Restaurant review: Zero Degrees

There is a parallel universe in which this week’s review is of ThaiGrrr!, the Thai place in Queens Walk whose takeaway I so enjoyed earlier in the year. I’d had a tip-off that the place was almost deserted early in the evening, and so I fully intended to pay it a visit and write it up properly. I’d like to live in that parallel universe. But in that parallel universe I didn’t walk into it and think “what in Christ’s name is that smell?” 

And it wasn’t just me – Zoë looked at me and said “this place smells like our old cat’s litter tray”. We waited a minute and the stench – no other word would do – did not abate. And it didn’t feel like an odour to which one could, or would want to, acclimatise. I bumped into the person who’d suggested ThaiGrr! the following day at Blue Collar and told him of our experience. “That’s such a shame, it’s never smelled like that when I’ve gone there” he said. Maybe they were having problems with their drains: I imagine at some point I’ll go back and give it another try. A couple of tables were occupied, possibly by people who hadn’t yet realised that they had Covid.

There’s another parallel universe where, having passed on ThaiGrrr!, we walked home and ordered a takeaway for me to review this week. I’d rather like to live in that parallel universe too, but I’m afraid on the way back we walked past Zero Degrees and Zoë, not unreasonably, said “that place has been on your list to re-review for some time”. And looking in the window it was practically deserted. That made it a safe place to review but, with hindsight, I should have taken the hint; when a restaurant that’s been trading for nearly fifteen years is dead on a school night, there’s probably a reason for that.

Zero Degrees probably needs no introduction by now, but I’ve often thought it so far ahead of its time that it wasn’t a trendsetter, more a lucky guess. Craft beer and pizza have both exploded in recent times, and yet in 2007 when Zero Degrees opened, a combination of microbrewery and pizza joint, it was relatively without fanfare. I visited it on duty in 2013, my second ever review, and it’s fair to say that I wasn’t impressed. “It should be marvellous, but it isn’t”, I said. In addition, and re-reading this I wonder if my trip there this week was via some kind of wormhole in time, I said “in a big open restaurant with only four occupied tables, good service should be easier than this”. Anyway, that’s enough foreshadowing.

It is a big, handsome space, you know – with genuine, not fake, exposed brickwork, plenty of room and a nice view out on to Gun Street. We sat close to the window and far away from the only two occupied tables, both of them hugging the wall. “Just imagine if someone like Clay’s had this site” I said to Zoë. By the end of the meal – sorry, more foreshadowing – that felt like yet another parallel universe preferable to this one. 

Back in 2013 the menu had felt huge and unwieldy – too big to execute well – and little had changed eight years later. Some of the abominations on the starters and pizza section had been removed, while others (like the pizza with “Mexican sausage” or the one with crispy duck, hoisin sauce and crispy tortillas) remained. In a concession to the food trends of the last few years, burrata and ‘nduja were visible in several places. 

But the menu still felt like it was throwing everything at the wall, exposed brickwork and all, and seeing what stuck: a plethora of pizzas, five types of mussels, vegetarian and vegan food lumped in with the salads like an afterthought and plenty of pasta and risotto dishes. Overkill. Maybe if they had fewer items on the menu they would have had more time for proofreading and wouldn’t be offering customers “faltbreads” or “Ceasar salad”.

Anyway, we ordered a couple of beers while looking at the menu, and this is where the trouble began. Because, despite only having two other occupied tables in the whole restaurant, our beers just didn’t arrive. And the person we’d ordered them with disappeared. He materialised about fifteen minutes later, with no real sense of purpose, and so Zoë managed to get his attention and said we were still waiting for some drinks. He indicated that he’d heard this and promptly vanished again. 

Another quarter of an hour passed, by which point I was starting to wonder whether the other two tables had been trying to settle their bills since mid-afternoon. Zoë took the unusual step of getting up and searching for the waiter to track him down and ask where our drinks were. When I reviewed Zero Degrees in 2013 I described the wait staff as “omni-absent”: some things haven’t changed.

Personally, I’d have taken this as an opportunity to cancel the beers, escape into the night and have that takeaway I was hoping for, but I was overruled. So over half an hour after we asked for a couple of beers, when they still hadn’t arrived and against my better judgment, Zoë told the waiter we were ready to order food. We had to explain the dishes to him a couple of times, as if he’d never heard of them before.

“I don’t understand why their wait staff aren’t trained to just hop behind the bar and pull a pint” said Zoë. Me neither. And worst of all, from that point onwards it really did look like our food might come out before our drinks, but the beers just pipped them to the post. Our waiter brought them about a minute before the starters, and had thoughtfully upgraded Zoë’s from a half to a pint. She was having one of their specials, a black lager, which was described as “meh”. “It’s pretty tasteless”, she added. 

I’d chosen a Radler, having enjoyed one enormously in Malaga earlier in the month, but if I’d had my eyes closed I honestly could have mistaken it for a San Pellegrino garnished with a measly slice of lemon: there was that little to it. By this point both the other tables had managed to pay up and skedaddle, leaving us literally the only customers there. Had they shot us a look of pity on the way out, or was that just my imagination?

I wanted the food to be good, and I did try to approach it with an open mind, but I’m afraid it was downhill all the way from there. Bad things are supposed to come in threes, but you got four arancini on a plate, pointlessly drizzled with balsamic glaze, presumably to try and add some – any – flavour. The inside was a pappy mulch, with none of the advertised pea and spinach and it was hard to even make out individual grains of rice. They felt to me like something you might choose not to buy in Iceland.

Worse – because, it turned out, that was possible – was the ‘nduja. I’m used to small quantities of deep crimson, ultra-potent ‘nduja, very much the mighty atom of Italian food. I’m not used to it coming in industrial quantities, dense and fridge-cold, in a ramekin, with a leaden, fatty texture, like rillette cut with chilli powder. It was woeful, and it came served with triangles of pizza bread (garlic bread according to the menu: the menu is fibbing). The bread wasn’t unpleasant but by the time you had applied a wodge of frigid red bullshit to it, what you were left with was a claggy horror of lukewarm bread and something claiming to be ‘nduja which showed no signs of ever, ever melting. I left a lot of this.

Finally, the legendary “faltbread”, which was meant to feature mozzarella, gorgonzola and truffle oil. It only had the slightest whiff of truffle, which itself was only detectable thanks to the almost total absence of blue cheese. So a small shit pizza, then, for just under seven pounds – the price, coincidentally, of a not-small, not-shit pizza from Franco Manca.

As with the meal itself, I’m keen to bring this review to an end as quickly as possible and not prolong anybody’s suffering. So the dish I’d chosen as a main course could be described as a not-small, still-shit pizza. I’d unwisely chosen “carne asada”, which involved rump steak, smoked cheese and a basil and coriander pesto; if you look at that description and think that sounds awful then congratulations, because you’re light years ahead of me. But awful it was.

The steak was in the form of leathery slabs, any give comprehensively cooked out of them. I was hoping in vain for some marination, praying that the beef would be thinly sliced, pink in the middle and maybe strewn over the top at the end rather than cooked through. More fool me. The pesto managed not to taste of coriander or basil: instead it felt like munching on a manky hedgerow.

The mozzarella was as much of a non-smoker as I was and the other attempts to add some interest, a crude salsa of tomatoes, red onion and avocado, didn’t work. Putting cold stuff on top of a pizza, as with the ‘nduja, just made everything lukewarm, and the avocado started to go brown not long after this was set down in front of me.This cost fifteen pounds: you can get an infinitely better pizza at Buon Appetito for less.

Zoë had chosen a dish she said was a banker at Zero Degrees, something called lime and tequila chicken tagliatelle which was, gastronomically at least, of no fixed abode. And although it was better than my pizza it still wasn’t great, the pasta overcooked and clumpy with no bite. I didn’t detect any tequila but then again, given how hard it seemed to get booze out of Zero Degrees I wasn’t exactly surprised. Like the pizza it was studded with acrid, tastebud-destroying slices of chilli, and like the pizza it was about as Italian as the Dolmio puppets. The chicken was in distinctly uniform catering pack-sized mini fillets: the first one I tried was decent, the second had a slightly musty taste, as if it had been reheated.

We didn’t finish our mains, and although the second waiter who took our plates away was better than the first, largely by virtue of actually turning up, he didn’t probe as to whether we’d enjoyed our meals. By this point my only real concerns were leaving as soon as possible, opening up whatever chocolate I had at home and getting back in time for the Bake Off final on Channel 4+1. Our bill for two, including a 10% service charge I was too fatigued to knock off, came to sixty-two pounds: the final insult. 

On the way home I annoyed Zoë greatly by pointing to restaurants on the Oracle Riverside and saying “we could have had a better meal here… or here… or here”. The only place I didn’t include in that analysis was TGI Friday. As we passed the Lyndhurst, Christmas lights on and warm glow coming from the windows, I couldn’t help myself.

“Just imagine what sixty-two pounds could buy you at the Lyndie.” 

“Oh for fuck’s sake, shut up” came the understandable response.

The funniest thing, though, happened as we were leaving the restaurant. We walked through the place to leave through the exit on Bridge Street, and the bar was full. Properly full. Every single table had people at it, drinking and chatting, and it turned out that the joke was well and truly on us: Zero Degrees had plenty of staff, they simply didn’t have any of them working in the restaurant that night. Perhaps Zero Degrees has just given up on its food. Having tasted it, that makes two of us.

Zero Degrees – 4.9
9 Bridge Street, Reading, RG1 2LR
0118 9597959

https://www.zerodegrees.co.uk/restaurants/reading/
Order via: Deliveroo

Vegivores

Vegivores was probably the most keenly-anticipated opening of last year, and certainly one of the restaurants I got asked to review most often. Not only that, but it also probably received more buzz online in the last couple of months of 2019 than anywhere else: everywhere I looked, on Twitter and Instagram, I saw people raving about the food, be it brunch or dinner. It’s no-reservations, and I heard frequent reports that it could be difficult to get a table there; the first few months are often incredibly difficult for a new restaurant, but Vegivores clearly got off to a flying start.

The buzz makes perfect sense to me. Vegivores is a proper success story – a journey (so sorry for using that word) from serving street food at Reading’s markets, every Wednesday and Friday in all weathers, to taking on permanent residence in Caversham’s precinct. That they’ve opened their plant-based restaurant next to gammon specialists the Caversham Butcher gives me enormous pleasure, even if I’m not sure whether it’s a happy coincidence or good old-fashioned epic trolling (I always get in trouble for talking about politics or Caversham, so let’s leave it at that).

And then, of course, there’s the meat-free factor: Vegivores is one of Reading’s only entirely meat free restaurants – along with Bhel Puri House and the Global Café – and that’s a sizeable market with very few players in it. It’s entirely a coincidence that I happened to review them in a month when many people are choosing to go vegetarian or vegan, but I’m sure many people doing that would have actively considered a visit to Vegivores.

I can imagine there would be many more natural people to review Vegivores than me. A proper vegetarian or vegan, for a start: I’ve never made a secret of being a meat-loving omnivore, and although I’ve been known to order meat-free starters it’s very rare for me to pick a vegetarian main course. I went through a phase a few years ago of deliberately ordering a vegetarian main course once a month when on duty, and although it definitely exposed the paucity of options for vegetarians and vegans it didn’t leave me itching to make changes to my diet. Nonetheless, I headed over to Caversham on a wet and miserable weekday evening with my other half Zoë to see whether Vegivores would change my mind about plant-based food.

The room was long, thin and nicely done – pretty intimate, with the counter and the open kitchen down one side and the tables along the other. There was plenty of tasteful almost-Scandi bare wood, although the chairs and the wooden banquette weren’t the comfiest. I liked it, even so – it probably had about 30 covers, so I can see it could easily fill up, and even on a truly dismal evening the place was about half-full. It was also nice to have a view of the kitchen, and the pass is under very fetching spotlights which means you can see other people’s food about to to be taken to their tables (and adjust your own order accordingly to have what they’re having).

The evening menu was nicely compact, with a small selection of starters and nibbles (most around the six or seven pound mark) and eight main courses, with an additional special on the night we visited. There was a bit of duplication – a couple of the starters appeared as larger versions in the main courses – but even so I felt like it was a decent range and I easily could have ordered numerous dishes in both sections. If you’re used to being confined to the one token plant-based dish on the menu in restaurants, seeing this might well make you drop to your knees and weep salty tears of gratitude.

The menu doesn’t specifically list items as vegetarian or vegan, and Vegivores’ website doesn’t use either V word, so it wasn’t entirely clear to me whether the yoghurt, mayonnnaise, ice cream and so on were vegan, although I assumed they were. It was a good drinks list, too – wines were all organic, there were some excellent bottled beers and ciders (most either organic or local or both) and a couple of local beers on draft. I had a Santo by Siren Craft – priced at three ninety-five for two thirds of a pint – and Zoë had a bottle of alcohol-free Riedenburger. It didn’t make her feel any happier about being on antibiotics.

Zoë and I both picked starters which could also be ordered as mains, to try and give a better view of the full range of the menu. Mine was the “fishless cakes”, a vegan take on fishcakes with smoked tofu instead of cod or haddock, and some nori to boot. The presentation was attractive, with the three cakes bookended with lemon slices and topped with what was meant to be caper salsa but contained a grand total (I counted: I’m sad like that) of one caper.

As a dish I found it problematic – the taste was pleasant, although the smoke didn’t come through strongly, but the texture let it down. It was so crumbly that it didn’t hold together at all, and that lack of structure meant it didn’t feel like either a fishcake or a potato cake, instead being strangely mealy. I very much liked the dill mayo, which had a sharp taste reminiscent of salad cream, and I would have liked more capers to add acidity.

Zoe’s dish had similar challenges. Tofu skewers came with a ramekin of satay sauce, and although the satay itself was delicious with plenty of depth and complexity the tofu needed more by way of texture, even if it was going to inevitably lack flavour of itself. Interestingly, if you order this as a main course the skewers come covered in the sauce: that might be a better way to serve the starter. Zoë’s favourite bit of the starter was the pickled ginger cabbage which came with it, and I agreed – it suggested the kitchen’s strengths might lie with plants rather than meat substitutes.

I think I would have been disappointed by either of those dishes as a main course, which is why I was so relieved that our main courses, when they arrived, stepped things up considerably.

I had changed my order after seeing the barbecue jackfruit burger up at the pass, and it was a very interesting dish. I’d managed to make it to 2020 without ever eating jackfruit (although I’ve heard it described as the vegan answer to pulled pork many times) and it’s definitely an ingenious substitute. I enjoyed its fibrous texture, married with a slightly-sour barbecue sauce, and it played perfectly against the smashed avocado underneath. But, as with the fishless cake, it didn’t quite hold together as a patty which made for an even messier, sloppier experience than, say, an Honest burger. I liked the creole slaw it came with, dry and mayo-free with a faint hint of something like chipotle, but I wasn’t convinced by the herby potatoes where the texture hinted of being pan-fried without enough oil to properly bring them to life.

Zoë on the other hand adored her main – makhanwala, a vegetable curry with salad, chutney, yoghurt and rice. I only got a forkful but I tended to think she had ordered better than me: it had heat and plenty of depth, the cauliflower was terrific and had a little bite and the decision to use brown rather than white rice made the whole thing substantial, warming and hugely comforting. It was a wonderful thing to eat as the rain lashed the precinct outside and, crucially, it was the only savoury course that didn’t make me slightly miss meat. Zoë also ordered (but didn’t really need) a side order of bread: the four slices felt a little unspecial for £2.50 and I’ll take a lot of convincing that there’s a satisfactory vegan alternative to butter.

The dessert menu was pretty compact, but we both managed to find something on it to order. My melon and prosecco sorbet was a clever idea and beautifully presented with berries, mint and edible flowers, and it tasted fresh and clean. I would have liked the prosecco to come through more, but the real issue was the texture, with big ice crystals in each scoop. I liked it, but I’m not sure I six pounds liked it. Vegivores has a pretty decent selection of dessert wines, so I had my sorbet with a glass of golden passito: it could have been lovely, but it needed to be served chilled. I didn’t mention that at the time because I didn’t think they could have fixed it, and I’d rather have slightly cold dessert wine than no dessert wine at all – in any case, the sorbet was quite cold enough to make up for it.

Zoë was far happier with her brownie with vanilla ice cream. I know there’s some debate about whether brownies belong on a dessert menu (I have a friend who likes to say it’s not a dessert, it’s a cake: it’s a hill he’d gladly die on). That philosophical debate aside, I also thought the brownie was decent but – again – texture was an issue. It tasted good, but was crumblier than a truly great brownie should be. I didn’t know whether the ice cream was vegan or not – that cryptic menu again – but it was possibly a good sign that I couldn’t tell.

Service was excellent all evening – engaged, friendly, interested and clearly passionate about Vegivores. Our server had been working there since it opened in October and she was obviously very proud of what they’d achieved in a short space of time. Our meal for two – three courses and a couple of drinks each – came to seventy-two pounds, not including tip: decent value, overall.

Writing restaurant reviews is a funny thing: the act of mentally digesting your meal can carry on long after you’ve left the place. Sometimes the passage of time makes you appreciate just how good a meal was, sometimes the initial enthusiasm fades away and distance removes enchantment. In the case of Vegivores I thought about it far longer than I normally do, because it involved considering other angles: should I be comparing it with other plant-based food, or with everything I’ve eaten? Did it have to be “good for vegan” or good full stop?

I got assistance from an unlikely source. Vegivores’ co-owner Kevin Farrell was interviewed in November by the excellent Bloody Vegans Podcast (even if you’re not a vegan it’s worth checking out their interview with Tom Bursnall, the owner of Miami Burger: eye-opening doesn’t begin to do it justice) and listening to the interview helped enormously when trying to decide how to approach Vegivores.

In it, Kevin said that not using the V word was a deliberate choice because of the connotations often attached to that word (only last year the Guardian of all places published an article simply entitled “Why do people hate vegans?”). So although everything is suitable for vegans – vegan mayo, vegan yoghurt, vegan ice cream, oat milk as the default in all hot drinks – that explained why the menu didn’t expressly say so. I sort of understand the reasoning, but I still think it wouldn’t do any harm to be clearer.

He also said that he wanted not only to offer an entirely plant-based menu but to show that eating a plant-based diet could be healthy as well as tasty (no doubt with other restaurants like Miami Burger in mind). So, for instance, Vegivores is proud of not deep-frying anything. Again, it makes perfect sense, but it also might explain why my fishless cakes lacked a bit of structure and my herby potatoes were a tad wan.

But the thing that struck home most was Kevin saying that the restaurant gets, and is keen to attract, an omnivore clientele as well – so not just vegans and friends of vegans but presumably people who are considering a vegan lifestyle or simply want to cut down their meat consumption, whether that’s for environmental reasons, health reasons or of course unease about the way animals are treated.

That’s the point where I realised that rating them as a vegan restaurant, rather than a restaurant pure and simple, was missing the point. Patronising, too: I remember many years back when I reviewed Nibsy’s tying myself in knots deciding whether to talk about gluten. I admire Vegivores for wanting to be thought of as a restaurant that happens to be vegan (although they would no doubt use a different term) rather than a vegan restaurant, with the many associations attached to that phrase.

So did Vegivores do enough to convert this omnivore? Not quite, I think. Much of the time they were close on flavour, and I do think it’s impressive to offer a vegan mayonnaise or vegan ice cream which don’t feel like they involve any compromises. But food is also about texture, and that’s where I felt Vegivores fell down somewhat, whether it was crumbly fishcakes, that brownie, or jackfruit that didn’t really hold together. It still felt to me like something was missing and – with the exception of the vegetable curry, probably the most conventional and “authentic” dish we tried – none of it was quite powerful enough to make me feel like constraining my choice by eating there.

You may well disregard this as the preconceptions of an omnivore who is too much of a carnivore to be completely open-minded. Perhaps that’s true, but at least I acknowledge that possibility. Many people whose opinions I respect love Vegivores – Zoë enjoyed her meal far more than I did, for instance – so I may have to accept that this is one occasion where I just don’t quite get it. I love their story, I admire what they’re trying to build but it’s difficult for me to envisage an occasion when Vegivores would be my first choice. Not that it matters: there’s huge integrity to what they’re doing and I’m sure they will do extremely well.

I will say this, though – whether or not I fully appreciated Vegivores, they are one of the most significant restaurants to open in Reading for a very long time. It’s a clear statement of intent to every restaurant – in Caversham and in the rest of Reading – that pays lip service to meat-free food just for the sake of having an item on the menu, or to exploit the vegan pound. Vegivores is coming for those restaurants: if they carry on doing that, Vegivores will take their customers and their business and go from strength to strength. Even though they weren’t quite my cup of tea, they’ll absolutely deserve to.

Vegivores – 7.1
41 Church Street, RG4 8BA
0118 9472181

https://www.wearevegivores.com

The Last Crumb

Reading’s pub scene has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in the second half of 2019, despite pubs closing day in day out all over the country. The Lyndhurst reopened under new management and is now dishing up some really impressive food: last week I went there and had saddle of rabbit, stuffed with chicken liver and wrapped in Parma ham, up there with any rabbit dish I’ve had in Bologna. Then the Retreat was saved from an uncertain fate by a buy-out and is going from strength to strength with a new wine list, a far bigger presence online and, thankfully, the magnificent Brian still behind the bar.

That’s all well and good, but when the pub in question undergoes a more dramatic makeover people can be a little sniffier. The Eldon Arms closed and reopened in September as the Weather Station, with a few locals lamenting the loss of the name. I’ve been a few times since the reincarnation and it does some interesting beers, although sitting on a hard stool and using a barrel for a table is maybe designed for customers far younger and cooler than me: I soon found myself longing for a proper seat, which is around the point where I sloped off to the Retreat.

Finally, Caversham’s Prince Of Wales, at the top of Prospect Street, was acquired by Dodo Pubs who have spent a fair bit of time and money rebranding it as the Last Crumb. This provoked more complaints about losing the name, which I found harder to understand: surely there are quite enough pubs around the country called the Prince Of Wales? (I bet nobody would have objected it had been called the Duke Of York). Anyway, it’s not as if the people up in arms had frequented the pub back when it was the Prince Of Wales – everything I’d ever heard about the place suggested you wouldn’t go in unless you were up to date on your tetanus jabs.

I was delighted by the news that Dodo Pubs had taken on the Prince Of Wales, because I’ve always been a fan of the Rickety Press, their outpost in north Oxford’s Jericho – a lovely pub that does a good range of beers and ciders and very credible pizzas and burgers. When my Canadian family came to visit the U.K. earlier in the year and we went for a day trip to Oxford, I booked us in to the Rickety Press knowing it would suit everyone – craft enough for my twentysomething cousin and unpretentious enough for my 80 year old uncle. We had a lovely meal there, and I found myself wishing there was somewhere similar in Reading. And then my wish was granted, so my other half Zoë and I headed over on a weekday night to see whether the Last Crumb lived up to the promise of its sibling.

The inside is rather “2019 pub by numbers”, but not so terrible for all that. Yes, the walls are all a modish blue-grey and there are pointless bookshelves and objets everyway, but the flooring is lovely, the bare brick behind the bar equally so and at least it isn’t architectural carnage like, say, the interior of the Market House.

It’s divided up into rooms and those closest to the front of the pub are more conventional – banquette seating along one side, decent-sized tables and booths (I didn’t sit in that bit, mainly on account of it being colder than Priti Patel). The room nearest to the kitchen, incongruously, had round chrome-trimmed tables which were more reminiscent of a Fifties diner. And then there was the bigger room nearer to the bar, where you had a choice of perching on high chair at a high table or sitting on a minuscule chair at a long, low table probably intended to be communal. A bit like the Weather Station in that I took my seat thinking, deep down, that I was just a little too old for that kind of thing.

I’m not going to go into detail about the booze, but the selection looked decent to me. Dodo has its own lager and stout, and also serves Cotswold lager, Stowford Press and a small but reasonable range of craft. Of the fourteen beers and ciders on offer, only three crossed the five pound a pint Rubicon. I had a pint of Stowford Press, although I regretted not spotting the Cotswold Cider Company’s Yellow Hammer up on the board: next time, perhaps. Zoë, uncharacteristically, had a virgin mojito which was very nice, if more expensive than the cider.

Anyway, back to the food. The menu – sensibly I think – is quite limited, so you had a choice largely of pizzas or burgers, with a few salads tacked on the end and a handful of sides (there’s also a brunch menu, if you’re there that time of day). They’ve taken care to have a vegetarian and a vegan option on both sides of the menu, too, although I wasn’t sure how the “Leaf Not Beef” was truly vegan with smoked cheese on it. Some of the names should never have got out of the committee stage, either: I’m thinking especially of Coldplay tribute “Viva La Vegan” and the truly painful “Salami Get This Straight”. Not the worst I’ve ever heard – I used to frequent a sandwich shop in Oxford’s Covered Market which served something called “Yes Sir, Cheese My Baby” – but close enough.

Our order came out quicker than I would have liked, and with no starters or desserts on the menu we tried our best to cover a full range of the menu. The most successful thing was Zoë’s burger – the Moo & Blue special (Pie Minister should sue them for breach of copyright). It was good enough that I was only allowed a bite, but that bite was quite enough to make me wish I’d ordered one.

The patty was lovely, dense but not too dense with no mealiness or crumbliness (the menu says you can choose between well-done and pink: this was probably somewhere between the two). It was sensibly sized, i.e. you could pick it up and eat it without unhooking your jaw. But what really made it was the punch of Gorgonzola, a brilliant cheese to pair with this bringing plenty of salt and tang. The bun – a brioche, of course – was toasted and had enough structure to hold the whole thing together. One of the best burgers I’ve had in Reading outside Honest Burgers but also, at ten pounds fifty for the burger alone, more expensive.

You pay extra for the fries, so we shared a portion of cheese and truffle fries for four pounds seventy-five (sorry, I must stop listing the price of every dish, it’s a very Get Reading thing to do). They were served, as is the fashion, in a receptacle not quite big enough and I think Zoë liked them more than I did. Truffle oil is always a cheap way to add to the price of the dish and although I liked the cheese (allegedly fontina) it needed more of it.

We also tried the Dodo fried chicken, partly because of the absence of starters and desserts on the menu but mainly because I struggle to resist it when I see it on a menu. I’d had it before at the Rickety Press, where I enjoyed it very much, but this wasn’t pulled off with quite the same skill. The coating was tough and hard on the teeth, nice though the spicing was, and the meat – thigh rather than breast – had a little more give than I’d have liked. I wouldn’t say they were hipster Turkey Twizzlers, but I would say they were closer to that than they should have been. Again, Zoë liked them more than I did, so perhaps I was being especially fussy that evening.

My pizza managed simultaneously to be delightful and disappointing. I’d chosen the “chorizo piccante”, looking to compare it to Franco Manca’s very successful chorizo pizza. And it won out on so many levels – the shape was pleasingly irregular and there was a little leopard-spotting on the crust. The meat was good quality too – thin slices of chorizo and little blobs of something the menu just calls “soft spicy Brindisa” (there’s a word missing, but at a guess it was sobrasada). But what really picked it up was the bite added by a generous helping of pickled red chillies, lending the sharpness and fire it needed. So why disappointing? The decision to serve it on a thin steel plate like a bin lid meant that the whole thing was pretty much stone cold by the time I reached the halfway mark. Papa Gee, you can safely say, wouldn’t make a mistake like that.

Service, as so often the case when you order at the bar, was perfectly friendly but limited. I did notice staff loitering near the front door and greeting customers as they came in, which worked nicely, but there’s only so much you can say about service in a place like the Last Crumb. Our meal – a pizza, a burger, fries, fried chicken and a couple of drinks – came to forty-two pounds, not including tip. Not bad, all told, and not too expensive.

Despite the slight tone of grumpiness I detect reading back over those paragraphs, I did rather like the Last Crumb. It’s sensibly chosen to only do a few things and do them well, and on that basis it largely succeeds. But, and it’s a reasonably big but, it doesn’t do them so superbly that it becomes a destination of itself. If it was round the corner from me, I would be there pretty often, but on that side of the river (and right at the edge of the centre of Caversham at that) it feels just a little too far to go for such a quick and limited meal. That might change in the summer, when they make the most of their fabulous outside space and you could happily have a long weekend session there, but in the meantime it feels like a place largely for locals. That said, they’re lucky to have it and it fills a gap nicely – and with its five pound cheeseburgers on Monday and happy hours during the week Caversham residents will find plenty to enjoy.

That said, I kept my eyes peeled at the end of the evening as our taxi headed home down Prospect Street and Gosbrook Road. With the notable exception of Quattro, every pub and restaurant looked to be having an eerily quiet Wednesday night; every window was a little vignette, Caversham as reimagined by Edward Hopper. By contrast, the Last Crumb had been pretty much jumping throughout my visit. It might be a Dodo pub, but it’s not at risk of extinction any time soon.

The Last Crumb – 7.4
76 Prospect Street, RG4 8JN
0118 9470749

https://dodopubs.com/locations/the-last-crumb/

Tutu’s Ethiopian Table

In the normal course of events, I never re-review restaurants. It’s a shame, really – restaurants can go through bad or purple patches just like the rest of us – but I’ve always treated my visit as a single snapshot, taken at that moment in time, a faithful record of what it was like to eat there that night and order those things. The further into the future you go, inevitably, the more an element of doubt creeps in that the review is an accurate guide to what your lunch or dinner there might be like.

That said, I’ve reviewed many restaurants which occupy the site of restaurants past: some locations in Reading may not exactly be cursed, but they’re definitely on some rather unfortunate ley lines. So for instance I reviewed the Warwick, at the bottom of the Kings Road and then it became Bali Lounge. Then it turned into the Biscuit & Barrel – I skipped that one – then new Indian restaurant Cardamom. I was all poised to review that one when it closed again, and at some point it plans to reopen as King’s Kitchen. Maybe this time it will trade long enough for me to pay it a visit.

The ultimate problematic location might well be the spot at the bottom of the Caversham Road occupied – at the time of writing, anyway – by Cozze, which I reviewed recently. It used to be a splendid Chinese restaurant called Chi’s Oriental Brasserie, then Chi closed and it was replaced by a Mediterranean place called La Fontana. They moved out into the shires – Twyford or Pangbourne, I forget – and then we got El Tarboush, Reading’s first Lebanese place. When it closed it became Casa Roma (I never reviewed that either) and then they got bored slash desperate and decided to morph into a Mexican restaurant called Las Maracas: same owners, but now with added sombreros! I never went – something about a menu which advertised “jalapeno chilli poopers” didn’t appeal – and I wasn’t surprised when it closed and reopened as Cozze.

Pubs present more of a challenge. They come under new ownership, their menu and their attitude to food can change, but the name often remains the same (or until recently, when the Eldon Arms became the Weather Station and Caversham’s Prince Of Wales rebranded as the Last Crumb). I’ve reviewed the Lyndhurst three times in four years, and I could as easily have done the same with the Fisherman’s Cottage. It’s easier to stay on top of this in town, where I’m more likely to get wind of any changes, but out in Berkshire and Oxfordshire? Your guess is probably better than mine.

Judging an establishment on a single visit is always a gamble. It’s lovely when people contact me on Twitter and say “I went there and it was just as you said it would be”, but I’m not naive enough to think that happens all the time. I’ve had a few visits where I wasn’t too impressed only to find, over the subsequent months and years, that my initial opinion was a little harsh: Sapana Home, for example, or Kokoro. Restaurants have an identity of their own, just like people, and – also just like people – sometimes they make an unfortunate first impression and then grow on you. And, of course, sometimes you just get it wrong.

This week’s review is about as close to a re-review as you can get: Tutu Melaku operated her Ethiopian restaurant at the Global Café for over ten years, being mentioned in the Guardian, winning awards and being widely fêted: it was very much a trailblazer, back when distinctive restaurants in Reading were few and far between. Then, early this year, there was a parting of the ways. Tutu’s Ethiopian Table moved to Palmer Park, to operate out of Palmer Park Lodge, the building which used to be the Chalkboard Café, and the Global Café took on a new chef and started offering a vegetarian and vegan menu.

I reviewed Tutu’s at the Global Café nearly five years ago, and it’s safe to say I was baffled by it. I wasn’t sure where its reputation had come from, or whether it was trading on past glories. But the move looked like an interesting one, and the Instagram feed painted a picture of a happy, vibrant community café, so it felt like time to give it a try in its new home. My other half Zoë and I paid it a visit on a weekday night, leaving the comforting hum of the Wokingham Road traffic behind us as we turned off into Palmer Park. The fairy lights in the window gave the building a welcoming glow, and just beyond it I could see more active people than me playing tennis, making the most of the last of the autumn daylight.

Inside, the place was quite lovely. It’s made up of two biggish rooms, with a beautiful tiled floor, big windows and boldly-coloured walls, all deep blues and burnt oranges. There was plenty of art and a piano in the corner (a sign said not to play it or use it as a table: they have music nights, so I’m sure it sees action then). Picture frames on top of the piano showed off all of Tutu’s awards, including a picture of her with Chris Tarrant – an occupational hazard, I imagine, of attending the Pride Of Reading Awards. A piece of art on the wall gave the history: parts of the building dated from 1891, and the original fireplaces were still present and correct. We sat in the bigger of the two rooms, conscious of being the only customers in it, and listening to the hubbub from the other room.

You order at the counter, and the Ethiopian menu is far more compact than it used to be at the Global Café. You pick three from four of the dishes on offer – one meat, three vegetarian – and pair them with rice or injera, a slightly-sour Ethiopian pancake. It’s ten pounds if you go for all the vegetarian options, and eleven if you have meat. We were greeted by Tutu, who was friendly and welcoming and talked us through everything. She also showed me both Ethiopian beers they do – I went for the superbly named Cold Gold by Habesha, which was very nice indeed.

The food all comes at once, and between us we tried all of the options on offer. You get little steel dishes filled with each of the things you’ve chosen, and although they looked a little small it all added up to a nicely filling meal. The chicken – doro wot, I think it’s called – was very tasty, with a deep, savoury sauce with a spice which gradually made its presence felt. At Tutu’s previous restaurant, you got a single piece of chicken on the bone. Here it was boneless and tender – I would have liked a little more of it, but I was very happy with what there was. The lentils (misr wot) were also really good, a beautifully earthy dish with its own subtly building heat. This felt like the perfect food for the months ahead.

I felt a little dubious about Tutu’s vegetable dishes when I visited her last restaurant. These, although still not perfect, felt a lot better. The cabbage had a good, almost vinegary tang to it and I detected, possibly wrongly, a hint of mustard in it. The carrots and green beans still weren’t to my taste, with a softness that felt more like tinned than fresh veg, but again they went nicely enough with the sauce from the other dishes. Another dish which had improved significantly compared to my last visit was the rice – at the Global Café it was claggy and felt like it had tinned vegetables in it, but this was a pleasing yellow rice which worked perfectly with both the chicken and the lentils. There wasn’t quite enough rice, but we asked for more and Tutu was more than happy to oblige.

At the risk of (a) adding insult to injera and (b) using one of the worst puns this blog has ever seen, the Ethiopian pancake was not for me. It looked and felt like a very wide, flat crumpet, and the vinegary note in it wasn’t unpleasant, but it was cold when I expected it to be hot and it was so floppy that it didn’t really work as a vehicle for sauce or for eating with your hands the way I expected it to. I imagine it has its fans, but I struggled to number myself among them. I bet Chris Tarrant thinks it’s magnificent, mind you (he probably would have loved the Ethiopian lager too, come to think of it). Anyway, there’s always the rice. Tutu’s Ethiopian Kitchen doesn’t really offer starters or desserts, and we paid at the counter: dinner for two, with a beer and a can of soft drink came to twenty-seven pounds forty.

I’m not sure there’s much more to say about Tutu’s Ethiopian Kitchen, but I need to try and capture the thing about it which led to the rating you’ll see when you scroll down. Some restaurants are more than the sum of their parts – they just have something indefinable that makes you root for them. And Tutu’s Ethiopian Kitchen has that – it has warmth, it’s genuine, and it wins you over straight away. I’ve eaten better food, but the night I visited it was exactly what I wanted, exactly how I wanted it. The welcome was lovely, it’s a beautiful room and something about it just worked. Sitting at our table, seeing that bustle in the open kitchen (it was just Tutu and another member of staff in there) I felt like all was well with the world.

Maybe I was wrong five years ago, or perhaps I caught Tutu’s Ethiopian Kitchen on an off night back then. They might have changed how they do things, to adjust to a different kitchen. At the end of the day, I’m not sure it really matters. But one way or another it’s lovely to be reminded, when you feel like you have everything figured out, that the world never quite loses its ability to surprise.

Tutu’s Ethiopian Table – 7.3
Palmer Park Lodge, Palmer Park Avenue, RG6 1LF
0118 9663938

https://www.facebook.com/tutusethiopiantablepalmerpark/

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. (N.B. Following this review Kungfu Kitchen has updated its website with a full menu – the link is at the end of this review – and has become much more active on Twitter.) 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://kungfureading.co.uk