Pachangas, Henley

There are times when I think I’ve almost got the hang of this reviewing thing. In particular I think I’ve got to the stage where I have a reasonably good idea, from looking at a menu, of whether a restaurant is going to be good. Pachangas, a Mexican restaurant in Henley, scored so well on that front that I’d been looking forward to visiting it for some time. The menu made all the right noises: Oaxaca cheese, grilled cactus, slow-cooked pork marinated with chili, orange and tequila, sweet spicy mole (the chocolate and chilli sauce, not the short-sighted animal from Wind In The Willows). So different from Maracas in Reading, where the menu doesn’t really convince me that the owners have had a Damascene conversion from cooking Italian to Mexican food.

I was so excited about going that not even a miserable day in January put me off my trip to Henley. Besides, I reasoned, even if it turned out to be a disappointment there were always consolations – the gorgeous chocolate in Gorvett and Stone for one, the delights of Machin’s (ostensibly a butcher but also selling fantastic cheese, smoked fish, terrific jamon iberico and countless other wonders – if only Reading had somewhere like this) for another. But mainly I was going for Pachangas: I re-read the menu on the bus, feeling like I was about to take a little gastronomic holiday.

Stepping out of the rain, half-mist, half-drizzle (is “mizzle” a word?) and into the restaurant I immediately felt like I’d made an excellent choice. This restaurant used to be the site of a pub called the Beer Tree which had Kozel on draft and a bewildering array of Belgian beers in the fridge; I used to love it back then but it was a bit crude and functional inside. Pachangas was a lot more inviting, all bright-coloured walls and cheery music. I got a warm welcome and was shown to a nice table: on my left I had a view of the rest of the dining room and on my right I could see the grey street outside, the rain intensifying. It felt like I might have been in the only sunshiny part of Henley that day.

The menu presented a couple of challenges. One was not hitting the cocktails in a big way – a wide range were available, not to mention numerous tequilas and several Mexican beers, along with something rather frightening called a michelada which seems to be a mixture of beer, lime juice and hot sauce (another time, perhaps). The other one, as I said, was narrowing it down when nearly everything looked worth a punt. Even the burger – in a tortilla wrap rather than a bun – appealed, bringing back happy memories of sadly departed Oracle restaurant Santa Fe (the unforgettable, dimly-remembered evenings I’ve had there!). The other thing that struck me about the menu was just how much of it was available gluten free – well worth knowing if you’re eating out with someone who doesn’t eat gluten.

After all the horse trading was complete, the orders had been placed and the wine was ordered we sat back in anticipation. I had high hopes, which if anything were justified by a little freebie to start with – two little gluten free rolls, still warm and filled with rich, elastic cheese. Just beautiful. But then, I smugly told myself, I knew it would be good because I knew a good menu when I saw it.

The first of the starters was further corroborative evidence. Calamares picantes were dusted with flour rather than battered and apparently shallow rather than deep fried and came sprinkled with chilli, coriander and beautifully whiffy slivers of fried garlic. The squid was among the best I can remember – so tender, free from any bounce or twang and clearly very fresh indeed. It was so good that I didn’t really mind that the coating didn’t entirely stick to it. All it meant was that at the end I had loads of little pieces of it to eat, fun-sized explosions of chilli, garlic and (I think) lime. Funny how sometimes, like the powder at the bottom of a packet of dry roasted peanuts, or the vinegary shards left when you’ve nearly finished your Chipsticks, the best bit comes at the last. There was also some kind of spiced dip like a mayonnaise, not mentioned on the menu, which didn’t add much and probably wasn’t really needed. I left most of it, but I didn’t feel like I’d missed out.

PachangaCalamares

The other starter was where the problems began; the tamal pachangas were described as “handmade corn masa parcels filled with spiced pork and steamed in plantain leaf served with mole negro and fried plantain” which sounded delicious. Sadly the corn parcel (singular) was quite cakelike – thick, sweet and rather claggy. The pork inside wasn’t particularly spicy but then there was so little of it that it struggled to overcome the exterior. The mole sauce was also sweet but it did have a kick of chilli so that it wasn’t completely dull. The best bit, by far, was the fried plantain which came on the side, a bit like eating banana fritter without the batter – sweet and a little bit naughty – and it was really lovely with the mole sauce. But even so, the whole plate felt like I had ordered dessert by mistake, and not a terribly good dessert at that.

PachangaTamal

The starters had been so Jekyll and Hyde that I wondered quite what the mains would be like. I’d had my eye on the fish tacos since I first looked at the menu and when they turned up they seriously looked the part – three tacos, piled high, served in some kind of zigzag contraption intended to make them easier to eat. And you couldn’t argue with the volume – two big strips of fish in each one, a heap of spiced mayonnaise on top and some salad and guacamole underneath. The problem was that they were so very bland: the fish was described on the menu as halibut tempura and I can’t give the menu the benefit of the doubt without criticising the kitchen because they felt like standard goujons of an unremarkable white fish to me. The spiced mayonnaise, which might have been the same one that came with the squid, was not particularly spiced. If anything it felt like Thousand Island Dressing’s zany friend, the one who’s never invited to parties. It came with a relatively pleasant bowl of rice – I’m not sure why as there was nothing to eat the rice with – and didn’t come with black beans, despite the promise of the menu. The whole thing was piping hot and difficult to eat: nothing wrong with that when a dish is delicious and you want to devour every last mouthful, but when it’s all a bit blah it soon becomes a chore. The thing that disappointed me most, though, was how thoroughly this dish punctured my expectations.

PachangaTaco

Then came the enchilada mole poblano. I was expecting to see two fat corn tortillas, filled with chicken and sauce and, most importantly, flavour. After all, that’s what the menu led me to expect. What arrived instead was the Mexican version of a chicken and cheese toasted sandwich; rather than two big fat cylinders I got three sad, flat little tortillas with shredded chicken and melted cheese inside and a swoosh of mole across the top. That was it. No flavour or spice in the chicken at all. This time round even the mole – a complex, intense mix of seventeen ingredients according to the menu – didn’t seem to have any chilli in it, let alone anything else other than chocolate. The tortillas, sadly, were just boring – sub-Old El Paso, in fact. It came with more of the rice (which tasted mostly of garlic) and refried beans (which tasted mostly of mashed bean). My guest was a member of the Anti-Coriander Brigade – I hear there are more of them than you might think – so had asked them to leave it out, but I couldn’t help wondering if they’d left everything out just to be safe. Including the flavour.

PachangaEnchilada

I did like the sweet potato fries (“Pachanga fries”) we ordered as a side: sweet potato can be a tricky vegetable, but they’d managed to get the fries perfectly crispy. But let’s face it, if the fries are the high point you’ve either had amazing fries or a pretty iffy meal, and these fries weren’t amazing.

We had a glass of red wine each. The Chilean merlot was nicely smooth and smoky and the Mexican syrah – Mexican wine does exist, believe it or not – was drinkable but unremarkable. Both were about a fiver a glass (in hindsight, maybe I should have had a “Bloody Pirate”, a Bloody Mary made with rum rather than vodka, instead). The best bit of the experience was undoubtedly the service which was lovely throughout: both the waiters that looked after us were friendly, knowledgeable and checked up on us just often enough without it feeling over the top. I’m no expert but their accents sounded South American at least and very possibly Mexican which gave me confidence (the second best bit of the experience, incidentally, was that you have to go through a saloon door to get to the loo – what’s not to like about that?)

I nearly gave Pachangas a chance to redeem itself through dessert (I had my eye on the churros) but a combination of fullness and disappointment made me rule it out. The total bill for two courses and a glass of wine each was fifty-nine pounds, excluding service.

Something magical has happened several times while writing Edible Reading where I’ve gone to an unprepossessing restaurant with no real expectations and gone away thoroughly delighted and surprised. Pachangas is a rare example of the opposite phenomenon – and I suppose it had to happen eventually – where everything looks good on paper but it just didn’t come together. The food didn’t quite live up to the menu: sometimes literally, in that what you ordered and what you got weren’t quite the same thing. But more generally the menu made wonderful promises about flavour which the kitchen just didn’t keep. Whether they’re playing it safe because they’re in Henley, or whether they just have a gift for writing which isn’t matched by their cooking I don’t know. Either way, it’s a salutary lesson for me at the start of the year that I’m not quite as good a judge of menus as I thought I was. But after all, if you could tell how good a restaurant was just by looking at the menu, who’d need restaurant reviews?

Pachangas – 6.6
30 Duke Street, Henley-on-Thames, RG9 1UP
01491 413000

http://www.pachangas.co.uk/

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Bill’s

If you’re surprised that I’ve written a review of Bill’s the main thing I can say is this – me too. I had written it off: it’s always struck me as a chain trying its damnedest to convince people that it isn’t one, the rustic reclaimed school chairs and blackboards full of homespun quotes a sleight of hand concealing a respectable-sized chain (over fifty restaurants and growing), backed by Richard Caring, who also owns or has owned parts of Strada, Carluccio’s and Cote. So I was surprised when someone suggested I review the place, but he made some interesting points; it wasn’t a chain when it came to Reading, he said, and it offers something different to other Reading restaurants.

My first instinct was to say thanks but no thanks, but then I thought about it a bit more. I’ve always said that not all independents are good and not all chains are bad, and one of the plusses of writing Edible Reading has been eating at restaurants I’d otherwise never have considered. Why shouldn’t that apply to Bill’s, too? So I found myself sitting in Bill’s on a weekday night, at one of those reclaimed chairs (are they reclaimed, I wonder, or do they have a supplier who makes all these distressed-looking chairs, tables and defeated-looking leather armchairs for them?) reading the menu, not entirely sure what I was doing there.

It is, it has to be said, an attractive space. Bill’s has taken over one of Reading’s loveliest buildings, at the bottom of Chain Street, looking out over the churchyard of Reading Minster. It’s grand and imposing from the outside, but warm and cosy inside (and the outside space, usually packed with people enjoying breakfast and lunch in the summertime, is one of town’s better al fresco spots). It seems a bit churlish to point out that it looks and feels identical to the site in Brighton that I went to long before the expansion, when there were only two branches and they were owned by the titular Bill – after all, most people wouldn’t realise they were eating in a clone. But I did, and it was a little unnerving.

The menu was uninspiring. It felt like a beige selection of dishes with little or no signs of seasonality (starters were mainly salads, which I don’t mind per se but didn’t feel especially autumnal). The mains – drawn up by a focus group, perhaps – were almost calculated to be inoffensive, so there were some burgers for people who like burgers, steak for people who like steak, a couple more salads, a curry for people who like curry, a risotto for people who are plain out of ideas and a duck pie and fish pie for people who like to help restaurants make healthy profits on mashed potato.

Starters were not promising at all. The nicest thing I can say about the calamari is that they were reasonably fresh and you got quite a lot of them (comments that could equally apply to, for example, a bag of apples from M&S). But they didn’t taste of much. It was just a pile of panko coated nothingness, served in the kind of irritating bowl that made it impossible to take them out or cut them with a knife and fork. There was also a big bland lake of something which professed to be garlic and lemon mayonnaise and tasted of neither (in fact, until I read the menu I assumed it was an underachieving tartare sauce, I still think it might be).

Squid

The halloumi, chickpea and couscous salad was, well, OK. It was three slices of nicely grilled halloumi on top of a saucer of couscous which had a few but not quite enough interesting things mixed in; pomegranate seeds, tiny bits of fresh mint and some yoghurt. I wish I’d counted the chickpeas as I am pretty sure they didn’t scrape into double figures and the tomato was easy to count because, despite being mentioned on the menu, that was a big fat (or rather a tiny skinny) zero. It was fine purely because of the salty, squeaky grilled halloumi on top: the rest was just background noise. But how much skill does it really take to grill some halloumi?

By this stage I fully expected the mains to be terrible, but bafflingly they weren’t. Hake with rosti and salsa looked the most potentially interesting thing on the menu and was a genuine delight – a firm square of well-seasoned, well cooked fish with a salty, crispy skin and lovely big flakes, on top of something that wasn’t really crispy enough to be a rosti but was pleasant all the same, a potato cake shot through with parsley and spring onions. The coarse salsa it was served with – sweet halved cherry tomatoes, cubes of avocado, a smattering of capers – added the freshness the dish needed, although it was fridge-cold which jarred with the other components. Really though, it was lovely, and at just under twelve pounds it felt like a decent, sensibly-priced dish (although maybe not a popular one: looking at most of the tables around me all I could make out was brioche bun after brioche bun).

Fish

The menu was so lacking in other choices I fancied that I went for fillet steak, from the specials menu (although I’m not sure what’s so special about a fillet steak when the rest of the year Bill’s does rump, sirloin etc.). That quibble aside, it was spot on: a nice hefty steak, cooked exactly as requested (rare, in this case) – something you should be able to take for granted but so often can’t. And some attention to detail had gone into the accompaniments. The watercress was properly dressed and delicious rather than just token greenery, and the potato gratin – a generous portion in a little cast iron pan – made a pleasant change from frites. Still, a twenty quid dish (or twenty-one if you add garlic butter as I did; I figured in for a penny in for another pound), and as much as I enjoyed it I did find myself thinking about all the other dishes you could buy with that money in Reading.

Steak

The dessert menu also left me cold. It felt like there was very little there I hadn’t seen dozens of times before: crumble, cheesecake, eton mess and brownies (brownies never really feel like dessert in a restaurant to me, just a lazy way to flog you cake instead). Again, I could almost visualise the focus group, round a boardroom table, deciding whether pecan pie was a good choice or just a little too “out there”. So we shared the only dessert on the menu that remotely made me want to order it, mini cinnamon doughnuts with fresh strawberries and chocolate dipping sauce. (Strawberries was only just plural – two, cut into halves.) The chocolate sauce was pleasant enough, smooth and dark, more of it than you could possibly need. But the doughnuts were disappointing. Good fresh doughnuts should be big, warm, fluffy, irregular cloudlike things with a gorgeous sugary shell, but these were heavy and stodgy with an afterthought of icing sugar; they didn’t deliver an ounce of that promise.

Doughnuts

Many of my friends have criticised the service in Bill’s in the past, which meant that I maybe wasn’t quite as disappointed by it as I could have been. My waitress was friendly and pleasant, but the constant calculated upselling (almost as if from a script) got wearing very quickly. No, I didn’t want “nibbles” (and, in fact, I have a real problem with food for adults being called “nibbles” at all). No, I didn’t want any extra sides with my main courses. No, I didn’t want an extra glass of wine. No, I didn’t want coffee and/or tea. At the start it just about felt like she was drawing my attention to things on the menu that I might have missed, by the end I felt like politely explaining that, however it might appear, I did actually know my own mind.

Actually, the wine was quite good: the white was an unusual Brazilian pinot grigio/riesling blend which was off-dry, round and fruity and went well with the fish dishes (even if the first glass was nowhere near cold enough) and the red was rich and juicy although, ironically, a little on the chilled side. Reasonably priced, too – I’ve had the same white at Malmaison where it costs a pound a glass more. The bill for two starters, two mains, a dessert and four glasses of wine came to £75 (which includes a 10% “optional” service charge, about the only thing the waitress didn’t ask me if I wanted). That probably makes the place look more expensive than it was – the starters were around the five pound mark, so it’s the fillet steak’s fault.

It would be easy to turn round and hammer Bill’s for being a faceless, cynical chain. But, as always, the truth is a bit more nuanced and complex. So no, it doesn’t offer something you can’t get anywhere else in Reading. Quite the contrary, in fact: I can think of other places I would sooner go if I wanted green Thai curry, or calamari (although nowhere in Reading does really good calamari, more’s the pity) or burgers, or steak – many of them independent places.

But perhaps that’s missing the point about Bill’s. Its popularity, like it or not (and it is popular – it was packed on a Monday night) is down to the fact that it offers something for everybody, an upmarket version of all you can eat überbuffet Cosmo, if you like. So I can see you might go there with a group of people who don’t have strong opinions about food, or who have very different opinions about food, or people who plain can’t decide what to eat. The food is decent enough, some of it is pretty good value and eating there is never going to class as a gamble. So did my visit change my mind about Bill’s? Kind of, I suppose: before I would have actively refused to go there whereas now, if I was going out with friends and they insisted on eating at Bill’s, I’d tag along. But in the back of my mind, I’d be thinking that it’s on Chain Street for a reason.

Bill’s – 6.4
St Mary’s Church House, Chain Street, RG1 2HX
0118 9391365

http://bills-website.co.uk/restaurants/reading/