The Pantry

Once upon a time, in the town of Reading, there was a bar called the 3Bs. It was named after the three famous alliterative cornerstones of Reading – beer, biscuits and bulbs – and, for those of us who remember it, it was one of the best bars there was. It was part of the Town Hall, and long before the Oakford ever opened it was the place you congregated in after work – unless your friends wanted to drink in O’Neills, in which case you made new friends. When the tables appeared outside, near the statue of Queen Victoria, you knew that summer was on the way.

It even featured, albeit briefly, in the opening episode of 1997 police show Crime Traveller, around the 3:45 mark in this video, as maverick cop (aren’t they always) Jeff Slade, played by ex-EastEnders bad boy Michael French, zooms through the Town Hall Square on a motorbike, scattering people and tables as he pursues a generic baddie in a boxy car all the way to the Queens Road car park. Around that time I was temping in Apex Plaza (which also features in the chase sequence) and it was all very exciting. As I recall, my brother bought a sandstone-coloured blouson, trying to emulate Jeff Slade, but it was all a little too Sergio Georgini. Ah, the Nineties.

My favourite memories of the 3Bs, in as far as I can remember anything, were of Bohemian Night, its weekly live music evening. A friend and I would always turn up early, sit near the front and drink almost enough to make the music sound good. Compered by AF Harrold (now a published author, then a jobbing performance poet working in Blackwells – remember when we used to have a Blackwells?) it was the Reading’s Got Talent of its day.

This involved various earnest acoustic solo acts and duets, a little spoken word, a shouty man who called himself “Preacher John” and another chap called “Reverend John H” who did an extremely offensive song about the sadly departed Princess Of Wales. There was also a bewildered pensioner called “Mr David” who would shamble on stage and perform roughly half a joke without getting to the punchline and then start singing snatches of My Way. It looked like he may have slept in a bin.

Only at Bohemian Night could a young chap wearing a fuzzy wig bound up to the mike, all puppyish enthusiasm, and announce “I’m Dunstan McFunkstan, and I’ve got a bag of comedy!” (if he honestly did, it was empty). And that’s before we get to the performance poetry, which was usually my cue to go up to the bar. Every now and again someone with genuine talent would show up at Bohemian Night and I’d enjoy their act, safe in the knowledge that I would never see them again. I loved it: I went every week without fail.

All good things must come to an end, and the 3Bs closed in 2011. Then, last July, the council announced that it would be reopening in the autumn. Signs were up by October 2018 declaring that it would be called Lains. Well, the council is as good at opening restaurants on time as it is at filing accounts, because it wasn’t until September this year that it finally opened, having changed its name in the meantime to The Pantry. The council’s announcement was full of the usual buzzwords about how the “Executive Chef” (why a café needs an executive chef is anybody’s guess) would use local produce to create a “scrumptious and inventive menu”. That was all the incentive I needed to take a trip down memory lane one weekday lunchtime with my other half Zoë, herself a fan of the 3Bs from back in the day.

It may have opened a year late, but the fit out really is lovely. At the front, where the bands used to play, there’s an attractive banquette and all the chairs are tasteful and muted, as is the paintwork. It was weird to look at it so transformed, but simultaneously quite heartwarming to see it back in use. There was still an icy blast every time the door opened and closed though: some things never change.

Menus are on the table but you go up to the counter to order. There’s a brunch menu, most of which is available all day, pizzas (which are “baked in our stone based oven”, whatever that means), three salads which you can pair with quiche, a sausage roll or a Scotch egg and a “sandwich of the day” (fish finger, on my visit) and “international dish of the day” (goulash).

The selection of cakes looked quite appealing, but the whole thing reminded me of something: I used to work somewhere where the staff canteen was run by facilities company Gather & Gather, and the menu here felt very similar, only more expensive. I wanted a pizza, but the gentleman behind the counter told me that they were out of pepperoni – I concealed my incredulity – so we ordered two things from the brunch menu, to find out whether the Pantry might be the brunch spot central Reading has long needed.

While I waited for brunch to arrive, I sipped my latte – a truly dire coffee, burnt and bitter and well below the standard of a Pret, Nero or Costa, let alone Tamp or Anonymous. Quite a few members of staff, all in their branded aprons, milled listlessly around the café, dusting unoccupied tables, making the smallest of adjustments to the position of the menu on the table, all kinds of random things to keep themselves busy because the truth was that the place was hardly rammed.

What customers there were were either parents with kids (half-term, of course) or people considerably older than me: no hip young gunslingers to be seen. It reminded me, more than anything, of the John Lewis Café, with the general complacence of not wanting to be any more than Only Just Good Enough. Perhaps the food would change that, I thought.

When it arrived and was set down in front of us by one of the serving staff, one obvious thing was missing: cutlery.

“We’ll need some cutlery for that” I said.

“It’s up at the front by the counter” she replied, without making eye contact. I waited for the second half of the sentence until, after what felt like quite some time, I realised that there wasn’t going to be one.

“Right. I’ll go all the way up there and get it then” I said, leaving aside the second half of my sentence, namely while you carry on dusting tables and being spell-bindingly bad at customer service. It was one of those moments when, like Tim from The Office, you just wanted to look sidelong at a camera in complete bafflement.

I had gone for “pulled pork waffle with spicy beans” and it truly was a miserable specimen. The waffle was lukewarm, doughy and stodgy. The majority of it wasn’t covered with anything – sauce or melted butter – and in the middle was a damp clump of what you could loosely call pulled pork. It was a pretty miserly helping, wet and claggy with big white globs of fat in it (I took them all out and put them to one side: my plate was collected later on without comment). Some crudely torn salad leaves were plonked on top, possibly as a garnish and possibly as concealment. I’m currently thinking about writing features on the best brunch in Reading and the ten best things you can buy for under a tenner: you can safely say this dish won’t feature in either.

“The waffle feels like a gimmick” said Zoë, attacking her dish. Her waffle came with smoked salmon, cream cheese, avocado and lemon zest. There was plenty of salmon, but it was extremely bland with no real hint of smoke. The avocado was as cold, hard and joyless as senior management. The lemon zest was a lovely idea but it wasn’t clear it had ever really made it on to the plate. More of that bloody foliage had, mind you.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“Meh. I wouldn’t have it again. And it’s definitely not worth eleven pounds twenty.”

She was right (and charging that extra twenty pence was downright odd). You could get an infinitely better brunch at Fidget & Bob for far less money, miles better pulled pork at Bluegrass and for that matter the Lyndhurst’s chilli beef nachos are streets ahead of either dish and they cost less than seven pounds. As it was we both finished our meals, with no real enthusiasm, and a sense that I’d just wasted money, time and calories.

“It’s a shame your coffee was so crappy” said Zoë. “I can see this might be a nice place to come for a cup of tea and a piece of cake.”

“Those are literally the only two things they can’t fuck up.” I said, as we watched a mother at a neighbouring table treating each of her kids to a bowl of what looked like oven chips – hardly “scrumptious and inventive” but at least, at two pounds a pop, better value than anything we’d eaten. The whole thing – two brunch dishes, a latte and a cup of green tea – came to twenty-five pounds, not including service. I’m depressed to say that by the time we left, the place seemed to be filling up.

If I had to sum up the Pantry, I suppose the easy way to do it is to say that it’s exactly what you would expect a café designed by any local authority, let alone this local authority, to be like. It’s bland, inoffensive and unimaginative. How an “executive chef” came up with something so nothingy I will never know; it’s a step up from jacket spuds with cheese and beans, I suppose, but only just. The brunch menu is one smashed-avocado cliché after another, the pizzas are a vanilla bunch (all of them more expensive than Franco Manca). Across the whole menu I didn’t see a single shred of evidence of creativity, or seasonality – unless it was goulash season and nobody told me – or anything other than tepid box-ticking. And let’s not even get on to the Pantry’s website’s absurd claims that the dishes are “prepared using artisan methods” – even if they do seem to have recruited artisanal table-dusters.

What really frustrates me is what a wasted opportunity the Pantry is. The council could have opened something which actually celebrates and adds to Reading’s food culture, rather than paying lip service to it with a clunking name. Just imagine what Glen Dinning could have done with that space if they’d let Blue Collar run the café, rotating street food traders with a licensed bar in the evenings: at a stroke, they would have had one of the most exciting venues in town. But no, instead you can enjoy pepperoni-free pizzas, burnt coffee and even more uninspiring waffle than you get in the council chamber. So it goes.

I’ll leave the last word to Zoë: “Maybe it’s called the Pantry because it’s pants”, she said.

The Pantry – 4.9
The Town Hall, Blagrave Street, RG1 1HZ

https://thepantrytownhall.co.uk/

Picnic

One of my biggest gripes about Reading is that there are limited options if you want a really good breakfast. I’m talking about crispy, smoked streaky, really good quality sausages, excellent toast, perfectly poached eggs and mushrooms by someone who knows how to cook them into sticky, salty perfection. Oh, and HP Sauce (I know some people like ketchup with breakfast, but then some people like Nigel Farage. It takes all sorts, I guess).

Ironically, your best bets tend to be the chains. And they’re not too bad, I suppose – Cote does a pretty good breakfast, especially their French version with a generous helping of crumbly boudin noir. Carluccio’s used to be top of the heap for me with their resolutely Italian take – thin translucent strips of pancetta, gorgeous wild mushrooms and herby, soft scrambled eggs with ciabatta toast – although recently they’ve tried to Anglicise it by slipping in an incongruous banger. And if you like that sort of thing, Bill’s has a lot of fans, although I’ve always found their breakfast a bit underwhelming.

Most of the independent places in the town centre fall down on the quality of their ingredients – bouncy sausages and pink rubbery bacon are the main culprits here – so I decided to act on a tip-off and drive out to a farm shop a short distance outside town. And it was going well until I bounded up to the counter only to be told that they’d stopped serving at 11.30 (brunch clearly wasn’t a word in their dictionary). Then I remembered that Picnic had recently started doing a Sunday brunch menu, so I did an about turn and headed back into town to give it a whirl.

Picnic is the grand dame of Reading’s lunch scene. It was truly trailblazing when it opened way way back in 2007, and since then it’s been pretty much packed every lunchtime, serving sandwiches, their legendary salad boxes (which change every week, so you need to check their excellent Twitter feed for details), pasties and sausage rolls from Green’s of Pangbourne and all manner of cakes to the discerning populace. They had a refurbishment earlier this year which changed the layout and gave them more working space, and I got the sense that this was to enable them to try some new things – including their brunch menu, veggie burgers and a wider range of salads (they’ve even bought a slicer and are serving charcuterie in some of them). So has that gap in the indie breakfast market finally been filled on Market Place?

Let’s start with the curmudgeonly, change-resistant bit: if I’m honest, I preferred the old layout. I miss the benches all along one side and all that space at the windows, looking across to Munchee’s and watching all the passers-by. Then it was cosy in an all-in-it-together way, now it feels a bit cramped and noisy and cluttered. Still, if it gives them a space to offer a top-notch brunch selection (among other things) it has to be a positive development, right?

They don’t offer a full-on English breakfast, so instead I went for a bacon sandwich. Picnic’s menu boasts that this is locally smoked and you can’t complain about the quantities in the sandwich – the sort of thickly-packed stack of dead pig that would give the World Health Organisation conniptions. The bread was toasted granary and there was a decent smudge of brown sauce in it. It should have been perfect, but what let it down was that only the bread was hot; the bacon was warmish, and I got the distinct feeling that it hadn’t been cooked to order. Perhaps this is unreasonable of me, but for me half the fun of a bacon sandwich is that the bacon is sizzling fresh off the grill and stuffed into the bread, juices melting into it, all crispy and piping hot. This sandwich was quite nice, but it wasn’t that – and if I’d known that I might have gone for something else. Oh, and the napkin had been unhelpfully stuck right under the sandwich (always a bugbear of mine).

PicnicBacon

The other dish was avocado, tomato and harissa on toast. The London style of smashed avocado (with all the requisite extras like lime juice, fresh mint or chilli, all on a nice slice of sourdough) totally hits the spot for me so I fancied seeing what the closest alternative is out here in the provinces. The offering at Picnic was much simpler – a single piece of toast (granary, but thinly sliced enough to appear to be from a “normal” loaf, sadly) spread with harissa, with tomato and half an avocado fanned out on top. There was a bit of dressed salad on the side, which felt a bit like it was hiding the fact that there wasn’t much on the plate (and who has salad with brunch, really?).

The avocado was a little on the firm side – I like it closer in texture to butter than potato, personally – and the tomato was just a bog standard round tomato but the harissa added an extra dimension. The chilli heat and the sweetness of the spices brought everything together and made it a bit more interesting (and it’s an idea I will definitely use in anything I ever get round to cooking at home) but still, it was half an avocado to which nothing had been done, some tomato and a one slice of bread, rather than the mashed avocado and sourdough I had ordered in my head. For a fiver it felt like it was bordering on cheeky. Still, at least they didn’t put the napkin under the bread.

PicnicAvocado

Brunch would be nothing without a nice hot beverage. Mocha was pleasant, though more chocolate than coffee, and Earl Grey was decent (but it’s hard to mess up a bag in a cup of water – though lots of baristas will have a bloody good go). Service is minimal because there is no table service, but the young ladies (and it is exclusively young ladies working here, except for the owner. He’s like Reading’s answer to Bosley) are really friendly, extremely helpful and very nice indeed and the tables here are cleared regularly, as you’d expect – but not always get – with a high customer turnover. The total bill came to just under fifteen pounds for brunch and a hot drink each. Not a huge amount of money, but perhaps expensive for what it was.

Realistically, whatever I say about Picnic in this review it won’t make anyone go there who hasn’t, or stop any regulars from going back. Which is as it should be, because it’s a local institution which has done as much as anywhere else in town to shape the way people in Reading eat. And it’s still a favourite of mine for sandwiches, (goat’s cheese, honey and walnuts is one I keep going back to), salads (ditto for the peach, mozzarella and parma ham), soup (pea and blue cheese!) and the occasional shameful Cornish pasty. It’s tough being a trailblazer, because people expect you to keep doing it – and I know how they feel because, like Picnic, I was the future once. Perhaps, instead of being slightly critical about the food I should applaud the ambition, because despite finding the brunch a tad disappointing I can’t help but be impressed that, after nearly a decade, they’re still trying something new.

Picnic – 6.8
5 Market Place, RG1 2DP
0118 9589292

http://www.picnicfoods.co.uk/

Café Yolk

Café Yolk stands apart from all the other places I’ve reviewed so far in one important respect: it’s the first establishment I’ve visited that was completely full. When I arrived, at Saturday lunchtime, practically every table was occupied (except for the ones outside which seemed a bit hopeful on a crisp November afternoon) and it took a little while before I could sit down and peruse the menu, written out, blackboard-style, on the back wall.

To understand why, you need to look beyond this little, attractive-looking café, tucked away on the edge of Reading’s leafy university area, and wander into the altogether more weird and wonderful world of the internet. Yolk, you see, is incredibly popular. Active and engaging on social media, they are (at the time of writing) ranked second in the whole of Reading on TripAdvisor: a glowing review goes up every few days, all praising the breakfasts, which are said to be the best in Reading. How could I resist going to see what the fuss was about?

The first thing I noticed, apart from how busy it was, was just what a loud room it is. It’s all hard chairs and bare walls, and that many tables of people chattering away creates an almost deafening cacophony. Yolk has definitely made the most of its location, and most of the clientele are students; skulking in the corner I felt a bit like I’d wandered into an episode of Skins by mistake. The tables are bog-standard café issue (mine hadn’t been wiped when I sat down – always a nice first impression, that) and the chairs were the kind of rigid stacking kind you wouldn’t want to spend too much time on, but all of that is beside the point, right? Because it’s all about the breakfast.

There are no paper menus, but looking at the blackboard the emphasis was definitely on breakfasts and burgers, the latter described as the “lunch menu”. Once the queue had cleared away (which, bizarrely, took some time – where were they all sitting? Was there a secret basement I didn’t know about?) I went up and placed my order; full English with well done bacon and a Swiss cheese and Portobello mushroom without toast. I had to repeat my order, as if I’d asked for something extremely complicated.

There was no coffee because the machine was broken that day, so I got two large teas. This gives me an opportunity to indulge in my first rant of this review, because Café Yolk charges extra for a large tea. You might think I’m a bit odd for objecting to this, but I think this is nothing short of a scandal. It’s hard to imagine a product cafés make more money on than tea. I know how much it costs to buy a box of teabags, and how much it costs to boil a kettle; charging one pound fifty for the privilege is verging on extortion at the best of times. But an extra twenty pence for a little more water? Really, it’s taking liberties with a good proportion of your customer base. Anyway, I took my two cups of hot water with a teabag in them, each costing me the best part of two pounds, and walked all the way to the other side of the café to put milk in them.

I know, I know, I’m whinging. But it’s beside the point, right? It’s all about the breakfast.

Our food took a reassuringly long time to turn up – nobody wants to feel the ping of a microwave is involved in the most important meal of the day – and the chap delivering the food was cheery and keen to bring over any extras (butter, sauces etc.) which was a nice contrast to the counter service.

The full English, which costs five pounds ninety-five, contained all the staples: a rasher of bacon, a sausage, a fried egg, half a tomato, a mushroom, some baked beans, toast and sautéed potatoes. For me, the quality of a breakfast stands or falls on the meat products and these were middling at best. My rasher of back bacon (why is it never streaky?) wasn’t well-done in either sense of the word, although looking at the bacon arriving at other tables it wasn’t quite as pink and flaccid as theirs. The sausage had the smooth bounciness of cheap supermarket produce – although at least there were some herbs in there so the taste was good, even if the texture wasn’t. The baked beans were good (school dinner style, cooked in a pan so they’re a little bit mushed, exactly how beans should be, in my opinion), although it shouldn’t be difficult to get baked beans right. The toast was thinner, whiter and cheaper than Miley Cyrus. Overall it was edible and sufficient but there’s no pleasure in eating that many calories with so little flavour. I didn’t find myself, at any stage, thinking “My! I am literally eating the best breakfast in Reading.”

Cafe Yolk 1The omelette, though, was really poor. A good omelette is thick, seasoned, gooey in the middle, folded over and full of wonderful things. What I got instead was a thin frittata, no seasoning, cooked completely through and rolled into some kind of surreal egg spliff. The Portobello mushrooms were in the middle, gently staining everything a murky grey. And the cheese? Rather than grate cheese into the omelette mixture, which might have made it taste of something, three slices had instead been draped on top of the whole affair, seemingly minutes before dishing it up. The irony of a place called Café Yolk doing something so awful to eggs wasn’t lost on me. Apparently their eggs are free range, and from a local farm; it’s a pity they don’t treat them better than this.

Cafe Yolk 2They should thank their lucky stars they aren’t called Café Mushroom, because the mushrooms were even worse. They seemed to have been prepared by someone who liked neither mushrooms nor cooking. Well cooked mushrooms are an amazing thing – all dark and sticky and savoury, salted, peppered, buttery, maybe with some Worcester sauce in there to complete the magic. These, instead, were flabby, drippy things, a limp parody of what I’d been hoping for. They were “cooked”, in the sense that they weren’t raw, but not cooked in the sense of having been prepared by a chef. If it wasn’t for the overpowering taste of vegetable oil I would have thought they’d been microwaved.

My omelette came with the toast I told them I didn’t want. I didn’t eat it.

I think I must be missing something about Café Yolk. It’s a lovely spot, with loads of potential, and it clearly knows what it’s doing. It’s identified a market, it’s got a strategy, and it is doing very nicely out of it. Maybe if I was a student this would be my favourite place in the world. But it’s many years since those happy days, and for me this was just a greasy spoon pretending to be something better. I left it wanting better: better ingredients, better service and above all better cooking. You can get better breakfasts at Bill’s or Carluccio’s, and you can get more honest breakfasts at dozens of cafes across Reading. I think Café Yolk is best summed up by the bacon that came with my Full English – they class that as well done, and maybe they believe it, but I don’t. If that puts me out of step with the rest of Reading, so be it.

Café Yolk – 5.2
44 Erleigh Road, RG1 5NA
0118 3271055

https://www.facebook.com/cafeyolk