Pub review: The Dairy

Three months ago I wrote about the quiet revolution taking place at Reading University’s bars. Park House, always one of Reading’s best kept secrets for an al fresco drink, underwent a surprising but convincing transformation this year: out went the cheesy chips and in came a menu that made all the right noises – listing suppliers, talking about provenance and using both local producers and the university’s own beef. 

I went, I tried it and I was pleasantly surprised – so much so, in fact, that when I put together my updated list of Reading’s best spots to eat outdoors Park House bagged a place. Some people missed the cheesy chips, apparently. But there’s no accounting for taste: some people are going to miss Boris Johnson. 

But could lightning strike twice? That was the question Zoë and I asked ourselves after I met her from work and we ambled to the Dairy on a golden midsummer evening. We strolled past the Turks Head (you can tell it’s glorious weather when even sitting outside the Turks looks tempting), past the sedate, leafy thoroughfare of Kendrick Road, and I thought to myself that it was moments like these I should be storing up in my head, so I could turn them over in my mind when the clocks went back and the feeling of sun on my skin was a distant memory.

The Dairy also revamped its menu in 2022 and makes the same claims as Park House when it comes to where they get their ingredients from. Bread from Waring’s, eggs from Beechwood Farm, all the right noises, all that jazz. But I was particularly keen to see if the Dairy had raised its game because, to be honest, it could easily have done so just by buying in some ready meals from M&S. 

Or, for that matter, Asda. My previous visit to the Dairy on duty, back at the start of 2019, had been a grim experience with lukewarm, chewy curry and a chicken burger which, underneath its modish charcoal bun, was as wan and tasteless as Jacob Rees Mogg. So, did lightning strike twice or was it more a case of fool me twice, shame on me? I can honestly say I approached the Dairy with no real hunch as to how this one would play out. 

On another day I would have sat indoors – the Dairy has a lovely room off from the main bar – but as it was so sunny we plonked ourselves outside. I’d hesitate to call it a beer garden, but out the back of the Dairy it has plenty of tables which catch the sun nicely. They’re big tables, with deep benches which can even accommodate a rear as sizeable as mine, so they’re more suited for bigger groups than a tête-à-tête, but we weren’t going to let that stop us.

The Dairy’s dinner menu is relatively compact and in three main sections – stuff from the grill, burgers and hot dogs. But the main thing that jumps about it, from a casual reading, is how cheap it is. The dishes from the grill are about six quid, burgers are nine pounds and hot dogs are seven. Rather confusingly the cheapest dishes come with a couple of sides and a sauce, the more expensive ones with a single side. If there’s logic there I don’t see it, although most of the sides only cost a couple of pounds anyway. I don’t see how it can’t be subsidised, and I’m not sure how they make money on it, but you would struggle to rack up a bill here. 

It’s only later, when I was back home and leafing through the Dairy’s Instagram feed, that I realised this menu has been slimmed down from their launch menu at the start of the year. It’s especially a shame because it’s almost like someone looked through the launch menu, marker pen in hand, and struck a big black line through anything that looked particularly fun: so farewell to the jerk plantain and halloumi skewers, the beef burger topped with smoked pork belly and blue cheese, the brined fried chicken with pickled watermelon and the fish dog with crispy fried goujons, tartare sauce and chilli crushed peas. 

See what I mean? What was left was the menu equivalent of the Golgafrincham B Ark, and I’m hoping at least a few of you will get that reference. But none the less even if dinner turned out to be a mistake it at least wouldn’t be a costly one. And besides, the Dairy still has an amazing range of local beer with options from Wild Weather (the excellent King Street Pale), Siren, Phantom and Academia lager from Double-Barrelled, which is brewed exclusively for the university.

I went up and ordered our food, along with a half of cider for me and a half of Take Nothing For Granted, a Siren collab with Brew By Numbers, for Zoë (she loved it, by the way – if you see it, try it). The whole shebang came to just shy of twenty-two pounds, which is crazy money for dinner and a drink. I did feel though that the chap behind the bar didn’t understand the menu all that well and it was a bit of a struggle to explain what sides we wanted with what dish. 

“Don’t I get to pick a sauce to go with mine as well?” I asked. 

“It comes with barbecue sauce” he said. 

“Should I take cutlery or do you bring it out?” 

“Either is fine.” 

I didn’t have unwavering confidence that what we’d ordered was what would turn up – and it wasn’t, entirely, including that barbecue sauce which was nowhere to be seen.

Anyway, let’s talk about the food. I’d gone for grilled, smoked chicken thigh which comes with a couple of sides – and because I’d had a big lunch that day I decided to eschew the carbs, picking chipotle slaw and Boston beans with bacon to go with it. Now, the first thing I should say is that they brought me chicken breast by mistake, as you can probably tell from the photo underneath this paragraph. But the second is that I promise it wasn’t quite as boring as that photo makes it look.

I mean, I was hoping that it would come with the skin on, all crispy from the grill. While we’re at it, I was hoping that it would taste or feel like it had been grilled at all, which this didn’t really. I was also hoping it would taste as if it had been smoked (over hickory wood chips, according to the menu), and this was resolutely a smoke-free zone. Instead it was a slightly pale, largely naked chicken breast speckled with a few sesame seeds. And yet despite all that it wasn’t unpleasant; if you came at it with low expectations, which I sort of did, you’d probably quite enjoy it, especially at the low price of just over six quid. It really could have done with some barbecue sauce, mind you.

The Boston beans made up for that, and were one of the high points – a mixture of beans, chickpeas and peppers in a sweetly tangy sauce with big slabs of bacon thrown in for good measure. If you eat at the Dairy after reading this review (and you might) these are well worth tacking on to whatever you order. They do a bacon-free version too, and actually though the bacon was nice enough it would have largely been the same dish without it. The chipotle slaw, on the other hand, was not good. I don’t really mind whether coleslaw comes in mayo or vinaigrette, and a chipotle mayo would have been lovely: but raw shredded veg with neither, just shrouded in acrid dust, doesn’t do it for me. If I’d known it would be like that, I’d have risked the fries.

Zoë had gone for the brie and bacon burger, and visually it looked decent – a tall stovepipe of a thing with a thick wodge of fridge-cold brie sandwiched between two patties, the whole shebang resting on a sturdy slice of tomato which Zoë fished out in short order. 

“They don’t tell you it’s going to be two burgers, the menu doesn’t really tell you a lot” she said, with a hint of suspicion, probably because she was mulling over the risk that they’d also smuggled in some unwanted gherkins. “I know what you’ll say about this – you’ll say that the slice of brie is too thick and it hasn’t melted.”

“Not at all – nobody ever complains that a burger has too much cheese on it. What’s it like?”

“It’s not bad. It’s not an Honest or a Smash N Grab, but it’s okay for nine pounds. The texture’s a little strange though, a bit dry and crumbly.”

Again, it wasn’t until later when I was looking through the Dairy’s Instagram that I saw their writeup for this dish. In it, they say this burger is “made with local beef and part mushrooms” and “more sustainable than any burger you will try” – but what did that mean? Was it cut (or, rather, diluted) with mushrooms? It would explain the slightly spongey texture but again, why did the menu omit this detail? Was this about sustainability, or cutting corners? A nine pound burger is all very well, but most people would pay more to have the real deal. It was all very odd. Even the bun looked like a bog standard bap rather than the promised brioche: maybe they’d run out.

Zoë had cannily picked the most expensive side, the smoked macaroni cheese (four pounds on its own, fact fans). And again, it was quite pleasant with a good golden crust. But smoked it wasn’t. Better, I thought, was a nibble of macaroni bites – four hefty breadcrumbed spheres of macaroni cheese which were deeply enjoyable and provided the spritz of fun my dinner badly needed, given the naked chicken and dusty coleslaw (and these, by the way, did come with some barbecue sauce). Not in the same league as the same dish at Bracknell’s Blue’s Smokehouse but, crucially, bigger and a darned sight cheaper. Next time I’m drinking at the Dairy I might order some in preference to a packet of Piper’s.

All this added up to a slightly underwhelming meal, a mixture of inconsistency, inaccuracy, basic errors and wasted opportunities. And it was a completely different experience to eating at Park House in the spring: by contrast it felt like like the Dairy had got the hang of writing a menu that read well, even if the most attractive dishes had gone missing in action, but that they perhaps hadn’t realised that the dishes then had to live up to the promise of the words. 

Very few of them did, but I do have to say in the Dairy’s defence that if something seems to good to be true it almost always is. The Dairy is one of the most aggressively priced restaurants I can think of in Reading, and if you aren’t sure how they’re making their money something has to be going on. Whether that’s adding mushrooms to your burger mix, or making coleslaw without mayo, something is always going to give. 

And if the mark at the bottom of the page isn’t quite as low as you’d expect it to be, that’s precisely because the Dairy is a cheap and cheerful option and I’m partly judging it on that basis. It could arguably be more cheerful, but it couldn’t be much cheaper. And as Zoë said at the time, whatever you thought of the food it did at least feel like a Brakes lorry hadn’t played any role in proceedings.

Never the less, I’m sure I will drink at the Dairy again before the summer’s out, and even if this meal wasn’t stellar I thank my lucky stars that it was nowhere near as harrowing as the one I had at the Dairy back in 2019. But next time I might grab dinner at Kungfu Kitchen first, before meandering down the hill for what remains an excellent selection of local beers in what’s left of the sunshine. In that respect at least, the Dairy is still hard to beat.

The Dairy – 6.7
Building L14, London Road Campus, Redlands Road, RG1 5AQ
0118 3782477

https://www.hospitalityuor.co.uk/bars-and-pubs/the-dairy/

Pub review: Park House

I try my best, doing this restaurant reviewing lark, to visit places I think are likely to be either good or interesting, or ideally both; with a few notable exceptions, I don’t go anywhere where I think I’m definitely going to have a bad meal. And even if I have my reservations, I try to turn up with an open mind, ready to find the positives in my experience, however difficult that is. Sometimes the gods smile on me and I have a run of beautiful meals, one after the other. And that’s brilliant – exceptional meals are easier to write about, and people enjoy reading about them. Conversely, the worst thing is a run of bad meals. A succession of stinkers. That does rather break the soul.

The worst run I can remember started at the end of 2019. It began with a truly awful dinner at TGI Friday, and continued with the grisly spectacle of doner meat nachos at German Doner Kebab. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was going to the Dairy, the university bar and kitchen just down the road from the MERL. I’d always loved drinking there, especially on a hot day, but the food was bloody awful. That made three cruddy meals on the spin and nearly two months without enjoying a meal on duty: it was the kind of vale of tears that makes you seriously think about chucking the whole thing in.

Then at the start of this year, there was a surprising development: the Dairy published a completely new menu on Instagram. And it made all the right noises – beef came from the University’s farm four miles down the road, eggs were from Beechwood Farm (did you know that Beechwood Farm was run by Reading University alumni? I didn’t) and all the bread was supplied by Waring’s. Not only that, but the menu was full of the kind of things you might actually want to eat. Crispy fried chicken and pickled watermelon burger? Brisket and blue cheese ciabatta? Jerk spiced plantain and halloumi skewers? Count me in!

Something was clearly afoot at the University because a week ago Park House, its bar on campus, published a brand new spring menu. Again, it all looked distinctly tempting, and again the provenance was called out, with the beef coming from the University’s farm and name checks for the excellent Nettlebed Creamery and the Cotswolds’ Hobbs House Bakery. (Not everyone was overjoyed, mind you: I really can’t believe you won’t sell cheesy chips any more, said one comment). Park House has always been one of my very favourite places for a pint in the sunshine, but was it possible that it also offered great, affordable food under the radar? Zoë and I ventured out on a sunny spring evening to put it to the test.

It’s truly a gorgeous spot, inside and out, one of those beautiful Victorian redbrick buildings Reading so specialises in (I think I read somewhere that it’s by Alfred Waterhouse, of Reading Town Hall and Foxhill House fame: I can’t find any evidence of that, but it’s definitely in keeping). It used to be the university’s Senior Common Room, and it still has a distinctly clubbable feel inside, all dark panelled walls and solid wood floors. You could imagine trying to have an intellectual conversation in those rooms, put it that way.

And if you failed it would probably be because of the selection of beers. Park House punches well above its weight with a range many Reading pubs would envy: a dozen beers and ciders with a range of cask and keg. And again, there’s a distinctly local feel with Siren Craft, Elusive, Double-Barrelled and Phantom well represented (in fact, the most exotic drinks on the menu are from Cotswold Cider Company, a colossal 39 miles away). It doesn’t surprise me that Park House has made it onto Reading CAMRA’s Ale Trail this year and the things we tried – a couple of pales from Siren and a mild from Elusive – were yet another reminder of how well served we are in these parts for beer.

Having praised the interior, we did end up eating and drinking outside for a couple of reasons. One was that Park House was distinctly crowded: 6 o’clock on a Monday, surprisingly, seems to be peak eating and drinking time. The other, more happily, is that Park House’s outside space is a natural sun trap, and further proof – if any were needed after visiting the Nag’s Head – that there are few car parks you couldn’t improve by turning them into beer gardens. It’s a proper happy place for me, and it’s where I had my first al fresco pint last year after the longest lockdown winter of all time (14th April 2021, since you didn’t ask). So, the scene was set: was Park House going to be a surprise find, or a disappointment of The Dairy 2019 proportions? It was time to find out.

There are separate menus for breakfast and Sunday lunch, but the rest of the time Park House offers a relatively compact lunch and dinner menu – more compact than I thought, because for some reason the “Crafty Grill” section, offering burgers and hot dogs, wasn’t available. I think it’s also a Sundays only thing. So actually you have a nicely streamlined choice in front of you – less than half a dozen starters and eight mains, one of which is just a bigger portion of one of the starters. The use of “starters” and “mains” might give you the misleading idea that you can order them all at the same time to arrive at different times: don’t try this if you go there, because I just got a blank look and a polite request that you order as you go. Still, it beats the Wagamama approach of bringing anything out whenever they feel like it.

I should also add that everything is ultra-reasonably priced: most of the starters hover around the five pound mark and the vast majority of mains are less than a tenner. Laudably, they’re also trying to include calorie counts on their menu, although this seems to be a work in progress and I for one would rather they didn’t bother.

I really wanted to try the rarebit on the starters menu: Highmoor is one of Nettlebed’s finest cheeses and the thought of it bubbling away on Hobbs House sourdough – for a smidge over four pounds, into the bargain – was a delectable one. But sadly it wasn’t available, and although I was disappointed that they’d run out of either bread or cheese I was also pleased to see that they didn’t try and pass off something inferior instead.

The pick of the starters, anyway, were the smoked pork ribs. They were huge, irregular beasts that came away from the bone cleanly, and I loved the decision to give them a dry spice rub rather than slather them in sauce – so you got mustard seed, what I suspect was cumin and even some honey notes in there. They were served with a wonderfully light and clean coleslaw, and even here you could see the attention to detail, with crisp thin batons of apple and scarlet slices of chilli which added more colour than heat. Like the ribs, the coleslaw was better than it needed to be, and that’s always a winning quality.

I loved this dish, and at just under six pounds it was the kind of thing you could order just because you had a cold beer it would go perfectly with, or because the sun was out, or because it was a Monday. If only all bar food was like this. I loved it so much, in fact, that we ordered a second portion to come with our main courses: maybe there were advantages to ordering each course separately, after all.

The smoked cod croquettes were less successful, which was a pity because they leapt off the page as something I had to try. It was just weird that they came without breadcrumbs: the picture of this dish on Park House’s instagram shows the croquettes breaded, but these were lacking a coating and looked weirdly naked, as if they’d been skinned. And that had an impact in a couple of ways – it meant they didn’t have that lovely crunchy shell, but also it meant that when you cut them with a knife they sagged and deflated, like a sad party balloon.

It’s a pity, because the bones of the dish were good, with a nice whack of salt cod and a fresh and tangy tomato salsa (although again, it could have done with more heat from the chilli). Only afterwards did I realise that maybe the croquettes had no breadcrumbs for the same reason that the kitchen couldn’t serve rarebit. I daresay that if you order it, you’ll probably have better luck than I did.

Mains were uneven too but, as with the starters, the best of them showed real imagination. Confit duck salad, Zoë’s choice, was a beauty – partly because of the confit duck, which is never not good, but mostly because of what it was paired with. It could have given salad a good name, because it had so much going on – ribbons of carrot and radish for texture, segments of orange adding bright sweetness and a welcome scattering of edamame. It was all brought together by a fantastic dressing with plenty of aromatic sesame oil in the mix.

What this had in common with many great dishes from far more lauded restaurants was that every forkful could be slightly different from the last, but every bit as delicious. In an ideal world I’d have liked the duck leg to be ever so slightly bigger – so I could have tried more of it – but for less than nine pounds it was hard to fault.

I wish my fish and chips had been equally hard to fault, but it wasn’t to be. The best of it was the fish itself – beautifully cooked, the batter light, lacey and full of delicious crenellations. But the chips, which I’m pretty sure were bought in, were a little variable with a few grey patches that put me off them. There were peas, if you like that sort of thing: I don’t especially, but they were just fine. Tartare sauce was good, but there wasn’t anywhere near enough of it. And for that matter, lovely though the fish was, it was on the slender side for just over ten pounds. I couldn’t help but compare it with the colossal slab of fried leviathan you get at the Lyndhurst for eleven fifty (the Lyndhurst’s chips are miles better, too).

All in all, our meal – three starters, two mains and a pint and a half each – came to just under fifty pounds. It’s worth calling out the price of drinks in particular, too – our beers and ciders came in at around four pounds a pint, a mile away from the rarified prices you’d get in town at the Allied Arms or Blue Collar Corner.

So Park House isn’t the home run it could have been, but it was none too shabby all the same, with bags of potential. If you went there and just ate the ribs followed by the confit duck salad – Zoe’s order, but then she always picks well, present company excepted – you might well come away raving about the quality and the value. And if you went on a day when all their figurative ducks were in a row, the rarebit was on the menu and the croquettes hadn’t been flayed alive, you’d be counting the days until a return visit.

But I easily saw enough to persuade me to recommend it. The thought that had been put into the menu, the little touches in some of the dishes, the fact that they didn’t just knock up a rarebit with second-string ingredients – all of these things couldn’t help but endear me to the place. And it’s still one of the best spots, on a sunny weekend afternoon, to go with a paperback, get a drink, top up your tan and maybe accidentally-on-purpose order some ribs, because it beats yet another humdrum packet of Pipers Crisps. Are they the best bar snack in Reading? Quite possibly.

Park House – 7.3
Whiteknights Campus, University of Reading, RG6 6UA
0118 9875123

https://www.hospitalityuor.co.uk/bars-and-pubs/park-house/

Restaurant review: Zero Degrees

There is a parallel universe in which this week’s review is of ThaiGrrr!, the Thai place in Queens Walk whose takeaway I so enjoyed earlier in the year. I’d had a tip-off that the place was almost deserted early in the evening, and so I fully intended to pay it a visit and write it up properly. I’d like to live in that parallel universe. But in that parallel universe I didn’t walk into it and think “what in Christ’s name is that smell?” 

And it wasn’t just me – Zoë looked at me and said “this place smells like our old cat’s litter tray”. We waited a minute and the stench – no other word would do – did not abate. And it didn’t feel like an odour to which one could, or would want to, acclimatise. I bumped into the person who’d suggested ThaiGrr! the following day at Blue Collar and told him of our experience. “That’s such a shame, it’s never smelled like that when I’ve gone there” he said. Maybe they were having problems with their drains: I imagine at some point I’ll go back and give it another try. A couple of tables were occupied, possibly by people who hadn’t yet realised that they had Covid.

There’s another parallel universe where, having passed on ThaiGrrr!, we walked home and ordered a takeaway for me to review this week. I’d rather like to live in that parallel universe too, but I’m afraid on the way back we walked past Zero Degrees and Zoë, not unreasonably, said “that place has been on your list to re-review for some time”. And looking in the window it was practically deserted. That made it a safe place to review but, with hindsight, I should have taken the hint; when a restaurant that’s been trading for nearly fifteen years is dead on a school night, there’s probably a reason for that.

Zero Degrees probably needs no introduction by now, but I’ve often thought it so far ahead of its time that it wasn’t a trendsetter, more a lucky guess. Craft beer and pizza have both exploded in recent times, and yet in 2007 when Zero Degrees opened, a combination of microbrewery and pizza joint, it was relatively without fanfare. I visited it on duty in 2013, my second ever review, and it’s fair to say that I wasn’t impressed. “It should be marvellous, but it isn’t”, I said. In addition, and re-reading this I wonder if my trip there this week was via some kind of wormhole in time, I said “in a big open restaurant with only four occupied tables, good service should be easier than this”. Anyway, that’s enough foreshadowing.

It is a big, handsome space, you know – with genuine, not fake, exposed brickwork, plenty of room and a nice view out on to Gun Street. We sat close to the window and far away from the only two occupied tables, both of them hugging the wall. “Just imagine if someone like Clay’s had this site” I said to Zoë. By the end of the meal – sorry, more foreshadowing – that felt like yet another parallel universe preferable to this one. 

Back in 2013 the menu had felt huge and unwieldy – too big to execute well – and little had changed eight years later. Some of the abominations on the starters and pizza section had been removed, while others (like the pizza with “Mexican sausage” or the one with crispy duck, hoisin sauce and crispy tortillas) remained. In a concession to the food trends of the last few years, burrata and ‘nduja were visible in several places. 

But the menu still felt like it was throwing everything at the wall, exposed brickwork and all, and seeing what stuck: a plethora of pizzas, five types of mussels, vegetarian and vegan food lumped in with the salads like an afterthought and plenty of pasta and risotto dishes. Overkill. Maybe if they had fewer items on the menu they would have had more time for proofreading and wouldn’t be offering customers “faltbreads” or “Ceasar salad”.

Anyway, we ordered a couple of beers while looking at the menu, and this is where the trouble began. Because, despite only having two other occupied tables in the whole restaurant, our beers just didn’t arrive. And the person we’d ordered them with disappeared. He materialised about fifteen minutes later, with no real sense of purpose, and so Zoë managed to get his attention and said we were still waiting for some drinks. He indicated that he’d heard this and promptly vanished again. 

Another quarter of an hour passed, by which point I was starting to wonder whether the other two tables had been trying to settle their bills since mid-afternoon. Zoë took the unusual step of getting up and searching for the waiter to track him down and ask where our drinks were. When I reviewed Zero Degrees in 2013 I described the wait staff as “omni-absent”: some things haven’t changed.

Personally, I’d have taken this as an opportunity to cancel the beers, escape into the night and have that takeaway I was hoping for, but I was overruled. So over half an hour after we asked for a couple of beers, when they still hadn’t arrived and against my better judgment, Zoë told the waiter we were ready to order food. We had to explain the dishes to him a couple of times, as if he’d never heard of them before.

“I don’t understand why their wait staff aren’t trained to just hop behind the bar and pull a pint” said Zoë. Me neither. And worst of all, from that point onwards it really did look like our food might come out before our drinks, but the beers just pipped them to the post. Our waiter brought them about a minute before the starters, and had thoughtfully upgraded Zoë’s from a half to a pint. She was having one of their specials, a black lager, which was described as “meh”. “It’s pretty tasteless”, she added. 

I’d chosen a Radler, having enjoyed one enormously in Malaga earlier in the month, but if I’d had my eyes closed I honestly could have mistaken it for a San Pellegrino garnished with a measly slice of lemon: there was that little to it. By this point both the other tables had managed to pay up and skedaddle, leaving us literally the only customers there. Had they shot us a look of pity on the way out, or was that just my imagination?

I wanted the food to be good, and I did try to approach it with an open mind, but I’m afraid it was downhill all the way from there. Bad things are supposed to come in threes, but you got four arancini on a plate, pointlessly drizzled with balsamic glaze, presumably to try and add some – any – flavour. The inside was a pappy mulch, with none of the advertised pea and spinach and it was hard to even make out individual grains of rice. They felt to me like something you might choose not to buy in Iceland.

Worse – because, it turned out, that was possible – was the ‘nduja. I’m used to small quantities of deep crimson, ultra-potent ‘nduja, very much the mighty atom of Italian food. I’m not used to it coming in industrial quantities, dense and fridge-cold, in a ramekin, with a leaden, fatty texture, like rillette cut with chilli powder. It was woeful, and it came served with triangles of pizza bread (garlic bread according to the menu: the menu is fibbing). The bread wasn’t unpleasant but by the time you had applied a wodge of frigid red bullshit to it, what you were left with was a claggy horror of lukewarm bread and something claiming to be ‘nduja which showed no signs of ever, ever melting. I left a lot of this.

Finally, the legendary “faltbread”, which was meant to feature mozzarella, gorgonzola and truffle oil. It only had the slightest whiff of truffle, which itself was only detectable thanks to the almost total absence of blue cheese. So a small shit pizza, then, for just under seven pounds – the price, coincidentally, of a not-small, not-shit pizza from Franco Manca.

As with the meal itself, I’m keen to bring this review to an end as quickly as possible and not prolong anybody’s suffering. So the dish I’d chosen as a main course could be described as a not-small, still-shit pizza. I’d unwisely chosen “carne asada”, which involved rump steak, smoked cheese and a basil and coriander pesto; if you look at that description and think that sounds awful then congratulations, because you’re light years ahead of me. But awful it was.

The steak was in the form of leathery slabs, any give comprehensively cooked out of them. I was hoping in vain for some marination, praying that the beef would be thinly sliced, pink in the middle and maybe strewn over the top at the end rather than cooked through. More fool me. The pesto managed not to taste of coriander or basil: instead it felt like munching on a manky hedgerow.

The mozzarella was as much of a non-smoker as I was and the other attempts to add some interest, a crude salsa of tomatoes, red onion and avocado, didn’t work. Putting cold stuff on top of a pizza, as with the ‘nduja, just made everything lukewarm, and the avocado started to go brown not long after this was set down in front of me.This cost fifteen pounds: you can get an infinitely better pizza at Buon Appetito for less.

Zoë had chosen a dish she said was a banker at Zero Degrees, something called lime and tequila chicken tagliatelle which was, gastronomically at least, of no fixed abode. And although it was better than my pizza it still wasn’t great, the pasta overcooked and clumpy with no bite. I didn’t detect any tequila but then again, given how hard it seemed to get booze out of Zero Degrees I wasn’t exactly surprised. Like the pizza it was studded with acrid, tastebud-destroying slices of chilli, and like the pizza it was about as Italian as the Dolmio puppets. The chicken was in distinctly uniform catering pack-sized mini fillets: the first one I tried was decent, the second had a slightly musty taste, as if it had been reheated.

We didn’t finish our mains, and although the second waiter who took our plates away was better than the first, largely by virtue of actually turning up, he didn’t probe as to whether we’d enjoyed our meals. By this point my only real concerns were leaving as soon as possible, opening up whatever chocolate I had at home and getting back in time for the Bake Off final on Channel 4+1. Our bill for two, including a 10% service charge I was too fatigued to knock off, came to sixty-two pounds: the final insult. 

On the way home I annoyed Zoë greatly by pointing to restaurants on the Oracle Riverside and saying “we could have had a better meal here… or here… or here”. The only place I didn’t include in that analysis was TGI Friday. As we passed the Lyndhurst, Christmas lights on and warm glow coming from the windows, I couldn’t help myself.

“Just imagine what sixty-two pounds could buy you at the Lyndie.” 

“Oh for fuck’s sake, shut up” came the understandable response.

The funniest thing, though, happened as we were leaving the restaurant. We walked through the place to leave through the exit on Bridge Street, and the bar was full. Properly full. Every single table had people at it, drinking and chatting, and it turned out that the joke was well and truly on us: Zero Degrees had plenty of staff, they simply didn’t have any of them working in the restaurant that night. Perhaps Zero Degrees has just given up on its food. Having tasted it, that makes two of us.

Zero Degrees – 4.9
9 Bridge Street, Reading, RG1 2LR
0118 9597959

https://www.zerodegrees.co.uk/restaurants/reading/
Order via: Deliveroo

Vegivores

Vegivores was probably the most keenly-anticipated opening of last year, and certainly one of the restaurants I got asked to review most often. Not only that, but it also probably received more buzz online in the last couple of months of 2019 than anywhere else: everywhere I looked, on Twitter and Instagram, I saw people raving about the food, be it brunch or dinner. It’s no-reservations, and I heard frequent reports that it could be difficult to get a table there; the first few months are often incredibly difficult for a new restaurant, but Vegivores clearly got off to a flying start.

The buzz makes perfect sense to me. Vegivores is a proper success story – a journey (so sorry for using that word) from serving street food at Reading’s markets, every Wednesday and Friday in all weathers, to taking on permanent residence in Caversham’s precinct. That they’ve opened their plant-based restaurant next to gammon specialists the Caversham Butcher gives me enormous pleasure, even if I’m not sure whether it’s a happy coincidence or good old-fashioned epic trolling (I always get in trouble for talking about politics or Caversham, so let’s leave it at that).

And then, of course, there’s the meat-free factor: Vegivores is one of Reading’s only entirely meat free restaurants – along with Bhel Puri House and the Global Café – and that’s a sizeable market with very few players in it. It’s entirely a coincidence that I happened to review them in a month when many people are choosing to go vegetarian or vegan, but I’m sure many people doing that would have actively considered a visit to Vegivores.

I can imagine there would be many more natural people to review Vegivores than me. A proper vegetarian or vegan, for a start: I’ve never made a secret of being a meat-loving omnivore, and although I’ve been known to order meat-free starters it’s very rare for me to pick a vegetarian main course. I went through a phase a few years ago of deliberately ordering a vegetarian main course once a month when on duty, and although it definitely exposed the paucity of options for vegetarians and vegans it didn’t leave me itching to make changes to my diet. Nonetheless, I headed over to Caversham on a wet and miserable weekday evening with my other half Zoë to see whether Vegivores would change my mind about plant-based food.

The room was long, thin and nicely done – pretty intimate, with the counter and the open kitchen down one side and the tables along the other. There was plenty of tasteful almost-Scandi bare wood, although the chairs and the wooden banquette weren’t the comfiest. I liked it, even so – it probably had about 30 covers, so I can see it could easily fill up, and even on a truly dismal evening the place was about half-full. It was also nice to have a view of the kitchen, and the pass is under very fetching spotlights which means you can see other people’s food about to to be taken to their tables (and adjust your own order accordingly to have what they’re having).

The evening menu was nicely compact, with a small selection of starters and nibbles (most around the six or seven pound mark) and eight main courses, with an additional special on the night we visited. There was a bit of duplication – a couple of the starters appeared as larger versions in the main courses – but even so I felt like it was a decent range and I easily could have ordered numerous dishes in both sections. If you’re used to being confined to the one token plant-based dish on the menu in restaurants, seeing this might well make you drop to your knees and weep salty tears of gratitude.

The menu doesn’t specifically list items as vegetarian or vegan, and Vegivores’ website doesn’t use either V word, so it wasn’t entirely clear to me whether the yoghurt, mayonnnaise, ice cream and so on were vegan, although I assumed they were. It was a good drinks list, too – wines were all organic, there were some excellent bottled beers and ciders (most either organic or local or both) and a couple of local beers on draft. I had a Santo by Siren Craft – priced at three ninety-five for two thirds of a pint – and Zoë had a bottle of alcohol-free Riedenburger. It didn’t make her feel any happier about being on antibiotics.

Zoë and I both picked starters which could also be ordered as mains, to try and give a better view of the full range of the menu. Mine was the “fishless cakes”, a vegan take on fishcakes with smoked tofu instead of cod or haddock, and some nori to boot. The presentation was attractive, with the three cakes bookended with lemon slices and topped with what was meant to be caper salsa but contained a grand total (I counted: I’m sad like that) of one caper.

As a dish I found it problematic – the taste was pleasant, although the smoke didn’t come through strongly, but the texture let it down. It was so crumbly that it didn’t hold together at all, and that lack of structure meant it didn’t feel like either a fishcake or a potato cake, instead being strangely mealy. I very much liked the dill mayo, which had a sharp taste reminiscent of salad cream, and I would have liked more capers to add acidity.

Zoe’s dish had similar challenges. Tofu skewers came with a ramekin of satay sauce, and although the satay itself was delicious with plenty of depth and complexity the tofu needed more by way of texture, even if it was going to inevitably lack flavour of itself. Interestingly, if you order this as a main course the skewers come covered in the sauce: that might be a better way to serve the starter. Zoë’s favourite bit of the starter was the pickled ginger cabbage which came with it, and I agreed – it suggested the kitchen’s strengths might lie with plants rather than meat substitutes.

I think I would have been disappointed by either of those dishes as a main course, which is why I was so relieved that our main courses, when they arrived, stepped things up considerably.

I had changed my order after seeing the barbecue jackfruit burger up at the pass, and it was a very interesting dish. I’d managed to make it to 2020 without ever eating jackfruit (although I’ve heard it described as the vegan answer to pulled pork many times) and it’s definitely an ingenious substitute. I enjoyed its fibrous texture, married with a slightly-sour barbecue sauce, and it played perfectly against the smashed avocado underneath. But, as with the fishless cake, it didn’t quite hold together as a patty which made for an even messier, sloppier experience than, say, an Honest burger. I liked the creole slaw it came with, dry and mayo-free with a faint hint of something like chipotle, but I wasn’t convinced by the herby potatoes where the texture hinted of being pan-fried without enough oil to properly bring them to life.

Zoë on the other hand adored her main – makhanwala, a vegetable curry with salad, chutney, yoghurt and rice. I only got a forkful but I tended to think she had ordered better than me: it had heat and plenty of depth, the cauliflower was terrific and had a little bite and the decision to use brown rather than white rice made the whole thing substantial, warming and hugely comforting. It was a wonderful thing to eat as the rain lashed the precinct outside and, crucially, it was the only savoury course that didn’t make me slightly miss meat. Zoë also ordered (but didn’t really need) a side order of bread: the four slices felt a little unspecial for £2.50 and I’ll take a lot of convincing that there’s a satisfactory vegan alternative to butter.

The dessert menu was pretty compact, but we both managed to find something on it to order. My melon and prosecco sorbet was a clever idea and beautifully presented with berries, mint and edible flowers, and it tasted fresh and clean. I would have liked the prosecco to come through more, but the real issue was the texture, with big ice crystals in each scoop. I liked it, but I’m not sure I six pounds liked it. Vegivores has a pretty decent selection of dessert wines, so I had my sorbet with a glass of golden passito: it could have been lovely, but it needed to be served chilled. I didn’t mention that at the time because I didn’t think they could have fixed it, and I’d rather have slightly cold dessert wine than no dessert wine at all – in any case, the sorbet was quite cold enough to make up for it.

Zoë was far happier with her brownie with vanilla ice cream. I know there’s some debate about whether brownies belong on a dessert menu (I have a friend who likes to say it’s not a dessert, it’s a cake: it’s a hill he’d gladly die on). That philosophical debate aside, I also thought the brownie was decent but – again – texture was an issue. It tasted good, but was crumblier than a truly great brownie should be. I didn’t know whether the ice cream was vegan or not – that cryptic menu again – but it was possibly a good sign that I couldn’t tell.

Service was excellent all evening – engaged, friendly, interested and clearly passionate about Vegivores. Our server had been working there since it opened in October and she was obviously very proud of what they’d achieved in a short space of time. Our meal for two – three courses and a couple of drinks each – came to seventy-two pounds, not including tip: decent value, overall.

Writing restaurant reviews is a funny thing: the act of mentally digesting your meal can carry on long after you’ve left the place. Sometimes the passage of time makes you appreciate just how good a meal was, sometimes the initial enthusiasm fades away and distance removes enchantment. In the case of Vegivores I thought about it far longer than I normally do, because it involved considering other angles: should I be comparing it with other plant-based food, or with everything I’ve eaten? Did it have to be “good for vegan” or good full stop?

I got assistance from an unlikely source. Vegivores’ co-owner Kevin Farrell was interviewed in November by the excellent Bloody Vegans Podcast (even if you’re not a vegan it’s worth checking out their interview with Tom Bursnall, the owner of Miami Burger: eye-opening doesn’t begin to do it justice) and listening to the interview helped enormously when trying to decide how to approach Vegivores.

In it, Kevin said that not using the V word was a deliberate choice because of the connotations often attached to that word (only last year the Guardian of all places published an article simply entitled “Why do people hate vegans?”). So although everything is suitable for vegans – vegan mayo, vegan yoghurt, vegan ice cream, oat milk as the default in all hot drinks – that explained why the menu didn’t expressly say so. I sort of understand the reasoning, but I still think it wouldn’t do any harm to be clearer.

He also said that he wanted not only to offer an entirely plant-based menu but to show that eating a plant-based diet could be healthy as well as tasty (no doubt with other restaurants like Miami Burger in mind). So, for instance, Vegivores is proud of not deep-frying anything. Again, it makes perfect sense, but it also might explain why my fishless cakes lacked a bit of structure and my herby potatoes were a tad wan.

But the thing that struck home most was Kevin saying that the restaurant gets, and is keen to attract, an omnivore clientele as well – so not just vegans and friends of vegans but presumably people who are considering a vegan lifestyle or simply want to cut down their meat consumption, whether that’s for environmental reasons, health reasons or of course unease about the way animals are treated.

That’s the point where I realised that rating them as a vegan restaurant, rather than a restaurant pure and simple, was missing the point. Patronising, too: I remember many years back when I reviewed Nibsy’s tying myself in knots deciding whether to talk about gluten. I admire Vegivores for wanting to be thought of as a restaurant that happens to be vegan (although they would no doubt use a different term) rather than a vegan restaurant, with the many associations attached to that phrase.

So did Vegivores do enough to convert this omnivore? Not quite, I think. Much of the time they were close on flavour, and I do think it’s impressive to offer a vegan mayonnaise or vegan ice cream which don’t feel like they involve any compromises. But food is also about texture, and that’s where I felt Vegivores fell down somewhat, whether it was crumbly fishcakes, that brownie, or jackfruit that didn’t really hold together. It still felt to me like something was missing and – with the exception of the vegetable curry, probably the most conventional and “authentic” dish we tried – none of it was quite powerful enough to make me feel like constraining my choice by eating there.

You may well disregard this as the preconceptions of an omnivore who is too much of a carnivore to be completely open-minded. Perhaps that’s true, but at least I acknowledge that possibility. Many people whose opinions I respect love Vegivores – Zoë enjoyed her meal far more than I did, for instance – so I may have to accept that this is one occasion where I just don’t quite get it. I love their story, I admire what they’re trying to build but it’s difficult for me to envisage an occasion when Vegivores would be my first choice. Not that it matters: there’s huge integrity to what they’re doing and I’m sure they will do extremely well.

I will say this, though – whether or not I fully appreciated Vegivores, they are one of the most significant restaurants to open in Reading for a very long time. It’s a clear statement of intent to every restaurant – in Caversham and in the rest of Reading – that pays lip service to meat-free food just for the sake of having an item on the menu, or to exploit the vegan pound. Vegivores is coming for those restaurants: if they carry on doing that, Vegivores will take their customers and their business and go from strength to strength. Even though they weren’t quite my cup of tea, they’ll absolutely deserve to.

Vegivores – 7.1
41 Church Street, RG4 8BA
0118 9472181

https://www.wearevegivores.com

The Botanist

“I’ve been having a think about a pseudonym for the Botanist review,” said the WhatsApp message. “What are your thoughts on Reggie?”

The Artist Currently Known As Reggie is a relatively new friend who’s been a reader of the blog for some time, and he specifically collared me asking to accompany me when I reviewed the Botanist, mainly because he thought that without his moderating presence it would get an utter shoeing.

“I know what you’re like, you’ll turn up thinking it’s crap and it will get a bad review” he told me over pints in the back room of the Retreat a few months back.

“That’s not true. I’ve always been clear that it’s impossible not to have preconceptions, all you can do is be up front about them and try your best to bear them in mind.”

“You said it was crap” he countered.

I took a sip of my pint of Bumble Bee and thought about it. Perhaps he was on to something. I’d gone there one late Saturday afternoon in November with my mum and my stepfather after a lovely day out in Guildford. Just for a drink – we didn’t order food – but I hadn’t been impressed. All the tables seemed to be reserved, our drinks took forever and cost lots, my Bloody Mary was nothing to write home about and a little wheelbarrow of food turned up at a neighbouring table. A wheelbarrow! There was fake greenery everywhere and what might have been buckets or watering cans hanging from the ceiling. It did rather make my teeth itch.

Worse still, I’d specifically gone on Twitter to moan about it. And it didn’t take long for people to pitch in with similar views. “Food on a spade? So contrived” said one. “It’s a Harvester with a hipster makeover” said another. “I hate it. It looks like Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen came all over it”, memorably, said a third. And in fact, my preconceptions preceded my visit: as long ago as September last year I was saying that I’d had lots of good meals out recently and that “I need to redress the balance by reviewing The Botanist.”

“Hmm. You might have a point.”

“Exactly, and that’s why I’m coming with you.”

He was already there when I arrived, and my first reflection was that everything wasn’t quite as it seemed. The interior was less over the top than I remember – yes, there was fake greenery and there were lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling encased in jam jars or some kind of weird upside-down baskets with handles. And there was someone strumming away on a guitar at the front (the sign outside said “Live Music Every Day”, which I suppose might be an incentive for some people). But despite that, I actually quite liked it. It’s a big space broken up into rooms with corridors and partitions – the bar area on the right, the tables for eating on the left. I even quite liked the zinc-effect topped tables and the sturdy chairs.

And Reggie? He looked the same as usual, but did he look like a Reggie? I thought about this as I took my seat. He didn’t look like Reggie Kray, or Reggie Yates, or Reggie Perrin. What did a Reggie look like anyway? Reggie is considerably younger than me, a proper metrosexual – slim, neatly-trimmed beard, hair properly coiffed, nice checked shirt. Looking at him, I felt like perhaps I should have made more of an effort.

“What are you drinking?”

“A pint of Amstel. Don’t look at me like that, I was rushed at the bar and I couldn’t decide. Christ, you’re not going to put that in the review are you? Don’t tell them I drink Amstel, they’ll think I’m a right chump.”

“You do know how this works, right? We order food and drink and I write down what we had and what we thought about it. I can’t pretend you’re having something else.”

(Later on Reggie lightly ticked me off for threatening to order a cocktail. Maybe he was trying to save my reputation in return.)

The menu managed to have loads of things on it which looked positively edible without ever once especially tempting me. The starters were a greatest hits of things you can order in pubs and restaurants all over the country: houmous, calamari, chicken wings, falafel and so on. There was a barbecue section, and a comfort food section, some pies and – and this is considered so important by the Botanist that it’s trademarked on their menu – “Our Famous Hanging Kebabs”. I found it surprisingly hard to make a decision. The best of menus read like a setlist, the craziest like a jukebox. This, on the other hand, was reminiscent of Heart FM.

“You’re not allowed to have the Scotch egg” said Reggie, “Because if you do all you’ll do is go on about how it’s not as good as the one at the Lyndhurst.”

I smiled. Was it true, or just funny?

“Are you on commission or something?”

Reggie shrugged. “No. I’ve been here a few times, I just happen to like it.”

It took quite some time to finally come off the fence and decide what to order – enough time to order a drink, wonder if it would ever turn up, wonder some more and then eventually take receipt of it. The Botanist has an extensive range of beers from around the world (in a natty menu like a little paperback book) but I have a soft spot for Alhambra and its distinctive green label-free bottle as it always takes me back to my holidays in Granada, so I had to order it. It was as blissful as I remember – Reggie didn’t think much of it, but he hasn’t been to Granada (not yet anyway: I may have spent some of the meal waxing lyrical).

“Oh my god, you’re going to write about how long they took to bring your drink, aren’t you?”

I decided that if I wasn’t before, I definitely was now. I also wondered whether the waitress thought Reggie and I were on the least likely Tinder date of all time.

Reggie and I both wanted the baked Camembert to start. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, as I’ve never been anywhere where it wasn’t done as a sharing starter, but in the Botanist it comes as a helping for one. Reggie very kindly let me have it (such good manners!), and I still wasn’t sure after eating it whether he’d done me a favour. Rather than being studded with garlic, or herbs, or served with chutney, this one came with a “smoked bacon and crispy onion crust” or, to give it a more accurate description, vaguely salty brown dust. It wasn’t bad – you can’t go far wrong serving someone a whole cheese in my experience, unless it’s by Dairylea – but I would have liked it hotter and more gooey and I’d have liked more toast. Also, the Camembert still had paper underneath it, which made eating it more challenging than I’d expected. Half the fun is attacking the last bits right in the corners of the box and piling them onto good bread, but not on this occasion.

“It’s not bad.” I said. Reggie looked a tad relieved.

I think Reggie may have ordered better with a reliable staple, the chicken liver paté. There’s only so much you can say about paté, but it was a good example: earthy and nicely smooth. It allegedly had rum in it – I couldn’t spot it myself, but I liked it all the same. It came in a ramekin topped with a thin layer of “green peppercorn butter”, which seemed to be clarified butter left to solidify and some peppercorns. Probably pointless, but it filled space in the menu description. I didn’t get much fig in the fig chutney, it seemed like a pretty generic fruit chutney but again, it was none the worse for it. I’m not bitter, but Reggie got more toast than I did.

We ordered another beer – a second Alhambra for me, a pint of Sam Adams for him – and the mains turned up in reasonably short order. Reggie had gone for the “famous hanging kebab”, a lamb kofte. I still can’t quite get my head round that description: most people wouldn’t knowingly eat something described as hanging, and the main things famous for hanging are the Gardens Of Babylon and possibly Ruth Ellis. I suspect it’s served this way, on a skewer suspended from some kind of contraption, looming like the kebab of Damocles over some chips, for effect. But it felt like a gimmick to me, even after our waitress poured peri peri sauce over it from the top and we watched it drizzle down. I will say this for it: it did smell pretty spectacular.

I took a few photos, discovering in the process that it was impossible to take a picture of the hanging kebab which didn’t look like a dick pic.

“Here, let me.” said Reggie. His picture was better.

Once he’d taken all the balls – sorry, this isn’t getting any better is it? – off the skewer and all the flim-flam faded, what you were left with was a serviceable, ordinary lamb kofte. The meat was oddly coarse and bouncy – not at the stage of being mechanically recovered but lacking the texture of great kofte at, say, Kings Grill or Bakery House. It was okay, but certainly not worth the epithet of famous (but then, how many famous people these days are worth that either?). The chips – described in the menu as “properly seasoned” – were okay, no better or worse. I wasn’t sure anybody should boast in their menu that dishes were properly seasoned: shouldn’t that be a given?

My dish was the flattened rump steak, marinated in chilli and garlic. You only had the choice of medium or well-done, so obviously I went for medium. I really liked the taste – the time spent marinating showed, and it left a bit of heat on my tongue. There was, in fact, only one problem: it was lukewarm even when it got to the table, and with such a wide surface area most of it was cold by the time I got to it. On another night, I might have sent it back – but that’s always the risk you run with steak. As Reggie pointed out, without a hint of I told you so, you have to trust a kitchen with steak otherwise you always run the risk that you’ll be eating your dish immediately after your companions have had theirs. It came with a tomato, which in fairness was quite tasty and properly cooked, and a truly delicious roasted flat mushroom, when I eventually located it.

“Isn’t there meant to be a mushroom with it?” said Reggie.

“There is,” I said, “It’s hidden under the watercress.” That tells you something about the size of the mushroom: Portobello it wasn’t.

We didn’t fancy dessert so we paid up, when we could eventually attract attention. Our meal for two came to sixty-one pounds, which includes a rather cheeky twelve point five per cent tip. As always, it’s optional but stuck on the bill in such a way that you’d feel like a right shit asking them to leave it out. The service was friendly but slow, and probably worth ten per cent but not worth twelve and a half. Unworthily, it made me especially pleased I hadn’t ordered any cocktails: perhaps I’m too old for this sort of thing.

Afterwards, we went for another couple of drinks and a debrief in the front section of the bar (where, I must say, the service was considerably better – if still slow). It’s an odd part of the Botanist because the tables are those pub tables with integrated benches you expect to see outside in a beer garden. Maybe it was their way of continuing the horticultural theme. Reggie and I compared notes, and I think he was pleasantly surprised that our provisional ratings weren’t as far apart as they could have been.

“It wasn’t that bad, was it? I wouldn’t come here any later in the week than a Wednesday, but it’s pretty decent for what it is. I’d come here for a date or a drink with mates, that sort of thing.”

“No. It’s okay – not amazing, but not terrible. But I wouldn’t object if I was dragged here again. I was just hoping it would be like Ha! Ha! used to be, back when it was down the Kings Road where House Of Flavours is now.”

Reggie nodded as if he knew what I was talking about, and I suddenly felt really old, because when Ha! Ha! closed on the Kings Road and moved to the Oracle – which was the beginning of the end for them – I’m pretty sure that Reggie was still in school. But never mind – I knew what I meant, and some of you with long memories might too. I still miss Ha! Ha!, and I still think Reading badly needs a nice bar where the music is just loud enough, the furniture is just comfy enough and the food is just good enough (in a similar mould, I still miss Sahara, long since morphed into the unlikeable Be At One). The Botanist isn’t that place, but despite that I’m sure it will do reasonably well. So a qualified success as a meal, and I don’t know if I’ll go back. Might ask Reggie to come out on duty again, though. Not sure we’ve heard the last of him.

The Botanist – 6.6
1-5 King St, RG1 2HB
0118 9595749

http://thebotanist.uk.com/locations/reading