedge of just-cooked cabbage (there was also something called Tokyo turnip, but I thought that was a Steven Seagal film so what do I know?)

But where are the carbs? you might ask. But this is where Wilsons completely won me over by bringing a bowl of the best mash I’ve ever eaten. It was, the waiter told us, fifty per cent potato and fifty per cent butter. He also told us this is the only way to have mash, and I fear he might be right. It’s profoundly ruined me for other mash: I’ve already used the words ‘silky’ and ‘glossy’ in this review, so to save me reaching for the thesaurus let’s just settle for ‘exceptional’ here.

And there was still time for one more extra, one more whistle and bell to show that the kitchen left no stone unturned. We were also brought two pieces of what the waiter called “Kentucky Fried Pheasant”, little nubbins of pheasant thigh coated in the restaurant’s secret blend, deep fried and then drizzled with a ranch dressing including some of the same spices. You might wonder who goes to all that trouble, and I wouldn’t blame you. Wilsons do, that’s who. I may never get to try Eton Fried Swan (once we have a republic I really think this is a franchise that could take off) but until then this will tide me over nicely.

Having had some of the best, most interesting courses of my restaurant-going life, presumably things would dip for dessert, right? They so often do, after all. Well, think again: Wilsons’ dessert was also a desert (or even dessert) island dish. On paper it just sounded weird – celeriac, fermented honey and truffle. And it might not have been to everyone’s taste, but it absolutely knocked my socks off. The celeriac was an ice cream, more a semifreddo really, with a pool of fermented honey lurking in its hollow. All around it were toasted grains adding crunch and sweetness, and then on top were little truffle shavings.

I don’t know who thinks to put all those flavours together, and it’s a highwire act where any of them could have backfired. But none of them did, and this is the dish, more than any other, that I’ve thought about since that meal. I’ve had parsnip ice cream before but never celeriac, and it worked better than I thought it would. But what I loved was the harmony. Truffle isn’t a team player, nor is anything fermented. But the kitchen deftly drew all of that together into something delicious, remarkable and perhaps slightly mad. And yet not a note was out of place.

Now in Michelin-land, if they haven’t given you a minuscule pre-dessert they tend to send you on your way with some petits fours. They’re not big but they are clever, and they’re another way of making you feel like you’ve had something for free even though all of that luxe is very much priced in. So I adored Wilsons for instead bringing over a hulking great canélé de Bordeaux for each of us.

Now, I’ve had these many times because Reading is lucky enough to have Davy of Wolseley Street Bakery fame, and this is one of his specialities which he supplies to various places, most notably Geo Café. I like a canélé. But this was a completely different beast, and I wasn’t in Kansas – or Caversham – any more. This had been elevated with whisky and tonka, and the sweetness and richness was like little I’ve experienced. This level of sensory opulence is something I associate more with fragrance than with food, and I can’t put it more strongly than this: if somebody sold an eau de parfum that smelled how that canélé tasted, I’d buy a bottle. They were so good I can even forgive Wilsons for putting the napkin underneath them, although I still think that’s baffling.

My meal – two aperitifs, a bottle of wine and all those terrific experiences and memories – came to two hundred pounds including service, and I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. If Wilsons did vouchers I’d just ask for some for Christmas, and as it is I’m struggling to imagine going to Bristol without eating there again. More to the point, I’m wondering how quickly I can justify going back. As it was, we left knowing it would take a while to process just how good our meal was, and fell into a beautiful nearby pub called the Good Measure which, as luck would have it, was doing a tap takeover by our very own Siren Craft. It was Friday afternoon, I was full and happy and I’d had a miraculous lunch. Life rarely gets much better.

I’m sorry-not-sorry for putting you through this catwalk show of beautiful dishes and purple prose. Sorry because it’s a lot to rattle through, and also arguably sorry if I’ve made you hungry (although, also, not sorry: this is what restaurant reviews should do). Sorry that I’ve rhapsodised about a restaurant that’s a train and bus trip from Reading. But also not sorry, because this is one of the best restaurants I’ve been to in years of trying, and that deserves to be mentioned. I’m sorry because Reading doesn’t have somewhere to match Wilsons and, in fact, I don’t think it ever has. But I’m also not sorry because when people ask me what Reading needs I might stop talking about tapas restaurants, ice cream cafés and good wine bars and just say: it needs somewhere like Wilsons.

Wilsons – 9.6
24 Chandos Road, Redland, Bristol, BS6 6PF
0117 9734157