Round-up: June and July

After another busy couple of months it’s time to take stock, recap the last batch of reviews and have a look at what’s going on in Reading’s food scene. Sit back, put your feet up, adjust the cushions and we’ll get started. All comfy now? Excellent…

Ruchetta, 7.5 – Easily the most expensive restaurant I’ve visited and reviewed, Ruchetta is a lovely house in a beautiful street with a menu appealing enough to send any hungry person into raptures. But is it quite worth the money? The $64,000 question (not literally, it’s not that expensive) is answered here.

Tampopo, 7.6 – I’d always dismissed Tampopo as another chain on the Oracle Riverside. Why go there, when you can just as easily and cheaply pop to Wagamama instead? It turns out there are a lot of reasons; go here to find out.

Tasting House, 6.8 – Is it shop? Is it a bar? Is it a restaurant? No, it’s Tasting House. The review, here, tells you whether it’s more Clark Kent or Man Of Steel.

Pappadams, 7.2 – In any other place, Pappadams might be the best Indian restaurant in town. In Reading, despite some lovely food, I think falls just short of that accolade. Read about why here.

My Kitchen, 7.5 – The lunch options in Reading seem to get more varied and interesting all the time. I went to My Kitchen to find out if it was a serious challenge to all those places on the legendary Coffee Corner. Sausage rolls, brownies and halloumi ensued: it’s all here.

Coconut Bar & Kitchen, 6.8 – One of Reading’s newest kids on the block specialises in yakitori skewers – a proper gap in the market. It’s an attractive room and they’ve obviously put work into the refit, but does the food live up to the venue? Here is what I thought.

The Catherine Wheel, 7.2 – In which Edible Reading became Edible Goring, through the magic of train travel. I was tipped off that the Catherine Wheel was a magical find in the country, and as it was less than quarter of an hour from Reading station I felt like I ought to put that to the test. My review – which includes Michael Portillo, Tim Howard, Watership Down and a mattress (sort of) is here.

It’s been a funny few months with very little in the way of openings and closings. Sadly, shortly after I reviewed it Cappuccina Café closed its doors for the last time (it’s a nail bar now, apparently next door to another nail bar). The sign outside said “It was genuinely a pleasure”. A real shame, as the time I ate there was also genuinely a pleasure and I know some of you will really miss their bánh mì.

I was hoping to confirm a comeback for the Eldon Arms: I’d heard – from the landlord, no less – that they were considering bringing back a restricted menu. Sadly, things have changed since I got that snippet of information – I now understand that the current landlords are leaving the pub and Wadworth has re-advertised it as vacant. Just as I thought I might get to try those burgers (or that delicious pulled pork) again, my hopes have been cruelly dashed. Such a pity, as it was a pub I could imagine spending more time in, good food or no.

The first opening that I’ve got wind of (that sounds disgusting, doesn’t it? let’s press on) is “RYND Bar & Kitchen” which is opening on 11 Castle Street, the site that used to be Club Evissa and before that was Dogma. (This “Bar & Kitchen” thing seems to be the new way to describe restaurants, doesn’t it? I can’t wait to book a “seat and cutlery” at one of them some time.) They’ve posted some pictures on their Twitter feed as they complete the fit-out of the interior, and according to their Facebook page they are currently recruiting “amazing, powerful, rhythmic, eccentric people” to join their team – including “Waiting staff who don’t mind getting weird”. Could be interesting: personally, “weird” isn’t high on the list of qualities I look for in waiting staff (and nor’s “rhythmic”, come to think of it), but what do I know? They are looking to open this autumn: their website is here, although there’s nothing to see at this stage.

The second one also sounds worth keeping an eye on: Faith Kitchen, down the Oxford Road, which promises authentic African food. It’s not clear from their Facebook page when they plan to open, and their website is under construction, but the success of Tutu’s Ethiopian Kitchen suggests that there’s certainly room for another African restaurant in Reading. I’m looking forward to paying it a visit.

There’s more to a town’s food scene than its restaurants and the other main event of the last few months has been a veritable explosion of supper clubs. For years, Reading’s only supper club was the excellent Friday Dinner Secrets, but all that has changed recently. Pop-Up Reading hosted its first night in June and is already building quite a buzz on Twitter, mainly by posting absolutely mouth-watering pictures of food (don’t look at their Twitter feed just before lunch. Or just after a disappointing sandwich. Or when there’s nothing in the fridge). They’ve also got lots of good coverage both in AltReading and Excellent News. More recently, I’ve got reports of a third supper club in Caversham; I don’t know much about it, but Secret Supper Club has recently set up on Twitter, so it will be interesting to see what they do. Have you been to any of Reading’s supper clubs? If so, what did you think?

Right, that’s all for this month. I’m off to go look at the Pop-Up Reading Twitter feed, get my M&S egg mayonnaise sandwich out of the fridge and let out an enormous sigh. You’ll probably be able to hear it from where you’re sitting. Don’t forget you can still suggest places for me to review here if there’s somewhere you’ve always wondered about; most of my reviews still come from reader suggestions so please keep them coming. See you here again next Friday at 11:30 for the latest review (I’ll give you a clue: it won’t be of this egg mayonnaise sandwich, which looks like a 5.0 at best…)

Advertisements

Coconut Bar & Kitchen

I’ve been handed a free yakitori voucher as I pass Coconut more times than I’ve been chugged outside Marks and Spencer. In the two months since it opened, Coconut has done a sterling job of making people aware of where it is (on the Butts. Don’t laugh) and what it does (yakitori, apparently) so is this long enough for them to have settled in and found their feet? Of course, there’s only really one way to find out.

Inside, past the young man in a pinny handing out those ubiquitous Coconut business cards, the restaurant itself is a long wide room with a bar at the front and smart seating further back. Seating is a mixture of booths, banquettes and high tables all in chocolate and that shade of lime that isn’t too hard on the eyes. I love a booth and on a weekday night it was quiet enough to grab one. At the time I forgot that I’d be taking photos or I would have sat on the other side, against the attractive white brickwork, under the skylight, but you can’t have everything.

The placemat menus list a total of fifteen different yakitori, mostly around the £4 mark. It seemed only fair to pick a selection and try them out, after all yakitori is their speciality (even if this was only supposed to be a starter).

The best of the bunch was the Kim’s Belly, four cubes of pork belly threaded onto a bamboo skewer then chargrilled just enough to make the meat tender without being chewy. This in itself was good but none too exciting until you add their “special Kimchi sauce”. This didn’t resemble the Korean kimchi pickles that most people would recognise but was more like a chilli sauce with hints of five spice and the slightly sour taste of lime. This lifted the pork enough for me to overlook the thick layer of fat that I had to cut off the meat before I was prepared to eat it (I am not sure my guest was so discerning – each to their own, I suppose). With two skewers on the plate this seemed like a generous portion for the price and was the best of the yakitori we tried. I wasn’t sure what the asparagus and yellow pepper was doing on there with the pork but I ate it all the same.

And the rest? The chicken teriyaki was decent enough but looked a lot like something I might have rustled up myself for a summer barbecue – the meat was thigh which had been bundled onto the skewers in varying sizes and looked a little, well, unloved. The spring onion had over-wilted in the heat and so became a bit limp but had just enough flavour to go with the chicken and the teriyaki sauce. Mongolian beef was much the same, with oddly shaped cuts of beef roughly pushed onto the skewers with chunks of red pepper and courgette in between. It was strangely inconsistent – most of the meat was beautifully tender and soft but a few bits were distinctly chewy. How two pieces of meat, neighbours on a single skewer, could be so different I have no idea. Overall they were good, but no better than a similar dish at Yo! Sushi or Wagamama – I was expecting more smokiness, more char, more complicated flavours.

None of this, though, compares to the disappointment of the shiitake mushrooms “flavoured with Japanese shichimi”. The yakitori menu has a picture of some beautiful mushrooms, cut in half, rammed onto a skewer, glistening with sauce and marinade: looking at them made me positively ravenous. These pale specimens were not them. They ranged from raw to flabby and it was hard to taste the seven spices over the coating of oil on the mushrooms – mushrooms which, incidentally, appeared to be bog standard chestnut mushrooms.

YakitoriYou’ll be glad to hear that the mains were a step up from the below par yakitori. Thai basil chicken was very pleasant, if the stuff of Thai restaurants across Reading and beyond. None the less, it was done well – a gorgeous rich sauce, nice bits of chicken (discernable chicken, not dubious bouncy chunks), fragrant cubes of aubergine and delicious crunchy asparagus, all served with some unremarkable coconut rice. All this would have been perfect if it hadn’t come on the same ribbed, rippled plates as the yakitori. For the yakitori, it made sense – little trenches for your extra sauce to drain away – but for eating a dish with rice and sauce it was silly, faffy and by the end made me want to hurt myself. Some people don’t like eating off slate, some people object to the wooden boards that are all the rage at the moment. For me, it’s plates like this: the sound of my fork scraping along the grooves was like nails down a blackboard.

ChickenMuch, much better was the chicken Dolsot Bibimbap (take that, spellchecker!) It was delicious. It was a “blistering hot” – the menu’s words, not mine – stone cauldron, sitting in a wooden frame (which makes it rather resemble a potty – sorry, but it does) filled with coconut rice topped with sautéed vegetables, chicken and an egg, sunny side up with a little dish of that kimchi sauce on the side. Random, eh? The waitress suggested that it was best stirred all together so I dutifully did the honours and turned it into what was basically a stir fry. Without the kimchi sauce the whole affair was magnolia fried rice, but the sauce transformed it into a really tasty bowl of goodness full of carrot, cucumber, mushrooms, shredded seaweed, cabbage and bean sprouts. (I think. I can’t remember in all the excitement). The sauce added richness and spice and maybe this makes me sound about five, but it was fun to stir in and mix up. Each forkful was different and towards the end the coconut rice became nuttier and slightly crisp in places as it kept cooking in the dish. I’m not sure I’d describe it as blistering hot, but I certainly wasn’t going to touch it and put that to the test.

BibimbapService throughout was good, if not notably so. The staff seemed to cover all of the tables so there was no continuity of service but everyone was friendly and happy to explain the idea behind Coconut and the yakitori. Despite that we decided not to go for dessert – partly because we were full but mainly because the dessert menu really didn’t look that interesting (crème brulée, a “trio of chocolate desserts”, ice creams of unspecified origin). Instead we finished up our drinks (a half decent Australian Shiraz and a Kirin Ichiban in a frosted glass, which rather reminded me of being on holiday in Greece) and got the bill. The total for four yakitori, two mains and two drinks was forty-one pounds which struck me as decent value (even if we hadn’t had a yakitori free – most of the mains are around a tenner).

I wonder how Coconut will fare. It seems to want to be a cocktail bar, do light bites (I saw a lot of yakitori arriving at other tables and I can see why – the mark-up on them must be very healthy) and be a restaurant all at once. The last restaurant in that spot, Glo, had quite a similar game plan and didn’t make a go of it. It’s also a surprisingly big place – the room goes so far back I half expected to walk all the way and emerge in Narnia – and that’s a lot of covers to fill in what I imagine is an expensive central location. Having eaten here I found myself wishing that Coconut was making more of its mains, because if they’re all as good as the best one I had they could properly compete with Tampopo and Wagamama – well, they could if they weren’t so obsessed with skewers, anyway. Still, I can’t rule out making a return visit and going straight for the bibimbap. Even if I can’t pronounce it.

Coconut Bar & Kitchen – 6.8
62-63 St Mary’s Butts, RG1 2LG
0118 9598877

http://www.coconutbarkitchen.co.uk/

Round-up: April and May

I can’t believe it’s nearly the end of May already. We’ve had the beer festival (did you go? wasn’t the food rubbish!), the second of our two bank holidays is about to begin and summer is just round the corner with the promise of al fresco dinners and – more importantly – barbecues. And Pimm’s! Have you had your first Pimm’s of the year yet? There’s something magical about it, isn’t there – the fresh cucumber, mint, strawberries, the gently fizzing taste of summer in a long tall glass… Anyway, I’m digressing: it’s also a good point to stop and look back at the last few couple of months, both in terms of ER reviews and other restaurant news. Shall we? Excellent. Make yourself comfortable…

The Eldon Arms, 8.0 – A burger: a religious experience, or a sandwich blown out of all proportion by passing food fads from That London? Regardless of the answer, I think The Eldon may well do the best one in Reading. I checked it out here. (Sadly, the Eldon has now stopped serving food – see below.)

Dolce Vita, 7.6 – Dolce Vita is a hugely popular Reading restaurant, one of the longest running in town, and yet I’d rarely been. Was I missing out? The answer’s in the review, here.

The Abbot Cook, 6.0 – Another pub, just down the road from the Eldon, but it couldn’t have been more different. One had a slightly scruffy interior and belting food, the other looks the part but somehow managed to dish up flavourless food. The review is here – it also contains a lost waiter, a lake of cream and something which can only be described as potato-geddon.

Bel And The Dragon, 6.6 – A short walk out of town, with a lovely waterside location, Bel has the potential to be the perfect summer restaurant. So why isn’t it? I reviewed it here, only to find that neither the staff nor the dishes were full of beans.

Bhoj, 8.2 – Forget Mya Lacarte, ignore l’Ortolan: TripAdvisor says that Bhoj is Reading’s best restaurant. But people who go on TripAdvisor aren’t experts like newspaper reviewers and bloggers, so they can’t be right, can they..? Click here to find out.

China Palace, 6.3 – Does Reading have any good Chinese restaurants? Is an authentic restaurant the same thing as a good restaurant? Can dozens of Chinese diners be wrong? Click here for the answers to some (but not all) of those questions.

Cappuccina Café, 7.0 – If I told you Reading had a place that was half-Portuguese, half-Vietnamese, with a view of possibly the town’s ugliest pound shop you might think I was making it up. I’m not. Egg custard tarts, a broken dishwasher, delicious barbecued pork and outstandingly inefficient service: read all about it here.

On to the news. Casa Roma and Coconut Bar And Kitchen, both mentioned in previous round-ups, are now open. I’m getting good reports of both, and I’ll add them to the list, although as always I will give them time to settle in. From the website Casa Roma doesn’t sound any different to any of the other Italians in town (and I’ll take some convincing that that is an attractive dining room, from the photos) but if the food and service are good none of that will be quite so important. Coconut originally sounded like it was going to be a Tampopo clone but the website now makes it look much more interesting, especially the wide selection of yakitori which is something nowhere else in Reading does.

Not exactly a restaurant, but Tamp Culture has also started trading at the junction of Minster Street and Gun Street, by the Holy Brook entrance to the Oracle. It’s a small van serving coffee and a small selection of cakes, and my friends who like coffee tell me it’s very good stuff indeed. They roast their own beans and add to a burgeoning coffee culture in the town following Lincoln opening late last year. No website, but they Tweet here.

We have also – finally – seen the last of the Lobster Room. It closed, it took the menus down, it put a sad little notice in the door saying it would reopen but it was a death rattle, as it never did. In next to no time, it has already reopened as “Chronicles”, another Mediterranean restaurant (no website yet, but the menu on the door suggests a small range of pasta dishes, steak, grilled meat and fish). I don’t have any detail on whether it’s different proprietors to the Lobster Room, although they’ve kept the same phone number. Is it someone new trying to resurrect a classic Reading restaurant brand, or someone familiar trying to detoxify a different one? I guess we’ll find out – watch this space.

The other potential opening, much covered in the papers, is CAU which has applied to develop the area at the Holy Brook entrance to the Oracle (so not far from Tamp). The plans look quite impressive and would change that side of the Oracle completely. It’s not a triumph for independent traders and small businesses, of course, because almost nothing is where the Oracle is concerned: CAU is the more affordable sibling of the Argentian steakhouse chain Gaucho – a smaller chain with less than ten branches, but a chain none the less. They also do Argentinian flatbread pizzas, so if I was Zero Degrees I’d be saying a few prayers that the council doesn’t approve the application.

The saddest recent news is so hot off the press that it didn’t feature in the original edition of this round-up: the Eldon Arms has confirmed that it’s no longer serving food. They only had a small kitchen, and there just wasn’t enough trade to make the numbers stack up. It’s a real shame – pubs like the Eldon that do good food rather than buying it in off the back of a lorry are few and far between, especially those doing it with a small domestic kitchen. There’s a moral in there: if you find somewhere you like make sure you go there, or it might not be around next time you’re deciding on a dinner venue.

Back to the Lobster Room, briefly: Reading Borough Council uploaded its latest food hygiene inspection results this month. Much of the coverage focused on the Lobster Room which got a zero rating, while initially completely missing the fact that it was already closed. Island Bar and Café Madras also got zero ratings in inspections carried out last July and September respectively. Buffalo Grill, next to the Broad Street Mall, got a rating of 1 (meaning, apparently, “Major Improvement Necessary”) in an inspection from this February. Caversham greasy spoon The Gorge, inspected last November, also got a rating of 1 (maybe it is literally a greasy spoon). The Food Standards Agency takes great pains to say that these ratings are for information and don’t constitute a recommendation to eat at or avoid any particular establishment. That’s all very well, but if you’re planning to go to Buffalo Grill, Café Madras or The Gorge then, well, best of luck and rather you than me.

In the last round-up I mentioned the Reading Retail Awards which are your chance to nominate restaurants, coffee shops and lunchtime venues (did you? hmm?). This time, it’s the turn of the Pride Of Reading awards – nominations have just opened. There’s nothing around restaurants (which is a shame – I’m very proud of some of them, even if it’s just me) but there is a category for Cultural Contribution, sponsored by those renowned opera-goers, Grosvenor Casino. Don’t worry – I’m not asking you to nominate me. Absolutely don’t. Not on any account. Although I’m sure I’d have an excellent chance I’m anonymous and have no plans to turn up to an award ceremony in disguise just to listen to Danyl Johnson singing. However, if you do feel in the voting mood I think the team over at Alt Reading have done a brilliant job of making Reading a better place to live in the short time since they started publishing. They’ve already been nominated but it wouldn’t hurt to reinforce that by nominating them yourself.

Last but not least, and this is hardly news any more but it happened just after the last round-up, Edible Reading is now on Facebook. So if you’re into that sort of thing please go “like” it, feel free to share the reviews through Facebook and join in the conversations on the ER Facebook page. I’m told the reviews have even made it to the infamous “Caversham Gossip Girls” (if any of you are reading, hello there!). Thanks to anybody who’s spread the word about one of my reviews over the past couple of months – the site traffic seems to keep going up and it’s great to see more people getting involved.

Speaking of getting involved: last but not least, as always, please don’t forget that the majority of restaurants I review have been requested or recommended by readers. The details, as I’m sure you know by now, are here. See you next Friday, 11.30 (be there or be square) for the next impartial, independent review. Which restaurant will be next?