Tampopo

N.B. Tampopo closed in June 2015. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

If I’m honest, I wasn’t predisposed to like Tampopo. It always felt like another link in the vast chain of chains on the Oracle Riverside, a bookend at the opposite end of the shelf to Wagamama. I found the concept a bit strange: food from throughout East Asia, a range of dishes from – among others – Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia. Can you imagine a pan-European restaurant, serving boeuf bourguignon alongside pizza, paella, fish and chips, moussaka, schnitzel and herring? If you can imagine it, and I can’t, would you really recommend that anybody go to it?

So I turned up ready to be underwhelmed, and was pleasantly surprised from the moment I walked in. Like Wagamama, Tampopo offers the threat of communal eating – long tables which imply that, if the restaurant is busy, you won’t be eating on your own. Unlike Wagamama, they’ve made some effort to make that seem less stark and unpleasant – tables feel more compact, the seating is made up of (surprisingly comfy) stools rather than large benches and the lighting is warmer and more attractive, giving the room a glow. On a Monday night there was no danger of sharing a table with anyone, but even if I’d had to it wouldn’t have felt like the end of the world.

The culinary first impressions were also good. Edamame were considerably more interesting than their counterparts at the other end of the Riverside, dressed in chilli and sesame oil and coarse flakes of salt. The wine that accompanied them was also very good – a viognier was light and peachy and the Gewürztraminer was delicious, fresh with (at the risk of sounding like something out of the Carry On films) a strong hint of banana. They do glasses in 125ml, too – something I wish more restaurants would sign up to.

Regular readers will be unsurprised to hear that I ordered the “Tampopo sharing platter” to start. I’m beginning to feel less ashamed about this habit, rationalising it as an opportunity to try as many different things from the kitchen as possible (that’s my story, anyway, and I’m sticking to it). And I’m unrepentant, because it was an excellent choice – a big black slate arrived at the table with six different items from the starter menu, neatly laid out in a grid, each with an accompanying dip or garnish.

StarterThe least remarkable were the coconut prawns – butterflied, breadcrumbed and served with sweet chilli sauce, they were the stuff of sharing platters everywhere. Everything else, though, was either a pleasant surprise or a very pleasant surprise. The chicken satay, for instance: so often a pedestrian space filler served up with some warm Sun-Pat, but Tampopo’s was a world away from that. The chicken was soft and tender (I wondered whether it might be minced rather than the fibrous fillet you usually get) and the sauce was deep, rich, chunky and much more savoury than satays in so many other places in Reading. The corn fritters made a pleasant change from the usual fishcake – lighter, taster and without the slightly disturbing sponginess fishcakes can have. The gyoza were plump and soft, full of minced pork, subtle and lighter to eat than they looked on the plate.

The last two were things I’ve not tried before. Goi cuon were cold, soft rice paper rolls packed with vegetables, noodles and coriander – fresh and clean, if almost impossible to eat tidily (whatever you think of a traditional spring roll, it’s at least easy to dunk in a dipping sauce). Bulgogi, Korean grilled beef, was also good, with a smoky char to it. It came served on a lettuce leaf which is meant to serve as an impromptu wrap – a great idea, although it did mean that the beef didn’t stay hot for long. That was fine though, because it didn’t stay uneaten for long. The only letdown was the kimchi that came with the beef – an oddly bland pile of cabbage without the eye-watering, intense taste I’m used to. It was the only place where the menu felt like it lacked the courage of its convictions.

I’m not one for listing the price of dishes in brackets in a restaurant review – there are other places you can go for that – but this one is worth emphasising: that selection of starters, for two, was £13.95. Pretty impressive stuff, and it built up a feeling of goodwill that the rest of the meal would have to go some to ruin. Good starters are like that.

Another nice touch came when the waitress – who was excellent all evening, friendly and helpful without being matey or patronising – took our empty slate (and extra napkins, because it’s messy stuff) away.

“Was that okay for you?”

“Yes, it was gorgeous.”

“I’m glad you liked it, it’s one of my favourites. I had it for lunch, actually.”

She was also full of good advice on which mains to order and came across as genuinely passionate about Tampopo’s food. Another waitress, later in the evening, asked what we made of the menu and showed real interest in feedback. She also told me that Tampopo was only a small chain (five branches, three of them in Manchester), and that Reading was the baby of the family, having only been open for three years. So much for my preconceptions about eating in a faceless chain – and in fact, a subsequent look at the website suggests that the owners either have a genuine passion for this kind of food or are phenomenally good at faking it. Either way I was struck that all of the serving staff felt like ambassadors for the restaurant, also a million miles from the experience in most chains.

Could the mains live up to the start? Well, not quite. Com Hué, a Vietnamese rice dish, was the biggest disappointment of the evening. It was almost like a Vietnamese paella – rice with chicken, squid and king prawns, along with coriander, red onion, spring onion and carrot. Bits of it were beautifully cooked – the squid in particular was more tender than I’d expected – but the overall effect was a bit restrained for my liking. I often worry with subtle food that it’s my fault for not having a refined enough palate, but the good Vietnamese food I’ve had has positively sung with flavour, whether it be mint or lemongrass or coriander. This had none of that, and I don’t think it was my fault. All the other dishes tasted of something, but this was food with the mute button on. I didn’t finish it.

Main2Happily, the other main course was streets ahead. Khao Soi, a Thai dish of chicken and yellow noodles in red curry sauce, was delicious. The sauce was creamy and coconutty with decent sized but perfectly soft pieces of chicken, the noodles were small enough to twirl and there were tasty crispy onion pieces on top. I was apprehensive because of the two chillies next to it on the menu but actually the flavour was well balanced with loads going on – a good whack of garlic and ginger with the creamy sauce taking the edge off the heat. This is the sort of curry I want to eat on a cold, wet night (and I probably will soon, Reading summers being what they are). What it reminded me of, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, was curry sauce from my local chip shop when I was a kid, when the chippie was a treat, all this eating out was a lifetime away and Thai food was still a few years from hitting our shores. I’m not even sure I’m saying it tasted like that, but it took me back to that magical time when foreign foods were new and exciting without being intimidating.

Main1The side dish was nothing to write home about. I went for wok fried greens – you have a choice of broccoli or pak choi in oyster or tamarind sauce. My broccoli was some kind of mutant strain that looked so much like pak choi that it’s almost impossible to tell apart from it, except for the presence of a few tiny florets. Even wilted it was almost impossible to eat with chopsticks and not quite worth the bother of doing so. A pity, really, because the tamarind sauce – like so much of the food at Tampopo – was really tasty, sweet and sharp at once.

I’ve always found desserts a bit of an Achilles’ heel in this kind of restaurant so I was amazed not only to find a few things I fancied ordering but to really enjoy them into the bargain. There isn’t much on the menu from the Philippines (just the one main) but they contribute one dessert – churros and chocolate (popular since Spanish colonial times, if you believe the blurb on the menu). These were some of the better churros I’ve had in this country; thin piped doughnuts with a good balance of crispy and chewy. Better still, the chocolate sauce was thick, intense and tasted of real chocolate, as opposed to the watery, synthetic chocolate flavoured sauce so often dished up with churros on the continent. They were perhaps a little over-zealously dusted with icing sugar but that was soon tapped off (nothing stands between me and fried dough, I can tell you).

ChurrosThe other dessert was another weakness of mine which I always order on the very rare occasions when I see it on a menu. Black sesame ice cream was gorgeous – there’s something about the hit of those sesame seeds in such a surprising context that really works. This wasn’t the best example I’ve had (a chunk of ice in the middle of it was disconcerting) but it was close enough for me. The other flavour I tried, cinnamon, was creamier and blander and mainly left me wishing I’d had two scoops of sesame instead.

Dinner for two – edamame, three courses, a side and a couple of glasses of wine – came to fifty-nine pounds, not including tip. Again, it’s worth mentioning what good value Tampopo is. Aside from those starters, which I’ve already enthused about, the most expensive main was £12. Neither of the desserts cost more than £3. The Oracle can be a punishing place for restaurants to make a living, and I was impressed by the balance between cost and quality here – and the service, which was miles better than at most Oracle restaurants I’ve been to (Browns and Pizza Express, I’m looking at you).

If I was summing up Tampopo in three words I think they’d have to be these: better than Wagamama. They occupy very similar spaces but Tampopo avoids everything that gets on my nerves about the latter: unforgiving lighting, unwelcoming furniture, the rote instruction that your dishes will arrive in a random order whether you like it or not (I can’t tell you how much this irks me) and the feeling that you are meant to eat your food quickly, leave and go to the cinema. Tampopo isn’t necessarily a place to settle in for an evening, and still feels like somewhere you’d eat before going on somewhere else, but it manages to make that feel like an experience in itself rather than a transaction. I will definitely be back, and in future when I go to a restaurant I might try leaving my preconceptions at home.

Tampopo – 7.6
The Riverside, Oracle Shopping Centre, RG1 2AG
0118 9575199

http://www.tampopo.co.uk/

Côte

Let’s get this out of the way at the start: yes, I know, Côte is a chain restaurant. You might have gathered (from my “Where next?” page) that I’m generally averse to reviewing these. Yet here I am, tucking into a meal at a great big Oracle chain restaurant. What gives?

What you might have missed is that I’ve always said that I’d consider reviewing a chain if I thought it offered something different or special. And, based on my past experience, Côte has always done exactly that. It opened back in 2011 and since then, for me, has become something of a staple. Last year I probably ate there as much as I did at any other Reading restaurant and it was reliable – never bad, always good, often excellent and sometimes great. We all need a restaurant like that sometimes, because eating out isn’t always about taking risks: every now and then you just want certainty.

Anyway, as ever it’s all about what a restaurant does on the night I turn up to review, so I did step across the threshold with a slight sense of trepidation. Were they going to have a bad night for once?

The downstairs space is a very nice room, broken up into sections with banquettes, booths and lighting orbs, making it simultaneously bright enough to eat in and cosy enough to feel intimate: no mean feat in a room which surely sits 100 diners. It does however mean, as we shall see, that photos are very poorly lit (you’ll thank me for not putting up one of the chocolate mousse, believe me). It also manages that rare trick of having large and small tables – including some specifically for couples – without leaving anyone feeling short-changed. It’s probably the prettiest dining room of all the Oracle’s riverside restaurants, although that may not be saying a lot.

I started with a basket of bread and butter while making my choices. Côte charges for its bread (a couple of quid) but it’s so good I can hardly blame then. You get a basket with half a dozen diagonal slices of delicious baguette – crisp and chewy on the outside, fluffy and crumpet-like inside, with a dish of salted butter. I think it might be my favourite restaurant bread in town: you could even say, with apologies to a certain business on Cressingham Road, Earley, that it’s the place to be heading for breading in Reading (actually, I should probably apologise to you for that pun as well). I’d love to know if they get it shipped in part-baked or if it’s made on site, but either way it’s worthy of a paragraph on its own. Thank goodness there’s no word limit.

The starters were equally tasty. Mushroom feuilleté was two slices of diamond shaped puff pastry filled with mushrooms in a creamy sauce. The bottom layer of pastry had soaked up the sauce and was rich and soft like a good English pie: a gorgeous combination. The top layer was less interesting, being all flakiness and air with no substance (I’ve got friends like that, but the less said about them the better). The menu mentioned “espelette pepper”: I couldn’t detect any on the plate and had to look it up. It turns out that it’s a type of chilli pepper – I’m not sure this would have worked, so I’m glad they left it out.

Mushrooms

The charcuterie board also didn’t disappoint, though it’s definitely a choice for the peckish. Most of the elements were terrific – the duck breast gamey without being too smoky, the duck rillette coarse and rich (I’ve got friends like that too, as it happens) and the saucisson just right. The accompaniments were also gorgeous – a couple of pieces of charred pain de campagne toast with a little olive oil soaking into them, a small pile of well dressed salad and – crucially – four crunchy, tart cornichons, perfect to wrap a slice of saucisson round and pop in your mouth. Who needs canapés? The only disappointment was the jambon – too smooth, too shiny, too supermarket. But it was a minor quibble with a starter which cost £6.50 and had so much to enjoy.

Char

I’ve always found choosing mains at Côte quite difficult, and on this occasion we ended up ordering two fish dishes, although they couldn’t have been more different. Côte’s tuna niçoise salad is one of my favourite lighter dishes in Reading, and is in danger of giving salad a good name. It’s full of interesting flavours and textures – new potato, peppers, green beans, red onion, cos lettuce and black olives – all mixed with a fresh and not at all overpowering mustard vinaigrette then topped with a just-hard-boiled egg, the yolk yellow and only just firm, and a perfectly cooked piece of tuna. The tuna deserves extra comment because other restaurants will fob you off with tinned or pre-cooked tuna but at Côte you get the real deal – a tuna steak which has been on a griddle hot enough to leave chargrill lines but where the inside is still pink. A rare treat, in both senses of the word.

Tuna

Sea bass with braised fennel and champagne beurre blanc was also faultless. It was a very generous portion of sea bass – two fillets of crispy salty skin and firm flesh – paired with surprisingly subtle fennel. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea but this was understated, more sweetness than aniseed. With so much culinary quietness going on (sea bass isn’t the punchiest of fishes) the beurre blanc had to be good and it was: creamy with bags of flavour and just a little sharpness. For less than fourteen quid I thought this was a knockout dish – no carbs, though, although having to order some frites was no real hardship.

At this point I ought to tell you how nice my white wine was, but sadly I can’t: instead we washed this down with a bottle of syrah. Not a conventional pairing, I know, but we both fancied red so we went with it anyway (and it almost went with the tuna – or that’s what I told myself anyway). It was a gorgeous bottle, very fruity and straightforward without being bland. It was also good value at less than twenty quid: in fact the wine list offers plenty of choice around that price point which is always good to see.

For dessert we both wanted a chocolate dish but I figured that wouldn’t make for the most interesting review (hard to believe, I know, but not everybody likes chocolate). In the end we split our ticket and went for one of each. The chocolate mousse was exactly that – and lots of it, too, packed into a big hefty ramekin. I liked it, although I think describing it as “dark chocolate mousse” is misleading, and likely to put people off who don’t like their cocoa solids in the region of 70% and above. In fact the top was dark, and dusted with cocoa, but underneath that it was all milk chocolate: on the dense, rich side, but delicious none the less.

The apple tart, for the non-chocolate fans among you, was an excellent example of the French classic. The base pastry was thin, crisp and sufficiently gooey with toffee to be a nice balance to the apples which were super thin and only just cooked so that they retained some of their tartness. The scoop of vanilla ice cream it came with was speckled with just enough vanilla dots to convince me it was the real deal, and was just about tasty enough to make me think it was worth having on the plate. A better accompaniment was the glass of Montbazillac I had – sweet but not treacly or cloying, and decent value at four pounds.

Côte is very good at service. On a Thursday night, the restaurant was full and turning people away, and yet they never seemed rushed or harassed and I never felt ignored or overlooked. Instead, it was attentive and smiley without being over-keen. Our wine glasses were topped up regularly (but not too regularly – a pet hate of mine) and the free filtered water is a nice touch. I think it’s a shame that the restaurant adds an automatic (but not compulsory) 12.5% service charge to the bill, given that this is one of the few places in Reading that really shouldn’t need to. I suppose it makes paying the bill less awkward, but even so it seems a pity.

The total for three courses each, a bottle of wine and a glass of dessert wine was seventy-five pounds, excluding tip. No clangers, no mistakes, no errors on the plate, just reliable very good food. They didn’t have an off-night, just as they never seem to, and I reckon this is as good a place in Reading to spend that kind of money as any – particularly if you’re risk averse. It’s worth mentioning, as I so often do, that you could easily spend less here – especially if you’re there before 7 o’clock, when their two course set menu is a tenner and constitutes mind-boggling value.

In the run-up to this review, I asked people on Twitter about members of the “Never Again Club”, restaurants in Reading that you’d been to once and would never visit again. The responses came thick and fast, and unsurprisingly many of them were chain restaurants: Giraffe (“blatantly microwaved”); Café Rouge (“makes French food bland and boring, quite a feat”); Frankie And Benny’s (“I would have been better off in McDonalds”); Five Guys (“insanely priced mediocrity”). The list went on and on.

And yet there were also a significant number of independent places in there – and heaven knows, I’ve reviewed enough terrible independent restaurants (I still have flashbacks about the tapas at Picasso or that ravioli at The Lobster Room) to know that neither side has the monopoly on quality. I sometimes think we’re making the wrong distinction: there are good restaurants and bad restaurants, some good chains and some bad independent restaurants. Côte is a very good, reliable, consistent restaurant. You can go there with a big group of friends for a blow-out, you can grab a quick dinner with a friend there before going to the cinema, you can have a nice tête-à-tête there on a Friday night with your other half. It just happens to be a chain.

The promise chains implicitly make is that you know exactly what you’re getting, and for better or worse my experience is that that’s nearly always true. The difference with Côte is that you’re getting something good. So it doesn’t belong in my Never Again Club, and I might have to think up another name for this kind of restaurant. The Again And Again Club, perhaps.

Cote – 7.8
9 The Riverside, The Oracle Shopping Centre, RG1 2AG
0118 9591180

http://www.cote-restaurants.co.uk/Cote_Restaurant_Reading.html

Round-up: September

Well, Edible Reading has been going for over a month and I thought it would be a good point to stop for a moment and say thanks to everyone who has followed on Twitter, commented on a review or passed on a link. I’ve been really wowed by all the support, which is fantastic (in fact I even got my first hater – or are they called trolls now, I can never remember – which is proof that I’ve really made it!) In case you’ve missed anything in the first six weeks, here’s what’s happened on the blog so far…

Pepe Sale, 8.3 – Lovely food, superb service and crab ravioli to die for. Read the full review here.

ZeroDegrees, 5.4 – Reading needs a place that does great pizza and delicious moules but Zero Degrees, with its cut corners and wonky service, isn’t it. Read why not here.

London Street Brasserie, 6.8 – The elder statesman of Reading’s restaurant scene still offers some really good food, but you have to pick carefully and you’re better off staying on the set menu. The full review’s here.

Picasso, 4.1 – When is a tapas restaurant not a tapas restaurant? When the tapas in question is massive, costs almost a tenner and feels like it came from a bad supermarket. The worst rating so far, see why here.

Five Guys, 5.5 – It’s just a burger… or is it? The much-hyped latest addition to Reading’s restaurant scene has attracted lots of attention. I chip in (pardon the pun) with my two pence here.

In terms of restaurant news, apart from Five Guys, the main place to open since Edible Reading opened its doors is Tasting House, on Chain Street, in a rather unlovely location round the side of John Lewis. It does a small selection of charcuterie and cheese boards, a dozen or so wines by the glass and a large range of wines to take home. I’m not generally a fan of reviewing places just after they’ve opened (although in the case of Five Guys the temptation was too great to resist), but maybe a bit further down the line. It’s only open until eight though, so don’t plan on settling in for the evening if you do go.

Also, Thai Nine has closed and reopened as Sushimania, which means it will be part of a small chain with other branches at Golders Green and Edgware. Presumably this is a takeover, like when Sahara closed and reopened as BeAtOne. It’s an interesting move, because every time I’ve been to Thai Nine I thought the Thai food was much more popular than the sushi (and I say that as a sushi lover). I imagine I’ll review Sushi Mania in due course, so watch this space.

Another piece of news is that I like to think we’re having an effect on the Reading Post. They published a review earlier this month which wasn’t one hundred per cent glowing – of Wild Lime Bar & Kitchen, which you can read here (apparently it was “pleasant enough”).

Best of all, I’m also happy to say that another local restaurant blog has started around the same time as Edible Reading (I know, I know! We’re like buses). Stuff In My Face is a lot of fun, a cracking read and I’m looking forward to seeing what he makes of places round here. His very entertaining review of Pierre’s, here, is a great place to start.

Finally, thanks too to everyone who has recommended a restaurant for me to visit. Suggestions so far range from some of the Reading classics like Mya Lacarte and Sweeney & Todd to newish places like The Lobster Room, Bhoj, and House Of Flavours. I’m keeping a list and will try to get to all of them eventually, I promise.

Right, better go – I’ve got some meals to plan.

London Street Brasserie

A more recent review of this restaurant exists, from July 2021. Click here to read it.

London Street Brasserie was almost the first restaurant reviewed for Edible Reading. In many ways it would have been the perfect choice, because it’s hard to imagine Reading without it. As Old Orleans has been replaced by Miller & Carter, as Ma Potter, Yellow River Café, Chili’s and Ha! Ha! have opened and shut and been replaced, it’s always been there, dragging the rest of the restaurant scene in Reading up in quality, year by year. It’s hard to believe that it only opened in 2000 (I had to check, and even then I did a bit of a double take).

It’s always done a roaring trade – not just locals, but also shoppers and the occasional celebrity, too. I don’t mean Paul Daniels and The Lovely Debbie McGee, either – apparently Prince Harry was there on Sunday night, mere hours after we’d checked it out at lunchtime, and rumour has it he very much enjoyed the crab (presumably he then dashed off to the casino next door, if past form is anything to go by). Even so, it feels remiss not to review it even if it is one of Reading’s most well known restaurants. After all, does that necessarily mean it’s any good?

The set menu at LSB has always been a good deal, so three of us went along for Sunday lunch with the very best of intentions. Three people, two courses, £16 a head: should be a bargain, right? Well. It always starts like that, but the problem is that then you have to have a quick look at the rest of the menu (the “here’s what you could have won” element of visiting a restaurant) and the next thing you know there is some complicated horse trading going on – I’ll have a starter off the set menu if I can have a main from the a la carte and what have you. So we wound up ordering a bit of everything, and convincing ourselves that it was for the good of the review.

The winner among the starters, in fact, was from the set menu: halloumi and rosemary with a rocket, peanut and mint salad. This was the one we all wished we’d ordered – the salty halloumi set off perfectly by the mint, not a combination any of us had tried before. The others, though, were less successful. The foie gras ballotine seemed in some places to be more butter than foie gras (some of which had started to melt, possibly because it had been left out too long), and lacked any real complexity. The Sauternes sultanas accompanying it were little unremarkable sugary pellets and the cocoa nibs added more texture than taste. Each section of ballotine was topped with an inadequate triangle of toasted brioche, and the whole thing was a little underwhelming. At just under a tenner, it was disappointing stuff – you can argue about whether foie gras is cruel or a delicious necessary evil, but one thing it should never be is empty calories, and this came rather close to that.LSB1

The Parma ham with artichoke and parsley salad, also on the set menu, might have been even less exciting – the ham, despite being air dried, was somehow smooth, wet and fatty and the accompanying artichoke and parsley salad, with finely chopped red and yellow peppers wasn’t anything to write home about. Having used up a large part of my adjective quota on the foie gras, let’s just use one – boring – for this and leave it at that.

LSB6

The mains, happily, were a much better bunch. The fish and chips was a generously sized piece of haddock with a perfect, light crispy batter, along with chips served in one of those little frying baskets that seem to be all the rage at the moment (and which are very popular with me too, as they’re very easy to steal from). The mushy peas must have been good because I didn’t get to try any – you try stealing mushy peas without being spotted some time. The tiny jars of fresh sauces (a red pepper ketchup and tartare sauce) were a nice touch, though the vinegar came in a faddish bottle too, and personally I don’t see what’s wrong with a proper shaker.

The Tuscan venison ragu with pappardelle was also very nice, or at least it was when it came out second time around; first time round the ragu was aspiring to warm, although it never quite got there. We did the English thing of apologising for being given lukewarm food and the waiter did the equally English thing of not really apologising but sending it back to the kitchen.  When the replacement arrived – fortunately quite quickly – it was delicious; rich, intense, just the right size, and the pine nuts studded through the pappardelle were also an interesting surprise. I was a bit dubious about the self-assembly element of this – you are brought a bowl of naked pasta and a small saucepan of ragu and left to put it together yourself. Maybe some diners quite like being involved in the process, but I thought plating up really should be the kitchen’s job.

LSB2.1

My main, garlic and sage marinated monkfish, was lovely. Three mini fillets of monkfish served with sweet potatoes, cabbage and a red wine jus. It sounds simple but it was definitely more than the sum of its parts. It was really delicious – quite light and compact but not stingy which is quite a challenge with an expensive ingredient like monkfish.

All this was washed down by two bottles of the Surani Costarossa, a primitivo at a very primitive £27.50 a bottle. The second bottle was a little harder work than the first but we’d already had a aperitif in the bar so things were starting to reach the stage where restraint is a wonderful, if somewhat distant, concept. By this point, the sun had come round to the terrace and a few more barges had gone past so it seemed a shame to leave our table (although naturally, if we’d known Prince Harry would turn up in a few hours maybe we’d have taken things a bit more slowly). So we finished our red in the mellow afternoon sun and looked at the dessert menu, because it never does any harm to look.

The desserts on the set menu are a fiver each, a quid or two less than those on the a la carte, so we decided to look at both menus and pick what we fancied. I had the sticky toffee pudding, from the set. So indulgent (although my main was on the lighter side so I felt I could get away with it): a simple square of moist suet pudding, served in a glorious little lake of butterscotch sauce with a quenelle of clotted cream to cut through the sweetness a little. Just divine; done well, nothing fancy, thank you very much. The caramelised lemon tart with stem ginger ice cream appeared on my left, and I’m told it was lovely but I never got to try it. I was told, between mouthfuls, that the caramelised topping in particular was a big hit.

The showpiece dessert, however, was the orange and Grand Marnier soufflé with hot chocolate sauce. A full inch taller than the soufflé dish, this had more fluff on top than Donald Trump in a windstorm. It looked magnificent, but like Donald Trump what lay beneath didn’t quite live up to the impressive topping – undercooked to the point of being damp, it didn’t quite feel right. On the other hand, once the dark chocolate sauce got poured in, the whole thing transformed into a big edible puddle and apparently it stopped mattering so much after that. Of course, that might also have been to do with the bottle of dessert wine we’d ordered. I’m a little ashamed to admit that we washed them down with a bottle of Tokaji (5 puttanyos for those who know their wine) which was incredible, even if it probably contained enough sugar to be a dessert on its own. At £42 a bottle it really isn’t cheap, though in fairness the mark-up on it isn’t unreasonable.

LSB3.1

The dessert wine didn’t turn up until after the desserts had arrived, and we needed to give the waiter a nudge for it. Service was a bit like that all afternoon – slightly hit and miss but always cheekily apologetic, as if they’d been caught winging it. The whole thing was slightly reminiscent of people at work (and every office has one) who rely heavily on their charm to make sure they’re never quite found out for not delivering things. On a Sunday afternoon, a few bottles of wine to the good, with the sun on the terrace and the barges floating past on the canal, this was all fine, but with hindsight it could have and probably should have been a little sharper.

So, it’s been a staple of the Reading restaurant scene since the turn of the century, Prince Harry eats there and it’s always packed, but is it any good? Well, as you can probably tell from the above, the answer – frustratingly – is yes and no. But over the years I keep coming back here. The food is hit and miss, and so is the service – not all of the waiting staff have the finesse that the food deserves – but the riverside setting, the buzz and the sheer range of the dishes (especially on the set menu which I think was a much better deal on the day) mean that it has enough interesting things going on to make me return. Carried away by the summer and the sheer recklessness of exploring the menu our bill for three, for three courses, three aperitifs and three – yes, three – bottles of wine came to £195, but I would say do as I say not as I do, go for lunch or an early evening meal and it’s still a decent place to eat. In 2000 LSB was head and shoulders ahead of almost everywhere else you could eat in Reading. In 2013, it should maybe be a bit less confident about retaining that status.

London Street Brasserie – 6.8
2 – 4 London Street, RG1 4PN
Telephone 01189 505036

http://www.londonstbrasserie.co.uk/

ZeroDegrees

I remember being quite excited when ZeroDegrees opened in Reading, around five years ago. My father raved about the Bristol branch, and he knows good food when he sees it. And yet when I went there, shortly after it opened, I remember a few disappointing visits. It ought to be good. As a family run mini chain of “brewpubs” with an emphasis on good food and innovation (according to their website) it should fit right in to the Reading restaurant scene in the same way that Bill’s (for good or bad) has been welcomed with open arms.

Despite this I decided to give it another try for the blog. Maybe I’d been too harsh on the place in the past. And after all, if I ruled out everywhere that had given me a dodgy salad once upon a time there wouldn’t be many places left to review.

The interior of the restaurant is light industrial – bare redbrick walls, blown up vintage photos of the brewing process and on the balcony above the kitchen you can see the brewery itself, all steel vats, pipes and glass. Nice. The tables themselves had a weird, slightly tacky feel, like they had been refinished with the wrong varnish. No matter, the waiter was friendly enough and we ordered a couple of drinks (a glass of sauvignon blanc for me and a pint of wheat beer for my guest) while we looked over the menu. For an empty restaurant it took a long time for the drinks to arrive but at least it gave us time to pick some food. The sauvignon was, well, fine. Nice enough: although I did have to send back the first glass as it was cracked, something the waiter didn’t notice. The wheat beer was served with a slice of orange and was, I’m told, light and refreshing. (I didn’t ask to try it, beer really isn’t my thing.)

The menu at ZeroDegrees is a strange beast: it’s almost exclusively pizza, pasta and mussels. So far so good, you might say, but it’s almost as if they found these limitations frightening and decided to offer as many different pizzas as possible. I counted almost twenty on the menu, seemingly carrying out a world tour through the medium of pizza. So there’s a thai green chicken pizza (topped with glass noodles), a crispy duck pizza (topped with crispy tortillas, naturally), “Mexican sausage”, whatever that is, and teriyaki chicken. The mussels had slightly less of an identity crisis, although even then a Thai green curry option was available.

The crostini starter (to share) was nice enough: sort of a garlic bread version of a four seasons pizza. The four slices of bread were thickly sliced, crispy on the edges and generously topped with “bruschetta” (which turned out to be cherry tomatoes, black olives and garlic), parma ham (which was generous to a fault), smoked salmon with mascarpone, and a very small strip of goat’s cheese. This came with a big pile of rocket and some parmesan which was slightly tough, as if it had been sliced then left out to dry. The rocket was a sad thing which seemed to be there for no other reason but to fill space: undressed and a little dishevelled, a few brown bits, a few tough leaves. I like rocket as much as the next person, but the next person would have left this rocket, and so did I.

I tried to get the waiter’s attention to ask for some dressing, but he was busy elsewhere. In fact, despite there only being about three or four tables occupied on a Bank Holiday lunchtime, service was best described as omni-absent: always lurking behind a pillar or in the kitchen when you wanted someone. When he came to take the plate away I noted that he didn’t ask how it was. I never know whether this is a lack of training or a conscious decision not to ask a question you might not like the answer to. Still, this was only a £7 starter and it went between two well.crostiniMy guest’s main was the roasted garlic chicken pizza (“garlic chicken, red onions, parsley, white wine garlic sauce”). The dough was not unpleasant, if a little on the thick side, and the chicken was tasty although it wasn’t at all what either of us was expecting: roasted garlic chicken somehow suggests chicken that has been torn in some way, whereas these were pale chunky blocks of chicken that looked like they had been fried in a pan. The flavour of the sauce was nice, if incongruous – you don’t realise how integral tomato sauce is to a pizza until you order a pizza without it. He didn’t finish it, which is something of an accolade for ZeroDegrees as I’ve never seen him leave pizza before.pizzaTo contrast I had the moules mariniéres, one of their signature dishes; a kilo pot served with fries, mayonnaise and ketchup. This is one of my favourite things, when it’s done right. I like a big bowl of mussels, plump and juicy and then the delicious soup at the bottom filled with shallots and cream and herbs that you can’t help but keep eating even though you know it’s a big bowl of cholesterol, salty and fatty. I love the bit towards the end, when all the shells have been discarded and there’s just you, the sauce, a spoon, some bread to dip and some skinny frites to pour in, even though you know you should probably stop.mussels

Just typing that paragraph makes me realise how far from that ideal the ZeroDegrees mussels fell. They were fine. Fine. Nothing more. I dug around with my spoon and could find nothing, no shallots, no herbs, just a salty, creamy liquor with no real depth to it. If I contrast this with the moules served at Côte, another chain, on the riverside (which they only serve when in season) they came out sadly lacking. I managed to flag down my waiter and asked about the absence of onions and herbs and was told that the garlic and onions are ground into a paste and cooked with the mussels. This might have been true, but if it was there was little evidence in how it all tasted. I ate half, in the end, and a fair few frites, but I left the rest. I just didn’t see the point – as a dish it was like a novel where someone had torn out the final chapter.  Even the mayonnaise and ketchup came in those little paper cups I associate with much cheaper restaurants.

I grabbed my cleansing towelette (no finger bowl here), cleaned up and asked for the bill. I couldn’t even muster the enthusiasm for a dessert, especially considering that just one item says “home made” on it, suggesting the rest are shipped in frozen from Brake Brothers or suchlike. When the waiter took away half a bowl of mussels and half a portion of frites, his curiosity once again deserted him.

So, I think I’m pretty much in the same place with ZeroDegrees as I was just after it opened. It should be marvellous, but it isn’t. Reading could do with an independent place that serves pizza and moules, but Zero Degrees isn’t it: the ethos behind the chain is great but it just doesn’t carry through to the food. The waiter seemed a little out of his depth (he was so young and innocent that I wanted to look after him rather than be served by him, which is all very sweet but really not how it should be) and in a big open restaurant with only four occupied tables, good service should be easier than this.

I think the best I can say is that ZeroDegrees is OK. The food (one shared starter, two mains, one drink each) came to £45, including the “optional” 10% service charge they add on. I’m not sure I’d have tipped otherwise, and I doubt I’ll pay it another visit.

ZeroDegrees – 5.4
9 Bridge Street, RG1 2LR
Telephone 0118 959 7959