Restaurant review: Pepe Sale

“I’m looking forward to the full Edible Reading experience” James said when I met him at the station. He made it sound as if joining me to review a meal was some kind of theme park. The Edible Reading Experience: you have to be this smug to ride.

“It’s nothing special. There are just two rules – don’t mention the blog when we’re in the restaurant and take photos of everything you eat. Zoë’s meeting us there. Do you want to know where we’re going?”

“Don’t tell me, I don’t want to spoil it.”

“I’ve saved a good one for you. And it’s the perfect one to review this week – it’s a revisit of the first place I ever reviewed, and it came under new management last year. And it’s an Italian restaurant, which is topical after last night. Let’s hope they don’t gloat too much.”

“Sounds perfect” said James, and we ambled through town, past the side of the Broad Street Mall. James is unflappable, but he almost did a double take. “Ah, you have a Taco Bell.”

“I’m afraid so. Its popularity is a continuing mystery to me.”

Later James told me that Taco Bell’s beef is only technically 88% beef because it contains so much other gubbins. He’s full of useful information like this – with hindsight I don’t know why I didn’t invite him to come with me on duty before. He likes the finer things in life: this is a man who flew to Korea for a weekend just to learn how to cook Korean barbecue, a man who has converted his garage into a micropub. Just the person to bring along to bolster my “man of the people” credentials. 

He was also the perfect person to take to Pepe Sale, the subject of this week’s review: he’d joined Zoë and me on holiday in Bologna two years ago and we’d rhapsodised together over ragu and porchetta, each meal as superb as the last. Our last holiday before lockdown was with James and his other half Liz in Copenhagen, eating magnificent food, attending a wild beer festival out in the docklands, stumbling out of brewpub after brewpub, enjoying the driverless subway trains and being too smudged to appreciate the Design Museum. We talked about coronavirus on that holiday, but with no real appreciation of what was coming, unaware of the gathering storm.

Although Pepe Sale changed hands last year the buyers kept that news quiet, presumably because they wanted a smooth transition and to retain as many regulars as possible (perhaps wisely: I remember the panic a couple of years ago when Pepe Sale showed up as for sale on a listings website). It became more apparent this year, as previous owner Toni Sale set up his “Pasta Academy”, running classes out of his gorgeous-looking kitchen, and the new owners made a small but significant change by opening on Sundays. Prior to that, Pepe Sale only opened on one Sunday every year, namely Mother’s Day. 

A few people told me last year, after visiting Pepe Sale, that it didn’t feel the same: not necessarily better or worse, but that something had changed. And that made sense, really. Toni was a big presence in the kitchen, his wife Samantha ran front of house superbly: with both of them gone, it was bound to be a different experience. When I looked at all the restaurants I’ve reviewed, trying to gauge which ones needed a repeat visit, Pepe Sale was high on the list. And so, nearly eight years after my previous review, Zoë, James and I went on a Monday lunchtime to see how different it was.

Visually, you’d barely notice the restaurant has changed hands. The decor is unaltered, all high-backed chairs and marble-topped tables. The restaurant is split-level, with the smaller space up top looking out on Queens Walk and the lower level a bigger room that I’ve always found harder to like. The only real difference was that the space by the front door where Toni used to roll fresh pasta every day has been replaced by another table. No specials menu either, that I could see, which was a shame – although it might have been because we were there on a Monday lunchtime.

I might find myself saying “it might just have been that we were there on a Monday lunchtime” many times during this review, so let’s take it as read from now on. The three of us were the only customers that afternoon, and there was a nicely sleepy pace to things with our waiter (the only staff member that I saw) giving us plenty of time to sip our water, read our menus, catch up and eventually get round to making our choices.

“Were you celebrating last night?” James asked him, ever the diplomat.

“I had four Peronis and a bottle of pinot grigio” he said, his eyes smiling, even if you couldn’t see a grin behind his mask. “But I wanted England to win. I’ve lived here for so long, and my kids were born here. My little boy was devastated this morning.”

The menu hasn’t been changed one iota under the new management, so it’s virtually identical to the one I ordered from back in 2013 and probably much the same as it was when they opened. The wine list, though, printed on the other side of the menu, was far smaller than the one I’m used to. Pepe Sale’s wine list was always a selling point – a huge range, across all price points, the majority of it coming from Sardinia. It’s now a one pager, although it’s all still Italian. Perhaps Pepe Sale has a separate, bigger wine list but if so, I wasn’t shown it and I didn’t think to ask; I can well believe, though, that the events of Brexit might have reduced the amount of wines the restaurant can economically import. 

In any event, we had a very nice red from Piedmont called Otto Bucce, which was peppery and smokey and felt like good value at around twenty-seven pounds. We took those first happy sips, we broke off pieces of rosemary-studded pane carasau and we began the serious business of chatting and gossiping. Italian music was playing in the background – another change, I think – and even though James, technically, was the only person who was on holiday, somehow we all felt like we were. I love it when restaurants do that to you.

Before our starters arrived, there was a spanner in the works: our waiter materialised to let us know that they were out of avocados. Would we like to order something different, or wait ten minutes while they nipped out to get some new ones? We opted for the latter, and all I can say is that I’d like to know where they bought them from. It certainly wasn’t a supermarket – I’ve lost count of the number of times a “perfectly ripe” avocado meant “perfectly ripe in a couple of weeks” – so I’m guessing they nipped round the corner and got some from the kerbside cornucopia of the Oxford Road’s magnificent Best Foods. 

Anyway, Zoë’s starter of avocado and mushrooms in a dolcelatte sauce was a marvellous, indulgent thing and easily worth the additional wait. The avocado was ripe and buttery and the sauce, which added just enough salt and funk, was so good that Zoë looked ruefully over at the empty bread basket and wished she’d saved a couple of pieces to mop it up.

James ordered a starter I ate on my visit all those years ago, mozzarella baked in radicchio with anchovies, olives and cherry tomatoes (if you want a pointer that Pepe Sale resolutely resists trends, here it is: burrata is nowhere to be seen on the menu). James enthused about it and although I didn’t try any, it looked as good as I remembered. As a rule I think the worst thing you can do to mozzarella is heat it up, but there’s something about those precious parcels of molten cheese and bitter leaf that’s properly charming, especially teamed with the hit of anchovy and the sweetness of little tomatoes. 

If that description makes you think I was suffering from starter envy, you’re probably right. I had gone for malloreddus, a Sardinian pasta speciality, which are best described as halfway between gnocchi and conchiglie, tightly curled shells, in a spicy tomato sauce with chunks of sausage. Everything worked, on paper – the sauce had a good heat, it clung nicely to the pasta and the sausage tasted decent. But somehow, it started to feel like a chore by the end, a tiny bit one-note compared to the other starters at the table. Perhaps I’d have felt differently if the sausage meat had been crumbled, finer in texture, rather than big slices of the stuff.

There was a nicely civilised pause between courses, and our mains arrived just as we were ready for them – a relief, as kitchens without much to do often rattle off the next set of dishes quicker than you’d like. Zoë picked an absolute banker from the menu, chicken breast, stuffed with mozzarella and sage and wrapped in pancetta. Again I found myself gazing in envy at a pool of molten mozzarella and wishing I’d played it safer: I was allowed a forkful which reminded me what a solid, classic dish it was (it also made me miss the saltimbocca at sadly-departed Dolce Vita, halfway across town and many years ago).

James chose a dish I’ve never ordered, wild boar cutlet in a tomato sauce. It looked the part – a handsome slab of meat cut into three in a deep sauce with plenty of cherry tomatoes (“I’ve picked the two tomato-lovers’ dishes” said James). But he wasn’t wild about the texture – “it’s not a soft meat, put it that way” – and found it tougher and chewier than he’d have liked; a sharp steak knife would have helped matters along.

My dish, sea bream, was also close but not quite there. The fish was beautifully cooked, two lovely fillets with tender flesh and crisp skin, and it’s hard to go wrong with anchovies and olives (and beautifully chopped shallots). But the thing I always loved about Pepe Sale’s fish dishes was the sauce, a rich fish fumet fragrant with wine, and this felt a little thinner than I remembered. It wasn’t a bad dish by any means, but lacking a little oomph. Had it changed, or had I?

All of us went for a selection of vegetables and these were well-judged – nicely crunchy potatoes sauteed with rosemary and perfectly al dente carrots and broccoli; Pepe Sale, more than any place I can think of, taught me the virtues of not overcooking your veg.

The dessert menu is also unchanged, and is a mixture of Italian, generic and Sardinian dishes, all reasonably priced. I was tempted by the basil panna cotta, another old favourite, but James and I both went for the sweet ravioli. They were every bit as delicious as my happy memories of them, fried squares packed with gooey ricotta and orange zest, the whole thing drizzled with sweet syrup and topped with more strips of fried pastry and a little snowdrift of icing sugar. Looking back at my picture of this dish from 2013, and the mozzarella starter for that matter, I’d say this kitchen puts more effort into plating now: the camera loved it as much as I did.

Zoë’s choice was the tiramisu, and again I was allowed just enough of it to wonder if she ever ordered a bad dish. I suppose there are no surprises with tiramisu –  you know it will be boozy and rich, all cream and coffee and chocolate, and this one was no exception. “I liked it a lot, but it did make me cough” she said later. “It’s the dust of the cocoa powder and my dodgy lungs. That’s why I was never allowed Dib Dabs as a kid”. 

Our meal – three courses each, some bread, a bottle of wine and a trio of amaros to help our desserts go down – came to just over a hundred and thirty pounds, not including tip. Pepe Sale is currently running a promotion where you get 20% off your food bill Mondays to Thursdays, and without that it would have been over a hundred and fifty pounds. Looking back at my 2013 visit a similar meal for two came to eighty pounds, so prices have definitely crept up – although that’s only to be expected and our meal still felt like good value.

As we settled up, I asked our waiter how business had been since they reopened in May. He told us that they were busy at weekends, solidly booked in fact, but things were still sluggish during the week – an experience I suspect is shared by many of Reading’s restaurants. He added that having Reading’s ill-advised quarantine hotel at the end of Queens Walk had hardly helped matters, although things were recovering now. 

It did make me think about whether people would feel comfortable eating inside on a busy evening – the tables are reasonably spaced but there are no screens, and although the front of the restaurant has big double doors which could be opened for ventilation they stayed resolutely closed during our visit. It’s a shame they’ve never put any tables outside, as their neighbours ThaiGrr! and Bierhaus have chosen to, but I guess that part of town can be a bit of a wind tunnel at times. 

We carried out a debrief over beers in the garden of the Nag’s Head, and there was less consensus than I expected. Zoë was the most positive about her food, but I think she ordered better than the rest of us (“that starter was great, but you know I love the ‘shrooms”). James was more equivocal, put off slightly by the toughness of that wild boar. I was somewhere in the middle, but in the back of my mind I was thinking that the food was almost exactly as it always was, and I couldn’t decide whether that was a good thing or not. We discussed it a little further, but then we were interrupted by a positively operatic fart from a shaven-headed gentleman at the table behind us which sounded like Brian Blessed molesting a tuba. We dissolved into fits of laughter, and that was that.

I feel a bit for Pepe Sale’s new owners. Talk about a no-win situation: if they make sweeping changes they’ve have messed with an institution, if they don’t they risk preserving it in aspic. And yet the restaurant barely changed in many years, so you can understand them not wanting to muck up a winning formula. I think it misses the specials and that wider wine list, and I sincerely hope they’re still making their pasta on the premises, but all in all it feels like the new owners are worthy custodians of the food: everything I had felt up to the standards of previous visits, and if anything the focus on presentation is stronger now.

And yet there’s so much more to a restaurant than the food. Aside from how Covid-cautious customers would feel eating in Pepe Sale, it’s safe to say that the real test of a restaurant is how it copes on busier evenings, whether the service and the kitchen can step up a gear to deal with the demands of a packed dining room. But not just that: it also depends whether that magical transmutation happens, where instead of just being a room full of people it becomes a wonderful buzzy place, a club where you’re lucky enough – if only for one evening – to be a member. At its best, Pepe Sale always did that. The new owners will face far sterner challenges in the months ahead than our chatty table of three on a Monday lunchtime. My fingers are crossed that they are up to them.

Pepe Sale – 7.8
3 Queens Walk, Reading, RG1 7QF
0118 9597700

http://pepesale.co.uk

Feature: 20 things I love about Reading (2019)

Back in April 2016, I wrote a piece on the 20 things I loved about Reading. Remember 2016? The good old days – before the constant merry-go-round of elections and referenda, back when the world felt a little sunnier and Twitter felt a lot happier. I could go on, but it will probably make us all sad.

Looking back at my list from 2016, much has changed and an updated version is long overdue. Some of the places which made my list last time have closed: Dolce Vita, for instance, which stopped trading in June last year to the disappointment of many. Even sadder was the closure of Tutti Frutti in late 2017, my favourite Reading café which sold the best ice cream for miles around.

Some things have changed to the extent where they no longer make my top 20 – I’m sure the After Dark, under its new management, is a wonderful venue but it is no longer the place of my many happy memories. Similarly Kyrenia has been Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus for several years now, and its phenomenal front of house Ihor has moved on. The Reading Forum has degenerated into a seemingly never-ending conversation about Reading’s crime rate, Wetherspoons and the inevitable B word.

More to the point, town has changed a lot since 2016. As restaurants have closed, more have opened to take their place: the good (Kungfu Kitchen), the bad (Lemoni) and the ugly (Chick-Fil-A). Smaller, more interesting chains have moved to Reading. Our coffee culture here has – figuratively – exploded, as has a street food culture that has led to residencies in pubs, cafes and restaurants and in some cases (like Geo Café and Vegivores) a permanent home. For each thing we lose in town, there is always an equal and opposite reason to celebrate.

And so, without further ado and in alphabetical order, here’s my list of twenty things I love about Reading. It’s by no means exhaustive, and half the fun is chipping in with everything I’ve missed, whether it’s the farmers’ market, Christmas carols at Reading Minster, the Beer Festival, having a mocha at C.U.P., Reading Library, the number 17 bus or any of the dozens of other things I couldn’t quite find room for. Leave your favourite in the comments!

1. The Allied Arms beer garden

Some things about Reading never change, and for as long as I can remember the Allied has been the place you go to after work on a sunny Friday to start your weekend. You grab a table, your friends join you and the rest of the evening is pint after pint, packet of snacks after packet of snacks and song after song on its splendid, idiosyncratic jukebox (Camouflage by Stan Ridgway or Rock Me Amadeus, anybody?). I know the Allied has its fans all year round, but for me summer is when it really comes into its own.

2. The architecture

Reading really is prettier than you think, and I don’t just mean the obvious examples like the Town Hall and – well, I like it anyway – the Blade. Everywhere you look there are beautiful buildings, streets and enclaves – Foxhill House on campus, or the gorgeous houses of New Road up by the university and School Terrace in the heart of New Town. Stunning streets like Eldon Road with the grandest semi-detached houses you’ll ever see in your life, or redbrick Queen Victoria Street running from the station to John Lewis, itself a fantastic building. I could go on: Reading Minster is impressive, the Royal Berks grand, Great Expectations faintly ludicrous. So much to look at – no wonder the occasional Reading Instameets set up for photographic excursions around town are never short of things to photograph (I still miss Kings Point and the Metal Box Building, though).

3. Bakery House

Now over four years old, Bakery House is one of Reading’s best and most reliable restaurants but, more than that, it is a genuine institution. Perfect for solo dining, dinner for two or sharing masses of mezze with friends, they’ve kept up an impressive standard since day one. At lunchtimes their shawarma wrap is an absolute steal costing less than most other sandwiches in town, and in the evenings their boneless baby chicken, fresh from the charcoal grill with chilli sauce, rice and a sharply dressed salad, is one of the best single plates of food you can eat in town.

4. Blue Collar Food

I was sniffy about street food last time I compiled this list: Blue Collar has changed that. Popping up in the Market Square every Wednesday, this collective of traders, marshalled by the tireless Glen Dinning, has had a lasting effect on Reading’s food scene. Some of his star players still turn up every week – I’m a big fan of Purée’s challoumi wrap, the chilli chicken from the Massita and Peru Sabor’s excellent food – but he’s also done invaluable work giving street food traders a springboard to move into permanent premises. Not only that, but over the summer Feastival (and its spin-off Cheese Feast) transform the Forbury into the gastronomic epicentre of town. Blue Collar is now also running the matchday food at the Madejski, but I still hold out hope that we might see them in more permanent premises in the New Year.

5. Breakfast at Fidget & Bob

Sunday morning brunch at Fidget & Bob really is one of my favourite things about living in Reading. I’ve never known anybody scramble golden buttery eggs with as much skill as they do, their bacon is superb and their sausage – a square loaf of sausagement baked in the oven and served in delectable slices – is worth the price of admission alone. It boasts one of the warmest welcomes in Reading and if you go on Sunday there’s the added bonus of kouign amann, Breton pastries by Barebaked Bread which are sweet-salty layers of pure joy. The coffee’s excellent, too.

6. Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen

It’s very strange to think that Clay’s has been around for less than eighteen months because, more than most Reading restaurants, it feels like it’s always been there. It’s difficult to cast your mind back and remember that Chicken Base used to be in that site or, even before that, the lovely Bodrum Kebab. It feels like Clay’s is probably Reading’s favourite restaurant, and I think that’s down to a combination of many things. The food is fantastic, and superb value, and involves a quality of ingredients and spicing that they don’t shout about enough. The menu is innovative – where else in Reading could you, across a whole year, eat quail, rabbit, pheasant, squid and crab? But also, I think it’s about the modesty and humility of the whole exercise: you sense that maybe they don’t quite realise how good they are.

7. Forbury Gardens

I wouldn’t trust any list of this kind that didn’t have the Forbury in it. In summer it’s everybody’s second garden (unless you live in a flat, in which case it’s your first garden). There’s nowhere quite like it for relaxing in the sun, reading a book, having a picnic, celebrating Bastille Day, taking part in WaterFest – even though it always seems to rain for Waterfest – drinking a Froffee from the AMT in the train station (that one might just be me), eating street food from Blue Collar or just gazing up at the blue sky and the trees overhead. It’s even nicer now the Abbey Ruins is open again – it just feels like everything is as it should be.

8. Harris Arcade

We have lots of independent cafés in the town centre, and some independent restaurants, but nowhere near enough independent shops. With the notable exception of But Is It Art, the Harris Arcade is where you find most of the good ones. I’ve lived in Reading long enough to remember when there was the Traders Arcade, with Enchanted where you could buy your incense and crystals and a café on the first floor, but Harris Arcade still captures some of that spirit – whether you want to buy comics from Crunch, records from Sound Machine, hats from Adrienne Henry, cigars from Shave and Coster, cheese and beer from the Grumpy Goat or ephemera from JIM. If only more of Reading’s retail scene was like the Harris Arcade – and while we’re at it I’d love an independent bookshop, a beer café and a few more boutiques.

9. John Lewis

I know this might seem like a prosaic choice to some, but I stand by what I said last time round: our branch of John Lewis is the closest thing this town has to a cathedral (especially the lower ground floor which does seem to sell pretty much everything you could need). It has a sense of calm and class so lacking from the Oracle or the Broad Street Mall, and I don’t think you really appreciate how lovely it is until you visit a town unfortunate enough not to have one. Most shops seem to start celebrating Christmas the moment September is over, but when the Yuletide paraphernalia appears in the ground floor of John Lewis, you know the festive season really is on the way.

10. Launchpad

Other charities are available, but there was no way Launchpad wouldn’t make my list. The amount of homelessness and begging in Reading was upsetting enough back in 2016 but over the last three years it seems to have got even worse. Launchpad offers legal advice, drop-in services, training support and so much more for those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. But there’s more: back in January, Launchpad announced that it had built five brand new flats for people in need of long term accommodation, their first building project. Reading about it I felt incredibly proud, both of them and of our town.

11. The Nag’s Head

The Nag’s Head is widely held to be Reading’s best pub, and it’s not hard to see why. A wide, constantly changing range of cask and keg beers, ciders if that’s your bag, regular tap takeovers, food events in the garden (yes, yes, it’s a car park) in the summer and a friendly crowd pretty much every night of the week. A few pubs do a few things better, but nobody gets it quite as right across the board.

12. Pepe Sale

Rumours over the summer that Pepe Sale was up for sale threw much of Reading into a panic. Shortly after, it transpired that there was no substance to them but it at least gave Pepe Sale the rare opportunity to experience a mass outpouring of grief while it was still very much alive and kicking. It’s a class act – consistent, consistently full and always doing the classics well while keeping up an always interesting specials menu into the bargain. We will miss it when it’s gone, one day, but in the meantime the suckling pig and crab ravioli are still there, waiting for you to renew your acquaintance. Every town has an Italian restaurant or four, but how many have a Sardinian one?

13. Progress Theatre

Progress Theatre is best known for its summer Shakespeare productions, finally restored to their rightful home in the Abbey Ruins (I went this year and thoroughly enjoyed King Lear, although I’m still recovering from the spectacle of my friend Jerry, playing Gloucester, having his eyes plucked out). But the theatre up on the Mount is still a lovely, intimate and inventive place to watch interesting amateur productions. I loved their rendition of Top Girls earlier in the year and am very much looking forward to Hangmen next week. And now that Kungfu Kitchen is just down the road, your pre or post-theatre dining problem is solved too.

14. Reading Museum

Reading Museum remains a fantastic way to while away an hour in town, and the recent refurb (and new exhibition on some of Reading’s defining objects) has been very nicely done. It’s fantastic for kids and grownups – my 80 year old Canadian uncle thoroughly enjoyed dressing up there when he visited in the spring, although I’m not sure which of those categories he falls into. The replica of the Bayeux Tapestry gets all the attention, but I have an enormous soft spot for the display cabinet showing off Huntley & Palmer biscuit tins from across the decades.

15. Reading Old Cemetery

My list in 2016 didn’t have much in the way of open spaces. I must have changed in the last three years because I’m much more fond of Reading’s outdoors and Reading Old Cemetery is one of my favourite places for a meditative amble, even if I’ve never bumped into one of its legendary muntjac deer. It’s golden and peaceful in summer, and starkly beautiful in winter. There are lots of very touching gravestones and memorials, but the picture above shows probably my favourite, that of Bernard Laurence Hieatt. He has his own Wikipedia page, which is worth a look – it’s safe to say that he achieved a lot more in twenty-one years than most of us have in far more than that.

16. The Retreat

If the Nag’s Head is Reading’s best beer pub, I think the Retreat is probably Reading’s best classic pub. Saved this year by a consortium of locals, it remains a true one-off on a little backstreet not far from the Kings Road. The back room is where you sit if you just want to talk to your friends, or read on your own. The front room, though, is my favourite – there, regulars and newcomers engage in random conversations about all sorts, presided over by Brian, the now legendary landlord who if anything is even more charming now than he was three years ago (woe betide you if you swear in front of him, mind). There’s regular music, there’s jazz on Sundays and once a year in the summer the Morris dancers cavort away outside before making themselves comfortable in the back room and singing some very bawdy songs indeed.

17. The Salvation Army brass band at Christmas time

There are still few sights in Reading as heartwarming as the Salvation Army brass band, assembled outside Marks & Spencer, playing Christmas carols in November and December. Always unfailingly polite and impeccably turned out, they make Reading feel properly festive and it’s well worth watching, breath turning to fluffy clouds in the cold air. More Salvation Army brass bands and fewer god-botherers miked up and standing on a box, that’s what I say.

18. South Street

This is hardly a controversial choice – South Street enjoys a special place in Reading’s affections after it was rescued from the threat of closure following a huge outcry of public support (very much the town’s answer to 6 Music, and probably with a very similar fan base). It really does offer a terrific range of music, theatre, art and comedy and has widened its range still further over the last couple of years with its regular Beer Fridays (in collaboration with the Grumpy Goat) and its excellent annual Craft Theory Festival which brings together beer, street food and music in one unmissable package.

19. View Island

I’d never been to View Island until I was introduced to it through the writing of the irreplaceable, much-missed Matthew Farrall. Just past Caversham Lock, it’s an astonishing place, simultaneously wild and peaceful. You feel like you could be miles from anywhere, and yet you’re ten minutes from town. It’s been left to get almost completely overgrown and yet you can still sit on one of its blue benches, lost in your thoughts, watching the river flow.

20. The Workhouse courtyard

Long before Market House opened its doors, promising you booze, food and coffee at any time of the day, those in the know spent summer days going to the courtyard outside Workhouse Coffee. One of town’s most successful natural suntraps, you can sit there with coffee and cake from Workhouse or order Bhel Puri’s fantastic vegetarian street food and eat that al fresco instead (I recommend the chilli paneer, crispy bhajia, Punjabi samosas and a vada pav chaser). And if you want a beer in the sunshine? The bar at the George Hotel can rustle up a crisp pint of Estella. Who needs the Market House anyway?

Mio Fiore, Newbury

It is a sad but unavoidable fact that the moment I review somewhere Not In Reading, no matter how glowing the review and no matter how easy it is to get there, far fewer people click on the link and read it. So if you’re reading this, I should start by thanking you – and then I should go on to explain why this week it’s the turn of an Italian restaurant in Newbury, a five minute walk from the train station.

It’s a culmination of a few things, really. First of all, restaurants serving pasta have become a bit of a Thing in London in the last few years. It started with Padella, the no-reservation-queues-round-the-block establishment in Borough Market and their legendary cacio e pepe (I’ve never been: I don’t do queues). I did however recently have lunch at Covent Garden’s Bancone, a more recent exponent, and it was truly marvellous stuff, my rabbit and juniper ragu pretty close to anything I’d had in Bologna.

Then Mio Fiore, which has been on my to do list for some time, appeared in a national newspaper. In the course of reviewing a(nother) London pasta restaurant in the Guardian, Grace Dent mentioned in passing that she’d particularly enjoyed Mio Fiore’s spaghetti puttanesca during a Berkshire road trip (“something of which we’ll never tire”, she grandly exclaimed). Well, now: this part of the country never troubles broadsheet restaurant reviewers, so even a brief appearance like this warranted further investigation.

But the thing that clinched it was discovering that Pepe Sale, Reading’s exemplary Sardinian restaurant, was listed as for sale. The report subsequently turned out to be incorrect – apparently proprietor Toni described it as a “prank” – but at the time it threw me (and, I suspect, many other Reading diners) into a bit of an existential tailspin. How many more chances would I get to eat that stunning suckling pig? Where would I get my fix of top notch Italian food once Pepe Sale was gone? That settled it, so before too long my partner Zoë and I were on a train to Newbury to carry out what I had decided was essential research.

The first two things that struck me when I walked through Mio Fiore’s front door were that it was absolutely packed on a Tuesday evening and that there was a strong, glorious whiff of garlic (and I’m not sure they struck me in that order, either). A busy restaurant is the best kind of all, and no restaurant that smells of garlic can ever be a bad thing. It was a high-ceilinged room, almost like a barn, and they’d put in a second floor with a balcony, although I was glad we were seated on the ground floor by the windows, with a good view of the place. Everything was for utility rather than show – not often you see actual bricks in a restaurant rather than tiled bricks or wanky exposed brickwork. The wood-fired oven glowed behind the counter.

Compared to my recent horror show at Cozze, the menu at Mio Fiore exuded a quiet confidence. It felt compact – half a dozen starters, a manageable range of pasta and pizza dishes and only four other main courses. It wasn’t clear from the menu whether you could choose to have a smaller pasta dish as a starter, so we cooked up all sorts of permutations of what we might order before our waiter turned up and explained that we could indeed do that. That would have made things simpler, but for the fact that the specials board we hadn’t previously seen added further temptation and complication in the shape of another half-dozen dishes. We made inroads into a beautiful bottle of Gavi di Gavi and honed our final choices.

I’m no particular fan of Grace Dent, but I am a fan of puttanesca, so I had to try it. There’s a beautiful alchemy that happens when tomatoes, anchovies, capers and garlic combine and this dish had it in spades – sweet, salt and savoury in perfect, tantalising equilibrium, with the faintest hint of chilli to dial up the contrast. The pasta was spot on, too – just the right side of al dente, and the perfect vehicle for the sauce. The nice thing about having pasta as a starter is that it never outstays its welcome, although that was never going to happen with a dish this beautiful; I could have eaten a mountain of the stuff. Once I’d finished the spaghetti I took a spoon to the remaining sauce, not wanting to miss a mouthful.

Zoë had opted for an equally traditional dish, and if the fettuccine with ragu didn’t quite meet the lofty heights of Bologna it came creditably close. The ragu had a lovely depth to it, the pasta again was spot on and the whole thing was liberally covered with Parmesan (although I always say you can’t have too much). We didn’t know how much Mio Fiore would charge us for our starters until the bill arrived, but they’d priced both pasta dishes at six pounds ninety-five, which strikes me as impressive value.

If the meal had finished there, it would have been pretty damned good, but the main courses kept up the standard without a misstep. My chicken with Gorgonzola and wild mushrooms was from the specials menu and was another beautiful dish. Like the pasta dishes, it’s the kind of thing that features on the menus of Italian and faux-Italian restaurants across the country, but you can tell when it’s executed with skill. The sauce was silky, with enough tang from the blue cheese but not so much that it overpowered everything else going on. Crucially, the “wild mushrooms” were in fact wild: they are so often tamed somewhere between the menu and the kitchen. The rosemary roasted potatoes didn’t get a chance to shine, sitting under the chicken and smothered in the sauce, but that was hardly a bad thing.

I had some roasted vegetables with this, because I felt like I ought to at least try to eat some plants. They were served cold and didn’t go at all, but the waiter had warned me about that and I decided to press on anyway. They too were beautiful – sweet red and yellow peppers, long strips of griddled courgette and smoky aubergine with, again, a hit of garlic.

Zoë had a pizza, to make sure we tested the full range of the menu; this too was excellent. I remember eating friarelli at Papa Gee for the first time, never having heard of the stuff, but it’s more of an ever-present on pizza menus these days. None the less – bit of a theme here – it’s rarely used as well as it was by Mio Fiore. The real star of the show, though, was the salsiccia – delicious, coarse nuggets of sausagemeat, generously distributed. The crust and the dough were superb, the tomato sauce sweet and fragrant and the whole thing, really, showed how good the basics could be when you get the basics right. Zoë thought it was better than Franco Manca, better even than Lusso (Newbury’s dedicated pizza restaurant which is itself no slouch) and I was inclined to agree.

I don’t always have dessert on duty but there are two situations where I usually will: when my mind isn’t yet made up about a restaurant or when I know it’s good and I want to see if the final third of the meal can top the rest. No prizes for guessing which of the two it was here, and again the menu was restrained and unfussy: no hideous highlighter-pink profiterole Tower Of Babel to be seen here, just some of the classics – panna cotta, chocolate fondant, cheesecake, tiramisu. Zoë chose the chocolate fondant, which takes fifteen minutes to make – just enough time to watch the restaurant start to calm down, the busy tables settle up and leave, the birthday celebrations on the upper floor began to nudge down the volume. It really is a lovely place, I thought to myself, wishing I’d not waited so long to pay it a visit.

I always judge Italian restaurants on whether they have something decent to drink after dinner, so we were taking our first sips of Averna (bittersweet, on ice with a single wedge of orange) when our desserts arrived. Chocolate fondant, like all hot desserts, isn’t really to my taste but I tasted enough of Zoë’s to verify that it was faultless. The contrast in textures was absolutely as it should be, no over-gooey mess in the middle but not dried out either. It’s not a dish I ever order, but I’m glad Zoë picked it; there are few things quite as enjoyable as watching the person you love eat something they adore.

My choice, tiramisu, could have been equally prosaic. After all, who hasn’t had tiramisu countless times in one Italian restaurant or another? But again, the execution was impossible to fault. It wasn’t pretty, or fancy, but everything about it was right – soaked through with booze and coffee, with a beautiful indulgent depth to it. No corners cut, nothing artificial or superficial, just a textbook example of how things should be: six pounds exceptionally well spent.

Service throughout our meal was emblematic of the whole experience, in that the simple things were done automatically and the difficult things were made to look easy. The restaurant was packed all evening, and the waiting staff were clearly very busy, but although they worked their socks off they still exuded a certain assured serenity. Even the little things were right – letting you know they’d be with you in a second, always being chatty, never making you feel neglected or forgotten.

Maybe that’s the thing about family-run restaurants, because the waiting staff were a tight-knit, efficient bunch who were clearly a very comfortable and effective team. When my main course came, Zoë’s pizza was nowhere to be seen and our waiter, charming and suave the rest of the time, was up at the counter giving the pizza chef a good talking to to ensure we weren’t kept waiting. When he brought it over, barely a minute later, he was all smiles. This was the service all over – completely in control, the perfect link between the kitchen and the customer.

As we were settling up our waiter told us that Mio Fiore had been there for four years: we told him we came from Reading, he knew it and we had a chat about Pepe Sale. It was a good restaurant, he said, if maybe a bit dated, and I found myself unable to disagree. Our bill for two people – three courses, a bottle of wine and a couple of digestifs – came to just over a hundred pounds, not including service. It would be easy to spend less, but either way I thought this was thoroughly decent value.

I worry, reading back over this, that this might be another review of a restaurant outside Reading that many people won’t read, or that it doesn’t have quite enough pizzazz to persuade you to take that train to Newbury (not even if I mention the incredible selection of pre-prandial gins, ciders and Belgian beers at the wonderful Catherine Wheel). If so, the fault is entirely mine.

The problem, you see, is that a restaurant as consistent and unshowy as Mio Fiore does not attract superlatives. The dishes aren’t triumphs of imagination, the presentation involves no visual fireworks. You won’t be wowed by creative combinations of ingredients you’ve never seen before. Mio Fiore has no designs on being that kind of restaurant, and if that’s what you crave it isn’t the place for you. I loved Mio Fiore precisely because it eschews all those things.

I’ve eaten a lot of middling meals on duty, cooked by people who don’t know, or worse still don’t care, how food should taste. I’ve seen so many menus that read infinitely better than the food that turns up at your table, all gastronomic mouth and no trousers. I know the flavourlessness of disappointment better than I ought to, and as a result I really appreciate somewhere like Mio Fiore where everything tastes as it absolutely should – but so very rarely does.

I’d pick a restaurant like this, focusing on the classics, over all the fads and trends any day of the week. That it manages to do all that with such warmth and expertise, in a lovely welcoming room with thoroughly likeable staff, is as worthy of a fanfare as anywhere else I’ve eaten. That it all takes place in a room which happens to smell of garlic is the dusting of Parmesan on top. I recommend going, so you can see just how excellent a restaurant can be without ever showing off.

Mio Fiore – 8.4
5 Inches Yard, Newbury, RG14 5DP
01635 552023

https://www.miofiore.co.uk/

Cozze

I’ve been reading a lot of other restaurant bloggers recently, and it’s made me think. These are proper restaurant reviewers in big cities, and they use impressive words like “bosky” and “friable” – both of which, I’m ashamed to say, I had to look up in a dictionary.

The other thing these reviewers do, which I’ve never done, is write in the present tense e.g. I bite into the burger. It has the deep flavour of well-tended cow and so on. This is a very striking way to write about food and it makes you feel like you’re there, in the moment, experiencing that bite with them.

I, on the other hand, tend to write in the past tense e.g. the burger was a bit bland. Recounting an event which has already happened makes it feel like you’re telling someone a story down the pub, but perhaps it lacks that immediacy. Maybe it puts a gap between the writer and the reader.

So does the traditional structure of a restaurant review. Here is why I’m reviewing this place, my reviews tend to begin, followed by this is what the room is like and here’s what I ordered and what it tasted like followed, as night follows day, by here’s what the service was like, here’s how much it cost and, last but not least, this is my verdict. Add the rating, the address and the website, repeat until dead. Job’s a good’un.

One thing those other restaurant reviewers and I agree on is that the best reviews to write are the rave reviews, followed by the hatchet jobs. The ones everybody dreads are the middling, the mediocre, the it was dull enough eating it, but heavens, now I have to write about it ones.

So, I ought to start by explaining that Cozze, the Italian restaurant on the roundabout at the bottom of the Caversham Road, has been on my to do list for literally years, and that whenever I ask people on Facebook where they’d like me to go next someone always pipes up and suggests it.

I should add that it started in Woodley before adding a second branch in central Reading with a third one just opened in Pangbourne. I should then say something like “well, a successful independent chain is a very unusual thing in Reading so I owed it to myself to see what all the fuss was about so I went there one night with my partner Zoë” and there you go, the scene is set.

But really, and maybe this will build some of the immediacy my reviews might sometimes lack, what I really want to tell you is how exceptionally bored I was by having dinner at Cozze.

Take the spaghetti carbonara I had as my starter. A good carbonara should be golden, the sauce should hug the pasta, it should be resplendent with egg, it should be salty and sinful and fun. The pancetta (although ideally it might even be guanciale) should be almost crispy and add its own whack of salt to proceedings. It shouldn’t be like this.

It shouldn’t be a pasty albino of a thing, swimming in cream with scant evidence that it’s ever seen an egg. You shouldn’t be dredging through the lake of liquid once you’ve finished, picking out highlighter-pink cubes of bouncy bacon and wondering why you bothered. It shouldn’t be worse than eating at Carluccio’s, for goodness’ sake. It shouldn’t feel like a dish cooked by people who don’t especially care for food or know how it’s meant to taste.

The sad thing is that the room itself is quite nice – a big airy space with nice furniture and vaguely Kandinsky-esque paintings on the wall. And the staff were lovely – really bright and friendly as they brought middling plate after middling plate to our table. We were the only people there when we arrived, although by the end three other tables were occupied. One big group appeared to be regulars, which makes me wonder if they’ve ever considered trying other restaurants. They might like them.

Zoë thinks I am being a little grumpy, and to be fair she ordered better than I did. But her stuffed mushrooms, laid out as if by a serial killer, might have been pleasant enough but I wasn’t sure they were elevated from anything you could pick up and do yourself in M&S. The ones at Papa Gee, in the heart of Caversham, at least have blue cheese in them to give some salt and tang and flavour: no such luck here. The dip seemed to be mayo. Who dips stuffed mushrooms in mayo? Why not just stick a bottle of salad cream on the table and have done with it?

God, and the desserts. White chocolate covered profiteroles filled with Prosecco and raspberry ice cream sounded like they might at least be interesting, but turned out to be one of the ickiest things I’ve had in a long time. They were filled not with ice cream but with cream that tasted of nothing much. The white chocolate was sickly enough, but the Barbie-pink raspberry gloop on top, and the scoop of raspberry ripple ice cream in which almost no raspberry was evident, completed the spectacle. Again, Zoë’s dessert, a honeycomb cheesecake, was a little better but still every other ingredient was shouted down by sugar.

I’d had my doubts about Cozze before going, which mainly came down to looking at the menu several times over the years. Part of that came from my suspicion that they’d taken a kitchen sink approach – would an Italian restaurant really offer chicken wings, moules frites, baby back ribs and peri-peri chicken? Would they really do four different burgers, accompanied by the wording all our burgers some (sic) with fries and are fully cooked? I mean, I know what they were trying to say, but even so.

But more than that, my real problem with the menu was just how many things on it were also on the menu at Prezzo (ironically Cozze has seen Prezzo off in Woodley: that branch has now closed). If you’re a chain, why set yourself up to be a rival to a place like Prezzo? Should that be the place you set your sights on? Again, it says you’re interested in making money, but not particularly interested in food. But if anything, Prezzo’s menu reflects some recentish food trends – there’s burrata, there’s ‘nduja and so on. Cozze’s menu, with none of that to be seen, feels like an Italian chain menu from about ten years ago.

My main was better, although it still wasn’t anywhere near the best pizza in Reading. It had goats cheese (not enough), leeks, four bits of semi-dried tomatoes and three bits of artichoke. Like most of the other things at Cozze it wasn’t actively unpleasant, just objectionably unexceptional. I drizzled some chilli oil over it to try and make it taste of something. The chilli oil appeared to have very little chilli in it – crap as a condiment, perfect as an analogy.

For completeness’ sake, before you or I drop off, I should also tell you about Zoë’s main course which was pollo prosciutto with pomodoro sauce and baby roast potatoes. Pepe Sale does a beautiful pollo prosciutto – a fillet wrapped in Parma ham and stuffed with cheese which you have with seasonal vegetables. It’s perfect: a few ingredients treated simply and with respect. For some reason, they choose not to drown it in chopped tomatoes and serve it in a bowl hotter than the sun like some kind of glorified ready meal. For some reason, Cozze does choose to do exactly that.

I had a mouthful and wasn’t clamouring for more. My advice, if you ever accidentally order this dish, is to eat it doing your very best to pretend you’re instead eating at Pepe Sale. But if your imagination is that good, you could probably enjoy eating pretty much anything. I used to have a brother in law with nasal polyps so bad he couldn’t taste anything: he’d probably quite like Cozze.

Don’t worry. We’re nearly there and our suffering is almost at an end. It just remains for me to tell you that we shared a five hundred millilitre carafe of Italian Sauvignon blanc which was slightly sweet and perfectly decent and that our meal came to fifty-six pounds, not including tip. That includes a discount because Cozze usually has offers through their website, so if you’re considering eating at Cozze you should definitely make use of them. Although if you’re considering eating at Cozze at this moment, I’ve probably failed as a restaurant reviewer.

You might feel that they caught me on a bad day. You might feel they’re unfortunate to be reviewed the week after I’ve written about eating in Bologna, having truly phenomenal pizza, pasta and gelato. And it’s not that Cozze is bad, to be fair. Nobody died, I wasn’t poisoned, nothing they do is inedible.

It’s just that if Cozze is that answer then “where can we go for dinner that nobody could possibly have any strong opinions about whatsoever?” is the question. The poverty of ambition is the thing I find a terrible shame. Although maybe that’s not fair either: Cozze aspires to mediocrity and, in that respect at least, it has to be considered a towering success. There are worse places to eat, of course. But there will always, easily, be somewhere far, far better.

Cozze – 6.3
93-97 Caversham Road, RG1 8AN
0118 9591459

https://www.cozzerestaurants.co.uk/

Feature: The 2018 Edible Reading Awards

2018 has been an interesting year for Reading’s restaurant and café scene. It didn’t have huge, big-name openings like Thames Lido or Honest Burgers, but there have still been plenty of noteworthy changes and shifts over the last twelve months. For one, the Oxford Road has become a more significant place, with Tuscany and Oishi opening this year offering properly lovely pizza and promising Japanese food, filling a gap that has been there since Bhoj moved into town and I Love Paella left Workhouse Coffee.

Another trend has been some of Reading’s street food and pop-up specialists finding new homes, so Laura from Pop-Up Reading now cooks at the Tasting House and Georgian Feast are now operating at what used to be Nomad Bakery, in Caversham, a rare gastronomic high spot north of the river. Not to mention the way street food in Reading exploded this year, with Blue Collar taking over the Forbury and the Abbey Ruins for brilliant events running over several weeks. And then there are the new arrivals among Reading’s cafés, with a second branch of C.U.P. on Blagrave Street and Anonymous Coffee firmly installed both at the Tasting House and, if you work there, Thames Tower.

Of course, the circle of life means that restaurants also fall by the wayside, some of which are more mourned than others. So this is the year that Namaste Kitchen lost its chef and front of house and I Love Paella left the Fisherman’s Cottage. Those things might well make you sad (as they do me), whereas the closure of our branch of Jamie’s Italian might bother you less. But we also said goodbye to the much-loved Dolce Vita, cafés Artigiano and the Biscuit Tin and chains Loch Fyne and CAU. The casual dining sector faces an uncertain future in 2019, so few people would bet against further contraction next year: if you like a restaurant, you need to keep eating there.

This doesn’t deter people from entering the market, so the end of the year saw two further openings – Persia House, on the far side of Caversham Bridge (in a spot many consider cursed) offering Iranian food and the Corn Stores in the iconic building opposite Apex Plaza, where the owners are hoping a very fancy refit will persuade diners to part with quite a lot of money for steak. I will of course be heading along to check both of them out in the New Year.

But before that, on the last Friday of the year, it’s time to look back in my annual awards and celebrate the best of 2018. And before we do that, I have to say a quick thank you. It’s been an incredible year on the blog: the most successful since I began in 2013, with more visitors than ever before. It’s been the year that I put out two of the most popular features on the blog (on the things Reading needs and Reading’s 10 must-try dishes), ran a competition with new kid on the block Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen and ate, and reviewed, all manner of things, from pizza in Newbury to croque monsieur in a hospital, from chip-free fine dining in Binfield Heath to wobbly shawarma down the Wokingham Road.

I’ve had help from an incredible cast of guest dining companions who have helped make every meal an absolute pleasure (even when the food was not). A total of twelve different people have joined me on reviews this year, and every one has added something different. I don’t want to leave anybody out, and listing them would probably be dull for everybody else, but they know who they are and they know that I’m enormously grateful. And actually, I ended up having lunch with a lot more people than that – over fifty people attended one of the four readers’ lunches this year, from the first one at Namaste Kitchen at the start of the year (featuring a superlative greatest hits package of seemingly everything on the menu) to the elegant and accomplished four course set menu at Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen in December. It really has been quite a year.

Right, with all that out of the way let’s concentrate on the task at hand. Ready? Good.

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Dak-gang jeong, Soju

I only got out my legendary 8 paddle twice in 2018, for visits to Soju and Oishi. A big part of my rating for the former came from this dish, phenomenal crispy fried chicken covered in hot and sour sauce and scattered with sesame seeds, a quite magnificent affair which became my yardstick not only for starters and small plates in Reading, but also for fried chicken everywhere. It is reason enough to go to Soju in its own right, and next time I go I might order three.

Honourable mentions go to Bakery House’s chicken livers – meaty, metallic and resplendent with sweet red onion and punchy pomegranate molasses – and Bench Rest’s cauliflower shawarma, a beautifully done dish which could persuade anybody to give vegetarian food a whirl (though not, necessarily, to refer to it as “plant-based dining”).

TWEETER OF THE YEAR: Fidget & Bob

I won’t get on my high horse again to deliver my regular speech about how Reading’s restaurants, cafes and bars almost uniformly fail to get social media, but let’s just say that this was, by far, the easiest award to give out. Fidget & Bob’s Twitter feed has been an absolute delight this year, whether it’s been tweeting their specials (which always sound delicious), supporting other like-minded independent businesses or talking about the comings and goings of life on Kennet Island. I love my part of town, but Fidget & Bob manages the almost impossible: it nearly makes me wish I lived close enough to be a regular.

CHAIN OF THE YEAR: Franco Manca

Contrary to popular belief, I do review chains (provided they offer something a little different). I was in two minds about Franco Manca when I went there on duty, having enjoyed a couple of their London branches prior to their big expansion over the last couple of years, but repeated visits have established it as a real favourite. The pizzas are always good quality, the service is usually brisk but friendly and it’s an excellent, versatile venue – suitable for a quick pre-pub dinner with friends, a solo meal on the way home or a drawn out lunch when you want a little more than a sandwich. It’s often worth loading up a standard margherita with whatever toppings are on the blackboard that day, and if you do stay for dessert both the coffee and ice cream are better than you might expect.

Honorary mentions in this category go to Cote Brasserie, which has been doing its thing for so long that you could be forgiven for forgetting how good it is, and Kokoro, which is also a perfect place to stop for a big lunch or a quick dinner, solo or with a friend.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Charsi karahi chicken, Kobeda Palace

I have waxed lyrical about this dish so often that I may have run out of things to say by now, but Kobeda Palace’s karahi chicken remains a beautiful dish and a hugely surprising one; nothing about Kobeda Palace necessarily gives away that you can get such a gastronomic treat there, but there it is. Chicken, on the bone but neatly jointed, comes in the most glorious spiced sauce, with plenty of coriander and fresh ginger. The trick, if you can manage it, is to strip it all off the bone before you start and scoop it up with the giant, freshly baked naan bread. It really is gorgeous, and I’ve introduced numerous people to it this year.

There were so many contenders for this award that even narrowing down runners-up is almost impossible: you might be surprised, for instance, to discover that Café Yolk’s incredible Breakfast Burger was a fixture on my long list. But it would be wrong not to mention Pepe Sale’s suckling pig, a dish which is never going to be in or out of fashion but remains unbeatably delicious all the same, and the instant classic that is Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen’s bhuna venison (I even remember a Twitter outcry this year when, for a couple of days, Clay’s ran out of venison).

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen

I can’t imagine many of you being surprised by this: I’ve had regular conversations with people where they basically say something to the effect of “Clay’s is a little too good for Reading”. I think it reflects well on both Clay’s and Reading that the owners don’t seem to think so, and nor should we. To go from a standing start to being firmly ensconced as Reading’s (or at least Twitter Reading’s) favourite restaurant is quite an achievement, and barely a week goes by without somebody on social media publicly declaring how delighted they are to be back there for their umpteenth visit. I can’t say I blame them.

Bing Crosby once said that Frank Sinatra was the kind of singer that only comes round once in a lifetime, before adding “why does it have to be my lifetime?”. On a similar note, both Oishi and Tuscany can feel unfortunate not to win this award this year: Oishi was a lovely, low-key, apologetic delight, serving very good sashimi and teriyaki, and Tuscany is a superb, if idiosyncratic, pizza joint which may or may not do loads of other things, if you can ever track them down on a menu – or indeed track down a menu.

OUT OF TOWN RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Arbequina

Oxford’s Arbequina is, simply put, one of the best restaurants I’ve been to anywhere, in ages. A little spot down the Cowley Road, basic tables and chairs, a small menu, a small kitchen and superb staff who can execute all of it perfectly. Once, after a fantastic meal there, the waiter told me that they deliberately make the menu so simple that people can be trained to cook all the dishes in a week. Nothing is complex or fiddly but all of it is truly outstanding, from toast with ‘nduja, honey and thyme to pork belly smothered in verdant, herby mojo verde. Special mention has to go to the tortilla, which will slightly ruin all other tortillas and omelettes in your mind for the rest of your days: only order one if you can cope with that.

None of the out of town venues I visited on duty, sadly, came close to being in contention for this award but honourable mentions definitely go to the Black Rat in Winchester, a Michelin starred pub which could teach many of Berkshire’s and Oxfordshire’s poseur gastropubs a thing or two about keeping it simple, and Chelsea’s Medlar which is as good an excuse as you could hope for to take a Friday off and slope over to London.

DESSERT OF THE YEAR: Double ka meetha, Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen

I often struggle to find a dessert I much like in restaurants and usually, when I do, it involves chocolate. Hats off, then, to Clay’s which has a chocolate-free dessert so fine it’s worth saving room for (itself a challenge, on a visit to Clay’s). It’s bread and butter pudding, but not as we know it – chilled, clean and fresh, sweet without being cloying, a delicate, clever thing packed with pistachio and full of surprises. A lot of the attention focused on Clay’s other dessert, a very striking and unusual rice pudding made with onion, but for me this is straight out the best dessert you can get anywhere in town.

Runners-up in this category are Pepe Sale’s seadas, pastry full of cheese and sweet with citrus (don’t knock it til you’ve tried it) and Honest Burgers’ salted caramel milkshake, because a milkshake is a perfectly respectable dessert option and, as far as I’m concerned, the sooner restaurants get on board with this the better.

LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Bhel Puri House

Some of my nicest lunches this year have been spent sitting outside in the courtyard shared by Workhouse and the George Hotel, enjoying a mango lassi and some of the many excellent dishes cooked up by Bhel Puri House. Everyone talks about the chilli paneer, which is every bit as good as it was when I first reviewed it almost exactly five years ago, but the supporting cast is almost as good, whether you’re having vada pav (a sort of potato cake sandwich which feels like Indian street food which has found it’s way here via Hartlepool), crispy bhajia – perfect thin slices of fried potato with a sweet carrot chutney – or classics like Punjabi samosas. They haven’t changed a thing since they started, as far as I can see, and I’m glad they haven’t messed with a winning formula. It just feels like 2018 was maybe the year that Reading (including me) started to catch up.

I might be a bit jaded with the endless parade of relatively traditional sandwiches available in Reading, good though many of them are, and so my other podium places for this award go to Bakery House (for its small plates and the endless wonder and ludicrous good value of its lamb shawarma in pitta) and Blue Collar, where every Wednesday you can make the acquaintance of Leymoun’s quite extraordinary challoumi wrap.

SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Pepe Sale

It’s not been the best year for the service profession in Reading. Ihor has left the Artist Formerly Known as Kyrenia, Kamal has departed from Namaste Kitchen, and Kostas, Alexandra and the rest of the crew at Dolce Vita must be plying their trade elsewhere. Not only that, but Marco left Pepe Sale to head off into retirement, splitting his time between Kent and Italy. But actually, on many subsequent visits to Pepe Sale I finally got a proper view of what Marco’s presence obscured – that all of the staff there work like Trojans, are incredibly friendly, superbly efficient and do an impeccable job of making a very busy restaurant run like clockwork. So without question, Pepe Sale is a worthy winner of this year’s award for making it all look so effortless. I will miss Marco, glasses round his neck, Larry Grayson-style, telling me all the new places I ought to try for dinner, though.

All is not lost, though, and there are plenty of other places in Reading where the service is still exemplary. The Lyndhurst does a superb job of looking after diners, with a perfect balance between attentive and relaxed, friendly and formal, and definitely merits a mention here, as does the quite marvellous Fidget & Bob.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen

Clay’s reminds me very much of the quote by Robert Graves that “the remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he really is very good, in spite of all the people who say he is very good”. It’s much the same with Clay’s – everyone raves about it, me included, and you could quite reasonably think that it can’t be quite as magnificent as everybody claims.

And yet, when you go, it is. A restaurant which feels more like it’s been transferred in from London, with food reminiscent of high end Indian restaurants like Gymkhana, and yet which simultaneously feels completely in the right place in its spot at the bottom of London Street. The food is like nothing else you can get not only in Reading but probably anywhere in England, the execution is brilliant and the menu has already undergone a few changes despite Clay’s only having been open for six months. It’s already difficult to imagine Reading without it.

Not everything is perfect – service has been erratic since day one, and still needs work. They could badly do with a website, and I’m still not entirely sure whether Clay’s is a high-end restaurant charging middle-end prices or a really good neighbourhood restaurant. But ultimately, this stuff doesn’t matter: what truly matters is that Reading has a restaurant quite unlike any other, where the food is frequently quite astonishing, which gets Twitter and seems genuinely proud to be part of the town and part of its restaurant community. I can’t think of a better winner of this year’s award, even if I can look forward to a chorus of comments giving me the final ER Award of 2018, for Stating The Obvious.