Café review: Dee Caf

It’s weird, you know. I’ve been writing this blog for the best part of nine years, during which time I’ve reviewed restaurants, cafés and pubs in all manner of places. I’ve gone as far west as Bristol, as far east as London. I’ve covered Windsor and Henley, Bracknell and Wokingham, I’ve even written dispatches from further afield – from France, Spain and Belgium. So why is it, in nearly nine years, that I’ve never reviewed a single venue in Tilehurst?

Your guess is as good as mine, but I think lack of opportunity plays a big part. West Reading is a true crucible of culinary creativity, as evidenced by the likes of Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen, Momo2Go, Buon Appetito, Oishi, Kobeda Palace. And every time I trundle down the Oxford Road on the number 17 – usually for a few pints at Double-Barrelled – I see a new restaurant I’ve never heard of: I’m forever making notes of places that might feature on my to-do list. 

But somewhere west of Kensington Park, or Grovelands Road, something odd happens and you enter some kind of black spot: not of mobile reception, but of restaurants. Where are they all? Because I think in all my time writing reviews only a handful of Tilehurst establishments have even appeared on my radar. Two are Indian restaurants: one is Zyka, which won an award, but I had takeaway from there and wasn’t enormously impressed. The second is Himalayan Hotspot, which I should check out at some point (I think it’s been there forever, which is possibly the reason why I haven’t).

Then you have Tilehurst’s two cafés of note. One, The Switch, is a place which opened last September on Tilehurst Triangle. It’s co-owned by the owner of Zyka, and it looks, on paper at least, like an attempt to recreate the success of Café Yolk across town with a relatively similar menu. It’s all herbed potatoes and smashed avo and no doubt I will make my way there at some point, hopefully in less than another nine years. Maybe smashed avo will be out of fashion by then, you never know.

But my choice of venue this week is the superbly named Dee Caf, an altogether more curious beast with a very different story. It’s on Spey Road, in the heart of the Dee Park Estate, in a site which used to play host to Workhouse Coffee’s short-lived Tilehurst outpost. In September 2020, at about the worst possible time to open a hospitality business, Dee Caf opened in that space under the aegis of Tina Farrow. Farrow’s background is in education, both in the prison and food sectors, but she said she’s always loved food and wanted to create business of her own.

Dee Caf is run as a CIC, with clear links to the community it serves, and that’s obvious both from a visit to their website and to the café, in a myriad of ways. The café has a community fridge every week for people in need, runs a food bank and has equipment for litter picking (pickers are rewarded with a hot drink for their efforts). It also provides free sanitary products, runs community events for locals and has a refill station in the corner. There’s even an event for dads on Saturday mornings where they can turn up, meet other dads and enjoy a bacon sandwich and a coffee for a fiver.

On paper, at least, it looked more Fidget & Bob than Café Yolk. But all those laudable intentions didn’t necessarily mean the food was great, so on a Saturday lunchtime I headed over with Zoë – pre-Double Barrelled – to give the place a try. It was a short, slightly meandering walk from the 17 bus stop opposite the Pond House pub, and when you reach Dee Caf it does have the feel of an oasis about it, all tasteful big windows and cheery bunting. You could think you were in Copenhagen, or Rotterdam, on a sidestreet far from home; having never been to Tilehurst, I suppose technically I was. 

Inside it was plain, unassuming but agreeably homely, flooded with light from those almost full-length windows. And again, you got that sense of community from everything – art on the walls, shelves selling plants, Tilehurst Honey (the beekeeper also lives locally) and some very cool-looking postcards of the Dee Park Estate, taken by a local photographer. The menu, on an almost floor to ceiling board, also listed all of the community initiatives underneath in brightly coloured, friendly-looking script. 

It was a good and attractively priced menu, very much centred around brunch and lunch. Sandwiches tended to cost around four pounds and many of them looked far more interesting than standard issue: the “samostie”, for instance, a toastie with veggie samosa mix and yoghurt chilli chutney, or a halloumi sandwich with a lime, garlic and chipotle mojo. And it was hard not to love anywhere that offers a fish finger bap elevated by the addition of salt and vinegar crisps. Breakfasts looked more conventional, but had everything you could possibly want and, at seven pounds fifty, looked like cracking value.

There were also pastries, but I got the impression Dee Caf had had a busy Saturday morning – all those dads descending on it, perhaps – because they’d almost run out when I got there. But they too are bought locally, along with the bread and, on Fridays, eclairs from Davy at Wolseley Street (which, having tried them at Geo Café, I can confirm are bloody lovely). Dee Caf also uses a local butcher for all of its sausages, bacon and what have you; eggs, as so often with Reading indies, are from Beechwood Farm. 

All the ingredients were in place for a terrific meal so naturally I had that feeling of trepidation while we waited for our order to turn up. There were two members of staff working in the open kitchen behind the counter and both were unfailingly lovely from start to finish. So we got to watch them cooking our orders, too, although I felt a little intrusive gawping as they danced around one another fetching things from the fridge, slicing black pudding, making our lunch. It also meant that I saw the flames coming off the frying pan at a key moment and one of the staff rushing over to shake the pan and turn the heat down (“I think I’ve just flambéed your mushrooms” she called over, brightly apologetic).

First to turn up was our coffee, in enamel mugs, and that gives me a chance to get the worst of it out of the way first. My latte had that burnt acrid taste I associate with Reading’s less impressive cafés and I thought that was a real shame. Don’t get me wrong, I still had a second cup because I wanted to linger longer, but it needed more sugar than I’d usually put in to try and knock off the sharp edges. I think Dee Caf uses Kingdom Coffee, as do Café Yolk these days, and either the coffee’s not great or it’s not being made as well as it could be. Given the disappointing coffee I had from Yolk after they stopped buying from Anonymous, I think it may well be the former.

Salvation arrived, though, in the shape of quite one of the nicest breakfasts I’ve had in a long time. Dee Caf’s full English really was an embarrassment of riches, and I’m delighted to say I enjoyed practically all of it. The black pudding, cooked until it had ventured from crumbly to crispy, was beautifully earthy, the bacon (back rather than streaky, but you can’t have everything) was wonderfully substantial, salty stuff. And the sausages were gorgeous: I tend to think a full English stands or falls on the quality of the sausages and these – coarse, with proper depth of flavour – were miles better than I expected.

But the supporting players were good too. It’s hard to muck up baked beans, and they didn’t, although I know they’re not everybody’s cup of tea. The mushrooms were a bit charred, sadly, by the flambéeing incident, but I liked them all the same, and in fact blackening the cherry tomatoes had at least softened them and intensified their sweetness. I’m always happy with anybody who serves up hash browns, even if they’re from a bag in the freezer as these probably were, and there was real butter on the toast. The bread is allegedly sourdough from a local bakery: it didn’t feel particularly special, but I enjoyed it anyway. 

The one thing that was slightly weird was my solitary poached egg: given that Dee Caf also does a “half English” with half of the stuff on the full English you do wonder how they dish up half an egg. When you think that they charge one pound sixty for half a dozen eggs you’d think they could stretch to a couple with breakfast. Goodness knows how insubstantial it would have looked if I’d asked them to scramble it.

Zoë, ever the millennial, hadn’t been able to stay away from that smashed avocado. She had it in “The Avo”, Dee Caf’s toasted sandwich with avocado, crispy fried chorizo, runny egg and chipotle. Doesn’t that sound fantastic? And I’m reliably informed it was, the base of avocado picking up the the golden bounty of the egg yolk, the brick red fat from the caramelised cubes of chorizo, all crispy at the edges, and of course the kick of the chipotle. Was I allowed to try a mouthful? No I bloody wasn’t. Can I hold that against her? Absolutely not.

It was easy to tell the staff, when I went up to settle our bill, how much we’d enjoyed our food. Our bill came to twenty two pounds, not including tip, which felt like good value to me. And the lady who took my card payment enthused about the place, told me where they get their meat from (Carl Woods in Sonning Common: I’ve half a mind to make a detour there and pick some stuff up) and was clearly every bit as passionate about Dee Caf as the owner. 

There had been a steady flow of people coming in to grab food or takeaway coffees as we finished our lunch, and as we left for an appointment with a few pints of Double-Barrelled’s finest, I found myself thinking how lucky those locals were to have Dee Caf nearby. I could well imagine stopping there on a regular basis, for a pot of tea and a pastry, or a lunchtime sausage sandwich. And I’d love somewhere like that near me, but instead my local is Café Yolk. Dee Caf – unpretentious, thoroughly decent and full of heart – is almost as different from Café Yolk as The Repair Shop is from Love Island. They’re both television programmes, just as Dee Caf and Café Yolk are both cafés and Jess Phillips and Rebekah Vardy are both human beings. But really, the resemblance stops there. 

So the people of Tilehurst, and the Dee Park Estate, have a proper little gem in Dee Caf. But is it worth a detour out that way if you don’t live in the area? I think the answer is probably yes, especially if you can tie it in to a trip to Double Barrelled, or a walk around McIlroy Park (I still haven’t been, but I’m reliably informed that it’s a lovely spot). But then I’ve been known to take the bus to Kennet Island just to have brunch at Fidget & Bob: Dee Caf very much strikes me as its kindred spirit out west. It’s a wonderful example of how you can build community, and the role excellent food can play in that. I won’t leave it so long before I return to Tilehurst to review somewhere else – but a bit of me might hesitate, if only because I don’t want to mar the place’s unblemished record.

Dee Caf – 7.8
12 Spey Road, Tilehurst, RG30 4DG
0118 9960478

https://www.deecaf.co.uk

Café review: Raayo

Picture the scene: I found myself in the town centre on Sunday around noon with the afternoon to myself, and I figured it was the perfect time to try one of the many lunchtime options on my to do list. This is, it turns out, something of a growth area. Despite last year being a challenging one for hospitality, there was no shortage of relatively new places for me to explore – Italian café Madoo on Duke Street, Bru at the skanky end of Friar Street, Yaylo where Nibsy’s used to be on Cross Street, Chipstar next to the Alehouse. I used to complain frequently about Reading not having enough places for lunch, but I felt distinctly spoiled for choice.

And actually, wandering round town I discovered new lunch places I’d not even considered or known about. My Warsaw, a Polish street food hole in the wall, has opened on the ground floor of Kings Walk, and Bánh Mì QB, a place selling the Vietnamese sandwich of the gods, looks set to open a few doors down in the not too distant future. 

Meanwhile, over on West Street where Beijing Noodle House used to be, there’s a little Nepalese place called Chillim Kitchen and, right next door, an establishment called Cairo Café that does common or garden panini and wraps but also serves “Egyptian Street Food” and something called the “King Tut Breakfast”. Where had all these places come from? I guess if we had a local media worth speaking of we’d all know about these by now, whereas instead you have to rely on me mooching round at the weekend. Sorry about that.

Anyway, I figured everywhere on my list would be quiet. After all town, or at least my social media echo chamber, was completely swept up in Blue Collar Corner mania: every couple of minutes I saw another Instagram story of someone enjoying our brand new street food Mecca down Hosier Street (“it felt like I was in Ibiza” was Berkshire Live’s verdict. That’s nice). So I just assumed everybody would be there checking out all the bright shiny new things and I would have my pick of the empty cafés. 

It was a great plan, but it didn’t survive its first bruising collision with reality: Madoo was rammed and, out on Broad Street, the handful of stools in Chipstar were all occupied. As so often, Reading’s Twittersphere wasn’t a perfect reflection of town, so back to the drawing board it was. With uncanny timing, the heavens opened and I took shelter outside M&S, half tempted to abort my mission and just review a takeaway this week. And then I remembered Raayo, just down from Hickies and opposite what’s left of the Harris Arcade. 

I’d never been, and in fact I’d been a little waspish about them in my roundup at the end of 2020: at the time they had an underdeveloped website, now I’m not sure they even have a website. But I seemed to remember hearing from Zoë that some people from her work had been there and quite liked it. As I passed, it was as empty as empty could be. That didn’t raise my hopes that I was going to have a fantastic lunch, but it did make me feel for them a bit – I’ve always been drawn to the underdog – so I decided to chance my arm, and my lunch, and in I went.

It’s basically a small, open plan room which makes full use of its floor to ceiling windows looking out on to the pavement. There’s a bar alongside the window, and handsome stools to perch on, but apart from that it’s just a case of going up to the counter and placing your order. From the size I’d imagine much of their business would normally be takeaway, but as there wasn’t a soul in sight it seemed the apposite moment to try it out.

The menu, if I’m honest, looked a tad generic. There was a range of sandwiches and toasties all involving various ingredients kept under the counter, à la Reading institutions Pierre’s and Shed. A couple of sandwiches had interesting-looking components – scamorza in one, pickled fennel in another – but nothing leapt out (and seeing one of my favourite cheeses misspelt on the blackboard as “Parmsean” made my heart go out to them again – that underdog thing, I imagine). But when I asked the owner behind the counter what he recommended he pointed to their special, the pulled pork, and so I went for that.

It took just long enough to arrive, wrapped in foil like a burrito, and I found myself pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Unlike many toasties, especially at chain cafés, it was edible without being hotter than the sun, and the pulled pork was really very good. At its worst, pulled pork is a mulchy, soggy mess and usually the standard-issue barbecue sauce it tends to be paired with makes it a sickly, mulchy, soggy mess. But not so here – the pork wasn’t bone dry (as it is, for instance, at the Nag’s Head) but the balance had been struck nicely. And the barbecue sauce had a properly pleasing heat to it, without masses of sweetness. At four pounds fifty it was very generous and excellent value, and although my photo makes it look like a symphony of beige I hope you’ll take my word for it that it was a find. 

I had misread the menu, which offers plenty of extras you can put in your pulled pork sandwich. I thought they all came as standard, whereas in reality you have to pay for them. If I’d known, I’d be talking right now about the sharpness and crunch of gherkins, and the delightful texture from the crispy shallots. But sadly, I didn’t: although in some respects that might be for the best because this sandwich could stand on its own two feet without the extras. With them, next time, it could be worldbeating. 

But I was quite happy as I was, so I ate my sandwich on my stool, looking out the window at the sights of Friar Street, lost in the moment, pondering some of the great mysteries of life: why are we here? Do I eat so much nice food to distract myself from some gaping spiritual void in my life? And, perhaps most significantly, does anyone actually drink in Wild Lime? There I was, the only living boy in Raayo: behind me I could dimly make out the sound of the owner, AirPods in, chatting to somebody on his phone, vaguely audible above the hum of the fridge. All seemed right with the world, and the rain had even stopped.

I went up to order some coffee and a cookie for afters and I told him how much I’d enjoyed my sandwich. He sounded really proud of it, and he told me his story: he’d opened eighteen months ago, and it had been a really challenging time. People were starting to come back into town at last, and the weekends were surprisingly busy. He told me that he made everything himself, that the pulled pork and the barbecue sauce were both to his recipe and that although it was described as a special it was on the menu every day. I was so glad that my food hadn’t been rubbish, although of course I didn’t put it that way when I was talking to him.

The coffee isn’t great though – if you go, you might find it disappointing. It was below that top tier of Workhouse, C.U.P. and Compound, with a slightly scorched bitter note that needed more sugar to conceal it than I was prepared to put in. But it didn’t matter, because my chocolate and coconut cookie was a chewy treat – part biscuit, part macaroon, all delicious. I was so keen to eat it that I started without taking a picture, which means that the photo below is the only one in nearly nine years of writing this blog of my tiny toothmarks. He had a meal deal going so I got the coffee and a cookie for three pounds thirty – I asked him to charge me full price but he just wouldn’t. In total my sandwich, my cookie, a coffee and a soft drink cost me under a tenner: good luck getting so much stuff at Pret A Manger.

I wish I could give Raayo the kind of score that would send literally a handful of people flocking to it. But this isn’t that kind of review, and Raayo isn’t that kind of place. It’s too shy and unassuming – back to that lack of a social media presence again – and it needs to be slightly bolshier. I worry for it, a little. But then maybe if it was gobbier it would lose some of what made it such a quietly lovely place to have a peaceful, serene lunch when it felt like all the world was somewhere else. But I would recommend you try it if pulled pork is your thing, and I’ll definitely go back to try it again. 

It’s somehow hugely comforting to know that Reading still contains these little surprises, like a small hole in the wall sandwich shop where the owner makes his own pulled pork and it’s thoroughly decent. It’s good to know these places still thrive amid all the Caffe Neros and Costas that so dominate the centre of Reading, like flowers through cracks in the pavement,. And it’s a timely reminder, on an apt weekend, that you should never completely let the next big thing blind you to what’s already here, toiling away, waiting for that lucky break.

Raayo – 7.0
155 Friar Street, Reading, RG1 1HE
0118 3273418

https://www.facebook.com/Raayo155
Delivery via: Deliveroo, Uber Eats

Café review: The Collective

Some of the most prevalent of Reading’s many cynics are people I like to call the Not Another Brigade. They crop up all the time: Not another burger place, they say. Not another coffee shop. If I had a fiver for every time I’ve heard someone say that, I could open a coffee shop of my own. Shortly after doing so, I’d hear enough not anothers to be able to open another, and another, and another.

Although when it comes to burgers, they might have a point. Aside from Gordon Ramsay’s new outpost where Giraffe used to be, there’s one opening on St Mary’s Butts in the old Pizza Express site, one on the Oxford Road opposite the Broad Street Mall, one more taking up the Sprinkles Gelato building next to Smash N’ Grab, itself another – that word again – burger restaurant. Oh, and Slam Burger on Christchurch Green, which will offer burgers called the Big Slam and – ridiculous name alert – the “Beef Wooper”. There was once a Black Country establishment called Kent’s Tuck Inn Fried Chicken. Slam Burger could learn a lot from them: if you’re going to be shameless, at least be funny with it. 

Coffee shops are a different matter. People have been saying not another coffee shop ever since C.U.P. opened next to Reading Minster, but now C.U.P. has another branch on Blagrave Street and a third, a recent addition, in the Broad Street Mall. We get new coffee places all the time. Compound Coffee is now operating out of the ground floor of the Biscuit Factory, and something called “Artizan” (showing that swapping an S for a Z always makes a brand look classier) has opened in the building once occupied by Nineties throwback Smokin’ Billy’s.

It’s not a story of unchecked growth, though: the year hasn’t been without its closures in caféland. Earlier this year Anonymous Coffee pulled out of the Tasting House, shortly before the Tasting House pulled out of Chain Street. And only a few weeks ago punters heading for Tamp Culture outside the Oracle were surprised to find an empty space where the kiosk used to be. Tamp had upped sticks and left after over seven years trading at that pitch with no farewell: they’ve since put something on their website. Do these closures prove that Reading can’t sustain (not) another café, or is it just the circle of life?

One part of Reading that has traditionally felt poorly served for cafés is Caversham. There was a time when you had Costa and Alto Lounge, and that was pretty much it. Then in 2016 Tipsy Bean opened, serving something you could loosely describe as coffee, and so did Nomad Bakery. And for a while we also had Siblings Home, a little place on the Hemdean Road: I liked it a great deal, but its owners had a haphazard approach to some of the basics, such as being open when you’d expect them to be. Anyway, that flurry of activity didn’t last long – Nomad, Tipsy Bean and Siblings Home have all ceased trading.

But in more recent times, there’s been a new wave of cafés in Caversham trying to challenge the dominance of Costa. So now Geo Café, which is part cafe, part delicatessen slash general store, is where Nomad used to be, but you also have Gardens Of Caversham, a third branch of the Workhouse empire, in the old Lloyds Bank building. At the more traditional end of the spectrum, there’s the superbly named Nathan’s Nibbles. And up past the Griffin you’ll find The Collective, the subject of this week’s review.

It’s a combination of café and “lifestyle store” and it opened last summer, the brainchild of locals Sam Smith and Susie Jackson (although I gather the latter has now left the business). It’s built up a good reputation over the last year, even scoring a mention in cult coffee blog Brian’s Coffee Spot, and yet shamefully I hadn’t visited until recently, when I sat in their courtyard on a warm afternoon and had a coffee. I made a mental note that I should check out the menu, so I returned on a Monday lunchtime to see what the food was like.

The Collective has obvious kerb appeal. It used to be a newsagent, but they’ve done a fantastic job converting it to a double-aspect café and shop with big windows, and the overall effect is far more like something Scandi, or at least European, than any other café in town. There are a couple of tables outside on Church Road, a handful inside, and a courtyard out back which has the majority of the seating. Inside there are a fair few homewares on display, and a counter displays plenty of appetising-looking baked goods. You order at the counter, then take a number to your table.

My table was out in the courtyard, which is truly a gorgeous space. They’ve clearly put a lot of work and thought into it, with a lovely panelled roof letting in plenty of sunlight and keeping out any rain. I can imagine it being an attractive spot when the weather takes a turn for the worse, with plenty of tasteful overhead lighting which will help as the afternoons become gloomy. It felt very polished – I’m so used to cafés that open before they’re quite ready and always look somewhat unfinished, so it made a welcome change to go somewhere so fully realised.

And it was packed – I arrived just before one o’clock and got one of the last free tables. When I did, every table indoors was already taken and there was a decent queue building for the counter. It gave the whole place a companionable bustle, and I enjoyed sitting among the great and the good north of the river, although it did make me feel increasingly guilty about taking up a table all to myself.

The menu sensibly doesn’t try to do too much, with sections for brunch, sandwiches and salads. There’s nothing as pedestrian as a full English, and the brunches are more Granger & Co than Gregg’s. Prices range from six pounds fifty to nine fifty, and there’s a selection of sourdough toasties including a regularly-changing special. Suppliers are name-checked – not enough places do this – so you know that the bread comes from Rise, the bacon from The Caversham Butcher and the eggs from Stokes Farm. I didn’t clock who makes the cakes, so it’s possible that they use a selection of suppliers for those.

I was sorely tempted by the mushrooms, glossy with tamari and tumbled onto toasted sourdough, after seeing them arrive at a neighbouring table, but after mulling it over I opted for the bacon and maple syrup brioche French toast. And a good decision it was too: just look at it. 

Not bad, eh? But it didn’t just look the part – which is crucial, because this is a dish that’s easy to get wrong in many ways. You can over-soak the bread with egg, so that eating it becomes a stodgy chore. Not so here: The Collective wisely used brioche which made it airy, beautifully light. You can use back bacon – the enemy of brunches everywhere – but The Collective has gone for thick, crispy streaky bacon which was cooked bang on. Or you can be stingy with the maple syrup. So many places are, giving you one of those depressing minuscule cardboard cups, barely half-full, to trickle over. Here, the whole thing swum stickily in the stuff, exactly as it should.

This dish costs nine pounds fifty, the most expensive thing on the menu. That pricing could be seen as on the sharp side, and if you charge that much you have to get everything right, but The Collective did. I wouldn’t be doing my job as Reading’s answer to Craig Revel Horwood if I didn’t say that the icing sugar dusted on top was probably unnecessary, or that in an ideal world there would have been at least a third rasher of bacon, but those are minor details. It was a cracking brunch dish all the same, and one I’d order again without hesitation.

Coffee is by Extract, a Bristol roastery, and I liked it: definitely at or around the standard of The Collective’s neighbours. And, partly to test more of the menu but mostly out of greed, I’d also ordered a double chocolate brownie. I do wish people wouldn’t put the napkin under the cake – a hill I’ll probably die on, some day – but the brownie was impressive work, a brittle exterior giving way to a fudgy core, with tectonic plates of chocolate studded throughout. Only a slightly aggressive sweetness marred it a tiny bit: it either needed less sugar, or darker chocolate. But again, there’s a note of Revel Horwood to that observation, because I had to look hard to find any fault.

Service was a tad brusque when I first got there, for one obvious reason – they were rammed. But things got warmer and smilier as the café calmed down slightly, and the lady who took my plates away told me they weren’t usually anywhere near this busy on a Monday lunchtime. “Shouldn’t they all be at work?” I asked, fully aware of the irony in that. My meal – brunch, a latte and a brownie – came to just shy of sixteen pounds, not including tip. I walked home, propelled by a slight sugar rush, keen to get back and write this.

I was delighted to like The Collective as much as I did. It strikes me that all of Caversham’s cafés (well, ones that aren’t Costa, anyway) bring something different to the proverbial table. Gardens Of Caversham is for coffee purists, Geo Café has a particular and distinctive charm. Nathan’s Nibbles has an almost unimprovable name. But The Collective, it seems to me, is the natural successor to the much-missed (by me, anyway) Siblings Home – stylish and poised, with that interesting blend of hospitality and retail.

It also happens to cook one of the best brunches I’ve had in Reading – easily better, for instance, than Café Yolk’s. The contrast with Café Yolk is an apt one: The Collective is sleek and grown up, it buys good produce and it makes the best use of it. It feels very ‘Caversham’ – but, more than that, it reflects how Caversham would like to see itself rather than how it sometimes is (and, for the avoidance of doubt, I mean that as a compliment). So yes, another café. But more importantly, an extremely good one. Reading can always do with more of those.

The Collective – 7.9
25 Church Road, Reading, RG4 7AA
0118 3272728

https://www.thecollectivecaversham.co.uk

Café review: Café Yolk

N.B. As of March 2022, Café Yolk no longer uses Anonymous Coffee as a supplier and their coffee now isn’t as good. That was a factor in the rating I gave them, so it’s probably worth bearing in mind.

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 huge. 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

As of May 2022, The Pantry has been closed for a long old time. It was converted to a Covid test centre and has not reopened. You’re not missing much, but I’ll leave the review up for posterity.

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/