Feature: The 2016 Edible Reading Awards

Bowie, Brexit, Trump, Desmond Carrington retiring from Radio 2: whichever way you cut it, it’s been a year to forget in many ways. 2016 has been the year when many brilliant people lost their lives and our country, closely followed by the U.S., lost its senses. By this point, you probably all just want to set your out of office autoreply, plough through some snowballs – and by the way, 11am isn’t too early for a snowball – and hang in for grim death all the way to New Year’s Eve desperately praying that no more terrible things happen (not the Queen, anything but the Queen!).

You might wonder why I’m choosing to publish my awards just before Christmas. After all, you could say that my blog is also a casualty of The Year That Hope Forgot; I downed tools in July and since then Reading’s diners have had to rely on word of mouth, the magnificent Reading Forum, TripAdvisor or – usually a better alternative to TripAdvisor – sticking a pin in a map of Reading with your eyes shut in order to decide where to go for dinner. Honestly, this year.

The thing is though, this is the time when we need most to focus on the good things out there. I know that from personal experience; I won’t wang on about it here, but for every awful thing that has happened there has been a brilliant thing too, for every disappointment an equal and opposite wonderful surprise. It might be Newton’s law for the conservation of sanity, or it might just be my rose-tinted spectacles but I honestly think it’s not all bad. Now more than ever, we need to recognise that: as a friend said to me recently, if you don’t look you’ll never see it.

Reading’s restaurant scene is a good illustration of that. Last year I remember complaining that there were still no town centre pubs doing nice food. And now we have I Love Paella cooking at The Fisherman’s Cottage, Caucasian Spice Box at the Turk’s Head and The Lyndhurst reopened with a new team, a new menu and some interesting offerings. You can now eat German food, or Korean barbecue, or scoot across the river to Caversham and get beautiful bread and some of the most innovative vegetarian food for miles around.

There’s more excellent news. The good cafés – the C.U.Ps and the Tamps – are prospering and flourishing, despite our proliferation of Neros and Costas. There are far more food markets in town than before (and Blue Collar Food, which I visited recently for the first time, is so good that it’s almost cured my scepticism about street food). And longer term, we’re even going to get some half-decent chain restaurants when Busaba, Franco Manca and Byron open on the ground floor of Jackson’s – although I’ve given up hoping that The Stable or Grillstock will ever make good on their promise to expand to Reading.

So with that in mind, let me dust off this microphone, quickly seal these envelopes (Rymans’ finest, don’t you know) and get proceedings under way. Fasten your seatbelts, and scream if you want to go faster!

SANDWICH OF THE YEAR: The Cheesy One, Caffeine & Cocktails

CaffeineSandwichWell, I could have given this award to Shed again and heaven knows it wouldn’t have been undeserved. But the problem with being consistently excellent is that after a while it’s not enough, and apart from a few minor tweaks Shed’s menu has been pretty much unchanged this year. I was tempted to give the award to Sam’s Wraps for their huge (and impressively cheap) jerk chicken wraps, although without the hot sauce they add to them which I’m pretty sure contains depleted uranium. And actually, surprisingly, I was very tempted to break the habit of a lifetime and give some credit to Pret which despite being a chain has regularly given me half decent things to take to work (jambon beurre with a shedload of gherkins, take it from me) or eat during a weekend lunch with family (the falafel and halloumi hot wrap, usually).

But the one I liked best, believe it or not, was the cheese toastie from Caffeine and Cocktails. Ironically the one time I went on duty they managed to muck it up, but every time I went before and after it was really lovely – three different terrific cheeses, on dead good bread with onion chutney and mustard. Nothing more to it than that, but sometimes a sandwich is about making simple things well. Every time I ever go to there for lunch it’s empty, which makes me worry that the food will eventually become seen as an afterthought. So go while you still can, before they decide to prioritise cocktails over caffeine (and sandwiches) for good.

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Jeera chicken, Royal Tandoori

RoyalStartersWhen I went to Royal Tandoori on duty I liked a lot of it but I loved the jeera chicken the best. You have to like cumin, because the cumin is the star of the show, piled high on the glorious, tender chicken, so high that it crunches under your teeth, so fragrant and wonderful. They say it’s a starter, but it’s a huge portion and I sometimes think the only thing that distinguishes it from the curries is that it doesn’t come in a sauce. But when there’s that much going on you just don’t care about that. Since then I’ve found myself in Royal Tandoori an awful lot: it’s one of my family’s favourite restaurants and I’ve come to appreciate the brilliant service and the wide range of interesting flavours (and the cashews in their biryani). But the jeera chicken remains my first love.

Special mentions have to go to the Scotch egg at the Lyndhurst (four pounds and so good it’s easy to justify it as a bar snack even if you aren’t eating) and the brilliant, brilliant salt cod churros at I Love Paella. Any other year, the latter probably would have won – a bit like Hillary Clinton, I suppose.

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Caucasian Spice Box

I really, really like Caucasian Spice Box. I’d heard loads of rave reviews from the food markets but my first exposure was when they did a brief residency at The Horn while Enric – of I Love Paella fame – was inconsiderate enough to leave his customers in the lurch for weeks by going off and getting married (honestly, this year!). I went and I was just wowed by the range and subtlety of the flavours, from bean stew which may have looked like beige paste but was absolutely crammed with savoury wonder, to bread stuffed with gooey, elastic cheese to spiced chicken thighs and bright yellow, shiny pickled baby squashes. Then they moved across town to The Turk’s Head and I’m happy to say the food is as amazing as before. Incredible value, too: the “Special Day Feast” – those fabulous chicken thighs, that cheese stuffed bread, a sharply dressed salad, some aubergine and walnut rolls and a spiced walnut sauce (which makes houmous look stodgy and bland) comes in at just shy of eleven pounds. Go, go, go!

Honourable mentions in this category go to German restaurant Bierhaus, which was far far better than I expected it to be, and Nomad Bakery, which was every bit as good as I expected it to be.

LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Shed

It’s still Shed. If I have a lunch break, and I’m working from home, nine times out of ten I’ll go to Shed. Everything I said last year is still true, and I have nothing to add. Everywhere else needs to up its game, or they might as well keep the trophy.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Chicken paella, I Love Paella

ILPPaellaA lot of the contenders for this award were on the spicy side. The karahi chicken at Kobeeda Palace for instance, a beautiful and undemonstrative curry in a place not known for its curries. The dumpak lamb in Himalaya Momo House, which comes with a little lid like a Nepalese pie (although I was particularly impressed by this, in truth, because I hadn’t known about the lid and so had Ordered Pie By Mistake). And I also had half a mind to include the pan fried chicken momo from Sapana Home, for reasons which will become apparent later on. If they hadn’t gone and taken it off the menu the braised lamb parcel at Henley’s Little Angel – the standout dish from an otherwise indifferent visit – might also have taken the crown. I loved it, even though I had no idea even as I was eating it how I might describe it in a review (it’s kind of a meatball slash faggot slash steamed pudding slash I don’t know it’s just a big dome of meat and, you know, stuff, and it’s really gorgeous).

But for me, I Love Paella’s chicken paella is the one. I always liked the seafood paella they did when they were at Workhouse Coffee, but it wasn’t quite what I was after. When they moved to The Horn and I saw the menu, chicken paella was the one dish I knew I had to order. On that first and many subsequent visits, it’s always knocked my socks off: salted without being salty, rich without being flashy, ambitious without being gluttonous. All those gorgeous chicken thighs would be the best bit if it wasn’t for the glossy, perfectly cooked rice, packed with beans and peppers. And that in turn would be the best bit if it wasn’t for the crunchy, caramelised rice you got to eat right at the end once you’d lifted it off the paella pan by having a good old scrape with the metal spoon. I’ve taken a fair few people to I Love Paella this time, and every time I wasn’t sure whether I was introducing them to the paella or the paella to them. Yes, I love it that much.

SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus

Otherwise known as the Artist Formerly Known As Kyrenia although, unlike Prince, Kyrenia simply changed its name this year rather than ceasing to be. When I found out about the name change, I was worried that the restaurant had lost Ihor, the front of house who has always made Kyrenia such a brilliant place to eat. I was assured that it hadn’t, and in fact when I’d gone there for my birthday it had been Ihor looking after us even though the restaurant had changed its name by then. Many restaurants manage to make service look so difficult with lots of staff (I don’t like to focus on the bad when I’m giving out awards, but I’m talking about the likes of C*ppa Cl*b here), so it’s lovely that Kyrenia – balls to calling it Ketty’s, I’m sorry – does such a stupendous job with no more than two people waiting all of its tables. Every time I’ve been this year I’ve felt cared about, fussed over and spoiled but more impressive than that, they have the rare gift of being able to make everyone at every table feel special. I hope the new management has got the memo that 2017 needs to be an awful lot better, and I hope they don’t mess with that winning formula.

Also worth mentioning are two of Reading’s Nepalese restaurants, namely Himalaya Momo in Caversham Park Village – a real gem with friendly, kind, engaging service – and Dhaulagiri Kitchen on the Basingstoke Road where the people looking after me were an absolute delight.

DESSERT OF THE YEAR – “Snicker”, Royal Oak Paley Street

OakSnickerI’ve never been a big dessert fan. It’s the course I’m most likely to skip, or swap out for cheese. In some restaurants – Thai, Indian, Chinese – I’m never sure it’s worth having. In others – pubs in particular – it can feel like they’re playing it safe or going for things they don’t have to cook on the premises; also, is chocolate brownie really a dessert? It feels unlikely. My test for these things is always: is a dessert really going to bring me more joy than a Tutti Frutti ice cream or even a Toffee Crisp? The answer, very frequently, is no.

So this is a rare victory for the very top end in the ER awards. I think desserts are where really good kitchens, especially Michelin starred ones, come into their own and the Royal Oak at Paley Street’s take on the Snickers bar is a classic example of how to do this right. On Masterchef they like to whaff on about “processes”; I don’t know about that, but look at how much work must be involved in making this. I’ve never adhered to the whole “it’s too pretty to eat” school of thought, but even I can see you would easily have a pang of guilt about just how quickly you can gromph down one of these compared to how long it took to construct. I didn’t order this, so I only had a couple of spoonfuls of my companion’s, and even that was enough to win it this award. I’m not sure I’m in a hurry to go back to the Royal Oak, but if I did I’d probably just order this. Three times.

OUT OF TOWN RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR – Branca, Oxford

I’ve eaten in quite a few splendid places outside Reading this year. I had delicate, stunning stuffed courgette flowers at Opera Tavern in Covent Garden. I had steamed Korean buns from Khao and Bao in Bristol, stuffed with fried chicken and kimchee, eaten by the harbourside with a pint of cider. I ate Japanese food in Oxford’s Taberu, down the Cowley Road in an area where every visit throws up a new piece of gentrification. I probably had my meal of the year in a converted bus station in Lewes at The Hearth, where I rejoiced in the perfect (and I don’t use that word lightly) Napoli pizza with stinging, vinegary capers, salty anchovies and intense, almost shrivelled black olives. The chocolate and salted caramel tart afterwards sent me into raptures.

But for the place I’ve been back to again and again, Branca easily wins this award. It’s buzzy and stylish and it’s full of North Oxford’s beautiful people, whether they’re doting well-behaved families, or affluent, well-dressed older couples enjoying meals away from their empty nest. Also, several times this year, it has played host to me. Everything is impeccable there, from the focaccia to the pizza, from the confit duck to the beautifully cooked tranches of firm white-fleshed fish. The desserts are beautiful, the coffee is good, the wine is served by the carafe and the salted caramel brownie bites are equidistant between ganache, cake mix and paradise. House prices being what they are, I can’t afford it to be my neighbourhood restaurant but it doesn’t matter: a day return to Oxford is just over six pounds with a railcard, and I’m mighty good at pretending.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR – Sapana Home

I was tempted to give this award to Cosmo. Not because of the food (be serious!) but because of what it represents – a whole community of readers and followers clubbing together to raise an awful lot of money for vulnerable people in Reading, albeit by forcing me to endure an almost unending cavalcade of culinary dross in a windowless room. Although I did discover the delights of crispy duck served in a Yorkshire pudding (stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Heston: my friend Ben wipes the floor with your crummy bacon trifle).

But no, it has to be Sapana Home this year. And in the process of giving this award, I also have to offer an apology: when I went to Sapana on duty, a long time ago, I was unimpressed. I loved the momo, I didn’t much like everything else. So I kept going back for the momo, and as I did something magical happened: every time I went I ordered something else from the menu and I discovered that a lot of it was good, whether it was chicken fry, delicious cubes of chicken with hot sauce and rich, green spring onion, matcha fry, spicy little crispy fish somewhere between a sardine and a whitebait or samosa chaat, warm pieces of samosa mixed with chick peas, potato and crunchy sev, all topped with yoghurt and tamarind sauce.

And then, of course, there are the momo. They truly are magnificent, whether you have them pan-fried and slightly caramelised on the outside, deep fried and begging to be dipped in the sauce or – and this was another revelation this year – steamed and bobbing in a beautiful hot tomato soup with chilli and red onion, festooned with fresh coriander.

The next magical thing that happened was this: I found myself eating in Sapana Home more and more. Off the train from work when I couldn’t face going home and cooking, or quickly in town before joining friends down the pub. And I took to introducing friends to Sapana Home – my friends Ben and Tim who both pronounced themselves momo fanatics, my vegetarian friend Clare only last week (Sapana is very good for vegetarians). I took my mother there shortly after her birthday: she loved the place too.

I haven’t even mentioned the beautiful mango lassi, always blended by hand, the warm enthusiastic welcome or how oddly proud of Sapana I was when I turned up at one point this year to find that they’d redecorated, knocked down a wall and opened the front room up with more light and slightly more tables. But there you have it. My restaurant of the year is always the one where I’ve had the most nice evenings and the best times and for 2016, amid all the turmoil and horror in the world outside, Sapana Home has been that place. I don’t know what next year holds: whether Trump and Russia will usher in our downfall, whether a hard Brexit will leave us all mired in negative equity, whether we’ll all finally get over burgers or whether I’ll write some more restaurant reviews. But I do know that, whatever it has in store, you’ll often find me in that unpretentious dining room on Queen Victoria Street, two doors down from Gregg’s The Baker. If you’re looking for New Year’s resolutions, you could do far worse.

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Feature: Dining elsewhere

This might be hard for you to believe, but Reading isn’t perfect. Even I, with my bad habit of standing on the virtual soapbox and shouting about its best bits, know that. I’ve talked in the past about all the types of restaurants I’d love to see open in Reading, from indies to (some) chains, but this week instead of a review I thought I’d go one step further and talk about some of my favourite restaurants outside Reading. These are places I would love to pick up and plonk somewhere in town, even if I know in my heart of hearts that they wouldn’t necessarily fit in.

This is by no means a list of the best restaurants anywhere, by the way. Often your favourite restaurant isn’t necessarily the best – the food might not be as flawless, the service might not be as polished, but simply put your favourite restaurants are the ones where you have the best times. Your mileage, should you ever get to one of this lot, will undoubtedly vary. And it’s not definitive, either: I missed out countless places in the interest of limiting this to half a dozen, including little bistros in Paris, sweet sun-kissed tavernas on Greek islands, Michelin starred joints deep in the Cotswolds and establishments from Toronto to Glasgow, from Prague to Istanbul. Loving restaurants is a wonderful thing, I think. Loving lists the way I do also brings a lot of joy. But trying to combine the two, it turns out, is rather an agonising pursuit.

Pierre Victoire, Oxford

(Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor)

Reading doesn’t really have a proper French bistro. A few places have come close (and Brebis is only a train ride away) but you’d hope a town the size of Reading could sustain somewhere like Oxford’s Pierre Victoire. Originally part of a now defunct chain (which at one point included Reading, so maybe we don’t deserve another after all) this place has thrived by offering some great classics, an amazing value set menu (where starters and desserts are only two quid each. No really) and proper French service – you know, the sort where they always seem slightly amused by you but want to charm your socks off none the less.

Despite being a pretty big restaurant, getting a table here is a real challenge unless you’ve booked ahead (which I singularly fail to do) so I sometimes end up eating here at lunch instead of dinner, just to make sure I do get to try it. On my most recent visit I tucked into a gorgeous quenelle of smooth chicken liver pate followed by a big stainless steel pot of moules marinière with skinny fries. I also nicked some of my companion’s potato rosti (sitting underneath a splendid, crispy confit duck leg) which would have been worth the price of admission alone. Lunch for two, including a crazily reasonable half bottle of Côtes du Rhône, came to thirty-six pounds. Thirty-six pounds! The tables are all squished together – which normally would annoy me, but here I like it because of the people-watching potential – and I never leave without wishing I could put Pierre’s in my pocket and bring it back on the train with me. Reading could really do with a little more ooh la la, n’est-ce pas?

Great Queen Street, London
Great-Queen-Street-Interior(Photo from the restaurant’s website)

I know that London is arguably the most exciting dining scene in the world right now. I know that every cuisine is represented, to dazzling effect, and that every month new places open, shifting the dynamic of the place ever so slightly. It must be lovely to have all that on your doorstep to choose from, from the high end to street food with every permutation in between. I know all that, and yet – and I know this will make me sound like a hick from the sticks – I have had so many disappointing meals there you would not believe.

I follow the critics, I ooh and aah over the meals (both the pictures in the papers and the ones they paint with their effortless sentences) and yet I’m so often underwhelmed. Whether it’s a neighbourhood restaurant a little off the Tube network, an old stager offering faded but charming grandeur or Michelin starred luxury on the top floor of some tall building, I often end up on the train back from Paddington thinking “what am I missing?”. Probably a lot, but what it means is that when I do go in I want to find somewhere central, reliable and decent that I can book in advance, where I won’t have to queue round the block for hours or spend two hours pretending I’m having more fun than I am.

At the moment, for me, that place is Great Queen Street. Just off Drury Lane, part of a group which includes legendary Waterloo gastropub The Anchor & Hope and Oxford’s Magdalen Arms. It’s just perfect – dark, clubby, welcoming and totally disinterested in being cool. The menu is the kind of unpretentious list where you want to order practically everything and the wine list is full of inexpensive delights (plenty from the Languedoc, I’m happy to say). Last time I went, I shared a chicken, leek and tarragon pie, all rich creamy filling topped with flaky pastry but with that beautiful slightly soggy layer just beneath, like a business class Fray Bentos, and I liked it so much I nearly wept. I would say that once you eat there, you’ll never go back to Sweeney and Todd – but to be honest you could say the same once you eat at Sweeney and Todd.

Bosco Pizzeria, Bristol

Despite discovering (if that’s even the right word, seeing as loads of you told me you loved it but just didn’t want me telling everyone) Papa Gee last year, I am still yearning for a comfy neighbourhood pizzeria. Well, I sort of found one, but the problem is that it’s on the Whiteladies Road in Bristol. And I always seem to end up there when I visit Bristol, despite it being a city with so many amazing restaurants (Wallfish in Clifton, for one, or the wonderful tapas restaurant Bravas). It’s not even Bristol’s coolest pizzeria – the up and coming Flour And Ash has taken that title – but it remains one of my favourite places to eat.

I’m normally there for lunch, but it’s the kind of restaurant that has perfected offering something for everyone, whether it’s small groups, dates or family outings. The menu is brilliant, with great antipasti (especially the burrata and coppa – to be honest I could gladly live off some combination of those two) leading up to the genuine highlight, the pizza. The base is light, chewy, ever so slightly charred and bubbly. The toppings are simple but steer clear of cliché. And – no small thing this – I love the service. It’s tattooed, passionate and informal (or, in a word, “Bristol”). I do rather collect pizzerias, especially abroad (La Briciola in Paris, Linko in Helsinki, I could go on) but there’s something about Bosco. Writing this now I can imagine sitting at a window table with some montepulciano, waiting for my pizza to arrive. And as much as I love Papa Gee, its slightly down at heel style and all, I’d love to see somewhere like Bosco dropped into one of the empty sites in the centre of Reading. That would be gert lush.

Bodegas Castañeda, Granada

Granada is the true home of tapas, where every alcoholic drink is accompanied with a small plate of free food, be that a basic wedge of tortilla or a helping of salty, crumbly manchego. If you love food then that alone is reason enough to visit, even without a visit to the beautiful Alhambra, the stunning Moorish fortress which stands sentinel over the city from its position at the top of a very steep hill. Well, that and the sherry. And the wine. And the more sherry.

Anyway, Bodegas Castañeda is in the heart of the city (one street along from, confusingly, an inferior establishment with almost exactly the same name) and, for me, it epitomises eating in Andalucia. Yes, there are still free tapas (the habas con jamon, broad beans with rich, savoury nuggets of ham, for instance) but the clientele here knows that the stuff you pay for is worth the jostling at the bar, which runs almost the entire length of the shallow, wide room. The staff, a wry bunch of super-efficient, slightly hangdog aproned men, serve sherry from large casks, pouring with a flourish that is more for entertainment than taste, and watching them work as a unit always fills me with admiration (and, probably more importantly, gratitude).

You need your wits – and your elbows – about you to eat at Bodegas Castañeda, but the rewards are enormous: simple, savoury slices of the delicious jamon that hangs over the bar, thick pieces of mojama – cured tuna – topped with almonds and drizzled with olive oil, the saltiest bacalao draped over the smallest slices of bread, an embarrassment of riches. My mouth is watering now, something of a Pavlovian reflex which I get almost every time I think about Granada. All that and you can eat and drink like royalty (and get royally sloshed) at Bodegas Castañeda for less than forty euros, provided you’re happy to muck in and try speaking a little Spanish. Believe me, it’s worth the effort.

Bonjardim, Lisbon
BonjardimI love Lisbon so much, and it has a much underrated food scene. Of course, there are the famous egg custard tarts and the port – everyone knows about those – but there’s so much more to it than that. Beautiful seafood, surprisingly good cheeses, petiscos that give any tapas out there a run for its money and my personal favourite, ginjinha, a rich sticky cherry liqueur sometimes served in (and you might want to brace yourself for this bit) an edible chocolate cup. Drink the liqueur, destroy the evidence, eat some chocolate into the bargain: trust me, some messy nights can begin this way.

Despite that, my favourite restaurant in Lisbon is in many ways one of its most basic. Bonjardim isn’t far from Rossio station, with a restaurants and tables on both sides of a little alley. It’s known as “Rei dos Frangos” (the king of chickens) and they aren’t kidding, because that’s what you order if you know what’s good for you. A whole spit-roasted chicken for two turns up with some slightly unnecessary chips, and it’s the most glorious, amazing, intoxicating thing. The skin has been rubbed with lemon, salt and oil until it’s almost brittle with the intense taste of wonderful crackling. Underneath, the meat is perfect; there’s a little pot of peri peri sauce you can brush on, if you feel that way inclined, but I’ve never seen the need. You just sit there, in the evening warmth, eating chicken and drinking wine or a frosted pint of Super Bock, watching the hawkers and the buskers wandering past on a seemingly eternal loop. Maybe we won’t ever get the weather, and it’s probably just my fanciful imagination, but I can picture something like this on Queen Victoria Street.

Can Paixano, Barcelona

I could have picked so many places in Barcelona for this piece. One of the finest meals I’ve ever had was in its Michelin starred restaurant Cinc Sentits, a meal so amazing that I wrote down every single course I ate in the tasting menu and for months after I could just get out the piece of paper, look at it and sigh. But last time I went, I found the strangest thing – the less informal a place was, the more fun I had.

So although I enjoyed the proper old-school glamour of the “rich man’s paella” at Set Portes, the real delights came from the stand-up tapas joints, places like El Bitxo and the venerable El Xampanyet, where the waiters effortlessly swish from table to table offering to top you up with cava (and people think the Italians have a monopoly on offers you cannot refuse). This reached its apex at Can Paixano, a little bar on the edge of the old port on a seemingly lifeless sidestreet – a long thin room with no discernible furniture where people jostle at the bar for saucers of cava at little more than a Euro a glass. Meat hangs from the ceiling and the no-frills menu behind the grill tells you what’s on offer. You order some chorizo or morcilla and sip your drink (slightly off-dry rose cava for me, since you asked) while it’s sliced and grilled or fried in front of your very eyes. Last time I went, a group of young Irish chaps were there, clearly unable to believe their luck having chanced upon the place completely by accident. I bet they were wishing their home town had somewhere a little like Can Paixano: I know I was.

So, those are some of my favourites. Why not chip in in the comments section and let me know some of yours?