Restaurant review: Lebanese Village

The reason behind this week’s review is simple: I got a tip-off. About chicken livers.

It came off the back of the World Cup Of Reading Restaurants I ran on Twitter just after Christmas – congratulations to Kungfu Kitchen for winning the title, by the way – when I received a message from a reader. She and her partner had been debating the merits of the various competitors, and they’d agreed that in their considered opinion the closest rival to surprise package Tasty Greek Souvlaki was not Bakery House but in fact Lebanese Village on Caversham Bridge. It served some of the best Lebanese food she’d ever eaten, she said, and their chicken livers were second to none.

It was appropriate, too, because I never liked chicken livers before I tried Lebanese food. Actually, it would be closer to the truth to say that I didn’t know I liked them until then. But the first time I had them, at Bakery House, experienced that contrast of caramelisation and silkiness unlike anything else, with sweet, sticky fried onions and a whisper of pomegranate molasses, I was hooked. And that was just the start of it – then I tried the chicken livers at Clay’s, dark and delicious, dusted with an intriguing spice mix including, of all things, dried mango and I became even more of a convert. 

Then there were the happy occasions when the Lyndhurst served them – simply, on sourdough toast with a bright pesto. By then chicken livers were well and truly one of my favourite things, so the idea that somewhere in Reading served a reference version I’d yet to try was an aberration I needed to remedy, as soon as possible. So on what felt like the coldest night of the year so far, Zoë and I schlepped off to Caversham Bridge, stopping only for a fortifying beer at the warm, welcoming, wintry Greyfriar.

I’ve written about Reading’s history with Lebanese restaurants before, so I risk rehashing all that here. But in the early days, back in 2015, we had two and they were about as different as could be. La Courbe was a grown-up restaurant with sharp furniture, square plates, fancy glasses and an extensive list of Lebanese wines (true story, on my second or third visit there the English waitress, when clearing our glasses away, said “it’s not bad is it, the Lesbianese wine?”: bless her). And then came Bakery House, closer to the kind of thing you’d see on the Edgware Road, more informal, more casual, with no alcohol licence. 

Bakery House won the war. It’s still going today, and has proved the more influential blueprint for Lebanese food in Reading: Palmyra and the not-too-sadly departed Alona are very much in that mould. La Courbe lasted a couple of years, though whether that’s because of their business acumen or the fact that they had John Sykes as a landlord we’ll never know. The owner moved on to run a Lebanese night at a café in Pangbourne for a little while, and then disappeared without trace. But I hope history is a kinder to La Courbe, because their food was absolutely terrific. Their skewers of lamb and chicken, their lamb koftas were, in truth, a level above anything that came off the grill at Bakery House, wonderful though Bakery House is. I still remember their taboulleh. 

Looking at the menu at Lebanese Village in the run-up to my visit I wondered which kind of restaurant it would turn out to be. It sold alcohol – two Lebanese beers and a decent selection of Lebanese wine, including a couple I’d tried at La Courbe. The menu was more limited than Bakery House’s and potentially less casual, with no shawarma, no boneless baby chicken, fewer mezze. And I’d heard good things about Lebanese Village from a few people, so was it going to be the spiritual successor to La Courbe?

The last time I set foot in that building was in 2013, when it housed Picasso (another restaurant I still remember, for decidedly different reasons) so I couldn’t honestly tell you how it’s changed. But they’ve made a pleasing, surprisingly cosy space out of what is effectively another long, thin room. Some of the decor is definitely Lebanese – the attractive patterns on the ceiling tiles for instance, and some of the pictures they’ve put up. The plates on the wall depicting pastoral English scenes, bridges and church towers, are more confused. But the background music – relentless, frantic, and slightly too loud – left you in no doubt.

The restaurant has bought rather attractive wood and glass partitions, during the pandemic I expect, and they do an excellent job of breaking the room up into sections. I still think the section nearest the front, by the bar, closest to the window, is the best place to be and that’s where nearly all of Lebanese Village’s diners were the evening I visited. It was a bitterly cold night and every restaurant I walked past on my way – San Sicario, Kamal’s Kitchen, Flavours Of Mauritius – was utterly deserted, so I was heartened to see that they had some paying customers, including a large table of Americans who seemed to be over with work and staying at the Crowne Plaza just the other side of the water.

The icy trek definitely helped us work up an appetite, and we went a bit crazy with the mezze to start with. The best of them was the Lebanese Village arayes, minced lamb and a smidgen of cheese sandwiched between pitta bread. “It’s basically a quesadilla” said Zoë – and although she was dabbling in a spot of cultural appropriation I got her meaning. This is one of my favourite things to eat at Bakery House and although Lebanese Village’s pitta felt bought in rather than made on the premises it stood up well to that standard. It could have done with more cheese, I thought, but then you only pay forty pence extra for cheese so maybe that’s why they don’t give you much. While we’re on the subject, at nearly seven pounds this dish cost almost twice as much as its counterpart in the town centre.

I was interested to try the lamb burak, and it was good but not great. The pastry felt like it might have been bought in too, and the whole thing was a little too thick and stodgy, the ratio out of whack. What lamb there was I liked, but it was only just the right side of the line between “what lamb there was” and “what lamb?” From the plating of this, and the arayes, I realised that the restaurant had a bit of a thing for scalloped smears of their – rather good – garlic sauce. I found that a little weird: a ramekin would have been fine.

They’d done a similar thing with the houmous Beiruti, spreading it thin in a narrow dish which made it trickier than it should have been to scoop it all up. On the menu the only discernible difference between this and the entry level houmous was the addition of some chilli, which did come through nicely. Perhaps this had more garlic in it than the bog-standard stuff – it certainly had a healthy whack of it – but I couldn’t tell you for sure. I liked it all the same, and I loved the pool of grassy, good-quality olive oil in the middle, but it felt solid rather than special. 

Last but not least, those fabled chicken livers. Ready? They were okay, but nothing more than that. They were wan, woolly-textured things that felt stewed rather than fried, in a gravy so thin that it sulked at the bottom of the terracotta pot, and no amount of scooping or dredging could get it to come out to play or adhere to the livers. I fully expected us to fight over every last bit of this dish, but by the end there was a solitary, worryingly huge lump of chicken liver left and both of us ever so politely offered it to the other. The waitress ended up taking it away.

By this point my hopes, it has to be said, weren’t high. The large table at the front had sloped off into the night, no doubt to cane their expenses account at the bar at the Crowne Plaza, and with that a lot of the spark went out of the room. It was just a pair of friends catching up a few tables across and a couple who had inexplicably decided to sit in the unlovelier, windowless space out back. Only a semi-steady stream of Deliveroo drivers broke up the quietude, and as we sipped our Lebanese lagers – 961, which tasted a little like an alcohol free beer, and not in a good way – I wondered if this was going to be that kind of review.

Things were partly redeemed, fortunately, by the arrival of our main course. The absence of many of the dishes I often lazily go to in a Lebanese restaurant forced me to go for the dish I often lazily go to in any grill house, the mixed grill for two. And this was where everything became inverted: I expected the mezze to be great, and it was simply okay. I didn’t expect too much, by contrast, from the mixed grill and I was pleasantly surprised.

Take the lamb skewer – the meat might not have been blushing pink in the middle, and it would have been nice if it had shown a little more evidence of marination, but it was tender. Far more tender, in fact, than similar kebabs I’ve had from both Bakery House and Tasty Greek Souvlaki. The same was true of the chicken shish – still soft, not dried out and truly enjoyable. So were the charred hunks of red and green pepper also threaded onto those skewers. And the lamb kofte was beautiful too – soft, almost crumbling, not disturbingly firm or spongey as bad examples can be. 

Only the lamb ribs divided opinion – Zoë liked them, but she’s always one to pick them up and gnaw whatever’s going, Captain Caveman-style. I thought the work to reward ratio wasn’t quite there and I’d rather they’d been chops instead, like the miraculous ones you can get at Didcot’s Zigana. But none the less, it was all thoroughly respectable – more so, perhaps, because my expectations had been dialled down by what came before, but respectable none the less. A sweet and delicious charred onion, a little hill of rice topped with sultanas and a really tasty, sharply dressed salad completed the picture. That and more smears of the garlic and chilli sauce. Had they run out of ramekins?

There’s not a lot more to say. Our waitress was lovely and friendly and, I suspect, a bit bored; by the end she was standing behind the bar with her headphones in, probably wondering why restaurants bother opening on Tuesdays in January at all. She might well have a point. Our meal – four mezze, that mixed grill and two beers – came to just over sixty-seven pounds, including a ten per cent service charge. There was a space below that on the bill for a tip, which probably grinds the gears of people on TripAdvisor.

On this evidence at least, the word for Lebanese Village is solid. I worry that Lebanese food is a little like Thai food in this respect – it’s unlikely to plumb the depths, but it isn’t going to scale the heights either. So really, it’s not an existential threat to the likes of Bakery House. And I don’t think it is to Tasty Greek Souvlaki either, although I do reckon their mixed grill possibly beats Tasty Greek’s on points. If you lived in Caversham, or well in their delivery radius, I can see you might find space for them in your repertoire (although if I lived in walking distance of Lebanese Village, I’d far more often go to Kamal’s Kitchen or Thai Table). 

And it’s not the natural successor, at the very top end, to La Courbe either. I suspect for that I need to finally get on that bus to Woodley and check out La’De Kitchen. But I’ve done that deplorable thing of talking about all the places Lebanese Village is not, rather than what it is. And what it is is a perfectly pleasant restaurant with something of a talent for grilling meat. It adds to Reading’s rich culinary tapestry, but isn’t necessarily going to rock your world: not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I’ll leave the last word to Zoë this week. “I’d come back here for the mixed grill” she said as we were working our way through it. The unspoken On a much warmer night than this hung in the air, just the way our breath had on the walk over.

Lebanese Village – 7.2
6 Bridge Street, RG4 8AA
0118 9484141


Restaurant review: Antica Osteria Bologna, Clapham Junction

For fuck’s sake, it’s Edible Reading, not Edible Clapham Junction.

I know, I know (Happy New Year to you too, by the way). But I found myself in the vicinity of arguably the United Kingdom’s most minging train station one January weekend – on an unsatisfactory excursion spectacle shopping, since you ask – and I always think it’s well worth structuring an expedition like that around lunch. That way if the shopping’s a bust, as it turned out to be, and the station is a hellscape, which it very much was, there’s still an outside chance of salvaging the day.

Not that I was in Clapham, by the way. I was shopping and mooching in an area that isn’t quite Clapham, isn’t quite Battersea, is a ten minute walk from Clapham Junction and is really rather lovely. Northcote Road is a long, prosperous street in the heart of what is apparently called Nappy Valley, and it’s a great place to amble and bimble. I hadn’t been in many years, although I was an occasional visitor in a former life.

I remember eating in this little place called Franco Manca there, once upon a time when there were only a handful of them, before they contracted the disease called private equity. There used to be a splendid tapas restaurant, too, called Lola Rojo, which did an olive oil ice cream I still think about sometimes: if I could have my time over again, I’d have ordered two portions (laugh all you like, but that might make my top 50 of Things I’d Do Differently). But anyway those were simpler times, over ten years ago, and remembering them it’s as if they happened to somebody else.

Returning in 2023, Northcote Road was still as fancy as I remembered. It’s still lined with swish looking cafés, delis and cheesemongers, bakeries, great shops, a branch of Aesop  – always a sign that you’re somewhere spenny – and tons of opticians. There’s even a branch of upmarket wine merchant Philglass and Swiggott (true story: I used to frequent their Richmond branch and I had to have it explained to me that those weren’t in fact their real surnames). 

Northcote Road also has restaurant after restaurant, and is full of those kinds of chains: Rosa’s Thai, Joe And The Juice, Patty & Bun, Ole & Steen, Meatliquor. The ones where simultaneously we’d rather like one in Reading but we know that if we got one, it would be because they’d jumped the shark. Not that you needed to eat in one if you were peckish – one food van sold beautiful-looking pizza, another was flogging porchetta sandwiches which looked so attractive that I almost cursed my foresight in having made a reservation.

But I had made a reservation, and I’d relied on Eater London for a recommendation. It had a list of the best restaurants in Battersea, although they were sparsely spread out and it would have taken you the best part of an hour to walk from one end of their map to the other (some of them, weirdly, also end up in their list of the best restaurants in Clapham, which tells you what a no man’s land it can be). 

There were small plates wine bars and gastropubs, little BYOB Thai joints and a restaurant offering French-Korean fusion, whatever that is. But I was drawn to Osteria Antica Bologna, slap bang on Northcote Road. It had been going for over thirty years, which meant I had probably walked past it countless times a decade ago. And the clincher was this: I love Bologna and I haven’t been there in far too long. So Zoë and I turned up at lunchtime, our tote bag already full of treats for later from the cheesemonger, to see if it could transport me back, in spirit at least, to one of my favourite cities.

It was old school right from the beginning, with a burgundy and orange awning and a big sign at the front saying “DAL 1990”. And stepping inside I was reminded that it can be a fine line between dated and timeless, and sometimes you make it from the former to the latter merely by staying the course. For what it’s worth, I think Osteria Antica Bologna was the right side of the line, with a simple, rustic-looking dining room, a dusky pink banquette running along one side. On the other, tables were separated by a trellis-like partition that no doubt pre-dated the pandemic.

Beyond the archway in front of the bar, out back, was a more modern-looking dining room with a skylight, an extension I imagine, but I was glad they didn’t seat us there. Even the little things, like a circular table at the front with a big bowl of olives and a large bouquet of flowers, felt like something they had done for a very long time. It was a room with a lovely energy, a place harbouring the unspoken promise that you would eat well, and although only a handful of tables were occupied when we arrived at one o’clock, only a couple were empty when we left.

Another sign that the restaurant was resolutely old school came as I drank my – surprisingly bracing – Aperol Spritz and Zoë attacked her negroni. The menu was antipasti, pasta and main courses. If you wanted pizza, you should have headed to the food truck on the other side of the road, or to Franco Manca. But everything sounded marvellous, including the specials which were explained by our personable, enthusiastic waiter. 

I almost tried some of their pasta but, and this was the only real disappointment on the menu, the difference between a starter and main-sized portion of pasta was just two pounds, which said to me that I was effectively choosing between that and a main. But there’s always next time, when the pumpkin and ricotta ravioli with sage will be calling to me – although not necessarily loud enough to drown out the siren song of the wild boar ragu, or the risotto with salsiccia and Barbera. A truly great menu always comes with regret baked in: that’s the nature of these things.

We’d ordered a trio of antipasti to start and if anything they intensified that regret: given just how good these were, what other treasures had we missed on the menu? Arancini were possibly the best I can remember, and simpler than many I’ve had. No thick crust of breadcrumbs here, just a feather-light seasoned shell. No stodge to wade through with a molten core, instead just a neat sphere of rice, cheese and peas retaining a little bite. And to go with it, an arrabiata sauce worthy of the name, just spiky enough. It reminded me of the difference between pretenders, as with my visit last year to Sauce & Flour, and the real deal – unshowy but superb.

Also as good as I can remember were the zucchini fritti. No, scratch that: they were easily the best I’ve had anywhere. So often, including at a couple of Reading restaurants I actually really like, they can be soggy, limp things and you’re left to redeem them with some kind of dip. Here they were shoestring-thin, almost ethereal yet spot-on crispy, the way this dish always promises to be but somehow never is. And they didn’t need any kind of dip because they were so salty and zippy, so beautifully seasoned and cooked with a real lightness of touch. “The menu should tell you to order these with your drink while you make up your mind” said Zoë who was, as usual, entirely correct.

The other small dish we had, bruschetta with ‘nduja, was the least excellent but really, that just means it was still cracking. Two thin slices of toasted bread were loaded with a terrific ‘nduja – not stingily, either – with more depth and earthiness than I’m used to. So often ‘nduja dishes I’ve had are a one-note symphony relying on the acrid heat it can supply; I’ve lost track of the number of restaurants that make lazy use of the stuff. By contrast, this dish just said isn’t our ‘nduja amazing? and, having tasted it, it was impossible to argue. One thing you could potentially quibble, here, was the cost: eight pounds fifty for that. Sounds expensive, but is it 2023-in-London expensive? Your guess is as good as mine.

We grabbed a couple more drinks while we waited for our mains. My gavi, in an endearingly functional wine glass, had a pleasant zing to it and Zoë, sensibly, decided to move to gin and tonic. By this point the restaurant had a real buzz and all the temptations of elsewhere, the porchetta sandwiches and gelato places, had melted into air. All that mattered was the next course, and the course after that.

“This is very promising, isn’t it?” said Zoë. She was right about that too. 

If I had to pick a main course to start my reviewing this year with, it would be hard to choose better than the dish Osteria Antica Bologna served me. A piece of cod with salty, crispy skin and soft, sumptuous flesh, cooked by someone who really understood how to get both those things right at once, perched on a little heap of chickpeas, tomatoes and spinach.

A single forkful was enough for me to know that I was in a happy place. I even turned to Zoë and told the tired joke I reserve for these occasions, I love it when a chickpea’s in my mouth, and she had the decency not to grimace; imagine what sitting opposite me at dinner dozens of times a year must be like. Only the fact that the promised salsa verde, which would have completed the dish perfectly, had been replaced by a smear of something closer to purée slightly blotted the copy book.

The problem is that if I had to pick a main course with which to start my reviewing year, it would be damn near impossible to choose better than the dish the restaurant served to Zoë. The menu called it pork belly with roasted apple, but that prosaic description comes nowhere near capturing what a marvel it was. A gargantuan slab of pork where, like the fish, everything was exactly how it was meant to be. The flesh was tender, the crackling brittle and intensely savoury. Between the two, arguably the best bit, that sticky, moreish layer of subcutaneous fat, rendered to the point where it was gorgeous but not beyond that to the point where it vanished. I was allowed a forkful, and then because of my expression I was allowed another, and another.

“Would you like to try some of my fish?”

“No, you’re all right.”

Just as sometimes you can only pick out one face in a crowd, it was hard to remember, eating that pork, that there were other things on the plate. But the gravy, shot through with mustard which never overpowered, was a terrific foil and I imagine the griddled apple was superb with it too. We’d ordered some chips with our dishes, which they really didn’t need, and those were predictably wonderful – light and salty and far too easy to pick at long after we’d cleared our mains. If they buy them in, they buy very well.

The dessert menu was also compact and leant heavily on the classics, and having seen the well-upholstered man and his Sloaney Alice-banded daughter at the next table make their choices simplified things nicely for me. My tiramisu was maybe the weakest link in the whole meal – not bad, per se, but a little too loose and liquid when I’d have liked it a tad more substantial. The slug of coffee and booze as you got to the bottom, though? That was still a wonderful moment in a meal full of them. And at the end of it I had an Amaro di Capo, as much medicine as booze, served without airs, graces, ice cubes or orange in a tall shot glass.

Zoë – here we go again – picked better. Her pear and chocolate tart was another home run, with a few pieces of baked pear, a pleasingly short pastry base and a very thick layer of chocolate; I thought it was a relatively airy ganache, Zoë thought it was a sponge, we had a heated debate about it and agreed to disagree. “That filling definitely has flour in it” were her last words on the subject, but I still say she’s dead wrong. I also managed to talk her out of ordering a Bailey’s and into trying a Frangelico instead. It was not a sponge: trust me on this. 

I haven’t talked about service but it was another of the things that was great rather perfect. The staff are clearly a well-oiled unit, bright and happy, friendly and brilliant. But one thing they also were, slightly, was too efficient. Our plates were cleared away mere moments after we’d cleared them, to the point where it became a little bit too much (“there’s something OCD about it” Zoë said, bemusedly, just after they’d also cleared her G&T away when she hadn’t quite finished it).

But really, that was a small quibble about a magnificent place to eat. I could easily see how Osteria Antica Bologna had held its ground amid all that gentrification, all those pop-ups and top tier chains. At one point I saw one of the waiters leave the restaurant with some plates of food and take them out into the street to the people manning a flower stall outside: that, I thought, said it all. Our meal for two – three courses, three drinks each and an optional 12.5% service charge – came to just over a hundred and fifty pounds, and I thought it was worth every penny.

I’ve complained in the past about Reach plc and its pisspoor habit of saying a restaurant is “just like eating” in a foreign country. My problem with that is twofold. First, the poor unfortunate journalist in question has probably never been to the country in question. But more importantly, 99 times out of 100 they haven’t been to the restaurant either – why bother, when there’s TripAdvisor? But for once I’m going to do it myself: I’ve been to Osteria Antica Bologna, and I’ve been to osterias in the city from which it takes its name. And if I’d stepped out the front door to find myself looking at an orange portico dappled with sunlight, rather than being a two minute walk from a Farrow & Ball and a branch of JoJo Maman Bebe, I wouldn’t have been entirely surprised.

As I paid up, our meal at an end and so many around us barely beginning theirs, I thought about what it means to have a restaurant for over thirty years. To outlast fads and phases, to have ‘nduja and burrata on your menu before everybody discovers them, to steer your course without embracing small plates or no reservations, to serve pasta simply because it’s what you do rather than because suddenly pasta restaurants are in vogue. I thought about the fact that Osteria Antica Bologna was here before Northcote Road was all fancy and well-to-do, that they had sent thousands of customers away replete and happy. That they’d started doing that before I even finished my A levels.

And I thought that even though this restaurant was nowhere near my home town (and, let’s be honest, most of you will probably never go there) it was still the perfect place to kick off my reviews this year. Because to celebrate this restaurant, on some level, is to celebrate all great restaurants. Some people have a nasty tendency to use “neighbourhood restaurant” as a way of patting a place on the head. It’s okay I suppose, if you live there they seem to say. But a great neighbourhood restaurant, especially one that makes you wish it was your neighbourhood, is a truly special thing. Osteria Antica Bologna is every bit that special. I’ll find an excuse to be back near Clapham Junction: when I do, I intend to order everything.

Osteria Antica Bologna – 8.6
23 Northcote Road, London, SW11 1NG
020 79784771

Feature: The 2022 Edible Reading Awards

Well, we all made it through Christmas. Presents were wrapped, unwrapped and hopefully loved, fingers crossed receipts were not required. Drink was taken, if that’s your thing, and chocolate and cheese were eaten – not together, let’s not go crazy – and now it’s both sort of Friday and sort of no day at all. This is that final smudge of the calendar when time loses all meaning, whether you’re at work or not, and the only milestone left is New Year’s Eve. 

And après ça, le deluge: the diet, the budget, the unrealistic resolutions. So in the immortal words of none other than Peggy Lee, if that’s all there is let’s break out the booze and have a ball. 2022, the year of soaring bills and three prime ministers, like a shit set of Russian dolls where each one, inexplicably, was as bad as the last. Soon it will be gone, but probably not missed.

This is my first annual awards since 2019 and I’d forgotten how enjoyable they are to put together. It’s fun to remember all the great food you’ve eaten over the past twelve months and to celebrate, even if only in your head, just how much Reading has to offer. But it’s agonising too, because picking just the one winner and a couple of honourable mentions makes for extremely hard choices and means you have to leave out lots of really gorgeous plates of food. 

To give you an idea how difficult this was, here’s a selection of the dishes I just couldn’t find space for: Intoku’s unbeatable crispy squid, and the pork ribs at Park House, the perfect beer snack. Kungfu Kitchen’s epic sweet and sour aubergine, ThaiGrr’s divine fried chicken and Smash N Grab’s MacBook Pro burger didn’t get a look in. I had no room for the beautiful fried lamb momo at Momo 2 Go or their siblings at Sapana Home, couldn’t squeeze in Monkey Lounge’s excellent burger or Clay’s Kitchen’s village lamb. I nearly put in a Best Breakfast category too, just so I could mention Dee Caf.

So if you think I got these wrong, and on the law of averages you probably do, just bear in mind that it isn’t easy. In every category bar one my decision was exceptionally tough, and on another day each could have gone another way. So by all means disagree, but let’s celebrate the fact that there’s so much scope to disagree. We have a lot of strength in depth here in the biggest town in the U.K., and if nothing else I hope we can say the same when 2023 also draws to an end.

After this I shall take a couple of weeks off, but I’ll be back in the New Year with more of the same. 2023 will be a significant milestone in the blog as in August I’ll mark ten – yes, ten – years of doing this. Any ideas how I should celebrate? Anyway, without further ado, let’s get in to the nitty gritty of the particular ways in which I’ve called these categories wrong and who’s been robbed this year. Make sure you’re sitting comfortably, and let the dissenting begin!

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Thhicheko aalu, Kamal’s Kitchen

It was, in fairness, love at first sight; the first time I tried this potato dish at Kamal’s Kitchen in the spring I knew that I’d never eaten anything quite like it and that I would do so again many times before the year was out. These are discs of fried, pressed potato, textural perfection, covered in a potent but anaesthetising spice mix and I have evangelised about them to pretty much anyone and everyone all year. They’re actually simple and unadorned – no dip, no chutney, just a little extraneous salad – and yet this variation on the humble spud has a seemingly infinite variety.

Kamal served them at my readers’ lunch at Kamal’s Kitchen in the summer and they weren’t at their very best – having to cook a giant batch of them for nearly 40 people probably has that effect – and I started to worry that I’d got it wrong, like when you recommend your favourite novel to a friend and they hate it (Louise Williams, Excellent Women, circa 2010, since you asked). But it was a blip, and every time I’ve had them since has felt like coming home. In a year full of wonderful new gastronomic experiences, when I was starting to get jaded enough to feel I’d seen everything, this was one of my favourites.

Honourable mentions go to the Lyndhurst’s karaage chicken, another dish I have eaten far more times this year than I’d admit to my GP, and the unbelievable gobi Manchurian at Clay’s Kitchen. It’s a dish you think you’ve had and loved, and then you eat Clay’s version and realise all the others were pale imitations.

CHAIN OF THE YEAR: Shree Krishna Vada Pav

In a year when chains seemed better positioned to ride out the coming storm I was delighted when Shree Krishna Vada Pav opened on the Kings Road. It came with plenty of hype from the London food media, but this was a world apart from our other London arrivistes like Pho and Honest. I went and although it was a bit scruffy and crowded I thought it was an absolute riot. So it gets the award from me this year, for being every bit as enjoyable as The Coconut Tree, which opened the previous year, was disappointing. Next year we’re getting Popeyes and who knows what other horrors, but places like SKVP are vital for showing that there are chains and chains.

Honourable mentions go to the two arrivistes I mentioned earlier. Because say what you like about Pho and Honest, but if all chains were like them Reading in particular would be a much better place – although one in which it would be a lot harder to support independent businesses.


It was a happy day when I went to Madoo on duty, but my love for the place was a slow burner that grew as the year went by. Their toasted foccacia are lovely, their cannoli are great but most importantly, something about the place feels special. You honestly don’t feel like you’re in Reading, helped no doubt by the amount of Italian being spoken in there, the Eurohits on the radio and the general feeling of otherness. I popped in on Boxing Day for lunch and was just absolutely delighted to find they were open. Madoo isn’t perfect – the coffee could be better, the occasional toastie feels rushed and they still do that greasy napkin under the sandwich thing that drives me crackers – but sometimes you love something for its imperfections. For my sake I hope so, anyway.

Honourable mentions go to the gorgeous Cairo Café, which I loved but haven’t visited anywhere near enough this year, and Blue Collar. The original and best, rather than their fancy new place, because I’m a sentimental soul.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Monkfish with Bombay potatoes, the Lyndhurst

My brother visited from Australia in the spring, after a badly-timed visit in March 2020 was curtailed by the pandemic. And when I asked him if there was anywhere he wanted to eat while he was here, he had one request: the Lyndhurst. “Your photos always make it look amazing” he said, and so we booked a long leisurely midweek lunch there. And this dish, tender monkfish on a flattened cake of crushed, spiced potatoes with a bright green coriander and mint chutney, made me both ecstatic and proud of my local. We both ordered it, we both loved it. Like everything that the Lyndhurst does, it was a perfect plate – everything you needed was there, nothing more and nothing less. I had it a couple more times before they took it off the menu and every time it looked slightly different, was slightly better, because they never stop improving things. But I never forgot my first.

Honourable mentions go to Papa Gee’s pizza Sofia Loren, every bit as much a legend as the woman herself, and to Kungfu Kitchen’s deep fried fish in spicy hot pot. The latter is possibly Zoë’s favourite dish in the whole of Reading, but she usually lets me have some. My brother also wanted to eat at KFK so we went there on his last day in the country. He left full, deliriously happy and thoroughly bedazzled by Jo: the gold standard full KFK experience.


I so loved Seasonality. Having been to lots of restaurants a little like it nowhere near Reading, and constantly asking the question “why doesn’t Reading have anywhere like this?” it was a huge relief to find that at least there was somewhere like it, fifteen minutes down the Elizabeth Line. A compact, clever menu with plenty going on, prices that weren’t crazy – especially if you go at lunchtime – and some dishes that were just unlike anything I’d tried. I still think about the lardo dish in the picture below, and that was just in the nibbles section. I’ll be back there before too long.

Maidenhead also has the gorgeous Miyazaki, one of my favourite discoveries of the year and a true understated, classy little place. And another honourable mention, on the other side of Berkshire, has to go to Goat On The Roof where I had a terrific and eminently boozy dinner earlier in the year. My friend Graeme still goes on about the chocolate mousse I allegedly didn’t let him have.


I found this really difficult because I frequent two cafés in town, C.U.P. and Workhouse. But going to the C.U.P. on Blagrave Street, having their unbeatable dark chocolate mocha and gazing out of the window, or sitting outside in warmer weather, is one of my favourite contemplative things to do. It is, and I can tell you this from personal experience, a great place to watch people running the Reading Half Marathon. And it just about wins out over Workhouse by virtue of being a bit comfier, having better outside space and actual mobile phone reception. 

I do still love Workhouse though, and their latte has a special place in my heart (literally, I fear). An honourable mention also goes to Compound Coffee who not only do beautiful coffee but, uniquely in Reading, are open past six on account of being part of the Biscuit Factory.


I mean, it got the best rating I’ve ever given out for a reason. More than usual it feels a bit reductive to talk about it rather than just to say read the review but you’ve all got busy lives and maybe you’ve read the review already. Wilsons served me one of the best meals I can remember in my restaurant-going life, with so many elements and components, so much cleverness but no wanky trickery and no stinginess either. Other restaurant reviewers might bleat on about how it deserves a Michelin star, I’d just say that those accolades are nearly as worthless as the award I’m giving out now. But if you’re ever in Bristol at lunchtime or of an evening, I cannot imagine a world in which you’d regret going there.

Sadly there can only be one winner, but in any other year Bristol’s Caper & Cure would romp home with this title. Them’s the breaks. An honourable mention also goes to Oxford’s Magdalen Arms – I was there for a properly magnificent boozy lunch the weekend before Christmas Eve and can confirm that their chicken and mushroom pie is every bit as heavenly as the steak and ale one they do.


Buon Appetito was a happy place for me this year. If the sun was even remotely out when we’d finished work on a Friday or Saturday and if one of us could even remotely persuade the other that we couldn’t be arsed to cook, you would find us on the terrace there – me with an Aperol spritz, Zoë with a negroni and both of us with a big grin. I bumped into other ER readers there more than once and once, in a surreal turn of events, my nextdoor neighbours. 

And the food there is great – more on that in a second – and it does have a certain Balearic feel when you’re bathed in sunlight listening to music on the speakers, but what really makes it for me is the service. Zoë said to me that they work hard for every single cover and every single pound they get, and I think that’s true. But there’s more to it than that. The ease, the charm and the ensemble there is at the top of its game in a way I don’t remember experiencing since the golden age of Dolce Vita. Praise doesn’t come much higher.

Speaking of high praise, an honourable mention has to go to Kamal’s Kitchen, where Kamal is thoroughly affable and his daughter Kritika (who works there alongside studying for her degree) is an absolute natural at front of house. And I also have to mention Kungfu Kitchen, another family business. Nobody who’s had Jo looking after them forgets it in a hurry, but in her husband Steve and her two boys she has a formidable – and effortlessly charming – brigade.

DESSERT OF THE YEAR: Pistachio tiramisu, Buon Appetito

When I first tried this it was a special, just something they were trying. A tiramisu with pistachio cream and pistachio crumb crumbled on top. And I thought, well, it sounds interesting. But it wasn’t interesting, it was compelling. I love pistachio, I love tiramisu, it had never occurred to me to combine the two. Every time I went I asked if it was still on the specials, gladly every time I went it was and eventually it graduated to the main menu. And in all the times I’ve eaten it, or taken friends and said “you have to try this” it has never disappointed.

No honourable mentions in this category. I had some fantastic desserts on my travels but when it came to Reading, I only had eyes for the pistachio tiramisu.


When I first ate at Kamal’s Kitchen, I said something to him that might have sounded a little harsh. I said that Namaste Kitchen, his first restaurant, had been amazing but that he took too long to pop up again at Namaste Momo. And Namaste Momo, though its best dishes were great, was too inconsistent, too much of a mixed bag of Nepalese food and bog standard dishes you could pick up in Royal Tandoori. And then he left Namaste Momo and again, was dormant too long.

This is your big chance, I said to him, to make your mark and have the kind of restaurant you’ve always threatened to run. I’m glad you have your name above the door this time, I told him. I told him not to blow it, because this was his chance to be the fourth restaurant people talk about outside Reading. For all that we love our little bubble and the array of tempting options here there are three restaurants with reach outside our town: Clay’s, Kungfu Kitchen and the Lyndhurst. Your job, I told Kamal – he’d probably tuned me out by then – is to become the fourth place on that list.

Has he done it? Put it this way: he’s made an excellent start. Kamal’s Kitchen is a modest, unassuming room and nobody would describe it as a plum location but he is slowly, quietly and modestly building something rather brilliant. I’ve eaten there several times this year and each time the food is a little bit more assured, more superb. There are things I always order, because they’re unmissable, but slowly and surely I’m trying the rest of the menu and so far it has that breadth of excellence I remember from the Eureka moment when I first ate at Namaste Kitchen, over five years ago. I can’t think of a more deserving winner this year, even if he does know who I am.

Honourable mentions go to the excellent Cairo Café, which has the misfortune to be good enough to contend for all of these awards without quite winning any of them, and Intoku. If they sort the service, and based on my visit they really need to, they could redefine Japanese food in Reading.


This is a neat symmetry – back in 2019 I gave the Lyndhurst Newcomer Of The Year, three years on they win Best Picture, so to speak. I have eaten out so much more this year than I did in the previous two, and it’s been like waking up from a terrible dream remembering how much I love food and restaurants, eating, drinking, company and people watching. 

But so many of my most treasured moments this year have been made by the Lyndhurst – whether that’s lunch with my long-lost brother, over from the other side of the world, or lunch with my dad, or just a post-work dinner with Zoë because it’s curry night and our designated meal in the fridge suddenly looks nowhere near good enough. I’ve eaten there with good friends the night before setting off on holiday, I’ve even gone there and had lunch on my own on a random Saturday when Zoë’s working.

And I’ve had so many beautiful dishes – from their legendary nachos and Korean chicken wings to specials like confit duck, or rabbit stuffed with liver and wrapped in prosciutto. People who just look at their burgers, their curry nights and their Sunday roasts could easily miss the truth about the Lyndhurst: it’s an extremely accomplished kitchen which is always innovating. If they don’t have the reputation they should, for some of the best, most interesting and best value food Reading has ever had, it’s because they are so damned modest about it. And the times I’ve been there and they’ve said those magic words – we have the skate wing on specials – have made my month, without fail, every single time.

The first ER readers’ lunch of 2023 will take place at the Lyndhurst, just after payday at the end of the longest, drabbest month of the year, a month synonymous with self-improvement and privation (and, mostly, attempted self-improvement through the medium of privation). I can’t think of a better place to have it. It will only be the end of January, but from that meal onwards I’ll know that spring is on its way.

2022: The Year In Review

Remember when years used to be, you know, normal? Me neither, but the fact remains that 2022 has been a little closer to what we used to consider normality than the couple of years that preceded it. 2020 was the year of the pandemic, of lockdowns and contact tracing, takeaways and tiers. And 2021 was the year of oh-no-it’s-still-the-pandemic, but one where some of us took more risks, got on more trains and planes and ate in more restaurants. The year when most of us got jabbed and double jabbed, showed off our stickers like brave soldiers.

And this year? Well, it’s not like 2019 was but it’s closer to it than we’ve been for a fair old while. In 2020 we watched Matt Hancock stand at a podium and tell us we couldn’t go to restaurants, in 2022 we watched him sit on a stool somewhere in distant Australia and eat genitalia on primetime television. How things change: two years can feel like an eternity, in some circumstances.

And yet there are still echoes of the past; I read in the news this week that Covid is sweeping through China again, with case numbers through the roof. We could be back in winter 2019 in no time, and as someone who started the year with a partner not long ago discharged from the Royal Berks – exhausted, fragile and injecting blood thinners twice a day – I’m desperately keen not to go back to anything even remotely like that.

The other bit of the wider picture this year, of course, is the cost of living. Rampaging inflation and energy prices have squeezed everybody, from gas bills to supermarket shops, and after the damage done to hospitality by Covid – and our botched recovery from it – another crisis was the last thing our cafés, restaurants and pubs needed. Industrial action on public transport, preventing some people from getting into town centres when retail and hospitality hope to earn much of their money for the year, must feel like the final straw.

This is all very gloomy on the brink of Christmas Eve, isn’t it? I’m sorry, let’s rein that in. And actually if there’s one feature that all my annual roundups seem to share it’s being cautiously pleased that the year just gone hasn’t been so bad, accompanied by dire predictions that next year will be awful. So far I’ve been wrong, and I’d very much like to be proved wrong again this time round. So far despite rising rents, falling footfall, rising prices and those Covid loans kicking in Reading has lost far fewer restaurants than you might expect: fingers crossed that’s the shape of things to come.

We did lose a few, though. The Aila, whose opening I talked about back in 2020 in a site I described as cursed, closed recently and a supermarket has opened in its place. Chipstar, which opened almost a year ago to the day, closed before reaching its first birthday: many of us never got to try the place, but they’ve definitely had their chips all the same. And Friar Street’s Raayo, which also opened in late 2020, closed in June. I managed to get there before they did, and I rather liked their pulled pork, but conditions are tough out there. The lunch market is particularly challenging when people aren’t working in town during the week.

Other 2022 closures were almost more symbolic in their significance. Pizza Hut, which had been part of the Oracle since the Oracle first opened its doors, closed in September. And I’m not sure anyone was devastated, but somehow it, like Woolworths and Debenhams, represented something bigger than itself, a sea change in how and where people like to spend their money (is McDonalds now the only remaining survivor from the Oracle’s opening day? Answers on a postcard).

We also said goodbye to Cozze on the Caversham Road roundabout, in another site that can’t seem to hold down a tenant. I’m not exactly devastated about that closure, though it’s always sad when people lose their jobs, but if you want beige carbonara and highlighter pink desserts there’s still a branch in Woodley. I was much sadder to find Zest packing it in over at Green Park, although given their location it was completely understandable that they would call it a day.

And although it’s not in Reading I was also gutted to see Nick and Mary Galer leave the Miller Of Mansfield after their landlord Stonegate tried to up their rent by a whopping ninety per cent. Good old Stonegate: here’s your regular reminder that, apart from John Sykes, pubcos are probably the only people who watch It’s A Wonderful Life and find themselves rooting for Potter.

Speaking of pubs, two pubs parted company with their kitchens this year. The Spread Eagle said goodbye to Banarasi Kitchen and installed a new Indian restaurant called Bagheera in its place. It only officially launched this month, but the furniture looks plush and the menu, possibly, a tad generic; only time will tell whether it squanders the goodwill build up by Banarasi Kitchen. And I thought it was a real shame that Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen decided to leave the Butler this year: they decided to move to Liquid Leisure in Windsor, which then closed for a couple of months in tragic circumstances.

Sorry, it’s all got gloomy again. Let’s focus instead on the positives because there are plenty – and although it would be easy to just talk about the Americanisation of Reading town centre (something I may still do later) the class of 2022 is a far more interesting and varied selection than you might think. 

First and foremost there’s Blue Collar Corner, easily Reading’s most significant opening in four years or so which opened in March having spent much of the previous year lost in Reading Borough Council’s planning bureaucracy. With four permanent street food traders, a well-stocked bar from local favourites Double-Barrelled and plenty of seating, much of it covered, this was one of the most exciting developments in Reading for a long old time.

There were further challenges as summer came to an end: Blue Collar Corner lost Gurt Wings and The Taco Tree, its two anchor tenants, and one of the replacement traders barely lasted two months. But given an impressive winter refurb and a renewed focus on music and events you wouldn’t bet against Blue Collar making it through the winter. Besides, Gurt Wings is still in town every Friday.

Another of Reading’s most keenly-awaited new restaurants was Kamal’s Kitchen, which opened in the spring. This place is owned by Kamal Tamrakar, and I’m delighted that it finally realises the potential shown by his previous restaurant Namaste Kitchen. I haven’t reviewed it, because he knows perfectly well who I am, but all my visits this year have been a joy and he and his family did a magnificent job hosting the first ER readers’ lunch of 2022 in the summer.

I can’t talk about the new restaurants that have opened in Reading this year without mentioning the two big trends that took us all by surprise in 2022. The first was biryani restaurants becoming a thing, with Biryani Mama arriving in town and both Biryani Boyzz and Biryani Lounge opening down the Wokingham Road: all this on top of the handful of biryani places already trading at the very top of the Oxford Road. The other was sushi, with not one but three Japanese restaurants opening in Reading this year. Two on Friar Street – Iro Sushi and You Me Sushi – are virtually neighbours just along from Hickies. The third, in the old Tasting House building, is the accomplished but erratic Intoku.

Most of the other new openings in Reading this year, encouragingly, have been independent. On Market Place we got La’De Express, a fast food offshot of the very popular La’De Kitchen. Despite being right opposite Tasty Greek Souvlaki, and despite a recent scare where their windows appeared to be covered up, they are still trading. (N.B. I clearly spoke too soon, because as of 23rd December they definitely look exceptionally closed down.)

We got a couple of new places on West Street where Beijing Noodle House used to be – Chillim, a Nepalese restaurant I’m yet to visit and Cairo Café, which I loved. And just to give the “not another café” blowhards something to whinge about, we also got some more cafes: Black Sheep in the old Caffe Nero site on Friar Street (with another on the way on Broad Street), Gail’s in the old Patisserie Valerie site and an interesting new cafe/social enterprise called Barista & Beyond just off Chatham Street.

Where else? Well, another couple of brave souls have decided to sign leases with cuddly ol’ John Sykes, so we have The Churros Kitchen and Bánh Mì QB in whatever he is calling Kings Walk this week: the latter, incidentally, provided me with a very enjoyable meal on duty this year.

We also have a branch of Shree Krishna Vada Pav on the Kings Road at the edge of town (a small chain, but I loved my meal there) and possibly our newest restaurant San Carlo where Cozze used to be. Will San Carlo make a go of it where La Fontana, Casa Roma and Cozze – and that’s just the Italian restaurants that have failed in that spot – failed? Only time will tell, but it probably doesn’t bode well that they’re having to change their name to San Sicario after three weeks because of “confusion” with a national chain of the same name (or, perhaps, a cease and desist letter).

Oh, and we have a place called Doner & Gyros (they’re two separate things, don’t you know) that has opened where China Palace used to be: I will no doubt go there at some point next year to give you a cheap laugh and me dyspepsia. You might be looking forward to that more than I am.

The other big story of the year is two Reading institutions that have chosen to expand in very different ways. The Grumpy Goat opened its upstairs bar, which is great news for drinkers of an evening but also gives them a chance to serve their toasted sandwiches to more people and potentially expand their food offering still further. And Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen (although it’s now called Clay’s Kitchen & Bar, so keep up) has left its premises on London Street and has taken on the Baron Cadogan site in Caversham.

This latter is a huge move, and they’ve been transparent both about the need for crowdfunding and some of the challenges of managing the whole project. Their initial opening date in October has moved out, although they have hosted some food and beer pairing events in recent weeks, so we can expect to see them open in earnest early next year. It’s hard to imagine any new opening in Reading next year will generate quite as much buzz, in town or beyond.

No doubt we will be blindsided by other new openings in 2023, but so far the list of forthcoming restaurants in the public domain is less than exciting and is dominated by chains of one kind or another. So although Leon has finally given up on its plans to move to Reading, we will be graced with Zizzi offshoot Coco Di Mama just down from Tortilla. Rosa’s Thai is allegedly going to open on the ground floor of Jackson’s Corner, and where Gap used to be Reading will have a branch of Popeyes, the American fried chicken folks. Let’s hope it’s more Gurt than Wingstop. And we also have Marugame Udon jumping into Pizza Hut’s grave on the Oracle riverside. They do noodles and ramen and may or may not prove to be different from Wagamama. Is it bad that I’m not in a mad hurry to find out?

It’s traditional at this point for restaurant bloggers to waffle on about what 2023 holds for hospitality, but much like some evenings I used to endure down the pub back in the days before the pandemic, it’s impossible to tell at this stage just how painful it’s going to be.

People will have less money and restaurants will have higher bills, and those Covid loans probably still need to be paid back. But it’s anybody’s guess whether spending on eating out will get ringfenced or sacrificed. It’s even harder to tell what kind of treats people will still allow themselves, and whether it will be big ticket meals people cut back on, or casual dining, or just the daily latte. For myself I aim to keep reviewing every week, although I’m more conscious than ever of striking that fine balance between supporting independent businesses and being honest with readers about whether restaurants, in this climate, are worth the money.

I’m aware of what a huge privilege it is to be able to review restaurants every week, especially without having to stoop to accepting free shit, but I can honestly say that writing this blog brings me as much joy now as it did in those more innocent times, nearly a decade ago, when I started. And 2022 has been as happy a year of blogging as I can remember: I reviewed a few restaurants in a brief window at the end of last year, but this year I went back to restaurants in March (at the lovely Flavour Of Mauritius) and I haven’t looked back. Until now, of course, when I’m writing a piece looking back on the year. Obviously.

And I can’t recall a year with such a breadth of different restaurants in it. I visited some of the great places that opened in the pandemic, like Tasty Greek Souvlaki and ThaiGrr!, where I’d only ever tried their takeaway. I sampled newcomers like Banh Mi QB, Intoku and The Switch, trying some fantastic Vietnamese food, Reading’s best crispy squid and an excellent avocado on toast in the process. I finally made it to parts of Reading the blog had only ever talked about in passing: places in Tilehurst and Woodley finally got a review. 

And I also went further afield in Berkshire with trips to Newbury, Wokingham and a hat trick of trips to up and coming Maidenhead. In the process I had delicious mackerel – more than once – a fantastic chocolate mousse and some rather underwhelming pasta. And in Seasonality, not far from Maidenhead station, I discovered one of my finds of the year. Speaking of finds, this was also the year when I wrote a series of reviews from Bristol and gave out my highest ER rating of all time (a visit to Wallingford, following in the footsteps of Jay Rayner, was considerably less successful).

Incidentally, the reviews from Bristol were among the most widely read pieces I published all year, so I can’t thank people enough for giving them the time of day. I’m always mildly entertained when people pop up on Twitter or Facebook to tell me to stop reviewing places without an RG postcode: “your blog’s called Edible Reading” they always say, in a manner which has strong It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve energy. 

Never mind that: the incredible response to the Bristol reviews in particular has convinced me that there will definitely be more of those next year. And I would also sound a note of caution that for whatever reason – recession, price rises, risk aversion or Reading’s infamously charitable landlords – Reading is not the fertile crucible of culinary imagination it was five years ago. Unless something changes, I fear that the future has more chains in it, and more independents giving up or moving somewhere less expensive, which is literally almost anywhere.

It feels like a lot of the progress Reading has made in the last ten years is in jeopardy, which is my cue to say, as I always do this time of year, that our hometown, still the biggest town in the U.K. despite our council’s inept efforts, is what we all make it with our time and our money. So this year, perhaps more than any year, it’s worth thinking hard about how to foster and protect what you love, about buying the more expensive coffee or beer or toasted sandwich so that when I do my annual pontificating this time next year I’m not telling you that your favourite place has closed.

What a shame, I’ve been meaning to go there, you might respond. Go there now instead, while you can.

I would close by talking about all the amazing dishes I’ve had in the last year, but you have the return of the annual ER awards next Friday and I don’t want to spoil their thunder. So instead, a few thank yous. Thank you to my dining companions this year: my diverting friends Graeme, Sophie and Mike, and of course my infinitely patient other half Zoë who has put up with me dragging her to a variety of restaurants – the good, the bad and the iffy – and invariably ordered better than me. Without her, this blog would be a much poorer place (although, arguably, one with fewer expletives).

And finally, of course, I really must thank all of you. This is another thing I seem to say at the end of every year, but it was another record breaking year on the blog with more visitors and page hits than ever before (my favourite stat is that this blog has almost as many readers now, on a good week, as it had in the whole of 2013). And honestly, it wouldn’t be anything without your support – your reading, commenting, sharing, even lurking. Whether you try out restaurants I review, or come along to my regular readers’ lunches or just read it from time to time rolling your eyes and thinking “what a tool”, those page hits all count. 

So I hope all of you, whoever you are, have a fantastic Christmas – whether you celebrate it or not, however you mark the time – and a very happy New Year. As I said, there’s one more 2022 post from me next Friday when I dish out my annual gongs for the best food I’ve eaten this year. See you then?   

Restaurant review: Chalk, Wokingham

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
0118 9798805