Soju

One question I’m often asked is: why are your reviews so bloody long?

Well, it’s a reasonable observation. When I wrote a piece for Claire Slobodian, editrix of Explore Reading and the town’s Queen Of All Media, she gave me a word count of 800 words and expressed some scepticism about whether I’d be able to stick to it. “You normally haven’t even got round to talking about the food in one of your reviews by then” she said. A fair cop, I suppose: there’s always something to be said first about the context. There’s scene-setting to do, not to mention introducing the person you’re going to dinner with. And if all else fails, I can always get on my well-worn soapbox and pontificate about Reading (although not Caversham: heaven knows I’ve learned that lesson). The first eight hundred words fly by – to write, anyway, if not necessarily to read.

The problem is that, this week, that’s harder to do than usual. After all, Soju isn’t Reading’s only Korean restaurant. It’s not even the first: Gooi Nara up on Whitley Street opened before Soju (and I had a lovely time when I went there). It’s not necessarily that unique within the gastronomic Bond villain lair that is Atlantis Village – or whatever it’s called at the time of writing – because small chain Pho opened just across the way offering Vietnamese food (and I had an okay time when I went there). So where’s the angle? There probably isn’t one, but on the other hand Soju is a genuinely independent restaurant in a prime central spot in town, and it’s traded for a while without coming a cropper. That has to be worth a visit, I thought.

I went with Zoë, who started out as a Twitter acquaintance before becoming a very good friend. Was there an angle there? Well, no: Zoë knows even more about beer than my beer friend Tim does, so really I should have taken her to Bierhaus. But neither of us really fancied schnitzel and knuckles, so we turned up to Soju on a weekday evening not knowing quite what to expect and ready to take our chances. “I’ve gone for lunch a few times and they catered a work event for me recently, will that do?” said Zoë. Probably not, I decided. So there you go – no real angle, limited preamble. Maybe I’d just have to talk about the food the way proper restaurant reviewers do.

The room, not to put too fine a point on it, was a big black box. Not in a sleek sophisticated way, but in a way that suggested it was only a lick of paint away from being a big white box. Despite the sturdy tables, each with a barbecue hot plate in the middle, and the decent-looking chairs, it felt more like a canteen than a restaurant: no soft furnishings, nothing on the walls, no whistles and bells. You could see the pass and the kitchen beyond but that back wall looked messy and cluttered.

Despite that, it was packed when we turned up at about eight o’clock. The majority of the tables were occupied, with a long table for over a dozen people right next to us, a big family function with several generations dipping in to hot pots and barbecued meats. Nearly all the other diners were either Korean or Chinese, as far as I could tell. Our table had a gadget on it with a button you pressed when you were ready to order, which I assume worked although I was never entirely sure one way or the other.

The menu was divided up into starters and mains with separate sections for hot pot and Korean barbecue. We fancied trying a bit of everything, so when our waitress came over we ordered a couple of appetisers, then some barbecue and finally a couple of rice dishes. We started drinking a Hite – Korean lager, which I found pleasant and crisp, if a tad featureless – and waited for the food to arrive.

“This isn’t bad. It tastes like a Radler, or a little like a white beer like Hoegaarden” said Zoë. I nodded sagely as if I knew what she was talking about, even though all I remember about Hoegaarden is that they used to serve it in Bar Casa, where Chennai Dosa is now, and that every time I drank it I woke up the next morning feeling like I’d been trepanned with a rusty corkscrew.

The first dish to arrive knocked it out of the park so comprehensively that I wondered whether anything would be able to match it. Dak-gang jeong, or fried chicken, was properly magnificent – tender chicken (thigh, I think), in a glorious batter and coated in a hot, sour, sticky, punchy sauce and scattered with sesame seeds. We picked away at it with our metal chopsticks, quite unable to believe our luck. First there was silence, then there were big grins and then came the superlatives.

“That might be the best fried chicken I’ve ever had – better than any Cantonese stuff” said Zoë. Coming from someone who, like me, ate at Woodley’s Hong Kong Garden a lot as a child, this compliment carried no little weight, but I think she was probably right.

“I even prefer it to KFC” I said, which was also quite the compliment (don’t judge). But not only that, it was finer than the boneless chilli chicken at Namaste Kitchen, or the tori kara age at Misugo. Better still, it improved as the meal went on and the pieces we hadn’t yet got round to cooled slightly. The remaining sauce on the plate was greedily used as a dip with anything else that came to hand. The following day, Zoë and I exchanged messages admitting that we were both daydreaming about the chicken, and it was nice to know it wasn’t just me.

The kimchee pancake was less exciting. I’d expected good things based on other reviews I’d seen but it was just stodgy and carby, with barely a hint of kimchee at all. That might have been because I ate it after the chicken by which point my taste buds had been slightly numbed, but I still expected more. It was pleasant enough, though, dipped in the sweet soy that they brought with it.

This was the point in the meal where things started to go wrong in terms of timing. I had deliberately ordered in such a way to suggest that we’d like the starters first, then the barbecue and then the mains, but in no time at all literally everything else we had ordered was brought to our table, with no rhyme or reason. This was odd in plenty of ways – firstly because it meant that there was an awful lot of food sitting in front of you with no structure, but secondly because there was no room to switch on the hot plate, which made me wonder why they’d brought the barbecued meat at all (not that we were given any advice on how to start up the barbecue or where to put the glass cover, for that matter).

Fortunately, the food was really quite something. Oh-jing-uh bok-geum, or squid in spicy sauce, was a beautiful dish, if hard to describe. The squid was tender, but what made it was the sauce, rich with garlic and chilli and also something which might have been fish sauce. It was savoury without any hint of sweetness, and somehow more interesting than any Indian, Thai or even Vietnamese dishes I’d had. And it had some heat, but it was the kind of clever heat you didn’t mind. My only frustration was that serving the dish up spread out on a low flat plate meant that it went cold quicker than I’d have liked, and that it was difficult to get all the sauce off and mix it with the plain white rice. I waxed lyrical to Zoë that rice and sauce was always the best bit of dishes like this, even though I always say that.

The chicken dolsot bibimbap, served in a hot stone bowl, was almost as good. It’s one of those dishes you assemble when it turns up, stirring the bright orange egg yolk in and letting it continue to cook in the bowl. I wasn’t sure there was enough heat in the bowl – I did manage to burn my thumb on it like the klutz I am, but there was no sizzle and none of the beautiful crispy scraped bits of rice towards the end that I associate with this dish. I probably would have liked a bit more chicken in it, too, but even so it was a gorgeous, understated thing. The hot sauce it came with added pungency and punch (and was also good with the kimchee pancake dipped in it) but the really impressive thing was how subtly it all came together, the egg binding it without being cloying and the ribbons of courgette studded through it cooling things down beautifully without being bland.

“This beer goes so well with all this” said Zoë, “You start out thinking it’s too bland but it cleans the palate so well between mouthfuls.” She was right, so we ordered another bottle each and asked the waitress ever so nicely if she’d turn our hot plate on after clearing our empty dishes away. Not the biggest issue in the world, but odd that a restaurant which gives you a whizzy gadget to summon a member of staff to your table didn’t show quite as much sophistication about when the food arrives.

We’d only gone for one Korean barbecue dish, the pyeon gal-bi, boneless short rib marinated in sweet soy sauce. This came in long sections with some mushrooms and what I imagine was sweet potato, along with some tongs to turn it on the grill and some scissors – on the blunt side, as it turned out – to cut it into long strips. We also ordered some ssam, essentially lettuce leaves to wrap the beef in before eating, along with some very thick batons of cucumber and carrot and some cloves of garlic, which we immediately lobbed on the hot plate. I wasn’t convinced by the ssam – a lot of it was stuff I didn’t want, and at five pounds fifty it felt like a bit much for what was fundamentally a naked salad.

On the grill, of course, the magic took effect and things were a very different matter. The beef was sweet and soft, there was a reasonable amount of it and it was properly delicious wrapped in the lettuce leaves and dipped eagerly in the barbecue sauce and seasoned sesame oil.

“It would be good to come back with a big group of people and properly attack the barbecue menu” I said, mindful of how much fun the long table next to us seemed to be having.

“Definitely” said Zoë, and I could already see that, like me, she was mentally assembling a guest list.

There was no dessert menu that I could see, and I was slightly too full and not quite persuasive enough to talk Zoë into my preferred dessert option, namely more fried chicken. So we finished our beers and settled up, replete and happy with our choices. Dinner came to sixty-four pounds, not including tip, which I thought pretty reasonable considering how very enjoyable the meal had been. We did tip, of course, because things have to be exceptionally bad before I do that, but service was probably best described as pleasantly distant.

Sitting at the table, waiting for our bill to arrive, we compared notes on the rating and I was pleased to see that we really weren’t very far apart: Zoë, by contrast, was positively relieved. The problem with having no real angle for this review is that the rating might take a lot of you by surprise but, really, I liked Soju an awful lot. It’s far from perfect – our food should have been staggered better, some of the pricing is a little erratic and some of the plating could be better done. And it’s in Atlantis Village, for goodness sake, which is right up there with the Oracle in terms of being the bad guys (how Dolce Vita has survived in that cut throat hotbed of capitalism I’ll never know).

But all that aside, Soju was busy and bustling, it’s properly truly independent and somehow resolutely uncommercial, despite the snazzy website and the attempt to impose sophistication mainly through the liberal application of black paint (the Rolling Stones principle, as it were). And I had a fantastic night, and ate a few dishes unlike anything else I’d had in Reading. And the fried chicken. And the fried chicken. So no clever angle this week, just a surprisingly good meal somewhere I’d like to go again. Maybe I did finally manage to just talk about the food, the way proper reviewers do. Also, did I mention the fried chicken?

Soju – 8.1
9-11 Kings Walk, RG1 2HG
0118 3348162

https://www.thesoju.co.uk/

Advertisements

The Botanist

“I’ve been having a think about a pseudonym for the Botanist review,” said the WhatsApp message. “What are your thoughts on Reggie?”

The Artist Currently Known As Reggie is a relatively new friend who’s been a reader of the blog for some time, and he specifically collared me asking to accompany me when I reviewed the Botanist, mainly because he thought that without his moderating presence it would get an utter shoeing.

“I know what you’re like, you’ll turn up thinking it’s crap and it will get a bad review” he told me over pints in the back room of the Retreat a few months back.

“That’s not true. I’ve always been clear that it’s impossible not to have preconceptions, all you can do is be up front about them and try your best to bear them in mind.”

“You said it was crap” he countered.

I took a sip of my pint of Bumble Bee and thought about it. Perhaps he was on to something. I’d gone there one late Saturday afternoon in November with my mum and my stepfather after a lovely day out in Guildford. Just for a drink – we didn’t order food – but I hadn’t been impressed. All the tables seemed to be reserved, our drinks took forever and cost lots, my Bloody Mary was nothing to write home about and a little wheelbarrow of food turned up at a neighbouring table. A wheelbarrow! There was fake greenery everywhere and what might have been buckets or watering cans hanging from the ceiling. It did rather make my teeth itch.

Worse still, I’d specifically gone on Twitter to moan about it. And it didn’t take long for people to pitch in with similar views. “Food on a spade? So contrived” said one. “It’s a Harvester with a hipster makeover” said another. “I hate it. It looks like Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen came all over it”, memorably, said a third. And in fact, my preconceptions preceded my visit: as long ago as September last year I was saying that I’d had lots of good meals out recently and that “I need to redress the balance by reviewing The Botanist.”

“Hmm. You might have a point.”

“Exactly, and that’s why I’m coming with you.”

He was already there when I arrived, and my first reflection was that everything wasn’t quite as it seemed. The interior was less over the top than I remember – yes, there was fake greenery and there were lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling encased in jam jars or some kind of weird upside-down baskets with handles. And there was someone strumming away on a guitar at the front (the sign outside said “Live Music Every Day”, which I suppose might be an incentive for some people). But despite that, I actually quite liked it. It’s a big space broken up into rooms with corridors and partitions – the bar area on the right, the tables for eating on the left. I even quite liked the zinc-effect topped tables and the sturdy chairs.

And Reggie? He looked the same as usual, but did he look like a Reggie? I thought about this as I took my seat. He didn’t look like Reggie Kray, or Reggie Yates, or Reggie Perrin. What did a Reggie look like anyway? Reggie is considerably younger than me, a proper metrosexual – slim, neatly-trimmed beard, hair properly coiffed, nice checked shirt. Looking at him, I felt like perhaps I should have made more of an effort.

“What are you drinking?”

“A pint of Amstel. Don’t look at me like that, I was rushed at the bar and I couldn’t decide. Christ, you’re not going to put that in the review are you? Don’t tell them I drink Amstel, they’ll think I’m a right chump.”

“You do know how this works, right? We order food and drink and I write down what we had and what we thought about it. I can’t pretend you’re having something else.”

(Later on Reggie lightly ticked me off for threatening to order a cocktail. Maybe he was trying to save my reputation in return.)

The menu managed to have loads of things on it which looked positively edible without ever once especially tempting me. The starters were a greatest hits of things you can order in pubs and restaurants all over the country: houmous, calamari, chicken wings, falafel and so on. There was a barbecue section, and a comfort food section, some pies and – and this is considered so important by the Botanist that it’s trademarked on their menu – “Our Famous Hanging Kebabs”. I found it surprisingly hard to make a decision. The best of menus read like a setlist, the craziest like a jukebox. This, on the other hand, was reminiscent of Heart FM.

“You’re not allowed to have the Scotch egg” said Reggie, “Because if you do all you’ll do is go on about how it’s not as good as the one at the Lyndhurst.”

I smiled. Was it true, or just funny?

“Are you on commission or something?”

Reggie shrugged. “No. I’ve been here a few times, I just happen to like it.”

It took quite some time to finally come off the fence and decide what to order – enough time to order a drink, wonder if it would ever turn up, wonder some more and then eventually take receipt of it. The Botanist has an extensive range of beers from around the world (in a natty menu like a little paperback book) but I have a soft spot for Alhambra and its distinctive green label-free bottle as it always takes me back to my holidays in Granada, so I had to order it. It was as blissful as I remember – Reggie didn’t think much of it, but he hasn’t been to Granada (not yet anyway: I may have spent some of the meal waxing lyrical).

“Oh my god, you’re going to write about how long they took to bring your drink, aren’t you?”

I decided that if I wasn’t before, I definitely was now. I also wondered whether the waitress thought Reggie and I were on the least likely Tinder date of all time.

Reggie and I both wanted the baked Camembert to start. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, as I’ve never been anywhere where it wasn’t done as a sharing starter, but in the Botanist it comes as a helping for one. Reggie very kindly let me have it (such good manners!), and I still wasn’t sure after eating it whether he’d done me a favour. Rather than being studded with garlic, or herbs, or served with chutney, this one came with a “smoked bacon and crispy onion crust” or, to give it a more accurate description, vaguely salty brown dust. It wasn’t bad – you can’t go far wrong serving someone a whole cheese in my experience, unless it’s by Dairylea – but I would have liked it hotter and more gooey and I’d have liked more toast. Also, the Camembert still had paper underneath it, which made eating it more challenging than I’d expected. Half the fun is attacking the last bits right in the corners of the box and piling them onto good bread, but not on this occasion.

“It’s not bad.” I said. Reggie looked a tad relieved.

I think Reggie may have ordered better with a reliable staple, the chicken liver paté. There’s only so much you can say about paté, but it was a good example: earthy and nicely smooth. It allegedly had rum in it – I couldn’t spot it myself, but I liked it all the same. It came in a ramekin topped with a thin layer of “green peppercorn butter”, which seemed to be clarified butter left to solidify and some peppercorns. Probably pointless, but it filled space in the menu description. I didn’t get much fig in the fig chutney, it seemed like a pretty generic fruit chutney but again, it was none the worse for it. I’m not bitter, but Reggie got more toast than I did.

We ordered another beer – a second Alhambra for me, a pint of Sam Adams for him – and the mains turned up in reasonably short order. Reggie had gone for the “famous hanging kebab”, a lamb kofte. I still can’t quite get my head round that description: most people wouldn’t knowingly eat something described as hanging, and the main things famous for hanging are the Gardens Of Babylon and possibly Ruth Ellis. I suspect it’s served this way, on a skewer suspended from some kind of contraption, looming like the kebab of Damocles over some chips, for effect. But it felt like a gimmick to me, even after our waitress poured peri peri sauce over it from the top and we watched it drizzle down. I will say this for it: it did smell pretty spectacular.

I took a few photos, discovering in the process that it was impossible to take a picture of the hanging kebab which didn’t look like a dick pic.

“Here, let me.” said Reggie. His picture was better.

Once he’d taken all the balls – sorry, this isn’t getting any better is it? – off the skewer and all the flim-flam faded, what you were left with was a serviceable, ordinary lamb kofte. The meat was oddly coarse and bouncy – not at the stage of being mechanically recovered but lacking the texture of great kofte at, say, Kings Grill or Bakery House. It was okay, but certainly not worth the epithet of famous (but then, how many famous people these days are worth that either?). The chips – described in the menu as “properly seasoned” – were okay, no better or worse. I wasn’t sure anybody should boast in their menu that dishes were properly seasoned: shouldn’t that be a given?

My dish was the flattened rump steak, marinated in chilli and garlic. You only had the choice of medium or well-done, so obviously I went for medium. I really liked the taste – the time spent marinating showed, and it left a bit of heat on my tongue. There was, in fact, only one problem: it was lukewarm even when it got to the table, and with such a wide surface area most of it was cold by the time I got to it. On another night, I might have sent it back – but that’s always the risk you run with steak. As Reggie pointed out, without a hint of I told you so, you have to trust a kitchen with steak otherwise you always run the risk that you’ll be eating your dish immediately after your companions have had theirs. It came with a tomato, which in fairness was quite tasty and properly cooked, and a truly delicious roasted flat mushroom, when I eventually located it.

“Isn’t there meant to be a mushroom with it?” said Reggie.

“There is,” I said, “It’s hidden under the watercress.” That tells you something about the size of the mushroom: Portobello it wasn’t.

We didn’t fancy dessert so we paid up, when we could eventually attract attention. Our meal for two came to sixty-one pounds, which includes a rather cheeky twelve point five per cent tip. As always, it’s optional but stuck on the bill in such a way that you’d feel like a right shit asking them to leave it out. The service was friendly but slow, and probably worth ten per cent but not worth twelve and a half. Unworthily, it made me especially pleased I hadn’t ordered any cocktails: perhaps I’m too old for this sort of thing.

Afterwards, we went for another couple of drinks and a debrief in the front section of the bar (where, I must say, the service was considerably better – if still slow). It’s an odd part of the Botanist because the tables are those pub tables with integrated benches you expect to see outside in a beer garden. Maybe it was their way of continuing the horticultural theme. Reggie and I compared notes, and I think he was pleasantly surprised that our provisional ratings weren’t as far apart as they could have been.

“It wasn’t that bad, was it? I wouldn’t come here any later in the week than a Wednesday, but it’s pretty decent for what it is. I’d come here for a date or a drink with mates, that sort of thing.”

“No. It’s okay – not amazing, but not terrible. But I wouldn’t object if I was dragged here again. I was just hoping it would be like Ha! Ha! used to be, back when it was down the Kings Road where House Of Flavours is now.”

Reggie nodded as if he knew what I was talking about, and I suddenly felt really old, because when Ha! Ha! closed on the Kings Road and moved to the Oracle – which was the beginning of the end for them – I’m pretty sure that Reggie was still in school. But never mind – I knew what I meant, and some of you with long memories might too. I still miss Ha! Ha!, and I still think Reading badly needs a nice bar where the music is just loud enough, the furniture is just comfy enough and the food is just good enough (in a similar mould, I still miss Sahara, long since morphed into the unlikeable Be At One). The Botanist isn’t that place, but despite that I’m sure it will do reasonably well. So a qualified success as a meal, and I don’t know if I’ll go back. Might ask Reggie to come out on duty again, though. Not sure we’ve heard the last of him.

The Botanist – 6.6
1-5 King St, RG1 2HB
0118 9595749

http://thebotanist.uk.com/locations/reading

7Bone Burger Co.

I had it all figured out: I would go to 7Bone with my friend Ben, the biggest carnivore I know. A man who smokes his own burnt ends, a man who cooks gigantic barbecues in his back garden but omits the usual step of inviting people to help him eat the food. A man who, for years, had an annual Halloween festival at his house where he cooked the biggest piece of roast pork he could fit in his oven (he called it “Porkfest”: he has many skills but is never going to work in marketing). A man to whom Bluegrass BBQ has almost become a second living room. How, in all conscience, could I ask anybody else to try out Reading’s newest burger joint with me?

I say newest, but if there’s one thing you can guarantee it’s that it won’t be Reading’s newest burger joint forever, or indeed for long. The popularity of burgers, always baffling to me, shows no sign of abating. We’re going to get a Byron and an Honest Burgers, facing off at each other by Jackson’s Corner. Deliveroo Editions has just opened, giving you the opportunity to have Gourmet Burger Kitchen delivered to your house (provided you live in the RG1 postcode, anyway) from some shadowy central facility that I can’t picture without thinking of the headquarters of The Initiative in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. So 7Bone needs to impress, because its competitors are already waiting in the wings.

The week before our trip to 7Bone, Ben messaged me.

“I have decided that I’ll eat one of the vegetarian burgers.”

“This is a joke, isn’t it?” I replied. It had to be: Ben had no truck with vegetarianism (in fact I think he may even class it as a disease).

“Nope. I want to see if the falafel burger is any good, and if a committed carnivore like me thinks it’s good I’ll be doing your readers a huge service.”

I would have been a lot more impressed with Ben’s devotion to public service if I hadn’t noticed the following night that he was tagged at 7Bone on Facebook with his wife Lisa, no doubt eating his own body weight in dead animal. I picked him up on it when I turned up and took my seat opposite him. He sipped his beer and shrugged.

“What can you do? The kids wanted to go there.”

I wanted to point out that, funnily enough, Ben’s kids have never tried to drag him into an Itsu, but I decided it wasn’t worth picking him up on it. Instead I ordered a cider (Angry Orchard – American, apparently, crisp, off-dry and thoroughly enjoyable) then looked through the menu in the company of arguably Reading’s foremost expert: Ben probably knows more about that menu than most of 7Bone’s staff.

“That’s what Lisa had last time.” he said, pointing to the ‘Peter Green’ (a burger with chilli, cheese, mustard and jalapenos), “Or you could always have the ‘Robert Johnston’, that’s awesome.”

I found the names confusing. I could have understood if it was called Robert Johnson, although I still wouldn’t have associated selling your soul to the devil at a crossroads, with a penchant for truffled garlic mushrooms. And I could see that Peter Green was a blues guitarist, but if the theme was guitarists, what was the rationale for calling one of the burgers ‘Prince Charles Is Overrated’? (Overrated as a guitarist? I didn’t even know he played.) No wonder I felt a little lost.

There was also far too much dirt on the menu for my liking: here a “dirty spread”, there a “dirty spread”, everywhere a “dirty spread”. What with that, the “dirty slaw”, the “deep gravy” (what was it doing, quoting Sartre?) and the “naked raunch salad” the whole menu felt a bit unnecessarily pornographic. It reminded me of something my friend Tim said when I told him I was going to 7Bone.

“I can’t stand the way restaurants like 7Bone call everything dirty. They say ‘dirty’ but I just see ‘unhygienic’. Why would anywhere boast about that?”

Well, quite. Anyway, I ordered the ‘Robert Johnston’ (whoever he is – Wikipedia has a number of suggestions, none of which sound likely to crop up on a burger menu) and Ben ordered the ‘Juicy Boris’ – more smut! – the aforementioned falafel burger.

“So, you’re having a Boris Johnson.” said our utterly charming waitress, accidentally mangling and conflating our orders.

“That’s right.” said Ben, “I’m going to pop Boris’ juicy balls in my mouth.”

She seemed nonplussed by this. Then I suggested that if they ever did a ‘Boris Johnson’ they could put onion straws on top of the burger to simulate the hair and that’s when she accidentally knocked over my cider (it might have been the only way she could think of to stop us both talking).

They do a “red basket deal” at 7Bone where you get a burger and one of a set list of sides for a tenner, so Ben and I went for that – onion straws for him, chilli cheese fries for me. But because we both saw other sides we fancied, we also ordered some chicken fried halloumi and some truffled macaroni cheese (sorry, I just can’t call it ‘mac n’ cheese’ and besides, as Ben pointed out, mac n’ cheese will always be synonymous with Joey Tribbiani and that crime-fighting robot).

“That’s a lot of food” smiled our waitress, who by now had replaced my bottle of cider and apologised profusely. “I reckon if you finish all that I should give you twenty pounds.”

I advised her not to put that bet on the table: I’ve only ever seen Ben defeated by food once, and that was when I took him to Caucasian Spice back in the good old days when they cooked at the Turk’s.

“And I did the burger challenge at the Oracle.” said Ben, referring to that Kua ‘Aina thing they’re doing on the Riverside at the moment.

“Did you win?” asked the waitress.

“I was three chips away from finishing it within the ten minutes” he said, glowing with pride. I couldn’t tell whether the waitress was feeling amusement or pity, or whether she was wondering whether she could pass off knocking over two drinks as an accident.

I paid the room a little more attention while I was waiting for the food to turn up. It was very much from the 2017 restaurant lookbook – square tables, school chairs, naked walls, exposed concrete and bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Ben and I were easily the oldest people there and the banquette along one wall provided (with the exception of my belly) the only softness in the room. Sometimes this look feels considered – you might like it or hate it, but thought has gone into it. With 7Bone, it felt a little unfinished: especially the ceiling, which looks like they literally couldn’t be bothered to finish it off. Despite all this, I didn’t dislike it half as much as I expected to, although I wouldn’t have wanted to be there on a packed weekend evening.

On to the food, then. The big hit of the evening, for me, was the southern fried halloumi: strips of nicely seasoned and coated halloumi, delicious with the accompanying barbecue dip. The texture was perfect, the taste was brilliant and it was only later that I realised that, despite being made of cheese, they were the only thing that wasn’t cloying and mouth-coating. They do a veggie burger made with southern fried halloumi (the ‘Dirty Linda’, obviously) and I’d be tempted to have it if I went again.

Other sides were a mixed bag. Chilli cheese fries were decent enough fries with “steak chilli” (which looked suspiciously like normal mince to me) and smothered in a lake of American cheese. I would have liked more chilli – because it was actually rather nice – and less and different cheese. Some cheddar on top would have been perfect – to me, there’s a place for yellow plastic American cheese but it’s not on chips. The jalapenos on top added almost the only sharpness of the meal.

Ben loved his truffled macaroni cheese, pronouncing it “better than Grillstock in Bristol” (allegedly another restaurant which has defeated Ben through the power of portion size). I didn’t like it much – I didn’t think the truffle came through as strongly as it could and again, there was just so much cheese: a slick puddle of cheese, all texture and no taste. I’d have liked more truffle, less cheese and maybe something like breadcrumbs on top to give more texture. And, before you point it out, I’m well aware that observations like that might mainly give away that I’m just not the target market for an American style burger joint. Ben’s onion straws were very nice, I thought – crispy and not soggy (although he did squirt a big pool of mayonnaise next to them, so not for long). I’m not sure I’d have wanted a whole plate of them, but I enjoyed nicking a couple.

Finally, the burger. Well, I quite liked it – but not without reservations. The bun, which disappointed me on my only previous visit to 7Bone, wasn’t half bad. They are proud of it, from the look of their website, and proud that it’s not a brioche, and I can understand why because it stood up well to its contents. The burger was also very good, cooked slightly pink, the texture excellent, and I also liked the fact that the whole thing wasn’t so ridiculously huge that you couldn’t try and eat it with your hands.

But goodness, it was all so wet. With the American cheese, the truffle mayo and the garlic mushrooms in there, each bite pushed the remaining contents past the edge of the bun, making the whole thing more and more difficult to tackle. What I would really have liked was just a classic bacon cheeseburger with some tomato relish and gherkins, but that doesn’t even feature on the 7Bone menu. And the stuff in my burger didn’t compensate for the mess factor by tasting amazing – everything felt a bit bland to me, the truffle and garlic barely breaking through. Maybe my tastebuds were just too coated in cheese and grease to notice anything else by that point.

Ben handily had pretty much the same burger, but with falafel instead of beef. The falafel I quite liked – good texture and taste and possibly better equipped to resist (I probably mean “complement” but really, it was relentless) the cheese and the mayo. Ben loved it, but I think he loves practically everything about 7Bone.

“You’re missing the point.” he said to me between mouthfuls. “These aren’t meant to be dry burgers. They’re American style, like Sloppy Joes.”

“You did pretty well.” said our waitress as she took away our nearly empty plates. Ben finished almost all of his; I couldn’t polish off all my fries – or more precisely, I just didn’t want to. Ben pretended to have gone easy on her to save her the indignity of shelling out twenty quid, and we got talking. She was visiting the Reading branch on secondment, doing some fact finding in preparation for 7Bone opening a new site in Eastbourne (quite what the blue rinse brigade will make of “dirty raunch salad” I’m not sure, but that I’d like to see). Anyway, she did a brilliant job of looking after us from start to finish: if anything, the thing I’ll most take away from 7Bone – apart from the incongruous sight of Ben eating falafel entirely of his own volition – is the truly excellent service we received. Our bill, for two beers (Longboard – I had a sip of Ben’s and really liked it), one cider, two basket meals and two extra sides, came to forty quid, not including tip.

I sometimes worry that with places like 7Bone (or Franco Manca, last week) my review might boil down to “if this is your kind of thing, you’ll probably like it”. I suppose all reviews come down to that, but I’m more aware of it when I have reservations about a place. So, I didn’t massively like 7Bone, and I’ve been thinking a lot about exactly why that is, and whether it’s about them doing what they do badly or me just not liking what they do. It’s true that I’m not the biggest burger evangelist in Reading, and it’s true that I’m probably of an age and demographic where the quirkiness of the menu will bring me out in hives.

But the thing is, I like that informal style of dining, for all its flaws – I like Bluegrass, and I quite enjoyed Franco Manca. And I do like the occasional burger: the weekend before this visit I was in London visiting the Design Museum with my family and afterwards we stopped at Byron for dinner. The experience wasn’t perfect, but in terms of the room, the menu and the execution it was streets ahead of 7Bone. By contrast 7Bone felt a bit too deliberately edgy, a bit too noisy, a bit too pile ’em high sell ’em cheap and, crucially for me anyway, just a little too greasy. Don’t get me wrong – it’s far from terrible, but I don’t think I would go back in a hurry. And if I were them I would be looking nervously over my shoulder, because when the London chains hit Reading we may find out once and for all whether Reading really does have an infinite capacity for burgers. But what do I know? My friend Ben loved it, and he even slummed it with the falafel.

7Bone Burger Co. – 6.6

60 St Mary’s Butts, RG1 2LG
0118 9952094

http://www.7bone.co.uk/reading.php

Franco Manca

I’ve long enjoyed referring to Reading as “Zone 8”, and one of the most significant developments in Reading’s restaurant scene during my time away was this description becoming less and less of a joke. Reading’s always been a chain magnet, but the latest wave of new and imminent arrivals has a distinct whiff of the capital about it: The Real Greek, The Botanist and Comptoir Libanais are already here; Pho, Honest Burger and Byron are on their way. A big Pret has sprung up just opposite the train station, too: by the time Crossrail gets here, people might alight at Reading and be unaware that they’re not in Kansas (or possibly Camden) anymore.

The one I was most excited about was the arrival of Franco Manca. For years I’ve been complaining that Reading could do with a really good pizzeria to rival the likes of Bosco in Bristol or The Hearth in Lewes. Then I discovered Papa Gee and found that I didn’t feel quite so deprived but even so, Franco Manca (along with the likes of Leon and Le Pain Quotidien) remained one of the chains I most wanted to see make it out west to Reading. I’ve been going to Franco Manca, in Brixton and Battersea, for many years and I’ve always loved their sourdough pizzas, gorgeous burrata and short unfussy wine list.

Initially they were going to open in the basement of Jackson’s, which I thought was a magnificent idea and a terrific way to bring a buzz to one of Reading’s most iconic buildings. But I guess they lost patience or got an offer they couldn’t refuse, because instead they have taken the Oracle’s shekel and opened where the Debenham’s restaurant – never reviewed on the blog, due to what I can only describe as a shocking oversight – used to be. It’s right next to The Real Greek, which extends the riverside and creates a little enclave for shoppers and diners to descend upon (it’s working, too: when I tried to book The Real Greek for a Saturday night to take my family out for dinner I was told it was already solidly booked.)

The space outside is nicely used and if the weather had been better I’d have been sorely tempted to eat in the sunshine, but I visited on an inclement weekday so I found myself waiting for a table to become available (in the spirit of another London trend coming our way, Franco Manca doesn’t take bookings). I managed to nab a table in the corner of the room, nearest the window, which gave me a good look at the room. It’s a big space: all square tables, wooden school-effect chairs and bare lightbulbs, the walls covered in what appeared to be upcycled pallets, no soft furnishings and nothing to absorb sound.

What this means is that, even tucked away in a corner, the experience was a cacophonous one. I’d come to Franco Manca with my friend Tim and the whole evening was marked by both of us constantly having to lean across the table and say “What?” “Pardon?” or “I’m really sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you to repeat that. Again.” The irony: here we were in a room full of young chatty diners and I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more geriatric. It’s the first time I’ve seriously considered taking an ear trumpet to a restaurant (although, depressingly, I doubt it will be the last).

The menu is a short one – a small range of starters (or “Bites”) and seven pizzas, two without a tomato base. The specials board lists some extra starters, two special pizzas – one meat, one vegetarian – and an array of extra toppings. I was a bit confused by the flip side of the menu which talks about all of Franco Manca’s ingredients but doesn’t make it clear whether you can order those as extra toppings or not, but maybe I’m just getting old and finding hidden complications in a very simple menu (an unwelcome theme is emerging here: have you noticed?).

While we waited for our order to arrive, Tim and I enjoyed something from the compact and bijou drinks list. There are a handful of wines, two beers and one cider (described as “No Logo”, presumably a tribute to Naomi Klein’s late 90s anti-consumerist classic). I had the cider, which was pleasant – sparkling and cold but with a slightly agricultural hint. The waiter brought it over without a glass and I had to ask him to come back with one, but not before my request was met with a slightly vacant look. Perhaps all the hip gunslingers drink straight from the bottle (and, for that matter, can understand every word spoken by the person opposite them).

Tim, last seen on this blog enduring the culinary Vietnam of a trip to Cosmo, is a Beer Expert. He has forgotten more about beer than I’ve ever known (although that’s not saying a lot: he probably forgets more about beer in a single day than I’ve learned in a lifetime). So I’m well used to him putting on his Serious Beer Tasting Face, taking a sip, knotting his eyebrows, smacking his lips afterwards and pronouncing it “okay, I suppose”, as he did here.

“Of course, they say it’s no logo but it’s by Shepherd Neame”, he added. “It might go better with the food, to be fair.” I nodded sagely, pretending to understand what he was talking about – a look I’ve perfected over many evenings spent hearing Tim wax lyrical about the Citra hop (whatever that is: I thought it was a dance from the Twenties, but apparently not).

My starter was uncomplicated and delicious, a wooden board with four thick, generous slices of coppa and a ball of mozzarella perched on some salad. I yield to nobody in my love of mozzarella served before it’s been ruined by heat – so cold, clean and fresh-tasting! – and this was a pretty joyous example. I also love coppa, beautifully marbled pork shoulder which I’ve always found more interesting than Parma ham (how I miss the days when you could buy it from the deli counter at Carluccio’s). Again, this one was damned fine. And you could quibble about how this was a triumph of buying or assembly rather than of cooking if you really were so minded, but to me it was a triumph of eating, which is far more important. Decent value at six pounds, too.

“You’re going to describe that as ‘generous to a fault’, aren’t you?” said Tim. “You always say that in your reviews.”

“Well I’m not now.” I said; later I looked back, and it appears that I do indeed always say that.

Tim was faced with something altogether more baffling. The specials board had described it as “Gloucester old spot baked sausage”, which could potentially give you the impression that what turned up might resemble, you know, sausages. But the use of the singular, with hindsight, was a clue. Instead, what Tim got was a slab of sausage meat that had been baked with a tomato sauce and dolloped with what might have been crème fraiche. The sausage meat was lovely – coarse and shot through, I think, with a smidge of fennel. But it was an odd dish and I’m not sure Tim would have ordered it if it had been more accurately described (perhaps as middle class sausage McMuffin only without the muffin, or Millennial meatloaf). Half the fun of sausages is the contrast in texture between outside and inside (I like mine like mummified fingers, personally) and that was missing here. Tim looked enviously at my starter, and I gave him some coppa and mozzarella to apologise for ordering better than him. If anything, I think it made matters worse.

The pizzas took longer to arrive than I expected, which was no bad thing although it was characterised by a bit more ineffectual service. I’d ordered a dip for my crust (or “cornicione” as the Franco Manca menu likes to call it) and there was some general chaos about which one I’d gone for – pesto, since you asked – which even led to the manager having to come over and ask me what I’d ordered. She was quite brilliant, bright and personable – but if anything, that just highlighted that the rest of the service had been a bit… well… I’m struggling to find a more appropriate word than “gormless”, so let’s just leave that there.

If I won the battle of the starters, I think Tim did better on pizza. His was a pretty classic combination – tomato sauce, mozzarella, and (according to the menu) both dry and semi-dry chorizo. And it looked good, although I did have some reservations; maybe I’m just greedy but it felt a little light on chorizo and what chorizo there was was so unevenly distributed that it looked like it had been dropped onto the pizza from a great height by someone with their eyes shut. Again, I wondered if I just wasn’t cut out for this new devil-may-care attitude and perhaps literally nobody else would be bothered by this. What can’t be denied, though, is that it was tasty: the crust was bubbled, blistered and light, the base top notch.

“Can you tell the difference between the two types of chorizo?” I said to Tim as he hoovered up his final mouthful.

“Yes.” he said. “One of them is short and fat and the other one is wide and thin.”

“Helpful stuff, Tim. I’ll make sure I put that in the review.”

My pizza, by contrast, just didn’t work. I went for one without a tomato sauce base and instead it came with yellow tomatoes, buffalo ricotta and spicy lamb sausage. It looked unbalanced to me when they put it down in front of me and it tasted unbalanced too: the tomatoes were sweet, the ricotta was sweet and although the sausage – something a bit like merguez – was genuinely fiery and delicious there just wasn’t enough of it to counteract everything else. Again, everything looked assembled at random and in this case it made for quite an unattractive pizza, with the sausage unpleasantly reminiscent of droppings and the ricotta looking disconcertingly like cuckoo spit (hungry yet?). The pesto dip was an excellent idea but in execution it just lacked enough salt and parmesan to offset the oil.

On a previous trip to Franco Manco just after it opened I had been absolutely enchanted by a lemon and rosemary cake with Greek yoghurt and honey, which has to be one of the nicest things I’ve eaten this year. I tell you this because, in keeping with the rest of the evening, they had taken it off the menu for this visit. So we skipped dessert, cut our losses, paid up and beetled off to the pub. The bill came to just under forty-two pounds for two, without tip. Both pizzas, and this will give you a clue as to Franco Manca’s popularity, clocked in at around eight pounds.

When I go for dinner on duty with a companion, I like to play little game at the end. We text our rating out of 10 to each other simultaneously, like some kind of digital gunfight, and compare notes. Tim’s rating was nothing special: he wasn’t impressed with Franco Manca. He said the food was good but not good enough to overcome the room and the service. He’d sooner go to Papa Gee, he said, and of course I felt a little bit proud of him for that. It quite outweighed his shortcomings when it came to describing chorizo, which after all is a niche skill in anybody’s book.

It might surprise you, based on everything that’s gone before, that I feel a little more kindly disposed to Franco Manco than Tim was. Restaurants are good at different things, and some restaurants can be good despite excelling at something which isn’t necessarily my thing. And there is a lot to be said for Franco Manca if you’re grabbing a quick meal in the centre of town, or you’re on a budget, or if you really like pizza. Or if you’re considerably younger than me (many people are, these days), wear a snapback indoors and don’t mind raising your voice to have even a rudimentary conversation with your mates. Or, now I come to think of it, if you want to eat somewhere good in the Oracle which isn’t Cote. The pizza, as long as you pick the right one, is good enough to overcome a multitude of sins, and next time I go I’ll stick to the tried and tested classic of anchovies, olives, capers and basil. Personally, I can see myself heading there at lunchtime on a sunny day, or having an early dinner there before ambling off to the cinema or Tuesday Music Club at the Global Cafe, full and happy, ear trumpet stowed away in my satchel.

Franco Manca – 6.8
The Oracle, RG1 2AT
0118 9952086

http://www.francomanca.co.uk/restaurants/reading/

Bluegrass BBQ

As regular readers may remember I have a long-standing policy of not reviewing restaurants in their first month, of giving them time to bed in and settle down. Bluegrass tested my resolve more than most, being that rare thing, a new independent restaurant in the town centre. Unable to stay away, I did try to visit before Christmas only to be told – on a weekday lunchtime, no less – that the waiting time was forty-five minutes. To be honest, I just laughed and left: no-reservations restaurants are a bad enough habit to import from London, but once people are queuing round the block for American barbecue we’ve surely got everything bad about dining in the capital without any of the redeeming features.

So I’ve been sitting on my hands for a month, dying to visit on duty and having to wait while the other reviews came in. They were a mixed bag; people seemed to like the food, but a lot of people really didn’t like the experience of eating at Bluegrass. In particular, their policy of making you order at the bar came in for a lot of criticism. I was a bit surprised by this – I’d have thought eating in pubs and, for that matter, Nando’s would have got people used to this, but it seemed not. Despite that, it was voted Reading’s new restaurant of the year despite having only been open for three weeks of 2015 (on a shortlist, to be fair, which didn’t include Bakery House). So I wasn’t at all sure what to expect when I went there one evening hoping it would be quiet and looking forward to making up my own mind.

They’ve done a good job of renovating the old Gurkha Square site (which I never really liked – there was always a smell wafting from it when I went past which was somehow more Pedigree Chum than haute cuisine) and inside it’s made up of lots of different little rooms across about three floors, as well as the terrace out back overlooking the Holybrook which I can imagine will be lovely come summer.

Despite this, I’m afraid I struggled to warm to the interior. The wood panelling and bar made from reclaimed planks and the old school chairs all feel a bit done before – perhaps if I’d been sat at one of the banquettes I’d have felt more kindly disposed, but the whole thing felt a bit clinical. Instead I was at a table with four chairs and four placemats but which felt like realistically it could only have seated two people with elbows. I wondered how much the floor plan had been influenced by margins.

The menu is all very familiar to anyone who’s been to Blue’s Smokehouse, or RYND for that matter – ribs, brisket, pulled pork and smoked chicken, along with a range of burgers and sandwiches (in fairness they also have what looks like a very interesting breakfast menu – itself probably worth a separate visit). Prices are very reasonable: the mains all hover around the ten pound mark and, the menu being what it is, it’s all about mains and sides rather than starters and mains.

I’d heard apocalyptic stories about waiting at the bar, and perhaps on a busier night it would have been horrendous, but when I went it wasn’t too bad. It’s not really set up for queuing though, as you basically have to form a line heading down into one of the dining areas, impeding passing waiting staff and customers. They also only have one till, which feels like a rather devil-may-care decision (perhaps their brisk trade will persuade them to reconsider). Service was pleasant enough but a bit on the gormless side – I had to explain to them what one of the drinks on their cocktail menu was, and they then told me the lager I’d ordered had to be changed and they’d bring my drink over. Five minutes later I went up, jogged their memory and went back to the table with a pint. Everyone was friendly but a bit aimless, as if they’d never expected the restaurant to be this popular and weren’t sure how to cope with it (which may not be a million miles from the truth).

Food came out very quickly – within ten minutes or so. Again, some people have complained about this but I think they just misunderstand what kind of restaurant Bluegrass is. Most things are already smoked and slow-cooked and are just waiting to be dished up (if anything, if it took any longer to arrive you’d be justifiably concerned). And although the meals came on the standard-issue trays I didn’t find this as annoying as usual, possibly because the trays seemed slightly bigger or probably because the paper they were lined with put up more resistance to cutlery than they sometimes can.

So, on to the food: pulled pork was really good. Very soft, cooked to the point of complete surrender, juicy and with a lightly smoked taste that was enhanced by adding a sauce. There are four different sauces on the table but we did need to ask one of the members of staff what they were because there was no description on the label or on the wipe clean placemat-menus. The Tennessee was my favourite – a sweet barbecue sauce with a Dr Pepper base that was nice to dunk a forkful of pork in.

BluegrassPork

Brisket I wasn’t so sure about – four thinnish slices which tasted better than they looked, but the bottom slice had taken marbling to the stage where the bits of recognisable meat stood out like an archipelago of flesh in a sea of fat. It might have tasted lovely all the same, but squeamishly I left some of it. The burnt ends were the pick of the bunch for me, cubes of beef cooked longer still, sticky with sauce and much more tender and appetising: I had one towards the end with some little crunchy fragments of chip and it was the best mouthful of the entire meal.

Most of the dishes come with fries and coleslaw. The fries were lovely: skin-on with some real crispiness and texture, not wan and flaccid like they can be at many places doing this kind of food. The coleslaw, though, was disappointing; I actually quite like mayo-free coleslaw but this added nothing but contrast. I wonder how many people actually finish theirs.

BluegrassBrisket

We shared two other sides. Barbecue pit beans – a portion I’d say was on the small side – had shreds of meat in there but overall had picked sweetness over heat, the wrong choice in my opinion. Corn on the cob, one of my favourite things in the world, was a little underwhelming – a touch overcooked, so that the individual niblets didn’t pop the way I anticipated and the advertised cinnamon in the butter was undetectable. Nice enough but (dare I say it?) Nando’s does better.

I’m sorry to say that the drinks weren’t really worth the trouble they took to order. The lager was quite nice, clean and crisp, but by the time it arrived the food was nearly upon us. The “cherry cola cooler” was a small Amaretto and coke in a jam jar. For four pounds fifty. I watched them pour some of a 330ml bottle of Coca-Cola into the jam jar and then, presumably, throw the rest away.

The general haplessness of the service continued when someone came to ask how the food was. I said it was quite good, which it was, and she put a magnetic bottle cap on the end of the table to show that we had been processed. And you do feel, in an establishment like this, like you’ve been processed rather than served. She also asked whether we wanted any water and I said we’d love a jug of tap water. She returned with a solitary glass of tap water (still, it’s the thought that counts). Actually, if it hadn’t been for the model of ordering at the bar I’d have had a glass of Malbec by then, but I guess Bluegrass has decided it’s happy to run the risk that people will order less drinks: an odd decision for somewhere which prides itself on its range of craft beers. As it was, we left – the advantage of paying up front is that you can do this quickly – and dinner for two came to thirty-five pounds, not including tip.

You’ve probably gathered by now that I wasn’t absolutely bowled over by Bluegrass. But in its defence, many of the criticisms of it are fundamentally missing the point: it’s a restaurant, Jim, but not as we know it. It is not intended to be a place where you settle in for an evening. Bluegrass is set up to have all its food ready to serve almost immediately and everything it does to channel customers is intended to guarantee a speedy turnaround. It’s a different kind of casual dining, and perhaps the shape of things to come – get people in, feed them, send them away and turn the table as many times as you can. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, not an awful lot wrong with the food and nothing wrong with going there, if that’s the kind of meal you want. But, for that reason if no other, it felt like a restaurant many may like but few will love. I still think that restaurants are all about the experience: the service, the comfort, that feeling of taking time away from your troubles (and the washing up!) while someone else looks after you and feeds you. For me, anything else is just one step up from Deliveroo.

Bluegrass BBQ – 7.1
15 Gun Street, RG1 2JR
0118 9599112

http://bluegrass-bbq.com/