Villa Marina, Henley

Long before George Clooney and his tuxedo wafted into Berkshire the original famous George – Cole, of course – was ensconced in Stoke Row, enjoying his twilight years in a lovely almost-in-Berkshire village with its very own Michelin recommended pub, the Crooked Billet (itself famous for catering the first of Kate Winslet’s weddings). And you can keep your Clooneys and Winslets: I bet if you’d happened to bump into George Cole in the pub you’d have had a terrific evening.

It seemed fitting to go to the Crooked Billet for the ER second anniversary review, as a mark of respect and all that, but it wasn’t to be. Even if I hadn’t got lost on the way (just once, I promise, but it could easily have been more) it still felt like too much of an expedition, too far off the beaten single-track with no passing places, not to mention the fact that it didn’t have any tables available when we arrived. Even restaurant reviewers sometimes don’t realise that they’ll need to book. On a Tuesday night. Miles away from civilisation.

Deciding where to go instead involved much head-scratching, especially as the beautiful villages out that way are usually sited in areas of outstandingly poor mobile reception. Instead we drove to Henley (getting lost another time) and drifted through town wondering where we could eat before everywhere shut up shop for the night. So Villa Marina was the second choice this week, although it nicely echoes Pepe Sale (the first restaurant I ever reviewed), also an independent Italian restaurant with a touch of old school style.

The restaurant was reasonably busy for a Tuesday night if not packed out, and it had the sort of warm prosperous glow that will draw you in after an hour of fruitless driving around the Chilterns (but I was hungry, so in truth a Wimpy might have had the same effect). The main dining room, an L shaped affair, was classically smart with crisp white tablecloths and cleverly done lighting: every table had a spot light on it, a nice touch which meant it managed the trick of being intimately lit but bright enough to see the food. The smartness extended to the clientele – all the men in the restaurant, without exception, were wearing collars. I can’t vouch for the redness of the trousers, but you wouldn’t have bet against it.

The menu was classic Italian with few surprises but quite a lot to tempt. I was impressed by its compactness: only a couple of pasta options (in their rightful place in the starters section and little or no encouragement to “go large” for a main) and no pizza. It’s didn’t look like a menu that was trying to be all things to all people, and that gave me confidence. We made our decisions – rather difficult ones, as it happened – while eating soft brown rolls spread with sundried tomato paste and salty, powerful tapenade.

The first starter was one of the specials that night; avocado with prawns and crab. It was very generous – a whole avocado filled with plenty of prawns and crab in a pretty standard dressing a la Marie Rose. There were little signs of finesse here and there (someone had spent time cutting red and yellow peppers into very, very small dice) and the big wedges of tomato were surprisingly tasty which hinted at decent ingredients. And yet, even though I should have loved it, I just liked it. Perhaps the blame is mine: it’s the kind of dish I order frequently – Dolce Vita does a similar version with smoked salmon – so maybe I should have been more adventurous. Either way, it was nicely done but not exciting.

VillaCrab

The other dish was more successful, if also slightly restrained. Orechiette with prawns in a tomato sauce was quite a lovely little thing and, if anything, that overstates how much pasta was involved and understates how many prawns there were. The prawns were beauties, too – six big fat firm fresh specimens with just enough sweetness. The sauce was earthy and savoury, also with a touch of fish (perhaps there was some stock involved). Orechiette is one of my favourite pasta shapes, just right to trap sauce without being a faff to eat as conchiglie can be, and it worked perfectly. A little wilted rocket, some sweet cherry tomatoes and intense sundried tomatoes rounded things out nicely. I would have liked the pesto advertised on the menu, but mainly out of fear of missing out: I can’t say it would have improved it.

VillaPasta

The mains followed far more quickly than I’d have liked. Monkfish with tarragon and brandy cream sauce was a delight: three decent sized pieces of monkfish in a deceptively light sauce with hints of tarragon (I always find tarragon a bit coconutty, although I suspect this is some form of culinary synaesthesia unique to me). This was under sixteen pounds, which I thought was pretty good value: most restaurants would charge more and/or serve a portion so small as to need a microscope (I still remember the weird little nuggets of cotton-wool I was served at River Spice: that was a monkfish waiting to be defrocked).

VillaMonkfish

Saltimbocca was good but didn’t quite hit the heights – the veal itself was superb, delicate and tender and the parma ham was good quality stuff. But there just wasn’t enough sage which meant it didn’t have the earthy punch that it needed, and the sauce was a bit too light, thin and subtle. Like much of the food it was a little too well-behaved when what I really wanted were a few more sharp edges. I wonder which came first – the crisp décor and the well-dressed clientele or the impeccable, slightly safe food?

VillaSaltim

You pay extra for vegetables. We got a bowl of sautéed potatoes (salty with a hint of rosemary) and another of steamed, buttered mange tout, carrots and sugar snap peas, along with two of the tiniest florets of broccoli I have ever seen. The menu says that they are three pounds fifty but neglects to mention that this is per person, and that felt a bit cheeky when you don’t have any choice but to order it (the single lettuce leaf that comes with the monkfish won’t count as vegetables in anyone’s book). Perhaps the mains weren’t quite as good value as I’d thought.

That said, the extras were good – the potatoes were beautifully crisp (deep fried rather than done in a pan, I’d guess) and the vegetables, with just enough crunch and taste, were perfect with what sauce there was. But still, three pounds fifty per person stung a bit when the bill arrived. Three pounds was much better spent on the accompanying zucchini fritti we ordered, because these were fabulous – super light, wonderfully crispy, coated (I think) in a little semolina flour. An undignified fight broke out for the last few little scraps: I won.

Another sign of how old-school Villa Marina was came when it was time to choose dessert. Nothing as modish as a menu here, instead the dessert trolley was wheeled round to our table and we got to review the selection. Dessert trollies also feel like a dying breed (I’m not sure any Reading restaurants have one, since Casa Roma closed) and I’m never sure how I feel about them. On the one hand, it’s nice to have a clear idea what your dessert will look like, on the other I quite like a hot pudding and a trolley pretty much rules that out. I was tempted by the tiramisu but went for the chocolate cake, essentially a layer of mousse on top of a sponge base. Again, it was a solid but unspectacular choice, sweet without being synthetic but certainly not overflowing with complexity or cocoa solids.

If I went back I’d have the tiramisu, but it’s an if not a when and there are a few reasons for that. One is the service, which was very much Jekyll and Hyde. The waiters were friendly and suave, smiling and looking after their customers. Even the slips and mistakes were overflowing with charm in a rather crumpled, eminently forgivable way. But the waitresses seemed to have attended the Rosa Klebb Finishing School. The young lady who introduced the dessert trolley had a way of rattling off the list of options that was so abrupt and unsmiling that it reminded me of a prison camp guard. Similarly, there was an older lady who stalked through the room with an expression so dour that I was slightly scared to engage with her. If the men were old school, the women were borstal.

Aside from the service, the other problem was the pace of everything – we’d finished three courses and been rushed out of the room in little over an hour, and that always puts me right off a place. Part of that I suppose is down to the dessert trolley and having your third course dished up right in front of you but even so, leisurely it wasn’t. The total bill, including a 12.5% “optional” service charge was eighty-five pounds. That was for two and a half courses and one glass of wine each (the recommended wines by the glass, a chianti and a chardonnay, were both nice enough to merit a mention but neither made me devastated that I couldn’t have more).

The size of the bill was a nasty surprise: adding the service charge slightly ruined it for me because it made the total look worse than it was (and, left to my own devices, I highly doubt I would have tipped that much). Quite aside from the stealth charged vegetables the price of the special starter – nearly eleven quid – also made my eyes water, ever so slightly. Perhaps if the whole affair had taken a couple of hours I wouldn’t have minded so much, but I did keep thinking about other ways that I could have spent the same amount of money. Nobody wants to have that uppermost in their mind when leaving a restaurant.

If you were opening a restaurant in Reading today, you wouldn’t open Villa Marina. That kind of high-end, slightly starched Italian restaurant, although not dying out per se, hasn’t been seen in Reading for a very long time (perhaps Topo Gigio, long closed on the top floor of King’s Walk, was the closest equivalent). I quite enjoyed my visit there, although it did feel partly like an evening out and partly the gastronomic equivalent of time travel. No shame in that, but it did make me value Reading’s restaurants just that little bit more, from the slightly naff marble tables at Pepe Sale to the no-frills room at Papa Gee, looking out onto the Caversham Road rather than the Thames. For that matter, it also made me appreciate how warm and reliable the service at Dolce Vita is, compared to the partially defrosted equivalent in Villa Marina. It all felt a bit Henley, and if there was a blog called Edible Henley I imagine they’d rave about this place. But we do things slightly differently in Reading, I’m very pleased to say.

Villa Marina – 7.0
18 Thameside, Henley-on-Thames, RG9 1BH
01491 575262
http://www.villamarina-henley.com/

The Bird in Hand, Sonning Common

The Bird In Hand closed in August 2019 with the existing management going on to pastures new after five years running the pub. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

I’ve been thinking about going to the Bird In Hand for ages. It’s been sitting there on my list and I was saving it because I always had a sneaking feeling it would either be really special or crashingly disappointing and I half didn’t want to find out which. There seems to be a bit of a recent trend of country pubs round here taking a detour to Italy – like Buratta’s near Twyford (although I’ve always been a bit deterred by the fact that they’ve spelled “burrata” wrong) and the Red Lion at Mortimer Common – but something about the Bird In Hand felt like it might have star quality.

I normally talk far more about food than I do about chefs, but the Bird In Hand’s back story is an interesting one; the landlord, Santino Busciglio, cooked at various Michelin starred restaurants in London and appeared on one of Gordon Ramsay’s TV shows (don’t worry, the one about good restaurants rather than the one about cockroaches in the kitchen and eighteen page menus where all the sauces come out of a packet) before taking over the Bird In Hand, which reopened at the start of the year.

If it wasn’t the back story, maybe it was the website: in the course of my pre-visit research I decided that it was the most appealing menu I’d seen for a long time. The modish typewriter font made my eyes hurt, but looking beyond that it was an embarrassment of riches – a dizzying range of small sharing dishes to start and then a set of mains which divided their time evenly between Sicily and South Oxfordshire. Braised beef brisket pie rubbed shoulders with roasted sea bream, burger buns cohabiting with focaccia. I almost wanted to keep it on my list forever as some halcyon ideal of what a countryside pub could be, but my curiosity got the better of me so, during the hottest week of the year, my car pulled up outside and I prepared myself to deal with triumph or disaster.

The place has been done up recently and it really showed, but it also achieved the rare trick of managing to feel like a pub that serves food rather than a restaurant which pays lip service to local drinkers. The interior was lovely in that kind of studied rustic way that smart pubs are these days, with a decent-sized chic dining room, but it was completely empty because we’re British and know to make the most of whatever summer weather we actually get. So everyone was sitting outside, under the parasols, rejoicing in the beauty of a sultry English evening. We joined them, marvelling at the red kite circling above and I realised as I sipped a crisp cold pint of cider that choosing from the menu was never going to be an easy task.

It’s actually a cleverer menu than you realise at first – although the twenty or so stuzzichini dishes could seem bewilderingly huge, a lot of them contain components which also turn up in the mains, so you have to carefully pick through and decide how best to try as many different things as possible. We limited ourselves to sharing three before moving on the mains; I deeply regretted not ordering the grilled neck of treacle pork, the crab salt cod and ricotta fish cakes or the chick pea fritters, but it’s a good menu that forces you to make hard choices.

My favourite of them was a couscous salad with green garlic, yellowfin tuna and wild mushrooms – a bloody gorgeous bowl of deliciousness. The couscous was Israeli couscous (the bigger stuff that’s easier to eat and doesn’t go absolutely everywhere the moment you try to eat it), there were lots of little wild mushrooms studded through it, along with sweet cherry tomatoes and plenty of pieces of light, fresh-tasting tuna. It was the first thing I ate and it set a trickily high standard for everything that was to follow.

BirdTapas

Caponata was also good: I’ve always been a huge fan and the Bird In Hand’s version was slightly different to ones I’ve had in the past. The aubergine was firm rather than stewed into sticky submission, there was more of a starring role for the celery in the dish and the balance was much more interesting – a more closely-fought battle between the sweet and the sour – than I was used to. Again, it felt like perfect summer food, and I could gladly have eaten a bowl of it on my own.

The least successful of the starters was the trout two ways (line caught Avington rainbow trout, for any provenance buffs out there). Half had been cured in vodka, little beautifully-coloured strips arranged in a whorl. It was pretty but insubstantial. The other half, hot tea smoked, was served on a little smudge of spinach pureé and I liked it but I didn’t love it – it was powerfully smoky but that flavour wasn’t as deep or complex as I’d hoped it would be and, like the cured trout, it was almost over before it began. By serving it two ways, it felt like neither one thing nor the other: I admired the technique a great deal, but it felt a little unrewarding for six pounds (at the risk of sounding like a heathen, I would have liked some bread with it, but there wasn’t enough of it to put on bread anyway).

Plenty of promise in the starters, then, and the mains delivered on it. The menu has so much for vegetarians (plenty of starters and three tempting mains, including a field mushroom and green garlic pie which I would have ordered on a slightly cooler day) that I felt duty bound to try one of them, so I went for the strozzapretti pasta with aubergine caviar, basil, vine tomatoes and salted ricotta cheese. The pasta was al dente and the aubergine caviar (a bit misleading that, as it had collapsed into something approximating to baba ghanoush by the time it was served) was smoky with a touch of citrus and rich enough to make this a very substantial main. There was also some clever chilli in the sauce which built over time and the generous heap of salted ricotta – so nice to see a kitchen advertising a vegetarian dish without blotting their copybook with Parmesan – on top rounded it off nicely. It was still a bowl of pasta, and I think they always run out of steam when eaten as a main course, but it was probably the best vegetarian main course I’ve had this year. I was also impressed to see how much on the menu was gluten free – almost a third of it, and none of it felt like it involved any compromises.

BirdPasta

The other main turned out to be the perfect synthesis of Sicily and South Oxfordshire, the Bird In Hand’s cover version of fish and chips. The hake was in glorious light batter (billed as Parmesan tempura, although I didn’t really detect that). The chips were crunchy thin straws of courgette, beautifully seasoned and fried, all taste and no oil. And the peas – well, it was a fantastic pea puree, as intense and green to taste as it was to look at. I don’t even like mushy peas, but I couldn’t get enough of this. If I did have a criticism, and it’s only one, the presentation of everything on top of the pea puree made it difficult to make the most of the superlative accompaniments – a lovely piquant pimento ketchup and (a lovely touch, this) a ramekin of malt vinegar jelly. Everything I had had been tasty, but this was clever too.

BirdHake

On a lovely, sunny evening it felt like a waste to head home without making some inroads into the dessert menu, and my companion still had quite a lot of a glass of white wine to finish. Impressively, the Bird In Hand has about ten wines by the glass, nearly all Italian, all costing no more than £3.50 for a small glass or £20 for a bottle, another little detail that made me warm to the place. I didn’t try any, being the designated driver, but I’m told that the Cataratto (an organic Sicilian white) was positively medicinal on a hot day.

This is probably the right place to mention the service, which was the closest my evening came to letting the side down. Sitting outside meant that you ordered at the bar – and when I did Santino, who was working behind the bar, was charm personified and clearly a big hit with locals and diners. He could sell any of his dishes to anyone and was brilliant at bringing the details to life: the tuna cooked with orange zest, the burrata which was arriving later in the week, the salami he gets from small producers in Italy (I imagine he has built up quite a good contacts book), the ice cream which was all made there on the premises. He also lamented the end of the English asparagus season, a subject very close to my heart. The table service was a lot more erratic: the young waiter who was doing the fetching and carrying had a lot to do (serving in the garden means a lot of distance back and forth with plates) but wasn’t the canniest of workers, often bringing out food then returning to the kitchen empty handed despite our empty plates having been in front of us for quite some time. It didn’t mar the evening but I did reach the stage where I had half a mind to taken them inside myself, and that isn’t how it should be.

Santino recommended the ice cream, so naturally I had to try it. They’re all priced by the scoop and, interestingly, the prices all differ so, for example, pistachio is more expensive than chocolate which is more expensive than vanilla. I had two scoops of malt barley ice cream, and I think – no offence to the likes of Tutti Frutti – it’s probably the best ice cream I’ve had in this country. The texture almost defied description because somehow “smooth” isn’t enough but, raiding the thesaurus, smooth is all there is. It was so rich and glossy, with almost a burnt toffee note from the malt, that I just didn’t want it to end. Except I also wished I’d only had one scoop so I could try the chocolate as well: what did I say about good menus and hard choices?

BirdIce

Believe it or not, I’ve saved the best for last. Sfinci, Sicilian cinnamon doughnuts, might well be my dessert of the year so far: three rough little clouds of fried batter, crisp on the outside, soft in the middle, dusted with a little icing sugar and cinnamon and served with the richest, creamiest pistachio ice cream. The irony: in Reading we’re used to being bombarded with a message saying “lovely hot doughnuts, nice and fresh” and yet so many people never get to eat anything of the kind. I was told when I ordered them that they would take fifteen minutes and I’m not sure I can think of a better way of spending fifteen minutes than waiting for that dish.

BirdDoughnut

The total bill, for three courses each, two ciders, a wine and an Averna (it looks like Coke, tastes like cough medicine and, with lots of ice and a slice of orange, is one of the best digestifs you could hope for) was seventy six pounds. Considering the number of separate moments in the meal which had a wow factor, I reckon that was money well spent.

Having written this blog for nearly two years, I’ve come to realise is that life is full of mysteries. Why do cafés persist in putting your napkin between the cake and the plate, thereby guaranteeing you can’t use it? Why is Prezzo always full? Why are the plates for Picnic’s salads so small that it’s almost impossible to eat the salad without dumping half of it on the table? Cosmo: why?

But the biggest mystery of all to me is that people just don’t read the reviews of out of town places – I know, thanks to the joys of WordPress, that every time I publish one quite a few readers decide to take a week off. That’s a real shame, because those people won’t get to find out about the Bird In Hand. They won’t get to experience little flashes of wonder of like the ones I had – that first taste of couscous, wild mushroom and tuna, the tang of the salted ricotta, the big silly smile at something with the texture of jelly and the taste of Sarson’s. That ice cream. Those doughnuts. But never mind – because if you’re reading this you’ll know, and maybe you’ll go. That’s good enough for me.

The Bird In Hand – 8.3
Peppard Road, Sonning Common, RG4 9NP
0118 9721857

http://birdinhandsonningcommon.com/

Papa Gee

Papa Gee has now moved to Prospect Street in Caversham, so some of this review is no longer in date. Bear this in mind if you decide to eat there (food’s still good though).

I’m not sure many people know that Papa Gee even exists. I was out this week with a friend who lives just round the corner from it and I casually dropped into conversation that I was due to go to a restaurant in his manor. First he asked if it was the Mod. Then he guessed at Standard Tandoori. When I shook my head again and said no, it wasn’t Casa Roma either he was stumped. “But there isn’t anywhere else round by me.” he said.

Well, there is: there’s Papa Gee, a small Italian place which has somehow been plugging away at the restaurant game for ten years. I used to walk past it on my way back from Kyrenia or Mya Lacarte and think is that even a real restaurant? The lights always seemed to be off, and I’ve never met anybody who’s eaten there. Even my friend, a local, had never heard of it. Surely a restaurant can’t survive for ten years if no one has ever been?

It’s not the loveliest place, and (apologies to my friend if he’s reading this) not in the loveliest part of town. The Caversham Road is a busy street for traffic but it’s far from the footfall of the town centre and only really comes alive during Reading Festival week. Papa Gee has no real view, no garden to speak of and is pretty anonymous-looking. So why am I reviewing it? Well, you can blame Tripadvisor for that: the reviews are very positive, with repeated claims that it serves the best pizza in Reading. Could the pizzeria I’ve been waiting for all this time really be attached to the not hugely appealing Rainbows Lodge Hotel? Probably not, I thought, but I was too curious to stay away (and hopefully by now you’re curious too).

Passing the bigger, more polished places on a Tuesday night made it very clear that not many people eat out in this part of town during the week; Casa Roma and Standard Tandoori both had three of four tables of guests but were far from busy. Papa Gee’s, on the other hand, had people at seven of its dozen or so tables. At the risk of sounding creepy, I did watch most of the diners leave and only one table was occupied by hotel guests. The rest seemed to be locals. A good sign, right? The interior of the restaurant was very basic with small tables laid with cutlery and paper napkins, signs painted on the window and food themed pictures on the wall. It reminded me of something Marco from Pepe Sale said to me once, that Italians are much more interested in the food than the room. Another good sign, I hoped.

The menu at Papa Gee’s is huge, one of the biggest of any restaurant I have reviewed. It’s a bit bonkers, too: if you want to get an idea of it, look on the website. It has a mixture of fonts, some rather eccentric spelling, some comments in inverted commas after some of the dishes (Buonissimo it says about one of them, Simply Delicious is the commentary on another) and a few – very – random photographs dotted through it. Reading through it I couldn’t decide which to do first, frown or sigh. Fortunately, the waitress was superb: I said I couldn’t decide what to order and she asked me “are you in a pizza, pasta or meat mood tonight?” I asked her to recommend one of each and she did so right away – strong opinions, firm preferences, no nonsense. Suddenly my urge to either frown or sigh had vanished.

The first starter, funghi ripieni, however, jumped off the page – a dish so appealing that it kicked off a bout of plea bargaining (you can pick mains first as long as I get the funghi etc.) It was worth the battle: what arrived was a single field mushroom, stuffed (or, rather, topped) with gorgonzola and mozzarella on a bed of rocket, the whole thing drizzled with balsamic glaze. The mushroom had the balance just right – cooked enough to be soft but not watery. The cheeses were also perfectly balanced – creamy but with enough of a salty tang of blue. The balsamic glaze added just a touch of sweetness. This was divine: simple, unfussy and heavenly.

PapaShroom

Picking a second starter wasn’t so easy – who wants to be understudy to a dish like that? – but I thought that the prosciutto and mozzarella would be an interesting choice just to see what their basic ingredients were like, even if it hardly tested the kitchen’s skills. This wasn’t quite as successful. In fairness, the headline acts were both good: the ball of mozzarella was cold, fresh, firm and clean-tasting and the ham – two slices – was nicely salty. I didn’t for a second think it had been freshly sliced but it didn’t quite have that chilly plastic-wrapped texture you get in many restaurants. The green and black pitted olives on top were decent if not wildly exciting. The salad, though, really put me off: more undressed frisée (why places dish up bitter leaves with the texture of wire wool I’ll never know). It was also a bit brown round the edges, which was the final nail in the salad coffin for me. I’d rather have had more of the rocket and balsamic than this rather sad pile of space-filler leaves. This was seven pounds fifty and felt – to me at least – like too much margin and not enough fun.

PapaMozza

I went to Papa Gee fully intending to have a conventional pizza, but I was undone by the waitress’ recommendation, namely the calzone Napoli. I rarely have a calzone but she made such a good case that I found myself swept along with her enthusiasm. I’m delighted I did, because it was magnificent: a big folded pizza absolutely stuffed with meat and cheese, like the best Breville ever. As with the mushroom starter, this was a dish all about balance. It was filled with ricotta – not usually my favourite cheese, and not one I’d have on its own, but its fluffy mildness made perfect sense with the intense, thin slices of strong, salty salami. It was all bound together with that glorious molten mozzarella and – just to finish things off – the occasional surprise of a hidden basil leaf. (“Gaetano likes to put basil in everything” said the waitress when I mentioned how much I liked it, “He’s trying to convert everyone”). But the topping – or filling in this case – is only half the battle because, to quote the great Meghan Trainor, it’s all about that base. Papa Gee’s truly is splendid: crispy and bubbled at the edges but thin in the middle, with just a little note of sourdough saltiness. I could have eaten it on its own, and I did notice diners at other table rolling up their pizzas, as you should be able to do but so rarely can.

PapaCalzone

The waitress didn’t recommend my other main course, but the menu did: after the description of scialatiello (fresh, thick spaghetti, king prawns, olives, “cappers” (sic), anchovies, chilli and cherry tomato sauce) it says “Delicious”. This felt to me a bit like when you order food and the waiter tells you that you’ve made a good choice: funny how, even if you eat out a lot, a little of that sort of validation goes a long way. When it arrived I wished that I had ordered the pizza because it looked a little underwhelming but I tucked in nonetheless – in for a penny in for a pound. Reader, I loved it: the spaghetti, thicker than any I’ve ever seen, was nicely al dente and tasted freshly made (to my amateur taste buds, anyway) and the tomatoes were crushed rather than pulped, so it had more texture than your average bowl of pasta. The mixture of flavours in the sauce was fabulous and gave the opportunity for all kinds of combinations. There were only two king prawns but in the sauce there was a respectable amount of smaller prawns and the hit of chilli at the end of each mouthful was enough to give it a bit of bite without ever becoming overwhelming. It’s another great example of how you shouldn’t judge on looks – the pictures on Papa Gee’s website look unspecial, and my photos do too, but good food is not a beauty contest. I’d eat this again in a heartbeat (if I managed to avoid the lure of that pizza base, that is).

PapaPasta

The dessert menu is short and sweet (indeed) with five dishes plus ice cream – not gelato, which struck me as a missed opportunity. I picked just one dessert – the baba – a rum soaked sponge, filled with Nutella. This was so much more delicious than I expected, and by this stage I expected it to be pretty good. It was a light vanilla sponge, airy and open a bit like a buttery brioche, soaked in rum that I think had been sweetened, served split down the middle with hot Nutella spread on the insides. On top of this was a squirt of, err, squirty cream, a fan wafer and a preserved cherry. The cream, wafer and cherry were completely pointless – put there by the chef because he wanted to dress the dish, I think. It really didn’t need them (like I said, not a beauty contest) and this was worth eating whatever it looked like: the sponge was rich and boozy and the Nutella filling was effectively a choc and nut sauce. Simply gorgeous. My dining companion didn’t fancy a dessert so had an Amaro (one of those Italian digestifs that tastes simultaneously medicinal and faintly dangerous) and raved about that instead.

There’s not much to say about the wine list – it’s small but perfectly formed, with only one wine over twenty pounds (and that’s a barolo, so fair enough). We picked a nero d’avola which wasn’t half bad: nicely juicy, full bodied and very affordable at eighteen pounds. Service was very relaxed, with the one waitress happy to recommend food and chat. She was casually dressed – I’m in two minds about whether that bothered me, I feel like it shouldn’t but on some level it did – but she knew the menu inside out and showed genuine interest and concern to make sure we were enjoying everything. The total bill, for two and a half courses each with a bottle of wine and a liqueur, was sixty pounds. Yes. Sixty quid. Both mains were cooked fresh to order, and each one cost less than a tenner.

I think Papa Gee is a real find. It’s a gem of a restaurant: unpretentious and unfussy, serving really good food, friendly and relaxed and an absolute steal. Why don’t more people know about it? Or is it that people do know about it and they’re determined to make sure the secret doesn’t get out? Not sure. Either way, I’m already planning my return visit – no, I’m not telling you when, don’t be daft – so I can try more of those pizzas with that amazing base (I’m particularly drawn to the “Nonna Amalia” with Neapolitan pork sausage and wild broccoli tips). Yes, the location isn’t brilliant but that’s what taxis were invented for – and besides, there’s always the prospect of a post-dinner snifter in the Mod or the Greyfriar. So is it the pizza place I was dreaming of? You know what, I think it might be.

Papa Gee – 7.8
138 Caversham Road, RG1 8AY
0118 9556906

http://www.papagee.co.uk/

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

Quattro

One of the drawbacks of this gig is taking the photographs, especially when I visit a restaurant and find myself sitting in a very empty room trying to take sneaky pictures without the staff noticing (this is more of a problem in some places than others: where the service is poor you could probably get on a table and belt out I Will Survive without anybody batting an eyelid). Empty Room Syndrome happens much more often if I’m dining at quiet times, so Quattro immediately had me feeling hopeful when I rocked up on a Monday night to a bustling dining room.

Why so packed, on a night when a fair few places don’t open at all? Well, Quattro is a popular place. At the time of writing it’s rated fourth on TripAdvisor among Reading restaurants, the highest rated place in Reading that isn’t a café. Customers rave about the food and the service, and many have posted multiple reviews. It’s celebrating its thirtieth birthday this year so I’m pretty sure that, along with Sweeney & Todd, it’s one of Reading’s oldest surviving restaurants. I’m never a big fan of the “so they must be doing something right” cliché, but it’s hard to argue with a restaurant full of customers on one of the deadest nights of the week.

Inside Quattro’s the layout is a little unusual; there are three funny little dining areas (one in each window either side of the entry hall and one in the back), each with room for fifteen or twenty covers, at little square tables a tiny bit elbow to elbow to make the most of the space. The tables are neatly laid out with proper cloth napkins and, even if my neighbours could hear every word I said, it was probably a fair price to price to pay for that buzzy experience. (It also meant I could hear the couple next to me: they weren’t having fun at all.)

So all that set my expectations high, but my first interaction with the waitress dampened them somewhat. I could make out a blackboard with specials, but I couldn’t read it so I asked the waitress what they were. Her reaction was an interesting one. She didn’t know them by heart. She didn’t say she’d forgotten her notes. She didn’t wander over, read them and come back or offer to ask a colleague to explain them. Instead, she took the road less travelled: she just scarpered. There might have been a little bit of traumatised mumbling involved, too. Shortly afterwards a waiter, a slightly older chap, came over and listed them for us, unsmilingly (after all that effort I felt like I should order one of them but they didn’t appeal so I didn’t. Sorry).

The menu was very much on the conventional side – antipasti, pasta, pizza and meat dishes – so conventional as to be barely worth explaining and with nothing on it I hadn’t seen elsewhere. That’s no crime, especially in a good, traditional, well-established restaurant but it does make for a pretty boring paragraph in the review, so apologies for that. The wine list was pretty traditional too, sticking to traditional Italian wines (chianti, pinot grigio, gavi, Barolo, all the greats), although I was pleased to see a decent selection of five half bottles. We had a half bottle of valpolicella for under a tenner and found it very easy to drink: fruity, juicy and not too heavy for a school night.

The starters were decent but unexciting. I liked the polpette rustiche: three beef meatballs with a decent dollop of tomato sauce. If there had been two, I would be packing this review full of all sorts of double entendres (it’s hard to resist as it is) but having three rather than two makes that tricky to put it lightly. They really were tasty – the massive balls (steady on) were coarse, well seasoned and avoided the twin horrors you often risk with a dish like this, of either being disturbingly smooth or chewily bouncy. The handful of salad on the side was, as so often, a not very decorative waste of time and really didn’t go.

Quattro Balls

The fettuccine ai funghi was also competent but not exactly thrilling. Cream, garlic, pasta and mushrooms is a combination it’s hard not to like and so it was here, but it still felt like Italian food on autopilot. I was hoping for wild mushrooms (as you’d get at, for instance, Pepe Sale) but instead got little slices of what might have been button mushrooms. The pasta was very regular, which made me dubious about whether it was made on the premises. It wasn’t a huge portion – which, as a starter it shouldn’t be – but for eight pounds it felt distinctly unspecial.

Quattro Pasta

I had high hopes for the pizza, because one thing Reading lacks is a truly amazing pizzeria along the lines of London’s Franco Manca or Pizza Pilgrims. Having eaten the pizza Parma at Quattros, I can safely say that it’s still lacking one: the base was too thick and doughy, especially considering the menu describes it as “thin crust”. The tomato and mozzarella base was good but the parma ham was underwhelming. For a pizza like this, where the meat goes on after the pizza is cooked, I like the ham to be so thin that it’s delicate and translucent. This was on the bacon end of the meat thickness scale and was on the bright pink end of the ham colour spectrum (if there isn’t a ham colour spectrum I might just invent one. Or just start a band and call it that. I could release picture discs that looked like disappointing pizzas! But I digress) rather than the beautiful dark marbled hue of a truly great roll-it-up-and-eat-it-with-your-bare-hands prosciutto. When a pizza only has a few ingredients I want those ingredients to really sing, but these mumbled like the waitress. Oh, there was rocket too but the dish hasn’t yet been invented that can be redeemed by rocket alone. I managed about half before giving up.

Quattro pizza

The other main was delizia di pollo – chicken supreme with asparagus and taleggio. This was better: the plate was no looker but the flavours made up for that. The big spears of asparagus were perfect, with just enough bite and the chicken was tasty and tender. I expected it to be stuffed with taleggio but instead the plate was covered in molten cheese: I’m not really sure how it got there but I wasn’t complaining. Good accompaniments, too: some properly sautéed potatoes, carrot, broccoli and some roasted peppers. All in all it felt – and looked – like something a friend might serve up at home, and I enjoyed it. Did I sixteen pounds ninety-five enjoy it? Hmm.

Quattro Chicken

After the mains it took a little while for the dessert menu to arrive which meant we just about managed to find room. All of the desserts are cold (which rather reminded me of an old fashioned dessert trolley – you can have anything you fancy, as long as it doesn’t require cooking) but the selection is a little better than the average tiramisu, ice cream, chocolate brownie selection at so many other traditional restaurants. We went for the torta al cioccolato con amaretto: a generous slab of thick, rich, chocolate ganache flavoured with Amaretto on a thin, crisp biscuit base (so big I was glad we shared it, and I’m not normally one to baulk at a challenge in restaurants). It came with a scoop of smooth vanilla ice cream, which I quite liked, and a gigantic puddle of single cream, which I thought was baffling and unnecessary. Still, it’s a minor complaint about a really good, very tasty block of chocolatiness.

Quattro chocolateService was probably the most surprising element of the whole evening: it seemed like I was visiting a completely different venue to the one I’d read so many glowing reports of on TripAdvisor. The (senior?) waiter seemed a little distracted, although he did offer a liqueur on the house at the end of the night. The waitress was doing the majority of the legwork – taking orders, carrying plates etc. with the bare minimum of human interaction but without ever really seeming like she knew what she was doing. At one point, after we’d finished a course, she asked “Was your food fine?” rather than “Did you enjoy your food?” and it felt like a Freudian slip, suggesting that they were aspiring to adequate.

The total bill, for two starters and mains, one dessert and half a bottle of wine was fifty-six pounds, excluding service. I know that’s not a big number but for the quality of the food, the atmosphere of the room and the experience I could have been in any one of Reading’s countless Italian chains. If you put Quattro next to a Jamie’s Italian – which, whether it’s authentic or not, has dishes that are full of interesting flavours and packed with fresh herbs – I would pick Jamie’s ninety-nine times out of a hundred, even though the service and the tone of the menu brings me out in hives (“lovely lamb lollipops”, anyone?).

I’m sure at least a few loyal customers will be reading this up in arms, and all I can say is that I’m sorry. The best restaurants feel like a club that you’re part of, but I didn’t feel like I was that night: perhaps if you’re a regular you have a very different experience. But it’s clear that Quattro’s doesn’t need a glowing review from me to fill its seats; it’s doing that anyway, with food that’s just good enough and service that has enough people going back time and time again. But I just didn’t get it at all I’m afraid. For me, the food was a bit like the wine list; traditional, unsurprising, ever so slightly uninspiring. For everyday dining that’s right on your doorstep maybe that’s all you really want, but to get me across town to Caversham I’d need more. When even the waitress can’t remember the specials, it’s just not special enough.

Quattro – 6.5
14-16 Prospect Street, RG4 8JG
0118 9483070

http://www.quattro-restaurant.co.uk/