Restaurant review: Gordon Ramsay Street Burger

“What’s your angle for this one?” said Zoë when I told her this week I was going to review Gordon Ramsay Street Burger – or just Street Burger, because they use both interchangeably, but not Ramsay Street Burger which conjures up images of Lou Carpenter, a man a million miles away from being a beefcake. “You can’t go on about burgers again, because you did that a few weeks ago.”

“There’s only one thing for it, I’ll have to talk about Gordon Ramsay.”

Ah yes, Gordon Ramsay. What’s left to say about him, with his curiously line-free forehead, the gratuitous shirtless shots in Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, the countless omelettes contemptuously tossed in the bin and all those expletive-laden meltdowns (he may be one of the only people alive who swears more than my other half). And that’s before we get on to his complicated life: the man’s father in law went to prison for hacking into his emails, for goodness’ sake.

And yet, I don’t really have an opinion on Ramsay. I dimly remember Kitchen Nightmares being watchable and full of good sense: don’t do too much, have a compact menu you can actually execute, advice many restaurants would do well to follow today. And I watched some of his American shows, which were usually plain nuts, but after that I never gave him much thought, except to vaguely think he was gradually becoming a parody of himself, as so many of us do. Describing Gordon Ramsay: done.

I knew that Ramsay had a vast restaurant empire, that his eponymous restaurant in Chelsea still had three Michelin stars, and I knew he had trained under Marco Pierre White before fostering the talents of Marcus Wareing, Angela Hartnett and Clare Smyth, all now Michelin starred themselves. But I didn’t see Ramsay as a chef these days, any more than I did Jamie Oliver. Crucially, I doubted he had an awful lot to do with Street Burger, which opened last month in the Oracle.

But looking at TripAdvisor before my visit, I was struck by how many reviewers held him personally responsible for their meal. “Sorry Gordon, I won’t be rushing back!” said one, followed by “Sorry Gordon, I wanted nothing more than to enjoy your place today… but today’s food didn’t reflect you or your food at all”. I was reminded of the types who reply to celebrities on Twitter, blissfully unaware that their bons mots will never be read. “My wife and I were very excited to be going to Gordon Ramsay’s, albeit a Street Burger” said a third. And then the coup de grâce: “We had high expectations as it has Gordon Ramsay’s name attached” said a disappointed diner.

Come off it. Gordon Ramsay’s probably never even set foot in the kitchen of his Reading restaurant – hadn’t these people been to Jamie’s Italian? Yet other TripAdvisor writeups painted a positive picture: many praised the service, and a lot did that thing where they name-checked a particular server (Sam and Lauren seemed especially legendary). So, a curate’s egg: I reckoned that alone made it interesting enough to visit.

“I’ve read the TripAdvisor reviews” said Nick as we took our table, and I realised I might finally have found a dining companion who did more homework than me. “They’re surprisingly good, although people seem unimpressed by the bottomless soft drinks.”

We sat outside – a combination of my caution and a temperate evening – so we definitely didn’t get the best of the restaurant, because the inside looks good. It’s more reminiscent of an upmarket steakhouse than a burger restaurant: it’s how Miller & Carter ought to look, instead of resembling an airport Wetherspoons with its whiff of bad carpet and pre-vacation despair. Street Burger had booths and banquettes, fake brick-effect wall panelling and faintly abstract wall art and struck me as an agreeable place to spend an hour eating a burger. Maybe that’s why it was doing so well.

The menu purported to be a model of simplicity: any burger with fries and the aforementioned bottomless soft drink for fifteen pounds. A bit random, because it meant that their basic cheeseburger (the “O.G.R.”) cost exactly the same as the even more dismally named “#BAE Burger” – yes, it honestly has a hashtag in the name – which is the same, but with bacon and a fried egg.

Names aren’t the restaurant’s strong point – their lamb burger is called the “Where’s The Lamb Burger?”, which strongly implies that it doesn’t contain any lamb. It does (a sharp-eyed reader has since pointed out that this is an in-joke referring to a much-memed moment: if you’re explaining, you’re losing). But what do you expect from a restaurant that calls itself “Street Burger” when it’s neither street food nor even – in the case of the Reading branch – on a street?

It’s a more limited menu than at Ramsay’s original burger restaurant in Vegas. There you choose from eleven different burgers (including the “UK Burger” made with something called “Dubliners’ Cheese”: geography’s not a strong point either). But in Reading there are just three beefburgers, that lamb burger, a chicken burger, one vegetarian and one vegan option. They don’t say anything about gluten, so I can’t say whether they offer gluten free buns.

The devil was in the detail because it’s all about the extras. If you want to swap your bottomless fizzy drink for something alcoholic – two beers and just over half a dozen wines are on offer – or a milkshake, that will be four pounds. Sweet potato fries? An extra two pounds fifty. And you can “wagyu up” – because that’s a verb now, I’m afraid – for a fiver (“the reviews on TripAdvisor say it’s worth it, so I’ll definitely do that” said Nick). There’s also an extra called a “cheese skirt”, which sounds like something half of Buck’s Fizz would wear but is in fact an extra slab of grilled cheese.

We placed our order, with various add-ons and extras, and waited to see whether our mild to moderate cynicism would be justified. I should add that we had Lauren looking after us and she was unreservedly lovely all evening: bright, friendly and enthusiastic about the food (between us we ordered her favourite shake, her favourite burger and her favourite add-ons – and if she says that to everyone, she’s at least very plausible). We were one of only two groups sitting outside, but never felt forgotten or neglected. 

Both Nick and I have a weakness for milkshakes so we went large, so to speak; I have the build of someone who likes milkshakes, while Nick has the build of someone who likes milkshakes but does lots of running so he doesn’t end up looking like me. He loved his sticky toffee pudding milkshake (“it’s got nuggets of toffee all the way through it, exactly what I was hoping for”), I thought my Oreo milkshake was okay: clearly made with ice cream, and beautifully, head-freezingly cold, but I’d have liked it to be slightly bigger. I could have done without the squirty cream, which makes it look larger without bringing anything to the table. On the menu shakes cost six pounds fifty: both that, and the four pound upgrade, felt a bit sharp.

“I miss the milkshakes at Ed’s Easy Diner.” said Nick. You’d be surprised how many Reading residents have said this to me. “There’s nothing like a malted shake.”

Our food came out relatively quickly, and this was the point where we had to start eating both our meals and our words. Because really, there was lots to like. I’d chosen the fried chicken burger and was pleasantly surprised. It had good spice and crunch, a slightly soggy hash brown underneath, a good whack of cheese and a piquant bright orange sauce, much of which had seeped out onto the tray. The hash brown felt  like padding, and the whole thing was almost well-behaved and prim – you didn’t quite have to unhook your jaw to eat it – but what was this strange feeling? Could it be that I was… enjoying it? 

As if he was reading my mind, Nick spoke.

“You know what? This really isn’t bad at all.”

Nick had gone for the hashtag burger (I can’t type its real name out again, and you can’t make me) and again, it looked pretty decent – a sensible size with a glorious-looking fried egg and nicely crispy bacon in the mix (“it’s streaky”, he confirmed). A good firm brioche bun, too, which didn’t go to pieces the way, say, Honest’s sometimes can. Nick seemed to be thoroughly enjoying it.

“It’s not as hot as it could be” he said, “because they’ve used these stupid trays.”

“Tell me about it, mine too. It’s like the hubcaps they use at the Last Crumb that mean your pizza’s cold by the time you’ve finished your first slice.”

“But that aside, it’s really good. These chips are good too – they’ve got proper crunch to them.” I agreed with him, and even as they got a little lukewarm they were still well worth dipping in ketchup and dispatching.

“Was it worth upgrading to the wagyu?”

“Not really, but then I’ve not had their normal beefburger.”

“But how does the wagyu compare to, say, a normal burger from Honest?”

“I can’t say I notice enough difference.”

We’d also ordered onion rings and, just as with the rest of our meal, they were well executed, but with just enough shortcomings to irk you. Laying them all out flat on one of those thin trays, in a weird homage to the Olympic logo, just meant they went cold quicker (and exposed how few you got). But even so, they were worth ordering – they held their shape well and the batter had seeds in it which gave an excellent texture and an extra dimension. They were great with both the dips they came with and again, even as they cooled we still wanted to polish them off.

“I prefer these to Honest’s onion rings” said Nick. “With those, some of them feel like they’re practically all batter.”

Having unexpectedly won us over with the food, reality bit when our bill arrived. All those extras mount up, and our bill – for two burgers, fries and milkshakes with a portion of onion rings – came to just shy of forty-eight pounds, not including service. But another feature of Gordon Ramsay Street Burger, which has attracted a fair bit of ire online, is that the “optional” service charge is a whopping fifteen per cent. 

That’s one thing, but the way it’s presented on the bill is disingenuous. Nowhere on the bill does it tell you what percentage they’re using, but because the service charge appears directly below the line breaking down VAT at 12.5% it felt to me like some deliberate misdirection was taking place. I paid it happily, because Lauren was excellent, but if I’d had a burger and fries and spent some time serving myself refills of bottomless soft drinks I might have felt peeved about being stung for fifteen per cent.

We left discombobulated and in need of a drink – and even now when I reflect on Street Burger I’m not entirely sure what I thought, because it confounded my expectations in almost every way. The interior was nicer than I thought it would be, the service was excellent, the food is well done. I could say that the menu isn’t the widest, but I can hardly blame them for following that advice on Kitchen Nightmares from all those years ago. 

It’s undeniably expensive, though, and that’s probably the single biggest thing counting against it. For forty-eight pounds I could eat more, and better, food at many other restaurants in Reading. If I wanted a burger, fries and a shake I’d probably spend around the same at Honest. And Honest always crops up when you discuss burger places in town: that’s how good it is, and how far above the rest of the pack it remains after all these years. Street Burger’s pricing structure is weird and expensive, and Honest offers a better range and better drinks (although I prefer Street Burger’s chicken burger, believe it or not). 

So would I go back? Actually, yes. Possibly. At some point. Because the other surprise for me is that this was pretty much the antithesis of greasy, sloppy hipster joints like 7Bone. Portions were restrained – not small per se, but not the kind of overload you might be used to at other places. And I found I rather liked that, against my better judgment. You could almost call it demure, which makes it even weirder that customers have convinced themselves that it’s somehow built in the image of Gordon Ramsay. To paraphrase the great man himself, like fuck it is.

Gordon Ramsay Street Burger – 7.1
Riverside, The Oracle, RG1 2AG
0207 3529558

https://www.gordonramsayrestaurants.com/street-burger/reading/

Takeaway review: Shake Shack

Well hello there! Welcome to this week’s review, where I go back to trying takeaways and search desperately for interesting things to say about Shake Shack.

I know my reviews never start this way. You’ve read enough of them by now, I imagine, to know the structure. I start with a preamble that puts things in context, talks about the place I’m reviewing this week and why I chose it. Is the new joint that’s opened the biggest and best? Why doesn’t anywhere in Reading do good food of this or that cuisine? Is the place I visited a few years ago still any cop? You get the idea.

Then I run you through the menu, and how prices range from bla to bla. If we’re in a restaurant, I’ll tell you what the room (or my table outside) is like, and if it’s a takeaway I tell you what I made of the delivery experience. Then I get out my Big Food Thesaurus, because every restaurant reviewer’s got one, and describe the dishes – spoiler alert, if it’s a takeaway it’s often not quite hot enough – trying to avoid wanky words like “bosky” or ones, like “unctuous”, that people bandy around without understanding what they really mean.

I also throw in some choice remarks from whoever’s eating with me that week. Because the more of somebody in the review who isn’t me the better, am I right? Usually that’s my partner Zoë, who’s much more quotable than I am. But Zoë is joining me for fewer reviews at the moment, because we’re going to a wedding in a couple of weeks and she wants to wear an outfit that, in her own words, “doesn’t come with guy ropes”. So other times a friend of mine comes along, and I might also spend some time describing them; these reviews don’t clock up their massive word count by themselves, you know. 

Anyway, then I tell you what the service was like, how much it costs and whether it was good value, and finally I inelegantly loop back to the preamble and tie it all together with a pretty bow. That’s the formula, and you’ve all flown with me often enough to know that perfectly well. Thanks for choosing my blog today: the emergency exits are here, here and here, and I hope you have a very pleasant onward journey.

My reason for opening the figurative kimono this week is that my takeaway from Shake Shack was so nothingy that it was a challenge to hold all the details in mind, like trying to recall a dream days after you wake up from it. At least with some dreams you actively want to remember them – winning the lottery for instance, being on holiday, or having it off with your favourite film star – but I doubt most people would long to dream about Shake Shack. I think I can understand why some “proper” restaurant reviewers spend the first half of their reviews talking about something that has nothing to do with the restaurant: they’re probably just bored.

Sorry, I should at least tell you something about Shake Shack first. It’s an American chain – yes, another one – that started life twenty years ago as a solitary hot dog stand in New York’s Madison Square Park. Restaurants like to make much of where they’ve come from when their back story is like this, possibly so you won’t pay quite so much attention to where they are now. 

And where Shake Shack is now is a big chain with two hundred and fifty locations worldwide, including ten in the U.K., the majority of them in London. They opened in the U.K. the same week as Five Guys, although Five Guys has spread further and faster, possibly because it’s backed by Charles Dunstone, the billionaire co-founder of Carphone Warehouse. That might explain why Five Guys has been ensconced in Reading for eight years, whereas customers only got to try their rival from late last year, when Shake Shack teamed up with Deliveroo Editions to start selling to the people of Reading from that dark kitchen near Phantom Brewery.

I ordered from them this week out of pure curiosity: just as with Rosa’s Thai, the other London import on Deliveroo Editions, I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. I can be as meh about burgers as the next person, quite possibly more so, but I always got the impression Shake Shack was more highly rated among burger anoraks than Five Guys, the Burger King to Five Guys’ McDonalds (although the burger chain people really want to see come to these shores is the elusive, much-fêted In-N-Out Burger). So I fired up Deliveroo on my phone on Sunday night to see if they offered something that the likes of 7Bone, Honest and Gourmet Burger Kitchen – now available on Deliveroo, surreally, from the kitchen of our local Carluccio’s – didn’t. 

If they did it wasn’t immediately apparent from the menu, which was streamlined and straightforward. You can have a burger, a cheeseburger or a “SmokeShack” burger (with smoked cheese and bacon) either as a single or a double. Their vegetarian option – there’s nothing at all for vegans here – was a fried portobello mushroom stuffed with cheese.  Double burgers come in at around nine pounds and you have to buy fries separately, which pegs the price pretty much at the same level as Five Guys, Honest and 7Bone.

They also did a chicken burger and nuggets, a “flat-top hot dog” (which looked genuinely unpleasant in the photo) and a limited edition selection of Korean-influenced dishes making liberal use of gochujang. Most of the chicken dishes on the menu were described as “chick’n” which did make me wonder if it was in fact, technically, chicken. A bit of research reassured me, but it still seemed like a weird, unnecessary turn of phrase. Anyway, we ordered a couple of burgers, a couple of portions of fries and some nuggets and the whole thing came to forty pounds, not including rider tip.

As is so often the way, everything happened either a little too quickly or not quite quickly enough. Our order was on its way literally twelve minutes after we ordered, and it got to the house in close to ten minutes. It was on the lukewarm side, but I don’t know if that was down to the rider or the packaging. Shake Shack proudly proclaims that all the paper used in their boxes is from sustainable forests: that may be true but it was pretty thin and didn’t look like it offered much in the way of insulation.

Zoë had picked the chicken burger – partly, it turns out, because she was a bit of an expert in this field. It looked pretty decent – a thick fillet with a crunchy coating and meat whiter than American teeth. She’d left the pickles out, owing to her long-standing aversion to vinegar, and replaced them with long crisp slices of raw onion, as a heathen would do. But she seemed to enjoy it, although she thought it needed to be hotter.

“It’s not bad. I’d compare it to the McChicken Sandwich – I used to eat that back in the day, and very good it was too. Then they they replaced it with something called the Chicken Legend in a ‘ciabatta roll’” – she conveyed the inverted commas through the power of disdain alone – “and that was rubbish. It’s dry as fuck, too much roll. It comes with a ‘cool’ mayo and I don’t like the taste of it. Now you have to have a chicken mayo sandwich from the Saver menu.”

“Don’t you have a mini fillet from KFC instead?”

“Not from the one on Broad Street” she said. I wondered if she was referring to the infamous rat incident from a few years back and then I remembered: she knew numerous people who had fallen ill shortly after eating there.

“Do you remember the McChicken Premiere? That one came in fake focaccia bread, and the advert had Dani Behr, dead behind the eyes, desperately pretending to sound excited about a chicken burger.”

“Never heard of it.”

I think Zoë ordered better than I did. I’d chosen the SmokeStack Double, the most expensive burger on their menu, a double patty with cheese, bacon and chopped cherry peppers. The way it had been packaged – part-wrapped but left open – might have been visually appealing, but it meant it was colder than it needed to be, and most of the cherry peppers stayed stuck to the paper when I picked the burger up. The remainder hung around, adding a sweet crunch that jarred with everything else.

Again, if it had been hot it might have been nicer, but I didn’t feel any real difference in quality between this and Burger King, let alone Shake Shack’s more direct competitors. The bacon was nice, the patties were reasonable – cooked well done, even though I hadn’t ticked the box to request that – but I struggled to think of a burger I’d had in Reading that left me as ambivalent as this. 7Bone may be a grease overload, but at least it tastes of something. Honest’s burgers are probably the benchmark. Reading’s street food options, whether it’s Boigers or the sadly-dormant Meat Juice, beat Shake Shack hands down day in, day out. And I couldn’t help but think of plucky little Smash N Grab, out on Cemetery Junction, infinitely more deserving of my money than this, even if their fries need work.

Shake Shack’s fries, by the way, are crinkle cut – that’s their shtick – and they weren’t bad, if a tad lukewarm. They were at least well salted, and I’ve always suspected that crinkle cut chips are just inherently better. Zoe had gone for the gochujang ones, which merely meant that they gave you little plastic pots of bacon and spring onions to sprinkle on top and a tub of gochujang mayo to dip it in. I’m not sure much sustainable paper was involved in all those tubs, and I’m also not sure it was worth the additional one pound fifty. “It’s real bacon though” said Zoë, her expectations low enough by this stage that this came as a pleasant surprise.

Finally, we’d gone for some of the gochujang “chick’n” bites. The menu said that these came with gochujang glaze and another tub of that mayo. I expected from that description that they would indeed be glazed, but actually they were coated and topped with a meagre drizzle of gochujang sauce which only covered three of the ten nuggets. The taste was actually quite pleasant: there’s a wonderful, deep, savoury note to gochujang, with a slight hint of fermentation and funk. But the texture was woeful, the coating soggy and pappy underneath, no crunch to be seen. The whole thing was so woolly and unmemorable that we left a fair few of them, including one weird mutant ubernugget that was as big as three normal ones. Imagine fried chicken you don’t feel like finishing. That used to be a lot more difficult for me to do before I ordered from Shake Shack. 

I found myself thinking of Honest’s recent Thai chicken special, fried chicken thigh honking with fish sauce and a honey sriracha glaze, topped with Thai slaw, ranch dressing and cheese. It’s one of the best things they’ve ever done, and one of the finest burgers I’ve had. I loved it so much I ate it twice – at the start of the month, outside, on Market Square, and again at the end, at home, after trekking into town to click and collect on the final day of the month, because I wanted to eat it one more time before they discontinued it. Compared to that, Shake Shack wasn’t even a parody. It was a travesty.

When I first finished my takeaway from Shake Shack I think I might have been in a salt and additive-induced coma. “It wasn’t that bad” I thought to myself, “except that it wasn’t hot enough. But if you lived north of the river, and they were close to you, it might be worth a delivery.” But now I now think that was the gochujang talking. Because really, Shake Shack feels like a boring, bland way of parting a gastronomic fool and their money. 

So if you live in Caversham, and I know legions of my readers do, don’t order from Shake Shack. Get your burger from the Last Crumb instead. If you’re out east, give Smash N Grab a go. If you’re in town on the right lunchtime, head for Blue Collar. And if you’re near the town centre, go to Bluegrass, or 7Bone, or Honest, or the Lyndhurst, or King’s Grill. Go to Burger King, for that matter. Go literally anywhere else, so that one day Shake Shack’s marketing people and the experts at Deliveroo Editions realise that a town with a vibrant food culture won’t be fobbed off with some mediocre pap just because it has a few restaurants up in London. That kind of bollocks might work in Basingstoke or Bracknell, but it simply won’t wash here.

I’ll leave the last word to Zoë, who summed it up neatly as she ruefully tackled one of those stodgy nuggets. 

“You’d be better off going to Gurt Wings, where you could get three massive strips and a fuckload of tater tots for the same money. That’s the thing, isn’t it? Indies do it better.”

They do. They nearly always do.

Shake Shack

https://deliveroo.co.uk/menu/reading/reading-editions/shake-shack-editions-rea
Order via: Deliveroo only

Restaurant review: Smash N Grab

Even this week, a full month after it opened, there are still queues outside Wendy’s on Station Road. I walked past on my way back through town around half-four on a weekday afternoon and was surprised to see a line of people waiting outside, desperate to get their fix. I guess all those puff pieces in Berkshire Live must have had the desired effect – who needs to pay for advertising when you have a local churnalism website desperate for copy? – but I still found it mystifying. Could the Baconator (all 960 calories of it) really be so amazing that a town collectively loses its shit? It seemed far-fetched.

The obvious thing to do this week would be to review Wendy’s: it’s been open for over a month by now, and there’s been so much hype that you might reasonably want to know what it’s like. But instead, you get a review of Smash N Grab, a little burger hole in the wall on Cemetery Junction, because I’m stubborn like that. And, to be honest, if you’re a regular reader of this blog there’s at least an outside chance you’re stubborn like that too. Wendy’s doesn’t need anybody’s help, not with our local media shilling for them, but even if Smash N Grab turns out to be good, in that location, it’s going to need all the help it can get.

The location in question is the little hut just next to the building that used to be the Granby: it’s now branded as Sprinkles Gelato, although the dessert place lies vacant, having closed at some indeterminate point last year. You could be forgiven for thinking that nothing survives on the junction, given that the Smash N Grab site used to house Caribbean takeaway Seasons, and after Seasons ceased trading another business called Hungry Hut opened (and duly closed) on the premises. 

Smash N Grab opened earlier this year, and its thing is smashed burgers. Smashed burgers, for the uninitiated, are burgers where the patty, rather than being carefully shaped, is smashed onto the griddle. The idea is that they are flatter, thinner and more irregular, meaning more surface area and more intense flavour from the Maillard reaction, that magical caramelisation that happens when meat meets heat. An occasional trader at Blue Collar called Boigers does smashed burgers, but in Reading the fashion is still for fatter, juicier, more conventional burgers, so I thought it would be interesting to see what the fuss was about. 

The thing that clinched it, though, was looking at how Smash N Grab operated online. Not on social media, although they have a well looked after Instagram account which regularly puts up very fetching pictures of their burgers. No, what impressed me was how they handled their Google reviews. They had gone in and replied to a lot of them and it was clear from what they said that they’d thought a lot about how to go about things: which buns to use, how to make the burger easier to eat, whether to make their own fries or buy them in.  

They also said something in passing that properly landed with me. It’s tough being the small fish, they said. So I decided to pay them a solo visit before the England semi-final while Zoë was working a late shift. I strolled down Erleigh Road, past MNKY Lounge festooned with bunting emblazoned with the flag of St George, big screen outside and its seats beginning to fill up. It was a warm, sunny early evening, and the air was thick with excitement and expectation – mainly, truth be told, from people who weren’t old enough to have experienced much football-related disappointment.

Although Smash N Grab really is just a small hut with no room to eat in, they’ve done a good job with the space outside which has four tables and would seat about a dozen people in total. The menu is incredibly straightforward – you pick your burger (mostly beef, although a couple of chicken options are available) and you can either turn it into a meal by adding fries and a soft drink for two pounds or fries and a shake for four. Smash N Grab’s beef is Angus and halal which also means that bacon isn’t an option with these burgers, although they do offer optional halal beef bacon which I didn’t try. The shakes are the other distinctive feature of the menu: they’re “cake shakes” which, from a Google, means that they contain milk, ice cream and, well, cake. They are, and I’m sure this won’t surprise you, an American thing. 

I felt like it needed to be done, largely because it was there, so I ordered their classic double cheeseburger, “The Regular”, with fries and a chocolate cake shake; it came to just shy of thirteen pounds. I paid at the counter and they told me they’d bring it out, so I took my seat outside and enjoyed the buzz of Cemetery Junction, watching the cars rushing home in time for kick off and the people wandering past, toting carrier bags laden with lager. 

Two young chaps, one with a crate of Budweiser, the other with a crate of Foster’s, sat outside waiting for their burgers. One was wearing an England shirt, and they smelled strongly of Lynx Africa and the unassailable confidence of youth. Or at least I thought so, until one of them complained about the front page of The Sun saying that the final was bound to be between England and Italy. “They’d better not jinx it” he said. Of all the things to take against The Sun for: still, you’ve got to start somewhere.

My cake shake turned up first, and although I did my best to wait until my meal had arrived curiosity got the better of me. It was very thick and chocolatey – it definitely tested the wide cardboard straw to its limits – and the chunks of cake in it felt pleasingly like cookie dough. It was a tiny bit synthetic-tasting, but that wasn’t offputting. The experience of drinking it reminded me a little of reading Take A Break on an airplane – hugely enjoyable, partly because I do it so rarely, but by the end I was glad it wasn’t a habit and I felt a tiny bit grubby (that’s not necessarily a bad feeling in moderation by the way: I’m happy that I tried it). 

If I had a constructive criticism – and constructively criticising a cake shake feels a bit like expressing the opinion that Mr Blobby might want to consider pastel colours i.e. somewhat missing the point – I would say that the shake needed more ice cream in the mix. I wasn’t sure it had any in it, but it would have made it a little thicker and a lot colder: what’s a milkshake, if it doesn’t give you head freeze?

Several forceful slurps into my milkshake a lady brought out my burger and fries. Let’s get the fries out of the way first – they weren’t good. They looked the part, from a distance, but up close quite a few of them had grey patches and weren’t too appealing. Smash N Grab is quite up front about the fact that they tried making their own fries but it was just too time-consuming: that’s absolutely fair enough, but they should consider buying in better ones. Not only that, but from the smell when they were frying and the taste when I tried them it felt a little bit like the frying oil had been round the block too many times. I didn’t eat many of my fries: the meal had quite enough calories already without adding empty ones.

Happily, the burger was another story. It was everything a burger should be but rarely is – well constructed, easy to eat, lots going on without being too busy. The patties had great texture – plenty of crinkly edges, charred and caramelised crenellations – and, crucially, they didn’t drip everywhere but were nowhere near dry or crumbly. There was a glorious layer of orangey American plastic cheese, slightly caramelised too from contact with the grill, and there were thick, crunchy pickles to add sharpness. A little caramelised onion relish gave just enough sweetness, and the whole thing was finished beautifully with Smash N Grab’s special sauce which threw a little heat into the mix.  

Like I said, plenty going on, but somehow it all worked together very nicely. Even the bun – sesame seeded, big enough to hold the contents and firm enough not to get soggy and fall apart – was well chosen. It was by the company that supplies Blue Collar’s Meat Juice with burger buns, which gave me confidence that they’d put as much thought into their burger as Meat Juice did (which is a lot). Honestly, I thoroughly enjoyed my burger, as you can probably tell by now. Halfway through the meal I wish I’d gone for the triple-decker “Beef’d Up”, so next time I’ll skip the shake and give it a try. “That’s what I would have had” Zoë told me. “Go hard or go home”. She probably had a point, although my arteries would probably have gone hard too.

As I was putting my empties (and most of the fries) in the bin, the owner came out and asked me how it was. I told him I liked it, which was largely true, and asked him how long they’d been trading.

“Four months.”

“And how’s business?”

A little shrug. “We have good days and bad days. It’s difficult, with town opening and closing.” As fortune cookie-sized summaries of what it’s like to be in hospitality in 2021 go, it took some beating. It’s tough being the small fish, indeed. I thanked him and went on my merry way, off home to watch England prove that sometimes it’s tough beating the small fish, too.

I really hope Smash N Grab do well. If it felt hit and miss, which it slightly did, the plus is that the core of their offering, the main thing they do, is pretty good. I liked my burger a lot, and I appreciated the care and thought that went into it. I’d definitely have one again, possibly their “Green Destiny” with garlic mayo and green chillies, which sounds rather marvellous. Their fries weren’t great, but that’s fixable, and although I had mixed feelings about the cake shake (I’m getting that sensation of grubbiness again just thinking about it) you can have a very nice meal there without one, if the idea doesn’t float your boat. 

They definitely add something to Reading’s food scene, especially in East Reading, and although you probably won’t feel like eating outside in the dead of winter they’re on delivery apps as well. I’m very glad I went there instead of Wendy’s: it feels like a better accolade for Reading that it has the first ever Smash N Grab, that the chap who owns it wanted to open here, than that we have the country’s first Wendy’s. It was the right thing to do this week – and every week, for that matter – to go to Smash N Grab instead of Wendy’s.

Looking back at this review I see I’ve done the classic feedback trick of talking about the things I enjoyed, the shake and the burger, either side of describing the chips. There’s a term for that: my other half, memorably, calls it the “shit sandwich”. It may well be a shit sandwich, I agree. But gladly, Smash N Grab’s burger is anything but.

Smash N Grab – 7.0
124 London Road, Reading, RG1 5AY
0118 9666743

https://www.smashngrab.co.uk
Delivery available: Via JustEat and Deliveroo

Takeaway review: The Reading Room at the Roseate Hotel

Normally with my reviews, as most of you know by now, you get a preamble. That’s the bit before I talk about the food – the bit some of you think is too long – that gives some context and explains why, this week of all weeks, I picked this restaurant of all restaurants.

I had a preamble all ready in my mind for this week’s delivery from The Reading Room, the restaurant that’s part of the Roseate Hotel. You know, what used to be Cerise in what used to be in the Forbury Hotel. In it, I was going to talk about how, oddly in 2020, Reading’s high-end dining scene saw more activity than you’d expect in the middle of a global pandemic. The Reading Room launched with a new fine dining offering and then the Corn Stores reopened with a constantly-changing Michelin-chasing tasting menu.

I would have gone on to say that both restaurants have pivoted in different directions in lockdown. The Corn Stores seems to have been offering a fancy, expensive, heat-at-home option, in keeping with other highly regarded restaurants nationwide (although best of luck finding any details on their website). By contrast, the Reading Room has chosen to offer gourmet burgers via the usual delivery apps, a limited menu focusing on quality.

I know, burgers. But then I remembered that it’s three years since I reviewed Honest Burgers, during which time they have established themselves at Reading’s favourite burger, the Coke to 7Bone’s Pepsi. And I wondered whether the Reading Room was a genuine contender to that undisputed primacy, so I decided to place an order and see whether they lived up to the promise.

Unfortunately, that preamble has been derailed somewhat by the Apocalypse Now of delivery experiences, one so horrendous that I can’t imagine myself ordering from the Reading Room again, or using Uber Eats for the foreseeable future. Those of you who enjoy my misfortune, and I know there are a few of you, will enjoy picking through the debris of this one. For my part, I’ll just tell you what happened and maybe you can decide whose fault, if anybody’s, it all was.

The Reading Room delivers through all three main delivery partners, but I fired up Uber Eats on a weekday evening to make my choices. The Reading Room’s options were nicely compact: there are three beef burgers, a chicken burger, a pulled pork burger, a “lean turkey burger” (do you reckon that really appeals to anybody?) and a couple of vegan and vegetarian options. They all come with fries and there are a few optional sides – chicken wings, onion rings, that kind of thing. The limited range was more Honest than 7Bone, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I placed an order at quarter past seven and twenty minutes later the app told me my driver was en route. It said he was making another stop on the way to my house, although the map of his route made it look like he was heading all the way across to the other end of town, but I decided to reserve judgment. And sure enough, he was outside my house ten minutes later, holding out a bag to me. So far so good, except that it had a Tasty Greek Souvlaki sticker on it, and somebody else’s surname scrawled on it in biro, all block caps.

“I’m really sorry, but this isn’t my order.” Funny how we always apologise in these circumstances.

“But this is the right address.”

“It might be, but I didn’t order from this restaurant and that isn’t my surname. We ordered from the Roseate Hotel, the burger place. The app said this was your second stop, are you sure you didn’t deliver our food to them?”

“No, I had to drop something off at the Roseate Hotel.”

This made no sense.

“Hold on a second” he said. A car was trying to pass on our narrow one way street, so he pulled away. I assumed he’d come back to continue the conversation, but no – he had vanished, never to return. Shortly after this, my phone pinged to notify me that the order had been cancelled and I wouldn’t be charged. I have no idea why they didn’t send me my food, but they fixed it quickly and the driver was perfectly pleasant, if a little rabbit in the headlights, so up to this point I had no complaints. Uber Eats even gave me five pounds off my next order, which seemed very nice of them.

I did what I expect most people would do in my situation: I fired up the app and reordered the same dishes. With hindsight, maybe I should have cut my losses: the alarm bells rang when about eight minutes later the app informed me that a driver was on his way with my food.

“That’s far too quick for them to cook it all again from scratch, isn’t it?” said my other half, Zoë. Quite.

Our second driver, who was also perfectly pleasant, pulled up in a black cab and got out holding a paper bag with our order in it. He may have had an insulated bag on the back seat but if so, I didn’t see it.

“I’m concerned that this might be my original order, which was ready over half an hour ago.” I said. “This has arrived far too quickly to be a new order. Can you wait while we just check if it’s hot?”

“Sure” he said. We took it into the kitchen and opened it up. It felt around half an hour from being hot – surely it had to be the original order, given that it had arrived so quickly? If they’d cooked it straight away at speed and the driver had scrambled it to us in five minutes flat, I would have expected it to be piping hot.

“I’m sorry,” I said – sorry again, for some reason which escapes me – “but this isn’t hot.”

“You’ll have to take it up with Uber Eats, I’m just the delivery driver” he said, and like that he sped off into the night. So, it was a lukewarm burger and chips for dinner and my main task was to try and work out whether, if it had been hot, it would have been the worldbeating burger you would hope to get from what used to be the Forbury Hotel. 

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that it’s a no from me. I went for the “Reading Room Prime Steak Burger”, their premium option with mushrooms, Stilton, tomato relish and “sticky bacon” which I opted to add on. According to Uber Eats the meat is “sourced from the Windrush Valley at the food of the Cotswold Hills”. 

Well, bits of it were nice. The Stilton had a good salty kick and I didn’t mind the tomato relish at all. But the bacon was a flaccid rasher of back, more icky than sticky, and the burger was chewy and unseasoned, grey rather than pink in the middle. I can only guess whether it would have been better straight out of the kitchen – possibly, yes, and that half an hour delay would have seen to any remaining juiciness, but the whole thing was dry and tasteless and I suspect that would have been the case one way or the other. The chips weren’t good either: the last time I had half an hour old chips was in a staff canteen, and even they were better than the Reading Room’s “skin on chips”.

Zoë’s pulled pork burger was a little better – “it’s stayed hotter because it has this big rosti on top of it”. The patty was minced pork, the rosti was apparently pretty good and there were some tender pieces of pork belly on top of the whole thing. “I’d probably order this again” was her verdict, although it’s hard to imagine a situation where that will ever happen. I’m not sure that you could ever describe this as a pulled pork burger, though, unless by “pulled” they meant “pulled a fast one”.

I don’t hugely like chicken wings as a rule, but my burger and chips were so dismal – I didn’t finish either – that I decided to try them. One was pleasant enough, the second had a fishy aftertaste which I couldn’t put my finger on. They were pretty much stone cold. Zoë, who does like chicken wings, could only manage one. “They’re overcooked and dry” was her verdict. A meal like this is barely a meal at all. It’s worse than a meal, the absence of a meal, and was worse than any of the things I could have cooked up with the contents of my fridge. 

After what passed for my dinner, I tried to get in touch with Uber Eats to complain about my cold, late food. Their app does everything it can to guarantee that you can’t speak to a human or call a phone number – to Deliveroo’s credit, they are at least contactable – but I went through the options on their help section and was told that somebody from Uber Eats would be in touch about the issues I’d raised. You can’t fault their promptness, because in less than half an hour I received an email. It didn’t give a phone number, an email address or any way to get in touch with them if you found the response inadequate, which is interesting given what it said. Here is a screenshot.

I contacted Uber Eats on Twitter to see if they wanted to talk about this, but I didn’t hold out much hope. Looking at their mentions, it seems they take over 24 hours to respond to unhappy customers, and I’m guessing that’s because there are so many of them.

“My food took 30mins to arrive after leaving. I’m one mile away. Food stone cold and incorrect” said one. In another, Uber Eats said that they couldn’t do anything because the order was placed 48 hours ago, although it probably took them that long to pick up on the complaining Tweet. “You keep sending me an automated message and ignoring the situation” said a third. My 29p credit probably puts me in the top percentile of people whose dinner plans are ruined. The worst thing is that it’s a credit not a refund, so I can’t even go crazy, go out and blow it all on some Space Raiders.

This is the tricky thing about this model with a middle man involved: the driver says you should complain to Uber Eats, whereas Uber Eats’ line is that you should just give the restaurant a poor rating on the app. I did consider contacting the Reading Room to get their feedback, but the website lists no phone number or contact details and the Twitter feed hasn’t uttered a word since summer 2019. It’s almost like they don’t want customers, which is probably for the best under the circumstances: I can’t see them getting any from this review.

I still don’t really know whose fault it was that I had such a dire meal. Was it Uber Eats, for some kind of software snafu that meant I never got my order from Driver A? Was it Driver A for making it to the Roseate and not realising that he was meant to collect some food there? Or was it the restaurant for seeing the second order coming in and thinking “well, we have that sitting here under the pass and we’ll only have to throw it away”? And weirdest of all, I’m giving the restaurant the benefit of the doubt by assuming that they sent out my food that had been sitting under the lights for half an hour – if it was a brand new order that turned up to my house, tepid and underwhelming, that would reflect even worse on them. 

Or, equally plausibly, maybe I am just a moron who should have foreseen that this was exactly what would happen if I tried to order exactly the same dishes all over again. Who knows? Answers on a postcard. In the meantime if you want a burger delivered to your home stick to Honest, and if you can order a takeaway directly from the restaurant instead of using a third party please do.

In any event, if you really do want Reading’s best burger these days, you need to make your way to Blue Collar on a Wednesday lunchtime and grab one from the dubiously-named Meat Juice. It only comes one way – with proper bacon, a slab of mature Cheddar, burger sauce and pickled red onion. The patty is made from minced chuck steak, perfectly seasoned with just a hint of chilli in the mix. There aren’t any fries with it and it will only set you back six pounds fifty. Eaten on a bench just round the corner from Market Place it is pretty damn close to perfection. 

Having said that, if you want a better meal than the one I had at the Reading Room, you could just go out and buy some Space Raiders: they would outperform it in pretty much every respect. I’d give you the money for that myself but I’m afraid it’s resting, Father Ted-style, in my Uber Eats account, unlikely ever to be redeemed.

The Reading Room
The Roseate Hotel, 26 The Forbury, Reading, RG1 3EJ
0118 9527770

https://www.roseatehotels.com/reading/theroseate/
Order via: Deliveroo, JustEat or Uber Eats

The Dairy

It was love at first sight when I first laid eyes on The Dairy. I’d been paying a visit to the MERL on Upper Redlands Road earlier in the day and I’d dimly remembered that The Dairy, one of the bars which was part of the University, was just down the road. I’d never been, so in the spirit of adventure I did a bit of research, checking out the sadly departed Matt Farrall’s excellent article on the subject for the Whitley Pump). Later that week, I dropped in for a drink.

When I got there, I was thoroughly charmed. It took a bit of finding – it’s pretty much completely unsignposted, and you access it by going up a ramp only to find an unadorned door with a simple plaque next to it saying “The Dairy” in a plain, municipal-looking font. Once I got there, though, I liked the look of the place: it’s made up of two big rooms with clean, white walls, sizeable tables (high ones in the main room, lower ones in the back room), comfy furniture and a wide array of decent beers on keg, including four different craft lagers and representatives from many of our local breweries: Siren Craft, Wild Weather and Elusive, not to mention other breweries like New Wharf and XT.

It’s a university bar, but it was open to the public and seemed to have a pretty varied clientele. Not only that, but even without a student discount you could get a pint of good, well-kept craft beer for around three pounds fifty. I found myself making a mental note that this could make a great place for board games nights with friends, or for a quiet pint on the evenings when I fancied a change of scenery from my usual haunts (it was sleepy on a week night at the start of term).

Then I spotted the menu. Now, normally I would never have considered The Dairy as a venue for a food review, but there were lots of interesting touches on the menu which made me wonder. Jerk chicken, curry mutton and Jamaican vegetable stew all looked different from the usual fare and even the burgers, complete with a very now charcoal brioche, seemed slightly out of the ordinary. I took a picture of the menu and resolved to come back to see if this could be the kind of hidden find which always lifts my spirits.

Returning on a Saturday evening with my partner in crime Zoë, The Dairy was much more obviously a student bar and was far busier. I felt a tad decrepit grabbing a stool at one of the high tables, and then swapping it for one better equipped to support my child-bearing hips. That feeling wasn’t helped by looking around to see hordes of young people watching the big screens, playing pool, eating all-day breakfasts (not something on the menu I had ever considered ordering, in all honesty, and especially not at eight o’clock at night) and generally not appreciating that they were slap bang in the middle of the best years of their lives.

I wandered into the back room to see if any tables were available there, but was greeted by such a wall of noise that I thought better of it. I did spot one gentleman at another table who was even older than me, and that reassured me enough to grab a menu. Broadly speaking it divided into two sections (unless you count a very small selection of starters and salads and – of course – that all day breakfast): world food and burgers. We quickly decided to try one of each and I went up to the bar to place the order. None of the dishes costs more than a tenner and once you hand over your card (the whole place is cashless) they give you a little gadget which buzzes when your food is ready, signalling for you to go and pick it up from the hatch. Easy peasy.

The first warning bell rang when the gadget buzzed, no more than ten minutes after placing my order; that felt quick enough that I wondered whether a microwave had been involved. I approached the hatch to find the food had been set down in front of me, but with nobody on the other side to greet me. The shelves behind were full of stuff from Brakes, another disconcerting sign. I would have just taken the dishes and gone back to the table but one of them, the mutton curry, was missing the advertised naan bread and mango chutney. Instead there was a small bowl of what appeared to be giant, wan-looking chips, stood upright. I waited, but nobody appeared, so I said “excuse me” as loudly as I dared and a lady wandered in from what I assume was the kitchen.

“I’m sorry, but I’m waiting for a naan bread” I said, doing the English thing of apologising for expecting to receive what I had ordered.

“It’s a mistake with the menu” I was told tersely. “It’s wrong. You don’t get naan bread, because it’s a Caribbean curry. These are yuca fries.”

Never mind, I thought, carrying everything back to the table and picking up some cutlery from the bar. The mutton curry was Zoë’s, but I managed to try enough of it to dispel the rumour that it had been microwaved: surely it would have been hotter if that was the case. The meat was a tad chewy – not undercooked per se, but not enjoyable to eat and the spicing in it was probably best described as subtle. It was definitely luke-warm, though, and for nine pounds the portion felt a little on the mean side. I didn’t try the yuca fries (although I did google them to find out that they were made of cassava) but Zoe ate a few without any real enthusiasm. They looked like the kind of thing you might use to insulate a loft.

“What do you reckon?” I asked.

“It’s just not hot. To be honest, I’d rather go to Clay’s.” She had a point – I would far rather have spent a little more and had an infinitely better curry elsewhere. I had a feeling the list of places doing a better curry than The Dairy – and this in itself was pretty alarming – probably included Wetherspoon’s. Still, I’ll say this for the mutton curry: it wasn’t the chicken burger, which is an early front runner for the single worst thing I’ll eat in 2019 (let’s hope it bags that prize, because I don’t really want to think about what, if anything, could beat it into second place).

The charcoal brioche was weirdly, cloyingly sweet. The bacon – back, cooked to miserable limpness – was indifferent and salty. The burger itself was breaded and I’m not sure whether it was baked or fried but the coating had the texture of an asteroid with no discernible seasoning: the chicken, once you got to it, at least recognisably had started life as a fillet but after that it had been not so much cooked as mistreated. The thin slice of American cheese on top had been completely unmelted by the lukewarm contents of the brioche. I wasn’t sure how the kitchen had managed to overcook something, yet it still wasn’t hot: I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

The “barbecue glaze” underneath it had the sort of gloopy sweetness which gave me bad flashbacks. There was something odd about the taste of the fries: it could have been that they were tepid, it might have been that they were stale, it might have been something else altogether. Running through the possibilities in my mind started to bring on reflux. I left a fair amount of this dish, and most of the fries, and things have to be pretty bad before I do that.

If the food had been good, there would have been more drinks. We would have checked out the dessert section of the menu and ordered the churros (“plain and caramel filled… served with butterscotch sauce”). But the food wasn’t good, and I needed to leave before I was completely put off The Dairy as a watering hole, and for that matter put off churros for life. The meal, along with a ginger beer and a very pleasant pint of Eisbar, a “Vienna style lager” by XT, came to just shy of twenty-two pounds. Service at the hatch had been pretty perfunctory, but the bar staff had been lovely and friendly (and one of them was very apologetic about it being her first shift). The whole thing seemed to reinforce my overall view, namely that The Dairy was a great place for a quiet drink but that nobody should consider eating there.

As we left, I was torn between feeling a little queasy and really wanting to eat some chocolate, or at least something that didn’t taste of the chicken burger. In the end I thought better of it, but that burger sat uneasily with me for the rest of the evening.

“I suppose the obvious comparison is the Oakford” Zoë had said while we were waiting for our food, before anticipation transmuted into disappointment, and I think in many ways she is right. For cheap, cheerful burgers, at least – although having done some research since the burgers at the Oakford are a little more expensive, mainly because fries are extra (though I don’t think anybody in their right mind would pay extra for The Dairy’s fries). But really, I couldn’t think of a good comparison: where else would the food have been quite so underwhelming?

I don’t know whether The Dairy’s dishes do come from a Brakes lorry (from the section of the website marked “for students”, perhaps), and you could say that I should have known better than to expect great food from one of the university bars. All I can say is that I was taken in by the menu, but more to the point I wrongly thought that the pride The Dairy had put into its drinks offering would be matched by the food. So I do have a new favourite watering hole, along with a salutary lesson that even after over five years of doing this I remain more than capable of making the wrong call and picking a duffer. I still recommend going to The Dairy for a nice pint if you’re in the area (and the benches out the front might be lovely on a summer’s day). Just make sure you’ve eaten beforehand.

The Dairy – 4.6
Building L14, London Road Campus, Redlands Road, RG1 5AQ
0118 3782477

https://www.facebook.com/londonroadcampus/