Alona

I used to think the cardinal sin when eating in a restaurant was to take out a calculator when the bill arrived. You might know someone like this, someone who tots up exactly what they had and wants to pay for exactly that and not a penny more (strangely they’re often the same kind of people who neglect to add ten per cent to exactly what they spent – and not a penny more – when it comes to tipping). I don’t know anyone like that, or at least I don’t go to dinner with them. Paying for meals is like paying for rounds in pubs: sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind, but the only real way to be a loser is to keep count.

For years, I thought that was the worst thing you could do when eating out – well, that and being rude to the people serving you – and then an incident took place which changed my mind. I was on a double date at Comptoir Libanais, and we were meeting the other couple there at seven o’clock. There was some kind of mix-up and our dining companions got to the restaurant fifteen minutes early, and my date and I arrived at the appointed hour to find them halfway through eating their starters.

I was aghast. If you arrive early, ordering a drink is practically compulsory. Ordering bread and olives, if you’re peckish, is optional if you really can’t wait fifteen minutes. But starters? And this wasn’t just pitta and dips: the chap was ploughing his way through a portion of chicken wings as we took our seats. It was the first time I’d ever met these people so I could hardly say anything, but I spent the rest of the meal thinking Why is everybody acting like this is normal, acceptable behaviour? My date told me later on that I was being unnecessarily fussy, but I’ve never told another person who wasn’t shocked: if I’m ever elected to high office I might ensure that such conduct attracts a custodial sentence.

Anyway, company aside, the meal at Comptoir Libanais was forgettable. The service was comically bad, the food average at best and indifferent value to boot. My tagine (nothing like a nice authentic Lebanese tagine – as if there’s any such thing) was miserly and lukewarm, the couscous in huge clumps like only faintly edible asteroids. I hadn’t even wanted to go – it wasn’t my choice – and I felt like a traitor eating there when Bakery House was a couple of minutes away. It might not have a snazzy location on the Riverside, there might be no option to have alcohol with your meal (and the experience at Comptoir did rather make me want a drink) but Bakery House is the kind of independent restaurant Reading needs and deserves. I made a mental note to never go back to Comptoir Libanais on duty.

For a long time Reading only had those two Lebanese restaurants, and then I spotted Alona one Sunday afternoon as my taxi trundled up the Wokingham Road on the way to Nirvana. No website, no Facebook, but then I got reports on Twitter that Reading’s newest Lebanese restaurant was decent and might be up there with Bakery House; I needed no further incentive to hop on the 17 bus one evening and go there before word got out.

My companion this week was John Luther, who is responsible for programming at South Street and has done more most to shape Reading’s cultural scene. I’d wanted to take John with me on a visit ever since he judged my Honest Burgers competition last year – not only because I knew I’d be guaranteed stimulating conversation about all things artistic but also because I got a clear picture from John’s Twitter feed that he loves good food and craft beer. He was instrumental in bringing Craft Theory to Reading; he might be Bakery House’s most loyal patron (it’s effectively South Street’s staff canteen by now); he was Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen’s first customer: these things might not feature in John’s CV but they made him an ideal candidate to join me on duty.

It may be because Alona had been open little more than a month when we visited, but it looks pretty stripped-down. You walk in across the incongruous astroturf (they also offer shishas outside, apparently) and the counter on the right looks like standard kebab shop stuff with a brightly illuminated menu overhead. The dining room is on the left and is really very bare – plain tables, attractive tiles and not a lot else except a line of beaded lights at head height while changed colour throughout the meal like a hyperactive day-glo disco dado rail.

I asked whether we ordered at the table or at the counter and the answer was either or both: in the end we sat at the table nearest to the counter and asked nicely from there. The menu was like a pared down version of the Bakery House menu and prices were very similar, so you pay around a fiver for starters and mains hover near the twelve pound mark. Alona also does a range of wraps, presumably to eat off the premises. In fact, I saw more people turn up for takeaway than to eat in during our visit and only two other tables were occupied while we were there; eating under the functional lighting in such a stark place took on an increasingly Edward Hopperesque feel as the evening went on.

John and I valiantly did our best to try as many dishes on the menu as we could, and that meant rolling our sleeves up and tackling four starters. The first few arrived on a blue plastic tray, and we had to ask nicely for plates. The houmous kawrmah – one of two houmous options on the menu involving lamb – was very much a curate’s egg. The houmous itself was rather tasty and was clearly elevated by tons of tahini, if somewhat lacking in garlic.

“The olive oil with this is fantastic” said John. “Really fruity. But the lamb could do with more char.”

He was right: the lamb seemed appealing when it turned up but the look of it wrote a cheque that neither the taste nor the texture could cash. As happens too often on duty, I’d rather have had less and better. The pittas that came with it felt thin and almost stale, and weren’t a lot of help when scooping up houmous.

Grape leaf rolls (stuffed vine leaves, effectively) have long been a favourite of mine – I blame Corfu in the summer of 1987 – but these were unremarkable. The menu said they had meat in them (I was expecting minced lamb) but they were completely meat free. Excitement free too, really: you can get better ones in the chiller cabinet of M&S or the Co-Op, let alone in restaurants. I ate them because they were there, which is no real reason to eat anything.

The falafel on the other hand were decent, if not exciting (by this stage “decent, if not exciting” was starting to feel like a recurring theme). We’d ordered them partly to compare them against the Bakery House version (“a reference dish”, said John sagely) and they didn’t win out in that comparison: a bit too heavy, not enough texture on the outside and certainly no scattering of sesame seeds. But in fairness that’s a high bar, and these were passable falafel (“passable falafel”: a tongue twister up there with “day-glo disco dado rail”). I was more excited about the intense, shrivelled black olives and the sharp, salty pickles, which is probably not how it should be.

Chicken wings began the meal at an impressive £2 a portion, although as we were ordering them the man behind the counter stuck a 3 over the 2 up on the menu overhead. That was a little surreal. I managed to get over the whopping fifty per cent markup, but the chicken wings were also underwhelming – or, to put it another way, decent if not exciting. “There’s no sign that they’ve been marinated” said John, and that would probably have been forgivable if they had the beautiful, blackened char of a close encounter with a charcoal grill. But that hadn’t really happened either. We blamed the quantity of food we’d ordered for leaving some of these, but the truth is that we couldn’t really be arsed.

It was some time before we got round to ordering mains, partly because we were getting full and partly because the service at Alona was so relaxed you sensed it was all the same to them whether you were there or not. But mainly it was because the conversation was just so interesting and wide ranging: from family and friends to Reading’s cultural scene (“yes, we had Mumford And Sons at South Street before they made it big. They were pretty awful”) to the town’s rather interesting approach to awards, as exemplified by the decision to crown the Oracle as Reading’s premium cultural space (although I maintain that the beach bar, on a weekend night, is best viewed as some kind of performance art piece).

John moved to Reading fifteen years ago to work at South Street, and it was obvious talking to him that he loves our town every bit as much as I do. And I wondered for a second, probably fancifully, if we weren’t that different after all: trying to introduce the people of Reading to new stuff, promoting the plucky, the emerging and the up and coming, doing our bit to make the community we love a better place. But the parallels probably aren’t exact: I did have a swipe at the Hexagon at one point and he ever so nicely reminded me that without the Hexagon there could be no South Street, and that a good town needed both. Would I be so magnanimous about the likes of Bill’s or TGI Friday? I wondered. It seemed unlikely.

But then there might be something in it after all: “When people go to a Hexagon show, they know what they’re getting”, John said, “but when they come to South Street I hope they go away having been made to feel, or think, in a different way”. I still like to believe that food culture can be like that, even if you’re comparing Pepe Sale to Zizzi or Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen to Bina Tandoori. But what do I know? I’m just a restaurant reviewer.

Anyway, back to the food: we decided to share a couple of dishes from the grill, so we went for a mixed grill for one and a lamb shawarma. The former was so huge that although we were charged for a single portion I can’t believe they didn’t bring us a mixed grill for two by mistake. The highlight of this was the chicken shish, which got the balance just right, perfectly soft without sacrificing the texture outside, although there was still little evidence of marination. I was more dubious about the lamb kofte, which was a little bouncy for my liking (it was one of those kebabs where you’re wary of looking at the cross-section, put it that way). John raved about – and finished off – the lamb shish but I would have liked it more tender. We were agreed, though, on the lamb chops, which were unnecessarily tough and far from a highlight. Mixed grill? Mixed bag, more like.

All that paled into insignificance, though, compared to the experience of Alona’s lamb shawarma. You know that feeling when a dish is plonked in front of you and you actively don’t want to eat it? The last time I had it was in Paris last year when I was dished up a slice of terrine, jelly and all, which looked exactly like it had been extracted from a tin of Pedigree Chum. This lamb shawarma was a very similar experience – a plate full of wobbly, gelatinous meat which required a scalpel more than a knife and fork.

“I’m not sure that fat has rendered properly” said John, displaying a masterful talent for understatement. I felt like just saying “that looks repulsive” (which might also have been an understatement) but I thought better of it. We both gingerly picked through it, trying to find bits which required minimal dissection. It didn’t taste as bad as it looked – not much would, in honesty – but it was all cloves and no subtlety, a bit like drinking HP sauce from a shot glass and eating chewing gum at the same time.

After a couple of forkfuls I became extremely grateful both that John and I had already eaten a lot of food and that we’d ordered main courses to share. Imagine having ordered a helping of this to yourself and having to eat it in front of friends or loved ones: it didn’t bear thinking about. We left almost all of it, and I had my “oh, but I’m so full!” speech (complete with patting belly) prepared, but fortunately we weren’t asked about it. That’s not to criticise the service, which was actually really friendly and enthusiastic – and they generally did seem to want to know what we thought of everything – but service alone just isn’t enough.

Both mains came with a choice of rice or chips, so for completeness’ sake we had both. For completeness’ sake I’m also telling you that but really, they weren’t anything to write home about. There’s no alcohol licence at Alona either so we went crazy and had a bottle of water each, too. We settled up, paying the princely sum of forty-two pounds without service, and headed to the Hope & Bear for a pint and a debrief. That basically consisted of discussing Michelin starred restaurants we’d both enjoyed: it’s almost as if we were trying to take our minds off the shawarma. We were like Terry Waite and John McCarthy, chained to that culinary radiator.

Finishing by describing one of the worst dishes I’ve eaten this year probably puts an unnecessary downer on this review. To pull things back slightly: you could have a reasonable meal at Alona. If I’d had the houmous beiruty and the chicken shish, I probably would have thought it a pleasant, if unspecial, dinner. But even then I would have been struck by the mediocre pitta, and the standard issue chips, and I would have known deep down that I could have had a better, cheaper meal at Kings Grill. But based on what I had, the consistency just wasn’t there, and the range ran the gamut from “just above average” to “God, no”.

I really hoped not to end the review this way, but I can’t not say this: I can’t see a single reason why you’d go to Alona when Bakery House exists. When I think of the lamb shawarma at Bakery House, crispy, intense, generous and delicious (and I’ve done so many times, trying to wipe memories of Alona’s version from my mind), I realise there’s no comparison at all. They’re both lamb shawarma, but only in the way that Barack Obama and Jim Davidson are both humans. Alona isn’t Jim Davidson, not by any means, but my terrific evening there was down to the company, not the food. I hope Alona picks up and improves: with such an obvious, direct and superior competitor in the centre of town it needs to. Fast.

And, since someone will almost certainly ask: if I had to choose between Alona and Comptoir Libanais? I’d go to Comptoir Libanais – with somebody who waited until I got there before ordering.

Alona – 6.1
133 Wokingham Road, RG6 1LW
0118 9667000

(No website)

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Feature: Table for one

What a difference three years makes: back in 2015, when I last posted a guide to solo dining, I waxed lyrical about it as an experience but, truth be told, I didn’t do it that often. Now and again when my spouse went away on business, mainly, or on the odd occasion when I had a day off to myself, but my experience of it was more limited than my paean of praise made it sound. It probably shows in the piece, because – despite my best intentions – it read more as advice and consolation for those who found themselves unfortunate enough to be eating alone, rather than a celebration of the joys of a table for one.

These days I have a far richer experience of eating on your own, at all points on the spectrum. Separation, divorce, self-discovery, solo holidays, working out that some of your friends aren’t actually friends at all: all that Eat Pray Love bullshit has many effects but one of them, for me, was to give me a far better understanding of the benefits of going to a restaurant accompanied only by a copy of Private Eye (and my phone, for when the cynicism gets too much). Fast forward three years, and I’ve eaten on my own all over the place.

I’ve been jammed in at the bar at a hot – in both senses – packed no-reservation London place on a weekday lunchtime. I’ve spoiled myself by ordering from the a la carte menu at Nirvana Spa, in my fluffy white robe, peering at my paperback between courses. I’ve dined at Pierre Victoire, pretending to pay attention to a magazine while really people watching North Oxford’s finest eating and chatting, imagining all those different lives intersecting, albeit briefly, with mine. And last year I spent the best part of a week in Paris on my own, reinventing old favourites and discovering new ones. A good table, a good view, a good glass of wine and a good book, alone but not lonely; I might not have learned to completely love eating alone, but I certainly came to appreciate it.

Closer to home, there’s a lot to be said for a table for one and lots of occasions where it can be a positive pleasure. The quick solo meal on the way to meet friends in the pub, especially people from the “eating is cheating” brigade (just me, maybe, but I’ve always found that a dreary philosophy to live by). The drawn-out lunch on a Saturday when you have the day to yourself. Or even just the moment – and this might just be me – where I get off the train at Reading station (or Gare Du Ding, as I keep calling it) and I just can’t be arsed to cook. The sun is shining, I have nowhere in particular to be and I think how nice it would be to treat myself before heading home.

Not only has my life changed a lot in the last three years: Reading has too. Two of my choices last time around are not currently trading. I Love Paella has left the Fisherman’s Cottage (in contentious circumstances: less said about that the better) and Dolce Vita has left Kings Walk, forced out by a greedy landlord who wanted to make more money. If Namaste Kitchen was still running its menu from earlier in the year it would have made this list, because I couldn’t imagine anything finer than going there and having a beer, a plate of paneer pakora and a chicken chow mein (one of the joys of eating solo, in a small plates restaurant like Namaste Kitchen, is not having to share food for once).

And of course, I still miss Georgian Feast (the artist formerly known as Caucasian Spice Box) back when they cooked from the Turks Head. It became a regular ritual for me to head over there and eat on my own for the first half of last year: meatballs, spiced chicken thighs, sharply dressed salad and cheese bread – oh, and a pint of Strongbow Cloudy Apple. At the time I was living in a truly awful one bedroom flat, and it felt like having friends cook for you which, after a while, I suppose it sort of was; sometimes you can tell a lot about a restaurant by how it treats solo diners.

The other way that this list has changed since 2015 is that it reflects the rise of what, for want of a better phrase, I would call the Good Chain. Smaller, smarter chains are coming to Reading and they can often provide a little bit of the intimacy of an independent restaurant with some of the polish you associate with a bigger establishment. I make no apology for including so many of them here, because I’m interested in good restaurants – and good restaurants to eat alone in – and it’s not my fault that Reading doesn’t yet have the kind of independents, especially in the town centre, that get this stuff right.

I eat alone less often these days than I used to, nowadays, but a good meal alone is still a wonderful act of self-care, provided you pick the right venue. No quibbles about splitting the bill, nobody judging you for ordering too much, or having the expensive wine. No rush, nobody to please but yourself, and all that people watching. So here are my current recommendations – I hope they come in handy, and if you’ve always considered eating out on your own a step too far I really would encourage you to give it a try.

1. Bakery House

The perfect combination of food and anonymity.

I’ve grown to love an early evening meal alone at Bakery House. I sit facing out into that long, slightly chilly room, sip on an orange Mirinda (it’s basically Tango) and wait for the food to arrive. Some days I’ll munch on maqaneq: little, punchy sausages – you get an awful lot of them. On others I might go for the smooth, rich houmous beiruty, glossy and packed with tahini, beautiful piled on a big bubble of pitta, fresh from the oven.

That done, I can look forward to the main event. I tend to order the lamb shawarma – a big mound of intensely flavoured shreds of lamb, with garlic sauce, chilli sauce and terrific vegetable rice. But then there are also the delights of the boneless baby chicken, all charred skin and tender meat, a holiday on a plate. What could be better than being so transported?

The service at Bakery House can verge on standoffish, grumpy even. In other contexts that might be frustrating, but there’s something oddly comforting about how anonymous you can feel eating there. They don’t care whether you’re in a big group, on a date or alone, they’re simply there to bring you food and to leave you in peace. They’re like the barber that knows better than to talk to you when he’s cutting your hair, and some of my happiest, most meditative meals have taken place at Bakery House.

Bakery House, 82 London Street, RG1 4SJ
http://bakeryhouse.co

2. Cote

Three courses, because you deserve them.

Cote, for me, is for the full solo three course experience. Sitting on the banquette looking out into the room is one of the best, most uplifting ways that you can say “I deserve this”, whether you’re ordering from the set menu or the full a la carte. The latter sometimes has some brilliant specials – confit duck, perhaps, or the rare treat of a skate wing swimming with butter and festooned with capers (there isn’t much in life that rivals flipping a skate wing over halfway through eating it and realising that you have the thick side yet to come).

The set menu really comes into its own on summer days, when you can sit at a little table outside, with a view of the canal. I like to drink a Breton cider, crisp and almost sweet, and watch the world go by while I make my choices. Some of the dishes are good, and some are great, but all are stupidly reasonably priced, and the act of eating before 7pm means that you’re likely to be finished before the light has faded and the best of the evening has gone. I used to think “if I tried hard I could imagine I was in Paris right now”, but these days I think “I’m so lucky to live here.”

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

3. Franco Manca

Comfort food, elevated.

When it comes to comfort, little can top cheese on toast – and if anything can, it might be Franco Manca’s sourdough pizza. I have a real soft spot for their anchovy and caper version (ask for extra anchovies, because although Franco Manca is very reasonably priced you do to some extent get what you pay for). That said, their standard margarita is also worth a go, topped with whatever extras they have on the menu that day (the picture above, coppa and Ogleshield cheddar, was a particular high point). Oh, and have a blue cheese or pesto dip, because it really does transform the whole thing.

Franco Manca is perfect for a quick stop, but it’s actually not hard to make it more of a treat. Some of the starters – especially anything with mozzarella (smoked or otherwise), burrata or fennel salami – well worth lingering over, as long as you can overlook the fact that most of them are stuff you’d put on a pizza taken off a pizza and served cold on a plate instead. I can, anyway. And finally, the chocolate ice cream is pretty decent as is my personal favourite, a crafty affogato.

When I first reviewed Franco Manca I liked the food and was sceptical about the room, mainly because it was impossible to hear your dining companion. It turns out that really isn’t an issue when you go on your own, which means that what could be a wall of noise becomes a strangely comforting hubbub. Sitting outside, on a summer day, is also a lovely thing to do.

Franco Manca, The Oracle, Bridge Street, RG1 2AT
https://www.francomanca.co.uk/restaurants/reading

4. Honest Burgers

Meat and potatoes.

I said the Good Chains had this eating alone business down pat, and you would struggle to find a better example of that than Honest Burgers. Much has been made, quite rightly, of what a beautiful job they did with the interior. And plenty has been written about the virtues of the Reading burger, making the most of our local suppliers. Not to mention the King Street Pale, a truly wonderful beer which even I, more of a lager fan, can neck by the pint.

Well, yes. But for my money, the best thing to do at Honest is forego the Reading special and whatever the flavour of the month is and let Honest do what they do best, which is serve cheeseburgers. I go for their most basic burger, topped with cheddar, and that way you can really taste the quality of the beef, the char of the crust, the hint of salt.

Your mileage may vary, but in any case it really is another fantastic venue to eat well and unfussily, especially if you have somewhere to go shortly afterwards. My stepfather has got into the habit of grabbing an Honest before taking in a movie at Vue, and he is a man who knows what he’s doing.

Honest Burgers, 1-5 King Street, RG1 2HB
https://www.honestburgers.co.uk/locations/reading/

5. Kokoro

Dinner on the run.

Kokoro is an illustration of what I call the “yaki soba effect”. Back when I used to go to Wagamama, I always ordered the yaki soba, a big heap of noodles with chicken and prawns and pickled ginger and plenty of good stuff. It never let me down, and became my takeaway of choice for a while. Then I decided I really ought to branch out, but every time I did my meal was plain disappointing – and, usually, I had to watch someone else eat yaki soba in front of me while I pretended to enjoy chicken katsu curry (a dish which always looks a tad too scatological for my liking).

Kokoro is the same – it’s all about the sweet chilli chicken. I mean, just look at that picture up there. Look at it! Doesn’t it make you peckish? A glossy, fiery deep red sauce (and these days they give you enough to coat the rice or noodles) with clearly visible garlic – the best kind of garlic, if you ask me – and piece after piece of tender, crispy-coated chicken. They serve it in either a medium or a large cardboard tub: the medium is quite big enough for anybody, but the large only costs a pound more. The whole thing comes in at the six or seven quid mark, and it’s one of the very best dinners on the run Reading has to offer. You sit at a basic wooden table, polish it off and watch other people come in and place their orders – usually for the sweet chilli chicken, unsurprisingly.

Last time I went, I decided to try the chicken curry instead. It had lots of tender, chicken thigh cooked into strands. It had an anonymous brown sauce which tasted largely of nothing. It was, in short, not the sweet chilli chicken, and that’s when I realised that I won’t make that mistake again. Kokoro also sells chicken katsu curry, but who on earth orders that? People who don’t like the yaki soba at Wagamama, I suppose.

Kokoro, 13 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1SY
http://kokorouk.com/

6. Sapana Home

Because the best things come in multiples of ten.

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Ten pan-fried chicken momo cost six pounds fifty at Sapana Home. They come on a plate, clustered round a little dish of hot dipping sauce, and when you have them pan fried they have a slightly caramelised exterior which seals the deal. A plate of Sapana Home’s momo, I think, can gladden even the heaviest heart. My favourite momo is the fifth one: before that, they pass too quickly and you eat them almost without savouring them, whereas after that you are maybe a little too aware that your pleasure – as most pleasures do – is inevitably coming to an end.

There are other dishes there I recommend, if you’re feeling greedy. The chicken fry is wonderful – pieces of chicken, spring onion and tomato with that same hot sauce. The chow mein, which is fundamentally the chicken fry plus noodles, is also splendid. And if you feel more adventurous I heartily recommend the samosa chaat, a glorious four-way pile-up involving samosas, yoghurt, crispy noodles and red onion.

Late 2016, when I took a break from reviewing restaurants, was a pretty bleak period in my life. Nothing was going right, and when I finished work and got back into town on the train I really didn’t want to go home any time soon, much of the time. What got me through many difficult days, back then, was a plate of momo at Sapana Home. It’s a little place, and it’s best to sit upstairs if you can, where there is daylight. The service is brusque but not unkind. There was a period when sitting there, eating momo and listening to the oddly comforting (if mindless) strains of Heart FM was truly my happy place.

If any further illustration was needed, it’s this. The photo above was taken last night: writing this made me want to go back, so I did. Things have changed a little since I last went: the music was classic Bollywood rather than commercial radio, and the momo (they now do lamb too, although I didn’t order them) were slightly less packed with filling, lighter and more delicate. It was like seeing an old friend after a while and realising they’ve lost weight. I did, for a moment, consider putting Kings Grill in this sixth spot instead. But I’ve kept Sapana Home on this list – it may be mainly for sentimental reasons, but momos six to ten were still as bittersweet.

Sapana Home, 8 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1TG
http://sapanahome.co.uk/

Feature: The 10 Reading Dishes You Must Try Before You Die (or relocate)

It’s a while since I did a feature on the blog, but this one has been percolating for some time. Eighteen months ago I went on holiday to Malaga, and although it was a mixed bag, one thing I really loved was the food culture. I did a food tour which took me from restaurant to market to bar to restaurant, trying the best dishes from the best places, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself (I also spent much of the time apologising to all the lovely Europeans in my tour group about the Brexit referendum result, but that’s another story).

When I visited, Malaga was celebrating “Tapas Month” – well, it’s got to beat Veganuary – and participating restaurants had teamed up to put together a tapas trail across the city, each one offering a special edition tapa for a couple of Euros, only available for that month. I spent much of my trip wishing I could stop and try all the dishes – that, and wishing that I was on holiday with someone who would want to.

When I returned home, I pondered whether either of those things would work for Reading, but decided it was just too difficult in practice. What was I going to do, walk them to the farmer’s market and then take them to Sapana Home for momo? No dice: Reading was too small, and it definitely didn’t have enough of a small plates culture, so I abandoned the idea.

This year, I vaguely revisited the idea of readers’ events, namely lunches, and we’ve had two very successful ones so far – at Namaste Kitchen in January, and I Love Paella in May. At the latter, the kitchen (headed by the redoubtable Edgar) put together a set menu including a special dish: ox tail empanadas. They were easily one of the loveliest things I’ve ever eaten at I Love Paella: meat cooked into sticky, yielding strands, deeply savoury, all wrapped up in that astonishing light pastry.

If you were there, you’ll know how good they were, and if you weren’t you’ll have to take my word for it, because they were on offer for one day only. So I didn’t manage a tapas month, but for just one day we got our very own exclusive Reading tapa. If they’d made it on to the menu, they’d easily be one of the must-try dishes in Reading. But what else fitted that description, I got to thinking. What were Reading’s culinary equivalents of the Seven Wonders Of The World?

So my initial idea morphed into exactly that, and it crystallised when I was down the pub with, of all people, Martijn Gilbert, the outgoing CEO of Reading Buses. Martijn has kindly agreed to come out on duty with me before he leaves for pastures new (my way of saying thank you, you could say, for the splendid app which allows me to reply to texts from my mother like “what’s your ETA this evening and would you like a gin when you get here?”). But before that, I spent an evening showing Martijn round the splendid pubs of the Village and I found myself wondering: what should be on his gastronomic bucket list before he heads off to the North East to take up his shiny new job?

That’s when I decided – I would compile the list of Reading Dishes You Must Try Before You Die (or, less melodramatically, relocate). After painstaking research and contemplation, I’ve boiled it down to ten signature dishes which, I think, demonstrate the many faces of Reading’s magnificent independent restaurant scene. With one exception, they are dishes you can only get in Reading, or at least only get this version of here: and that means that there are no chains in this list, however much I like Honest Burgers or Franco Manca’s lovely anchovy and caper pizza (I’ve relaxed this rule for number 6, but it’s a tiny chain with two branches).

I’ve applied a couple of other rules: one was that I only picked one dish per restaurant, which excluded a lot of wonderful dishes. Another was that they had to be dishes from permanent restaurants, which meant that sadly, Peru Sabor’s delicious ox heart anticuchos and the incredible spiced chicken wraps from Georgian Feast didn’t make the cut. I should also add that I am not a vegetarian or a vegan and I have chosen on merit rather than by quota, which means only one vegetarian dish makes my list.

But you could fill an impressive enough list with all the other dishes that didn’t make the grade, from Papa Gee’s Sofia Loren pizza to Shed’s Top Toastie, from House Of Flavours’ lahsooni chicken tikka to London Street Brasserie’s fish and chips. You’ll doubtless have your own favourites which I’ve missed, and hopefully you’ll comment telling me how wrong I am: lists like this are made to be disagreed with, and that’s as it should be. But in any event, I hope there’s at least one dish on this list you’ve never tried, and that this piece makes you feel like giving it a whirl.

One final thought before I begin: this could have been a very different list if Namaste Kitchen was still offering its old menu, or if Dolce Vita was still with us. If nothing else, I hope people try some of these dishes out so I’m not lamenting the loss of any of these restaurants a year from now. And in a year’s time, who knows what this list might look like: after all, the venison bhuna from Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen already looks like a contender in the making, and that place has only been open a couple of weeks.

1. Big pot cauliflower, Memory Of Sichuan

Because, it turns out, Chinese bacon is a thing.

I can’t lie: Memory Of Sichuan can be an intimidating restaurant to walk in to. Most of the customers aren’t Western, and the ones that are aren’t eating from the proper menu, the one with all the good stuff on it. And even the proper menu can be quite an eye opener, with all sorts of dishes you wouldn’t recognize or wouldn’t want to try – duck blood here, pig’s ear there, like a cross between Old Macdonald Had A Farm and A Nightmare On Elm Street. But the big pot cauliflower is well worth it: I suspect it may have more going on than any of the other dishes on this list. So there’s cauliflower, of course, lovely firm florets of the stuff, but there’s also bacon like char siu, colossal quantities of garlic, spring onion and soy beans. By the end, at the bottom of the pot, you have a sticky, sweet mixture of all of the above just waiting to be chased round the dish with a fork, relentlessly hunted down and consumed. Order it and enjoy – and feel a little sorry for everybody there who’s making do with sweet and sour.

Memory Of Sichuan, 109 Friar Street, http://www.memoryofsichuan.co.uk/web/

2. Charsi chicken karahi, Kobeda Palace

The pride of the Oxford Road.

Earlier in the year I went to a house party on Brunswick Hill. I was reluctant about going, but I promised I would attend provided I could slope off and have dinner at Kobeda Palace – well, it was just round the corner after all. But the Oxford Road’s Afghan grill house is well worth a hop on the number 17 bus (the 17 bus route is the backbone of Reading, don’t you know) any day of the week. The thing to do, if you can persuade your friends, is to order a huge dish of the chicken karahi – they sell it by the quarter of a kilo – and some naan and spend your time grabbing some chicken, shredding it off the bone (which never takes long) and scooping it up with the naan, along with the beautiful sauce packed with coriander, chilli and ginger. If you can’t persuade your friends, order half a kilo and have at it on your own. This really is one of Reading’s unsung, unforgettable dishes hiding in plain sight in one of Reading’s most unglamorous and little-known restaurants. The party, since you asked, was okay I guess. But the chicken karahi was out of this world.

Kobeda Palace, 409-411 Oxford Road, http://www.kobedapalace.co.uk/

3. Chilli paneer, Bhel Puri House

Vegetarian perfection, cubed.

I’ve written about Bhel Puri’s chilli paneer so many times you may be bored of hearing it, but it bears repetition: whether you’re vegetarian or not this is one of the very best things you can spend your money on in Reading. I introduced a good friend to this dish recently, after a long absence, and I got to experience just how wonderful it is through the eyes of somebody else. She enjoyed it so much her face struggled to register it, and instead you got an expression as if she was trying to solve an especially hard Sudoku. It’s so good it almost induces consternation, and I can sympathise: the first time you get that combination of crispy, sticky cheese and sweet green pepper – and the delight of spearing both with your fork and eating them in a single mouthful – is something you simply do not forget.

Bhel Puri House, Yield Hall Lane, http://bhelpurihouse.co.uk/

4. Dak-gang jeong, Soju

It’s KFC, but not as we know it.

It’s not even a month since my review of Soju, but from the moment I first ate their fried chicken I knew this was a dish I would be evangelising about to all and sundry. The coating was just right, the flesh underneath was spot on, the sauce had just the right mixture of hot and sour without any sweetness. I’ve thought about it dozens of times since, and wondered whether it would be over the top to go back simply to order the chicken and a cold beer, followed possibly by another portion of chicken and a cold beer. An instant classic.

Soju, 9-11 Kings Walk, https://www.thesoju.co.uk/

5. Double duck scotch egg, The Lyndhurst

Pub food, done right.

This choice will probably come as no surprise – The Lyndhurst won my World Cup Of Reading Restaurants earlier in the year on Twitter with good reason – but it’s still a thoroughly deserved entrant in my top ten. The Lyndhurst has transformed in the last eighteen months or so, offering a range of classic pub food (excellent fish and chips and a very creditable burger) along with cheffier, prettier things: I was particularly bowled over, on a recent visit, by a pork chop with a breathtaking wild garlic pesto. But the Scotch egg is the centrepiece – a generous duck egg, wrapped in duck meat and cooked so the outside has that crispy crust, the meat hasn’t dried out and the golden yolk is the perfect texture for oozing. I’ve even ordered one when I’ve just been at the Lyndhurst for drinks: is that just me?

The Lyndhurst, 88-90 Queens Road, http://www.thelyndhurstreading.co.uk

6. Gaeng massaman, Thai Table

The ultimate comfort food.

Most Thai food I can take or leave, but I always console myself with knowing that the bit at the end, where all that’s left is the coconut rice and the warming, aromatic sauce, is the best part. Thai Table’s massaman curry turns that on its head because although that bit is still amazing, the beef is simply spectacular – cooked until it completely falls apart, no resistance or (worse still) bounce at all. If I was feeling a bit defeated by life, or worried about the state of the world, I can’t think of any dish on this list I would sooner eat. The spice is there, but sweetened with the coconut milk and the fish sauce the whole thing comes out feeling like an embrace.

Thai Table, 8 Church Road, http://www.thaitable.co.uk/

7. Lamb shawarma wrap, Bakery House

The sandwich of the gods.

Bakery House’s menu is an embarrassment of riches, many of which could easily have made it onto this list. The baby chicken, more boneless than a Tory Remainer and far more appetising, is one of my favourite things to eat there – as are the perfectly light falafel, not to mention the chicken livers, in a rich sauce which manages to be both fruity and fiery. But in the end, it was impossible to look past the lamb shawarma. How Bakery House manages to pack such rich flavour into shards of lamb I will never know, but when you team that up with a smudge of tahini, salad and sharp, crisp pickles you have the perfect sandwich. Well worth a short lunchtime walk out of town and miles better than anything you could pick up at the likes of Pret A Manger.

Bakery House, 82 London Street, http://bakeryhouse.co/

8. Quiche Lorraine, Workhouse Coffee

Greg’s 1, Gregg’s 0.

Workhouse Coffee might not be everybody’s first choice of a lunch venue. It has little to offer the tea drinker – owner Greg Costello seems to hold tea drinkers in much the same regard as I hold members of Britain First – and you may want somewhere with wi-fi, or comfy seats, or even a readily accessible loo. You might want to see the prices of everything clearly listed, and who could blame you? These are all fair challenges, but what you can’t knock is the wide array of baked goods and sandwiches he lays on (figuratively not literally, thank Christ). I once Tweeted that Workhouse’s quiche Lorraine should be available on the NHS and I stand by that. It’s a marvel: crumbly buttery pastry, creamy egg, salty bacon and ribbon upon ribbon of sweet, caramelised onion. Order one for lunch when you have some time to spare (they don’t arrive at your table too quickly) and properly take your time eating one of Reading’s great dishes. Far more expensive than the steak bakes up the road on the market place, but worth every single penny. I’ve eaten this many times, but never stopped to take a photograph: I think that tells its own story.

Workhouse Coffee, 10-12 King Street, http://www.workhousecoffee.co.uk/

9. Spiced chicken salad, I Love Paella at The Fisherman’s Cottage

Yes, I picked a salad. Deal with it.

This is, no doubt, where I will part company with many of you. How could I overlook the empanadas? The goat’s cheese, its surface golden and grilled, served with tomato jam? The salt cod churros, the kind of fishfingers Captain Birdseye would make if he actually gave a shit about food? And the chicken paella, the seafood paella, the arroz negro? Have I gone mad? Well, maybe, but the understated star of the menu is the spiced chicken salad. This chicken – thighs, as always with ILP – is beautifully spiced and liberated from the starch of a paella or some bravas it really sings. The salad – leaves and halved cherry tomatoes – might look like not much, but it’s everything. And the dressing is oil but no vinegar, leaving a dish that is all sweetness and spice with no sharpness. Ironically I’d never have had this dish if it wasn’t for my mother – it’s the kind of thing she would order and I would avoid like the plague – but I went to ILP with her once and she chose the chicken salad. My exasperated eye-rolling was replaced with powerful food envy. I’ve been ordering it ever since. (N.B. I Love Paella has now left the Fisherman’s Cottage and is looking for premises elsewhere in Reading. I understand the Fisherman’s might still do a chicken salad, but I haven’t tried it so can’t recommend it.)

I Love Paella, 3 Canal Way, http://ilovepaella.co.uk/thepub/

10. Suckling pig, Pepe Sale

Roast dinners around Reading.

I’m often asked what the best roast dinner in Reading is, and I always cop out, telling people I don’t really review Sunday lunches. Reading used to have a magnificent blogger who did exactly that, and now he has moved to London where he writes brilliant weekly reviews. I’ve always thought that Sunday roasts are best done at home where you can have them exactly how you like and time everything perfectly. But actually, on reflection, there is a clear candidate for the best roast in Reading, the only drawback being that you can only order it on Friday and Saturday nights. Pepe Sale’s suckling pig is a phenomenal piece of work – beautifully dense slabs of pork, no sign of dryness, along with a crackling that’s so good you could almost weep. I realised in the course of writing this piece that I don’t have a photo of this dish, which is the cosmos’ way of telling me to go back soon.

Pepe Sale, 3 Queens Walk, http://pepesale.co.uk/

So, come on then: what did I miss?

The best of Reading

A few weeks ago I was having a drink with a Reading sceptic. Everyone knows at least one person like this: you almost certainly do, or maybe you are one (although if you are, reading this must be a bit like the experience I have on the rare occasions when I click on something by Richard Littlejohn). For instance, I used to have one friend – note the use of the past tense – who constantly whinged about Reading and how underwhelming it was. Even Portsmouth, where she used to live, was better, she said.

Once, bored by this recurring theme, I asked her whether she’d ever been to the Progress Theatre, taken in comedy at South Street, done the art Open House weekends in Whiteknights or Caversham, read Alt Reading or been to a gig at the Oakford, or indeed anywhere. The answer to all those questions was no: she had to get a babysitter to go out in town of an evening, she said, and she’d decided in advance that none of those things justified the expense. Whose fault was it, I wonder, that she found Reading so disappointing?

Anyway, I was strolling back along the canal with this particular Reading sceptic and, ever so nicely, she said that I made a good fist of sticking up for Reading and banging the drum for Reading but implied that really, I was just rolling a turd in glitter. She challenged me to name half a dozen places worth eating in Reading and I managed it, after a fashion, but I felt uncomfortably put on the spot. Perhaps I was just a little rusty, my well-prepared speech about how much I love this town gathering dust on the shelf.

The way some conversations do, it weighed on my mind for days. After all, if I can’t mount a convincing defence of the place after nearly three years of reviewing independent restaurants here, things must be pretty bleak mustn’t they? And it’s true that lately I’ve found myself on the train to Oxford a lot, eating brunch at the Handlebar Café, having a spot of lunch at Pierre Victoire or enjoying (well, loving actually) dinner at Branca. Each time I’ve been there I’ve walked past a new, interesting place – tapas restaurants, bakeries, little wine bars. I’ve even contemplated what it would be like to write Edible Oxford, and I felt a little guilty when I realised how fun that sounded.

Things happened the following week which quite restored my faith. On Thursday, I took a friend to the Fisherman’s Cottage for dinner. It was Tapas Thursday, and you could get a bottle of Estrella with a dish of crunchy bravas and rich aioli for a fiver, or failing that try a dinky sandwich filled with plump, smoky chorizo. I watched the pub fill up with people eating and drinking and I felt a tug of pride that I Love Paella, which I’ve been going to since it just dished up a handful of dishes at Workhouse Coffee down the Oxford Road some evenings, had grown to this and found a home where it was appreciated and where it belonged perfectly.

My friend doesn’t eat fish, and initially grizzled about the prospect of going to a place called I Love Paella, but when the chicken paella materialised in front of us, packed with plump beautifully seasoned thighs, his reservations vanished. It was a truly brilliant evening: for some people, cooking is how they show love but for me, with my negligible skills in the kitchen, it’s always been about finding nice places for people to eat. We stopped by the Lyndhurst for a drink after that. “You must try the Scotch egg some time”, I told him because, even with a full stomach, I couldn’t help myself.

The following night I was meeting my dad and I took him to the Turk’s for Georgian food from Caucasian Spice Box. If you think I’m gleeful when I eat a dish I love, you should meet my dad: he may well be where I get that from. And his face was a picture as beautiful dish after beautiful dish arrived at our table – coarse meatballs like faggots strewn with pomegranates, spiced chicken thighs with a sauce made from ground walnut, slices of soda bread stuffed with firm yet elastic cheese, a little dish of jonjoli, green tangy strands which were like a cross between seaweed and capers.

As my dad sighed, declared himself replete and asked them to box up a couple of chicken thighs to take home to my stepmother (just before helping himself to another baklava) I realised how lucky I am to live in a town with such brilliant, diverse, independent offerings.

I’ve lost count of the amount of times I go to another town, find a restaurant and think “if only this was near me I’d eat there all the time”. But the grass is always greener, and the truth is we have loads of those kind of restaurants here. So, all in one place, here’s a list of bite-sized reviews of the best of Reading: ten independent restaurants I’d recommend to anyone – new to this town, or a long-standing resident – who wants to discover the kind of food we have here. If you’re a regular reader then apologies for telling you things you probably already know but, if you’re not, this might be a decent place to start reading the blog.

Anyway, if all else fails, it’s a handy link you can send to any Reading sceptics you might not have converted yet. Hope you enjoy it.

Bakery House

The perfect example of the kind of restaurant I like – unfussy, unpretentious and serving brilliant Lebanese food. Houmous studded with shreds of roasted lamb, tiny pungent sausages, a whole boneless baby chicken crispy from the charcoal grill, puffy pittas still full of air like edible balloons ready to be dipped in sauce. You’ll reek of garlic the next day, but the chances are you won’t care. (82 London Street, RG1 4SJ)

Bhel Puri House

Reading’s only vegetarian restaurant and still a great place to go for lunch when you don’t want sandwiches. Nearly always full of families enjoying Indian street food, the service is lovely and the chilli paneer – cubes of caramelised cheese peppers – is one of the very best things you can eat in Reading. It’s always worth picking something as a punt from the menu, because when it works it can be a revelation, but if all else fails the Punjabi samosas are delicious. In summer you can eat in the courtyard it shares with Workhouse Coffee, one of Reading’s best natural sun traps. (Yield Hall Lane, RG1 2HF)

Caucasian Spice Box

N.B. Caucasian Spice Box has now rebranded as Georgian Feast and no longer cooks at The Turk’s. I can’t recommend the food at the Turk’s now.

Some of the nicest, friendliest service in Reading and a kitchen which does what restaurants should do but rarely manage – offer a short menu with no duffers where everything is worth a try. Georgian food is an eye-opener to anyone like me who has had rather jading experiences of food from Eastern Europe, and Caucasian Spice could easily convince you that you have a new favourite cuisine. When I go, I find it almost impossible to veer from the meatballs (probably the best I’ve ever had) and the spiced chicken thighs. But if you’re vegetarian the bean stew is also very tasty indeed, and if you’re taking someone who’s can’t see past pub food they can eat the very credible fish and chips while you give them the mother of all food envy. There’s usually beautiful baklava after you finish your mains (a lovely touch) and although they don’t promote it the pub also serves Georgian wine which goes beautifully with everything. (The Turk’s, 31 London Road, RG1 5BJ)

Dolce Vita

N.B. Dolce Vita has now closed.

Dolce Vita has a nice space and warm, welcoming service: going there always feels a bit like a cross between eating out and eating at home, especially if you become a semi-regular. Some of the main menu doesn’t do it for me – there are better pizzas elsewhere in Reading, and I’ve occasionally found the pasta a little overcooked – but many of the meat dishes are spectacular (particularly the saltimbocca), the set menu is uniformly packed with interesting stuff and if there are any Greek dishes on there they are always worth snaffling. The perfect example of how a good restaurant is so much more than the sum of its parts. (19-23 Kings Road, RG1 2HG)

I Love Paella

N.B. I Love Paella no longer cooks at The Fisherman’s Cottage and is looking for permanent premises in town.

I’ve waxed lyrical about it already but I Love Paella and the Fisherman’s Cottage has turned out to be such a perfect marriage that it’s now almost impossible to imagine one without the other. Tapas Thursday, with a constantly changing range of miniature dishes for – no, this isn’t a misprint – two pounds is the best day to go, but in my experience any day is a good day to eat I Love Paella’s food. The eponymous paella is a thing of wonder, but so are the grilled goat’s cheese with tomato jam, the stunning empanadas and the perfect combination of two gastronomic wet dreams that is ILP’s salt cod churros. (The Fisherman’s Cottage, 3 Canal Way, RG1 3HJ)

Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus

N.B. Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus has now revamped its menu and changed its serving staff, so this recommendation is no longer current.

I celebrated my thirtieth birthday in Kyrenia, as it was then called, so long ago that Tony Blair was still Prime Minister (and it’s not just the prospect of being thirty again which makes me look back on those days with nostalgic fondness). It may have a different name now many years later, but the place has aged a lot better than I have. It still has the same beautiful, elegant, simple décor. It still has tables packed close enough together that you feel like you’re sharing an evening with strangers in a good way (and apologies if you’ve ever had a table near one of my birthday celebrations) and the big windows at the front steam up. It still has tremendous service from people who have been working there all this time. And, most important, from salty firm halloumi to chargrilled spirals of octopus, from soft succulent kleftiko to firm, porky sheftalia, it still does magnificent food. (6 Prospect Street, RG4 8JG)

Kobeda Palace

One of the most unprepossessing places I’ve ever been on duty, Kobeda Palace still feels like a well-kept secret despite my attempts to publicise it. When I first went I was seduced by the kobeda – wonderful kofte kebabs cooked on the grill and dished up on huge, hand-stretched naan. But on return visits I’ve found myself completely addicted to the karahi chicken – served on the bone with a sauce resplendent with ginger. Buy as much of that as you can persuade your companions to share – they sell it by the half kilo – and make sure you get a giant naan to use to scoop up every last mouthful (or, if you can’t persuade your companions, do it anyway: I did). Oh, and a jug of mango lassi is five pounds. Five pounds! (409-411 Oxford Road, RG30 1HA)

Papa Gee

N.B. Papa Gee has relocated to Prospect Street in Caversham.

Papa Gee, more than anywhere else, was the sleeper hit of Edible Reading. I never thought it was a real restaurant, expected to find it a bit of a joke and lo and behold, I had to quickly pack away my sneer as it became apparent that I was eating easily the best pizza not only in Reading, but for miles around. The pizza is still the reason to go, whether you opt for the fiery fun of the “Sofia Loren”, all chilli and sausage or what’s always been, for me, the ultimate pizza: the “Napoli”, with anchovies, garlic and (in my case) extra capers. But last time I went they had a brilliant new street food section on the menu, and it’s still worth picking up some of their zucchini fritti even if they don’t go with anything else you’re having. Papa Gee’s fate is in question, as Easy Hotel wants to buy the premises they’re in and sling them out after over ten years making the best of that unpromising location. Go while you can, show your support and let’s hope Gaetano either stays put or finds better premises; I daydream that one day he’ll replace TGI Friday in the Oracle. (138 Caversham Road, RG1 8AY)

Pepe Sale

The original and best, the first place I ever reviewed. Ignore the interior (although it’s less ugly than it was four years ago, and they’ve finally put up some decent artwork). Instead, lose yourself in the food – fresh filled pasta, roast suckling pig, a whacking great piece of fillet steak on rocket, chicken wrapped in pancetta, antipasto topped with a single crispy piece of fried pecorino. If they have an off night I don’t think I’ve ever seen it, and if you get served by Marco you can truly watch a master at work at the front of house. (3 Queens Walk, RG1 7QF)

Sapana Home

My restaurant of the year last year and still one of my favourite places to grab a quick solo meal right off the train at Reading. Always doing a buzzing trade with Reading’s Nepalese community, you should make a beeline for the momo (pan fried chicken for me, thank you very much). Personally I can eat all ten of the blighters, although existential sadness starts to set in after momo number six – that makes me sound like Lou Bega, I’m afraid – when I begin to realise that my gorgeous meal is coming to an end. But you could do a lot worse than trying some of the other dishes too. Chicken fry is quite magnificent, the chow mein has grown on me after initially being somewhat indifferent and, best of all, the samosa chaat is absolutely gorgeous – warm chunks of samosa, yoghurt, tamarind, crunchy sev and smiles. (8 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1TG)

The thing is that, as with any list, you could just as easily take exception to what’s been left out as to what’s been included. So I didn’t find room for a trio of excellent Indian restaurants in the shape of House Of Flavours, Royal Tandoori and Bhoj. I couldn’t make space for Reading’s higher end choices, London Street Brasserie, Forbury’s, Cerise. I skipped our fine lunch and coffee scene, so I’ve neglected to mention Shed, Workhouse or Picnic. No Mya Lacarte, Nomad Bakery or The Tasting House, either. It’s terrific, on reflection, that making this list involved deciding who to omit rather than desperately scrabbling around to find ten names which barely fit the bill. This town has an increasingly unfair reputation for chains when really, the best of Reading is all about the independents, doing their bit to make our town individual and idiosyncratic.

More importantly, there’s a bigger gap. Because the other thing that’s left out of this list is the plethora of new restaurants that have opened. Each one has its own context in Reading, its own narrative and it raises its own questions. Does 7 Bone really do the best burgers in Reading, and will they be good enough to withstand the arrival of Honest and Byron in the future? The Lyndhurst posts beautiful pictures of its dishes, but can it really become Reading’s first destination pub for food? Is Gooi Nara’s Korean barbecue worth the trek up Whitley Street and will Soju be better when it opens downstairs in Atlantis Village? Is Bierhaus an inspired idea, or a gimmick in search of some decent food? Does the Crown On The Bridge’s refurb offer a reason to cross the river? Are Firezza’s pizzas a serious rival to Papa Gee’s? For that matter, are the Fox And Hounds’? What about the Thirsty Bear? So many questions, no answers. If I was sitting at home or in the office reading this, I’d want to know. Not just that: I’ve written it, and I still want to know. It feels like a book with the next chapter missing.

And that, as you’ve probably figured out by now, can only mean one thing.

It’s time to come back.

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

ShedTop

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.