Oishi

I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten somewhere quite as apologetic as Oishi, the new Japanese restaurant on the Oxford Road. I turned up on a Wednesday evening to find the place completely empty; I asked the waitress whether it was okay to have a table for two, and she mumbled something about how most people come in to get takeaway, or phone up for delivery. That didn’t feel like either a yes or no, but then she smiled, said “yes, sit anywhere” and gestured around her. It’s a Spartan room, but tasteful and nicely kitted out, and I took a table in the window, reasoning that if people walked past at least they’d know somebody was eating there and maybe they’d come in too.

There was further confusion when the menus were handed out. There’s no way of getting round this: they were takeaway menus, proudly advising that you could have free delivery within a three mile radius if you spent fifteen pounds (which, incidentally, is pretty reasonable). Not just takeaway menus, but takeaway menus for Oishi’s branch in Brentford: the telephone number had been scrubbed out and a Reading number written underneath it in scratchy blue biro. On the plus side, at least we weren’t in Brentford.

“Would you like a drink?” said the waitress.

“Do you have a drinks list?”

There was a pause, long enough for me to realise that there was no more a drinks list than there was a menu.

“We don’t serve alcohol.”

Well, I’ve had more promising starts to a meal out, I said to myself.

Anyway, that’s getting ahead of ourselves. First, the context: I’d wanted to visit Oishi ever since it opened in August. Reading has long needed a Japanese restaurant that could rival the likes of Misugo in Windsor or Kyoto Kitchen in Winchester, both of which are terrific. I’m also a fan of Oxford’s Taberu, and when they announced that they were opening a second branch down the Oxford Road I thought my prayers had been answered.

At first things went well: Taberu did the place up (previously the first home of sadly departed and much mourned Indian restaurant Bhoj – there was a lot of burnt orange to paint over) and began serving takeaway with the promise that they’d open as a proper eat-in restaurant later on. Then, somewhere along the line, it all went awry: opening as a full restaurant never happened, then Taberu closed completely and then, after much speculation, it reopened as Oishi. Oh well, at least they didn’t have to redecorate.

I especially wanted to try Oishi because I recently ordered food from Sen Sushi, Reading’s other Japanese restaurant at the opposite end of the 17 bus route, and I’d been so disappointed. Having sushi delivered on a Friday night felt like a massive treat, but what turned up was mediocre: oddly wan salmon sashimi, sinewy, badly-cut tuna sashimi, yakitori chicken skewers with a bonus knot of gristle. I wanted to support small independent businesses, but this wasn’t as good as Yo! Sushi.

My dining companion this week was my friend Jerry. Now, Jerry is a very dangerous man to go out with on a school night. He likes a drink, but he’s retired and consequently he never, ever has to get up for work the next day: many’s the time I’ve forgotten this fact and meandered home from Jerry’s flat of an evening, rather too much wine to the good, only to face a painful awakening the following morning (and a message from Jerry, fresh as a daisy, saying what a lovely evening it was). More significantly, and uniquely among people who have accompanied me on reviews, Jerry doesn’t actually read the blog, so I can say what I like about him without fear of reprisal: believe me, the temptation to claim that he sports a mohawk is considerable.

Not only that, but Jerry told me in the run up to our meal that he’d never had Japanese food before. Looking through the menu, I found myself wondering what the least intimidating dishes might be for a newcomer. The usual suspects are all present and correct – a small selection of sashimi, some sushi (maki, uramaki and hand rolls), some hot starters and a range of hot main courses – rice dishes, noodle dishes and ramen, mostly. In the end I decided to go for a sort of greatest hits: I could try and pretend this was to fully test the range of the menu, or to give Jerry the best possible introduction to Japanese food, but by now you’ve probably figured out that it was more to do with greed and hunger.

“Have you really never eaten Japanese food?”

“No, I haven’t! The closest I’ve ever got is Wagamama.”

Jerry’s education began with the classics. I have a real weakness for soft shell crab, so I ordered some soft shell crab uramaki (“I was going to put in a request for those!” he said excitedly) and they were one of the first dishes to turn up. The presentation was endearingly amateurish – I’m used to slightly more precision and focus on clean lines – but they looked good, coated in bright orange tobiko (fish roe, the wonderful stuff that pops under your teeth), plonked on a board with a small pile of ginger in one corner and a dab of wasabi in the other. They were nicely rolled with no gaps or ragged edges, and the addition of a little cucumber added a nice textural crunch. If I had a criticism it was about size (don’t let anybody ever tell you it’s not important) – I’m used to having the same dish at Misugo where it feels like a sea monster is trying to escape from the rice, whereas these were somewhat diddy by comparison. At eight pounds it was the single most expensive dish we had, and probably not quite worth that.

I also ordered tempura prawns, mainly to ease the culture shock for Jerry: most people have eaten something like this at some point in their lives, after all. They never amaze and they rarely disappoint, but actually I was quietly impressed by Oishi’s rendition. Often menus claim that it’s tempura batter but what you get is stodgy, or greasy, or you take one bite and the rest of the batter falls off. These were very nicely done indeed – light, delicate and lacking in oil. They came with a pretty anonymous dipping sauce.

“It’s all very clean-tasting, isn’t it?” said Jerry. By Jove, I thought, he’s got it.

Sashimi came next: a big test for me, especially after such an iffy experience at Sen Sushi. Oishi has a limited sashimi selection – no sea bass or mackerel here – so again I opted for the reference dishes, in this case tuna and salmon. The slices were beautifully marbled, nicely sized and well-cut, with beautiful colour to them, but again the presentation was a tad haphazard. There was no daikon and the fish was fanned out on what looked like seaweed, which slightly affected the flavour of the pieces at the bottom.

That was a pity, because otherwise the sashimi was quite beautiful. I know some people are funny about raw fish, but for me there’s something magical about salmon sashimi in particular – the almost glossy texture, the way it manages to be both oily and pure all at once. The tuna was just as good – firm, meaty and expertly cut, everything as it should be. I dipped mine lightly in soy sauce and rhapsodised, while Jerry – showing a leaning toward the ascetic that was news to me – ate his au naturel. Oh, and there were two random and completely pointless slices of lemon: if you need these, you probably shouldn’t be eating sashimi, and I imagine they’d give purists conniptions.

By this point, I was starting to feel like things might turn out rather nicely, although I was also increasingly aware that this might have been the longest I’d ever been in Jerry’s company without imbibing alcohol of some description. Not that it seemed to deter him in the slightest as he launched into a long and very entertaining story about going to a wedding in North Devon only to meet the village character, a lady of advanced years who had booted out her husband because of his failure to perform, exhausted the limited pool of locals via Tinder and ended up working in a massage parlour because she’d said, he told me, “I might as well get paid for it”. Where did he find these people? I wondered.

Jerry concluded his tale just as our – presumably slightly aghast – waitress turned up with the next dish, duck gyoza with a little dish of hoi sin for dipping. Now, these are a stable at the likes of Yo! Sushi and Wagamama, and Oishi’s were fairly similar to the gyoza you can get at those places, but even then there were little differences – some finely chopped cucumber, or possibly spring onion, in the filling just adding another dimension. Nice work.

Finally, what I suppose you’d class as our main courses arrived. I’d given Jerry first choice, after talking him through the options, and he’d gone for chicken katsu curry. “It’s sort of breadcrumbed chicken breast and rice and a curry sauce, but it’s not a really hot spicy sauce.” I said. “It’s kind of mild and creamy, you know, like a chip shop curry sauce.” I think that latter reference is what sealed it, and when it was placed in front of Jerry I realised I had inadvertently described it perfectly. It was indeed some rice, some breaded chicken and some curry sauce, all separate, practically deconstructed you could say. I used to have a friend called Fiona who had to eat every component of her meal separately – first the potatoes, then the veg, then the meat, never crossing the gastronomic streams (well, it takes all sorts). All I can say is that Fiona would have loved Oishi’s chicken katsu curry, although I wasn’t so sure about the self-assembly aspect myself.

None the less, as before, Oishi may not have got the presentation right but the content was very good indeed. The chicken was just right – a brilliant juxtaposition of crispy and tender – and although the breadcrumbs mightn’t have been panko it was far too tasty for me to care. The sauce was sweetly mild but a very long way from inoffensive, and the rice was, well, rice. I personally would have poured the sauce over the rice and chicken and had at it, but Jerry ended up dipping the chicken and forkfuls of the rice into the sauce like some kind of exotic fondue; I found it far too endearing to correct him. Oh, there was also some salad but I don’t think Jerry touched it. I kind of found that endearing too.

My main course was teriyaki chicken, and I so enjoyed it. It was a very generous portion of chicken thigh in a bowl, on top of a bed of plain rice and at first I had reservations because it looked perfectly sticky but I thought everything underneath would be dry. How wrong I was: all the teriyaki sauce had percolated through the grains of rice, leaving a glorious sweet reservoir at the bottom that simply made everything delicious. Not only that, but the dish had plenty of other stuff going on – the crunch of beansprouts, carrots and red onion, every mouthful perfect in contrasts of flavour and texture. And the chicken, although I might have liked it absolutely piping hot, was beautifully cooked. This dish was on the menu at six pounds fifty and I couldn’t believe what superb value it was – a feeling that was only marginally dented by being charged seven pounds fifty for it when the bill arrived.

Service was truly lovely thoughout – the lady who served us was so friendly and polite (after the baffled and diffident start) that it truly saddened me that there were no other customers eating in the night that we went. There was a regular stream of deliveries going out the door, and a couple turned up to pick some food up towards the end of our visit, but even so it felt forlorn to be the only people sitting there enjoying such good food. “We did have some tables in before you arrived”, the waitress told us and I fervently hoped that was the case.

Everything we ate that night, along with a Diet Coke (for Jerry: what do you take me for?) and a pomegranate green tea (for me: that’s what you should take me for) came to fifty pounds, not including tip. None of the dishes we had cost more than eight pounds and many – the katsu, the teriyaki chicken, both sets of sashimi – felt like impressive value. We left with warm – if sober – goodbyes and an steadfast conviction that we’d be back before long, which is exactly how you want to feel at the end of a trip to a restaurant.

“Wasn’t it lovely?” said Jerry, clearly a convert to Japanese food.

“It really was. Now shall we have a debrief at the Nag’s?”

“Absolutely!”

Independent restaurants, in my experience, rarely get everything right on day one, week one, or month one. Very few spring forth fully-formed and fully-realised in the way that, say, Bakery House or Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen did. They make mistakes, they learn, they correct. Early adopters are helping with the beta testing, and it’s a high wire for small restaurants: do you open before you’re totally prepared, or do you wait until everything is perfect? Taberu waited until it was ready for eat in customers which never came, and then it closed. Oishi has done it the other way round: it’s serving customers without necessarily being confident about how to do it.

And this is where we come in. Because when places like Oishi open, what they really need is customers. Not just any punters, but customers who are prepared to overlook the glitches, the lack of booze, the slightly scruffy presentation and the rather apologetic approach. But look at what you get in return: beautifully cut, delicious sashimi. Tender chicken thighs in sweet sticky sauce with the freshness of finely cut carrots. Spot on katsu curry. But more than that, you get the knowledge that you’re doing your bit, helping that restaurant to grow and evolve, to serve a community and improve a town. I think that’s a pretty good deal: but I would, because I like to think that I’m that kind of customer. I reckon some of you might be, too.


Oishi – 8.0

314 Oxford Road, RG30 1AD
0118 9599991

https://www.oishi-reading.co.uk/

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Feature: The 5 things Reading needs

A couple of weeks ago, I spent the weekend in Bristol (my birthplace, as it happens). I had a brilliant time there, but for much it, in the back of my mind, I was thinking “why doesn’t Reading have anything like this?”

I drank beer at Wapping Wharf, looking out at all the shipping containers full of places to eat and drink, and I thought about Reading’s powers that be turning down a similar idea near St Mary’s Butts. I had terrific tapas at Bravas: blue cheese sticky with orange blossom honey, perfect charcuterie with caperberries and pickled chillies, bread with golden, punchy aioli. I went to the Bank Tavern, what looks like an old man pub in the middle of the old city, and I ate slow-cooked lamb ragu with sturdy gnocchi and a dusting of dukkah. I drank beer at the Small Bar with a group of new friends (including, surreally, a table of Belgians playing Uno).

I had a fantastic weekend but I found myself reflecting on the train home from Temple Meads, simultaneously elated and deflated. In three days I’d visited independent café after café and restaurant after restaurant, and I constantly wondered why this had all taken hold in Bristol when Reading still had so far to go. Was it greedy landlords, or our blinkered council? Reading was a prosperous place, so why didn’t it always feel that way?

That trip inspired this week’s feature, but before I start I do want to say that none of this detracts from how good Reading is and how far it’s come in five years of writing Edible Reading. But loving a place also involves being able to hold up a mirror and be honest about some of its shortcomings. So yes, we have good restaurants opening but far too many of the new openings inside the IDR remain chains – small, prosperous, “good” chains, but chains none the less. The farmer’s market, although it’s starting to show welcome signs of expanding its pool of stallholders, still has much to do. Our council lacks imagination and ideas, and Reading CIC pays lip service to independent businesses at best (coincidentally setting up a poorly-promoted blog and Twitter feed on the subject just around the time that the Business Improvement District comes up for renewal). Oh, and the Hexagon is still crap.

So here’s my list of the five things I still thing Reading desperately needs. Plenty of items almost made the list, and when I mentioned on Twitter that I was writing this piece I got plenty of comments which chimed with the near misses. So yes, I’d love a good independent bakery in the town centre – Warings just isn’t central enough – but the new repurposed Tamp Culture site on Castle Street has just opened selling produce and might fill that gap. I’d dearly love a Japanese restaurant on the same level as the brilliant Misugo in Windsor, and yet I feel like I should investigate relative newcomers Oishi and Sen Sushi because one of them might prove to be exactly that.

Reading is missing a good butcher that could compete with the likes of Machin in Henley or Green’s of Pangbourne, and a delicatessen. Personally I’d like a properly cosy and conspiratorial wine bar like Le Barav in Paris, Gordon’s in London or one of my favourites, John Gordons in Cheltenham. But then again, the Tasting House may not be perfect but it’s moved a long way towards being that kind of space over the last five years, and we’re lucky to have it (especially now it serves such lovely coffee during the day). 

Anyway, I could go on, but better to get to my actual choices: the five additions I’d most like to see to Reading’s food scene. You can tell me what I missed in the comments.

1. A proper cooked breakfast

What’s missing?

Good quality, coarse, herby bangers: none of your weirdly smooth mechanically recovered dross. Bacon, ideally smoked and streaky, cooked until it barely bends and could almost snap: no place for highlighter-pen-pink rubbery back bacon in the perfect breakfast. Slices of sourdough toasted just right and buttered up to the very edge. Crumbly black pudding, mushrooms cooked in butter by somebody who understands how to get them right, smooth rich scrambled egg that hasn’t been overheated into yellow pellets. All the rest – baked beans, tomatoes, fried potato, even hash browns – is just a bonus, provided you get that lot right. And yet nowhere in Reading does.

The lack of a really remarkable breakfast has long felt like one of the biggest gaps in the market in Reading. The chains don’t offer anything remarkable: Cote is by some distance the best of a bad bunch, but beyond that it’s hard to get excited by the likes of Bill’s. Reading has greasy spoons, but I think you can safely say they aren’t getting their stuff from the farmer’s market on Saturday. They have a devoted clientele, but I’ve always thought you can look into Munchees and almost smell the existential despair: maybe the windows of Rafina Coffee Lounge are smoked for a reason (I had an omelette at Rafina last year. Never again).

That leaves the indies, and it’s surprising how few of them even try to serve breakfast. Picnic makes much of its breakfast but last time I went their avocado on toast was almost literally that, cut up and plonked on a solitary slice of toast for a fiver. Shed has a breakfast selection, but it’s very limited. Richfields looks like a better bet, and Café Yolk has its fans (and it was better last time I went than the woeful occasion when I went on duty) but both are a little way out of town. As is the lovely Fidget & Bob, whose scrambled eggs have been recommended to me in the strongest possible terms by people I trust.

Somewhere like?

The Handle Bar Café in Oxford does a brilliant cooked breakfast as does Beany Green, an Australian café a five minute walk from Paddington Station tucked away by the canal. But really, there are so many blueprints for good cooked breakfasts and it beggars belief that Reading has nothing even in the same ballpark. In Belfast I had an amazing breakfast at Harlem Café which was not only delicious – black pudding, potato scones, sausage and bacon all present and correct – but so beautiful that it could have been a still life (you can see the photo further up the page).

One of my favourite breakfasts is served in Wraysbury, where my dad lives, at a place called Keating’s Delicatessen. It looks like you’re eating in somebody’s front room, and to all intents and purposes you are. The proprietor, Pat, is a snow-haired Irish gentleman who has been leading my father gastronomically astray for the best part of twenty years. There’s a limited menu, and he’ll pretty much cook anything you want, but on a standard day you get generous helpings of bacon, proper sausages from the butcher, black pudding sliced thin and done crispy, mushrooms with a whack of curry powder and home made chips that are almost like the scraps at the bottom of the bag. I went once and Pat was cooking sausages – on order – for a customer’s dog. That dog, in Wraysbury, had a better breakfast than you can currently get in the centre of Reading.

The closest thing?

Conceal your surprise, but I think it’s Bluegrass BBQ. I can take or leave much of their food (although the Southern fried chicken isn’t half bad) but the breakfast is quite lovely: properly smoked crispy bacon, good quality sausages, baked beans with strands of pulled pork and quite magnificent hash browns. The baked eggs aren’t everybody’s taste, but as an over easy fan they suit me just fine. Personally I recommend asking for extra bacon, but then I would.

2. A tapas restaurant

What’s missing?

One of the London trends that’s not yet made it to Reading is the small plates restaurant. Generally that’s never bothered me enormously, but I do wish our town had a good tapas restaurant. I Love Paella came closest, but was probably most like that in its first incarnation operating out of Workhouse Coffee; when it moved to the Horn and the Fisherman’s Cottage, it was probably more of a traditional starters and mains kind of a place.

I still think there’s space for a proper tapas restaurant in town – good cheeses, slices of jamon and and a small selection of dishes for sharing, whether that’s an ever so slightly gooey slab of tortilla shot through with soft slices of potato and topped with flakes of salt, an earthy dish of chickpeas and spinach or crimson chorizo, cooked in cider, the juices perfect with bread – if you have any left after you’ve dunked it in the sunflower-yellow aioli, that is. Oh, and there should be sherry – several kinds – and, in the best of all possible worlds, Alhambra on tap.

If you’ve been to anywhere even remotely like this you know what I’m talking about, and if you’ve ever been to Picasso in Caversham you know that it’s emphatically not there. And it’s not Thames Lido, either, where the tapas (like everything else) is just a little too little for much too much.

Somewhere like?

As a regular visitor to Granada, there’s nothing I’d like more than to clone one of its brilliant tapas bars – the likes of Bodegas Castaneda or Taberna La Tana – and drop it in Reading (ideally in the site of the old Nino’s, which is totally wasted on that estate agent). Standing at the bar at one of those two, drinking your fino or your vino tinto, ordering bits and bobs without abandon is truly to spend time in one of my happy places. A recent trip to the superb Bravas, off the Whiteladies Road in Bristol, had my body in the West Country but my mind thoroughly transported to Andalucia: mentally I was already planning my next trip to Spain.

Closer to home, though, you can have an equally brilliant experience down Oxford’s Cowley Road, where Arbequina has been one of my favourite restaurants of the last two years. From pork belly smothered in mojo verde to slow cooked ox cheek in Pedro Ximenez, from sourdough toast topped with ‘nduja, honey and thyme – possibly not that Spanish, but never mind – to the stunning tortilla further up the page (I always mean to order a portion all to myself, and I never do) I haven’t had a bad dish in that restaurant.

On one of my visits, the waiter proudly told me that the kitchen was so simple and the menu so straightforward that they could teach most chefs to cook the whole lot in a week. Nothing to do with faff and fiddle, just about buying really good ingredients and treating them with the respect they deserve. How hard can it be?

The closest thing?

There really, really isn’t one. Much as it pains me to say this, the closest you can get – in spirit only – is The Real Greek. I had a very nice meal when I went there, and it’s the only place I can think of in Reading where eating and sharing small plates is not only actively encouraged but really it’s the only choice you have. So go there if you fancy small plates by all means, but if you want tapas take my advice and get on the train to Oxford one Saturday morning.

3. A gelateria

What’s missing?

Well, Tutti Frutti really: Reading’s never recovered from the closure of its top-notch ice cream parlour in the unfashionable part of Reading station late last year. We have a lovely open space in the shape of Forbury Gardens, we had the grand re-opening of the Abbey Ruins in June after ten years closed, it’s been baking hot for most of the summer and it’s been hugely saddening that I couldn’t get off the train and pick up a little tub of Paul and Jane’s perfect peach and amaretto ice cream to eat while loafing in the sunshine. Of all the closures since I began this blog it’s this one – more than Brebis, more than the Plowden Arms, more than Dolce Vita – that has most disappointed me. And yet many people in Reading probably didn’t even know it was there: we didn’t know what we had, and one day it was gone.

Oh, and don’t tell me that Dreamz or Creamz or Treatz or whatever they’re called fill that gap, and don’t try and convince me of the delights of Sprinkles Gelato (he’s always sounded like a camp mafia boss to me, locked in constant battle with rival don “Mr Cod”). I don’t want a dessert parlour that rips you off with waffles and cheap squirty cream. I want a proper ice cream café.

Somewhere like?

I first fell in love with ice cream on the Ile Saint Louis in Paris, queuing outside Berthillon with all those Japanese tourists for my own little piece of salted caramel heaven. But things went up a notch this year – in April I went on holiday to Bologna where I was a frequent visitor to Cremeria Funivia, an amazing gelateria there. The fior di panna ice cream – unflavoured, unsullied even by a hint of vanilla – was an absolute revelation, as was the idea that ice cream could taste simply of itself. Every time I went I had the fior di panna and a couple of other flavours and left wishing I’d had the courage of my convictions and left the other flavours out.

Closer to home George & Davis in Oxford’s Jericho (and its two siblings elsewhere in the city) prove that such places can flourish in Blighty. There are few pleasures that can top a couple of scoops of G&D on a hot day, and one of the main ones is a G&D milkshake. And without wishing to keep going on about Bristol, Swoon Gelateria at the bottom of the city’s Park Street served me pistachio and salted caramel gelato, both of which made me come over all unnecessary.

The closest thing?

Thames Lido does good ice cream, but at ridiculous prices, and you can hardly just turn up there for a scoop in a cup. I have a soft spot for the chocolate ice cream at Franco Manca, and it’s much more sensibly priced, but again you can’t take a seat and order only that. I used to laze in Forbury Gardens and buy a miniature tub of ice cream from Carluccio’s, and then they stopped selling them. This is a gaping hole, and the sooner someone enterprising starts exploiting global warming the happier we’ll all be. In the meantime, short of getting Doctor Who to tip up in the Tardis and whisk you off to Tutti Frutti, you’re properly on your own with this one: take me with you, if she does.

4. A triple threat café

What’s missing?

This sounds like a funny thing to say about a town with such a thriving coffee culture, but here goes: Reading is lacking a truly great café. I’ve long thought that the three must-haves for a café are great coffee (obviously), a great selection of food and chairs comfy enough that you feel like you can settle in for a proper chinwag. Nowhere in Reading quite manages more than two out of three.

I know that’s controversial, but but hear me out. Yes, some of the food in Picnic is lovely but the coffee is iffy and the chairs, crammed in to that tiny space, are the kind you long to leave. Shed does wonderful sandwiches but the furniture leaves something to be desired, and the coffee’s some way from perfect. So what about places that do really good coffee? Workhouse does some excellent food, but it’s not a comfortable place to linger (and the lattes are served so lukewarm I sometimes wonder if they’re trying to move you along as quickly as possible). C.U.P. isn’t the comfiest, and handsome though the fit-out of their second branch is, it’s still the sort of clinical look that doesn’t make you feel like taking your time. Not only that, but the food’s really hit and miss.

The only cafés that get the comfort factor right, sadly, are the ones you wouldn’t really choose to frequent. So yes, the Costas, Starbucks and Neros (as you’d expect with all that money to invest) do that much better. But really, don’t we want Reading to be better than a bucket of Starbucks coffee with your name on it or a lukewarm Costa panini? I hope so.

Somewhere like?

When I was in Bristol I made a couple of stops at Boston Tea Party, the miniature chain which started out in Bristol but now has branches across the West Country and beyond. There was lovely furniture, a wide-ranging menu covering breakfast lunch and beyond, vegan and vegetarian options at every step of the way, milkshakes, smoothies, local beers, the whole shebang. I sat in the lovely garden, a natural sun trap (Reading could do with more of those, too) both times, and both times I had a note perfect mocha. There are about 25 BTPs: I really wish one of them was in Reading.

The closest thing?

Although Reading doesn’t have anything quite like Boston Tea Party, the closest to that blueprint is probably Anonymous Coffee which has made a big impact since opening in the Tasting House earlier this year. It’s definitely a step up from the reclaimed plywood and punishment chairs so popular in purist coffee shops, the cakes are very good and the toasted sandwiches are creditable, although a tad pricey for what they are.

Oh, and Phil behind the counter is charm personified, but don’t tell him I said.

5. A special occasion restaurant

What’s missing?

One of the requests I get for recommendations more often than most is for somewhere to eat for a special occasion, whether that’s to celebrate a birthday, an anniversary, friends visiting from far away or anything else. Speaking as someone with no kids who loves eating out, I’ve always thought any evening can be a special occasion if you want it to be hard enough, but I do understand that urge to treat yourself, to have a proper blow-out somewhere that’s a cut above. And whenever I’m asked for advice I always struggle with recommending anywhere in town.

This isn’t about Michelin stars or the Good Food Guide, although both of them have traditionally given Reading a wide berth, preferring establishments out in the shires. It’s about having somewhere properly high end that you might only go to once or twice a year but which will always amaze you and never let you down. Reading doesn’t really have anywhere like that, and I’m not sure it has for a very long time.

So Forbury’s used to be quite decent, but it increasingly feels stuffy and dated and the even the market menu is inexplicably costly these days for what you get: I used to eat there relatively often back when I was married and money seemed to mean a lot less, but I wouldn’t go there now. Cerise does some pretty food (or did last time I went) but there’s never anybody in there, and sitting in what’s basically a corridor on your own makes for an eerie dining experience. Thames Lido has managed to build a destination restaurant without quite having the menu or service to match, and don’t even start me on Bel And The Dragon.

Somewhere like?

It would be easy to pick one of the many fancy pubs dotted round Reading – the Hind’s Head, or the Royal Oak at Paley Street, or the Bottle and Glass – but none of them truly hit the spot for me. They’re all a little bit too pleased with themselves, and not quite good enough. Similarly, I know Orwell’s out in Shiplake has a devoted following but my one trip there really didn’t wow me: I suppose I ought to try it again.

I love the Black Rat in Winchester, a lovely old pub on the outskirts of town which happens to be Michelin starred but which, unlike l’Ortolan, doesn’t seem to give two hoots about the fact. The compact, sensibly priced set lunch is a wonderful way to spend a Saturday lunchtime, especially after you’ve been slightly loosened up by the fascinating, extensive gin menu (truly Thames Lido could learn a lot from that place). And that’s before you get on to the black bread, a heady mix of squid ink and parmesan and almost impossibly moreish.

Equally gorgeous in its own way is Medlar on the Kings Road, which does a ludicrously impressive set lunch for not much money. Their crab ravioli with bisque is etched on my memory as one of the great starters of my life, as is the duck egg tart with duck hearts, and few mains come close to their feather blade with café de Paris snails and impeccable chips served with the glossiest, most beautiful Bearnaise sauce. On my last trip, let’s just say I found myself wishing it was a shorter walk home – and I have no plans to relocate to Chelsea.

But this kind of restaurant doesn’t have to be fancy or Michelin-starred. A really lovely neighbourhood restaurant, of the kind Mya Lacarte was in its prime, can also tick those boxes perfectly. One of my happy places is Branca in North Oxford (admittedly a neighbourhood I could quite imagine living in) and some of my nicest evenings – and best places of food – have involved that restaurant. Look at this confit duck with lentils and salsa verde, if you don’t believe me.

The closest thing?

I thought long and hard about this. On many levels, London Street Brasserie remains the one to beat in Reading, which after such a long time trading is simultaneously reassuring and depressing. It still has one of the best spots in town, it still has one of the only natural sun traps for al fresco dining and the set menu is still good value and impressively diverse. But I’ve always had a feeling that it’s not quite as good as it should be and, perhaps crucially, it’s nowhere near as good as the Crooked Billet, its sibling out towards Henley (and, if you’re talking about special occasion restaurants, I’ve celebrated my last two birthdays at the Crooked Billet with my family).

The other restaurant which comes closest is Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen. Not because it aspires to be a special occasion or destination restaurant, because (and I mean this kindly) I’m not sure it knows yet what it wants to be when it grows up. The food is up there with anything you can get for miles around, but the room is unshowy and the prices are bafflingly low. But in terms of dishes with a proper wow factor and – if you’re interested in that kind of thing – a damned good wine list, I still think it’s hard to pick anywhere better in town. All that, and it’s almost inside the IDR. It’s become the place I take visiting friends, or family, and it hasn’t let me down.

It pleases me hugely that the two best places to take people for a celebratory meal in Reading happen to be one of its oldest and one of its very newest restaurants; some things change, some things stay the same, but Reading in general gets better and better. And that feels to me like a nice way to end this piece, because however much I might want new places to open in Reading we still remain very lucky to have so much. Not to mention how good Reading might still become in the years ahead: imagine if I Love Paella finds somewhere to open in town, the team from Namaste Kitchen move to new premises and Glen Dinning manages to open an indoor equivalent of Blue Collar. And new places continue to open all the time including the latest, a Vietnamese place on Market Place called Mum Mum. There’s plenty to be grateful for – not least that we’re not, and will never be, Swindon.

Alona

I used to think the cardinal sin when eating in a restaurant was to take out a calculator when the bill arrived. You might know someone like this, someone who tots up exactly what they had and wants to pay for exactly that and not a penny more (strangely they’re often the same kind of people who neglect to add ten per cent to exactly what they spent – and not a penny more – when it comes to tipping). I don’t know anyone like that, or at least I don’t go to dinner with them. Paying for meals is like paying for rounds in pubs: sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind, but the only real way to be a loser is to keep count.

For years, I thought that was the worst thing you could do when eating out – well, that and being rude to the people serving you – and then an incident took place which changed my mind. I was on a double date at Comptoir Libanais, and we were meeting the other couple there at seven o’clock. There was some kind of mix-up and our dining companions got to the restaurant fifteen minutes early, and my date and I arrived at the appointed hour to find them halfway through eating their starters.

I was aghast. If you arrive early, ordering a drink is practically compulsory. Ordering bread and olives, if you’re peckish, is optional if you really can’t wait fifteen minutes. But starters? And this wasn’t just pitta and dips: the chap was ploughing his way through a portion of chicken wings as we took our seats. It was the first time I’d ever met these people so I could hardly say anything, but I spent the rest of the meal thinking Why is everybody acting like this is normal, acceptable behaviour? My date told me later on that I was being unnecessarily fussy, but I’ve never told another person who wasn’t shocked: if I’m ever elected to high office I might ensure that such conduct attracts a custodial sentence.

Anyway, company aside, the meal at Comptoir Libanais was forgettable. The service was comically bad, the food average at best and indifferent value to boot. My tagine (nothing like a nice authentic Lebanese tagine – as if there’s any such thing) was miserly and lukewarm, the couscous in huge clumps like only faintly edible asteroids. I hadn’t even wanted to go – it wasn’t my choice – and I felt like a traitor eating there when Bakery House was a couple of minutes away. It might not have a snazzy location on the Riverside, there might be no option to have alcohol with your meal (and the experience at Comptoir did rather make me want a drink) but Bakery House is the kind of independent restaurant Reading needs and deserves. I made a mental note to never go back to Comptoir Libanais on duty.

For a long time Reading only had those two Lebanese restaurants, and then I spotted Alona one Sunday afternoon as my taxi trundled up the Wokingham Road on the way to Nirvana. No website, no Facebook, but then I got reports on Twitter that Reading’s newest Lebanese restaurant was decent and might be up there with Bakery House; I needed no further incentive to hop on the 17 bus one evening and go there before word got out.

My companion this week was John Luther, who is responsible for programming at South Street and has done more most to shape Reading’s cultural scene. I’d wanted to take John with me on a visit ever since he judged my Honest Burgers competition last year – not only because I knew I’d be guaranteed stimulating conversation about all things artistic but also because I got a clear picture from John’s Twitter feed that he loves good food and craft beer. He was instrumental in bringing Craft Theory to Reading; he might be Bakery House’s most loyal patron (it’s effectively South Street’s staff canteen by now); he was Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen’s first customer: these things might not feature in John’s CV but they made him an ideal candidate to join me on duty.

It may be because Alona had been open little more than a month when we visited, but it looks pretty stripped-down. You walk in across the incongruous astroturf (they also offer shishas outside, apparently) and the counter on the right looks like standard kebab shop stuff with a brightly illuminated menu overhead. The dining room is on the left and is really very bare – plain tables, attractive tiles and not a lot else except a line of beaded lights at head height while changed colour throughout the meal like a hyperactive day-glo disco dado rail.

I asked whether we ordered at the table or at the counter and the answer was either or both: in the end we sat at the table nearest to the counter and asked nicely from there. The menu was like a pared down version of the Bakery House menu and prices were very similar, so you pay around a fiver for starters and mains hover near the twelve pound mark. Alona also does a range of wraps, presumably to eat off the premises. In fact, I saw more people turn up for takeaway than to eat in during our visit and only two other tables were occupied while we were there; eating under the functional lighting in such a stark place took on an increasingly Edward Hopperesque feel as the evening went on.

John and I valiantly did our best to try as many dishes on the menu as we could, and that meant rolling our sleeves up and tackling four starters. The first few arrived on a blue plastic tray, and we had to ask nicely for plates. The houmous kawrmah – one of two houmous options on the menu involving lamb – was very much a curate’s egg. The houmous itself was rather tasty and was clearly elevated by tons of tahini, if somewhat lacking in garlic.

“The olive oil with this is fantastic” said John. “Really fruity. But the lamb could do with more char.”

He was right: the lamb seemed appealing when it turned up but the look of it wrote a cheque that neither the taste nor the texture could cash. As happens too often on duty, I’d rather have had less and better. The pittas that came with it felt thin and almost stale, and weren’t a lot of help when scooping up houmous.

Grape leaf rolls (stuffed vine leaves, effectively) have long been a favourite of mine – I blame Corfu in the summer of 1987 – but these were unremarkable. The menu said they had meat in them (I was expecting minced lamb) but they were completely meat free. Excitement free too, really: you can get better ones in the chiller cabinet of M&S or the Co-Op, let alone in restaurants. I ate them because they were there, which is no real reason to eat anything.

The falafel on the other hand were decent, if not exciting (by this stage “decent, if not exciting” was starting to feel like a recurring theme). We’d ordered them partly to compare them against the Bakery House version (“a reference dish”, said John sagely) and they didn’t win out in that comparison: a bit too heavy, not enough texture on the outside and certainly no scattering of sesame seeds. But in fairness that’s a high bar, and these were passable falafel (“passable falafel”: a tongue twister up there with “day-glo disco dado rail”). I was more excited about the intense, shrivelled black olives and the sharp, salty pickles, which is probably not how it should be.

Chicken wings began the meal at an impressive £2 a portion, although as we were ordering them the man behind the counter stuck a 3 over the 2 up on the menu overhead. That was a little surreal. I managed to get over the whopping fifty per cent markup, but the chicken wings were also underwhelming – or, to put it another way, decent if not exciting. “There’s no sign that they’ve been marinated” said John, and that would probably have been forgivable if they had the beautiful, blackened char of a close encounter with a charcoal grill. But that hadn’t really happened either. We blamed the quantity of food we’d ordered for leaving some of these, but the truth is that we couldn’t really be arsed.

It was some time before we got round to ordering mains, partly because we were getting full and partly because the service at Alona was so relaxed you sensed it was all the same to them whether you were there or not. But mainly it was because the conversation was just so interesting and wide ranging: from family and friends to Reading’s cultural scene (“yes, we had Mumford And Sons at South Street before they made it big. They were pretty awful”) to the town’s rather interesting approach to awards, as exemplified by the decision to crown the Oracle as Reading’s premium cultural space (although I maintain that the beach bar, on a weekend night, is best viewed as some kind of performance art piece).

John moved to Reading fifteen years ago to work at South Street, and it was obvious talking to him that he loves our town every bit as much as I do. And I wondered for a second, probably fancifully, if we weren’t that different after all: trying to introduce the people of Reading to new stuff, promoting the plucky, the emerging and the up and coming, doing our bit to make the community we love a better place. But the parallels probably aren’t exact: I did have a swipe at the Hexagon at one point and he ever so nicely reminded me that without the Hexagon there could be no South Street, and that a good town needed both. Would I be so magnanimous about the likes of Bill’s or TGI Friday? I wondered. It seemed unlikely.

But then there might be something in it after all: “When people go to a Hexagon show, they know what they’re getting”, John said, “but when they come to South Street I hope they go away having been made to feel, or think, in a different way”. I still like to believe that food culture can be like that, even if you’re comparing Pepe Sale to Zizzi or Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen to Bina Tandoori. But what do I know? I’m just a restaurant reviewer.

Anyway, back to the food: we decided to share a couple of dishes from the grill, so we went for a mixed grill for one and a lamb shawarma. The former was so huge that although we were charged for a single portion I can’t believe they didn’t bring us a mixed grill for two by mistake. The highlight of this was the chicken shish, which got the balance just right, perfectly soft without sacrificing the texture outside, although there was still little evidence of marination. I was more dubious about the lamb kofte, which was a little bouncy for my liking (it was one of those kebabs where you’re wary of looking at the cross-section, put it that way). John raved about – and finished off – the lamb shish but I would have liked it more tender. We were agreed, though, on the lamb chops, which were unnecessarily tough and far from a highlight. Mixed grill? Mixed bag, more like.

All that paled into insignificance, though, compared to the experience of Alona’s lamb shawarma. You know that feeling when a dish is plonked in front of you and you actively don’t want to eat it? The last time I had it was in Paris last year when I was dished up a slice of terrine, jelly and all, which looked exactly like it had been extracted from a tin of Pedigree Chum. This lamb shawarma was a very similar experience – a plate full of wobbly, gelatinous meat which required a scalpel more than a knife and fork.

“I’m not sure that fat has rendered properly” said John, displaying a masterful talent for understatement. I felt like just saying “that looks repulsive” (which might also have been an understatement) but I thought better of it. We both gingerly picked through it, trying to find bits which required minimal dissection. It didn’t taste as bad as it looked – not much would, in honesty – but it was all cloves and no subtlety, a bit like drinking HP sauce from a shot glass and eating chewing gum at the same time.

After a couple of forkfuls I became extremely grateful both that John and I had already eaten a lot of food and that we’d ordered main courses to share. Imagine having ordered a helping of this to yourself and having to eat it in front of friends or loved ones: it didn’t bear thinking about. We left almost all of it, and I had my “oh, but I’m so full!” speech (complete with patting belly) prepared, but fortunately we weren’t asked about it. That’s not to criticise the service, which was actually really friendly and enthusiastic – and they generally did seem to want to know what we thought of everything – but service alone just isn’t enough.

Both mains came with a choice of rice or chips, so for completeness’ sake we had both. For completeness’ sake I’m also telling you that but really, they weren’t anything to write home about. There’s no alcohol licence at Alona either so we went crazy and had a bottle of water each, too. We settled up, paying the princely sum of forty-two pounds without service, and headed to the Hope & Bear for a pint and a debrief. That basically consisted of discussing Michelin starred restaurants we’d both enjoyed: it’s almost as if we were trying to take our minds off the shawarma. We were like Terry Waite and John McCarthy, chained to that culinary radiator.

Finishing by describing one of the worst dishes I’ve eaten this year probably puts an unnecessary downer on this review. To pull things back slightly: you could have a reasonable meal at Alona. If I’d had the houmous beiruty and the chicken shish, I probably would have thought it a pleasant, if unspecial, dinner. But even then I would have been struck by the mediocre pitta, and the standard issue chips, and I would have known deep down that I could have had a better, cheaper meal at Kings Grill. But based on what I had, the consistency just wasn’t there, and the range ran the gamut from “just above average” to “God, no”.

I really hoped not to end the review this way, but I can’t not say this: I can’t see a single reason why you’d go to Alona when Bakery House exists. When I think of the lamb shawarma at Bakery House, crispy, intense, generous and delicious (and I’ve done so many times, trying to wipe memories of Alona’s version from my mind), I realise there’s no comparison at all. They’re both lamb shawarma, but only in the way that Barack Obama and Jim Davidson are both humans. Alona isn’t Jim Davidson, not by any means, but my terrific evening there was down to the company, not the food. I hope Alona picks up and improves: with such an obvious, direct and superior competitor in the centre of town it needs to. Fast.

And, since someone will almost certainly ask: if I had to choose between Alona and Comptoir Libanais? I’d go to Comptoir Libanais – with somebody who waited until I got there before ordering.

Alona – 6.1
133 Wokingham Road, RG6 1LW
0118 9667000

(No website)

The Bottle & Glass Inn

Are you sitting comfortably? Do you have a drink: a cuppa, a beer or a gin (whatever your preference is, depending on when you’re reading this) to hand? Well rested and alert? Good, because we have lots to get through this week. Eighteen dishes, four courses, plenty of photos – so much in fact that I’m not sure whether I’m writing a review or organising a school trip (quiet at the back, you two). I’ll try to rein in my tendency to be prolix, and you’ll have to focus. Right, let’s do this.

It’s my fault we’re in this position. I went out to celebrate the fifth birthday of the blog – no, we don’t have time for me to wang on about that either – and I chose somewhere which looked special on paper. The Bottle & Glass Inn, in the pretty village of Binfield Heath, out towards Henley, had been on my wish list for a while. It reopened last year with great credentials, taken over by the former managers of London’s Michelin-starred pub the Harwood Arms. By October it had received a Michelin Plate, usually a sign that the tire-sellers consider a place marked for Great Things. How often do I review somewhere that’s been mentioned in Country Life, very much Edible Reading’s spiritual twin?

The other reason we have much to discuss is that on this occasion I went out on duty in a four. So it was my mother, my stepfather, my close friend Zoë and I (a team of all the talents if ever there was one) who pulled up outside the Bottle & Glass on a Friday night, ready to celebrate and – hopefully – to be wowed.

It’s a gorgeous pub. It’s thatched and beamed (it’s a listed building, unsurprisingly) and the bar looks like the comfiest, cosiest place to nurse a drink. Like many such places, they’ve built a tasteful extension where they actually feed people. I’ve sat in such extensions many times (The Wellington Arms, The Hind’s Head, The Crooked Billet and so on) and however nice they are you always feel a little like you’re missing out. Even so, the dining room in the Bottle & Glass was rather fetching: big capable tables, tastefully painted walls, a rather fetching green tweed banquette. Not perfect, though – the lack of softness and the bifold doors along one side made the room more deafening than buzzy, and the fact that there was another room beyond made this one feel a little like a fine dining corridor.

I liked the look of the menu, but it wasn’t without its complications to navigate. I know my mother well, and she didn’t take to it from the off; she doesn’t like pickles and, in one shape or another, they featured in every starter but one. The other complication was working out who would order what. My stepfather gallantly, insisted that we should all order separate courses (“for the blog”, he said). But that, combined with multiple requests of “can I order last?” turned the whole thing into one of those logic puzzles where X won’t sit on the right of Y, can’t sit opposite his ex-wife Z and is wearing red so can’t sit on the left of A (pretty soon logic puzzles will just involve trying to plan a dinner party for 12 people with a total of 6 different food allergies/intolerances/preferences, or whatever you call them nowadays).

Anyway, we eventually got there. And goodness knows we had plenty of time, because apart from bringing our wine – a very nice, robust Cahors which was just the wrong side of thirty pounds a bottle – we waited a long time, almost half an hour, before anybody came to take our order. It was especially frustrating as the menu had things in the “snacks” section that we fancied, and it would have been lovely to at least have those, and some bread, while solving our logic puzzle.

More disillusionment came when someone finally arrived at our table. They’d just sold their last of the grouse, he told us (maybe if they’d taken our order a bit sooner…). Worse still, they had run out of double cooked chips. Would we like some boiled new potatoes instead?

“That’s not really a very attractive offer, is it?” said my mum. The young waiter smiled blankly at her.

“How does anybody run out of chips?” I said after he had gone, incredulous. “I can understand you only have so many grouse, but chips?”

“Well, we are eating late” said my stepfather dryly (we’d turned up at half seven). “I don’t understand how you can have three side dishes on a menu and run out of one of them this early on a Friday night.”

The bread was the first to turn up: soda bread, still warm, two little loaves between four. It looked decent, but breaking it open none of us was hugely impressed – the taste was disconcertingly reminiscent of pretzels and, like pretzels, these were on the dry and chewy side, lacking in seasoning. “The butter’s too warm” said my mother, and she was right, although we’d been given so little it seemed a moot point. “The bread at the Black Rat is much better” she added, referencing Winchester’s Michelin-starred pub – a reasonable point of comparison – and that reminded me of their amazing squid ink and parmesan rolls. This wasn’t a patch on that, and none of us raced through it.

Our snacks arrived not long after. The scotch egg was a beast of a thing, and easily divisible between four. It looked the part, and the texture was note-perfect but seemingly at the expense of the taste: like the bread it was under-seasoned.

The other snack was beetroot houmous, which was topped with more beetroot and served with sourdough which was verging on cremated. I liked the houmous, and it came with a healthy whack of garlic, but personally I’d have liked more of it and could have done without the extra beetroot. It worried me that the kitchen seemed worse at cooking toast than me (“the taste of carbon might have complimented the garlic” said my stepfather later, “but that feels more like happenstance than grand design”).

What with the burnt toast, the bland Scotch egg, the AWOL chips and the lack of grouse we all felt faintly mutinous by the time our starters arrived, so it was a relief to find that they were an improvement. Zoë’s was the pick of the bunch – a big, delicate-tasting piece of salmon, poached so that it broke into large, handsome flakes. The bubbled, crisped salmon skin on top was delicious and light, and the pickled cucumber was sweet rather than sharp. It was also unquestionably the most generous of the starters: I had a mouthful and was more than slightly envious.

My stepfather’s starter was my second choice on paper – bresaola with smoked bone marrow and summer truffle sounds like all the good things. My forkful suggested that the bresaola, hidden underneath everything else, was the star of the show but the whole thing was too bland when on paper it should have been so much more (it reminded me, in fact, of the unedifying two months I spent on Tinder last year).

I had chosen the terrine, a slim slice of ham hock and foie gras which, neatly, was both clean and indulgent. Everything else on the plate went so well with it – golden, plump, sweet sultanas, pickled girolles and some kind of crumb or dust which tasted of the very best pork scratchings with the texture of the beautiful, salty powder left at the bottom of a packet. There was also some “violet mustard” which tasted, as far as I could tell, of mustard. So many tastes and textures here – sweet, sharp, salty and, of course, foie bloody gras – and so much to mix and match that, for once, I didn’t even feel like I would have liked some bread with it. Well, mostly. Like the bresaola, it had a little bit of frisée on top, as if to say See? It can’t all be delicious, you know.

My mother chose the only pickle-free starter, which contained plenty of unadvertised capers: I’ll let you imagine how happy she felt about that. Billed as a salad of tomatoes with curd, black olive caramel and tomato tea it was a pretty, artfully stacked bunch of tomatoes along with an odd pastry disc which had been added for seemingly no reason. If you like tomatoes this might well have been the dish for you, but my mother was left baffled by it and so, to be honest, was I. It’s the kind of dish I wouldn’t have ordered in a million years, and tasting some didn’t change my mind (interestingly the Bottle & Glass’ Twitter feed has since shown pictures of this dish reworked, so maybe they too weren’t convinced by it).

By this point, I increasingly thought it unlikely that all four of us would leave completely satisfied. My mother might have taken against the place, but I agreed that her main course was a little disappointing. Denied the grouse, she instead had the chicken. Now, I often think chicken can be a surprisingly good choice in a high end restaurant (especially if they can get the skin right), but the Bottle & Glass served up a gigantic chicken breast, no crispy skin, the usual sticky jus and some charred sweetcorn. There was also black garlic, which I really liked but which my mother found too sweet (sweetness in savoury food, and why it’s beyond the pale, is one of the culinary hills my mother is prepared to die on). Honourable mention has to go to the Maris Piper terrine, a gorgeous stack of wonderfully cooked potato, like a miniature pommes boulangère. Why couldn’t they have rustled some of that up for us, if they’d run out of chips? My mother left a fair bit of the chicken: my stepfather polished it off.

My dish was not just venison, but smoked venison – two pieces, seared on the outside but decidedly pink inside (“I think that looks a bit underdone” said my mother, but venison like Turkish delight has always worked for me). I’ve never had it smoked before and it was a revelation: on that basis the Bottle & Glass’ menu could do with a lot more smoking and a little less pickling. It came with the regulation Michelin-chasing sticky reduction, a purée which might have been celeriac, plenty of roasted shallots and rings of onion, sweet and caramelised and – this may have been why I ordered the dish – almost-crunchy nuggets of black pudding. This was more like it, although it did feel like a dish for the depths of winter plonked in the middle of the summer.

My stepfather is wont to order fish on a menu, when it looks interesting, and he chose the plaice with samphire, mussels and fennel. As you can see from the picture it was a delicate thing and, although he liked it, it was a too delicate for me. I tried some, and you couldn’t deny that the plaice was brilliantly cooked and the fennel lovely and sweet, but I did find myself thinking: where are the carbs? And where’s the rest? There was a little blob of white – possibly the advertised sorrel butter, possibly not – but I would have liked a good beurre blanc with this, or even a beurre noisette. “It was a good low carb option”, my stepfather emailed me later when I asked him for his thoughts, “as THERE WERE NO CHIPS”. Quite.

Zoë’s main was the best of the lot. Lamb rump and shoulder (thank heavens they didn’t wankily call it “lamb two ways”) was a very generous helping of pink rump and the highlight, a gorgeous piece of slow-cooked shoulder which simply fell apart. I was allowed to try that, and it was so terrific that I regretted my own menu choice. It made my helping of venison feel a tad stingy, put it that way. It came with artichoke and hasselback potatoes (teeny tiny ones which, again, were never going to redeem the Great Chip Shortage Of 2018), and some manner of green puree – pea, perhaps? – which had been plated up in a manner best described as unnecessarily spaffy.

We ordered some side dishes: neither of them added much but bulk. The new potatoes were nicely cooked and firm and tossed in butter and mint – or, according to the menu, “mint butter” – but the whole thing was oddly sweet. The Binfield Heath courgettes (“are they from an allotment then?” said my mother, slightly scornfully) might have ticked all the provenance boxes but really, the advertised thyme butter was missing in action and however multi-coloured they were, they remained big chunks of watery blandness. The sides were four pounds fifty each, and the main thing they achieved was to make me really want some chips.

By this point we’d run out of Cahors and three of us drank small glasses of Barbera d’Asti – it was pleasant enough, if lacking in the body and complexity of the red wine we’d just finished. That said, it reflects well that the Bottle & Glass offers quite a few wines by the glass and that, generally, you aren’t penalised for having smaller glasses. In preparation for the desserts to follow, we also ordered a couple of dessert wines. The Pedro Ximenez was, as it usually is, a treacly, sugary delight. My Banyuls was less impressive, again feeling slightly thin and lacking in the complex almost-sweetness you get with the best examples. By this stage I really wasn’t sure what I made of the Bottle & Glass: a feeling the desserts, as it turned out, would only compound.

Continuing the trend of the evening, Zoë had chosen the standout, my mother picked the wooden spoon and my stepfather and I were somewhere in the middle. My stepfather’s cheeseboard was a pretty decent offering, I thought – Barkham Blue (it sounds ungrateful to say this, but it feels like Barkham Blue is increasingly ubiquitous on cheeseboards: the victim of its own success, perhaps), a crumbly Lincolnshire Poacher – to my money the equal of any mature cheddar you can lay your hands on – and Bosworth Ash, a very creditable goat’s cheese. I do admire a place confident enough to give you good helpings of a few cheeses – a lot of a little rather, than a little of a lot. Nice crackers and chutney, too.

I had gone, as I so often do, for the chocolate dessert and it wasn’t bad, although not what I was expecting from the description. “Chocolate cream” did form part of it, and it was pleasant enough, and then there was a big slab of something partway between a brownie and a ganache which rather dominated the whole thing. The best bit of it was the mint ice cream, perched on top – the sweetness that hadn’t worked with the potatoes went brilliantly here. Good enough, but not particularly exciting.

Zoë was delighted by her dessert, because you can call it a date and walnut sponge all you like but when it turns up hot with butterscotch sauce and ice cream it’s basically sticky toffee pudding. Having to listen to the raptures, this time, was slightly tempered by knowing that I never really get food envy when dried fruit is concerned.

Having said that, my mother – tackling a pleasant, slightly prissy apple parfait with elderflower ice cream – might have felt differently. It looked pretty and clean, but when you’ve sat through two disappointing courses the last thing you want is a chaste goodbye kiss of a pudding. Even the post-dessert treats they brought over: chocolate coated honeycomb and fudge (which I suspect I enjoyed more than the other three) couldn’t undo all the damage.

I couldn’t help feeling that it was a meal of two halves. For the first half, service was lacklustre and some of the food we wanted just wasn’t available. During the second half of the meal service became almost too solicitous, as if they knew they had some ground to make up. My suspicion was just that they were swamped for the first hour or so, and that suspicion was confirmed when we settled up: they’d had a huge number of orders for fish and chips, they said, and something about not having enough potatoes, and being short of chefs, and at that point I’m sorry to say that, nice though the waiter was, I stopped listening. Perhaps I’m being unfair – quite possibly I am – but at the level the Bottle & Glass aspires to it’s partly about expectations, and they did a decent job of limboing under mine. Dinner for four – three courses each, some pre-dinner snacks, a bottle and a half of red wine and three glasses of dessert wine – came to £285, including a pre-added 12.5% service charge. You could definitely eat for less, though, and for the quality many of the dishes felt like really good value: especially that lamb.

With a meal this extensive, multi-faceted and complex I find it takes more time to digest the experience than the food. And the sheer variety of food we tried meant that we all had subtly different experiences: Zoë loved her meal, and was saying that she’d quite happily take her mother there for dinner. My own mother, on the other hand, won’t ever return: “I’d sooner go to back to the Crooked Billet” she said, as we pulled out of the car park. I can understand both points of view, and heaven knows the Crooked Billet isn’t the only competitor in these parts. You’re also not far from the superb Bird In Hand in Sonning Common and the very serviceable Reformation at Gallowstree Common, not to mention Orwell’s in Shiplake (N.B. Since writing this I’ve been advised that the Reformation has closed).

This is a well-to-do part of the country, and diners looking for good food in a pretty pub have plenty of choices. I’ve changed my mind several times about the Bottle & Glass even in the course of writing this review. I went away feeling a little underwhelmed, and then as I thought over the food I found myself revising my opinion. Some of it really was up there with any dishes I’ve had this year (although, in fairness, not necessarily the stuff I ordered on this visit). But then I think about the confusion of it: you serve dainty, precise food and yet you burn the toast. You proclaim how local your courgettes are at the same time as you run out of chips (can you tell I haven’t got over that?). And that, sadly, is what has stayed with me about the Bottle & Glass. So I didn’t have the perfect meal to celebrate my birthday, not by any means. But as a way of marking five years of eating, analysing and writing? Somehow it’s hard to think of a more appropriate venue.

The Bottle & Glass Inn – 7.4
Bones Lane, Binfield Heath, RG9 4JT
01491 412615

https://www.bottleandglassinn.com/

Brewdog

Regular readers might remember that I first attempted to review Brewdog about three months ago, unsuccessfully as it happens. I came, I saw, I was told they couldn’t even take orders for at least thirty minutes and I sodded off. To the Real Greek instead, in fact, where I had a surprisingly enjoyable meal with my friend Steve. He still messages me occasionally just to talk about sausage (the one at the Real Greek I should say, although I think Steve has a soft spot for most sausages, so to speak).

I decided I would leave Brewdog for another day when my frustration had subsided and I’d forgotten some of the faux wackiness which had slightly got my back up – the almost illegible menu and the zany pun-ridden dish names like “Hail Seitan” and “Clucky This Time”. So I turned up with my old friend Mike on a Monday night to check it out, hoping for better luck this time.

Much was different from my last visit. In May, Brewdog had been open less than two months and there was still a huge buzz about the place. It had been fuller and louder, whereas going back now it was definitely a quieter proposition – although that might also be because I went on a Monday. Another difference was that last time I turned up on spec, whereas this time I had had already booked a table.

The site has a chequered history. It’s been the Litten Tree, a properly purgatorial chain pub known to many Reading residents of a certain vintage as the “Shitten Tree”. It’s been RYND, with beautiful interiors, rock-hard cheap seating and bandwagon-chasing knock-off American barbecue food. And most recently it’s been Public, a venue whose selling point – if you see this as a selling point – was to have board games, fussball tables and pool tables. I imagine the trendsetters went there but wouldn’t have been seen dead in the Sun, on the opposite side of the road, with its thoroughly charming bar billiards table: nowhere near ironic enough.

RYND, for all its faults, did a beautiful job of exposing the brickwork and then Public cocked it all up with cheapo tiles and wood panelling, so it was lovely to see that Brewdog had restored the room to something like its former glory. The large central room does feel like a beer hall, with long tables and – no surprises here – industrial light fittings. I’d asked for a booth, and it would have been nice to have been seated at one of the ones in the main room to feel more like part of things, but instead they put us in the smaller area off to the left, very much the overflow car park of the restaurant.

On my last visit, poor Steve and I waited at our table in bewilderment for easily five minutes before realising that nobody was going to come to ask us what we wanted. At the time, I wrote this off as my mistake, thinking that Brewdog was far more like a pub than a restaurant. But another difference with this visit was that a very friendly, smiley waitress came over and asked us what we’d like to drink. I have no idea whether that’s because it was quieter, or because we’d booked a table or for some other reason, and it slightly bugs me that I can’t tell you which of my two visits was more representative.

The menu was, well, burgers and hot dogs. And two salads. I couldn’t help thinking that Brewdog might have put more effort and imagination – albeit misplaced – into the names of the dishes than the dishes themselves. I had my eye on a burger from my extensive research – the “Jackpot”, with its winning combination of black pudding, chorizo and blue cheese – but I was also determined to let Mike pick first. I’m lucky that people want to come out on duty with me, so I always try to make sure they aren’t eating their second choice of starter or main.

“I quite fancy the ‘Chipotle Chorizo’,” said Mike, which made perfect sense: his mum is Spanish, after all.

“That’s fine” I said through gritted teeth, dying slightly inside as the prospect of sampling the Jackpot receded into the middle distance. “I’ll just have one of the chicken burgers instead. I love southern fried chicken.”

My first choice of chicken burger would have been the “Buffalo Chicken”, but we’d also decided to have some of the buffalo cauliflower, so I ended up going for the “Cluck Norris”: southern fried chicken and avocado. I had a sneaking feeling I had picked the menu’s equivalent of a chicken korma at this point, but the die was cast. Besides, why whinge about it to Mike when I could bide my time and instead complain to literally dozens of readers? Think of the delayed gratification, I told myself as I drank my pint.

I suppose I should at least attempt to talk about the beer, so here goes: there are a whole range of Brewdog beers on tap along with others in bottles and a range of other guest beers. Nearly everything crosses the five pound a pint Rubicon which, in fairness, probably stopped being any kind of meaningful threshold at some point last year; nowadays you just pay whatever they charge you and if you wince when they tell you how much your round is, you’re either in the wrong place or pubs just aren’t for you. The menu helpfully made suggestions about which beers paired well with each burger (Mike followed this advice, because he’s that kind of person and I didn’t, because I’m not).

Mike declared himself very satisfied with the Punk IPA and the Dead Pony, the latter specifically chosen to go with his burger. “They sell Brewdog on the continent”, he told me (Mike spends most of the year swanning around Europe running coach tours: I like to think he’s like a twenty-first century Robin Askwith, although the lack of stories of swordsmanship suggests this might be wishful thinking), “but it’s really expensive over there.” The punchline was left hanging in the air: I couldn’t be bothered to claim it.

My beers, from the outer reaches of the list, were more interesting I thought, although that doesn’t guarantee that my descriptions of them will be. I had a pint of Lighthouse by Windswept which I really liked, a “Kolsch style lager” (it means it’s kind of German, apparently – you know, like the Royal Family) which was crisp, clean and just the right side of the dividing line between bland and delicate. The Windswept website says it’s best enjoyed after abseiling or archery, which strikes me as a shame because it means I’ll never get to enjoy it in optimum conditions: never mind, I’ll live.

I followed it up with a pint of “#MashTag2018” which seems to be a beer that’s part crowdsourced through polls every year. The 2018 version, which presumably was chosen by Russian bots, was infused with hibiscus and yuzu and I liked it a great deal; the sharp citrus added by the yuzu made it smarter than the average beer. Mike had a sip and decided to order a pint of himself after he’d lapped me. He then decided that it was more fun to sip a little of it than to wade through a pint of it, which I figured served him right. Karmic payback for stopping me hitting the Jackpot, perhaps.

The burgers at Brewdog cost between nine and ten pounds and fries (or sweet potato fries) are extra, so in terms of price it’s probably largely on a par with Honest. It’s taken me until this point in the review to mention the H word, but they were very much in my mind as I had my dinner because, for better or worse, 2018 is the year that they’ve become the benchmark for all burgers in this town.

Here’s something you’ll rarely hear me say: the problem with my chicken burger is that it had too much chicken. It’s honestly true – the unremarkable-looking seeded brioche had two large coated chicken breasts in it. That might have been a dream come true if the coating had tasted of anything, but in fact it had almost no flavour at all. A real shame, because it looked the part and the texture was great, but in terms of taste it was like a mirage of KFC. This also meant that the whole thing was unbalanced because the things it really needed – the avocado, the coriander, the Cajun mayo – simply couldn’t put up a fight against all that bland fried chicken. With proper coating, less chicken and more of the rest it could have been world-beating, but as it was I actually left some of it. A knife stuck needlessly out of the top, Excalibur-style, and I couldn’t tell whether it was decoration or punishment.

Mike’s “Chipotle Chorizo” was better, but still unspecial. The burger itself – very much cooked medium-well – was crumbly and dry and left me, again, thinking wistfully of Honest at the other end of town. The chorizo was by far the best thing in it – coarse, juicy and piquant – but the chipotle mayo didn’t add a lot and the padron peppers felt a bit random. There was one in the burger and another impaled on top of the bun – that knife trick again. I felt like Mike had got the better deal, but only in terms of shades of meh. Speaking of meh, the fries were wan and disappointing, and I didn’t have any desire to finish them all. Mike had upgraded to the sweet potato fries – they cost fifty pence extra – and this was money well spent, although probably money better spent would have involved not having fries at all.

The bright spot was the buffalo cauliflower, which we both agreed was quite the nicest thing we ate all evening. Big firm florets in a hot, sour glaze, and easily more interesting than the feature attraction, a scene-stealing bit part. But even this wasn’t perfect – I liked the coating but I’d have liked it to be crunchier and stick to the cauliflower a bit better. And, when it came to it, we paid eight pounds for it, so it really wasn’t much cheaper than the burgers. Perhaps by this point I’d just run out of magnanimity: it’s distinctly possible. There was a vegan dip with it, which tasted like a photocopy of salad cream and might have appealed, if you were a vegan.

This is all getting a bit crotchety, isn’t it? I should perhaps focus on the service because it was properly lovely. Our waitress (or, according to the bill, “server”) was likeable and cheery without ever seeming fake or making us feel like miserable old shits, not that we needed any help in that department. Our bill for two came to just shy of sixty pounds, excluding service (and the menu, randomly, also gives you the option to buy a pint of Punk IPA for the kitchen: I’m not sure that would have improved matters, but it might have been worth giving it a whirl). At the time that didn’t feel like a lot, but looking back it feels like money extracted somewhat by stealth.

It’s probably obvious by now that Brewdog wasn’t my bag at all, but what surprises me is that I honestly expected it to be better. It has a small menu and I thought sticking to a few things might mean they did them well, especially when you think about how considered their brand is and how much attention to detail they’ve put into the building, and the fit out. So it’s disappointing that the food was so drab; if I wanted that kind of meal I’d go to Honest, and if I wanted that range of beer I’d walk slightly further out of town and make for the Nag’s Head.

Of course, it’s possible that Brewdog was aiming for the sweet spot on the Venn diagram where beer drinkers and food fans meet, but somehow I doubt it. It felt like the food was just there to tick a box rather than to properly complement the beer, and I found that a little sad. It felt a lot like a slightly less corporate Oakford Social Club, but when you strip away the beards the experience is much the same. What Brewdog really highlighted, for me, is one of the big gaps in the market left here in Reading. Since I Love Paella left the Fisherman’s Cottage, punters have been left with a pretty stark choice: you can have a fantastic range of well-kept beer or you can have brilliant food, but – for now at least – you can’t have both.

Brewdog – 6.2
11 Castle Street, RG1 7SB
0118 9568755

https://www.brewdog.com/bars/uk/reading