Competition: Honest Burgers

Regular readers might remember that back in August I ran my first ever readers’ competition in association with new kid on the block Pho. They contacted me in the run up to opening their Reading restaurant, initially asking if I wanted to go in and review them based on a comped meal. I said no, and instead we ran a competition together judged by Claire, the editor of Explore Reading. It all went swimmingly, and ER reader Aden had by all accounts a very nice meal there with three guests of his choosing. I’ve still not been on duty (I plan to turn up when they least expect it) but the nice thing about Reading is that there’s more access to reviews than ever before, so you can see perspectives on Pho here, here and here: a mixture of comped reviews and those where the writer paid her way, so you can decide which is more to your taste.

Anyway, Honest Burgers contacted me recently with a similar offer, and again I said that I couldn’t take them up on a comped meal. What became clear though, from my correspondence with them, was that they have a commitment to Reading’s independent scene unlike most chains I know of: their Reading branch, only the second outside London, will serve a special burger incorporating Barkham Blue from just down the road and roasted red pepper chutney from Reading’s very own Nomad Bakery. There will also be a special pale ale from nearby Wild Weather Ales which can only be found in the Reading branch and selected local pubs (I get the impression they rather enjoyed the process of researching it, and became quite a fan of the Nag’s Head into the bargain: this lovely piece by Wild Weather gives you some idea). Not only that, but Honest have also shown an interest in Reading’s independent websites, giving this great interview to Explore Reading in the run-up to them opening on Monday 18th December.

Anyway, more importantly they’ve also decided to team up with me to give ten readers the chance to win a pair of the Reading special burgers and a can of the Reading exclusive King St Pale from Wild Weather. Not a bad Christmas present, eh? Now, I like to make people get creative and work a little for competition prizes rather than just do a prize draw, so here’s what you need to do to win:

I want you to send me a haiku about Reading – to ediblereading@gmail.com – by 11.30am on Friday 22nd December.

Haiku are dead simple: they just have to have five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line and five syllables in the third and final line. They don’t have to rhyme or anything, and they just need to capture a moment or something about Reading, whether it’s the grand majesty of the Maiwand Lion, the frustration of being stuck in the traffic on the IDR for the four thousandth time, the buzz and bustle of the Oxford Road or the joy of spotting Reading Elvis in town waving his LP. I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with, and with ten prizes up for grabs your odds have to be pretty good, right? And really, don’t be shy. It’s just a bit of festive fun: nobody is expecting you to channel Basho or capture a sense of perfect Zen stillness in Caversham, I promise.

As usual an excellent competition prize requires an excellent judge and I’m delighted to say that John Luther of South Street has agreed to step in and judge this one. As the man responsible for programming at South Street, bringing the best and most innovative theatre, live music and comedy to Reading, John’s artistic credentials are second to none and I can’t think of anyone better to pick the prizewinning haiku (and, if you win and can’t decide who to take with you, I hear he’s really keen on trying the new burger: just saying).

Only one entry per person, but otherwise the usual terms and conditions apply: the judge’s decision is final, no correspondence will be entered into, the price of your burger can go up as well as down and if you enter after the deadline your entry won’t count but you may still be charged. Other restaurant bloggers are available. Thanks again to Honest for working with me on this. I really hope you give this a go in the run up to Christmas – how long can it take to write seventeen syllables? – and wish you the best of luck.

7Bone Burger Co.

N.B. As of August 2020, 7Bone has reopened and is taking part in the Government’s “Eat Out To Help Out” scheme.

I had it all figured out: I would go to 7Bone with my friend Ben, the biggest carnivore I know. A man who smokes his own burnt ends, a man who cooks gigantic barbecues in his back garden but omits the usual step of inviting people to help him eat the food. A man who, for years, had an annual Halloween festival at his house where he cooked the biggest piece of roast pork he could fit in his oven (he called it “Porkfest”: he has many skills but is never going to work in marketing). A man to whom Bluegrass BBQ has almost become a second living room. How, in all conscience, could I ask anybody else to try out Reading’s newest burger joint with me?

I say newest, but if there’s one thing you can guarantee it’s that it won’t be Reading’s newest burger joint forever, or indeed for long. The popularity of burgers, always baffling to me, shows no sign of abating. We’re going to get a Byron and an Honest Burgers, facing off at each other by Jackson’s Corner. Deliveroo Editions has just opened, giving you the opportunity to have Gourmet Burger Kitchen delivered to your house (provided you live in the RG1 postcode, anyway) from some shadowy central facility that I can’t picture without thinking of the headquarters of The Initiative in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. So 7Bone needs to impress, because its competitors are already waiting in the wings.

The week before our trip to 7Bone, Ben messaged me.

“I have decided that I’ll eat one of the vegetarian burgers.”

“This is a joke, isn’t it?” I replied. It had to be: Ben had no truck with vegetarianism (in fact I think he may even class it as a disease).

“Nope. I want to see if the falafel burger is any good, and if a committed carnivore like me thinks it’s good I’ll be doing your readers a huge service.”

I would have been a lot more impressed with Ben’s devotion to public service if I hadn’t noticed the following night that he was tagged at 7Bone on Facebook with his wife Lisa, no doubt eating his own body weight in dead animal. I picked him up on it when I turned up and took my seat opposite him. He sipped his beer and shrugged.

“What can you do? The kids wanted to go there.”

I wanted to point out that, funnily enough, Ben’s kids have never tried to drag him into an Itsu, but I decided it wasn’t worth picking him up on it. Instead I ordered a cider (Angry Orchard – American, apparently, crisp, off-dry and thoroughly enjoyable) then looked through the menu in the company of arguably Reading’s foremost expert: Ben probably knows more about that menu than most of 7Bone’s staff.

“That’s what Lisa had last time.” he said, pointing to the ‘Peter Green’ (a burger with chilli, cheese, mustard and jalapenos), “Or you could always have the ‘Robert Johnston’, that’s awesome.”

I found the names confusing. I could have understood if it was called Robert Johnson, although I still wouldn’t have associated selling your soul to the devil at a crossroads, with a penchant for truffled garlic mushrooms. And I could see that Peter Green was a blues guitarist, but if the theme was guitarists, what was the rationale for calling one of the burgers ‘Prince Charles Is Overrated’? (Overrated as a guitarist? I didn’t even know he played.) No wonder I felt a little lost.

There was also far too much dirt on the menu for my liking: here a “dirty spread”, there a “dirty spread”, everywhere a “dirty spread”. What with that, the “dirty slaw”, the “deep gravy” (what was it doing, quoting Sartre?) and the “naked raunch salad” the whole menu felt a bit unnecessarily pornographic. It reminded me of something my friend Tim said when I told him I was going to 7Bone.

“I can’t stand the way restaurants like 7Bone call everything dirty. They say ‘dirty’ but I just see ‘unhygienic’. Why would anywhere boast about that?”

Well, quite. Anyway, I ordered the ‘Robert Johnston’ (whoever he is – Wikipedia has a number of suggestions, none of which sound likely to crop up on a burger menu) and Ben ordered the ‘Juicy Boris’ – more smut! – the aforementioned falafel burger.

“So, you’re having a Boris Johnson.” said our utterly charming waitress, accidentally mangling and conflating our orders.

“That’s right.” said Ben, “I’m going to pop Boris’ juicy balls in my mouth.”

She seemed nonplussed by this. Then I suggested that if they ever did a ‘Boris Johnson’ they could put onion straws on top of the burger to simulate the hair and that’s when she accidentally knocked over my cider (it might have been the only way she could think of to stop us both talking).

They do a “red basket deal” at 7Bone where you get a burger and one of a set list of sides for a tenner, so Ben and I went for that – onion straws for him, chilli cheese fries for me. But because we both saw other sides we fancied, we also ordered some chicken fried halloumi and some truffled macaroni cheese (sorry, I just can’t call it ‘mac n’ cheese’ and besides, as Ben pointed out, mac n’ cheese will always be synonymous with Joey Tribbiani and that crime-fighting robot).

“That’s a lot of food” smiled our waitress, who by now had replaced my bottle of cider and apologised profusely. “I reckon if you finish all that I should give you twenty pounds.”

I advised her not to put that bet on the table: I’ve only ever seen Ben defeated by food once, and that was when I took him to Caucasian Spice back in the good old days when they cooked at the Turk’s.

“And I did the burger challenge at the Oracle.” said Ben, referring to that Kua ‘Aina thing they’re doing on the Riverside at the moment.

“Did you win?” asked the waitress.

“I was three chips away from finishing it within the ten minutes” he said, glowing with pride. I couldn’t tell whether the waitress was feeling amusement or pity, or whether she was wondering whether she could pass off knocking over two drinks as an accident.

I paid the room a little more attention while I was waiting for the food to turn up. It was very much from the 2017 restaurant lookbook – square tables, school chairs, naked walls, exposed concrete and bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Ben and I were easily the oldest people there and the banquette along one wall provided (with the exception of my belly) the only softness in the room. Sometimes this look feels considered – you might like it or hate it, but thought has gone into it. With 7Bone, it felt a little unfinished: especially the ceiling, which looks like they literally couldn’t be bothered to finish it off. Despite all this, I didn’t dislike it half as much as I expected to, although I wouldn’t have wanted to be there on a packed weekend evening.

On to the food, then. The big hit of the evening, for me, was the southern fried halloumi: strips of nicely seasoned and coated halloumi, delicious with the accompanying barbecue dip. The texture was perfect, the taste was brilliant and it was only later that I realised that, despite being made of cheese, they were the only thing that wasn’t cloying and mouth-coating. They do a veggie burger made with southern fried halloumi (the ‘Dirty Linda’, obviously) and I’d be tempted to have it if I went again.

Other sides were a mixed bag. Chilli cheese fries were decent enough fries with “steak chilli” (which looked suspiciously like normal mince to me) and smothered in a lake of American cheese. I would have liked more chilli – because it was actually rather nice – and less and different cheese. Some cheddar on top would have been perfect – to me, there’s a place for yellow plastic American cheese but it’s not on chips. The jalapenos on top added almost the only sharpness of the meal.

Ben loved his truffled macaroni cheese, pronouncing it “better than Grillstock in Bristol” (allegedly another restaurant which has defeated Ben through the power of portion size). I didn’t like it much – I didn’t think the truffle came through as strongly as it could and again, there was just so much cheese: a slick puddle of cheese, all texture and no taste. I’d have liked more truffle, less cheese and maybe something like breadcrumbs on top to give more texture. And, before you point it out, I’m well aware that observations like that might mainly give away that I’m just not the target market for an American style burger joint. Ben’s onion straws were very nice, I thought – crispy and not soggy (although he did squirt a big pool of mayonnaise next to them, so not for long). I’m not sure I’d have wanted a whole plate of them, but I enjoyed nicking a couple.

Finally, the burger. Well, I quite liked it – but not without reservations. The bun, which disappointed me on my only previous visit to 7Bone, wasn’t half bad. They are proud of it, from the look of their website, and proud that it’s not a brioche, and I can understand why because it stood up well to its contents. The burger was also very good, cooked slightly pink, the texture excellent, and I also liked the fact that the whole thing wasn’t so ridiculously huge that you couldn’t try and eat it with your hands.

But goodness, it was all so wet. With the American cheese, the truffle mayo and the garlic mushrooms in there, each bite pushed the remaining contents past the edge of the bun, making the whole thing more and more difficult to tackle. What I would really have liked was just a classic bacon cheeseburger with some tomato relish and gherkins, but that doesn’t even feature on the 7Bone menu. And the stuff in my burger didn’t compensate for the mess factor by tasting amazing – everything felt a bit bland to me, the truffle and garlic barely breaking through. Maybe my tastebuds were just too coated in cheese and grease to notice anything else by that point.

Ben handily had pretty much the same burger, but with falafel instead of beef. The falafel I quite liked – good texture and taste and possibly better equipped to resist (I probably mean “complement” but really, it was relentless) the cheese and the mayo. Ben loved it, but I think he loves practically everything about 7Bone.

“You’re missing the point.” he said to me between mouthfuls. “These aren’t meant to be dry burgers. They’re American style, like Sloppy Joes.”

“You did pretty well.” said our waitress as she took away our nearly empty plates. Ben finished almost all of his; I couldn’t polish off all my fries – or more precisely, I just didn’t want to. Ben pretended to have gone easy on her to save her the indignity of shelling out twenty quid, and we got talking. She was visiting the Reading branch on secondment, doing some fact finding in preparation for 7Bone opening a new site in Eastbourne (quite what the blue rinse brigade will make of “dirty raunch salad” I’m not sure, but that I’d like to see). Anyway, she did a brilliant job of looking after us from start to finish: if anything, the thing I’ll most take away from 7Bone – apart from the incongruous sight of Ben eating falafel entirely of his own volition – is the truly excellent service we received. Our bill, for two beers (Longboard – I had a sip of Ben’s and really liked it), one cider, two basket meals and two extra sides, came to forty quid, not including tip.

I sometimes worry that with places like 7Bone (or Franco Manca, last week) my review might boil down to “if this is your kind of thing, you’ll probably like it”. I suppose all reviews come down to that, but I’m more aware of it when I have reservations about a place. So, I didn’t massively like 7Bone, and I’ve been thinking a lot about exactly why that is, and whether it’s about them doing what they do badly or me just not liking what they do. It’s true that I’m not the biggest burger evangelist in Reading, and it’s true that I’m probably of an age and demographic where the quirkiness of the menu will bring me out in hives.

But the thing is, I like that informal style of dining, for all its flaws – I like Bluegrass, and I quite enjoyed Franco Manca. And I do like the occasional burger: the weekend before this visit I was in London visiting the Design Museum with my family and afterwards we stopped at Byron for dinner. The experience wasn’t perfect, but in terms of the room, the menu and the execution it was streets ahead of 7Bone. By contrast 7Bone felt a bit too deliberately edgy, a bit too noisy, a bit too pile ’em high sell ’em cheap and, crucially for me anyway, just a little too greasy. Don’t get me wrong – it’s far from terrible, but I don’t think I would go back in a hurry. And if I were them I would be looking nervously over my shoulder, because when the London chains hit Reading we may find out once and for all whether Reading really does have an infinite capacity for burgers. But what do I know? My friend Ben loved it, and he even slummed it with the falafel.

7Bone Burger Co. – 6.6

60 St Mary’s Butts, RG1 2LG
0118 9952094

http://www.7bone.co.uk/reading.php

Jackson’s, California Country Park

Jackson’s stopped evening opening on 3rd September 2016. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

I’ve never quite worked out what the limits of the ER catchment area are, but Jackson’s has to be right on the edge. It’s only thirty minutes out of town but somehow it feels like a longer, more circuitous drive than that, out through Shinfield and past Arborfield before the countryside gets quite beautiful and the houses start to thin out. Then you go along Nine Mile Ride, turn off into California Country Park and suddenly it’s like being in Canada (or at least Center Parcs), all tall trees and wooden signs, Lycra-clad cyclists and healthy-looking types: types, in fact, unlike me.

The sun still flecked the leaves on a July evening as I made my way to the restaurant but I could completely see what it would be like during the daytime, full of families enjoying the great outdoors and the aforementioned cyclists taking a pit stop before heading on towards somewhere suitably pastoral. Jackson’s – next to the oddly named California Lake – tries to offer something at all times, so they do breakfast (all day, apparently: worth knowing) and sandwiches, burgers and jacket potatoes for lunch before morphing into a restaurant in the evening. And a Proper Restaurant at that, if the menu is to be believed, full of little touches and hints that make you really want to turn up and order everything.

The dining room is a big space full of chunky, solid, simple wooden furniture with white and red tablecloths. I assume the only things that change from day to night are the tablecloths and the mood lighting, little lamps sitting on rough-hewn rustic tables, but I imagine the space must be lovely at any time of day. I caught sight of the wood-burning stove and, for the first time this summer, found myself wishing it was ever so slightly darker and colder. Only two other tables were occupied, which was a tad awkward; they looked delighted that somebody had joined them.

I said the menu was full of little touches. Have a look at how they described our first starter if you don’t believe me: “Nutmeg and Thyme Confit Chicken Thigh, Chicken Broth, Crisp Skin, Wild Mushrooms, Broad Beans, Charred Corn & Spinach Foam”. Sounds good, don’t you think? And generally speaking it was. The thigh meat, soaked in the broth, was like the wonderful bit at the end of a roast dinner when you get to the last shreds of chicken, falling apart, soaked in rich salty gravy. Intensely good. The wild mushrooms were served as little splodges of purée that added creaminess but were otherwise a little lost. The broad beans – very large, very green, beautifully fresh – were top-notch. Only some of the corn was actually charred, but it added a nutty, chewy texture, nonetheless. No crisp skin, either, which is a great shame as they’re always two welcome words on any menu I look at. Last of all, the spinach foam added great colour (thankfully not too reminiscent of frogspawn) but not a lot else.

So, lots going on but did it justify all that complexity? No, not really. I could admire the creativity and all those – what’s the word they use on Masterchef? – processes, but I’d have been just as happy with a big ramekin of chicken, broth and broad beans, especially as the dish was too shallow for me to scoop up the remaining broth at the end.

JacksonsChickBroth

The other starter – “Sweet Pickled Heritage Carrots, Truffle Mayo, Poached Local Hens Egg, Summer Truffle, Parmesan & Honey Dressing” was more successful. A pretty, delicate, deceptively substantial dish it was built around those glorious spirals of sweet, crunchy pickled carrot and a mayo which managed to get those truffle notes just the right side of overpowering (although I do have a very high capacity for truffle). The parmesan shavings added grit and salt and the egg, poached just right, oozed enough golden yolk to bring everything together nicely. There were also pea shoots, which I could have done without (given the kitchen sink approach to the menu I’m surprised these weren’t mentioned) and little blobs of insubstantial dressing, also dotted with tiny pieces of truffle. Pickle, truffle, parmesan, poached egg: these are a few of my favourite things, and I loved this dish.

JacksonsCarrot

After two thumbs up for the starters I felt hopeful for the main event, and I was right. Well, half right: the confit duck leg was lovely. It was salty and rich with the meat falling away from the bone, exactly as it should be. The skin was perfectly crisp (nearly compensating for that chicken skin that went MIA earlier in the meal) with no flabby edges, almost how I think pork scratchings should be but so rarely are.

So far, so simple, but underneath the duck was where things got a lot more interesting; a pile of “young” peas (whatever they are, petits pois presumably) was given freshness and tang with fresh mint and crumbled feta. Some of the peas had also been puréed and served in pretty acid-green dollops which were surprisingly rich when smeared over a piece of the duck leg. The ham hock and potato terrine – a brick of potato with a layer of ham hock pressed as a seam through the middle – wasn’t such a hit. The potatoes were too hard and too lukewarm to be enjoyable and I ended up pulling out the ham hock to eat on its own; far from a punishment but probably not what the kitchen intended.

JacksonsDuck

Luckily, we’d ordered truffle chips on the side and my goodness, they were cracking: thick-cut, fluffy inside, tossed in parmesan and then sprinkled with what I imagine was truffle oil. But there were also dark speckles of truffle throughout the bowl and the whole thing gave off that distinctive earthy, dirty aroma (oh to be a truffle pig!). Five pounds for these, but worth the money and possibly worth the price of admission alone. If I was being critical they could have done with being a little crispier, but at the end there was a little tangle of truffly molten cheese which I scooped up with my fork and at that point, such minor quibbles faded into the background.

If they were the kitchen at its best the other main was the biggest dud of the visit. I wanted to try something more straightforward to test the range of the menu so I went for the chicken breast burger and here’s where things went awry. It was described as coming with parmesan, truffle mayo and double smoked bacon. Well, the bacon may have been smoked twice but it was put on my burger zero times, something I didn’t realise until it was too late to send it back. The chicken itself was lovely, slightly flattened and breaded, almost like a chicken Milanese, but the outside – bit of a theme here – wasn’t crunchy and crispy as it should have been. The Parmesan was a thin layer, almost more like a sauce than a discernible slice of cheese and that was good, although it made things rather soggy. No truffle mayo that I detected either, unless my tastebuds had been numbed to truffle by then. I suppose it’s possible. Nice brioche though, and the usual suspects – tomato, iceberg, right ahead, red onion – were joined by a row of little crunchy cornichons which almost redeemed matters. But really, this burger cost fourteen pounds and it just wasn’t worth that.

I do need to single out the triple cooked chips which came with the burger for two reasons. One is that they came in a Jenga stack. Now, some of you may not remember this but Jenga chips were the “food on slates” of their day. Everyone hated them, everyone railed against them and as a result I thought they had become extinct. I was so surprised to see them on a plate in a restaurant like this that I wanted to check the date on my phone to see if some kind of Quantum Leap oddness had gone on. But that aside, they were a sad and flabby bunch. Maybe it was the time taken painstakingly arranging them in a tower, maybe they just weren’t very good to start with, but they weren’t triple cooked. They were somewhere between once and twice cooked, I decided, before eating a couple which I would describe as barely cooked chips.

The dessert menu was full of interesting things but only one of us fancied one (that chicken burger had somewhat dampened enthusiasm). The first item on there really intrigued me, and when I asked for advice it was also the one recommended by the serving staff and that, in restaurant terms, is kismet, right there. Liquorice panna cotta with rhubarb and stem ginger might have been the dish of the whole meal. Yes, liquorice panna cotta. If you’ve ever tried the basil and balsamic panna cotta at Pepe Sale you’ll know that it’s worth taking a risk sometimes with flavours that don’t obviously go and this was definitely true here, especially after some of the inventive touches in the previous courses.

The panna cotta itself was dreamy – super thick, well set and extremely creamy. It had most delicate liquorice flavour to it, almost metallic in the mouth, nearly an aftertaste, the hint of something. I’m lost in a reverie remembering it, and clearly struggling to adequately describe even if you don’t like liquorice – and I’m not a massive fan – I’d still thoroughly recommend it. It came with an embarrassment of riches: dots of ginger and rhubarb purée; sweet, intense pieces of cooked rhubarb, crumbled stem ginger cookie and a scoop of rhubarb ice which somehow managed to be halfway between a sorbet (fresh and bright) and an ice cream (smooth and creamy). I don’t know how the chef came up with the idea to put those flavours together and I’m not sure I care. It doesn’t really matter: I just loved it.

JacksonsPannaCotta

Sadly I was driving so I only got to try one glass of wine; the carignan was a nice, rich red (good enough for my companion to have it as their second glass). I’m told that the Riesling was nice, fresh and not as good as the carignan. That was after some grumbling about the chicken burger, so I managed to be on the receiving end of both food envy and wine envy. Oh, and I had a diet Coke because after the glass of wine I wasn’t feeling particularly imaginative. Still, it came in a glass bottle rather than out of a syphon, and somehow that always feels like proper Coke to me.

Service was pretty good; the maitre d’ was charming and effusive and the other, younger staff, although not quite so engaging, also did a good job. Everything was nicely timed, too, which could so easily not have been the case on such a quiet weekday night: nothing came too quickly or too slowly, plates were cleared away when they should be and so on. Two starters, two mains and one dessert plus three glasses of wine and a soft drink came to seventy-three pounds, excluding tip. The starters hover around the eight pound mark and most of the mains are under fifteen quid. For food this imaginative, that’s pretty impressive.

What makes this gig, for me, is when I discover a gem. Ideally somewhere in the centre of town, although that gets increasingly difficult, but in any case somewhere wonderful – preferably independent – that you won’t have heard of, offering imaginative, fairly priced food. Jackson’s should be that, and it so nearly is. So why isn’t it? The food, by and large, and the service do indeed say that you’re in a Proper Restaurant. But the elephant in the room is the room itself: the owners have tried to make a step change from day to night but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was having dinner in a café.

I know this shouldn’t matter: I’ve always said that if the food is good none of the rest matters, so I’m troubled that in this case I find it does. Perhaps it’s because of the half hour drive. Perhaps it’s because the room was empty and lacked ambience. Maybe I would have felt differently if it had been full, on a cold winter night with the woodburning stove glowing and the table lamps shining, having dinner with other happy strangers in this little cabin in the woods. So a qualified recommendation from me: if none of that bothers you please go, fill up the restaurant, enjoy some really clever food at simple prices and keep them busy. Personally, I’ll go back when the clocks do.

Jackson’s – 7.3
California Country Park, Nine Mile Ride, Finchampstead, RG40 4HT
http://jacksonscalifornialake.co.uk/

0118 9730776

Smokin’ Billy’s

It’s not good, on a Wednesday night, to be the only people eating in a restaurant. Immediately alarm bells start to ring: what does everyone else know that I don’t? Is it bad? Is it safe? What am I doing here?

Another good question is what year is it?, because although it’s 2016 everywhere else, in Smokin’ Billy’s it seems to still be 1995: there are nachos and loaded potato skins on the menu and a five foot high fibreglass model of Marilyn Monroe near the bar. All very glory days of TGI Fridays, I guess, and so 90s that I expected to leave the place to see Café Iguana in full swing opposite (how I miss the Rome toasted sandwich with garlic and herb potato wedges), to be able to head to Edwards’ or Bar Oz down by the train station for a final drink.

The Marilyn theme wasn’t confined to the statue: there were pictures and quotes from Marilyn everywhere (along with random electric guitars and Norman Rockwell prints on the walls) a testament to Smokin’ Billy’s previous incarnation as Monroe’s. According to the nice chap at the bar it was renamed nearly two years ago but otherwise very little has actually changed – same menu, same décor, same chef.

Looking at the menu I could quite believe that it was two years old, judging by how sticky it was. Popping to the loos down the badly lit corridor at the back (no signs on the toilet doors, incidentally, which could be tricky after a couple of drinks) it was apparent that the stickiness extended to the floor – so much so, in fact, that I could see my footprints on the laminate. That said, the kitchen looked clean and the Score on the Door was five out of five (I won’t lie: I was crossing my fingers when I came back to order, hoping the rating wasn’t also two years old).

It would have been wrong not to order the potato skins – many things from the Nineties have been rightly consigned to the rubbish bin of history (Noel’s House Party, Mad Dog 20/20, every record ever released by Jimmy Nail) but I think the time is right for loaded potato skins to make a comeback. Sadly, Smokin’ Billy’s is not the right stage for it: we ordered them topped with barbecue chicken and expected a thin crispy potato skin, hollowed out and filled with good stuff. The topping, such as it was, was reasonably good (hard not to enjoy barbecue chicken and cheese), but when the thing your loaded potato skin is loaded with is, well, potato you’ve accidentally ordered jacket potato as a starter. And nobody wants that, surely?

Billy'sPotato

Similarly the garlic mushroom and cheese quesadilla was more Ocean Colour Scene than Oasis. A Mexican toasted sandwich is a great idea in theory but this didn’t work in practice because the mushrooms were just a bit odd: leathery with a weirdly metallic aftertaste. I’m not sure how recently they’d been sautéed or whether that was the problem but something about them really wasn’t right. Hard to detect any other flavour in the quesadilla either, with the mushrooms singing so loudly and so very out of tune. Each starter, served on a massive plate which itself looked deeply 90s, came with a ramekin of sour cream topped with a slice of lime and sprinkled with paprika. Somehow the whole thing felt more Tex-Meh.

Billy'sQuesadilla

Another warning bell followed: the waiter cleared our plates away and offered to bring out our mains pretty much immediately. We managed to agree a five minute wait but I couldn’t help worrying and wondering that all that meant was that our mains were sitting on the pass gradually getting less appealing. After all, how could they be ready to come out straight away if they weren’t already ready? As it was, five minutes wasn’t enough to make me feel anywhere near prepared to eat more food: those jacket potatoes in disguise sat heavy on the stomach.

By this point my expectations were pretty close to the (sticky, laminate) floor, so I’m happy to report that the main courses were – if not exactly amazing – far better than I had feared. Pulled pork was pretty decent: served on the bottom half of a burger bun (a bit random, but never mind) the pork was properly shredded but with enough texture to see what it had been, and just about on the right side of moist and soggy, smoky and sickly-sweet. Only just, but I was expecting far worse.

It came with coleslaw (served in a lettuce leaf for no reason I can think of), sweet potato fries, mini sweetcorn cobs and onion rings. Most of it wasn’t half bad – the sweet potato fries, lovely and crispy, stood out and the onion rings were surprisingly good given that their uniform shape made me suspect they’d come out of a freezer. The corn on the cob though was actively awful: watery, chewy and – if I’m being really honest – strangely fishy-tasting. Not sure how you get that sort of flavour into a corn on the cob, by accident or design, but either way you really need to stop. I’d be surprised if it had been either fresh or freshly cooked. The orange slice on top of the pulled pork, however, was fresh. An baffling choice of garnish, I know, but at least it was easy to discard.

Billy'sPork

Another surprise: the burger wasn’t bad either. I am no burger purist and I’m sure if you were you could find plenty wrong with this one – it was served medium-well according to the menu but I thought it was more cooked through than that. But it was pretty pleasant, with loads of cheese (cheddar, I think, rather than a yellow American slice), some decent bacon, more of the onion rings and a barbecue sauce which, as with the pulled pork and the barbecue chicken in the starter, was nearly too sweet and synthetic but just about on the right side of the line. The bun was allegedly a brioche and managed the feat of looking like one without tasting like anything of the kind, but I didn’t mind it.

Only those diabolical mushrooms from the quesadilla, making an unwelcome return appearance, wrecked proceedings. But also, I really liked the chips, against my better judgment. Again, their regular shape suggested they’d been chipped in a factory, stuck in a bag and bunged in the freezer but they’d been beautifully fried – crunchy-fluffy and perfect for dipping in some barbecue sauce. Was what I experienced enjoyment or relief? Tell the truth, I’m still not sure.

Billy'sBurger

Service, from an idiosyncratically coiffed young man wearing what looked like a cravat, was friendly, chatty and personable. But we were the only customers so some of the lapses were hard to understand: it took a while to order, our mains were seemingly ready the moment our starters were finished yet after we finished our mains our mostly empty plates were in front of us for what felt like an eternity. I think he was chatting to his friend at the bar – which is lovely and all, but his friend wasn’t ordering food or paying a bill (an activity which also took longer than it should have done). And yet I quite liked the charming amateurism: as with everything else, I wanted to like Smokin’ Billy’s a little more than I actually could.

There was no drinks list (when I asked the waiter he said “but I can list all the drinks for you”, which kind of sums the place up) and when I got to the bar the selection of soft drinks was woeful (two flavours of J20, cans of red bull and fizzy drinks from the siphon). So I had tap water, which came in a jug with ice without having to be asked – although no water glasses, so I had to have it in a wine glass: yet more randomness. My companion had a pear cider, from a bottle (he didn’t trust the pumps). Both of us would probably have been a lot happier with a bottle of Hooch. Those were the days. The total bill came to forty pounds.

If I had gone to Smokin’ Billy’s in 1995 I would have thought it was amazing. The world was a more innocent place in the 90s and we were all so much more easily pleased. Ben’s Thai, Utopia, RG1, actual cinemas in town that weren’t grubby multiplexes, Orient Express down by the Antiques Centre, Trader’s Arcade… the list goes on and on. But in 2016 Reading is a more complex and discerning place, and although I was rooting for Smokin’ Billy’s I couldn’t help feeling that places elsewhere do these things a lot better. Bluegrass across the way has pulled pork sewn up. The Oakford does a better burger. Literally everywhere does better drinks. So if a friend or a colleague dragged me back to Smokin’ Billy’s although I might complain, I’d probably enjoy it while I was there, and tell myself I was being post-modern. But really, it made me glad to live in the now – still missing the 3Bs and Café Iguana, mind you, but delighted with how far Reading has come.

Smokin’ Billy’s – 6.5
61 St Mary’s Butts, RG1 2LG
0118 9573500

http://www.smokingbillys.co.uk/

Handmade Burger Co.

As of January 2020 Handmade Burger has closed as the chain went into administration. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

There was a story doing the rounds last month about fifteen restaurant operators eyeing up Reading with a view to opening in the town. Beyond that the specifics were vague – who were they? Where exactly were they hoping to open? – but that didn’t stop it being picked up by one of the local sites (on a slow news day, perhaps) which reported it as “fifteen national food chains” in talks about moving in. As a result, I saw a little bit of discussion and speculation on Twitter, but I couldn’t bring myself to be hugely excited. I’ve never subscribed to the “chains bad, indies good” theory of restaurants – nobody who’s eaten at both Côte and Picasso could buy that for a second – but I do think it’s true that when you look at what Reading really needs, more chains wouldn’t really be at the top of the list.

That’s not to say that some chains aren’t wonderful things, or that Reading wouldn’t benefit from them; I finally went to Wahaca recently, and it’s every bit as good as everyone says. I’d love to see Busaba or Leon set up a branch in Reading, for that matter. But I’d rather see an independent bistro, or a bakery, or a little Vietnamese place, or a sushi restaurant, or any of a dozen types of establishment which just don’t fit the chain mould at all. But maybe, even having said all that, I’m being too harsh to the chain restaurants. After all, there are good chains and bad chains, big chains and small chains. So this week I decided to give one of them a try – and because it’s both ages since I tried a new chain and ages since I had a burger, one option on the Oracle leapt out and simply demanded to be chosen.

Handmade Burger Co. wasn’t the burger company Reading was hoping for when LSQ2 gave up its spot right on the edge of the Oracle; back then, everyone was clamouring, rightly or wrongly, for Gourmet Burger Kitchen (except me, I wanted – and still want – a Byron). But when HBC opened in late 2012 if at least sounded more interesting than GBK: a small, family-owned chain that had, if the website is to be believed, grown out of a single branch in Birmingham. Who doesn’t like a rags to riches underdog story? I didn’t go back in 2012, but since then it has grown to 25 locations across the country and, again if you buy the blurb on the website, makes its burgers from scratch using 48 fresh ingredients delivered 6 days a week. Well, it all sounded worth a shout to me – and after all, restaurant websites are always a really good indicator, aren’t they?

Going in on a weekday evening, the thing that struck me about the room was how many tables they had crammed into quite a cavernous space. It’s very high-ceilinged (all the other pitches in that row are two floors) but the tables are really jammed in together, especially in the middle of the room. The décor was quite nondescript – all very plain tables and chairs, but it didn’t feel like a table for two was quite big enough for two people and to make matters worse, the neighbouring table for two wasn’t especially far away either. The tables with banquettes were better, but we didn’t get shown to one of those and I didn’t have the energy to ask for one. That said, people like the place: I arrived early on a weekday evening and by the time I left the restaurant was largely full. Would I have wanted to arrive when the place was full and try to have a conversation in a big echoey packed room with a very limited amount of soft furnishings? Well, this probably makes me sound about a million years old, but: no, not on your nelly.

The model works in much the same way as Nando’s – you get shown to a table, pick what you want from the menu, order at the bar, collect your drinks and wait for your food to come to the table. The basic burger comes with a dizzying number of topping options, or you can have a chicken burger, or go bunless, or have a gluten free bun, or have it in a pitta, or even (how random is this?) in a Yorkshire pudding. Or you can have a vegan burger. Or a veggie burger. Or something a bit like a burger but on a skewer. The possibilities are, if not endless, a lot less finite than I would personally choose. It really does cater for everyone. Everyone who likes burgers.

HBC’s new menu, and indeed the board outside, proudly boasted that they now do something they touchingly refer to as “dirty burgers”. The website doesn’t define exactly what this means and how or why they are dirty (although surely it’s not a literal sanitary description), nor did the menu. A little pamphlet folded away inside my cutlery tin also talked about the burgers but again, there was no real explanation beyond them being “juicy, messy and full of flavour” (as opposed, presumably, to the dry, tidy, bland offerings elsewhere on the menu). But I am a marketing department’s dream, and they were in a little boxed off section with their own fancy typeface, and so I went for the “D.B. Fried Onion” figuring that it was worth a try.

“Watch out with this, it’s dirty” said the waitress as she put it in front of me (not something you ever want someone to say to you while bringing food to your table, in my experience), although she also didn’t explain exactly what this meant. It was in the Five Guys style of presentation i.e. wrapped in foil and looking for all the world like it had been sat on. When I opened it up, I still wasn’t sure this hadn’t actually happened. It was a pretty bog-standard, fairly uninspiring cheeseburger. The patty was thin, flat and grey – thin enough that you could see why no effort had been made to cook it anything less than well done. The fried onions were tasty enough, although they lacked the true caramelised sweetness of really mouthwatering fried onions. There was lots of gooey orange processed American cheese, my favourite kind on a burger, but it just wasn’t enough to rescue it. I didn’t mind the “fresh buttermilk bun” (why HBC doesn’t call it brioche like every other restaurant I have no idea), but overall it was inoffensive and disappointing. I’ve seen dirtier episodes of Antiques Roadshow, put it that way. Oh, there was also some “jalapeno slaw” and a bit of gherkin but it looked like such an afterthought – as you can maybe tell from the picture – that I just couldn’t be bothered.

HBCDirty

The “dirty burger” section of the menu also offers the horrors of something called “Hipster Chips” and I’m afraid this is where I do have to stop for a little rant. No, no, no, no, no. First of all, “hipster” is something other people call you, not something you call yourself (I tell you what, I’m such a hipster, me, said no one ever). And second of all, it is never, ever a term of endearment. So I didn’t order them, and I can’t tell you what chips with sriracha mayonnaise taste like, because they might as well have been called “Look What A Zany Wanker I Am Chips”. I mean, credit to HBC for calling them chips rather than fries, but it’s not enough. So instead I had some “Denver Chips”, which were topped with pulled pork, barbecue sauce and melted cheese. There was a bit of pulled pork, though not masses, a lake of enamel-strippingly sweet sauce and some curls of cheese (some of which had melted and some of which, worryingly enough, hadn’t) and underneath a poor abused pile of average chips which deserved better. I didn’t eat them all.

HBCChips

From the not-so-dirty menu the peanut butter and bacon burger sounded less obviously dirty but still good. Sadly it simply wasn’t dirty enough. First up the bun looked like a common or garden burger bun – pale and wan with a few sesame seeds on top. It was dry and crumbly and not at all like the sourdough bun I expected, as advertised on the walls of the restaurant (perhaps “sourdough”, like “artisan”, is just something people say to waste space on menus nowadays). But let’s not focus on the bun, let’s focus on the filling because that’s where this really disappointed. The burger was thick – oddly much thicker, it seemed, than the “dirty burger” – resolutely far from juicy, and bland. There were one or two rashers of unremarkable bacon without much salt or smoke. I was hoping for a big dollop of peanut butter on the burger, slowly melting into a savoury, nutty satay, but instead I got a minuscule smidge hidden underneath the lettuce leaf. It’s almost like they didn’t want me to be able to taste it. But never mind, because you did get lots of chilli jam. Too much, a big, sweet liquefied pool of the stuff dripping out of the side. So much of it that it really should have been called a “chilli jam and smoked bacon burger”; except of course, if it had been called that I wouldn’t have ordered it, just as I dearly wish I hadn’t ordered this.

HBCBurger

I also had a side of chips which hadn’t been slathered with pulled pork and barbecue sauce, instead coming with rosemary and salt. This was my chance to find out what the chips were like before they got mucked around with, but again it was far from a success. They were soft and flaccid, a bit like chip shop chips that had been sitting around too long. There was loads of the salt and rosemary on them and the rosemary was lovely, but the salt was in huge rocks that you couldn’t really disperse or even eat with the chips. Much of it was left in the bowl afterwards. But then much of the chips were left, too, because they were just too squidgy and boring. That’s a damning indictment; I never leave chips. Sit me in front of a bowl of chips and I will peck away, even if I’m not hungry, and suddenly they’ll be gone. Not these.

When I saw that the menu had malted milkshakes I knew I had to have one, because I bloody love a malted shake. So I had a malted vanilla milkshake. Really, I wanted a peanut butter one, but I resisted because I am profesh and I thought double peanut butter in a single review would not be profesh (also, my dining companion was one of those oddballs who loathes the stuff). It was huge, served in one of those big tin milkshake blending glasses. There were a few discernible dots of vanilla but otherwise it mostly reminded me of the white ice cream of my youth – ah, the wonders of not-especially-Italian Gino Ginelli – not actually truly vanilla flavoured, but vanilla-esque. There wasn’t nearly enough malt for my liking but the malt was only an extra 30p so at least I didn’t feel hugely ripped off. My guest had an Erdinger weissbeer because he really fancied a beer. He didn’t finish it, because I really fancied cutting my losses and leaving.

Service throughout was actually pretty good, for what is essentially a pretty low-frills restaurant with limited table service. The young lady at the bar enthused over the peanut butter burger – it deserves to be tried, apparently – and was friendly and chatty and the other ladies bringing plates and checking up on us (then removing the clothes peg from our table number, another of those subtle ways of indicating that we had been processed) were also really nice. But, like I said, you order at the bar, you pay in advance and you have to fetch some things like soft drinks yourself, so the service can only be so good. I wonder how many people actually tip on paying, before they’ve had any service, or put money in the jar on the way out. I wonder, too, how enjoyable it must be to work in a restaurant run to this model. Dinner for two – two burgers, two chips, two drinks – came to thirty-four pounds and was done and dusted in about thirty-four minutes.

I’m not really in the target market for burgers: as I’ve said many times, they’re just a sandwich. But I can see there’s a time and a place for them, and I like to think I can tell the difference between a good one and a bad one. I was puzzled, though, because I have a friend who is a huge burger connoisseur – I mean, he travels for burgers the way I travel for sushi, and then some – and last time he went to Handmade Burger Co. I heard he thought it was much improved. Well, I’m not sure how bad it was before or if I was just extremely unlucky but it’s hard to see the appeal; there’s not much in the way of charm or atmosphere, the burgers were disappointing and at that price you could do far better in the Oakford or even Five Guys (and, I’m guessing, CAU for that matter). Fifteen restaurant chains circling Reading? The news still doesn’t thrill me, but it’s hard to imagine they couldn’t do better than this.

Handmade Burger Co. – 5.3
Riverside, The Oracle Shopping Centre, RG1 2AG
0118 9588106

http://handmadeburger.co.uk/our-restaurants/find-a-restaurant/handmade-burger-co-reading/