Restaurant review: Zero Degrees

There is a parallel universe in which this week’s review is of ThaiGrrr!, the Thai place in Queens Walk whose takeaway I so enjoyed earlier in the year. I’d had a tip-off that the place was almost deserted early in the evening, and so I fully intended to pay it a visit and write it up properly. I’d like to live in that parallel universe. But in that parallel universe I didn’t walk into it and think “what in Christ’s name is that smell?” 

And it wasn’t just me – Zoë looked at me and said “this place smells like our old cat’s litter tray”. We waited a minute and the stench – no other word would do – did not abate. And it didn’t feel like an odour to which one could, or would want to, acclimatise. I bumped into the person who’d suggested ThaiGrr! the following day at Blue Collar and told him of our experience. “That’s such a shame, it’s never smelled like that when I’ve gone there” he said. Maybe they were having problems with their drains: I imagine at some point I’ll go back and give it another try. A couple of tables were occupied, possibly by people who hadn’t yet realised that they had Covid.

There’s another parallel universe where, having passed on ThaiGrrr!, we walked home and ordered a takeaway for me to review this week. I’d rather like to live in that parallel universe too, but I’m afraid on the way back we walked past Zero Degrees and Zoë, not unreasonably, said “that place has been on your list to re-review for some time”. And looking in the window it was practically deserted. That made it a safe place to review but, with hindsight, I should have taken the hint; when a restaurant that’s been trading for nearly fifteen years is dead on a school night, there’s probably a reason for that.

Zero Degrees probably needs no introduction by now, but I’ve often thought it so far ahead of its time that it wasn’t a trendsetter, more a lucky guess. Craft beer and pizza have both exploded in recent times, and yet in 2007 when Zero Degrees opened, a combination of microbrewery and pizza joint, it was relatively without fanfare. I visited it on duty in 2013, my second ever review, and it’s fair to say that I wasn’t impressed. “It should be marvellous, but it isn’t”, I said. In addition, and re-reading this I wonder if my trip there this week was via some kind of wormhole in time, I said “in a big open restaurant with only four occupied tables, good service should be easier than this”. Anyway, that’s enough foreshadowing.

It is a big, handsome space, you know – with genuine, not fake, exposed brickwork, plenty of room and a nice view out on to Gun Street. We sat close to the window and far away from the only two occupied tables, both of them hugging the wall. “Just imagine if someone like Clay’s had this site” I said to Zoë. By the end of the meal – sorry, more foreshadowing – that felt like yet another parallel universe preferable to this one. 

Back in 2013 the menu had felt huge and unwieldy – too big to execute well – and little had changed eight years later. Some of the abominations on the starters and pizza section had been removed, while others (like the pizza with “Mexican sausage” or the one with crispy duck, hoisin sauce and crispy tortillas) remained. In a concession to the food trends of the last few years, burrata and ‘nduja were visible in several places. 

But the menu still felt like it was throwing everything at the wall, exposed brickwork and all, and seeing what stuck: a plethora of pizzas, five types of mussels, vegetarian and vegan food lumped in with the salads like an afterthought and plenty of pasta and risotto dishes. Overkill. Maybe if they had fewer items on the menu they would have had more time for proofreading and wouldn’t be offering customers “faltbreads” or “Ceasar salad”.

Anyway, we ordered a couple of beers while looking at the menu, and this is where the trouble began. Because, despite only having two other occupied tables in the whole restaurant, our beers just didn’t arrive. And the person we’d ordered them with disappeared. He materialised about fifteen minutes later, with no real sense of purpose, and so Zoë managed to get his attention and said we were still waiting for some drinks. He indicated that he’d heard this and promptly vanished again. 

Another quarter of an hour passed, by which point I was starting to wonder whether the other two tables had been trying to settle their bills since mid-afternoon. Zoë took the unusual step of getting up and searching for the waiter to track him down and ask where our drinks were. When I reviewed Zero Degrees in 2013 I described the wait staff as “omni-absent”: some things haven’t changed.

Personally, I’d have taken this as an opportunity to cancel the beers, escape into the night and have that takeaway I was hoping for, but I was overruled. So over half an hour after we asked for a couple of beers, when they still hadn’t arrived and against my better judgment, Zoë told the waiter we were ready to order food. We had to explain the dishes to him a couple of times, as if he’d never heard of them before.

“I don’t understand why their wait staff aren’t trained to just hop behind the bar and pull a pint” said Zoë. Me neither. And worst of all, from that point onwards it really did look like our food might come out before our drinks, but the beers just pipped them to the post. Our waiter brought them about a minute before the starters, and had thoughtfully upgraded Zoë’s from a half to a pint. She was having one of their specials, a black lager, which was described as “meh”. “It’s pretty tasteless”, she added. 

I’d chosen a Radler, having enjoyed one enormously in Malaga earlier in the month, but if I’d had my eyes closed I honestly could have mistaken it for a San Pellegrino garnished with a measly slice of lemon: there was that little to it. By this point both the other tables had managed to pay up and skedaddle, leaving us literally the only customers there. Had they shot us a look of pity on the way out, or was that just my imagination?

I wanted the food to be good, and I did try to approach it with an open mind, but I’m afraid it was downhill all the way from there. Bad things are supposed to come in threes, but you got four arancini on a plate, pointlessly drizzled with balsamic glaze, presumably to try and add some – any – flavour. The inside was a pappy mulch, with none of the advertised pea and spinach and it was hard to even make out individual grains of rice. They felt to me like something you might choose not to buy in Iceland.

Worse – because, it turned out, that was possible – was the ‘nduja. I’m used to small quantities of deep crimson, ultra-potent ‘nduja, very much the mighty atom of Italian food. I’m not used to it coming in industrial quantities, dense and fridge-cold, in a ramekin, with a leaden, fatty texture, like rillette cut with chilli powder. It was woeful, and it came served with triangles of pizza bread (garlic bread according to the menu: the menu is fibbing). The bread wasn’t unpleasant but by the time you had applied a wodge of frigid red bullshit to it, what you were left with was a claggy horror of lukewarm bread and something claiming to be ‘nduja which showed no signs of ever, ever melting. I left a lot of this.

Finally, the legendary “faltbread”, which was meant to feature mozzarella, gorgonzola and truffle oil. It only had the slightest whiff of truffle, which itself was only detectable thanks to the almost total absence of blue cheese. So a small shit pizza, then, for just under seven pounds – the price, coincidentally, of a not-small, not-shit pizza from Franco Manca.

As with the meal itself, I’m keen to bring this review to an end as quickly as possible and not prolong anybody’s suffering. So the dish I’d chosen as a main course could be described as a not-small, still-shit pizza. I’d unwisely chosen “carne asada”, which involved rump steak, smoked cheese and a basil and coriander pesto; if you look at that description and think that sounds awful then congratulations, because you’re light years ahead of me. But awful it was.

The steak was in the form of leathery slabs, any give comprehensively cooked out of them. I was hoping in vain for some marination, praying that the beef would be thinly sliced, pink in the middle and maybe strewn over the top at the end rather than cooked through. More fool me. The pesto managed not to taste of coriander or basil: instead it felt like munching on a manky hedgerow.

The mozzarella was as much of a non-smoker as I was and the other attempts to add some interest, a crude salsa of tomatoes, red onion and avocado, didn’t work. Putting cold stuff on top of a pizza, as with the ‘nduja, just made everything lukewarm, and the avocado started to go brown not long after this was set down in front of me.This cost fifteen pounds: you can get an infinitely better pizza at Buon Appetito for less.

Zoë had chosen a dish she said was a banker at Zero Degrees, something called lime and tequila chicken tagliatelle which was, gastronomically at least, of no fixed abode. And although it was better than my pizza it still wasn’t great, the pasta overcooked and clumpy with no bite. I didn’t detect any tequila but then again, given how hard it seemed to get booze out of Zero Degrees I wasn’t exactly surprised. Like the pizza it was studded with acrid, tastebud-destroying slices of chilli, and like the pizza it was about as Italian as the Dolmio puppets. The chicken was in distinctly uniform catering pack-sized mini fillets: the first one I tried was decent, the second had a slightly musty taste, as if it had been reheated.

We didn’t finish our mains, and although the second waiter who took our plates away was better than the first, largely by virtue of actually turning up, he didn’t probe as to whether we’d enjoyed our meals. By this point my only real concerns were leaving as soon as possible, opening up whatever chocolate I had at home and getting back in time for the Bake Off final on Channel 4+1. Our bill for two, including a 10% service charge I was too fatigued to knock off, came to sixty-two pounds: the final insult. 

On the way home I annoyed Zoë greatly by pointing to restaurants on the Oracle Riverside and saying “we could have had a better meal here… or here… or here”. The only place I didn’t include in that analysis was TGI Friday. As we passed the Lyndhurst, Christmas lights on and warm glow coming from the windows, I couldn’t help myself.

“Just imagine what sixty-two pounds could buy you at the Lyndie.” 

“Oh for fuck’s sake, shut up” came the understandable response.

The funniest thing, though, happened as we were leaving the restaurant. We walked through the place to leave through the exit on Bridge Street, and the bar was full. Properly full. Every single table had people at it, drinking and chatting, and it turned out that the joke was well and truly on us: Zero Degrees had plenty of staff, they simply didn’t have any of them working in the restaurant that night. Perhaps Zero Degrees has just given up on its food. Having tasted it, that makes two of us.

Zero Degrees – 4.9
9 Bridge Street, Reading, RG1 2LR
0118 9597959

https://www.zerodegrees.co.uk/restaurants/reading/
Order via: Deliveroo

Takeaway review: Mama’s Way

Mama’s Way, the minuscule Italian aperitivo bar and delicatessen on Duke Street, has been on my list to review since it opened earlier this year. In the summer I briefly toyed with trying to grab one of the three tall stools outside, looking out on the shell that used to be Panino and sipping an Aperol Spritz, but it never quite happened. Anyway, reviewing it as a takeaway is a far better bet. After all, it can only seat three people outside and three people inside – up at the window, provided they get on famously – and so your best chance of trying their food would be to get on Deliveroo, as I did this week.

It is a shame, because it’s a wonderful spot. There’s something very continental about a venue so tiny – wander through Bologna and you’d find loads of Aladdin’s caves like Mama’s Way, selling cheese, or pasta, or porchetta sandwiches through a hatch. And if we were in pre-Covid times I’d probably have stood at the bar, elbows at the ready, enjoying that feeling of being somewhere else. But it’s 2021, and I imagine many people wouldn’t want to experience eating in at Mama’s Way for the time being, so here I am to try the food out remotely for us all.

It is a real Aladdin’s cave, by the way – all manner of cheeses and charcuterie, biscuits and breadsticks, pandoro hanging from the ceiling in readiness for the festive season, bottles of wine on one side and an attractive array of digestifs behind the counter (they sell multiple brands of Amaro, one of my favourite drinks). They even stock chinotto, that exquisitely bitter soft drink you can’t get anywhere else. And in my limited experience of buying from Mama’s Way over the counter they have an excellent variety of Parmesan, some of it aged for as long as 72 months: it’s doubtless improved more over the last six years than I have. 

Aside from doing food to eat in, and delivery food, and acting as a deli and wine shop they also have an online store, with free delivery if you spend over £29. Confusingly, they also sell “ready meals”, which include some of the same dishes as the Deliveroo options, so if you like something you’ve had as a takeaway you can, with a little foresight, spend half as much to heat it up at home yourself. This all makes sense – at a time like now you need to have as many hustles on the go as you can – but let’s get back to the point and talk about the takeaway.

The menu is relatively streamlined, and I imagine much of it is cooked up in the kitchen somewhere behind the counter. Starters mostly consist of cheese and/or charcuterie in some configuration or other, there are a couple of “build your own” pasta and sauce combinations and, strangely, four different soups. The rest is largely lasagne and pinsa, the Roman equivalent of pizza which is traditionally oval, made with a slightly different flour and has a slightly crunchier texture. Oh, and they also have a huge selection of their wine on Deliveroo, so if you fancy a forty quid bottle of Nebbiolo with your takeaway there’s nothing to stop you living the dream.

Starters tend to hover close to the ten pound mark, the lasagne and cannelloni are closer to twelve pounds and most of the pinse are between twelve and a rather steep seventeen pounds, although in fairness there are lots of interesting ingredients and combinations in that part of the menu, including lardo honey and walnuts, or Parma ham with the splendidly named squacquerone cheese (I’ve had it: it’s fantastic). I was having a takeaway on my own on a chilly night, so I decided to cover as many bases as possible by ordering pinsa, pasta and dessert. They were doing 20% off all food, so my bill came to twenty-five pounds, not including the rider tip.

Speaking of tips to riders, my main one to the guy who delivered my food would be “don’t store a hot pizza vertically”. Honestly, it was so ridiculous that it was more funny than disappointing: I’ve had many seamless delivery experiences this year, so I’m sorry to have to bring this up, but it does strike me as basic stuff and I’m not sure I’d be doing a decent job of this review if I didn’t mention it. Other than that, it was relatively smooth – I placed my order just after seven o’clock, it was en route twenty-five minutes later and it took about seven minutes to get to the house.

The fact that, say, the pizza was lukewarm or that the chilled dessert had been put in the same carrier bag as the hot lasagne is down to the restaurant, but the fact that my pizza had somewhat drifted in transit and that some of it was stuck irretrievably to the inside of the lid of the box is, sadly, down to the driver alone. Anyway, c’est la vie: I know the traditional curse is “may you live in interesting times” but an equally powerful one would be “may you spend far more of the year than you’d personally choose to trying to describe tepid pizzas on a restaurant blog”. Take it from me.

So, the tepid pizza then: it’s a real shame, because Mama’s Way use good ingredients and it does show in the taste. I’d picked a simple ‘nduja pizza and their ‘nduja is great – savoury, acrid crimson nuggets that pack a huge amount of flavour, far more so than boring supermarket ‘nduja. On this evidence I would buy ‘nduja from Mama’s Way, but I’m not sure that, on this showing I’d order a takeaway pinsa from them again. But I could tell, from what I ate, that if it had been hot it would have been formidable. 

The tomato sauce had a genuinely gorgeous fruity depth and the base, which was far thicker than the Neopolitan pizzas that are in vogue right now, was also excellent. Slightly randomly my order had included a couple of squares of bread in a paper bag: I’m not sure why, because they didn’t go with my lasagne and they sure as hell didn’t go with my tiramisu, but as a “look what you could have won” they were another salutary reminder that the raw materials Mama’s Way is using are promising. Eventually I admitted defeat, stuck the oven on and reheated the rest of my pizza. It was lovely, but if I wanted to heat up a pizza at home I’d probably just buy one from a supermarket at half the price.

If the pizza was frustrating, the lasagne was outright bad. It looked the part when I got it out of the bag, but what my picture fails to show is just how little ragu was involved in its construction. Have a look at the picture on Mama’s Way’s website, which suggests you’ll get four sheets of pasta with a generous layer of ragu in between each one. By contrast, what I had was, I think, six or seven layers of lasagne with next to no ragu anywhere to be seen. It was an odd kind of pasta millefeuille, which sounds more like a baddie from Harry Potter than anything you might want to eat.

The best bit of a lasagne is that crispy, cheesy bit right at the top – the corners, all caramelised – but that only works if plenty of cheese has been used and there’s hot ragu underneath. This was just a stodgy wedge of pure pasta, and the burnt bits were almost impossible to saw through. I threw half of it away. The sad thing is that what very little ragu there was tasted decent, with good depth of flavour – properly made, with finely chopped carrot in the mix. But when there’s that little of it on display, the fact that it tasted decent only made matters worse.

Deliveroo described this as a “lasagne Bolognese” (and, incidentally, the picture of this dish on Deliveroo also looks like it involves plenty of ragu). But if anybody served this up in Bologna they’d probably die of shame. The margins on this dish, even with a discount, must have been astronomical.

Just to add to the contrariness, one final twist in the tale – my tiramisu was lovely. Everything was in proportion with the perfect interplay of cream and sponge, booze and coffee, exactly as it should be. But again, it was a little on the small side at five pounds – not unreasonable with twenty per cent off, but I still couldn’t help but think of the giant slab of tiramisu you’d get at Buon Appetito for not much more. I think by that stage I was relieved that something was unequivocally good, even if it wasn’t unequivocally good value.

This meal felt like such a pity, and a proper wasted opportunity. You only have to spend a few minutes inside Mama’s Way to see that they have fantastic ingredients and produce, much of it impossible to get anywhere else in town. But somewhere along the way, something has gone wrong in terms of turning that into a menu that works and makes sense – for delivery, anyway. 

If they ever get larger premises, I would rush to eat there and have one of those pinse fresh from the oven, or just enjoy some of their antipasti with a good bottle of red. With the right site, they could be Reading’s equivalent to Bristol’s cracking Bosco Pizzeria. But would I order takeaway from them again? Probably not: the memory of that brick of lasagne, 10% main course, 90% murder weapon, will cast a long shadow.

Never mind. It hasn’t diminished my enthusiasm for what they sell over the counter, or my respect for them trying to do something different and turn a profit from such a tiny spot. And I’ll be back for some of that ‘nduja, and some squacquerone (for the name alone, if nothing else), and I’m long overdue a bottle of chinotto for that matter. They also sell coppa, probably my favourite charcuterie of all time, and I can even see myself picking up some guanciale to use in my own ragu at some point. It might not be as good as theirs, but you get an awful lot more of it. 

Mama’s Way
10-14 Duke Street, Reading, RG1 4RU
0118 3273802

https://mamasway.co.uk
Order via: Deliveroo, Uber Eats

Takeaway review: Smashing Plates

Last month I had a very nice email from someone who worked as a commercial manager for Deliveroo Editions, telling me all about a new restaurant called Smashing Plates operating from Reading’s dark kitchen. And before we get started, let’s tackle the elephant in the room: I know, the name is a problem. It’s not as if it was my idea, so don’t shoot the messenger. Let’s all get that sigh, that cringe, that facepalm or weary shake of the head out of the way in unison right at the start of proceedings, and move on.

Anyway, the email described Smashing Plates as cool and “unorthodox” – only choosing to put inverted commas around the latter, as if the former was incontrovertible. Did I fancy running a competition for my followers, it asked? I could put a post on my Instagram telling people all about Smashing Plates, and if they liked my post, followed me and the restaurant and Deliveroo and tagged the person they really wanted to share the prize with then one lucky individual could win a £50 Deliveroo voucher to use at the restaurant of their choice. Did that sound like something I would be interested in? I mean, did it?

Did I want to give over my Instagram to pimping some restaurant I’d never even tried and ask my followers to give them and Deliveroo loads of free publicity just so that one solitary reader could win fifty quid? Hell no. Don’t get me wrong, I do run the occasional competition for readers, but I try and pick the partners for them carefully. I’m not that easily bought, or that cheaply. It struck me as especially weird that the prize was vouchers you didn’t even have to spend at the restaurant the competition was meant to promote. Who was doing the benefiting here – Smashing Plates or Deliveroo?

So I declined politely and no doubt they found many other Instagram accounts to team up with. In fact, I know they did: you don’t have to look far to find plenty of #ADs and #invites featuring the restaurant (although at least the social media posts declared them, unlike some prominent restaurant bloggers). But it did make me think about whether Smashing Plates was worth ordering, so I made a mental note to come back to them later. And here we are.

They’re almost a diffusion brand in themselves, launched by Neo Christodoulou, the co-founder of The Athenian (which itself was on Deliveroo in Reading a while back, if memory serves). Smashing Plates has opened in four venues across London, all of them previously branches of The Athenian, and has two dark kitchens, here and in Cambridge. 

I’d like to say that they have a distinct identity from the Athenian, but looking at both websites I’m none the wiser. The Athenian is all about using “the best ingredients, freshly and lovingly made to order”, they “source everything from our partners in Greece and here in the UK” and “environmental concerns are super important to us… we turn our cooking oils into biodiesel and our kitchens are powered by renewable energy”. 

Smashing Plates, on the other hand, says “The menu is seriously fresh and totally traceable. I know where every ingredient in every product has come from”, “our cooking oil… gets collected and turned into bio-diesel” and “everything is fresh, from start to finish”. Seriously – chalk and feta, these two. I wonder if they fell out and Christodoulou thought “I’ll show them… by copying their entire website”?

Smashing Plates’ delivery menu is small and centred on wraps and sides, gyros and souvlaki. It has slightly less range than their restaurant menu, but there’s enough choice that you don’t feel hemmed in. Perhaps significantly, real priority is given to vegetarians and vegans – so, for instance, you can have gyros with chicken, but pork isn’t on the menu and instead you can choose from halloumi, seitan or portobello mushroom. Most of the sides, for that matter, are vegetarian. They also do salads, loaded fries, skepasti (a gyros toastie) and a handful of desserts and if you fancy a Greek beer on the side you can get your Fix, literally and figuratively.

Nothing is too pricey, either – wraps and salads cost between seven and ten pounds, practically all of the sides are less than a fiver. I chose a wrap, a couple of sides and a dessert, which came to just over twenty pounds not including rider tip (they were doing 25% off food that night), sat back and waited.

Are you ready for the obligatory fuss-free delivery paragraph? Okay, here goes: I ordered just before eight o’clock on a weekday night, my driver was on his way twenty minutes later and in just over five minutes he was at my door. How far we’ve come from me obsessively checking the tracker and saying “why is he going down the Orts Road?” to Zoë as she rolls her eyes for the seventh time: perhaps this is what personal growth looks like. I particularly appreciated the fact that my hot food was in one bag and my cold food in another – if I’d known they were going to be that careful I might have ordered that Fix after all. Please drop us a review! was written on the bag in biro. How little they know, I thought.

Everything was hot and stayed hot throughout the faff of me taking it out of the bag, photographing it, photographing it again because one of my feet was in one of the photos and so on. The gyros – I’d gone for pork – was good but a little muted for my liking. It’s not possible to eat one without comparing it to Tasty Greek’s gyros wrap, and Smashing Plates’ version wasn’t quite at that level. The meat didn’t have that wonderful crispy caramelisation that comes from being exposed to a naked flame and then thinly sliced, and although it was still decent I knew I’d had better.

What was good though, was their signature smoked aubergine sauce. It made a surprisingly refreshing change not to have tzatziki in a gyros wrap and this supplied some badly needed depth of flavour – more sweet than smoky, in truth, but still welcome. I found myself thinking about Tasty Greek Souvlaki’s set-up and wondering whether an off the shelf dark kitchen on the edge of Caversham could match it. Maybe that’s why the gyros fell short. Perhaps, for that matter, it’s why they only offered one meat option for the gyros. Working within your limitations is all very well – I do it as a writer all the time, god knows – but in an ideal world other people don’t notice your limitations.

But Smashing Plates was saved by the sides. Panko chicken bites were marinated with oregano and smoked paprika and they really weren’t mucking around when they said that: opening the box you got a wonderful herbal hit of oregano, a refreshing antidote to all the many times I’ve walked through Reading in the slipstream of someone smoking a massive joint.

It was chicken breast rather than thigh but it wasn’t dried out or bouncy and the coating was crunchy and genuinely delicious. You got a hell of a lot of chicken, the tzatziki it came with was pleasant, if underpowered on the garlic front, and I thoroughly enjoyed every bite. Looking in the box afterwards I found loads of little crunchy pieces of coating – yes, I ate them all with my fingers, with no shame – and not a jot of grease. If they could do all this for less than five pounds, what on earth was Wingstop’s excuse for being so crappy?

I also very much liked the courgette and feta bites, although it was a little odd to get only five of these for a fiver as opposed to so much chicken. The blurb calls them “fluffy” which, if anything, does them a slight disservice. The first ones I had, from the box at the start of the meal, almost had the silky texture of croquetas, with a nice tang from the feta. And actually, as they cooled if anything I appreciated them slightly more. The flavour came through better, and they firmed up so you could tell, from a bite, just how much courgette and cheese had been packed into them. 

Oh, and I had dessert too, a vegan chocolate brownie. If you decide to give Smashing Plates a try, give this a wide berth. It felt like supermarket quality at best: no real texture to speak of, no contrast between crumble and squidge, and a salted caramel topping that just felt like badly sunburnt sugar. Three pounds fifty, too – I know that’s the going rate for brownies at the likes of Workhouse or The Collective, but theirs are bigger, and better, than this. What were you thinking ordering a dessert from Deliveroo? you might be thinking. You might have a point.

Despite the brownie, I found I rather enjoyed Smashing Plates. It’s true that you can get slightly better gyros from Tasty Greek Souvlaki, but my chicken bites and halloumi and feta bites were properly enjoyable, and different from anything offered by Tasty Greek. If I ordered again I would have a gyros because I’d feel that I ought to, but it would largely be an excuse to go crazy and order all the sides. They do another that’s halloumi with sesame seeds and maple syrup which is calling to me: I love all three of those things, and I really want to experience the centre of that particular Venn diagram.

It helps, I’m sure, that my meal was better than I expected it to be. On the sofa in my comfies at the end of a forgettable day, waiting for Zoë to come home from a late shift, the weather positively Baltic outside, it brought me a little joy. And that’s the thing about takeaways – they don’t always have to hit the heights. Sometimes you just want one fewer problem. Sometimes it’s just about that little bit of self-care, treating yourself while you sit in front of Bake Off (I’m rooting for Giuseppe to win) or Strictly (Team John and Johannes all the way). That, to me, is a decidedly orthodox pleasure.

And the silliest thing of all is that if I’d taken Deliveroo up on that competition, I might never have written this review. Some of you might have found out about Smashing Plates, if you happened to be on Instagram, and one of you could have won fifty quid. But I expect you’d have spent it elsewhere, because you probably wouldn’t have the foggiest idea whether Smashing Plates was any good. And that’s the point of this blog. I don’t know why influencers do what they do, although naturally I wish them all the best. But I do know why I do this.

Smashing Plates

https://deliveroo.co.uk/menu/reading/reading-editions/smashing-plates-editions-rea
Order via: Deliveroo only

Restaurant review: Gordon Ramsay Street Burger

“What’s your angle for this one?” said Zoë when I told her this week I was going to review Gordon Ramsay Street Burger – or just Street Burger, because they use both interchangeably, but not Ramsay Street Burger which conjures up images of Lou Carpenter, a man a million miles away from being a beefcake. “You can’t go on about burgers again, because you did that a few weeks ago.”

“There’s only one thing for it, I’ll have to talk about Gordon Ramsay.”

Ah yes, Gordon Ramsay. What’s left to say about him, with his curiously line-free forehead, the gratuitous shirtless shots in Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, the countless omelettes contemptuously tossed in the bin and all those expletive-laden meltdowns (he may be one of the only people alive who swears more than my other half). And that’s before we get on to his complicated life: the man’s father in law went to prison for hacking into his emails, for goodness’ sake.

And yet, I don’t really have an opinion on Ramsay. I dimly remember Kitchen Nightmares being watchable and full of good sense: don’t do too much, have a compact menu you can actually execute, advice many restaurants would do well to follow today. And I watched some of his American shows, which were usually plain nuts, but after that I never gave him much thought, except to vaguely think he was gradually becoming a parody of himself, as so many of us do. Describing Gordon Ramsay: done.

I knew that Ramsay had a vast restaurant empire, that his eponymous restaurant in Chelsea still had three Michelin stars, and I knew he had trained under Marco Pierre White before fostering the talents of Marcus Wareing, Angela Hartnett and Clare Smyth, all now Michelin starred themselves. But I didn’t see Ramsay as a chef these days, any more than I did Jamie Oliver. Crucially, I doubted he had an awful lot to do with Street Burger, which opened last month in the Oracle.

But looking at TripAdvisor before my visit, I was struck by how many reviewers held him personally responsible for their meal. “Sorry Gordon, I won’t be rushing back!” said one, followed by “Sorry Gordon, I wanted nothing more than to enjoy your place today… but today’s food didn’t reflect you or your food at all”. I was reminded of the types who reply to celebrities on Twitter, blissfully unaware that their bons mots will never be read. “My wife and I were very excited to be going to Gordon Ramsay’s, albeit a Street Burger” said a third. And then the coup de grâce: “We had high expectations as it has Gordon Ramsay’s name attached” said a disappointed diner.

Come off it. Gordon Ramsay’s probably never even set foot in the kitchen of his Reading restaurant – hadn’t these people been to Jamie’s Italian? Yet other TripAdvisor writeups painted a positive picture: many praised the service, and a lot did that thing where they name-checked a particular server (Sam and Lauren seemed especially legendary). So, a curate’s egg: I reckoned that alone made it interesting enough to visit.

“I’ve read the TripAdvisor reviews” said Nick as we took our table, and I realised I might finally have found a dining companion who did more homework than me. “They’re surprisingly good, although people seem unimpressed by the bottomless soft drinks.”

We sat outside – a combination of my caution and a temperate evening – so we definitely didn’t get the best of the restaurant, because the inside looks good. It’s more reminiscent of an upmarket steakhouse than a burger restaurant: it’s how Miller & Carter ought to look, instead of resembling an airport Wetherspoons with its whiff of bad carpet and pre-vacation despair. Street Burger had booths and banquettes, fake brick-effect wall panelling and faintly abstract wall art and struck me as an agreeable place to spend an hour eating a burger. Maybe that’s why it was doing so well.

The menu purported to be a model of simplicity: any burger with fries and the aforementioned bottomless soft drink for fifteen pounds. A bit random, because it meant that their basic cheeseburger (the “O.G.R.”) cost exactly the same as the even more dismally named “#BAE Burger” – yes, it honestly has a hashtag in the name – which is the same, but with bacon and a fried egg.

Names aren’t the restaurant’s strong point – their lamb burger is called the “Where’s The Lamb Burger?”, which strongly implies that it doesn’t contain any lamb. It does (a sharp-eyed reader has since pointed out that this is an in-joke referring to a much-memed moment: if you’re explaining, you’re losing). But what do you expect from a restaurant that calls itself “Street Burger” when it’s neither street food nor even – in the case of the Reading branch – on a street?

It’s a more limited menu than at Ramsay’s original burger restaurant in Vegas. There you choose from eleven different burgers (including the “UK Burger” made with something called “Dubliners’ Cheese”: geography’s not a strong point either). But in Reading there are just three beefburgers, that lamb burger, a chicken burger, one vegetarian and one vegan option. They don’t say anything about gluten, so I can’t say whether they offer gluten free buns.

The devil was in the detail because it’s all about the extras. If you want to swap your bottomless fizzy drink for something alcoholic – two beers and just over half a dozen wines are on offer – or a milkshake, that will be four pounds. Sweet potato fries? An extra two pounds fifty. And you can “wagyu up” – because that’s a verb now, I’m afraid – for a fiver (“the reviews on TripAdvisor say it’s worth it, so I’ll definitely do that” said Nick). There’s also an extra called a “cheese skirt”, which sounds like something half of Buck’s Fizz would wear but is in fact an extra slab of grilled cheese.

We placed our order, with various add-ons and extras, and waited to see whether our mild to moderate cynicism would be justified. I should add that we had Lauren looking after us and she was unreservedly lovely all evening: bright, friendly and enthusiastic about the food (between us we ordered her favourite shake, her favourite burger and her favourite add-ons – and if she says that to everyone, she’s at least very plausible). We were one of only two groups sitting outside, but never felt forgotten or neglected. 

Both Nick and I have a weakness for milkshakes so we went large, so to speak; I have the build of someone who likes milkshakes, while Nick has the build of someone who likes milkshakes but does lots of running so he doesn’t end up looking like me. He loved his sticky toffee pudding milkshake (“it’s got nuggets of toffee all the way through it, exactly what I was hoping for”), I thought my Oreo milkshake was okay: clearly made with ice cream, and beautifully, head-freezingly cold, but I’d have liked it to be slightly bigger. I could have done without the squirty cream, which makes it look larger without bringing anything to the table. On the menu shakes cost six pounds fifty: both that, and the four pound upgrade, felt a bit sharp.

“I miss the milkshakes at Ed’s Easy Diner.” said Nick. You’d be surprised how many Reading residents have said this to me. “There’s nothing like a malted shake.”

Our food came out relatively quickly, and this was the point where we had to start eating both our meals and our words. Because really, there was lots to like. I’d chosen the fried chicken burger and was pleasantly surprised. It had good spice and crunch, a slightly soggy hash brown underneath, a good whack of cheese and a piquant bright orange sauce, much of which had seeped out onto the tray. The hash brown felt  like padding, and the whole thing was almost well-behaved and prim – you didn’t quite have to unhook your jaw to eat it – but what was this strange feeling? Could it be that I was… enjoying it? 

As if he was reading my mind, Nick spoke.

“You know what? This really isn’t bad at all.”

Nick had gone for the hashtag burger (I can’t type its real name out again, and you can’t make me) and again, it looked pretty decent – a sensible size with a glorious-looking fried egg and nicely crispy bacon in the mix (“it’s streaky”, he confirmed). A good firm brioche bun, too, which didn’t go to pieces the way, say, Honest’s sometimes can. Nick seemed to be thoroughly enjoying it.

“It’s not as hot as it could be” he said, “because they’ve used these stupid trays.”

“Tell me about it, mine too. It’s like the hubcaps they use at the Last Crumb that mean your pizza’s cold by the time you’ve finished your first slice.”

“But that aside, it’s really good. These chips are good too – they’ve got proper crunch to them.” I agreed with him, and even as they got a little lukewarm they were still well worth dipping in ketchup and dispatching.

“Was it worth upgrading to the wagyu?”

“Not really, but then I’ve not had their normal beefburger.”

“But how does the wagyu compare to, say, a normal burger from Honest?”

“I can’t say I notice enough difference.”

We’d also ordered onion rings and, just as with the rest of our meal, they were well executed, but with just enough shortcomings to irk you. Laying them all out flat on one of those thin trays, in a weird homage to the Olympic logo, just meant they went cold quicker (and exposed how few you got). But even so, they were worth ordering – they held their shape well and the batter had seeds in it which gave an excellent texture and an extra dimension. They were great with both the dips they came with and again, even as they cooled we still wanted to polish them off.

“I prefer these to Honest’s onion rings” said Nick. “With those, some of them feel like they’re practically all batter.”

Having unexpectedly won us over with the food, reality bit when our bill arrived. All those extras mount up, and our bill – for two burgers, fries and milkshakes with a portion of onion rings – came to just shy of forty-eight pounds, not including service. But another feature of Gordon Ramsay Street Burger, which has attracted a fair bit of ire online, is that the “optional” service charge is a whopping fifteen per cent. 

That’s one thing, but the way it’s presented on the bill is disingenuous. Nowhere on the bill does it tell you what percentage they’re using, but because the service charge appears directly below the line breaking down VAT at 12.5% it felt to me like some deliberate misdirection was taking place. I paid it happily, because Lauren was excellent, but if I’d had a burger and fries and spent some time serving myself refills of bottomless soft drinks I might have felt peeved about being stung for fifteen per cent.

We left discombobulated and in need of a drink – and even now when I reflect on Street Burger I’m not entirely sure what I thought, because it confounded my expectations in almost every way. The interior was nicer than I thought it would be, the service was excellent, the food is well done. I could say that the menu isn’t the widest, but I can hardly blame them for following that advice on Kitchen Nightmares from all those years ago. 

It’s undeniably expensive, though, and that’s probably the single biggest thing counting against it. For forty-eight pounds I could eat more, and better, food at many other restaurants in Reading. If I wanted a burger, fries and a shake I’d probably spend around the same at Honest. And Honest always crops up when you discuss burger places in town: that’s how good it is, and how far above the rest of the pack it remains after all these years. Street Burger’s pricing structure is weird and expensive, and Honest offers a better range and better drinks (although I prefer Street Burger’s chicken burger, believe it or not). 

So would I go back? Actually, yes. Possibly. At some point. Because the other surprise for me is that this was pretty much the antithesis of greasy, sloppy hipster joints like 7Bone. Portions were restrained – not small per se, but not the kind of overload you might be used to at other places. And I found I rather liked that, against my better judgment. You could almost call it demure, which makes it even weirder that customers have convinced themselves that it’s somehow built in the image of Gordon Ramsay. To paraphrase the great man himself, like fuck it is.

Gordon Ramsay Street Burger – 7.1
Riverside, The Oracle, RG1 2AG
0207 3529558

https://www.gordonramsayrestaurants.com/street-burger/reading/

Restaurant review: Hamlet, Wokingham

Over the last eighteen months, the story of Reading’s restaurants has been more about trying to protect what we have than celebrating the arrival of bright, shiny new things. With a few notable exceptions, the significant restaurants to open recently in town have been chains: Wendy’s, The Coconut Tree, Gordon Ramsay’s Profanity Burger. Further afield, however, it’s a different story. 

Henley, for instance, now has a big posh-looking place called Crocker’s which contains no less than three different restaurants. The front page of their website carries a photograph of people assembling identical small plates with long stainless steel tweezers, which tells you more than enough about the kind of food you can expect. Henley also has a new steak and seafood place called Shellfish Cow (I know), the second link in a little chain which started in Wallingford. Both these venues are fancy, both look like they’ve had dough chucked at them, both are independent.

But there’s even more of a marked transformation in Wokingham, driven by the ongoing regeneration of the town and the completion of Peach Place. The earliest sign of gentrification was back at the end of 2018 when Gail’s opened there, followed by craft beer bar Sit N’ Sip the following spring. And now Wokingham is starting to attract some noteworthy restaurants, so much so that when I looked at everywhere that had opened since I last visited, I wasn’t sure where to go first.

Should I try Indian restaurant Bombay Story, which inexplicably changed its name from Dabbawalla Indian Kitchen at some point over the last year? Or RYND, which used to be a hipster-milking burger joint on Castle Street and is reborn in Wokingham Town Hall offering “Californian inspired tapas-style dining”? Or Chalk, an independent restaurant that opened at the end of last year in the old Prezzo building on Broad Street?

Well, you know I didn’t pick any of those because here you are, reading a review of Hamlet. I decided on Hamlet, which opened back in May, partly because the menu seemed to have a little more about it. But I also chose it because of the pedigree of the owners: Nick Galer, from the Miller Of Mansfield, told me that they were two old colleagues of his from his days working for the Fat Duck Group. “The early reports are good”, he said, “although I’m never sure about all day dining.”

Hamlet is also on Peach Place with a fair amount of outside space, some of it under cover, and a few heaters which I imagine will need to be switched on around a week from now for approximately the next five months. The outside was doing a roaring trade, although it felt a tad soulless. The inside, though, is quite stunning in its way, all Hans Wegner Wishbone Chair lookalikes and bleached wood tables. There are baked goods on display at the counter and a little deli area where you can buy wine, cheese and charcuterie. It’s all very Scandi, very stylish, but again, ever so slightly sterile.

Anyway, we sat outside because it was a warm Saturday afternoon and I’m a risk-averse wuss. It wasn’t initially clear whether it was table service or if you were meant to order at the counter, but that was partly because when we got there the serving staff were a bit all over the place: they settled down as the first wave of the lunchtime rush subsided.

Casting my eye over the menu, I began to see Nick Galer’s point. Hamlet is open daytimes all week and evenings Thursday to Saturday, and its menu tries to cover every single base. The overall effect is something like a cross between Gail’s and an upmarket version of Wokingham’s Sedero Lounge: so there are brunches until 1pm, sandwiches available until 4pm and small and large plates available from midday until 4pm. So if you’re there between noon and one in the afternoon you can choose between four different sections, you lucky so-and-so. Brunches run from six to ten pounds, sandwiches from seven fifty to a tenner, small plates range widely in price between five and twelve pounds and most of the large plates are between ten and fifteen pounds. 

So yes, the menu was even busier than the staff and felt a little confused. I should add that if you go in the evening the small and large plates on offer look a lot more like a conventional restaurant, so it would be easier to treat it as a starters and mains kind of place. Anyway, we ordered a couple of sandwiches to start with a view to moving on to some other dishes afterwards, aiming to cover as many of the sections as we could. I would have loved to try the sausage, egg and Comte muffin, but because we placed our order at quarter past one the brunch section was out of bounds. Rules are rules.

Zoë had chosen Hamlet’s croque monsieur – an excellent choice, and possibly what I would have ordered if I’d had first dibs. It was attractively burnished, covered in that molten, slightly-caramelised topping and with beautiful ham – shredded hock, rather than slices of the stuff – in the middle. The mouthful I got was pretty good, although (and this might be a bit of a trend for the rest of the review) I wasn’t sure it was nine pounds fifty’s worth of pretty good.

“I liked it, but I think it needed mustard” was Zoë’s verdict.

“Didn’t it have mustard in it?”

“If it did, it needed more.”

Zoë picked better than me, and my fish finger sandwich was close but not quite there. You could see all the things they’d got right: the goujons were well done, handsome things with deeply pleasing breadcrumbs. And the tartare sauce, made by Hamlet at a guess, was fantastic with plenty of crunch and acidity from the gherkins. But as a sandwich, it didn’t work – the unremarkable white bread just got soggy from all the tartare and fell apart. Putting it in a bun, or at least toasting the slices of bread, would have helped it hold together a lot better. And the decision to put bitter, chewy radicchio in there felt cheffy for cheffy’s sake – iceberg on its own would have been fine. 

Was this worth nine pounds fifty? The long answer involves telling you all about Hook & Cook, who are at Blue Collar most weeks. The short answer is no.

If we’d stopped there you’d have got a lukewarm review which might have suggested you’d be better off going elsewhere in Wokingham – and even without the choices I mentioned earlier in this review you could have stopped at the busy food market outside the Town Hall and tried something by Krua Koson, another Blue Collar regular. But fortunately we went on to order some dishes from the other sections of the menu and, to some extent, it was like eating in a different restaurant.

Take the beef boulangère we had, from the small plates menu. A nice-looking dish, with strands of slowly-braised beef in a nearly-sweet tomato sauce, reminiscent of a stifado, and topped with layer upon layer of thinly sliced potato, the whole thing dusted with cheese and chives. A terrific dish – and, although technically a small plate, not too difficult to divide up between two people. Yours for five pounds. Five pounds! You could get two of these for the price of either of those sandwiches, and I think it would be the better choice.

But then, also from the small plates menu, we also ordered fried chicken with beurre noisette houmous. Again, this was a fetching dish – four pieces of gorgeous chicken, all gnarly and crunchy, tender under that coating. Pairing them with houmous isn’t something that would have occurred to me, and pairing the houmous with the almost-caramel silkiness of brown butter certainly wouldn’t have: I’m so used to seeing a bright green well of extra virgin olive oil in the middle of a mound of houmous that I’d never have thought of using anything else. 

All those ideas could have come a cropper when combined, but in practice the dish was a revelation. But pricing rears its ugly head again: this lovely dish was twelve pounds. Were you paying for the produce, the idea, the skills involved or the location of the restaurant? And did it matter? I’m not averse to dropping twelve pounds on a small portion of fried chicken from time to time, but will enough people feel likewise?

Last but not least, we’d also nabbed a charcuterie board to share. This is largely about buying rather than cooking, but Hamlet buys its charcuterie from Trealy Farm so they’d bought wisely. Chorizo, a couple of different types of salami (the nicest, for my money, with fennel), some cracking air dried ham and, usually my favourite, a superb coppa. The menu suggested there would also be some lamb carpaccio, but that seemed to have gone missing somewhere. 

Personally I like something acidic with charcuterie – gherkins or caperberries – but Hamlet instead added some wonderfully sweet cherry tomatoes, little slices of soda bread and olive oil infused with rosemary. I’d have liked the bread to be a little more substantial, but it was still a great selection. Fifty pence more expensive than the fried chicken, which did make me think – not for the first time – that Hamlet’s pricing was all over the shop.

I haven’t talked about our drinks, but there was a good, compact wine list covering all sensible price points along with around half a dozen cocktails and a handful of beers and ciders, all bottled. Zoë had a negroni, because that negroni habit is coming along nicely, and I had a small glass of a red burgundy which was the costliest wine on the menu. I liked it a lot, but I liked the fancy glasses even more. 

Our meal – two sandwiches, two small plates, a large plate, a couple of drinks and a bottle of mineral water – came to just under seventy pounds, not including service. You’re probably thinking “ouch” at this point, and ordinarily this is where I would say “but you could spend a lot less”. But unless you’re just coming to Hamlet for a sandwich and a coffee – and possibly even then – I think you’re going to feel a little stung when the bill arrives.

As I said earlier, table service did feel a little haphazard at the beginning of our meal, but as it went on service got stronger and far more personable. And Hamlet was pretty busy – even later on as we wandered back through Peach Place the restaurant was still doing a pretty consistent trade. 

Afterwards we went for a drink at Sit N’ Sip, the craft beer place where, oddly, nobody sitting out front was drinking beer. It wasn’t really my glass of IPA, despite some excellent people watching opportunities. So instead we found our way to the brilliant Outhouse Brewery, which has only been open for three months, and sat outside drinking their very own excellent oatmeal stout. I couldn’t resist trying one of their sausage rolls – made by Blue Orchid Bakery, another Peach Place business – and it was phenomenal, with great pastry and a coarse, dense sausagemeat filling (the fact that I had room for it perhaps isn’t the most glowing endorsement of Hamlet).

I think Nick Galer was right about the challenges of all day dining. Hiding in Hamlet’s menu, a maze of breakfasts, brunches, sandwiches and plates of varying size, there’s a very good restaurant, making itself frustratingly hard to find. I’m sure they’re doing what works for them, and certainly looking on Instagram their lunch menu has been a work in progress since they opened, but for me it felt muddled. Maybe they feel they need to compete with Gail’s during the day and places like Chalk at night. But although the execution might have been uneven, you couldn’t deny that the ideas were there, and along the right lines. 

I’m far more tempted to go back in the evening and treat Hamlet more as a traditional restaurant, and when I do I can easily imagine that I’ll have an excellent meal. But even so, they deserve credit for lots of things – for some of the imagination involved, for the stylish space they have created and, perhaps more than anything, for giving it a go during such an awful, challenging time. So there you have it: a polished-looking, high spec, unashamedly high quality restaurant selling interesting, creative food. And a great town centre taproom just around the corner for when you’re finished, into the bargain. In Wokingham. It’s interesting that, for all our chains and burger places, restaurants like Hamlet don’t choose to open in Reading.

Hamlet – 7.6
10 Peach Place, Wokingham, RG40 1LY
0118 3048433

https://hamletwokingham.co.uk