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

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Thirsty Bear

The great lost ER review – the one none of you ever got to read – was of Smash, the craft beer, pizza and ping pong establishment on Gun Street. It’s a long sad story but essentially I went, I wrote the review and when I stopped reviewing because my circumstances changed it would have been inappropriate to publish it.

It’s a pity I never got to formally warn people not to go to Smash, but I suppose I can make amends now by saying that when I went the service was poor, they got the beers wrong, they got the pizzas wrong, when they got the pizzas right the pizzas were still very, very much wrong and that “barbecue pulled chicken fries” are a unique culinary hell I hope I never have to revisit (pulled? the chicken had barely even been chatted up). The TL:DR version of that review would just have said Don’t go to Smash: I gave it a rating of 4.0. I’m sorry you’ll never get to read it – I suppose it was my Edwin Drood, or – this one is for geek completists only – my Shada.

Anyway, now you’re all done Googling that, why have I decided to review Thirsty Bear and risk another diabolical craft beer and pizza experience? Well, I didn’t go without reservations, that’s true, but a bit of research suggested that even if Thirsty Bear was bad, it would at least be a different flavour of bad to the hipster-milking horrors of Smash.

It specialises in New York style pizza, which appears to be pizza so big you either have to share or order by the slice. The staff have been trained by “Fabio Ferranini, an award winning pizza chef”, and a Google of Fabio revealed that he was indeed a real person (although that isn’t necessarily a badge of pizza quality: so was Doctor Oetker). Not only that, but he did indeed come second in the 2016 European Classic Pizza Championships representing a restaurant called NY Fold in London.

By a remarkable coincidence, the menu for Thirsty Bear is absolutely identical to the menu for NY Fold, except that they’ve renamed all the pizzas after parts of NYC (I hope there’s a connection between Thirsty Bear and NY Fold, otherwise they might have paid Fabio for a bit of consultancy which largely involved pressing Control C and Control V). Anyway, all this “investigative journalism” – inverted commas deliberate – is by the by if the food is good, which is why I tipped up on a weekday night with my old schoolfriend and trusty sidekick Mike. He’d just returned from running a European coach tour that had finished up in Rome, which according to him made him the closest thing I had to a pizza expert.

There was an alarming omen as I approached Thirsty Bear on the night of my visit. Passing the site of the much-missed – by me, anyway – Kings Point, on a spot which Thirsty Bear, New York-style, would no doubt describe as the corner of Watlington and Kings, I spotted something unusual on the pavement in front of the hoardings. It was a single, perfectly intact, slice of pizza. I didn’t bend down to investigate: it may not have been that kind of pavement pizza but I still didn’t want to take a closer look. Even so, I couldn’t help but feel it didn’t bode well. Was it the cheesiest dirty protest of all time? Why did it look like it had been placed there so neatly? It was vexing.

Entering Thirsty Bear I realised immediately that I should have got there before Mike. He had picked a badly lit table on the ground floor, right under the giant TV screen showing Liverpool’s latest attempt to lose to a minor team from the continent – exactly the table you would pick, in fact, if you weren’t planning to photograph your food. So, from memory, the upstairs bit of Thirsty Bear is rather nice and the rooftop terrace is a lovely place to drink a pint on a summer afternoon. But I didn’t eat in either of those, so take that with a pinch of salt.

I can comment on the downstairs room though, less Brooklyn speakeasy and more run of the mill European sports bar. Apparently half a million was spent on the refurb (half a Purple Turtle, in other words), although looking round the place it was hard to see where it had all gone. The exposed brickwork and bear-themed artwork was all very well, but the furniture was somewhere between bland and weird.

We were sitting at a high table on what looked like stools but were actually benches seemingly made by glueing two stools together. The banquette in one corner was button-backed and welcoming, the other just looked like a blocky waste of PVC. It felt like they’d either run out of money or enthusiasm, possibly both. Most of all, it made me think of the interior of the Abbot Cook: mainly that it was done so much better than this. I wonder if they paid half a million?

“Sorry, I’ve started without you.” grinned Mike as he took a slug from his pint of Birra Moretti. The suitcases next to our table indicated that he was pretty much fresh off the plane.

“Celebrating downing tools, eh? When are you back at work?”

The grin broadened.

“Oh, not until the New Year.”

I knew that Mike worked half the year and kicked back in a skiing village for the rest of the time, but I didn’t realise that his last working day of 2017 was in September. We’d been to school together: where had I been going wrong? It was galling enough at work saying “see you next year” to people lucky enough to start their leave on something like the twentieth of December, but this was a whole other level. I resolved not to hate him, and not to try and let it colour my opinion of the food.

“At the end of my last tour this American couple asked if I’d mind them tipping me in UK currency so they could use up their last change. Do you know how much they ended up giving me?”

“Go on.” I said, half expecting it to be a pittance.

“Just over three hundred pounds! Shall I get you a pint of Strongbow Cloudy Apple?”

On second thoughts, maybe I should just focus on not letting it colour my opinion of the food, I decided.

Did I succeed? Well, it’s a good question. It’s possible that if I hadn’t been so jaded about Mike getting such an enormous tip I might have thought the arancini were an acceptable size, rather than ridiculously huge, bloated things drowned in a lake of what might pass for tomato sauce but was probably passata. I might have felt it was fine for the waitress to not blanch at us ordering two arancini and two lasagne balls, even though that was clearly too much for two people and bordered on upselling. I might have thought the lasagne balls actually did have “bolognese ragu” in them, rather than stingy, mealy, flavourless mince, an afterthought between the almost endless layers of pasta. It’s even possible that if I hadn’t been so distracted by the politics of envy I might have thought that both the arancini and the lasagne balls were indeed covered in panko breadcrumbs, with their distinctive flaky texture. Maybe it was a typo for Paxo breadcrumbs: it was at least possible given that the menu also spelled it as “lasagna”.

But no. Disappointing though the prospect of having to work for another three months before Christmas was, I could have been on top of the world and these starters would still have been mediocre at best. Well the arancini were, anyway: you can get better ones in Shed, in Jamie’s Italian and probably in Zizzi and M&S. The lasagne balls, though, were positively poor. I suppose you couldn’t knock the description though, because they plainly contained lasagne and they were, well, balls. But the menu didn’t say they’d come drowned in tomato sauce, and if I’d known I might not have ordered them.

Never mind: surely the pizza would be better. I mean, it rather had to be. We’d steered away from the pizza by the slice, mainly because it was sitting there under the lights and I wanted to give the kitchen the best possible chance to shine, even though I had reservations about a concept which forced you to choose between freshly made pizza in giant quantities and a wider range of pizzas which could have been sitting around for goodness knows how long. Confusingly, a specials board up at the bar suggested they were offering a greater selection of their pizzas by the slice – maybe that was a good idea, maybe not.

Mike and I couldn’t decide between two different pizzas. In the blue corner, there was the “Ellis Island” with stracchino (a fresh cow’s milk cheese), smoked salmon, smoked swordfish and rocket. In the red corner, we had the delights of the “Calabrisela” – they’d obviously run out of parts of NYC by this point – with ‘nduja and “buratta” (sic). “It’s a shame they don’t have the option to do half and half”, Mike had said, seconds before the waitress came to our table and said “you can have half and half if you want”. As so often, the menu managed to misinform.

Another piece of misinformation was to follow: a sixteen inch pizza, allegedly “perfect for two”, would easily have gone between three or even four people, especially ones stuffed to the gunwales on Paxo-clad spheres of iffiness. Would we have finished it all if it had been tastier? Possibly, but it wasn’t. To explain one of the reasons it was so disappointing, I need to go into some rather tedious detail: neither half we ordered had a tomato sauce base. It wasn’t clear from the menu that they wouldn’t, and I might have expected that for the Ellis Island but certainly not for the Calabrisela. The menu did, I later realised, have a symbol indicating that pizzas had a tomato base but – quelle surprise – some pizzas where the blurb said there was tomato sauce (like the “Lower East Side”) didn’t have the symbol and some pizzas which clearly would have had tomato sauce (the pepperoni one, for instance) didn’t carry the symbol.

Why is this important? Well, because without any tomato both halves of the pizza were even more stodgy. A hefty base you really had to go some to cut into and a thick layer of rapidly solidifying cheese did not make for an enjoyable experience at all, and for me if a pizza isn’t going to have a tomato base the menu – as it does at Pizza Express, or Franco Manca – really needs to spell that out in big letters. So was our pizza deliberately or accidentally disappointing? I don’t know, and I don’t even know which would be worse.

That aside, what about the toppings? Well, conceal your surprise but they were also unimpressive. At this point, I feel that Thirsty Bear deserves a little benefit of the doubt, so maybe it was burrata and not just big chunks of coldish mozzarella. It lacked the gooey middle I associate with burrata, but what do I know? And it may be that they’ve found some smoked swordfish which looks and tastes exactly like smoked salmon, that is even the same shade of pale pink.

Maybe. But it felt to me like all the things that made those pizzas exciting in theory just weren’t there in practice. Good smoked swordfish is wonderful, so is good burrata. I’m not sure it should be possible to take good swordfish and good burrata and make such average pizza. As for the other distinctive ingredients, the ‘nduja was acrid but didn’t have the complexity of flavour I associate with the best examples and the stracchino tasted and looked, well, like something I had best not describe. In fairness, the crust wasn’t bad, but by the end the main thing I wanted to do with it was throw it at somebody or something.

We left a reasonable amount, and I realised that all the other diners I had seen had taken at least some of their leftover pizza away in takeaway boxes. I didn’t quite understand why, and then I remembered the solitary slice, precisely set down on the pavement.

If this review truly reflects the meal I had, by now you must be longing for it to reach the end. Don’t worry, me too. So I should add that the Birra Moretti and Strongbow Cloudy Apple were both largely indistinguishable from such pints anywhere else, although the Moretti in particular, at four pounds ninety five, may have a slightly more bitter taste than usual. I should say that the service was actually quite pleasant (although the phrase “you really don’t need four of those balls for your starters” was conspicuous by its absence). And of course I should point out that our meal for two people with two giant disappointing starters, one giant disappointing pizza and four pints came to just under fifty-five pounds, not including tip.

So, neatly bringing us back to where we came in – as if on purpose – the TL:DR version of this review would say Don’t go to Thirsty Bear. Well, that’s not entirely fair I suppose; I mean, it’s better than Smash. And this might be the place for you, although I’ve thought about it a lot and I can’t see why it would be. If you want beer, I imagine there are better – and cheaper – places in town. If you want pizza there definitely are, unless you prize quantity over quality (in the interest of balance, I think Mike enjoyed this meal a lot more than I did). I did wonder about saying that you could at least sit on the roof terrace with mates on a sunny day and have a few slices of pizza and a cold pint and enjoy the sunshine, and then I remembered that the Allied Arms will let you slope off to Pizza Express next door and eat a Pollo Ad Astra in their garden. I really don’t enjoy saying all this, but there you have it: I just think Reading deserves more than this, and fortunately we have exactly that.

Thirsty Bear – 5.3
110 Kings Road, RG1 3BY
0118 9504439

http://thirsty-bear.com/

The Lyndhurst

I reckon everyone has their favourite part of Reading. Some people are firm Caversham fans, north of the river and delighted to be near to Nomad and close to a Waitrose (and who can blame them?). Others have a soft spot for the Tilehurst Road, or the Bath Road – I’ve often walked past Florida Court on the latter and wondered what it might be like to live there. Some are on Team Newtown or Team Oxford Road, defiantly proud of the bustle and scruff of those areas; one of my best friends moved up North and still sends me messages telling me how much she misses the Oxford Road and its many characters.

And of course, everyone has a part of Reading they daydream about living in but know they probably never will. Gorgeous roads up by the university like New Road or The Mount, for instance. The impressive sweep of School Terrace down by the canal, for me, is another. Or Eldon Square! Imagine living on Eldon Square, in one of those gorgeous big houses that hasn’t been turned into flats. You could turn a room into a library, have dinner parties around a big table (I’d have to make a lot more friends, but that’s beside the point). There’s one house, near the bottom of Kendrick Road, with a little drive and a tiny roundabout and its own lamp post like something out of Narnia: in another life, I quite fancy settling there.

Of course, this is just based on walking past those areas, seeing the glow in the windows in the evening or snooping on them during artists’ open house events. For all I know those houses are dingy, tiny and draughty, with damp in the basements and condensation on the single glazed windows every morning. I tell myself that to cheer myself up when I realise that isn’t going to be my life: those places are probably rubbish anyway, right? Maybe the people in the Lower Earley Mafia or the Tilehurst Massive have the right idea.

One of my favourite parts has always been the bit informally known as “The Village”, the area around Eldon Square and Watlington Street, bounded by London Road on one end and Queens Road and Kings Road on the other. Lovely redbrick terraced houses and little side streets rub shoulders with splendid boozers like the Retreat – we don’t have time enough to talk about how much I love that place – and the Eldon Arms, although I think that’s currently awaiting new management. There’s the gorgeous Polish Church, and the upholsterer on the corner of St John’s Road which never seems to do any business.

On the edge of the Village is The Lyndhurst, a pub which has always threatened greatness without quite getting there (I’m sure many of us can identify with that). It used to be owned by the same people as the Moderation and was a nice, if amateurish, place to go for dinner: my friends still rave about the rolled pork dish they used to do. Then it was cut adrift for a while before being taken on by a chap called Heath Thomas. He installed a chef from LSB and things looked promising, but a year later the chef had moved on and then Thomas closed the pub, claiming that Enterprise had hiked the prices to the extent that it was no longer viable (a pubco, acting like a pantomime villain? Surely not).

Anyway, the pub reopened late last year and something quite remarkable happened: they started putting pictures of their dishes on Twitter and they looked, well, beautiful. Not just tasty, but genuinely beautiful. I’ve stopped by many times since and although the interior – an unfussy L-shaped room with the same old tables, chairs and pews – was the same, it felt like a sea change was under way. The menu was never the same two times running. There was a cocktail menu, and they started showing films on a Sunday night. The gastropub, ironically, is the one tired London fashion which has never even attempted to take root in Reading: now the idea has jumped the shark have we managed to get one by accident? I wanted to know for sure, and I couldn’t think of a better place for my first review in almost a year.

Here’s a trade secret for you – in my previous spell reviewing restaurants, I invariably had the same dining companion. It helps: you trust somebody’s judgment, you bounce ideas off them, you can scrounge lots of their food if you ask nicely. Following a parting of the ways I found myself looking for new dining companions and I couldn’t think of a better way to kick off ER v2.0 than to take my mum out for dinner. So there was something familiar yet unfamiliar about sitting opposite her as she scanned the pub, sipped her gin and scrutinised the menu (“this chair is a bit low, isn’t it?” she said as she plonked herself on one of the pew-style seats by the window).

It’s a clever menu, I think: a small but tempting range of starters hover around the seven pound mark and very few of the mains are north of fourteen pounds. There were a couple of vegetarian or vegan options in each section, and not a mushroom risotto in sight. The mains in particular offered lots of opportunities to compromise, with more conventional steak, burgers and fish and chips mixed in with cheffier things. A smaller specials menu, under the bulldog clip, had another three options and I wouldn’t have put money on them being there the next day. The slogan said “It’s the little things we do” and I liked that: successful restaurants are about details, not big grand sweeping statements.

The last time I went to the Lyndhurst, under their previous management, I started with “posh mushrooms on toast”, which was some very nice mushrooms on what seemed to be a rectangle of Mighty White. The mushrooms might have been Caversham Heights, but the toast was the Dee Road estate. My mother ordered the equivalent dish as a starter and it couldn’t have looked or tasted more different: lovely chestnut mushrooms, firm not slimy, in a beautifully rich and garlicky cream sauce, the whole thing festooned with pretty micro shoots. I loved it, my mum liked it. I liked the way the sauce soaked into the soda bread, leaving you with soggy, savoury spongey bread at the end. My mum wanted something better able to cope with the juices. I thought it was a little on the small side, my mum thought it was just right. You’ll look at the picture, I imagine, and make up your own mind (it was taken by my mum and is therefore much better than mine – she’s a member of the Royal Photographic Society, don’t you know).

I couldn’t not have the Scotch egg, which was mainly for gluttony but which I kidded myself was for scientific purposes. This has changed a few times since I’ve been going: it started out being a normal sausagemeat Scotch egg (which I loved), and then they pimped it up to be (I think) a duck egg wrapped in duck meat, served with a brown sauce which, as I recall, had a genius hint of hoi sin in there. As long as you could overlook the slightly disturbing connotations of eating two generations of duck in the same dish – the ultimate mother/daughter combo, I suppose – it was a lovely dish. But the menu now is strangely non-specific (it comes “wrapped in a choice of meat”, whatever that is) and what turned out felt a little generic. I liked it, but I didn’t love it as much as any of its previous incarnations. Also, it wasn’t completely cooked through so not all of the white was set: I had to scrape some of it off and it sat there on the board like wobbly snot. The pea shoots, never my favourite salad garnish, weren’t dressed but I was sure they had been on previous visits. It’s the little things, perhaps.

So, not a home run on the starters but the kitchen really hit its stride when the mains turned up. I’d asked at the bar for recommendations and as a result I’d chosen the Cajun pork belly, not something I’d normally pick in a pub. What turned up looked fantastic and tasted even better. The pork, rubbed with spice, was dense and tender without being dry. What was described as “apple mash” was potato mash with clever hints of apple and vanilla, sweet but not cloying. The straw of crackling on top was done just right (the last one I tried in a pub had the texture of a dog chew). There was also a single crisp leaf of what I imagine was deep fried kale. The cleverest thing was a “pit bean croquette”, almost an arancino full of barbecue beans – and of course there was a sticky jus to bring it all together. I hate using wanky words like “processes” (so Masterchef) so let’s just say there was a lot going on, especially for thirteen pounds fifty. I’d have gone back and eaten it again the next day if I could.

My mother went for the main course I’d normally gravitate to – pan roasted chicken breast with gnocchi and pesto. Again the presentation was gorgeous, with the chicken sitting on top of a verdant green heap of gnocchi and strewn with yet more red micro shoots. And again, opinion was divided. My mum had nothing but faint praise for this one – there wasn’t enough pesto, what pesto there was was too much oil and not enough herbs, salt and parmesan. She reached for the salt grinder and seasoned the dish twice (“and I never use salt at home”, she told me – if you think I’m a harsh critic, perhaps this is where it comes from).

Personally, I liked it. I found the doughy gnocchi and the pesto delightful, thought the chicken was nicely done. I thought it was subtle rather than bland, though I appreciate that that can be a fine line. My one criticism (and it might have been because the chicken was roasted rather than fried) was that I would have liked the chicken skin brittle and studded with salt rather than ever so slightly flaccid – when it’s done well, chicken skin can be the very best thing about a dish like this.

We skipped dessert. It’s a compact dessert menu and, although I know the presentation is stunning, having seen the photos I still couldn’t bring myself to get excited about chocolate brownie – I’m afraid I subscribe to the “that’s a cake not a dessert” school of thought – or Eton Mess. Oh, and I should mention the drinks. I had a pint of Camden Hells and my mum had a gin and tonic (Whitley Neill – I had to explain several times that it wasn’t made by a chap called Neil from Whitley, although what a gin that would be: I dread to think what botanicals he’d use). Both were splendid. The whole thing came to forty-seven pounds, not including tip. Before you ask, of course I paid for my mum. What do you take me for?

Service was quite lovely throughout, friendly and enthusiastic (I might have chosen for my dishes to come out slightly more slowly, but that might just be me and it must be tricky getting that balance right in a pub). It must be easier to do service well when you know that, fundamentally, you’re serving up really good food and everyone seemed really proud of what they’re building at the Lyndhurst. That’s been my experience of the place in general, as it happens, whether I’ve gone for dinner or just turned up with a friend for a couple of gins – and they know their gin behind the bar, believe me.

I really like the Lyndhurst; I expect that much is obvious from what you’ve just read. It’s not perfect, but enough of it is extremely good that I want to go back again to see how close to perfect they can get. It’s a pub which does excellent food without falling back on clichés or just churning out dreary dude food like everywhere else in Reading right now. So yes, it has craft beer and yes, it does a burger if you want one, but there’s lots about the place that makes it a much more interesting prospect and not just another dead-eyed exercise in bandwagon jumping. Heaven knows, Reading desperately needs that kind of establishment.

The night I went to the Lyndhurst, one of my friends was eating out in Paris at Le Chateaubriand, a restaurant which regularly makes lists of the 50 best restaurants in the world. I’ve been, and I didn’t like it, but I didn’t tell my friend that because I didn’t want to piss on her chips. But, true to form, her messages suggested that she too had been underwhelmed by the whole thing: iffy service, slow pacing and flavourless food. I sent her pictures of my scotch egg and my pork belly and the reply came back: Holy shit. I want to lick the screen. So there you go – the day I went to the Lyndhurst provoked food envy in somebody eating in one of the best restaurants in the world: Reading 1, Paris 0.

After dinner, I took my mum to the Retreat for a pint and a debrief. We ended up in random conversations with the other locals in the front room, which always happens there and which I always love. Brian the landlord was a resplendent shade of brown – three weeks in Turkey, if you believe it – and as twinkly as ever. He winked at my mother so often that I thought he might have something in his eye (he’s a roister-doister, that one). It was the perfect end to the evening – and, not for the first time lately, I remembered that this really is my favourite part of town.

The Lyndhurst – 7.7
88-90 Queens Road, RG1 4DG
0118 9503888

http://www.thelyndhurstreading.co.uk

Bluegrass BBQ

As regular readers may remember I have a long-standing policy of not reviewing restaurants in their first month, of giving them time to bed in and settle down. Bluegrass tested my resolve more than most, being that rare thing, a new independent restaurant in the town centre. Unable to stay away, I did try to visit before Christmas only to be told – on a weekday lunchtime, no less – that the waiting time was forty-five minutes. To be honest, I just laughed and left: no-reservations restaurants are a bad enough habit to import from London, but once people are queuing round the block for American barbecue we’ve surely got everything bad about dining in the capital without any of the redeeming features.

So I’ve been sitting on my hands for a month, dying to visit on duty and having to wait while the other reviews came in. They were a mixed bag; people seemed to like the food, but a lot of people really didn’t like the experience of eating at Bluegrass. In particular, their policy of making you order at the bar came in for a lot of criticism. I was a bit surprised by this – I’d have thought eating in pubs and, for that matter, Nando’s would have got people used to this, but it seemed not. Despite that, it was voted Reading’s new restaurant of the year despite having only been open for three weeks of 2015 (on a shortlist, to be fair, which didn’t include Bakery House). So I wasn’t at all sure what to expect when I went there one evening hoping it would be quiet and looking forward to making up my own mind.

They’ve done a good job of renovating the old Gurkha Square site (which I never really liked – there was always a smell wafting from it when I went past which was somehow more Pedigree Chum than haute cuisine) and inside it’s made up of lots of different little rooms across about three floors, as well as the terrace out back overlooking the Holybrook which I can imagine will be lovely come summer.

Despite this, I’m afraid I struggled to warm to the interior. The wood panelling and bar made from reclaimed planks and the old school chairs all feel a bit done before – perhaps if I’d been sat at one of the banquettes I’d have felt more kindly disposed, but the whole thing felt a bit clinical. Instead I was at a table with four chairs and four placemats but which felt like realistically it could only have seated two people with elbows. I wondered how much the floor plan had been influenced by margins.

The menu is all very familiar to anyone who’s been to Blue’s Smokehouse, or RYND for that matter – ribs, brisket, pulled pork and smoked chicken, along with a range of burgers and sandwiches (in fairness they also have what looks like a very interesting breakfast menu – itself probably worth a separate visit). Prices are very reasonable: the mains all hover around the ten pound mark and, the menu being what it is, it’s all about mains and sides rather than starters and mains.

I’d heard apocalyptic stories about waiting at the bar, and perhaps on a busier night it would have been horrendous, but when I went it wasn’t too bad. It’s not really set up for queuing though, as you basically have to form a line heading down into one of the dining areas, impeding passing waiting staff and customers. They also only have one till, which feels like a rather devil-may-care decision (perhaps their brisk trade will persuade them to reconsider). Service was pleasant enough but a bit on the gormless side – I had to explain to them what one of the drinks on their cocktail menu was, and they then told me the lager I’d ordered had to be changed and they’d bring my drink over. Five minutes later I went up, jogged their memory and went back to the table with a pint. Everyone was friendly but a bit aimless, as if they’d never expected the restaurant to be this popular and weren’t sure how to cope with it (which may not be a million miles from the truth).

Food came out very quickly – within ten minutes or so. Again, some people have complained about this but I think they just misunderstand what kind of restaurant Bluegrass is. Most things are already smoked and slow-cooked and are just waiting to be dished up (if anything, if it took any longer to arrive you’d be justifiably concerned). And although the meals came on the standard-issue trays I didn’t find this as annoying as usual, possibly because the trays seemed slightly bigger or probably because the paper they were lined with put up more resistance to cutlery than they sometimes can.

So, on to the food: pulled pork was really good. Very soft, cooked to the point of complete surrender, juicy and with a lightly smoked taste that was enhanced by adding a sauce. There are four different sauces on the table but we did need to ask one of the members of staff what they were because there was no description on the label or on the wipe clean placemat-menus. The Tennessee was my favourite – a sweet barbecue sauce with a Dr Pepper base that was nice to dunk a forkful of pork in.

BluegrassPork

Brisket I wasn’t so sure about – four thinnish slices which tasted better than they looked, but the bottom slice had taken marbling to the stage where the bits of recognisable meat stood out like an archipelago of flesh in a sea of fat. It might have tasted lovely all the same, but squeamishly I left some of it. The burnt ends were the pick of the bunch for me, cubes of beef cooked longer still, sticky with sauce and much more tender and appetising: I had one towards the end with some little crunchy fragments of chip and it was the best mouthful of the entire meal.

Most of the dishes come with fries and coleslaw. The fries were lovely: skin-on with some real crispiness and texture, not wan and flaccid like they can be at many places doing this kind of food. The coleslaw, though, was disappointing; I actually quite like mayo-free coleslaw but this added nothing but contrast. I wonder how many people actually finish theirs.

BluegrassBrisket

We shared two other sides. Barbecue pit beans – a portion I’d say was on the small side – had shreds of meat in there but overall had picked sweetness over heat, the wrong choice in my opinion. Corn on the cob, one of my favourite things in the world, was a little underwhelming – a touch overcooked, so that the individual niblets didn’t pop the way I anticipated and the advertised cinnamon in the butter was undetectable. Nice enough but (dare I say it?) Nando’s does better.

I’m sorry to say that the drinks weren’t really worth the trouble they took to order. The lager was quite nice, clean and crisp, but by the time it arrived the food was nearly upon us. The “cherry cola cooler” was a small Amaretto and coke in a jam jar. For four pounds fifty. I watched them pour some of a 330ml bottle of Coca-Cola into the jam jar and then, presumably, throw the rest away.

The general haplessness of the service continued when someone came to ask how the food was. I said it was quite good, which it was, and she put a magnetic bottle cap on the end of the table to show that we had been processed. And you do feel, in an establishment like this, like you’ve been processed rather than served. She also asked whether we wanted any water and I said we’d love a jug of tap water. She returned with a solitary glass of tap water (still, it’s the thought that counts). Actually, if it hadn’t been for the model of ordering at the bar I’d have had a glass of Malbec by then, but I guess Bluegrass has decided it’s happy to run the risk that people will order less drinks: an odd decision for somewhere which prides itself on its range of craft beers. As it was, we left – the advantage of paying up front is that you can do this quickly – and dinner for two came to thirty-five pounds, not including tip.

You’ve probably gathered by now that I wasn’t absolutely bowled over by Bluegrass. But in its defence, many of the criticisms of it are fundamentally missing the point: it’s a restaurant, Jim, but not as we know it. It is not intended to be a place where you settle in for an evening. Bluegrass is set up to have all its food ready to serve almost immediately and everything it does to channel customers is intended to guarantee a speedy turnaround. It’s a different kind of casual dining, and perhaps the shape of things to come – get people in, feed them, send them away and turn the table as many times as you can. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, not an awful lot wrong with the food and nothing wrong with going there, if that’s the kind of meal you want. But, for that reason if no other, it felt like a restaurant many may like but few will love. I still think that restaurants are all about the experience: the service, the comfort, that feeling of taking time away from your troubles (and the washing up!) while someone else looks after you and feeds you. For me, anything else is just one step up from Deliveroo.

Bluegrass BBQ – 7.1
15 Gun Street, RG1 2JR
0118 9599112

http://bluegrass-bbq.com/

Blue’s Smokehouse, Bracknell

I like cheese as much as the next person, and a well-dressed salad on a hot day can be as perfect, in its way, as the most skilfully barbecued steak. In a sushi restaurant, practically the first thing I order is avocado maki, soft, buttery green flesh, surrounded by soy soaked rice. But the truth is I can’t remember the last time I ordered a vegetarian main, and if I order a vegetarian starter, it’s more from luck than judgment. So if you’re a vegetarian, I’m sorry if there isn’t always much for you in my reviews. And I’m doubly sorry this week, because Blue’s Smokehouse is a temple to meat in all its forms – they even sneak it into the baked beans, for crying out loud. So if you find all that offputting, I completely understand. I guess I’ll see you next week.

Still here? Okay, let’s do this.

A few friends (all men, all big meat eaters) have recommended Blue’s to me in the month or two since it’s opened. They’d even said it was worth going to Bracknell for (nothing against Bracknell, although the train station late at night is a cold and lonely place, even on a full stomach). Of course, I love a challenge (and I’m starting to like train journeys) so I felt I had to give it a try. And anyway, nowhere in Reading does anything like this – the closest, I suppose, is the food at the Oakford Social Club but even that is mainly burgers and fried chicken – so it definitely justified a trip out of town. I brought backup, more than usual, because enough people were interested enough in an “authentic American barbecue” restaurant to want to come along for the ride.

Blue’s isn’t far from the station but even so it’s a bit hard to find. Some of the roads seem to have extensive roadworks and I got a bit lost wandering past the back of a shopping mall and a Brutalist car park (one of the nearby offices is called “Time Square”, but I doubt it’s a happening place to spend New Year’s Eve). Once I got there though, things improved: the site is an old pub but since the makeover it really does look the part. The interior is lovely and deceptively large: faux rustic furniture, dark grey walls, industrial light fittings. I seem to use the word “handsome” a lot in reviews but it definitely fitted here.

Even with a pack of ravenous carnivores at my table, ordering was difficult because everyone wanted to try everything. Fortunately, the menu makes provision for the indecisive: many of the mains can be ordered as a combo, with two half portions costing 50% more than a single portion (no, I’m not sure about the maths, either). In the end we all did this because we simply couldn’t pick between the different meats on offer. The enamel mug of lightly spiced popcorn we were given to munch while we made up our minds was a nice touch, too. The food turned up pretty quickly – one of many things that reinforced that this wasn’t really a sit down, take your time and stay for an evening sort of place. I think we were expecting that – and were all starving – so it wasn’t a problem for us, but it’s worth bearing in mind.

Describing the mains is going to feel a bit like a parade of dead animal, but here goes anyway. The pulled pork was excellent: tender, shredded but still in tangible threads and lightly spiced rather than slathered in sticky sauce. I appreciated that – there is a tendency to drown the flavour of pulled pork in barbecue sauce but Blue’s knows better than to do that and lets the meat speak for itself. The brisket was just as good – delicious slices of tender, smoky beef. I’d heard from other people who had been that it could be a little on the dry side but mine was spot on. Both of these came with “Texas Toast” (which I’d never heard of but which Professor Wikipedia assures me is an actual thing) thick slices of what felt like brioche, buttered and surprisingly good at soaking up all the juices.

Blues1

The consensus was that the ribs were the best of the bunch; I’ve never had ribs as tasty and tender as these. The meat practically jumped off the bone without needing any encouragement, leaving the bone as white and dry as the Queen’s Speech. The flesh was beautifully smoked, the sauce was sticky and ever so slightly sweet and despite the roll of kitchen towel on every table (no napkins here) they could be eaten with cutlery, instead of the sticky-fingered, orange-faced way I’ve never truly enjoyed. All these came with fries and coleslaw which were fine if not stellar. The skin-on fries were somewhere equidistant between chunky and skinny and disappointed anyone hoping for either and the coleslaw (which was mayo-free) was a little sweet for my taste, in a meal which had enough sweetness already. Portion sizes, for the price, felt slightly on the small side (if you’re English, anyway – Americans would probably consider them verging on the miserly).

Blues2

Because we’re all very greedy, and were all very hungry, we ordered most of the sides. “Rib tips” were a disappointment. The menu says “we take the trimmed tips of the ribs, add sauce and return it to the smoker to cook just a little bit longer”, which sounds magnificent, but actually they felt like offcuts from the ribs. If they had spent extra time in the smoker it had had the effect of Superglueing what little meat there was to the bones. The onion bundle on the other hand was delicious. It looked a lot like the bits of fried food that get cleaned out of the bottom of a deep fat frier, but that didn’t stop us digging in. The menu said it was onion rings and strings but in the frying process all shape was lost and instead we got what was effectively an enormous crunchy bhaji. Last but not least, the beans: with added onions, pork, brisket and “a hint of bourbon and maple syrup”. Everyone else at the table loved them except me – I found it a bit strange to find chunks of meat floating in there. I got flashbacks to the mid 80s, Grange Hill on the television, Heinz baked beans with chipolatas on toast for tea (and that’s never a good thing).

Blues3

Oddly, there are no plates at Blue’s Smokehouse. Instead food is served on the equivalent of a McDonald’s tray, only black and with a sheet of greaseprooof paper between the plastic and the food. This was probably the thing which annoyed us all the most; as soon as the paper got greasy or wet it started to shred. I really don’t understand why they did this (are the trays not clean? will the food slide over the lip of the tray? are plates suddenly uncool and Blue’s are the only people who got the memo?) It didn’t look fun for the waitresses either: trying to stack four slightly bendy plastic trays of leftovers and bones up to take away without dropping anything looked like a level on “The Cube” waiting to happen.

Drinks wise we had a selection including a decent glass of malbec – smooth and very slightly sweet which made for very easy drinking – and a pint of real ale for my real beer drinking friend, who was quite tempted by the interesting sounding range of American craft beer – quite but not enough. (“I’m not drinking Blue Moon if they have it” he said, pulling a face, “that stuff’s horrible.”)

Somehow we managed to find room for dessert (I said they weren’t American sized portions and I meant it). Half of us had milkshakes that were so thick with ice cream that attempting to suck it up the straw caused a few red faces – literal, not metaphorical ones. They were superb, although Blue’s only offers milkshakes of the most straightforward ice cream flavours they sell: vanilla, strawberry, chocolate. The other half had knickerbocker glories made from the more interesting flavours on offer. These were also excellent, though they seemed to cater more for the kiddie end of the market – chocolate sauce, mini marshmallows – considering that the ice cream was decent quality (dulce de leche was especially delicious).

Blues4

Service was decent if a little, well, tense. Our waitress had a slight air of the rabbit in the headlights and it was difficult to get a smile out of her, even though she got everything right and didn’t have a problem making suggestions where we needed them. Maybe she was dreading the point where she had to carry four slippery trays back to the kitchen (she should have used a “simplify” and done it in two goes, I’m sure Philip Schofield would have let her). All in all the bill for four people with one drink each, dessert and more sides than we could reasonably eat was £106, not including tip. I think the general consensus is that we thought that was pretty good.

Standing on the chilly platform at Bracknell (having missed a train by three minutes we had to wait half an hour for another one – and that can feel like a very long time, it turns out) we debated whether we would go back. Opinion was divided: a couple of us were already planning a return visit, one of us was more ambivalent. And me? I’m not sure. If this place was in Reading I can see I’d be there all the time – partly because what they do is unique, and partly because I can see it would fit perfectly for quick, informal fun meals, maybe before carrying on drinking somewhere else. But is it worth trekking for Bracknell for? Perhaps once just to try it out, maybe regularly if you really, really like meat. But for the rest of us, and for any vegetarians out there who have made it to the end, you might find the temptation not quite enough, that empty platform just a little too unlovely.

Blue’s Smokehouse – 7.4
High Street, Bracknell, RG12 1DS
01344 867575

http://bluessmokehouse.com/