Feature: Al fresco dining

No new review this week I’m afraid, because I’m taking my first week off of 2015. Instead, you get a feature: I’ve had a few people express interest in ER features from time to time, so this is the first of its kind.

I’m very lucky that I get to eat out often and write weekly independent restaurant reviews; I genuinely believe that the only way restaurant reviews can be totally impartial is if the person writing the review is also the person paying the bill. But I’m also painfully aware that eating out is a luxury that not everyone can afford. This week, I’m donating the cost of the meal I would have eaten to Launchpad, Reading’s homeless charity which does excellent, tireless work which is needed more now than ever. ER is free to read and it always will be – but if you felt like donating even the smallest amount of money to Launchpad too, I’d really appreciate it and I’m sure they would too. Normal service will be resumed next week – until then, on with the feature.

Summer is around the corner – the Reading Beer Festival always feels to me like the first sign that it’s on the way – and that always makes me think about the delights of eating outdoors. We all daydream about barbecues, we have our tea and coffee at pavement tables people-watching and relaxing and suddenly a whole different criterion comes into the decision-making process when you’re deciding where to eat. After all, it would be a shame to have lunch or dinner cooped up when it’s glorious outside.

It really frustrates me that good al fresco dining spots in Reading are few and far between. The town seems to be full of blind spots where the sun just doesn’t shine, and many of the plum spots are filled by disappointing chains. Bill’s, for instance, has an absolutely gorgeous space outside which is a magnet for UV rays but the food doesn’t live up to the setting. It’s quite nice for breakfast (eggs sunny side up in more ways than one) but otherwise it just doesn’t do it for me. The Riverside gets lots of sun and many of the venues have decent outdoor seating but it’s hard to be excited by them – the little tables outside Cote always look inviting, but All Bar One, Bella Italia, Pizza Hut and Nando’s aren’t quite so alluring.

So – and I might be jinxing the summer of 2015 by even saying this – the days are long, the shadows are too, it’s short-sleeves weather and you’re ravenous. Where to go?

1. Dolce Vita

It did cross my mind to pick the balcony at Jamie’s Italian, looking out over the throng of Oracle shoppers. But, for food and service, Dolce Vita easily has the egde. It’s as close as you can get to the Oracle view without actually being in the Oracle, tucked away from the hubbub. The balcony area extends out on two sides of the restaurant and the menu is equally sunny with Mediterranean food – and some more leftfield choices with traditional British and even Asian influences – and friendly, charming Greek service. The set menu, which is often on song, offers great value and a surprising range of options. When I sit outside at Dolce Vita I can almost convince myself that I’m on holiday, especially if I’m drinking a pint of Peroni or a fresh, fruity glass of rosé.

Burrata

2. The Plowden Arms

Ideally one would arrive at the Plowden in an open top sports car, passing some of the rolling green hills that the Berkshire/Oxfordshire border has in spades. The generous garden at the Plowden offers a lovely view across the countryside with added waitress service and decent umbrellas, should you be more English rose than suntanned millionaire. The food here ranges from substantial and traditional to delicate and sophisticated (and the kitchen is consistently brilliant at all of it) but everything is fresh, creative and sometimes based on old English recipes, in case you fancy a side order of education. Having your dessert outside by candlelight, the last rays of the sun not long faded, is a pretty magical way to finish an evening.

Lamb

3. Picnic

Picnic has one of the best spots in the centre of town, having taken over the old Jacobs shop eight years ago. The tables outside catch plenty of sunshine (especially early to mid-afternoon) and, provided the wind isn’t blowing a gale, it’s a great place to enjoy lunch and some of Reading’s best people watching. The salads have always been the draw here – leaves and couscous with a weekly range of toppings – and although I’ve found the interior much harder to love since they moved everything around, it can’t be denied that it has freed up the space for the kitchen to add yet more interesting variations on that theme (that said, I still have a soft spot for their roast chicken and pesto). If you scoff at salad, even in summer, there’s also a lot to be said for their cracking Cornish pasties and sausage rolls, from award winning Green’s of Pangbourne. Oh, and the cakes are magnificent: good old-fashioned Victoria sponge and terrific, moist lemon polenta cake are my favourites. All that and a view of Munchee’s opposite (what more could you want?) – no wonder, whenever I bag a table outside, I feel so reluctant to leave.

4. London Street Brasserie

London Street Brasserie has probably the nicest terrace in town, alongside the Kennet. When it catches the sun it really catches the sun, and in summer the menu – always nicely seasonal – really rises to the occasion. There’s nothing quite like making inroads into a crisp bottle of white and enjoying a half pint of prawns, easing off the head and shell before dipping that firm flesh into their peerless garlic mayonnaise (writing about doesn’t even come close: I’m hungry now). I generally find the set menu more reliable than the a la carte here (the fish and chips is another favourite of mine) which makes it perfect for a boozy weekend lunch, although if it’s not quite sunny enough or the afternoon is waning, they also do a nice line in chequered blankets and patio heaters. LSB is a good example of how the summer can change everything – on a winter evening it probably wouldn’t make any of my top fives, but when the sun is out it’s hard to beat.

LSB7

5. Forbury’s

Forbury Square is one of the prettier, quieter outdoor areas in town and Forbury’s really makes the most of it (and in some style, too). Unlike the unluckily positioned Carluccio’s – which always feels like it should be sunny but never is – it is nicely lit and, unlike Cerise, the seating is plentiful and comfortable. If you can manage to stick to their set menu (a challenge that many have failed, me included) then a three course meal can set you back as little as twenty pounds per head – and even less if you’re lucky enough to be there on a weekday lunchtime. Make sure you add some bread, though, as their sourdough is heavenly. Oh, and wear your best sunglasses and pretend you’re on the French Riviera. Air kissing optional.

Venison

6. The Allied Arms

What is ER on about? you’re probably thinking. The Allied Arms is just a pub and it doesn’t do food. I know, I know, but bear with me. I picked this tip up from friends of mine a couple of years ago and it’s a cracker; although the Allied doesn’t do food, they don’t have a problem with you consuming food from elsewhere on the premises. So, on a summer night when the Summer Lightning or the Thatcher’s Gold is flowing, instead of wandering off to a restaurant just get someone to watch your table, pop next door to Pizza Express and then return with your Pollo Ad Astra or American Hot. It’s worth it for that first bite of pizza. It’s worth it for the crispiness of the pepperoni or the salt bomb of anchovy. But, more than anything, it’s worth it for the looks of envy you get from everybody else in the pub who wishes they’d thought of it. Last time I checked, the Allied even kept a pizza cutter behind the bar, although if word gets out they might start charging people to use it.

If you like this and you’d like to read more of this sort of thing then let me know in the comments, and if there are any particular subjects you’d like to read an ER feature on then do say!

Feature: The 2014 Edible Reading Awards

Hasn’t 2014 been a weird year for Reading? When it started we were all getting over the shock of Jackson’s closing down, and it’s been another year of greetings and partings. Some of the partings have been surprising to say the least: who’d have thought this time last year that we’d say goodbye to Vicar’s, the iconic butcher on West Street? Who could imagine that the last edition of the Reading Post would appear on newsstands? Who could guess that Reading F.C. would sack another manager? (All right, maybe some of the changes were less surprising than others…).

It makes you wonder what 2015 has in store, and what other time-honoured local institutions may be in jeopardy. Will the After Dark still be open this time next year? Will the doughnut kiosk recorded announcement be heard no more? Will Reading Elvis move to Swindon? I can’t imagine anything worse for the town’s morale (or for Reading Elvis – come on, Swindon’s a bit of a hole, right?).

There’s also been a steady succession of restaurant closures: this is the year we said goodbye to Kyklos, Al Tarboush, The Lobster Room, The Eldon Arms, Cappuccina Café, Arepas Caffe and one of Reading’s two branches of Bella Italia. A real mixed bag, that, including a few places that I still really miss (no, not Bella Italia) – and an apt illustration that doing good food isn’t enough to guarantee a restaurant’s survival. It needs to have a USP, to get the rest of the basics right and to find a way of making sure that people know it’s there. A really tricky business, in more ways than one, and I can understand why it must seem like a thankless one too.

Of course that doesn’t stop new establishments taking their place – sometimes literally – and this year we’ve seen plenty of those: My Kitchen, Casa Roma, Chronicles, Coconut, Rynd, Faith Kitchen and Nibsy’s all opened this year. Just this week Artigiano, an on-trend mixture of coffee shop, lunch spot and wine bar, has opened on Broad Street. We’re due to get CAU early next year and there are perennial rumours that Tamp Culture will eventually give up shivering at their coffee cart and take up a more permanent space in town. The sometimes daunting-looking odds, for now at least, don’t discourage people from having a go.

And it’s not all doom and gloom, because there are other signs of a bit of a renaissance in town. The independent retailers – The Tasting House and The Grumpy Goat – that opened late in 2013 seem to be doing rather nicely. Reading now has three supper clubs and the most entrepreneurial, Pop-Up Reading, has done a variety of collaborations, serving its food in cafés and churches. The hyperlocal scene is better than ever, giving Reading folk a much wider range of sources for news, views, reviews and comment – both Alt Reading and rdgnow started this year and do an excellent job – and it will be interesting to see how things change next year with getreading going digital only. There’s even some bloke reviewing roast dinners.

Anyway, like last year ER is taking Christmas off. For me, Christmas is a time to eat lots of food, completely uncritically, without being plagued by those on duty thoughts that always seem to happen when I eat in restaurants. Besides, you really wouldn’t want to read an ER review of my Christmas dinner (and by about halfway through I wouldn’t be in a fit state to write it anyway). But I couldn’t leave you empty handed – and what better way to round off 2014 than with this, the inaugural Edible Reading Awards! So sit back, grab a canapé (not a euphemism – at least I hope not) and read on while I open a bunch of tatty-looking gold envelopes and announce my big winners of the year. Is this microphone on?

SANDWICH OF THE YEAR: Tuna melt, Shed

A lot of the places that could have won this award have put themselves out of the running by closing: I think at one point Reading had enough top quality sandwiches on offer that you could probably have started a blog just reviewing them. So sadly the magnificent banh mi at Cappuccina Café and the superb pulled pork burger (it’s just a sandwich, really) at the Eldon Arms miss out here. But even if they were still going, I would still have opted for the delights of Shed’s tuna melt. I know I’ve not reviewed them yet, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t visited on a number of occasions and of all their sandwiches the tuna melt is my runaway favourite. Partly it’s because of the bread – big pillowy ciabatta which you really don’t get anywhere in town. Partly it’s because of all the little extras in there that elevate it above the same thing elsewhere – generous oozy cheese, slivers of red onion, the crunchy sharp surprise of scattered capers. And partly it’s just because it’s a lovely spot to eat, run by lovely people.

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Yum gai yang, Art Of Siam

This was such a difficult category. When looking through the contenders I started to wish that all my favourite restaurants could just join forces and set up the ultimate small plates venue: the wavy lines appeared, like they do in TV dream sequences, and I found myself imagining a single place where you could order the momos from Sapana Home (the only thing there I truly enjoyed), the gorgeous crunchy, hot, spicy Gobi 65 from Chennai Dosa and that earthy, decadent truffle ravioli that nearly – but not quite – made Ruchetta worth the money. In the end, though, the winner was the starter that most took me by surprise: I wasn’t expecting to love a salad of warm grilled chicken and vegetables, served in a hot, sweet, sour, sharp dressing that knocked my socks off. I wasn’t expecting to love a salad full stop, in all honesty, but this tasted like nothing else I’ve eaten this year. People have told me since that they went to Art Of Siam specifically to try it. I can’t say I blame them.

LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Bhel Puri House

I’m not always right about things first time. When I went to Bhel Puri the first time I quite liked it, quite liked some of the things I’d eaten, quite fancied going back some time. I was quite wrong. Over the months since then I find I keep going back there: it’s a wonderful Technicolor alternative to what, even when it’s done well, can feel like quite a monochrome selection of coffee shops in Reading doing some sandwiches or bagels, some salads and the odd quiche. I always have the chilli paneer – because if I don’t my lunches would all be tinged with regret – and from there I’ve gone on to explore the outer reaches of the menu. I think the service there has got better and friendlier over the year, and every time I walk past I’m delighted to see that it looks pretty busy. Also: vegetarian! Just saying.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Karahi lamb, Bhoj

Honourable mentions have to go to another beautiful way to cook lamb, Kyrenia’s incredible kleftiko – but I feel I’ve enthused about that quite enough quite recently. I also adored Dolce Vita’s saltimbocca – made with veal back then and with chicken more recently – tender meat pounded thin, wrapped in salty prosciutto and bathed in a light, delicious sauce rich with wine and sage (and truffled mash, which could turn even a Fray Bentos into a world-beater). And, although they continue to serve it in a soulless glass box with all the atmosphere of the deserted space station in Gravity, La Courbe’s mixed grill – with that unbelievable tabouleh – is still one of the finest main courses in Reading. But the dish I kept dreaming of was Bhoj’s karahi lamb: chunks of lamb, soft to the point of surrender, in the most intense, sticky, savoury sauce. I was back there only a couple of weeks ago, trying it again. I’d like to pretend I was giving it one last check to make sure it was worthy of the accolade, but in truth that decision was made some time ago.

SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Dolce Vita

I’m almost sad to have to pick a winner here because every restaurant in Reading that does good service ought to be applauded. But my experience of most places in Reading that get service right is that they’re still very much about star players: Matt and Alex at Mya Lacarte are absolutely flawless, but everyone else doesn’t quite reach that standard. Marco at Pepe Sale could teach everyone how to do this, but again the rest of the staff can feel a little more hit and miss. Ihor at Kyrenia is as kind and welcoming a front of house as you could hope for, but he’s just one man. Dolce Vita win this award because they are a proper team – whichever of them is looking after me I know I’ll feel exactly that: looked after. They also judge how to serve tables so well – there’s no one size fits all here, so they are more friendly, more formal, more raucous depending on whether they know you, what your group is like and what kind of night you want to have. That Dolce Vita is such a friendly, fun, buzzy place to eat is very much down to that.

DESSERT OF THE YEAR: Peach and amaretto ice cream, Tutti Frutti

I don’t think I’ve had much luck with desserts this year. The hot school dinner style desserts I adore have been thin on the ground and instead I feel I’ve gamely struggled through underwhelming cakes and prissy little parfaits, delicate but underwhelming stuff. Part of the problem is that if I’m full, or I really didn’t rate the first two courses I’m more likely to pass on dessert (and fewer desserts means fewer runners and riders). It wasn’t all disastrous, though. I was very impressed by the pot au chocolat at the Three Tuns – that chilli and cardamom in there elevated it to something quite magnificent – but it still felt like it wasn’t special enough to win. I also loved the honey and rose kulfi at Chennai Dosa (a place which nearly won a few of these awards) for its fragrant yet refreshing cleverness.

Instead, I’m giving this award to Tutti Frutti for very good reason: when I’m eating on duty in town, and I don’t much fancy a dessert, I’ve come to realise that the test I use in my head when I read that little menu in front of me is this one: is anything I order going to be half as good as Tutti Frutti’s peach and amaretto ice cream? Will it be able to match that smooth creaminess, that hint of fruit, those soft soaked amaretti biscuits with that slightly boozy sweetness? If I know for a fact that the answer will be no, I just get the bill instead. And half the time, if I’m reviewing somewhere in town, because that idea’s in my head I wander across to the station and visit Tutti Frutti instead. It’s a wonderful, quiet, Edward Hopper-esque place late at night – just me, my thoughts, a few workers from the station in their reflective jackets, and that glorious ice cream. Try it sometime, if you get the chance.

TWEETER OF THE YEAR: Tamp Culture

I am not a massive coffee fan. If you talk about washed Ethiopian whatnots or the size of your roaster I glaze over very quickly. I think it’s great that Reading has so many coffee places, but I still long for some fantastic tea rooms, and places that know the value of a gorgeous smoky lapsang souchong or a floral, elegant Earl Grey.

That said, I love reading Tamp’s updates in my feed – even if I don’t understand all of them. You get a real picture of life outside the Oracle at their little cart – what they sell, what they do, how they work – and it comes across that they really love what they sell, what they do and how they work. The boys at Tamp both remind me a little of Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. They’re what Shaggy would be like if he was less interested in constructing sandwiches the size of Thames Tower and more interested in crema (whatever that is). A lot of restaurants just do not get Twitter at all – to see it used regularly with such infectious enthusiasm is an absolute joy.

I should also mention that I particularly enjoyed Tamp’s massive spat with Workhouse Coffee earlier this year – it was Aeropresses at dawn as they bitched about one another the way only coffee geeks can (“your roaster is too small” “well you bought cakes from Costco and frosted them yourself” etc.). It made me chuckle in the middle of a particularly hectic shopping trip to Regents Street.

An honourable mention has to go to the lovely people at Pop-Up Reading. Stop making me hungry, you two.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Dolce Vita

When I went to Dolce Vita the first time, I thought the service was great, I really enjoyed the food and I thought their menu was too big. They got a good mark from me, but I suspected in the back of my mind that they’d been fortunate and that if I’d picked different dishes they might have been found out.

Well, that shows what I know. Dolce Vita wins this award because I keep going back and they keep not being found out: I really don’t know how they do it. They also win this award because the range of cooking I’ve had there over this year has been quite something. They do pizza, they do pasta, they do very creditable meat and fish dishes. But they also have a regularly changing set menu which – without any fanfare or showing off – is a darned sight more reliable than London Street Brasserie’s just down the way. So I’ve had big rib-sticking comfort dishes – open ravioli packed with rich game, proper lasagne with beef and pork and chicken livers. But I’ve also had much more restrained, yet equally accomplished stuff – cod cheeks with lentils and a beautiful, fresh salsa verde was a stylish, subtle delight. (They also cook squid beautifully, without a hint of batter or breadcrumbs or mayonnaise in sight).

In many ways I think Dolce Vita is the town centre restaurant I’ve spent a long time looking for, and if I want to eat in town but can’t decide where it often gets the nod. I’ve had quick suppers here and long, drawn out dinners, conspiratorial lunches with friends and big loud celebrations with lots of people. The service is brilliant and they even have a bottle of Averna behind the bar for when you want the evening to last just that little bit longer. Of course, it’s not perfect – no restaurant is – but that’s probably for the best, because if I found the perfect restaurant I wouldn’t write a blog anymore and if you did you’d stop reading mine. But for 2014, it’s as close as I’ve got.

Here’s to continuing that search in 2015 – and until then, have a lovely Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Round-up: April and May

I can’t believe it’s nearly the end of May already. We’ve had the beer festival (did you go? wasn’t the food rubbish!), the second of our two bank holidays is about to begin and summer is just round the corner with the promise of al fresco dinners and – more importantly – barbecues. And Pimm’s! Have you had your first Pimm’s of the year yet? There’s something magical about it, isn’t there – the fresh cucumber, mint, strawberries, the gently fizzing taste of summer in a long tall glass… Anyway, I’m digressing: it’s also a good point to stop and look back at the last few couple of months, both in terms of ER reviews and other restaurant news. Shall we? Excellent. Make yourself comfortable…

The Eldon Arms, 8.0 – A burger: a religious experience, or a sandwich blown out of all proportion by passing food fads from That London? Regardless of the answer, I think The Eldon may well do the best one in Reading. I checked it out here. (Sadly, the Eldon has now stopped serving food – see below.)

Dolce Vita, 7.6 – Dolce Vita is a hugely popular Reading restaurant, one of the longest running in town, and yet I’d rarely been. Was I missing out? The answer’s in the review, here.

The Abbot Cook, 6.0 – Another pub, just down the road from the Eldon, but it couldn’t have been more different. One had a slightly scruffy interior and belting food, the other looks the part but somehow managed to dish up flavourless food. The review is here – it also contains a lost waiter, a lake of cream and something which can only be described as potato-geddon.

Bel And The Dragon, 6.6 – A short walk out of town, with a lovely waterside location, Bel has the potential to be the perfect summer restaurant. So why isn’t it? I reviewed it here, only to find that neither the staff nor the dishes were full of beans.

Bhoj, 8.2 – Forget Mya Lacarte, ignore l’Ortolan: TripAdvisor says that Bhoj is Reading’s best restaurant. But people who go on TripAdvisor aren’t experts like newspaper reviewers and bloggers, so they can’t be right, can they..? Click here to find out.

China Palace, 6.3 – Does Reading have any good Chinese restaurants? Is an authentic restaurant the same thing as a good restaurant? Can dozens of Chinese diners be wrong? Click here for the answers to some (but not all) of those questions.

Cappuccina Café, 7.0 – If I told you Reading had a place that was half-Portuguese, half-Vietnamese, with a view of possibly the town’s ugliest pound shop you might think I was making it up. I’m not. Egg custard tarts, a broken dishwasher, delicious barbecued pork and outstandingly inefficient service: read all about it here.

On to the news. Casa Roma and Coconut Bar And Kitchen, both mentioned in previous round-ups, are now open. I’m getting good reports of both, and I’ll add them to the list, although as always I will give them time to settle in. From the website Casa Roma doesn’t sound any different to any of the other Italians in town (and I’ll take some convincing that that is an attractive dining room, from the photos) but if the food and service are good none of that will be quite so important. Coconut originally sounded like it was going to be a Tampopo clone but the website now makes it look much more interesting, especially the wide selection of yakitori which is something nowhere else in Reading does.

Not exactly a restaurant, but Tamp Culture has also started trading at the junction of Minster Street and Gun Street, by the Holy Brook entrance to the Oracle. It’s a small van serving coffee and a small selection of cakes, and my friends who like coffee tell me it’s very good stuff indeed. They roast their own beans and add to a burgeoning coffee culture in the town following Lincoln opening late last year. No website, but they Tweet here.

We have also – finally – seen the last of the Lobster Room. It closed, it took the menus down, it put a sad little notice in the door saying it would reopen but it was a death rattle, as it never did. In next to no time, it has already reopened as “Chronicles”, another Mediterranean restaurant (no website yet, but the menu on the door suggests a small range of pasta dishes, steak, grilled meat and fish). I don’t have any detail on whether it’s different proprietors to the Lobster Room, although they’ve kept the same phone number. Is it someone new trying to resurrect a classic Reading restaurant brand, or someone familiar trying to detoxify a different one? I guess we’ll find out – watch this space.

The other potential opening, much covered in the papers, is CAU which has applied to develop the area at the Holy Brook entrance to the Oracle (so not far from Tamp). The plans look quite impressive and would change that side of the Oracle completely. It’s not a triumph for independent traders and small businesses, of course, because almost nothing is where the Oracle is concerned: CAU is the more affordable sibling of the Argentian steakhouse chain Gaucho – a smaller chain with less than ten branches, but a chain none the less. They also do Argentinian flatbread pizzas, so if I was Zero Degrees I’d be saying a few prayers that the council doesn’t approve the application.

The saddest recent news is so hot off the press that it didn’t feature in the original edition of this round-up: the Eldon Arms has confirmed that it’s no longer serving food. They only had a small kitchen, and there just wasn’t enough trade to make the numbers stack up. It’s a real shame – pubs like the Eldon that do good food rather than buying it in off the back of a lorry are few and far between, especially those doing it with a small domestic kitchen. There’s a moral in there: if you find somewhere you like make sure you go there, or it might not be around next time you’re deciding on a dinner venue.

Back to the Lobster Room, briefly: Reading Borough Council uploaded its latest food hygiene inspection results this month. Much of the coverage focused on the Lobster Room which got a zero rating, while initially completely missing the fact that it was already closed. Island Bar and Café Madras also got zero ratings in inspections carried out last July and September respectively. Buffalo Grill, next to the Broad Street Mall, got a rating of 1 (meaning, apparently, “Major Improvement Necessary”) in an inspection from this February. Caversham greasy spoon The Gorge, inspected last November, also got a rating of 1 (maybe it is literally a greasy spoon). The Food Standards Agency takes great pains to say that these ratings are for information and don’t constitute a recommendation to eat at or avoid any particular establishment. That’s all very well, but if you’re planning to go to Buffalo Grill, Café Madras or The Gorge then, well, best of luck and rather you than me.

In the last round-up I mentioned the Reading Retail Awards which are your chance to nominate restaurants, coffee shops and lunchtime venues (did you? hmm?). This time, it’s the turn of the Pride Of Reading awards – nominations have just opened. There’s nothing around restaurants (which is a shame – I’m very proud of some of them, even if it’s just me) but there is a category for Cultural Contribution, sponsored by those renowned opera-goers, Grosvenor Casino. Don’t worry – I’m not asking you to nominate me. Absolutely don’t. Not on any account. Although I’m sure I’d have an excellent chance I’m anonymous and have no plans to turn up to an award ceremony in disguise just to listen to Danyl Johnson singing. However, if you do feel in the voting mood I think the team over at Alt Reading have done a brilliant job of making Reading a better place to live in the short time since they started publishing. They’ve already been nominated but it wouldn’t hurt to reinforce that by nominating them yourself.

Last but not least, and this is hardly news any more but it happened just after the last round-up, Edible Reading is now on Facebook. So if you’re into that sort of thing please go “like” it, feel free to share the reviews through Facebook and join in the conversations on the ER Facebook page. I’m told the reviews have even made it to the infamous “Caversham Gossip Girls” (if any of you are reading, hello there!). Thanks to anybody who’s spread the word about one of my reviews over the past couple of months – the site traffic seems to keep going up and it’s great to see more people getting involved.

Speaking of getting involved: last but not least, as always, please don’t forget that the majority of restaurants I review have been requested or recommended by readers. The details, as I’m sure you know by now, are here. See you next Friday, 11.30 (be there or be square) for the next impartial, independent review. Which restaurant will be next?

Dolce Vita

In a surprising move, Dolce Vita closed in June 2018. I have left the review up for posterity.

I don’t know how you approach a restaurant review, as a reader, but before I started this blog the first thing I did was check whether I knew the place being reviewed. If I didn’t, the whole process was a voyage of discovery, reading the review thinking Does it sound like my kind of thing? Could I get there? Would I want to? But when I’d already been to the restaurant in question it was a very different test involving a different set of questions which all boil down to one: Do you agree with me? And, of course, we all judge on that basis. I like people who like the things I like, just like everybody else.

This is especially the case when the reviewer has gone to a place you really like, one of your favourite places. Then you feel protective and read the review thinking I hope the restaurant don’t have an off night, or even The reviewer had better not pick on it. One of the things really successful restaurants do is make customers into loyal customers, and make those loyal customers feel like part of a club. At its best, it’s a tribal thing: look at the incredible loyalty inspired by Mya Lacarte, or Tutti Frutti.

Dolce Vita, I think, is another of those places. I’ve had a lot of people telling me I should go there – enthusing about the food and the service, saying that they return again and again. So, if you’re one of those loyal customers, reading this and preparing to bristle protectively on Dolce Vita’s behalf, you can relax: I really liked it.

Of course, you might approach restaurant reviews by going straight to the end and reading the rating first, in which case you already know that and are waiting for me to get on with it (I understand: I ruin some novels that way too).

Despite knowing Dolce Vita by reputation I’ve rarely gone there. It’s another restaurant that feels like it’s always been there, in Kings Walk, perched on that ledge above the outer reaches of the Oracle looking out over all the changes that have happened over the years (personally, I’ve tried to erase all memory of Brannigan’s, with its chilling boasts of “cavorting”). Yet it’s never really crossed my mind when deciding where to eat, because I just couldn’t remember if it was any good; a strange type of amnesia I don’t get about many places in Reading.

The dining room’s big, a long rectangular airy space with lots of light from the skylight and the patio doors leading out onto the balcony. I can imagine that, if the sun ever comes out for long enough, the balcony would be a lovely place to drink rose and eat summery food but there was no chance of that on this visit: it was wet and windy so we grabbed a table by the window and looked out at the rain-spattered furniture, daydreaming about what might have been. Speaking of furniture, this isn’t something most restaurant reviews talk about (maybe with good reason) but Dolce Vita has some of the most handsome dining furniture in Reading: solid oak chairs and tables that make some of the wobbly painted tables in otherwise good restaurants seem rather cheap.

The menu is huge, and makes no pretence at being anything else. You are handed a sheet of A3 and left to wonder how a kitchen can do all of those dishes well. It also feels like a mismatch – there are pizzas and pasta, unsurprisingly, but also several Thai dishes, a couple of Greek dishes (which may have found a home here after Kyklos, Dolce Vita’s sister restaurant closed down in January) and, randomly, a Scotch egg. This all gave me misgivings but I decided to stick to Italian and hope for the best.

The burrata suggested I’d done the right thing. It always looks like a little bag of treasure to me and so it proved, creamy and fresh, well matched by the grilled peppers and aubergines. The whole thing was brought together with a very nice tomato, chilli and mint sauce and worked very well. I did find myself wishing, though, that the vegetables had been freshly grilled and still warm rather than chilled. It was a nice dish, but didn’t involve much in the way of cooking.

BurrataThe antipasti was a very similar story, a great assortment of salami, pleasingly dry and savoury Parma ham, coppa and mortadella, along with some mozzarella, sundried tomato and two dips, an aioli with a hint of citrus and a very good tzatziki (oh, and some baguette – Did I forget to mention the baguette?) If that makes it sound like a lot of food that’s because it was. In hindsight, for a tenner, it was probably meant to serve two although the menu didn’t make that clear – none the less it was excellent stuff.

AnitpastiThe mains were nicely timed, turning up just at the point when I was ready. The Milan pizza – mozzarella, Italian sausage, wild mushrooms, caramelised onions, fontina and Grana Padano – was recommended by the waitress which made the selection process that bit easier. It makes such a difference going to a restaurant where the staff know what their dishes are and are prepared to state a preference, and that was pretty symptomatic of the excellent service in Dolce Vita in general (I also got great recommendations for wine and, later, for dessert). The pizza base was close to perfect – thin enough to be crisp but with enough thickness to have some flavour of its own and not just feel like transport for cheese and tomato. The Italian sausage was excellent, coarse and herby almost to the point of being fragrant and I loved the caramelised onion with the cheeses. For my taste I thought there were too many mushrooms but that’s probably just me.

PizzaIf the pizza was good, the veal saltimbocca was great. It was a generous portion of veal, three good-sized pieces, wrapped in Parma ham and perfectly done. The sauce promised Marsala but I didn’t get any of that, just lemon, white wine and lashings of sage: perfection. In any case, Marsala would have made the whole thing too sweet. Similarly, the truffled mash turned up without a hint of truffle and again, I didn’t mind. Too many flavours would have made the dish a mess, instead of the simple classic I got. The French beans, however, did turn up buttered as promised: a lovely contrast to many restaurants, even good ones, that dish up bland and naked vegetables. All that was seventeen pounds – not cheap, but I’ve spent that much on many worse dishes in Reading.

Saltimbocca

The wine, also recommended by the waitress, was a bottle of Montepulciano. I’m no oenophile, which is pretty obvious from my reviews, but I like to kid myself that I got plummy red fruit and a touch of black pepper. Even if I’m wrong, it was dangerously drinkable at just under eighteen pounds (and again, hats off to the waitress for recommending one of their cheapest reds: no sneaky upselling here).

Considering I visited on a weeknight, the restaurant was surprisingly full and buzzy with a real mixture of groups – dates and birthday parties and business dinners, all equally at home. I also heard some Italian being spoken at one table which I took to be a good sign. The service was just excellent all evening, which is something I’ve always heard about Dolce Vita; I felt like I got five star treatment but watching other diners and seeing the easy way the serving staff chatted to them all, it was obvious that everyone else was getting it too.

When you’re having an evening that pleasant it’s a shame to leave without having dessert, so we gave the kitchen another chance to impress. The caramel and Baileys bread and butter pudding (again, recommended by the waitress) was divine. Rich and sticky, studded with sultanas and served with a light vanilla custard, it was a trademark example of those upmarket school dinner puddings I’m so partial to. I couldn’t detect the Baileys and the caramel notes, if they were truly there, were subtle to a fault but even so it was a great way to end the meal. Well, that and a small glass of sweet, fresh Sauternes. The other dessert – Dolce Vita’s hazelnut praline tiramisu – might be my favourite tiramisu in Reading, and I’ve tried a lot. A nice firm slab of indulgence, not too big, with a little layer of crunchy praline hidden inside like a bonus feature. Almost unimprovable (although I did have a go by pairing it with a glass of vin santo).

The total bill for two, for three courses, a bottle of wine and a couple of glasses of dessert wine was ninety pounds – not cheap (although we did have a lot of food) but nothing felt like poor value. I think at least some of that is down to the service, which was up there with any town centre restaurant I’ve been to.

Like I said at the start, if you’re a fan of Dolce Vita you can relax – I had a great evening there. I still have misgivings about the frightening size of their menu (there was also a specials menu adding another set of bewildering options – including roast chicken pie – to the mix) and I’d probably stick to what I know they do well, but on the night I went they didn’t put a foot wrong, and they did it without any of the experience ever seeming mechanical. By the end, I found myself thinking that it would be so easy to come here on another evening later in the year, sit on that patio, soak up the last of the sunshine, have a few beers and a pizza and leave having spent less than twenty pounds. And if the summer ever comes, there’s a strong possibility that you’ll find me there one evening, doing exactly that.

Dolce Vita – 7.6
Kings Walk, RG1 2HL
0118 9510530

http://www.dolcevitareading.com/