I was having coffee with a friend this week, and he said something that made me think. We were having that time-honoured conversation about independents and chains, probably both saying things that we’d said dozens of times before, and discussing the frustration I always get walking through Caversham, seeing the huge queues outside Costa when better coffee is available in three different cafes all a couple of minutes walk away.
“I nearly put something on social media complaining about that sort of thing” he said, “but then I decided not to. Because if that’s happening, it’s a sign that independents still need to improve their offering.”
We talked about it a little more, but afterwards I found myself wondering whether it was true. Is it that all the people in Reading who flock to our many Costas, Caffe Neros and Starbucks know all about Workhouse, C.U.P., Lincoln and Tamp? Have they tried them and just decided they don’t like them? Do they prefer bigger, more sugary drinks, or is it that they have no idea the alternatives even exist? It’s easy, in an echo chamber on social media, waving our metaphorical pom-poms for indie businesses, to consider failing to use them unthinkable. And yet people still queue for the Caversham Costa: is it that they’re wrong, or more that we’re missing something?
Of course, like everything, it’s more nuanced than that. Maybe those customers are drawn by things like comfy seats and plentiful wi-fi, neither of which has ever been a priority for most of Reading’s independent cafés. Or perhaps it comes down to the consistency of a chain experience: I’ve been to Workhouse, for example and had very good coffees. But occasionally I’ve had iffy ones too. If I went to Nero, I’m pretty sure my coffee would be much more uniform – middling, but uniformly middling. Some people like that. Some people are risk averse, and after all, risk aversion is back in fashion. And all this is even more true of chain restaurants, especially ones where that uniformity is guaranteed by all the food being uniformly prepared in a central kitchen.
All this, in turn, got me thinking about my own attitude to chains and that, inexorably, made me think of Pho. Because back in the days before the pandemic, on the relatively rare occasions where I ordered a Deliveroo, Pho was one of the main restaurants I would order from. I never had a bad meal from them, and I had my favourite dishes of theirs that never let me down.
That’s probably more representative of most people’s takeaway experiences. It’s all very well ordering from a new restaurant every week to try them out, for the purposes of writing a review, but for most people the act of ordering a takeaway is meant to be one of self-care, with no surprises. It’s a present to yourself to take a night off cooking, and you don’t want to squander it. Trying to remove the element of disappointment is, I imagine, part of why some of you read this blog before you try somewhere new. So this week I decided to order from Pho, a bit of an old favourite, to try and work out whether my friend was right that independents still need to raise their game.
Pho, like its neighbour Honest Burger, is only on Deliveroo – and crucially, Deliveroo has been a big part of their offering ever since they opened. The majority of Pho’s restaurant menu is available for delivery, with a good range of starters and a mixture of mains which are either salads, the eponymous pho, curries, rice and noodle dishes. Starters hover around the six to seven pound mark, and mains cost between ten and thirteen pounds (this is another thing chains often get right: pricing that doesn’t exclude anybody).
I don’t write about vegetarian and vegan options often enough, but it’s worth pointing out that Pho’s menu has pretty impressive range in this respect, with dishes using vegetables, tofu or a chicken alternative – called “THIS isn’t chicken”, the Ronseal Quick-Drying Woodstain of soy-based products. I also don’t talk about gluten-free options enough – by which I mean ever – but again, Pho are very strong on this and the vast majority of items are gluten-free. And just to go for the hat trick of Things I Never Talk About, Pho has a kids’ menu too. This stuff is important, because this is what the best chains do well, designing a menu that has wide appeal. From my carnivorous, childless point of view I probably don’t pay that due respect often enough.
We ordered the things we always order, because this was an evening all about comfort and familiarity, and three starters and two mains came to forty-five pounds, not including rider tip. And, as so often with orders from the town centre, there were no real hiccups: we ordered at half-six, the rider was en route fifteen minutes later and he got to us in just under ten minutes, making another stop en route to my house. Everything was hot and everything was well packaged, in well-branded boxes, all of which were recyclable. Again, what this brought home is that delivery has never been a pandemic-mandated side hustle for Pho: it’s always been part of their business model, and I think that shows.
Our starters were variations on a theme (one of my favourite Pho starters, beef wrapped in betel leaf, isn’t available on the delivery menu) and all were really pretty good. Pho’s spring rolls, filled with pork and plenty of crunchy vegetables, are wonderful things, surprisingly light and without any greasiness and I always find it hard not to order them. I particularly liked them with the soy and ginger dip we tried, but they were also very good dabbed in the nuoc cham, a sweet and sharp clear dip (with fish sauce in it, apparently, although it didn’t come across strongly). Zoë had a particular weakness for the peanut sauce, which was thick and rich, a culinary Tim Nice-But-Dim.
For my money, Pho’s giant crab, prawn and pork spring roll is even better. You just get one bigger one, cut into two for six pounds. It might sound like a lot to shell out, but it’s crammed with firm king prawns, white crabmeat and pork and is truly a king among spring rolls. This only comes with nuoc cham – interesting that they’re prescriptive with this starter, whereas with the others you can pick whatever sauce you like – but it’s honestly so good that the dips feel like a sideshow. And again, I felt that chain consistency at work: I’ve had this starter many times, it always tastes the same and it always tastes marvellous. That’s how it should be in all restaurants, in theory at least. But theory doesn’t always translate into practice.
Only the summer rolls slightly underwhelmed me. You got two of these, each cut in half, filled with those meaty prawns, shredded vegetables and vermicelli noodles. We ordered these mainly at Zoë’s request, and eating them felt a bit like reading literary fiction – you’re aware that it’s the correct thing to do, you know on some level that it’s the virtuous choice but none of that made it especially enjoyable. Two portions of fried spring rolls crammed with varying amounts of pork is a tough act to follow, and it may be that I’m just a Philistine, but these didn’t massively do it for me.
That comes down to personal preference, I suspect. Looking back I wasn’t wild about summer rolls when I reviewed Pho, back in 2018, although I did prefer the versions at now-defunct MumMum when I went there later the same year. But each time I used the same sort of words – delicate here, subtle there. If you like delicate and subtle you’d probably love them: I am, let’s face it, neither delicate nor subtle and that probably explains why they didn’t provoke much passion in me.
Zoë’s regular main course at Pho is their Vietnamese chicken curry, and even the discovery that they recently added a new, spicier version to their menu didn’t deter her from ordering what she always has. To be honest, it was hard enough to persuade her to let me try a forkful so I could write about it. It was a lovely dish, with plenty of peanut and coconut and a clever mix of sweetness, fragrance and just enough heat – pretty mild, really, but hugely soothing. It came with “broken rice”, which looked remarkably unbroken to me, and felt like good value at twelve pounds. If I ever do go completely crazy and order something that isn’t my usual, I’d be tempted to go for the same dish but with strands of beef brisket instead.
My usual, though, is Pho’s com chien, chicken fried rice, by happy coincidence one of the cheapest main courses on the menu. I’ve written before about how much I love this dish, but I had almost forgotten how enjoyable it was. It’s a glorious mixture of rice, slivers of red onion, spring onion and plenty of shreds of chicken, with two star ingredients that lift it far above the usual. One is many, many flecks of chilli and the other is a smattering of tiny, chewy shell-on dried shrimps, every single one a little landmine of savoury joy. And what stops it from being dry, stodgy or boring is a little dish of dark, sweet sauce that you tip over it just before eating, binding the whole thing together and giving it a beautiful, glossy sheen.
“It’s a good dish” said Zoë, trying a forkful. “But it’s hot as balls.” She was right about that – it’s not for the faint-hearted, and my chilli tolerance has improved considerably since the first time I ever ate it, but it was a grateful pain, and a fantastic dish. I could eat it every week of my life and I’m not sure I would ever get bored.
So, what does this all tell us? My meal lived up to that intrinsic promise all chains make, that your meal should be relatively free of surprises: I enjoyed Pho every bit as much as I always have, and I’m not really sure I expected anything different. In that respect this review, probably more than any takeaway review I’ve written this year, comes the closest to depicting a meal I would have eaten off duty. But I’m not sure whether you can make that many sweeping generalisations about chains from my experience of Pho, because I’m not entirely convinced that Pho is representative of chains in general.
On some levels, you can say it is: the focus on reasonable pricing, the ability to cover a wide range of dietary choices and age groups are absolutely what chains do superbly. But I also think that Pho are especially good at this: they feel to me a cut above most chains. They are lucky that Vietnamese food lends itself well to a vegan or a gluten-free diet, but they have worked hard to maximise their appeal.
They have also given a lot of thought to how they make delivery work, right from the outset, and they’re better at delivery than most restaurants I’ve reviewed this year (I didn’t order pho from them, mainly because it’s not really my cup of tea, but I imagine they’d find a way to get that right in transit as well). And they are meticulous in their approach to expanding: they try to understand the local market and make contact with people in the food scenes of towns and cities where they choose to open new restaurants. They do their homework. I can’t imagine Taco Bell gave any of that a moment’s thought.
I’ve always felt that there are good chains and bad chains, and good independents and bad independents. It’s never been more difficult for independents: without the financial reserves most chains have, they will have to fight harder to survive. And I can think of many independent restaurants over the years that were easily good enough to deserve to flourish, but failed. They needed exposure, they needed time and they needed people to give them a chance. It would help if our local media had written a fraction of the articles about any of those restaurants that they’ve rattled off in the last few months about our impending branch of Wendy’s (seven so far this year and counting), but them’s the breaks.
So yes, I know what my friend was driving at, that independents always have to try to improve their offering. But I also think that, in Reading at least, they feel more likely to try and do that than chains. Chains can rely on a steady stream of customers visiting them based on brand recognition alone, and they can much more easily become complacent as a result. The bottom line is that a good restaurant is a good restaurant, and a good restaurant should drive all restaurants to do better. And based on my meal this week I think that most restaurants – whoever owns them – could learn something from Pho.
I’ve been thinking for some time of widening the scope of my reviews and including some restaurant kits, the ones where you heat up and/or finish the food in the comfort of your own kitchen. Many restaurants have tried their hands at these, whether they’re high profile London venues, Michelin-starred chefs across the country or plucky local restaurants trying to attract customers further from home. Whether they will continue once restaurants reopen fully in June remains to be seen, but for the time being they promise a very different – and potentially higher end – alternative to a tried and tested takeaway.
But when the time came to sit down and pick one to try out, I found myself gripped by analysis paralysis. It feels like I’ve read countless listicles on the subject, recommending everything from pizzas and burgers to ribs, laksa or full-on three or four course meals. Partly that’s because Reading’s very own Clay’s (filed under “plucky local”) has featured prominently in many of them. But when I tried to remember the ones that had tempted me over the past year, my mind went blank.
I follow some people on Twitter or Instagram who seem to sample a different one every week, and they always look like they are having a fantastic time. But then Instagram is the place where everyone always looks like they’re having a fantastic time. One of the people I follow there has nothing but envy-inducing meals, whether they’re restaurant kits or just him slumming it by knocking something up on one of his (several) barbecues, always impeccably sourced and beautifully cooked.
Don’t you ever just have a cheese sandwich? I asked him. He claimed he did, but scrolling back through his Instagram feed the closest thing I could see was a Dishoom bacon naan or a crab sandwich (crab purchased from Wright Brothers, naturally). Not that it made a blind bit of difference: that man’s photography could make a Pot Noodle look attractive.
So I asked for help and feedback from readers of the blog, and I put together a decent enough list of candidates. Some you buy direct from the restaurant, others from websites like Dishpatch and Home-X which partner with several different named restaurants to give you a choice.
Sometimes they make it clear just how far from rudimentary your kitchen skills will need to be by publishing instructions in advance, sometimes they keep you guessing; given the gaps in both my culinary technique and my kitchen cupboards I found myself gravitating to the former. With most of them you buy a set menu at a set price, some allow you to buy individual dishes. It was still very tricky: I find it hard enough to pick what to watch on Netflix, but this was a whole new level of indecision.
I eventually went for Bocca di Lupo for a couple of reasons. One was that in the last of those listicles I read Jay Rayner put them in his top five restaurant boxes alongside Clay’s. There he was, glowering down the lens in his photo byline, not so much making love to the camera, more feeling it up in a lift. “Chef Jacob Kenedy’s take on a rustic Italian repertoire is a joy”, he said. In another article he called the dishes “muscular”, one of those fantastic words that doesn’t really, in this context, mean anything. But if it was good enough for Jay it ought to be good enough for me.
The other reason was that Bocca di Lupo’s At Home kits, cleverly, come from a different region of Italy every month. So if you order in May all the dishes are from Liguria – rabbit with olive oil mash, trofie with pesto and so on. In April, the dishes are all from Emilia Romagna, a region I first visited three Aprils ago. It seemed too perfect, and so I was sold on the idea.
Bocca di Lupo does three different meal kits – one vegetarian, one with fish and seafood and one with meat, and they all offer different starters and mains, although they share a dessert. The three course meals in April all cost fifty-nine pounds, although the exact price varies from month to month. They also have some extra dishes you can add on, and a very attractive range of cocktails and Italian wines. They deliver Tuesday to Friday every week, although you only have a 48 hour window to eat the food from the date of delivery – this isn’t blast chilled and vacuum-packed the way, say, a Clay’s delivery would be.
Delivery, I found out, was quite steep: £20 nationwide, although it’s free for orders over a hundred pounds. I saw this as a licence to order as many bottles of wine as I needed so as to qualify for free delivery, especially as they sold a Lambrusco, a sparkling red which had got me smudged on several happy lunches in Bologna.
Frustratingly, the initial window you get given for your delivery is any time between 8am and 8pm on the day you have chosen, but Parcelforce texts you that morning with a more specific, hour long delivery slot. As it happened I was very lucky and my driver turned up around half-nine in the morning, but I would have been less thrilled if he’d been there at half seven in the evening. My box was well-packed though, with compostable wool padding (in recyclable plastic linings) and a single ice block keeping everything cool.
I got everything out and had a look at it. It was well packaged in clear plastic, with instructions and blurb stapled to each pack, all present and correct. Was it my imagination, or did it all look a bit, well, small?
We ate the three course meal the following night, and everything was carefully structured so you could prepare and eat your starter while your main was cooking, before moving on to your dessert later on. The starter was tigelle (little muffin-like rolls, made of dough fried in lard) with Parma ham and pesto modenese. All you had to do was roll the dough to just under a centimetre thick, cut it into eight centimetre circles and fry it for about six minutes in the lard provided.
Nice and simple, in theory at least. I do most of the cooking at home, with Zoë as a very willing sous chef. But it’s fair to say that rolling and cutting the dough did bring Zoë to a state of near mutiny. It didn’t help that we didn’t have a rolling pin and had to improvise with a bottle. The claggy dough stuck fast to the inside of the packet. Then Zoë was frustrated that she wasn’t sure whether she’d rolled the dough out a centimetre thick.
“These instructions could be a lot clearer” she said.
“They tell you how thick the dough should be and how wide the shapes should be. That’s pretty specific.”
That helpful observation earned me a withering stare.
“I think what would help is if they told you how many rolls this mixture actually makes.” There was a pause. “Sixty pounds and they ask you to roll your own fucking dough.”
Then Zoë started quoting Bill Murray in Lost In Translation (“what kind of restaurant makes you cook your own food?”) and I feared a full-scale insurrection in the kitchen. I offered to take over, but that was met with short shrift. Zoë has always given the cooking a wide berth in our house (although she scrambles a mean egg), so perhaps she was stressed that I’d wind up reviewing her cooking rather than Bocca di Lupo’s.
Anyway, any anxiety was unfounded: we got three slightly irregular tigelles out of the dough, all of them were probably a little too thick and they took longer than the advertised six minutes to cook, but they were delicious. Tasty, but no oil painting: in other words, pretty consistent with all the food I’ve eaten in Emilia Romagna.
They were nicely doughy – certainly not fluffy, but not too stodgy or heavy either. And they were beautiful paired with the Parma ham, nicely dry and with real depth, probably the best I’ve had outside Italy (the instructions tell you to take everything out of the fridge half an hour before you start cooking: the ham, in particular, really needs that).
But the real winner was the pesto modenese. I’ve never had it before, but it’s a pesto made with lardo, parmesan, garlic and herbs. It was mouth-coating stuff, deeply savoury, pungent and salty, simultaneously divine and, in nutritional terms at least, truly evil. I’ve not tasted anything quite like it, and a little went a long way, melting onto the lard-crisped surface of the tigelle. I briefly daydreamed about eating something like that every day, and then I remembered that if I did, I wouldn’t have that many days left in which to do it.
Shortly after the starters had been polished off, I heard the beep from the kitchen telling me that our lasagne was nearly ready. And that’s when I remembered one of the main selling points of these meal kits: I might not have been in a restaurant, but it was so nice to eat a starter, to savour and enjoy it, and then to eat a main course in your own sweet time. Ordering takeaways is always about juggling, making sure nothing goes cold and upgrading your starters to side dishes so you can try everything at once. The relatively unhurried pace of this, by contrast, was properly lovely.
The lasagne couldn’t have been easier to cook and – unlike many shop-bought lasagnes I’ve struggled with over the years – was easy to dish up. It looked the part, with a bubbling top and crispy pasta at the edges (always the very best bit). But I did find myself a little underwhelmed by it. It smelled beautiful out of the oven, and all of the components were terrific – one of the best bechamels I’ve tasted, and a wonderful ragu with strands of beef, veal and pork.
But the whole thing felt out of whack – often I would cut through the layers and couldn’t spot a single piece of meat, even the faintest hint of ragu between any of them. There’s sparing and there’s stingy, and this felt like it fell the wrong side of the line. Not for the first time, I wondered where the fifty-nine pounds had gone: I never enjoy those thoughts, because they make me feel like that kind of person.
The side salad, which I dressed while the lasagne was cooling slightly out of the oven, was also very pleasant – a bag of rocket with shaved fennel and a dressing which sang with citrus. But a fair few of the fennel shavings were from the woody part of the bulb, and less enjoyable to eat. I enjoyed the whole thing, but – a bit of a theme here – I wasn’t sure whether I was sixty pounds enjoying myself.
“I know what you mean” said Zoë. “It’s nice, but is it really that much nicer than a lasagne from COOK?” It seemed a fair challenge.
After a brief pause – it might have been longer if we’d been fuller – I fetched in our dessert, which had had plenty of time to come to room temperature. Torta Barozzi is an iconic cake from Vignola, a small town west of Bologna. A pasticceria there has been making it for the best part of one hundred and fifty years, and although they guard their recipe jealously, Bocca di Lupo loved it enough to have worked on their own rendition. This kind of detail was something Bocca di Lupo did really well – I loved all the blurb and backstories, the love of food that was plainly on display.
Anyway, the cake. It really was beautiful – a dense, rich slab of all the best things, almonds and coffee, rum and chocolate. Almost like a ganache, but with plenty of nutty texture and thoroughly infused with gorgeous, boozy, warming rum. It was one of the best cakes I’ve had, and like all the best cakes it felt like it ended half a dozen forkfuls too soon. For that moment, ekeing it out, I felt transported in the best sense. I’ll most likely never make it to Vignola – by this point I’d probably settle for an afternoon trip to Pangbourne – but somehow a little bit of me had made that journey, from my sofa, thanks to Bocca di Lupo.
The meal over, I found it harder than usual to work out whether it was an experience I’d recommend. On the one hand, delivery is expensive, and although I loved the quality of much of what I’d had I did keep wondering where all the money had gone. And then I thought about the things I’d got to try – that torta, or the pesto modenese – that I simply couldn’t have eaten anywhere else.
“What would have had to be different for you to have liked it more?” said Zoë as we conducted our post mortem before watching another episode of Call My Agent.
“It’s a good question. Everything was good, but I kept thinking there should have been… more, somehow. This region isn’t about fancy, pricey food, but you’re meant to eat really well.”
“True. The most expensive thing was probably the Parma ham.”
“I think the thing that clinched it was probably the lasagne. I was surprised by just how little ragu was in it.”
I also kept thinking about how far that money would have stretched spent elsewhere. Very few takeaways I’ve had came to sixty pounds (not including the twenty pound delivery charge). And I have limited experience of heat at home kits, but I’ve eaten enough Clay’s at home to know that sixty pounds there would get you colossal amounts of food (and they charge less for delivery, use more ice packs and their food lives longer). In a way, eating Bocca di Lupo At Home managed to replicate many, many meals out I’ve had in London over the years: there were things I enjoyed, but I’m not sure I would do it again.
That’s the problem with heat at home kits, too – there are so many out there to try. And when I thought about it some more, what I’d eaten made me more likely to check out Bocca di Lupo’s site in London one day than to order their restaurant kit again. Maybe, on some levels, that’s the point. But would I pick it over Mele e Pere on Brewer Street, with its colossal collection of vermouths, or the extravagant cheeriness of Bloomsbury’s Ciao Bella?
As a postscript, the following night we had an add-on from Bocca di Lupo as our dinner – the tagliatelle Bolognese. This cost sixteen pounds, and couldn’t have been easier to prepare – the fresh pasta took a couple of minutes and the ragu (which came with a little puck of butter, because butter makes everything better) cooked through in no time.
This meal I absolutely loved – the ragu came through more strongly, and it really was beautiful pasta, the whole thing topped with a snowdrift of Parmesan. It was so nice that I briefly considered making Pasta Evangelists my next heat at home review, until I remembered that they counted Giles Coren as an investor.
“This is so much better” said Zoë. “And it feels like you get much more of the ragu that you did with the lasagne. It’s decent value, too, compared to everything else.”
“That’s true, but it still isn’t masses of ragu.” I said. The blurb for this dish said This is a recipe for pasta with sauce – there should be little enough sauce that you can really taste the pasta. Sometimes, less is more. It made me think of all those sneaky inauthentic restaurants I’d eaten at in Bologna, where you get a sizeable cairn of ragu on top of your pasta and you never have to say “when” as they dust on the Parmesan: somebody really ought to tell them that they’re letting the side down. So it was good, but not quite enough: Bocca di Lupo, somehow, in a nutshell.
The world of Deliveroo can be a strange one, if you fire it up on an average night trying to pick something to have for your dinner. You’ll find all sorts – exactly the sort of restaurants you’d expect to be on Deliveroo, restaurants you’d never go for in a million years, random shops (Lloyds Pharmacy, anybody?) restaurants you probably thought were “too good” for Deliveroo and the occasional complete curveball. It’s a bit like Tinder, that other great digital gratifier, in that respect: a real mixed bag.
You’ll also find restaurants that don’t really exist, but happen to be the Deliveroo-only name for a restaurant you do know. So for instance Madras Flavours, a vegetarian South Indian restaurant, opened recently in the spot where Chennai Dosa used to be, across from the library. They’re on Deliveroo, as you might expect. What you might not expect is that also on Deliveroo, and operating from exactly the same address, are restaurants called Epic Momos, Soul Chutney, Indie Wok, Hyderabadi Biryani Club and (my personal favourite), “Fatt Monk”.
And that’s literally not even the half of it: at the time of writing there are no less than twenty-nine different Indian restaurants, all with virtually identical menus, operating on Deliveroo from the same premises on Kings Road. What’s that all about? Why split all your positive feedback between twenty-nine different restaurants – unless you don’t expect it to be positive, of course.
It’s not just Madras Flavours at it, though: I’ve heard good things about a place called Maverick Burger which definitely has no physical premises under that name. Deliveroo says it operates from Gun Street, so is it Bluegrass BBQ by another name, or Smash trying to keep busy in lockdown? To complicate things further, if you put “Maverick Burger Reading” into Google, it seems to think it’s another name for 7Bone, which makes no sense at all. Another restaurant, called Coco Di Mama, sells pots of pasta and garlic bread. That might tempt you – but would you order from it I told you that it was just Zizzi under another name?
It’s not a phenomenon unique to Deliveroo, either – you can order Japanese food on JustEat from Oishi, down the Oxford Road. Or you can go on the same app and order the same food from Taberu Express, from the same address. Oishi was originally meant to be a second branch of Taberu, the excellent Japanese restaurant on Oxford’s Cowley Road. Why use the name for some, but not all, of Oishi’s deliveries? The mind boggles. And Uber Eats isn’t immune to this either. It has fourteen different Indian restaurants operating out of – yes, you’ve guessed – a single site on Kings Road.
What is unique to Deliveroo, however, is Deliveroo Editions. This is an arrangement where businesses can rent kitchen space from Deliveroo, and use their delivery capability, while offering whatever menu they like. Deliveroo bill these as a way for restaurants to test the water in a particular area without having to shell out considerable startup costs, and Reading is one of only a handful of locations outside London to have Deliveroo Editions.
The most notable restaurants using Deliveroo Editions in Reading are well-known chains largely based in London – Shake Shack, Rosa’s Thai, Chillango, The Athenian and Burger & Lobster. There’s another restaurant doing lobster rolls under the name of Smack, but I saw an order from Smack on Instagram recently which turned up in Burger & Lobster packaging: smoke and mirrors again. Beyond that it’s mostly companies selling cheesecake and ice cream (perhaps they’re another example of the same company operating under two different names: you hardly need to rent a kitchen to sell Ben & Jerry’s).
The proverbial sore thumb is the subject of this week’s review, the clumsily named VIP Very Italian Pizza. It only has two branches, both in the Brighton area, although their website says their story goes back to Naples in 1845, and that all their ingredients come from their farm there. I couldn’t find out much more about them from my research; there are restaurants with the same name in Rome and Monaco, though I don’t know if they’re linked, and a chain called Very Italian Pizza in the Netherlands, which I assume is a completely separate business.
Even so, it struck me as an interesting step to take. The pandemic hits, your restaurants struggle to trade and you decide to strike out across the country without a reputation or a brand name to make it easier. You have to admit, that’s a bold move, and it does suggest a certain degree of confidence in their food. It reminded me a little bit, in fact, of the pluckiness of Clay’s when they bought their vacuum-packing and blast-chilling equipment and decided, from a little restaurant on London Street, to try and conquer the world.
Anyway, I’m not reviewing VIP Very Italian Pizza this week because of their backstory, or because they’re my first experience of Deliveroo Editions. I’m reviewing them for the best reason of all, because somebody told me that they were good. After my disappointing meal at Firezza a couple of months back, one of my readers, Daniel, told me I should have tried VIP Very Italian Pizza (I’ll just call them VIP from now on: typing all that out would grate across a whole review). “They’re real, they are surprisingly fantastic and very authentic” he said. Daniel’s family are Italian and he knows his food, so following up on this one was a no-brainer.
VIP’s menu is slimmed down from the one they offer in their Brighton restaurants, but still involves an almost bewildering range of pizzas. That does make sense, given that they’re all variations on a theme, but do expect to do a lot of scrolling and narrowing down before you settle on one. They range from eight to fifteen pounds, although you also have the option to build your own. Alternatively, you can order a panuozzo, a giant woodfired sourdough sandwich: I made a mental note to try one of those next time. There is a small range of starters, too, along with a charcuterie selection for one or two people, a handful of pasta and salad dishes and a few tempting desserts.
The other thing worth mentioning is that VIP’s menu also has a deli section, so along with your dinner you can pick up some Italian biscuits, some mozzarella or any of the charcuterie used on the pizzas. I really liked this touch and, again, it suggested pride in their ingredients: lots of restaurants talk about this, but they don’t always put their money where their mouths are in this way. I ordered a couple of pizzas, a selection of charcuterie and a couple of desserts, which came to forty-eight pounds, not including tip.
Deliveroo Editions’ kitchen isn’t far from the Moderation, ideally suited to serve both the town centre and Caversham, and my delivery experience was fuss and complication free. I ordered at five past seven, my order was on its way twenty minutes later and within half an hour of ordering a black cab was at my door with the food. Everything was in recyclable cardboard, and their packaging also tells you a bit about their ingredients and sourdough base – a nice touch.
In normal times – in a restaurant, people watching, with a cold beer on the go – I’d have had my charcuterie selection first and my pizza second. I do miss those times. Instead, we went for the pizzas first, reasoning that they would go cold and the charcuterie wouldn’t. I had picked probably my favourite pizza, thinking it would make a good benchmark – a Napoletana, which happens to include olives, capers, anchovies and chilli, many of my favourite things. I’m not sure whether things had moved around in transit, but my pizza had a strange bald spot in the middle and, on further investigation, one corner of the thing was completely devoid of olives, capers or anchovies. Never mind – pizza goes cold so quickly, and at least I knew which bit to eat last.
Having got that whinge out of the way, it really was delicious stuff. It wasn’t stingy with olives and capers the way, say, a Franco Manca pizza would be, and all of the ingredients were really good quality. The intense saltiness of the anchovies, the almost fragrant plump purple olives and the acetic tang of the capers added up to something wonderful: I’ve always thought that this was the pizza for people who love salt and vinegar.
But more than that, the tomato base was beautifully done, the cheese was top-notch and the base, nicely spotted around the rim, held up superbly. Zoë’s pizza, the Fiocco di Neve (it translates as snowflake) was every bit as good. It was a simple combination of flavours – sweet thin slivers of onion, salty, punchy gorgonzola and nuggets of coarse, tasty sausagemeat. Sometimes less is more, and this was a good example of that – and the toppings felt generous although, again, the photo suggests there might have been a bit of drift in transit going on in the back of that black cab. VIP’s menu also has a pizza bianca on it which is just fior di latte, potato and sausage, and I can well imagine trying that next time.
We’d also ordered a charcuterie selection for one, and although it didn’t really go after we’d finished the pizza (especially as we’d started to fill up by then) it was still a useful way of checking out the rest of VIP’s produce. It came with some decent toasted sourdough – which would have been even better if we’d eaten it hot, I imagine – and a few bocconcini, but the feature attraction was the meat. You got a little taster of all the different cured meats they use on their pizzas, all of which you can also buy from the deli to eat at home.
These broadly fell into three different categories. First, “not bad”: this included the Parma ham and bresaola, both good but unremarkable, a fine Milano salami and a coppa that needed a little more fat and marbling. Second, “really not bad”. This category was comprised of a thoroughly decent coarse speck, some excellent spiniata, a coarse Napoli salami and, my pick of the bunch, some beautiful pancetta with herbal notes and smoky fat almost like lardo. The third category was the mortadella, which I left: I’ve tried it in Bologna and my understanding is that if you don’t like it there, you probably won’t like it anywhere.
My excuse is that I was saving myself for dessert. I’ve never had a cannolo, and I’ve heard friends rave about them on holidays in Sicily. I can’t tell you whether VIP’s version was authentic or not, but it didn’t quite hit the spot for me – I was hoping the rolled tube of dough would be airier, crisper and bit less like cardboard, and the ricotta inside a little lighter, fresher and more speckled with chocolate chips. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, just that I expected even more – but perhaps it’s unfair to compare this with the snaffling the real deal in a café in Noto.
It’s fairer, perhaps, to compare it with Zoë’s choice of dessert, which came out on top. Scialatelli alla Nutella consisted of fried, sugared strips of pizza dough liberally covered in Nutella. I imagine that sentence either made you hungry or left you cold, but for what it’s worth I loved this dish. It had next to no nutritional value and, like so many things with next to no nutritional value, it was extremely good for the soul. Even lukewarm, having cooled down while we waded through our pizza and charcuterie, it was a superb dessert, like an Italian take on churros with the saturation cranked up. I was allowed to try some, and it made me sad that I hadn’t ordered it while secretly relieved that I had dodged quite that many calories. Zoë didn’t want any of my cannolo in return, which suggests I sold it to her roughly as well as I’ve sold it to you.
So, all in all a very enjoyable meal – Daniel’s summary of “surprisingly fantastic” is both accurate and exceptionally concise. And yet I still felt conflicted at the end of it, because a part of me felt like I’d done the dirty on Papa Gee to have a one night stand with VIP – new in town but, potentially, with no intention of putting down roots. This is where it starts to get complicated to be a consumer, especially a consumer with an interest in building a community. Was I helping a very good pizza restaurant to try Reading out in the hope that they might open a branch here, or was I supporting Brighton’s local economy when I should be helping our local hero on Prospect Street? Was I part of the solution, or part of the problem?
I imagine everybody will have a different answer to that. To some people it won’t even be a question: they just want the best pizza, or the cheapest, or to buy from whoever has a deal on that day. And to some people it’s unthinkable heresy to order from an outsider, or from Deliveroo Editions, or even from Deliveroo in general. I understand all of that, or at least I like to think I do. Modern life is rife with difficult choices. Sometimes choice is a luxury we don’t really need and sometimes – if, for instance, you want to buy some vegetarian dosa from a restaurant on Kings Road – it’s just an illusion.
I still tend to think of delivery apps in general as a necessary evil, and I don’t know what I make of Deliveroo Editions as a concept, but I came away from my meal with a certain respect for VIP. Even if their stay in Reading is a fleeting one, I wish them every success with it and I think their pizza is pretty damn good. But I’ll make sure I order a takeaway from Papa Gee in the not too distant future – from Deliveroo, again, regrettably – if only by way of penance. It turns out that they do versions of both of the desserts I tried from VIP, so maybe they’ll stop me daydreaming about that pizza dough, slathered in Nutella. Perhaps you have your cannolo and eat it, after all.
This time of year is usually a happy one at ER HQ. Amid all the wrapping and card-opening, the chocolates snaffled from behind advent calendar doors and the frantic round of socialising in the run-up to Christmas Day, I invariably take time to sit down and write my annual awards. Who cooked the finest main course I’ve had all year? What’s the best new restaurant? Who’s really aced their social media this year? It’s a lovely thing to do, to mentally digest all those wonderful meals one more time and to celebrate everything – and there is so much – that Reading does so very well. After all, you don’t have to listen to Chris Tarrant up on stage, battered at the microphone, to be proud of Reading. Thank God.
As with everything else about this mixed-up year, it draws to a close very differently to every other year we’ve lived through. I know lots of people cautiously returned to dining out over the summer, and did so again when we entered Tier 2 with all its arbitrary restrictions, and I’m certain that Reading’s restaurants are eternally grateful for that, but I’ve stayed home and relied on takeaways and deliveries. Apart from a few drinking sessions at the exemplary Nag’s Head at the height of the summer I’ve not really been out and about; it’s hard enough to remember what having a starter in a restaurant feels like, let alone to flip through the mental Rolodex and work out which was the best one of the last twelve months.
And yet it doesn’t feel right to say goodbye to 2020, much as I know we’re all dying to, without putting something up on the blog. So this is partly a round-up, partly a reflection and goodness knows what else, as we prepare to move into an uncertain future. A vaccine is on the way and the orange knobber across the pond is on his way out but, on the flipside, we have no idea how (or how hard) we’ll get clobbered by our delectably chlorinated oven-ready Brexit.
And now we have a second strain, a third wave and, at the time of writing, a dress rehearsal for the New Year as the rest of Europe proves that it’s actually quite easy to close your borders and take back control. They say it’s the hope that kills you, but I can’t imagine anybody dying of that next year. Let’s look at many of the reasons to be cheerful instead: it’s the season for it, don’t you know.
Goodbyes, but fewer than you might think
(Do you like the headings? Neat, aren’t they. A few people have told me I should use this sort of thing more often to break up the interminable text, and who am I to argue: let’s see if they catch on.)
Obviously it’s very sad when restaurants close. That should go without saying, even this year when we’ve all had to become a bit numb to Bad Stuff. It’s especially sad when an independent closes, or a restaurant you like, or a restaurant that seemed to be doing well, but even when it isn’t the end of somebody’s dream, when it’s a faceless chain, it still leaves people – some of them really good at what they do – looking for new jobs. I still think the real damage will be felt next year but for now, we can at least take comfort in the fact that the number of closures this year was far smaller than you might expect.
Most of the casualties have indeed been chains and often it’s been the second branch of a chain where Reading has more than one: the Kings Road Zizzi; the Broad Street Prêt; the St Mary’s Butts Pizza Express. In the latter case it’s a far nicer place than the one in the Oracle, but at least if you have an emotional attachment to the brand you can still get your Pollo ad Astra without leaving town (do consider Papa Gee, though: they’re on Deliveroo and everything).
One restaurant even came back from the dead: I’m not a diehard fan of Carluccio’s but I still felt sad when it closed early in lockdown as a result of the chain collapsing. And even though it isn’t high on my list of places to visit next year I found it heartwarming nonetheless when it reopened in September. I’ve had enough really enjoyable evenings there (including, surreally, my last restaurant meal before the first lockdown) that I wanted to feel like another one was at least possible. And, for now at least, it still is.
A couple of restaurants changed their names while doing the same kind of food in such a way that you couldn’t really be sure whether they had closed at all. So I honestly don’t know whether Persian Palace is to Persia House what Snoop Lion is to Snoop Dogg, or if Spitiko is in any way a different beast to Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus (probably not, though, given that the restaurant’s Facebook page is now called “Ketty’s Spitiko”).
I certainly couldn’t venture an opinion on whether Gulab Indian Kitchen is any different to Miah’s Garden Of Gulab and I definitely couldn’t speculate as to whether it has anything to do with previous attempts by the owner of Garden Of Gulab to get round losing his alcohol licence by making a new license application under a different name. All I will say is that if you’re part of the very niche section of my readership that just can’t get enough of Indian restaurants with the word “Gulab” in their name, 2020 hasn’t been as complete a bin fire for you as it was for the rest of us.
Probably the most high profile independent closure has been announced but won’t happen until next year, when we say goodbye to one of Reading’s longest-running restaurants, Standard Tandoori on Caversham Road. Standard Tandoori, which has been open for forty years, is closing in the spring as the owners want to retire, so those of you addicted to their (locally) famous “super dry fry” will have to look elsewhere for a new favourite dish.
It does make you wonder which old-timer restaurants might not make it to the end of 2021 – could it be the year we say goodbye to the Bina and Rafina Lounge? Part of this, of course, is down to the circle of life in hospitality – for new restaurants to open, existing restaurants have to close, and indeed a new restaurant is already lined up to open in the Standard Tandoori site following refurbishment (more on that later). Speaking of new restaurants…
In with the new
Opening a restaurant is a brave thing to do at the best of times, in the best of years. It takes a long time to start to recoup your initial costs and approach a break even point, and a fair amount of restaurants don’t ever get that far: it’s hard to find a consensus online about the percentage of restaurants that fail in their first year, but even on conservative estimates it’s high enough that hospitality is not a business for the faint-hearted. That makes it all the more surprising that quite a lot of new restaurants have opened in 2020 – again, more than you might expect – with more still in the pipeline.
Some are trying to turn around what could charitably be described as cursed sites – the kind of buildings that seem to be on ley lines guaranteed to ensure the failure of hospitality businesses. Take the old site of the Warwick Arms on the Kings Road, for example. It rebranded as Bali Lounge, and when that closed it reincarnated as a gastropub of sorts called the Biscuit & Barrel. Then, like some hyperactive Doctor Who of the Reading restaurant world, it became Cardamom, the second branch of a mini-chain of Indian restaurants (the other one’s in Pangbourne) before very quickly rebranding again – this time as King’s Kitchen, also an Indian restaurant.
That takes us up to early 2020, but later this year it changed its name yet again, becoming The Aila, a Nepalese restaurant and bar. By the time a vaccine has been rolled out and I am ready to review restaurants again I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it has changed its name again. Possibly twice.
Another new opening in a cursed site is Madoo, an Italian coffee shop which has opened on Duke Street opposite the Oxfam music shop. You may know this site better as the boarded up shop that used to be Project Pizza or, if your memory is longer, the boarded up shop that used to be It’s A Wrap.
But in fairness, the reports I’ve had so far (including from Reading’s resident Sicilian in exile, Salvo Toscano) suggest that Madoo might be a dark horse. The toasted gorgonzola sandwich is meant to be decent, they use scamorza in quite a few of their toasties and they sell some goodies – cake and biscuits – to take away (if they stock any giandiuotti I shall have to pay them a visit sooner rather than later). Let’s hope Madoo manages to make a go of the site – it may benefit, sadly, from the closure of Panino (another long-standing Reading business) on the other side of the road.
One last ill-starred spot is the old Colley’s Supper Rooms site on the Wokingham Road, up by Palmer Park. This was reborn as Bart’s, a steakhouse that left me a little unmoved, before closing and reopening as the salubrious-sounding Smokey’s House, a restaurant described by Get Reading as Cheap and cheerful family grub. Perhaps unsurprisingly given that glowing writeup, Smokey’s House failed to catch fire and now, in its place, we have O Português, a – yes, you’ve guessed – Portuguese restaurant.
This could be a wonderful thing, if it’s done well. I’ve been to Portugal a fair few times and it’s very much the unsung hero of European food, with dishes and wine that can easily match anything in Spain. And it’s some time since Reading had a Portuguese restaurant (Nando’s doesn’t count: it’s South African), the last one being O Beirão up on the Basingstoke Road. O Português must be pretty confident, anyway, as so far they’ve dispensed with a website or even having a menu up outside the restaurant. I had to go on Just Eat to get a look at what was on offer: one section of the menu is entitled “Vegetarian & Children”, which rather gives the wrong impression.
O Português’ menu is, at least, available somewhere online. That’s more than you can say about Raayo, the new cafe which has opened on Friar Street just along from Hickies. They have set up a website, but the nicest thing I can say about it is that it feels a tad underdeveloped. The menu is lacking in the kind of detail especially fussy customers might want – what dishes are available, how much they cost, that kind of thing. And what’s Raayo’s USP? We use fresh ingredients to make our food very tasty and yummy says the website, which will leave all of Reading’s dastardly restaurants and cafés using stale ingredients to make their food rubbish or middling quaking in their boots.
I know this might sound unkind, but it comes from a place of genuine concern. Raayo, like all hospitality businesses, is going to need all the help it can get in a crowded, competitive marketplace to stay alive; in 2020, and especially in 2021, this kind of approach just won’t cut it. I imagine they’ve had some quiet days since they opened – you’d think they would have offered plenty of opportunities to at least get busy on social media.
Also new, also a café and also on Friar Street, albeit at the less attractive end down by German Doner Kebab and the Hope Tap, we have Bru. Instagram announced that they opened their doors for the first time last week, although they haven’t updated their website to reflect that (isn’t it always the way?). Bru serve their own gelato, handmade by them in Leicester, so if that turns out to be good – and especially if it turns out actually to be gelato – that could be a real addition to town. Their menu also offers a “Grinch hot chocolate” which is a really disconcerting shade of green and something called a “wafflepop”, which I assume is like a normal waffle but hundreds of times more twee.
Other cafés have been far more polished. The Collective has opened just opposite the Griffin and is an altogether more well-realised affair: very Caversham and very chic, with a stripped-back, almost Nordic look. The name is about the only Marxist thing about it: part-café, part lifestyle shop and part grocer, it will be interesting to see whether they manage to do more with that concept than their spiritual predecessor, Siblings Home. The Collective has already been featured in Muddy Stilettos, which probably tells you more about it and the market it is aiming at than I possibly could. If you like that sort of thing, you’ll probably like that sort of thing.
One restaurant, although not new per se, has pursued such a different direction that it might as well be a completely new establishment. The Corn Stores, which underwhelmed me last year as an upmarket steak restaurant, made a dramatic switch this year when it hired Liam Sweeney, previously sous chef at Nottingham’s Michelin-starred Alchemilla. The complete revamp involved moving to a compact, regularly-changing tasting menu, a clear statement of intent that owner Rarebreed Dining was shooting for central Reading’s first Michelin star. The decision to start using sourdough bread from RGBread, the bakery run by Geo Café, was another sign of Sweeney’s ambition. Speaking of the Corn Stores…
The idea is you put the headings between the sections
I did wonder what would happen to restaurant reviewing this year. I’ve taken nine months off, and you all have the withdrawal symptoms to prove it, but Reading’s influencers tend to be younger and braver (and, I would guess, with no underlying health conditions). They’re a lean and hungry bunch. But just as the pandemic has made many of us reassess our values, would it change their views about how they reviewed restaurants and which restaurants to review? The early signs were that it might, with at least one local blogger musing about whether it was right to take free food in the middle of a global crisis, or to support chains.
That didn’t last very long, as a number of comped reviews and enthusiastic Instagram posts have cropped up since then. Movie night at the Last Crumb was just too hard to resist it seems (maybe they were showing Weekend At Bernie’s, in which case who can blame them) as was an opportunity to scoff free grub at the new and improved Corn Stores. Oh well. Times are hard and who can begrudge people the chance to cut down on their weekly expenses: won’t somebody think of the influencers?
Anyway, I can’t bring myself to entirely complain about people getting free meals at the Corn Stores, because it introduced Reading, and the world, to possibly the finest restaurant reviewer writing today in English. I am of course speaking of Hugh Fort: I think we all knew he had talent, but none of us could have predicted just what a towering giant he would become in 2020. My friend Sophie told me last week that she decided to eat at the Corn Stores on the night before the start of the second lockdown entirely on the basis of Fort’s masterful review for Berkshire Live.
“I knew that if Hugh Fort didn’t like it, it was probably the place for me.”
“It’s not that he didn’t like it, more that he just didn’t understand it.”
“Yes, that’s exactly what it was.”
Where to begin? There’s so much to enjoy about the review that I doubt I can do it justice. Someone on Twitter described it as “accidental Partridge”, but it’s so authentically him that I suspect Alan Partridge might instead be an accidental Hugh Fort. Fort wrote incredulously about eating Liam Sweeney’s food in a way that suggested even a Harvester might be a tad fancy for him. And it wasn’t just the food, either. Fort doesn’t drink, and he writes about booze as if he doesn’t understand that either. A sniff of his girlfriend’s cocktail “suggested to me it was the sort of thing that you could drink a lot of without realising it was full of potent liquor, which seems to be the point of cocktails.” Has anyone ever seen him and Viz‘s Mr. Logic in the same place?
But it was when talking about the food that Fort really came into his own: his uncle is Great British Menu judge Matthew Fort, but the apple has fallen a long old way from the tree. I loved the way he put mocktails and palate cleanser in inverted commas, as if to say “this is what the kids are calling them, apparently”. Fresh oysters and Reading town centre were apparently “two terms that aren’t exactly associated with each other” – why am I not surprised that Fort had never heard of London Street Brasserie? – but Fort gamely gave them a bash, before “wolfing down” “a couple of tasty potato croquettes”.
The Corn Stores put a picture of that dish up on Instagram a week or so later, patiently explaining that they were in fact pig’s head croquettes, no doubt involving painstaking cooking and assembly. But never mind that, because they clearly didn’t touch the sides for our roving gourmand (perhaps he didn’t even chew). That Fort couldn’t tell the difference between dense shreds of perfectly-cooked pig and, err, mashed potato might be my single favourite thing about him.
The most quoted section was Fort’s baffled encounter with duck liver parfait and brioche. “The idea is you put the parfait on the brioche” he explained, possibly more to himself than the rest of us. I’d like to imagine that an earlier version of the review also contained a paragraph reading “the idea is that you cut the food into smaller pieces using the knife and fork provided, before placing it in your mouth, chewing it with your molars and swallowing in order to allow the process of digestion to take place”. But of course that would mean some editing or proofreading had taken place, and this is Berkshire Live we’re talking about.
And what did Fort make of it? “I quite liked it… I think someone more generally into parfaits would really enjoy it.” “Fine dining anywhere often takes you out of your comfort zone” he added, although Fort’s comfort zone might well begin and end at Gregg’s, or one of those Rustler microwaveable burgers. You know, really fancy shit.
I think it was the Guardian‘s John Crace, or it might have been the Independent‘s Tom Peck, who said that 2020 was the year that satire died. You no longer have to come up with anything yourself, you just have to become a stenographer because the stuff virtually writes itself. So much as I could carry on dissecting Fort’s erudition, I suspect nothing I could say will top the experience of reading it in its entirety.
I’ll leave you to enjoy the rest, including his shock at eating a steak without chips and his girlfriend’s exciting main course, apparently “duck with Aylesbury duck”. That part reminded me of another blinding passage I read in a restaurant review this year, which said “the fish had light and crispy batter which was dusted underneath with Indian spices from the Indian spices. This gave it a subtle spicy flavour, but nothing too spicy”: somebody probably needs to ask Santa for a thesaurus this year.
Some artists create one perfect piece of work and then walk away, knowing they will never top it. I fear Hugh Fort may be such an auteur: I keep looking, but there is no sequel. I’ve read his blistering piece about “the new Hena spice ketchup everybody’s been talking about” (spoiler alert: I don’t know anybody who’s even heard of it) but it’s just not the same.
In it, Fort reviews a curry sauce which, it turns out, you can’t buy in supermarkets in Reading to see if it’s as good as McDonald’s curry sauce which, of course, you can’t buy in supermarkets in Reading. To cut a long story short, Fort thought the one you can’t buy in Home Bargains was slightly nicer but that neither of them was as good as ketchup – and he used the phrase “to be honest” twice, so you know it’s the real deal. Let’s hope 2021 brings more restaurant reviews from Fort: even the fact that the food was free does nothing to tarnish his brilliance.
In with the new (continued)
Sadly we don’t know what Hugh Fort would make of the other new restaurants to open in Reading this year (just imagine, though), and our influencers haven’t bothered with them yet, presumably because they haven’t been offered the chance to do so for nothing.
Quite a few of them, though, are starting to build some good word of mouth reports. A prime example is Banarasi Kitchen, an Indian restaurant trading out of the Spread Eagle pub on Norfolk Road, between the Oxford and Tilehurst Roads. A friend tells me she has gone there pretty regularly this year and has given it rave reviews, and it coincides with the Spread Eagle starting to make a bit of effort on Instagram: I shall be making my way there to check it out at some point in 2021.
Another pub with a chequered relationship with food is the Fisherman’s Cottage, down by the Kennet on the edge of New Town. It’s most famous for having played host to the superb and badly-missed I Love Paella – they left in acrimonious circumstances in summer 2018 and this summer the old management left the pub. It has now reopened under chef and restaurateur Cigdem Muren Atkins, who was born in Turkey and has run hospitality businesses in the Dominican Republic and Bodrum before pitching up at the Fisherman’s Cottage.
It has real potential – the pub can be a lovely spot, especially in summer – but time will tell whether Muren Atkins can keep enough craft beer available to keep the previous clientele happy while working on a food offering to win over diners. Her current menu feels quite generic, with a mixture of curries, stir fries and standard pub fare (yes, burgers). Personally I’d like to see a few more Turkish dishes on the menu – Reading has never quite anywhere that captures how beautiful that cuisine can be, and you need to head to Zigana’s Turkish Kitchen in Didcot for that.
Or it may be that La’De Kitchen, which opened this year in Woodley, will save me from the questionable pleasures of a train trip to Didcot. Although the blurb describes it as a Mediterranean restaurant the menu on their rather glossy website has loads of Turkish dishes on it – borek, pide, guvec and of course a myriad of kebabs. It turns out that this is La’De’s third branch, the slightly incongruous final part of an unlikely threesome: Muswell Hill, Pangbourne, Woodley. I have several readers who have thoroughly enjoyed takeaway from the Pangbourne branch, despite the slightly sharp pricing, so I shall look forward to trying it for myself.
And you don’t need to head out to Woodley to try a plethora of grilled meats: Tasty Greek Souvlaki opened on Market Place in May, in the old Mum Mum site. Again, I’ve heard plenty of good reports of their food (albeit with one or two detractors) with the giros particularly worth trying, by all accounts. I was on the verge of heading there for an al fresco lunch on one of the last warm weekdays of the year – and writing it up for the blog – when we went into a second lockdown, so it just wasn’t meant to be. Hopefully it will still be trading next year when I return to reviewing in earnest.
A new establishment to file under “hmm” is one of the victims, along with HRVY off of Strictly Come Dancing, of the Great Vowel Shortage Of 2020. MNKY Lounge – whose name somehow fails to combine the glamour of Donna Karan New York and the prosaic quality of Alto Lounge – has opened on Erleigh Road where the Fruitbat Bar (and more recently vegan café bar Vego’s) used to ply its trade.
Will this fare any better? I’m not sure. Every time I’ve went past over the summer the tables outside were packed with people drinking but life in Tiers 2, 3 and 4 (let alone the Tier 14 we’ll probably be in by mid-January) may be a different matter. I went on to Just Eat to scout out their menu (their website – yes, it’s another one of those – simply announces that it’s “coming soon”) and I didn’t see anything that looked like it couldn’t have fallen off the back of a Brakes lorry.
Before taking my leave of you, it’s worth reminding you that there are always, always new cafés and restaurants in the pipeline. Nothing ever stands still. So in the New Year we can expect to see Chaiiwala, sometimes apparently described as “the Indian Starbucks” opening on the Wokingham Road just up from I Can’t Believe It’s Not The Garden Of Gulab Gulab Indian Kitchen. Mansoor, my man in the know who introduced me to Cake&Cream and its magic samosas, tells me that Chaiiwala is worth a visit for its karak chai and its chicken kebab rolls: that is recommendation enough for me.
We’ll also see Flavour Of Mauritius opening in the Standard Tandoori’s current location on Caversham Road. Currently a mobile caterer, Flavour Of Mauritius hit the news over the summer when, like a number of other local businesses, they chose to donate free meals to NHS staff, the emergency services and charities helping those in need. I’ve heard positive noises from ER readers who have ordered takeaway from Flavour Of Mauritius in lockdown, so fingers crossed they will revitalise the site and bring something new to Reading’s restaurant scene.
Oh, and Wendy’s is allegedly opening on Friar Street: place your bets on whether we’ll see any enthusiastic Instagram posts about square burgers, the word AD squirrelled away at the very end. And that reminds me that Tortilla has opened on Broad Street, near the Oracle entrance – I should have remembered earlier, but somehow it feels hard to care.
And another Turkish restaurant opened down the Oxford Road in between me starting to write this round-up and hitting the publish button. We also may or may not get a branch of LEON, just like we were meant to get branches of Byron and Busaba a few years ago. If this year has taught you anything, it’s that nothing can be guaranteed to go completely according to plan.
Anyway, that completes the first section of my round-up of 2020. Come back next week for Part Two, when we’ll see if I can sum up how Reading’s restaurants have survived the year without using the word “pivot”. Maybe we can turn it into a drinking game.
It’s been a funny six months of writing this blog, and when I started doing interviews with notable local people I wasn’t sure whether the idea had legs or if people would enjoy them. I’m very lucky that most of the people I’ve approached wanted to take part – even if some of them needed asking more than once – and I like to think that every week we’ve learned something new. But twenty interviews, twenty sets of twenty questions, feels like enough for now, so it’s a good place to stop.
I may do another set in the future, but it’s hard to see what the future looks like right now. I’m not yet out and about eating in restaurants, so there are no reviews, the diary features have run their course and it’s the right time to press pause on the interviews. So you may not see much more on this blog, for the time being at least. Don’t worry, I imagine I’ll be back at some point: past form dictates that, if nothing else. It could be worse – I could be starting a podcast, and nobody needs that.
Anyway, there’s time for one final interview before I take my leave of you, this one with a slight difference. I approached all twenty of my interview subjects and asked if they had a question for me to answer in return. Fortunately, all of them obliged, so this last Q&A is made up of questions from the brilliant, diverse and passionate people I’ve interviewed over the last five months. I hope you enjoy it.
What’s the best street food dish you’ve ever tried? (Glen Dinning, Blue Collar) Despite many great contenders from Reading (Georgian Feast’s chicken wrap, the crispy squid chap that used to cook at Blue Collar, anything from Puree or Peru Sabor) and all the street food I’ve eaten abroad, my favourite was from a van on Brick Lane one weekend. A brioche crammed to bursting with confit duck, crispy duck skin, Barkham blue and truffle honey: I still think about it often.
What’s the one thing you own that you should probably get rid of but can’t? (Naomi Lowe, Nibsy’s) Sad to say, my old wedding ring. I still have it – I never histrionically tossed it across the room or threw it in a lake – and it’s such a beautiful object that I can’t bear to throw it out or even melt it down and turn it into something else. It’s somehow not the object’s fault that the relationship failed. I keep it in a mug on the mantelpiece (along with my other half’s ex-wedding ring, appropriately enough). The mug has a big numeral 1 on it – for marriage number one, I suppose.
Who was your most influential teacher at school and why? (Ian Caren, Launchpad) My chemistry teacher was the drummer in nautically themed 70s band Sailor (they’re not that famous, but they were kept off the number one spot by Bohemian Rhapsody): in slow lessons he’d wheel in the TV and video trolley and play clips of him and his band on Cheggers Plays Pop. We prayed for slow lessons. That’s my main memory of him – that and him having an emotional moment on the magical day when Margaret Thatcher resigned.
But my very favourite teacher at school was the man who gamely struggled with teaching me English for five years, from GCSE through to A Level. I think he probably despaired of my reading habits ever evolving past science fiction and swords and sorcery dross, but under his patient tutelage I enjoyed some of the classics and left school with a lifelong love of Philip Larkin. He is now, unexpectedly, a dear friend of mine, many years later: we meet up regularly, make inroads into a couple of bottles of wine and natter away about everything and nothing.
When it comes to your blog or your critiquing technique or your love for restaurants, what’s the one question you’d love to answer but have never been asked? (Nandana Syamala, Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen) “We’d like to pay you to write restaurant reviews. When can you start?”
By default, people talk about wine pairings with food. Have you got any more unusual food and drink pairings that you think go well together?(Dr Quaff, Quaffable Reading) I’ve got more into beer over the last couple of years and eating a slow-cooked carbonnade in Ghent with a glass of the same dark, malty Westmalle Dubbel they cooked the beef in was a special experience. But the best one is Dr Pepper with any kind of fried breakfast, but only when you’re absolutely hanging out of your arse.
With regard to a vibrant food scene, which UK town or small city do you think Reading should emulate and aspire to? (Shuet Han Tsui, Fidget & Bob). If you hadn’t specified size, I’d have said Bristol and the QI klaxon would have gone off. Of course everyone wants their food scene to be like Bristol’s: it goes without saying. But since you phrased it more carefully, I’ll go for Oxford (which, believe it or not, is smaller than Reading).
I’d love it if Caversham had a fraction of the delicatessens, restaurants, bars and pubs of North Oxford, of Jericho or Summertown. It would be great if the Oxford Road was more like the Cowley Road, with anywhere near as many diverse places to eat and drink. Imagine if we had our own Pierre Victoire or Pompette, Arbequina or the Magdalen Arms. And I wish we had even a fraction of a covered market like Oxford’s – think what the Trader’s Arcade could have been if most of it wasn’t converted to pubs way back when (or the Bristol & West Arcade, if it hadn’t mouldered away derelict) and if we had the kind of space Oxford has in Gloucester Green for an outdoor food market, instead of the tiny space occupied by Blue Collar.
You can only eat potatoes in one form (chips/mash/crisps etc) for the rest of your life. What’s it going to be and why?(Kevin Farrell, Vegivores) This is an evil question. Chips, on balance, beating roast potatoes into second place by a fraction of a nose. There has to be crunch, fluff and contrast and only those two can provide all that. I’ll miss hash browns, though.
How does ‘on duty’ ER differ from normal ER? Do they have a disguise? Are they more fun, hyper aware? (Pete Hefferan, Shed) They’re even better looking (this answer, by the way, was brought to you by “on duty” ER).
Do you eat food that’s past its expiration date if it still smells and looks fine? (Tutu Melaku, Tutu’s Ethiopian Table) Generally, yes, although I’m anal enough about meal planning that it doesn’t happen all that often. In most cases there’s a big margin in those dates. If your milk tastes okay it’s absolutely fine to drink. If you cut the edges off your cheese the rest is perfectly edible. And if veg aren’t mushy and limp they are probably good to eat.
If you opened a restaurant what would it be? (Phil Carter, Anonymous Coffee) I daydream about having a little joint that just does really good bread, cheese and charcuterie and a handful of small plates of an evening. A small selection of good, affordable wine and some beautiful Belgian beers by the bottle, with some old jazz on in the background. The closest I’ve come to a place like that in this country was a fantastic place in Bristol called Bar Buvette, sadly now closed.
What food have you never eaten but would really like to try? (Joanna Hu, Kungfu Kitchen) Having never been to the US, I would love to try proper authentic Southern fried chicken, in the American South. I’m not sure I want to try it enough, mind you, to actually go there.
As a food blogger with a big local social media profile what’s the best and worst experience you’ve had on social media? (Rachel Eden, councillor and Deputy Mayor) The best was definitely being slagged off by Alok Sharma on Twitter. The landslide of public support I received was really heartwarming – it’s the closest thing I can imagine to hearing what everybody would say at your funeral while still being alive (I know that “more popular than Alok Sharma” isn’t the highest bar in the world, but I’ll take it).
You get anaesthetised to the bad experiences. People are so angry now that someone takes exception to pretty much anything you might say, like “why are the roads around the Forbury still closed?” (“how dare you disrespect the victims of that awful attack”), “restaurants should take action to prevent no shows” (“what about bars: all businesses matter”), the list goes drearily on. It’s no surprise by now that Reading has its own answer to Arthur Fleck, or that these people never seem to get bored. A friend of mine says I should take satisfaction from the fact that I live rent free in their heads: maybe so, but I do wish they’d redecorate, or even just put the Hoover round from time to time.
What food makes you think of home? Or perhaps, what food would you eat if you were feeling homesick?(Steph Weller, producer) One thing I’ve always thought about having divorced parents is that you can never go home again: your childhood room isn’t there for you to stay in when things get tough, or when you visit. The closest I’ve come to homesick food is that for several years I didn’t speak to my mother and when we reconciled she cooked me the dish I remember most fondly from my childhood – her superb pie with long-braised steak cooked in plenty of glorious dark booze, surrounded by proper short-crust pastry, no casserole with a hat or flaky lid nonsense going on. That always makes me think of home, and of coming home after too long away.
From all your foodie trips, where would you recommend someone went for a weekend full of affordable but unforgettable food and forever memories? (Louize Clark, Curious Lounge) My head says Bologna because the food is amazing, the gelato is magnificent, there’s wonderful beer and coffee and wine and it’s easy to get to. But my heart says Granada – because tapas culture is one of my favourite things, you used the word “affordable” which Granada very much is, it has the Alhambra which is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen and, perversely, it’s not so easy to get to. The best things sometimes make you work that little bit harder.
How would you define British food culture – if you think we even have one? (Dan Hearn, Loddon Brewery) This is one of the two hardest questions in this interview. Our food culture feels to me like everything and nothing – that we adapt and make do and mend and that it’s a hotchpotch of everybody who has settled here and made this country their home. I love that, but it’s also one of the things that makes me fear for this country and the direction we are headed in, because we are sticking a big two fingers up to all of that.
Food culture in this country feels to me like what’s going on in Reading, but on a much larger scale. There are plenty of good things out there, pockets of creativity and fusion, places in London and Bristol (and Cardiff, and Glasgow) where a distinct identity is emerging. But if you don’t know where to look, as with Reading, you could be forgiven for thinking that we are largely chains and meal deals, soggy sandwiches and the same brands everywhere you look.
I was lucky enough to go on a fair few holidays last year, all in mainland Europe, and I think the U.K. is a long way off having a distinct food culture in the way that Spain, Italy, or France do. Food is still not ingrained in the way of life here the way it is elsewhere; there are still too many people grabbing something crap to eat at their desks rather than enjoying a proper lunch, for instance. It isn’t woven into rituals as it is on the continent. It also worries me that supermarkets feel like they have a grip on U.K. life (and spend) in a way not emulated abroad. I’m always amazed that the U.K. has so few bakeries, and European countries so many.
I still think that, as a nation, we seem set on Americanising our culture – food and otherwise – rather than exploring similarities with our European neighbours or (and this would be even better) making something distinctive of our own. The solution for this is the same thing I always rant on about when it comes to Reading – be the change you want to see and spend your money in the right way. But with everything that lies ahead, I see as much fear as opportunity.
Is any film or a particular scene in a film that makes you feel the stomach rumbling, the mouth dribbling and an irresistible craving for food? (Salvo Toscano, photographer) I’ve thought hard about this and I’ve struggled – food doesn’t tend to feature in the films I’ve loved. I watched Rick Stein bimbling around France earlier in the year – you know, before he was cancelled – and that made me feel envy and hunger pretty much non-stop, but in fiction it’s harder to find an answer. I did really enjoy Chef, where Jon Favreau loses his job because of a run-in with a restaurant reviewer – an event almost as implausible as him managing to have it off with both Scarlett Johansson and Sofia Vergara in the same film – so let’s say that.
You’re the go-to person for restaurant tips, but when it comes to drinking in Reading, where’s your favourite watering hole, and what are you most looking forward to ordering when you finally go back? (Adam Wells, drinks writer) Tricky. I love the Retreat very much, but as I’ve got more and more into beer I find their very cask-led range a bit limiting. It’s still my favourite place to soak up the atmosphere, but on balance I think the Nag’s Head is perhaps Reading’s most complete pub. I know Adam would judge me for saying I’m looking forward to a pint of Stowford Press (just as I judged him for raving about AA Gill), but as it happens I went to the Nag’s for my first post-lockdown drinks and the first thing I went for was a beautiful half of Double-Barrelled’s new The Blackcurrant One.
With so many people who write about food out there what makes your writing stand out (in your opinion) and also what got you into writing reviews in the first place? (Mohamad Skeik, Bakery House) I started because nobody was doing it, the local paper was toilet and I figured that if I didn’t do it nobody else would. But really, I think it’s for other people to say how (and whether) your writing stands out; there are quite enough restaurant bloggers out there who adore the smell of their own farts, figuratively speaking, without me adding to that. Really, if you think I’m bad you should read these guys. I suppose what I’d say is that I’m the only person who has reviewed Reading restaurants consistently for any length of time – seven years so far – and that probably counts for something, as does the fact that I always think about whether a paying customer will like it rather than spend time sucking up to the chef.
If you were the leader of Reading Borough Council, what would you do to improve the town and help Reading’s indie businesses to thrive? You get three policies. Who would be your deputy and why? (Tevye Markson, Reading Chronicle) This is a deft way of showing that I’m good at whinging about local government but not necessarily big on solutions (thanks a bunch, Tevye). I have sympathy with the council in some respects, because for instance they don’t have the latitude to set business rates which would enable them to give independent businesses a more level playing field (it doesn’t help that they did that ridiculous stealth tax on A-boards a while back: that still rankles with many independent businesses). And I know they can’t do much about some of Reading’s more reprehensible landlords.
Anyway, being more positive: I would put more of an emphasis on street food, because that seems like an especially Covid-resistant plan for the months ahead. I’d like to see more street food pitches available than the measly two on Broad Street, more opportunities for credible street food events – not the nacky ones we often see on Broad Street.
I’d also like to see the Friday market taken off the hapless Chow and given to Blue Collar, although between writing this piece and it going up on the blog Reading UK has announced this is happening from September (call me Nostradamus). About time too: anything that encourages entrepreneurs and gives us a more fertile food scene is more likely to stimulate spend, encourage people to stay in town and potentially lead to more traders making the jump into permanent premises.
I’d also like to see a bit more positive intent in the planning process. The example I always think about is the Greek souvlaki restaurant which was going to open on Castle Street, run by a couple who used to work at Dolce Vita. This was a good, credible proposal which would have added to improvements at that end of town, building on the arrival of Brewdog. The council turned it down for reasons best known to themselves, and now it’s yet another hair salon.
I think this council has taken an aversion to public drinking too far, and that ultra-caution sometimes leads to a knee-jerk no when it comes to new hospitality businesses. See also: the bizarre decision not to allow a shipping container development by the side of the Broad Street Mall – one of the less salubrious parts of town – because it would be serving alcohol. Sometimes I think the decisions about Reading’s nightlife are made by particular councillors who haven’t left the house in years.
Finally, I’d like to see Reading Council commit to local businesses by outsourcing, wherever possible, to local companies – whether that’s catering, window cleaning or anything else. We should keep council tax money in the local economy whenever we can, and foster some civic pride. Just imagine what the Pantry could have been like if that contract had been given to one of our local cafés rather than bunged to some nebulous head chef nobody had ever heard of, and if it had properly celebrated our budding food culture rather than paid lip service by choosing a faux-nostalgic name.
Obviously I can’t pick Glen Dinning as my deputy, given that I’ve already given him the plum job of sorting out the Friday market, so I’d be sorely tempted to go for Louize Clarke, a woman who is as critical of the council as I am, and is absolutely fizzing with ideas. Maybe between us, while we’re at it, we could understand who “Reading UK” actually are and what the point of them is (it’s a pipe dream, I know).
What’s your favourite condiment? (Mike Clayton-Jones, Double-Barrelled) This is a bit harsh. I allowed Mike to pick three beers, but he’s reducing me to a single condiment, making me choose between all the salt and spices and sauces out there. I was tempted just go for salt – it makes everything better – but this question feels like it wants a more specific answer. So, much as it pains me to exclude brown sauce, soy sauce, mango chutney, mayonnaise and many other ways of lifting even the most basic of foods, my absolute favourite is a really well-made Béarnaise sauce. Beautifully cooked chips, dunked in Béarnaise, is a pleasure so intense that you could almost forget that there’s usually also steak on the plate.