The best of Reading

A few weeks ago I was having a drink with a Reading sceptic. Everyone knows at least one person like this: you almost certainly do, or maybe you are one (although if you are, reading this must be a bit like the experience I have on the rare occasions when I click on something by Richard Littlejohn). For instance, I used to have one friend – note the use of the past tense – who constantly whinged about Reading and how underwhelming it was. Even Portsmouth, where she used to live, was better, she said.

Once, bored by this recurring theme, I asked her whether she’d ever been to the Progress Theatre, taken in comedy at South Street, done the art Open House weekends in Whiteknights or Caversham, read Alt Reading or been to a gig at the Oakford, or indeed anywhere. The answer to all those questions was no: she had to get a babysitter to go out in town of an evening, she said, and she’d decided in advance that none of those things justified the expense. Whose fault was it, I wonder, that she found Reading so disappointing?

Anyway, I was strolling back along the canal with this particular Reading sceptic and, ever so nicely, she said that I made a good fist of sticking up for Reading and banging the drum for Reading but implied that really, I was just rolling a turd in glitter. She challenged me to name half a dozen places worth eating in Reading and I managed it, after a fashion, but I felt uncomfortably put on the spot. Perhaps I was just a little rusty, my well-prepared speech about how much I love this town gathering dust on the shelf.

The way some conversations do, it weighed on my mind for days. After all, if I can’t mount a convincing defence of the place after nearly three years of reviewing independent restaurants here, things must be pretty bleak mustn’t they? And it’s true that lately I’ve found myself on the train to Oxford a lot, eating brunch at the Handlebar Café, having a spot of lunch at Pierre Victoire or enjoying (well, loving actually) dinner at Branca. Each time I’ve been there I’ve walked past a new, interesting place – tapas restaurants, bakeries, little wine bars. I’ve even contemplated what it would be like to write Edible Oxford, and I felt a little guilty when I realised how fun that sounded.

Things happened the following week which quite restored my faith. On Thursday, I took a friend to the Fisherman’s Cottage for dinner. It was Tapas Thursday, and you could get a bottle of Estrella with a dish of crunchy bravas and rich aioli for a fiver, or failing that try a dinky sandwich filled with plump, smoky chorizo. I watched the pub fill up with people eating and drinking and I felt a tug of pride that I Love Paella, which I’ve been going to since it just dished up a handful of dishes at Workhouse Coffee down the Oxford Road some evenings, had grown to this and found a home where it was appreciated and where it belonged perfectly.

My friend doesn’t eat fish, and initially grizzled about the prospect of going to a place called I Love Paella, but when the chicken paella materialised in front of us, packed with plump beautifully seasoned thighs, his reservations vanished. It was a truly brilliant evening: for some people, cooking is how they show love but for me, with my negligible skills in the kitchen, it’s always been about finding nice places for people to eat. We stopped by the Lyndhurst for a drink after that. “You must try the Scotch egg some time”, I told him because, even with a full stomach, I couldn’t help myself.

The following night I was meeting my dad and I took him to the Turk’s for Georgian food from Caucasian Spice Box. If you think I’m gleeful when I eat a dish I love, you should meet my dad: he may well be where I get that from. And his face was a picture as beautiful dish after beautiful dish arrived at our table – coarse meatballs like faggots strewn with pomegranates, spiced chicken thighs with a sauce made from ground walnut, slices of soda bread stuffed with firm yet elastic cheese, a little dish of jonjoli, green tangy strands which were like a cross between seaweed and capers.

As my dad sighed, declared himself replete and asked them to box up a couple of chicken thighs to take home to my stepmother (just before helping himself to another baklava) I realised how lucky I am to live in a town with such brilliant, diverse, independent offerings.

I’ve lost count of the amount of times I go to another town, find a restaurant and think “if only this was near me I’d eat there all the time”. But the grass is always greener, and the truth is we have loads of those kind of restaurants here. So, all in one place, here’s a list of bite-sized reviews of the best of Reading: ten independent restaurants I’d recommend to anyone – new to this town, or a long-standing resident – who wants to discover the kind of food we have here. If you’re a regular reader then apologies for telling you things you probably already know but, if you’re not, this might be a decent place to start reading the blog.

Anyway, if all else fails, it’s a handy link you can send to any Reading sceptics you might not have converted yet. Hope you enjoy it.

Bakery House

The perfect example of the kind of restaurant I like – unfussy, unpretentious and serving brilliant Lebanese food. Houmous studded with shreds of roasted lamb, tiny pungent sausages, a whole boneless baby chicken crispy from the charcoal grill, puffy pittas still full of air like edible balloons ready to be dipped in sauce. You’ll reek of garlic the next day, but the chances are you won’t care. (82 London Street, RG1 4SJ)

Bhel Puri House

Reading’s only vegetarian restaurant and still a great place to go for lunch when you don’t want sandwiches. Nearly always full of families enjoying Indian street food, the service is lovely and the chilli paneer – cubes of caramelised cheese peppers – is one of the very best things you can eat in Reading. It’s always worth picking something as a punt from the menu, because when it works it can be a revelation, but if all else fails the Punjabi samosas are delicious. In summer you can eat in the courtyard it shares with Workhouse Coffee, one of Reading’s best natural sun traps. (Yield Hall Lane, RG1 2HF)

Caucasian Spice Box

Some of the nicest, friendliest service in Reading and a kitchen which does what restaurants should do but rarely manage – offer a short menu with no duffers where everything is worth a try. Georgian food is an eye-opener to anyone like me who has had rather jading experiences of food from Eastern Europe, and Caucasian Spice could easily convince you that you have a new favourite cuisine. When I go, I find it almost impossible to veer from the meatballs (probably the best I’ve ever had) and the spiced chicken thighs. But if you’re vegetarian the bean stew is also very tasty indeed, and if you’re taking someone who’s can’t see past pub food they can eat the very credible fish and chips while you give them the mother of all food envy. There’s usually beautiful baklava after you finish your mains (a lovely touch) and although they don’t promote it the pub also serves Georgian wine which goes beautifully with everything. (The Turk’s, 31 London Road, RG1 5BJ)

Dolce Vita

Dolce Vita has a nice space and warm, welcoming service: going there always feels a bit like a cross between eating out and eating at home, especially if you become a semi-regular. Some of the main menu doesn’t do it for me – there are better pizzas elsewhere in Reading, and I’ve occasionally found the pasta a little overcooked – but many of the meat dishes are spectacular (particularly the saltimbocca), the set menu is uniformly packed with interesting stuff and if there are any Greek dishes on there they are always worth snaffling. The perfect example of how a good restaurant is so much more than the sum of its parts. (19-23 Kings Road, RG1 2HG)

I Love Paella

I’ve waxed lyrical about it already but I Love Paella and the Fisherman’s Cottage has turned out to be such a perfect marriage that it’s now almost impossible to imagine one without the other. Tapas Thursday, with a constantly changing range of miniature dishes for – no, this isn’t a misprint – two pounds is the best day to go, but in my experience any day is a good day to eat I Love Paella’s food. The eponymous paella is a thing of wonder, but so are the grilled goat’s cheese with tomato jam, the stunning empanadas and the perfect combination of two gastronomic wet dreams that is ILP’s salt cod churros. (The Fisherman’s Cottage, 3 Canal Way, RG1 3HJ)

Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus

I celebrated my thirtieth birthday in Kyrenia, as it was then called, so long ago that Tony Blair was still Prime Minister (and it’s not just the prospect of being thirty again which makes me look back on those days with nostalgic fondness). It may have a different name now many years later, but the place has aged a lot better than I have. It still has the same beautiful, elegant, simple décor. It still has tables packed close enough together that you feel like you’re sharing an evening with strangers in a good way (and apologies if you’ve ever had a table near one of my birthday celebrations) and the big windows at the front steam up. It still has tremendous service from people who have been working there all this time. And, most important, from salty firm halloumi to chargrilled spirals of octopus, from soft succulent kleftiko to firm, porky sheftalia, it still does magnificent food. (6 Prospect Street, RG4 8JG)

Kobeda Palace

One of the most unprepossessing places I’ve ever been on duty, Kobeda Palace still feels like a well-kept secret despite my attempts to publicise it. When I first went I was seduced by the kobeda – wonderful kofte kebabs cooked on the grill and dished up on huge, hand-stretched naan. But on return visits I’ve found myself completely addicted to the karahi chicken – served on the bone with a sauce resplendent with ginger. Buy as much of that as you can persuade your companions to share – they sell it by the half kilo – and make sure you get a giant naan to use to scoop up every last mouthful (or, if you can’t persuade your companions, do it anyway: I did). Oh, and a jug of mango lassi is five pounds. Five pounds! (409-411 Oxford Road, RG30 1HA)

Papa Gee

Papa Gee, more than anywhere else, was the sleeper hit of Edible Reading. I never thought it was a real restaurant, expected to find it a bit of a joke and lo and behold, I had to quickly pack away my sneer as it became apparent that I was eating easily the best pizza not only in Reading, but for miles around. The pizza is still the reason to go, whether you opt for the fiery fun of the “Sofia Loren”, all chilli and sausage or what’s always been, for me, the ultimate pizza: the “Napoli”, with anchovies, garlic and (in my case) extra capers. But last time I went they had a brilliant new street food section on the menu, and it’s still worth picking up some of their zucchini fritti even if they don’t go with anything else you’re having. Papa Gee’s fate is in question, as Easy Hotel wants to buy the premises they’re in and sling them out after over ten years making the best of that unpromising location. Go while you can, show your support and let’s hope Gaetano either stays put or finds better premises; I daydream that one day he’ll replace TGI Friday in the Oracle. (138 Caversham Road, RG1 8AY)

Pepe Sale

The original and best, the first place I ever reviewed. Ignore the interior (although it’s less ugly than it was four years ago, and they’ve finally put up some decent artwork). Instead, lose yourself in the food – fresh filled pasta, roast suckling pig, a whacking great piece of fillet steak on rocket, chicken wrapped in pancetta, antipasto topped with a single crispy piece of fried pecorino. If they have an off night I don’t think I’ve ever seen it, and if you get served by Marco you can truly watch a master at work at the front of house. (3 Queens Walk, RG1 7QF)

Sapana Home

My restaurant of the year last year and still one of my favourite places to grab a quick solo meal right off the train at Reading. Always doing a buzzing trade with Reading’s Nepalese community, you should make a beeline for the momo (pan fried chicken for me, thank you very much). Personally I can eat all ten of the blighters, although existential sadness starts to set in after momo number six – that makes me sound like Lou Bega, I’m afraid – when I begin to realise that my gorgeous meal is coming to an end. But you could do a lot worse than trying some of the other dishes too. Chicken fry is quite magnificent, the chow mein has grown on me after initially being somewhat indifferent and, best of all, the samosa chaat is absolutely gorgeous – warm chunks of samosa, yoghurt, tamarind, crunchy sev and smiles. (8 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1TG)

The thing is that, as with any list, you could just as easily take exception to what’s been left out as to what’s been included. So I didn’t find room for a trio of excellent Indian restaurants in the shape of House Of Flavours, Royal Tandoori and Bhoj. I couldn’t make space for Reading’s higher end choices, London Street Brasserie, Forbury’s, Cerise. I skipped our fine lunch and coffee scene, so I’ve neglected to mention Shed, Workhouse or Picnic. No Mya Lacarte, Nomad Bakery or The Tasting House, either. It’s terrific, on reflection, that making this list involved deciding who to omit rather than desperately scrabbling around to find ten names which barely fit the bill. This town has an increasingly unfair reputation for chains when really, the best of Reading is all about the independents, doing their bit to make our town individual and idiosyncratic.

More importantly, there’s a bigger gap. Because the other thing that’s left out of this list is the plethora of new restaurants that have opened. Each one has its own context in Reading, its own narrative and it raises its own questions. Does 7 Bone really do the best burgers in Reading, and will they be good enough to withstand the arrival of Honest and Byron in the future? The Lyndhurst posts beautiful pictures of its dishes, but can it really become Reading’s first destination pub for food? Is Gooi Nara’s Korean barbecue worth the trek up Whitley Street and will Soju be better when it opens downstairs in Atlantis Village? Is Bierhaus an inspired idea, or a gimmick in search of some decent food? Does the Crown On The Bridge’s refurb offer a reason to cross the river? Are Firezza’s pizzas a serious rival to Papa Gee’s? For that matter, are the Fox And Hounds’? What about the Thirsty Bear? So many questions, no answers. If I was sitting at home or in the office reading this, I’d want to know. Not just that: I’ve written it, and I still want to know. It feels like a book with the next chapter missing.

And that, as you’ve probably figured out by now, can only mean one thing.

It’s time to come back.

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Feature: The 2016 Edible Reading Awards

Bowie, Brexit, Trump, Desmond Carrington retiring from Radio 2: whichever way you cut it, it’s been a year to forget in many ways. 2016 has been the year when many brilliant people lost their lives and our country, closely followed by the U.S., lost its senses. By this point, you probably all just want to set your out of office autoreply, plough through some snowballs – and by the way, 11am isn’t too early for a snowball – and hang in for grim death all the way to New Year’s Eve desperately praying that no more terrible things happen (not the Queen, anything but the Queen!).

You might wonder why I’m choosing to publish my awards just before Christmas. After all, you could say that my blog is also a casualty of The Year That Hope Forgot; I downed tools in July and since then Reading’s diners have had to rely on word of mouth, the magnificent Reading Forum, TripAdvisor or – usually a better alternative to TripAdvisor – sticking a pin in a map of Reading with your eyes shut in order to decide where to go for dinner. Honestly, this year.

The thing is though, this is the time when we need most to focus on the good things out there. I know that from personal experience; I won’t wang on about it here, but for every awful thing that has happened there has been a brilliant thing too, for every disappointment an equal and opposite wonderful surprise. It might be Newton’s law for the conservation of sanity, or it might just be my rose-tinted spectacles but I honestly think it’s not all bad. Now more than ever, we need to recognise that: as a friend said to me recently, if you don’t look you’ll never see it.

Reading’s restaurant scene is a good illustration of that. Last year I remember complaining that there were still no town centre pubs doing nice food. And now we have I Love Paella cooking at The Fisherman’s Cottage, Caucasian Spice Box at the Turk’s Head and The Lyndhurst reopened with a new team, a new menu and some interesting offerings. You can now eat German food, or Korean barbecue, or scoot across the river to Caversham and get beautiful bread and some of the most innovative vegetarian food for miles around.

There’s more excellent news. The good cafés – the C.U.Ps and the Tamps – are prospering and flourishing, despite our proliferation of Neros and Costas. There are far more food markets in town than before (and Blue Collar Food, which I visited recently for the first time, is so good that it’s almost cured my scepticism about street food). And longer term, we’re even going to get some half-decent chain restaurants when Busaba, Franco Manca and Byron open on the ground floor of Jackson’s – although I’ve given up hoping that The Stable or Grillstock will ever make good on their promise to expand to Reading.

So with that in mind, let me dust off this microphone, quickly seal these envelopes (Rymans’ finest, don’t you know) and get proceedings under way. Fasten your seatbelts, and scream if you want to go faster!

SANDWICH OF THE YEAR: The Cheesy One, Caffeine & Cocktails

CaffeineSandwichWell, I could have given this award to Shed again and heaven knows it wouldn’t have been undeserved. But the problem with being consistently excellent is that after a while it’s not enough, and apart from a few minor tweaks Shed’s menu has been pretty much unchanged this year. I was tempted to give the award to Sam’s Wraps for their huge (and impressively cheap) jerk chicken wraps, although without the hot sauce they add to them which I’m pretty sure contains depleted uranium. And actually, surprisingly, I was very tempted to break the habit of a lifetime and give some credit to Pret which despite being a chain has regularly given me half decent things to take to work (jambon beurre with a shedload of gherkins, take it from me) or eat during a weekend lunch with family (the falafel and halloumi hot wrap, usually).

But the one I liked best, believe it or not, was the cheese toastie from Caffeine and Cocktails. Ironically the one time I went on duty they managed to muck it up, but every time I went before and after it was really lovely – three different terrific cheeses, on dead good bread with onion chutney and mustard. Nothing more to it than that, but sometimes a sandwich is about making simple things well. Every time I ever go to there for lunch it’s empty, which makes me worry that the food will eventually become seen as an afterthought. So go while you still can, before they decide to prioritise cocktails over caffeine (and sandwiches) for good.

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Jeera chicken, Royal Tandoori

RoyalStartersWhen I went to Royal Tandoori on duty I liked a lot of it but I loved the jeera chicken the best. You have to like cumin, because the cumin is the star of the show, piled high on the glorious, tender chicken, so high that it crunches under your teeth, so fragrant and wonderful. They say it’s a starter, but it’s a huge portion and I sometimes think the only thing that distinguishes it from the curries is that it doesn’t come in a sauce. But when there’s that much going on you just don’t care about that. Since then I’ve found myself in Royal Tandoori an awful lot: it’s one of my family’s favourite restaurants and I’ve come to appreciate the brilliant service and the wide range of interesting flavours (and the cashews in their biryani). But the jeera chicken remains my first love.

Special mentions have to go to the Scotch egg at the Lyndhurst (four pounds and so good it’s easy to justify it as a bar snack even if you aren’t eating) and the brilliant, brilliant salt cod churros at I Love Paella. Any other year, the latter probably would have won – a bit like Hillary Clinton, I suppose.

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Caucasian Spice Box

I really, really like Caucasian Spice Box. I’d heard loads of rave reviews from the food markets but my first exposure was when they did a brief residency at The Horn while Enric – of I Love Paella fame – was inconsiderate enough to leave his customers in the lurch for weeks by going off and getting married (honestly, this year!). I went and I was just wowed by the range and subtlety of the flavours, from bean stew which may have looked like beige paste but was absolutely crammed with savoury wonder, to bread stuffed with gooey, elastic cheese to spiced chicken thighs and bright yellow, shiny pickled baby squashes. Then they moved across town to The Turk’s Head and I’m happy to say the food is as amazing as before. Incredible value, too: the “Special Day Feast” – those fabulous chicken thighs, that cheese stuffed bread, a sharply dressed salad, some aubergine and walnut rolls and a spiced walnut sauce (which makes houmous look stodgy and bland) comes in at just shy of eleven pounds. Go, go, go!

Honourable mentions in this category go to German restaurant Bierhaus, which was far far better than I expected it to be, and Nomad Bakery, which was every bit as good as I expected it to be.

LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Shed

It’s still Shed. If I have a lunch break, and I’m working from home, nine times out of ten I’ll go to Shed. Everything I said last year is still true, and I have nothing to add. Everywhere else needs to up its game, or they might as well keep the trophy.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Chicken paella, I Love Paella

ILPPaellaA lot of the contenders for this award were on the spicy side. The karahi chicken at Kobeeda Palace for instance, a beautiful and undemonstrative curry in a place not known for its curries. The dumpak lamb in Himalaya Momo House, which comes with a little lid like a Nepalese pie (although I was particularly impressed by this, in truth, because I hadn’t known about the lid and so had Ordered Pie By Mistake). And I also had half a mind to include the pan fried chicken momo from Sapana Home, for reasons which will become apparent later on. If they hadn’t gone and taken it off the menu the braised lamb parcel at Henley’s Little Angel – the standout dish from an otherwise indifferent visit – might also have taken the crown. I loved it, even though I had no idea even as I was eating it how I might describe it in a review (it’s kind of a meatball slash faggot slash steamed pudding slash I don’t know it’s just a big dome of meat and, you know, stuff, and it’s really gorgeous).

But for me, I Love Paella’s chicken paella is the one. I always liked the seafood paella they did when they were at Workhouse Coffee, but it wasn’t quite what I was after. When they moved to The Horn and I saw the menu, chicken paella was the one dish I knew I had to order. On that first and many subsequent visits, it’s always knocked my socks off: salted without being salty, rich without being flashy, ambitious without being gluttonous. All those gorgeous chicken thighs would be the best bit if it wasn’t for the glossy, perfectly cooked rice, packed with beans and peppers. And that in turn would be the best bit if it wasn’t for the crunchy, caramelised rice you got to eat right at the end once you’d lifted it off the paella pan by having a good old scrape with the metal spoon. I’ve taken a fair few people to I Love Paella this time, and every time I wasn’t sure whether I was introducing them to the paella or the paella to them. Yes, I love it that much.

SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus

Otherwise known as the Artist Formerly Known As Kyrenia although, unlike Prince, Kyrenia simply changed its name this year rather than ceasing to be. When I found out about the name change, I was worried that the restaurant had lost Ihor, the front of house who has always made Kyrenia such a brilliant place to eat. I was assured that it hadn’t, and in fact when I’d gone there for my birthday it had been Ihor looking after us even though the restaurant had changed its name by then. Many restaurants manage to make service look so difficult with lots of staff (I don’t like to focus on the bad when I’m giving out awards, but I’m talking about the likes of C*ppa Cl*b here), so it’s lovely that Kyrenia – balls to calling it Ketty’s, I’m sorry – does such a stupendous job with no more than two people waiting all of its tables. Every time I’ve been this year I’ve felt cared about, fussed over and spoiled but more impressive than that, they have the rare gift of being able to make everyone at every table feel special. I hope the new management has got the memo that 2017 needs to be an awful lot better, and I hope they don’t mess with that winning formula.

Also worth mentioning are two of Reading’s Nepalese restaurants, namely Himalaya Momo in Caversham Park Village – a real gem with friendly, kind, engaging service – and Dhaulagiri Kitchen on the Basingstoke Road where the people looking after me were an absolute delight.

DESSERT OF THE YEAR – “Snicker”, Royal Oak Paley Street

OakSnickerI’ve never been a big dessert fan. It’s the course I’m most likely to skip, or swap out for cheese. In some restaurants – Thai, Indian, Chinese – I’m never sure it’s worth having. In others – pubs in particular – it can feel like they’re playing it safe or going for things they don’t have to cook on the premises; also, is chocolate brownie really a dessert? It feels unlikely. My test for these things is always: is a dessert really going to bring me more joy than a Tutti Frutti ice cream or even a Toffee Crisp? The answer, very frequently, is no.

So this is a rare victory for the very top end in the ER awards. I think desserts are where really good kitchens, especially Michelin starred ones, come into their own and the Royal Oak at Paley Street’s take on the Snickers bar is a classic example of how to do this right. On Masterchef they like to whaff on about “processes”; I don’t know about that, but look at how much work must be involved in making this. I’ve never adhered to the whole “it’s too pretty to eat” school of thought, but even I can see you would easily have a pang of guilt about just how quickly you can gromph down one of these compared to how long it took to construct. I didn’t order this, so I only had a couple of spoonfuls of my companion’s, and even that was enough to win it this award. I’m not sure I’m in a hurry to go back to the Royal Oak, but if I did I’d probably just order this. Three times.

OUT OF TOWN RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR – Branca, Oxford

I’ve eaten in quite a few splendid places outside Reading this year. I had delicate, stunning stuffed courgette flowers at Opera Tavern in Covent Garden. I had steamed Korean buns from Khao and Bao in Bristol, stuffed with fried chicken and kimchee, eaten by the harbourside with a pint of cider. I ate Japanese food in Oxford’s Taberu, down the Cowley Road in an area where every visit throws up a new piece of gentrification. I probably had my meal of the year in a converted bus station in Lewes at The Hearth, where I rejoiced in the perfect (and I don’t use that word lightly) Napoli pizza with stinging, vinegary capers, salty anchovies and intense, almost shrivelled black olives. The chocolate and salted caramel tart afterwards sent me into raptures.

But for the place I’ve been back to again and again, Branca easily wins this award. It’s buzzy and stylish and it’s full of North Oxford’s beautiful people, whether they’re doting well-behaved families, or affluent, well-dressed older couples enjoying meals away from their empty nest. Also, several times this year, it has played host to me. Everything is impeccable there, from the focaccia to the pizza, from the confit duck to the beautifully cooked tranches of firm white-fleshed fish. The desserts are beautiful, the coffee is good, the wine is served by the carafe and the salted caramel brownie bites are equidistant between ganache, cake mix and paradise. House prices being what they are, I can’t afford it to be my neighbourhood restaurant but it doesn’t matter: a day return to Oxford is just over six pounds with a railcard, and I’m mighty good at pretending.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR – Sapana Home

I was tempted to give this award to Cosmo. Not because of the food (be serious!) but because of what it represents – a whole community of readers and followers clubbing together to raise an awful lot of money for vulnerable people in Reading, albeit by forcing me to endure an almost unending cavalcade of culinary dross in a windowless room. Although I did discover the delights of crispy duck served in a Yorkshire pudding (stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Heston: my friend Ben wipes the floor with your crummy bacon trifle).

But no, it has to be Sapana Home this year. And in the process of giving this award, I also have to offer an apology: when I went to Sapana on duty, a long time ago, I was unimpressed. I loved the momo, I didn’t much like everything else. So I kept going back for the momo, and as I did something magical happened: every time I went I ordered something else from the menu and I discovered that a lot of it was good, whether it was chicken fry, delicious cubes of chicken with hot sauce and rich, green spring onion, matcha fry, spicy little crispy fish somewhere between a sardine and a whitebait or samosa chaat, warm pieces of samosa mixed with chick peas, potato and crunchy sev, all topped with yoghurt and tamarind sauce.

And then, of course, there are the momo. They truly are magnificent, whether you have them pan-fried and slightly caramelised on the outside, deep fried and begging to be dipped in the sauce or – and this was another revelation this year – steamed and bobbing in a beautiful hot tomato soup with chilli and red onion, festooned with fresh coriander.

The next magical thing that happened was this: I found myself eating in Sapana Home more and more. Off the train from work when I couldn’t face going home and cooking, or quickly in town before joining friends down the pub. And I took to introducing friends to Sapana Home – my friends Ben and Tim who both pronounced themselves momo fanatics, my vegetarian friend Clare only last week (Sapana is very good for vegetarians). I took my mother there shortly after her birthday: she loved the place too.

I haven’t even mentioned the beautiful mango lassi, always blended by hand, the warm enthusiastic welcome or how oddly proud of Sapana I was when I turned up at one point this year to find that they’d redecorated, knocked down a wall and opened the front room up with more light and slightly more tables. But there you have it. My restaurant of the year is always the one where I’ve had the most nice evenings and the best times and for 2016, amid all the turmoil and horror in the world outside, Sapana Home has been that place. I don’t know what next year holds: whether Trump and Russia will usher in our downfall, whether a hard Brexit will leave us all mired in negative equity, whether we’ll all finally get over burgers or whether I’ll write some more restaurant reviews. But I do know that, whatever it has in store, you’ll often find me in that unpretentious dining room on Queen Victoria Street, two doors down from Gregg’s The Baker. If you’re looking for New Year’s resolutions, you could do far worse.

Feature: 20 things I love about Reading

No review this week, I’m afraid. Every now and again work is just too busy, or holidays get in the way and it’s just not possible for me to get to a restaurant (not somewhere new, anyway), form a critical judgment and knock out a couple of thousand words. But I couldn’t leave you completely in the lurch so instead I thought I’d do a bit of a departure – a feature which isn’t entirely about eating and drinking.

As regular readers will know, I absolutely love Reading and if there’s one thing that really cheeses me off it’s people running it down. So this week I’ve decided to do one of those Buzzfeed-style articles that are all the rage with the movers and shakers and give you a not remotely exhaustive or definitive list of the things I love about this eccentric, deceptively characterful town of ours. Hope you enjoy it, and by all means chip in in the comments section with everything I’ve forgotten to mention, or the things that would make your personal list. Ready? Got a cup of tea handy? Right, off we go!

1. John Lewis

JohnLewis

I’ve always felt that John Lewis is the closest thing Reading has to a cathedral and, like many Reading folk no doubt, I’ve always had an almost visceral loyalty to it as an institution. I’m not sure there’s any more heartwarming experience than strolling down Queen Victoria Street to see its distinctive façade and clock coming into view (although it’s just as distinctive from the Oracle side with its weird, almost pagoda-like sloped roofs).

But, of course, it’s really about what’s inside and what’s inside is everything you could possibly want. I know everyone is sad about Jackson’s closing, and that’s fair enough, but really, John Lewis is the place you can buy whatever you need from duvet covers to board games to scented candles to cameras to pretty much anything else. Whenever anyone asks me “where should I go for X?”, the answer’s nearly always John Lewis.

It’s not quite as lovely as it used to be since they dolled the place up, but it does give rise to one of my favourite John Lewis stories. When they did their refit they got rid of the grand old curvy lifts like pods that took you from the top to the bottom of the department store. The new ones, which I don’t like so much, are your stereotypical glass boxes but – and only John Lewis would do this – they let the staff name them. Have a look next time you’re in one of them.

And before you say anything: yes, I know, it will always be Heelas to me, too.

2. The Retreat

The recent hoo-ha about whether Reading served lots of bad beer spectacularly missed the point that not only does Reading have a magnificent beer culture, punching well above its weight, but it also has some of the finest pubs anybody could hope for. I know purists might well pick somewhere else, and we could be here all day debating, but The Retreat is probably my favourite. I’ve had some magical evenings here, there are always interesting conversations going on all around you and it’s a truly lovely place to drink a pint, eat some jalapeno pretzel pieces and chat with friends, play cards or just read a book and watch the world go by. Especially nice if you happen to be there on a night when ukulele practice is going on, I find. Oh, and the landlord is a twinkly delight.

3. Dolce Vita

I’m not sure there’s anything to say about Dolce Vita that I haven’t already said, but as a place to go for any kind of meal in Reading – big ones, little ones, even solo ones – it’s pretty much impossible to beat. The food is a great combination of reliable favourites and regularly changing nice surprises, the service is uniformly downright superb and it literally never lets me down. It’s almost the only restaurant left in what’s currently still called The Walk (but will no doubt soon be called Atlantis Palace or some other such horror) but whatever you think of the rather baffling way that mall is managed, I think they’re too sensible to muck with Dolce Vita.

4. South Street

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No surprises here, I’m sure; I was delighted when South Street was saved, and just as delighted to watch a whole community come together to fight for it. Over the years I’ve seen all sorts of things here, and I can’t think of an arts centre that puts on such a brave, eclectic and consistently interesting programme of events. So I saw Alan Carr here before he was famous (he was exceptional) and Mumford & Sons (I was dragged to that one). But I’ve also seen one-person shows about hair extensions, or driving a clapped-out car to Rome, or about orbiting the moon on your own. I’ve seen folk music and cabaret, political comedy and, most recently, an amazing woman with Tourette’s make a whole audience shout the word “biscuit” in the sonic equivalent of a Mexican wave. I can’t imagine all that happening anywhere else.

5. Reading Museum

I have a real soft spot for Reading Museum. Every time I go I seem to find something new, and every time I go I realise it’s far too long since I last went. The changing exhibitions are always interesting, there’s lots of interactive stuff for kids, it gives you a proper sense of place and, of course, there’s the full size replica of the Bayeux Tapestry (or, to try to appeal to Buzzfeed readers, “one of the first ever graphic novels”). It’s well worth going for the guided tours of the tapestry every Saturday when the enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff whizz you round it explaining that it’s actually an embroidery and telling you the fascinating story of how Reading came to own a copy – and how close to destruction the original came (you also find out how the prim Victorians who made the replica knitted some y-fronts on the copy to ensure there was no full frontal nudity: fun for everyone).

6. Tutti Frutti

I’m sure pretty much everyone loves Tutti Frutti and it’s not a controversial choice. But it belongs on this list. My friends who drink coffee say Tutti Frutti’s is surprisingly good. The ice cream is knockout, whether it’s peach and amaretto, or Kinder Bueno (phwoar!) or Greek yoghurt and lemon curd (double phwoar!) or some of the more interesting experiments like blue cheese and honey (don’t knock it til you’ve tried it). But also, it’s about the service. Paul and Jane are both lovely – he is like an old-fashioned shopkeeper and she is a hyperactive whirlwind of enthusiasm and delight. The people they hire are unfailingly friendly and interested without being fake. I’m no fan of the soulless hangar that is the new Reading Station: give me the slightly crumbling, tacky bit with Tutti Frutti in it any day.

7. Launchpad

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Homelessness in Reading is an increasing and increasingly upsetting issue. Launchpad do incredible work in this area, and so much more. I wouldn’t eat at Cosmo for anybody else.

8. The After Dark

I’ve been going to the After Dark for longer than I care to remember, as I suspect have many of its regulars. I love their Eighties night (which is, let’s face it, on most of the time) – where else could you experience Crash, You Can Call Me Al, and 99 Red Balloons in quick succession? I love sitting in the back bar with an ill-advised double and mixer (because, as they like to remind you, the After Dark’s drinks prices haven’t changed in a Very Long Time) watching the great and the good preparing to make a serious assault on the north face of the dance floor, no doubt murdering the chorus of Take On Me in the process. I still love evenings that end up here, even if it’s a decision that doesn’t seem quite so sage the following morning. Oh, one other thing: some of the times I’ve gone recently it’s been worrying quiet. Use it or lose it.

9. The architecture

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So much of it is lovelier than it gets credit for. So, in no particular order: John Lewis, the Town Hall, Queen Victoria Street, the Oxfam Bookshop, Waterstones on Broad Street. Seriously, just look up some time. And then there are all the beautiful streets and areas further out from the centre: Eldon Square, School Terrace, New Road, The Mount, the alms houses off Castle Street. I could go on.

10. The first pint of the year in the Allied Arms beer garden

You know the year is changing for the good when that magic moment arrives. You finish work, you’re in town, you go to the Allied and it’s warm enough to sit outside without the heaters on. Usually only just, of course, so you sit there in your coat convincing yourself that it’s plenty sunny enough. But the point is that that first al fresco drink is seminal, because soon after that there will be long lazy Friday evenings there, trying to bag one of the sunny tables at the back, taking it in turns to thread your way to the bar and come back with an array of pints and packets of pork scratchings, Monster Munch, Scampi Fries and Quavers. The jukebox is playing something good (unless some prog-loving spoilsport has put on Shine On You Crazy Diamond, as Allied regulars are wont to do) and you can almost convince yourself that this summer is the one that will last forever.

11. The Salvation Army brass band playing Christmas carols

At the other end of the spectrum, Christmas in Reading for me isn’t about the festive food materialising in John Lewis, or our worryingly tacky Christmas lights going up. No, it’s that wonderful moment on a Saturday in November when you reach the front of Marks & Spencer to find the Salvation Army brass band, in a little throng, spotless in their uniforms, parping their way through In The Bleak Midwinter. I defy you to sit through that and have your cockles unwarmed.

12. Pepe Sale

Pepe Sale was the first restaurant I ever reviewed for Edible Reading, and it will always have a special place in my heart. Some of that is about Marco, the supernaturally charming front of house: sometimes I just want to kidnap him, take him home and have him talk to me while I make myself baked beans on toast; I’m not sure how anyone could not like him. But of course, it’s more than that. It’s also about the fresh filled pasta, the music bread with oil and rosemary, the antipasti with a single salty piece of fried pecorino on top, the roast suckling pig with light, crispy crackling. And a bottle of a cracking Sardinian red, and a glass of Mirto Rosso after (or instead of) dessert. Like Dolce Vita, it’s a good example of how a restaurant, if it’s terrific enough, can flourish in the unlikeliest of locations, like a beautiful flower poking through a crack in the pavement.

13. The Nag’s Head

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The Nag’s Head is the perfect example of how a pub should be run. It’s almost never empty, it has a constantly rotating array of beers and ciders and everyone in there is friendly, happy and having a fantastic time. Sharing tables with strangers is positively encouraged and I’m yet to have a bad evening there. In summer, you can even sit outside, an experience so pleasant that you can quite overlook the fact that you’re basically drinking in a car park. They don’t really do food but the pies aren’t bad and the pulled pork sandwiches are also meant to be pretty decent. On some of my most recent visits I’ve seen a chap there wearing a t-shirt saying “DRINK MEAD AND PRAISE ODIN” and drinking his ale out of some kind of horn, or a tankard made up to look like a hollowed out skull. What, I ask you, is not to like?

14. Not going to the festival

Walking through town on festival weekend, going home and having a shower. Can’t beat it.

15. The Reading Forum

I love the Reading Forum so much. Back in the old days, there used to be the Reading Post, and its website was easy to comment on and lots of people did. But as it changed, I think more and more people ended up at the Reading Forum talking about everything from shops, to restaurants, to local news, from the Reading Bridge to the journalistic standards of some of our local websites. In the interests of full disclosure, I put a link to my review up every week and there’s always some discussion. People don’t always agree, but they’re unfailingly lovely about me spamming them. Best of all, discussions frequently meander off topic, so I’ll post a review of a restaurant and it will gradually morph into a conversation about somewhere long closed, or what a pub used to be called, or something completely different. I absolutely love that.

16. Reading Minster

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Many people have never been inside Reading Minster, which I think is a real shame. The volunteers who show you round clearly genuinely love the place and it’s got some real history to it. Some of it dates from the tenth century and when Reading Abbey was destroyed, some of the pillars were rescued and moved to the Minster, along with some other materials. One Saturday evening last year, I was wandering past it when I found it was open late at night, so I stepped in off the street and found an oasis of calm. Lit candles were placed along the aisle and around the altar, soft music was playing and the whole thing was quite exceptionally beautiful. I couldn’t believe that a minute away was the pulsing noise of Pavlov’s Dog, or the Purple Turtle, two places which wouldn’t feature on this list. But Reading Minster definitely belongs on it.

17. Forbury Gardens

Well, it’s just handsome isn’t it? Another of those milestones of summer is when Forbury Gardens stops being somewhere you just walk through and starts being somewhere you spend an afternoon, lolling on the grass, reading the paper, watching people significantly younger than you having what they class as fun and just relaxing in the sunshine. I love afternoons like that, just as I love Reading’s rather eccentric celebration of Bastille Day in the Forbury every year. But – and if you’ve read the one about the Salvation Army you probably already know this – I also especially like Sundays in summer when a brass band camps out in the bandstand and fills the air with music.

18. Eclectic Games

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I could have mentioned many of Reading’s independent retailers – The Grumpy Goat, perhaps, Shave and Coster or Adrienne Henry. But I’m not sure Reading has a more touching success story than Eclectic Games. I’ve been shopping there since it was under the horrendous seventies obelisk that was the Foster Wheeler building, and I’ve followed it to the market square and now into its new home on Smelly Alley. I’ve bought so many wonderful games there (Munchkins, Codenames, Ticket To Ride, I could go on…) had so many excellent recommendations from Becky and Darrell and, as a result, had so many thoroughly entertaining evenings. Seeing them completely demolish their fundraising target when they moved last year was a heartwarming example of how sometimes Reading is on to a good thing and more importantly, that Reading residents know that.

19. Progress Theatre

Tucked away near the university, Progress feels like a better-kept secret than it should be. I’ve seen so many top-notch productions there, from Entertaining Mister Sloane to Proof to God Of Carnage. I especially love sitting up at the back (legroom, don’t you know) watching everything unfold on the stage, watching something intimate yet brilliant. That’s before we get on to another of Reading’s best annual events, Progress’ outdoors Shakespeare at Caversham Court. Merry Wives Of Windsor was one of my favourite nights out last year.

20. Kyrenia

I’ve often said that restaurants aren’t about the best food per se, or the best room, or even the best service. They’re about where you have the best times. And, for that if nothing else, this list wouldn’t look right without Kyrenia on it. I mean, it is some of the best food in Reading (the kleftiko alone would guarantee that, or the chargrilled octopus). And it is some of the best service. And actually I love the room, especially if you get a table in the window looking back into the room with all its bustle and happiness. But more importantly, it’s where I’ve had some of my best times. Put it this way: I’ve reviewed a lot of restaurants for Edible Reading, and many have been very good. But Kyrenia is where I go on my birthday.

Kyrenia

Bit of a weird one, this: Kyrenia changed its name in January 2016 to Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus as it was under new ownership. The new management has changed the menu and the previous service, a big part of Kyrenia’s offering, has now left the business. As a result I’m marking this restaurant as closed and I may go back and review Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus in due course.

I’m sorry, but I’ve got a confession to make. I’m burned out. Running on empty. This whole business of going to a restaurant every week takes its toll, you know (I’m not expecting sympathy, don’t worry). And it’s the end of the year – Christmas party season is fast approaching and I’ve got very little left in the tank. So this week, rather than go somewhere that would be a voyage of discovery for all of us, I went somewhere I know well: I’ve been going to Kyrenia, Caversham’s Greek Cypriot restaurant, for as long as I can remember. I love it – and I’m going to spend this review telling you why, because when I visited it on duty it was as terrific as always.

Besides, it’s been a bit of a bad run recently, hasn’t it? So think of this week’s review as a present to me (because I bet you haven’t got me anything, not even a box of Toffifee).

Kyrenia’s dining room hasn’t really changed in all the time I’ve been going, because it doesn’t need to. It’s perfect, simple but smart – no exposed brickwork and bare bulbs here – with clean white tablecloths, crisp cloth napkins and comfortable unfussy chairs. There are black and white photos on the walls and not much else. The greeting is warm and friendly and Ihor, who runs the front of house, is charm personified (in an endearingly apologetic way, truth be told). Kyrenia has a number of different menu options – they do a la carte, it’s two for one on Tuesdays, there’s a smaller set menu some of the week, but the thing to do here is order the meze, especially if it’s your first visit. I can’t stress this strongly enough: for twenty four pounds a head you get an incredible array of courses and variety (that’s your first tip, right there).

The first thing to arrive were the cold meze, a range of familiar friends and a very easy way to be led astray. Houmous was rich and smoky with a touch of garlic, a world away from the contents of a plastic supermarket tub. Taramasalata – something I avoid anywhere else because it’s often too oily and fishy – was light and delicate. Tzatziki was zingy and fresh, just the right side of tart, the flavour softened with cucumber. All of these came with a basket of warm, griddled, slightly charred pitta bread. That alone would be a feast, that alone would be enough but the other cold dishes were equally delicious. Beetroot, apple and walnut salad was fragrant and sweet rather than sharp and astringent, and potato salad was light and simple, just potato, good oil and parsley.

If I’m being critical (and it’s hard, where Kyrenia’s concerned) the tabouleh wasn’t as vibrant – in colour or flavour – as I’ve had elsewhere, and the olives felt like a space filler, but they were minor issues. This was a wonderful range of dishes, and the nature of it means it works equally well if you’re dining a deux or part of a much bigger group (here’s your second tip: I’ve been in those groups and watched people make the classic mistake – overdoing it on pitta bread and filling up ahead of the other courses. Don’t do this, because the best is yet to come).

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The hot meze only came out when the staff had checked that we were ready – a lovely touch, I thought – and when they did, as always, it became time to reassess how hungry I really was. Meze is about playing the long game, but the problem was that again, everything was too delicious to leave. Some of the classics – halloumi and calamari – were present and correct. The halloumi was unsurprising (halloumi in restaurants is pretty much always the same, everywhere) but still gorgeous, but the calamari was spot on – no hint of rubber, just light batter and fresh squid. They’re classics for a reason, after all.

Most of the other dishes were every bit as good. Lamb meatballs were possibly the pick of the bunch – juicy, coarse and savoury, studded with herbs and onions and a touch of garlic. Loukanika (Greek sausage) was Peperami’s glamorous continental cousin, warm with cinnamon, almost perfumed rather than one-dimensionally spicy. Dolmades had more of that delicious minced lamb folded into them, though there was probably too much leaf and not enough stuffing. The beans in tomato sauce were the only real disappointment – big, bland and filling, they were soon abandoned. Those six dishes may only merit a sentence or so each, but add that to the seven that came before and it starts to become clear: this is a marathon, not a sprint.

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Of course, I knew from personal experience to keep something in reserve for what came next: although again, only when the staff knew I was ready. The souvlaki – grilled skewers of pork and beef – were pleasant enough (possibly a tad on the dry side), but they weren’t the main attraction here because that was indisputably the kleftiko. I’ve had this dish countless times in Greece on holiday trying to find anyone who can match Kyrenia’s version, and I’ve given up now because what Kyrenia does to lamb is a work of utter genius: the almost godlike kitchen knows how to slow cook it until mere mortals like me struggle to describe how good it is.

It came on a large piece of bone but the merest whisper of effort soon sorted that out, leaving me with an awful lot of the most tender lamb I’ll probably ever eat. It broke into moist, sticky shreds, almost like confit, perfect for smooshing into the juices on the bottom of the plate before eating in nodding, smiling, euphoric silence. Again, because I feel I ought to be critical, the Greek salad it came with was a little underwhelming – but it’s only salad, isn’t it, and a cubes of feta is the perfect partner for a piece of lamb (that’s your third tip, if you’re counting).

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I also know from personal experience that if you’ve made the rookie mistake of filling up on pitta and tzatziki, Ihor will bag up all your leftover meat in a little foil parcel for you to take home and enjoy the next day. I also know from personal experience that it’s almost as good cold the next day, but take it from me if you go: pace yourself and eat it on the night.

One of the only other disappointing things about Kyrenia is the wine list. Greek wine can be absolutely fantastic, and is much underrated, but Kyrenia only sells a handful of bottles. None the less, the ones they do are lovely – we had a bottle of Naoussa Grande Reserve which was nicely balanced against both the meat and fish in the meal, far too easy to drink on a school night and not at all unreasonable at £23.50.

The last course at Kyrenia, the fruit salad, is really just a palate cleanser. I would be astonished if anyone could eat a “proper” dessert after all those meze so it seems apt that the meal ends with a plate of orange, melon, grapes and strawberry. It worked, though: fresh, bright, sweet and healthy (like Miley Cyrus before it all went so horribly wrong). It didn’t redeem the sins of all that lamb but it helped me fool myself, and very few desserts achieve that.

I’ve mentioned Ihor a few times, but service in general was perfect. All of the staff are so good at what they do, getting all the little touches right. Asking if you’re ready for the next set of courses, finding time to chat, knowing when to offer you extra pitta (although if you’ve read this far, you’ll know to turn that offer down – trust me on this). Again, to be critical I’d say that you should ask to be seated downstairs: sitting upstairs, in a smaller less buzzy room, far from the bar and the kitchen you can sometimes feel a little overlooked. That’s your fourth and final tip – ask for a table downstairs when you book, because they get busy at weekends. Dinner for two – all those dishes and a bottle of wine – came to £71 excluding service. It’s probably the best £71 meal I’ve had all year.

I recommend Kyrenia all the time – to friends and on Twitter – and it was getting to the point where not having reviewed it was looking like a glaring oversight. I went on duty hoping that they had a good night, but I really needn’t have worried because I’m not sure they know how to be anything but brilliant. There’s loads of stuff on the a la carte that I haven’t tried (I’d love to have a go at their stifado, or their monkfish souvlaki) and I know for a fact that their octopus is out of this world, but all of the best evenings I’ve had here have all involved the meze. Unlike most restaurants in Reading, Kyrenia feels like it’s perfect for everything – small intimate evenings, big raucous evenings and everything in between. It’s only a matter of time before I go back – in fact, on the way out I looked in the front door, still shining with that cosy welcoming light, and saw that they’re offering their standard menu on New Year’s Eve. See you there? I’ll be wearing the white carnation and the gold party hat and drinking the Greek red. Yamas (and Merry Christmas!).

Kyrenia – 8.6
6 Prospect Street, Caversham, RG4 8JG
0118 9476444

http://www.kyreniarestaurant.com/