L’Ortolan, Shinfield

Despite Reading being a pretty affluent town it’s always been short on Michelin stars. There’s a gathering around Bray (Orion’s Belt, if you like) and the two star Hand and Flowers out at Marlow but the only truly local “star” is L’Ortolan, in Shinfield (so close, it’s RG2 which I guess makes it our Alpha Centauri). As with most people I expect a Michelin star to make a restaurant fussy and pricey – although if Michelin themselves are to be believed, stars are awarded for food alone and, technically at least, have nothing to do with table linen or waiters in waistcoats. Even so, driving into the countryside to try L’Ortolan gave me a sense of trepidation: not just about whether the food would be any good, but also about whether I’d be up to reviewing it.

Stepping over the threshold of Ortolan is like stepping inside a machine; the smartly dressed, suited staff are everywhere, taking coats, ushering customers to the bar, bringing drinks, wiping up invisible spills from the hardwood floor, plumping cushions. Everything looks impeccable, like a modern day clockwork Downton Abbey. Over a drink in the bar we were served canapés on a slate, just enough to get our tastebuds firing. Michelin starred dining is full of these bits and bobs – pre-pre starters, pre-starters, pre-desserts – and these were a nice enough introduction. There were little airy crackers with potato and onion, a thin wooden cone full of maple and truffle popcorn, the maple hitting you first and the truffle sneaking in at the end. The best of them were goose and foie gras croquettes, smooth and rich, Eton Turkey Twizzlers.

People often say it’s possible to eat affordably at a Michelin starred restaurant (normally, ironically, in a review where they’ve made no attempt to do so) so we were both picking from the lunchtime prix fixe. Three courses, with three or four choices per course, comes to thirty-two pounds: or it will do, at least, if you don’t pick one of the dishes with a five or ten pound supplement. Narrow, yes, but not so narrow as to be constricting, with lots of interesting choices to make. So we sat in the bar, sipping our pre-prandials, feeling pampered and making our decisions. Only when our orders had been taken and our glasses were empty did we go into to the restaurant proper: places like L’Ortolan are very good at letting you take your time.

Being taken through to the dining room revealed two rooms, one on the austere side, and the other, a conservatory room with a tented ceiling, harking back to the Raj. I was glad to be sat in the latter as it felt a little more relaxed. Tables in both rooms were the same, with smart linen, a fancy glass plate at each setting (soon whisked away, which begged the question of what it was there for) and comfy if slightly awkwardly angled velvety seats.

A big bowl of bread soon arrived and we tucked in while waiting for our starters to arrive. The best of them was a small treacle baguette, which was a golden saffron colour inside and slightly sweet with a hint of black treacle, The other breads – sourdough, focaccia and a small seeded roll – were nice, if not quite at the same heights, and there was plenty of room temperature butter (stinginess with butter is one of my bugbears, but then I do like a lot of it).

Before our starters arrived there was a pre dessert – an espresso cup of soup (isn’t it always?). This was a rich but light mushroom velouté which had a hint of truffle, a tiny sourdough crouton and a deliciously sweet and sour pickled mushroom. I enjoyed it so much that fighting the urge to clean the inside of the cup with a piece of bread was quite a titanic struggle; I didn’t want to let the side down with all the other genteel tables around me.

The starters were both beautiful to look at. The duck liver (introduced as foie gras when brought to the table) with blood orange and basil marmalade was heavenly, even for something so sinful. The liver was just cooked with a slightly caramelised outside. Next to it was a small dome of creamy duck liver parfait with pain d’epice crumb, all lovely and gingery. On a slice of flattened puff pastry were neatly laid slices of blood orange, resting on some of the marmalade. The marmalade itself was more like a curd, a thick smear of it (they do love smears in restaurants like this) on one side of the plate. Ordering this involved paying a five pound supplement, but it was a good decision: it was the best thing I ate all afternoon, and writing this makes me want to have it all over again. In particular the sweet richness of the liver with the tart blood orange was fantastic, and not a combination I’d ever have imagined before.

OrtDuck

The other starter also looked gorgeous, but looks were the main thing going for it. On paper, confit salmon, pickled cucumber and ketjap manis gel sounded terrific but what turned up had a strong air of seeming like a good idea at the time. The salmon was lovely – subtle, fresh and breaking into flakes with no effort at all (which took me aback, since it looked so much like sashimi). And I wouldn’t have minded it being so petite, if it had had more interesting things on the plate to pair it with, but I wasn’t that fortunate. The pickled cucumber, big indelicate chunks, had almost no sweetness or sharpness so was watery and bland. The ketjap manis gel was sweet and intense. But the rest? Well, it felt an awful lot like sludge to me: swirls of two different other sauces spiralling round the plate, a little heap of horseradish snow and micro herbs strewn all over the shop. Wetness, wetness everywhere. Towards the end I found some sesame seeds – strong, intense, delicious – submerged where they were almost unnoticeable and beyond rescue. It was the sort of plate you never quite clean: it looked like a Pollock once I was finished. They brought more bread after that, and I started to wonder whether I’d need it.

For main, the rump of beef was as lovely as the duck liver. It was three very pink (as requested) slices of beef with smoked pommes Anna on a red wine jus with bone marrow hollandaise. Underneath the beef was half a roasted banana shallot, a few pieces of tenderstem broccoli, two cubes of dense beef and a creamy mushroom sauce, dotted with mushrooms. The rump itself was a little tough under the knife but tender when chewed. The potatoes were wafer thin and richly flavoured (almost like the potatoes my mum used to cook in with the roast beef when I was a kid, although the Michelin inspectors never troubled my mum’s kitchen – or yours, I’d imagine). The shallot was sweet and the mushroom sauce was intensely flavoured. There was only one blot on the copybook – one of the cubes of beef, a big layer of fat running through it, was far too tough to cut or to eat – but apart from that, it was perfection, a high-end reinvention of a Sunday roast, where each ingredient was so concentrated and intense that size simply did not matter.

OrtBeef

The other main had sat up and begged to be ordered when I saw the menu: loin of lamb, Parmesan gnocchi, sweetbread popcorn, confit tomato. Again, it looked absolutely gorgeous, and the lamb was beautifully cooked, what there was of it anyway. But again the rest of the dish underwhelmed. The confit tomatoes were the best, little bright-coloured flashes of sweetness. The sweetbreads were an Eton reimagining of KFC popcorn chicken – nice enough but maybe not the surprise I’d been hoping for. The gnocchi was one single chewy wodge whose main role in proceedings seemed to be to show off how delicious the Pommes Anna on the other plate were. And, of course, more little spheres and splodges of sauce – along with, randomly, a smear of something that tasted like goats cheese. Oh, and more of those sesame seeds. I’ve never believed that food should ever be too beautiful to eat, but unfortunately this was more fun to look at than to eat. There was a ten pound supplement for this and I’m not really sure why, because it was smaller, lighter and far less special than the beef.

OrtLamb

More freebies followed with an impeccable pre-dessert: a little shot glass with creamy coconut rice pudding at the bottom, little cubes of rum jelly above it and a layer of passion fruit mousse at the top. I could quite easily have eaten a dessert sized portion of this. Not for the first time in a high end restaurant, I wondered why the free stuff always seems to taste the best. Maybe because it’s “free”: I know, ultimately, it isn’t but sometimes the mind is quite happy to let itself be tricked.

For dessert I simply had no choice but to have the cheese: I’d seen the cheese trolley wheeled past on several occasions while I finished the previous two courses and it was impossible to resist. There were a mind-boggling twenty cheeses on offer – going from the hard cheeses, past goats cheeses and on to some softer-rinded cheeses with varying degrees of stinkiness – all of which were explained in detail by the captain of the trolley, a really personable young man with obvious enthusiasm for his charges. I was allowed four, which were served with super thin slices of bread and crackers, and a choice of chutney and truffle honey. There were also grapes and celery just in case I wanted to offset some of the calories, although I’d given up counting by that point. The ones that stood out for me were the Burwash Rose, a rich, tangy, semi soft cheese with a rind washed in rose water and the Blue Murder, a Scottish blue so ripe it was in danger of running off the plate (or, rather, slate) and, for that matter, out of the building. The latter was particularly good with some of that honey, although the truffle couldn’t stand up to the cheese itself and was close to undetectable. This plate also attracted a five pound supplement but the variety was so good (perhaps not in the hard cheeses – I was hoping to see a really good Gruyere or Comte, but it was not to be) and the portion sufficiently generous that I didn’t begrudge them one bit.

OrtCheese

The other dessert was chocolate and cardamom ganache with orange curd and mint ice cream. Unlike many of the things I’d eaten, that was a pretty good description and – for the only time in the meal – what turned up was roughly what I’d expected to see. It was bliss: a long thin rectangle of smooth, glossy ganache, powdered with cardamom, was just gorgeous. The mint ice cream – green, fresh garden mint, a million miles from bright green mint choc chip – was so fantastic I didn’t want to pair it with anything else. The orange curd zinged with sweet sharpness. Best of all, perhaps, was the kitchen’s reinterpretation of Mint Aero – three little chunks of fluffy chocolate which imploded in the mouth, a piece of culinary pyrotechnics. Just beautiful. And, in case you’d forgotten the kitchen has a Michelin star, some pointless micro leaves.

OrtChoc

I knew the wine list would sting, and it did. As I was driving, the initial plan was to order wine by the glass but the prices by the glass were so punitive – seven or eight pounds for 125ml, easily a tenner for 175ml – that we decided it would be better value to get a bottle from the bottom end of the wine list and picked a Cote du Rhone for thirty-seven pounds (to give you an idea, that’s the fifth cheapest red they sell by the bottle). I was feeling really pleased with my bargain hunting until I got home, did some research and found that the same bottle retails for eleven pounds. Still, there was no bitter taste at the time.

Service was excellent, if a little cool. There was a constantly rotating team of waiters which served plates, cleared plates, poured wine and poured water, which gave the feeling of being continuously “served” but without a lot in the way of interaction. It was exceptionally well-run, just a tad emotionless. A few of the waiters – the captain of the cheese trolley, one of the waiters who topped up our glasses – seemed to have a little more charm, it’s just a shame that this was the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps customers at Ortolan (who do tend to be older and middle class, based on the clientèle when we were there) expect service of the “seen and not heard” variety, or perhaps my expectations have been skewed by too much casual dining. I would blame Michelin – lots of people like to – but I’ve eaten at other starred restaurants which felt a lot less, well, starchy.

The total bill, including a 12.5% “optional” service charge, for two drinks from the bar (one of them soft), a bottle of wine and three courses was one hundred and forty five pounds. So, I tried to eat cheaply at L’Ortolan and I have to say it’s just not really possible: we could have saved twenty pounds on supplements but even then it would be pretty difficult to get the bill under a hundred pounds unless neither of you were drinking.

I found L’Ortolan such a mixed bag that it’s difficult to wrap it all up in a neat and easy conclusion. I almost feel like there were two different meals here: the duck liver and beef were fantastically well-judged, well-balanced, generous and delicious dishes where it felt like there was more to them than expected. The salmon and lamb was the opposite – too delicate and light without enough oomph to stop them from being damp squibs. I guess the question is, if you went to L’Ortolan, which of those two meals you’d get. If it was the first, you’d be evangelising to friends, but if it was the second you’d be wondering what the fuss was about.

I think in the back of my mind I was partly comparing the prix fixe at L’Ortolan with the a la carte somewhere like Mya Lacarte and thinking about differences in the food, the execution, the ideas and the experience. In a straight-out comparison, I’m not sure L’Ortolan would win out very often, however stunning the building, beautiful the dishes, plentiful the freebies. Maybe that’s about me and the kind of dining I prefer, so disregard it by all means: it’s worth going to say you’ve gone, and you’re unlikely to have a bad meal if you do. But, to me at least, it still felt ever so slightly like eating in a machine – and good restaurants are a broad church of many things, but I don’t think machine is one of them.

L’Ortolan – 7.8
Church Lane, Shinfield, RG2 9BY
0118 9888500

http://www.lortolan.com/

Beijing Noodle House

Beijing Noodle House closed in the summer of 2019 and is due to reopen as a Nepalese restaurant called Gurkha Home. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

Because I have a policy of not reviewing restaurants the very minute they’ve opened, opportunities to be topical are few and far between. I’m not always good at seizing them – I’ve always regretted not visiting Pau Brasil last year while the World Cup was on, for example – so there’s no way I was going to miss out again this week.

I’m not talking about pancakes, by the way. I’m still convinced that pancakes, like cooked breakfasts and roast dinners, are best enjoyed at home; even when a restaurant does them well, it never quite recaptures how good they can be in the comfort of your own kitchen. Something’s always not quite right: the sausage isn’t good enough, the baked beans are claggy and don’t have Worcester sauce in them, the beef’s a tad leathery or (most unforgivably) there aren’t enough roast potatoes. At their best – especially with roast dinners – they can be a high-end reimagining, an enjoyable one even, but it’s just not the same.

That’s never truer than with pancakes. Just writing this I am remembering them – fresh from the pan, sprinkled with sugar and lemon juice, rolled up and scoffed greedily while someone is busy cooking the next one. No restaurant can match that. Plus when you have them in a restaurant you get a pancake, emphasis on the singular. Where’s the fun in that?

No, the other thing that happened this week was the Chinese New Year, only yesterday. It got me thinking again about the disappointing lack of good Chinese restaurants in Reading, and then I remembered one of the recommendations I’d received: Pete, the proprietor of Shed, had suggested I review Beijing Noodle House. He raved about some of the Indonesian specialities and the “mouth watering pork dumplings”. Pete strikes me as a man who knows his food – anyone who’s ever tried Saucy Friday can attest to that – so how could I go anywhere else on this of all weeks?

Actually, my first reaction to the recommendation was “is that place still open?” I used to go to Beijing Noodle House a lot, back in the day (I was especially partial to their duck fried noodles). Then, back in 2008, it was gutted by fire; I can’t remember how long it was closed for, but when it reopened I had moved on elsewhere and it never occurred to me to return. Heading up West Street on a weekday evening and going through the front door felt a little like bumping into an old friend and having to make excuses for not having been in touch.

The first thing that struck me about the room was the pictures on the wall. They are enormous (one pretty much covers an entire wall), an odd mishmash of Oriental and European art. You almost couldn’t take your eyes off them, so huge were they, and I’m no Brian Sewell but I don’t think the proprietors are going to take them to a filming of Antiques Roadshow any time soon. Apart from the mind-boggling art? Well, it’s a bit run-down. The dark wood tables are a little too low so you end up hunched over your food, everything is a little worn and has seen better days. An electronic neon sign in the window flashes “OPEN”. The place mats are thin, plastic and tacky – mine, for no reason I could think of, had a photograph of chips on it. It was just tatty enough that I looked up the health and safety rating from the council, and was hugely reassured to find that they’d given it five stars.

There’s no menu online but there are a lot of noodle options – as ramen, as fried noodle, as udon or vermicelli, in soup or not. More noodle combinations, in fact, than I knew existed. You could probably figure that out for yourself – the clue’s in the name after all – but there was a lot more to the menu than that. I also spotted plenty of rice dishes, a good vegetarian section and, on the back, a range of Thai and Malaysian dishes. I couldn’t see any main courses costing more than seven pounds. As always with a very big menu I felt spoiled for choice, and sadly as usual with a very big menu I also wondered how many choices contained spoilers.

No way to find out except to dive in, so we ordered several of the starters. “Grilled Pork mouthwatering dumplings” (yes, that’s a direct quote from the menu) were every bit as good as Pete had suggested they would be. There’s often an air of the mystery meat about dim sum filling which puts me off, but these – more like gyoza than steamed dumplings or pork buns – were full of coarse, subtle pork. They were beautiful combined with the clean, delicate taste of the ginger vinegar dip. Four felt like a snip at just under four pounds.

Beijing starters

The chicken satay was also very good: you could say it’s hard to get satay wrong, and you’d probably be right, but I liked this a lot. The chicken – three decent sized skewers – was maybe slightly cooked into toughness but that just gave me an excuse to heap on lashings of the satay sauce, which was nothing to look at but deceptively impressive, with just enough slow-building chilli. Last of all, crispy seaweed came with cashews on it rather than the traditional grated scallop (did you know that the pink powder was grated scallop? I didn’t) and was also delicious. The nuts added a savoury toasted note which meant it wasn’t artificially sweet the way seaweed can be – not that that ever stops me polishing it off, mind.

I ordered the duck fried noodles partly for old time’s sake and partly because the menu goes out of its way to say that the duck is marinated and freshly cooked and you can have it boneless if you prefer. When it arrived I felt that mixture of nostalgia and anticipation. It looked just how it used to, back when I used to come here, but was it as tasty? After all, your tastes move on, change, develop: could it possibly have been as good as my memories of it?

In a word: yes. Possibly better, in fact. The duck – and you get loads of it – was glorious in big, tender slices. Not crispy, which might put some people off, but not with the thick layer of fat that might deter fussy eaters. The spring onions, peppers and beansprouts still had the right amount of crunch with the soft noodles and the duck, and everything was coated in a beautiful dark sauce which was more than soy but impossible to split out into its component parts. I was smiling from the first mouthful to the last, and wondering why on earth I’d left it so long. It was just over six pounds, and I’d pick it over a yaki soba from Wagamama nine times out of ten.

Beijing noodles

I also wanted to try something from the less conventional side of the menu, so I went for the nasi goreng. This turned up as a huge heap of rice (indeed, the translation from Indonesian is simply “fried rice”) liberally interspersed with prawns and pieces of chicken breast. The sticky, lightly spiced rice was dotted with peas and on top were a few thin slices of spring onions which felt like not quite enough variety to make every mouthful exciting. That said the meat was generous enough to have a prawn or piece of chicken in every forkful and the flavour was good, if a little bit repetitive (I rarely order risotto for the same reason). Still, five quid for a really tasty plate of rice is incredible value and it made me want to try more of the more unusual dishes (nasi lemak, the national dish of Malaysia, perhaps, or possibly beef rendang).

Beijing nasi

Someone pointed out my really poor track record of ordering desserts in 2015, and I’m afraid it’s true. I didn’t do any better here: I could have gone for some ice cream, or toffee banana with sesame seeds, but somehow I felt like I’d eaten two courses with no need of a third to complete them. The whole thing – three starters, two mains, a Tsing Tao and a large glass of anonymous, cheap and perfectly drinkable red – came to under thirty pounds. I haven’t mentioned service and that’s deliberate – not because it was bad but because it was almost unobtrusive. It’s just not that kind of restaurant: they ask you nicely what you want, they go away, a little later they bring it and they leave you to get on with enjoying it (actually when I put it that way, it sounds pretty good). Besides, how could they ever compete with the wall art?

I’m delighted that I enjoyed Beijing Noodle House. I can’t think of many places in town that are so cheap and so enjoyable, and when I looked at the menu I had real trouble narrowing it down to two main courses, so it probably won’t be long before I return to fill in the gaps. I really wanted to like it, because of all those happy memories, but as a realist I’m not sure I was expecting to like it as much as I did. It’s also a great example of how good food in an iffy room is always going to beat iffy food in a good room. Maybe one day Reading will have an equivalent of “Where Chefs Eat”: if so, Pete should definitely claim this one for his entry.

Only one thing troubled me: I was one of only two tables the night I went, although someone else did poke their head round the door for takeaway. West Street has felt increasingly like a ghost town recently, with Vicar’s closing just before Christmas and rumours that Primark is considering relocating to Broad Street. I can only hope my curse doesn’t strike and Beijing Noodle House doesn’t close shortly after receiving a glowing review from me. I know I say this a lot but use it or lose it, because otherwise one of these days the question will still be “is that place still open?” but the answer will be no.

Beijing Noodle House – 7.2
13-14 West Street, RG1 1TT
0118 9078979

http://www.hongbeijingreading.co.uk/