Restaurant review: Café Yolk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not in Reading it isn’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t tell you to order that!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://www.cafeyolk.com

The Pantry

Once upon a time, in the town of Reading, there was a bar called the 3Bs. It was named after the three famous alliterative cornerstones of Reading – beer, biscuits and bulbs – and, for those of us who remember it, it was one of the best bars there was. It was part of the Town Hall, and long before the Oakford ever opened it was the place you congregated in after work – unless your friends wanted to drink in O’Neills, in which case you made new friends. When the tables appeared outside, near the statue of Queen Victoria, you knew that summer was on the way.

It even featured, albeit briefly, in the opening episode of 1997 police show Crime Traveller, around the 3:45 mark in this video, as maverick cop (aren’t they always) Jeff Slade, played by ex-EastEnders bad boy Michael French, zooms through the Town Hall Square on a motorbike, scattering people and tables as he pursues a generic baddie in a boxy car all the way to the Queens Road car park. Around that time I was temping in Apex Plaza (which also features in the chase sequence) and it was all very exciting. As I recall, my brother bought a sandstone-coloured blouson, trying to emulate Jeff Slade, but it was all a little too Sergio Georgini. Ah, the Nineties.

My favourite memories of the 3Bs, in as far as I can remember anything, were of Bohemian Night, its weekly live music evening. A friend and I would always turn up early, sit near the front and drink almost enough to make the music sound good. Compered by AF Harrold (now a published author, then a jobbing performance poet working in Blackwells – remember when we used to have a Blackwells?) it was the Reading’s Got Talent of its day.

This involved various earnest acoustic solo acts and duets, a little spoken word, a shouty man who called himself “Preacher John” and another chap called “Reverend John H” who did an extremely offensive song about the sadly departed Princess Of Wales. There was also a bewildered pensioner called “Mr David” who would shamble on stage and perform roughly half a joke without getting to the punchline and then start singing snatches of My Way. It looked like he may have slept in a bin.

Only at Bohemian Night could a young chap wearing a fuzzy wig bound up to the mike, all puppyish enthusiasm, and announce “I’m Dunstan McFunkstan, and I’ve got a bag of comedy!” (if he honestly did, it was empty). And that’s before we get to the performance poetry, which was usually my cue to go up to the bar. Every now and again someone with genuine talent would show up at Bohemian Night and I’d enjoy their act, safe in the knowledge that I would never see them again. I loved it: I went every week without fail.

All good things must come to an end, and the 3Bs closed in 2011. Then, last July, the council announced that it would be reopening in the autumn. Signs were up by October 2018 declaring that it would be called Lains. Well, the council is as good at opening restaurants on time as it is at filing accounts, because it wasn’t until September this year that it finally opened, having changed its name in the meantime to The Pantry. The council’s announcement was full of the usual buzzwords about how the “Executive Chef” (why a café needs an executive chef is anybody’s guess) would use local produce to create a “scrumptious and inventive menu”. That was all the incentive I needed to take a trip down memory lane one weekday lunchtime with my other half Zoë, herself a fan of the 3Bs from back in the day.

It may have opened a year late, but the fit out really is lovely. At the front, where the bands used to play, there’s an attractive banquette and all the chairs are tasteful and muted, as is the paintwork. It was weird to look at it so transformed, but simultaneously quite heartwarming to see it back in use. There was still an icy blast every time the door opened and closed though: some things never change.

Menus are on the table but you go up to the counter to order. There’s a brunch menu, most of which is available all day, pizzas (which are “baked in our stone based oven”, whatever that means), three salads which you can pair with quiche, a sausage roll or a Scotch egg and a “sandwich of the day” (fish finger, on my visit) and “international dish of the day” (goulash).

The selection of cakes looked quite appealing, but the whole thing reminded me of something: I used to work somewhere where the staff canteen was run by facilities company Gather & Gather, and the menu here felt very similar, only more expensive. I wanted a pizza, but the gentleman behind the counter told me that they were out of pepperoni – I concealed my incredulity – so we ordered two things from the brunch menu, to find out whether the Pantry might be the brunch spot central Reading has long needed.

While I waited for brunch to arrive, I sipped my latte – a truly dire coffee, burnt and bitter and well below the standard of a Pret, Nero or Costa, let alone Tamp or Anonymous. Quite a few members of staff, all in their branded aprons, milled listlessly around the café, dusting unoccupied tables, making the smallest of adjustments to the position of the menu on the table, all kinds of random things to keep themselves busy because the truth was that the place was hardly rammed.

What customers there were were either parents with kids (half-term, of course) or people considerably older than me: no hip young gunslingers to be seen. It reminded me, more than anything, of the John Lewis Café, with the general complacence of not wanting to be any more than Only Just Good Enough. Perhaps the food would change that, I thought.

When it arrived and was set down in front of us by one of the serving staff, one obvious thing was missing: cutlery.

“We’ll need some cutlery for that” I said.

“It’s up at the front by the counter” she replied, without making eye contact. I waited for the second half of the sentence until, after what felt like quite some time, I realised that there wasn’t going to be one.

“Right. I’ll go all the way up there and get it then” I said, leaving aside the second half of my sentence, namely while you carry on dusting tables and being spell-bindingly bad at customer service. It was one of those moments when, like Tim from The Office, you just wanted to look sidelong at a camera in complete bafflement.

I had gone for “pulled pork waffle with spicy beans” and it truly was a miserable specimen. The waffle was lukewarm, doughy and stodgy. The majority of it wasn’t covered with anything – sauce or melted butter – and in the middle was a damp clump of what you could loosely call pulled pork. It was a pretty miserly helping, wet and claggy with big white globs of fat in it (I took them all out and put them to one side: my plate was collected later on without comment). Some crudely torn salad leaves were plonked on top, possibly as a garnish and possibly as concealment. I’m currently thinking about writing features on the best brunch in Reading and the ten best things you can buy for under a tenner: you can safely say this dish won’t feature in either.

“The waffle feels like a gimmick” said Zoë, attacking her dish. Her waffle came with smoked salmon, cream cheese, avocado and lemon zest. There was plenty of salmon, but it was extremely bland with no real hint of smoke. The avocado was as cold, hard and joyless as senior management. The lemon zest was a lovely idea but it wasn’t clear it had ever really made it on to the plate. More of that bloody foliage had, mind you.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“Meh. I wouldn’t have it again. And it’s definitely not worth eleven pounds twenty.”

She was right (and charging that extra twenty pence was downright odd). You could get an infinitely better brunch at Fidget & Bob for far less money, miles better pulled pork at Bluegrass and for that matter the Lyndhurst’s chilli beef nachos are streets ahead of either dish and they cost less than seven pounds. As it was we both finished our meals, with no real enthusiasm, and a sense that I’d just wasted money, time and calories.

“It’s a shame your coffee was so crappy” said Zoë. “I can see this might be a nice place to come for a cup of tea and a piece of cake.”

“Those are literally the only two things they can’t fuck up.” I said, as we watched a mother at a neighbouring table treating each of her kids to a bowl of what looked like oven chips – hardly “scrumptious and inventive” but at least, at two pounds a pop, better value than anything we’d eaten. The whole thing – two brunch dishes, a latte and a cup of green tea – came to twenty-five pounds, not including service. I’m depressed to say that by the time we left, the place seemed to be filling up.

If I had to sum up the Pantry, I suppose the easy way to do it is to say that it’s exactly what you would expect a café designed by any local authority, let alone this local authority, to be like. It’s bland, inoffensive and unimaginative. How an “executive chef” came up with something so nothingy I will never know; it’s a step up from jacket spuds with cheese and beans, I suppose, but only just. The brunch menu is one smashed-avocado cliché after another, the pizzas are a vanilla bunch (all of them more expensive than Franco Manca). Across the whole menu I didn’t see a single shred of evidence of creativity, or seasonality – unless it was goulash season and nobody told me – or anything other than tepid box-ticking. And let’s not even get on to the Pantry’s website’s absurd claims that the dishes are “prepared using artisan methods” – even if they do seem to have recruited artisanal table-dusters.

What really frustrates me is what a wasted opportunity the Pantry is. The council could have opened something which actually celebrates and adds to Reading’s food culture, rather than paying lip service to it with a clunking name. Just imagine what Glen Dinning could have done with that space if they’d let Blue Collar run the café, rotating street food traders with a licensed bar in the evenings: at a stroke, they would have had one of the most exciting venues in town. But no, instead you can enjoy pepperoni-free pizzas, burnt coffee and even more uninspiring waffle than you get in the council chamber. So it goes.

I’ll leave the last word to Zoë: “Maybe it’s called the Pantry because it’s pants”, she said.

The Pantry – 4.9
The Town Hall, Blagrave Street, RG1 1HZ

https://thepantrytownhall.co.uk/

Jamaica Blue

It happens less than it used to, but every now and again I still review somewhere because of a recommendation or a request from a reader. You have Anna to thank for this one, because a month ago she left this comment on the blog:

This might seem like a weird suggestion, but how about trying the new Jamaica Blue cafe at the Royal Berkshire Hospital… Looking at their website it seems like a successful Australian chain, they have only four branches in the UK. I’ve popped in a couple of times after appointments and the coffee was great. I was very pleasantly surprised by the range, quality and freshness of their lunch options, really nice deep filled flans and unusual sandwich/ciabatta choices. So nice I’d even consider dropping in if was in the area and I didn’t have an appointment.

My curiosity was piqued. Partly because this was a hard sales pitch to resist: a promising new café in town that almost nobody knew about? How could I stay away? But more to the point, I live very close to the hospital, and many’s the time working from home that I’ve sloped up the Craven Road to visit the AMT just inside the main entrance. If the weather’s bad I have a Café Maya, and if the weather’s good (by which I mean anything above twelve degrees with no rain) I have a Froffee, that hypnotic, magical milkshake made with ice cream, espresso and dreams. But I never get any food there, and Café Yolk never quite feels worth the additional walk. I made a mental note: next time I was working from home I’d go to Jamaica Blue and try it out, a rare solo excursion.

It’s odd going for lunch in a hospital, you know. It’s odd using the hand sanitiser on the wall-mounted pumps and going down long corridors lined with art best described as enthusiastic, dodging the beeping buggies that sedately trundle past you. It’s odd walking past the queue for the pharmacy, past the fracture clinic, past Respiratory Medicine. For someone with a touch of hypochondria like me, all those department names read like Panini stickers you’re yet to collect: got, need, need, need.

What’s also odd is reaching the spot where Jamaica Blue is, by South Block Outpatients, near where they do the blood tests, and seeing what looks like an actual proper café just plonked in the middle of a hospital. On one side of their stylish blue partition it was all people waiting for appointments at grim, municipal-looking tables. On the other side, people were sitting at much more fetching tables in comfy chairs, tucking into food. Snazzy brass-effect light fittings hung from the ceiling and a range of canvasses on the back wall spelled out the range of coffees on offer. Were these people actually ill, or just gastronomic tourists like me? Was everybody else in on the secret? Or perhaps this was just a mirage, an oasis among the sand dunes stretching out for miles.

A small queue was forming at the counter so I took my place and looked at the embarrassment of riches in the cabinet. Anna was right – many tempting things were there. An antipasti focaccia looked like it might be the real deal rather than, as so often, a ciabatta using a fake ID. The ciabattas and bagels appeared pretty standard issue, but there were plenty of other interesting options. I considered the tortilla stack, the deep feta flan and the sausage rolls (I considered the sausage rolls for some time, in truth) before narrowing my choice down to a binary one just as I got to the front.

“What’s in your chicken pasta bake? Do you heat it up?”

“Yeah, we definitely heat it up. Hold on.”

She went to fetch someone to talk me through what went in to the chicken pasta bake. It was a big, appetising-looking slab and I could see chicken and tomato through the cross section. A friendly chap came up to the counter and explained to me everything that went into one, in such exhaustive detail that I couldn’t possibly remember it all. I did remember one phrase though, which stuck with me: “There’s cheese at every level”. A lovely sentence to apply to food (if less so to, say, a nightclub).

“And your croque madame, is the egg cooked to order?”

“Of course it is” came the reply, making me feel ever so slightly stupid for asking. But I’d have had to ask in a Costa I wanted to say, but it would have sounded peevish. Besides, Costa would never do a croque madame.

“I’ll have the croque madame.” I said. The gentleman behind me, having heard the sales pitch, ordered the chicken pasta bake. I made a mental note to try and avoid sitting near him, in case of food envy.

“How long have you been open?” I asked one of the ladies behind the counter as I waited for my coffee to be made.

“About eight months.”

“What’s somewhere so, well, nice doing here?”

She smiled as if she was asked this often. “Maybe we’re just here to make people’s trips to the hospital more pleasant.” Again I wondered: was this whole thing some kind of dream sequence? Everyone serving me was so pleasant, so happy and, seemingly, so proud to be dishing up possibly the only decent food in the Royal Berks (I was surprised, heading home afterwards, at how full Pumpkin was).

I took a seat at the banquette with my coffee and waited for my sandwich to arrive. The latte was beautifully presented, nicely smooth and had a slightly bitter note but was on the right side of burnt. Jamaica Blue make much of their coffee – and you can buy it for consumption off the premises – and I liked my latte a lot, although it didn’t quite reach the heights of a Tamp or a Workhouse. An older couple next to me had got freshly squeezed orange juice and were rhapsodising about it.

“That’s so lovely, it tastes of real orange” he said. She took a sip of hers and let out a contented sigh in agreement.

“It’s nice in here” she said. Maybe that staff member was right: how often did anybody say that in a hospital?

My croque madame took long enough that I could be completely satisfied that they’d taken their time over it and done things properly. It looked quite gorgeous – good bread, well toasted, an egg (poached, not fried) perched on top and dusted with what looked like smoked paprika. Only the big pile of rocket – somewhat the Scrappy-Doo or Godzuki of the dish – jarred slightly.

Cutting into it, I was even more impressed. Good quality, thick ham, nothing processed or reformed about it. A delicious gooey mixture of cheese and mustard, forming a punchy, claggy layer at the bottom. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, a proper madam. It felt like a bargain at four pounds ninety (although the sign had said it cost 4.9: you can tell what kind of café it is when the price is to one decimal place, the man behind me in the queue had said, and I think he had a point). If I was being fussy, the top should also have been covered in the cheese mixture, or at the very least brushed with oil to give it a gorgeous, burnished quality. If I was being fussy, for that matter, I’d have done away with the rocket.

But I didn’t feel like being fussy, I felt like finishing my croque madame and working out what to order next time. I gazed at the blackboard with drinks, and all I could see was excuses to visit again. Chilled lattes! Milkshakes with real ice cream! Granita! Most tempting of all, affogato!

“Look at that” said the older gentleman at the table next to me as his panini arrived. “It’s oozing with cheese.”

A solo lunch cost eight pounds and for that I got a croque madame, a large latte and – to my surprise – a new place to come for lunch when I work from home.

Jamaica Blue definitely won’t be for everyone. It’s the wrong end of town for many, and I know quite a lot of people would be too freaked out by hospitals to consider setting foot in one unless they had to, let alone eating in one. But, all that aside, I liked it very much. I admired the bloody-mindedness of doing food like that in a location like that, and as one of the more unusual places I’ve visited in nearly five years of doing this blog I almost think it deserves a visit for novelty value alone. It’s even open seven days a week, so perhaps the next time I go to the excellent local food market in St Luke’s on Erleigh Road I’ll just have to stop there for brunch on my way.

Jamaica Blue – 7.2
South Block, Second Floor, Royal Berkshire Hospital, Craven Road, RG1 5AN
0118 9758168

http://www.jamaicablue.co.uk/store-locations/

Tipsy Bean

Tipsy Bean closed and reopened under a new name – Chapter – in July 2020. As a result I’ve marked this one as closed, and kept this entry up for posterity.

Why isn’t Caversham, you know, nicer? It’s supposedly the most prosperous, chi-chi part of town and yet wandering round there on a drizzly Saturday I couldn’t help but see it as a handful of streets largely lined with missed opportunities. It’s almost as if the presence of a Waitrose writes a cheque the rest of the place can’t cash. Yes, there’s a good pub (the Fox And Hounds, of course). Yes, there’s a decent butcher and a baker: no candlestick maker that I could see, although there is a terrific old-school hardware shop. And, as is well documented, it has a handful of decent restaurants – Kyrenia and the newly-installed Papa Gee, mostly.

But beyond that, it all felt a little flat. The precinct has been tidied up, but still has the same shops as before. Siblings Home – a perennial favourite of mine which felt like the kind of establishment Caversham ought to have – has closed down, now just a sad empty shell at the bottom of Hemdean Road. There is a large purgatorial Costa, if you want coffee. The independent bookshop has closed down too. There’s a delicatessen, yes, but it seems to be in a perpetual state of closing and reopening; I don’t remember ever having walked past when it was actually trading.

And what else? Up Prospect Street, past Bina’s dated façade, it was nail bar after nail bar and the delights of “BBs Hair Salon” (is it as good as “Just John” on Grovelands Road, that’s the question). This should be Reading’s Hampstead, or Reading’s Crouch End. So why isn’t it?

The two establishments trying to buck this trend both opened last year, within two months of one another and only a few doors apart. In the blue corner, there’s Nomad Bakery, offering sourdough bread and an innovative, constantly changing lunch menu with many vegetarian and vegan-friendly options. A year on, its windows are still steamed up, it’s still full of happy families enjoying thoroughly virtuous lunches and Laura, the proprietor, continues to pop up at a variety of interesting venues offering tasting menus.

That would be the obvious choice, so instead this week I opted for its lesser-sung neighbour Tipsy Bean. Tipsy Bean opened last August with backing from ex-Apprentice winner, and former co-owner of sadly-missed Caversham restaurant Mya Lacarte, Yasmina Siadatan (although the exact nature of her association with the project was never entirely clear – and I’m none the wiser having Googled it). It aims to capture an all-day market by offering coffee and lunch before morphing into a wine bar and cocktail joint in the evening, and has decided to sum this up with a name which is possibly the only thing I’ve ever seen which manages to be simultaneously smutty and twee. I turned up with my trusty sidekick Tim (who is neither smutty nor twee) in tow to check it out.

The décor was bizarre and baffling. The front section near the big windows, with exposed brickwork and plenty of natural light, was nice enough but beyond that things got a little strange. The back room (and you can literally see the join) was another matter: the floor looked like unfinished chipboard, the ceiling seemingly made of disused pallets. Not in a calculated, knowing way, more in a manner that suggested they’d run out of money halfway through doing the place up.

Run out of ideas, too: the wall opposite the long bar (behind a handsome button-backed red banquette running the length of the wall) was just covered in mirrors. This can be a good way of letting light into a dark space, as anybody who’s read ELLE Decoration can tell you, but the overall effect is ruined when you scrawl slogans on them in childlike writing with bright pink pen. YOU LOOK GREAT! said one. SOUP OF THE DAY – WINE said another. Mirror Mirror on the wall, Who’s the TIPSYest of them all? said a third. Who has the biggest migraine, more like.

I’m afraid there’s more. Here’s a question for you: what do Marlon Brando, Cirque Du Soleil, The Beano and Banksy have in common? They all feature on the walls of Tipsy Bean, as part of a selection of pictures chosen seemingly at random. There were also the words “Margarita”, “Mojito” and “Tequila” on the walls in what looked like a mosaic made from dead mirrorballs. To top it all, an armchair was plonked in the far corner, completely on its own, with no tables or other chairs around it.

“It’s not shabby-chic, it’s not industrial chic.” I said. “What is it?”

“I don’t know. I wish I understood this place.” said Tim in reply, as if already hung over.

Still, it was doing a good trade with couples and families pretty much filling the front room and a few tables near the bar occupied, so we took our interior design hats off and had a look at the menu. It’s broken up into sections – Tipsy Sandwiches, Tipsy Boards, Tipsy Salads and so on – and although the tipsy motif made my toes curl, it was really good to see Tipsy Bean crediting and listing its suppliers, the majority of which were local. Meat is from Jennings, bread from Warings and cheese from the splendid Pangbourne Cheese Shop down the road. I was tempted by “Tipsy Pizza Bread” until I saw that it was nothing of the kind, instead being a variety of stuff on toast, so Tim and I both went for a toasted sandwich and a coffee.

“Shall we have some ‘Tipsy Sides’ as well?” I asked.

“Not sure I see the point. They’re just the component ingredients for everything else.”

As so often, Tim was right. We could have had some more bread and butter, or some more superfood crisps, or some grilled halloumi (there is a lot of halloumi on the Tipsy Bean menu), but they all felt a bit unnecessary.

The coffees arrived first – a latte for me, a black Americano for Tim, with a little heap of amaretto biscuits on the side.

“You should try one of these, they’re a nice touch.” I said.

“They’ve probably given us these to counteract the taste of the coffee.” Tim said. “It’s burnt.”

He was right. The coffee was properly bad – acrid, nasty, transport-caff stuff. Nowhere near as good as their neighbours in Nomad, but in all honesty nowhere near as good as Costa either. Given that coffee even features in the name of the place I was surprised that it was done this poorly – if they took the same approach to the “Tipsy” element as they do to the “Bean” all they’d sell would be Mateus Rosé and White Lightning.

Based on all this you’d expect the sandwiches to be woeful, and the signs weren’t good when they turned up on miniature breadboards. They came with “Luke’s superfood chips”, which turned out to be perfectly acceptable tortilla chips, free of gluten so that coeliacs and fad dieters also got the opportunity to feel ambivalent about them. There was also “Dudman’s salad”. Normally, I don’t make reference to my photos in the review but in this case I’d draw your attention to the picture below and say that, if anything, there was even less salad than the photograph would suggest. A shame actually, because it was nicely dressed and really quite enjoyable: this may be the first time I’ve ever said “I liked it, but I do wish there had been more salad”.

So, time for the surprise – the sandwiches were lovely. Simple, well-done and effective. The sourdough was golden on the outside, slightly oozy with butter and cheese. The prosciutto in it was good quality – dry, not floppy and plastic. And the cheese, although there wasn’t masses of it, was delicious. Also, it was a big old sandwich – using sourdough meant a sizeable cross-section, which in turn meant that it wasn’t gone in two bites as some toasties (at Nibsy’s, for instance, or Pret) can be.

Opposite me Tim waxed lyrical about his toasted Ploughman’s, with ham cheese and pickle. I wasn’t sure about the wisdom of heating up pickle, but Tim was very happy with the result. “It’s lovely”, he said, “ever so slightly caramelised. And it’s great ham and cheese.” I’m still not entirely sure whether our delight at the sandwiches was partly baffled euphoria because we expected them to be as half-arsed as everything else, or whether it’s because they were genuinely excellent. Maybe it was a bit of both. But to give credit where it’s due, my conversation with Tim for the next couple of minutes went a bit like this.

“That’s a good sandwich.”

Silence.

“It is, isn’t it. It’s a really good sandwich.”

More silence.

“Man, that’s a cracking sandwich.”

And so on. All well and good, but the sticking point was the price. My sandwich was six pounds, and six pounds for sandwich with a solitary layer of prosciutto and some cheese is very steep indeed, whatever the provenance of your produce. A little handful of salad and some gluten-free tortillas is insufficient smoke and mirrors to conceal that, especially if the mirrors have slogans scrawled on them in bright pink ink. Tim’s, presumably because it had the impudence to contain three ingredients, cost even more at six pounds fifty. To put this in perspective, those sandwiches are more expensive than Shed, than Pret, than Costa, than almost anywhere I can think of (maybe the ones at Nomad are even costlier: it’s a possibility, although hard to be sure as they don’t publish their menu online). Lunch for two – two coffees and two sandwiches – came to just under seventeen pounds, not including service. It’s hard to see that as good value, let alone a bargain.

Speaking of service, I should say a word or two about that. Everyone behind the counter was very young, perfectly pleasant and highly skilled at not being there when you needed them. It was impossible to attract attention to pay because they were all too busy standing behind the bar chatting away to each other, possibly because the lunch rush had thinned out by then. A couple of young women came in and went up to the counter to ask if Tipsy Bean was recruiting, and the staff were also too busy chatting away to each other to field that enquiry: I was tempted to ask one of them if they wanted to audition by getting my bill.

I wonder whether Tipsy Bean benefits from Caversham having so few nice places for lunch and coffee. If you picked it up and dropped it in town, I don’t think many would go there for lunch. Maybe it works better as a wine bar in the evening, but I really didn’t get it as a lunch spot. If anything, it made me feel a little sad for Caversham: I complain all the time about mediocre places being considered “good enough” for the town centre when we shouldn’t settle for second best, but until I ate at Tipsy Bean it never occurred to me that Caversham might have the same problem.

If only it had been better. That’s the price businesses pay for not being good enough: if Tipsy Bean had been better maybe we’d have had another coffee, or some cake, or settled in with a glass of wine and carried on chatting away. But if Tipsy Bean had been better, I wouldn’t be writing this. Instead we went for a stroll up to Balmore Park and took in the gorgeous view across town because, although Caversham might not be Hampstead, Balmore Park is definitely our Parliament Hill. And then we beetled off to the Fox And Hounds where, in true Fox And Hounds fashion they were playing wall-to-wall Bowie. Tim had a magnificent stout that tasted of chocolate and salted caramel, I had a fizzy cider like the heathen I am and we both wondered why the rest of Caversham couldn’t be more like The Fox And Hounds. Or Waitrose. Preferably both.

Tipsy Bean – 6.5
18 Prospect Street, Caversham, RG4 8JG
0118 9471300

http://tipsybean.co.uk/

Caffeine & Cocktails

N.B. Caffeine & Cocktails closed in July 2021. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

One thing I often complain about is big, bloated menus; huge things with a bewildering array of dishes leaving you to wonder how you can possibly avoid a dud. Indian restaurants and Chinese restaurants are especially prone to this, but actually it’s an issue in many restaurants. Like a CV, a menu should be short and to the point, it should advertise what you do well and it should never outstay its welcome. Just as nobody needs to hear about your Duke Of Edinburgh Award from umpteen years ago, I don’t think diners want a plethora of options knowing full well that the only way that kitchens can do them all is through the ping of the microwave or the sinister hum of the engine of the Brakes Brothers lorry. It’s no coincidence that the first thing Gordon Ramsay used to do in Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares was slash the size of the menu (well, that and criticise people’s omelettes).

I mainly tell you this because, if it gets nothing else right, Caffeine & Cocktails succeeds admirably in this department. Six options for breakfast, three options for lunch, two for dinner. Breakfast until 11, lunch until 3, meat and cheese boards from 3 until 6. Over half of the choices are meat free. There’s an elegant simplicity to this that I wish other establishments would learn from (although paradoxically Dolce Vita, right above Caffeine & Cocktails, has a colossal menu and I’m still yet to have a bad meal there). I turned up right on the cusp of eleven am with a companion, ready to sample both the breakfast and lunch sections to give as full a picture as I could.

Caffeine & Cocktails used to be Mix bar, a place I never much liked with horrible garden furniture (nobody should have to sip a cocktail sitting on a huge faux marble bench) and a ludicrous “private area” behind an unnecessary velvet rope. Every time I used to walk past after last orders I could see the clientele standing outside, clanging away on cigarettes, a relentless doof-doof-doof noise coming from the Stygian depths within and it made me long for my bed with a nice cup of tea, a hot water bottle and Just A Minute on the iPlayer. In short, it made me feel ancient.

The transformation is sleek and striking. It’s a long thin room with attractive parquet-effect tables, clubbable Chesterfields, a dark concrete floor, indoor trees, gorgeous herringbone tiled walls and industrial light fittings. It really is quite lovely without trying too hard (unlike, say, RYND) and a surprisingly pleasant place to while away time. Only one thing lets it down, and that’s the dreary sexism of the graffiti in the toilets. Marriage is a workshop… where husband works and wife shops”, said one quote in the gents’. Why did the Mexican push his wife down the stairs? Tequila said another. It feels a bit like they invited Donald Trump to the loos with some chalk and told him to go crazy, and that crassness really lets the side down. The irony – they have the most beautiful Aesop handwash at the sink, but you still leave the bathroom feeling unclean. The ladies’ toilets, if less positively offensive, are equally lazily stereotypical with references to diets, cocktails and Taylor Swift.

Anyway, let’s talk about the food. Caffeine & Cocktails only does three sandwiches and I went for “The Cheesy One”, a mixture of cheddar, Comté and Emmental with onion chutney and mustard, mainly because I’d been a couple of times shortly after opening, ordered that sandwich and always been impressed. Something about that mixture of cheeses, when toasted, really works – the gooey elasticity of the Emmental, the punch of the mature cheddar and the grit of the Comté is a holy trinity, perfected by the sweet chutney and the tangy mustard. So I was saddened to find that when my sandwich turned up it completely failed to live up to my happy memories – it was barely hot at all, the cheeses were still cold at the centre of the sandwich, the flavours failing to come alive.

It was definitely meant to be toasted, I could tell that by touching the bread, but clearly a half-arsed job had been done. It wasn’t that it had been cooked and left lying around, it had just never been cooked properly in the first place. And although there were quite a few tables occupied on a weekend morning, it’s not like they were rushed off their feet. Such a sad waste of potential: without the transformative power of the grill the sourdough, which should have been slightly charred, oiled outside and oozing within, was just a chewy, anticlimactic wedge. If I’d never had it before, I would have been disappointed. As it was, I spent the rest of my lunch wondering whether I was more or less disappointed because I knew how good it could be.

CaffeineSandwich

The toasted sourdough also made an appearance in the other dish I ordered, from the breakfast menu. This time it was topped with “smashed” avocado (how very Shoreditch, 2014) with feta and tomatoes. Studded through the avocado were a few pieces of chopped red chilli but even with this the dish was lacking in oomph and needed something – a touch of lime, some salt, mint, or a lot more chilli – to elevate it from quick make at home breakfast to something with more flair. That’s maybe a little harsh – the topping was nice, not ungenerous and the cherry tomatoes added beautiful sweetness. But the bigger problem was the bread – toasted sourdough really wasn’t (unless it had been wearing factor 50 at the time) so what should have been light and crispy was instead soft, tough and somehow dried out. Another attempt to find a great breakfast in Reading ended unsuccessfully, I’m sorry to say.

CaffeineSmashed

The drinks were a mixed bag. Loose tea is apparently from Good & Proper (Caffeine & Cocktails, Good & Proper… what is it with all these ampersands, I wonder?) and I’m sure it’s both those things but if you order Earl Grey you get a stump teapot full of hot water and a solitary bag of Twinings on the side. Basic verging on just not good enough, I’d say. Coffee is from Monmouth, and I’m reliably informed that the latte, while oddly thin and watery, tasted very nice. It was however, in keeping with all of the food, just not hot enough. The weird sugar, a mixture of white and brown cubes and lumps, also didn’t fill me with confidence. Lunch for two – a sandwich, a breakfast, a tea and two lattes – came to seventeen pounds. Service was nice and friendly, and maybe I should have given them the opportunity to prove how good it was by sending my food back, but I just couldn’t face it. I guess you’re more forgiving when it’s just a sandwich, or maybe the hassle just doesn’t feel worth it.

I’m inclined to be forgiving with Caffeine & Cocktails. I didn’t have the best of visits, but I’ve been enough times to know that they had an off-day when I turned up on duty. And there are definitely positives: it’s independent; it’s stylish without sacrificing comfort; it has that clever, sensibly compact menu. On the other hand, if you only do a few things you have to do them well. There just aren’t any excuses. I really wish they’d been on song because that toasted sandwich, at four pounds, is far better than anything you could get at Pret or Picnic for the same money (especially if you dip the corner of it in a little pool of their very tasty, beetroot-purple, sugar-free ketchup). It clearly adds something to Reading’s food and drink culture, to the extent where I even found myself wondering whether its cocktails could finally replace the sadly departed Sahara. So despite the misfire I’ll be back to give them another chance. I’ll pass on using the bathroom, though.

Caffeine & Cocktails – 7.0
Unit 5, The Walk, RG1 2HG
0118 3485103

http://www.caffeineandcocktails.co.uk/