Nirvana Spa, Sindlesham

I’ve never reviewed the French Horn in Sonning, for one specific reason. Not the prices, although when starters hover around the twenty pound mark and main courses edge closer to thirty it does get harder and harder to say “hang the expense”, convincingly at least. It’s not the faffiness of the menu, although the French Horn’s Habit of Capitalising Pretty Much Every Word does lend Proceedings a Weirdly Dickensian Feel. It’s not even the fact that the menu seems to have an asparagus with hollandaise sauce on it all year round at twenty quid (is it flying first class from Peru?).

No, the reason I haven’t gone to the French Horn is that I’m reliably informed it has a dress code, and I just don’t do dress codes. It feels like a throwback, and something about getting into my glad rags just really rankles. I mean, I’m the customer aren’t I? And it’s not like I’d turn up in a crop top or a string vest, hot pants or swimming shorts; I’ve eaten at lots of lovely restaurants just the right side of well turned out and never been turned away, but when somewhere pompously announces they have a Dress Code (those Dickensian capital letters again)? Count me out.

What that means is that Nirvana Spa is probably the only place I will ever review which does have a dress code. And when I say dress code, I mean that you eat your lunch or dinner in a lovely white fluffy robe, your towel nonchalantly draped over the back of your chair and – in my case – your trashy paperback perched on the table. And if you go on a warm day, like I did, you get to do all of this outside, beaming at everybody else, similarly attired. This must be a bit like how it feels to be in a cult, or live in California (or both), I’ve always thought.

Sometimes I review restaurants and I’ve had a bad day first. I love writing reviews, but it’s a bit like a job – admittedly a job I adore – and there are times when you go and your heart isn’t one hundred per cent in it. Things are crap at the office, or the car failed its MOT, or you’re out of sorts with a friend, or Britain has voted to leave the EU and you still have to go out, eat with an open mind, take photos and write hundreds of words about what it was like. Hopefully you can’t tell in the words or the rating, if I’ve done it properly.

Nirvana is the other way round, if anything – it’s hard not to be happy when your most difficult decisions that afternoon are whether to read Hello! or OK!, whether to have the honeycomb tiffin or the salted caramel ice cream in the Roman Room, whether to go to the hydrotherapy pool or snooze on the heated terra cotta loungers. How can you have a bad meal under those circumstances?

On the other hand, I went on a long-booked visit the Sunday after the referendum result, when there was a weird atmosphere across the country. That weekend was like waking up hungover with The Fear, not entirely sure what you’d said or done or to whom. To complete the irony, Nirvana’s owner had sent a controversial mail to members only that week “offering them the opportunity to read” an article he’d written about how Brexit was a very good thing (I half expected to arrive to find bunting everywhere). So, a happy place at a sad time: what would lunch be like?

The menu at Nirvana has two options – either all you can eat from the salad bar (which also features a number of hot options) for fourteen quid or the a la carte menu which has starters, sandwiches, salads and main courses. The salad bar is included if you visit as a day guest rather than a member and really, I ought to have eaten from it to give you a representative view. But I’m afraid I was in need of cheering up so I didn’t, although I can tell you from past experience that it’s not half bad (and especially impressive for vegetarians and vegans where it gives a range of choice you’d struggle to match elsewhere).

Instead I stuck to the menu, deciding to kick things off with a selection of artisan (everyone’s favourite ubiquitous, meaningless word) breads for two. I was denied the opportunity of doing this when they turned up at exactly the same time as the starters, but none the less they weren’t half bad, especially at less than two pounds. All warm, some slightly toasted, a good array with the dark malted one, studded with seeds, my particular favourite. Butter was at room temperature (which always helps) and it was nice to have olive oil and balsamic although, as so often, nowhere near enough.

NirvanaBread

The starters were less impressive. We’d both gone for salads and I wonder whether they had decided to prioritise virtue over taste. Smoked chicken salad was presented in a way almost deliberately calculated to underwhelm – a fan of smoked chicken on one side of the plate, your salad on the other. Not mixed at all, and the salad also appeared to be barely dressed at best. What’s a real shame about this is that it had potential to be a lovely starter if done better – the salad was full of firm peas and crunchy beans and would have been beautiful with a bit more dressing and the smoked chicken, although a tad wan and floppy, did set it all off nicely. I seem to recall that the menu at Nirvana specifically says that you can ask for your salad dressing to be left off completely; it’s a pity it doesn’t also give you the option to ask for it be glugged on with abandon.

NirvanaChicken

Similarly, the baked smoked salmon salad was an exercise in restraint. A handful of salad leaves lightly dressed, topped with a thinly sliced radish (singular, I’m guessing) with a few chunks of salmon dotted round the edge. I was expecting a tangible piece of salmon rather than these chilly fragments and considering it was the most expensive starter on the menu (nine quid, since you ask) it felt miserly. It came with a wedge of lemon, just in case you weren’t feeling bitter enough, and a few de-seeded slices of chilli, mixed in as an afterthought. If I’d made this myself with bits from M&S it would have cost half as much and been twice as big. A shame, because what there was was nice, refreshing and light. I was just glad we ordered the bread.

NirvanaSalmon

After all that the main course was a beautiful, delicious surprise. Fillet steak came with a delicious, nutty pearl barley risotto which I adored. I’ve had pearl barley risotto quite a lot in Prague for some reason but it doesn’t seem to crop up on menus here much, a shame because it has much more about it than conventional risotto often does. There was also a solitary carrot – fair enough, I suppose – and two beautifully sweet, shallots which had been cooked into softness. The fillet itself was rare, exactly as requested (I went back to CAU recently and they, a specialist steak restaurant, still seem unable to get this right: Nirvana 1, CAU 0) and although I would have liked it to have a little more flavour, the texture was terrific. Finally, drawing everything together, what the menu described as “oxtail sauce”, rich strands of oxtail strewn on top of the fillet and all over the pearl barley risotto. Sixteen pounds fifty for that lot, and one of the most interesting ways I’ve had fillet steak for a very long time; if this dish had been on the menu at a restaurant near me I’d already be trying to contrive an excuse to go back.

NirvanaBeef

I also wanted to check out the lighter options on the menu, so we ordered a pulled pork wrap. This was just lovely: the thin flour tortilla was rammed full of really good pulled pork (smoky and sweet without being sugary as it so often is) with fresh, crisp, contrasting coleslaw. I liked the fact that it was served warm, too – so different from a cold claggy sandwich. It cost as much as the salmon starter, but felt like considerably better value. It came with a small leafy salad I didn’t much care for with a squiggle of creamy dressing, but perhaps I was just saladed out by that point, if such a verb exists. It might not have looked much in comparison to the fillet steak, but I thoroughly enjoyed it all the same.

NirvanaPork

Nirvana isn’t the place to order a dessert; you’re there all day after all, and saving some room for an afternoon snack is one of the only ways to break up the delirious monotony of being a modern-day lotus eater. So we finished our drinks (a decent glass of New Zealand sauvignon blanc for me and a rose cava for my companion), charged the meal to a membership card and ambled off in the direction of an outdoor jacuzzi. Two courses, that bread selection and a couple of drinks came to a smidge under fifty-five pounds. That doesn’t include service at Nirvana, but all the service there is smiley and friendly, on the informal side but none the worse for that. If they were elated or devastated about Brexit, they certainly didn’t give it away.

As I sat in the outdoor jacuzzi, wishing they let you drink bubbly in there, I did briefly wonder about whether you could separate Nirvana’s food from the overall experience of being at a spa for the day. I’m not sure. If you picked the restaurant up and plonked it somewhere else, aside from being perturbed that all your fellow diners were in robes, I think you would like but not love the food. Not just that, but some of the pricing seems strangely generous (that fillet steak main), some arbitrarily expensive (the smoked salmon starter). As so often, I wonder about the wisdom of giving a rating; I love being at Nirvana, I love eating there and yet eating there isn’t quite the point. But then I decided I’d thought about it quite long enough – the world outside appeared to be either taking back control or falling to pieces, depending on who you believe – and before long I would have to leave my hermetically sealed bubble and go back to it. I was glad my phone, with access to constant news, was stowed away in a locker.

Later on I did go to the hydrotherapy pool, by the way. Some of the massage jets weren’t working, and many of the handles you use to cling to the side were broken off. It’s been that way since the start of the year: it’s a shame the owner feels like he has better things to do than fix it.

Nirvana Spa – 7.3
Mole Road, Sindlesham, RG41 5DJ
0118 989 7500

https://nirvanaspa.co.uk/

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The Royal Oak, Paley Street

In nearly three years this is only the second time I’ve reviewed an establishment with a Michelin star. Part of that is because they’re all a little way outside Reading, and part of it is that I’ve never been entirely convinced they’re my cup of tea. I’ve eaten in a fair few, here and overseas, and they’re such a mixed bag that I’m not entirely sure what a star means any more. I’ve had beautiful meals in the Cotswolds and truly ordinary meals in London in starred establishments, and I’ve had wonderful evenings in many places bafflingly untroubled by Michelin.

My opinion has also been coloured, I think, by l’Ortolan (which describes itself as “Reading’s Michelin starred restaurant”). It’s a classic example of what you used to have to do to get a star – a beautiful old building in the countryside with a mind-boggling wine list, efficient but soulless service and a fiddly, precise menu of dishes which look better than they taste and where, even if you order well, there’s always a sense that you’re left with a dent in your wallet which doesn’t quite correspond to the amount of fun you’ve had.

My favourite Michelin starred restaurant was a place called Medlar at the unfashionable end of the Kings Road in Chelsea. Three courses during the week was a crazy twenty-five pounds, the service was lovely and friendly, the wine list didn’t feel like it was packed full of booby traps… and the food? Well, the food was plain delicious. When it lost its star (and I have no idea why it did) rather than making me think any less of it it reinforced my feeling that the Michelin inspectors and I were not fated to get along. But I’ve always been on the lookout for somewhere like Medlar closer to home, and that’s why I ended up making the half hour drive to Paley Street, not far from Maidenhead, to give the Royal Oak a try.

One thing I liked about the Royal Oak from the start was that it still looked like a pub. Some pubs with aspirations aren’t really pubs, but there was still a bar and a front room and some cosy seats. I’m not sure how many people would go there just for a drink, but I appreciated the pretence – even if it was just pretence – that you could. I also liked the fact that we were seated in the pub proper, handsome high-backed chairs and a beamed ceiling, rather than in a sterile extension (I’ve been to the Hind’s Head and the Wellington Arms, similar establishments you could say, and had exactly that experience).

The menu was extensive, attractive and reasonable – two courses for twenty-five pounds or three courses for thirty. Slightly cheaper than, say, l’Ortolan, but more importantly the menu was full of good ideas and hard choices. It nodded more to being a pub than you might expect, so there were Scotch eggs and pies alongside the lobster and turbot.

The wine list was attractive, too. I have no doubt that there were plenty of eye-watering options on there but there were also wines by the 125ml glass or by the 500ml carafe, lots of easy ways to drink with your meal without being stung. By contrast, when I went to l’Ortolan I actually ordered a bottle knowing I would leave some of it because it was still a better deal than wine by the glass. At half-one on a Saturday afternoon the place was pretty full, with a varied clientele (one chap, getting ready to leave, ordered a taxi to Sunningdale which gives you a good idea that there’s money sloshing round these parts).

We started off with a couple of things from the pre-starters menu – again, I liked the more honest pricing that you pay for these if you want them rather than being given an amuse bouche and having the cost concealed elsewhere. The selection of bread was gorgeous – the highlight was a glazed brioche packed full of cheese and a flatbread with fennel and salt crystals which was deceptively light and airy (the other two, with rosemary and onion and with caraway seed, were less impressive but still very good). One pound fifty for that little lot, which puts most Reading restaurants I can think of to shame. The Scotch egg was good but not incredible – firm coarse sausagemeat wrapped round a quail’s egg for three pounds fifty. I’m probably a Philistine to say so, but Dolce Vita’s is better.

OakNibbles

One thing these establishments always get right is timing. You’re never turned or rushed, and they have an almost intuitive grasp of when you would like your next course to turn up. When it did, it featured one of the highlights of the meal. Lobster raviolo was a stunning thing. Normally I’d potentially feel cheated by a solitary raviolo, but not here – packed all the way to the perimeter with beautiful lobster meat, the pasta just the right thickness, no padding. The small quenelle of chilli jam on top added just enough kick.

But underneath was arguably the real treasure of the dish – samphire and still slightly squeaky leeks (no fennel I could detect, despite what the menu said) in a bisque which was partway between a sauce and a somewhat knobby foam. It reminded me of that wonderful moment at the end of moules marinière when all that’s left is the sauce and a spoon and I always find myself wondering how much of it I can guzzle before I look very greedy indeed. No such problem here with this super-intense, super-concentrated sauce, so I got all of the ecstasy and none of the shame. There was a two pound supplement for this dish, which is so little that I almost didn’t bother mentioning it.

OakLobster

I make no apologies for ordering something as prosaic as chicken liver parfait as the other starter. I love it, and whilst I know it’s the stuff of set menus everywhere I really enjoy its earthy dirtiness. And so it was with this version – the parfait itself was rich and slightly filthy, sprinkled with the ubiquitous sea salt crystals (at last! A restaurant fashion I actually approve of). It came with a decent amount of toasted brioche – so nice, for a change, to be given enough bread rather than facing those final few mouthfuls where the only way to finish it off is to pile it an inch thick. The pear chutney added a welcome hint of sweetness, although my companion did tell me if she hadn’t been driving she’d have ordered a Sauternes with it. Quite right too.

Waiting long enough for the mains to turn up meant that I saw all the dishes I nearly ordered floating past my table, a little conveyor belt of potential regrets. I had been sorely tempted to go for the rabbit and ham hock pie, but I instead chose the iberico pork chop. It was a beautiful-looking dish, but somehow it didn’t quite work for me. The pork was cooked through – too well for my liking, no pinkness at all – and completely encrusted in herbs, which felt like a needless distraction. It was a bit like it had been mugged by a jar of Schwartz. The soft caramelised apples underneath were lovely but the celeriac puree didn’t feel like it added much and the fennel looked scorched rather than braised, so the sweetness didn’t quite come out. It felt like it was crying out for greenery, and I was relieved to have ordered some chips with it (they, incidentally, were exemplary). A five pound supplement for this dish, which if anything just added to my wish that I’d gone for the pie instead.

OakChop

Turbot on the other hand was a delight. It was described on the menu as “roast turbot with peas and broad beans” and was almost (not quite) as simple as that description makes it sound. A firm piece of turbot, served on a beautiful mix of peas, broad beans, parsley, cabbage and cream. Nothing mucked around with or overdressed, just the right ingredients in the right ratio. It felt like a dish halfway between spring and summer – much like most of the last month, come to think of it. I was glad they brought a spoon so I could polish off the last of the delicious sauce, although it did make me wish I’d saved some bread (a lesson I have never learned, despite eating in restaurants for years).

OakTurbot

The dessert menu was the only place where I didn’t feel spoiled for choice. There was one standout dish, but because I wasn’t driving and had wandered more extensively round the wine list I gave way and found myself desperately looking for a Plan B. When it arrived it looked pretty and tasted pleasant, but it didn’t feel like it lived up to some of what had gone before. Crème fraiche mousse was light and clean, the strawberries were bright and sweet and the little discs of shortbread were pleasant. It was all pleasant, I suppose, but I wanted more than pleasant. I felt like I was eating a cheesecake that had been deconstructed to the point of inoffensiveness, and that wasn’t really what desserts should be about. Only the mint sorbet on top – tasting every bit as green and fresh as it looked – held my interest.

OakMousse

To make matters worse, while I ploughed through this I had to watch my companion eating the “Snicker”. This was not your usual Snickers bar (just look at that photo! Oh my goodness). It wasn’t straightforward working out what each layer was but it seemed to be (concentrate!) toffee sponge, peanut mousse, piped chocolate mousse, toffee sauce, peanuts and peanut ice cream, all topped off with a slightly over the top slice of tempered dark chocolate. Listing all that rather misses the main point which was that it was utterly, utterly delicious. My guest ate it with a mixture of gusto and gloating, although she helpfully allowed me a couple of spoonfuls for quality control purposes (and, quite possibly, to stop me whining). That blend of sweet and salt will stay with me for a long time, possibly even after I can no longer remember anything else about the meal. What I struggled to understand was how a half-eaten one went back from one of the tables. What kind of monster would order that and not be able to finish it?

OakSnicker

We’ve come to the bit where I’d usually talk about the wine. Now, my knowledge of wine is pretty limited and the benefit of having a bottle is that you only have to inadequately describe one wine. Here, regrettably, I’m going to have to do that with – count them – four different wines. So, here goes: the Australian Riesling was just fruity and sweet enough to get me through the wait for my starter, and much less intimidating than its pale colour led me to fear it might be. The Chablis was crisp and clean and played a similar role, although my companion had to nurse it for longer. The New Zealand sauvignon blanc I had with my raviolo was punchier and more metallic, but still very tasty. Finally, the salice salentino I chose to go with the iberico chop was a splendid balance of fruit and smoke and did me very nicely indeed. The first two were around seven pounds for a 125ml glass, the second two closer to a fiver. Like I said, a good wine list to get lost in.

Service was actually quite reminiscent of more obviously starred establishments, to the extent that it was almost incongruous. So everyone was pleasant and efficient but ever so slightly aloof. I didn’t mind that, but it still felt the wrong side of the fine dining divide for my liking. Lunch for two – snacks, a three course meal and four glasses of wine – came to one hundred and thirteen pounds, which includes one of those optional-but-only-if-you-are-prepared-to-make-a-scene 12.5% service charges. I often read reviews saying “yes, it’s Michelin starred but it’s possible to eat cheaply”. Don’t believe those people. It’s just not. Not without going and having a miserable time.

Did I have a miserable time? No. I had a nice time. I had a nice time in a nice pub eating nice food, and maybe as so often with restaurants that do well in the guidebooks the problem is one of preconceptions. I’m reminded of Skye Gyngell, who won a Michelin star at Petersham Nurseries and wished she could give it back because it meant that punters started turning up with Expectations. If I had gone without expectations I might have really liked the Royal Oak. I managed to steer clear of having expectations with a capital E, but I still thought I’d be ever so slightly more impressed. Maybe this is just further evidence that me and Mr Michelin are never going to be bosom buddies. Still, no matter: a beautiful drive in the country, an attractive pub, a thoroughly decent meal at the end of it. If you go you’ll probably enjoy yourself. For myself, I’m just sitting here thinking about the road less travelled. The pie less ordered. So it goes.

The Royal Oak – 7.7
Paley Street, Littlefield Green, Maidenhead, SL6 3JN
01628 620541

http://www.theroyaloakpaleystreet.com/

The Sushi Maki, Newbury

I spotted The Sushi Maki earlier this year, on a trip to Newbury to pay a return visit to Brebis, one of my restaurants of last year. I literally did a double-take when I walked past it, on the market square: A sushi restaurant? In Newbury? Not only that, but it looked lovely – lots of little tables with people huddled round them on tasteful wooden seats which looked like a cross between chairs and stools, along with a row of diners lined up at the bar. It was bright and buzzing on a Saturday night, and I did that thing I often do when I pass a restaurant I like the look of: I slowed down to a stop outside the menu, read it and made an extensive mental note before moving on.

This is a pipe dream I know, but I occasionally daydream about getting some cool Edible Reading business cards printed and dropping them off surreptitiously in restaurants and cafes to try and spread the word. Although I can picture the front perfectly (the lion logo, printed on crisp good quality card stock) the words on the back are harder to imagine. Would it just have the website link? A quick biography of some description? One thing you could definitely include in the blurb, though, is this: Will travel for sushi.

Well, if you live in Reading you kind of have to (once you’ve tired of Yo!, anyway). But I don’t find that a hardship, because I just adore the stuff. Done well, sushi is a real art form – in the literal sense – and so once I clapped eyes on The Sushi Maki I knew that going back was inevitable, if only to see whether it could supplant Misugo, my go-to sushi restaurant in Windsor, in my affections. After all, Newbury is an awful lot easier to get to – a nicer train trip, out through the beautiful West Berkshire countryside, with none of the horrors of changing at Slough.

Returning for a weekend lunch visit the place was much more serene, but if anything with less people you could see even better what a little, tasteful restaurant it was: a handful of high tables, seats at the window and along the bar, capacity for barely more than twenty people. Smart without trying too hard, a look I particularly admire. Each place was laid out with a small bowl for soy sauce, a red paper napkin and a pair of chopsticks – just the right side of the divide between pared back and austere.

I once read somewhere that in Japan restaurants specialise, so you’ll get a sushi restaurant, or a yakitori restaurant, or a ramen joint. In that sense if no other, The Sushi Maki is authentic: the menu is small, without the distraction of bento boxes, rice or noodle dishes, katsu curry or big plates of tempura. Instead it really is practically all sushi and sashimi, mostly familiar combinations with a few daily specials up on the blackboard behind the bar.

Now, from here on in it starts to get tricky. Much as I love sushi, it turns out that it’s quite difficult to write about, mainly because it’s all variations on a theme – rice, fish and, well, some other stuff. And there’s only so much you can do to lift the monotony, especially when the main other thing you’re eating is sashimi which is made of, err, the same fish you’ve just had in the sushi, most likely. So if what follows is a bit too much like a list I’m sorry, and you’ll have to take my word for it that it was more fun to eat than it was to read about.

We started with the sushi roll selection – four lots of four sushi rolls, the daily special up on the chalkboard. Some of this was downright beautiful like my favourite, the crunchy tempura prawn, all light clean flavours, a swoosh of teriyaki on top with – and I’ve never tried this before – what seemed to be crisped rice on the outside. The same technique was used in the spicy tuna roll, which was equally tasty (although it looked like there was mayonnaise inside, which I found a tad strange). Snow crab and cucumber rolls had that jarring mayo too but even so they were a delicate delight, with shreds of crab meat and laser cut slim batons of crunchy cucumber, specks of white and black sesame seed dotted around the outside (how I love sesame!). Last but not least, the salmon and tobiko roll was probably the closest to the kind of thing you’d pick off the conveyor at Yo!, salmon and avocado on the inside but loads of tobiko – bright orange roe – on the outside (not everyone will like the idea of that, but I take a certain childlike glee in feeling those tiny spheres burst between my teeth). That selection, sixteen pieces for fourteen pounds, felt like decent value.

SushiMaki1

We did go for a second round of sushi, out of pure gluttony. I had to have the spider crab roll because soft shell crab is one of my favourite things in all the world (how do these poor creatures survive when they’re so fragile and so delicious? I’ve always wondered) and it didn’t disappoint. The crab was lightly battered and fried – fairly recently, I’d guess, because it was still warm – and formed the centrepiece of big, thick sushi rolls topped with more of the teriyaki sauce and, in something of a kitchen sink approach, more of that tobiko. Only the avocado maki disappointed – the avocado was in big buttery chunks, but the maki weren’t well rolled and the seaweed didn’t quite meet perfectly. Still, bad avocado maki is better than no avocado maki, or indeed good most other things (except Frazzles. Gotta love Frazzles).

SushiMakiCrab

Oh, and we also had something called “sunshine roll”, mainly because of the name, with sweet prawn and cucumber inside, pieces of salmon sashimi draped on top and some more teriyaki sauce and tobiko to finish it off. This was so big that biting into it would have caused it to collapse, so instead I simply distracted my companion (“is that a wolf spirit fleece that woman is wearing?”), unhooked my jaw and gave it my best shot. I just about pulled it off. Anyway, the sunshine roll was quite nice, if not standout, and by this point I did feel like I was just eating something which felt like a slightly different permutation of everything I had eaten before. And that was the problem with the sushi in general, I think. It was nice. It was pretty. It was delicate. But it was all a bit lacking in distinct personality. Or maybe I just ordered too much of it, although I’m struggling to process the concept of too much sushi.

I also tried the sashimi, out of a combination of completism and gluttony. It was all good quality, beautiful sections of marbled fish and, just like the sushi, tastefully presented. But here I was mainly struck by how much you paid for how little. So the usual suspects, the salmon and tuna, were both lovely specimens – but three pieces of the latter cost you five pounds fifty. The mackerel (three pieces for a fiver) was also delicious and came topped with spring onions in soy, one of the only attempts to jazz up the presentation at all. Again, I liked it but I was very aware that down the road in Windsor you get more sashimi for less money, and you also know it comes from the fishmonger practically next door.

SushiMaki2

The drinks were good. I had a couple of thimbles of sake (50ml each, apparently) that had a gorgeous almost sweet taste which became even better once I’d started eating the sushi, all smooth with just a hint of banana. It was at room temperature and personally I’d have preferred it chilled, but maybe that’s me being a sake heathen. My companion has a thing about drinking beer with sushi – your guess is as good as mine – and apparently the Asahi was lovely. Service throughout was polite and quiet, almost shy, although neither the waitress nor the chef appeared to be Japanese (and neither was the name on the license, to my Western mind). The restaurant was busy with groups, lone people and a fair bit of takeaway trade but I never felt ignored or neglected and the total bill for rather a lot of food, plus two drinks each, was sixty-four pounds excluding tip.

So, a nice lunch then. But nice enough? Hmm, probably not quite: at some point in the meal – possibly in between the first batch of food we ordered and the second, failing that definitely between finishing the second batch and the bill arriving – I started to realise that The Sushi Maki was not going to become my go-to sushi place. It’s not a bad restaurant, by any means, and if it was in Reading I would probably go there quite often. The people of Newbury are lucky to have it right in the centre of town, and I can see it would be a good place for a light lunch, but I couldn’t imagine spending an evening there or it being a destination of itself. I found myself longing for the low tables at Misugo, the atmospheric lighting, the wider menu. Eventually, I just found the stools a little bit too high and uncomfortable, the tables a little bit too cramped, the sushi a little too pricey, and I’m afraid that’s the moment – pardon the pun, but it’s been coming for the whole review – when the scales fell from my eyes.

The Sushi Maki – 7.3
23 Market Place, Newbury, RG14 5AA
01635 551702

http://www.thesushimaki.co.uk/

Coppa Club, Sonning

This is my second attempt to review Coppa Club. The first time, I went on a winter night last year only to be escorted to a table for two next to the big French doors, a table so cold that it could turn tomato soup into gazpacho in minutes. I asked to be moved and slack-jawed confusion broke out among the black-shirted serving staff. Minutes later I was told this wasn’t possible, even though I was pretty sure I could see other tables were vacant. When I said thanks but no thanks and voted with my feet, I’m not sure they even noticed me leaving. Perhaps there was nothing they could do, but it would have felt nice if they’d tried, suggested a drink in the bar or pointed out when a suitable table might become available. I couldn’t work out whether they were fazed or unfussed, but either way I was in no hurry to go back.

In the meantime, friends of mine have enthused about the place. More for lunches than dinners, I was told, but even so I got a steady stream of positive feedback which made me think it was time to give it another chance. And it’s the kind of place I see appearing in my Twitter feed all the time – lovely pictures of well-presented dishes, not to mention one of the most attractive dining rooms I’ve seen in a long time. So eventually, now that the days are getting warmer, I decided I could leave it no longer. Besides, after the delights of all you can eat dining I found myself pining for something clever and delicate.

And yes, it really is a beautiful room. It ticks all the boxes without looking studied or cynical – a bit of exposed brickwork, granted, but some lovely furniture in muted greens and blues, button back banquettes and beautiful burnished geometric metal lampshades (no bare swinging hipster bulbs here, thank you very much). It feels like someone has thrown money at this place – how very Sonning – until it started to bounce off, and that prosperity starts out very alluring, although by the end of the evening I could see how it might get a little smug.

Turning up on a Sunday night I was delighted to get one of the booths. There’s a blue banquette running along the middle of the room but the booths, which are closer to the exposed brickwork and the bar, were nicer and cosier. Quite roomy for two people, too, although if there were four of you in one you’d need to get along reasonably well. That seemed a bit of a theme in general, actually – looking at the tables for six I found myself thinking that they’d more sensibly seat four. Perhaps that’s why, on my previous visit, they weren’t prepared to find anywhere else for a table for two to eat. Perhaps, too, packing diners in is how Coppa Club could afford to spend so much money on refurbishing the place (or perhaps I’m being a bit harsh, in which case I’m sure some of you will tell me).

I liked the menu enormously, and it felt like it had just enough things to pick between without being bewildering. It reminded me a lot of places like Jamie’s Italian, so I wasn’t entirely surprised later when doing some research to discover that the chef at Coppa Club has worked there. It’s a more compact menu than at Jamie’s, but still presented a few complicated decisions – to share or not to share, to order pasta, that kind of thing. Horse trading took longer than usual, which was just as well because getting anybody interested enough to take an order did too.

Now, normally I talk about service right at the end of a review as part of wrapping things up but with Coppa Club I really feel I have to make an exception, because it was so uniformly poor every step of the way. Don’t get me wrong – it was friendly and affable, but beyond that they managed to get pretty much everything wrong. You could never get any attention, despite it not being a busy night. The starters turned up immediately after they were ordered, at the same time as the nibbles we’d ordered to tide us over. Getting someone to bring the bill at the end was a challenge, as was paying it once it had been brought to the table. Many of the serving staff seemed to have been trained to completely ignore customers altogether, usually while walking past or near their tables, and when I left after what felt like an eternity settling up I saw one of the waiters chatting to his friends at the bar.

I don’t take any pleasure in saying this, but it was especially jarring considering what a lovely room it was and how good some of the food turned out to be. And that’s not even getting on to some of the things which, although they bugged me, might not be deal-breakers for you. I regularly saw waiters leaning right across diner A to serve diner B, something which (in my book at least) you really should not do. Another thing, which may sound minor to you, was about where we were sitting. The booths were open on one side (the side nearest the other tables) but closed off on the other, and behind them was a little corridor section where the serving staff could get water, wine, glasses and so forth. Our waiter kept taking orders or handing us wine over that barrier, which just felt downright strange, like talking to your neighbour over the garden fence without ever having been introduced. Perhaps this is a new trend in informal dining which has passed me by, but I just didn’t like it: it felt more like laziness.

Let’s move on to the happier subject of the food, because some of this was really pretty good. The nibbles – deep fried gnocchi with parmesan and truffle oil – were pleasant (although I’d have enjoyed them more if they’d arrived some time before the starters – sorry to keep going on about that), little breaded nuggets of tasty starch. The truffle oil, as so often, added an olfactory tease that never followed through when you actually ate the food, but never mind.

CoppaGnocchi

Better was the fritto misto – a very generous helping of squid and white fish, seasoned and dusted in what might have been semolina flour, along with a solitary prawn and a slice of scallop. This was very nice stuff – far better than many places’ efforts at fritto misto – and my favourite bit was the small pieces of squid, all crispy tentacles with that rough, savoury coating, texture triumphing over taste. The tartare sauce it came with was quite nice but maybe a little too sophisticated, too Sonning, for my taste. I reckoned it needed more vinegar and acid, more gherkin or capers or – starting to drool now – both, but I’m a sucker for pickles and it might just be me being a Philistine.

CoppaFritto

The other starter, “beets and ricotta bruschetta”, was lovely; a single slice of ciabatta-like bread with a layer of bright pink whipped ricotta topped with cubes of beetroot. That alone would have been enough to meet the job description, but there was a little more: wafer thin beetroot crisps in red and gold on top to add another level of texture, then some pretty salad leaves dressed with olive oil (I think) and cheese shavings, because cheese shavings make everything better. I liked it a lot: refreshingly clean but with that earthiness that beetroot brings, all dark and zingy. It was a dish that looked like winter but tasted of spring, and it made me long for longer days.

CoppaBruschetta

The starters had come so quickly that I was worried I would be out of Coppa Club in next to no time, but thankfully they slowed it down for the mains. If anything, this gave me and my companion a chance to play spot the difference between my glass of entry level Syrah and her glass of more expensive Shiraz (we couldn’t really find one, which is maybe why I try not to say too much about wine). It also meant that the mains arrived pretty much when we were ready, probably the only piece of good timing about the whole evening.

I’d found choosing a main at Coppa Club surprisingly difficult. My companion had already bagged the pizza, having pasta as a main felt a bit too monotonous, ordering the burger felt like it would have been a poor show and I wasn’t in the mood for a whole fish on the bone, lovely though that sounded. So the lamb chops – described as “scorched fingers” on the menu, perhaps that’s a draw for some people – won by default and, in hindsight, I’m delighted that they did. This was a dish for people who like meat and fat – three long, thin, chops with a square of tender meat at the end but, more importantly, rich seams of fatty meat along the bone, caramelised, melting and utterly delicious. I wouldn’t describe myself as the world’s biggest carnivore (although I know several people with a decent shot at that title), but some nights you just want red meat and iron and this was that night and that dish was in the right place at the right time.

CoppaChops

It wasn’t perfect, mind you. The chops were so long and thin that eating them was unwieldy, as was pushing the bone out of the way when you were done. They came with watercress, which I can take or leave, and a salsa verde which fell into the same trap as the tartare sauce. I could admire it, this glossy smear of fresh mint and oil, but I wanted some vinegar in there, some sharpness to stop my mouth being coated with fat (I’m well aware, writing this, that I’ve gone to Coppa Club and said that two of the dishes could have been improved with jars of sauce from Colman’s: judge away). What did improve the lamb, immeasurably, were the “rustic potatoes” – little roasted potatoes, all crunchy corners and fluffy insides, festooned with Parmesan and shot through with green shards of fried sage; if they’d put those on the “nibbles” section of the menu I might have started and stopped right there.

CoppaPots

I really wanted to try pizza too, to see if Coppa Club was up there with all those pizzerias I daydream of dropping in Reading, and whether the “slow proved, sourdough base” would live up to billing. Well, sadly not really. The base was too thick in the wrong places, no bubbly edges and a stodgy, rather soggy middle. It tasted decent enough, but it was lacking that chewy, moreish flavour I expected from a sourdough base. There was a bit too much cheese, in my opinion, although I guess that’s better than the alternative. I went for the “Coppa Club Hot” and the ‘nduja on it was delicious, super-intense, punchy, salty, almost acrid. If only there had been more – I know a little goes a long way but three small teaspooned dots of it across the whole pizza still felt a little mean. The spicy salami was less successful, a bit more simple in flavour (although still with loads of heat) but personally I’d have liked it a little more crisp; maybe that would have happened if the pizza hadn’t been so thick. My guest didn’t eat more than half – after three slices I was told that it didn’t seem worth eating the rest of what was essentially a dolled up pepperoni pizza.

CoppaPizza

We didn’t stay for dessert – nothing quite appealed enough and by then I had been sufficiently irritated by my experience that I was quite comfortable leaving. A shame really, as one might have helped to tide me over in the inordinate wait for getting and paying the bill. Even waiting to ask for the bill, dessert menus in front of us, was an odd experience; one of the waiters cleared my folded napkin as he passed our table without actually speaking to us or making eye contact (which is quite hard to do, I think). In the end we had to call out to a passing waiter, who seemed to be cleaning up rather than actually, um, waiting. Dinner for two came to fifty pounds near as damnit and – and I almost never, ever do this – I did not tip.

At the end of the meal my companion and I were discussing Coppa Club, not entirely sure what to make of it. I said I preferred it to Jamie’s Italian, my companion thought Jamie’s was better. We both agreed that if Coppa Club was in an easier location to get to we’d probably go back, but that it wasn’t quite enough to prompt a trip out to Sonning. Above all, the service baffled us both – how can a place work so hard at everything else and get that wrong? Since coming back, mulling it over and sitting down to write this, the power of Google has revealed several enthusiastic reviews of Coppa Club, with a few bloggers going and thoroughly enjoying it. Some of them had some of the dishes I had, so it was strange to read people waxing lyrical over the fritto misto, or the lamb chops. Only one of the reviews specifically said that it was comped, so it might be that people spending their own money really loved Coppa Club and I – with my slight grouchiness about service and seating, with a rustic potato on my shoulder – just took against it. But I wasn’t won over; there’s something irksome about a place that, however nice it might be, isn’t as good as it thinks it is.

Coppa Club – 6.8
The Great House, Thames Street, Sonning, RG4 6UT
0118 9219890

http://coppaclub.co.uk/

Cosmo

How do I sum up the experience of eating in Cosmo? How can I possibly distil such a complex experience, so many different types of food, into a single review? Well, maybe I should start at the end of the meal. There were four of us round the table (I know: people actually wanted to come with me!), looking at our largely empty plates, feeling a mixture of remorse and queasy fear about how our bodies would cope with what came next. Tim, chosen for this mission because he is one of the biggest gluttons I know, paused for a second and said “I don’t think this place is going to help anybody have a healthy relationship with food.”

There was further silence and the rest of us tried to digest what he had said (trying to digest, it turned out, would be a theme over the next forty-eight hours).

“I don’t really feel like I’ve eaten in a restaurant this evening.” Tim went on. “I just feel like I’ve spent time smashing food into my mouth.”

I looked down at the leftovers on my plate – a solitary Yorkshire pudding stuffed with crispy duck and topped with hoi sin (it was my friend Ben’s idea and it sounded like a brilliant plan at the time) and started to laugh hysterically. It might have been all the sugar in the Chinese food, the sweet white crystals on top of the crispy seaweed, but I felt, in truth, a little delirious.

“Nobody should leave a restaurant feeling this way.” said Ben, possibly the other biggest glutton I’ve ever met and a man who has never, to the best of my knowledge, left a restaurant entirely replete. We all nodded, too full to speak. I can’t remember who got onto this topic, but there was a general consensus that we were all dreading our next visit to the bathroom and then, having said all that and paid up, we waddled out onto Friar Street and into the night.

Alternatively, maybe I should sum up the experience of eating at Cosmo by recounting the conversations on Facebook the next day. I won’t name names, but we had I had to sleep with a hot water bottle on my belly to aid with digestion, along with I still feel ill, not to forget the more evocative my burps taste of MSG and – look away now if you’re easily shocked – I just did something approximating to a poo and it wasn’t pretty. Tim was feeling so grotty that he worked from home, all of us felt icky and found ourselves daydreaming about salad or vegetables – you don’t see many vegetables at Cosmo, you know – and hoping for some time in the future when the meal was a distant memory.

The thing is that if I started to sum up Cosmo that way you might just assume that I went with some greedy pigs, we all ate too much, made ourselves poorly and have nobody but ourselves to blame. So maybe I should start more conventionally at the point where we walked in and were escorted to a Siberian table for four right at the back, close to the emergency exit, far from daylight. You go in past a display of bread and vegetables in little baskets (I can only assume this is a heroic piece of misdirection, or some kind of in-joke) and then you wind up in some kind of windowless all-you-can-eat dungeon.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of Cosmo, may I first express my undying envy before going on to explain: it is indeed a gigantic buffet where you can consume as much food as you like for two hours before your time is up and you are asked to leave. Serving staff constantly circle the room while you are up at the cooking stations, whisking away your old plate so that when you sit down you can almost forget just how much food you have consumed. I bet you’re getting peckish just reading this, right?

All major cuisines are represented, provided your idea of major cuisines is largely Chinese and Indian. There are other things on offer – sushi, pizza (or, as Tim referred to it, “random pizza”, when he stuck a slice of one right next to his crispy duck pancake), a big wodge of unappetising pink gammon you were invited to carve yourself, something described as “beef stew”, I could go on – but the general theme is pan-Asian. The “pan” might be short for “pandemic”.

The experience of eating at Cosmo is very different from a traditional meal where you all sit down at a table, decide what you want and then chat away while someone cooks and brings it to you (it’s very different in the sense that Ryanair, for instance, is very different from British Airways). I would say there were very few moments where all four of us were sitting down at once: instead we were frequently prowling from one cooking station to the other, finding things to stick on our fresh plates, wondering if our choices went with one another, wondering whether it mattered, wondering where Ben got the idea of sticking crispy duck in a Yorkshire pudding like a massive demented vol-au-vent (You haven’t lived until you’ve put sushi, Yorkshire pudding and rogan josh together on the same plate said someone on Twitter – hi Pete! – in the run-up to my visit: all I can say is I still haven’t lived, and I’m fine with that).

When we were talking, most of the conversation revolved around one of three topics, namely “this dish isn’t half as bad as I thought it would be”, “try this, it’s truly atrocious” or, and this one was mainly led by me, “what possessed you to put crispy duck in a Yorkshire pudding?”

When you get to Cosmo you’re a bit like a kid in a sweet shop at first (although who over the age of six wants to have dinner in a sweetshop?). The other way that the experience is different to a normal meal out is that as the evening wears on, the mood gets slightly more deranged. Maybe it’s the cumulative effect of all that sugar, maybe it’s the body’s way of expressing Vitamin C withdrawal symptoms, or maybe it’s my fault because I collated a list of all the things people had recommended and I was insistent that we try them all. It was like an I-Spy book or something, and I directed people with military precision: You, go get some sushi. Tim, check out the prawns with ginger and spring onion. I’ll hit the teppanyaki station. Meet you back here in a couple of minutes. All right, let’s move out! If that doesn’t sound like fun then take it from me, the element of co-ordinated planning and being in it together was probably the most fun thing about the evening (well, that and bonding over our bowel movements the next day).

Finally, let’s talk about the food. Between us we ate so many dishes that it’s difficult to go into forensic detail about everything, but as a general rule I’d say the things I expected to be good were poor and the things I expected to be dreadful weren’t quite as bad as I feared. For instance I had the teppanyaki station recommended to me, so I made sure I had some seared scallops (or, more literally, a scallop cut into thin slices and griddled) and some very thin steak wrapped around enoki mushrooms, also griddled. The scallops were pleasant if basic, the enoki tasted of nothing but oil and the steak, if it tasted of anything, tasted of oily mushrooms. Similarly, I went to the grill station and asked for something off the bone and they recommended the pork. It still had a bone in it and I watched the chef slice it on a board before handing it to me. It was some miraculous cut of pork that was made only of bone, fat and crackling, presumably from a pig which had spent its entire life lying down.

CosmoTeppan

What else? Well, Tim pronounced the samosas and spring rolls as “rubbish” (nothing in them, he said), an adjective he also applied to his lamb rogan josh. I tried a bit of the latter and I tended to agree, the lamb and the sauce felt like they had spent their whole lives apart before being stirred together at the last minute, no depth of flavour in the meat, nothing you couldn’t do yourself with a jar of sauce from Loyd Grossman. The tandoori chicken was apparently dry. The most derision was reserved for the “crab claw”, something made of goodness knows what, a wodge of awful, indeterminate homogenous beige material not dissimilar to a washing up sponge. Tim disliked his so much he insisted that Ben try one and Ben, a man I have never known to turn down food, had a mouthful and abandoned the rest. The sushi was also judged to be pretty grim, claggy and flavourless, soggy seaweed and all.

CosmoBuns

There were some slightly better dishes. The chicken satay was nice enough, although certainly no better than chicken satay I’ve had at dozens of other places in Reading and beyond. The stir fried green beans were thoroughly enjoyable, although that might just have been the novelty value of eating something that was actually green. We all quite liked the char siu and the black pepper chicken, although again not enough to tell people to make a beeline for Cosmo just to eat them. The steamed pork buns divided opinion – some of us liked them, some found them just too sweet. Again, China Palace undoubtedly does them better, and China Palace is itself arguably nothing special. Tim liked the pad Thai, and Ben seemed not to mind the southern fried chicken. The crispy seaweed was lovely, but then I could eat crispy seaweed all day. Also in the Chinese section were some miniature hash browns with spring onion: they were about as out of place as I was.

CosmoPork

Before I went to Cosmo someone very wise on Twitter – hello Dan! – said that he treated the place as an all you can eat duck pancake meal. I think this might be the best way to approach Cosmo: again, it was okay rather than amazing but perhaps the trick is to find a dish that never lets you down and stock up on that. We all started on this dish and a couple of us went back to it later on when the other options ran out of appeal. There was also crispy pork, also for pancakes, and I was a little concerned that the pork and the duck didn’t taste quite as different as they could have done. Still, even if it was a bunch of faintly meaty fluffy strands it hit the spot in a way that most of the other dishes couldn’t.

CosmoDuck

“It’s important not to be snobby about Cosmo.” said Ben towards the end of the meal as he ate his trio of miniature desserts, three little sponge cakes (he was the only person to have any dessert – he wasn’t a big fan of them, though). Maybe he’s right: there’s undoubtedly a place for this kind of restaurant and a market for it, which is why there are queues outside it at the weekend. It’s cheap – all you can eat (which, by the end of my evening, had mutated into “all you can bear”) for fourteen pounds on a week night. I can also see it would be perfect for parents, for big groups, for indecisive people or, and I sometimes forget how many of these there are in every town, not just Reading, people who Just Don’t Like Food That Much.

In my ivory tower, enthusing about the likes of Papa Gee, Perry’s or Pepe Sale it’s easy for me to forget that some people just want to get fuelled up somewhere like Cosmo before going on to one of Reading’s many characterful chain pubs, and I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. And perhaps that’s the point of Cosmo full stop – it doesn’t serve the best of anything, but if quantity and range are the most important things then Cosmo is the place for you. I’m just glad I don’t ever have to participate again, and if that makes me a snob I suppose I’m just going to have to suck it up. Maybe I should get a t-shirt printed or something.

I didn’t mention the service, because it isn’t really that kind of place, but what there was was pleasant and entirely lacking in the kind of existential despair I would experience if I had to spend more than two hours in Cosmo. I’ve saved the cost of the meal until last, for good reason. Dinner for four, including two glasses of unremarkable wine and a couple of bottomless soft drinks, came to seventy pounds. But more importantly, and this is what makes it the most expensive meal I’ve ever reviewed for the blog, it cost ER readers over a thousand pounds. Yes, people made over a grand’s worth of pledges (not including GiftAid) to Launchpad to enable them to continue doing their incredible work for the homeless and vulnerable in Reading, work which has never been more badly needed than it is today. And if you haven’t donated yet, but you enjoyed reading this review, it’s not too late: just click here.

So, veni, vidi, icky: I went to Cosmo, just like I promised I would, and I had a pretty iffy meal, just like you thought I would. No surprises there, and that might well be why you sponsored me in the first place. But now the after-effects have subsided, when I look at how everybody rallied round and chipped in, and most importantly when I think about what all that money will achieve for our brilliant town, it’s hard to imagine I’ll have a less regrettable meal all year.

Launchpad

Cosmo – 5.0
35-38 Friar Street, RG1 1DX
0118 9595588

http://www.cosmo-restaurants.co.uk/locations/reading/