Q&A: Naomi Lowe, Nibsy’s

Naomi Lowe set up Nibsy’s, Reading’s first dedicated gluten-free café, in Cross Street in 2014, following a career in investment management. In the last five years the café has gone from strength to strength and remains Reading’s only venue specifically catering to this sector of the market. Nibsy’s won the Reading Retail Award for Best Café in 2017. Naomi is currently writing her first book of recipes. She lives with her husband and two children off the Oxford Road.

What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown?
Losing my “rhythm” and not being able to see my mum.

What’s the biggest difference you notice between corporate life and running a café?
Corporate life was easy. Running a coffee shop takes a lot more out of me (but gives back, too). I could go on about the differences and sacrifices I’ve had to make, but the reward and the team, the people and the sense of achievement are worth the effort.

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
The Oxford Road – it feels like home. And I like that Reading is big enough to feel anonymous but small enough to have a sense of community.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
I feel like I should say L’Ortolan as it was the most expensive and memorable meal (it was a birthday present). But the happy memories are of when I used to grab a bag of chips from Smarts fish and chip shop in Henley and sit by the river with my boyfriend, now husband. They were consistently the best chips I’ve ever eaten. I don’t think they are run by the same people anymore.

What was your most embarrassing moment?
I’ve been calling a regular customer Martin for five years. He recently started following our Instagram page and it turns out his name is Tom. I’ll put that right when we re-open.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
Eating digestive biscuits in bed, which my mum would bring me as a late night snack when I was a toddler.

How do you relax?
With a smoke and glass of wine, in the garden.

You opened Nibsy’s six years ago. How much do you think the food scene has changed for the gluten intolerant since then?
Massively changed for the better – it’s rare to go out and not have a few decent options. 

Where will you go for your first meal out after lockdown?
Probably Pho. There’s one dish that I always have –  the vermicelli noodles with mushroom and tofu. I don’t eat out very often, and am a sucker for sticking to what I like. Plus, I am comfortable eating there on my own: as I get older, “me time” is like gold.

What is your favourite word?
Tricky, but the first two words that come to mind are “bobble” and “yes”. Sorry, these are pretty random! But I’ll explain: “bobble” because it sounds like a happy word. And “yes” because it was the first word I ever said, and is generally a positive word.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
I suppose I’d have to say E.T. because it’s the film I’ve watched more than any other. Although my seven year old is watching Ratatouille on repeat at the moment and I love it: the story, the music, and the message “anyone can cook”. That’s nice to hear while I’m writing the recipe book. Series wise, the one I have watched twice is Breaking Bad: nothing else has come close.

Who are your biggest influences in the world of food and drink?
John Richardson, because of the knowledge he shares in his help books for coffee shop and café owners, and Gordon Ramsay because I love Kitchen Nightmares.

Where is your happy place?
At my mum’s little place in north-west London or my dad’s, in the south of France in a sleepy village called Auzas. Nothing happens there, the church bell rings every hour – even through the night – but the calm and fresh air is like nothing else. And he makes a great curry and plays his old vinyl.

Normally I ask people what their favourite crisps are. What’s your favourite gluten-free snack?
No, crisps ARE my go-to snack. My favourite brand is the special large bag of salt and vinegar ones that the Co-op do – I love these because they are so salty and vinegary. Otherwise, a specifically gluten-free snack would be the granola bars that we make and sell at the coffee shop.

What is the worst job you’ve done?
A temp job in my early twenties, in a virtually windowless building just off Oxford Street. I answered calls and filled in job sheets for engineers to fix faulty toilets and equipment. I was mostly on my own, which was the worst part. I only stuck at it a week or two.

What is your most unappealing habit?
I wanted to ask my husband for help on this one. He said “screaming at your husband.”

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Late night scoops of crunchy peanut butter before bed.

Who would play you in the film of your life?
Having racked my brain, there’s only one actress that springs to mind – Julia Stiles.

Tell us something people might not know about you.
I’m distantly related to Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula.

Describe yourself in three words.
Warm, pragmatic, thinker.

Nirvana Spa, Sindlesham

N.B. As of August 2020, Nirvana Spa has reopened.

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/

The Flowing Spring, Playhatch

I’ve noticed The Flowing Spring many times on my travels, but always when I’ve been going somewhere else, usually Henley. It’s on a stretch of road just past Playhatch, in an oddly solitary location as the road slopes up towards Shiplake. I’ve always been struck me by the sign on the side of the pub, underneath the name, saying Fresh, home-made food including gluten-free, dairy-free and vegetarian, a big block of white with an incongruous, regular font as if it’s been cut out of a Word document, enlarged and stuck on to the building with Blu-Tac.

Well, having done my homework this week I took the next right, pulled into the car park and went inside instead. Why? Well, it turns out that The Flowing Spring is an interesting beast; that sign on the side is a pretty modest summary, but The Flowing Spring takes catering to all kinds of diets very seriously indeed. Apart from all sorts of plaudits for the beer – CAMRA awards, Cask Marques, I’m sure this stuff means more to most of you than it does to me – they were also given an award by PETA last year for being one of the top ten vegan-friendly pubs in the whole of the UK (and yes, if you were a cynic you might find yourself wondering how big a field there was). I haven’t forgotten my resolution to try and eat meat-free mains once a month, and I figured I wouldn’t get a better opportunity to put it to the test.

Charmingly ramshackle doesn’t even begin to do the Flowing Spring justice, an experience that begins when you pull into the car park and realise that it’s at a completely different level to the front of the pub on the main road. The split-level feeling of climbing the stairs to go in is continued by the slightly haphazard nature of the interior. Their website proudly boasts that the whole pub is on a slant, and indeed nothing feels quite like a straight line. There’s a main dining room upstairs, then a sort of L-shaped section downstairs which is more like a traditional pub, open fires and all, and then an area called the “Quirky Corner” into which I did not venture except on my way to the loos (I wasn’t sure I’d be quirky enough).

Initially they sat us in the dining room, all big square tables and handsome conventional furniture, the laminated walls full of copies of the pub’s newsletter and a chalkboard section with enthusiastic quotes on it (“better than the London Street Brasserie” said one, which made me smile). The woman behind the bar also warned us that only one table was unbooked and that there would be a cribbage match going on up there. And I would have stayed up there, but it was absolutely Baltic and I soon realised that cribbage geeks, in their amiable, peg-pushing way, can produce just as many decibels as a crowd watching a much less interesting leisure pursuit with balls and goals. So we moved down to the bar room and had a slightly more laid-back evening – still Baltic, mind, although I did notice that one of the open fires hadn’t been lit.

The menu, like the pub, looks like a big old mess at first. It’s only when I stepped back and had a proper look that I appreciated just how much thought had gone into it. Three of the five starters are not only vegetarian but vegan. They offer two different vegetarian burgers, one of which is vegan, and about half of the mains are either vegetarian or vegan – without a sodding risotto in sight, I might add. Huge sections of the menu can be offered gluten-free, and the menu also assiduously lists potential allergens (I never realised, for instance, that Marmite contains a small amount of gluten: I’ve never felt more sympathy for my friends who have a gluten-free existence). All promising, but I’ve lost count of the number of times a good menu got lost in translation from the kitchen to my table, so I sipped a pint of Aspall’s and listened to the hubbub of the cribbage match getting animated as I waited for the starters to arrive.

Smoked mushrooms in cider batter sounded so perfect that I really wanted to try it. And when it arrived it got so close to really good that I was almost prepared to overlook the flaws. The mushrooms were so smoky that I could nearly forget how small they were, the cider batter so crunchy that I only just remembered that they maybe could have done with being served hotter. The sweet chilli sauce was so thick and tangy that it took my mind off the incongruous bowl of dried coconut flakes on the side which didn’t go, or the undressed salad which was mainly iceberg lettuce. For seven pounds I think I expected slightly more, but on the other hand I was in a lovely pub trying smoked mushrooms, and that doesn’t happen very often.

FlowingMushrooms

My indecision wasn’t helped by the Thai fishcake. It was itself an indecisive thing, with a touch of Thailand but also the powerful influence of Captain Birdseye, a single giant breadcrumbed puck cut in half and served with more of the sweet chilli sauce and more undressed salad (this one with capers and roasted spiced corn, itself an incongruous mix). But here’s the surprise – despite all that it was delicious. It was nicely crumbed, full of fish rather than reliant on claggy spud with a lovely texture. I shared it with my companion, who isn’t a fan of the sponginess of most Thai fishcakes, and we agreed between us that The Flowing Spring had pulled off a rather surprising triumph of fusion cuisine. I even liked the little ribbons of crispy seaweed, also very nice dipped in the chilli sauce, even if they felt like they were on the run from another dish (or possibly even another restaurant).

FlowingFishcake

I watched dishes turning up at other tables – veggie burgers with a big heap of orangey sweet potato fries on the side, home-made chilli served in, of all things, a Yorkshire pudding – and I found myself oddly charmed by the whole experience, if still not quite quirky enough to explore the Quirky Corner. Mains had been ordered at the recommendation of the woman behind the bar. “You want me to narrow it down to two?” she had said, smiling but perplexed, as if I had asked her to solve one of the riddles on “3-2-1” (a show, in fairness, she was far too young to remember). In the end she suggested the “famous” Flowing Spring Kebab – the menu’s words, not mine – and a veggie burger and we went for those. Again, I was impressed that a pub so determined to court vegetarian diners was also prepared to offer a dish to potentially appease their meat-eating companions.

I was warned that the kebab would be big and it certainly was. The menu claimed that it was the Flowing Spring’s take on a doner kebab, which if anything undersold it because instead it was more like a gigantic roast lamb sandwich. So you got lots of thick slices of lamb, none of them pink but none of them the worse for that, sitting on top of some salad in a huge pitta. I loved the lamb – again, I possibly could have stood it being a tad hotter, but it was so good that I didn’t mind, another example of The Flowing Spring charming me into relaxing my critical faculties somewhat. I spent much of the dish wondering if the lamb was better dipped into the fresh, minty raita or the chilli sauce, a thick gloopy jammy pool of redness that looked like it would be sweet but then delivered an acrid, sinus-clearing punch. I also couldn’t decide whether to team it with a pickled chilli, a slice of crinkle-cut gherkin, some salad (which also contained little pieces of diced gherkin, creditable attention to detail) or a torn piece of pitta. Deciding how I liked the dish the best took me very nicely from the first mouthful to the last, by which point I had decided that I rather loved it all.

FlowingLamb

Photography isn’t my strong point at the best of times, but my veggie burger was far more interesting than it looked. The patty was butternut squash, goats cheese and beetroot and had a lot going on compared to the usual “bean burger” veggie alternative. Beetroot and goat’s cheese, that earthy combination of sweet and salt, is a well-worn combo but putting it in a burger, with the squash as a sort of base note that held it all together, was a surprisingly inspired move. It was crumbed and oaty on the outside which gave it a bit of texture, and that worked with the floury bap (no faddy brioche here) and a small smattering of salad. For a nice, simple burger it was spot on – nothing out of this world but a good, tasty veggie main. Even the chips were an excellent example of pub chips – regular shaped (which made me assume they were out of the freezer, though I could be wrong) but crispy on the outside, fluffy in the middle and, unlike so often, they actually tasted of potato. They almost made up for the fact that the nice looking sweet potato fries I’d seen at other tables had run out. Almost. The only other slight downside was the price: just under twelve pounds (the same as the kebab) felt a little on the steep side, but perhaps you’re paying a premium to have all that choice.

FlowingBurger

Dinner for two – two courses each, a pint and a half of cider and a couple of soft drinks – came to fifty pounds not including tip. The service was lovely throughout, from the woman behind the bar who took our orders and recommended dishes to the landlord, who brought out our dishes and seemed to genuinely care whether we liked them. And that was the kind of place The Flowing Spring was, because although it was the first time I had ever been I rather felt that everybody else there had been in on the secret for some time.

By the end of the meal we’d moved tables to be nearer to the fire and you could see all sorts of photos up on the walls of events and gigs, be it jazz concerts, outdoor carnivals or classic car events. And I was struck by how remarkable it was that a pub seemingly in the middle of nowhere could have such a community feel. A little piece of folded card on my table went into more detail about where The Flowing Spring gets its ingredients from, and it was another example of the kind of touches that make you trust a place: meat from a family butcher in Devon, eggs (also for sale behind the bar) from just down the road, mushrooms foraged in the autumn. The Flowing Spring really needed to work on its heating, but I still had a warm glow from somewhere. Maybe it was the fire, maybe my slightly jaded heart thawing. Who can say? As we left, having paid up, we talked to one of the cribbage players, an amiable twinkly cardsharp who was at the bar getting another drink.

“We didn’t drive you into the other room, did we?” he said.

“No, not at all. It was just getting a bit hectic up there.”

“You should give it a try some time! We play every fortnight and we’re always looking for new recruits.”

I might have to learn cribbage, you know. Just in case.

The Flowing Spring – 7.3

Henley Road, Playhatch, RG4 9RB
0118 9699878

http://theflowingspringpub.co.uk/

Jessy’s, Wokingham

Jessy’s closed in August 2016. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

Do you remember back in the day, when Bill’s opened in Reading? Everyone was dead excited, me not least; I remember visiting the one in Brighton back when there were only two of them and I loved it, the laid back style, the old-school chairs, the great food. I said a little prayer that Reading would see something like that one day. Well, you should be careful what you wish for: what we got instead was the version that has now been rolled out to just about every major town and city, a beautiful building with a vague sense of being like the original Bill’s only less authentic, less meaningful, like the copy paper wasn’t pressed quite hard enough.

Jessy’s has popped up in my feed a few times lately – glowing reviews of the brunches, pictures of some of the dishes – and something about it made me remember how much I’d loved that first visit to Bill’s. Not just the name, but the use of a lovely old space, the independence, the locally sourced food and the relaxed friendliness. I planned a visit, hoping to find the kind of restaurant I’d always hoped would open in Reading. But then, a couple of days beforehand, I found myself talking about Jessy’s with a food-loving colleague of mine. She enthused about the room, the real fires and the comfy, cosy space. But she also said that, across a couple visits, the food had never been quite right. Either there were little mistakes, or the portions were too small, or her friend had ordered better. I went hoping to prove her wrong, but slightly worried that I wouldn’t.

Wokingham isn’t somewhere I go very often, truth be told, but getting off the train on a dark and rainy night and walking up the hill into the town centre made me feel like maybe it should be somewhere to visit properly. Some really pretty houses and the smell of woodsmoke made me wonder if this was one of those little places which would trigger fantasies of buying a cottage and opening a little café doing charcuterie, good bread and cheeses by day, pizza and carafes of wine by night, chansons playing on the speakers (it’s a pipe dream, I know) or one of those frou-frou shops that sells lots of distressed furniture painted white and really expensive candles. I was buoyed up by this (well, that and the glass of half decent shiraz I had in a pub while waiting for my companion to arrive) and ready for some good food.

Jessy’s is down one of the slightly quieter streets, a beautiful double cottage with wonky windows and beams. The front room as you go in looks like it’s mainly for daytime coffee, tea and a slice of cake, with a couple of leather sofas and an open fireplace. Beyond that is a big room split into two by an original wall where the window had been taken out to allow the space to feel sort of, but sort of not, joined together. The back section, nearer to the bar and the kitchen, feels bright but somehow less hospitable, but the front section where we sat, with the wood burner glowing in the hearth, is much cosier. The tables – most of which were occupied when I went – almost all seemed to seat four people, although some were laid for two, and the white tablecloths and napkins weren’t ironed (which gave everything a slightly rustic air I hope was intentional).

The dinner menu, which is offered on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, read very well; just enough courses, plenty of variety and the kind of little touches that raise your hopes. For instance, practically every dish on the menu can be done gluten free – a lovely feature, but possibly lovelier still was that the menu didn’t shout about it. And a lot of menus give you the blah about sustainability and sourcing locally, but it was nice to see Jessy’s tell you which butcher they bought from and which farm supplies the butcher. Many restaurants print all this guff without meaning it, some are anal enough to list every supplier at the end of the menu; this felt like a nice compromise.

First up was a starter of goats cheese bonbons, surely three of the loveliest words you can find on a menu. This might sound finicky (it probably does) but I sort of expect a bonbon to be spherical and these weren’t – instead I got half a dozen small triangular wedges of goats cheese, lightly breaded and fried, on a bed of salad with the occasional walnut. There were also some tiny circles of crispy onion that added a nice extra crunch and the chef’s zig zag of beetroot syrup which gave some much-needed sweetness. If I’m listing the ingredients in a plodding, prosaic way I’m afraid it’s because eating it was a bit like that too – it was nice but it wasn’t wow or out of the ordinary, even with the ubiquitous heap of micro-herbs (why are they there? What are they for?) on top. It was a bit on the small side for eight pounds, and I finished it quickly. Looking at the empty plate, I didn’t even find myself wishing it had lasted longer.

JessyGoat

The other starter, braised oxtail with garlic mash, sounded magnificent on paper, but maybe that’s where it should have stayed. For a start, the mash was overwhelmingly the main ingredient: a big pile of it, not very garlicky and in some places more crushed than mashed. Oxtail is a cheap cut and I was expecting it to have been taken off the bone. That might have been unreasonable of me, but if not I’d have expected it to fall off said bone. Oh, and I’d have expected there to be a fair amount of it. Alas, none of this was to be, so I ended up tugging little chunks of beef off a huge cartilaginous throwing star and trying to eke them out among the massive heap of mash. The lighting conditions, which prioritised atmosphere over, you know, being able to see anything, didn’t help. It wasn’t all bad – what little meat I had was tasty, as was the glossy sauce studded with finely diced celery and carrot, but it felt out of whack. The best starters are little marvels that work entirely on their own terms, this felt like a disappointing main course that had been miniaturised.

JessyOxtail

If the theme of the starters was that the menu slightly missold the dishes, it came to fruition when the mains turned up. The first of them, “pan fried whole Cornish plaice” had either been over-mongered (is monger a verb? Here’s hoping) when the head was removed or simply wasn’t a whole fish. I’m used to plaice which fills a plate, but this was such a small specimen that I wondered if I’d just got the tail. I know fish is often a healthy option but there’s something magical about getting a whole plaice smothered in beurre noisette, speckled with capers, all white flesh and zing. Having got that complaint out of the way the meat was easy to separate from the bone and the browned butter, capers and shrimps on top were delicious – savoury, generously buttery, well worth chasing round the plate with the cut side of a roasted new potato. The tenderstem broccoli (not steamed greens, as promised by the menu) underneath was just cooked, so nice and firm with a lovely green sweetness to it. A good main makes you think “I wish I could make this”, or “I’d like to try this at home”. This one made me think “I can do this just as well myself”, not really how it should be.

JessyFish

Slow braised lamb shoulder was recommended by the waitress when I asked her to steer me between that and the halibut (“we’ve had lots of good feedback on the lamb” she said “but I don’t really like lamb or fish”). It was a frustrating near miss; I was expecting a single piece of slow-cooked meat that pulled into strands, so I was surprised to find instead chunks of lamb in among the cassoulet. That made me worry, but actually the lamb was good – no wobbly fat, no suspicious pieces (just as well because the slightly Stygian lighting made it impossible to avoid pitfalls). The cassoulet was pleasant, so were the onions. As before, the whole thing had been festooned with microherbs, possibly to conceal how brown the dish would otherwise have been. But the whole thing was too dry and sticky – the tiniest splash of something which may or may not have been the advertised “lamb sauce”, whatever that was – and just a little too bland. The cassoulet was meant to be spiced, but if it was I didn’t detect anything. Again, it was closer to decent home cooking than restaurant food.

JessyLamb

Better than the mains themselves were the Brixham crab fries we had on the side – I’d heard much about them during my research, so I wanted to try them myself. I’d say from the shape that they were hand cut, and they came shaken in parsley butter and aioli along with more white crab meat than most places put in their risotto. Even these weren’t flawless – overcooked, more David Dickinson than Gisele – but even so they were gorgeous: nutty, decadent, beautifully dressed. They weren’t strictly needed, and they couldn’t save the mains, but they did distract us from them nicely. Worth seven pounds? Probably, oddly enough.

The plaice wasn’t exactly Moby Dick, so I decided I had room for dessert. As with the rest of the menu, the dessert section is nicely small and everything on it sounds like it has been creatively tweaked (the crème bruleé has brandy poached raspberries, the poached pear is with saffron). I gravitated towards the chocolate fondant, as I so often do, with its fancy promises of Cointreau, yoghurt sorbet and figs, but like everything else it was all mouth and no culinary trousers. If there was any orange in that dish I couldn’t taste it. The inside of the fondant wasn’t particularly runny. The fig – which I foolishly hoped would be roasted – was simply halved into decorative wedges and the sorbet was strawberry, not yoghurt. It wasn’t even strawberry yoghurt. I think I’d rather have just had a bloody strawberry yoghurt by that point. There were more cheffy zig zags of chocolate on top but was it “chocolate syrup” or just caterer’s chocolate sauce? Your guess is as good as mine, and I ate it.

JessyChoc

The wine list wasn’t bad, and I enjoyed the Bordeaux I had which managed a good balance between fruit and complexity – completely wrong for the plaice, of course, but I’ve never let that stand in my way in the past and I don’t intend to start now. Only later did I notice that they also do Kung Fu Girl Riesling, one of my favourite whites, at thirty quid a bottle (if I’d known I’d have had Nando’s first and then camped out on the sofa with a couple of bottles of that). There were no dessert wines per se, but we also had a couple of glasses of Moscato from the sparkling section of the list. They were nice and sweet, but about as sparkling as me at 8am on a Monday morning. The very sweet waiter accidentally managed to throw the best part of a glass of the stuff over my companion, which I found a lot funnier than he did.

Apart from that service throughout was charming and friendly, if rather haphazard. There was one waiter who appeared to do nothing at all and when asked for the bill he had to ask someone else – it turned out it was his first day, but it seemed like he didn’t have a clue what waiting entailed (perhaps he was taking the job description a little too literally). When we left, for a moment I honestly thought he was going to stand there and watch us get our own coats. I wanted to like them, heaven knows I wanted to like Jessy’s in general, but charm only gets you so far when the bill comes to just a touch under a hundred pounds, for two and a half courses and a bottle of wine.

It’s funny how people can have double standards about restaurants. We want to be spoiled, and treated like customers, but we also want to feel like friends. We want the experience to feel genuine and casual, but we don’t like overfamiliarity. We want it to feel special, but we don’t want it to be stuffy. The dream restaurant walks that tightrope perfectly – you feel like you are round a friend’s house (because what is cooking, if not an act of love?) but eating something you couldn’t or wouldn’t possibly make at home. The thing about Jessy’s that makes me saddest is that its heart is so obviously in the right place; it’s a lovely, cosy room and more than once I found myself gazing over at the glowing logs in the wood burner and thinking “how I wish this was perfect”. Close but no cigar, I’m afraid, and on the walk back to the station the only consolation I could find was that I’d dodged doing the washing up. I’ll tell my colleague when I’m back in the office: let’s hope she’s not the sort to say I told you so.

Jessy’s – 6.4
37 Denmark Street, Wokingham, RG40 2AY
0118 3484379

http://www.jessys.co.uk/

Nibsy’s

N.B. As of August 2020 Nibsy’s has reopened. 

You can’t talk about Nibsy’s, I don’t think, without using the G word: I considered writing this whole review and only mentioning gluten – or the lack of it, I should say – at the end, but I decided that it just wasn’t possible. Besides, it’s a big part of how Nibsy’s markets itself (their slogan is “for the love of coffee and all things gluten-free”). Personally, I’ve never had a problem with gluten but I know many people do, and I’m sure a lot of them thought it was an absolute godsend when Nibsy’s opened last summer.

You can however, I hope, write about Nibsy’s without being patronising about gluten free food. Whatever you think about the rights and wrongs of an increasing number of people adopting a gluten free diet, I reckon the food at Nibsy’s deserves to be judged on its merits and not patted on the head as “not bad, considering”. Besides, if anything I’ve generally found that menus that specifically exclude something tend to be more imaginative to make up for it – take Bhel Puri House for example, where you could easily eat all manner of delicious food without realising that everything is vegetarian – so I turned up with an empty stomach and an open mind for a long overdue lunchtime visit.

The first thing to mention is that Nibsy’s looks very different from most of the other independents in town. There’s nothing shabby chic about it: in fact, it could teach most chains a thing or two about presentation. Everything is smart and professional looking and the branding is beautiful, from the writing on the windows, to the mugs, to the packaging for the sandwiches and salad. Although I sat outside, soaking up the sun, the interior is lovely and gets everything right: the furniture is mismatched without being scruffy, it’s cosy without being dishevelled and immaculately clean without being clinical. You only realise how difficult this balance is when you see somewhere like Nibsy’s do it so well.

I get the impression from Nibsy’s Facebook feed that the menu changes on a regular basis. It’s pretty wide – a range of sandwiches, toasted and untoasted, and a couple of salads in the fridges and a quiche behind the counter. We ordered a toasted sandwich and a slice of quiche and were told that the sandwich would come out quicker. This struck me as odd – if you know the quiche takes longer to heat up and you’re serving two hot dishes why not synchronise them and start the sandwich later? Inevitably this meant that we got to try our dishes after the other, instead of having the companionable lunch we were expecting. I thought that was a pity: I might have been “on duty” but it’s not all business, you know.

The toasted sandwich contained a generously gooey helping of mozzarella, some lovely salty black olives and good quality sundried tomatoes. Nothing complicated there, you might think, but with toasties it’s all about the balance and the execution and both were impeccable – I’ve had far too many toasted sandwiches in Reading where the inside is lukewarm or the outside is charred and Nibsy’s didn’t make either mistake. Apart from being slightly denser than usual, I didn’t really notice anything different about the bread – it helped that it was perfectly golden and crisp (I think some butter had been spread on the outside before grilling, which – in my book at least – is how you make a perfect toastie). I loved it from start to finish: if anything my only reservation was that, because it wasn’t the biggest sandwich in the world, start and finish were a bit closer together than I might personally have chosen.

NibsyToastie

The feta and spring onion quiche arrived a mere moment after the sandwich was done. C’est la vie. It was well worth waiting for, though. The pastry was crisp and crumbly (you would never have known it was gluten free, in my opinion) and the filling was fabulous – incredibly cheesy, chock full of spring onions and also with some red pepper and (I think) rocket. Honestly, it was terrific and (I’m happy to say, given the size of the toastie) extremely generous. I wasn’t so convinced by the salad that came with it, however – a big pile of iceberg lettuce. Personally I think of iceberg as the triumph of texture over taste, so I was surprised to see it used here, especially with nothing else in the salad to liven it up. It was dressed, at least, but even then it wasn’t terribly exciting, so I left most of it.

NibsyQuiche

Having heard many rave reviews of Nibsy’s cakes I felt I’d be letting the side down if I didn’t order a few to try the full range of options (although, in the interests of full disclosure, I ought also to declare that I am an enormous – in both senses – fan of cake). The range is impressive: a plethora of sponge cakes, shortbreads and brownies to equal anything you’d find over in Picnic or Workhouse. It was extremely difficult to narrow it down, and a bit of me is still wondering now when I can try the coconut praline cake, or the orange and almond cake, topped with shiny, sticky slices of bright fruit.

Instead, I tried the lemon drizzle cake, possibly the biggest misfire of my meal. Unlike most lemon drizzle cakes I’ve had this wasn’t a loaf, rather it was a layered sponge with lemon curd in the middle. I think maybe lemon drizzle was a misnomer as I didn’t detect any drizzling, no glorious layer of crackling sugar on top, and apart from the lemon curd it lacked the tart zinginess I was expecting. If anything, it was more like a slightly dry Madeira cake – not bad in itself, certainly not bad enough to complain about but not what I was expecting. Not good enough to finish eating, either, and that’s a sad thing to say about any cake.

NibsyLemon

Redemption arrived in the form of the chocolate brownie. “Quite a lot of people don’t finish this” I was told as it was brought to the table, a big slab of cocoa-rich badness. Well, all I can say is that those people have a level of restraint I will never master, and they probably find it easier to buy clothes than I do. It was truly superb – rich and dark without being too bitter or too sweet. I was lucky to get a corner piece so I could properly appreciate the contrast between the crumbly, chewy edges and the soft middle, almost like a ganache. No nuts, no chocolate chips in there – nothing that would distract you from something so perfect. I ate it with a lot of joy and a little too much haste, and by the end I had no regrets about possibly missing out on anything else.

NibsyBrownie

On the side we had Earl Grey and a latte. The Earl Grey – unbranded, so I don’t know who it was by – was served in a small teapot, bagged rather than loose, and was good enough for me to have a second pot (and that was even before I knew the lemon cake would be on the dry side). I’m told the latte was very good – not quite as good as Tamp or Workhouse, better than Picnic or My Kitchen, pretty much up there with Tutti Frutti. There’s not a huge amount of interaction in a café but the service was friendly, smiley and efficient, the glitch around timings aside. The total bill for two lunches, two pieces of cake and three hot drinks was twenty-one pounds. I think that’s pretty much fair enough: if anything was slightly on the pricey side the quality easily made up for it.

If it’s hard to review Nibsy’s without mentioning the G word, it’s even harder to sum up a review without using it. But let’s put to one side for one minute the fact that, for some people in Reading, this is the only place they can realistically go and have lunch without worrying, and judge Nibsy’s on its merits. Good coffee. Good tea. Tasty toasties and a quiche I’m already fantasising about eating again. A brownie that can match any other brownie in town. A huge range of other cakes, tantalisingly in view just down the culinary road less travelled. The only G word we should be using here is great. So yes, on its merits Nibsy’s is an excellent addition to Reading’s food scene and, whatever your dietary requirements, you should consider going there next time you either want lunch or afternoon tea. They may have taken one ingredient out, but to me there isn’t anything missing.

Nibsy’s – 7.7
26 Cross Street, RG1 1SN
0118 9597809

http://www.nibsys.com/