Restaurant review: The Nag’s Head

I’m not sure there’s any such thing as the perfect pub, but I’m lucky to live near three that each embody different aspects of the platonic ideal of a public house.

The Retreat is arguably Reading’s best “classic” pub, even if its refurb last year made the toilets disconcertingly classy. The story goes that when the landlord of the Alehouse visited and saw the work the Retreat had carried out in lockdown he turned to Brian, the landlord, and said “thanks a bunch – now I really do have the shittest pub toilets in Reading” (apparently the Alehouse has done some work on them since). The Retreat lacks outside space, and the small beer selection is a little too cask-led for my personal taste, but it remains a wonderful place with a welcome like no other.

Then there’s the Lyndhurst, which does Reading’s best pub food, without question. It hosts burger nights on Mondays and curry nights on Thursdays, and boasts a menu full of staples like chilli beef nachos and katsu chicken burgers. And then there’s the icing on the cake: dazzling specials that tend to go on the menu Fridays and Saturdays and match any restaurant food anywhere in Reading. One week it’s skate wing topped with capers and crunchy croutons soaked in a sauce Grenobloise, another it’s lamb rump with an enormous slab of shredded lamb shoulder, breadcrumbed and fried, on the side. 

To round off the holy trinity, the Weather Station boasts a superb selection of beers, the vast majority of which are on keg, has a nice little courtyard out back where you can drink them and has really gone from strength to strength in 2021. It always has at least one sticky, strong, indulgent imperial stout on the list and some of the DIPAs and pales on tap are truly terrific (a special mention to Wild Weather’s Orange Lazarus, which is as refreshing a summer drink as you could hope to find).

Having said all that, over the last twelve months I’ve spent a fair amount of pub time on the edge of West Reading, where the Castle Tap and the Nag’s Head have done an exemplary job of adjusting to Covid and providing great converted spaces for al fresco drinking. When I finally emerged from the cocoon of that first ever lockdown for an al fresco alcoholic drink, it was the Nag’s Head I made a beeline for. But the Nag’s Head always had two drawbacks. 

One is that you couldn’t book a table, whereas at the Castle Tap they’ll gladly reserve you one outside. The other was that they never really had much of a food offering. That needn’t be be a problem. The Castle Tap is more than happy for you to order from Deliveroo and eat it at your table – they’ll even give you the postcode for the beer garden out back to use as a delivery address – but the Nag’s has always taken a dim view of that.

On one hand, it meant that the Nag’s Head didn’t bother trying to adapt to the constantly changing landscape of substantial meals, this tier and that tier. Life was simpler, if less lucrative – although the Nag’s also reopened later than its peers last year, sensibly spending extra time sprucing up their beer garden, so perhaps they could absorb those losses. But it also meant that they were closed for longer than some of Reading’s other pubs with outside space when they could have put together a menu, or invited a street food trader over, and continued to trade.

Anyway, when they reopened in April this year they were sporting a brand new food menu and a new smoker for pork and brisket. The menu was compact – not big enough to necessarily make the Nag’s a food destination in its own right, but aiming to offer enough choice that you wouldn’t have to face the invidious choice between leaving the pub to grab a meal or staying, getting shitfaced on an empty stomach and accidentally falling into Harput Kebab on the way home (and I’m not judging, because I speak from experience). And that kind of menu works: Zoë and I were having an early evening beer in the sunshine during her week off, and neither of us could face going home and cooking, which is why you get this review this week.

Before I talk about the menu, a little about the setup. Last year the Nag’s turned its car park properly into a beer garden, with plenty of well-distanced tables, some out in the open and some under marquees, with astroturf underfoot. It future-proofed them well, with the tables superb in sunshine but still usable in the rain, although having to take down the sides of the marquees to qualify as “outdoors” meant the wind could be mighty fierce. All ordering is at the table, with links to the beer list on Untappd, and payment is taken at the table, too. Although many other pubs abandoned table service as soon as they could the Nag’s is currently sticking with it, which I personally really appreciate.

The menu confines itself to three categories only – toasted sandwiches, sausage rolls and meat from the smoker. The Nag’s always used to offer the latter – pulled pork and beef brisket rolls – but the toasties and sausage rolls, a new move, are supplied by The Croque Shop, a business from Brighton. It’s an interesting decision to use them rather than a local supplier, although the pork and beef are from Vicar’s Game, probably Berkshire’s best-known butcher (it’s not all meat: there are vegetarian and vegan options for both toasties and sausage rolls).

Sausage rolls cost four pounds, the pulled pork and brisket are six pounds fifty and the toasties range from six pounds to nine, the most expensive thing being a Reuben made, slightly randomly, with pork belly instead of beef. You order the food along with your beer, but they take the order separately and you pay separately for your food when it arrives. Service is really very good at the Nag’s at the moment – months of running table service has really honed their skills in this area, and everyone who looked after us was friendly, personable and good at coming over just as we needed to order some more drinks.

Let’s start with the pulled pork sandwich, because it was good. Really good, in fact. You get a generous helping of the stuff stuffed in a brioche bun and topped with their own recipe barbecue sauce, and it’s a wonderful thing. So much pulled pork, to me, is a little bit claggy and gloopy, mixed in with the barbecue sauce and too often on the mulchy side. The Nag’s pulled pork, by contrast, was drier and not completely shredded – you could easily pull it apart, and the texture was spot on, but some of it was still in big, delicious doorstops. The barbecue sauce added more heat than sweetness, and there was just enough of it to compliment without overpowering.

It was so enjoyable, in fact, that I’m beginning to think a trip to the Nag’s without a pulled pork roll might be no kind of trip to the Nag’s at all. I enthused about it so much that Zoë ordered one herself with the next round of drinks and I had to look on enviously while she polished it off (admittedly an experience I’d been happy to inflict on her earlier in the evening). She used some of the accompanying crinkle cut crisps – Seabrook, at a guess – as a vehicle to transport some of the excess pulled pork into her gob, a trick I wish I’d thought of. I’ll try the beef brisket next time I’m at the Nag’s – or at least I’m telling myself that now – but the pulled pork roll is six pounds fifty well spent, and for my money one of the best sandwiches in Reading.

“You know the food at the beer festival? You know the crappy carvery they always have there?” said Zoë.

“I’m afraid so.”

“This is what the pork sandwiches at the beer festival should actually taste like.”

I really couldn’t disagree.

While I’d been gloating over my good choice, Zoë had tucked into a chicken, cheese and chorizo toastie from that section of the menu. Much as I’d love to use the pun “croque of shit” somewhere in this review, this was anything but – well made on good, sturdy sourdough that toasted well and full of decent quality chicken, vintage cheddar and nuggets of chorizo rather than cheap supermarket slices. Zoë was a fan – “this is as good as a Shed toastie”, she said – and we’ll have to take her word for it, because it was so good that I didn’t get a bite. At six pounds fifty it would compete with a Shed toastie on price, although it’s slightly smaller. But I think the pulled pork was probably better value.

In the interests of covering as many bases as possible, I also had a sausage roll. The most intriguing-looking one on the menu was pork, apricot and Stilton, and it looked the part – heated up in an oven rather than microwaved with nicely flaky, rustling pastry and a dense core of sausagemeat. And it came close, but if there was any Stilton in it I couldn’t detect it. I’d have liked it, for contrast against the sweet apricot studded through the sausage roll, but it was still decent even without it. If I’d known it was going to be a blue cheese free zone I might have gone for the pork, cheese and Marmite option – but who’s to say whether it would have turned out to have Marmite in it?

There’s not much point in saying a lot about the beers we had during our meal because the Nag’s (and the breweries it buys from) mix things up so frequently that anything I drank might well not be on when you’re there next. There’s a touch of ADHD about it, because you find something you like and they’re always on to the next thing (Siren Craft, it seems to me, is especially prone to this). But it would be remiss not to mention Woodland Battle Dance Exhibition, the newish DIPA by Double-Barrelled which is my favourite beer from them yet; it’s still on at the Nag’s at the time of writing, but who knows how long that will last?

It’s also worth adding that the Nag’s always has a good complement of beer from local breweries, with Siren, Double-Barrelled and Elusive well represented all of the time along with beers from smaller local breweries like White Waltham’s Stardust. It does make me wonder, a little, why their toasties and sausage rolls come from Sussex – but the toasties and sausage rolls are good, so maybe that’s why.

It was always going to be difficult reviewing somewhere after last week’s review, the best meal I’ve eaten on duty this (or any) year. But the Nag’s is the perfect choice, because despite being as different an experience as I can think of, the Nag’s does share some DNA with really good restaurants. Picking your suppliers carefully, having a compact menu which you execute superbly and matching your food to the atmosphere you want to create aren’t skills exclusive to restaurants: pubs and cafés need to get that right as well.

And I think the Nag’s has thought that out perfectly. It’s not destination food, but it’s just the right food to accompany a trip to the pub, or to try and stave off the inevitable hangover you can see on the horizon during a trip to the pub (I’m at the age now where sometimes I can sense the hangover in the post after a couple of drinks – that’s your forties for you).

The pulled pork sandwich is the pick of the bunch for me, but any of them would grace a drinking session and they offer an excellent change of gear from ordering a packet of pork scratchings and some Bacon Fries and opening them out on the table, pub tapas-style. And writing this, it strikes me that this is just typical of the Nag’s. They took their time deciding what to do about food while others tinkered at the edges or got street food traders in. But trust them, once they did get round to it, to do it properly.

The Nag’s Head – 7.8
5 Russell Street, Reading, RG1 7XD
07765 880137

http://www.thenagsheadreading.co.uk

Restaurant review: The Fisherman’s Cottage

When I looked at my to do list to decide where to review this week, I had a shopping list of requirements. Somewhere relatively new or unknown, for starters. A venue with good outside space – because the weather is clement all of a sudden and I know that many people, like me, still feel more comfortable eating and drinking outside. Finally, I wanted to pick a place with an interesting story – either somewhere I reviewed a long time ago that has survived the pandemic, or somewhere that opened since the pandemic began.

I scanned the list several times, fruitlessly, and then I realised it had been staring me in the face all along: it was time to go back to the Fisherman’s Cottage. It ticks all those boxes. Down by the river, with tables out front and an attractive beer garden (complete with faux beach hut booths) out back, it is one of Reading’s best pubs in terms of outside space, much of which catches the sun. And it manages to be both new and unknown, kind of: it came under new ownership last year when it was taken over by Turkish chef and restaurateur Cigdem Muren Atkins.

To say she’s had a baptism of fire would be an understatement. The Fisherman’s Cottage reopened just in time to be hit by our second lockdown in November. They had a couple of weeks of trading in December before we went into Tier 3, or Tier 4, or whatever they called it back then, and then we had a third national lockdown which only began to lift in April. During that time, the Fisherman’s Cottage did its best to adapt and survive: there was a click and collect menu, and every weekend if you walked along the river you saw tables outside groaning with cakes and cookies, for sale to passers-by.

Their neighbour the Jolly Angler grabbed more headlines with its attempt to turn its back garden into a poolside beach bar, but the Fisherman’s Cottage kept plugging away all the same. And now we’re in a weird situation: the pub has been under its present management for over six months, but has only been able to operate as a pub for the past two. I know of a few people who have gone there for a drink, but nobody who has eaten there – so on a beautifully sunny evening, accompanied by my partner in crime Zoë, I strolled down the river to give it a whirl.

“I’ve been looking forward to this all afternoon” said Zoë. “But I’m a bit apprehensive too.”

“I know what you mean. You really want it to be good, don’t you?”

“Exactly. Nobody wants to be talking about a shit meal at a time like this.”

There are few sights more gladdening than a bustling pub, especially on a sunny day, and I was pleased to see that the Fisherman’s Cottage was busy when we got there, with most of the tables out front occupied. Although I didn’t eat inside I can confirm that it’s still an attractive space, with a conservatory, plenty of light and, of course, that garden out back. We decided to eat out front though, mainly because it just felt more like being part of things, people-watching the friends walking past and the cyclists pulling up for a pint.

Speaking of pints, I should talk briefly about the beer, because I know this will disappoint many of the Fisherman’s Cottage’s former clientele. Under its previous management, the same owners as the Greyfriar, it was more of a craft beer destination. That’s not the case now, so you have a choice of the usual suspects – Camden Hells, Estrella, Corona and so on. I can see from Untappd that they do still do some local stuff, with recent check-ins of beers from Disruption Is Brewing and Wild Weather, but the selection is definitely narrower: hopefully the pub might develop this over time.

The menu felt like an attempt to cover a lot of bases, and it was impossible to tell by looking whether it would be good: sometimes you just know, one way or the other, but this was relatively inscrutable. The starters felt like the weakest section, with some dishes that were more sides than starters (fries, potato wedges and so on) and others, like mozzarella sticks, that felt like something you could pick up from any supermarket. Everything was affordable, though, with the priciest starter costing eight pounds.

The mains were divided into sections and felt a little busy, although many were variations on a theme – salads, pasta (the menu didn’t say which kind of pasta, just pasta) and pizza. There were a few curries, most of them Thai, three burgers and half a dozen other mains which ran the gamut from Morocco to Australia and onwards to the Caribbean. It was refreshing to see a pub that didn’t offer fish and chips, but even so the menu felt unfocused – you always worry that with so much on offer, a kitchen won’t do it all well. Pricing was variable, with dishes ranging from around nine pounds to sixteen for the priciest mains (steak or lamb chops, in this case). 

We ordered three starters and a couple of main courses, along with a couple of pints, and our bill came to fifty-four pounds, not including tip. Normally I put that bit at the end of a review, largely because I get my bill at the end of a meal, but on this occasion they brought the bill out straight after I’d ordered. At first I found that strange, but in hindsight it’s how it generally works in pubs – you wouldn’t bat an eyelid paying up front somewhere like Bluegrass BBQ, so it’s probably just the cognitive dissonance between eating in a pub and having table service.

I had the best of the starters, I think. I wanted something closer to Muren Atkins’ Turkish roots, so I’d gone for the courgette fritters. These were probably the best thing I ate all evening – light, crispy, beautifully fresh and reminiscent of many happy holiday meals. The yoghurt and mint dip they came with had a strangely clumpy texture, but there was no arguing with the taste. This felt like good value at five pounds fifty – “I’d order this next time” said Zoë, and I probably would too.

I rarely order calamari in restaurants – it doesn’t usually bowl me over – but Zoë often does, so she decided to go for it. Calamari is a tricky one, because unless it’s very fresh it always has a little bounce. That was the case here, too, but even having said that it was still a pretty good example and better than most I’ve had in Reading. The coating was nicely crunchy and, crucially, stuck to the calamari, and it’s hard to beat sweet chilli sauce as a dip for this, unless you make an excellent aioli or tartar sauce.

“This is decent” said Zoë, “and miles better than anything you’d get from a Prezzo or a Zizzi”. I enjoyed the couple she let me have, although I still think the courgette fritters were a better bet.

We also ordered a cheesy garlic bread, because there isn’t much to dislike about the epicentre of the bread/garlic/cheese Venn diagram. This was a bought-in ciabatta or panino halved and toasted with cheese and some garlic. It cost five pounds, and felt slightly sharply priced at that, mainly because it was lacking in firepower from the garlic.

“It’s a bit generic” said Zoë. “This is all your fault” she added, “because you’ve gotten me used to all the artisan shit. I would have lapped this up before I met you.”

“Are you complaining?” 

I asked the question because I knew the answer: when Zoë and I got together she was a korma eater with an aversion to tomatoes, but years later she can wax lyrical about fresh heritage tomatoes with burrata, khachapuri, or Clay’s ghee roast chicken with the best of them.

“Not at all.” She had a suspicious look on her face, but that might have been because she’d just caught sight of the ketchup bottle on the table. “But it’s frustrating – it wouldn’t take much to really ramp this dish up.” I tended to agree, although mainly I’d have added industrial quantities of garlic.

As the evening progressed a beautiful crimson sunset materialised on the far side of Blake’s Lock, and you could almost believe that things were normal again, that there were no such things as variants and amber lists, anti-vaxxers and virus deniers, people refusing to wear a mask or get a test. Instead there was just a pub table, my favourite person on the other side of it, a crisp pint of Estrella in front of me, empty plates with more on the way. Nothing but goodness, in fact: what a wonderful world it can still be, if you let it.

My reverie was interrupted by our main courses arriving a little more briskly than I’d have liked. But again, it didn’t feel like a significant issue: I imagine many pubs and restaurants are still finding their rhythm when it comes to serving diners. I had chosen the only main course to specifically reference Turkey, the meatballs, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The meatballs themselves were nicely coarse and well-seasoned, not suspiciously homogeneous and smooth. They were served with slices of fried aubergine. It’s a vegetable I often struggle to like but the Fisherman’s Cottage had cooked it nicely, with a good texture, some crispiness and none of the mulchiness aubergine can sometimes have.

Aubergine is pretty inescapable in Turkish cuisine. One Turkish aubergine dish is called imam bayildi which translates as “the imam fainted” – apparently from pleasure, according to a folk tale. I couldn’t quite match that, but I was definitely pleasantly surprised. The whole thing was rounded off by a beautiful, sweet, thick tomato sauce, a pile of white rice and a little foliage. It was a satisfying, unpretentious plate of food and felt like decent value at eleven pounds fifty.

Zoë had decided to brave the pizza section of the menu – a relatively new addition, according to the Fisherman’s Cottage’s Instagram feed – and had chosen one with chicken, caramelised onion and gorgonzola. She really enjoyed it, and made relatively short work of it, and the pieces I tried were pretty good – the chicken and sweet onion worked nicely together, though I thought it needed more of the gorgonzola to bring it all together.

I think she liked it more than I did, though – the base is rolled by hand and the whole thing is cooked in an oven on a pizza steel, but the dough was lacking any lift or bubbling which left the crust feeling a bit flat. In fairness, in that respect it was no different to the pizzas at sadly-departed Tuscany, down the Oxford Road, but the price of this pizza – fifteen pounds – felt on the steep side.

“I don’t think it’s that bad for pricing” said Zoë. “You’d pay that much for a Romana pizza at Pizza Express.”

“It’s more expensive than Papa Gee, though.”

“Anyway, I think it’s very good. I’d order it again.”

The weird thing about having paid your bill at the start is that there isn’t that moment to bring your meal to a close and add that full stop at the end. Service, incidentally, was friendly, efficient and masked, even though we were outside. I’m used to drinking outside in places with a little buzz – the Nag’s, of course, and my favourite right now, the Castle Tap. But it was a pleasant feeling to enjoy a meal surrounded by other people – sitting in the cold outside La’De Kitchen in Woodley on a chilly April evening or being the only people outside Crispy Dosa just doesn’t impart the same warm glow you get from being part of something bigger than you. As we all emerge from our own personal lockdowns, at varying speeds, I imagine there’s more of this to come.

While we waited for the wait staff to take our plates away we compared notes and, with a sense of relief, both decided that we’d enjoyed what we’d eaten. It does feel a little, to me anyway, that the Fisherman’s Cottage is playing it safe with a menu that tries to cover as many bases as possible. That’s understandable, especially at a time when every paying customer counts, but my favourite things on the menu were the Turkish dishes, and it did make me wish that there was more of that on offer. But then Muren Atkins has run restaurants in Turkey, England and the Caribbean, so maybe she’s more interested in offering something more international.

Even so, I’m really pleased that I can cautiously recommend the Fisherman’s Cottage next time you want to eat outside, or have a cold pint outside and eat something decent to accompany it. The food maybe isn’t the main attraction – a short walk onto the Kings Road will take you to the Lyndhurst, where the menu is at a different level – but it’s easily good enough to merit a visit, with some dishes that point to real potential. And it would be nice if the beer list leaned more towards the local, but that might come in time. But the pub is a lovely building, and it makes such a difference to see it being used and enjoyed, as opposed to last summer when it lay dormant at a time when it could have made the best of its riverside setting. I sense that Muren Atkins will look after it well, provided she gets some help from all of us. On this showing, she deserves it.

The Fisherman’s Cottage – 7.2
Kennet Side, Reading, RG1 3DW
07925 336269

https://www.thefishermanscottagereading.co.uk
Delivery via: No delivery, but click and collect available through the website

The Lyndhurst

To read a more recent takeaway review of The Lyndhurst, click here.

I’m always reminded of the cyclical nature of things at this time of year. My Instagram, so recently full of everybody’s envy-inducing holiday photos, has given way to my Facebook news feed, with pictures of everybody’s kids going back to school. The Reading Festival, seen by many as the last event of the summer, is over. The magnolia tree in my garden is beginning to turn, and the leaves will slowly become golden in the weeks ahead. And in town, everybody is in jeans, their shorts packed away for another year, dusting off coats they had almost forgotten they needed.

This time of year is part of cycles for me personally, too. Three years ago, I wrote my final blog post announcing that I was taking a break. And when I came back in 2017, my first review was of the Lyndhurst, a pub I’ve always loved, on the edge of the Village, the conservation area between Eldon Square and Watlington Street. Around this time last year they hosted a lunch for my readers and we packed the place out – over thirty of us, eating a set menu they’d designed for the occasion. It was a lovely afternoon; I made a lot of new friends at that lunch, some of whom have become especially dear to me.

That I’m reviewing it again, in 2019, is a sign of another of those cycles: restaurants open, close and change hands. Kris Dorward left the pub in June, just as the previous landlord had in June 2016. One of the chefs has since moved to the Fisherman’s Cottage (let’s hope the management treat him better than they did the previous team to occupy the kitchen there) and for a little while the pub sat there, empty and sad. One of its regulars even took to sitting at the tables outside in the sunshine, like a dog waiting for its owner to return.

Things looked bleak, but a new team took over at the end of July making all the right noises about continuing to serve excellent food. I was there with friends for a few drinks the night they reopened and although things were a little chaotic, it was brilliant to have the pub back (true to form, Berkshire Live reported the “news” nearly three weeks later).

I didn’t eat there that night, but I was itching to try out the new menu and so, a month after they opened, I turned up with my friend Reggie to give it a whirl. It wasn’t Reggie’s first choice (“the menu looks a bit limited”, he told me) but Caribbean restaurant Vibes was closed on Tuesday nights, so the Lyndhurst it was.

The interior suggested that the new management was aiming for evolution rather than revolution, because apart from being slightly more spartan it looked exactly as it had before. Still a long thin room with the bar down one side, still the same mixture of chairs and pews, still the same warm glow. Reggie said that it reminded him of the pub in Peaky Blinders and I, having never watched it, nodded as if I knew exactly what he was talking about. Reggie, all coiffed hair and Massimo Dutti shirts, might well fit in on the set of Peaky Blinders: I most definitely would not.

The menu offered further encouraging signs, as it had already changed from the original menu online which had underwhelmed Reggie. A bit confusing, though, as the paper menu had starters and mains while the blackboard on the wall also listed nibbles and small plates. Starters and small plates hovered around the seven pound mark, all but a couple of the mains were less than twelve pounds. Most things on the menu still fell into the bracket of pub food but there were interesting cheffy touches here and there: sauce gribiche with the asparagus, a whole spiced chicken to share, black pudding bonbons and chicken katsu burgers.

Reggie and I decided to try a bit of everything, so we made a selection from the snacks and small plates and tried to pick more straightforward and complex main courses to test the range of the kitchen. I let him pick first, as I do with all my dining companions, and he picked everything I wanted to order, as my dining companions inevitably do. “Sorry mate” he said, clearly not sorry at all.

In its previous incarnation, the Lyndhurst’s Scotch egg had been a reference dish, so it seemed like a good test to order it here. It came with less whistles and bells than its predecessor – no wooden board, no tangle of pea shoots sprinkled with salt, no brown sauce accompaniment. Instead it was served simply on a plate with a little salad, some radish and a blob of sweet sauce (the menu said mustard, Reggie thought it was more like chutney). But crucially, it was really very tasty. The yolk could have been a little less solid, ideally, but otherwise it was spot on with a great coarse texture and plenty of seasoning. Not only that, but at just under four pounds, this was almost half the price of the old Scotch egg at the Lyndhurst – genuinely priced to be a beer snack rather than a starter.

My chilli beef nachos, from the small plates section, were neither small nor served on a plate. Not that I was complaining – it was a crazily generous portion of robust tortilla chips topped with plenty of chilli, made with slow-cooked shredded beef rather than mince. I really liked the chilli; Reggie found it a little underseasoned.

The whole thing was a tad unwieldy: it was very hard to eat with your hands, not helped by plonking a gigantic lettuce leaf on top. And the promised guacamole wasn’t really guacamole but just chunks of gorgeously ripe avocado, although there’s a place for that too (there was also a terrific fresh tomato salsa in the mix). But honestly, those minor criticisms aside it was a really lovely, if messy, way to start a meal. I think after eating this I understood better why it wasn’t on the starters menu: you could easily turn up for a few drinks and just get one of these to share with your drinking buddies.

Even after the starters I was happy but well on my way to pleasantly full (Reggie, irritatingly whippet-thin in the way only twentysomethings can be, obviously had plenty in the tank). Despite being a pub the Lyndhurst was offering table service like a restaurant, and the chap looking after us was friendly and polite – if slightly lacking in confidence – and seemed genuinely pleased that we liked our food. We also had a couple of pints on the go – the Lyndhurst’s drinks selection, again, hasn’t changed drastically with the handover so it was Orchard Pig for me and Camden Hells (a favourite of mine on a hot day) for Reggie.

“I’d never come here before I read your last review, and when I did I kind of wished it was my local” he added. That made sense: technically Reggie’s local is the Castle Tap but like practically everyone in West Reading he’d rather pretend it’s the Nag’s Head. Technically, my local is the Retreat but I did feel lucky that the Lyndhurst was such a short walk from my house. Would that enthusiasm survive the main courses, I wondered?

Reggie had picked the fancier of the main courses – pork belly, pig’s cheek and black pudding bonbon, with boulangere potatoes. If that sounds like it had a lot going on it’s because it did, but it really did live up to its promise. The pork belly was beautifully done with no wobbly fat, the cheeks were tender and meaty, free from disturbingly gelatinous bits. And the black pudding bonbon, itself impressively generous, was gorgeous, earthy stuff.

To have all that and boulangere potatoes studded with sweet onion was nice enough, but to add rainbow chars and crispy cavolo nero, reminiscent of seaweed, topped it all off nicely. The only misfires were the apple sauce, which felt a bit like it had wandered in from the Sunday lunch menu, and a slight lack of jus, but the fact remained that for less than fifteen pounds this dish represented formidable value. Reggie was a fan, and from the bit he let me try I was practically an evangelist.

I had to slum it at the more pubby end of the menu, but even there I managed to find something interesting to order. My chicken katsu burger was a very respectable effort – I think it was breadcrumbed, but the coating wasn’t quite strong enough to stand up to the surprisingly punchy curry sauce. Either way, it was a lovely fillet cooked well and the whole thing was elevated by a really well done – please accept my apologies in advance for using this word, I feel every bit as dirty writing it as you do reading it – “slaw”, zingy and piquant and crunchy with carrot.

As so often with burgers these days, it was a sloppy, messy affair – the sort where every bite at one end pushes the contents out of the bun at the other until what’s left is hanging over the edge like the coach in the Italian Job. But it was very enjoyable all the same – as were the chips, which were some of the best I’ve had in a while. The menu says they’re hand-cut and I could well believe it, although if you look closely at my photo you might see one which clearly looked like a refugee from another batch entirely.

Portions were pretty generous (especially my starter), so neither of us had any room for dessert. The Lyndhurst’s dessert menu is possibly not where their strengths lie – just a brûlée, a lemon posset, a brownie and a cheesecake – so I’m not sure I was missing out quite so much. Our dinner – two courses and a pint each – came to forty-six pounds not including tip, which I thought was excellent value.

I’m always lamenting the fact that Reading doesn’t have a pub in the centre that does really good food, and for a long time the previous incarnation of the Lyndhurst filled that gap as well as anyone had. That’s why there was genuine sadness when they closed. I’m delighted to be able to report that, after a slightly shaky start, the new owners are definitely on the right lines. The menu is pretty wide, but they seem to be able to execute all of it. It’s well-judged, with a good range of options for sharing, snacking or eating a full meal. They’ve already started to change the launch menu, which shows that they care about their food and are looking to improve.

I think they’ll only grow in confidence (and the service needs to, ever so slightly) but it will be fascinating to see where the new management takes the place. One thing that really struck me about the previous owners was how little they did on social media to promote the pub and the food: fingers crossed the current team take that more seriously. But for now, let’s just be grateful that the Lyndhurst is back, and trying the right things.

The following day I did a bit of Googling and found that Vibes, the other candidate for this week’s review, closed permanently in August. There’s that cycle for you again: if you don’t use it, don’t complain if further down the line you lose it. One to bear in mind in the months ahead, when places like the Lyndhurst are going to need customers more than ever.

The Lyndhurst – 7.8
88 Queens Road, RG1 4DG
0118 9503888

https://www.thelyndhurstreading.co.uk/

The Dairy

It was love at first sight when I first laid eyes on The Dairy. I’d been paying a visit to the MERL on Upper Redlands Road earlier in the day and I’d dimly remembered that The Dairy, one of the bars which was part of the University, was just down the road. I’d never been, so in the spirit of adventure I did a bit of research, checking out the sadly departed Matt Farrall’s excellent article on the subject for the Whitley Pump). Later that week, I dropped in for a drink.

When I got there, I was thoroughly charmed. It took a bit of finding – it’s pretty much completely unsignposted, and you access it by going up a ramp only to find an unadorned door with a simple plaque next to it saying “The Dairy” in a plain, municipal-looking font. Once I got there, though, I liked the look of the place: it’s made up of two big rooms with clean, white walls, sizeable tables (high ones in the main room, lower ones in the back room), comfy furniture and a wide array of decent beers on keg, including four different craft lagers and representatives from many of our local breweries: Siren Craft, Wild Weather and Elusive, not to mention other breweries like New Wharf and XT.

It’s a university bar, but it was open to the public and seemed to have a pretty varied clientele. Not only that, but even without a student discount you could get a pint of good, well-kept craft beer for around three pounds fifty. I found myself making a mental note that this could make a great place for board games nights with friends, or for a quiet pint on the evenings when I fancied a change of scenery from my usual haunts (it was sleepy on a week night at the start of term).

Then I spotted the menu. Now, normally I would never have considered The Dairy as a venue for a food review, but there were lots of interesting touches on the menu which made me wonder. Jerk chicken, curry mutton and Jamaican vegetable stew all looked different from the usual fare and even the burgers, complete with a very now charcoal brioche, seemed slightly out of the ordinary. I took a picture of the menu and resolved to come back to see if this could be the kind of hidden find which always lifts my spirits.

Returning on a Saturday evening with my partner in crime Zoë, The Dairy was much more obviously a student bar and was far busier. I felt a tad decrepit grabbing a stool at one of the high tables, and then swapping it for one better equipped to support my child-bearing hips. That feeling wasn’t helped by looking around to see hordes of young people watching the big screens, playing pool, eating all-day breakfasts (not something on the menu I had ever considered ordering, in all honesty, and especially not at eight o’clock at night) and generally not appreciating that they were slap bang in the middle of the best years of their lives.

I wandered into the back room to see if any tables were available there, but was greeted by such a wall of noise that I thought better of it. I did spot one gentleman at another table who was even older than me, and that reassured me enough to grab a menu. Broadly speaking it divided into two sections (unless you count a very small selection of starters and salads and – of course – that all day breakfast): world food and burgers. We quickly decided to try one of each and I went up to the bar to place the order. None of the dishes costs more than a tenner and once you hand over your card (the whole place is cashless) they give you a little gadget which buzzes when your food is ready, signalling for you to go and pick it up from the hatch. Easy peasy.

The first warning bell rang when the gadget buzzed, no more than ten minutes after placing my order; that felt quick enough that I wondered whether a microwave had been involved. I approached the hatch to find the food had been set down in front of me, but with nobody on the other side to greet me. The shelves behind were full of stuff from Brakes, another disconcerting sign. I would have just taken the dishes and gone back to the table but one of them, the mutton curry, was missing the advertised naan bread and mango chutney. Instead there was a small bowl of what appeared to be giant, wan-looking chips, stood upright. I waited, but nobody appeared, so I said “excuse me” as loudly as I dared and a lady wandered in from what I assume was the kitchen.

“I’m sorry, but I’m waiting for a naan bread” I said, doing the English thing of apologising for expecting to receive what I had ordered.

“It’s a mistake with the menu” I was told tersely. “It’s wrong. You don’t get naan bread, because it’s a Caribbean curry. These are yuca fries.”

Never mind, I thought, carrying everything back to the table and picking up some cutlery from the bar. The mutton curry was Zoë’s, but I managed to try enough of it to dispel the rumour that it had been microwaved: surely it would have been hotter if that was the case. The meat was a tad chewy – not undercooked per se, but not enjoyable to eat and the spicing in it was probably best described as subtle. It was definitely luke-warm, though, and for nine pounds the portion felt a little on the mean side. I didn’t try the yuca fries (although I did google them to find out that they were made of cassava) but Zoe ate a few without any real enthusiasm. They looked like the kind of thing you might use to insulate a loft.

“What do you reckon?” I asked.

“It’s just not hot. To be honest, I’d rather go to Clay’s.” She had a point – I would far rather have spent a little more and had an infinitely better curry elsewhere. I had a feeling the list of places doing a better curry than The Dairy – and this in itself was pretty alarming – probably included Wetherspoon’s. Still, I’ll say this for the mutton curry: it wasn’t the chicken burger, which is an early front runner for the single worst thing I’ll eat in 2019 (let’s hope it bags that prize, because I don’t really want to think about what, if anything, could beat it into second place).

The charcoal brioche was weirdly, cloyingly sweet. The bacon – back, cooked to miserable limpness – was indifferent and salty. The burger itself was breaded and I’m not sure whether it was baked or fried but the coating had the texture of an asteroid with no discernible seasoning: the chicken, once you got to it, at least recognisably had started life as a fillet but after that it had been not so much cooked as mistreated. The thin slice of American cheese on top had been completely unmelted by the lukewarm contents of the brioche. I wasn’t sure how the kitchen had managed to overcook something, yet it still wasn’t hot: I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

The “barbecue glaze” underneath it had the sort of gloopy sweetness which gave me bad flashbacks. There was something odd about the taste of the fries: it could have been that they were tepid, it might have been that they were stale, it might have been something else altogether. Running through the possibilities in my mind started to bring on reflux. I left a fair amount of this dish, and most of the fries, and things have to be pretty bad before I do that.

If the food had been good, there would have been more drinks. We would have checked out the dessert section of the menu and ordered the churros (“plain and caramel filled… served with butterscotch sauce”). But the food wasn’t good, and I needed to leave before I was completely put off The Dairy as a watering hole, and for that matter put off churros for life. The meal, along with a ginger beer and a very pleasant pint of Eisbar, a “Vienna style lager” by XT, came to just shy of twenty-two pounds. Service at the hatch had been pretty perfunctory, but the bar staff had been lovely and friendly (and one of them was very apologetic about it being her first shift). The whole thing seemed to reinforce my overall view, namely that The Dairy was a great place for a quiet drink but that nobody should consider eating there.

As we left, I was torn between feeling a little queasy and really wanting to eat some chocolate, or at least something that didn’t taste of the chicken burger. In the end I thought better of it, but that burger sat uneasily with me for the rest of the evening.

“I suppose the obvious comparison is the Oakford” Zoë had said while we were waiting for our food, before anticipation transmuted into disappointment, and I think in many ways she is right. For cheap, cheerful burgers, at least – although having done some research since the burgers at the Oakford are a little more expensive, mainly because fries are extra (though I don’t think anybody in their right mind would pay extra for The Dairy’s fries). But really, I couldn’t think of a good comparison: where else would the food have been quite so underwhelming?

I don’t know whether The Dairy’s dishes do come from a Brakes lorry (from the section of the website marked “for students”, perhaps), and you could say that I should have known better than to expect great food from one of the university bars. All I can say is that I was taken in by the menu, but more to the point I wrongly thought that the pride The Dairy had put into its drinks offering would be matched by the food. So I do have a new favourite watering hole, along with a salutary lesson that even after over five years of doing this I remain more than capable of making the wrong call and picking a duffer. I still recommend going to The Dairy for a nice pint if you’re in the area (and the benches out the front might be lovely on a summer’s day). Just make sure you’ve eaten beforehand.

The Dairy – 4.6
Building L14, London Road Campus, Redlands Road, RG1 5AQ
0118 3782477

https://www.facebook.com/londonroadcampus/

The Queen’s Head

As of February 2019, the Queen’s Head is under new management with a different menu. I’ve left this review up for posterity.

This review is going to break a couple of golden rules. Let me explain, killing quite a lot of the magic in the process.

First of all, when you’re writing a review it always helps to have an angle, an “in”. So you look at the niche a restaurant fills, or find your reason to go there. Where’s the so what factor, you ask. They spent loads of money on doing up The Three Guineas, but is it any good? Is Franco Manca the kind of chain we want round these parts? Does Reading finally have a quality wine bar in the form of Veeno? What’s so special about Caversham? I could go on, but I won’t – certainly not about that latter one anyway (who knew that Caversham had its own equivalent of cybernats? Not me, that’s for sure). You get the idea.

No such joy with the Queen’s Head, the subject of this week’s review. It’s been there for yonks. It’s a pub that does food. It’s been the twin of the Moderation (which I reviewed pretty much four years ago) for a long time. No angle to speak of. I did briefly consider working in a tired link to the newly announced royal wedding; after all, there are pictures of Liz and Phil around the place, on some of the flyers and, most incongruously, on the doors to the loos. But it felt tenuous at best – almost as tenuous as GetReading proudly announcing “Prince Harry and Meghan Markle to marry in Berkshire.” (well, yes – in Windsor, nowhere near that lot). Still, I suppose it makes a pleasant change from promoting Aldi’s new festive jeroboam of Lambrini for under a tenner or whatever quasi-advertorial guff is clogging up the Sidebar of Silage this week.

As it happens, I used to drink at the Queen’s Head long before its current incarnation, back at the very start of the millennium. I lived in a shared house on Stanhope Road (the nice end, not the end with a police helicopter permanently stationed above it) with my then partner and my housemate Richard. Richard frequently had very loud intercourse in the room next door, or played FIFA on his Playstation (the grunts, in both scenarios, were disturbingly difficult to tell apart). To escape – from all of it, truth be told – I would slope off to the Queen’s Head with a schoolfriend, drink cider and try to fool myself that I was still a carefree student, despite those days being far behind me.

Back then it was generally called The Nob and there was a big back bar full of students and a smaller front bar full of old duffers. Despite being somewhere between the two I tended to gravitate to the former, which is especially ironic given how much my taste in pubs has changed. Going back years later on a weekday night the place was unrecognisable – the two rooms had been knocked together, opening the place out. A big welcoming bar spanned the two. I preferred the room to the right, all exposed brickwork, but it was full so I sat in the smaller, white-walled room to the left, which used to be the front bar. I was where I belonged with the old duffers at last, albeit fifteen years too late.

Incidentally, this is where I point out that I’ve broken the second of the golden rules I mentioned at the start. I always used to get exasperated by Proper Restaurant Critics like AA Gill and Giles Coren who spent the first half of a review wanging on about things that had nothing to do with the food. You could pinpoint where in a Gill review the food first came up, usually around the third to last paragraph if you were lucky. Coren routinely humblebrags about going off to lunch with David Baddiel or the editor of Esquire, or rants about something for half of his word count before getting to the point. But now I think maybe I understand: maybe when you review somewhere every week you do eventually reach the stage where you think to yourself: Oh Christ, what am I going to say about this one?, and then you’re in some kind of meta Twilight Zone of restaurant reviews.

Anyway, that’s enough of that, back to the room. I seem to recall it looked more Thai shortly after it opened, with big carved wooden bar stools and various pieces available to buy. It’s definitely scaled back now, and the tables are predominantly big anonymous looking square wooden things. There’s still some Thai art on the walls, but otherwise you could pretty much imagine that you’re in a pub. And it felt more like a pub that did food than a restaurant disguised as a pub. I liked that. I was there with my friend Izzy, fresh from her holiday in New York. No angle there, either: we partly picked the Queen’s Head because it was easy for both of us to get to. Even as I looked through the menu, sipped a crisp pint of Pravha and waited for her to arrive, I sensed that this week’s review might prove a challenge.

The menu is a mixture of South East Asian and traditional pub food, and is almost identical to that of the Moderation (I had a look online later: the Mod’s menu is slightly bigger, but only slightly). This might be the rising price of food, or the looming Brexit, but everything was a little more expensive than when I’d been to the Mod last: nasi goreng, for instance, which used to be a banker of a main course for less than a tenner was now eleven pounds fifty. It being a Tuesday, the Queen’s Head also did a selection of curries each for six pounds which struck me as a bargain, but in the interests of ordering dishes you could definitely try when you visit we decided to forego the obvious bargains and stick to the normal menu.

I have a bad habit of ordering some kind of assortment of starters at this kind of place so to buck the trend I ordered the Indonesian chicken satay, having been informed on Twitter that it was the best of its kind in Reading. It looked good and from the moment the first meat came off the skewer I knew it would be close to that billing. The chicken was so tender that I couldn’t figure out whether it was thigh or well-marinaded breast, and four skewers didn’t feel ungenerous. It had a heat which made its presence felt by the end, but only at the end: nicely done. But I did find myself wondering where the satay was. It was served under the chicken rather than on the side, but I was surprised by how little of it was. There were also dark squiggles of something salty, savoury, almost chocolatey.

“It’s nice,” said Izzy after tackling the skewer I’d popped on her plate, “But I wouldn’t say it’s the best satay I’ve had in Reading.”

I thought briefly about the sadly-departed Tampopo and ate my acar awak (Indonesian pickles, apparently). They tasted mostly of nothing.

I lucked out compared to Izzy who chose the prawn tempura. On the menu this sounded fantastic, with mee grob (crispy noodles, according to Google), fried garlic and sweet chilli sauce. Now, this may be a bit pedantic but batter and breadcrumbs are not the same thing and what arrived were straight prawns served in panko breadcrumbs, not a light and crispy batter. They were served on something that might have been mee grob but which was for decoration, not consumption. I didn’t spot, or smell, any fried garlic and the sweet chilli sauce could easily have come from a bottle. Christmas might have been on the way, but this felt distinctly like supermarket party food. Izzy liked it, I struggled with the way it had been missold: I can’t believe it’s not batter, you could say.

The mains came soon after, as Izzy was halfway through making me feel pangs about New York, a city I’ve never visited (I made a few remarks about wanting to feel like I was in a Woody Allen movie, which got the kind of eye rolling they deserved). Izzy had wanted to order the beef and ale pie, and I’d very much wanted to see what it was like, but it wasn’t on the menu the night we went. Instead she’d gone for chicken with wild mushroom cream sauce although, no doubt in a tribute to Meg Ryan in Katz’s Delicatessen, she’d asked for it with mash instead of crushed new potatoes (and, before you ask, no – she didn’t do that impression).

It was a partial success. The chicken was nice, seemingly beaten flat, although I wanted it to be bigger and with a crispy skin. It was dwarfed by the big pile of perfectly acceptable mash under it, and I think it probably would have worked better with crushed potatoes, although that was Izzy’s responsibility rather than the kitchen’s. The sauce was nice, and the mushrooms may even had been wild, although I didn’t get to try enough of them to figure that out. There was some wilted spinach underneath it, although it really could have done with more veg to put paid to the rest of the sauce. The really bizarre thing about the presentation was the square of balsamic vinegar (and a visible green trace of olive oil) drawn around the whole thing. It didn’t make it look good, and it just made the bits at the edges taste weird. All in all, although it was far from unpleasant, my main reaction to it was to be glad that I’d ordered something else.

I’d ordered the nasi goreng because the Moderation’s version has always been one of the great Reading dishes and I wanted to see if it was as good as I remembered. Well, more fool me: this is 2017, and nothing is as good as we remember any more. But it was still rather nice – a huge pile of spiced rice strewn with firm prawns, strands of chicken and green beans, topped with a nicely cooked fried egg. Some ultimately superfluous prawn crackers, more of those pickles and a naked chicken skewer – without any satay, contrary to the menu – rounded out the dish. I liked it but didn’t love it and weirdest of all, it felt too big (something you’ll rarely hear me say about a main course). By the end of wading through it, it was going cold and not quite as appealing. I think I wanted a little less of it, costing a little less and tasting of a little more, possibly without some of the whistles and bells.

We didn’t have dessert, partly because the selection was narrow and not that tempting – chocolate brownie, Eton mess, sticky toffee pudding. But also, they missed their window in the half an hour or so between us finishing our main courses, them taking the plates away, bringing the dessert menus and remembering to ask us if we wanted anything. Service was a bit like that in general: pleasant but wayward. I wasn’t sure whether you ordered at the table or at the bar, and based on the way we were looked after I’m not sure I was the only one. Still, I had a lovely evening, even if it made me want to go to NYC far more than it did to revisit the Queen’s Head. Dinner for two – two courses each, two pints of Pravha, a diet Coke and a Hendricks and tonic – came to fifty-three pounds, not including service.

The problem with not having an “in” in a review is that, correspondingly, you also struggle with an “out”. The Queen’s Head is a nice pub in a lovely area and it does perfectly pleasant food. It didn’t rock my world or blow my mind, and I’m not sure it’s worth a trek across town (it’s certainly not if you live close to the Moderation). If I lived nearby it would be a welcome added bonus, and I’d probably enjoy a summer beer in the garden, or their quiz night. But in the list of great things about that part of Reading, eating at the Queen’s Head would finish below “living close to Progress Theatre”, “being able to walk around the lake on campus on a sunny day” and, of course, “living on New Road” (I wish!). Not a bad nasi goreng, but not that great a review. In more ways than one.

The Queen’s Head – 6.7
54 Christchurch Road, RG2 7AZ
0118 9863040

http://www.readingpubcompany.com/home.html