Takeaway review: Finn’s

I rather missed fish and chips last year. It wasn’t in the A-list of things I missed – I didn’t miss it as much as going to restaurants, getting on an aeroplane, waking up in a hotel, or hugs, or impromptu nights down the pub, or the first beer of the holiday – but even so it was a small, nagging thing that I missed for the best part of 2020.

If I had felt comfortable going out to get fish and chips I might not been that bothered, but because I didn’t there were moments here and there that blindsided me on a week night when I was suddenly struck by how nice it would be to wander to the chippy, place my order and rush home with it while it was still hot. It’s one of those meals that can perfect a summer night, eaten out in the park or on a bench, or a cold winter’s night, the steam rising from the bag as you take those final steps home.

Fish and chips is one of those curious dishes that is sometimes eaten in restaurants – London Street Brasserie and the Lyndhurst both do excellent versions – and often eaten at home as a takeaway, but relatively rarely delivered. And until this year, I couldn’t have reviewed most chippies because you couldn’t eat your fish and chips in – it’s a very long time since Reading had a Harry Ramsden’s at the top of the Oxford Road (and eating there was always a very strange experience) and the gentrified likes of Kerbisher & Malt or Poppie’s have never made their way down the M4 to Reading from the capital.

We have plenty of burgers and a fair amount of pizza, but if you want fish and chips you still generally head for your favourite chippy and pick it up from there. And when it comes to favourite chippies, people in Reading all fly the flag for different ones. Caversham types are proud of Wings on the Gosbrook Road, Whitley residents will sing the praises of Deep Blue up on the Basingstoke Road. If you live in Earley you might have a view on Top Table or Terry Ling’s, and down in West Reading there’s 555 Fish Bar, a pescatarian take on the number of the beast.

I used to live near Seaspray, a lovely little place on Crown Street, and I was very sad when it closed. There was no longer anywhere decent within walking distance, and even if there had been going wouldn’t have felt right: people get tribal about chippies, you see.

These days my nearest fish and chip shop is Finn’s, the subject of this week’s review. It’s a few doors up from student breakfast hub Café Yolk on Hatherley Road, and I believe it’s owned by the same people. But I’m not reviewing it because it’s the closest, I’m reviewing it because it’s a more interesting beast altogether. Most fish and chip shops are still stuck in the world of a few decades ago, the turn of the century, but Finn’s is a very modern establishment. It set up an Instagram account back in 2018 and never put much effort into it, but last summer, waking up to the existential crisis faced by all hospitality businesses, it started taking social media seriously. So if you look now you’ll see an active Instagram account full of pictures that are likely to make you peckish. 

And not just that: Finn’s does gluten free fish and chips on Tuesdays, and has a well-regarded vegan offering every day. And crucially, at the start of this month, Finn’s joined Just Eat, so now you can get it delivered to your door provided you live less than two miles away. This felt like a win-win to me: I was used to having to pick it up and walk home, but I was close enough to the restaurant that a delivery was bound to get to my house quicker than if I’d collected it myself.

The core of the menu is pretty compact – cod, haddock, masala fish or vegan fish (the menu doesn’t say what’s in it, which surprised me) all of which come with chips. Some come in a large, some in a regular and with some you get to choose: I have no idea why. This does mean you can’t, as some people would at a chippy, get a portion of fish each and share a bigger portion of chips, but that felt like a minor drawback. 

You can also have a variety of other dishes with chips – prawns, scampi, fishcakes and so on – or you can order those as sides. Finally, of course, you can go for sauces and mushy peas, and Finn’s also serves poutine, the Quebecois speciality of chips in gravy with cheese curds. Zoë and I had had the kind of shitty day which is only really medicated with calories and booze, so we went wild in the aisles, ordered a bit of everything, poured a couple of beers and waited for our dinner to arrive.

This will disappoint a lot of you, and probably shorten the review by at least five hundred words, but my JustEat experience was absolutely exemplary. We placed the order just before 6pm and twenty minutes later the driver was outside the front door, in an Ola cab, opening up an insulated bag (a Deliveroo one, but I imagine he works for them too) and handing over a branded paper bag with our food in it.

Most of it was packed in faux-polystyrene cardboard, and all of it was piping hot, but it wasn’t without its challenges. For instance, Zoë had ordered a large cod and chips and I had ordered a large haddock and chips, but there was nothing on the boxes to indicate which was which. So I can tell you about my fish – and I think it was haddock because I picked the one with the flatter, more delicate looking fillet – but really, I can’t guarantee it wasn’t cod. Similarly, we had ordered a range of sides – the panko breadcrumbed prawns, the scampi and – this wasn’t my choice, believe you me – a battered sausage. All of them came in the same container, which didn’t bother me but might irk you if you were a pescatarian.

None of these are dealbreakers, but they’re worth mentioning. Similarly, many of my quibbles with the food were exactly that – minor quibbles, and probably things that wouldn’t occur to most people. So I would have liked my fillet of fish to be ever so slightly bigger (and my chips to be slightly smaller). I would have liked my batter to be a little crispier and not quite so soggy underneath, and I would have liked the chips to be more of a mixture of big, floury ones and the little sharp scraps that so enliven the bottom of the bag when you pick them up from a chippy.

But even so, having a fish supper on a Wednesday night on the sofa, in my comfies, watching the strangely compulsive Lightning on BBC2 (just me?) still made for a deeply enjoyable experience. The batter had plenty of flavour and seasoning, the fish fell into deeply pleasing flakes and if you can’t enjoy a plate of hot chips there might be something medically wrong with you.

The side dishes were more of a mixed bag, I’d say. I really liked the panko breadcrumbed prawns (I was put on to them by theatre impressario and one-woman arts whirlwind Steph Weller, who introduced me to Finn’s in the first place years ago), which were beautifully done with a neat contrast between the light, crunchy interior and the firm, meaty prawns within. The scampi, also breaded, but a little more claggy inside, were less successful but still decent. What both really needed, and were missing, was a dip – it would have been good to have a little tartare sauce, say, thrown in.

The battered sausage was Zoë’s idea. “You won’t eat this, will you?” she said. “When it comes to sausages you like the posh shit.” She cut into it, had a mouthful and then realised that over the last few years I’ve sneakily (and successfully) converted her to the posh shit, too. “No, I won’t finish that. But I’m fucking full anyway.” I looked at the cross-section and it did have the look and texture of mystery meat that so puts me off that kind of thing. Your mileage might well vary, but it felt to me mostly like an item you’d order if you wanted to be ironic. Some things are best left in the past, and I suspect battered sausage might be one of them: that said, if Finn’s ever decides to do a black pudding fritter I’d be the first in line for it. I’d probably camp outside the night before.

Last but not least, the poutine. This was slightly a victim of us having ordered so much food, and the way it was served – in a foil tray with a cardboard lid – meant that it felt like it went cold a lot quicker than everything else. Given that chips come with pretty much any main you order this is always likely to end up as an add-on, but that said I did quite like it. The curd cheese was firm and squeaky as it should be – like halloumi but without the saltiness – and worked beautifully and the gravy was thick and salty, if a little lacking in flavour beyond that. 

It’s definitely a dish to file under Tastes better than it looks. But when you read, earlier on, that poutine was chips in gravy with cheese on top you were probably either filled with longing or revulsion, so I suspect you already know whether it’s your kind of thing. If it is, or if you’re just curious about whether eating it would make you feel dirty in a good or a bad way, I’d say it’s definitely worth a shot. It’s a shame, really, that they don’t allow you to upgrade regular chips to poutine to save you from double carbs.

The main fish you might detect in this review, I fear, is carp. Looking back through it it’s all a bit Goldilocks And The Three Bears: my fish is too small, my batter is too soggy, my poutine went cold, wah wah waaah. Did I mention that I loved my meal? Maybe I didn’t say that loudly enough, and I really should have done. The thing is, the niggles I mention are the kind that I used to have back in the good old days, when I was so blasé that I ate in restaurants all the time and was probably a lot more critical. I probably mention them more from muscle memory than genuine sentiment: the fact is, I absolutely adored my fish and chips – chips scattered with salt and drenched in Sarson’s, a lovely crimson pool of Stokes’ Bloody Mary ketchup on the side. 

Our order cost just shy of thirty-five pounds, including a two pound fifty delivery charge and a fifty pence service charge. But we really went for it: if you just had a couple of portions of fish and chips the whole thing would come in around twenty quid and personally, I think that’s thoroughly decent value. What a time to be alive, when you can get someone to turn up at your door with fish and chips! When I thought about it that way, and had another gulp of my beautifully cold beer, I found that, ultimately, all was well in my little world. You may still cleave to your regular chippy, and I may not be able to change your mind, but I’ll just leave you with this: Finn’s really delivers.

Finn’s
Hatherley Road, Reading, RG1 5NA
0118 3271960

https://www.facebook.com/finnsfish
Order via: Direct through the restaurant for collection, JustEat for delivery

Round-up: November and December

Edible Reading is taking Christmas off. Many restaurants aren’t attractive places to visit over the festive season – full of work dos paying inflated amounts for a set menu you have to order weeks in advance. Besides, for many Christmas is all about the pleasures of eating at home – roasts, smoked salmon breakfasts, insanely huge cheeseboards – and I’m no different. So here’s a round-up of what you may have missed over the last couple of months, along with all the local food news I’ve been able to uncover.

The Lobster Room, 3.3 – A good cellar restaurant can feel like a well-kept, exclusive secret. This place, on the other hand, deserves to be more widely known for different reasons. Check out ER’s worst rating so far, and the review, here.

Sushimania, 7.4 – Reading’s replacement for the much-lamented Thai Nine offers all you can eat sushi and a range of Japanese noodle and rice dishes. But is the complicated pricing structure worth navigating? Click here to find out.

Forbury’s, 7.1 – One of the mainstays among Reading’s high-end restaurants, Forbury’s has a new chef who is determined to make waves. I went expecting great things, but was I disappointed? The review is here.

Café Yolk, 5.2 – Everyone loves Café Yolk, from Twitter to TripAdvisor. Is it a masterpiece of marketing or do they really do the best breakfast in Reading? The most controversial review so far can be found here, and don’t forget to check out the comments where the chef defends himself – admittedly under an assumed name, and pretending to be a customer, but I guess it’s something.

The Plowden Arms, 8.7 – Things had to improve after Café Yolk, and fortunately my first trip out of central Reading uncovered a hidden gem on the road to Henley. Sophisticated food, hearty pub classics and gorgeous vintage crockery, all under one roof? I loved the Plowden – go here to see why I was so impressed.

The Moderation, 6.6 – Spirit House has recently opened The Queen’s Head, up on Christchurch Green, but is The Moderation the original and best? I checked out the closest thing central Reading has to a gastropub, and found a decidedly mixed bag, here.

House Of Flavours, 8.3 – It had to happen eventually – Edible Reading reviews an Indian restaurant. But House Of Flavours might be a really good restaurant that happens to do Indian food, rather than a curry house. The review, here, explains why.

The last couple of months have been slow in terms of restaurant news. La Courbe in King’s Walk still shows no signs of opening, although they’ve now added a Twitter feed to their website (it said they were opening in September, then got changed to December 16th, so we can safely assume they’re a bit behind schedule). There are a couple of interesting openings in Reading, but both are cafés rather than full-blown restaurants.

Lincoln Coffee House opened a couple of weeks ago at 60 Kings Road, and looks interesting. The owners buy their coffee from Nude and are clearly influenced by the coffee scene in Hackney and Shoreditch; the interior looks quite handsome, if stark, and they offer coffee, an interesting looking range of tea (very welcome, as tea drinkers get rather a raw deal in Reading) and a variety of bagels and cakes. It will be interesting to see how they settle in – it’s a challenging location, and they’ll need a lot of lunchtime custom from the big offices nearby. The website is still being built (http://www.lincolncoffeehouse.co.uk/) and they don’t Tweet, but a Facebook page is here.

Also new, at 16 West Street, is Cappuccina Café, which is an even more curious beast. A mixture of Vietnamese and Portuguese food means that it will offer both bánh mì (the distinctive pork sandwich so popular in London a few years back) and pastéis de nata (that’s egg custard tarts to me and you). I’ve not been in yet, but a wander past suggests it’s doing a good trade so far and the sign on the door, suggesting their pastéis may be from Portuguese chain Café Nicola, is also a good sign. No website, no Facebook page and no Twitter presence, so you’ll just have to stop by and check them out if that floats your boat.

Neither a restaurant nor a café, but still good news for cheese lovers and ale fans, The Grumpy Goat, in Harris Arcade, opened on 14th December and plans to stock a full range of local cheeses. This is great news, whether you prefer the creamy delights of Waterloo, the hard nutty temptations of Spenwood (named after Spencer’s Wood, don’t you know) or of course Barkham Blue, possibly the best blue cheese in the world. It’s nice that Reading folk will no longer have to trek to Pangbourne, Henley or Wokingham to satisfy their cheese cravings. Again, no website yet but they’re on Facebook here and they also tweet.

Of course, Edible Reading isn’t the only source of local restaurant reviews. The Reading Post recently reviewed Bart’s Grill, here, giving it an impressive four stars out of five. They must really like Bart’s, because they also reviewed it barely four months before that, here. Not to forget the time that they reviewed it in August 2012, also a glowing review, here. That’s three reviews in – count them – fifteen months. Not to be outdone, the Reading Chronicle also reviewed it in November, here – although theirs was an “advertising feature”, so Bart’s paid the paper for the privilege (not sure why they bothered, when they get so much coverage from the Post for free). It must be quite a restaurant – perhaps I’ll check it out in 2014 and see what all the fuss is about.

Last of all, it’s worth pointing out the new pages on Edible Reading. If you want to see a list of all the places I’ve reviewed, in alphabetical order, you can find it here. You’d rather see it in order of ER ratings? No problem, that’s here! And if you want to see the list of restaurants in the pile to review, and even to suggest one yourself, you can find that here. Nearly every restaurant I review comes from a tip-off, suggestion or request from you, so please keep them coming.

Right, that’s all. Have a magnificent Christmas full of turkey, brandy butter, red wine, cheese and port (and devoid of hangovers, Lambrini, coffee creams and acid reflux) and see you on Friday 10th January when I publish the first review of 2014. Not sure where it will be yet, but I hear there’s this great place called Bart’s on the Wokingham Road…

Café Yolk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://www.facebook.com/cafeyolk