Buon Appetito

When people suggested I review Buon Appetito, an Italian restaurant down Chatham Street, right next to the Central Swimming Pool, I looked at the menu online and nearly rejected it out of hand. Nothing about it suggested authenticity; I’ve never been to Italy, but from the looks of the menu nor had anyone associated with Buon Appetito. It was a few mainstream pasta choices, some not wildly exciting pizzas and a few other bits and bobs. I wasn’t even sure whoever had put this menu together had even been to Bella Italia, for that matter.

Then I looked at the TripAdvisor reviews and wondered what I was missing. Almost without exception they were raves: not all obvious shills by people who had only ever written one review for TA, but reviews by real people who, it seemed, had something to compare it to. Other Italians need to up their game said one, among the top three pizzas I’ve ever eaten, and that includes in Rome said another. Well now! So what we had here was the restaurant equivalent of an irresistible force meeting an immovable body: which was right, my opinion based on the menu or all those TripAdvisor reviewers? I simply had to know.

The first challenge was getting anyone to show us to a table. We went through the door on a gloomy weekday night and found ourselves standing there for a good five minutes before a waiter turned up. The last time I’d eaten at this site was back when it was the sadly-departed Chi and they’ve done a good job with it. It feels bigger, lighter and airier, and nobody goes wrong with the classic combination of red gingham tablecloths and plain wooden chairs. The room through the back, where we were seated, is a pleasing square space and the art taking up the whole of the far wall, an Italian scene of an old cobbled street, opens it up nicely. We were the only people there, although a table in the corner was booked for two and had a vase sitting on it with a dozen red roses. Aw! I thought to myself, trying to overlook the rather invasive background music. It sounded like it was being played on a chewed cassette tape.

I still didn’t much fancy the menu but we took recommendations from the waiter, a young, chirpy, pleasant chap who was happy to talk us through what was good. All the pizzas were excellent, he said, and so was the grilled goat’s cheese starter, the bruschetta and the tagliatelle. That made the choice a lot easier, so we ordered half a bottle of red wine and waited to see what was in store.

This led to the first oddness of the evening – I was expecting a half bottle, 375ml, of a named wine with a label on it. Instead we got a plain unlabelled full size bottle, wearing a red napkin like a little neckerchief, half-full of some unnamed liquid. All a bit weird, although it tasted nice enough (if a little tannic). The music got a little more frantic – all Italian, with more noodling and guitar shredding than I associate with Italian music. Personally I’d have preferred Boys Boys Boys by Sabrina, but you can’t have everything.

We shared the two recommended starters. The grilled goat’s cheese was adequate but probably no better than that. The cheese itself was nice and earthy, and it came with some caramelised red onion (I couldn’t shift the suspicion that this was out of a jar) and some balsamic glaze on two slices of baguette. Pretty tasty, although more about assembly than actual cooking.

BuonGoat

Much the same was true of the bruschetta. It was a small oval of pizza bread (cooked in the pizza oven, the waiter had proudly told us) topped with halved cherry tomatoes, some red onion and drizzled with pesto. The pesto had the thick texture and taste that again suggested it had come out of a jar, or maybe a tub. The tomatoes were sweet and not unpleasant. The pizza bread was not the right choice for this, because there was nothing for the juices from the tomato to seep into, although that’s probably fair enough because nothing had been done to the tomatoes, so there were no juices anyway.

BuonBruschetta

The waiter asked if we’d liked the starters as he took them away, and we said they were nice. Ten per cent fibbing, I’d say. By this time the happy couple had turned up and were sitting at their assigned table, which was slightly higher up than ours, as if on a dais. They ordered champagne and chatted away to each other in a language I couldn’t make out, and took photos of each other and got the waiter to take pictures of them both. It was quite heartwarming to see, although already I was starting to wonder if they shouldn’t have picked a slightly better restaurant.

It was around the time my pizza arrived that I began to wonder whether Buon Appetito was the most misleadingly-named Reading establishment since Great Expectations. I have literally nothing positive to say about it. I have a friend who sometimes complains about pizzas saying they have too much cheese on them, and in the past I’ve always responded to her saying “don’t be ridiculous, how can a pizza have too much cheese on it?” Well it turns out that it can, because my salami pizza was practically nothing but cheese. Covered completely in cheese, a big molten sheet of the stuff, with no bubble or crisp or texture.

The base might once have been half decent (though I wouldn’t bet on it) but with so much grease it was sodden and grotty. The salami and pepperoni felt cheap and nasty. The menu claimed there was a tomato sauce hiding under there, but some exploratory work scraping off the gloopy layer of cheap mozzarella revealed nothing of the kind. You know when you get a pizza and you wind up leaving the crust so you can eat the good stuff in the middle? This was a grotesque parody of that, in that I found myself eating along the perimeter because it was the only bit with any crunch or contrast, the only bit that felt like it might have been pizza at all.

BuonPizza

I have a friend who makes the most amazing pizzas. He makes his own sourdough base, he has a pizza steel, he makes his own tomato sauce, he buys in ‘nduja and friarelli, the whole shebang. Even his vegan pizzas, covered in capers, are remarkable. His pizzas – and apologies for being indelicate – piss all over Buon Appetito’s. But to put this into perspective, this pizza wasn’t just not as good as that. It wasn’t as good as Papa Gee’s. It wasn’t as good as Pizza Express’, or Zero Degrees’. It wasn’t as good as Prezzo’s or Strada’s. It wasn’t as good as Marks and Spencer’s, and I wouldn’t have put money on it being as good as Iceland’s. It was a waste of calories, and I didn’t even come close to finishing it.

The other main, spinach pasta with prawns, was also disappointing. The pasta was overcooked, squidgy and claggy (not for the first time, I wondered if the chef was Italian: al dente it wasn’t) and the sauce just tasted of tomato with none of the olive oil, garlic and lemon juice it allegedly contained. It needed something (anything!) to lift it, and without that it just tasted like student cooking. Put it this way, if I’d made it at home I still would have been disappointed. A shame really, because the prawns were rather nice. I picked them off by sniping with my fork, and I left an awful lot of the rest.

BuonPasta

We told the waiter we were really full as he took the main courses away, and that they had been nice. I’m pretty sure by this stage we were eighty per cent fibbing. We didn’t ask to look at the dessert menu and dinner for two came to thirty-seven pounds, not including tip. Our waiter seemed like a lovely chap but it was amazing how often he wasn’t around given that he only had four customers to look after. Getting the bill and paying it were both more difficult than they ought to be, and empty (or half-full) plates were sitting around in front of us for longer than they should have been.

I’m baffled by Buon Appetito’s high ratings on TripAdvisor. I wouldn’t want to suggest foul play, but I do wonder how many of these reviewers are regulars or have connections to the restaurant. Who knows? Perhaps they had an off night, perhaps I went with insurmountable preconceptions, but I don’t think so. I think I ate food which had little to do with Italy prepared by a kitchen that probably hadn’t been there. I think there were some jars involved, and some disappointing ingredients. I think Reading has many better Italian restaurants and, most damningly of all, I think that includes a number of chains; when you can eat something better on the Oracle, you really have a problem. As we got up to leave I looked again at the lovebirds, only to find them both tapping away on their phones. I fear they had about as enjoyable an evening as I did.

Buon Appetito – 5.3

146-148 Chatham Street, RG1 7HT
0118 3273390

Buon Appetito

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Cosmo

How do I sum up the experience of eating in Cosmo? How can I possibly distil such a complex experience, so many different types of food, into a single review? Well, maybe I should start at the end of the meal. There were four of us round the table (I know: people actually wanted to come with me!), looking at our largely empty plates, feeling a mixture of remorse and queasy fear about how our bodies would cope with what came next. Tim, chosen for this mission because he is one of the biggest gluttons I know, paused for a second and said “I don’t think this place is going to help anybody have a healthy relationship with food.”

There was further silence and the rest of us tried to digest what he had said (trying to digest, it turned out, would be a theme over the next forty-eight hours).

“I don’t really feel like I’ve eaten in a restaurant this evening.” Tim went on. “I just feel like I’ve spent time smashing food into my mouth.”

I looked down at the leftovers on my plate – a solitary Yorkshire pudding stuffed with crispy duck and topped with hoi sin (it was my friend Ben’s idea and it sounded like a brilliant plan at the time) and started to laugh hysterically. It might have been all the sugar in the Chinese food, the sweet white crystals on top of the crispy seaweed, but I felt, in truth, a little delirious.

“Nobody should leave a restaurant feeling this way.” said Ben, possibly the other biggest glutton I’ve ever met and a man who has never, to the best of my knowledge, left a restaurant entirely replete. We all nodded, too full to speak. I can’t remember who got onto this topic, but there was a general consensus that we were all dreading our next visit to the bathroom and then, having said all that and paid up, we waddled out onto Friar Street and into the night.

Alternatively, maybe I should sum up the experience of eating at Cosmo by recounting the conversations on Facebook the next day. I won’t name names, but we had I had to sleep with a hot water bottle on my belly to aid with digestion, along with I still feel ill, not to forget the more evocative my burps taste of MSG and – look away now if you’re easily shocked – I just did something approximating to a poo and it wasn’t pretty. Tim was feeling so grotty that he worked from home, all of us felt icky and found ourselves daydreaming about salad or vegetables – you don’t see many vegetables at Cosmo, you know – and hoping for some time in the future when the meal was a distant memory.

The thing is that if I started to sum up Cosmo that way you might just assume that I went with some greedy pigs, we all ate too much, made ourselves poorly and have nobody but ourselves to blame. So maybe I should start more conventionally at the point where we walked in and were escorted to a Siberian table for four right at the back, close to the emergency exit, far from daylight. You go in past a display of bread and vegetables in little baskets (I can only assume this is a heroic piece of misdirection, or some kind of in-joke) and then you wind up in some kind of windowless all-you-can-eat dungeon.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of Cosmo, may I first express my undying envy before going on to explain: it is indeed a gigantic buffet where you can consume as much food as you like for two hours before your time is up and you are asked to leave. Serving staff constantly circle the room while you are up at the cooking stations, whisking away your old plate so that when you sit down you can almost forget just how much food you have consumed. I bet you’re getting peckish just reading this, right?

All major cuisines are represented, provided your idea of major cuisines is largely Chinese and Indian. There are other things on offer – sushi, pizza (or, as Tim referred to it, “random pizza”, when he stuck a slice of one right next to his crispy duck pancake), a big wodge of unappetising pink gammon you were invited to carve yourself, something described as “beef stew”, I could go on – but the general theme is pan-Asian. The “pan” might be short for “pandemic”.

The experience of eating at Cosmo is very different from a traditional meal where you all sit down at a table, decide what you want and then chat away while someone cooks and brings it to you (it’s very different in the sense that Ryanair, for instance, is very different from British Airways). I would say there were very few moments where all four of us were sitting down at once: instead we were frequently prowling from one cooking station to the other, finding things to stick on our fresh plates, wondering if our choices went with one another, wondering whether it mattered, wondering where Ben got the idea of sticking crispy duck in a Yorkshire pudding like a massive demented vol-au-vent (You haven’t lived until you’ve put sushi, Yorkshire pudding and rogan josh together on the same plate said someone on Twitter – hi Pete! – in the run-up to my visit: all I can say is I still haven’t lived, and I’m fine with that).

When we were talking, most of the conversation revolved around one of three topics, namely “this dish isn’t half as bad as I thought it would be”, “try this, it’s truly atrocious” or, and this one was mainly led by me, “what possessed you to put crispy duck in a Yorkshire pudding?”

When you get to Cosmo you’re a bit like a kid in a sweet shop at first (although who over the age of six wants to have dinner in a sweetshop?). The other way that the experience is different to a normal meal out is that as the evening wears on, the mood gets slightly more deranged. Maybe it’s the cumulative effect of all that sugar, maybe it’s the body’s way of expressing Vitamin C withdrawal symptoms, or maybe it’s my fault because I collated a list of all the things people had recommended and I was insistent that we try them all. It was like an I-Spy book or something, and I directed people with military precision: You, go get some sushi. Tim, check out the prawns with ginger and spring onion. I’ll hit the teppanyaki station. Meet you back here in a couple of minutes. All right, let’s move out! If that doesn’t sound like fun then take it from me, the element of co-ordinated planning and being in it together was probably the most fun thing about the evening (well, that and bonding over our bowel movements the next day).

Finally, let’s talk about the food. Between us we ate so many dishes that it’s difficult to go into forensic detail about everything, but as a general rule I’d say the things I expected to be good were poor and the things I expected to be dreadful weren’t quite as bad as I feared. For instance I had the teppanyaki station recommended to me, so I made sure I had some seared scallops (or, more literally, a scallop cut into thin slices and griddled) and some very thin steak wrapped around enoki mushrooms, also griddled. The scallops were pleasant if basic, the enoki tasted of nothing but oil and the steak, if it tasted of anything, tasted of oily mushrooms. Similarly, I went to the grill station and asked for something off the bone and they recommended the pork. It still had a bone in it and I watched the chef slice it on a board before handing it to me. It was some miraculous cut of pork that was made only of bone, fat and crackling, presumably from a pig which had spent its entire life lying down.

CosmoTeppan

What else? Well, Tim pronounced the samosas and spring rolls as “rubbish” (nothing in them, he said), an adjective he also applied to his lamb rogan josh. I tried a bit of the latter and I tended to agree, the lamb and the sauce felt like they had spent their whole lives apart before being stirred together at the last minute, no depth of flavour in the meat, nothing you couldn’t do yourself with a jar of sauce from Loyd Grossman. The tandoori chicken was apparently dry. The most derision was reserved for the “crab claw”, something made of goodness knows what, a wodge of awful, indeterminate homogenous beige material not dissimilar to a washing up sponge. Tim disliked his so much he insisted that Ben try one and Ben, a man I have never known to turn down food, had a mouthful and abandoned the rest. The sushi was also judged to be pretty grim, claggy and flavourless, soggy seaweed and all.

CosmoBuns

There were some slightly better dishes. The chicken satay was nice enough, although certainly no better than chicken satay I’ve had at dozens of other places in Reading and beyond. The stir fried green beans were thoroughly enjoyable, although that might just have been the novelty value of eating something that was actually green. We all quite liked the char siu and the black pepper chicken, although again not enough to tell people to make a beeline for Cosmo just to eat them. The steamed pork buns divided opinion – some of us liked them, some found them just too sweet. Again, China Palace undoubtedly does them better, and China Palace is itself arguably nothing special. Tim liked the pad Thai, and Ben seemed not to mind the southern fried chicken. The crispy seaweed was lovely, but then I could eat crispy seaweed all day. Also in the Chinese section were some miniature hash browns with spring onion: they were about as out of place as I was.

CosmoPork

Before I went to Cosmo someone very wise on Twitter – hello Dan! – said that he treated the place as an all you can eat duck pancake meal. I think this might be the best way to approach Cosmo: again, it was okay rather than amazing but perhaps the trick is to find a dish that never lets you down and stock up on that. We all started on this dish and a couple of us went back to it later on when the other options ran out of appeal. There was also crispy pork, also for pancakes, and I was a little concerned that the pork and the duck didn’t taste quite as different as they could have done. Still, even if it was a bunch of faintly meaty fluffy strands it hit the spot in a way that most of the other dishes couldn’t.

CosmoDuck

“It’s important not to be snobby about Cosmo.” said Ben towards the end of the meal as he ate his trio of miniature desserts, three little sponge cakes (he was the only person to have any dessert – he wasn’t a big fan of them, though). Maybe he’s right: there’s undoubtedly a place for this kind of restaurant and a market for it, which is why there are queues outside it at the weekend. It’s cheap – all you can eat (which, by the end of my evening, had mutated into “all you can bear”) for fourteen pounds on a week night. I can also see it would be perfect for parents, for big groups, for indecisive people or, and I sometimes forget how many of these there are in every town, not just Reading, people who Just Don’t Like Food That Much.

In my ivory tower, enthusing about the likes of Papa Gee, Perry’s or Pepe Sale it’s easy for me to forget that some people just want to get fuelled up somewhere like Cosmo before going on to one of Reading’s many characterful chain pubs, and I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. And perhaps that’s the point of Cosmo full stop – it doesn’t serve the best of anything, but if quantity and range are the most important things then Cosmo is the place for you. I’m just glad I don’t ever have to participate again, and if that makes me a snob I suppose I’m just going to have to suck it up. Maybe I should get a t-shirt printed or something.

I didn’t mention the service, because it isn’t really that kind of place, but what there was was pleasant and entirely lacking in the kind of existential despair I would experience if I had to spend more than two hours in Cosmo. I’ve saved the cost of the meal until last, for good reason. Dinner for four, including two glasses of unremarkable wine and a couple of bottomless soft drinks, came to seventy pounds. But more importantly, and this is what makes it the most expensive meal I’ve ever reviewed for the blog, it cost ER readers over a thousand pounds. Yes, people made over a grand’s worth of pledges (not including GiftAid) to Launchpad to enable them to continue doing their incredible work for the homeless and vulnerable in Reading, work which has never been more badly needed than it is today. And if you haven’t donated yet, but you enjoyed reading this review, it’s not too late: just click here.

So, veni, vidi, icky: I went to Cosmo, just like I promised I would, and I had a pretty iffy meal, just like you thought I would. No surprises there, and that might well be why you sponsored me in the first place. But now the after-effects have subsided, when I look at how everybody rallied round and chipped in, and most importantly when I think about what all that money will achieve for our brilliant town, it’s hard to imagine I’ll have a less regrettable meal all year.

Launchpad

Cosmo – 5.0
35-38 Friar Street, RG1 1DX
0118 9595588

http://www.cosmo-restaurants.co.uk/locations/reading/

Wolf

Although a lot of people complain about the proliferation of coffee shops in the centre of town, for me the biggest growth has been in places to lunch. In the old days your choice was between Picnic, Pret and Workhouse but now there are a plethora of options, from Shed to My Kitchen, from Artigiano to Manhattan Coffee Club, with new ones seemingly opening every month.

So far so coffee, but two of the most recent arrivals, Itsu and Wolf, are more centred around food and have sprung up near John Lewis (the closest thing Reading has to a cathedral), changing the balance of town slightly and drawing footfall slightly away from the Oracle. Both have been on my list for a while, but Wolf gets the nod this week because it’s slightly better established, and I wanted to give Itsu a little longer to settle in. Besides, Itsu is a well-known chain (admittedly in London), whereas Wolf is a much smaller affair, with two branches in Reading and – rather randomly – another couple in Chiswick and Leeds.

I was a bit sniffy about the prospect of “Italian Street Food”, which is apparently what Wolf offers, mainly because I wasn’t convinced it existed. But in fairness, I’ve never been to Italy so I did a bit of research and it seems that there is indeed such a thing – paper cones full of fried seafood, meat on skewers, stuffed fried olives, arancini, delicious fatty porchetta packed into bread. A quick Google and I’d gone from zero to ravenous in about two minutes.

So far so good, but there’s a catch: standing outside Wolf, I had a quick look at their menu and it bore no relation to anything I’d seen, to the extent that I’m not sure whoever designed the menu had ever been to Italy either. Going inside, the concept was explained to me by one of the people behind the counter: first you decide whether you want bread, piada (a wrap not unlike a tortilla), pasta or salad. Then you pick some protein or vegetables to put in it. Then you pick a sauce, and finally you select a few toppings, from salad, olives, cheese and various other antipastoid options.

I’m going to run out of positive things to say very quickly in this review, I’m afraid (right after I point out that the staff were very friendly, I suspect) and this concept felt very much like it had been appropriated from elsewhere. You pick your options as you move down the counter, being served by a different person at each stage, in an assembly line which feels very familiar to anyone who’s ever been to Mission Burrito. You choose what to go in what is fundamentally a sandwich, just as you would at Pierre’s or Shed. Then they wrap it up in foil and put it in a bag for you, which is reminiscent of Five Guys. The feeling of disappointment and being underwhelmed, though, might be unique to Wolf.

So my sandwich was lemon and garlic chicken, in a big cheese-topped bap which was described on the menu as focaccia but was nothing of the kind. Also inside were an inoffensive tomato sauce, some sundried tomatoes, some artichoke hearts and some rocket. The bap was too big and floppy to eat tidily, but there wasn’t quite enough chicken to fill it. Everything tasted pleasant enough but impossible to get excited about. I half expected the chicken to be hot, but it wasn’t – the only warmth came from the split second the bap had spent on a hot plate, not enough time to give it any toasted texture or any real interest. All that for a fiver, and the only concession to street food was that they didn’t bother to give you a plate.

WolfSandwich

In the interests of trying all aspects of the menu I also ordered one of the eleven inch stone-baked pizzas. I was expecting (perhaps a little too optimistically) a thin, hand stretched pizza dough with a sprinkling of fresh-looking toppings – in this case sun dried tomato, red onion, olives and feta. What I got was a thick based pizza (perhaps not quite as pillowy as the sort that gets delivered by moped) with mostly mozzarella on it. Lots and lots of mozzarella. There was enough tomato sauce to identify it, a few flecks of feta cheese and rather more black olives (that looked like rubber washers from a tin) than I was expecting. If I’d been ravenously hungry or, perhaps, drunk, this might have been right up my alley. Instead it felt like way too many calories for not enough flavour. Except salt. All that cheese made it extremely salty. I left half of it and I wish I had left more. Again, no plate.

WolfPizza

I haven’t talked about the room, something I normally do earlier on in the review. That might be because it’s not very nice. It’s another long, thin space – barely wider than a corridor – with tables along one side, big mirrors on the opposite wall and no natural light. The tables outside (yes, with yet more Tolix chairs) are nicer, but even in an Eames lounger this food would taste pretty ordinary. One sandwich, one pizza and two cans of San Pellegrino fizzy drinks – with plastic cups, no glasses either – came to just under fourteen pounds.

I’m sorry that I can’t be more positive about Wolf, but the best I can say is that the food isn’t unpleasant. Normally the lack of authenticity wouldn’t bother me, but it does here because it feels like Wolf is a Frankenstein’s monster, an attempt to patch together a bunch of food trends to try and make money out of diners. There are better pizzas all across Reading (although they do cost more than six pounds fifty) and better – and cheaper – sandwiches anywhere you care to name.

Maybe you’re paying for the choice, but I found standing at the counter that I didn’t want all that choice. I wanted a small range of good, classic flavour combinations rather than the gastronomic equivalent of the numbers round in Countdown. I used to love eating at Fasta Pasta in Oxford’s Covered Market, where you could get big, fluffy ciabatta studded with olives or sundried tomatoes, filled with fresh discs of mozzarella, salty, intense pesto and top notch Parma ham which had been sliced there and then in front of your very eyes. Authentic, classic, delicious: compared to that, Wolf is about as Italian as Captain Bertorelli eating a Cornetto on Clacton Pier. It’s not street food, just pedestrian.

Wolf – 5.6
94 Broad Street, RG1 2AP
0118 9598179

http://www.wolfstreetfood.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/

The Bird in Hand, Sonning Common

I’ve been thinking about going to the Bird In Hand for ages. It’s been sitting there on my list and I was saving it because I always had a sneaking feeling it would either be really special or crashingly disappointing and I half didn’t want to find out which. There seems to be a bit of a recent trend of country pubs round here taking a detour to Italy – like Buratta’s near Twyford (although I’ve always been a bit deterred by the fact that they’ve spelled “burrata” wrong) and the Red Lion at Mortimer Common – but something about the Bird In Hand felt like it might have star quality.

I normally talk far more about food than I do about chefs, but the Bird In Hand’s back story is an interesting one; the landlord, Santino Busciglio, cooked at various Michelin starred restaurants in London and appeared on one of Gordon Ramsay’s TV shows (don’t worry, the one about good restaurants rather than the one about cockroaches in the kitchen and eighteen page menus where all the sauces come out of a packet) before taking over the Bird In Hand, which reopened at the start of the year.

If it wasn’t the back story, maybe it was the website: in the course of my pre-visit research I decided that it was the most appealing menu I’d seen for a long time. The modish typewriter font made my eyes hurt, but looking beyond that it was an embarrassment of riches – a dizzying range of small sharing dishes to start and then a set of mains which divided their time evenly between Sicily and South Oxfordshire. Braised beef brisket pie rubbed shoulders with roasted sea bream, burger buns cohabiting with focaccia. I almost wanted to keep it on my list forever as some halcyon ideal of what a countryside pub could be, but my curiosity got the better of me so, during the hottest week of the year, my car pulled up outside and I prepared myself to deal with triumph or disaster.

The place has been done up recently and it really showed, but it also achieved the rare trick of managing to feel like a pub that serves food rather than a restaurant which pays lip service to local drinkers. The interior was lovely in that kind of studied rustic way that smart pubs are these days, with a decent-sized chic dining room, but it was completely empty because we’re British and know to make the most of whatever summer weather we actually get. So everyone was sitting outside, under the parasols, rejoicing in the beauty of a sultry English evening. We joined them, marvelling at the red kite circling above and I realised as I sipped a crisp cold pint of cider that choosing from the menu was never going to be an easy task.

It’s actually a cleverer menu than you realise at first – although the twenty or so stuzzichini dishes could seem bewilderingly huge, a lot of them contain components which also turn up in the mains, so you have to carefully pick through and decide how best to try as many different things as possible. We limited ourselves to sharing three before moving on the mains; I deeply regretted not ordering the grilled neck of treacle pork, the crab salt cod and ricotta fish cakes or the chick pea fritters, but it’s a good menu that forces you to make hard choices.

My favourite of them was a couscous salad with green garlic, yellowfin tuna and wild mushrooms – a bloody gorgeous bowl of deliciousness. The couscous was Israeli couscous (the bigger stuff that’s easier to eat and doesn’t go absolutely everywhere the moment you try to eat it), there were lots of little wild mushrooms studded through it, along with sweet cherry tomatoes and plenty of pieces of light, fresh-tasting tuna. It was the first thing I ate and it set a trickily high standard for everything that was to follow.

BirdTapas

Caponata was also good: I’ve always been a huge fan and the Bird In Hand’s version was slightly different to ones I’ve had in the past. The aubergine was firm rather than stewed into sticky submission, there was more of a starring role for the celery in the dish and the balance was much more interesting – a more closely-fought battle between the sweet and the sour – than I was used to. Again, it felt like perfect summer food, and I could gladly have eaten a bowl of it on my own.

The least successful of the starters was the trout two ways (line caught Avington rainbow trout, for any provenance buffs out there). Half had been cured in vodka, little beautifully-coloured strips arranged in a whorl. It was pretty but insubstantial. The other half, hot tea smoked, was served on a little smudge of spinach pureé and I liked it but I didn’t love it – it was powerfully smoky but that flavour wasn’t as deep or complex as I’d hoped it would be and, like the cured trout, it was almost over before it began. By serving it two ways, it felt like neither one thing nor the other: I admired the technique a great deal, but it felt a little unrewarding for six pounds (at the risk of sounding like a heathen, I would have liked some bread with it, but there wasn’t enough of it to put on bread anyway).

Plenty of promise in the starters, then, and the mains delivered on it. The menu has so much for vegetarians (plenty of starters and three tempting mains, including a field mushroom and green garlic pie which I would have ordered on a slightly cooler day) that I felt duty bound to try one of them, so I went for the strozzapretti pasta with aubergine caviar, basil, vine tomatoes and salted ricotta cheese. The pasta was al dente and the aubergine caviar (a bit misleading that, as it had collapsed into something approximating to baba ghanoush by the time it was served) was smoky with a touch of citrus and rich enough to make this a very substantial main. There was also some clever chilli in the sauce which built over time and the generous heap of salted ricotta – so nice to see a kitchen advertising a vegetarian dish without blotting their copybook with Parmesan – on top rounded it off nicely. It was still a bowl of pasta, and I think they always run out of steam when eaten as a main course, but it was probably the best vegetarian main course I’ve had this year. I was also impressed to see how much on the menu was gluten free – almost a third of it, and none of it felt like it involved any compromises.

BirdPasta

The other main turned out to be the perfect synthesis of Sicily and South Oxfordshire, the Bird In Hand’s cover version of fish and chips. The hake was in glorious light batter (billed as Parmesan tempura, although I didn’t really detect that). The chips were crunchy thin straws of courgette, beautifully seasoned and fried, all taste and no oil. And the peas – well, it was a fantastic pea puree, as intense and green to taste as it was to look at. I don’t even like mushy peas, but I couldn’t get enough of this. If I did have a criticism, and it’s only one, the presentation of everything on top of the pea puree made it difficult to make the most of the superlative accompaniments – a lovely piquant pimento ketchup and (a lovely touch, this) a ramekin of malt vinegar jelly. Everything I had had been tasty, but this was clever too.

BirdHake

On a lovely, sunny evening it felt like a waste to head home without making some inroads into the dessert menu, and my companion still had quite a lot of a glass of white wine to finish. Impressively, the Bird In Hand has about ten wines by the glass, nearly all Italian, all costing no more than £3.50 for a small glass or £20 for a bottle, another little detail that made me warm to the place. I didn’t try any, being the designated driver, but I’m told that the Cataratto (an organic Sicilian white) was positively medicinal on a hot day.

This is probably the right place to mention the service, which was the closest my evening came to letting the side down. Sitting outside meant that you ordered at the bar – and when I did Santino, who was working behind the bar, was charm personified and clearly a big hit with locals and diners. He could sell any of his dishes to anyone and was brilliant at bringing the details to life: the tuna cooked with orange zest, the burrata which was arriving later in the week, the salami he gets from small producers in Italy (I imagine he has built up quite a good contacts book), the ice cream which was all made there on the premises. He also lamented the end of the English asparagus season, a subject very close to my heart. The table service was a lot more erratic: the young waiter who was doing the fetching and carrying had a lot to do (serving in the garden means a lot of distance back and forth with plates) but wasn’t the canniest of workers, often bringing out food then returning to the kitchen empty handed despite our empty plates having been in front of us for quite some time. It didn’t mar the evening but I did reach the stage where I had half a mind to taken them inside myself, and that isn’t how it should be.

Santino recommended the ice cream, so naturally I had to try it. They’re all priced by the scoop and, interestingly, the prices all differ so, for example, pistachio is more expensive than chocolate which is more expensive than vanilla. I had two scoops of malt barley ice cream, and I think – no offence to the likes of Tutti Frutti – it’s probably the best ice cream I’ve had in this country. The texture almost defied description because somehow “smooth” isn’t enough but, raiding the thesaurus, smooth is all there is. It was so rich and glossy, with almost a burnt toffee note from the malt, that I just didn’t want it to end. Except I also wished I’d only had one scoop so I could try the chocolate as well: what did I say about good menus and hard choices?

BirdIce

Believe it or not, I’ve saved the best for last. Sfinci, Sicilian cinnamon doughnuts, might well be my dessert of the year so far: three rough little clouds of fried batter, crisp on the outside, soft in the middle, dusted with a little icing sugar and cinnamon and served with the richest, creamiest pistachio ice cream. The irony: in Reading we’re used to being bombarded with a message saying “lovely hot doughnuts, nice and fresh” and yet so many people never get to eat anything of the kind. I was told when I ordered them that they would take fifteen minutes and I’m not sure I can think of a better way of spending fifteen minutes than waiting for that dish.

BirdDoughnut

The total bill, for three courses each, two ciders, a wine and an Averna (it looks like Coke, tastes like cough medicine and, with lots of ice and a slice of orange, is one of the best digestifs you could hope for) was seventy six pounds. Considering the number of separate moments in the meal which had a wow factor, I reckon that was money well spent.

Having written this blog for nearly two years, I’ve come to realise is that life is full of mysteries. Why do cafés persist in putting your napkin between the cake and the plate, thereby guaranteeing you can’t use it? Why is Prezzo always full? Why are the plates for Picnic’s salads so small that it’s almost impossible to eat the salad without dumping half of it on the table? Cosmo: why?

But the biggest mystery of all to me is that people just don’t read the reviews of out of town places – I know, thanks to the joys of WordPress, that every time I publish one quite a few readers decide to take a week off. That’s a real shame, because those people won’t get to find out about the Bird In Hand. They won’t get to experience little flashes of wonder of like the ones I had – that first taste of couscous, wild mushroom and tuna, the tang of the salted ricotta, the big silly smile at something with the texture of jelly and the taste of Sarson’s. That ice cream. Those doughnuts. But never mind – because if you’re reading this you’ll know, and maybe you’ll go. That’s good enough for me.

The Bird In Hand – 8.3
Peppard Road, Sonning Common, RG4 9NP
0118 9721857

http://birdinhandsonningcommon.com/