The Edible Reading Pho Competition: the results!

When I announced the first ever ER competition a few weeks back I couldn’t have anticipated the level of response – loads of you took part, sending me miniature essays about your favourite Reading food experiences.

And there was a real range – meals with family, meals with friends, dates and solo experiences (at least one after a trip to the pub, but more of that later). Some people mourned restaurants no longer with us, some talked about the power restaurants can have to win over reluctant parents. But the thing that struck me most was that many of you talked about how you had found your “place” after moving to Reading – whether that’s somewhere to eat as a vegetarian, eat with your family or find a little taste of back home. Food, friends, family and community: all so important, and reading the entries I felt very proud – of Reading and of all the people who read ER.

I’m really relieved that I didn’t have the difficult job of judging this competition and I don’t envy Claire, editor of Explore Reading, who kindly sifted through all the entries (without Strictly paddles, but maybe next time). I was determined not to let Claire off the hook though, so before I announce the winners I also asked Claire to give me 200 words on her favourite Reading food experience. Here it is:

My favourite Reading food experience occurred only a short while after I moved back to town. My visiting brother was convinced I was mad not to move to London. Determined to persuade him, and myself, otherwise, we spent the day at Inside Reading Prison, picked up beers at Grumpy Goat and drank at The Allied Arms. After, on the strength of an Edible Reading review, we wandered to The Horn. It was dark, there was football on, ordering at the bar became confusing. We were sceptical.

Then the chicken paella arrived. Steaming, squidgy, wet. Crunchy bits gleamed in the light. Chicken fell apart on the fork. I scraped at the bottom of the pan.

We ate in a reverential silence in the pub’s tiny, sun-dappled terrace. A grunting noise came from across the table. My brother shook his head: “This. Is. So. Good,” he said, “I should visit more.”

It was one of those days, and one of those dishes, that made me feel incredibly proud of Reading. And it’s where the bud of an idea for Explore Reading first popped into my head. I love that paella, but I also love I Love Paella for helping me find that.

Right then, on to the winners and the honourable mentions (try hard to imagine a really impressive drum roll at this point):

WINNER: Mya Lacarte, Aden Pearce

My favourite Reading food experience? That’s not easy, as I’ve had 98% of my meals in the last fifteen years there. Loads stick in the mind, but Mya wins out.

Mainly I remember laughing. A lot. It was the first time I kind of knew that the food was better than my palate could keep up with, and it ran rings round it. There’s where I realised something as mundane as a Scotch egg could be that tasty. I had pigeon breast that had more life than the bird could have seen when it still had its own wings. It was ridiculous.

It was our first anniversary and we’d never had that much care taken of us before. It may sound a bit pathetic but we really hadn’t. The staff were there when we needed them, gone when we didn’t. I wore a red leather jacket and they didn’t even laugh at me. It’s the little touches that made it.

I may have had better food, or better service, since. But that was the one for me. That’s when I realised what all the fuss was about food. It had been good before, but it was never this much fun…

Claire says: Each of these pieces shows some impressive writing and a real love of eating out in Reading. But for me, this entry picks up first prize because it beautifully captures the moment when your favourite dining experience can cause your whole world to turn.

This piece is full of joy: for eating out, for good food, for the power of those little touches. It spotlights everything I love about dining out and reminds me of my own first tentative dips into the food world. Afterwards you see things differently and you can’t wait to start putting your palate through its paces.

As well as all that, it succinctly remembers a sadly-departed Reading legend, Mya Lacarte. A very worthy winner.

HONOURABLE MENTION: Chennai Dosa, Charlotte Fergus

One night in May 2016 my partner and I invited our friends to try Chennai Dosa, our favourite restaurant in Reading. They had never tried dosa, so we decided to go for something fairly basic: the family dosa. After the waiters murmured amongst themselves that we were all crazy they agreed to cook it for us, and the 5 of us waited patiently for our meal to arrive. During this time a waiter brought over an extra table to add length for what was to come: a 2m long dosa stocked full of potato masala. With discerning looks from other customers (and some in complete awe) we proceeded to completely annihilate our meal, sharing and tearing with our hands and dipping into the fragrant chutneys accompanying the gargantuan dish. The crispy, ghee fried dosa was perfect, and the masala syncopated the meal with jazzy bursts of tomato spice. I remember feeling so happy to be with my friends, sharing a lovely meal and being content with our exciting lives full of love and adventure. The next day the real reason for my appetite emerged. I was carrying our baby Mabel, born 1st Jan 2017.

Claire says: I feel very warmly towards this entry, and not just because of its powerful closing line. The writer presents their food experience as a performance piece and the entry radiates with movement, atmosphere and excitement. I feel like a fly on the wall, watching the group tear into their dinner and, crucially, I want to go and tackle that family dosa with my friends.

HONOURABLE MENTION: Mr Cod, Matt Farrall

I had heard the fable of this strange spicy hybrid fish ‘n’ chip meal that would leave a memorable taste in the mouth and the burn of a Viking funeral in other parts, sometime before I first dare try it.

It must have been one in the morning one night when I stumbled into Mr Cod on Whitley Street absolutely famished after some half-marathon drinking.

I think it was £4.99 then and it came with a choice of cherry or apple pie or drink and a special dangerous looking pot of rude, red thick chilli sauce.

It looked like fairly normal fish ‘n’ chips in a beige polystyrene container although the fish did have a strange reddy/orange glowing hue.

The salty, spicy batter and tangy taste along with potent sweet thick chilli really was great after a drink with a nice portion of chips. It wasn’t like anything I had before and the fish was fine but hard to identify. All was well until the morning when my breath, head and stomach began to disagree. When you have a Mr Cod masala fish meal there is no return to normality – you won’t forget it.

Claire says: Another entry on a distinctly Reading restaurant, but this time of a very different kind. The writing is very funny; I chuckled out loud more than once. I’m not quite sold that I should go and try the dish, but above all, this tale of the unforgettable nature of Mr Cod’s masala fish shows that food doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive to be utterly memorable. As someone who once had an almost spiritual encounter with a 50p bowl of Sichuan sesame noodles, I am in total agreement.

HONOURABLE MENTION: Mission Burrito, Victoria Keitel

“Do you really want the habanero salsa? It’s spicy.”

The lady assembling my food at Mission Burrito was hesitant. What she wasn’t aware of was that the salsa, as hot as it is for most British palates, doesn’t come close to the tear-inducing heat of the ones in San Francisco, home of the Mission neighbourhood that Mission Burrito emulates.

“Yes, please.”

A dab was applied.

“More, please.”

Wrapped in foil, the burrito was placed inside a plastic basket. A mandarina Jarritos and a side of tortilla crisps finished it off.

Mission Burrito operates as a quasi-embassy for this Californian. The décor is cheerful with photographs of established Mission taquerias alongside artwork inspired by the city’s public transport system: the Muni. The menu is presented in orange and black, the local Giants baseball team’s colours. These little touches, perhaps unnoticed by most, make the experience of eating homier.

As for the food, Mission Burrito produces some of the most authentic flavours of Californian Mexican food in the UK. The produce is fresh and includes necessities like tomatillos and a variety of chilies to get the correct profile. While being a chain, it reliably produces CalMex food at a reasonable price.

Claire says: Reading often gets sneered at for our many chain restaurants. This entry proves chains aren’t automatically a bad thing. Again, it shows good writing, with a great storytelling narrative which kept me hooked. Overall, I’m left cheered that even the humble production line process at Mission Burrito can trigger that soothing taste of home.

Congratulations to Aden, who wins a three course meal for four people at Pho (go on, wear your red leather jacket, I dare you) and thank you to everybody who took part in the competition. Fingers crossed it turns out to be the first of many. In the meantime, I’ll see you all back here on Friday for a brand new review. You might well be interested in this one: it’s definitely my favourite Reading food experience of the last few months.

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Feature: The 2015 Edible Reading Awards

It seems like a lifetime ago now, but at the start of the year I contributed to a piece for Alt Reading, giving my wish list of what I hoped 2015 would hold for Reading’s food scene: a town centre pub doing top notch food; a decent little pizzeria; a tapas bar; a good Chinese restaurant; a cool tea room; a bakery in the town centre.

If that sounds ambitious it’s probably because it is, but looking back I’m surprised by how much of it has come to pass. I Love Paella has set up down the Oxford Road offering a variety of small dishes and its eponymous seafood dish. Papa Gee turns out to have been there all along (for a decade!) doing a variety of pretty marvellous Neapolitan pizzas, among other things. C.U.P. has opened right next to Reading Minster and offers, hands down, the best tea selection you can find in town. We still don’t have a bakery in the centre, but Pop-Up Reading recently starting selling their own bread to those in the know at a variety of independent establishments across town. Call me Nostradamus!

That said, there haven’t been a huge amount of openings this year, and those we have had have been small chains expanding to Reading: CAU in the Oracle, Itsu at the bottom of Queen Victoria Street. That trend looks set to continue next year when The Stable opens on Bridge Street and, if rumours are to be believed, Grillstock comes to Friar Street. We’ve seen a few independents open in the town centre – most notably Manhattan Coffee Club bucking the trend as the Oracle’s only independent café and the owner of the original Chronicles trying to turn around that site under the Valpy Street moniker. It’s felt like a transitional year all round, and that probably reflects in the very low number of closures in 2015: so although it was the year we said goodbye to Tampopo, O Beirao and (without much fanfare) Master Naan, most of our independent restaurants are still hanging in there.

Of course, you can’t look back on the year without doing a bit of navel-gazing, and it’s been a brilliant year here at ER HQ. I’ve travelled much further in search of good meals and been rewarded with some of the very best food I’ve eaten on duty (and some of the worst, but let’s not talk about that now). More people have read the blog than ever before, and I’ve appreciated every bit of brilliant feedback I’ve had, every comment, every Retweet, every suggestion and – particularly – every time someone has told me they enjoyed a restaurant they went to because of one of my reviews.

On a personal level, I was particularly chuffed to be shortlisted for the Alt Reading award for Individual Cultural Contribution, mainly because it felt like recognition that Reading has a food scene to be cherished, celebrated and cultivated. I didn’t win (which is fair enough – Suzanne Stallard IS culture in Reading, after all), but making the final five still was a victory for all our independent restaurants and cafes. I’ve also really enjoyed seeing Roast Dinners Around Reading flourish this year and get more and more readers for his – syndicated, don’t you know – restaurant reviews. Reading finishes 2015 with more choice than ever before of where to eat and drink, and more help with making those choices too.

Anyway, as is now traditional I’m taking my festive break. The weeks ahead will involve mountains of roast potatoes, huge stinky cheeseboards, crisps, peanuts, those big tubs of Twiglets, Mini Cheddars, red wine, mulled wine, dessert wine, port, sherry, bubbly, Snowballs (no, really), and – if I have anything to do with it – diving into a box of Matchmakers without having to share them with anyone else. I love restaurants, as you’ve probably gathered, but the festive season doesn’t show them at their best with all that picking from a special menu, having to preorder and winding up next to a big boisterous work do. I’ll be back on January 15th, by which time the vouchers will all be spent, the bad gifts will have been surreptitiously exchanged, half of the people who have tried to spend the month on the wagon will have leapt off it and, hopefully, you might want to read some restaurant reviews. Until then, settle back and enjoy this year’s award winners. Merry Christmas!

SANDWICH OF THE YEAR: Top Toastie, Shed

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Yes, I know they won it last year. And you can’t say there hasn’t been competition this year: I was very taken, for instance, with the halloumi, pesto and red pepper piadina at Siblings Home, a little tricorne taste sensation. And although it might stretch the definition of “sandwich” just a little bit, Bakery House could easily have won either with their kallaj bil jibn or their arayes, being halloumi cheese and finely chopped veal respectively stuffed into their excellent Lebanese bread. But Shed’s Top Toastie has been my sandwich of the year – little intense batons of chorizo, all salt and spice, the vinegary heat of jalapenos and the comforting smother of lots and lots of mozzarella desperately trying to escape from their peerless ciabatta. Really, if you haven’t had one yet it might be the best New Year’s Resolution you could make.

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Chicken pastilla, Al Fassia

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All my favourite starters of the year, with the exception of CAU’s superbly indulgent salt cod and manchego croquettes, came from out of town. West of Reading, I was an enormous fan of Brebis’ duck liver and foie gras parfait, perfectly glossy, smooth and rich. In the other direction, The Bell Inn’s pigeon and pork terrine couldn’t have been more different: coarse and rough and earthy, but equally delicious (and with the best pickled beetroot I’ve ever tried). But actually, you have to travel a little further still for my winner this time: Al Fassia is a lovely little place on a nice little street in Windsor and their chicken pastilla is a painstakingly assembled gem, an utterly delicious mixture of shredded chicken, almond and cinnamon, all wrapped in hand-made filo and baked in the oven. I didn’t taste anything like it all year, and thinking about it now it slightly makes me want to go back to Marrakesh. But it really makes me want to go back to Al Fassia.

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Bakery House

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Bakery House’s achievement this year has been phenomenal – from a standing start partway through the year it now feels like it’s always been here. I’ve had countless Tweets from readers telling me that they’re checking it out and they always say two things: that the food is delicious and that the restaurant is packed. I’m yet to have a bad meal here, and I’ve been plenty of times. In a year when Reading got places like CAU (itself very accomplished, in fairness, and easily another candidate for this award) and Itsu and felt more like Zone 7 of London, it’s nice to see a place like Bakery House which is a match for anything you could find down the Edgware Road. Another honourable mention in this category should go to I Love Paella, but more on them later.

LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Shed

This has been a huge growth sector in Reading this year. Some of the newcomers have been good, some indifferent, but the level of choice just seems to get greater and greater – to the extent where many people feel we’ve reached critical mass where coffee shops are concerned. Siblings Home, tucked away in Caversham, was one of my favourites in this category although their recent change of layout makes it less of a pleasant place to sit and while away the hours (it hasn’t stopped me buying all sorts of stuff from their shop though – lovely soap, I can tell you). I was also a big fan of Nibsy’s – it may be gluten free but when I was in there doing a serious assault on their quiche and cake it certainly wasn’t glutton free. None the less, Shed is still the one to beat for me: beautiful sandwiches, delicious milkshakes, excellent service from Pete and Lydia and a great spot upstairs to look out from those lovely big windows. And if you can get there on “Saucy Friday” (particularly for the Scotch bonnet chicken with rice and peas, coleslaw and macaroni cheese), even better.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Parma ham wrapped monkfish, squid ink pasta, mussels and clams, Dolce Vita

I had a lot of fantastic mains this year, and this category was one of the most difficult to judge. All so different, too, from the rich spiced comfort of the Crown at Playhatch’s bobotie to the stunning delicacy of Brebis’ butter poached hake, served on a perfect circle of crushed potatoes with a sweet sharp smear of lemon purée. Also seriously in the running was Beijing Noodle House’s duck fried noodles, an iconic Reading dish which I rediscovered this year, the culinary equivalent of bumping into an old friend and finding them on outstanding form. But my winner is the main course I’ve had more times than I care to name this year – perfectly cooked meaty monkfish, wrapped in parma ham and served with rich, salty squid ink pasta and plenty of shellfish. A proper, grown-up, indulgent dish.

VEGETARIAN MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Gnocchi with goat’s cheese, kale and almond pesto, The Bell Inn

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I’ve finished the year with a new-found admiration for vegetarians, and a better understanding of the sacrifices they make in pursuit of their principles. Heavens, I’ve had some dreary vegetarian main courses while reviewing food for Edible Reading. The awards are all about celebrating the good so we’d better not dwell on the blue cheese pasta with almost no blue cheese in it, big bland bowls of mushroom risotto or Jamie Oliver’s superfood salad which wasn’t. The redeeming feature was the gnocchi dish at the Bell Inn: absolutely stunning stuff, with little dumplings which were subtle not stodgy, a rich, fragrant kale pesto which blew me away and a nice big slab of caramelised goat’s cheese on top. It makes me cross that in a whole year of looking, I only found one main that could beat any other plate of food on meat-free merit. But what a main it was.

SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Mya Lacarte

Many of you may have noticed that I’ve never reviewed Mya Lacarte. For me, it would be like writing an essay on a novel I’ve adored for years – it wouldn’t be enjoyable for me to boil that down or do it to death, to analyse something it’s much more fun to love uncritically. But what I will say is that I think Matt and Alex at Mya are the perfect double act and either of them runs the front of house better than pretty much anyone else in Reading. That a restaurant has both Matt and Alex looking after customers is the hospitality equivalent of having Messi and Ronaldo playing on the same team; I’ve not had a visit to Mya this year that was anything less than brilliant, or a welcome that made me feel anything less than exactly where I belonged. Honourable mentions should also go to Brebis, where the service was utterly charming when I visited, and also to Dolce Vita (which still does a fantastic job despite losing a couple of its star players to C.U.P.).

DESSERT OF THE YEAR: Sfinci, Bird In Hand

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The moment I had the sfinci I knew it would be my dessert of the year: it was love at first mouthful. The lightest, fluffiest doughnuts with the crispiest exterior, little sugared joy-inducing clouds. The pistachio ice cream they came with was rich and nutty, but even without them the sfinci would have won this prize. I’ve had them every time I’ve gone back, and every time they’ve delighted me like it was the first time. So easy to make a good dessert from scratch like this, and yet so many places just can’t do it. But that’s the Bird In Hand all over – it’s run by someone who makes pretty much everything on site. And if it hadn’t won for the sfinci it would probably have won for the malt barley ice cream, which is the best ice cream I’ve had in this country. Also worth a passing mention is the Baskerville’s deep, rich, indulgent chocolate tart. My review of the Baskerville was a bit on the lukewarm side at the time, which is a shame, but they really did pull all the stops out when it came to dessert.

TWEETER OF THE YEAR: Picnic

I’m always surprised that many establishments don’t have Twitter, and those that do have it don’t seem to get it. It shouldn’t be hard: Tweet every day, tell people what you sell, put some nice pictures up and – crucially – give people an idea of the personality behind your brand. But somehow it never seems to work like that, so either you get something prosaic, regular but unengaging or there are flashes of likeable brilliance but it’s all very ramshackle, with updates a bit few and far between. Having blazed the trail in many ways over the years it’s no surprise that Picnic get this spot on – regular bulletins saying what the salad boxes are, showing pictures of the cakes, talking about the specials on Fridays and Sundays, but also showing an interest in Reading and its customers, even telling people to come in out of the cold or putting up pictures of its Christmas decorations. See? It’s easy. Or maybe it’s just that Picnic are very good at making it seem so. Either way, nobody does it better.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: I Love Paella

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I could have given this award to Bakery House. I think people would have applauded that: they do great food, they run a tight ship and they add an something extra to Reading’s restaurant scene in terms of top-quality, affordable, informal dining. Equally I toyed with giving it to Papa Gee, in many ways this year’s surprise package; who knew that we had a cracking pizzeria tucked behind the station doing quite nicely for over a decade completely under the radar? Again, I think a lot of people would have agreed – I’ve had lots of feedback from readers saying how delighted they were to discover the place. And, of course, my single best meal of the year on duty was at Brebis, so why isn’t Brebis the winner?

The thing is – and I’ve learned this from reviewing them every week this year and for that matter last year – that restaurants are about more than food, or the service or even the room. They’re about experiences, about the magical alchemy that happens when all those elements come together. Last year, Dolce Vita won because although I’d had better food on occasion in other places, it remained the place where I’d spent my happiest evenings in 2014. This year, that place is I Love Paella.

Watching it evolve over the year has been a real joy – from only opening at the weekend to opening weekday nights, moving from a narrower menu and starting to offer more tapas, more sharing options, more little dishes. The first time I went it was all about the paella and the empanadas. Those are still amazing, but now you get a selection of manchego, or some serrano ham on bread with a little smudge of tomato chutney (still haven’t had the chorizo stew, but there’s always next time). Service is always brilliant, to the extent that you could easily forget that it’s basically a one man band cooking in somebody else’s coffee shop. It’s a proper success story, and I sense that there’s still more to come. I live for the day when I go in to find they’ve found the space for a nice big leg of jamon, but in the meantime I hope they get even more of a feeling of permanence and keep evolving, keep trying things out and keep spoiling those lucky people down the Oxford Road.