Feature: Eating at the Reading Fringe

Last week I took part in a live Q&A on Twitter about the Reading Fringe. It’s an amazing Reading institution, now in its fifth year and bigger than ever with 72 shows running across 14 venues over 5 days. I was more than happy to support it by answering questions for an hour; obviously some people wanted answers to the burning questions of the day (my favourite flavour is salt and vinegar, thanks for asking) but the best question I got asked was this – where should I eat before going to take in a show at the Fringe? It’s an excellent question, and I dashed off a few quick responses, but the more I thought about it the more I thought it might make a useful feature for those of you attending a cultural event in Reading for the rest of this week. So here goes!

Shows at the Penta Hotel, Smokin’ Billy’s, Public, The Butler or The Purple Turtle: Pepe Sale, Bhoj or Bluegrass BBQ

Many of these shows start at 7 or 7.30, so you need to find somewhere nearby that serves decent food and can feed you and have you out the door sharpish. Pepe Sale, as a restaurant right next to the Hexagon, has an impeccable pedigree of doing this so is well worth considering. It’s not the most attractive interior in the world but you probably won’t have the time to fully appreciate that, especially if you’re concentrating on the food. If you’re in a rush the pasta dishes are always a good bet (I’m a particular fan of the tagliolini with smoked salmon, saffron and cream).
Failing that, Bluegrass is another excellent option and has the additional benefit that you pay up front so it’s easy to scarper afterwards without having to flag someone down to settle the bill. When I first went it was all about pulled pork and brisket but the menu definitely has other interesting choices including the Southern fried chicken and most notably the slow cooked beef brisket chilli – watermelon slices and all – which has become my go-to dish there. Lastly, Bhoj is in its new home a couple of doors down from Pepe Sale and does some of Reading’s finest Indian food. Karahi lamb is my favourite choice here, although ordering from here prior to a packed performance might not be the most sociable thing you could do.
Oh, and don’t go to Smokin’ Billy’s to eat. You’d be better off grabbing a Pizza Express and eating it in the garden of the Allied Arms.

Pepe Sale, 3 Queen’s Walk, RG1 7QF (review here)
Bluegrass BBQ, RG1 2JR (review here)
Bhoj, 7 Queen’s Walk, RG1 7QF (review here)

Shows at Revolucion de Cuba, Milk, Waterstones or the Dome at Station Hill: Sapana Home, Shed, Kokoro or Nando’s

Sapana Home is still often my choice for a quick town centre meal and it’s a great place for pre-theatre because if you get there bang on six o’clock you’re likely to eat brilliantly and still make your show. I’ve written about the place so many times that I’m in danger of getting repetitive, but really, have any of the pan fried chicken momo, the samosa chaat, the chicken fry and the chow mein and you’ll have an absolutely fantastic meal. Sapana was my restaurant of the year last year and is still a favourite of mine. Surprisingly good for kids, too: my friend’s 10 year old son is a massive fan of the momo and can manage all 10 in a single sitting. Attaboy.
Some of the shows at the Dome are mid-afternoon and for those Shed and Kokoro offer good lunch options. Shed is great for kids, if you’re going to one of the kids’ shows there, and does a great array of sandwiches and salads (and the Top One – chorizo and cheese and jalapeno – remains one of the best sandwiches you can eat in the ‘Ding). Kokoro is newer, an offshoot of a small chain, and goes fantastic tubs of crispy chilli chicken or spicy thigh meat curries with rice or noodles or a range of sushi. Only a few tables, but again perfect for a quick meal where you rush in and out.

You can judge all you like, but I also have a soft spot for the Nando’s on Friar Street. Butterflied chicken breast, medium, with spicy rice and macho peas (or corn on the cob if you absolutely must) and garlic piri-piri on the side. Have a spot of sangria while you’re at it, because I always find it makes me far more artistically receptive: after a whole jug I’ve even been known to enjoy an episode of Sherlock.

Oh, and don’t go to Cosmo. Duck in a Yorkshire pudding is all well and good, but your digestive system will pay a terrible price the next day.

Sapana Home, 8 Queen Victoria St, RG1 1TG (awarded Restaurant Of The Year here)
Shed, 8 Merchants Place, RG1 1DT (review here)
Kokoro, 13 Queen Victoria St, RG1 1SY
Nando’s, 30-31 Friar Street, RG1 1DX

Shows at the Oracle: Franco Manca or Mission Burrito

The Oracle is not my favourite place to eat, and there’s only one show here (live music at 12 and 3 from Lisa Zimmerman who has the tough gig of interesting Oracle shoppers in German opera with a pop twist: good luck with that, Lisa) but even here you can have a decent quick bite to eat. If you’re keeping it old school you could do a lot worse than a burrito from Mission with black beans, shredded slow-cooked beef, salad, guacamole and smoky chipotle sauce. But if you want to try one of the newcomers, Franco Manca does very good sourdough pizzas with splendid crusts that are cooked quickly in the blisteringly hot oven. Try and keep enough time back for the rosemary cake with Greek yoghurt, you won’t regret it.
Franco Manca, The Oracle, RG1 2AT
Mission Burrito, The Oracle, RG1 2AG (review here)

Shows at South Street, The Rising Sun and Olympia Ballrooms: Bakery House or the Lyndhurst

The easiest choices of all, these: round this part of town Bakery House is almost the only show in town. My last meal there was a little disappointing but it’s the only bad meal I’ve ever had there and I still have faith in them to deliver gorgeous Lebanese food quickly in a nice unpretentious setting. If you’re in a hurry for a show you might be better off ordering plenty of small dishes to share in which case the rich glossy houmous topped with pieces of roasted lamb, the amazing falafel, the little succulent maqaneq sausages and the halloumi stuffed pitta bread are all worth a go. And if you have a little bit longer I only have three beautiful words to say to you: boneless baby chicken.

I reviewed the Lyndhurst recently and it’s the perfect spot for a show in that area, especially if you’re watching something at South Street. The menu changes too regularly for me to be able to make too many recommendations but you can’t go far wrong and at the very least you should consider the pink pickled eggs (the distinctive colour coming from beetroot) with a hint of star anise, the Scotch egg or the dead good fish and chips.

Bakery House, 82 London St, RG1 4SJ (review here)
The Lyndhurst, 88-90 Queens Rd, RG1 4DG (review here)

Anyway, I hope this is useful and that you seriously consider taking in a show over the next week or so, whether it’s stand-up, gig theatre, experimental theatre, music, chap-hop or (because Britain’s Got Talent suggests at least some people like this sort of thing) dance. The Fringe’s website is here, and tickets can still be bought in advance for the majority of the shows. Maybe I’ll see you at something: I fancy going to watch All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, and I might go get squiffy at the launch party tomorrow night. I’ll be the one in the Mexican wrestling mask.

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Feature: 20 things I love about Reading

No review this week, I’m afraid. Every now and again work is just too busy, or holidays get in the way and it’s just not possible for me to get to a restaurant (not somewhere new, anyway), form a critical judgment and knock out a couple of thousand words. But I couldn’t leave you completely in the lurch so instead I thought I’d do a bit of a departure – a feature which isn’t entirely about eating and drinking.

As regular readers will know, I absolutely love Reading and if there’s one thing that really cheeses me off it’s people running it down. So this week I’ve decided to do one of those Buzzfeed-style articles that are all the rage with the movers and shakers and give you a not remotely exhaustive or definitive list of the things I love about this eccentric, deceptively characterful town of ours. Hope you enjoy it, and by all means chip in in the comments section with everything I’ve forgotten to mention, or the things that would make your personal list. Ready? Got a cup of tea handy? Right, off we go!

1. John Lewis

JohnLewis

I’ve always felt that John Lewis is the closest thing Reading has to a cathedral and, like many Reading folk no doubt, I’ve always had an almost visceral loyalty to it as an institution. I’m not sure there’s any more heartwarming experience than strolling down Queen Victoria Street to see its distinctive façade and clock coming into view (although it’s just as distinctive from the Oracle side with its weird, almost pagoda-like sloped roofs).

But, of course, it’s really about what’s inside and what’s inside is everything you could possibly want. I know everyone is sad about Jackson’s closing, and that’s fair enough, but really, John Lewis is the place you can buy whatever you need from duvet covers to board games to scented candles to cameras to pretty much anything else. Whenever anyone asks me “where should I go for X?”, the answer’s nearly always John Lewis.

It’s not quite as lovely as it used to be since they dolled the place up, but it does give rise to one of my favourite John Lewis stories. When they did their refit they got rid of the grand old curvy lifts like pods that took you from the top to the bottom of the department store. The new ones, which I don’t like so much, are your stereotypical glass boxes but – and only John Lewis would do this – they let the staff name them. Have a look next time you’re in one of them.

And before you say anything: yes, I know, it will always be Heelas to me, too.

2. The Retreat

The recent hoo-ha about whether Reading served lots of bad beer spectacularly missed the point that not only does Reading have a magnificent beer culture, punching well above its weight, but it also has some of the finest pubs anybody could hope for. I know purists might well pick somewhere else, and we could be here all day debating, but The Retreat is probably my favourite. I’ve had some magical evenings here, there are always interesting conversations going on all around you and it’s a truly lovely place to drink a pint, eat some jalapeno pretzel pieces and chat with friends, play cards or just read a book and watch the world go by. Especially nice if you happen to be there on a night when ukulele practice is going on, I find. Oh, and the landlord is a twinkly delight.

3. Dolce Vita

I’m not sure there’s anything to say about Dolce Vita that I haven’t already said, but as a place to go for any kind of meal in Reading – big ones, little ones, even solo ones – it’s pretty much impossible to beat. The food is a great combination of reliable favourites and regularly changing nice surprises, the service is uniformly downright superb and it literally never lets me down. It’s almost the only restaurant left in what’s currently still called The Walk (but will no doubt soon be called Atlantis Palace or some other such horror) but whatever you think of the rather baffling way that mall is managed, I think they’re too sensible to muck with Dolce Vita.

4. South Street

21SouthStreet

No surprises here, I’m sure; I was delighted when South Street was saved, and just as delighted to watch a whole community come together to fight for it. Over the years I’ve seen all sorts of things here, and I can’t think of an arts centre that puts on such a brave, eclectic and consistently interesting programme of events. So I saw Alan Carr here before he was famous (he was exceptional) and Mumford & Sons (I was dragged to that one). But I’ve also seen one-person shows about hair extensions, or driving a clapped-out car to Rome, or about orbiting the moon on your own. I’ve seen folk music and cabaret, political comedy and, most recently, an amazing woman with Tourette’s make a whole audience shout the word “biscuit” in the sonic equivalent of a Mexican wave. I can’t imagine all that happening anywhere else.

5. Reading Museum

I have a real soft spot for Reading Museum. Every time I go I seem to find something new, and every time I go I realise it’s far too long since I last went. The changing exhibitions are always interesting, there’s lots of interactive stuff for kids, it gives you a proper sense of place and, of course, there’s the full size replica of the Bayeux Tapestry (or, to try to appeal to Buzzfeed readers, “one of the first ever graphic novels”). It’s well worth going for the guided tours of the tapestry every Saturday when the enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff whizz you round it explaining that it’s actually an embroidery and telling you the fascinating story of how Reading came to own a copy – and how close to destruction the original came (you also find out how the prim Victorians who made the replica knitted some y-fronts on the copy to ensure there was no full frontal nudity: fun for everyone).

6. Tutti Frutti

I’m sure pretty much everyone loves Tutti Frutti and it’s not a controversial choice. But it belongs on this list. My friends who drink coffee say Tutti Frutti’s is surprisingly good. The ice cream is knockout, whether it’s peach and amaretto, or Kinder Bueno (phwoar!) or Greek yoghurt and lemon curd (double phwoar!) or some of the more interesting experiments like blue cheese and honey (don’t knock it til you’ve tried it). But also, it’s about the service. Paul and Jane are both lovely – he is like an old-fashioned shopkeeper and she is a hyperactive whirlwind of enthusiasm and delight. The people they hire are unfailingly friendly and interested without being fake. I’m no fan of the soulless hangar that is the new Reading Station: give me the slightly crumbling, tacky bit with Tutti Frutti in it any day.

7. Launchpad

Launchpad

Homelessness in Reading is an increasing and increasingly upsetting issue. Launchpad do incredible work in this area, and so much more. I wouldn’t eat at Cosmo for anybody else.

8. The After Dark

I’ve been going to the After Dark for longer than I care to remember, as I suspect have many of its regulars. I love their Eighties night (which is, let’s face it, on most of the time) – where else could you experience Crash, You Can Call Me Al, and 99 Red Balloons in quick succession? I love sitting in the back bar with an ill-advised double and mixer (because, as they like to remind you, the After Dark’s drinks prices haven’t changed in a Very Long Time) watching the great and the good preparing to make a serious assault on the north face of the dance floor, no doubt murdering the chorus of Take On Me in the process. I still love evenings that end up here, even if it’s a decision that doesn’t seem quite so sage the following morning. Oh, one other thing: some of the times I’ve gone recently it’s been worrying quiet. Use it or lose it.

9. The architecture

QueenVictoriaStreet

So much of it is lovelier than it gets credit for. So, in no particular order: John Lewis, the Town Hall, Queen Victoria Street, the Oxfam Bookshop, Waterstones on Broad Street. Seriously, just look up some time. And then there are all the beautiful streets and areas further out from the centre: Eldon Square, School Terrace, New Road, The Mount, the alms houses off Castle Street. I could go on.

10. The first pint of the year in the Allied Arms beer garden

You know the year is changing for the good when that magic moment arrives. You finish work, you’re in town, you go to the Allied and it’s warm enough to sit outside without the heaters on. Usually only just, of course, so you sit there in your coat convincing yourself that it’s plenty sunny enough. But the point is that that first al fresco drink is seminal, because soon after that there will be long lazy Friday evenings there, trying to bag one of the sunny tables at the back, taking it in turns to thread your way to the bar and come back with an array of pints and packets of pork scratchings, Monster Munch, Scampi Fries and Quavers. The jukebox is playing something good (unless some prog-loving spoilsport has put on Shine On You Crazy Diamond, as Allied regulars are wont to do) and you can almost convince yourself that this summer is the one that will last forever.

11. The Salvation Army brass band playing Christmas carols

At the other end of the spectrum, Christmas in Reading for me isn’t about the festive food materialising in John Lewis, or our worryingly tacky Christmas lights going up. No, it’s that wonderful moment on a Saturday in November when you reach the front of Marks & Spencer to find the Salvation Army brass band, in a little throng, spotless in their uniforms, parping their way through In The Bleak Midwinter. I defy you to sit through that and have your cockles unwarmed.

12. Pepe Sale

Pepe Sale was the first restaurant I ever reviewed for Edible Reading, and it will always have a special place in my heart. Some of that is about Marco, the supernaturally charming front of house: sometimes I just want to kidnap him, take him home and have him talk to me while I make myself baked beans on toast; I’m not sure how anyone could not like him. But of course, it’s more than that. It’s also about the fresh filled pasta, the music bread with oil and rosemary, the antipasti with a single salty piece of fried pecorino on top, the roast suckling pig with light, crispy crackling. And a bottle of a cracking Sardinian red, and a glass of Mirto Rosso after (or instead of) dessert. Like Dolce Vita, it’s a good example of how a restaurant, if it’s terrific enough, can flourish in the unlikeliest of locations, like a beautiful flower poking through a crack in the pavement.

13. The Nag’s Head

NagsHead

The Nag’s Head is the perfect example of how a pub should be run. It’s almost never empty, it has a constantly rotating array of beers and ciders and everyone in there is friendly, happy and having a fantastic time. Sharing tables with strangers is positively encouraged and I’m yet to have a bad evening there. In summer, you can even sit outside, an experience so pleasant that you can quite overlook the fact that you’re basically drinking in a car park. They don’t really do food but the pies aren’t bad and the pulled pork sandwiches are also meant to be pretty decent. On some of my most recent visits I’ve seen a chap there wearing a t-shirt saying “DRINK MEAD AND PRAISE ODIN” and drinking his ale out of some kind of horn, or a tankard made up to look like a hollowed out skull. What, I ask you, is not to like?

14. Not going to the festival

Walking through town on festival weekend, going home and having a shower. Can’t beat it.

15. The Reading Forum

I love the Reading Forum so much. Back in the old days, there used to be the Reading Post, and its website was easy to comment on and lots of people did. But as it changed, I think more and more people ended up at the Reading Forum talking about everything from shops, to restaurants, to local news, from the Reading Bridge to the journalistic standards of some of our local websites. In the interests of full disclosure, I put a link to my review up every week and there’s always some discussion. People don’t always agree, but they’re unfailingly lovely about me spamming them. Best of all, discussions frequently meander off topic, so I’ll post a review of a restaurant and it will gradually morph into a conversation about somewhere long closed, or what a pub used to be called, or something completely different. I absolutely love that.

16. Reading Minster

IMG_0432

Many people have never been inside Reading Minster, which I think is a real shame. The volunteers who show you round clearly genuinely love the place and it’s got some real history to it. Some of it dates from the tenth century and when Reading Abbey was destroyed, some of the pillars were rescued and moved to the Minster, along with some other materials. One Saturday evening last year, I was wandering past it when I found it was open late at night, so I stepped in off the street and found an oasis of calm. Lit candles were placed along the aisle and around the altar, soft music was playing and the whole thing was quite exceptionally beautiful. I couldn’t believe that a minute away was the pulsing noise of Pavlov’s Dog, or the Purple Turtle, two places which wouldn’t feature on this list. But Reading Minster definitely belongs on it.

17. Forbury Gardens

Well, it’s just handsome isn’t it? Another of those milestones of summer is when Forbury Gardens stops being somewhere you just walk through and starts being somewhere you spend an afternoon, lolling on the grass, reading the paper, watching people significantly younger than you having what they class as fun and just relaxing in the sunshine. I love afternoons like that, just as I love Reading’s rather eccentric celebration of Bastille Day in the Forbury every year. But – and if you’ve read the one about the Salvation Army you probably already know this – I also especially like Sundays in summer when a brass band camps out in the bandstand and fills the air with music.

18. Eclectic Games

EclecticGames

I could have mentioned many of Reading’s independent retailers – The Grumpy Goat, perhaps, Shave and Coster or Adrienne Henry. But I’m not sure Reading has a more touching success story than Eclectic Games. I’ve been shopping there since it was under the horrendous seventies obelisk that was the Foster Wheeler building, and I’ve followed it to the market square and now into its new home on Smelly Alley. I’ve bought so many wonderful games there (Munchkins, Codenames, Ticket To Ride, I could go on…) had so many excellent recommendations from Becky and Darrell and, as a result, had so many thoroughly entertaining evenings. Seeing them completely demolish their fundraising target when they moved last year was a heartwarming example of how sometimes Reading is on to a good thing and more importantly, that Reading residents know that.

19. Progress Theatre

Tucked away near the university, Progress feels like a better-kept secret than it should be. I’ve seen so many top-notch productions there, from Entertaining Mister Sloane to Proof to God Of Carnage. I especially love sitting up at the back (legroom, don’t you know) watching everything unfold on the stage, watching something intimate yet brilliant. That’s before we get on to another of Reading’s best annual events, Progress’ outdoors Shakespeare at Caversham Court. Merry Wives Of Windsor was one of my favourite nights out last year.

20. Kyrenia

I’ve often said that restaurants aren’t about the best food per se, or the best room, or even the best service. They’re about where you have the best times. And, for that if nothing else, this list wouldn’t look right without Kyrenia on it. I mean, it is some of the best food in Reading (the kleftiko alone would guarantee that, or the chargrilled octopus). And it is some of the best service. And actually I love the room, especially if you get a table in the window looking back into the room with all its bustle and happiness. But more importantly, it’s where I’ve had some of my best times. Put it this way: I’ve reviewed a lot of restaurants for Edible Reading, and many have been very good. But Kyrenia is where I go on my birthday.

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/

Feature: Pre-theatre dining

You get a bonus feature this week! This piece first appeared on the Reading Fringe site, although hopefully it’s a useful guide for all pre-theatre dining and not just the Fringe.

Pre-theatre dining is an awkward business. You need somewhere where you can be absolutely certain you’ll be out the door in time to make the start of the show, but you don’t want to feel like you’re compromising on having a good meal. (Personally, I also need somewhere which leaves me enough room to sneakily inhale a bag of Minstrels in the interval, but less said about that the better.)

When Zsuzsi from the Reading Fringe asked me to suggest five of the best restaurants to eat at before taking in a show at the Festival I was hugely honoured. Reading is enormously lucky to have such a terrific programme of events this month, and fortunately Fringe-goers are also lucky to have a great range of places to eat at beforehand, from sharing dishes and street food all the way through to proper sit-down meals. Here’s my selection – and in the spirit of the Fringe you won’t find a single large faceless chain in there. I hope you enjoy one of them, and that you enjoy the Fringe!

Pepe Sale

Fish

Pepe Sale has a good track record when it comes to pre-theatre dining: as one of Reading’s longest-established restaurants, right next to the Hexagon, it’s been doing it for yonks. The pasta’s made fresh every day and comes highly recommended (especially if crab ravioli – one of the Seven Culinary Wonders Of Reading – is on the specials menu). The wine list is exclusively Italian with lots of gorgeous, affordable options. It’s very conveniently located for the shows at Penta Hotel, RYND or the Purple Turtle. Because you’re dining early, the almost legendary suckling pig they serve at weekends won’t be ready yet. But there’s always next time for that. (3 Queens Walk, RG1 7QF)

Bhel Puri House

Samosas

Also convenient for shows on Gun Street, Reading’s only vegetarian restaurant specialises in Indian street food and is great if you want a lighter dinner or to share some dishes with friends. It’s all good (and lots of it is very unusual) but if you want to play it safe the chilli paneer is a magnificent plate of sticky, spicy decadence and the Punjabi samosas are hard to beat. In the further reaches of the menu the pani puri (like the big bubbly crisps you’d fight over in a packet of ready salted, only stuffed with potato and lentil curry) are great fun. As a bonus, when it’s warm you can eat in the courtyard by the George Hotel, sip a mango lassi and get ready to take in some culture. (Yield Hall Lane, RG1 2HF)

Mission Burrito

Mission - tacos

A little chain, and probably the most independent restaurant the Oracle has left, Mission Burrito is so good at what it does that I doubt it’s remotely rattled by the impending arrival of TGI Friday. The slow-cooked ancho chile beef is the thing here, and it’s especially fine in a big pillowy burrito with rice, black beans and their rather good guacamole. A perfect place to get a quick pre-show meal without having to suffer one of Reading’s three branches of Burger King, they also do a distinctly acceptable frozen margarita, if you want to loosen yourself up for one of the more experimental shows on offer. (15A The Riverside, The Oracle, RG1 2AG)

London Street Brasserie

LSB1

If burritos and samosas seem a little, well, informal for you London Street Brasserie is the doyen of early evening upmarket dining in Reading. Their set menu runs until 7pm on Fridays and 6.30pm on Saturdays and the range is excellent – especially if you have vegetarians in your party, as the options are more imaginative than you’ll see elsewhere in Reading. Let them know you’re on a quick turnaround when you book and if you’re lucky they might even seat you outside, in one of Reading’s finest spots for al fresco dining (admittedly, there isn’t much competition). Lots of it is good, but I have a soft spot for their fish and chips. (2-4 London Street, RG1 4PN)

Sapana Home

1409688981.569270.71

It’s all about the momo at Sapana – little Nepalese parcels like gyoza absolutely crammed with chicken, red onion and lemongrass and then pan fried (my favourite), steamed or deep fried depending on how badly behaved you feel. Six pounds gets you a plate of ten with a little dish of thick, piquant dipping sauce. Lots of people order other things as well – the spicy fried fish (a little like sardines) are lovely, as is the dry chicken curry – so if you’re in the sharing mood it can work pretty well. Me? I find it hard to look past the momo. Service is lovely, drink is affordable and the music is, well, Heart FM. But never mind – you’ll be getting your culture elsewhere, won’t you? (8 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1TG)

Round-up: One year of Edible Reading

A slightly different round-up this week; I’m not going to do the usual summary of past reviews. I’m not doing restaurant news this week either, because there isn’t much news: the places which are due to open (CAU, Rynd) are still due to open and nowhere has closed that I know of, unless you’re devastated that Reading has lost one of its two Bella Italias (and if you are, I’m not quite sure why you’re reading this). We do have a gluten free café opening on Cross Street, so there’s that I suppose, but that’s all. Instead, it’s a chance to round up a year in the life of Reading’s restaurant scene, because Edible Reading is one year old.

There have definitely been changes in the last year. As always, we’ve seen a steady churn of restaurants opening and closing: we’ve said goodbye to some, like Kyklos and the Lobster Room, and hello to others, like La Courbe and Coconut. I was sad about Kyklos – it never lived up to its potential, but some of the dishes were good and the service was excellent, and it would have been lovely to be able to eat Greek food (a really underrated cuisine) in the centre of town. The new boys are also a mixed bag – La Courbe does brilliant food but never quite feels like a restaurant, and Coconut isn’t quite distinctive enough to offer something different in a town with plenty of options already.

The more interesting arrivals have been in Reading’s cafés: with My Kitchen and Lincoln Coffee opening in the centre there have never been more alternatives to the hegemony of Coffee Corner. If you add in the other lunch possibilities, like Bhel Puri (another welcome opening in the last year), and the other contributors to Reading’s coffee scene (those lovely chaps at Tamp Culture), this is an area where things definitely feel like they’re changing for the better. I’m just sorry that Cappuccina Café, with its delicious banh mi and pasteis de nata, didn’t stay the course too.

There’s more to food culture than restaurants, and this too is one of the more promising signs over the last twelve months. Reading now has a top-notch wine merchant in the shape of the Tasting House, and The Grumpy Goat offers a mind-boggling range of beers and many of the area’s delicious cheeses. The recent spate of supper clubs in the area also shows that food has never been as important to Reading as it is today, and although we still don’t have enough street food at least we have the artisan market on Fridays, even if the opening hours are plain silly. It’s a start, anyway.

Anyway, I was wondering how else to best round up the year, and then I realised: I am totally out of step with the zeitgeist. Journalism these days is all about lists – you only have to read a Buzzfeed link to figure that out – and I haven’t done a single list all year! What was I thinking? So, without further ado, here’s how I’d like to sum up a year of Edible Reading, with a list. Reviewing restaurants is all about reviewing meals, evenings, experiences – and sometimes that misses the point that there can be great dishes tucked away even in middling meals. So to redress the balance, here for your delectation, in sort-of-alphabetical order, is a list of the ten best things I’ve eaten in the last year while reviewing restaurants for the blog. Zeitgeist here I come!

1. Yum gai yang, Art Of Siam. This salad is all about contrast (and not at all about leaves and lettuce). The chicken is perfectly soft and cooked and the vegetables seem to be purely there for texture as nothing, but nothing, stands up to the flavour of the dressing. It has tons of heat – enough chilli to require a glass of milk or at least a handkerchief – but also has the tartness of fresh limes to create a liquor in the bottom of the dish that’s worth spooning up because it is so fab. The flavour is super intense and salty and is enough to render even me speechless (or that might just be the chilli).

2. Lamb karahi, Bhoj. The little silver bowls of meat at Bhoj remind me of spice bowls in an eastern market which seems very apt for this dish. The lamb (and “juicy baby lamb” at that) has been cooked for so long that it falls apart into shreds at the lightest touch of a fork and the sauce is much drier than the usual British-Indian chunks-of-meat-in-an-orange-sauce affair. Here, it’s more a sticky, rich, spiced gravy with the odd cardamom pod for accidental-eating fun. Order one for yourself because you won’t want to share. I did, and I still regret it now.

3. Chilli paneer, Bhel Puri House. I could never turn vegetarian – it’s just not in my nature – but this dish at Reading’s only (to my knowledge) vegetarian restaurant is so good that adding bacon wouldn’t improve it. High praise indeed! The small cubes of paneer are marinated in chilli and fried. That’s it. But, my goodness, they’re so good! The layer of lettuce underneath is pointless and if you accidentally eat a green chilli thinking it’s a green bean (I mean, who would make such a mistake? erm…) you realise where all the heat comes from. Not so hot that it burns and tingles but enough to make every sticky cube worth fighting over.

4. Bread and butter, Côte.
Bread. Such a simple thing, right? But at how many places in Reading can you get truly decent bread? A two quid basket of bread at Côte is six diagonal slices of what is arguably the best bread in Reading – crispy and slightly chewy on the outside, fluffy and malty on the inside. It’s served with a little pot of room temperature salted butter which melts as it goes onto the warm bread. If you’re canny it’s worth splitting each finger of bread into two to make the most of the surface area. It’s a perfect amuse bouche before getting down to the serious business of ordering (and when you do, Côte’s tuna niçoise also came close to making this list – just saying).

5. Chips and mayonnaise, The Eldon Arms.
A bowl of chips is another simple pleasure that’s often done terribly. Whilst the French fry has its place, proper chips should always be thick cut. In the Eldon the chips were served without pomp, without daft toppings or being put into a pointless gimmicky tiny frying basket: not affected, just bloody delicious. Thick cut, crispy on the outside and fluffy on the outside. Simple. Then served with a bowl of proper (there’s that word again) home made mayonnaise which had enough garlic in it to make enemies the next day but with no fanfare to announce its arrival because, in the chef’s eyes, it was just mayonnaise. It saddens me greatly that the Eldon is closed, and the burgers got all the plaudits but strangely it’s the chips I miss most.

6. Chicken lahsooni tikka, House Of Flavours.
Chicken tikka is one of those dishes that has entered the British lexicon, a shorthand for Indian food that so often gets abused and made into something cheap. This, though, is nothing like the chicken tikka flavour you’d get in a Pot Noodle (and, regrettably, I know this for a fact because I had one recently – never again). The chicken, marinated in spice and yoghurt, is as soft as butter, as if it’s only just been cooked through, no more. The spices are rich and smooth and best of all, in my opinion, there’s lots of garlic too. A squeeze of fresh lemon juice over the top to give it a bit of zing and you have, I reckon, about as perfect as starter as can be.

7. Mixed grill, La Courbe. What’s not to like about a restaurant that can serve up meat in this many different ways and for them all to be really good? The lamb kofte is soft and herby, rather than hot. The chicken is marinated in ginger and cooked so the inside is soft but the outside is caramelised. The grilled lamb comes flavoured with cinnamon to give a slightly sweet taste and cooked so it’s just pink but still soft. The dollop of houmous on the side was surprisingly average, but the superb tabbouleh also deserves special mention: fresh, clean and green.

8. Tuna tartare, Malmaison. Like I said, even bad meals can contain brilliant dishes and despite the gloomy surroundings this dish shone brightly in the Malmaison firmament (only partly because of the glass plate they served it on). The tuna was super fresh and went perfectly with the avocado, truly ripe with that delicious buttery taste. The wasabi and slivers of pickled ginger on the side were perfect dotted onto a forkful of tuna and avocado, and the sesame dressing drizzled round the edge had a slight sticky sweetness which made it worth mopping up. If only the rest of the restaurant had lived up to the food.

9. Crab ravioli, Pepe Sale. As the first restaurant to get the ER treatment it pleases me greatly that Pepe Sale makes it onto this list. The crab ravioli is on the specials menu so often that it should become a standard, especially as it’s so good. The ravioli is perfectly cooked, just al dente, and made fresh that day on the marble counter just inside the door. The fluffy crab inside is more generous than it needs to be (but then that’s probably how Pepe Sale has maintained a loyal following for the past fifteen years). The tomato and cream sauce is rich but not overwhelming so a bowlful feels like a treat not an overindulgence. A year on, one of the first dishes I reviewed is still one of the very best.

10. Fried chicken, rice and peas, Perry’s. Perry’s, despite its size, is one of the more intimidating places I’ve eaten since I started ER. I’m glad I went in, though, because it does food that I would struggle to get anywhere else. The chicken is seasoned, coated in flour and fried and then served with a generous helping of rice and peas. Calling it rice and peas is one hell of an understatement, mind. This a side dish on the scale of your mum’s best stew – rice and peas cooked in stock, herbs and spices that are too numerous for me to identify. There’s plenty of chilli in there but the whole flavour is more sophisticated than plain old chilli suggests. Even if it wasn’t an amazing dish in its own right, I’d want it on this list because, more than anything, it symbolises food I would never have eaten if I hadn’t started this blog.

Getting that list down to just ten dishes was no mean feat – no room, sadly, for the ribs at Blue’s Smokehouse, the churros at Tampopo, the truffle ravioli at Ruchetta and countless others. It just goes to show how much good food is out there in and around Reading if you know where to look – and sometimes even if you don’t – despite our reputation as a clone town.

When I started Edible Reading I did wonder if there was enough here to keep me going. A whole year of weekly reviews, the majority of them in central Reading, suggests that I may have been worrying unduly. Without a doubt, the best thing about the last year has been the involvement from everyone who reads the blog – commenting, passing on reviews, Retweeting and getting involved with the conversations. And even now, every time someone tells me they’ve tried and loved a restaurant after reading an Edible Reading review it absolutely makes my day. So please don’t forget to request places you’d like to see reviewed – and if you think I’m missing that one great dish that you order time and time again, add your two pence in the comments box.