Feature: Eating at the Reading Fringe

Last week I took part in a live Q&A on Twitter about the Reading Fringe. It’s an amazing Reading institution, now in its fifth year and bigger than ever with 72 shows running across 14 venues over 5 days. I was more than happy to support it by answering questions for an hour; obviously some people wanted answers to the burning questions of the day (my favourite flavour is salt and vinegar, thanks for asking) but the best question I got asked was this – where should I eat before going to take in a show at the Fringe? It’s an excellent question, and I dashed off a few quick responses, but the more I thought about it the more I thought it might make a useful feature for those of you attending a cultural event in Reading for the rest of this week. So here goes!

Shows at the Penta Hotel, Smokin’ Billy’s, Public, The Butler or The Purple Turtle: Pepe Sale, Bhoj or Bluegrass BBQ

Many of these shows start at 7 or 7.30, so you need to find somewhere nearby that serves decent food and can feed you and have you out the door sharpish. Pepe Sale, as a restaurant right next to the Hexagon, has an impeccable pedigree of doing this so is well worth considering. It’s not the most attractive interior in the world but you probably won’t have the time to fully appreciate that, especially if you’re concentrating on the food. If you’re in a rush the pasta dishes are always a good bet (I’m a particular fan of the tagliolini with smoked salmon, saffron and cream).
Failing that, Bluegrass is another excellent option and has the additional benefit that you pay up front so it’s easy to scarper afterwards without having to flag someone down to settle the bill. When I first went it was all about pulled pork and brisket but the menu definitely has other interesting choices including the Southern fried chicken and most notably the slow cooked beef brisket chilli – watermelon slices and all – which has become my go-to dish there. Lastly, Bhoj is in its new home a couple of doors down from Pepe Sale and does some of Reading’s finest Indian food. Karahi lamb is my favourite choice here, although ordering from here prior to a packed performance might not be the most sociable thing you could do.
Oh, and don’t go to Smokin’ Billy’s to eat. You’d be better off grabbing a Pizza Express and eating it in the garden of the Allied Arms.

Pepe Sale, 3 Queen’s Walk, RG1 7QF (review here)
Bluegrass BBQ, RG1 2JR (review here)
Bhoj, 7 Queen’s Walk, RG1 7QF (review here)

Shows at Revolucion de Cuba, Milk, Waterstones or the Dome at Station Hill: Sapana Home, Shed, Kokoro or Nando’s

Sapana Home is still often my choice for a quick town centre meal and it’s a great place for pre-theatre because if you get there bang on six o’clock you’re likely to eat brilliantly and still make your show. I’ve written about the place so many times that I’m in danger of getting repetitive, but really, have any of the pan fried chicken momo, the samosa chaat, the chicken fry and the chow mein and you’ll have an absolutely fantastic meal. Sapana was my restaurant of the year last year and is still a favourite of mine. Surprisingly good for kids, too: my friend’s 10 year old son is a massive fan of the momo and can manage all 10 in a single sitting. Attaboy.
Some of the shows at the Dome are mid-afternoon and for those Shed and Kokoro offer good lunch options. Shed is great for kids, if you’re going to one of the kids’ shows there, and does a great array of sandwiches and salads (and the Top One – chorizo and cheese and jalapeno – remains one of the best sandwiches you can eat in the ‘Ding). Kokoro is newer, an offshoot of a small chain, and goes fantastic tubs of crispy chilli chicken or spicy thigh meat curries with rice or noodles or a range of sushi. Only a few tables, but again perfect for a quick meal where you rush in and out.

You can judge all you like, but I also have a soft spot for the Nando’s on Friar Street. Butterflied chicken breast, medium, with spicy rice and macho peas (or corn on the cob if you absolutely must) and garlic piri-piri on the side. Have a spot of sangria while you’re at it, because I always find it makes me far more artistically receptive: after a whole jug I’ve even been known to enjoy an episode of Sherlock.

Oh, and don’t go to Cosmo. Duck in a Yorkshire pudding is all well and good, but your digestive system will pay a terrible price the next day.

Sapana Home, 8 Queen Victoria St, RG1 1TG (awarded Restaurant Of The Year here)
Shed, 8 Merchants Place, RG1 1DT (review here)
Kokoro, 13 Queen Victoria St, RG1 1SY
Nando’s, 30-31 Friar Street, RG1 1DX

Shows at the Oracle: Franco Manca or Mission Burrito

The Oracle is not my favourite place to eat, and there’s only one show here (live music at 12 and 3 from Lisa Zimmerman who has the tough gig of interesting Oracle shoppers in German opera with a pop twist: good luck with that, Lisa) but even here you can have a decent quick bite to eat. If you’re keeping it old school you could do a lot worse than a burrito from Mission with black beans, shredded slow-cooked beef, salad, guacamole and smoky chipotle sauce. But if you want to try one of the newcomers, Franco Manca does very good sourdough pizzas with splendid crusts that are cooked quickly in the blisteringly hot oven. Try and keep enough time back for the rosemary cake with Greek yoghurt, you won’t regret it.
Franco Manca, The Oracle, RG1 2AT
Mission Burrito, The Oracle, RG1 2AG (review here)

Shows at South Street, The Rising Sun and Olympia Ballrooms: Bakery House or the Lyndhurst

The easiest choices of all, these: round this part of town Bakery House is almost the only show in town. My last meal there was a little disappointing but it’s the only bad meal I’ve ever had there and I still have faith in them to deliver gorgeous Lebanese food quickly in a nice unpretentious setting. If you’re in a hurry for a show you might be better off ordering plenty of small dishes to share in which case the rich glossy houmous topped with pieces of roasted lamb, the amazing falafel, the little succulent maqaneq sausages and the halloumi stuffed pitta bread are all worth a go. And if you have a little bit longer I only have three beautiful words to say to you: boneless baby chicken.

I reviewed the Lyndhurst recently and it’s the perfect spot for a show in that area, especially if you’re watching something at South Street. The menu changes too regularly for me to be able to make too many recommendations but you can’t go far wrong and at the very least you should consider the pink pickled eggs (the distinctive colour coming from beetroot) with a hint of star anise, the Scotch egg or the dead good fish and chips.

Bakery House, 82 London St, RG1 4SJ (review here)
The Lyndhurst, 88-90 Queens Rd, RG1 4DG (review here)

Anyway, I hope this is useful and that you seriously consider taking in a show over the next week or so, whether it’s stand-up, gig theatre, experimental theatre, music, chap-hop or (because Britain’s Got Talent suggests at least some people like this sort of thing) dance. The Fringe’s website is here, and tickets can still be bought in advance for the majority of the shows. Maybe I’ll see you at something: I fancy going to watch All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, and I might go get squiffy at the launch party tomorrow night. I’ll be the one in the Mexican wrestling mask.

Advertisements

Wellington Farm Shop, Stratfield Saye

I’ve written before about how hard it is to get a decent brunch in this town. Since then Bluegrass has opened and does a surprisingly good range of breakfast options, especially if you like pancakes, or the sweet-salty union of bacon and maple syrup, but apart from that your main options are still the chains (principally Côte and Carluccio’s, in my book). And yes, I know I should probably try The Gorge, or Munchees, or even the caff at the Cattle Market, but the fear of disturbingly smooth sausages and highlighter-pen-pink flaccid back bacon has always put me off.

It’s a shame, because a full English is such a treat, especially when somebody else is making it for you. I probably have it about twice a year, but when I do I really want it to be good. It needs to be, really, when you consider all the salt, fat and calories in it. And I’ve never really reviewed one before, partly because I’ve long suspected that, like roast dinners, the very best ones you can have out will still only come a close second to the one you could rustle up at home. Having said all that, Wellington Farm Shop has been recommended to me several times for breakfasts, it’s a short drive out of town and I woke up one fine sunny Sunday morning hangover-free and with a hankering for dead pig. And that’s why you’re reading this review today.

They serve breakfast until half-eleven, and turning up at around quarter past I found the place in full swing, with a queue at the counter and most of the tables occupied; we had to share a long table with another couple who very kindly let us perch on the other end of it. You walk through the farm shop, with its amazing array of deeply middle-class products (meats, cheeses, pickles, wines, blankets, shower gel, room diffusers… it was almost as if Boden had opened a supermarket) and end up in an attractive whitewashed room with lots of neat but rustic wooden tables, chairs and benches.

The signs on the wall make much of the fact that they use lots of produce from the farm shop, and the local area, in the café’s food, so I was particularly looking forward to trying out breakfast. The menu was also sensibly quite limited – no eggs Benedict here, just a full English, a lighter version (the “Montague”) featuring poached eggs and thin streaky bacon, scrambled eggs with smoked salmon or a bacon or sausage butty. The bread apparently comes from Bon Appetit bakery in Pangbourne; I’d not heard of them, but I was looking forward to trying it out.

I was told when I placed my order that we’d probably be waiting about half an hour for our breakfasts – I wasn’t sure whether this was because they were especially busy, or if it was always like that, but I was happy to wait so we took our seats and watched the hubbub around us. It seemed to be an especially popular place for families, and it was nice to see so many people enjoying breakfast together (especially when it’s a meal I so rarely get to have). I already had a positive feeling: everyone seemed so happy, and surely so many people couldn’t be wrong?

The drinks arrived fairly quickly, so we had something to keep us going. I’m told the latte (the coffee is from Reads Coffee in Dorset, apparently) was okay but nothing special, slightly bitter with a thin texture which didn’t really suggest good milk heated into glossy frothiness. Earl Grey was a bag in a pot rather than loose leaves, slightly better than Twinings but nothing to write home about. I didn’t make a note of who it was by, which tells its own story. Breakfasts actually turned up in around twenty minutes. We both went for the Wellington breakfast (basically the full English), one medium and one large. The main difference was that the large contained two of everything – bacon, sausage, hash brown, egg, black pudding – although what this ultimately meant was that one of us got to be twice as disappointed as the other.

Now from this point onwards I’m going to struggle to be constructive, and I’ve never been good at the feedback sandwich, so let’s get the positives out of the way first. The hash browns were lovely. I’m not sure who they were by – they were sort of equilateral triangle-shaped – but they were truly delicious. They reminded me, in fact, how much I love a hash brown (although, on that note, Bluegrass does even better ones). The brown sauce, by Stokes, was also gorgeous, deep, rich and fruity. Of course, the café doesn’t make it but it’s a smart move to serve a breakfast so mediocre with a sauce which can do its level best to conceal that.

That’s largely where the good news ends. From that point onwards, it was downhill all the way. The baked beans were pleasant but lukewarm – and when you have so little to do with baked beans you can at least get them on a plate hot. The sausages looked the part, but cutting into them they were curiously smooth and homogeneous. We were eating in a farm shop, and I couldn’t quite believe these were the best sausages they could lay their hands on. It made me think of Greens of Pangbourne, or Jennings in Caversham, both of which do infinitely better sausages (as, for that matter, do Sainsburys). Bacon was even worse. Thick, flaccid slabs of back, more like anaemic gammon than decent bacon, with salt but no smoke or crispiness. I couldn’t finish mine, even after I’d taken off the rubber bands of fat. I know bacon, more than anything, is a matter of personal taste (crispy smoked streaky for me, ideally) but this felt like iffy food poorly cooked.

WellingtonBreakfast

Speaking of poorly cooked, let’s talk about the fried eggs. They weren’t so much poorly cooked as barely cooked. One, in fact, was so barely cooked that the white hadn’t set. It sat there on my plate like ropy snot, putting me off completely. The black pudding was variable – some was nicely cooked and crumbly, the rest was in a big thick slab and felt like it hadn’t had long enough. The mushroom was half a Portobello – it had been cooked in that it wasn’t raw, but there was no juiciness, or stickiness, no sign that anyone had salted or peppered it, or shown it any love at all. It had gone into a frying pan (let’s hope, anyway) in vain. Ditto for the tomatoes – they had been cooked, but were bland and tasteless. Just to stress again, we were eating in a farm shop.

Last but not least, I’d like to exempt Bon Appetit Bakery from any criticism. Their bread was quite lovely, beautifully seeded and truly delicious with some salted butter melting on it. But the farm shop couldn’t even get that right, because you got a single small slice with each breakfast. Toast is vital to a full English: it’s what your yolk seeps into, what you load your baked beans onto, it plays a crucial, central role. One slice to accompany all that – admittedly truly average – food seems poorly thought out at best, stingy at worst.

I didn’t finish my large breakfast, my companion finished her medium one. We both felt like we had wasted a lot of our calories for the day; really, no meal is quite as disappointing as a poor cooked breakfast. The whole thing came to just over twenty pounds. Service was minimal, friendly but not very effective; at one point the waitress offered to bring over another cup so the two of us could share the large pot of Earl Grey, but we never saw her again. Maybe they were busy, that would explain why she didn’t return. Explaining why they were busy in the first place? Well, that’s beyond me.

So there you have it: I ventured out of town to try and find somewhere where the sausages weren’t bouncy and the bacon wasn’t pink and floppy and I found Wellington Farm Shop Café, where they were exactly that. Perhaps I was missing something, because it was incredibly popular. Perhaps it’s me. Breakfasts are an incredibly personal thing, and the sausages and bacon (and mushroom for that matter) I described might be right up your alley. But I’m still daydreaming about somewhere in Reading that does coarse, herby sausages and rich, crumbly black pudding. Somewhere that serves thin, crispy streaky bacon (and plenty of it) and golden scrambled egg scattered with freshly ground black pepper. Somewhere with limitless toast where they butter right up to the edges. Somewhere, in fact, like my kitchen but without any washing up.

Oh well. Until then, you’ll probably find me in Bluegrass.

Wellington Farm Shop – 5.2

Welsh Lane, Stratfield Saye, RG27 0LJ
0118 9326132

http://www.stratfield-saye.co.uk/wellington-farm-shop/farmshop-in-store/farm-shop-cafe/

Bluegrass BBQ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BluegrassPork

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

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

BluegrassBrisket

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

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

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

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

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

http://bluegrass-bbq.com/