Brebis, Newbury

Brebis closed in July 2016. The owners are starting a new project, Nomadic Restaurant, and in time the restaurant will be taken over by a new owner, chef and team. I’ve left this review up for posterity.

Let’s cut to the chase: Brebis is really, really good and you should go there.

It’s nice to have that out of the way. On with the review!

Brebis appeared on my radar a little while ago, though I can’t quite remember how. When I checked out the website, it looked like the real deal – a little unfussy French restaurant that just happened to be slap bang in the middle of Newbury. Now, I haven’t been to Newbury before on duty but after last week’s lukewarm review of a town centre bistro I decided to go double or quits and troll out to West Berkshire, an area I’ve previously rather neglected on the blog.

In my defence it’s been a long time since I’ve been to Newbury (years, I’d say) and I didn’t have fond memories of it; I remembered it, unfairly I’m sure, as a lacklustre market town with little to offer that Reading didn’t have. Well, I was plain wrong (and you can take that to the bank). I had a lovely excursion there of a weekend – it has a decent market (I very much enjoyed the fresh bread I bought), an irascible butcher (sausages for my dinner the following night) and a truly magnificent wine and beer shop that had a selection of gin (Japanese? Colombian? Welsh?) that knocked my socks off. I returned with groaning bags. But, more to the point, it also has an outstanding French restaurant that dished up one of the best meals I’ve had this year.

Brebis is in a pedestrianised bit of Newbury – it’s in an old house but, regrettably, with an unlovely view of the side of the Kennet Centre (think Broad Street Mall, not Oracle). Not terribly scenic but no matter, as the inside is a different affair. The walls are white with the occasional blackboard, the floor is stripped back to boards, the lampshades are all industrial without being faddy and the generously sized tables are smart rustic, with comfy chairs and really good quality linen napkins. Even the cutlery was reminiscent of Parisian restaurants I have known and loved (and there have been a few). So far so chic.

The greeting at the door was incredibly welcoming. We got in without a reservation and were shown to a table in the window and given a brief explanation of the menu (all on chalkboards, because Brebis is trialling the restaurant equivalent of the paperless office). This involved a good nosey around and some really tricky choices. During the day Brebis offers a prix fixe menu, offering a choice of two courses for just under twenty pounds or three for twenty-three. Only a couple of options for each course, and nothing I could see for vegetarians, but there was also a much bigger a la carte menu which repeated some of the prix fixe options. Starters on the a la carte were about eight pounds and mains around eighteen, and a suggested wine pairing was listed with every course, something I didn’t fully appreciate until later.

Fortunately for us, all of the dishes we fancied from the a la carte were also on the prix fixe, so I felt especially pleased as we made our choices, sipped our wine and looked out the window at the passers by (enjoying the “I’m inside having a lovely lunch and you’re not” feeling). They even played Edith Piaf on the Bose sound dock by the door. Really, it was almost too perfect. And before we even got to the starters there was an amuse bouche of beetroot crème fraîche on a wafer thin crouton, with a nasturtium petal on top. It was as tasty as it was pretty, the slightly sweet crouton combining beautifully with the crème fraîche. I’m never sure about edible flowers – they make me feel a bit like Ermintrude from The Magic Roundabout – but they definitely didn’t detract.

BrebisAmuse

The first real glimmers of greatness came with the arrival of the starters, because it was around then that I started to think that everything was going to be quite a lot more than all right. Duck liver and foie gras parfait came with a decent wodge of home made baguette and courgette chutney. Goodness, it was marvellous stuff: rich, smooth and earthy, cool enough to keep its shape but easily spread on the gorgeous bread. And the bread! Crusty and chewy but with that spongey middle, a texture that the French take for granted in their Government-regulated ninety-five cent loaves but which you can’t find here for love nor money. The courgette chutney was spiced with a slight hint of curry which made it seem almost mango-flavoured, and although I liked it, it felt a bit unnecessary. But that’s by the by: I order foie gras and chicken liver parfait quite often, and I nearly didn’t order it here because I wondered if it would be a good test of the kitchen, but this was one of my starters of the year. Even the little touches – a few little flakes of salt on top of the parfait – were right on the money.

BrebisParfait

The other starter was also top-notch: a hefty helping of jambon de bayonne with a pile of celeriac remoulade in the middle. Really, the ingredients did all the work: the ham was terrific, every bit as savoury, coarse-textured and intense as its Italian or Spanish cousins. The celeriac remoulade, everyone’s favourite upmarket coleslaw, was an elegant balance of creamy and crunchy. And one final touch – the tiniest dabs of truffle oil, glistening on the ham. I’ve never had this with charcuterie before, and I’d normally be sceptical, but used sparingly it topped the dish off without overpowering it. A simple, perfect classic.

BrebisHam

When the mains arrived I wasn’t sure which of us had picked better. I’m running out of superlatives already, but butter poached hake with purple potatoes and roast lemon purée was flawless. The chunky piece of hake was cooked through but beautifully moist from being poached (I daren’t think what butter poaching entails, although I have a vague idea: fortunately all meals I eat when reviewing are calorie free). Under that was a disc of crushed potatoes, some purple and some white, all very buttery and just the right texture – yielding but not super soft. On the side was a smear of lemon purée, rich and creamy with a hint of sharpness which was simply beautiful with the fish. I can’t remember when I have eaten something so delicate and harmonious this year, let alone on a set menu. Sometimes on a set menu you can get quite prosaic dishes, but this both looked and tasted dazzling, colour and flavour completely in step.

BrebisHake

The other main was definitely more the stuff of a prix fixe. Confit duck is beginning to get a bit done to death (partly, I suspect, because pubs and restaurants appreciate that it’s quite an easy thing to churn out) but by this stage I was more relaxed because I had a feeling Brebis might do a definitive version. And they pretty much did. The duck was just magnificent – lots of tender meat underneath, parted from the bone with no effort at all, but more importantly on top the crispy, salty skin breaking into delicious shards. The pomme purée it was served on was a fantastic mash, firm rather than gloopy, with thyme and little strands of bacon running through it. The jus was tasty, although I’d personally have liked a little more of it. Finally the only misfire possibly of the whole meal – some distinctly odd batons of beetroot which, for me, just didn’t go. Personally, I’d rather have had something hot and cooked rather than cold and crunchy, though of course, I still ate it.

BrebisDuck

The set menu has a fantastic wine offer – a half litre carafe for the bargain price of nine quid – but instead we went for a bottle of Lirac, a soft, fairly light Rhone Valley red that was a bit of a compromise solution given the two main courses. Even so it was cracking, eminently drinkable and decent value at just over thirty pounds. The wine list at Brebis is all French and everything except the very top end is available by the glass (with the cheapest 125ml wine by the glass at around three quid). I didn’t realise that, or that the way glasses are priced means that it’s just as economical to drink glasses as it is to order a bottle. Still, it’s a lesson learned for next time and there are worse things in life than having a gorgeous red with lunch.

After two excellent courses it would have been a crime not to have dessert. But then we couldn’t decide between the cheeseboard (yes, another cheeseboard) and the dessert menu. So in the end we had a cheeseboard to share followed by dessert. Yes, I know: this is bad and wrong and I certainly wouldn’t expect you to behave so terribly, but I rarely get to eat this well on duty so I went for it.

The holy trinity of local cheeses – Wigmore, Spenwood and Barkham Blue – were all present and correct, along with Woolsery (a Dorset hard goat’s cheese) and, because Brebis is French, after all, some Roquefort. Again, simplicity was key – no overcomplicating apple, celery or walnuts, just good cheeses, a pyramid of slices of the beautiful baguette from before, more courgette chutney and some room temperature butter. I scored it, I’m afraid, as France 1, Berkshire 0: Barkham Blue is one of my favourite cheeses but I think on this occasion the Roquefort just had the edge, being riper, softer and saltier. The cheeses were served cool but not chilled and the Wigmore was ripe enough to making a break for it across the plate. It all went terribly well with a glass of Muscat de Rivesaltes – red, unusually, rather than white, lightly chilled, with a beautiful raisiny flavour, a great foil for the saltier cheeses. All that for eight pounds fifty: miles better, and miles better value, than any other cheeseboard I’ve had this year.

BrebisCheese

The desserts are, thankfully, quite small and chilled (I think a sticky toffee pudding or anything with custard would have killed me at this stage). Green apple bavarois (I had to Google it before ordering, to my shame and even then it wasn’t quite what I was expecting) was a lot easier to eat than it was to pronounce: it was a big quenelle of something halfway between a fool and a mousse. The apple was quite a light, refreshing flavour, which saved it from heaviness. Big chunks of honeycomb added some texture and there was a zigzag of blackberry gel underneath (which wasn’t really needed, if I’m honest, but it did look nice). Delicious, simple, clever: bit of a theme emerging, isn’t there?

BrebisBava

Iced nougat parfait was a lovely way to finish. A small slice of the parfait, with a honeyed taste to it, studded through with fruit and nuts – cold, fresh and clean but with just the right sweetness and texture. Again, there was lots of the blackberry gel on this one – and it was beautifully plated, such a simple, pretty dish – but it felt like it was more of a match with than with the bavarois. In truth it meant the two desserts we ordered were pretty similar and, in honesty, the bavarois was probably a better choice. But the worst of the two desserts here was still better than most desserts I’ve eaten this year, and it cost just over five pounds. We managed to squeeze in a glass of sticky, fragrant Cadillac with the dessert; by this point it seemed pointless to deny anything, being slightly squiffy with happiness.

BrebisDessert

Service was a one man job, namely one man doing a brilliant job. He was charming, chatty and enthusiastic throughout, knew his way round the dishes and the wines, brimmed with passion and was delighted to get good feedback. He was just as charming at the other tables and showed a real interest in his customer (some of our fellow diners were celebrating their anniversary: one of them definitely deserves some brownie points for the choice of venue). There was no superfluous topping up of wine glasses – a real bugbear of mine at the high end – everything was laid back and unfussily spectacular.

Our total bill, for three courses each, a cheeseboard to share, a bottle of wine and two glasses of dessert wine each (it sounds even worse when I put it like that) was just short of one hundred and twenty pounds, not including service. You could, in fairness, spend a lot less: if you didn’t get as carried away as I did, came here on the prix fixe and shared the set wine you could have a meal for two for about half that price. But I have no regrets: this has been one of my meals of the year, and it justifies all those times in 2015 when I’ve drizzled away money on mediocre food, underwhelming wine, indifferent service. Also, did I mention the Edith Piaf?

Normally I don’t talk about the ratings in my reviews, but this time I have to make an exception because, as you’ve probably already seen, this one breaks new ground. When I look at all the places I’ve given good ratings to over the last two years, fantastic though they are there’s always been something missing. The furniture’s a little uncomfortable, the wine selection is a bit uninspiring, the service just a tad too rushed. Or there’s one course that drops the baton, leaving me thinking If only… But Brebis literally didn’t put a foot wrong, and that puts it in another class. By the end of the starter I was wondering who I could take next time. By the end of the main course I was wondering how many visits I could feasibly make to Newbury before the end of the year. By the end of dessert I was wondering why this place wasn’t full and how they would feel about being dismantled brick by brick and forcibly relocated to Reading. Until that happens I urge you to jump on a train and go there. Take someone you either really like or really want to impress, or both. I might be at the next table; my next visit is already in the calendar.

Brebis – 9.1
16 Bartholemew Street, Newbury, RG14 5LW
01635 40527

http://www.brebis.co.uk/

Valpy Street

Let’s start with the elephant (well, lobster) in the room: it would somehow be wrong of me to write a review of Valpy Street without at least a passing nod to its most (in)famous previous incarnation. Those hallowed halls were the location where I ate the worst meal I’ve reviewed so far and, I think, an indication of how far the spot had fallen since its earlier success – still discussed fondly by many Reading residents – as Chronicles. Indeed, the new owner is in fact the old owner; fed up of seeing the site go through one sad iteration after another he decided to come back and reinvigorate the handsome basement rooms (the story goes that the last straw was an application to turn the premises into a lapdancing club).

It looks so nice now that I didn’t even suffer any flashbacks. The upstairs – a grotty sandwich bar back when this was Valentino’s – is now a little bar area looking out onto the street. But really, it’s all about the downstairs: there’s something about a cellar restaurant, especially with winter on the way, that feels somehow snug and exclusive and they’ve made a really good job of doing it up (Farrow and Ball paint: check, exposed brickwork: check, tongue and groove panels: check). The furniture is attractive, the tables are a decent size and there are some nice booths along one side which adds to that feeling of cosy seclusion.

I’ve heard good things in the months since Valpy Street opened, so I was surprised to trot down the stairs on a week night to see it pretty empty, with only a few tables occupied. The menu had lots to tempt, with an interesting range of starters hovering around the seven pound mark and more conventional bistro-style main courses (lamb shank, duck breast, two types of steak) generally weighing in around fifteen pounds. Reading it, I realised that this is the kind of restaurant Reading is missing, because we don’t really have any mid-range independent bistros. You either go for much more informal, cheaper dining, you move up a price bracket to LSB or Forbury’s, or you opt for a chain. Please let this be good, I thought to myself.

Would my prayers be answered? The starters gave me my first clues. Pan fried scallops came with peas and onion, crispy chorizo and beurre noisette, a pretty classic combination. Normally they also come with soft herbs (no, I’ve no idea what that means) but I was with my coriander-phobic companion so we missed all the herbs out to ensure there was no meltdown. The scallops – three medium ones – were pretty decent, cooked in the browned butter and nicely textured so they were lightly caramelised on the outside but still yielding within. The peas and onions and chorizo reminded me a bit of petit pois a la francaise, but without the indulgent cream which always makes me feel so guilty about ordering it. They worked quite well, especially the touch of salt and warmth from the chorizo which lifted the dish pleasantly. Not the prettiest dish to look at (it all looked a bit plonked on the plate) but a good start.

ValpyScallops

The other starter was one of the most intriguing things on offer – tempura soft shell crab with an Asian influenced salad of shredded cabbage, carrot and mooli. It was the only time that the menu wandered away from its firmly European sensibilities, but it sounded so good on paper that I had to try it. Broadly speaking, it was a success. The salad was full of crunch and zest with an awful lot going on, especially with a gradually growing heat from the deep green shreds of chilli. I liked the presentation, with the toasted sesame seeds dotted round the edge of the plate.

If anything, the salad upstaged the crab sitting on top of it. I’ve always loved soft shell crab – possibly the only member of the animal kingdom that might have caused Charles Darwin the occasional moment of doubt – and this was pleasant but the batter wasn’t quite tempura, lacking the crisp lightness I was hoping for. It was also dinky almost to the point where you felt like you weren’t so much eating it as bullying it. All good, then, but possibly a touch on the nouvelle side.

ValpyCrab

You couldn’t say that about the gigantic piece of onglet which turned up when the mains arrived. I’d ordered it rare (the waitress suggested rare or medium rare) and rare it came. My mistake, to be honest: onglet can be a tad chewy and it definitely needed a bit longer. To her credit, the waitress came back to check on the food and quickly twigged that I wasn’t happy – so she sent it back for a little more time under the grill which improved matters considerably. The salad it came with was delicious, just dressed rocket and thinly sliced red onion: not something I would normally choose but which really went perfectly with the steak. The chips were thick and wedgelike, but sadly not terribly crispy.

When ordering the waitress asked what sauce I wanted (blue cheese, red wine or peppercorn) and so I also had a little copper saucepan of peppercorn sauce. This was really lovely but I didn’t find out until the bill arrived that I’d been charged nearly three quid for the privilege. Now, I don’t mind paying extra for a sauce but I definitely felt like this was a little sneaky – there was no mention of the sauce on the printed menu (there is on the website, curiously) and the waitress didn’t say that there would be a charge, so I felt a little hoodwinked. Overall it pushed the cost of the dish over the twenty pound mark, and therein lies the real problem: onglet is a cheap cut, and for that money I could have had better meat from CAU – a little less of it, maybe, but better quality and cheaper.

ValpyOnglet

Herb crusted hake was less successful. It was a pleasant – if not massive – piece of fish and the herby breadcrumbs on top of it were lovely, although I was surprised to find skin on the bottom of the fillet. But everything else didn’t quite work. It came with “bacon lardons” (are there any other kind?), little halved new potatoes, cabbage and leek and all of them were decent if inoffensive. But the herb broth, which I was hoping would bring the whole thing together, was largely a flavourless stock. More than anything else I ate that night, or anything I’ve eaten for a while, it felt like home cooking rather than restaurant cooking. If I’d eaten it at a friend’s house I’d have said nice things, but for just shy of fifteen pounds it wasn’t something I’d rave about when eating out.

ValpyHake

I can’t quite remember why we ventured onto desserts after eating so much steak, but venture on we did. Tarte tatin is one of those French classics that’s difficult enough to make at home that I’d never bother (that’s what restaurants are for). Truth be told when it arrived I wondered if the chef had ever seen one before, let alone cooked one. It was the oddest looking tarte tatin I have ever seen; eight or nine thin slivers (not slithers, for the record: why do so many restaurant reviewers get this wrong?) of unpeeled apple on a pastry base with a caramelised coating and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. If anything, my photo makes it look more generous with the apple than was actually the case. To my shame, I still ate it all because – as everyone knows – pastry plus sugar equals tasty. But it was an amateurish kind of tasty.

ValpyTarte

Valpy Street’s website says that the menu is “locally sourced where possible” – that may be true in general, but the fact that nothing local turned up on the cheeseboard made me wonder if those words were there because they thought it was what diners want to read. Having got that whinge out of the way, it was an interesting selection none the less: on paper, at least. In reality, it was perhaps slightly less so. Saint Maure de Touraine was a pretty likeable goat’s cheese, but the tommette de savoie was mild verging on apologetic, a quality it shared with the Fearn Abbey, a Scottish brie-like cheese. What the board was crying out for was some contrast – a salty, crystalline cheddar or Comte that could exfoliate the roof of your mouth – but no such luck.

Last but not least, there was Blue Monday, made by that chap out of Blur with the floppy hair. I’m more of a Graham Coxon fan myself, but to give credit where it’s due the cheese was spectacular – intense, savoury and delicious. I’m glad I ate it last, but even having it last it highlighted how bland all that came before had been. All the cheeses were maybe not as close to room temperature as they should have been (nor, now I come to think of it, was the dining room), but at least they weren’t fridge-cold. The accompaniments smacked slightly of overkill. There were a lot of crackers but no variety, so they were all sweet which didn’t really work with most of the cheeses. You also got a huge ramekin of onion chutney – far more than you could possibly eat – some celery which I suspect is left by almost everybody and some grapes. This was definitely a case where less would have been more, although I would have liked the advertised quince jelly which was nowhere to be seen.

ValpyCheese

This is all sounding rather glum, isn’t it? Perhaps I should lighten the mood by saying that service – the incident with the peppercorn sauce aside – was properly delightful from start to finish. Both waitresses were bright, personable, knowledgeable and full of opinions about the dishes. And if it didn’t always come off that felt more the kitchen’s fault than theirs. As I said, I was also impressed that they swooped in and sorted the problem with my onglet – some serving staff would ignore those vibes (the way you can never get attention when you want to pay up and scarper, for instance) but they could clearly tell I wasn’t happy and managed the situation perfectly.

Another positive: the wine list isn’t bad at all, with nothing over forty quid and plenty of interesting choices available by the glass. We tried a selection, including a really good, heady Malbec and a cracking Pic St Loup, a Languedoc red. Viognier, always a favourite of mine, was also extremely drinkable as was the cheapest white on the menu, a bright Spanish number from Extramadura. I would have had a glass of dessert wine with the tarte tatin, but they’d run out of one and the other was priced pretty aggressively for only 50ml. The LBV we ordered to accompany the cheese was nice but not surprising – maybe it would have tasted better paired with more interesting cheeses. The total bill came to ninety-one pounds, excluding tip, for three courses, two glasses of wine each plus that port. An odd experience: nothing on the menu was particularly expensive, and yet somehow that still felt a little steep.

Reading really needs a restaurant like Valpy Street. An affordable, mid-market independent bistro is very much one of the places that’s always been missing from town. And, frustratingly, they’ve got many things right – the room is lovely, the menu looks brilliant on paper and the service is spot on. The menu has some bright ideas to draw daytime trade in, too, with lunchtime “pots” for six quid and a selection of upmarket sandwiches. But the evening menu – despite some moments of promise – didn’t set my world on fire. But all is not lost, because the management has proved they can do this. The menu has already changed substantially since launch, to the owner’s credit, and he didn’t even officially launch the restaurant until it had already been open for a month (a very soft launch indeed, in fact). It feels like he’s playing the long game, and on that basis I wouldn’t rule out Valpy Street rethinking some of the menu and pricing and fulfilling that obvious promise. It’s a tougher market out there than it’s ever been: Reading’s dining scene has changed significantly since Chronicles closed in 2008 and the competition has got better. I just hope Valpy Street can do likewise.

Valpy Street – 6.8
17-19 Valpy Street, RG1 1AR
0118 3271331

http://www.valpys.co.uk/