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
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
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
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
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
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
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.