Feature: The 2019 Edible Reading Awards

Can you believe it’s that time of year again? Hopefully by now you’ve bought all your Christmas presents (even if, like me, you’ve not necessarily wrapped them yet). Hopefully you’ve sent and received all your cards – if you still do that sort of thing – and reflected on the new names on the list and the people you’ve finally pruned. You’ve probably had your work do, and been out with your friends. You may even be on roast dinner number four or five by now. We all have our festive traditions and one of mine, for the last five years, has been sitting down and writing this, my end of term report on Reading’s restaurant scene. Was it an “exceeds expectations” or a “must try harder”? Hmm. Let’s find out.

I initially thought it had been a quiet year for restaurants in this town but actually, on reflection, there has been a fair bit of movement. No big-name openings like 2018 – no Lido, no Clay’s, no Corn Stores – but instead a steady succession of new places vying to capture your spend and your affection. So 2019 was the year when we said hello to Argentine steakhouse Buenasado and Greek white elephant Lemoni in the Oracle, the Pantry in the Town Hall, Vegivores and the Last Crumb out in Caversham and countless other new kids on the block.

Some existing restaurateurs moved to new premises: Tutu shifted her Ethiopian Table from the Global Café to Palmer Park, and Kamal (of Namaste Kitchen) finally opened new restaurant Namaste Momo on the edge of Earley. And there’s always a new restaurant just around the corner – the first of 2020 may well be Osaka, the new Japanese restaurant due to set up shop in the old Café Rouge site, but I doubt it will be the last. We’re also allegedly getting a Taco Bell, presumably to compensate us in some Newtonian sense, for the forthcoming closure of bigoted poultry purveyor Chick-Fil-A.

Not that we haven’t had enough restaurants close this year. The saddest, for me, was Tuscany, the fantastic independent pizzeria down the Oxford Road. I was also disappointed that Vibes, the Caribbean restaurant on Queens Walk, closed before I paid it a visit. We also lost two Reading institutions in the form of China Palace and Beijing Noodle House – although, to be euphemistic, both had seen better days.

Town centre Vietnamese restaurant Mum Mum and Alona, serving Lebanese food down the Wokingham Road, also closed their doors for the final time. Neither got to celebrate their first birthday. Nor did Bench Rest, which stopped serving in the Tasting House after less than a year: Reading’s original nomad moved on again, and is apparently leaving the country next year.

In terms of reviewing, it’s been a year of highs and lows. I experienced the worst nachos in the world, activated charcoal-flavoured ick, food that came all at once, John Lewis tablemats, albino carbonara and comically laissez faire service. But I’ve also had astonishing sausage rolls, eye-opening pasta, the warmest of welcomes and seen familiar faces in new places. Every now and then I’d have a run of meals so bad, or so bla, that I started to feel discouraged, but the next superb meal was never too far away. Trips abroad made sure I never fell out of love with eating out, especially one holiday where the food just blew me away.

It’s been a fantastic year in terms of the blog – a record-breaking one, with more visitors than ever before. As always, I’m incredibly grateful to all of you who read, like, comment, Retweet, share or just lurk, whether you do so smiling, laughing, tutting or grimacing. I’m grateful to everybody who’s come out on duty with me this year – friends, readers, my terrific family and of course Zoë, my partner in crime and regular dining companion. And I’m also grateful to everybody who has come to one of the five readers’ events I’ve run this year – all at some of Reading’s finest independent restaurants, each of them offering a special one-off menu. I’m not sure 2019 will be topped, but of course I’ll try my best to next year.

With all that said, it just remains for me to hand out the gongs in this, the 2019 Edible Reading Awards. It’s been harder than ever to reduce the long list to a short list, let alone pick the winners, and any of the honourable mentions this year could easily have taken top spot instead of the eventual winners. We’re lucky to live in a town that makes these decisions so difficult, so if you disagree with any or all of the winners I can hardly blame you: on another day, I might have disagreed too. Anyway, that’s quite enough preamble: let’s announce some winners, and you can tell me what I got wrong in the comments.

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Chilli nachos, The Lyndhurst

It was pretty much love at first sight when I ordered the Lyndhurst’s chilli nachos for the first time, and none of my subsequent encounters have dimmed my ardour. A wonderful chilli made with slow-cooked, shredded beef (a chilli which doesn’t appear elsewhere on the menu in the mains section), robust hand-made tortilla chips, a healthy helping of well-made guacamole and some cream cheese, a lettuce leaf if you want to pretend to be a better person than you actually are. A perfect starter to share, or to snaffle on your own, or a dish to eat with a few pints just for the sake of it, because it’s so perfect. I’m a huge fan, and I live in constant fear that they’ll either take it off the menu or price it slightly less generously (seven pounds twenty-five pence, would you believe it). Superb stuff.

I know that not picking a starter from Clay’s will be controversial here – one Twitter follower suggested I should have a separate award for the best Clay’s starter (and that too would be an incredibly tough one to call). Clay’s does deserve an honourable mention though for their cut mirchi chaat – a sort of stuffed and battered chilli dish that is difficult to describe and even more difficult to resist (yes, I know: but what about the chicken 65, the kodi chips, the squid pakora, the duck spring rolls, and basically all the other starters. Enough already). Another honourable mention goes to Zest for their triple-cooked pork belly with XO sauce, a dish I’ve thought about on pretty much a daily basis since I had it at the start of the month.

CHAIN OF THE YEAR: Honest Burger

Chains are all about consistency, and in my experience Honest has gone from strength to strength this year, becoming the place to go if you want a quick, enjoyable, reliably superb meal. It helps that they’ve swapped out their local special – the indifferent jerk chicken burger has given way to a gorgeous new option with Waterloo cheese and bearnaise butter – but it’s just that they never put a foot wrong. My stepfather is so impressed with their vegan burger that he picks it over a conventional beefburger, some of the specials this year have been absolutely knockout (especially when they involve fried chicken) but really, it’s just that it’s regularly, unspectacularly excellent. Reading still has far too many burger joints, and I wouldn’t shed a tear if the rest closed down. But Honest is another matter altogether.

The two runners-up in this category also deliver the kind of consistency and comfort you want from a visit to a chain restaurant. Pho continues to offer an excellent range of dishes (I don’t think I’ll ever really see the appeal of the eponymous dish itself, but I’m evangelical about their com chien) and Kokoro has done me a turn on many an early evening when I can’t be bothered to cook and on a few hungover Sunday lunchtimes. Their sweet chilli chicken is a particular favourite of mine, although I know the katsu curry also has its fans.

LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Fidget & Bob

Yes, on this occasion lunch probably means brunch and yes, Fidget & Bob is out of town which means that for most people it’s a weekend lunch option. But nevertheless, most of my happiest lunches this year have been at Fidget & Bob and they invariably involve a variant of their phenomenal brunch menu which they serve all day. You can have a breakfast wrap, or the “hangover” (a sausage, bacon and egg sandwich) but I always seem to go for their golden, gorgeous scrambled eggs, served with crispy back bacon and a slice of their sausage loaf. Other dishes – sandwiches, panini and their home-made noodle pots – are available, but the trick is to save room for cake. I am hooked on the kouign amann – hopelessly indulgent Breton pastries made with plenty of salted butter (they missed a trick not calling them “Breton butter pudding”) but the salted caramel brownies are also phenomenal.

Picking a winner in this category wasn’t easy, limiting the runners-up to just two was equally difficult. An honourable mention goes to Caversham’s Geo Café which has spent 2019 completing its transformation from Nomad Bakery and, along with a beautiful array of cakes, still serves one of Reading’s finest sandwiches in the form of the ajika-spiced corn-fed chicken wrap. Also highly commended is Shed – which is every bit as good as ever and continues to serve Reading’s best golden, cheese-laden, comforting toasties.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Lamb with cumin, Kungfu Kitchen

In a year of wonderful main courses – far too many to list here – KFK’s lamb with cumin was the one I kept coming back to. I had it on my second ever visit, and it’s been a struggle not to order it every time since. The lamb – sliced wafer-thin, as it is for the hot pot – is so deep and rich. It tastes properly of lamb – which might sound like a silly thing to say, but somehow lamb is so often a pale copy of how it ought to taste. “This is how kebabs should be” said my other half the first time she tasted this dish, and I can understand what she meant. The whole thing, flecked with sesame seeds and tumbled with onion and coriander, stalks and all, is the kind of intensely savoury dish you daydream about long after you have eked out one final mouthful. KFK does so many excellent dishes but, in the lamb with cumin, it has one unforgettable one.

It is a tribute to how strong a field it is that many of the dishes on my long list could easily have won this award: Fidget & Bob’s char siu pork, for instance, or Namaste Momo’s spellbinding lamb kothey momo. But there’s only room for two runners-up. First, the chinta chiguru from Clay’s – terrific, tender chicken thigh in a striking, sharply elegant tamarind sauce (very much the unsung hero of the Clay’s menu, in my book). And secondly, Bakery House’s boneless baby chicken with vegetable rice and beautifully dressed salad, possibly Reading’s most complete main course.

OUT OF TOWN RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Mio Fiore, Newbury

I so loved my visit to Mio Fiore this year, and I’m long overdue a return trip. There was just something magical about it – so unprepossessing and yet getting everything right, serving dishes that are so often unspecial in chain Italians and reminding you just how superb they can be in the right hands. It came around the same time as I had a brilliant holiday in Bologna and a bloody horrendous meal in Cozze, and the fact that the standard was so much closer to the former than the latter put a huge smile on my face. If you go, the spaghetti puttanesca (pictured above) is pretty damn close to perfection.

Honourable mentions have to go to Goring’s Miller Of Mansfield, a special occasion restaurant which will leave you wanting to invent more special occasions, and Oxford’s Pompette, a truly spectacular French neighbourhood restaurant which I’d dearly love to pick up and drop somewhere in Reading. In fact, since I can’t do that, I’m literally lunching there again today.

SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Fidget & Bob

I stopped giving an award out for Tweeter of the year this year, because Fidget & Bob won it every year. They may as well keep the trophy. But this year, eating there more often, I discovered that how they were on Twitter probably came so naturally to them because it was just an extension of how they were in real life. Their welcome is always warm but perfectly-judged, not faux-matey, never too much. They seem to know literally everybody who eats in their little café – who they are, what they like, how they’ve been, the comings and goings of their lives. I suppose it must be easier to do when you run a small venue and there are only a couple of you, but that doesn’t stop it being extremely impressive – or bloody hard work, however easy Shu and Breege make it look.

An honourable mention has to go to Mio Fiore, who also have that perfect balance spot on in a far bigger venue, and I also have to single out the inimitable Jo at Kungfu Kitchen. Her service is a constant joy to me – the conversation, the recommendations, the gossip, the way she always seems delighted that you’ve come back. There’s no welcome quite like it in Reading, and once you’ve tried it you’ll know exactly what I mean.

DESSERT OF THE YEAR: Chocolate custard with sesame tuille, The Miller Of Mansfield

So beautiful, so elegant and so delicious: the Miller’s chocolate custard is a smooth, glossy thing somewhere between the texture of a ganache and a mousse. It looks almost as beautiful as it tastes, with a salted sesame tuille on top perfect to break into little shards, the whole thing artfully dotted with microherbs and little dabs of vivid orange. It was by far the best dessert I’ve had this year: when I went on duty I shared it with my dining companion, but when I managed to engineer a return visit a few weeks later I made sure I got one all to myself.

Honourable mentions go to Zest’s excellent white chocolate and Bailey’s cheesecake – a big old slab of heaven – and the timeless simplicity of Mio Fiore’s tiramisu.

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: The Lyndhurst

I was very sad when the Lyndhurst closed in June, the landlord went off to pastures new and at least one of the chefs moved on to the Fisherman’s Cottage. And I had my doubts when it reopened the following month – there was a hesitancy about the whole thing, and on the opening night the team seemed more than a little fazed about what they had taken on.

Well, over the months that followed they have, if anything, surpassed their predecessors with an interesting and exciting menu which constantly changes. I tried a beautiful dish of oxtail there, rich shreds of meat wrapped up in the embrace of a cabbage leaf. Weeks later, it had vanished from the menu like a mirage, never to return. The picture above is of a stunning rabbit dish – stuffed with chicken liver, wrapped in prosciutto, a dish which kept popping back into my mind at random moments, normally when I was eating something nowhere near as good. I think they served that dish for less than a week, and I haven’t seen it on the menu since.

One staple, though, is the curry night on Thursdays – a choice of three curries, all miles from the generic stuff, with rice, a bhaji, a pint and a naan, all for a tenner. The ever-present katsu chicken burger is always worth ordering, too, with some of Reading’s best chips – and then there’s the small matter of their chilli nachos, as I’ve already said.

The tables have got busier, the “reserved” signs more frequent, and I for one am delighted to see them doing so well. And the hesitancy hasn’t exactly vanished: it’s more that it’s morphed into a really charming humility. They don’t ever sing their own praises, which is even more reason why it’s my pleasure to do it for them by awarding them my Newcomer Of The Year award.

Some people would have expected Kungfu Kitchen to win this award, but they opened in October last year so aren’t eligible (and, personally, I was delighted to dodge another incredibly hard decision). I do, however, have to mention the two runners-up in this category. Buenasado really surprised me when I visited it on duty – I had low expectations of a small restaurant popping up in the Oracle in the site vacated by CAU, but they did a really creditable job (and their lunchtime steak frites offer is not to be sniffed at, either). An honourable mention also goes to Namaste Momo, the new outpost from Kamal, the man behind Namaste Kitchen. It’s a little out of the way, and the execution of the menu is still slightly uneven, but the hand-made momo are literally worth the price of admission alone: not only that, but Kamal will absolutely charm the socks off you.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Kungfu Kitchen

This was absolutely the hardest decision of all. Just think, for a second, about how lucky we are to live here. Here are some of the restaurants that didn’t even make my shortlist: Fidget & Bob; Pepe Sale; Geo Café; The Lyndhurst; Namaste Momo.

And then look at my runners-up. Bakery House is a superb, consistent, brilliantly run Reading institution where you can take pretty much anyone you know and guarantee that you’ll have a superb meal. You can go with vegetarians and go crazy with the mezze, or take your carnivorous friends and rejoice in the chicken livers, the little spiced sausages, the shawarma and the chicken fresh from the grill. I can’t remember them ever disappointing me.

And then there’s Clay’s. How could I not give the award to Clay’s, you might quite reasonably ask? If anything, their second year has been stronger than their first: look at all that game on their menu at the start of 2019, the quail, the rabbit and the pheasant. And then, just when you think their food couldn’t get any better, they pivoted again: amazing baby squid, like some hybrid of Hyderabad and Andalusia, a crab fry dish which has left so many diners speechless. They’ve even got me to eat baby corn, something I’d previously thought was impossible. I know full well that not picking them as 2019’s winners will leave many of you questioning my judgment this year (and possibly next).

But this is a decision made with the heart, not the head, and Kungfu Kitchen has been my restaurant of this year. From the very first visit I was wondering when I could go back, and on every visit I’ve faced that agonising tug of war between ordering a dish I know and love or venturing deeper into the menu. It never feels too much like a leap into the unknown, largely because of the magnificent Jo who always acts as a sherpa, taking you just far enough out of your comfort zone without ever leaving you high and dry (with possibly one exception: she once made me order a boiled beef and chilli oil dish which was a challenge, more a dish you survive than finish). She is a force of nature, and a huge part of what makes Kungfu Kitchen so enjoyable and so welcoming.

The food really is marvellous – whether it’s the fried fish in spicy hot pot, the sweet and aromatic wonder of the fish fragrant pork, the piquant kung pao chicken, the glorious pork belly, boiled, sliced super thin and then stir fried with Chinese mushrooms and plenty of heat, the salt and pepper tofu – yes, tofu – or one of my very favourites, the Xinjiang-style shredded chicken which almost literally takes your breath away with the heat before gradually releasing its grip on your larynx. That makes it sound awful but honestly, it’s exhilarating.

The conventional wisdom is to go to a place like Kungfu Kitchen in a big group so you can try more dishes, and that’s partly true. I’ve been at a birthday party there where they effortlessly served about twenty people, they did a bang-up job (complete with karaoke!) at one of my readers’ lunches earlier in the year. But I’ve also been here with smaller groups of friends, on quiet nights with my other half and, on occasion when I’m at a loose end, I’ll walk up the hill on my own and order just the one dish – such a hardship – and a beer and have dinner for one watching the toing and froing, the bustle and the banter. The welcome is never less than perfect, and the food is never less than gorgeous. It truly is a happy place.

It’s been a real joy to watch Kungfu Kitchen spreading its wings on social media, and to see so many ER readers go there and fall in love with the place, as I did. And so it seems appropriate to end 2019 by giving them this award and by wishing them – and all my winners and runners-up, and just as importantly all of you – a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Feature: 20 things I love about Reading (2019)

Back in April 2016, I wrote a piece on the 20 things I loved about Reading. Remember 2016? The good old days – before the constant merry-go-round of elections and referenda, back when the world felt a little sunnier and Twitter felt a lot happier. I could go on, but it will probably make us all sad.

Looking back at my list from 2016, much has changed and an updated version is long overdue. Some of the places which made my list last time have closed: Dolce Vita, for instance, which stopped trading in June last year to the disappointment of many. Even sadder was the closure of Tutti Frutti in late 2017, my favourite Reading café which sold the best ice cream for miles around.

Some things have changed to the extent where they no longer make my top 20 – I’m sure the After Dark, under its new management, is a wonderful venue but it is no longer the place of my many happy memories. Similarly Kyrenia has been Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus for several years now, and its phenomenal front of house Ihor has moved on. The Reading Forum has degenerated into a seemingly never-ending conversation about Reading’s crime rate, Wetherspoons and the inevitable B word.

More to the point, town has changed a lot since 2016. As restaurants have closed, more have opened to take their place: the good (Kungfu Kitchen), the bad (Lemoni) and the ugly (Chick-Fil-A). Smaller, more interesting chains have moved to Reading. Our coffee culture here has – figuratively – exploded, as has a street food culture that has led to residencies in pubs, cafes and restaurants and in some cases (like Geo Café and Vegivores) a permanent home. For each thing we lose in town, there is always an equal and opposite reason to celebrate.

And so, without further ado and in alphabetical order, here’s my list of twenty things I love about Reading. It’s by no means exhaustive, and half the fun is chipping in with everything I’ve missed, whether it’s the farmers’ market, Christmas carols at Reading Minster, the Beer Festival, having a mocha at C.U.P., Reading Library, the number 17 bus or any of the dozens of other things I couldn’t quite find room for. Leave your favourite in the comments!

1. The Allied Arms beer garden

Some things about Reading never change, and for as long as I can remember the Allied has been the place you go to after work on a sunny Friday to start your weekend. You grab a table, your friends join you and the rest of the evening is pint after pint, packet of snacks after packet of snacks and song after song on its splendid, idiosyncratic jukebox (Camouflage by Stan Ridgway or Rock Me Amadeus, anybody?). I know the Allied has its fans all year round, but for me summer is when it really comes into its own.

2. The architecture

Reading really is prettier than you think, and I don’t just mean the obvious examples like the Town Hall and – well, I like it anyway – the Blade. Everywhere you look there are beautiful buildings, streets and enclaves – Foxhill House on campus, or the gorgeous houses of New Road up by the university and School Terrace in the heart of New Town. Stunning streets like Eldon Road with the grandest semi-detached houses you’ll ever see in your life, or redbrick Queen Victoria Street running from the station to John Lewis, itself a fantastic building. I could go on: Reading Minster is impressive, the Royal Berks grand, Great Expectations faintly ludicrous. So much to look at – no wonder the occasional Reading Instameets set up for photographic excursions around town are never short of things to photograph (I still miss Kings Point and the Metal Box Building, though).

3. Bakery House

Now over four years old, Bakery House is one of Reading’s best and most reliable restaurants but, more than that, it is a genuine institution. Perfect for solo dining, dinner for two or sharing masses of mezze with friends, they’ve kept up an impressive standard since day one. At lunchtimes their shawarma wrap is an absolute steal costing less than most other sandwiches in town, and in the evenings their boneless baby chicken, fresh from the charcoal grill with chilli sauce, rice and a sharply dressed salad, is one of the best single plates of food you can eat in town.

4. Blue Collar Food

I was sniffy about street food last time I compiled this list: Blue Collar has changed that. Popping up in the Market Square every Wednesday, this collective of traders, marshalled by the tireless Glen Dinning, has had a lasting effect on Reading’s food scene. Some of his star players still turn up every week – I’m a big fan of Purée’s challoumi wrap, the chilli chicken from the Massita and Peru Sabor’s excellent food – but he’s also done invaluable work giving street food traders a springboard to move into permanent premises. Not only that, but over the summer Feastival (and its spin-off Cheese Feast) transform the Forbury into the gastronomic epicentre of town. Blue Collar is now also running the matchday food at the Madejski, but I still hold out hope that we might see them in more permanent premises in the New Year.

5. Breakfast at Fidget & Bob

Sunday morning brunch at Fidget & Bob really is one of my favourite things about living in Reading. I’ve never known anybody scramble golden buttery eggs with as much skill as they do, their bacon is superb and their sausage – a square loaf of sausagement baked in the oven and served in delectable slices – is worth the price of admission alone. It boasts one of the warmest welcomes in Reading and if you go on Sunday there’s the added bonus of kouign amann, Breton pastries by Barebaked Bread which are sweet-salty layers of pure joy. The coffee’s excellent, too.

6. Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen

It’s very strange to think that Clay’s has been around for less than eighteen months because, more than most Reading restaurants, it feels like it’s always been there. It’s difficult to cast your mind back and remember that Chicken Base used to be in that site or, even before that, the lovely Bodrum Kebab. It feels like Clay’s is probably Reading’s favourite restaurant, and I think that’s down to a combination of many things. The food is fantastic, and superb value, and involves a quality of ingredients and spicing that they don’t shout about enough. The menu is innovative – where else in Reading could you, across a whole year, eat quail, rabbit, pheasant, squid and crab? But also, I think it’s about the modesty and humility of the whole exercise: you sense that maybe they don’t quite realise how good they are.

7. Forbury Gardens

I wouldn’t trust any list of this kind that didn’t have the Forbury in it. In summer it’s everybody’s second garden (unless you live in a flat, in which case it’s your first garden). There’s nowhere quite like it for relaxing in the sun, reading a book, having a picnic, celebrating Bastille Day, taking part in WaterFest – even though it always seems to rain for Waterfest – drinking a Froffee from the AMT in the train station (that one might just be me), eating street food from Blue Collar or just gazing up at the blue sky and the trees overhead. It’s even nicer now the Abbey Ruins is open again – it just feels like everything is as it should be.

8. Harris Arcade

We have lots of independent cafés in the town centre, and some independent restaurants, but nowhere near enough independent shops. With the notable exception of But Is It Art, the Harris Arcade is where you find most of the good ones. I’ve lived in Reading long enough to remember when there was the Traders Arcade, with Enchanted where you could buy your incense and crystals and a café on the first floor, but Harris Arcade still captures some of that spirit – whether you want to buy comics from Crunch, records from Sound Machine, hats from Adrienne Henry, cigars from Shave and Coster, cheese and beer from the Grumpy Goat or ephemera from JIM. If only more of Reading’s retail scene was like the Harris Arcade – and while we’re at it I’d love an independent bookshop, a beer café and a few more boutiques.

9. John Lewis

I know this might seem like a prosaic choice to some, but I stand by what I said last time round: our branch of John Lewis is the closest thing this town has to a cathedral (especially the lower ground floor which does seem to sell pretty much everything you could need). It has a sense of calm and class so lacking from the Oracle or the Broad Street Mall, and I don’t think you really appreciate how lovely it is until you visit a town unfortunate enough not to have one. Most shops seem to start celebrating Christmas the moment September is over, but when the Yuletide paraphernalia appears in the ground floor of John Lewis, you know the festive season really is on the way.

10. Launchpad

Other charities are available, but there was no way Launchpad wouldn’t make my list. The amount of homelessness and begging in Reading was upsetting enough back in 2016 but over the last three years it seems to have got even worse. Launchpad offers legal advice, drop-in services, training support and so much more for those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. But there’s more: back in January, Launchpad announced that it had built five brand new flats for people in need of long term accommodation, their first building project. Reading about it I felt incredibly proud, both of them and of our town.

11. The Nag’s Head

The Nag’s Head is widely held to be Reading’s best pub, and it’s not hard to see why. A wide, constantly changing range of cask and keg beers, ciders if that’s your bag, regular tap takeovers, food events in the garden (yes, yes, it’s a car park) in the summer and a friendly crowd pretty much every night of the week. A few pubs do a few things better, but nobody gets it quite as right across the board.

12. Pepe Sale

Rumours over the summer that Pepe Sale was up for sale threw much of Reading into a panic. Shortly after, it transpired that there was no substance to them but it at least gave Pepe Sale the rare opportunity to experience a mass outpouring of grief while it was still very much alive and kicking. It’s a class act – consistent, consistently full and always doing the classics well while keeping up an always interesting specials menu into the bargain. We will miss it when it’s gone, one day, but in the meantime the suckling pig and crab ravioli are still there, waiting for you to renew your acquaintance. Every town has an Italian restaurant or four, but how many have a Sardinian one?

13. Progress Theatre

Progress Theatre is best known for its summer Shakespeare productions, finally restored to their rightful home in the Abbey Ruins (I went this year and thoroughly enjoyed King Lear, although I’m still recovering from the spectacle of my friend Jerry, playing Gloucester, having his eyes plucked out). But the theatre up on the Mount is still a lovely, intimate and inventive place to watch interesting amateur productions. I loved their rendition of Top Girls earlier in the year and am very much looking forward to Hangmen next week. And now that Kungfu Kitchen is just down the road, your pre or post-theatre dining problem is solved too.

14. Reading Museum

Reading Museum remains a fantastic way to while away an hour in town, and the recent refurb (and new exhibition on some of Reading’s defining objects) has been very nicely done. It’s fantastic for kids and grownups – my 80 year old Canadian uncle thoroughly enjoyed dressing up there when he visited in the spring, although I’m not sure which of those categories he falls into. The replica of the Bayeux Tapestry gets all the attention, but I have an enormous soft spot for the display cabinet showing off Huntley & Palmer biscuit tins from across the decades.

15. Reading Old Cemetery

My list in 2016 didn’t have much in the way of open spaces. I must have changed in the last three years because I’m much more fond of Reading’s outdoors and Reading Old Cemetery is one of my favourite places for a meditative amble, even if I’ve never bumped into one of its legendary muntjac deer. It’s golden and peaceful in summer, and starkly beautiful in winter. There are lots of very touching gravestones and memorials, but the picture above shows probably my favourite, that of Bernard Laurence Hieatt. He has his own Wikipedia page, which is worth a look – it’s safe to say that he achieved a lot more in twenty-one years than most of us have in far more than that.

16. The Retreat

If the Nag’s Head is Reading’s best beer pub, I think the Retreat is probably Reading’s best classic pub. Saved this year by a consortium of locals, it remains a true one-off on a little backstreet not far from the Kings Road. The back room is where you sit if you just want to talk to your friends, or read on your own. The front room, though, is my favourite – there, regulars and newcomers engage in random conversations about all sorts, presided over by Brian, the now legendary landlord who if anything is even more charming now than he was three years ago (woe betide you if you swear in front of him, mind). There’s regular music, there’s jazz on Sundays and once a year in the summer the Morris dancers cavort away outside before making themselves comfortable in the back room and singing some very bawdy songs indeed.

17. The Salvation Army brass band at Christmas time

There are still few sights in Reading as heartwarming as the Salvation Army brass band, assembled outside Marks & Spencer, playing Christmas carols in November and December. Always unfailingly polite and impeccably turned out, they make Reading feel properly festive and it’s well worth watching, breath turning to fluffy clouds in the cold air. More Salvation Army brass bands and fewer god-botherers miked up and standing on a box, that’s what I say.

18. South Street

This is hardly a controversial choice – South Street enjoys a special place in Reading’s affections after it was rescued from the threat of closure following a huge outcry of public support (very much the town’s answer to 6 Music, and probably with a very similar fan base). It really does offer a terrific range of music, theatre, art and comedy and has widened its range still further over the last couple of years with its regular Beer Fridays (in collaboration with the Grumpy Goat) and its excellent annual Craft Theory Festival which brings together beer, street food and music in one unmissable package.

19. View Island

I’d never been to View Island until I was introduced to it through the writing of the irreplaceable, much-missed Matthew Farrall. Just past Caversham Lock, it’s an astonishing place, simultaneously wild and peaceful. You feel like you could be miles from anywhere, and yet you’re ten minutes from town. It’s been left to get almost completely overgrown and yet you can still sit on one of its blue benches, lost in your thoughts, watching the river flow.

20. The Workhouse courtyard

Long before Market House opened its doors, promising you booze, food and coffee at any time of the day, those in the know spent summer days going to the courtyard outside Workhouse Coffee. One of town’s most successful natural suntraps, you can sit there with coffee and cake from Workhouse or order Bhel Puri’s fantastic vegetarian street food and eat that al fresco instead (I recommend the chilli paneer, crispy bhajia, Punjabi samosas and a vada pav chaser). And if you want a beer in the sunshine? The bar at the George Hotel can rustle up a crisp pint of Estella. Who needs the Market House anyway?

Alona

Alona closed around June 2019. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

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)

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?