The Reformation, Gallowstree Common

The Reformation closed in August 2018, or at least the long term tenants moved on then. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

One of the things that’s always made TripAdvisor a patchy guide to restaurants is that it’s always had a rather loose definition of what a restaurant is. It used to be the case that restaurants and cafés were all lumped together, so the ten best restaurants in Reading included the likes of Tutti Frutti and Tamp Culture. Cafés tend to do better than restaurants on TripAdvisor: the algorithm is a numbers game and cafés, after all, get more customers. On one level, there’s nothing wrong with this – Tutti Frutti and Tamp are both great places – but on another it doesn’t help when deciding where to go for dinner.

TripAdvisor, possibly recognising the problem, made some changes recently to divide establishments into “Restaurants” and “Coffee & Tea”. In principle this should have improved things, but if anything it’s even more confusing because it’s been somewhat randomly applied. So places like Picnic and Workhouse – not restaurants per se, but certainly much more than just hot drinks – are now in the “Coffee & Tea” section, and yet Nibsy’s, Tutti Frutti and My Kitchen are still, apparently, restaurants. Your guess at the rationale behind this is as good as mine; I think they might have used a Magic 8-Ball.

The effect of those changes, random and incomplete though there are, is to clear out some of the noise in the TripAdvisor rankings. It’s also why I went to the Reformation this week, because now that many of the cafés have been taken out it is – with the exception of Quattro – the highest rated restaurant in Reading. Not only that, but people I know whose judgement I trust recommended it. Nothing fancy and nothing pretentious, they said, just pub classics done very well indeed. Sometimes that’s all you want, so I got in the car on a sunny day and went up the A4074 past the sites of triumphs (The Pack Saddle) and disasters (The Pack Horse), taking the next right for the village of Gallowstree Common.

Despite the photo on the website, where the building looks more suited to a horror novel than a restaurant review (the village name would be strangely appropriate, come to think of it), the Reformation is another of those handsome country pubs that I’m always banging on about. There’s a nice garden at the front (on the quiet main road) with pub tables and little shed-ette for smokers (very civilised). Stepping through the door has the opposite effect to the Tardis – I was expecting a massive restaurant but instead got a pretty small pub. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, but so many pubs these days have turfed out the drinkers in favour of diners that seeing space for only twenty covers in the dining room struck me as unusual (in fairness, there’s also a conservatory although it was nowhere near as cosy and inviting). The décor was the usual mix of Farrow and Ball paint tones and mismatched furniture, with witty quotes and the signatures of the Kaiser Chiefs, amongst others, on one wall (it seems they’ve played a gig there). It felt like a pub with the right balance between restaurant and local boozer.

Having checked the menu online before coming out I knew that this week was going to be vegetarian week. Arriving at the pub, however, I was disappointed to see that the menu had changed when the website had not. Of course it’s good for menus to be regularly refreshed but on this occasion is meant that my tantalising veggie main, picked off the menu on the website (lightly spiced bubble and squeak cake, creamed spinach and peas, paneer, soft poached egg – doesn’t that sound good?) had been replaced by what was basically mushrooms on toast. I’m nothing if not committed, though, so I soldiered on. I also knew I would not get another chance this month to live up to my veggie promise.

But all that was to come. I was tempted to go full vegetarian and order the baked Camembert to share, but I couldn’t persuade my companion to go for it and eventually I ruled it out as not being a sufficient test of the kitchen’s skills. Instead, the deep fried whitebait with garlic mayo was a near miss of a consolation prize. The whitebait were crispy and the portion was generous but the mayonnaise didn’t have the courage of its convictions (nowhere near enough garlic) and the fish themselves were incredibly salty. All a little bit out of whack, and then to cap it all the Camembert turned up at another table and I realised I’d made a big mistake (huge): it looked bloody lovely and generous (huge).

RefWhitebait

The potted local rabbit was a lot more like it. A beautiful little ramekin of shredded meat but packed with loads of other things too – ever so finely diced carrot and cornichon, rosemary, juniper berries. Just lovely – fresh and clean with just enough of a vinegary edge to stop it being cloying. There wasn’t enough toast (or, as the menu called it, “chargrilled bread”) – there never is with this kind of thing – but the salad was beautifully dressed and went nicely with the remaining rabbit. After all, you can only pile it so high on a piece of toast before it looks a bit silly.

RefRabbit

The next course meant my appointment with the aforementioned mushrooms on toast. They were cooked with wild garlic and Madeira cream, sprinkled with Stilton crumb and then topped with some salad leaves. It was fine but no more than that; if I’d cooked this at home I’d have been happy with it, but as a main course it left something to be desired. The bread was nothing special, the Stilton crumb wasn’t terribly cheesy and as a texture it just got swamped by the sauce. The salad wasn’t dressed so I ended up mopping the plate with it – serving it on the side would have made more sense, instead of putting it on top as a cheffy gesture. The mushrooms and garlic were tasty enough, but I couldn’t shift the feeling that I’d eaten a supersized starter, and twelve pounds for this felt a bit much. If only that paneer had still been on the menu.

RefShrooms

Ironically the other main, which was far more successful, was in essence a supersized breakfast. A glorious spiral of pork belly, like a Swiss roll for carnivores, came on top of a hash of firm potatoes, sweet leeks, rich crumbly black pudding and punchy, piquant chorizo. If that wasn’t enough (and it would have been) the most gorgeous soft-yolked fried duck egg was perched on top of the whole lot, ready to release liquid gold at the touch of a knife. If you’re not hungry reading all that then this really isn’t the dish for you but if you are believe me, it more than lived up to that billing. It was a symphony of pork products, although you probably didn’t want to think about just how bad for you it was. I finished nearly all of it – a little wobbly section of pork belly was never going to get eaten, but I had no complaints.

RefBelly

The wine list at the Reformation is one of those fantastic ones where many are available by the glass, where you can have 125ml, 175ml or 250ml and where you aren’t penalised for smaller measures. Close to my perfect wine list, in fact – all they had to do was offer 250ml and 500ml carafes and they’d get a gold star for wine alone. We tried three in total: the unoaked chardonnay was smooth and creamy, the Gaillac fresh and sophisticated and the Languedoc red (the cheapest red on the list) was the kind of robust unpretentious wine you could glug all evening. Really impressive stuff, and far better and more interesting than countless wine lists I’ve come across recently.

So, two good dishes and two disappointing ones. In those circumstances, having dessert felt as much like a tie-breaker as a chance to indulge further. I was tempted by the cheeses (a great British selection by the superbly named Pong of Bath including Lincolnshire Poacher, one of my favourites) but the call of the school dinner was as so often too difficult to resist. Besides, little cheers me up quite like sticky toffee pudding. Alas, again it was close but no cigar. It was on the generous side but it was far too sweet (even for me) and there wasn’t enough butterscotch sauce or enough ice cream. I chose ice cream over cream but on reflection cream would have been a better option to try and tone down the onslaught of sugar.

It reminded me strongly of those tinned Heinz steamed sponge puddings that were such a treat in my house back in the 80s. That’s not entirely a criticism – I could go one right now, in fact – but I think I expected better. And that was a problem throughout the mail, in hindsight – however good it was I think I frequently expected better. That might have been my fault for reading TripAdvisor or listening to some of my foodie friends, but whoever’s fault it was it still fell flat. I always finish sticky toffee pudding, but I left some of this; the uncleaned plate had a certain sadness to it.

Honours ended up even though, because the lemon posset was beautiful. It had the lightness and sharpness that had been missing from the STP – a perfect way to refresh the palate after the richness of the belly pork. If I was being fussy I would have liked a bit more of the shortbread crumb on top (although that might have run the risk of turning it into an upside down cheesecake), the physalis was a pointless adornment and the icing sugar was too – but I feel I may have been quite fussy enough already, so let’s just say that I liked it a lot.

RefDessert

My mixed feelings about the food were, if anything, made even sharper by just how brilliant the service was. The waitress was lovely throughout – knowledgeable about the menu, full of ideas and recommendations and genuinely enthusiastic about some of the choices we made. Even though it was just a random visit on a weekday evening she lifted it and made it feel a bit like a special occasion. She was so good, in fact, that I started to doubt myself: maybe it was me, rather than the kitchen who was having an off-day? Could all those positive reviews really be mistaken? It felt like a real puzzler. The meal for two – three courses each along with three glasses of wine and a soft drink – came to sixty-four pounds, not including tip.

You’ve probably gathered by now that I wanted to like The Reformation more than I actually did. And there was stuff to like, don’t get me wrong – that rabbit, the service, the smoker’s shed, the witticisms on the walls – but it felt very much like the cliché of a meal of two halves; had I foregone the vegetarian main, perhaps the number down there would be higher. So, this isn’t the rave recommendation you might expect from TripAdvisor, but a cautious suggestion that the Reformation is worth consideration next time you feel like a drive in the country and a meal in a pub. It’s not completely unqualified, though: if you love meat it’s probably worth the trip and the superb welcome, but if you’re a vegetarian who likes a decent portion (you lot snickering at the back can just cut it out) then you might want to give it a miss. The funny thing is that despite the fact that some of the dishes were disappointing I still left wanting to go back. Like a darts player who keeps hitting fives and ones I feel like I just need another shot and I’d get the treble twenty. So yes, I’ll be making a return visit. And I will order that bloody Camembert, just watch me. Even if I have to have it all to myself. Don’t think I won’t.

The Reformation – 7.2
Horsepond Road, Gallowstree Common, RG4 9BP
0118 9723126

http://www.therefpub.com/

The Baskerville, Shiplake

I take reader requests and recommendations really seriously. There are two big reasons for this.

First, I think it’s important that I review places you want to know about. If there’s somewhere you’ve always wanted to eat in but you don’t want to risk it then I’m your… err, lion. If somewhere new opens – or reopens – and you want the low-down then I’ll do my best to be your mane (oh yes, lion puns a-go-go) source of info. Secondly, I’m not omniscient. I know a fair bit about Reading’s restaurants but I can’t cover everything – especially outside the town centre – without your help. That’s where the recommendations come in: if you like the places I rate, and you tell me somewhere is good then I’m more than willing to give it a visit, because I trust you to be discerning.

It’s not always successful – I must find a way of thanking the person who said “I’ve always wanted to know if Picasso is any good” – but generally I reckon it works well. I’ve discovered lots of good places I wouldn’t otherwise have visited, and hopefully you might have too. Anyway, last week’s review was a good example of the first type – and it seems like lots of you wanted to know whether a London Street Brasserie chef can cook outside his natural habitat. This week’s review is the second type: last month reader Steve Smith recommended The Baskerville as an alternative to the highly-rated Plowden Arms. It was so good that he drove all the way from Aldermaston, he said. Does Shiplake really have two pubs doing excellent food?

The Baskerville certainly fits into the “handsome boozer” category (I’m a real sucker for these, as you might remember). In the centre of Lower Shiplake, it’s a few hundred feet from the train station in one of those villages the Thames Valley seems to specialise in (you can see the Eye-Spy book now: handsome boozer, cute cottage, smart Georgian house, wisteria…), the kind of place I daydream about moving to after a leisurely lunch and a bottle of wine.

The pub is a smart redbrick building with a small cosy bar room at the front and the larger restaurant area out the back, perhaps an indicator of where their priorities lie. Although it’s a big room it’s nicely broken up into sections and the beams are strung with fairy lights, a lovely touch. It was full for most of my time there, with the larger tables in the centre filled with families having Sunday lunch out and the smaller tables around the edge dotted with couples. There was a nice buzzy atmosphere (lots of awfully well-behaved children, too: Shiplake must be that kind of place). In summer I can see it would be even more popular with parents – the garden has one of the biggest wooden play areas I’ve ever seen (I wanted to go outside and play, and felt a little sad that I was too old for all that).

I’ve said many times that putting a menu together is a real art – finding the middle ground between too much choice (how do they cook it all well?) and too little (I don’t fancy any of these) is difficult. Goldilocks would have been very happy with the choices here: six starters, five mains, three Sunday roasts, four desserts and a cheeseboard felt just right. At each step there were two or three dishes I would be happy to order, an interesting mixture of the conventionally pubby and the more imaginative. Also – and this is unusual round here – the menu had some information about provenance, so you got an idea where some of the ingredients came from.

My smoked salmon starter was more on the pub classics side. A generous amount of thick, rich, smoky salmon (from Wren and Hines in Billingsgate Market, according to the menu) served in a ring around a lamb’s lettuce salad with capers and some slices of blood orange. The vinaigrette was, according to the menu, whisky and dill but against the strongly smoked salmon I struggled to discern it. At least it was inconspicuous rather than AWOL, unlike the beetroot listed on the menu which was nowhere to be seen. In fairness, I only realised this when sitting down to write this review, which suggests the dish didn’t miss it. The blood orange was a touch too sharp (I pulled a face when I ate it on its own) but nice against the salmon and salad; although leaving the pips in the orange was a little off-putting. If anything, the salad was generous without being interesting (although, like most people, I struggle to get excited about salad) especially as there was bread, too: a few slices of a gorgeous seeded granary. I couldn’t help wishing I’d just had the salmon, that bread and a really good butter: sometimes more fuss means less fun.

BaskSalad

The other starter – caramelised shallot tarte tatin with Cornish brie – was a glorious string of words on a menu that made me come over a tad unnecessary. The reality was less thrilling, partly because more of that salad had been unnecessarily dumped on top of it. But the biggest disappointment was eating it. Going from the first to the third mouthful was a case of going from oh, this is lovely to this is a tad sweet before ending up at I appear to have accidentally ordered dessert. The whole thing was totally out of kilter – the balsamic dressing was sweet, the roast figs were sweet, the onions were cloyingly sweet… the overall effect was like gargling neat Ribena while listening to that song by Daniel Bedingfield (you know, the one with the falsetto. Ick). What’s frustrating is that it needn’t have been that way: it needed a better chosen, saltier cheese to stand up against the torrent of sugar, but the brie – ripe though it was – was too bland for the job.

BaskTart

On to the mains, then. The standout here was chicken Balmoral: stuffed with haggis and wrapped in bacon, served with rumbledethumps (Scotland’s answer to colcannon) and a whisky and mustard sauce. The chicken was spot on – still moist but cooked through – and the haggis had that earthy, peppery taste I adore: I know it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but I love the stuff, and you don’t see it on menus often. There was a side dish of vegetables that appeared to come with most of the mains – roasted carrots and parsnips, steamed broccoli and cauliflower. The parsnips in particular – all sweet and sticky-soft – were fabulous, but all of the vegetables were well cooked, not boiled into mushy oblivion. The sauce was more mustard than whisky, but worked beautifully with everything. The only disappointment was the bacon – it wasn’t cooked anywhere near enough and much of it ended up discarded on the side of the plate, pale pink and rubbery. Maybe that’s the price you pay for tender chicken.

BaskChick

The other main was that unusual thing, a vegetarian dish I actively wanted to order: blue cheese and chestnut mushroom pasta with leeks, baby spinach and toasted walnuts. I could see literally nothing to dislike about this in theory, but again the execution was disappointing. The pasta – campanelle, I think – was good, the right shape to pick up the sauce and cooked only slightly further from al dente than I’d liked. The leeks were soft and sweet. The chestnut mushrooms were good, although they’d have worked better chopped finer. The toasted walnuts added crunch. So much potential from the supporting cast, but the star didn’t turn up: there wasn’t enough sauce, and what sauce there was clung to the bottom of the dish as if in hiding. I was expecting that rich tang of blue cheese, little bombs of salt scattered throughout, but it was so bland it was hardly there at all. It was inoffensive, a blue cheese dish for people who don’t really like blue cheese. But really, who’s the target market for that?

BaskPasta

After two large courses it was tempting to get the bill, but I know I’ve been letting you down lately, so I ordered dessert. I hope you appreciate the trouble I go to to give you a well-rounded review (especially as it has the knock-on effect of giving you an increasingly well-rounded reviewer).

The sticky toffee pudding is a pub staple and, even though it gets served on a fancy square glass plate, The Baskerville knows better than to the mess with a classic. The pudding itself was moist, gently spiced and all middle (I prefer middle to edges when it comes to cake). The perfectly spherical ice cream ball was balancing on the requisite pile of crumbs with a mint leaf on top (I think there must be some legal requirement for this style of presentation: it’s inescapable these days) and on the opposite corner was a small jug of toffee sauce. It was textbook, and I loved every spoonful: plenty of sauce, a big wodge of cake and a dollop of ice cream. Well rounded indeed.

I also loved the bitter chocolate tart, all class and cleverness. The ganache was rich, dark and smooth, but with a hint of orange shot through it, working beautifully with the pieces of blood orange on top. All of it went nicely with the cinnamon ice cream, which tasted so good that I happily overlooked its oddly elastic texture. The pastry, dense and buttery, was gorgeous and – just as importantly – not so thick that eating it with a fork involved a series of high risk manoeuvres to stop pieces from wanging across the table. If the rest of the meal showed some inconsistency, the desserts redeemed a lot.

BaskChoctart

It’s a shame I was driving, because the wine list had plenty of bottles around the pocket-friendly twenty pound mark, a sure sign that it’s been well thought out. Fortunately, the selection by the glass was decent too and I liked both the reds we tried, although the French pinot noir was probably the pick of the bunch.

Service was excellent from the moment we entered to the moment we left, which is largely down to the restaurant manager, a friendly Scot who appeared to be everywhere at once. He worked hard without ever making it look like work at all, a rare talent: he made the right noises when we ordered food, had an opinion about the wines and was on hand to give pointers and just be generally charming whenever he was needed without ever hovering or outstaying his welcome (I’d also like to think that the Scottish influences on the menu came from him, for no reason other than because it would be nicely fitting). The other staff – mostly young ladies – were also helpful and friendly, just without the polish of years in the industry. The bill, for three courses for two, two glasses of wine and a pint of very refreshing shandy came to seventy five pounds. So not the cheapest, although we did come away full.

The big problem with The Baskerville isn’t in the pub, it’s a little over a mile down the road. When a village has a pub that does food as good as the Plowden Arms a neighbour has to pull something really special out of the bag to compete, and I think The Baskerville almost manages it but not quite. I think, sensibly, it’s aiming for bigger portions of slightly more conventional food in a bigger, slightly more conventional room, and it clearly has a regular clientele who appreciate that. But, for me at least, although I enjoyed much of my meal I found it hard to imagine driving past the Plowden, turning right and going here instead. I’ve tried really hard to avoid two things in this review. One was to make lame jokes about Sherlock Holmes, and the other was to compare this pub to the Plowden Arms. I’m afraid you’ll have to forgive me because, like The Baskerville, I’ve only partly succeeded.

The Baskerville Arms – 7.3
7 Station Road, Lower Shiplake, Henley-on-Thames, RG9 3NY.
0118 9403332

http://www.thebaskerville.com/

Shaun Dickens At The Boathouse, Henley

N.B. From November 2019 Shaun Dickens At The Boathouse re-branded as Bistro At The Boathouse, with the same chef at the helm but a significantly different menu. I’ve left this review up for posterity but to all intents and purposes the restaurant it covers has now closed.

Probably the strangest moment in my meal at (to give it its full name) Shaun Dickens At The Boathouse happened quite early on. We were sitting in the bar with an aperitif having just finished what the waiting staff had described as “snacks”. Things were shaping up nicely. My fino sherry had that dry, almost salty tang that I love. The parmesan and paprika doughnut was unusual and delicious, as was the long thin rice cracker dotted with (surprisingly mild) wasabi and smoked mackerel. Then a waiter came over.

“Shaun is ready for you now, would you like to take your table?”

I wonder if this was meant to be charming, but to me it was just odd. I’m used to being asked whether I’m ready to take my table, not whether the chef is; it made me feel more like I was seeing my dentist than eating out. Still, I suppose when you put your name front and centre you are kind of saying you’re a big deal (how many restaurants can you think of with the chef’s name in the title? How many where the chef hasn’t been awarded a Michelin star? Exactly.)

And the Boathouse, although it may have been overlooked by Michelin recently, did win “Best Of Britain” at the Tatler Restaurant Awards earlier this year, so it’s obviously been noticed by someone. Anyway, this didn’t really bother me: after all, if the cooking’s good enough who cares if the chef’s name is emblazoned on the drinks coasters? He can have a passport photo on every page of the menu for all I care, so long as he sends me away evangelising about his food.

The serving staff – uniformly bright, personable, knowledgeable about the menu and genuinely charming – stood out right from the off, possibly because of the surroundings: the Boathouse is a very beige room indeed. It’s a single big beige room packed with tables with beige nondescript chairs, beige walls lined with nondescript art (all riffs on Jackson Pollock) and with beige music playing in the background. Passenger, Coldplay, the list goes on… it was what Glastonbury would sound like if the lineup was picked by Simon Mayo. A short loop, too, because within two hours we were right back to the start of their playlist (the fact that I noticed this isn’t a good advertisement for the food). The bar, also part of that dining room, is cordoned off by a white, diaphanous curtain. It feels a bit like being in Princess Diana’s boudoir – which might be good news, I suppose, if that’s always been an ambition of yours.

The menu at the Boathouse is very compact – there’s the tasting menu (£65 for seven courses, which struck me as on the steep side) or the a la carte – which I went for – which has four options for starters and mains. These are priced a stone’s throw apart which struck me as odd – either you should charge a lot less for the vegetarian starters and mains or just go the whole hog and have a single price for three courses irrespective of what you order. (Of course, I’m partly saying that because I made the mistake of ordering the vegetarian main, but we’ll get to that.)

Normally at this point I would go into exhaustive detail about everything I ate. And there was a lot – what with “snacks”, the bread, the amuse bouche, the pre-dessert and everything else. But the problem is that it was all so competent and unexciting that it’s almost like trying to remember the details of a not very interesting dream on your way to work the next day. Everything was well executed, pretty and precise, but the wow factor I associate with cooking at this price point simply wasn’t there. Perhaps “fine dining” (does anyone really use that phrase without the protection of ironic inverted commas any more?) has had its day – certainly the fact that only a handful of other tables were occupied on a Friday night suggests there might be something in that.

There were high points, but ironically many of them were the freebies: beer and onion seed bread, baked on the premises I’d guess, was stunning with a crunchy, almost flaky crust and a soft middle. The whipped caraway seed butter was good, but the simple salted butter was even better. I’m not sure I ate anything that quite lived up to that standard.

The amuse bouche, actually, was a good indicator of the kind of meal we were going to have. A little sphere of what I think was chicken rillette with Jerusalem artichoke and sorrel oil was pleasant enough, if a bit bland and clammy, but the best thing about it was an intensely savoury crumb made from potato and chicken skin, like the powder at the bottom of a packet of pork scratchings. It was lovely, but it seemed like a lot of effort to go to for a tiny component of a tiny dish – misplaced effort, perhaps, when so much of the menu was crying out for a bit more flavour.

Of the starters, pork with smoked haddock and chick peas was a misfire. The chick peas, chick pea puree, little cubes of smoked haddock and a sweet, sour curried aigre doux was absolutely gorgeous, but the cold cylinder of pressed pork in the middle was really unappealing, a star of the show far too easily upstaged. I guess I was hoping for a compact cube of perfectly cooked pork belly, but it wasn’t to be.

The other starter, foie gras served two different ways, was really tasty – although the composite parts didn’t quite gel. The foie itself, served mi cuit, was nicely done with what I think were crumbled pistachios on top. There was also a separate foie gras terrine, looking like a little savoury cheesecake, which I thought was rather witty. As for the other things on the plate, the quince puree was nice and the cranberry chutney was a little too tart. This all came with a slice of toasted brioche, served separately so it didn’t interfere with all the prettiness on the plate, like an ugly relative kept out of wedding photos. Overall it was a bit quixotic, if beautiful to look at, but if you like foie gras (as I do) then it wasn’t going to disappoint. Probably the best value dish on the menu, too.

Foie

Mains continued the trend of style over substance. Monkfish with farro, preserved lemon and charred aubergine was similarly frustrating. The farro was like a pearl barley risotto and very nice it was too. The charred aubergine was, well, a single piece of charred aubergine. And the monkfish? Cooked absolutely spot on, so firm, almost like sashimi in texture, a big generous piece (resting on a totally pointless bed of spinach – why do restaurants do this?) but unseasoned and not really going at all with the farro. Eating that dish was a bit like listening to an epic fiddly guitar solo: there’s clearly lots of skill involved, but the only person really enjoying themselves is the person playing the guitar.

Monkfish

Roasted garlic gnocchi, girolle, confit turnip and tops with pecorino crisps promised to be a really interesting dish but turned out to be a huge disappointment. The gnocchi were about an inch high and slightly less across and there were, count them, three. They came with a small pile of slightly gritty mushrooms, another pile of pointless steamed spinach and some pretty little discs of turnip. Overall it was fine. Not exciting, not bursting with flavour, not substantial enough to remain in the memory. Worst of all, this dish cost twenty two pounds which struck me as rich. Richer than the food itself, in fact. Many restaurants do a three course set menu for less than this dish and I can’t think of an occasion when I would pick this over them. (The Boathouse does a separate vegetarian tasting menu, which I think is laudable, but it costs the same as the other tasting menu, which strikes me as cheeky.)

Gnocchi

By this stage, in the meal as in this review, I was pretty much going on because I felt I should rather than because I much wanted to. Also, I was still hungry, because three gnocchi isn’t going to bring on a Mister Creosote moment for anyone. Things didn’t improve. The cheeseboard should have been a high point – eight carefully selected British cheeses, including many I’ve not heard of before. And yet even these were pastel shades of cheese rather than bright primary colours; only the Admiral Collingwood (a punchy number washed in Newcastle Brown) and the Dunsyre Blue stood out. Eight rather stingy pieces to share cost eighteen pounds, and I couldn’t help but compare it with the cheeseboard just down the road at the Three Tuns, where for half the price you get three far more sensibly sized pieces of well selected cheese: a soft, a hard and a blue, all you really need.

Cheese

Things rallied slightly for the desserts. A pre-dessert of maple espuma with poached pear, thyme, thyme oil and candied nuts was probably the tastiest, cleverest thing I ate all evening. But by then knowing the kitchen could produce something like that just made me even more frustrated about what had gone before. Finally, the white chocolate parfait, topped with torched orange, studded with sweet crumbly pieces of tablet and served with a very fine salt caramel ice cream did its best to redeem matters, but by then it was too late.

I should also mention drinks, because they were all good, from that initial sherry to the Sauternes with the foie gras and the Tokaji with the dessert. The red, a Uruguayan Petit Verdot, was especially good – dark and inky with a rich whiff of pencil shavings about it. If they ran a wine bar, I’d definitely go (as long as they sorted out that infernal soundtrack), but as a restaurant my feelings are far more mixed. A lot of that comes down to the bill: one hundred and eighty-three pounds, not including tip. Obviously you could pay a lot less if you missed out the cheese, the aperitifs and the dessert wines but this is never going to be a cheap meal. That’s not the problem. The problem is that this is cerebral, clinical cooking, and for that money I wanted a lot more.

The best meal I’ve ever had was in a little restaurant in Barcelona which didn’t have a Michelin star but has picked one up since. I can still remember several of the things I ate that night, even though it was seven years ago. And for me, at the very top end of the spectrum that’s what I’m looking for when I go to a restaurant: flavours and combinations I’ll never forget, dishes I would rave about to friends, contenders for that hypothetical death row feast. Did the Boathouse come close to that? Not remotely. I might be able to forgive their food for being small, I could even overlook it being expensive, but on the train home I thought about whether I would sing the praises of anything I’d eaten and realised that none of it inspired any passion. The next day I had hot buttered toast with a nice thick layer of Marmite. Unpretentious, powerful, delicious: it was the best thing I ate all weekend.

Shaun Dickens At The Boathouse – 6.9
The Boathouse, Station Road, Henley-on-Thames, RG9 1AZ
01491 577937

http://www.shaundickens.co.uk/

The Three Tuns, Henley

In May 2018, Mark and Sandra Duggan announced that they were not renewing their tenancy at the Three Tuns after seven years running the pub. Some of the existing staff have already moved on and the new landlords may well change the food offering. As a result I’ve taken it off my lists, although I’ve kept the review up for posterity.

If you’ve been reading for a while you might have gathered that I’m a big fan of Reading. I think it has a lot to offer – although sometimes it only rewards those who make an effort – and I get quite annoyed at people who slate it. As a town is it what you make it. What it is missing, though, is a town centre pub that does really good food.

We have great pubs. What’s not to like about finding an empty booth in the back of the Hobgoblin (yes, I know it’s not called that any more but does anyone call it by its new name?) on Friday for a quick after work pint or getting a table outside at the Allied when the sun is shining and someone has apparently picked out all the prog rock tracks over 6 minutes long on the juke box (and there are a lot – the jukebox at the Allied seems to think music stopped somewhere in the mid 80s, with a few eccentric exceptions). We have some great restaurants. But what we don’t have is that combination of the two – somewhere to get a decent pint and a decent meal, preferably at a reasonable price. Possibly the closest, although it was still far from perfect, was the Lyndhurst Arms, but then that went and closed, which means I’ll never get to review their amazing stuffed pork belly (if you’ve ever tried it you’ll know I speak the truth) let alone go there after work again for a quick drink and end up staying for dinner.

This leads me, eventually, onto this week’s review. Yes, it’s a pub with a reputation for good food but no, it’s not in Reading. Previous trips out to Henley have proven that this kind of pub is a beast usually only spotted in the countryside, preferring the fresh air and customers who are prepared to drive (or are lucky enough to live nearby) instead of folk who would rather take public transport and have a drink. The Three Tuns is a different animal altogether, though: it’s in Henley centre, right on the market square (a big tick for that) and you can get there from Reading on the train in about half an hour (a second, smaller, tick). Of course, from past experience that’s no guarantee that it’s any good, but I turned up full of optimism.

As a venue you could easily miss it. It’s a sliver of a building tucked between Machin’s the butcher and an anonymous clothes shop. Inside it’s broken up into a number of rooms, all wooden floored and low beamed. Our table was in the middle room where most of the diners end up, in a space seating about sixteen people.

The menu here is healthily short. Five or six starters, mains and desserts with most mains under fifteen pounds and if you fancy it there’s a “pub favourites” menu which offers two courses for sixteen quid. We started with a basket of bread. This came with a generous ramekin of gloriously rich sticky caponata (like Italian Branston and one of the nicest ways to eat aubergine, though that might not be saying much) and two discs of – admittedly rock hard – dill and lemon butter. Both were delicious, though it wasn’t long before our starters arrived so we didn’t quite get the chance to savour the bread. I’d specifically told the waitress we were in no hurry for anything, so this should have rung warning bells.

The buffalo mozzarella wrapped in prosciutto was perfect. It was deceptively large – a whole ball of mozzarella – served with a proper dressed salad with sun dried tomatoes, pine nuts and shavings of parmesan – just in case a whole mozzarella wasn’t cheese enough (like Tony Blackburn I can’t turn down extra cheese). The prosciutto was generous enough to really taste but had been stripped of most of those fatty bits on the edge that can double as unwelcome dental floss. Served on a little wooden board, as is the fashion these days, it was a bit tricky to eat but I managed, even rescuing a few scraps which fell quite literally overboard. Ten second rule and all that.

Mozzarella

The salt cod croquettes, from the pub side of the menu, were just as good. Three plump croquettes, crispy yet soft inside, came with a little dish of beautifully yellow aioli. If anything I’d say the aioli looked more striking than it tasted, but it was still just what you wanted to dip a nice big forkful of croquette into. I know that croquettes, like fishcakes, can be a way for some kitchens to make lots of money flogging you what’s essentially mashed potato, but when it’s this good you just don’t mind – and, of course, salt cod is one of those ingredients where a little goes a long way. Clever stuff, and a bit of a culinary win-win.

The mains kept that standard up. Poached brill on a chorizo and butterbean cassoulet, from the specials menu, was a hit. My favourite part was the cassoulet itself, rich with tomato, a bountiful amount of chorizo giving the dish the salty, smoky taste that it needed. I could happily have eaten this without the fish – plain, poached fish is a bit like Orlando Bloom, lovely to look at but ultimately not very interesting (I guess I just like crispy skin and when it’s not there I feel a little short-changed). That said, it was generous to a fault – which definitely sets the Three Tuns apart from many restaurants who confuse “healthy” with “diet option”. It was perfectly cooked, but the seasoning was a tad strange – it was topped with dill, which might have gone with the fish but was jarring with the cassoulet.

Brill

The other dish was guinea fowl breast (“pan roasted”, apparently, which is a new one on me – I thought you pan fried and oven roasted things, but there you go) with potato hash, madeira jus and some of the nicest peas in the world. They came in a little casserole dish of their own, still with some bite, with big hunks of bacon, meat from the guinea fowl’s leg – a bit like confit duck – and braised lettuce which also still had some crispness. I could just eat a bowl of those peas now, I can tell you. Again, the supporting act was more interesting than the main event, but I didn’t mind: the guinea fowl was tasty enough (I have a soft spot for a chicken supreme, as it happens) but everything it came with turned it into a really satisfying dish. It even had me hankering for autumn, despite being on their summer a la carte.

Guinea

The wine list at the Three Tuns is compact, too – a dozen or so whites and the same number of reds with half of those available by the glass. We picked a bottle of durif (an Australian number – also known as petit syrah, if the menu is to be believed) which was phenomenal. Rich, fruity and a bit smoky, it was dangerously easy to polish off a bottle between two. It went brilliantly with the guinea fowl and just about didn’t clash with the cassoulet, thanks to that chorizo. Pretty impressive for just under thirty pounds, too.

Service throughout was excellent. The staff manage that clever service trick of being really good at what they do and on top of everything while also making it look easy and casual. When asked about the dishes our waitress knew the menu inside out, and we also got the “oh yes, good choice” that everyone wants to hear when picking what to eat. I like to feel that the staff have a vested interest in what their customers order and it definitely felt the case here.

The kitchen, sadly, was not quite so perfect. Whilst the food was excellent it came out too quickly: not quite so fast that you wanted to make a scene, but quick enough to disappoint slightly because I’d turned up wanting to make a leisurely evening of it. I’m always surprised by how many good restaurants get this wrong, and it’s not as if they seemed to want to turn our table. You’d think waiting staff would realise something has gone wrong with the timing when they’re asking what dessert you want and you still have half a bottle of red wine left to drink. So we did what anyone in that position should do, and kept them waiting: red wine with fish might be a little dubious but red wine with dessert definitely isn’t on my to do list.

But, of course, we did have desserts because everything up to that point had tasted so good and they were worth the wait. The pot au chocolat was knockout – again, a generous portion of quite a dark, firm mousse, rich with orange zest, cardamom and just a little hint of chilli lurking under all that. Deceptively complicated and yet so simple-looking, it was one of the nicest desserts I’ve had all year. The (I think) rosemary shortbread on the side added nothing, but only because the flavours in the pot au chocolat were pretty much unimprovable. Even a glass of dessert wine couldn’t do it.

Chocolate pot

I also wanted to try the cheeseboard because it’s not something I order often enough in restaurants (partly because there’s so much to remember! Five different cheeses? Pasteurised and unpasteurised? Cow and goat? Will they notice if I make some notes on my phone?) The Three Tuns cleverly takes the less is more approach: just three top notch British cheeses, which makes it awfully hard to resist. Barkham Blue is a local classic (possibly the best blue cheese in the world), Lincolnshire Poacher (not so local) is a really cracking hard cheese and Stinking Bishop is famous for its whiff. On this occasion the Bishop was more like “been working on London and the Tube was a bit sweaty” than properly stinking and, if I’m honest, all the better for it. A bit younger and richer – and firmer – rather than beating you over the head with all that gooey stench. If I had criticisms (and sadly, I did) they were too cold to properly release all that flavour and the biscuits were a bit uninspired, but even so it was a generous helping and washed down with a glass of ten year old tawny it made for a great way to round things (and me) off.

Bread and butter, three courses, the cracking bottle of red and a couple of snifters with dessert came to a hundred and ten pounds, not including tip, so it may be a pub, but the prices aren’t quite pub prices. But is it worth it? Absolutely. Almost flawless food, a great wine list, brilliant service and one of the cosiest, nicest rooms I’ve eaten in in a very long time. Obviously there are a few things I’d change – I’d have liked my food to come out a little slower, I’d like there to be a direct train from Reading to Henley or, better still, I’d like to pick it up and drop it somewhere in the middle of Reading. But maybe part of the magic is that I can’t. So until Reading gets a pub that can do food of this standard, somewhere that is in the middle of town but feels like it’s out in the country, I’ll be back. Tons.

The Three Tuns, Henley – 8.4
01491 410138
5 Market Place, Henley on Thames, RG9 2AA

http://threetunshenley.co.uk/

Round-up: January

It seems like 2014 only just kicked off and here we are, busier than ever. Hopefully you all made it through to the end of the month with your resolutions intact (if you made any) and with your January pay packet not completely spent before you earned it. Clichés aside, January and February can be some of the leanest months for the fun stuff with the dark and rainy weather making everyone want to stay in – especially when the alternative is going out and paying extortionate amounts of money for a Valentine’s meal where romance is the one dish that is never reliably on the menu.

Despite harvest time being a long way away there’s been a bumper crop at Edible Reading. I’m really pleased to say traffic on the blog surprises me (in a good way) every month and I owe that to you lot, so thank you. Oh, and don’t be put off by this being a round-up – there’s lots happening in the Reading food scene that simply isn’t covered by the reviews. But let’s do the reviews first – here’s what you may have missed.

Barts, 6.2 – What a start to the New Year! Of course, you could read reviews in the local papers (where it gets covered at least every 6 months – why could this be?) but if you really want to know what its odd mixture of good service and mistake-laden food is like, check out the full ER review here.

Sweeney and Todd, 5.2 – The legendary pie shop has been drawing in the punters for over 30 years. Why? Search me. Bad boiled potatoes and “hot jelly” got the lowest mark from ER this month. See why here.

Bhel Puri House, 6.8 – Reading’s only vegetarian restaurant is easy to miss but worth seeking out for the chilli paneer alone. Click on the link here for the full lowdown on an excellent alternative to Reading’s sometimes monotonous lunch scene.

The Bull on Bell Street, 5.3 – This is what happens when a revamped boozer doesn’t have a kitchen to match its good looks. Such a shame. Have a drink but my advice is to give the food a miss. Go here for the full sorry story.

In other news (cue the shuffling of papers while I wait for the autocue to get to the cute hedgehog story at the end of the broadcast) there has been a flurry of new places opening or getting ready to open.

First of all, three months after I first mentioned it and a full four months after its promised opening date, Lebanese restaurant La Courbe has finally opened in King’s Walk, along with its adjoining wine and cocktail bar (on the side nearest The Mix, so perhaps they’ll get some overflow trade). First impressions, from a walk past, are mixed at best. The décor – lots of purple and pistachio, chrome, cream leather and square glass tables – is rather stuck in the 90s, and the restaurant space is basically a glass-fronted box with an open kitchen at the back. On the other hand, I’ve heard decent reports of the food. It will be nice to see if someone can finally make a go of one of those downstairs units in King’s Walk – I’ll be there to review it in due course.

Also after many months of “coming soon”, Buffalo Grill on the edge of the Broad Street Mall has opened, offering burgers, ribs and fajitas. Lots of stuff, in fact, that you can get in numerous other restaurants in Reading. Again, I know a couple of people who’ve been and the feedback I’ve had ranges from “never again” to “maybe again”. If enough people really want to know what it’s like, I might review it later in the year (I can’t pretend to be hugely enthusiastic, can you tell?)

Closer into town Crêpe Affaire has opened next to the “lovely hot dogs, nice and fresh” booth (which, I can solemnly assure you, I will never review – not even if all other restaurants in Reading close and it is the sole alternative to cooking at home). It looks very modish, with bare walls and pale oak and staff in little white hats. Fingers crossed it’s more than a one trick pony and lasts longer than the ill-fated cupcake shop a few doors down, on the edge of the Oracle, that closed not long before Crêpe Affaire opened. I have also discovered, in the course of writing this, that it’s very difficult to talk about this restaurant without getting “My Affair” by the late great Kirsty MacColl lodged in my head as an unshiftable earworm (thanks for that, Crêpe Affaire. Thanks a bunch.)

The other new place due to open is My Kitchen, in a skinny little unit on Queen Victoria Street. Again, the interior looks very now, all bare brick and funky chalkboards, and I’d guess it will be a lunch place but that’s all I can say. They have no website that I managed to track down: honestly, you try Googling “my kitchen Reading” and see if you have any more joy than I did (the curse of the town name that also happens to be a verb strikes again). The picture below is pretty much all we have to go on, but I’ll keep peering through the windows and will report back.

My Kitchen

Of course, the flipside of new restaurants opening is existing restaurants closing, and sadly Kyklos, the Greek restaurant in King’s Walk, has closed this month. They didn’t quite make it to their first birthday, which is a real shame – when I reviewed it in October I thought the service was amazing but the food was patchy, and I was worried then that it was a large room which was never even remotely full. I’ve added a note to the review which is here.

Another piece of restaurant news relates to a change of personnel. Since the ER review of Forbury’s in November, chef Tom Kneale has announced on Twitter that he has left by mutual consent with immediate effect, to relocate to Bristol and spend more time with his family. Hopefully he will manage to find a new role where more of his creative ideas make it out of the kitchen in front of the diners. Normally I wouldn’t announce this – ER is much more interested in food than in chefs – but it does seem relevant in this case. I’ve also added a note to this review, too, which is here.

Talking of being creative, it seems that ER is having quite an influence on the local papers, despite just being a little blog. After almost six months of ER visiting, reviewing and recommending the best independent restaurants the Reading Post has crowdsourced a similar list using Twitter and published it with useful pithy remarks such as “upmarket Indian” and “suburban Thai”. Still, better late than never and it’s nice to see them supporting small local businesses. In unconnected news, the same week the Post reviewed Cleavers in Wokingham, an offshoot of large Italian chain Prezzo (this time hoping to be “the place for burgers, chicken and ribs” – as opposed, presumably, to all the other places). Still, there is one local business that can always rely on support – the Post also published a piece recently publicising a wine and canapés evening at Bart’s. They just can’t stay away!

Fortunately, there are other websites championing Reading’s independent scene. Alt Reading launched last week with a handsome, regularly updated website aiming to celebrate the best of Reading’s independent shops, restaurants and culture in all its forms. It’s just what Reading has needed for some time, and I’m really looking forward to seeing them develop the site over the months ahead. And I’d say that, I promise, even if they hadn’t been so complimentary about ER here (thanks guys!)

Right, I can see the hedgehog story approaching on the autocue so that’s definitely the end of this month’s round-up. Keep telling me – by email, by commenting, or on Twitter – where you want to see reviewed and I’ll add your suggestion to the list, which is here. In the meantime, tune in next Friday when there will be a new, unbiased, independent restaurant review for you. Just like always.