The best of Reading

A few weeks ago I was having a drink with a Reading sceptic. Everyone knows at least one person like this: you almost certainly do, or maybe you are one (although if you are, reading this must be a bit like the experience I have on the rare occasions when I click on something by Richard Littlejohn). For instance, I used to have one friend – note the use of the past tense – who constantly whinged about Reading and how underwhelming it was. Even Portsmouth, where she used to live, was better, she said.

Once, bored by this recurring theme, I asked her whether she’d ever been to the Progress Theatre, taken in comedy at South Street, done the art Open House weekends in Whiteknights or Caversham, read Alt Reading or been to a gig at the Oakford, or indeed anywhere. The answer to all those questions was no: she had to get a babysitter to go out in town of an evening, she said, and she’d decided in advance that none of those things justified the expense. Whose fault was it, I wonder, that she found Reading so disappointing?

Anyway, I was strolling back along the canal with this particular Reading sceptic and, ever so nicely, she said that I made a good fist of sticking up for Reading and banging the drum for Reading but implied that really, I was just rolling a turd in glitter. She challenged me to name half a dozen places worth eating in Reading and I managed it, after a fashion, but I felt uncomfortably put on the spot. Perhaps I was just a little rusty, my well-prepared speech about how much I love this town gathering dust on the shelf.

The way some conversations do, it weighed on my mind for days. After all, if I can’t mount a convincing defence of the place after nearly three years of reviewing independent restaurants here, things must be pretty bleak mustn’t they? And it’s true that lately I’ve found myself on the train to Oxford a lot, eating brunch at the Handlebar Café, having a spot of lunch at Pierre Victoire or enjoying (well, loving actually) dinner at Branca. Each time I’ve been there I’ve walked past a new, interesting place – tapas restaurants, bakeries, little wine bars. I’ve even contemplated what it would be like to write Edible Oxford, and I felt a little guilty when I realised how fun that sounded.

Things happened the following week which quite restored my faith. On Thursday, I took a friend to the Fisherman’s Cottage for dinner. It was Tapas Thursday, and you could get a bottle of Estrella with a dish of crunchy bravas and rich aioli for a fiver, or failing that try a dinky sandwich filled with plump, smoky chorizo. I watched the pub fill up with people eating and drinking and I felt a tug of pride that I Love Paella, which I’ve been going to since it just dished up a handful of dishes at Workhouse Coffee down the Oxford Road some evenings, had grown to this and found a home where it was appreciated and where it belonged perfectly.

My friend doesn’t eat fish, and initially grizzled about the prospect of going to a place called I Love Paella, but when the chicken paella materialised in front of us, packed with plump beautifully seasoned thighs, his reservations vanished. It was a truly brilliant evening: for some people, cooking is how they show love but for me, with my negligible skills in the kitchen, it’s always been about finding nice places for people to eat. We stopped by the Lyndhurst for a drink after that. “You must try the Scotch egg some time”, I told him because, even with a full stomach, I couldn’t help myself.

The following night I was meeting my dad and I took him to the Turk’s for Georgian food from Caucasian Spice Box. If you think I’m gleeful when I eat a dish I love, you should meet my dad: he may well be where I get that from. And his face was a picture as beautiful dish after beautiful dish arrived at our table – coarse meatballs like faggots strewn with pomegranates, spiced chicken thighs with a sauce made from ground walnut, slices of soda bread stuffed with firm yet elastic cheese, a little dish of jonjoli, green tangy strands which were like a cross between seaweed and capers.

As my dad sighed, declared himself replete and asked them to box up a couple of chicken thighs to take home to my stepmother (just before helping himself to another baklava) I realised how lucky I am to live in a town with such brilliant, diverse, independent offerings.

I’ve lost count of the amount of times I go to another town, find a restaurant and think “if only this was near me I’d eat there all the time”. But the grass is always greener, and the truth is we have loads of those kind of restaurants here. So, all in one place, here’s a list of bite-sized reviews of the best of Reading: ten independent restaurants I’d recommend to anyone – new to this town, or a long-standing resident – who wants to discover the kind of food we have here. If you’re a regular reader then apologies for telling you things you probably already know but, if you’re not, this might be a decent place to start reading the blog.

Anyway, if all else fails, it’s a handy link you can send to any Reading sceptics you might not have converted yet. Hope you enjoy it.

Bakery House

The perfect example of the kind of restaurant I like – unfussy, unpretentious and serving brilliant Lebanese food. Houmous studded with shreds of roasted lamb, tiny pungent sausages, a whole boneless baby chicken crispy from the charcoal grill, puffy pittas still full of air like edible balloons ready to be dipped in sauce. You’ll reek of garlic the next day, but the chances are you won’t care. (82 London Street, RG1 4SJ)

Bhel Puri House

Reading’s only vegetarian restaurant and still a great place to go for lunch when you don’t want sandwiches. Nearly always full of families enjoying Indian street food, the service is lovely and the chilli paneer – cubes of caramelised cheese peppers – is one of the very best things you can eat in Reading. It’s always worth picking something as a punt from the menu, because when it works it can be a revelation, but if all else fails the Punjabi samosas are delicious. In summer you can eat in the courtyard it shares with Workhouse Coffee, one of Reading’s best natural sun traps. (Yield Hall Lane, RG1 2HF)

Caucasian Spice Box

Some of the nicest, friendliest service in Reading and a kitchen which does what restaurants should do but rarely manage – offer a short menu with no duffers where everything is worth a try. Georgian food is an eye-opener to anyone like me who has had rather jading experiences of food from Eastern Europe, and Caucasian Spice could easily convince you that you have a new favourite cuisine. When I go, I find it almost impossible to veer from the meatballs (probably the best I’ve ever had) and the spiced chicken thighs. But if you’re vegetarian the bean stew is also very tasty indeed, and if you’re taking someone who’s can’t see past pub food they can eat the very credible fish and chips while you give them the mother of all food envy. There’s usually beautiful baklava after you finish your mains (a lovely touch) and although they don’t promote it the pub also serves Georgian wine which goes beautifully with everything. (The Turk’s, 31 London Road, RG1 5BJ)

Dolce Vita

Dolce Vita has a nice space and warm, welcoming service: going there always feels a bit like a cross between eating out and eating at home, especially if you become a semi-regular. Some of the main menu doesn’t do it for me – there are better pizzas elsewhere in Reading, and I’ve occasionally found the pasta a little overcooked – but many of the meat dishes are spectacular (particularly the saltimbocca), the set menu is uniformly packed with interesting stuff and if there are any Greek dishes on there they are always worth snaffling. The perfect example of how a good restaurant is so much more than the sum of its parts. (19-23 Kings Road, RG1 2HG)

I Love Paella

I’ve waxed lyrical about it already but I Love Paella and the Fisherman’s Cottage has turned out to be such a perfect marriage that it’s now almost impossible to imagine one without the other. Tapas Thursday, with a constantly changing range of miniature dishes for – no, this isn’t a misprint – two pounds is the best day to go, but in my experience any day is a good day to eat I Love Paella’s food. The eponymous paella is a thing of wonder, but so are the grilled goat’s cheese with tomato jam, the stunning empanadas and the perfect combination of two gastronomic wet dreams that is ILP’s salt cod churros. (The Fisherman’s Cottage, 3 Canal Way, RG1 3HJ)

Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus

I celebrated my thirtieth birthday in Kyrenia, as it was then called, so long ago that Tony Blair was still Prime Minister (and it’s not just the prospect of being thirty again which makes me look back on those days with nostalgic fondness). It may have a different name now many years later, but the place has aged a lot better than I have. It still has the same beautiful, elegant, simple décor. It still has tables packed close enough together that you feel like you’re sharing an evening with strangers in a good way (and apologies if you’ve ever had a table near one of my birthday celebrations) and the big windows at the front steam up. It still has tremendous service from people who have been working there all this time. And, most important, from salty firm halloumi to chargrilled spirals of octopus, from soft succulent kleftiko to firm, porky sheftalia, it still does magnificent food. (6 Prospect Street, RG4 8JG)

Kobeda Palace

One of the most unprepossessing places I’ve ever been on duty, Kobeda Palace still feels like a well-kept secret despite my attempts to publicise it. When I first went I was seduced by the kobeda – wonderful kofte kebabs cooked on the grill and dished up on huge, hand-stretched naan. But on return visits I’ve found myself completely addicted to the karahi chicken – served on the bone with a sauce resplendent with ginger. Buy as much of that as you can persuade your companions to share – they sell it by the half kilo – and make sure you get a giant naan to use to scoop up every last mouthful (or, if you can’t persuade your companions, do it anyway: I did). Oh, and a jug of mango lassi is five pounds. Five pounds! (409-411 Oxford Road, RG30 1HA)

Papa Gee

Papa Gee, more than anywhere else, was the sleeper hit of Edible Reading. I never thought it was a real restaurant, expected to find it a bit of a joke and lo and behold, I had to quickly pack away my sneer as it became apparent that I was eating easily the best pizza not only in Reading, but for miles around. The pizza is still the reason to go, whether you opt for the fiery fun of the “Sofia Loren”, all chilli and sausage or what’s always been, for me, the ultimate pizza: the “Napoli”, with anchovies, garlic and (in my case) extra capers. But last time I went they had a brilliant new street food section on the menu, and it’s still worth picking up some of their zucchini fritti even if they don’t go with anything else you’re having. Papa Gee’s fate is in question, as Easy Hotel wants to buy the premises they’re in and sling them out after over ten years making the best of that unpromising location. Go while you can, show your support and let’s hope Gaetano either stays put or finds better premises; I daydream that one day he’ll replace TGI Friday in the Oracle. (138 Caversham Road, RG1 8AY)

Pepe Sale

The original and best, the first place I ever reviewed. Ignore the interior (although it’s less ugly than it was four years ago, and they’ve finally put up some decent artwork). Instead, lose yourself in the food – fresh filled pasta, roast suckling pig, a whacking great piece of fillet steak on rocket, chicken wrapped in pancetta, antipasto topped with a single crispy piece of fried pecorino. If they have an off night I don’t think I’ve ever seen it, and if you get served by Marco you can truly watch a master at work at the front of house. (3 Queens Walk, RG1 7QF)

Sapana Home

My restaurant of the year last year and still one of my favourite places to grab a quick solo meal right off the train at Reading. Always doing a buzzing trade with Reading’s Nepalese community, you should make a beeline for the momo (pan fried chicken for me, thank you very much). Personally I can eat all ten of the blighters, although existential sadness starts to set in after momo number six – that makes me sound like Lou Bega, I’m afraid – when I begin to realise that my gorgeous meal is coming to an end. But you could do a lot worse than trying some of the other dishes too. Chicken fry is quite magnificent, the chow mein has grown on me after initially being somewhat indifferent and, best of all, the samosa chaat is absolutely gorgeous – warm chunks of samosa, yoghurt, tamarind, crunchy sev and smiles. (8 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1TG)

The thing is that, as with any list, you could just as easily take exception to what’s been left out as to what’s been included. So I didn’t find room for a trio of excellent Indian restaurants in the shape of House Of Flavours, Royal Tandoori and Bhoj. I couldn’t make space for Reading’s higher end choices, London Street Brasserie, Forbury’s, Cerise. I skipped our fine lunch and coffee scene, so I’ve neglected to mention Shed, Workhouse or Picnic. No Mya Lacarte, Nomad Bakery or The Tasting House, either. It’s terrific, on reflection, that making this list involved deciding who to omit rather than desperately scrabbling around to find ten names which barely fit the bill. This town has an increasingly unfair reputation for chains when really, the best of Reading is all about the independents, doing their bit to make our town individual and idiosyncratic.

More importantly, there’s a bigger gap. Because the other thing that’s left out of this list is the plethora of new restaurants that have opened. Each one has its own context in Reading, its own narrative and it raises its own questions. Does 7 Bone really do the best burgers in Reading, and will they be good enough to withstand the arrival of Honest and Byron in the future? The Lyndhurst posts beautiful pictures of its dishes, but can it really become Reading’s first destination pub for food? Is Gooi Nara’s Korean barbecue worth the trek up Whitley Street and will Soju be better when it opens downstairs in Atlantis Village? Is Bierhaus an inspired idea, or a gimmick in search of some decent food? Does the Crown On The Bridge’s refurb offer a reason to cross the river? Are Firezza’s pizzas a serious rival to Papa Gee’s? For that matter, are the Fox And Hounds’? What about the Thirsty Bear? So many questions, no answers. If I was sitting at home or in the office reading this, I’d want to know. Not just that: I’ve written it, and I still want to know. It feels like a book with the next chapter missing.

And that, as you’ve probably figured out by now, can only mean one thing.

It’s time to come back.

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Feature: 20 things I love about Reading

No review this week, I’m afraid. Every now and again work is just too busy, or holidays get in the way and it’s just not possible for me to get to a restaurant (not somewhere new, anyway), form a critical judgment and knock out a couple of thousand words. But I couldn’t leave you completely in the lurch so instead I thought I’d do a bit of a departure – a feature which isn’t entirely about eating and drinking.

As regular readers will know, I absolutely love Reading and if there’s one thing that really cheeses me off it’s people running it down. So this week I’ve decided to do one of those Buzzfeed-style articles that are all the rage with the movers and shakers and give you a not remotely exhaustive or definitive list of the things I love about this eccentric, deceptively characterful town of ours. Hope you enjoy it, and by all means chip in in the comments section with everything I’ve forgotten to mention, or the things that would make your personal list. Ready? Got a cup of tea handy? Right, off we go!

1. John Lewis

JohnLewis

I’ve always felt that John Lewis is the closest thing Reading has to a cathedral and, like many Reading folk no doubt, I’ve always had an almost visceral loyalty to it as an institution. I’m not sure there’s any more heartwarming experience than strolling down Queen Victoria Street to see its distinctive façade and clock coming into view (although it’s just as distinctive from the Oracle side with its weird, almost pagoda-like sloped roofs).

But, of course, it’s really about what’s inside and what’s inside is everything you could possibly want. I know everyone is sad about Jackson’s closing, and that’s fair enough, but really, John Lewis is the place you can buy whatever you need from duvet covers to board games to scented candles to cameras to pretty much anything else. Whenever anyone asks me “where should I go for X?”, the answer’s nearly always John Lewis.

It’s not quite as lovely as it used to be since they dolled the place up, but it does give rise to one of my favourite John Lewis stories. When they did their refit they got rid of the grand old curvy lifts like pods that took you from the top to the bottom of the department store. The new ones, which I don’t like so much, are your stereotypical glass boxes but – and only John Lewis would do this – they let the staff name them. Have a look next time you’re in one of them.

And before you say anything: yes, I know, it will always be Heelas to me, too.

2. The Retreat

The recent hoo-ha about whether Reading served lots of bad beer spectacularly missed the point that not only does Reading have a magnificent beer culture, punching well above its weight, but it also has some of the finest pubs anybody could hope for. I know purists might well pick somewhere else, and we could be here all day debating, but The Retreat is probably my favourite. I’ve had some magical evenings here, there are always interesting conversations going on all around you and it’s a truly lovely place to drink a pint, eat some jalapeno pretzel pieces and chat with friends, play cards or just read a book and watch the world go by. Especially nice if you happen to be there on a night when ukulele practice is going on, I find. Oh, and the landlord is a twinkly delight.

3. Dolce Vita

I’m not sure there’s anything to say about Dolce Vita that I haven’t already said, but as a place to go for any kind of meal in Reading – big ones, little ones, even solo ones – it’s pretty much impossible to beat. The food is a great combination of reliable favourites and regularly changing nice surprises, the service is uniformly downright superb and it literally never lets me down. It’s almost the only restaurant left in what’s currently still called The Walk (but will no doubt soon be called Atlantis Palace or some other such horror) but whatever you think of the rather baffling way that mall is managed, I think they’re too sensible to muck with Dolce Vita.

4. South Street

21SouthStreet

No surprises here, I’m sure; I was delighted when South Street was saved, and just as delighted to watch a whole community come together to fight for it. Over the years I’ve seen all sorts of things here, and I can’t think of an arts centre that puts on such a brave, eclectic and consistently interesting programme of events. So I saw Alan Carr here before he was famous (he was exceptional) and Mumford & Sons (I was dragged to that one). But I’ve also seen one-person shows about hair extensions, or driving a clapped-out car to Rome, or about orbiting the moon on your own. I’ve seen folk music and cabaret, political comedy and, most recently, an amazing woman with Tourette’s make a whole audience shout the word “biscuit” in the sonic equivalent of a Mexican wave. I can’t imagine all that happening anywhere else.

5. Reading Museum

I have a real soft spot for Reading Museum. Every time I go I seem to find something new, and every time I go I realise it’s far too long since I last went. The changing exhibitions are always interesting, there’s lots of interactive stuff for kids, it gives you a proper sense of place and, of course, there’s the full size replica of the Bayeux Tapestry (or, to try to appeal to Buzzfeed readers, “one of the first ever graphic novels”). It’s well worth going for the guided tours of the tapestry every Saturday when the enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff whizz you round it explaining that it’s actually an embroidery and telling you the fascinating story of how Reading came to own a copy – and how close to destruction the original came (you also find out how the prim Victorians who made the replica knitted some y-fronts on the copy to ensure there was no full frontal nudity: fun for everyone).

6. Tutti Frutti

I’m sure pretty much everyone loves Tutti Frutti and it’s not a controversial choice. But it belongs on this list. My friends who drink coffee say Tutti Frutti’s is surprisingly good. The ice cream is knockout, whether it’s peach and amaretto, or Kinder Bueno (phwoar!) or Greek yoghurt and lemon curd (double phwoar!) or some of the more interesting experiments like blue cheese and honey (don’t knock it til you’ve tried it). But also, it’s about the service. Paul and Jane are both lovely – he is like an old-fashioned shopkeeper and she is a hyperactive whirlwind of enthusiasm and delight. The people they hire are unfailingly friendly and interested without being fake. I’m no fan of the soulless hangar that is the new Reading Station: give me the slightly crumbling, tacky bit with Tutti Frutti in it any day.

7. Launchpad

Launchpad

Homelessness in Reading is an increasing and increasingly upsetting issue. Launchpad do incredible work in this area, and so much more. I wouldn’t eat at Cosmo for anybody else.

8. The After Dark

I’ve been going to the After Dark for longer than I care to remember, as I suspect have many of its regulars. I love their Eighties night (which is, let’s face it, on most of the time) – where else could you experience Crash, You Can Call Me Al, and 99 Red Balloons in quick succession? I love sitting in the back bar with an ill-advised double and mixer (because, as they like to remind you, the After Dark’s drinks prices haven’t changed in a Very Long Time) watching the great and the good preparing to make a serious assault on the north face of the dance floor, no doubt murdering the chorus of Take On Me in the process. I still love evenings that end up here, even if it’s a decision that doesn’t seem quite so sage the following morning. Oh, one other thing: some of the times I’ve gone recently it’s been worrying quiet. Use it or lose it.

9. The architecture

QueenVictoriaStreet

So much of it is lovelier than it gets credit for. So, in no particular order: John Lewis, the Town Hall, Queen Victoria Street, the Oxfam Bookshop, Waterstones on Broad Street. Seriously, just look up some time. And then there are all the beautiful streets and areas further out from the centre: Eldon Square, School Terrace, New Road, The Mount, the alms houses off Castle Street. I could go on.

10. The first pint of the year in the Allied Arms beer garden

You know the year is changing for the good when that magic moment arrives. You finish work, you’re in town, you go to the Allied and it’s warm enough to sit outside without the heaters on. Usually only just, of course, so you sit there in your coat convincing yourself that it’s plenty sunny enough. But the point is that that first al fresco drink is seminal, because soon after that there will be long lazy Friday evenings there, trying to bag one of the sunny tables at the back, taking it in turns to thread your way to the bar and come back with an array of pints and packets of pork scratchings, Monster Munch, Scampi Fries and Quavers. The jukebox is playing something good (unless some prog-loving spoilsport has put on Shine On You Crazy Diamond, as Allied regulars are wont to do) and you can almost convince yourself that this summer is the one that will last forever.

11. The Salvation Army brass band playing Christmas carols

At the other end of the spectrum, Christmas in Reading for me isn’t about the festive food materialising in John Lewis, or our worryingly tacky Christmas lights going up. No, it’s that wonderful moment on a Saturday in November when you reach the front of Marks & Spencer to find the Salvation Army brass band, in a little throng, spotless in their uniforms, parping their way through In The Bleak Midwinter. I defy you to sit through that and have your cockles unwarmed.

12. Pepe Sale

Pepe Sale was the first restaurant I ever reviewed for Edible Reading, and it will always have a special place in my heart. Some of that is about Marco, the supernaturally charming front of house: sometimes I just want to kidnap him, take him home and have him talk to me while I make myself baked beans on toast; I’m not sure how anyone could not like him. But of course, it’s more than that. It’s also about the fresh filled pasta, the music bread with oil and rosemary, the antipasti with a single salty piece of fried pecorino on top, the roast suckling pig with light, crispy crackling. And a bottle of a cracking Sardinian red, and a glass of Mirto Rosso after (or instead of) dessert. Like Dolce Vita, it’s a good example of how a restaurant, if it’s terrific enough, can flourish in the unlikeliest of locations, like a beautiful flower poking through a crack in the pavement.

13. The Nag’s Head

NagsHead

The Nag’s Head is the perfect example of how a pub should be run. It’s almost never empty, it has a constantly rotating array of beers and ciders and everyone in there is friendly, happy and having a fantastic time. Sharing tables with strangers is positively encouraged and I’m yet to have a bad evening there. In summer, you can even sit outside, an experience so pleasant that you can quite overlook the fact that you’re basically drinking in a car park. They don’t really do food but the pies aren’t bad and the pulled pork sandwiches are also meant to be pretty decent. On some of my most recent visits I’ve seen a chap there wearing a t-shirt saying “DRINK MEAD AND PRAISE ODIN” and drinking his ale out of some kind of horn, or a tankard made up to look like a hollowed out skull. What, I ask you, is not to like?

14. Not going to the festival

Walking through town on festival weekend, going home and having a shower. Can’t beat it.

15. The Reading Forum

I love the Reading Forum so much. Back in the old days, there used to be the Reading Post, and its website was easy to comment on and lots of people did. But as it changed, I think more and more people ended up at the Reading Forum talking about everything from shops, to restaurants, to local news, from the Reading Bridge to the journalistic standards of some of our local websites. In the interests of full disclosure, I put a link to my review up every week and there’s always some discussion. People don’t always agree, but they’re unfailingly lovely about me spamming them. Best of all, discussions frequently meander off topic, so I’ll post a review of a restaurant and it will gradually morph into a conversation about somewhere long closed, or what a pub used to be called, or something completely different. I absolutely love that.

16. Reading Minster

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Many people have never been inside Reading Minster, which I think is a real shame. The volunteers who show you round clearly genuinely love the place and it’s got some real history to it. Some of it dates from the tenth century and when Reading Abbey was destroyed, some of the pillars were rescued and moved to the Minster, along with some other materials. One Saturday evening last year, I was wandering past it when I found it was open late at night, so I stepped in off the street and found an oasis of calm. Lit candles were placed along the aisle and around the altar, soft music was playing and the whole thing was quite exceptionally beautiful. I couldn’t believe that a minute away was the pulsing noise of Pavlov’s Dog, or the Purple Turtle, two places which wouldn’t feature on this list. But Reading Minster definitely belongs on it.

17. Forbury Gardens

Well, it’s just handsome isn’t it? Another of those milestones of summer is when Forbury Gardens stops being somewhere you just walk through and starts being somewhere you spend an afternoon, lolling on the grass, reading the paper, watching people significantly younger than you having what they class as fun and just relaxing in the sunshine. I love afternoons like that, just as I love Reading’s rather eccentric celebration of Bastille Day in the Forbury every year. But – and if you’ve read the one about the Salvation Army you probably already know this – I also especially like Sundays in summer when a brass band camps out in the bandstand and fills the air with music.

18. Eclectic Games

EclecticGames

I could have mentioned many of Reading’s independent retailers – The Grumpy Goat, perhaps, Shave and Coster or Adrienne Henry. But I’m not sure Reading has a more touching success story than Eclectic Games. I’ve been shopping there since it was under the horrendous seventies obelisk that was the Foster Wheeler building, and I’ve followed it to the market square and now into its new home on Smelly Alley. I’ve bought so many wonderful games there (Munchkins, Codenames, Ticket To Ride, I could go on…) had so many excellent recommendations from Becky and Darrell and, as a result, had so many thoroughly entertaining evenings. Seeing them completely demolish their fundraising target when they moved last year was a heartwarming example of how sometimes Reading is on to a good thing and more importantly, that Reading residents know that.

19. Progress Theatre

Tucked away near the university, Progress feels like a better-kept secret than it should be. I’ve seen so many top-notch productions there, from Entertaining Mister Sloane to Proof to God Of Carnage. I especially love sitting up at the back (legroom, don’t you know) watching everything unfold on the stage, watching something intimate yet brilliant. That’s before we get on to another of Reading’s best annual events, Progress’ outdoors Shakespeare at Caversham Court. Merry Wives Of Windsor was one of my favourite nights out last year.

20. Kyrenia

I’ve often said that restaurants aren’t about the best food per se, or the best room, or even the best service. They’re about where you have the best times. And, for that if nothing else, this list wouldn’t look right without Kyrenia on it. I mean, it is some of the best food in Reading (the kleftiko alone would guarantee that, or the chargrilled octopus). And it is some of the best service. And actually I love the room, especially if you get a table in the window looking back into the room with all its bustle and happiness. But more importantly, it’s where I’ve had some of my best times. Put it this way: I’ve reviewed a lot of restaurants for Edible Reading, and many have been very good. But Kyrenia is where I go on my birthday.

Feature: The 2015 Edible Reading Awards

It seems like a lifetime ago now, but at the start of the year I contributed to a piece for Alt Reading, giving my wish list of what I hoped 2015 would hold for Reading’s food scene: a town centre pub doing top notch food; a decent little pizzeria; a tapas bar; a good Chinese restaurant; a cool tea room; a bakery in the town centre.

If that sounds ambitious it’s probably because it is, but looking back I’m surprised by how much of it has come to pass. I Love Paella has set up down the Oxford Road offering a variety of small dishes and its eponymous seafood dish. Papa Gee turns out to have been there all along (for a decade!) doing a variety of pretty marvellous Neapolitan pizzas, among other things. C.U.P. has opened right next to Reading Minster and offers, hands down, the best tea selection you can find in town. We still don’t have a bakery in the centre, but Pop-Up Reading recently starting selling their own bread to those in the know at a variety of independent establishments across town. Call me Nostradamus!

That said, there haven’t been a huge amount of openings this year, and those we have had have been small chains expanding to Reading: CAU in the Oracle, Itsu at the bottom of Queen Victoria Street. That trend looks set to continue next year when The Stable opens on Bridge Street and, if rumours are to be believed, Grillstock comes to Friar Street. We’ve seen a few independents open in the town centre – most notably Manhattan Coffee Club bucking the trend as the Oracle’s only independent café and the owner of the original Chronicles trying to turn around that site under the Valpy Street moniker. It’s felt like a transitional year all round, and that probably reflects in the very low number of closures in 2015: so although it was the year we said goodbye to Tampopo, O Beirao and (without much fanfare) Master Naan, most of our independent restaurants are still hanging in there.

Of course, you can’t look back on the year without doing a bit of navel-gazing, and it’s been a brilliant year here at ER HQ. I’ve travelled much further in search of good meals and been rewarded with some of the very best food I’ve eaten on duty (and some of the worst, but let’s not talk about that now). More people have read the blog than ever before, and I’ve appreciated every bit of brilliant feedback I’ve had, every comment, every Retweet, every suggestion and – particularly – every time someone has told me they enjoyed a restaurant they went to because of one of my reviews.

On a personal level, I was particularly chuffed to be shortlisted for the Alt Reading award for Individual Cultural Contribution, mainly because it felt like recognition that Reading has a food scene to be cherished, celebrated and cultivated. I didn’t win (which is fair enough – Suzanne Stallard IS culture in Reading, after all), but making the final five still was a victory for all our independent restaurants and cafes. I’ve also really enjoyed seeing Roast Dinners Around Reading flourish this year and get more and more readers for his – syndicated, don’t you know – restaurant reviews. Reading finishes 2015 with more choice than ever before of where to eat and drink, and more help with making those choices too.

Anyway, as is now traditional I’m taking my festive break. The weeks ahead will involve mountains of roast potatoes, huge stinky cheeseboards, crisps, peanuts, those big tubs of Twiglets, Mini Cheddars, red wine, mulled wine, dessert wine, port, sherry, bubbly, Snowballs (no, really), and – if I have anything to do with it – diving into a box of Matchmakers without having to share them with anyone else. I love restaurants, as you’ve probably gathered, but the festive season doesn’t show them at their best with all that picking from a special menu, having to preorder and winding up next to a big boisterous work do. I’ll be back on January 15th, by which time the vouchers will all be spent, the bad gifts will have been surreptitiously exchanged, half of the people who have tried to spend the month on the wagon will have leapt off it and, hopefully, you might want to read some restaurant reviews. Until then, settle back and enjoy this year’s award winners. Merry Christmas!

SANDWICH OF THE YEAR: Top Toastie, Shed

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Yes, I know they won it last year. And you can’t say there hasn’t been competition this year: I was very taken, for instance, with the halloumi, pesto and red pepper piadina at Siblings Home, a little tricorne taste sensation. And although it might stretch the definition of “sandwich” just a little bit, Bakery House could easily have won either with their kallaj bil jibn or their arayes, being halloumi cheese and finely chopped veal respectively stuffed into their excellent Lebanese bread. But Shed’s Top Toastie has been my sandwich of the year – little intense batons of chorizo, all salt and spice, the vinegary heat of jalapenos and the comforting smother of lots and lots of mozzarella desperately trying to escape from their peerless ciabatta. Really, if you haven’t had one yet it might be the best New Year’s Resolution you could make.

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Chicken pastilla, Al Fassia

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All my favourite starters of the year, with the exception of CAU’s superbly indulgent salt cod and manchego croquettes, came from out of town. West of Reading, I was an enormous fan of Brebis’ duck liver and foie gras parfait, perfectly glossy, smooth and rich. In the other direction, The Bell Inn’s pigeon and pork terrine couldn’t have been more different: coarse and rough and earthy, but equally delicious (and with the best pickled beetroot I’ve ever tried). But actually, you have to travel a little further still for my winner this time: Al Fassia is a lovely little place on a nice little street in Windsor and their chicken pastilla is a painstakingly assembled gem, an utterly delicious mixture of shredded chicken, almond and cinnamon, all wrapped in hand-made filo and baked in the oven. I didn’t taste anything like it all year, and thinking about it now it slightly makes me want to go back to Marrakesh. But it really makes me want to go back to Al Fassia.

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Bakery House

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Bakery House’s achievement this year has been phenomenal – from a standing start partway through the year it now feels like it’s always been here. I’ve had countless Tweets from readers telling me that they’re checking it out and they always say two things: that the food is delicious and that the restaurant is packed. I’m yet to have a bad meal here, and I’ve been plenty of times. In a year when Reading got places like CAU (itself very accomplished, in fairness, and easily another candidate for this award) and Itsu and felt more like Zone 7 of London, it’s nice to see a place like Bakery House which is a match for anything you could find down the Edgware Road. Another honourable mention in this category should go to I Love Paella, but more on them later.

LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Shed

This has been a huge growth sector in Reading this year. Some of the newcomers have been good, some indifferent, but the level of choice just seems to get greater and greater – to the extent where many people feel we’ve reached critical mass where coffee shops are concerned. Siblings Home, tucked away in Caversham, was one of my favourites in this category although their recent change of layout makes it less of a pleasant place to sit and while away the hours (it hasn’t stopped me buying all sorts of stuff from their shop though – lovely soap, I can tell you). I was also a big fan of Nibsy’s – it may be gluten free but when I was in there doing a serious assault on their quiche and cake it certainly wasn’t glutton free. None the less, Shed is still the one to beat for me: beautiful sandwiches, delicious milkshakes, excellent service from Pete and Lydia and a great spot upstairs to look out from those lovely big windows. And if you can get there on “Saucy Friday” (particularly for the Scotch bonnet chicken with rice and peas, coleslaw and macaroni cheese), even better.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Parma ham wrapped monkfish, squid ink pasta, mussels and clams, Dolce Vita

I had a lot of fantastic mains this year, and this category was one of the most difficult to judge. All so different, too, from the rich spiced comfort of the Crown at Playhatch’s bobotie to the stunning delicacy of Brebis’ butter poached hake, served on a perfect circle of crushed potatoes with a sweet sharp smear of lemon purée. Also seriously in the running was Beijing Noodle House’s duck fried noodles, an iconic Reading dish which I rediscovered this year, the culinary equivalent of bumping into an old friend and finding them on outstanding form. But my winner is the main course I’ve had more times than I care to name this year – perfectly cooked meaty monkfish, wrapped in parma ham and served with rich, salty squid ink pasta and plenty of shellfish. A proper, grown-up, indulgent dish.

VEGETARIAN MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Gnocchi with goat’s cheese, kale and almond pesto, The Bell Inn

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I’ve finished the year with a new-found admiration for vegetarians, and a better understanding of the sacrifices they make in pursuit of their principles. Heavens, I’ve had some dreary vegetarian main courses while reviewing food for Edible Reading. The awards are all about celebrating the good so we’d better not dwell on the blue cheese pasta with almost no blue cheese in it, big bland bowls of mushroom risotto or Jamie Oliver’s superfood salad which wasn’t. The redeeming feature was the gnocchi dish at the Bell Inn: absolutely stunning stuff, with little dumplings which were subtle not stodgy, a rich, fragrant kale pesto which blew me away and a nice big slab of caramelised goat’s cheese on top. It makes me cross that in a whole year of looking, I only found one main that could beat any other plate of food on meat-free merit. But what a main it was.

SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Mya Lacarte

Many of you may have noticed that I’ve never reviewed Mya Lacarte. For me, it would be like writing an essay on a novel I’ve adored for years – it wouldn’t be enjoyable for me to boil that down or do it to death, to analyse something it’s much more fun to love uncritically. But what I will say is that I think Matt and Alex at Mya are the perfect double act and either of them runs the front of house better than pretty much anyone else in Reading. That a restaurant has both Matt and Alex looking after customers is the hospitality equivalent of having Messi and Ronaldo playing on the same team; I’ve not had a visit to Mya this year that was anything less than brilliant, or a welcome that made me feel anything less than exactly where I belonged. Honourable mentions should also go to Brebis, where the service was utterly charming when I visited, and also to Dolce Vita (which still does a fantastic job despite losing a couple of its star players to C.U.P.).

DESSERT OF THE YEAR: Sfinci, Bird In Hand

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The moment I had the sfinci I knew it would be my dessert of the year: it was love at first mouthful. The lightest, fluffiest doughnuts with the crispiest exterior, little sugared joy-inducing clouds. The pistachio ice cream they came with was rich and nutty, but even without them the sfinci would have won this prize. I’ve had them every time I’ve gone back, and every time they’ve delighted me like it was the first time. So easy to make a good dessert from scratch like this, and yet so many places just can’t do it. But that’s the Bird In Hand all over – it’s run by someone who makes pretty much everything on site. And if it hadn’t won for the sfinci it would probably have won for the malt barley ice cream, which is the best ice cream I’ve had in this country. Also worth a passing mention is the Baskerville’s deep, rich, indulgent chocolate tart. My review of the Baskerville was a bit on the lukewarm side at the time, which is a shame, but they really did pull all the stops out when it came to dessert.

TWEETER OF THE YEAR: Picnic

I’m always surprised that many establishments don’t have Twitter, and those that do have it don’t seem to get it. It shouldn’t be hard: Tweet every day, tell people what you sell, put some nice pictures up and – crucially – give people an idea of the personality behind your brand. But somehow it never seems to work like that, so either you get something prosaic, regular but unengaging or there are flashes of likeable brilliance but it’s all very ramshackle, with updates a bit few and far between. Having blazed the trail in many ways over the years it’s no surprise that Picnic get this spot on – regular bulletins saying what the salad boxes are, showing pictures of the cakes, talking about the specials on Fridays and Sundays, but also showing an interest in Reading and its customers, even telling people to come in out of the cold or putting up pictures of its Christmas decorations. See? It’s easy. Or maybe it’s just that Picnic are very good at making it seem so. Either way, nobody does it better.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: I Love Paella

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I could have given this award to Bakery House. I think people would have applauded that: they do great food, they run a tight ship and they add an something extra to Reading’s restaurant scene in terms of top-quality, affordable, informal dining. Equally I toyed with giving it to Papa Gee, in many ways this year’s surprise package; who knew that we had a cracking pizzeria tucked behind the station doing quite nicely for over a decade completely under the radar? Again, I think a lot of people would have agreed – I’ve had lots of feedback from readers saying how delighted they were to discover the place. And, of course, my single best meal of the year on duty was at Brebis, so why isn’t Brebis the winner?

The thing is – and I’ve learned this from reviewing them every week this year and for that matter last year – that restaurants are about more than food, or the service or even the room. They’re about experiences, about the magical alchemy that happens when all those elements come together. Last year, Dolce Vita won because although I’d had better food on occasion in other places, it remained the place where I’d spent my happiest evenings in 2014. This year, that place is I Love Paella.

Watching it evolve over the year has been a real joy – from only opening at the weekend to opening weekday nights, moving from a narrower menu and starting to offer more tapas, more sharing options, more little dishes. The first time I went it was all about the paella and the empanadas. Those are still amazing, but now you get a selection of manchego, or some serrano ham on bread with a little smudge of tomato chutney (still haven’t had the chorizo stew, but there’s always next time). Service is always brilliant, to the extent that you could easily forget that it’s basically a one man band cooking in somebody else’s coffee shop. It’s a proper success story, and I sense that there’s still more to come. I live for the day when I go in to find they’ve found the space for a nice big leg of jamon, but in the meantime I hope they get even more of a feeling of permanence and keep evolving, keep trying things out and keep spoiling those lucky people down the Oxford Road.

Feature: Solo dining

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

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

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

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

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

I Love Paella

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

ILPEmpanada

Côte

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

Bakery House

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

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Yo! Sushi

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

Dolce Vita

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

Tasting House

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

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Villa Marina, Henley

Long before George Clooney and his tuxedo wafted into Berkshire the original famous George – Cole, of course – was ensconced in Stoke Row, enjoying his twilight years in a lovely almost-in-Berkshire village with its very own Michelin recommended pub, the Crooked Billet (itself famous for catering the first of Kate Winslet’s weddings). And you can keep your Clooneys and Winslets: I bet if you’d happened to bump into George Cole in the pub you’d have had a terrific evening.

It seemed fitting to go to the Crooked Billet for the ER second anniversary review, as a mark of respect and all that, but it wasn’t to be. Even if I hadn’t got lost on the way (just once, I promise, but it could easily have been more) it still felt like too much of an expedition, too far off the beaten single-track with no passing places, not to mention the fact that it didn’t have any tables available when we arrived. Even restaurant reviewers sometimes don’t realise that they’ll need to book. On a Tuesday night. Miles away from civilisation.

Deciding where to go instead involved much head-scratching, especially as the beautiful villages out that way are usually sited in areas of outstandingly poor mobile reception. Instead we drove to Henley (getting lost another time) and drifted through town wondering where we could eat before everywhere shut up shop for the night. So Villa Marina was the second choice this week, although it nicely echoes Pepe Sale (the first restaurant I ever reviewed), also an independent Italian restaurant with a touch of old school style.

The restaurant was reasonably busy for a Tuesday night if not packed out, and it had the sort of warm prosperous glow that will draw you in after an hour of fruitless driving around the Chilterns (but I was hungry, so in truth a Wimpy might have had the same effect). The main dining room, an L shaped affair, was classically smart with crisp white tablecloths and cleverly done lighting: every table had a spot light on it, a nice touch which meant it managed the trick of being intimately lit but bright enough to see the food. The smartness extended to the clientele – all the men in the restaurant, without exception, were wearing collars. I can’t vouch for the redness of the trousers, but you wouldn’t have bet against it.

The menu was classic Italian with few surprises but quite a lot to tempt. I was impressed by its compactness: only a couple of pasta options (in their rightful place in the starters section and little or no encouragement to “go large” for a main) and no pizza. It’s didn’t look like a menu that was trying to be all things to all people, and that gave me confidence. We made our decisions – rather difficult ones, as it happened – while eating soft brown rolls spread with sundried tomato paste and salty, powerful tapenade.

The first starter was one of the specials that night; avocado with prawns and crab. It was very generous – a whole avocado filled with plenty of prawns and crab in a pretty standard dressing a la Marie Rose. There were little signs of finesse here and there (someone had spent time cutting red and yellow peppers into very, very small dice) and the big wedges of tomato were surprisingly tasty which hinted at decent ingredients. And yet, even though I should have loved it, I just liked it. Perhaps the blame is mine: it’s the kind of dish I order frequently – Dolce Vita does a similar version with smoked salmon – so maybe I should have been more adventurous. Either way, it was nicely done but not exciting.

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The other dish was more successful, if also slightly restrained. Orechiette with prawns in a tomato sauce was quite a lovely little thing and, if anything, that overstates how much pasta was involved and understates how many prawns there were. The prawns were beauties, too – six big fat firm fresh specimens with just enough sweetness. The sauce was earthy and savoury, also with a touch of fish (perhaps there was some stock involved). Orechiette is one of my favourite pasta shapes, just right to trap sauce without being a faff to eat as conchiglie can be, and it worked perfectly. A little wilted rocket, some sweet cherry tomatoes and intense sundried tomatoes rounded things out nicely. I would have liked the pesto advertised on the menu, but mainly out of fear of missing out: I can’t say it would have improved it.

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The mains followed far more quickly than I’d have liked. Monkfish with tarragon and brandy cream sauce was a delight: three decent sized pieces of monkfish in a deceptively light sauce with hints of tarragon (I always find tarragon a bit coconutty, although I suspect this is some form of culinary synaesthesia unique to me). This was under sixteen pounds, which I thought was pretty good value: most restaurants would charge more and/or serve a portion so small as to need a microscope (I still remember the weird little nuggets of cotton-wool I was served at River Spice: that was a monkfish waiting to be defrocked).

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Saltimbocca was good but didn’t quite hit the heights – the veal itself was superb, delicate and tender and the parma ham was good quality stuff. But there just wasn’t enough sage which meant it didn’t have the earthy punch that it needed, and the sauce was a bit too light, thin and subtle. Like much of the food it was a little too well-behaved when what I really wanted were a few more sharp edges. I wonder which came first – the crisp décor and the well-dressed clientele or the impeccable, slightly safe food?

VillaSaltim

You pay extra for vegetables. We got a bowl of sautéed potatoes (salty with a hint of rosemary) and another of steamed, buttered mange tout, carrots and sugar snap peas, along with two of the tiniest florets of broccoli I have ever seen. The menu says that they are three pounds fifty but neglects to mention that this is per person, and that felt a bit cheeky when you don’t have any choice but to order it (the single lettuce leaf that comes with the monkfish won’t count as vegetables in anyone’s book). Perhaps the mains weren’t quite as good value as I’d thought.

That said, the extras were good – the potatoes were beautifully crisp (deep fried rather than done in a pan, I’d guess) and the vegetables, with just enough crunch and taste, were perfect with what sauce there was. But still, three pounds fifty per person stung a bit when the bill arrived. Three pounds was much better spent on the accompanying zucchini fritti we ordered, because these were fabulous – super light, wonderfully crispy, coated (I think) in a little semolina flour. An undignified fight broke out for the last few little scraps: I won.

Another sign of how old-school Villa Marina was came when it was time to choose dessert. Nothing as modish as a menu here, instead the dessert trolley was wheeled round to our table and we got to review the selection. Dessert trollies also feel like a dying breed (I’m not sure any Reading restaurants have one, since Casa Roma closed) and I’m never sure how I feel about them. On the one hand, it’s nice to have a clear idea what your dessert will look like, on the other I quite like a hot pudding and a trolley pretty much rules that out. I was tempted by the tiramisu but went for the chocolate cake, essentially a layer of mousse on top of a sponge base. Again, it was a solid but unspectacular choice, sweet without being synthetic but certainly not overflowing with complexity or cocoa solids.

If I went back I’d have the tiramisu, but it’s an if not a when and there are a few reasons for that. One is the service, which was very much Jekyll and Hyde. The waiters were friendly and suave, smiling and looking after their customers. Even the slips and mistakes were overflowing with charm in a rather crumpled, eminently forgivable way. But the waitresses seemed to have attended the Rosa Klebb Finishing School. The young lady who introduced the dessert trolley had a way of rattling off the list of options that was so abrupt and unsmiling that it reminded me of a prison camp guard. Similarly, there was an older lady who stalked through the room with an expression so dour that I was slightly scared to engage with her. If the men were old school, the women were borstal.

Aside from the service, the other problem was the pace of everything – we’d finished three courses and been rushed out of the room in little over an hour, and that always puts me right off a place. Part of that I suppose is down to the dessert trolley and having your third course dished up right in front of you but even so, leisurely it wasn’t. The total bill, including a 12.5% “optional” service charge was eighty-five pounds. That was for two and a half courses and one glass of wine each (the recommended wines by the glass, a chianti and a chardonnay, were both nice enough to merit a mention but neither made me devastated that I couldn’t have more).

The size of the bill was a nasty surprise: adding the service charge slightly ruined it for me because it made the total look worse than it was (and, left to my own devices, I highly doubt I would have tipped that much). Quite aside from the stealth charged vegetables the price of the special starter – nearly eleven quid – also made my eyes water, ever so slightly. Perhaps if the whole affair had taken a couple of hours I wouldn’t have minded so much, but I did keep thinking about other ways that I could have spent the same amount of money. Nobody wants to have that uppermost in their mind when leaving a restaurant.

If you were opening a restaurant in Reading today, you wouldn’t open Villa Marina. That kind of high-end, slightly starched Italian restaurant, although not dying out per se, hasn’t been seen in Reading for a very long time (perhaps Topo Gigio, long closed on the top floor of King’s Walk, was the closest equivalent). I quite enjoyed my visit there, although it did feel partly like an evening out and partly the gastronomic equivalent of time travel. No shame in that, but it did make me value Reading’s restaurants just that little bit more, from the slightly naff marble tables at Pepe Sale to the no-frills room at Papa Gee, looking out onto the Caversham Road rather than the Thames. For that matter, it also made me appreciate how warm and reliable the service at Dolce Vita is, compared to the partially defrosted equivalent in Villa Marina. It all felt a bit Henley, and if there was a blog called Edible Henley I imagine they’d rave about this place. But we do things slightly differently in Reading, I’m very pleased to say.

Villa Marina – 7.0
18 Thameside, Henley-on-Thames, RG9 1BH
01491 575262
http://www.villamarina-henley.com/