I was late arriving for my reservation at Goat On The Roof: one thing I haven’t missed in the two and a half years since the pandemic is the panic caused by trying to get somewhere on time when our rail network refuses to play ball. There were no strikes on that bright sunny evening, but I stood by the departures board watching trains being repeatedly pushed back or cancelled. I texted Graeme, who was joining me for dinner, saying it was touch and go. “Let me know if it all goes tits up” he said, a man whose own plans had also been wrecked by the railways one too many times.
In the end I found a seat on seemingly the only train heading west in the foreseeable future and gazed out of the window as Reading turned into West Berkshire, the train trundled past the sixties flats of Southcote and out into the countryside. This was my commute every day for about a year, and although I never missed the job in Newbury I always liked how contemplative the journey could be.
I liked the landmarks, too. The weird Harrods warehouse plonked by the tracks in Thatcham, looking deeply incongruous. The business parks of Theale, far from the cutting edge. Midgham, so bucolic with the lovely Rowbarge just round the corner. And the slightly vulgar view of the racecourse, a sign that your voyage was nearly over. I felt like a modern-day Philip Larkin in The Whitsun Weddings, albeit without the racism, the womanising, the enormous jazz collection.
Alighting at Newbury I remembered how much I liked the place and how enjoyable it had been to knock around town after work. Their main outside space in the Market Place, was occupied by a Bill’s and a Wetherspoons, but it still looked very fetching on a summer’s evening. Besides, what did Reading have in a similar location? An overflow car park for O’Neills, defiling the space where the 3Bs used to be.
Graeme was already at Goat On The Roof when I arrived, hot, flustered and en retard, but he’d grabbed a table and had a gin and tonic on the go, because he’s no fool. Walking over to join him I was struck by what a tasteful room it was: good furniture, plain panelled walls, art dotted here and there. The site used to be Japanese restaurant Arigato, and before that it was a bank – that shows in the proportions of the room, the almost full-length windows bathing the room in light.
I was worried that the lack of soft furnishings would make it a deafening room in which to spend an evening, but actually it wasn’t problematic. And it could easily have been, because the place was pretty much full on a Friday evening: not bad going for a restaurant which opened less than three months ago.
While we peered at our menus, the owner came over and asked whether we’d eaten there before. When we said we hadn’t, he proceeded to “explain the concept”: now, this normally induces some eye-rolling but Goat On The Roof’s concept is an interesting one and goes some way to explaining why this week’s review is from Newbury rather than somewhere closer to home.
They were a British tapas restaurant, he said, and that meant a reliance on British ingredients, ideally organic, sustainable and as local as possible. And that feels like an intriguing idea: we have some great ingredients in this country, and some magnificent producers, but many restaurants don’t bang that drum as loudly as they could. It’s an apposite idea in the wake of Brexit, too, with many ingredients trickier and costlier to import than ever, so if this turned out to be a well-executed, well-considered stratagem rather than a gimmick it could make for an excellent meal. Besides, I’ve been moaning for years that Reading didn’t have a credible tapas restaurant, and for some outrageous reason nobody had deemed this sufficient incentive to open one.
Anyway, the concept was all well and good but what were we going to eat? The menu did an excellent job of selling practically every dish, and I was pleased to see that it was already different from the one I’d seen online. It was divided into sections for nibbles, vegetable dishes, fish, meat and cheese and prices varied quite widely: most of the meat dishes, for instance, were north of a tenner whereas veg dishes were closer to seven pounds.
“Do you have any questions about the menu?” asked the owner.
“Yes, what’s the ‘Barbed Dart’?” said Graeme.
“It’s a quail’s egg, red pepper and anchovy threaded onto a skewer. You put it in your mouth and pull the skewer out and eat it all in one go, and it’s an explosion of flavours. Don’t eat the skewer too though” – he said this in a manner which suggested it was well-rehearsed – “That bit’s very important.”
After he’d left us to our deliberations, Graeme leaned forward.
“I like all of those things, but I’m not sure I can be bothered with it.”
“I feel the same! So I guess we agree on some dishes for our first wave and hold some back for a second wave. That cabbage with black garlic and pangrattato sounds nice, or perhaps the tomatoes with pesto.”
“I suppose I could be a grown up and eat tomatoes. I hated them as a child, and I’ve only got used to them recently.”
“But these are from the Isle Of Wight” I pontificated. “They’re sort of legendary, they’re some of the only tomatoes we grow in this country that taste of anything.”
“I’m quite comfortable with us not ordering anything from the vegetables section, you know.”
Again, I remembered why Graeme was one of my favourite dining companions: I must invite him to join me more often. I also remembered that Graeme’s wife was a vegetarian – although apparently a recent holiday in Madeira had turned her into a pescatarian – so he was probably looking forward to an evening going off the rails.
But first, wine. Goat On The Roof’s wine list was a superb, fascinating thing, Everything was European, British wine was well represented and there was a strong selection of orange wines and natural wines (would you have put money on Newbury, of all places, becoming a hotbed for natural wine?). Prices started at twenty-five pounds and climbed sharply after that, although a good proportion were available by the glass. On another day I might have tried the Welsh Pet Nat or an Austrian red, but Graeme had seen something that caught his eye.
“They have a Grüner Veltliner on the list, and I really love a Grüner.”
That was good enough for me, and the fact that it was a natural wine swung it for sheer curiosity. The natural wines I’ve tried have always been on the challenging side, with more funk than I’d personally choose, but this one’s cloudiness belied a wonderfully fresh, balanced wine. Before I’d finished the first glass I’d made a mental note to seek it out, and within a couple of days I’d taken delivery of a couple of bottles. That’s how good it was. (One of the websites where I found it said “you can neck it from a mug if you want, such is the vibrancy of the wine” – no: it’s good, but not so good that you’d abandon your standards.)
Our first wave of dishes was an excellent start. Anchovies, from Cornwall apparently, were marinated boquerones-style rather than salty, but they had a real zippiness to them, lifted with lemon, mint and chilli and completed with custard-yellow oil. It was a deceptively dense portion – although Goat On The Roof’s plates are far from ugly their general principle is to pile things high. Neither of were quibbling though, and the bread we’d ordered – workmanlike, not exceptional – saw more of the oil than the butter which came with it. Hats off, too, that the butter was at room temperature.
Also piled high on a plate rather than painstakingly spread out on a board was the fennel salami. Again this made the portion look smaller than it was, so maybe not the most considered approach, but the salami was perfectly coarse and laced with fennel and I liked it very much. Their charcuterie comes from Trealy Farm, a relatively big name which used to supply to Mitchell & Butler pubs back in the day. Even so, it was gorgeous stuff: I looked them up online when I got home, too.
I suspect Trealy Farm also provided the lardo which came draped on top of a scallop ceviche, a dish from the specials menu. Graeme was impressed with this dish, but I was more circumspect. The quality of the scallops was top notch, and it had a wonderful cleanness which was almost led astray enough by the lardo. But it needed more of the advertised gremolata to add contrast and colour – without that it was a little too white, a little too pure.
The last of our initial quartet was a classic tapas dish, ham and cheese croquettes. Graeme was drawn to this because they’d used Old Winchester, a fantastic cheese that can rival any manchego, and I thought these were well done – a smooth, glossy béchamel with just enough ham to lend another dimension. I used the last of my bread to scoop up the snowdrift of grated cheese left in the dish.
Our second wave of orders was even more successful than the first, and chanced upon three stone cold classics on the menu. The first of these was Goat On The Roof’s take on patatas bravas (which of course they call “Crispy Potatoes, Spiced Tomato Sauce, Garlic Mayo”, presumably because their concept precludes speaking foreign on the menu wherever possible).
I’ve had patatas bravas in a lot of places, and Goat On The Roof’s are right up there with the best. Often they’re just not crispy enough, or they used to be but they wilted under the onslaught of a lake of bravas sauce and aioli. These were absolutely spot on – incredible texture, not overdressed and perfectly balanced. At five pounds seventy they’re also arguably the best value on the menu: if you go, insist on having one to yourself.
Also exceptional was the pork belly with rhubarb compote. The pork, fried until crispy, reminded me a lot of chicharrones I’ve had in Malaga, so skilfully cooked that you didn’t mind in the slightest about spearing a cube that was more fat than flesh. I’ve not had pork with rhubarb before but having tried it I wonder why it took me so long – the sharp tartness of the rhubarb being exactly what was needed, harmonising with the pork rather than drowning it out. Again, small plates for sharing are all very well but order one of these, tell your companions they wouldn’t like it and eat it all on your own: whoever you’re at dinner with will get over it.
The last standout dish was the soused mackerel – a gorgeous piece of fish cooked as little as they could get away with, with a quenelle of relatively restrained horseradish cream (and a pointless piece of something like melba toast). This was very much the kind of dish where you took as small a forkful as you could each time and savoured every bite, and the fact that Graeme and I shared one between two is a tribute to our powers of restraint.
We also had the chorizo (the menu does speak foreign here, presumably because “Deep Red Paprika Sausage” would have looked weird and wrong) cooked in cider. It came with a hen’s egg – they were oddly specific about that – which was soft boiled and rolled in some kind of crumb. I liked this dish, probably because the chorizo was also from Trealy Farm and they’re very good at what they do, but at eleven pounds fifty it felt a little on the sharp side. But again, it was good enough that you didn’t hold a grudge.
The dessert selection was much narrower. I’ve always held that you can share your small plates all you like but dessert is meant to be your own personal kingdom: if people are good, or lucky, they can have a forkful but any more is pushing it. I gave Graeme first choice and after much deliberation he chose what I thought was a gorgeous dessert – local strawberries, shiny and sticky with maceration, a perfect sphere of sorrel sorbet perched on top. The forkful I had was properly beautiful, and I’d ordered it I wouldn’t have complained.
Graeme did, but that’s more because my order, the chocolate mousse, was phenomenal. This seems to be a staple in tapas restaurants and many places – Arbequina in Oxford, or Bar 44 in Bristol – do it extremely well. But often it will be poshed up with salt or olive oil, a thin bit of toast or some torta de aciete. By contrast Goat On The Roof plays it very straight – and if their mousse isn’t going to win any prizes for aesthetics it more than makes up for it with the taste. It was a glorious swirl of milk and white chocolate with a handful of raspberries and I can happily confirm that it’s the perfect way to end a meal. Not that we did end the meal there, because we had some fudge as a petit four (the vanilla one was okay, the coffee one cracking) but you get the general idea.
Our meal – a couple of gin and tonics, all those small plates, a stonking bottle of wine, desserts and fudge came to just shy of a hundred and sixty pounds, including an optional twelve and a half per cent service charge. Service, incidentally, was excellent: it’s a very young, very enthusiastic, very positive team and they have the enthusiasm that comes with starting something new and very accomplished which is quite unlike anything Newbury has, or Reading for that matter.
After our meal we repaired to the excellent Catherine Wheel which has lovely outside space and, more importantly, a little outdoor bar selling over fifty kinds of gin. We nabbed the last free table and proceeded to drink really rather a lot of gin while Graeme berated me about my good luck in the dessert sweepstake.
“You did a Jedi mind trick on me, admit it.”
“It was more like Derren Brown. Did you not notice that in the run up to ordering I kept talking about the sorrel sorbet? Sorrel sorbet. Sorrel sorbet.”
Graeme grimaced, but I could tell he wasn’t really resentful. Probably. Besides, it was time to try another gin; I told him to surprise me and when he came back with a strawberry and balsamic concoction I couldn’t tell whether it was reward or revenge. A few gins later we weaved our way to the station for the last train home at the end of an evening well spent.
So why isn’t the rating down there higher, you might ask? The honest answer is I’m not entirely sure. Part of it’s the cost. Small plates restaurants do this – the prices of every dish are always clearly advertised, and nobody’s holding a gun to your head. And yet at the end there’s always a moment where the bill arrives and you wonder how you spent quite that much.
But also, Goat On The Roof was almost too polished. That’s what gives away how British it is. That’s not a bad thing per se, and if Goat On The Roof feels like it’s been there firing on all cylinders for a lot longer than three months that reflects very well on them, but it slightly lacked the exuberance I associate with tapas at its best. I’ll go back, I’m sure, but I’m not desperate to get it in the calendar. Although, on the other hand, pork belly with rhubarb compote.
The next day, I got a text from Graeme.
“I still think you used some kind of Jedi mind trick on me.”
“This is not the dessert you’re looking for”, I replied.
He sent me the applause emoji in response. But I wouldn’t have been surprised if, on the other side of the phone screen, he felt like telling me to fuck off.
Goat On The Roof – 7.7
1 Bridge Street, Newbury, RG14 5BE