Zest

How good is your memory for faces? I was in Brighton over the summer, sitting outside a particularly patchouli-scented café in the Lanes, when I thought I recognised the woman walking past my table and nipping inside. It bugged me for about five minutes until I realised where I knew her from: she’d served me in Workhouse Coffee what must have been a couple of years ago. Reading is a small town, and the longer you live there the more chances you get to accumulate memories, or scraps of memories, and to spot people you dimly recognise from your past: that person used to work at the same office as me a few years ago; that person was briefly my housemate in 2001 and never used the shower; there’s a friend I lost in the divorce.

The reason I mention this is that when we turned up at Zest on an icy winter’s evening, the owner recognised me immediately as a former customer of hers. I used to eat at Zest’s town centre sibling restaurant, the sadly-missed LSQ2 (where Handmade Burger is now), but even so it was an impressive feat of recall: I frequented LSQ2 the best part of ten years ago, and I expect she has seen hundreds of diners since then. And yet here we both were – her still trading nicely out at Green Park and me a few pounds heavier, far older and greyer (if not necessarily wiser) but still alive and kicking.

LSQ2 closed in 2012 (the GetReading article announcing the news tried to suggest that every cloud had a silver lining because Cosmo was about to open on Broad Street) but Tony and Sally Cole’s first restaurant, since rebranded as Zest, has been operating at Green Park for fifteen years, offering a combination of classic modern British food and dishes which reflect their time spent in Australia and New Zealand. I still remember a dish of sashimi-grade tuna with a slick of sesame that LSQ2 used to do – I ordered it every time I went there, until they took it off the menu because they felt the tuna wasn’t sustainable.

There are a few reasons why I’d never got round to reviewing Zest before now. It never quite made it to the top of my to do list, and I think that’s because I always got the distinct impression that it was more intended for people working on the business park, and corporate diners, than members of the public. The opening hours, not entirely clear from the website, didn’t help. It’s only generally open Monday to Friday, but you get mixed messages – in one place on the site it says it’s open 5 until late, in another it says their menu is served until 9pm and if you try to book online the latest table it will give you is at 8pm (with a clear instruction that you need to place your order by 8.15, because the kitchen closes).

Arriving at half seven with my other half Zoë didn’t necessarily alter that impression – there were a few tables occupied, one of them a large booking, but all seemed to be coming to the end of their meals: we were the last new customers that evening. Zest is actually quite an attractive space, all dark wood and big windows looking out over water. In the thick fog, with light trying to break through from the nearby offices and car parks, it was all a bit Blade Runner, and if the furniture felt slightly chain hotel it didn’t put me off. The lighting, as you’ll see from the photos, was a little more intimate than I’d like, although it didn’t help that a few bulbs were out.

Zest was running a reduced à la carte menu alongside a Christmas menu when I visited, although the prices weren’t unreasonable for either and you were allowed to mix and match. The only real difference was that mains on the Christmas menu were a few pounds more expensive and came with roasted vegetables and Brussels sprouts, whether they went with the dish or not (but more of that later).

In general starters were seven or eight pounds and, if you visit outside the festive season, most mains will cost you around fifteen. It was a very good menu with more than a few tempting choices, and I’m glad to say that no compromises were made in bringing you this review. There’s definitely an Asian influence to an otherwise modern European menu with Thai and Indonesian dishes sitting alongside more traditional ones – we tried a little from both, in the interests of balance.

My starter was one of the nicest things I’ve eaten this year. Pork belly (triple-cooked according to the menu, although I saw no real evidence of that) came in generous cubes with tender meat and glossy fat, all coated in a gloriously funky, fishy XO sauce, with pak choi, spring onion and big, fragrant coriander leaves. There was a lime aioli advertised, and something that looked like that was definitely drizzled over the pork, but it couldn’t break through the stronger flavours in the dish, not that I cared in the slightest.

The only misfire was the crackling on top, which left me fearing for my fillings. A lighter touch would have been better, and in honesty the dish wouldn’t have missed it: it also ruined the picture below, or at least that’s my excuse. In any case, I was too delighted with everything else to mind. I let Zoë try a couple of pieces, partly because it was the season of goodwill but mainly because food that good deserves to be shared, regardless of whether it’s December or June.

I had a sneaking suspicion that I’d won at starters, but Zoë was very happy with hers. “I want to try the Scotch egg because I’d had a few to compare it to”, she said, and it was a very attractive specimen, served on what was called “curry mayonnaise” but felt to me more like a katsu sauce, more fruity than fiery. It could have done with more of the advertised coriander salsa verde but even so I thought it was a really good example – what felt like panko breadcrumbs, beautiful texture, peppery sausagemeat and yolk at just the right consistency.

“Is it better than the Lyndhurst’s?” I asked Zoë.

“Better than the one they do now, and up there with the one the previous owners did” was the reply.

The wine list at Zest may reflect the fact that most of their diners drive home afterwards, with a compact selection: most of it is available by the glass, and only a couple of bottles north of thirty pounds. We had a very drinkable French pinot noir for twenty-eight pounds which I thoroughly enjoyed – although our waiter intervened to stop me pouring it myself, which felt a little unnecessary. He was the only person looking after us all evening and I couldn’t quite shift the fear that he resented us for making him work late: nice enough, but a little distant and slightly lacking in warmth.

Our main courses, both from the Christmas menu, came out a little quicker than I might have liked, adding to the feeling that we were keeping staff from their loved ones. It’s never easy, I suppose, for a kitchen to sit on their hands when they only have two dishes left to prepare, but I do wish they’d left it a little longer.

However, again, that felt like a minor quibble once I started eating the food. My beef rendang was truly beautiful. My previous experience of this dish had been at Newbury’s now-defunct Wau, and at the time I thought I’d had a very good rendang. This, though, was streets ahead – not sickly-sweet and overreliant on coconut but complex and aromatic, shot through with hints of star anise. Similarly, the beef hadn’t been cooked into mush – it was still in distinct pieces which only fell apart when you tried to load them onto a fork. Again, there was plenty of coriander and the sharp crunch of ribbons of lightly pickled carrot on top was an excellent touch.

This was a marvellous dish, perfect on a Baltic Reading evening, and I am pretty sure it is usually on Zest’s à la carte menu, so try it if you go. As it was on the Christmas menu it was served with a fair few roasted heritage carrots (many of them a pleasingly deep shade of purple), and although they didn’t go in the slightest with an Indonesian curry it didn’t stop them being delicious.

Zoë’s lamb shank was a more conventionally Christmassy affair, and very good it was too – a gigantic piece of meat, cooked into soft surrender. The sauce was deep, with a little sweetness from balsamic vinegar and soft onions and the mash was suitably creamy and smooth. This went much better with the roasted vegetables and with the surprisingly good Brussels sprouts, sliced thinly and served with cream and a little speckle of pancetta. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this dish also features on the menu all year round, and it’s well worth ordering. I would have liked the advertised mint salsa to make an appearance, but the dish managed fine without it.

It took a while for the waiter to ask us if we wanted to look at the dessert menu, and I felt guilty about saying yes: he asked in the same way that I ask Zoë if she wants help hanging the laundry out i.e. hoping against hope that the answer will be no. But if they don’t want people to order dessert, Zest will have to make the menu a lot less tempting – even the usual suspects had twists that made you want to find out how they looked off the page and on the plate. It’s also worth mentioning that Zest’s cheeseboard is a veritable Greatest Hits of local cheeses – Barkham Blue, Waterloo, Wigmore and Spenwood, all for eight pounds fifty.

My dessert was probably the weak link of the meal. Chocolate tart with meringue and Clementine sorbet sounded beautiful, and the flavours were all present, correct and harmonious. But the texture was wrong – the chocolate was not the solid ganache I was expecting, but a molten pool, as if it had escaped from a fondant. It didn’t stop it being enjoyable, a rarified Terry’s chocolate orange encased in light buttery pastry, but it wasn’t quite what I had hoped.

If I’d won out on starters, Zoë drew level with dessert. I feared a white chocolate and Bailey’s cheesecake would be too sickly but actually it was sweet but not excessively so, a big block of indulgence heavy on filling and light on base. The passionfruit curd underneath stopped the whole thing being too one-dimensional, but given that I was only allowed one small forkful it’s hard to comment further, beyond wishing that I’d ordered it myself.

Dinner for two, including a pre-added 10% service charge, came to just over a hundred pounds – and actually, ordering off the á la carte isn’t any more or less expensive than the three-courses-for-thirty-pounds festive menu. To my mind, that makes the latter remarkably generous and I left the restaurant with a full stomach, a spring in my step and a couple of money off vouchers for next month which I may well end up using.

It’s easy to get jaded when you review a restaurant every fortnight, easier still when it’s a Cozze, a Lemoni or a Pantry. So I’m delighted that, even if by accident rather than design, I’ve saved one of the best meals of 2019 until almost the very last. I didn’t come away from Zest convinced that they were necessarily packed on most weekday evenings, and that lack of clarity probably goes some way to explaining why the pacing of the meal was a little rushed and the service sometimes felt a tad diffident.

But – and this is far more important – I did come away from Zest wishing I had visited a long time ago, and convinced that I might have unearthed one of the best local restaurants you’ve never considered going to. It’s easily accessible by bus from the town centre, it’s affordable by taxi on the way home and it serves delicious, interesting food (it’s as if they’ve been doing it, without much fanfare, for the best part of fifteen years). There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Zest that a buzzier room full of more customers wouldn’t solve – and personally, I plan to play my own small role in helping with that in the New Year. I suspect if you went you’d find it memorable: chances are, they’d come to remember you too.

Zest – 8.0
Lime Square, 220 South Oak Way, Green Park, RG2 6UP
0118 9873702

http://www.zestatlimesquare.co.uk/home.html

The Last Crumb

Reading’s pub scene has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in the second half of 2019, despite pubs closing day in day out all over the country. The Lyndhurst reopened under new management and is now dishing up some really impressive food: last week I went there and had saddle of rabbit, stuffed with chicken liver and wrapped in Parma ham, up there with any rabbit dish I’ve had in Bologna. Then the Retreat was saved from an uncertain fate by a buy-out and is going from strength to strength with a new wine list, a far bigger presence online and, thankfully, the magnificent Brian still behind the bar.

That’s all well and good, but when the pub in question undergoes a more dramatic makeover people can be a little sniffier. The Eldon Arms closed and reopened in September as the Weather Station, with a few locals lamenting the loss of the name. I’ve been a few times since the reincarnation and it does some interesting beers, although sitting on a hard stool and using a barrel for a table is maybe designed for customers far younger and cooler than me: I soon found myself longing for a proper seat, which is around the point where I sloped off to the Retreat.

Finally, Caversham’s Prince Of Wales, at the top of Prospect Street, was acquired by Dodo Pubs who have spent a fair bit of time and money rebranding it as the Last Crumb. This provoked more complaints about losing the name, which I found harder to understand: surely there are quite enough pubs around the country called the Prince Of Wales? (I bet nobody would have objected it had been called the Duke Of York). Anyway, it’s not as if the people up in arms had frequented the pub back when it was the Prince Of Wales – everything I’d ever heard about the place suggested you wouldn’t go in unless you were up to date on your tetanus jabs.

I was delighted by the news that Dodo Pubs had taken on the Prince Of Wales, because I’ve always been a fan of the Rickety Press, their outpost in north Oxford’s Jericho – a lovely pub that does a good range of beers and ciders and very credible pizzas and burgers. When my Canadian family came to visit the U.K. earlier in the year and we went for a day trip to Oxford, I booked us in to the Rickety Press knowing it would suit everyone – craft enough for my twentysomething cousin and unpretentious enough for my 80 year old uncle. We had a lovely meal there, and I found myself wishing there was somewhere similar in Reading. Well, my wish was granted so my other half Zoë and I headed over on a weekday night to see whether the Last Crumb lived up to the promise of its sibling.

The inside is rather “2019 pub by numbers”, but not so terrible for all that. Yes, the walls are all a modish blue-grey and there are pointless bookshelves and objets everyway, but the flooring is lovely, the bare brick behind the bar equally so and at least it isn’t architectural carnage like, say, the interior of the Market House.

It’s divided up into rooms and those closest to the front of the pub are more conventional – banquette seating along one side, decent-sized tables and booths (I didn’t sit in that bit, mainly on account of it being colder than Priti Patel). The room nearest to the kitchen, incongruously, had round chrome-trimmed tables which were more reminiscent of a Fifties diner. And then there was the bigger room nearer to the bar, where you had a choice of perching on high chair at a high table or sitting on a minuscule chair at a long, low table probably intended to be communal. A bit like the Weather Station in that I took my seat thinking, deep down, that I was just a little too old for that kind of thing.

I’m not going to go into detail about the booze – you’ll have to wait for the excellent Quaffable Reading to review that side of things – but the selection looked decent to me. Dodo has its own lager and stout, and also serves Cotswold lager, Stowford Press and a small but reasonable range of craft. Of the fourteen beers and ciders on offer, only three crossed the five pound a pint Rubicon. I had a pint of Stowford Press, although I regretted not spotting the Cotswold Cider Company’s Yellow Hammer up on the board: next time, perhaps. Zoë, uncharacteristically, had a virgin mojito which was very nice, if more expensive than the cider.

Anyway, back to the food. The menu – sensibly I think – is quite limited, so you had a choice largely of pizzas or burgers, with a few salads tacked on the end and a handful of sides (there’s also a brunch menu, if you’re there that time of day). They’ve taken care to have a vegetarian and a vegan option on both sides of the menu, too, although I wasn’t sure how the “Leaf Not Beef” was truly vegan with smoked cheese on it. Some of the names should never have got out of the committee stage, either: I’m thinking especially of Coldplay tribute “Viva La Vegan” and the truly painful “Salami Get This Straight”. Not the worst I’ve ever heard – I used to frequent a sandwich shop in Oxford’s Covered Market which served something called “Yes Sir, Cheese My Baby” – but close enough.

Our order came out quicker than I would have liked, and with no starters or desserts on the menu we tried our best to cover a full range of the menu. The most successful thing was Zoë’s burger – the Moo & Blue special (Pie Minister should sue them for breach of copyright). It was good enough that I was only allowed a bite, but that bite was quite enough to make me wish I’d ordered one.

The patty was lovely, dense but not too dense with no mealiness or crumbliness (the menu says you can choose between well-done and pink: this was probably somewhere between the two). It was sensibly sized, i.e. you could pick it up and eat it without unhooking your jaw. But what really made it was the punch of Gorgonzola, a brilliant cheese to pair with this bringing plenty of salt and tang. The bun – a brioche, of course – was toasted and had enough structure to hold the whole thing together. One of the best burgers I’ve had in Reading outside Honest Burgers but also, at ten pounds fifty for the burger alone, more expensive.

You pay extra for the fries, so we shared a portion of cheese and truffle fries for four pounds seventy-five (sorry, I must stop listing the price of every dish, it’s a very Get Reading thing to do). They were served, as is the fashion, in a receptacle not quite big enough and I think Zoë liked them more than I did. Truffle oil is always a cheap way to add to the price of the dish and although I liked the cheese (allegedly fontina) it needed more of it.

We also tried the Dodo fried chicken, partly because of the absence of starters and desserts on the menu but mainly because I struggle to resist it when I see it on a menu. I’d had it before at the Rickety Press, where I enjoyed it very much, but this wasn’t pulled off with quite the same skill. The coating was tough and hard on the teeth, nice though the spicing was, and the meat – thigh rather than breast – had a little more give than I’d have liked. I wouldn’t say they were hipster Turkey Twizzlers, but I would say they were closer to that than I’d have liked. Again, Zoë liked them more than I did, so perhaps I was being especially fussy that evening.

My pizza managed simultaneously to be delightful and disappointing. I’d chosen the “chorizo piccante”, looking to compare it to Franco Manca’s very successful chorizo pizza. And it won out on so many levels – the shape was pleasingly irregular, there was a little leopard-spotting on the crust. The meat was good quality too – thin slices of chorizo and little blobs of something the menu just calls “soft spicy Brindisa” (there’s a word missing, but at a guess it was sobrasada). But what really picked it up was the bite added by a generous helping of pickled red chillies, lending the sharpness and fire it needed. So why disappointing? The decision to serve it on a thin steel plate meant that the whole thing was pretty much stone cold by the time I reached the halfway mark. Papa Gee, you can safely say, wouldn’t make a mistake like that.

Service, as so often the case when you order at the bar, was perfectly friendly but limited. I did notice staff loitering near the front door and greeting customers as they came in, which worked nicely, but there’s only so much you can say about service in a place like the Last Crumb. Our meal – a pizza, a burger, fries, fried chicken and a couple of drinks – came to forty-two pounds, not including tip. Not bad, all told, and not too expensive.

Despite the slight tone of grumpiness I detect reading back over those paragraphs, I did rather like the Last Crumb. It’s sensibly chosen to only do a few things and do them well, and on that basis it largely succeeds. But, and it’s a reasonably big but, it doesn’t do them so superbly that it becomes a destination of itself. If it was round the corner from me, I would be there pretty often, but on that side of the river (and right at the edge of the centre of Caversham at that) it feels just a little too far to go for such a quick and limited meal. That might change in the summer, when they make the most of their fabulous outside space and you could happily have a long weekend session there, but in the meantime it feels like a place largely for locals. That said, they’re lucky to have it and it fills a gap nicely – and with its five pound cheeseburgers on Monday and happy hours during the week Caversham residents will find plenty to enjoy.

That said, I kept my eyes peeled at the end of the evening as our taxi headed home down Prospect Street and Gosbrook Road. With the notable exception of Quattro, every pub and restaurant looked to be having an eerily quiet Wednesday night; every window was a little vignette, Caversham as reimagined by Edward Hopper. By contrast, the Last Crumb had been pretty much jumping throughout my visit. It might be a Dodo pub, but I suspect it’s not in any danger of extinction any time soon.

The Last Crumb – 7.4
76 Prospect Street, RG4 8JN
0118 9470749

https://dodopubs.com/locations/the-last-crumb/

Feature: 20 things I love about Reading (2019)

Back in April 2016, I wrote a piece on the 20 things I loved about Reading. Remember 2016? The good old days – before the constant merry-go-round of elections and referenda, back when the world felt a little sunnier and Twitter felt a lot happier. I could go on, but it will probably make us all sad.

Looking back at my list from 2016, much has changed and an updated version is long overdue. Some of the places which made my list last time have closed: Dolce Vita, for instance, which stopped trading in June last year to the disappointment of many. Even sadder was the closure of Tutti Frutti in late 2017, my favourite Reading café which sold the best ice cream for miles around.

Some things have changed to the extent where they no longer make my top 20 – I’m sure the After Dark, under its new management, is a wonderful venue but it is no longer the place of my many happy memories. Similarly Kyrenia has been Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus for several years now, and its phenomenal front of house Ihor has moved on. The Reading Forum has degenerated into a seemingly never-ending conversation about Reading’s crime rate, Wetherspoons and the inevitable B word.

More to the point, town has changed a lot since 2016. As restaurants have closed, more have opened to take their place: the good (Kungfu Kitchen), the bad (Lemoni) and the ugly (Chick-Fil-A). Smaller, more interesting chains have moved to Reading. Our coffee culture here has – figuratively – exploded, as has a street food culture that has led to residencies in pubs, cafes and restaurants and in some cases (like Geo Café and Vegivores) a permanent home. For each thing we lose in town, there is always an equal and opposite reason to celebrate.

And so, without further ado and in alphabetical order, here’s my list of twenty things I love about Reading. It’s by no means exhaustive, and half the fun is chipping in with everything I’ve missed, whether it’s the farmers’ market, Christmas carols at Reading Minster, the Beer Festival, having a mocha at C.U.P., Reading Library, the number 17 bus or any of the dozens of other things I couldn’t quite find room for. Leave your favourite in the comments!

1. The Allied Arms beer garden

Some things about Reading never change, and for as long as I can remember the Allied has been the place you go to after work on a sunny Friday to start your weekend. You grab a table, your friends join you and the rest of the evening is pint after pint, packet of snacks after packet of snacks and song after song on its splendid, idiosyncratic jukebox (Camouflage by Stan Ridgway or Rock Me Amadeus, anybody?). I know the Allied has its fans all year round, but for me summer is when it really comes into its own.

2. The architecture

Reading really is prettier than you think, and I don’t just mean the obvious examples like the Town Hall and – well, I like it anyway – the Blade. Everywhere you look there are beautiful buildings, streets and enclaves – Foxhill House on campus, or the gorgeous houses of New Road up by the university and School Terrace in the heart of New Town. Stunning streets like Eldon Road with the grandest semi-detached houses you’ll ever see in your life, or redbrick Queen Victoria Street running from the station to John Lewis, itself a fantastic building. I could go on: Reading Minster is impressive, the Royal Berks grand, Great Expectations faintly ludicrous. So much to look at – no wonder the occasional Reading Instameets set up for photographic excursions around town are never short of things to photograph (I still miss Kings Point and the Metal Box Building, though).

3. Bakery House

Now over four years old, Bakery House is one of Reading’s best and most reliable restaurants but, more than that, it is a genuine institution. Perfect for solo dining, dinner for two or sharing masses of mezze with friends, they’ve kept up an impressive standard since day one. At lunchtimes their shawarma wrap is an absolute steal costing less than most other sandwiches in town, and in the evenings their boneless baby chicken, fresh from the charcoal grill with chilli sauce, rice and a sharply dressed salad, is one of the best single plates of food you can eat in town.

4. Blue Collar Food

I was sniffy about street food last time I compiled this list: Blue Collar has changed that. Popping up in the Market Square every Wednesday, this collective of traders, marshalled by the tireless Glen Dinning, has had a lasting effect on Reading’s food scene. Some of his star players still turn up every week – I’m a big fan of Purée’s challoumi wrap, the chilli chicken from the Massita and Peru Sabor’s excellent food – but he’s also done invaluable work giving street food traders a springboard to move into permanent premises. Not only that, but over the summer Feastival (and its spin-off Cheese Feast) transform the Forbury into the gastronomic epicentre of town. Blue Collar is now also running the matchday food at the Madejski, but I still hold out hope that we might see them in more permanent premises in the New Year.

5. Breakfast at Fidget & Bob

Sunday morning brunch at Fidget & Bob really is one of my favourite things about living in Reading. I’ve never known anybody scramble golden buttery eggs with as much skill as they do, their bacon is superb and their sausage – a square loaf of sausagement baked in the oven and served in delectable slices – is worth the price of admission alone. It boasts one of the warmest welcomes in Reading and if you go on Sunday there’s the added bonus of kouign amann, Breton pastries by Barebaked Bread which are sweet-salty layers of pure joy. The coffee’s excellent, too.

6. Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen

It’s very strange to think that Clay’s has been around for less than eighteen months because, more than most Reading restaurants, it feels like it’s always been there. It’s difficult to cast your mind back and remember that Chicken Base used to be in that site or, even before that, the lovely Bodrum Kebab. It feels like Clay’s is probably Reading’s favourite restaurant, and I think that’s down to a combination of many things. The food is fantastic, and superb value, and involves a quality of ingredients and spicing that they don’t shout about enough. The menu is innovative – where else in Reading could you, across a whole year, eat quail, rabbit, pheasant, squid and crab? But also, I think it’s about the modesty and humility of the whole exercise: you sense that maybe they don’t quite realise how good they are.

7. Forbury Gardens

I wouldn’t trust any list of this kind that didn’t have the Forbury in it. In summer it’s everybody’s second garden (unless you live in a flat, in which case it’s your first garden). There’s nowhere quite like it for relaxing in the sun, reading a book, having a picnic, celebrating Bastille Day, taking part in WaterFest – even though it always seems to rain for Waterfest – drinking a Froffee from the AMT in the train station (that one might just be me), eating street food from Blue Collar or just gazing up at the blue sky and the trees overhead. It’s even nicer now the Abbey Ruins is open again – it just feels like everything is as it should be.

8. Harris Arcade

We have lots of independent cafés in the town centre, and some independent restaurants, but nowhere near enough independent shops. With the notable exception of But Is It Art, the Harris Arcade is where you find most of the good ones. I’ve lived in Reading long enough to remember when there was the Traders Arcade, with Enchanted where you could buy your incense and crystals and a café on the first floor, but Harris Arcade still captures some of that spirit – whether you want to buy comics from Crunch, records from Sound Machine, hats from Adrienne Henry, cigars from Shave and Coster, cheese and beer from the Grumpy Goat or ephemera from JIM. If only more of Reading’s retail scene was like the Harris Arcade – and while we’re at it I’d love an independent bookshop, a beer café and a few more boutiques.

9. John Lewis

I know this might seem like a prosaic choice to some, but I stand by what I said last time round: our branch of John Lewis is the closest thing this town has to a cathedral (especially the lower ground floor which does seem to sell pretty much everything you could need). It has a sense of calm and class so lacking from the Oracle or the Broad Street Mall, and I don’t think you really appreciate how lovely it is until you visit a town unfortunate enough not to have one. Most shops seem to start celebrating Christmas the moment September is over, but when the Yuletide paraphernalia appears in the ground floor of John Lewis, you know the festive season really is on the way.

10. Launchpad

Other charities are available, but there was no way Launchpad wouldn’t make my list. The amount of homelessness and begging in Reading was upsetting enough back in 2016 but over the last three years it seems to have got even worse. Launchpad offers legal advice, drop-in services, training support and so much more for those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. But there’s more: back in January, Launchpad announced that it had built five brand new flats for people in need of long term accommodation, their first building project. Reading about it I felt incredibly proud, both of them and of our town.

11. The Nag’s Head

The Nag’s Head is widely held to be Reading’s best pub, and it’s not hard to see why. A wide, constantly changing range of cask and keg beers, ciders if that’s your bag, regular tap takeovers, food events in the garden (yes, yes, it’s a car park) in the summer and a friendly crowd pretty much every night of the week. A few pubs do a few things better, but nobody gets it quite as right across the board.

12. Pepe Sale

Rumours over the summer that Pepe Sale was up for sale threw much of Reading into a panic. Shortly after, it transpired that there was no substance to them but it at least gave Pepe Sale the rare opportunity to experience a mass outpouring of grief while it was still very much alive and kicking. It’s a class act – consistent, consistently full and always doing the classics well while keeping up an always interesting specials menu into the bargain. We will miss it when it’s gone, one day, but in the meantime the suckling pig and crab ravioli are still there, waiting for you to renew your acquaintance. Every town has an Italian restaurant or four, but how many have a Sardinian one?

13. Progress Theatre

Progress Theatre is best known for its summer Shakespeare productions, finally restored to their rightful home in the Abbey Ruins (I went this year and thoroughly enjoyed King Lear, although I’m still recovering from the spectacle of my friend Jerry, playing Gloucester, having his eyes plucked out). But the theatre up on the Mount is still a lovely, intimate and inventive place to watch interesting amateur productions. I loved their rendition of Top Girls earlier in the year and am very much looking forward to Hangmen next week. And now that Kungfu Kitchen is just down the road, your pre or post-theatre dining problem is solved too.

14. Reading Museum

Reading Museum remains a fantastic way to while away an hour in town, and the recent refurb (and new exhibition on some of Reading’s defining objects) has been very nicely done. It’s fantastic for kids and grownups – my 80 year old Canadian uncle thoroughly enjoyed dressing up there when he visited in the spring, although I’m not sure which of those categories he falls into. The replica of the Bayeux Tapestry gets all the attention, but I have an enormous soft spot for the display cabinet showing off Huntley & Palmer biscuit tins from across the decades.

15. Reading Old Cemetery

My list in 2016 didn’t have much in the way of open spaces. I must have changed in the last three years because I’m much more fond of Reading’s outdoors and Reading Old Cemetery is one of my favourite places for a meditative amble, even if I’ve never bumped into one of its legendary muntjac deer. It’s golden and peaceful in summer, and starkly beautiful in winter. There are lots of very touching gravestones and memorials, but the picture above shows probably my favourite, that of Bernard Laurence Hieatt. He has his own Wikipedia page, which is worth a look – it’s safe to say that he achieved a lot more in twenty-one years than most of us have in far more than that.

16. The Retreat

If the Nag’s Head is Reading’s best beer pub, I think the Retreat is probably Reading’s best classic pub. Saved this year by a consortium of locals, it remains a true one-off on a little backstreet not far from the Kings Road. The back room is where you sit if you just want to talk to your friends, or read on your own. The front room, though, is my favourite – there, regulars and newcomers engage in random conversations about all sorts, presided over by Brian, the now legendary landlord who if anything is even more charming now than he was three years ago (woe betide you if you swear in front of him, mind). There’s regular music, there’s jazz on Sundays and once a year in the summer the Morris dancers cavort away outside before making themselves comfortable in the back room and singing some very bawdy songs indeed.

17. The Salvation Army brass band at Christmas time

There are still few sights in Reading as heartwarming as the Salvation Army brass band, assembled outside Marks & Spencer, playing Christmas carols in November and December. Always unfailingly polite and impeccably turned out, they make Reading feel properly festive and it’s well worth watching, breath turning to fluffy clouds in the cold air. More Salvation Army brass bands and fewer god-botherers miked up and standing on a box, that’s what I say.

18. South Street

This is hardly a controversial choice – South Street enjoys a special place in Reading’s affections after it was rescued from the threat of closure following a huge outcry of public support (very much the town’s answer to 6 Music, and probably with a very similar fan base). It really does offer a terrific range of music, theatre, art and comedy and has widened its range still further over the last couple of years with its regular Beer Fridays (in collaboration with the Grumpy Goat) and its excellent annual Craft Theory Festival which brings together beer, street food and music in one unmissable package.

19. View Island

I’d never been to View Island until I was introduced to it through the writing of the irreplaceable, much-missed Matthew Farrall. Just past Caversham Lock, it’s an astonishing place, simultaneously wild and peaceful. You feel like you could be miles from anywhere, and yet you’re ten minutes from town. It’s been left to get almost completely overgrown and yet you can still sit on one of its blue benches, lost in your thoughts, watching the river flow.

20. The Workhouse courtyard

Long before Market House opened its doors, promising you booze, food and coffee at any time of the day, those in the know spent summer days going to the courtyard outside Workhouse Coffee. One of town’s most successful natural suntraps, you can sit there with coffee and cake from Workhouse or order Bhel Puri’s fantastic vegetarian street food and eat that al fresco instead (I recommend the chilli paneer, crispy bhajia, Punjabi samosas and a vada pav chaser). And if you want a beer in the sunshine? The bar at the George Hotel can rustle up a crisp pint of Estella. Who needs the Market House anyway?

The Pantry

Once upon a time, in the town of Reading, there was a bar called the 3Bs. It was named after the three famous alliterative cornerstones of Reading – beer, biscuits and bulbs – and, for those of us who remember it, it was one of the best bars there was. It was part of the Town Hall, and long before the Oakford ever opened it was the place you congregated in after work – unless your friends wanted to drink in O’Neills, in which case you made new friends. When the tables appeared outside, near the statue of Queen Victoria, you knew that summer was on the way.

It even featured, albeit briefly, in the opening episode of 1997 police show Crime Traveller, around the 3:45 mark in this video, as maverick cop (aren’t they always) Jeff Slade, played by ex-EastEnders bad boy Michael French, zooms through the Town Hall Square on a motorbike, scattering people and tables as he pursues a generic baddie in a boxy car all the way to the Queens Road car park. Around that time I was temping in Apex Plaza (which also features in the chase sequence) and it was all very exciting. As I recall, my brother bought a sandstone-coloured blouson, trying to emulate Jeff Slade, but it was all a little too Sergio Georgini. Ah, the Nineties.

My favourite memories of the 3Bs, in as far as I can remember anything, were of Bohemian Night, its weekly live music evening. A friend and I would always turn up early, sit near the front and drink almost enough to make the music sound good. Compered by AF Harrold (now a published author, then a jobbing performance poet working in Blackwells – remember when we used to have a Blackwells?) it was the Reading’s Got Talent of its day.

This involved various earnest acoustic solo acts and duets, a little spoken word, a shouty man who called himself “Preacher John” and another chap called “Reverend John H” who did an extremely offensive song about the sadly departed Princess Of Wales. There was also a bewildered pensioner called “Mr David” who would shamble on stage and perform roughly half a joke without getting to the punchline and then start singing snatches of My Way. It looked like he may have slept in a bin.

Only at Bohemian Night could a young chap wearing a fuzzy wig bound up to the mike, all puppyish enthusiasm, and announce “I’m Dunstan McFunkstan, and I’ve got a bag of comedy!” (if he honestly did, it was empty). And that’s before we get to the performance poetry, which was usually my cue to go up to the bar. Every now and again someone with genuine talent would show up at Bohemian Night and I’d enjoy their act, safe in the knowledge that I would never see them again. I loved it: I went every week without fail.

All good things must come to an end, and the 3Bs closed in 2011. Then, last July, the council announced that it would be reopening in the autumn. Signs were up by October 2018 declaring that it would be called Lains. Well, the council is as good at opening restaurants on time as it is at filing accounts, because it wasn’t until September this year that it finally opened, having changed its name in the meantime to The Pantry. The council’s announcement was full of the usual buzzwords about how the “Executive Chef” (why a café needs an executive chef is anybody’s guess) would use local produce to create a “scrumptious and inventive menu”. That was all the incentive I needed to take a trip down memory lane one weekday lunchtime with my other half Zoë, herself a fan of the 3Bs from back in the day.

It may have opened a year late, but the fit out really is lovely. At the front, where the bands used to play, there’s an attractive banquette and all the chairs are tasteful and muted, as is the paintwork. It was weird to look at it so transformed, but simultaneously quite heartwarming to see it back in use. There was still an icy blast every time the door opened and closed though: some things never change.

Menus are on the table but you go up to the counter to order. There’s a brunch menu, most of which is available all day, pizzas (which are “baked in our stone based oven”, whatever that means), three salads which you can pair with quiche, a sausage roll or a Scotch egg and a “sandwich of the day” (fish finger, on my visit) and “international dish of the day” (goulash).

The selection of cakes looked quite appealing, but the whole thing reminded me of something: I used to work somewhere where the staff canteen was run by facilities company Gather & Gather, and the menu here felt very similar, only more expensive. I wanted a pizza, but the gentleman behind the counter told me that they were out of pepperoni – I concealed my incredulity – so we ordered two things from the brunch menu, to find out whether the Pantry might be the brunch spot central Reading has long needed.

While I waited for brunch to arrive, I sipped my latte – a truly dire coffee, burnt and bitter and well below the standard of a Pret, Nero or Costa, let alone Tamp or Anonymous. Quite a few members of staff, all in their branded aprons, milled listlessly around the café, dusting unoccupied tables, making the smallest of adjustments to the position of the menu on the table, all kinds of random things to keep themselves busy because the truth was that the place was hardly rammed.

What customers there were were either parents with kids (half-term, of course) or people considerably older than me: no hip young gunslingers to be seen. It reminded me, more than anything, of the John Lewis Café, with the general complacence of not wanting to be any more than Only Just Good Enough. Perhaps the food would change that, I thought.

When it arrived and was set down in front of us by one of the serving staff, one obvious thing was missing: cutlery.

“We’ll need some cutlery for that” I said.

“It’s up at the front by the counter” she replied, without making eye contact. I waited for the second half of the sentence until, after what felt like quite some time, I realised that there wasn’t going to be one.

“Right. I’ll go all the way up there and get it then” I said, leaving aside the second half of my sentence, namely while you carry on dusting tables and being spell-bindingly bad at customer service. It was one of those moments when, like Tim from The Office, you just wanted to look sidelong at a camera in complete bafflement.

I had gone for “pulled pork waffle with spicy beans” and it truly was a miserable specimen. The waffle was lukewarm, doughy and stodgy. The majority of it wasn’t covered with anything – sauce or melted butter – and in the middle was a damp clump of what you could loosely call pulled pork. It was a pretty miserly helping, wet and claggy with big white globs of fat in it (I took them all out and put them to one side: my plate was collected later on without comment). Some crudely torn salad leaves were plonked on top, possibly as a garnish and possibly as concealment. I’m currently thinking about writing features on the best brunch in Reading and the ten best things you can buy for under a tenner: you can safely say this dish won’t feature in either.

“The waffle feels like a gimmick” said Zoë, attacking her dish. Her waffle came with smoked salmon, cream cheese, avocado and lemon zest. There was plenty of salmon, but it was extremely bland with no real hint of smoke. The avocado was as cold, hard and joyless as senior management. The lemon zest was a lovely idea but it wasn’t clear it had ever really made it on to the plate. More of that bloody foliage had, mind you.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“Meh. I wouldn’t have it again. And it’s definitely not worth eleven pounds twenty.”

She was right (and charging that extra twenty pence was downright odd). You could get an infinitely better brunch at Fidget & Bob for far less money, miles better pulled pork at Bluegrass and for that matter the Lyndhurst’s chilli beef nachos are streets ahead of either dish and they cost less than seven pounds. As it was we both finished our meals, with no real enthusiasm, and a sense that I’d just wasted money, time and calories.

“It’s a shame your coffee was so crappy” said Zoë. “I can see this might be a nice place to come for a cup of tea and a piece of cake.”

“Those are literally the only two things they can’t fuck up.” I said, as we watched a mother at a neighbouring table treating each of her kids to a bowl of what looked like oven chips – hardly “scrumptious and inventive” but at least, at two pounds a pop, better value than anything we’d eaten. The whole thing – two brunch dishes, a latte and a cup of green tea – came to twenty-five pounds, not including service. I’m depressed to say that by the time we left, the place seemed to be filling up.

If I had to sum up the Pantry, I suppose the easy way to do it is to say that it’s exactly what you would expect a café designed by any local authority, let alone this local authority, to be like. It’s bland, inoffensive and unimaginative. How an “executive chef” came up with something so nothingy I will never know; it’s a step up from jacket spuds with cheese and beans, I suppose, but only just. The brunch menu is one smashed-avocado cliché after another, the pizzas are a vanilla bunch (all of them more expensive than Franco Manca). Across the whole menu I didn’t see a single shred of evidence of creativity, or seasonality – unless it was goulash season and nobody told me – or anything other than tepid box-ticking. And let’s not even get on to the Pantry’s website’s absurd claims that the dishes are “prepared using artisan methods” – even if they do seem to have recruited artisanal table-dusters.

What really frustrates me is what a wasted opportunity the Pantry is. The council could have opened something which actually celebrates and adds to Reading’s food culture, rather than paying lip service to it with a clunking name. Just imagine what Glen Dinning could have done with that space if they’d let Blue Collar run the café, rotating street food traders with a licensed bar in the evenings: at a stroke, they would have had one of the most exciting venues in town. But no, instead you can enjoy pepperoni-free pizzas, burnt coffee and even more uninspiring waffle than you get in the council chamber. So it goes.

I’ll leave the last word to Zoë: “Maybe it’s called the Pantry because it’s pants”, she said.

The Pantry – 4.9
The Town Hall, Blagrave Street, RG1 1HZ

https://thepantrytownhall.co.uk/

Namaste Momo Competition: the results!

One of these days I’ll learn to do competitions the way most bloggers and influencers do. Like and follow this page to be in with a chance of winning, or All you have to do is tag yourself and a friend who would love to eat Namaste Momo’s delicious momo and all that guff. Everyone loves a bit of something for nothing, don’t they? Unfortunately I’m too old fashioned and not cool enough for that, so people had to work for this one by writing 250 words on the restaurant they’d love to pick up and drop in Reading.

Despite that I had plenty of excellent entries and, as usual, was delighted to have such enthusiastic and talented readers. Reading the entries made me very hungry indeed, whether they were describing bruschetta eaten in a fairy light-strewn square on a warm Pisa evening, a cornucopia of meat, fresh off the grill somewhere in Northern Cyprus or Chinese noodles “as wide as belts”, wolfed down in New York (New York featured in several competition entries: I really must go there).

It’s always a huge relief, reading the competition entries, to know that I don’t have to judge them myself. That arduous task fell to John Luther who has done a brilliant job. John and I went to Namaste Momo last week just to put the menu through its paces and I’m happy to say that we both agree that this is definitely a prize worth winning – the chicken chilli momo and the pan fried lamb momo were both terrific and the Golden Everest lager accompanies them superbly. Just stay away from Kamal’s post-prandial brandies and I’m sure you’ll be absolutely fine.

Anyway, enough faff and preamble: it’s time to announce the winner and runner-up, along with John’s comments. Let’s open some metaphorical envelopes!

WINNER: Catherine O’Hare

Just like the tiny Chinese backstreet it’s tucked away on, this restaurant has no name. There’s no signage, no fancy furniture or smartly dressed maître d’ taking reservations and pushing the specials. In fact, you’d barely know it was a restaurant at all. It’s more like someone’s kitchen they’ve hastily decked out with mismatched tables and chairs. And lots of shouting.

“Rè nao” is how the Chinese describe a good restaurant. “Hot and noisy”. Mama Yung’s ‘kitchen’ restaurant is certainly that. It was just round the corner from my apartment when I was living in Lianyungang, but I would never have known of its existence had my local friend not brought me there for dinner one evening. My first of many visits. It’s probably fair to say that Mama Yung was largely responsible for keeping me alive during my year in China. She would often sit at my table if I was alone, nattering away to me as if I could understand her fast local dialect and I would feel obliged to nod sagely as I chomped my way through Sichuan spiced beef, stir-fried eggs with tomato and big, fluffy bowls of rice.

Every evening, the farmers would come to the street outside and lay their fresh produce out on sheets and every evening on my way home I would see Mama Yung arguing ferociously with them to get the best price.

“Hot and noisy” from produce to plate, Mama Yung’s is very, very special.

John says: This story of year fed well far away from home in a small restaurant in China made me smile. The little details of the food we’re tantalising but the star of the piece was the fierce matriarch running the show, brought to life beautifully. Bring her to Reading!

RUNNER-UP: Sophie Ibbotson

I’m in a battle of wills with a seagull. If I look away, even for a moment, there’s a good chance that not only will I lose a lovingly chosen giant prawn, but that an entire plate of seafood will be stolen from in front of me in a cacophony of screeching and violent flapping. And so I sit, glaring, and unusually possessive of my lunch.

Sydney Fish Market — the self proclaimed home of Australia’s seafood — is the biggest structure on Blackwattle Bay. In between the boats and vans transporting fresh fish across New South Wales are crowds of diners (plenty of them feathered), jostling for space at the outdoor picnic tables.

I spent nearly an hour inside the fish market making my selection. It wasn’t that service was slow, but rather there was too much choice. Would a trio of sushi donuts be more rewarding than a pint of prawns? Could I manage the marinated swordfish skewer as well as a plate of lightly battered scallops, calamari, and mussels?

The solution, as I knew deep down it would be from the very start, was to buy as much as I could carry. I wove precariously with my pile of takeaway boxes and paper plates between the lines of queuing shoppers, out the doors, and down the stairs. I squeezed onto the end of a patio table and unwrapped my mouthwatering fishy treasures, sprinkling them with a squeeze of lemon. That’s when the seagull arrived.

John says: Another little gem of a story featuring pesky seagulls. I’m a sucker for seafood, so was on side from the start, but was seduced by the description of this bustling fish market and al fresco dining.

Huge congratulations to Catherine and Sophie. Catherine wins a meal for four at Namaste Momo (where, in Kamal, she will encounter a proprietor almost as idiosyncratic as Mama Yung: although I can’t help but feel Catherine’s Mama Yung withdrawal symptoms could be solved with a trip to Kungfu Kitchen). Sophie wins a meal for two, and will only have to stop her dining companion scavenging her food. Thanks too to everybody else who entered: the standard was very high indeed.

Finally, to play us out, here’s my 250 words on the restaurant I’d like to drop in Reading. Tune in next week when I’ll have a new review for you – let’s hope it doesn’t turn out to be a place I’d like to drop as far away from Reading as possible.

I’m sure there are many restaurants in Paris better than Le Petit Marché where you can get fancier food and slicker service. Of course you can, it’s Paris. Yet I’ve been coming to this little restaurant, tucked behind the Place Des Vosges, for over a decade.

The tables are cramped; you always end up knocking elbows with your neighbours. Sometimes you wind up in conversation with them – the French have an uncanny habit of seating any native English speakers in a little enclave, as far from the locals as possible. They have to pull the table out to let you escape if you need the loo. But all that, coupled with the soft, atmospheric lighting, lends a cosy, conspiratorial feel.

The food’s beautiful: no showing off or theatrics. Tuna is served almost like sashimi, studded with sesame, seared on the outside, ready to be dunked in dipping sauce. Pink-middled discs of lamb come with a creamy sauce fragrant with basil. The mashed potato is the best I’ve ever tasted, and that’s not just me looking at it through rosé tinted glasses. The wine is available in carafes, as it will be in all restaurants if I ever come to power.

Two years ago, after my divorce, I went to Paris on my own to reclaim the place.  My one regret is that I didn’t visit Le Petit Marché. I’m back there next month, and I know exactly where I’ll be on my first evening in the city.