The Real Greek

N.B. As of August 2020, The Real Greek has reopened.

Well, you were meant to get a review of Brewdog this week, but nothing quite went according to plan. I turned up there with Steve, a long time reader of the blog who attended my first readers’ lunch at the start of the year, and right from the off things weren’t promising. We entered the cacophonous main room and found a spare table round to the left which was just about comfortable enough. Just about.

“I wish I’d brought my glasses” said Steve. Steve is wry, wise and silver-haired, knows an awful lot about food, catering and restaurants and he’s had more jobs – and stories about them – than I’ve had hot dinners. “This is the first time I’ve ever been in a restaurant and not been able to read the menu.”

I looked at the menu, all in the sort of distressed font that hints of a typewriter ribbon on its last legs. It was all burgers and dogs and puns (“Cluck Norris”, “Soy Division”) and, I’m afraid, it induced mild to moderate weariness.

“I thought it was table service here. It was when I came here for a drink the weekend it opened, but now I’m not sure.” I said.

Minutes passed.

“I’ll go up to the bar” I said.

As luck would have it, the night I planned to review Brewdog the team from Explore Reading was there to review the drinks and the food. They had a nice booth (not jealous, not at all) and were already a few beers under way. I wondered: did that make Steve and I the Jets or the Sharks? Was Steve nifty on his feet? Should I have brought backup?

At the bar, the Explore delegation told me that there had been a mix-up in the kitchen and they wouldn’t be taking food orders for half an hour. It was already eight o’clock and that, I’m afraid, is where I decided that life was too short. I looked over at the Explore table again. These were Reading’s hip young gunslingers: one of them was in her twenties, for crying out loud. I went back to our table.

“Come on,” I said to Steve, “we’re going.”

That’s how we found ourselves walking back across town as I frantically consulted my list for a Plan B and that’s how we ended up in the Real Greek, on the Oracle Riverside. I turned up, in truth, with no great enthusiasm; I hadn’t heard brilliant reports, unless you include the countless enthusiastic – and comped – blog reviews shortly after it opened last year, back when you couldn’t get in without a reservation.

But going through the doors on a midweek evening I actually found myself thinking how nice it looked – almost like a slightly more upmarket Pizza Express, with biggish tables and handsome chairs along the outside of the room and a section of sort of open booths in the middle. I wouldn’t have fancied one of those, as they seemed to be hard benches with no visible padding. I guess the sort of people who enjoyed an evening in Brewdog might have gone for them, I found myself thinking.

Steve and I persuaded the waiter to give us a round table for three, so as to improve both our views and give us the room to order everything we wanted, and had a look through the menu. It was proper small plates territory, with a range of hot and cold meze and, if you needed some inspiration, a range of suggested set menus down the right.

So far so good, but the menu also meticulously listed the calorie count for every dish on the menu. I really wasn’t a fan of this: it’s bad enough seeing the traffic lights on ready meals in Marks, without it starting to invade restaurants. Surely restaurants were meant to be a haven where you didn’t have to put up with all that? Ironically, it put me off ordering dishes at both ends of the spectrum: I like a bit of taramasalata, but when a portion was just shy of a thousand calories? And I love octopus, but if it’s only 161 calories how much of it do you really get for £7.50?

The menu recommended three to four mezes per person, so naturally – despite my niggles about calories – we ordered nine between us: Steve may run marathons, but I just knew that he was a trencherman beneath that wiry exterior. Our waiter turned up with two cold bottles of Mythos, cracked them open simultaneously and poured them at the same time into our glasses. Like all magic tricks you can’t remember how it’s done, don’t want to and, afterwards, struggle to describe it.

“That’s nicely done, isn’t it?” said Steve, which I rather felt gave me permission to be impressed.

We chatted away about our recent holidays – Porto for Steve, Bologna for me – and the first set of dishes arrived. The other gimmick at The Real Greek is that your sharing plates arrive in a tall stack, like afternoon tea. That might be your bag, it might not: I found it irksome but it was easy to take them off the rack and spread them out on the table as nature intended. If I’d been at a smaller table for two, it might have properly got on my nerves.

We started with some of the cold mezze. Revithia, which looked like a plate of lightly bruised chick peas, were delicious, singing with lemon and mint, a beautifully fresh and bright dish. The dolmades was also very good – light, crumbly and again rich with mint, not remotely claggy or glutinous. Only the Greek flatbread disappointed. It wasn’t piping hot, and it felt like maybe it had been sitting around a little too long before coming to our table. I think if I’d realised just how unlike a dip the revithia was, we wouldn’t necessarily have ordered it, and it seemed a little cheeky to charge an extra three quid for olive oil and dukkah.

Despite that, Steve and I made our way through the whole lot, waiting to be disappointed. By the end, we realised that disappointment had not come and, for the first time, I wondered if this meal was going to outperform my expectations. The waiter brought a bottle of Greek white (Makedonikos, apparently) which was fresh, not sweet and not sharp, and tasted really quite a lot like being on holiday, as some of the best wine does.

“It’s a good atmosphere in here” said Steve, taking in our surroundings. “Everyone seems to be having a nice time.”

It’s a little point, perhaps, but Steve was right. None of the tables seemed to have the grim note of contractual obligation, nobody seemed to be there because they had vouchers or had run out of ideas. Perhaps we’d just stumbled on the place on a really auspicious evening – or perhaps it was euphoria at having escaped from Brewdog – but as I took another sip of my wine I found I was really quite enjoying myself. Steve was telling me about his small granddaughter’s quest to notch up a Michelin star a year (she made one establishment make her a dish completely off menu, which makes her sound far more fearsome than any mere reviewer), and about wife number one and job number sixteen and I thought: how lucky I am that people read the blog and want to come to dinner with me.

The rest of the dishes rather came all at once, which actually was my failing rather than the restaurant’s. It’s weird how when you’re in a chain to some extent you act like you’re in a chain, and you order like you’re in a chain. If The Real Greek had been an independent place, another Namaste Kitchen, I would have ordered some dishes, eaten them, kept the menu and then ordered some more, but because it was a chain and the menu told you how many dishes to order, I ordered them all in one go. With hindsight, that was a mistake, but it didn’t stop everything we ate being good at the very least and often far more than that.

Particular highlights from the hot mezze included the pork belly, cooked so perfectly that you could almost have mistaken it for chicken thigh, all crispy skin and layers of meat, every bit of fat rendered to nothing. Steve and I did a very English equivalent of fighting over it, which involved each of us saying “no, you have the last piece” ad infinitum. We were similarly polite over the halloumi fries, salty and light and pretty close to perfect, especially dipped in the minted yoghurt. The least successful dish was the calamari, which turned up looking so much like octopus that I worried we’d ordered the wrong thing. That wouldn’t have mattered so much, but it wasn’t quite as fresh as promised and that made it harder going than either of us would have liked. When we said “no, you have the last piece”, we actually meant it.

What else? Lamb kefta was more like a single lamb burger than a kebab or meatballs, but it was still delicious and far nicer than it looked. I felt like there was a hint of feta smuggled away in it somewhere, but that could have been a trick of the light, or the white wine slightly skewing matters. Salt cod fritters were also light and delightful, with plenty of fish, not bulked out with spuds. Again, the lemon mayonnaise that came with it was spot on.

Finally, Steve’s favourite, the loukanika: three whacking great slabs of pork and beef sausage with a deep red smoked chilli relish. I had huge reservations about this, mainly because it screamed stealth spam, but it was beautiful – coarse, firm, juicy and with just enough spice. The relish set it off perfectly. Steve liked it so much he sent me a message the next day saying that he was daydreaming about eating it again (and Steve’s one of the only people I know who can send such a message without even the faintest hint of smut).

“This is really good, isn’t it? I can’t find much wrong with it.” I said, giving away I’m afraid that I had fully expected to turn up to an Oracle Riverside chain restaurant and find shitloads of issues, and that I was a tad perplexed that I couldn’t.

“Yes, it is” said Steve. Were we having a shared hallucination? Had they put ayahuasca in our Mythos?

We pressed on with dessert, because we were having too nice an evening to want to bring it to an end. That’s as noble a reason to order dessert as any, but the decision provided probably the meal’s biggest misfire in the shape of my baklava – a big stodgy slab with no real crunch or subtlety, no layers, no sticky sweetness. What you got instead was some faintly damp pastry, and a big claggy layer of crushed nuts, and the whole thing was cold and unimpressive. You got better baklava, back in the day, eating Georgian food at the Turk’s Head and (trade secret alert) I have it on good authority that they bought theirs from Costco. Steve’s chocolate mousse cake was considerably nicer, if not remotely Greek. “Not bad” he said, between mouthfuls, “but they’ve definitely bought this in.”

Service was bright and personable from start to finish. Our waiter was Italian, which led to a long conversation about my recent holiday in Bologna (I took the lead on this), football (obviously Steve took the lead on this) and where a self-respecting Italian eats in Reading (Pepe Sale, unsurprisingly). He was very proud of the food, told us what to order next time and talked with real warmth about The Real Greek, having worked for years in the Windsor branch before transferring to Reading. No smarm, no encouraging us to post reviews on TripAdvisor, just genuine enthusiasm.

Dinner for two, not including service, came to eighty-eight pounds. Not the cheapest meal in the world, and although we probably could have ordered a couple of dishes fewer it was never going to be as cheap as living it up at Brewdog. But I had such an enjoyable meal that I really didn’t mind.

Afterwards, Steve and I compared notes. I rated the meal slightly more highly than he did, and we beetled off to the Allied Arms for a debrief, shivering under the heaters and pretending it was nearly summer. But the next day, he messaged me.

“I think I might have marked it a bit low on reflection. I think you were more on it.”

“It was really decent, wasn’t it? I’m struggling to find fault.”

“The waiter definitely contributed to the whole thing. Lovely to have someone so enthusiastic – I almost thought he was called Sandra.” Steve went on, referring to Zizzi’s legendary waitress, As Seen On TripAdvisor (“the Skripals would never have been poisoned in our branch of Zizzi”, my friend Tim once said to me, “Sandra would never have allowed it.”).

I think that exchange probably sums up the verdict on The Real Greek as well as anything. It wasn’t my first choice, I went there by accident and my expectations were firmly under control. And yet, quietly and unshowily, it did an absolutely cracking job. Irritating gimmicks, iffy bread and so-so desserts aside, we enjoyed a really tasty meal in a lovely, buzzy room. Nearly everything we had was good, much was very good and some was excellent. To my surprise, I would go back again, and I can see the appeal of gathering a group of friends and trying as much of the menu as possible. So I’d encourage you to put your reservations to one side when you read the rating at the bottom, because for a certain kind of evening – with fellow diners who play nicely – The Real Greek is as good an option as anywhere you can find in town. My only tip is to dig your heels in and order little and often: it may be a chain, but that should never stop you being independent-minded.

The Real Greek – 7.7
The Oracle, RG1 2AT
0118 9952270

http://www.therealgreek.com/reading/

Oakford Social Club

N.B. As of August 2020 Oakford Social Club has reopened. 

First things first, Oakford Social Club (from hereon, just the Oakford, or my fingers will get sore) is part of a chain. I know it feels like the original hipster hangout – mismatched furniture, craft beer and live music – but it’s part of the “Castle” group of Mitchell and Butler, an “eclectic urban pub” according to their website (a group which also includes the Abbot Cook, out at Cemetery Junction). And the food at the Oakford is by “Ruby Jean’s Diner”, a chain within a chain found in a number of those pubs, offering a selection of Americana classics. Anyway, chains aside, the Oakford does what I have thought for a while is probably the best burger in Reading. Let’s not mess around and play games: I still think that.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone in Reading has never been to the Oakford. But just on the off-chance that you’ve beamed to town from, say, Mars, it’s a big attractive building right opposite the station that is a darned sight more attractive in this incarnation than its predecessors “The Forum” (nothing funny ever happened on the way there, not that I can remember) or the Flyer And Firkin, with its enormous Jenga set, the sort of thing that was thought to be a great idea in pubs in the 90s. It’s broken up into lots of discrete areas – the one at the front is probably the most suitable for dining – and it’s dark and atmospheric, although after a certain time, when they crank the music up I personally feel like leaving (that no doubt says more about me than it). In any case, it’s a relatively quiet place to grab an early evening midweek bite to eat, which is what I did on this occasion.

The burger menu at the Oakford is extensive. The majority of options are beef based, though they do chicken and veggie burgers, too (and the selection of coloured tongs on the grill suggest they’re quite strict at keeping these separate). I went for a beef burger but I was led astray by their selection of toppings and fillings. I know some of you will be downright disgusted at me and I know as a reviewer I should be ordering things on the menu that the majority of people might want to eat. But on this occasion I’m afraid I ordered what I really fancied, namely – the squeamish might want to look away now – the beef burger with peanut butter and fried egg. Judge all you like, but I bloody love peanut butter. The fried egg appealed too – it’s one of those things I’d never cook at home, but when throwing calorie caution to the wind it seemed pointless to turn one down.

The burger itself was a coarse patty, still pink in the middle, juicy and soft with barely any seasoning. It came in a glazed bun with crisp iceberg lettuce and a slice of firm tomato (no slimy salad here). Truth be told the peanut butter was a little overwhelming, so the egg was a bit lost in the mix, but I still loved it. There was just enough mayo in there for it to hold together but not enough for the whole thing to slide around like Bambi on the ice. If you prefer, you can design your burger with whatever toppings you fancy – including burnt end chilli, the ubiquitous pulled pork and bacon, blue cheese and avocado, to name but a few – and, unless you’re really greedy, a tailor made burger will come out costing less than a tenner. All good, right?

Sadly, this is where the fun ends. The burger was served in a paper-lined plastic basket (so hip!) with fries which were on the undercooked side, meaning instead of being crispy and fluffy they were firm but wan. In fairness, from personal experience they’re usually better that this but they were still pretty disappointing. The basket had a slightly convex bottom which meant that cutting the burger with a knife and fork (purely because the burger was really big: I’m not too prissy to pick up a burger with my bare hands) was a bit like eating on top of a Pop-O-Matic with no chance of rolling a six.

OakfordBurger

Much as the temptation was to order a second burger (I was drawn to one featuring emmental, Thousand Island and pickled onion Monster Munch: I couldn’t work out whether it was going to be stupendous or horrendous) I thought for balance I should try something else as well. The rest of the menu wasn’t quite so tempting – a couple of macaroni cheese dishes (called, of course, “mac n’ cheese”, which makes me feel a bit stabby), a couple of salads and the potentially insane, possibly inspired “Wafkin”, chicken with bacon and maple syrup served between two waffles rather than in a bun. Instead, I went for southern fried chicken.

One of my food regrets (and there are many) is that so far I’ve never tried proper fried chicken in America. Unfortunately, it turns out that another of my food regrets is that I’ve now tried the Oakford’s take on it; I’d love to be kind, but it failed on every level. The coating was soggy – the photos make it look a lot crispier than it was, but it didn’t cover the whole of the chicken and what there was slid off the chicken, wobbly and not that appetising (ironically it stuck like glue to the bone on the underside of the breast). It was pretty bland, too – the Colonel’s recipe may remain a closely guarded secret but I can’t see anybody tracking the Oakford down to get hold of theirs.

Bereft of the unappealing skin, all that was left was the chicken, and it too was nothing to write home about. The legs felt like they needed a bit longer, the breast felt like it had had too long. The worst thing about it, apart from the nagging feeling throughout that KFC would have been easily ten times as good, was knowing that I was eating something so terribly bad for me and I wasn’t even particularly enjoying it. If sinful food isn’t fun, what’s the point?

Oakfordchicken

On the side we had a basket of tempura vegetables with chipotle jam. These were a mixed bag: the red peppers and mushroom slices were nicely done, the batter was lovely, light and crisp and the jam – although chilly from the fridge – was like a firm smoky sweet chilli sauce and a nice accompaniment to the veg. What was odd were the colossal bits of cauliflower – more than a floret and only slightly smaller than a fist – which were far too big to be interesting. One of them was so huge that I didn’t want to attempt it without a chainsaw. Disconcertingly there was a big pool of oil sitting at the bottom of the paper when we finished which made me wonder quite how much fat I’d just eaten.

After all those wasted calories it seemed like dessert would have been the final nail in the cholesterol coffin, so we skipped it. Nothing on there even remotely tempted me – the dessert section of the menu is simply entitled “Chocolate”, so it might not tempt you either (although I imagine some people might snigger at one of the options, maturely dubbed “The Threesome”). The total cost was twenty five pounds for one course and one soft drink each plus the shared side. There was no opportunity to tip and, really, no call for it. Service is basic here – fair enough, it’s a pub after all, not a restaurant – but when the tempura vegetables came out without their chipotle jam I had to ask for it and remind the member of staff serving exactly what went with the side dish I’d ordered. It felt like I knew my way round the menu better than he did.

I fear for the Oakford a little: it has a great spot in town, a lovely building which it’s made the most of, and for a long time it was the only place in town with its particular kind of scruffy, offbeat shtick. But all that feels like it’s changing: the Greyfriar, RYND, Milk and the new-look Turtle all offer different iterations of what the Oakford does and are challenging the monopoly it’s had for years. And that market only gets more crowded. Coincidentally, Pavlov’s Dog reopens tonight also offering burgers and craft beers; this London trend shows no sign of dying out here in Reading just yet. The recent news that some of the Oakford’s live music is moving to other venues suggests that it wants to reposition itself but, for me, their food isn’t good, diverse or interesting enough to be a big part of that. So yes, it’s probably the best burger in town – right now at least – but for how long? Because it used to be one of the best places in town to start a night out too – but I imagine they also said that about the Flyer & Firkin, back in the day. Still, the Oakford’s potential loss is our gain: it’s good that Reading moves too quickly these days for anybody to take anything for granted.

Oakford Social Club – 6.6
53 Blagrave Street, RG1 1PZ
0118 9594267

http://www.oakfordsocialclub.com/