I’m thinking of reviving my annual awards in a couple of weeks. And although I don’t have a category for Restaurant I’ve Most Signally Failed To Review in 2022, Wokingham’s Chalk would win that one hands down if I did. A combination of train strikes, planned engineering works and inclement weather back in the summer has borked at least three attempts to get there for lunch, and I only managed to pull it off this week because the trains played nice and my old friend Mike, at a loose end that Saturday, kindly agreed to meet me there.
So why the multiple attempts, and why have I prioritised squeaking it in just before the end of the year? Well, I was long overdue a return to Wokingham – it’s been about a year since I visited Hamlet – and whenever I asked where was good in Wokingham, Chalk unfailingly came up. Nobody ever raved and said “oh my god, you have to try Chalk” but I never heard a bad word about it. It was lovely, I was regularly told, or really good. That might sound muted, but it’s also often how people describe under-the-radar places. I want you to know I think it’s good, it can say, but I also don’t want people to discover my secret.
It’s in a very handsome building on Wokingham’s Broad Street, not far from either the town centre or the station; Montague House is an eighteenth century building with great bones, big sash windows and a space out front which looks like a terrific spot for al fresco dining on a summer’s day. From the outside it felt like a larger, grander version of Reading’s St Mary’s Church House, the home of Bill’s, and indeed it wouldn’t have at all surprised me to find Bill’s operating out of Montague House. In reality Prezzo used to have the site until they drastically slimmed down their estate in early 2018. Chalk opened there just over two years ago, just in time for that nationwide lockdown, the horrors of Tiers 1, 2 and 3 and the last minute cancellation of Christmas. Remember those halcyon days?
That they are still going strong – they were very busy when I visited on a weekend lunchtime – suggests they’ve built up a certain loyalty among locals. There’s not much on record about Chalk’s backstory or credentials, but two of the owners come from Fego, the small chain which operates in – how do I put this? – Muddy Stilettos country while the third, the head chef, has spent time at the Roseate in Reading. So that potentially places Chalk in the same bracket as Hamlet, with an accomplished chef trying to offer all day affordable dining to Wokingham’s comparatively prosperous clientele. Could they pull off that comparatively challenging brief?
The inside is a a warren of three connected dining rooms, the nicest of which is at the front looking out through those big windows. We were led to the one at the back and I found it harder to like. There were windows, but they looked out on some fences, presumably erected so you don’t have to gaze upon the Waitrose car park in all its quotidian glory. The overall effect made the room slightly gloomy. One wall had been zhuzhed up by putting some naked ceiling roses on it, like a parade of giant plaster Regency nipples. God knows what that was about.
When the menu was offered we were asked if we wanted to see the festive menu too, and although I didn’t hugely want to I had a look out of curiosity. It was a reasonable value three mains, three starters, three desserts job with the obligatory vegetarian option and a turkey roulade, but it held no particular appeal. Besides, it didn’t represent what you can order at Chalk the rest of the year.
The only problem, I now realise, is that going to Chalk at lunchtime in the run-up to Christmas is itself unrepresentative. The lunch menu’s narrower than the dinner menu anyway, to make way for a range of sandwiches, but because of that festive menu the lunch offering was stripped back still further. So it was a choice of four starters, three mains, a few options from the grill and three burgers. I mention this because, as will become apparent, the menu was a bit of a Jekyll & Hyde between the cheffy and the workaday – I suspect if you went for dinner in the New Year the cheffiness might come more to the fore.
We started off with a couple of very agreeable Aperol spritzes and something from the snacking plates section of the menu. Chicken popcorn was nothing of the kind, really, but it was six pleasant chicken nuggets, a sweet chilli sauce dip and some pointless pea shoots to make matters less beige. They could have been crunchier or crispier, and I wasn’t convinced the coating was exactly jumping with seasoning, but they were decent all the same and pretty generous at just over four quid. I raced through my allotted three nuggets.
“Do you want to share the last one?” said Mike. “My mum’s cooking me dinner tonight.” This, as I think I’ve said before, is why some people are thin and I haven’t been for the best part of twenty-five years.
The starters were an incongruous pair, a little like Mike and me. His goat’s cheese panna cotta (“can they make panna cotta out of goat’s cheese?” was Mike’s first reaction on reading the menu) looked respectable, a lozenge of the stuff resting on a carpaccio of beetroot with more of those slightly pointless pea shoots. Goat’s cheese and beetroot as a combination is hardly trailblazing stuff, but I thought it looked nicely done and I thought it was a nice touch to include both walnuts and pickled walnuts (incidentally, if you’ve never tried pickled walnuts I recommend them: all the fun of pickles without any of the drawbacks of walnuts).
“What do you reckon?”
“I mean, it’s okay. It probably looks more impressive than it tastes.” Mike can be somewhat economical with his words, I should warn you: wait until you hear what he made of his main course.
My starter, though, was the loveliest thing I ate at Chalk. Torched mackerel – two good-sized pieces – came just-cooked on a clever, interesting salad of seaweed and fennel tangled together, with a gentle hum of sesame. Pickled ginger in it too, apparently, though I didn’t detect that. Mackerel works well with these kinds of flavours, and I found there was a surprising amount going on, but I wasn’t sure it made sense to crown the whole thing with fronds of dill, a little Scandinavian interference in the otherwise Asian flavours. This dish, more than anything else I tried, represented what I suspect Chalk could be like the rest of the time, and on its own it was enough to make me consider going back. Good value at just over eight pounds, too.
We had a couple of glasses of wine while we waited for our mains to arrive. Again, the wine list gives hints at the kind of restaurant Chalk is most of the time, with prices ranging from an eminently sensible twenty-one quid to a couple of vintage clarets north of a hundred pounds and a 2014 super-Tuscan that clocks in at three hundred and seventy pounds. I wonder how many of those they sell? (Mind you, it’s only three hundred and fifty pounds retail). At the more affordable end of the spectrum Mike enjoyed a Malbec at just under nine quid and my white Rioja, closer to eight pounds, was surprisingly complex.
Mains were nicely paced but, as I’ve already said, from the more pedestrian end of a relatively pedestrian menu. I’d gone for a chicken burger, but the contrast with, say, the delicious chicken burger I’d tasted at Asado in last week’s review was marked. Chalk used chicken breast rather than thigh, and although they’d managed to cook it well without drying it out it still lost something in terms of the coating and seasoning.
Where Chalk did get things right, though, was in everything that came with it. Combining gherkins, jalapeños and pineapple relish could have been confusing, or overkill, but actually the heat, sweetness and sharpness synchronised beautifully. The only drawback was that something in it – insufficiently drained gherkins, at a guess – meant the brioche was soggy and not up to the task of keeping it all together.
Chips were pretty decent – skin on, quite probably from a packet, but good nonetheless. And I asked for ketchup and got a minuscule individual jar of Tiptree tomato sauce: fancy!
“What’s yours like?” I said to Mike. He’d gone for something from the grill section – a lamb chop which came with triple-cooked chips, mushroom, tomato and (how did you guess?) yet more of those ever-present pea shoots. Now, Mike didn’t let me try his food – there are benefits, you see, to going on duty with your partner rather than a friend, however long you’ve known them – so all I can do is tell you how it looked to me. I thought the chips, triple cooked or not, looked a darn sight better than the fries that came with my burger. The mushroom looked a little bit wrinkled and sad, and the lamb didn’t have enough pinkness or blush for it for my liking. I thought it was unlikely that the dish represented Chalk at its very best.
But fortunately, you don’t have to take my word for it because I asked Mike what he thought. Brace yourself.
“It’s okay. It’s lamb, and it’s a chop.”
See? I told you.
“You know I’m going to use that word for word, don’t you?”
“Sorry. The red wine jus thing I ordered is good with it, and I like the caramelised onions but yeah, it’s a lamb chop.”
A lot of the red wine jus was left in the ramekin: if I’d ordered this I’d have poured the stuff over everything rather than using it as a dip. This, too, is why Mike is thin.
We didn’t fancy dessert enough to go for it. The ganache tart with white chocolate, salted caramel and pistachio ice cream was very much my kind of thing but there wasn’t another dish on there that appealed: why ruin a perfectly good crème brûlée by adulterating it with rooibos, of all things? So we got the bill, which came to a hundred pounds on the nail, including a twelve and a half per cent service charge.
Now, I haven’t talked about service until now but it really was excellent from start to finish and that was one of the things I liked most about Chalk. Everyone was friendly and polite – when they greeted you, when they showed you to your table, even when you left. I think every single member of staff must have said goodbye to us. They were clearly working like Trojans on one of the busiest weekends of the year, and the only one in December not marred by the train strikes.
But it was more than that because Michelle, who looked after us according to my bill, had that skill I associate with really top-level service, of anticipating what you wanted moments before you realised you wanted it and materialising at the table just in time to provide it. Again, I got a clear picture that I maybe hadn’t seen Chalk at its most representative, and that was more my fault – and that of the damn season – than it was Chalk’s.
The rest of my afternoon in Wokingham was properly lovely, since you ask. We went to Outhouse Brewing, where the beer was good but the room was empty, and then Sit N’ Sip, where the beer was just okay and the room felt like one of the Lounge Group with ideas above its station. Mike took me through the contents of his Tinder – there’s no vicarious pleasure like it for the happily attached – and I wound him up by super-liking some individuals who really weren’t his cup of tea.
“I only get five of those a month!” he glared at me.
“And how many of them do you actually use?”
“That’s not the point.”
After that, wanting some ambience and the kind of companionable male bonding only sitting in front of the football can provide, we wandered off to the Crispin, possibly my favourite Wokingham pub. Despite being reasonably full from lunch we found room for some peanuts and some pickled onion Monster Munch, and we joined the throng watching Morocco beat Portugal.
There was tinsel everywhere, and all of us in a circle round the telly oohed and aahed and said “come on Morocco!” and really, I had the nicest time. Craft beer is all very good, but sometimes you just want a crisp, cold macro cider, your pub tapas opened out on the table in front of you and an old friend to whom you can say, with the easy comfort of a nearly forty year friendship, that was never offside.
Anyway, back to Chalk. Here’s a trade secret for you – whenever I finish a review, I scour through it to try and strip out all the words I’ve overused: not everything can be lovely, or terrific, or quite good (quite is one of the weasel words I use too often – is it good or isn’t it?). With Chalk, the word that sent me running to the thesaurus was decent. I took out quite a lot, a few I left in. In restaurants as in life, decent is a very good quality, an underrated one. But it does feel a bit like damning with faint praise.
And Chalk would be dangerously easy to damn with faint praise. When I came away from it, I sort of thought it was like an upmarket answer to Bill’s for people who want that kind of establishment but independent and not mediocre. But the more I think about it, the more I think that’s not fair. The interesting things I had on the menu were very interesting, well done and good value. And if there weren’t more interesting things on the menu, that’s not entirely their fault: for all I know, for that matter, their turkey roulade would have had me eating my words.
But I saw enough to think it’s worth a visit, and it’s probably worth me revisiting too. At a more conventional time I could have tried wood pigeon with salt-baked beetroot and blackberry jus or beef cheek with bone marrow jus, and over the summer, during one of my failed attempts to review the place they were serving skate wing, one of my very favourite things. So it’s a cautious recommend from me for a place that did a fair few things right, and gave me the impression they were capable of even more.
Anyway, it’s somehow fitting that Chalk is my final review of the year. It manages to both highlight everywhere I’ve been in 2022 and all the unfinished business that gets carried forward into 2023 in a single visit; it may not win Restaurant I’ve Most Signally Failed To Review, but it probably does win Restaurant Where I Didn’t Tell The Whole Story. I would say that you live and learn, but I’m not sure that’s a strong point of mine: none the less, I’ll be back at Chalk next year, when the tinsel is down and the relentless Christmas songs have stopped playing. I want to see how close it can get to what I glimpsed this time, but didn’t completely grasp.
Chalk – 7.2
31 Broad Street, Wokingham, RG40 1AU