Miller & Carter

N.B. As of 2nd December 2020, Miller & Carter has reopened for eat in customers.

I must confess, I’d been in no hurry to visit Miller & Carter. Why? It’s a chain for starters (with nearly 40 branches, though I had never heard of it before it opened in Reading). A Mitchell and Butler chain at that, so part of the big faceless group that owns All Bar Ones and Harvesters across the land, not to mention the likes of the Oakford and the Abbot Cook. Then there’s the basic idea of it: a steakhouse is all very well, but perhaps a bit limited if your idea of dinner extends beyond meat and chips. Last but not least, I was put off by the pricing – I struggled to get my head round the idea of paying over twenty quid for a steak when I could go to London Street Brasserie for their excellent venison with haggis less than a hundred metres away for roughly the same price.

And yet, after all that, this week you’re reading a review of Miller & Carter. Why? Well, I’ve had it recommended to me more than once. Some people on Twitter told me they preferred it to CAU. Some restaurant staff told me it was where they liked to go on their rare nights off. And a friend of mine (who used to work in hospitality and is very particular) told me that on her rare date nights with her husband she often goes there to have the chateaubriand because they do it well and the service meets her exacting standards. Besides, sometimes it’s nice to do a review that doesn’t involve getting in the car or eating curry.

From the outside it looked quite swanky but I couldn’t make up my mind once I got through the door. It was all stripes and velvet and oddly it was carpeted, which struck me as either a very ostentatious or foolish decision (there were a few chips smooshed into the floor which suggested it was the former). The overall look was somewhere between a business hotel and an airport Wetherspoon’s, but either way it didn’t scream upmarket in the way I was expecting. It was huge, too: the sheer number of tables screamed “I’m a chain” in a way which wasn’t hugely appealing. Some tables – with booths and banquettes – were quite nice, others were right next to pillars and slap bang in the flow of traffic. You can probably guess which I ended up at. I might be the only one who was unmoved by the interior, though, because I overheard a member of staff saying that they are fully booked every Thursday, Friday and Saturday in the run up to Christmas.

The starters were slightly souped-up versions of dishes that you’d expect in a pub – chicken skewers glazed with bourbon, dusted calamari and cheesy mushrooms, for example – but a few sounded more interesting. I went for lemongrass and chilli tempura prawns because I hoped they’d be light but tasty and, truth be told, they were pretty good. The prawns did actually taste of lemongrass and the batter was nice and light. I didn’t get much in the way of chilli but there was sweet chilli jam (which tasted like every sweet chilli jam ever) which helped.

MillerPrawns

The prawns came with their tails on, which felt like an odd decision. I removed them with only minor tussles but felt like I lost a prawn’s worth of meat by not doing a decent job. It didn’t feel like it was asking too much to expect the kitchen to do that for me. Last but not least, there were some rocket leaves, wilting wanly, on top. That must have been a marketing decision (“you can’t send that out without some green on it!”) because it really didn’t add anything to the dish. So, nice enough overall but I did think I could just as easily have been in a Beefeater.

The other starter sounded marvellous: ginger glazed pork belly bites with an heirloom tomato salad. Bites suggests tender little cubes of meat, whereas what turned up were three pale strips of pork – a halloumi tribute band, almost – with black char lines on them and a salad at the other end of the long rectangular plate. In fairness, it tasted a lot better than it looked. The pork was tender, the ginger glaze pepped it up and the salad wasn’t bad. So why, when I got to the end, did I have an overwhelming sense of is that it?

MillerPork

It will come as no surprise to you that the main courses do rather dwell on steak, but there are lots of other options if you’re the kind of person who has to accompany a meat fiend to Miller & Carter because it’s their birthday, or because you’re making amends for forgetting your anniversary or suchlike. So they also do chicken, ribs, several fish dishes and – for the especially masochistic – three couscous and quinoa salads, one of which is the only vegetarian main on the menu. I feel duty bound to point all that out, but even so I ordered the steak because, well, it’s a steakhouse. Besides, as I’d had the chateaubriand recommended to me it would have been remiss not to give it a whirl (the fact that it leaves me with only one main course to review rather than two is, I promise, a happy coincidence).

It came on a wooden board with two sauces, two metal beakers full of chips, some tomato which was allegedly “balsamic glazed” but which I’d probably describe as “tepid and raw” and some “onion loaf” which was basically a bhaji which had got into an argument with Chuck Norris. The meat was meant to be the star of the show and it lived up to its billing, cooked medium rare as requested, charred and caramelised at the edges and giving way to tender and bloody as you got closer to the middle (the very core – vegetarians look away now – was almost Turkish Delight in texture). It came unsliced which I appreciated, because in my experience when they slice it it just goes cold quicker (and anyway, I prefer dainty slivers of chateaubriand given half a chance – dozens of them, in fact). It came with two round pats of parsley butter which were quite nice but, oddly, didn’t show any signs of melting on top of the steak. I guess that’s because they’d rested it.

MillerMeat

The chips were adequate skin on fries, nothing amazing, but the onion loaf was beautiful stuff and infinitely preferable to onion rings which always strike me as greasy and faffy. The sauces were at opposite ends of the spectrum. My companion had gone for béarnaise, which was spot on, creamy, full of tarragon, not split at all. Sadly I plumped for the porcini mushroom and black garlic sauce which was sludgy and didn’t really taste of either mushroom or garlic. Never mind – I did distract my guest (“is that John Madejski over there?”) to dunk an occasional forkful in the béarnaise. The best of the sides, though, was the “lettuce wedge”. This was literally a big segment of iceberg lettuce, sat in a bowl with some dressing and a sprinkling of cheese (garlic and parmesan on one, blue cheese dressing and crumbled Stilton on the other). It sounds a bit seventies I know, but in amongst the meat and fat it was very welcome to have something fresh and clean which added a bit of balance to the rest of the plate.

The wine list is quite a user-friendly one – most of the bottles under thirty quid are also available by the glass, although it ramps up after that. That said, I couldn’t help but compare it to the list at CAU, with its splendid range, and feel it was a little flat by comparison. We went for a one of the cheapest reds on the list, a bottle of malbec which was a touch over twenty quid and, in Miller & Carter’s defense, really very nice for an entry level red fruit, juicy and perilously easy to drink. I’m afraid we skipped dessert. I could say it was because we were stuffed from the steak (and it was a reasonably generous portion for two to share) but in truth it’s because the dessert menu, disappointingly, was exactly like a hundred other places. Chocolate brownie, sticky toffee pudding, crème bruleé and cheesecake were all present and correct, even with the smoke and mirrors of references to candyfloss and dark chocolate shards.

Service was really patchy. Some of the staff were likeable and warm, but after sitting down we had to wait a very long time before anyone came to take our order. The irony: we were sat at an unlovely table in an unlovely spot, with a constant flow of black-shirted waiting staff going hither and thither, and yet getting any attention felt increasingly, frustratingly difficult. They were reasonably busy for a weekday night, but they weren’t that busy. The massive pillar right next to our table (the restaurant equivalent of living next to a mobile phone mast) didn’t help. The waiting staff didn’t seem to look after particular areas, so we were served by three different people, all with differing skill levels. That said, our “main” waiter, a charming Italian chap with a goatee was spot on, checking up on us and twinkling at our choices (and looking ever so slightly like Tony Stark, which entertained me no end). Also frustrating was the pacing – we spent ages waiting for our order to be taken, but once it was everything came out just that little bit quicker than I wanted it to. For a relatively pricey meal it really didn’t take that long before it was all done and dusted.

How pricey? The total bill for two courses and a bottle of wine, excluding service, was just shy of eighty quid and this, for me, is where Miller & Carter really falls down. If you’re looking for steak, CAU is significantly cheaper. Not only that, but also the range of starters and non-steak dishes there is far more imaginative. On the other hand, if you’re just looking for an upmarket meal the money you would spend at Miller & Carter could go a lot further in so many other places – London Street Brasserie, Mya Lacarte, Cerise, even somewhere like Malmaison. So for Miller & Carter to compete it would really have to get everything right – textbook starters and beautiful steaks in a fantastic, exclusive dining room with top notch service. And, despite enjoying my chateaubriand a great deal, my evening didn’t come anywhere close to that. I can only think of one explanation for its popularity – it’s a menu firmly pitched slap bang at the middle of the comfort zone in a restaurant slap bang in the middle of the Oracle, never the dining choice of the risk taker. And that’s Miller & Carter in a nutshell: yes, you could do worse, but you could easily do so, so much better.

Miller & Carter – 7.2
Unit 5, The Oracle Shopping Centre, RG1 2AG
0118 9509961
http://www.millerandcarter.co.uk/restaurants/south-east/millerandcarteroracle

Tasting House

As of September 2019, the Tasting House’s decor has changed significantly from that described in the review and the food offering has changed a couple of times (Bench Rest briefly took over the kitchens at weekends, but they’ve also packed that in). So although Tasting House hasn’t closed per se, this review is no longer representative. I’ve left it up for posterity.

The real challenge with Tasting House, as a reviewer, isn’t what you would think. The real challenge is explaining exactly what it is. It works rather differently to all the other places I’ve reviewed because it is, fundamentally, a wine shop. It’s a wine shop that also lets you taste a variety of wines and dishes up platters of charcuterie and cheese should you get hungry (“Sample. Stay. Shop” is how the website sums it up: alliterative, abrupt, accurate). It’s been open since September last year and I’ve been meaning to review it for ages, so I dropped in one drizzly weekend to give it the ER going over, even though I knew this would involve making the ultimate sacrifice: drinking at lunchtime.

The “sample” element of Tasting House is served by the “Enomatic” (a machine described as a “wine vending machine” by the chap behind the counter). It’s a self service system where customers buy a prepaid card, pop it into the slot at the top of the machine, grab a glass and dispense some wine. There are sixteen bottles hooked up to the machine (seven white, eight red and, if you’re feeling especially frivolous, one rosé) and you can pick a tasting measure (25ml), a small glass (125ml) or a large glass (175ml) depending on whether you want to taste or drink. The cost of each measure depends on the bottle in the machine with a taste starting from about 50p. Along the bottom of the machine is a card for each wine giving information about the grapes, the taste and what food they’d pair well with – another indication that this is as much about taking it home as having it with the food on offer.

I won’t go into the wines in any detail because by the time you read this they may well have changed. In total we tried four wines between us (drinking sensibly, honestly) from riesling to shiraz and really enjoyed the whole ceremony of button pressing, glass swirling, sniffing and pretending to know what we were talking about. Actually I really enjoyed most of them but somehow that’s not the point, because you get to try things without committing to a whopping glass and bad choices aren’t so disastrous. The staff were clearly very passionate and knowledgeable and full of recommendations for people who feel unsure about what to pick (though I’m ashamed to say that I pretended to know what I was doing – much like I do writing reviews, in fact).

For the “stay” part of the visit Tasting House does four different boards, either in singles or doubles, with an array of different charcuterie and cheese. I won’t go into the permutations (because there are a lot: I love a list as much as the next person but that would stretch even my patience) but you get some of five different meats on the one hand and six different cheeses on the other. Depending on what you order you also get various other bits and bobs – sundried tomatoes, chutney, cashews, olives and/or cornichons. This means that picking a board involves a bit of horse trading and can seem needlessly complex – it might be easier if they just let you pick a certain number of elements and get on with it. As it was, we ordered two different platters and tried to get as many different ingredients as we could, something which might have been easier with a spreadsheet.

I’m not going to list everything that passed my lips, either. Instead, let’s talk about the big hits and flops. In the first camp: the Waterloo, a gorgeous, creamy, buttery local cheese a lot like a very good brie; the salami which was rich, salty and almost crumbly; the chorizo, soft and lightly piquant; and my favourite, the coppa which was dense and dry with a hint of fennel seeds and black pepper. I also loved the houmous – thick and delicious – and the tomato chutney, which went beautifully with a crumbly chunk of Montgomery cheddar (and hats off to Tasting House for picking such a top-notch cheddar, too).

And the let-downs? The bread, for one: white, fluffy, soft-crusted and unremarkable, served in giant hunks for dipping in the olive oil rather than going with everything else. This was a particular shame for me because I’ve always thought good cheese really needs good bread or a decent cracker. The other big disappointment was the prosciutto which felt flabby, shiny and supermarket-soft. I wasn’t expecting pata negra carved by hand in front of my very eyes – although I wouldn’t turn it down, don’t get me wrong – but I did want something on a par with the salami and this wasn’t it. England does some great hams of its own (Cumbrian air-dried ham, for example) but if Tasting House isn’t going to dish up something of that quality maybe it should stick to the other charcuterie on offer.

Also, if I’m being picky I prefer my cheese to be at room temperature so that the flavours open up more: both cheeses were chilled if not chilly. Maybe this is something to do with health and safety but it did mean they weren’t quite as delicious as they could have been. Still, despite the misses if you wash it all down with a glass of shiraz you have a very pleasant (if not terribly light) lunch.

TH2Service was friendly and laid back without ever committing the cardinal sin of overfamiliarity. A bit too laid back, if I’m honest – the boards took a while to come, although that might be because they seemed a bit short staffed when I went. As it happened I didn’t mind, it fitted in with the feel of the place, it was a weekend and I was in no hurry to go anywhere. They played an interesting range of music, some I’d heard of and some I wanted to Shazam, and we sipped our wine and waited. It felt a bit like visiting a cool friend while they rustled up lunch for you from all the cool things in their cool fridge. (Did I mean “cooler friend”? Does this make me cool or uncool? I’m so confused.)

It’s a shame the furniture doesn’t make you want to linger more – it’s hard and basic, black metal tables and chairs around the room and wooden high tables and stools in the windows. Again, I felt a bit confused by Tasting House – they’ve extended their opening hours recently to 10pm but it doesn’t feel like a bar. I suppose it could work as somewhere to have a quick drink before heading on somewhere else, although you could stay there all evening if you’re suitably upholstered yourself.

I didn’t try out the “shop” part on this visit, though I was quite tempted to pick up a bottle of the riesling. The website states that they have over 200 wines in the shop which range from “everyday drinking” (under £10) to one I saw on the top shelf which clocked in at just under £400 (I suppose that might be everyday drinking too, but only if you’re the Sultan Of Brunei: even John Madejski probably wouldn’t drink that these days).

My bill came to seventeen pounds for two platters and I put twenty pounds on my card for wine – though there was still a fair chunk of that left (honest!). I do think that it’s a little unfair that diners can’t have wine with their lunch without having to make that upfront investment, although it’s canny on the part of Tasting House I suppose: it locks you into going back so you don’t let your money go to waste. So yes, I will go back. I can see myself popping in after work one evening and trying a few tasters or glasses of wine for what feels like no money at all. Maybe that will lead to another charcuterie board, maybe I’ll go on and eat something bigger somewhere else. Maybe next time I’ll stay long enough to figure out if it really is a bar, a restaurant or a shop. Actually I’m not sure I’ll get to the bottom of that, but it might be fun trying.

Tasting House – 6.8
30a Chain Street, RG1 2HX
0118 9571531

http://tastinghouse.co.uk/

La Courbe

N.B. La Courbe appears to have closed in March 2016. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

First things first, La Courbe is not a great restaurant: there are just too many things wrong, even now almost two months after they finally opened. The room is a simple square with one wall of glass which makes dining there akin to being in one of David Blaine’s failed stunts, a spectacle for everyone who passes through King’s Walk to see (about four tables were occupied the night I was there, but if it had just been me I would have felt terribly self-conscious). And the view through that wall of glass if you’re a diner, apart from any gawping passers-by, is the side of a Burger King, hardly the most beautiful vista Reading has to offer.

Then there’s the decor, a peculiarly retro design of chrome, purple and pistachio that made me half expect Don Johnson to walk in with his linen suit sleeves rolled up. There are no soft furnishings, no art, nothing on the walls to distract the eye from the pistachio panelling. Everything is square – the tables (with, bizarrely, the exception of a single round table which is otherwise no different to the others), the chairs and every single plate or dish brought to our table throughout the meal.

The menu is confusing, with nothing to indicate whether the mezze is a really bad deal (£42 per person for some mezze and a main? Really?) or a really good deal (£42 for some mezze and a main for four people! Bargain!). Add to that the fact that the room is chilly – the door left permanently open – and occasionally murky with smoke from the open kitchen (which is presumably why said door is never shut) and you’d be right in thinking that this isn’t the kind of restaurant in which you want to relax and take in the ambience.

Oh, and did I mention how quick it all was? We were seated at around half eight, and with starters, mains and desserts we were out of the door at about quarter to ten. There seemed to be no understanding at all that an evening meal ought to take a reasonable part of the evening, and normally when I eat somewhere that serves you that fast it’s because they’re worried you might change your mind. It’s never a sign of confidence in the food.

So far, so bad, but then something happened that switched this review around altogether: I ate the food.

We started with two dishes from their hot mezze menu. Maqaneq is a little dish of mini sausages “flambéed in butter and lemon”. What the menu doesn’t tell you is that this is a sophisticated version of the English cocktail sausage. These little sausages are juicy and meaty and lightly spiced so that the sweetness of the meat comes out. We ate them in tiny chunks (smiling smugly all the while) to eke them out and wrapped in slivers of pitta to make tiny sandwiches just so we didn’t finish them too quickly. The falafel were less of a surprise but still delicious – each hot little disc was crispy on the outside and fluffy inside and just herby enough to elevate them out of the ordinary.

Courbe4

We waited for our plates to be cleared but then suddenly the waitress was back with our main course, to be eaten off the same plates with the same chunky cutlery as before – another mark against them. We had gone for the mixed grill (just like the typical Brit on foreign shores). This was described quite plainly as “charcoal grilled selection of lamb, Kafta and chicken with Hommos and Tabouleh” (I swear I find another way to spell houmous every month, maybe it’s like the Eskimos having all those words for snow). It looked terrific, and it tasted even better. The chicken, marinated with ginger and garlic, was just perfect – tender on the inside yet caramelised on the outside, sticky and delicious. The lamb was also spot on, just the tiniest bit of pink in the middle of each piece, and had a hint of cinnamon. The lamb kofte (my spelling) was the least interesting of the meats but third place was no disgrace in this selection. Rather than being the very spicy kofte that I’m more familiar with, this had a subtle, almost buttery flavour and was soft and delicate.

Courbe2

The mixed grill came with two accompaniments. In one corner of the dish was some good (if unexciting) houmous with a pool of olive oil and some finely chopped tomatoes in the middle. In the other corner, just to offset all that meat, was an extremely good tabbouleh, singing with the fresh green flavours of parsley and mint, with plenty of lemon juice. It might even have been my favourite thing I ate that evening, and I don’t say that lightly. All in all, the mixed grill was a thing of wonder, square plates or no.

We didn’t feel quite up to a full bottle of red (which is a pity, because there’s a good selection of Lebanese reds including Chateau Musar, which I’ve loved in the past) so we plumped for a glass each of the Domaine des Tourelles, a Lebanese red which was full and fruity and a good foil to the spicy meats.

I didn’t really fancy dessert after that mammoth undertaking but there’s a sense of duty about doing ER reviews so we gamely went for it. The baklava, rather than being one big baklava oozing with honey, was a selection of the familiar pastries in different shapes with either pistachio or pine nut fillings. I really liked them – they were much less cloying than they can often be, subtler and more interesting. The mouhallabieh was not as successful. The waitress described it as a chilled rice pudding with rosewater and pistachio – which captures it quite well, but neglects to mention that it had either been chilled for some time or it had been set with gelatine which meant that the nice gritty rice texture was replaced by something far less enjoyable. Between us we managed about half of it but after a while a dish that gloopy and big became a bit of a burden so we left it unfinished.

Courbe3

Service throughout was warm and friendly, enthusiastic about the food and more than willing to make recommendations. Even so, the whole set-up seemed a little, well, amateurish. The speed with which the food came was the most obvious problem, but there were others too: we weren’t offered water at any stage (despite there being water glasses on seemingly every table but ours) and the till is down the corridor in the adjoining wine bar, so you have a bit of a wait once you’ve asked for the bill.

Ours, when it eventually arrived, was £57 for two people eating three courses and having a glass of wine each. I felt like this was a pretty good deal given how good the food was (the mixed grill for two is about twenty-four pounds, for instance). Even while I was eating there I was already planning a return visit with friends, albeit probably at lunchtime when a quick meal feels like less of a problem.

Rating this restaurant has been nigh-on impossible, to the extent where I’ve wondered why I give ratings at all. How can I possibly give a single mark out of ten which reflects somewhere that serves such great food in such a problematic venue? I’m not sure my eventual score truly sums up the mixed message that is La Courbe; I wanted to give them higher but I just can’t until they get their crinkles ironed out. But I want them to do well enough to get the time to do that, because I can forgive a lot of things when the food is this good. Maybe this isn’t the venue for a romantic, lingering meal for two or a big night out, but I can see how one day it could be. And if that means I have to eat a few platefuls of their spiced chicken – in the cold, on those square plates, with that appalling view – to give them the chance to work on getting it right, then it’s a cross I’ll just have to bear.

La Courbe – 7.3
9-11 Kings Walk, RG1 2HG
0118 9581585

www.lacourbe.co.uk