Restaurant review: Intoku

At the start of every year, the broadsheets wheel out an article about the food trends of the coming twelve months. And every year, nobody checks the article from the previous January to verify that almost none of the trends became a thing. Peruvian food never took off, beyond a couple of places in London. Neither did corn ribs, hard seltzers, carob, eringi mushrooms. 

But it fills a gap for column inches in January, among all the clean eating/“new year new you” articles they dust off and spruce up at the start of every year. And besides, it’s not like anybody’s keeping score: from this year’s predictions, keep an eye out for potato milk, whatever that is. It has another four months to become famous (they sell it at Waitrose, where reviews run the full gamut from “another unsatisfactory milk alternative” to “very neutral tasting”).

Anyway, Reading food trends aren’t like London food trends, because every year since I started this blog the trend has been pretty much the same: you’ll get more cafés, and some dickheads will complain that we have too many cafés. You’ll get more burger places, and some dickheads will moan that there are too many burger places. And, in recent years, you’ll get more American chains and some dickhead will whinge about the Americanisation of Reading. And yes, that last dickhead is me.

The real trends are the ones that blindside you. Late last year and early this year it was biryani places, with a mini explosion of options – Biryani Mama in town, Biryani Boyzz on the Oxford Road and, just opposite it, the interestingly named Biryanish (“it’s sort of like a biryani…”). And then in the last few months, the trend literally nobody saw coming: three Japanese restaurants opening in the space of two months. Did anybody predict that on New Year’s Day?

I’ve always loved Japanese food, but Reading’s never been incredibly well served for it. In the centre, you had Yo! Sushi and Sushimania, and both have their place: Yo! Sushi in particular democratised sushi and acted as an introduction for many people, me included. And I’ve always enjoyed heading to Sushimania after a day at work with Zoe, grabbing seats on the banquette and looking out on the dining room with a cold bottle of Asahi.

More recently Oishi opened down the Oxford Road: I loved it when I went, but for a while it had an alarming hygiene rating which put me off a return visit. And of course there’s Osaka which I liked but didn’t love, although I visited it during one of the weirdest months the world has ever seen. But for a more special meal I’ve always headed to Windsor, to eat at Misugo (recent discovery Miyazaki is an excellent alternative). Did any of Reading’s newcomers have what it takes to displace Misugo in my affections?

Of the three, Intoku was the obvious choice to try first. The others, You Me Sushi and Iro Sushi, are casual, grab-and-go places, whereas Intoku is more upscale and established, part of a small chain that began at a market stall in Manchester and now has restaurants in Chelsea, Windsor and Reading. The latter is their newest, opening at the end of May in the site on Chain Street which had become synonymous with the Tasting House over the course of seven years.

When the Tasting House closed in April last year it was almost impossible to imagine anything else in that spot, but turning up for dinner on Saturday night I was struck by how completely Intoku has transformed it. As the Tasting House all the action was on the ground floor, with the room upstairs more of an overflow or a space for wine tasting events. By contrast, Intoku has flipped it: there’s a bar and the open kitchen downstairs, along with a handful of booths, but the main dining room is upstairs. And a very polished-looking space it is too, with more little booths along one wall and most of the tables at the far end. They’ve opened up the windows looking out onto Chain Street, which makes it a far nicer space, and the furniture is attractive. 

I particularly liked the anime art feature wall on both floors (if you’ve ever wondered what a manga Mount Rushmore might look like, this will answer all your questions) although the place seemed a little dark and clubby for me. That might just be about associations. I tend to think of Japanese restaurants as a little humbler in terms of decor. But this was a lot more glam, and the music was Saturday night music too, so I decided just to go with it. I took my seat in one of the booths, only slightly thrown by the head height plug and USB sockets: if you’re a tightwad looking to charge your phone, this is the restaurant for you.

The welcome at Intoku was bright and enthusiastic, and when I was handed my menu I was told that things came out as and when they were ready. It was then that we decided to order in waves as we went along. I wonder if that caused some of the subsequent problems we experienced, because one of the many issues with the service was how difficult it was to attract attention to say that actually, we’d love to order more food.

Intoku’s menu is great – it reads well, it has good range and you find yourself wanting to order a lot of it. It’s wide but not deep, so for instance it covers sushi, sashimi, rice and noodle dishes but it doesn’t have too many of each. Prices are on the heftier side, with sashimi starting around nine pounds, much of the sushi costing a tenner or more and mains going up to eighteen pounds. Where the menu falls down – apart from the fact that it’s just not spelled “artisian” – is that it doesn’t explain things. So for instance it lists its fanciest uramaki without giving you the faintest idea what’s in them, a mistake repeated with the cocktail list.

That would work if the wait staff were engaged and enthusiastic about explaining the menu, but that wasn’t quite the case here. The first sign that it might be a challenging evening in that respect was when our beers arrived, a couple of cans of Sapporo, with no glasses. “I haven’t drunk out of a can since the After Dark” said Zoë. We eventually flagged someone down, and they brought over a couple of highballs, but it was weird to have to ask: if the service had been on it, we wouldn’t have needed to. It was a hot old day, but we weren’t offered water either, so thank goodness the upstairs was air conditioned.

Let’s talk instead about the food, because so much of it was fantastic. Our first set of dishes, the sushi and sashimi, were up there with the best Reading has to offer and easily as good as rivals elsewhere in Berkshire. The soft shell crab blossom rolls were a particular triumph – beautifully assembled and generous with the crab, topped with a smattering of tobiko, one of my favourite things. It might be the closest thing to a bargain on the menu, too: ten pounds gets you eight pieces, whereas at Misugo you pay a pound or two less for four.

Salmon and avocado maki, more modestly priced at six pounds, were also very well assembled, although one end piece had almost no salmon in it. But otherwise everything was well put together, not ragged or untidy. And presentation was nicely done: it’s amazing what you can do with a chopping board from IKEA.

I’ve looked back, and every time I eat on duty at a Japanese restaurant I always order salmon sashimi and I always say the same thing: beautifully cut, pure, fresh, buttery texture, blah blah blah. Well, sadly, Intoku’s rather lets the side down in that respect. It might have been something about the cut but it was more taut, more muscular with none of that gorgeous fattiness that makes it such a pleasant dish to eat. At eight pounds sixty for five pieces, it also felt a little sharply priced.

Having finished that little lot, we decided it was time to make another assault on the menu. And this is where our problems continued, because despite the restaurant being far emptier at this point than when we started it was almost impossible to get attention. I’d seen three different members of staff on the way to my table, but now there was just one. And she seemed more interested in re-laying the empty tables – which wouldn’t see a customer again until the following day – than coming back to ours. Eventually, after some time, we managed to get her over.

“Could we order some more food, please?”

“Of course, I’ll go get my notepad.” So she walked off to the other end of the restaurant, grabbed her pad, came back and took our order. And then off she went, without showing any interest in clearing away our empties. And it wasn’t just her, because when our food was ready another member of the wait staff brought it over and plonked it in front of us without taking away the dishes we’d finished with. Which, again, was plain odd: he was there anyway, why make multiple trips?

This is especially frustrating because the food, when it arrived, included some of the best Japanese food I can remember having. I know bao are more Chinese than Japanese, but Intoku sells them by the pair with a variety of fillings and we had ours with karaage chicken. They were absolutely heavenly. Chicken thigh, with a superbly crunchy coating and a hugely savoury note of Marmite, was crammed into pillowy buns topped with pickles and spring onion, and I can honestly say these were up there with bao I’ve had at Bao, next to Borough Market, and streets ahead of any I’d tried in Reading. I treasured each bite, knowing it would come to an end far too soon.

Ten minutes later, the other two small plates we’d ordered turned up. We asked our waiter if he’d mind taking our empties away and he did, with a look that suggested it had never even occurred to him.

Chicken gyoza were steamed rather than fried – odd that they don’t give you a choice, but good if you want to feel virtuous – and although they were probably the most unexceptional thing we ate they were still decent. Intoku seems to think that dipping is infra dig, so they came with a little pool of a thin sauce underneath them. Four meant no arguments about the spare one – I sometimes think Japanese restaurants give you five of the things because they like to provoke a heated debate – and this felt about its money at just over a fiver.

But the real highlight of this course, and indeed the meal, was the crispy fried squid. I often order this, never with any real expectations, and it’s always pleasant. But Intoku’s was just spectacular – hugely soft and fresh with no give, no bounce, no stubbornness at all. The coating was crinkled and crisp, with a little bit of togarashi sprinked on top. It was up there with the best squid I’ve had anywhere: I don’t know where Intoku get their squid from, but they’re not cutting a single corner.

Again, it was served with a thick chilli sauce underneath it – having it in a dipping bowl would have been easier – but it still didn’t matter because the sauce was exemplary too. So often sweet chilli sauce is jam-sweet with only a hint of heat, but this was a different species altogether. This is the dish to order if you visit Intoku, quite possibly multiple times.

By this point, believe it or not, we’d been there nearly an hour and a half. Despite not being enormously busy, it had been a challenge to place orders and the food had come out on the leisurely side. But it got weirder, because at about twenty-five past nine one of the wait staff came over and told us the kitchen was closing in five minutes. Did we want anything else? Nowhere on the menu does it tell you that they knock off so early on arguably the busiest night of the hospitality week.

“Yes, we’d really like to order some more food.”

“I’ll just get my notepad” she said, and off she went again.

“Why doesn’t she just keep her notepad with her?” said Zoë, who was running out of patience. I couldn’t really disagree.

So we placed one last order – with more of that squid, because it was so irresistible – and we waited. And waited.

About twenty-five minutes later, another member of staff came by and asked if we wanted any more drinks. We said no, but we’d ordered some food quite a while back. Was it still coming? This caused a bit of consternation, and he wandered off before coming back and saying that the waitress had taken our ticket to the kitchen but somehow they hadn’t seen it. It would be on its way. And so, about forty-five minutes after we placed our last order, we finally received it – more of that squid, some bonus gyoza – pan fried, this time – by way of apology and our main courses.

I don’t think this is just the fatigue or the frustration talking, but the mains are the weakest past of Intoku’s menu. Zoë’s katsu don with breaded chicken was the pick of the two, but it wasn’t without its problems. It was a rice dish with a thin omelette on top of it, the katsu sauce, fried onions and breaded chicken, and although it was pleasant it was all sweet and no heat. You’d have struggled to call it a curry.

I had high hopes for my dish, chicken leg inasal. This is apparently a Filipino dish where the chicken leg is marinated in sweet vinegar and braised for nine hours. Did that happen here? It’s hard to say. The chicken was beautifully soft, and taking it off the bone was no challenge (although I’d have struggled to do it with chopsticks), but although there was plenty of evidence of braising there was little or no evidence of marination because it tasted of not much. And there it sat, on a pile of naked rice. No sauce, no moisture, nothing. It was heavy going, monotonous and dry: the perfect metaphor for this review, but not much of a dish.

Two and a half hours after we’d sat down for a relatively quick dinner we paid our bill and headed home. No point heading to a bar for a final drink and a debrief, because we’d spent so long waiting at Intoku that everybody was calling last orders. The chap who took our payment – a hundred and eleven pounds, including a 12.5% service charge – was lovely and apologetic, and we were very English and said it was all fine. But the problem, really, is that it wasn’t.

I don’t enjoy having to criticise the service at restaurants, and I know some people take a dim view of it. They think it makes you look entitled, or like you’re punching down, in a way that criticising the kitchen somehow doesn’t. I know that hospitality is really struggling to get people right now, and that these people are undervalued and underpaid, by both restaurants and paying customers. But stuff like bringing you glasses, checking if you want to order more food, clearing away empties – that’s all basic stuff. That’s before we get on to closing the kitchen at half nine or managing to lose your order minutes after you’ve placed it.

If pointing all that out makes you Little Lord Fauntleroy, so be it. I say this with kindness, but Intoku needs to sort it out. I don’t know how else to put it: Intoku’s food is in places brilliant, but if they don’t get on top of their service I wonder how they’ll survive. Not just because people won’t go back – although their food was so good that I probably will, at least once – but because they’re missing out on chances to feed people more food, sell them more drinks, turn tables quicker and generally be more profitable at a time where every pound counts. When I visited they’d been open three months, but it felt like the opening week. I hope they fix this, if nothing else, so everyone gets to see how good that squid is. We now have a reason not to leave Reading for Japanese food. But Intoku still needs to give us more of a reason to go there.

Intoku – 7.2
30a Chain Street, Reading, RG1 2HX
0118 3045263

https://intokurestaurants.com/intoku-reading/

Restaurant review: Caper and Cure, Bristol

I don’t know how many restaurant reviewers you read – apart from yours truly, naturally – but the shocking truth is that I don’t really bother with any of them. I’ve no interest, for instance, in reading Giles Coren wanking on in his Corenesque way about another country pub near his house in the Cotswolds, peppering it with his usual contrarian casual racism. If I want to be bored shitless by an edgelord, I’ll just fire up Twitter.

That’s rich coming from me, I know. The irony isn’t lost on me, and if everybody thought the way I do I’d probably have the grand total of about three readers. But there you go: with some of the big names I have a peek to see where they’ve reviewed, and I might scan through to see if they liked it – if it’s somewhere I might one day go – but beyond that I don’t really pay much attention. 

So for instance I know that Grace Dent from the Guardian had a meal in Maidenhead not too long ago that she really enjoyed. As a result I’ve added the venue to my to do list, but I won’t be poring over her deathless prose line by line before I go. Similarly the subject of this week’s review, Caper and Cure, received rave reviews in the Sunday Times and the Financial Times recently. I didn’t read them (because paywall, Rupert Murdoch etc.), but when I happened to be in Bristol for the weekend I made a beeline there to see what the fuss was about.

And yes, that means another Bristol review, which in turn means that some of you will look away now – or, more likely, didn’t click on the link in the first place. But I make no apologies, because for many years now Bristol has had, for my money, the most interesting food scene in the U.K. Cities and towns like Brighton (back in the day) and Margate always strike me as trying to be London-on-Sea, but what I love about Bristol is that it ploughs its own furrow, with no interest in being anything other than itself. 

Places that want to develop a food culture, like Reading, could learn a lot from that: if we got even a fraction of the kind of restaurants in our town centre that Bristol seems to say hello to every month, we’d be a much richer place for it. Besides, it’s just over an hour away by train. 

So Zoë and I turned up on a Saturday lunchtime to check it out. Caper and Cure is in Stokes Croft, a short stroll from Cabot Circus, the city’s main mall, at the point where Bristol starts to get properly lively and interesting. Beyond Caper and Cure, Stokes Croft becomes the Cheltenham Road and then the Gloucester Road, a fascinating indie-land of bars and restaurants, shops selling every kind of beer or wine and charcuterie (and a special prize surely has to go to the splendidly named Bristanbul, a Turkish bakery).

On the walk to the restaurant I saw the parts of this area that have defeated gentrification: the patch of land called Turbo Island still sports a couple of shabby sofas whose best days were decades ago, and the people sitting on them were already a few cans of lager to the good by early afternoon. The last time I was here I had a fantastic brunch at nearby Jamaica Street Stores: it closed last month after five years, partly because of growing issues with Turbo Island.

But Caper and Cure, a handsome blue and gold fronted restaurant on the corner, still felt relatively genteel; Stokes Croft institution Café Kino is next door, and the gorgeous Elemental Collective sells coffee and pastries the other side of the road. The building Caper and Cure is in used to be a chemist, back in the Twenties, and the room retains exceptional bones – generously proportioned floor to ceiling windows letting in tons of light, and a compact, almost-triangular dining room with about twenty covers. 

A fetching button-backed banquette ran along one side – we were seated at the slightly less attractive tables on the other side of the room, but it didn’t feel like there were any truly duff seating choices. There was a small counter at the back, the open kitchen beyond, and along one wall was a map of Europe showing the provenance of some of the ingredients used in the kitchen: a nice touch. Why was Bristol so good at making excellent dining rooms and kitchens out of such modest spaces, and why had none of that genius ever made it down the M4 to us?

For that matter, why were Bristol restaurants so good at putting a menu together which was simultaneously compact but where you wanted to order everything? Four starters, five mains, three desserts, a cheeseboard and a couple of specials. Starters around a tenner, mains fifteen to twenty quid, desserts maxing out at eight pounds. Absurdly streamlined, really, compared to the overkill of so many restaurants, and yet I could have ordered any combination of dishes (I should mention, too, that this being Stokes Croft vegetarians and vegans also had decent, imaginative choices). There’s a real talent to assembling a menu like this, to hitting all the bases and keeping it lean and appealing, and I for one wish more restaurants had it.

But before we made those agonising yet enjoyable decisions, we tried a couple of things from the snacks section of the menu. Cauliflower cheese croquetas were a real piece of wizardry, with spot on crunch and the smoothest, glossiest core, tangy with cheese and the sweetness of cauli. Each of them sat under a little Johnsonian toupée of Parmesan, each was stupendous. A ridiculous five pounds for these, and it took all my strength not to order more. 

But even better was the sourdough with jamon butter. The words “jamon butter” rather sell short what you got, a quenelle of salty, savoury spreadable jamon with a texture somewhere between whipped butter and rillette. It was one of the most moreish things I’ve eaten in years, and if they’d sold it over the counter I’d have walked out of the restaurant at the end of my meal with a tub of the stuff the size of my head, knowing full well that it wouldn’t survive the rest of the weekend. 

The bread that came with it was decent enough, but its one role was to provide a vehicle for eating the jamon butter that was more civilised than just devouring the stuff with your bare hands. If I’m being ultra-critical, one of the slices of bread was as much air as bread and if I’d been in the kitchen I wouldn’t have served it. But it upped the jamon butter to bread ratio, so it wasn’t all bad.  

A high standard had been set, and the starters just vaulted over that as if it was nothing. I’d chosen the sweetbreads, because I love them and they don’t turn up on menus in this country anywhere near often enough. Caper and Cure’s might well be the best I’ve ever had: pert and tender, in a dish where they played the starring role but with excellent support. That meant fresh, nutty peas, translucent slices of radish and some braised baby gem, but more importantly it meant a chicken butter sauce bringing the whole thing together triumphantly. It supplied another intense umami hit, fortified with little nuggets of pancetta just in case you weren’t having enough fun already. 

As we discovered over this and our other dishes, Caper and Cure specialises in those high-gloss, super-reduced sauces that speak of patience and expertise. Having finished my starter I was frustrated to see far too much sauce still in the high-sided bowl, but without prompting one of the wait staff asked if I needed some more bread. I didn’t think twice, and Caper and Cure’s bread with the remnants of my chicken butter sauce was, on its own, tastier than ninety per cent of the starters I’ve eaten in nine years of writing this blog.

Zoë was equally happy with her decision to order the burrata. It’s an ever-present on menus now, but I doubt many restaurants pair it with tomatoes quite as good as these (from the Isle Of Wight, of course). And more importantly I doubt many restaurants plonk the whole thing on their own exemplary tapenade, with the perfume of deep purple olives. I had a forkful of this, and although I couldn’t have not ordered the sweetbreads it also had much to admire.  

By this point I knew beyond doubt that we were in very good hands, and the only remaining question was just how special the rest of the meal might be. Our main courses answered that question emphatically. Hake, one of the two market fish on the blackboard, was cooked just right and perched on top of an absolutely glorious layer of pickled fennel, just sweet enough and just sharp enough: I’ve never had pickled fennel before, and now I’m just counting the days until the next time. 

A tangle of samphire heaped on top added a little saltiness and if the skin wasn’t as crispy as I’d have chosen, that was probably because the whole thing was swimming in a superbly glacé lobster sauce. It wasn’t all perfect, mind you; I’d personally have liked the orzo, the base of the dish, a little closer to al dente and the lobster sauce was more muted than it could have been. But those would have been minor niggles at the best of times: on such a successful plate of food, coming in at a ludicrous twenty-one pounds, they were just the only things I could find that fell short of flawless. It was still one of the most marvellous dishes I’ve eaten all year.

Zoë had absolutely no reservations about her rump of beef, and the couple of forkfuls I had were easily enough evidence to understand why. It was a beautiful piece of meat, cooked medium-pink but with a nice crust, but again it was all about how that ingredient played nicely with the delightful company it was keeping. In this case that meant another sticky, glossy sauce – peppercorn this time – little puddles of onion purée and banana shallots, also with a little char. And to add a little ballast, a perfect slab of Pommes Anna, as enticing and multi-layered as a great novel. This might have been one of the most marvellous dishes I didn’t eat all year, but at least it went to a truly deserving home

We had some Parmesan and truffle fries with our mains – completely unnecessary but also impossible to resist – and they were themselves a fascinating experience. It’s a dish that crops up on menus a lot lately, from Buon Appetito to the Last Crumb and beyond, but in most places it’s a way to tart up bought-in French fries and flog them for a fiver. Here they were the real deal, and when we’d finished our mains and used the fries to clean up the last of our respective sauces we picked at the rest with slightly oily fingers and glad hearts.  

Dessert was the point at which things stopped being spectacular and settled for merely being rather good: technically there are only really two desserts on the menu along with a couple of cheeses and chocolate sorbet with coffee liqueur which felt like a distant cousin of the affogato. I rather liked my panna cotta, which had a pleasing wobble, tons of crumbled pistachio on top and a moat of strawberries and sweet syrup. But the advertised wild honey was the quietest of whispers, and without it the whole thing felt a little run of the mill.

I thought Zoë chose better than me, but she wasn’t wild about her choice either. A rum brûlée was served denuded of a ramekin – how often does that happen? – with plenty of pineapple and coconut sorbet. I liked it, although again the rum was a little muted, and I thought it all worked well together. Zoë was less convinced, and I think on another day would have had the chocolate sorbet. But we were both being restrained, with a boozy evening ahead and (in my case) a gin sodden one behind me, so we steered clear of booze.

That means I can’t tell you anything about the wine list, which is a matter of some regret for me as it had plenty to appeal – and three special wines available by the glass, including a Georgian orange wine by Tbilvino which sounded well worth trying. But instead I’m afraid we were well behaved – I had a very good alcohol free pale ale by local Bristol Beer Factory and Zoë had soft drinks. Next time I go, which I anticipate will be the next time I visit Bristol, I’ll try it properly.

I haven’t really talked about service, but it was very much of a piece with everything else: smooth, efficient, friendly and good at making everything look easy. Offering me some bread with my starter was a great example, but really the whole thing seemed effortless. Caper and Cure wasn’t as busy as I expected but it had a real mixture of tables and types of diners, with more people coming in for lunch as we were leaving, and the whole thing had a nice flow and rhythm to it. I imagine it would be a truly enchanting place to have a boozy evening meal with friends, and next time I go there that’s exactly what I plan to do.

Our bill came to a hundred and twelve pounds, including a twelve and a half per cent service charge, and when the owner came to take our payment I pointed out that they’d slightly undercharged us. Before we left he asked where we came from, and if he was fazed that people had come all the way from Reading he concealed it well; I looked him up afterwards, and it turns out he’s also a professional actor (“you can just tell” said Zoë as we ambled up the Cheltenham Road in search of caffeination).

This is the second critically acclaimed Bristol restaurant I’ve visited this year, and the contrast with Sonny Stores couldn’t have been more marked. Restaurant critics like to talk about Bristol growing these restaurants – small, unpretentious places with short, magnificent menus and interesting wine lists – as if in a laboratory. And it’s true that the place is a Petri dish for culinary creativity, more than anywhere I know.

But I think it doesn’t do Caper and Cure justice to make it sound like just the latest place to fall off some gastronomic assembly line. There’s something uniquely special about it, and re-reading this review I’m not sure I’ve truly captured it in what I’ve written. It’s worth going to these places, even if they’re an hour and a quarter away by train, to remember what we have to aim for in Reading and that for all the Kungfu Kitchens, the Bakery Houses, the Lyndhursts and the Clay’s we still have some distance to travel.

If a restaurant like Caper & Cure opened in Reading it would be packed to the rafters every night and lauded as far as the eye can see. And yet in all the time I’ve been writing this blog, the best part of a decade, nowhere even slightly like Caper and Cure has opened here. At some point, we might all have to stop and think about why that is. Reading has the money, it has the prosperity and it has a discerning demographic. Why don’t we have the restaurants?

Caper and Cure – 9.2
The Old Chemist, 108a Stokes Croft, Bristol, BS1 3RU
0117 9232858

https://www.caperandcure.co.uk

Restaurant review: Goat On The Roof, Newbury

I was late arriving for my reservation at Goat On The Roof: one thing I haven’t missed in the two and a half years since the pandemic is the panic caused by trying to get somewhere on time when our rail network refuses to play ball. There were no strikes on that bright sunny evening, but I stood by the departures board watching trains being repeatedly pushed back or cancelled. I texted Graeme, who was joining me for dinner, saying it was touch and go. “Let me know if it all goes tits up” he said, a man whose own plans had also been wrecked by the railways one too many times.

In the end I found a seat on seemingly the only train heading west in the foreseeable future and gazed out of the window as Reading turned into West Berkshire, the train trundled past the sixties flats of Southcote and out into the countryside. This was my commute every day for about a year, and although I never missed the job in Newbury I always liked how contemplative the journey could be.

I liked the landmarks, too. The weird Harrods warehouse plonked by the tracks in Thatcham, looking deeply incongruous. The business parks of Theale, far from the cutting edge. Midgham, so bucolic with the lovely Rowbarge just round the corner. And the slightly vulgar view of the racecourse, a sign that your voyage was nearly over. I felt like a modern-day Philip Larkin in The Whitsun Weddings, albeit without the racism, the womanising, the enormous jazz collection.

Alighting at Newbury I remembered how much I liked the place and how enjoyable it had been to knock around town after work. Their main outside space in the Market Place, was occupied by a Bill’s and a Wetherspoons, but it still looked very fetching on a summer’s evening. Besides, what did Reading have in a similar location? An overflow car park for O’Neills, defiling the space where the 3Bs used to be.

Graeme was already at Goat On The Roof when I arrived, hot, flustered and en retard, but he’d grabbed a table and had a gin and tonic on the go, because he’s no fool. Walking over to join him I was struck by what a tasteful room it was: good furniture, plain panelled walls, art dotted here and there. The site used to be Japanese restaurant Arigato, and before that it was a bank – that shows in the proportions of the room, the almost full-length windows bathing the room in light.

I was worried that the lack of soft furnishings would make it a deafening room in which to spend an evening, but actually it wasn’t problematic. And it could easily have been, because the place was pretty much full on a Friday evening: not bad going for a restaurant which opened less than three months ago.

While we peered at our menus, the owner came over and asked whether we’d eaten there before. When we said we hadn’t, he proceeded to “explain the concept”: now, this normally induces some eye-rolling but Goat On The Roof’s concept is an interesting one and goes some way to explaining why this week’s review is from Newbury rather than somewhere closer to home. 

They were a British tapas restaurant, he said, and that meant a reliance on British ingredients, ideally organic, sustainable and as local as possible. And that feels like an intriguing idea: we have some great ingredients in this country, and some magnificent producers, but many restaurants don’t bang that drum as loudly as they could. It’s an apposite idea in the wake of Brexit, too, with many ingredients trickier and costlier to import than ever, so if this turned out to be a well-executed, well-considered stratagem rather than a gimmick it could make for an excellent meal. Besides, I’ve been moaning for years that Reading didn’t have a credible tapas restaurant, and for some outrageous reason nobody had deemed this sufficient incentive to open one.

Anyway, the concept was all well and good but what were we going to eat? The menu did an excellent job of selling practically every dish, and I was pleased to see that it was already different from the one I’d seen online. It was divided into sections for nibbles, vegetable dishes, fish, meat and cheese and prices varied quite widely: most of the meat dishes, for instance, were north of a tenner whereas veg dishes were closer to seven pounds. 

“Do you have any questions about the menu?” asked the owner.

“Yes, what’s the ‘Barbed Dart’?” said Graeme.

“It’s a quail’s egg, red pepper and anchovy threaded onto a skewer. You put it in your mouth and pull the skewer out and eat it all in one go, and it’s an explosion of flavours. Don’t eat the skewer too though” – he said this in a manner which suggested it was well-rehearsed – “That bit’s very important.”

After he’d left us to our deliberations, Graeme leaned forward. 

“I like all of those things, but I’m not sure I can be bothered with it.”  

“I feel the same! So I guess we agree on some dishes for our first wave and hold some back for a second wave. That cabbage with black garlic and pangrattato sounds nice, or perhaps the tomatoes with pesto.”

“I suppose I could be a grown up and eat tomatoes. I hated them as a child, and I’ve only got used to them recently.”

“But these are from the Isle Of Wight” I pontificated. “They’re sort of legendary, they’re some of the only tomatoes we grow in this country that taste of anything.”

“I’m quite comfortable with us not ordering anything from the vegetables section, you know.” 

Again, I remembered why Graeme was one of my favourite dining companions: I must invite him to join me more often. I also remembered that Graeme’s wife was a vegetarian – although apparently a recent holiday in Madeira had turned her into a pescatarian – so he was probably looking forward to an evening going off the rails.

But first, wine. Goat On The Roof’s wine list was a superb, fascinating thing, Everything was European, British wine was well represented and there was a strong selection of orange wines and natural wines (would you have put money on Newbury, of all places, becoming a hotbed for natural wine?). Prices started at twenty-five pounds and climbed sharply after that, although a good proportion were available by the glass. On another day I might have tried the Welsh Pet Nat or an Austrian red, but Graeme had seen something that caught his eye.

“They have a Grüner Veltliner on the list, and I really love a Grüner.”

That was good enough for me, and the fact that it was a natural wine swung it for sheer curiosity. The natural wines I’ve tried have always been on the challenging side, with more funk than I’d personally choose, but this one’s cloudiness belied a wonderfully fresh, balanced wine. Before I’d finished the first glass I’d made a mental note to seek it out, and within a couple of days I’d taken delivery of a couple of bottles. That’s how good it was. (One of the websites where I found it said “you can neck it from a mug if you want, such is the vibrancy of the wine” – no: it’s good, but not so good that you’d abandon your standards.)

Our first wave of dishes was an excellent start. Anchovies, from Cornwall apparently, were marinated boquerones-style rather than salty, but they had a real zippiness to them, lifted with lemon, mint and chilli and completed with custard-yellow oil. It was a deceptively dense portion – although Goat On The Roof’s plates are far from ugly their general principle is to pile things high. Neither of were quibbling though, and the bread we’d ordered – workmanlike, not exceptional – saw more of the oil than the butter which came with it. Hats off, too, that the butter was at room temperature.

Also piled high on a plate rather than painstakingly spread out on a board was the fennel salami. Again this made the portion look smaller than it was, so maybe not the most considered approach, but the salami was perfectly coarse and laced with fennel and I liked it very much. Their charcuterie comes from Trealy Farm, a relatively big name which used to supply to Mitchell & Butler pubs back in the day. Even so, it was gorgeous stuff: I looked them up online when I got home, too. 

I suspect Trealy Farm also provided the lardo which came draped on top of a scallop ceviche, a dish from the specials menu. Graeme was impressed with this dish, but I was more circumspect. The quality of the scallops was top notch, and it had a wonderful cleanness which was almost led astray enough by the lardo. But it needed more of the advertised gremolata to add contrast and colour – without that it was a little too white, a little too pure.

The last of our initial quartet was a classic tapas dish, ham and cheese croquettes. Graeme was drawn to this because they’d used Old Winchester, a fantastic cheese that can rival any manchego, and I thought these were well done – a smooth, glossy béchamel with just enough ham to lend another dimension. I used the last of my bread to scoop up the snowdrift of grated cheese left in the dish.

Our second wave of orders was even more successful than the first, and chanced upon three stone cold classics on the menu. The first of these was Goat On The Roof’s take on patatas bravas (which of course they call “Crispy Potatoes, Spiced Tomato Sauce, Garlic Mayo”, presumably because their concept precludes speaking foreign on the menu wherever possible). 

I’ve had patatas bravas in a lot of places, and Goat On The Roof’s are right up there with the best. Often they’re just not crispy enough, or they used to be but they wilted under the onslaught of a lake of bravas sauce and aioli. These were absolutely spot on – incredible texture, not overdressed and perfectly balanced. At five pounds seventy they’re also arguably the best value on the menu: if you go, insist on having one to yourself.

Also exceptional was the pork belly with rhubarb compote. The pork, fried until crispy, reminded me a lot of chicharrones I’ve had in Malaga, so skilfully cooked that you didn’t mind in the slightest about spearing a cube that was more fat than flesh. I’ve not had pork with rhubarb before but having tried it I wonder why it took me so long – the sharp tartness of the rhubarb being exactly what was needed, harmonising with the pork rather than drowning it out. Again, small plates for sharing are all very well but order one of these, tell your companions they wouldn’t like it and eat it all on your own: whoever you’re at dinner with will get over it.

The last standout dish was the soused mackerel – a gorgeous piece of fish cooked as little as they could get away with, with a quenelle of relatively restrained horseradish cream (and a pointless piece of something like melba toast). This was very much the kind of dish where you took as small a forkful as you could each time and savoured every bite, and the fact that Graeme and I shared one between two is a tribute to our powers of restraint. 

We also had the chorizo (the menu does speak foreign here, presumably because “Deep Red Paprika Sausage” would have looked weird and wrong) cooked in cider. It came with a hen’s egg – they were oddly specific about that – which was soft boiled and rolled in some kind of crumb. I liked this dish, probably because the chorizo was also from Trealy Farm and they’re very good at what they do, but at eleven pounds fifty it felt a little on the sharp side. But again, it was good enough that you didn’t hold a grudge.

The dessert selection was much narrower. I’ve always held that you can share your small plates all you like but dessert is meant to be your own personal kingdom: if people are good, or lucky, they can have a forkful but any more is pushing it. I gave Graeme first choice and after much deliberation he chose what I thought was a gorgeous dessert – local strawberries, shiny and sticky with maceration, a perfect sphere of sorrel sorbet perched on top. The forkful I had was properly beautiful, and I’d ordered it I wouldn’t have complained.

Graeme did, but that’s more because my order, the chocolate mousse, was phenomenal. This seems to be a staple in tapas restaurants and many places – Arbequina in Oxford, or Bar 44 in Bristol – do it extremely well. But often it will be poshed up with salt or olive oil, a thin bit of toast or some torta de aciete. By contrast Goat On The Roof plays it very straight – and if their mousse isn’t going to win any prizes for aesthetics it more than makes up for it with the taste. It was a glorious swirl of milk and white chocolate with a handful of raspberries and I can happily confirm that it’s the perfect way to end a meal.  Not that we did end the meal there, because we had some fudge as a petit four (the vanilla one was okay, the coffee one cracking) but you get the general idea. 

Our meal – a couple of gin and tonics, all those small plates, a stonking bottle of wine, desserts and fudge came to just shy of a hundred and sixty pounds, including an optional twelve and a half per cent service charge. Service, incidentally, was excellent: it’s a very young, very enthusiastic, very positive team and they have the enthusiasm that comes with starting something new and very accomplished which is quite unlike anything Newbury has, or Reading for that matter.

After our meal we repaired to the excellent Catherine Wheel which has lovely outside space and, more importantly, a little outdoor bar selling over fifty kinds of gin. We nabbed the last free table and proceeded to drink really rather a lot of gin while Graeme berated me about my good luck in the dessert sweepstake.

“You did a Jedi mind trick on me, admit it.”

“It was more like Derren Brown. Did you not notice that in the run up to ordering I kept talking about the sorrel sorbet? Sorrel sorbet. Sorrel sorbet.

Graeme grimaced, but I could tell he wasn’t really resentful. Probably. Besides, it was time to try another gin; I told him to surprise me and when he came back with a strawberry and balsamic concoction I couldn’t tell whether it was reward or revenge. A few gins later we weaved our way to the station for the last train home at the end of an evening well spent.

So why isn’t the rating down there higher, you might ask? The honest answer is I’m not entirely sure. Part of it’s the cost. Small plates restaurants do this – the prices of every dish are always clearly advertised, and nobody’s holding a gun to your head. And yet at the end there’s always a moment where the bill arrives and you wonder how you spent quite that much. 

But also, Goat On The Roof was almost too polished. That’s what gives away how British it is. That’s not a bad thing per se, and if Goat On The Roof feels like it’s been there firing on all cylinders for a lot longer than three months that reflects very well on them, but it slightly lacked the exuberance I associate with tapas at its best. I’ll go back, I’m sure, but I’m not desperate to get it in the calendar. Although, on the other hand, pork belly with rhubarb compote.

The next day, I got a text from Graeme.

“I still think you used some kind of Jedi mind trick on me.”

“This is not the dessert you’re looking for”, I replied.

He sent me the applause emoji in response. But I wouldn’t have been surprised if, on the other side of the phone screen, he felt like telling me to fuck off. 

Goat On The Roof – 7.7
1 Bridge Street, Newbury, RG14 5BE
01635 580015

https://goatontheroof.co.uk

Pub review: The Dairy

Three months ago I wrote about the quiet revolution taking place at Reading University’s bars. Park House, always one of Reading’s best kept secrets for an al fresco drink, underwent a surprising but convincing transformation this year: out went the cheesy chips and in came a menu that made all the right noises – listing suppliers, talking about provenance and using both local producers and the university’s own beef. 

I went, I tried it and I was pleasantly surprised – so much so, in fact, that when I put together my updated list of Reading’s best spots to eat outdoors Park House bagged a place. Some people missed the cheesy chips, apparently. But there’s no accounting for taste: some people are going to miss Boris Johnson. 

But could lightning strike twice? That was the question Zoë and I asked ourselves after I met her from work and we ambled to the Dairy on a golden midsummer evening. We strolled past the Turks Head (you can tell it’s glorious weather when even sitting outside the Turks looks tempting), past the sedate, leafy thoroughfare of Kendrick Road, and I thought to myself that it was moments like these I should be storing up in my head, so I could turn them over in my mind when the clocks went back and the feeling of sun on my skin was a distant memory.

The Dairy also revamped its menu in 2022 and makes the same claims as Park House when it comes to where they get their ingredients from. Bread from Waring’s, eggs from Beechwood Farm, all the right noises, all that jazz. But I was particularly keen to see if the Dairy had raised its game because, to be honest, it could easily have done so just by buying in some ready meals from M&S. 

Or, for that matter, Asda. My previous visit to the Dairy on duty, back at the start of 2019, had been a grim experience with lukewarm, chewy curry and a chicken burger which, underneath its modish charcoal bun, was as wan and tasteless as Jacob Rees Mogg. So, did lightning strike twice or was it more a case of fool me twice, shame on me? I can honestly say I approached the Dairy with no real hunch as to how this one would play out. 

On another day I would have sat indoors – the Dairy has a lovely room off from the main bar – but as it was so sunny we plonked ourselves outside. I’d hesitate to call it a beer garden, but out the back of the Dairy it has plenty of tables which catch the sun nicely. They’re big tables, with deep benches which can even accommodate a rear as sizeable as mine, so they’re more suited for bigger groups than a tête-à-tête, but we weren’t going to let that stop us.

The Dairy’s dinner menu is relatively compact and in three main sections – stuff from the grill, burgers and hot dogs. But the main thing that jumps about it, from a casual reading, is how cheap it is. The dishes from the grill are about six quid, burgers are nine pounds and hot dogs are seven. Rather confusingly the cheapest dishes come with a couple of sides and a sauce, the more expensive ones with a single side. If there’s logic there I don’t see it, although most of the sides only cost a couple of pounds anyway. I don’t see how it can’t be subsidised, and I’m not sure how they make money on it, but you would struggle to rack up a bill here. 

It’s only later, when I was back home and leafing through the Dairy’s Instagram feed, that I realised this menu has been slimmed down from their launch menu at the start of the year. It’s especially a shame because it’s almost like someone looked through the launch menu, marker pen in hand, and struck a big black line through anything that looked particularly fun: so farewell to the jerk plantain and halloumi skewers, the beef burger topped with smoked pork belly and blue cheese, the brined fried chicken with pickled watermelon and the fish dog with crispy fried goujons, tartare sauce and chilli crushed peas. 

See what I mean? What was left was the menu equivalent of the Golgafrincham B Ark, and I’m hoping at least a few of you will get that reference. But none the less even if dinner turned out to be a mistake it at least wouldn’t be a costly one. And besides, the Dairy still has an amazing range of local beer with options from Wild Weather (the excellent King Street Pale), Siren, Phantom and Academia lager from Double-Barrelled, which is brewed exclusively for the university.

I went up and ordered our food, along with a half of cider for me and a half of Take Nothing For Granted, a Siren collab with Brew By Numbers, for Zoë (she loved it, by the way – if you see it, try it). The whole shebang came to just shy of twenty-two pounds, which is crazy money for dinner and a drink. I did feel though that the chap behind the bar didn’t understand the menu all that well and it was a bit of a struggle to explain what sides we wanted with what dish. 

“Don’t I get to pick a sauce to go with mine as well?” I asked. 

“It comes with barbecue sauce” he said. 

“Should I take cutlery or do you bring it out?” 

“Either is fine.” 

I didn’t have unwavering confidence that what we’d ordered was what would turn up – and it wasn’t, entirely, including that barbecue sauce which was nowhere to be seen.

Anyway, let’s talk about the food. I’d gone for grilled, smoked chicken thigh which comes with a couple of sides – and because I’d had a big lunch that day I decided to eschew the carbs, picking chipotle slaw and Boston beans with bacon to go with it. Now, the first thing I should say is that they brought me chicken breast by mistake, as you can probably tell from the photo underneath this paragraph. But the second is that I promise it wasn’t quite as boring as that photo makes it look.

I mean, I was hoping that it would come with the skin on, all crispy from the grill. While we’re at it, I was hoping that it would taste or feel like it had been grilled at all, which this didn’t really. I was also hoping it would taste as if it had been smoked (over hickory wood chips, according to the menu), and this was resolutely a smoke-free zone. Instead it was a slightly pale, largely naked chicken breast speckled with a few sesame seeds. And yet despite all that it wasn’t unpleasant; if you came at it with low expectations, which I sort of did, you’d probably quite enjoy it, especially at the low price of just over six quid. It really could have done with some barbecue sauce, mind you.

The Boston beans made up for that, and were one of the high points – a mixture of beans, chickpeas and peppers in a sweetly tangy sauce with big slabs of bacon thrown in for good measure. If you eat at the Dairy after reading this review (and you might) these are well worth tacking on to whatever you order. They do a bacon-free version too, and actually though the bacon was nice enough it would have largely been the same dish without it. The chipotle slaw, on the other hand, was not good. I don’t really mind whether coleslaw comes in mayo or vinaigrette, and a chipotle mayo would have been lovely: but raw shredded veg with neither, just shrouded in acrid dust, doesn’t do it for me. If I’d known it would be like that, I’d have risked the fries.

Zoë had gone for the brie and bacon burger, and visually it looked decent – a tall stovepipe of a thing with a thick wodge of fridge-cold brie sandwiched between two patties, the whole shebang resting on a sturdy slice of tomato which Zoë fished out in short order. 

“They don’t tell you it’s going to be two burgers, the menu doesn’t really tell you a lot” she said, with a hint of suspicion, probably because she was mulling over the risk that they’d also smuggled in some unwanted gherkins. “I know what you’ll say about this – you’ll say that the slice of brie is too thick and it hasn’t melted.”

“Not at all – nobody ever complains that a burger has too much cheese on it. What’s it like?”

“It’s not bad. It’s not an Honest or a Smash N Grab, but it’s okay for nine pounds. The texture’s a little strange though, a bit dry and crumbly.”

Again, it wasn’t until later when I was looking through the Dairy’s Instagram that I saw their writeup for this dish. In it, they say this burger is “made with local beef and part mushrooms” and “more sustainable than any burger you will try” – but what did that mean? Was it cut (or, rather, diluted) with mushrooms? It would explain the slightly spongey texture but again, why did the menu omit this detail? Was this about sustainability, or cutting corners? A nine pound burger is all very well, but most people would pay more to have the real deal. It was all very odd. Even the bun looked like a bog standard bap rather than the promised brioche: maybe they’d run out.

Zoë had cannily picked the most expensive side, the smoked macaroni cheese (four pounds on its own, fact fans). And again, it was quite pleasant with a good golden crust. But smoked it wasn’t. Better, I thought, was a nibble of macaroni bites – four hefty breadcrumbed spheres of macaroni cheese which were deeply enjoyable and provided the spritz of fun my dinner badly needed, given the naked chicken and dusty coleslaw (and these, by the way, did come with some barbecue sauce). Not in the same league as the same dish at Bracknell’s Blue’s Smokehouse but, crucially, bigger and a darned sight cheaper. Next time I’m drinking at the Dairy I might order some in preference to a packet of Piper’s.

All this added up to a slightly underwhelming meal, a mixture of inconsistency, inaccuracy, basic errors and wasted opportunities. And it was a completely different experience to eating at Park House in the spring: by contrast it felt like like the Dairy had got the hang of writing a menu that read well, even if the most attractive dishes had gone missing in action, but that they perhaps hadn’t realised that the dishes then had to live up to the promise of the words. 

Very few of them did, but I do have to say in the Dairy’s defence that if something seems to good to be true it almost always is. The Dairy is one of the most aggressively priced restaurants I can think of in Reading, and if you aren’t sure how they’re making their money something has to be going on. Whether that’s adding mushrooms to your burger mix, or making coleslaw without mayo, something is always going to give. 

And if the mark at the bottom of the page isn’t quite as low as you’d expect it to be, that’s precisely because the Dairy is a cheap and cheerful option and I’m partly judging it on that basis. It could arguably be more cheerful, but it couldn’t be much cheaper. And as Zoë said at the time, whatever you thought of the food it did at least feel like a Brakes lorry hadn’t played any role in proceedings.

Never the less, I’m sure I will drink at the Dairy again before the summer’s out, and even if this meal wasn’t stellar I thank my lucky stars that it was nowhere near as harrowing as the one I had at the Dairy back in 2019. But next time I might grab dinner at Kungfu Kitchen first, before meandering down the hill for what remains an excellent selection of local beers in what’s left of the sunshine. In that respect at least, the Dairy is still hard to beat.

The Dairy – 6.7
Building L14, London Road Campus, Redlands Road, RG1 5AQ
0118 3782477

https://www.hospitalityuor.co.uk/bars-and-pubs/the-dairy/

Restaurant review: Miyazaki, Maidenhead

We were on the train to Maidenhead, Zoë and I, and both of us realised that neither of us had been to the town in the best part of twenty years. Travelled through it on countless occasions, of course, as everyone has. Changed trains there a couple of times to go to Marlow, too – usually for indifferent meals out, come to think of it. But had either of us ever got off a train there, exited through the barriers and explored the place? I didn’t think so, and nor did Zoë.

We were there to visit Maidenhead’s shiniest, newest hospitality venue – not a restaurant, but the second branch of Windsor’s craft beer bar A Hoppy Place. Zoë wanted to write it up for the magazine she edits and having had her plans to attend the grand opening thwarted by the train strike, she was keen to pay it a visit as soon as humanly possible. 

But where to eat beforehand? Maidenhead looked to be the town that restaurants forgot. A rummage through Tripadvisor – don’t judge, there was virtually nowhere else to look – suggested that most of Maidenhead’s restaurants were actually in the town’s affluent satellite villages. But then I guess if you lived near Bray or Cookham Dean, would you really go into Maidenhead of a night out? The town centre boasted a Kokoro and a Coppa Club, but I couldn’t say I fancied either of those known quantities.

And then I remembered my physio, who lives in Maidenhead, recommending Miyazaki to me. It’s a little restaurant at the unfashionable end of town which has been serving up Japanese food to the people of Maidenhead for something like seven years. No fuss, no drama, just uniformly good reviews on Tripadvisor and Google, all of which gave the vague impression that Miyazaki’s fans were quite comfortable with it remaining a well-kept secret. I phoned up on a Friday evening and was pleasantly surprised to find that they could fit in a booking for the following night.

It wasn’t the loveliest of walks from the station, and I sense that there’s an awful lot of development under way in Maidenhead. Miyazaki was on a little run of shops and restaurants, rubbing shoulders with pizza and kebab takeaways, just past the purgatorial horrors of “The Honey Pot” (remember when Reading had one of those?) and the thumping music of an O’Neill’s already in full swing. “There’s a reason why they always have an O’Neill’s near the train station”, said Zoë sagely. 

Once we reached Miyazaki, though, it stood out like the opposite of a sore thumb. Nestled between joints called Sizzlers and Tennessee Fried Chicken, a building site on the other side of the road, it looked completely out of place. No garish shop front, no big red letters and brightly-lit laminated pictures of the food on display like its neighbours, just a simple space. 

Inside, the neutral, unfussy tables couldn’t have seated more than twenty people at a push, and the long thin room was beautifully lit, the light from the summer evening pouring in through the curved, graceful floor to ceiling window. Tasteful prints and drawings were dotted on the plain white walls. Just two other tables were occupied when we got there at quarter to eight – which saddened me a little. But it was a very hot evening, and the restaurant was doing a roaring trade in takeaways, neatly packaged and on the table by the bar, waiting for delivery drivers to pull up outside and take care of them.

Miyazaki’s menu was the kind that reassured you instantly. Some people, spoiled by the compendious likes of Sushimania or Yo! Sushi, would have found it restrictive but I liked the fact that it did what it did, and didn’t try to offer everything. Just three types of sashimi, a few more nigiri and just over a dozen sushi rolls in two different sizes. There was also a selection of side dishes, along with a very small selection of what you might call mains – three curries, two different noodle dishes and a range of udon soup noodles. 

And even with such a restrained selection I saw dishes I’d never heard of or tried. Yasai kakiage, a sort of vegetable tempura fritter. Sunomono, a crunchy, vinegary cucumber salad. Chicken nanban, a deranged-but-inspired-sounding dish of fried chicken in a tangy coating, served with, of all things, tartar sauce. If I have one regret about this meal, it’s that I can’t tell you what those three taste like: I’ll know after next time.

Instead we stayed on safer ground, but we were richly rewarded all the same. Salmon sashimi was as perfect an example as I can remember – rich, smooth, glossy diamonds of perfect pink, just needing a dab of soy to perfect them. We liked it so much we ordered another portion. Mackerel sashimi was a little less successful: the skin looked like it had been torched, and the slight tinge of vinegar suggested it was cured rather than raw. I liked it more than Zoë did, which might have been a factor in us ordering more salmon.

Sushi rolls kept up a high standard. With a relatively compact menu a lot of these were variations on a theme, but even so I enjoyed everything I had. The small avocado maki were the kind of dish I could gladly eat every day for the rest of my life, and the avocado was splendidly buttery – ripe but not overripe, no hint of those telltale brown edges that always fill me with sadness. 

Larger spicy tuna rolls with a little dab of fiery red sauce inside had a surprising kick, as did the pale ribbons of ginger on the plate – it’s always encouraging to see this more natural colour, rather than the standard-issue hyper-real pink ginger you so often get. And assembly was pretty good: there were a few ragged bits of nori here and there but generally they were put together deftly, and just the right size that you could eat them in one glorious go.

All the larger sushi rolls hovered around the eight pound mark, which struck me as very good value. Another set with both avocado and salmon were probably my favourite, and so much more than the sum of their parts, speckled on the outside with black and white sesame. I’m always reminded, when I eat food like this, how nice it can be to eat something almost-virtuous, so pure-looking. That feeling always dissipates by the time the next portion of fried chicken comes along but it’s nice to experience it all the same, however fleeting. 

It helped, I’m sure, that the setting was so pared-back and ascetic, but also it’s so rare – for me at least – to find really healthy food that I actually like. By this point it was nearly quarter past eight and we were the only customers left in the restaurant, and I would have felt guilty about keeping the staff if it wasn’t for the still-steady stream of takeaway dishes coming out of the kitchen. Their work was far from over, so Zoë drank a second bottle of Sapporo, I had some sweet, fresh plum wine in a glass tinkling with ice and we ordered one last wave of dishes.

Doing so proved, if nothing else, that the period between fried chicken dishes – in my life, at least – is never that long. Karaage chicken is a staple order of mine, in Japanese restaurants and anywhere else I can find it on a menu, but Miyazaki’s was one of the best I’ve had anywhere. Normally it comes plain with some mayo on the side (and I’m absolutely fine with that) but this had been tossed in a tangy red sauce which took it somewhere even better. All soft thigh meat, crunchy coating and gnarled edges with a little spike of heat, it was up there with the nicest things I’ve eaten this year. Chicken gyoza felt a little more boilerplate, but even boilerplate chicken gyoza are still better than the majority of things you can pop into your mouth. 

It’s a shame that I saved the worst til last, but our final two noodle dishes suggested that the kitchen’s strengths lay elsewhere. You can have soba or udon noodles with chicken katsu, fried prawns or vegetable korroke, but either way the underlying dish didn’t quite come together. My soba noodles – a neatly petite portion – were nice enough I suppose, but the sauce they had been lightly stir fried in had a slightly off-putting sweetness when I was hoping for more savoury depth. And my three breaded prawns, tasty though they were, didn’t feel like they really went; I resorted to eating those with my fingers and then ploughing through the noodles, but it didn’t feel like a cohesive dish, or a hugely enjoyable one. 

I think Zoë picked better with the katsu chicken, which was nicely done, but other than the gauge of her noodles her dish was subject to much the same problems. These two dishes are only available at dinner time, but to be honest when I go back I’ll probably just order more sushi, because that felt like where Miyazaki truly excelled. Or I might just leap into the unknown reaches of the menu, and see whether Japanese fried chicken with tartar sauce is as chaotic and magnificent on the plate as it is in my imagination. Either way, I also plan to sample their extensive and impressive selection of sake.

I know it’s a little perverse of me to review a restaurant in Maidenhead this week, because Reading has had two Japanese restaurants open in quick succession: Intoku, where the Tasting House used to be, at the end of May and Iro Sushi, replacing Raayo on Friar Street, at the beginning of July (a third, You Me Sushi, opened a few doors down from Iro yesterday). But I thought Miyazaki was worth exploring, because restaurants that have been doing their stuff for years with no fuss are often overlooked in favour of shiny new places. Or, possibly, bandwagon-jumpers. 

And it was right that I did, because Miyazaki is quietly splendid and well worth celebrating. I’m not inclined to let those final two dishes detract from what was a truly wonderful meal a twelve minute train ride from Reading in surroundings that really couldn’t be more incongruous. Service was flawless, the room has a sort of touching humility which I liked very much and if our meal wasn’t cheap – it came to just over ninety pounds for all that food and a couple of drinks each, not including tip – it was worth every penny. 

And if you need somewhere to go in Maidenhead for a post-dinner drink, I can thoroughly recommend A Hoppy Place which has excellent outside seating and had two phenomenal imperial stouts on keg when I visited, both of which I enjoyed a great deal. You could go to O’Neill’s instead of course, but you don’t need to leave Reading for that, although you would need to take leave of your senses. I will get to the likes of Intoku and Iro in due course, but the standard they have to reach has already been laid down, in a little sanctuary a matter of minutes away on the Elizabeth Line. And if they turn out to be disappointing, I know exactly where I’ll go to get over it.

Miyazaki – 8.1
63 Queen Street, Maidenhead, SL6 1LT
01628 785377

http://www.miyazaki.co.uk