Restaurant review: Five Little Pigs, Wallingford

No blethering preamble for you this week, talking about the history of Reading’s food scene and putting things In Context (because there always has to be a Context). Things are much simpler this time around, because by the time you read this I’ll be off on my holidays and I just wanted to eat somewhere really nice the weekend before I went.

There’s something magical about the weekend before you go away, right from the moment you close the work laptop on a Friday afternoon: the knowledge that the weekend you’re about to have won’t be bookended by opening the sodding thing again on Monday morning, knowing that instead you’ll be at the airport, putting your phone and house keys in the plastic tray at security, browsing the duty free fragrance, daydreaming about that first holiday beer or glass of wine.

That’s why I found myself in Wallingford on Saturday afternoon with a reservation for Five Little Pigs that evening. Five Little Pigs received national attention earlier in the year when it got a rave writeup in the Observer. And whatever you think of Jay Rayner, his review of the place talked about deep-fried olives, a burnished toastie with cheese from nearby Nettlebed Creamery and a deep, savoury venison ragu. Reading that was enough of an incentive.

And besides, it’s not as if I had to go there with Rayner. Like most people, I have an infinitely better option: in fact, Five Little Pigs was on the list of restaurants I wasn’t allowed to review with anybody but Zoë (or, as she puts it, “not without me you fucking aren’t”).

Wallingford is a sleepy place, although remarkably easy to reach on the evocatively named River Rapids bus. It’s a very agreeable forty-five minute amble through Oxfordshire, out past Cane End, Gallowstree Common, Stoke Row. I expected Wallingford to be a little like Henley, or Witney, but it’s smaller than either with a couple of main streets, a pretty pub by the green and a really lovely wine shop, the neatly named Grape Minds. There’s also one of those antiques centres which is a succession of rooms full of tat and treasure in indeterminate proportions, and a Scandi interiors shop which mostly sells Farrow & Ball. The craft beer scene there is one bar with a fridge full of Phantom and Arbor Ales. That’s not to say I didn’t like Wallingford, but by the time our table was ready I was very much ready for it.

From the review I’d read I thought Five Little Pigs would be small but actually it was much larger than I expected. The front room, with the full length windows out onto St Mary’s Street, was a chic (if slightly chilly) space which was very tastefully done, an interesting mix of deep blues and golds and pastel shades from the art on the wall. It reminded me of places like Coppa Club, which isn’t necessarily a compliment. Further back was a longer, plainer room with banquetted booths. It’s a surprisingly hard space to photograph (as you can probably tell) but it was packed at seven o’clock on a Saturday night: a good review in the Observer will do that for you.

The menu read well and had plenty on it to appeal. Starters clustered around eight or nine pounds, and only a couple of mains were north of twenty. Plenty of it was local, too, with nearby cheesemakers, growers and butchers all namechecked. “We don’t have the pigs cheeks at the moment” said one of the wait staff, “but they may come in later.” I found that a bit confusing – were they being delivered by drone? – but decided it was best not to ask.

By that point a bottle of red had been opened, a really enjoyable organic Rioja, and I was about to reach that happy place where the food has been ordered and you know you’re safely in somebody else’s hands for the next few hours. Every table was full – with date nights, family gatherings and, in one case, an elderly couple who seemed to spend most of the evening glowering at each other. We were all going to have an enchanting evening. The Observer said so.

I felt a bit basic ordering the Scotch egg, but I can’t remember the last time I had one so it was calling to me from the menu right from the outset. It was one of the nicest things we ate all evening, so proved to be a happy choice : the sausagement was nicely coarse, with black pudding adding a little earthiness. And if I’d have liked the outside a little crisper, or the whole thing slightly less crumbly, the presence of a small pool of superbly tangy rhubarb ketchup mostly made up for that, as did the pickled pink onions.

“You win” said Zoë, tackling her ricotta on toast, which sounded great on paper but in reality was disappointing. “It’s all a bit dry” she said, and this is a woman who’s listened to me talking about my favourite Bob Dylan records, so she knows what she’s talking about. For what it’s worth I agreed – the ricotta was dry and anaemic, the cottage cheese of the Chilterns, and although the roasted cherries were an interesting idea they didn’t add enough of the moisture this dish needed. Literal cherries on top, yes, but sadly not figurative ones. “This could have been really nice with honey” was Zoë’s take.

We’d also ordered a third starter, broad bean fritters, because they sounded so magnificent. And they tasted gorgeous, with huge amounts of freshness from the mint and a dab of deep whipped beetroot on top. But plating it up with pea shoots and plenty of negative space couldn’t really conceal the most obvious thing about this dish, which is that it was minuscule; it was one of those times when I wish I’d popped a twenty pence piece on the plate before I took the photo so you could see just how small they were. We had this as an extra dish, but if this had been my starter I’d have been looking at everybody else’s, feeling profoundly robbed.

Things were well paced at Five Little Pigs, possibly because it was so busy, because our starter and our mains were about half an hour apart, for me close to the optimum interval between the two. I think Zoë chose better with the mains and her lamb rump with yoghurt, more of those roast cherries and what the menu calls “crispy potatoes” was the pick of the two. But even here, it wasn’t perfect. “Again, it’s dry” said Zoë. “The yoghurt is really good, but if anything it needs more of the cherries. They work better here than they did with the starters.” I agreed with that, although I thought the crispy potatoes were a standout, with a lot more texture than met the eye. But for me, the lamb rump was a little overdone. I found it odd, too, that they brought me a steak knife but not Zoë, when her dish needed it every bit as much as mine.

My rump steak was the most expensive dish on the menu, which always adds the potential for it to be the most underwhelming. It was a beautiful piece of beef and the cooking couldn’t be faulted – pretty much medium-rare throughout with beautiful caramelisation outside. But it was underseasoned, and surprisingly bland. The chimichurri underneath it had a pleasing zing, but ran out very quickly indeed. And after that the whole thing became a bit of a slog. There was some kind of puddle of juices at the edge of the plate, but it would be pushing it to call it a jus or a sauce. The best thing on the plate was a solitary mushroom cooked with cheese (again from Nettlebed) until it was salty and crispy, but when the star of the show plays such a brief cameo role, you’ve got problems.

Just to add to the onslaught of dryness, my triple cooked chips had decent texture – and were huge – but, again, they came without anything to add moisture. We’d ordered another portion separately, not knowing that we wouldn’t really need them, and I think in a restaurant with sharper service they might have talked us out of doing that. They came with a very good aioli but, as with the chimichurri or the beetroot ketchup, there was nowhere near enough of it. We asked for some more from a passing member of the wait staff. Five minutes passed and it didn’t materialise. We asked again and some time later, when the chips were nearly at an end, it finally arrived. 

We looked at the dessert menu because our bus wasn’t for another forty-five minutes, or at least that’s what I told myself. By this point the couple at the next table had both ordered the hake – which looked nicer than either of our mains – and there was a certain mesmeric quality to watching them push it round the plate in that way that people who don’t really enjoy food seem to do. 

Anyway, desserts represented a slight recovery. My chocolate delice was a brilliant wodge of deep, gooey chocolate with a sweet, almost-sharp smear of bright strawberry purée to cut through. The biscuit base underneath was so crumbly that it barely stayed in one piece, but I didn’t mind that at all. Zoë’s key lime pie had a similarly short base and I thought it was pleasant, but I’d probably describe it as “subtle”, which really isn’t what you’re looking for in a dessert. 

Zoë had her dessert with a Cotswold cream liqueur (although it turned up on the bill as Bailey’s, so Christ knows which it really was) and I had a dessert wine – from Graves of all places – which went beautifully. And well done if you’ve made it this far, because the truth about Five Little Pigs is that, sadly, by this point I’m even slightly boring myself. Our bill came to a hundred and forty-six pounds, including service, and then we went outside, got the penultimate bus out of Dodge, got home, had a cup of tea and went to bed. The end.

Last week somebody commented on my Facebook page about the review I did of Sauce And Flour. “I wish you’d stop doing reviews of places outside Reading” he said. “I prefer the Reading reviews. And after all, this blog is called Edible Reading”. I always find it interesting when people pipe up to tell me that this entirely free blog is somehow not delivering value for money, and after I politely told him that I’d review wherever I bloody well liked he deleted his comment. But there’s an important point here, believe it or not. I think it’s good to review places outside Reading because it gives you that all-important context (like I said at the start, there’s usually a Context). Otherwise how do you know if a place is good, or just good for Reading? 

And it goes beyond Reading. If I hadn’t been to the likes of Marmo and Caper & Cure maybe I’d have thought about Five Little Pigs very differently. But at the same price point, making similar noises, and even with some similar dishes, the difference is stark. There are better ways to spend a hundred and fifty pounds eating out than to go to Five Little Pigs. One is to go to Marmo, or Caper & Cure. Another, to be honest, is to eat at Tasty Greek Souvlaki four times. Five Little Pigs is probably an absolute boon to Wallingford, and on another night I might well have had a meal there I’d have enjoyed better. But in truth, I can’t see myself going back. 

So there you go: it turns out that restaurant reviewers aren’t always right. But as a regular reader of this blog you knew that already, didn’t you?

Five Little Pigs – 7.1
26 St Mary’s Street, Wallingford, Oxfordshire, OX10 0ET
01491 833999

https://www.fivelittlepigs.co.uk

Restaurant review: Sauce And Flour, Maidenhead

One of my oldest friends lives in Swindon. Someone has to. Whenever he comes to Reading he enjoys our street food, our craft beer and our shopportunities and he complains to me – at length – that it didn’t have to turn out like this. He reckons that there was a time, back in the Nineties when all that money hadn’t decided where to coalesce, when it Could Have Been Swindon. They had a House Of Fraser, well before the Oracle opened, and that designer outlet everyone used to get so excited about. And Reading – Heelas aside, of course – was a bit of a wasteland in the mid-Nineties. Things could have been very different. 

But the retail and hospitality gods smiled on Reading and, like many of us, they sneered at Swindon. We got the big names and the investment and Swindon, over the few decades, withered and died. It’s not all terrible: Darkroom Espresso is a great place to grab a coffee, Los Gatos in the old town is a tapas restaurant Reading would be lucky to have and a few doors down Rays does thoroughly likeable ice cream. But there’s a reason people who live in Swindon go to Bath, Oxford or Cirencester at the weekend, just as people from those places don’t pop over to Swindon of a Saturday.

The reason I’m starting a review of a place in Maidenhead talking about Swindon is that lately I’ve been looking at what’s going on in Maidenhead and starting to wonder if we might find ourselves in the Swindon role at some point in the coming years. Because although it’s early days, the businesses beginning to come to prominence in Maidenhead are the kind that you’d want to see in Reading instead of – hooray – a branch of Popeyes or our twentieth Costa Coffee. 

Take A Hoppy Place, a credible, nicely fitted out craft beer bar a five minute walk from the train station with close to twenty beers and ciders on cask and keg. Last time I went it was doing a roaring trade and making the most of its outside space, and it was a wonderful place to while away a few hours. And although Reading has a brilliant craft beer scene – bolstered by the new addition of the Grumpy Goat’s upstairs bar – there’s nothing on that scale in the town centre. 

And then there’s Seasonality, which recently got a rave review in The Guardian. It started in lockdown as a deli also selling heat at home meals, and has since morphed into a restaurant offering an interesting and inventive menu. It’s tasteful, gorgeous looking and independent: you could count the number of restaurants like that which have opened in Reading in the last couple of years on the fingers of one stump. With the winter we have looming, and the town’s famously charmless landlords, can you imagine one trying their luck here in the next twelve months?

Finally, the subject of this week’s review which might be the most interesting of the lot. Flour and Sauce opened in March as part of Maidenhead’s Waterside Quarter and seems, on paper at least, to be an example of a London trend that hasn’t so far made it this far west, the pasta restaurant. And by that I mean that, from a look at the menu, it seems to be modelled on Borough Market’s famous Padella and the hugely influential Bancone along with more recent imitators.

Those places – offering starters, a selection of pasta and not much else – have been one of my favourite trends of the last few years. They’ve given dishes like silk handkerchiefs with confit egg yolk or bucatini cacio e pepe iconic status and at their best they make for fantastic mid-priced casual restaurants. Throw in a negroni to start and a decent dessert at the end and you have the blueprint for a marvellous lunch or dinner: I’ve eaten at the original Bancone in Covent Garden a few times and never had a meal there that was less than splendid. So was Maidenhead boasting an example of this very London trend by virtue of its place on the Elizabeth Line? I wanted to find out.

It looked gorgeous from the outside, all white columns and full length windows. And it had the feeling of a fully realised concept, with clear branding, although something was niggling and bringing out my inner Mary Portas. Was it the name? Somehow it felt like it should be Flour And Sauce, both in chronological and alphabetical order. And the slogan – Wine Meats Dine – might have worked as a pun, but it didn’t seem to descibe what they actually did.

Going inside and taking my table brought out my inner Michelle Ogundehin. It was a big deep room but everything was somehow disconnected. The furniture didn’t match, but not in a charming way or even a calculated one, more as if they’d run out of stuff. I saw three different types of chair, one of which was the ubiquitous Tollix I associate with far cheaper food and greater discomfort.

Likewise the lampshades didn’t match, but not in a way that made sense – including the ones over the window seats which looked like grass skirts humping a lightbulb. There were some cheap shelving units from Ikea along one wall and a completely incongruous pine Welsh dresser at the back. It all felt thrown together, as if they’d opened in a hurry – and of course it might well have been. The faux marble wallpaper along one wall, already slightly peeling at the joins, might have gone on in a hurry too.

“It’s funny” said Zoë. “You walk in and think ‘this is nice’ but then the longer you look at it the more jarring it gets.”

I don’t think it helps that we got arguably the worst table in the place. The restaurant wasn’t really broken into zones, and we had the last free table – right at the front, near the open door. It was a bit chilly, and with people traipsing past in either direction it felt like eating in a corridor – especially when at one point a large group decided to stand right next to our table and chat to a couple eating up at the window for the best part of ten minutes. The window seats, by the way, are probably the best place to sit if you’re in a pair: the counter is lovely and deep, and you get a great view (and, therefore, superb people watching opportunities).

The menu was a little like the room – superficially attractive, but the closer you looked the more you wondered. At places like Bancone, the array of pasta dishes all involve different types of pasta which gives you a much wider range of choices. By contrast nearly all the pasta dishes at Sauce And Flour revolved around relatively similar shapes, and not too many of them, so you had multiple permutations of pappardelle, tagliatelle, linguine and bucatini which made up all but one of the pasta dishes on offer (the exception was a penne dish: what kind of a monster orders penne from choice?). I was hoping to see some ravioli, something like trofie or orechiette, a little more variety.

And while I’m whinging, the drinks list was irksome too. A reasonable selection of wine, but only one of each colour available by the glass. Come in a group or don’t bother, that seemed to say. And the pricing of the solitary red, white and rosé were absolutely nuts: the menu sold wine in 125ml and 250ml glasses with no option in between. And if you did decide you wanted a small glass of wine they stung you, with most of them costing only two pounds less than the large glass (I mean, you could say the large glasses were a relative bargain, but I suppose I’m a bit more large-glass-half-empty).

The irony wasn’t lost on me: I’ve moaned for years that not enough restaurants sell wine in 125ml glasses, and here I was in a place where it was one of the only options. But it felt badly thought out. There were two beers on offer, those ubiquitous macro lagers Peroni and Moretti. I took another look, thought fuck this and ordered a large bottle of San Pellegrino.

Would the food redeem matters? Some of it came close. We started with some thoroughly decent dishes from the starters menu and for a while I thought my tetchiness would be held in check. The pick of the bunch – of the whole meal, in fact – were the short rib beef croquettes: three beautiful specimens crisp of shell and packed with soft, yielding, slow-cooked beef. They were perched in a little moat of spiced mayonnaise which might have had a kiss of ‘nduja, and each had a slice of pickle draped on top which was more sweet than tart and tied things together nicely.

There were three of these and I let Zoë have the spare because she was so underwhelmed by the next starter, although I didn’t like it much better. Squid – “body and tentacles” according to the menu, which I think is TMI – was meant to come fried with ‘nduja but was actually in a thin, vinegary sauce with capers and no heat or seasoning. All the squid was bouncier than you’d like, and just made me think wistfully of better squid I’ve had in the not too distant past. It came with a long transverse slice of focaccia toast which was so rock hard that trying to cut it with a knife and fork left me worrying that half of it would ping off and hit the next table. A pointless blob of squid ink mayo perched on it, looking like a dirty protest.

Finally, I wasn’t sure what “warm buttermilk garlic bun & parmesan” would turn out to be, and the answer is essentially this: four giant dough balls. They were about as nice as giant dough balls can be, strewn with Parmesan and rosemary, and I squidged a piece into the sauce that came with the squid to verify that yes, it really was that dull.

Mains were better but, and this is rather a theme, not exactly as billed. My linguine puttanesca was solid, I think. The ribbons had just enough pleasing bite and the sauce, a combination of all my favourite things, worked well. It had the note of acidity from the capers, a pleasant hum of chilli in the background and beautiful, plump olives. I felt like it needed more anchovy, but then I feel that way about the world in general so this dish was hardly an isolated incident. I’d paid extra to have some yellowfin tuna in the mix and I think I spotted a couple of forkfuls, but that was it. Not bad at all, and not bad value at fourteen pounds, but in the wider context of the whole meal it was doing a lot of heavy lifting.

Zoë’s dish, slow-cooked duck ragu with tagliatelle, had sounded good on paper and she enjoyed it, but from what I tasted it didn’t quite work. Again, the menu was misleading: this didn’t feel like a ragu at all, and the pieces of duck leg I ate didn’t have that tenderness I associate with slow cooked sauces. This hadn’t been reduced for a long time in red wine and tomatoes, it was a white ragu if anything, but it felt like the duck had been added to the white wine and mascarpone right at the end.

And it tasted pleasant enough, but if I’d ordered it I’d have been disappointed: perhaps the kitchen’s other ragus – one made with beef shin, the other with pork and ‘nduja – showed off their skills better. Zoë couldn’t finish it – you can’t fault the portion size – but by the end the sauce had pretty much solidified which made it a challenge. I will say this for Sauce And Flour, though: both pasta dishes had the welcome crunch of judiciously added pangrattato, and it’s hard to completely take against a restaurant that does that.

We decided to try dessert, to give the place a fair crack of the whip. They too were pretty representative of the whole Sauce And Flour experience. Zoë’s tiramisu was decent, and she loved the mascarpone and the leftfield inclusion of Kahlua, but it was a lot more cream than sponge. It didn’t dampen her ardour for Buon Appetito’s magical pistachio tiramisu, put it that way.

I went for the cheese selection and for one person, for seven pounds, I thought it was generous. They have a big deli counter just along from the open kitchen so you can see the staff cutting and preparing the cheese plate, and maybe if I’d had better eyesight I could have worked out what they were. But with the exception of a gorgeous, crumbly Parmesan with decent age which I left until last, I have no idea what they were because the wait staff just plonked them down and sodded off (the menu doesn’t say, either).

The others were a mix of a soft cheese that might have been Brie but possibly wasn’t, a hard cheese that could have been pecorino but probably wasn’t and a couple of other cheeses which honestly could have been anything. Maybe it was the adrenalin, or maybe I was just high on life and drunk on San Pellegrino but I have absolutely no idea. I do know that they came with crackers which tasted a lot like water biscuits and a little dish of something the menu just calls “jam” which tasted of surprisingly little.

Not telling us what the cheeses were was pretty consistent with service in general: it wasn’t unpleasant or rude, just distinctly brisk and disinterested. Maybe it’s because they were busy, but it lacked warmth – and I’m not just saying that because I was sitting by the open door. For me, that was arguably the biggest drawback about Sauce And Flour because it’s the thing – over and above the quirks of the menu or that sore thumb Welsh dresser – that badly needs to be fixed. Our meal came to just over sixty-seven pounds, and included a ten per cent service charge I’m not entirely sure was warranted.

On the train home, Zoë and I mused about exactly what had been missing from our evening.

“The room wasn’t that bad, and some of the food was very good, but great service would absolutely transform that place” she said. And she’s right. Sauce And Flour is a curious beast. It looks, on paper, like an attempt to recreate those specialist pasta restaurants in the capital, but scratch the surface and I have a horrible feeling that it’s actually just a reasonable Italian restaurant with a more limited menu. Like the faux marble wallpaper, it might look the part from a distance but underneath, it’s already peeling. So we can relax: Reading isn’t missing out, not this time anyway. If you want to leave town to eat superb Italian food, take a train to Mio Fiore.

What it really made me think about was the glory days of Dolce Vita, at the height of its powers. I loved Dolce Vita, but let’s be honest: the room wasn’t the best in Reading, and a fair amount of the food didn’t quite live up to its reputation (mainly, ironically, the pasta and pizza dishes). But because of the service, you never cared about that. You’d go back time and again, and it always felt like having friends cooking for you. And if I’d gone to Dolce Vita and there had only been one wine by the glass, I wouldn’t have given a shit; I don’t think I ever went there without ordering a bottle anyway. Trends or no trends, Reading doesn’t need a Sauce And Flour. But there will always be room for another Dolce Vita.

Sauce And Flour – 7.0
4A High Street, Maidenhead, SL6 1QJ
07516 948421

https://www.sauceandflour.com

Café review: The Switch

You’ll find many people who live in Reading that love the river. The waterways that run through and bisect Reading define it in so many ways, whether it’s the feeling of elsewhere you get when you cross the water and head north into Caversham, the brilliant, slightly wild seclusion of View Island, the experience of enjoying an al fresco pint outside the Fisherman’s Cottage seeing the world go past or even just watching the infamous Caversham Princess wending its merry, noisy way past the Bohemian Bowls Club, itself situated on Fry’s Island, slap bang in the middle of the Thames.

In lockdown I became a bit of an aficionado, strolling down the river past Caversham Bridge and looking enviously at the houses on the opposite bank, wandering round Caversham Court Gardens and watching the river flow or even just having a quick amble across the Horseshoe Bridge before the sun went down. On a particularly clement day I did the thing I always told myself I should and schlepped all the way along the riverbank to beautiful, traffic-clogged Sonning. Walking through the church yard, the pub just round the corner, it felt nothing like Reading at all. It’s true: we are very lucky indeed that our town is situated at the confluence of the Kennet and the Thames.

But all that said, for me the greatest tributary in this town has always been the number 17 bus route, the grand thoroughfare that cuts through Reading from east to west. I’ve always thought that there’s an almost infinite variety to that bus route, the distinctive purple double decker starting at the Three Tuns in the east, gliding past the prosperous houses off the Wokingham Road, running alongside Palmer Park and darting across the iconic snarl of Cemetery Junction, snaking through town, past the library and the Broad Street Mall.

Then it makes its way down the Oxford Road, through all that bustle and life, the skleps and the biryani joints, the barbers and the Indian sweet shops, the stalls on the pavement groaning with fruit and veg. And at the roundabout just past the KFC, it veers left and meanders through Tilehurst, finishing up at the water tower, another of Reading’s most distinctive structures. In east Reading the gas tower has played host to its last birds, and there’s an eerie emptiness about the space where it once stood, but in west Reading they still have their landmark, beautiful and graceful as ever.

People used to talk about how you could do a pub crawl along the 17 bus route. And of course you can, if you have a burning desire to drink at The Roebuck, The Palmer Tavern, The Outlook, The Wishing Well and the Pond House. Good luck with that, if it’s your bag. But for me, the 17 bus route more represents an incredibly rich seam of excellent places to eat and drink, all of them dead easy to reach on a bus which runs pretty much every seven minutes. 

If you live anywhere near that bus route, you can get to all of these: Cakes & Cream; Tutu’s Ethiopian Kitchen; O Português; Smash N Grab; The Lyndhurst; House Of Flavours; Blue Collar Corner; The Nag’s Head; Buon Appetito; Oishi; Dee Caf and even Double-Barrelled. Who needs the Thames anyway? The number 17’s charms might be a little more rugged and raw than wafting down the river, but I know which is more accessible. More useful too, come to think of it. 

The subject of this week’s review is almost right at the western end of the 17 route: The Switch is the Tilehurst café on The Triangle, in the heart of Tilehurst Village. And alighting from the bus on a Sunday morning the first thing that struck me was that the place was packed. There was no danger of me breaking the news of The Switch to the waiting Reading world: that ship had sailed, and it didn’t look remotely like a café in desperate need of another positive review. 

And that’s because it isn’t one. It’s been open coming up for a year, and it’s clearly built up a following in Tilehurst – possibly beyond, too, because last week it won the “Prestige Award” – whatever that is – for best café in the south-east. Now, I’m always a bit dubious about these random awards, because there’s never much transparency about how and why they’re dished out. And, come to mention it, the wording of the piece announcing The Switch as a winner did sound like it had been knocked together by a committee on Mogadon. 

“An enormous amount of time and effort has been spent by Chef Antony and the owners to ensure the dishes reflect the local area, famous for its luscious fields and free range meats, which have been painstakingly incorporated into the food on offer” it said. Ah, the legendary luscious fields of Tilehurst that we’ve all heard so much about. “The judges were particularly impressed by the consistency of excellence that permeates throughout every experience diners encounter at The Switch” it continued. And you thought my reviews go on a bit!

Anyway, I’d heard enough good things to want to try it. And having looked at the menu online what didn’t strike me was how they’d painstakingly incorporated all those free range meats, it was more “this doesn’t half look like the menu at Café Yolk”. And I thought it would be an interesting east/west comparison to see how it compared to its rival at the other end of the 17 bus route.

It’s quite a nice space inside, a pleasant neutral room with one feature wall with a neon sign showing the café’s logo. And actually all their branding is well done, clean and contemporary – the whole thing shows the kind of consideration and maturity you tend to associate more with chains. But it was a gorgeous morning, so I managed to bag a table on the small terrace out front. As I said, the whole place was rammed so it was a case of jumping in someone’s grave to grab a recently vacated table – not bad going at half ten on a Sunday morning.

The menu didn’t exactly scream luscious fields and free range meats, but it read extremely well none the less. You’d struggle not to find several things to choose between here: it has the traditional breakfast options, as you’d expect, a range of dishes on the sweeter side involving pancakes or French toast, an interesting brunch section and, if you want lunch, a small selection of burgers which also looked worth investigating. Prices are on the higher side, with most dishes starting at a tenner and climbing from there, but I think I might need to stop saying that so much: all of our supermarket bills are climbing, so why would we think restaurants and cafés are immune from that?

I was flying solo for this meal, so looking at the menu was more painful than usual as it was largely a bunch of options I rather fancied but had to save for a future visit. Half ten was a bit early to eat the crispy buttermilk chicken thigh burger, I decided. And I’d had French toast with bacon the day before – it’s a hard life, I know – so that ruled that out. A classic breakfast was tempting, but The Switch doesn’t name its suppliers and in my experience a bad sausage ruins a good breakfast. And last but not least, I decided against the loaded hash browns, even if they did come slathered in bacon, devilled cheese, garlic mayo and salsa.

But first things first, and the first caffeine of the day. Like Café Yolk, The Switch started using Anonymous to supply their coffee. But when prices went up, the two cafés took markedly different approaches: Yolk switched to Kingdom and slightly raised their prices, while The Switch stuck with Anonymous and raised their prices by a little more (and a sign on the wall by the counter namechecks Anonymous). Tasting my latte on a sunny Sunday morning, it was clear that The Switch had made the right decision. It wasn’t a perfect latte, the milk felt a little thin and the latte art had gone missing in action, but the quality of the beans came through. I didn’t mind paying three pounds fifty for this, even if it’s slightly on the high side by Reading standards.

When I first considered reviewing The Switch, a couple of months ago when I instead visited Dee Caf, I made some hackneyed disparaging comments about smashed avocado on toast. So for my brunch I decided to eat The Switch’s smashed avocado on toast, and now I’m going to eat my words. It was a fantastic dish – streets ahead of similar dishes I’ve tried at places like Yolk and Picnic and the closest thing I’ve tried in Reading to unlocking the genuine promise of this dish.

What I loved about The Switch’s smashed avo is that although it looked busy on the plate everything there was there for a reason and had a role to play. I’ve eaten a lot of smashed avo where all that’s been done is bashing the blessed thing into submission, and sometimes not even that, but this was superior, beautifully ripe and creamy and shot through with lime. The bacon (back bacon, but you can’t have everything) was a salty, crispy joy, and you got a darned sight more of it than you did with the equivalent dish at Yolk. Ditto both of the poached eggs, which were cooked spot on.

But it was also about the supporting players. The whole thing was dotted with racing green blobs of The Switch’s very enjoyable chimichurri adding a little zip and heat – next time I might order something where this is more centre stage. The fragments of Parmesan crisp added texture and more glorious salt, and even the crispy onions helped to add fun and definition to the dish. I didn’t even mind the foliage dumped on top, and the herby potatoes were a welcome side helping of extra carbs. If they came out of a packet, as I’ve long suspected Yolk’s do, it was a significantly better packet.

This is a dish which often gets a bad press, and I’ve been known to contribute to that in my time, but this was a superb example of what it can be at its best. Without the bacon it costs just shy of a tenner, and with the bacon on top it was thirteen pounds. And yes, that’s on the high side relatively speaking but when it’s done like this you don’t really begrudge them. At that price it ought to be good, and happily it is. My brunch came to just over sixteen pounds, and I’d do it all over again on Sunday in a heartbeat.

I should mention service because The Switch was all over that too. They moved me to a table outside when I asked them nicely, and when they wanted me to move to a different table so they could push two tables together and accommodate a bigger group they asked me nicely. They brought out a bowl of water for a dog-walking table nearby, and seemed to effortlessly look after everybody.

They were a lovely, happy team and I imagine they were busy that day; as I left there were people waiting to jump into my grave and nab my table, just as I’d done earlier that morning, and I’m sure I saw a few couples walk past, scan the situation, wander round the block and try again. People talk a lot about the Londonification of Reading, but in many ways The Switch felt more London than a lot of Reading places that are trying really, really hard to capture that feeling.

There’s not a lot more to say this week, you might be pleased to hear. I had a terrific time sitting outside The Switch eating my brunch, drinking my latte and doing my people watching. The demographic was a darned sight more mixed than you get at Café Yolk, so there were parents with young children, couples and friends enjoying brunch on the Bank Holiday weekend and one large group made up of three generations, the oldest of which were talking about the cost of living crisis as if it was someone else’s problem – which, as boomers, I guess it was. 

So hats off to The Switch for building something with such broad appeal, and doing it so well. I don’t know whether the Prestige Awards have any real prestige, but regardless of that The Switch gets my vote. Normally with these things the temptation is to say “I wish I could pick it up and drop it on my doorstep”, but on this occasion I’ll refrain from doing that because it feels to me that it’s absolutely where it should be. Besides, it’s honestly no trouble to get there: it’s only twenty minutes from the centre of the best town in England, on the best bus route in the world.

The Switch – 7.9
19 The Triangle, Tilehurst, RG30 4RN

https://www.theswitchcafe.co.uk

Restaurant review: The Magdalen Arms, Oxford

Can you believe that this is the first time I’ve ever reviewed a restaurant in Oxford? Crazy, I know: it’s half an hour away by train and probably the place most readers ask me to consider when it comes to casting my net a bit wider. And yet, for a variety of reasons, I’ve never gone there on duty. For a long time, it’s because there was no gap in the market. Not because Oxford has a thriving local press – they have an iffy Newsquest paper and website, just like we do – but because it had a superb restaurant blogger, In Oxford, Will Eat, and she did such a good job that I had no desire to step on her turf. 

Then she got a job in Brussels, and I considered expanding north, but shortly after that I got divorced and took some time out. And when I came back, about a year later, loads of new Reading restaurants had sprung up during my hibernation – so many, in fact, that I had my hands full catching up with them all. So I got that under control and my thoughts turned to Oxford again, and then bang: along came the pandemic. The works always seemed to have a spanner in them, to the point where I wondered if it just wasn’t meant to be.

But a couple of weeks back I decided that life was about as close to normal as it was likely to be any time soon, and Zoë and I had a Friday off together, and Oxford was calling to me. It’s a funny place, in lots of ways: I lived there for four years in the mid-Nineties and back then the gulf between town and gown was so pronounced that it felt like a bit like my ex-wife and I sharing a flat for five months while the divorce got sorted: a deeply uncomfortable, unsustainable cohabitation between two very different halves. As a student, if you walked into the wrong pub – I did it once on my first week at university, and never repeated the mistake – you could almost feel the threat of violence in the air. Mind you, at nineteen I probably provoked that response often.

Nowadays it’s a city far more at ease with itself, and walking its picturesque streets on a sunny Friday morning it seemed the far bigger problem was tourists, a group locals and students regard with equal levels of animosity. Oxford is an interesting place to compare with Reading, because it has a lot of the things Reading does not – an excellent covered market, nice little enclaves of independent shops, areas like Jericho (which is what Caversham wishes it was) or the Cowley Road (ditto, but for the Oxford Road). 

It has a more upmarket mall, too, in the shape of the Westgate, and better, fancier chains than the ones we get saddled with. Pizza Pilgrims, Shoryu, Mowgli and Le Pain Quotidien all operate there. Our branch of Leon got canned and people are eagerly awaiting the opening of Gail’s where Patisserie Valerie used to be: Oxford has played host to both for years. And last time I checked, Oxford didn’t have a Taco Bell or a Jollibee. How on earth do they cope?

But it’s not as simple as that, because spending time in Oxford makes you realise that despite all its chocolate-boxiness it lacks things that we take for granted here in Reading. Street food, for one – the Covered Market is great but Oxford has nothing like Blue Collar, and the market in Gloucester Green is much more variable. Craft beer is another shortcoming – Oxford specialises in a certain kind of pub, popular with tourists, cask spods and “pubmen” (they’re always men), but it’s a struggle to find anywhere that serves more interesting stuff since The Grapes, the West Berkshire pub on George Street, closed at the end of last year, with the notable exception of Teardop, a nanopub in the Covered Market. It closes at half-five.

And what about restaurants? Well, this is another area where Oxford has never been considered quite as good as it should be. It has some cracking restaurants, and I’ve paid them many visits over the years: modern Italian Branca in Jericho, lovely family-owned Pierre Victoire on fairy light-strewn Little Clarendon Street, bright bustling Arbequina dishing up tapas down the Cowley Road and swanky Pompette out in Summertown. But those seem to be the exception rather than the rule, and beyond that top tier there are a fair few places trading on past reputation and others that just couldn’t make a go of it. 

That last category tells a story all on its own, because I’ve eaten at so many lauded restaurants in Oxford that that didn’t survive. Places like The Oxford Kitchen (it won a Michelin star in 2018: now it’s a delicatessen), or Turl Street Kitchen, the Anchor or even The Rickety Press, before the pub was acquired by Dodo Pubs, the owners of our very own Last Crumb. It makes you think: we get our sackcloth and ashes out because Clay’s is moving to Caversham – well, those of us who don’t live in Caversham do, anyway – but Oxford has a bit of a track record of not being able to support good restaurants. What’s that all about?

(I should add that if by some chance you’re reading this and you live in Oxford and I’ve got the place completely wrong, please go easy on me. Let me know all the great places I’m missing in Oxford, in the comments, and I’ll make sure I add them to my to do list. And do accept my apologies: I too live somewhere where we’re used to being misjudged.)

Anyway, for my inaugural Oxford review – just as with my first ever Reading review all those years ago – I picked a proper happy place. And I couldn’t think of a better establishment to start with: the Magdalen Arms is a gastropub down the Iffley Road with impeccable credentials, part of a group which includes the legendary Anchor & Hope on Waterloo’s The Cut and, for many years, Great Queen Street just off Drury Lane, a sadly departed favourite of mine. It’s a bracing walk over Magdalen Bridge, or you can just hop on a bus outside Queens College and be there in just over five minutes.

The Magdalen Arms has been trading in its current incarnation for nearly thirteen years and has been reviewed glowingly in every broadsheet you care to name, although not for some time. It’s reached the stage, I suspect, where it’s been doing its thing consistently for so long that it’s just become part of the furniture, a position I can identify with. Even as far back as 2010 Matthew Norman in the Guardian said “Being the best restaurant in Oxford may not be a glittering accolade”, proving that smug tossers talking the city down is by no means a new phenomenon.

Anyway, I’ve been coming to the Magdalen Arms for longer than I can remember. Usually for the pie, which serves two and seems mandatory to order in most of the reviews I’ve ever read. Arriving on a clement summer afternoon the pub was every bit as handsome a place as I remembered. It’s a big old place made up of two huge rooms – a gorgeous one at the front with deep red walls and an almost continental feel, and another at the back which I’ve never taken to. Most of the customers on the day we visited were sitting outside, so we got a cracking table next to the window. I was surprised to see the place so quiet – on a Sunday lunchtime it tends to be heaving – and although I wasn’t complaining I was slightly concerned.

The Magdalen Arms’ menu has always been relatively compact, but seemed more narrow than I remembered. You had a choice of five starters and a couple of larger ones to share, and just the three main courses alongside two options for larger groups. It meant deciding was simultaneously easier and harder than usual, an interesting dilemma, and the fact that there was no pie on the menu – anyone would have thought it was the height of summer – forced us to pick a Plan B.

But while we made up our mind they brought us some squares of their exemplary focaccia and a shallow dish of deep green olive oil, all grass and pepper, and from that point onwards all decisions felt slightly de-risked. That feeling was reinforced by the arrival of a bottle of petite syrah, an agreeable chorus of red fruits and spice, and I remembered that there’s little better than a leisurely lunch on a Friday with your favourite person, the sun pouring through the window and the rest of the world at work. Returning to a restaurant you love is one of the nicest reunions there is, and I realised it must have been three years since I’d sat in that room and made those enviable choices. It was all going to be okay.

We started with something I’ve always eyed up but never ordered, a Spanish sharing plate. It came looking like a still life, and the best of it was very good indeed. Pan con tomate, toasted bread rubbed with tomato and herbs, was bright and summery and I could have eaten an awful lot more of it. And the manchego, if slightly fridge-cold, was perfect with a little lozenge of quince paste. Padron peppers were nicely blackened, too, although I personally like to see the blighters studded with salt. By contrast, these were slightly underpowered.

The least effective parts, for me, were two of the mainstays of Spanish food. Croquetas were a pleasing shape and size but the inside was coarse, not a silky bechamel, and had a strangely sweet tang to it. They were pepped up with a dab of romesco (served in those comical cardboard tubs used for hospital meds), but the romesco didn’t have the punch it needed. Similarly the tortilla was okay, but just okay – cooked through, a solid slab of eggs and carbs. I’ve been spoiled by its gooer sibling on the Cowley Road, but it did just fine.

We were on safer ground with cured meats, although again these would have been even better closer to room temperature. The Jamon was coarse and salty, with a beautiful dry texture and the lomo, which looked more like coppa, was equally delicious. And there seemed to be two different kinds of chorizo – both were gorgeous but one had that glorious alchemy of meat, fat and pimenton down pat. The plate was strewn with olives, although I did find myself wishing for something like some caperberries to add the sharpness that was missing.

But it was a thoroughly respectable thing to eat. It certainly could have served more people less greedy than Zoë and me, and felt like reasonable value at thirty-three pounds, just about. It did get me thinking, because this is one of my favourite kinds of dishes to share and many places in Reading try to offer something similar without quite getting it right: only Buon Appetito, with its ridiculously generous antipasto misto, gets close.

Normally I would order a different main to my dining partner, but the menu at the Magdalen Arms was so compact that when we wanted the same thing I decided neither of us should go without. I’m so glad I did, because the Magdalen Arms’ pigeon ragu with pappardelle was one of the nicest lunches I’ve had in a long time. The pasta was just right, with exactly the right amount of bite, a perfectly starchy vehicle for a wonderful ragu with celery and a little nip of what I thought might be fennel. 

The pigeon had largely been slow-cooked into strands, although a handful of more stubborn clumps remained, but it was really no hardship to polish off every mouthful. If you have just one plate at lunchtime, it’s difficult to imagine something nicer than this – that includes the Magdalen Arms’ pie, by the way – and at sixteen pounds it managed the unusual feat of being cheaper than our starter; the more I think about it, the more I think that starter was meant to be shared between more than two people.

Oh, and we also had some chips with aioli: they didn’t go with anything but it’s hard to pass up chips with aioli. The chips were great – I think the food blogger chip cliché is to wank on about “rustle and snap”, whatever the fuck that is – and although the aioli was good it came in another of those mingy paper cups and I had to ask for more. Not that it was any trouble: service was terrific from start to finish, just as it always is at the Magdalen Arms.

You would think, given everything I’ve said, that we passed on dessert. But you’d be misjudging how thorough (or how gluttonous) I am. My ice cream was excellent and again – bit of a theme here – hugely generous, with an enormo-scoop of a deep, bitter chocolate gelato and a pistachio ice cream which felt to me, both in terms of colour and flavour, to have more of a marzipan note to it. I love the stuff, so I was happy if I’d been missold.

Ice cream is another of those things Oxford does well and Reading does not, so the Magdalen Arms’ ice cream isn’t as good as the stuff you can get from Swoon Gelato on the High, but it’s still miles better than anything you can get in Reading. And to reverse the trend, the Magdalen Arms’ Basque cheesecake was nice enough – and the roasted apricots were a nice touch – but I’ve had better at Geo Café from the rather literally named Reading Loves Cheesecakes.

Replete, with the post-lunch fuzziness that comes from a good bottle of wine, I could have happily whiled the afternoon away there, watching afternoon smudge into evening and seeing the pub come to life again on a Friday night, buzzing with happy diners. But I had my eye on a coffee from the brilliant Missing Bean, who have a roastery literally around the corner, and that stroll back into the centre wasn’t going to get any easier.

So we settled up and went on our way. Our bill came to a hundred and twenty-three pounds, including a twelve and a half per cent service charge. Not cheap, but not unreasonable – and the menu does have a set lunch every day including a small glass of wine for twelve pounds: if Reading had an offer like that I would probably use it often. Come to think of it Pierre Victoire also does a killer set lunch, so perhaps this is another one to chalk up as something Oxford does far better.

So, no real surprises here; the nice thing about having a long relationship with a restaurant is that, unlike romantic relationships, there’s something rich and deep about reaching that stage where you move beyond infatuation and into comfortableness. I expected to have a good meal at the Magdalen Arms, and I did. I knew it might be amazing, which in honesty it wasn’t, but I could be absolutely certain it wouldn’t be mediocre. Restaurants and pubs like that are to be celebrated, wherever they are, and I knew for a fact when I left on that Friday afternoon that I would be back, and hopefully before too long. But just to compare Oxford and Reading one final time, would I swap it for the Lyndhurst? Not in a month of Sundays.

The Magdalen Arms – 7.7
243 Iffley Road, Oxford, OX4 1SJ
01865 243159

http://www.magdalenarms.co.uk

Restaurant review: Intoku

At the start of every year, the broadsheets wheel out an article about the food trends of the coming twelve months. And every year, nobody checks the article from the previous January to verify that almost none of the trends became a thing. Peruvian food never took off, beyond a couple of places in London. Neither did corn ribs, hard seltzers, carob, eringi mushrooms. 

But it fills a gap for column inches in January, among all the clean eating/“new year new you” articles they dust off and spruce up at the start of every year. And besides, it’s not like anybody’s keeping score: from this year’s predictions, keep an eye out for potato milk, whatever that is. It has another four months to become famous (they sell it at Waitrose, where reviews run the full gamut from “another unsatisfactory milk alternative” to “very neutral tasting”).

Anyway, Reading food trends aren’t like London food trends, because every year since I started this blog the trend has been pretty much the same: you’ll get more cafés, and some dickheads will complain that we have too many cafés. You’ll get more burger places, and some dickheads will moan that there are too many burger places. And, in recent years, you’ll get more American chains and some dickhead will whinge about the Americanisation of Reading. And yes, that last dickhead is me.

The real trends are the ones that blindside you. Late last year and early this year it was biryani places, with a mini explosion of options – Biryani Mama in town, Biryani Boyzz on the Oxford Road and, just opposite it, the interestingly named Biryanish (“it’s sort of like a biryani…”). And then in the last few months, the trend literally nobody saw coming: three Japanese restaurants opening in the space of two months. Did anybody predict that on New Year’s Day?

I’ve always loved Japanese food, but Reading’s never been incredibly well served for it. In the centre, you had Yo! Sushi and Sushimania, and both have their place: Yo! Sushi in particular democratised sushi and acted as an introduction for many people, me included. And I’ve always enjoyed heading to Sushimania after a day at work with Zoe, grabbing seats on the banquette and looking out on the dining room with a cold bottle of Asahi.

More recently Oishi opened down the Oxford Road: I loved it when I went, but for a while it had an alarming hygiene rating which put me off a return visit. And of course there’s Osaka which I liked but didn’t love, although I visited it during one of the weirdest months the world has ever seen. But for a more special meal I’ve always headed to Windsor, to eat at Misugo (recent discovery Miyazaki is an excellent alternative). Did any of Reading’s newcomers have what it takes to displace Misugo in my affections?

Of the three, Intoku was the obvious choice to try first. The others, You Me Sushi and Iro Sushi, are casual, grab-and-go places, whereas Intoku is more upscale and established, part of a small chain that began at a market stall in Manchester and now has restaurants in Chelsea, Windsor and Reading. The latter is their newest, opening at the end of May in the site on Chain Street which had become synonymous with the Tasting House over the course of seven years.

When the Tasting House closed in April last year it was almost impossible to imagine anything else in that spot, but turning up for dinner on Saturday night I was struck by how completely Intoku has transformed it. As the Tasting House all the action was on the ground floor, with the room upstairs more of an overflow or a space for wine tasting events. By contrast, Intoku has flipped it: there’s a bar and the open kitchen downstairs, along with a handful of booths, but the main dining room is upstairs. And a very polished-looking space it is too, with more little booths along one wall and most of the tables at the far end. They’ve opened up the windows looking out onto Chain Street, which makes it a far nicer space, and the furniture is attractive. 

I particularly liked the anime art feature wall on both floors (if you’ve ever wondered what a manga Mount Rushmore might look like, this will answer all your questions) although the place seemed a little dark and clubby for me. That might just be about associations. I tend to think of Japanese restaurants as a little humbler in terms of decor. But this was a lot more glam, and the music was Saturday night music too, so I decided just to go with it. I took my seat in one of the booths, only slightly thrown by the head height plug and USB sockets: if you’re a tightwad looking to charge your phone, this is the restaurant for you.

The welcome at Intoku was bright and enthusiastic, and when I was handed my menu I was told that things came out as and when they were ready. It was then that we decided to order in waves as we went along. I wonder if that caused some of the subsequent problems we experienced, because one of the many issues with the service was how difficult it was to attract attention to say that actually, we’d love to order more food.

Intoku’s menu is great – it reads well, it has good range and you find yourself wanting to order a lot of it. It’s wide but not deep, so for instance it covers sushi, sashimi, rice and noodle dishes but it doesn’t have too many of each. Prices are on the heftier side, with sashimi starting around nine pounds, much of the sushi costing a tenner or more and mains going up to eighteen pounds. Where the menu falls down – apart from the fact that it’s just not spelled “artisian” – is that it doesn’t explain things. So for instance it lists its fanciest uramaki without giving you the faintest idea what’s in them, a mistake repeated with the cocktail list.

That would work if the wait staff were engaged and enthusiastic about explaining the menu, but that wasn’t quite the case here. The first sign that it might be a challenging evening in that respect was when our beers arrived, a couple of cans of Sapporo, with no glasses. “I haven’t drunk out of a can since the After Dark” said Zoë. We eventually flagged someone down, and they brought over a couple of highballs, but it was weird to have to ask: if the service had been on it, we wouldn’t have needed to. It was a hot old day, but we weren’t offered water either, so thank goodness the upstairs was air conditioned.

Let’s talk instead about the food, because so much of it was fantastic. Our first set of dishes, the sushi and sashimi, were up there with the best Reading has to offer and easily as good as rivals elsewhere in Berkshire. The soft shell crab blossom rolls were a particular triumph – beautifully assembled and generous with the crab, topped with a smattering of tobiko, one of my favourite things. It might be the closest thing to a bargain on the menu, too: ten pounds gets you eight pieces, whereas at Misugo you pay a pound or two less for four.

Salmon and avocado maki, more modestly priced at six pounds, were also very well assembled, although one end piece had almost no salmon in it. But otherwise everything was well put together, not ragged or untidy. And presentation was nicely done: it’s amazing what you can do with a chopping board from IKEA.

I’ve looked back, and every time I eat on duty at a Japanese restaurant I always order salmon sashimi and I always say the same thing: beautifully cut, pure, fresh, buttery texture, blah blah blah. Well, sadly, Intoku’s rather lets the side down in that respect. It might have been something about the cut but it was more taut, more muscular with none of that gorgeous fattiness that makes it such a pleasant dish to eat. At eight pounds sixty for five pieces, it also felt a little sharply priced.

Having finished that little lot, we decided it was time to make another assault on the menu. And this is where our problems continued, because despite the restaurant being far emptier at this point than when we started it was almost impossible to get attention. I’d seen three different members of staff on the way to my table, but now there was just one. And she seemed more interested in re-laying the empty tables – which wouldn’t see a customer again until the following day – than coming back to ours. Eventually, after some time, we managed to get her over.

“Could we order some more food, please?”

“Of course, I’ll go get my notepad.” So she walked off to the other end of the restaurant, grabbed her pad, came back and took our order. And then off she went, without showing any interest in clearing away our empties. And it wasn’t just her, because when our food was ready another member of the wait staff brought it over and plonked it in front of us without taking away the dishes we’d finished with. Which, again, was plain odd: he was there anyway, why make multiple trips?

This is especially frustrating because the food, when it arrived, included some of the best Japanese food I can remember having. I know bao are more Chinese than Japanese, but Intoku sells them by the pair with a variety of fillings and we had ours with karaage chicken. They were absolutely heavenly. Chicken thigh, with a superbly crunchy coating and a hugely savoury note of Marmite, was crammed into pillowy buns topped with pickles and spring onion, and I can honestly say these were up there with bao I’ve had at Bao, next to Borough Market, and streets ahead of any I’d tried in Reading. I treasured each bite, knowing it would come to an end far too soon.

Ten minutes later, the other two small plates we’d ordered turned up. We asked our waiter if he’d mind taking our empties away and he did, with a look that suggested it had never even occurred to him.

Chicken gyoza were steamed rather than fried – odd that they don’t give you a choice, but good if you want to feel virtuous – and although they were probably the most unexceptional thing we ate they were still decent. Intoku seems to think that dipping is infra dig, so they came with a little pool of a thin sauce underneath them. Four meant no arguments about the spare one – I sometimes think Japanese restaurants give you five of the things because they like to provoke a heated debate – and this felt about its money at just over a fiver.

But the real highlight of this course, and indeed the meal, was the crispy fried squid. I often order this, never with any real expectations, and it’s always pleasant. But Intoku’s was just spectacular – hugely soft and fresh with no give, no bounce, no stubbornness at all. The coating was crinkled and crisp, with a little bit of togarashi sprinked on top. It was up there with the best squid I’ve had anywhere: I don’t know where Intoku get their squid from, but they’re not cutting a single corner.

Again, it was served with a thick chilli sauce underneath it – having it in a dipping bowl would have been easier – but it still didn’t matter because the sauce was exemplary too. So often sweet chilli sauce is jam-sweet with only a hint of heat, but this was a different species altogether. This is the dish to order if you visit Intoku, quite possibly multiple times.

By this point, believe it or not, we’d been there nearly an hour and a half. Despite not being enormously busy, it had been a challenge to place orders and the food had come out on the leisurely side. But it got weirder, because at about twenty-five past nine one of the wait staff came over and told us the kitchen was closing in five minutes. Did we want anything else? Nowhere on the menu does it tell you that they knock off so early on arguably the busiest night of the hospitality week.

“Yes, we’d really like to order some more food.”

“I’ll just get my notepad” she said, and off she went again.

“Why doesn’t she just keep her notepad with her?” said Zoë, who was running out of patience. I couldn’t really disagree.

So we placed one last order – with more of that squid, because it was so irresistible – and we waited. And waited.

About twenty-five minutes later, another member of staff came by and asked if we wanted any more drinks. We said no, but we’d ordered some food quite a while back. Was it still coming? This caused a bit of consternation, and he wandered off before coming back and saying that the waitress had taken our ticket to the kitchen but somehow they hadn’t seen it. It would be on its way. And so, about forty-five minutes after we placed our last order, we finally received it – more of that squid, some bonus gyoza – pan fried, this time – by way of apology and our main courses.

I don’t think this is just the fatigue or the frustration talking, but the mains are the weakest past of Intoku’s menu. Zoë’s katsu don with breaded chicken was the pick of the two, but it wasn’t without its problems. It was a rice dish with a thin omelette on top of it, the katsu sauce, fried onions and breaded chicken, and although it was pleasant it was all sweet and no heat. You’d have struggled to call it a curry.

I had high hopes for my dish, chicken leg inasal. This is apparently a Filipino dish where the chicken leg is marinated in sweet vinegar and braised for nine hours. Did that happen here? It’s hard to say. The chicken was beautifully soft, and taking it off the bone was no challenge (although I’d have struggled to do it with chopsticks), but although there was plenty of evidence of braising there was little or no evidence of marination because it tasted of not much. And there it sat, on a pile of naked rice. No sauce, no moisture, nothing. It was heavy going, monotonous and dry: the perfect metaphor for this review, but not much of a dish.

Two and a half hours after we’d sat down for a relatively quick dinner we paid our bill and headed home. No point heading to a bar for a final drink and a debrief, because we’d spent so long waiting at Intoku that everybody was calling last orders. The chap who took our payment – a hundred and eleven pounds, including a 12.5% service charge – was lovely and apologetic, and we were very English and said it was all fine. But the problem, really, is that it wasn’t.

I don’t enjoy having to criticise the service at restaurants, and I know some people take a dim view of it. They think it makes you look entitled, or like you’re punching down, in a way that criticising the kitchen somehow doesn’t. I know that hospitality is really struggling to get people right now, and that these people are undervalued and underpaid, by both restaurants and paying customers. But stuff like bringing you glasses, checking if you want to order more food, clearing away empties – that’s all basic stuff. That’s before we get on to closing the kitchen at half nine or managing to lose your order minutes after you’ve placed it.

If pointing all that out makes you Little Lord Fauntleroy, so be it. I say this with kindness, but Intoku needs to sort it out. I don’t know how else to put it: Intoku’s food is in places brilliant, but if they don’t get on top of their service I wonder how they’ll survive. Not just because people won’t go back – although their food was so good that I probably will, at least once – but because they’re missing out on chances to feed people more food, sell them more drinks, turn tables quicker and generally be more profitable at a time where every pound counts. When I visited they’d been open three months, but it felt like the opening week. I hope they fix this, if nothing else, so everyone gets to see how good that squid is. We now have a reason not to leave Reading for Japanese food. But Intoku still needs to give us more of a reason to go there.

Intoku – 7.2
30a Chain Street, Reading, RG1 2HX
0118 3045263

https://intokurestaurants.com/intoku-reading/