Restaurant review: Lebanese Village

The reason behind this week’s review is simple: I got a tip-off. About chicken livers.

It came off the back of the World Cup Of Reading Restaurants I ran on Twitter just after Christmas – congratulations to Kungfu Kitchen for winning the title, by the way – when I received a message from a reader. She and her partner had been debating the merits of the various competitors, and they’d agreed that in their considered opinion the closest rival to surprise package Tasty Greek Souvlaki was not Bakery House but in fact Lebanese Village on Caversham Bridge. It served some of the best Lebanese food she’d ever eaten, she said, and their chicken livers were second to none.

It was appropriate, too, because I never liked chicken livers before I tried Lebanese food. Actually, it would be closer to the truth to say that I didn’t know I liked them until then. But the first time I had them, at Bakery House, experienced that contrast of caramelisation and silkiness unlike anything else, with sweet, sticky fried onions and a whisper of pomegranate molasses, I was hooked. And that was just the start of it – then I tried the chicken livers at Clay’s, dark and delicious, dusted with an intriguing spice mix including, of all things, dried mango and I became even more of a convert. 

Then there were the happy occasions when the Lyndhurst served them – simply, on sourdough toast with a bright pesto. By then chicken livers were well and truly one of my favourite things, so the idea that somewhere in Reading served a reference version I’d yet to try was an aberration I needed to remedy, as soon as possible. So on what felt like the coldest night of the year so far, Zoë and I schlepped off to Caversham Bridge, stopping only for a fortifying beer at the warm, welcoming, wintry Greyfriar.

I’ve written about Reading’s history with Lebanese restaurants before, so I risk rehashing all that here. But in the early days, back in 2015, we had two and they were about as different as could be. La Courbe was a grown-up restaurant with sharp furniture, square plates, fancy glasses and an extensive list of Lebanese wines (true story, on my second or third visit there the English waitress, when clearing our glasses away, said “it’s not bad is it, the Lesbianese wine?”: bless her). And then came Bakery House, closer to the kind of thing you’d see on the Edgware Road, more informal, more casual, with no alcohol licence. 

Bakery House won the war. It’s still going today, and has proved the more influential blueprint for Lebanese food in Reading: Palmyra and the not-too-sadly departed Alona are very much in that mould. La Courbe lasted a couple of years, though whether that’s because of their business acumen or the fact that they had John Sykes as a landlord we’ll never know. The owner moved on to run a Lebanese night at a café in Pangbourne for a little while, and then disappeared without trace. But I hope history is a kinder to La Courbe, because their food was absolutely terrific. Their skewers of lamb and chicken, their lamb koftas were, in truth, a level above anything that came off the grill at Bakery House, wonderful though Bakery House is. I still remember their taboulleh. 

Looking at the menu at Lebanese Village in the run-up to my visit I wondered which kind of restaurant it would turn out to be. It sold alcohol – two Lebanese beers and a decent selection of Lebanese wine, including a couple I’d tried at La Courbe. The menu was more limited than Bakery House’s and potentially less casual, with no shawarma, no boneless baby chicken, fewer mezze. And I’d heard good things about Lebanese Village from a few people, so was it going to be the spiritual successor to La Courbe?

The last time I set foot in that building was in 2013, when it housed Picasso (another restaurant I still remember, for decidedly different reasons) so I couldn’t honestly tell you how it’s changed. But they’ve made a pleasing, surprisingly cosy space out of what is effectively another long, thin room. Some of the decor is definitely Lebanese – the attractive patterns on the ceiling tiles for instance, and some of the pictures they’ve put up. The plates on the wall depicting pastoral English scenes, bridges and church towers, are more confused. But the background music – relentless, frantic, and slightly too loud – left you in no doubt.

The restaurant has bought rather attractive wood and glass partitions, during the pandemic I expect, and they do an excellent job of breaking the room up into sections. I still think the section nearest the front, by the bar, closest to the window, is the best place to be and that’s where nearly all of Lebanese Village’s diners were the evening I visited. It was a bitterly cold night and every restaurant I walked past on my way – San Sicario, Kamal’s Kitchen, Flavours Of Mauritius – was utterly deserted, so I was heartened to see that they had some paying customers, including a large table of Americans who seemed to be over with work and staying at the Crowne Plaza just the other side of the water.

The icy trek definitely helped us work up an appetite, and we went a bit crazy with the mezze to start with. The best of them was the Lebanese Village arayes, minced lamb and a smidgen of cheese sandwiched between pitta bread. “It’s basically a quesadilla” said Zoë – and although she was dabbling in a spot of cultural appropriation I got her meaning. This is one of my favourite things to eat at Bakery House and although Lebanese Village’s pitta felt bought in rather than made on the premises it stood up well to that standard. It could have done with more cheese, I thought, but then you only pay forty pence extra for cheese so maybe that’s why they don’t give you much. While we’re on the subject, at nearly seven pounds this dish cost almost twice as much as its counterpart in the town centre.

I was interested to try the lamb burak, and it was good but not great. The pastry felt like it might have been bought in too, and the whole thing was a little too thick and stodgy, the ratio out of whack. What lamb there was I liked, but it was only just the right side of the line between “what lamb there was” and “what lamb?” From the plating of this, and the arayes, I realised that the restaurant had a bit of a thing for scalloped smears of their – rather good – garlic sauce. I found that a little weird: a ramekin would have been fine.

They’d done a similar thing with the houmous Beiruti, spreading it thin in a narrow dish which made it trickier than it should have been to scoop it all up. On the menu the only discernible difference between this and the entry level houmous was the addition of some chilli, which did come through nicely. Perhaps this had more garlic in it than the bog-standard stuff – it certainly had a healthy whack of it – but I couldn’t tell you for sure. I liked it all the same, and I loved the pool of grassy, good-quality olive oil in the middle, but it felt solid rather than special. 

Last but not least, those fabled chicken livers. Ready? They were okay, but nothing more than that. They were wan, woolly-textured things that felt stewed rather than fried, in a gravy so thin that it sulked at the bottom of the terracotta pot, and no amount of scooping or dredging could get it to come out to play or adhere to the livers. I fully expected us to fight over every last bit of this dish, but by the end there was a solitary, worryingly huge lump of chicken liver left and both of us ever so politely offered it to the other. The waitress ended up taking it away.

By this point my hopes, it has to be said, weren’t high. The large table at the front had sloped off into the night, no doubt to cane their expenses account at the bar at the Crowne Plaza, and with that a lot of the spark went out of the room. It was just a pair of friends catching up a few tables across and a couple who had inexplicably decided to sit in the unlovelier, windowless space out back. Only a semi-steady stream of Deliveroo drivers broke up the quietude, and as we sipped our Lebanese lagers – 961, which tasted a little like an alcohol free beer, and not in a good way – I wondered if this was going to be that kind of review.

Things were partly redeemed, fortunately, by the arrival of our main course. The absence of many of the dishes I often lazily go to in a Lebanese restaurant forced me to go for the dish I often lazily go to in any grill house, the mixed grill for two. And this was where everything became inverted: I expected the mezze to be great, and it was simply okay. I didn’t expect too much, by contrast, from the mixed grill and I was pleasantly surprised.

Take the lamb skewer – the meat might not have been blushing pink in the middle, and it would have been nice if it had shown a little more evidence of marination, but it was tender. Far more tender, in fact, than similar kebabs I’ve had from both Bakery House and Tasty Greek Souvlaki. The same was true of the chicken shish – still soft, not dried out and truly enjoyable. So were the charred hunks of red and green pepper also threaded onto those skewers. And the lamb kofte was beautiful too – soft, almost crumbling, not disturbingly firm or spongey as bad examples can be. 

Only the lamb ribs divided opinion – Zoë liked them, but she’s always one to pick them up and gnaw whatever’s going, Captain Caveman-style. I thought the work to reward ratio wasn’t quite there and I’d rather they’d been chops instead, like the miraculous ones you can get at Didcot’s Zigana. But none the less, it was all thoroughly respectable – more so, perhaps, because my expectations had been dialled down by what came before, but respectable none the less. A sweet and delicious charred onion, a little hill of rice topped with sultanas and a really tasty, sharply dressed salad completed the picture. That and more smears of the garlic and chilli sauce. Had they run out of ramekins?

There’s not a lot more to say. Our waitress was lovely and friendly and, I suspect, a bit bored; by the end she was standing behind the bar with her headphones in, probably wondering why restaurants bother opening on Tuesdays in January at all. She might well have a point. Our meal – four mezze, that mixed grill and two beers – came to just over sixty-seven pounds, including a ten per cent service charge. There was a space below that on the bill for a tip, which probably grinds the gears of people on TripAdvisor.

On this evidence at least, the word for Lebanese Village is solid. I worry that Lebanese food is a little like Thai food in this respect – it’s unlikely to plumb the depths, but it isn’t going to scale the heights either. So really, it’s not an existential threat to the likes of Bakery House. And I don’t think it is to Tasty Greek Souvlaki either, although I do reckon their mixed grill possibly beats Tasty Greek’s on points. If you lived in Caversham, or well in their delivery radius, I can see you might find space for them in your repertoire (although if I lived in walking distance of Lebanese Village, I’d far more often go to Kamal’s Kitchen or Thai Table). 

And it’s not the natural successor, at the very top end, to La Courbe either. I suspect for that I need to finally get on that bus to Woodley and check out La’De Kitchen. But I’ve done that deplorable thing of talking about all the places Lebanese Village is not, rather than what it is. And what it is is a perfectly pleasant restaurant with something of a talent for grilling meat. It adds to Reading’s rich culinary tapestry, but isn’t necessarily going to rock your world: not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I’ll leave the last word to Zoë this week. “I’d come back here for the mixed grill” she said as we were working our way through it. The unspoken On a much warmer night than this hung in the air, just the way our breath had on the walk over.

Lebanese Village – 7.2
6 Bridge Street, RG4 8AA
0118 9484141

https://lebanesevillagereading.co.uk

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Restaurant review: Antica Osteria Bologna, Clapham Junction

For fuck’s sake, it’s Edible Reading, not Edible Clapham Junction.

I know, I know (Happy New Year to you too, by the way). But I found myself in the vicinity of arguably the United Kingdom’s most minging train station one January weekend – on an unsatisfactory excursion spectacle shopping, since you ask – and I always think it’s well worth structuring an expedition like that around lunch. That way if the shopping’s a bust, as it turned out to be, and the station is a hellscape, which it very much was, there’s still an outside chance of salvaging the day.

Not that I was in Clapham, by the way. I was shopping and mooching in an area that isn’t quite Clapham, isn’t quite Battersea, is a ten minute walk from Clapham Junction and is really rather lovely. Northcote Road is a long, prosperous street in the heart of what is apparently called Nappy Valley, and it’s a great place to amble and bimble. I hadn’t been in many years, although I was an occasional visitor in a former life.

I remember eating in this little place called Franco Manca there, once upon a time when there were only a handful of them, before they contracted the disease called private equity. There used to be a splendid tapas restaurant, too, called Lola Rojo, which did an olive oil ice cream I still think about sometimes: if I could have my time over again, I’d have ordered two portions (laugh all you like, but that might make my top 50 of Things I’d Do Differently). But anyway those were simpler times, over ten years ago, and remembering them it’s as if they happened to somebody else.

Returning in 2023, Northcote Road was still as fancy as I remembered. It’s still lined with swish looking cafés, delis and cheesemongers, bakeries, great shops, a branch of Aesop  – always a sign that you’re somewhere spenny – and tons of opticians. There’s even a branch of upmarket wine merchant Philglass and Swiggott (true story: I used to frequent their Richmond branch and I had to have it explained to me that those weren’t in fact their real surnames). 

Northcote Road also has restaurant after restaurant, and is full of those kinds of chains: Rosa’s Thai, Joe And The Juice, Patty & Bun, Ole & Steen, Meatliquor. The ones where simultaneously we’d rather like one in Reading but we know that if we got one, it would be because they’d jumped the shark. Not that you needed to eat in one if you were peckish – one food van sold beautiful-looking pizza, another was flogging porchetta sandwiches which looked so attractive that I almost cursed my foresight in having made a reservation.

But I had made a reservation, and I’d relied on Eater London for a recommendation. It had a list of the best restaurants in Battersea, although they were sparsely spread out and it would have taken you the best part of an hour to walk from one end of their map to the other (some of them, weirdly, also end up in their list of the best restaurants in Clapham, which tells you what a no man’s land it can be). 

There were small plates wine bars and gastropubs, little BYOB Thai joints and a restaurant offering French-Korean fusion, whatever that is. But I was drawn to Osteria Antica Bologna, slap bang on Northcote Road. It had been going for over thirty years, which meant I had probably walked past it countless times a decade ago. And the clincher was this: I love Bologna and I haven’t been there in far too long. So Zoë and I turned up at lunchtime, our tote bag already full of treats for later from the cheesemonger, to see if it could transport me back, in spirit at least, to one of my favourite cities.

It was old school right from the beginning, with a burgundy and orange awning and a big sign at the front saying “DAL 1990”. And stepping inside I was reminded that it can be a fine line between dated and timeless, and sometimes you make it from the former to the latter merely by staying the course. For what it’s worth, I think Osteria Antica Bologna was the right side of the line, with a simple, rustic-looking dining room, a dusky pink banquette running along one side. On the other, tables were separated by a trellis-like partition that no doubt pre-dated the pandemic.

Beyond the archway in front of the bar, out back, was a more modern-looking dining room with a skylight, an extension I imagine, but I was glad they didn’t seat us there. Even the little things, like a circular table at the front with a big bowl of olives and a large bouquet of flowers, felt like something they had done for a very long time. It was a room with a lovely energy, a place harbouring the unspoken promise that you would eat well, and although only a handful of tables were occupied when we arrived at one o’clock, only a couple were empty when we left.

Another sign that the restaurant was resolutely old school came as I drank my – surprisingly bracing – Aperol Spritz and Zoë attacked her negroni. The menu was antipasti, pasta and main courses. If you wanted pizza, you should have headed to the food truck on the other side of the road, or to Franco Manca. But everything sounded marvellous, including the specials which were explained by our personable, enthusiastic waiter. 

I almost tried some of their pasta but, and this was the only real disappointment on the menu, the difference between a starter and main-sized portion of pasta was just two pounds, which said to me that I was effectively choosing between that and a main. But there’s always next time, when the pumpkin and ricotta ravioli with sage will be calling to me – although not necessarily loud enough to drown out the siren song of the wild boar ragu, or the risotto with salsiccia and Barbera. A truly great menu always comes with regret baked in: that’s the nature of these things.

We’d ordered a trio of antipasti to start and if anything they intensified that regret: given just how good these were, what other treasures had we missed on the menu? Arancini were possibly the best I can remember, and simpler than many I’ve had. No thick crust of breadcrumbs here, just a feather-light seasoned shell. No stodge to wade through with a molten core, instead just a neat sphere of rice, cheese and peas retaining a little bite. And to go with it, an arrabiata sauce worthy of the name, just spiky enough. It reminded me of the difference between pretenders, as with my visit last year to Sauce & Flour, and the real deal – unshowy but superb.

Also as good as I can remember were the zucchini fritti. No, scratch that: they were easily the best I’ve had anywhere. So often, including at a couple of Reading restaurants I actually really like, they can be soggy, limp things and you’re left to redeem them with some kind of dip. Here they were shoestring-thin, almost ethereal yet spot-on crispy, the way this dish always promises to be but somehow never is. And they didn’t need any kind of dip because they were so salty and zippy, so beautifully seasoned and cooked with a real lightness of touch. “The menu should tell you to order these with your drink while you make up your mind” said Zoë who was, as usual, entirely correct.

The other small dish we had, bruschetta with ‘nduja, was the least excellent but really, that just means it was still cracking. Two thin slices of toasted bread were loaded with a terrific ‘nduja – not stingily, either – with more depth and earthiness than I’m used to. So often ‘nduja dishes I’ve had are a one-note symphony relying on the acrid heat it can supply; I’ve lost track of the number of restaurants that make lazy use of the stuff. By contrast, this dish just said isn’t our ‘nduja amazing? and, having tasted it, it was impossible to argue. One thing you could potentially quibble, here, was the cost: eight pounds fifty for that. Sounds expensive, but is it 2023-in-London expensive? Your guess is as good as mine.

We grabbed a couple more drinks while we waited for our mains. My gavi, in an endearingly functional wine glass, had a pleasant zing to it and Zoë, sensibly, decided to move to gin and tonic. By this point the restaurant had a real buzz and all the temptations of elsewhere, the porchetta sandwiches and gelato places, had melted into air. All that mattered was the next course, and the course after that.

“This is very promising, isn’t it?” said Zoë. She was right about that too. 

If I had to pick a main course to start my reviewing this year with, it would be hard to choose better than the dish Osteria Antica Bologna served me. A piece of cod with salty, crispy skin and soft, sumptuous flesh, cooked by someone who really understood how to get both those things right at once, perched on a little heap of chickpeas, tomatoes and spinach.

A single forkful was enough for me to know that I was in a happy place. I even turned to Zoë and told the tired joke I reserve for these occasions, I love it when a chickpea’s in my mouth, and she had the decency not to grimace; imagine what sitting opposite me at dinner dozens of times a year must be like. Only the fact that the promised salsa verde, which would have completed the dish perfectly, had been replaced by a smear of something closer to purée slightly blotted the copy book.

The problem is that if I had to pick a main course with which to start my reviewing year, it would be damn near impossible to choose better than the dish the restaurant served to Zoë. The menu called it pork belly with roasted apple, but that prosaic description comes nowhere near capturing what a marvel it was. A gargantuan slab of pork where, like the fish, everything was exactly how it was meant to be. The flesh was tender, the crackling brittle and intensely savoury. Between the two, arguably the best bit, that sticky, moreish layer of subcutaneous fat, rendered to the point where it was gorgeous but not beyond that to the point where it vanished. I was allowed a forkful, and then because of my expression I was allowed another, and another.

“Would you like to try some of my fish?”

“No, you’re all right.”

Just as sometimes you can only pick out one face in a crowd, it was hard to remember, eating that pork, that there were other things on the plate. But the gravy, shot through with mustard which never overpowered, was a terrific foil and I imagine the griddled apple was superb with it too. We’d ordered some chips with our dishes, which they really didn’t need, and those were predictably wonderful – light and salty and far too easy to pick at long after we’d cleared our mains. If they buy them in, they buy very well.

The dessert menu was also compact and leant heavily on the classics, and having seen the well-upholstered man and his Sloaney Alice-banded daughter at the next table make their choices simplified things nicely for me. My tiramisu was maybe the weakest link in the whole meal – not bad, per se, but a little too loose and liquid when I’d have liked it a tad more substantial. The slug of coffee and booze as you got to the bottom, though? That was still a wonderful moment in a meal full of them. And at the end of it I had an Amaro di Capo, as much medicine as booze, served without airs, graces, ice cubes or orange in a tall shot glass.

Zoë – here we go again – picked better. Her pear and chocolate tart was another home run, with a few pieces of baked pear, a pleasingly short pastry base and a very thick layer of chocolate; I thought it was a relatively airy ganache, Zoë thought it was a sponge, we had a heated debate about it and agreed to disagree. “That filling definitely has flour in it” were her last words on the subject, but I still say she’s dead wrong. I also managed to talk her out of ordering a Bailey’s and into trying a Frangelico instead. It was not a sponge: trust me on this. 

I haven’t talked about service but it was another of the things that was great rather perfect. The staff are clearly a well-oiled unit, bright and happy, friendly and brilliant. But one thing they also were, slightly, was too efficient. Our plates were cleared away mere moments after we’d cleared them, to the point where it became a little bit too much (“there’s something OCD about it” Zoë said, bemusedly, just after they’d also cleared her G&T away when she hadn’t quite finished it).

But really, that was a small quibble about a magnificent place to eat. I could easily see how Osteria Antica Bologna had held its ground amid all that gentrification, all those pop-ups and top tier chains. At one point I saw one of the waiters leave the restaurant with some plates of food and take them out into the street to the people manning a flower stall outside: that, I thought, said it all. Our meal for two – three courses, three drinks each and an optional 12.5% service charge – came to just over a hundred and fifty pounds, and I thought it was worth every penny.

I’ve complained in the past about Reach plc and its pisspoor habit of saying a restaurant is “just like eating” in a foreign country. My problem with that is twofold. First, the poor unfortunate journalist in question has probably never been to the country in question. But more importantly, 99 times out of 100 they haven’t been to the restaurant either – why bother, when there’s TripAdvisor? But for once I’m going to do it myself: I’ve been to Osteria Antica Bologna, and I’ve been to osterias in the city from which it takes its name. And if I’d stepped out the front door to find myself looking at an orange portico dappled with sunlight, rather than being a two minute walk from a Farrow & Ball and a branch of JoJo Maman Bebe, I wouldn’t have been entirely surprised.

As I paid up, our meal at an end and so many around us barely beginning theirs, I thought about what it means to have a restaurant for over thirty years. To outlast fads and phases, to have ‘nduja and burrata on your menu before everybody discovers them, to steer your course without embracing small plates or no reservations, to serve pasta simply because it’s what you do rather than because suddenly pasta restaurants are in vogue. I thought about the fact that Osteria Antica Bologna was here before Northcote Road was all fancy and well-to-do, that they had sent thousands of customers away replete and happy. That they’d started doing that before I even finished my A levels.

And I thought that even though this restaurant was nowhere near my home town (and, let’s be honest, most of you will probably never go there) it was still the perfect place to kick off my reviews this year. Because to celebrate this restaurant, on some level, is to celebrate all great restaurants. Some people have a nasty tendency to use “neighbourhood restaurant” as a way of patting a place on the head. It’s okay I suppose, if you live there they seem to say. But a great neighbourhood restaurant, especially one that makes you wish it was your neighbourhood, is a truly special thing. Osteria Antica Bologna is every bit that special. I’ll find an excuse to be back near Clapham Junction: when I do, I intend to order everything.

Osteria Antica Bologna – 8.6
23 Northcote Road, London, SW11 1NG
020 79784771

https://osteria.co.uk

Restaurant review: Chalk, Wokingham

I’m thinking of reviving my annual awards in a couple of weeks. And although I don’t have a category for Restaurant I’ve Most Signally Failed To Review in 2022, Wokingham’s Chalk would win that one hands down if I did. A combination of train strikes, planned engineering works and inclement weather back in the summer has borked at least three attempts to get there for lunch, and I only managed to pull it off this week because the trains played nice and my old friend Mike, at a loose end that Saturday, kindly agreed to meet me there.

So why the multiple attempts, and why have I prioritised squeaking it in just before the end of the year? Well, I was long overdue a return to Wokingham – it’s been about a year since I visited Hamlet – and whenever I asked where was good in Wokingham, Chalk unfailingly came up. Nobody ever raved and said “oh my god, you have to try Chalk” but I never heard a bad word about it. It was lovely, I was regularly told, or really good. That might sound muted, but it’s also often how people describe under-the-radar places. I want you to know I think it’s good, it can say, but I also don’t want people to discover my secret

It’s in a very handsome building on Wokingham’s Broad Street, not far from either the town centre or the station; Montague House is an eighteenth century building with great bones, big sash windows and a space out front which looks like a terrific spot for al fresco dining on a summer’s day. From the outside it felt like a larger, grander version of Reading’s St Mary’s Church House, the home of Bill’s, and indeed it wouldn’t have at all surprised me to find Bill’s operating out of Montague House. In reality Prezzo used to have the site until they drastically slimmed down their estate in early 2018. Chalk opened there just over two years ago, just in time for that nationwide lockdown, the horrors of Tiers 1, 2 and 3 and the last minute cancellation of Christmas. Remember those halcyon days?

That they are still going strong – they were very busy when I visited on a weekend lunchtime – suggests they’ve built up a certain loyalty among locals. There’s not much on record about Chalk’s backstory or credentials, but two of the owners come from Fego, the small chain which operates in – how do I put this? – Muddy Stilettos country while the third, the head chef, has spent time at the Roseate in Reading. So that potentially places Chalk in the same bracket as Hamlet, with an accomplished chef trying to offer all day affordable dining to Wokingham’s comparatively prosperous clientele. Could they pull off that comparatively challenging brief?

The inside is a a warren of three connected dining rooms, the nicest of which is at the front looking out through those big windows. We were led to the one at the back and I found it harder to like. There were windows, but they looked out on some fences, presumably erected so you don’t have to gaze upon the Waitrose car park in all its quotidian glory. The overall effect made the room slightly gloomy. One wall had been zhuzhed up by putting some naked ceiling roses on it, like a parade of giant plaster Regency nipples. God knows what that was about.

When the menu was offered we were asked if we wanted to see the festive menu too, and although I didn’t hugely want to I had a look out of curiosity. It was a reasonable value three mains, three starters, three desserts job with the obligatory vegetarian option and a turkey roulade, but it held no particular appeal. Besides, it didn’t represent what you can order at Chalk the rest of the year.

The only problem, I now realise, is that going to Chalk at lunchtime in the run-up to Christmas is itself unrepresentative. The lunch menu’s narrower than the dinner menu anyway, to make way for a range of sandwiches, but because of that festive menu the lunch offering was stripped back still further. So it was a choice of four starters, three mains, a few options from the grill and three burgers. I mention this because, as will become apparent, the menu was a bit of a Jekyll & Hyde between the cheffy and the workaday – I suspect if you went for dinner in the New Year the cheffiness might come more to the fore.

We started off with a couple of very agreeable Aperol spritzes and something from the snacking plates section of the menu. Chicken popcorn was nothing of the kind, really, but it was six pleasant chicken nuggets, a sweet chilli sauce dip and some pointless pea shoots to make matters less beige. They could have been crunchier or crispier, and I wasn’t convinced the coating was exactly jumping with seasoning, but they were decent all the same and pretty generous at just over four quid. I raced through my allotted three nuggets.

“Do you want to share the last one?” said Mike. “My mum’s cooking me dinner tonight.” This, as I think I’ve said before, is why some people are thin and I haven’t been for the best part of twenty-five years.

The starters were an incongruous pair, a little like Mike and me. His goat’s cheese panna cotta (“can they make panna cotta out of goat’s cheese?” was Mike’s first reaction on reading the menu) looked respectable, a lozenge of the stuff resting on a carpaccio of beetroot with more of those slightly pointless pea shoots. Goat’s cheese and beetroot as a combination is hardly trailblazing stuff, but I thought it looked nicely done and I thought it was a nice touch to include both walnuts and pickled walnuts (incidentally, if you’ve never tried pickled walnuts I recommend them: all the fun of pickles without any of the drawbacks of walnuts).

“What do you reckon?”

“I mean, it’s okay. It probably looks more impressive than it tastes.” Mike can be somewhat economical with his words, I should warn you: wait until you hear what he made of his main course.

My starter, though, was the loveliest thing I ate at Chalk. Torched mackerel – two good-sized pieces – came just-cooked on a clever, interesting salad of seaweed and fennel tangled together, with a gentle hum of sesame. Pickled ginger in it too, apparently, though I didn’t detect that. Mackerel works well with these kinds of flavours, and I found there was a surprising amount going on, but I wasn’t sure it made sense to crown the whole thing with fronds of dill, a little Scandinavian interference in the otherwise Asian flavours. This dish, more than anything else I tried, represented what I suspect Chalk could be like the rest of the time, and on its own it was enough to make me consider going back. Good value at just over eight pounds, too.

We had a couple of glasses of wine while we waited for our mains to arrive. Again, the wine list gives hints at the kind of restaurant Chalk is most of the time, with prices ranging from an eminently sensible twenty-one quid to a couple of vintage clarets north of a hundred pounds and a 2014 super-Tuscan that clocks in at three hundred and seventy pounds. I wonder how many of those they sell? (Mind you, it’s only three hundred and fifty pounds retail). At the more affordable end of the spectrum Mike enjoyed a Malbec at just under nine quid and my white Rioja, closer to eight pounds, was surprisingly complex.

Mains were nicely paced but, as I’ve already said, from the more pedestrian end of a relatively pedestrian menu. I’d gone for a chicken burger, but the contrast with, say, the delicious chicken burger I’d tasted at Asado in last week’s review was marked. Chalk used chicken breast rather than thigh, and although they’d managed to cook it well without drying it out it still lost something in terms of the coating and seasoning.

Where Chalk did get things right, though, was in everything that came with it. Combining gherkins, jalapeños and pineapple relish could have been confusing, or overkill, but actually the heat, sweetness and sharpness synchronised beautifully. The only drawback was that something in it – insufficiently drained gherkins, at a guess – meant the brioche was soggy and not up to the task of keeping it all together.

Chips were pretty decent – skin on, quite probably from a packet, but good nonetheless. And I asked for ketchup and got a minuscule individual jar of Tiptree tomato sauce: fancy!

“What’s yours like?” I said to Mike. He’d gone for something from the grill section – a lamb chop which came with triple-cooked chips, mushroom, tomato and (how did you guess?) yet more of those ever-present pea shoots. Now, Mike didn’t let me try his food – there are benefits, you see, to going on duty with your partner rather than a friend, however long you’ve known them – so all I can do is tell you how it looked to me. I thought the chips, triple cooked or not, looked a darn sight better than the fries that came with my burger. The mushroom looked a little bit wrinkled and sad, and the lamb didn’t have enough pinkness or blush for it for my liking. I thought it was unlikely that the dish represented Chalk at its very best.

But fortunately, you don’t have to take my word for it because I asked Mike what he thought. Brace yourself.

“It’s okay. It’s lamb, and it’s a chop.”

See? I told you.

“You know I’m going to use that word for word, don’t you?”

“Sorry. The red wine jus thing I ordered is good with it, and I like the caramelised onions but yeah, it’s a lamb chop.”

A lot of the red wine jus was left in the ramekin: if I’d ordered this I’d have poured the stuff over everything rather than using it as a dip. This, too, is why Mike is thin.

We didn’t fancy dessert enough to go for it. The ganache tart with white chocolate, salted caramel and pistachio ice cream was very much my kind of thing but there wasn’t another dish on there that appealed: why ruin a perfectly good crème brûlée by adulterating it with rooibos, of all things? So we got the bill, which came to a hundred pounds on the nail, including a twelve and a half per cent service charge.

Now, I haven’t talked about service until now but it really was excellent from start to finish and that was one of the things I liked most about Chalk. Everyone was friendly and polite – when they greeted you, when they showed you to your table, even when you left. I think every single member of staff must have said goodbye to us. They were clearly working like Trojans on one of the busiest weekends of the year, and the only one in December not marred by the train strikes.

But it was more than that because Michelle, who looked after us according to my bill, had that skill I associate with really top-level service, of anticipating what you wanted moments before you realised you wanted it and materialising at the table just in time to provide it. Again, I got a clear picture that I maybe hadn’t seen Chalk at its most representative, and that was more my fault – and that of the damn season – than it was Chalk’s.

The rest of my afternoon in Wokingham was properly lovely, since you ask. We went to Outhouse Brewing, where the beer was good but the room was empty, and then Sit N’ Sip, where the beer was just okay and the room felt like one of the Lounge Group with ideas above its station. Mike took me through the contents of his Tinder – there’s no vicarious pleasure like it for the happily attached – and I wound him up by super-liking some individuals who really weren’t his cup of tea.

“I only get five of those a month!” he glared at me.

“And how many of them do you actually use?”

“That’s not the point.”

After that, wanting some ambience and the kind of companionable male bonding only sitting in front of the football can provide, we wandered off to the Crispin, possibly my favourite Wokingham pub. Despite being reasonably full from lunch we found room for some peanuts and some pickled onion Monster Munch, and we joined the throng watching Morocco beat Portugal.

There was tinsel everywhere, and all of us in a circle round the telly oohed and aahed and said “come on Morocco!” and really, I had the nicest time. Craft beer is all very good, but sometimes you just want a crisp, cold macro cider, your pub tapas opened out on the table in front of you and an old friend to whom you can say, with the easy comfort of a nearly forty year friendship, that was never offside.

Anyway, back to Chalk. Here’s a trade secret for you – whenever I finish a review, I scour through it to try and strip out all the words I’ve overused: not everything can be lovely, or terrific, or quite good (quite is one of the weasel words I use too often – is it good or isn’t it?). With Chalk, the word that sent me running to the thesaurus was decent. I took out quite a lot, a few I left in. In restaurants as in life, decent is a very good quality, an underrated one. But it does feel a bit like damning with faint praise.

And Chalk would be dangerously easy to damn with faint praise. When I came away from it, I sort of thought it was like an upmarket answer to Bill’s for people who want that kind of establishment but independent and not mediocre. But the more I think about it, the more I think that’s not fair. The interesting things I had on the menu were very interesting, well done and good value. And if there weren’t more interesting things on the menu, that’s not entirely their fault: for all I know, for that matter, their turkey roulade would have had me eating my words.

But I saw enough to think it’s worth a visit, and it’s probably worth me revisiting too. At a more conventional time I could have tried wood pigeon with salt-baked beetroot and blackberry jus or beef cheek with bone marrow jus, and over the summer, during one of my failed attempts to review the place they were serving skate wing, one of my very favourite things. So it’s a cautious recommend from me for a place that did a fair few things right, and gave me the impression they were capable of even more.

Anyway, it’s somehow fitting that Chalk is my final review of the year. It manages to both highlight everywhere I’ve been in 2022 and all the unfinished business that gets carried forward into 2023 in a single visit; it may not win Restaurant I’ve Most Signally Failed To Review, but it probably does win Restaurant Where I Didn’t Tell The Whole Story. I would say that you live and learn, but I’m not sure that’s a strong point of mine: none the less, I’ll be back at Chalk next year, when the tinsel is down and the relentless Christmas songs have stopped playing. I want to see how close it can get to what I glimpsed this time, but didn’t completely grasp.

Chalk – 7.2
31 Broad Street, Wokingham, RG40 1AU
0118 9798805

https://www.chalkrestaurants.com

Restaurant review: Asado, Bristol

The venue for this week’s review was partly chosen as a result of circumstances: our train back from Bristol left mid-afternoon on Sunday, so we needed somewhere that would do a good lunch but not necessarily a leisurely one. For me this is where casual dining so often comes into its own, when you want something decent but not too expensive, briskly paced but not fast food. And this being Bristol, even that sector of the market is awash with attractive, interesting options so you never have to opt for the comfort zone of a chain restaurant. Could Asado, a burger restaurant at the top of the Christmas Steps, be the answer?

That arguably undersells Asado’s standing though, as if I’d merely looked at a map of the city and tried to find something affordable within walking distance. In fact, it has built a formidable reputation since it opened five years ago, with many people thinking it arguably does Bristol’s best burger (a title awarded to it last September – although only by the local Reach plc website, so perhaps not carrying that much cachet after all).

Its pedigree is decent too – the owner is an alumnus of Patty & Bun, who for my money served probably the best burger I’ve ever had. He moved to Bristol determined to offer something a little different, and Asado’s selling point when it opened was that the burgers were cooked over a wood-fired grill. The menu also had a mixture of traditional and South American influences, and the hype was considerable: this was back when Bristol had quite a few restaurant blogs, although the last review of Asado I can find from anywhere is nearly four years old.

Having survived the pandemic Asado made a properly leftfield move when it came to expansion – the owner decided to move to Barcelona, so they just opened a second branch there. As you do. There’s something quite admirable about that – I know we often look at restaurants outside Reading and wish they’d expand in our direction, but given a choice between, say, the Ding and Barcelona who can blame them for heading south?

Anyway Asado seemed to be thriving in its original branch, and although we were the first customers there when it opened at one by the time we left plenty of the tables were occupied with groups, big and small, working their way through the menu (and drinking cocktails in many cases, which made me feel about a hundred years old).

The restaurant is made up of two rooms – a narrow front room, also home to the bar, which has a snugger, more conspiratorial air and a back room which feels more open and spacious due to a lovely big skylight. Furniture was the kind of standard-issue mixture of distressed chairs and what looked like old school chairs, and the overall effect was a little like a classier version of Bluegrass BBQ. We sat in the back room, and what it gained in natural light it lost because of a certain lingering chilliness.

The menu was encouragingly concise, with a limited number of variations on a theme. So you can have the beef burger as it comes, or enhanced with pulled beef, pastrami or skirt steak. The chicken burger either comes with guacamole and chipotle mayo or with hot sauce (Warning! Hot is very hot, the menu said) and blue cheese dressing. There are two options for vegetarians, with the burgers made by Huera – from pea protein, as far as I could tell by Googling – with pulled jackfruit if you fancy it.

Both of those can be made vegan by request, although you miss out on the West Country cheddar: Asado makes much of using proper local cheese rather than plastic American slices. Burgers tend to range from fourteen to eighteen pounds and come with fries and slaw, and you can double up anything apart from the chicken burgers for three quid.

As is generally the case with this kind of restaurant the smaller dishes were labelled as sides rather than starters, although the woman serving us did give us the option of having them separately as starters if we wanted, a nice touch. Service, incidentally, was superb, bright and enthusiastic; she started out by complimenting Zoë’s make up, which is a great way of getting anybody on side. From what I could tell she was bilingual as well, because the Spanish names of our dishes were pronounced flawlessly and I’m pretty sure I heard her talking to a neighbouring table in Spanish.

She brought over a couple of beers for us – the draft beer here is by local New Bristol Brewery – and from that point onwards I felt in very capable hands. We tried the table beer, Three Falling (it’s three per cent ABV, you see) and I thought it did a great job of packing a lot of flavour into a pretty sessionable strength. By that point in the weekend I was simultaneously sworn off drinking for quite some time and thinking three per cent is hardly booze at all: it’s surprisingly easy to hold both those ideas in your head at the same time.

If I had a fiver for every time I’ve written Zoë ordered better than me on this over the last four years, I could probably review quite a few restaurants in 2023 without putting my hand in my pockets. And so it proved here, because the Pollo Libre, Asado’s (more) basic chicken burger, was fantastic. A lot of hefty chicken thigh, fried in a nicely seasoned, crunchy and craggy coating, would have been pretty unimprovable even on its own, but the extras took it just that little bit further. “This guacamole is great” said Zoë, “and it’s positively singing with lime”. I was allowed a bite, which was enough to confirm that she was right and to make me slightly regret my own choice.

I’d decided to go for the entry level burger, the eponymous Asado. It’s the most stripped-down one they do but it still has plenty going on with the patty, that West Country cheddar and plenty of different sauces – chimichurri, confit garlic mayo and ketchup and some pickled red onions on top. And I liked it just fine, but it didn’t blow me away as I’d hoped. Part of that might just be expectation management: I thought that the burger itself would have a wow factor from having been grilled over fire but I didn’t get a huge amount of char or caramelisation, or the smokiness I was expecting. And it didn’t feel to me like all those sauces were working in harmony – less might have been more, in that respect. I liked it, but I didn’t love it.

Credit to them, though, for making a burger that you could just about eat without unhooking your jaw, in a not-too-sweet brioche that had the structural integrity to keep it together. Perhaps I should have had it with extras, but I wanted to think that the burger could stand on its own two feet without that. Instead I had some of the smoky pulled beef on top of my rosemary fries and it was positively transformative – a beautiful tangle of savoury, smoky and sweet strands of slow-cooked beef that quite made my afternoon. You can have these on your burger if you order the El Don, and next time I probably would. The slaw, which was dressed rather than with mayo, felt a little underdressed and felt like it was there mainly for appearances. It did look pretty, though.

If that was the whole story, it might have been a little underwhelming but it was the sides and the extras that lifted Asado into more interesting territory. I’ve already raved about the pulled beef, but I also adored our grilled courgettes. Asado used to do courgette fritti but this was much more vibrant and interesting – batons of courgette just-cooked but blackened on the outside, striped with a well-balanced sriracha mayo. More virtuous than yet more fried stuff, but still indulgent. I could have eaten a bucketload more of this.

Speaking of fried stuff, the sides and bar snacks section of the menu featured croquetas with more of that pulled beef in them and morcilla nuggets – breadcrumbed spheres of black pudding fried until crispy and dished up with a chimichurri mayo. The latter are three pounds each or four for eight pounds fifty, and when we only asked for a couple the waitress asked if we were sure. And when we said we were she took our order, although I wish with hindsight that she’d said “Seriously, you should reconsider: they’re fucking amazing”. Because they were – the perfect snacking size, possibly two bites maximum of deep, delicious black pudding only slightly lightened by the mayo. If I’d known how manageable they were, I’d have ordered four. To myself.

And if I’d known how small they were, I would have made room for the four morcilla nuggets by passing on the chicken wings. They were decent enough, although again the smoke didn’t really come through on them at all, and I loved the sweetness of the pineapple and agave glaze, with a little heat. But they reminded me of everybody I’ve ever worked with who had short man syndrome: small and stubborn, to the point where however nice they might be you did find yourself thinking is this worth the effort? On balance, perhaps not. I could have had some of those pulled beef croquetas instead, or saved room for dessert. There’s only one on the menu, a passion fruit cheesecake, but I bet it’s marvellous.

With us done and dusted, all that remained was to settle up. Our meal for two with a couple of pints, probably more sides than we needed and including a needlessly low ten per cent optional tip, came to just over seventy six pounds. We were out the door more quickly than planned, so we wandered across to Bristol’s branch of C.U.P. on Park Street, a little slice of home from home, and sat outside with one of their peerless mochas, looking down the hill and imagining what it would be like to live in Bristol. Would it still be so amazing then, or is the grass always greener at the other end of the M4?

Summing up this review is difficult. My Bristolian readers (and it seems I have more than I thought) will probably already know about Asado and have firm opinions about it. Especially if they also read Bristol’s Reach plc website, which looks almost as trashy as ours. And for the rest of you, it’s a little more difficult. If you are absolutely mad about burgers I would say yes, you should definitely go. One of the best burger restaurants in Bristol is very likely, on paper, to be one of the best in the country. And if you happen to be in Bristol and you want a quick meal, not far from the train station, it’s very easy to give Asado an unqualified recommendation.

Is it enough to build a visit to Bristol around the way that, say, Wilsons, Marmo or Caper and Cure are? No, probably not. But that’s no bad thing. Not every restaurant can be Lionel Messi. Somebody has to be Luke Shaw, and there’s no shame in that. And it’s definitely a level above Honest, which is most people’s Reading benchmark.

“I saw you went to Wings Diner” said Gurt Wings’ James when I went to Blue Collar the following Friday for my regular dose of his Japanese fried chicken. That figured: Mr Gurt always has an eye out on Instagram and never misses a trick so he’d seen all my meals in Bristol, even the ones I didn’t write about.

“Yeah, it was really pretty good. Especially the Korean dip.”

“You know where you should go in Bristol? There’s a place called Seven Lucky Gods and their Korean fried chicken is out of this world.”

See? It never ends. Nonetheless, I made a note for next time.

Asado – 8.2
90 Colston Street, Bristol, BS1 5BB
0117 9279276

Restaurant review: Wilsons, Bristol

I’m sorry to start proceedings with what looks suspiciously like a humblebrag, but last month I was on holiday in Belfast and as a treat, we booked a table at Ox, one of the city’s Michelin starred restaurants. But it was a hugely disappointing evening, which will please those of you who don’t like humblebrags. Everything was not quite right; nothing was actively terrible, but the whole thing felt far from optimal. We left underwhelmed, slightly peckish and feeling as if our wallets had been mugged in a dark alley, and wandered away from the scene of the crime in search of a pint.

I’ve never understood people who collect Michelin starred restaurants – too humblebraggy even for me – or restaurant bloggers who loftily describe meals they’ve had as “easily one star food”, as if somebody died and promoted them to inspector. Get over yourselves: it’s just one set of opinions, from an organisation so shrouded in secrecy and obscurity that they make the Freemasons look like the Good Law Project. For what it’s worth, I’ve always thought the Bib Gourmand is a better indicator that you’ll have a good and interesting meal.

The subject of this week’s review is Wilsons, a little restaurant in Bristol which doesn’t have a Michelin star, but which served me one of the very best meals I’ve had in the last five years. Not only did it get everything right that Ox got wrong, but it made me think about what excellence in restaurants really means – and how little of it has anything to do with being fancy.

Take the room, for example. At Ox, we walked past the lovely, twinkly, atmospheric downstairs room – which had free tables in it – only to be walked up the stairs to an unlovely mezzanine floor, all hard surfaces and dead air, the overflow car park of hospitality. It was boiling hot, the aircon stayed resolutely switched off and even blowing out the candles didn’t seem to alert the staff to what a stuffy, unpleasant place it was in which to have a meal. Wilsons has just the one dining room. It’s plain, simple, dignified and stylish with nothing on the walls except chalkboards and a lovely stained glass sign hanging in the full-length window. Good restaurants, ideally, have no shit tables. Wilsons has no shit tables.

This extended through to the menus. Ox doesn’t have a menu, so you are surprised on the night. Instead, they hand you a rather pretentious-looking sheet of paper which lists all the elements and ingredients that will feature in your meal, without telling you how or where. The menu is on their website, so even as gimmicks go, it’s pointless. Wilsons also offers a single menu but it’s written on the chalkboard each day for everybody to see. You can have the whole lot for sixty pounds – twenty pounds less than Ox – or a stripped-down version at lunch for twenty five quid (I read a review where someone said “that’s less than you’d spend on a pair of socks”: I’m as fond of conspicuous consumption as the next person, but what a knobber).

A mystery menu wouldn’t be a problem if the service brought the meal to life. Again, Ox was disappointing: everything was mechanical and muted, and much of it was hard to hear in that unforgiving and joyless space. Detail was scant, and there was more warmth in the room than in the welcome. And again, Wilson’s was outstanding. All the staff abandoned zonal marking for the hospitality equivalent of total football, which meant that our dishes were brought by a huge variety of friendly faces.

All of them could talk with huge knowledge and enormous enthusiasm about every single detail of every single dish: a better reviewer than me would have taken notes. On another night in Belfast we went to Edo, an incredible tapas restaurant and our waiter, almost immediately after we took our seats, said “well obviously I know the menu inside out so I can answer any questions you have”: that’s how you do it.

The food at Ox was also muted and bland, but that’s quite enough talking about restaurants other than Wilsons. Let’s talk about their food instead, because everything was stunning, more or less. We went for the full monty, and it started with a beautiful, clever piece of work – a gorgeous feather-light gougère packed with cheddar and leek and topped with a little beret of pickled onion purée. The whole thing imploded in the mouth leaving nothing but joy, an accomplished disappearing act.

Bread was made by the restaurant and came to the table still warm with a puck of butter which the restaurant cultures itself. This was accompanied with a vivid little dish of cod roe, pastel pink with a little iris of bright herb oil. There was powdered something-or-other on top, and if I’d made notes I’d be able to tell you what it was. All of this was lovely, incidentally, although the bread was sliced a tad too thick which made it difficult to use all the butter and cod roe. Zoë ran her finger along the bowl, and I pretended to be shocked.

At the same time, we had one final snack which the wait staff playfully described as a taco – a chicory leaf with chicken liver parfait, preturnaturally smooth, topped with powdered beetroot and the pop of toasted pearl barley. So much effort gone into making something so small, gone in an instant but remembered for days: truly magical stuff.

The next dish was one of the best things I ate that day, which makes it one of the best things I’ve eaten full stop. A savoury custard made with squash was sweet, glossy and perfectly spiced. Again, texture and pop was beautifully added with seeds, toasted in some of the same spice mix. But then the other elements added layer on layer of complexity and cleverness – tiny shimeji mushrooms, pickled in sherry vinegar, and a mushroom consommé poured over at the table, submerging the custard under something phenomenally savoury. Again, if I’d made better notes I could tell you what the leaves were: sorry about that.

By this point we were a couple of glasses into a fantastic bottle of natural Gruner Veltliner (the same one, actually, that I’d had at Goat On The Roof: it’s far more attractively priced at Wilsons) and I was already beginning to realise that this food was like very little I’ve eaten in other restaurants. I couldn’t recall anywhere I’ve eaten where the flavours were so pinpoint, where things had been so refined and perfected to make everything taste of its truest, best self. And as it turned out, I hadn’t seen anything yet.

Next to come was possibly the most disappointing course. Jigged squid – I have no idea what jigging is, and this time it’s not because I didn’t take notes – came in a rich and salty broth with rainbow chard. The squid, cut into ribbons to resemble udon, was among the freshest I’ve had and this dish made me love rainbow chard, something beyond the talents of most kitchens. The broth bringing it together had absolutely everything, and again it was that precise, super-concentrated hit that makes you sit up and pay attention, eat more slowly, take it all in. But this was the first time a portion felt stingy and doubt crept in: four ribbons of squid, and it’s not a good sign that I counted them.

Was it enough to dumbfound your tastebuds if you left a restaurant hungry? And yet my tastebuds were so dumbfounded – not least by a little tuile made from squid ink, as black as night and dotted with herb emulsion (I probably should have mentioned that much of the produce Wilsons use comes from their garden). It was a perfect mouthful, in a meal full of perfect mouthfuls and in a world where the word perfect is much devalued, not least by me. “It’s like the best crisp ever” said Zoë, who usually sums these things up better than I do.

More was to come, and the fish course proper was a proper marvel. A little cylinder of pollock, a notoriously recalcitrant fish, was cooked bang on and topped with another symphony of herbs, alongside a silky parsnip puree, the whole thing bound together with a superb vin jaune sauce which delivered more salt and less funk than I was expecting. I’ve talked about the half-life of dishes before and this had a long one – each forkful carefully calibrated to prolong the enjoyment. But again, the lack of carbs troubled me. What was the point of these beautiful sauces, dips and oils when there wasn’t always the substance to transport them into your gob?

I should have trusted in the process, because the next course made everything right. Crown of pheasant, cooked and then, I think, finished on the barbecue, glazed with some kind of emulsion and dotted with the smallest, punchiest capers I’ve ever eaten was a thing of rapture, as was the pheasant sauce and the wedge of just-cooked cabbage (there was also something called Tokyo turnip, but I thought that was a Steven Seagal film so what do I know?)

But where are the carbs? you might ask. But this is where Wilsons completely won me over by bringing a bowl of the best mash I’ve ever eaten. It was, the waiter told us, fifty per cent potato and fifty per cent butter. He also told us this is the only way to have mash, and I fear he might be right. It’s profoundly ruined me for other mash: I’ve already used the words ‘silky’ and ‘glossy’ in this review, so to save me reaching for the thesaurus let’s just settle for ‘exceptional’ here.

And there was still time for one more extra, one more whistle and bell to show that the kitchen left no stone unturned. We were also brought two pieces of what the waiter called “Kentucky Fried Pheasant”, little nubbins of pheasant thigh coated in the restaurant’s secret blend, deep fried and then drizzled with a ranch dressing including some of the same spices. You might wonder who goes to all that trouble, and I wouldn’t blame you. Wilsons do, that’s who. I may never get to try Eton Fried Swan (once we have a republic I really think this is a franchise that could take off) but until then this will tide me over nicely.

Having had some of the best, most interesting courses of my restaurant-going life, presumably things would dip for dessert, right? They so often do, after all. Well, think again: Wilsons’ dessert was also a desert (or even dessert) island dish. On paper it just sounded weird – celeriac, fermented honey and truffle. And it might not have been to everyone’s taste, but it absolutely knocked my socks off. The celeriac was an ice cream, more a semifreddo really, with a pool of fermented honey lurking in its hollow. All around it were toasted grains adding crunch and sweetness, and then on top were little truffle shavings.

I don’t know who thinks to put all those flavours together, and it’s a highwire act where any of them could have backfired. But none of them did, and this is the dish, more than any other, that I’ve thought about since that meal. I’ve had parsnip ice cream before but never celeriac, and it worked better than I thought it would. But what I loved was the harmony. Truffle isn’t a team player, nor is anything fermented. But the kitchen deftly drew all of that together into something delicious, remarkable and perhaps slightly mad. And yet not a note was out of place.

Now in Michelin-land, if they haven’t given you a minuscule pre-dessert they tend to send you on your way with some petits fours. They’re not big but they are clever, and they’re another way of making you feel like you’ve had something for free even though all of that luxe is very much priced in. So I adored Wilsons for instead bringing over a hulking great canélé de Bordeaux for each of us.

Now, I’ve had these many times because Reading is lucky enough to have Davy of Wolseley Street Bakery fame, and this is one of his specialities which he supplies to various places, most notably Geo Café. I like a canélé. But this was a completely different beast, and I wasn’t in Kansas – or Caversham – any more. This had been elevated with whisky and tonka, and the sweetness and richness was like little I’ve experienced. This level of sensory opulence is something I associate more with fragrance than with food, and I can’t put it more strongly than this: if somebody sold an eau de parfum that smelled how that canélé tasted, I’d buy a bottle. They were so good I can even forgive Wilsons for putting the napkin underneath them, although I still think that’s baffling.

My meal – two aperitifs, a bottle of wine and all those terrific experiences and memories – came to two hundred pounds including service, and I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. If Wilsons did vouchers I’d just ask for some for Christmas, and as it is I’m struggling to imagine going to Bristol without eating there again. More to the point, I’m wondering how quickly I can justify going back. As it was, we left knowing it would take a while to process just how good our meal was, and fell into a beautiful nearby pub called the Good Measure which, as luck would have it, was doing a tap takeover by our very own Siren Craft. It was Friday afternoon, I was full and happy and I’d had a miraculous lunch. Life rarely gets much better.

I’m sorry-not-sorry for putting you through this catwalk show of beautiful dishes and purple prose. Sorry because it’s a lot to rattle through, and also arguably sorry if I’ve made you hungry (although, also, not sorry: this is what restaurant reviews should do). Sorry that I’ve rhapsodised about a restaurant that’s a train and bus trip from Reading. But also not sorry, because this is one of the best restaurants I’ve been to in years of trying, and that deserves to be mentioned. I’m sorry because Reading doesn’t have somewhere to match Wilsons and, in fact, I don’t think it ever has. But I’m also not sorry because when people ask me what Reading needs I might stop talking about tapas restaurants, ice cream cafés and good wine bars and just say: it needs somewhere like Wilsons.

Wilsons – 9.6
24 Chandos Road, Redland, Bristol, BS6 6PF
0117 9734157

https://www.wilsonsbristol.co.uk