This week’s review marks a new first for the blog, the first time I’ve re-reviewed a restaurant. Well, sort of: I’ve re-reviewed places before, but normally it’s because they’ve changed hands, even though the name has remained the same. This is often the case with pubs – so, for instance, I’ve reviewed the Lyndhurst three times, the Fisherman’s Cottage twice. The room and furniture were identical on all my visits, but the management, the team in the kitchen were completely different. So of course you’d view it as a separate business – just as, at some point, I’ll review the Corn Stores again, because what it offers now is a world away from what I ate when I went there last.
But some restaurants, particularly ones that stand the test of time, go through phases under the same ownership. The menu shifts and changes, the personnel in the kitchen will too, front of house stars will come and go and, over time, a restaurant can become the hospitality equivalent of Trigger’s broom. There are golden ages and doldrums. The best example I can think of is Mya Lacarte – in its prime, with Matt and Alex running the front of house and Remy Joly in the kitchen, it was an unbeatable place, but no incarnation after that managed to match those halcyon days.
When you’ve been at this lark as long as I have, the odds get shorter that places will change so much that a fresh look is overdue. Many places I’ve reviewed have since closed – correlation rather than causation, I promise – but many have made a go of it and flourished. Take Coconut, for example, or Valpy Street: are they really the same restaurant as they were when I first went there, not long after they opened? Is another visit in order?
I can’t think of a better example of this than London Street Brasserie, the subject of the third review I ever wrote. Even by then, the restaurant had been going for more than ten years – now, in 2021, it’s over twenty years old. Many chefs and front of house have passed through its doors since 2000 and some have gone on to open or work in other restaurants, in Reading and beyond. It’s still probably the town’s best-known restaurant and the Reading venue people are most likely to consider a special occasion restaurant.
It’s also, as I discovered recently, a restaurant about which many people in Reading have an opinion. I went there in May with family, not long after it reopened, and when I posted pictures of my food on social media plenty of people had something to say. “I ate there recently and enjoyed it so much that we went again last week. Have the poached pear next time you go!” said one person. “I’m heading straight for the sticky toffee pudding once we’re double-vaxxed” said another. But it wasn’t unanimous: “I’ve never had a decent plate in all the times I’ve been” was a third opinion. My previous review is nearly eight years old – a lifetime ago, in so many ways – so it felt like the right time to head back, on a weekday lunchtime, with my other half Zoë.
It’s still one of Reading’s most attractive buildings, sitting by the river with a view of the Duke Street bridge, and its ground floor terrace out back, where we sat, is one of Reading’s finest al fresco spots, especially when the sun is out. The terrace has just under twenty covers, and can’t be booked, but the ground floor dining room is also a very pleasing space, although some of the furniture is starting to look tired.
So far, so pretty much the same as ever, but a look at the menu shows how things have changed since 2013. LSB’s set menu was always impressive value at two courses for sixteen pounds, but over the years that has crept up to the point where it’s now twenty-two pounds (you can mix and match the set menu with the à la carte if you want: set menu starters cost eight pounds and mains are seventeen). The prices on the à la carte are higher too – most used to nestle around twenty pounds, the majority are now closer to twenty-five.
This isn’t at all an issue per se: we need to get used to paying more for food, and restaurants have to cover their costs, now more than ever, but it does mean that LSB isn’t necessarily the value proposition it once was. We ordered a couple of dishes from each menu, to put both to the test, and made inroads into a very enjoyable New Zealand pinot gris – fresh, aromatic and far from dry. It cost forty-two pounds – a hefty markup, as it’s fourteen in Majestic, who I think have supplied the majority of LSB’s wine list for as long as I can remember. The restaurant slowly began to fill up with friends lunching and several tables of men in suits, all making a beeline for the set menu’s fish and chips. Nobody else was sitting outside – it wasn’t the warmest of days, so they must have thought us eccentric.
Starters came quicker than I’d have chosen, but were so enjoyable that it didn’t matter. Zoë’s, from the set menu, was a pretty and inventive thing, a summery salad of vibrant watermelon, candied cashews, shredded sugarcane chicken, the crunch of beansprouts and wonderfully fragrant coriander and mint. With so much going on, all that sweetness and salt to juggle, it was a real triumph to get it right, and the kitchen nailed it – although my favourite bit was the salty, crispy chicken skin in shards on the top. I say my favourite bit: I was allowed one forkful and I was grateful enough for that. You get a similar dish on the à la carte with crispy duck instead of chicken, but I can’t imagine that it’s significantly better, especially at eleven pounds.
By contrast, my starter, from the à la carte, felt like the kind of dish that belonged on the set lunch menu: arancini aren’t hugely expensive things to make, so the margin on this felt wider. You got three of them for a tenner, each with a little molten core of taleggio, and they were competent but unexciting. I didn’t get a lot of truffle, and the best thing about the dish was a terrific verdant pesto which really elevated the dish. But the parmesan crisp that came with it was only halfway there – plenty of parmesan, but no crisp. Instead it was a little tough and leathery, although it still tasted the part.
LSB wasn’t busy on a weekday lunchtime, but I was glad they didn’t rush us and that we got a good break between courses. That was indicative of the service in general – excellent, attentive, very friendly. They clearly gauged that we weren’t on a working lunch where we needed to be in and out in an hour, and after the swift arrival of our starters everything settled down nicely into a gentle rhythm. And really, there are few better places in Reading to sit outside and enjoy a leisurely lunch: only Thames Lido really matches LSB for atmosphere, but the Lido’s food has never wowed me.
My main, from the set menu, was African spiced rump of lamb with “barely (sic) couscous” and harissa. It was a gorgeous-looking plate of food – in the past I’ve thought plating wasn’t LSB’s strong point but these dishes really did look the part – and it was good but not quite there. The lamb had next to no pinkness at all, and I was relieved that it had any tenderness under the circumstances (they brought one of those big wooden-handled knives some restaurants give you for lamb or steak: as so often, it wasn’t actually very sharp). I didn’t see any evidence that the lamb had been spiced, although it went very well with the delicious – if mild – harissa sauce and, incongruously, another dollop of that excellent pesto. The roasted vegetables were superb, but the couscous had been pressed into a puck which made it a bit too dense to enjoy: fluffier would have been better.
That all sounds a bit grumpy, but it was still a very enjoyable dish. On this set menu, it was decent. Back in the day, if this had been part of a sixteen pound set lunch menu, you’d have been ecstatic. But if it was hard to make up my mind about that dish, Zoë’s was even trickier. Venison, haggis, roasted champagne grapes and shiraz jus: it sounded fantastic, but could it be worth twenty-seven pounds?
It looked stunning, in fairness – the picture below is Zoë’s rather than mine but rarely have I seen a dish that looked so much like a still life (of course, that might just be the grapes). And there was a very generous helping of haggis underneath that venison. I’ve had venison with red fruits before, many times, and even with chocolate on occasion, but serving it with the pop of grapes – less sweet than you might expect – was a very interesting touch. The venison itself was exceptional, far more expertly cooked than my lamb, and every element on the plate was in harmony, bound together by a nicely sticky jus: I’d have liked more of the jus, but then I tend to want more of everything. A really wonderful dish, premium in more ways than one, and yet… was it unreasonable to expect it to come with some carbs at that price?
We’d solved that issue by ordering a side of oxtail macaroni cheese, which proved to be the missing piece of the jigsaw: it provided the carbs missing from Zoë’s dish and went some way to solving the food envy brought about by the gulf between her main and mine. It had a beautifully deep, savoury flavour, with plenty of soft strands of oxtail, an awful lot of cheese and a splendid crunchy top. Not cheap at seven pounds fifty, but worth absolutely every penny – and I’d rather pay more for a side and it be memorable than bung money at bulking out a meal with something unremarkable.
The pricing of LSB’s desserts is a bit random: the desserts on the set menu are all six pounds, and those on the à la carte tend to be around seven. There’s some duplication between the two dessert menus, because four desserts appear on both, enough cross-pollination that I didn’t really understand why LSB doesn’t adopt a single dessert menu with consistent pricing.
I had acted on the recommendation I’d had previously and ordered the poached pear, and I didn’t regret it for a second. Often when I’ve had poached pear it’s been poached in red wine and is a wintry, comforting dish. LSB’s rendition was more refined and more summery, the fleshy, amber-hued pear was sweet with vanilla and easy to cut into long tranches to eat with a very accomplished vanilla parfait. The chocolate crumb felt a bit there for the sake of it – dust on the plate is always a bit faffy to eat with everything else – and the chocolate sauce, similarly, felt more of a decorative smear than of practical use. But even so, it was an excellent dessert and I was glad I moved away from my comfort zone (the Snickers cheesecake had been calling to me) to give it a try.
Zoë had stayed firmly in her comfort zone with a favourite of hers, the dark chocolate nemesis (on the set menu and the à la carte). It’s essentially a brownie in dessert’s clothing, a wedge of cake which, like a brownie, has a crust on top and a softer, gooier core underneath. It was very good, and the salted caramel ice cream with it was very nice, but it was still, fundamentally, a brownie. If you subscribe to the school of thought that a brownie is an acceptable dessert, this was probably the one for you.
Our meal – three courses each, one side and a bottle of wine – came to just over one hundred and twenty pounds, not including tip. If we’d both stuck to the set menu we probably could have shaved around fifteen pounds off, but LSB is no longer the bargain it once was. That’s fair enough: a lot has changed over the last eight years and, like LSB, I’m probably worse value than I used to be. I certainly, like LSB, look a tiny bit tired – but then, given the last fifteen months, who doesn’t?
I didn’t know what to expect when I turned up to LSB on duty this week. It’s always been a place where I’ve tried my best to suspend my critical faculties and enjoy my meal – you know, the way most people do most of the time. I’ve eaten there numerous times over the years, for big meals with family or smaller soirées with friends or partners. I’ve even, on occasion, eaten off their set menu as an early evening solo diner. But I’ve had so many different experiences there that I honestly couldn’t have predicted whether my meal this week would be delightful or disappointing.
Having a long-running relationship with a restaurant is like having an old friend – you may see them on good days and off-days, but you overlook the latter. After all, you go back a long way. As it turns out, I’m inordinately pleased that I had such a good meal at LSB. It would have made me sadder than I’d like to admit if Reading’s grande dame was resting on its laurels, or had given up trying after a gruelling year of opening, shutting, reopening and re-shutting.
But nothing could be further from the truth: at twenty-one years old LSB is all grown up, and still a very good restaurant for grown-ups. To go there and have such a good meal – not perfect, not unbelievable value for money, but nonetheless interesting, clever and well-executed – made me feel hopeful that when we fully emerge from this and return to something like normality Reading’s other institutions will endure. We’ll still have John Lewis, we’ll still have Shed and we’ll still have London Street Brasserie, Reading’s first and foremost proper, special occasion restaurant, standing proud. I don’t think I care about whether Reading is a town or a city. But I find I very much care about that.
London Street Brasserie – 7.9
2-4 London Street, Reading, RG1 4PN