I’ve been writing this blog for nearly ten years, and I’ve been moaning that Reading needs a good tapas restaurant for most of them. Certainly I was saying that from the moment, back in September 2013, when I had the misfortune of visiting Picasso just off Caversham Bridge (“one tapas is enough for two people” was the warning sign, looking back). Surely, given the popularity of small plates in general and tapas in particular, someone would give it a bash?
That said, there was a halcyon period, between 2015 and 2018, when Reading was graced with I Love Paella, first in Workhouse Coffee down the Oxford Road, then at The Horn in town, and finally at the Fisherman’s Cottage by the canal. But the owners of the pub decided to let them go, so they could offer their own menu which looked disconcertingly like I Love Paella’s. It didn’t work: the pub closed and changed hands.
And what have we had since then? Numerous restaurants that do good small plates, but only one place, Thames Lido, for tapas (their “poolside bar menu”). I know the Lido has its fans, but having had nothing but inconsistent meals there – and having watched them churn through chefs like it’s nobody’s business – for me that tapas itch remains unscratched.
It’s baffling, because it’s a style of eating that has readily taken root elsewhere. In Bristol you can choose between Bravas, Gambas, Bar 44 or Paco Tapas. London options include Barrafina, Brindisa, Salt Yard and Iberica, and I’ve barely got started. Closer to home Goat On The Roof opened in Newbury last year (I liked it, when I went) and more recently El Cerdo has started trading in Maidenhead, part of its ongoing explosion of interesting-looking new restaurants. And this kind of restaurant keeps coming – Salty Olive, a pintxo restaurant, is opens soon in Wokingham. Yet Reading’s tapas market remains resolutely untapped.
In my experience, great tapas restaurants in this country tend to be run by Brits fanatical about Spain, Spanish culture and Spanish food. Often, rather than recreating what you would get in Andalusia, they set about building a superior re-imagining of it. The 44 Group, run by the Morgan family, is a great example, completely obsessed with produce and producers. Arbequina, down Oxford’s Cowley Road, is another.
Even tapas restaurants which feel more authentically Spanish, more an attempt to create a traditional tapas bar in this country, are often set up by Brits. I’ve always had a huge soft spot for Los Gatos, easily the best restaurant in Swindon, perched up in the Old Town: it’s only in the process of writing this week’s review that I discovered that it, too, was founded by a British couple and named after Malaga’s legendary bar of the same name.
So really, I should have ventured out to Maidenhead this week to try El Cerdo. It fits the bill I’ve just described: the website talks about a love of Spain and Spanish flavours, the menu makes all the right noises. Muddy Stilettos raved about their (no doubt free) food, and it appears – from a look at Companies House – to be owned by Brits. That would be the obvious choice, but who likes obvious choices anyway?
Instead I decided to revisit the one tapas restaurant I can think of that appears, from what I can gather, to be owned by a Spaniard, Wokingham’s Sanpa. It’s been running since 2012, and I visited it back in 2016, when I loved the place. They then moved to a new house (as did I – twice) and our paths diverged. But people get too hung up on the shiny and new, so before I reviewed the shiny and new I decided it was time to get myself to Wokingham with Zoë and see whether the intervening years had been kind to Sanpa.
It’s one of the town’s older buildings, two conjoined cottages, all beams, white walls and cosy, farmhouse-style chairs and tables. The two dining rooms are separated by a hearth and the second gives a view into the open-ish kitchen. It looked homely, not unpleasant but also, in honesty, not drastically different to when I visited this building last in 2016, back when it was home to a restaurant called Jessy’s.
It was also, and this never flatters a dining room, empty. Marie Celeste empty. Not with a few tables settling up, not with reserved signs marking the space of the diners yet to come. Just empty. I don’t know about you, but I always feel guilty if it seems like I’m the only thing standing between staff and an early night.
Despite that the welcome was warm and immediate and it felt like a nice, if cavernous, place to stop on a midweek evening. And looking at the menu I could see plenty of reasons to settle in for a few waves of small plates. Most of it very much looked the part, although a couple of dishes – bacalhau à bras and chicken fajitas – did seem to have wandered across from other restaurants.
Pricing for tapas was all clustered around the eight pound mark – although some dishes were £7.95 and others £7.59 for reasons which seemed capricious at best. The bigger plates – steak, lamb shank, three different kinds of paella – were grouped together under a section endearingly entitled “Other things to order”, even though that literally describes everything on a menu, if you think about it.
My favourite part – and I’ve never seen anything like this before – was a sternly worded box in the bottom left. It said, and I’m quoting verbatim here, Please make sure that you know what this dish looks like or taste (sic) like. Due to the level of controversy and the cost of this dish, we regret to inform you that we will not be able to refund this dish of (sic) your bill if you’re not comfortable with the outcome of your order.
I followed the asterisk, expecting it to be something contentious like octopus, or sweetbreads, but instead found a rib-eye with blue cheese and Rioja sauce. Is steak and potatoes really controversial, or were they playing it safe because it was just shy of twenty-four pounds?
The wine list was okay, if not hugely tempting. I was in the mood for a Spanish beer – always so enjoyable with tapas – but all they had was San Miguel by the bottle. So we decided to grab a jug of sangria and that turned out to be an excellent choice. It was expertly put together to taste as if it had no alcohol in it, even though you knew it did, and if it contained a slug of rum or brandy it was nicely blended and concealed. It tasted, to be honest, like holidays – and what’s not to like about any drink capable of that?
Our first wave of dishes was a decent reflection of the strengths and weaknesses of the kitchen. Bread was bought in but serviceable enough, and the allioli tottered under the weight of an industrial quantity of garlic. But the colour was Hellmans-pale not golden, the consistency woolly, closer to fridge-cold butter than the good stuff. Chorizo in cider came, not as an earthenware dish full of slices of chorizo, caramelised at the edges, rich with juices, but rather as two hulking sausages, plain and unadorned. This didn’t fill me with hope but actually they were terrific, the kind of quality you can’t easily get your hands on in this country.
If that dish didn’t give the bread much to do by way of moppage the next more than made up for it. I’d loved Sanpa’s prawns in garlic on my visit seven years ago and was keen to reacquaint myself with them. They were still very nice indeed, sizzling away in a little skillet surrounded by nuggets of garlic somewhere between golden and crunchy.
This, more than the allioli, felt like the bread’s destiny, to dive and scoop and play in that pool of oil and garlic. I remembered halfway through that I was in the office next day, and felt bad for my colleagues. But if you wanted an illustration of what’s happened over the last seven years you couldn’t find a better one – the dish cost about a pound more than last time, but contained roughly half as many prawns.
Then there was the dish for which I had the highest hopes: panceta a la parilla, described in the menu as “ideal as finger food”. From that I was hoping for little cubes of pork belly, something close to chicharrones. Instead we got three slabs of belly, plainly grilled, without much accompaniment. It wasn’t quite cooked to the point where the fat starts to render and everything gets gloriously sticky, and I found a couple of shards of bone in my piece.
I found myself thinking about what this dish would have been like in the market at Malaga, the whole thing dressed with a little herbs, the tomatoes thicker and tasting properly of tomatoes, as they always do abroad. Abroad they would have been bright with grassy olive oil and scattered with rock salt. Did I think the chef was running on autopilot because he hadn’t bothered to do any of that here, or had I decided that because I could see, through in the open kitchen, that he was cooking with his headphones on?
A meal like this is definitely a game of two halves, and as we cogitated and fine-tuned our next selection of dishes the staff – who were absolutely brilliant throughout, by the way – took our dishes away. I asked our server if she had any recommendations – “you’ve already had quite a few of my favourites” she said, which I liked.
By this point another couple had come in and were sitting the other side of the room, which had the advantage of making me feel like less of a lemon. Again, I worried about all the good restaurants unable to pack them in on a midweek evening; I doubt, back in Reading, Popeyes was having this problem. I felt a moral responsibility to order more dishes – and another jug of sangria, although there was nothing moral about that.
Our second wave of dishes showed the same inconsistency but, if anything, were more disappointing. I’d decided against the patatas bravas, our server’s recommendation, instead picking the patatas con crema de Cabrales. This was the same cheese, by the way, that featured in that Absolutely No Refunds Ribeye. The possible reason for that is that Cabrales is stinky. It is one of the most agricultural blue cheeses there is, perfect with Asturian cider, though pretty good on its own. This potato dish should have been salty and funky – a handful, no less.
And yet the surprisingly dark sauce just didn’t have the oomph, and there wasn’t enough of it. What there was had slipped through the cracks and landed in a pool at the bottom of the dish, rather than coating each crunchy cube of spud. A real shame, because the potatoes themselves were excellent. A good opportunity squandered: was it down to those headphones again?
Albondigas were another recommendation and, again, just missed the mark. The meatballs themselves were genuinely lovely – a coarse mix of pork and beef, clearly handmade and as good as most I’ve tried. But drowning them in a gloopy sauce of tomatoes and peas coated the accomplishment in an emulsifying layer of blah. And I didn’t see the point of putting more cubes of potato at the bottom where they just wound up bedraggled and soggy. The meatballs should have been the star of the show – again, my mind wandered to Malaga and to its marvellous Uvedoble, where the meatballs come perched on a bed of shoestring fries, the meaty juices soaking in, the whole thing unimprovable.
Croquetas were probably the most disappointing thing I ate. These were apparently made with Serrano ham, though good luck finding much of it. They’d been fried to the point where the shell was a permacrust, the inside again woolly rather than silky. Had they been previously frozen? I wouldn’t have bet against it. Just over six pounds for these tiddlers didn’t feel like amazing value (and these days, things being how they are, I don’t talk about value as much as I once did).
Last but not least, a round of goats cheese with tomato jam. This, again, is a dish I remember fondly – this time from I Love Paella – but Sanpa’s was a pale imitation. Maybe it’s because we ate it last of all, but it didn’t have that almost brûlée crust – instead it was a little like cardboard. Underneath the goats cheese was still decent, although I like pretty much any goats cheese, and the tomato jam was a classic, if sweet, combo. But again I felt underwhelmed; I knew Sanpa could get their hands on decent ingredients – the chorizo showed as much – but I didn’t feel like they always did enough with them.
I feel bad saying all this, partly because I wanted so badly to like them and also because, as I said, service was brilliant all night. It takes real skill to be that happy and engaged on a Wednesday in the middle of spring, looking after a restaurant of precisely four customers. But the staff did exactly that, and I imagine they come into their own on a bustling weekend night, when I sincerely hope Sanpa is packed with happy diners. But also, much as I wanted to like them, I couldn’t imagine a Saturday night where I would be among them.
Our meal came to just shy of ninety pounds, not including tip, and tempting though it was to have a pint and a debrief in the Crispin next door, we headed for the station. I found myself simultaneously hoping that Sanpa continued to prosper – I’m sentimental like that – and wondering, if my meal had been representative, how they really could.
“I bet the people who run that restaurant have never been to Arbequina or Bar 44” said Zoë as we boarded our train home.
“No, probably not. But why would they? They’re Spanish, they probably feel they have authenticity on their side.”
“But that’s the point, you have to adapt or die: if they don’t, they might get left behind. Last time you gave them a rating of 8 or something, this time it’s going to be much lower. What will it be like in another five years? And some of the touches in our meal tonight just felt dated. Like that squiggle of balsamic glaze under the goat’s cheese, who does that any more?”
I nodded silently in agreement at my other half, easily a better restaurant critic than I am these days, as the train trundled back to Reading.
I was lucky enough to make it to Bruges in October 2022 and January 2023 so that section of this guide has now been expanded with plenty of other excellent venues.
Last week’s feature on al fresco dining got a fantastic response from you all, and is already, at the time of writing, the most popular piece I’ve published on the blog this year: thank you so much to everybody who read it, commented, recommended it and passed it on. And after the week we’ve had I have high hopes that it will come in handy for a while yet – in fact the weekend it came out I had dinner outside the Lyndhurst one night, Buon Appetito the next. So if reading it made you feel hungry I can assure you that writing it had much the same effect.
Anyway, by contrast this week it’s one of those pieces that’s a bit more niche, that will only interest a handful of you, so apologies in advance for that. But I had such an enjoyable week in Bruges and Ghent last month that I thought it was ripe for a piece, especially because my last guide to Ghent – the first city guide I ever wrote on the blog – is a creaking three and a half years old. Both cities are well worth visiting, both are gorgeous and ridiculously easy to reach by Eurostar and both offer a holiday unmarred by the flight chaos we might well see for the rest of the year.
Of the two I would say Bruges is smaller, quainter and (even) more beautiful, although it’s very touristy and decidedly sleepy of an evening once the coachloads of day trippers have moved on. Ghent is larger and more sprawling, with much more of a big city feel. Its historic parts are reminiscent of Bruges but it also has street art, a modern art gallery, a design museum and more of a craft beer scene outside the traditional Belgian pubs.
As a tourist, you could easily do Bruges in a long weekend, as a beer devotee you could explore it for a lifetime and never tire of the place. Having now made three trips in just over six months, I completely get its magic and understand why it’s captured the hearts of many people I know. If you aren’t nuts about beer, Ghent might keep you occupied longer. But they’re half an hour apart on the train, so you could easily (as I have) make a two centre holiday of both.
Oh, one other thing before I get started – this is only based on places I went to on this year’s visit. So my piece about Ghent from 2018/2019 is potentially still worth a read, it’s just that I can’t vouch for places like Brasserie Du Progres, Oak, Otomat and Barista (I bet they’re great, though). I can however guarantee that the pastries from Himschoot are as gorgeous as they ever were: they’ve even opened a few additional branches since I was there last.
Bruut is in a handsome building next to an absurdly beautiful bridge overlooking the canal, and inside it’s all rather convivial – leather chairs, fetching tiled floors and exposed light fittings. But there are a few al fresco tables by the side of the bridge with a gorgeous view, and that’s where I sat when I had lunch there, one of my meals of the year. Chef Bruno Timperman offers a no-choice, no-substitutions set menu for lunch or dinner and comes out to introduce and talk through many of the dishes himself. And put simply, the man is a wizard: I don’t normally talk about chefs in my blog but this is all very much in his image and it’s very much his show.
Nothing I ate was short of dazzling, and there were almost too many highlights to mention, but a steak tartare made simply with high-grade beef, salt and milk to draw out all the flavour was a tender, mineral miracle. A pre-lunch nibble of prawns, cooked whole and dusted with a vivid raspberry powder was like nothing I’ve ever eaten. And our dessert, cherries halved, hollowed and filled wih rose-coloured chocolate, topped with discs of elderflower jelly and sitting in a cherry gazpacho dotted with cherry balsamic, will live in my memory for a long time. My only regret is not taking up the wine pairing – although in my defence it was only lunchtime, and the beer list has some superb lambics on it which made for an excellent alternative.
I made a repeat visit in January 2023 for dinner and experienced the full whistles and bells experience, although with no booze because I was a little subpar. Not everything worked – a beautiful piece of cod wrapped in crispy nori and topped with caviar was submerged under an icky spooge of what Bruno called “plankton sauce” wasn’t quite my bag – but he served the most tender pigeon I’ve ever eaten, with a pigeon confit ragu wrapped up in a leaf on the side, an astonishing scallop with a Belgian take on XO sauce and a poached pear with yoghurt parfait which made some tried and tested staples seem fresh and new. If you eat one meal in Bruges, go here.
More classic and formal and a little less cutting edge, Assiette Blanche has an attractive wood-panelled dining room and the meal I had there was top notch. They have a set menu or an a la carte (although you can sort of switch between the two) and the set, for dinner, starts at a reasonable forty-four Euros for three courses.
The dishes here are generous – robust but not clumsy, but certainly not a fiddly-plated exercise in nouvelle nonsense. I enjoyed the whole lot but my particular favourite was a monkfish saltimbocca, the flesh firm and pearlescent, the guanciale it was wrapped in providing salt and smoke. The whole thing was on a bed of prawns and fregola, cut through with a dressing sporting just the right amount of vinegar. A white chocolate and rhubarb dessert, complete with a sweet, sticky syrup that spoke of time well spent, wrapped things up with a perfect bow.
On a subsequent visit in October 2022 I tried the set lunch menu, which was both superb and excellent value. A supreme of chicken came with the most autumnal wild mushroom sauce, and if you try the Belgian dessert dame blanche – vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce – anywhere, this is the place to do it.
Más is only open some weekends, and is walk-ins only, although they very nicely take your number and ring you when they have some space, leaving you free to enjoy a beer somewhere (I had mine at De Garre, where the house triple is 11%: with hindsight not the most sensible choice).
It’s worth jumping through those hoops, because Más’ Mexican food is as delicious as it is incongruous, from beautiful cheesy quesadillas to pork belly skewers with salsa, from shrimp tacos to their excellent fried chicken. We ate up at the bar, and it was reminiscent of some of my happiest meals in more Mediterranean parts of Europe. They have cocktails on tap too, apparently, although I was a little too drunk to give them a try. They have a good range of beers from Brussels Beer Project, though, which went nicely.
You might think it’s a little meh to have pizza in Bruges, and you might be right. But I’m yet to find a very traditional restaurant in Bruges that really hit the spot: Gran Kaffee de Passage was a bit hit and miss, the interior better than the food (I’m reliably informed that I should try Brasserie Raymond next time). And you may want somewhere for a good lightish lunch that isn’t a moule frites place: if so, Amuni is for you. Just next to the Burg it’s a stylish space which does excellent pizza – although my favourite thing there was the vitello tonnato which we foolishly ordered to share. It’s far too good to share: make sure you order your own.
For an actual light lunch, instead of a pizza, I highly recommend the muted but chic Kottee Kaffee. It’s on Ezelstraat, a street with a scattering of tasteful boutiques, and it offers a menu which is sort of Le Pain Quotidien but independent. So there’s lots of lovely bread and salted farmhouse butter, cheeses and charcuterie but the menu offers lots of more brunchy stuff if that’s your bag. Very fetchingly put together, decent value and there’s good coffee too. But perhaps just as winning were the staff and the constant playlist of 90s music, most of which they enjoyed singing along to. We asked how long they’d been there and apparently they’ve been open less than a year. You’d never know.
Bruges has lots of pretty patisseries where the priorities are the cakes and pastries and the coffee, though perfectly pleasant, plays second fiddle. I went to one on my final morning in the city and we waited ages to get served and even longer to get the bill: the pain au chocolat was good, but not that good. Far better, in a little square with some outside space, was Vero Caffè. It also sells excellent squidgy brownies, exactly as you would like them, so it gets my vote.
Come for the music, stay for the atmosphere! is the slogan of this record shop in the east of the city. Come for the music stay for the coffee, more like, because it served one of my favourite coffees in Bruges. I love places like this – it reminded me of Truck Records, out on Oxford’s Cowley Road – and I’d have happily whiled away longer sitting outside or inside with a good book. They do cocktails and beer too, although precisely how much they expect you to put away before they close at 6pm is anybody’s guess.
On my visit last October I became a regular visitor to Adriaan for the first coffee of the day and I became thoroughly attached to the place – it’s a tasteful, classy place, all muted mint green and comfy furniture, the antithesis of craft coffee places in the U.K. and abroad with their reliance on chipboard. The coffee is pretty good, the pastries are spot on and the service is friendly and speedy. Every city break needs a reliable coffee place like this, although you may find yourself channelling Rocky Balboa whenever you mention the place (or that might be just me).
Cafune probably does the best coffee I had in Bruges, and is in a small and likeable spot two doors down from Màs, in a street which also boasts the fantastic and fascinating beer shop Bacchus Cornelius (top tip: head to the back room for the white whales of the Belgian beer world). They roast their own coffee – and very good it is too – and they have a small but comfy space inside, although I got quite attached, figuratively speaking, to their little bench outside.
From hearing Zoë talk about Café Rose Red I was expecting to like it a lot, and I wasn’t disappointed. A rather attractive room, all red walls and roses hanging from the ceiling, it had a decent if not incredible beer list and an interesting range of options on tap. I’d heard good things about the food and so we ordered a few bits and pieces to graze on. The assorted cheese and charcuterie was surprisingly disappointing, but I think the trick is to go for dishes that the kitchen has cooked rather than simply dished up: the kibbeling – battered chunks of fish with a mild, soothing tartare sauce – was the equal of any similar dish I’ve had in Andalusia.
I probably would have liked Café Rose Red a lot more if I’d liked ’t Brugs Beertje a little less, but that was never going to happen. The Little Bear is arguably the Belgian watering hole elevated to its ultimate form, a little conspiratorial place with a great selection on tap and an eye-wateringly brilliant list of bottled beers, including many Belgian breweries I’d never heard of and a “vintage” section which gave you the chance to try dark beers and lambics which had been properly cared for across the best part of a decade. I had a Cuvée Delphine from 2013 by De Struise which had the kind of depth and complexity that haunts your imagination long after you’ve taken your final sip.
But more than the impressive selection, it just felt like the perfect place to stop, drink, eavesdrop, people-watch and potentially get into random conversations. The middle room complete with plaque to original Belgian beer spod Michael Jackson (not that one, a different one) was nice, but the front room was where you wanted to be, at a table with your favourite person, making inroads into that excellent list, in no hurry to be anywhere else. It reminded me of the Retreat in its previous incarnation under Bernie and Jane, when it stocked shedloads of Belgian beers – and always the right glasses to go with them – and it made me miss the Retreat of ten years ago, too.
But either way, whether you were there in a pair or, as on my last couple of visits, in a big raucous group of beer obsessives, all diving into the depths of the gigantic beer list, congratulating one another on their choices and swapping anecdotes and in jokes, it is for me the epicentre of Bruges, and absolutely not to be missed. It doesn’t have lock-ins per se, but I have no idea when it really closes. On one particularly beautiful evening there we settled up, well past midnight, put our coats on, stepped through the front door, looked back at the golden glow of the windows and thought what the fuck are we doing? We went back in for one last nightcap.
De Kelk, on the other side of the road from Cherry Picker, is quite unlike the other beer places on this list. Although it does have an excellent range of Belgian beer, the list skews more to the wider craft scene with fascinating beers from breweries I’d never come across before. I tried a couple of beautiful DIPAs from Madrid’s Cerveceria Peninsula and Latvia’s Ārpus, and if I’d stayed longer there was plenty more to explore. The interior is cracking too – a far cry from Belgium’s more traditional pubs with a tiled floor, high leather stools and lighting that’s more speakeasy than boozer, with some random streetlights used to good effect. I also loved the bar snacks, which included some disgraceful keesballen and very creditable jamon serrano. I will definitely go back.
De Windmolen, out past De Kelk at the edge of the city and a stone’s throw from the windmills from which it takes its name, isn’t a place for beer purists. It’s sort of part-pub, part day café and most days it closes at 8pm. The inside is pleasingly eccentric: when we went this month one table was taken up by a very competitive-looking card game. And the beer list skews to bottled triples, although they do have local Brugse Zot on tap and it never disappoints. But for me it’s a special place – especially when I visited in October, and could sit outside, coatless, while the back of my neck was gently baked by the completely unseasonal autumn sunshine. Worth a stop, even if only for the one.
De Windmolen, Carmersstraat 135, Brugge (No website)
1. De Superette
Tragically, Superette closed in late 2022.
Whenever I researched places to eat in Ghent, De Superette always came up but for some reason I’d never taken the plunge and booked a table there. And then on this visit I did and in the run up to going I looked on TripAdvisor (as you do) and had a bit of a wobble. Lots of people said it was overrated, or expensive, or small portions or suchlike.
Well, I overcame my fears and went and was rewarded with a superb meal which made me wonder what all the naysayers were carping about. It’s a bakery by day and pizza place by night, offering a really compact selection of pizzas and a little tasting menu of small plates to start you off. It was the kind of place you wanted to click your fingers and teleport back home, just round the corner from where you lived, and the clientele – a huge range of ages and types of groups – were all clearly having a marvellous time.
And the food was excellent. The small plates were clever, inventive and cracking value – glorious, just-cooked peas with guanciale, a moutabal brimming with smokiness, a clever gazpacho studded with pine nuts. And then the pizzas turned out to be some of the best I’ve had anywhere, all fluffy crust and supercharged clusters of ‘nduja. I left full, happy and determined to return. The table next to us, on the other hand, ordered two pizzas between five. Maybe it’s people like that who complain about small portions: if so, I have a really simple life hack they’re welcome to borrow.
De Lieve featured in my previous guide to Ghent and I’ve eaten there on every single visit. Between my last visit and my latest, though, something happened: De Lieve was recognised by Michelin and awarded a Bib Gourmand, their badge of affordable high quality food. And the De Lieve I went to in 2019 was absolutely the kind of restaurant that gets a Bib Gourmand, but the De Lieve I went to last month feels like the kind of restaurant that’s aiming for a star, and that comes with pluses and minuses.
So it felt like the tables were that little bit closer together, the prices were that little bit sharper and the portions were that little bit smaller. The quality was still top notch, don’t get me wrong – my carpaccio of hamachi was a delicate, pretty, subtle dish, but by the time I finished it (a few seconds later) I was thinking about the bag of paprika Walkers Max back at the apartment and wondering if I’d be breaking into them in the not too distant future.
Fortunately balance was restored with a delicious Basque t-bone with rosemary gratin and a deeply pleasing jus, and a cracking tarte tatin completed an enjoyable, if pricey meal. It felt to me like bumping into a friend after a few years to find they’ve had very good, very expensive plastic surgery done. You know they look great, but in the back of your mind you think was that really necessary? Still, if you’ve never been it’s definitely worth considering on a visit to Ghent: I just miss the days when they had a puck of divine black pudding on the starters menu.
Still my favourite place for traditional Belgian food, De Rechters is a chic, contemporary-looking restaurant which is far better than it needs to be given its plum spot next to St Bavo’s Cathedral. On this occasion, for the first time, I got to sit outside in the sunshine and it made a good meal, if anything, even better. We drank Orval, and Zoë pointed out to me that her beer and mine were bottled on different days, which explained why mine was fizzier than hers: I love it when she goes full Raymond Babbitt about beer like that.
Never having had moules in Belgium – I know, such an oversight – I had some as a starter, cooked simply with thyme and they were plump and fragrant. But next time I’ll go the whole hog and have them as a main with garlic and cream, which for me is the only way really to eat moules, dipping your bread and frites into the sauce until you are truly replete.
The frites, incidentally, were a bit wan on this visit – which is a shame, because frites are something Belgium does better than practically anybody. But the stoverij, beer slow-cooked in beer until the whole thing is a symphony of dark brown, almost-sweet ambrosia, is worth the price of admission alone. You can get frites anywhere but beef like that requires patience and skill, both of which De Rechters has in abundance.
On my holiday in Belgium I tried to learn from previous trips away and put a strict rule in place: one big meal a day. Maybe all of you already do this when you go on holiday, but sadly I’ve never been great at restraint and although it means I’ve eaten some amazing food it does make the post-holiday Monday comedown a downer of epic proportions. What do you mean I can’t have sherry at lunchtime and go to a restaurant? I’ll rail to nobody in particular. Make my own meals? Who does that?
On the plus side, it meant I could discover Ghent’s brunch scene, and that in turn meant a thoroughly worthwhile visit to STEK, an achingly cool cafe halfway between the centre and the modern art gallery. Inside it’s all plants – a lot of monsteras and plenty of other flora I wouldn’t recognise – and outside there’s a serene terrace, a proper secret garden with plenty of space where you feel nowhere near a big city. It reminded me a bit of the surprise you get when you walk through the Boston Tea Party on Bristol’s Park Street to find that massive garden out back or, closer to home, the bang-up job the Collective has done with its outside space.
Since I was embracing lunch and brunch I decided to go the whole hog and order the avo toast. Mine came with superbly crispy, curled, caramelised bacon, a fried egg with the yolk still runny, shoots and leaves and a little side salad and it was as pretty as its surroundings. It tasted phenomenal too, and the coffee wasn’t bad either. Maybe there are pluses to having a lighter lunch after all.
My absolute favourite coffee place of the holiday was Take Five Espresso in the centre of Ghent. I never completely decided whether I preferred being inside, sat up at the big windows watching city life bustling by or outside in the sun (their seating is dead clever, making full use of the public benches on the street). What I did work out though was that their lattes were magnificent and that by the end of my trip it was hard to imagine being caffeinated anywhere else. It was the epitome of café chic and I enjoyed it a great deal. I never tried any of their food, but you can blame Kultur, the excellent bakery next door (and their pain au chocolat) for that.
Clouds In My Coffee is one of the most stylish cafés I’ve seen in roughly a decade of going to Europe and seeking these places out. Quite aside from the Carly Simon reference, which manages not to be naff, the inside is truly gorgeous, like something out of Living Etc. From the street it looks small (and is surprisingly hard to find) but through the back is a wonderfully light, airy extension and beyond that another of those idyllic secret gardens that Ghent cafés seem to all have up their sleeves.
Did I want a coffee? Absolutely. Was my latte delicious? Of course it was. Did I look at the menu and wonder if it was too early for an Aperol Spritz? You bet I did. And did I feel like I was soaking up design tips for the duration of my visit? Yes, along with thinking Why doesn’t Reading have anywhere like this? The only drawback is that Clouds In My Coffee is the epitome of the best house on a bad street: Dampoort, where it lives, is an up and coming part of Ghent that, from my visit, has more upping and coming to do (the cafe’s website calls it a “multicolour fuse”, which I think is nicely poetic). The walk there from the tram stop involved walking through an Aldi car park and, for an awful moment, I thought I’d wandered through a wormhole in space and found myself on the outskirts of Basingstoke. Still worth a visit though, if only to go somewhere that fitted in about as much as I did.
On my first visit to Ghent, at the tail end of autumn 2018, I rather liked Het Waterhuis aan de Beerkant, a tall building by the canal (aren’t they all?) with rooms across several floors: the room right at the top reminded me of mid-90s boho drinking culture in a way which somehow summoned up memories of Bar Iguana. But it wasn’t until I went back on a hot July afternoon that I really got what the fuss was about – sitting at a sunny table, overlooking the canal, surrounded by other afternoon revellers of all shapes and sizes it was an extremely agreeable place to while away a few hours and sink a tall, cold Brugse Zot on draft. We don’t have a word, really, for what time spent like that is like but I believe the Dutch describe it as gezellig.
I waxed lyrical about Gitane after previous visits to Ghent, and it’s still one of my favourite watering holes. But, like Het Waterhuis aan de Beerkant, it was a decidedly different experience on a hot and sunny day: everybody was chattering away at tables which fill the street outside and if you’re forced to sit in, as we were, it made for a slightly Marie Celeste moment.
No matter: it’s still a great place for a cosy drink, all wood panels and tiled floor, and if the list is less compendious than those at Ghent’s more feted bars and pubs it makes up for that with some really interesting choices from some of Belgium’s less established breweries. I had a cracking New England IPA from Brouwcompagnie Rolling Hills which married East Flanders and the Eastern Seaboard very harmoniously indeed.
The two other “proper” Belgian pubs in Ghent, both with compendious beer lists, are Trollkelder and Dulle Griet. Both are idiosyncratic to put it lightly – I had a drink sitting outside Trollkelder only slightly put off by the weird models of trolls eyeballing you through the window. I liked Dulle Griet better, although both are an experience and you should at least try a drink in one of them. It’s named after Mad Meg, a figure in Flemish folklore who led an army of women to storm the gates of hell. Whether that explains the decor and all the weird figurines hanging from the ceiling I have no idea (I wouldn’t want to do their dusting, put it that way) but it made for an interesting and characterful place to stop for an afternoon beer, especially as they had Westmalle Dubbel, a Trappist favourite of mine, on draft. Given that they boast over five hundred different beers on their list, you’d probably find something to enjoy here.
HAL 16 is a food hall and brewery out towards the docks, and is a perfect place to visit whether you like beer, food or ideally both. I think it used to just be the tap room for local brewery Dok Brewing, but there have been some changes and it now shares the space with three different food vendors: think Blue Collar, but even more cool. There’s also a branch of the excellent bakery Himschoot just round the corner, terrific coffee from the nearby OR Espresso Bar and a beer shop – De Hopduvel – which sells all the beer (and matching glasses) you could possibly want for your trip home.
I had already bought a Dok Brewing glass from a shop in Bruges by then, because I was already a fan. Dok does some truly lovely beer and there are something like thirty taps at HAL 16, with a mixture of beers brewed on the premises and fascinating stuff from breweries I’d never even heard of: the highlight of this visit was a stunningly dank DIPA from Virginia’s Aslin Beer Company. But the other reason to come here is for the food from RØK (they like their block capitals in this part of town) which smokes and grills meat, hispi cabbage and anything else they think might be good.
On a previous visit in 2019 I had a huge, smoked, blackened pork chop, fresh off the grill, which ducked under the velvet rope and went straight into my gastronomic hall of fame without passing GO or collecting £200. This time round it was all about the lamb neck, tender and moreish, scattered with salt and served with a puddle of aioli and a properly zingy salsa verde. We made the mistake of ordering pizza from another vendor first and then picked up the lamb dish from RØK just before their kitchen closed, but when I return – and I will return – I’m ordering everything on their menu, even if it leads to a Mr Creosote situation.
I try my best, doing this restaurant reviewing lark, to visit places I think are likely to be either good or interesting, or ideally both; with a few notable exceptions, I don’t go anywhere where I think I’m definitely going to have a bad meal. And even if I have my reservations, I try to turn up with an open mind, ready to find the positives in my experience, however difficult that is. Sometimes the gods smile on me and I have a run of beautiful meals, one after the other. And that’s brilliant – exceptional meals are easier to write about, and people enjoy reading about them. Conversely, the worst thing is a run of bad meals. A succession of stinkers. That does rather break the soul.
The worst run I can remember started at the end of 2019. It began with a truly awful dinner at TGI Friday, and continued with the grisly spectacle of doner meat nachos at German Doner Kebab. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was going to the Dairy, the university bar and kitchen just down the road from the MERL. I’d always loved drinking there, especially on a hot day, but the food was bloody awful. That made three cruddy meals on the spin and nearly two months without enjoying a meal on duty: it was the kind of vale of tears that makes you seriously think about chucking the whole thing in.
Then at the start of this year, there was a surprising development: the Dairy published a completely new menu on Instagram. And it made all the right noises – beef came from the University’s farm four miles down the road, eggs were from Beechwood Farm (did you know that Beechwood Farm was run by Reading University alumni? I didn’t) and all the bread was supplied by Waring’s. Not only that, but the menu was full of the kind of things you might actually want to eat. Crispy fried chicken and pickled watermelon burger? Brisket and blue cheese ciabatta? Jerk spiced plantain and halloumi skewers? Count me in!
Something was clearly afoot at the University because a week ago Park House, its bar on campus, published a brand new spring menu. Again, it all looked distinctly tempting, and again the provenance was called out, with the beef coming from the University’s farm and name checks for the excellent Nettlebed Creamery and the Cotswolds’ Hobbs House Bakery. (Not everyone was overjoyed, mind you: I really can’t believe you won’t sell cheesy chips any more, said one comment). Park House has always been one of my very favourite places for a pint in the sunshine, but was it possible that it also offered great, affordable food under the radar? Zoë and I ventured out on a sunny spring evening to put it to the test.
It’s truly a gorgeous spot, inside and out, one of those beautiful Victorian redbrick buildings Reading so specialises in (I think I read somewhere that it’s by Alfred Waterhouse, of Reading Town Hall and Foxhill House fame: I can’t find any evidence of that, but it’s definitely in keeping). It used to be the university’s Senior Common Room, and it still has a distinctly clubbable feel inside, all dark panelled walls and solid wood floors. You could imagine trying to have an intellectual conversation in those rooms, put it that way.
And if you failed it would probably be because of the selection of beers. Park House punches well above its weight with a range many Reading pubs would envy: a dozen beers and ciders with a range of cask and keg. And again, there’s a distinctly local feel with Siren Craft, Elusive, Double-Barrelled and Phantom well represented (in fact, the most exotic drinks on the menu are from Cotswold Cider Company, a colossal 39 miles away). It doesn’t surprise me that Park House has made it onto Reading CAMRA’s Ale Trail this year and the things we tried – a couple of pales from Siren and a mild from Elusive – were yet another reminder of how well served we are in these parts for beer.
Having praised the interior, we did end up eating and drinking outside for a couple of reasons. One was that Park House was distinctly crowded: 6 o’clock on a Monday, surprisingly, seems to be peak eating and drinking time. The other, more happily, is that Park House’s outside space is a natural sun trap, and further proof – if any were needed after visiting the Nag’s Head – that there are few car parks you couldn’t improve by turning them into beer gardens. It’s a proper happy place for me, and it’s where I had my first al fresco pint last year after the longest lockdown winter of all time (14th April 2021, since you didn’t ask). So, the scene was set: was Park House going to be a surprise find, or a disappointment of The Dairy 2019 proportions? It was time to find out.
There are separate menus for breakfast and Sunday lunch, but the rest of the time Park House offers a relatively compact lunch and dinner menu – more compact than I thought, because for some reason the “Crafty Grill” section, offering burgers and hot dogs, wasn’t available. I think it’s also a Sundays only thing. So actually you have a nicely streamlined choice in front of you – less than half a dozen starters and eight mains, one of which is just a bigger portion of one of the starters. The use of “starters” and “mains” might give you the misleading idea that you can order them all at the same time to arrive at different times: don’t try this if you go there, because I just got a blank look and a polite request that you order as you go. Still, it beats the Wagamama approach of bringing anything out whenever they feel like it.
I should also add that everything is ultra-reasonably priced: most of the starters hover around the five pound mark and the vast majority of mains are less than a tenner. Laudably, they’re also trying to include calorie counts on their menu, although this seems to be a work in progress and I for one would rather they didn’t bother.
I really wanted to try the rarebit on the starters menu: Highmoor is one of Nettlebed’s finest cheeses and the thought of it bubbling away on Hobbs House sourdough – for a smidge over four pounds, into the bargain – was a delectable one. But sadly it wasn’t available, and although I was disappointed that they’d run out of either bread or cheese I was also pleased to see that they didn’t try and pass off something inferior instead.
The pick of the starters, anyway, were the smoked pork ribs. They were huge, irregular beasts that came away from the bone cleanly, and I loved the decision to give them a dry spice rub rather than slather them in sauce – so you got mustard seed, what I suspect was cumin and even some honey notes in there. They were served with a wonderfully light and clean coleslaw, and even here you could see the attention to detail, with crisp thin batons of apple and scarlet slices of chilli which added more colour than heat. Like the ribs, the coleslaw was better than it needed to be, and that’s always a winning quality.
I loved this dish, and at just under six pounds it was the kind of thing you could order just because you had a cold beer it would go perfectly with, or because the sun was out, or because it was a Monday. If only all bar food was like this. I loved it so much, in fact, that we ordered a second portion to come with our main courses: maybe there were advantages to ordering each course separately, after all.
The smoked cod croquettes were less successful, which was a pity because they leapt off the page as something I had to try. It was just weird that they came without breadcrumbs: the picture of this dish on Park House’s instagram shows the croquettes breaded, but these were lacking a coating and looked weirdly naked, as if they’d been skinned. And that had an impact in a couple of ways – it meant they didn’t have that lovely crunchy shell, but also it meant that when you cut them with a knife they sagged and deflated, like a sad party balloon.
It’s a pity, because the bones of the dish were good, with a nice whack of salt cod and a fresh and tangy tomato salsa (although again, it could have done with more heat from the chilli). Only afterwards did I realise that maybe the croquettes had no breadcrumbs for the same reason that the kitchen couldn’t serve rarebit. I daresay that if you order it, you’ll probably have better luck than I did.
Mains were uneven too but, as with the starters, the best of them showed real imagination. Confit duck salad, Zoë’s choice, was a beauty – partly because of the confit duck, which is never not good, but mostly because of what it was paired with. It could have given salad a good name, because it had so much going on – ribbons of carrot and radish for texture, segments of orange adding bright sweetness and a welcome scattering of edamame. It was all brought together by a fantastic dressing with plenty of aromatic sesame oil in the mix.
What this had in common with many great dishes from far more lauded restaurants was that every forkful could be slightly different from the last, but every bit as delicious. In an ideal world I’d have liked the duck leg to be ever so slightly bigger – so I could have tried more of it – but for less than nine pounds it was hard to fault.
I wish my fish and chips had been equally hard to fault, but it wasn’t to be. The best of it was the fish itself – beautifully cooked, the batter light, lacey and full of delicious crenellations. But the chips, which I’m pretty sure were bought in, were a little variable with a few grey patches that put me off them. There were peas, if you like that sort of thing: I don’t especially, but they were just fine. Tartare sauce was good, but there wasn’t anywhere near enough of it. And for that matter, lovely though the fish was, it was on the slender side for just over ten pounds. I couldn’t help but compare it with the colossal slab of fried leviathan you get at the Lyndhurst for eleven fifty (the Lyndhurst’s chips are miles better, too).
All in all, our meal – three starters, two mains and a pint and a half each – came to just under fifty pounds. It’s worth calling out the price of drinks in particular, too – our beers and ciders came in at around four pounds a pint, a mile away from the rarified prices you’d get in town at the Allied Arms or Blue Collar Corner.
So Park House isn’t the home run it could have been, but it was none too shabby all the same, with bags of potential. If you went there and just ate the ribs followed by the confit duck salad – Zoe’s order, but then she always picks well, present company excepted – you might well come away raving about the quality and the value. And if you went on a day when all their figurative ducks were in a row, the rarebit was on the menu and the croquettes hadn’t been flayed alive, you’d be counting the days until a return visit.
But I easily saw enough to persuade me to recommend it. The thought that had been put into the menu, the little touches in some of the dishes, the fact that they didn’t just knock up a rarebit with second-string ingredients – all of these things couldn’t help but endear me to the place. And it’s still one of the best spots, on a sunny weekend afternoon, to go with a paperback, get a drink, top up your tan and maybe accidentally-on-purpose order some ribs, because it beats yet another humdrum packet of Pipers Crisps. Are they the best bar snack in Reading? Quite possibly.
Park House – 7.3 Whiteknights Campus, University of Reading, RG6 6UA 0118 9875123
There is a parallel universe in which this week’s review is of ThaiGrrr!, the Thai place in Queens Walk whose takeaway I so enjoyed earlier in the year. I’d had a tip-off that the place was almost deserted early in the evening, and so I fully intended to pay it a visit and write it up properly. I’d like to live in that parallel universe. But in that parallel universe I didn’t walk into it and think “what in Christ’s name is that smell?”
And it wasn’t just me – Zoë looked at me and said “this place smells like our old cat’s litter tray”. We waited a minute and the stench – no other word would do – did not abate. And it didn’t feel like an odour to which one could, or would want to, acclimatise. I bumped into the person who’d suggested ThaiGrr! the following day at Blue Collar and told him of our experience. “That’s such a shame, it’s never smelled like that when I’ve gone there” he said. Maybe they were having problems with their drains: I imagine at some point I’ll go back and give it another try. A couple of tables were occupied, possibly by people who hadn’t yet realised that they had Covid.
There’s another parallel universe where, having passed on ThaiGrrr!, we walked home and ordered a takeaway for me to review this week. I’d rather like to live in that parallel universe too, but I’m afraid on the way back we walked past Zero Degrees and Zoë, not unreasonably, said “that place has been on your list to re-review for some time”. And looking in the window it was practically deserted. That made it a safe place to review but, with hindsight, I should have taken the hint; when a restaurant that’s been trading for nearly fifteen years is dead on a school night, there’s probably a reason for that.
Zero Degrees probably needs no introduction by now, but I’ve often thought it so far ahead of its time that it wasn’t a trendsetter, more a lucky guess. Craft beer and pizza have both exploded in recent times, and yet in 2007 when Zero Degrees opened, a combination of microbrewery and pizza joint, it was relatively without fanfare. I visited it on duty in 2013, my second ever review, and it’s fair to say that I wasn’t impressed. “It should be marvellous, but it isn’t”, I said. In addition, and re-reading this I wonder if my trip there this week was via some kind of wormhole in time, I said “in a big open restaurant with only four occupied tables, good service should be easier than this”. Anyway, that’s enough foreshadowing.
It is a big, handsome space, you know – with genuine, not fake, exposed brickwork, plenty of room and a nice view out on to Gun Street. We sat close to the window and far away from the only two occupied tables, both of them hugging the wall. “Just imagine if someone like Clay’s had this site” I said to Zoë. By the end of the meal – sorry, more foreshadowing – that felt like yet another parallel universe preferable to this one.
Back in 2013 the menu had felt huge and unwieldy – too big to execute well – and little had changed eight years later. Some of the abominations on the starters and pizza section had been removed, while others (like the pizza with “Mexican sausage” or the one with crispy duck, hoisin sauce and crispy tortillas) remained. In a concession to the food trends of the last few years, burrata and ‘nduja were visible in several places.
But the menu still felt like it was throwing everything at the wall, exposed brickwork and all, and seeing what stuck: a plethora of pizzas, five types of mussels, vegetarian and vegan food lumped in with the salads like an afterthought and plenty of pasta and risotto dishes. Overkill. Maybe if they had fewer items on the menu they would have had more time for proofreading and wouldn’t be offering customers “faltbreads” or “Ceasar salad”.
Anyway, we ordered a couple of beers while looking at the menu, and this is where the trouble began. Because, despite only having two other occupied tables in the whole restaurant, our beers just didn’t arrive. And the person we’d ordered them with disappeared. He materialised about fifteen minutes later, with no real sense of purpose, and so Zoë managed to get his attention and said we were still waiting for some drinks. He indicated that he’d heard this and promptly vanished again.
Another quarter of an hour passed, by which point I was starting to wonder whether the other two tables had been trying to settle their bills since mid-afternoon. Zoë took the unusual step of getting up and searching for the waiter to track him down and ask where our drinks were. When I reviewed Zero Degrees in 2013 I described the wait staff as “omni-absent”: some things haven’t changed.
Personally, I’d have taken this as an opportunity to cancel the beers, escape into the night and have that takeaway I was hoping for, but I was overruled. So over half an hour after we asked for a couple of beers, when they still hadn’t arrived and against my better judgment, Zoë told the waiter we were ready to order food. We had to explain the dishes to him a couple of times, as if he’d never heard of them before.
“I don’t understand why their wait staff aren’t trained to just hop behind the bar and pull a pint” said Zoë. Me neither. And worst of all, from that point onwards it really did look like our food might come out before our drinks, but the beers just pipped them to the post. Our waiter brought them about a minute before the starters, and had thoughtfully upgraded Zoë’s from a half to a pint. She was having one of their specials, a black lager, which was described as “meh”. “It’s pretty tasteless”, she added.
I’d chosen a Radler, having enjoyed one enormously in Malaga earlier in the month, but if I’d had my eyes closed I honestly could have mistaken it for a San Pellegrino garnished with a measly slice of lemon: there was that little to it. By this point both the other tables had managed to pay up and skedaddle, leaving us literally the only customers there. Had they shot us a look of pity on the way out, or was that just my imagination?
I wanted the food to be good, and I did try to approach it with an open mind, but I’m afraid it was downhill all the way from there. Bad things are supposed to come in threes, but you got four arancini on a plate, pointlessly drizzled with balsamic glaze, presumably to try and add some – any – flavour. The inside was a pappy mulch, with none of the advertised pea and spinach and it was hard to even make out individual grains of rice. They felt to me like something you might choose not to buy in Iceland.
Worse – because, it turned out, that was possible – was the ‘nduja. I’m used to small quantities of deep crimson, ultra-potent ‘nduja, very much the mighty atom of Italian food. I’m not used to it coming in industrial quantities, dense and fridge-cold, in a ramekin, with a leaden, fatty texture, like rillette cut with chilli powder. It was woeful, and it came served with triangles of pizza bread (garlic bread according to the menu: the menu is fibbing). The bread wasn’t unpleasant but by the time you had applied a wodge of frigid red bullshit to it, what you were left with was a claggy horror of lukewarm bread and something claiming to be ‘nduja which showed no signs of ever, ever melting. I left a lot of this.
Finally, the legendary “faltbread”, which was meant to feature mozzarella, gorgonzola and truffle oil. It only had the slightest whiff of truffle, which itself was only detectable thanks to the almost total absence of blue cheese. So a small shit pizza, then, for just under seven pounds – the price, coincidentally, of a not-small, not-shit pizza from Franco Manca.
As with the meal itself, I’m keen to bring this review to an end as quickly as possible and not prolong anybody’s suffering. So the dish I’d chosen as a main course could be described as a not-small, still-shit pizza. I’d unwisely chosen “carne asada”, which involved rump steak, smoked cheese and a basil and coriander pesto; if you look at that description and think that sounds awful then congratulations, because you’re light years ahead of me. But awful it was.
The steak was in the form of leathery slabs, any give comprehensively cooked out of them. I was hoping in vain for some marination, praying that the beef would be thinly sliced, pink in the middle and maybe strewn over the top at the end rather than cooked through. More fool me. The pesto managed not to taste of coriander or basil: instead it felt like munching on a manky hedgerow.
The mozzarella was as much of a non-smoker as I was and the other attempts to add some interest, a crude salsa of tomatoes, red onion and avocado, didn’t work. Putting cold stuff on top of a pizza, as with the ‘nduja, just made everything lukewarm, and the avocado started to go brown not long after this was set down in front of me.This cost fifteen pounds: you can get an infinitely better pizza at Buon Appetito for less.
Zoë had chosen a dish she said was a banker at Zero Degrees, something called lime and tequila chicken tagliatelle which was, gastronomically at least, of no fixed abode. And although it was better than my pizza it still wasn’t great, the pasta overcooked and clumpy with no bite. I didn’t detect any tequila but then again, given how hard it seemed to get booze out of Zero Degrees I wasn’t exactly surprised. Like the pizza it was studded with acrid, tastebud-destroying slices of chilli, and like the pizza it was about as Italian as the Dolmio puppets. The chicken was in distinctly uniform catering pack-sized mini fillets: the first one I tried was decent, the second had a slightly musty taste, as if it had been reheated.
We didn’t finish our mains, and although the second waiter who took our plates away was better than the first, largely by virtue of actually turning up, he didn’t probe as to whether we’d enjoyed our meals. By this point my only real concerns were leaving as soon as possible, opening up whatever chocolate I had at home and getting back in time for the Bake Off final on Channel 4+1. Our bill for two, including a 10% service charge I was too fatigued to knock off, came to sixty-two pounds: the final insult.
On the way home I annoyed Zoë greatly by pointing to restaurants on the Oracle Riverside and saying “we could have had a better meal here… or here… or here”. The only place I didn’t include in that analysis was TGI Friday. As we passed the Lyndhurst, Christmas lights on and warm glow coming from the windows, I couldn’t help myself.
“Just imagine what sixty-two pounds could buy you at the Lyndie.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake, shut up” came the understandable response.
The funniest thing, though, happened as we were leaving the restaurant. We walked through the place to leave through the exit on Bridge Street, and the bar was full. Properly full. Every single table had people at it, drinking and chatting, and it turned out that the joke was well and truly on us: Zero Degrees had plenty of staff, they simply didn’t have any of them working in the restaurant that night. Perhaps Zero Degrees has just given up on its food. Having tasted it, that makes two of us.
Vegivores was probably the most keenly-anticipated opening of last year, and certainly one of the restaurants I got asked to review most often. Not only that, but it also probably received more buzz online in the last couple of months of 2019 than anywhere else: everywhere I looked, on Twitter and Instagram, I saw people raving about the food, be it brunch or dinner. It’s no-reservations, and I heard frequent reports that it could be difficult to get a table there; the first few months are often incredibly difficult for a new restaurant, but Vegivores clearly got off to a flying start.
The buzz makes perfect sense to me. Vegivores is a proper success story – a journey (so sorry for using that word) from serving street food at Reading’s markets, every Wednesday and Friday in all weathers, to taking on permanent residence in Caversham’s precinct. That they’ve opened their plant-based restaurant next to gammon specialists the Caversham Butcher gives me enormous pleasure, even if I’m not sure whether it’s a happy coincidence or good old-fashioned epic trolling (I always get in trouble for talking about politics or Caversham, so let’s leave it at that).
And then, of course, there’s the meat-free factor: Vegivores is one of Reading’s only entirely meat free restaurants – along with Bhel Puri House and the Global Café – and that’s a sizeable market with very few players in it. It’s entirely a coincidence that I happened to review them in a month when many people are choosing to go vegetarian or vegan, but I’m sure many people doing that would have actively considered a visit to Vegivores.
I can imagine there would be many more natural people to review Vegivores than me. A proper vegetarian or vegan, for a start: I’ve never made a secret of being a meat-loving omnivore, and although I’ve been known to order meat-free starters it’s very rare for me to pick a vegetarian main course. I went through a phase a few years ago of deliberately ordering a vegetarian main course once a month when on duty, and although it definitely exposed the paucity of options for vegetarians and vegans it didn’t leave me itching to make changes to my diet. Nonetheless, I headed over to Caversham on a wet and miserable weekday evening with my other half Zoë to see whether Vegivores would change my mind about plant-based food.
The room was long, thin and nicely done – pretty intimate, with the counter and the open kitchen down one side and the tables along the other. There was plenty of tasteful almost-Scandi bare wood, although the chairs and the wooden banquette weren’t the comfiest. I liked it, even so – it probably had about 30 covers, so I can see it could easily fill up, and even on a truly dismal evening the place was about half-full. It was also nice to have a view of the kitchen, and the pass is under very fetching spotlights which means you can see other people’s food about to to be taken to their tables (and adjust your own order accordingly to have what they’re having).
The evening menu was nicely compact, with a small selection of starters and nibbles (most around the six or seven pound mark) and eight main courses, with an additional special on the night we visited. There was a bit of duplication – a couple of the starters appeared as larger versions in the main courses – but even so I felt like it was a decent range and I easily could have ordered numerous dishes in both sections. If you’re used to being confined to the one token plant-based dish on the menu in restaurants, seeing this might well make you drop to your knees and weep salty tears of gratitude.
The menu doesn’t specifically list items as vegetarian or vegan, and Vegivores’ website doesn’t use either V word, so it wasn’t entirely clear to me whether the yoghurt, mayonnnaise, ice cream and so on were vegan, although I assumed they were. It was a good drinks list, too – wines were all organic, there were some excellent bottled beers and ciders (most either organic or local or both) and a couple of local beers on draft. I had a Santo by Siren Craft – priced at three ninety-five for two thirds of a pint – and Zoë had a bottle of alcohol-free Riedenburger. It didn’t make her feel any happier about being on antibiotics.
Zoë and I both picked starters which could also be ordered as mains, to try and give a better view of the full range of the menu. Mine was the “fishless cakes”, a vegan take on fishcakes with smoked tofu instead of cod or haddock, and some nori to boot. The presentation was attractive, with the three cakes bookended with lemon slices and topped with what was meant to be caper salsa but contained a grand total (I counted: I’m sad like that) of one caper.
As a dish I found it problematic – the taste was pleasant, although the smoke didn’t come through strongly, but the texture let it down. It was so crumbly that it didn’t hold together at all, and that lack of structure meant it didn’t feel like either a fishcake or a potato cake, instead being strangely mealy. I very much liked the dill mayo, which had a sharp taste reminiscent of salad cream, and I would have liked more capers to add acidity.
Zoe’s dish had similar challenges. Tofu skewers came with a ramekin of satay sauce, and although the satay itself was delicious with plenty of depth and complexity the tofu needed more by way of texture, even if it was going to inevitably lack flavour of itself. Interestingly, if you order this as a main course the skewers come covered in the sauce: that might be a better way to serve the starter. Zoë’s favourite bit of the starter was the pickled ginger cabbage which came with it, and I agreed – it suggested the kitchen’s strengths might lie with plants rather than meat substitutes.
I think I would have been disappointed by either of those dishes as a main course, which is why I was so relieved that our main courses, when they arrived, stepped things up considerably.
I had changed my order after seeing the barbecue jackfruit burger up at the pass, and it was a very interesting dish. I’d managed to make it to 2020 without ever eating jackfruit (although I’ve heard it described as the vegan answer to pulled pork many times) and it’s definitely an ingenious substitute. I enjoyed its fibrous texture, married with a slightly-sour barbecue sauce, and it played perfectly against the smashed avocado underneath. But, as with the fishless cake, it didn’t quite hold together as a patty which made for an even messier, sloppier experience than, say, an Honest burger. I liked the creole slaw it came with, dry and mayo-free with a faint hint of something like chipotle, but I wasn’t convinced by the herby potatoes where the texture hinted of being pan-fried without enough oil to properly bring them to life.
Zoë on the other hand adored her main – makhanwala, a vegetable curry with salad, chutney, yoghurt and rice. I only got a forkful but I tended to think she had ordered better than me: it had heat and plenty of depth, the cauliflower was terrific and had a little bite and the decision to use brown rather than white rice made the whole thing substantial, warming and hugely comforting. It was a wonderful thing to eat as the rain lashed the precinct outside and, crucially, it was the only savoury course that didn’t make me slightly miss meat. Zoë also ordered (but didn’t really need) a side order of bread: the four slices felt a little unspecial for £2.50 and I’ll take a lot of convincing that there’s a satisfactory vegan alternative to butter.
The dessert menu was pretty compact, but we both managed to find something on it to order. My melon and prosecco sorbet was a clever idea and beautifully presented with berries, mint and edible flowers, and it tasted fresh and clean. I would have liked the prosecco to come through more, but the real issue was the texture, with big ice crystals in each scoop. I liked it, but I’m not sure I six pounds liked it. Vegivores has a pretty decent selection of dessert wines, so I had my sorbet with a glass of golden passito: it could have been lovely, but it needed to be served chilled. I didn’t mention that at the time because I didn’t think they could have fixed it, and I’d rather have slightly cold dessert wine than no dessert wine at all – in any case, the sorbet was quite cold enough to make up for it.
Zoë was far happier with her brownie with vanilla ice cream. I know there’s some debate about whether brownies belong on a dessert menu (I have a friend who likes to say it’s not a dessert, it’s a cake: it’s a hill he’d gladly die on). That philosophical debate aside, I also thought the brownie was decent but – again – texture was an issue. It tasted good, but was crumblier than a truly great brownie should be. I didn’t know whether the ice cream was vegan or not – that cryptic menu again – but it was possibly a good sign that I couldn’t tell.
Service was excellent all evening – engaged, friendly, interested and clearly passionate about Vegivores. Our server had been working there since it opened in October and she was obviously very proud of what they’d achieved in a short space of time. Our meal for two – three courses and a couple of drinks each – came to seventy-two pounds, not including tip: decent value, overall.
Writing restaurant reviews is a funny thing: the act of mentally digesting your meal can carry on long after you’ve left the place. Sometimes the passage of time makes you appreciate just how good a meal was, sometimes the initial enthusiasm fades away and distance removes enchantment. In the case of Vegivores I thought about it far longer than I normally do, because it involved considering other angles: should I be comparing it with other plant-based food, or with everything I’ve eaten? Did it have to be “good for vegan” or good full stop?
I got assistance from an unlikely source. Vegivores’ co-owner Kevin Farrell was interviewed in November by the excellent Bloody Vegans Podcast (even if you’re not a vegan it’s worth checking out their interview with Tom Bursnall, the owner of Miami Burger: eye-opening doesn’t begin to do it justice) and listening to the interview helped enormously when trying to decide how to approach Vegivores.
In it, Kevin said that not using the V word was a deliberate choice because of the connotations often attached to that word (only last year the Guardian of all places published an article simply entitled “Why do people hate vegans?”). So although everything is suitable for vegans – vegan mayo, vegan yoghurt, vegan ice cream, oat milk as the default in all hot drinks – that explained why the menu didn’t expressly say so. I sort of understand the reasoning, but I still think it wouldn’t do any harm to be clearer.
He also said that he wanted not only to offer an entirely plant-based menu but to show that eating a plant-based diet could be healthy as well as tasty (no doubt with other restaurants like Miami Burger in mind). So, for instance, Vegivores is proud of not deep-frying anything. Again, it makes perfect sense, but it also might explain why my fishless cakes lacked a bit of structure and my herby potatoes were a tad wan.
But the thing that struck home most was Kevin saying that the restaurant gets, and is keen to attract, an omnivore clientele as well – so not just vegans and friends of vegans but presumably people who are considering a vegan lifestyle or simply want to cut down their meat consumption, whether that’s for environmental reasons, health reasons or of course unease about the way animals are treated.
That’s the point where I realised that rating them as a vegan restaurant, rather than a restaurant pure and simple, was missing the point. Patronising, too: I remember many years back when I reviewed Nibsy’s tying myself in knots deciding whether to talk about gluten. I admire Vegivores for wanting to be thought of as a restaurant that happens to be vegan (although they would no doubt use a different term) rather than a vegan restaurant, with the many associations attached to that phrase.
So did Vegivores do enough to convert this omnivore? Not quite, I think. Much of the time they were close on flavour, and I do think it’s impressive to offer a vegan mayonnaise or vegan ice cream which don’t feel like they involve any compromises. But food is also about texture, and that’s where I felt Vegivores fell down somewhat, whether it was crumbly fishcakes, that brownie, or jackfruit that didn’t really hold together. It still felt to me like something was missing and – with the exception of the vegetable curry, probably the most conventional and “authentic” dish we tried – none of it was quite powerful enough to make me feel like constraining my choice by eating there.
You may well disregard this as the preconceptions of an omnivore who is too much of a carnivore to be completely open-minded. Perhaps that’s true, but at least I acknowledge that possibility. Many people whose opinions I respect love Vegivores – Zoë enjoyed her meal far more than I did, for instance – so I may have to accept that this is one occasion where I just don’t quite get it. I love their story, I admire what they’re trying to build but it’s difficult for me to envisage an occasion when Vegivores would be my first choice. Not that it matters: there’s huge integrity to what they’re doing and I’m sure they will do extremely well.
I will say this, though – whether or not I fully appreciated Vegivores, they are one of the most significant restaurants to open in Reading for a very long time. It’s a clear statement of intent to every restaurant – in Caversham and in the rest of Reading – that pays lip service to meat-free food just for the sake of having an item on the menu, or to exploit the vegan pound. Vegivores is coming for those restaurants: if they carry on doing that, Vegivores will take their customers and their business and go from strength to strength. Even though they weren’t quite my cup of tea, they’ll absolutely deserve to.
Vegivores – 7.1 41 Church Street, RG4 8BA 0118 9472181