Pachangas, Henley

There are times when I think I’ve almost got the hang of this reviewing thing. In particular I think I’ve got to the stage where I have a reasonably good idea, from looking at a menu, of whether a restaurant is going to be good. Pachangas, a Mexican restaurant in Henley, scored so well on that front that I’d been looking forward to visiting it for some time. The menu made all the right noises: Oaxaca cheese, grilled cactus, slow-cooked pork marinated with chili, orange and tequila, sweet spicy mole (the chocolate and chilli sauce, not the short-sighted animal from Wind In The Willows). So different from Maracas in Reading, where the menu doesn’t really convince me that the owners have had a Damascene conversion from cooking Italian to Mexican food.

I was so excited about going that not even a miserable day in January put me off my trip to Henley. Besides, I reasoned, even if it turned out to be a disappointment there were always consolations – the gorgeous chocolate in Gorvett and Stone for one, the delights of Machin’s (ostensibly a butcher but also selling fantastic cheese, smoked fish, terrific jamon iberico and countless other wonders – if only Reading had somewhere like this) for another. But mainly I was going for Pachangas: I re-read the menu on the bus, feeling like I was about to take a little gastronomic holiday.

Stepping out of the rain, half-mist, half-drizzle (is “mizzle” a word?) and into the restaurant I immediately felt like I’d made an excellent choice. This restaurant used to be the site of a pub called the Beer Tree which had Kozel on draft and a bewildering array of Belgian beers in the fridge; I used to love it back then but it was a bit crude and functional inside. Pachangas was a lot more inviting, all bright-coloured walls and cheery music. I got a warm welcome and was shown to a nice table: on my left I had a view of the rest of the dining room and on my right I could see the grey street outside, the rain intensifying. It felt like I might have been in the only sunshiny part of Henley that day.

The menu presented a couple of challenges. One was not hitting the cocktails in a big way – a wide range were available, not to mention numerous tequilas and several Mexican beers, along with something rather frightening called a michelada which seems to be a mixture of beer, lime juice and hot sauce (another time, perhaps). The other one, as I said, was narrowing it down when nearly everything looked worth a punt. Even the burger – in a tortilla wrap rather than a bun – appealed, bringing back happy memories of sadly departed Oracle restaurant Santa Fe (the unforgettable, dimly-remembered evenings I’ve had there!). The other thing that struck me about the menu was just how much of it was available gluten free – well worth knowing if you’re eating out with someone who doesn’t eat gluten.

After all the horse trading was complete, the orders had been placed and the wine was ordered we sat back in anticipation. I had high hopes, which if anything were justified by a little freebie to start with – two little gluten free rolls, still warm and filled with rich, elastic cheese. Just beautiful. But then, I smugly told myself, I knew it would be good because I knew a good menu when I saw it.

The first of the starters was further corroborative evidence. Calamares picantes were dusted with flour rather than battered and apparently shallow rather than deep fried and came sprinkled with chilli, coriander and beautifully whiffy slivers of fried garlic. The squid was among the best I can remember – so tender, free from any bounce or twang and clearly very fresh indeed. It was so good that I didn’t really mind that the coating didn’t entirely stick to it. All it meant was that at the end I had loads of little pieces of it to eat, fun-sized explosions of chilli, garlic and (I think) lime. Funny how sometimes, like the powder at the bottom of a packet of dry roasted peanuts, or the vinegary shards left when you’ve nearly finished your Chipsticks, the best bit comes at the last. There was also some kind of spiced dip like a mayonnaise, not mentioned on the menu, which didn’t add much and probably wasn’t really needed. I left most of it, but I didn’t feel like I’d missed out.

PachangaCalamares

The other starter was where the problems began; the tamal pachangas were described as “handmade corn masa parcels filled with spiced pork and steamed in plantain leaf served with mole negro and fried plantain” which sounded delicious. Sadly the corn parcel (singular) was quite cakelike – thick, sweet and rather claggy. The pork inside wasn’t particularly spicy but then there was so little of it that it struggled to overcome the exterior. The mole sauce was also sweet but it did have a kick of chilli so that it wasn’t completely dull. The best bit, by far, was the fried plantain which came on the side, a bit like eating banana fritter without the batter – sweet and a little bit naughty – and it was really lovely with the mole sauce. But even so, the whole plate felt like I had ordered dessert by mistake, and not a terribly good dessert at that.

PachangaTamal

The starters had been so Jekyll and Hyde that I wondered quite what the mains would be like. I’d had my eye on the fish tacos since I first looked at the menu and when they turned up they seriously looked the part – three tacos, piled high, served in some kind of zigzag contraption intended to make them easier to eat. And you couldn’t argue with the volume – two big strips of fish in each one, a heap of spiced mayonnaise on top and some salad and guacamole underneath. The problem was that they were so very bland: the fish was described on the menu as halibut tempura and I can’t give the menu the benefit of the doubt without criticising the kitchen because they felt like standard goujons of an unremarkable white fish to me. The spiced mayonnaise, which might have been the same one that came with the squid, was not particularly spiced. If anything it felt like Thousand Island Dressing’s zany friend, the one who’s never invited to parties. It came with a relatively pleasant bowl of rice – I’m not sure why as there was nothing to eat the rice with – and didn’t come with black beans, despite the promise of the menu. The whole thing was piping hot and difficult to eat: nothing wrong with that when a dish is delicious and you want to devour every last mouthful, but when it’s all a bit blah it soon becomes a chore. The thing that disappointed me most, though, was how thoroughly this dish punctured my expectations.

PachangaTaco

Then came the enchilada mole poblano. I was expecting to see two fat corn tortillas, filled with chicken and sauce and, most importantly, flavour. After all, that’s what the menu led me to expect. What arrived instead was the Mexican version of a chicken and cheese toasted sandwich; rather than two big fat cylinders I got three sad, flat little tortillas with shredded chicken and melted cheese inside and a swoosh of mole across the top. That was it. No flavour or spice in the chicken at all. This time round even the mole – a complex, intense mix of seventeen ingredients according to the menu – didn’t seem to have any chilli in it, let alone anything else other than chocolate. The tortillas, sadly, were just boring – sub-Old El Paso, in fact. It came with more of the rice (which tasted mostly of garlic) and refried beans (which tasted mostly of mashed bean). My guest was a member of the Anti-Coriander Brigade – I hear there are more of them than you might think – so had asked them to leave it out, but I couldn’t help wondering if they’d left everything out just to be safe. Including the flavour.

PachangaEnchilada

I did like the sweet potato fries (“Pachanga fries”) we ordered as a side: sweet potato can be a tricky vegetable, but they’d managed to get the fries perfectly crispy. But let’s face it, if the fries are the high point you’ve either had amazing fries or a pretty iffy meal, and these fries weren’t amazing.

We had a glass of red wine each. The Chilean merlot was nicely smooth and smoky and the Mexican syrah – Mexican wine does exist, believe it or not – was drinkable but unremarkable. Both were about a fiver a glass (in hindsight, maybe I should have had a “Bloody Pirate”, a Bloody Mary made with rum rather than vodka, instead). The best bit of the experience was undoubtedly the service which was lovely throughout: both the waiters that looked after us were friendly, knowledgeable and checked up on us just often enough without it feeling over the top. I’m no expert but their accents sounded South American at least and very possibly Mexican which gave me confidence (the second best bit of the experience, incidentally, was that you have to go through a saloon door to get to the loo – what’s not to like about that?)

I nearly gave Pachangas a chance to redeem itself through dessert (I had my eye on the churros) but a combination of fullness and disappointment made me rule it out. The total bill for two courses and a glass of wine each was fifty-nine pounds, excluding service.

Something magical has happened several times while writing Edible Reading where I’ve gone to an unprepossessing restaurant with no real expectations and gone away thoroughly delighted and surprised. Pachangas is a rare example of the opposite phenomenon – and I suppose it had to happen eventually – where everything looks good on paper but it just didn’t come together. The food didn’t quite live up to the menu: sometimes literally, in that what you ordered and what you got weren’t quite the same thing. But more generally the menu made wonderful promises about flavour which the kitchen just didn’t keep. Whether they’re playing it safe because they’re in Henley, or whether they just have a gift for writing which isn’t matched by their cooking I don’t know. Either way, it’s a salutary lesson for me at the start of the year that I’m not quite as good a judge of menus as I thought I was. But after all, if you could tell how good a restaurant was just by looking at the menu, who’d need restaurant reviews?

Pachangas – 6.6
30 Duke Street, Henley-on-Thames, RG9 1UP
01491 413000

http://www.pachangas.co.uk/

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Villa Marina, Henley

Long before George Clooney and his tuxedo wafted into Berkshire the original famous George – Cole, of course – was ensconced in Stoke Row, enjoying his twilight years in a lovely almost-in-Berkshire village with its very own Michelin recommended pub, the Crooked Billet (itself famous for catering the first of Kate Winslet’s weddings). And you can keep your Clooneys and Winslets: I bet if you’d happened to bump into George Cole in the pub you’d have had a terrific evening.

It seemed fitting to go to the Crooked Billet for the ER second anniversary review, as a mark of respect and all that, but it wasn’t to be. Even if I hadn’t got lost on the way (just once, I promise, but it could easily have been more) it still felt like too much of an expedition, too far off the beaten single-track with no passing places, not to mention the fact that it didn’t have any tables available when we arrived. Even restaurant reviewers sometimes don’t realise that they’ll need to book. On a Tuesday night. Miles away from civilisation.

Deciding where to go instead involved much head-scratching, especially as the beautiful villages out that way are usually sited in areas of outstandingly poor mobile reception. Instead we drove to Henley (getting lost another time) and drifted through town wondering where we could eat before everywhere shut up shop for the night. So Villa Marina was the second choice this week, although it nicely echoes Pepe Sale (the first restaurant I ever reviewed), also an independent Italian restaurant with a touch of old school style.

The restaurant was reasonably busy for a Tuesday night if not packed out, and it had the sort of warm prosperous glow that will draw you in after an hour of fruitless driving around the Chilterns (but I was hungry, so in truth a Wimpy might have had the same effect). The main dining room, an L shaped affair, was classically smart with crisp white tablecloths and cleverly done lighting: every table had a spot light on it, a nice touch which meant it managed the trick of being intimately lit but bright enough to see the food. The smartness extended to the clientele – all the men in the restaurant, without exception, were wearing collars. I can’t vouch for the redness of the trousers, but you wouldn’t have bet against it.

The menu was classic Italian with few surprises but quite a lot to tempt. I was impressed by its compactness: only a couple of pasta options (in their rightful place in the starters section and little or no encouragement to “go large” for a main) and no pizza. It’s didn’t look like a menu that was trying to be all things to all people, and that gave me confidence. We made our decisions – rather difficult ones, as it happened – while eating soft brown rolls spread with sundried tomato paste and salty, powerful tapenade.

The first starter was one of the specials that night; avocado with prawns and crab. It was very generous – a whole avocado filled with plenty of prawns and crab in a pretty standard dressing a la Marie Rose. There were little signs of finesse here and there (someone had spent time cutting red and yellow peppers into very, very small dice) and the big wedges of tomato were surprisingly tasty which hinted at decent ingredients. And yet, even though I should have loved it, I just liked it. Perhaps the blame is mine: it’s the kind of dish I order frequently – Dolce Vita does a similar version with smoked salmon – so maybe I should have been more adventurous. Either way, it was nicely done but not exciting.

VillaCrab

The other dish was more successful, if also slightly restrained. Orechiette with prawns in a tomato sauce was quite a lovely little thing and, if anything, that overstates how much pasta was involved and understates how many prawns there were. The prawns were beauties, too – six big fat firm fresh specimens with just enough sweetness. The sauce was earthy and savoury, also with a touch of fish (perhaps there was some stock involved). Orechiette is one of my favourite pasta shapes, just right to trap sauce without being a faff to eat as conchiglie can be, and it worked perfectly. A little wilted rocket, some sweet cherry tomatoes and intense sundried tomatoes rounded things out nicely. I would have liked the pesto advertised on the menu, but mainly out of fear of missing out: I can’t say it would have improved it.

VillaPasta

The mains followed far more quickly than I’d have liked. Monkfish with tarragon and brandy cream sauce was a delight: three decent sized pieces of monkfish in a deceptively light sauce with hints of tarragon (I always find tarragon a bit coconutty, although I suspect this is some form of culinary synaesthesia unique to me). This was under sixteen pounds, which I thought was pretty good value: most restaurants would charge more and/or serve a portion so small as to need a microscope (I still remember the weird little nuggets of cotton-wool I was served at River Spice: that was a monkfish waiting to be defrocked).

VillaMonkfish

Saltimbocca was good but didn’t quite hit the heights – the veal itself was superb, delicate and tender and the parma ham was good quality stuff. But there just wasn’t enough sage which meant it didn’t have the earthy punch that it needed, and the sauce was a bit too light, thin and subtle. Like much of the food it was a little too well-behaved when what I really wanted were a few more sharp edges. I wonder which came first – the crisp décor and the well-dressed clientele or the impeccable, slightly safe food?

VillaSaltim

You pay extra for vegetables. We got a bowl of sautéed potatoes (salty with a hint of rosemary) and another of steamed, buttered mange tout, carrots and sugar snap peas, along with two of the tiniest florets of broccoli I have ever seen. The menu says that they are three pounds fifty but neglects to mention that this is per person, and that felt a bit cheeky when you don’t have any choice but to order it (the single lettuce leaf that comes with the monkfish won’t count as vegetables in anyone’s book). Perhaps the mains weren’t quite as good value as I’d thought.

That said, the extras were good – the potatoes were beautifully crisp (deep fried rather than done in a pan, I’d guess) and the vegetables, with just enough crunch and taste, were perfect with what sauce there was. But still, three pounds fifty per person stung a bit when the bill arrived. Three pounds was much better spent on the accompanying zucchini fritti we ordered, because these were fabulous – super light, wonderfully crispy, coated (I think) in a little semolina flour. An undignified fight broke out for the last few little scraps: I won.

Another sign of how old-school Villa Marina was came when it was time to choose dessert. Nothing as modish as a menu here, instead the dessert trolley was wheeled round to our table and we got to review the selection. Dessert trollies also feel like a dying breed (I’m not sure any Reading restaurants have one, since Casa Roma closed) and I’m never sure how I feel about them. On the one hand, it’s nice to have a clear idea what your dessert will look like, on the other I quite like a hot pudding and a trolley pretty much rules that out. I was tempted by the tiramisu but went for the chocolate cake, essentially a layer of mousse on top of a sponge base. Again, it was a solid but unspectacular choice, sweet without being synthetic but certainly not overflowing with complexity or cocoa solids.

If I went back I’d have the tiramisu, but it’s an if not a when and there are a few reasons for that. One is the service, which was very much Jekyll and Hyde. The waiters were friendly and suave, smiling and looking after their customers. Even the slips and mistakes were overflowing with charm in a rather crumpled, eminently forgivable way. But the waitresses seemed to have attended the Rosa Klebb Finishing School. The young lady who introduced the dessert trolley had a way of rattling off the list of options that was so abrupt and unsmiling that it reminded me of a prison camp guard. Similarly, there was an older lady who stalked through the room with an expression so dour that I was slightly scared to engage with her. If the men were old school, the women were borstal.

Aside from the service, the other problem was the pace of everything – we’d finished three courses and been rushed out of the room in little over an hour, and that always puts me right off a place. Part of that I suppose is down to the dessert trolley and having your third course dished up right in front of you but even so, leisurely it wasn’t. The total bill, including a 12.5% “optional” service charge was eighty-five pounds. That was for two and a half courses and one glass of wine each (the recommended wines by the glass, a chianti and a chardonnay, were both nice enough to merit a mention but neither made me devastated that I couldn’t have more).

The size of the bill was a nasty surprise: adding the service charge slightly ruined it for me because it made the total look worse than it was (and, left to my own devices, I highly doubt I would have tipped that much). Quite aside from the stealth charged vegetables the price of the special starter – nearly eleven quid – also made my eyes water, ever so slightly. Perhaps if the whole affair had taken a couple of hours I wouldn’t have minded so much, but I did keep thinking about other ways that I could have spent the same amount of money. Nobody wants to have that uppermost in their mind when leaving a restaurant.

If you were opening a restaurant in Reading today, you wouldn’t open Villa Marina. That kind of high-end, slightly starched Italian restaurant, although not dying out per se, hasn’t been seen in Reading for a very long time (perhaps Topo Gigio, long closed on the top floor of King’s Walk, was the closest equivalent). I quite enjoyed my visit there, although it did feel partly like an evening out and partly the gastronomic equivalent of time travel. No shame in that, but it did make me value Reading’s restaurants just that little bit more, from the slightly naff marble tables at Pepe Sale to the no-frills room at Papa Gee, looking out onto the Caversham Road rather than the Thames. For that matter, it also made me appreciate how warm and reliable the service at Dolce Vita is, compared to the partially defrosted equivalent in Villa Marina. It all felt a bit Henley, and if there was a blog called Edible Henley I imagine they’d rave about this place. But we do things slightly differently in Reading, I’m very pleased to say.

Villa Marina – 7.0
18 Thameside, Henley-on-Thames, RG9 1BH
01491 575262
http://www.villamarina-henley.com/