The Queen’s Head

This review is going to break a couple of golden rules. Let me explain, killing quite a lot of the magic in the process.

First of all, when you’re writing a review it always helps to have an angle, an “in”. So you look at the niche a restaurant fills, or find your reason to go there. Where’s the so what factor, you ask. They spent loads of money on doing up The Three Guineas, but is it any good? Is Franco Manca the kind of chain we want round these parts? Does Reading finally have a quality wine bar in the form of Veeno? What’s so special about Caversham? I could go on, but I won’t – certainly not about that latter one anyway (who knew that Caversham had its own equivalent of cybernats? Not me, that’s for sure). You get the idea.

No such joy with the Queen’s Head, the subject of this week’s review. It’s been there for yonks. It’s a pub that does food. It’s been the twin of the Moderation (which I reviewed pretty much four years ago) for a long time. No angle to speak of. I did briefly consider working in a tired link to the newly announced royal wedding; after all, there are pictures of Liz and Phil around the place, on some of the flyers and, most incongruously, on the doors to the loos. But it felt tenuous at best – almost as tenuous as GetReading proudly announcing “Prince Harry and Meghan Markle to marry in Berkshire.” (well, yes – in Windsor, nowhere near that lot). Still, I suppose it makes a pleasant change from promoting Aldi’s new festive jeroboam of Lambrini for under a tenner or whatever quasi-advertorial guff is clogging up the Sidebar of Silage this week.

As it happens, I used to drink at the Queen’s Head long before its current incarnation, back at the very start of the millennium. I lived in a shared house on Stanhope Road (the nice end, not the end with a police helicopter permanently stationed above it) with my then partner and my housemate Richard. Richard frequently had very loud intercourse in the room next door, or played FIFA on his Playstation (the grunts, in both scenarios, were disturbingly difficult to tell apart). To escape – from all of it, truth be told – I would slope off to the Queen’s Head with a schoolfriend, drink cider and try to fool myself that I was still a carefree student, despite those days being far behind me.

Back then it was generally called The Nob and there was a big back bar full of students and a smaller front bar full of old duffers. Despite being somewhere between the two I tended to gravitate to the former, which is especially ironic given how much my taste in pubs has changed. Going back years later on a weekday night the place was unrecognisable – the two rooms had been knocked together, opening the place out. A big welcoming bar spanned the two. I preferred the room to the right, all exposed brickwork, but it was full so I sat in the smaller, white-walled room to the left, which used to be the front bar. I was where I belonged with the old duffers at last, albeit fifteen years too late.

Incidentally, this is where I point out that I’ve broken the second of the golden rules I mentioned at the start. I always used to get exasperated by Proper Restaurant Critics like AA Gill and Giles Coren who spent the first half of a review wanging on about things that had nothing to do with the food. You could pinpoint where in a Gill review the food first came up, usually around the third to last paragraph if you were lucky. Coren routinely humblebrags about going off to lunch with David Baddiel or the editor of Esquire, or rants about something for half of his word count before getting to the point. But now I think maybe I understand: maybe when you review somewhere every week you do eventually reach the stage where you think to yourself: Oh Christ, what am I going to say about this one?, and then you’re in some kind of meta Twilight Zone of restaurant reviews.

Anyway, that’s enough of that, back to the room. I seem to recall it looked more Thai shortly after it opened, with big carved wooden bar stools and various pieces available to buy. It’s definitely scaled back now, and the tables are predominantly big anonymous looking square wooden things. There’s still some Thai art on the walls, but otherwise you could pretty much imagine that you’re in a pub. And it felt more like a pub that did food than a restaurant disguised as a pub. I liked that. I was there with my friend Izzy, fresh from her holiday in New York. No angle there, either: we partly picked the Queen’s Head because it was easy for both of us to get to. Even as I looked through the menu, sipped a crisp pint of Pravha and waited for her to arrive, I sensed that this week’s review might prove a challenge.

The menu is a mixture of South East Asian and traditional pub food, and is almost identical to that of the Moderation (I had a look online later: the Mod’s menu is slightly bigger, but only slightly). This might be the rising price of food, or the looming Brexit, but everything was a little more expensive than when I’d been to the Mod last: nasi goreng, for instance, which used to be a banker of a main course for less than a tenner was now eleven pounds fifty. It being a Tuesday, the Queen’s Head also did a selection of curries each for six pounds which struck me as a bargain, but in the interests of ordering dishes you could definitely try when you visit we decided to forego the obvious bargains and stick to the normal menu.

I have a bad habit of ordering some kind of assortment of starters at this kind of place so to buck the trend I ordered the Indonesian chicken satay, having been informed on Twitter that it was the best of its kind in Reading. It looked good and from the moment the first meat came off the skewer I knew it would be close to that billing. The chicken was so tender that I couldn’t figure out whether it was thigh or well-marinaded breast, and four skewers didn’t feel ungenerous. It had a heat which made its presence felt by the end, but only at the end: nicely done. But I did find myself wondering where the satay was. It was served under the chicken rather than on the side, but I was surprised by how little of it was. There were also dark squiggles of something salty, savoury, almost chocolatey.

“It’s nice,” said Izzy after tackling the skewer I’d popped on her plate, “But I wouldn’t say it’s the best satay I’ve had in Reading.”

I thought briefly about the sadly-departed Tampopo and ate my acar awak (Indonesian pickles, apparently). They tasted mostly of nothing.

I lucked out compared to Izzy who chose the prawn tempura. On the menu this sounded fantastic, with mee grob (crispy noodles, according to Google), fried garlic and sweet chilli sauce. Now, this may be a bit pedantic but batter and breadcrumbs are not the same thing and what arrived were straight prawns served in panko breadcrumbs, not a light and crispy batter. They were served on something that might have been mee grob but which was for decoration, not consumption. I didn’t spot, or smell, any fried garlic and the sweet chilli sauce could easily have come from a bottle. Christmas might have been on the way, but this felt distinctly like supermarket party food. Izzy liked it, I struggled with the way it had been missold: I can’t believe it’s not batter, you could say.

The mains came soon after, as Izzy was halfway through making me feel pangs about New York, a city I’ve never visited (I made a few remarks about wanting to feel like I was in a Woody Allen movie, which got the kind of eye rolling they deserved). Izzy had wanted to order the beef and ale pie, and I’d very much wanted to see what it was like, but it wasn’t on the menu the night we went. Instead she’d gone for chicken with wild mushroom cream sauce although, no doubt in a tribute to Meg Ryan in Katz’s Delicatessen, she’d asked for it with mash instead of crushed new potatoes (and, before you ask, no – she didn’t do that impression).

It was a partial success. The chicken was nice, seemingly beaten flat, although I wanted it to be bigger and with a crispy skin. It was dwarfed by the big pile of perfectly acceptable mash under it, and I think it probably would have worked better with crushed potatoes, although that was Izzy’s responsibility rather than the kitchen’s. The sauce was nice, and the mushrooms may even had been wild, although I didn’t get to try enough of them to figure that out. There was some wilted spinach underneath it, although it really could have done with more veg to put paid to the rest of the sauce. The really bizarre thing about the presentation was the square of balsamic vinegar (and a visible green trace of olive oil) drawn around the whole thing. It didn’t make it look good, and it just made the bits at the edges taste weird. All in all, although it was far from unpleasant, my main reaction to it was to be glad that I’d ordered something else.

I’d ordered the nasi goreng because the Moderation’s version has always been one of the great Reading dishes and I wanted to see if it was as good as I remembered. Well, more fool me: this is 2017, and nothing is as good as we remember any more. But it was still rather nice – a huge pile of spiced rice strewn with firm prawns, strands of chicken and green beans, topped with a nicely cooked fried egg. Some ultimately superfluous prawn crackers, more of those pickles and a naked chicken skewer – without any satay, contrary to the menu – rounded out the dish. I liked it but didn’t love it and weirdest of all, it felt too big (something you’ll rarely hear me say about a main course). By the end of wading through it, it was going cold and not quite as appealing. I think I wanted a little less of it, costing a little less and tasting of a little more, possibly without some of the whistles and bells.

We didn’t have dessert, partly because the selection was narrow and not that tempting – chocolate brownie, Eton mess, sticky toffee pudding. But also, they missed their window in the half an hour or so between us finishing our main courses, them taking the plates away, bringing the dessert menus and remembering to ask us if we wanted anything. Service was a bit like that in general: pleasant but wayward. I wasn’t sure whether you ordered at the table or at the bar, and based on the way we were looked after I’m not sure I was the only one. Still, I had a lovely evening, even if it made me want to go to NYC far more than it did to revisit the Queen’s Head. Dinner for two – two courses each, two pints of Pravha, a diet Coke and a Hendricks and tonic – came to fifty-three pounds, not including service.

The problem with not having an “in” in a review is that, correspondingly, you also struggle with an “out”. The Queen’s Head is a nice pub in a lovely area and it does perfectly pleasant food. It didn’t rock my world or blow my mind, and I’m not sure it’s worth a trek across town (it’s certainly not if you live close to the Moderation). If I lived nearby it would be a welcome added bonus, and I’d probably enjoy a summer beer in the garden, or their quiz night. But in the list of great things about that part of Reading, eating at the Queen’s Head would finish below “living close to Progress Theatre”, “being able to walk around the lake on campus on a sunny day” and, of course, “living on New Road” (I wish!). Not a bad nasi goreng, but not that great a review. In more ways than one.

The Queen’s Head – 6.7
54 Christchurch Road, RG2 7AZ
0118 9863040

http://www.readingpubcompany.com/home.html

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Beijing Noodle House

Because I have a policy of not reviewing restaurants the very minute they’ve opened, opportunities to be topical are few and far between. I’m not always good at seizing them – I’ve always regretted not visiting Pau Brasil last year while the World Cup was on, for example – so there’s no way I was going to miss out again this week.

I’m not talking about pancakes, by the way. I’m still convinced that pancakes, like cooked breakfasts and roast dinners, are best enjoyed at home; even when a restaurant does them well, it never quite recaptures how good they can be in the comfort of your own kitchen. Something’s always not quite right: the sausage isn’t good enough, the baked beans are claggy and don’t have Worcester sauce in them, the beef’s a tad leathery or (most unforgivably) there aren’t enough roast potatoes. At their best – especially with roast dinners – they can be a high-end reimagining, an enjoyable one even, but it’s just not the same.

That’s never truer than with pancakes. Just writing this I am remembering them – fresh from the pan, sprinkled with sugar and lemon juice, rolled up and scoffed greedily while someone is busy cooking the next one. No restaurant can match that. Plus when you have them in a restaurant you get a pancake, emphasis on the singular. Where’s the fun in that?

No, the other thing that happened this week was the Chinese New Year, only yesterday. It got me thinking again about the disappointing lack of good Chinese restaurants in Reading, and then I remembered one of the recommendations I’d received: Pete, the proprietor of Shed, had suggested I review Beijing Noodle House. He raved about some of the Indonesian specialities and the “mouth watering pork dumplings”. Pete strikes me as a man who knows his food – anyone who’s ever tried Saucy Friday can attest to that – so how could I go anywhere else on this of all weeks?

Actually, my first reaction to the recommendation was “is that place still open?” I used to go to Beijing Noodle House a lot, back in the day (I was especially partial to their duck fried noodles). Then, back in 2008, it was gutted by fire; I can’t remember how long it was closed for, but when it reopened I had moved on elsewhere and it never occurred to me to return. Heading up West Street on a weekday evening and going through the front door felt a little like bumping into an old friend and having to make excuses for not having been in touch.

The first thing that struck me about the room was the pictures on the wall. They are enormous (one pretty much covers an entire wall), an odd mishmash of Oriental and European art. You almost couldn’t take your eyes off them, so huge were they, and I’m no Brian Sewell but I don’t think the proprietors are going to take them to a filming of Antiques Roadshow any time soon. Apart from the mind-boggling art? Well, it’s a bit run-down. The dark wood tables are a little too low so you end up hunched over your food, everything is a little worn and has seen better days. An electronic neon sign in the window flashes “OPEN”. The place mats are thin, plastic and tacky – mine, for no reason I could think of, had a photograph of chips on it. It was just tatty enough that I looked up the health and safety rating from the council, and was hugely reassured to find that they’d given it five stars.

There’s no menu online but there are a lot of noodle options – as ramen, as fried noodle, as udon or vermicelli, in soup or not. More noodle combinations, in fact, than I knew existed. You could probably figure that out for yourself – the clue’s in the name after all – but there was a lot more to the menu than that. I also spotted plenty of rice dishes, a good vegetarian section and, on the back, a range of Thai and Malaysian dishes. I couldn’t see any main courses costing more than seven pounds. As always with a very big menu I felt spoiled for choice, and sadly as usual with a very big menu I also wondered how many choices contained spoilers.

No way to find out except to dive in, so we ordered several of the starters. “Grilled Pork mouthwatering dumplings” (yes, that’s a direct quote from the menu) were every bit as good as Pete had suggested they would be. There’s often an air of the mystery meat about dim sum filling which puts me off, but these – more like gyoza than steamed dumplings or pork buns – were full of coarse, subtle pork. They were beautiful combined with the clean, delicate taste of the ginger vinegar dip. Four felt like a snip at just under four pounds.

Beijing starters

The chicken satay was also very good: you could say it’s hard to get satay wrong, and you’d probably be right, but I liked this a lot. The chicken – three decent sized skewers – was maybe slightly cooked into toughness but that just gave me an excuse to heap on lashings of the satay sauce, which was nothing to look at but deceptively impressive, with just enough slow-building chilli. Last of all, crispy seaweed came with cashews on it rather than the traditional grated scallop (did you know that the pink powder was grated scallop? I didn’t) and was also delicious. The nuts added a savoury toasted note which meant it wasn’t artificially sweet the way seaweed can be – not that that ever stops me polishing it off, mind.

I ordered the duck fried noodles partly for old time’s sake and partly because the menu goes out of its way to say that the duck is marinated and freshly cooked and you can have it boneless if you prefer. When it arrived I felt that mixture of nostalgia and anticipation. It looked just how it used to, back when I used to come here, but was it as tasty? After all, your tastes move on, change, develop: could it possibly have been as good as my memories of it?

In a word: yes. Possibly better, in fact. The duck – and you get loads of it – was glorious in big, tender slices. Not crispy, which might put some people off, but not with the thick layer of fat that might deter fussy eaters. The spring onions, peppers and beansprouts still had the right amount of crunch with the soft noodles and the duck, and everything was coated in a beautiful dark sauce which was more than soy but impossible to split out into its component parts. I was smiling from the first mouthful to the last, and wondering why on earth I’d left it so long. It was just over six pounds, and I’d pick it over a yaki soba from Wagamama nine times out of ten.

Beijing noodles

I also wanted to try something from the less conventional side of the menu, so I went for the nasi goreng. This turned up as a huge heap of rice (indeed, the translation from Indonesian is simply “fried rice”) liberally interspersed with prawns and pieces of chicken breast. The sticky, lightly spiced rice was dotted with peas and on top were a few thin slices of spring onions which felt like not quite enough variety to make every mouthful exciting. That said the meat was generous enough to have a prawn or piece of chicken in every forkful and the flavour was good, if a little bit repetitive (I rarely order risotto for the same reason). Still, five quid for a really tasty plate of rice is incredible value and it made me want to try more of the more unusual dishes (nasi lemak, the national dish of Malaysia, perhaps, or possibly beef rendang).

Beijing nasi

Someone pointed out my really poor track record of ordering desserts in 2015, and I’m afraid it’s true. I didn’t do any better here: I could have gone for some ice cream, or toffee banana with sesame seeds, but somehow I felt like I’d eaten two courses with no need of a third to complete them. The whole thing – three starters, two mains, a Tsing Tao and a large glass of anonymous, cheap and perfectly drinkable red – came to under thirty pounds. I haven’t mentioned service and that’s deliberate – not because it was bad but because it was almost unobtrusive. It’s just not that kind of restaurant: they ask you nicely what you want, they go away, a little later they bring it and they leave you to get on with enjoying it (actually when I put it that way, it sounds pretty good). Besides, how could they ever compete with the wall art?

I’m delighted that I enjoyed Beijing Noodle House. I can’t think of many places in town that are so cheap and so enjoyable, and when I looked at the menu I had real trouble narrowing it down to two main courses, so it probably won’t be long before I return to fill in the gaps. I really wanted to like it, because of all those happy memories, but as a realist I’m not sure I was expecting to like it as much as I did. It’s also a great example of how good food in an iffy room is always going to beat iffy food in a good room. Maybe one day Reading will have an equivalent of “Where Chefs Eat”: if so, Pete should definitely claim this one for his entry.

Only one thing troubled me: I was one of only two tables the night I went, although someone else did poke their head round the door for takeaway. West Street has felt increasingly like a ghost town recently, with Vicar’s closing just before Christmas and rumours that Primark is considering relocating to Broad Street. I can only hope my curse doesn’t strike and Beijing Noodle House doesn’t close shortly after receiving a glowing review from me. I know I say this a lot but use it or lose it, because otherwise one of these days the question will still be “is that place still open?” but the answer will be no.

Beijing Noodle House – 7.2
13-14 West Street, RG1 1TT
0118 9078979

http://www.hongbeijingreading.co.uk/