Shed

I’ve talked about Shed many times since starting this blog. For instance, when I reviewed Artigiano I remember saying “I’d rather go to Shed”, or words to that effect. They won my Sandwich Of The Year award in December for their truly splendid tuna melt (and I’m reliably informed that a number of people stopped by to check out my recommendation). And, returning the favour, proprietor Pete recommended I check out Beijing Noodle House: and I’m delighted that he did, because it turns out that that man knows his mouth watering pork dumplings when he sees them.

And yet I’ve never reviewed Shed. Silly, really. I suppose I’ve always assumed that everyone knows about Shed, that they’re part of Reading’s lunch royalty and require no endorsement from me, but thinking about it this week I realised that was no reason not to go. After all, ER is about celebrating the good places, banging the “use it or lose it” drum. Why should Shed be an exception to that rule?

Besides, Shed are specialists in one of my favourite things of all, and that’s the humble sandwich. I know the world of lunch has diversified, and we’re all supposed to enjoy our bread free salad boxes and our floury tortilla wraps and – please, God no – “quinoa pots”, but I still think there’s a lot to be said for a truly decent sandwich. I was tempted to say that it’s the best thing since sliced bread, but really it’s the logical culmination of sliced bread. A properly excellent sandwich, you could say, is sliced bread v2.0. In my book, a sandwich should be made to order rather than sitting clammy in a fridge waiting to be bought, and not enough places in central Reading offer that nowadays.

That Shed has developed such a devoted following (I still remember seeing the pictures of Pete and Lydia at last year’s Pride Of Reading Awards, with facial expressions which roughly translated as What the hell are we doing here?) is particularly impressive when you consider the location. It’s tucked away behind Friar Street, itself the poor relation of Reading’s retail world, and the uninitiated probably stop at Nando’s before ever walking the extra few steps to discover it.

That’s their loss, because it’s a lovely spot: the building is a barnlike structure that used to be a forge, with a serving and seating area downstairs and a large open space upstairs with beams, mismatched furniture (including the classic Robin Day polyprop chair which takes me right back to secondary school) and a bar for when it turns into Milk in the evenings. The space upstairs is my favourite – it has a certain dishevelled charm to it, and tons of people watching potential if you manage to bag a seat with a good view out of one of the floor to ceiling windows.

The menu offers sandwiches, toasties and salads plus a soup each day and a few specials during the week. It saddens me greatly that I’m very rarely in the centre of Reading on a Friday when Shed does “Saucy Friday”, but it’s well worth trying if you’re more fortunate than I am (and if you are, hold out for the Scotch bonnet chicken with rice and peas, coleslaw and macaroni cheese – a finer hot lunch for six pounds you’ll struggle to find anywhere). Still, visiting on a Saturday is the next best thing – no specials, but the office hordes aren’t around (it gets absolutely packed on weekdays) and the shoppers are elsewhere. In one of our countless Caffe Neros, probably.

Our toasted sandwiches, rationally speaking, didn’t take that long to arrive. It felt like an eternity, but that was probably because I caught the smell of melting cheese wafting up the stairs before they even reached our table (or maybe it was just an olfactory hallucination brought on by the cravings).

First up was “The Top One” – mozzarella, chorizo, jalapenos and sun dried tomatoes. I don’t know whether it got that name because it’s their most popular, their best or just for the prosaic reason that it’s at the top of the menu, but whatever the reason is I really liked it. The jalapenos were generous enough to give some fire but at the same time added a touch of sweetness and the little batons of coarse chorizo were rich and salty. I had it on ciabatta – it costs a little extra but the ciabatta at Shed is a truly wonderful thing, big, deceptively light and so much nicer than the slightly miserly panini you might get in Reading’s chain establishments. The only drawback was that there wasn’t quite enough cheese for my liking (which does raise the question of how much cheese is enough cheese? Based on extensive research, I’d sum my conclusion up as a hell of a lot) which made the sandwich a touch dry in places. I don’t remember seeing Pete or Lydia behind the counter that day, and perhaps that’s why it wasn’t quite as good as usual.

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I probably should have ordered something other than the tuna melt to accompany that. Partly for variety’s sake – the menu offers a range of different salads, some with pasta, some with couscous, some just with leaves (it also has a Barkham Blue cheeseboard, with some money from each one sold going to Launchpad) so to pick another sandwich felt a little unimaginative. Partly, too, because I’ve already waxed lyrical about this particular sandwich. But when push came to shove, I couldn’t resist reacquainting myself with it. Was it as good as I remembered?

Well, almost. It looked perfect; just enough tuna, shedloads (pardon the pun) of cheese, the occasional piquant mouthful of thinly sliced raw red onion. The only disappointment was the capers – I’m used to these not being spared at Shed, a carpet of capers scattered throughout the sandwich making every bite a tangy delight, but this time they’d been used sparingly and it just wasn’t the same. Don’t get me wrong: if I’d never had the tuna melt before I’d have been very pleased with it indeed. But I had, and the problem with excellence is that people have a nasty habit of expecting you to keep it up all the time. Again, I wondered if I’d just picked the wrong day to show up.

Both sandwiches came with a little salad – iceberg lettuce, a little lamb’s lettuce and some slices of cucumber and tomato, dressed with a little balsamic vinaigrette. It divided opinion: I finished mine (even though I do think the only place for iceberg lettuce, really, is in a burger) but my companion decided to give it a miss.

On the side we had a cup of tea each, served in a decent sized mug with separate milk, like proper tea should be (I was surprised that my companion didn’t have a coffee, but apparently he doesn’t think it’s one of Shed’s strong points). We were tempted to have a piece of cake, just to give you a comprehensive review, but on this occasion we just weren’t quite tempted enough. Maybe next time I’ll give in and have a bit of the shortbread with lemon curd that nearly tipped me over the edge on this visit (and if there had been some of Shed’s chocolate tiffin the decision would have made itself, but it wasn’t to be).

The whole thing came to just under thirteen pounds, not including service. While I’m on the subject of service, it was friendly and efficient if a little overwhelmed (I think we turned up during a bit of a lunchtime rush). Again, I’m inclined to be forgiving because I know it’s usually absolutely spot on, and it probably only looked a little frayed in comparison to that: I’m sure that the uninitiated, if they’d come here instead of Nando’s, would have found it terrific.

Shed, more than anywhere I can think of, reminds me that there really are two Readings out there. On the one hand, there’s the Reading where Shed is unknown, where at best people say “I’ve always wondered about that place” or “I keep meaning to go there” and, on the other, the Reading where life without Shed is unthinkable. The latter Reading, I think, is the one that I write about and that Alt Reading writes about, the one we all queue up to defend when unimaginative people call it a clone town, usually from the comfort of Costa Coffee or Bill’s (the same people, I find, who complain – equally vociferously – that nothing ever happens here and that Reading is a cultural desert). Well, I’m sad for them – but, more than that, I’m glad I live in this Reading: we don’t need Starbucks, because we have places like Shed and it’s our Costa, our Starbucks, our Caffe Nero and Central Perk all rolled into one. And as long as they keep toasting the ciabattas, melting the cheese, dishing up Saucy Friday and making their milkshakes (can’t believe I nearly forgot to mention the milkshakes!) I’ll keep coming. I have a sneaking feeling I’ll probably see you there, some time.

Shed – 7.9
The Old Forge, 8 Merchants Place, RG1 1DT
0118 9561482

http://www.theshedcafe.co.uk/

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Blue’s Smokehouse, Bracknell

I like cheese as much as the next person, and a well-dressed salad on a hot day can be as perfect, in its way, as the most skilfully barbecued steak. In a sushi restaurant, practically the first thing I order is avocado maki, soft, buttery green flesh, surrounded by soy soaked rice. But the truth is I can’t remember the last time I ordered a vegetarian main, and if I order a vegetarian starter, it’s more from luck than judgment. So if you’re a vegetarian, I’m sorry if there isn’t always much for you in my reviews. And I’m doubly sorry this week, because Blue’s Smokehouse is a temple to meat in all its forms – they even sneak it into the baked beans, for crying out loud. So if you find all that offputting, I completely understand. I guess I’ll see you next week.

Still here? Okay, let’s do this.

A few friends (all men, all big meat eaters) have recommended Blue’s to me in the month or two since it’s opened. They’d even said it was worth going to Bracknell for (nothing against Bracknell, although the train station late at night is a cold and lonely place, even on a full stomach). Of course, I love a challenge (and I’m starting to like train journeys) so I felt I had to give it a try. And anyway, nowhere in Reading does anything like this – the closest, I suppose, is the food at the Oakford Social Club but even that is mainly burgers and fried chicken – so it definitely justified a trip out of town. I brought backup, more than usual, because enough people were interested enough in an “authentic American barbecue” restaurant to want to come along for the ride.

Blue’s isn’t far from the station but even so it’s a bit hard to find. Some of the roads seem to have extensive roadworks and I got a bit lost wandering past the back of a shopping mall and a Brutalist car park (one of the nearby offices is called “Time Square”, but I doubt it’s a happening place to spend New Year’s Eve). Once I got there though, things improved: the site is an old pub but since the makeover it really does look the part. The interior is lovely and deceptively large: faux rustic furniture, dark grey walls, industrial light fittings. I seem to use the word “handsome” a lot in reviews but it definitely fitted here.

Even with a pack of ravenous carnivores at my table, ordering was difficult because everyone wanted to try everything. Fortunately, the menu makes provision for the indecisive: many of the mains can be ordered as a combo, with two half portions costing 50% more than a single portion (no, I’m not sure about the maths, either). In the end we all did this because we simply couldn’t pick between the different meats on offer. The enamel mug of lightly spiced popcorn we were given to munch while we made up our minds was a nice touch, too. The food turned up pretty quickly – one of many things that reinforced that this wasn’t really a sit down, take your time and stay for an evening sort of place. I think we were expecting that – and were all starving – so it wasn’t a problem for us, but it’s worth bearing in mind.

Describing the mains is going to feel a bit like a parade of dead animal, but here goes anyway. The pulled pork was excellent: tender, shredded but still in tangible threads and lightly spiced rather than slathered in sticky sauce. I appreciated that – there is a tendency to drown the flavour of pulled pork in barbecue sauce but Blue’s knows better than to do that and lets the meat speak for itself. The brisket was just as good – delicious slices of tender, smoky beef. I’d heard from other people who had been that it could be a little on the dry side but mine was spot on. Both of these came with “Texas Toast” (which I’d never heard of but which Professor Wikipedia assures me is an actual thing) thick slices of what felt like brioche, buttered and surprisingly good at soaking up all the juices.

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The consensus was that the ribs were the best of the bunch; I’ve never had ribs as tasty and tender as these. The meat practically jumped off the bone without needing any encouragement, leaving the bone as white and dry as the Queen’s Speech. The flesh was beautifully smoked, the sauce was sticky and ever so slightly sweet and despite the roll of kitchen towel on every table (no napkins here) they could be eaten with cutlery, instead of the sticky-fingered, orange-faced way I’ve never truly enjoyed. All these came with fries and coleslaw which were fine if not stellar. The skin-on fries were somewhere equidistant between chunky and skinny and disappointed anyone hoping for either and the coleslaw (which was mayo-free) was a little sweet for my taste, in a meal which had enough sweetness already. Portion sizes, for the price, felt slightly on the small side (if you’re English, anyway – Americans would probably consider them verging on the miserly).

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Because we’re all very greedy, and were all very hungry, we ordered most of the sides. “Rib tips” were a disappointment. The menu says “we take the trimmed tips of the ribs, add sauce and return it to the smoker to cook just a little bit longer”, which sounds magnificent, but actually they felt like offcuts from the ribs. If they had spent extra time in the smoker it had had the effect of Superglueing what little meat there was to the bones. The onion bundle on the other hand was delicious. It looked a lot like the bits of fried food that get cleaned out of the bottom of a deep fat frier, but that didn’t stop us digging in. The menu said it was onion rings and strings but in the frying process all shape was lost and instead we got what was effectively an enormous crunchy bhaji. Last but not least, the beans: with added onions, pork, brisket and “a hint of bourbon and maple syrup”. Everyone else at the table loved them except me – I found it a bit strange to find chunks of meat floating in there. I got flashbacks to the mid 80s, Grange Hill on the television, Heinz baked beans with chipolatas on toast for tea (and that’s never a good thing).

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Oddly, there are no plates at Blue’s Smokehouse. Instead food is served on the equivalent of a McDonald’s tray, only black and with a sheet of greaseprooof paper between the plastic and the food. This was probably the thing which annoyed us all the most; as soon as the paper got greasy or wet it started to shred. I really don’t understand why they did this (are the trays not clean? will the food slide over the lip of the tray? are plates suddenly uncool and Blue’s are the only people who got the memo?) It didn’t look fun for the waitresses either: trying to stack four slightly bendy plastic trays of leftovers and bones up to take away without dropping anything looked like a level on “The Cube” waiting to happen.

Drinks wise we had a selection including a decent glass of malbec – smooth and very slightly sweet which made for very easy drinking – and a pint of real ale for my real beer drinking friend, who was quite tempted by the interesting sounding range of American craft beer – quite but not enough. (“I’m not drinking Blue Moon if they have it” he said, pulling a face, “that stuff’s horrible.”)

Somehow we managed to find room for dessert (I said they weren’t American sized portions and I meant it). Half of us had milkshakes that were so thick with ice cream that attempting to suck it up the straw caused a few red faces – literal, not metaphorical ones. They were superb, although Blue’s only offers milkshakes of the most straightforward ice cream flavours they sell: vanilla, strawberry, chocolate. The other half had knickerbocker glories made from the more interesting flavours on offer. These were also excellent, though they seemed to cater more for the kiddie end of the market – chocolate sauce, mini marshmallows – considering that the ice cream was decent quality (dulce de leche was especially delicious).

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Service was decent if a little, well, tense. Our waitress had a slight air of the rabbit in the headlights and it was difficult to get a smile out of her, even though she got everything right and didn’t have a problem making suggestions where we needed them. Maybe she was dreading the point where she had to carry four slippery trays back to the kitchen (she should have used a “simplify” and done it in two goes, I’m sure Philip Schofield would have let her). All in all the bill for four people with one drink each, dessert and more sides than we could reasonably eat was £106, not including tip. I think the general consensus is that we thought that was pretty good.

Standing on the chilly platform at Bracknell (having missed a train by three minutes we had to wait half an hour for another one – and that can feel like a very long time, it turns out) we debated whether we would go back. Opinion was divided: a couple of us were already planning a return visit, one of us was more ambivalent. And me? I’m not sure. If this place was in Reading I can see I’d be there all the time – partly because what they do is unique, and partly because I can see it would fit perfectly for quick, informal fun meals, maybe before carrying on drinking somewhere else. But is it worth trekking for Bracknell for? Perhaps once just to try it out, maybe regularly if you really, really like meat. But for the rest of us, and for any vegetarians out there who have made it to the end, you might find the temptation not quite enough, that empty platform just a little too unlovely.

Blue’s Smokehouse – 7.4
High Street, Bracknell, RG12 1DS
01344 867575

http://bluessmokehouse.com/