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

Takeaway review: Thai Table

Can you believe it’s two months since I announced that I was going to start reviewing takeaways? January properly dragged – even more than most Januaries, and that’s saying a lot – but the weeks feel like they’ve whipped by since I settled into my regular routine of research, ordering, eating, digesting and writing. As we sit on the cusp of the next phase of whatever this year will turn out to be, I realise I’m running out of time to review takeaways before restaurants (or, at least, those restaurants lucky enough to have sufficient outside space to be vaguely profitable) open again. And after that, you might be off eating in those, or you might still want to read about takeaways. Who knows? The future has never felt harder to predict.

My original plan was to try and check out places that had opened since I stopped writing reviews last March, and places that I’d never had a chance to review because they only did takeaway. And it’s been a real journey of discovery since then – square pizzas from the Shinfield Road, beautiful dal from West Reading, stunning grilled meats from suburban Woodley, not to mention woeful burgers from a hotel that ought to know better. And, because they deserve to be shouted about, I also found time to sample delicious and imaginative food from the pub just round the corner from my house

But I realise there’s one category of takeaway I’ve not managed to cover so far, and that’s places that have always done takeaway but that, for whatever reason, just never occur to people as an option. Under the radar restaurants.

This time last year, when the restaurants had just been told to close, because I really wanted to do something to help, I started a Twitter thread listing local businesses and how they were adapting. It took off, and I was constantly updating it: this business was doing free delivery, that business had moved to call and collect. Things changed on a daily basis as restaurants, cafés, pubs and breweries were forced to adapt and fight for survival. I bet they all look back, reflect on the fact that was a year ago, and feel incredibly tired.

When I did the thread, I got a reply from Thai Table, the Thai restaurant in Caversham just down from the Griffin. They delivered to a wide range of Reading postcodes, they said. Thai Table does takeaway, I thought. Who knew? So I added them to the thread and they very politely thanked me. They’ve only ever written four Tweets, and half of them were either asking me for help or thanking me for it. 

They stuck out like a sore thumb in the thread – everybody else was pivoting here and there, setting up webshops, looking at new ways of doing business. By contrast, the mention of Thai Table wasn’t about innovation, it was just a quiet reminder. We’re still here, it said. Don’t forget about us. So Thai Table crossed my mind last weekend when I was deciding what to eat and review this week. I’d always enjoyed their food when I ate in the restaurant, and I remembered their awfully nice Tweet from a year ago. 

The other thing that occurred to me is that, with takeaways, geography is key. When I reviewed restaurants where I’d eaten in, the chances are you could probably get to them, but with deliveries it all hinges on whether you’re in the catchment area. And so far I’ve covered central Reading, and south east and west, but I hadn’t reviewed anywhere north of the river. So it was high time I got a delivery from Caversham: it felt like the very least I could do for my many avid readers there.

Thai Table’s menu is a classic Thai menu with few surprises and lots of old favourites, and although a handful of dishes are marked as specialities I didn’t see anything on there I haven’t seen on menus elsewhere. There is a star rating for heat where one star means mild, three stars means hot and so on: a fair few have zero stars, and it wasn’t clear whether that meant extra mild or bland. I suspected it wouldn’t be the kind of scorchingly hot authentic Thai food you might get at Oli’s Thai in Oxford, Som Saa in Spitalfields or The Heron in Paddington, but that didn’t bother me – sometimes menus like this are about comfort and familiarity, rather than trailblazing and sinus razing. There’s also a gluten free and vegetarian menu, which I assume means they omit fish sauce for the latter.

Thai Table handles deliveries itself, covering a relatively wide range of RG postcodes, and isn’t on any delivery apps, so you can either order on their website or go fully old school and ring them up. I decided to phone, mainly because my browser told me that their website wasn’t secure, and because their website warned of potentially long waiting times on Friday and Saturday nights I put my call in just after six o’clock. It was clearly a well-oiled machine, and after I had placed my order I was told someone would call me back in a few minutes to take my payment – no doubt freeing up the hotline for the next takeaway order. 

We ordered two mains, two portions of rice and three starters and the whole thing came to just over fifty pounds, which included a delivery charge. Our food would be about fifty minutes, they said, and everything about the process made me feel like I was in safe hands.

It’s no coincidence that every time I’ve ordered direct from the restaurant delivery has worked like a charm, and this was no exception. Around forty minutes after placing my order, there was a ring on the doorbell and a friendly driver handed over my branded carrier bag. Everything was perfectly hot, and everything came in recyclable plastic tubs. Another sign that Thai Table know what they’re doing with this stuff: they had put clingfilm over the tubs before snapping on the lids, just an extra precaution to prevent any disasters. It sounds like a small thing, but I appreciated the thoughtfulness, just as I loved the little slip in my bag detailing, with little infographics, all the extra steps the restaurant had taken to ensure the safety of its employees and its customers.

I reviewed Thai Table back in 2015, but one of its dishes, the massaman beef, made such an impression on me that three years later, when I published a list of Reading’s 10 must-try dishes, it made the cut. I felt it was incumbent on me to try it again, so I made a beeline for it when I placed my order. It was a ridiculously generous portion of beef, wavy-cut chunks of waxy potato and sweet onion in a glossy sauce, so much that it almost spilled over the high sides of my bowl. 

It had stuck in my memory as an indulgent, cossetting dish but actually, if anything, it was more interesting than I remembered. So of course every forkful of fragrant coconut rice soaked in that silky sauce was gorgeous, but the whole thing was shot through with star anise, giving it an extra dimension that stopped it being cloying. I thought it could do with ever so slightly more chilli heat, but it was so luxurious (and faintly soporific) that I couldn’t complain. I’d been concerned that the colossal hunks of beef bobbing in the sauce might be too tough, but every single one passed the two forks test with flying colours. And I’d forgotten how much I love coconut rice, too, right up until the moment when I took the lid off the container and that wonderful aroma rapidly came into focus.

Zoë had stayed traditional with a green chicken curry, and I was allowed a forkful (“but that’s all, I’m not sharing”). It had considerably more punch from the chilli and crunch from the bamboo shoots, and the chicken was tender, but I didn’t feel like I was missing out by sticking with my choice. It was a decent effort, and probably healthier by virtue of containing more veg (the courgettes had the same crenellations as the potato in my curry), but I would have liked it to have a little more richness and oomph. I was graciously permitted to approach the bowl again with my fork to try some of the rice and sauce – for me, always the best bit of eating Thai food – and that was enjoyable enough to make me think I might have judged it harshly.

The problem with takeaways, as I’ve said before, is that it isn’t that practical to eat two separate courses – you’re bound to have one of them past its best, or kept warm when it should have been eaten there and then – so often starters find themselves promoted to side dishes, as happened here. The first of the starters was ribs, which came in a deep, dark sauce without much chilli heat but with a hint of peanut and what felt like braised lettuce swimming around at the bottom. The meat fell cleanly off the bone with three of the ribs, while the fourth was a distinctly more cartilaginous affair. 

“The ribs definitely win the starters”, said Zoë: I, saddled with that slightly gristly fourth one, was less certain. The ribs were definitely better, though, than the fish cakes. I know their slightly squeaky, rubbery texture isn’t for everyone but they really do need to be eaten piping hot for it not to be disconcerting. I like fishcakes, or at least I seem to remember that I always have, but these didn’t really do it for me.

My pick of the starters was probably the Northern Thai sausage, which was a single sausage (homemade, apparently) cut into diagonal slices. It was more fragrant than hot, with a good whack of lemongrass. I enjoyed it, although three starters definitely turned out to be a starter too many, especially with such generous mains. 

But I couldn’t help comparing it to the Thai sausage cooked up by street food traders Porco at the Blue Collar-hosted final of the UK Street Food Awards last year. That – so aromatic, coarse and perfectly spiced – was one of the most magnificent things I’d ever tasted, whereas this was slightly diminished even by its memory. But that’s Blue Collar for you: they excel at gradually making conventional restaurant food suffer by comparison, cuisine by cuisine and dish by dish. It would be easy to hold it against them, if they weren’t so good.

This week’s meal, as much as any takeaway I’ve had, has been truly educational when it comes to the difference between eating in and eating at home. Because if I had eaten this food on duty in a restaurant, in some parallel world where the pandemic never happened, I might have spent my time looking at what was missing. I might have said that the food wasn’t particularly inventive or revolutionary, or that it didn’t bowl me over. I might say, as I’ve said reviewing many Thai restaurants in and around Reading over the last seven years, that it all felt somewhat much of a muchness. 

But here’s the thing: in this world, in March 2021, I found it all really quite lovely. It’s nice, sometimes, to play it safe. It’s fun to enjoy a meal without surprises, good or bad, and to know exactly what you’re getting. In a world where so much has changed, some of it beyond recognition, it can be hugely reassuring to be reminded that not everything has. And on that Saturday night, I felt grateful that Thai Table were there, still doing what they’d always done, working their socks off (and taking all those extra precautions) so I could sit there in my comfies and be transported by the alchemy of coconut, beef and star anise. 

So there you have it – they’re not on Deliveroo or Uber Eats, they’re not gurning away on Instagram Stories, they’re not doing anything but cooking very pleasant food and driving it round to your house. If you live in their catchment area, and you fancy taking a night off juggling what’s in the fridge and the cupboards, checking your best before dates, you could do an awful lot worse than giving them a call. They probably won’t ever see this review, and they may never Tweet again, but I’m strangely delighted that they contacted me a year ago with that simple message: We’re still here. Please don’t forget about us. I’m glad, too, that I didn’t.

Thai Table
8 Church Road, Reading, RG4 7AD
0118 9471500

https://www.thaitable.co.uk
Order via: Direct with the restaurant, online or by phone

The Last Crumb

Reading’s pub scene has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in the second half of 2019, despite pubs closing day in day out all over the country. The Lyndhurst reopened under new management and is now dishing up some really impressive food: last week I went there and had saddle of rabbit, stuffed with chicken liver and wrapped in Parma ham, up there with any rabbit dish I’ve had in Bologna. Then the Retreat was saved from an uncertain fate by a buy-out and is going from strength to strength with a new wine list, a far bigger presence online and, thankfully, the magnificent Brian still behind the bar.

That’s all well and good, but when the pub in question undergoes a more dramatic makeover people can be a little sniffier. The Eldon Arms closed and reopened in September as the Weather Station, with a few locals lamenting the loss of the name. I’ve been a few times since the reincarnation and it does some interesting beers, although sitting on a hard stool and using a barrel for a table is maybe designed for customers far younger and cooler than me: I soon found myself longing for a proper seat, which is around the point where I sloped off to the Retreat.

Finally, Caversham’s Prince Of Wales, at the top of Prospect Street, was acquired by Dodo Pubs who have spent a fair bit of time and money rebranding it as the Last Crumb. This provoked more complaints about losing the name, which I found harder to understand: surely there are quite enough pubs around the country called the Prince Of Wales? (I bet nobody would have objected it had been called the Duke Of York). Anyway, it’s not as if the people up in arms had frequented the pub back when it was the Prince Of Wales – everything I’d ever heard about the place suggested you wouldn’t go in unless you were up to date on your tetanus jabs.

I was delighted by the news that Dodo Pubs had taken on the Prince Of Wales, because I’ve always been a fan of the Rickety Press, their outpost in north Oxford’s Jericho – a lovely pub that does a good range of beers and ciders and very credible pizzas and burgers. When my Canadian family came to visit the U.K. earlier in the year and we went for a day trip to Oxford, I booked us in to the Rickety Press knowing it would suit everyone – craft enough for my twentysomething cousin and unpretentious enough for my 80 year old uncle. We had a lovely meal there, and I found myself wishing there was somewhere similar in Reading. And then my wish was granted, so my other half Zoë and I headed over on a weekday night to see whether the Last Crumb lived up to the promise of its sibling.

The inside is rather “2019 pub by numbers”, but not so terrible for all that. Yes, the walls are all a modish blue-grey and there are pointless bookshelves and objets everyway, but the flooring is lovely, the bare brick behind the bar equally so and at least it isn’t architectural carnage like, say, the interior of the Market House.

It’s divided up into rooms and those closest to the front of the pub are more conventional – banquette seating along one side, decent-sized tables and booths (I didn’t sit in that bit, mainly on account of it being colder than Priti Patel). The room nearest to the kitchen, incongruously, had round chrome-trimmed tables which were more reminiscent of a Fifties diner. And then there was the bigger room nearer to the bar, where you had a choice of perching on high chair at a high table or sitting on a minuscule chair at a long, low table probably intended to be communal. A bit like the Weather Station in that I took my seat thinking, deep down, that I was just a little too old for that kind of thing.

I’m not going to go into detail about the booze – you’ll have to wait for Quaffable Reading to review that side of things – but the selection looked decent to me. Dodo has its own lager and stout, and also serves Cotswold lager, Stowford Press and a small but reasonable range of craft. Of the fourteen beers and ciders on offer, only three crossed the five pound a pint Rubicon. I had a pint of Stowford Press, although I regretted not spotting the Cotswold Cider Company’s Yellow Hammer up on the board: next time, perhaps. Zoë, uncharacteristically, had a virgin mojito which was very nice, if more expensive than the cider.

Anyway, back to the food. The menu – sensibly I think – is quite limited, so you had a choice largely of pizzas or burgers, with a few salads tacked on the end and a handful of sides (there’s also a brunch menu, if you’re there that time of day). They’ve taken care to have a vegetarian and a vegan option on both sides of the menu, too, although I wasn’t sure how the “Leaf Not Beef” was truly vegan with smoked cheese on it. Some of the names should never have got out of the committee stage, either: I’m thinking especially of Coldplay tribute “Viva La Vegan” and the truly painful “Salami Get This Straight”. Not the worst I’ve ever heard – I used to frequent a sandwich shop in Oxford’s Covered Market which served something called “Yes Sir, Cheese My Baby” – but close enough.

Our order came out quicker than I would have liked, and with no starters or desserts on the menu we tried our best to cover a full range of the menu. The most successful thing was Zoë’s burger – the Moo & Blue special (Pie Minister should sue them for breach of copyright). It was good enough that I was only allowed a bite, but that bite was quite enough to make me wish I’d ordered one.

The patty was lovely, dense but not too dense with no mealiness or crumbliness (the menu says you can choose between well-done and pink: this was probably somewhere between the two). It was sensibly sized, i.e. you could pick it up and eat it without unhooking your jaw. But what really made it was the punch of Gorgonzola, a brilliant cheese to pair with this bringing plenty of salt and tang. The bun – a brioche, of course – was toasted and had enough structure to hold the whole thing together. One of the best burgers I’ve had in Reading outside Honest Burgers but also, at ten pounds fifty for the burger alone, more expensive.

You pay extra for the fries, so we shared a portion of cheese and truffle fries for four pounds seventy-five (sorry, I must stop listing the price of every dish, it’s a very Get Reading thing to do). They were served, as is the fashion, in a receptacle not quite big enough and I think Zoë liked them more than I did. Truffle oil is always a cheap way to add to the price of the dish and although I liked the cheese (allegedly fontina) it needed more of it.

We also tried the Dodo fried chicken, partly because of the absence of starters and desserts on the menu but mainly because I struggle to resist it when I see it on a menu. I’d had it before at the Rickety Press, where I enjoyed it very much, but this wasn’t pulled off with quite the same skill. The coating was tough and hard on the teeth, nice though the spicing was, and the meat – thigh rather than breast – had a little more give than I’d have liked. I wouldn’t say they were hipster Turkey Twizzlers, but I would say they were closer to that than they should have been. Again, Zoë liked them more than I did, so perhaps I was being especially fussy that evening.

My pizza managed simultaneously to be delightful and disappointing. I’d chosen the “chorizo piccante”, looking to compare it to Franco Manca’s very successful chorizo pizza. And it won out on so many levels – the shape was pleasingly irregular and there was a little leopard-spotting on the crust. The meat was good quality too – thin slices of chorizo and little blobs of something the menu just calls “soft spicy Brindisa” (there’s a word missing, but at a guess it was sobrasada). But what really picked it up was the bite added by a generous helping of pickled red chillies, lending the sharpness and fire it needed. So why disappointing? The decision to serve it on a thin steel plate like a bin lid meant that the whole thing was pretty much stone cold by the time I reached the halfway mark. Papa Gee, you can safely say, wouldn’t make a mistake like that.

Service, as so often the case when you order at the bar, was perfectly friendly but limited. I did notice staff loitering near the front door and greeting customers as they came in, which worked nicely, but there’s only so much you can say about service in a place like the Last Crumb. Our meal – a pizza, a burger, fries, fried chicken and a couple of drinks – came to forty-two pounds, not including tip. Not bad, all told, and not too expensive.

Despite the slight tone of grumpiness I detect reading back over those paragraphs, I did rather like the Last Crumb. It’s sensibly chosen to only do a few things and do them well, and on that basis it largely succeeds. But, and it’s a reasonably big but, it doesn’t do them so superbly that it becomes a destination of itself. If it was round the corner from me, I would be there pretty often, but on that side of the river (and right at the edge of the centre of Caversham at that) it feels just a little too far to go for such a quick and limited meal. That might change in the summer, when they make the most of their fabulous outside space and you could happily have a long weekend session there, but in the meantime it feels like a place largely for locals. That said, they’re lucky to have it and it fills a gap nicely – and with its five pound cheeseburgers on Monday and happy hours during the week Caversham residents will find plenty to enjoy.

That said, I kept my eyes peeled at the end of the evening as our taxi headed home down Prospect Street and Gosbrook Road. With the notable exception of Quattro, every pub and restaurant looked to be having an eerily quiet Wednesday night; every window was a little vignette, Caversham as reimagined by Edward Hopper. By contrast, the Last Crumb had been pretty much jumping throughout my visit. It might be a Dodo pub, but it’s not at risk of extinction any time soon.

The Last Crumb – 7.4
76 Prospect Street, RG4 8JN
0118 9470749

https://dodopubs.com/locations/the-last-crumb/

Persia House

By July 2020, Persia House had closed and been replaced by another Persian restaurant called Persian Palace. It has a completely new website, so I assume it’s a completely different venue. As a result I’ve marked Persia House as closed, and I’ll keep the review up for posterity.

This is my second attempt to review Persia House, the new Iranian restaurant tucked away on the other side of Caversham Bridge, and it differs from my first attempt in one important respect: I turned up when the restaurant was actually open (nearly six years writing this blog, and still so amateurish at times). I’d wanted to go for some time – Iranian food sounded fascinating and exotic, and from my research I hoped to have my head turned by a new favourite cuisine, the way it had been by Georgian or Hyderabadi food. Read an article like this and you’ll see what I mean: tell me it doesn’t make you hungry.

My dining companion for the first, unsuccessful, visit was Dr Quaff, author of Reading’s excellent pub blog Quaffable Reading, and he graciously agreed to overlook my ineptitude and accompany me again second time round (although he did still say “are you sure it’s open today?” as we were nursing a pre-dinner pint in the Crown: bloody cheek).

Going through the front door we were greeted by a very large and almost completely empty restaurant. I’m so used to saying “it’s a long thin room” about restaurants that it’s quite a relief to be able to say something different for a change: Persia House is huge. By the windows looking out on to the road there were some low tables where you sit cross-legged (possibly authentic, definitely for people who’ve done a lot more yoga than me) but the rest of the restaurant was more conventional and there really were an awful lot of tables. The bare wood floor was broken up with the occasional rug, there was art on the bare brick walls and some of the tables at the far end looked out over the river. I quite liked it, but it did feel cavernous.

We took a table by the window – close to the only other pair eating in the restaurant – and flipped through the menu. I’d researched it online, but the Persia House website is so user-unfriendly that trying to work out what I might order filled me with a sudden desire to throw my laptop at a wall with great force. We had no trouble picking a mixture of starters but we were undecided about our main courses: our waiter said that was absolutely fine and took that order, along with a bottle of red.

We’d also enquired about the rather bling oven you see as you enter the restaurant, so our waiter invited us over to see our naan breads being made. It was an incredible contraption, hotter than the sun (and not even running at full whack, as he proudly demonstrated by turning it up: it’s a miracle that Dr Quaff and I still have eyebrows). We watched as he stretched, rolled, and shaped the dough for the naan before effortlessly flipping it on to the roof of the oven for mere seconds before taking it out, cutting it up and putting it in a basket ready for our starters. All very impressive.

He said that he was from Afghanistan, although the owner was Iranian. The restaurant had been running for nearly six months and all was going well, he said, although he added that it was normally busier than tonight (only one other pair of diners arrived while we were there, not long after the other two customers had left).

By the time we returned to our table from that little culinary detour, our starters had arrived. The menu divides the starters into cold and warm appetisers and we’d picked from both sections, although I didn’t discern any noticeable difference in temperature. The best of them was the baba ghanoush, which really did have a smoky taste (you could picture the charred skin being taken off the aubergine before the flesh was combined with everything else). But the dolmades were deeply unspecial – the rice in them was claggy and dense, and they didn’t taste of much. The decision to serve them with a little pot of what looked like balsamic glaze but which I assume was pomegranate molasses might have been to conceal the lack of flavour, but it seemed an odd choice. I would have thought these were shop bought but one of them was so saggy and lacking in filling that I think they probably were made by hand.

“You can have the last one” I said to Dr Quaff, which obviously translates as I don’t like these much.

“No, I insist” he replied, or in other words I don’t like them either.

The last of the dishes was called halim badenjan, a stew of aubergine, tomato and braised lamb. We both quite liked this – although again, not enough to fight over the last few mouthfuls – but it didn’t knock my socks off. The lamb was in soft strands, the aubergine was tasty enough but it didn’t really feel like anything I hadn’t had before (the yoghurt on top, though, added a nice contrast).

By now, you’re hopefully wondering if that naan I saw being baked in front of my very eyes was any good. Well, I’m afraid no, not really. It might just be me, but I found it a bit thin and nothingy – despite being bubbled it had no fluffiness and no real texture. It might as well have been crackers, and by the end the last few pieces were hard enough that they pretty much were.

A mixed bag, then, and as our waiters took the plates away Dr Quaff and I sipped our wine and decided on our next move. We’d ordered a Malbec for twenty-two pounds and although it got better as the evening went along (what booze doesn’t?) it felt a bit thin and weedy to me, with nowhere near the depth or complexity I’d expect from Malbec: with hindsight, it might have been emblematic of the whole meal.

The main courses were split into three sections – kebabs, stews and other Persian specialities. Dr Quaff had decided to test out the grill, and I was torn between a traditional stew or the Persian biryani, a dish called lubia polo. I asked another waiter, and he said the stew was a “good choice” but that he’d had the lubia polo earlier in the evening and that it was very good. He also said that you couldn’t get these dishes anywhere else in Reading (which, come to think of it, may or may not have been a good thing). Like all the people who looked after us that evening he was friendly, smiley and engaging, and so I was won over and took his advice.

The problem with taking advice from people you don’t know, like reading reviews from people you don’t know I suppose, is that you take them on trust. So it’s possible that the Persian biryani is the best meal that waiter has had in a while, but if it is I think he rather needs to eat out more often. It was one of the most disappointing dishes I’ve had in a restaurant for a while – not specifically bad, but so failing to live up to its potential that it might as well have been.

It was rice, tomatoes, lamb and green beans and it tasted of rice, tomatoes, lamb and green beans. No real discernible depths of flavour, no nuance, no wow factor, no heat and no spice (Dr Quaff thought he detected cinnamon in it: I think he’s being charitable). I expected so much more – I wanted it to open my eyes to something new but instead it made me want to roll them or, worse still, close them for some time. Even the texture didn’t work; the lamb was nicely soft but so were the green beans. The latter had the feel of beans which had either come from a tin or been cooked so long that they might as well have done.

Dr Quaff had opted for the mixed grill for one, pretty much, the kebab bakhteari (“it sounds like bacteria” he said to the waiter, a tad ominously). It was a skewer of kofta, a skewer of chicken shish and a skewer of lamb shish, served with some rice with a little yellow hat from the saffron, an underwhelming-looking salad and – completely randomly – an individual portion of butter from a catering pack (what for? we both wondered).

“What do you think?”

“With lamb, you want the lovely caramelised exterior and for it to be pink in the middle” said Dr Quaff. “This is just grey”.

He generously let me try some of each of the kebabs, although once I ate them I realised he wasn’t really being generous, it’s just that he wasn’t fussed. The chicken was the best of them I thought, but all of them were middling at best. This dish cost eighteen pounds, a full five pounds more than the equivalent dish at Bakery House. There you get beautiful yellow rice, a perfectly dressed salad and all the garlic and chilli sauce you want. Here you get cross.

“It’s not as good as Bakery House, is it?” I asked.

“It’s nowhere near as good as Bakery House.”

You probably have the general idea by now. I really didn’t rate Persia House, I think there are dozens of better ways to spend your money in Reading and several better ways to have similar food – at Bakery House, at Kobeeda Palace, even at Clay’s if you want a biryani. And if your response to that is to say “but they’re not Iranian food” then fine, I agree – but based on what I experienced at Persia House I wonder if that’s Iranian food either. It didn’t feel distinctive or authentic to me: apart from the lamb stew with aubergines, we didn’t have anything you couldn’t get elsewhere, and that dish didn’t make me desperate to try the rest of the menu. I hoped for fireworks, I got a sputtering tealight.

What’s a little sad about it, though, is a couple of things. One was the service, which was unfailingly nice and polite – although, to be fair, we made up fifty per cent of the clientele for the duration of the visit. The other was that when we asked for the bill they brought some little sweet pastries and a beautiful black tea, poured into tiny glasses which tasted quite lovely sweetened with a little sugar. Such a nice touch, but too little too late. Dinner for two – three starters, two mains and a bottle of red – came to seventy pounds on the nail, not including service.

I wondered about how to end this review. Originally I was going to say “I hope Persia House does well”, but that too feels inauthentic. No, I hope Persia House does better. God knows, they easily could, but I suspect this is the kind of food they want to serve and the restaurant will either succeed or it won’t. Caversham is not blessed with loads of good restaurants, so perhaps novelty value will keep them afloat for some time yet. But at those prices, for that quality, it’s not a place I could recommend. In any case, what do I know? A few doors down Picasso – one of the most uninspiring meals I’ve ever had writing this blog – continues to ply its inexorable trade, years after many places I’ve adored have closed their doors for the final time.

Persia House – 6.4
2 Bridge Street, RG4 8AA
0118 9470222

https://www.persiahouse.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/