Tuscany Pizzeria

I don’t know how involved a review this will be; it’s hard to complicate a restaurant as simple as Tuscany Pizzeria.

I first had it drawn to my attention by regular reader Eleanor back in April: a pizzeria on the Oxford Road, she said, adding that it was “a choose your own toppings place I think”. I made a mental note to put it on my list and then a couple of months later Eleanor went there and Tweeted the kind of pictures that can’t help but make you hungry – huge pizzas with irregular bubbled crusts, plenty of cheese and all the toppings a person could hope for, the whole thing strewn with rocket. One of the pictures showed the front of the restaurant, with a blackboard on an easel outside saying that a twelve inch pizza was seven pounds, a fourteen inch pizza a tenner.

Surely it couldn’t be quite that straightforward, I thought, as I ambled down the Oxford Road in the sunshine with my very good friend Zoë, fresh from having enjoyed a sharp sour beer in the sunshine of the Nag’s Head, still Reading’s finest beer pub by some distance. But actually, when we arrived it did look just as no-frills as the pictures I’d seen had suggested: one table out the front, the word “TUSCAN” in block capitals above the big window, in a style which had probably aimed for rustic but had to settle for makeshift. The decal taking up much of that window promised “Gourmet Delicious Pizza Top Quality Italian Style”. Hmm, I thought.

Inside, the room had deep red walls with stuff on them best described as Italy by numbers: a picture of some Parma ham here, a drawing of the Leaning Tower Of Pisa there. The whole place couldn’t have seated more than ten people – well, more if you took one of the window seats, but when I was there somebody had helpfully leaned their bicycle against the window counter, making that impossible (in any case a laptop was open there, with the Tuscany Facebook page prominently visible on the screen). The pizza boxes on display made it clear that not all Tuscany’s customers chose to eat in. The tables were a strange sort of multi-coloured hue that looked like something Linda Barker might have dreamt up on Changing Rooms circa 1999.

Anyway, I liked it: it was small and intimate although, with no soft furnishings and most of the tables occupied, it also happened to be astonishingly loud. Most of what I heard, I think, was Polish: the owner of Tuscany is Polish, I believe, and so were most of the customers there on the evening I went (many of the reviews on Facebook are in Polish, too). Some might have been staff, all seemed to be friends of the owners. At the table next to me the group of four seemed to be tucking into something that looked like antipasti, even though I couldn’t see anything of the kind on the menu.

Come to think of it, I couldn’t see a menu anyway, just the counter where you went up and placed your order, which basically consisted of telling the chap how big a pizza you wanted and what toppings you wanted on it. Behind him, you could make out the place where he rolled out the dough and topped the pizza before sticking it in the oven (I didn’t spot whether there was a wood fired oven, but I suspected not). Zoë and I took it in turns to go up and place our orders and sat back down with a can of aranciata apiece: no alcohol licence here, although again, I think I might have spotted one of the chaps at a neighbouring table with a can of beer bought from one of the nearby shops. Again, I felt like I was in a restaurant where I just didn’t know the rules, or the rules differed depending on who you were, and I didn’t entirely enjoy that.

The toppings, incidentally, were a pretty wide range. The owner talked us through them – or the ones on display, anyway – at the counter . Most were reliably standard stuff: peppers, mushrooms, onion, olives, pepperoni, parma ham and so on. The only slight hints of the exotic were some artichoke hearts and friarielli, which is sometimes described as broccoli but is closer to turnip tops, a pizza topping I’d never heard of until I visited Papa Gee but which now seems to be everywhere. I noted, with disappointment, that I couldn’t see any anchovies or capers.

Tuscany’s Facebook page says that all of their ingredients come from Italy. I couldn’t judge that, and I certainly didn’t check any travel documents, but the olive oil was by Filippo Berio (whose Wikipedia page suggests they aren’t quite as Italian as you might think). Anyway, I didn’t care if the pizza wasn’t entirely Italian, here on the Oxford Road being served by a chap from Poland. I wouldn’t have cared if the artichokes were Spanish or the ham Albanian for that matter, provided the pizza was delicious. I didn’t vote to stay in the EU only to quibble about nonsense like that.

While we waited, I saw a pizza carried to one of the other tables and I found myself wishing it had been mine. It looked every bit as good as the pictures I’d looked at months before, with the added advantage of being both three dimensional and edible. But I also saw another dish arrive at another table, what looked like chicken with little strips of baked pizza dough. The chef had been cooking the chicken in a pan when I went up to choose the toppings for my pizza, and I wondered at the time what the dish was given that it wasn’t on the menu (and, of course, given that there was no menu for it not to be on) but I was too timid to ask. Soon after that our pizzas were ready and in turn we were asked whether we wanted rocket and parmesan on them. This was a nice touch, as was the fact that the parmesan was freshly grated onto the pizza before it was cut into slices and brought to the table (the only real element of table service at Tuscany).

Zoë had a twelve inch pizza and I, rather greedily as it turned out, had a fourteen inch pizza. If I was trying to describe the main differences I’d say there were two. First of all, the twelve inch pizza is put on a massive wooden board, cut into slices and then dished up onto a plate barely big enough to contain it. The fourteen inch pizza is just brought to your table on the massive wooden board. The second main difference is that the fourteen inch pizza is actually too big for most right-minded folk to finish, and that includes me. “I knew to just order a twelve inch,” said Zoë sensibly, “because I knew that was the size of an LP and that felt quite big enough.” Trust her to slip in a reference to music and be in the right, I thought.

The base was very good – properly thin, although the edges were more brittle and crispy than charred and bubbled. Not quite on a level with, say, Franco Manca but still pretty decent. What couldn’t be denied, though, was that Franco Manca looked properly stingy compared to this lot. Mine had sundried tomatoes, pitted black olives, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, parma ham and pancetta and although none of the ingredients could be described as exceptional (I’d have liked the olives, for instance, to be the wrinkly, salty kind that I truly love) the sum of the parts was still very good indeed. I drizzled basil oil on one half, garlic oil on the other and ate until I was full. Then I ate some more, then I reluctantly stopped.

Before that, I traded a piece with Zoë and apart from having – an unusual experience, this – envy that her portion was a little smaller than mine, it meant I got to enjoy hers, with lovely sweet shreds of red onion, pepperoni and mozzarella. Her pizza was basically mine without the airs and graces, a more robust meat feast you could say, and none the worse for it. “This is really good” she said between mouthfuls and, as so often, I found her rather difficult to disagree with.

As we were finishing the last of our slices, the people at the table next to me got up to leave and I took the opportunity to ask about the off-piste dish one of them had ordered.

“It’s chicken stuffed with cheese and wrapped with Parma ham” said the man. “He cooks it specially, if you ask him. He gets the chicken in fresh from just down the road – and I know it’s fresh because if he served me frozen chicken he knows I’d kick his ass!”

He chuckled, and I laughed along, wondering if ass-kicking was ever an appropriate thing to reference in a restaurant review. On TripAdvisor, perhaps.

That’s pretty much all there is to say about our meal at Tuscany Pizzeria. Once we’d finished, I settled up at the counter where our meal came to just under twenty pounds. The other diners had cleared out by then, so the owner came over and chatted to us a bit more. Tuscany had been open three months, he said, and they stayed late so they had quite a lot of takeaway trade when people headed home from the pubs.

“My landlord laughed when I told him I wanted to open a pizza place! He said that there were lots of pizza places on the Oxford Road, and I told him this wouldn’t be that kind of pizza place.”

He went on to tell us that business was good and that all their ingredients (“except the mushrooms, spinach and onions”) did indeed come from Italy. He showed us pictures of some of the dishes we hadn’t ordered – a pizza wrap (“lots of customers like this”) and pizza ripiena, essentially a pizza sandwich, like a calzone but without the fold. He sounded so proud of what he did that I started to think that he was right: this wasn’t that kind of pizza place. It was a different beast, and all the better for it. And then something occurred to me.

“Do you have anchovies and capers?”

He smiled.

“Of course I do. Next time you come in, ask.”

Smart guy: it’s precisely at that point that I decided there would be a next time. I could easily have been intimidated or deterred by Tuscany, and by the idea that other people could order different dishes and combinations, like unlocking secret levels in an arcade game. On another night, perhaps I might have been; I can definitely see that other diners might be, and this place won’t be for everybody. If you don’t live in West Reading, you might feel there are better choices closer to home, if you’re in the centre there’s Franco Manca and if you’re privileged enough to live north of the river you have Papa Gee (or, if you like that sort of thing, Quattro – or, I suppose, the Fox And Hounds).

But all that said, something about Tuscany actively made me want to fit in, to go again and to take advantage of all the other options. To try the anchovies and capers, have the ripiena, discover the secret password that lets you order the stuffed chicken or drink a cold beer at the table, brought in from elsewhere. I could see myself playing out my evening in reverse: going back with Zoë, having a pizza and then stopping by the Nag’s on the way home to enjoy more of their superb selection. That’s me, though: I can be that kind of stubborn so-and-so, and I like a kindred spirit. Even one who bloody-mindedly sets up a rather lovely, slightly incongruous Polish pizzeria slap bang in the middle of the Oxford Road.

Tuscany Pizzeria – 7.8

399 Oxford Road, RG30 1HA
07586 095400

https://www.facebook.com/Tuscany-Pizzeria-1971426149852568/

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Jamaica Blue

It happens less than it used to, but every now and again I still review somewhere because of a recommendation or a request from a reader. You have Anna to thank for this one, because a month ago she left this comment on the blog:

This might seem like a weird suggestion, but how about trying the new Jamaica Blue cafe at the Royal Berkshire Hospital… Looking at their website it seems like a successful Australian chain, they have only four branches in the UK. I’ve popped in a couple of times after appointments and the coffee was great. I was very pleasantly surprised by the range, quality and freshness of their lunch options, really nice deep filled flans and unusual sandwich/ciabatta choices. So nice I’d even consider dropping in if was in the area and I didn’t have an appointment.

My curiosity was piqued. Partly because this was a hard sales pitch to resist: a promising new café in town that almost nobody knew about? How could I stay away? But more to the point, I live very close to the hospital, and many’s the time working from home that I’ve sloped up the Craven Road to visit the AMT just inside the main entrance. If the weather’s bad I have a Café Maya, and if the weather’s good (by which I mean anything above twelve degrees with no rain) I have a Froffee, that hypnotic, magical milkshake made with ice cream, espresso and dreams. But I never get any food there, and Café Yolk never quite feels worth the additional walk. I made a mental note: next time I was working from home I’d go to Jamaica Blue and try it out, a rare solo excursion.

It’s odd going for lunch in a hospital, you know. It’s odd using the hand sanitiser on the wall-mounted pumps and going down long corridors lined with art best described as enthusiastic, dodging the beeping buggies that sedately trundle past you. It’s odd walking past the queue for the pharmacy, past the fracture clinic, past Respiratory Medicine. For someone with a touch of hypochondria like me, all those department names read like Panini stickers you’re yet to collect: got, need, need, need.

What’s also odd is reaching the spot where Jamaica Blue is, by South Block Outpatients, near where they do the blood tests, and seeing what looks like an actual proper café just plonked in the middle of a hospital. On one side of their stylish blue partition it was all people waiting for appointments at grim, municipal-looking tables. On the other side, people were sitting at much more fetching tables in comfy chairs, tucking into food. Snazzy brass-effect light fittings hung from the ceiling and a range of canvasses on the back wall spelled out the range of coffees on offer. Were these people actually ill, or just gastronomic tourists like me? Was everybody else in on the secret? Or perhaps this was just a mirage, an oasis among the sand dunes stretching out for miles.

A small queue was forming at the counter so I took my place and looked at the embarrassment of riches in the cabinet. Anna was right – many tempting things were there. An antipasti focaccia looked like it might be the real deal rather than, as so often, a ciabatta using a fake ID. The ciabattas and bagels appeared pretty standard issue, but there were plenty of other interesting options. I considered the tortilla stack, the deep feta flan and the sausage rolls (I considered the sausage rolls for some time, in truth) before narrowing my choice down to a binary one just as I got to the front.

“What’s in your chicken pasta bake? Do you heat it up?”

“Yeah, we definitely heat it up. Hold on.”

She went to fetch someone to talk me through what went in to the chicken pasta bake. It was a big, appetising-looking slab and I could see chicken and tomato through the cross section. A friendly chap came up to the counter and explained to me everything that went into one, in such exhaustive detail that I couldn’t possibly remember it all. I did remember one phrase though, which stuck with me: “There’s cheese at every level”. A lovely sentence to apply to food (if less so to, say, a nightclub).

“And your croque madame, is the egg cooked to order?”

“Of course it is” came the reply, making me feel ever so slightly stupid for asking. But I’d have had to ask in a Costa I wanted to say, but it would have sounded peevish. Besides, Costa would never do a croque madame.

“I’ll have the croque madame.” I said. The gentleman behind me, having heard the sales pitch, ordered the chicken pasta bake. I made a mental note to try and avoid sitting near him, in case of food envy.

“How long have you been open?” I asked one of the ladies behind the counter as I waited for my coffee to be made.

“About eight months.”

“What’s somewhere so, well, nice doing here?”

She smiled as if she was asked this often. “Maybe we’re just here to make people’s trips to the hospital more pleasant.” Again I wondered: was this whole thing some kind of dream sequence? Everyone serving me was so pleasant, so happy and, seemingly, so proud to be dishing up possibly the only decent food in the Royal Berks (I was surprised, heading home afterwards, at how full Pumpkin was).

I took a seat at the banquette with my coffee and waited for my sandwich to arrive. The latte was beautifully presented, nicely smooth and had a slightly bitter note but was on the right side of burnt. Jamaica Blue make much of their coffee – and you can buy it for consumption off the premises – and I liked my latte a lot, although it didn’t quite reach the heights of a Tamp or a Workhouse. An older couple next to me had got freshly squeezed orange juice and were rhapsodising about it.

“That’s so lovely, it tastes of real orange” he said. She took a sip of hers and let out a contented sigh in agreement.

“It’s nice in here” she said. Maybe that staff member was right: how often did anybody say that in a hospital?

My croque madame took long enough that I could be completely satisfied that they’d taken their time over it and done things properly. It looked quite gorgeous – good bread, well toasted, an egg (poached, not fried) perched on top and dusted with what looked like smoked paprika. Only the big pile of rocket – somewhat the Scrappy-Doo or Godzuki of the dish – jarred slightly.

Cutting into it, I was even more impressed. Good quality, thick ham, nothing processed or reformed about it. A delicious gooey mixture of cheese and mustard, forming a punchy, claggy layer at the bottom. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, a proper madam. It felt like a bargain at four pounds ninety (although the sign had said it cost 4.9: you can tell what kind of café it is when the price is to one decimal place, the man behind me in the queue had said, and I think he had a point). If I was being fussy, the top should also have been covered in the cheese mixture, or at the very least brushed with oil to give it a gorgeous, burnished quality. If I was being fussy, for that matter, I’d have done away with the rocket.

But I didn’t feel like being fussy, I felt like finishing my croque madame and working out what to order next time. I gazed at the blackboard with drinks, and all I could see was excuses to visit again. Chilled lattes! Milkshakes with real ice cream! Granita! Most tempting of all, affogato!

“Look at that” said the older gentleman at the table next to me as his panini arrived. “It’s oozing with cheese.”

A solo lunch cost eight pounds and for that I got a croque madame, a large latte and – to my surprise – a new place to come for lunch when I work from home.

Jamaica Blue definitely won’t be for everyone. It’s the wrong end of town for many, and I know quite a lot of people would be too freaked out by hospitals to consider setting foot in one unless they had to, let alone eating in one. But, all that aside, I liked it very much. I admired the bloody-mindedness of doing food like that in a location like that, and as one of the more unusual places I’ve visited in nearly five years of doing this blog I almost think it deserves a visit for novelty value alone. It’s even open seven days a week, so perhaps the next time I go to the excellent local food market in St Luke’s on Erleigh Road I’ll just have to stop there for brunch on my way.

Jamaica Blue – 7.2
South Block, Second Floor, Royal Berkshire Hospital, Craven Road, RG1 5AN
0118 9758168

http://www.jamaicablue.co.uk/store-locations/

Fidget & Bob

One of the saddest events of last year was when Tutti Frutti (Reading station’s terrific ice cream café) closed abruptly back in October. I found out while on holiday: on the Monday morning I grabbed my regular latte from Paul before jumping on the RailAir – a holiday ritual I’ve always loved – and the next thing I knew I was drinking in a plaza in Andalucia and hearing troubling reports from Blighty that Tutti Frutti was no more. They were correct; I’d had my last latte there and I hadn’t even known it. By the time I got back to Reading all the kit had been taken out; five months later, the signs still say a new store is “coming soon”.

This is why we can’t have nice things, I ranted on Twitter for what may have been a week but, to many, probably felt like longer. I was cross with Network Rail for not treating Tutti Frutti better. I was cross with our local media for not celebrating the place more (the piece they eventually ran about the closure was an apology of a thing). I was cross with the people of Reading for going to Costa or Starbucks instead, when brilliant coffee and service were a stone’s throw away.

After I’d got over it – and, I suppose, myself – I realised the truth was more complicated. There was another reason why nobody had seemed to know Tutti Frutti was there. Several other reasons, in fact: no website; limited Facebook presence and a Twitter feed which made it look like the place closed a long time ago (the last Tweet dated from June 2015). Could anybody rely solely on word of mouth in this day and age? Was it enough to expect your customers to do your advertising for you?

In my head, I composed a long (and pompous) feature, explaining where all these restaurants were going wrong. I decided it wasn’t hard to run a good Twitter feed without pouring huge amounts of time into it. Just be chatty and engaging. Follow back and reply. Tweet a few times a day at the very least. Put pictures up of your food that made people want to come in and eat it. Use hashtags. Make sure followers got an idea of the personality of your brand. Could it be that difficult?

Perhaps it was, because I struggled to think of Reading restaurants and cafés that pulled it off. Shed and the now-departed Mya Lacarte got the tone right, but couldn’t manage the frequency. Workhouse had the opposite problem. Thames Lido was good at it, but then they did it with the sort of polish that suggested that it was somebody’s Actual Job.

Nowadays it’s much easier: all I have to do is say look at Fidget & Bob’s Twitter feed, because they get this stuff right in a way many bigger establishments could learn from. They started Tweeting even before they began trading, and followers could see the establishment coming together – counters being built, dishes being tried, suppliers being chosen. By the time they opened their doors, you already felt invested in this little café/bar/restaurant out in the wilds of Kennet Island (or I did, anyway) and I wanted them to do well. Over the last couple of months they’ve built on that, to the extent where I can honestly say that without their Twitter feed I might not have hopped in my mum’s car and made the trip out of town on a cold, crisp night, the threat of impending snow hanging in the air.

Truth be told, the last time I’d visited Kennet Island was to have a colonoscopy at the Circle Hospital, so I was looking forward to something going in the right end for a change. That anatomical detail aside, I liked Kennet Island, and the piazza was incongruously nice: not Andalucia nice, perhaps, but still a surprisingly pleasant open space. I could imagine a pleasant summer afternoon sitting outside, taking in the sun. There was free parking on the square and an inviting glow coming from the windows, although the place was almost empty when we walked in.

Essentially, it was a big rectangular space with a number of tables – one large one with benches for communal dining and a number of smaller ones for groups of two or four. The furniture was all mismatched without seeming twee or quirky, and a wall was plastered with kids’ drawings. I liked the long counter and bar at the back of the room, and the industrial-but-not-pretentious light fittings. We grabbed a table by the window, feeling a little spoilt for choice.

Service, from the co-owners, was terrific from start to finish, although I hadn’t really expected anything less. I ordered a latte to warm up and a glass of wine to drink while we looked at the menu. I was told that the coffee was from Clifton Roasters in Bristol – a decision they had obviously taken time over – and it paid off, being smooth and complex. My red wine – nero d’avola – came in an attractive stemless glass and had lovely hints of smoky cherry. Fidget & Bob make no secret of buying their wine in boxes and, on this basis, it seemed like another excellent decision (also, it means they can offer 500ml carafes – how I wish more places would do this).

My mum fancied a gin and tonic and one of the co-owners talked us through the options, which included Toad, from The Oxford Artisan Distillery. She wasn’t persuaded at over five pounds for a single to see if it was as good a gin as it was an acronym, but the Plymouth and tonic went down well. Kudos to Fidget & Bob for only charging eighty pence for Fever Tree tonic, although the overall effect was slightly marred by only adding a solitary ice cube; it wasn’t that cold out there.

The menu was small and perfectly formed, in more ways than one: not only were they all small plates, but the range was on the narrow side. A few nibbles, a cheeseboard, a soup, four different “pizza” (inverted commas theirs) in two sizes and two specials, both bao, steamed buns. I could see a fair few things I fancied trying, but I couldn’t help but feel I’d end up ordering most of the menu – partly to sample a decent range, but mainly because otherwise I’d leave hungry.

I had reckoned without my mother, the woman who orders half sandwiches at Pret and has the discipline to have a couple of squares of chocolate a night (discipline, needless to say, I haven’t inherited).

“You know me, I don’t have that big an appetite.”

I cast my mind back: I was sure I could remember occasions where she’d ordered three courses in a restaurant, but try as I might, I couldn’t bring them to mind. In any case, my mum is not a woman to be trifled with. We settled for one each of the two bao and a pizza to share (small rather than large: my mum insisted, and the co-owner agreed, sagely telling us that a large would be too much). I was tempted to order a cheeseboard, too, but I decided I already knew that Fidget & Bob bought well: the question now was whether they cooked well too.

Much is made of restaurants with a “chef’s table” where you can see everything going on around you. Well, you get that experience at Fidget & Bob without having to brag about it – they go about their business chopping and steaming and topping and cooking and frying just the other side of the counter, seeming to have a lovely and companionable time as they do it. Another couple of tables were occupied by the time our food began to arrive, and I saw chicken wings arrive at another table looking, as they always do, nice enough to make me wish I could be bothered with chicken wings. A little enamel cup full of salted popcorn – a nice touch – helped the time pass until our food arrived and, not for the first time since I arrived at Fidget & Bob, I found myself thinking there really was no rush. My mother and I chatted away: despite her lack of appetite the popcorn inexplicably disappeared in no time.

I had been dubious about Fidget & Bob’s pizzas, having seen pictures on their Twitter feed. The inverted commas were because it was served on a flatbread rather than a traditional base, and somehow that felt like a way you might cheat at home rather than cook in a restaurant. But what won me over and made me order it was another Twitter picture of onions, slow roasting in the oven, realising their sweet, golden potential. I wasn’t disappointed when my onion and mushroom pizza arrived. It may have looked makeshift, but it was very tasty and didn’t stint on mushrooms, onion or nicely bubbled cheese. Well done, too, in that you didn’t take a bite and find the whole topping sliding away as can sometimes happen. The onions had just the right sweetness, the mushrooms added a beautiful roasted nuttiness. A small pizza was dessert-plate sized and cost six pounds fifty – this felt ever so slightly on the pricey side, but that may have been god’s way of telling me I should have ordered a large one. It would have all been eaten, put it that way.

The bao were another matter. Like Fidget & Bob, I felt invested because I’d seen them assembled, gradually, from a distance. I saw the buns gradually rise in the steamer, I saw the pork belly on the pan. And when they turned up, both the pork and tofu bao, I wanted them to be great but they were near misses – good near misses, but near misses all the same. The pork belly was very well cooked with just enough crispy texture and no wobbly fat, and the chopped spring onion, coriander and peanut on top was lovely stuff. But it was too delicate, and it needed a sauce to bring it all together.

The tofu would have been superb if it had had some crispiness, but it was lacking that element which meant the whole thing was too soft and pillowy. The advertised wood ear and shiitake mushrooms were missing, replaced instead with an additional slab of tofu, and although there was oyster sauce on top it needed more. Only the scattering of sesame seeds rescued it from being just too softly spoken. I thought they needed more oomph, while my mum – who talks about having a very indelicate palate almost as it proud of it – found them bland. This is a shame, because it’s a fantastically brave and creative thing for a little café in Kennet Island to do. They were close enough to how I imagined they could be that I still fancied giving them a whirl another time.

I would have had a dessert – the “gooey chocolate croissant pudding” was calling to me – but my mum pronounced herself full (or, more precisely, only having room for a couple of squares of chocolate later) so we settled up. Dinner for two came to £35, not including tip. As we were paying we chatted to one of the owners and again, it was lovely to see her so enthusiastic about what they were building here.

“We have these charging points set up”, she said, pointing to the counter up at the window, “so that people can log in and work from the wi-fi here. We get quite a few people during the day, and you get a little stir crazy working from home.” I could imagine it would be a very nice place to take a break from a solitary day cooped up in the house, and for a moment I wished there was a place like that near me.

I think even the owners of Fidget & Bob would never pretend for a minute that they’re the finished article. In fact, to their credit, I think they probably don’t see the journey they’re on as one that has a defined end anyway. It is a lovely place, with a certain something you can’t fake or make on an assembly line which is all about love and passion. And although not all the food I had was brilliant, and some things on the menu need a bit of tinkering, I really hope they keep up the good work and that they get a loyal clientele which goes with them.

One of the big questions in my mind about Fidget & Bob was: is it good, or just Kennet Island good? I’m still not entirely sure, but put it this way: the next day I was snowed in and working from home and looking at my Twitter I saw a picture from Fidget & Bob of their chalkboard, surrounded by the snowy piazza. On it, it told people to come in and wait out of the cold for the bus into town. “No purchase necessary”, it said. And I thought: You know what? Even just reading that makes me want to come and eat with you again. Sometimes we all forget the social in social media, and eating too, done properly, is a social thing. Fidget & Bob get this so right that, even on a bitter winter’s day, it’s impossible not to warm to them.

Fidget & Bob – 7.0
The Piazza, Kennet Island, RG2 0GX
0118 931 0271​

https://www.fidgetandbob.co.uk/

Kokoro

Worth adding that since this review was published Kokoro has extended its opening hours. It now opens until 9pm six days a week, which makes it a decent choice for a quick, early dinner.

I’ve been out on duty with all manner of people. Family, old friends, new friends, exes (well, they weren’t exes at the time, but you catch my drift). Vegetarians, carnivores, beer enthusiasts, gin fans. Indiscriminate human Hoovers and fussy eaters, fiddly diners and messy exuberant ones. Good sharers and bad sharers, conversationalists and head-down-plough-through-the-food types. They all bring something different to the table (no pun intended), because a meal is no more just about the food and the room than a portrait is just about the person being photographed. When I match a visit to a dining companion, when I’m planning a future review, I try to think about who would like what and whom I can picture in each venue. It’s like accessorising, only with humans.

On the other hand, I’ve never been out on duty on my own. You might think this odd: why not review a place without a plus one? It’s not as if – suspend your disbelief at this point – I’m so popular that I’m beating off potential dining partners with a stick. In fact, many’s the night I have no plans and can well imagine preferring dinner alone in a restaurant to sitting at home waiting for the timer on the oven to start its incessant bleeping (and, inexplicably, watching The One Show like the televisual car crash it is, somehow unable to change the channel).

I’ve written about the delights of solo dining before, but there really is great pleasure in a table for one, under the right circumstances. One of my meals of the year was dinner in Paris in June. I ate at a restaurant called Le Galopin, at a big table on my own, sitting by the window. A good table, too – the French admire solo diners far more than we do, I suspect (perhaps they think they have their priorities straight).

It was just a beautiful meal in every way; each plate came out just at the right time, each paired glass of wine was just so, and in between courses there was ample people watching to be done, both inside the restaurant and looking out on all the revellers, drinkers and hipsters in the Place Sainte Marthe outside. And if all else failed, I could always just pick up my book (Jonathan Unleashed by Meg Rosoff, fact fans) and almost feel intellectual. It was an early evening at the very beginning of the summer, and the air seemed full of possibility. I realised many things on that holiday but one of them was this: to take time to yourself and eat something lovely, to spoil yourself in that way, was just something I’d never done.

Of course, the challenge with reviewing a restaurant on your own is a more mundane one. It’s not just about picking a restaurant where you would feel comfortable dining alone, where you aren’t treated like a pariah or given the tiny shit table facing the wall, or plonked right next to the loo. No, when you’re reviewing alone it’s also about making sure you can try enough of the menu to give readers a representative idea of what it’s like to eat in that restaurant. It can be brutal enough to base a review on a single visit, but imagine also only basing it on a single dish.

So I decided I had to pick somewhere where you could realistically eat on your own but more importantly, where I could order enough dishes to give you an idea of whether it’s worth going there. That’s why Kokoro jumped out of my to do list. A relatively new arrival on Queen Victoria Street, where My Kitchen used to ply its trade, it’s sort of like Itsu but not as sterile (I always sense at Itsu that they’re just as interested in improving you as feeding you: if I want to be improved, I’ll read a novel). Kokoro does a range of sushi and hot dishes of varying sizes, it apparently always has a queue out the door on weekday lunchtimes and my experience of their Guildford branch has always been pretty promising. I figured it fit the bill perfectly, so I made my way there from the train home, through the drizzly streets, to grab a quick dinner before they shut at 7 o’clock.

The interior is very basic, no whistles and bells: high stools along a bar on the left hand side, plain pale low wood tables and stools on the right. When I got there, just before 6, it was almost completely full. At the back, behind the counter, were about half a dozen hot options, in stainless steel chafing dishes. You can have them in a “small” cardboard tub (which, as I was to discover, is plenty big enough) or a large size for a pound more, with either rice or noodles. Also at the back was a fridge with sushi, sashimi, salads and the like. Perfect, I figured: I could try something hot and something cold and report back on the whole lot.

I was tempted by the chicken katsu curry, huge flat breaded fillets that the staff snip with scissors before ladling on the sauce. But the most appealing looking dish was the sweet chilli chicken: brick-red and sticky, like sweet and sour but without the gloop. They dished it onto a mound of rice until I thought they surely had to stop, and then they added some more. I have a healthy appetite, heaven knows, but if that was a small even I might have been intimidated by a large.

It was a hit and miss dish which left me wondering what else I could and should have ordered. The chicken was gorgeous, the coating was every bit as sticky and piquant as I could have hoped (spicy enough, in fact, that it made my can of aranciata taste almost exactly like ginger beer). But where was the rest? I spotted one or two tiny bits of vegetable in there, so few they could only have made it in there by accident, possibly on the run from another dish. And although the stickiness of the dish was no bad thing, it meant there was no real sauce. At the end there wasn’t nothing coating the rice, just a few red flecks of chilli here and there, which meant there wasn’t enough reason to finish it. Maybe if I’d had it with noodles it might have been less unsatisfactory.

The sushi was also disappointing. Everything was cold and a little claggy with no real taste, except the avocado which – disconcertingly – tasted of banana (where had they got it from?). The California roll with inari had a tiny sliver of tofu and a whacking big frigid wedge of cucumber. What I think was breadcrumbed prawn had no crunch or excitement. And although they were decently rolled, the back of a couple of them was ragged, like I’d had an end piece of the roll they couldn’t be bothered to tidy up. Eight California rolls for four pounds is actually pretty good value, and if you were comparing this to supermarket sushi I think you’d probably be quite pleased. But comparing it to anything you could get in a restaurant – Misugo in Windsor, Yo! Sushi or even (I’m sorry to say) Itsu it wasn’t anything to write home about.

Service isn’t really the thing at a place like Kokoro, but what there was of it was quite lovely. The staff were friendly, kind, helpful and told me what the chilli chicken was when I pointed at it and said “I really like the look of that one, what is it?” Even nicer – and I’m only owning up to this so you don’t think it’s all savoir faire with me – one of them opened my sachet of soy sauce for me when I was patently incapable of doing so (see? You learn things about yourself if you eat on your own often enough, like your lack of elementary motor skills). My dinner came to eleven pounds for my chicken, my sushi and my can of San Pellegrino with its natty tinfoil hat.

The place Kokoro reminds me of the most, back in the mists of time in the 90s, was a little lunch joint in Merchants Place called Orient Express. This was back when you had the delights of Keegan’s Bookshop down there, before the eyesore of the Novotel and an apartment block called Projection East (as if that is any kind of satisfactory apology for tearing down the cinema). You could get a polystyrene container with sweet and sour chicken or fish and rice or noodles for four pounds, and you could take it to Forbury Gardens with your plastic fork and spend a very enjoyable few minutes wolfing it down. How little things change: the price has gone up slightly, and the containers are trendier, but the experience is much the same.

And it might surprise you, but I quite liked Kokoro. I’m not sure I ordered brilliantly, but I liked what they did and it is still, for what it is and at the price it is, a pretty good lunch option in Reading, if you manage to get a table. I’d be more likely to go back for the hot dishes than the cold, but I’m reasonably likely to go back. Maybe I’ll take a friend and have the katsu curry, but perhaps I’ll turn up on my tod with a book and my headphones and remember that company is great, but being kind to yourself can be even better.

Kokoro – 6.7
12 Queen Victoria St, RG1 1SY
0118 9561333

http://kokorouk.com/

Sam’s Wraps

You can still eat Sam’s Wraps at their van on Broad Street or their kiosk in Forbury Gardens, but the shop closed in May 2017. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

I’ve wanted to review Sam’s Wraps for some time. It’s a proper Reading success story, starting out as a van on Broad Street before expanding to also take over the café in Forbury Gardens. Then, this year, came the logical next step: they took over premises in the town centre on Cross Street, the one that isn’t Queen Victoria Street but runs parallel to it, a funny street full of barbers and salons (and A Stitch In Time, the alterations place which has a special place in my heart). I would have reviewed Sam’s Wraps sooner but every time I’ve tried has been a Sunday and, despite the claims of the sign on the door, it’s never been open when I’ve strolled up to it. Even approaching it on a Saturday lunchtime I was half expecting it to be shut, and delighted when it wasn’t.

It’s a basic but tasteful place – a few tables in the front section and then another room out back, nicely lit through a skylight, with attractive, functional furniture. You order at the counter looking up at the menu, then take your wrap through and get stuck in. And the menu is limited in a way which is also appealing. The clue’s in the name, but there is a range of hot wraps (jerk chicken, piri piri chicken, curry chicken) and cold wraps (the main ones I remember were prawn and something called “vegatarian”, spelling which mightn’t fill you with confidence). I had the jerk chicken, my companion wanted to try the prawn but they had sold out so she went for piri piri instead.

The experience is familiar to anyone who’s ever been to Mission Burrito – the staff toast a 12 inch flour tortilla in front of you and ask you if you’d like it spicy. If you say yes, they take less than a teaspoon of innocuous looking chilli relish and smear it a molecule thick across the tortilla (more on that later). Either way they then spoon a really generous portion of chicken – slow cooked, in little dice – into the wrap from the chafing dishes behind the counter. You then decide whether to add cheese before choosing from a plethora of other fillings: cucumber; red onion; finely diced pepper; iceberg lettuce; gherkins; and jalapeno. Finally, you pick a sauce and then they assemble the whole thing, secure it with two carefully placed cocktail sticks, like sandwich acupuncture, pop it on a plate and off you go with it.

What this basically means is that the two wraps we had were similar if not the same, and both were bloody gorgeous. They’re huge things, and impressive value at four pounds (cheese costs fifty pence extra), but what also impressed me was just how well they were filled and what good quality everything was. We had the piri piri chicken – smoky and slightly hot but not mouth-stingingly so – with cheese, beautiful crunchy fresh peppers, strips of cucumber and sweet chilli sauce and it was a delight from beginning to end. The jerk chicken, by contrast, was with Reggae Reggae Sauce, cheese, lettuce and sweet, cold slices of gherkin and was equally good, although because I had this wrap with a smidge of the chilli relish by the end my tastebuds had been thoroughly nuked and my tongue felt like it had been put in a vice, doused in petrol and set alight. If you like heat, have the chilli relish and enjoy yourself, but if you’re in two minds give it a wide berth. Either way I’m not sure the cheese really adds a lot, especially for fifty pence.

Sam'sWrap

Oh, and I was dubious about how effective the cocktail sticks would be but the guys at Sam’s Wraps really do know what they’re doing, because they make it very easy to eat with your hands; also, once you get past a certain point in the wrap you can pull one out and feel ever so slightly like you’re playing Kerplunk.

I’m afraid that’s all there is to it, this week. I went to Sam’s Wraps, I tried two different wraps and they were absolutely splendid. I could tell you that I had a cup of Earl Grey which was nothing special. I could tell you that service, if a bit dour, was very efficient and well done; not much to do in a sandwich shop except explain and execute, but that was all present and correct. They even re-did the jerk chicken wrap after accidentally adding chilli sauce instead of Reggae Reggae (thank heavens they did, or it would have been hotter than the sun). I suppose I should tell you that the whole thing cost ten pounds thirty for two wraps and a solitary cup of tea, and that they really should sell bottles of milk if they’re going to serve anything with that chilli relish. But that’s it. Sam’s Wraps is not flashy, it’s not showy but it’s very good at what it does and without tapdancing it’s really rather terrific. If only the same could be said of this review.

Oh, and as I left I saw a big sign in the window saying “NOW OPEN SUNDAYS”. Bloody typical.

Sam’s Wraps – 7.6
8 Cross Street, RG1 1SN
0118 4379318

Sam’s Wraps