Café review: The Collective

Some of the most prevalent of Reading’s many cynics are people I like to call the Not Another Brigade. They crop up all the time: Not another burger place, they say. Not another coffee shop. If I had a fiver for every time I’ve heard someone say that, I could open a coffee shop of my own. Shortly after doing so, I’d hear enough not anothers to be able to open another, and another, and another.

Although when it comes to burgers, they might have a point. Aside from Gordon Ramsay’s new outpost where Giraffe used to be, there’s one opening on St Mary’s Butts in the old Pizza Express site, one on the Oxford Road opposite the Broad Street Mall, one more taking up the Sprinkles Gelato building next to Smash N’ Grab, itself another – that word again – burger restaurant. Oh, and Slam Burger on Christchurch Green, which will offer burgers called the Big Slam and – ridiculous name alert – the “Beef Wooper”. There was once a Black Country establishment called Kent’s Tuck Inn Fried Chicken. Slam Burger could learn a lot from them: if you’re going to be shameless, at least be funny with it. 

Coffee shops are a different matter. People have been saying not another coffee shop ever since C.U.P. opened next to Reading Minster, but now C.U.P. has another branch on Blagrave Street and a third, a recent addition, in the Broad Street Mall. We get new coffee places all the time. Compound Coffee is now operating out of the ground floor of the Biscuit Factory, and something called “Artizan” (showing that swapping an S for a Z always makes a brand look classier) has opened in the building once occupied by Nineties throwback Smokin’ Billy’s.

It’s not a story of unchecked growth, though: the year hasn’t been without its closures in caféland. Earlier this year Anonymous Coffee pulled out of the Tasting House, shortly before the Tasting House pulled out of Chain Street. And only a few weeks ago punters heading for Tamp Culture outside the Oracle were surprised to find an empty space where the kiosk used to be. Tamp had upped sticks and left after over seven years trading at that pitch with no farewell: they’ve since put something on their website. Do these closures prove that Reading can’t sustain (not) another café, or is it just the circle of life?

One part of Reading that has traditionally felt poorly served for cafés is Caversham. There was a time when you had Costa and Alto Lounge, and that was pretty much it. Then in 2016 Tipsy Bean opened, serving something you could loosely describe as coffee, and so did Nomad Bakery. And for a while we also had Siblings Home, a little place on the Hemdean Road: I liked it a great deal, but its owners had a haphazard approach to some of the basics, such as being open when you’d expect them to be. Anyway, that flurry of activity didn’t last long – Nomad, Tipsy Bean and Siblings Home have all ceased trading.

But in more recent times, there’s been a new wave of cafés in Caversham trying to challenge the dominance of Costa. So now Geo Café, which is part cafe, part delicatessen slash general store, is where Nomad used to be, but you also have Gardens Of Caversham, a third branch of the Workhouse empire, in the old Lloyds Bank building. At the more traditional end of the spectrum, there’s the superbly named Nathan’s Nibbles. And up past the Griffin you’ll find The Collective, the subject of this week’s review.

It’s a combination of café and “lifestyle store” and it opened last summer, the brainchild of locals Sam Smith and Susie Jackson (although I gather the latter has now left the business). It’s built up a good reputation over the last year, even scoring a mention in cult coffee blog Brian’s Coffee Spot, and yet shamefully I hadn’t visited until recently, when I sat in their courtyard on a warm afternoon and had a coffee. I made a mental note that I should check out the menu, so I returned on a Monday lunchtime to see what the food was like.

The Collective has obvious kerb appeal. It used to be a newsagent, but they’ve done a fantastic job converting it to a double-aspect café and shop with big windows, and the overall effect is far more like something Scandi, or at least European, than any other café in town. There are a couple of tables outside on Church Road, a handful inside, and a courtyard out back which has the majority of the seating. Inside there are a fair few homewares on display, and a counter displays plenty of appetising-looking baked goods. You order at the counter, then take a number to your table.

My table was out in the courtyard, which is truly a gorgeous space. They’ve clearly put a lot of work and thought into it, with a lovely panelled roof letting in plenty of sunlight and keeping out any rain. I can imagine it being an attractive spot when the weather takes a turn for the worse, with plenty of tasteful overhead lighting which will help as the afternoons become gloomy. It felt very polished – I’m so used to cafés that open before they’re quite ready and always look somewhat unfinished, so it made a welcome change to go somewhere so fully realised.

And it was packed – I arrived just before one o’clock and got one of the last free tables. When I did, every table indoors was already taken and there was a decent queue building for the counter. It gave the whole place a companionable bustle, and I enjoyed sitting among the great and the good north of the river, although it did make me feel increasingly guilty about taking up a table all to myself.

The menu sensibly doesn’t try to do too much, with sections for brunch, sandwiches and salads. There’s nothing as pedestrian as a full English, and the brunches are more Granger & Co than Gregg’s. Prices range from six pounds fifty to nine fifty, and there’s a selection of sourdough toasties including a regularly-changing special. Suppliers are name-checked – not enough places do this – so you know that the bread comes from Rise, the bacon from The Caversham Butcher and the eggs from Stokes Farm. I didn’t clock who makes the cakes, so it’s possible that they use a selection of suppliers for those.

I was sorely tempted by the mushrooms, glossy with tamari and tumbled onto toasted sourdough, after seeing them arrive at a neighbouring table, but after mulling it over I opted for the bacon and maple syrup brioche French toast. And a good decision it was too: just look at it. 

Not bad, eh? But it didn’t just look the part – which is crucial, because this is a dish that’s easy to get wrong in many ways. You can over-soak the bread with egg, so that eating it becomes a stodgy chore. Not so here: The Collective wisely used brioche which made it airy, beautifully light. You can use back bacon – the enemy of brunches everywhere – but The Collective has gone for thick, crispy streaky bacon which was cooked bang on. Or you can be stingy with the maple syrup. So many places are, giving you one of those depressing minuscule cardboard cups, barely half-full, to trickle over. Here, the whole thing swum stickily in the stuff, exactly as it should.

This dish costs nine pounds fifty, the most expensive thing on the menu. That pricing could be seen as on the sharp side, and if you charge that much you have to get everything right, but The Collective did. I wouldn’t be doing my job as Reading’s answer to Craig Revel Horwood if I didn’t say that the icing sugar dusted on top was probably unnecessary, or that in an ideal world there would have been at least a third rasher of bacon, but those are minor details. It was a cracking brunch dish all the same, and one I’d order again without hesitation.

Coffee is by Extract, a Bristol roastery, and I liked it: definitely at or around the standard of The Collective’s neighbours. And, partly to test more of the menu but mostly out of greed, I’d also ordered a double chocolate brownie. I do wish people wouldn’t put the napkin under the cake – a hill I’ll probably die on, some day – but the brownie was impressive work, a brittle exterior giving way to a fudgy core, with tectonic plates of chocolate studded throughout. Only a slightly aggressive sweetness marred it a tiny bit: it either needed less sugar, or darker chocolate. But again, there’s a note of Revel Horwood to that observation, because I had to look hard to find any fault.

Service was a tad brusque when I first got there, for one obvious reason – they were rammed. But things got warmer and smilier as the café calmed down slightly, and the lady who took my plates away told me they weren’t usually anywhere near this busy on a Monday lunchtime. “Shouldn’t they all be at work?” I asked, fully aware of the irony in that. My meal – brunch, a latte and a brownie – came to just shy of sixteen pounds, not including tip. I walked home, propelled by a slight sugar rush, keen to get back and write this.

I was delighted to like The Collective as much as I did. It strikes me that all of Caversham’s cafés (well, ones that aren’t Costa, anyway) bring something different to the proverbial table. Gardens Of Caversham is for coffee purists, Geo Café has a particular and distinctive charm. Nathan’s Nibbles has an almost unimprovable name. But The Collective, it seems to me, is the natural successor to the much-missed (by me, anyway) Siblings Home – stylish and poised, with that interesting blend of hospitality and retail.

It also happens to cook one of the best brunches I’ve had in Reading – easily better, for instance, than Café Yolk’s. The contrast with Café Yolk is an apt one: The Collective is sleek and grown up, it buys good produce and it makes the best use of it. It feels very ‘Caversham’ – but, more than that, it reflects how Caversham would like to see itself rather than how it sometimes is (and, for the avoidance of doubt, I mean that as a compliment). So yes, another café. But more importantly, an extremely good one. Reading can always do with more of those.

The Collective – 7.9
25 Church Road, Reading, RG4 7AA
0118 3272728

https://www.thecollectivecaversham.co.uk

Café review: Café Yolk

When I started to re-review venues this month, I had a couple of criteria in mind when deciding where to go. The older the review the more sense it made to return, to see whether things had changed. But also, the stronger my feelings at the time the more I thought I should try a restaurant again. With the places I liked, like Pepe Sale, I wanted to see whether they had stood the test of time. But even more interesting, I think, were the ones I’d enjoyed less. 

If they’d survived all this time then either they’d fixed whatever the issues were, or – and this is more likely – I was plain wrong about them at the time. And this brings us neatly to Café Yolk, which I first visited in November 2013. At that time I didn’t get the appeal, and I said so, and it generated the first controversy on this blog as a number of people lined up in the comments to tell me how very wrong I was (one of them, it turned out, worked for Café Yolk, a fact he neglected to mention at the time). 

I didn’t do it to be controversial – clickbait was barely a thing in 2013 – but it was my first experience of putting my head above the parapet, and it prepared me well, for example, for saying, a couple of months later, that I reckoned Sweeney & Todd wasn’t much cop. This was before culture war was a thing, back in the mists of time when you could express opinions on the internet without being hit with a tidal wave of bile. They were more innocent days. 

Anyway, nearly eight years has passed, and in that time Yolk has expanded, thrived and embraced social media. It has a dedicated fan base, many of whom would no doubt read my review from 2013 and not recognise the place I described back then. In the intervening years a friend of mine raved about Yolk, so I went there with her and had some far happier meals. And more recently, a number of people have told me on social media that I really ought to give it another go on duty, so I headed there on a sunny weekday for lunch with my other half Zoë in order to check it out.

First things first: I love what they’ve done with the place. In its early days Yolk was a small, cramped room with a handful of tables outside. They’ve spent a lot of money on a very tasteful expansion which has really transformed the corner of Erleigh Road and Hatherley Road – with a conservatory area with seating on both sides and an additional bright yolk-yellow awning covering more tables on the Erleigh Road side. 

Not only is it nicely done, but it vastly increases their seating. The open windows in the conservatory area, where I was seated, meant it was well ventilated, making for a brilliantly light, airy space. Good in summer, good in winter, covered when it rains and very Covid-appropriate: but more importantly, it just looked and felt good. Sitting on a battleship grey banquette, the whole thing almost felt Parisian to me – as close to Parisian pavement culture as you’re going to get in Reading, anyway.

The menu has been sensibly streamlined since 2013. Back then it featured omelettes and burgers and felt slightly all over the place, but now it’s centred firmly on breakfast and brunch, offering a full English, eggs Benedict, pancakes and French toast and a handful of other dishes. Only their biggest breakfast, the “Canadian”, tops the ten pound mark, while everything else hovers between eight pounds and a tenner.

Another change since my first visit: Yolk has done a lot of work, especially this year, teaming up with local suppliers. Coffee is now supplied by Anonymous and bread and pastries come from Rise Bakehouse. This is fantastic to see, although I do think they’re missing a trick by not making something of that on the menu. You order and pay at the counter so I went up to do exactly that, noticing while I was there that Rise’s attractive-looking cruffins were on display on the counter but not covered. That would have put me off ordering one even before Covid came along: such a shame, as this would an easy thing to fix.

The coffee came first, and it was properly lovely. Using Anonymous was an inspired choice and my latte was excellent – beautifully made, silky, without any bitterness. Not only that, but it was a huge coffee and a genuine bargain at two pounds fifty-five; I’m struggling to think of anywhere where you can get a coffee so good for so little. I’ve long thought that East Reading is lacking places where you can get a really good coffee. I’ve always frequented the AMT in the hospital – it has brilliant staff and their Froffee (an espresso milkshake) is a thing of wonder – but it’s nice to know that there’s now a credible alternative.

I had ordered the breakfast burger, which has always been my favourite thing on the Yolk menu. It looked every bit as good as I remembered – a golden brioche stuffed with a sausagemeat patty, well-done back bacon, an omelette and orange-looking American-style cheese. You used to be able to get one of these for the princely sum of six pounds fifty but that conservatory isn’t going to pay for itself, so the price has been upped to nine pounds fifty and they throw in a portion of herby fried potatoes, which I suspect come from a packet. 

That all sounds curmudgeonly, but I enjoyed it every bit as much as I remembered, if not more so. The bacon was superbly salty, the patty splendidly coarse and the cheesy stodge of the omelette added a comforting balance. The whole thing was a bit like an upmarket McMuffin (or Fidget & Bob’s knowing take on it, the O’Muffin), although I’d have preferred the floury firmness of a muffin to the brioche bun, pretty though it was. Even the herby potatoes had plenty of heat and crunch, perfect dipped in a little ramekin of brown sauce. Truly, I had ordered well.

There was only one problem, which was that Zoë had ordered less well. On paper, her dish had sounded fantastic – avocado on sourdough toast with salsa, lime and red chilli, topped with a fried egg and some bacon. And it looked the part: if you were judging on the photos alone, her dish looked far nicer than mine. But – and we’ve all known at least one person like this over the years – it’s not enough to be good-looking if you don’t have any substance to back it up.

“This doesn’t feel like a dish, it’s more like a collection of ingredients. They’re good on their own, but they don’t work together.”

Zoë sounded more like a restaurant blogger than I did, although in fairness it’s hard to sound like a restaurant blogger when your mouth is full of delicious breakfast burger.

“I’ll be honest, I was expecting your avocado to be smashed. And why have they put one of your pieces of toast on top of the other?”

“The menu didn’t say it was smashed, so I wasn’t sure it would be. But with the lime and the chilli, it has the ingredients of smashed avocado, they just haven’t smashed it. Maybe they think smashed avocado is a bit past it.”

“Not in Reading it isn’t.”

“And they haven’t buttered the sourdough toast, so it’s really dry. The only thing giving any moisture at all is the egg yolk.”

“I don’t understand why they bought in good sourdough and didn’t butter it.”

“I know. And nearly all of it’s cold. My toast is cold. I mean, the egg was hot once, but it wasn’t by the time this arrived. Only the bacon’s hot. Maybe they were waiting” – she shot an envious look at my plate – “for your burger to be finished. The salsa’s good though.”

To get over the brunch disappointment, Zoë had a chocolate chip milkshake which redeemed matters. I turned down offers to try it – she hadn’t wanted even a mouthful of my brunch – but I eventually relented and I could see why she liked it so much. 

“This has the coldness that was missing from your milkshake at Smash N Grab a few weeks back. Thank god I’ve had this. I only ordered the avocado on toast because you told me to.”

“I didn’t tell you to order that!”

“No, but you had the breakfast burger.” That envious look again. “And I knew we couldn’t order the same thing.”

The interesting thing was that in the time we sat in the conservatory, I saw five other tables order: at all but two of them at least one person ordered the breakfast burger. Was it a signature dish, a lucky guess, or had they been similarly disappointed by other dishes? I was half tempted to ask them, but thought better of it. Our meal – two brunches, three coffees and a milkshake – came to just over thirty-one pounds, not including tip.

Service, by the way, was good. Yolk has been hit especially hard by pings from the Covid app: I’ve seen posts from them on social media saying they’ve had to reduce their capacity because they didn’t have enough staff, and I imagine that’s because they serve a predominantly student customer base. But although they were rushed off their feet – Yolk never seems to be anything less than busy – they were friendly and efficient throughout.

Unquestionably, the Yolk of 2021 is a very different beast to the smaller café I visited the best part of a decade ago. The fit out is excellent, and they’ve made it a wonderful space to hang out with a tiny touch of Saint Germain des Pres about it (even if Zoë and I were a far cry from Sartre and de Beauvoir). The coffee is superb, and the breakfast burger deserves to be up there on any list of Reading’s iconic dishes.

And yet it did feel a little like Yolk fell a tiny bit short on the things that would take it from good to great. It doesn’t make sense to have wonderful cruffins out on display where people, masked or unmasked, can breathe all over them. It doesn’t make sense to deconstruct smashed avocado and dish up all the components without making it into the brilliant dish it should be. And it really doesn’t make sense to go to all that trouble to seek out good sourdough and then dish it up cold and dry. Yolk strikes me as a place that has bought the best, but doesn’t quite grasp how to get the best out of it. And interestingly, that was also the feeling I vaguely had eight years ago.

None of this will matter, of course. Café Yolk will keep packing them in, because it does what it does pretty well, and I imagine most of its customers won’t notice the things I picked up on, or will notice and don’t care. That’s fair enough, and I fully expect that Café Yolk will be going strong in eight years’ time. If I’m still running this blog in 2029 I’ll pay it another visit, and I’ll probably find this review as inaccurate as the one I wrote all those years ago. And between now and then, I can see them selling me rather a lot of takeaway coffees.

Café Yolk – 7.2
44 Erleigh Road, Reading, RG1 5NA
0118 3271055

http://www.cafeyolk.com

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

A more recent review of this restaurant exists, from July 2021. Click here to read it.

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