Pau Brasil

N.B. As of August 2020 Pau Brasil has reopened. 

I so wanted to like Pau Brasil, probably more than any other place I’ve reviewed so far. So many people have urged me to try it, and on the approach up Mount Pleasant I could understand why – it’s a beautiful, two-storey, whitewashed building with vibrant cornflower-blue windows and doors, the Brazilian flag flying from the first floor balcony. I’d defy anybody to walk past it and not feel like going in, and on the day I visited the tables and chairs outside made it look even more inviting. It seems like it’s been dropped into that neighbourhood from a parallel dimension, only a few doors down from Whitley Street with its parade of takeaways and convenience stores.

Inside, the welcome was every bit as friendly as the façade. We took the table next to the balcony in the nice, airy upstairs room – it’s nothing fancy or special, mismatched furniture and basic tables, but a lovely bright space where I could easily imagine whiling away some time eating Brazilian food. The owner brought the blackboard with the daily specials and we sipped on peach and lemon tea, our ice cubes melting at breakneck speed, while we tried to decide what we wanted. And, as with all appealing menus, we wanted everything.

Pau Brasil offers a range of petiscos or salgados (the Portuguese equivalent of tapas) and they all looked good, so on the advice of the waitress we had the platter, a portion of bite sized petiscos to share. She cautioned us that it was on the small side, which wasn’t really true – whatever you might think of Pau Brasil you can’t fault them for their generosity.

When they arrived, they were the first indication that eating here might not be an unalloyed delight. The best of them was the salt cod fishcake – beautifully crisp outside, soft inside and nicely balanced between the salt cod and the potato used to bulk it out. If I’d just had these, and the surprisingly pleasant glass of white table wine I washed them down with (a snip at £3), it would have been a lovely afternoon snack – but the other petiscos weren’t in the same league.

The beef reminded me of a Lebanese kibbeh, nicely coarse but on the bland side. The chicken dumpling was a bit like a miniature Findus Crispy Pancake, with an orangey crispy coating filled with minced chicken which was perfectly okay but not exactly exciting. The prawn rissole was the same but filled with a sort of mayonnaise-y prawn dollop: pink, gooey, lacking in flavour. But the oddest thing was what the petiscos looked like: there was something about their uniformity of shape that made me wonder if they’d been made fresh on the premises. The chilli sauce they came with, however, was home made and had quite a kick. The tiniest dab was enough to give a whack of heat – I was glad that the waitress warned me that it was hot to save me from doing myself harm.

Petiscos2

In the spirit of trying as many different things as possible we attacked the main courses from both ends of the menu, trying the lighter and heavier options. What can I say about the banana, cheese and cinnamon toasted sandwich? Put it this way: if you read that description and thought “I like the sound of that” then you’d probably like it, if you think it sounds wrong then it won’t be the dish for you. It was exactly the sum of its parts with no element of surprise. Decent, again, but the cheese was a bit too mild to balance out the sweet banana and the cinnamon wasn’t quite strong enough to make the whole thing interesting. The bread was plain white sliced and the whole thing had the overall feel of something I would make at home if I was in a hurry and short of ingredients.

Feijoada is the national dish of Brazil, so I felt it would be wrong not to try Pau Brasil’s version. It wasn’t going to win any beauty competitions – half the plate covered in brown mush, a quarter covered with rice and a quarter covered in greens, a beige pie chart – but I figured that wasn’t the important thing about a hearty stew like this. The problem was that it tasted largely how it looked. Well, that and the meat: hunting for bits of pork turned out to be quite a challenge. Most pieces were thick with gelatinous fat, very few were fat free and there weren’t a huge amount of them in the first place.

The rest of it was pleasant enough, but not very strongly flavoured. The beans weren’t bad, and the fat and some smokiness had at least made it into the sauce. The greens – salty, shredded and with just a little give remaining – were delicious, easily the best bit. But at the end I looked at the pile of wobbly leftovers at the edge of my plate and felt that, for ten pounds, it just wasn’t good enough.

Feijoida

Really wanting to like Pau Brasil meant I also really wanted to give them a chance to make things right with dessert; normally, when a main is that disappointing I would just settle up and leave. Pasteis de nata almost did the trick – delicious, warm custard in that gorgeous flaky nest of pastry, sweet cinnamon on top. They were quite, quite lovely (and a bargain at £1.30). Again, I could happily go there just for the pasteis, if I lived in the neighbourhood.

Tarts

The bill came to pretty much thirty pounds, not including service. I spent more than you have to because I wanted to try a wide range of dishes, but as usual you could easily eat here for far less. Service was terrific throughout, to the extent where I started to worry about how to write this review about two minutes after I left.

I’m not going to say that Pau Brasil is a bad restaurant. It is a lovely place, staffed by friendly people, offering something completely different – proudly independent and clearly doing very well. It just happens to be a restaurant I can’t see myself visiting again. If I lived nearby, on a weekend afternoon I might grab one of those upstairs tables and have a coffee and a pastel, or some of those salt cod fishcakes, and read a book, maybe: I could imagine doing that. But too much of the food just wasn’t to my taste, and however nice a room is, however great the service is, the food is always going to be centre stage. If I want meat, sauce, rice and greens I can’t imagine I’d ever pick Pau Brasil over, for example, Perry’s (or even Shed, on Fridays). If I wanted a toasted sandwich I’d make my way to My Kitchen (or Shed, again).

Sometimes I really regret choosing to give restaurants a rating, and this is one of those times. I’m sure by now you’ve probably made a decision about whether Pau Brasil sounds like your sort of thing. The mark is an irrelevance. And you’ve probably also made a decision about whether it’s my sort of thing, and you’re probably right about that. All I can say is that on this occasion it’s given with a heavier heart than usual, because this is as close as I’ve come so far to wishing I could overlook disappointing food. Anyway, I’m sure no score from me will disappoint them half as much as that 7-1 scoreline, just under a month but almost a lifetime ago.

Pau Brasil – 6.1
89 Mount Pleasant, RG1 2TF
0118 9752333

https://www.facebook.com/paubrasiluk

Cappuccina Café

N.B. Cappuccina Café closed in June 2014. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

Cappuccina Café wins one accolade right from the off; I think it might have the ugliest view of any café or restaurant in Reading. From my seat, through the glass front window, I could make out “Sam 99p” on West Street, with its rather hyperbolic slogan Yes! Everything’s 99p or less (it’s hard to imagine anybody walking past and actually saying that). Still, Cappuccina Café isn’t unique in having a bad view. From Picnic you can see the tables outside Munchee’s which house some of Reading’s most glamorous smoking al fresco diners. From the terrace at London Street Brasserie I once made out somebody on the grassy bank opposite urinating against the bridge (stay classy, Reading). None the less, I wanted to make the visit because Cappuccina Café is a fusion of Vietnamese and Portuguese and you don’t see that every day – not in Reading, not anywhere.

First impressions were mixed. It’s a very long room with the counter at the front, the kitchen at the back and the two overstretched waiters constantly doing a long walk from one to the other and back again. Only one person was serving when I got there, and he didn’t seem to be able to make up his mind whether to take my order or attend to the large pile of dishes in plain view in the sink, a pile which made me a tad nervous about ordering anything at all. As it was, he ineffectually pottered around in the general vicinity of the sink before coming back to check what I wanted (I had half a mind to tell him to do the washing up first). Was their dishwasher broken?

It’s a pity because the interior is quite handsome – smartish tables and chairs, a nice banquette along both sides of the room and tasteful tiled walls. There were plenty of cakes visible up at the counter and all of them looked distinctly tempting. I went on a Sunday lunchtime and it was full of families, most of them Asian – presumably Vietnamese, though I couldn’t tell for sure – all tucking into bowls of what I imagine were pho. Normally I’d take this as a good sign, but after recent experiences I approached things with a note of caution. The whole place did have the air of a crèche about it with plenty of kids roaming around – which ironically means this may be the most family-friendly place I’ve reviewed so far.

The general chaos continued well after I placed my order. One of the dishes I picked was bánh mì, the famous Vietnamese baguette which has been so popular in London over the last few years. It looked to me like the staff got a baguette out of the oven behind the counter, part assembled it behind the counter (next to the sink) and then took it all the way to the back of the restaurant, past my table, to add the rest of the ingredients. As a study in time and motion it was weird to put it lightly. To make matters worse, despite being (you’d hope) the easier to prepare of the two things I’d ordered it arrived a good couple of minutes after the other dish. By this stage we’d gone well past chaotic and were cantering into haphazard with reckless abandon.

When the bánh mì arrived I had waited so long, with such mounting despair, that I was expecting it to be indifferent. It should have been, because up to that point everything else was. To my surprise and relief, it was anything but. The barbecued pork was moist but not fatty, crispy, warm and utterly delicious. The menu said it was marinated in honey, five spice and lemongrass and I got all of that but especially the lemongrass. The shredded carrot (which I think was pickled), the little strips of cucumber and the daikon added crunch and yet more freshness, although the coriander seemed to be missing in action – a shame, because it would have fitted in perfectly. It was the kind of dish where you have a big grin after the first mouthful which lasts until well after the last, the sort of food that makes you shake your head in slow joy. It made me realise how underwhelming most sandwiches in Reading are – miserable clammy things, heavy and cold and soggy with mayo.

Banh mi

The grilled chicken with rice (com ga nuong) was so much more than the brief description would have you expect. The main attraction was a large leg of chicken which tasted like it, too, had been marinated in spices (including Chinese five spice and lemongrass) with a delicious crispy skin. For the size of the chicken leg there wasn’t a great deal of meat but what was there was moist and tasty, if a bit hard to get off the bone. On the side was a neat hillock of plain rice topped with a little pile of fried onions and a heap of pickled red cabbage and carrot which was just lovely with a forkful of chicken. The only out of place thing on the plate was the afterthought of salad, so forlorn and unloved that it just shouldn’t have been there.

Chicken

I felt it would be wrong to leave without also sampling the Portuguese section of the menu, so I went up and ordered a couple of pasteis de nata for dessert. These came warmed – again, in an oven rather than a microwave – ready to be dusted with cinnamon and wolfed down. For me, a Portuguese egg custard tart is one of the seven culinary wonders of the world, ideally fresh out of the oven, dusted with icing sugar and cinnamon and dispatched in two, maybe three mouthfuls at most. The pastry is light and flaky, the top golden brown and not quite burnt and the filling ever so slightly wobbly and flecked with vanilla. These weren’t like that – too firm, not warmed through enough, no icing sugar – but they were still pretty good, and a darned sight closer than I ever hoped to get in Reading, in a little spot on West Street with a prime view of the 99p shop. Pleasingly they were also ninety-five pence each, which makes them far better value than anything you could pick up in “Sam’s”.

Pasteis

The whole thing – bánh mì, chicken with rice, two tarts, a cup of tea and a soft drink – came to fourteen pounds. A comparable lunch would have cost just as much in Pret, Costa or Nero and wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good. To me, Cappuccina Café is part of something interesting happening to Reading’s lunch scene. All over the place independent cafes are springing up – from Lincoln down the King’s Road (coffee and bagels) to Arepas Caffe at the other end of West Street (Venezuelan food and churros), to Shed in Merchant’s Place (toasties and “Saucy Friday”) – not to forget the granddaddy, Picnic (salad and cakes). There’s no excuse any more for the laziness of going to the usual players on Coffee Corner. So yes, the service is iffy, the layout is a nightmare and they really need to fix their dishwasher, but with all that said I’ll still be going back to Cappuccina, and sooner rather than later. They have three other types of bánh mì and I fancy trying them all, collecting the Vietnamese equivalent of stickers in a Panini album.

Cappuccina Café – 7.0
16 West Street, RG1 1TT
0118 9572085

https://www.facebook.com/cappuccinacafe