Café review: Dee Caf

It’s weird, you know. I’ve been writing this blog for the best part of nine years, during which time I’ve reviewed restaurants, cafés and pubs in all manner of places. I’ve gone as far west as Bristol, as far east as London. I’ve covered Windsor and Henley, Bracknell and Wokingham, I’ve even written dispatches from further afield – from France, Spain and Belgium. So why is it, in nearly nine years, that I’ve never reviewed a single venue in Tilehurst?

Your guess is as good as mine, but I think lack of opportunity plays a big part. West Reading is a true crucible of culinary creativity, as evidenced by the likes of Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen, Momo2Go, Buon Appetito, Oishi, Kobeda Palace. And every time I trundle down the Oxford Road on the number 17 – usually for a few pints at Double-Barrelled – I see a new restaurant I’ve never heard of: I’m forever making notes of places that might feature on my to-do list. 

But somewhere west of Kensington Park, or Grovelands Road, something odd happens and you enter some kind of black spot: not of mobile reception, but of restaurants. Where are they all? Because I think in all my time writing reviews only a handful of Tilehurst establishments have even appeared on my radar. Two are Indian restaurants: one is Zyka, which won an award, but I had takeaway from there and wasn’t enormously impressed. The second is Himalayan Hotspot, which I should check out at some point (I think it’s been there forever, which is possibly the reason why I haven’t).

Then you have Tilehurst’s two cafés of note. One, The Switch, is a place which opened last September on Tilehurst Triangle. It’s co-owned by the owner of Zyka, and it looks, on paper at least, like an attempt to recreate the success of Café Yolk across town with a relatively similar menu. It’s all herbed potatoes and smashed avo and no doubt I will make my way there at some point, hopefully in less than another nine years. Maybe smashed avo will be out of fashion by then, you never know.

But my choice of venue this week is the superbly named Dee Caf, an altogether more curious beast with a very different story. It’s on Spey Road, in the heart of the Dee Park Estate, in a site which used to play host to Workhouse Coffee’s short-lived Tilehurst outpost. In September 2020, at about the worst possible time to open a hospitality business, Dee Caf opened in that space under the aegis of Tina Farrow. Farrow’s background is in education, both in the prison and food sectors, but she said she’s always loved food and wanted to create business of her own.

Dee Caf is run as a CIC, with clear links to the community it serves, and that’s obvious both from a visit to their website and to the café, in a myriad of ways. The café has a community fridge every week for people in need, runs a food bank and has equipment for litter picking (pickers are rewarded with a hot drink for their efforts). It also provides free sanitary products, runs community events for locals and has a refill station in the corner. There’s even an event for dads on Saturday mornings where they can turn up, meet other dads and enjoy a bacon sandwich and a coffee for a fiver.

On paper, at least, it looked more Fidget & Bob than Café Yolk. But all those laudable intentions didn’t necessarily mean the food was great, so on a Saturday lunchtime I headed over with Zoë – pre-Double Barrelled – to give the place a try. It was a short, slightly meandering walk from the 17 bus stop opposite the Pond House pub, and when you reach Dee Caf it does have the feel of an oasis about it, all tasteful big windows and cheery bunting. You could think you were in Copenhagen, or Rotterdam, on a sidestreet far from home; having never been to Tilehurst, I suppose technically I was. 

Inside it was plain, unassuming but agreeably homely, flooded with light from those almost full-length windows. And again, you got that sense of community from everything – art on the walls, shelves selling plants, Tilehurst Honey (the beekeeper also lives locally) and some very cool-looking postcards of the Dee Park Estate, taken by a local photographer. The menu, on an almost floor to ceiling board, also listed all of the community initiatives underneath in brightly coloured, friendly-looking script. 

It was a good and attractively priced menu, very much centred around brunch and lunch. Sandwiches tended to cost around four pounds and many of them looked far more interesting than standard issue: the “samostie”, for instance, a toastie with veggie samosa mix and yoghurt chilli chutney, or a halloumi sandwich with a lime, garlic and chipotle mojo. And it was hard not to love anywhere that offers a fish finger bap elevated by the addition of salt and vinegar crisps. Breakfasts looked more conventional, but had everything you could possibly want and, at seven pounds fifty, looked like cracking value.

There were also pastries, but I got the impression Dee Caf had had a busy Saturday morning – all those dads descending on it, perhaps – because they’d almost run out when I got there. But they too are bought locally, along with the bread and, on Fridays, eclairs from Davy at Wolseley Street (which, having tried them at Geo Café, I can confirm are bloody lovely). Dee Caf also uses a local butcher for all of its sausages, bacon and what have you; eggs, as so often with Reading indies, are from Beechwood Farm. 

All the ingredients were in place for a terrific meal so naturally I had that feeling of trepidation while we waited for our order to turn up. There were two members of staff working in the open kitchen behind the counter and both were unfailingly lovely from start to finish. So we got to watch them cooking our orders, too, although I felt a little intrusive gawping as they danced around one another fetching things from the fridge, slicing black pudding, making our lunch. It also meant that I saw the flames coming off the frying pan at a key moment and one of the staff rushing over to shake the pan and turn the heat down (“I think I’ve just flambéed your mushrooms” she called over, brightly apologetic).

First to turn up was our coffee, in enamel mugs, and that gives me a chance to get the worst of it out of the way first. My latte had that burnt acrid taste I associate with Reading’s less impressive cafés and I thought that was a real shame. Don’t get me wrong, I still had a second cup because I wanted to linger longer, but it needed more sugar than I’d usually put in to try and knock off the sharp edges. I think Dee Caf uses Kingdom Coffee, as do Café Yolk these days, and either the coffee’s not great or it’s not being made as well as it could be. Given the disappointing coffee I had from Yolk after they stopped buying from Anonymous, I think it may well be the former.

Salvation arrived, though, in the shape of quite one of the nicest breakfasts I’ve had in a long time. Dee Caf’s full English really was an embarrassment of riches, and I’m delighted to say I enjoyed practically all of it. The black pudding, cooked until it had ventured from crumbly to crispy, was beautifully earthy, the bacon (back rather than streaky, but you can’t have everything) was wonderfully substantial, salty stuff. And the sausages were gorgeous: I tend to think a full English stands or falls on the quality of the sausages and these – coarse, with proper depth of flavour – were miles better than I expected.

But the supporting players were good too. It’s hard to muck up baked beans, and they didn’t, although I know they’re not everybody’s cup of tea. The mushrooms were a bit charred, sadly, by the flambéeing incident, but I liked them all the same, and in fact blackening the cherry tomatoes had at least softened them and intensified their sweetness. I’m always happy with anybody who serves up hash browns, even if they’re from a bag in the freezer as these probably were, and there was real butter on the toast. The bread is allegedly sourdough from a local bakery: it didn’t feel particularly special, but I enjoyed it anyway. 

The one thing that was slightly weird was my solitary poached egg: given that Dee Caf also does a “half English” with half of the stuff on the full English you do wonder how they dish up half an egg. When you think that they charge one pound sixty for half a dozen eggs you’d think they could stretch to a couple with breakfast. Goodness knows how insubstantial it would have looked if I’d asked them to scramble it.

Zoë, ever the millennial, hadn’t been able to stay away from that smashed avocado. She had it in “The Avo”, Dee Caf’s toasted sandwich with avocado, crispy fried chorizo, runny egg and chipotle. Doesn’t that sound fantastic? And I’m reliably informed it was, the base of avocado picking up the the golden bounty of the egg yolk, the brick red fat from the caramelised cubes of chorizo, all crispy at the edges, and of course the kick of the chipotle. Was I allowed to try a mouthful? No I bloody wasn’t. Can I hold that against her? Absolutely not.

It was easy to tell the staff, when I went up to settle our bill, how much we’d enjoyed our food. Our bill came to twenty two pounds, not including tip, which felt like good value to me. And the lady who took my card payment enthused about the place, told me where they get their meat from (Carl Woods in Sonning Common: I’ve half a mind to make a detour there and pick some stuff up) and was clearly every bit as passionate about Dee Caf as the owner. 

There had been a steady flow of people coming in to grab food or takeaway coffees as we finished our lunch, and as we left for an appointment with a few pints of Double-Barrelled’s finest, I found myself thinking how lucky those locals were to have Dee Caf nearby. I could well imagine stopping there on a regular basis, for a pot of tea and a pastry, or a lunchtime sausage sandwich. And I’d love somewhere like that near me, but instead my local is Café Yolk. Dee Caf – unpretentious, thoroughly decent and full of heart – is almost as different from Café Yolk as The Repair Shop is from Love Island. They’re both television programmes, just as Dee Caf and Café Yolk are both cafés and Jess Phillips and Rebekah Vardy are both human beings. But really, the resemblance stops there. 

So the people of Tilehurst, and the Dee Park Estate, have a proper little gem in Dee Caf. But is it worth a detour out that way if you don’t live in the area? I think the answer is probably yes, especially if you can tie it in to a trip to Double Barrelled, or a walk around McIlroy Park (I still haven’t been, but I’m reliably informed that it’s a lovely spot). But then I’ve been known to take the bus to Kennet Island just to have brunch at Fidget & Bob: Dee Caf very much strikes me as its kindred spirit out west. It’s a wonderful example of how you can build community, and the role excellent food can play in that. I won’t leave it so long before I return to Tilehurst to review somewhere else – but a bit of me might hesitate, if only because I don’t want to mar the place’s unblemished record.

Dee Caf – 7.8
12 Spey Road, Tilehurst, RG30 4DG
0118 9960478

https://www.deecaf.co.uk

Café review: Madoo

It’s a fact of life in hospitality that restaurants open and close all the time. There’s an inexhaustible supply of plucky new businesses ready to sign a lease and try their chances, and you can almost measure how long someone has lived in Reading by how far back they remember the history of certain sites. Do you recall when Thai Corner used to be Bistrot Vino, or when the Nando’s on Broad Street was a place called Bistro Je T’aime? You’ve probably been here since the early days of the Oracle, if not longer.

In some cases a restaurant makes such a go of it that you almost completely forget the establishments that went before. Some people have long memories, and remember Mum Mum or that pretzel joint on Market Place, but for many people I imagine it feels like it’s always been Tasty Greek Souvlaki. And although I know rationally, in the back of my mind, that there used to be a great branch of Ha! Ha! on the Kings Road – and that after that it was a Turkish place, and a tapas restaurant, and a weird kind of pub that closed on Sundays – it’s been House Of Flavours so long that it’s jarring to imagine anybody else there. It’s a bit like how, after you’ve been in a relationship with a person long enough, your previous life feels as if it belonged to somebody else.

But there are some sites where you need not only a long memory but a good one, because so many restaurants try and fail to make a go of it on the same premises. The quintessential example of this is the site of the old Warwick Arms, which has been Bali Lounge, the Biscuit & Barrel, Cardamom and King’s Kitchen and currently goes by the name of the Aila. I only reviewed the first two of those, and most of the others closed before I could get round to them.

Or take Cozze’s site on the Caversham Road, which has been Chi’s Oriental Brasserie, La Fontana, Al Tarboush, Casa Roma and Maracas, all of which eventually went pear-shaped. (Incidentally, I heard a fantastic story once that when Casa Roma decided to change to a Mexican restaurant called Maracas they did it mainly because they realised they could reuse all the letters in their sign except the O: I so hope this is true.) But can there really be a god in heaven when the TGI Friday opposite has outlasted them all?

What’s behind these high-churn sites, I wonder? Is it bad judgment, bad luck or bad juju? Are they run by enthusiastic amateurs who bite off more than they can chew, or are some sites simply cursed – by lack of footfall, of parking or of access, or by the presence of better (or better-known) alternatives nearby? Or is it just that they haven’t found their forever home – or rather, their forever homeowner – yet? All that crossed my mind last weekend as I stepped through the front door of Madoo, ready for lunch.

By the standards of titans like the Aila’s or Cozze’s site, Madoo’s is only slightly hexed. It used to be a sandwich shop called It’s A Wrap which lived up to its name by closing, and then it was the ill-fated Project Pizza (pizza may be many things, but surely it should never be a project). But it’s been Madoo for a couple of years now, and it forms a Little Italy on Duke Street with delicatessen Mama’s Way opened just next door. And it has its fans – I’ve heard lots of good things about its toasted sandwiches and it even came up in conversation with my physio this week. “I love that place, it feels like being in Italy” he said. “I started going there in lockdown because it was one of the only places in the town centre that was open.”

Inside it was a lot more hospitable than you might think from trying to peer through the tinted windows. It probably seats just over a dozen people, some of them up at a bar that runs along one wall, but it had a nice feel to it. The chevrons on the floor, pallets fixed to the ceiling and lights attached to the pallets make it feel somewhat like a zone from the Crystal Maze that didn’t make the cut, but for all that I rather liked it. One other table was occupied when I turned up just after noon, but half an hour later the place was full.

You order up at the counter but along the walls are loads of tempting bits and bobs to take home – dried pasta, a small selection of cheese, sauces, biscuits and all manner of snacks. I know a few eyebrows were raised when Mama’s Way opened next door but they seem to have put some effort into not treading on one another’s toes – Madoo has the space, and sells coffee but no booze, and its neighbour is minuscule and sells booze but no coffee. Between them they make up one of Reading’s most fascinating gastronomic micro-climates.

Madoo’s menu is a symphony of toasted sandwiches. There are a couple of salads, if you want to eschew carbs, but really it’s just about picking your fillings. Some of the sandwiches are made up and behind the counter, ready to eat, or you can pick an option from the menu, or pretty much customise it however you like. But the majority of the sandwiches are variations on a classic theme – pick your meat, pick your cheese, pick your veg or salad and off you go. Everything sounds fantastic on paper and many of the ingredients here – mortadella, speck, scamorza, gorgonzola – are far more exciting than anything you’d get in another dreary soggy sandwich from Pret. It’s affordable, too, with nothing clocking in at more than a fiver.

The other main decision you have is all about the bread. The menu suggests the sandwiches all come in ciabatta (incidentally, did you know that ciabatta is a comparatively recent invention? Created in 1982 to protect Italy from the existential threat posed by the baguette apparently, my other half tells me). And Madoo’s recent social media posts suggest you can have puccia, a flattish Puglian bread, instead. But when I ordered at the counter I was given the choice between puccia and focaccio and, out of curiosity, I picked the latter.

While I waited for it to arrive, I made inroads into my latte. I’ve had coffee from Madoo once before and it was somewhere on the borderline between nothing to write home about and actively bad, so I was hugely relieved to find that either it’s improved or they were having an off day last time. It isn’t top tier, not up there with the likes of Workhouse, C.U.P. or Compound, but it’s probably comfortably in the pack with Shed and Picnic – and tellingly, it was better than the one I had recently at Raayo.

I’d chosen toasted sandwich number one, a classic combo of prosciutto, mozzarella, tapenade and rocket and it came to the table looking the part with a nice golden sheen and telltale lines from the grill. It didn’t look hugely like any focaccia I’ve had before, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t authentic: they vary widely by region and this was a long way from the oily, dimpled foccacia most people are used to. Instead it was flatter, denser and less airy – if anything, better suited to a sandwich. It was still oily, though: enough to soak through both napkins that had been put underneath it. Why do cafés still put napkins under the sandwich or cake? It’s an eternal, nearly-unsolvable mystery that not enough philosophers have tackled over the years.

There’s an art to toasted sandwiches, that fine balance of getting everything inside hot and/or melted, all those mingling flavours cross-pollinating without ending up with a charred exterior. Based on my sandwich Madoo hasn’t quite got the hang of that yet, because although the ingredients were unquestionably good, it hadn’t had long enough under the grill for the magic to happen. The mozzarella had begun to melt but not reached full glorious elasticity, and the prosciutto – again, good quality stuff – was too close to fridge-cold at the core. But the tapenade saved the day, uniting everything with that deep, pungent saltiness. It felt like there were a few intact olives in the mix, too. 

Even with all that nit picking, it was a thoroughly enjoyable sandwich – and it reminded me of many happy lunches in the early Nineties from Parmenters, a sandwich shop in Oxford. This was back when the whole town was ciabatta crazy and you could get big pillowy sandwiches full of mozzarella, sundried tomato and pesto and eat them in quadrangles across the city (I didn’t realise, back then, that even the concept of ciabatta was barely ten years old). When I go back to Madoo, I have designs on something with scamorza, or speck, or pesto – or some arguably ill-advised combination of all three. 

Because I’m greedy, and because I wanted to try out more of Madoo’s food, I’d also ordered two mini cannoli – one with chocolate, another with pistachio. Again, they were served on their own personal napkins but that aside they were a beautiful indulgence – both with nicely brittle shells and the kind of smooth, rich filling that lingers on the tastebuds for almost long enough. I ordered the chocolate one – because I’m basic like that, and that’s just what I do – but the pistachio was equally lovely if not more so. I don’t know whether Madoo makes them or buys them in, but given that they sell them for one pound twenty each I’m not going to complain if it’s the latter.

My whole lunch came to less than a tenner – and again, it’s instructive to think how little that would buy you eating in at Pret these days. And service was excellent – kind and friendly, even to a total newcomer. I felt very much the exception in that respect: I was struck by how nearly everybody else who came into Madoo that lunchtime had clearly been there before, probably had a regular order or a favourite sandwich. Two chaps came in, talking Italian, went up to the counter, got their espressos, downed them and left. A family came in towards the end of my lunch and their son was wearing a Bari shirt. 

Every table was bright with chatter, and I possibly liked it even more because with some tables I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. It’s things like that which made me fall ever so slightly in love with Madoo and this tiny corner of Italia overseas. Because restaurants and cafés are about more than just the food, or the coffee. They’re also about the atmosphere, the little bubble they create and whether they make you want to be inside it. Madoo’s toasted sandwiches are definitely better than many of their competitors – not perfect, but not too far off it, and the ingredients they use are a cut above. But also I just loved sitting in a different part of Reading to my usual, to having a different type of coffee and sampling an entirely different flavour of people watching. 

I can absolutely see why it’s always so full. And although I may not ever become a regular there – I have too many lunch places still on my list to review, it’s rather an occupational hazard – I’m certain they will see me again. It’s great to have another option, too, because some days Reading still seems a tad thin on good candidates for a quick, light lunch. And besides, I’m reliably informed that they do arancini every Friday – so if nothing else, I’ll have to drag myself away from my regular appointment with Blue Collar one week to try them out. Maybe this spot on Duke Street has found its forever homeowner, after all.

Madoo – 7.4
10-14 Duke Street, Reading, RG1 4RU
0118 9502249

https://www.facebook.com/madooitaliandelicafe

Café review: Raayo

Picture the scene: I found myself in the town centre on Sunday around noon with the afternoon to myself, and I figured it was the perfect time to try one of the many lunchtime options on my to do list. This is, it turns out, something of a growth area. Despite last year being a challenging one for hospitality, there was no shortage of relatively new places for me to explore – Italian café Madoo on Duke Street, Bru at the skanky end of Friar Street, Yaylo where Nibsy’s used to be on Cross Street, Chipstar next to the Alehouse. I used to complain frequently about Reading not having enough places for lunch, but I felt distinctly spoiled for choice.

And actually, wandering round town I discovered new lunch places I’d not even considered or known about. My Warsaw, a Polish street food hole in the wall, has opened on the ground floor of Kings Walk, and Bánh Mì QB, a place selling the Vietnamese sandwich of the gods, looks set to open a few doors down in the not too distant future. 

Meanwhile, over on West Street where Beijing Noodle House used to be, there’s a little Nepalese place called Chillim Kitchen and, right next door, an establishment called Cairo Café that does common or garden panini and wraps but also serves “Egyptian Street Food” and something called the “King Tut Breakfast”. Where had all these places come from? I guess if we had a local media worth speaking of we’d all know about these by now, whereas instead you have to rely on me mooching round at the weekend. Sorry about that.

Anyway, I figured everywhere on my list would be quiet. After all town, or at least my social media echo chamber, was completely swept up in Blue Collar Corner mania: every couple of minutes I saw another Instagram story of someone enjoying our brand new street food Mecca down Hosier Street (“it felt like I was in Ibiza” was Berkshire Live’s verdict. That’s nice). So I just assumed everybody would be there checking out all the bright shiny new things and I would have my pick of the empty cafés. 

It was a great plan, but it didn’t survive its first bruising collision with reality: Madoo was rammed and, out on Broad Street, the handful of stools in Chipstar were all occupied. As so often, Reading’s Twittersphere wasn’t a perfect reflection of town, so back to the drawing board it was. With uncanny timing, the heavens opened and I took shelter outside M&S, half tempted to abort my mission and just review a takeaway this week. And then I remembered Raayo, just down from Hickies and opposite what’s left of the Harris Arcade. 

I’d never been, and in fact I’d been a little waspish about them in my roundup at the end of 2020: at the time they had an underdeveloped website, now I’m not sure they even have a website. But I seemed to remember hearing from Zoë that some people from her work had been there and quite liked it. As I passed, it was as empty as empty could be. That didn’t raise my hopes that I was going to have a fantastic lunch, but it did make me feel for them a bit – I’ve always been drawn to the underdog – so I decided to chance my arm, and my lunch, and in I went.

It’s basically a small, open plan room which makes full use of its floor to ceiling windows looking out on to the pavement. There’s a bar alongside the window, and handsome stools to perch on, but apart from that it’s just a case of going up to the counter and placing your order. From the size I’d imagine much of their business would normally be takeaway, but as there wasn’t a soul in sight it seemed the apposite moment to try it out.

The menu, if I’m honest, looked a tad generic. There was a range of sandwiches and toasties all involving various ingredients kept under the counter, à la Reading institutions Pierre’s and Shed. A couple of sandwiches had interesting-looking components – scamorza in one, pickled fennel in another – but nothing leapt out (and seeing one of my favourite cheeses misspelt on the blackboard as “Parmsean” made my heart go out to them again – that underdog thing, I imagine). But when I asked the owner behind the counter what he recommended he pointed to their special, the pulled pork, and so I went for that.

It took just long enough to arrive, wrapped in foil like a burrito, and I found myself pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Unlike many toasties, especially at chain cafés, it was edible without being hotter than the sun, and the pulled pork was really very good. At its worst, pulled pork is a mulchy, soggy mess and usually the standard-issue barbecue sauce it tends to be paired with makes it a sickly, mulchy, soggy mess. But not so here – the pork wasn’t bone dry (as it is, for instance, at the Nag’s Head) but the balance had been struck nicely. And the barbecue sauce had a properly pleasing heat to it, without masses of sweetness. At four pounds fifty it was very generous and excellent value, and although my photo makes it look like a symphony of beige I hope you’ll take my word for it that it was a find. 

I had misread the menu, which offers plenty of extras you can put in your pulled pork sandwich. I thought they all came as standard, whereas in reality you have to pay for them. If I’d known, I’d be talking right now about the sharpness and crunch of gherkins, and the delightful texture from the crispy shallots. But sadly, I didn’t: although in some respects that might be for the best because this sandwich could stand on its own two feet without the extras. With them, next time, it could be worldbeating. 

But I was quite happy as I was, so I ate my sandwich on my stool, looking out the window at the sights of Friar Street, lost in the moment, pondering some of the great mysteries of life: why are we here? Do I eat so much nice food to distract myself from some gaping spiritual void in my life? And, perhaps most significantly, does anyone actually drink in Wild Lime? There I was, the only living boy in Raayo: behind me I could dimly make out the sound of the owner, AirPods in, chatting to somebody on his phone, vaguely audible above the hum of the fridge. All seemed right with the world, and the rain had even stopped.

I went up to order some coffee and a cookie for afters and I told him how much I’d enjoyed my sandwich. He sounded really proud of it, and he told me his story: he’d opened eighteen months ago, and it had been a really challenging time. People were starting to come back into town at last, and the weekends were surprisingly busy. He told me that he made everything himself, that the pulled pork and the barbecue sauce were both to his recipe and that although it was described as a special it was on the menu every day. I was so glad that my food hadn’t been rubbish, although of course I didn’t put it that way when I was talking to him.

The coffee isn’t great though – if you go, you might find it disappointing. It was below that top tier of Workhouse, C.U.P. and Compound, with a slightly scorched bitter note that needed more sugar to conceal it than I was prepared to put in. But it didn’t matter, because my chocolate and coconut cookie was a chewy treat – part biscuit, part macaroon, all delicious. I was so keen to eat it that I started without taking a picture, which means that the photo below is the only one in nearly nine years of writing this blog of my tiny toothmarks. He had a meal deal going so I got the coffee and a cookie for three pounds thirty – I asked him to charge me full price but he just wouldn’t. In total my sandwich, my cookie, a coffee and a soft drink cost me under a tenner: good luck getting so much stuff at Pret A Manger.

I wish I could give Raayo the kind of score that would send literally a handful of people flocking to it. But this isn’t that kind of review, and Raayo isn’t that kind of place. It’s too shy and unassuming – back to that lack of a social media presence again – and it needs to be slightly bolshier. I worry for it, a little. But then maybe if it was gobbier it would lose some of what made it such a quietly lovely place to have a peaceful, serene lunch when it felt like all the world was somewhere else. But I would recommend you try it if pulled pork is your thing, and I’ll definitely go back to try it again. 

It’s somehow hugely comforting to know that Reading still contains these little surprises, like a small hole in the wall sandwich shop where the owner makes his own pulled pork and it’s thoroughly decent. It’s good to know these places still thrive amid all the Caffe Neros and Costas that so dominate the centre of Reading, like flowers through cracks in the pavement,. And it’s a timely reminder, on an apt weekend, that you should never completely let the next big thing blind you to what’s already here, toiling away, waiting for that lucky break.

Raayo – 7.0
155 Friar Street, Reading, RG1 1HE
0118 3273418

https://www.facebook.com/Raayo155
Delivery via: Deliveroo, Uber Eats

Café review: The Collective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://www.thecollectivecaversham.co.uk

Richfields Deli

Normally I end the year with my annual awards. It’s a great opportunity to round up the year in restaurants and tell you my favourite starter of the year, my favourite main course, the whole shebang. Not this time, though, because it hasn’t been that kind of year: I had nearly twelve months away in retirement and finally came back in the summer, two (count them!) house moves and many life changes later. So instead you get one last review from me but, because this time of year is always a reflective one, there’s a bit of navel gazing to get through first. Sorry about that: I’ll try to keep it brief.

This year has been full of wonderful discoveries. The ever-changing menu at the Lyndhurst, for one – a recent visit featured a terrific crab and leek gratin with a parmesan crust, just crying out to be forked from the ramekin onto toast oozing with butter. Pretty much anything at Namaste Kitchen, my restaurant of the year, from firm paneer in a light spiced batter to the best chow mein I think I’ve ever eaten (I went last weekend only to find they were too busy to fit me in – I’ve never been so pleased to be turned away from a restaurant in all my born days). Or, of course, the continuing brilliance of Georgian Feast, whether it’s their beautifully tender lamb and tarragon stew offset by sharp plums, their glorious spiced chicken thighs or the khachapuri, soda bread stuffed with a blend of three different cheeses, one of Reading’s food wonders (and just as good heated up in the oven the next day with a hefty helping of Branston pickle, take it from me).

But the year has also been full of other brilliant experiences, all of which have made me love this town and its community even more. Blue Collar turned Forbury Gardens into the best place in town on countless sunny summer weekends. The Reading Fringe transformed the town into a hotbed of high and low culture: I watched Born To Sum in the Rising Sun Arts Centre with my totally baffled friend Dave, and skulked on the sidelines of All We Ever Wanted Was Everything at Public, desperately hoping not to be forced to participate (“I loved it” said my mother afterwards in the bar, “all those angry young people in smoky rooms, it took me right back to the Sixties”).

And there was more. I spent a Bank Holiday Sunday in the Retreat at their impromptu cheese festival, the table in the back room groaning with cheeses from all over Europe, home made black pudding sausage rolls there too, and I wound up sitting on the bench outside passing round a bottle of Sauternes to friends and strangers alike. I sat in St James’ Church and took in the sweep and ambition of Matilda The Empress, a production which redefines the kind of thing Reading can offer. I finished the year at South Street watching Singalong-A-Muppet Christmas Carol, preceded by the chaotic spectacle of one half of Shit Theatre crossing the stage on the back of makeshift camel John Luther while Frankie’s “The Power Of Love” played in the background. It was one of those times when I wished I’d been on drugs: at least I’d have had an excuse.

Oh, and I sat in my garden in the morning sunshine, drank tea, ate toast and Marmite and read my library book. Such a small thing, maybe, but nonetheless a moment of peace which didn’t always seem on the cards this year. Another thing to be thankful for.

And, of course, I started reviewing again. That’s another area where I need to be thankful to lots of people – to everyone who came back after my hiatus and read, retweeted, commented or said such lovely things on social media. To Pho and Honest Burgers for working on reader competitions with me so I could finally give something back to you all, and for all of you who entered those competitions. Last but not least, I owe a big debt of thanks to everybody who came with me on duty and helped me to review a restaurant: from beer friend Tim to meat fiend Ben; from my wise and occasionally withering mum to girl about town Izzy; from old friend Mike to new friend Claire. I couldn’t have done it without them – and who knows who might get pressganged (or asked nicely) in 2018.

For my final review of the year, I wanted to find somewhere that sums up what I always look for in an establishment – somewhere small, independent and distinctive, somewhere that deserved more exposure and a wider audience. Somewhere good in the less fashionable parts of town, where the rents are lower and where it’s easier for interesting things to evolve and develop (it’s no coincidence that most of Reading’s best independent restaurants grow and prosper away from the town centre).

The place that jumped out of my list, which had been mentioned by a few people on Twitter, was Richfields Deli, a little joint on the Caversham Road just down from the Moderation. As I understand it, it used to just be a café doing sandwiches, but it expanded and reopened early in 2017 and when it did, so did the menu, offering “Breakfast, Brunch and Street Food”. Leaving my reservations to one side about serving street food in a building (let’s be charitable, as it’s Christmas) it looked interesting, so I turned up, shaking the rain from my brolly on a dreary Sunday afternoon. I had my friend Tim in tow – he used to live nearby, and said he had happy memories of the place.

My first impressions were good. It is a surprisingly spacious place, which has been opened out into a front and back room and it’s all very nicely done with wood floors, tasteful blue walls and some very fetching art hung up (I would quite happily have taken some of the more abstract examples home with me). A long bar connected the two rooms, with some attractive-looking cakes on the counter and a blackboard above with an extensive list of drinks, shakes and smoothies. Many of the tables were occupied by friends and families, enjoying brunch. I also noticed from another chalkboard that Richfields sold an impressive range of local beers, although it seemed a bit baffling to do so when the place closes late afternoon.

The menu was so big that it would probably take two or three visits to get a representative impression. I worried that it was too big – a good brunch section, grills, salads, sandwiches and a range of burritos. I was still unconvinced that it constituted street food but it was hard to dispute that the menu was definitely well-travelled: pancakes and maple syrup from the States; brisket and kimchee from Korea; tandoori chicken roti and a full English breakfast. On another day I might have ordered any of those things, but the Gaucho cheesesteak sandwich was calling to me. I love a Philly cheesesteak sandwich, but moreover the menu had just enough hints that the dish might be special – the steak was from Jennings, just across the bridge, and it had been marinated in chimichurri. Tim was also tempted by that dish, in which case I might have had the halloumi and Portobello mushroom burger with lime and chilli dressing, but ultimately he settled on a classic cheeseburger. “I can’t help it,” he said, “I really fancy a burger.”

But first, the drinks. Tim had a large coke, which gratifyingly came in the iconic glass bottle rather than from a can or a siphon. I had a large latte – I approached it with no great enthusiasm, and I’d probably have gone for a mocha if it had been on the menu, but I was very pleasantly surprised. It didn’t taste burnt and was nicely balanced: not one for purists, so not in the same league as places like Tamp or Workhouse, but a really pleasant coffee. Better than Costa, for starters, and streets ahead of the milky grimness I’d endured at Tipsy Bean a few weeks back.

While we waited for our sandwiches I enjoyed relaxing at my table, catching up with Tim who had all sorts of gossip, and checking out my surroundings. There was a twinkling white Christmas tree in the corner and the whole place had an atmosphere I really liked. Not scruffy, not trying too hard, not trying to mechanically extract hard currency from hipsters or students, just calm, pleasant and tasteful. It made me realise how rarely, in the box-checking world of food trends, you come across a place like that.

“The owners aren’t in today,” said Tim, “it’s even better when they are. They’re a lovely couple.”

I also checked out the food at the other tables, because that’s something I struggle not to do, and I found I had more food envy. The breakfasts looked marvellous – big thick rounds of black pudding, nicely cooked sausages, caramelised on the outside, and fried potatoes which looked like they’d been cooked from scratch rather than tipped out of a bag in the freezer.

“The breakfasts are really good.” said Tim.

“Better than Alto Lounge?” I asked. One thing I know about Tim is that back when he lived round here he did love an Alto Lounge breakfast.

“Yes, even better than that. Although Alto Lounge does this fantastic sausagemeat patty, I can’t get enough of those.”

Just as I thought my hunger would completely get the better of me, our food arrived. My sandwich was a thing of real beauty: a generous, nicely baked baguette absolutely crammed with steak, cheese and peppers. The picture might not do it justice, and makes the steak look a tad grey, but it really wasn’t. You got lots of it, and it was tender and delicious. If I was being critical, I’d have liked it to have more chimichurri to lift it, but even so it was really difficult to take exception to it in any way. I ordered extra onion rings and they were little compact things (like you used to get from the supermarket) rather than big greasy battered hoops of onion with the batter falling off. If anything, that made me love them even more.

“These taste like those onion ring snacks you get in the shops” said Tim, spot on as usual. Again, this was really no bad thing.

Tim had gone for the burger with jack cheese (rather than blue cheese) and it looked pretty good from where I was sitting. There was the regulation standard issue brioche bun, burger sauce spread on one half, and the patty seemed decent. There was also gherkin – always a favourite of mine – and Tim had ordered onion rings, although it was a little disappointing that they were served on the side, rather than on top as the bacon or cheese would have been. I think Tim had food envy at my sandwich, but even so he seemed happy enough with the burger. I didn’t get to try any, but it looked good and although not served pink it seemed perfectly cooked in the middle, not dried out or grey.

“Is it as good as, say, the Oakford?” I asked him.

“Oh, it’s better than the Oakford.” he said between mouthfuls. “I just wish it was a bit bigger.”

It was an interesting point. The burger was nine pounds and came with fries, which made it reasonably competitive but possibly on the slightly pricey side given the size of it (that said, there’s a lot to be said for a burger you can actually eat with your hands). My sandwich, which I really enjoyed, was ten pounds and however much I liked it I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t also say that it was a bloody expensive sandwich.

Service was kind and friendly – ever so slightly amateurish, but in a way I found impossible to dislike. It took a while to figure out that you have to order at the counter, so we sat there like lemons for a bit with staff wandering past our table before figuring that out (they were very apologetic when this became apparent). They totally forgot to cook our fries, and the waiter said “sorry, I’ll just put them under”, wandered off and came back with them piping hot about five minutes later. They felt shop-bought – nice enough, but having seen the fried potatoes I’d hoped for better. But when a place builds up goodwill you can get away with slips like that, and I found I really didn’t care about the mistakes. I was comfy and cosy, the rain was battering away on the pavement outside, Christmas was around the corner, I was having lunch with a very good friend and I was eating a truly splendid – if costly – sandwich. Lunch came to just under twenty eight pounds for the two of us, not including tip. It cannot be denied that it was a pricey lunch, and that’s probably one of the only reasons the number at the bottom of this review isn’t higher.

So, Richfields is almost the perfect example of the kind of place I’m looking for when I review restaurants and cafes. It’s independent, it’s small, it deserves more recognition and it’s in an unsung part of town (even more unsung now Papa Gee has upped sticks and moved to Prospect Street). But then Papa Gee kept going for ten years just down the road, so maybe there’s enough local custom to keep Richfields in business. I did find myself worrying about it slightly – the Mod next door does proper sit down lunches, the Gorge is competition for breakfasts and, on Sundays at least, Georgian Feast does a chicken wrap which is probably better and cheaper than anything you can get at Richfields. I have a sneaking feeling there will be fewer independent restaurants in town this time next year, so more than ever we need to spend our money to preserve the kind of town we want to live in. I’ll make an effort to go back there for brunch next year, for exactly that reason. I hope Richfields has a happy and prosperous 2018 – and actually, that goes for all of you too.

Richfields Deli – 7.1
211 Caversham Road, RG1 8BB
0118 9391144

http://richfieldsdeli.com/