Feature: The 2015 Edible Reading Awards

It seems like a lifetime ago now, but at the start of the year I contributed to a piece for Alt Reading, giving my wish list of what I hoped 2015 would hold for Reading’s food scene: a town centre pub doing top notch food; a decent little pizzeria; a tapas bar; a good Chinese restaurant; a cool tea room; a bakery in the town centre.

If that sounds ambitious it’s probably because it is, but looking back I’m surprised by how much of it has come to pass. I Love Paella has set up down the Oxford Road offering a variety of small dishes and its eponymous seafood dish. Papa Gee turns out to have been there all along (for a decade!) doing a variety of pretty marvellous Neapolitan pizzas, among other things. C.U.P. has opened right next to Reading Minster and offers, hands down, the best tea selection you can find in town. We still don’t have a bakery in the centre, but Pop-Up Reading recently starting selling their own bread to those in the know at a variety of independent establishments across town. Call me Nostradamus!

That said, there haven’t been a huge amount of openings this year, and those we have had have been small chains expanding to Reading: CAU in the Oracle, Itsu at the bottom of Queen Victoria Street. That trend looks set to continue next year when The Stable opens on Bridge Street and, if rumours are to be believed, Grillstock comes to Friar Street. We’ve seen a few independents open in the town centre – most notably Manhattan Coffee Club bucking the trend as the Oracle’s only independent café and the owner of the original Chronicles trying to turn around that site under the Valpy Street moniker. It’s felt like a transitional year all round, and that probably reflects in the very low number of closures in 2015: so although it was the year we said goodbye to Tampopo, O Beirao and (without much fanfare) Master Naan, most of our independent restaurants are still hanging in there.

Of course, you can’t look back on the year without doing a bit of navel-gazing, and it’s been a brilliant year here at ER HQ. I’ve travelled much further in search of good meals and been rewarded with some of the very best food I’ve eaten on duty (and some of the worst, but let’s not talk about that now). More people have read the blog than ever before, and I’ve appreciated every bit of brilliant feedback I’ve had, every comment, every Retweet, every suggestion and – particularly – every time someone has told me they enjoyed a restaurant they went to because of one of my reviews.

On a personal level, I was particularly chuffed to be shortlisted for the Alt Reading award for Individual Cultural Contribution, mainly because it felt like recognition that Reading has a food scene to be cherished, celebrated and cultivated. I didn’t win (which is fair enough – Suzanne Stallard IS culture in Reading, after all), but making the final five still was a victory for all our independent restaurants and cafes. I’ve also really enjoyed seeing Roast Dinners Around Reading flourish this year and get more and more readers for his – syndicated, don’t you know – restaurant reviews. Reading finishes 2015 with more choice than ever before of where to eat and drink, and more help with making those choices too.

Anyway, as is now traditional I’m taking my festive break. The weeks ahead will involve mountains of roast potatoes, huge stinky cheeseboards, crisps, peanuts, those big tubs of Twiglets, Mini Cheddars, red wine, mulled wine, dessert wine, port, sherry, bubbly, Snowballs (no, really), and – if I have anything to do with it – diving into a box of Matchmakers without having to share them with anyone else. I love restaurants, as you’ve probably gathered, but the festive season doesn’t show them at their best with all that picking from a special menu, having to preorder and winding up next to a big boisterous work do. I’ll be back on January 15th, by which time the vouchers will all be spent, the bad gifts will have been surreptitiously exchanged, half of the people who have tried to spend the month on the wagon will have leapt off it and, hopefully, you might want to read some restaurant reviews. Until then, settle back and enjoy this year’s award winners. Merry Christmas!

SANDWICH OF THE YEAR: Top Toastie, Shed

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Yes, I know they won it last year. And you can’t say there hasn’t been competition this year: I was very taken, for instance, with the halloumi, pesto and red pepper piadina at Siblings Home, a little tricorne taste sensation. And although it might stretch the definition of “sandwich” just a little bit, Bakery House could easily have won either with their kallaj bil jibn or their arayes, being halloumi cheese and finely chopped veal respectively stuffed into their excellent Lebanese bread. But Shed’s Top Toastie has been my sandwich of the year – little intense batons of chorizo, all salt and spice, the vinegary heat of jalapenos and the comforting smother of lots and lots of mozzarella desperately trying to escape from their peerless ciabatta. Really, if you haven’t had one yet it might be the best New Year’s Resolution you could make.

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Chicken pastilla, Al Fassia

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All my favourite starters of the year, with the exception of CAU’s superbly indulgent salt cod and manchego croquettes, came from out of town. West of Reading, I was an enormous fan of Brebis’ duck liver and foie gras parfait, perfectly glossy, smooth and rich. In the other direction, The Bell Inn’s pigeon and pork terrine couldn’t have been more different: coarse and rough and earthy, but equally delicious (and with the best pickled beetroot I’ve ever tried). But actually, you have to travel a little further still for my winner this time: Al Fassia is a lovely little place on a nice little street in Windsor and their chicken pastilla is a painstakingly assembled gem, an utterly delicious mixture of shredded chicken, almond and cinnamon, all wrapped in hand-made filo and baked in the oven. I didn’t taste anything like it all year, and thinking about it now it slightly makes me want to go back to Marrakesh. But it really makes me want to go back to Al Fassia.

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Bakery House

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Bakery House’s achievement this year has been phenomenal – from a standing start partway through the year it now feels like it’s always been here. I’ve had countless Tweets from readers telling me that they’re checking it out and they always say two things: that the food is delicious and that the restaurant is packed. I’m yet to have a bad meal here, and I’ve been plenty of times. In a year when Reading got places like CAU (itself very accomplished, in fairness, and easily another candidate for this award) and Itsu and felt more like Zone 7 of London, it’s nice to see a place like Bakery House which is a match for anything you could find down the Edgware Road. Another honourable mention in this category should go to I Love Paella, but more on them later.

LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Shed

This has been a huge growth sector in Reading this year. Some of the newcomers have been good, some indifferent, but the level of choice just seems to get greater and greater – to the extent where many people feel we’ve reached critical mass where coffee shops are concerned. Siblings Home, tucked away in Caversham, was one of my favourites in this category although their recent change of layout makes it less of a pleasant place to sit and while away the hours (it hasn’t stopped me buying all sorts of stuff from their shop though – lovely soap, I can tell you). I was also a big fan of Nibsy’s – it may be gluten free but when I was in there doing a serious assault on their quiche and cake it certainly wasn’t glutton free. None the less, Shed is still the one to beat for me: beautiful sandwiches, delicious milkshakes, excellent service from Pete and Lydia and a great spot upstairs to look out from those lovely big windows. And if you can get there on “Saucy Friday” (particularly for the Scotch bonnet chicken with rice and peas, coleslaw and macaroni cheese), even better.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Parma ham wrapped monkfish, squid ink pasta, mussels and clams, Dolce Vita

I had a lot of fantastic mains this year, and this category was one of the most difficult to judge. All so different, too, from the rich spiced comfort of the Crown at Playhatch’s bobotie to the stunning delicacy of Brebis’ butter poached hake, served on a perfect circle of crushed potatoes with a sweet sharp smear of lemon purée. Also seriously in the running was Beijing Noodle House’s duck fried noodles, an iconic Reading dish which I rediscovered this year, the culinary equivalent of bumping into an old friend and finding them on outstanding form. But my winner is the main course I’ve had more times than I care to name this year – perfectly cooked meaty monkfish, wrapped in parma ham and served with rich, salty squid ink pasta and plenty of shellfish. A proper, grown-up, indulgent dish.

VEGETARIAN MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Gnocchi with goat’s cheese, kale and almond pesto, The Bell Inn

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I’ve finished the year with a new-found admiration for vegetarians, and a better understanding of the sacrifices they make in pursuit of their principles. Heavens, I’ve had some dreary vegetarian main courses while reviewing food for Edible Reading. The awards are all about celebrating the good so we’d better not dwell on the blue cheese pasta with almost no blue cheese in it, big bland bowls of mushroom risotto or Jamie Oliver’s superfood salad which wasn’t. The redeeming feature was the gnocchi dish at the Bell Inn: absolutely stunning stuff, with little dumplings which were subtle not stodgy, a rich, fragrant kale pesto which blew me away and a nice big slab of caramelised goat’s cheese on top. It makes me cross that in a whole year of looking, I only found one main that could beat any other plate of food on meat-free merit. But what a main it was.

SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Mya Lacarte

Many of you may have noticed that I’ve never reviewed Mya Lacarte. For me, it would be like writing an essay on a novel I’ve adored for years – it wouldn’t be enjoyable for me to boil that down or do it to death, to analyse something it’s much more fun to love uncritically. But what I will say is that I think Matt and Alex at Mya are the perfect double act and either of them runs the front of house better than pretty much anyone else in Reading. That a restaurant has both Matt and Alex looking after customers is the hospitality equivalent of having Messi and Ronaldo playing on the same team; I’ve not had a visit to Mya this year that was anything less than brilliant, or a welcome that made me feel anything less than exactly where I belonged. Honourable mentions should also go to Brebis, where the service was utterly charming when I visited, and also to Dolce Vita (which still does a fantastic job despite losing a couple of its star players to C.U.P.).

DESSERT OF THE YEAR: Sfinci, Bird In Hand

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The moment I had the sfinci I knew it would be my dessert of the year: it was love at first mouthful. The lightest, fluffiest doughnuts with the crispiest exterior, little sugared joy-inducing clouds. The pistachio ice cream they came with was rich and nutty, but even without them the sfinci would have won this prize. I’ve had them every time I’ve gone back, and every time they’ve delighted me like it was the first time. So easy to make a good dessert from scratch like this, and yet so many places just can’t do it. But that’s the Bird In Hand all over – it’s run by someone who makes pretty much everything on site. And if it hadn’t won for the sfinci it would probably have won for the malt barley ice cream, which is the best ice cream I’ve had in this country. Also worth a passing mention is the Baskerville’s deep, rich, indulgent chocolate tart. My review of the Baskerville was a bit on the lukewarm side at the time, which is a shame, but they really did pull all the stops out when it came to dessert.

TWEETER OF THE YEAR: Picnic

I’m always surprised that many establishments don’t have Twitter, and those that do have it don’t seem to get it. It shouldn’t be hard: Tweet every day, tell people what you sell, put some nice pictures up and – crucially – give people an idea of the personality behind your brand. But somehow it never seems to work like that, so either you get something prosaic, regular but unengaging or there are flashes of likeable brilliance but it’s all very ramshackle, with updates a bit few and far between. Having blazed the trail in many ways over the years it’s no surprise that Picnic get this spot on – regular bulletins saying what the salad boxes are, showing pictures of the cakes, talking about the specials on Fridays and Sundays, but also showing an interest in Reading and its customers, even telling people to come in out of the cold or putting up pictures of its Christmas decorations. See? It’s easy. Or maybe it’s just that Picnic are very good at making it seem so. Either way, nobody does it better.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: I Love Paella

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I could have given this award to Bakery House. I think people would have applauded that: they do great food, they run a tight ship and they add an something extra to Reading’s restaurant scene in terms of top-quality, affordable, informal dining. Equally I toyed with giving it to Papa Gee, in many ways this year’s surprise package; who knew that we had a cracking pizzeria tucked behind the station doing quite nicely for over a decade completely under the radar? Again, I think a lot of people would have agreed – I’ve had lots of feedback from readers saying how delighted they were to discover the place. And, of course, my single best meal of the year on duty was at Brebis, so why isn’t Brebis the winner?

The thing is – and I’ve learned this from reviewing them every week this year and for that matter last year – that restaurants are about more than food, or the service or even the room. They’re about experiences, about the magical alchemy that happens when all those elements come together. Last year, Dolce Vita won because although I’d had better food on occasion in other places, it remained the place where I’d spent my happiest evenings in 2014. This year, that place is I Love Paella.

Watching it evolve over the year has been a real joy – from only opening at the weekend to opening weekday nights, moving from a narrower menu and starting to offer more tapas, more sharing options, more little dishes. The first time I went it was all about the paella and the empanadas. Those are still amazing, but now you get a selection of manchego, or some serrano ham on bread with a little smudge of tomato chutney (still haven’t had the chorizo stew, but there’s always next time). Service is always brilliant, to the extent that you could easily forget that it’s basically a one man band cooking in somebody else’s coffee shop. It’s a proper success story, and I sense that there’s still more to come. I live for the day when I go in to find they’ve found the space for a nice big leg of jamon, but in the meantime I hope they get even more of a feeling of permanence and keep evolving, keep trying things out and keep spoiling those lucky people down the Oxford Road.

Al Fassia, Windsor

This time last year, I did a reader’s survey (those of you who have been reading a while might remember it). One of the questions I asked was about whether you’d like to read more reviews of restaurants outside Reading, and if I remember there was some enthusiasm but not masses. I asked the question again on Twitter this week and again, the response was mixed. Lots of you said you’d rather read reviews of places in or near the town centre, some of you said you were prepared to travel for good food. But “good” is the operative word, and whenever I head out of town only to eat something mediocre I always wonder, as I’m writing the review, who is really that fussed about reading it. Nobody writes postcards, after all, saying Having an indifferent time, you’re lucky you’re not here (and yes, I know nobody writes postcards full stop, these days).

For what it’s worth, I’m generally with the town centre brigade. When I go out for dinner, especially at the weekend, I like to be able to have more than a solitary glass of wine. And that means that if you can’t get there easily, by bus train or taxi, I’m never entirely sure I can be bothered. So restaurants outside Reading only truly draw me in if they have something about them – a menu full of twists and invention, an ethos that jumps off the screen when you look at the website, or because they do food you simply can’t get anywhere else. And that’s why we’re in Windsor this week, because Al Fassia is a Moroccan restaurant and I’ve been looking for one of those for a very long time.

This isn’t the time to bore you all with my second-rate travel writing (it would be like sitting you down and showing you holiday snaps from some time ago), but I bloody love Marrakech. From the bustle of the medina, dodging bikes and mopeds, to the brightly-lit, hyper-real cacophonous madness of the main square, from the strange dusty faux-French boulevards and grand cafes of the new town to the winding, chaotic lanes of the souk, it has to be seen to be believed. I have lots of happy memories of sitting outside Café des Epices drinking lemonade, playing cards and watching the traders trying to sell some of the ugliest woolly hats I’ve ever seen (honestly, in the height of summer). And the food! That exquisite combination of savoury and sweet, meat and fruit and spice, sampled on roof terraces and in merchant houses, candlelit on those long balmy evenings.

I grant you, probably not easy to recreate in a little Windsor restaurant not far from the arts centre, but on the offchance that Al Fassia could, how could I resist trying? So we arrived one weekend evening to put it to the test.

Our first mistake was turning up so early – foolishly, we’d booked an early table to allow for the train trip home. It meant the place was almost empty. The downstairs room was quite sombre and muted, plain tables and chairs, proper cloth napkins and plates with the restaurant’s palm tree logo, the wooden panelling along one wall the only real concession to Morocco. Upstairs – which wasn’t open the night I went – is very different with shuttered windows, rugs on the walls and those beautiful twinkly pierced metal lights (never let it be said that I lack powers of description). Although we got a good look at everything it wasn’t until much later, when the restaurant was almost full, that you realised what a lovely room it was with the warm light diffusing through those shades and all that chatter.

The menu looks longer than it is, because a lot of the dishes – especially the couscous and tagines – are variations on a theme. It also has a good selection for vegetarians entitled “Vegetarian Corner”, which struck me as slightly unfortunate phrasing (although what the salad de crevette was doing on there I have absolutely no idea).

The service throughout was absolutely flawless, and it began when we were deciding what to order. Our waiter, the only person serving the whole room, perked up when I enthused about Marrakech and then we discussed the wine, the different tagines, his recommendations and some of the other businesses his family had back in Morocco. For starters, there was a pitched battle (well, more like a slight falling out, given that I won) over who got to have the bastilla. If you have never had one before I’d urge you to call shotgun on it before you arrive. It’s essentially the Moroccan version of a pasty: filo pastry filled with layers of chicken (or pigeon, though it was chicken in this case) and almonds, sweetened and flavoured with cinnamon and other spices, folded into an octagon and dusted with – yes, you read this right – icing sugar.

As if to congratulate me on my choice the waiter told me just how much work goes into one. He said that it was the single most difficult and time-consuming dish to make – the filo is hand-made on site, the almonds are cooked and skinned by hand and the chicken is slow cooked and shredded before going into the filo to be baked. Worth all that effort? Without a doubt. It was fantastic – buttery, sweet and savoury with the rich stickiness from the chicken and the sugar, all wrapped in the thin, crisp pastry. You have to be able to get your head around that combination of flavours, but if you can it’s unlike anything else you’ll eat this year. I absolutely adored it – oh, and it’s quite a monster so there’s even enough to give someone some of yours as a consolation prize, if they ask you nicely.

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The other starter, the mergas, couldn’t live up to that and it didn’t. Four very generous lamb sausages, on a layer of needless lettuce with some pitta to wrap round it. The sausages – quite a random quartet, all different sizes – were beautifully coarse, meaty without being bouncy or dry, but the heat I associate with good merguez just wasn’t there. It was almost as if they knew they were in Royal Windsor and had decided to be on their best behaviour, and although it would have been suitably unthreatening for anyone in red trousers I wanted something with a lot more punch.

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Ironically when I was in Marrakech I eventually grew tired of tagines (having them every night gets a bit much after day three) but in Windsor not having one would have been unthinkable. We took the waiter’s advice – bang on, as it turned out – and tried two chicken tagines. Both featured half a chicken, jointed, cooked until it fell off the leg with next to no encouragement, the breast moist and easy to pull apart. But beyond that they couldn’t have been more different. Tagine djaj aux poichiche was cooked with onions, spices and chickpeas, a rich and savoury affair with a lot more substance to it because of those slightly floury chickpeas. On the other hand, tagine djaj tfaia dialled up the sweetness to eleven, with plump, intense golden raisins and almost translucent ribbons of sweet, caramelised onion. After a few minutes of taking all the meat off the bones we were ready to stir in the couscous and eat in rapt, happy, nostalgic silence. All that for less than twelve quid.

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To drink we had a bottle of Moroccan sauvignon blanc. Yes really, Moroccan wine! Actually, I recognised this particular wine from my visit to Marrakech so went out of my way to order it – for all I know that meant it was Morocco’s answer to Blossom Hill but fortunately I’m too ignorant to know better. Besides, it was lovely and fresh with a little hint of apple and a large hint of less than twenty pounds (I have a feeling I’m coming across as quite the Philistine today – and to think they say travel broadens the mind).

Following the mighty bastilla and the hefty mains we weren’t sure we could manage dessert. So we were preparing to finish our wine, enjoy the restaurant in the last of the sunshine and ask for the bill, when something unprecedented happened. A freebie. I can only assume that after chatting to the waiter (who, judging by the website photos, might well be the owner) he took a shine to us. Or maybe he does this for everyone, and I’m just deluding myself. Either way, he patted me on the shoulder and told me he was bringing something special over. I feel I need to declare this now, lest you think I’m swayed by the restaurant’s generosity (although let’s face it, I probably am – who doesn’t like free stuff?).

A few minutes later a plate arrived with a large disc of that home-made filo pastry, sprinkled with finely chopped almonds, honey and cinnamon, finished off with three little spheres of vanilla ice cream. It was a lovely dish – just simple enough, just interesting enough, nicely balanced – and a lovely gesture at the end of a very nice meal. But, in the interests of balance, it looks from the menu like it would have cost eleven pounds were I to have ordered it myself, and I’m not sure it was quite worth that.

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No Moroccan meal would be complete without mint tea, served in those pretty little glasses, so we duly obliged and ordered some to finish off. As is traditional the waiter served this on a silver tray, with the tea poured from on high (no, I don’t know why they do this. But I like it). Sweet and minty, this had as much energy in it as a cup of coffee, I’m sure – I’d be reluctant to declare it to my dentist, anyway. It felt like the right way to bring things to a close before reluctantly leaving the premises and coming to terms with the fact that we weren’t in hot, exotic Morocco but rather in slightly cooler, slightly more homely Windsor. Dinner for two came to sixty-one pounds, not including service.

I still wonder when I’ll get to go back to Marrakech. And a more unlikely twin town than Windsor you couldn’t find, despite all the tourists nearly getting mown down by traffic, despite the plethora of tradesmen and women keen to part them from their cash, despite all the historic buildings and shops selling almost identical goods which some of us might class, in the nicest possible sense, as tat. I’ll return to Marrakech one day, I hope. But until then, there’s Al Fassia: worth travelling out of town for, worth catching the train to. There may not be tables out on the terrace, there may not be fans on every seat and you might not find yourself misted with cooling water every few minutes, but even so I really do recommend it. Sometimes, a restaurant is the best travel agent there is.

Al Fassia – 8.2
27 St Leonards Road, Windsor, SL4 3BP
01753 855370

http://www.alfassiarestaurant.com/