The Square, Henley

I like to think, by now, that I’ve got a pretty good idea what people are interested in reading about on ER. You love a hatchet job, you want to hear about restaurants and cafés in the centre of Reading and, perhaps more than anything, you like the discoveries: places you’ve never heard of or would never have considered going to which get good reviews. You’re not so fussed about places that are too far away and you don’t much like wishy-washy reviews where I like somewhere but don’t love it. Am I close?

So, with all that in mind I headed off to Henley (bad) to review somewhere that I was hoping would be a bit of a find (good). Well, to spoil the ending for those of you who don’t scroll down and back up again, it wasn’t a find. But don’t worry, because it was so bafflingly bad that you might stick around anyway to read the rest of the review (good for you, regrettably bad for me).

I almost went to The Square a few months back on my last visit to Henley, but the blinds were ominously drawn. At the time, I worried that it had closed down and I’d missed my chance to try out this attractive looking Portuguese place in a prime location on the market square. It later transpired that I’d worried unduly (they’re just closed on Tuesdays). I took that to be a good sign, signifying that they were doing well enough to give the staff a day off. More fool me: sadly when I went back this time, it was open.

Inside it wasn’t exactly busy – four other tables were occupied when we turned up on Saturday night, peak time for any restaurant. That probably should have rung some alarm bells, as should the fact that when I phoned to book a table at very short notice the chap on the other end of the phone didn’t even need to take a name. I must have been having an off night, because I sat down, Spidey senses resolutely tingle-free. Perhaps I was deceived by the surroundings: it’s actually quite a nice dining room, with dark wood tables and floor, the walls hung with fishing nets filled with shells, sea-themed pictures around the room. That makes it sound like Old Gregg’s boudoir, but in reality it was more rustic fisherman chic.

The menu was bewilderingly big, with large sections for fish, seafood and meat dishes. Again, I took encouragement from one of the waiters coming out with a good-looking platter of fresh fish and shellfish to show what was on offer. There was also a section of speciality dishes for a minimum of two people to share, all described as “rice pots”. I asked one of the waiters to tell me a bit more about those and even now I’m struggling to remember what he told me (a combination of his mumbling and the vagueness of his response). They sounded a bit like paella, and he particularly recommended the lobster version (“we put a lot in”, he said), so in the end we went for that. We were told this would take thirty-five minutes to cook, so he practically sprinted to the kitchen to tell them before coming back to take the rest of our order. Maybe, with hindsight, he was worried that we might change our mind.

We ordered some bread with sardine and tuna paté to tide us over and this is where it all started to go wrong. I don’t normally photograph the bread, but here I just had to. I was expecting a basket of crusty bread with a couple of small ramekins of paté. What arrived was seven anaemic slices of what looked like part-baked supermarket baguette with some catering packs of butter and paté. The “paté” was Portugal’s answer to Shippam’s (something I’ve not eaten since about 1985), smooth to the point of being unidentifiable. In fairness, even if it wasn’t pleasant I suppose it was authentic: it’s almost exactly what I was served at O Beirão, Reading’s Portuguese restaurant. But there it was free, and here I was paying three pounds for the dubious privilege.

What The Square also seemed to miss was that the bread was completely insufficient for the spreads it came with. I would have minded the three quid less if I could actually have eaten it all but there was so little bread that doing so was impossible without piling the paté ludicrously high. I just hope the restaurant has a cat who could make use of the leftovers. Not terribly appealing: I prayed that the starters were going to be an improvement.

SquareBread

They weren’t. First up was the chouriço assado, described as “flame grilled Portuguese sausage, served in traditional cookware”. I was hoping for something a bit like Spanish chorizo cooked in wine, all salty and coarse with those delicious brick-red juices at the bottom. I was very far from correct. What I got instead was simply awful: a gigantic horseshoe of chorizo, served on a pot in the shape of a rowboat which is quite hard to describe. It sort of rested on the “seat” with some liquid underneath – I dread to think what – which had been set alight to flambée the sausage (flambée the sausage, come to think of it, sounds like a euphemism for something unspeakable) just before it reached the table.

The outside was slightly charred in places but the real problems came when I cut into it. Not that that was easy, because it was served on a flipping boat shaped pot with no suitable surfaces on which to do the deed. I sawed away (trying to rest the sausage on the seat) and chewed a couple of slices for a few minutes, although it felt like longer. It was both grisly and gristly. I inflicted a slice on my companion, who unsurprisingly didn’t thank me for it. The next slice was almost entirely a big white globule of fat and that, I’m sorry to say, is where I gave up. All the metaphors I could use to describe this dish would remind you – very quickly – of whatever you ate last, so let’s leave it at that. I put down my knife and fork and waited to see if anyone came to check on us. They didn’t.

SquareSausage

The other dish was king prawns wrapped in Portuguese bacon and pan fried. It was four decent sized prawns cooked nicely and indeed wrapped in bacon. The heads and tails came off cleanly and the prawns tasted of their component parts, no more, no less. There were also a couple of needless sections of red, green and yellow pepper. This wasn’t bad by comparison with the chouriço, but you could say the same about a Fray Bentos. I was hoping for some juices, but there weren’t any. I didn’t mop-up the non-existent juices with the remaining bread they hadn’t given me.

SquarePrawns

The waiter returned to clear the plates and looked baffled by the almost entirely uneaten sausage. I tried to explain what I hadn’t liked about it. Doing so briefly was something of a challenge. He shrugged. I was worried that I hadn’t explained properly, so I had another go. More shrugging. The plate was taken away, with no apology or offer to take it off the bill or anything else. Then he asked whether I wanted to order something else, but with no indication as to whether I’d be paying for that or not. We then reached a consensus that, as the main course was quite big, I probably wouldn’t need a starter. The whole thing was a truly bizarre interchange. It was rendered even more bizarre by him asking if we wanted to keep our half-finished tubs of tuna and sardine paté: as there was no bread left I’m not sure what he thought we were going to do with them.

On to the main event then – the lobster rice pot, at forty-five pounds for two one of the priciest things on the menu. We were brought lobster crackers and those little picky-outy-lobster-bit tools (apologies for blinding you with technical terms) and I realised that I had naively expected the kitchen to do some of the hard work for us. My mistake, I suppose. Anyway, the large pot was brought to the table and the waiter ladled out a portion for each of us.

The lobster, admittedly, was good. Very fresh and, when it was eventually possible to pick up the shell (which was as hot as Hades, of course), generally the flesh came away very easily. The meat was tender and delicate and it did look to me like we had a whole lobster between us. That’s where the good news ends. The rice, fluffy long grain, had been cooked for too long so there was no bite there. The sauce was a generic stock with some coriander to try and give it a bit of freshness.

SquareLobster

I’m beginning to sympathise with the trouble the waiter had describing it, but I suppose he could hardly have said “it’s a very bland rice dish with some lobster in it”. I can though, because that’s what it was. Was it a forty-five pound dish? Put it this way – at the peerless Bird In Hand in Sonning Common I could have a whole lobster to myself for twenty-seven pounds, so to pay roughly the same for half a (not very big) lobster and some flavourless rice seems cynical. If this is a signature dish, you have to worry about the restaurant’s handwriting.

To drink we had an Appletiser (for the driver) and a very nice smoky glass of Portuguese red. If the restaurant had been good I would have regretted not being able to mount a concerted assault on the wine list. If it had been good we would have had a dessert and I would have wanted a port – a lovely rich vintage, or a sweet, subtle tawny. As it was, much as the meal could only have been improved with alcohol, I was glad we could cut our losses and leave.

As so often, the moment I started to actively dislike the food the waiter tried a little harder to be nice. In the early stages he seemed to struggle to communicate, whether that was describing the menu or explaining what we could do about The Dismal Sausage. After that he was a lot more attentive, asking whether everything was okay with the main course, whether we needed any more drinks, whether we wanted dessert and so on. But of course the damage was done by then – and most of the damage was done in the kitchen rather than front of house. Proof that their intentions were better than their delivery came when the bill arrived; dinner for two came to sixty three pounds (the chouriço had been taken off).

So there you have it: this week I went out of town to a restaurant which I hoped would be a find and turned out to be a disaster. And this is definitely not about Portuguese food, which is probably what frustrates me the most. Portuguese cuisine deserves a better ambassador than The Square: Lisbon is an absolutely incredible city full of great cured meat, fantastic fish and seafood, and magnificent cheeses, not to mention the stunning wine. Having been there I don’t understand why it doesn’t have as good a culinary reputation as any European capital. I can only imagine it’s because of places like The Square. I want to be kind, but everything I ate was either iffy or average. Every average thing I ate was expensive. And worst of all? I’ve just spent two thousand words telling you not to go somewhere you’ve never heard of and wouldn’t visit anyway. That sticks in my throat even more than the chouriço did.

The Square – 4.9
10 Market Place, Henley-on-Thames, RG9 2AH
01491 578681

http://thesquarehenley.com/

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O Beirão

N.B. O Beirão closed in October 2015. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

Dining at O Beirão is a little like eating out on holiday.

To start with it’s a bit of a trek, up out of town and then down the Basingstoke Road, where it’s all pretty Victorian houses and car dealers. With a location like this you have to want to visit, because there’s no chance of happening upon it. Then there’s the poor website with a few spelling and grammatical errors and, crucially, no mention of the opening hours. Checking this out for information can be misleading and you might turn up, like I did the first time I visited on duty, on a day when they’re not actually open, making the trek seem rather futile (thank goodness for the decent bus service, as there are no runners up to review round here). Then there’s the telly up in the corner of the room showing European football – Portuguese, of course – much like many little tavernas and bars on holiday. Finally, and this is not a good thing, after trekking out of town to visit O Beirão I dashed to the toilet to be greeted by a sign saying “Please do not flush toilet paper. Please put it in the bin”. It was Crete 2002 all over again.

Don’t let these things put you off, however. Inside this little slice of Portugal is really quite nice. Having turned up previously when the shutters are down it would be easy to dismiss it as a rough, out of town restaurant that won’t be around forever, but what’s actually behind the shutters is an adorable room filled with small tables with red gingham tablecloths and terracotta crockery (which includes the wine cups).

The menu is pretty short and hints at a double life. There is a pretty standard selection of lunchtime foods (omelettes, sandwiches, jacket potatoes – presumably to make the best of those car dealers wanting something decent for lunch) along with the authentically Portuguese dishes. Some of the main courses need to be ordered in advance – if only I’d known that I might have gone for one (the arroz de marisco sounds especially good, as does the suckling pig), but turning up on spec meant it wasn’t to be. Besides, they weren’t listed on the website either.

I started with pan fried mushrooms with garlic and onion, and morcela (Portuguese black pudding), both of which turned up in more terracotta pots. The mushrooms were respectable, fresh tasting and decently garlicky, though I would have preferred them more thoroughly cooked – they were a little flaccid, not at the wonderfully sticky stage of truly great fried mushrooms. The morcela – a generous helping – was again very much on the basic side. I’m a huge black pudding fan and I think I was expecting something soft, sweet and crumbly like Spanish morcilla but this wasn’t it – much firmer, much more like a hybrid between black pudding and chorizo. Again, I felt it could have been cooked a little bit better, and it was very hard to separate from the skin.

OShrooms

Both starters were accompanied with a basket of bread and butter and a small tub of shrimp paste (you can thank Google Translate for that nugget, otherwise I wouldn’t have had a clue what it was: Portuguese is not one of my strong points). There were two types of bread – the first, delicious and chewy, resembled sourdough in texture and was great dunked in the mushroom juices. The second was more like corn bread: shorter, sweeter and a little bit odd (especially with the shrimp paste – take my word for it, that’s a combo that shouldn’t be tried). Both starters were four pounds, which, to me, is on the borderline between “very reasonable” and “downright cheap”.

So far, so not bad. For a main course it would have been a crime not to order the frango assado (piri piri chicken), so I did. This is true Portuguese chicken (if you’re ever been to Portugal you’ll know what I mean) with a crispy skin, a lightly spiced kick and with meat pulling away from the bone easily. I asked for it medium and in truth it was a bit under-spiced for me, so I was splashing on a little extra piri piri sauce from the bottle on the table (which I loved and would quite happily have slipped in my pocket to bring home. No! Of course I didn’t!). Of course, it’s not possible to talk about piri piri chicken without mentioning Nando’s, so here goes: the heat was drier and more subtle in O Beirão’s version, and for what it’s worth I preferred it. On the side were an awful lot of fries (nothing special, and almost certainly not made on site but very good at soaking up the juices from the chicken) and a simple salad of lettuce, tomato and cucumber which I barely touched, truth be told. At the end of the meal I really wanted to pick up the chicken and get the last bits of the meat off with my bare hands but decorum got the better of me. I still regret that a little bit.

OFrango

The other main course, bacalhau com natas, sounded intriguing. I love salt cod in all its forms, and I liked the idea of it being served with fried potatoes in a béchamel sauce. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to that promise. It felt a bit like a Portuguese take on fisherman’s pie, but the whole thing was far too creamy and bland: the béchamel drowned everything else out and, ironically for a dish built around salt cod, what it was really crying out for was some salt. Every mouthful just highlighted what a good choice the piri piri chicken had been, and I would have traded the whole lot for just another forkful of salted, crispy skin.

OBacalhau

To finish we shared a slice of toffee biscuit cake. According to the O Beirão website all the desserts are made in house, though this looked a little too perfect for that to be true. This was a bit like tiramisu – layers of strangely firm, soft biscuit and what I think was crème patissiere, all with a toffee sauce on top. As enjoyable as it was the cream layers were slightly synthetic tasting, a little too sweet and thick. Of course we finished it but I would have preferred a pastel de nata to end the meal. That might be a bit of a cliché, but I absolutely love them. Impossible to tell whether O Beirão ever sells them, though (the wonders of that impenetrable website again).

OPud

The wine list here is pretty short (and yes, they do serve Mateus Rosé) and very reasonable. We had a half litre jug (and, as I’ve probably said countless times, I really wish more places would do carafes) of the house red and it cost just eight pounds. I thought it was smashing – juicy, jammy, fruity and great for drinking with spicy food. It’s also nice to see that all the wines on the list at O Beirão are Portuguese and none of them are over twenty pounds (the most expensive are just sixteen quid). They also do two perfectly respectable-looking ports by the glass – one vintage, one tawny – although I didn’t get to try them this time.

Service throughout was polite and friendly, with just the one black-clad waiter looking after the room. He was cheery and chatty although, truth be told, we didn’t need much looking after (it was the sort of quiet Friday night that makes me fear for a restaurant – only three tables of two all evening). The bill, for two and a half courses and a carafe of wine, was a touch under forty-five pounds, excluding service. Pretty hard to argue with that, I think, and although the bacalhau was a bit of a misfire a lot of it was good, all of it was cheap and most of it was both.

If I’m honest I went to O Beirão wanting to like it (once I’d got over the frustration of turning up on a Thursday evening to find the shutters down). Yes, the hours are odd – they’re only open in the evenings Friday to Sunday, although they do lunch every day. Yes, it is a bit of a pain to get there (though the number 6 bus stops right outside). And yes, you can’t flush your loo paper. But it really charmed me, and I think that shows that sometimes it’s not just about the room, or the service, or the food. Sometimes there’s some other indefinable quality, and O Beirão has that. Perhaps it’s that feeling of being elsewhere, a feeling many far more expensive, more polished restaurants throw money at manufacturing without success. For an independent Portuguese restaurant to open in Reading is no mean feat, let alone one in the relative obscurity of the Basingstoke Road. They’ve been there since the end of 2012 and I for one would like to see them stick around, even if it’s just for an alternative to the relentless march of Nando’s. Next time I’ll take some friends, pre-order something that takes a little longer to prepare and order a bottle of Mateus Rosé. Or several. Judge all you like, because I won’t care: I’ll be on holiday, after all.

O Beirão – 7.0
63 Basingstoke Road, RG2 0ER
0118 9759898

http://obeirao.co.uk/

Cappuccina Café

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

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

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

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

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

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

Banh mi

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

Chicken

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

Pasteis

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

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

https://www.facebook.com/cappuccinacafe