Wau, Newbury

One thing I’ve often pondered, writing this blog, is the holy trinity you always have to bear in mind when eating in – and assessing – a restaurant: the food, the service and the room. They all have the power to transform your experience. Take Dolce Vita, for example, which closed last year: some of the food was great, some of it (the pizzas and pasta, in particular) could be distinctly middling. But the service was so brilliant that I found I never really minded – a night there could feel like having friends cook for you, in a home from home, in the same way that some pubs (The Retreat, in my case) feel like having a second living room.

I’ve also thought for a long time that if the food is good enough, you can overlook blips in service. I’ve made no secret of my love of the food at Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen, but it can’t be denied that the service has never attained the same heights, with some churn in staff and some elementary mistakes here and there (no, I haven’t quite finished that mango beer, for example, so please stop trying to take it away). When they first opened, it was easy to pass it off as teething troubles or growing pains, but once a restaurant has been trading longer you expect a little more.

The room I’m not so fussed about – I agree with Marco Marchetti, the dapper and wise waiter at Pepe Sale (who’s now hung up his Larry Grayson-style spectacles and moved to Kent, I’m sorry to say) who once told me “we Italians don’t care about the room”. It’s nice to eat in a beautiful room. It’s nice to look at, say, Coppa Club and think “haven’t they done a great job fitting this out?” but when the service is comically bad and the food is indifferent (as it is at, say, Coppa Club) it really doesn’t redeem things. That might be my age, or the fact that I’m not in London: I’m sure some people are dazzled enough by eating somewhere Instagrammable like Sketch or Bob Bob Ricard, but it’s not for me.

But first and foremost, I’ve always believed that food is what matters. If the food is good enough, everything else is secondary. It stands to reason, doesn’t it? Except that this week the review is of Wau, the Malaysian street food restaurant a stone’s throw from Newbury station, and following my visit there I’m no longer so sure.

I found myself in Newbury one weekday evening with my regular dining companion (and close personal friend) Zoë, and after a couple of drinks in the Catherine Wheel I reckoned Wau was the obvious candidate for an evening meal. I’d been once last year and had a terrific meal, and when I put pictures on Instagram loads of people came out of the woodwork to tell me how great Wau was. You don’t see Malaysian food in many places round Reading (although the Moderation often does a few dishes, including nasi goreng), and it was less than five minutes from the station, and I happened to be in Newbury after all, so I decided to go back on duty and try it out again.

Speaking of the room, Wau’s is pretty unprepossessing. At the front are high tables with high stools, and further back are lower tables with still-ubiquitous Tollix chairs. The bar runs along one side of the room, with the kitchen at the back: not an open kitchen per se, but from some tables you get a pretty good view of what’s going on through the glass door. I think there are more tables round the corner, past the bar, although I wasn’t seated there.

The first problem happened when we arrived and the waiter tried to seat us at one of the precarious-looking high tables nearest the door, for two people. They didn’t feel at all like a relaxing place to eat. Could we sit at one of the bigger, lower tables further back, I asked? He looked at me like I’d asked for his date of birth and his mother’s maiden name, or enquired about whether he’d ever considered letting the love of Jesus into his life. It was a Tuesday evening at 8pm, and only one other table was occupied: they burnt a fair bit of goodwill umming and aahing before reluctantly letting us sit at a table for four.

The menu at Wau looks good, and has been recently updated. It’s divided into “Steamed and Grilled”, small plates costing between four and eight pounds, “Rice and Noodles” and “Curry”, which are larger plates costing between ten and thirteen pounds. I took this to be the dividing line between starters and mains – and the menu definitely encourages you to think that way but, as I was to find out, the reality is a bit more haphazard. But all that was yet to come at the point when we ordered three starters (a combination of greed and hunger), two mains and a couple of side dishes.

“The dishes will all come out when they come out, is that okay?” said the waiter.

It wasn’t, really, and I should have made more of this because it’s a real bugbear of mine and I’ve disliked it ever since Wagamama decided to make it a selling point. That approach feels like it’s geared entirely towards the convenience of the kitchen rather than the experience of customers. How presumptuous, I’ve always thought: we’ll make your food in the order we feel like it, and you’ll take what you’re given. Who’s paying who in this scenario? I often wonder.

“What does that mean exactly?”

“Oh. In this case you’ll probably get the squid first, then the pork belly, then the satay, then the beef rendang and nasi goreng and the other bits” he said. This didn’t really inspire confidence, because it was exactly the sequence in which we’d ordered everything, but never mind. What’s the worst that can happen? I reckoned.

Well, here’s what happened – and I’m sorry if this makes for a dull paragraph, but it’s taken from the time stamps of actual photos taken on my and Zoë’s phones: we sat down just after 8 o’clock. At 8.10 we poured our bottles of Tiger beer and placed our order. At 8.19 the salt and pepper squid (a starter) arrived, followed at 8.20 by my nasi goreng (a main). At 8.21 the pork belly starter and the sambal beans (a side dish) were brought to the table. At 8.24 Zoë’s beef rendang turned up, and at 8.25 our final starter, the satay lamb skewers, materialised. So within fifteen minutes of ordering they had brought almost everything we had ordered, all in the space of five minutes. Quite how it would have all fitted on the table for two they originally tried to fob us off with I have no idea, but it turns out that “the dishes will come out when they come out” actually means “they will all come out at once”.

I got that it was a slow night, but that didn’t seem like much of an excuse for the kitchen staff throwing the kitchen sink at trying to get us out quickly. And that’s when I realised – you can say it’s all about the food, but eating out isn’t about eating food, it’s about having a meal. A nicely paced meal, where you can take your time over what you eat and look forward to what you’ve ordered next without worrying about everything going cold before you get to enjoy it. It was utterly ridiculous, and all I could think was: why aren’t the serving staff a little embarrassed by all this?

I say that we had nearly everything we’d ordered. Zoe ordered roti canai to use to scoop up the rendang. That never arrived, so we asked for it again. It still didn’t arrive, so we asked for it again, again. It reached us ten minutes after the rest, too quick for your main courses to follow your starter but not quick enough for your side dish to follow literally everything else you had ordered. I’ve never known, and I’m choosing my words carefully, a clusterfuck like it.

The saddest thing of all is that the food was, almost without exception, gorgeous. The salt and pepper squid had so much freshness and texture, and was dusted with tons of good stuff. The pork belly – a really generous portion, precisely balanced between the crispy crunch of roasting and the tenderness of the meat under the skin – was a beautiful dish, perfected by dipping it in the sticky, savoury soy sauce. The satay lamb was my least favourite of the three, but even that was cooked beautifully and the satay sauce was as deep and rich as any I could remember. Would that I had got to enjoy those three dishes as a trio, without worrying about my nasi goreng going cold, but it was not to be.

Actually, the nasi goreng was my least favourite dish of the evening and, sorry to say, I don’t think it was anywhere near as good as the one served at the Moderation and the Queen’s Head. At those places you get chicken and prawn, but at Wau you have to choose and my choice, the chicken, was oddly bouncy in texture. Weird plating, too – the sunny side up egg should be on top so it can ooze its yolk into the rice but this – probably a little overcooked – was stuck on the side like an afterthought. I left some of this dish, although that was probably more because it didn’t stay hot enough for long enough, not with so many other things to try. I left the prawn crackers, although I’m told they were a reasonable substitute for the roti which nearly never came.

One of the nicest things we ate was the side dish I’d ordered to come with the nasi goreng (although, in reality, everything came with the nasi goreng). Sambal green beans had a beautiful amount of crunch, having been no more than blanched, and coated in Malaysian shrimp paste, perfectly brick-red and savoury, with just enough heat and lots of complexity: I could easily have eaten more than one plate of these.

I was familiar with the beef rendang, Zoë’s choice, from a previous visit but really it was every bit as delicious as I remembered – so much so that I regretted my nasi goreng from the first forkful to the last. The sauce was glossy and sweet with coconut, but with more than enough edge to save it from being even remotely saccharine, but more importantly the beef had been properly slow-cooked so every piece surrendered into strands. It would almost be worth going to Wau and just ordering this dish, which come to think of it might also be the only way to ensure that you get to eat it at a time of your choosing.

I also really liked the roti, when it eventually came out – lovely and buttery, and just right to wrap around that beef, even if it made for a slightly messy experience. It came with a little dish of dipping sauce which was pleasant enough, but not really needed under the circumstances.

I’ve already talked about the service, but of course the real test of service is how they handle it when matters are less than perfect. So when we were asked how our food had been, we said that it was very nice but that really, we hadn’t wanted it to all come out at once and that if we’d known we would have insisted that it didn’t, or perhaps ordered our starters first and then our mains. It’s fair to say that this rather fell on stony ground. That’s just how people eat in Malaysia, the chap told us – all the food comes at once and everyone pitches in, sharing everything.

It’s fair to say that I wasn’t entirely convinced by this argument, and I said so: I could possibly understand it with a big group of people, but there were two of us. Why did they divide their menu into starters and mains, I asked? He pointed out, again in a manner best described as unapologetic, that they weren’t called starters and mains (which, having looked at the menu, is true: but if you have the small dishes at the start and the bigger items partway through you definitely give that impression). Then, finally, came the non-apology so popular in the post-truth times we live in.

“I’m sorry if you feel that way”, he said. Well, that makes everything better then.

After that a lady came over who I think was the owner or manager, and we had exactly the same conversation, only more pleasantly. She promised that they weren’t trying to rush us or move us along or turn the table. That’s all very well, we said, but if so why bring all the food in the space of five minutes? We were then told again about how people all share food in Malaysia, which was doubtless true but, in Newbury, wouldn’t it make sense to put something on the menu explaining the concept or at least get the waiting staff to clearly explain how it worked? Normally they did, she said, which didn’t explain why the chap who took our order – the same man who had served me on a previous visit – had failed to do so either time (on a previous visit we got our starters, then we had our mains, and everything went as you might expect).

The thing we were at pains to point out, again and again, was that the food had been so good, but the way it had been brought out robbed us of the opportunity to properly enjoy it, and ourselves for that matter. But by this point I was beginning to feel like one of those TripAdvisor reviews in human form, and found myself eagerly wanting the conversation, and the experience, to end. The manageress was also sorry we felt that way, and agreed to take something off the bill. That turned out to be ten per cent, which to me didn’t quite feel like enough, and our meal – with that discount – came to fifty-four pounds, not including tip. That was for three small dishes, two big dishes, two sides and two beers – and we still tipped ten per cent, though with hindsight I don’t really know why.

You could indisputably eat well at Wau – if you happened to be in Newbury, close to the station, and preferably in a hurry. Even then, I would advise you to be unambiguous about what you want to eat and the order in which you want to eat it. But those are a lot of caveats, a lot of hoops to jump through, and I could hardly blame you if you read all this and thought thanks but no thanks.

The real shame of it is that so much of the food was terrific, but the overall experience left a nasty taste that no amount of skill in the kitchen can cancel out; food might be the most important element of any visit to a restaurant, but it turns out that it’s service that transforms it from mere food into a meal. All that makes this almost impossible to rate but, to give you an idea, I reckon the experience at Wau must have easily cost it a mark. I hope they iron those problems out, but I doubt I’ll be back to find out. If you decide it sounds like your sort of thing, you’ll have to let me know.

Wau – 6.8
49 Cheap Street, Newbury, RG14 5BX
01635 528877

http://www.waumalaysian.co.uk/

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The Dairy

It was love at first sight when I first laid eyes on The Dairy. I’d been paying a visit to the MERL on Upper Redlands Road earlier in the day and I’d dimly remembered that The Dairy, one of the bars which was part of the University, was just down the road. I’d never been, so in the spirit of adventure I did a bit of research, checking out the sadly departed Matt Farrall’s excellent article on the subject for the Whitley Pump). Later that week, I dropped in for a drink.

When I got there, I was thoroughly charmed. It took a bit of finding – it’s pretty much completely unsignposted, and you access it by going up a ramp only to find an unadorned door with a simple plaque next to it saying “The Dairy” in a plain, municipal-looking font. Once I got there, though, I liked the look of the place: it’s made up of two big rooms with clean, white walls, sizeable tables (high ones in the main room, lower ones in the back room), comfy furniture and a wide array of decent beers on keg, including four different craft lagers and representatives from many of our local breweries: Siren Craft, Wild Weather and Elusive, not to mention other breweries like New Wharf and XT.

It’s a university bar, but it was open to the public and seemed to have a pretty varied clientele. Not only that, but even without a student discount you could get a pint of good, well-kept craft beer for around three pounds fifty. I found myself making a mental note that this could make a great place for board games nights with friends, or for a quiet pint on the evenings when I fancied a change of scenery from my usual haunts (it was sleepy on a week night at the start of term).

Then I spotted the menu. Now, normally I would never have considered The Dairy as a venue for a food review, but there were lots of interesting touches on the menu which made me wonder. Jerk chicken, curry mutton and Jamaican vegetable stew all looked different from the usual fare and even the burgers, complete with a very now charcoal brioche, seemed slightly out of the ordinary. I took a picture of the menu and resolved to come back to see if this could be the kind of hidden find which always lifts my spirits.

Returning on a Saturday evening with my partner in crime Zoë, The Dairy was much more obviously a student bar and was far busier. I felt a tad decrepit grabbing a stool at one of the high tables, and then swapping it for one better equipped to support my child-bearing hips. That feeling wasn’t helped by looking around to see hordes of young people watching the big screens, playing pool, eating all-day breakfasts (not something on the menu I had ever considered ordering, in all honesty, and especially not at eight o’clock at night) and generally not appreciating that they were slap bang in the middle of the best years of their lives.

I wandered into the back room to see if any tables were available there, but was greeted by such a wall of noise that I thought better of it. I did spot one gentleman at another table who was even older than me, and that reassured me enough to grab a menu. Broadly speaking it divided into two sections (unless you count a very small selection of starters and salads and – of course – that all day breakfast): world food and burgers. We quickly decided to try one of each and I went up to the bar to place the order. None of the dishes costs more than a tenner and once you hand over your card (the whole place is cashless) they give you a little gadget which buzzes when your food is ready, signalling for you to go and pick it up from the hatch. Easy peasy.

The first warning bell rang when the gadget buzzed, no more than ten minutes after placing my order; that felt quick enough that I wondered whether a microwave had been involved. I approached the hatch to find the food had been set down in front of me, but with nobody on the other side to greet me. The shelves behind were full of stuff from Brakes, another disconcerting sign. I would have just taken the dishes and gone back to the table but one of them, the mutton curry, was missing the advertised naan bread and mango chutney. Instead there was a small bowl of what appeared to be giant, wan-looking chips, stood upright. I waited, but nobody appeared, so I said “excuse me” as loudly as I dared and a lady wandered in from what I assume was the kitchen.

“I’m sorry, but I’m waiting for a naan bread” I said, doing the English thing of apologising for expecting to receive what I had ordered.

“It’s a mistake with the menu” I was told tersely. “It’s wrong. You don’t get naan bread, because it’s a Caribbean curry. These are yuca fries.”

Never mind, I thought, carrying everything back to the table and picking up some cutlery from the bar. The mutton curry was Zoë’s, but I managed to try enough of it to dispel the rumour that it had been microwaved: surely it would have been hotter if that was the case. The meat was a tad chewy – not undercooked per se, but not enjoyable to eat and the spicing in it was probably best described as subtle. It was definitely luke-warm, though, and for nine pounds the portion felt a little on the mean side. I didn’t try the yuca fries (although I did google them to find out that they were made of cassava) but Zoe ate a few without any real enthusiasm. They looked like the kind of thing you might use to insulate a loft.

“What do you reckon?” I asked.

“It’s just not hot. To be honest, I’d rather go to Clay’s.” She had a point – I would far rather have spent a little more and had an infinitely better curry elsewhere. I had a feeling the list of places doing a better curry than The Dairy – and this in itself was pretty alarming – probably included Wetherspoon’s. Still, I’ll say this for the mutton curry: it wasn’t the chicken burger, which is an early front runner for the single worst thing I’ll eat in 2019 (let’s hope it bags that prize, because I don’t really want to think about what, if anything, could beat it into second place).

The charcoal brioche was weirdly, cloyingly sweet. The bacon – back, cooked to miserable limpness – was indifferent and salty. The burger itself was breaded and I’m not sure whether it was baked or fried but the coating had the texture of an asteroid with no discernible seasoning: the chicken, once you got to it, at least recognisably had started life as a fillet but after that it had been not so much cooked as mistreated. The thin slice of American cheese on top had been completely unmelted by the lukewarm contents of the brioche. I wasn’t sure how the kitchen had managed to overcook something, yet it still wasn’t hot: I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

The “barbecue glaze” underneath it had the sort of gloopy sweetness which gave me bad flashbacks. There was something odd about the taste of the fries: it could have been that they were tepid, it might have been that they were stale, it might have been something else altogether. Running through the possibilities in my mind started to bring on reflux. I left a fair amount of this dish, and most of the fries, and things have to be pretty bad before I do that.

If the food had been good, there would have been more drinks. We would have checked out the dessert section of the menu and ordered the churros (“plain and caramel filled… served with butterscotch sauce”). But the food wasn’t good, and I needed to leave before I was completely put off The Dairy as a watering hole, and for that matter put off churros for life. The meal, along with a ginger beer and a very pleasant pint of Eisbar, a “Vienna style lager” by XT, came to just shy of twenty-two pounds. Service at the hatch had been pretty perfunctory, but the bar staff had been lovely and friendly (and one of them was very apologetic about it being her first shift). The whole thing seemed to reinforce my overall view, namely that The Dairy was a great place for a quiet drink but that nobody should consider eating there.

As we left, I was torn between feeling a little queasy and really wanting to eat some chocolate, or at least something that didn’t taste of the chicken burger. In the end I thought better of it, but that burger sat uneasily with me for the rest of the evening.

“I suppose the obvious comparison is the Oakford” Zoë had said while we were waiting for our food, before anticipation transmuted into disappointment, and I think in many ways she is right. For cheap, cheerful burgers, at least – although having done some research since the burgers at the Oakford are a little more expensive, mainly because fries are extra (though I don’t think anybody in their right mind would pay extra for The Dairy’s fries). But really, I couldn’t think of a good comparison: where else would the food have been quite so underwhelming?

I don’t know whether The Dairy’s dishes do come from a Brakes lorry (from the section of the website marked “for students”, perhaps), and you could say that I should have known better than to expect great food from one of the university bars. All I can say is that I was taken in by the menu, but more to the point I wrongly thought that the pride The Dairy had put into its drinks offering would be matched by the food. So I do have a new favourite watering hole, along with a salutary lesson that even after over five years of doing this I remain more than capable of making the wrong call and picking a duffer. I still recommend going to The Dairy for a nice pint if you’re in the area (and the benches out the front might be lovely on a summer’s day). Just make sure you’ve eaten beforehand.

The Dairy – 4.6
Building L14, London Road Campus, Redlands Road, RG1 5AQ
0118 3782477

https://www.facebook.com/londonroadcampus/

German Doner Kebab

The new year always presents a myriad of opportunities, doesn’t it? A fresh start (unless, like pretty much everyone I know, you’ve been struck down by one of the many virulent bugs doing the rounds). A chance to change your ways, shed unhelpful old habits and bin off toxic former friends. And, of course, it’s a time to embrace every passing fad for self-improvement, whether that’s kicking the booze or going vegan for thirty-one teeth-clenchingly joyless days. Fuck that, I thought, I’m off for a kebab.

Not just any kebab, I should add, but a German one: German Doner Kebab has been plying its trade since last April, at the grim end of Friar Street near the Hope Tap, the latest creepy topless bar and the big Sainsbury’s (Brutalist on the outside, faintly Stalinist on the inside). Now, I’m not snobbish about kebabs: I’ve always thought that, done right, they can be darned delicious and the best ones, cooked well, are more than acceptable eaten sober.

Generally, in fairness, I mean shish kebabs – there’s something about chicken or lamb cooked there and then on a charcoal grill that’s difficult to beat (let’s face it, there’s a reason I’m always singing the praises of King’s Grill). But a chicken or lamb doner, sliced thinly, cooked on the hot plate to add a little crispiness and mixed with ribbons of iceberg and a really good sauce? That’s the stuff of – admittedly slightly guilty – dreams.

More recently that has tended to be the shawarma at Bakery House, or gyros on holiday in Greece, but I still fondly remember the golden age of growing up in Woodley and having a doner from the van parked up by Bulmershe school, or, years later, stopping at the sadly departed “Kebab Kingdom” on Cemetery Junction.

That was twenty years ago, but I can still remember the crunch of the red cabbage and the kick of those pickled chillies like it was yesterday. Come to think of it, I can remember when you could eat in at Ye Babam Ye, in the bit which is now Up The Junction and just to prove that everything comes around again eventually, here I am in 2019 sitting at a table eating a doner kebab, the hot new (old) gastronomic trend. Maybe they’ll rebrand Wimpy next.

My accomplice for this review was the author of pub blog Quaffable Reading, a man who prefers to be referred to as Dr Quaff (honestly, these anonymous bloggers and their pseudonyms: it’ll never catch on). I had accompanied him last year when he went to review The Retreat, my beloved local pub, and this was part of a sort of exchange program where he joined me to review German Doner Kebab and in return we then went on to a pub afterwards so Dr Quaff could review that. You might say that we approached things in the wrong order: I couldn’t possibly comment, although you might have an idea of my view by the end.

Dr Quaff is – and he didn’t offer any financial inducement for me to say this, I promise – superb company with a huge range of stories which managed to be both funny and interesting. But he also has a surprisingly donnish air (that time up at Oxford, perhaps) and made for a very suitable co-pilot on this visit. He was also willing to order all the things I didn’t, which made for a refreshing change as I’m used to having my second choice of everything on the menu.

The interior managed to be a chic take on a traditional fast food restaurant. The overwhelming theme was monochrome – big black and and white photos of Berlin landmarks (the television tower especially caught my eye), a huge image of the Brandenberg Gate along one wall and smart black button-backed banquettes and booths. But there was also a flash of orange bringing the whole thing to life: you really couldn’t fault their branding.

“It looks very much like McDonalds tries to these days” said Dr Quaff, at which point I had to admit that it was a very long time since I had been to one, and even longer since I’d paid attention (still, he has kids). We ordered at the counter and plonked ourselves at a booth in what was, for a school night, a surprisingly busy restaurant.

The menu gave a wide range of options, from quinoa salad to tempura cauliflower, all the way to… no, really, it’s basically just doner meat. Doner meat in a brioche bun, doner meat in a flatbread, doner meat in a wrap. Doner meat in a quesadilla, doner meat on – yes, really – nachos. It was the doner equivalent of that scene in Being John Malkovich where everyone just walks around saying “Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich” all the time: doner, doner, doner.

You can get the doner-based dish of your choice for roughly five pounds, or add fries and a drink for two quid, and for vegetarians there is a veggie kebab containing the suitably vague “mixed veggie pieces”. Even the choice of doner meat (beef, chicken or “mixed”) is more specific than that. Personally, I found it weird that there was beef but no lamb, but I decided to reserve judgment.

The first dish to turn up was the lahmacun (or, in this case I suppose, “beefacun”), a thin flatbread smeared in something which may have been beef or possibly just the memory of beef, folded over and served with three dips (chilli, garlic and burger sauce) along with a rather hopeful wedge of lemon. When I started this I quite liked it, but as it cooled down and started to taste more of itself I found I rather cooled down too. But taste of what? I wasn’t really sure – certainly not of beef, and hardly of spice either. It also went soggy quickly which made dipping it in the sauces largely a waste of time. “It’s sort of like a keema nan” said Dr Quaff, and although I knew what he was driving at it still felt like a disservice to keema nans everywhere.

Dr Quaff had also gone for a side dish, the doner nachos. It was a classic example of the old adage that just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should: I don’t think the combination of tortilla chips, jalapeños, American squeezy cheese and doner meat is one the world was waiting for.

The beef doner meat, and this was a theme funnily enough for the rest of the meal, was plain bad. It didn’t taste like any beef I’ve ever had, and that includes some pretty dreadful beef: even overcooked into shoe leather the way my former mother-in-law used to do it at least vaguely tasted of beef. This, though, had no texture, so was just limp ribbons of the stuff, a disconcerting shade of beige and looking nothing like beef. It could have been shaved off a cow, a sheep, an actuary or E.T.: if you’d told me it was Soylent Green I wouldn’t have been remotely surprised.

Normally when I put photos of a dish on the blog I do a little editing to try and make them look as good as possible: their culinary best selves, you could say. With the doner nachos I just wanted to do my best to make them look exactly as they did in the restaurant. Adding warmth and saturation would be like adding a Snapchat filter to a Tinder profile picture.

“I thought they’d be smaller” said Dr Quaff. I was just glad I only had to have one forkful.

More of the doner meat was to follow in the main attractions. I had a mixed kebab in their signature toasted flatbread, while Dr Quaff had it in a lahmacun wrap. In terms of a vessel for the meat, his was a much better plan – completely contained, easier to eat and much less messy. I also think, overall, Dr Quaff enjoyed the whole thing more than I did: he also pimped his fries so, for fifty pence extra, he got “flaming fries” which were dusted with something which contained paprika but also hints of something like Chinese five spice. “It’s funny”, he said, “because it feels strange to pay fifty pence extra, but it’s definitely worth it”.

By contrast, the toasted bread had a very pleasing waffly texture but was open, which meant that everything would have fallen out if I’d tried to eat it with my hands. This did work to my advantage though, because I managed to remove much of the beef doner meat with a fork (and to think I was always bad at Operation as a child) and focus on the chicken. It was infinitely better: for a start it definitely felt like it might once have been attached to an actual chicken, and along with the salad and red cabbage it began to feel like something I would eat from choice.

I’d paid extra for feta, because friends in the know had told me that was the thing to do, but it didn’t feel like it added an awful lot. The fries were nondescript – in the fast food hierarchy they were better than KFC fries (but so is everything else, including not having fries) but worse than McDonalds or Burger King. I didn’t really have strong opinions about any of the dips – if pushed, I guess I’d say I quite liked the burger sauce because you don’t see it often enough these days, but I’m not sure the fries made it worth going for the meal deal. Nice to have a Coke in the classic glass bottle, though, even if there weren’t any glasses provided to pour it into.

Service was functional and perfectly polite. I had to ask for a fork, I had to ask for a glass, I had to ask for a straw (I’m afraid it was plastic) when they didn’t have a glass, but all of those requests were handled nicely. It’s not the sort of restaurant, really, where you notice service unless it’s terrible, and it wasn’t. Not doner nachos terrible, anyway, but that’s a new level of terrible I wasn’t expecting to encounter in 2019. Let’s hope the year gets better from there. My dinner came to eleven pounds, while Dr Quaff’s, with his fancy chips and freakish side order, came to closer to thirteen.

After our meal, Dr Quaff and I sat there for a bit debating the merits of German Doner Kebab. He was (and is in general, I imagine) much kinder than me – I think he found things to like and could imagine going back, although I’m not sure when or how often. For me, it falls down in far too many places. It’s more expensive than KFC and cheaper than Honest Burgers, but if I wanted fast food in the town centre where I could sit down I would, without exception, pick one or the other over German Doner Kebab. And if it’s that kind of food you’re after – if you really, really need a kebab – German Doner Kebab doesn’t do anything that isn’t executed far better by either Kings Grill or Bakery House.

I could manage a chicken doner wrap there, at a push, but as a quick choice in town a lot of restaurants would have to close before it even made my top 10 (come to think of it, Nando’s is just down the road: judge all you like, but I love a Nando’s). So what – or who – is German Doner Kebab for? I’d love to be able to answer that question for you but, truth be told, I’m stumped. Put it this way: I still maintain that you don’t have to be drunk to eat a good kebab, but even if I’d emerged from a boozer several pints to the good after an evening with the author of Reading’s finest pub blog, wild horses would be unlikely to drag me back to German Doner Kebab.

German Doner Kebab – 5.4
106 Friar Street, RG1 1EP
0118 9589998

http://www.germandonerkebab.com

TGI Fridays

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

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

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

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

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

Whoops.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not a fan then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bench Rest

One of the interesting phenomena of Reading’s restaurant scene is the number of talented chefs and restaurateurs circling the town trying to find premises to cook in. This year has seen more of this than most: first, right at the beginning of the year, Georgian Feast stopped cooking at The Island (still one of the strangest places I’ve ever eaten dinner by a country mile). I had just got used to wandering over on a Sunday lunchtime to enjoy their gorgeous boat-shaped pizzas for lunch, and then they were gone.

Then, in the spring, the affable Kamal and his talented chef left Namaste Kitchen by mutual consent: very sad news for me, as I’d become hooked on my almost weekly trips to the Hook And Tackle for sukuti and boneless fish fry. More was to follow: in the summer I Love Paella parted company with the Fisherman’s Cottage, shortly after which the pub unveiled a new menu which – how shall I put this? – borrowed heavily from ILP. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but flattery is rarely so tacky; I’ve not been back since.

Then there were the goings-on at Nomad Bakery, the permanent premises taken on by Laura of local supper club Pop-Up Reading. Laura left Nomad in July, and although Nomad’s Twitter feed made it sound like an amicable (if emotional) parting of the ways, an Instagram post by ex-TV presenter, regular Nomad visitor and Caversham resident Simon Thomas suggested shabby treatment and a falling out with Laura’s co-investor. It was later amended to remove those comments: make of that what you will.

Anyway, as we reach the end of 2018 some of that has settled and some is still in flux: Kamal is still looking for somewhere to open a new restaurant, as is Enric of I Love Paella. Georgian Feast started working at Nomad Bakery and recently confirmed a new menu (as Geo Café) offering many of the classic dishes they used to serve at Blue Collar, the Turk’s Head and The Island: it’s still as clear as mud, but it appears that Nomad Bakery may be no more. And finally, probably the move most long-awaited by Reading’s fooderati – in October the Tasting House announced that Laura would be running a new venture there at weekends called Bench Rest: tapas on Friday and Saturday nights, and brunch on Saturday and Sunday daytimes.

The early reports looked interesting, as did the pictures sweeping Twitter and Instagram. The menu was constantly changing and evolving, all built around Mediterranean flavours and the fresh bread which has always been Laura’s biggest passion (her LinkedIn profile says “My life revolves around flour, H2O and a little bit of salt”, which is an appealingly simple mission statement), with an emphasis on vegetarian food – or, as it’s modishly called these days, plant-based dining.

Bench Rest is probably one of Reading’s most keenly anticipated openings for several years, so it only felt right to visit on duty before Christmas. I wasn’t initially sure whether to go for brunch or tapas, but a look at the respective menus made it an easier decision: practically every single brunch option involved eggs, breakfast isn’t a dish I’d personally choose to make plant-based, and I find these days I can take or leave Jam Lady jam. Besides, eating small plates gave me a better chance to try a wider range of the menu, so I turned up on a Friday night with my regular dining companion Zoë to find out what was what.

Now, before I get on to the food it’s sadly necessary to explain some stuff about the set-up, because some of what was less than satisfactory about the evening didn’t have much to do with Bench Rest. The Tasting House, back when I first reviewed it, was an uneasy one-stop shop which served charcuterie boards, wine by the glass to drink in and wine by the bottle to take away, and didn’t really know whether it wanted to be a wine bar or an off licence. Over time the furniture got more comfortable, the place got redecorated and rearranged and now it is effectively three different businesses in a kind of houseshare. The Tasting House serves the wine, does food during the week and runs wine testing events upstairs. Bench Rest takes over the kitchen at weekends. And finally, during the day, Anonymous Coffee sells coffee and cakes from the counter at the front.

With Bench Rest, this all felt pretty seamless – we ordered at the counter, got a prepaid card to use at the Enomatic machine to buy wine by the glass, and paid for the whole lot at the end. But the room makes much more sense as a wine bar than as a restaurant, and the layout is cramped and problematic. There’s one huge table at the far end of the room, nearest to the open kitchen, that can seat around eight to ten people. All the other tables are smallish tables, most of them for two, and the emphasis has been placed on packing in punters rather than making it an enjoyable experience. Our table was nearest to the wine and the Enomatic machine, and it felt like people were constantly walking past us, giving the feeling of being in a corridor rather than a restaurant.

It could have been worse – there are also higher seats but rather than being up at the counter, or at the window where you’d have something to look at, you were seated at a high ledge facing the wall. All the poor unfortunate couples there were sitting with their back to the ledge, on their high stools, forlornly looking out at the tables feeling envious. I guess they really do want to maximise the number of customers, but I didn’t especially want to be that kind of customer.

Much as they might have envied my table for two, another problem was it had definitely been designed with drinking in mind: the moment you ordered almost any food there wasn’t enough room for it. Even with a small plates menu, this was difficult and involved constant balancing and juggling; one serving dish ended up precariously perched on the pot containing cutlery, and the whole experience felt like a cross between Jenga and Tetris. It was all very odd: the space worked perfectly as a bar, or as a café, but seemed incompatible with its third purpose as a restaurant.

Perhaps the food would leave me less bothered by such details, I thought, as I looked at the menu. It was a nicely compact selection – a handful of snacks (olives, nuts and the like), one “glorious gourmet toastie”, a meat and cheese board and a selection of seven small plates, most of which were vegetarian. Seven is a sensible number of dishes but even then the menu felt a little bit fussy, dividing them between “cold mezze”, “hot mezze”, “tapas” and “raciones”, fiddly and needlessly educational. We ruled out the snacks, because they felt more about buying than cooking, and the board (for similar reasons, and because it felt very much like what the Tasting House used to serve before Bench Rest came along) and decided to try a selection of the small plates.

All the small plates came with a selection of sourdough bread, and Laura brought this to the table first, excitedly talking us through it. There was a rye bread, a ciabatta and a spelt sourdough – served with a little extra, a ramekin of black bean houmous. You couldn’t argue with the quantities, but I expected to love them more than I did. The rye bread was simply terrific, but the other two were lacking in crust and felt like they could have done with a little more salt. The texture either suggested that the slices had either been very lightly toasted or left cut and exposed to the air a little too long: either way, I wasn’t won over. Also – and this may well just be me – I really found that I wanted either some good quality salted butter to spread on it or bright grassy olive oil to dip it in. Neither was supplied, and although the black bean houmous was pleasant enough it didn’t bridge that gap.

The first small plate was houmous with chickpeas, tomatoes and whipped feta. It sounded great on paper, but it didn’t quite work in practice; really good houmous, like the stuff from Bakery House, is silky and rich, whereas this was coarser and slightly on the bland side. The flecks of whipped feta set it off nicely, as did the beautiful sweet marinated tomatoes, although there weren’t enough of the latter. And I like gherkins more than the next person most of the time but, nice though Bench Rest’s home made pickles were, they simply didn’t go with houmous. The combination of the houmous being a little too claggy and the bread not having quite enough oomph wasn’t a pleasing one.

The beetroot croquetas, on the other hand, were lovely things. Two biggish croquettes, rich with beetroot, dished up on a smear of fragrant tapenade with some crumbled goat’s cheese and served with grape must mustard (“my new favourite thing!” said Laura as she brought these to the table). This was a proper clear your plate dish, and the bread came in handy for mopping up every last smudge of food. The flavours worked brilliantly: I would have liked a little more goat’s cheese, and two croquettes for seven pounds fifty felt slightly on the steep side, but it was still hard to be critical about a dish that tasted quite unlike anything else in town.

The other two small plates were more substantial affairs. Patatas rotas, puerro y jamon was spicy potatoes (they looked fried but were described as roasted) with sweet leeks, topped with a couple of slices of prosciutto and an egg. This was hearty stuff (it felt more like an escapee from the brunch menu, in some ways) but I liked it and we properly picked over the whole lot. The ham felt a little like an afterthought – again, I’d have liked more and for it to have had more texture and been crispier. The egg was a little overdone, which meant most of the yolk couldn’t spread its sunshine over the plate. Even so, you couldn’t argue with the flavours. This dish was just shy of nine pounds, but again it felt ever so slightly less than its money.

Last of all we had the cauliflower shawarma, a dish I’d wanted to try ever since it was on Laura’s menu at Nomad Bakery. This was a beast of a thing, gently spiced, festooned with seeds and topped with some kind of sweet relish which could have been tomato, could have been red pepper or could have been something else entirely. It was like nothing I’ve ever eaten in Reading, a dish which had more to do with Ottolenghi than the Oxford Road, and I really enjoyed it. I wasn’t sure whether it came with the advertised houmous and lemon tahini – it felt more like yoghurt to my no doubt ignorant mind – but as a combination of tastes and textures it was one of the most interesting things I’ve eaten this year. We couldn’t finish it, and leaving some was a decision made with a heavy heart.

Normally I would go into detail about the drinks, but there seems little point in some ways because the range of wines in the Enomatic changes so regularly that I can’t guarantee any of them would be on sale were you to eat at Bench Rest. I particularly enjoyed the Medoc, which was rich but not too tannic, and I really loved the Australian Riesling which was much more sweet and approachable, as New World Rieslings tend to be. The Enomatic dispenses either 25ml, 75ml or 125ml and most of the wines I had were £5 for 75ml so again, this isn’t a cheap experience by any means.

The wine being self-service also disposes of much of the traditional service in Bench Rest. I would say the service from Laura, who really appeared to be working her socks off all evening, was exemplary – friendly, approachable and passionate about her food (endearingly so, in fact). The service at the counter when ordering, from long-serving Tasting House employee Jack, was also very likeable and efficient, but I did notice that he struggled to get one of the other staff to help out because she was too busy having a good old chat with her mate (I feel for Jack: we all have days at work like this). We settled up just as the acoustic singer-songwriter in the corner was getting into full flow (could have been worse, it could have been Ed Sheeran) and our meal for two – four small plates, five 75ml glasses of wine and one devil-may-care-push-the-boat-out 125ml glass of wine – came to sixty pounds, not including tip. In fairness, we did leave very full: perhaps there’s something to be said for this plant-based diet after all.

It’s a shame that the time-honoured ER ratings go from 0 to 10, because rarely have I so badly wanted to give a rating of “Hmm”. Some of the food in Bench Rest is excellent and much of it is imaginative. It’s probably more plant-based and virtuous than I would personally choose, but I am quite aware that that says more about me than it does about them. But, despite their efforts, the alliance with the Tasting House is an uneasy one which doesn’t show off the food in the best light, or create an environment where it’s particularly enjoyable to eat. The dishes may well involve a great deal of work, and it’s impossible to fault the kitchen’s devotion or imagination, but they still feel ever so slightly on the pricey side and like there’s something – and I can’t quite put my finger on what – missing. I hope it settles down, or that Laura eventually finds a bigger canvas on which to paint, but more than anything else it made me miss I Love Paella. Here’s hoping that 2019 brings further homecomings for some of Reading’s other dispossessed restaurateurs.

Bench Rest – 7.3

30a Chain Street, RG1 2HX
0118 9571531

https://www.bench-rest.com/