Restaurant review: Bagheera at the Spread Eagle

One of the best things to happen to Reading’s food scene during Covid wasn’t the influx of American chains blighting the town centre, complete with inexplicable queues for weeks. Rather it was the return of a welcome trend, with independent businesses setting up shop in the kitchens of established pubs, offering interesting menus in a way which minimised the commercial risk for all concerned. Everybody won, particularly Reading’s diners.

The notable proponents of this were in West Reading. At the Butler on Chatham Street you had Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen cooking up a storm, with beautiful dumplings, bronzed jerk chicken, moreish slabs of macaroni pie, plantain and so much more; I visited in the summer of 2021 and adored practically everything I ate. Further down the Oxford Road at the Spread Eagle, just next to Kensington Park, there was Banarasi Kitchen, offering an Indian menu with some regional specialities. I reviewed a takeaway from them early in 2021, and loved it.

All good things must come to an end, and by the end of last year both pubs had parted company with the businesses that had made them brilliant places to eat. At the Butler, it was Chef Stevie’s choice – he left to cook at Liquid Leisure in Windsor, only for the water park to close later that month in tragic circumstances. Now the Butler plays host to a business called The Toastily that serves toasties, breakfasts and that retro staple, the jacket spud. As for Chef Stevie, so far as I know he’s yet to turn up elsewhere, but if he ever does I will be there, ready and waiting to order.

The story with Banarasi Kitchen is a little more opaque, and began very curiously indeed. Last October the Spread Eagle made an announcement on Instagram. “We’re restructuring our management team” they proclaimed, language that sounded more IT and telecoms than hospitality. What did that mean for Banarasi Kitchen, somebody asked? It’s now called Bagheera, they said. But was it? Their next post had the old Banarasi Kitchen logo on it.

A couple of days later, the panther out of the bag, the pub said again that the restaurant would soon be known as Bagheera. Along with the new name came a new menu, new signage, a new chef and a new kitchen team. As further announcements came out, you could be forgiven for wondering whether we’d gone past the point of rebranding alone. The logo looked snazzy, the mock-ups of the dining room (or, as they put it, the “design concept” – more corporate speak) looked classy. Was this a conscious attempt to go upmarket?

Things continued to be baffling. In early November the pub confirmed that they had officially rebranded as Bagheera. But for some reason they didn’t announce their official opening until early December, even though they did continue posting about their menu and dishes during the intervening time. All clear as mud, but it seems that the business is one hundred per cent Bagheera now (although at the time of writing they still have the link to Banarasi Kitchen in their Instagram bio: go figure).

One of my biggest regrets last year is that I didn’t make it to Banarasi Kitchen before they closed, so I always had it in mind to visit Bagheera early in the New Year. There was something special about Banarasi Kitchen’s food, but once you’ve changed the name, the room, the menu and everyone in the kitchen, could any trace of Bagheera’s predecessor remain, hidden in some intangible way? I wanted to find out, so on a Saturday evening, nice and early, Zoë and I hopped on the trusty 17 bus and strolled up Wantage Road to check it out.

First things first, the “design concept” is actually really attractive. There’s a dedicated dining room on the left as you enter the pub, separated by an old-school sliding door, and it’s a distinctly luxe place in which to have a meal. The room is all wood panelling, deep green walls and gold accents, beautiful chandeliers. The chairs, in complementary green and gold, were tasteful and comfortable, proving that you can have both at once. The gold-edged tables were fetching and sturdy. The room had handsome big windows, and I can imagine it would be a lovely place to eat in the summer. It looked like they’d let one of the better contestants on Interior Design Masters loose on it, and I liked it a great deal.

When they announced a new menu as part of the rebrand, the Spread Eagle wasn’t kidding. Banarasi Kitchen’s menu had the Anglo-Indian dishes you might expect but the menu stretched further than that, offering more regional dishes like murg kori gassi, rye ke aloo and railway lamb. Bagheera’s menu is far more generic. They have a tandoor, and an Indo-Chinese section, but beyond that you have your jalfrezi, your korma, your rogan josh and your butter chicken. It’s to their credit that they don’t allow you to pick your protein with any of the curries, at least giving the suggestion that all the components have spent some quality time together rather than being thrown together at the last minute. But it’s not a menu that sets your mind racing; it struck me as interesting, when Banarasi Kitchen’s menu had been more rambling, to stick to the hits.

But first, drinks. Now, I’ll get all this moaning out of the way in one go so we can talk about the food. They don’t have any Indian beers on tap, which struck me as strange. They also didn’t have one of the gins on their list either, but when we did eventually get a couple of Tanqueray and tonics they came in big Beefeater branded glasses with – being charitable – a couple of tiny nuggets of ice in them. So they weren’t massively cold, and I got the impression a very small bottle of tonic had been used. Possibly between two. I found all this a tad weird, because when you eat in a pub you do rather expect them to have the drinks part down pat.

The same problem reared its ugly head further on in the meal when we ordered more drinks. Initially I’d asked about their draft cider, but that was off too. So instead we asked for the same again and this time the waiter brought two equally small, completely ice-free gin and tonics before explaining that one was Tanqueray and the other was Gordon’s. No explanation was offered, and we were left to guess which was which in a sort of blind taste, find the lady scenario.

Service at Bagheera could be a little like that, likeable enough but hapless. The main front of house was a charming, dapper, authoritative older man who clearly knew his job back to front and was brilliant with customers. The rest of the team, though, were wayward, bringing mismatched gins, dropping salad on the floor when they cleared our starters away and generally making me want to stage some kind of intervention.

I was hugely relieved when the starters turned out to be good, solid dishes. The best of them was the Punjabi fish fry, a generous portion of fish in a light bubbled batter that clung superbly to the flesh. It was quite possibly my favourite thing I ate at Bagheera, and good value at seven pounds. But being critical, because that’s what I do, it lacked a bit of spice and depth and the coriander chutney it came with was lacking some sharpness and definition. The whole thing lacked heat, too: I didn’t mind that, as it happened, but I had been expecting to find a little more going on.

The coriander chutney made a repeat appearance accompanying three firm, sizzling seekh kebabs in a skillet sitting, as they often do, on a bed of onions which became more golden and caramelised as we went along. I thought these were respectable, the texture finely balanced between coarse and crumbly with some decent heat. A couple of weeks before I’d been to House Of Flavours and sampled their seekh kebabs: Bagheera couldn’t quite come close to that standard, but it was by no means dreadful.

Last of all, we ordered some onion bhajis. Zoë liked these more than I did – she’s a sucker for a bhaji – but I found them a little dense and stodgy, big unforgiving pellets rather than light, crispy, finely-spun things. They were perfectly pleasant dipped in a sort of date and tamarind confection that could easily have been HP sauce, but no more than that. Two of the starters came with pointless foliage – doesn’t Bagheera know we’re in the middle of a nationwide salad shortage? – and we didn’t eat it. As I said, thanks to the mishaps of our waiter some of it ended up on the floor anyway.

Main courses came about fifteen minutes later and continued a general trend of being perfectly reliable but quite unexciting. Zoë liked her chicken korma (“I’m the korma queen” she told me when she announced her intention to order it) and I enjoyed my forkful more than I expected to. I would never order it in a restaurant, probably because I’m a snob/terrible person/both, but it had a sweet nuttiness that was far from unpleasant. The chicken was impressively tender, especially for breast, but this was an extremely liquid dish, with a big gloopy pool of glossy sauce, too much really, left at the end.

I’d picked the lamb rogan josh, mainly because I was sold on the menu’s description of lamb marinated for six hours and slow cooked with chilli-infused oil. It’s a good blurb: it absolutely gets you thinking about texture and flavour, of time taken and a glorious end product. And it feels like I’ve said this about most of what I ate at Bagheera but, again, it was dependable without approaching mind-blowing. The lamb was tender, with no dodgy bouncy bits, but not falling-apart tender in the way you’d expect from long, slow cooking. And the flavour was, well, pardon my poverty of expression but it was okay. Just okay. No other word quite captures it.

Again, a gigantic lake of sauce was left at the end. And – sorry to use the C word, but I’m sure you were expecting me to bring them up at some point – I was reminded that when you eat food from Clay’s the sauce is the best bit. It’s to be swept up with bread, or mixed with forkfuls of rice, but however you get it in your mouth you make sure you taste every last molecule. Could I imagine feeling that desperate to squeeze every last drop of flavour out of any of the dishes from Bagheera? I only wish I could.

I suppose I should talk about sides, just to show that they were there. Jeera pilau was, according to the menu, “accentuated with cumin” but could have done with more of it. I didn’t mind my lachha paratha but it didn’t have the decadence, the layers I love in paratha – like the bhaji it was too compressed, too stodgy. And Zoë liked her keema nan, but she has a weakness for keema nan in general. “Again, it’s not as good as the one at House Of Flavours” was her considered verdict. That could, in hindsight, be the tl:dr version of this review.

What more can I say? The whole thing set us back just over eighty pounds, not including tip, and when I looked over the bill I saw that they’d charged us for double gins even though we’d ordered singles. Whether we got doubles is anybody’s guess, although it was hard to believe that those G&Ts could have been any smaller. We paid up and headed out to the bus stop in search of the Nag’s Head, where you can be pretty sure they don’t ever run out of cider.

The obvious thing to do is compare Bagheera to Banarasi Kitchen, but that’s not the right comparison. I loved the food I had from Banarasi Kitchen, and I thought their menu was more interesting – and out and out tastier. But I never ate at the Spread Eagle when Banarasi Kitchen were operating there, and restaurants are about more than the food. Reading’s history is full of pubs and kitchens parting company, sometimes in acrimonious circumstances, and you probably never learn the full story. So maybe the Spread Eagle saw Banarasi Kitchen doing so well, fancied a piece of the action and decided to take over the kitchen themselves. Perhaps the whole pub is under new management. Ultimately, it’s pointless to speculate.

But it’s a real pity is that Bagheera has such a beautiful dining room and such a grown-up brand but they’ve decided to use both those things to play it exceptionally safe. On that basis, it’s fairer to compare Bagheera to the likes of House Of Flavours, or Royal Tandoori, and I don’t think it emerges well from those comparisons. The food isn’t bad, not in the slightest, but it’s almost as if Bagheera has decided to leave the wow factor to the room and dish up an unadventurous, inoffensive set of dishes to eat in it. I wonder, in our crowded restaurant scene, how viable an approach that really is.

I might be doing Bagheera a massive disservice. Their vegetarian section looks like it could be where the real treasures can be found, and it’s possible that the Indo-Chinese dishes are where the kitchen really shines. Looking back over the menu I see many roads less travelled and dishes I could have tried instead. I don’t think we picked the staid, hackneyed dishes to fit a narrative I had in my head that big polished Bagheera had displaced plucky, authentic Banarasi Kitchen, but I at least have the self-awareness to see that on some level that might have happened.

So Bagheera probably does deserve another try at some point, but I have to admit that I still have reservations. When it comes to running the country, I am positively looking forward to someone boring but competent taking over. But in a restaurant, that just isn’t enough.

Bagheera at the Spread Eagle – 6.9
117 Norfolk Road, Reading, RG30 2EG
0118 9574507


Café review: Richfields Deli & Grill

I’m under strict instructions to find some new dining companions. Dragging poor Zoë out on a weekly basis to accompany me to restaurant X or Y, with all the cashflow and calorific consequences that entails, is apparently getting, in her own immortal words “too much”. The cost of living with me crisis. So I was told in no uncertain terms that this week’s review would have to be a solo mission. Make some more bloody friends, seemed to be the unspoken subtext. 

Which was fine: I woke up on Sunday morning, feeling a mite jaded after a day spent introducing friends – relatively new ones, as it happens – to the delights of Reading, to Double Barrelled and the Grumpy Goat, to our brilliant beer scene and the equally brilliant number 17 bus. You forget how great this town can be, and it’s always a tonic to see it in the eyes of somebody else, even if that does involve going all the way down the Oxford Road to an industrial estate near a big branch of Screwfix. Whatever: I slouched out of the house, a couple of paracetamol freshly gulped down, badly in need of brunch.

Nothing quite hits the spot like a full English when you’re hanging out of your arse, and I had Richfields, at the end of the Caversham Road, in my sights. I’d been there just over five years ago with a then friend of mine who used to accompany me on reviews, Costanza to my Seinfeld, and we’d both had lunch dishes, even though it was more of a breakfast place. “I’ll make an effort to go back there for brunch next year” I said, but next year came and I didn’t. Ditto for the year after, and then of course the world changed entirely. But I’d always felt I ought to give them another try, that my review was getting out of date, and a slightly hung over solo brunch date with myself presented a perfect opportunity.

The inside hasn’t changed much since I went there last – they’ve taken down the Christmas tree, obviously – so it’s still a long space broken up into three similar rooms and tastefully done in orange and blue, banquettes running along the walls. When I got there, midmorning, the place was pretty full and it clearly does a roaring takeaway trade because there was a big queue at the counter and I had to wait a little for them to wipe down a table. 

I bagged a table in the front room, because there was better daylight for pictures, but I came to regret it because the front door swung open and shut so often from a frequent stream of customers that it was a bit of an ice box. Still, I was pleased they were so busy. Initially I thought you had to go up to the counter to order, but I’d just happened to arrive at the same time as a lot of takeaway customers and a very friendly customer handed me a menu on his way to go up and order a coffee. 

When I went back in 2017 I found the menu huge – too huge, honestly – and all over the place. There were brunches, of course, but also burgers and grill dishes, salads, a bewildering array that didn’t make you confident they could do it all well. Richfields in 2023 has sensibly refocused on brunches and most of the dishes sit in that category. They still do a couple of lunch dishes, curries, chillis and stews, and they have a bunch of toasties but the rest is very much variations on a theme: savoury brunches, sweet pancakes and a few breakfast wraps and burritos. 

The drinks menu is big too – shakes, smoothies, hot drinks and, for the adventurous, Bloody Marys and mimosas (perhaps another time, I thought to myself). They did a variety of cakes and brownies up at the counter, too, although it wasn’t clear who make them: Richfields social media has suggested that they buy from Rise Bakehouse in the past, but they might not do so now. Richfields also sells its own coffee in big bags to take home, though it wasn’t clear who roasted it for them.

Apart from the regular blasts of frigid air from the constantly swinging front door, which was my fault for not picking a better table, it was truly a very agreeable place to sit and let the morning paracetamol slowly take effect. I’d brought a novel with me to read and pretend to be a better person than I am, but the people watching opportunities were rich and between that and my phone I had no choice but to be my usual shabby and slightly disreputable self. 

The thing that struck me, watching people come and go, was just how universal Richfields’ appeal was. All age groups and demographics were represented, from young professionals who had wandered in from Little Wales, the maze of streets behind Caversham Road, to fiftysomethings from Caversham enjoying a companionable married brunch and bigger groups of students.

I thought this was enviable, to attract loyalty from so many different types of people, and in that respect it reminded me more of Tilehurst’s The Switch than the slightly Made In Chelsea antics of people frantically posing for the ‘gram in Café Yolk (bear in mind, though, that it’s me saying this: I’m positively ancient).

I’d ordered a orange juice and a latte and both came in around quarter of an hour. The orange juice was very good – the menu says it’s “fresh orange juice” but whether that means “freshly squeezed” or “freshly taken out of a bottle or carton that says ‘fresh orange juice’ on it” I have literally no idea. Either way I liked it a lot and it was badly needed, although with hindsight a Dr Pepper might have been more effective.

The latte was more problematic – it had that slightly bitter acrid top note that middle tier coffee in Reading often has, although I have to say too that it got better as it went along, which truly awful coffee never does. They charge less for a single shot latte but they didn’t ask me which kind I wanted – I’m guessing, though, that this was a double shot which would explain why it was a little harsh. It didn’t make me want to buy some beans, either way.

I decided to order the “Richfields Fry Up”, the reference breakfast, because I always think it’s a good yardstick. If this hadn’t been a solo visit I could tell you about the chorizo hash, the smashed avo, the eggs Benedict or even the “Hot Mess”, a sort of breakfast burrito with scrambled eggs, chorizo and Tabasco. Sorry about that, although at least it should make for a shorter review (who am I kidding? We both know it won’t). 

Now, normally in my reviews I’ll describe everything I’ve eaten and then pop a picture at the end as a sort of aide memoire – I ate this and this and this, and by the way it looked like this. But just to mix things up, let’s look at the picture first and then I’ll tell you what did and didn’t work. Not all of it, by the way, is readily apparent from the picture.

So first of all, doing the scam with a small plate to make your breakfast look enormous isn’t a con trick Richfields needs to pull. It is a massive breakfast and it needed a bigger plate. Without it, you were always playing the game of pushing one item out of the way so you could have a crack at cutting another and loading it onto your fork. I nearly lost several things overboard more than once.

In terms of the individual components, it was very much a curate’s egg. Bacon was back, unfortunately, but well cooked with colour and no hideous rubberband fat to chew your way through. Also good were the mushrooms, which maybe hadn’t been cooked to savoury depth as they could have been but were at least – and you can’t take this as a given – properly cooked and not sad microwaved things shrivelled in a meagre puddle of what passed for their own juices. I’d asked for poached eggs, and they were a strong point – nicely done with good shape and no hint of vinegar from the poaching.

The very best thing about Richfields breakfast is the hash brown. Unlike nearly anywhere I can think of, with the possible exception of Bluegrass BBQ, they make their own hash browns and it shows. They are glorious, big, irregular carby marvels. Richfields should be famous for them – they were head and shoulders above everything else on the plate – and yet they don’t make anything of them. I found that bizarre. 

And last but not least, I didn’t like the sausage at all. It was smooth, browned and unappetising – I’d compare it to Robert Kilroy Silk if that wasn’t the most outdated analogy of all time – and, for me at least, actively not pleasant. I cut it, I chewed a bit, I decided if I wanted some more, I repeated the process a couple more times and decided to abort the mission. A little clear fluid wept from the cut end onto the plate, and I felt slightly icky. I don’t know what the meat content of this sausage was, but at a guess I would put it within a couple of percentage points of “nowhere near high enough”.

Would you believe me, though, if I said that wasn’t the biggest problem with this dish? I almost never talk about presentation because I think it’s an overrated aspect of food. The time spent making it look all pretty can be time you would otherwise spend eating the damned thing, and I’m never going to be one of those people who says oh, it’s just too beautiful to eat. Nothing edible is too beautiful to eat.  Unless it tastes shite in which case yes, you might be better off not bothering.

But plating in brunch is important, because of the whole element of cross-contamination. I know some people like baked beans, and some people – like my other half – really do not. I know some people may think having the baked beans ring-fenced in a secure ramekin is overkill, but even those people – or people who rather like baked beans, like I do, would probably still want them to be at least slightly self-contained on the plate. Well, Richfields don’t believe in the barrier method: almost every single element of the breakfast was resting on an almost completely concealed lake of baked beans. I bet at least a few of you read that sentence and shuddered.

It sort of ruined everything. My preference is to plonk my poached egg on a slice of toast, so that the yolk seeps into the bread. Here there was barely room to do that, but also both my eggs were already tainted with baked bean juice. So were the two slices of cheap, thin white bread – I bet they weren’t from Rise – so much so that they were decidedly soggy. It even did its best to mar the hash brown. I think this breakfast was plated by one of two kinds of people: someone who fucking loves baked beans, or someone who doesn’t ever eat a full English. Either way, it was a huge error: when I finished my meal, all that was left was about a third of an iffy sausage and a lukewarm puddle of baked beans.

I don’t want you to think I didn’t enjoy myself. Richfields is a very nice spot, in an interesting part of town on the border of all sorts of things and if the coffee had been better, or the brownies had definitely been from Rise, or better still both I might have lingered longer, done some Olympic standard eavesdropping and even pretended to read my book (Really Good, Actually by Monica Heisey: it was really good, actually). 

Opposite me a table of four tousle-haired students were conducting an in depth post mortem on all the girls they’d failed to get off with the night before in a way that was sweetly post #MeToo with all the laddish menace of a chess club. Next to me three thirtysomethings were comparing box sets – I keep meaning to get round to Ozark – while the most middle class of them, bless her, ate her Hot Mess burrito with a knife and fork. It was all rather lovely.

But Richfields had put me in the mood for excellent coffee, in the way that reading Caitlin Moran might put you in the mood for Nora Ephron, and I knew I could get it the other side of Caversham Bridge, so I settled up and headed on my way. It came to just under seventeen pounds, with no option for service. I asked, and either the waitress didn’t understand me or it was included. I hope it is, because all the service I had was superb, and they were very, very busy.

I wish this was a better review, and I can’t help thinking that I actually had a more enjoyable meal five years ago when I went there for a Philly cheesesteak sandwich. I understand retrenching to brunches – Richfields is only open until three at weekends – but I just wish mine had been a little better executed. And when I compare it to Dee Caf or The Switch, or even Café Yolk for all its faults, it was slightly lacking. As I approached the Crowne Plaza roundabout I saw the Gorge, thoroughly rammed with people, the interior as reassuringly naff as ever. And I wondered if really, the main differences between it and Richfields were cosmetic. 

All the same, I’m glad that Richfields was doing so well, and relieved that this review will no doubt be like water off a duck’s back to them. But the problem was the beans, both coffee and haricot. To get one wrong may be regarded as a misfortune; to err at both looks like carelessness. My top tip, if you go there, is an item tucked away in the bottom right corner of the menu: order a pair of hash browns from their Sides section and add some scrambled eggs and bacon. Black pudding, too, if you’re feeling decadent. By reckoning that will cost around half as much as the fry up, and be about twice as good. You’re welcome.

Richfields Deli & Grill – 6.8
211 Caversham Road, RG1 8BB
0118 9391144

Restaurant review: San Sicario

“What was this place before it was Cozze?” said Zoe as we flipped through the menus at San Sicario, the newish Italian restaurant at the bottom of the Caversham Road which has replaced Cozze’s central Reading branch.

“How long have you got? Before Cozze it was a Mexican restaurant called Maracas. And before that it was another Italian place called Casa Roma. Casa Roma and Maracas were owned by the same people…”

“…and they changed it to Maracas because they could use all the letters from their old sign? You’ve told me that story before.”

I smiled, although I did wonder if it was a good thing to have reached the you’ve told me that story before stage in our relationship.

“Yes, and before that it was a Lebanese restaurant called El Tarboush. That wasn’t bad actually – this would have been around 2009. Before that it was a place called La Fontana, but they moved out to Twyford.”

“Another Italian?”

“More generic Mediterranean, really. And before that it was a restaurant called Chi’s Oriental Brasserie. Now that was a restaurant! It was run by a chap called Wayne Wong from Cardiff, of all places. I still remember their XO chilli prawns. They ended up moving to the spot where Buon Appetito is now. I did karaoke there once, would you believe.”

Suddenly I had memories of nights in that restaurant over twenty years ago. At the time, I was going out with a woman who took great pride in stealing a six inch, brushed steel soap dispenser from Chi’s Oriental Brasserie’s ladies’ toilets: it was, with hindsight, one of many indicators that we wanted different things out of life.

“It keeps defaulting to Italian, I suppose.”

“Sort of. I guess Italian is a go-to option in this country – it tends to be mid-priced, it’s easy to do multiple pizzas and pasta dishes. Even now we still tend as a nation to have Italian out and Chinese or Indian food for a takeaway.” 

That doesn’t tell the whole story, though, because before this place was San Sicario it was San Carlo – same location, same owners, but a name they had to cease and desist from using barely a month after they opened last November because of a large national chain of Italian restaurants called San Carlo. 

I felt for San Sicario when I heard that – a far from auspicious start in a site where, if history was anything to go by, the owners would need every lucky break they could get. That’s when I made a mental note to pay San Sicario a visit sooner, rather than later.

“It’s got to be better than Cozze, anyway.”

Zoe was right about that – Cozze, San Sicario’s predecessor, had been terrible. I still remembered my meal there, eating carbonara paler than Cate Blanchett. It was a mystery how they’d ever expanded to three branches.

The interior of San Sicario was especially jarring: the glassware might have been different – and rather fancy – but the furniture, the banquettes, the exposed brick-effect wallpaper and the faux Kandinsky wall art had all been inherited from Cozze. Literally inherited: they’d lightened up some of the colour scheme, but it was fundamentally exactly the same. 

It was a big room, and the owners hadn’t really done anything to break it up into zones or to soften the noise – a room which really had to be full not to look a bit strange, although full it would have been deafening. On a Saturday lunchtime it was far from packed, with about three other tables occupied. Another three or so groups came for lunch after we sat down.

The first sign that this was a very different beast from Cozze came when I paid attention to the menu. I was never sure just how Italian a restaurant could be when it did chicken wings and burgers, but San Sicario’s menu left you in no doubt that it was a Proper Italian Restaurant. The menu was big – possibly too big – but it didn’t feel like it was chasing customers from Prezzo or Zizzi; the chef has cooked at Pepe Sale, and that felt far more the ballpark here. 

That doesn’t mean that San Sicario didn’t sell pasta and pizza – far from it, they did – but the pasta was an interesting range of sauces and shapes rather than a boilerplate way of flogging the two in an almost infinite number of combinations (just typing this reminds me, by the way, how little I miss Wolf Italian Street Food). But there was also a reasonably priced set lunch menu, which they even offered on Saturdays, a specials menu with five additional dishes on it and a Valentine’s Day menu, which I assume they hadn’t got round to removing yet.

The main thing I thought, looking at the menu, was that these were classic dishes and combinations, and that if the restaurant could pull them off it would be the kind of restaurant Reading hasn’t had for some time. I know many people miss Dolce Vita, and others miss what Pepe Sale used to be before the original owners sold up. Some, for that matter, still talk about Nino’s. But really, I’m not sure Reading has had a truly classic Italian restaurant since Topo Gigio closed.

Our first dishes came as we were making inroads into a couple of very servicable drinks – a powerful negroni for her, a G&T made with fragrant Italian gin for me – and they made for an excellent start. According to the restaurant’s social media they make their own bread and focaccia every day, and they were both pretty decent, especially the focaccia which came sliced into little cubes, perfect for dipping in oil and balsamic vinegar, just enough salt scattered on the crust. We saved the bread for mopping, showing uncharacteristic foresight.

I picked the best of the starters, which is something I don’t get to say often enough. White crab meat came heaped onto what could have been crème fraîche or mascarpone, the whole thing sitting on a potato rosti. Simple, elegant, pristine flavours, and if the advertised watercress was nowhere to be seen I was hardly complaining, as it would have thrown the whole thing out of kilter. 

It wasn’t perfect – the rosti could have done with more lightness and crispness, and felt more like a latke, and I had a few bits of shell in the crab – but none of that detracted from just how delightful it was. And could I think of anywhere else in Reading where this dish would end up on the menu? Not really.

That was one of the specials, as was Zoë’s starter. Calamarata, a shape of pasta I’ve never had before, are short thick rings of pasta thought to resemble calamari (they were obviously named by somebody who’d never eaten a packet of Hula Hoops, that’s all I’m saying). They were paired up with a tantalising-sounding ragu made with beef, lamb, pork and veal. Four different animals on one plate: just imagine!

For what it’s worth, I enjoyed this dish more than Zoë did – just as well because, as a generous-sized starter, I got to finish it. The sauce hugged the pasta better than I was expecting and I quite liked the ragu which was studded with tender meat. But I agreed with Zoë that the ragu was a little unbalanced – it was underseasoned, which meant the sharpness of the tomato was more prominent than it should have been. A carpet of parmesan couldn’t save it, although maybe it would have done if it had been a lot thicker.

A final starter sounded so good, and looked so good online, that we were greedy and ordered it to share. A pile of wild mushrooms – accurately described for once – was sticky and reduced, topped with a crispy breadcrumbed egg. The egg was cooked just right, with only a little over-wobbly egg white, and when cut open the yolk worked its magic spreading across the mushrooms, an edible sunrise. 

Again, it was a dish so close to superb but not quite there – I wanted more savoury depth in the mushrooms, and that was missing. I didn’t mind that it was on the small side, and I didn’t mind that it was a tiny bit pricey (it was just under a tenner), but I did mind that. If the flavour had been spot on, none of that would have mattered in the slightest.

All that said, main courses were pretty good. Zoë’s lamb rump was expertly cooked, far better than at, say, London Street Brasserie, and four really generous slices of it were fanned out on top of a very creditable caponata with plenty of black olives, the whole thing bathed in jus. The salsa verde was denser than Owen Jones, but considerably more appetising (and like Owen Jones, a little went a very long way). This dish wasn’t cheap at just over twenty-five quid, but I thought it was probably about its money. Again, Zoë found it a smidge underseasoned. She might have been right.

Saltimbocca has always been one of my favourite dishes, and since Dolce Vita closed nearly five years ago I’ve never found one that came close. San Sicario’s, I’m pleased to say, did – three pieces of veal, topped with prosciutto and luxuriating in butter and sage is one of the loveliest, simplest plates of food you can eat. Again, I feel a bit like I’m kicking a puppy saying this but it needed more – more butter, more sage, more seasoning, more oomph. The courgettes it was served with were pleasant enough, and certainly not cooked to mulch, but they felt like a bit of a plod without plenty of that butter to trawl them through. In my mind I was hoping for courgette fritti, but it wasn’t to be.

We did, however, make an excellent choice of side. Potatoes were wonderfully bronzed cylinders, all crinkled edges that spoke of a far healthier relationship with fat than I’ve ever managed. They were more fondant potato than roast potato, and all the better for it. Three pounds fifty, too, which is ludicrous value. “This is a lot better than that medley of veg you get at Pepe Sale” said Zoë. I couldn’t agree more.

By this point the restaurant was as full as it was going to get at lunchtime, and it was interesting how that exposed some problems with the service and the space. We eventually ordered some wine – a glass of barbera for Zoë and a sauvignon blanc for me – after we finished our starters. Both were lovely, but by the time they’d arrived our mains were in front of us. We hadn’t specified what size we wanted, he hadn’t asked and he brought us large glasses, which isn’t really what we wanted.

We didn’t make anything of it, it wasn’t a biggie, but there were a few niggles like that. The waiter was absolutely lovely, and quite up front about his limited English – still, of course, infinitely better than my Italian – but there was just the one of him and he did seem to struggle a little with half a dozen tables demanding his attention. And the room was so big, and the tables were so spaced out, that it could be difficult to grab him when you needed him.

I would say desserts are San Sicario’s weak point. The menu sensibly only has half a dozen, but they don’t bowl you over. Having ordered tiramisu at practically every Italian restaurant I’ve reviewed since 2019 we gave it a miss this time, although it turned up at a neighbouring table and looked good. Zoë chose a cheesecake, and enjoyed it without ever going into raptures. It was billed as a vanilla lemon cheesecake with berry compote – talk about covering your bases – but actually it was a slab without compote and with a layer of fruit jelly on top. I didn’t try it, but tellingly I didn’t especially want to.

I’d picked an affogato, prompted by fond memories of the one Tamp Culture used to do back in the day. It was entry level – two scoops of vanilla ice cream that could have been Walls, a jug of burnt-tasting espresso and, allegedly, some amaretto. It looked like the ice cream might have had a few molecules of the stuff splashed over it, but not enough to taste of it. When a dessert is this simple, every aspect of it should be good. With this one, none of it really was.

Our bill for all that food, a couple of drinks each and a post-prandial espresso came to one hundred and thirty pounds, not including tip, and took a fair old while to conjure up. I actually think quite a lot of what we had was pretty decent value, and it’s also worth pointing out that for the time being the restaurant is offering 20% off food Tuesday to Thursday via their Facebook page. After we settled up we went to Phantom for a drink, and it was hosting some kind of punk pop festival which made me feel ancient – I’m old enough to remember Basket Case the first time round – so we hopped into a taxi, went to Double Barrelled and had a very pleasant couple of hours working our way through the pales on offer. A perfect Reading Saturday.

If it’s brave to open a restaurant in the winter of 2022, knowing everything we know, it’s especially brave to open the kind of restaurant San Sicario is. I think the lower end of the market, your Franco Mancas and Zizzis, are possibly better protected from the economic shocks of the moment than somewhere unapologetically upmarket like San Sicario. And that’s before you factor in that their site is enormous. That their site is in a location that’s not in town or in Caversham, with limited parking. That it’s a site that has proved to be a poisoned chalice for so many restaurants. Then consider all the faff and palaver of revealing your name in November and having to change it literally on the 3rd of January – talk about New Year, new you – and San Sicario starts to look positively heroic.

And yet I really hope they make a go of it. It’s truly encouraging to see somewhere trying to offer what Reading doesn’t have – a genuine, interesting, high-end Italian that doesn’t just pile up the pizza and pasta, lazy variations on a theme, and try to take easy money. Some of the dishes I had I simply wouldn’t have been able to get elsewhere in Reading, and the fundamentals of the restaurant are solid. They need to tighten up the service a little, and I’d like them to be a little more liberal with the seasoning, but in honesty there’s nothing wrong with San Sicario that a few more customers wouldn’t solve.

Restaurants run better busier, and if I’d been there on a Saturday night, all buzz and bustle, I suspect it could have been fun enough to quite make me forget the glory days of Chi’s Oriental Brasserie. I will be back, and I sincerely hope San Sicario breaks the duck of one of Reading’s unluckiest sites. After all across town, in an equally ill-starred space, their compatriots Madoo have proved that it can be done.

San Sicario – 7.6
93-97 Caversham Road, RG1 8AN
0118 9560200