The Little Angel, Henley

I was really sad when I heard the news a few weeks back that the Lyndhurst had closed down, another casualty in the ongoing battle between landlords and pubcos. One thing Reading still lacks is a decent range of town centre pubs that do good food. It’s not all terrible: we have the Moderation (although it’s hit and miss, and a bit out of town); the Nag’s Head (just for the pulled pork rolls really, but they’re dead good); and of course I Love Paella at The Horn, but I had high hopes that the Lyndhurst might be that place. Well, it turns it out it wasn’t. Even before it closed it never quite got there, it lost its chef and despite its shiny refurbishment the last couple of times I went I felt like it had stopped trying.

I daydream that one day Reading could get an establishment like Bristol’s brilliant Bank Tavern, a place that still looks like a well=worn boozer but does a small range of beautiful dishes. But days like today that seems a long way off, so this week I headed to Henley, home of the wonderful Three Tuns, to see if lightning really could strike twice in the same place.

The Little Angel is not to be confused with the more well-known Angel on the Bridge in the centre of town (the one with the tourists, plastic cups and a nerve shredding seating area suspended over the river). The Little Angel is just the other side of that bridge, where the road forks between Wargrave and Remenham, yards from the boat clubs and the areas where most of the Henley Regatta excitement happens (if you class that sort of thing as exciting).

The pub itself is an attractive white building with a large conservatory painted in a muted olive green. We originally decided to sit in the conservatory – it was a hot day, and the open doors were very welcome – but eventually decided to move because it was such an ugly room. Maybe at night, filled with people and with the Moroccan lanterns hanging from the ceiling it might have been a lovely place, but daylight didn’t improve it. Instead you saw the mismatched tables and chairs, the scruffy unattractive tablecloths and got a slight sense of decline. It wasn’t inviting.

Back in the main pub itself things were much nicer, although still rather empty, and we got to have a good look at the menu. It had just enough flashes of variation – turmeric, cardamom and cinnamon spiced rice, aromatic duck broth, harissa marinated chicken – to lift it from the usual pub fare of pork belly, burgers, sausage and mash. Annoyingly, in the couple of weeks since I visited the menu has now changed completely: frustrating to experience as a reviewer, but good to see as a diner (although really, you ought to change your menu more than once every five months if your website is going to talk about your love of seasonal food). There were, in the pub’s defence, a couple of specials up on the board.

Originally we were tempted to start with a sharing platter but neither of them quite grabbed us enough, because they seemed to be one or two nice things from the starters section with a lot of padding (houmous, baby chipolatas, the kind of stuff you find in the “picnic” section of Marks & Sparks).

Instead I went for one of the more interesting-sounding starters on the menu. Spiced squash and goat’s cheese samosa was nice if not wildly exciting: two small samosas which tasted mainly of goat’s cheese, possibly because squash is too delicate a flavour to compete with all that salt. The pastry was thin and crisp with the sort of fluffy cheesiness inside that you’d expect from hot goat’s cheese. I was really expecting this to be lifted by the accompanying curried cauliflower purée, served as an arty smear on the side. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Unfortunately it didn’t bring enough punch to be worth adding – not enough spice, not enough flavour, lacking the courage of its convictions. Toasted almond flakes, always a welcome addition, brought a bit of much needed texture but even so it was hard to feel enthusiastic about the whole thing.

LAParcels

The chicken and guinea fowl terrine was also a dish beset with problems. There’s a fine line between subtle and clean-tasting on the one hand and bland on the other. I’m still not entirely sure which side of it the terrine fell on – there was a bit of tarragon, which I loved, but overall it was still a bit dry and softly-spoken for me. Drier still because the advertised focaccia really wasn’t focaccia. None of that moist, cakelike feel, no drizzled oil, no lovely oozy toasted texture. It was just bread. The last possible salvation, the balsamic fruit chutney, wasn’t really chutney. It was a small ramekin almost exclusively full of raisins (which I personally don’t like).

Also, I don’t normally complain about how dishes are served – slates, boards, they’re all fine with me – but I do like to have enough space to actually eat the blasted thing. No such joy here – all of it was crammed on to a small board as if it had been forced to walk the plank, and it was difficult to press your dry terrine on to your dry toast before sprinkling it with dry raisins without getting some overboard. If that doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, it’s because it wasn’t.

LATerrine

I’ve been to many restaurants where the starters were amazing, my hopes got raised and then a mediocre main turned up. That’s the nature of starters, it’s easier for them to leave you wanting more. But I’ve rarely experienced it the other way round, where an iffy starter gives way to an outstanding main, so by this stage it felt like our hopes had been way too high. We got as far as checking the train timetable to make sure we wouldn’t be caught in Henley for too long and planned a quick exit ready to be back in Reading for a digestif (well, pint) in the Allied before last orders. It felt like the Little Angel was going to be another lacklustre out of town pub no one would bother to go to, a review no one would want to read.

Then something remarkable happened: our mains arrived.

Harissa chicken was an interesting alternative to piri piri chicken, a supreme of chicken, juicy and yielding, the skin crisp but not overly so and the coating tasty but not fiery. A deceptively simple, nice thing. It came with chorizo dauphinoise, a new one on me and a salutary lesson in how to do something useful and tasty with the thin slices of catering chorizo that can so often feel like a let down. Here, discs of it were slipped between the layers of the dauphinoise, releasing their brick-red juices and adding an extra dimension. The potatoes were still a little dry (maybe the whole thing needed a tad more cream) but I liked it. Shredded mange tout, sitting underneath the whole affair, were really lovely – barely cooked, lots of crunch and sweetness and coated in something like chilli oil to add some heat (a side dish, of more mange tout with beans, shallot and chilli, was very similar). Not a hugely sophisticated dish, and possibly something you could recreate easily at home, but well thought out and well balanced.

LAChicken

The other dish was the find of the whole meal, and nothing like what I expected from the menu. “Braised, shredded lamb and rosemary parcel” was the description, and if that wasn’t entirely accurate I have some sympathy because I too find this dish incredibly hard to describe. Parcel suggests it’s wrapped in something (generally pastry, I suppose), but what I got instead was a big dome of shredded lamb (shoulder, I’d guess), rosemary, potatoes and vegetables, bounded by itself. What was it? I still don’t know. Not quite a faggot, not quite a steamed pudding, not quite a meatball, not quite like anything I’ve ever eaten. What it was, though, was delicious. Huge, hearty, tasty and utterly bewildering. It came with a lovely, rich, sticky jus, a sweet smudge of puréed carrot and plenty of heritage carrots – thick, perfectly cooked, a riot of orange and purple to stop the dish being relentlessly brown. I’m sometimes critical of websites like Alt Reading for reviewing plays you can no longer see, so I feel a bit bad about enthusing about this dish: again I find myself cursing the Little Angel for changing their menu so recently, because I wish some of you could have tried this.

LALamb

So, iffy starters, terrific mains… and the desserts? Well, I’m afraid we’ll never know: I chickened out. I almost wanted to retain that element of suspense, and I couldn’t quite bear the idea that the lamb parcel might turn out to have been a gorgeous fluke. A shame in some ways, as again the desserts looked more interesting than run of the mill; I was especially pleased to see no chocolate brownie on there, always such a lazy choice for kitchens (although guess what? They’ve since added one on the new menu). So we settled up – dinner for two, two courses and a glass of wine each was fifty-three pounds, excluding tip. The wines in question were a Chilean chardonnay – perfect for the sunny evening; cold, crisp and easy to drink – and a cherry-packed Malbec. Service was respectable, with a very chatty, friendly bar manager and a slightly shy waitress actually doing the fetching and carrying.

If the Little Angel was in Reading, it would be a lovely place to go on a weekday evening or a Friday night. Reasonably priced (starters around the seven pound mark, mains for thirteen), comfy, a menu showing signs of imagination. Forming a relationship with a regular restaurant is like a friendship – the first impression is good, you enjoy that first meeting, you want to know more and then eventually you’re prepared to overlook an off night. And I can see that if the Little Angel was nearby that could definitely happen: yes, the starters were a little disappointing, but inconsistency isn’t the worst thing to level at a kitchen when it’s also capable of moments of magic like that lamb parcel. Even out of town, I can see that it would be worth a trip if you’re out that way (and you like the look of their new menu, of course). Most of all, this makes me sad that Reading doesn’t have that kind of place quite yet: casual dining is still too much a market cornered by the chains. So next time I have a weekday evening free, off duty, and I want to eat out you’ll probably find me at The Horn. Eating paella. Doing my bit.

The Little Angel – 7.0
Remenham Lane, Henley-on-Thames, RG9 2LS
01491 411008

http://www.thelittleangel.co.uk/

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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/

The Square, Henley

I like to think, by now, that I’ve got a pretty good idea what people are interested in reading about on ER. You love a hatchet job, you want to hear about restaurants and cafés in the centre of Reading and, perhaps more than anything, you like the discoveries: places you’ve never heard of or would never have considered going to which get good reviews. You’re not so fussed about places that are too far away and you don’t much like wishy-washy reviews where I like somewhere but don’t love it. Am I close?

So, with all that in mind I headed off to Henley (bad) to review somewhere that I was hoping would be a bit of a find (good). Well, to spoil the ending for those of you who don’t scroll down and back up again, it wasn’t a find. But don’t worry, because it was so bafflingly bad that you might stick around anyway to read the rest of the review (good for you, regrettably bad for me).

I almost went to The Square a few months back on my last visit to Henley, but the blinds were ominously drawn. At the time, I worried that it had closed down and I’d missed my chance to try out this attractive looking Portuguese place in a prime location on the market square. It later transpired that I’d worried unduly (they’re just closed on Tuesdays). I took that to be a good sign, signifying that they were doing well enough to give the staff a day off. More fool me: sadly when I went back this time, it was open.

Inside it wasn’t exactly busy – four other tables were occupied when we turned up on Saturday night, peak time for any restaurant. That probably should have rung some alarm bells, as should the fact that when I phoned to book a table at very short notice the chap on the other end of the phone didn’t even need to take a name. I must have been having an off night, because I sat down, Spidey senses resolutely tingle-free. Perhaps I was deceived by the surroundings: it’s actually quite a nice dining room, with dark wood tables and floor, the walls hung with fishing nets filled with shells, sea-themed pictures around the room. That makes it sound like Old Gregg’s boudoir, but in reality it was more rustic fisherman chic.

The menu was bewilderingly big, with large sections for fish, seafood and meat dishes. Again, I took encouragement from one of the waiters coming out with a good-looking platter of fresh fish and shellfish to show what was on offer. There was also a section of speciality dishes for a minimum of two people to share, all described as “rice pots”. I asked one of the waiters to tell me a bit more about those and even now I’m struggling to remember what he told me (a combination of his mumbling and the vagueness of his response). They sounded a bit like paella, and he particularly recommended the lobster version (“we put a lot in”, he said), so in the end we went for that. We were told this would take thirty-five minutes to cook, so he practically sprinted to the kitchen to tell them before coming back to take the rest of our order. Maybe, with hindsight, he was worried that we might change our mind.

We ordered some bread with sardine and tuna paté to tide us over and this is where it all started to go wrong. I don’t normally photograph the bread, but here I just had to. I was expecting a basket of crusty bread with a couple of small ramekins of paté. What arrived was seven anaemic slices of what looked like part-baked supermarket baguette with some catering packs of butter and paté. The “paté” was Portugal’s answer to Shippam’s (something I’ve not eaten since about 1985), smooth to the point of being unidentifiable. In fairness, even if it wasn’t pleasant I suppose it was authentic: it’s almost exactly what I was served at O Beirão, Reading’s Portuguese restaurant. But there it was free, and here I was paying three pounds for the dubious privilege.

What The Square also seemed to miss was that the bread was completely insufficient for the spreads it came with. I would have minded the three quid less if I could actually have eaten it all but there was so little bread that doing so was impossible without piling the paté ludicrously high. I just hope the restaurant has a cat who could make use of the leftovers. Not terribly appealing: I prayed that the starters were going to be an improvement.

SquareBread

They weren’t. First up was the chouriço assado, described as “flame grilled Portuguese sausage, served in traditional cookware”. I was hoping for something a bit like Spanish chorizo cooked in wine, all salty and coarse with those delicious brick-red juices at the bottom. I was very far from correct. What I got instead was simply awful: a gigantic horseshoe of chorizo, served on a pot in the shape of a rowboat which is quite hard to describe. It sort of rested on the “seat” with some liquid underneath – I dread to think what – which had been set alight to flambée the sausage (flambée the sausage, come to think of it, sounds like a euphemism for something unspeakable) just before it reached the table.

The outside was slightly charred in places but the real problems came when I cut into it. Not that that was easy, because it was served on a flipping boat shaped pot with no suitable surfaces on which to do the deed. I sawed away (trying to rest the sausage on the seat) and chewed a couple of slices for a few minutes, although it felt like longer. It was both grisly and gristly. I inflicted a slice on my companion, who unsurprisingly didn’t thank me for it. The next slice was almost entirely a big white globule of fat and that, I’m sorry to say, is where I gave up. All the metaphors I could use to describe this dish would remind you – very quickly – of whatever you ate last, so let’s leave it at that. I put down my knife and fork and waited to see if anyone came to check on us. They didn’t.

SquareSausage

The other dish was king prawns wrapped in Portuguese bacon and pan fried. It was four decent sized prawns cooked nicely and indeed wrapped in bacon. The heads and tails came off cleanly and the prawns tasted of their component parts, no more, no less. There were also a couple of needless sections of red, green and yellow pepper. This wasn’t bad by comparison with the chouriço, but you could say the same about a Fray Bentos. I was hoping for some juices, but there weren’t any. I didn’t mop-up the non-existent juices with the remaining bread they hadn’t given me.

SquarePrawns

The waiter returned to clear the plates and looked baffled by the almost entirely uneaten sausage. I tried to explain what I hadn’t liked about it. Doing so briefly was something of a challenge. He shrugged. I was worried that I hadn’t explained properly, so I had another go. More shrugging. The plate was taken away, with no apology or offer to take it off the bill or anything else. Then he asked whether I wanted to order something else, but with no indication as to whether I’d be paying for that or not. We then reached a consensus that, as the main course was quite big, I probably wouldn’t need a starter. The whole thing was a truly bizarre interchange. It was rendered even more bizarre by him asking if we wanted to keep our half-finished tubs of tuna and sardine paté: as there was no bread left I’m not sure what he thought we were going to do with them.

On to the main event then – the lobster rice pot, at forty-five pounds for two one of the priciest things on the menu. We were brought lobster crackers and those little picky-outy-lobster-bit tools (apologies for blinding you with technical terms) and I realised that I had naively expected the kitchen to do some of the hard work for us. My mistake, I suppose. Anyway, the large pot was brought to the table and the waiter ladled out a portion for each of us.

The lobster, admittedly, was good. Very fresh and, when it was eventually possible to pick up the shell (which was as hot as Hades, of course), generally the flesh came away very easily. The meat was tender and delicate and it did look to me like we had a whole lobster between us. That’s where the good news ends. The rice, fluffy long grain, had been cooked for too long so there was no bite there. The sauce was a generic stock with some coriander to try and give it a bit of freshness.

SquareLobster

I’m beginning to sympathise with the trouble the waiter had describing it, but I suppose he could hardly have said “it’s a very bland rice dish with some lobster in it”. I can though, because that’s what it was. Was it a forty-five pound dish? Put it this way – at the peerless Bird In Hand in Sonning Common I could have a whole lobster to myself for twenty-seven pounds, so to pay roughly the same for half a (not very big) lobster and some flavourless rice seems cynical. If this is a signature dish, you have to worry about the restaurant’s handwriting.

To drink we had an Appletiser (for the driver) and a very nice smoky glass of Portuguese red. If the restaurant had been good I would have regretted not being able to mount a concerted assault on the wine list. If it had been good we would have had a dessert and I would have wanted a port – a lovely rich vintage, or a sweet, subtle tawny. As it was, much as the meal could only have been improved with alcohol, I was glad we could cut our losses and leave.

As so often, the moment I started to actively dislike the food the waiter tried a little harder to be nice. In the early stages he seemed to struggle to communicate, whether that was describing the menu or explaining what we could do about The Dismal Sausage. After that he was a lot more attentive, asking whether everything was okay with the main course, whether we needed any more drinks, whether we wanted dessert and so on. But of course the damage was done by then – and most of the damage was done in the kitchen rather than front of house. Proof that their intentions were better than their delivery came when the bill arrived; dinner for two came to sixty three pounds (the chouriço had been taken off).

So there you have it: this week I went out of town to a restaurant which I hoped would be a find and turned out to be a disaster. And this is definitely not about Portuguese food, which is probably what frustrates me the most. Portuguese cuisine deserves a better ambassador than The Square: Lisbon is an absolutely incredible city full of great cured meat, fantastic fish and seafood, and magnificent cheeses, not to mention the stunning wine. Having been there I don’t understand why it doesn’t have as good a culinary reputation as any European capital. I can only imagine it’s because of places like The Square. I want to be kind, but everything I ate was either iffy or average. Every average thing I ate was expensive. And worst of all? I’ve just spent two thousand words telling you not to go somewhere you’ve never heard of and wouldn’t visit anyway. That sticks in my throat even more than the chouriço did.

The Square – 4.9
10 Market Place, Henley-on-Thames, RG9 2AH
01491 578681

http://thesquarehenley.com/

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/

Giggling Squid, Henley

Although most ER reviews are of independent restaurants, I’m not against chains for the sake of it. Not all chains are the same: there are big and small ones, good and bad ones – just as there’s a difference between the silver chain you’d hang a pendant from and the lunking great thing you’d use to secure your bike to the railings.

I was struck by this wandering round Henley on a sunny Bank Holiday Monday, because they have chains just like Reading does, only different ones. So there are shops like Space NK and Joule’s – the next tier up, you could say, places in the same bracket as Jigsaw and LK Bennett. It’s the same with cafés and restaurants, so Henley has a Maison Blanc, a Hotel du Vin, and a CAU. I did briefly consider going to CAU to find out what we had to look forward to when the Reading branch opens this month, but nothing about the décor appealed: the nasty rigid white chairs and sterile banquettes screamed “downmarket Gaucho”.

Besides, I was on my way to a more intriguing phenomenon: Giggling Squid has grown from a single branch in Hove six years ago to a chain of thirteen restaurants (many of them opening in sites which used to belong to other chains – a handful used to be branches of Strada, Henley’s was previously an ill-fated Brasserie Gerard). And there are more on the way – the management wants to make this the first nationwide Thai chain, with plans for somewhere between fifty and eighty sites. It’s funny how, despite the popularity of Thai, Indian and Chinese food they still tend, by and large, to be chain-free zones (unless you count the delights of Ken Hom’s Yellow River Café, one of the Oracle’s first ever tenants way back when). I’ve never understood why that is – was Giggling Squid going to challenge that status quo?

It’s a lovely old building at the bottom of Hart Street and it’s been done up very nicely. On the way there I walked past Henley’s long-serving restaurant, Thai Orchid and it was the picture of an old-fashioned Thai restaurant, all dark wood, ornate panelling and intricate, inlaid, glass-topped dining tables. Giggling Squid couldn’t be more different, with its pale walls, exposed beams and almost Scandinavian bleached bentwood chairs. The front room, where I sat, was more traditional – the big room at the back was much better lit and I’d rather have sat there, but I didn’t have much choice in the matter. Which brings me to the second thing I noticed about it: it was absolutely rammed (I was lucky to get a table at all without a reservation, and quite a few couples who came in after me were turned away).

Giggling Squid bills itself as “Thai Tapas & Thai Restaurant”. The idea of anything other than Spanish food describing itself as tapas makes me feel a little exasperated, but what it essentially means is that at lunchtime, rather than having a traditional a la carte menu the main options are one of six “tapas sets”, each of them a mixture of three different dishes and jasmine rice. You can order lots of tapas separately instead, although I’m not sure why anyone would unless you really disliked the set combinations, or you can have what they describe as “one big dish with rice” or a “two dish meal combi”. This all felt overly complicated for me – did I want one big dish, two middling dishes or four small dishes? was there an option of having eight minuscule dishes? – so we went for a tapas selection each. And some prawn crackers. And some chicken satay (which by my reckoning makes a total of ten small dishes, sort of).

Despite the restaurant being extremely busy everything arrived very quickly indeed. Prawn crackers came in a metal pail and were good but unexceptional. It was a huge portion of crackers and an absurdly tiny ramekin of sweet chilli sauce – I couldn’t help feeling I would have liked less crackers and more dip, but they were pleasant enough and lasted just until the rest of the food turned up.

So, on to the tapas (if I really must call it that) itself: a square plate divided into four with something different on each section. Much as I might have wanted to turn my nose up at the concept I couldn’t fault the food. Shredded duck spring roll was a huge thing, full of dense strands of duck, served on a surprisingly subtle puddle of hoi sin that wasn’t just relentless sweetness. Prawn toasts were much better than I expected, crispy and light with a gorgeous layer of toasted sesame, served with more of the sweet chilli sauce. Salt and pepper squid was not at all chewy and the batter was beautifully light (maybe too light, as it did fall off the squid the moment it was challenged with a fork) served on another puddle of sauce – this time hot chilli with no sweetness. The beef salad was the cousin of the chicken salad I raved about from Art of Siam – soft, tender strips of beef on top of a bowl of salad filled to the brim with hot, sharp, sour sauce. It was agony and ecstasy to eat and would be perfect for anyone with a bit of congestion – the heat would soon clear that up.

WealthySquid

Because of the set combinations we’d gone for (“Two Giggling Squids” and “Wealthy Squid”, I have no idea why they’re called that, so don’t even ask) we had massaman curry two ways. The lamb was gorgeous, slow cooked and reassuringly free of wobble and the chicken was in tender, slender slices. There were nice firm chunks of potato, lots of onion and a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on how you look at it) sprinkling of crispy fried onion on top. The sauce was perhaps a little subtler than I’m used to but still went beautifully with the rest of the rice – and I’ve always thought, and said many times, that the rice and sauce at the end of a Thai main course is the best bit.

2Squids

The chicken satay, ordered as an extra out of curiosity, was probably more food than we needed but again, it was very good: tender, soft chicken, not dried-out fibrous breast meat, easy to slide off the skewers and dunk in a fresh clear dipping sauce or a spiced but fragrant satay sauce that was a lot more than hot Sun-Pat. We finished the lot, although it put paid to any plans I had for dessert – a pity, as I had my eye on the black sesame ice cream. Still, there’s always next time.

The menu, come to think of it, was full of little flashes of personality like that which made it feel a lot less like a chain. That really came across in the wine list in particular which managed that rare trick of getting a slightly irreverent tone without making you want to cringe. Written by the co-owner, it compared the Chardonnay – described as something like “rich and fruity” – to her husband before mentioning the extensive research he had done trying to find some reds that went with spicy food. That sort of thing might make your toes curl, but I found it oddly charming (oh, and we had a couple of glasses of the Chardonnay: if her husband is anything like that she could have done an awful lot worse).

Service was harried but friendly. It felt difficult to get attention right at the start, but given how popular the place was I was impressed by how efficient they were; at the end, when the lunchtime rush was fading out, the waiters were a lot more friendly and interested. We went from sitting down to being out of the door in just over an hour which I think is fair enough on a busy lunchtime, especially when you’re only really having one course. Lunch for two – two tapas sets, prawn crackers, chicken satay and two glasses of wine – came to £40 with a semi-optional 10% service charge on top. The tapas sets were just under £12 each, which I thought was pretty decent value.

The owners of Giggling Squid have talked about Côte as the chain they’d like to emulate and I can see why – it’s a great example of how a chain can get everything right and be consistent without being faceless. And I think Giggling Squid does that too; I liked almost everything I had, it’s a lovely spot, it’s very tastefully done and the service is good. I do wonder, though, whether the reason they haven’t chosen to target Reading is that it already has three well-established Thai restaurants with good reputations – the kind of day-in, day-out consistency that is the brand promise of most chains. I wonder too what Giggling Squid will be like if it hits its targets, has a hundred branches worldwide and takes over all the vacant Stradas, Bella Italias and Café Rouges out there. But that’s all years ahead: in the meantime, it’s worth going so you can say you were there in the early days (or back when it was good, depending on how it all turns out). I might see you there, because the whole experience made me want to go back – partly for that sesame ice cream, but mainly to try the evening menu, which is so packed with tempting-looking fish and seafood dishes that I literally wouldn’t know where to start.

Giggling Squid – 7.7
40 Hart Street, Henley-On-Thames, RG9 2AU
01491 411044

http://www.gigglingsquid.com/branches/henley.html