The Little Angel, Henley

I was really sad when I heard the news a few weeks back that the Lyndhurst had closed down, another casualty in the ongoing battle between landlords and pubcos. One thing Reading still lacks is a decent range of town centre pubs that do good food. It’s not all terrible: we have the Moderation (although it’s hit and miss, and a bit out of town); the Nag’s Head (just for the pulled pork rolls really, but they’re dead good); and of course I Love Paella at The Horn, but I had high hopes that the Lyndhurst might be that place. Well, it turns it out it wasn’t. Even before it closed it never quite got there, it lost its chef and despite its shiny refurbishment the last couple of times I went I felt like it had stopped trying.

I daydream that one day Reading could get an establishment like Bristol’s brilliant Bank Tavern, a place that still looks like a well=worn boozer but does a small range of beautiful dishes. But days like today that seems a long way off, so this week I headed to Henley, home of the wonderful Three Tuns, to see if lightning really could strike twice in the same place.

The Little Angel is not to be confused with the more well-known Angel on the Bridge in the centre of town (the one with the tourists, plastic cups and a nerve shredding seating area suspended over the river). The Little Angel is just the other side of that bridge, where the road forks between Wargrave and Remenham, yards from the boat clubs and the areas where most of the Henley Regatta excitement happens (if you class that sort of thing as exciting).

The pub itself is an attractive white building with a large conservatory painted in a muted olive green. We originally decided to sit in the conservatory – it was a hot day, and the open doors were very welcome – but eventually decided to move because it was such an ugly room. Maybe at night, filled with people and with the Moroccan lanterns hanging from the ceiling it might have been a lovely place, but daylight didn’t improve it. Instead you saw the mismatched tables and chairs, the scruffy unattractive tablecloths and got a slight sense of decline. It wasn’t inviting.

Back in the main pub itself things were much nicer, although still rather empty, and we got to have a good look at the menu. It had just enough flashes of variation – turmeric, cardamom and cinnamon spiced rice, aromatic duck broth, harissa marinated chicken – to lift it from the usual pub fare of pork belly, burgers, sausage and mash. Annoyingly, in the couple of weeks since I visited the menu has now changed completely: frustrating to experience as a reviewer, but good to see as a diner (although really, you ought to change your menu more than once every five months if your website is going to talk about your love of seasonal food). There were, in the pub’s defence, a couple of specials up on the board.

Originally we were tempted to start with a sharing platter but neither of them quite grabbed us enough, because they seemed to be one or two nice things from the starters section with a lot of padding (houmous, baby chipolatas, the kind of stuff you find in the “picnic” section of Marks & Sparks).

Instead I went for one of the more interesting-sounding starters on the menu. Spiced squash and goat’s cheese samosa was nice if not wildly exciting: two small samosas which tasted mainly of goat’s cheese, possibly because squash is too delicate a flavour to compete with all that salt. The pastry was thin and crisp with the sort of fluffy cheesiness inside that you’d expect from hot goat’s cheese. I was really expecting this to be lifted by the accompanying curried cauliflower purée, served as an arty smear on the side. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Unfortunately it didn’t bring enough punch to be worth adding – not enough spice, not enough flavour, lacking the courage of its convictions. Toasted almond flakes, always a welcome addition, brought a bit of much needed texture but even so it was hard to feel enthusiastic about the whole thing.

LAParcels

The chicken and guinea fowl terrine was also a dish beset with problems. There’s a fine line between subtle and clean-tasting on the one hand and bland on the other. I’m still not entirely sure which side of it the terrine fell on – there was a bit of tarragon, which I loved, but overall it was still a bit dry and softly-spoken for me. Drier still because the advertised focaccia really wasn’t focaccia. None of that moist, cakelike feel, no drizzled oil, no lovely oozy toasted texture. It was just bread. The last possible salvation, the balsamic fruit chutney, wasn’t really chutney. It was a small ramekin almost exclusively full of raisins (which I personally don’t like).

Also, I don’t normally complain about how dishes are served – slates, boards, they’re all fine with me – but I do like to have enough space to actually eat the blasted thing. No such joy here – all of it was crammed on to a small board as if it had been forced to walk the plank, and it was difficult to press your dry terrine on to your dry toast before sprinkling it with dry raisins without getting some overboard. If that doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, it’s because it wasn’t.

LATerrine

I’ve been to many restaurants where the starters were amazing, my hopes got raised and then a mediocre main turned up. That’s the nature of starters, it’s easier for them to leave you wanting more. But I’ve rarely experienced it the other way round, where an iffy starter gives way to an outstanding main, so by this stage it felt like our hopes had been way too high. We got as far as checking the train timetable to make sure we wouldn’t be caught in Henley for too long and planned a quick exit ready to be back in Reading for a digestif (well, pint) in the Allied before last orders. It felt like the Little Angel was going to be another lacklustre out of town pub no one would bother to go to, a review no one would want to read.

Then something remarkable happened: our mains arrived.

Harissa chicken was an interesting alternative to piri piri chicken, a supreme of chicken, juicy and yielding, the skin crisp but not overly so and the coating tasty but not fiery. A deceptively simple, nice thing. It came with chorizo dauphinoise, a new one on me and a salutary lesson in how to do something useful and tasty with the thin slices of catering chorizo that can so often feel like a let down. Here, discs of it were slipped between the layers of the dauphinoise, releasing their brick-red juices and adding an extra dimension. The potatoes were still a little dry (maybe the whole thing needed a tad more cream) but I liked it. Shredded mange tout, sitting underneath the whole affair, were really lovely – barely cooked, lots of crunch and sweetness and coated in something like chilli oil to add some heat (a side dish, of more mange tout with beans, shallot and chilli, was very similar). Not a hugely sophisticated dish, and possibly something you could recreate easily at home, but well thought out and well balanced.

LAChicken

The other dish was the find of the whole meal, and nothing like what I expected from the menu. “Braised, shredded lamb and rosemary parcel” was the description, and if that wasn’t entirely accurate I have some sympathy because I too find this dish incredibly hard to describe. Parcel suggests it’s wrapped in something (generally pastry, I suppose), but what I got instead was a big dome of shredded lamb (shoulder, I’d guess), rosemary, potatoes and vegetables, bounded by itself. What was it? I still don’t know. Not quite a faggot, not quite a steamed pudding, not quite a meatball, not quite like anything I’ve ever eaten. What it was, though, was delicious. Huge, hearty, tasty and utterly bewildering. It came with a lovely, rich, sticky jus, a sweet smudge of puréed carrot and plenty of heritage carrots – thick, perfectly cooked, a riot of orange and purple to stop the dish being relentlessly brown. I’m sometimes critical of websites like Alt Reading for reviewing plays you can no longer see, so I feel a bit bad about enthusing about this dish: again I find myself cursing the Little Angel for changing their menu so recently, because I wish some of you could have tried this.

LALamb

So, iffy starters, terrific mains… and the desserts? Well, I’m afraid we’ll never know: I chickened out. I almost wanted to retain that element of suspense, and I couldn’t quite bear the idea that the lamb parcel might turn out to have been a gorgeous fluke. A shame in some ways, as again the desserts looked more interesting than run of the mill; I was especially pleased to see no chocolate brownie on there, always such a lazy choice for kitchens (although guess what? They’ve since added one on the new menu). So we settled up – dinner for two, two courses and a glass of wine each was fifty-three pounds, excluding tip. The wines in question were a Chilean chardonnay – perfect for the sunny evening; cold, crisp and easy to drink – and a cherry-packed Malbec. Service was respectable, with a very chatty, friendly bar manager and a slightly shy waitress actually doing the fetching and carrying.

If the Little Angel was in Reading, it would be a lovely place to go on a weekday evening or a Friday night. Reasonably priced (starters around the seven pound mark, mains for thirteen), comfy, a menu showing signs of imagination. Forming a relationship with a regular restaurant is like a friendship – the first impression is good, you enjoy that first meeting, you want to know more and then eventually you’re prepared to overlook an off night. And I can see that if the Little Angel was nearby that could definitely happen: yes, the starters were a little disappointing, but inconsistency isn’t the worst thing to level at a kitchen when it’s also capable of moments of magic like that lamb parcel. Even out of town, I can see that it would be worth a trip if you’re out that way (and you like the look of their new menu, of course). Most of all, this makes me sad that Reading doesn’t have that kind of place quite yet: casual dining is still too much a market cornered by the chains. So next time I have a weekday evening free, off duty, and I want to eat out you’ll probably find me at The Horn. Eating paella. Doing my bit.

The Little Angel – 7.0
Remenham Lane, Henley-on-Thames, RG9 2LS
01491 411008

http://www.thelittleangel.co.uk/

Dhaulagiri Kitchen

N.B. As of August 2020, Dhaulagiri Kitchen has reopened.

I never go anywhere expecting to have a bad meal – I mean, why would you? – but if I’m honest there are occasions where I step through the front door of a restaurant and I get a bad feeling right from the off. The welcome is disinterested, or the furniture is tired, or the menu looks uninspiring or the music is awful. I’ve not even eaten anything yet, but from that point onwards I’m hoping that my preconceptions can be turned around. Sometimes they are, but usually they’re not: for some reason if it looks like an iffy restaurant and it feels like an iffy restaurant, more often than not it turns out to be an iffy restaurant.

Of course, conversely there are times where you just get a good feeling from the moment you take your seat. But this isn’t so straightforward; I’ve been to many places that looked right and felt right, places where the menu makes you hyperactive with indecisive excitement but still, there can come a point in the evening where you realise you’ve settled down to a duff meal. When that happens I chalk it up to experience, I make mental notes, I come home and I write a review where I try to be kind, knowing that most of you will look at the number at the bottom, possibly skim the rest and say – to yourselves, to friends or to other halves, Well I won’t be going there then. Them’s the breaks. They can’t all be hidden gems. They can’t even all be gems, let’s face it.

The reason for all this preamble is that Dhaulagiri Kitchen won me over right from the start. I liked it, I wanted it to succeed, I was rooting for it. And as a result, because I like an underdog and I wanted it to do well, eating there was a surprisingly nervy experience, a bit like walking a culinary tightrope except that I wanted them, rather than me, not to put a foot wrong.

It’s a little spot at the top of the Basingstoke Road, where Portuguese restaurant O Beirão used to be, and the first surprise was that none of the décor had changed. So it was still neat little tables with red-checked gingham tablecloths, and it was a bit odd to think that last time I had sat there I was eating piri piri chicken and drinking house red from a terra cotta cup. But somehow it still felt homely, warm and welcoming. A lively group of six was in one corner talking and placing their order, and we were shown to a table by a smiling, happy waiter.

The service at Dhaulagiri Kitchen was so good that I want to talk about it a lot, and it was another reason why I instantly liked the place. I was asked things I’m not usually asked – how I am, where in Reading I’m from, how I found out about the place. I was told things I’m not usually told – what’s good, that everything is made on site, how proud they are of their food and their pickles (they had me at pickles – I love pickles). In the course of the evening they constantly checked up on us, asking us if we needed anything else, bringing unsolicited glasses of water, offering advice on the menu. It’s a proper family business, one of them told me towards the end of the evening, and the chef and all the staff are related. It seemed like a happy place to work and that rubbed off on the kind of place it was to eat in: it felt like eating with family in a way that restaurants so rarely do.

Technically it’s a Nepalese restaurant although the menu goes wider than that, so there’s some Nepalese food and some more generic Indian dishes. I took some advice from the staff and I generally tried to steer towards the Nepalese options, which got a brilliant reception from them and yet more interest and questions. Had I tried momo before? Did I like the thali? I also got loads of detail about what went into the dishes, more than I can remember and repeat here. The enthusiasm was infectious, and again I found myself hoping against hope that the food could even begin to match everything else.

They brought us a couple of poppadoms while we waited for our orders to arrive, and impressively they were free. I liked them – still warm, light and crispy – and I liked the dips they came with too. I doubt they make their mango chutney but it was paler and more interesting than many I’ve had in Indian restaurants, but more importantly the lime pickle (did I mention I like pickle?) was sour, sweet and salty; a veritable triathlon for the tongue.

We tried to stick to Nepalese for the starters, and it was about this point that I stopped worrying about being on a tightrope and just started enjoying myself. Sekuwa was three stonking big hunks of baked lamb, deliciously spiced and tender without being pink. I absolutely adored it and shared some reluctantly, especially as the waiter had by this point brought me what he called mint sauce but which was in fact a raita which set them off perfectly. But it was worth doing so I could also sample Dhaulagiri’s chicken momo – something I wanted to do if only to compare them with those at Sapana Home.

DhauLamb

Normally I’m all about pan fried momo, with that slightly caramelised, crispy exterior, but I found this positively changed my mind. Here they come steamed, five neat parcels with a small bowl of spicy chilli sauce. The filling was subtler and more delicate than Sapana’s and, although I hate to admit it because I love Sapana’s momo, all the better for that. The chicken was mixed with finely chopped onion, lemongrass and chilli (and probably other flavours that I’m not quite sophisticated enough to detect) and really, the whole thing made me delighted that I’d sacrificed some of that glorious lamb after all. Both starters – and you might want to read this twice in case you don’t believe it the first time – were less than four pounds.

DhauMomo

The mains came just as I was beginning to feel peckish again and I was really looking forward to the thakali thali, another Nepalese speciality and one the waiter got properly animated describing to me. It truly was an embarrassment of riches. There was a chicken curry, tender pieces of chicken, not a bone in sight, in a thin but savoury gravy. There was a delicious vegetable curry, big firm pieces of cauliflower and cubes of potato, all cooked to still have bite as well as flavour. Fresh spinach came flash cooked with the crunchy surprise of soy beans and a note of sesame. There were what I think were pickled radish (more pickles!) and another pickled vegetable which almost looked like bark but was dried and marinated and packed an awful lot of flavour into a deceptively small helping. Only the dal disappointed – I think this is a Nepalese thing because I remember being unmoved by Nepalese dal in the past, it had a note of evaporated milk and was a bit too grey and gloopy for my liking. A minor criticism though, really, when the plate had so many things to try, combine and enjoy. I was delighted later, when asked if I had enjoyed it, that I could be so unreservedly enthusiastic, just as the waiters had been.

DhauThali

The chicken makhanwala was meant to have butter, fenugreek and cashew nuts in it, but if anything it was dangerously close to a korma, the Ronan Keating of curries. It just about managed to pull it off by being just a little more interesting (although being more interesting than Ronan Keating might not be much of a challenge). So there was an almost marzipan hint to the sauce – perhaps the cashews were ground, because I certainly didn’t find any whole ones – and just enough complexity that I didn’t feel I’d sold myself short. Would I have it again? Maybe not, given all the other wonders on the menu, but I certainly wouldn’t say I was disappointed. I had a plain naan with it – I’d always pick naan over rice, I think – and it was spot on if not out of the ordinary. But that is, after all, what you’re looking for from naan bread and it was perfect for scooping up spare sauce from both main dishes.

DhauChicken

We drank a Cobra and a Diet Coke, which tasted exactly how Cobra and Diet Coke taste, and the whole meal came to thirty-two pounds, not including tip. I couldn’t help thinking, as I paid the bill, that it was almost exactly as much as I’d spent on eating at Handmade Burger Co. the week before; that realisation made me want to stand outside Handmade Burger Co. handing out flyers to Dhaulagiri Kitchen.

Normally I would say that one of my only regrets is that I was too full to have a dessert but, looking back, I don’t think I was offered one and looking at the menu I’m not sure they do them at all. Instead the waiter asked if we wanted a coffee, we said no and again there was that warm exchange of enthusiasm: we were delighted to have had such a lovely meal, they were delighted to have had happy customers. It’s the transaction all restaurants are aiming for, and when it goes as well as that it hardly feels like a transaction at all. They’ve been open for about four months, and they said it’s going reasonably well with locals, although I can see that a restaurant in a spot like this might need all the help it can get.

So yes, sometimes you go to a restaurant and everything looks good, and you spend half the meal worrying that it won’t live up to your expectations, that beneath the veneer something will go wrong. But don’t worry, because this isn’t that story. This is the story of a place that looks nice, isn’t flashy, wins you over and does exactly what a restaurant should do: cook you nice food, be friendly, take care of you and make you feel like the world is a slightly better place. Stories like that are some of the best stories there are, and as a restaurant reviewer they’re my favourite stories to tell. As I left I promised the waiter that I’d tell some friends about Dhaulagiri Kitchen: hopefully I’ve kept my promise.

Dhaulagiri Kitchen – 7.8
63 Basingstoke Road, RG2 0ER
0118 9759898

http://www.dhuaulgirikitchen.co.uk/

Coppa Club, Sonning

N.B. As of August 2020, Coppa Club has reopened.

This is my second attempt to review Coppa Club. The first time, I went on a winter night last year only to be escorted to a table for two next to the big French doors, a table so cold that it could turn tomato soup into gazpacho in minutes. I asked to be moved and slack-jawed confusion broke out among the black-shirted serving staff. Minutes later I was told this wasn’t possible, even though I was pretty sure I could see other tables were vacant. When I said thanks but no thanks and voted with my feet, I’m not sure they even noticed me leaving. Perhaps there was nothing they could do, but it would have felt nice if they’d tried, suggested a drink in the bar or pointed out when a suitable table might become available. I couldn’t work out whether they were fazed or unfussed, but either way I was in no hurry to go back.

In the meantime, friends of mine have enthused about the place. More for lunches than dinners, I was told, but even so I got a steady stream of positive feedback which made me think it was time to give it another chance. And it’s the kind of place I see appearing in my Twitter feed all the time – lovely pictures of well-presented dishes, not to mention one of the most attractive dining rooms I’ve seen in a long time. So eventually, now that the days are getting warmer, I decided I could leave it no longer. Besides, after the delights of all you can eat dining I found myself pining for something clever and delicate.

And yes, it really is a beautiful room. It ticks all the boxes without looking studied or cynical – a bit of exposed brickwork, granted, but some lovely furniture in muted greens and blues, button back banquettes and beautiful burnished geometric metal lampshades (no bare swinging hipster bulbs here, thank you very much). It feels like someone has thrown money at this place – how very Sonning – until it started to bounce off, and that prosperity starts out very alluring, although by the end of the evening I could see how it might get a little smug.

Turning up on a Sunday night I was delighted to get one of the booths. There’s a blue banquette running along the middle of the room but the booths, which are closer to the exposed brickwork and the bar, were nicer and cosier. Quite roomy for two people, too, although if there were four of you in one you’d need to get along reasonably well. That seemed a bit of a theme in general, actually – looking at the tables for six I found myself thinking that they’d more sensibly seat four. Perhaps that’s why, on my previous visit, they weren’t prepared to find anywhere else for a table for two to eat. Perhaps, too, packing diners in is how Coppa Club could afford to spend so much money on refurbishing the place (or perhaps I’m being a bit harsh, in which case I’m sure some of you will tell me).

I liked the menu enormously, and it felt like it had just enough things to pick between without being bewildering. It reminded me a lot of places like Jamie’s Italian, so I wasn’t entirely surprised later when doing some research to discover that the chef at Coppa Club has worked there. It’s a more compact menu than at Jamie’s, but still presented a few complicated decisions – to share or not to share, to order pasta, that kind of thing. Horse trading took longer than usual, which was just as well because getting anybody interested enough to take an order did too.

Now, normally I talk about service right at the end of a review as part of wrapping things up but with Coppa Club I really feel I have to make an exception, because it was so uniformly poor every step of the way. Don’t get me wrong – it was friendly and affable, but beyond that they managed to get pretty much everything wrong. You could never get any attention, despite it not being a busy night. The starters turned up immediately after they were ordered, at the same time as the nibbles we’d ordered to tide us over. Getting someone to bring the bill at the end was a challenge, as was paying it once it had been brought to the table. Many of the serving staff seemed to have been trained to completely ignore customers altogether, usually while walking past or near their tables, and when I left after what felt like an eternity settling up I saw one of the waiters chatting to his friends at the bar.

I don’t take any pleasure in saying this, but it was especially jarring considering what a lovely room it was and how good some of the food turned out to be. And that’s not even getting on to some of the things which, although they bugged me, might not be deal-breakers for you. I regularly saw waiters leaning right across diner A to serve diner B, something which (in my book at least) you really should not do. Another thing, which may sound minor to you, was about where we were sitting. The booths were open on one side (the side nearest the other tables) but closed off on the other, and behind them was a little corridor section where the serving staff could get water, wine, glasses and so forth. Our waiter kept taking orders or handing us wine over that barrier, which just felt downright strange, like talking to your neighbour over the garden fence without ever having been introduced. Perhaps this is a new trend in informal dining which has passed me by, but I just didn’t like it: it felt more like laziness.

Let’s move on to the happier subject of the food, because some of this was really pretty good. The nibbles – deep fried gnocchi with parmesan and truffle oil – were pleasant (although I’d have enjoyed them more if they’d arrived some time before the starters – sorry to keep going on about that), little breaded nuggets of tasty starch. The truffle oil, as so often, added an olfactory tease that never followed through when you actually ate the food, but never mind.

CoppaGnocchi

Better was the fritto misto – a very generous helping of squid and white fish, seasoned and dusted in what might have been semolina flour, along with a solitary prawn and a slice of scallop. This was very nice stuff – far better than many places’ efforts at fritto misto – and my favourite bit was the small pieces of squid, all crispy tentacles with that rough, savoury coating, texture triumphing over taste. The tartare sauce it came with was quite nice but maybe a little too sophisticated, too Sonning, for my taste. I reckoned it needed more vinegar and acid, more gherkin or capers or – starting to drool now – both, but I’m a sucker for pickles and it might just be me being a Philistine.

CoppaFritto

The other starter, “beets and ricotta bruschetta”, was lovely; a single slice of ciabatta-like bread with a layer of bright pink whipped ricotta topped with cubes of beetroot. That alone would have been enough to meet the job description, but there was a little more: wafer thin beetroot crisps in red and gold on top to add another level of texture, then some pretty salad leaves dressed with olive oil (I think) and cheese shavings, because cheese shavings make everything better. I liked it a lot: refreshingly clean but with that earthiness that beetroot brings, all dark and zingy. It was a dish that looked like winter but tasted of spring, and it made me long for longer days.

CoppaBruschetta

The starters had come so quickly that I was worried I would be out of Coppa Club in next to no time, but thankfully they slowed it down for the mains. If anything, this gave me and my companion a chance to play spot the difference between my glass of entry level Syrah and her glass of more expensive Shiraz (we couldn’t really find one, which is maybe why I try not to say too much about wine). It also meant that the mains arrived pretty much when we were ready, probably the only piece of good timing about the whole evening.

I’d found choosing a main at Coppa Club surprisingly difficult. My companion had already bagged the pizza, having pasta as a main felt a bit too monotonous, ordering the burger felt like it would have been a poor show and I wasn’t in the mood for a whole fish on the bone, lovely though that sounded. So the lamb chops – described as “scorched fingers” on the menu, perhaps that’s a draw for some people – won by default and, in hindsight, I’m delighted that they did. This was a dish for people who like meat and fat – three long, thin, chops with a square of tender meat at the end but, more importantly, rich seams of fatty meat along the bone, caramelised, melting and utterly delicious. I wouldn’t describe myself as the world’s biggest carnivore (although I know several people with a decent shot at that title), but some nights you just want red meat and iron and this was that night and that dish was in the right place at the right time.

CoppaChops

It wasn’t perfect, mind you. The chops were so long and thin that eating them was unwieldy, as was pushing the bone out of the way when you were done. They came with watercress, which I can take or leave, and a salsa verde which fell into the same trap as the tartare sauce. I could admire it, this glossy smear of fresh mint and oil, but I wanted some vinegar in there, some sharpness to stop my mouth being coated with fat (I’m well aware, writing this, that I’ve gone to Coppa Club and said that two of the dishes could have been improved with jars of sauce from Colman’s: judge away). What did improve the lamb, immeasurably, were the “rustic potatoes” – little roasted potatoes, all crunchy corners and fluffy insides, festooned with Parmesan and shot through with green shards of fried sage; if they’d put those on the “nibbles” section of the menu I might have started and stopped right there.

CoppaPots

I really wanted to try pizza too, to see if Coppa Club was up there with all those pizzerias I daydream of dropping in Reading, and whether the “slow proved, sourdough base” would live up to billing. Well, sadly not really. The base was too thick in the wrong places, no bubbly edges and a stodgy, rather soggy middle. It tasted decent enough, but it was lacking that chewy, moreish flavour I expected from a sourdough base. There was a bit too much cheese, in my opinion, although I guess that’s better than the alternative. I went for the “Coppa Club Hot” and the ‘nduja on it was delicious, super-intense, punchy, salty, almost acrid. If only there had been more – I know a little goes a long way but three small teaspooned dots of it across the whole pizza still felt a little mean. The spicy salami was less successful, a bit more simple in flavour (although still with loads of heat) but personally I’d have liked it a little more crisp; maybe that would have happened if the pizza hadn’t been so thick. My guest didn’t eat more than half – after three slices I was told that it didn’t seem worth eating the rest of what was essentially a dolled up pepperoni pizza.

CoppaPizza

We didn’t stay for dessert – nothing quite appealed enough and by then I had been sufficiently irritated by my experience that I was quite comfortable leaving. A shame really, as one might have helped to tide me over in the inordinate wait for getting and paying the bill. Even waiting to ask for the bill, dessert menus in front of us, was an odd experience; one of the waiters cleared my folded napkin as he passed our table without actually speaking to us or making eye contact (which is quite hard to do, I think). In the end we had to call out to a passing waiter, who seemed to be cleaning up rather than actually, um, waiting. Dinner for two came to fifty pounds near as damnit and – and I almost never, ever do this – I did not tip.

At the end of the meal my companion and I were discussing Coppa Club, not entirely sure what to make of it. I said I preferred it to Jamie’s Italian, my companion thought Jamie’s was better. We both agreed that if Coppa Club was in an easier location to get to we’d probably go back, but that it wasn’t quite enough to prompt a trip out to Sonning. Above all, the service baffled us both – how can a place work so hard at everything else and get that wrong? Since coming back, mulling it over and sitting down to write this, the power of Google has revealed several enthusiastic reviews of Coppa Club, with a few bloggers going and thoroughly enjoying it. Some of them had some of the dishes I had, so it was strange to read people waxing lyrical over the fritto misto, or the lamb chops. Only one of the reviews specifically said that it was comped, so it might be that people spending their own money really loved Coppa Club and I – with my slight grouchiness about service and seating, with a rustic potato on my shoulder – just took against it. But I wasn’t won over; there’s something irksome about a place that, however nice it might be, isn’t as good as it thinks it is.

Coppa Club – 6.8
The Great House, Thames Street, Sonning, RG4 6UT
0118 9219890

http://coppaclub.co.uk/

The Flowing Spring, Playhatch

I’ve noticed The Flowing Spring many times on my travels, but always when I’ve been going somewhere else, usually Henley. It’s on a stretch of road just past Playhatch, in an oddly solitary location as the road slopes up towards Shiplake. I’ve always been struck me by the sign on the side of the pub, underneath the name, saying Fresh, home-made food including gluten-free, dairy-free and vegetarian, a big block of white with an incongruous, regular font as if it’s been cut out of a Word document, enlarged and stuck on to the building with Blu-Tac.

Well, having done my homework this week I took the next right, pulled into the car park and went inside instead. Why? Well, it turns out that The Flowing Spring is an interesting beast; that sign on the side is a pretty modest summary, but The Flowing Spring takes catering to all kinds of diets very seriously indeed. Apart from all sorts of plaudits for the beer – CAMRA awards, Cask Marques, I’m sure this stuff means more to most of you than it does to me – they were also given an award by PETA last year for being one of the top ten vegan-friendly pubs in the whole of the UK (and yes, if you were a cynic you might find yourself wondering how big a field there was). I haven’t forgotten my resolution to try and eat meat-free mains once a month, and I figured I wouldn’t get a better opportunity to put it to the test.

Charmingly ramshackle doesn’t even begin to do the Flowing Spring justice, an experience that begins when you pull into the car park and realise that it’s at a completely different level to the front of the pub on the main road. The split-level feeling of climbing the stairs to go in is continued by the slightly haphazard nature of the interior. Their website proudly boasts that the whole pub is on a slant, and indeed nothing feels quite like a straight line. There’s a main dining room upstairs, then a sort of L-shaped section downstairs which is more like a traditional pub, open fires and all, and then an area called the “Quirky Corner” into which I did not venture except on my way to the loos (I wasn’t sure I’d be quirky enough).

Initially they sat us in the dining room, all big square tables and handsome conventional furniture, the laminated walls full of copies of the pub’s newsletter and a chalkboard section with enthusiastic quotes on it (“better than the London Street Brasserie” said one, which made me smile). The woman behind the bar also warned us that only one table was unbooked and that there would be a cribbage match going on up there. And I would have stayed up there, but it was absolutely Baltic and I soon realised that cribbage geeks, in their amiable, peg-pushing way, can produce just as many decibels as a crowd watching a much less interesting leisure pursuit with balls and goals. So we moved down to the bar room and had a slightly more laid-back evening – still Baltic, mind, although I did notice that one of the open fires hadn’t been lit.

The menu, like the pub, looks like a big old mess at first. It’s only when I stepped back and had a proper look that I appreciated just how much thought had gone into it. Three of the five starters are not only vegetarian but vegan. They offer two different vegetarian burgers, one of which is vegan, and about half of the mains are either vegetarian or vegan – without a sodding risotto in sight, I might add. Huge sections of the menu can be offered gluten-free, and the menu also assiduously lists potential allergens (I never realised, for instance, that Marmite contains a small amount of gluten: I’ve never felt more sympathy for my friends who have a gluten-free existence). All promising, but I’ve lost count of the number of times a good menu got lost in translation from the kitchen to my table, so I sipped a pint of Aspall’s and listened to the hubbub of the cribbage match getting animated as I waited for the starters to arrive.

Smoked mushrooms in cider batter sounded so perfect that I really wanted to try it. And when it arrived it got so close to really good that I was almost prepared to overlook the flaws. The mushrooms were so smoky that I could nearly forget how small they were, the cider batter so crunchy that I only just remembered that they maybe could have done with being served hotter. The sweet chilli sauce was so thick and tangy that it took my mind off the incongruous bowl of dried coconut flakes on the side which didn’t go, or the undressed salad which was mainly iceberg lettuce. For seven pounds I think I expected slightly more, but on the other hand I was in a lovely pub trying smoked mushrooms, and that doesn’t happen very often.

FlowingMushrooms

My indecision wasn’t helped by the Thai fishcake. It was itself an indecisive thing, with a touch of Thailand but also the powerful influence of Captain Birdseye, a single giant breadcrumbed puck cut in half and served with more of the sweet chilli sauce and more undressed salad (this one with capers and roasted spiced corn, itself an incongruous mix). But here’s the surprise – despite all that it was delicious. It was nicely crumbed, full of fish rather than reliant on claggy spud with a lovely texture. I shared it with my companion, who isn’t a fan of the sponginess of most Thai fishcakes, and we agreed between us that The Flowing Spring had pulled off a rather surprising triumph of fusion cuisine. I even liked the little ribbons of crispy seaweed, also very nice dipped in the chilli sauce, even if they felt like they were on the run from another dish (or possibly even another restaurant).

FlowingFishcake

I watched dishes turning up at other tables – veggie burgers with a big heap of orangey sweet potato fries on the side, home-made chilli served in, of all things, a Yorkshire pudding – and I found myself oddly charmed by the whole experience, if still not quite quirky enough to explore the Quirky Corner. Mains had been ordered at the recommendation of the woman behind the bar. “You want me to narrow it down to two?” she had said, smiling but perplexed, as if I had asked her to solve one of the riddles on “3-2-1” (a show, in fairness, she was far too young to remember). In the end she suggested the “famous” Flowing Spring Kebab – the menu’s words, not mine – and a veggie burger and we went for those. Again, I was impressed that a pub so determined to court vegetarian diners was also prepared to offer a dish to potentially appease their meat-eating companions.

I was warned that the kebab would be big and it certainly was. The menu claimed that it was the Flowing Spring’s take on a doner kebab, which if anything undersold it because instead it was more like a gigantic roast lamb sandwich. So you got lots of thick slices of lamb, none of them pink but none of them the worse for that, sitting on top of some salad in a huge pitta. I loved the lamb – again, I possibly could have stood it being a tad hotter, but it was so good that I didn’t mind, another example of The Flowing Spring charming me into relaxing my critical faculties somewhat. I spent much of the dish wondering if the lamb was better dipped into the fresh, minty raita or the chilli sauce, a thick gloopy jammy pool of redness that looked like it would be sweet but then delivered an acrid, sinus-clearing punch. I also couldn’t decide whether to team it with a pickled chilli, a slice of crinkle-cut gherkin, some salad (which also contained little pieces of diced gherkin, creditable attention to detail) or a torn piece of pitta. Deciding how I liked the dish the best took me very nicely from the first mouthful to the last, by which point I had decided that I rather loved it all.

FlowingLamb

Photography isn’t my strong point at the best of times, but my veggie burger was far more interesting than it looked. The patty was butternut squash, goats cheese and beetroot and had a lot going on compared to the usual “bean burger” veggie alternative. Beetroot and goat’s cheese, that earthy combination of sweet and salt, is a well-worn combo but putting it in a burger, with the squash as a sort of base note that held it all together, was a surprisingly inspired move. It was crumbed and oaty on the outside which gave it a bit of texture, and that worked with the floury bap (no faddy brioche here) and a small smattering of salad. For a nice, simple burger it was spot on – nothing out of this world but a good, tasty veggie main. Even the chips were an excellent example of pub chips – regular shaped (which made me assume they were out of the freezer, though I could be wrong) but crispy on the outside, fluffy in the middle and, unlike so often, they actually tasted of potato. They almost made up for the fact that the nice looking sweet potato fries I’d seen at other tables had run out. Almost. The only other slight downside was the price: just under twelve pounds (the same as the kebab) felt a little on the steep side, but perhaps you’re paying a premium to have all that choice.

FlowingBurger

Dinner for two – two courses each, a pint and a half of cider and a couple of soft drinks – came to fifty pounds not including tip. The service was lovely throughout, from the woman behind the bar who took our orders and recommended dishes to the landlord, who brought out our dishes and seemed to genuinely care whether we liked them. And that was the kind of place The Flowing Spring was, because although it was the first time I had ever been I rather felt that everybody else there had been in on the secret for some time.

By the end of the meal we’d moved tables to be nearer to the fire and you could see all sorts of photos up on the walls of events and gigs, be it jazz concerts, outdoor carnivals or classic car events. And I was struck by how remarkable it was that a pub seemingly in the middle of nowhere could have such a community feel. A little piece of folded card on my table went into more detail about where The Flowing Spring gets its ingredients from, and it was another example of the kind of touches that make you trust a place: meat from a family butcher in Devon, eggs (also for sale behind the bar) from just down the road, mushrooms foraged in the autumn. The Flowing Spring really needed to work on its heating, but I still had a warm glow from somewhere. Maybe it was the fire, maybe my slightly jaded heart thawing. Who can say? As we left, having paid up, we talked to one of the cribbage players, an amiable twinkly cardsharp who was at the bar getting another drink.

“We didn’t drive you into the other room, did we?” he said.

“No, not at all. It was just getting a bit hectic up there.”

“You should give it a try some time! We play every fortnight and we’re always looking for new recruits.”

I might have to learn cribbage, you know. Just in case.

The Flowing Spring – 7.3

Henley Road, Playhatch, RG4 9RB
0118 9699878

http://theflowingspringpub.co.uk/

Royal Tandoori

N.B. As of August 2020, Royal Tandoori has reopened.

I sometimes envy other restaurant reviewers. Michelin has its stars, the AA has its rosettes, even the much-maligned TripAdvisor has its Certificates Of Excellence. And what do I have? Just a bunch of ratings nobody really understands which I’ve consistently refused to explain (“What do they mean?” said a friend of mine down the pub recently. “I mean, seven point five, what’s all that about?”). Well let’s not go through all that again but there’s one exception, and that’s what I call the 8+ Club: without giving too many trade secrets away, a rating in that range means a place is really, really good. Go again good, plan your next visit good, evangelise to friends good.

Sometimes, when I eat out on duty I find myself mulling over what elevates a restaurant or a café into that select few, and as you can see if you’ve scrolled down to the bottom already (and own up, lots of you do) that was very much on my mind when I visited Royal Tandoori. Almost, but not quite. Right on the edge. I changed my mind several times during the meal, although that in itself never bodes quite well enough. So what went wrong? Why is Royal Tandoori just very good, rather than great?

For the uninitiated, it sits downstairs in the slightly ironically named “Quality Hotel” (I suppose it doesn’t specify whether it’s good quality or bad quality) and – as proudly proclaimed on the the menu – has done since 2008. It’s in town but not quite in town and yet it always looks full on the occasions when I pass by – in fact I was lucky to get a table, judging by the number of big groups that were in (on a school night, too) and the amount of hushed staff discussion that went on before they decided they could seat me. It’s a large, long room and I think they’ve spruced it up since I was there last: I may be imagining new windows, but I’m pretty sure the large black and white Bollywood stills papered onto the walls – which I rather liked – weren’t there before. The menu, though, was every bit as huge and bewildering as I remembered.

The starters were pretty darned good. Gobi Manchurian, a dish I’ve had elsewhere in Reading, was miles better here, little nuggets of battered cauliflower in something almost like an Indian barbecue sauce – sweet, sticky and spiced. It tasted so terrific that I found myself not caring that the cauliflower was ever so slightly soft and that the batter had no crunch. The best dishes can make you suspend your disbelief like that, and the only real drawback was how much I resented having to share. Jeera chicken was also top notch. It was very tender pieces of chicken breast in a spiced sauce – so far so blah – but covered in cumin seeds, somewhere halfway between a speckle and a crust. How I loved this: I adore cumin, and eating a mouthful with the sauce piled high and the pungent crunch of those seeds made me go quiet and nod an awful lot.

RoyalStarters

I was quite enjoying drifting in a cumin-infused daydream, but sadly my reverie was interrupted far too soon by the arrival of the main courses. I’d had reports of the chicken chettinadu (like nothing else in Reading, according to one reader – hi Chris!), so I felt it would have been remiss not to order it. Well, it goes to show how little help photographs are when you’re reviewing this kind of food. Like one of the other starters and the other main, it was just meat in an orangey-red sauce (and yes, I know I always say this) but the flavour was indeed complex and unusual, all black pepper and curry leaves, nigella seeds and a sharp hint of citrus which came from I know not where. It also had that clever heat which sneaks up on you rather than beating you about the tastebuds – 3 out of 4 on the International Scale Of Chillies (or ISOC for short) used by many Indian and Thai restaurants, although the only thing with an ISOC rating of four was “devil lamb”, which sounds like something you might see on a terrifying cross between Springwatch and Most Haunted.

I do like a dish that’s interesting, and this fitted the bill perfectly. The first mouthful established that it tasted different. The second mouthful established that I wasn’t entirely sure how. For all the other mouthfuls I was fed up of analysing and too busy enjoying. But it wasn’t perfect, for all that – mainly because there wasn’t an awful lot of meat. The big bowl of sauce I was left with was good for dipping and pouring, but it still felt a tad unbalanced.

The other main, lamb Hydrabadi (ISOC2 – handy!) was just as good. Despite looking very similar, it couldn’t have been more different. The lamb – and there was loads of it – was rich, intense and cooked beyond the point of having any give at all: if it had had any less integrity it could have been the subject of an OK! magazine photoshoot. But the sauce was what made this dish – smooth and spicy but shot through with the sharp green surprise of mint leaves. I know lamb and mint is a classic combination, but seeing it in this context was incongruous and comforting at the same time, and I loved that slightly altered perspective. Neither main had much – or, to be more accurate, anything – in the way of vegetables, but it was hard to care (sorry vegetarians, I’ll be back doing meat-free mains again very soon).

RoyalMains

The plain rice on the side was exactly that – although it was a bit clumpy, which made me wonder quite how it had been cooked and when. The butter naan though was interesting in that it wasn’t the big pillowy bicycle saddle of a naan that I’m used to. Instead it was light, thin, almost pizza-like. I really liked it, although I did find that with that and the rice there was sauce left at the end which I couldn’t scoop or mop. Who ever finishes a meal in an Indian restaurant and says “that was nice but I could have done with some more carbs?”. Me at the Royal Tandoori, it turns out.

We did manage to find space (and eventually manage to find some staff to order with) for dessert – and dessert, for me anyway, meant gulab jamun. The texture and the flavour were perfect, the sugar syrup had a clear note of rose water and there were a few chips of pistachio in the bowl too which I appreciated (I am starting to become a connoisseur, I reckon). But there was one drawback: the kitchen didn’t seem to be able to decide whether to serve them hot or cold and so they were neither, coming instead at a slightly jarring off-room temperature. Mango lassi (ordered as an alternative to dessert by my companion) was very good – normally the smoothness would be off-putting but apparently it was silky, sweet and delicious. Almost like caramel, I was enthusiastically told.

It wasn’t a Cobra kind of evening so we tried a couple of the red wines by the glass – a merlot and a shiraz. They were pleasant enough to drink but not nice enough to remember, which is as much as I was hoping for. The total bill, for three courses and a glass of wine each, came to fifty pounds not including tip. Service was friendly when they were there, but only when they were there. When they weren’t it seemed impossible to attract anybody’s attention and the overall atmosphere was oddly downbeat (maybe they were huge Wogan fans).

By any standards, Royal Tandoori is a good restaurant. Everything I had tasted good, everything I had tasted distinctive and some of what I had tasted quite unlike anything else I’ve had. Not only that, but I can see where it would win out over other Indian restaurants in town – more consistent than Pappadams, more central than Bhoj, maybe slightly less chaotic (and better with big groups) than House Of Flavours. More than any of those places I could see myself going there with a gang of work colleagues, all ordering different things and having a lovely time. But it doesn’t quite cross the line into great – the service was just a little too patchy, the food a little too rushed, the dishes just a little lacking in balance. But really, this score malarkey: who cares? Very good is plenty good enough most of the time. You’ll read this review, irrespective of the number at the bottom, and you’ll either want to go there or you won’t. Which is exactly how it should be.

Royal Tandoori – 7.9
4-8 Duke Street RG1 4RY
0118 9572717

http://www.royaltandoorireading.com/