Round-up: September

Well, Edible Reading has been going for over a month and I thought it would be a good point to stop for a moment and say thanks to everyone who has followed on Twitter, commented on a review or passed on a link. I’ve been really wowed by all the support, which is fantastic (in fact I even got my first hater – or are they called trolls now, I can never remember – which is proof that I’ve really made it!) In case you’ve missed anything in the first six weeks, here’s what’s happened on the blog so far…

Pepe Sale, 8.3 – Lovely food, superb service and crab ravioli to die for. Read the full review here.

ZeroDegrees, 5.4 – Reading needs a place that does great pizza and delicious moules but Zero Degrees, with its cut corners and wonky service, isn’t it. Read why not here.

London Street Brasserie, 6.8 – The elder statesman of Reading’s restaurant scene still offers some really good food, but you have to pick carefully and you’re better off staying on the set menu. The full review’s here.

Picasso, 4.1 – When is a tapas restaurant not a tapas restaurant? When the tapas in question is massive, costs almost a tenner and feels like it came from a bad supermarket. The worst rating so far, see why here.

Five Guys, 5.5 – It’s just a burger… or is it? The much-hyped latest addition to Reading’s restaurant scene has attracted lots of attention. I chip in (pardon the pun) with my two pence here.

In terms of restaurant news, apart from Five Guys, the main place to open since Edible Reading opened its doors is Tasting House, on Chain Street, in a rather unlovely location round the side of John Lewis. It does a small selection of charcuterie and cheese boards, a dozen or so wines by the glass and a large range of wines to take home. I’m not generally a fan of reviewing places just after they’ve opened (although in the case of Five Guys the temptation was too great to resist), but maybe a bit further down the line. It’s only open until eight though, so don’t plan on settling in for the evening if you do go.

Also, Thai Nine has closed and reopened as Sushimania, which means it will be part of a small chain with other branches at Golders Green and Edgware. Presumably this is a takeover, like when Sahara closed and reopened as BeAtOne. It’s an interesting move, because every time I’ve been to Thai Nine I thought the Thai food was much more popular than the sushi (and I say that as a sushi lover). I imagine I’ll review Sushi Mania in due course, so watch this space.

Another piece of news is that I like to think we’re having an effect on the Reading Post. They published a review earlier this month which wasn’t one hundred per cent glowing – of Wild Lime Bar & Kitchen, which you can read here (apparently it was “pleasant enough”).

Best of all, I’m also happy to say that another local restaurant blog has started around the same time as Edible Reading (I know, I know! We’re like buses). Stuff In My Face is a lot of fun, a cracking read and I’m looking forward to seeing what he makes of places round here. His very entertaining review of Pierre’s, here, is a great place to start.

Finally, thanks too to everyone who has recommended a restaurant for me to visit. Suggestions so far range from some of the Reading classics like Mya Lacarte and Sweeney & Todd to newish places like The Lobster Room, Bhoj, and House Of Flavours. I’m keeping a list and will try to get to all of them eventually, I promise.

Right, better go – I’ve got some meals to plan.


Five Guys

I really wasn’t intending to review Five Guys. It’s not that I am some sort of food snob (I’ll eat Nando’s or KFC happily, it doesn’t all have to be sit down meals with a bottle of wine). It’s not even that I don’t like burgers – I do, quite, although I don’t eat them very often. It’s more that Five Guys is a quick meal. A cheap meal. And does anyone really need a review of places like this, where the risk is low? After all, if it’s rubbish you’ve only wasted a tenner, tops, and half an hour. Nevertheless, I went there for lunch and decided that actually, yes, I do want to review it, because it’s a great example of hype versus experience.

Before Five Guys had even opened there was a lot of chat on Twitter about how great it was going to be. Only the second one in the UK, and the only one outside London; finally, Reading’s the first to get something! It’s taken a huge site upstairs in the Oracle and all around the walls are quotes about how great they are from all over the US (“The Willy Wonka of Burgercraft”, “The Best $5 Burger A Man Can Eat” – it really is all about men and guys, it seems, which is a great way to irk half your potential customers). Even inside the toilets there are framed magazine covers saying how great their burgers are. Well, they’re certainly a long way from five dollars, but are they all they’re cracked up to be?

Arriving at the restaurant there’s initially a bit of confusion because the designers have decided to put a ruddy big table where it makes most sense for people to queue, so they have to have staff ushering people round to the tills. The ordering is pretty simple; this is after all just a burger bar and their tagline is “burgers and fries” so there’s only so involved it can get.

So yes, the menu is primarily burgers and little burgers with a choice of fifteen different toppings all included for free (unless you really want a grilled cheese sandwich, or are a vegetarian being forced to endure this by a partner or a pushy friend). We ordered a cheeseburger each but picked different toppings. I had lettuce, mayonnaise, grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, relish, pickles and mustard.

I think so, anyway: I must admit that standing in front of my red baseball-hatted server I was a bit overwhelmed by the choices. Between the two of us we also had a regular fries and one drink (which seemed like a good idea at the time, although typing it now it somehow feels a bit cheap).

Once you’ve ordered and paid the system works a bit like Starbucks – you take your number, stand at the far end of the counter and watch baffled while you wonder how so many staff can make such a big deal of looking so busy and so noisy and yet your food still takes an age to arrive. Brilliant. In the meantime one of you stands in front of the “Coca Cola Freestyle” machine and tries to pick a drink. All of the Coke brands are there: Fanta, Sprite, Coke, Dr Pepper, Powerade, water, plus some I’d never heard of.

The real draw is that you can mix in an extra flavour, such as cherry, lime, raspberry or cherry vanilla. It gives a quite amazing total of over 100 different drinks to choose from like some kind of carbonated jukebox (no root beer though, which disappointed my companion). Like a jukebox, it’s quite good fun to flick through the choices and pick something that you simply can’t get anywhere else. This I liked, although knowing that it’s all syrup and water takes the edge off somewhat. On the upside you can go back as many times as you like and top up your red and white paper cup: bottomless soft drinks, in a place where most of the stuff you order is going to make you far from bottomless.

When the food comes it’s in a brown paper bag; there are no trays in Five Guys. The burgers are wrapped in paper-foil and look a bit forlorn – squashed, even though they’ve been assembled by the red ants behind the counter only moments ago. Despite this the taste isn’t bad. The patties (a standard burger has two, which you wouldn’t necessarily know unless you’re really paying attention) are well done but moist – I’d rather have had them pink though, as we shall see, that would probably have made a messy experience messier still. The burger buns are your standard seeded burger baps (despite what any of the blurb might say: their posters say they are baked on site, but that might not apply outside of the US).

I said it was a messy experience and it really, really is. The fillings are wet. Even keeping my burger wrapped I ended up covered in meat juices and bits of stray onion, which is never an attractive look I find – well, not unless you’re on a date with Gregg Wallace, anyway. Like Gregg, there’s nothing posh about this burger: it’s a get-your-face-in-and-eat-it-in-record-time-before-it-all-slides-apart-like-some-kind-of-meat-apocalypse sort of burger. So I did, although the last bit of the burger, where the bun had been gently steaming in burger juices, went in the bin. It’s just a bit too much, or was for me anyway (in the course of writing this up I’ve read that a cheeseburger has 830 calories and that discovery makes me feel a tad queasy.)

The fries were OK. We had a regular tub of the Cajun spiced fries and they seemed to go on forever, an endless pile of them looking up menacingly from the bottom of the paper bag. I kept shaking them out into the tub but, War of the Worlds style, they kept coming. At the start the spicing was piquant and exciting; by the end it was just hot and even slightly numbing. I think a good chip, of any size, should be fluffy on the inside and crunchy on the outside but these were firm and if they’d ever had any crispness it had vanished in the matter of minutes it took them to arrive at my table.

We sat on some smart oak-finish furniture looking out over the Oracle riverside (say what you like about the food but it’s not a bad view) talking about Five Guys, trying not to get sauce on our clothes and shaking some more fries out of the endless paper bag. Neither of us was sure what the fuss was about. They are just burgers. The fries were OK at best. The drinks machine was ace and a lot of fun. But £20.50 for two burgers, one fries and one drink? Well, it’s a genius marketing concept masking a pretty average lunch.

I’m sure this is sacrilege, but I think I might even prefer a Big Mac.

Five Guys – 5.5
The Oracle Shopping Centre, RG1 2AG