Takeaway review: O Português

Many years ago, in another life, I was spending a long weekend in Lisbon (remember when we used to have those?) and I had the good fortune to go on a food tour hosted by the journalist and writer Celia Pedroso. Every city – every country too, for that matter – should have an advocate like Pedroso, and anybody who went to Lisbon thinking that Portugal was all peri-peri chicken and egg custard tarts would have had their mind absolutely blown by a few hours in her expert company. 

It turned out that Portugal had cheese and ham that could rival anything from Spain, had not only port but also wonderful rich red wines and fresh, almost effervescent vinho verde. We sat in a restaurant called Tagide, looking out over the city, trying petiscos, Portugal’s take on small sharing plates, which were every bit as delicious as any tapas I’d eaten in Andalusia. Then there was ginjinha, a cherry liqueur sometimes served in – just imagine this – an edible chocolate shot glass. Throw the aforementioned chicken and pasteis de nata into the mix, and you have the makings of a wonderful, unsung cuisine.

I came away from that afternoon thinking that Portugal, so often overshadowed by its Iberian cousin, might be the best-kept food secret in Europe. It’s well-kept enough, for some reason, that Portuguese food has never quite made it to these shores; London has never had a Portuguese invasion the way as, say, Peruvian food some years ago and, closer to home, in nearly eight years of writing this blog I’ve only ever reviewed two Portuguese restaurants. Both of them left me a bit baffled, to put it lightly: was it just that the food didn’t travel well?

All of this made me very curious indeed when the old Bart’s Steakhouse site next to Palmer Park, which was Colley’s Supper Rooms for many years, reopened as O Português. All the early signs pointed to a hearty, authentic Portuguese restaurant, and the restaurant’s social media output – all bilingual – suggested a wide and interesting menu, ever-changing daily specials and huge amounts of support from the local Portuguese community. With the exception of Deliveroo-only London imports like Burger & Lobster and Rosa’s Thai, O Português is probably the restaurant most readers have told me they want me to check out. They’re on JustEat, so on a quiet weekday lunchtime I sat down to pore over their menu and decide what to order for dinner.

Researching the menu was an awful lot of fun and involved having JustEat open in one browser tab, Google in another. It was both an education in Portuguese food and a reminder of how little I knew about it. The menu had a selection of just under ten starters, most of them hovering around the seven pound mark, and a wide range of main courses ranging from ten to twenty pounds. Some had descriptions, some didn’t, but I hadn’t heard of much of it and the more I researched the hungrier I got. Did I fancy arroz de marisco, seafood rice that might rival a paella, or bacalhau a bráz, a sort of salt cod scrambled egg dish with matchstick potatoes? 

Everywhere I looked a different genre of gastronomic temptation was waving from the menu, shouting “pick me!”. And of course, the problem with looking up all these different Portuguese specialities was that Google always seemed to throw up the platonic ideal of each dish, a picture of every single one as its absolute best self. It partly wanted to make me order from O Português, it very much made me want to hop on the next plane to Porto and, perhaps most of all, it made me hope that ordering from O Português would make me feel less sad about the fact that I couldn’t so much get on the RailAir, let alone fly to Portugal at the drop of a hat. 

I deliberated, I horse-traded with my other half Zoë and we placed an order for that evening – two starters and two mains, coming to just over thirty-six pounds, including delivery and service charge. Then we got on with our day, but every now and again, on our afternoon walk, I would remember that I had this takeaway to look forward to and I thought what I always think with these review meals: I hope it’s good.

We’d ordered our food to arrive at seven pm, and the JustEat experience was pretty efficient, painless and slightly early. We were told at just before twenty to seven that our rider was on his way, and he pulled up outside the house barely five minutes later. Most of our food was in foil containers with cardboard lids, all recyclable, and one dish we’d ordered was in polystyrene. At the time I thought nothing of it, but later Zoë said “considering it’s less than ten minutes down the road it’s just not hot enough” and, on reflection, I tended to agree.

O Português’ starters mostly read like unpretentious bar food and I was excited about trying them. The first of them, pica pau, was thinly cut pork or beef in a spicy, beery gravy with pickled vegetables: the name translates as woodpecker, and the idea is that you pick away at it with a cocktail stick while drinking a cold Super Bock (or, in my case that evening, a beautiful bottle of Alhambra 1925, a birthday present from a friend). 

That sounds fantastic in theory, but O Português’ version was a bit challenging in practice. There was plenty of beef, most of it reasonably tender, but I didn’t detect any spice and next to nothing you could describe as gravy. Instead, there was a lot of pickled cauliflower and carrot, so much so that the sharp tang of vinegar was the main detectable flavour of the whole lot. I was inclined to give O Português the benefit of the doubt: I suspect this dish was reasonably authentic and probably just not for me. But I love pickles and I still found this a bit acrid; Zoë, who despises vinegar in all its forms, couldn’t cope with even a forkful of this dish. Strangest of all, it was a lot of food for six pounds fifty: if you liked it, you’d describe it as amazing value. If you didn’t, it was just cheap.

Fantastic in theory probably also sums up the other starter we had, another iconic Portuguese dish and again, meant to be robust rather than fancy. I had been tempted by the prego no pau, a “nailed” steak sandwich with garlic – apparently – literally hammered into it, but instead I went for bifana, which is probably the national sandwich of Portugal. And again, some of the problems with it may have derived from the disconnect between reading all about how amazing these could be in theory and then eating O Português’ in practice. 

In the wonderful theoretical world of the internet, the pork loin used in a bifana is thin and marinated, soused in flavour. In the real world of the polystyrene container in my living room, the pork was thicker, drier and, it seemed to me, ever so slightly overcooked. There was a good pungent waft of garlic underneath the pork, but it felt like it had been added afterwards rather than cooked alongside it. Perhaps if I’d had this in a tasca somewhere in the Bairro Alto, I’d have loved it, but on my sofa it lacked that power to transport.

Zoë liked it more than me – “thank god for bread and pork” were her exact words, but that might be because she had so little time for her main course. She had gone for the frango grelhado, grilled chicken, thinking that it was a classic Portuguese dish and relatively easy to get right. Now, ordinarily in these takeaway reviews Zoë plays a relatively minor role. On this occasion, however, I’ll have to quote her extensively, because she disliked her dinner so much that I ended up resorting to grabbing my phone, opening the Notes app and taking dictation at numerous points throughout the rest of the evening.

“It’s a mirage” she started. “It looks like it’s going to be a delicious baby chicken, like the ones from Bakery House, but actually it’s just a carcass covered in tasty skin.”

The forkful Zoë had let me have taste indeed have a tasty coating and I’d rather liked it. I wasn’t sure it was better than Nando’s, and it definitely wasn’t better than the best roast chicken I’d had in Lisbon, but it wasn’t terrible.

“You know that bit of chicken I let you try? That was most of the meat there was on the whole thing. It had more bones than Cemetery Junction. And another thing: it tastes to me like it’s been reheated. It feels like a quarter of chicken you’d get from a chicken shop.”

I supposed it was possible. I knew, for instance, that Nando’s precooked its chicken before finishing it on the grill: perhaps O Português did likewise. As if to prove her point, she lifted the whole scrawny thing up. It dangled uselessly from her fork, as if from a gibbet.

“It’s tough in places. I think it’s been reheated. It’s the chicken I feel sorry for. If it’s going to die, it should at least give somebody some pleasure. And the chips are just cold and hard.”

They’d looked pretty decent and home made on the plate, but apparently not.

“What about the rice?”

“It’s okay, but it’s rice. How wrong can you go with rice?” 

She had a point.

I’d picked my main having scrolled through O Português’ social media and when it turned up, it definitely looked the part. Arroz con pato, or duck with rice, sounded really promising. And again, it was a huge portion – tons of rice with what looked like shredded duck leg tumbled through it, and crispy slices of chourico and what looked like smoked pork on top. I mean, on paper, how good does that sound? And even looking at the picture below – well, it does look the part.

And yes, in theory, this dish should have been a standout. But there’s that word, theory, again: in reality it somehow managed to be less than the sum of its parts. The chourico was lovely and smoky (you smelled it the instant the lid came off the foil container), there was plenty of duck and even the smoked pork – which I’d normally approach with caution – was salty and tasty. But somehow, none of that flavour had made it into the rice and so the whole thing was heavy going. 

And again, portion size and cost made for a confusing combination – this dish was eleven pounds, was far more food than I could physically eat and wasn’t tasty enough that I was remotely disappointed about having to leave some. If you liked it, it would be phenomenal value. It seemed especially odd compared to the chicken dish, which was also eleven pounds but, even by comparison, poor value. Poor value compared to Bakery House’s wonderful boneless baby chicken too, come to think of it.

Later, when we were emptying quite a lot of our dinner into one of Reading Council’s exciting new food recycling caddies, she pointed to a clump of something beige in the foil dish. “See that? That’s where I spat a chip out.” I’ve had some iffy chips in my time, often bad enough that I’ve not bothered finishing the portion, but spitting one out isn’t something I’ve ever had to do. The meal left a disappointment which lingered for the rest of the evening, only slightly redeemed by eating some phenomenal chocolate brownies (another birthday gift, as it happens).

I’ve really not looked forward to writing this review, and I’ve rarely taken less pleasure in saying that somewhere wasn’t my cup of tea. I so wanted to like O Português, and I very much wanted to be reminded of everything I love about Portugal. And I find myself in a difficult position because, despite having visited that country several times, I couldn’t even begin to tell you whether the dishes we ate were authentic. It might be that they were, and that I like Portuguese food less than I thought I did, or that they weren’t. 

Or it could just be that the restaurant just had an off day. I don’t even know, really, which is the best case scenario, out of those possible outcomes. I’m sure that O Português has enough of a customer base that this is no skin off their nose, but I still feel sad that I can’t recommend them. I wished that everything I had eaten had been smaller, better and more expensive – and wanting all three of those things from a restaurant, all at once, is just not how it should be.

All I really know is that a small independent restaurant, pretty much the only one of its kind in Reading, cooked a meal I very much struggled to enjoy, and a large part of me dearly wishes this week’s review had reported different news. We still have no tapas restaurant since the sad departure of I Love Paella, and I’m yet to find a Portuguese restaurant in this country that feels like it does their food justice. If you want chicken perfected on a grill, Bakery House remains the place to beat. And if you want the closest thing to Portuguese food here, I’m afraid you’ll have to head to Nando’s. Nando’s isn’t Portuguese either – it’s South African, as a matter of fact – but you probably knew that already, didn’t you?

O Português
21 Wokingham Road, Reading, RG6 1LE
0118 9268949

https://www.facebook.com/OPortuguesInTown
Order via: JustEat

Feature: Dining elsewhere

This might be hard for you to believe, but Reading isn’t perfect. Even I, with my bad habit of standing on the virtual soapbox and shouting about its best bits, know that. I’ve talked in the past about all the types of restaurants I’d love to see open in Reading, from indies to (some) chains, but this week instead of a review I thought I’d go one step further and talk about some of my favourite restaurants outside Reading. These are places I would love to pick up and plonk somewhere in town, even if I know in my heart of hearts that they wouldn’t necessarily fit in.

This is by no means a list of the best restaurants anywhere, by the way. Often your favourite restaurant isn’t necessarily the best – the food might not be as flawless, the service might not be as polished, but simply put your favourite restaurants are the ones where you have the best times. Your mileage, should you ever get to one of this lot, will undoubtedly vary. And it’s not definitive, either: I missed out countless places in the interest of limiting this to half a dozen, including little bistros in Paris, sweet sun-kissed tavernas on Greek islands, Michelin starred joints deep in the Cotswolds and establishments from Toronto to Glasgow, from Prague to Istanbul. Loving restaurants is a wonderful thing, I think. Loving lists the way I do also brings a lot of joy. But trying to combine the two, it turns out, is rather an agonising pursuit.

Pierre Victoire, Oxford

(Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor)

Reading doesn’t really have a proper French bistro. A few places have come close (and Brebis is only a train ride away) but you’d hope a town the size of Reading could sustain somewhere like Oxford’s Pierre Victoire. Originally part of a now defunct chain (which at one point included Reading, so maybe we don’t deserve another after all) this place has thrived by offering some great classics, an amazing value set menu (where starters and desserts are only two quid each. No really) and proper French service – you know, the sort where they always seem slightly amused by you but want to charm your socks off none the less.

Despite being a pretty big restaurant, getting a table here is a real challenge unless you’ve booked ahead (which I singularly fail to do) so I sometimes end up eating here at lunch instead of dinner, just to make sure I do get to try it. On my most recent visit I tucked into a gorgeous quenelle of smooth chicken liver pate followed by a big stainless steel pot of moules marinière with skinny fries. I also nicked some of my companion’s potato rosti (sitting underneath a splendid, crispy confit duck leg) which would have been worth the price of admission alone. Lunch for two, including a crazily reasonable half bottle of Côtes du Rhône, came to thirty-six pounds. Thirty-six pounds! The tables are all squished together – which normally would annoy me, but here I like it because of the people-watching potential – and I never leave without wishing I could put Pierre’s in my pocket and bring it back on the train with me. Reading could really do with a little more ooh la la, n’est-ce pas?

Great Queen Street, London
Great-Queen-Street-Interior(Photo from the restaurant’s website)

I know that London is arguably the most exciting dining scene in the world right now. I know that every cuisine is represented, to dazzling effect, and that every month new places open, shifting the dynamic of the place ever so slightly. It must be lovely to have all that on your doorstep to choose from, from the high end to street food with every permutation in between. I know all that, and yet – and I know this will make me sound like a hick from the sticks – I have had so many disappointing meals there you would not believe.

I follow the critics, I ooh and aah over the meals (both the pictures in the papers and the ones they paint with their effortless sentences) and yet I’m so often underwhelmed. Whether it’s a neighbourhood restaurant a little off the Tube network, an old stager offering faded but charming grandeur or Michelin starred luxury on the top floor of some tall building, I often end up on the train back from Paddington thinking “what am I missing?”. Probably a lot, but what it means is that when I do go in I want to find somewhere central, reliable and decent that I can book in advance, where I won’t have to queue round the block for hours or spend two hours pretending I’m having more fun than I am.

At the moment, for me, that place is Great Queen Street. Just off Drury Lane, part of a group which includes legendary Waterloo gastropub The Anchor & Hope and Oxford’s Magdalen Arms. It’s just perfect – dark, clubby, welcoming and totally disinterested in being cool. The menu is the kind of unpretentious list where you want to order practically everything and the wine list is full of inexpensive delights (plenty from the Languedoc, I’m happy to say). Last time I went, I shared a chicken, leek and tarragon pie, all rich creamy filling topped with flaky pastry but with that beautiful slightly soggy layer just beneath, like a business class Fray Bentos, and I liked it so much I nearly wept. I would say that once you eat there, you’ll never go back to Sweeney and Todd – but to be honest you could say the same once you eat at Sweeney and Todd.

Bosco Pizzeria, Bristol

Despite discovering (if that’s even the right word, seeing as loads of you told me you loved it but just didn’t want me telling everyone) Papa Gee last year, I am still yearning for a comfy neighbourhood pizzeria. Well, I sort of found one, but the problem is that it’s on the Whiteladies Road in Bristol. And I always seem to end up there when I visit Bristol, despite it being a city with so many amazing restaurants (Wallfish in Clifton, for one, or the wonderful tapas restaurant Bravas). It’s not even Bristol’s coolest pizzeria – the up and coming Flour And Ash has taken that title – but it remains one of my favourite places to eat.

I’m normally there for lunch, but it’s the kind of restaurant that has perfected offering something for everyone, whether it’s small groups, dates or family outings. The menu is brilliant, with great antipasti (especially the burrata and coppa – to be honest I could gladly live off some combination of those two) leading up to the genuine highlight, the pizza. The base is light, chewy, ever so slightly charred and bubbly. The toppings are simple but steer clear of cliché. And – no small thing this – I love the service. It’s tattooed, passionate and informal (or, in a word, “Bristol”). I do rather collect pizzerias, especially abroad (La Briciola in Paris, Linko in Helsinki, I could go on) but there’s something about Bosco. Writing this now I can imagine sitting at a window table with some montepulciano, waiting for my pizza to arrive. And as much as I love Papa Gee, its slightly down at heel style and all, I’d love to see somewhere like Bosco dropped into one of the empty sites in the centre of Reading. That would be gert lush.

Bodegas Castañeda, Granada

Granada is the true home of tapas, where every alcoholic drink is accompanied with a small plate of free food, be that a basic wedge of tortilla or a helping of salty, crumbly manchego. If you love food then that alone is reason enough to visit, even without a visit to the beautiful Alhambra, the stunning Moorish fortress which stands sentinel over the city from its position at the top of a very steep hill. Well, that and the sherry. And the wine. And the more sherry.

Anyway, Bodegas Castañeda is in the heart of the city (one street along from, confusingly, an inferior establishment with almost exactly the same name) and, for me, it epitomises eating in Andalucia. Yes, there are still free tapas (the habas con jamon, broad beans with rich, savoury nuggets of ham, for instance) but the clientele here knows that the stuff you pay for is worth the jostling at the bar, which runs almost the entire length of the shallow, wide room. The staff, a wry bunch of super-efficient, slightly hangdog aproned men, serve sherry from large casks, pouring with a flourish that is more for entertainment than taste, and watching them work as a unit always fills me with admiration (and, probably more importantly, gratitude).

You need your wits – and your elbows – about you to eat at Bodegas Castañeda, but the rewards are enormous: simple, savoury slices of the delicious jamon that hangs over the bar, thick pieces of mojama – cured tuna – topped with almonds and drizzled with olive oil, the saltiest bacalao draped over the smallest slices of bread, an embarrassment of riches. My mouth is watering now, something of a Pavlovian reflex which I get almost every time I think about Granada. All that and you can eat and drink like royalty (and get royally sloshed) at Bodegas Castañeda for less than forty euros, provided you’re happy to muck in and try speaking a little Spanish. Believe me, it’s worth the effort.

Bonjardim, Lisbon
BonjardimI love Lisbon so much, and it has a much underrated food scene. Of course, there are the famous egg custard tarts and the port – everyone knows about those – but there’s so much more to it than that. Beautiful seafood, surprisingly good cheeses, petiscos that give any tapas out there a run for its money and my personal favourite, ginjinha, a rich sticky cherry liqueur sometimes served in (and you might want to brace yourself for this bit) an edible chocolate cup. Drink the liqueur, destroy the evidence, eat some chocolate into the bargain: trust me, some messy nights can begin this way.

Despite that, my favourite restaurant in Lisbon is in many ways one of its most basic. Bonjardim isn’t far from Rossio station, with a restaurants and tables on both sides of a little alley. It’s known as “Rei dos Frangos” (the king of chickens) and they aren’t kidding, because that’s what you order if you know what’s good for you. A whole spit-roasted chicken for two turns up with some slightly unnecessary chips, and it’s the most glorious, amazing, intoxicating thing. The skin has been rubbed with lemon, salt and oil until it’s almost brittle with the intense taste of wonderful crackling. Underneath, the meat is perfect; there’s a little pot of peri peri sauce you can brush on, if you feel that way inclined, but I’ve never seen the need. You just sit there, in the evening warmth, eating chicken and drinking wine or a frosted pint of Super Bock, watching the hawkers and the buskers wandering past on a seemingly eternal loop. Maybe we won’t ever get the weather, and it’s probably just my fanciful imagination, but I can picture something like this on Queen Victoria Street.

Can Paixano, Barcelona

I could have picked so many places in Barcelona for this piece. One of the finest meals I’ve ever had was in its Michelin starred restaurant Cinc Sentits, a meal so amazing that I wrote down every single course I ate in the tasting menu and for months after I could just get out the piece of paper, look at it and sigh. But last time I went, I found the strangest thing – the less informal a place was, the more fun I had.

So although I enjoyed the proper old-school glamour of the “rich man’s paella” at Set Portes, the real delights came from the stand-up tapas joints, places like El Bitxo and the venerable El Xampanyet, where the waiters effortlessly swish from table to table offering to top you up with cava (and people think the Italians have a monopoly on offers you cannot refuse). This reached its apex at Can Paixano, a little bar on the edge of the old port on a seemingly lifeless sidestreet – a long thin room with no discernible furniture where people jostle at the bar for saucers of cava at little more than a Euro a glass. Meat hangs from the ceiling and the no-frills menu behind the grill tells you what’s on offer. You order some chorizo or morcilla and sip your drink (slightly off-dry rose cava for me, since you asked) while it’s sliced and grilled or fried in front of your very eyes. Last time I went, a group of young Irish chaps were there, clearly unable to believe their luck having chanced upon the place completely by accident. I bet they were wishing their home town had somewhere a little like Can Paixano: I know I was.

So, those are some of my favourites. Why not chip in in the comments section and let me know some of yours?