Can you believe it’s that time of year again? Hopefully by now you’ve bought all your Christmas presents (even if, like me, you’ve not necessarily wrapped them yet). Hopefully you’ve sent and received all your cards – if you still do that sort of thing – and reflected on the new names on the list and the people you’ve finally pruned. You’ve probably had your work do, and been out with your friends. You may even be on roast dinner number four or five by now. We all have our festive traditions and one of mine, for the last five years, has been sitting down and writing this, my end of term report on Reading’s restaurant scene. Was it an “exceeds expectations” or a “must try harder”? Hmm. Let’s find out.
I initially thought it had been a quiet year for restaurants in this town but actually, on reflection, there has been a fair bit of movement. No big-name openings like 2018 – no Lido, no Clay’s, no Corn Stores – but instead a steady succession of new places vying to capture your spend and your affection. So 2019 was the year when we said hello to Argentine steakhouse Buenasado and Greek white elephant Lemoni in the Oracle, the Pantry in the Town Hall, Vegivores and the Last Crumb out in Caversham and countless other new kids on the block.
Some existing restaurateurs moved to new premises: Tutu shifted her Ethiopian Table from the Global Café to Palmer Park, and Kamal (of Namaste Kitchen) finally opened new restaurant Namaste Momo on the edge of Earley. And there’s always a new restaurant just around the corner – the first of 2020 may well be Osaka, the new Japanese restaurant due to set up shop in the old Café Rouge site, but I doubt it will be the last. We’re also allegedly getting a Taco Bell, presumably to compensate us in some Newtonian sense, for the forthcoming closure of bigoted poultry purveyor Chick-Fil-A.
Not that we haven’t had enough restaurants close this year. The saddest, for me, was Tuscany, the fantastic independent pizzeria down the Oxford Road. I was also disappointed that Vibes, the Caribbean restaurant on Queens Walk, closed before I paid it a visit. We also lost two Reading institutions in the form of China Palace and Beijing Noodle House – although, to be euphemistic, both had seen better days.
Town centre Vietnamese restaurant Mum Mum and Alona, serving Lebanese food down the Wokingham Road, also closed their doors for the final time. Neither got to celebrate their first birthday. Nor did Bench Rest, which stopped serving in the Tasting House after less than a year: Reading’s original nomad moved on again, and is apparently leaving the country next year.
In terms of reviewing, it’s been a year of highs and lows. I experienced the worst nachos in the world, activated charcoal-flavoured ick, food that came all at once, John Lewis tablemats, albino carbonara and comically laissez faire service. But I’ve also had astonishing sausage rolls, eye-opening pasta, the warmest of welcomes and seen familiar faces in new places. Every now and then I’d have a run of meals so bad, or so bla, that I started to feel discouraged, but the next superb meal was never too far away. Trips abroad made sure I never fell out of love with eating out, especially one holiday where the food just blew me away.
It’s been a fantastic year in terms of the blog – a record-breaking one, with more visitors than ever before. As always, I’m incredibly grateful to all of you who read, like, comment, Retweet, share or just lurk, whether you do so smiling, laughing, tutting or grimacing. I’m grateful to everybody who’s come out on duty with me this year – friends, readers, my terrific family and of course Zoë, my partner in crime and regular dining companion. And I’m also grateful to everybody who has come to one of the five readers’ events I’ve run this year – all at some of Reading’s finest independent restaurants, each of them offering a special one-off menu. I’m not sure 2019 will be topped, but of course I’ll try my best to next year.
With all that said, it just remains for me to hand out the gongs in this, the 2019 Edible Reading Awards. It’s been harder than ever to reduce the long list to a short list, let alone pick the winners, and any of the honourable mentions this year could easily have taken top spot instead of the eventual winners. We’re lucky to live in a town that makes these decisions so difficult, so if you disagree with any or all of the winners I can hardly blame you: on another day, I might have disagreed too. Anyway, that’s quite enough preamble: let’s announce some winners, and you can tell me what I got wrong in the comments.
STARTER OF THE YEAR: Chilli nachos, The Lyndhurst
It was pretty much love at first sight when I ordered the Lyndhurst’s chilli nachos for the first time, and none of my subsequent encounters have dimmed my ardour. A wonderful chilli made with slow-cooked, shredded beef (a chilli which doesn’t appear elsewhere on the menu in the mains section), robust hand-made tortilla chips, a healthy helping of well-made guacamole and some cream cheese, a lettuce leaf if you want to pretend to be a better person than you actually are. A perfect starter to share, or to snaffle on your own, or a dish to eat with a few pints just for the sake of it, because it’s so perfect. I’m a huge fan, and I live in constant fear that they’ll either take it off the menu or price it slightly less generously (seven pounds twenty-five pence, would you believe it). Superb stuff.
I know that not picking a starter from Clay’s will be controversial here – one Twitter follower suggested I should have a separate award for the best Clay’s starter (and that too would be an incredibly tough one to call). Clay’s does deserve an honourable mention though for their cut mirchi chaat – a sort of stuffed and battered chilli dish that is difficult to describe and even more difficult to resist (yes, I know: but what about the chicken 65, the kodi chips, the squid pakora, the duck spring rolls, and basically all the other starters. Enough already). Another honourable mention goes to Zest for their triple-cooked pork belly with XO sauce, a dish I’ve thought about on pretty much a daily basis since I had it at the start of the month.
CHAIN OF THE YEAR: Honest Burger
Chains are all about consistency, and in my experience Honest has gone from strength to strength this year, becoming the place to go if you want a quick, enjoyable, reliably superb meal. It helps that they’ve swapped out their local special – the indifferent jerk chicken burger has given way to a gorgeous new option with Waterloo cheese and bearnaise butter – but it’s just that they never put a foot wrong. My stepfather is so impressed with their vegan burger that he picks it over a conventional beefburger, some of the specials this year have been absolutely knockout (especially when they involve fried chicken) but really, it’s just that it’s regularly, unspectacularly excellent. Reading still has far too many burger joints, and I wouldn’t shed a tear if the rest closed down. But Honest is another matter altogether.
The two runners-up in this category also deliver the kind of consistency and comfort you want from a visit to a chain restaurant. Pho continues to offer an excellent range of dishes (I don’t think I’ll ever really see the appeal of the eponymous dish itself, but I’m evangelical about their com chien) and Kokoro has done me a turn on many an early evening when I can’t be bothered to cook and on a few hungover Sunday lunchtimes. Their sweet chilli chicken is a particular favourite of mine, although I know the katsu curry also has its fans.
LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Fidget & Bob
Yes, on this occasion lunch probably means brunch and yes, Fidget & Bob is out of town which means that for most people it’s a weekend lunch option. But nevertheless, most of my happiest lunches this year have been at Fidget & Bob and they invariably involve a variant of their phenomenal brunch menu which they serve all day. You can have a breakfast wrap, or the “hangover” (a sausage, bacon and egg sandwich) but I always seem to go for their golden, gorgeous scrambled eggs, served with crispy back bacon and a slice of their sausage loaf. Other dishes – sandwiches, panini and their home-made noodle pots – are available, but the trick is to save room for cake. I am hooked on the kouign amann – hopelessly indulgent Breton pastries made with plenty of salted butter (they missed a trick not calling them “Breton butter pudding”) but the salted caramel brownies are also phenomenal.
Picking a winner in this category wasn’t easy, limiting the runners-up to just two was equally difficult. An honourable mention goes to Caversham’s Geo Café which has spent 2019 completing its transformation from Nomad Bakery and, along with a beautiful array of cakes, still serves one of Reading’s finest sandwiches in the form of the ajika-spiced corn-fed chicken wrap. Also highly commended is Shed – which is every bit as good as ever and continues to serve Reading’s best golden, cheese-laden, comforting toasties.
MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Lamb with cumin, Kungfu Kitchen
In a year of wonderful main courses – far too many to list here – KFK’s lamb with cumin was the one I kept coming back to. I had it on my second ever visit, and it’s been a struggle not to order it every time since. The lamb – sliced wafer-thin, as it is for the hot pot – is so deep and rich. It tastes properly of lamb – which might sound like a silly thing to say, but somehow lamb is so often a pale copy of how it ought to taste. “This is how kebabs should be” said my other half the first time she tasted this dish, and I can understand what she meant. The whole thing, flecked with sesame seeds and tumbled with onion and coriander, stalks and all, is the kind of intensely savoury dish you daydream about long after you have eked out one final mouthful. KFK does so many excellent dishes but, in the lamb with cumin, it has one unforgettable one.
It is a tribute to how strong a field it is that many of the dishes on my long list could easily have won this award: Fidget & Bob’s char siu pork, for instance, or Namaste Momo’s spellbinding lamb kothey momo. But there’s only room for two runners-up. First, the chinta chiguru from Clay’s – terrific, tender chicken thigh in a striking, sharply elegant tamarind sauce (very much the unsung hero of the Clay’s menu, in my book). And secondly, Bakery House’s boneless baby chicken with vegetable rice and beautifully dressed salad, possibly Reading’s most complete main course.
OUT OF TOWN RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Mio Fiore, Newbury
I so loved my visit to Mio Fiore this year, and I’m long overdue a return trip. There was just something magical about it – so unprepossessing and yet getting everything right, serving dishes that are so often unspecial in chain Italians and reminding you just how superb they can be in the right hands. It came around the same time as I had a brilliant holiday in Bologna and a bloody horrendous meal in Cozze, and the fact that the standard was so much closer to the former than the latter put a huge smile on my face. If you go, the spaghetti puttanesca (pictured above) is pretty damn close to perfection.
Honourable mentions have to go to Goring’s Miller Of Mansfield, a special occasion restaurant which will leave you wanting to invent more special occasions, and Oxford’s Pompette, a truly spectacular French neighbourhood restaurant which I’d dearly love to pick up and drop somewhere in Reading. In fact, since I can’t do that, I’m literally lunching there again today.
SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Fidget & Bob
I stopped giving an award out for Tweeter of the year this year, because Fidget & Bob won it every year. They may as well keep the trophy. But this year, eating there more often, I discovered that how they were on Twitter probably came so naturally to them because it was just an extension of how they were in real life. Their welcome is always warm but perfectly-judged, not faux-matey, never too much. They seem to know literally everybody who eats in their little café – who they are, what they like, how they’ve been, the comings and goings of their lives. I suppose it must be easier to do when you run a small venue and there are only a couple of you, but that doesn’t stop it being extremely impressive – or bloody hard work, however easy Shu and Breege make it look.
An honourable mention has to go to Mio Fiore, who also have that perfect balance spot on in a far bigger venue, and I also have to single out the inimitable Jo at Kungfu Kitchen. Her service is a constant joy to me – the conversation, the recommendations, the gossip, the way she always seems delighted that you’ve come back. There’s no welcome quite like it in Reading, and once you’ve tried it you’ll know exactly what I mean.
DESSERT OF THE YEAR: Chocolate custard with sesame tuille, The Miller Of Mansfield
So beautiful, so elegant and so delicious: the Miller’s chocolate custard is a smooth, glossy thing somewhere between the texture of a ganache and a mousse. It looks almost as beautiful as it tastes, with a salted sesame tuille on top perfect to break into little shards, the whole thing artfully dotted with microherbs and little dabs of vivid orange. It was by far the best dessert I’ve had this year: when I went on duty I shared it with my dining companion, but when I managed to engineer a return visit a few weeks later I made sure I got one all to myself.
Honourable mentions go to Zest’s excellent white chocolate and Bailey’s cheesecake – a big old slab of heaven – and the timeless simplicity of Mio Fiore’s tiramisu.
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: The Lyndhurst
I was very sad when the Lyndhurst closed in June, the landlord went off to pastures new and at least one of the chefs moved on to the Fisherman’s Cottage. And I had my doubts when it reopened the following month – there was a hesitancy about the whole thing, and on the opening night the team seemed more than a little fazed about what they had taken on.
Well, over the months that followed they have, if anything, surpassed their predecessors with an interesting and exciting menu which constantly changes. I tried a beautiful dish of oxtail there, rich shreds of meat wrapped up in the embrace of a cabbage leaf. Weeks later, it had vanished from the menu like a mirage, never to return. The picture above is of a stunning rabbit dish – stuffed with chicken liver, wrapped in prosciutto, a dish which kept popping back into my mind at random moments, normally when I was eating something nowhere near as good. I think they served that dish for less than a week, and I haven’t seen it on the menu since.
One staple, though, is the curry night on Thursdays – a choice of three curries, all miles from the generic stuff, with rice, a bhaji, a pint and a naan, all for a tenner. The ever-present katsu chicken burger is always worth ordering, too, with some of Reading’s best chips – and then there’s the small matter of their chilli nachos, as I’ve already said.
The tables have got busier, the “reserved” signs more frequent, and I for one am delighted to see them doing so well. And the hesitancy hasn’t exactly vanished: it’s more that it’s morphed into a really charming humility. They don’t ever sing their own praises, which is even more reason why it’s my pleasure to do it for them by awarding them my Newcomer Of The Year award.
Some people would have expected Kungfu Kitchen to win this award, but they opened in October last year so aren’t eligible (and, personally, I was delighted to dodge another incredibly hard decision). I do, however, have to mention the two runners-up in this category. Buenasado really surprised me when I visited it on duty – I had low expectations of a small restaurant popping up in the Oracle in the site vacated by CAU, but they did a really creditable job (and their lunchtime steak frites offer is not to be sniffed at, either). An honourable mention also goes to Namaste Momo, the new outpost from Kamal, the man behind Namaste Kitchen. It’s a little out of the way, and the execution of the menu is still slightly uneven, but the hand-made momo are literally worth the price of admission alone: not only that, but Kamal will absolutely charm the socks off you.
RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Kungfu Kitchen
This was absolutely the hardest decision of all. Just think, for a second, about how lucky we are to live here. Here are some of the restaurants that didn’t even make my shortlist: Fidget & Bob; Pepe Sale; Geo Café; The Lyndhurst; Namaste Momo.
And then look at my runners-up. Bakery House is a superb, consistent, brilliantly run Reading institution where you can take pretty much anyone you know and guarantee that you’ll have a superb meal. You can go with vegetarians and go crazy with the mezze, or take your carnivorous friends and rejoice in the chicken livers, the little spiced sausages, the shawarma and the chicken fresh from the grill. I can’t remember them ever disappointing me.
And then there’s Clay’s. How could I not give the award to Clay’s, you might quite reasonably ask? If anything, their second year has been stronger than their first: look at all that game on their menu at the start of 2019, the quail, the rabbit and the pheasant. And then, just when you think their food couldn’t get any better, they pivoted again: amazing baby squid, like some hybrid of Hyderabad and Andalusia, a crab fry dish which has left so many diners speechless. They’ve even got me to eat baby corn, something I’d previously thought was impossible. I know full well that not picking them as 2019’s winners will leave many of you questioning my judgment this year (and possibly next).
But this is a decision made with the heart, not the head, and Kungfu Kitchen has been my restaurant of this year. From the very first visit I was wondering when I could go back, and on every visit I’ve faced that agonising tug of war between ordering a dish I know and love or venturing deeper into the menu. It never feels too much like a leap into the unknown, largely because of the magnificent Jo who always acts as a sherpa, taking you just far enough out of your comfort zone without ever leaving you high and dry (with possibly one exception: she once made me order a boiled beef and chilli oil dish which was a challenge, more a dish you survive than finish). She is a force of nature, and a huge part of what makes Kungfu Kitchen so enjoyable and so welcoming.
The food really is marvellous – whether it’s the fried fish in spicy hot pot, the sweet and aromatic wonder of the fish fragrant pork, the piquant kung pao chicken, the glorious pork belly, boiled, sliced super thin and then stir fried with Chinese mushrooms and plenty of heat, the salt and pepper tofu – yes, tofu – or one of my very favourites, the Xinjiang-style shredded chicken which almost literally takes your breath away with the heat before gradually releasing its grip on your larynx. That makes it sound awful but honestly, it’s exhilarating.
The conventional wisdom is to go to a place like Kungfu Kitchen in a big group so you can try more dishes, and that’s partly true. I’ve been at a birthday party there where they effortlessly served about twenty people, they did a bang-up job (complete with karaoke!) at one of my readers’ lunches earlier in the year. But I’ve also been here with smaller groups of friends, on quiet nights with my other half and, on occasion when I’m at a loose end, I’ll walk up the hill on my own and order just the one dish – such a hardship – and a beer and have dinner for one watching the toing and froing, the bustle and the banter. The welcome is never less than perfect, and the food is never less than gorgeous. It truly is a happy place.
It’s been a real joy to watch Kungfu Kitchen spreading its wings on social media, and to see so many ER readers go there and fall in love with the place, as I did. And so it seems appropriate to end 2019 by giving them this award and by wishing them – and all my winners and runners-up, and just as importantly all of you – a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.