Jackson’s, California Country Park

Jackson’s stopped evening opening on 3rd September 2016. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

I’ve never quite worked out what the limits of the ER catchment area are, but Jackson’s has to be right on the edge. It’s only thirty minutes out of town but somehow it feels like a longer, more circuitous drive than that, out through Shinfield and past Arborfield before the countryside gets quite beautiful and the houses start to thin out. Then you go along Nine Mile Ride, turn off into California Country Park and suddenly it’s like being in Canada (or at least Center Parcs), all tall trees and wooden signs, Lycra-clad cyclists and healthy-looking types: types, in fact, unlike me.

The sun still flecked the leaves on a July evening as I made my way to the restaurant but I could completely see what it would be like during the daytime, full of families enjoying the great outdoors and the aforementioned cyclists taking a pit stop before heading on towards somewhere suitably pastoral. Jackson’s – next to the oddly named California Lake – tries to offer something at all times, so they do breakfast (all day, apparently: worth knowing) and sandwiches, burgers and jacket potatoes for lunch before morphing into a restaurant in the evening. And a Proper Restaurant at that, if the menu is to be believed, full of little touches and hints that make you really want to turn up and order everything.

The dining room is a big space full of chunky, solid, simple wooden furniture with white and red tablecloths. I assume the only things that change from day to night are the tablecloths and the mood lighting, little lamps sitting on rough-hewn rustic tables, but I imagine the space must be lovely at any time of day. I caught sight of the wood-burning stove and, for the first time this summer, found myself wishing it was ever so slightly darker and colder. Only two other tables were occupied, which was a tad awkward; they looked delighted that somebody had joined them.

I said the menu was full of little touches. Have a look at how they described our first starter if you don’t believe me: “Nutmeg and Thyme Confit Chicken Thigh, Chicken Broth, Crisp Skin, Wild Mushrooms, Broad Beans, Charred Corn & Spinach Foam”. Sounds good, don’t you think? And generally speaking it was. The thigh meat, soaked in the broth, was like the wonderful bit at the end of a roast dinner when you get to the last shreds of chicken, falling apart, soaked in rich salty gravy. Intensely good. The wild mushrooms were served as little splodges of purée that added creaminess but were otherwise a little lost. The broad beans – very large, very green, beautifully fresh – were top-notch. Only some of the corn was actually charred, but it added a nutty, chewy texture, nonetheless. No crisp skin, either, which is a great shame as they’re always two welcome words on any menu I look at. Last of all, the spinach foam added great colour (thankfully not too reminiscent of frogspawn) but not a lot else.

So, lots going on but did it justify all that complexity? No, not really. I could admire the creativity and all those – what’s the word they use on Masterchef? – processes, but I’d have been just as happy with a big ramekin of chicken, broth and broad beans, especially as the dish was too shallow for me to scoop up the remaining broth at the end.

JacksonsChickBroth

The other starter – “Sweet Pickled Heritage Carrots, Truffle Mayo, Poached Local Hens Egg, Summer Truffle, Parmesan & Honey Dressing” was more successful. A pretty, delicate, deceptively substantial dish it was built around those glorious spirals of sweet, crunchy pickled carrot and a mayo which managed to get those truffle notes just the right side of overpowering (although I do have a very high capacity for truffle). The parmesan shavings added grit and salt and the egg, poached just right, oozed enough golden yolk to bring everything together nicely. There were also pea shoots, which I could have done without (given the kitchen sink approach to the menu I’m surprised these weren’t mentioned) and little blobs of insubstantial dressing, also dotted with tiny pieces of truffle. Pickle, truffle, parmesan, poached egg: these are a few of my favourite things, and I loved this dish.

JacksonsCarrot

After two thumbs up for the starters I felt hopeful for the main event, and I was right. Well, half right: the confit duck leg was lovely. It was salty and rich with the meat falling away from the bone, exactly as it should be. The skin was perfectly crisp (nearly compensating for that chicken skin that went MIA earlier in the meal) with no flabby edges, almost how I think pork scratchings should be but so rarely are.

So far, so simple, but underneath the duck was where things got a lot more interesting; a pile of “young” peas (whatever they are, petits pois presumably) was given freshness and tang with fresh mint and crumbled feta. Some of the peas had also been puréed and served in pretty acid-green dollops which were surprisingly rich when smeared over a piece of the duck leg. The ham hock and potato terrine – a brick of potato with a layer of ham hock pressed as a seam through the middle – wasn’t such a hit. The potatoes were too hard and too lukewarm to be enjoyable and I ended up pulling out the ham hock to eat on its own; far from a punishment but probably not what the kitchen intended.

JacksonsDuck

Luckily, we’d ordered truffle chips on the side and my goodness, they were cracking: thick-cut, fluffy inside, tossed in parmesan and then sprinkled with what I imagine was truffle oil. But there were also dark speckles of truffle throughout the bowl and the whole thing gave off that distinctive earthy, dirty aroma (oh to be a truffle pig!). Five pounds for these, but worth the money and possibly worth the price of admission alone. If I was being critical they could have done with being a little crispier, but at the end there was a little tangle of truffly molten cheese which I scooped up with my fork and at that point, such minor quibbles faded into the background.

If they were the kitchen at its best the other main was the biggest dud of the visit. I wanted to try something more straightforward to test the range of the menu so I went for the chicken breast burger and here’s where things went awry. It was described as coming with parmesan, truffle mayo and double smoked bacon. Well, the bacon may have been smoked twice but it was put on my burger zero times, something I didn’t realise until it was too late to send it back. The chicken itself was lovely, slightly flattened and breaded, almost like a chicken Milanese, but the outside – bit of a theme here – wasn’t crunchy and crispy as it should have been. The Parmesan was a thin layer, almost more like a sauce than a discernible slice of cheese and that was good, although it made things rather soggy. No truffle mayo that I detected either, unless my tastebuds had been numbed to truffle by then. I suppose it’s possible. Nice brioche though, and the usual suspects – tomato, iceberg, right ahead, red onion – were joined by a row of little crunchy cornichons which almost redeemed matters. But really, this burger cost fourteen pounds and it just wasn’t worth that.

I do need to single out the triple cooked chips which came with the burger for two reasons. One is that they came in a Jenga stack. Now, some of you may not remember this but Jenga chips were the “food on slates” of their day. Everyone hated them, everyone railed against them and as a result I thought they had become extinct. I was so surprised to see them on a plate in a restaurant like this that I wanted to check the date on my phone to see if some kind of Quantum Leap oddness had gone on. But that aside, they were a sad and flabby bunch. Maybe it was the time taken painstakingly arranging them in a tower, maybe they just weren’t very good to start with, but they weren’t triple cooked. They were somewhere between once and twice cooked, I decided, before eating a couple which I would describe as barely cooked chips.

The dessert menu was full of interesting things but only one of us fancied one (that chicken burger had somewhat dampened enthusiasm). The first item on there really intrigued me, and when I asked for advice it was also the one recommended by the serving staff and that, in restaurant terms, is kismet, right there. Liquorice panna cotta with rhubarb and stem ginger might have been the dish of the whole meal. Yes, liquorice panna cotta. If you’ve ever tried the basil and balsamic panna cotta at Pepe Sale you’ll know that it’s worth taking a risk sometimes with flavours that don’t obviously go and this was definitely true here, especially after some of the inventive touches in the previous courses.

The panna cotta itself was dreamy – super thick, well set and extremely creamy. It had most delicate liquorice flavour to it, almost metallic in the mouth, nearly an aftertaste, the hint of something. I’m lost in a reverie remembering it, and clearly struggling to adequately describe even if you don’t like liquorice – and I’m not a massive fan – I’d still thoroughly recommend it. It came with an embarrassment of riches: dots of ginger and rhubarb purée; sweet, intense pieces of cooked rhubarb, crumbled stem ginger cookie and a scoop of rhubarb ice which somehow managed to be halfway between a sorbet (fresh and bright) and an ice cream (smooth and creamy). I don’t know how the chef came up with the idea to put those flavours together and I’m not sure I care. It doesn’t really matter: I just loved it.

JacksonsPannaCotta

Sadly I was driving so I only got to try one glass of wine; the carignan was a nice, rich red (good enough for my companion to have it as their second glass). I’m told that the Riesling was nice, fresh and not as good as the carignan. That was after some grumbling about the chicken burger, so I managed to be on the receiving end of both food envy and wine envy. Oh, and I had a diet Coke because after the glass of wine I wasn’t feeling particularly imaginative. Still, it came in a glass bottle rather than out of a syphon, and somehow that always feels like proper Coke to me.

Service was pretty good; the maitre d’ was charming and effusive and the other, younger staff, although not quite so engaging, also did a good job. Everything was nicely timed, too, which could so easily not have been the case on such a quiet weekday night: nothing came too quickly or too slowly, plates were cleared away when they should be and so on. Two starters, two mains and one dessert plus three glasses of wine and a soft drink came to seventy-three pounds, excluding tip. The starters hover around the eight pound mark and most of the mains are under fifteen quid. For food this imaginative, that’s pretty impressive.

What makes this gig, for me, is when I discover a gem. Ideally somewhere in the centre of town, although that gets increasingly difficult, but in any case somewhere wonderful – preferably independent – that you won’t have heard of, offering imaginative, fairly priced food. Jackson’s should be that, and it so nearly is. So why isn’t it? The food, by and large, and the service do indeed say that you’re in a Proper Restaurant. But the elephant in the room is the room itself: the owners have tried to make a step change from day to night but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was having dinner in a café.

I know this shouldn’t matter: I’ve always said that if the food is good none of the rest matters, so I’m troubled that in this case I find it does. Perhaps it’s because of the half hour drive. Perhaps it’s because the room was empty and lacked ambience. Maybe I would have felt differently if it had been full, on a cold winter night with the woodburning stove glowing and the table lamps shining, having dinner with other happy strangers in this little cabin in the woods. So a qualified recommendation from me: if none of that bothers you please go, fill up the restaurant, enjoy some really clever food at simple prices and keep them busy. Personally, I’ll go back when the clocks do.

Jackson’s – 7.3
California Country Park, Nine Mile Ride, Finchampstead, RG40 4HT
http://jacksonscalifornialake.co.uk/

0118 9730776

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Nirvana Spa, Sindlesham

I’ve never reviewed the French Horn in Sonning, for one specific reason. Not the prices, although when starters hover around the twenty pound mark and main courses edge closer to thirty it does get harder and harder to say “hang the expense”, convincingly at least. It’s not the faffiness of the menu, although the French Horn’s Habit of Capitalising Pretty Much Every Word does lend Proceedings a Weirdly Dickensian Feel. It’s not even the fact that the menu seems to have an asparagus with hollandaise sauce on it all year round at twenty quid (is it flying first class from Peru?).

No, the reason I haven’t gone to the French Horn is that I’m reliably informed it has a dress code, and I just don’t do dress codes. It feels like a throwback, and something about getting into my glad rags just really rankles. I mean, I’m the customer aren’t I? And it’s not like I’d turn up in a crop top or a string vest, hot pants or swimming shorts; I’ve eaten at lots of lovely restaurants just the right side of well turned out and never been turned away, but when somewhere pompously announces they have a Dress Code (those Dickensian capital letters again)? Count me out.

What that means is that Nirvana Spa is probably the only place I will ever review which does have a dress code. And when I say dress code, I mean that you eat your lunch or dinner in a lovely white fluffy robe, your towel nonchalantly draped over the back of your chair and – in my case – your trashy paperback perched on the table. And if you go on a warm day, like I did, you get to do all of this outside, beaming at everybody else, similarly attired. This must be a bit like how it feels to be in a cult, or live in California (or both), I’ve always thought.

Sometimes I review restaurants and I’ve had a bad day first. I love writing reviews, but it’s a bit like a job – admittedly a job I adore – and there are times when you go and your heart isn’t one hundred per cent in it. Things are crap at the office, or the car failed its MOT, or you’re out of sorts with a friend, or Britain has voted to leave the EU and you still have to go out, eat with an open mind, take photos and write hundreds of words about what it was like. Hopefully you can’t tell in the words or the rating, if I’ve done it properly.

Nirvana is the other way round, if anything – it’s hard not to be happy when your most difficult decisions that afternoon are whether to read Hello! or OK!, whether to have the honeycomb tiffin or the salted caramel ice cream in the Roman Room, whether to go to the hydrotherapy pool or snooze on the heated terra cotta loungers. How can you have a bad meal under those circumstances?

On the other hand, I went on a long-booked visit the Sunday after the referendum result, when there was a weird atmosphere across the country. That weekend was like waking up hungover with The Fear, not entirely sure what you’d said or done or to whom. To complete the irony, Nirvana’s owner had sent a controversial mail to members only that week “offering them the opportunity to read” an article he’d written about how Brexit was a very good thing (I half expected to arrive to find bunting everywhere). So, a happy place at a sad time: what would lunch be like?

The menu at Nirvana has two options – either all you can eat from the salad bar (which also features a number of hot options) for fourteen quid or the a la carte menu which has starters, sandwiches, salads and main courses. The salad bar is included if you visit as a day guest rather than a member and really, I ought to have eaten from it to give you a representative view. But I’m afraid I was in need of cheering up so I didn’t, although I can tell you from past experience that it’s not half bad (and especially impressive for vegetarians and vegans where it gives a range of choice you’d struggle to match elsewhere).

Instead I stuck to the menu, deciding to kick things off with a selection of artisan (everyone’s favourite ubiquitous, meaningless word) breads for two. I was denied the opportunity of doing this when they turned up at exactly the same time as the starters, but none the less they weren’t half bad, especially at less than two pounds. All warm, some slightly toasted, a good array with the dark malted one, studded with seeds, my particular favourite. Butter was at room temperature (which always helps) and it was nice to have olive oil and balsamic although, as so often, nowhere near enough.

NirvanaBread

The starters were less impressive. We’d both gone for salads and I wonder whether they had decided to prioritise virtue over taste. Smoked chicken salad was presented in a way almost deliberately calculated to underwhelm – a fan of smoked chicken on one side of the plate, your salad on the other. Not mixed at all, and the salad also appeared to be barely dressed at best. What’s a real shame about this is that it had potential to be a lovely starter if done better – the salad was full of firm peas and crunchy beans and would have been beautiful with a bit more dressing and the smoked chicken, although a tad wan and floppy, did set it all off nicely. I seem to recall that the menu at Nirvana specifically says that you can ask for your salad dressing to be left off completely; it’s a pity it doesn’t also give you the option to ask for it be glugged on with abandon.

NirvanaChicken

Similarly, the baked smoked salmon salad was an exercise in restraint. A handful of salad leaves lightly dressed, topped with a thinly sliced radish (singular, I’m guessing) with a few chunks of salmon dotted round the edge. I was expecting a tangible piece of salmon rather than these chilly fragments and considering it was the most expensive starter on the menu (nine quid, since you ask) it felt miserly. It came with a wedge of lemon, just in case you weren’t feeling bitter enough, and a few de-seeded slices of chilli, mixed in as an afterthought. If I’d made this myself with bits from M&S it would have cost half as much and been twice as big. A shame, because what there was was nice, refreshing and light. I was just glad we ordered the bread.

NirvanaSalmon

After all that the main course was a beautiful, delicious surprise. Fillet steak came with a delicious, nutty pearl barley risotto which I adored. I’ve had pearl barley risotto quite a lot in Prague for some reason but it doesn’t seem to crop up on menus here much, a shame because it has much more about it than conventional risotto often does. There was also a solitary carrot – fair enough, I suppose – and two beautifully sweet, shallots which had been cooked into softness. The fillet itself was rare, exactly as requested (I went back to CAU recently and they, a specialist steak restaurant, still seem unable to get this right: Nirvana 1, CAU 0) and although I would have liked it to have a little more flavour, the texture was terrific. Finally, drawing everything together, what the menu described as “oxtail sauce”, rich strands of oxtail strewn on top of the fillet and all over the pearl barley risotto. Sixteen pounds fifty for that lot, and one of the most interesting ways I’ve had fillet steak for a very long time; if this dish had been on the menu at a restaurant near me I’d already be trying to contrive an excuse to go back.

NirvanaBeef

I also wanted to check out the lighter options on the menu, so we ordered a pulled pork wrap. This was just lovely: the thin flour tortilla was rammed full of really good pulled pork (smoky and sweet without being sugary as it so often is) with fresh, crisp, contrasting coleslaw. I liked the fact that it was served warm, too – so different from a cold claggy sandwich. It cost as much as the salmon starter, but felt like considerably better value. It came with a small leafy salad I didn’t much care for with a squiggle of creamy dressing, but perhaps I was just saladed out by that point, if such a verb exists. It might not have looked much in comparison to the fillet steak, but I thoroughly enjoyed it all the same.

NirvanaPork

Nirvana isn’t the place to order a dessert; you’re there all day after all, and saving some room for an afternoon snack is one of the only ways to break up the delirious monotony of being a modern-day lotus eater. So we finished our drinks (a decent glass of New Zealand sauvignon blanc for me and a rose cava for my companion), charged the meal to a membership card and ambled off in the direction of an outdoor jacuzzi. Two courses, that bread selection and a couple of drinks came to a smidge under fifty-five pounds. That doesn’t include service at Nirvana, but all the service there is smiley and friendly, on the informal side but none the worse for that. If they were elated or devastated about Brexit, they certainly didn’t give it away.

As I sat in the outdoor jacuzzi, wishing they let you drink bubbly in there, I did briefly wonder about whether you could separate Nirvana’s food from the overall experience of being at a spa for the day. I’m not sure. If you picked the restaurant up and plonked it somewhere else, aside from being perturbed that all your fellow diners were in robes, I think you would like but not love the food. Not just that, but some of the pricing seems strangely generous (that fillet steak main), some arbitrarily expensive (the smoked salmon starter). As so often, I wonder about the wisdom of giving a rating; I love being at Nirvana, I love eating there and yet eating there isn’t quite the point. But then I decided I’d thought about it quite long enough – the world outside appeared to be either taking back control or falling to pieces, depending on who you believe – and before long I would have to leave my hermetically sealed bubble and go back to it. I was glad my phone, with access to constant news, was stowed away in a locker.

Later on I did go to the hydrotherapy pool, by the way. Some of the massage jets weren’t working, and many of the handles you use to cling to the side were broken off. It’s been that way since the start of the year: it’s a shame the owner feels like he has better things to do than fix it.

Nirvana Spa – 7.3
Mole Road, Sindlesham, RG41 5DJ
0118 989 7500

https://nirvanaspa.co.uk/

The Little Angel, Henley

I was really sad when I heard the news a few weeks back that the Lyndhurst had closed down, another casualty in the ongoing battle between landlords and pubcos. One thing Reading still lacks is a decent range of town centre pubs that do good food. It’s not all terrible: we have the Moderation (although it’s hit and miss, and a bit out of town); the Nag’s Head (just for the pulled pork rolls really, but they’re dead good); and of course I Love Paella at The Horn, but I had high hopes that the Lyndhurst might be that place. Well, it turns it out it wasn’t. Even before it closed it never quite got there, it lost its chef and despite its shiny refurbishment the last couple of times I went I felt like it had stopped trying.

I daydream that one day Reading could get an establishment like Bristol’s brilliant Bank Tavern, a place that still looks like a well=worn boozer but does a small range of beautiful dishes. But days like today that seems a long way off, so this week I headed to Henley, home of the wonderful Three Tuns, to see if lightning really could strike twice in the same place.

The Little Angel is not to be confused with the more well-known Angel on the Bridge in the centre of town (the one with the tourists, plastic cups and a nerve shredding seating area suspended over the river). The Little Angel is just the other side of that bridge, where the road forks between Wargrave and Remenham, yards from the boat clubs and the areas where most of the Henley Regatta excitement happens (if you class that sort of thing as exciting).

The pub itself is an attractive white building with a large conservatory painted in a muted olive green. We originally decided to sit in the conservatory – it was a hot day, and the open doors were very welcome – but eventually decided to move because it was such an ugly room. Maybe at night, filled with people and with the Moroccan lanterns hanging from the ceiling it might have been a lovely place, but daylight didn’t improve it. Instead you saw the mismatched tables and chairs, the scruffy unattractive tablecloths and got a slight sense of decline. It wasn’t inviting.

Back in the main pub itself things were much nicer, although still rather empty, and we got to have a good look at the menu. It had just enough flashes of variation – turmeric, cardamom and cinnamon spiced rice, aromatic duck broth, harissa marinated chicken – to lift it from the usual pub fare of pork belly, burgers, sausage and mash. Annoyingly, in the couple of weeks since I visited the menu has now changed completely: frustrating to experience as a reviewer, but good to see as a diner (although really, you ought to change your menu more than once every five months if your website is going to talk about your love of seasonal food). There were, in the pub’s defence, a couple of specials up on the board.

Originally we were tempted to start with a sharing platter but neither of them quite grabbed us enough, because they seemed to be one or two nice things from the starters section with a lot of padding (houmous, baby chipolatas, the kind of stuff you find in the “picnic” section of Marks & Sparks).

Instead I went for one of the more interesting-sounding starters on the menu. Spiced squash and goat’s cheese samosa was nice if not wildly exciting: two small samosas which tasted mainly of goat’s cheese, possibly because squash is too delicate a flavour to compete with all that salt. The pastry was thin and crisp with the sort of fluffy cheesiness inside that you’d expect from hot goat’s cheese. I was really expecting this to be lifted by the accompanying curried cauliflower purée, served as an arty smear on the side. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Unfortunately it didn’t bring enough punch to be worth adding – not enough spice, not enough flavour, lacking the courage of its convictions. Toasted almond flakes, always a welcome addition, brought a bit of much needed texture but even so it was hard to feel enthusiastic about the whole thing.

LAParcels

The chicken and guinea fowl terrine was also a dish beset with problems. There’s a fine line between subtle and clean-tasting on the one hand and bland on the other. I’m still not entirely sure which side of it the terrine fell on – there was a bit of tarragon, which I loved, but overall it was still a bit dry and softly-spoken for me. Drier still because the advertised focaccia really wasn’t focaccia. None of that moist, cakelike feel, no drizzled oil, no lovely oozy toasted texture. It was just bread. The last possible salvation, the balsamic fruit chutney, wasn’t really chutney. It was a small ramekin almost exclusively full of raisins (which I personally don’t like).

Also, I don’t normally complain about how dishes are served – slates, boards, they’re all fine with me – but I do like to have enough space to actually eat the blasted thing. No such joy here – all of it was crammed on to a small board as if it had been forced to walk the plank, and it was difficult to press your dry terrine on to your dry toast before sprinkling it with dry raisins without getting some overboard. If that doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, it’s because it wasn’t.

LATerrine

I’ve been to many restaurants where the starters were amazing, my hopes got raised and then a mediocre main turned up. That’s the nature of starters, it’s easier for them to leave you wanting more. But I’ve rarely experienced it the other way round, where an iffy starter gives way to an outstanding main, so by this stage it felt like our hopes had been way too high. We got as far as checking the train timetable to make sure we wouldn’t be caught in Henley for too long and planned a quick exit ready to be back in Reading for a digestif (well, pint) in the Allied before last orders. It felt like the Little Angel was going to be another lacklustre out of town pub no one would bother to go to, a review no one would want to read.

Then something remarkable happened: our mains arrived.

Harissa chicken was an interesting alternative to piri piri chicken, a supreme of chicken, juicy and yielding, the skin crisp but not overly so and the coating tasty but not fiery. A deceptively simple, nice thing. It came with chorizo dauphinoise, a new one on me and a salutary lesson in how to do something useful and tasty with the thin slices of catering chorizo that can so often feel like a let down. Here, discs of it were slipped between the layers of the dauphinoise, releasing their brick-red juices and adding an extra dimension. The potatoes were still a little dry (maybe the whole thing needed a tad more cream) but I liked it. Shredded mange tout, sitting underneath the whole affair, were really lovely – barely cooked, lots of crunch and sweetness and coated in something like chilli oil to add some heat (a side dish, of more mange tout with beans, shallot and chilli, was very similar). Not a hugely sophisticated dish, and possibly something you could recreate easily at home, but well thought out and well balanced.

LAChicken

The other dish was the find of the whole meal, and nothing like what I expected from the menu. “Braised, shredded lamb and rosemary parcel” was the description, and if that wasn’t entirely accurate I have some sympathy because I too find this dish incredibly hard to describe. Parcel suggests it’s wrapped in something (generally pastry, I suppose), but what I got instead was a big dome of shredded lamb (shoulder, I’d guess), rosemary, potatoes and vegetables, bounded by itself. What was it? I still don’t know. Not quite a faggot, not quite a steamed pudding, not quite a meatball, not quite like anything I’ve ever eaten. What it was, though, was delicious. Huge, hearty, tasty and utterly bewildering. It came with a lovely, rich, sticky jus, a sweet smudge of puréed carrot and plenty of heritage carrots – thick, perfectly cooked, a riot of orange and purple to stop the dish being relentlessly brown. I’m sometimes critical of websites like Alt Reading for reviewing plays you can no longer see, so I feel a bit bad about enthusing about this dish: again I find myself cursing the Little Angel for changing their menu so recently, because I wish some of you could have tried this.

LALamb

So, iffy starters, terrific mains… and the desserts? Well, I’m afraid we’ll never know: I chickened out. I almost wanted to retain that element of suspense, and I couldn’t quite bear the idea that the lamb parcel might turn out to have been a gorgeous fluke. A shame in some ways, as again the desserts looked more interesting than run of the mill; I was especially pleased to see no chocolate brownie on there, always such a lazy choice for kitchens (although guess what? They’ve since added one on the new menu). So we settled up – dinner for two, two courses and a glass of wine each was fifty-three pounds, excluding tip. The wines in question were a Chilean chardonnay – perfect for the sunny evening; cold, crisp and easy to drink – and a cherry-packed Malbec. Service was respectable, with a very chatty, friendly bar manager and a slightly shy waitress actually doing the fetching and carrying.

If the Little Angel was in Reading, it would be a lovely place to go on a weekday evening or a Friday night. Reasonably priced (starters around the seven pound mark, mains for thirteen), comfy, a menu showing signs of imagination. Forming a relationship with a regular restaurant is like a friendship – the first impression is good, you enjoy that first meeting, you want to know more and then eventually you’re prepared to overlook an off night. And I can see that if the Little Angel was nearby that could definitely happen: yes, the starters were a little disappointing, but inconsistency isn’t the worst thing to level at a kitchen when it’s also capable of moments of magic like that lamb parcel. Even out of town, I can see that it would be worth a trip if you’re out that way (and you like the look of their new menu, of course). Most of all, this makes me sad that Reading doesn’t have that kind of place quite yet: casual dining is still too much a market cornered by the chains. So next time I have a weekday evening free, off duty, and I want to eat out you’ll probably find me at The Horn. Eating paella. Doing my bit.

The Little Angel – 7.0
Remenham Lane, Henley-on-Thames, RG9 2LS
01491 411008

http://www.thelittleangel.co.uk/

Chaiyaphum, Cane End

I have a funny relationship with Thai food, I think. It would never be my first choice when suggesting a meal out with friends but when I go to one I always like it. “Like” is the operative word here, though: I rarely love it. It would probably take a more discerning palate than mine to distinguish between the fishcakes or the pla chu chi I’ve had at all the Thai restaurants around Reading. So instead it comes down to the price and service, arguably the cherry on the cake rather than the cake itself. Sometimes a single dish will stand out, but my meals at Thai restaurants have generally been been solid and respectable – neither stellar nor sad, just somewhere comfortably in the middle.

This all dawned on me, as it happens, when I sat down at Chaiyaphum and started to go through the menu.

The decision to go to an out of town restaurant seems to happen increasingly when I am on a vegetarian week – for those of you new to the blog, my New Year’s resolution last year was to review one vegetarian main course per month – and here I was again, jumping into the car to go and eat tofu (not sarcasm: I was actually looking forward to trying the tofu). Chaiyaphum is up on the A4074 just before the turning for Gallowstree Common, the road towards Oxford which, like hundreds of others across the UK I’m sure, has the nickname “the seven bends of death”. The building itself is an old red brick pub on a crossroads where I can imagine highway robbery used to happen (ironically I once ate at the Pack Horse just down the road, where it was still very much taking place).

Inside, though, you’re under no illusions that you’re in a restaurant not a pub. Goodness, but it’s purple. The walls are purple. The ceiling is purple. We’re talking somewhere between Dairy Milk and Quality Street purple. Properly purple. That makes it sound awful, but actually I rather liked it, and the whole thing is decked out with statues of Buddha, art and artefacts, a picture of the Thai king and queen and, incongruously, a whacking great piano in the bar area. We ate in the room off to the right, a split level affair, with a nice view out onto the garden. A few tables were reserved when we got there, which was encouraging as we were literally the first people to arrive.

I don’t normally talk about background music in a restaurant, but I’m going to make an exception here just to say that Chaiyaphum had managed to get hold of the most surreal easy listening album of all time. I’d never heard hotel lobby soft jazz cover versions of Womaniser, Moves Like Jagger, Sweet Child O’ Mine and The Only Girl In The World before, and I can safely say that if I never do again it might be too soon. It took me right back to the Nineties, when adverts on late night ITV would proudly offer compilation CDs which were “not available in any shops”, usually with good reason.

Anyway, back to the food. The menu was almost identical to every other Thai restaurant menu I’ve read on duty, which made me wonder whether what we get is the anglicised version, watered down just enough to make it seem exotic yet safe. And therein lay the problem for Chaiyaphum, something I was pondering throughout my meal there – because when a restaurant is a little way out of town, especially when you have to drive to get there, being much the same as other local Thai restaurants just isn’t going to be enough. It has to be better, cleverer, more distinctive: otherwise why make the effort?

The starters were a mixture of the safe and the unknown. Starting with the safe, the chicken satay was a pretty good example. I think the meat was thigh rather than breast – always a good thing, in my book – but either way it was juicy and well marinated, tender with (I’d guess) some lemon grass. The satay was also good: deep, rich and earthy, although I always wish there was about twice as much sauce. But, and you can see the trend starting to come through loud and clear, it was good but not great. The sesame chicken toasts were just lovely, and eating them made me slightly sad that Thailand has this and we just get fried bread. It’s probably hard to excite anybody writing about these – I mean, you know exactly what they will look like, what they’ll taste like, how they will be, that exquisite balance of crunch and tenderness. And yet they rarely disappoint: these certainly didn’t, covered with sesame, packed with chicken and then fried to the point of decadent filth. I dipped mine in the small pot of chilli sauce (again, wishing there had been a little more) and thoroughly enjoyed it, but I knew I’d hardly taken a risk.

ChaiyaStarters

The third starter was more of a venture into the unknown, mainly because I find it very hard to turn down soft shell crab when it graces a menu with its presence. It came battered and fried, obscured by a cornucopia of other lovely things – lots of finely chopped garlic, fried onion, spring onion and a fair few slices of red chilli. I liked this dish an awful lot – the crab was delicious, the batter was light and delicate and all the gubbins on top really made every mouthful magnificent. It came with two pools of brown sauce – the menu describes both a pepper sauce and a Thai garlic sauce and I have no idea which this was but it really wasn’t needed and didn’t add an awful lot. At the end, after the crab was demolished (and it didn’t take long) we raced round the plate with our forks making sure not a scrap of the nice bits was left: all that remained were the sauces and the ubiquitous vegetable flower.

Main courses continued the trend. Gai pad himmaparm, recommended by the waitress, was a good example of a Thai chicken stir fry. This one had cashews, a few pieces of halved baby corn and plenty of vegetables – why is there always so much onion? – and was decent if not outstanding. The sauce was rich with chilli and especially garlic (nobody has ever gone wrong by giving me too much garlic) and was tasty but not life-changing. As so often with these things, it came in a flat shallow dish which meant that not only wasn’t there enough sauce but what sauce there was was blessedly difficult to get on to your plate, stirred in with the coconut rice where it belonged.

ChaiyaChicken

I’d been looking forward to the massamun tofu. Ordering it was, to some extent, playing percentages: I figured that one of my favourite things about eating Thai food was that glorious mixture of slightly sticky coconut rice and a sweet, spicy sauce, so if the tofu didn’t work out I would still get to enjoy most of the dish. The tofu itself wasn’t bad – you got lots of it, big hefty pieces, and they had some texture and contrast to them. That said, there was a slightly sour taste to it which seemed odd against the massamun sauce. The sauce itself also didn’t quite work – all sweet, no savoury, not enough punch or spice. Perhaps, because it was a vegetarian dish, there wasn’t any fish sauce in it to add that contrasting note. The potatoes in it, weird corrugated edges and all, were soft and floury and not quite right. Ditto for the slices of carrot, again tinned-vegetable soft. There were a few crisped fried onions on top, but not enough. By the time I got to the rice and sauce stage, ostensibly the highlight, my heart just wasn’t in it.

ChaiyaMassamun

We both had coconut rice – the waitress asked if we wanted one between two and we decided against it, but we should have listened to her as one would have been quite enough. It was – bit of a theme here, isn’t there – pleasant: edible but not incredible.

We’d over ordered on the starters (wilfully if I’m honest, in case the whole tofu thing didn’t work out) so there was no chance of having dessert. We both had a glass of house sauvignon blanc – nice, fresh and easy to drink, if perhaps not quite as cold as I’d have liked – to start, and my companion also had a bottle of Tiger, after being told at extensive length about all the beers that were currently out of stock. I had a diet coke and didn’t hugely feel like I’d missed out.

Service was lovely. There seemed to be two waiting staff on and they were looking after quite a lot of tables, but regardless of how busy they were they were friendly, polite and happy to make recommendations. Beautiful uniforms, too – maybe a funny thing to notice, but there you are. The food took just about the right amount of time to come out, and all the other tables looked happy. I saw families with small children, a couple of chaps enjoying dinner together and, just across from me, a birthday celebration (with the exchange of bags from Fortnum & Mason – fancy!). They all looked like they were having a brilliant time, and I wondered why I wasn’t quite so enamoured.

The total bill, including a ten per cent service charge, was sixty-three pounds. Interestingly that service had been pre-added – perhaps the south Oxfordshire red trouser brigade (there was a very eye-catching example right next to my table, a veritable rhapsody in scarlet: I could barely stop gawping at him) aren’t so keen on tipping the staff. Anyway, it all seemed fair enough to me and the service was one of the high points so I wasn’t bothered, though I can imagine it would rankle with some diners.

As we drove away we were discussing whether Chaiyaphum was good enough to merit a drive out of town. As you can probably tell by now, my answer is not really. It’s by no means a bad restaurant: the food was decent, the service was charming, the room managed to be bling and tasteful at the same time, purple paint and all (I did find I left really wanting an individually wrapped hazelnut in caramel: the power of subliminal advertising). But ultimately, there is no USP for Chaiyaphum unless you live round the corner. It’s stylish, but so is Thai Table. The service is friendly, but it’s just as good at Thai Corner. The food is quite nice, but Thai food seems to be quite nice everywhere, and never better than that. Ultimately, it’s just not enough to get me to leave Reading and head for the Chilterns. Maybe this restaurant is for the red trouser brigade and they see it the other way round: because they can go to Chaiyaphum there’s nothing to make them go into town. Each to their own, and thanks but no thanks. Maybe next time I’ll go to Oli’s Thai in Oxford, which I’m told blows them all out of the water.

Chaiyaphum – 6.8
Reading Road, Cane End, RG4 9HE
0118 9722477

http://chaiyaphum.co.uk/

Dhaulagiri Kitchen

I never go anywhere expecting to have a bad meal – I mean, why would you? – but if I’m honest there are occasions where I step through the front door of a restaurant and I get a bad feeling right from the off. The welcome is disinterested, or the furniture is tired, or the menu looks uninspiring or the music is awful. I’ve not even eaten anything yet, but from that point onwards I’m hoping that my preconceptions can be turned around. Sometimes they are, but usually they’re not: for some reason if it looks like an iffy restaurant and it feels like an iffy restaurant, more often than not it turns out to be an iffy restaurant.

Of course, conversely there are times where you just get a good feeling from the moment you take your seat. But this isn’t so straightforward; I’ve been to many places that looked right and felt right, places where the menu makes you hyperactive with indecisive excitement but still, there can come a point in the evening where you realise you’ve settled down to a duff meal. When that happens I chalk it up to experience, I make mental notes, I come home and I write a review where I try to be kind, knowing that most of you will look at the number at the bottom, possibly skim the rest and say – to yourselves, to friends or to other halves, Well I won’t be going there then. Them’s the breaks. They can’t all be hidden gems. They can’t even all be gems, let’s face it.

The reason for all this preamble is that Dhaulagiri Kitchen won me over right from the start. I liked it, I wanted it to succeed, I was rooting for it. And as a result, because I like an underdog and I wanted it to do well, eating there was a surprisingly nervy experience, a bit like walking a culinary tightrope except that I wanted them, rather than me, not to put a foot wrong.

It’s a little spot at the top of the Basingstoke Road, where Portuguese restaurant O Beirão used to be, and the first surprise was that none of the décor had changed. So it was still neat little tables with red-checked gingham tablecloths, and it was a bit odd to think that last time I had sat there I was eating piri piri chicken and drinking house red from a terra cotta cup. But somehow it still felt homely, warm and welcoming. A lively group of six was in one corner talking and placing their order, and we were shown to a table by a smiling, happy waiter.

The service at Dhaulagiri Kitchen was so good that I want to talk about it a lot, and it was another reason why I instantly liked the place. I was asked things I’m not usually asked – how I am, where in Reading I’m from, how I found out about the place. I was told things I’m not usually told – what’s good, that everything is made on site, how proud they are of their food and their pickles (they had me at pickles – I love pickles). In the course of the evening they constantly checked up on us, asking us if we needed anything else, bringing unsolicited glasses of water, offering advice on the menu. It’s a proper family business, one of them told me towards the end of the evening, and the chef and all the staff are related. It seemed like a happy place to work and that rubbed off on the kind of place it was to eat in: it felt like eating with family in a way that restaurants so rarely do.

Technically it’s a Nepalese restaurant although the menu goes wider than that, so there’s some Nepalese food and some more generic Indian dishes. I took some advice from the staff and I generally tried to steer towards the Nepalese options, which got a brilliant reception from them and yet more interest and questions. Had I tried momo before? Did I like the thali? I also got loads of detail about what went into the dishes, more than I can remember and repeat here. The enthusiasm was infectious, and again I found myself hoping against hope that the food could even begin to match everything else.

They brought us a couple of poppadoms while we waited for our orders to arrive, and impressively they were free. I liked them – still warm, light and crispy – and I liked the dips they came with too. I doubt they make their mango chutney but it was paler and more interesting than many I’ve had in Indian restaurants, but more importantly the lime pickle (did I mention I like pickle?) was sour, sweet and salty; a veritable triathlon for the tongue.

We tried to stick to Nepalese for the starters, and it was about this point that I stopped worrying about being on a tightrope and just started enjoying myself. Sekuwa was three stonking big hunks of baked lamb, deliciously spiced and tender without being pink. I absolutely adored it and shared some reluctantly, especially as the waiter had by this point brought me what he called mint sauce but which was in fact a raita which set them off perfectly. But it was worth doing so I could also sample Dhaulagiri’s chicken momo – something I wanted to do if only to compare them with those at Sapana Home.

DhauLamb

Normally I’m all about pan fried momo, with that slightly caramelised, crispy exterior, but I found this positively changed my mind. Here they come steamed, five neat parcels with a small bowl of spicy chilli sauce. The filling was subtler and more delicate than Sapana’s and, although I hate to admit it because I love Sapana’s momo, all the better for that. The chicken was mixed with finely chopped onion, lemongrass and chilli (and probably other flavours that I’m not quite sophisticated enough to detect) and really, the whole thing made me delighted that I’d sacrificed some of that glorious lamb after all. Both starters – and you might want to read this twice in case you don’t believe it the first time – were less than four pounds.

DhauMomo

The mains came just as I was beginning to feel peckish again and I was really looking forward to the thakali thali, another Nepalese speciality and one the waiter got properly animated describing to me. It truly was an embarrassment of riches. There was a chicken curry, tender pieces of chicken, not a bone in sight, in a thin but savoury gravy. There was a delicious vegetable curry, big firm pieces of cauliflower and cubes of potato, all cooked to still have bite as well as flavour. Fresh spinach came flash cooked with the crunchy surprise of soy beans and a note of sesame. There were what I think were pickled radish (more pickles!) and another pickled vegetable which almost looked like bark but was dried and marinated and packed an awful lot of flavour into a deceptively small helping. Only the dal disappointed – I think this is a Nepalese thing because I remember being unmoved by Nepalese dal in the past, it had a note of evaporated milk and was a bit too grey and gloopy for my liking. A minor criticism though, really, when the plate had so many things to try, combine and enjoy. I was delighted later, when asked if I had enjoyed it, that I could be so unreservedly enthusiastic, just as the waiters had been.

DhauThali

The chicken makhanwala was meant to have butter, fenugreek and cashew nuts in it, but if anything it was dangerously close to a korma, the Ronan Keating of curries. It just about managed to pull it off by being just a little more interesting (although being more interesting than Ronan Keating might not be much of a challenge). So there was an almost marzipan hint to the sauce – perhaps the cashews were ground, because I certainly didn’t find any whole ones – and just enough complexity that I didn’t feel I’d sold myself short. Would I have it again? Maybe not, given all the other wonders on the menu, but I certainly wouldn’t say I was disappointed. I had a plain naan with it – I’d always pick naan over rice, I think – and it was spot on if not out of the ordinary. But that is, after all, what you’re looking for from naan bread and it was perfect for scooping up spare sauce from both main dishes.

DhauChicken

We drank a Cobra and a Diet Coke, which tasted exactly how Cobra and Diet Coke taste, and the whole meal came to thirty-two pounds, not including tip. I couldn’t help thinking, as I paid the bill, that it was almost exactly as much as I’d spent on eating at Handmade Burger Co. the week before; that realisation made me want to stand outside Handmade Burger Co. handing out flyers to Dhaulagiri Kitchen.

Normally I would say that one of my only regrets is that I was too full to have a dessert but, looking back, I don’t think I was offered one and looking at the menu I’m not sure they do them at all. Instead the waiter asked if we wanted a coffee, we said no and again there was that warm exchange of enthusiasm: we were delighted to have had such a lovely meal, they were delighted to have had happy customers. It’s the transaction all restaurants are aiming for, and when it goes as well as that it hardly feels like a transaction at all. They’ve been open for about four months, and they said it’s going reasonably well with locals, although I can see that a restaurant in a spot like this might need all the help it can get.

So yes, sometimes you go to a restaurant and everything looks good, and you spend half the meal worrying that it won’t live up to your expectations, that beneath the veneer something will go wrong. But don’t worry, because this isn’t that story. This is the story of a place that looks nice, isn’t flashy, wins you over and does exactly what a restaurant should do: cook you nice food, be friendly, take care of you and make you feel like the world is a slightly better place. Stories like that are some of the best stories there are, and as a restaurant reviewer they’re my favourite stories to tell. As I left I promised the waiter that I’d tell some friends about Dhaulagiri Kitchen: hopefully I’ve kept my promise.

Dhaulagiri Kitchen – 7.8
63 Basingstoke Road, RG2 0ER
0118 9759898

http://www.dhuaulgirikitchen.co.uk/