Feature: Table for one

What a difference three years makes: back in 2015, when I last posted a guide to solo dining, I waxed lyrical about it as an experience but, truth be told, I didn’t do it that often. Now and again when my spouse went away on business, mainly, or on the odd occasion when I had a day off to myself, but my experience of it was more limited than my paean of praise made it sound. It probably shows in the piece, because – despite my best intentions – it read more as advice and consolation for those who found themselves unfortunate enough to be eating alone, rather than a celebration of the joys of a table for one.

These days I have a far richer experience of eating on your own, at all points on the spectrum. Separation, divorce, self-discovery, solo holidays, working out that some of your friends aren’t actually friends at all: all that Eat Pray Love bullshit has many effects but one of them, for me, was to give me a far better understanding of the benefits of going to a restaurant accompanied only by a copy of Private Eye (and my phone, for when the cynicism gets too much). Fast forward three years, and I’ve eaten on my own all over the place.

I’ve been jammed in at the bar at a hot – in both senses – packed no-reservation London place on a weekday lunchtime. I’ve spoiled myself by ordering from the a la carte menu at Nirvana Spa, in my fluffy white robe, peering at my paperback between courses. I’ve dined at Pierre Victoire, pretending to pay attention to a magazine while really people watching North Oxford’s finest eating and chatting, imagining all those different lives intersecting, albeit briefly, with mine. And last year I spent the best part of a week in Paris on my own, reinventing old favourites and discovering new ones. A good table, a good view, a good glass of wine and a good book, alone but not lonely; I might not have learned to completely love eating alone, but I certainly came to appreciate it.

Closer to home, there’s a lot to be said for a table for one and lots of occasions where it can be a positive pleasure. The quick solo meal on the way to meet friends in the pub, especially people from the “eating is cheating” brigade (just me, maybe, but I’ve always found that a dreary philosophy to live by). The drawn-out lunch on a Saturday when you have the day to yourself. Or even just the moment – and this might just be me – where I get off the train at Reading station (or Gare Du Ding, as I keep calling it) and I just can’t be arsed to cook. The sun is shining, I have nowhere in particular to be and I think how nice it would be to treat myself before heading home.

Not only has my life changed a lot in the last three years: Reading has too. Two of my choices last time around are not currently trading. I Love Paella has left the Fisherman’s Cottage (in contentious circumstances: less said about that the better) and Dolce Vita has left Kings Walk, forced out by a greedy landlord who wanted to make more money. If Namaste Kitchen was still running its menu from earlier in the year it would have made this list, because I couldn’t imagine anything finer than going there and having a beer, a plate of paneer pakora and a chicken chow mein (one of the joys of eating solo, in a small plates restaurant like Namaste Kitchen, is not having to share food for once).

And of course, I still miss Georgian Feast (the artist formerly known as Caucasian Spice Box) back when they cooked from the Turks Head. It became a regular ritual for me to head over there and eat on my own for the first half of last year: meatballs, spiced chicken thighs, sharply dressed salad and cheese bread – oh, and a pint of Strongbow Cloudy Apple. At the time I was living in a truly awful one bedroom flat, and it felt like having friends cook for you which, after a while, I suppose it sort of was; sometimes you can tell a lot about a restaurant by how it treats solo diners.

The other way that this list has changed since 2015 is that it reflects the rise of what, for want of a better phrase, I would call the Good Chain. Smaller, smarter chains are coming to Reading and they can often provide a little bit of the intimacy of an independent restaurant with some of the polish you associate with a bigger establishment. I make no apology for including so many of them here, because I’m interested in good restaurants – and good restaurants to eat alone in – and it’s not my fault that Reading doesn’t yet have the kind of independents, especially in the town centre, that get this stuff right.

I eat alone less often these days than I used to, nowadays, but a good meal alone is still a wonderful act of self-care, provided you pick the right venue. No quibbles about splitting the bill, nobody judging you for ordering too much, or having the expensive wine. No rush, nobody to please but yourself, and all that people watching. So here are my current recommendations – I hope they come in handy, and if you’ve always considered eating out on your own a step too far I really would encourage you to give it a try.

1. Bakery House

The perfect combination of food and anonymity.

I’ve grown to love an early evening meal alone at Bakery House. I sit facing out into that long, slightly chilly room, sip on an orange Mirinda (it’s basically Tango) and wait for the food to arrive. Some days I’ll munch on maqaneq: little, punchy sausages – you get an awful lot of them. On others I might go for the smooth, rich houmous beiruty, glossy and packed with tahini, beautiful piled on a big bubble of pitta, fresh from the oven.

That done, I can look forward to the main event. I tend to order the lamb shawarma – a big mound of intensely flavoured shreds of lamb, with garlic sauce, chilli sauce and terrific vegetable rice. But then there are also the delights of the boneless baby chicken, all charred skin and tender meat, a holiday on a plate. What could be better than being so transported?

The service at Bakery House can verge on standoffish, grumpy even. In other contexts that might be frustrating, but there’s something oddly comforting about how anonymous you can feel eating there. They don’t care whether you’re in a big group, on a date or alone, they’re simply there to bring you food and to leave you in peace. They’re like the barber that knows better than to talk to you when he’s cutting your hair, and some of my happiest, most meditative meals have taken place at Bakery House.

Bakery House, 82 London Street, RG1 4SJ
http://bakeryhouse.co

2. Cote

Three courses, because you deserve them.

Cote, for me, is for the full solo three course experience. Sitting on the banquette looking out into the room is one of the best, most uplifting ways that you can say “I deserve this”, whether you’re ordering from the set menu or the full a la carte. The latter sometimes has some brilliant specials – confit duck, perhaps, or the rare treat of a skate wing swimming with butter and festooned with capers (there isn’t much in life that rivals flipping a skate wing over halfway through eating it and realising that you have the thick side yet to come).

The set menu really comes into its own on summer days, when you can sit at a little table outside, with a view of the canal. I like to drink a Breton cider, crisp and almost sweet, and watch the world go by while I make my choices. Some of the dishes are good, and some are great, but all are stupidly reasonably priced, and the act of eating before 7pm means that you’re likely to be finished before the light has faded and the best of the evening has gone. I used to think “if I tried hard I could imagine I was in Paris right now”, but these days I think “I’m so lucky to live here.”

Cote, 9 The Oracle Centre, RG1 2AG
https://www.cote.co.uk/brasserie/reading

3. Franco Manca

Comfort food, elevated.

When it comes to comfort, little can top cheese on toast – and if anything can, it might be Franco Manca’s sourdough pizza. I have a real soft spot for their anchovy and caper version (ask for extra anchovies, because although Franco Manca is very reasonably priced you do to some extent get what you pay for). That said, their standard margarita is also worth a go, topped with whatever extras they have on the menu that day (the picture above, coppa and Ogleshield cheddar, was a particular high point). Oh, and have a blue cheese or pesto dip, because it really does transform the whole thing.

Franco Manca is perfect for a quick stop, but it’s actually not hard to make it more of a treat. Some of the starters – especially anything with mozzarella (smoked or otherwise), burrata or fennel salami – well worth lingering over, as long as you can overlook the fact that most of them are stuff you’d put on a pizza taken off a pizza and served cold on a plate instead. I can, anyway. And finally, the chocolate ice cream is pretty decent as is my personal favourite, a crafty affogato.

When I first reviewed Franco Manca I liked the food and was sceptical about the room, mainly because it was impossible to hear your dining companion. It turns out that really isn’t an issue when you go on your own, which means that what could be a wall of noise becomes a strangely comforting hubbub. Sitting outside, on a summer day, is also a lovely thing to do.

Franco Manca, The Oracle, Bridge Street, RG1 2AT
https://www.francomanca.co.uk/restaurants/reading

4. Honest Burgers

Meat and potatoes.

I said the Good Chains had this eating alone business down pat, and you would struggle to find a better example of that than Honest Burgers. Much has been made, quite rightly, of what a beautiful job they did with the interior. And plenty has been written about the virtues of the Reading burger, making the most of our local suppliers. Not to mention the King Street Pale, a truly wonderful beer which even I, more of a lager fan, can neck by the pint.

Well, yes. But for my money, the best thing to do at Honest is forego the Reading special and whatever the flavour of the month is and let Honest do what they do best, which is serve cheeseburgers. I go for their most basic burger, topped with cheddar, and that way you can really taste the quality of the beef, the char of the crust, the hint of salt.

Your mileage may vary, but in any case it really is another fantastic venue to eat well and unfussily, especially if you have somewhere to go shortly afterwards. My stepfather has got into the habit of grabbing an Honest before taking in a movie at Vue, and he is a man who knows what he’s doing.

Honest Burgers, 1-5 King Street, RG1 2HB
https://www.honestburgers.co.uk/locations/reading/

5. Kokoro

Dinner on the run.

Kokoro is an illustration of what I call the “yaki soba effect”. Back when I used to go to Wagamama, I always ordered the yaki soba, a big heap of noodles with chicken and prawns and pickled ginger and plenty of good stuff. It never let me down, and became my takeaway of choice for a while. Then I decided I really ought to branch out, but every time I did my meal was plain disappointing – and, usually, I had to watch someone else eat yaki soba in front of me while I pretended to enjoy chicken katsu curry (a dish which always looks a tad too scatological for my liking).

Kokoro is the same – it’s all about the sweet chilli chicken. I mean, just look at that picture up there. Look at it! Doesn’t it make you peckish? A glossy, fiery deep red sauce (and these days they give you enough to coat the rice or noodles) with clearly visible garlic – the best kind of garlic, if you ask me – and piece after piece of tender, crispy-coated chicken. They serve it in either a medium or a large cardboard tub: the medium is quite big enough for anybody, but the large only costs a pound more. The whole thing comes in at the six or seven quid mark, and it’s one of the very best dinners on the run Reading has to offer. You sit at a basic wooden table, polish it off and watch other people come in and place their orders – usually for the sweet chilli chicken, unsurprisingly.

Last time I went, I decided to try the chicken curry instead. It had lots of tender, chicken thigh cooked into strands. It had an anonymous brown sauce which tasted largely of nothing. It was, in short, not the sweet chilli chicken, and that’s when I realised that I won’t make that mistake again. Kokoro also sells chicken katsu curry, but who on earth orders that? People who don’t like the yaki soba at Wagamama, I suppose.

Kokoro, 13 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1SY
http://kokorouk.com/

6. Sapana Home

Because the best things come in multiples of ten.

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Ten pan-fried chicken momo cost six pounds fifty at Sapana Home. They come on a plate, clustered round a little dish of hot dipping sauce, and when you have them pan fried they have a slightly caramelised exterior which seals the deal. A plate of Sapana Home’s momo, I think, can gladden even the heaviest heart. My favourite momo is the fifth one: before that, they pass too quickly and you eat them almost without savouring them, whereas after that you are maybe a little too aware that your pleasure – as most pleasures do – is inevitably coming to an end.

There are other dishes there I recommend, if you’re feeling greedy. The chicken fry is wonderful – pieces of chicken, spring onion and tomato with that same hot sauce. The chow mein, which is fundamentally the chicken fry plus noodles, is also splendid. And if you feel more adventurous I heartily recommend the samosa chaat, a glorious four-way pile-up involving samosas, yoghurt, crispy noodles and red onion.

Late 2016, when I took a break from reviewing restaurants, was a pretty bleak period in my life. Nothing was going right, and when I finished work and got back into town on the train I really didn’t want to go home any time soon, much of the time. What got me through many difficult days, back then, was a plate of momo at Sapana Home. It’s a little place, and it’s best to sit upstairs if you can, where there is daylight. The service is brusque but not unkind. There was a period when sitting there, eating momo and listening to the oddly comforting (if mindless) strains of Heart FM was truly my happy place.

If any further illustration was needed, it’s this. The photo above was taken last night: writing this made me want to go back, so I did. Things have changed a little since I last went: the music was classic Bollywood rather than commercial radio, and the momo (they now do lamb too, although I didn’t order them) were slightly less packed with filling, lighter and more delicate. It was like seeing an old friend after a while and realising they’ve lost weight. I did, for a moment, consider putting Kings Grill in this sixth spot instead. But I’ve kept Sapana Home on this list – it may be mainly for sentimental reasons, but momos six to ten were still as bittersweet.

Sapana Home, 8 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1TG
http://sapanahome.co.uk/

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Feature: Solo dining

One of my favourite things about this gig is all the times I’m asked to recommend a restaurant. No two requests are exactly the same, so one day it will be What’s the best Indian restaurant in the town centre? and the next it will be Where’s good for a special occasion? Or sometimes the requests are more specific: Does anywhere have a private room that could deal with about fifteen only slightly rowdy diners? Where can I go that’s quite upmarket but I could go with my kids (oh, and preferably gluten free)?

One question I never get asked, though, is Where’s the best place to eat on your own? I guess ER readers are a sociable bunch and never think to eat out alone (I know a few of you are only down in Reading during the week for work, and have used the blog to find places to eat while you’re away from your families: really glad that it’s come in handy!). Or perhaps it’s because of the stigma attached to dining solo; it feels like this is sometimes judged in a way that going to the cinema, for example, just wouldn’t be. Waiting staff in restaurants don’t always help – I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been asked whether someone is joining me followed by the look of confusion or pity when I say actually, no, nobody is.

There’s a lot to be said for eating alone – being able to read a newspaper or a paperback between courses (and being able to put it down to take part in people watching, one of my favourite hobbies). Being able to order whatever you like without being silently judged; it can’t just be me who has friends like this? And, odd though this might sound, I love being in a restaurant on my own with all that bustle going on around me: silence is all very well, but there’s also something about the chatter of a buzzy restaurant which makes for very comforting background noise.

The perfect restaurant for solo dining has to meet slightly different criteria. Obviously the food has to be good – that never changes – but apart from that other considerations are higher up the list. Good tables for one which don’t involve you being stuck in a corner facing the wall in the spot specially designated for Billy No Mates. A decent view, preferably with a steady stream of passers-by. And, last but not least, the kind of warm service that doesn’t make you feel like a charity case who’s been stood up.

My best solo meal this year was in Pierre Victoire in Oxford, one of my favourite restaurants. I had a day off on my own and I went in on the off chance. They found me a lovely table upstairs, facing out into a room full of happy, boisterous, gesticulating diners. I had the two course set menu with a nice big glass of red (because I could) and an Orangina, served in that iconic glass bottle. I ate my food, I managed to finish off my book in between courses, and I just about managed to convince myself that I was in France after all: damn near unimprovable. So anyway, if you haven’t enjoyed the delights of a table for one I reckon you’re missing out. Here are six of my favourite places to do that in Reading, in case you fancy making like Jason Derulo.

I Love Paella

This part-time restaurant is fast becoming one of my new favourites in Reading. The seats at the windows offer a view which is every bit as good as television, onto the Oxford Road in all its chaotic, character-strewn glory. Food is bite-sized and it’s perfectly fine to order a couple of dishes, then a couple more if you haven’t had enough (and then, if you’re me, a choripan montadito for the road). There’s no alcohol license, so you can take along your own alcoholic drinks: personally I like a nice cold beer, or – judge away – gin and tonic in a can. Usually it’s a one man band here, so front of house is also the chef: he’s warm and welcoming and always seems slightly surprised to be busy, even though he deserves to be. Other diners here are especially lovely, with the large table in the middle fit for sharing, should you decide that you want a little conversation with your (amazing) pulled pork empanada.

ILPEmpanada

Côte

Somehow Côte manages to be the acceptable face of chains on the Oracle, with an interior that is perfect for a party of one. The tables round the edge are comfy and cosseting and mean that it’s possible to be tucked away whilst still getting to watch all the human traffic in the rest of the room. If the weather is nice the tiny outside tables facing onto the canal are even better – perfect to watch passers-by passing by, perhaps with a novel, a pair of sunglasses to hide behind and a glass of vin blanc to sip. The tuna nicoise remains one of my favourite dishes in Reading – and if you’re dining alone you can have that basket of bread all to yourself, because you’re worth it *swish swish*. There has been some recent controversy about whether Côte trousers all of the “optional” 12.5% service charge: the Evening Standard says they do, Côte vehemently denies that. Either way, probably best to knock it off the bill and tip cash, if only to reward the consistently excellent service.

Bakery House

A recent discovery, Bakery House is perfect for solo dining. It’s an unfussy room, the service is nice but unobtrusive and it’s always full of other diners enjoying some of the most interesting food in Reading right now. Because it’s emphatically casual dining you won’t be interrupted or turned or moved on, so you can take your time. And the dishes are well worth taking time over: last time I went there on my own I had the ozey lamb, a heap of spiced rice with minced lamb with big slices of lamb shank on top of it. Separate the meat from the fat, shred, mix in with the rice and eat with big dollops of thickened yoghurt. Utter bliss. No alcohol license here either, but people tell me the home made mint lemonade is so good you won’t miss it. Oh, and be warned: many of the dishes make liberal use of garlic so you might also want to remain solo if you go on anywhere after your meal.

BakeryChickSkew

Yo! Sushi

Yes, I know it’s another chain but there’s something about conveyor belt dining that is absolutely perfect for eating alone. You can choose what you like without having to compromise and you can clock up as many brightly coloured bowls as you like without anyone looking down their nose at you. Also, Yo! offers great people-watching potential as you look at other people sitting by the belt and imagine what their stories could be. The other advantage of turning Japanese is that this is one place where the staff only speak when spoken to. So if you’re feeling antisocial – or really engrossed in your book – it’s possible to have the whole meal without being interrupted, unless you want to order something that isn’t on the belt (I’d recommend the spicy pepper squid or the avocado maki). Shopping in House of Fraser beforehand is entirely optional; I do it, but the less said about my Paperchase habit the better.

Dolce Vita

Dolce Vita makes this list because there’s nowhere like it in Reading for service: the staff are all, without exception, warm and friendly and if you’re dining alone they check up on you to make sure you are alone but not lonely. It feels a little like eating round a friend’s house – a trick very few restaurants get right, mainly because so many of them can be a little over-friendly. The set menu remains pretty solid value and usually has some unusual stuff on it (at the time of writing the shakshuka – baked eggs – is especially good) but to be honest you could do a lot worse than a pizza. To top it all off, a seat on the balcony offers a nice view out and, on good days, plenty of sunshine.

Tasting House

I never used to be sure about settling in at the Tasting House – the furniture always seemed to scream stay here if you absolutely must – but since then a subtle refurb has made it somewhere you really want to linger. My absolute favourite spot is at a stool in the window, watching the people of Reading strolling down Chain Street (and in most cases doing a double take, as if they have never seen a wine bar before, let alone one with cheese boards). Food here is on the nibbly side, with cheeses and meats to pick at while enjoying your wine. Particular high points for me are the coppa and the tomato chutney, heaped onto a strong cheddar or a stinky blue. The staff here are the opposite of Yo! – if you’re having trouble choosing they’re as approachable as they are knowledgeable. Oh, and if you don’t have a Tasting House card for the enomatic machines it doesn’t matter – they can give you a staff card to use and bill you at the end. Only one thing stops it being the perfect solo destination – I’ve never managed to get a decent mobile signal there to go on Facebook and tell everybody how much fun I’m having. Oh well – there’s no shame in a restaurant being humblebrag-proof, is there?

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Round-up: One year of Edible Reading

A slightly different round-up this week; I’m not going to do the usual summary of past reviews. I’m not doing restaurant news this week either, because there isn’t much news: the places which are due to open (CAU, Rynd) are still due to open and nowhere has closed that I know of, unless you’re devastated that Reading has lost one of its two Bella Italias (and if you are, I’m not quite sure why you’re reading this). We do have a gluten free café opening on Cross Street, so there’s that I suppose, but that’s all. Instead, it’s a chance to round up a year in the life of Reading’s restaurant scene, because Edible Reading is one year old.

There have definitely been changes in the last year. As always, we’ve seen a steady churn of restaurants opening and closing: we’ve said goodbye to some, like Kyklos and the Lobster Room, and hello to others, like La Courbe and Coconut. I was sad about Kyklos – it never lived up to its potential, but some of the dishes were good and the service was excellent, and it would have been lovely to be able to eat Greek food (a really underrated cuisine) in the centre of town. The new boys are also a mixed bag – La Courbe does brilliant food but never quite feels like a restaurant, and Coconut isn’t quite distinctive enough to offer something different in a town with plenty of options already.

The more interesting arrivals have been in Reading’s cafés: with My Kitchen and Lincoln Coffee opening in the centre there have never been more alternatives to the hegemony of Coffee Corner. If you add in the other lunch possibilities, like Bhel Puri (another welcome opening in the last year), and the other contributors to Reading’s coffee scene (those lovely chaps at Tamp Culture), this is an area where things definitely feel like they’re changing for the better. I’m just sorry that Cappuccina Café, with its delicious banh mi and pasteis de nata, didn’t stay the course too.

There’s more to food culture than restaurants, and this too is one of the more promising signs over the last twelve months. Reading now has a top-notch wine merchant in the shape of the Tasting House, and The Grumpy Goat offers a mind-boggling range of beers and many of the area’s delicious cheeses. The recent spate of supper clubs in the area also shows that food has never been as important to Reading as it is today, and although we still don’t have enough street food at least we have the artisan market on Fridays, even if the opening hours are plain silly. It’s a start, anyway.

Anyway, I was wondering how else to best round up the year, and then I realised: I am totally out of step with the zeitgeist. Journalism these days is all about lists – you only have to read a Buzzfeed link to figure that out – and I haven’t done a single list all year! What was I thinking? So, without further ado, here’s how I’d like to sum up a year of Edible Reading, with a list. Reviewing restaurants is all about reviewing meals, evenings, experiences – and sometimes that misses the point that there can be great dishes tucked away even in middling meals. So to redress the balance, here for your delectation, in sort-of-alphabetical order, is a list of the ten best things I’ve eaten in the last year while reviewing restaurants for the blog. Zeitgeist here I come!

1. Yum gai yang, Art Of Siam. This salad is all about contrast (and not at all about leaves and lettuce). The chicken is perfectly soft and cooked and the vegetables seem to be purely there for texture as nothing, but nothing, stands up to the flavour of the dressing. It has tons of heat – enough chilli to require a glass of milk or at least a handkerchief – but also has the tartness of fresh limes to create a liquor in the bottom of the dish that’s worth spooning up because it is so fab. The flavour is super intense and salty and is enough to render even me speechless (or that might just be the chilli).

2. Lamb karahi, Bhoj. The little silver bowls of meat at Bhoj remind me of spice bowls in an eastern market which seems very apt for this dish. The lamb (and “juicy baby lamb” at that) has been cooked for so long that it falls apart into shreds at the lightest touch of a fork and the sauce is much drier than the usual British-Indian chunks-of-meat-in-an-orange-sauce affair. Here, it’s more a sticky, rich, spiced gravy with the odd cardamom pod for accidental-eating fun. Order one for yourself because you won’t want to share. I did, and I still regret it now.

3. Chilli paneer, Bhel Puri House. I could never turn vegetarian – it’s just not in my nature – but this dish at Reading’s only (to my knowledge) vegetarian restaurant is so good that adding bacon wouldn’t improve it. High praise indeed! The small cubes of paneer are marinated in chilli and fried. That’s it. But, my goodness, they’re so good! The layer of lettuce underneath is pointless and if you accidentally eat a green chilli thinking it’s a green bean (I mean, who would make such a mistake? erm…) you realise where all the heat comes from. Not so hot that it burns and tingles but enough to make every sticky cube worth fighting over.

4. Bread and butter, Côte.
Bread. Such a simple thing, right? But at how many places in Reading can you get truly decent bread? A two quid basket of bread at Côte is six diagonal slices of what is arguably the best bread in Reading – crispy and slightly chewy on the outside, fluffy and malty on the inside. It’s served with a little pot of room temperature salted butter which melts as it goes onto the warm bread. If you’re canny it’s worth splitting each finger of bread into two to make the most of the surface area. It’s a perfect amuse bouche before getting down to the serious business of ordering (and when you do, Côte’s tuna niçoise also came close to making this list – just saying).

5. Chips and mayonnaise, The Eldon Arms.
A bowl of chips is another simple pleasure that’s often done terribly. Whilst the French fry has its place, proper chips should always be thick cut. In the Eldon the chips were served without pomp, without daft toppings or being put into a pointless gimmicky tiny frying basket: not affected, just bloody delicious. Thick cut, crispy on the outside and fluffy on the outside. Simple. Then served with a bowl of proper (there’s that word again) home made mayonnaise which had enough garlic in it to make enemies the next day but with no fanfare to announce its arrival because, in the chef’s eyes, it was just mayonnaise. It saddens me greatly that the Eldon is closed, and the burgers got all the plaudits but strangely it’s the chips I miss most.

6. Chicken lahsooni tikka, House Of Flavours.
Chicken tikka is one of those dishes that has entered the British lexicon, a shorthand for Indian food that so often gets abused and made into something cheap. This, though, is nothing like the chicken tikka flavour you’d get in a Pot Noodle (and, regrettably, I know this for a fact because I had one recently – never again). The chicken, marinated in spice and yoghurt, is as soft as butter, as if it’s only just been cooked through, no more. The spices are rich and smooth and best of all, in my opinion, there’s lots of garlic too. A squeeze of fresh lemon juice over the top to give it a bit of zing and you have, I reckon, about as perfect as starter as can be.

7. Mixed grill, La Courbe. What’s not to like about a restaurant that can serve up meat in this many different ways and for them all to be really good? The lamb kofte is soft and herby, rather than hot. The chicken is marinated in ginger and cooked so the inside is soft but the outside is caramelised. The grilled lamb comes flavoured with cinnamon to give a slightly sweet taste and cooked so it’s just pink but still soft. The dollop of houmous on the side was surprisingly average, but the superb tabbouleh also deserves special mention: fresh, clean and green.

8. Tuna tartare, Malmaison. Like I said, even bad meals can contain brilliant dishes and despite the gloomy surroundings this dish shone brightly in the Malmaison firmament (only partly because of the glass plate they served it on). The tuna was super fresh and went perfectly with the avocado, truly ripe with that delicious buttery taste. The wasabi and slivers of pickled ginger on the side were perfect dotted onto a forkful of tuna and avocado, and the sesame dressing drizzled round the edge had a slight sticky sweetness which made it worth mopping up. If only the rest of the restaurant had lived up to the food.

9. Crab ravioli, Pepe Sale. As the first restaurant to get the ER treatment it pleases me greatly that Pepe Sale makes it onto this list. The crab ravioli is on the specials menu so often that it should become a standard, especially as it’s so good. The ravioli is perfectly cooked, just al dente, and made fresh that day on the marble counter just inside the door. The fluffy crab inside is more generous than it needs to be (but then that’s probably how Pepe Sale has maintained a loyal following for the past fifteen years). The tomato and cream sauce is rich but not overwhelming so a bowlful feels like a treat not an overindulgence. A year on, one of the first dishes I reviewed is still one of the very best.

10. Fried chicken, rice and peas, Perry’s. Perry’s, despite its size, is one of the more intimidating places I’ve eaten since I started ER. I’m glad I went in, though, because it does food that I would struggle to get anywhere else. The chicken is seasoned, coated in flour and fried and then served with a generous helping of rice and peas. Calling it rice and peas is one hell of an understatement, mind. This a side dish on the scale of your mum’s best stew – rice and peas cooked in stock, herbs and spices that are too numerous for me to identify. There’s plenty of chilli in there but the whole flavour is more sophisticated than plain old chilli suggests. Even if it wasn’t an amazing dish in its own right, I’d want it on this list because, more than anything, it symbolises food I would never have eaten if I hadn’t started this blog.

Getting that list down to just ten dishes was no mean feat – no room, sadly, for the ribs at Blue’s Smokehouse, the churros at Tampopo, the truffle ravioli at Ruchetta and countless others. It just goes to show how much good food is out there in and around Reading if you know where to look – and sometimes even if you don’t – despite our reputation as a clone town.

When I started Edible Reading I did wonder if there was enough here to keep me going. A whole year of weekly reviews, the majority of them in central Reading, suggests that I may have been worrying unduly. Without a doubt, the best thing about the last year has been the involvement from everyone who reads the blog – commenting, passing on reviews, Retweeting and getting involved with the conversations. And even now, every time someone tells me they’ve tried and loved a restaurant after reading an Edible Reading review it absolutely makes my day. So please don’t forget to request places you’d like to see reviewed – and if you think I’m missing that one great dish that you order time and time again, add your two pence in the comments box.

Round-up: February and March

Another bumper couple of months here at Edible Reading, so it seems like a good point to stop, take a breather and review what you may have missed, along with the latest selection of restaurant news. Are you sitting comfortably? Got a nice cup of tea to hand, or coffee if that’s your preference? Maybe a biscuit too, be it a Custard Cream or a Choco Leibniz? Excellent, then I’ll begin (but not without saying that, if it is a Choco Leibniz, you can colour me envious). Let’s start with a summary of the most recent reviews…

Thai Corner, 7.0 – One of Reading’s longest serving restaurants, Thai Corner is still plying a busy trade at the end of town which has never been that fashionable. Is it a timeless staple, or an anachronism running out of steam? I went to find out, and the review is here.

La Courbe, 7.3 – You’re eating from square plates on square glass tables, sitting on square dated furniture in a cold room with no soft furnishings, the door open most of the time and smoke coming from the open kitchen. How on earth did this place get a mark of 7.3? you might wonder. Click here to find out.

Cerise, 7.9 – Everyone knows Cerise is one of Reading’s best, fanciest, most expensive restaurants – and yet nobody seems to know anybody who has ever gone. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to find out if the hype was justified, and my verdict is here.

Côte, 7.8 – Why did I break my general rule and go review a chain restaurant? Are all chains bad, or all independent restaurants good? And where should you be heading for breading in Reading? These, and so many other questions, are inadequately answered here.

The Pack Horse, 5.1 – I suppose my run of good luck had to come to an end eventually and a rare jaunt out of Reading, down the road to Mapledurham, gave me the opportunity to write about bad tables, indifferent service, invisible hearing aids, the fight against wobbliness and meatballs in faggots’ clothing. Can a single review knit all that together? Check the review out here and let me know.

Mission Burrito, 6.7 – Reading’s fast food scene was always a straight out battle between burgers and KFC until Mission came along and offered something slightly different. Independent, small, friendly and offering something you can’t get elsewhere in Reading? Is there anything not to like? The review’s here.

So, on to the restaurant news (and don’t think I haven’t noticed you scoffing another biscuit – nothing escapes me, you know). First of all, Al Tarboush, the Lebanese restaurant opposite TGI Friday, has closed. It’s not clear why, but I heard mixed feedback in the aftermath on whether this was a terrible shame or no bad thing. It was on my list to review, and I’m a bit sad I won’t get the chance now to make up my own mind; another reminder that restaurants close all the time and you shouldn’t put off going to one you’re genuinely curious about. Reading still has a Lebanese restaurant, in the shape of La Courbe, which isn’t perfect but definitely deserves support.

The site is going to become a new Italian restaurant called Casa Roma and refurbs have just completed. Their website is under construction and can be found here. It’s a brave soul that looks at Reading and thinks “what this place really needs is a new Italian place, right at the edge of town, on a site with a history of closed restaurants and no car park” but, you know, best of luck to them.

I had heard rumours that the Lobster Room had also closed, and wandering past they appeared to be true: the menu boards had been taken down and the lights were off. However, a sign has now appeared stating that they reopen on the 4th of April. It’s not clear whether they’ve closed temporarily for repairs, for refurbishments or to improve their recipe for the most expensive ravioli in Reading (regular readers may remember that it held the dubious honour of having the lowest ER rating to date: the review is here).

My Kitchen, mentioned in the last round-up, has now opened. It’s open until 7pm serving coffee, sandwiches, salads and cakes – I’ve not been yet but it would be good to see another independent competing in the market for lunch trade and taking some business away from all of Reading’s Costas, Neros and Starbucks. Their website doesn’t seem to work (always a bit awkward when businesses don’t get that right) but they do Tweet, here.

We have one other restaurant opening in the offing: the old Glo site on St Mary’s Butts is going to reopen as Coconut Bar And Kitchen. They’re currently recruiting for chefs and claim that they will offer an experience based on genuine street food from across the Far East. It sounds an awful lot like Tampopo to me but a lot will depend, as always, on the execution. Again, no website yet and the Twitter feed – here – isn’t really worth looking at yet. The same goes for the Facebook page, so it’s very much a case of watching this space and seeing what happens.

Also worth mentioning: nominations have opened for the Reading Retail Awards. There are categories for best coffee shop, best lunchtime venue and best restaurant and the defending champions are Whittington’s Tea Barge, Tutu’s Ethiopian Table and Côte respectively. If you want to nominate your favourite place, the form is here.

Finally, in the last round-up I mentioned Alt Reading, a new publication covering all aspects of independent life in Reading. They were kind enough to interview me recently for the site and asked me a variety of questions around why I set the blog up, what I look for when I review a restaurant and how I’d like to see Reading’s food scene change. I’m very lucky that they asked me such interesting questions and luckier still that they didn’t ask me anything really difficult, like my favourite cheese (it it Barkham Blue? or a really salty crumbly mature cheddar? a creamy buffalo mozzarella, torn and served with fresh tomatoes? I wish I’d never started this now). Anyway, for those of you who are interested the interview can be found here.

Right, that’s all for another month. See you all again next Friday for another impartial, reliable review of a Reading restaurant – and if you have somewhere you want me to review, you probably know the drill by now.

Côte

Let’s get this out of the way at the start: yes, I know, Côte is a chain restaurant. You might have gathered (from my “Where next?” page) that I’m generally averse to reviewing these. Yet here I am, tucking into a meal at a great big Oracle chain restaurant. What gives?

What you might have missed is that I’ve always said that I’d consider reviewing a chain if I thought it offered something different or special. And, based on my past experience, Côte has always done exactly that. It opened back in 2011 and since then, for me, has become something of a staple. Last year I probably ate there as much as I did at any other Reading restaurant and it was reliable – never bad, always good, often excellent and sometimes great. We all need a restaurant like that sometimes, because eating out isn’t always about taking risks: every now and then you just want certainty.

Anyway, as ever it’s all about what a restaurant does on the night I turn up to review, so I did step across the threshold with a slight sense of trepidation. Were they going to have a bad night for once?

The downstairs space is a very nice room, broken up into sections with banquettes, booths and lighting orbs, making it simultaneously bright enough to eat in and cosy enough to feel intimate: no mean feat in a room which surely sits 100 diners. It does however mean, as we shall see, that photos are very poorly lit (you’ll thank me for not putting up one of the chocolate mousse, believe me). It also manages that rare trick of having large and small tables – including some specifically for couples – without leaving anyone feeling short-changed. It’s probably the prettiest dining room of all the Oracle’s riverside restaurants, although that may not be saying a lot.

I started with a basket of bread and butter while making my choices. Côte charges for its bread (a couple of quid) but it’s so good I can hardly blame then. You get a basket with half a dozen diagonal slices of delicious baguette – crisp and chewy on the outside, fluffy and crumpet-like inside, with a dish of salted butter. I think it might be my favourite restaurant bread in town: you could even say, with apologies to a certain business on Cressingham Road, Earley, that it’s the place to be heading for breading in Reading (actually, I should probably apologise to you for that pun as well). I’d love to know if they get it shipped in part-baked or if it’s made on site, but either way it’s worthy of a paragraph on its own. Thank goodness there’s no word limit.

The starters were equally tasty. Mushroom feuilleté was two slices of diamond shaped puff pastry filled with mushrooms in a creamy sauce. The bottom layer of pastry had soaked up the sauce and was rich and soft like a good English pie: a gorgeous combination. The top layer was less interesting, being all flakiness and air with no substance (I’ve got friends like that, but the less said about them the better). The menu mentioned “espelette pepper”: I couldn’t detect any on the plate and had to look it up. It turns out that it’s a type of chilli pepper – I’m not sure this would have worked, so I’m glad they left it out.

Mushrooms

The charcuterie board also didn’t disappoint, though it’s definitely a choice for the peckish. Most of the elements were terrific – the duck breast gamey without being too smoky, the duck rillette coarse and rich (I’ve got friends like that too, as it happens) and the saucisson just right. The accompaniments were also gorgeous – a couple of pieces of charred pain de campagne toast with a little olive oil soaking into them, a small pile of well dressed salad and – crucially – four crunchy, tart cornichons, perfect to wrap a slice of saucisson round and pop in your mouth. Who needs canapés? The only disappointment was the jambon – too smooth, too shiny, too supermarket. But it was a minor quibble with a starter which cost £6.50 and had so much to enjoy.

Char

I’ve always found choosing mains at Côte quite difficult, and on this occasion we ended up ordering two fish dishes, although they couldn’t have been more different. Côte’s tuna niçoise salad is one of my favourite lighter dishes in Reading, and is in danger of giving salad a good name. It’s full of interesting flavours and textures – new potato, peppers, green beans, red onion, cos lettuce and black olives – all mixed with a fresh and not at all overpowering mustard vinaigrette then topped with a just-hard-boiled egg, the yolk yellow and only just firm, and a perfectly cooked piece of tuna. The tuna deserves extra comment because other restaurants will fob you off with tinned or pre-cooked tuna but at Côte you get the real deal – a tuna steak which has been on a griddle hot enough to leave chargrill lines but where the inside is still pink. A rare treat, in both senses of the word.

Tuna

Sea bass with braised fennel and champagne beurre blanc was also faultless. It was a very generous portion of sea bass – two fillets of crispy salty skin and firm flesh – paired with surprisingly subtle fennel. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea but this was understated, more sweetness than aniseed. With so much culinary quietness going on (sea bass isn’t the punchiest of fishes) the beurre blanc had to be good and it was: creamy with bags of flavour and just a little sharpness. For less than fourteen quid I thought this was a knockout dish – no carbs, though, although having to order some frites was no real hardship.

At this point I ought to tell you how nice my white wine was, but sadly I can’t: instead we washed this down with a bottle of syrah. Not a conventional pairing, I know, but we both fancied red so we went with it anyway (and it almost went with the tuna – or that’s what I told myself anyway). It was a gorgeous bottle, very fruity and straightforward without being bland. It was also good value at less than twenty quid: in fact the wine list offers plenty of choice around that price point which is always good to see.

For dessert we both wanted a chocolate dish but I figured that wouldn’t make for the most interesting review (hard to believe, I know, but not everybody likes chocolate). In the end we split our ticket and went for one of each. The chocolate mousse was exactly that – and lots of it, too, packed into a big hefty ramekin. I liked it, although I think describing it as “dark chocolate mousse” is misleading, and likely to put people off who don’t like their cocoa solids in the region of 70% and above. In fact the top was dark, and dusted with cocoa, but underneath that it was all milk chocolate: on the dense, rich side, but delicious none the less.

The apple tart, for the non-chocolate fans among you, was an excellent example of the French classic. The base pastry was thin, crisp and sufficiently gooey with toffee to be a nice balance to the apples which were super thin and only just cooked so that they retained some of their tartness. The scoop of vanilla ice cream it came with was speckled with just enough vanilla dots to convince me it was the real deal, and was just about tasty enough to make me think it was worth having on the plate. A better accompaniment was the glass of Montbazillac I had – sweet but not treacly or cloying, and decent value at four pounds.

Côte is very good at service. On a Thursday night, the restaurant was full and turning people away, and yet they never seemed rushed or harassed and I never felt ignored or overlooked. Instead, it was attentive and smiley without being over-keen. Our wine glasses were topped up regularly (but not too regularly – a pet hate of mine) and the free filtered water is a nice touch. I think it’s a shame that the restaurant adds an automatic (but not compulsory) 12.5% service charge to the bill, given that this is one of the few places in Reading that really shouldn’t need to. I suppose it makes paying the bill less awkward, but even so it seems a pity.

The total for three courses each, a bottle of wine and a glass of dessert wine was seventy-five pounds, excluding tip. No clangers, no mistakes, no errors on the plate, just reliable very good food. They didn’t have an off-night, just as they never seem to, and I reckon this is as good a place in Reading to spend that kind of money as any – particularly if you’re risk averse. It’s worth mentioning, as I so often do, that you could easily spend less here – especially if you’re there before 7 o’clock, when their two course set menu is a tenner and constitutes mind-boggling value.

In the run-up to this review, I asked people on Twitter about members of the “Never Again Club”, restaurants in Reading that you’d been to once and would never visit again. The responses came thick and fast, and unsurprisingly many of them were chain restaurants: Giraffe (“blatantly microwaved”); Café Rouge (“makes French food bland and boring, quite a feat”); Frankie And Benny’s (“I would have been better off in McDonalds”); Five Guys (“insanely priced mediocrity”). The list went on and on.

And yet there were also a significant number of independent places in there – and heaven knows, I’ve reviewed enough terrible independent restaurants (I still have flashbacks about the tapas at Picasso or that ravioli at The Lobster Room) to know that neither side has the monopoly on quality. I sometimes think we’re making the wrong distinction: there are good restaurants and bad restaurants, some good chains and some bad independent restaurants. Côte is a very good, reliable, consistent restaurant. You can go there with a big group of friends for a blow-out, you can grab a quick dinner with a friend there before going to the cinema, you can have a nice tête-à-tête there on a Friday night with your other half. It just happens to be a chain.

The promise chains implicitly make is that you know exactly what you’re getting, and for better or worse my experience is that that’s nearly always true. The difference with Côte is that you’re getting something good. So it doesn’t belong in my Never Again Club, and I might have to think up another name for this kind of restaurant. The Again And Again Club, perhaps.

Cote – 7.8
9 The Riverside, The Oracle Shopping Centre, RG1 2AG
0118 9591180

http://www.cote-restaurants.co.uk/Cote_Restaurant_Reading.html