Honest Burgers

This week, Explore Reading and I are publishing simultaneous reviews of Honest Burgers. You can read Explore’s verdict here.

I’m no expert on Where Reading Is Going. I read our “Vision For 2050″ (which seemed to have precious little to do with Reading) and was none the wiser. I don’t understand what “Reading UK CIC”, “Living Reading” and the “Business Improvement District” actually are, or what they’ve achieved, and what with having an actual job I never get to attend cultural talks at 6pm on campus or the First Friday Club in Brown’s listening to the movers and shakers.

I’ve never been to the Reading Cultural Awards or the Pride Of Reading Awards (Danyl Johnson’s one guaranteed gig every year). I wasn’t on the bus to Tate Modern recently to join a discussion about the arts in Reading, almost exclusively peopled by Reading folk, in London. I have no idea why we keep appointing people from out of town to run our cultural events instead of our excellent home grown talent. Answers on a postcard for all of the above, please, to the usual address.

It does strike me though, in my ill-informed way, that Reading’s at a bit of a crossroads. What kind of town do we want to be? We could try to emulate somewhere like Bristol, with its blossoming cultural scene, superb market, brilliant food scene and countless independent shops. I love Bristol partly because it doesn’t try to be a lesser clone of anywhere. It ploughs its own furrow and – this is something Reading could really learn from – is fiercely proud of its culture, its history, its traditions, even the accent.

Alternatively, we could simply become Zone 8 – added to the Tube network through Crossrail, with all the London chains expanding here and all the trends eventually arriving here too, a few years after they’ve stopped being hot. With the snazzy new Westgate Centre up the road in Oxford, we finally have some local competition. We may have a Franco Manca, but they have a Pizza Pilgrims. Oh, and Oxford has a Leon and a Thali Kitchen, neither of which currently operate here. The big brains of Reading must worry about how to guarantee their supremacy (it all reminds me of the legendary Reading On Thames take on Downfall).

Where does Honest Burgers fit into that narrative? Not another chain, said some people when they announced they were coming to Reading. Not another burger restaurant, said others. But Honest is a more interesting beast than that. For a start, if it is a chain it’s a very small one – predominantly in London apart from a branch here and in Cambridge. The expansion seems slow, careful and considered rather than the result of a huge injection of capital and a relentless business plan (the way that all chains tarnish).

Their story’s an idiosyncratic one, starting in Brixton Market, getting a huge publicity boost from shrinking violet Jay Rayner, and sticking to some resolutely uncommercial decisions from day one, most particularly to make their chips on the premises every day. The other interesting thing about Honest is their commitment to localism – working with producers to offer a special burger at each of their outposts, exclusive to that branch. That extends to Reading, where they’ve worked with Two Hoots Cheese and Nomad to supply Barkham Blue and red pepper chutney for a Reading burger. They also approached Wild Weather Ales, who brewed a special King St Pale for Honest: it’s served at the restaurant and a few other Reading pubs.

In the interests of full disclosure, I had a few dealings with Honest in the run-up to their opening. I recommended local suppliers to them (including Two Hoots and Nomad), told them about our great pub and café culture and pointed them in the direction of other websites like Explore Reading which covered their launch so well. But the only freebies I accepted from them in return were prizes in the competition I ran in December, because I wanted to reserve the right to visit them on a weekday night, my trusty sidekick Tim in attendance, and decide for myself what Honest added to Reading’s culinary scene. Further evidence of Zone 8, or a different kettle of fish altogether?

Honest’s respect for the town extends to the building they’re in. They spoke in interviews about falling in love with the space – half Brutalist, half Victorian – and they’ve done a terrific job of turning it into a restaurant. It’s a building I walked past countless times without noticing it but now it’s hard to imagine it was ever anything else, let alone the branch of Barclays I opened my first account in over twenty-five years ago.

The main dining room is broken up beautifully into sections – booths around the edge for two and four people, all perched at windows looking out on to the street, long tables for solo and communal dining in the middle and more conventional seating (and banquettes) further up. The bar area – up a steep set of stairs at the Market Place end – looked a lovely place to spend time, although it was empty when I visited. The quality of the work is really impressive – striking light fittings rather than tired exposed bulbs, a gorgeous herringbone parquet floor running the length of the room and attractive hexagonal tiles marking out the perimeter where the booths are.

By the time I arrived Tim was already seated at the set of tables nearest to the pass and, above the racing green tiles, I could see burgers ready to be taken to customers. There were only a few chefs on duty, all rush and fuss, but even watching them you got an idea of just how well-oiled a machine Honest’s kitchen is. It helps that the menu is on the border between simple and simplistic – a chicken burger, a vegetarian burger and half a dozen beef burgers, all served with rosemary salted chips. Add a handful of sides, a selection of sauces and that’s your lot.

“Lovely in here, isn’t it?” said Tim who’d been to Honest a few times already and was enthusiastic about accompanying me on this trip. “I like to say it’s hip without being hipster. You can use that in your review.”

I figured I better had: it was about the third time he’d said it in the past few weeks. I also tried a sip of his beer, the King Street Pale.

“Isn’t it great? It’s like alcoholic Lilt.”

“Well, I guess. But it still tastes like beer.” I said, waving someone down and getting a pint of lager: Fullers Frontier, which was perfectly pleasant and just about under a fiver. Tim did the face that meant You’ll never understand beer, and I in return did the face that means I know, and I’m fine with that (we’ve perfected those over many pub and restaurant trips over the years).

Tim initially wanted me to order the Reading burger. I can kind of see why – it had local roots, it sounded very nice and, I suppose, I had a small hand in it. I decided against it for a few reasons. It felt too obvious, for starters. Also, I knew all the other reviewers would try it, and I like being different. But most significantly, all of Honest’s blurb was about the beef, so I wanted to try the burger in a more traditional setting, to taste the ingredients singing with as few backing vocalists as possible. So I went for the Honest, which is their equivalent of a bacon cheeseburger.

Tim, who had already tried a couple of things on the menu, decided to order the special, the “Disco Bistro”. By the time this review goes up, you’ll have about three days to try it before it’s replaced by something else, but I figured it was a good shout because, again, it says good things about Honest that they’re always experimenting (besides, there’s no arguing with Tim once he gets an idea in his head).

This really is fast food; our burgers arrived less than fifteen minutes after we ordered. My first bugbear was that it came on an enamel tray with a knife but no fork, although we requested them and got them very quickly. Without a fork I’d have needed far more napkins than the handful at the table. And although there was a knife I’m not sure it was really needed as my burger was just the right size – and depth – to pick up and eat with your hands, which feels like a rarity nowadays.

The patty was really rather good. Beautifully seasoned, with just a little salt coming through in each bite, perfectly pink on the inside but properly cooked and with plenty of char on the outside. Honest makes much of the fact that their beef is chopped rather than minced and it shows in the texture – coarse without being mealy or crumbly. The decision to use good mature cheddar was also a welcome one: I know bright yellow American cheese is authentic, but it’s always left me cold. The brioche was firm enough to hold together and made eating the burger really easy.

So far so good, but for me the Honest didn’t quite work. I’d have loved onion in it, but instead it (and the basic burger) come with caramelised red onion chutney. The sweetness was cloying and felt like a bum note. Similarly the pickled cucumber could have been brilliant if it had lent a sharp, vinegary tang but instead was sweet and inoffensive. I found myself wishing their classic burger was just a little more classic.

Tim on the other hand had gone for a full whistles-and-bells, kitchen sink burger. The “Disco Bistro” had pineapple and bacon jam, burger sauce, cheddar and pink onions. It sounded like it would either be triumph or disaster: Tim loved it.

“This might be the best burger I’ve had here.”

“It’s not too sloppy with the pineapple jam?”

“No, not at all, and the brioche holds it together beautifully. Those pink onions are amazing, and you get just enough bacon in the jam.”

I also really enjoyed the chips. A lot of reviews I’d read said they were too salty, and I’d had reports to that effect, but on the night I visited they were about right. I’d have liked more rosemary coming through, but you couldn’t argue with the texture or the quality of them and they were especially good dipped in the bacon gravy. Yes, we ordered bacon gravy: a recommendation of Tim’s from a previous visit.

“It’s a lot nicer than last time I came” he said. “It’s thicker and better for dipping.”

Bacon gravy is such a beautiful concept that its existence is almost more important than minor details like what it tastes like. I liked it but I wasn’t completely bowled over – it was still a little thin, if salty and meaty (and I wasn’t sure how much of it was bacon – the menu says it’s bacon gravy, the blackboard says it’s “beef and bacon gravy” and it felt more beef than bacon to me). The other issue with it is that it comes in a shallow enamel dish which means it goes cold fast, something you could probably say about most of the meal. In fairness, Tim and I had a good go at making sure none of it had the chance.

The onion rings were more successful – huge hoops of onion and batter, perfect on their own, let alone dipped in the gravy. A note of something in the batter – possibly fennel seed or cumin – added a little complexity and, impressively, they didn’t feel heavy or greasy in the slightest. We shared a portion of these, and by the end I’d say we were nicely full without being unpleasantly stuffed. If I’d had room I might have gone for a salted caramel milkshake, but I figured there would be other times. Dinner for the two of us came to almost bang on forty pounds, not including tip.

I haven’t mentioned the service, but it was unobtrusively good. The restaurant was very full on a weekday night – buzzy but not deafening – yet the staff never seemed fazed at all and did a good job of looking after a large amount of tables without letting anything slip. Honest have clearly put work into this, and I appreciated the fact that the staff were friendly without being cheesy or overfamiliar, or upselling, or any of those other bugbears that so plague casual dining. Hip without being hipster indeed: perhaps Tim was right.

I’ve never been the biggest fan of burgers or the burger trend (it’s just a sandwich, as I like to say), and I went to Honest curious to see whether they could do enough to overcome that. I’m delighted to say that they did. Honest is a very particular type of restaurant – it’s not one to linger in, and their emphasis probably is on getting you in, feeding you from a relatively limited menu and getting you out again. But to their credit they do that without making you feel like a commodity or making the food into an afterthought: I admire that about them.

Normally in this situation I would say “it’s not for everybody” but actually, Honest has pretty wide appeal. I could see myself eating there pre-theatre, grabbing a quick meal on my way home from work, meeting up with a friend pre-pub or having a big lunch, and that’s before we get on to the very tempting-looking weekend brunch options. I do wonder what it will be like come summer, and how exactly the top bar will end up being used on evenings and weekends, but it definitely adds something to Reading. I’d say it’s far and away the best burger in Reading – miles better than 7Bone, and if I was Handmade Burger Company right now I’d be very nervous indeed – but moreover Honest is somewhere you might actually visit in its own right.

I don’t know what the future holds for Reading – whether we’ll ever strike out and celebrate our identity the way Bristol or Brighton do or whether, under the business-centric influence of our nebulous quangos we’ll just become a creeping extension of London. But I hope Honest heralds the shape of things to come, and if we do get new restaurants they’ll pick up a little of what makes Reading so special. After all, the guys from Honest came here and fell in love with the Nag’s Head – and those are exactly the kind of restaurateurs we want, if you ask me.

Honest Burgers – 7.3
1-5 King Street, RG1 2HB
0118 3593216

https://www.honestburgers.co.uk/locations/reading/#

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Gooi Nara

I first went to Gooi Nara in late 2016; I was on what I suppose you could loosely have classed as a date, with somebody I suppose you could loosely have classed as a vegan. I sat there trying to sound enthusiastic about tofu (not a skill I’ve ever mastered, truth be told) and then I ate my disappointing bibimbap while all around me, the other diners were wolfing down Korean barbecue, grilling a plethora of delectable looking meats on the hot plate in the middle of their tables. They all seemed to be really enjoying themselves, and as the weeks passed I came to think of that evening more as a metaphor than as an actual meal.

Naturally I wanted to take a more suitable dining companion when I went back on duty and, on reflection, there was only one suitable candidate – my friend Claire. Not only had she actually been to Korea but, in her review of Korean restaurant Soju for her website Explore Reading, she’d been responsible for teaching me pretty much everything I knew about Korean barbecue (admittedly not much).

Much has happened since Claire last accompanied me on a restaurant review, most significantly that Explore Reading had begun publishing restaurant reviews. A lot of people have asked me if I mind that, and of course I always say I don’t mind in the slightest, Reading benefits from a variety of restaurant reviews and that it’s not right for one site to have a monopoly. That said, it’s a running joke between Claire and I that she’s going to take me down; first she took on Alt Reading, which finally announced that it was quitting – for the time being, anyway – this week, and now she’s coming after me.

I’m mainly joking, of course. Mainly. In the run-up to our trip to Gooi Nara I make some gags about how it will be like the infamous dinner at Granita where Tony Blair and Gordon Brown agreed when the former would stand down in favour of the latter. After doing the joke I realise I’m not entirely comfortable being cast as everybody’s favourite grinning war criminal.

“I’ve always had a soft spot for Gordon Brown,” says Claire, “but then I like an underdog.” It made sense, on reflection: we each spend a lot of time championing Reading, so perhaps we both do. In any case, I strolled up the hill to the restaurant on a quiet Monday night with no plans to announce my retirement.

I’m always struck by how often I start a description of a restaurant by saying “it’s a long thin room”, like it’s the equivalent of “it was a dark and stormy night”. Well, brace yourself, but Gooi Nara is indeed a long thin room, but a surprisingly attractive one. One side was covered in slate-effect tiles, with a couple of wood stores in the wall that would no doubt come in completely useless in fuelling the fake fire showing on the wall-mounted widescreen television. The other side was a vibrant burnt orange, with oblong shelving units populated, in a slightly OCD manner, with little objets. There were dark wooden beams spanning the ceiling, such a pleasant change from the ten-a-penny industrial pipes and bare bulbs which always give a place a slightly unfinished look. I really liked the place.

“It’s funny, I wouldn’t necessarily say this is authentic Korean, but it has that feel about it” said Claire. “It’s sort of homely, but in a good way – even down to the windows.”

The first surprise came when I looked at the menu. Gooi Nara has a sister restaurant in Guildford called Sushi Nara, and as a result I was thrown to see that aside from a Korean menu there was also a whole menu of Japanese dishes – sushi, sashimi and the like. It was tempting to order some, because Reading still needs an excellent Japanese restaurant and Taberu, on the Oxford Road, is still doing delivery only at the time of writing. On reflection, though, I decided to remain steadfast: I had turned up to eat Korean barbecue, and eat Korean barbecue I bloody well would.

Not that you have to do that, of course: the Korean menu alone was massive. There were plenty of starters, although some, like takoyaki (octopus balls) and pumpkin korroke felt like they were on the run from the Japanese section of the menu. There were soup dishes and rice dishes, noodle dishes and hot pots and – as I remembered from my previous trip – plenty of tofu and bibimbap. But the trick with barbecue, Claire told me, was to order your meats of choice, cook them on the hot plate in front of you and dip them in vinegar and sesame oil before placing them on a lettuce leaf, adding kimchee and beansprouts and then wrapping the whole thing up and popping it in your mouth. I’m not the biggest fan of finger food, but put that way it’s hard to imagine a more enjoyable way to eat.

Before that though, we tried one of the starters I had my eye on – the seafood pancake. It turned up cut into squares, on a paper doily on a wicker serving dish, a bit too fiddly and faffy (“We Want Plates need to be told about this” said Claire, waspishly). It was a little fiddly too to pick up with chopsticks and dab into the dish of dipping sauce which, as so often, was too small to be useful. That all said, it really was lovely stuff. Claire told me these were made with wheat flour, but if anything the texture was so starchy that it reminded me of a potato cake – more like a latke than a pancake. Despite that, it wasn’t heavy at all, and the spring onion throughout gave it texture and freshness. I got squid in the pancake, and I may have missed the shrimp – we all make mistakes – but the menu also advertised octopus and I’m pretty sure I’d have noticed that. Still, the pancake was seven pounds fifty, so if it seemed too good to be true, perhaps that’s because it was.

The support act out of the way, it was time for the feature attraction. The waiter came and switched on the hot plate at our table, the meat arrived and, not for the first time, I wondered how anybody ever managed to convince themselves that they enjoyed eating tofu. We’d decided to try all three of the main food groups – pig, cow and chicken, don’t you know – and the first to go on the barbecue was the spicy sam gyup sal, long thin slices of pork belly, deep-red with marinade, a veritable bar code of meat and fat. On the hot plate, the smell was terrific and the transformation beautiful, and Claire and I took it in turns to poke and turn with the tongs until it was impossible to hold back any more (I spent most of that time banging on about the Maillard reaction, and Claire spent most of it nodding and humouring me).

It tasted even better than it looked or smelled, and I loved the ritual of coating it in vinegar and sesame before tenderly resting it in the centre of a lettuce leaf, topping it with brick red kimchee and devouring the whole lot. The kimchee added sourness and crunch without being quite as fiery as some kimchee can be. The spice on the pork, again, built to a crescendo rather than went off like an explosion, and the whole thing was the kind of dish that you can’t help but grin while eating.

It would be a lazy piece of observational comedy to say that you’re basically paying money to cook your own food, but that would be to underrate the service; every time a hot plate got too crusted with meat and residue to use, the waiter would come along, deftly hook it out with a nifty device and pop in a new one. He also gave us advice on what to grill in which order, and regularly kept us topped up with bottles of Asahi (Claire offered to give me a crash course in Soju, but then said it was basically vodka, at which point I found myself really fancying a cold beer).

“Do you know how they clean these?” said Claire, probably well aware that my answer, inevitably, would be no.

“No.”

“They use a lemon. You just scrub the hot plate with a lemon and it all comes off.”

I found myself thinking of those colour supplement adverts that tell you vinegar has magical powers and can clean pretty much everything around the house.

“So, the pork is better than Soju, I think” said Claire, “although here they bring it already cut into strips and at Soju they sort of bring it in a big slab and you cut it up yourself with scissors.”

It would be an even more lazy piece of observational comedy to say you were expected to chop your food as well, so I decided not to mention it. In any case, more meat was on the way. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the ju-mul luk (the beef) when it arrived, because it was in thick cubes and I had been expecting thinner slices. But any doubts I had were caramelised into oblivion as the beef sizzled on the grill, the coating of garlic and sesame searing and producing the most glorious aroma. It was far more tender than its thickness might suggest, with a splendid whiff of garlic which lingered long in the memory (and possibly even longer on my breath).

Last of all, we went for the chicken bulgogi gooi, thighs marinated in soy and sesame. These were probably the most disappointing thing we had – it had been sliced too thinly and broke up into very small pieces on the barbecue. It also had less marinade, so it was the only thing to keep sticking to the hot plate and burning. Still pretty good, but just a bronze medallist in this setting.

“It’s a shame really, because bulgogi is the thing in Korean restaurants” said Claire.

“And it’s the one thing they could have brought out whole” I said. “Just imagine laying a marinated flattened thigh out on that hot plate.”

“The chicken is definitely better at Soju, but the rest is probably better here. And that pork is incredible.”

Claire was right about that. I was also struck by just how good value everything was. Each plate of barbecued meat was a hefty, generous portion and the chicken and pork only cost seven pounds fifty. Even the beef was still less than a tenner. We’d ordered three different plates, but two people could easily get by sharing two – well, two people where one of them wasn’t as greedy as me, anyway.

“You can tell this is good”, I said, “because I’m already trying to work out what I’ll have when I come back.” In my mind, I was already mentally choosing between the feather blade beef and the prawns with lemon and pepper and – predictably – deciding it really wouldn’t be a crime to order both. And possibly a bibimbap. But there were limits even to my hunger, so we stopped there. All that food and six bottles of Asahi came to sixty-eight pounds, including a pre-added ten per cent service charge which I had no problem at all paying.

On the walk down the hill to the Hop Leaf for a post-meal pint and debrief, I asked Claire how she would describe the clientele at Gooi Nara.

“Oh, it was mixed. The table behind us were clearly Chinese – I heard them talking – but the big table nearest the loos were definitely Korean. And this restaurant is near the university, so I expect they get a lot of university students.”

Claire had effortlessly clocked all the other diners, their nationalities and the likely market for Gooi Nara’s food, all while pretending to listen to me talk about the Maillard reaction. She’d had her back to the lot of them. It was like something out of The Bourne Identity, and not for the first time I found myself thinking that if she starts reviewing restaurants regularly it might be the end of my blog. It was a suspicion compounded when we compared notes in the pub about what ratings we’d give Gooi Nara: they were a cigarette paper apart.

I’ve thought a lot about the right word for my visit to Gooi Nara since the meal, and it boils down to a really simple one: it was fun. Fun is an underrated quality in eating out, I think. So much about restaurants is either po-faced or functional at the moment, and when it’s not it’s the type of enforced jollity and zany fun that always reminds me of mandatory corporate away days. But Gooi Nara was properly enjoyable from beginning to end, with an element of playfulness that set it apart from the formula of starters, mains and dessert. I can imagine going back with a big group of people and mucking in, although the one thing I would say is that the barbecue takes up a lot of space on the table, so things could get decidedly cramped in a bigger group. But that aside, Gooi Nara comes highly recommended and I’m really looking forward to going back. Having fun, eating great food and making new friends: I wouldn’t be at all disappointed if this visit, too, becomes as much a metaphor as a meal.

Gooi Nara – 7.9
39 Whitley Street, RG2 0EG
0118 9757889

https://www.facebook.com/GooiNara/

The Botanist

“I’ve been having a think about a pseudonym for the Botanist review,” said the WhatsApp message. “What are your thoughts on Reggie?”

The Artist Currently Known As Reggie is a relatively new friend who’s been a reader of the blog for some time, and he specifically collared me asking to accompany me when I reviewed the Botanist, mainly because he thought that without his moderating presence it would get an utter shoeing.

“I know what you’re like, you’ll turn up thinking it’s crap and it will get a bad review” he told me over pints in the back room of the Retreat a few months back.

“That’s not true. I’ve always been clear that it’s impossible not to have preconceptions, all you can do is be up front about them and try your best to bear them in mind.”

“You said it was crap” he countered.

I took a sip of my pint of Bumble Bee and thought about it. Perhaps he was on to something. I’d gone there one late Saturday afternoon in November with my mum and my stepfather after a lovely day out in Guildford. Just for a drink – we didn’t order food – but I hadn’t been impressed. All the tables seemed to be reserved, our drinks took forever and cost lots, my Bloody Mary was nothing to write home about and a little wheelbarrow of food turned up at a neighbouring table. A wheelbarrow! There was fake greenery everywhere and what might have been buckets or watering cans hanging from the ceiling. It did rather make my teeth itch.

Worse still, I’d specifically gone on Twitter to moan about it. And it didn’t take long for people to pitch in with similar views. “Food on a spade? So contrived” said one. “It’s a Harvester with a hipster makeover” said another. “I hate it. It looks like Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen came all over it”, memorably, said a third. And in fact, my preconceptions preceded my visit: as long ago as September last year I was saying that I’d had lots of good meals out recently and that “I need to redress the balance by reviewing The Botanist.”

“Hmm. You might have a point.”

“Exactly, and that’s why I’m coming with you.”

He was already there when I arrived, and my first reflection was that everything wasn’t quite as it seemed. The interior was less over the top than I remember – yes, there was fake greenery and there were lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling encased in jam jars or some kind of weird upside-down baskets with handles. And there was someone strumming away on a guitar at the front (the sign outside said “Live Music Every Day”, which I suppose might be an incentive for some people). But despite that, I actually quite liked it. It’s a big space broken up into rooms with corridors and partitions – the bar area on the right, the tables for eating on the left. I even quite liked the zinc-effect topped tables and the sturdy chairs.

And Reggie? He looked the same as usual, but did he look like a Reggie? I thought about this as I took my seat. He didn’t look like Reggie Kray, or Reggie Yates, or Reggie Perrin. What did a Reggie look like anyway? Reggie is considerably younger than me, a proper metrosexual – slim, neatly-trimmed beard, hair properly coiffed, nice checked shirt. Looking at him, I felt like perhaps I should have made more of an effort.

“What are you drinking?”

“A pint of Amstel. Don’t look at me like that, I was rushed at the bar and I couldn’t decide. Christ, you’re not going to put that in the review are you? Don’t tell them I drink Amstel, they’ll think I’m a right chump.”

“You do know how this works, right? We order food and drink and I write down what we had and what we thought about it. I can’t pretend you’re having something else.”

(Later on Reggie lightly ticked me off for threatening to order a cocktail. Maybe he was trying to save my reputation in return.)

The menu managed to have loads of things on it which looked positively edible without ever once especially tempting me. The starters were a greatest hits of things you can order in pubs and restaurants all over the country: houmous, calamari, chicken wings, falafel and so on. There was a barbecue section, and a comfort food section, some pies and – and this is considered so important by the Botanist that it’s trademarked on their menu – “Our Famous Hanging Kebabs”. I found it surprisingly hard to make a decision. The best of menus read like a setlist, the craziest like a jukebox. This, on the other hand, was reminiscent of Heart FM.

“You’re not allowed to have the Scotch egg” said Reggie, “Because if you do all you’ll do is go on about how it’s not as good as the one at the Lyndhurst.”

I smiled. Was it true, or just funny?

“Are you on commission or something?”

Reggie shrugged. “No. I’ve been here a few times, I just happen to like it.”

It took quite some time to finally come off the fence and decide what to order – enough time to order a drink, wonder if it would ever turn up, wonder some more and then eventually take receipt of it. The Botanist has an extensive range of beers from around the world (in a natty menu like a little paperback book) but I have a soft spot for Alhambra and its distinctive green label-free bottle as it always takes me back to my holidays in Granada, so I had to order it. It was as blissful as I remember – Reggie didn’t think much of it, but he hasn’t been to Granada (not yet anyway: I may have spent some of the meal waxing lyrical).

“Oh my god, you’re going to write about how long they took to bring your drink, aren’t you?”

I decided that if I wasn’t before, I definitely was now. I also wondered whether the waitress thought Reggie and I were on the least likely Tinder date of all time.

Reggie and I both wanted the baked Camembert to start. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, as I’ve never been anywhere where it wasn’t done as a sharing starter, but in the Botanist it comes as a helping for one. Reggie very kindly let me have it (such good manners!), and I still wasn’t sure after eating it whether he’d done me a favour. Rather than being studded with garlic, or herbs, or served with chutney, this one came with a “smoked bacon and crispy onion crust” or, to give it a more accurate description, vaguely salty brown dust. It wasn’t bad – you can’t go far wrong serving someone a whole cheese in my experience, unless it’s by Dairylea – but I would have liked it hotter and more gooey and I’d have liked more toast. Also, the Camembert still had paper underneath it, which made eating it more challenging than I’d expected. Half the fun is attacking the last bits right in the corners of the box and piling them onto good bread, but not on this occasion.

“It’s not bad.” I said. Reggie looked a tad relieved.

I think Reggie may have ordered better with a reliable staple, the chicken liver paté. There’s only so much you can say about paté, but it was a good example: earthy and nicely smooth. It allegedly had rum in it – I couldn’t spot it myself, but I liked it all the same. It came in a ramekin topped with a thin layer of “green peppercorn butter”, which seemed to be clarified butter left to solidify and some peppercorns. Probably pointless, but it filled space in the menu description. I didn’t get much fig in the fig chutney, it seemed like a pretty generic fruit chutney but again, it was none the worse for it. I’m not bitter, but Reggie got more toast than I did.

We ordered another beer – a second Alhambra for me, a pint of Sam Adams for him – and the mains turned up in reasonably short order. Reggie had gone for the “famous hanging kebab”, a lamb kofte. I still can’t quite get my head round that description: most people wouldn’t knowingly eat something described as hanging, and the main things famous for hanging are the Gardens Of Babylon and possibly Ruth Ellis. I suspect it’s served this way, on a skewer suspended from some kind of contraption, looming like the kebab of Damocles over some chips, for effect. But it felt like a gimmick to me, even after our waitress poured peri peri sauce over it from the top and we watched it drizzle down. I will say this for it: it did smell pretty spectacular.

I took a few photos, discovering in the process that it was impossible to take a picture of the hanging kebab which didn’t look like a dick pic.

“Here, let me.” said Reggie. His picture was better.

Once he’d taken all the balls – sorry, this isn’t getting any better is it? – off the skewer and all the flim-flam faded, what you were left with was a serviceable, ordinary lamb kofte. The meat was oddly coarse and bouncy – not at the stage of being mechanically recovered but lacking the texture of great kofte at, say, Kings Grill or Bakery House. It was okay, but certainly not worth the epithet of famous (but then, how many famous people these days are worth that either?). The chips – described in the menu as “properly seasoned” – were okay, no better or worse. I wasn’t sure anybody should boast in their menu that dishes were properly seasoned: shouldn’t that be a given?

My dish was the flattened rump steak, marinated in chilli and garlic. You only had the choice of medium or well-done, so obviously I went for medium. I really liked the taste – the time spent marinating showed, and it left a bit of heat on my tongue. There was, in fact, only one problem: it was lukewarm even when it got to the table, and with such a wide surface area most of it was cold by the time I got to it. On another night, I might have sent it back – but that’s always the risk you run with steak. As Reggie pointed out, without a hint of I told you so, you have to trust a kitchen with steak otherwise you always run the risk that you’ll be eating your dish immediately after your companions have had theirs. It came with a tomato, which in fairness was quite tasty and properly cooked, and a truly delicious roasted flat mushroom, when I eventually located it.

“Isn’t there meant to be a mushroom with it?” said Reggie.

“There is,” I said, “It’s hidden under the watercress.” That tells you something about the size of the mushroom: Portobello it wasn’t.

We didn’t fancy dessert so we paid up, when we could eventually attract attention. Our meal for two came to sixty-one pounds, which includes a rather cheeky twelve point five per cent tip. As always, it’s optional but stuck on the bill in such a way that you’d feel like a right shit asking them to leave it out. The service was friendly but slow, and probably worth ten per cent but not worth twelve and a half. Unworthily, it made me especially pleased I hadn’t ordered any cocktails: perhaps I’m too old for this sort of thing.

Afterwards, we went for another couple of drinks and a debrief in the front section of the bar (where, I must say, the service was considerably better – if still slow). It’s an odd part of the Botanist because the tables are those pub tables with integrated benches you expect to see outside in a beer garden. Maybe it was their way of continuing the horticultural theme. Reggie and I compared notes, and I think he was pleasantly surprised that our provisional ratings weren’t as far apart as they could have been.

“It wasn’t that bad, was it? I wouldn’t come here any later in the week than a Wednesday, but it’s pretty decent for what it is. I’d come here for a date or a drink with mates, that sort of thing.”

“No. It’s okay – not amazing, but not terrible. But I wouldn’t object if I was dragged here again. I was just hoping it would be like Ha! Ha! used to be, back when it was down the Kings Road where House Of Flavours is now.”

Reggie nodded as if he knew what I was talking about, and I suddenly felt really old, because when Ha! Ha! closed on the Kings Road and moved to the Oracle – which was the beginning of the end for them – I’m pretty sure that Reggie was still in school. But never mind – I knew what I meant, and some of you with long memories might too. I still miss Ha! Ha!, and I still think Reading badly needs a nice bar where the music is just loud enough, the furniture is just comfy enough and the food is just good enough (in a similar mould, I still miss Sahara, long since morphed into the unlikeable Be At One). The Botanist isn’t that place, but despite that I’m sure it will do reasonably well. So a qualified success as a meal, and I don’t know if I’ll go back. Might ask Reggie to come out on duty again, though. Not sure we’ve heard the last of him.

The Botanist – 6.6
1-5 King St, RG1 2HB
0118 9595749

http://thebotanist.uk.com/locations/reading

Honest Burgers Competition: the results!

Did everyone have a good Christmas? I hope so, whether you spent it in or out, with your nearest and dearest, with your partner or on your own. If you were out I hope you were lovely to whoever looked after you, if you were in I hope people helped with the washing up and if you were at someone else’s house, well, I hope you helped with the washing up. I hope you’re replete from mince pies, or Christmas pudding, or mint Matchmakers (now we’re talking – can’t be doing with dried fruit myself) or a Terry’s Chocolate Orange, even if they’re far smaller than they used to be.

No restaurant review from me today – it’s difficult to imagine eating out in the foreseeable future, although I’m sure I’ll be back on duty early in the New Year – but fortunately one person who was busy over the festive period was John Luther. Not only was he soaking up the plaudits on Christmas Day, with South Street Arts Centre being named the best thing about Reading by Explore Reading, but on Boxing Day he very kindly sat down to judge the Edible Reading Honest Burgers competition.

I was bowled over by the quality and quantity of responses we got. From entries celebrating Reading F.C. to the Nag’s Head, complaining about the traffic on Cow Lane or celebrating our past and present the range of entries was really impressive. Maybe Two Rivers Press should consider a book of Reading haiku, because from ER readers alone I read entries celebrating the much missed doughnut stand on Broad Street, the 17 bus route and the whiff of ganja outside Reading Minster (which, uncannily, I sniffed earlier this week).

I’m so relieved I didn’t have to judge the competition, but fortunately for me John stepped up and did an absolutely sterling job. He even described the experience for me, appropriately in haiku form:

Judging these haiku
With all their well-seasoned words
Has been such a thrill

Anyway, without any further ado here are the ten winning entries, along with John’s comments.

WINNER 1: Madeleine Adams

Cheeselogs and Elvis
The Turtle and After Dark
Our town (not city)

John says: This one has a nice rhythm and I liked the use of “our” in the final line, bringing writer and reader together.

WINNER 2: Laura Balogh

Summer’s haze long gone,
Oxford Road bleak winter sun,
Nag’s warm lights invite.

John says: This one is unashamedly “Poetic” with a capital P, but has such a great final line. The line seems to exude the warmth it talks of.

WINNER 3: Greg Davies

Delightful Reading
A tall, stylish Elvis sings
about some biscuits

John says: It’s very difficult to be playful in so few words, but this charmingly pulled it off. It connected Reading’s past and present, whilst making me smile.

WINNER 4: Katherine Findlay

Town, not a city
Famous for beer, bulbs, biscuits
Better than you think

John says: This one just had a precision that I liked. Matter-of-fact and concise.

WINNER 5: Sam Houlden

The Nag’s fire burning
Young and old, welcome and warm
This place feels like home

John says: Although seemingly about the Nags Head (again!) it seemed to me that this is about Reading as a whole too, and what can be more important about a town than calling it home?

WINNER 6: James Menhenitt

Murty, Hunt, Harper
Kits, Little, Sidders and Doyle
One hundred and six

John says: For any RFC fan this will bring back great memories. The last line tells the story of a whole season in five syllables.

WINNER 7: James Parkin

Invasion of them,
Music, Mud, Mayhem and Beer,
Reading Rocks each year

John says: We can’t avoid the Reading Festival and this Haiku summed up the madness really well, with great use of alliteration and even a rhyme (the only entry that did).

WINNER 8: Donna Sibley

Are You Listening?
Jelly, giants, Nags, on Thames
Nomad, Lido, friends

John says: Ostensibly a list, but a great list! All very contemporary and unique to Reading (apart from the Thames!). Iconic community organisations, festivals, events and businesses that lead nicely into the final “friends”, including us all.

WINNER 9: Ian Sutherland

Reading on the Thames
computers are the future
3 Bs are the past

John says: This is another one that was amazingly economical with its words, summing up the past and present of Reading’s commerce very effectively.

WINNER 10: Janine Turner

The lion stands still
Surrounded by ruins, sun
Setting, drink in hand

John says: This feels really rich as three time zones play out within the three lines – the ruins (Medieval) surrounding the lion (Victorian) and then the writer (or reader?) surveying the scene (with a drink) in the here and now. Clever.

Congratulations to all the winners! I’ll be in touch with all ten of you about how to claim your prize. And commiserations to anybody who entered and didn’t win – the standard really was incredibly high.

All that remains is for me to wish you all a very Happy New Year. I’ll be back in 2018 with visits to all sorts of interesting places – stay tuned to find out where…

Richfields Deli

Normally I end the year with my annual awards. It’s a great opportunity to round up the year in restaurants and tell you my favourite starter of the year, my favourite main course, the whole shebang. Not this time, though, because it hasn’t been that kind of year: I had nearly twelve months away in retirement and finally came back in the summer, two (count them!) house moves and many life changes later. So instead you get one last review from me but, because this time of year is always a reflective one, there’s a bit of navel gazing to get through first. Sorry about that: I’ll try to keep it brief.

This year has been full of wonderful discoveries. The ever-changing menu at the Lyndhurst, for one – a recent visit featured a terrific crab and leek gratin with a parmesan crust, just crying out to be forked from the ramekin onto toast oozing with butter. Pretty much anything at Namaste Kitchen, my restaurant of the year, from firm paneer in a light spiced batter to the best chow mein I think I’ve ever eaten (I went last weekend only to find they were too busy to fit me in – I’ve never been so pleased to be turned away from a restaurant in all my born days). Or, of course, the continuing brilliance of Georgian Feast, whether it’s their beautifully tender lamb and tarragon stew offset by sharp plums, their glorious spiced chicken thighs or the khachapuri, soda bread stuffed with a blend of three different cheeses, one of Reading’s food wonders (and just as good heated up in the oven the next day with a hefty helping of Branston pickle, take it from me).

But the year has also been full of other brilliant experiences, all of which have made me love this town and its community even more. Blue Collar turned Forbury Gardens into the best place in town on countless sunny summer weekends. The Reading Fringe transformed the town into a hotbed of high and low culture: I watched Born To Sum in the Rising Sun Arts Centre with my totally baffled friend Dave, and skulked on the sidelines of All We Ever Wanted Was Everything at Public, desperately hoping not to be forced to participate (“I loved it” said my mother afterwards in the bar, “all those angry young people in smoky rooms, it took me right back to the Sixties”).

And there was more. I spent a Bank Holiday Sunday in the Retreat at their impromptu cheese festival, the table in the back room groaning with cheeses from all over Europe, home made black pudding sausage rolls there too, and I wound up sitting on the bench outside passing round a bottle of Sauternes to friends and strangers alike. I sat in St James’ Church and took in the sweep and ambition of Matilda The Empress, a production which redefines the kind of thing Reading can offer. I finished the year at South Street watching Singalong-A-Muppet Christmas Carol, preceded by the chaotic spectacle of one half of Shit Theatre crossing the stage on the back of makeshift camel John Luther while Frankie’s “The Power Of Love” played in the background. It was one of those times when I wished I’d been on drugs: at least I’d have had an excuse.

Oh, and I sat in my garden in the morning sunshine, drank tea, ate toast and Marmite and read my library book. Such a small thing, maybe, but nonetheless a moment of peace which didn’t always seem on the cards this year. Another thing to be thankful for.

And, of course, I started reviewing again. That’s another area where I need to be thankful to lots of people – to everyone who came back after my hiatus and read, retweeted, commented or said such lovely things on social media. To Pho and Honest Burgers for working on reader competitions with me so I could finally give something back to you all, and for all of you who entered those competitions. Last but not least, I owe a big debt of thanks to everybody who came with me on duty and helped me to review a restaurant: from beer friend Tim to meat fiend Ben; from my wise and occasionally withering mum to girl about town Izzy; from old friend Mike to new friend Claire. I couldn’t have done it without them – and who knows who might get pressganged (or asked nicely) in 2018.

For my final review of the year, I wanted to find somewhere that sums up what I always look for in an establishment – somewhere small, independent and distinctive, somewhere that deserved more exposure and a wider audience. Somewhere good in the less fashionable parts of town, where the rents are lower and where it’s easier for interesting things to evolve and develop (it’s no coincidence that most of Reading’s best independent restaurants grow and prosper away from the town centre).

The place that jumped out of my list, which had been mentioned by a few people on Twitter, was Richfields Deli, a little joint on the Caversham Road just down from the Moderation. As I understand it, it used to just be a café doing sandwiches, but it expanded and reopened early in 2017 and when it did, so did the menu, offering “Breakfast, Brunch and Street Food”. Leaving my reservations to one side about serving street food in a building (let’s be charitable, as it’s Christmas) it looked interesting, so I turned up, shaking the rain from my brolly on a dreary Sunday afternoon. I had my friend Tim in tow – he used to live nearby, and said he had happy memories of the place.

My first impressions were good. It is a surprisingly spacious place, which has been opened out into a front and back room and it’s all very nicely done with wood floors, tasteful blue walls and some very fetching art hung up (I would quite happily have taken some of the more abstract examples home with me). A long bar connected the two rooms, with some attractive-looking cakes on the counter and a blackboard above with an extensive list of drinks, shakes and smoothies. Many of the tables were occupied by friends and families, enjoying brunch. I also noticed from another chalkboard that Richfields sold an impressive range of local beers, although it seemed a bit baffling to do so when the place closes late afternoon.

The menu was so big that it would probably take two or three visits to get a representative impression. I worried that it was too big – a good brunch section, grills, salads, sandwiches and a range of burritos. I was still unconvinced that it constituted street food but it was hard to dispute that the menu was definitely well-travelled: pancakes and maple syrup from the States; brisket and kimchee from Korea; tandoori chicken roti and a full English breakfast. On another day I might have ordered any of those things, but the Gaucho cheesesteak sandwich was calling to me. I love a Philly cheesesteak sandwich, but moreover the menu had just enough hints that the dish might be special – the steak was from Jennings, just across the bridge, and it had been marinated in chimichurri. Tim was also tempted by that dish, in which case I might have had the halloumi and Portobello mushroom burger with lime and chilli dressing, but ultimately he settled on a classic cheeseburger. “I can’t help it,” he said, “I really fancy a burger.”

But first, the drinks. Tim had a large coke, which gratifyingly came in the iconic glass bottle rather than from a can or a siphon. I had a large latte – I approached it with no great enthusiasm, and I’d probably have gone for a mocha if it had been on the menu, but I was very pleasantly surprised. It didn’t taste burnt and was nicely balanced: not one for purists, so not in the same league as places like Tamp or Workhouse, but a really pleasant coffee. Better than Costa, for starters, and streets ahead of the milky grimness I’d endured at Tipsy Bean a few weeks back.

While we waited for our sandwiches I enjoyed relaxing at my table, catching up with Tim who had all sorts of gossip, and checking out my surroundings. There was a twinkling white Christmas tree in the corner and the whole place had an atmosphere I really liked. Not scruffy, not trying too hard, not trying to mechanically extract hard currency from hipsters or students, just calm, pleasant and tasteful. It made me realise how rarely, in the box-checking world of food trends, you come across a place like that.

“The owners aren’t in today,” said Tim, “it’s even better when they are. They’re a lovely couple.”

I also checked out the food at the other tables, because that’s something I struggle not to do, and I found I had more food envy. The breakfasts looked marvellous – big thick rounds of black pudding, nicely cooked sausages, caramelised on the outside, and fried potatoes which looked like they’d been cooked from scratch rather than tipped out of a bag in the freezer.

“The breakfasts are really good.” said Tim.

“Better than Alto Lounge?” I asked. One thing I know about Tim is that back when he lived round here he did love an Alto Lounge breakfast.

“Yes, even better than that. Although Alto Lounge does this fantastic sausagemeat patty, I can’t get enough of those.”

Just as I thought my hunger would completely get the better of me, our food arrived. My sandwich was a thing of real beauty: a generous, nicely baked baguette absolutely crammed with steak, cheese and peppers. The picture might not do it justice, and makes the steak look a tad grey, but it really wasn’t. You got lots of it, and it was tender and delicious. If I was being critical, I’d have liked it to have more chimichurri to lift it, but even so it was really difficult to take exception to it in any way. I ordered extra onion rings and they were little compact things (like you used to get from the supermarket) rather than big greasy battered hoops of onion with the batter falling off. If anything, that made me love them even more.

“These taste like those onion ring snacks you get in the shops” said Tim, spot on as usual. Again, this was really no bad thing.

Tim had gone for the burger with jack cheese (rather than blue cheese) and it looked pretty good from where I was sitting. There was the regulation standard issue brioche bun, burger sauce spread on one half, and the patty seemed decent. There was also gherkin – always a favourite of mine – and Tim had ordered onion rings, although it was a little disappointing that they were served on the side, rather than on top as the bacon or cheese would have been. I think Tim had food envy at my sandwich, but even so he seemed happy enough with the burger. I didn’t get to try any, but it looked good and although not served pink it seemed perfectly cooked in the middle, not dried out or grey.

“Is it as good as, say, the Oakford?” I asked him.

“Oh, it’s better than the Oakford.” he said between mouthfuls. “I just wish it was a bit bigger.”

It was an interesting point. The burger was nine pounds and came with fries, which made it reasonably competitive but possibly on the slightly pricey side given the size of it (that said, there’s a lot to be said for a burger you can actually eat with your hands). My sandwich, which I really enjoyed, was ten pounds and however much I liked it I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t also say that it was a bloody expensive sandwich.

Service was kind and friendly – ever so slightly amateurish, but in a way I found impossible to dislike. It took a while to figure out that you have to order at the counter, so we sat there like lemons for a bit with staff wandering past our table before figuring that out (they were very apologetic when this became apparent). They totally forgot to cook our fries, and the waiter said “sorry, I’ll just put them under”, wandered off and came back with them piping hot about five minutes later. They felt shop-bought – nice enough, but having seen the fried potatoes I’d hoped for better. But when a place builds up goodwill you can get away with slips like that, and I found I really didn’t care about the mistakes. I was comfy and cosy, the rain was battering away on the pavement outside, Christmas was around the corner, I was having lunch with a very good friend and I was eating a truly splendid – if costly – sandwich. Lunch came to just under twenty eight pounds for the two of us, not including tip. It cannot be denied that it was a pricey lunch, and that’s probably one of the only reasons the number at the bottom of this review isn’t higher.

So, Richfields is almost the perfect example of the kind of place I’m looking for when I review restaurants and cafes. It’s independent, it’s small, it deserves more recognition and it’s in an unsung part of town (even more unsung now Papa Gee has upped sticks and moved to Prospect Street). But then Papa Gee kept going for ten years just down the road, so maybe there’s enough local custom to keep Richfields in business. I did find myself worrying about it slightly – the Mod next door does proper sit down lunches, the Gorge is competition for breakfasts and, on Sundays at least, Georgian Feast does a chicken wrap which is probably better and cheaper than anything you can get at Richfields. I have a sneaking feeling there will be fewer independent restaurants in town this time next year, so more than ever we need to spend our money to preserve the kind of town we want to live in. I’ll make an effort to go back there for brunch next year, for exactly that reason. I hope Richfields has a happy and prosperous 2018 – and actually, that goes for all of you too.

Richfields Deli – 7.1
211 Caversham Road, RG1 8BB
0118 9391144

http://richfieldsdeli.com/