Restaurant review: Buon Appetito

A couple of Mondays ago I was walking through town around lunchtime, and I noticed that every table outside Bill’s was occupied. The sun was shining, and Bill’s has one of the best al fresco spots in Reading, but even so: every single table? Then I walked past Jollibee on Broad Street, with a queue outside, just like every day since it opened. As I looped back down Friar Street I noticed, through the windows, that Wendy’s was packed.  We can congratulate ourselves on promoting an independent, thriving Reading, through the money we spend and the businesses we amplify on social media, but the fact remains that chain restaurants have a huge hold on our town and its customers. 

The struggle is real, and relentless. Recently a branch of Sri Lankan themed chain The Coconut Tree opened, and influencers surfaced on Instagram raving about how good their (free) food was. It is next door to South Indian restaurant Pappadam’s, which has been there for years. Last week Gordon Ramsay opened a restaurant in the Oracle – one of five new burger restaurants coming to Reading – and gave out a thousand free burgers. Berkshire Live ran a breathless story enthusing about the opening. Of course they did, because it’s easier to Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V some guff from a PR company than it is to write a real story (although in Berkshire Live’s defence they subsequently reviewed the burger, and didn’t rate it).

The uncomfortable reality, even if we wish it wasn’t so, is that chain restaurants in general, and American ones in particular, do well in this town. Last month Deliveroo revealed Reading’s five most frequently-ordered dishes. Who made the list? Taco Bell, Wingstop, Shake Shack and Five Guys. The only thing preventing a clean sweep by American chains was the holder of the top spot, from German Doner Kebab. They wouldn’t make my top hundred dishes in Reading, let alone take the crown. Maybe Reading’s favourite illness is dyspepsia. Or dysentery, you never know.

If you’re reading this you probably have at least a passing interest in Reading’s independent restaurants, so perhaps you’re mystified (or depressed) by the continuing popularity of places like Taco Bell. It’s easy to forget, in an echo chamber that buys local, supports indie businesses and slopes off to the farmer’s market a couple of times a month, that most people in Reading would still rather queue for Wendy’s.

Even if you support independent businesses, there are other ways to be out of step. I’ve never quite “got” some of Reading’s fêted indies. I freely admit that Sweeney and Todd is one of them, Quattro is another. A third, the subject of this week’s review, is Buon Appetito. It’s always been highly rated on TripAdvisor, yet when I went there over five years ago I was bemused by the rave reviews. Years later the wonderful Tuscany opened down the Oxford Road and I had another, better pizza option; I never returned to Buon Appetito.

Yet here we are in 2021, Tuscany closed over two ago, and Buon Appetito is still going strong. It’s still highly rated on Trip Advisor. More to the point, the pictures on its Instagram account look a world away from the greasy, cheese-sodden edible cardboard I waded through back in 2016. Flicking through them made me feel decidedly peckish. So I decided to take another look, accompanied by my friend Nick, fresh from his previous appearance in this blog and not put off by the whole experience of being immortalised in print.

Buon Appetito has made the best of an unlovely spot. Like many canny businesses they’ve done great things with their outside space, with plenty of tables and some little booths with circular pub tables and heaters on the wall. Everything was covered by a corrugated plastic roof, and more corrugated plastic formed a partition closing off much of the view of Chatham Street. It will set them up perfectly for winter, and the overall effect made me feel like I was on holiday. That sensation was only accentuated by the soundtrack, which sounded like hotel lobby jazz covers of popular songs. I started out thinking the music was deeply naff, but by the end it had won me over and I’d used Shazam to work out who the band was (The Cooltrane Quartet, since you asked).

Service was bright, friendly and immediate. Rather than relegate it to the end of the review it deserves to be mentioned early and often, because the woman who looked after us all evening was brilliant. Every restaurant should have a front of house like this: warm, enthusiastic, likeable and with opinions about the dishes you ought to try. She brought us a couple of pints of Peroni (the drinks selection isn’t the widest at Buon Appetito) and we began the process of picking through the menu.

“I’m not a fussy eater, but there are four things I won’t eat” said Nick.

“What are they?” I mentally ran through my own list of no-nos, but apart from the obvious ones, like tripe, I could only come up with sweetcorn and dried fruit.

“Blue cheese, obviously. It’s mouldy. You’re literally eating mould.”

I couldn’t help but feel Nick was missing out, but I didn’t interject.

“And raw coriander. It’s awful, it just tastes soapy. It’s genetic, you know.” Having been closely associated with a coriander hater in the past, I’d been told this fact more times than I cared to recall. Can’t you just tell restaurants you’re allergic? I used to ask: apparently not.

“What are the other two?”

“Olives! They just always taste so bitter to me, it doesn’t matter what colour they are. And the last one’s marzipan.”

I could eat marzipan by the block, cutting it like cheese – I have, in my day – but I let that pass. I looked at the menu and mentally struck a virtual red pen through all the items with olives or blue cheese in them: it was more than a few (I was surprised, given our last meal out, that snails hadn’t made the list).

The menu was mainstream but better and more well put together than the one I remembered from my previous visit. It was compact in the right places – only four pasta mains, for instance – and more expansive where that made sense. It’s okay to have many different pizzas because ultimately many of the core ingredients are frequently the same. Pricing was consistent and reasonable – nearly all the pizzas and pasta dishes ranged between ten and fourteen pounds and starters were around the seven pound mark, or more expensive and big enough to share.

Pizzas were a mixture of recognisably Italian combinations – plenty of ‘nduja on there, and the classic Neopolitan pizza with anchovies, capers and olives – and options from further afield. The Honolulu and the Hawaiian, both of which featured pineapple, constituted the lunatic fringe. “I quite like pineapple on pizza” said Nick, “but I won’t order it: you’ll get hate mail from Italians.” I wondered what Italians would make of a vegetarian pizza called “Garden Of Eatin”, but perhaps they’d made their peace with that.

If all of our meal had been like our starters, the rating you’ve already scrolled down to check would have been lower. Calamari was decent, though: it mightn’t have had the tenderness of ultra-fresh squid, but it wasn’t rubbery either. It came with a gentle aioli: a bigger honk of garlic wouldn’t have gone amiss. Even so, it was better than the same dish at the Fisherman’s Cottage a few months back, by which token it was better than most calamari I’ve had in Reading over the years.

The other dish, king prawns with chorizo, was merely pleasant. They were nice plump prawns, three of them, with plenty of sweet flesh once you’d yanked off the head and opened up the shell. The problem was everything else. I know chorizo isn’t Italian, which made the dish potentially slightly incongruous. But worse, this chorizo was nothing special – thick, coarse and bouncy without heat or the terrific crimson oil that colours everything it touches. The menu said that this was cooked with garlic and extra virgin olive oil, but I got little or no garlic, just an anonymous orange puddle under the prawns that didn’t taste of enough.

I began to worry that history would repeat itself: I haven’t doled out a poor rating this year, and I’m somewhat dreading the first time I have an iffy meal on duty. But then our pizzas arrived and those worries, and indeed any other cares I might have had, dissipated in a cloud of carbs. Based on what I’d seen on social media I fully expected Buon Appetito’s 2021 pizzas to be an improvement on the one I had in 2016, but what I wasn’t prepared for is just how improved they would be. They weren’t just better than the previous one I’d eaten at Buon Appetito, they were better than any I’ve had in Reading and many I’ve had further afield.

Now, I can understand you being sceptical: it was only a few weeks ago that I said I might have discovered Reading’s best sandwich, and here I am saying that Buon Appetito does Reading’s best pizza. I couldn’t blame you for thinking I’m busting out hype for the sake of it. But I try hard to be sparing with the superlatives – not everywhere can be the best ever – and by any standards Buon Appetito’s pizza was extraordinary. The base was night and day compared to what I’d eaten before, with a beautifully bubbled, puffy crust with a little leopard-spotting and a deeply satisfying chewiness. 

The toppings – I’d gone for the Napoli, which has always been my ideal pizza – were superb. A great tomato base, just enough cheese, lots of salty anchovies, a judicious helping of sharp, tangy capers and those black olives Nick was so averse to. I think this particular pizza is the choice of salt and vinegar fans everywhere and when it’s perfectly in balance, as it was here, it’s a full-on, sing-at-the-top-of-your-voice truly joyous thing to eat. Better than Papa Gee’s, better than The Last Crumb’s, better even than Tuscany used to be. I loved it, and knowing I could rock up to Buon Appetito any time and order this pizza again for a mere eleven pounds was both a wonderful and a dangerous discovery. 

Nick’s pizza showcased that great base in a completely different direction. The “Calabrian” manages to appear on the menu twice, once halfway through and once at the end of the list of pizzas. But it was a masterpiece of pared-down simplicity – tomato sauce, mozzarella, clusters of ‘nduja, basil leaves: nothing else. Nick had never had ‘nduja before – in 2021, can you believe it? – and though he ordered it with abandon, he approached it with trepidation. “Yes, it’s hot, but it’s good” he said, just before our waitress came up and asked, part sympathetically, part playfully, whether he needed a glass of milk. “We have chilli oil, if you want to make it hotter” she added. But Nick was happy with his choice: from where I was sitting it looked a smart one.

“That was good, wasn’t it?” Nick said.

“It really was. Hold on, is that a Latin jazz cover version of Never Gonna Give You Up?”

“Certainly sounds like it.”

We asked for the dessert menu, because I’ve always felt it’s rude not to at least look. It was on the right side of too big, with four desserts and some variations on the theme of gelato and sorbetto, along with an espresso martini which had wandered over from the cocktail menu. “The panna cotta and tiramisu are the best ones” our waitress told us. “Although our banoffee pie is very good too. We import it from Italy, along with our Torta Rocher”. I suspect they come in frozen from a company called DiSotto, which also provides Buon Appetito’s ice cream and sorbet.  

We took our waitress’ advice. Nick’s tiramisu was a hefty helping, on the rustic side with huge, boozy savoiardi biscuits (or lady fingers, as you probably should no longer call them) and loads of mascarpone under a blanket of cocoa powder. He liked it, but was too full to make significant inroads into it. I gallantly stepped up purely so I could tell you what it was like, namely serviceable. Only now, looking at the DiSotto website, do I clock that they sell a defrost-it-yourself tiramisu which looks strikingly like this one. I’d love to think Buon Appetito makes its own, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

The panna cotta was a strange one: I’m used to it turned out and quivering on the plate whereas this one had been imprisoned in a little sundae dish. There was an enjoyable pistachio mousse underneath, the beautiful crunch of a candied pistachio crumb on top. All tasty enough, but it felt more like an upside-down, out-of-kilter cheesecake than a panna cotta. I’m not sure the panna cotta element – hemmed in, unable to wobble freely – worked.

“Pretty good” said Nick, “but not as good as Laura’s panna cotta.” I tried his other half’s panna cotta not long ago: he’s right.

The restaurant had a steady flow of customers throughout our meal without ever seeming busy. But it was a Wednesday evening close to payday: perhaps that was a factor. “Inside is very nice too, you should eat there next time” said our waitress as she brought the bill, along with a couple of shot glasses of a Kermit-green pistachio liqueur like next level Bailey’s. Three courses and two and a half pints each came to seventy-eight pounds, not including tip.

As I said, night and day; I still think that the place I went to five years ago left a lot to be desired, but aside from being in the same building and doing Italian cuisine I don’t see many remnants of the Buon Appetito that left me nonplussed. They’ve created a properly lovely space, the service is spot on and if part of the menu were merely not bad or even so-so, the plusses outweighed that in spades. The biggest of those plusses is the pizza, which for my money is one of the best I can remember.  

I wish there were more sunny days ahead, because few pleasures can match pizza and beer on a sunny day, but those little booths will be very inviting when the nights draw in, especially for those of us who aren’t sure how much indoor dining we plan to do in what remains of 2021. With Buon Appetito, Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen and the Nag’s Head, that little piece of West Reading is looking like the best gastronomic micro-climate the town has to offer. Chatham Street, a food hub: who’d have thought it?

Buon Appetito – 8.0
146-148 Chatham Street, Reading, RG1 7HT
0118 3276947

https://www.buonappetitoreading.co.uk
Delivery available: via Just Eat, Deliveroo, UberEats

Lemoni

It became apparent in early 2021 that Lemoni was not going to reopen after the third national lockdown. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

It is, I think, a universal reaction when we taste something funny, or not quite right, or even plain bad, to seek a second opinion. Whether that’s saying “do you think this milk is still good?” when it’s a day past the use by date or asking “does this taste weird to you?” in a restaurant, we all do it. We like to share delicious food, providing we have enough of it to spare, but it’s when something’s awful that we really feel the need to share the pain.

I say this because I’ve had several people in the last three months ask me if I’ve been to Lemoni, the new Greek restaurant in the Oracle, or when I’m going – and not because they say the food is stellar. One message on Twitter said “OMFG, it was awful. Service took ages every time, when they arrived the flicking of long hair over food was… ugh”. Another, on Instagram, said it was so bad that they refused a discount because they wanted to leave as quickly as possible. “I never thought I’d say this” she added, “but I really miss Jamie’s Italian”. Someone else on Twitter said “I went there last weekend and I’m interested to hear your opinion”: sometimes what isn’t said shouts as loudly as what is.

As a result, despite my best efforts to stay positive, I approached my visit to Lemoni with a gradual mounting dread. On the one hand, people definitely wanted an impartial review. But on the other, looking at their website I had a real feeling of “must I?”. Part of that came from looking at the menu online, because the dishes at Lemoni were undeniably pricey. Sixteen pounds fifty for a moussaka, or for a chicken shish kebab? They’d have to be absolutely faultless to charge that much.

Matters weren’t helped by my other half sending me a picture which had been doing the rounds at her work, taken from Tripadvisor, of the lamb kebabs. They look as if they had been formed not by hand but by the combination of a colon and a sphincter, nature’s piping bag. As if to reinforce the point, one of her colleagues had effortlessly Photoshopped a single kebab into an image of a toilet bowl: it wasn’t even slightly incongruous, bobbing there.

Tripadvisor didn’t help in general, as it seemed polarised between glowing reviews (often from Greek users with very few other TA reviews) and mutinous rumblings from everybody else about poor value, indifferent food, terrible service. Who to believe?

And then there was the wider mystery – who were Lemoni anyway? Hard to tell from social media, that’s for sure: there was a glut of very polished Instagram activity when the restaurant was about to open, but since then the silence has been deafening. Trying to get any background was challenging – the suggestion had been that this was their second restaurant but from what I could glean from Companies House the first restaurant, in Southampton, had gone into liquidation before the Reading branch opened.

How did an independent business with no real footprint come out of nowhere to take on the Oracle’s biggest restaurant site, quite possibly paying an annual rent in the high six figures? How was it going to survive in such a competitive site, even (or especially) charging those prices? There was only one way to get to the bottom of it: I was going to have to go there myself.

I felt bad about asking anybody to accompany me, but in the end my mother and my stepfather gamely agreed to come along: sometimes you really do need the unconditional commitment only family can truly provide. So, despite my stepfather’s wistful looks askance at the entrance to Royal Tandoori, we walked up to Lemoni on a warm summer’s evening to take our chances.

The welcome at the door was bright and friendly, and we walked up through the stairs and through the restaurant to take a table out on the upstairs balcony, one of Reading’s better al fresco spaces. The transformation from when the restaurant was Jamie’s Italian was marked, and very nicely done: the upstairs and downstairs are both very tasteful, airy spaces with plenty of natural light, grown-up looking marble-topped tables and grey tweedy banquettes. I didn’t eat inside, but I liked the look of it – I did wonder though just how much sound would be absorbed on a busy Friday or Saturday night and whether the restaurant would feel quite as welcoming on a darker winter’s evening.

The first big surprise came when the menus arrived, because the prices have been reduced significantly since April (although Lemoni has neglected to change its website to reflect this). Mains in particular had come down by between three and five pounds per dish – badly needed, because many of the dishes skirted around the twenty pound mark which felt very expensive for this kind of food. This means that Lemoni must be the first restaurant I’ve encountered to do a soft opening in reverse: still, at least it showed they were learning from their mistakes.

We ordered a few drinks, namely a Mythos for my stepfather, a Menebrea – the Italian beer which is becoming Peroni for people who think they’re too good for Peroni – for my mother and some sparkling mineral water (don’t judge) for me. Nearly all the waiting staff, all dressed all in black, seemed to be Greek and they certainly looked efficient, darting from table to table; maybe they’d also learned from some of that early criticism.

We decided to share some of the starters to begin with – these all vary between about five and eight pounds, although they charge extra for pitta which felt cheeky to me. How else did they expect you to eat houmous or taramasalata, exactly? The taramasalata, incidentally, was one of the best starters we had – brighter pink than I’m led to believe it should be but punchy all the same. I especially liked the addition of some salted capers on top, but I suspect they were more popular with me than with my mother. “It doesn’t taste that fishy” was her feedback – my stepfather and I disagreed, but she had taken against the dish and that was that.

The spanakopita was a hit with all of us – light filo pastry with just enough crunch housing a beautifully molten mixture of feta, spinach and mint. The other two starters, though, were the relative duds. Saganaki is one of my favourite Greek starters and done well it’s a glorious, indulgent thing. The menu chose not to specify which cheese it was (which perhaps should have been a warning bell) but it’s usually feta and this didn’t feel like feta at all. Whatever it was, it was a lukewarm block of cheese with a leathery texture which had no give whatsoever. The “homemade tomato jam” might just have been able to paper over the cracks of this dish, but there was nowhere near enough of it.

The last starter arrived after the other three, and before the side plates we’d had to ask for twice. Mashed fava beans topped with calamari were a pleasing shade of yellow and had a earthy, if subtle, taste. But I couldn’t help wishing it was hot rather than lukewarm and it also needed some pita to do it justice. Our first helping of pita – tasty, topped with something like cayenne pepper or paprika along with dried oregano but far too little of it – had already vanished by then and it took multiple attempts to flag someone down to ask for more. By the time it arrived we still just about needed it, but the moment had passed.

“That dish is bland” said my mother, pointing accusingly at the fava beans.

“It’s okay – it could do with a bit more seasoning” I said.

“Well, it’s not unpleasant” she added, the implication clearly being that not unpleasant was not good enough. I could see what she meant, but I was more disappointed that paying two pounds extra got your fava bean purée topped with precisely four tiny bits of squid. Maybe I’ve inherited her critical faculties.

Having struggled to get our side plates and struggled to get extra pita bread, we then found we were left alone with our leftovers in front of us for some time. This gave my mother enough time to do some detective work.

“Our placemats are by John Lewis” she said. “They have the tag on them.”

I inspected them. This was indeed the case.

“And the labels are still on the underside of our side plates.”

I wasn’t sure how my mother had clocked this – nothing gets past her – but lifting up my snazzy rippled white plate it was true. Sophie Conran for Portmeiron, no less, and that stuff isn’t cheap; these aren’t plates you’d want to smash at a wedding.

“It’s weird, isn’t it? It’s like they’ve picked this stuff up at a department store because money’s no object.” And again, I found myself wondering where the money came from to open this massive restaurant out of nowhere and kit it out with a lovely new refit, John Lewis placemats and Sophie Conran crockery. At this point my stepfather outlined his theory on the matter: sadly, I’ve had to omit it from the review but I’m sure you could come up with your own ideas.

I was jogged out of this reverie by the fact that as our plates were taken away the main courses were plonked in front of us, supervised by an older man who looked as if he might be the owner. The overall effect was a little menacing, especially as my stepfather had ordered the “chicken skewer” which comes to the table on a long and potentially dangerous skewer fresh from the grill. The skewer was served on a bed of undressed, pointless rocket with some soft-looking roasted potatoes, a cold couscous salad and some kind of dip. I tried some of the chicken and it wasn’t unpleasant but there was no real sign that it had been marinated. At fourteen pounds it was still more expensive than the same dish at Bakery House, with nowhere near the same whistles and bells.

“That dip is salad cream” said my mother, looking none too impressed.

“I think it’s more like burger sauce” I said. “The menu says it’s ‘Lemoni mayonnaise sauce’, apparently.”

“Well it tastes like salad cream to me.”

“It’s not going to be a glass half full evening, is it?” said my stepfather philosophically as he attacked the rest of his main, undeterred by any resemblance to Heinz’s finest. I had ordered the classic kebab, and I was delighted to discover that they no longer looked like the Photoshopped horror I’d been sent via Whatsapp. If anything, these were uncannily regular cylinders of meat – a mixture of beef and lamb, apparently – and I wasn’t sure whether I enjoyed them or if I was just relieved that they weren’t worse. They were nicely seasoned and although they were a little on the smooth and homogeneous side for my liking they weren’t unpleasant. They came with a yoghurt thicker and more pointless than Dominic Raab, and a tomato sauce which lacked any spice or heat at all. Nice chips, to be fair, but apart from that this was another dish that Bakery House does miles better for less.

Even if the glass had been half full up to that point, it pretty much emptied when my mum started eating her pastichio, a sort of Greek lasagne which serves as an alternative to moussaka.

“This is sweet. It’s as sweet as a dessert. And there’s nowhere near enough mince. It’s just a sweet tomato sauce and some pasta. And the cheese! Well, it doesn’t taste cheesy.”

I tried some. You couldn’t knock her brevity: it would take me a whole paragraph to say a lot less.

“I think it tastes sweet because there’s definitely cinnamon in that tomato sauce.” I said, trying to put a brave face on it. Who was I trying to kid? The dish was a duffer.

It didn’t help that the accompanying Greek salad also didn’t pass muster. “It’s a nice olive” my mother said, “but it needs company.” A pity, because the feta was lovely and, again, I thought adding capers was a nice touch. But it’s difficult to argue with somebody saying that a Greek salad needs to contain more than one solitary olive.

We stayed for dessert, because I desperately wanted to give Lemoni one more chance. The big thing here is loukoumades, Greek doughnuts, so I ordered them with Greek honey and crushed walnuts. They were nicely irregularly-shaped, so obviously made by hand, but that’s as far as the plusses went. They were heavy, stodgy things, the shell not crisp and the inside a million miles from a fluffy cloud of joy. The honey was in a lake at the bottom rather than drizzled over the doughnuts, and the whole thing was heavy going. We didn’t finish them.

“Doughnuts ought to be a delight” said my mother, who by this point was turning into a one-woman Greek chorus of disapproval. “You should want to race through them.”

My stepfather’s bougatsa, custard in filo pastry, was better but still not right. I liked the custard very much, but this pastry didn’t have the same lightness of touch as our starters had had. Sawing through it with a knife felt like a slog. “It’s a bit tough” said – well, I’m sure you can guess who said that.

It won’t surprise you to hear that we also had to ask for the bill twice. Lemoni was busier than I expected on a Wednesday evening – the sun was still shining, the big screen on the Riverside was showing Wimbledon, people were sitting in the deckchairs on the opposite bank watching it and the beach bar was full of the kind of people who like the beach bar. It was a glorious evening, and if our meal had been better maybe we’d have been happy to sit there and digest and chat away with all the time in the world. All the best Greek food I’ve had – usually on holiday, but also in restaurants like Maida Vale’s scruffy Tsiakkos & Charcoal, or Notting Hill’s upmarket Mazi – is best eaten in a leisurely fashion, while you daydream of being somewhere in the Cyclades. But in this case, we just wanted to settle up and sod off.

Eventually, we flagged someone down and our bill – four starters, three mains, two desserts, two beers and some mineral water – came to ninety pounds, not including tip. Not hugely expensive, in the scheme of things, but when you consider that we barely drank it’s still a fair amount to spend on something so middling.

“You could come here and have quite a good meal” said my stepfather, “if you happen to order just the right things. Or if you ordered badly it would be terrible.” I nodded in agreement: I’d seen huge plates of what looked like home-made crisps turn up at other tables and I was thinking that if I’d just ordered those and some houmous I probably would have had a better, cheaper time.

So, there you have it: Lemoni isn’t the horror show I half expected, which just goes to show that anybody who reviews a new restaurant in the first month is making an error of judgment. But, even after three months of working on the pricing, the menu and the service it’s still deeply unspecial. Not better than Bakery House, not better than The Real Greek, not better than Kyrenia in its heyday. I don’t say that with any joy or any axe to grind – it would be a wonderful thing for the prime pitch in the heart of the Oracle to be occupied by a brilliant, distinctive, smartly-priced and well-run independent restaurant. But Lemoni is not that restaurant.

My closing thought about Lemoni was the saddest of all, because what my visit really did was make me think about Dolce Vita. Dolce Vita paid less rent than Lemoni, it charged more than Lemoni, it was busier than Lemoni, it did better food, it had better service and it closed for good last year. If Dolce Vita couldn’t make a go of it with so much in its favour, who would bet on Lemoni seeing out the year? More to the point: just imagine how wonderful Reading would be if a restaurant like Dolce Vita had occupied a spot like the one Lemoni has. How I wish we lived in a town like that.

Lemoni – 6.2
Unit 1, The Riverside, The Oracle, RG1 2AG
0118 9585247

https://reading.lemoniuk.com/

Feature: Al fresco dining (2019)

The thoroughly unseasonal spell of sunshine we had recently got me thinking about spring, waiting just round the corner. Tea and toast in the garden, the magnolia flowering, having a coffee outside Tamp or in the Workhouse courtyard and watching the world traipse past. That in turn made me remember, further down the line, the harbingers of good times ahead: the beer festival weekend; “just the one pint” after work in the Allied Arms garden morphing into a long, messy evening; Saturday afternoons stretched out in Forbury Gardens with a good book; the glorious golden slide into summer.

It’s nearly four years since I last published a feature on al fresco dining in Reading, believe it or not. But, as with everything else in this town, much has changed in that time. Dolce Vita and the Plowden Arms have closed, robbing us of some of the best food for miles around and one of Reading’s nicest sun-bathed spots. Forbury’s and Picnic – which also made my list four years ago – are not what they were. The market menu at Forbury’s seems to get more expensive and less special with every passing year, and Picnic isn’t even open on Sundays any more.

Finding establishments to replace them has been harder than you might think. Reading has some great outside spaces but generally, the places lucky enough to own them do not serve good food. The roof terrace at the Thirsty Bear, for instance, is a nice spot and a natural sun trap, but the pizza’s iffy. The Hope & Bear, the artist formerly known as the Abbot Cook/Upin Arms/Jack Of Both Sides, has a very pleasant garden – if you can get past the hum of traffic from the London Road – but the food has never been anything to write home about.

Then, of course, you have places that do decent food but where the space isn’t quite up to scratch. Many of these are chains: it would be lovely to eat outside at Carluccio’s, say, but that spot on the edge of Forbury Gardens sadly never catches the sun, so what should be a great opportunity to have an Aperol spritz and some antipasti becomes a chilly affair. Similarly, the space out the front of Franco Manca is okay, but hardly inspiring. I still enjoy eating at the Lyndhurst, but that little terrace looking out on to Watlington Street feels a tad lacking, more for a pint than the full dining experience.

For my money, Reading lost its finest al fresco dining spot last year when the Fisherman’s Cottage decided to dispense with I Love Paella. When that happened we lost the opportunity to eat salt cod churros and empanadas, patatas bravas with chicken thigh and piquant sauce and so many other glorious dishes in the sunshine with a pint of something cold, fizzy and refreshing. The pub now gets one hundred per cent of the food takings – bully for them, but I definitely won’t be back. Even if the dishes didn’t taste bad, eating there would feel in bad taste.

All that preamble is to say that the list you’re about to read might be Reading’s best al fresco dining options (or at least a conversation starter: your mileage may well vary) but I have to add the disclaimer that they are far from Reading’s best dining options. There’s invariably a degree of compromise involved – you can have an almost Meditteranean lunch, you can have fantastic food, but you can’t necessarily have both. But on a hot and sunny day, when everybody is in shorts and you have a glass of something cold in front of you, maybe that doesn’t matter so much.

Oh, and since starting writing this feature the sun has gone in and the heavens have opened. I can’t help but blame myself, but I still hope this will come in handy in the months ahead.

1. Bhel Puri House

Small plates in the sunshine.

The courtyard outside the George Hotel, just off Yield Hall Lane, catches the sun beautifully in the summer. By day most of its clientele are enjoying coffee, cake or quiche from Workhouse, and in the evening you’re more likely to see patrons of the hotel bar sitting outside enjoying a pint and a fag. But the real trick – at lunchtime or dinner – is to pop in to Bhel Puri House and ask them to serve you in the courtyard.

There’s very little that can match sitting on one of those benches, soaking up the sun and enjoying Bhel Puri House’s almost-legendary chilli paneer, spearing a cube of cheese on a caramelised strip of pepper before popping it in your mouth. The Punjabi samosas are still as gorgeous as the day I first tried them and the crispy bhajia – thin slices of crispy potato with an almost-sweet bright orange carrot chutney – are equally beautiful.

Last year, as summer was coming to an end, I stopped at Bhel Puri House on my way home after work on Friday and enjoyed the courtyard one last time before the clocks went back. Normally I have a mango lassi, but on that occasion a pint of Estrella from the hotel bar seemed like the only sensible option. I’ll be there again as soon as spring is well under way.

Bhel Puri House, Yield Hall Lane, RG1 2HF

2. Bluegrass BBQ

Reading’s best al fresco brunch.

Another Reading restaurant with a sunny terrace going to waste is bland uber-chain Bill’s. It has a great location next to Reading Minster, but I really couldn’t recommend anybody eats there, not even for brunch. I know it has its fans, but I infinitely prefer crossing the churchyard and going to Bluegrass on Gun Street, which has a terrace by the Holybrook which catches the sun and which few people seem to know about.

Once you’re installed, they do one of the best brunches in Reading. Many like the pancakes, but I’m always drawn to the Smokehouse breakfast there. I’ve enthused about it before but really, it does everything very well: the bacon is smoked, salty, streaky and crispy, the sausages are terrific quality and the hash browns are an absolutely joy, especially smudged with a bit of barbecue sauce before eating. If you’re there in the evening, the brisket chilli is a revelation and I really like the southern fried chicken (although maybe not with the waffles and maple syrup). I can see that dinner in the sunshine with a really good beer could make for a lovely al fresco evening.

Bluegrass BBQ, 15 Gun Street, RG1 2JR
https://www.bluegrass-bbq.com/

3. Côte

Continental, albeit canalside.

There are plenty of Oracle chains with space outside, and come the summer they are frequently rammed. Franco Manca and the Real Greek both have decent outdoor areas, and that’s before we get to the delights of eating outside at Nando’s (chicken thighs, medium, with rice, peas and extra halloumi, garlic peri peri on the side, since you asked), an experience which always feels a little like being on holiday in the UK. Many of the Oracle’s al fresco options – including Nando’s, sadly – can feel a little purgatorial. I do however have a real soft spot for the tables for two right in front of Côte (not, I should add, the ones at the edge of the waterside) where you can sit side by side, drink rosé, eat from the reasonable a la carte or the crazily reasonable set menu, and gaze out on the world.

Côte’s food is consistently good, and you won’t go far wrong there, but the specials are always worth a look (especially if they have skate wing on there, probably the nicest thing I’ve ever eaten at Côte). The charcuterie board is a lovely choice at any time of year, but in warm weather the tuna nicoise salad remains one of the best ways to feel slightly virtuous while eating out. Sitting with a view of the canal (technically a river, but if it looks like a canal and feels like a canal…) watching a parade of frazzled shoppers-to-be wander past shouldn’t really work, but for some reason it does. On a good day, when you have one of those tables and the sun is beaming down, you can feel like one of the luckiest diners in Reading.

Côte, 9 The Oracle Centre, RG1 2AG
https://www.cote.co.uk/brasserie/reading

4. London Street Brasserie

The original and best.

The only restaurant to make my list both in 2015 and today, London Street Brasserie has a nice outside area looking out on the river (and the often less than salubrious goings-on near the manky car park on the opposite bank). But that aside, it’s actually quite an attractive decked area which catches plenty of sun, and as the evening light starts to fade there are blankets to keep you warm. Many years as Reading’s fanciest restaurant (a title which has only really been challenged in the last year or so) means that in some respects the food is secondary to the whole experience. As with Cote there’s a set and an a la carte menu, but the better option is nearly always the set which offers an impressive range at a reasonable price: eat there at lunchtime or before 7pm to take full advantage.

Over the winter I became very attached to their haggis and duck egg on toast with HP jus – Reading’s ideal breakfast, disguised as a starter – and the fish and chips, also from the set menu, remains one of my favourite main courses at any price point. The a la carte always feels like more of a gamble at prices which are beginning to feel a little on the steep side for what you get, but the salt and pepper squid is a reliable dish and it’s hard to go wrong with venison and (yet more) haggis. The only thing that stops me gushing about LSB, apart from the pricing, is the consistency: it’s definitely a place which has the occasional off day, but at its best it’s still one of Reading’s finest places to have a meal in the open air.

London Street Brasserie, 2-4 London Street, RG1 4PN
http://www.londonstbrasserie.co.uk/

5. Thames Lido

For burning calories vicariously.

I have struggled to love Thames Lido, and I haven’t quite managed it yet: on every one of my three visits there’s been something wrong, either in terms of service, food or value for money. On one visit the gin and tonic was spendy and unspecial, on another the set menu was a little bit mingy for the money and on my last visit, the ox cheek (allegedly a signature dish) was claggy and undercooked. The service has always been consistent only in its inconsistency, although with Alex – who used to charm the socks off everyone at Mya Lacarte – now on board, that might have changed.

I know I sound like I’m moaning, but here’s the point: when I had lunch there last summer it was such a lovely spot that I put my reservations about the food to one side. The sun was shining, the surroundings were Instagram-perfect (there’s a reason it shows up there so often), my Spanish cider was cold and crisp and watching people braver than me doing lengths somehow helped me to work up quite an appetite. It simply is a gorgeous place to eat lunch, provided you relax your standards somewhat, and probably the single best view of any restaurant in Reading. I think it succeeds despite, rather than because of, its food, but I seem to be swimming against the tide in that respect. It’s the only swimming I plan to do, anyway: I’d much rather sit in the warm, order something nice and leave all that to people better qualified than me.

Thames Lido, Kings Meadow Park, RG1 8FR
http://www.thameslido.com/

Feature: Al fresco dining

N.B. A more recent guide to al fresco dining has been published on the blog and can be found here.

No new review this week I’m afraid, because I’m taking my first week off of 2015. Instead, you get a feature: I’ve had a few people express interest in ER features from time to time, so this is the first of its kind.

I’m very lucky that I get to eat out often and write weekly independent restaurant reviews; I genuinely believe that the only way restaurant reviews can be totally impartial is if the person writing the review is also the person paying the bill. But I’m also painfully aware that eating out is a luxury that not everyone can afford. This week, I’m donating the cost of the meal I would have eaten to Launchpad, Reading’s homeless charity which does excellent, tireless work which is needed more now than ever. ER is free to read and it always will be – but if you felt like donating even the smallest amount of money to Launchpad too, I’d really appreciate it and I’m sure they would too. Normal service will be resumed next week – until then, on with the feature.

Summer is around the corner – the Reading Beer Festival always feels to me like the first sign that it’s on the way – and that always makes me think about the delights of eating outdoors. We all daydream about barbecues, we have our tea and coffee at pavement tables people-watching and relaxing and suddenly a whole different criterion comes into the decision-making process when you’re deciding where to eat. After all, it would be a shame to have lunch or dinner cooped up when it’s glorious outside.

It really frustrates me that good al fresco dining spots in Reading are few and far between. The town seems to be full of blind spots where the sun just doesn’t shine, and many of the plum spots are filled by disappointing chains. Bill’s, for instance, has an absolutely gorgeous space outside which is a magnet for UV rays but the food doesn’t live up to the setting. It’s quite nice for breakfast (eggs sunny side up in more ways than one) but otherwise it just doesn’t do it for me. The Riverside gets lots of sun and many of the venues have decent outdoor seating but it’s hard to be excited by them – the little tables outside Cote always look inviting, but All Bar One, Bella Italia, Pizza Hut and Nando’s aren’t quite so alluring.

So – and I might be jinxing the summer of 2015 by even saying this – the days are long, the shadows are too, it’s short-sleeves weather and you’re ravenous. Where to go?

1. Dolce Vita

It did cross my mind to pick the balcony at Jamie’s Italian, looking out over the throng of Oracle shoppers. But, for food and service, Dolce Vita easily has the egde. It’s as close as you can get to the Oracle view without actually being in the Oracle, tucked away from the hubbub. The balcony area extends out on two sides of the restaurant and the menu is equally sunny with Mediterranean food – and some more leftfield choices with traditional British and even Asian influences – and friendly, charming Greek service. The set menu, which is often on song, offers great value and a surprising range of options. When I sit outside at Dolce Vita I can almost convince myself that I’m on holiday, especially if I’m drinking a pint of Peroni or a fresh, fruity glass of rosé.

Burrata

2. The Plowden Arms

Ideally one would arrive at the Plowden in an open top sports car, passing some of the rolling green hills that the Berkshire/Oxfordshire border has in spades. The generous garden at the Plowden offers a lovely view across the countryside with added waitress service and decent umbrellas, should you be more English rose than suntanned millionaire. The food here ranges from substantial and traditional to delicate and sophisticated (and the kitchen is consistently brilliant at all of it) but everything is fresh, creative and sometimes based on old English recipes, in case you fancy a side order of education. Having your dessert outside by candlelight, the last rays of the sun not long faded, is a pretty magical way to finish an evening.

Lamb

3. Picnic

Picnic has one of the best spots in the centre of town, having taken over the old Jacobs shop eight years ago. The tables outside catch plenty of sunshine (especially early to mid-afternoon) and, provided the wind isn’t blowing a gale, it’s a great place to enjoy lunch and some of Reading’s best people watching. The salads have always been the draw here – leaves and couscous with a weekly range of toppings – and although I’ve found the interior much harder to love since they moved everything around, it can’t be denied that it has freed up the space for the kitchen to add yet more interesting variations on that theme (that said, I still have a soft spot for their roast chicken and pesto). If you scoff at salad, even in summer, there’s also a lot to be said for their cracking Cornish pasties and sausage rolls, from award winning Green’s of Pangbourne. Oh, and the cakes are magnificent: good old-fashioned Victoria sponge and terrific, moist lemon polenta cake are my favourites. All that and a view of Munchee’s opposite (what more could you want?) – no wonder, whenever I bag a table outside, I feel so reluctant to leave.

4. London Street Brasserie

London Street Brasserie has probably the nicest terrace in town, alongside the Kennet. When it catches the sun it really catches the sun, and in summer the menu – always nicely seasonal – really rises to the occasion. There’s nothing quite like making inroads into a crisp bottle of white and enjoying a half pint of prawns, easing off the head and shell before dipping that firm flesh into their peerless garlic mayonnaise (writing about doesn’t even come close: I’m hungry now). I generally find the set menu more reliable than the a la carte here (the fish and chips is another favourite of mine) which makes it perfect for a boozy weekend lunch, although if it’s not quite sunny enough or the afternoon is waning, they also do a nice line in chequered blankets and patio heaters. LSB is a good example of how the summer can change everything – on a winter evening it probably wouldn’t make any of my top fives, but when the sun is out it’s hard to beat.

LSB7

5. Forbury’s

Forbury Square is one of the prettier, quieter outdoor areas in town and Forbury’s really makes the most of it (and in some style, too). Unlike the unluckily positioned Carluccio’s – which always feels like it should be sunny but never is – it is nicely lit and, unlike Cerise, the seating is plentiful and comfortable. If you can manage to stick to their set menu (a challenge that many have failed, me included) then a three course meal can set you back as little as twenty pounds per head – and even less if you’re lucky enough to be there on a weekday lunchtime. Make sure you add some bread, though, as their sourdough is heavenly. Oh, and wear your best sunglasses and pretend you’re on the French Riviera. Air kissing optional.

Venison

6. The Allied Arms

What is ER on about? you’re probably thinking. The Allied Arms is just a pub and it doesn’t do food. I know, I know, but bear with me. I picked this tip up from friends of mine a couple of years ago and it’s a cracker; although the Allied doesn’t do food, they don’t have a problem with you consuming food from elsewhere on the premises. So, on a summer night when the Summer Lightning or the Thatcher’s Gold is flowing, instead of wandering off to a restaurant just get someone to watch your table, pop next door to Pizza Express and then return with your Pollo Ad Astra or American Hot. It’s worth it for that first bite of pizza. It’s worth it for the crispiness of the pepperoni or the salt bomb of anchovy. But, more than anything, it’s worth it for the looks of envy you get from everybody else in the pub who wishes they’d thought of it. Last time I checked, the Allied even kept a pizza cutter behind the bar, although if word gets out they might start charging people to use it.

If you like this and you’d like to read more of this sort of thing then let me know in the comments, and if there are any particular subjects you’d like to read an ER feature on then do say!