Veeno

As I’ve said countless times, I always find it odd when people complain about Reading. Part of that is just innate defensiveness I’m sure, but some of it is based on the fact that, as far as I can see, it keeps getting better. Whether the council or the Business Improvement Quango or our vision for 2050 (whatever that is – I’ve read the document and I’m still none the wiser) have anything to do with that is another matter but, in terms of food and drink at least, you could make a pretty good argument that we keep getting what we want.

Bored with having the same chains as everybody else? Here, have a CAU, an Itsu, a Comptoir Libanais, a Franco Manca, a Pho and a Real Greek, with Honest Burgers, Byron and Busaba on their way. Want a pub that does delicious unmicrowaved food? The Lyndhurst isn’t far out of town, and for that matter a short stroll down the canal brings you to the Fisherman’s Cottage – which also, by the way, fixes the problem Reading used to have with not having a decent tapas joint.

It goes on: I used to complain about the lack of good pizza restaurants in town and now we have more pizza than you can shake a stick at (although in some cases, shaking a stick at it is pretty much all you’d want to do). People also like to complain about how many cafes we have but they forget how few bad ones we have, or at least how few bad independent ones we have. I know things aren’t perfect, and they could always improve, but arguably we’ve never had it so good.

I do wish we had more genuinely independent restaurants in the town centre, and I wish our council had some ideas about how to encourage that rather than just charging small indies to have A-boards on the pavement (the less said about that the better). But for me, there is still one glaring gap: Reading could do with a truly brilliant bar that also does food. I suppose you used to call them wine bars, although that term seems to be lost in the mists of time, somewhere around the era when Del Boy tried to reinvent himself as a yuppie.

A few places come close. Milk has its moments, but it doesn’t do food or make much of its wine selection (it’s all about the rum with those guys). The bar at Cerise is prohibitive and always feels like a best behaviour place, not somewhere you could be scruffy or louche. The Malmaison has similar problems, despite numerous makeovers. The closest is probably The Tasting House, but it still feels more like a shop than a bar. It’s too well lit, too sterile and – most crucially – it closes ridiculously early. A good bar kicks out when the pubs kick out, not at 9pm.

This summer I went to Paris on holiday – on my own, like a grown-up! – and on my first evening I headed to Le Barav, a gorgeous wine bar in the Haut Marais. I sat outside with a glass of red and my book (Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari, since you asked), and watched people more sophisticated than me drinking and smoking and chatting, all chic and impenetrable. And I minded being a shabby tourist even less when they brought the food, a ramekin full of Saint Marcellin and honey, with a spoon I didn’t need and a basket of crusty bread which was the reason why I didn’t need it. And, as so often, I thought: how I wish Reading had this.

And yes, Europe specialises in these bars and Paris especially does, that’s true. But there are ones in the UK if you know where to look, from the fantastic John Gordons in Cheltenham to the Little Bar in Tooting, not to mention Gordon’s on the Embankment, the grande dame of those kinds of places. Last month I was in Bristol spending a Friday visiting a good friend and we spent a couple of very enjoyable hours in Bar Buvette. Wine by the glass, charcuterie, cheese, impeccable bread. You simultaneously could have been in Paris and couldn’t have been anywhere but Bristol, which is probably why I loved it so much. How I wish Reading had this.

All of this brings us to Veeno, which opened in August and looks, on paper at least, like it could fill the gap. It’s a wine bar, or “Italian Wine Café” according to their website, which does a range of Sicilian wines, many of which are from the family’s vineyard (must be nice to have a family with a vineyard: maybe that explains why there are now fourteen branches of Veeno across the country) along with a range of small plates, meats and cheeses. It sounded just the ticket, so on a weekday night I turned up with my mother – very generously taking an evening out from looking after her own vineyard – to check it out.

From the outside, it’s unprepossessing. It’s underneath an office building at the bottom of Valpy Street and like, for example, Forburys that means it has the potential to look quite unlovely. Veeno has decided to tackle this by festooning all the windows with fairy lights: I quite liked this, although I have friends who really aren’t fans. Inside it’s a surprisingly large place broken up into lots of rooms of different sizes. There’s a biggish communal area near the bar, a room out on the left with high stools around barrels, a couple of booths and even a private room out back which I assume is for tasting events. We sat in the more conventional dining area and if it wasn’t for the view out onto Valpy Street (admittedly framed by fairy lights) you could possibly have kidded yourself that you were on the continent. I liked the interior, although I was glad I wasn’t sitting on the banquette which looked to all the world like concrete clad in PVC.

The menu covers most bases, and looks the part – there are a range of meats and cheeses, lots of different bruschetta and a section called “spuntini” which covers “little snacks and appetisers”. The first slight warning bell sounded when I saw that these mostly hover around the eight pound mark, but I put that to the back of my mind. There are also a range of sharing boards, and I sense that they like groups to go down that route, but my mother isn’t the type of person to have her food picked for her, and neither am I. So instead we ordered a little of everything on the menu, sat back, waited for it to arrive and had a good old natter.

The best thing turned up first, and that was the salami. You get two for nine pounds, and we’d gone for finocchiona (salami with fennel) and truffle salami. Both were exemplary. You could smell the truffle salami the moment it was placed in front of us: some people never quite get on with its unique earthiness, just the right side of funk, but I love the stuff. Even better was the fennel salami, although again I know it’s an acquired taste some never pick up. Food like this is really all about buying, rather than cooking, so you do need to buy good stuff and Veeno certainly managed it here.

Was it worth nine pounds? That’s another story: I wasn’t sure. Maybe it would have been if the bread hadn’t been so woeful – four thin slices which felt like they had been left out for some time before being served. “I’m only eating these because I feel like you ought not to eat the meat on its own”, said my mum, and I suspect they only served them for the same reason. Bread should be one of the best things about eating this kind of food in this kind of bar, and this was woeful.

Another wonderful thing to do to bread is bruschetta, and another terrible thing to do to it is Veeno’s bruschetta. Two pieces of the same bread, smeared with nduja, for four pounds. The nduja was pretty good – what there was of it – but the bread was as indifferent as before and the price was difficult to stomach. There should have been more of it, or it should have cost less and all round it should have been better (the addition of a pickled onion cut in half and a caperberry was never going to fool anybody). It made me think fondly of the nduja at Oxford’s superb Arbequina, spread on slightly charred sourdough toast, the whole thing drizzled with honey and topped with thyme. That is made by a kitchen that loves food, but this felt like it was made by someone who loves margins.

Onwards, because we must, to the cheese. We’d chosen gorgonzola and scamorza, with high hopes of salt and smoke. What went wrong? The gorgonzola came in six neat balls, each topped with a walnut, and balls is exactly what they were. I know some blue cheeses are saltier than others, that Roquefort is not Barkham Blue, and I know that this might have been a gorgonzola dolce, but whichever way you cut it, it tasted of not much.

“That’s so disappointing.” said my mum. “I was hoping for something like the gorgonzola your granddad used to eat when I was a kid. It was beautiful stuff.”

By this point I thought my choice of venue had used up whatever brownie points I’d earned from my mum by pronouncing “bruschetta” correctly (“I hate it when people get that wrong”, she told me). But more indifference was to come – the scamorza was almost completely a no smoking zone. There was the slightest hint on the rind but really, it was even blander than the gorgonzola. It was more like a Maxi BabyBel, if such a thing exists, although in honesty I’d rather have had the real thing.

I’m afraid there’s yet more to dislike. The focaccia was dry and spongy and bore no relation to any focaccia I’ve ever had, or indeed to any focaccia at all. “Oh, you had the focaccia” said a friend of mine after I told her about the visit, “I don’t think it’s ever seen any olive oil”. She’s right, and it hadn’t seen any salt either. I couldn’t tell whether it was a little stale, or had been toasted, or had been toasted to conceal the fact that it was a little stale. I asked our waitress for some olive oil so we could at least dip the bread in it. She said yes, but it never turned up: by the time I realised it was never going to come I was profoundly past caring. Oh, and special mention has to go to the breadsticks, which crumbled rather than snapped and seemed to have no light airy middle, just a solid core of crunchy, dry exterior. Again, better breadsticks are available pretty much anywhere.

Last of all, the spuntino we ordered was tomino cheese grilled and wrapped in speck. Well, the cheese might have been grilled I suppose, but it came to the table pretty lukewarm and wrapped in speck which may well have come from the fridge. Maybe that’s what cooled the whole thing down. I was hoping for a glorious parcel of sticky oozing cheese with a casing of salty, crispy ham, but this wasn’t that. If you can make the combination of ham and cheese – wonderful separately and potentially sublime together – this boring, you really need to think again. Eight pounds for that, and again there was some sleight of hand to conceal the poor value. A couple of slices of that indifferent bread squiggled with balsamic glaze? Really, you shouldn’t have.

It’s especially sad to say this because service, by and large, was lovely: friendly, attentive and helpful, with the exception of the olive oil that never came. And the wine was very good too – my mum liked her prosecco (but then, my mum does like her prosecco) and both the red wines I had were excellent. “The Elegant”, a cabernet sauvignon, was exactly that: beautifully structured and fragrant, well-balanced and not too tannic. The other one, a Nero d’Avola Riserva, was truly knockout stuff, although at eight pounds fifty a glass you’d want it to be. The whole lot came to just shy of sixty pounds, not including tip, and I left feeling like I hadn’t really had a meal. “The gorgonzola was the real disappointment for me.” said my mum as she headed to the pub. I knew exactly what she meant but really, when it came to disappointment, where to begin?

I really wanted Veeno to work (and I’m tempted to give them a point for the fairy lights alone) but the truth is that somewhere in Reading does nearly all of these things better. If you want charcuterie and cheese, The Tasting House is a much more appealing prospect. If you want spuntini or focaccia, you’d be better off at Carluccios. So that just leaves the wine – and it’s good but somehow not enough (although the Italian craft cider, which I sampled on a previous visit, is also pretty nice). So I could see myself going back for a drink or two, but I’d definitely eat beforehand. Most of all, it just made me want to go to Waitrose and get amazing Bertinet bread, green grassy olive oil, good meats and fine cheeses and have some friends round. Like I said, this kind of food is about buying rather than cooking, and I have a sneaking feeling most of us could do just as good a job of that as Veeno without having to try that hard.

Oh, and on weekdays it closes at 10pm. What kind of a bar does that?

Veeno – 5.8
Minerva House, Valpy Street, RG1 1AR
0118 9505493

http://www.theveenocompany.com/veeno-reading-wine-bar/

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7Bone Burger Co.

I had it all figured out: I would go to 7Bone with my friend Ben, the biggest carnivore I know. A man who smokes his own burnt ends, a man who cooks gigantic barbecues in his back garden but omits the usual step of inviting people to help him eat the food. A man who, for years, had an annual Halloween festival at his house where he cooked the biggest piece of roast pork he could fit in his oven (he called it “Porkfest”: he has many skills but is never going to work in marketing). A man to whom Bluegrass BBQ has almost become a second living room. How, in all conscience, could I ask anybody else to try out Reading’s newest burger joint with me?

I say newest, but if there’s one thing you can guarantee it’s that it won’t be Reading’s newest burger joint forever, or indeed for long. The popularity of burgers, always baffling to me, shows no sign of abating. We’re going to get a Byron and an Honest Burgers, facing off at each other by Jackson’s Corner. Deliveroo Editions has just opened, giving you the opportunity to have Gourmet Burger Kitchen delivered to your house (provided you live in the RG1 postcode, anyway) from some shadowy central facility that I can’t picture without thinking of the headquarters of The Initiative in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. So 7Bone needs to impress, because its competitors are already waiting in the wings.

The week before our trip to 7Bone, Ben messaged me.

“I have decided that I’ll eat one of the vegetarian burgers.”

“This is a joke, isn’t it?” I replied. It had to be: Ben had no truck with vegetarianism (in fact I think he may even class it as a disease).

“Nope. I want to see if the falafel burger is any good, and if a committed carnivore like me thinks it’s good I’ll be doing your readers a huge service.”

I would have been a lot more impressed with Ben’s devotion to public service if I hadn’t noticed the following night that he was tagged at 7Bone on Facebook with his wife Lisa, no doubt eating his own body weight in dead animal. I picked him up on it when I turned up and took my seat opposite him. He sipped his beer and shrugged.

“What can you do? The kids wanted to go there.”

I wanted to point out that, funnily enough, Ben’s kids have never tried to drag him into an Itsu, but I decided it wasn’t worth picking him up on it. Instead I ordered a cider (Angry Orchard – American, apparently, crisp, off-dry and thoroughly enjoyable) then looked through the menu in the company of arguably Reading’s foremost expert: Ben probably knows more about that menu than most of 7Bone’s staff.

“That’s what Lisa had last time.” he said, pointing to the ‘Peter Green’ (a burger with chilli, cheese, mustard and jalapenos), “Or you could always have the ‘Robert Johnston’, that’s awesome.”

I found the names confusing. I could have understood if it was called Robert Johnson, although I still wouldn’t have associated selling your soul to the devil at a crossroads, with a penchant for truffled garlic mushrooms. And I could see that Peter Green was a blues guitarist, but if the theme was guitarists, what was the rationale for calling one of the burgers ‘Prince Charles Is Overrated’? (Overrated as a guitarist? I didn’t even know he played.) No wonder I felt a little lost.

There was also far too much dirt on the menu for my liking: here a “dirty spread”, there a “dirty spread”, everywhere a “dirty spread”. What with that, the “dirty slaw”, the “deep gravy” (what was it doing, quoting Sartre?) and the “naked raunch salad” the whole menu felt a bit unnecessarily pornographic. It reminded me of something my friend Tim said when I told him I was going to 7Bone.

“I can’t stand the way restaurants like 7Bone call everything dirty. They say ‘dirty’ but I just see ‘unhygienic’. Why would anywhere boast about that?”

Well, quite. Anyway, I ordered the ‘Robert Johnston’ (whoever he is – Wikipedia has a number of suggestions, none of which sound likely to crop up on a burger menu) and Ben ordered the ‘Juicy Boris’ – more smut! – the aforementioned falafel burger.

“So, you’re having a Boris Johnson.” said our utterly charming waitress, accidentally mangling and conflating our orders.

“That’s right.” said Ben, “I’m going to pop Boris’ juicy balls in my mouth.”

She seemed nonplussed by this. Then I suggested that if they ever did a ‘Boris Johnson’ they could put onion straws on top of the burger to simulate the hair and that’s when she accidentally knocked over my cider (it might have been the only way she could think of to stop us both talking).

They do a “red basket deal” at 7Bone where you get a burger and one of a set list of sides for a tenner, so Ben and I went for that – onion straws for him, chilli cheese fries for me. But because we both saw other sides we fancied, we also ordered some chicken fried halloumi and some truffled macaroni cheese (sorry, I just can’t call it ‘mac n’ cheese’ and besides, as Ben pointed out, mac n’ cheese will always be synonymous with Joey Tribbiani and that crime-fighting robot).

“That’s a lot of food” smiled our waitress, who by now had replaced my bottle of cider and apologised profusely. “I reckon if you finish all that I should give you twenty pounds.”

I advised her not to put that bet on the table: I’ve only ever seen Ben defeated by food once, and that was when I took him to Caucasian Spice back in the good old days when they cooked at the Turk’s.

“And I did the burger challenge at the Oracle.” said Ben, referring to that Kua ‘Aina thing they’re doing on the Riverside at the moment.

“Did you win?” asked the waitress.

“I was three chips away from finishing it within the ten minutes” he said, glowing with pride. I couldn’t tell whether the waitress was feeling amusement or pity, or whether she was wondering whether she could pass off knocking over two drinks as an accident.

I paid the room a little more attention while I was waiting for the food to turn up. It was very much from the 2017 restaurant lookbook – square tables, school chairs, naked walls, exposed concrete and bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Ben and I were easily the oldest people there and the banquette along one wall provided (with the exception of my belly) the only softness in the room. Sometimes this look feels considered – you might like it or hate it, but thought has gone into it. With 7Bone, it felt a little unfinished: especially the ceiling, which looks like they literally couldn’t be bothered to finish it off. Despite all this, I didn’t dislike it half as much as I expected to, although I wouldn’t have wanted to be there on a packed weekend evening.

On to the food, then. The big hit of the evening, for me, was the southern fried halloumi: strips of nicely seasoned and coated halloumi, delicious with the accompanying barbecue dip. The texture was perfect, the taste was brilliant and it was only later that I realised that, despite being made of cheese, they were the only thing that wasn’t cloying and mouth-coating. They do a veggie burger made with southern fried halloumi (the ‘Dirty Linda’, obviously) and I’d be tempted to have it if I went again.

Other sides were a mixed bag. Chilli cheese fries were decent enough fries with “steak chilli” (which looked suspiciously like normal mince to me) and smothered in a lake of American cheese. I would have liked more chilli – because it was actually rather nice – and less and different cheese. Some cheddar on top would have been perfect – to me, there’s a place for yellow plastic American cheese but it’s not on chips. The jalapenos on top added almost the only sharpness of the meal.

Ben loved his truffled macaroni cheese, pronouncing it “better than Grillstock in Bristol” (allegedly another restaurant which has defeated Ben through the power of portion size). I didn’t like it much – I didn’t think the truffle came through as strongly as it could and again, there was just so much cheese: a slick puddle of cheese, all texture and no taste. I’d have liked more truffle, less cheese and maybe something like breadcrumbs on top to give more texture. And, before you point it out, I’m well aware that observations like that might mainly give away that I’m just not the target market for an American style burger joint. Ben’s onion straws were very nice, I thought – crispy and not soggy (although he did squirt a big pool of mayonnaise next to them, so not for long). I’m not sure I’d have wanted a whole plate of them, but I enjoyed nicking a couple.

Finally, the burger. Well, I quite liked it – but not without reservations. The bun, which disappointed me on my only previous visit to 7Bone, wasn’t half bad. They are proud of it, from the look of their website, and proud that it’s not a brioche, and I can understand why because it stood up well to its contents. The burger was also very good, cooked slightly pink, the texture excellent, and I also liked the fact that the whole thing wasn’t so ridiculously huge that you couldn’t try and eat it with your hands.

But goodness, it was all so wet. With the American cheese, the truffle mayo and the garlic mushrooms in there, each bite pushed the remaining contents past the edge of the bun, making the whole thing more and more difficult to tackle. What I would really have liked was just a classic bacon cheeseburger with some tomato relish and gherkins, but that doesn’t even feature on the 7Bone menu. And the stuff in my burger didn’t compensate for the mess factor by tasting amazing – everything felt a bit bland to me, the truffle and garlic barely breaking through. Maybe my tastebuds were just too coated in cheese and grease to notice anything else by that point.

Ben handily had pretty much the same burger, but with falafel instead of beef. The falafel I quite liked – good texture and taste and possibly better equipped to resist (I probably mean “complement” but really, it was relentless) the cheese and the mayo. Ben loved it, but I think he loves practically everything about 7Bone.

“You’re missing the point.” he said to me between mouthfuls. “These aren’t meant to be dry burgers. They’re American style, like Sloppy Joes.”

“You did pretty well.” said our waitress as she took away our nearly empty plates. Ben finished almost all of his; I couldn’t polish off all my fries – or more precisely, I just didn’t want to. Ben pretended to have gone easy on her to save her the indignity of shelling out twenty quid, and we got talking. She was visiting the Reading branch on secondment, doing some fact finding in preparation for 7Bone opening a new site in Eastbourne (quite what the blue rinse brigade will make of “dirty raunch salad” I’m not sure, but that I’d like to see). Anyway, she did a brilliant job of looking after us from start to finish: if anything, the thing I’ll most take away from 7Bone – apart from the incongruous sight of Ben eating falafel entirely of his own volition – is the truly excellent service we received. Our bill, for two beers (Longboard – I had a sip of Ben’s and really liked it), one cider, two basket meals and two extra sides, came to forty quid, not including tip.

I sometimes worry that with places like 7Bone (or Franco Manca, last week) my review might boil down to “if this is your kind of thing, you’ll probably like it”. I suppose all reviews come down to that, but I’m more aware of it when I have reservations about a place. So, I didn’t massively like 7Bone, and I’ve been thinking a lot about exactly why that is, and whether it’s about them doing what they do badly or me just not liking what they do. It’s true that I’m not the biggest burger evangelist in Reading, and it’s true that I’m probably of an age and demographic where the quirkiness of the menu will bring me out in hives.

But the thing is, I like that informal style of dining, for all its flaws – I like Bluegrass, and I quite enjoyed Franco Manca. And I do like the occasional burger: the weekend before this visit I was in London visiting the Design Museum with my family and afterwards we stopped at Byron for dinner. The experience wasn’t perfect, but in terms of the room, the menu and the execution it was streets ahead of 7Bone. By contrast 7Bone felt a bit too deliberately edgy, a bit too noisy, a bit too pile ’em high sell ’em cheap and, crucially for me anyway, just a little too greasy. Don’t get me wrong – it’s far from terrible, but I don’t think I would go back in a hurry. And if I were them I would be looking nervously over my shoulder, because when the London chains hit Reading we may find out once and for all whether Reading really does have an infinite capacity for burgers. But what do I know? My friend Ben loved it, and he even slummed it with the falafel.

7Bone Burger Co. – 6.6

60 St Mary’s Butts, RG1 2LG
0118 9952094

http://www.7bone.co.uk/reading.php

Valpy Street

Let’s start with the elephant (well, lobster) in the room: it would somehow be wrong of me to write a review of Valpy Street without at least a passing nod to its most (in)famous previous incarnation. Those hallowed halls were the location where I ate the worst meal I’ve reviewed so far and, I think, an indication of how far the spot had fallen since its earlier success – still discussed fondly by many Reading residents – as Chronicles. Indeed, the new owner is in fact the old owner; fed up of seeing the site go through one sad iteration after another he decided to come back and reinvigorate the handsome basement rooms (the story goes that the last straw was an application to turn the premises into a lapdancing club).

It looks so nice now that I didn’t even suffer any flashbacks. The upstairs – a grotty sandwich bar back when this was Valentino’s – is now a little bar area looking out onto the street. But really, it’s all about the downstairs: there’s something about a cellar restaurant, especially with winter on the way, that feels somehow snug and exclusive and they’ve made a really good job of doing it up (Farrow and Ball paint: check, exposed brickwork: check, tongue and groove panels: check). The furniture is attractive, the tables are a decent size and there are some nice booths along one side which adds to that feeling of cosy seclusion.

I’ve heard good things in the months since Valpy Street opened, so I was surprised to trot down the stairs on a week night to see it pretty empty, with only a few tables occupied. The menu had lots to tempt, with an interesting range of starters hovering around the seven pound mark and more conventional bistro-style main courses (lamb shank, duck breast, two types of steak) generally weighing in around fifteen pounds. Reading it, I realised that this is the kind of restaurant Reading is missing, because we don’t really have any mid-range independent bistros. You either go for much more informal, cheaper dining, you move up a price bracket to LSB or Forbury’s, or you opt for a chain. Please let this be good, I thought to myself.

Would my prayers be answered? The starters gave me my first clues. Pan fried scallops came with peas and onion, crispy chorizo and beurre noisette, a pretty classic combination. Normally they also come with soft herbs (no, I’ve no idea what that means) but I was with my coriander-phobic companion so we missed all the herbs out to ensure there was no meltdown. The scallops – three medium ones – were pretty decent, cooked in the browned butter and nicely textured so they were lightly caramelised on the outside but still yielding within. The peas and onions and chorizo reminded me a bit of petit pois a la francaise, but without the indulgent cream which always makes me feel so guilty about ordering it. They worked quite well, especially the touch of salt and warmth from the chorizo which lifted the dish pleasantly. Not the prettiest dish to look at (it all looked a bit plonked on the plate) but a good start.

ValpyScallops

The other starter was one of the most intriguing things on offer – tempura soft shell crab with an Asian influenced salad of shredded cabbage, carrot and mooli. It was the only time that the menu wandered away from its firmly European sensibilities, but it sounded so good on paper that I had to try it. Broadly speaking, it was a success. The salad was full of crunch and zest with an awful lot going on, especially with a gradually growing heat from the deep green shreds of chilli. I liked the presentation, with the toasted sesame seeds dotted round the edge of the plate.

If anything, the salad upstaged the crab sitting on top of it. I’ve always loved soft shell crab – possibly the only member of the animal kingdom that might have caused Charles Darwin the occasional moment of doubt – and this was pleasant but the batter wasn’t quite tempura, lacking the crisp lightness I was hoping for. It was also dinky almost to the point where you felt like you weren’t so much eating it as bullying it. All good, then, but possibly a touch on the nouvelle side.

ValpyCrab

You couldn’t say that about the gigantic piece of onglet which turned up when the mains arrived. I’d ordered it rare (the waitress suggested rare or medium rare) and rare it came. My mistake, to be honest: onglet can be a tad chewy and it definitely needed a bit longer. To her credit, the waitress came back to check on the food and quickly twigged that I wasn’t happy – so she sent it back for a little more time under the grill which improved matters considerably. The salad it came with was delicious, just dressed rocket and thinly sliced red onion: not something I would normally choose but which really went perfectly with the steak. The chips were thick and wedgelike, but sadly not terribly crispy.

When ordering the waitress asked what sauce I wanted (blue cheese, red wine or peppercorn) and so I also had a little copper saucepan of peppercorn sauce. This was really lovely but I didn’t find out until the bill arrived that I’d been charged nearly three quid for the privilege. Now, I don’t mind paying extra for a sauce but I definitely felt like this was a little sneaky – there was no mention of the sauce on the printed menu (there is on the website, curiously) and the waitress didn’t say that there would be a charge, so I felt a little hoodwinked. Overall it pushed the cost of the dish over the twenty pound mark, and therein lies the real problem: onglet is a cheap cut, and for that money I could have had better meat from CAU – a little less of it, maybe, but better quality and cheaper.

ValpyOnglet

Herb crusted hake was less successful. It was a pleasant – if not massive – piece of fish and the herby breadcrumbs on top of it were lovely, although I was surprised to find skin on the bottom of the fillet. But everything else didn’t quite work. It came with “bacon lardons” (are there any other kind?), little halved new potatoes, cabbage and leek and all of them were decent if inoffensive. But the herb broth, which I was hoping would bring the whole thing together, was largely a flavourless stock. More than anything else I ate that night, or anything I’ve eaten for a while, it felt like home cooking rather than restaurant cooking. If I’d eaten it at a friend’s house I’d have said nice things, but for just shy of fifteen pounds it wasn’t something I’d rave about when eating out.

ValpyHake

I can’t quite remember why we ventured onto desserts after eating so much steak, but venture on we did. Tarte tatin is one of those French classics that’s difficult enough to make at home that I’d never bother (that’s what restaurants are for). Truth be told when it arrived I wondered if the chef had ever seen one before, let alone cooked one. It was the oddest looking tarte tatin I have ever seen; eight or nine thin slivers (not slithers, for the record: why do so many restaurant reviewers get this wrong?) of unpeeled apple on a pastry base with a caramelised coating and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. If anything, my photo makes it look more generous with the apple than was actually the case. To my shame, I still ate it all because – as everyone knows – pastry plus sugar equals tasty. But it was an amateurish kind of tasty.

ValpyTarte

Valpy Street’s website says that the menu is “locally sourced where possible” – that may be true in general, but the fact that nothing local turned up on the cheeseboard made me wonder if those words were there because they thought it was what diners want to read. Having got that whinge out of the way, it was an interesting selection none the less: on paper, at least. In reality, it was perhaps slightly less so. Saint Maure de Touraine was a pretty likeable goat’s cheese, but the tommette de savoie was mild verging on apologetic, a quality it shared with the Fearn Abbey, a Scottish brie-like cheese. What the board was crying out for was some contrast – a salty, crystalline cheddar or Comte that could exfoliate the roof of your mouth – but no such luck.

Last but not least, there was Blue Monday, made by that chap out of Blur with the floppy hair. I’m more of a Graham Coxon fan myself, but to give credit where it’s due the cheese was spectacular – intense, savoury and delicious. I’m glad I ate it last, but even having it last it highlighted how bland all that came before had been. All the cheeses were maybe not as close to room temperature as they should have been (nor, now I come to think of it, was the dining room), but at least they weren’t fridge-cold. The accompaniments smacked slightly of overkill. There were a lot of crackers but no variety, so they were all sweet which didn’t really work with most of the cheeses. You also got a huge ramekin of onion chutney – far more than you could possibly eat – some celery which I suspect is left by almost everybody and some grapes. This was definitely a case where less would have been more, although I would have liked the advertised quince jelly which was nowhere to be seen.

ValpyCheese

This is all sounding rather glum, isn’t it? Perhaps I should lighten the mood by saying that service – the incident with the peppercorn sauce aside – was properly delightful from start to finish. Both waitresses were bright, personable, knowledgeable and full of opinions about the dishes. And if it didn’t always come off that felt more the kitchen’s fault than theirs. As I said, I was also impressed that they swooped in and sorted the problem with my onglet – some serving staff would ignore those vibes (the way you can never get attention when you want to pay up and scarper, for instance) but they could clearly tell I wasn’t happy and managed the situation perfectly.

Another positive: the wine list isn’t bad at all, with nothing over forty quid and plenty of interesting choices available by the glass. We tried a selection, including a really good, heady Malbec and a cracking Pic St Loup, a Languedoc red. Viognier, always a favourite of mine, was also extremely drinkable as was the cheapest white on the menu, a bright Spanish number from Extramadura. I would have had a glass of dessert wine with the tarte tatin, but they’d run out of one and the other was priced pretty aggressively for only 50ml. The LBV we ordered to accompany the cheese was nice but not surprising – maybe it would have tasted better paired with more interesting cheeses. The total bill came to ninety-one pounds, excluding tip, for three courses, two glasses of wine each plus that port. An odd experience: nothing on the menu was particularly expensive, and yet somehow that still felt a little steep.

Reading really needs a restaurant like Valpy Street. An affordable, mid-market independent bistro is very much one of the places that’s always been missing from town. And, frustratingly, they’ve got many things right – the room is lovely, the menu looks brilliant on paper and the service is spot on. The menu has some bright ideas to draw daytime trade in, too, with lunchtime “pots” for six quid and a selection of upmarket sandwiches. But the evening menu – despite some moments of promise – didn’t set my world on fire. But all is not lost, because the management has proved they can do this. The menu has already changed substantially since launch, to the owner’s credit, and he didn’t even officially launch the restaurant until it had already been open for a month (a very soft launch indeed, in fact). It feels like he’s playing the long game, and on that basis I wouldn’t rule out Valpy Street rethinking some of the menu and pricing and fulfilling that obvious promise. It’s a tougher market out there than it’s ever been: Reading’s dining scene has changed significantly since Chronicles closed in 2008 and the competition has got better. I just hope Valpy Street can do likewise.

Valpy Street – 6.8
17-19 Valpy Street, RG1 1AR
0118 3271331

http://www.valpys.co.uk/

L’Ortolan, Shinfield

Despite Reading being a pretty affluent town it’s always been short on Michelin stars. There’s a gathering around Bray (Orion’s Belt, if you like) and the two star Hand and Flowers out at Marlow but the only truly local “star” is L’Ortolan, in Shinfield (so close, it’s RG2 which I guess makes it our Alpha Centauri). As with most people I expect a Michelin star to make a restaurant fussy and pricey – although if Michelin themselves are to be believed, stars are awarded for food alone and, technically at least, have nothing to do with table linen or waiters in waistcoats. Even so, driving into the countryside to try L’Ortolan gave me a sense of trepidation: not just about whether the food would be any good, but also about whether I’d be up to reviewing it.

Stepping over the threshold of Ortolan is like stepping inside a machine; the smartly dressed, suited staff are everywhere, taking coats, ushering customers to the bar, bringing drinks, wiping up invisible spills from the hardwood floor, plumping cushions. Everything looks impeccable, like a modern day clockwork Downton Abbey. Over a drink in the bar we were served canapés on a slate, just enough to get our tastebuds firing. Michelin starred dining is full of these bits and bobs – pre-pre starters, pre-starters, pre-desserts – and these were a nice enough introduction. There were little airy crackers with potato and onion, a thin wooden cone full of maple and truffle popcorn, the maple hitting you first and the truffle sneaking in at the end. The best of them were goose and foie gras croquettes, smooth and rich, Eton Turkey Twizzlers.

People often say it’s possible to eat affordably at a Michelin starred restaurant (normally, ironically, in a review where they’ve made no attempt to do so) so we were both picking from the lunchtime prix fixe. Three courses, with three or four choices per course, comes to thirty-two pounds: or it will do, at least, if you don’t pick one of the dishes with a five or ten pound supplement. Narrow, yes, but not so narrow as to be constricting, with lots of interesting choices to make. So we sat in the bar, sipping our pre-prandials, feeling pampered and making our decisions. Only when our orders had been taken and our glasses were empty did we go into to the restaurant proper: places like L’Ortolan are very good at letting you take your time.

Being taken through to the dining room revealed two rooms, one on the austere side, and the other, a conservatory room with a tented ceiling, harking back to the Raj. I was glad to be sat in the latter as it felt a little more relaxed. Tables in both rooms were the same, with smart linen, a fancy glass plate at each setting (soon whisked away, which begged the question of what it was there for) and comfy if slightly awkwardly angled velvety seats.

A big bowl of bread soon arrived and we tucked in while waiting for our starters to arrive. The best of them was a small treacle baguette, which was a golden saffron colour inside and slightly sweet with a hint of black treacle, The other breads – sourdough, focaccia and a small seeded roll – were nice, if not quite at the same heights, and there was plenty of room temperature butter (stinginess with butter is one of my bugbears, but then I do like a lot of it).

Before our starters arrived there was a pre dessert – an espresso cup of soup (isn’t it always?). This was a rich but light mushroom velouté which had a hint of truffle, a tiny sourdough crouton and a deliciously sweet and sour pickled mushroom. I enjoyed it so much that fighting the urge to clean the inside of the cup with a piece of bread was quite a titanic struggle; I didn’t want to let the side down with all the other genteel tables around me.

The starters were both beautiful to look at. The duck liver (introduced as foie gras when brought to the table) with blood orange and basil marmalade was heavenly, even for something so sinful. The liver was just cooked with a slightly caramelised outside. Next to it was a small dome of creamy duck liver parfait with pain d’epice crumb, all lovely and gingery. On a slice of flattened puff pastry were neatly laid slices of blood orange, resting on some of the marmalade. The marmalade itself was more like a curd, a thick smear of it (they do love smears in restaurants like this) on one side of the plate. Ordering this involved paying a five pound supplement, but it was a good decision: it was the best thing I ate all afternoon, and writing this makes me want to have it all over again. In particular the sweet richness of the liver with the tart blood orange was fantastic, and not a combination I’d ever have imagined before.

OrtDuck

The other starter also looked gorgeous, but looks were the main thing going for it. On paper, confit salmon, pickled cucumber and ketjap manis gel sounded terrific but what turned up had a strong air of seeming like a good idea at the time. The salmon was lovely – subtle, fresh and breaking into flakes with no effort at all (which took me aback, since it looked so much like sashimi). And I wouldn’t have minded it being so petite, if it had had more interesting things on the plate to pair it with, but I wasn’t that fortunate. The pickled cucumber, big indelicate chunks, had almost no sweetness or sharpness so was watery and bland. The ketjap manis gel was sweet and intense. But the rest? Well, it felt an awful lot like sludge to me: swirls of two different other sauces spiralling round the plate, a little heap of horseradish snow and micro herbs strewn all over the shop. Wetness, wetness everywhere. Towards the end I found some sesame seeds – strong, intense, delicious – submerged where they were almost unnoticeable and beyond rescue. It was the sort of plate you never quite clean: it looked like a Pollock once I was finished. They brought more bread after that, and I started to wonder whether I’d need it.

For main, the rump of beef was as lovely as the duck liver. It was three very pink (as requested) slices of beef with smoked pommes Anna on a red wine jus with bone marrow hollandaise. Underneath the beef was half a roasted banana shallot, a few pieces of tenderstem broccoli, two cubes of dense beef and a creamy mushroom sauce, dotted with mushrooms. The rump itself was a little tough under the knife but tender when chewed. The potatoes were wafer thin and richly flavoured (almost like the potatoes my mum used to cook in with the roast beef when I was a kid, although the Michelin inspectors never troubled my mum’s kitchen – or yours, I’d imagine). The shallot was sweet and the mushroom sauce was intensely flavoured. There was only one blot on the copybook – one of the cubes of beef, a big layer of fat running through it, was far too tough to cut or to eat – but apart from that, it was perfection, a high-end reinvention of a Sunday roast, where each ingredient was so concentrated and intense that size simply did not matter.

OrtBeef

The other main had sat up and begged to be ordered when I saw the menu: loin of lamb, Parmesan gnocchi, sweetbread popcorn, confit tomato. Again, it looked absolutely gorgeous, and the lamb was beautifully cooked, what there was of it anyway. But again the rest of the dish underwhelmed. The confit tomatoes were the best, little bright-coloured flashes of sweetness. The sweetbreads were an Eton reimagining of KFC popcorn chicken – nice enough but maybe not the surprise I’d been hoping for. The gnocchi was one single chewy wodge whose main role in proceedings seemed to be to show off how delicious the Pommes Anna on the other plate were. And, of course, more little spheres and splodges of sauce – along with, randomly, a smear of something that tasted like goats cheese. Oh, and more of those sesame seeds. I’ve never believed that food should ever be too beautiful to eat, but unfortunately this was more fun to look at than to eat. There was a ten pound supplement for this and I’m not really sure why, because it was smaller, lighter and far less special than the beef.

OrtLamb

More freebies followed with an impeccable pre-dessert: a little shot glass with creamy coconut rice pudding at the bottom, little cubes of rum jelly above it and a layer of passion fruit mousse at the top. I could quite easily have eaten a dessert sized portion of this. Not for the first time in a high end restaurant, I wondered why the free stuff always seems to taste the best. Maybe because it’s “free”: I know, ultimately, it isn’t but sometimes the mind is quite happy to let itself be tricked.

For dessert I simply had no choice but to have the cheese: I’d seen the cheese trolley wheeled past on several occasions while I finished the previous two courses and it was impossible to resist. There were a mind-boggling twenty cheeses on offer – going from the hard cheeses, past goats cheeses and on to some softer-rinded cheeses with varying degrees of stinkiness – all of which were explained in detail by the captain of the trolley, a really personable young man with obvious enthusiasm for his charges. I was allowed four, which were served with super thin slices of bread and crackers, and a choice of chutney and truffle honey. There were also grapes and celery just in case I wanted to offset some of the calories, although I’d given up counting by that point. The ones that stood out for me were the Burwash Rose, a rich, tangy, semi soft cheese with a rind washed in rose water and the Blue Murder, a Scottish blue so ripe it was in danger of running off the plate (or, rather, slate) and, for that matter, out of the building. The latter was particularly good with some of that honey, although the truffle couldn’t stand up to the cheese itself and was close to undetectable. This plate also attracted a five pound supplement but the variety was so good (perhaps not in the hard cheeses – I was hoping to see a really good Gruyere or Comte, but it was not to be) and the portion sufficiently generous that I didn’t begrudge them one bit.

OrtCheese

The other dessert was chocolate and cardamom ganache with orange curd and mint ice cream. Unlike many of the things I’d eaten, that was a pretty good description and – for the only time in the meal – what turned up was roughly what I’d expected to see. It was bliss: a long thin rectangle of smooth, glossy ganache, powdered with cardamom, was just gorgeous. The mint ice cream – green, fresh garden mint, a million miles from bright green mint choc chip – was so fantastic I didn’t want to pair it with anything else. The orange curd zinged with sweet sharpness. Best of all, perhaps, was the kitchen’s reinterpretation of Mint Aero – three little chunks of fluffy chocolate which imploded in the mouth, a piece of culinary pyrotechnics. Just beautiful. And, in case you’d forgotten the kitchen has a Michelin star, some pointless micro leaves.

OrtChoc

I knew the wine list would sting, and it did. As I was driving, the initial plan was to order wine by the glass but the prices by the glass were so punitive – seven or eight pounds for 125ml, easily a tenner for 175ml – that we decided it would be better value to get a bottle from the bottom end of the wine list and picked a Cote du Rhone for thirty-seven pounds (to give you an idea, that’s the fifth cheapest red they sell by the bottle). I was feeling really pleased with my bargain hunting until I got home, did some research and found that the same bottle retails for eleven pounds. Still, there was no bitter taste at the time.

Service was excellent, if a little cool. There was a constantly rotating team of waiters which served plates, cleared plates, poured wine and poured water, which gave the feeling of being continuously “served” but without a lot in the way of interaction. It was exceptionally well-run, just a tad emotionless. A few of the waiters – the captain of the cheese trolley, one of the waiters who topped up our glasses – seemed to have a little more charm, it’s just a shame that this was the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps customers at Ortolan (who do tend to be older and middle class, based on the clientèle when we were there) expect service of the “seen and not heard” variety, or perhaps my expectations have been skewed by too much casual dining. I would blame Michelin – lots of people like to – but I’ve eaten at other starred restaurants which felt a lot less, well, starchy.

The total bill, including a 12.5% “optional” service charge, for two drinks from the bar (one of them soft), a bottle of wine and three courses was one hundred and forty five pounds. So, I tried to eat cheaply at L’Ortolan and I have to say it’s just not really possible: we could have saved twenty pounds on supplements but even then it would be pretty difficult to get the bill under a hundred pounds unless neither of you were drinking.

I found L’Ortolan such a mixed bag that it’s difficult to wrap it all up in a neat and easy conclusion. I almost feel like there were two different meals here: the duck liver and beef were fantastically well-judged, well-balanced, generous and delicious dishes where it felt like there was more to them than expected. The salmon and lamb was the opposite – too delicate and light without enough oomph to stop them from being damp squibs. I guess the question is, if you went to L’Ortolan, which of those two meals you’d get. If it was the first, you’d be evangelising to friends, but if it was the second you’d be wondering what the fuss was about.

I think in the back of my mind I was partly comparing the prix fixe at L’Ortolan with the a la carte somewhere like Mya Lacarte and thinking about differences in the food, the execution, the ideas and the experience. In a straight-out comparison, I’m not sure L’Ortolan would win out very often, however stunning the building, beautiful the dishes, plentiful the freebies. Maybe that’s about me and the kind of dining I prefer, so disregard it by all means: it’s worth going to say you’ve gone, and you’re unlikely to have a bad meal if you do. But, to me at least, it still felt ever so slightly like eating in a machine – and good restaurants are a broad church of many things, but I don’t think machine is one of them.

L’Ortolan – 7.8
Church Lane, Shinfield, RG2 9BY
0118 9888500

http://www.lortolan.com/

Tasting House

As of December 2018, the Tasting House’s decor has changed significantly from that described in the review. It still offers charcuterie and cheese on week nights, but during the day its menu has changed, offering toasted sandwiches. In addition, on Friday night, all day Saturday and daytime Sunday the food is now offered by Bench Rest (reviewed on the blog here). So although Tasting House hasn’t closed, this review is no longer really representative and so should be approached with caution.

The real challenge with Tasting House, as a reviewer, isn’t what you would think. The real challenge is explaining exactly what it is. It works rather differently to all the other places I’ve reviewed because it is, fundamentally, a wine shop. It’s a wine shop that also lets you taste a variety of wines and dishes up platters of charcuterie and cheese should you get hungry (“Sample. Stay. Shop” is how the website sums it up: alliterative, abrupt, accurate). It’s been open since September last year and I’ve been meaning to review it for ages, so I dropped in one drizzly weekend to give it the ER going over, even though I knew this would involve making the ultimate sacrifice: drinking at lunchtime.

The “sample” element of Tasting House is served by the “Enomatic” (a machine described as a “wine vending machine” by the chap behind the counter). It’s a self service system where customers buy a prepaid card, pop it into the slot at the top of the machine, grab a glass and dispense some wine. There are sixteen bottles hooked up to the machine (seven white, eight red and, if you’re feeling especially frivolous, one rosé) and you can pick a tasting measure (25ml), a small glass (125ml) or a large glass (175ml) depending on whether you want to taste or drink. The cost of each measure depends on the bottle in the machine with a taste starting from about 50p. Along the bottom of the machine is a card for each wine giving information about the grapes, the taste and what food they’d pair well with – another indication that this is as much about taking it home as having it with the food on offer.

I won’t go into the wines in any detail because by the time you read this they may well have changed. In total we tried four wines between us (drinking sensibly, honestly) from riesling to shiraz and really enjoyed the whole ceremony of button pressing, glass swirling, sniffing and pretending to know what we were talking about. Actually I really enjoyed most of them but somehow that’s not the point, because you get to try things without committing to a whopping glass and bad choices aren’t so disastrous. The staff were clearly very passionate and knowledgeable and full of recommendations for people who feel unsure about what to pick (though I’m ashamed to say that I pretended to know what I was doing – much like I do writing reviews, in fact).

For the “stay” part of the visit Tasting House does four different boards, either in singles or doubles, with an array of different charcuterie and cheese. I won’t go into the permutations (because there are a lot: I love a list as much as the next person but that would stretch even my patience) but you get some of five different meats on the one hand and six different cheeses on the other. Depending on what you order you also get various other bits and bobs – sundried tomatoes, chutney, cashews, olives and/or cornichons. This means that picking a board involves a bit of horse trading and can seem needlessly complex – it might be easier if they just let you pick a certain number of elements and get on with it. As it was, we ordered two different platters and tried to get as many different ingredients as we could, something which might have been easier with a spreadsheet.

I’m not going to list everything that passed my lips, either. Instead, let’s talk about the big hits and flops. In the first camp: the Waterloo, a gorgeous, creamy, buttery local cheese a lot like a very good brie; the salami which was rich, salty and almost crumbly; the chorizo, soft and lightly piquant; and my favourite, the coppa which was dense and dry with a hint of fennel seeds and black pepper. I also loved the houmous – thick and delicious – and the tomato chutney, which went beautifully with a crumbly chunk of Montgomery cheddar (and hats off to Tasting House for picking such a top-notch cheddar, too).

And the let-downs? The bread, for one: white, fluffy, soft-crusted and unremarkable, served in giant hunks for dipping in the olive oil rather than going with everything else. This was a particular shame for me because I’ve always thought good cheese really needs good bread or a decent cracker. The other big disappointment was the prosciutto which felt flabby, shiny and supermarket-soft. I wasn’t expecting pata negra carved by hand in front of my very eyes – although I wouldn’t turn it down, don’t get me wrong – but I did want something on a par with the salami and this wasn’t it. England does some great hams of its own (Cumbrian air-dried ham, for example) but if Tasting House isn’t going to dish up something of that quality maybe it should stick to the other charcuterie on offer.

Also, if I’m being picky I prefer my cheese to be at room temperature so that the flavours open up more: both cheeses were chilled if not chilly. Maybe this is something to do with health and safety but it did mean they weren’t quite as delicious as they could have been. Still, despite the misses if you wash it all down with a glass of shiraz you have a very pleasant (if not terribly light) lunch.

TH2Service was friendly and laid back without ever committing the cardinal sin of overfamiliarity. A bit too laid back, if I’m honest – the boards took a while to come, although that might be because they seemed a bit short staffed when I went. As it happened I didn’t mind, it fitted in with the feel of the place, it was a weekend and I was in no hurry to go anywhere. They played an interesting range of music, some I’d heard of and some I wanted to Shazam, and we sipped our wine and waited. It felt a bit like visiting a cool friend while they rustled up lunch for you from all the cool things in their cool fridge. (Did I mean “cooler friend”? Does this make me cool or uncool? I’m so confused.)

It’s a shame the furniture doesn’t make you want to linger more – it’s hard and basic, black metal tables and chairs around the room and wooden high tables and stools in the windows. Again, I felt a bit confused by Tasting House – they’ve extended their opening hours recently to 10pm but it doesn’t feel like a bar. I suppose it could work as somewhere to have a quick drink before heading on somewhere else, although you could stay there all evening if you’re suitably upholstered yourself.

I didn’t try out the “shop” part on this visit, though I was quite tempted to pick up a bottle of the riesling. The website states that they have over 200 wines in the shop which range from “everyday drinking” (under £10) to one I saw on the top shelf which clocked in at just under £400 (I suppose that might be everyday drinking too, but only if you’re the Sultan Of Brunei: even John Madejski probably wouldn’t drink that these days).

My bill came to seventeen pounds for two platters and I put twenty pounds on my card for wine – though there was still a fair chunk of that left (honest!). I do think that it’s a little unfair that diners can’t have wine with their lunch without having to make that upfront investment, although it’s canny on the part of Tasting House I suppose: it locks you into going back so you don’t let your money go to waste. So yes, I will go back. I can see myself popping in after work one evening and trying a few tasters or glasses of wine for what feels like no money at all. Maybe that will lead to another charcuterie board, maybe I’ll go on and eat something bigger somewhere else. Maybe next time I’ll stay long enough to figure out if it really is a bar, a restaurant or a shop. Actually I’m not sure I’ll get to the bottom of that, but it might be fun trying.

Tasting House – 6.8
30a Chain Street, RG1 2HX
0118 9571531

http://tastinghouse.co.uk/