Restaurant review: Manteca, Shoreditch

I have a note on my phone which is just a list of London restaurants. I mean, doesn’t everyone?

Strictly speaking, it would be more accurate to say that I have a note on my phone which is two lists of London restaurants. The first is a set of restaurants near Paddington, and dates from the time early in 2020 when I thought it might be a good idea to branch out. I figured that many of us end up having to drag our feet in London to take an off peak train home and that some reliable restaurants people could visit in the meantime might prove a godsend.

It was a good idea in theory, but I only managed one before suddenly all of us were taking far fewer trains, and heading to London became a pipe dream. But the list’s still there, and one day I may get back on it, exploring the Malaysian restaurants around Paddington, the Lebanese joints on the Edgware Road, or just revisiting my favourite little side street Greek place in Maida Vale.

The second list is of all the London restaurants I’ve always wanted to review but never got round to. Some, like Rules and Noble Rot, I’ve been to before. But others are ones I’ve read about in newspapers or in blogs and told myself I’ll visit one day. Like the Wes Anderson-esque French stylings of Otto’s in Clerkenwell, or the little dining room above Soho’s French House where Neil Borthwick,  Angela Hartnett’s husband, cooks a small menu of Gallic classics. They’re not all French, I should add: Smoking Goat, Kiln, Quality Chop House all get a look in. Even with all the casualties in hospitality, I know this list will only ever increase in size. One day, it will see me out.

Manteca has been on that second list for quite a while. It started with a brief spell on Heddon Street (not far from where Casa do Frango is now) before spending some time in Soho and then relocating to Shoreditch’s Curtain Road in late 2021. At every step critics and bloggers have had nothing but praise for it, and looking at the menu in the run-up to my visit it was easy to see why. They make their own pasta on site – so far, so Padella and Bancone – but also specialise in nose to tail eating and make their own salumi, so nothing gets wasted.

The acclaim was so universal that this felt as close to a sure thing as you could get, so I made a lunch reservation for the Saturday of May’s last long weekend, so Zoë and I could try it out after a shopping expedition. Arriving a little late – finding your way there from Liverpool Street can be a bit of a horror show if you get lost in the Broadgate Centre – the welcome was warm and forgiving.

It’s a sizeable site, although you’d never know it was a Pizza Express in a previous life, and they pack them in, with the overall effect that you can barely hear yourself think (would-be restaurant inspector and all-round gastro-spod Andy Hayler complained that it was “like eating in a nightclub” – as if he’d know), and once you’re wedged into your table you’re going nowhere in a hurry. Our server initially tried to seat us at a dingy, unloved table right at the back, far from daylight, and when I asked if we could instead have a nicer table near the window she seemed taken aback, as if the idea had never occurred to her.

The menu’s brilliant at creating agonising dilemmas, more than nearly any restaurant I can remember. There are snacks and nibbles, small plates and a handful of pasta dishes – fewer than you might expect. Small plates are around a tenner, pasta closer to fifteen. Finally, there were some bigger dishes which came in at thirty pounds plus.

Our server explained that pretty much everything was designed for sharing. She also talked us out of ordering two of the large plates once she’d taken the rest of the order, a fact for which I was very grateful further down the line. I sipped a gorgeous cocktail made with Amaro and lemonade – how did I not know that was a thing? – while Zoë, as is her habit these days, tried (and loved) her negroni.

We started with a few snacks while we made up our mind and they contained the only dud of the meal. Focaccia was, to my mind, nothing of the kind, being dry and stodgy and only having a whisper of oil in it. The top crust was great, but that was the tip of the iceberg. And the iceberg was dense and heavy going. I should add that Zoë loved it, but she’d spent the week on a carb-free diet so she might just have been euphoric to be eating bread again.

Much better were the fried olives, little breaded spheres of sausage meat and olives that I could have eaten all the live long day. At three pounds each, though, you might be broke before you were full. Nonetheless, this was the first hint that something special was in store, a hint which quickly gathered momentum, becoming a firmly held conviction.

I’d seen the first of our starters on Manteca’s very distracting Instagram page, along with a caption that said it was only on the menu when they had the right cuts to make it. Ciccioli was lean pork, braised in rendered fat and then pressed into a cake and fried to a burnished crisp. It fell apart under the fork, eager to be dabbed with the sweet-sharp apple mostarda on the side. More than just the acceptable face of mystery meat, this was a symphony of flavour and texture and I wish I’d had one all to myself: if you go, and it’s on the menu, order it.

Less successful, possibly because it’s a dish that happens to share my porn star name, was hogget sausage. I liked but didn’t love it: knowing that Manteca does all its butchery on site reassured me that this was packed with the good stuff, but the texture was still smoother and closer to saveloy than I’d personally choose. The flavour more than made up for it, the whole thing draped in wild garlic leaves, because ’tis the damn season. Probably should have kept some of that slab of bread to mop up the juices – maybe that’s what the restaurant had in mind for it.

I think I read somewhere that Manteca used to do their pasta courses in a small and large, but they’ve done away with that now and a portion is very respectable size – enough for you to eat as a main, if you’re no fun, or a beautiful stepping stone between the smaller and larger plates. Manteca’s brown crab cacio e pepe is so fêted that it might be the closest thing the restaurant has to a signature dish, so naturally I ordered it.

It was a gorgeous, simple plate of soothing sustenance which didn’t outstay its welcome. The pasta – strozzapreti in this instance – was terrific, al dente almost to the point of squeakiness. And the crab didn’t dominate, playing nicely with the cheese and pepper to create something beautifully emulsified and far greater than the sum of its parts: if anything, the foremost note was a brilliant tingle of lemon that prevented it from cloying. Like most of my experience, it thoroughly justified the hype.

Wild garlic made another appearance in Zoë’s pasta. Chitarra, a sort of square spaghetti, if you can imagine that, was positively luminous with wild garlic, its edges fringed with racing green wild garlic olive oil. An egg yolk nested in the centre and although it looked slow-cooked and fudgy, once nudged with a knife sunrise spread across the plate. I didn’t try any, because it struck me as a messy thing to reach across the table and eat, but Zoë loved it. She tasted citrus in this too – lime, she thought, although that might have been synaesthesia because it was just so very green.

The one thing that doesn’t tell you about those two pasta dishes – one of the few frustrations of eating at Manteca – is that they came to the table ten minutes apart. When Manteca said their dishes were intended to be shared I assumed they couldn’t mean the pasta because nobody shares pasta, except in Lady And The Tramp. Perhaps they honestly thought we’d share the first pasta dish and then share the second, but they’d also said, in a Wagamama-esque spiel, that dishes from the same section of the menu would come out together.

Does it matter? On many levels, not really. We were having a lovely time, by this point we’d ordered a beautiful bottle of an Australian pinot noir/syrah blend and all was well with the world. But it’s always weird to sit there while your dining companion watches you eat and then have your roles reversed: it’s why I so rarely send steak back in a restaurant. More to the point, we only had the table for two hours – less, because we’d showed up a little late, so you’d think they’d be tighter on time. As it was, because they didn’t rush us through the pasta, which they should have done, things got more frantic at the end.

But this was the only misstep in a meal where even if we were slightly processed, it never felt like it. Manteca’s front of house team were quite fantastic from start to finish, working in one of the busiest, buzziest restaurants I’ve eaten in for a very long time. Also, given the acoustics, their hearing must be exceptional – for the first half of the meal Zoë and I probably had to repeat almost fifty per cent of everything we said.

Arguably, the best way to deal with the challenging noise levels is to dish up food so good it renders customers speechless. I think that might have been Manteca’s plan, and they achieved it admirably with the next set of dishes. Grilled duck breast, pink and tender underneath caramelised skin, was superb, and pairing it with sausage – I think also made from duck, but I might be wrong – was a masterstroke. But the thing that made the dish, for me, was the preserved quince that came with it: fruity, ever so slightly chewy, a fantastic foil for all that meat. It reminded me, ever so slightly, of Georgian fruit leather (don’t knock it til you’ve tried it) and I’d choose it over red cabbage any day. We were approaching full by the end of this dish, but we heroically soldiered on.

The accompaniments were a mixed bag. Grilled greens were a wan medley of cauliflower and chard, and although they tasted decent the texture was too limp for my liking. A thousand times better – and again, almost reason to visit on its own – were the pink fir potatoes, cooked until golden and crispy and smothered in something the restaurant calls “salumi brown butter” – little crunchy nuggets of meat, herbs and fat. I could have eaten these on their own and left the restaurant a happy man, but being able to pair them with duck, or sausage, or use them to soak up the pool of juices at the bottom of the plate, was nothing short of heavenly.

By this point we were decidedly full but still up for attacking the dessert menu, possibly with something from the restaurant’s extensive list of amaros, once we’d finished our bottle of red. Our minds were concentrated wonderfully by our server telling us we had less than twenty-five minutes before they needed the table, so we were forced to accelerate matters.

The dessert menu is skeletal, with just three options. Zoë’s choice, a chocolate choux bun filled with chocolate cremoso, tasted very nice indeed but I was delighted I hadn’t ordered it because I’m not sure I could have pretended to you that I could taste the “whey caramel” it apparently contained, or even for that matter tell you what whey caramel tastes like.

I’m also delighted I didn’t order it because the dish I did order, pistachio cake, was one of the finest desserts I’ve ever had. There was an awful lot going on here, all of it good on its own yet better together. The cake, which could so easily have been stodgy or unremarkable, had a beautifully dense texture with flashes of salt and pistachio in every spoonful. The ribbons of candied, pickled fennel on top added a fragrant sweetness that never overpowered: I’d have liked more of them, but fennel always has that effect on me. And the preturnaturally smooth pistachio ice cream was as good as anything I’ve had in Italy – or for that matter at Clay’s, who do a mean pistachio ice cream these days. Resting the sphere on a handful of salted, roasted pistachios, though, was an inspired touch.

Zoë had a spoonful, and her reaction was immediate: “you win”. If we’d had our table for longer, I think she’d have ordered one as a second dessert. It’s rare for me to rave about dessert, rarer still to do it about a dessert with no chocolate in it, but I’ve thought about this every day since my lunch at Manteca, wondering quite how they elevated something seemingly so everyday to a dessert so extraordinary.

As we were tight for time, there was no digestif. But there was still room for one last delight, so along with the bill we asked for a couple of pieces of beef fat fudge to send us on our way. I’m not always sure about beef fat in desserts – I still remember a beef fat caramel I had at an otherwise excellent restaurant in Cardiff for which no word other than “minging” will do – but this lent a certain glossiness while omitting the overtly bovine notes. It was one pound fifty for a generous cube, deftly sprinkled with salt, and it took all my strength not to ask them to make me up a box. I wasn’t hungry any more, but I knew I would be later. Or rather, I wouldn’t be hungry but I’d have made enough room for more of that fudge. Another time, perhaps.

Our bill for all that food, a couple of aperitifs and that gorgeous bottle of red – which I liked so much that before the end of the meal I’d tracked it down and ordered a few bottles online – came to just over two hundred and fifteen pounds, including service charge. You could eat there for less, and have less fun, but honestly, when you have a meal this good it costs what it costs, and you don’t give a shit. We emerged blinking into the Shoreditch sunshine, and made a beeline for the Mikkeller bar for a beer and a post match debrief. Our ratings are usually a gnat’s crotchet apart, but for this one they were identical.

You can see that rating just a few paragraphs below, but what’s more important is to talk about just how good Manteca was. Because the truth is, back when I used to eat in London more often – but wasn’t reviewing those restaurants – they never quite lived up to my expectations. To the point where I worried that I was becoming semi-professionally underwhelmed. So I did the likes of St John or Quo Vadis, the places everybody likes, and I wondered what I was missing.

I sometimes think that London has to survive on a bubble of hype because if it wasn’t for that, people would wonder why they’re paying such unsustainable amounts of money to live and work there. And indeed my two recent visits to highly rated London restaurants, Casa do Frango and Chick ‘N’ Sours, left me equally ambivalent. So I can’t tell you how happy I was to eat somewhere that not only justified the hype but made me want to add to it, to lend my voice to the chorus of voices shouting about how special Manteca is. Though hopefully you’ve been reading my blog long enough to know that I don’t really do hype. I’m just as likely to walk away from somewhere critically acclaimed feeling nonplussed as I am delirious with joy, if not more so.

So there you have it: Manteca served up one of my favourite lunches of the last ten years and is well and truly one restaurant ticked off my “places I must get to in London” list. Although it doesn’t make matters easier because now, when I try and work through the other restaurants on it, I’ll always be thinking, in the back of my mind, or I could just go back to Manteca. Anyway, hopefully you’ve read this and might add it to your own version of that list. I’m still kidding myself that everyone has one, because in my echo chamber they probably do.

Manteca – 9.0
49-51 Curtain Road, EC2A 3PT
020 71395172


Restaurant review: Sarv’s Slice at The Biscuit Factory

Now the thermometer has finally crept over twenty degrees a couple of times, now that the first al fresco pint of the year is in the recent past, now that we’ve had Cheesefeast and Eurovision my mind, like everybody’s in Reading, turns to summer. Back when we had a beer festival every May bank holiday weekend there was a clear demarcation point that said summer was on the way: the failure to hold one for the last few years has left us fending for ourselves.

But never mind – summer is on the way. And that’s got me thinking, lately, about how every summer has its own distinct identity, its own little chapter in the autobiographies we all carry around in our heads. 2016 was a bad year, all angst and anguish. 2018 was about the rush of new things and new happiness. 2020, with the long walks and the first tentative drinks outside, was the pastoral symphony (am I the only person nostalgic for 2020? I bet I’m not).

Not only that but, if you think about food anywhere near as much as I do, summers can also be defined by restaurants. During any phase of your life, the two wind up inextricably linked. For me, the summers of 2005 and 2006 were all about Santa Fe, on the riverside. At the end of the working week my then wife and I would grab a table in the window with our friends, looking out on what felt like the whole of Reading celebrating the weekend.

We would drink cocktails, so many and so frequently that they ended up giving us a silver 2 for 1 card. My drink of choice, horribly basic, was the Mudslide, with, I think, chocolate ice cream in it. It tasted devoid of booze. Eventually we would drift inside, grab a table and eat dinner. That was those two summers in a nutshell. I had only just turned 30, I was carefree, content in my job and when I think about those summers, I always think of Santa Fe.

Similarly, when I remember the summer of 2014, or 2015, it’s indelibly connected to Dolce Vita. By then those friends had become parents, or drifted away, but for me that child-free ritual of marking the end of the working week was still similar: make a beeline to Dolce Vita, order a bottle of wine and see what was on the specials menu. Order it if it looked good, have the saltimbocca or the monkfish if I didn’t fancy it. Whole months passed like this, punctuated by excellent, happy meals.

Fast forward the best part of a decade and last summer, for me, was the summer of Buon Appetito. I would meet Zoë in town after work and, unless either of us had a better idea, we would amble down the Oxford Road, comparing notes about our day. And we would end up sitting outside at Buon Appetito’s welcoming patio, a Negroni for her and an Aperol Spritz for me, and we’d luxuriate in that feeling of work being over, for the time being at least. I say “unless either of us had a better idea”, but of course the best idea of all was to have dinner at Buon Appetito. That’s the siren song a restaurant has when it becomes synonymous with your summer.

I write all that with some sadness, because something funny is going on at Buon Appetito. Their social media lies dormant, the doors shuttered, no signs of life. I’ve heard stories of people turning up, with or without bookings, to find the restaurant abandoned and unlit with no sign or announcement. And I’ve heard various rumours: some say the closure’s a temporary blip, others strongly suggest we won’t see them again. My own Instagram message to them, sent four weeks ago, remains unread.

I guess that’s what led me to the Biscuit Factory on a weekday afternoon last week, to see if Sarv’s Slice offered a viable alternative for al fresco pizza in the sunshine. Sarv’s Slice has an interesting history: Reading first encountered them at Market Place as part of Blue Collar’s weekly events, and when Blue Collar Corner opened last year Sarv’s Slice was one of its four permanent traders on a year’s contract. I think I ate their food once, with my friend Graeme, and was very taken with their carbonara special (maybe it’s heresy to do this on a pizza, but I liked it too much to care).

When their stint at Blue Collar Corner ended they didn’t rest on their laurels, and in March they announced their new home at the Biscuit Factory, where they’re in residence Wednesday to Sunday. On paper it’s a perfect match. The Biscuit Factory has wonderful coffee downstairs by Compound – and, top tip, it’s pretty much the only place in Reading to get decent coffee after 6pm – but the food offering has been a bit patchy. Something casual, the next step up from street food, would seem like the perfect option for eating before one of the Biscuit Factory’s events. And they even have some outside space: the omens were promising.

I’ve never actually been to the Biscuit Factory for any of their events – judge away, I know I should have – but I know the upstairs space from the occasional West Reading coffee. It’s a plain, anonymous space, and pretty big, but not unwelcoming for that. There was stand up comedy on the night I went, a table of people who seemed to be doing an art class, and plenty of others still on the banquette that runs along two sides of the back room, tapping away on laptops or, in one case, playing what looked like a fiercely competitive game of Uno.

I’ve never set foot in the Biscuit Factory without feeling slightly too old for it, but even so I liked it. It has what old duffers like me refer to as a “lovely energy”, and even the pale birch panelled walls felt nicely neutral rather than cheap. The outside space, where I ate my pizza, is surprisingly attractive, all yellows and burnt orange, with an oddly gorgeous view past the Penta Hotel down the Oxford Road. It reminded me of my sentimental attachment to West Reading: I always think that if you don’t like West Reading, you don’t really like Reading. I do wish it was non-smoking, though: the ashtrays at every table and people sneaking out to clang away on a fag felt jarring.

Sarv’s Slice has a small menu, which is as it should be. Just the seven pizzas without a huge amount of variation, truth be told. You can have a marinara with no cheese, or a margherita with fior di latte, or the same thing with buffalo mozzarella. You can have a pepperoni pizza, or one with both pepperoni and ‘nduja, and you can have a mushroom pizza either with olives or with ham. I admire their stripped-down approach: I could say it reduces the replay value, but I always went to Buon Appetito and ordered one of two pizzas, so I’m the last person to criticise.

Often they have squares of deeper pan Detroit-style pizza on their specials, which seem to be where their more creative side comes out, but on this visit the only special was the Napoli, with olives, capers and anchovies. I was hardly complaining: that’s pretty much my go-to pizza anywhere. Sides are limited to garlic bread – I’ve never understood the appeal of this when you’re about to eat a bread-based main course – and parmesan truffle fries. Naturally I ordered the latter, and my bill came to eighteen pounds fifty. As at Blue Collar Corner, they give you a buzzer which goes off when your food is ready.

I nabbed a table out on the terrace (terrace? balcony?) and made inroads into a beer. You have to buy these from the bar separately, but laudably they had a good local range from the likes of Double-Barrelled and Phantom. Mine was from Phantom, and not up to their usual standard, but it was a warm day and I was sitting outside so I was prepared to overlook a lot.

It was seven pounds fifty. Now that I clearly wasn’t completely prepared to overlook, as I’ve mentioned it here. Is that a lot? I suppose it would be for a pint at the Nag’s, but I’ve never understood how restaurants are allowed to treble the cost of wine but we expect to get beer for less. Who knows what too expensive even means any more, these days? Everything is too expensive, even the electricity you charged your phone with so you could read this; just think, if I was less prolix you’d literally save money.

My buzzer went off in less than ten minutes and carrying my goodies to my table it was hard not to be impressed, on first sight, by the pizza. The crust was suitably bubbled and blistered, and the whole thing had a satisfying irregularity to it. And there was much to like about it – a beautiful base, an excellent sweet tomato sauce, plenty of cheese. The whole thing held together well and was a pleasure to eat. But the devil was in the detail, and if I’m being critical – which it turns out I am – it could have done with more of its star players. The purple, fragrant olives were great but it was light on the capers and, more sadly, one quadrant was an entirely anchovy-free zone.

But none the less it was an excellent pizza, and I spent a bit of time afterwards trying to decide where it ranked in Reading’s pizza pantheon. Nicer than the likes of Franco Manca, if more expensive. Roughly the same price as Buon Appetito had been, but svelte by comparison. Easily as likeable as the pinsa at Mama’s Way, albeit a very different beast, with the advantage that the base wasn’t bought in. Overall? Right up there. More expensive than it used to be at Blue Collar Corner, but I imagine all their costs have soared in the last twelve months.

That said, my advice would be to avoid the fries. They were bought in – which is fine, only a knobber objects to that – but if you’re going to buy in, you have to buy well. This week I had an al fresco dinner at Park House and although the chips were clearly bought in, they totally hit the spot and there was nothing to dislike about them. Sarv’s Slice’s fries, on the other hand, were a tad skanky, too many grey patches and bits I wanted to leave. They’d been given enough truffle oil to smell of truffle but, somehow, not enough to carry through into the flavour.

And the Parmesan: well, I suppose technically there was a little, but almost too little to see, let alone taste. I’m used to Parmesan fries at places like the Last Crumb, where the cheese all falls to the bottom and your challenge is to actually get it on your fries. I expected to reach the bottom of the cup to find a motherlode of Parmesan, like that glorious bit of chocolate at the base of a Cornetto cone, but it wasn’t to be. Not that I finished the fries anyway. They stayed on the table, whiffing away.

The good news is that with the money you save not buying the fries – six pounds, honesty! – you can get some tiramisu instead. I ordered Sarv’s Slice’s only dessert after finishing my pizza and grabbed a second buzzer. The wait was about five minutes for this too, and worth every second. It was a gorgeous, boozy, thick indulgent slab of the stuff, for only five pounds, and it was probably my favourite thing about the whole meal. It was strange eating it with a wooden spoon – those things are synonymous with failure for a reason – but honestly, it was an utter delight. If I’d known how good it would be I’d have grabbed a coffee from Compound to enjoy with it, but instead I picked one up as I was leaving, strolling home, latte in hand.

As you’ve no doubt gathered, with the exception of those fries I found Sarv’s Slice hugely likeable and I think it has found its perfect home at the Biscuit Factory. The staff are downright lovely and very friendly, and it nicely fills a gap in Reading’s food scene, offering something like Blue Collar’s ultra-casual dining in a different setting. And if I sound like I have reservations, or faint praise, I really don’t. But it’s important to recognise Sarv’s Slice’s limitations – because they do, and they operate within them superbly.

They’re not aiming to be a full on restaurant, at this stage, but instead just offer really good food you can eat informally in a hurry. Perfect pre-theatre dining, if you’re unfortunate enough to go to the Hexagon for something, or a meal you can enjoy before watching a film at the Biscuit Factory itself. So, good for cultured types. For a heathen like me, they fit into the same bracket as, say, ThaiGrr!, as a great way to have an excellent meal before moving on for a few beers at the Nag’s Head.

Back in the day, I used to go for Tuscany for that kind of thing, and then it became Buon Appetito. Sarv’s Slice is a very good successor to those places, and you’ll eat well there. It’s not the widest menu in the world, but for what they aspire to it doesn’t need to be. What Sarv’s Slice isn’t, much as I liked it, is the place that will define my gastronomic summer. But that’s okay, because I’ll keep looking and I’ll find mine in the end. I hope you find yours, too.

Sarv’s Slice – 7.4
Reading Biscuit Factory, Unit 1a Oxford Road, RG1 7QE
07854 892749

Restaurant review: Chick ‘N’ Sours, Covent Garden

This week’s review came about for a fairly simple reason. Two weeks ago I went to London with my friend James, with an uncomplicated plan: to visit Casa do Frango in Piccadilly to see if it did the best piri piri chicken outside Portugal (regular readers may have already read that review). A couple of days before the big day, I got a text from him.

“Do you think we could do the holy trinity? Two chicken places with craft beer in between?”

I immediately knew where he was referring to. Could we? Should we? Was this Bacchanalian excess even by my standards?

“Are you suggesting… Chick ‘N’ Sours?”

“Yes. Two in a day.”

And so I made a dinner reservation a suitable interval from lunch, had a light meal the night before, skipped breakfast and wore my loosest garments on the train to Paddington. Two of London’s best-known chicken restaurants in a single day was a serious endeavour. As I was heading for Gare du Ding my phone pinged with a text from James: It’s Chicken Day. Praise be the Lord.

Chick ‘N’ Sours might be the capital’s most fêted fried chicken restaurant. Their first permanent premises were in Haggerston, on the edge of Dalston, and when Grace Dent, then at the Evening Standard, went in 2015 she raved about the place. The following year they set up shop in Covent Garden, just off Seven Dials, and the acclaim has been constant ever since; Marina O’Loughlin, then at the Guardian, visited the second branch in late 2016 and enthused in her inimitable manner.

Since then they have been universally praised to the rafters: even the FT and the stuffy old Telegraph rated the food there, the latter in a so this is what the kids are eating these days kind of way. By now it feels like every half-decent blogger under the sun has paid it a visit, along with a number who only aspire to that standard. So after a very enjoyable time at the Mikkeller Brewpub on Exmouth Market, sampling terrific al fresco beers and finally feeling like spring had sprung, James and I pulled up in an Uber to try it out. Better late than never.

Chick ‘N’ Sours is a basement restaurant, and like all the best basement restaurants it has a slightly illicit feel to it. It sits somewhere between speakeasy and dive bar – neither of which, by the way, is a pejorative term – with faux zinc tables and chairs that are a mixture of Fifties American diner and Fifties British classroom. Our table was next to four office bros who had clearly fallen into the pub straight from work and then fallen into the restaurant straight from the pub. They were making inroads into what looked like most of the menu; turned out not everybody works from home on a Friday after all.

The menu is a vegetarian’s worst nightmare. Most of it involves chicken in a starring role, with the exception of one small plate and a vegan burger made of goodness knows what: it’s not a menu that even pretends to make concessions. It’s also compact – just the three starters, four burgers, chicken on the bone and tenders. You can have wings if you want, and there are a handful of sides, but that’s very much your lot; one other option, a whole deep fried chicken, is available if you give them forty-eight hours’ notice, which we sadly didn’t.

The tendency to pepper a menu like this with puns or edgy references has fortunately passed Chick ‘N’ Sours by, in the main, although describing a condiment as “seaweed crack” did strike me as unnecessary – showing my age, probably – and I was curious about the “strange flavour sauce” that came with the bang bang cucumber, although not enough to order it. For a restaurant with this reputation in this part of Covent Garden, prices are reasonable – starters are around seven quid, burgers thirteen, sides about four. It was a menu full of bold flavours and gastronomic primary colours, and it made me excited about what was to come.

That’s the “chick”, so to speak. The “sours” element comes from the restaurant’s stripped-back drinks list, made up of a narrow selection of wine (one of each, if you catch my drift), a couple of beers and the four sour cocktails that give the restaurant the second half of its name. James went for a “Chick ‘N’ Club” – typing all these unnecessary apostrophes is starting to irk me, just so you know – a fruity gin and crème de mure concoction which he seemed to thoroughly enjoy.

I on the other hand chose something called the “Habanero Jungle Bird” with rum, Campari, lime vinegar and habanero in it. This, perhaps, is where the problems started to come in: I expected this to do a truly chaotic conga in my gob, that combination of hot and sour, so when it was muted I wondered what that might mean for the food we were about to eat.

The thing is, every review I’ve read of Chick ‘N’ Sours talks about how you get walloped by massive flavours from start to finish and emerge at the end sweating buckets, palate ravaged, desperate for more and feeling alive for the first time in years: or maybe it’s the “seaweed crack”, you never know. One review I read, and I’m not even paraphrasing, said “I know they do good fried chicken because I have really good tastebuds” (see? there are bloggers out there even more unbearable than me).

The high point of the meal, ironically of the whole day, was the first thing they put in front of us. Chicken toast – think sesame prawn toast but with chicken instead – was a really, really outstanding plate of food: clever, delicious and beautifully executed. Three hefty pieces of chicken toast, lacquered with a sauce they called “chilli tamarind caramel”, surely the best what3words of all time, and served with a simple sesame studded slaw.

Honestly, they could just call the restaurant Toast ‘N’ Sours, sling these out all day and I’d have liked the place considerably more. I wish we’d ordered one each, with one on the side for good luck. But in the wider context of the meal it felt like a breakout star in search of a spinoff, a Saul Goodman or a Frasier Crane. Nothing else we ate would approach those heights.

Take the Mexinese nachos, for example. I read up on these after the fact and everything I saw made me pine for a dish that, in truth, I feel I never had. They come, apparently, loaded with Szechuan chicken and bacon ragu, kimchee, chilli and cheese sauce in a sort of multi-continental mashup of epic proportions. The review in the Guardian talks about fermented chilli paste and a touch of anchovy, the FT talks about gochujang. With all that thrown haphazardly into the mix, the risk is that it would be a bit much, that you’d be asking them to show a bit of restraint. In reality it was a slightly forlorn plate of food, of nachos draped in thin mince and tasting of not enough.

Wings, “disco wings” according to the menu, were better. James liked them – and he’s more a wing aficionado than I am – whereas I thought they were okay. You had a choice of naked, kung pao or hot and we’d picked the latter. It was still what James likes to refer to as “white people hot”, but was plenty hot enough for me. The wings, properly tossed rather than sauced, were decent enough – and if I wasn’t wowed that’s probably because I’m the sort of heathen who never feels this kind of thing balances reward and effort as I’d like. “They would have benefited from not being breaded” was James’ comment, as part of our post match analysis. “A naked fried wing tossed in that sauce would have been much better.”

Mains arrived before we’d finished our starters, which at least gave us an excuse to abandon the nachos. I’d heard from a few people that the House Fry – drumstick and thigh on the bone with pickled watermelon – was the thing to order, but when James tried to he was told they didn’t have any.

Instead he went for my regular order in places like this, the tenders, and they were positively underwhelming. You got three of them, big flattened pieces of chicken, and having gazed lovingly at a fair few pictures of Chick ‘N’ Sours’ food online I can honestly say they’ve always looked more golden, more crinkle-edged, more alluring than this. These looked like they could have been bought from the chiller section of Marks or Waitrose and finished off in the oven, beige-blond boring things.

James concurred. “The coating wasn’t great – it lacked crunch, too soft. It needed another two minutes in the fryer” he told me. “They could have been seasoned better coming out of the fryer, too.” He dipped them in his gochujang mayo, but didn’t finish them. And James, like me, is not a man to leave fried chicken.

My burger, the K-Pop, also failed to shine. This was chicken thigh with, again, a riot of flavour shoved on it – gochujang mayo, sriracha sour cream and chilli vinegar. Again, it just sounded so good: I’m used to the heavenly combination of gochujang and sriracha from Gurt Wings’ outstanding Lost In Translation fried chicken, so I had high hopes.

How did this manage to taste of so little? And how had they managed, while achieving that, to also put so much gunk in there that the bun underneath soaked through, making it almost impossible to eat? Normally a restaurant needs to outgrow its two small branches, fall into bed with some venture capitalists and roll out all the way to Reading to be this middling: how had Chick ‘N’ Sours pulled it off without doing all that?

I feel like I’ve already said enough, but let’s dot the Is and cross the Ts of disappointment by talking about the remainder of the food.

For some reason they brought us an additional portion of chips, by way of apology. Initially I wasn’t sure what for, then I thought it might be because they didn’t have the house fry, but with hindsight I think it might have just been for the food in general. It’s interesting that Chick ‘N’ Sours’ menu makes much of their chips being cooked in beef dripping and yet they turned out to be fairly indifferent, while earlier that day Casa do Frango had made no bold claims about their fries and they were infinitely superior.

Oh, and we also had a pickled watermelon salad. Ever wondered what pickled watermelon tastes like? Me too, and I’m still wondering: this just tasted of watermelon.

You get the general jist by now. I spent a little time looking at the other tables – the place was doing a roaring trade – and wondering what I was missing; I’ve rarely felt so much of the emperor’s new clothes about a restaurant as I did that night in Covent Garden. And that’s not to say it was an awful meal, but it was an ordinary one. Service was pleasant, if brisk, and the one thing I can say is that, especially for that part of London, it was affordable: all those starters, sides and mains and a couple of cocktails each came to a hundred and six pounds, including service.

This has to be one of the weirdest summaries I’ve ever had to write, of a place I’ve wanted to visit for something like five years, of a place which in theory serves some of my favourite food and which everyone, and I mean everyone, loves. The only logical conclusion, really, is that I’m wrong and that if fried chicken is your thing and you find yourself in the centre of London this is the place to head for. Everybody else says so. It’s me: I’m wrong, and I don’t know why I’m so out of step.

It could be expectation – that I thought the place would be incredible and so, when it was merely quite good, I felt like the sky had fallen in. But I don’t know if it’s even that; I guess my expectations were that it would be even better than Eat The Bird, which I encountered and loved on a recent visit to Exeter. But in reality it didn’t come close to their food, and if you asked me which one I’d want to open a branch on my doorstep it would be Eat The Bird every time.

All that makes this review especially frustrating, of somewhere I hoped to love, wanted to love, expected to love but just didn’t. A so-so review of somewhere in London you were probably never going to visit anyway. That’s the thing about these reviews outside Reading – when they’re a belter they’re fun to write, hopefully fun to read, and everybody wins. But when they’re mediocre, the so what factor is sadly lacking. So I must apologise: hopefully better, and more local, restaurants lie in both our futures.

Or maybe I just have really shit tastebuds. It’s a distinct possibility.

Chick ‘N’ Sours – 6.8
1A Earlham Street, Covent Garden, London WC2H 9LL
020 31984814

Restaurant review: Casa do Frango, Piccadilly

This week’s review came about for a simple reason: I went to Nando’s. Six weeks ago Zoë and I were in town on a slow Sunday lunchtime, neither of us could face cooking that evening and we longed for the comfort of a known quantity. Judge all you like, but when I feel that way Nando’s makes it on to my long list, which means that occasionally it makes the shortlist, and sometimes it winds up on the podium.

I mean the Friar Street branch – no offence if you prefer the one in the Oracle – and my usual order is butterflied chicken, medium, with macho peas, spicy rice, garlic piri-piri sauce on the side. It always delivers, and it did on this occasion: I left sated and happy, putting a picture on Instagram to show that I’m not all preaching and indies. Later that day I got a message from my friend James (last seen on this blog living it up in Marmo).

“I’ve recently cracked how Nando’s do their chicken” it said. This was a very James thing to say: naturally I was intrigued.

“Don’t they just cook it, keep it in a drawer and then finish it on the grill after you’ve ordered it?”

“They slowly cook the chicken at about 90 degrees over a couple of hours, almost poached in a basic marinade.Then they grill and layer on the piri piri multiple times to create a layer of flavour: baste, seal and grill, turn, baste etc.”

Doing this sort of painstaking research was also very James. But better was to come, because when Zoë and I went to stay with him and his partner Liz over Easter weekend, he went a step further. “I’m going to recreate it”, he said. He was true to his word, so one night we sat down to the most glorious slow-cooked, basted and grilled piri piri chicken. James cooked the chicken, Liz made the macho peas, the coleslaw and fries were from the supermarket. The whole affair was even more soothing than the real thing: Nandos-esque rather than just Nandos-ish, if that makes sense.

“The place I keep meaning to try is Casa do Frango.” I said, between mouthfuls. “They started out with one near London Bridge and now they have three across the city.”

“Let’s do it!” said James.“I’d love to accompany you.” So we did: some people might find this eccentric, but James and I booked a Friday off work and headed to London on the train, on a pilgrimage for the best piri piri chicken outside Portugal.

Casa do Frango (the house of chicken: in Portuguese it sounds far more exotic than, say, the hut of pizza) came to my attention five years ago when the original branch got a glowing review in the Observer. And I always intended to go at some point, to see if it could get anywhere near the best piri piri chicken I’ve ever had, in a little Lisbon alleyway. That was at a place called Bonjardim and it remains a real death row food memory, the skin brittle and intense, rubbed with lemon and salt, the meat underneath a yielding feast. Nando’s, much as I like it, has never displaced it in my memory, but perhaps Casa do Frango could.

For this review I decided to visit Casa do Frango’s newest, most central branch. It’s on Heddon Street, just off Regent Street and a stone’s throw from Liberty, and I picked it partly because it’s become their flagship, partly because it fitted better with our plans for the rest of the day but mainly, in truth, with you lot in mind. After all, a decent affordable place to eat not far from from Piccadilly Circus might potentially be of use to a lot of you (although not one of my readers who recently got in touch to tell me that, although he read the blog religiously every week, the recent ones hadn’t been hugely useful given that he was allergic to chicken – sorry Tom!).

On the way in I realised that it must be the best part of three years since I’d set foot in central London, over three years since I’d taken the Tube. That means I’m a tedious Johnny-come-lately when it comes to how game-changing the Elizabeth Line is to Bond Street (although I enjoyed my guided tour of the Elizabeth Line, thanks to James who is quite the public transport enthusiast). It also meant I wasn’t prepared for how quiet it was on a Friday – not Vanilla Sky Times Square levels, but I’d never seen Regent Street so sparsely populated. “Thursday is the new Friday” said James.“Everyone’s working from home today.”

Heddon Street is a little alley literally lined with restaurants – a ramen place, an outpost of Gordon Ramsay’s empire, a pub called The Starman (the cover of Ziggy Stardust was shot outside) and a café called Ziggy Green, because people are nothing if not unimaginative. We walked past Michelin-starred Sabor, which looked gorgeous inside (“I’ve been, it’s great” ventured James) and I wondered if I’d have restaurant regret. But Casa do Frango is a handsome-looking spot, and I loved the tiles outside reading RUA HEDDON. The muggy drizzle said we were in London, but it still had the potential to be transformative.

It’s a big site, with two large dining rooms upstairs, some private dining and a very swish-looking speakeasy bar downstairs. We were in the back dining room, their first customers, ultra keen at high noon. It was a great space, ceiling fans whirring, the whole thing surprisingly well lit, tasteful bentwood chairs, brick, tile and warm burnt orange tones. We got a good table up against the wall so we both got a view of the dining room, and it slowly filled up over time. They lunch later in London, the lucky blighters.

The menu only has one main course – that chicken – so it’s all about the starters and sides. The chicken is twelve fifty – back in 2018 when the Observer visited it was still less than a tenner – but most of the small plate starters (billed as “to share”) clocked in between eight and ten. Technically you could eat here as a vegetarian, if you were dragged here, but you’d find it all foreplay and no shagging, so to speak.

I was particularly impressed with the drinks list. The compact selection of cocktails is more than skin deep Portuguese, so licor Beirão and ginjinha both make an appearance: I have happy memories of both. The wine list is one hundred per cent Portuguese, even down to the dessert wines, with a separate section for vinho verde, much of which is available by the glass. Even the port is the lesser-spotted Offley rather than a bigger name. We started with a gorgeous, zesty white port and tonic – I picked up the habit for these in Porto five years ago, they can quite make you forget about G&T – and made our choices.

To begin, that meant trying to eat a representative sample of the small plates. Bacalhau fritters were the best of them – salt cod is one of my favourite things about Portuguese food and these were light-shelled with the perfect balance of carby potato lending bulk and the fish landing the perfect hit of flavour. The aioli, golden and sunny, rounded things off nicely, though I wasn’t sure they needed to glue the croquettes to the dish with more of the stuff.

The pork croquettes were also decent enough, although they lacked the same wow factor. These were served with a mustard bechamel I liked slightly less, and although the flavour of the croquettes was good, the texture suitably silky, I couldn’t help thinking we’d ordered two dishes too similar. The chorizo, grilled with black olive mayo and pickled chillies, might have been a better choice. The croquettes and the fritters, at eight pounds, felt a tiny bit sharp for what you got.

I did love the salgadinhos – little empanadas stuffed with kale, mushroom and onion – though. It’s interesting how the mind can be redirected by pricing: at two pounds each these were technically the same price as a single croquette or fritter, but they felt bigger, better and better value. The salt flakes liberally sprinkled on top gave each mouthful a pleasing little saline spike.

Our final starter promised much but didn’t entirely deliver. A whole head of cauliflower, marinated so effectively in piri piri that its centre had a pinkish tinge, had been charred and then drowned in a vivid green slick of yoghurt and pistachio. Eating this dish felt like reading a well-written novel and not enjoying it as much as I thought I should. Everything worked – the flesh of the cauli firm, the sharp tang of the yoghurt augmented with lime – but by the end it felt like a slog. If the other small plates were a little small, paradoxically this could have benefited from being smaller.

The eponymous chicken arrived as we’d polished off a cold glass of Super Bock. This is where I’d love to dust off my hyperbole but instead, I fear I’ll be delivering some faint praise. There was literally nothing not to like, but perhaps nothing to rhapsodise over either. You get half a chicken per person, and yes, it was juicy and swimming in brick-red juices (“the key is to use smaller chickens” said James, knowingly). But the flip side is that tender though it was, there wasn’t masses of meat and some of it took more persuading off the bone than I’d expected. I was hoping for that hit of crispy skin, too, but the whole thing felt a tiny bit underpowered.

It didn’t compare to my memories of Bonjardim – perhaps the power of nostalgia meant it never could – but I wasn’t sure it was better than the rendition at Casa do James, either. I should add that James liked it more than I did, and he has the added benefit of knowing what he is talking about. We both largely eschewed the little tub of piri piri sauce it came with – “that’s for tourists”, said James – instead trying to get every bit of the glossy, spicy oil coating the bottom of the steel plate.

I should also mention the surprise MVP of our meal, hidden at the back of the photo above. Casa do Frango’s chips are nothing to look at – verging on blond and, on appearances, unlikely to deliver much. In reality they were phenomenal – salty with huge amounts of crunch and staying hot, seemingly, for ages. They didn’t have to be this good, god knows the ones from Nando’s rarely are, and yet this was the dish James and I kept coming back to for the rest of the afternoon. Those fries, though.

Perhaps the reason the chicken was lacking in crispy skin is because Casa do Frango had the genius idea of stabbing huge shards of it into its African rice. This was a phenomenal side, the rice studded with chorizo and sticky plantain and, with the exception of a few clumps, virtually flawless. If they sold a side that was just a bowl of crispy chicken skin I’d have bought several. And taken a doggy bag.

Our final side of Hispi cabbage, though, was too similar to that cauliflower starter, being a brassica charred and festooned with yoghurt. This one was accented with red pepper and a parsley sauce a little like a chimichurri or salsa verde. But even more than the cauliflower, this felt more like a virtuous trudge than an indulgence. The way it was plated was frustrating, too: one wedge of cabbage was perched on top of the other, with the end result that only one of them, really, was properly dressed.

I was ambivalent about dessert, but James had his heart set on one – for research purposes, no doubt – and so we acquiesced. It helped that we accompanied them with a glorious glass each of Moscatel de Setubal: Portugal never gets the credit it deserves for its superb dessert wines and this one was a glowing schooner of sweet, sweet sunshine (I neglected to mention the vinho verde we had with our chicken: superb and ever so slightly effervescent). The service was excellent throughout and our server steered James in the direction of the almond cake which she said was her favourite – she couldn’t eat gluten, which was part of why she loved it so much, but James adored it too.

Settling into my role as designated party pooper, I had a pastel de nata. Well, you have to: any coffee without one in Portugal feels like a coffee missing its soulmate. And although Casa do Frango’s looked the part, it was a fascinating study in contrasts where everything was not quite as it should have been – the pastry, which should be ethereally light, was heavy going and the custard, which should be just-firm with a little wobble, was gloopy. I should have seen the warning signs when they brought it with a teaspoon. What kind of egg custard tart needs to be eaten with a teaspoon? This one, it turns out.

So a proper mixed bag, with plenty to celebrate. But, like Joni Mitchell in Both Sides Now, I worry that it’s Casa do Frango’s illusions I recall. So let’s try and focus on the positives – the wine list is fantastic, some of the small plates are delicious, that rice will live long in my memory and I’m still astonished that the fries were so much better than they looked at first blush. The service – attentive, endearingly laconic, properly Portuguese – was a joy and every bit worth the twelve and a half per cent. It’s a beautiful room and, as I discovered on a foray to the basement, the handwash in the gents smells heavenly.

But I do wonder if the things I really enjoyed about this meal were more about the context of the meal than the food itself. I was on a day off, on a Friday with a good friend, with nothing to do but drift from restaurant to shop to bar to restaurant again. I was in London properly for the first time in eons and it almost felt like we had the city to ourselves. In those circumstances, many meals would feel special. It’s important to try and push that slightly to one side and focus on what we ate.

The whole thing – all that food and four different alcoholic drinks apiece – came to a hundred and sixty pounds, including the service charge. And that’s where you have to stop and think. Is the place better than Nando’s? Objectively yes, of course it is. Is it easily three or four times better than the significantly cheaper Nando’s? I’m not so sure about that. Does it command grudging affection like Nando’s? No, I’m afraid it doesn’t.

And, on Heddon Street at least, Nando’s isn’t even its competition. If you’re in this part of town there are plenty of other ways to spend your money at superior reimaginings of nationwide chains – a short walk away off Carnaby Street, for instance, you could stop into Pizza Pilgrims. It may be a step up from the likes of Franco Manca and Pizza Express, but if you manage to spend a hundred and sixty pounds between two there I’d be very surprised.

The strangest thing about my visit is this: even though pedestrian old Nando’s is an identikit recreated across the country, without the beautiful decor and attention to detail of any of Casa do Frango’s sites, I found this visit made me appreciate the former more than the latter. In fact, shameful confession time: I went back to Friar Street in between visiting Casa do Frango and publishing this review, just to check that I wasn’t on mushrooms, and I stand by what I’ve said. Doubtless that will get me excommunicated from the Guild Of Food Snobs, and I know I’m disagreeing with Jay Rayner again. But would you expect any less from me by now?

Casa do Frango – 7.1
31-33 Heddon Street, London, W1B 4BL
020 35355900

Restaurant review: Sanpa, Wokingham

I’ve been writing this blog for nearly ten years, and I’ve been moaning that Reading needs a good tapas restaurant for most of them. Certainly I was saying that from the moment, back in September 2013, when I had the misfortune of visiting Picasso just off Caversham Bridge (“one tapas is enough for two people” was the warning sign, looking back). Surely, given the popularity of small plates in general and tapas in particular, someone would give it a bash?

That said, there was a halcyon period, between 2015 and 2018, when Reading was graced with I Love Paella, first in Workhouse Coffee down the Oxford Road, then at The Horn in town, and finally at the Fisherman’s Cottage by the canal. But the owners of the pub decided to let them go, so they could offer their own menu which looked disconcertingly like I Love Paella’s. It didn’t work: the pub closed and changed hands.

And what have we had since then? Numerous restaurants that do good small plates, but only one place, Thames Lido, for tapas (their “poolside bar menu”). I know the Lido has its fans, but having had nothing but inconsistent meals there – and having watched them churn through chefs like it’s nobody’s business – for me that tapas itch remains unscratched.

It’s baffling, because it’s a style of eating that has readily taken root elsewhere. In Bristol you can choose between Bravas, Gambas, Bar 44 or Paco Tapas. London options include Barrafina, Brindisa, Salt Yard and Iberica, and I’ve barely got started. Closer to home Goat On The Roof opened in Newbury last year (I liked it, when I went) and more recently El Cerdo has started trading in Maidenhead, part of its ongoing explosion of interesting-looking new restaurants. And this kind of restaurant keeps coming – Salty Olive, a pintxo restaurant, is opens soon in Wokingham. Yet Reading’s tapas market remains resolutely untapped.

In my experience, great tapas restaurants in this country tend to be run by Brits fanatical about Spain, Spanish culture and Spanish food. Often, rather than recreating what you would get in Andalusia, they set about building a superior re-imagining of it. The 44 Group, run by the Morgan family, is a great example, completely obsessed with produce and producers. Arbequina, down Oxford’s Cowley Road, is another.

Even tapas restaurants which feel more authentically Spanish, more an attempt to create a traditional tapas bar in this country, are often set up by Brits. I’ve always had a huge soft spot for Los Gatos, easily the best restaurant in Swindon, perched up in the Old Town: it’s only in the process of writing this week’s review that I discovered that it, too, was founded by a British couple and named after Malaga’s legendary bar of the same name.

So really, I should have ventured out to Maidenhead this week to try El Cerdo. It fits the bill I’ve just described: the website talks about a love of Spain and Spanish flavours, the menu makes all the right noises. Muddy Stilettos raved about their (no doubt free) food, and it appears – from a look at Companies House – to be owned by Brits. That would be the obvious choice, but who likes obvious choices anyway?

Instead I decided to revisit the one tapas restaurant I can think of that appears, from what I can gather, to be owned by a Spaniard, Wokingham’s Sanpa. It’s been running since 2012, and I visited it back in 2016, when I loved the place. They then moved to a new house (as did I – twice) and our paths diverged. But people get too hung up on the shiny and new, so before I reviewed the shiny and new I decided it was time to get myself to Wokingham with Zoë and see whether the intervening years had been kind to Sanpa.

It’s one of the town’s older buildings, two conjoined cottages, all beams, white walls and cosy, farmhouse-style chairs and tables. The two dining rooms are separated by a hearth and the second gives a view into the open-ish kitchen. It looked homely, not unpleasant but also, in honesty, not drastically different to when I visited this building last in 2016, back when it was home to a restaurant called Jessy’s.

It was also, and this never flatters a dining room, empty. Marie Celeste empty. Not with a few tables settling up, not with reserved signs marking the space of the diners yet to come. Just empty. I don’t know about you, but I always feel guilty if it seems like I’m the only thing standing between staff and an early night.

Despite that the welcome was warm and immediate and it felt like a nice, if cavernous, place to stop on a midweek evening. And looking at the menu I could see plenty of reasons to settle in for a few waves of small plates. Most of it very much looked the part, although a couple of dishes – bacalhau à bras and chicken fajitas – did seem to have wandered across from other restaurants.

Pricing for tapas was all clustered around the eight pound mark – although some dishes were £7.95 and others £7.59 for reasons which seemed capricious at best. The bigger plates – steak, lamb shank, three different kinds of paella – were grouped together under a section endearingly entitled “Other things to order”, even though that literally describes everything on a menu, if you think about it.

My favourite part – and I’ve never seen anything like this before – was a sternly worded box in the bottom left. It said, and I’m quoting verbatim here, Please make sure that you know what this dish looks like or taste (sic) like. Due to the level of controversy and the cost of this dish, we regret to inform you that we will not be able to refund this dish of (sic) your bill if you’re not comfortable with the outcome of your order.

I followed the asterisk, expecting it to be something contentious like octopus, or sweetbreads, but instead found a rib-eye with blue cheese and Rioja sauce. Is steak and potatoes really controversial, or were they playing it safe because it was just shy of twenty-four pounds?

The wine list was okay, if not hugely tempting. I was in the mood for a Spanish beer – always so enjoyable with tapas – but all they had was San Miguel by the bottle. So we decided to grab a jug of sangria and that turned out to be an excellent choice. It was expertly put together to taste as if it had no alcohol in it, even though you knew it did, and if it contained a slug of rum or brandy it was nicely blended and concealed. It tasted, to be honest, like holidays – and what’s not to like about any drink capable of that?

Our first wave of dishes was a decent reflection of the strengths and weaknesses of the kitchen. Bread was bought in but serviceable enough, and the allioli tottered under the weight of an industrial quantity of garlic. But the colour was Hellmans-pale not golden, the consistency woolly, closer to fridge-cold butter than the good stuff. Chorizo in cider came, not as an earthenware dish full of slices of chorizo, caramelised at the edges, rich with juices, but rather as two hulking sausages, plain and unadorned. This didn’t fill me with hope but actually they were terrific, the kind of quality you can’t easily get your hands on in this country.

If that dish didn’t give the bread much to do by way of moppage the next more than made up for it. I’d loved Sanpa’s prawns in garlic on my visit seven years ago and was keen to reacquaint myself with them. They were still very nice indeed, sizzling away in a little skillet surrounded by nuggets of garlic somewhere between golden and crunchy.

This, more than the allioli, felt like the bread’s destiny, to dive and scoop and play in that pool of oil and garlic. I remembered halfway through that I was in the office next day, and felt bad for my colleagues. But if you wanted an illustration of what’s happened over the last seven years you couldn’t find a better one – the dish cost about a pound more than last time, but contained roughly half as many prawns.

Then there was the dish for which I had the highest hopes: panceta a la parilla, described in the menu as “ideal as finger food”. From that I was hoping for little cubes of pork belly, something close to chicharrones. Instead we got three slabs of belly, plainly grilled, without much accompaniment. It wasn’t quite cooked to the point where the fat starts to render and everything gets gloriously sticky, and I found a couple of shards of bone in my piece.

I found myself thinking about what this dish would have been like in the market at Malaga, the whole thing dressed with a little herbs, the tomatoes thicker and tasting properly of tomatoes, as they always do abroad. Abroad they would have been bright with grassy olive oil and scattered with rock salt. Did I think the chef was running on autopilot because he hadn’t bothered to do any of that here, or had I decided that because I could see, through in the open kitchen, that he was cooking with his headphones on?

A meal like this is definitely a game of two halves, and as we cogitated and fine-tuned our next selection of dishes the staff – who were absolutely brilliant throughout, by the way – took our dishes away. I asked our server if she had any recommendations – “you’ve already had quite a few of my favourites” she said, which I liked.

By this point another couple had come in and were sitting the other side of the room, which had the advantage of making me feel like less of a lemon. Again, I worried about all the good restaurants unable to pack them in on a midweek evening; I doubt, back in Reading, Popeyes was having this problem. I felt a moral responsibility to order more dishes – and another jug of sangria, although there was nothing moral about that.

Our second wave of dishes showed the same inconsistency but, if anything, were more disappointing. I’d decided against the patatas bravas, our server’s recommendation, instead picking the patatas con crema de Cabrales. This was the same cheese, by the way, that featured in that Absolutely No Refunds Ribeye. The possible reason for that is that Cabrales is stinky. It is one of the most agricultural blue cheeses there is, perfect with Asturian cider, though pretty good on its own. This potato dish should have been salty and funky – a handful, no less.

And yet the surprisingly dark sauce just didn’t have the oomph, and there wasn’t enough of it. What there was had slipped through the cracks and landed in a pool at the bottom of the dish, rather than coating each crunchy cube of spud. A real shame, because the potatoes themselves were excellent. A good opportunity squandered: was it down to those headphones again?

Albondigas were another recommendation and, again, just missed the mark. The meatballs themselves were genuinely lovely – a coarse mix of pork and beef, clearly handmade and as good as most I’ve tried. But drowning them in a gloopy sauce of tomatoes and peas coated the accomplishment in an emulsifying layer of blah. And I didn’t see the point of putting more cubes of potato at the bottom where they just wound up bedraggled and soggy. The meatballs should have been the star of the show – again, my mind wandered to Malaga and to its marvellous Uvedoble, where the meatballs come perched on a bed of shoestring fries, the meaty juices soaking in, the whole thing unimprovable.

Croquetas were probably the most disappointing thing I ate. These were apparently made with Serrano ham, though good luck finding much of it. They’d been fried to the point where the shell was a permacrust, the inside again woolly rather than silky. Had they been previously frozen? I wouldn’t have bet against it. Just over six pounds for these tiddlers didn’t feel like amazing value (and these days, things being how they are, I don’t talk about value as much as I once did).

Last but not least, a round of goats cheese with tomato jam. This, again, is a dish I remember fondly – this time from I Love Paella – but Sanpa’s was a pale imitation. Maybe it’s because we ate it last of all, but it didn’t have that almost brûlée crust – instead it was a little like cardboard. Underneath the goats cheese was still decent, although I like pretty much any goats cheese, and the tomato jam was a classic, if sweet, combo. But again I felt underwhelmed; I knew Sanpa could get their hands on decent ingredients – the chorizo showed as much – but I didn’t feel like they always did enough with them.

I feel bad saying all this, partly because I wanted so badly to like them and also because, as I said, service was brilliant all night. It takes real skill to be that happy and engaged on a Wednesday in the middle of spring, looking after a restaurant of precisely four customers. But the staff did exactly that, and I imagine they come into their own on a bustling weekend night, when I sincerely hope Sanpa is packed with happy diners. But also, much as I wanted to like them, I couldn’t imagine a Saturday night where I would be among them.

Our meal came to just shy of ninety pounds, not including tip, and tempting though it was to have a pint and a debrief in the Crispin next door, we headed for the station. I found myself simultaneously hoping that Sanpa continued to prosper – I’m sentimental like that – and wondering, if my meal had been representative, how they really could.

“I bet the people who run that restaurant have never been to Arbequina or Bar 44” said Zoë as we boarded our train home.

“No, probably not. But why would they? They’re Spanish, they probably feel they have authenticity on their side.”

“But that’s the point, you have to adapt or die: if they don’t, they might get left behind. Last time you gave them a rating of 8 or something, this time it’s going to be much lower. What will it be like in another five years? And some of the touches in our meal tonight just felt dated. Like that squiggle of balsamic glaze under the goat’s cheese, who does that any more?”

I nodded silently in agreement at my other half, easily a better restaurant critic than I am these days, as the train trundled back to Reading.

Sanpa – 6.9
37-39 Denmark Street, Wokingham, RG40 2AY
0118 9893999