When I looked at my to do list to decide where to review this week, I had a shopping list of requirements. Somewhere relatively new or unknown, for starters. A venue with good outside space – because the weather is clement all of a sudden and I know that many people, like me, still feel more comfortable eating and drinking outside. Finally, I wanted to pick a place with an interesting story – either somewhere I reviewed a long time ago that has survived the pandemic, or somewhere that opened since the pandemic began.
I scanned the list several times, fruitlessly, and then I realised it had been staring me in the face all along: it was time to go back to the Fisherman’s Cottage. It ticks all those boxes. Down by the river, with tables out front and an attractive beer garden (complete with faux beach hut booths) out back, it is one of Reading’s best pubs in terms of outside space, much of which catches the sun. And it manages to be both new and unknown, kind of: it came under new ownership last year when it was taken over by Turkish chef and restaurateur Cigdem Muren Atkins.
To say she’s had a baptism of fire would be an understatement. The Fisherman’s Cottage reopened just in time to be hit by our second lockdown in November. They had a couple of weeks of trading in December before we went into Tier 3, or Tier 4, or whatever they called it back then, and then we had a third national lockdown which only began to lift in April. During that time, the Fisherman’s Cottage did its best to adapt and survive: there was a click and collect menu, and every weekend if you walked along the river you saw tables outside groaning with cakes and cookies, for sale to passers-by.
Their neighbour the Jolly Angler grabbed more headlines with its attempt to turn its back garden into a poolside beach bar, but the Fisherman’s Cottage kept plugging away all the same. And now we’re in a weird situation: the pub has been under its present management for over six months, but has only been able to operate as a pub for the past two. I know of a few people who have gone there for a drink, but nobody who has eaten there – so on a beautifully sunny evening, accompanied by my partner in crime Zoë, I strolled down the river to give it a whirl.
“I’ve been looking forward to this all afternoon” said Zoë. “But I’m a bit apprehensive too.”
“I know what you mean. You really want it to be good, don’t you?”
“Exactly. Nobody wants to be talking about a shit meal at a time like this.”
There are few sights more gladdening than a bustling pub, especially on a sunny day, and I was pleased to see that the Fisherman’s Cottage was busy when we got there, with most of the tables out front occupied. Although I didn’t eat inside I can confirm that it’s still an attractive space, with a conservatory, plenty of light and, of course, that garden out back. We decided to eat out front though, mainly because it just felt more like being part of things, people-watching the friends walking past and the cyclists pulling up for a pint.
Speaking of pints, I should talk briefly about the beer, because I know this will disappoint many of the Fisherman’s Cottage’s former clientele. Under its previous management, the same owners as the Greyfriar, it was more of a craft beer destination. That’s not the case now, so you have a choice of the usual suspects – Camden Hells, Estrella, Corona and so on. I can see from Untappd that they do still do some local stuff, with recent check-ins of beers from Disruption Is Brewing and Wild Weather, but the selection is definitely narrower: hopefully the pub might develop this over time.
The menu felt like an attempt to cover a lot of bases, and it was impossible to tell by looking whether it would be good: sometimes you just know, one way or the other, but this was relatively inscrutable. The starters felt like the weakest section, with some dishes that were more sides than starters (fries, potato wedges and so on) and others, like mozzarella sticks, that felt like something you could pick up from any supermarket. Everything was affordable, though, with the priciest starter costing eight pounds.
The mains were divided into sections and felt a little busy, although many were variations on a theme – salads, pasta (the menu didn’t say which kind of pasta, just pasta) and pizza. There were a few curries, most of them Thai, three burgers and half a dozen other mains which ran the gamut from Morocco to Australia and onwards to the Caribbean. It was refreshing to see a pub that didn’t offer fish and chips, but even so the menu felt unfocused – you always worry that with so much on offer, a kitchen won’t do it all well. Pricing was variable, with dishes ranging from around nine pounds to sixteen for the priciest mains (steak or lamb chops, in this case).
We ordered three starters and a couple of main courses, along with a couple of pints, and our bill came to fifty-four pounds, not including tip. Normally I put that bit at the end of a review, largely because I get my bill at the end of a meal, but on this occasion they brought the bill out straight after I’d ordered. At first I found that strange, but in hindsight it’s how it generally works in pubs – you wouldn’t bat an eyelid paying up front somewhere like Bluegrass BBQ, so it’s probably just the cognitive dissonance between eating in a pub and having table service.
I had the best of the starters, I think. I wanted something closer to Muren Atkins’ Turkish roots, so I’d gone for the courgette fritters. These were probably the best thing I ate all evening – light, crispy, beautifully fresh and reminiscent of many happy holiday meals. The yoghurt and mint dip they came with had a strangely clumpy texture, but there was no arguing with the taste. This felt like good value at five pounds fifty – “I’d order this next time” said Zoë, and I probably would too.
I rarely order calamari in restaurants – it doesn’t usually bowl me over – but Zoë often does, so she decided to go for it. Calamari is a tricky one, because unless it’s very fresh it always has a little bounce. That was the case here, too, but even having said that it was still a pretty good example and better than most I’ve had in Reading. The coating was nicely crunchy and, crucially, stuck to the calamari, and it’s hard to beat sweet chilli sauce as a dip for this, unless you make an excellent aioli or tartar sauce.
“This is decent” said Zoë, “and miles better than anything you’d get from a Prezzo or a Zizzi”. I enjoyed the couple she let me have, although I still think the courgette fritters were a better bet.
We also ordered a cheesy garlic bread, because there isn’t much to dislike about the epicentre of the bread/garlic/cheese Venn diagram. This was a bought-in ciabatta or panino halved and toasted with cheese and some garlic. It cost five pounds, and felt slightly sharply priced at that, mainly because it was lacking in firepower from the garlic.
“It’s a bit generic” said Zoë. “This is all your fault” she added, “because you’ve gotten me used to all the artisan shit. I would have lapped this up before I met you.”
“Are you complaining?”
I asked the question because I knew the answer: when Zoë and I got together she was a korma eater with an aversion to tomatoes, but years later she can wax lyrical about fresh heritage tomatoes with burrata, khachapuri, or Clay’s ghee roast chicken with the best of them.
“Not at all.” She had a suspicious look on her face, but that might have been because she’d just caught sight of the ketchup bottle on the table. “But it’s frustrating – it wouldn’t take much to really ramp this dish up.” I tended to agree, although mainly I’d have added industrial quantities of garlic.
As the evening progressed a beautiful crimson sunset materialised on the far side of Blake’s Lock, and you could almost believe that things were normal again, that there were no such things as variants and amber lists, anti-vaxxers and virus deniers, people refusing to wear a mask or get a test. Instead there was just a pub table, my favourite person on the other side of it, a crisp pint of Estrella in front of me, empty plates with more on the way. Nothing but goodness, in fact: what a wonderful world it can still be, if you let it.
My reverie was interrupted by our main courses arriving a little more briskly than I’d have liked. But again, it didn’t feel like a significant issue: I imagine many pubs and restaurants are still finding their rhythm when it comes to serving diners. I had chosen the only main course to specifically reference Turkey, the meatballs, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The meatballs themselves were nicely coarse and well-seasoned, not suspiciously homogeneous and smooth. They were served with slices of fried aubergine. It’s a vegetable I often struggle to like but the Fisherman’s Cottage had cooked it nicely, with a good texture, some crispiness and none of the mulchiness aubergine can sometimes have.
Aubergine is pretty inescapable in Turkish cuisine. One Turkish aubergine dish is called imam bayildi which translates as “the imam fainted” – apparently from pleasure, according to a folk tale. I couldn’t quite match that, but I was definitely pleasantly surprised. The whole thing was rounded off by a beautiful, sweet, thick tomato sauce, a pile of white rice and a little foliage. It was a satisfying, unpretentious plate of food and felt like decent value at eleven pounds fifty.
Zoë had decided to brave the pizza section of the menu – a relatively new addition, according to the Fisherman’s Cottage’s Instagram feed – and had chosen one with chicken, caramelised onion and gorgonzola. She really enjoyed it, and made relatively short work of it, and the pieces I tried were pretty good – the chicken and sweet onion worked nicely together, though I thought it needed more of the gorgonzola to bring it all together.
I think she liked it more than I did, though – the base is rolled by hand and the whole thing is cooked in an oven on a pizza steel, but the dough was lacking any lift or bubbling which left the crust feeling a bit flat. In fairness, in that respect it was no different to the pizzas at sadly-departed Tuscany, down the Oxford Road, but the price of this pizza – fifteen pounds – felt on the steep side.
“I don’t think it’s that bad for pricing” said Zoë. “You’d pay that much for a Romana pizza at Pizza Express.”
“It’s more expensive than Papa Gee, though.”
“Anyway, I think it’s very good. I’d order it again.”
The weird thing about having paid your bill at the start is that there isn’t that moment to bring your meal to a close and add that full stop at the end. Service, incidentally, was friendly, efficient and masked, even though we were outside. I’m used to drinking outside in places with a little buzz – the Nag’s, of course, and my favourite right now, the Castle Tap. But it was a pleasant feeling to enjoy a meal surrounded by other people – sitting in the cold outside La’De Kitchen in Woodley on a chilly April evening or being the only people outside Crispy Dosa just doesn’t impart the same warm glow you get from being part of something bigger than you. As we all emerge from our own personal lockdowns, at varying speeds, I imagine there’s more of this to come.
While we waited for the wait staff to take our plates away we compared notes and, with a sense of relief, both decided that we’d enjoyed what we’d eaten. It does feel a little, to me anyway, that the Fisherman’s Cottage is playing it safe with a menu that tries to cover as many bases as possible. That’s understandable, especially at a time when every paying customer counts, but my favourite things on the menu were the Turkish dishes, and it did make me wish that there was more of that on offer. But then Muren Atkins has run restaurants in Turkey, England and the Caribbean, so maybe she’s more interested in offering something more international.
Even so, I’m really pleased that I can cautiously recommend the Fisherman’s Cottage next time you want to eat outside, or have a cold pint outside and eat something decent to accompany it. The food maybe isn’t the main attraction – a short walk onto the Kings Road will take you to the Lyndhurst, where the menu is at a different level – but it’s easily good enough to merit a visit, with some dishes that point to real potential. And it would be nice if the beer list leaned more towards the local, but that might come in time. But the pub is a lovely building, and it makes such a difference to see it being used and enjoyed, as opposed to last summer when it lay dormant at a time when it could have made the best of its riverside setting. I sense that Muren Atkins will look after it well, provided she gets some help from all of us. On this showing, she deserves it.
The Fisherman’s Cottage – 7.2
Kennet Side, Reading, RG1 3DW
Delivery via: No delivery, but click and collect available through the website