Handmade Burger Co.

There was a story doing the rounds last month about fifteen restaurant operators eyeing up Reading with a view to opening in the town. Beyond that the specifics were vague – who were they? Where exactly were they hoping to open? – but that didn’t stop it being picked up by one of the local sites (on a slow news day, perhaps) which reported it as “fifteen national food chains” in talks about moving in. As a result, I saw a little bit of discussion and speculation on Twitter, but I couldn’t bring myself to be hugely excited. I’ve never subscribed to the “chains bad, indies good” theory of restaurants – nobody who’s eaten at both Côte and Picasso could buy that for a second – but I do think it’s true that when you look at what Reading really needs, more chains wouldn’t really be at the top of the list.

That’s not to say that some chains aren’t wonderful things, or that Reading wouldn’t benefit from them; I finally went to Wahaca recently, and it’s every bit as good as everyone says. I’d love to see Busaba or Leon set up a branch in Reading, for that matter. But I’d rather see an independent bistro, or a bakery, or a little Vietnamese place, or a sushi restaurant, or any of a dozen types of establishment which just don’t fit the chain mould at all. But maybe, even having said all that, I’m being too harsh to the chain restaurants. After all, there are good chains and bad chains, big chains and small chains. So this week I decided to give one of them a try – and because it’s both ages since I tried a new chain and ages since I had a burger, one option on the Oracle leapt out and simply demanded to be chosen.

Handmade Burger Co. wasn’t the burger company Reading was hoping for when LSQ2 gave up its spot right on the edge of the Oracle; back then, everyone was clamouring, rightly or wrongly, for Gourmet Burger Kitchen (except me, I wanted – and still want – a Byron). But when HBC opened in late 2012 if at least sounded more interesting than GBK: a small, family-owned chain that had, if the website is to be believed, grown out of a single branch in Birmingham. Who doesn’t like a rags to riches underdog story? I didn’t go back in 2012, but since then it has grown to 25 locations across the country and, again if you buy the blurb on the website, makes its burgers from scratch using 48 fresh ingredients delivered 6 days a week. Well, it all sounded worth a shout to me – and after all, restaurant websites are always a really good indicator, aren’t they?

Going in on a weekday evening, the thing that struck me about the room was how many tables they had crammed into quite a cavernous space. It’s very high-ceilinged (all the other pitches in that row are two floors) but the tables are really jammed in together, especially in the middle of the room. The décor was quite nondescript – all very plain tables and chairs, but it didn’t feel like a table for two was quite big enough for two people and to make matters worse, the neighbouring table for two wasn’t especially far away either. The tables with banquettes were better, but we didn’t get shown to one of those and I didn’t have the energy to ask for one. That said, people like the place: I arrived early on a weekday evening and by the time I left the restaurant was largely full. Would I have wanted to arrive when the place was full and try to have a conversation in a big echoey packed room with a very limited amount of soft furnishings? Well, this probably makes me sound about a million years old, but: no, not on your nelly.

The model works in much the same way as Nando’s – you get shown to a table, pick what you want from the menu, order at the bar, collect your drinks and wait for your food to come to the table. The basic burger comes with a dizzying number of topping options, or you can have a chicken burger, or go bunless, or have a gluten free bun, or have it in a pitta, or even (how random is this?) in a Yorkshire pudding. Or you can have a vegan burger. Or a veggie burger. Or something a bit like a burger but on a skewer. The possibilities are, if not endless, a lot less finite than I would personally choose. It really does cater for everyone. Everyone who likes burgers.

HBC’s new menu, and indeed the board outside, proudly boasted that they now do something they touchingly refer to as “dirty burgers”. The website doesn’t define exactly what this means and how or why they are dirty (although surely it’s not a literal sanitary description), nor did the menu. A little pamphlet folded away inside my cutlery tin also talked about the burgers but again, there was no real explanation beyond them being “juicy, messy and full of flavour” (as opposed, presumably, to the dry, tidy, bland offerings elsewhere on the menu). But I am a marketing department’s dream, and they were in a little boxed off section with their own fancy typeface, and so I went for the “D.B. Fried Onion” figuring that it was worth a try.

“Watch out with this, it’s dirty” said the waitress as she put it in front of me (not something you ever want someone to say to you while bringing food to your table, in my experience), although she also didn’t explain exactly what this meant. It was in the Five Guys style of presentation i.e. wrapped in foil and looking for all the world like it had been sat on. When I opened it up, I still wasn’t sure this hadn’t actually happened. It was a pretty bog-standard, fairly uninspiring cheeseburger. The patty was thin, flat and grey – thin enough that you could see why no effort had been made to cook it anything less than well done. The fried onions were tasty enough, although they lacked the true caramelised sweetness of really mouthwatering fried onions. There was lots of gooey orange processed American cheese, my favourite kind on a burger, but it just wasn’t enough to rescue it. I didn’t mind the “fresh buttermilk bun” (why HBC doesn’t call it brioche like every other restaurant I have no idea), but overall it was inoffensive and disappointing. I’ve seen dirtier episodes of Antiques Roadshow, put it that way. Oh, there was also some “jalapeno slaw” and a bit of gherkin but it looked like such an afterthought – as you can maybe tell from the picture – that I just couldn’t be bothered.

HBCDirty

The “dirty burger” section of the menu also offers the horrors of something called “Hipster Chips” and I’m afraid this is where I do have to stop for a little rant. No, no, no, no, no. First of all, “hipster” is something other people call you, not something you call yourself (I tell you what, I’m such a hipster, me, said no one ever). And second of all, it is never, ever a term of endearment. So I didn’t order them, and I can’t tell you what chips with sriracha mayonnaise taste like, because they might as well have been called “Look What A Zany Wanker I Am Chips”. I mean, credit to HBC for calling them chips rather than fries, but it’s not enough. So instead I had some “Denver Chips”, which were topped with pulled pork, barbecue sauce and melted cheese. There was a bit of pulled pork, though not masses, a lake of enamel-strippingly sweet sauce and some curls of cheese (some of which had melted and some of which, worryingly enough, hadn’t) and underneath a poor abused pile of average chips which deserved better. I didn’t eat them all.

HBCChips

From the not-so-dirty menu the peanut butter and bacon burger sounded less obviously dirty but still good. Sadly it simply wasn’t dirty enough. First up the bun looked like a common or garden burger bun – pale and wan with a few sesame seeds on top. It was dry and crumbly and not at all like the sourdough bun I expected, as advertised on the walls of the restaurant (perhaps “sourdough”, like “artisan”, is just something people say to waste space on menus nowadays). But let’s not focus on the bun, let’s focus on the filling because that’s where this really disappointed. The burger was thick – oddly much thicker, it seemed, than the “dirty burger” – resolutely far from juicy, and bland. There were one or two rashers of unremarkable bacon without much salt or smoke. I was hoping for a big dollop of peanut butter on the burger, slowly melting into a savoury, nutty satay, but instead I got a minuscule smidge hidden underneath the lettuce leaf. It’s almost like they didn’t want me to be able to taste it. But never mind, because you did get lots of chilli jam. Too much, a big, sweet liquefied pool of the stuff dripping out of the side. So much of it that it really should have been called a “chilli jam and smoked bacon burger”; except of course, if it had been called that I wouldn’t have ordered it, just as I dearly wish I hadn’t ordered this.

HBCBurger

I also had a side of chips which hadn’t been slathered with pulled pork and barbecue sauce, instead coming with rosemary and salt. This was my chance to find out what the chips were like before they got mucked around with, but again it was far from a success. They were soft and flaccid, a bit like chip shop chips that had been sitting around too long. There was loads of the salt and rosemary on them and the rosemary was lovely, but the salt was in huge rocks that you couldn’t really disperse or even eat with the chips. Much of it was left in the bowl afterwards. But then much of the chips were left, too, because they were just too squidgy and boring. That’s a damning indictment; I never leave chips. Sit me in front of a bowl of chips and I will peck away, even if I’m not hungry, and suddenly they’ll be gone. Not these.

When I saw that the menu had malted milkshakes I knew I had to have one, because I bloody love a malted shake. So I had a malted vanilla milkshake. Really, I wanted a peanut butter one, but I resisted because I am profesh and I thought double peanut butter in a single review would not be profesh (also, my dining companion was one of those oddballs who loathes the stuff). It was huge, served in one of those big tin milkshake blending glasses. There were a few discernible dots of vanilla but otherwise it mostly reminded me of the white ice cream of my youth – ah, the wonders of not-especially-Italian Gino Ginelli – not actually truly vanilla flavoured, but vanilla-esque. There wasn’t nearly enough malt for my liking but the malt was only an extra 30p so at least I didn’t feel hugely ripped off. My guest had an Erdinger weissbeer because he really fancied a beer. He didn’t finish it, because I really fancied cutting my losses and leaving.

Service throughout was actually pretty good, for what is essentially a pretty low-frills restaurant with limited table service. The young lady at the bar enthused over the peanut butter burger – it deserves to be tried, apparently – and was friendly and chatty and the other ladies bringing plates and checking up on us (then removing the clothes peg from our table number, another of those subtle ways of indicating that we had been processed) were also really nice. But, like I said, you order at the bar, you pay in advance and you have to fetch some things like soft drinks yourself, so the service can only be so good. I wonder how many people actually tip on paying, before they’ve had any service, or put money in the jar on the way out. I wonder, too, how enjoyable it must be to work in a restaurant run to this model. Dinner for two – two burgers, two chips, two drinks – came to thirty-four pounds and was done and dusted in about thirty-four minutes.

I’m not really in the target market for burgers: as I’ve said many times, they’re just a sandwich. But I can see there’s a time and a place for them, and I like to think I can tell the difference between a good one and a bad one. I was puzzled, though, because I have a friend who is a huge burger connoisseur – I mean, he travels for burgers the way I travel for sushi, and then some – and last time he went to Handmade Burger Co. I heard he thought it was much improved. Well, I’m not sure how bad it was before or if I was just extremely unlucky but it’s hard to see the appeal; there’s not much in the way of charm or atmosphere, the burgers were disappointing and at that price you could do far better in the Oakford or even Five Guys (and, I’m guessing, CAU for that matter). Fifteen restaurant chains circling Reading? The news still doesn’t thrill me, but it’s hard to imagine they couldn’t do better than this.

Handmade Burger Co. – 5.3
Riverside, The Oracle Shopping Centre, RG1 2AG
0118 9588106

http://handmadeburger.co.uk/our-restaurants/find-a-restaurant/handmade-burger-co-reading/

Miller & Carter

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

Manhattan Coffee Club

Manhattan Coffee Club has closed its premises on the first floor of the Oracle: for a while it operated in a concession out of Harper & Lewis, on the ground floor but now appears to have shut for good. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

I don’t think it’s possible to rid yourself of preconceptions when reviewing restaurants and cafes. They’re unavoidable, whether it’s because of things you’ve heard from others, or your research, or even just looking at the website. There’s a whole weight of prejudice – good or bad – which builds up before you approach the front door. All you can do is acknowledge your preconceptions and hope that you deal with them fairly, even if that does sound like the standard interview fiddle of describing your greatest weakness in a way that makes you sound brilliant and self-deprecating (you know, all that guff about being too much of a perfectionist).

On that basis, you might well expect me not to like Manhattan Coffee Club (MCC from now on, mainly because I’m lazy) and, in the interests of honesty, I expected not to like it either. It’s co-owned by one of the people behind RYND, a venue I admire for many things (its ability to use social media properly, the programme of events it puts on – live music, comedy, cinema and the like) but whose food I found a tad cynical and bandwagon-jumping. It’s on the top floor of the Oracle, a place I’m increasingly starting to see as the epicentre of All That’s Wrong With Reading. Even the press release before the opening made my toes curl ever so slightly, with its references to a design based on early twentieth century New York “with industrial steel tables and chairs, reclaimed wood counters and an ethos that the sky’s the limit”. Really, must we?

So yes, I approached MCC with all those preconceptions firmly in place and, from the moment I got to the front door, it neatly dismantled most of them. It’s a nice room, well done and it makes the most of a space which has almost no natural light: I expected it to feel a bit fake and joyless, like the top floor of Brown’s or Cote but actually it has a nice buzzy vibe to it. Yes, if you want to trend-spot you can – the industrial look is more Williamsburg by numbers than NYC in the Machine Age and the ubiquitous Tolix chairs are all over the place – but nevertheless, I warmed to it more than I thought I would. I even liked the fake trees at the door and the fake plants on the tables even though I knew they were fake – but then I’ve always found that a little suspension of disbelief makes the Oracle a far more enjoyable place.

The lunchtime options largely consisted of salads, sandwiches for toasting and lots and lots of cakes and pastries. Quite a decent range of sandwiches, too: I spotted baguettes, ciabattas, panini, wraps and focaccia with a good selection of fillings. Of the salads I was tempted by the Japanese chicken and the tuna niçoise, but when push came to shove it wasn’t a salad kind of day. You order at the counter and collect your drinks there, then they bring your sandwiches over. Standing there waiting for my drink I was struck by the staff – all young, all enthusiastic, all really friendly. There also seemed to be a fair amount of them: quite a contrast to many of Reading’s independent cafés.

Focaccia with salami, goat’s cheese and tapenade was really gorgeous. It’s a great selection of ingredients – salty and intense – and when toasted properly, as this was, they combine into something quite wonderful. Rather endearingly, the black-shirted chap bringing it to my table said “I’m sorry, I know it looks burnt but I promise it isn’t” (he was quite right, too). Somewhere between mouthful one and mouthful two my preconceptions properly went away – yes, it was a bit small at four pounds fifty but none the less, I loved eating it. The pulled pork (slow cooked for nine hours, according to their blurb, and eaten by me in about two minutes) wrap with coleslaw was also excellent and a great contrast, sweet where the focaccia had been savoury. I’m not usually a fan of quite sloppy pulled pork but it worked here, especially as it was contained by the toasted tortilla. Again, you could quibble about the price but it was deceptively substantial, with no thick clump of pointless wrap to wade through at the end.

MCCFocacciaRoughly at this point one of the serving staff decided to do a round of the tables offering people amaretti biscuits from a gigantic jar. It was a lovely, random, cynicism-eroding thing to do: by this stage I was in serious danger of quite enjoying myself.

Ironically for a place with coffee in the title I’m told the coffee was nothing to write home about. My companion’s latte was apparently a little bitter and not in the top flight of coffees in Reading (allegedly this holy trinity consists of Tamp, Workhouse and, rather surprisingly, Tutti Frutti). Earl Grey, on the other hand, was good (although tea is easy to do well), nice and fragrant and no one tried to put the milk in with the bag; I remain convinced that coffee drinkers would never put up with the ineptitude often shown in tea making. I was given a cup rather than offered the choice between a cup and a pot, and only realised that I’d missed out when I went up to order another, but this was a relatively minor error and I was too happy to get especially peeved by it.

The second cup of tea was to accompany cake. I was tempted by the red velvet cake but eventually opted for a blondie and a pain au chocolat. The berry blondie was divine – a heavy slice of cake that was almost like a super dense white chocolate cheesecake, with dollops of jammy berries in the dimples. It was almost like eating fudgy cake mix and I’m not ashamed to say that I made happy noises while doing so. The pain au chocolat, however, was probably the most disappointing part – MCC is apparently a bakery too but this was the kind of dense pastry you could have used to break a shop window. I’d hoped for light, flakey buttery layers but instead it was all compressed and spongy, and one bite revealed the inside to be a huge empty cavern, with two rows of chocolate like railroad tracks. Never mind: I suppose there had to be something I didn’t like.

MCCCakesLunch for two came to just under nineteen pounds, although I was given a fifty per cent off voucher for the coffee which saved me about a pound. I guess I’d say that everything was just a little on the pricey side, but thinking about the location and the people MCC needs to pay rent to, you can kind of understand it. Still, when you think about your alternatives in the Oracle itself – Costa, Nero (two of them), Starbucks (yes, two of them as well) I think MCC emerges pretty well from that comparison.

It’s interesting: when C.U.P., an independent coffee shop, announced that it was planning to open just along from Bill’s there was a lot of sneering. Not ANOTHER coffee place, people said below the line on a variety of websites. Well, I think that misses the point. If there are too many coffee places in Reading, it’s certainly not places like C.U.P. or MCC. If new independent businesses have a good idea, and they do it well, and they take business away from the countless branches of our countless chains then I say the more of them open in Reading the better.

Does MCC do it well? Yes, I think so. It’s a peculiar place in many respects, an independent that needs to look like an independent (for cred, mainly) but also needs to look as polished and professional as a chain (to fit in to the neighbourhood). In that respect, its closest relation is somewhere like Artigiano, but I liked it far more than Artigiano. The food, which could easily have been an exercise in box-ticking, is good. The service is informal and charming. I know that seeing an independent place like MCC in the Oracle is a bit like finding a Tory with a beard – at first the main thing that strikes you is the novelty value – but somehow it works. So preconceptions be damned: I can think of a dozen reasons why I shouldn’t have liked MCC but, despite all of them, it turns out that I did. Who would have seen that coming?

Manhattan Coffee Club – 7.3
U6 Upper Level, The Oracle, RG1 2AG
07817 938887

www.facebook.com/manhattancoffeeclub

CAU

CAU closed in July 2018 because its owners Gaucho Group went into administration. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

I recently reached the stage where I was tempted to stop reviewing restaurants in the Oracle altogether. It’s never fitted with the ER ethos – full of chains like Bella Italia and Pizza Hut that are ten a penny all across the country. And it’s always felt pointless reviewing places like Wagamama and Yo! Sushi, because even though there’s a time and a place for them you probably already know what they’re like. The final straw was the closure of Tampopo and the announcement that TGI Friday would take its place (that’s when I began to wonder if the Oracle was actually run by Monty Burns). Still I guess they need the money, with plenty of shops consciously uncoupling from Brand Oracle and a fair few vacant lots, especially on the top floor.

So, what changed (I mean, you’ve read the title, you know what this review is about)? Well, CAU’s an interesting kettle of fish for a number of reasons. It’s not a chain just like everywhere else, for one: there are only a dozen across the country. Also, I was fascinated to see how they’d done it, because the restaurant has been created out of thin air, in an empty and unloved space on the side of the Oracle, the fast but shallow Holybrook the only redeeming feature in a rather forgotten spot. But the other reason is that since it opened, CAU has been busy. Really busy. And all the feedback I’ve seen said it was pretty decent. Had the Oracle got it right for once?

It’s an odd experience having dinner in a building which, a year ago, didn’t even exist. It’s a very neat use of a compact space, with two storeys and a modest terrace on the lower floor, prettied up with some landscaping and some kind of light installation on the opposite wall (I can see it would be a nice place to eat on a warm day). I sat on the top floor, in a long thin dining room with white corrugated iron walls and modernist lighting, all chrome spheres and swivel chairs. That compactness does show, though, in the space for diners: everything is just a little smaller than you’d want it to be (I wouldn’t have wanted to be a table for four in the banquette booths in the centre of the room – not with my elbows).

As you probably know, CAU stands for Carne Argentina Unica (I wonder which came first, the name or the convenient acronym?) and is the younger/cheaper sibling of Gaucho, the awfully expensive steak house that is sprinkled over the spendy bits of London. So the menu is mainly Argentine, mainly beef, but not entirely – it does wander up to Mexico, across to Spain and even, for some of the vegetarian options, over to Italy. This presented a bit of a dilemma – I wanted to try a range of dishes, but ordering chicken or fish just to make a point about the diversity of the food felt like a silly act of tokenism. So if you don’t like steak this review might not be terribly enlightening – but anyway, there’s always the starters and the desserts.

The starters were probably the most difficult decision of the evening. It really is an embarrassment of riches and you could easily have been reading about empanadas, Argentinian charcuterie or half a dozen other dishes. I was particularly torn between the swordfish carpaccio and the smoked haddock and manchego croquettes. When I asked the waitress for advice, she recommended the latter without a moment’s hesitation. That alone would have justified a tip: they were generous and delicious, half a dozen big, irregular, crunchy cylinders. Inside, the perfect contrast – a filling so smooth it was almost a béchamel, beautiful shreds of fish and tons of chives. The caper mayonnaise they came with almost felt an afterthought – creamy and bland where a bit of sharpness would have worked wonders – but it was by no means a deal breaker. I would have liked a bit more salt from the manchego but again, that was more twenty-twenty hindsight than anything else.

CAUStarter

They almost made up for the disappointment of the other starter, something that with hindsight I probably should have known better than to order. Quesadillas were a rather sad prospect compared to the crispy loveliness of the croquettes: the tortilla itself was pretty small and, despite the blurb on the menu, was by no means “packed” with vegetables or cheese. A layer of peppers, artichokes and courgette strips with manchego (for flavour, I’d guess) and mozzarella (for texture) was, in fact, even duller than it sounds. The guacamole on the side was pleasantly zesty but not enough to save the whole thing. It was bland and stingy, everything the other starter wasn’t. It’s my fault really – normally I’m good at spotting the duffer on a menu so I’m not sure what went wrong here. There are actually quite a lot of vegetarian options on the starter menu: I hope the rest aren’t as much of an afterthought as this felt. I should have had the charcuterie after all.

The range of steaks on offer at CAU ranges from the mainstream – familiar cuts like rump and rib-eye – to the more high-end. This is where you can end up spending quite a lot of money, as you can at Gaucho: most of the speciality cuts start at the thirty pound mark and you get almost a pound of flesh for your pound of flesh. I struggled with spending that much on account of not being a Russian oligarch, so we went for the more conventional cuts on the left hand side of the menu, and it has to be said that these were a lot more keenly priced: two medallions of fillet was less than fifteen pounds, a sirloin was just shy of eighteen. Unfortunately, I had to wait slightly longer to try the steak than I was expecting. The medallions turned up perfectly medium rare as requested, but the sirloin was medium well with very little pinkness, no glorious blood seeping out onto the plate.

This is, let’s face it, a pretty terrible gaffe from a restaurant which prides itself on brilliant beef cooked brilliantly. But sometimes, first impressions aren’t everything and the way CAU dealt with it was exemplary. I was in two minds about sending it back because, in my experience, that usually means that I have to watch everyone else eating their food (never fun) and then experience everyone else watching me eat mine (possibly even less fun). But the moment I suggested to my waitress that all was not well she sprang into action: both dishes were taken away, completely redone and brought to the table at exactly the same time. I’ve racked my brains and I can’t think of a single restaurant in Reading – even at the high end – that has ever gone that far, let alone without being prompted. Very nicely done indeed, and it totally won me over.

So, once they finally arrived, they truly were perfect. The medallions were beautifully seasoned, perfectly grilled and the yielding texture when sliced was enough to render me speechless. I rarely have steak at home because I can never get it right, but eating it here made me feel like most of the places I order steak at can’t get it right either (and they certainly can’t for only fifteen pounds). The sirloin was just as good – the char and salt on the outside giving way to the softness underneath. At this point any reservations – about the location, about the loudness of the music, about the slightly irksome white swivel chairs – simply melted away. I’d have eaten this beef locked in a broom cupboard listening to the Vengaboys, if that’s what it would have taken to try it.

CAUSteak

The accompaniments were very much second fiddle, although that was only to be expected. Chunky chips, served in a little fryer basket, were coarse and crispy, fluffy inside and perfect dunked in the tiny pots of sauce (which cost extra, I should add). The sauces themselves were a little underwhelming, in truth: “garlic and herb aioli” was all herb and no garlic, all mouth and no trousers. I got parsley and just enough tarragon to make me wish béarnaise was on the menu. Still, I’m going through a phase of really enjoying chips dipped in mayo, so it wasn’t all bad. The chimichurri was better, but possibly had a little too much vinegar and not enough of everything else. I deliberately didn’t order a blue cheese sauce because it felt inauthentic; by the end I wished I hadn’t been so prissy.

Just as CAU is all about beef it’s also all about Malbec – so much so that the wine list actually has four sections – sparkling, white, red and Malbec. I liked this, but what I really loved was that the vast majority of their wines are available in 500ml pots as well as full bottles. I really don’t understand why more restaurants don’t offer this, if only because I’m far more likely to order two carafes than I am to order two bottles. We had a Patagonian Malbec with our steaks and it was terrific – fruity but with a little smoke and not overwhelmed by the beef. Before that, while we made up our minds, we had an elderflower spritz – a very refreshing cocktail which tasted so little of alcohol that it was positively dangerous – and a very good Asturian cider.

On to desserts: I’d seen churros arrive at another table so I’d already decided I had to try them. They arrived in a little Jenga stack, liberally dusted with sugar and cinnamon, with a little pot of dulce de leche (which I have a bit of a soft spot for). Sadly I have to say that they didn’t quite go together – the sauce was a bit too thick to coat the churros and the churros were strong enough to drown out the toffee flavour. I resorted to eating the two dishes on their own (not exactly a hardship), running my finger round the pot to get the last of the dulce de leche out Nigella-style.

The other dessert, the cornflake ice cream sundae, is apparently a signature dish. I wasn’t a huge fan of it, I’m afraid. The cubes of chocolate brownie in it were crumbly delights, and the dulce de leche smeared round the inside of the sundae glass were gorgeous, but the cornflake-flavoured ice cream just felt like ice cream and the ginormous heap of cornflakes on top was impossible to eat without knocking them onto the table. I imagine it would be very popular with kids, but it wasn’t such a hit with me.

CAUDessert

Service made a bad first impression: the greeter at the front door failed to make eye contact, which was odd, but from that point onwards it was all terrific. Our waitress was bright, personable, knowledgeable and almost faultless – recommending dishes, correcting mistakes, talking about the restaurant and making conversation without going through the motions. But more than that, there seemed to be an energy about all the staff, from the chirpy chap who brought out our replacement steaks to the barman dancing along to the eclectic mix of music. I even found their “caugirl” and “cauboy” t-shirts amusing rather than naff – it felt like they were having fun but without any of that fake mateyness which is often so jarring in chain restaurants.

The bill, including an optional 10% service charge, came to ninety-five pounds. That’s for three courses and an aperitif each and that pot of malbec. It’s funny, when the bill turned up the amount was simultaneously more than I was expecting (that fifteen pound steak had me fooled) and not as much as I thought the meal was worth.

That rather sums up how I felt about CAU, in that I didn’t quite know what to make of it. Some of the dishes are really expensive, some are affordable. The affordable ones are terrific value. The food was bloody good, but first time round it wasn’t bloody enough. The staff make it feel like an informal restaurant but the prices at the high end are actually pretty close to what Gaucho would charge. And the clientele reflected that – some of my fellow diners were properly dolled up, to the extent where I felt a bit scruffy, and others were definitely there for a much more casual evening. You could look at all that and say that CAU is a restaurant that doesn’t know what it wants to be, or you could decide that it’s good at being all things to all people. Slightly against my preconceptions – I went expecting to like the food, hate the room and be underwhelmed by the service – I strongly suspect that it’s the latter. But I’ll probably go back soon, with my most carnivorous friends, just to be certain.

CAU – 7.8
The Oracle, Bridge Street, RG1 2AQ
0118 9505559

http://www.caurestaurants.com/book-a-table/reading/

Jamie’s Italian

Reading’s branch of Jamie’s Italian closed on July 2018, I’ve left this review up for posterity.

January, so far, has been the Month of Eating Differently here at Edible Reading. It started with me revisiting the A4074 and discovering that not all “Pack” based pubs are the same (thank goodness). Then I went even further out of town to eat top notch sushi in Windsor. For the third review of the year it seems only right that I come back to Reading and, even more, that I tuck into food at one of our ubiquitous chains – just to prove that it isn’t only about the independent out of town places.

I picked Jamie’s because it feels like a restaurant that cares about ingredients more than your average chain; there’s always been a fair amount of focus on fresh seasonal ingredients and interesting flavours at Jamie’s, and as chains go it’s not huge compared to some of its Oracle neighbours (only 37 branches according to their website, compared to 90 Bella Italias and a whopping 430 Pizza Expresses, for example). On top of that I made a promise, a resolution if you like, that I would eat one vegetarian main every month and it seemed like Jamie’s would be one of the better options for that – after all, good Italian recipes with all those fresh ingredients barely need meat at all, right?

I can’t quite remember what Chili’s, the previous restaurant in this space, looked like. All I really recall is the 6 foot plastic chilli suspended from the ceiling, covered in a thick layer of dust. Jamie’s, in comparison, is clean, smart and very contemporary: the middle of the restaurant is all concrete floors and tin chairs but round the edge of the room it’s much more inviting, with red leather banquettes looking out across the other diners. A bit like being on Dragon’s Den but without Evan Davis’ irritating recaps (why does he sum things up mere seconds after they’ve happened? So annoying! But I digress).

It’s still a dry – and increasingly long – January for me so I tucked into an elderflower and pomegranate pressé while picking from the menu. That was when it dawned on me that I was going to have to go through with the vegetarian thing and that some of you, for any of a variety of reasons, have to look at a menu and mentally cross things out every time you go out to eat (for that I can honestly say that I salute you).

To start I had the baked chestnut mushrooms on crispy music bread with smoked mozzarella, thyme and Parmesan, and in an attempt to stick to the vegetarian side of the menu I swapped out the Parmesan for another hard cheese not made with rennet (although I didn’t check whether the mozzarella was suitable for vegetarians so this might have been a waste of time).

It was a surprisingly hard dish to describe – layers of music bread on the bottom with an intricate mosaic of thinly sliced mushrooms on top, dusted with the cheese, the middle section rich with gooey smoked mozzarella. I’d almost sum it up as middle class nachos, except that Jamie’s Italian has already beaten me to it by describing another dish on their menu as “Italian nachos” (crispy fried ravioli, in fact). But that’s what it resembled most – crispy music bread at the sides and the central section soggy with juices from the mushrooms and softened by the melted cheese.

Did I like it? I’m still not sure even now. It was like a book you admire without enjoying it: more interesting than it was tasty. It was probably a less satisfying way to eat mushrooms than the myriad of other options on the menu – stuffed into arancini, heaped on bruschetta, tumbled into fettucine – options which, as I worked my way through this dish, I couldn’t help wishing I’d ordered instead.

Mushroommusic

The caponata bruschetta, on the other hand, was as pretty as it was tasty. The caponata itself was lovely – the rich, smoky aubergines were diced and mixed in with tomatoes and pine nuts with a sprinkling of grated ricotta on top. I love the earthy, slightly sweet flavour of caponata and this was a very good one. The bread it came on was less of a success, being tough and difficult to cut (I ended up tearing it with my knife and fork instead). A bit more olive oil or less time under the grill might have been better. Sitting on top of the dish were a couple of small red chillis, barely cooked with their tops chopped off. I genuinely couldn’t fathom what they were doing there – they looked small enough to be properly explosive and I couldn’t see how they fitted in at all. I wondered if it might be some kind of homage to Chili’s – that was the only decent explanation I could come up with. I didn’t eat them.

Caponatabruschetta

The vegetarian main courses at Jamie’s, according to their website, amount to two – one pasta, and one salad. There are more if you’re prepared to forego the Parmesan, but the menu doesn’t make that clear so you’re relying on the waiter (“we don’t have a vegetarian menu”, he said, “but I can talk you through it”). Pasta in tomato sauce sounded pretty humdrum, and I’d already had mushrooms, so I went for the superfood salad, thinking that anything with the word “super” in the title couldn’t be all bad. Besides, the menu made it sound like it contained so much stuff: avocado; shaved fennel; candied beetroot; broccoli; cheese; pomegranate; seeds; and a “fennel blossom Sicilian harissa”. It just sounded like a party in a bowl, and I was genuinely interested to see what turned up.

What the menu doesn’t tell you is that that description suggests that all the ingredients get equal billing, and they don’t. So I really enjoyed the sweet chunks of candied beets. They were both delicious. I liked the shaved fennel, although it had been very finely shaved indeed and got a little lost. The two smallish spears of broccoli were just dandy. The avocado, served on top, was very nice – flashed under a grill I’d guess, from the lines on top, and ever so slightly warm. Where the stone had been there was a little reservoir with cottage cheese on it, and the smallest blob of harissa, which may have involved fennel blossom in some way but was just generic hot stuff.

But really, this was about the rest of it, including many things the menu neglected to mention. So yes, there were lentils and some pumpkin and sesame seeds in there, and the occasional bit of pomegranate, and lots of mint leaves (because Jamie’s loves putting mint in everything). But there was also a lot of quinoa, along with plenty of what looked like stubby grains of wild rice but, having researched it, may have been black barley. All that amounted to a big stodgy pile of heavy going, with nowhere near enough flavour to elevate it from chore to treat. When I told a vegetarian friend about this dish, she said “personally, if they’d said there was quinoa in it I’d never have ordered it”, which pretty much hits the nail on the head. Really, it was like the contents of one of those square plastic tubs you buy for lunch from M&S in an attempt to pretend to be a better person than you really are; if this was a party in a bowl, it was the kind where you started looking at your watch half an hour in because all the fun people had already left.

Supersalad

The other main was one of the specials – an “amazing ragu of pork with tomatoes, chilli, garlic and loads of herbs tossed through home made casarecce pasta” (I’m quoting from the blackboard here, so the trumpet blowing is Jamie’s and not mine). I was expecting a bowl of pasta with a thick sauce of tomato and pork in roughly equal measure, but what in fact arrived was a bowl of pasta with a lot of shredded pork in it (and I mean a lot: the meat was generous to a fault). All the other ingredients were present as described, but apart from being slightly watery there was no discernible sauce. This was just a meat and carbs dish: none of your five-a-day here. On top of the heap of pork was a spoonful of herby, lemony breadcrumbs which really did lift the dish but it was just one spoonful, and a little more would have given the dish a lot more oomph. As it was, you couldn’t fault it for quantity but overall I’m afraid it bored me and I couldn’t finish it. Nor could I face dessert afterwards, even if their chocolate brownie is, according to the menu at least, “epic” (I can hear the strains of that trumpet again).

Porkragu

Service was decent. The chap serving us was friendly enough and happy to pick out the vegetarian options but had the disconcerting habit of saying thank you after every single item we ordered, something which started to feel robotic very quickly. I wasn’t feeling a lot of love. I also wasn’t feeling the warmth, as there seemed to be a draught coming from the back of the room, whipping round our ankles. When we asked early on if there was a door open in the kitchen we were told that this was just the colder part of the room and that the other tables they had available wouldn’t be much better. On a freezing winter’s day in January I thought this was a very poor show, especially as it got even chillier by the time our mains came (another homage to Chili’s, perhaps?). The total bill for two courses and a soft drink each for two was forty pounds. That felt like reasonable value for the food, even if the experience wasn’t anything to write home about.

After the last two reviews, writing this feels like a bit of a comedown. I know I don’t need to eat out of town to get good food but when the better chains, which to me includes Jamie’s, let me down it can seem like the Oracle doesn’t have a lot to offer (appropriately the best of the Oracle’s restaurants, Cote and Tampopo, are right at the edge: it’s almost as if they’re trying to break away and escape). I feel especially sad for the vegetarians out there, because I think they should be entitled to expect better from a restaurant like this – so for vegetarians looking at a menu this size and seeing such a short list of suitable options I can only say sorry. I haven’t found an amazing place with loads of attractive meat-free choices that you’ll be rushing to visit. Not yet. But it’s only January.

Jamie’s Italian – 6.7
Unit 1, Riverside, The Oracle, RG1 2AG
0118 9070808

http://www.jamieoliver.com/italian/restaurants/reading