Thames Lido

Here’s something that happens quite a lot: I have friends who read the blog and some have been known to put in a request to accompany me on particular reviews. “Anyone coming with you to Taberu?” one will say, or “Next time I visit you for lunch, shall we go to Comptoir Libanais? You could write it up for your blog.”

Not that I mind: it’s nice that people take an interest, and better to be spoiled for choice with dining companions than to have to ask nicely or, worse still, beg. But some reviewing opportunities are more prized than others, and none more so than Thames Lido. It opened last year, after years of money-no-object, it-takes-as-long-as-it-takes restoration work, extensively catalogued online in a series of beautiful pictures (whatever else you might think of Thames Lido, they get social media right in a way which puts other Reading restaurants to shame).

In the run-up, there were glossy pictures and features in the broadsheets, and after it opened it received a blandly positive review in the Guardian (which described it as “just off the Reading ring road” – thanks for that). This is no surprise – the original Lido in Clifton is well-established and well-reviewed and has impeccable connections – but the overall effect is that Thames Lido is probably Reading’s first ever destination restaurant. Just don’t tell anybody it’s in Reading, is the implication, in case it puts them off.

So who to take? The decision was made for me when Kat told me, in no uncertain terms, that she was accompanying me. I said yes, because I owe Kat a favour, but she was – on paper at least – an unlikely candidate. Kat has an interesting diet which involves eating sweet and sour chicken balls in the bath, and she’s partial to a battered sausage or a Tesco all day breakfast sandwich.

“Are you sure the Lido is for you?”

“Don’t be silly, I’ve eaten at hoity-toity places before.”

The way this was said reminded me of Rizzo The Rat from Muppet Christmas Carol. Oh well, I had my angle: the irresistible force meets the immovable object, Reading’s destination restaurant meets one of Reading’s most unreconstructed diners. What could possibly go wrong?

My misgivings were exacerbated in the run-up to the visit when Kat sent me a message.

“I’ll also be packing a Gregg’s sausage roll, in case the portions are too puny” she said. “I won’t whack it out on the table or anything, don’t worry. Although, practically speaking, a Ginsters chicken and mushroom slice is more appropriate. A sausage roll doesn’t have the necessary structural integrity.”

What have I let myself in for? I thought to myself as I approached the restaurant with Kat, emergency pasty presumably stowed away in her handbag for later.

When I say “approached the restaurant” that makes it sound like an easier process than it was, on foot on a gloomy March evening. It’s a little tricky to find an entrance – down the side road without signposts or the main road without pavement? – and one of the entrances takes you in to the restaurant while the other one, the main one I suppose, takes you in to the Lido proper. Even picking the right entrance, it was a bit confusing finding our way to the restaurant (and that flair for signposting, or lack thereof, extends to the bit partway through the meal where you try to find the loo). A minor thing, I know, which only applies the first time you go, but first impressions and all that.

The restaurant itself was – as so often – a long thin room, a shape that’s mandated by its position running alongside the pool. The view was spectacular, with steam rising from the heated pool, the fetchingly retro changing booths beyond. The occasional intrepid swimmer bobbed past and, like no doubt everybody who has visited Thames Lido, I was very impressed by the quality of the restoration. It carried through into the furniture – sturdy, handsome tables, generous and roomy for two people, and the kind of chairs you could imagine settling into. It’s a high-ceilinged, airy space and thought had even been put into that, with fabric panels hanging from the ceiling to absorb noise.

If you get a table alongside the pool, that’s great. The other tables – like the one we were given – feel far less special and force one of you to forego the view and stare at the bare brick walls. We asked to move as a poolside table came available and they moved us without complaint. The menus didn’t come with us and it took a fair amount of flagging down staff before they reappeared at our table.

We started by hitting the gin menu, which is divided up on the good/better/best principle with some at £7, some at £9 and some at £11.50. Yes, you read all those right, and tonic is extra. Only two tonics are available, so you get Schweppes for £1.50 or Fever Tree for £2. That makes most of the gins more expensive than the Lido’s cocktails, and some of the gins are also very oddly priced. I was surprised, for example, to see Gin Mare, readily available in supermarkets and pubs like the Fisherman’s Cottage, on sale for £11.50. Each of the gins had modish tasting notes made up of three adjectives, although how Gordon’s tastes of “historic” is anybody’s guess.

Do I sound cross? It’s probably because I was, a little. I’ve been to lots of establishments with gin lists, from pubs to Michelin starred places, and they all make great effort to pair the gins with different mixers, different garnishes, serve them in big balloons so you can almost breathe in the botanicals. Not so at the Lido, where both gins turned up in a highball with ice and lime, nothing more. The Jinzu with Fever Tree (total cost thirteen pounds fifty) was pleasant, light, sweet and floral, but the main thing I thought with each mouthful was just how expensive it was. “Hotel prices”, murmured Kat disapprovingly. The Psychopomp Woden with Schweppes was punchier, a brutal mixture of fennel and grapefruit, and a relative snip at ten pounds fifty. You only got 125ml of Schweppes as opposed to 200ml of Fever Tree, another thing the menu neglected to mention.

The gin took a while to arrive, so we grazed on the complementary bread with olive oil. Again, I had heard great things but this was tough going – nicely seasoned but dense and heavy with no light, crispy crust, more murder weapon than appetite whetter. “I was here for the set lunch earlier in the week and the bread was so much nicer” said Kat. “It was warm, soft inside and the crust was brilliant.” I couldn’t help wondering if this was the same loaf, a few days later.

The menu managed that rare feat of being interesting and nice to look at without having anything on it that you absolutely had to order. I was expecting some kind of plea bargaining with Kat (and if they’d still had the slow cooked ox cheek in Pedro Ximenez on the menu that might have happened) but as it was, neither of us had a first choice to go into battle for. We eventually placed our orders with the waiter, a rather disengaged man who spent much of his time serving us looking around, as if hoping to speak to someone more interesting (“he’s like a really rude date” was Kat’s observation).

I was in the mood for a leisurely evening, but even so I was pleased when the starters made their way to our table. They represented the high water mark of the meal. Kat’s wood roasted asparagus with almond sauce and cecina looked like the kind of dish to provoke full-on food envy: a generous sheaf of asparagus, thinnish spears, with the almond sauce and what looked like jamon, and a hoard of toasted almonds, little grenades of flavour, hidden underneath. I assume the asparagus was very early season – although it was odd that the menu didn’t mention this – and it was terrific stuff. Kat waxed lyrical about the almond sauce, saying it was salty but with a sweet edge, in a manner which suggested I might have misjudged her after all. If I was being pedantic, I’d say that cecina is normally beef rather than ham, but that hardly detracted from how delicious the dish was.

Burrata, if not as good, was still thoroughly enjoyable. Serving it with heaps of broad beans and peas, if anything, made it even cleaner and fresher, a little reminder that spring was just round the corner, even if it didn’t quite feel like it yet. A slightly funkier note was introduced with the liberal dusting of dukkah, which added spice and edge and saved the whole lot from being just a little too nice. I didn’t get the promised yuzu, but it didn’t feel like the end of the world.

Our wine arrived almost immediately after I uttered the words “do you know what, I’d really like my wine now” to Kat. The gins were nearly finished (well, you want to take your time on something that expensive), the starters had long since been dispatched and the main courses were about to turn up. It felt truly odd that the wine hadn’t materialised by that point. The waitress who brought them – and served us from that point forward – was considerably more likeable, chatty, knowledgeable and clued up than the chap we’d been talking to before, a clear reminder of the difference between being served and being looked after. We’d gone for a Jeune Musar, a pretty entry level Lebanese red at £33 (although still about a three times markup from retail price) – I liked it, it was nicely balanced and although it started out a little tannic it opened out nicely given a little time. A shame it wasn’t given more time, really.

I’d gone for the lamb leg (Pyrenean, no less) and was generally pleased with my choice. The lamb was cooked beautifully – I could have stood it a little pinker, but it was close enough – with a lovely layer of fat and a beautiful salty char on the outside. The beans, some of which I think were pureed or mashed, added a nice earthiness. The salsa verde was packed with parsley and mint and absolutely made the meal; I could have eaten it with pretty much anything. Only the rainbow chard – pretty but tough going – misfired, it felt like it had been added for betterment rather than enjoyment.

Kat, on the other hand, picked the dud: hake, with mussels, celeriac and saffron broth. The fish was a nice piece but it was underseasoned, with only half the skin crispy. “It’s all a bit bland except the broth”, she said “and that just gets saltier the more you have of it”. I had a taste and couldn’t disagree. Weirder still was the marriage of chickpeas – which you’d absolutely expect in this kind of dish – and lashings of dill, which you just wouldn’t. Dill is a distinctive enough taste that you’d expect it to be mentioned in the menu, but no joy. Kat left some, and Kat – as you can probably tell from the emergency pasty – is not someone to leave food.

The side dish I really fancied – cauliflower with lemon and zata’ar – was sold out so we went for the crispy fried potatoes with rosemary and garlic. The taste was good, but the texture felt neither crispy nor fried. It was almost like someone had just lobbed them in a baking tray for half an hour, and there was certainly no evidence that they’d ever seen hot fat. I couldn’t help thinking how much better Honest’s rosemary fries were. I couldn’t even be sure these were significantly better than Café Yolk’s fried potatoes, and they came out of a packet. Again, we didn’t finish them. “If they’d actually been crispy you’d have had to fight me for them” said Kat.

The reputation of the Lido’s ice creams precedes it – they make up most of the dessert menu, after all – so it felt almost compulsory to order some to round off the meal. It’s six pounds for two scoops, and although many of the flavours were tempting Kat and I fancied the same ones so we decided to just go for it (with hindsight, the tasting flight to share would only have cost a little more and would have made a better option). They came in beautiful little bowls, and bringing each flavour in a separate bowl was a lovely little touch, because this is an area where you really don’t want to cross the streams.

Of the two, the chocolate and beer ice cream was by far the best, a clever thing where the chocolate hit you first and then the malty darkness of the Estrella “Black Coupage” snuck in at the end. The salted butter caramel I found less impressive – it seemed to lack much in the way of salt. Kat liked the caramel shards, I found them a tad unnecessary. Overall I quite liked the ice cream although I wasn’t entirely sure whether I six pounds liked it. The texture, although free of crystals, was gritty rather than smooth and maybe not quite special enough.

“It’s okay” said Kat, “but, like everything else, it feels about a couple of pounds too expensive. Also, and I know this sounds silly, my ice cream is too cold.”

“I know the way to fix that. You just wait.”

The glass of dessert wine we had with it – a Banyuls, like a slightly sweeter take on port – was terrific. Lovely, if a little pricey, and consequently both an excellent and fitting way to bring the meal to a close. Dinner for two, including an optional ten per cent service charge, came to one hundred and sixty-six pounds. It’s possible to eat for less, but even if you skipped the gin and the dessert wine it would still have clocked in at over a hundred pounds.

This has been a tricky review to write, and it’s a particularly difficult review to conclude. It can’t be denied that the Lido is a fantastic restoration project. What they’ve done with the building is amazing, it looks beautiful and it does make you feel a little prouder of Reading just to see it. And I can easily see that it’s an expensive labour of love, and those costs need to be recovered somehow – whether that’s through swimming, or massages, or packages, or through the restaurant.

I’m also aware that practically everything I’ve read about the Lido has been glowing praise, so I stick my head above the parapet with no great enthusiasm to say that, good though it is in places, it’s not quite good enough. The building has a wow factor the food can’t live up to, and everything feels just a little bit too expensive. The service didn’t match the surroundings either. Maybe it would have been different on a night where the dream team of Matt Siadatan (previously of Mya Lacarte) and James Alcock (from London Street Brasserie) were on duty, but as it was everything felt patchy. The restaurant was far from packed, but from the wayward service you’d think they were run ragged.

I might consider going again for the set lunch, and I can see that jumping off the train on a summer afternoon and having tapas at the poolside bar could be hugely enjoyable, but as a standalone restaurant it didn’t leave me in any hurry to return. “It’s a real pity, isn’t it?” said Kat. “I was hoping to find THE place in Reading, and I really thought the Lido could be that, but it isn’t.” Let’s not leave the last word to Kat though, let’s leave it to Kat’s pasty. I have it on good authority that she consumed it for a late breakfast at around half-ten the next morning. As a review of the Lido it’s a lot more succinct than what you’ve just read, but it’s as good a summary of the verdict as the number at the bottom.

Thames Lido – 6.9
Napier Road, RG1 8FR
0118 2070640

http://www.thameslido.com/