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.

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Feature: The 5 things Reading needs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. A proper cooked breakfast

What’s missing?

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

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

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

Somewhere like?

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

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

The closest thing?

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

2. A tapas restaurant

What’s missing?

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

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

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

Somewhere like?

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

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

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

The closest thing?

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

3. A gelateria

What’s missing?

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

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

Somewhere like?

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

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

The closest thing?

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

4. A triple threat café

What’s missing?

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

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

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

Somewhere like?

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

The closest thing?

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

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

5. A special occasion restaurant

What’s missing?

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

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

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

Somewhere like?

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

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

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

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

The closest thing?

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

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

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

Feature: Table for one

What a difference three years makes: back in 2015, when I last posted a guide to solo dining, I waxed lyrical about it as an experience but, truth be told, I didn’t do it that often. Now and again when my spouse went away on business, mainly, or on the odd occasion when I had a day off to myself, but my experience of it was more limited than my paean of praise made it sound. It probably shows in the piece, because – despite my best intentions – it read more as advice and consolation for those who found themselves unfortunate enough to be eating alone, rather than a celebration of the joys of a table for one.

These days I have a far richer experience of eating on your own, at all points on the spectrum. Separation, divorce, self-discovery, solo holidays, working out that some of your friends aren’t actually friends at all: all that Eat Pray Love bullshit has many effects but one of them, for me, was to give me a far better understanding of the benefits of going to a restaurant accompanied only by a copy of Private Eye (and my phone, for when the cynicism gets too much). Fast forward three years, and I’ve eaten on my own all over the place.

I’ve been jammed in at the bar at a hot – in both senses – packed no-reservation London place on a weekday lunchtime. I’ve spoiled myself by ordering from the a la carte menu at Nirvana Spa, in my fluffy white robe, peering at my paperback between courses. I’ve dined at Pierre Victoire, pretending to pay attention to a magazine while really people watching North Oxford’s finest eating and chatting, imagining all those different lives intersecting, albeit briefly, with mine. And last year I spent the best part of a week in Paris on my own, reinventing old favourites and discovering new ones. A good table, a good view, a good glass of wine and a good book, alone but not lonely; I might not have learned to completely love eating alone, but I certainly came to appreciate it.

Closer to home, there’s a lot to be said for a table for one and lots of occasions where it can be a positive pleasure. The quick solo meal on the way to meet friends in the pub, especially people from the “eating is cheating” brigade (just me, maybe, but I’ve always found that a dreary philosophy to live by). The drawn-out lunch on a Saturday when you have the day to yourself. Or even just the moment – and this might just be me – where I get off the train at Reading station (or Gare Du Ding, as I keep calling it) and I just can’t be arsed to cook. The sun is shining, I have nowhere in particular to be and I think how nice it would be to treat myself before heading home.

Not only has my life changed a lot in the last three years: Reading has too. Two of my choices last time around are not currently trading. I Love Paella has left the Fisherman’s Cottage (in contentious circumstances: less said about that the better) and Dolce Vita has left Kings Walk, forced out by a greedy landlord who wanted to make more money. If Namaste Kitchen was still running its menu from earlier in the year it would have made this list, because I couldn’t imagine anything finer than going there and having a beer, a plate of paneer pakora and a chicken chow mein (one of the joys of eating solo, in a small plates restaurant like Namaste Kitchen, is not having to share food for once).

And of course, I still miss Georgian Feast (the artist formerly known as Caucasian Spice Box) back when they cooked from the Turks Head. It became a regular ritual for me to head over there and eat on my own for the first half of last year: meatballs, spiced chicken thighs, sharply dressed salad and cheese bread – oh, and a pint of Strongbow Cloudy Apple. At the time I was living in a truly awful one bedroom flat, and it felt like having friends cook for you which, after a while, I suppose it sort of was; sometimes you can tell a lot about a restaurant by how it treats solo diners.

The other way that this list has changed since 2015 is that it reflects the rise of what, for want of a better phrase, I would call the Good Chain. Smaller, smarter chains are coming to Reading and they can often provide a little bit of the intimacy of an independent restaurant with some of the polish you associate with a bigger establishment. I make no apology for including so many of them here, because I’m interested in good restaurants – and good restaurants to eat alone in – and it’s not my fault that Reading doesn’t yet have the kind of independents, especially in the town centre, that get this stuff right.

I eat alone less often these days than I used to, nowadays, but a good meal alone is still a wonderful act of self-care, provided you pick the right venue. No quibbles about splitting the bill, nobody judging you for ordering too much, or having the expensive wine. No rush, nobody to please but yourself, and all that people watching. So here are my current recommendations – I hope they come in handy, and if you’ve always considered eating out on your own a step too far I really would encourage you to give it a try.

1. Bakery House

The perfect combination of food and anonymity.

I’ve grown to love an early evening meal alone at Bakery House. I sit facing out into that long, slightly chilly room, sip on an orange Mirinda (it’s basically Tango) and wait for the food to arrive. Some days I’ll munch on maqaneq: little, punchy sausages – you get an awful lot of them. On others I might go for the smooth, rich houmous beiruty, glossy and packed with tahini, beautiful piled on a big bubble of pitta, fresh from the oven.

That done, I can look forward to the main event. I tend to order the lamb shawarma – a big mound of intensely flavoured shreds of lamb, with garlic sauce, chilli sauce and terrific vegetable rice. But then there are also the delights of the boneless baby chicken, all charred skin and tender meat, a holiday on a plate. What could be better than being so transported?

The service at Bakery House can verge on standoffish, grumpy even. In other contexts that might be frustrating, but there’s something oddly comforting about how anonymous you can feel eating there. They don’t care whether you’re in a big group, on a date or alone, they’re simply there to bring you food and to leave you in peace. They’re like the barber that knows better than to talk to you when he’s cutting your hair, and some of my happiest, most meditative meals have taken place at Bakery House.

Bakery House, 82 London Street, RG1 4SJ
http://bakeryhouse.co

2. Cote

Three courses, because you deserve them.

Cote, for me, is for the full solo three course experience. Sitting on the banquette looking out into the room is one of the best, most uplifting ways that you can say “I deserve this”, whether you’re ordering from the set menu or the full a la carte. The latter sometimes has some brilliant specials – confit duck, perhaps, or the rare treat of a skate wing swimming with butter and festooned with capers (there isn’t much in life that rivals flipping a skate wing over halfway through eating it and realising that you have the thick side yet to come).

The set menu really comes into its own on summer days, when you can sit at a little table outside, with a view of the canal. I like to drink a Breton cider, crisp and almost sweet, and watch the world go by while I make my choices. Some of the dishes are good, and some are great, but all are stupidly reasonably priced, and the act of eating before 7pm means that you’re likely to be finished before the light has faded and the best of the evening has gone. I used to think “if I tried hard I could imagine I was in Paris right now”, but these days I think “I’m so lucky to live here.”

Cote, 9 The Oracle Centre, RG1 2AG
https://www.cote.co.uk/brasserie/reading

3. Franco Manca

Comfort food, elevated.

When it comes to comfort, little can top cheese on toast – and if anything can, it might be Franco Manca’s sourdough pizza. I have a real soft spot for their anchovy and caper version (ask for extra anchovies, because although Franco Manca is very reasonably priced you do to some extent get what you pay for). That said, their standard margarita is also worth a go, topped with whatever extras they have on the menu that day (the picture above, coppa and Ogleshield cheddar, was a particular high point). Oh, and have a blue cheese or pesto dip, because it really does transform the whole thing.

Franco Manca is perfect for a quick stop, but it’s actually not hard to make it more of a treat. Some of the starters – especially anything with mozzarella (smoked or otherwise), burrata or fennel salami – well worth lingering over, as long as you can overlook the fact that most of them are stuff you’d put on a pizza taken off a pizza and served cold on a plate instead. I can, anyway. And finally, the chocolate ice cream is pretty decent as is my personal favourite, a crafty affogato.

When I first reviewed Franco Manca I liked the food and was sceptical about the room, mainly because it was impossible to hear your dining companion. It turns out that really isn’t an issue when you go on your own, which means that what could be a wall of noise becomes a strangely comforting hubbub. Sitting outside, on a summer day, is also a lovely thing to do.

Franco Manca, The Oracle, Bridge Street, RG1 2AT
https://www.francomanca.co.uk/restaurants/reading

4. Honest Burgers

Meat and potatoes.

I said the Good Chains had this eating alone business down pat, and you would struggle to find a better example of that than Honest Burgers. Much has been made, quite rightly, of what a beautiful job they did with the interior. And plenty has been written about the virtues of the Reading burger, making the most of our local suppliers. Not to mention the King Street Pale, a truly wonderful beer which even I, more of a lager fan, can neck by the pint.

Well, yes. But for my money, the best thing to do at Honest is forego the Reading special and whatever the flavour of the month is and let Honest do what they do best, which is serve cheeseburgers. I go for their most basic burger, topped with cheddar, and that way you can really taste the quality of the beef, the char of the crust, the hint of salt.

Your mileage may vary, but in any case it really is another fantastic venue to eat well and unfussily, especially if you have somewhere to go shortly afterwards. My stepfather has got into the habit of grabbing an Honest before taking in a movie at Vue, and he is a man who knows what he’s doing.

Honest Burgers, 1-5 King Street, RG1 2HB
https://www.honestburgers.co.uk/locations/reading/

5. Kokoro

Dinner on the run.

Kokoro is an illustration of what I call the “yaki soba effect”. Back when I used to go to Wagamama, I always ordered the yaki soba, a big heap of noodles with chicken and prawns and pickled ginger and plenty of good stuff. It never let me down, and became my takeaway of choice for a while. Then I decided I really ought to branch out, but every time I did my meal was plain disappointing – and, usually, I had to watch someone else eat yaki soba in front of me while I pretended to enjoy chicken katsu curry (a dish which always looks a tad too scatological for my liking).

Kokoro is the same – it’s all about the sweet chilli chicken. I mean, just look at that picture up there. Look at it! Doesn’t it make you peckish? A glossy, fiery deep red sauce (and these days they give you enough to coat the rice or noodles) with clearly visible garlic – the best kind of garlic, if you ask me – and piece after piece of tender, crispy-coated chicken. They serve it in either a medium or a large cardboard tub: the medium is quite big enough for anybody, but the large only costs a pound more. The whole thing comes in at the six or seven quid mark, and it’s one of the very best dinners on the run Reading has to offer. You sit at a basic wooden table, polish it off and watch other people come in and place their orders – usually for the sweet chilli chicken, unsurprisingly.

Last time I went, I decided to try the chicken curry instead. It had lots of tender, chicken thigh cooked into strands. It had an anonymous brown sauce which tasted largely of nothing. It was, in short, not the sweet chilli chicken, and that’s when I realised that I won’t make that mistake again. Kokoro also sells chicken katsu curry, but who on earth orders that? People who don’t like the yaki soba at Wagamama, I suppose.

Kokoro, 13 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1SY
http://kokorouk.com/

6. Sapana Home

Because the best things come in multiples of ten.

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Ten pan-fried chicken momo cost six pounds fifty at Sapana Home. They come on a plate, clustered round a little dish of hot dipping sauce, and when you have them pan fried they have a slightly caramelised exterior which seals the deal. A plate of Sapana Home’s momo, I think, can gladden even the heaviest heart. My favourite momo is the fifth one: before that, they pass too quickly and you eat them almost without savouring them, whereas after that you are maybe a little too aware that your pleasure – as most pleasures do – is inevitably coming to an end.

There are other dishes there I recommend, if you’re feeling greedy. The chicken fry is wonderful – pieces of chicken, spring onion and tomato with that same hot sauce. The chow mein, which is fundamentally the chicken fry plus noodles, is also splendid. And if you feel more adventurous I heartily recommend the samosa chaat, a glorious four-way pile-up involving samosas, yoghurt, crispy noodles and red onion.

Late 2016, when I took a break from reviewing restaurants, was a pretty bleak period in my life. Nothing was going right, and when I finished work and got back into town on the train I really didn’t want to go home any time soon, much of the time. What got me through many difficult days, back then, was a plate of momo at Sapana Home. It’s a little place, and it’s best to sit upstairs if you can, where there is daylight. The service is brusque but not unkind. There was a period when sitting there, eating momo and listening to the oddly comforting (if mindless) strains of Heart FM was truly my happy place.

If any further illustration was needed, it’s this. The photo above was taken last night: writing this made me want to go back, so I did. Things have changed a little since I last went: the music was classic Bollywood rather than commercial radio, and the momo (they now do lamb too, although I didn’t order them) were slightly less packed with filling, lighter and more delicate. It was like seeing an old friend after a while and realising they’ve lost weight. I did, for a moment, consider putting Kings Grill in this sixth spot instead. But I’ve kept Sapana Home on this list – it may be mainly for sentimental reasons, but momos six to ten were still as bittersweet.

Sapana Home, 8 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1TG
http://sapanahome.co.uk/

Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen Competition: the results!

I’m delighted to announce the results of the Edible Reading competition in conjunction with Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen. One of these days I’ll do something like a simple prize draw, but I do like making people work for it and flex their creative muscles, and this competition was no exception. I asked entrants to describe their ideal three course Reading meal in 200 words or less, with each course coming from a different restaurant.

My competition postbag was as eclectic a group of dishes as Reading has restaurants or I have readers, and the whole thing made me inordinately proud of both Reading and my readers. From Thames Lido to Cafe Rouge, from l’Ortolan to Alto Lounge, all gastronomic life seemed to be covered. I was hugely grateful to be spared an agonising decision and the inimitable Adam Koszary has stepped up to do the honours. He’s done a truly marvellous job. I do like to tax my judges’ patience, so before I announce the winners I also asked Adam to (drop to the floor and) give me 200 words on his ideal Reading three course meal. Here’s what Adam came up with:

I would never win the competition I’m judging.

I have been disappointed by too many undercooked, overpriced brownies, and so I eat two course meals like it’s a religion. I’m also terrible at describing food, and my tastes often veer to the meat and potato.

But here goes.

If I had money in my pocket and three courses to spend it on, my first course would be I Love Paella’s Patatas Bravas. Yes, they’re simple, but they’re absolutely lush. I made my parents try them. I’ve tried to make the same sauce at home and failed miserably. My partner and I genuinely reminisce about eating them.

For the main I had a hard time deciding between Bakery House’s humble shawarma and Papa Gee’s Sofia Loren pizza, but if you turned the thumbscrews I would opt for the latter. It’s better than any pizza I’ve had in Italy. Their meat tastes like it’s fresh from some hoary Italian mountain man’s pig, the sauce from an Italian matriarch’s pot. It’s all chili and sausage and fun in the mouth.

I don’t eat desserts so I’d have a Magnum from Cemetery Junction Co-Op on the way home.

Job done.

Personally, I think Adam’s meal sounds pretty good to me: I must get him to come out on duty with me some time. Anyway, without further ado, here are the winner and our two runners-up, along with Adam’s comments. Roll the tape!

WINNER: Graeme Fancourt

A perfect food crawl around Reading on a hot summer’s evening would have to begin at House of Flavours. While we exhale the woes of the day and the hopes of the evening ahead, I’d be enjoying the Adraki lamb chops; a perfect start of crisp fat and tender meat that’s infused with ginger spice and all things nice. And I’d have to do my best not to order it twice.

We’d then have an excitable wander round the corner to the Lyndie where I’d order their just-creamy and just-salty-enough pan-fried brill in lobster sauce. More than any other dish in Reading’s restaurants this is the one, for me, that most closes the gap between the A4 and the ocean.

Mainly to stop me boring everyone about the samphire, we’d leave the Lyndie and wander across to Pepe Sale. We make up for the cheap Lyndie Chardonnay by ordering a bottle of the Moscato, and I’d get my ice cream fix from the cassata fragola. The liquor-soaked sponge cake is just filling enough after the light fish dish to be the perfect end to the evening while we polish off the Moscato and plan our Autumn food crawl.

Adam says: I admire people who can write about food. When I try and do it, my brain can only reach for the words ‘lush’, or ‘alright’. In this competition, then, I was on the lookout for writing which would not only make me imagine the meal on the plate, but also make me want to stuff my face with it.

This entry certainly managed that.

I want that lamb chop. I want that tender meat in my mouth, and I want that crisp fat on my lips. My god.

I also had a slight heartburst at the description of the excitable wander around the corner to the Lyndie – a wander I’ve done many times. The patient wait at the pedestrian crossing, with the beckoning shining windows of the Lyndie across the IDR, feels almost like the final trial before the prize of good food and Yakima Red.

It’s also obvious that the cassata fragola has been chosen logically as ‘just filling enough’, and I get the impression that this writer has thought sensibly about the logistics of a Reading-wide three-course journey. It honestly makes me want to polish off a Moscato and bumble merrily off home.

FIRST RUNNER-UP: Ben Thomas

Fareham Drive Shopping Precinct may look like the set of This is England but it harbours one of Reading’s great restaurants – Himalaya Momo House. Amongst their many knockout dishes is the unmatched aloo papri chaat. This chilled delight incorporates chickpeas, potato, and starchy wafers, but manages to avoid stodginess, as cooling yoghurt and astringent tamarind add the lift needed to make this a perfect balance of spicy, sour, and fresh.

Picking the main was tough, but I couldn’t drag myself away from Thai Corner’s exquisite rendition of my favourite meal – beef massaman. This dish is a product of the influence of Islamic traders on Thai cuisine, and the darker, earthier tones that introduces wrestle with the tropically aromatic base of the traditional Thai curry, and both benefit as a result. Add some coconut rice, and that’s my death row meal right there.

I often skip desert, but if I’m visiting Côte, I’ll leave room for a praline crêpe. Caramelised banana is a textural experience of the first order, and the rest is self-explanatory. If it were possible to eat this after an aloo papri chaat and beef massaman, then I’d be a happy man indeed.

Adam says: This one very nearly won it for me.

What I enjoyed about it is what’s sprinkled on top. The three words ‘This is England’ immediately placed Fareham Drive Shopping Precinct for me, and I love that a culinary jewel can still shine even in the most Grimsby-like of places. I also bloody love the use of ‘astringent’ as well. I admire the audacity of it.

The other thing which put this entry ahead is the historic context. Food is often more than food – it is culture and history. Just as my home’s regional dish of faggots will tell you a lot about the Black Country, I love finding out what other dishes say about where they’re from, and I can just imagine the melding of cultures and cuisines on the silk road. The praline crêpe is self-explanatory.

SECOND RUNNER-UP: Tara Pritchard

I’d begin with the Gobi 65 from Chennai Dosa (sadly closed). Perfectly cooked, crisp florets of cauliflower, bright with spice and bursting with flavour. Perfect way to wake your tastebuds at the beginning of a meal.

Moving onto the baghare baigan from Clay’s: two plumb baby aubergine resting beneath a rich and yet surprising light peanut sauce. This restaurant can pull off the alchemy of blending spices into a perfectly balanced melody and yet still allowing each flavour to sing alone. Paired with fluffy, delicately scented basmati rice it was a dish that hushed conversation as the first taste was savoured. I’m not vegetarian; but finding a vegetable dish that could easily hold its own against the more carnivorous elements of the menu was a delightful surprise.

To finish, I’ll be dragging you to the Griffin for their salted caramel sundae. Sticky and gooey with just enough salt to cut through the sweetness. It’s a guilty pleasure and once, when a friend stepped away from the table to take a work call, I managed to eat two. In my defence, it was a hot day and the ice cream was melting. Any one of you would have done the same!

Adam says: Choosing the second runner-up was also tricky. I’d hoped someone would have taken a pilgrimage of all the Greggs in the town centre, sampling a sausage roll at each one. One entry came close, but I don’t consider their choice of third course – 2009-grade ketamine – as food.

Maybe as seasoning.

As it is, we have this journey from a defunct Chennai Dosa through to baghare baigan and finishing in the Griffin. I appreciated the bittersweet memory of a meal which can never be had again, and the image of two plump baby aubergines fighting the corner for veganism. The cherry on top, however, was the great sundae robbery. I’ve often considered the theft of an absentee fellow diner’s food, and I applaud the audacity of someone who says fuck it and does it.

Huge congratulations to the winner and runners-up. Graeme wins a three course meal for two with a a bottle of house red, or a bottle of house white, or four pints of mango beer (and the mango beer would be a pretty decent prize all on its own). As for Ben and Tara, Clay’s has generously offered a runner-up prize of a portion of free kodi chips if you go for a meal there – trust me, that too is a pretty decent prize. Thanks to everybody who took part, and I’ll do my best to rustle up another competition for you in due course.

Oh, and since literally nobody asked, I also jotted together 200 words on my ideal three course Reading meal, inspired by what Adam said about bittersweet memories. What better way to finish the piece but on a bit of a downer? Exactly…

This is my gastronomic Ghost Of Christmas Past, the three course meal I most miss about Reading, the one I can no longer enjoy.

It begins with the sukuti at Namaste Kitchen. Small punchy cubes of mutton, oh-so-slightly chewy with perfectly crispy fat. The plate comes with a few cocktail sticks and you know you must share, but you wish you didn’t have to. Halfway through, you wonder why pubs don’t serve snacks like this, so perfect with a beer. Except one used to, and then it stopped.

Then you move on to Dolce Vita’s saltimbocca – slender, tender veal with sage, wrapped in Parma ham and cooked just as much as it needs to be, with a sauce you daydream about for days. No longer available, of course. Cause of death: greedy landlord, as so often.

Finally, Tutti Frutti’s smoothly complex peach and amaretto ice cream. You should eat it late in the evening, in the old part of the station (the bit with a soul) watching the workers in their high-vis jackets and people home from their London train, merry or tired. I wish I’d known, the last time I had it, that it was the last time.

Right, that’s enough of that gloom. For every place that closes, another new place opens, so tune in next week for a brand new review of one of Reading’s newest contenders. You might like this one.

Feature: The 10 Reading Dishes You Must Try Before You Die (or relocate)

It’s a while since I did a feature on the blog, but this one has been percolating for some time. Eighteen months ago I went on holiday to Malaga, and although it was a mixed bag, one thing I really loved was the food culture. I did a food tour which took me from restaurant to market to bar to restaurant, trying the best dishes from the best places, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself (I also spent much of the time apologising to all the lovely Europeans in my tour group about the Brexit referendum result, but that’s another story).

When I visited, Malaga was celebrating “Tapas Month” – well, it’s got to beat Veganuary – and participating restaurants had teamed up to put together a tapas trail across the city, each one offering a special edition tapa for a couple of Euros, only available for that month. I spent much of my trip wishing I could stop and try all the dishes – that, and wishing that I was on holiday with someone who would want to.

When I returned home, I pondered whether either of those things would work for Reading, but decided it was just too difficult in practice. What was I going to do, walk them to the farmer’s market and then take them to Sapana Home for momo? No dice: Reading was too small, and it definitely didn’t have enough of a small plates culture, so I abandoned the idea.

This year, I vaguely revisited the idea of readers’ events, namely lunches, and we’ve had two very successful ones so far – at Namaste Kitchen in January, and I Love Paella in May. At the latter, the kitchen (headed by the redoubtable Edgar) put together a set menu including a special dish: ox tail empanadas. They were easily one of the loveliest things I’ve ever eaten at I Love Paella: meat cooked into sticky, yielding strands, deeply savoury, all wrapped up in that astonishing light pastry.

If you were there, you’ll know how good they were, and if you weren’t you’ll have to take my word for it, because they were on offer for one day only. So I didn’t manage a tapas month, but for just one day we got our very own exclusive Reading tapa. If they’d made it on to the menu, they’d easily be one of the must-try dishes in Reading. But what else fitted that description, I got to thinking. What were Reading’s culinary equivalents of the Seven Wonders Of The World?

So my initial idea morphed into exactly that, and it crystallised when I was down the pub with, of all people, Martijn Gilbert, the outgoing CEO of Reading Buses. Martijn has kindly agreed to come out on duty with me before he leaves for pastures new (my way of saying thank you, you could say, for the splendid app which allows me to reply to texts from my mother like “what’s your ETA this evening and would you like a gin when you get here?”). But before that, I spent an evening showing Martijn round the splendid pubs of the Village and I found myself wondering: what should be on his gastronomic bucket list before he heads off to the North East to take up his shiny new job?

That’s when I decided – I would compile the list of Reading Dishes You Must Try Before You Die (or, less melodramatically, relocate). After painstaking research and contemplation, I’ve boiled it down to ten signature dishes which, I think, demonstrate the many faces of Reading’s magnificent independent restaurant scene. With one exception, they are dishes you can only get in Reading, or at least only get this version of here: and that means that there are no chains in this list, however much I like Honest Burgers or Franco Manca’s lovely anchovy and caper pizza (I’ve relaxed this rule for number 6, but it’s a tiny chain with two branches).

I’ve applied a couple of other rules: one was that I only picked one dish per restaurant, which excluded a lot of wonderful dishes. Another was that they had to be dishes from permanent restaurants, which meant that sadly, Peru Sabor’s delicious ox heart anticuchos and the incredible spiced chicken wraps from Georgian Feast didn’t make the cut. I should also add that I am not a vegetarian or a vegan and I have chosen on merit rather than by quota, which means only one vegetarian dish makes my list.

But you could fill an impressive enough list with all the other dishes that didn’t make the grade, from Papa Gee’s Sofia Loren pizza to Shed’s Top Toastie, from House Of Flavours’ lahsooni chicken tikka to London Street Brasserie’s fish and chips. You’ll doubtless have your own favourites which I’ve missed, and hopefully you’ll comment telling me how wrong I am: lists like this are made to be disagreed with, and that’s as it should be. But in any event, I hope there’s at least one dish on this list you’ve never tried, and that this piece makes you feel like giving it a whirl.

One final thought before I begin: this could have been a very different list if Namaste Kitchen was still offering its old menu, or if Dolce Vita was still with us. If nothing else, I hope people try some of these dishes out so I’m not lamenting the loss of any of these restaurants a year from now. And in a year’s time, who knows what this list might look like: after all, the venison bhuna from Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen already looks like a contender in the making, and that place has only been open a couple of weeks.

1. Big pot cauliflower, Memory Of Sichuan

Because, it turns out, Chinese bacon is a thing.

I can’t lie: Memory Of Sichuan can be an intimidating restaurant to walk in to. Most of the customers aren’t Western, and the ones that are aren’t eating from the proper menu, the one with all the good stuff on it. And even the proper menu can be quite an eye opener, with all sorts of dishes you wouldn’t recognize or wouldn’t want to try – duck blood here, pig’s ear there, like a cross between Old Macdonald Had A Farm and A Nightmare On Elm Street. But the big pot cauliflower is well worth it: I suspect it may have more going on than any of the other dishes on this list. So there’s cauliflower, of course, lovely firm florets of the stuff, but there’s also bacon like char siu, colossal quantities of garlic, spring onion and soy beans. By the end, at the bottom of the pot, you have a sticky, sweet mixture of all of the above just waiting to be chased round the dish with a fork, relentlessly hunted down and consumed. Order it and enjoy – and feel a little sorry for everybody there who’s making do with sweet and sour.

Memory Of Sichuan, 109 Friar Street, http://www.memoryofsichuan.co.uk/web/

2. Charsi chicken karahi, Kobeda Palace

The pride of the Oxford Road.

Earlier in the year I went to a house party on Brunswick Hill. I was reluctant about going, but I promised I would attend provided I could slope off and have dinner at Kobeda Palace – well, it was just round the corner after all. But the Oxford Road’s Afghan grill house is well worth a hop on the number 17 bus (the 17 bus route is the backbone of Reading, don’t you know) any day of the week. The thing to do, if you can persuade your friends, is to order a huge dish of the chicken karahi – they sell it by the quarter of a kilo – and some naan and spend your time grabbing some chicken, shredding it off the bone (which never takes long) and scooping it up with the naan, along with the beautiful sauce packed with coriander, chilli and ginger. If you can’t persuade your friends, order half a kilo and have at it on your own. This really is one of Reading’s unsung, unforgettable dishes hiding in plain sight in one of Reading’s most unglamorous and little-known restaurants. The party, since you asked, was okay I guess. But the chicken karahi was out of this world.

Kobeda Palace, 409-411 Oxford Road, http://www.kobedapalace.co.uk/

3. Chilli paneer, Bhel Puri House

Vegetarian perfection, cubed.

I’ve written about Bhel Puri’s chilli paneer so many times you may be bored of hearing it, but it bears repetition: whether you’re vegetarian or not this is one of the very best things you can spend your money on in Reading. I introduced a good friend to this dish recently, after a long absence, and I got to experience just how wonderful it is through the eyes of somebody else. She enjoyed it so much her face struggled to register it, and instead you got an expression as if she was trying to solve an especially hard Sudoku. It’s so good it almost induces consternation, and I can sympathise: the first time you get that combination of crispy, sticky cheese and sweet green pepper – and the delight of spearing both with your fork and eating them in a single mouthful – is something you simply do not forget.

Bhel Puri House, Yield Hall Lane, http://bhelpurihouse.co.uk/

4. Dak-gang jeong, Soju

It’s KFC, but not as we know it.

It’s not even a month since my review of Soju, but from the moment I first ate their fried chicken I knew this was a dish I would be evangelising about to all and sundry. The coating was just right, the flesh underneath was spot on, the sauce had just the right mixture of hot and sour without any sweetness. I’ve thought about it dozens of times since, and wondered whether it would be over the top to go back simply to order the chicken and a cold beer, followed possibly by another portion of chicken and a cold beer. An instant classic.

Soju, 9-11 Kings Walk, https://www.thesoju.co.uk/

5. Double duck scotch egg, The Lyndhurst

Pub food, done right.

This choice will probably come as no surprise – The Lyndhurst won my World Cup Of Reading Restaurants earlier in the year on Twitter with good reason – but it’s still a thoroughly deserved entrant in my top ten. The Lyndhurst has transformed in the last eighteen months or so, offering a range of classic pub food (excellent fish and chips and a very creditable burger) along with cheffier, prettier things: I was particularly bowled over, on a recent visit, by a pork chop with a breathtaking wild garlic pesto. But the Scotch egg is the centrepiece – a generous duck egg, wrapped in duck meat and cooked so the outside has that crispy crust, the meat hasn’t dried out and the golden yolk is the perfect texture for oozing. I’ve even ordered one when I’ve just been at the Lyndhurst for drinks: is that just me?

The Lyndhurst, 88-90 Queens Road, http://www.thelyndhurstreading.co.uk

6. Gaeng massaman, Thai Table

The ultimate comfort food.

Most Thai food I can take or leave, but I always console myself with knowing that the bit at the end, where all that’s left is the coconut rice and the warming, aromatic sauce, is the best part. Thai Table’s massaman curry turns that on its head because although that bit is still amazing, the beef is simply spectacular – cooked until it completely falls apart, no resistance or (worse still) bounce at all. If I was feeling a bit defeated by life, or worried about the state of the world, I can’t think of any dish on this list I would sooner eat. The spice is there, but sweetened with the coconut milk and the fish sauce the whole thing comes out feeling like an embrace.

Thai Table, 8 Church Road, http://www.thaitable.co.uk/

7. Lamb shawarma wrap, Bakery House

The sandwich of the gods.

Bakery House’s menu is an embarrassment of riches, many of which could easily have made it onto this list. The baby chicken, more boneless than a Tory Remainer and far more appetising, is one of my favourite things to eat there – as are the perfectly light falafel, not to mention the chicken livers, in a rich sauce which manages to be both fruity and fiery. But in the end, it was impossible to look past the lamb shawarma. How Bakery House manages to pack such rich flavour into shards of lamb I will never know, but when you team that up with a smudge of tahini, salad and sharp, crisp pickles you have the perfect sandwich. Well worth a short lunchtime walk out of town and miles better than anything you could pick up at the likes of Pret A Manger.

Bakery House, 82 London Street, http://bakeryhouse.co/

8. Quiche Lorraine, Workhouse Coffee

Greg’s 1, Gregg’s 0.

Workhouse Coffee might not be everybody’s first choice of a lunch venue. It has little to offer the tea drinker – owner Greg Costello seems to hold tea drinkers in much the same regard as I hold members of Britain First – and you may want somewhere with wi-fi, or comfy seats, or even a readily accessible loo. You might want to see the prices of everything clearly listed, and who could blame you? These are all fair challenges, but what you can’t knock is the wide array of baked goods and sandwiches he lays on (figuratively not literally, thank Christ). I once Tweeted that Workhouse’s quiche Lorraine should be available on the NHS and I stand by that. It’s a marvel: crumbly buttery pastry, creamy egg, salty bacon and ribbon upon ribbon of sweet, caramelised onion. Order one for lunch when you have some time to spare (they don’t arrive at your table too quickly) and properly take your time eating one of Reading’s great dishes. Far more expensive than the steak bakes up the road on the market place, but worth every single penny. I’ve eaten this many times, but never stopped to take a photograph: I think that tells its own story.

Workhouse Coffee, 10-12 King Street, http://www.workhousecoffee.co.uk/

9. Spiced chicken salad, I Love Paella at The Fisherman’s Cottage

Yes, I picked a salad. Deal with it.

This is, no doubt, where I will part company with many of you. How could I overlook the empanadas? The goat’s cheese, its surface golden and grilled, served with tomato jam? The salt cod churros, the kind of fishfingers Captain Birdseye would make if he actually gave a shit about food? And the chicken paella, the seafood paella, the arroz negro? Have I gone mad? Well, maybe, but the understated star of the menu is the spiced chicken salad. This chicken – thighs, as always with ILP – is beautifully spiced and liberated from the starch of a paella or some bravas it really sings. The salad – leaves and halved cherry tomatoes – might look like not much, but it’s everything. And the dressing is oil but no vinegar, leaving a dish that is all sweetness and spice with no sharpness. Ironically I’d never have had this dish if it wasn’t for my mother – it’s the kind of thing she would order and I would avoid like the plague – but I went to ILP with her once and she chose the chicken salad. My exasperated eye-rolling was replaced with powerful food envy. I’ve been ordering it ever since. (N.B. I Love Paella has now left the Fisherman’s Cottage and is looking for premises elsewhere in Reading. I understand the Fisherman’s might still do a chicken salad, but I haven’t tried it so can’t recommend it.)

I Love Paella, 3 Canal Way, http://ilovepaella.co.uk/thepub/

10. Suckling pig, Pepe Sale

Roast dinners around Reading.

I’m often asked what the best roast dinner in Reading is, and I always cop out, telling people I don’t really review Sunday lunches. Reading used to have a magnificent blogger who did exactly that, and now he has moved to London where he writes brilliant weekly reviews. I’ve always thought that Sunday roasts are best done at home where you can have them exactly how you like and time everything perfectly. But actually, on reflection, there is a clear candidate for the best roast in Reading, the only drawback being that you can only order it on Friday and Saturday nights. Pepe Sale’s suckling pig is a phenomenal piece of work – beautifully dense slabs of pork, no sign of dryness, along with a crackling that’s so good you could almost weep. I realised in the course of writing this piece that I don’t have a photo of this dish, which is the cosmos’ way of telling me to go back soon.

Pepe Sale, 3 Queens Walk, http://pepesale.co.uk/

So, come on then: what did I miss?