Coppa Club, Sonning

This is my second attempt to review Coppa Club. The first time, I went on a winter night last year only to be escorted to a table for two next to the big French doors, a table so cold that it could turn tomato soup into gazpacho in minutes. I asked to be moved and slack-jawed confusion broke out among the black-shirted serving staff. Minutes later I was told this wasn’t possible, even though I was pretty sure I could see other tables were vacant. When I said thanks but no thanks and voted with my feet, I’m not sure they even noticed me leaving. Perhaps there was nothing they could do, but it would have felt nice if they’d tried, suggested a drink in the bar or pointed out when a suitable table might become available. I couldn’t work out whether they were fazed or unfussed, but either way I was in no hurry to go back.

In the meantime, friends of mine have enthused about the place. More for lunches than dinners, I was told, but even so I got a steady stream of positive feedback which made me think it was time to give it another chance. And it’s the kind of place I see appearing in my Twitter feed all the time – lovely pictures of well-presented dishes, not to mention one of the most attractive dining rooms I’ve seen in a long time. So eventually, now that the days are getting warmer, I decided I could leave it no longer. Besides, after the delights of all you can eat dining I found myself pining for something clever and delicate.

And yes, it really is a beautiful room. It ticks all the boxes without looking studied or cynical – a bit of exposed brickwork, granted, but some lovely furniture in muted greens and blues, button back banquettes and beautiful burnished geometric metal lampshades (no bare swinging hipster bulbs here, thank you very much). It feels like someone has thrown money at this place – how very Sonning – until it started to bounce off, and that prosperity starts out very alluring, although by the end of the evening I could see how it might get a little smug.

Turning up on a Sunday night I was delighted to get one of the booths. There’s a blue banquette running along the middle of the room but the booths, which are closer to the exposed brickwork and the bar, were nicer and cosier. Quite roomy for two people, too, although if there were four of you in one you’d need to get along reasonably well. That seemed a bit of a theme in general, actually – looking at the tables for six I found myself thinking that they’d more sensibly seat four. Perhaps that’s why, on my previous visit, they weren’t prepared to find anywhere else for a table for two to eat. Perhaps, too, packing diners in is how Coppa Club could afford to spend so much money on refurbishing the place (or perhaps I’m being a bit harsh, in which case I’m sure some of you will tell me).

I liked the menu enormously, and it felt like it had just enough things to pick between without being bewildering. It reminded me a lot of places like Jamie’s Italian, so I wasn’t entirely surprised later when doing some research to discover that the chef at Coppa Club has worked there. It’s a more compact menu than at Jamie’s, but still presented a few complicated decisions – to share or not to share, to order pasta, that kind of thing. Horse trading took longer than usual, which was just as well because getting anybody interested enough to take an order did too.

Now, normally I talk about service right at the end of a review as part of wrapping things up but with Coppa Club I really feel I have to make an exception, because it was so uniformly poor every step of the way. Don’t get me wrong – it was friendly and affable, but beyond that they managed to get pretty much everything wrong. You could never get any attention, despite it not being a busy night. The starters turned up immediately after they were ordered, at the same time as the nibbles we’d ordered to tide us over. Getting someone to bring the bill at the end was a challenge, as was paying it once it had been brought to the table. Many of the serving staff seemed to have been trained to completely ignore customers altogether, usually while walking past or near their tables, and when I left after what felt like an eternity settling up I saw one of the waiters chatting to his friends at the bar.

I don’t take any pleasure in saying this, but it was especially jarring considering what a lovely room it was and how good some of the food turned out to be. And that’s not even getting on to some of the things which, although they bugged me, might not be deal-breakers for you. I regularly saw waiters leaning right across diner A to serve diner B, something which (in my book at least) you really should not do. Another thing, which may sound minor to you, was about where we were sitting. The booths were open on one side (the side nearest the other tables) but closed off on the other, and behind them was a little corridor section where the serving staff could get water, wine, glasses and so forth. Our waiter kept taking orders or handing us wine over that barrier, which just felt downright strange, like talking to your neighbour over the garden fence without ever having been introduced. Perhaps this is a new trend in informal dining which has passed me by, but I just didn’t like it: it felt more like laziness.

Let’s move on to the happier subject of the food, because some of this was really pretty good. The nibbles – deep fried gnocchi with parmesan and truffle oil – were pleasant (although I’d have enjoyed them more if they’d arrived some time before the starters – sorry to keep going on about that), little breaded nuggets of tasty starch. The truffle oil, as so often, added an olfactory tease that never followed through when you actually ate the food, but never mind.

CoppaGnocchi

Better was the fritto misto – a very generous helping of squid and white fish, seasoned and dusted in what might have been semolina flour, along with a solitary prawn and a slice of scallop. This was very nice stuff – far better than many places’ efforts at fritto misto – and my favourite bit was the small pieces of squid, all crispy tentacles with that rough, savoury coating, texture triumphing over taste. The tartare sauce it came with was quite nice but maybe a little too sophisticated, too Sonning, for my taste. I reckoned it needed more vinegar and acid, more gherkin or capers or – starting to drool now – both, but I’m a sucker for pickles and it might just be me being a Philistine.

CoppaFritto

The other starter, “beets and ricotta bruschetta”, was lovely; a single slice of ciabatta-like bread with a layer of bright pink whipped ricotta topped with cubes of beetroot. That alone would have been enough to meet the job description, but there was a little more: wafer thin beetroot crisps in red and gold on top to add another level of texture, then some pretty salad leaves dressed with olive oil (I think) and cheese shavings, because cheese shavings make everything better. I liked it a lot: refreshingly clean but with that earthiness that beetroot brings, all dark and zingy. It was a dish that looked like winter but tasted of spring, and it made me long for longer days.

CoppaBruschetta

The starters had come so quickly that I was worried I would be out of Coppa Club in next to no time, but thankfully they slowed it down for the mains. If anything, this gave me and my companion a chance to play spot the difference between my glass of entry level Syrah and her glass of more expensive Shiraz (we couldn’t really find one, which is maybe why I try not to say too much about wine). It also meant that the mains arrived pretty much when we were ready, probably the only piece of good timing about the whole evening.

I’d found choosing a main at Coppa Club surprisingly difficult. My companion had already bagged the pizza, having pasta as a main felt a bit too monotonous, ordering the burger felt like it would have been a poor show and I wasn’t in the mood for a whole fish on the bone, lovely though that sounded. So the lamb chops – described as “scorched fingers” on the menu, perhaps that’s a draw for some people – won by default and, in hindsight, I’m delighted that they did. This was a dish for people who like meat and fat – three long, thin, chops with a square of tender meat at the end but, more importantly, rich seams of fatty meat along the bone, caramelised, melting and utterly delicious. I wouldn’t describe myself as the world’s biggest carnivore (although I know several people with a decent shot at that title), but some nights you just want red meat and iron and this was that night and that dish was in the right place at the right time.

CoppaChops

It wasn’t perfect, mind you. The chops were so long and thin that eating them was unwieldy, as was pushing the bone out of the way when you were done. They came with watercress, which I can take or leave, and a salsa verde which fell into the same trap as the tartare sauce. I could admire it, this glossy smear of fresh mint and oil, but I wanted some vinegar in there, some sharpness to stop my mouth being coated with fat (I’m well aware, writing this, that I’ve gone to Coppa Club and said that two of the dishes could have been improved with jars of sauce from Colman’s: judge away). What did improve the lamb, immeasurably, were the “rustic potatoes” – little roasted potatoes, all crunchy corners and fluffy insides, festooned with Parmesan and shot through with green shards of fried sage; if they’d put those on the “nibbles” section of the menu I might have started and stopped right there.

CoppaPots

I really wanted to try pizza too, to see if Coppa Club was up there with all those pizzerias I daydream of dropping in Reading, and whether the “slow proved, sourdough base” would live up to billing. Well, sadly not really. The base was too thick in the wrong places, no bubbly edges and a stodgy, rather soggy middle. It tasted decent enough, but it was lacking that chewy, moreish flavour I expected from a sourdough base. There was a bit too much cheese, in my opinion, although I guess that’s better than the alternative. I went for the “Coppa Club Hot” and the ‘nduja on it was delicious, super-intense, punchy, salty, almost acrid. If only there had been more – I know a little goes a long way but three small teaspooned dots of it across the whole pizza still felt a little mean. The spicy salami was less successful, a bit more simple in flavour (although still with loads of heat) but personally I’d have liked it a little more crisp; maybe that would have happened if the pizza hadn’t been so thick. My guest didn’t eat more than half – after three slices I was told that it didn’t seem worth eating the rest of what was essentially a dolled up pepperoni pizza.

CoppaPizza

We didn’t stay for dessert – nothing quite appealed enough and by then I had been sufficiently irritated by my experience that I was quite comfortable leaving. A shame really, as one might have helped to tide me over in the inordinate wait for getting and paying the bill. Even waiting to ask for the bill, dessert menus in front of us, was an odd experience; one of the waiters cleared my folded napkin as he passed our table without actually speaking to us or making eye contact (which is quite hard to do, I think). In the end we had to call out to a passing waiter, who seemed to be cleaning up rather than actually, um, waiting. Dinner for two came to fifty pounds near as damnit and – and I almost never, ever do this – I did not tip.

At the end of the meal my companion and I were discussing Coppa Club, not entirely sure what to make of it. I said I preferred it to Jamie’s Italian, my companion thought Jamie’s was better. We both agreed that if Coppa Club was in an easier location to get to we’d probably go back, but that it wasn’t quite enough to prompt a trip out to Sonning. Above all, the service baffled us both – how can a place work so hard at everything else and get that wrong? Since coming back, mulling it over and sitting down to write this, the power of Google has revealed several enthusiastic reviews of Coppa Club, with a few bloggers going and thoroughly enjoying it. Some of them had some of the dishes I had, so it was strange to read people waxing lyrical over the fritto misto, or the lamb chops. Only one of the reviews specifically said that it was comped, so it might be that people spending their own money really loved Coppa Club and I – with my slight grouchiness about service and seating, with a rustic potato on my shoulder – just took against it. But I wasn’t won over; there’s something irksome about a place that, however nice it might be, isn’t as good as it thinks it is.

Coppa Club – 6.8
The Great House, Thames Street, Sonning, RG4 6UT
0118 9219890

http://coppaclub.co.uk/

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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/

Malmaison

So many elements go to make up a great restaurant, so many different things to get right, so many plates to spin at once. It’s fair to say that very few restaurants in Reading have perfected all of them. So you can go to a rather unimpressive room, like Bhoj, and have a knockout curry. You can go to Cerise and have beautiful food but be a little unmoved by the service. Or you could head to the Abbot Cook and sit in that wonderful room wading through their underwhelming food. This makes reviewing restaurants difficult: how do you weigh all of those different factors? But I always thought that the food comes first; if the food is great, nothing else can be that badly wrong. And I really believed that, too, right up until last week when I went to Malmaison for dinner.

Because the food at Malmaison really is great; I didn’t try anything I didn’t like. Take the starters, for instance. Tuna tartare was both beautiful and delicious: a delicate roundel of chopped tuna on a bed of chopped avocado with a soy dressing drizzled round the edge (which tasted more of sesame than the advertised lime but was none the worse for it) with a few neat slices of pickled ginger and a squirt of gentle wasabi, like a wasabi mayonnaise. This was just delightful; fresh, zesty and with the other flavours not overwhelming the fish. Not an ungenerous portion, either, when it would be easy to make this kind of dish stingily nouveau. It was impossible to take a picture because of the glass plate but who cares? Food’s there to be eaten, not photographed, and this was perfect.

The fritto misto was almost as good: beautiful prawns, the most tender squid I’ve had in Reading and some really tasty pieces of yellow courgette in a light, greaseless batter. Good enough, I’d say, to eat on their own – which might be just as well because I wasn’t wild on the sweet chilli sauce they came with. That felt more of an Asian, tempura-influenced choice when I was hoping for some aioli or even a fresh salsa verde to plunge my food into. But none the less, it was gorgeous – and again, not the mean portion I was expecting (I have to say, I went to Malmaison with some preconceptions: that my food would be pretty, prissy and pricey).

Fritto

Could the kitchen keep it up with the main courses? As it turns out, yes they could. The “le French” burger was similarly lovely. Served in a glazed brioche bun with a decently rough patty of beef, still pink in the middle, this was how burgers should be. Despite the slices of brie and the caramelised onions this managed not to be sloppy – just juicy from the meat – and the sweet and salty flavours worked beautifully. It was also, and this almost never happens nowadays, possible to actually eat it with your hands.

The accompanying skin-on frites were perfectly decent, though I got the impression the staff aren’t used to serving vinegar as it came in a ramekin with a teaspoon and was of the white wine persuasion rather than good old Sarson’s. On the side was the tiniest copper saucepan with a tomato ketchup in it of unknown origin (it had green bits in but tasted like Heinz to me). It was rather unnecessary for this burger, so I wondered if it was there to meet expectation, rather than to actually eat. Still, it didn’t detract from what was a top notch dish: it was sixteen pounds, which I know is a lot, but it just about felt on the right side of the border between extravagantly indulgent and “they saw me coming”. Just.

Burger

The sea bass was a conventional, safe brasserie dish but there’s no harm in keeping things simple and everything about it worked: two nice pieces of fish, cooked well (no crispy skin though, which was a bit of a shame) served with a delicate mix of firm, smoky, good quality chorizo, mussels, sautéed new potatoes and vinaigrette. This was closer to the sort of food I was expecting at Malmaison: Jack Lemmon to the burger’s Walter Matthau, granted, but I liked it a lot.

Bass

So, you’ve read this far and you might be thinking about booking a table, right? Well, get to the end before you make up your mind, because literally everything else about this restaurant made me want never to return. Let’s start with the cardinal sin. The waiter came to the table after we’d finished our starters and took the plates away. About two minutes later they returned with our main courses.

“Oh! That’s very quick.” I said. The waiter gave me what was probably a blank look but might have been him mistakenly accepting my congratulations.

What do you do at this point? You can’t send it away, so you don’t have any choice but to sit there and eat it. But it just prompted other questions, like: were they cooking our mains the moment we started eating our starters? Was someone standing at the door to the kitchen watching us with a stopwatch? If I’d chewed a bit slower would my main course have been sitting there on the pass for ages? However you looked at it, this was plain poor: the Malmaison is not, from the menu – dishes and prices – somewhere you go for a quick meal. If I’m spending that kind of money I want to be there for a couple of hours, whereas if I want my meal to take forty minutes I’ll go somewhere else and I’ll spend a lot less. I could make excuses for them – it was a Sunday, they weren’t busy – but really, this was inexcusable. It’s called the hospitality business, and having two courses on a conveyor belt in less time than it takes to watch an episode of Game Of Thrones feels pretty inhospitable to me. Besides, just because I ordered a burger doesn’t make it fast food.

I might have told them this if the waiters had shown any interest in my experience, but they didn’t. In fact service in general had a completely disengaged feel: no smiles, no friendliness, no connection at all. I genuinely think there were people sitting at the bus stop outside London Camera Exchange, visible from my table, who had as much interest in me having a good meal that night as the serving staff at Malmaison. This is one of Reading’s few higher end restaurants and, again, when I’m spending that kind of money on food I at least want to feel liked. I want to feel like the staff care about the food and the customers (or can pretend well enough to convince me, that’s fine too). I want it to be a pleasure talking to the staff: many of Reading’s excellent restaurants – Pepe Sale, Dolce Vita, Mya Lacarte, Kyrenia… I could go on – get this right, but I’ve had better service in a lot of chain restaurants than I did at Malmaison. (It’s a real pity because based on past experience, the staff in the bar are completely the opposite.)

Countless other people have complained about the darkness in Malmaison but, even so, it’s worth repeating. The room is dark. The walls are dark. The tables are dark. It makes eating (and photographing) the food an extra challenge, even though we managed to pick a table with some overhead lighting. The chairs are big and squidgy, so much so that when sitting I ended up with my knees higher than my thighs and it felt like the table was up under my chin. This is not conducive to a comfortable, relaxed meal. And there’s no atmosphere at all – which takes some doing in such Stygian surroundings. It has the feel of a restaurant which relies largely on expense accounts, which makes no sense when the food is so good.

I suppose I should talk about wine and dessert. The wine list is cleverly structured and priced and one of the things that’s done well. We had a half litre carafe of a Brazilian Riesling/pinot grigio blend which was really nice; off dry, fruity and juicy with a touch of apples. It would have been nice to try more from their wine list – and we probably would have done if they hadn’t been in such a phenomenal hurry to get shot of us. Similarly, after eating two courses in quick succession we were too full for dessert, although in any case the menu wasn’t too inspiring, being the usual mix of ice cream, sticky toffee pudding, crème bruleé, cheesecake and other bog standard box tickers.

The bill was seventy-five pounds including a discretionary tip of 10% that isn’t really discretionary unless service is bad enough for you to make an exhibition of yourself in front of other diners. The whole process, beginning to end, of eating at Malmaison took approximately fifty minutes. So, is good food enough to justify overlooking all the other faults in a restaurant? I’m sure you’ve read all this and decided for yourself, but put it this way: I can’t imagine circumstances in which I’d go back. As I tried to get out of my almost-sat-on-the-floor-chair the couple at the next table joked about how uncomfortable the furniture was, and we shared a little moment about what an odd room it was. I think they enjoyed their experience more than I did, although their food if anything arrived even faster than ours. That was the most interaction we’d had the whole time I was in Malmaison, which by my reckoning makes it just mal.

Malmaison – 6.5
18-20 Station Rd, RG1 1JX
0844 693 0660

https://www.malmaison.com/locations/reading/brasserie/

Bel And The Dragon

I changed my mind about whether to review Bel And The Dragon several times. Initially I was all for going, and then I looked at the website: the menu looked suspiciously similar to the one I’d ordered from the last time I went there, well over a year ago. And that, in fact, was almost identical to the menu when the local paper reviewed it nearly two years ago. Bel’s website boasted a passion for seasonal, local, sustainable food – but the evidence suggested otherwise, so I decided not to bother. But then I was told that I might be being a bit harsh, and that the menu had changed only recently, so I decided to give them a chance.

There’s no attractive way to approach Bel And The Dragon, especially on foot. You can go down the canal next to some rather forbidding-looking blocks of flats, or down Kenavon Drive, past the questionable delights of the Toys R Us. Even the address, Gas Works Road, sounds grim. It’s a pity, because the building itself is handsome (I’m not sure what it used to be: Bel’s own website says it’s an ex biscuit factory which I don’t think is correct) and the inside is gorgeous too, with lots of banquettes and booths round the edges of a big bright high-ceilinged room.

Looking at the menu induced déjà vu because, as feared, the majority of it had indeed remained unchanged for two years, the mention of English asparagus the only concession to seasonality. The drinks we had while making up our mind did nothing to calm the sinking feeling. The “Bloody Caesar” – a Bloody Mary variant featuring clamato juice, lime, horseradish and sherry – was all citrus and no tomato, thinner, sharper and more joyless than Gillian McKeith. The house wine was even odder – the menu claims that they bring a magnum over, you drink as much as you want and are charged by the 125ml. In reality, what happened is that they brought 125ml and charged me, at the end, for 175ml (by which point I was too exhausted even to complain).

Service at Bel is the triumph of quantity over quality. At times the dining room had over half a dozen aproned types wafting around but they spent most of their time talking to one another and trying their hardest to avoid interacting with diners. They seemed to be having a lovely time, but I did wish they’d been more interested in making sure that I was, too. One was either a trainee or on work experience because her sole job seemed to be to stand there deferring to someone else: at one point I made eye contact and smiled (because I wanted to see the wine list) and she smiled back and then went back to staring off into space, seemingly her main skill. Perhaps she just thought that I really enjoyed being ignored: I suppose it’s possible.

So, I’ve bitched about the menu, I’ve bitched about the service, time to bitch about the food, right? If only it were that simple: some of it wasn’t bad, which makes this review harder to write than I was expecting. A starter of scallops, cauliflower puree and sherry caramel, for instance, was very good: four nicely cooked scallops, a generous helping of sweet puree and little crispy miniature florets around the side (and a scattering of micro herbs, because chefs still think we give a toss about micro herbs: I have no idea why). To put this in perspective, it was twelve pounds – as much as some of the mains – so it should have been pretty good but even so it wasn’t disappointing. I was so geared up, by that stage, for disappointment that not being able to be disappointed was almost disappointing in itself. I’m not sure if that’s a win-win or lose-lose situation.

Scallops

The burrata, on the other hand had been treated so badly that I fear the chef had never seen one before. It looked as if had been torn to pieces by an angry mob before being studded with slightly chewy thyme leaves and strewn on a plate with far too much beetroot. Sure, there were four types of beetroot and a few toasted pine nuts, but what should have been the centrepiece of the dish really wasn’t. Where I expect a burrata to be a soft, yielding pouch of rich, creamy delight this was a tough, abused poor relation. I don’t know what had been done to it prior to it reaching my plate but it had grown a thick skin to make up for it.

Burrata

Of the mains, roast suckling pig was a delight and easily the best dish of the visit. A healthy (or rather, unhealthy) portion of pork, cooked just the right side of dryness, came on a board with a little jug of rich, savoury gravy and some spiced apple chutney which added a bit of sweetness and moisture. The crackling – light, salty and sinful – was how I imagine Quavers would taste in heaven. But, inevitably, there were still disappointments. Bel’s menu says that they are very proud of their duck fat and thyme roasted potatoes, but on this evidence I can’t see why; there was no evidence of thyme and none of the gorgeous, rough, crispy exterior you get from a potato well-roasted in duck fat.

Pig

The side dish, ostensibly “cauliflower, smashed garlic and pecorino” was cauliflower cheese. No more, no less. If they’d used pecorino, and I’m not convinced, it was a waste of pecorino. The garlic just didn’t turn up at all (maybe because it was smashed). At eighteen pounds – with an extra three for the cauliflower cheese – it wasn’t quite good enough to justify the price: eating the dish felt a bit like watching the meter running in a taxi heading somewhere you don’t even particularly want to go.

The haddock, chorizo and white bean stew looked appealing when it came and the flavours didn’t disappoint but, after digging around for a moment, I realised that there was an absence of beans. I couldn’t find any. None. I asked one of the flotilla of waitresses about this and she said that perhaps they had been pureed into the sauce but she would check with the kitchen. Then she returned with another explanation… apparently the stew is cooked in a large pot and the beans all sink to the bottom so, on this occasion, when they served it up it just turned out that none made it into my bowl! Not one solitary bean. (No, I didn’t believe it either.) To make up for this the kitchen dished me up a generous side portion of beans, which just happened to be exactly as many as you would find in a tin. These seemed to be in a different sauce to the stew but I didn’t want to ask any more questions and was just grateful they turned up at all.

The stew itself was very pleasant with some decent sized pieces of haddock, quite a few diced bits of chorizo (though this was on the rubbery side, which suggested it was either poor quality or hadn’t been cooked for long enough) and an awful lot of celery. The advertised “smoked tomatoes” were instead three unsmoked cherry tomatoes which had been grilled for just long enough for their skins to split. Overall it was a decent dish, once the beans were in, but I wouldn’t say more than that.

Stew

Pricing at Bel is all over the place. The starters are an expensive bunch – most around the eight or nine pound mark – and the mains vary widely from the reasonable (my stew was twelve pounds, as is the fish pie) to the punitive (the idea that two people would really fork out sixty-six pounds to share a rib of beef on the bone is either hopeless optimism or exploitation, not sure which). But the desserts are all a consistent six pounds. The Valrhona chocolate mousse with honeycomb and popping candy was indifferent stuff. I got a lot of sweetness and no cocoa, which meant this either wasn’t Valrhona or was Valrhona hopelessly maltreated. The honeycomb just added to the relentless sugariness, as did the popping candy, and the three meagre raspberries didn’t have enough sharpness to put up a fight against it.

Chocolate

Eton mess was exactly as you would expect an Eton mess to be – a big dollop of strawberries (in April: so much for seasonal there, too), smashed meringue and cream. The only thing slightly elevating this above the sum of its parts were the tiny pieces of fresh mint that had been mixed in. The gigantic knickerbocker glory glass it came in took my opinion back down a notch, mind – I’d have preferred something more elegant and (I can’t quite believe I am saying this) smaller. Wanting a smaller dessert: hardly glowing praise, is it?

Three courses for two, with a Bloody Mary, a missold glass of house rosé and two glasses of red wine which aren’t interesting enough to merit any mention other than this, came to ninety-eight pounds. This includes an optional ten per cent service charge of the kind which is actually close to compulsory, as you’d have to make a scene and ask them to take it off (I was tempted to, but by the end they had worn me down to the extent where I just wanted to go: it turns out that indifference is contagious).

The best way of summing this up is that if you went to Bel you wouldn’t have a bad meal but you wouldn’t have a great meal either. I didn’t eat anything actively bad, and nothing made my heart sing. But – and this might be the clincher – you’re unlikely to have a cheap meal. I’m afraid, despite some tasty dishes, I still don’t see what Bel’s USP is, or why anybody would choose it for dinner. It’s not seasonal, it’s not particularly imaginative, it’s not good value and the inconvenient location and indifferent service wipe out any of the advantages of that lovely room. Perhaps I’ll go again when they overhaul their menu, in which case they should pencil me in for some time in 2018.

Bel And The Dragon – 6.6
Blakes Lock, Gas Works Road, RG1 3EQ
0118 9515790

http://www.belandthedragon-reading.co.uk/

Côte

Let’s get this out of the way at the start: yes, I know, Côte is a chain restaurant. You might have gathered (from my “Where next?” page) that I’m generally averse to reviewing these. Yet here I am, tucking into a meal at a great big Oracle chain restaurant. What gives?

What you might have missed is that I’ve always said that I’d consider reviewing a chain if I thought it offered something different or special. And, based on my past experience, Côte has always done exactly that. It opened back in 2011 and since then, for me, has become something of a staple. Last year I probably ate there as much as I did at any other Reading restaurant and it was reliable – never bad, always good, often excellent and sometimes great. We all need a restaurant like that sometimes, because eating out isn’t always about taking risks: every now and then you just want certainty.

Anyway, as ever it’s all about what a restaurant does on the night I turn up to review, so I did step across the threshold with a slight sense of trepidation. Were they going to have a bad night for once?

The downstairs space is a very nice room, broken up into sections with banquettes, booths and lighting orbs, making it simultaneously bright enough to eat in and cosy enough to feel intimate: no mean feat in a room which surely sits 100 diners. It does however mean, as we shall see, that photos are very poorly lit (you’ll thank me for not putting up one of the chocolate mousse, believe me). It also manages that rare trick of having large and small tables – including some specifically for couples – without leaving anyone feeling short-changed. It’s probably the prettiest dining room of all the Oracle’s riverside restaurants, although that may not be saying a lot.

I started with a basket of bread and butter while making my choices. Côte charges for its bread (a couple of quid) but it’s so good I can hardly blame then. You get a basket with half a dozen diagonal slices of delicious baguette – crisp and chewy on the outside, fluffy and crumpet-like inside, with a dish of salted butter. I think it might be my favourite restaurant bread in town: you could even say, with apologies to a certain business on Cressingham Road, Earley, that it’s the place to be heading for breading in Reading (actually, I should probably apologise to you for that pun as well). I’d love to know if they get it shipped in part-baked or if it’s made on site, but either way it’s worthy of a paragraph on its own. Thank goodness there’s no word limit.

The starters were equally tasty. Mushroom feuilleté was two slices of diamond shaped puff pastry filled with mushrooms in a creamy sauce. The bottom layer of pastry had soaked up the sauce and was rich and soft like a good English pie: a gorgeous combination. The top layer was less interesting, being all flakiness and air with no substance (I’ve got friends like that, but the less said about them the better). The menu mentioned “espelette pepper”: I couldn’t detect any on the plate and had to look it up. It turns out that it’s a type of chilli pepper – I’m not sure this would have worked, so I’m glad they left it out.

Mushrooms

The charcuterie board also didn’t disappoint, though it’s definitely a choice for the peckish. Most of the elements were terrific – the duck breast gamey without being too smoky, the duck rillette coarse and rich (I’ve got friends like that too, as it happens) and the saucisson just right. The accompaniments were also gorgeous – a couple of pieces of charred pain de campagne toast with a little olive oil soaking into them, a small pile of well dressed salad and – crucially – four crunchy, tart cornichons, perfect to wrap a slice of saucisson round and pop in your mouth. Who needs canapés? The only disappointment was the jambon – too smooth, too shiny, too supermarket. But it was a minor quibble with a starter which cost £6.50 and had so much to enjoy.

Char

I’ve always found choosing mains at Côte quite difficult, and on this occasion we ended up ordering two fish dishes, although they couldn’t have been more different. Côte’s tuna niçoise salad is one of my favourite lighter dishes in Reading, and is in danger of giving salad a good name. It’s full of interesting flavours and textures – new potato, peppers, green beans, red onion, cos lettuce and black olives – all mixed with a fresh and not at all overpowering mustard vinaigrette then topped with a just-hard-boiled egg, the yolk yellow and only just firm, and a perfectly cooked piece of tuna. The tuna deserves extra comment because other restaurants will fob you off with tinned or pre-cooked tuna but at Côte you get the real deal – a tuna steak which has been on a griddle hot enough to leave chargrill lines but where the inside is still pink. A rare treat, in both senses of the word.

Tuna

Sea bass with braised fennel and champagne beurre blanc was also faultless. It was a very generous portion of sea bass – two fillets of crispy salty skin and firm flesh – paired with surprisingly subtle fennel. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea but this was understated, more sweetness than aniseed. With so much culinary quietness going on (sea bass isn’t the punchiest of fishes) the beurre blanc had to be good and it was: creamy with bags of flavour and just a little sharpness. For less than fourteen quid I thought this was a knockout dish – no carbs, though, although having to order some frites was no real hardship.

At this point I ought to tell you how nice my white wine was, but sadly I can’t: instead we washed this down with a bottle of syrah. Not a conventional pairing, I know, but we both fancied red so we went with it anyway (and it almost went with the tuna – or that’s what I told myself anyway). It was a gorgeous bottle, very fruity and straightforward without being bland. It was also good value at less than twenty quid: in fact the wine list offers plenty of choice around that price point which is always good to see.

For dessert we both wanted a chocolate dish but I figured that wouldn’t make for the most interesting review (hard to believe, I know, but not everybody likes chocolate). In the end we split our ticket and went for one of each. The chocolate mousse was exactly that – and lots of it, too, packed into a big hefty ramekin. I liked it, although I think describing it as “dark chocolate mousse” is misleading, and likely to put people off who don’t like their cocoa solids in the region of 70% and above. In fact the top was dark, and dusted with cocoa, but underneath that it was all milk chocolate: on the dense, rich side, but delicious none the less.

The apple tart, for the non-chocolate fans among you, was an excellent example of the French classic. The base pastry was thin, crisp and sufficiently gooey with toffee to be a nice balance to the apples which were super thin and only just cooked so that they retained some of their tartness. The scoop of vanilla ice cream it came with was speckled with just enough vanilla dots to convince me it was the real deal, and was just about tasty enough to make me think it was worth having on the plate. A better accompaniment was the glass of Montbazillac I had – sweet but not treacly or cloying, and decent value at four pounds.

Côte is very good at service. On a Thursday night, the restaurant was full and turning people away, and yet they never seemed rushed or harassed and I never felt ignored or overlooked. Instead, it was attentive and smiley without being over-keen. Our wine glasses were topped up regularly (but not too regularly – a pet hate of mine) and the free filtered water is a nice touch. I think it’s a shame that the restaurant adds an automatic (but not compulsory) 12.5% service charge to the bill, given that this is one of the few places in Reading that really shouldn’t need to. I suppose it makes paying the bill less awkward, but even so it seems a pity.

The total for three courses each, a bottle of wine and a glass of dessert wine was seventy-five pounds, excluding tip. No clangers, no mistakes, no errors on the plate, just reliable very good food. They didn’t have an off-night, just as they never seem to, and I reckon this is as good a place in Reading to spend that kind of money as any – particularly if you’re risk averse. It’s worth mentioning, as I so often do, that you could easily spend less here – especially if you’re there before 7 o’clock, when their two course set menu is a tenner and constitutes mind-boggling value.

In the run-up to this review, I asked people on Twitter about members of the “Never Again Club”, restaurants in Reading that you’d been to once and would never visit again. The responses came thick and fast, and unsurprisingly many of them were chain restaurants: Giraffe (“blatantly microwaved”); Café Rouge (“makes French food bland and boring, quite a feat”); Frankie And Benny’s (“I would have been better off in McDonalds”); Five Guys (“insanely priced mediocrity”). The list went on and on.

And yet there were also a significant number of independent places in there – and heaven knows, I’ve reviewed enough terrible independent restaurants (I still have flashbacks about the tapas at Picasso or that ravioli at The Lobster Room) to know that neither side has the monopoly on quality. I sometimes think we’re making the wrong distinction: there are good restaurants and bad restaurants, some good chains and some bad independent restaurants. Côte is a very good, reliable, consistent restaurant. You can go there with a big group of friends for a blow-out, you can grab a quick dinner with a friend there before going to the cinema, you can have a nice tête-à-tête there on a Friday night with your other half. It just happens to be a chain.

The promise chains implicitly make is that you know exactly what you’re getting, and for better or worse my experience is that that’s nearly always true. The difference with Côte is that you’re getting something good. So it doesn’t belong in my Never Again Club, and I might have to think up another name for this kind of restaurant. The Again And Again Club, perhaps.

Cote – 7.8
9 The Riverside, The Oracle Shopping Centre, RG1 2AG
0118 9591180

http://www.cote-restaurants.co.uk/Cote_Restaurant_Reading.html