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

Restaurant review: The Coconut Tree

Of all of Reading’s new restaurants, The Coconut Tree might be the one most people have asked me to review as soon as possible. Which is in itself interesting, because The Coconut Tree has already had more write-ups online than most of Reading’s new places – but the thing is, they’re all on Instagram. Remember all that talk last year about how hospitality was on its knees and taking free shit was plain immoral? Nature is definitely healing, because The Coconut Tree’s plan for its launch was very much as they used to be in the before times – find some local Instagrammers with over five thousand followers, bung them some PR copy to include in the social media coverage, sit back and watch.

And I don’t know about you, but I learned a lot. Admittedly, nearly all of it I could have learned just from reading their menu, but it’s dead useful to discover that the food is “fresh, tasty and full of flavour” (it would be a brave restaurant that said “you know what? Lots of our stuff is stale and bland”). And to discover, from multiple Instagram posts, that one of the cocktails is set on fire in front of you: the drinks in general, allegedly, are “banging”. Did I mention the “proper good vibes”, or the fact that it’s “cool” and “trendy”? Perhaps the best summary was that “the cuisine is insane”. Sri Lankan food: utter madness! 

Of course, what none of those posts covered in much detail was that their food was all free. Their booze, too. “There wasn’t a cocktail I didn’t like” said another influencer. I bet. “Nothing too specific, we’re quite happy for you to construct the post!” said one writeup, showing that the influencer had copied and pasted all the text from the PR company without reading it first. That one was a “paid partnership”: not only did they get free food but, presumably, they were also paid to do the copying and pasting. I can’t compete with those levels of polish, sadly, so instead you get my impressions of the place after I turned up on a weekday with my friend Jerry, two Sancho Panzas in search of a Don Quixote. 

“The service is wonderful!” Jerry enthused as I met him outside the restaurant. “I went inside to see if you were there already and the lady who greeted me was absolutely lovely.”

I never went to Zizzi, so I don’t know what it used to look like, but the Coconut Tree is pretty bright and lively with an open kitchen straight ahead and the rest of it broken up into zones (along with a bizarre waiting room area at the front which looks, in the nicest sense, like a waste of space). There was a mixture of low tables and high tables with stools – in an ideal world I’d have chosen the former, but the staff led us to the latter where we sat, somewhat incongruously, under a wicker canopy. The place was fuller than I was comfortable with, but we’d deliberately chosen to eat a late lunch, so the place thinned out pretty quickly.

The lady serving us, who was every bit as friendly and engaging as the one who had greeted Jerry, talked us through the concept – because, yes, The Coconut Tree is one of those places with a concept. I imagine that one day we’ll reach the stage where the concept is “you order a starter, a main and a dessert and we bring them to you in that order, spaced at reasonable intervals”, but for the time being “concept” often refers to places like The Coconut Tree where dishes are smaller, tapas-style for sharing and they turn up in whatever order the kitchen feels like sending them.

I know this sounds crotchety – and as an aside I’ve never understood how restaurants think smaller plates are perfect for sharing – but we gladly threw ourselves into it, ordering a selection of dishes and a couple of beers. It’s a pretty big menu with plenty of small plates, a handful of larger ones and of course hoppers, coconut milk pancakes which might be Sri Lanka’s best-known dish. Much of the menu is suitable for vegans, and nearly all of it is gluten free. Most of the small dishes range between four and seven pounds, a couple of the larger ones cost slightly more and they recommend you aim for three per person, so that’s exactly what we did.

Our beer arrived first. I reckon Jerry could have been persuaded to have a cocktail – or as they put it, cocotail (sic) – but I was being well behaved. Lion is a Sri Lankan lager which they’ve apparently been making in Sri Lanka since the 1880s. Despite that, and the fact that the brewery who make it are yet to be absorbed into AB InBev like so many others, it tasted pretty generic, and I thought it was an odd decision by the staff to pour it at the bar rather than bring the can to the table. It wasn’t quite cold enough – maybe the glass hadn’t been long out of a dishwasher.   

From this point onwards, unfortunately, it gets harder to be positive. Some of that, in fairness, was our fault: we arguably could have ordered a wider variety of dishes. Some is just one of those things: the staff got part of our order wrong and brought something we didn’t want. These things happen. But a lot of the problems were down to the kitchen. 

Take the devil pork with pineapple, Jerry’s first choice from the menu. According to the menu it was spicy, sweet, tangy and sour. If only that were true: in reality it was acrid, blasting heat unsuccessfully lightened by huge chunks of pineapple, by far the predominant ingredient. The pork belly, supposedly “juicy”, was a few tough cubes here and there. This dish cost seven pounds, and I couldn’t help but think of the pork belly starter at Clay’s, where you get exponentially more pork belly, fantastically tender, fiery with ginger and sweet with jaggery and tamarind, for eight pounds fifty.

Even though I’ve only eaten Sri Lankan food a couple of times before, other dishes also came up short by comparison with other Reading places. The “Cheesy Colombo” was essentially like a paneer Manchurian, with plenty of sticky, chewy cubes of cheese. But again there wasn’t much subtlety, and an over-reliance on sweet, caramelised onions: for the same money, either one of the paneer dishes at Bhel Puri House is significantly better. The Coconut Tree’s menu describes this as “An off scale FAV!”, but given that it gives its hoppers the label “legendary” it’s maybe not one for self-deprecation: mind you, it also describes its Malay pickle as “a tropical pallet cleanser”, which makes it sound like Cillit Bang.

Speaking of the hopper, it was the one dish we ordered that I didn’t get to try. Jerry wanted one, and it did look pretty decent: relatively thin, with a just-cooked egg in the middle and clusters of sambol and more of that caramelised onion to mix together before you roll the whole thing up and eat it like a crêpe. Jerry enjoyed it: to be fair, I should point out that Jerry enjoyed our meal far more than I did.

The rest was meh. As I said, we ordered two dishes that were dangerously similar – my mistake for not paying attention – namely battered mushrooms and battered cuttlefish. The latter was the better of the two – the cuttlefish was fresh and tender, but the dish still lacked any crisp or crunch from the polenta batter. Instead the contents had steamed away inside the coating, and just for good measure they’d dumped some more caramelised onions on top.

The cuttlefish was meant to be spicy, but instead was more cloying from those ever-present onions. The mushrooms were like that but less interesting, another enamel dish of disappointment, like something you’d get from the ready meal aisle in a supermarket. Or Iceland. Underwhelming as these dishes were, they still deserve a better photo than this fuzzy one I managed to get of them: I can only apologise.

We ordered some yellow rice to go with our dishes, but none were saucy enough to need it. And given the spiel about dishes coming out as and when, it’s odd that everything came practically at once, very soon after we placed our order.

Well, everything apart from one dish. I’d really wanted to try the chicken kotthu because it’s always been one of my favourite South Indian dishes, that comforting mix of meat and carbs. But instead, the staff brought out a different kotthu dish from the one we’d ordered. They were nice as pie about taking it back, but we waited and waited for its replacement to arrive, to no avail. By the time we had finished all of our food and pretty much drained our beer we were ready to leave, so we asked for the bill. “Don’t you want your chicken kotthu?” said the waitress, and we had to say no. God knows what had happened to it – like I said, they were busy when we got there, but they got a lot quieter soon after.

I get no joy from saying all this, because all the staff were lovely, lively, friendly and seemed to be huge fans of the restaurant. At the moment, when hospitality staff are hard to get hold of, I think The Coconut Tree should do its utmost to hang on to the ones they have, but they deserve better food to bring to the table. Our bill came to twenty five pounds, including an optional ten per cent tip – and if that seems on the low side, that’s because The Coconut Tree is offering its own version of Eat Out To Help Out for the rest of this year, with fifty per cent off all food Monday to Wednesday. It seems harsh that The Coconut Tree is effectively halving its staff’s tips on those days, so our tip was based on the full amount: if you go there, you should consider doing that too.

“It’s very busy Monday to Wednesday” said our server. “Although it’s also packed Fridays and Saturdays to be honest, so Thursday’s the only quiet day. At weekends” – she pointed to the bizarre waiting area at the front, low stools and no tables – “we even have customers eating there, because we’re that full.” 

Having eaten at The Coconut Tree, I’m afraid I don’t understand why. I guess it’s a combination of all that money off and the fascination of the new. It would be easy to chalk this up as another example of a chain that jumped the shark shortly before opening in Reading, but I’ve been to the original branch in Cheltenham, a couple of years ago, and although my meal there was better than this one, it didn’t blow me away either. And this isn’t about Sri Lankan cuisine – I’ve eaten at Hoppers in Covent Garden and adored my meal there – which meant that when it came to The Coconut Tree I expected more all round: more inventiveness, more complexity. 

But everything at the Coconut Tree, in terms of flavour, is very much in primary colours – and bright ones at that, because I didn’t get any subtlety or nuance. Maybe that’s what all those influencers meant by “banging” and “insane”. Perhaps it will find its feet, but if you’re hoping this adds an exciting new dimension to Reading’s dining scene I reckon you may need to think again. I’ll probably give it another chance, to see if other dishes have the wow factor I missed – the goat curry’s meant to be the best thing I didn’t try – but I do wonder how it will fare once the novelty, and that fifty per cent discount, wear off.

I ought to point out, as I did earlier, that Jerry enjoyed the meal far more than I did. But what does Jerry know? He likes me, after all.

The Coconut Tree – 6.6
64 Kings Road, Reading, RG1 3BJ
0118 3383921

https://www.thecoconut-tree.com/reading

Pub review: The Nag’s Head

I’m not sure there’s any such thing as the perfect pub, but I’m lucky to live near three that each embody different aspects of the platonic ideal of a public house.

The Retreat is arguably Reading’s best “classic” pub, even if its refurb last year made the toilets disconcertingly classy. The story goes that when the landlord of the Alehouse visited and saw the work the Retreat had carried out in lockdown he turned to Brian, the landlord, and said “thanks a bunch – now I really do have the shittest pub toilets in Reading” (apparently the Alehouse has done some work on them since). The Retreat lacks outside space, and the small beer selection is a little too cask-led for my personal taste, but it remains a wonderful place with a welcome like no other.

Then there’s the Lyndhurst, which does Reading’s best pub food, without question. It hosts burger nights on Mondays and curry nights on Thursdays, and boasts a menu full of staples like chilli beef nachos and katsu chicken burgers. And then there’s the icing on the cake: dazzling specials that tend to go on the menu Fridays and Saturdays and match any restaurant food anywhere in Reading. One week it’s skate wing topped with capers and crunchy croutons soaked in a sauce Grenobloise, another it’s lamb rump with an enormous slab of shredded lamb shoulder, breadcrumbed and fried, on the side. 

To round off the holy trinity, the Weather Station boasts a superb selection of beers, the vast majority of which are on keg, has a nice little courtyard out back where you can drink them and has really gone from strength to strength in 2021. It always has at least one sticky, strong, indulgent imperial stout on the list and some of the DIPAs and pales on tap are truly terrific (a special mention to Wild Weather’s Orange Lazarus, which is as refreshing a summer drink as you could hope to find).

Having said all that, over the last twelve months I’ve spent a fair amount of pub time on the edge of West Reading, where the Castle Tap and the Nag’s Head have done an exemplary job of adjusting to Covid and providing great converted spaces for al fresco drinking. When I finally emerged from the cocoon of that first ever lockdown for an al fresco alcoholic drink, it was the Nag’s Head I made a beeline for. But the Nag’s Head always had two drawbacks. 

One is that you couldn’t book a table, whereas at the Castle Tap they’ll gladly reserve you one outside. The other was that they never really had much of a food offering. That needn’t be be a problem. The Castle Tap is more than happy for you to order from Deliveroo and eat it at your table – they’ll even give you the postcode for the beer garden out back to use as a delivery address – but the Nag’s has always taken a dim view of that.

On one hand, it meant that the Nag’s Head didn’t bother trying to adapt to the constantly changing landscape of substantial meals, this tier and that tier. Life was simpler, if less lucrative – although the Nag’s also reopened later than its peers last year, sensibly spending extra time sprucing up their beer garden, so perhaps they could absorb those losses. But it also meant that they were closed for longer than some of Reading’s other pubs with outside space when they could have put together a menu, or invited a street food trader over, and continued to trade.

Anyway, when they reopened in April this year they were sporting a brand new food menu and a new smoker for pork and brisket. The menu was compact – not big enough to necessarily make the Nag’s a food destination in its own right, but aiming to offer enough choice that you wouldn’t have to face the invidious choice between leaving the pub to grab a meal or staying, getting shitfaced on an empty stomach and accidentally falling into Harput Kebab on the way home (and I’m not judging, because I speak from experience). And that kind of menu works: Zoë and I were having an early evening beer in the sunshine during her week off, and neither of us could face going home and cooking, which is why you get this review this week.

Before I talk about the menu, a little about the setup. Last year the Nag’s turned its car park properly into a beer garden, with plenty of well-distanced tables, some out in the open and some under marquees, with astroturf underfoot. It future-proofed them well, with the tables superb in sunshine but still usable in the rain, although having to take down the sides of the marquees to qualify as “outdoors” meant the wind could be mighty fierce. All ordering is at the table, with links to the beer list on Untappd, and payment is taken at the table, too. Although many other pubs abandoned table service as soon as they could the Nag’s is currently sticking with it, which I personally really appreciate.

The menu confines itself to three categories only – toasted sandwiches, sausage rolls and meat from the smoker. The Nag’s always used to offer the latter – pulled pork and beef brisket rolls – but the toasties and sausage rolls, a new move, are supplied by The Croque Shop, a business from Brighton. It’s an interesting decision to use them rather than a local supplier, although the pork and beef are from Vicar’s Game, probably Berkshire’s best-known butcher (it’s not all meat: there are vegetarian and vegan options for both toasties and sausage rolls).

Sausage rolls cost four pounds, the pulled pork and brisket are six pounds fifty and the toasties range from six pounds to nine, the most expensive thing being a Reuben made, slightly randomly, with pork belly instead of beef. You order the food along with your beer, but they take the order separately and you pay separately for your food when it arrives. Service is really very good at the Nag’s at the moment – months of running table service has really honed their skills in this area, and everyone who looked after us was friendly, personable and good at coming over just as we needed to order some more drinks.

Let’s start with the pulled pork sandwich, because it was good. Really good, in fact. You get a generous helping of the stuff stuffed in a brioche bun and topped with their own recipe barbecue sauce, and it’s a wonderful thing. So much pulled pork, to me, is a little bit claggy and gloopy, mixed in with the barbecue sauce and too often on the mulchy side. The Nag’s pulled pork, by contrast, was drier and not completely shredded – you could easily pull it apart, and the texture was spot on, but some of it was still in big, delicious doorstops. The barbecue sauce added more heat than sweetness, and there was just enough of it to compliment without overpowering.

It was so enjoyable, in fact, that I’m beginning to think a trip to the Nag’s without a pulled pork roll might be no kind of trip to the Nag’s at all. I enthused about it so much that Zoë ordered one herself with the next round of drinks and I had to look on enviously while she polished it off (admittedly an experience I’d been happy to inflict on her earlier in the evening). She used some of the accompanying crinkle cut crisps – Seabrook, at a guess – as a vehicle to transport some of the excess pulled pork into her gob, a trick I wish I’d thought of. I’ll try the beef brisket next time I’m at the Nag’s – or at least I’m telling myself that now – but the pulled pork roll is six pounds fifty well spent, and for my money one of the best sandwiches in Reading.

“You know the food at the beer festival? You know the crappy carvery they always have there?” said Zoë.

“I’m afraid so.”

“This is what the pork sandwiches at the beer festival should actually taste like.”

I really couldn’t disagree.

While I’d been gloating over my good choice, Zoë had tucked into a chicken, cheese and chorizo toastie from that section of the menu. Much as I’d love to use the pun “croque of shit” somewhere in this review, this was anything but – well made on good, sturdy sourdough that toasted well and full of decent quality chicken, vintage cheddar and nuggets of chorizo rather than cheap supermarket slices. Zoë was a fan – “this is as good as a Shed toastie”, she said – and we’ll have to take her word for it, because it was so good that I didn’t get a bite. At six pounds fifty it would compete with a Shed toastie on price, although it’s slightly smaller. But I think the pulled pork was probably better value.

In the interests of covering as many bases as possible, I also had a sausage roll. The most intriguing-looking one on the menu was pork, apricot and Stilton, and it looked the part – heated up in an oven rather than microwaved with nicely flaky, rustling pastry and a dense core of sausagemeat. And it came close, but if there was any Stilton in it I couldn’t detect it. I’d have liked it, for contrast against the sweet apricot studded through the sausage roll, but it was still decent even without it. If I’d known it was going to be a blue cheese free zone I might have gone for the pork, cheese and Marmite option – but who’s to say whether it would have turned out to have Marmite in it?

There’s not much point in saying a lot about the beers we had during our meal because the Nag’s (and the breweries it buys from) mix things up so frequently that anything I drank might well not be on when you’re there next. There’s a touch of ADHD about it, because you find something you like and they’re always on to the next thing (Siren Craft, it seems to me, is especially prone to this). But it would be remiss not to mention Woodland Battle Dance Exhibition, the newish DIPA by Double-Barrelled which is my favourite beer from them yet; it’s still on at the Nag’s at the time of writing, but who knows how long that will last?

It’s also worth adding that the Nag’s always has a good complement of beer from local breweries, with Siren, Double-Barrelled and Elusive well represented all of the time along with beers from smaller local breweries like White Waltham’s Stardust. It does make me wonder, a little, why their toasties and sausage rolls come from Sussex – but the toasties and sausage rolls are good, so maybe that’s why.

It was always going to be difficult reviewing somewhere after last week’s review, the best meal I’ve eaten on duty this (or any) year. But the Nag’s is the perfect choice, because despite being as different an experience as I can think of, the Nag’s does share some DNA with really good restaurants. Picking your suppliers carefully, having a compact menu which you execute superbly and matching your food to the atmosphere you want to create aren’t skills exclusive to restaurants: pubs and cafés need to get that right as well.

And I think the Nag’s has thought that out perfectly. It’s not destination food, but it’s just the right food to accompany a trip to the pub, or to try and stave off the inevitable hangover you can see on the horizon during a trip to the pub (I’m at the age now where sometimes I can sense the hangover in the post after a couple of drinks – that’s your forties for you).

The pulled pork sandwich is the pick of the bunch for me, but any of them would grace a drinking session and they offer an excellent change of gear from ordering a packet of pork scratchings and some Bacon Fries and opening them out on the table, pub tapas-style. And writing this, it strikes me that this is just typical of the Nag’s. They took their time deciding what to do about food while others tinkered at the edges or got street food traders in. But trust them, once they did get round to it, to do it properly.

The Nag’s Head – 7.8
5 Russell Street, Reading, RG1 7XD
07765 880137

http://www.thenagsheadreading.co.uk

Café review: Café Yolk

When I started to re-review venues this month, I had a couple of criteria in mind when deciding where to go. The older the review the more sense it made to return, to see whether things had changed. But also, the stronger my feelings at the time the more I thought I should try a restaurant again. With the places I liked, like Pepe Sale, I wanted to see whether they had stood the test of time. But even more interesting, I think, were the ones I’d enjoyed less. 

If they’d survived all this time then either they’d fixed whatever the issues were, or – and this is more likely – I was plain wrong about them at the time. And this brings us neatly to Café Yolk, which I first visited in November 2013. At that time I didn’t get the appeal, and I said so, and it generated the first controversy on this blog as a number of people lined up in the comments to tell me how very wrong I was (one of them, it turned out, worked for Café Yolk, a fact he neglected to mention at the time). 

I didn’t do it to be controversial – clickbait was barely a thing in 2013 – but it was my first experience of putting my head above the parapet, and it prepared me well, for example, for saying, a couple of months later, that I reckoned Sweeney & Todd wasn’t much cop. This was before culture war was a thing, back in the mists of time when you could express opinions on the internet without being hit with a tidal wave of bile. They were more innocent days. 

Anyway, nearly eight years has passed, and in that time Yolk has expanded, thrived and embraced social media. It has a dedicated fan base, many of whom would no doubt read my review from 2013 and not recognise the place I described back then. In the intervening years a friend of mine raved about Yolk, so I went there with her and had some far happier meals. And more recently, a number of people have told me on social media that I really ought to give it another go on duty, so I headed there on a sunny weekday for lunch with my other half Zoë in order to check it out.

First things first: I love what they’ve done with the place. In its early days Yolk was a small, cramped room with a handful of tables outside. They’ve spent a lot of money on a very tasteful expansion which has really transformed the corner of Erleigh Road and Hatherley Road – with a conservatory area with seating on both sides and an additional bright yolk-yellow awning covering more tables on the Erleigh Road side. 

Not only is it nicely done, but it vastly increases their seating. The open windows in the conservatory area, where I was seated, meant it was well ventilated, making for a brilliantly light, airy space. Good in summer, good in winter, covered when it rains and very Covid-appropriate: but more importantly, it just looked and felt good. Sitting on a battleship grey banquette, the whole thing almost felt Parisian to me – as close to Parisian pavement culture as you’re going to get in Reading, anyway.

The menu has been sensibly streamlined since 2013. Back then it featured omelettes and burgers and felt slightly all over the place, but now it’s centred firmly on breakfast and brunch, offering a full English, eggs Benedict, pancakes and French toast and a handful of other dishes. Only their biggest breakfast, the “Canadian”, tops the ten pound mark, while everything else hovers between eight pounds and a tenner.

Another change since my first visit: Yolk has done a lot of work, especially this year, teaming up with local suppliers. Coffee is now supplied by Anonymous and bread and pastries come from Rise Bakehouse. This is fantastic to see, although I do think they’re missing a trick by not making something of that on the menu. You order and pay at the counter so I went up to do exactly that, noticing while I was there that Rise’s attractive-looking cruffins were on display on the counter but not covered. That would have put me off ordering one even before Covid came along: such a shame, as this would an easy thing to fix.

The coffee came first, and it was properly lovely. Using Anonymous was an inspired choice and my latte was excellent – beautifully made, silky, without any bitterness. Not only that, but it was a huge coffee and a genuine bargain at two pounds fifty-five; I’m struggling to think of anywhere where you can get a coffee so good for so little. I’ve long thought that East Reading is lacking places where you can get a really good coffee. I’ve always frequented the AMT in the hospital – it has brilliant staff and their Froffee (an espresso milkshake) is a thing of wonder – but it’s nice to know that there’s now a credible alternative.

I had ordered the breakfast burger, which has always been my favourite thing on the Yolk menu. It looked every bit as good as I remembered – a golden brioche stuffed with a sausagemeat patty, well-done back bacon, an omelette and orange-looking American-style cheese. You used to be able to get one of these for the princely sum of six pounds fifty but that conservatory isn’t going to pay for itself, so the price has been upped to nine pounds fifty and they throw in a portion of herby fried potatoes, which I suspect come from a packet. 

That all sounds curmudgeonly, but I enjoyed it every bit as much as I remembered, if not more so. The bacon was superbly salty, the patty splendidly coarse and the cheesy stodge of the omelette added a comforting balance. The whole thing was a bit like an upmarket McMuffin (or Fidget & Bob’s knowing take on it, the O’Muffin), although I’d have preferred the floury firmness of a muffin to the brioche bun, pretty though it was. Even the herby potatoes had plenty of heat and crunch, perfect dipped in a little ramekin of brown sauce. Truly, I had ordered well.

There was only one problem, which was that Zoë had ordered less well. On paper, her dish had sounded fantastic – avocado on sourdough toast with salsa, lime and red chilli, topped with a fried egg and some bacon. And it looked the part: if you were judging on the photos alone, her dish looked far nicer than mine. But – and we’ve all known at least one person like this over the years – it’s not enough to be good-looking if you don’t have any substance to back it up.

“This doesn’t feel like a dish, it’s more like a collection of ingredients. They’re good on their own, but they don’t work together.”

Zoë sounded more like a restaurant blogger than I did, although in fairness it’s hard to sound like a restaurant blogger when your mouth is full of delicious breakfast burger.

“I’ll be honest, I was expecting your avocado to be smashed. And why have they put one of your pieces of toast on top of the other?”

“The menu didn’t say it was smashed, so I wasn’t sure it would be. But with the lime and the chilli, it has the ingredients of smashed avocado, they just haven’t smashed it. Maybe they think smashed avocado is a bit past it.”

“Not in Reading it isn’t.”

“And they haven’t buttered the sourdough toast, so it’s really dry. The only thing giving any moisture at all is the egg yolk.”

“I don’t understand why they bought in good sourdough and didn’t butter it.”

“I know. And nearly all of it’s cold. My toast is cold. I mean, the egg was hot once, but it wasn’t by the time this arrived. Only the bacon’s hot. Maybe they were waiting” – she shot an envious look at my plate – “for your burger to be finished. The salsa’s good though.”

To get over the brunch disappointment, Zoë had a chocolate chip milkshake which redeemed matters. I turned down offers to try it – she hadn’t wanted even a mouthful of my brunch – but I eventually relented and I could see why she liked it so much. 

“This has the coldness that was missing from your milkshake at Smash N Grab a few weeks back. Thank god I’ve had this. I only ordered the avocado on toast because you told me to.”

“I didn’t tell you to order that!”

“No, but you had the breakfast burger.” That envious look again. “And I knew we couldn’t order the same thing.”

The interesting thing was that in the time we sat in the conservatory, I saw five other tables order: at all but two of them at least one person ordered the breakfast burger. Was it a signature dish, a lucky guess, or had they been similarly disappointed by other dishes? I was half tempted to ask them, but thought better of it. Our meal – two brunches, three coffees and a milkshake – came to just over thirty-one pounds, not including tip.

Service, by the way, was good. Yolk has been hit especially hard by pings from the Covid app: I’ve seen posts from them on social media saying they’ve had to reduce their capacity because they didn’t have enough staff, and I imagine that’s because they serve a predominantly student customer base. But although they were rushed off their feet – Yolk never seems to be anything less than busy – they were friendly and efficient throughout.

Unquestionably, the Yolk of 2021 is a very different beast to the smaller café I visited the best part of a decade ago. The fit out is excellent, and they’ve made it a wonderful space to hang out with a tiny touch of Saint Germain des Pres about it (even if Zoë and I were a far cry from Sartre and de Beauvoir). The coffee is superb, and the breakfast burger deserves to be up there on any list of Reading’s iconic dishes.

And yet it did feel a little like Yolk fell a tiny bit short on the things that would take it from good to great. It doesn’t make sense to have wonderful cruffins out on display where people, masked or unmasked, can breathe all over them. It doesn’t make sense to deconstruct smashed avocado and dish up all the components without making it into the brilliant dish it should be. And it really doesn’t make sense to go to all that trouble to seek out good sourdough and then dish it up cold and dry. Yolk strikes me as a place that has bought the best, but doesn’t quite grasp how to get the best out of it. And interestingly, that was also the feeling I vaguely had eight years ago.

None of this will matter, of course. Café Yolk will keep packing them in, because it does what it does pretty well, and I imagine most of its customers won’t notice the things I picked up on, or will notice and don’t care. That’s fair enough, and I fully expect that Café Yolk will be going strong in eight years’ time. If I’m still running this blog in 2029 I’ll pay it another visit, and I’ll probably find this review as inaccurate as the one I wrote all those years ago. And between now and then, I can see them selling me rather a lot of takeaway coffees.

Café Yolk – 7.2
44 Erleigh Road, Reading, RG1 5NA
0118 3271055

http://www.cafeyolk.com

Restaurant review: Smash N Grab

Even this week, a full month after it opened, there are still queues outside Wendy’s on Station Road. I walked past on my way back through town around half-four on a weekday afternoon and was surprised to see a line of people waiting outside, desperate to get their fix. I guess all those puff pieces in Berkshire Live must have had the desired effect – who needs to pay for advertising when you have a local churnalism website desperate for copy? – but I still found it mystifying. Could the Baconator (all 960 calories of it) really be so amazing that a town collectively loses its shit? It seemed far-fetched.

The obvious thing to do this week would be to review Wendy’s: it’s been open for over a month by now, and there’s been so much hype that you might reasonably want to know what it’s like. But instead, you get a review of Smash N Grab, a little burger hole in the wall on Cemetery Junction, because I’m stubborn like that. And, to be honest, if you’re a regular reader of this blog there’s at least an outside chance you’re stubborn like that too. Wendy’s doesn’t need anybody’s help, not with our local media shilling for them, but even if Smash N Grab turns out to be good, in that location, it’s going to need all the help it can get.

The location in question is the little hut just next to the building that used to be the Granby: it’s now branded as Sprinkles Gelato, although the dessert place lies vacant, having closed at some indeterminate point last year. You could be forgiven for thinking that nothing survives on the junction, given that the Smash N Grab site used to house Caribbean takeaway Seasons, and after Seasons ceased trading another business called Hungry Hut opened (and duly closed) on the premises. 

Smash N Grab opened earlier this year, and its thing is smashed burgers. Smashed burgers, for the uninitiated, are burgers where the patty, rather than being carefully shaped, is smashed onto the griddle. The idea is that they are flatter, thinner and more irregular, meaning more surface area and more intense flavour from the Maillard reaction, that magical caramelisation that happens when meat meets heat. An occasional trader at Blue Collar called Boigers does smashed burgers, but in Reading the fashion is still for fatter, juicier, more conventional burgers, so I thought it would be interesting to see what the fuss was about. 

The thing that clinched it, though, was looking at how Smash N Grab operated online. Not on social media, although they have a well looked after Instagram account which regularly puts up very fetching pictures of their burgers. No, what impressed me was how they handled their Google reviews. They had gone in and replied to a lot of them and it was clear from what they said that they’d thought a lot about how to go about things: which buns to use, how to make the burger easier to eat, whether to make their own fries or buy them in.  

They also said something in passing that properly landed with me. It’s tough being the small fish, they said. So I decided to pay them a solo visit before the England semi-final while Zoë was working a late shift. I strolled down Erleigh Road, past MNKY Lounge festooned with bunting emblazoned with the flag of St George, big screen outside and its seats beginning to fill up. It was a warm, sunny early evening, and the air was thick with excitement and expectation – mainly, truth be told, from people who weren’t old enough to have experienced much football-related disappointment.

Although Smash N Grab really is just a small hut with no room to eat in, they’ve done a good job with the space outside which has four tables and would seat about a dozen people in total. The menu is incredibly straightforward – you pick your burger (mostly beef, although a couple of chicken options are available) and you can either turn it into a meal by adding fries and a soft drink for two pounds or fries and a shake for four. Smash N Grab’s beef is Angus and halal which also means that bacon isn’t an option with these burgers, although they do offer optional halal beef bacon which I didn’t try. The shakes are the other distinctive feature of the menu: they’re “cake shakes” which, from a Google, means that they contain milk, ice cream and, well, cake. They are, and I’m sure this won’t surprise you, an American thing. 

I felt like it needed to be done, largely because it was there, so I ordered their classic double cheeseburger, “The Regular”, with fries and a chocolate cake shake; it came to just shy of thirteen pounds. I paid at the counter and they told me they’d bring it out, so I took my seat outside and enjoyed the buzz of Cemetery Junction, watching the cars rushing home in time for kick off and the people wandering past, toting carrier bags laden with lager. 

Two young chaps, one with a crate of Budweiser, the other with a crate of Foster’s, sat outside waiting for their burgers. One was wearing an England shirt, and they smelled strongly of Lynx Africa and the unassailable confidence of youth. Or at least I thought so, until one of them complained about the front page of The Sun saying that the final was bound to be between England and Italy. “They’d better not jinx it” he said. Of all the things to take against The Sun for: still, you’ve got to start somewhere.

My cake shake turned up first, and although I did my best to wait until my meal had arrived curiosity got the better of me. It was very thick and chocolatey – it definitely tested the wide cardboard straw to its limits – and the chunks of cake in it felt pleasingly like cookie dough. It was a tiny bit synthetic-tasting, but that wasn’t offputting. The experience of drinking it reminded me a little of reading Take A Break on an airplane – hugely enjoyable, partly because I do it so rarely, but by the end I was glad it wasn’t a habit and I felt a tiny bit grubby (that’s not necessarily a bad feeling in moderation by the way: I’m happy that I tried it). 

If I had a constructive criticism – and constructively criticising a cake shake feels a bit like expressing the opinion that Mr Blobby might want to consider pastel colours i.e. somewhat missing the point – I would say that the shake needed more ice cream in the mix. I wasn’t sure it had any in it, but it would have made it a little thicker and a lot colder: what’s a milkshake, if it doesn’t give you head freeze?

Several forceful slurps into my milkshake a lady brought out my burger and fries. Let’s get the fries out of the way first – they weren’t good. They looked the part, from a distance, but up close quite a few of them had grey patches and weren’t too appealing. Smash N Grab is quite up front about the fact that they tried making their own fries but it was just too time-consuming: that’s absolutely fair enough, but they should consider buying in better ones. Not only that, but from the smell when they were frying and the taste when I tried them it felt a little bit like the frying oil had been round the block too many times. I didn’t eat many of my fries: the meal had quite enough calories already without adding empty ones.

Happily, the burger was another story. It was everything a burger should be but rarely is – well constructed, easy to eat, lots going on without being too busy. The patties had great texture – plenty of crinkly edges, charred and caramelised crenellations – and, crucially, they didn’t drip everywhere but were nowhere near dry or crumbly. There was a glorious layer of orangey American plastic cheese, slightly caramelised too from contact with the grill, and there were thick, crunchy pickles to add sharpness. A little caramelised onion relish gave just enough sweetness, and the whole thing was finished beautifully with Smash N Grab’s special sauce which threw a little heat into the mix.  

Like I said, plenty going on, but somehow it all worked together very nicely. Even the bun – sesame seeded, big enough to hold the contents and firm enough not to get soggy and fall apart – was well chosen. It was by the company that supplies Blue Collar’s Meat Juice with burger buns, which gave me confidence that they’d put as much thought into their burger as Meat Juice did (which is a lot). Honestly, I thoroughly enjoyed my burger, as you can probably tell by now. Halfway through the meal I wish I’d gone for the triple-decker “Beef’d Up”, so next time I’ll skip the shake and give it a try. “That’s what I would have had” Zoë told me. “Go hard or go home”. She probably had a point, although my arteries would probably have gone hard too.

As I was putting my empties (and most of the fries) in the bin, the owner came out and asked me how it was. I told him I liked it, which was largely true, and asked him how long they’d been trading.

“Four months.”

“And how’s business?”

A little shrug. “We have good days and bad days. It’s difficult, with town opening and closing.” As fortune cookie-sized summaries of what it’s like to be in hospitality in 2021 go, it took some beating. It’s tough being the small fish, indeed. I thanked him and went on my merry way, off home to watch England prove that sometimes it’s tough beating the small fish, too.

I really hope Smash N Grab do well. If it felt hit and miss, which it slightly did, the plus is that the core of their offering, the main thing they do, is pretty good. I liked my burger a lot, and I appreciated the care and thought that went into it. I’d definitely have one again, possibly their “Green Destiny” with garlic mayo and green chillies, which sounds rather marvellous. Their fries weren’t great, but that’s fixable, and although I had mixed feelings about the cake shake (I’m getting that sensation of grubbiness again just thinking about it) you can have a very nice meal there without one, if the idea doesn’t float your boat. 

They definitely add something to Reading’s food scene, especially in East Reading, and although you probably won’t feel like eating outside in the dead of winter they’re on delivery apps as well. I’m very glad I went there instead of Wendy’s: it feels like a better accolade for Reading that it has the first ever Smash N Grab, that the chap who owns it wanted to open here, than that we have the country’s first Wendy’s. It was the right thing to do this week – and every week, for that matter – to go to Smash N Grab instead of Wendy’s.

Looking back at this review I see I’ve done the classic feedback trick of talking about the things I enjoyed, the shake and the burger, either side of describing the chips. There’s a term for that: my other half, memorably, calls it the “shit sandwich”. It may well be a shit sandwich, I agree. But gladly, Smash N Grab’s burger is anything but.

Smash N Grab – 7.0
124 London Road, Reading, RG1 5AY
0118 9666743

https://www.smashngrab.co.uk
Delivery available: Via JustEat and Deliveroo