The Little Angel, Henley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LAParcels

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

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

LATerrine

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

Then something remarkable happened: our mains arrived.

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

LAChicken

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

LALamb

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

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

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

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

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Handmade Burger Co.

There was a story doing the rounds last month about fifteen restaurant operators eyeing up Reading with a view to opening in the town. Beyond that the specifics were vague – who were they? Where exactly were they hoping to open? – but that didn’t stop it being picked up by one of the local sites (on a slow news day, perhaps) which reported it as “fifteen national food chains” in talks about moving in. As a result, I saw a little bit of discussion and speculation on Twitter, but I couldn’t bring myself to be hugely excited. I’ve never subscribed to the “chains bad, indies good” theory of restaurants – nobody who’s eaten at both Côte and Picasso could buy that for a second – but I do think it’s true that when you look at what Reading really needs, more chains wouldn’t really be at the top of the list.

That’s not to say that some chains aren’t wonderful things, or that Reading wouldn’t benefit from them; I finally went to Wahaca recently, and it’s every bit as good as everyone says. I’d love to see Busaba or Leon set up a branch in Reading, for that matter. But I’d rather see an independent bistro, or a bakery, or a little Vietnamese place, or a sushi restaurant, or any of a dozen types of establishment which just don’t fit the chain mould at all. But maybe, even having said all that, I’m being too harsh to the chain restaurants. After all, there are good chains and bad chains, big chains and small chains. So this week I decided to give one of them a try – and because it’s both ages since I tried a new chain and ages since I had a burger, one option on the Oracle leapt out and simply demanded to be chosen.

Handmade Burger Co. wasn’t the burger company Reading was hoping for when LSQ2 gave up its spot right on the edge of the Oracle; back then, everyone was clamouring, rightly or wrongly, for Gourmet Burger Kitchen (except me, I wanted – and still want – a Byron). But when HBC opened in late 2012 if at least sounded more interesting than GBK: a small, family-owned chain that had, if the website is to be believed, grown out of a single branch in Birmingham. Who doesn’t like a rags to riches underdog story? I didn’t go back in 2012, but since then it has grown to 25 locations across the country and, again if you buy the blurb on the website, makes its burgers from scratch using 48 fresh ingredients delivered 6 days a week. Well, it all sounded worth a shout to me – and after all, restaurant websites are always a really good indicator, aren’t they?

Going in on a weekday evening, the thing that struck me about the room was how many tables they had crammed into quite a cavernous space. It’s very high-ceilinged (all the other pitches in that row are two floors) but the tables are really jammed in together, especially in the middle of the room. The décor was quite nondescript – all very plain tables and chairs, but it didn’t feel like a table for two was quite big enough for two people and to make matters worse, the neighbouring table for two wasn’t especially far away either. The tables with banquettes were better, but we didn’t get shown to one of those and I didn’t have the energy to ask for one. That said, people like the place: I arrived early on a weekday evening and by the time I left the restaurant was largely full. Would I have wanted to arrive when the place was full and try to have a conversation in a big echoey packed room with a very limited amount of soft furnishings? Well, this probably makes me sound about a million years old, but: no, not on your nelly.

The model works in much the same way as Nando’s – you get shown to a table, pick what you want from the menu, order at the bar, collect your drinks and wait for your food to come to the table. The basic burger comes with a dizzying number of topping options, or you can have a chicken burger, or go bunless, or have a gluten free bun, or have it in a pitta, or even (how random is this?) in a Yorkshire pudding. Or you can have a vegan burger. Or a veggie burger. Or something a bit like a burger but on a skewer. The possibilities are, if not endless, a lot less finite than I would personally choose. It really does cater for everyone. Everyone who likes burgers.

HBC’s new menu, and indeed the board outside, proudly boasted that they now do something they touchingly refer to as “dirty burgers”. The website doesn’t define exactly what this means and how or why they are dirty (although surely it’s not a literal sanitary description), nor did the menu. A little pamphlet folded away inside my cutlery tin also talked about the burgers but again, there was no real explanation beyond them being “juicy, messy and full of flavour” (as opposed, presumably, to the dry, tidy, bland offerings elsewhere on the menu). But I am a marketing department’s dream, and they were in a little boxed off section with their own fancy typeface, and so I went for the “D.B. Fried Onion” figuring that it was worth a try.

“Watch out with this, it’s dirty” said the waitress as she put it in front of me (not something you ever want someone to say to you while bringing food to your table, in my experience), although she also didn’t explain exactly what this meant. It was in the Five Guys style of presentation i.e. wrapped in foil and looking for all the world like it had been sat on. When I opened it up, I still wasn’t sure this hadn’t actually happened. It was a pretty bog-standard, fairly uninspiring cheeseburger. The patty was thin, flat and grey – thin enough that you could see why no effort had been made to cook it anything less than well done. The fried onions were tasty enough, although they lacked the true caramelised sweetness of really mouthwatering fried onions. There was lots of gooey orange processed American cheese, my favourite kind on a burger, but it just wasn’t enough to rescue it. I didn’t mind the “fresh buttermilk bun” (why HBC doesn’t call it brioche like every other restaurant I have no idea), but overall it was inoffensive and disappointing. I’ve seen dirtier episodes of Antiques Roadshow, put it that way. Oh, there was also some “jalapeno slaw” and a bit of gherkin but it looked like such an afterthought – as you can maybe tell from the picture – that I just couldn’t be bothered.

HBCDirty

The “dirty burger” section of the menu also offers the horrors of something called “Hipster Chips” and I’m afraid this is where I do have to stop for a little rant. No, no, no, no, no. First of all, “hipster” is something other people call you, not something you call yourself (I tell you what, I’m such a hipster, me, said no one ever). And second of all, it is never, ever a term of endearment. So I didn’t order them, and I can’t tell you what chips with sriracha mayonnaise taste like, because they might as well have been called “Look What A Zany Wanker I Am Chips”. I mean, credit to HBC for calling them chips rather than fries, but it’s not enough. So instead I had some “Denver Chips”, which were topped with pulled pork, barbecue sauce and melted cheese. There was a bit of pulled pork, though not masses, a lake of enamel-strippingly sweet sauce and some curls of cheese (some of which had melted and some of which, worryingly enough, hadn’t) and underneath a poor abused pile of average chips which deserved better. I didn’t eat them all.

HBCChips

From the not-so-dirty menu the peanut butter and bacon burger sounded less obviously dirty but still good. Sadly it simply wasn’t dirty enough. First up the bun looked like a common or garden burger bun – pale and wan with a few sesame seeds on top. It was dry and crumbly and not at all like the sourdough bun I expected, as advertised on the walls of the restaurant (perhaps “sourdough”, like “artisan”, is just something people say to waste space on menus nowadays). But let’s not focus on the bun, let’s focus on the filling because that’s where this really disappointed. The burger was thick – oddly much thicker, it seemed, than the “dirty burger” – resolutely far from juicy, and bland. There were one or two rashers of unremarkable bacon without much salt or smoke. I was hoping for a big dollop of peanut butter on the burger, slowly melting into a savoury, nutty satay, but instead I got a minuscule smidge hidden underneath the lettuce leaf. It’s almost like they didn’t want me to be able to taste it. But never mind, because you did get lots of chilli jam. Too much, a big, sweet liquefied pool of the stuff dripping out of the side. So much of it that it really should have been called a “chilli jam and smoked bacon burger”; except of course, if it had been called that I wouldn’t have ordered it, just as I dearly wish I hadn’t ordered this.

HBCBurger

I also had a side of chips which hadn’t been slathered with pulled pork and barbecue sauce, instead coming with rosemary and salt. This was my chance to find out what the chips were like before they got mucked around with, but again it was far from a success. They were soft and flaccid, a bit like chip shop chips that had been sitting around too long. There was loads of the salt and rosemary on them and the rosemary was lovely, but the salt was in huge rocks that you couldn’t really disperse or even eat with the chips. Much of it was left in the bowl afterwards. But then much of the chips were left, too, because they were just too squidgy and boring. That’s a damning indictment; I never leave chips. Sit me in front of a bowl of chips and I will peck away, even if I’m not hungry, and suddenly they’ll be gone. Not these.

When I saw that the menu had malted milkshakes I knew I had to have one, because I bloody love a malted shake. So I had a malted vanilla milkshake. Really, I wanted a peanut butter one, but I resisted because I am profesh and I thought double peanut butter in a single review would not be profesh (also, my dining companion was one of those oddballs who loathes the stuff). It was huge, served in one of those big tin milkshake blending glasses. There were a few discernible dots of vanilla but otherwise it mostly reminded me of the white ice cream of my youth – ah, the wonders of not-especially-Italian Gino Ginelli – not actually truly vanilla flavoured, but vanilla-esque. There wasn’t nearly enough malt for my liking but the malt was only an extra 30p so at least I didn’t feel hugely ripped off. My guest had an Erdinger weissbeer because he really fancied a beer. He didn’t finish it, because I really fancied cutting my losses and leaving.

Service throughout was actually pretty good, for what is essentially a pretty low-frills restaurant with limited table service. The young lady at the bar enthused over the peanut butter burger – it deserves to be tried, apparently – and was friendly and chatty and the other ladies bringing plates and checking up on us (then removing the clothes peg from our table number, another of those subtle ways of indicating that we had been processed) were also really nice. But, like I said, you order at the bar, you pay in advance and you have to fetch some things like soft drinks yourself, so the service can only be so good. I wonder how many people actually tip on paying, before they’ve had any service, or put money in the jar on the way out. I wonder, too, how enjoyable it must be to work in a restaurant run to this model. Dinner for two – two burgers, two chips, two drinks – came to thirty-four pounds and was done and dusted in about thirty-four minutes.

I’m not really in the target market for burgers: as I’ve said many times, they’re just a sandwich. But I can see there’s a time and a place for them, and I like to think I can tell the difference between a good one and a bad one. I was puzzled, though, because I have a friend who is a huge burger connoisseur – I mean, he travels for burgers the way I travel for sushi, and then some – and last time he went to Handmade Burger Co. I heard he thought it was much improved. Well, I’m not sure how bad it was before or if I was just extremely unlucky but it’s hard to see the appeal; there’s not much in the way of charm or atmosphere, the burgers were disappointing and at that price you could do far better in the Oakford or even Five Guys (and, I’m guessing, CAU for that matter). Fifteen restaurant chains circling Reading? The news still doesn’t thrill me, but it’s hard to imagine they couldn’t do better than this.

Handmade Burger Co. – 5.3
Riverside, The Oracle Shopping Centre, RG1 2AG
0118 9588106

http://handmadeburger.co.uk/our-restaurants/find-a-restaurant/handmade-burger-co-reading/

Coppa Club, Sonning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CoppaGnocchi

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

CoppaFritto

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

CoppaBruschetta

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

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

CoppaChops

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

CoppaPots

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

CoppaPizza

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

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

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

http://coppaclub.co.uk/

The Flowing Spring, Playhatch

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

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

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

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

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

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

FlowingMushrooms

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

FlowingFishcake

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

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

FlowingLamb

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

FlowingBurger

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Flowing Spring – 7.3

Henley Road, Playhatch, RG4 9RB
0118 9699878

http://theflowingspringpub.co.uk/

Kobeda Palace

Should you decide to go to Kobeda Palace my first piece of advice would be this: don’t use Google Maps to get there. Rather than suggesting the right route, down the Oxford Road and just past Workhouse Coffee, it inexplicably directs you to Wilmslow in Manchester, a drive of over three hours (and very few restaurants justify that kind of round trip). I later discovered why: looking at the front of the laminated menu while waiting to pay the bill, I discovered that Reading’s is the second branch in a tiny chain of two – although, just to make it more difficult, the Wilmslow one is actually called Kobeda Place. Confused? Me too.

Anyway I’ve been going to this Afghan grill house for ages and I’ve always wanted to review it, but one thing stopped me – for a long time, it had a one star health and safety rating. And then, just before Christmas, I went to Kobeda Palace to grab a quick pre-Nag’s Head bite to eat with some friends and there it was on the door, glowing with an unearthly light: a new Scores On The Doors sticker with a four-star rating awarded a few weeks previously. Could I hear angels singing, or did I just imagine that part? Either way it felt like my first present of the festive season, and I made a mental note to go back early in 2016.

I also made a mental note to make sure I took one of my friends who is quite possibly the biggest carnivore I know – put it this way, it’s no coincidence that Kobeda Palace has opened where Gilberts Meat Market, with its mildly terrifying statue, used to be. You smell the charcoal even as you approach the building, and it doesn’t take long to realise that this is not somewhere to go with the vegetarian in your life; the menu does say “VEGETABLE DISHES AVAILABLE – Please ask for details”, but it’s hard to imagine what they would be. So a date went in the diary, and three of us turned up there on a Friday night (before going on to the Nag’s Head funnily enough. Predictable I know).

It’s quite an odd room to eat in. It’s very plain and functional, with the grill and the counter facing you as you go in. The rest of the room is made up of tables and high-backed brown banquettes which seem to have been placed almost at random. The overall effect is a little incongruous – it should divide the room into little booths but instead it just looks strange (I remember when it was just tables and stark, rigid chairs, and this manages to be an upgrade without necessarily being an improvement). That said, it was packed: all around me were families with nicely-behaved kids and little clusters of gesticulating friends. The waitress kept wandering past bearing plates and making me crane and scan the menu, wondering what they had ordered. The table next to us had a couple of gentlemen at it, each eating a whole chargrilled chicken, tearing the skin and flesh off the bone with their hands and dipping it in a bowl of houmous; just watching them made me hungry and envious.

Kobeda Palace really isn’t a starters, mains and desserts place: it’s all about grilled meat in a range of combinations and permutations, served with naan or rice (which makes me wonder, again, what those vegetable dishes could possibly be). We tried as many of them between us as we could, which turned out to be quite a lot of the menu. Lamb chops, which turned up that hyper-real shade of brick red which almost looks Photoshopped, were judged the pick of the bunch, tender if not pink, with a level of heat closer to lip-tingling than tongue-scorching. The lamb tikka, a similarly freakish colour, were almost as good, each cube scored almost in half so they could check it was done.

KobedaMeat1

Chicken tikka I struggled to like quite so much – you got more of the smoke and char than of any flavour beneath, and the texture of a couple of pieces was not quite right. And then there was the eponymous kobeda itself, a long cylinder of lamb kofte. It was splendid; I’ve had it before and found it a bit offputtingly soft, perhaps too reliant on rusk, but this was truly magnificent, if impossible to describe well without flirting with innuendo. Also wonderful were the huge, chargrilled halves of onion – soft, sweet and blackened. All of this came on the naan, the other big draw here. Stretched and made on the premises, these were almost edible plates, long and rectangular, just asking to be torn up, wrapped around hunks of meat and crammed into greedy mouths.

KobedaMeat2

I know, rationally, that there were also a couple of plates of some sort of salad: lettuce, some cucumber, a couple of pitted olives, various other vegetation. I also know that there were some sauces – something like a raita, a punchy hot red sauce and a herby green sauce. But truth be told they didn’t really feel like the kind of thing to hold my attention for very long, under the circumstances.

The best dish of the evening, though, was something we picked out of curiosity. Kobeda Palace also does a karahi chicken and a karahi lamb, so we ordered the former and it was a revelation. The sauce was thick and complex with no slick of oil, full of chilli and nigella, curry leaves and coriander, fine batons of ginger strewn on top (“it tastes like a really good Vesta curry” said one of my companions – if that had really been true the Eighties could have been so much more enjoyable), and scooping it up with that perfect naan was an unmitigated delight. But the chicken was gorgeous – on the bone but well-jointed and easily separated from it, tender from slow-cooking in a way that grilled meat could never be.

KobedaKarahi

There was no alcohol licence, so we drank mango lassi by the jug, which is especially easy to do when a jug is only five pounds (in fact, even if they had been licenced I might have stuck to the lassi). The second jug never quite arrived, so instead once we’d finished our meals the waitress came over apologetically with three glasses, and I’m not sure she charged us for all of them. That was the service in general – friendly but a bit harried. In other restaurants I might have taken against this but somewhere like Kobeda Palace which is deliberately quite no frills I found it impossible to resent. Oh, and the mango lassi was good – especially the second batch which was ice cold, refreshing and cleansing without being cloying. Dinner for three (and we ate far more food than is strictly sensible) came to pretty much forty pounds on the nail.

How to sum up a place like Kobeda Palace? Well, let’s do the downside first. It’s a little bit scruffy, just the right side of chaotic and in an area where many people would have to go out of their way to visit. Some people will be put off by the lack of an alcohol licence, others will find it far too meat-centric. It’s also a bit nippy if you get a table by the window, as I did, the back room on the way to the loos is strangely threadbare and the toilets are best described as a work in progress. So yes, I can honestly say that if you’re the kind of person who’s bothered by that kind of thing, Kobeda Palace is not for you. But all the people I ate amongst that Friday night had other priorities – food and company, the things restaurants should really be about. I’m with them, and I found it all rather marvellous; I fully expect to pay it another visit soon (for a big bowl of karahi chicken – to myself, this time). But I used to eat there when it had a one star hygiene rating, so what do I know?

Kobeda Palace – 7.4
409-411 Oxford Road, RG30 1HA
0118 3271400

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Kobeda-Palace/588327924595489?fref=ts