Kungfu Kitchen

I love lists, to an extent which probably verges on unhealthy. At any given time I have several on my phone: things to do; shopping to get; household chores to finish; people to see. I enjoy the feeling you get – and if you’re wired like me, you’ll understand what I’m talking about – when you add something to a list for the sole reason of immediately ticking it off. Really, I ought to have a list of all my lists where I rank them in order of preference, but even I know that might be taking things too far.

Anybody with a to do list will also know that there’s always at least one thing on any to do list that you keep shunting to the bottom. You look at it, you’d like to be the kind of person who tackles it right away, but in the end you know you’re really the sort to leave it to another day. Some days, every item on your to do list looks like that: those are the days when personally, I’d rather just stay in bed.

Kungfu Kitchen, the Chinese restaurant on Christchurch Green, has been on my reviewing to do list all year without ever getting to the top. There’s a website, which is stunningly uninformative, and a Facebook page which has a couple of decent-looking photos but nothing more. They’re on Twitter, but they haven’t Tweeted this year. The menu looked on the authentic side, as far as I could tell, but the Tripadvisor reviews were mixed to put it lightly. So my regular accomplice Zoë and I walked up the hill towards the university area with a certain degree of trepidation, not at all sure what to expect.

The restaurant operates out of the old Café Metro site on that row of shops, although confusingly it appears that Kungfu Kitchen may offer the old Café Metro menu until mid-afternoon. It was almost obscured by scaffolding on the night we visited, but it still looked very much like Café Metro, an establishment I never had the pleasure of visiting. Inside the tables still had vinyl on them, some of it listing various kinds of coffee, and there were sachets of sugar on the table (as you’d expect from a café, I suppose). You could be forgiven for thinking you hadn’t walked into a restaurant; only the big group of Chinese diners on the central table, gleefully attacking a hot pot, gave the game away.

This could have seemed intimidating, but our welcome was immediate, warm and genuine. The owner bounded to the front of the restaurant and ushered us to a table for two, before pushing the adjacent table up to it (“to give you more room”). She then asked a question not enough people ask in restaurants.

“Is this your first time here?”

We said it was and she went off to get menus, explaining that one was more of a lunch menu (all noodles and dumplings) and the other was more conventional, main courses and rice. She also told us that two main courses would be more than enough for the two of us.

“We may need a little help picking” I said, aware of previous visits to more traditional Chinese restaurants where help from the staff had been far from forthcoming.

“I can definitely do that”, she smiled. “You just tell me what meat you want and then I can give you advice on which dishes to pick.”

“Thank you. We’ll probably want to stay away from chicken feet, intestines, that sort of thing.”

Another smile. “Don’t worry, I wouldn’t make you eat that. Not on your first visit.”

From that point onwards I felt completely in safe hands, a feeling which lasted for the rest of the meal; I’m so used to getting indifferent service on duty that it was a real joy to find someone who was so enthusiastic about the food and so interested in explaining it to a complete amateur.

“She reminds me of Keti at Geo Café” said Zoë as the owner went to get us a couple of bottles of Tsing Tao (she had nodded approvingly when we said we’d like to dispense with glasses – “that’s how we Chinese drink beer”, she said). By this point a handful of other diners had arrived and the owner managed somehow to seat them without really breaking her conversation with us. She told us that they had been open for around six months and that things were going well so far. They got quite a few students in looking for advice, she said, so sometimes it felt half-restaurant and half-community centre.

Most of the dishes ranged between ten and twelve pounds, and we asked the owner to take us through her recommendations across the whole menu. If we wanted lamb, she said, we should either have the lamb in cumin or the lamb with enoki mushrooms and pickled cabbage (“we get the best pickled cabbage, from Thailand”). If we were happy with chicken on the bone she recommended the Szechuan fried chicken or the ‘stewed chicken with three cups sauce’ – “I can get them to make that for you boneless if you like”, she added. Or, if we wanted boneless chicken, she recommended the kung pao chicken.

“Isn’t that quite a common item on Chinese menus?” I asked, probably naively.

“The oil we use for ours is made up of thirteen different ingredients” she said, proudly. That was enough to make that decision for us. We were also tempted to get the lamb in cumin, but the owner told us about a shredded pork dish which wasn’t on the menu (“I’ll be printing a new menu next week” she told us. “I don’t think the English translations are accurate enough”) so we went for that.

“I’ll just bring one egg fried rice over, okay?” she said. “If you need more we can get you more but I don’t want you ordering too much food.”

Again, I was reminded of what good restaurateurs and good service do which bland, robotic, disinterested service never achieves: it’s not about having a transaction, it’s about building a relationship. It’s about sending you away satisfied, not exploited, and about making sure there’s a next time. God, I hope the food is good I thought to myself. I really wanted it to be.

I don’t feel like wringing out the suspense: it was. It really, really was. Our food arrived quite quickly – probably quicker than I would have chosen, but it was so good that after the first mouthful I felt like I’d spent quite enough of my life already not eating it.

The pork dish was made with minced rather than shredded pork and was quite exquisite, in a crimson sauce with long thin slivers of sweet onion and red pepper (“I think you call it capsicum”, the owner had explained). There was heat – the owner had asked us beforehand how much we were comfortable with, and of course we’d said “medium” – but after an initial catch in the throat I found it built slowly, almost symphonically. Best of all was the coriander strewn throughout, stems and all, giving it a fragrance and complexity that I completely adored. Who am I kidding? I can’t describe it in any more detail than that because I ate it, and the other dish, in some kind of euphoric daze.

If the pork was great, the kung pao chicken was if anything even greater. The sauce was thicker, glossier, slightly fruity without being sweet, slightly sour without being sharp and truly superb. It was an extremely generous helping of tender chicken and more crisp red pepper, elevated still further by plenty of crunchy, barely-cooked celery.

We spooned it into our little bowls, on top of a bed of pitch-perfect egg fried rice (you got just enough for two for a crazy two pounds fifty) and Zoë and I ate it in companionable, mute bliss, punctuated only by the occasional expletive. By the end, when we’d eaten practically everything, I resorted to picking off the remaining celery with my chopsticks like a sniper, dragging it through the remaining sauce before popping it in my mouth.

The owner asked if we liked it, although I suspect she already knew that we did. She had the sort of serene confidence which only comes from knowing that your restaurant serves fantastic food. “When that table up there saw your pork going past they changed their order to have some”, she said, and she did the same trick with us, walking past with the fried Szechuan chicken so we could make a mental note of it for next time. And of course we did, because after a few mouthfuls of my dinner I was already wondering when I could come back (“not without me you bloody don’t”, said Zoë).

Our dinner came to thirty-three pounds, not including tip, and as she was taking our payment the owner asked us if we’d put a review on TripAdvisor. She got some poor reviews, she said, from people who complained about the pricing and didn’t seem to understand that the restaurant was offering authentic Chinese food rather than bright orange takeaway fare. Another review said the restaurant was “blind to the only two white guys” – especially strange as all the other diners there on my visit were Chinese and I hadn’t felt anything but welcomed. I said something noncommittal about how I’d do what I could.

Partway through my meal, Zoë had said to me “this is the most excited I’ve seen you on a visit for the blog”, and she was right. Kungfu Kitchen is exactly the sort of under-the-radar gem that you long to discover every week writing a restaurant blog, but of course their comparative rarity is part of what makes them so special. It’s unpretentious, charming, low-key and undemonstratively superb. It doesn’t brag on Instagram, it doesn’t shout about its food anywhere, it just does what it does extremely well.

The last time I was this animated about a new restaurant discovery was when I reviewed Namaste Kitchen, nearly two years ago. So I did what I did that time: to ensure that Kungfu Kitchen was as good as I thought it was, I went back. A couple of days later, with Zoe in tow again, I schlepped up the hill to try more of their food. The owner wasn’t there on that occasion, but we sat down and placed our order, drank our Tsing Tao and waited to see what happened. And then she came through the front door, seemingly back from some kind of errand. She recognised us immediately.

“You were here two days ago!” she said.

“We couldn’t stay away.”

“What did you order this time?”

“We’ve gone for the lamb in cumin, the braised pork belly and the Szechuan fried chicken.”

“Those are good choices. I nearly picked the lamb for you last time. And the pork belly melts in the mouth, you will like it. Have the fried chicken with your beer, not with the rice, that makes the most of the flavour. But you have ordered too much food. I would have told you, if I’d been here.”

In this, as in everything else, she was one hundred per cent correct. It looks like I may have a new favourite restaurant.

Kungfu Kitchen – 8.4
80 Christchurch Road, RG2 7AZ
07587 577966

https://kungfukitchen-chineserestaurant.business.site/

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The Corn Stores

Writing the only restaurant blog in Reading can feel like a lonely pursuit at times, but if you really want a lonely pursuit it’s this: writing a review where you say that the Corn Stores is a distinctly mediocre restaurant. The only reviews of the Corn Stores I could find online were comped, so they were all breathlessly enthusiastic and gushing. But, that aside, I know quite a few people who have been to the Corn Stores, and they’ve all raved about it. Some of them, and I know they read this blog, have been back more than once since it opened in December. So I was really hoping not to be the lone voice, the sore thumb, but I went there this week and I really didn’t get it at all.

All the blogs and Instagrammers will tell you what an amazing job the Rarebreed Dining Group did of refitting the Corn Stores when they took over the derelict building and turned it into a bar, restaurant and private members’ club. They used local company Quadrant Design, and I agree that they’ve breathed life beautifully into a lovely but unloved space (one I largely remember from lunch breaks with my brother in 1996, when we used to sneak across from our McJobs in Apex Plaza opposite for a rushed pint or two). He wouldn’t recognise it now: the restaurant, on the first floor, is superbly done out, with bare brick walls, leather-banquetted booths and tables with dusky-pink, scallop-backed chairs. I was there with my other half Zoë rather than my brother (mainly because I have also gone up in the world somewhat since 1996).

As we were shown to our table – past the display cabinet full of aged beef – our waitress explained the concept, that they butcher and age their own meat. There was a certain pride about it which I respected, and it made me look forward to dinner: I knew from researching the menu beforehand that the Corn Stores was an expensive restaurant, but I was hoping for a showstopper, the special occasion restaurant Reading has been missing for many years.

Our table was one of the booths, and I was impressed by how spacious it felt for two people: CAU, back in the day, would have tried to seat four people at a booth that size (the other tables for two felt a little more poky: I’m not sure how much I’d have liked one of those). The restaurant was nicely buzzing and pretty full on a weekday night, and it exuded that glow of satisfaction you get when surrounded by people who are happy they’ve made a right – and exclusive – choice (the Nirvana Spa effect, you might say). “My mum would like it here” said Zoë, adding the Corn Stores to her mental list of places to take her mum to.

We ordered a couple of pints of Meantime lager while we decided what to order: it’s kept in tanks onsite so you get it fresh, unfiltered and unpasteurised. I thought it was cold, crisp and clean and I loved it – Zoe less so, because she detected a bitter finish. I’ve already said that the Corn Stores is an expensive restaurant, and I fear this is a point we may return to often throughout the rest of this review: starters are just shy of a tenner and some of the mains are just the right side of twenty pounds, although if you order a steak you’re highly likely to pay far more than that. Oh, and there was a “whole baked sourdough” for six pounds fifty, which has to be the most expensive bread I’ve ever seen on any menu anywhere (you get “your choice of butter”: really, for six pounds fifty you should get to try them all, I reckon).

There was also a specials menu with other options including a Barnsley chop, a pork tomahawk, smoked sirloin on the bone – and a chateaubriand with lobster and some other gubbins which cost the grand total of ninety-five pounds (I know people who have ordered this, and they raved about it, but really: you could eat Michelin-starred food for that money). None of that especially appealed, but also I wanted to judge the place on their standard fare – the meat and potatoes, you could say – so we stuck to the normal menu. At the table next to us, three well-to-do ladies chatted away as their main courses, completely untouched, went cold in front of them: Zoë and I exchanged looks.

We started with the “Rarebreed Board”, a sharing selection of interesting options. It was the most expensive starter on the menu (twenty six pounds, in fact) but I figured it gave us an opportunity to try out lots of different things. It came on a sort of folding trestle table which left us limited room for our side-plates, but you couldn’t deny it looked appealing: five different beef dishes, designed to be shared between two.

Much of the sharing board was sort of a symphony of mince, so you got steak meatballs, miniature burgers and “beef and pepper sausage” – which was more like sausagemeat, on account of there being no casing. They were all quite nice, but much of a muchness – the main variations being in coarseness, but the overall texture was very similar.

We both liked the sausage best, with there not being a huge amount to choose between the burgers and the meatballs. Even at this stage though, the execution was lacking. The burgers came with lettuce and tomato in naked brioche, no cheese, no sauce (the pepper or tomato sauce in a little metal dish made a useful dip). The meatballs were apparently served with red wine gravy, but the thin lake of liquid at the bottom of the dish was largely ineffectual. Perhaps you were meant to dip the accompanying toast in it, but it was pretty hard when it arrived and, by the time we got round to it, it was even worse.

There were three burgers and three meatballs, which was odd and just made sharing trickier – I’d rather those two dishes had been better and smaller, and the price had been nudged down a little. I liked the other two dishes on the board better – the steak tartare (served, somewhat randomly, in a jar) had some real tang and pungency from the Worcester sauce, but Zoë found it too vinegary and couldn’t finish it. Similarly, the salt beef on flatbread worked beautifully for me, but amid the mustard there was also a vinegary tang that put Zoë right off it. Even in this dish there was the oddity of little segments of potato – double carbs, and extra bulk, but totally unnecessary.

By the time we finished our starters the table next to us had eaten half of their main courses, if that. One lady had cut her cod burger very precisely in two and looked like she was considering, possibly before the evening was out, embarking on eating the second half (it never occurs to me that some people go to restaurants for the company, or to see and be seen, but that might be just me). I got a second pint of Meantime and Zoë tried the Curiouser & Curiouser, a beer by Kentish wine producers Chapel Down – it tasted of grapefruit and citrus and I really liked it, although Zoë seemed less convinced.

We’d decided to tackle different ends of the menu, so we went for one of the pricier and one of the more affordable main courses. Zoë’s burger – wagyu beef, with Ogleshield cheddar and bacon – looked lovely, and the bite I had wasn’t half bad. But it cost nineteen pounds, and it didn’t feel, to me, like a nineteen pound burger (I’m not sure what a nineteen pound burger tastes like, but not this).

“It’s really nice” said Zoë.

“Better than Honest?”

“No, not really.”

I agreed with that – even when unadorned, Honest burgers have a lovely crust to them from the grill, and there’s a bit of salt in there. This was almost as good, but it cost nearly twice as much as its equivalent over on King Street.

I had gone for a two hundred gram fillet steak, served rare, with béarnaise sauce. The Corn Stores website boasts about how they baste their meat with aged beef fat and cook it on a Robata grill, getting loads of flavour into even lean cuts like fillet.

This was, it’s safe to say, not my experience: they’d managed the impressive combination of serving a steak where there was almost no char at all while simultaneously overcooking it. It was meant to be rare, but it was probably medium at best: just about pink in the middle, but with no juices oozing out as you made your way through it. I couldn’t face sending it back, because I really wanted to eat dinner at the same time as Zoë and I knew that sending it back guaranteed that wouldn’t happen. Besides, by then the damage was done – if you’re a steak restaurant, and one charging that kind of money, cooking the steak right first time was the entry level requirement.

That wasn’t all, though, because really the steak didn’t taste of very much. I didn’t get any seasoning, I certainly didn’t feel like it had been anointed with glorious, salty beef fat, nothing of the kind. The béarnaise didn’t help matters, being a little on the thin side, heavy on the vinegar (bit of a theme emerging there) and light on the tarragon. It was also a pretty mingy helping of béarnaise, because the Corn Stores seems to have missed the memo that béarnaise sauce should be as much for your chips as your steak. The salad it came with was pleasant enough, but it rankled with me that you got a big pile of salad for free but had to pay for your chips – by contrast, chips came free with the burger.

This brings us on to the chips – beef fat chips, no less. I had high hopes for these, but they were also deeply ordinary. They didn’t have the crunch-fluff ratio of a perfect chip, they were exceptionally salty and some of mine had grey patches which should have failed the most elementary quality checking. Dipped in the béarnaise they were okay, but no more, and they weren’t much better with the mayonnaise we’d asked for (which came in two minuscule pots which looked as if they had housed lip balm in a previous life). I looked round and everybody seemed to be having such a lovely time. What was I missing?

We’d asked our waitress for recommendations for a side dish and she had recommended the baked flat mushrooms, so we went for those. Four pounds got you three rather small flat mushrooms which had a meaty texture but again, didn’t feel like they’d been exposed to much in the way of butter. If I’d had them in a Beefeater I’d probably have been pleased, but here in the Corn Stores it just felt like another way of extracting funds. There was the ghost of a sprig of thyme on top, as if to say Look, we did do something with them.

By this point we were on to our third drink – a serviceable glass of Pinot Noir for me and Chapel Down’s cider (which I really liked) for Zoë, and positively planning our escape. The waitress took our dishes away and half-heartedly asked if it had been good, and we half-heartedly replied that it had been fine. The fact that both of us had half-heartedly half-left our chips didn’t seem to register. That was service in general at the Corn Stores – smiling, efficient, a little robotic. I didn’t get any real warmth or personality.

Dinner for two – a sharing starter, two mains, some chips, a side and three drinks apiece – came to one hundred and thirty pounds, including a not-that-optional 12.5% service charge. I’m almost tempted to leave that sentence to do the work on its own, but really: one hundred and thirty pounds! When I think of all the amazing meals you could buy in Reading for a fraction of that price – or all the exquisite meals you could buy in London for that money – I felt like I’d cheated rather than treated myself.

“I don’t think I would take my mum here, you know” said Zoë, unsurprisingly.

“I know. Normally with places like this I say I’d only go if someone else was paying, but in this case even if someone else was paying I wouldn’t let them take me here.”

That might sum it up, for me. I couldn’t shake the feeling, throughout my meal, that I was paying for the refurbishment, or helping Rarebreed pay off their investor (the interestingly-named Havisham Group), but I didn’t feel like I was paying for a truly luxurious experience in a terrific special occasion Reading restaurant.

The talk about the Corn Stores’ pride in their meat and butchery is all well and good, but the main thing my meal did was make me miss CAU. I think, actually, I had no better or worse a meal at Miller & Carter, where I paid a lot less money. Worst of all, I went to the Southcote (a Beefeater) last year and although it wasn’t as good as the Corn Stores it was a lot closer than the huge disparity in price would have you believe (and their béarnaise, damningly, was probably slightly better).

Anyway, it doesn’t matter what I say: I have no doubt that the Corn Stores will do really well, but I felt like if it had been half as good as it thinks it is it would be twice as good as it actually is. But what do I know? I read some lifestyle bloggers recently, and they tell me the emperor looks fantastic in that outfit.

The Corn Stores – 6.7

10 Forbury Road, RG1 1SB
0118 3246768

https://www.thecornstoresreading.co.uk/

Bierhaus

I felt at a disadvantage going to Bierhaus, the German restaurant on Queens Walk, with Ian, my stepfather. I don’t know a huge amount about beer – as anyone who’s ever read my reviews already knows – whereas he knows his way round a pilsner and a pale ale and used to work for one of the world’s biggest brewers, travelling all over the world and sampling all sorts. More significantly, he had been to Germany and I hadn’t. My knowledge of German stops at being able to ask my way to the town hall, proudly proclaim that I own a guinea pig or explain that my pen is broken (kaput, such a beautiful word). Oh, and I know how to tell people that my favourite pop group is Johnny Hates Jazz – although it never actually was, not even back then.

I’ve had friends tell me how wonderful Germany is, how clean and beautiful, how everyone is handsome and polite and speaks beautiful English. It sounds like somewhere one could quite happily live, let alone visit, and yet Munich, Berlin and Cologne have never quite made it to the top of the city break shortlist (Berlin, in particular, crops up regularly with people I know, usually in the sentence Oh my god, you absolutely must go to Berlin: I don’t much like being told what to do, so I never have).

I’m not sure why I’ve never made it out there. It could be repressed horror from those three years studying “Deutsche Heute” which mainly consisted of my schoolfriends making Franzi the Pig do awful, awful things through the medium of graffiti. But really I think it’s the food, which has never hugely appealed. I’ve never fallen over myself to try it, even to the point where I’ve always steered clear of the bratwurst place that crops up on the Oracle riverside every bloody year. Mystery meat? Nein danke. And the same goes for pork knuckle: who willingly eats a knuckle?

As a result of my ignorance I have no idea, for instance, whether restaurants in Germany look like Bierhaus. My instinctive reaction, though, is that they don’t. The passage it sits on, near the Hexagon and the Penta Hotel, does have a certain under-the-Stasi feel about it, but that might be as far as it goes. There were some tables outside, which felt a tad hopeful in October, but the inside was more difficult to warm to. I didn’t mind the front room – designed more as a bar with its bright orange stools – so much but I found the upstairs dining room odd. It had dark walls, dourly functional tables and chairs and a leopardskin effect pleather banquette which was several kinds of fake for the price of one. Everything was quite poorly lit (possibly with the aim of making sure you didn’t notice the banquette) and strangely there was a tiny stage in one corner: what it was for is anybody’s guess.

More random still were the enamel signs on the wall. Some were about beer, as you might expect, but many weren’t. There were also ones about coffee (All You Need Is Love And A Good Cup Of Coffee – haven’t these people heard of Toblerone?) and wine (Wine A Little You’ll Feel Better). Others were plain generic (Life Is Short Lick The Bowl, a mission statement which fails to stack up in so many ways). You could argue that their branding was confused, that they had strayed from their core concept. But really, it just felt like they’d got a job lot of these from TK Maxx and decided to go hell for leather and put them all up: a cosy wood-panelled room or snug bierkeller it wasn’t.

It was around this point, where I looked at the menu and looked around me, that I realised that Bierhaus was quite a curious beast. I’m used to the phenomenon, out in the shires, of the Restaurant Disguised As A Pub. You know the sort of place – picture-perfect, hell-bent on getting into the Good Food Guide, always banging on about being the perfect local pub but completely unwilling to seat you unless you’re eating there too; Berkshire and Oxfordshire are full of the blighters.

But until Bierhaus I’m not sure I’d ever seen the phenomenon in reverse. Because Bierhaus, make no mistake, is a pub disguised as a restaurant. It offers an extensive range of German beer on draft, nearly all of it at the five pound a pint mark, and it sells food but you order and pay at the bar. So far, so like Brewdog or Bluegrass, but at Bierhaus they genuinely don’t seem fussed whether you eat there or not.

“It’s a really good beer list” said my Ian, who had got cracking on a very nice pint of Erdinger. My Dortmunder Union by contrast was a classic pilsner if a bit nondescript, although I may be saying that with hindsight because everything I drank after that was a bit more interesting. All the draft beers came as halves, pints or – if you really fancied going for it – steins.

“There’s quite a good list of bottled beers from around the world too” I said, looking at the flip side of the drinks menu. “And Doombar, if you’re really lacking in imagination.”

“Your uncle would like that” said Ian with a wry smile. It was true, although in fairness the only beer my uncle has ever really taken against is Kaliber: that aside, they’re pretty much all fair game.

The food menu had a wide selection of starters and mains, and I noted that many of the starters were fried and much of the main courses were essentially meat and carbs (“It’s not a place for gluten-free vegans”, Ian said sagely, inadvertently turning it into a selling point). He also pointed out that the menu had changed since Bierhaus first opened a few years back, now offering the likes of nachos and wings to broaden the appeal. I also spotted a schnitzel salad, possibly the only dish to really offer what a close friend of mine likes to refer to as “garden”.

Our starters were all very much variations on a theme, possibly more so than we’d intended, being three different things breadcrumbed and fried. I wasn’t expecting that – the cheese sticks were meant to be beer battered and frickles are usually battered too – but, for all that, I liked all three starters we ordered. The cheese sticks – no idea what cheese it was – were good fun even if they were Bavaria by way of Iceland, and I was prepared to overlook the three pointless strips of raw pepper they came with (the menu said they were served with peppers: rules are rules, I suppose).

Ian said the frickles were the some of the best he’d had, and the coating on them had a surprising amount of kick. I had been expecting the thin crunch of a really good beer batter, but I found I didn’t mind its absence. And I really liked the sauerkraut balls – a Teutonic reimagining of arancini with a good contrast of sharpness and cheese. Ian was less convinced (“something more robust would have been nice”, he said – quite telling, as robustness was almost a calling card for much of the food).

All three starters were at or below the five pound mark and came with either average tartare sauce, a rather interesting spiced ketchup or, in the case of the cheese, cranberry sauce. Oh, and those three strips of red, yellow and orange pepper – let’s not forget those. But the peppers summed up the slight disconnect here – Bierhaus is a pub and many of the starters were essentially bar snacks, so why the faffy arrangement and the rectangular plates?

The very friendly waitress came and took our dishes away, her face almost ghostly through the application of industrial quantities of makeup.

“What was the name of the daughter in the Addams family?” asked Ian, and for a moment I couldn’t remember whether it was Dienstag or Mittwoch.

Another nice thing about the lack of fuss is that we felt completely unjudged ordering some nibbles, sitting there with our beers and taking our time to go up and order the rest. In the intervening time we both had a pint of Veltins, which I really enjoyed – it’s one of the more widely available beers Bierhaus does on draft but it was more complex and interesting than the Dortmunder Union. From there, Ian had a pint of the splendidly named Krommbacher (a sip tasted very nice indeed) and I moved on to the slightly fruitier and more delicate Früh Kölsch.

Everything came in branded glasses, everything I tried was thoroughly enjoyable and I started to feel like I could well understand the appeal of a laid back evening trying beers, eating carbs and having a good old gas. The only thing I couldn’t quite shake was the feeling that it ought to be happening in a nicer room. Bierhaus felt quiet for a Friday night, and I wondered whether its time might be coming now that winter was round the corner.

Ian had given me fair warning that he was going to order the schweinshaxe – the pork knuckle – but I never quite believed he was going to go through with it until he did. It was an enormous thing, more murder weapon than foodstuff, and he started to get to work on it with strangely appropriate efficiency. “I was psyched up for major surgery”, he told me later, “but it wasn’t necessary”. He was right: the meat fell away beautifully and tasted delicious. The outside was rich and sticky and covered in mustard seeds and herbs and all of it was very nice indeed (“not gelatinous or gristly” said Ian, summing up the two risks that had put me off ordering it).

Would I order it myself on a subsequent visit? Maybe, although the price tag (eighteen pounds) was a little stiff and the accompaniments weren’t anything to write home about. The bratkartoffeln – potatoes with bacon – were better described as potatoes with really not much bacon: it seemed churlish to complain when you were eating so much dead pig but even so they felt oversold. Not only that, but they had the oddly smooth texture of a long life product decanted from a foil packet rather than fresh potatoes fried in oil until everything was crispy and caramelised. There was more sauerkraut, which Ian didn’t like any more than in the starter, and some red cabbage. “Adequate”, he said, which ironically means it wasn’t good enough.

I was tempted to pick the schnitzel or goulash, both of which I remembered enjoying from visits a few years back, but in the end I decided to try the “Bierhaus rouladen”, a pork escalope rolled and stuffed with cheese and gherkin. I thought this might prove to be, by Bierhaus standards, the diet option and I suppose it was: the pork was beaten very thin, and nicely seasoned, but the whole thing felt out of kilter because it felt like there was easily as much gherkin as pork. Now, I absolutely love a gherkin, but even I’m not sure I’d make them the absolute centrepiece of a dish (Bierhaus’ Instagram feed suggests that I may have got an especially mingey version, but even so). It came with a nicely dressed salad and more of those oddly waxy, largely bacon-free potatoes, and I didn’t mind it but I did find myself gazing enviously at the enormous ham shank opposite me more than once: the acceptable face of gammon, I reckon.

We had a side dish of spaetzle: I’m pretty sure I’ve had spaetzle at Bierhaus on previous visits and liked it much more than this, but these noodles were fat, short, flat things with spring onion but little discernible cheese. We found it harder to finish than we did to pronounce, and that’s saying something. I did take a picture, but I’m doing us all a favour by not including it here.

We passed on dessert – it’s a very small selection, and my stepfather is prone to describing beer as “liquid cake”, so I guess you could argue we’d had one already. Dinner for the two of us – starters, mains, the spaetzle and the grand total of six pints and one half – came to just under eighty-two pounds, not including service. Perspective is key here, because that might feel like quite a lot to spend in a restaurant but it doesn’t feel such a terrible amount to spend on sinking a few pints in the pub with a meal vaguely attached. I haven’t said much about service but actually, what there was was lovely and friendly and welcoming, both at the bar when ordering drinks and food and at the table when they brought our dinner over.

When I started this review, I thought the biggest challenge would be avoiding hackneyed jokes about Germany: don’t mention the Fawlty Towers, you could say. But actually, now I come to write my conclusion the biggest challenge turns out to be deciding what I make of Bierhaus. Goodness knows, it doesn’t take long to reel off the minuses – it’s in a difficult and neglected part of town, the room is dark and lacking in atmosphere, the food is slightly lacking in consistency and you do have to really like beer (and possibly stodge). So far, so iffy.

What might surprise you, though, is that I found myself liking it all the same. It really is an excellent selection of German beer, and I liked everything I had. The best of the food is better than you perhaps expect it to be – and, in fairness, I’ve had some nicer food on previous visits than I did on this one. The service is spot on, and I rather admire their pluck and the way they’ve carved out a space in Reading’s restaurant scene in just under two years of trading. They make a decent fist of using Instagram, something many Reading restaurants struggle with. And actually, despite what my stepfather said about the menu, they’ve gone out of their way to provide vegetarian and vegan options which strikes me as awfully progressive for a German restaurant (although that’s not to say that I’d personally order them in a million years).

But actually, I think Ian, in his inimitable way, might have summed it up best. “The ambiance, the signage and the layout aren’t ever going to win it any awards”, he said, “but I’ve never had a bad time there.” And that, to me, says it all – because I’ve never had a bad time there either. It’s easy to get hung up on all the things a restaurant Should Be – an amazing room, flawless food, slick service, worthy piffle about provenance or plant-based dining – but actually restaurants are in the business of making sure we have a good time. And in some strange, almost amateurish, shouldn’t-work-but-somehow-does way which is beyond my powers of description, and against all odds, Bierhaus does precisely that.

Bierhaus – 7.3
8 Queens Walk, RG1 7QF
0118 9587171

http://www.bierhauspub.co.uk/

Brewdog

Regular readers might remember that I first attempted to review Brewdog about three months ago, unsuccessfully as it happens. I came, I saw, I was told they couldn’t even take orders for at least thirty minutes and I sodded off. To the Real Greek instead, in fact, where I had a surprisingly enjoyable meal with my friend Steve. He still messages me occasionally just to talk about sausage (the one at the Real Greek I should say, although I think Steve has a soft spot for most sausages, so to speak).

I decided I would leave Brewdog for another day when my frustration had subsided and I’d forgotten some of the faux wackiness which had slightly got my back up – the almost illegible menu and the zany pun-ridden dish names like “Hail Seitan” and “Clucky This Time”. So I turned up with my old friend Mike on a Monday night to check it out, hoping for better luck this time.

Much was different from my last visit. In May, Brewdog had been open less than two months and there was still a huge buzz about the place. It had been fuller and louder, whereas going back now it was definitely a quieter proposition – although that might also be because I went on a Monday. Another difference was that last time I turned up on spec, whereas this time I had had already booked a table.

The site has a chequered history. It’s been the Litten Tree, a properly purgatorial chain pub known to many Reading residents of a certain vintage as the “Shitten Tree”. It’s been RYND, with beautiful interiors, rock-hard cheap seating and bandwagon-chasing knock-off American barbecue food. And most recently it’s been Public, a venue whose selling point – if you see this as a selling point – was to have board games, fussball tables and pool tables. I imagine the trendsetters went there but wouldn’t have been seen dead in the Sun, on the opposite side of the road, with its thoroughly charming bar billiards table: nowhere near ironic enough.

RYND, for all its faults, did a beautiful job of exposing the brickwork and then Public cocked it all up with cheapo tiles and wood panelling, so it was lovely to see that Brewdog had restored the room to something like its former glory. The large central room does feel like a beer hall, with long tables and – no surprises here – industrial light fittings. I’d asked for a booth, and it would have been nice to have been seated at one of the ones in the main room to feel more like part of things, but instead they put us in the smaller area off to the left, very much the overflow car park of the restaurant.

On my last visit, poor Steve and I waited at our table in bewilderment for easily five minutes before realising that nobody was going to come to ask us what we wanted. At the time, I wrote this off as my mistake, thinking that Brewdog was far more like a pub than a restaurant. But another difference with this visit was that a very friendly, smiley waitress came over and asked us what we’d like to drink. I have no idea whether that’s because it was quieter, or because we’d booked a table or for some other reason, and it slightly bugs me that I can’t tell you which of my two visits was more representative.

The menu was, well, burgers and hot dogs. And two salads. I couldn’t help thinking that Brewdog might have put more effort and imagination – albeit misplaced – into the names of the dishes than the dishes themselves. I had my eye on a burger from my extensive research – the “Jackpot”, with its winning combination of black pudding, chorizo and blue cheese – but I was also determined to let Mike pick first. I’m lucky that people want to come out on duty with me, so I always try to make sure they aren’t eating their second choice of starter or main.

“I quite fancy the ‘Chipotle Chorizo’,” said Mike, which made perfect sense: his mum is Spanish, after all.

“That’s fine” I said through gritted teeth, dying slightly inside as the prospect of sampling the Jackpot receded into the middle distance. “I’ll just have one of the chicken burgers instead. I love southern fried chicken.”

My first choice of chicken burger would have been the “Buffalo Chicken”, but we’d also decided to have some of the buffalo cauliflower, so I ended up going for the “Cluck Norris”: southern fried chicken and avocado. I had a sneaking feeling I had picked the menu’s equivalent of a chicken korma at this point, but the die was cast. Besides, why whinge about it to Mike when I could bide my time and instead complain to literally dozens of readers? Think of the delayed gratification, I told myself as I drank my pint.

I suppose I should at least attempt to talk about the beer, so here goes: there are a whole range of Brewdog beers on tap along with others in bottles and a range of other guest beers. Nearly everything crosses the five pound a pint Rubicon which, in fairness, probably stopped being any kind of meaningful threshold at some point last year; nowadays you just pay whatever they charge you and if you wince when they tell you how much your round is, you’re either in the wrong place or pubs just aren’t for you. The menu helpfully made suggestions about which beers paired well with each burger (Mike followed this advice, because he’s that kind of person and I didn’t, because I’m not).

Mike declared himself very satisfied with the Punk IPA and the Dead Pony, the latter specifically chosen to go with his burger. “They sell Brewdog on the continent”, he told me (Mike spends most of the year swanning around Europe running coach tours: I like to think he’s like a twenty-first century Robin Askwith, although the lack of stories of swordsmanship suggests this might be wishful thinking), “but it’s really expensive over there.” The punchline was left hanging in the air: I couldn’t be bothered to claim it.

My beers, from the outer reaches of the list, were more interesting I thought, although that doesn’t guarantee that my descriptions of them will be. I had a pint of Lighthouse by Windswept which I really liked, a “Kolsch style lager” (it means it’s kind of German, apparently – you know, like the Royal Family) which was crisp, clean and just the right side of the dividing line between bland and delicate. The Windswept website says it’s best enjoyed after abseiling or archery, which strikes me as a shame because it means I’ll never get to enjoy it in optimum conditions: never mind, I’ll live.

I followed it up with a pint of “#MashTag2018” which seems to be a beer that’s part crowdsourced through polls every year. The 2018 version, which presumably was chosen by Russian bots, was infused with hibiscus and yuzu and I liked it a great deal; the sharp citrus added by the yuzu made it smarter than the average beer. Mike had a sip and decided to order a pint of himself after he’d lapped me. He then decided that it was more fun to sip a little of it than to wade through a pint of it, which I figured served him right. Karmic payback for stopping me hitting the Jackpot, perhaps.

The burgers at Brewdog cost between nine and ten pounds and fries (or sweet potato fries) are extra, so in terms of price it’s probably largely on a par with Honest. It’s taken me until this point in the review to mention the H word, but they were very much in my mind as I had my dinner because, for better or worse, 2018 is the year that they’ve become the benchmark for all burgers in this town.

Here’s something you’ll rarely hear me say: the problem with my chicken burger is that it had too much chicken. It’s honestly true – the unremarkable-looking seeded brioche had two large coated chicken breasts in it. That might have been a dream come true if the coating had tasted of anything, but in fact it had almost no flavour at all. A real shame, because it looked the part and the texture was great, but in terms of taste it was like a mirage of KFC. This also meant that the whole thing was unbalanced because the things it really needed – the avocado, the coriander, the Cajun mayo – simply couldn’t put up a fight against all that bland fried chicken. With proper coating, less chicken and more of the rest it could have been world-beating, but as it was I actually left some of it. A knife stuck needlessly out of the top, Excalibur-style, and I couldn’t tell whether it was decoration or punishment.

Mike’s “Chipotle Chorizo” was better, but still unspecial. The burger itself – very much cooked medium-well – was crumbly and dry and left me, again, thinking wistfully of Honest at the other end of town. The chorizo was by far the best thing in it – coarse, juicy and piquant – but the chipotle mayo didn’t add a lot and the padron peppers felt a bit random. There was one in the burger and another impaled on top of the bun – that knife trick again. I felt like Mike had got the better deal, but only in terms of shades of meh. Speaking of meh, the fries were wan and disappointing, and I didn’t have any desire to finish them all. Mike had upgraded to the sweet potato fries – they cost fifty pence extra – and this was money well spent, although probably money better spent would have involved not having fries at all.

The bright spot was the buffalo cauliflower, which we both agreed was quite the nicest thing we ate all evening. Big firm florets in a hot, sour glaze, and easily more interesting than the feature attraction, a scene-stealing bit part. But even this wasn’t perfect – I liked the coating but I’d have liked it to be crunchier and stick to the cauliflower a bit better. And, when it came to it, we paid eight pounds for it, so it really wasn’t much cheaper than the burgers. Perhaps by this point I’d just run out of magnanimity: it’s distinctly possible. There was a vegan dip with it, which tasted like a photocopy of salad cream and might have appealed, if you were a vegan.

This is all getting a bit crotchety, isn’t it? I should perhaps focus on the service because it was properly lovely. Our waitress (or, according to the bill, “server”) was likeable and cheery without ever seeming fake or making us feel like miserable old shits, not that we needed any help in that department. Our bill for two came to just shy of sixty pounds, excluding service (and the menu, randomly, also gives you the option to buy a pint of Punk IPA for the kitchen: I’m not sure that would have improved matters, but it might have been worth giving it a whirl). At the time that didn’t feel like a lot, but looking back it feels like money extracted somewhat by stealth.

It’s probably obvious by now that Brewdog wasn’t my bag at all, but what surprises me is that I honestly expected it to be better. It has a small menu and I thought sticking to a few things might mean they did them well, especially when you think about how considered their brand is and how much attention to detail they’ve put into the building, and the fit out. So it’s disappointing that the food was so drab; if I wanted that kind of meal I’d go to Honest, and if I wanted that range of beer I’d walk slightly further out of town and make for the Nag’s Head.

Of course, it’s possible that Brewdog was aiming for the sweet spot on the Venn diagram where beer drinkers and food fans meet, but somehow I doubt it. It felt like the food was just there to tick a box rather than to properly complement the beer, and I found that a little sad. It felt a lot like a slightly less corporate Oakford Social Club, but when you strip away the beards the experience is much the same. What Brewdog really highlighted, for me, is one of the big gaps in the market left here in Reading. Since I Love Paella left the Fisherman’s Cottage, punters have been left with a pretty stark choice: you can have a fantastic range of well-kept beer or you can have brilliant food, but – for now at least – you can’t have both.

Brewdog – 6.2
11 Castle Street, RG1 7SB
0118 9568755

https://www.brewdog.com/bars/uk/reading

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/