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/

I Love Paella at The Horn

I Love Paella moved from The Horn to The Fisherman’s Cottage in November 2016, and left the Fisherman’s Cottage in July 2018. I’ve left this review up for posterity.

My restaurant of the year last year wasn’t a gorgeous old country pub, or a sleek brasserie or some Michelin starred faff factory. No, it was one man and his paella pan, operating out of the Oxford Road branch of Workhouse Coffee weekends and some nights, offering a small but perfectly formed range of dishes – empanada, tortilla, salads, seafood paella – in a little, informal space. You could take your own bottle, you could sit up at the high central bar gassing with your friends, you could order bits and bobs until you were replete and when you went up to settle the bill it was always a fraction of what you expected to pay. I loved it, and when I gave it my award I said “It’s a proper success story, and I sense that there’s still more to come.”

Well, it wouldn’t be the first time that a rave review from me looked like something of a kiss of death, and so it came to pass that early in the New Year I started getting reports that people tried to go to I Love Paella to find the windows ominously unlit. I myself trekked down the Oxford Road to take a friend there for the first time only to have my worst suspicions confirmed. No sign of life, the shutters down. Soon after, I Love Paella announced that it was leaving Workhouse Coffee with further announcements to follow. I know it’s not all about me, honestly I do, but I couldn’t help thinking The curse of Edible Reading strikes again.

Fast forward to March, and it turned out that my fears were unfounded. In a surprising announcement, I Love Paella confirmed that it would be taking up residence in The Horn, the Castle Street pub which had previously never really featured on my to do list of Reading’s nightspots. Photos appeared on Twitter of a spick and span new kitchen and huge new paella pans, menus began to appear online and a launch date was announced.

I went shortly after it opened but I played it safe, ordering the things I would have ordered in the old premises. I had a lovely meal – although everything came out very slowly – but I knew that it was too soon and that I had to give them time to settle in. So I’ve been watching all the plaudits on Twitter, biding my time and finally, nearly two months on, I made my way there to try the place out properly. I felt a bit nervous, to be honest: would my favourite restaurant be all grown up in its new home, or would it have overextended itself?

I’m a restaurant reviewer, not a pub reviewer, so I’ll leave the detailed descriptions of The Horn to others. Friends who have been have always expressed vague suspicion, but all I can say is that I thought it looked like quite a nice boozer. The room on the left is lighter, with tall tables and stools and windows all along one wall. On the right is a more traditional room with a couple of biggish tables, and up a step is a smaller room with a few little tables. I wouldn’t have had a problem eating at any of them, although the table I initially sat at did have that disconcertingly sticky varnish I always fear could remove multiple layers of skin in one go. I’ve been told before that it’s a pub for sports fans, and there were a couple of screens showing a possibly (though how would I know?) crucial match between some overpaid men in red and overpaid men in blue, but on a Wednesday night it was largely empty.

The menu is much wider than the one ILP used to offer at Workhouse Coffee and I was determined to order lots of the new dishes to see whether they were truly taking advantage of the improved kitchen facilities. This meant passing up the empanadas, although never without regret, and – particularly disappointing, this – the grilled goat’s cheese with tomato jam. So the starters I chose had a double burden to bear: they had to be good, and they had to be better than my happy memories of meals from 2015. Could they pull it off?

In a word, yes. Chicken bravas was the most vanilla of them but still thoroughly successful. Beautiful cubes of fried potato came topped with a piquant bravas sauce and a healthy dollop of pungent aioli, the whole thing pimped with crisp shards of chicken thigh (the menu says there’s rosemary in there, but if there was I didn’t taste it). A lovely, starchy, spicy start to the meal – although if I had one criticism I thought it could have done with a little more bravas sauce. There was still a pitched battle over the last few pieces of chicken, though, and nothing was left.

ILPBravas

If the chicken bravas was good, the other two starters were great. Croquetas are exactly the sort of thing I always wanted to see ILP doing and these were as good as any I’ve had in Spain or indeed anywhere else in the UK. Beautifully presented – I know people have a bit of a beef with food on slate but it’s never bothered me – these were two gorgeous crunchy shells full of a perfect béchamel with Roquefort (always very popular in Spain for some reason). Some blue cheese dishes never really get started, others beat you over the head with salt, but this managed to steer the perfect course between those two extremes. I wish I’d ordered a whole portion to myself. I’ve had sidra and cabrales in Madrid, experienced that perfect contrast between crisp fresh apple and stinky, agricultural cheese, and I never thought I’d have an equally joyous experience on a street corner in central Reading with a perfect croqueta and a bottle of Bulmers. Life can be full of wonderful, random surprises.

ILPCroquetas

Last but not least, an innovative starter that combined two of my very favourite things, and a dish so popular that the bar staff had to check after I ordered it that they weren’t sold out. Salt cod churros sounded so fantastic on paper that I simply had to know what a fusion of those two things would look and taste like. The answer is that they look a bit like churros but taste like the best fish fingers in Christendom. I have a huge soft spot for salt cod and again, there was lots in these – no excessive padding out with pointless potato – but also little green spikes of chive in the mix. There was more of the aioli, but somehow it tasted a little different with the churros. Almost like tartare sauce, although I think that was probably a culinary trick of the light.

ILPChurros

You order and pay at the bar, and our dishes were brought out one after another in a way that was very well paced. I’m sure it helps that I think we were the only customers eating in the pub that night, so I can’t guarantee how they will manage in the busier times they deserve, but it does mean I get to say lots of nice things about the service which was a pleasure from start to finish. The bar staff were lovely and friendly, they chatted as they brought things out, they took compliments back to the kitchen (pretty much every time we finished a dish, to be honest) and they seemed almost to glow with pride at the food being served up in their pub. Quite right, too.

I couldn’t very well go to I Love Paella without sampling the eponymous dish, so a pan of chicken paella was the last thing brought out, resting on a wooden board on the table. It’s quite a daunting prospect, even between two people – a sea of rich, dark, glossy rice with chicken thighs poking up from the surface. It looked terrific, and it tasted even better: the stock had reduced perfectly, coating the ever so slightly nutty plump grains of rice, the whole thing lip-smackingly savoury and salty. The chicken, as in the bravas, was crisp where it needed to be and tender everywhere else, and broke easily into strands to mix with the rest.

ILPPaella

But there was more to it than met the eye, because it was also studded with cannellini beans, flat green beans, peppers and onion, making every forkful a fresh epiphany. Towards the end, you could scrape the metal spoon along the base of the paella pan liberating the best bits of all, caramelised, almost crunchy rice. My companion ate less than half. I, being both greedy and in raptures, ate more than half but even so there was a little left. Not quite enough to take with us, although the bar staff went to great pains to remind me that they could package up anything I couldn’t quite eat. Next time I might just go on my own, pig out and still have loads for the next day to make my colleagues green with envy as they make do with our subpar canteen (if that makes me sound like a bad person – and it probably does – all I can say is that you haven’t tried this paella; you can tell me off once you have, if you still want to).

I didn’t have dessert: the only options were brownie and cheesecake, and I was too full for either. Normally that wouldn’t bother me in the slightest (they’re pretty basic offerings) but the menu specifically says they are homemade, so if you do have a sweet tooth I wouldn’t rule them out and I imagine they’d be good. Personally, if I’d had more room I’d have been tempted to have some manchego, but that’s possibly just me. The whole thing, including those two very welcome bottles of Bulmers, came to just over forty-two pounds.

I was so disappointed when I Love Paella closed, and I remember saying so to them on Twitter. They told me not to worry and said that they had big plans. I should have believed them; that will teach me for doubting. I said I was nervous about reviewing I Love Paella, and that’s true. If it had been disappointing or inconsistent I’d have been writing this review constructively but critically, with a very heavy heart.

I’d particularly have been dreading this bit at the end, where I have to tie it all up. So it’s with a mixture of joy and relief that I get to say this: go. Go to the Horn, whenever you can, and eat this food. And if you’re worried about the Horn not being your kind of place, get people to go with you. Let’s make it our kind of place, stage a pitch invasion if you like, because a pub that does food of this quality in this location should be our kind of place (and if it really bothers you, I reckon I Love Paella might be one of the only good reasons to use Deliveroo – if you happen to have the right postcode). Personally I’ll be back at the Horn, pretty soon. In fact, I’ll even sit through Everpool playing London Irish or whoever they are, if that’s what it takes to enjoy dishes like this.

I Love Paella at The Horn – 8.4

2 Castle Street, RG1 2LS
0118 9574794

http://ilovepaella.co.uk/