Mr Chips

Here’s an interesting fact for you: according to their website, Mr Chips is the first traditional fish and chip shop in the centre of Reading for 20 years. I think they’re right, too – before that there was Harry Ramsden’s, now a sad derelict space under the Travelodge at the top of the Oxford Road – but I can’t think of anywhere else.

Come to think of it, you don’t see many fish and chip restaurants in general. Every pub will do fish and chips, many restaurants will too but a place devoted to fish and chips? No, when people want fish and chips they generally head to their favourite chippy (and we could have a heated debate about the merits of the Jolly Fryer, Seaspray and the 555 Fish Bar but, on second thoughts, let’s not) and then carry it home and have it on their laps in front of the telly. Just me? Even in London, eat in fish and chip restaurants are one of those trends that didn’t quite catch on: so is Mr Chips a trailblazer, or is it trying to service a market that doesn’t really exist?

It’s definitely a chippy that has a few seats rather than a fish and chip restaurant. There is a bar in the window with a few uncomfortable seats that are part stool, part pogo stick, and a couple of tables along the side of the long thin room (at the back were some big sacks of potatoes – an encouraging sign, I thought). Apart from that? Well, you’re in a chippy. The usual glass fronted cabinet is there, full of battered sausages and Pukka Pies and the menu behind the counter offers the usual suspects – cod, haddock, mushy pea fritters, curry sauce – along with the occasional curveball. So you can also order “crab claws”, which from the picture on the wall appear to be nothing of the kind, and – if you’ve always wanted to try one without venturing north of the border – a deep fried Mars Bar.

I tried haddock (because that’s what I generally have from the chippy) and skate wing (for what can only be described as the “George Mallory reason”). Sitting at one of the little tables, drinking my can of cream soda and waiting for my fish to be cooked I did feel a little silly, as clearly most of Mr Chips’ customers treat it as a conventional chippy – drop in, pick up their food and then go. I felt equally silly trying to hack through freshly fried batter with an inadequate plastic knife and fork – although it’s a compliment to the batter to say that when I tried to get a plastic knife through it I rather suspected that the knife would break first.

Anyway, enough of these quibbles: what was it like? The skate was odd – I’ve never ordered it in a chip shop before and I can safely say I probably won’t again. A lot of that is about the fish, not the fryer: the challenge of getting the batter and the flesh away from the cartilage was a little too much like hard work, and not quite worth the effort. But it didn’t feel like brilliant quality skate, either – perhaps I’ve been spoiled by all those pristine white fillets in restaurants but this was a little brown and forlorn, with some of the skin left on. Having said all that, the batter was just gorgeous – light, crispy and salty it broke away in fragments like shards of edible glass. The skate was freshly cooked, possibly because it’s not something most people order, but I do wonder if the batter would have been as good if I’d chosen something that had been sitting in the cabinet.

Fish

The haddock didn’t seem quite as crisp – I’m not sure whether it was cooked with the skate or taken out of the cabinet – but it was still respectable. The fish was flaky and perfectly cooked and the best bits of the batter had that bubbly crispness that reminds me of really good school dinners. On balance I liked it better than the skate, because when you’re eating comfort food there’s no point in leaving your comfort zone.

The chips were pretty decent chip shop chips. A little wan for my liking, although that might be a matter of personal taste, and with no crispy little fragments at the bottom to resist the softening effect of vinegar and make for the perfect final sour-salty-crunchy mouthful, but clearly from good quality potatoes and rather tasty. I didn’t try the curry sauce or the sweet and sour sauce (I rather regret that now, but teaming them with the skate wing in particular felt plain wrong) but the tomato sauce on the table was too sharp and vinegary to be Heinz. I didn’t mind, but ketchup purists might.

I also didn’t try the bubble tea – and I barely even know what it is, despite having Googled – but it would be remiss not to mention it as it’s a big part of what Mr Chips does (it even forms part of their website address, for goodness’ sake). So at the front are a wide range of, well, fruit flavoured balls you can lob into one of about twenty types of fruity or milky tea. Just writing all that makes me feel about three hundred: what’s wrong with just offering a red and a blue Slush Puppie, eh?

Service was neither rude nor effusive, but that’s fine. It’s a chippy, not the latest entry in the Michelin Guide. It was better than the service in the Reading branch of Harry Ramsden over twenty years ago, if that counts for anything, but from memory I’m not sure it does.

Dinner for two – two fish, two small chips and a couple of soft drinks – came to just over fifteen pounds. Exactly what you’d pay in a chippy, in fact, and if that looks on the expensive side it’s because the skate was about six quid. (I wanted to do a “sick squid” pun there but thought better of it: besides, squid is on the menu and you can get eight squid for three quid, at which point it stops being a joke and starts being a tongue twister.)

I don’t think that Mr Chips does enough to break that pattern that fish and chips is something you pick up and take home. In fairness to them, I’m not sure they’re trying to: it felt like a chippy that lets you eat in rather than an upmarket London joint like Kerbisher and Malt. It does decent, reasonably priced fish and chips, and if you were in town of an evening, in a hurry to eat something quick and you fancied fish and chips it would be the place to go. If I was, I would. But here’s the problem: how often is that really going to happen, do you think?

Mr Chips – 6.5
33 Oxford Road, RG1 7QG
0118 9582 666

http://www.mrchipsandbubbleteareading.co.uk/

The Eldon Arms

N.B. The Eldon Arms stopped serving food in May 2014. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

This week, not for the first time, I found myself thinking about how different the restaurant scenes are in Reading and London.

For the last few years London has been obsessed with burgers (a fixation it’s only just starting to recover from now) but Reading has never quite been gripped by burger fever in the same way. There was a slight frisson of excitement when Five Guys opened, but now it’s just part of the furniture and not even particularly full when I’ve walked past. The only people who got into the swing were one of our local papers. For a while it was a running joke that whatever restaurant it reviewed, one of the diners would order a burger – whether it was in a pub, an Italian restaurant or a brasserie. If an Indian restaurant had put a burger on the menu I expect they would have ordered it there, too (can you even imagine what that would look and taste like? I shudder to think).

Personally, I’ve never understood the appeal: a burger is all well and good, but ultimately it’s just a burger. A glorified sandwich, and by and large, I get enough of those at lunchtime not to want another one in the evening. Also, I’ve never really understood why people would order a burger in a restaurant which offers so many other things. I’ve never looked at a menu and thought You know what? I think I’ll go for the burger today. When I’m in the mood for a burger, I know that before even leaving the house.

Anyway, all this is just preamble to the surprising fact that I went to the Eldon Arms and, without ever intending to, may have ordered the best burger in Reading.

I’d heard encouraging things about the food at the Eldon Arms and remembered thinking “Really?” It’s not somewhere that’s ever stood out in my mind, a little backstreet pub tucked behind Eldon Square, a slightly scruffy old man pub which never quite had the range of drinks or the eccentricity to compete with the Retreat, or the polish to match the Abbot Cook. But I was told that it was under new management and that the food was worth a visit, so I figured a wander across town was in order.

The pub looks good – recently redecorated, it’s all clean white walls, although the furniture is still the classic pub chairs and tables that were there before. There is a good range of real ales on draught along with a couple of real ciders if you prefer still and rustic to fizzy and cold. The menu is a small affair: burgers on one side, pizzas, wraps and sandwiches on the other. I’d heard stories about the food being made from scratch and about the chef going out to get extra chickpeas from the supermarket because he’d run out of falafel (to be honest, that’s the story that made me decide to try the Eldon Arms).

This won’t be a long review, because we both had burgers and chips. So I can’t tell you whether the wraps are good, or the chicken and chorizo pizza (although I’m tempted to go back and give it a whirl). I can’t even tell you whether the falafel merited that dash to the supermarket. But I can tell you about the burgers.

Although they’re not served pink they’re delicious all the same – a healthy size without being freakishly huge, clearly decent meat, properly seasoned, hand-made in appearance. Everything about them was good quality without being faddish: no over the top brioche, just a good firm bun strong enough to stand up to its contents with what looked like a little dusting of semolina flour on top. The cheese was grated mature cheddar – I expected not to enjoy this, being a devotee of the cheap plastic orange American slice, but actually that strong flavour worked very well with the beef. The iceberg was thinly sliced, crisp rather than limp translucent ribbons of window dressing. The onion rings, tucked under the lid, were outstanding – so huge I had to take them out and eat them separately. The batter was light and crispy without being greasy, and when you bit into the ring the rest of the onion stayed in place (so often not the case, sadly, with inferior onion rings). A cheeseburger cost six pounds, and felt like good value at that price.

The other burger was the same but with pulled pork added, which cost two pounds more. Pulled pork, like beefburgers, has become devalued by its increasing popularity. M&S does pulled pork sandwiches now, a cold claggy parody of really good pulled pork. Everywhere seems to serve it with burgers nowadays and often it’s an underwhelming piece of edible bandwagon jumping. But the pulled pork at the Eldon is the real deal – slow-cooked for twenty-four hours until it’s just a mass of sticky, savoury strands in that barbecue sauce, sweet but not cloying. The menu also has a pulled pork roll which skips the beef and cheese completely and concentrates on the star of the show (and when I go back, I think I might have it).

Eldon - burgerI could be critical and say that some relish or a few gherkins might have been nice, but that’s only a minor quibble with the benefit of hindsight. At the time I was eating, I can honestly say there wasn’t a single thing I’d change. And that doesn’t happen very often.

The chips also merit a mention as they are probably the best pub chips I can remember having in Reading. Chips have also been ruined by food fad after food fad: skin on, fat, skinny, “hand cut”, dusted in parmesan and covered in truffle oil like cheap perfume, chefs have put potatoes through all manner of terrible things in the name of dining trends. The Eldon just does really good chips that don’t need to sing and dance about how impressive they are: crispy where they should be, fluffy where they should be, salty and tasty and unbelievable value at two pounds for a bowl big enough to easily serve two. And I love the fact that the menu doesn’t feel the need to tell me whether they’re double cooked or triple cooked – because they’re well cooked, and that’s all I need to know. They also come with the pub’s home-made mayonnaise, which is to Hellman’s what The West Wing is to The Only Way Is Essex.

There’s no need here for the staff to overdo things but they are lovely all the same – friendly, welcoming and happy to chat. The food is served on chunky white plates with paper napkins and fuss free cutlery because this is, essentially, fuss free food, no messing about. It just happens to be bloody good fuss free food.

Two burgers, chips and a couple of pints came to twenty-four pounds, although the potential ongoing costs of returning to the Eldon Arms can’t be entirely ignored. So yes, it was just a sandwich. And yes, it’s a trend whose moment has passed, a culinary hurricane that almost missed Reading completely. Despite that, I loved this place. I said at the start of the review that I know I’m in the mood for a burger before I even leave the house, and that’s still true. But thanks to the Eldon Arms, that might be happening a lot more often – and, when it does, I know exactly where I’ll be going.

The Eldon Arms – 8.0
19 Eldon Terrace, RG1 4DX
0118 9573857

http://www.eldonarmsreading.co.uk/