The Lyndhurst

I reckon everyone has their favourite part of Reading. Some people are firm Caversham fans, north of the river and delighted to be near to Nomad and close to a Waitrose (and who can blame them?). Others have a soft spot for the Tilehurst Road, or the Bath Road – I’ve often walked past Florida Court on the latter and wondered what it might be like to live there. Some are on Team Newtown or Team Oxford Road, defiantly proud of the bustle and scruff of those areas; one of my best friends moved up North and still sends me messages telling me how much she misses the Oxford Road and its many characters.

And of course, everyone has a part of Reading they daydream about living in but know they probably never will. Gorgeous roads up by the university like New Road or The Mount, for instance. The impressive sweep of School Terrace down by the canal, for me, is another. Or Eldon Square! Imagine living on Eldon Square, in one of those gorgeous big houses that hasn’t been turned into flats. You could turn a room into a library, have dinner parties around a big table (I’d have to make a lot more friends, but that’s beside the point). There’s one house, near the bottom of Kendrick Road, with a little drive and a tiny roundabout and its own lamp post like something out of Narnia: in another life, I quite fancy settling there.

Of course, this is just based on walking past those areas, seeing the glow in the windows in the evening or snooping on them during artists’ open house events. For all I know those houses are dingy, tiny and draughty, with damp in the basements and condensation on the single glazed windows every morning. I tell myself that to cheer myself up when I realise that isn’t going to be my life: those places are probably rubbish anyway, right? Maybe the people in the Lower Earley Mafia or the Tilehurst Massive have the right idea.

One of my favourite parts has always been the bit informally known as “The Village”, the area around Eldon Square and Watlington Street, bounded by London Road on one end and Queens Road and Kings Road on the other. Lovely redbrick terraced houses and little side streets rub shoulders with splendid boozers like the Retreat – we don’t have time enough to talk about how much I love that place – and the Eldon Arms, although I think that’s currently awaiting new management. There’s the gorgeous Polish Church, and the upholsterer on the corner of St John’s Road which never seems to do any business.

On the edge of the Village is The Lyndhurst, a pub which has always threatened greatness without quite getting there (I’m sure many of us can identify with that). It used to be owned by the same people as the Moderation and was a nice, if amateurish, place to go for dinner: my friends still rave about the rolled pork dish they used to do. Then it was cut adrift for a while before being taken on by a chap called Heath Thomas. He installed a chef from LSB and things looked promising, but a year later the chef had moved on and then Thomas closed the pub, claiming that Enterprise had hiked the prices to the extent that it was no longer viable (a pubco, acting like a pantomime villain? Surely not).

Anyway, the pub reopened late last year and something quite remarkable happened: they started putting pictures of their dishes on Twitter and they looked, well, beautiful. Not just tasty, but genuinely beautiful. I’ve stopped by many times since and although the interior – an unfussy L-shaped room with the same old tables, chairs and pews – was the same, it felt like a sea change was under way. The menu was never the same two times running. There was a cocktail menu, and they started showing films on a Sunday night. The gastropub, ironically, is the one tired London fashion which has never even attempted to take root in Reading: now the idea has jumped the shark have we managed to get one by accident? I wanted to know for sure, and I couldn’t think of a better place for my first review in almost a year.

Here’s a trade secret for you – in my previous spell reviewing restaurants, I invariably had the same dining companion. It helps: you trust somebody’s judgment, you bounce ideas off them, you can scrounge lots of their food if you ask nicely. Following a parting of the ways I found myself looking for new dining companions and I couldn’t think of a better way to kick off ER v2.0 than to take my mum out for dinner. So there was something familiar yet unfamiliar about sitting opposite her as she scanned the pub, sipped her gin and scrutinised the menu (“this chair is a bit low, isn’t it?” she said as she plonked herself on one of the pew-style seats by the window).

It’s a clever menu, I think: a small but tempting range of starters hover around the seven pound mark and very few of the mains are north of fourteen pounds. There were a couple of vegetarian or vegan options in each section, and not a mushroom risotto in sight. The mains in particular offered lots of opportunities to compromise, with more conventional steak, burgers and fish and chips mixed in with cheffier things. A smaller specials menu, under the bulldog clip, had another three options and I wouldn’t have put money on them being there the next day. The slogan said “It’s the little things we do” and I liked that: successful restaurants are about details, not big grand sweeping statements.

The last time I went to the Lyndhurst, under their previous management, I started with “posh mushrooms on toast”, which was some very nice mushrooms on what seemed to be a rectangle of Mighty White. The mushrooms might have been Caversham Heights, but the toast was the Dee Road estate. My mother ordered the equivalent dish as a starter and it couldn’t have looked or tasted more different: lovely chestnut mushrooms, firm not slimy, in a beautifully rich and garlicky cream sauce, the whole thing festooned with pretty micro shoots. I loved it, my mum liked it. I liked the way the sauce soaked into the soda bread, leaving you with soggy, savoury spongey bread at the end. My mum wanted something better able to cope with the juices. I thought it was a little on the small side, my mum thought it was just right. You’ll look at the picture, I imagine, and make up your own mind (it was taken by my mum and is therefore much better than mine – she’s a member of the Royal Photographic Society, don’t you know).

I couldn’t not have the Scotch egg, which was mainly for gluttony but which I kidded myself was for scientific purposes. This has changed a few times since I’ve been going: it started out being a normal sausagemeat Scotch egg (which I loved), and then they pimped it up to be (I think) a duck egg wrapped in duck meat, served with a brown sauce which, as I recall, had a genius hint of hoi sin in there. As long as you could overlook the slightly disturbing connotations of eating two generations of duck in the same dish – the ultimate mother/daughter combo, I suppose – it was a lovely dish. But the menu now is strangely non-specific (it comes “wrapped in a choice of meat”, whatever that is) and what turned out felt a little generic. I liked it, but I didn’t love it as much as any of its previous incarnations. Also, it wasn’t completely cooked through so not all of the white was set: I had to scrape some of it off and it sat there on the board like wobbly snot. The pea shoots, never my favourite salad garnish, weren’t dressed but I was sure they had been on previous visits. It’s the little things, perhaps.

So, not a home run on the starters but the kitchen really hit its stride when the mains turned up. I’d asked at the bar for recommendations and as a result I’d chosen the Cajun pork belly, not something I’d normally pick in a pub. What turned up looked fantastic and tasted even better. The pork, rubbed with spice, was dense and tender without being dry. What was described as “apple mash” was potato mash with clever hints of apple and vanilla, sweet but not cloying. The straw of crackling on top was done just right (the last one I tried in a pub had the texture of a dog chew). There was also a single crisp leaf of what I imagine was deep fried kale. The cleverest thing was a “pit bean croquette”, almost an arancino full of barbecue beans – and of course there was a sticky jus to bring it all together. I hate using wanky words like “processes” (so Masterchef) so let’s just say there was a lot going on, especially for thirteen pounds fifty. I’d have gone back and eaten it again the next day if I could.

My mother went for the main course I’d normally gravitate to – pan roasted chicken breast with gnocchi and pesto. Again the presentation was gorgeous, with the chicken sitting on top of a verdant green heap of gnocchi and strewn with yet more red micro shoots. And again, opinion was divided. My mum had nothing but faint praise for this one – there wasn’t enough pesto, what pesto there was was too much oil and not enough herbs, salt and parmesan. She reached for the salt grinder and seasoned the dish twice (“and I never use salt at home”, she told me – if you think I’m a harsh critic, perhaps this is where it comes from).

Personally, I liked it. I found the doughy gnocchi and the pesto delightful, thought the chicken was nicely done. I thought it was subtle rather than bland, though I appreciate that that can be a fine line. My one criticism (and it might have been because the chicken was roasted rather than fried) was that I would have liked the chicken skin brittle and studded with salt rather than ever so slightly flaccid – when it’s done well, chicken skin can be the very best thing about a dish like this.

We skipped dessert. It’s a compact dessert menu and, although I know the presentation is stunning, having seen the photos I still couldn’t bring myself to get excited about chocolate brownie – I’m afraid I subscribe to the “that’s a cake not a dessert” school of thought – or Eton Mess. Oh, and I should mention the drinks. I had a pint of Camden Hells and my mum had a gin and tonic (Whitley Neill – I had to explain several times that it wasn’t made by a chap called Neil from Whitley, although what a gin that would be: I dread to think what botanicals he’d use). Both were splendid. The whole thing came to forty-seven pounds, not including tip. Before you ask, of course I paid for my mum. What do you take me for?

Service was quite lovely throughout, friendly and enthusiastic (I might have chosen for my dishes to come out slightly more slowly, but that might just be me and it must be tricky getting that balance right in a pub). It must be easier to do service well when you know that, fundamentally, you’re serving up really good food and everyone seemed really proud of what they’re building at the Lyndhurst. That’s been my experience of the place in general, as it happens, whether I’ve gone for dinner or just turned up with a friend for a couple of gins – and they know their gin behind the bar, believe me.

I really like the Lyndhurst; I expect that much is obvious from what you’ve just read. It’s not perfect, but enough of it is extremely good that I want to go back again to see how close to perfect they can get. It’s a pub which does excellent food without falling back on clichés or just churning out dreary dude food like everywhere else in Reading right now. So yes, it has craft beer and yes, it does a burger if you want one, but there’s lots about the place that makes it a much more interesting prospect and not just another dead-eyed exercise in bandwagon jumping. Heaven knows, Reading desperately needs that kind of establishment.

The night I went to the Lyndhurst, one of my friends was eating out in Paris at Le Chateaubriand, a restaurant which regularly makes lists of the 50 best restaurants in the world. I’ve been, and I didn’t like it, but I didn’t tell my friend that because I didn’t want to piss on her chips. But, true to form, her messages suggested that she too had been underwhelmed by the whole thing: iffy service, slow pacing and flavourless food. I sent her pictures of my scotch egg and my pork belly and the reply came back: Holy shit. I want to lick the screen. So there you go – the day I went to the Lyndhurst provoked food envy in somebody eating in one of the best restaurants in the world: Reading 1, Paris 0.

After dinner, I took my mum to the Retreat for a pint and a debrief. We ended up in random conversations with the other locals in the front room, which always happens there and which I always love. Brian the landlord was a resplendent shade of brown – three weeks in Turkey, if you believe it – and as twinkly as ever. He winked at my mother so often that I thought he might have something in his eye (he’s a roister-doister, that one). It was the perfect end to the evening – and, not for the first time lately, I remembered that this really is my favourite part of town.

The Lyndhurst – 7.7
88-90 Queens Road, RG1 4DG
0118 9503888

http://www.thelyndhurstreading.co.uk

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Faith Kitchen

Faith Kitchen lost its licence in April 2016 and is now closed. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

I went along to Faith Kitchen really not knowing what to expect. My knowledge of African food before the visit – I’m not ashamed to say this – was primarily based on Googling words from the menu on the number 17 bus on my way there. I also had no idea what it looked like: in the big hurrah of the restaurant opening a couple of months ago, all the photos were of the ribbon cutting outside so it was impossible to see the interior without turning up to have a look.

The restaurant, on a school night, was eerily empty. We shuffled in and picked a well lit table in anticipation of taking photos, although if anything it was impossible to sit somewhere that wasn’t brightly lit. I’ve been in restaurants before where I’m at the only occupied table, but even those haven’t felt quite as empty as Faith Kitchen did (maybe it was the lack of any background music). The tables are nicely spaced and the chairs had bright golden seat covers. The overall effect was of being the only guests at a wedding reception, an odd feeling if ever there was one. Also, the room has a gold dado rail – you don’t see one of those every day, or indeed ever.

The menu is intimidatingly big and unwieldy. It wasn’t clear what exactly were starters, what were mains, what were side dishes and so forth, something not helped by the confusing pricing (more on that later). Some of it is split by region, some isn’t, for reasons which aren’t made clear. I’m sure if you know Nigerian cuisine very well (and think “swallow food” is a particular dish rather than a very basic instruction) this is all absolutely fine, but as a newcomer to it I felt pretty bewildered.

The other hazard with a huge menu is the risk that the kitchen either can’t do it all or can’t do it all well. In this case, it was the former, so some of that bus research rather went to waste. So for instance, I fancied puff puffs (a sort of Nigerian doughnut) but they didn’t have them so we settled for chin chins instead. For the uninitiated – which included me until this meal – they’re small sweet cubes of dense hard biscuit flavoured with nutmeg and, I’d guess, a little cinnamon. They looked disconcertingly like dog biscuits but tasted quite pleasant, although they felt like something you’d have with a cup of tea rather than to get you in the mood for your main course. We munched our way through half a ramekin of these but in the end there was just too many of them to eat and they didn’t go with anything else. Meat samosas, on the other hand, were top notch: triangles of very thin filo pastry filled with minced lamb and onion. Everything worked perfectly – the meat was coarse, tasty and deeply peppery and the filo added just the right amount of crispy contrast.

Chin chin samosa

The other starter we ordered was chicken suya, which – according to Wikipedia – are skewers of chicken with a fiery, nutty sauce. Another menu problem: the waitress wasn’t sure if they could cook this but after a quick conflab with another member of staff we were assured it would be fine. What turned up was neither nutty nor skewered. Instead, it was a wooden board with about six small pieces of chicken on the bone, superbly spiced and fried with crispy skin that made roast chicken skin look pretty limp in comparison. It came served with fresh tomato and red onion which we mostly ignored in favour of giving the chicken our undivided attention (plus raw onion has never been high on my list of favourite things). Besides, getting it off the bone was more difficult than I’d expected. Again, the flavour was gorgeous – a great combination of salt and spice and texture – so much so that dividing it all up almost caused a diplomatic incident.

Suya

The mains were equally confusing, to say the least. Jollof rice with chicken seemed to be another signature dish from my limited research and I’d say it summed up my experience of the restaurant as a whole: some great flavours coupled with very erratic execution. I got a mound of brick red rice on a plate and, on a separate dish, a chicken leg, skin on, strewn with peppers and onion. The rice itself was very good; I don’t know how they managed to infuse it with so much savoury tomato but it was tasty and interesting almost in equal measure. The chicken, what there was of it, was also good, if rather close to the starter I’d already eaten. It was, however, one of the scrawnier chicken legs I’ve seen and considerably less meat than I was expecting. Once stripped from the bone it formed a much smaller heap next to the rice. The peppers were sweet and crispy but the onion, in wan chunks, was best left. Did the whole thing add up to a dish? Well, it didn’t quite feel like it, and the lack of any sauce or moisture either in the rice or the chicken made it a pretty dry experience.

Jollof

The other main was grilled chicken with homemade Faith Kitchen sauce. The chicken here was pretty much the same as with the jollof rice – spindly, dry and tasty but thin on the ground. I’m not sure what the home made Faith Kitchen sauce was meant to be, there was a little of something that looked like sauce in the dish but it was watery and flavourless (the waitress also brought a bottle of soy and a bottle of chilli sauce to the table which didn’t feel like a vote of confidence). The menu doesn’t explain whether the chicken came with anything, so after asking several questions I also ordered some pilau rice. This was really tasty – spicy but not overly hot with flavours of, I think, cinnamon, cumin, fresh ginger and chilli plus a few chunks of potato and even a couple of pieces of chicken. This made me feel like I’d ordered two things which weren’t necessarily meant to go together. Again, the whole thing was tasty enough, but very dry. Where was the moisture in this dish meant to come from? And why so little chicken?

FK chicken

Now, I deliberately haven’t talked about this until now and I don’t normally discuss pricing in detail but in this instance I really have to. The pricing at Faith Kitchen is crazy. It appears to bear no relation to the size or cost of any of the ingredients. So for example, the four delicious samosas came to £2.50. Four samosas. Two pounds fifty. It could easily have been half the size or twice the price. The chicken suya, on the other hand, was £9 for six thumb-sized pieces of chicken on the bone and some raw vegetables.

Things get even more random when we talk about the mains. Jollof rice with chicken is £8 – that’s eight pounds for a chicken leg and some rice. You could argue about whether that represents good value, but then you get on to the grilled chicken with sauce: that was £9, and I was charged £5 on the side for the pilau rice. That means two equally baffling things: either I paid £9 for a chicken leg, or I paid £14 for a chicken leg with rice. Either way, if you think about how much chicken you’d get for £9 elsewhere in Reading, or the kind of main course you can buy for £14, it doesn’t bode well for Faith Kitchen.

Even the drinks were bizarrely priced. I had a Ghanaian spiced gin – because I like to experiment – and a 200ml bottle of that cost £3.50. Yes, 200ml for £3.50. That means I got a whole miniature bottle of gin – four times the size of the bottle you might get on an aeroplane – for less than the price of a G&T in a pub. It just makes no sense. Going through my bill at the end – it came to thirty-five pounds, not including tip – I couldn’t help wondering if the cost of the dishes had been chosen at random. We didn’t have dessert – the rice left us too full and, thinking back to the chin chins, I did rather feel like I’d already eaten it anyway.

Service was a similarly mixed bag. Our waitress was absolutely lovely throughout but I got the impression that she didn’t have any prior experience in the service industry; despite the restaurant being almost empty it could be hard to get her attention and dishes were brought over piecemeal leaving us to wait for her to come back with the cutlery. The tables aren’t laid and the cutlery was delivered wrapped in a paper napkin which reminded me of eating in a cafe, not a restaurant.

Faith Kitchen illustrates – better than anywhere else I can think of – the gulf between being a cook and a restaurateur. Most of what I ate tasted really good, and when it didn’t quite hit those high notes it at least tasted unusual enough that I enjoyed it anyway. But there’s so much more to running a restaurant than that. You have to create a space with ambience where people want to spend an evening. You have to put together a menu that invites diners in rather than scares them off. You have to understand portion size, cost and quality and juggle all of those factors so that everybody wins, you included. It may be that Faith Kitchen will do quite nicely catering for people who already know and love Nigerian food and are devastated that they can’t find it in Reading, and if so all well and good. I really hope they do well. But if they want to have a wider appeal than that and popularise this under-represented cuisine, I think they need to look at their menu, their pricing, their portions and the whole experience they’re offering. The food is lovely, really it is, but you need more than food – and faith – to run a restaurant.

Faith Kitchen – 6.4
288-290 Oxford Road, RG30 1AD
0118 9574046

http://www.faithkitchen.co.uk/