Takeaway review: O Português

Many years ago, in another life, I was spending a long weekend in Lisbon (remember when we used to have those?) and I had the good fortune to go on a food tour hosted by the journalist and writer Celia Pedroso. Every city – every country too, for that matter – should have an advocate like Pedroso, and anybody who went to Lisbon thinking that Portugal was all peri-peri chicken and egg custard tarts would have had their mind absolutely blown by a few hours in her expert company. 

It turned out that Portugal had cheese and ham that could rival anything from Spain, had not only port but also wonderful rich red wines and fresh, almost effervescent vinho verde. We sat in a restaurant called Tagide, looking out over the city, trying petiscos, Portugal’s take on small sharing plates, which were every bit as delicious as any tapas I’d eaten in Andalusia. Then there was ginjinha, a cherry liqueur sometimes served in – just imagine this – an edible chocolate shot glass. Throw the aforementioned chicken and pasteis de nata into the mix, and you have the makings of a wonderful, unsung cuisine.

I came away from that afternoon thinking that Portugal, so often overshadowed by its Iberian cousin, might be the best-kept food secret in Europe. It’s well-kept enough, for some reason, that Portuguese food has never quite made it to these shores; London has never had a Portuguese invasion the way as, say, Peruvian food some years ago and, closer to home, in nearly eight years of writing this blog I’ve only ever reviewed two Portuguese restaurants. Both of them left me a bit baffled, to put it lightly: was it just that the food didn’t travel well?

All of this made me very curious indeed when the old Bart’s Steakhouse site next to Palmer Park, which was Colley’s Supper Rooms for many years, reopened as O Português. All the early signs pointed to a hearty, authentic Portuguese restaurant, and the restaurant’s social media output – all bilingual – suggested a wide and interesting menu, ever-changing daily specials and huge amounts of support from the local Portuguese community. With the exception of Deliveroo-only London imports like Burger & Lobster and Rosa’s Thai, O Português is probably the restaurant most readers have told me they want me to check out. They’re on JustEat, so on a quiet weekday lunchtime I sat down to pore over their menu and decide what to order for dinner.

Researching the menu was an awful lot of fun and involved having JustEat open in one browser tab, Google in another. It was both an education in Portuguese food and a reminder of how little I knew about it. The menu had a selection of just under ten starters, most of them hovering around the seven pound mark, and a wide range of main courses ranging from ten to twenty pounds. Some had descriptions, some didn’t, but I hadn’t heard of much of it and the more I researched the hungrier I got. Did I fancy arroz de marisco, seafood rice that might rival a paella, or bacalhau a bráz, a sort of salt cod scrambled egg dish with matchstick potatoes? 

Everywhere I looked a different genre of gastronomic temptation was waving from the menu, shouting “pick me!”. And of course, the problem with looking up all these different Portuguese specialities was that Google always seemed to throw up the platonic ideal of each dish, a picture of every single one as its absolute best self. It partly wanted to make me order from O Português, it very much made me want to hop on the next plane to Porto and, perhaps most of all, it made me hope that ordering from O Português would make me feel less sad about the fact that I couldn’t so much get on the RailAir, let alone fly to Portugal at the drop of a hat. 

I deliberated, I horse-traded with my other half Zoë and we placed an order for that evening – two starters and two mains, coming to just over thirty-six pounds, including delivery and service charge. Then we got on with our day, but every now and again, on our afternoon walk, I would remember that I had this takeaway to look forward to and I thought what I always think with these review meals: I hope it’s good.

We’d ordered our food to arrive at seven pm, and the JustEat experience was pretty efficient, painless and slightly early. We were told at just before twenty to seven that our rider was on his way, and he pulled up outside the house barely five minutes later. Most of our food was in foil containers with cardboard lids, all recyclable, and one dish we’d ordered was in polystyrene. At the time I thought nothing of it, but later Zoë said “considering it’s less than ten minutes down the road it’s just not hot enough” and, on reflection, I tended to agree.

O Português’ starters mostly read like unpretentious bar food and I was excited about trying them. The first of them, pica pau, was thinly cut pork or beef in a spicy, beery gravy with pickled vegetables: the name translates as woodpecker, and the idea is that you pick away at it with a cocktail stick while drinking a cold Super Bock (or, in my case that evening, a beautiful bottle of Alhambra 1925, a birthday present from a friend). 

That sounds fantastic in theory, but O Português’ version was a bit challenging in practice. There was plenty of beef, most of it reasonably tender, but I didn’t detect any spice and next to nothing you could describe as gravy. Instead, there was a lot of pickled cauliflower and carrot, so much so that the sharp tang of vinegar was the main detectable flavour of the whole lot. I was inclined to give O Português the benefit of the doubt: I suspect this dish was reasonably authentic and probably just not for me. But I love pickles and I still found this a bit acrid; Zoë, who despises vinegar in all its forms, couldn’t cope with even a forkful of this dish. Strangest of all, it was a lot of food for six pounds fifty: if you liked it, you’d describe it as amazing value. If you didn’t, it was just cheap.

Fantastic in theory probably also sums up the other starter we had, another iconic Portuguese dish and again, meant to be robust rather than fancy. I had been tempted by the prego no pau, a “nailed” steak sandwich with garlic – apparently – literally hammered into it, but instead I went for bifana, which is probably the national sandwich of Portugal. And again, some of the problems with it may have derived from the disconnect between reading all about how amazing these could be in theory and then eating O Português’ in practice. 

In the wonderful theoretical world of the internet, the pork loin used in a bifana is thin and marinated, soused in flavour. In the real world of the polystyrene container in my living room, the pork was thicker, drier and, it seemed to me, ever so slightly overcooked. There was a good pungent waft of garlic underneath the pork, but it felt like it had been added afterwards rather than cooked alongside it. Perhaps if I’d had this in a tasca somewhere in the Bairro Alto, I’d have loved it, but on my sofa it lacked that power to transport.

Zoë liked it more than me – “thank god for bread and pork” were her exact words, but that might be because she had so little time for her main course. She had gone for the frango grelhado, grilled chicken, thinking that it was a classic Portuguese dish and relatively easy to get right. Now, ordinarily in these takeaway reviews Zoë plays a relatively minor role. On this occasion, however, I’ll have to quote her extensively, because she disliked her dinner so much that I ended up resorting to grabbing my phone, opening the Notes app and taking dictation at numerous points throughout the rest of the evening.

“It’s a mirage” she started. “It looks like it’s going to be a delicious baby chicken, like the ones from Bakery House, but actually it’s just a carcass covered in tasty skin.”

The forkful Zoë had let me have taste indeed have a tasty coating and I’d rather liked it. I wasn’t sure it was better than Nando’s, and it definitely wasn’t better than the best roast chicken I’d had in Lisbon, but it wasn’t terrible.

“You know that bit of chicken I let you try? That was most of the meat there was on the whole thing. It had more bones than Cemetery Junction. And another thing: it tastes to me like it’s been reheated. It feels like a quarter of chicken you’d get from a chicken shop.”

I supposed it was possible. I knew, for instance, that Nando’s precooked its chicken before finishing it on the grill: perhaps O Português did likewise. As if to prove her point, she lifted the whole scrawny thing up. It dangled uselessly from her fork, as if from a gibbet.

“It’s tough in places. I think it’s been reheated. It’s the chicken I feel sorry for. If it’s going to die, it should at least give somebody some pleasure. And the chips are just cold and hard.”

They’d looked pretty decent and home made on the plate, but apparently not.

“What about the rice?”

“It’s okay, but it’s rice. How wrong can you go with rice?” 

She had a point.

I’d picked my main having scrolled through O Português’ social media and when it turned up, it definitely looked the part. Arroz con pato, or duck with rice, sounded really promising. And again, it was a huge portion – tons of rice with what looked like shredded duck leg tumbled through it, and crispy slices of chourico and what looked like smoked pork on top. I mean, on paper, how good does that sound? And even looking at the picture below – well, it does look the part.

And yes, in theory, this dish should have been a standout. But there’s that word, theory, again: in reality it somehow managed to be less than the sum of its parts. The chourico was lovely and smoky (you smelled it the instant the lid came off the foil container), there was plenty of duck and even the smoked pork – which I’d normally approach with caution – was salty and tasty. But somehow, none of that flavour had made it into the rice and so the whole thing was heavy going. 

And again, portion size and cost made for a confusing combination – this dish was eleven pounds, was far more food than I could physically eat and wasn’t tasty enough that I was remotely disappointed about having to leave some. If you liked it, it would be phenomenal value. It seemed especially odd compared to the chicken dish, which was also eleven pounds but, even by comparison, poor value. Poor value compared to Bakery House’s wonderful boneless baby chicken too, come to think of it.

Later, when we were emptying quite a lot of our dinner into one of Reading Council’s exciting new food recycling caddies, she pointed to a clump of something beige in the foil dish. “See that? That’s where I spat a chip out.” I’ve had some iffy chips in my time, often bad enough that I’ve not bothered finishing the portion, but spitting one out isn’t something I’ve ever had to do. The meal left a disappointment which lingered for the rest of the evening, only slightly redeemed by eating some phenomenal chocolate brownies (another birthday gift, as it happens).

I’ve really not looked forward to writing this review, and I’ve rarely taken less pleasure in saying that somewhere wasn’t my cup of tea. I so wanted to like O Português, and I very much wanted to be reminded of everything I love about Portugal. And I find myself in a difficult position because, despite having visited that country several times, I couldn’t even begin to tell you whether the dishes we ate were authentic. It might be that they were, and that I like Portuguese food less than I thought I did, or that they weren’t. 

Or it could just be that the restaurant just had an off day. I don’t even know, really, which is the best case scenario, out of those possible outcomes. I’m sure that O Português has enough of a customer base that this is no skin off their nose, but I still feel sad that I can’t recommend them. I wished that everything I had eaten had been smaller, better and more expensive – and wanting all three of those things from a restaurant, all at once, is just not how it should be.

All I really know is that a small independent restaurant, pretty much the only one of its kind in Reading, cooked a meal I very much struggled to enjoy, and a large part of me dearly wishes this week’s review had reported different news. We still have no tapas restaurant since the sad departure of I Love Paella, and I’m yet to find a Portuguese restaurant in this country that feels like it does their food justice. If you want chicken perfected on a grill, Bakery House remains the place to beat. And if you want the closest thing to Portuguese food here, I’m afraid you’ll have to head to Nando’s. Nando’s isn’t Portuguese either – it’s South African, as a matter of fact – but you probably knew that already, didn’t you?

O Português
21 Wokingham Road, Reading, RG6 1LE
0118 9268949

https://www.facebook.com/OPortuguesInTown
Order via: JustEat

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/

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