Bench Rest

One of the interesting phenomena of Reading’s restaurant scene is the number of talented chefs and restaurateurs circling the town trying to find premises to cook in. This year has seen more of this than most: first, right at the beginning of the year, Georgian Feast stopped cooking at The Island (still one of the strangest places I’ve ever eaten dinner by a country mile). I had just got used to wandering over on a Sunday lunchtime to enjoy their gorgeous boat-shaped pizzas for lunch, and then they were gone.

Then, in the spring, the affable Kamal and his talented chef left Namaste Kitchen by mutual consent: very sad news for me, as I’d become hooked on my almost weekly trips to the Hook And Tackle for sukuti and boneless fish fry. More was to follow: in the summer I Love Paella parted company with the Fisherman’s Cottage, shortly after which the pub unveiled a new menu which – how shall I put this? – borrowed heavily from ILP. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but flattery is rarely so tacky; I’ve not been back since.

Then there were the goings-on at Nomad Bakery, the permanent premises taken on by Laura of local supper club Pop-Up Reading. Laura left Nomad in July, and although Nomad’s Twitter feed made it sound like an amicable (if emotional) parting of the ways, an Instagram post by ex-TV presenter, regular Nomad visitor and Caversham resident Simon Thomas suggested shabby treatment and a falling out with Laura’s co-investor. It was later amended to remove those comments: make of that what you will.

Anyway, as we reach the end of 2018 some of that has settled and some is still in flux: Kamal is still looking for somewhere to open a new restaurant, as is Enric of I Love Paella. Georgian Feast started working at Nomad Bakery and recently confirmed a new menu (as Geo Café) offering many of the classic dishes they used to serve at Blue Collar, the Turk’s Head and The Island: it’s still as clear as mud, but it appears that Nomad Bakery may be no more. And finally, probably the move most long-awaited by Reading’s fooderati – in October the Tasting House announced that Laura would be running a new venture there at weekends called Bench Rest: tapas on Friday and Saturday nights, and brunch on Saturday and Sunday daytimes.

The early reports looked interesting, as did the pictures sweeping Twitter and Instagram. The menu was constantly changing and evolving, all built around Mediterranean flavours and the fresh bread which has always been Laura’s biggest passion (her LinkedIn profile says “My life revolves around flour, H2O and a little bit of salt”, which is an appealingly simple mission statement), with an emphasis on vegetarian food – or, as it’s modishly called these days, plant-based dining.

Bench Rest is probably one of Reading’s most keenly anticipated openings for several years, so it only felt right to visit on duty before Christmas. I wasn’t initially sure whether to go for brunch or tapas, but a look at the respective menus made it an easier decision: practically every single brunch option involved eggs, breakfast isn’t a dish I’d personally choose to make plant-based, and I find these days I can take or leave jam. Besides, eating small plates gave me a better chance to try a wider range of the menu, so I turned up on a Friday night with my regular dining companion Zoë to find out what was what.

Now, before I get on to the food it’s sadly necessary to explain some stuff about the set-up, because some of what was less than satisfactory about the evening didn’t have much to do with Bench Rest. The Tasting House, back when I first reviewed it, was an uneasy one-stop shop which served charcuterie boards, wine by the glass to drink in and wine by the bottle to take away, and didn’t really know whether it wanted to be a wine bar or an off licence. Over time the furniture got more comfortable, the place got redecorated and rearranged and now it is effectively three different businesses in a kind of houseshare. The Tasting House serves the wine, does food during the week and runs wine testing events upstairs. Bench Rest takes over the kitchen at weekends. And finally, during the day, Anonymous Coffee sells coffee and cakes from the counter at the front.

With Bench Rest, this all felt pretty seamless – we ordered at the counter, got a prepaid card to use at the Enomatic machine to buy wine by the glass, and paid for the whole lot at the end. But the room makes much more sense as a wine bar than as a restaurant, and the layout is cramped and problematic. There’s one huge table at the far end of the room, nearest to the open kitchen, that can seat around eight to ten people. All the other tables are smallish tables, most of them for two, and the emphasis has been placed on packing in punters rather than making it an enjoyable experience. Our table was nearest to the wine and the Enomatic machine, and it felt like people were constantly walking past us, giving the feeling of being in a corridor rather than a restaurant.

It could have been worse – there are also higher seats but rather than being up at the counter, or at the window where you’d have something to look at, you were seated at a high ledge facing the wall. All the poor unfortunate couples there were sitting with their back to the ledge, on their high stools, forlornly looking out at the tables feeling envious. I guess they really do want to maximise the number of customers, but I didn’t especially want to be that kind of customer.

Much as they might have envied my table for two, another problem was it had definitely been designed with drinking in mind: the moment you ordered almost any food there wasn’t enough room for it. Even with a small plates menu, this was difficult and involved constant balancing and juggling; one serving dish ended up precariously perched on the pot containing cutlery, and the whole experience felt like a cross between Jenga and Tetris. It was all very odd: the space worked perfectly as a bar, or as a café, but seemed incompatible with its third purpose as a restaurant.

Perhaps the food would leave me less bothered by such details, I thought, as I looked at the menu. It was a nicely compact selection – a handful of snacks (olives, nuts and the like), one “glorious gourmet toastie”, a meat and cheese board and a selection of seven small plates, most of which were vegetarian. Seven is a sensible number of dishes but even then the menu felt a little bit fussy, dividing them between “cold mezze”, “hot mezze”, “tapas” and “raciones”, fiddly and needlessly educational. We ruled out the snacks, because they felt more about buying than cooking, and the board (for similar reasons, and because it felt very much like what the Tasting House used to serve before Bench Rest came along) and decided to try a selection of the small plates.

All the small plates came with a selection of sourdough bread, and Laura brought this to the table first, excitedly talking us through it. There was a rye bread, a ciabatta and a spelt sourdough – served with a little extra, a ramekin of black bean houmous. You couldn’t argue with the quantities, but I expected to love them more than I did. The rye bread was simply terrific, but the other two were lacking in crust and felt like they could have done with a little more salt. The texture either suggested that the slices had either been very lightly toasted or left cut and exposed to the air a little too long: either way, I wasn’t won over. Also – and this may well just be me – I really found that I wanted either some good quality salted butter to spread on it or bright grassy olive oil to dip it in. Neither was supplied, and although the black bean houmous was pleasant enough it didn’t bridge that gap.

The first small plate was houmous with chickpeas, tomatoes and whipped feta. It sounded great on paper, but it didn’t quite work in practice; really good houmous, like the stuff from Bakery House, is silky and rich, whereas this was coarser and slightly on the bland side. The flecks of whipped feta set it off nicely, as did the beautiful sweet marinated tomatoes, although there weren’t enough of the latter. And I like gherkins more than the next person most of the time but, nice though Bench Rest’s home made pickles were, they simply didn’t go with houmous. The combination of the houmous being a little too claggy and the bread not having quite enough oomph wasn’t a pleasing one.

The beetroot croquetas, on the other hand, were lovely things. Two biggish croquettes, rich with beetroot, dished up on a smear of fragrant tapenade with some crumbled goat’s cheese and served with grape must mustard (“my new favourite thing!” said Laura as she brought these to the table). This was a proper clear your plate dish, and the bread came in handy for mopping up every last smudge of food. The flavours worked brilliantly: I would have liked a little more goat’s cheese, and two croquettes for seven pounds fifty felt slightly on the steep side, but it was still hard to be critical about a dish that tasted quite unlike anything else in town.

The other two small plates were more substantial affairs. Patatas rotas, puerro y jamon was spicy potatoes (they looked fried but were described as roasted) with sweet leeks, topped with a couple of slices of prosciutto and an egg. This was hearty stuff (it felt more like an escapee from the brunch menu, in some ways) but I liked it and we properly picked over the whole lot. The ham felt a little like an afterthought – again, I’d have liked more and for it to have had more texture and been crispier. The egg was a little overdone, which meant most of the yolk couldn’t spread its sunshine over the plate. Even so, you couldn’t argue with the flavours. This dish was just shy of nine pounds, but again it felt ever so slightly less than its money.

Last of all we had the cauliflower shawarma, a dish I’d wanted to try ever since it was on Laura’s menu at Nomad Bakery. This was a beast of a thing, gently spiced, festooned with seeds and topped with some kind of sweet relish which could have been tomato, could have been red pepper or could have been something else entirely. It was like nothing I’ve ever eaten in Reading, a dish which had more to do with Ottolenghi than the Oxford Road, and I really enjoyed it. I wasn’t sure whether it came with the advertised houmous and lemon tahini – it felt more like yoghurt to my no doubt ignorant mind – but as a combination of tastes and textures it was one of the most interesting things I’ve eaten this year. We couldn’t finish it, and leaving some was a decision made with a heavy heart.

Normally I would go into detail about the drinks, but there seems little point in some ways because the range of wines in the Enomatic changes so regularly that I can’t guarantee any of them would be on sale were you to eat at Bench Rest. I particularly enjoyed the Medoc, which was rich but not too tannic, and I really loved the Australian Riesling which was much more sweet and approachable, as New World Rieslings tend to be. The Enomatic dispenses either 25ml, 75ml or 125ml and most of the wines I had were £5 for 75ml so again, this isn’t a cheap experience by any means.

The wine being self-service also disposes of much of the traditional service in Bench Rest. I would say the service from Laura, who really appeared to be working her socks off all evening, was exemplary – friendly, approachable and passionate about her food (endearingly so, in fact). The service at the counter when ordering, from long-serving Tasting House employee Jack, was also very likeable and efficient, but I did notice that he struggled to get one of the other staff to help out because she was too busy having a good old chat with her mate (I feel for Jack: we all have days at work like this). We settled up just as the acoustic singer-songwriter in the corner was getting into full flow (could have been worse, it could have been Ed Sheeran) and our meal for two – four small plates, five 75ml glasses of wine and one devil-may-care-push-the-boat-out 125ml glass of wine – came to sixty pounds, not including tip. In fairness, we did leave very full: perhaps there’s something to be said for this plant-based diet after all.

It’s a shame that the time-honoured ER ratings go from 0 to 10, because rarely have I so badly wanted to give a rating of “Hmm”. Some of the food in Bench Rest is excellent and much of it is imaginative. It’s probably more plant-based and virtuous than I would personally choose, but I am quite aware that that says more about me than it does about them. But, despite their efforts, the alliance with the Tasting House is an uneasy one which doesn’t show off the food in the best light, or create an environment where it’s particularly enjoyable to eat. The dishes may well involve a great deal of work, and it’s impossible to fault the kitchen’s devotion or imagination, but they still feel ever so slightly on the pricey side and like there’s something – and I can’t quite put my finger on what – missing. I hope it settles down, or that Laura eventually finds a bigger canvas on which to paint, but more than anything else it made me miss I Love Paella. Here’s hoping that 2019 brings further homecomings for some of Reading’s other dispossessed restaurateurs.

Bench Rest – 7.3

30a Chain Street, RG1 2HX
0118 9571531

https://www.bench-rest.com/

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ER On Tour: Ghent

Ghent and I, in truth, didn’t get off to the best of starts. On my first full day there, it rained: not light, manageable drizzle but nasty, hard rain, the sort that pelts and punishes you, angled to ghost in under any brolly, however well you positioned it (not that any brolly lasted long before being turned inside out by the wind). And it was cold: properly cold, four degrees cold. I had packed for the temperatures my phone had predicted, and it turned out that my phone had made a mistake. By mid afternoon I’d decided that I’d also made a mistake coming to this godforsaken place, a point I made repeatedly to my other half as we shivered back in our apartment. I always went on holiday somewhere warm this time of year, I told her – Granada last year, Malaga the year before – so what on earth was I thinking? She did her best to humour me, but mainly I think she was trying to decide whether to wring out her trainers.

Fortunately for all concerned, the rain wore itself out. That evening was clear and crisp, the following morning was bright and sunny and dry and I got to spend the rest of my holiday realising just how wrong I’d been about Ghent (and apologising for my undignified strop the day before). I’d never been to Belgium before, so I had no idea what to expect beyond my dim memories of In Bruges, so I was anticipating chocolate-boxy medieval architecture, cosy snug bars selling eye-wateringly strong beer, chocolate and waffles and frites and church towers.

Ghent had all of those things, but what I really liked was that it also had a proper buzz about it, a real meeting point between the old and the new. So yes, there was all that history and grandeur but also there was verve and vitality, interesting food, design, loads of street art, the whole shebang. I quite fell in love with the city during my time there, and not long after I came home I took full advantage of Eurostar’s festive sale and bought tickets to return nice and early in 2019.

I don’t normally write pieces about my travels, because it’s nice to visit somewhere new and eat uncritically (or as uncritically as I can, anyway) for a change. But I’ve had a few requests over the years and as it happens I quite regretted not writing my gastronomic guide to Granada last year, or Bologna and Porto this year. So, for the first time ever on the blog, this is my pick of the places to eat and drink in Ghent. I hope it makes you slightly want to go to Ghent, or at least want to go on a city break, or at the very least I hope it makes you slightly peckish.

I should also acknowledge in advance that I too benefited from recommendations – from regular reader Steve, who has been to Ghent many times and gave me plenty of tips of where to go for dinner, and from Katie who happened to be visiting Ghent with work not long before I did and road-tested some of Steve’s recommendations. Some of the credit for this piece is rightfully theirs – although of course if it’s rubbish the blame is mine alone.

Where to eat

I only ever really have breakfast on holiday, and even then that usually consists of a full English if I’m away in this country and the closest thing I can find to pain au chocolat if I’m abroad (even the miniature ones they do in hotel breakfast buffets: I’m really not fussy). One of my happiest discoveries of Ghent was Himschoot, the impossibly pretty bakery a stone’s throw from the river. They sell a huge assortment of tempting delights, and I spent several mornings joining the queue and listening to the patter of the man running a cart just outside selling cuberdons, a conical sweet which happens to be a Belgian speciality.

The pain au chocolat at Himschoot, which were so good that they were all I ever bought there, came not only with beautiful dark chocolate inside but with rich chocolate icing on top, like a cronut before cronuts were ever A Thing. Standing outside, greedily scoffing one right out of the bag while planning where to go exploring next was a real daily highlight.

On the one occasion I did actually fancy brunch we wandered slightly further away from the centre, out in the direction of the university (although Ghent is compact enough that nowhere is exactly a schlep – and flat, which makes a pleasant change after many holidays in places like Porto and Granada which could be euphemistically described as a tad steep). We ended up in Pain Perdu, one of those effortlessly cool cafes mainland Europe seems to specialise in, all big windows and tasteful long communal tables where you can sit, chat, gesticulate and pretend you belong. I rather enjoyed the bacon and eggs – served in a bowl, which I found quite novel – although the big draw might well have been the basket of terrific bread. If only Reading had a place like this, I said, as usual.

My best lunch of the trip was, well, dinner at lunchtime. We went to Du Progres, a beautiful old-school brasserie on Korenmarkt, pretty much the tourist epicentre of Ghent and fortunately not named after Britain’s most irritating restaurant critic. Given the location, it ought to have been a way to part fools and their money (and in, say, London it probably would have been) but actually it was a cracking, rather grand place where I had chateaubriand so good I could have wept – all for something ridiculous like fifty Euros for two.

It was a a huge piece of superb beef, cooked as little as they could get away with and carved at the table into thick, luscious slices. The frites were everything I could have dreamed they would be, the mayonnaise game-changing. You got a choice of two different sauces, which basically meant that we had two lots of Bearnaise. There’s no other sauce for me really where steak is concerned: there is something about the combination of frites, Bearnaise and blood which always makes me feel like I could be in heaven. My other half had a big, complex, outrageously strong dark beer and I had a glass of red wine and we ate and grinned and relaxed: in a perfect world, every lunch might be like that. Even the salad was so beautifully dressed that I ate some of it, for crying out loud.

Dinners in Ghent were more of an eclectic bunch, but there still wasn’t a duff meal among them. On our first night we went to Otomat, probably the least typically Belgian venue of the trip. It was very much a hipster-pizza-by-numbers place, all exposed brick and faux school chairs (Franco-Belge Manca, you could say), but even so the food was quite lovely. The pizza dough is made with Belgian beer, a nice touch which I couldn’t remotely taste, and the toppings were interesting, if eccentric.

The menu is divided into “Otomat” – an anagram of tomato, something I didn’t notice straight away – and “Notomat”, or white pizzas. My favourite was a pizza with merguez sausage (called “Rock The Kasbah”, but let’s not hold it against them) which completely exceeded my expectations. When it arrived the big, ruddy cylinders of sausage made me worry that I’d accidentally ordered spam, but it turned out to be perfect: coarse, pungent and genuinely delicious.

That said, the real hit at Otomat was the “Butcher’s Dish”, an embarrassment of riches featuring ham, fennel salami, very mature cheese, houmous (which may have had a hint of cumin in it) and, best of all, stracciatella, the gooey, almost liquid cheese you tend to find at the heart of burrata. This dish was the very first thing I ate in Ghent, along with – just as importantly, if not more so – the first Belgian beer of the trip and it was hard to top as a way of knowing that you really were on holiday.

On our second night we went to Bodo, which felt much more like a restaurant for locals than for tourists (and was none the worse for it). It was another intimate, friendly place with beautiful service where you felt like you were in on the same secret as your fellow diners, but it also had a slightly more international bent and more of an emphasis on small plates. Of course, I may just be describing it that way because the two of us shared three starters. One of them, slow-cooked sweet, tender fennel with little blobs of goat’s curd, scattered with toasted seeds, was one of the most extraordinary things I ate on the entire trip.

Many of the other dishes were almost as good: a huge portion of panko-coated chicken with a rich curried sauce underneath, a deconstructed katsu, or a big slab of pink pork belly served with mustard and piccalilli (again, when it turned up I feared it was spam, but from the first mouthful all those worries evaporated). And then, to finish, a glass of white chocolate mascarpone topped with passion fruit couli, a dessert seemingly made of sunshine. I didn’t realise until much later that Michelin had given the place a Bib Gourmand, but based on the dinner I had I wasn’t at all surprised.

I promised myself I would eat proper Belgian food, because it can’t all be small plates and pizza, and the venue I chose for that was De Rechters, a very handsome restaurant looking out on Saint Bavo’s Cathedral. I never saw the Van Eyck altarpiece inside the Cathedral, but I spent a fair amount of time in the square outside either eating dinner or buying chocolate at the splendidly-named Chocolaterie Luc Van Hoorebeke, which probably tells you all you need to know about my priorities. I expected from the menu that De Rechters would be stuffy and old-school but actually the inside was more contemporary than classic, with slate-grey walls and bentwood chairs (the service was exemplary, too: friendly and properly welcoming).

But the food! I’d already been tipped off to try the appetiser of Comte cheese with local Tierenteyn mustard, and although I’ve never been a huge fan of mustard I can safely say that this completely converted me; a couple of days later I was in the very picturesque Tierenteyn shop picking up a jar to take home (the shop is easily found: it’s right next to Himschoot). Next time, I plan to get a considerably bigger jar of mustard. Or three.

The real lure, though, was the chance to try stoverij, the iconic Belgian stew of beef slow-cooked in dark beer. When it arrived it was yet another heavenly gastronomic experience in a long line of heavenly gastronomic experiences. The table bore all the burn marks of every little cast-iron casserole they’d ever set down in front of a hungry, grateful diner but even so there was something magical about my first time, as if the restaurant had never cooked it for anybody else before.

The sauce was rich and deep, simultaneously savoury and sweet but with the tiniest kick of mustard. The beef was yielding, every bit as perfect as the chateaubriand had been but completely different in terms of texture and give. And, of course, there was a bottomless supply of frites to either dip in more mayo or soak in that sauce. It might have been the hefty kick of the Westmalle Dubbel I was drinking, but this felt like a bucket list dish and a half.

Picking somewhere for my final meal in Ghent was especially tricky – how do you top all of that? – but fortunately, help was at hand. Steve, my man in the know, had told me about a place called Eetkaffee De Lieve in Patershol, the medieval heart of Ghent. He went there every time he was in the city, he said, and checking out the place’s Instagram feed I could see why – bread baked every day, a constantly changing menu and really beautiful (and beautifully photographed) dishes. I went with high expectations, and it surpassed every single one.

All the food I had was simply magnificent: first, a wonderful disc of earthy, sweet black pudding, soft inside and caramelised outside, accompanied by a sweet apple compote. I’ve always loved black pudding, but this was up there with the best I’ve ever had anywhere. Then there was confit chicken with shallots, wild mushrooms and the kind of sticky jus which perfects any plate. And finally, I had a tarte tatin with wondrous, glossy ice cream, dark speckles of vanilla in every spoonful. The service, as in so many restaurants in Ghent, was welcoming, proud and infectiously joyful and – as in so many restaurants in Ghent – I felt like I had found my happy place. I sat on the banquette, looking out on another dark, clean, contemporary dining room full of hip urban types, and I raised a glass to Steve and his excellent advice.

Where to drink

I love a Belgian beer, although my tastes run more to lighter stuff like a kriek or a framboise. So I may not be the best guide for these things: no doubt there are all kinds of dreary beer spods who can steer you much better in Ghent than I could. They would probably direct you to places like Trollkelder and Rock Circus which pride themselves on doing a gazillion different obscure beers in a big laminated pamphlet, and they’d probably try to catch them all like Pokemon, but that really wasn’t for me. I did go to De Dulle Griet, a big old pub with rather eccentric decor which apparently has the biggest selection in all of Ghent, and I thought it was okay but I didn’t find myself drawn to going back. Maybe if they’d done more food than just pate and plastic-wrapped crispbreads I might have found it easier to get on board.

I did absolutely love Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, right next to the river, with its cosy upstairs room and its decor which slightly made me think “90s student party”: it wasn’t a million miles from the old Bar Iguana, to be honest. I very much enjoyed the extensive list of beers (bottled and on draft) and, of course lots of different fruit beers for me to try with almost no shame at all – although they always set them down in front of my other half instead of me, which is both sweet and very misguided. I was sorry only to go there the once during my trip, and almost as disappointed not to visit ‘t Dreupelkot, the jenever bar next door. There’s always next time.

Another regret was waiting until my final night to discover ‘T Einde Der Beschaving (which apparently translates as “The End Of Civilisation”: at last, a Brexit-themed pub!) on a square next to Gravensteen castle. It was a slightly dreich evening – a shame, because the courtyard outside would have been a lovely place to drink in more clement circumstances – but it was a lovely, snug place and the barman was friendly and welcoming and seemed genuinely delighted to have customers. A very nice older lady at the bar sauntered over, asked us many questions about the motherland and, at the end of the evening, offered us her email address for tips if or when (when, as it turns out) we came back to Ghent. It was that kind of place, and it might not have been the fanciest pub in the world but I liked it a great deal.

The main reason so few of those places got the time they might have deserved, though, was Café Gitane. Oh, how I adored that place: in the space of my time in Ghent it easily made it onto my list of my favourite bars in all the world, rubbing shoulders with exalted company like Paris’ Le Barav, Liverpool’s Petit Café Du Coin and Granada’s Taberna La Tana. It was as French as it was Belgian, actually, with cosy, dimly lit tables, blood-red banquettes and a black and white tiled floor. The beer list was big enough to satisfy my other half and had the sweet and drinkable Ter Dolen Kriek on it for me. The music was jazz just modern enough to still be enjoyable and some of the clientele, especially the lady at the bar one night who decided to start singing completely out of nowhere, were brilliantly bonkers. It was a charcuterie plate away from perfection, but every time I went there I was already so well-fed that none of that mattered a jot.

“I wish there was a bar like this in Reading”, said my other half. “A good beer list, table service, good music and no wankers.”

I nodded sagely, deciding that our home town could really do with an excellent Belgian beer café, or more specifically just Gitane. It might well be one of my first stops when I return.

No section on drinks would be complete without also briefly mentioning coffee. I tried a few places in the city but my absolute standout favourite, a stone’s throw from Gitane, was Barista Zuivelbrug, one of two branches in Ghent. I’m normally a latte drinker, but the combination of Barista’s excellent coffee and Belgian chocolate made their mocha an absolute revelation and I enjoyed it so much I didn’t even care how much it would appal the purists. They also did nice-looking pastries and lunches, but of course I was usually a pain au chocolat to the good by then.

What to do

Well, if you’ve made it this far then you’ve probably figured out that my main idea of things to do on holiday fits into the previous two headings. But I will say that Ghent is a wonderful place just to wander and take in, especially if you enjoy architecture, photography, combining the two or just plain people-watching. I did visit the Design Museum – the blurb says that it “makes you aware of the great impact design has on your daily life”, but it mainly made me aware that, as an experience, the Design Museum in London is much better, err, designed (nice building, though). I didn’t go in the cathedral, but like I said I did buy some very appealing chocolate from the shop next door. I know, I know, I’m an appalling tourist. Next time I shall go to the Museum of Contemporary Art (the wonderfully-named S.M.A.K.) and generally try a little harder.

The thing I really, really enjoyed in Ghent, though, was the street art. There’s loads of it, seemingly everywhere. On one of our first days exploring the city we crossed the river and wandered up some side streets, turned a corner and just found this staring right back at us.

Further research revealed that Ghent is in fact famous for its street art, all over the city, and indeed some of its artists. So we downloaded the street art map from the Visit Ghent website and went on a truly enjoyable odyssey round the city, hopping from location to location. Some were small, subtle pieces, and some were jaw-dropping: the whole side of a building transformed into a massive, vivid canvas. The trip took us out into the docklands, another part of Ghent I’d like to see more of, and incredible industrial buildings, glass bricks and converted warehouses, hip-looking cafes on street corners. Every single dot on that map offered something new, many offered something stunning, and I could quite happy have whiled away another afternoon seeking out the whole lot. The picture below of rabbits by Ghent native ROA was probably my favourite find, and if I thought it looked familiar it was probably because I’ve also seen his work in London.

Where to stay

I really lucked out by booking Snooz Ap, an apartment very close to the centre and just round the corner from Graffiti Alley, another street art hotspot in Ghent. It was muted, tasteful, spacious and warm with a huge comfy bed like a cloud and a walk-in wet room to die for. It even had brilliant catering facilities, which I imagine would have come in very handy for a fundamentally very different kind of guest to me, and fridges and cupboards for room snacks (please tell me I’m not the only person who gets room snacks on holiday). I got my room through booking.com, although you can also book direct through their website.

Well, there you go, that’s Ghent in a nutshell. Normal service will be resumed next week with a review of a Reading restaurant, and I’ll try my best not to bore on about how everything is better on the continent (I still remember coming back from my holiday in Bologna earlier in the year and realising, to my horror, that I’d become one of Those People). But in summary I loved the place, far more than I ever expected to, and I can’t wait to go back. I left with a heavy heart and took a train to Rotterdam, a very different city with its amazing, hypermodern architecture, Brutalist buildings, colossal indoor street markets, cutting-edge craft breweries and stunning small plates restaurants. But that’s another story.

MumMum

One of my biggest regrets in Reading’s restaurant scene is a little place you probably never visited called Cappuccina Cafe. It was on West Street, looking out over an especially grotty 99p shop, it was a fusion of Vietnamese and Portuguese food, and it did the most wonderful bánh mì (the Vietnamese sandwich, served in a baguette, which bears the hallmarks of Vietnam’s French colonial past: an early example of fusion food, you could say). I reviewed it in May 2014 and – and this may be a record – it closed a month later. I never got to go back, but one of my friends loved the bánh mì so much she developed a several times a week habit before it turned into yet another nail bar.

It was part of a general saga of decline on West Street. First Fopp shut – I still miss that place – then Cappuccina Cafe, then Vicar’s closed after over 100 years of purveying meat to the people of Reading and finally Primark decamped to the old BHS store. It’s part of a general trend which leaves that end of Broad Street looking increasingly grotty, and possibly also explains why Artigiano decided to divest themselves of their branch, deep in the heart of no man’s land: it’s Broad Street Bar & Kitchen (for) now. That area desperately needs some love and imagination, two qualities our council seemingly lacks the ability to provide, foster or inspire.

Fast forward four and a half years, and finally another restaurant has appeared in Reading looking to fill that bánh mì shaped gap in the market. Literally in the market, as it turns out, because MumMum opened on Market Place in October, where the ill-fated Happy Pretzel used to be, just down from the post office. I was tipped off about it not long after it opened and I’d been watching with some interest, waiting for a month to pass so I could check it out on duty. It’s actually a surprisingly tricky place to visit for lunch, because it isn’t open at weekends, but I had a Monday off after coming back from holiday so I stopped in to check it out with Zoë, my partner in crime and regular dining companion.

From the outside, MumMum was all windows (with a laminated menu – but no opening hours – blu-tacked to them) but going in I was surprised by what a nice space it was. It was clean and neutral without looking basic: pleasant, plain low tables and higher tables with stools where you could perch and look out of the window. Far more seating, in fact, than I expected and without ever feeling cramped. You could look through into the kitchen, although some of the preparation took place at the counter: while we were there I saw one of the staff carefully, skilfully assembling summer rolls with tofu.

MumMum only really does three things – bánh mì, pho (the Vietnamese equivalent of ramen – meat and noodles in a rich broth), and summer rolls, which are like spring rolls but served cold and wrapped in rice paper rather than pastry. You are carefully walked through the process of ordering. There’s a cabinet on the left where you pick up your tub of pho (small or large, chicken or beef) and/or your summer rolls (pork, prawn or tofu). You pay at the counter, which is also where your bánh mì are prepared and where they add the broth and herbs to your pho, sort of like an uptown Pot Noodle. The signs and barriers turn this into a neat little queuing system, although they then brought everything to our table which felt more like a traditional restaurant experience.

The pricing is a bit more confusing, mainly because there are a range of meal deals and, if I recall, the prices on the menu behind the counter didn’t quite match the ones on the menu in the window. With a meal deal you get either a bánh mì or a small pho with a drink (although not apple juice, apparently) and a single summer roll (they usually come as pair). This does save you a little money, although the bánh mì meal deal is more expensive than the pho meal deal. The former is six pounds, the latter six pounds fifty (or six pounds eighty, according to the menu outside).

In reality they charged me twelve pounds for two meals, and they then knocked a quid off because I agreed to take a loyalty card, which was slightly random because I didn’t need to give any personal details and how the card worked wasn’t at all clear. By the time you go, if you do, the prices may well be different again, so good luck working out how much everything is meant to cost. In the meantime, allow me to apologise for possibly two of the most tedious paragraphs ever to feature in an ER review, and let’s get on to talking about the food.

Zoë took one for the team and ordered the pho – I hadn’t been wowed by my previous encounter with this dish, so I was happy to leave her to it. It did look very clean and virtuous, and everything was done well, so little shreds of chicken, noodles, vegetables and plenty of coriander were all present and correct. In pho much is often made of the quality of the broth, just how long they’ve laboured over it and the depth of flavour they manage to get in to it. I tried enough of Zoë’s pho to think that either they’d fallen short or pho just wasn’t for me (most likely the latter).

“I love the coriander”, Zoë said at the end, “but it didn’t have quite enough flavour.”

I did point out the unused bottles of sriracha, fish sauce and indeed MumMum’s very own home-made garlic and chilli vinegar at this point, only to receive a nonchalant shrug. But I could hardly make much of it, because when I’d had a similar dish at Pho earlier in the year I had done exactly the same thing. Unlike Pho, MumMum didn’t give you extra mint and coriander and goodies to stick in there to taste. I understand why: MumMum is very much more no-frills, and the packaging is more geared to the takeaway crowd, but the overall effect was just a little too understated.

The bánh mì was more like it, although still not quite there. There was chicken, plenty of it in fact, and although it wasn’t fresh off the grill and straight into the baguette it was still piping hot and reasonably tasty. There was plenty of what I think was shredded pickled carrot and daikon, which lent cleanness, bite and crunch. The excessively thick discs of cucumber all down one side I could have done without, but that might be more to do with me and my feelings about cucumber. And there was a little coriander and mint, although really just enough to make me wish there was more. It needed more full stop, and I could see plenty of ways that could have been done, whether by adding more zing and lime, a lot more coriander and mint, some peanuts or – the traditional element of a bánh mì, this – some pâté. It was a few steps above an entry-level hot chicken sandwich, but that was all. I wasn’t sure whether this was marketed at normal lunchtime shoppers or fans of Vietnamese food, but whoever it was aimed it wasn’t quite on the money.

What it really needed, I decided, was the satay sauce which came with the summer rolls. These were quite remarkable and easily the highlight of the visit; I’ve had summer rolls before and never quite got it, but these were properly delicious. It’s very hard not to keep trotting out the same adjectives to describe Vietnamese food: fresh, clean, delicate, blah blah blah. Believe me, I know that. But they seem so appropriate in this case, and in any event I’d rather not embarrass us all by dashing off to the thesaurus.

In some ways, the summer rolls should have been no more successful than the bánh mì or the pho, but that combination of crunch and subtlety worked here when it didn’t quite elsewhere. The prawn summer roll, Zoë’s choice had three prawns along one edge, my pork summer roll had a slice of roast pork rolled along the outside. In both cases it was a weird experience to take off the clingfilm and then see an equally transparent layer you could actually eat in the form of the rice paper. But the real winner was the satay – properly deep and rich with a beautifully simmering heat. A small quibble is that the little plastic tub it came in was far too small to allow proper dipping. A bigger quibble is that I just would have liked more satay sauce in general. And of course, the main quibble was that my bánh mì hadn’t come slathered in the stuff. Oh well, maybe next time I’ll just ask for a couple of tubs on the side.

“That’s the hit of the whole fruit” said Zoë, devouring hers, and I couldn’t disagree. They’re four pounds for two, and I could well imagine foregoing the bánh mì next time and just having a couple of the summer rolls instead. But, on the other hand, there was a fried egg bánh mì which also sounded intriguing. And that, in a way, is rather a telling thing about my visit to MumMum – you could argue that it was only a partial success, you could say it was still more unrealised potential than actual accomplishment, but I had still already mapped out what I’d eat on my next two visits.

Service was good, prompt and kind although it had a strangely downcast quality to it. We were handed a slip with a code we could use to enter a TripAdvisor review (and details of their website which, the last time I tried it, didn’t work). The chap who brought our food over was lovely and friendly. But, as we were leaving, I asked the other lady serving how things had gone in their first month.

“It’s not that good” she said.

There was just enough of a pause for me to worry, and then she went on.

“But it’s not that bad either.”

My heart went out to her for being so honest, and I left the restaurant in crusading mode all fired up to write a glowing review which would get people flocking (who am I trying to kid? Trickling) to MumMum. But after a period of reflection, I think it’s right to strike a different tone. MumMum is a refreshing option for the town centre; they have a lovely, well laid-out space in a decent location and they offer something you can’t get elsewhere in town. They are starting to do a superb job of drawing attention to themselves on Instagram (I was recently mesmerised by an Instagram story showing exactly how they make a summer roll – well worth two for four quid, I reckon).

All that is to their credit, but the realities of their situation are still challenging. Good as a location on Market Square is, it also means that two days of every week diners have to walk right past a thriving food market to eat there. On most Wednesdays, unless the weather was truly dismal, I’d struggle to pass up the plethora of options at Blue Collar – especially the challoumi wrap from Leymoun – to eat at MumMum. Closing on Saturdays and Sundays makes it difficult to try their wares unless you work in town. Their prices are slightly confusing and not always as competitive as they could be. But most of all, I really think MumMum needs to be bolder and braver with flavour, or I worry that they’ll never get the audience they need to survive. Their food needs to sing rather than stammer, and I sense – to twist the metaphor out of shape – that they’re still clearing their throat. I really hope they make it: I’d rather not mourn the passing of a second Vietnamese cafe in Reading.

MumMum – 6.9
20 Market Place, RG1 2EG
0118 3274185

https://www.facebook.com/Simply.Vietnamese.Taste/

Bierhaus

I felt at a disadvantage going to Bierhaus, the German restaurant on Queens Walk, with Ian, my stepfather. I don’t know a huge amount about beer – as anyone who’s ever read my reviews already knows – whereas he knows his way round a pilsner and a pale ale and used to work for one of the world’s biggest brewers, travelling all over the world and sampling all sorts. More significantly, he had been to Germany and I hadn’t. My knowledge of German stops at being able to ask my way to the town hall, proudly proclaim that I own a guinea pig or explain that my pen is broken (kaput, such a beautiful word). Oh, and I know how to tell people that my favourite pop group is Johnny Hates Jazz – although it never actually was, not even back then.

I’ve had friends tell me how wonderful Germany is, how clean and beautiful, how everyone is handsome and polite and speaks beautiful English. It sounds like somewhere one could quite happily live, let alone visit, and yet Munich, Berlin and Cologne have never quite made it to the top of the city break shortlist (Berlin, in particular, crops up regularly with people I know, usually in the sentence Oh my god, you absolutely must go to Berlin: I don’t much like being told what to do, so I never have).

I’m not sure why I’ve never made it out there. It could be repressed horror from those three years studying “Deutsche Heute” which mainly consisted of my schoolfriends making Franzi the Pig do awful, awful things through the medium of graffiti. But really I think it’s the food, which has never hugely appealed. I’ve never fallen over myself to try it, even to the point where I’ve always steered clear of the bratwurst place that crops up on the Oracle riverside every bloody year. Mystery meat? Nein danke. And the same goes for pork knuckle: who willingly eats a knuckle?

As a result of my ignorance I have no idea, for instance, whether restaurants in Germany look like Bierhaus. My instinctive reaction, though, is that they don’t. The passage it sits on, near the Hexagon and the Penta Hotel, does have a certain under-the-Stasi feel about it, but that might be as far as it goes. There were some tables outside, which felt a tad hopeful in October, but the inside was more difficult to warm to. I didn’t mind the front room – designed more as a bar with its bright orange stools – so much but I found the upstairs dining room odd. It had dark walls, dourly functional tables and chairs and a leopardskin effect pleather banquette which was several kinds of fake for the price of one. Everything was quite poorly lit (possibly with the aim of making sure you didn’t notice the banquette) and strangely there was a tiny stage in one corner: what it was for is anybody’s guess.

More random still were the enamel signs on the wall. Some were about beer, as you might expect, but many weren’t. There were also ones about coffee (All You Need Is Love And A Good Cup Of Coffee – haven’t these people heard of Toblerone?) and wine (Wine A Little You’ll Feel Better). Others were plain generic (Life Is Short Lick The Bowl, a mission statement which fails to stack up in so many ways). You could argue that their branding was confused, that they had strayed from their core concept. But really, it just felt like they’d got a job lot of these from TK Maxx and decided to go hell for leather and put them all up: a cosy wood-panelled room or snug bierkeller it wasn’t.

It was around this point, where I looked at the menu and looked around me, that I realised that Bierhaus was quite a curious beast. I’m used to the phenomenon, out in the shires, of the Restaurant Disguised As A Pub. You know the sort of place – picture-perfect, hell-bent on getting into the Good Food Guide, always banging on about being the perfect local pub but completely unwilling to seat you unless you’re eating there too; Berkshire and Oxfordshire are full of the blighters.

But until Bierhaus I’m not sure I’d ever seen the phenomenon in reverse. Because Bierhaus, make no mistake, is a pub disguised as a restaurant. It offers an extensive range of German beer on draft, nearly all of it at the five pound a pint mark, and it sells food but you order and pay at the bar. So far, so like Brewdog or Bluegrass, but at Bierhaus they genuinely don’t seem fussed whether you eat there or not.

“It’s a really good beer list” said my Ian, who had got cracking on a very nice pint of Erdinger. My Dortmunder Union by contrast was a classic pilsner if a bit nondescript, although I may be saying that with hindsight because everything I drank after that was a bit more interesting. All the draft beers came as halves, pints or – if you really fancied going for it – steins.

“There’s quite a good list of bottled beers from around the world too” I said, looking at the flip side of the drinks menu. “And Doombar, if you’re really lacking in imagination.”

“Your uncle would like that” said Ian with a wry smile. It was true, although in fairness the only beer my uncle has ever really taken against is Kaliber: that aside, they’re pretty much all fair game.

The food menu had a wide selection of starters and mains, and I noted that many of the starters were fried and much of the main courses were essentially meat and carbs (“It’s not a place for gluten-free vegans”, Ian said sagely, inadvertently turning it into a selling point). He also pointed out that the menu had changed since Bierhaus first opened a few years back, now offering the likes of nachos and wings to broaden the appeal. I also spotted a schnitzel salad, possibly the only dish to really offer what a close friend of mine likes to refer to as “garden”.

Our starters were all very much variations on a theme, possibly more so than we’d intended, being three different things breadcrumbed and fried. I wasn’t expecting that – the cheese sticks were meant to be beer battered and frickles are usually battered too – but, for all that, I liked all three starters we ordered. The cheese sticks – no idea what cheese it was – were good fun even if they were Bavaria by way of Iceland, and I was prepared to overlook the three pointless strips of raw pepper they came with (the menu said they were served with peppers: rules are rules, I suppose).

Ian said the frickles were the some of the best he’d had, and the coating on them had a surprising amount of kick. I had been expecting the thin crunch of a really good beer batter, but I found I didn’t mind its absence. And I really liked the sauerkraut balls – a Teutonic reimagining of arancini with a good contrast of sharpness and cheese. Ian was less convinced (“something more robust would have been nice”, he said – quite telling, as robustness was almost a calling card for much of the food).

All three starters were at or below the five pound mark and came with either average tartare sauce, a rather interesting spiced ketchup or, in the case of the cheese, cranberry sauce. Oh, and those three strips of red, yellow and orange pepper – let’s not forget those. But the peppers summed up the slight disconnect here – Bierhaus is a pub and many of the starters were essentially bar snacks, so why the faffy arrangement and the rectangular plates?

The very friendly waitress came and took our dishes away, her face almost ghostly through the application of industrial quantities of makeup.

“What was the name of the daughter in the Addams family?” asked Ian, and for a moment I couldn’t remember whether it was Dienstag or Mittwoch.

Another nice thing about the lack of fuss is that we felt completely unjudged ordering some nibbles, sitting there with our beers and taking our time to go up and order the rest. In the intervening time we both had a pint of Veltins, which I really enjoyed – it’s one of the more widely available beers Bierhaus does on draft but it was more complex and interesting than the Dortmunder Union. From there, Ian had a pint of the splendidly named Krommbacher (a sip tasted very nice indeed) and I moved on to the slightly fruitier and more delicate Früh Kölsch.

Everything came in branded glasses, everything I tried was thoroughly enjoyable and I started to feel like I could well understand the appeal of a laid back evening trying beers, eating carbs and having a good old gas. The only thing I couldn’t quite shake was the feeling that it ought to be happening in a nicer room. Bierhaus felt quiet for a Friday night, and I wondered whether its time might be coming now that winter was round the corner.

Ian had given me fair warning that he was going to order the schweinshaxe – the pork knuckle – but I never quite believed he was going to go through with it until he did. It was an enormous thing, more murder weapon than foodstuff, and he started to get to work on it with strangely appropriate efficiency. “I was psyched up for major surgery”, he told me later, “but it wasn’t necessary”. He was right: the meat fell away beautifully and tasted delicious. The outside was rich and sticky and covered in mustard seeds and herbs and all of it was very nice indeed (“not gelatinous or gristly” said Ian, summing up the two risks that had put me off ordering it).

Would I order it myself on a subsequent visit? Maybe, although the price tag (eighteen pounds) was a little stiff and the accompaniments weren’t anything to write home about. The bratkartoffeln – potatoes with bacon – were better described as potatoes with really not much bacon: it seemed churlish to complain when you were eating so much dead pig but even so they felt oversold. Not only that, but they had the oddly smooth texture of a long life product decanted from a foil packet rather than fresh potatoes fried in oil until everything was crispy and caramelised. There was more sauerkraut, which Ian didn’t like any more than in the starter, and some red cabbage. “Adequate”, he said, which ironically means it wasn’t good enough.

I was tempted to pick the schnitzel or goulash, both of which I remembered enjoying from visits a few years back, but in the end I decided to try the “Bierhaus rouladen”, a pork escalope rolled and stuffed with cheese and gherkin. I thought this might prove to be, by Bierhaus standards, the diet option and I suppose it was: the pork was beaten very thin, and nicely seasoned, but the whole thing felt out of kilter because it felt like there was easily as much gherkin as pork. Now, I absolutely love a gherkin, but even I’m not sure I’d make them the absolute centrepiece of a dish (Bierhaus’ Instagram feed suggests that I may have got an especially mingey version, but even so). It came with a nicely dressed salad and more of those oddly waxy, largely bacon-free potatoes, and I didn’t mind it but I did find myself gazing enviously at the enormous ham shank opposite me more than once: the acceptable face of gammon, I reckon.

We had a side dish of spaetzle: I’m pretty sure I’ve had spaetzle at Bierhaus on previous visits and liked it much more than this, but these noodles were fat, short, flat things with spring onion but little discernible cheese. We found it harder to finish than we did to pronounce, and that’s saying something. I did take a picture, but I’m doing us all a favour by not including it here.

We passed on dessert – it’s a very small selection, and my stepfather is prone to describing beer as “liquid cake”, so I guess you could argue we’d had one already. Dinner for the two of us – starters, mains, the spaetzle and the grand total of six pints and one half – came to just under eighty-two pounds, not including service. Perspective is key here, because that might feel like quite a lot to spend in a restaurant but it doesn’t feel such a terrible amount to spend on sinking a few pints in the pub with a meal vaguely attached. I haven’t said much about service but actually, what there was was lovely and friendly and welcoming, both at the bar when ordering drinks and food and at the table when they brought our dinner over.

When I started this review, I thought the biggest challenge would be avoiding hackneyed jokes about Germany: don’t mention the Fawlty Towers, you could say. But actually, now I come to write my conclusion the biggest challenge turns out to be deciding what I make of Bierhaus. Goodness knows, it doesn’t take long to reel off the minuses – it’s in a difficult and neglected part of town, the room is dark and lacking in atmosphere, the food is slightly lacking in consistency and you do have to really like beer (and possibly stodge). So far, so iffy.

What might surprise you, though, is that I found myself liking it all the same. It really is an excellent selection of German beer, and I liked everything I had. The best of the food is better than you perhaps expect it to be – and, in fairness, I’ve had some nicer food on previous visits than I did on this one. The service is spot on, and I rather admire their pluck and the way they’ve carved out a space in Reading’s restaurant scene in just under two years of trading. They make a decent fist of using Instagram, something many Reading restaurants struggle with. And actually, despite what my stepfather said about the menu, they’ve gone out of their way to provide vegetarian and vegan options which strikes me as awfully progressive for a German restaurant (although that’s not to say that I’d personally order them in a million years).

But actually, I think Ian, in his inimitable way, might have summed it up best. “The ambiance, the signage and the layout aren’t ever going to win it any awards”, he said, “but I’ve never had a bad time there.” And that, to me, says it all – because I’ve never had a bad time there either. It’s easy to get hung up on all the things a restaurant Should Be – an amazing room, flawless food, slick service, worthy piffle about provenance or plant-based dining – but actually restaurants are in the business of making sure we have a good time. And in some strange, almost amateurish, shouldn’t-work-but-somehow-does way which is beyond my powers of description, and against all odds, Bierhaus does precisely that.

Bierhaus – 7.3
8 Queens Walk, RG1 7QF
0118 9587171

http://www.bierhauspub.co.uk/

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/