L’Ortolan, Shinfield

Despite Reading being a pretty affluent town it’s always been short on Michelin stars. There’s a gathering around Bray (Orion’s Belt, if you like) and the two star Hand and Flowers out at Marlow but the only truly local “star” is L’Ortolan, in Shinfield (so close, it’s RG2 which I guess makes it our Alpha Centauri). As with most people I expect a Michelin star to make a restaurant fussy and pricey – although if Michelin themselves are to be believed, stars are awarded for food alone and, technically at least, have nothing to do with table linen or waiters in waistcoats. Even so, driving into the countryside to try L’Ortolan gave me a sense of trepidation: not just about whether the food would be any good, but also about whether I’d be up to reviewing it.

Stepping over the threshold of Ortolan is like stepping inside a machine; the smartly dressed, suited staff are everywhere, taking coats, ushering customers to the bar, bringing drinks, wiping up invisible spills from the hardwood floor, plumping cushions. Everything looks impeccable, like a modern day clockwork Downton Abbey. Over a drink in the bar we were served canapés on a slate, just enough to get our tastebuds firing. Michelin starred dining is full of these bits and bobs – pre-pre starters, pre-starters, pre-desserts – and these were a nice enough introduction. There were little airy crackers with potato and onion, a thin wooden cone full of maple and truffle popcorn, the maple hitting you first and the truffle sneaking in at the end. The best of them were goose and foie gras croquettes, smooth and rich, Eton Turkey Twizzlers.

People often say it’s possible to eat affordably at a Michelin starred restaurant (normally, ironically, in a review where they’ve made no attempt to do so) so we were both picking from the lunchtime prix fixe. Three courses, with three or four choices per course, comes to thirty-two pounds: or it will do, at least, if you don’t pick one of the dishes with a five or ten pound supplement. Narrow, yes, but not so narrow as to be constricting, with lots of interesting choices to make. So we sat in the bar, sipping our pre-prandials, feeling pampered and making our decisions. Only when our orders had been taken and our glasses were empty did we go into to the restaurant proper: places like L’Ortolan are very good at letting you take your time.

Being taken through to the dining room revealed two rooms, one on the austere side, and the other, a conservatory room with a tented ceiling, harking back to the Raj. I was glad to be sat in the latter as it felt a little more relaxed. Tables in both rooms were the same, with smart linen, a fancy glass plate at each setting (soon whisked away, which begged the question of what it was there for) and comfy if slightly awkwardly angled velvety seats.

A big bowl of bread soon arrived and we tucked in while waiting for our starters to arrive. The best of them was a small treacle baguette, which was a golden saffron colour inside and slightly sweet with a hint of black treacle, The other breads – sourdough, focaccia and a small seeded roll – were nice, if not quite at the same heights, and there was plenty of room temperature butter (stinginess with butter is one of my bugbears, but then I do like a lot of it).

Before our starters arrived there was a pre dessert – an espresso cup of soup (isn’t it always?). This was a rich but light mushroom velouté which had a hint of truffle, a tiny sourdough crouton and a deliciously sweet and sour pickled mushroom. I enjoyed it so much that fighting the urge to clean the inside of the cup with a piece of bread was quite a titanic struggle; I didn’t want to let the side down with all the other genteel tables around me.

The starters were both beautiful to look at. The duck liver (introduced as foie gras when brought to the table) with blood orange and basil marmalade was heavenly, even for something so sinful. The liver was just cooked with a slightly caramelised outside. Next to it was a small dome of creamy duck liver parfait with pain d’epice crumb, all lovely and gingery. On a slice of flattened puff pastry were neatly laid slices of blood orange, resting on some of the marmalade. The marmalade itself was more like a curd, a thick smear of it (they do love smears in restaurants like this) on one side of the plate. Ordering this involved paying a five pound supplement, but it was a good decision: it was the best thing I ate all afternoon, and writing this makes me want to have it all over again. In particular the sweet richness of the liver with the tart blood orange was fantastic, and not a combination I’d ever have imagined before.

OrtDuck

The other starter also looked gorgeous, but looks were the main thing going for it. On paper, confit salmon, pickled cucumber and ketjap manis gel sounded terrific but what turned up had a strong air of seeming like a good idea at the time. The salmon was lovely – subtle, fresh and breaking into flakes with no effort at all (which took me aback, since it looked so much like sashimi). And I wouldn’t have minded it being so petite, if it had had more interesting things on the plate to pair it with, but I wasn’t that fortunate. The pickled cucumber, big indelicate chunks, had almost no sweetness or sharpness so was watery and bland. The ketjap manis gel was sweet and intense. But the rest? Well, it felt an awful lot like sludge to me: swirls of two different other sauces spiralling round the plate, a little heap of horseradish snow and micro herbs strewn all over the shop. Wetness, wetness everywhere. Towards the end I found some sesame seeds – strong, intense, delicious – submerged where they were almost unnoticeable and beyond rescue. It was the sort of plate you never quite clean: it looked like a Pollock once I was finished. They brought more bread after that, and I started to wonder whether I’d need it.

For main, the rump of beef was as lovely as the duck liver. It was three very pink (as requested) slices of beef with smoked pommes Anna on a red wine jus with bone marrow hollandaise. Underneath the beef was half a roasted banana shallot, a few pieces of tenderstem broccoli, two cubes of dense beef and a creamy mushroom sauce, dotted with mushrooms. The rump itself was a little tough under the knife but tender when chewed. The potatoes were wafer thin and richly flavoured (almost like the potatoes my mum used to cook in with the roast beef when I was a kid, although the Michelin inspectors never troubled my mum’s kitchen – or yours, I’d imagine). The shallot was sweet and the mushroom sauce was intensely flavoured. There was only one blot on the copybook – one of the cubes of beef, a big layer of fat running through it, was far too tough to cut or to eat – but apart from that, it was perfection, a high-end reinvention of a Sunday roast, where each ingredient was so concentrated and intense that size simply did not matter.

OrtBeef

The other main had sat up and begged to be ordered when I saw the menu: loin of lamb, Parmesan gnocchi, sweetbread popcorn, confit tomato. Again, it looked absolutely gorgeous, and the lamb was beautifully cooked, what there was of it anyway. But again the rest of the dish underwhelmed. The confit tomatoes were the best, little bright-coloured flashes of sweetness. The sweetbreads were an Eton reimagining of KFC popcorn chicken – nice enough but maybe not the surprise I’d been hoping for. The gnocchi was one single chewy wodge whose main role in proceedings seemed to be to show off how delicious the Pommes Anna on the other plate were. And, of course, more little spheres and splodges of sauce – along with, randomly, a smear of something that tasted like goats cheese. Oh, and more of those sesame seeds. I’ve never believed that food should ever be too beautiful to eat, but unfortunately this was more fun to look at than to eat. There was a ten pound supplement for this and I’m not really sure why, because it was smaller, lighter and far less special than the beef.

OrtLamb

More freebies followed with an impeccable pre-dessert: a little shot glass with creamy coconut rice pudding at the bottom, little cubes of rum jelly above it and a layer of passion fruit mousse at the top. I could quite easily have eaten a dessert sized portion of this. Not for the first time in a high end restaurant, I wondered why the free stuff always seems to taste the best. Maybe because it’s “free”: I know, ultimately, it isn’t but sometimes the mind is quite happy to let itself be tricked.

For dessert I simply had no choice but to have the cheese: I’d seen the cheese trolley wheeled past on several occasions while I finished the previous two courses and it was impossible to resist. There were a mind-boggling twenty cheeses on offer – going from the hard cheeses, past goats cheeses and on to some softer-rinded cheeses with varying degrees of stinkiness – all of which were explained in detail by the captain of the trolley, a really personable young man with obvious enthusiasm for his charges. I was allowed four, which were served with super thin slices of bread and crackers, and a choice of chutney and truffle honey. There were also grapes and celery just in case I wanted to offset some of the calories, although I’d given up counting by that point. The ones that stood out for me were the Burwash Rose, a rich, tangy, semi soft cheese with a rind washed in rose water and the Blue Murder, a Scottish blue so ripe it was in danger of running off the plate (or, rather, slate) and, for that matter, out of the building. The latter was particularly good with some of that honey, although the truffle couldn’t stand up to the cheese itself and was close to undetectable. This plate also attracted a five pound supplement but the variety was so good (perhaps not in the hard cheeses – I was hoping to see a really good Gruyere or Comte, but it was not to be) and the portion sufficiently generous that I didn’t begrudge them one bit.

OrtCheese

The other dessert was chocolate and cardamom ganache with orange curd and mint ice cream. Unlike many of the things I’d eaten, that was a pretty good description and – for the only time in the meal – what turned up was roughly what I’d expected to see. It was bliss: a long thin rectangle of smooth, glossy ganache, powdered with cardamom, was just gorgeous. The mint ice cream – green, fresh garden mint, a million miles from bright green mint choc chip – was so fantastic I didn’t want to pair it with anything else. The orange curd zinged with sweet sharpness. Best of all, perhaps, was the kitchen’s reinterpretation of Mint Aero – three little chunks of fluffy chocolate which imploded in the mouth, a piece of culinary pyrotechnics. Just beautiful. And, in case you’d forgotten the kitchen has a Michelin star, some pointless micro leaves.

OrtChoc

I knew the wine list would sting, and it did. As I was driving, the initial plan was to order wine by the glass but the prices by the glass were so punitive – seven or eight pounds for 125ml, easily a tenner for 175ml – that we decided it would be better value to get a bottle from the bottom end of the wine list and picked a Cote du Rhone for thirty-seven pounds (to give you an idea, that’s the fifth cheapest red they sell by the bottle). I was feeling really pleased with my bargain hunting until I got home, did some research and found that the same bottle retails for eleven pounds. Still, there was no bitter taste at the time.

Service was excellent, if a little cool. There was a constantly rotating team of waiters which served plates, cleared plates, poured wine and poured water, which gave the feeling of being continuously “served” but without a lot in the way of interaction. It was exceptionally well-run, just a tad emotionless. A few of the waiters – the captain of the cheese trolley, one of the waiters who topped up our glasses – seemed to have a little more charm, it’s just a shame that this was the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps customers at Ortolan (who do tend to be older and middle class, based on the clientèle when we were there) expect service of the “seen and not heard” variety, or perhaps my expectations have been skewed by too much casual dining. I would blame Michelin – lots of people like to – but I’ve eaten at other starred restaurants which felt a lot less, well, starchy.

The total bill, including a 12.5% “optional” service charge, for two drinks from the bar (one of them soft), a bottle of wine and three courses was one hundred and forty five pounds. So, I tried to eat cheaply at L’Ortolan and I have to say it’s just not really possible: we could have saved twenty pounds on supplements but even then it would be pretty difficult to get the bill under a hundred pounds unless neither of you were drinking.

I found L’Ortolan such a mixed bag that it’s difficult to wrap it all up in a neat and easy conclusion. I almost feel like there were two different meals here: the duck liver and beef were fantastically well-judged, well-balanced, generous and delicious dishes where it felt like there was more to them than expected. The salmon and lamb was the opposite – too delicate and light without enough oomph to stop them from being damp squibs. I guess the question is, if you went to L’Ortolan, which of those two meals you’d get. If it was the first, you’d be evangelising to friends, but if it was the second you’d be wondering what the fuss was about.

I think in the back of my mind I was partly comparing the prix fixe at L’Ortolan with the a la carte somewhere like Mya Lacarte and thinking about differences in the food, the execution, the ideas and the experience. In a straight-out comparison, I’m not sure L’Ortolan would win out very often, however stunning the building, beautiful the dishes, plentiful the freebies. Maybe that’s about me and the kind of dining I prefer, so disregard it by all means: it’s worth going to say you’ve gone, and you’re unlikely to have a bad meal if you do. But, to me at least, it still felt ever so slightly like eating in a machine – and good restaurants are a broad church of many things, but I don’t think machine is one of them.

L’Ortolan – 7.8
Church Lane, Shinfield, RG2 9BY
0118 9888500

http://www.lortolan.com/

Arepas Caffe

N.B. Arepas Caffe closed in November 2014. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

There are some restaurants where, as a customer, I get the distinct feeling that the staff simply don’t care. They don’t want to be there and they would rather you weren’t too and a smile when showing you to your table or taking your order is just too much bother. In others, they at least make an effort at the façade: they’re all smiles and charm to get you to a table and then they ignore you once you’re settled in, however many times you sit up like a meerkat and pull the “I’m ready to be served” face (surely it’s not just me? Actually, don’t answer that).

Why do I mention this? Well, Arepas Caffe might have the warmest and most genuine welcome of any Reading restaurant I’ve visited. The staff behind the counter went out of their way to talk me through the menu in detail, with a level of knowledge and enthusiasm that put most places to shame. There were party balloons up on the day I visited and the effusive woman at the till (who turned out to be the owner) told me it was her birthday recently. They’d had a party in the restaurant, she said, with customers and friends. “Many of our customers become friends” she said, and I can well believe her. Throughout my short lunchtime visit there were customers coming and going, collecting food and chatting, and all the time I struggled to tell the difference between customer and friends – not just because many of them were speaking Spanish.

Arepas Caffe is a Venezuelan café and has been open in Reading for a pretty astonishing eighteen months, tucked away opposite Greyfriars church, invisible to most of the population. I would never have found it myself if it hadn’t been for Jo Romero’s blog and it’s taken me almost six months get round to going – a huge oversight, I now realise, especially since they do churros (more of that later, though). The cafe itself is a small, skinny room with a counter at one end and seating along one side, with homely prints and pictures along the other (I noticed one saying mi casa, su casa which was particularly appropriate).

The menu is pretty simple, although more customisable than it looks at first glance. The main thing here, in accordance with the Ronseal Principle, is the arepas – small, round, pitta-like pockets made from corn instead of wheat – that can be filled with an array of, erm, fillings. The main ones are carne mechado and pollo mechado (shredded beef and chicken respectively) but you can also team these with black beans and cheese. Or you can have La Reina, a particularly decadent sounding combination of chicken, avocado and garlic sauce. But if you don’t fancy arepas there are other options, all revolving around those fillings: burritos, empanadas or pabellón, which is basically the same thing served with rice and beans. The owner told me, with obvious pride, that everything is made by hand on the premises and, if you needed any further incentive, it’s also gluten free (and I thought Nibsy’s was the first to do this: you live and learn).

So far, all terrific, but was the food any good? Well, generally, yes it was. The arepa itself was crispy on the outside and slightly sticky and doughy in the middle, which made it feel a little heavy. But what was in it was tasty: chicken cooked until it was falling apart in a tomato and chilli sauce, topped with grated cheese. And the cheese! The owner said that the cheese was really good and she was right – it had the flavour of a decent tangy cheddar but the slightly plasticky (in a good way) texture of processed cheese, perfect for melting. So it was almost a big hit: I’m not sure if I would have the arepa again – that gluey texture left me a little underwhelmed – but the contents were really good, especially considering they were only a fiver. I think I missed the chance to pick a few more fillings, being a bit overloaded with choice, but that’s something definitely worth rectifying with a return visit.

Arepa

The beef empanada was a very similar story. There isn’t a sign on the wall at Arepas saying You don’t have to like corn to eat here, but it helps but there really should be: I’m used to Argentinian empanadas made with thin pastry, but the Venezuelan version is also made with corn and as a result was also a little bit thick and stodgy for my tastes. But the filling was magnificent – sticky shreds of slow-cooked, savoury beef. Beautiful on the inside, iffy on the outside, like seeing a hot person wearing an unflattering outfit. But it didn’t make me think Never again, it just made me think next time I’m cutting the crap and having the pabellón.

Empanada

Now, back to those churros I mentioned earlier: I know this was only lunch but I couldn’t resist trying them. I’ve had them in Spain and not heard of them elsewhere, but the owner told me that they’re absolutely churro crazy in South America so here they are. There is even a chain of cafes over there called Churromania, apparently: now that’s one chain I wouldn’t mind seeing expand to Reading. For two pounds forty-nine they serve up four stubby churros (about the size of a fat marker pen) with a small dish of chocolate sauce. If the arepa made me want to come back and order something different then the churros made me want to come back and order the churros. They were heaven: piping hot, crispy on the outside, fluffy in the middle, and lightly dusted with sugar and cinnamon. The chocolate sauce was like a thin Nutella: not to my personal taste, but it didn’t go to waste at my table and was perfect for dipping and taking out a little of that heat. All told, I can think few ways to spend under three quid in a Reading restaurant that would bring anywhere near as much joy as these did.

Churros

On the side we had an iced tea and a mango juice. The owner told me, again with pride, that the juice had been freshly made that day – I got that in that clean, green taste but I found it a little on the watery side (I think maybe that’s my fault, though – spoiled by all those mango lassis I’ve enjoyed this year). The total bill came to fifteen pounds: not half bad for a hot two course lunch in an enthusiastic independent café.

I can’t help wondering what might have been. Maybe if I had gone for a burrito or the pabellón instead of the more sticky arepas and empanadas I’d be giving this a higher rating (I also fancied trying the cachapa, a corn – what else? – pancake filled with something a bit like mozzarella). But, on the other hand, the sign of a good restaurant is that you’re planning what you’ll eat on your second visit before you’ve finished the first, and on that basis it’s impossible not to recommend Arepas Caffe. They’re open until eight in the evening, and I can well imagine I’ll drop by after work one day to have another crack at finding the best things on the menu. Besides, when the staff are this friendly it would be rude not to go back for another helping of the churros. Just for quality control purposes, si?

When I got home, I looked at Arepas’ Facebook page. The owner wasn’t kidding about the birthday party – they even have photos up, and everyone looks like they’re having a fantastic time. Go have a look and let me know if you can tell the difference between the customers and friends: I know I couldn’t.

Arepas Caffe – 6.8
89 Friar Street, RG1 1EL
0118 957 1551

Arepas Caffe