Takeaway review: Finn’s

I rather missed fish and chips last year. It wasn’t in the A-list of things I missed – I didn’t miss it as much as going to restaurants, getting on an aeroplane, waking up in a hotel, or hugs, or impromptu nights down the pub, or the first beer of the holiday – but even so it was a small, nagging thing that I missed for the best part of 2020.

If I had felt comfortable going out to get fish and chips I might not been that bothered, but because I didn’t there were moments here and there that blindsided me on a week night when I was suddenly struck by how nice it would be to wander to the chippy, place my order and rush home with it while it was still hot. It’s one of those meals that can perfect a summer night, eaten out in the park or on a bench, or a cold winter’s night, the steam rising from the bag as you take those final steps home.

Fish and chips is one of those curious dishes that is sometimes eaten in restaurants – London Street Brasserie and the Lyndhurst both do excellent versions – and often eaten at home as a takeaway, but relatively rarely delivered. And until this year, I couldn’t have reviewed most chippies because you couldn’t eat your fish and chips in – it’s a very long time since Reading had a Harry Ramsden’s at the top of the Oxford Road (and eating there was always a very strange experience) and the gentrified likes of Kerbisher & Malt or Poppie’s have never made their way down the M4 to Reading from the capital.

We have plenty of burgers and a fair amount of pizza, but if you want fish and chips you still generally head for your favourite chippy and pick it up from there. And when it comes to favourite chippies, people in Reading all fly the flag for different ones. Caversham types are proud of Wings on the Gosbrook Road, Whitley residents will sing the praises of Deep Blue up on the Basingstoke Road. If you live in Earley you might have a view on Top Table or Terry Ling’s, and down in West Reading there’s 555 Fish Bar, a pescatarian take on the number of the beast.

I used to live near Seaspray, a lovely little place on Crown Street, and I was very sad when it closed. There was no longer anywhere decent within walking distance, and even if there had been going wouldn’t have felt right: people get tribal about chippies, you see.

These days my nearest fish and chip shop is Finn’s, the subject of this week’s review. It’s a few doors up from student breakfast hub Café Yolk on Hatherley Road, and I believe it’s owned by the same people. But I’m not reviewing it because it’s the closest, I’m reviewing it because it’s a more interesting beast altogether. Most fish and chip shops are still stuck in the world of a few decades ago, the turn of the century, but Finn’s is a very modern establishment. It set up an Instagram account back in 2018 and never put much effort into it, but last summer, waking up to the existential crisis faced by all hospitality businesses, it started taking social media seriously. So if you look now you’ll see an active Instagram account full of pictures that are likely to make you peckish. 

And not just that: Finn’s does gluten free fish and chips on Tuesdays, and has a well-regarded vegan offering every day. And crucially, at the start of this month, Finn’s joined Just Eat, so now you can get it delivered to your door provided you live less than two miles away. This felt like a win-win to me: I was used to having to pick it up and walk home, but I was close enough to the restaurant that a delivery was bound to get to my house quicker than if I’d collected it myself.

The core of the menu is pretty compact – cod, haddock, masala fish or vegan fish (the menu doesn’t say what’s in it, which surprised me) all of which come with chips. Some come in a large, some in a regular and with some you get to choose: I have no idea why. This does mean you can’t, as some people would at a chippy, get a portion of fish each and share a bigger portion of chips, but that felt like a minor drawback. 

You can also have a variety of other dishes with chips – prawns, scampi, fishcakes and so on – or you can order those as sides. Finally, of course, you can go for sauces and mushy peas, and Finn’s also serves poutine, the Quebecois speciality of chips in gravy with cheese curds. Zoë and I had had the kind of shitty day which is only really medicated with calories and booze, so we went wild in the aisles, ordered a bit of everything, poured a couple of beers and waited for our dinner to arrive.

This will disappoint a lot of you, and probably shorten the review by at least five hundred words, but my JustEat experience was absolutely exemplary. We placed the order just before 6pm and twenty minutes later the driver was outside the front door, in an Ola cab, opening up an insulated bag (a Deliveroo one, but I imagine he works for them too) and handing over a branded paper bag with our food in it.

Most of it was packed in faux-polystyrene cardboard, and all of it was piping hot, but it wasn’t without its challenges. For instance, Zoë had ordered a large cod and chips and I had ordered a large haddock and chips, but there was nothing on the boxes to indicate which was which. So I can tell you about my fish – and I think it was haddock because I picked the one with the flatter, more delicate looking fillet – but really, I can’t guarantee it wasn’t cod. Similarly, we had ordered a range of sides – the panko breadcrumbed prawns, the scampi and – this wasn’t my choice, believe you me – a battered sausage. All of them came in the same container, which didn’t bother me but might irk you if you were a pescatarian.

None of these are dealbreakers, but they’re worth mentioning. Similarly, many of my quibbles with the food were exactly that – minor quibbles, and probably things that wouldn’t occur to most people. So I would have liked my fillet of fish to be ever so slightly bigger (and my chips to be slightly smaller). I would have liked my batter to be a little crispier and not quite so soggy underneath, and I would have liked the chips to be more of a mixture of big, floury ones and the little sharp scraps that so enliven the bottom of the bag when you pick them up from a chippy.

But even so, having a fish supper on a Wednesday night on the sofa, in my comfies, watching the strangely compulsive Lightning on BBC2 (just me?) still made for a deeply enjoyable experience. The batter had plenty of flavour and seasoning, the fish fell into deeply pleasing flakes and if you can’t enjoy a plate of hot chips there might be something medically wrong with you.

The side dishes were more of a mixed bag, I’d say. I really liked the panko breadcrumbed prawns (I was put on to them by theatre impressario and one-woman arts whirlwind Steph Weller, who introduced me to Finn’s in the first place years ago), which were beautifully done with a neat contrast between the light, crunchy interior and the firm, meaty prawns within. The scampi, also breaded, but a little more claggy inside, were less successful but still decent. What both really needed, and were missing, was a dip – it would have been good to have a little tartare sauce, say, thrown in.

The battered sausage was Zoë’s idea. “You won’t eat this, will you?” she said. “When it comes to sausages you like the posh shit.” She cut into it, had a mouthful and then realised that over the last few years I’ve sneakily (and successfully) converted her to the posh shit, too. “No, I won’t finish that. But I’m fucking full anyway.” I looked at the cross-section and it did have the look and texture of mystery meat that so puts me off that kind of thing. Your mileage might well vary, but it felt to me mostly like an item you’d order if you wanted to be ironic. Some things are best left in the past, and I suspect battered sausage might be one of them: that said, if Finn’s ever decides to do a black pudding fritter I’d be the first in line for it. I’d probably camp outside the night before.

Last but not least, the poutine. This was slightly a victim of us having ordered so much food, and the way it was served – in a foil tray with a cardboard lid – meant that it felt like it went cold a lot quicker than everything else. Given that chips come with pretty much any main you order this is always likely to end up as an add-on, but that said I did quite like it. The curd cheese was firm and squeaky as it should be – like halloumi but without the saltiness – and worked beautifully and the gravy was thick and salty, if a little lacking in flavour beyond that. 

It’s definitely a dish to file under Tastes better than it looks. But when you read, earlier on, that poutine was chips in gravy with cheese on top you were probably either filled with longing or revulsion, so I suspect you already know whether it’s your kind of thing. If it is, or if you’re just curious about whether eating it would make you feel dirty in a good or a bad way, I’d say it’s definitely worth a shot. It’s a shame, really, that they don’t allow you to upgrade regular chips to poutine to save you from double carbs.

The main fish you might detect in this review, I fear, is carp. Looking back through it it’s all a bit Goldilocks And The Three Bears: my fish is too small, my batter is too soggy, my poutine went cold, wah wah waaah. Did I mention that I loved my meal? Maybe I didn’t say that loudly enough, and I really should have done. The thing is, the niggles I mention are the kind that I used to have back in the good old days, when I was so blasé that I ate in restaurants all the time and was probably a lot more critical. I probably mention them more from muscle memory than genuine sentiment: the fact is, I absolutely adored my fish and chips – chips scattered with salt and drenched in Sarson’s, a lovely crimson pool of Stokes’ Bloody Mary ketchup on the side. 

Our order cost just shy of thirty-five pounds, including a two pound fifty delivery charge and a fifty pence service charge. But we really went for it: if you just had a couple of portions of fish and chips the whole thing would come in around twenty quid and personally, I think that’s thoroughly decent value. What a time to be alive, when you can get someone to turn up at your door with fish and chips! When I thought about it that way, and had another gulp of my beautifully cold beer, I found that, ultimately, all was well in my little world. You may still cleave to your regular chippy, and I may not be able to change your mind, but I’ll just leave you with this: Finn’s really delivers.

Finn’s
Hatherley Road, Reading, RG1 5NA
0118 3271960

https://www.facebook.com/finnsfish
Order via: Direct through the restaurant for collection, JustEat for delivery

The Lyndhurst

N.B. The Lyndhurst closed in June 2016. It’s since reopened, and there’s a separate review for the food there under the new owners. I’ve left this review up for posterity.

One of the most interesting pieces of food news of 2015 so far was announced by AltReading when they confirmed that the new chef at the Lyndhurst would be Tom Evans, who at the time was senior sous chef at LSB. Now generally, I’ve never been a big one for chef worship. I know to some people they’re like rock stars or footballers and when they step down from a restaurant (like Alan Murchison at l’Ortolan) their replacement is hotly anticipated with a friseé (geddit?) of excitement. But for me they’re a part of what makes a restaurant great – a big, important part, but still only a part.

The Tom Evans news was particularly interesting, though, because one thing Reading really needs is a pub which does good quality affordable food. Had my letter to Santa had the desired effect after all? At the risk of introducing a football analogy we may all come to regret, I couldn’t wait to visit the Lyndhurst and find out whether their new signing would score a hat trick or (stop sniggering) be pulled off at half time.

I’ve always felt quite emotionally attached to the place: I used to love it in its previous incarnation (their rolled, stuffed pork belly was one of the best Reading dishes you’ll never get to eat) and I was really sad when it closed. Then when it reopened just doing Pie Minister pies and curries cooked offsite by an unnamed Reading restaurant (rumoured to be House Of Flavours) I was cautiously pleased but there were still rumours that it was only a temporary respite from closure. So it’s nice to see it showing some ambition and investing in new ideas.

Inside it’s pretty much the same as it ever was – slightly spruced up but still a proper pub without pretensions: charming rustic wooden tables and cosy padded pews. On a quiet weekday evening I was starting to wonder if I’d made a mistake, with both the pub itself and the specials board looking rather empty (a real disappointment as on a previous visit the specials had looked like the most interesting bit: pulled pork and pearl barley risotto and haggis on toast were both tempting prospects).

The basic menu is short, almost spartan: three “small plates” (or starters, as most normal people still call them) and five mains. As always, I’d rather have a pared down menu that gives me confidence than an encyclopaedic one that saps it, but even by my standards it was on the minimalist side. The other thing that’s worth pointing out about the menu is that Tom Evans’ name appears all over it, with references to his secret recipe ketchup, home made burger sauce and tartare sauce and the sausages he makes daily by hand; the management is definitely setting a lot of store by their star player.

So, having said all that, how could I resist the “GIANT hand made sausage rolls”? The word “GIANT” was in a bigger font than everything else on the menu, to make the point I imagine. It was partly right – just the one sausage roll but it was indeed huge; served on a wooden board with a ramekin of the aforementioned ketchup it was quite a sight to behold. The taste was pretty good too – light, flaky pastry wrapped round substantial, coarse sausagemeat, peppery and lightly spicy. The sauce divided opinion: I couldn’t really tell it apart from Heinz, the person I had dinner with thought it was streets ahead (maybe if you go you can tell me which of us is right). So all in all not half bad, although I was struck by the contradiction of something that was neither small nor on a plate appearing in the “small plates” section (yes, I’m a pedant, I know). At seven quid it almost cost as much as the mains, so the price wasn’t that small either.

Lyndhurstroll

The other starter was “posh mushrooms on toast with Parmesan”, and there was a lot to like here too. I wouldn’t say the mushrooms were posh (ironically the posher mushrooms are, the more likely they are to be wild – I suppose it’s a bit like the Bullingdon Club) but they’d at least been well brought up: nicely savoury in a rich, slightly creamy sauce. The kitchen hadn’t been stingy with the parmesan either, so it was festooned with shavings. But the dish had feet of clay, because all of that was served on cheap white toast which couldn’t stand up to all those juices and just went soggy and claggy. It either needed to be better toasted or just literally made of sterner stuff: what a difference a slice of sourdough would have made (you know, posh bread). Still tasty though, and a good example of how to charge less than a fiver for pretty cheap ingredients without anyone feeling ripped off.

Lyndhurstmushrooms

The mains are almost a greatest hits of pub food: fish and chips; burger; sausage and mash; ham and chips; steak. In fairness, there were also two vegetarian mains on the blackboard, one of which – a walnut and blue cheese gnocchi – looked more imaginative than the usual, but I wanted to go for the classics to see what the kitchen’s spin on them would be.

The fish and chips were actually fishes and chips: two very lightly battered fish fillets which were a mile away from the Moby Dick style challenges served at other establishments. These were lighter and more delicate, though the fish itself wasn’t cod – it was a smaller fish with thinner flakes rather than the thick-flaked, white-fleshed fillets you get elsewhere. The menu was mute on what sort of fish it was but it did say that the chips were hand cut and the fish was “guest ale battered”. I couldn’t tell that the batter had any beer in it, but either way it was decent enough.

The chips were much tastier than they look in my (admittedly terrible) photos – I judged them on the colour and thought they were overcooked but in fact they were properly crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside (that will teach me for being a chip racist). The mushy peas were the standout for me – they tasted bright, green and full of spring with a touch of mint, a million miles away from a tin of Batchelor’s (if the kitchen ever makes a pea soup I might just ring up and reserve a vat). Even my dining companion, who claims to hate mushy peas, loved them: that’s how good they were. The tartare sauce was also pretty good – although, again, I felt a bit guilty that I didn’t find it significantly better than shop bought. And that’s kind of how I felt about the whole dish, really – not significantly better than fish and chips at other Reading pubs. Not significantly better, truth be told, than the fish and chips the Lyndhurst used to do.

Lyndhurstfish

The other main was a burger (I know, I know – like I said, it’s a short menu). Actually, this was probably the surprise package for me: I liked it far more than I expected to. The burger itself – lovely and thick, almost pink (although not as pink as I’d have liked) – was clearly very good quality meat. It was also a sensible size which meant you could actually eat it with your hands, although once you’d started woe betide you if you tried to put it down. Also inside the brioche bun – a real one, rather than a sesame seed bun with delusions of grandeur – were several thick crunchy slices of gherkin (a personal favourite of mine) and the best bit, a terrific burger sauce which added a welcome hefty whack of tang. I was surprised by the big pile of naked salad it came with, though. I doubt anyone eats that, and it shouldn’t have been beyond the kitchen to dress it.

Lyndhurstburger

Service was friendly and efficient. Everything came quickly, I felt like they were proud of the food and they genuinely wanted to make sure I liked it. But, as often, eating in a pub it’s difficult to say much more than that. The tables are pre-laid with cutlery in vintage pots and there’s table numbers on wooden spoons, so it’s clearly very much still a pub rather than a restaurant, which felt as it should be.

I’m afraid, yet again, there was no dessert. After two substantial (if not GIANT) starters and mains I might have considered a dessert if there had been something suitably delicate, but the only dessert on the menu was a sticky toffee pudding. I was tempted: I think the STP at LSB is one of the finest school dinner desserts in all of Reading, but had I eaten it I think I’d have fallen into a lard coma. So I skipped it, and I’ll make up for it next time. Promise. As it was, the total bill for two starters, two mains and two pints of cider came to thirty-five pounds, not including tip.

Time for the post-match analysis. If I was giving marks for potential, the Lyndhurst would do brilliantly. It’s the right idea at the right time, and there are so many encouraging signs: a sensibly sized menu, a small range of specials, a cautious approach of not doing too much too soon. But I don’t think they’re quite there yet. The food doesn’t feel as accomplished as I expected: some of the little touches, like the sausagemeat and the mushy peas, are excellent, but some of the basics – the fish, that white toast – aren’t as good as they should be. I was concerned that I’d see all flair and no graft, but I went away feeling I’d experienced too much graft and not enough flair. All in all, this was a debut that was promising and frustrating in equal measure.

That sense of the place being a work in progress extends to the pub, too. There’s still some work to be done on the décor – some of the stools have their foam padding breaking free, and let’s just say the loos could do with a bit of care and attention – but the chalkboard art above the bar is very now. I hope the pub gets the time it needs to become the kind of place it’s aiming to be (I understand they plan to give the exterior a facelift, too) and the kitchen gets the time to produce the kind of food it’s capable of. A lot of that depends on them doing good trade, so – to mangle my footballing metaphor beyond all recognition – perhaps we all need to take one for the team and eat there to give them that chance.

The Lyndhurst – 6.9

88-90 Queen’s Road, RG1 4DG
0118 9617267

https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Lyndhurst/519640051447288?fref=ts

Mr Chips

Here’s an interesting fact for you: according to their website, Mr Chips is the first traditional fish and chip shop in the centre of Reading for 20 years. I think they’re right, too – before that there was Harry Ramsden’s, now a sad derelict space under the Travelodge at the top of the Oxford Road – but I can’t think of anywhere else.

Come to think of it, you don’t see many fish and chip restaurants in general. Every pub will do fish and chips, many restaurants will too but a place devoted to fish and chips? No, when people want fish and chips they generally head to their favourite chippy (and we could have a heated debate about the merits of the Jolly Fryer, Seaspray and the 555 Fish Bar but, on second thoughts, let’s not) and then carry it home and have it on their laps in front of the telly. Just me? Even in London, eat in fish and chip restaurants are one of those trends that didn’t quite catch on: so is Mr Chips a trailblazer, or is it trying to service a market that doesn’t really exist?

It’s definitely a chippy that has a few seats rather than a fish and chip restaurant. There is a bar in the window with a few uncomfortable seats that are part stool, part pogo stick, and a couple of tables along the side of the long thin room (at the back were some big sacks of potatoes – an encouraging sign, I thought). Apart from that? Well, you’re in a chippy. The usual glass fronted cabinet is there, full of battered sausages and Pukka Pies and the menu behind the counter offers the usual suspects – cod, haddock, mushy pea fritters, curry sauce – along with the occasional curveball. So you can also order “crab claws”, which from the picture on the wall appear to be nothing of the kind, and – if you’ve always wanted to try one without venturing north of the border – a deep fried Mars Bar.

I tried haddock (because that’s what I generally have from the chippy) and skate wing (for what can only be described as the “George Mallory reason”). Sitting at one of the little tables, drinking my can of cream soda and waiting for my fish to be cooked I did feel a little silly, as clearly most of Mr Chips’ customers treat it as a conventional chippy – drop in, pick up their food and then go. I felt equally silly trying to hack through freshly fried batter with an inadequate plastic knife and fork – although it’s a compliment to the batter to say that when I tried to get a plastic knife through it I rather suspected that the knife would break first.

Anyway, enough of these quibbles: what was it like? The skate was odd – I’ve never ordered it in a chip shop before and I can safely say I probably won’t again. A lot of that is about the fish, not the fryer: the challenge of getting the batter and the flesh away from the cartilage was a little too much like hard work, and not quite worth the effort. But it didn’t feel like brilliant quality skate, either – perhaps I’ve been spoiled by all those pristine white fillets in restaurants but this was a little brown and forlorn, with some of the skin left on. Having said all that, the batter was just gorgeous – light, crispy and salty it broke away in fragments like shards of edible glass. The skate was freshly cooked, possibly because it’s not something most people order, but I do wonder if the batter would have been as good if I’d chosen something that had been sitting in the cabinet.

Fish

The haddock didn’t seem quite as crisp – I’m not sure whether it was cooked with the skate or taken out of the cabinet – but it was still respectable. The fish was flaky and perfectly cooked and the best bits of the batter had that bubbly crispness that reminds me of really good school dinners. On balance I liked it better than the skate, because when you’re eating comfort food there’s no point in leaving your comfort zone.

The chips were pretty decent chip shop chips. A little wan for my liking, although that might be a matter of personal taste, and with no crispy little fragments at the bottom to resist the softening effect of vinegar and make for the perfect final sour-salty-crunchy mouthful, but clearly from good quality potatoes and rather tasty. I didn’t try the curry sauce or the sweet and sour sauce (I rather regret that now, but teaming them with the skate wing in particular felt plain wrong) but the tomato sauce on the table was too sharp and vinegary to be Heinz. I didn’t mind, but ketchup purists might.

I also didn’t try the bubble tea – and I barely even know what it is, despite having Googled – but it would be remiss not to mention it as it’s a big part of what Mr Chips does (it even forms part of their website address, for goodness’ sake). So at the front are a wide range of, well, fruit flavoured balls you can lob into one of about twenty types of fruity or milky tea. Just writing all that makes me feel about three hundred: what’s wrong with just offering a red and a blue Slush Puppie, eh?

Service was neither rude nor effusive, but that’s fine. It’s a chippy, not the latest entry in the Michelin Guide. It was better than the service in the Reading branch of Harry Ramsden over twenty years ago, if that counts for anything, but from memory I’m not sure it does.

Dinner for two – two fish, two small chips and a couple of soft drinks – came to just over fifteen pounds. Exactly what you’d pay in a chippy, in fact, and if that looks on the expensive side it’s because the skate was about six quid. (I wanted to do a “sick squid” pun there but thought better of it: besides, squid is on the menu and you can get eight squid for three quid, at which point it stops being a joke and starts being a tongue twister.)

I don’t think that Mr Chips does enough to break that pattern that fish and chips is something you pick up and take home. In fairness to them, I’m not sure they’re trying to: it felt like a chippy that lets you eat in rather than an upmarket London joint like Kerbisher and Malt. It does decent, reasonably priced fish and chips, and if you were in town of an evening, in a hurry to eat something quick and you fancied fish and chips it would be the place to go. If I was, I would. But here’s the problem: how often is that really going to happen, do you think?

Mr Chips – 6.5
33 Oxford Road, RG1 7QG
0118 9582 666

http://www.mrchipsandbubbleteareading.co.uk/