Valpy Street

Let’s start with the elephant (well, lobster) in the room: it would somehow be wrong of me to write a review of Valpy Street without at least a passing nod to its most (in)famous previous incarnation. Those hallowed halls were the location where I ate the worst meal I’ve reviewed so far and, I think, an indication of how far the spot had fallen since its earlier success – still discussed fondly by many Reading residents – as Chronicles. Indeed, the new owner is in fact the old owner; fed up of seeing the site go through one sad iteration after another he decided to come back and reinvigorate the handsome basement rooms (the story goes that the last straw was an application to turn the premises into a lapdancing club).

It looks so nice now that I didn’t even suffer any flashbacks. The upstairs – a grotty sandwich bar back when this was Valentino’s – is now a little bar area looking out onto the street. But really, it’s all about the downstairs: there’s something about a cellar restaurant, especially with winter on the way, that feels somehow snug and exclusive and they’ve made a really good job of doing it up (Farrow and Ball paint: check, exposed brickwork: check, tongue and groove panels: check). The furniture is attractive, the tables are a decent size and there are some nice booths along one side which adds to that feeling of cosy seclusion.

I’ve heard good things in the months since Valpy Street opened, so I was surprised to trot down the stairs on a week night to see it pretty empty, with only a few tables occupied. The menu had lots to tempt, with an interesting range of starters hovering around the seven pound mark and more conventional bistro-style main courses (lamb shank, duck breast, two types of steak) generally weighing in around fifteen pounds. Reading it, I realised that this is the kind of restaurant Reading is missing, because we don’t really have any mid-range independent bistros. You either go for much more informal, cheaper dining, you move up a price bracket to LSB or Forbury’s, or you opt for a chain. Please let this be good, I thought to myself.

Would my prayers be answered? The starters gave me my first clues. Pan fried scallops came with peas and onion, crispy chorizo and beurre noisette, a pretty classic combination. Normally they also come with soft herbs (no, I’ve no idea what that means) but I was with my coriander-phobic companion so we missed all the herbs out to ensure there was no meltdown. The scallops – three medium ones – were pretty decent, cooked in the browned butter and nicely textured so they were lightly caramelised on the outside but still yielding within. The peas and onions and chorizo reminded me a bit of petit pois a la francaise, but without the indulgent cream which always makes me feel so guilty about ordering it. They worked quite well, especially the touch of salt and warmth from the chorizo which lifted the dish pleasantly. Not the prettiest dish to look at (it all looked a bit plonked on the plate) but a good start.

ValpyScallops

The other starter was one of the most intriguing things on offer – tempura soft shell crab with an Asian influenced salad of shredded cabbage, carrot and mooli. It was the only time that the menu wandered away from its firmly European sensibilities, but it sounded so good on paper that I had to try it. Broadly speaking, it was a success. The salad was full of crunch and zest with an awful lot going on, especially with a gradually growing heat from the deep green shreds of chilli. I liked the presentation, with the toasted sesame seeds dotted round the edge of the plate.

If anything, the salad upstaged the crab sitting on top of it. I’ve always loved soft shell crab – possibly the only member of the animal kingdom that might have caused Charles Darwin the occasional moment of doubt – and this was pleasant but the batter wasn’t quite tempura, lacking the crisp lightness I was hoping for. It was also dinky almost to the point where you felt like you weren’t so much eating it as bullying it. All good, then, but possibly a touch on the nouvelle side.

ValpyCrab

You couldn’t say that about the gigantic piece of onglet which turned up when the mains arrived. I’d ordered it rare (the waitress suggested rare or medium rare) and rare it came. My mistake, to be honest: onglet can be a tad chewy and it definitely needed a bit longer. To her credit, the waitress came back to check on the food and quickly twigged that I wasn’t happy – so she sent it back for a little more time under the grill which improved matters considerably. The salad it came with was delicious, just dressed rocket and thinly sliced red onion: not something I would normally choose but which really went perfectly with the steak. The chips were thick and wedgelike, but sadly not terribly crispy.

When ordering the waitress asked what sauce I wanted (blue cheese, red wine or peppercorn) and so I also had a little copper saucepan of peppercorn sauce. This was really lovely but I didn’t find out until the bill arrived that I’d been charged nearly three quid for the privilege. Now, I don’t mind paying extra for a sauce but I definitely felt like this was a little sneaky – there was no mention of the sauce on the printed menu (there is on the website, curiously) and the waitress didn’t say that there would be a charge, so I felt a little hoodwinked. Overall it pushed the cost of the dish over the twenty pound mark, and therein lies the real problem: onglet is a cheap cut, and for that money I could have had better meat from CAU – a little less of it, maybe, but better quality and cheaper.

ValpyOnglet

Herb crusted hake was less successful. It was a pleasant – if not massive – piece of fish and the herby breadcrumbs on top of it were lovely, although I was surprised to find skin on the bottom of the fillet. But everything else didn’t quite work. It came with “bacon lardons” (are there any other kind?), little halved new potatoes, cabbage and leek and all of them were decent if inoffensive. But the herb broth, which I was hoping would bring the whole thing together, was largely a flavourless stock. More than anything else I ate that night, or anything I’ve eaten for a while, it felt like home cooking rather than restaurant cooking. If I’d eaten it at a friend’s house I’d have said nice things, but for just shy of fifteen pounds it wasn’t something I’d rave about when eating out.

ValpyHake

I can’t quite remember why we ventured onto desserts after eating so much steak, but venture on we did. Tarte tatin is one of those French classics that’s difficult enough to make at home that I’d never bother (that’s what restaurants are for). Truth be told when it arrived I wondered if the chef had ever seen one before, let alone cooked one. It was the oddest looking tarte tatin I have ever seen; eight or nine thin slivers (not slithers, for the record: why do so many restaurant reviewers get this wrong?) of unpeeled apple on a pastry base with a caramelised coating and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. If anything, my photo makes it look more generous with the apple than was actually the case. To my shame, I still ate it all because – as everyone knows – pastry plus sugar equals tasty. But it was an amateurish kind of tasty.

ValpyTarte

Valpy Street’s website says that the menu is “locally sourced where possible” – that may be true in general, but the fact that nothing local turned up on the cheeseboard made me wonder if those words were there because they thought it was what diners want to read. Having got that whinge out of the way, it was an interesting selection none the less: on paper, at least. In reality, it was perhaps slightly less so. Saint Maure de Touraine was a pretty likeable goat’s cheese, but the tommette de savoie was mild verging on apologetic, a quality it shared with the Fearn Abbey, a Scottish brie-like cheese. What the board was crying out for was some contrast – a salty, crystalline cheddar or Comte that could exfoliate the roof of your mouth – but no such luck.

Last but not least, there was Blue Monday, made by that chap out of Blur with the floppy hair. I’m more of a Graham Coxon fan myself, but to give credit where it’s due the cheese was spectacular – intense, savoury and delicious. I’m glad I ate it last, but even having it last it highlighted how bland all that came before had been. All the cheeses were maybe not as close to room temperature as they should have been (nor, now I come to think of it, was the dining room), but at least they weren’t fridge-cold. The accompaniments smacked slightly of overkill. There were a lot of crackers but no variety, so they were all sweet which didn’t really work with most of the cheeses. You also got a huge ramekin of onion chutney – far more than you could possibly eat – some celery which I suspect is left by almost everybody and some grapes. This was definitely a case where less would have been more, although I would have liked the advertised quince jelly which was nowhere to be seen.

ValpyCheese

This is all sounding rather glum, isn’t it? Perhaps I should lighten the mood by saying that service – the incident with the peppercorn sauce aside – was properly delightful from start to finish. Both waitresses were bright, personable, knowledgeable and full of opinions about the dishes. And if it didn’t always come off that felt more the kitchen’s fault than theirs. As I said, I was also impressed that they swooped in and sorted the problem with my onglet – some serving staff would ignore those vibes (the way you can never get attention when you want to pay up and scarper, for instance) but they could clearly tell I wasn’t happy and managed the situation perfectly.

Another positive: the wine list isn’t bad at all, with nothing over forty quid and plenty of interesting choices available by the glass. We tried a selection, including a really good, heady Malbec and a cracking Pic St Loup, a Languedoc red. Viognier, always a favourite of mine, was also extremely drinkable as was the cheapest white on the menu, a bright Spanish number from Extramadura. I would have had a glass of dessert wine with the tarte tatin, but they’d run out of one and the other was priced pretty aggressively for only 50ml. The LBV we ordered to accompany the cheese was nice but not surprising – maybe it would have tasted better paired with more interesting cheeses. The total bill came to ninety-one pounds, excluding tip, for three courses, two glasses of wine each plus that port. An odd experience: nothing on the menu was particularly expensive, and yet somehow that still felt a little steep.

Reading really needs a restaurant like Valpy Street. An affordable, mid-market independent bistro is very much one of the places that’s always been missing from town. And, frustratingly, they’ve got many things right – the room is lovely, the menu looks brilliant on paper and the service is spot on. The menu has some bright ideas to draw daytime trade in, too, with lunchtime “pots” for six quid and a selection of upmarket sandwiches. But the evening menu – despite some moments of promise – didn’t set my world on fire. But all is not lost, because the management has proved they can do this. The menu has already changed substantially since launch, to the owner’s credit, and he didn’t even officially launch the restaurant until it had already been open for a month (a very soft launch indeed, in fact). It feels like he’s playing the long game, and on that basis I wouldn’t rule out Valpy Street rethinking some of the menu and pricing and fulfilling that obvious promise. It’s a tougher market out there than it’s ever been: Reading’s dining scene has changed significantly since Chronicles closed in 2008 and the competition has got better. I just hope Valpy Street can do likewise.

Valpy Street – 6.8
17-19 Valpy Street, RG1 1AR
0118 3271331

http://www.valpys.co.uk/

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Feature: Pre-theatre dining

You get a bonus feature this week! This piece first appeared on the Reading Fringe site, although hopefully it’s a useful guide for all pre-theatre dining and not just the Fringe.

Pre-theatre dining is an awkward business. You need somewhere where you can be absolutely certain you’ll be out the door in time to make the start of the show, but you don’t want to feel like you’re compromising on having a good meal. (Personally, I also need somewhere which leaves me enough room to sneakily inhale a bag of Minstrels in the interval, but less said about that the better.)

When Zsuzsi from the Reading Fringe asked me to suggest five of the best restaurants to eat at before taking in a show at the Festival I was hugely honoured. Reading is enormously lucky to have such a terrific programme of events this month, and fortunately Fringe-goers are also lucky to have a great range of places to eat at beforehand, from sharing dishes and street food all the way through to proper sit-down meals. Here’s my selection – and in the spirit of the Fringe you won’t find a single large faceless chain in there. I hope you enjoy one of them, and that you enjoy the Fringe!

Pepe Sale

Fish

Pepe Sale has a good track record when it comes to pre-theatre dining: as one of Reading’s longest-established restaurants, right next to the Hexagon, it’s been doing it for yonks. The pasta’s made fresh every day and comes highly recommended (especially if crab ravioli – one of the Seven Culinary Wonders Of Reading – is on the specials menu). The wine list is exclusively Italian with lots of gorgeous, affordable options. It’s very conveniently located for the shows at Penta Hotel, RYND or the Purple Turtle. Because you’re dining early, the almost legendary suckling pig they serve at weekends won’t be ready yet. But there’s always next time for that. (3 Queens Walk, RG1 7QF)

Bhel Puri House

Samosas

Also convenient for shows on Gun Street, Reading’s only vegetarian restaurant specialises in Indian street food and is great if you want a lighter dinner or to share some dishes with friends. It’s all good (and lots of it is very unusual) but if you want to play it safe the chilli paneer is a magnificent plate of sticky, spicy decadence and the Punjabi samosas are hard to beat. In the further reaches of the menu the pani puri (like the big bubbly crisps you’d fight over in a packet of ready salted, only stuffed with potato and lentil curry) are great fun. As a bonus, when it’s warm you can eat in the courtyard by the George Hotel, sip a mango lassi and get ready to take in some culture. (Yield Hall Lane, RG1 2HF)

Mission Burrito

Mission - tacos

A little chain, and probably the most independent restaurant the Oracle has left, Mission Burrito is so good at what it does that I doubt it’s remotely rattled by the impending arrival of TGI Friday. The slow-cooked ancho chile beef is the thing here, and it’s especially fine in a big pillowy burrito with rice, black beans and their rather good guacamole. A perfect place to get a quick pre-show meal without having to suffer one of Reading’s three branches of Burger King, they also do a distinctly acceptable frozen margarita, if you want to loosen yourself up for one of the more experimental shows on offer. (15A The Riverside, The Oracle, RG1 2AG)

London Street Brasserie

LSB1

If burritos and samosas seem a little, well, informal for you London Street Brasserie is the doyen of early evening upmarket dining in Reading. Their set menu runs until 7pm on Fridays and 6.30pm on Saturdays and the range is excellent – especially if you have vegetarians in your party, as the options are more imaginative than you’ll see elsewhere in Reading. Let them know you’re on a quick turnaround when you book and if you’re lucky they might even seat you outside, in one of Reading’s finest spots for al fresco dining (admittedly, there isn’t much competition). Lots of it is good, but I have a soft spot for their fish and chips. (2-4 London Street, RG1 4PN)

Sapana Home

1409688981.569270.71

It’s all about the momo at Sapana – little Nepalese parcels like gyoza absolutely crammed with chicken, red onion and lemongrass and then pan fried (my favourite), steamed or deep fried depending on how badly behaved you feel. Six pounds gets you a plate of ten with a little dish of thick, piquant dipping sauce. Lots of people order other things as well – the spicy fried fish (a little like sardines) are lovely, as is the dry chicken curry – so if you’re in the sharing mood it can work pretty well. Me? I find it hard to look past the momo. Service is lovely, drink is affordable and the music is, well, Heart FM. But never mind – you’ll be getting your culture elsewhere, won’t you? (8 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1TG)

Feature: Al fresco dining

No new review this week I’m afraid, because I’m taking my first week off of 2015. Instead, you get a feature: I’ve had a few people express interest in ER features from time to time, so this is the first of its kind.

I’m very lucky that I get to eat out often and write weekly independent restaurant reviews; I genuinely believe that the only way restaurant reviews can be totally impartial is if the person writing the review is also the person paying the bill. But I’m also painfully aware that eating out is a luxury that not everyone can afford. This week, I’m donating the cost of the meal I would have eaten to Launchpad, Reading’s homeless charity which does excellent, tireless work which is needed more now than ever. ER is free to read and it always will be – but if you felt like donating even the smallest amount of money to Launchpad too, I’d really appreciate it and I’m sure they would too. Normal service will be resumed next week – until then, on with the feature.

Summer is around the corner – the Reading Beer Festival always feels to me like the first sign that it’s on the way – and that always makes me think about the delights of eating outdoors. We all daydream about barbecues, we have our tea and coffee at pavement tables people-watching and relaxing and suddenly a whole different criterion comes into the decision-making process when you’re deciding where to eat. After all, it would be a shame to have lunch or dinner cooped up when it’s glorious outside.

It really frustrates me that good al fresco dining spots in Reading are few and far between. The town seems to be full of blind spots where the sun just doesn’t shine, and many of the plum spots are filled by disappointing chains. Bill’s, for instance, has an absolutely gorgeous space outside which is a magnet for UV rays but the food doesn’t live up to the setting. It’s quite nice for breakfast (eggs sunny side up in more ways than one) but otherwise it just doesn’t do it for me. The Riverside gets lots of sun and many of the venues have decent outdoor seating but it’s hard to be excited by them – the little tables outside Cote always look inviting, but All Bar One, Bella Italia, Pizza Hut and Nando’s aren’t quite so alluring.

So – and I might be jinxing the summer of 2015 by even saying this – the days are long, the shadows are too, it’s short-sleeves weather and you’re ravenous. Where to go?

1. Dolce Vita

It did cross my mind to pick the balcony at Jamie’s Italian, looking out over the throng of Oracle shoppers. But, for food and service, Dolce Vita easily has the egde. It’s as close as you can get to the Oracle view without actually being in the Oracle, tucked away from the hubbub. The balcony area extends out on two sides of the restaurant and the menu is equally sunny with Mediterranean food – and some more leftfield choices with traditional British and even Asian influences – and friendly, charming Greek service. The set menu, which is often on song, offers great value and a surprising range of options. When I sit outside at Dolce Vita I can almost convince myself that I’m on holiday, especially if I’m drinking a pint of Peroni or a fresh, fruity glass of rosé.

Burrata

2. The Plowden Arms

Ideally one would arrive at the Plowden in an open top sports car, passing some of the rolling green hills that the Berkshire/Oxfordshire border has in spades. The generous garden at the Plowden offers a lovely view across the countryside with added waitress service and decent umbrellas, should you be more English rose than suntanned millionaire. The food here ranges from substantial and traditional to delicate and sophisticated (and the kitchen is consistently brilliant at all of it) but everything is fresh, creative and sometimes based on old English recipes, in case you fancy a side order of education. Having your dessert outside by candlelight, the last rays of the sun not long faded, is a pretty magical way to finish an evening.

Lamb

3. Picnic

Picnic has one of the best spots in the centre of town, having taken over the old Jacobs shop eight years ago. The tables outside catch plenty of sunshine (especially early to mid-afternoon) and, provided the wind isn’t blowing a gale, it’s a great place to enjoy lunch and some of Reading’s best people watching. The salads have always been the draw here – leaves and couscous with a weekly range of toppings – and although I’ve found the interior much harder to love since they moved everything around, it can’t be denied that it has freed up the space for the kitchen to add yet more interesting variations on that theme (that said, I still have a soft spot for their roast chicken and pesto). If you scoff at salad, even in summer, there’s also a lot to be said for their cracking Cornish pasties and sausage rolls, from award winning Green’s of Pangbourne. Oh, and the cakes are magnificent: good old-fashioned Victoria sponge and terrific, moist lemon polenta cake are my favourites. All that and a view of Munchee’s opposite (what more could you want?) – no wonder, whenever I bag a table outside, I feel so reluctant to leave.

4. London Street Brasserie

London Street Brasserie has probably the nicest terrace in town, alongside the Kennet. When it catches the sun it really catches the sun, and in summer the menu – always nicely seasonal – really rises to the occasion. There’s nothing quite like making inroads into a crisp bottle of white and enjoying a half pint of prawns, easing off the head and shell before dipping that firm flesh into their peerless garlic mayonnaise (writing about doesn’t even come close: I’m hungry now). I generally find the set menu more reliable than the a la carte here (the fish and chips is another favourite of mine) which makes it perfect for a boozy weekend lunch, although if it’s not quite sunny enough or the afternoon is waning, they also do a nice line in chequered blankets and patio heaters. LSB is a good example of how the summer can change everything – on a winter evening it probably wouldn’t make any of my top fives, but when the sun is out it’s hard to beat.

LSB7

5. Forbury’s

Forbury Square is one of the prettier, quieter outdoor areas in town and Forbury’s really makes the most of it (and in some style, too). Unlike the unluckily positioned Carluccio’s – which always feels like it should be sunny but never is – it is nicely lit and, unlike Cerise, the seating is plentiful and comfortable. If you can manage to stick to their set menu (a challenge that many have failed, me included) then a three course meal can set you back as little as twenty pounds per head – and even less if you’re lucky enough to be there on a weekday lunchtime. Make sure you add some bread, though, as their sourdough is heavenly. Oh, and wear your best sunglasses and pretend you’re on the French Riviera. Air kissing optional.

Venison

6. The Allied Arms

What is ER on about? you’re probably thinking. The Allied Arms is just a pub and it doesn’t do food. I know, I know, but bear with me. I picked this tip up from friends of mine a couple of years ago and it’s a cracker; although the Allied doesn’t do food, they don’t have a problem with you consuming food from elsewhere on the premises. So, on a summer night when the Summer Lightning or the Thatcher’s Gold is flowing, instead of wandering off to a restaurant just get someone to watch your table, pop next door to Pizza Express and then return with your Pollo Ad Astra or American Hot. It’s worth it for that first bite of pizza. It’s worth it for the crispiness of the pepperoni or the salt bomb of anchovy. But, more than anything, it’s worth it for the looks of envy you get from everybody else in the pub who wishes they’d thought of it. Last time I checked, the Allied even kept a pizza cutter behind the bar, although if word gets out they might start charging people to use it.

If you like this and you’d like to read more of this sort of thing then let me know in the comments, and if there are any particular subjects you’d like to read an ER feature on then do say!

Round-up: September

Well, Edible Reading has been going for over a month and I thought it would be a good point to stop for a moment and say thanks to everyone who has followed on Twitter, commented on a review or passed on a link. I’ve been really wowed by all the support, which is fantastic (in fact I even got my first hater – or are they called trolls now, I can never remember – which is proof that I’ve really made it!) In case you’ve missed anything in the first six weeks, here’s what’s happened on the blog so far…

Pepe Sale, 8.3 – Lovely food, superb service and crab ravioli to die for. Read the full review here.

ZeroDegrees, 5.4 – Reading needs a place that does great pizza and delicious moules but Zero Degrees, with its cut corners and wonky service, isn’t it. Read why not here.

London Street Brasserie, 6.8 – The elder statesman of Reading’s restaurant scene still offers some really good food, but you have to pick carefully and you’re better off staying on the set menu. The full review’s here.

Picasso, 4.1 – When is a tapas restaurant not a tapas restaurant? When the tapas in question is massive, costs almost a tenner and feels like it came from a bad supermarket. The worst rating so far, see why here.

Five Guys, 5.5 – It’s just a burger… or is it? The much-hyped latest addition to Reading’s restaurant scene has attracted lots of attention. I chip in (pardon the pun) with my two pence here.

In terms of restaurant news, apart from Five Guys, the main place to open since Edible Reading opened its doors is Tasting House, on Chain Street, in a rather unlovely location round the side of John Lewis. It does a small selection of charcuterie and cheese boards, a dozen or so wines by the glass and a large range of wines to take home. I’m not generally a fan of reviewing places just after they’ve opened (although in the case of Five Guys the temptation was too great to resist), but maybe a bit further down the line. It’s only open until eight though, so don’t plan on settling in for the evening if you do go.

Also, Thai Nine has closed and reopened as Sushimania, which means it will be part of a small chain with other branches at Golders Green and Edgware. Presumably this is a takeover, like when Sahara closed and reopened as BeAtOne. It’s an interesting move, because every time I’ve been to Thai Nine I thought the Thai food was much more popular than the sushi (and I say that as a sushi lover). I imagine I’ll review Sushi Mania in due course, so watch this space.

Another piece of news is that I like to think we’re having an effect on the Reading Post. They published a review earlier this month which wasn’t one hundred per cent glowing – of Wild Lime Bar & Kitchen, which you can read here (apparently it was “pleasant enough”).

Best of all, I’m also happy to say that another local restaurant blog has started around the same time as Edible Reading (I know, I know! We’re like buses). Stuff In My Face is a lot of fun, a cracking read and I’m looking forward to seeing what he makes of places round here. His very entertaining review of Pierre’s, here, is a great place to start.

Finally, thanks too to everyone who has recommended a restaurant for me to visit. Suggestions so far range from some of the Reading classics like Mya Lacarte and Sweeney & Todd to newish places like The Lobster Room, Bhoj, and House Of Flavours. I’m keeping a list and will try to get to all of them eventually, I promise.

Right, better go – I’ve got some meals to plan.

London Street Brasserie

London Street Brasserie was almost the first restaurant reviewed for Edible Reading. In many ways it would have been the perfect choice, because it’s hard to imagine Reading without it. As Old Orleans has been replaced by Miller & Carter, as Ma Potter, Yellow River Café, Chili’s and Ha! Ha! have opened and shut and been replaced, it’s always been there, dragging the rest of the restaurant scene in Reading up in quality, year by year. It’s hard to believe that it only opened in 2000 (I had to check, and even then I did a bit of a double take).

It’s always done a roaring trade – not just locals, but also shoppers and the occasional celebrity, too. I don’t mean Paul Daniels and The Lovely Debbie McGee, either – apparently Prince Harry was there on Sunday night, mere hours after we’d checked it out at lunchtime, and rumour has it he very much enjoyed the crab (presumably he then dashed off to the casino next door, if past form is anything to go by). Even so, it feels remiss not to review it even if it is one of Reading’s most well known restaurants. After all, does that necessarily mean it’s any good?

The set menu at LSB has always been a good deal, so three of us went along for Sunday lunch with the very best of intentions. Three people, two courses, £16 a head: should be a bargain, right? Well. It always starts like that, but the problem is that then you have to have a quick look at the rest of the menu (the “here’s what you could have won” element of visiting a restaurant) and the next thing you know there is some complicated horse trading going on – I’ll have a starter off the set menu if I can have a main from the a la carte and what have you. So we wound up ordering a bit of everything, and convincing ourselves that it was for the good of the review.

The winner among the starters, in fact, was from the set menu: halloumi and rosemary with a rocket, peanut and mint salad. This was the one we all wished we’d ordered – the salty halloumi set off perfectly by the mint, not a combination any of us had tried before. The others, though, were less successful. The foie gras ballotine seemed in some places to be more butter than foie gras (some of which had started to melt, possibly because it had been left out too long), and lacked any real complexity. The Sauternes sultanas accompanying it were little unremarkable sugary pellets and the cocoa nibs added more texture than taste. Each section of ballotine was topped with an inadequate triangle of toasted brioche, and the whole thing was a little underwhelming. At just under a tenner, it was disappointing stuff – you can argue about whether foie gras is cruel or a delicious necessary evil, but one thing it should never be is empty calories, and this came rather close to that.LSB1

The Parma ham with artichoke and parsley salad, also on the set menu, might have been even less exciting – the ham, despite being air dried, was somehow smooth, wet and fatty and the accompanying artichoke and parsley salad, with finely chopped red and yellow peppers wasn’t anything to write home about. Having used up a large part of my adjective quota on the foie gras, let’s just use one – boring – for this and leave it at that.

LSB6

The mains, happily, were a much better bunch. The fish and chips was a generously sized piece of haddock with a perfect, light crispy batter, along with chips served in one of those little frying baskets that seem to be all the rage at the moment (and which are very popular with me too, as they’re very easy to steal from). The mushy peas must have been good because I didn’t get to try any – you try stealing mushy peas without being spotted some time. The tiny jars of fresh sauces (a red pepper ketchup and tartare sauce) were a nice touch, though the vinegar came in a faddish bottle too, and personally I don’t see what’s wrong with a proper shaker.

The Tuscan venison ragu with pappardelle was also very nice, or at least it was when it came out second time around; first time round the ragu was aspiring to warm, although it never quite got there. We did the English thing of apologising for being given lukewarm food and the waiter did the equally English thing of not really apologising but sending it back to the kitchen.  When the replacement arrived – fortunately quite quickly – it was delicious; rich, intense, just the right size, and the pine nuts studded through the pappardelle were also an interesting surprise. I was a bit dubious about the self-assembly element of this – you are brought a bowl of naked pasta and a small saucepan of ragu and left to put it together yourself. Maybe some diners quite like being involved in the process, but I thought plating up really should be the kitchen’s job.

LSB2.1

My main, garlic and sage marinated monkfish, was lovely. Three mini fillets of monkfish served with sweet potatoes, cabbage and a red wine jus. It sounds simple but it was definitely more than the sum of its parts. It was really delicious – quite light and compact but not stingy which is quite a challenge with an expensive ingredient like monkfish.

All this was washed down by two bottles of the Surani Costarossa, a primitivo at a very primitive £27.50 a bottle. The second bottle was a little harder work than the first but we’d already had a aperitif in the bar so things were starting to reach the stage where restraint is a wonderful, if somewhat distant, concept. By this point, the sun had come round to the terrace and a few more barges had gone past so it seemed a shame to leave our table (although naturally, if we’d known Prince Harry would turn up in a few hours maybe we’d have taken things a bit more slowly). So we finished our red in the mellow afternoon sun and looked at the dessert menu, because it never does any harm to look.

The desserts on the set menu are a fiver each, a quid or two less than those on the a la carte, so we decided to look at both menus and pick what we fancied. I had the sticky toffee pudding, from the set. So indulgent (although my main was on the lighter side so I felt I could get away with it): a simple square of moist suet pudding, served in a glorious little lake of butterscotch sauce with a quenelle of clotted cream to cut through the sweetness a little. Just divine; done well, nothing fancy, thank you very much. The caramelised lemon tart with stem ginger ice cream appeared on my left, and I’m told it was lovely but I never got to try it. I was told, between mouthfuls, that the caramelised topping in particular was a big hit.

The showpiece dessert, however, was the orange and Grand Marnier soufflé with hot chocolate sauce. A full inch taller than the soufflé dish, this had more fluff on top than Donald Trump in a windstorm. It looked magnificent, but like Donald Trump what lay beneath didn’t quite live up to the impressive topping – undercooked to the point of being damp, it didn’t quite feel right. On the other hand, once the dark chocolate sauce got poured in, the whole thing transformed into a big edible puddle and apparently it stopped mattering so much after that. Of course, that might also have been to do with the bottle of dessert wine we’d ordered. I’m a little ashamed to admit that we washed them down with a bottle of Tokaji (5 puttanyos for those who know their wine) which was incredible, even if it probably contained enough sugar to be a dessert on its own. At £42 a bottle it really isn’t cheap, though in fairness the mark-up on it isn’t unreasonable.

LSB3.1

The dessert wine didn’t turn up until after the desserts had arrived, and we needed to give the waiter a nudge for it. Service was a bit like that all afternoon – slightly hit and miss but always cheekily apologetic, as if they’d been caught winging it. The whole thing was slightly reminiscent of people at work (and every office has one) who rely heavily on their charm to make sure they’re never quite found out for not delivering things. On a Sunday afternoon, a few bottles of wine to the good, with the sun on the terrace and the barges floating past on the canal, this was all fine, but with hindsight it could have and probably should have been a little sharper.

So, it’s been a staple of the Reading restaurant scene since the turn of the century, Prince Harry eats there and it’s always packed, but is it any good? Well, as you can probably tell from the above, the answer – frustratingly – is yes and no. But over the years I keep coming back here. The food is hit and miss, and so is the service – not all of the waiting staff have the finesse that the food deserves – but the riverside setting, the buzz and the sheer range of the dishes (especially on the set menu which I think was a much better deal on the day) mean that it has enough interesting things going on to make me return. Carried away by the summer and the sheer recklessness of exploring the menu our bill for three, for three courses, three aperitifs and three – yes, three – bottles of wine came to £195, but I would say do as I say not as I do, go for lunch or an early evening meal and it’s still a decent place to eat. In 2000 LSB was head and shoulders ahead of almost everywhere else you could eat in Reading. In 2013, it should maybe be a bit less confident about retaining that status.

London Street Brasserie – 6.8
2 – 4 London Street, RG1 4PN
Telephone 01189 505036

http://www.londonstbrasserie.co.uk/