Buenasado

N.B. As of August 2020, Buenasado has reopened.

My mother taught me this brilliant technique for steak, which she says she picked up from watching Heston Blumenthal on TV. It’s simplicity itself: you let the steak come to room temperature, you oil the steak rather than the pan and you season both sides. Then you get the pan good and hot and you cook the steak for four minutes in total, turning it over every thirty seconds. At the end, you let the steak rest for a little while and Bob’s your uncle: perfectly-done medium-rare steak. I imagine my mother and my stepfather (ever the dream team) cooking the steak together, him with a spatula and her with a stopwatch.

It works without fail, and whenever I cook steak at home my other half Zoë will say, at some point during the meal, “this is so much better, and cheaper, than the Corn Stores.” This is true, if hardly praise of my abilities in the kitchen: the Corn Stores has to be one of the most disappointing restaurant openings of recent years. But also, when she says that, I miss CAU. Poor CAU, which shocked everybody by closing around this time last year because the chain went bust. I didn’t go often, but I always enjoyed my meals there in that funny, purpose-built space, hovering out of nothing at the back of the Oracle.

Sometimes you really do want a steak on an evening out, and since CAU closed I’ve been stumped whenever people ask me where I recommend. The Corn Stores is out of contention, which leaves Miller & Carter, another restaurant I’ve never really warmed to. So I’ve taken to recommending Pepe Sale’s tagliata alla rucola, a beautiful piece of fillet with rocket and balsamic vinegar. But then Buenasado announced it was opening in CAU’s old spot, and I found myself hoping we’d get a decent steak restaurant after all. Research showed they had one other branch, in well-to-do Surrey, and the reviews looked good – even if the menu appeared to be a carbon copy of CAU’s.

The restaurant opened its doors in June and the early reports I heard were cautiously optimistic, barring some complaints about iffy frites and a sizeable service charge being added to bills. I went along to check it out on a quiet weekday night, accompanied by Zoë, to see if lightning could strike in the same place twice.

My first impressions were favourable – CAU was nice food served in a stark, almost ugly space, with lots of white and deeply uncomfortable space-age plastic chairs. They had prioritised covers over comfort, and Buenasado has taken the opposite view: big tables along both sides of the long thin room with an attractive button-backed banquette down the right hand side. The handsome black hanging lightshades and glossy white tiled bricks said industrial without trying too hard, and the whole thing felt like a nicely grown-up restaurant.

The menu verged on huge, with a good selection of starters, plenty of salads, burgers, the usual cuts of steak in various weights (although without some of the speciality cuts offered by the likes of CAU and Gaucho) and a raft of options for people who didn’t want the blood of a dead cow on their hands.

We settled on three of the starters – for research purposes – before moving on to decide which mains to have, but first we ordered a bottle of Malbec. Again, as with CAU, this has its own section on the drinks list and I liked the bottle we picked (Norton Lo Tengo) although it was good rather than remarkable, and marked up sharply at nearly thirty-three pounds for a wine that costs eleven in the shops.

Starters came quicker than I would have liked and I was glad we’d ordered three because I think two of them were on the less generous side. I adored the morcilla – soft, sweet and spicy with a crispy skin – and I loved the punchy, vinegary salsa criolla it came with. But the “salad leaves” accompanying it were exactly that – leaves, not a salad. I really don’t get the point of undressed salad leaves: the name must be nominative determinism in action, because I always end up leaving them. And the piece of bread the morcilla was pointlessly plonked on was rock hard – not toasted, more stale, and very difficult to eat. I am a sucker for black pudding, but at five pounds this felt on the scanty side.

Better were the beef empanadas, plenty of dense minced beef packed in so tightly that you almost felt like you were eating a slider en croûte. The spicing was subtle, and I wasn’t sure these quite matched up to the best empanadas I’ve had at, say, I Love Paella, but all the same these were well worth the money.

Our third starter, chorizo al malbec, was also good – slices of decent chorizo with good texture and plenty of depth from the paprika in a brick-red sauce with sweet ribbons of onion. But again, it was a little meagre for the money and it needed good quality bread to soak up the juices, not a rock hard parody of crostini. I really hated the bread that came with these starters – you couldn’t mop up anything with it, you couldn’t top it with anything, you couldn’t eat it with a knife and fork without risking half of it flying across the room: it really was worse than nothing.

A real challenge when you review a steak restaurant is choosing what to order. Obviously one of you has to have a steak to put their raison d’être to the test, but what does the other person go for? Do you try a different cut, or pick something else entirely? Is it helpful to try a different dish, or does that make you the kind of person who goes to Nando’s and orders the Prego steak roll? Fortunately Zoë made this easy – the dish she really missed at CAU was the spatchcock chicken and frites, and as Buenasado had something very similar on their menu she wanted to know whether it would help with the withdrawal symptoms.

It turned out to be a surprisingly good choice, and very skilfully done, with gorgeous crispy salty skin and plenty of meat (very different from the same dish at, say, Côte, where it can feel scrawny by comparison). I wasn’t so sure about the “fries provençal” which felt like bought-in French fries topped with a bit of garlic and herb butter; I can see why people have been slightly sniffy about the fries. Yet more bollock-naked salad leaves, so Zoë was glad she’d ordered a side of creamed spinach. She loved it, I tried enough to be able to confirm that it tasted of creamed spinach and therefore wasn’t my cup of tea.

I had opted for a rump steak – fillet felt too pricey, and I’m never madly fussed about sirloin or rib-eye. It was a lovely piece of meat, but a few slices in I was painfully aware that it was medium rather than the medium-rare I’d asked for, and medium-well at that. The waitress did the right thing by insisting that she would take it away and redo the dish if I wanted, but blotted her copybook by insisting that it was medium-rare: it really, really wasn’t.

As so often in these situations, I was left with the choice of eating something I hadn’t ordered at the same time as my dinner date, or eating the dish I’d ordered a couple of minutes after she had finished. I decided having my steak medium was probably the lesser of two evils: being right and eating alone always leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It really was a beautiful piece of steak but I did keep thinking that it would have been even nicer medium rare.

It’s especially a shame because the other accompaniments for my steak – starkers salad aside – were really pretty decent. Chunky chips were truly lovely, crispy-fluffy things, although I’d have liked the blue cheese sauce I ended up dipping them in to have been a little heavier on the cheese. The garlic portobello mushrooms were nicely pungent and a million miles from their sad, wan opposite numbers at the Corn Stores. So nearly there, but I still wished the restaurant had spent less time artfully arranging pink Himalayan salt on the plate and more time making sure the steak wasn’t overcooked.

Because of the pacing of our meal, we still had a fair bit of Malbec left when our main courses were taken away, so we took our time mulling over the dessert menu before making our choices. It was a nicely buzzy restaurant and the top floor was almost full, even on a Monday night. The dessert menu had lots of tempting choices on it (especially if you liked dulce de leche) but both wait staff looking after us raved about the churros. Were they especially good, or was it the dish with the biggest margin? I wanted to believe the former, Zoë suspected the latter.

You’ll have to tell me, if you go, because we were both drawn to different things on the menu. Zoë loved her chocolate torte, served simply on its own without any compote or coulis, and I could see why: the only forkful I managed to nab was moist and well-balanced, sweet but not too sweet. She complemented our waiter on it and he told us it had been made onsite that morning: that’s rarer these days than it ought to be.

I did less well, I’d say: the dulce de leche cheesecake was nice enough but the biscuit base needed more crunch and the whole thing needed more than the slightly proctological smudge of dulce de leche that accompanied it (I could have done without the compote on this one, too: it didn’t add much). If I lost on the dessert I slightly nudged it on dessert wine – my glass of Torrontes Late Harvest was really lovely, cool and clean without being too gloopily sticky. Zoë’s Norton Tardia Chardonnay was a little sharper and not quite so impressive. Both were around six pounds, though, and generous pours at 100ml – nice to see so many Argentine dessert wines on the menu, too.

Service throughout was very good from both of the wait staff who looked after us – enthusiastic about some of the dishes, talkative but not over the top and, when it came to the overdone steak, more than prepared to make amends. The mistake there was the kitchen’s, not theirs, after all – they, by contrast, didn’t put a foot wrong. Our Romanian waiter was chatting away to the table next to us and I was struck by how nicely personable he was, friendly without being overfamiliar. When he asked what we were up to once we’d finished our meal (a pint and a debrief in the Allied Arms, as it happens) I felt like he genuinely wanted to know, and when he said how much he loved the Allied’s garden I felt like he genuinely meant it, too.

Our bill came to one hundred and twenty-two pounds, including an optional service charge of ten per cent. This may seem a lot, but we had three starters, two mains, a couple of sides, two desserts, a bottle of wine and two glasses of dessert wine. All the desserts cost less than six pounds, and most of the starters come in under the seven pound mark. Even my steak was less than sixteen pounds, considerably less than a similar dish at the Corn Stores. When I went to the Corn Stores on duty, we had less to eat, far less to drink and walked out paying more (and their service charge is twelve and a half per cent, for service nowhere near as good). Buenasado feels like very good value for money, some minor quibbles aside, and I found myself eyeing their lunch deals too: steak frites for ten pounds, anybody?

Looking back, I fear this has sounded quite grumpy about what was really a very good, fairly priced and pretty accomplished meal. Yes, the black pudding was a bit on the small side, yes, the starters came too soon, yes, there might be quite a markup on the wine (show me a restaurant where there isn’t) and yes, they should dress their salads. But really, I had a very enjoyable evening there – it has taken all of the pluses CAU used to have and added a better atmosphere, some very competitive pricing and excellent service.

I left wondering when I’d be able to go back (perhaps for that steak frites lunch and a pint of Alhambra, my favourite beer and the only one they have on draft), Zoë was tempted to take her mum there when they went out for dinner later in the week. It’s a sleek, buzzy space and feels to me like the steak restaurant Reading has been crying out for for nearly a year. Whether you agree with my rating or not, ultimately, will come down to just how much you’d have knocked off for getting my steak wrong. Some of you will think I’ve been too kind, others will think I’ve been too harsh. That’s the joy of reviews, ratings and having readers with minds of their own; I think a lot of you would enjoy a meal at Buenasado. And the rest of the time? Thirty seconds per side for four minutes, honest to God.

Trust me. You can thank me later.

Buenasado – 7.7
The Oracle, Bridge Street, RG1 2AQ
0118 9589550

https://www.buenasado.com/restaurants/reading/

CAU

CAU closed in July 2018 because its owners Gaucho Group went into administration. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

I recently reached the stage where I was tempted to stop reviewing restaurants in the Oracle altogether. It’s never fitted with the ER ethos – full of chains like Bella Italia and Pizza Hut that are ten a penny all across the country. And it’s always felt pointless reviewing places like Wagamama and Yo! Sushi, because even though there’s a time and a place for them you probably already know what they’re like. The final straw was the closure of Tampopo and the announcement that TGI Friday would take its place (that’s when I began to wonder if the Oracle was actually run by Monty Burns). Still I guess they need the money, with plenty of shops consciously uncoupling from Brand Oracle and a fair few vacant lots, especially on the top floor.

So, what changed (I mean, you’ve read the title, you know what this review is about)? Well, CAU’s an interesting kettle of fish for a number of reasons. It’s not a chain just like everywhere else, for one: there are only a dozen across the country. Also, I was fascinated to see how they’d done it, because the restaurant has been created out of thin air, in an empty and unloved space on the side of the Oracle, the fast but shallow Holybrook the only redeeming feature in a rather forgotten spot. But the other reason is that since it opened, CAU has been busy. Really busy. And all the feedback I’ve seen said it was pretty decent. Had the Oracle got it right for once?

It’s an odd experience having dinner in a building which, a year ago, didn’t even exist. It’s a very neat use of a compact space, with two storeys and a modest terrace on the lower floor, prettied up with some landscaping and some kind of light installation on the opposite wall (I can see it would be a nice place to eat on a warm day). I sat on the top floor, in a long thin dining room with white corrugated iron walls and modernist lighting, all chrome spheres and swivel chairs. That compactness does show, though, in the space for diners: everything is just a little smaller than you’d want it to be (I wouldn’t have wanted to be a table for four in the banquette booths in the centre of the room – not with my elbows).

As you probably know, CAU stands for Carne Argentina Unica (I wonder which came first, the name or the convenient acronym?) and is the younger/cheaper sibling of Gaucho, the awfully expensive steak house that is sprinkled over the spendy bits of London. So the menu is mainly Argentine, mainly beef, but not entirely – it does wander up to Mexico, across to Spain and even, for some of the vegetarian options, over to Italy. This presented a bit of a dilemma – I wanted to try a range of dishes, but ordering chicken or fish just to make a point about the diversity of the food felt like a silly act of tokenism. So if you don’t like steak this review might not be terribly enlightening – but anyway, there’s always the starters and the desserts.

The starters were probably the most difficult decision of the evening. It really is an embarrassment of riches and you could easily have been reading about empanadas, Argentinian charcuterie or half a dozen other dishes. I was particularly torn between the swordfish carpaccio and the smoked haddock and manchego croquettes. When I asked the waitress for advice, she recommended the latter without a moment’s hesitation. That alone would have justified a tip: they were generous and delicious, half a dozen big, irregular, crunchy cylinders. Inside, the perfect contrast – a filling so smooth it was almost a béchamel, beautiful shreds of fish and tons of chives. The caper mayonnaise they came with almost felt an afterthought – creamy and bland where a bit of sharpness would have worked wonders – but it was by no means a deal breaker. I would have liked a bit more salt from the manchego but again, that was more twenty-twenty hindsight than anything else.

CAUStarter

They almost made up for the disappointment of the other starter, something that with hindsight I probably should have known better than to order. Quesadillas were a rather sad prospect compared to the crispy loveliness of the croquettes: the tortilla itself was pretty small and, despite the blurb on the menu, was by no means “packed” with vegetables or cheese. A layer of peppers, artichokes and courgette strips with manchego (for flavour, I’d guess) and mozzarella (for texture) was, in fact, even duller than it sounds. The guacamole on the side was pleasantly zesty but not enough to save the whole thing. It was bland and stingy, everything the other starter wasn’t. It’s my fault really – normally I’m good at spotting the duffer on a menu so I’m not sure what went wrong here. There are actually quite a lot of vegetarian options on the starter menu: I hope the rest aren’t as much of an afterthought as this felt. I should have had the charcuterie after all.

The range of steaks on offer at CAU ranges from the mainstream – familiar cuts like rump and rib-eye – to the more high-end. This is where you can end up spending quite a lot of money, as you can at Gaucho: most of the speciality cuts start at the thirty pound mark and you get almost a pound of flesh for your pound of flesh. I struggled with spending that much on account of not being a Russian oligarch, so we went for the more conventional cuts on the left hand side of the menu, and it has to be said that these were a lot more keenly priced: two medallions of fillet was less than fifteen pounds, a sirloin was just shy of eighteen. Unfortunately, I had to wait slightly longer to try the steak than I was expecting. The medallions turned up perfectly medium rare as requested, but the sirloin was medium well with very little pinkness, no glorious blood seeping out onto the plate.

This is, let’s face it, a pretty terrible gaffe from a restaurant which prides itself on brilliant beef cooked brilliantly. But sometimes, first impressions aren’t everything and the way CAU dealt with it was exemplary. I was in two minds about sending it back because, in my experience, that usually means that I have to watch everyone else eating their food (never fun) and then experience everyone else watching me eat mine (possibly even less fun). But the moment I suggested to my waitress that all was not well she sprang into action: both dishes were taken away, completely redone and brought to the table at exactly the same time. I’ve racked my brains and I can’t think of a single restaurant in Reading – even at the high end – that has ever gone that far, let alone without being prompted. Very nicely done indeed, and it totally won me over.

So, once they finally arrived, they truly were perfect. The medallions were beautifully seasoned, perfectly grilled and the yielding texture when sliced was enough to render me speechless. I rarely have steak at home because I can never get it right, but eating it here made me feel like most of the places I order steak at can’t get it right either (and they certainly can’t for only fifteen pounds). The sirloin was just as good – the char and salt on the outside giving way to the softness underneath. At this point any reservations – about the location, about the loudness of the music, about the slightly irksome white swivel chairs – simply melted away. I’d have eaten this beef locked in a broom cupboard listening to the Vengaboys, if that’s what it would have taken to try it.

CAUSteak

The accompaniments were very much second fiddle, although that was only to be expected. Chunky chips, served in a little fryer basket, were coarse and crispy, fluffy inside and perfect dunked in the tiny pots of sauce (which cost extra, I should add). The sauces themselves were a little underwhelming, in truth: “garlic and herb aioli” was all herb and no garlic, all mouth and no trousers. I got parsley and just enough tarragon to make me wish béarnaise was on the menu. Still, I’m going through a phase of really enjoying chips dipped in mayo, so it wasn’t all bad. The chimichurri was better, but possibly had a little too much vinegar and not enough of everything else. I deliberately didn’t order a blue cheese sauce because it felt inauthentic; by the end I wished I hadn’t been so prissy.

Just as CAU is all about beef it’s also all about Malbec – so much so that the wine list actually has four sections – sparkling, white, red and Malbec. I liked this, but what I really loved was that the vast majority of their wines are available in 500ml pots as well as full bottles. I really don’t understand why more restaurants don’t offer this, if only because I’m far more likely to order two carafes than I am to order two bottles. We had a Patagonian Malbec with our steaks and it was terrific – fruity but with a little smoke and not overwhelmed by the beef. Before that, while we made up our minds, we had an elderflower spritz – a very refreshing cocktail which tasted so little of alcohol that it was positively dangerous – and a very good Asturian cider.

On to desserts: I’d seen churros arrive at another table so I’d already decided I had to try them. They arrived in a little Jenga stack, liberally dusted with sugar and cinnamon, with a little pot of dulce de leche (which I have a bit of a soft spot for). Sadly I have to say that they didn’t quite go together – the sauce was a bit too thick to coat the churros and the churros were strong enough to drown out the toffee flavour. I resorted to eating the two dishes on their own (not exactly a hardship), running my finger round the pot to get the last of the dulce de leche out Nigella-style.

The other dessert, the cornflake ice cream sundae, is apparently a signature dish. I wasn’t a huge fan of it, I’m afraid. The cubes of chocolate brownie in it were crumbly delights, and the dulce de leche smeared round the inside of the sundae glass were gorgeous, but the cornflake-flavoured ice cream just felt like ice cream and the ginormous heap of cornflakes on top was impossible to eat without knocking them onto the table. I imagine it would be very popular with kids, but it wasn’t such a hit with me.

CAUDessert

Service made a bad first impression: the greeter at the front door failed to make eye contact, which was odd, but from that point onwards it was all terrific. Our waitress was bright, personable, knowledgeable and almost faultless – recommending dishes, correcting mistakes, talking about the restaurant and making conversation without going through the motions. But more than that, there seemed to be an energy about all the staff, from the chirpy chap who brought out our replacement steaks to the barman dancing along to the eclectic mix of music. I even found their “caugirl” and “cauboy” t-shirts amusing rather than naff – it felt like they were having fun but without any of that fake mateyness which is often so jarring in chain restaurants.

The bill, including an optional 10% service charge, came to ninety-five pounds. That’s for three courses and an aperitif each and that pot of malbec. It’s funny, when the bill turned up the amount was simultaneously more than I was expecting (that fifteen pound steak had me fooled) and not as much as I thought the meal was worth.

That rather sums up how I felt about CAU, in that I didn’t quite know what to make of it. Some of the dishes are really expensive, some are affordable. The affordable ones are terrific value. The food was bloody good, but first time round it wasn’t bloody enough. The staff make it feel like an informal restaurant but the prices at the high end are actually pretty close to what Gaucho would charge. And the clientele reflected that – some of my fellow diners were properly dolled up, to the extent where I felt a bit scruffy, and others were definitely there for a much more casual evening. You could look at all that and say that CAU is a restaurant that doesn’t know what it wants to be, or you could decide that it’s good at being all things to all people. Slightly against my preconceptions – I went expecting to like the food, hate the room and be underwhelmed by the service – I strongly suspect that it’s the latter. But I’ll probably go back soon, with my most carnivorous friends, just to be certain.

CAU – 7.8
The Oracle, Bridge Street, RG1 2AQ
0118 9505559

http://www.caurestaurants.com/book-a-table/reading/