Feature: The 2018 Edible Reading Awards

2018 has been an interesting year for Reading’s restaurant and café scene. It didn’t have huge, big-name openings like Thames Lido or Honest Burgers, but there have still been plenty of noteworthy changes and shifts over the last twelve months. For one, the Oxford Road has become a more significant place, with Tuscany and Oishi opening this year offering properly lovely pizza and promising Japanese food, filling a gap that has been there since Bhoj moved into town and I Love Paella left Workhouse Coffee.

Another trend has been some of Reading’s street food and pop-up specialists finding new homes, so Laura from Pop-Up Reading now cooks at the Tasting House and Georgian Feast are now operating at what used to be Nomad Bakery, in Caversham, a rare gastronomic high spot north of the river. Not to mention the way street food in Reading exploded this year, with Blue Collar taking over the Forbury and the Abbey Ruins for brilliant events running over several weeks. And then there are the new arrivals among Reading’s cafés, with a second branch of C.U.P. on Blagrave Street and Anonymous Coffee firmly installed both at the Tasting House and, if you work there, Thames Tower.

Of course, the circle of life means that restaurants also fall by the wayside, some of which are more mourned than others. So this is the year that Namaste Kitchen lost its chef and front of house and I Love Paella left the Fisherman’s Cottage. Those things might well make you sad (as they do me), whereas the closure of our branch of Jamie’s Italian might bother you less. But we also said goodbye to the much-loved Dolce Vita, cafés Artigiano and the Biscuit Tin and chains Loch Fyne and CAU. The casual dining sector faces an uncertain future in 2019, so few people would bet against further contraction next year: if you like a restaurant, you need to keep eating there.

This doesn’t deter people from entering the market, so the end of the year saw two further openings – Persia House, on the far side of Caversham Bridge (in a spot many consider cursed) offering Iranian food and the Corn Stores in the iconic building opposite Apex Plaza, where the owners are hoping a very fancy refit will persuade diners to part with quite a lot of money for steak. I will of course be heading along to check both of them out in the New Year.

But before that, on the last Friday of the year, it’s time to look back in my annual awards and celebrate the best of 2018. And before we do that, I have to say a quick thank you. It’s been an incredible year on the blog: the most successful since I began in 2013, with more visitors than ever before. It’s been the year that I put out two of the most popular features on the blog (on the things Reading needs and Reading’s 10 must-try dishes), ran a competition with new kid on the block Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen and ate, and reviewed, all manner of things, from pizza in Newbury to croque monsieur in a hospital, from chip-free fine dining in Binfield Heath to wobbly shawarma down the Wokingham Road.

I’ve had help from an incredible cast of guest dining companions who have helped make every meal an absolute pleasure (even when the food was not). A total of twelve different people have joined me on reviews this year, and every one has added something different. I don’t want to leave anybody out, and listing them would probably be dull for everybody else, but they know who they are and they know that I’m enormously grateful. And actually, I ended up having lunch with a lot more people than that – over fifty people attended one of the four readers’ lunches this year, from the first one at Namaste Kitchen at the start of the year (featuring a superlative greatest hits package of seemingly everything on the menu) to the elegant and accomplished four course set menu at Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen in December. It really has been quite a year.

Right, with all that out of the way let’s concentrate on the task at hand. Ready? Good.

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Dak-gang jeong, Soju

I only got out my legendary 8 paddle twice in 2018, for visits to Soju and Oishi. A big part of my rating for the former came from this dish, phenomenal crispy fried chicken covered in hot and sour sauce and scattered with sesame seeds, a quite magnificent affair which became my yardstick not only for starters and small plates in Reading, but also for fried chicken everywhere. It is reason enough to go to Soju in its own right, and next time I go I might order three.

Honorary mentions go to Bakery House’s chicken livers – meaty, metallic and resplendent with sweet red onion and punchy pomegranate molasses – and Bench Rest’s cauliflower shawarma, a beautifully done dish which could persuade anybody to give vegetarian food a whirl (though not, necessarily, to refer to it as “plant-based dining”).

TWEETER OF THE YEAR: Fidget & Bob

I won’t get on my high horse again to deliver my regular speech about how Reading’s restaurants, cafes and bars almost uniformly fail to get social media, but let’s just say that this was, by far, the easiest award to give out. Fidget & Bob’s Twitter feed has been an absolute delight this year, whether it’s been tweeting their specials (which always sound delicious), supporting other like-minded independent businesses or talking about the comings and goings of life on Kennet Island. I love my part of town, but Fidget & Bob manages the almost impossible: it nearly makes me wish I lived close enough to be a regular.

CHAIN OF THE YEAR: Franco Manca

Contrary to popular belief, I do review chains (provided they offer something a little different). I was in two minds about Franco Manca when I went there on duty, having enjoyed a couple of their London branches prior to their big expansion over the last couple of years, but repeated visits have established it as a real favourite. The pizzas are always good quality, the service is usually brisk but friendly and it’s an excellent, versatile venue – suitable for a quick pre-pub dinner with friends, a solo meal on the way home or a drawn out lunch when you want a little more than a sandwich. It’s often worth loading up a standard margherita with whatever toppings are on the blackboard that day, and if you do stay for dessert both the coffee and ice cream are better than you might expect.

Honorary mentions in this category go to Cote Brasserie, which has been doing its thing for so long that you could be forgiven for forgetting how good it is, and Kokoro, which is also a perfect place to stop for a big lunch or a quick dinner, solo or with a friend.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Charsi karahi chicken, Kobeda Palace

I have waxed lyrical about this dish so often that I may have run out of things to say by now, but Kobeda Palace’s karahi chicken remains a beautiful dish and a hugely surprising one; nothing about Kobeda Palace necessarily gives away that you can get such a gastronomic treat there, but there it is. Chicken, on the bone but neatly jointed, comes in the most glorious spiced sauce, with plenty of coriander and fresh ginger. The trick, if you can manage it, is to strip it all off the bone before you start and scoop it up with the giant, freshly baked naan bread. It really is gorgeous, and I’ve introduced numerous people to it this year.

There were so many contenders for this award that even narrowing down runners-up is almost impossible: you might be surprised, for instance, to discover that Café Yolk’s incredible Breakfast Burger was a fixture on my long list. But it would be wrong not to mention Pepe Sale’s suckling pig, a dish which is never going to be in or out of fashion but remains unbeatably delicious all the same, and the instant classic that is Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen’s bhuna venison (I even remember a Twitter outcry this year when, for a couple of days, Clay’s ran out of venison).

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen

I can’t imagine many of you being surprised by this: I’ve had regular conversations with people where they basically say something to the effect of “Clay’s is a little too good for Reading”. I think it reflects well on both Clay’s and Reading that the owners don’t seem to think so, and nor should we. To go from a standing start to being firmly ensconced as Reading’s (or at least Twitter Reading’s) favourite restaurant is quite an achievement, and barely a week goes by without somebody on social media publicly declaring how delighted they are to be back there for their umpteenth visit. I can’t say I blame them.

Bing Crosby once said that Frank Sinatra was the kind of singer that only comes round once in a lifetime, before adding “why does it have to be my lifetime?”. On a similar note, both Oishi and Tuscany can feel unfortunate not to win this award this year: Oishi was a lovely, low-key, apologetic delight, serving very good sashimi and teriyaki, and Tuscany is a superb, if idiosyncratic, pizza joint which may or may not do loads of other things, if you can ever track them down on a menu – or indeed track down a menu.

OUT OF TOWN RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Arbequina

Oxford’s Arbequina is, simply put, one of the best restaurants I’ve been to anywhere, in ages. A little spot down the Cowley Road, basic tables and chairs, a small menu, a small kitchen and superb staff who can execute all of it perfectly. Once, after a fantastic meal there, the waiter told me that they deliberately make the menu so simple that people can be trained to cook all the dishes in a week. Nothing is complex or fiddly but all of it is truly outstanding, from toast with ‘nduja, honey and thyme to pork belly smothered in verdant, herby mojo verde. Special mention has to go to the tortilla, which will slightly ruin all other tortillas and omelettes in your mind for the rest of your days: only order one if you can cope with that.

None of the out of town venues I visited on duty, sadly, came close to being in contention for this award but honourable mentions definitely go to the Black Rat in Winchester, a Michelin starred pub which could teach many of Berkshire’s and Oxfordshire’s poseur gastropubs a thing or two about keeping it simple, and Chelsea’s Medlar which is as good an excuse as you could hope for to take a Friday off and slope over to London.

DESSERT OF THE YEAR: Double ka meetha, Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen

I often struggle to find a dessert I much like in restaurants and usually, when I do, it involves chocolate. Hats off, then, to Clay’s which has a chocolate-free dessert so fine it’s worth saving room for (itself a challenge, on a visit to Clay’s). It’s bread and butter pudding, but not as we know it – chilled, clean and fresh, sweet without being cloying, a delicate, clever thing packed with pistachio and full of surprises. A lot of the attention focused on Clay’s other dessert, a very striking and unusual rice pudding made with onion, but for me this is straight out the best dessert you can get anywhere in town.

Runners-up in this category are Pepe Sale’s seadas, pastry full of cheese and sweet with citrus (don’t knock it til you’ve tried it) and Honest Burgers’ salted caramel milkshake, because a milkshake is a perfectly respectable dessert option and, as far as I’m concerned, the sooner restaurants get on board with this the better.

LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Bhel Puri House

Some of my nicest lunches this year have been spent sitting outside in the courtyard shared by Workhouse and the George Hotel, enjoying a mango lassi and some of the many excellent dishes cooked up by Bhel Puri House. Everyone talks about the chilli paneer, which is every bit as good as it was when I first reviewed it almost exactly five years ago, but the supporting cast is almost as good, whether you’re having vada pav (a sort of potato cake sandwich which feels like Indian street food which has found it’s way here via Hartlepool), crispy bhajia – perfect thin slices of fried potato with a sweet carrot chutney – or classics like Punjabi samosas. They haven’t changed a thing since they started, as far as I can see, and I’m glad they haven’t messed with a winning formula. It just feels like 2018 was maybe the year that Reading (including me) started to catch up.

I might be a bit jaded with the endless parade of relatively traditional sandwiches available in Reading, good though many of them are, and so my other podium places for this award go to Bakery House (for its small plates and the endless wonder and ludicrous good value of its lamb shawarma in pitta) and Blue Collar, where every Wednesday you can make the acquaintance of Leymoun’s quite extraordinary challoumi wrap.

SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Pepe Sale

It’s not been the best year for the service profession in Reading. Ihor has left the Artist Formerly Known as Kyrenia, Kamal has departed from Namaste Kitchen, and Kostas, Alexandra and the rest of the crew at Dolce Vita must be plying their trade elsewhere. Not only that, but Marco left Pepe Sale to head off into retirement, splitting his time between Kent and Italy. But actually, on many subsequent visits to Pepe Sale I finally got a proper view of what Marco’s presence obscured – that all of the staff there work like Trojans, are incredibly friendly, superbly efficient and do an impeccable job of making a very busy restaurant run like clockwork. So without question, Pepe Sale is a worthy winner of this year’s award for making it all look so effortless. I will miss Marco, glasses round his neck, Larry Grayson-style, telling me all the new places I ought to try for dinner, though.

All is not lost, though, and there are plenty of other places in Reading where the service is still exemplary. The Lyndhurst does a superb job of looking after diners, with a perfect balance between attentive and relaxed, friendly and formal, and definitely merits a mention here, as does the quite marvellous Fidget & Bob.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen

Clay’s reminds me very much of the quote by Robert Graves that “the remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he really is very good, in spite of all the people who say he is very good”. It’s much the same with Clay’s – everyone raves about it, me included, and you could quite reasonably think that it can’t be quite as magnificent as everybody claims.

And yet, when you go, it is. A restaurant which feels more like it’s been transferred in from London, with food reminiscent of high end Indian restaurants like Gymkhana, and yet which simultaneously feels completely in the right place in its spot at the bottom of London Street. The food is like nothing else you can get not only in Reading but probably anywhere in England, the execution is brilliant and the menu has already undergone a few changes despite Clay’s only having been open for six months. It’s already difficult to imagine Reading without it.

Not everything is perfect – service has been erratic since day one, and still needs work. They could badly do with a website, and I’m still not entirely sure whether Clay’s is a high-end restaurant charging middle-end prices or a really good neighbourhood restaurant. But ultimately, this stuff doesn’t matter: what truly matters is that Reading has a restaurant quite unlike any other, where the food is frequently quite astonishing, which gets Twitter and seems genuinely proud to be part of the town and part of its restaurant community. I can’t think of a better winner of this year’s award, even if I can look forward to a chorus of comments giving me the final ER Award of 2018, for Stating The Obvious.

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TGI Fridays

There are plenty of reasons to take against Matt Rodda, my local Member Of Parliament. His faintly gormless look at photo opportunities, for one. His position on Brexit – I’m sorry, I went there – which contains more fudge than Thornton’s and ignores the strongly held views of his constituency. His ineptitude at social media, where he never engages with anyone and sometimes manages to post photographs the wrong way round (he used to be a journalist, apparently: an old media one, I’d guess). And of course there’s the matter of his robotic Twitter style where every description of an event starts with “Good to”: Good to show support for school meals, says one. Good to talk to Katesgrove residents, says another. I dubbed this “Rodda Syndrome” on Twitter and after that he started to mix it up – some Tweets began “Important to”, others began “Interesting to”. It’s a nice try, but I’m not convinced that Rodda’s Twitter feed would pass the Turing Test.

So yes, I have a number of misgivings about my local MP, but the biggest is that he is responsible for the review you’re reading today.

Well, not entirely, because I rather brought it on myself. It happened on the 8th June last year, election day. I headed to the church on Watlington Street to cast my vote (more in hope than expectation) and then I went home, fetched my suitcase and made for the station. I was going to Paris for my first ever solo holiday, my post-divorce present to myself and the opportunity to reclaim one of my favourite cities, to make sure it didn’t become inextricably linked to memories of my marriage. What could possibly go wrong?

Fast forward to about midnight and I was back in my slightly cramped hotel room, several red wines to the good having had a truly repellent meal. They’d plonked me up at the bar on a seat which might as well have borne a plaque saying “exploit the solo tourist”, the plates were small and yet the terrine, which looked like Pedigree Chum, was far too big. I grabbed some chocolate, crisps and a bottle of Orangina from a little Carrefour on my way back to the hotel and when I found the TV in my room had BBC News 24, I realised I’d be able to hear the dulcet tones of David Dimbleby and see the results come in. I’ve stayed up and watched every general election since 1992 and continuing that trend – albeit on the other side of the Channel proving how big, brave and independent I was – made me feel a little less lonesome.

By the small hours, exhausted but undaunted, I and a small number of other Reading Tweeters were staying up for one reason and one reason alone: to see if Rob Wilson would lose his seat. It was very far down the list of Labour targets, but suddenly there was a buzz that we might see Wilson deposed. We don’t have enough time to go into all the reasons why I thought that would be Reading’s Portillo moment (although let’s not forget his nine pence expenses claim for a taxi ride which was physically impossible) but, emboldened by the spirit of revolution – and clearly not rehydrated enough by the Orangina – I took to Twitter. “The exit poll has Reading East falling to Labour. If that happens, I will review TGI Friday”, I said.

Whoops.

I’ve never forgotten my promise, however hard I tried, so on a Monday night towards the end of the year I showed up at TGI’s Oracle branch to finally keep my word. Picking an accomplice for this review proved difficult: originally I had suggested making it a big party to celebrate Wilson’s downfall, but when it came to it that felt needlessly cruel to my readers (and the admin involved in writing up all that food didn’t appeal). Instead I took my friend Sam, a long-standing reader of the blog with extensive experience in hospitality and, more specifically, of working front of house in chain restaurants. Surely, I thought, Sam could help me take a fair and balanced approach to the flagship outpost of one of Reading’s most prominent chains.

“Have you seen Pulp Fiction before?” chuckled Sam as the waitress seated us in a little booth for two, all leatherette banquettes with a good view of the restaurant. Sam is an extremely amiable chap who sounds as posh as you like and, despite only just being in his thirties, can inexplicably get away with calling everybody “kiddo”. He was still sporting a Movember moustache (“it’s on a week’s probation” he told me) and the overall effect was somehow more Battle Of Britain pilot than best-avoided uncle. Actually, despite it being ersatz in the extreme I somehow admired the fit-out of TGI Friday. Everything looked polished and fake without being cheap.

A chorus of “Happy Birthday”, led by the serving staff, erupted at a nearby table. It wouldn’t be the last of the evening.

The menu made decisions surprisingly difficult, but not in a good way. I tried very hard to overcome my preconceptions when looking through it, but it seemed like such a cookie-cutter approach to American food that I found it hard to care. Burgers, ribs, fajitas and tacos were all present and correct, and there were frequent references to TGI’s “Legendary glaze”, which may or may not have been a reference to the expression of the waiter who brought us our first beers. The menu was broken into sections with names like “Rib, Dip, Hooray!” and “Love Me Some Chicken”, which was bad enough but some of the names of the dishes genuinely made me want to get up and leave. Particular offenders included the “Gravy Seal”, a burger which had had the kitchen sink thrown at it and was apparently “a tasty triple trip over sea, air and land” and the “It’s Mine, Nachos!” about which no more need be said.

“I’ve decided” said Sam. “It’s got to be the Warrior Burger.” I knew this was likely: Sam had been talking about this life choice for about two weeks in the run up to our visit. I ummed and aahed and then I saw and heard a spectacle at a neighbouring table closer to the pass which made matters more straightforward; a plate was put down in front of a diner with a sizzle audible from some distance away, and smoke filled the air. Another glance at my menu revealed that this was the “Sizzling Crispy Duck Fajita”, and so my decision was made.

“Good choice, kiddo” said Sam, necking a hefty swig of his Sam Adams. I looked at my Budweiser, one of the only draft beers on offer, and took a sip. It tasted of Budweiser. I made a mental note that more of it might be required.

At this point you are no doubt expecting me to detest every single thing that followed, so allow me to confound both of us by telling you that the first of our two appetisers wasn’t bad. The sesame chicken strips were a hit with both Sam and I: a reasonably generous helping of chicken with a little crunch, some heat from the chilli flakes and some sweetness from that Legendary (I can’t stop capitalising it, because that way it’s more obviously their word and not mine) glaze. The extra dish of dipping sauce, which I think was also glaze, was more than anybody needed, and a mere taste of it confirmed that it was Dignitas for tooth enamel. None the less, I liked this dish: the fried chicken at Soju it wasn’t, but we still polished it off in a state of mild surprise.

The other starter, loaded potato skins, had to be done; I suspect that it’s been on the TGI menu since time immemorial, a 90s time capsule in gastronomic form. The menu said they were “potato skins filled with melted cheese”, and the last time I saw a fib of that magnitude it was on the side of a bus: the skin wasn’t crunchy and moreish and barely featured in the dish. Nor did the melted cheese. Some of the skins had very little: “filled” wasn’t the right description, and “meanly sprinkled” would have been closer to the mark. The predominant feature of the dish was in fact the flesh of the potato, which means they were less potato skins and more just chunks of potato. We’d chosen to have them with bacon, but it was more like highlighter-pink indeterminate mince than lovely, crispy, salty bacon. The whole affair contained more flesh and gammon than the average Question Time audience, and was about as appetising. The sour cream gloop in the middle did nothing to improve matters, and nor did the token spring onions.

“Well, it’s not terrible so far” I said, trying to put a brave face on things as we sat there for what felt like quite some time waiting for them to take our empty dishes away. Terrible was not far away, because split seconds after they were whipped off the table in a monosyllabic fashion our main courses arrived. My duck was set down in front of me completely devoid of any sizzle, smoke or steam, a moment even more lacking in theatre than the renditions of “Happy Birthday” at the other tables (two and counting).

“I’m really sorry” I said, because I felt one of us ought to apologise for what I was looking at, “but this isn’t sizzling.”

“Oh, it definitely is” said the waitress, trying to style it out. There was a pause while I tried to make up my mind whether it was worth explaining what the word sizzling really meant. It probably only lasted ten seconds but in my mind it felt like easily five minutes of awkward silence. It was eventually broken by the waitress.

“I mean, if you touch it you’ll find it’s really hot.”

I looked at Sam, Sam looked at me. Our expressions mirrored one another, and we sat in silence while the waitress brought the rest of our food and left us to it.

“What was that about?” said Sam. “That was like hearing Trump talk about the crowds at his inauguration.”

It was true: there was something post-truth about what had just happened. With hindsight, I actually think that it might have been for the best that my duck arrived without any smoke and mirrors, because it made it easier to get right to the heart of the matter, namely that it was truly awful. It was sinewy, and a struggle to get much meat off the bone apart from the breast, which had a weird, cotton-woolly texture. It was topped with a bizarre salsa which looked a little like finely diced vomit (and, I suspect, more of the Legendary Glaze) and sat on a bed of onions which had no hint of caramelisation, on account of never having sizzled.

This was a dish that really didn’t know whether it was Tex-Mex or Chinese, so decided to fail dismally at both. There were tortillas which were thick and more like cardboard than the thin pancakes which might have worked, and shredded cucumber and spring onion to make the cognitive dissonance even worse. Finally, there was more of the gloopy Legendary Glaze, although this time it had an odd lumpy texture like frogspawn, or a very loose stool. It was sweet to the point of offensiveness, and after I’d assembled a couple of fajitas my fingers were so sticky I wasn’t sure they’d ever be clean again. It could have been worse if I hadn’t had a spoon to dish up the glaze, although admittedly I’d had to ask nicely for one of those (how exactly did they imagine I was going to do it?). By the end I was reduced to scraping all the crud off the duck, eating it on its own with a knife and fork and realising that even that couldn’t rescue matters.

This dish cost seventeen pounds fifty. I thought of all the times I’d had delicious confit duck at Cote, a couple of doors down, for considerably less money. Then I thought of what else seventeen pounds fifty could buy you in this town and I started to feel quite angry, although it could have just been a sugar rush from the Legendary Glaze.

“This is the worst crispy duck fajita I’ve ever had.” I said. “Of course, it’s also the best and, if I have my way, it will be the only crispy duck fajita I ever have. Also, this really isn’t a restaurant for diabetics.”

Sam’s Warrior Burger was no better. It managed to simultaneously be overcooked and lukewarm, which takes some doing but really shouldn’t be considered an achievement. The patties were a tad grey and nothing about the dish looked appetising.

“It’s been cooked with one purpose and one purpose alone” said Sam, “and that’s to eradicate the risk of anybody getting food poisoning.” It didn’t feel like an ambitious mission statement.

“Not a fan then?”

“No. All these whistles and bells like the mozzarella dippers are just there to draw attention away from the poor quality meat.”

“So how much of this do you reckon was previously frozen?” I asked, reckoning that Sam knew a bit about that kind of thing.

“Most of it. Probably the burgers, definitely the mozzarella sticks and probably the bread too. The fries are okay, I suppose, and that dip” – Sam gestured at little dish of what looked like mustard – “isn’t bad. But really, it isn’t good at all.”

The Warrior Burger costs over fifteen pounds. “Maybe lots of people eating here have vouchers” said Sam. Either that or a lobotomy, I thought to myself.

Unable to finish my meal, and eventually bored of the staff’s complete unwillingness to take our empty plates away, I wandered upstairs to wash my hands obsessively like Lady Macbeth until no trace of the glaze remained. The upstairs, almost as big as the downstairs, was completely empty (“there was no upstairs when it was Tampopo” said Sam, sagely, “so god knows where the staff get to change or relax or keep their stuff now”).

Coming out of the bathroom, I discovered a voicemail on my phone from TGI Fridays asking why I hadn’t shown up for my table and whether I planned to. “We’re very busy and we can definitely give the table to somebody else” said the voice huffily. I looked at the deserted tables around me and I wondered whether I’d wandered into some kind of dream sequence. Maybe I hadn’t actually gone to TGI Friday and none of this had ever happened, I thought. Perhaps it wasn’t too late to scrap the review and take Sam to eat somewhere better, like literally anywhere.

Back at our seats our crockery and cutlery was still in front of us. I told Sam about my voicemail.

“That sums this place up” he said. “It’s all so half-arsed. I mean, did you notice the state of the tables and chairs out front on the Riverside when we walked in? If this was my restaurant and the front looked like that, I’d sack myself.”

The waiter took our plates away and asked if we fancied dessert. It was tempting to see if there was anything more sugary than the food I had already had, but morbid curiosity is no justification for throwing good money after bad.

“No thanks mate” said Sam. “I think we’ll just finish our drinks and get round to asking for the bill.”

The waiter wandered off, got the bill and slammed it wordlessly on the table in front of us almost immediately. Finally we had something in common: he was as keen for me to leave the restaurant as I was. But there was one final quirk to the service when the waiter discovered that we planned to pay by card. He came over with the card machine, entered the amount and then wandered off, leaving us to stick our card in and enter the PIN. This struck me as a novel approach and different from literally every waiter and waitress I have ever encountered. Dinner for two came to sixty-seven pounds, not including tip, and it was only Sam’s generosity and good humour that meant that we tipped at all. Personally I would have just paid, departed and then left them a voicemail explaining that I wasn’t going to tip them, but with hindsight I’m glad Sam prevailed.

“The thing is though” said Sam, “the service really was poor. I know some of this is the kitchen’s fault, and some’s the menu’s fault, but the waitress should never have brought a sizzling duck dish that wasn’t sizzling.” And he was right, because even if the food had been middling and indifferent (I should have been so lucky) the service could still have improved matters considerably. It was a meal with no care factor evident anywhere.

There was time for one last sting in the tail, because as we were finishing our drinks Sam examined his pint glass. There – close to the bottom, on the inside – was a grim-looking black smudge of goodness knows what.

“What’s that?” said Sam in horror. We examined it, neither of us wanting to touch it.

“I have no idea, but when the pint was first poured it was probably even bigger. Most of it has probably, err, dissolved.” I realised immediately after I said it that this wasn’t helpful.

“Oh well, I could do with losing some weight. This just wasn’t how I planned to do it.”

Afterwards, commiserating in the pub, I told Sam that I thought that TGI Friday was like the WH Smith of restaurants: I couldn’t understand why it still existed, because you could get everything it did better somewhere else. If you want cocktails you should go to Milk and if you want burgers, you should go to Honest. If you want ribs, you should go to Bluegrass and if you want fajitas you should go to Mission. If you want crispy duck fajitas, you should see your doctor.

But it’s worse than that, because not only do other places do this food better but, without exception, they are cheaper. I could cope with expensive and mediocre, and I could just about cope with cheap and bad, but the combination of costly and diabolical leaves me baffled. Who eats at TGI Fridays these days? And one other thing: this isn’t about snobbishness, it’s about standards. Earlier in the year I went to the Beefeater on the Bath Road, with my family. It wasn’t my choice, and in the run-up I did make a few unworthy jokes about the evening that lay ahead. But actually, the service was lovely, the food was okay and the steak itself was rather nice. I went away feeling a little ashamed of myself, but at TGI Friday I just went away feeling dirty and exploited (and not in a good way, either).

So there you have it, my final review of 2018 is easily the worst meal I’ve had all year and one of the very worst meals I’ve had in over five years of writing this blog. Thank you for reliving it with me (don’t have nightmares) and I only have one last thing to say. It’s this: good to never have to go to TGI Fridays ever again. Important to avoid it for the rest of my days. Thanks a bunch, Matt Rodda.

TGI Fridays – 3.6
Unit 8, The Oracle, RG1 2AG
0344 2646052

https://www.tgifridays.co.uk/locations/get/Reading%20Oracle#/

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 Lady 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/

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/