The Pack Saddle, Mapledurham

As of summer 2021 the Pack Saddle is under a new chef with a very different direction in the kitchen, to the extent that this review is no longer representative of any meal you might have there. I’ve left the review up for posterity, and I suppose I should revisit at some point.

Ah, the New Year. What a magical time it is! We know what day of the week it is again, chocolate ceases to be a food group and everybody has to go back to work. It’s ages until the council come to empty your bins and the glass recycling looks positively terrifying (it was the guests! The guests drank it all). What better way for me to commemorate this bleak state of affairs than to revisit the scene of 2014’s biggest culinary disappointment?

Well, almost. Amid all those awards at the end of last year I deliberately kept schtum on all the candidates for the wooden spoon, but the numbers don’t lie: my worst meal of 2014 was at the Pack Horse in Mapledurham, an outwardly pretty pub dressing up desperately ordinary food with faffy presentation and making me – and I can’t quite believe I’m typing this – nostalgic for the days when it used to be a Blubecker’s. After reviewing it, many people told me I had gone to the wrong Mapledurham pub: the Pack Saddle – similarly named but slightly closer to town – was the one to visit, they said. I wanted to believe them, but I still got nasty flashbacks as my car pootled down the A4074. Was it rising bile, or the memory of that wobbly shoulder of lamb?

Maybe the reason I didn’t go to the Pack Saddle last year is that I couldn’t find the car park. It was oddly difficult, involving an almost handbrake turn when we nearly missed the massive sign for the entrance (maybe it’s for the best that I’m having a dry January). Getting inside though, the pub was warm and welcoming despite not being all that packed: there was a heavenly smell of wood smoke and a handful of people were sat up in the beautiful panelled bar room. The dining room was down a couple of steps and I can imagine it would feel lovely and buzzy had it been occupied; sadly, the other two tables left shortly after we sat down so we sat alone in the dining room with just a portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, from shortly after the Coronation, gazing down on us. She looked a little disappointed. Perhaps I should have worn my tiara.

I really liked the look of the menu for two reasons. First, it was the right size: long enough that you felt there was plenty of choice but short enough that you could reasonably expect everything to be done well. But secondly, everything was just a little more interesting than it needed to be. Everywhere on the menu there were little flashes that suggested the kitchen knew what it was doing; chicken terrine came with pickled vegetables and Parmesan crispbread, beetroot was paired with goat’s cheese panna cotta, not plain old goat’s cheese. The fish main course was accompanied by a crab cake. The smallest hints of skill – nothing boastful, but enough that you could see them if you were paying attention.

My New Year’s resolution is to order one vegetarian main course every month and I nearly did it at the Pack Saddle. Crispy Parmesan polenta and filo roll stuffed with roasted vegetables sounded delicious and a cut above a lot of the unimaginative mains on menus I’ve seen (and since I made that resolution I’ve looked at a lot), but I was foiled: it was sold out. The alternative was mushroom risotto, but I have a feeling there will be a lot of chances to try that over the months ahead.

Won over by some of those flashes of skill on the menu, I did order a vegetarian starter. Balsamic glazed beetroot salad with goat’s cheese panna cotta was very much a sign of what was to come: beautifully presented in a way that at first sight looked haphazard but was in fact very orderly. What I got was a generous amount of sweet red and earthy golden beetroot, cut into eighths, interspersed with a few creamy dollops of goat’s cheese panna cotta and drizzled with narrow stripes of balsamic glaze. The panna cotta was salty, creamy and, again, earthy. I was expecting to get much more panna cotta and much less beetroot but the balance was perfect and felt like a much more reasonable portion for a starter. A few shards of parmesan crispbread were dotted about the plate which added some welcome crunch. It felt like so much more than the clichéd pairing of goat’s cheese and beetroot – lots of different things to combine, contrast and enjoy.

Beetroot

The chicken terrine was if anything even more pretty and precise: a bit of a theme at the Pack Saddle where the plating has a rather OCD air about it. A cylinder of chicken terrine had been sliced diagonally into two sections and stood on its end (perpendicularity, it turned out, was another quirk of the presentation). With it came little blobs of celeriac purée, more of that Parmesan crispbread and little spirals of pickled carrot, wrapped round a sprig of herb and leaves. This dish was a good illustration of why restaurant blogs can’t rely on photographs alone: from the picture it looks lifeless and prim, but in practice it was bloody delicious. The chicken terrine, beautifully compressed, tender, delicate meat was clean and fresh with a slight note of smoke from the bigger pieces of smoked chicken running through the middle. The pickled carrot, with a hint of lime, had wonderful crunch and the celeriac puree added just enough sweetness. Only the Parmesan crispbread fell a little flat – something lighter like music bread might have done the same job better – but it was a starter I wanted to begin again the moment I finished it.

Terrine

Of course if I’d done that I might have been too full for the main courses and – as it turned out – that would have been a shame. Fillet of sea bream was very good with the perfect balance of soft yielding flesh and super crispy salted skin. It was served, as is traditional these days, on bed of mash but, less traditionally, this was surrounded by a moat of horseradish veloute. I’m not sure I’ve had this combination before but I liked it a lot – the horseradish was mild and mustardy rather than full on hot and the mash was indecently creamy and generous to a fault. Nestled into the side of the mash, like a vertical limpet, was a mini crabcake (that perpendicularity again). This was less successful for me – it was a little plain and lacking the crispy texture promised by those breadcrumbs – but I admired the ambition, even if I wasn’t completely on board with the execution. All in all, the dish was lovely: although with all those potatoes and cream it wasn’t quite the slimline option offered by most fish courses. It also felt, at a smidge under thirteen pounds, like impressive value.

Bream

The other main course, saddle of venison, was wrapped in serrano ham and served – can you guess? – standing on its end. This was the case where the presentation seemed most surreal because it was leaning against a big block of boulangère potatoes as if it was a supporting feature rather than the headline attraction. The rest of the plating, again, was rather OCD with little circles of butternut squash puree alternating with wild mushrooms at worryingly precise intervals (a puddle of jus was confined to the right hand side of the plate). But anyway, that’s a pointless quibble because it was delicious and everything worked, separately and together, from the sweet puree to the pink, tender venison to the slab of potato, salty and softened with stock. The wild mushrooms were particularly welcome (I partly ordered this because so often, the mushrooms aren’t wild but the exaggerations on the menu are).

Venison

Normally at this point I tell you, in scant detail because it’s not really my area, about the wine. Because I’m on the wagon this month I will instead give you the far less thrilling news that the Pack Saddle offers a decent range of soft drinks including Belvoir and Appletiser, plus the overpriced orange squash that is J2O (just me?). The wine list – with its constant reproach of “look what you could have won” – looked interesting, with lots of new world wines, Chapel Down (an excellent English sparkling) and plenty of decent bottles for under twenty quid. I could see things which would have gone perfectly with the bream, and the venison, but then I started to feel a bit sad so I put the list down and enjoyed my elderflower pressé instead, with no gritted teeth whatsoever.

The dessert menu here is fairly traditional but after two interesting and clever courses it felt like the desserts would be more sophisticated than advertised. After all, that seemed to be what they do here: promise low and deliver high. I was tempted by the cheeseboard (the holy trinity of local cheeses – Barkham Blue, Spenwood and Waterloo – all world-beaters, all made in Berkshire) but I wanted to see what they’d do with the more obvious choices, so we went for chocolate brownie and carrot cake.

In most pubs, having chocolate brownie for dessert means getting a microwaved slice of Brakes’ brownie, a squiggle of chocolate sauce and a scoop of bland vanilla ice cream. In truth this wasn’t a million miles away from the brownie here, the one let down of the dishes. The brownie itself was sticky and rich (and home made) and had been cut into three slices and arranged in a zig zag. There was chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream although this time the ice cream was sat in a puddle of crumbs and the brownie had some dollops of cream with blueberries and raspberries nestling in them. Don’t get me wrong: it was tasty enough, and I ate every last scrap. But it didn’t match up to the earlier courses for creativity and excitement.

Brownie

The carrot cake was better, although the plating repeated the motif of little orange circles set out with frightening regularity. This time it was sweet carrot pureé, although I’d have been hard pressed to tell it from the earlier butternut squash purée in a lineup. The vanilla ice cream was pretty anonymous and the icing didn’t stand out, but what saved the dish was the cake itself – moist but not too moist, nicely spiced and with a slightly nutty texture to it. A perfectly nice carrot cake, but I was expecting more after the promise of the first two courses (my family make a better one, put it that way).

Carrot

Service throughout was excellent – something I particularly appreciate on a day like the first Saturday in January, when surely nobody really wants to be at work. The two staff that looked after us were both unerringly friendly and helpful – and also seemed to be genuinely delighted when they got positive feedback on the food. With the bar being busy and the restaurant being almost empty I worried that we’d either get pestered or ignored, but they did a brilliant job of making us feel looked after without being hovered over. The bill, for three courses and two rounds of soft drinks, was a touch under sixty-three pounds excluding service. All of the courses felt like excellent value: the venison, for example, was under sixteen pounds and easily as good as far more expensive venison dishes I’ve had in restaurants with higher opinions of themselves.

So, here’s to 2015. I’m sure it will be a lot like 2014 in lots of respects – good meals, bad meals, pleasant surprises, even wobbly shoulders of lamb – but at least there will be one important difference: driving down the A4074 won’t bring me out in hives any more. I think I might make another trip that way soon, just to be certain.

The Pack Saddle – 8.0
Mapledurham, Reading, RG4 7UD
0118 946 3000

http://www.thepacksaddle.com/

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The Pack Horse, Mapledurham

This week’s review was meant to be of Kei’s, the Chinese restaurant in Lower Earley. I took the bus, past streets called things like Parsley Drive and Clove Close (it must be hard to be inspired when you have to name so many streets; back in the day it was the largest housing development in Europe) and reached the restaurant only to find that we’d been given the only table left. By the door. With the spotlight overhead gone. In pitch blackness.

Were there no other tables, we asked. Apparently not. Could they do anything about it? After some shaking of heads, a waitress returned with an ineffective-looking candle that had seen better days. And I, I’m afraid to say, turned round and left. I’ve been sat at many tables so awful that I’ve asked to move, and some so bad that I’ve accepted them reluctantly and complained all night, but only one so terrible that I refused to sit there at all, and that was the one at Kei’s. It was hardly a table at all, more a badly-lit symbol of their determination to make money out of two extra diners. So never mind, Kei’s. Maybe another time.

Instead, the following night I went to the Pack Horse at Mapledurham and something very similar happened.

This time, it was the opposite problem. The spotlight was working – too well, which meant that the person in one of the seats looked like they were competing on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? (picking a main course is difficult, but never that difficult). We asked if we could be moved. It shouldn’t have been a problem; there were loads of vacant tables for two.

“I’m sorry, those tables are reserved.” said the waitress, casually dressed in what might have been a dress or just a very long t-shirt.

“This table was reserved too. And they’re not here yet anyway. Can’t you just swap them over?”

This was apparently a very difficult question (I didn’t realise at this stage but that was the shape of things to come from the service at the Pack Horse) but after much deliberation she moved us. Our reservation was at 8, the table they swapped was at 7.30. They never turned up. The table next to us was reserved from 7, and they never turned up either. I can only imagine that some people in Mapledurham have invented a time machine, travelled into the future and read this review.

Before that it all looked promising. The Pack Horse is a gorgeous pub on the A4074, about fifteen minutes out of Reading. The main bar is all beautiful wooden beams and brass over the fireplace, snug and cosy. The wine list has a default glass size of 125ml, and everything is attractively priced, encouraging you to drink as many different things as possible. The dining room is handsome, even if the tables are a little bit too small for two. But from the moment we took our seats, nothing else went right.

We started with some rustic bread, butter and rosemary oil, although we needed to order this twice before it actually turned up. It was unremarkable – the butter was unsalted and only just soft enough to spread, the bread heavy and hard work (maybe this is what “rustic” means). Only the oil was worth the trouble – sharp, fresh and green with a good whack of flavour from the rosemary. The bread came on a board big enough that they had to remove our pointless place mats; that’s how small the table was.

Our starters arrived about two minutes after the bread, another warning sign. What was called spiced lamb faggots with chick peas and tomato stew on the menu was a job for Trading Standards. Faggots should be big, coarse, earthy things; these were three tiny meatballs, with no spice in them. The chickpea and tomato stew was all chopped tomato and very little chick pea. I wanted a hearty bowl of food but instead I got a needlessly cheffy oblong plate with three puddles of underwhelming tomato on it, each topped with a minuscule sphere of meat-flavoured indifference. On top of each of those was a piece of deep fried pitta bread, for reasons which escape me. Worst of all, though, the whole thing was lukewarm. By the time I’d finished it, so was I.

Pack Horse - Lamb

Fig and thyme tarte tatin with goats cheese, pickled walnut, radish and pea shoot salad was equally misleading, so much so that I thought I had misread the menu. What I actually got was a goats cheese tart with a couple of big slices of pickled walnut on top. There was no thyme that I could detect, and no fig either. It was all salt and vinegar and no sweetness to offset it all (unless you count the drizzle of generic red jam around the edge of the plate: I don’t). The radish and pea shoot salad was just a nest of pea shoots, no sign of the radish. When I read the menu at the Pack Horse it was so huge that I had reservations about whether they could cook it all. It turns out they couldn’t: perhaps they had run out of some of the ingredients, or maybe the way they cook those dishes has evolved over time. The wording on the menu certainly hasn’t, though, and either way I felt short changed.

In a good restaurant, the starter makes you feel excited: I can’t wait to see what my main is like. At the Pack Horse, it was quite the opposite. I found myself wishing we’d ordered more straightforward mains, dishes a kitchen couldn’t mess up. As they took the starters away I ordered another glass of wine and we took bets on how quickly the mains would turn up; after all, everything so far had been so disappointing that surely this was the logical next step (one of us guessed five minutes, the other ten).

Our mains arrived roughly ten minutes later, both of them slouching towards mediocrity and barely getting there. The braised shoulder of lamb was like a bad cover version of kleftiko where you could make out the words but the melody was all wrong. It wasn’t quite cooked well enough or long enough, so bits of it fell apart but most of it was a struggle against wobbliness, and I do enough of that already. The rosemary jus was thin, watery and flavourless. The dauphinoise potato managed to be sinful without being any fun – all cream and no seasoning, the worst kind of empty calories. The spring vegetables had an air of supermarket stir fry about them. All in all, it was a depressing way to spend sixteen pounds – not inedible by any means, but stirring up bittersweet memories of this kind of thing done far better pretty much anywhere else.

The roasted cod with chorizo, tomato and white bean stew and basil lemon pesto dressing was equally uninspiring. The cod itself was a decent sized chunk, well cooked but also underseasoned. I was expecting the stew to be a hearty bean-filled affair but it seemed to be the twin of the tomato stew from the faggot starter, with a few small chunks of chorizo and beans added in. It had a little hint of chilli but not enough to make it interesting. On top of the cod was yet another nest of pea shoots and a single slice of chorizo, cooked until it resembled a tax disc holder. I tried to eat some, for the record, but gave it up as a bad job. There was a drizzle of pesto round the edge of the plate, cheffy style again, but it didn’t stand a chance against the chilli tomato stew so I can’t tell you if it was lemony or basilly, or if those are even real words. There was also some random fennel, so little that you couldn’t tell if it was deliberate.

Pack Horse - Cod

The final insult was twofold. First of all, they left our plates in front of us for well over ten minutes after we’d finished eating. Having to look at couple of plates with the leftovers of a disappointing meal, for that long, is almost as bad as having to eat it in the first place. We figured out that it took roughly as long to get rid of those plates as it had to bring them to our table. The irony: so quick to take our order, so quick to bring our starters, so quick to bring our mains. And yet the one time you actually want the serving staff to get their skates on they couldn’t be found for love nor money. It was the only slow element of the entire evening: from taking our seats to finishing our main courses took under an hour.

Better still, a waiter then came over with the glass of wine I’d ordered when they took our starters away. (Had you forgotten about that? You’re not alone: so had they.)

“I’m sorry, I ordered this some time ago. I don’t want it now.” I said.

The waiter put the glass of wine on the table. There was no obvious sign of a hearing aid.

“No, I’m sorry, I need to send this back.”

He shambled off with the wine glass, without saying a word. They still billed us for it, mind you, and we had to ask to get it taken off the bill. The bill, for two people, for bread, two starters, two mains and a total of five drinks, came to £63. We didn’t stay for dessert, because I had some chocolate in the fridge at home and a pretty good idea that they weren’t going to manage anything half as tasty as that. Service wasn’t included, and I didn’t tip; I think failing to tip, by and large, is deplorable but on this occasion there was literally nothing to reward. The waiting staff were there when you didn’t want them, nowhere to be seen when you did, knew little about the food and, with the exception of the literal, brought nothing to the table.

You’ll notice that I haven’t talked in detail about the wine, and there’s a reason for that: it wasn’t good enough to justify going to the Pack Horse. It wouldn’t have been even if they were selling magnums of Margaux for a tenner.

What I’ve realised, over the past six months, is that Saturday nights seem to be cursed for me. I went to Picasso on a Saturday night, and the Lobster Room, and in the Pack Horse the curse of Saturday night seems to have struck again. It’s an absolutely beautiful pub, but the menu is all wrong. They should either live up to the promise of those surroundings and cook skilful, imaginative food, or stick to a small menu of tried and tested pub classics. What they’ve done is neither: the food here isn’t actively bad, but it’s possibly even worse than that – a mediocre photocopy of good food, a menu which makes all the right noises ruined by execution which is totally out of tune.

The perfect punchline only came later when I was writing this review: I found out on the Internet that the pub used to be part of the Blubeckers chain, before they were subsumed into something called “Home Counties Pub Restaurants”. I went to a Blubeckers a few times – it was cheap, cheerful and nothing to write home about, a Harvester with ideas above its station. And yet, thinking about the meal I’d had at the Pack Horse it managed something I wouldn’t have thought possible: it made me nostalgic for Blubeckers. Any restaurant that can do that really isn’t much of a restaurant.

The Pack Horse – 5.1
Woodcote Road, Chazey Heath, Mapledurham, RG4 7UG
01189 722140

http://www.homecountiespubs.co.uk/packhorse/