The Bull Inn, Sonning

As regular readers will know, the overwhelming majority of restaurants I review are requested by people who read the blog week in, week out. If there’s one thing that comes out of those requests, it’s that you really want to see reviews of pubs that do food. And that, generally speaking, means leaving Reading and heading out into the countryside. There’s only one problem with that, which is that a lot of pub menus look really uninspired. In fact, once you read enough of them they all start to blur into one. They all do a burger, they all do fish and chips, they all do sausages and mash, they nearly all do confit duck these days. They’re all so similar, in fact, that you start to wonder if they’re all being supplied by the same person, perhaps in a big lorry of some description (surely not).

So I’m afraid I’ve cut a lot of the pubs from my to do list. They might be well worth a visit if they’re your local and you can stagger home afterwards, but I think they have a limited appeal for people those of us who would need to drive out into the sticks to go there. If I’m going to forego the delights of more than a solitary glass of wine I do want to feel like the food is worth it. So what stayed on the list? Pubs that had menus with a little bit more about them. Menus with interesting combinations of ingredients. Menus that weren’t going through the motions and dead behind the eyes. The Bull at Sonning was one of those pubs, so I turned up there on a midweek night to see if my menu spotting skills had let me down.

It really is a beautiful pub, inside and out. It’s your typical ancient timbered pub with enough low beams to require a special stooped walk, lest visitors wake up to find themselves on a trolley at the Royal Berks. It has a warm, inviting fireplace in the front bar, mismatched furniture all over the shop (I don’t think I saw two tables the same) and loads of nooks and crannies, just as an authentic pub should. Eating there a deux, in a little table tucked away, felt beautifully conspiratorial. What is also has, on a cold it-feels-like-winter-even-though-it-was-sunny-only-last-week school night is an absolutely packed bar and dining area (it was impossible to tell how many people were locals and how many had been drawn there by the recent not very extensively reported news about properties in the area – really, the Sonning residents should have worn badges, or red trousers, or both).

I got a sinking feeling when I looked at the Bull’s menu again and started to think I might have made a mistake. It’s a big old menu, broken into two parts: a section of pub classics on the one hand and what they term “chef’s creations” on the other. This felt like an awfully brave, rather clumsy (and slightly silly) way to describe half of your menu. I was also, and this is probably a bit unworthy, put off by the typos: the menu extolls the virtues of eating “seasonably” and includes “noddles”, which made me chuckle (I thought you were meant to use these but not necessarily cook with them). As if those fourteen main course options weren’t quite enough, there was also a handwritten sheet with half a dozen more specials on it. Things were starting to look distinctly iffy.

Well, to deflate the mounting sense of dread nice and quickly, I was worrying unduly: everything I had was fantastic. They may not be able to do a decent job of every single thing on that menu, but they barely made a mistake with anything I ordered (this is why I write restaurant reviews and not mystery novels).

I never order soup, because it inevitably leaves me too full for my main course. But when I saw that The Bull had honey roasted parsnip (probably my second favourite vegetable) soup with chestnut dumplings I was powerless to resist it. I was so glad I had it, too. It came in a miniature casserole filled to the brim with smooth puréed parsnip and nestled on top were two walnut-sized dumplings. On the side was a warm, crusty miniature loaf, in a miniature bread tin, and a small pot of room temperature butter (a detail many places get wrong, and such a bugbear of mine).

This dish was a good example, I think, of why I’d picked The Bull to review. The soup was very good – maybe a little underseasoned (a touch of spice would have gone well here) but beautifully sweet and smooth. But what elevated it were the extra touches – the bread and in particular the dumplings: rich and soft with their own hint of sweetness from the chestnuts. The loaf was slightly chewy (I wondered if it was quite as freshly baked as it appeared) but was more than up to its two main jobs: having butter melted onto it and being dunked into the soup to make sure no mouthful of parsnip got away.

Soup

The other starter was equally appropriate on a cold, miserable day and was every bit as delicious: mulled pear and Barkham Blue tart. Some people will read that and turn their noses up, which is fair enough, so perhaps I’m just speaking to the rest of you now, but my goodness it was gorgeous. Soft, spiced, slightly gritty pear covered in molten creamy blue cheese, the rind the only solidity left, all served on a disc of crispy pastry. Again, there were more cheffy flourishes than the dish needed – pickled walnuts around the outside, sweet caramelised red onions (maybe a few too many) on top and a mulled wine syrup traced around the edge. I could have happily eaten a tart like this the size of a paddling pool. It just had everything: sweetness, saltiness, crispiness, gooeyness.

Tart

Did the mains live up to that standard? Well, to my increasing surprise and delight, yes. Chicken pie, again, is exactly the sort of thing I’d seen and discounted on many pub menus. But here the filling was a slow cooked stew of tender thigh, soft leek and a rich, glossy gravy which was made to be soaked into pastry and devoured with gusto (the pastry, a flaky buttery lid, was perfect for the job). I know some people feel that a dish like this, with a top crust, isn’t technically a pie and I have some sympathy with that view. But it was too delicious for me to care. On the side, a decent but not overwhelming pile of dark, crinkly savoy cabbage simply steamed, buttered and salted: a great ingredient left to speak for itself. The only disappointment was the goose fat roasted potatoes. I’m sure there’s a rule somewhere which says that there’s no such thing as too many roast potatoes but I don’t think it applies when the potatoes are like this: they looked the part but lacked that almost glass-like exterior of a truly great roastie. Instead, they felt chewy and unremarkable, almost as if they’d been reheated. Still, by then I was full and at least, if nothing else, I wasn’t devastated not to be able to finish them.

ChickenPie

The other main was, despite being on their autumn menu, a wintry and comforting delight. There was so much going on on the plate (or slate in this case, as it happens) that it’s difficult to know where to begin describing it. So there was a confit leg of pheasant – delicious and gamey, if a bit difficult to detach from the spiky, spindly bones. There was a breast, filled with stuffing and rolled almost into a ballotine, rich, salty and herby. There was a big pile of red cabbage, full of the flavours of winter, a giant heap of spiced comfort. There was a root vegetable dauphinoise, so imaginative compared to a bog standard potato gratin, with a whack of garlic offsetting the sweetness of carrot and parsnip. And there was celeriac puree. It was described on the menu as “flavour bursting celeriac puree”, which again I found more than a little silly, but the last laugh was on me because it was exactly that – sweet but punchy, a little went a very long way. Bringing it all together was a little jug of something which was described as “mulled wine sauce” on the menu but just tasted like amazing gravy to me. I smiled from beginning to end while eating this dish: if plates of food were people, I’d have married it.

Pheasant

That main, as it happens, was recommended by our waiter – although, having read the description on the menu, I probably still would have ordered it if he’d said “my one tip is to avoid the pheasant, I’m pretty sure it has bits of asbestos in it”. But the service overall was pretty decent considering how full the place was. There were no empty tables when I got there, no empty tables when I left and the bar got buzzier as the evening went on. What were all these people doing in Sonning, a village which never troubles the national press? Your guess is as good as mine.

I’m sorry to confess that I’ve let you down, because I didn’t order dessert; I just didn’t have space (I blame all that soup) and there was nothing light enough that I could have managed it even after a breather. In any case, the dessert menu is probably the most conventional thing about the pub – brownies, sticky toffee puddings and the like – so I’m not sure I missed much, though I imagine they’d have done it well. Maybe with winter coming I’ll have to get into training to make sure I can manage all three courses. So instead, we settled up and left. The bill, excluding tip, came to sixty-two pounds. Apart from the two courses each we had a couple of pleasant, if unremarkable, glasses of red and a couple of drinks in the bar beforehand (the wine is much better value than the cider: a pint of cider is eye-wateringly close to a fiver). The main courses were definitely more at the restaurant than pub end of the price scale – the pie was fifteen pounds and the pheasant was seventeen pounds – but more than worth it, I think.

I can’t help but feel that the Bull has justified my new approach to picking pubs to eat in. It was a bit of a rollercoaster – I was excited before I turned up, distinctly unconvinced when I got there and then thoroughly wowed once the food arrived. The food was far better than I expected and got the balance just right – close enough to standard pub food not to alienate people who want that sort of thing but with just enough personality to interest people who are looking for a little bit more. What can I say? It won me over. If I lived in Sonning I would come here all the time, and as it is I’m wondering how quickly I can get away with going back. Maybe the village’s newest and most famous resident will drop by at some point; if she manages to get the Elgin Marbles returned to Greece I can’t think of anywhere more appropriate to celebrate.

The Bull Inn – 8.1
High Street, Sonning, RG4 6UP
0118 9693901

http://bullinnsonning.co.uk/

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Round-up: January

It seems like 2014 only just kicked off and here we are, busier than ever. Hopefully you all made it through to the end of the month with your resolutions intact (if you made any) and with your January pay packet not completely spent before you earned it. Clichés aside, January and February can be some of the leanest months for the fun stuff with the dark and rainy weather making everyone want to stay in – especially when the alternative is going out and paying extortionate amounts of money for a Valentine’s meal where romance is the one dish that is never reliably on the menu.

Despite harvest time being a long way away there’s been a bumper crop at Edible Reading. I’m really pleased to say traffic on the blog surprises me (in a good way) every month and I owe that to you lot, so thank you. Oh, and don’t be put off by this being a round-up – there’s lots happening in the Reading food scene that simply isn’t covered by the reviews. But let’s do the reviews first – here’s what you may have missed.

Barts, 6.2 – What a start to the New Year! Of course, you could read reviews in the local papers (where it gets covered at least every 6 months – why could this be?) but if you really want to know what its odd mixture of good service and mistake-laden food is like, check out the full ER review here.

Sweeney and Todd, 5.2 – The legendary pie shop has been drawing in the punters for over 30 years. Why? Search me. Bad boiled potatoes and “hot jelly” got the lowest mark from ER this month. See why here.

Bhel Puri House, 6.8 – Reading’s only vegetarian restaurant is easy to miss but worth seeking out for the chilli paneer alone. Click on the link here for the full lowdown on an excellent alternative to Reading’s sometimes monotonous lunch scene.

The Bull on Bell Street, 5.3 – This is what happens when a revamped boozer doesn’t have a kitchen to match its good looks. Such a shame. Have a drink but my advice is to give the food a miss. Go here for the full sorry story.

In other news (cue the shuffling of papers while I wait for the autocue to get to the cute hedgehog story at the end of the broadcast) there has been a flurry of new places opening or getting ready to open.

First of all, three months after I first mentioned it and a full four months after its promised opening date, Lebanese restaurant La Courbe has finally opened in King’s Walk, along with its adjoining wine and cocktail bar (on the side nearest The Mix, so perhaps they’ll get some overflow trade). First impressions, from a walk past, are mixed at best. The décor – lots of purple and pistachio, chrome, cream leather and square glass tables – is rather stuck in the 90s, and the restaurant space is basically a glass-fronted box with an open kitchen at the back. On the other hand, I’ve heard decent reports of the food. It will be nice to see if someone can finally make a go of one of those downstairs units in King’s Walk – I’ll be there to review it in due course.

Also after many months of “coming soon”, Buffalo Grill on the edge of the Broad Street Mall has opened, offering burgers, ribs and fajitas. Lots of stuff, in fact, that you can get in numerous other restaurants in Reading. Again, I know a couple of people who’ve been and the feedback I’ve had ranges from “never again” to “maybe again”. If enough people really want to know what it’s like, I might review it later in the year (I can’t pretend to be hugely enthusiastic, can you tell?)

Closer into town Crêpe Affaire has opened next to the “lovely hot dogs, nice and fresh” booth (which, I can solemnly assure you, I will never review – not even if all other restaurants in Reading close and it is the sole alternative to cooking at home). It looks very modish, with bare walls and pale oak and staff in little white hats. Fingers crossed it’s more than a one trick pony and lasts longer than the ill-fated cupcake shop a few doors down, on the edge of the Oracle, that closed not long before Crêpe Affaire opened. I have also discovered, in the course of writing this, that it’s very difficult to talk about this restaurant without getting “My Affair” by the late great Kirsty MacColl lodged in my head as an unshiftable earworm (thanks for that, Crêpe Affaire. Thanks a bunch.)

The other new place due to open is My Kitchen, in a skinny little unit on Queen Victoria Street. Again, the interior looks very now, all bare brick and funky chalkboards, and I’d guess it will be a lunch place but that’s all I can say. They have no website that I managed to track down: honestly, you try Googling “my kitchen Reading” and see if you have any more joy than I did (the curse of the town name that also happens to be a verb strikes again). The picture below is pretty much all we have to go on, but I’ll keep peering through the windows and will report back.

My Kitchen

Of course, the flipside of new restaurants opening is existing restaurants closing, and sadly Kyklos, the Greek restaurant in King’s Walk, has closed this month. They didn’t quite make it to their first birthday, which is a real shame – when I reviewed it in October I thought the service was amazing but the food was patchy, and I was worried then that it was a large room which was never even remotely full. I’ve added a note to the review which is here.

Another piece of restaurant news relates to a change of personnel. Since the ER review of Forbury’s in November, chef Tom Kneale has announced on Twitter that he has left by mutual consent with immediate effect, to relocate to Bristol and spend more time with his family. Hopefully he will manage to find a new role where more of his creative ideas make it out of the kitchen in front of the diners. Normally I wouldn’t announce this – ER is much more interested in food than in chefs – but it does seem relevant in this case. I’ve also added a note to this review, too, which is here.

Talking of being creative, it seems that ER is having quite an influence on the local papers, despite just being a little blog. After almost six months of ER visiting, reviewing and recommending the best independent restaurants the Reading Post has crowdsourced a similar list using Twitter and published it with useful pithy remarks such as “upmarket Indian” and “suburban Thai”. Still, better late than never and it’s nice to see them supporting small local businesses. In unconnected news, the same week the Post reviewed Cleavers in Wokingham, an offshoot of large Italian chain Prezzo (this time hoping to be “the place for burgers, chicken and ribs” – as opposed, presumably, to all the other places). Still, there is one local business that can always rely on support – the Post also published a piece recently publicising a wine and canapés evening at Bart’s. They just can’t stay away!

Fortunately, there are other websites championing Reading’s independent scene. Alt Reading launched last week with a handsome, regularly updated website aiming to celebrate the best of Reading’s independent shops, restaurants and culture in all its forms. It’s just what Reading has needed for some time, and I’m really looking forward to seeing them develop the site over the months ahead. And I’d say that, I promise, even if they hadn’t been so complimentary about ER here (thanks guys!)

Right, I can see the hedgehog story approaching on the autocue so that’s definitely the end of this month’s round-up. Keep telling me – by email, by commenting, or on Twitter – where you want to see reviewed and I’ll add your suggestion to the list, which is here. In the meantime, tune in next Friday when there will be a new, unbiased, independent restaurant review for you. Just like always.

Sweeney and Todd

A good pie is indeed a wonderful thing (mmm, pastry) so a visit to Reading’s favourite (and only, to be fair) pie shop on a cold, wet January night should be a treat, shouldn’t it?

Arriving inside the doorway of Sweeney and Todd’s is a bit like stepping into a butcher’s; the fridge at the front of the shop is filled with giant hams, scotch eggs and pork joints and the fridge behind the counter with a bewildering array of pies, lined up behind their name tags (“hi, I’m your steak and Stilton pie for tonight”). Up a couple of steps into the bar area are a few little booths and then further still the main dining room which was really quite full considering the number of people who seem to pick dieting as their New Year’s resolution.

We waited to be directed to a seat and when that didn’t happen we walked past the table of waitresses, ordered a bottle of cabernet sauvignon from the bar and settled into a booth. Not a great start but red wine and a booth sounds lovely, though the reality wasn’t so appealing. Sadly we soon had four or five fruit flies circling round our red wine and the table felt like it wasn’t quite deep enough – we were knee to knee across the table. The wine wasn’t cheap but it tasted like it – a bit rough and earthy, though good enough to wash down a hearty pie, I hoped.

The menu at Sweeney’s offers a few things but pies are what they are famous for (the clue’s in the name) which narrowed the field down somewhat. The standard printed pie menu has more than twenty options on it. Added to that there are half a dozen or more seasonal pies. Of course, it is all entirely dependent on what the kitchen has that day so when the one busy waitress finally got round to us we asked her to reel off the list of pies for the night. We picked a pie each plus two sides – one each of boiled potatoes and cauliflower cheese (a childhood favourite of mine). “It’ll be fairly quick” she said, as if this was a selling point.

I expected the chicken and chorizo pie to be a twist on the standard pie experience and I wasn’t wrong. Perhaps I hadn’t considered it properly but I wasn’t expecting the sauce to be tomato based which just seemed a bit odd. Nevertheless the flavour was good with a touch of jalapeno and a total of three wafer thin slices of chorizo. The chicken wasn’t so great – it was those tiny diced chicken pieces that I associate with catering packs and cheap sandwiches. This wasn’t improved by the fact that there was so little in it: I wasn’t expecting to count my chickens but if I had I would be surprised if I got into double digits. Pie1 The other pie was venison and wild boar. There wasn’t anything gamey in the taste of the chunks of meat (again, far fewer than there should have been), and it could have been pretty much anything. The gravy was more like hot jelly, adding moisture without flavour. Odder still were the pieces of crinkle cut carrot scattered throughout. Maybe they’d been cut and cooked as part of the pie making process, but I couldn’t help feeling a tin had been involved somewhere along the way. Pie2 Worst of all was the pastry. I’ve had Sweeney’s pies in the past and taken them home to heat up in the oven and the pastry has been perfect – crisp and buttery on the bottom and light and fluffy on the top. The pies in the restaurant, though, didn’t seem to have been given the same care and attention. It felt like they hadn’t had long enough in the oven, that the oven wasn’t hot enough to crisp them up or that – and I sincerely hope this isn’t true – they had been microwaved. Whatever crime had been committed it meant that the pastry was soggy, sloppy and not enjoyable at all.

The sides were equally disappointing. The boiled potatoes were exactly that; five baby potatoes boiled in their skins with no butter, herbs or seasoning of any kind. We added butter from the tiny pats left going soft on the table but it wasn’t enough to make them worth eating. The cauliflower cheese was barely any better. The cauliflower was watery and bland and the cheese sauce was pale and lacking in cheese – the only tasty bit was the bubbled brown layer on top. Both side dishes felt like the restaurant had only provided them because it felt it had to, not because it wanted to.

The only potato options available were boiled potatoes or jacket spuds – is it cynical to wonder if that’s because they’re both easy to microwave? For me, a pie should come with mash or chips and neither was on the menu. I shouldn’t neglect to mention the side salad that came with both pies, if you can call it that. Two or three pieces of lettuce, a sprinkling of cress, a single slice of cucumber (in both cases the very dark green bit from right at the end) and a couple of rings of raw onion. No dressing (too fancy, maybe?) at all which suggests that it’s just there to look at. Such a waste for the kitchen to do this at all: it’s a pie restaurant! People don’t expect salad!

I would review the gravy but, despite asking for it, none was forthcoming and by the time we realised we were too apathetic to care and, based on the cauliflower cheese in particular, were convinced it would be instant and wouldn’t improve matters. So we kept quiet, ate our pies, finished off the cauliflower cheese, tried a single potato each and endured as much of the red wine as we could stomach. The main topic of conversation was variations on the theme of “Is this it? Is this what the legendary Sweeney’s has to offer?”

I’ve written this review with a degree of trepidation. I know that Sweeney’s has legions of fans and I know that many people out there won’t agree with me but I just can’t see the attraction. The total bill for two pies, two sides and a bottle of wine was just shy of forty pounds. Compare that with Pie Minister down the road in Oxford where you get a much better pie with crisp pastry, more meat, more imaginative fillings, a scoop of gorgeous creamy mash, a dollop of mushy peas and some gravy for about eight pounds – the same price as a pie alone in Sweeney’s. If one opened in Reading I can confidently say that I, and probably lots of others, would never eat in Sweeney’s again. Even without one, I can’t see why I would go back.

Sweeney and Todd – 5.2
10 Castle Street, RG1 7RD
0118 958 6466

http://www.sweeneyandtodd.co.uk/