The Three Guineas

You weren’t meant to be getting a review of The Three Guineas this week. My companion for this week’s review was my friend Izzy, a veritable girl around town who I’ve known for yonks, and when I gave her a free choice of all the establishments on my to do list she went – rather to my surprise, to be honest – for the Crown On The Bridge, the pub on the edge of Caversham which has recently relaunched with a menu largely revolving around hot dogs and bangers and mash.

Despite this being a quixotic choice in the middle of a summer as hot as balls, I was happy with it. I figured I could meet up with Izzy, hear stories of her latest exploits on Tinder or Bumble (although based on her recent experiences I think she may have accidentally merged them into a single app called Tumble populated exclusively by a freakish parade of emotionally stunted men) and work in a few jokes about Izzy going on a sausage hunt. Really, it was too perfect: she could be Carrie Bradshaw, we’d have a good old gas and I’d get a review into the bargain (I’ll leave you to guess whether I’m more like Miranda, Samantha or indeed Stanford Blatch).

The day before the review, disaster struck: Izzy had had a good week at Weight Watchers and unlike most people, who would fall on a plate of sausages like a hungry beast to celebrate, this meant she wanted to be Sensible. Could we go to The Three Guineas instead, she asked? It has a very tempting looking poached salmon and vegetable dish. Leaving out the fact that, in my book at least, there’s no such thing, I agreed immediately. Are you pissed off with me? she asked. Of course not I replied, mildly pissed off. She knows me well enough to know I was fibbing.

When they first announced that The Three Guineas had protected status as part of the project to build the new station I was surprised. I’d always thought of it as a pretty skanky pub – with a handsome exterior, admittedly, but still not one deserving special treatment. I turned up on a warm day to review it and there were people at most of the tables outside soaking up the sunshine and drinking something fizzy and yellow (so, in that respect at least, very much like its previous incarnation).

But going inside it was clear that the refurb had been done very nicely indeed – the pub was broken up into sections, each with a slightly different feel, but done in a way where nothing was jarring. I especially liked the upper area with a tiled floor and stools, reminiscent of a railway brasserie somewhere much more glamorous and continental, and the dining area with its fetching deep red button-backed booths. I installed myself there, because it seemed to be the main part of the pub which did table service.

To my relief when Izzy came in, resplendent in hipster glasses and a ironically retro Fleetwood Mac t-shirt, she announced that she had eaten very little all day and was keen to make up for lost calories. I was far too pleased by this to say anything petulant about sausages (although I can’t say it didn’t cross my mind) so I bit my tongue and we scoured the menu to try and figure out how to best attack it.

I must say, I found the menu a bit uninspired, especially the main courses. It had the name of the pub’s head chef on it, but I’m not really sure why because I didn’t see much there – fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, burger, curry – that showed any signs of identity, personality or distinctiveness. More interesting was the array of nibbles around the four pound mark, which I assumed were small plates slightly smaller than a conventional starter. That was my excuse for us ordering three of them to share, and I’m sticking to it.

Cauliflower pakora was probably the nicest of the nibbles we ordered – beautifully cooked florets, still with a little bite, and a light and crunchy batter. In a theme that was to continue all evening, however, it wasn’t quite what you’d expect it to be from the menu. Instead of many small florets these were big old buggers, and the “almond coronation mayonnaise” they came with was more like a curry dip. As so often with these things, there wasn’t quite enough of it. Less successful, although still very tasty, was the black pudding Scotch Egg. “Not as good as the Lyndhurst’s” was Izzy’s verdict and I had to agree – it wasn’t at all bad but it was decidedly subtle, especially where the black pudding was concerned (I found it almost undetectable). Most surreally, the “popcorn chicken” was nothing of the kind. I was expecting an upmarket take on KFC and what I got instead was tasty, coated and seasoned pieces of chicken but with absolutely nothing about them that would make you think “popcorn”. They came with a mayonnaise which was meant to have tarragon in it, but I think the tarragon had gone the way of the popcorn.

Lots of quibbles there, but oddly I really enjoyed all the small plates despite the missteps and false advertising. The worst thing about them, though, was how much they made me look forward to the main courses, because that turned out to be the biggest piece of false advertising of all.

My main course sounded amazing on paper: “braised West Country shoulder shepherd’s pie”. It stood out on the menu, begging to be ordered, and the least I could do was oblige. What turned up, though, went past mediocre to verge on insulting. The ratio of filling to topping in a dish is a debate people could have all day. It can be dish dependent, too: if you gave me a rhubarb crumble that wasn’t at least fifty per cent topping, I’d be most disappointed. But, whichever way you want to look at it, a shepherd’s pie which is eighty per cent mashed potato isn’t going to impress anybody in their right mind. Surely this isn’t just me?

I didn’t realise this at first, so I kept taking forkfuls of the mash hoping to hit lamby paydirt, but lamby paydirt never came. When I finally scraped the bottom, literally and metaphorically, it was a thin layer of lamb bulked out with diced carrots which tasted of very little. The spring greens which came on the side were sorry, thin, lukewarm things. Izzy’s menu said that this came with red wine gravy, my menu didn’t: the kitchen clearly had my menu rather than hers. The whole thing cost fourteen pounds and had me ruefully remembering the kind of food that money got you in the Lyndhurst. Instead I had mash, cold cabbage, a few cubes of carrot, some strands of lamb and the unshakeable feeling that they’d seen me coming. They do a better shepherd’s pie in M&S for a fiver. I found myself wishing I’d ordered the poached salmon, and that’s a profoundly sorry state of affairs.

Izzy, after all that, went for the sweet potato, chickpea and spinach curry. It came with flat dippable naans and was topped with a splodge of raita. I tried it and didn’t mind it but it was hard to get excited. It tasted of the sweetness of mango chutney more than the heat of spice, and although I quite enjoyed my mouthful I wouldn’t have wanted to wade through a whole portion of the stuff. Was it better than something you could pick up in a Wetherspoon’s? I doubted it, somehow. Izzy liked it though, at least up to the point where I leaned over conspiratorially and said to her “I’m never happier than when a chickpea’s in my mouth”. That got a grimace, and no doubt a mental note not to come out on duty with me again.

Drinks, by the way, were pretty bog standard and inoffensive. I’ve read a fair few people complaining about the price of pints in the Three Guineas, but they have to recoup their outlay somehow and I fear it’s not long before Reading crosses the Londonesque Rubicon of five pounds a pint and never looks back (in fact, apparently the Thirsty Bear has beaten everybody else to it). I had a perfectly pleasant pint and a half of Cornish Orchard (four pounds eighty-five a pint, in case that makes you wince) and Izzy had a Hendricks and tonic followed by a Diet Pepsi. She specifically asked for cucumber in her G&T and when it arrived the cucumber was a few wispy strands which had presumably gone through a spiralizer. The overall effect was more like algae: truly random stuff.

Service for the first half of our meal was from a young chap who seemed genuinely terrified every time he approached our table. I don’t know if it was his first day, or if he was worried about dropping something – an understandable concern based on how he tried to clear our starter plates away. Maybe he was just struggling to look Izzy in the eye: I’m told some gents find this on the difficult side. For the second half of the meal though our waitress was fantastic – likeable, enthusiastic and engaging, a proper people person (“it’s so nice to look after dining customers”, she told us, “because otherwise I just end up going from table to table picking up empty glasses”). She managed to talk us into ordering dessert too, although this gave The Three Guineas another opportunity to prove that the only consistent thing about them was their inconsistency.

Izzy ordered the chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream. Now, I have a problem with this because I’ve always thought it’s a cake rather than a dessert. It might be that the kitchen at the Three Guineas agrees with me, because what turned up couldn’t really be described as a cake. It lacked the essential – to me, anyway – characteristic of having been – what’s the word? – baked. Instead what turned up was a vaguely rectangular wobbling slab of cake mix. If they’d tried harder it would have been a brownie, but then if I’d tried harder I wouldn’t have got a C in GCSE drama; you’ve got to stop making excuses eventually. “It’s very nice”, said Izzy, “but it’s just goo”.

My ice cream was three scoops, but the one on top was significantly smaller than the other two, like they’d given up partway through: if I’d taken the same approach as the kitchen, this review would abruptly stop here. Again, it’s a real pity because the ice cream was fantastic. It’s from Laverstoke Park Farm and had all the rich silkiness I associate with them – based, admittedly, on many a happy afternoon spent devouring their buffalo mozzarella. I loved the chocolate (what there was of it), I adored the salted caramel and I admired more than enjoyed the orange chocolate chip. But overall the ice cream was even nicer, I would say, than Tutti Frutti – especially in terms of texture. Even then, it rankled that the portion control was so haphazard and, even more oddly, when the bill arrived they’d decided to charge separately for each scoop, making it more expensive. The whole meal came to £64, not including tip.

As Izzy and I strolled across Forbury Gardens, heading to the Retreat for a post-meal debrief, we chatted about the meal.

“What rating will you give it?”

“I don’t know yet, I’ll think about it. The only real rule with ER ratings is that if it’s less than 6.5 I’d be unlikely to go back.”

“So is this right on the edge?”

“Yes, probably.”

Probably is about right, I think. I could see myself stopping there with friends for drinks, or popping in off the train and just wolfing down some of those small dishes. But I keep coming back to the mistakes, and god knows there were plenty. A shepherd’s pie which could almost have been made without the involvement of a single shepherd. A brownie which had never seen an oven. Cucumber like algae. Popcorn chicken which gave no clue as to how it got the name. I’m tempted to be generous to the Three Guineas because they’ve breathed life into a lovely old building, the interior looks great, and the service at the end was as good as any I’ve had in far more illustrious places.

But then I think about the money sunk into the place, and the prime location they have and I think that the food, overall, was just lazy. I keep coming back to places like The Lyndhurst, which get this stuff right and put proper thought into their food. And The Lyndhurst is flourishing despite not having the luxury of a captive, transient and (let’s be honest) possibly inebriated clientele to rely on. Why would I go to The Three Guineas when I can go there? So all in all I can’t recommend The Three Guineas, and that’s a real shame. Unless and until they sort out their food, they’re going to be wasting one of their best assets clearing glasses from tables, and Reading will – in some respects at least – waste one of its most attractive buildings.

The Three Guineas – 6.5
Station Approach, Reading, RG1 1LY
0118 9572743

http://www.three-guineas.co.uk/

The Lyndhurst

As of 24th June 2019, the Lyndhurst’s management have left the pub and the chef has moved on to another establishment. I’ve left this review up for posterity, but the new owners are reviewed here (and their takeaway offering as of early 2021 is reviewed here).

I reckon everyone has their favourite part of Reading. Some people are firm Caversham fans, north of the river and delighted to be near to Nomad and close to a Waitrose (and who can blame them?). Others have a soft spot for the Tilehurst Road, or the Bath Road – I’ve often walked past Florida Court on the latter and wondered what it might be like to live there. Some are on Team Newtown or Team Oxford Road, defiantly proud of the bustle and scruff of those areas; one of my best friends moved up North and still sends me messages telling me how much she misses the Oxford Road and its many characters.

And of course, everyone has a part of Reading they daydream about living in but know they probably never will. Gorgeous roads up by the university like New Road or The Mount, for instance. The impressive sweep of School Terrace down by the canal, for me, is another. Or Eldon Square! Imagine living on Eldon Square, in one of those gorgeous big houses that hasn’t been turned into flats. You could turn a room into a library, have dinner parties around a big table (I’d have to make a lot more friends, but that’s beside the point). There’s one house, near the bottom of Kendrick Road, with a little drive and a tiny roundabout and its own lamp post like something out of Narnia: in another life, I quite fancy settling there.

Of course, this is just based on walking past those areas, seeing the glow in the windows in the evening or snooping on them during artists’ open house events. For all I know those houses are dingy, tiny and draughty, with damp in the basements and condensation on the single glazed windows every morning. I tell myself that to cheer myself up when I realise that isn’t going to be my life: those places are probably rubbish anyway, right? Maybe the people in the Lower Earley Mafia or the Tilehurst Massive have the right idea.

One of my favourite parts has always been the bit informally known as “The Village”, the area around Eldon Square and Watlington Street, bounded by London Road on one end and Queens Road and Kings Road on the other. Lovely redbrick terraced houses and little side streets rub shoulders with splendid boozers like the Retreat – we don’t have time enough to talk about how much I love that place – and the Eldon Arms, although I think that’s currently awaiting new management. There’s the gorgeous Polish Church, and the upholsterer on the corner of St John’s Road which never seems to do any business.

On the edge of the Village is The Lyndhurst, a pub which has always threatened greatness without quite getting there (I’m sure many of us can identify with that). It used to be owned by the same people as the Moderation and was a nice, if amateurish, place to go for dinner: my friends still rave about the rolled pork dish they used to do. Then it was cut adrift for a while before being taken on by a chap called Heath Thomas. He installed a chef from LSB and things looked promising, but a year later the chef had moved on and then Thomas closed the pub, claiming that Enterprise had hiked the prices to the extent that it was no longer viable (a pubco, acting like a pantomime villain? Surely not).

Anyway, the pub reopened late last year and something quite remarkable happened: they started putting pictures of their dishes on Twitter and they looked, well, beautiful. Not just tasty, but genuinely beautiful. I’ve stopped by many times since and although the interior – an unfussy L-shaped room with the same old tables, chairs and pews – was the same, it felt like a sea change was under way. The menu was never the same two times running. There was a cocktail menu, and they started showing films on a Sunday night. The gastropub, ironically, is the one tired London fashion which has never even attempted to take root in Reading: now the idea has jumped the shark have we managed to get one by accident? I wanted to know for sure, and I couldn’t think of a better place for my first review in almost a year.

Here’s a trade secret for you – in my previous spell reviewing restaurants, I invariably had the same dining companion. It helps: you trust somebody’s judgment, you bounce ideas off them, you can scrounge lots of their food if you ask nicely. Following a parting of the ways I found myself looking for new dining companions and I couldn’t think of a better way to kick off ER v2.0 than to take my mum out for dinner. So there was something familiar yet unfamiliar about sitting opposite her as she scanned the pub, sipped her gin and scrutinised the menu (“this chair is a bit low, isn’t it?” she said as she plonked herself on one of the pew-style seats by the window).

It’s a clever menu, I think: a small but tempting range of starters hover around the seven pound mark and very few of the mains are north of fourteen pounds. There were a couple of vegetarian or vegan options in each section, and not a mushroom risotto in sight. The mains in particular offered lots of opportunities to compromise, with more conventional steak, burgers and fish and chips mixed in with cheffier things. A smaller specials menu, under the bulldog clip, had another three options and I wouldn’t have put money on them being there the next day. The slogan said “It’s the little things we do” and I liked that: successful restaurants are about details, not big grand sweeping statements.

The last time I went to the Lyndhurst, under their previous management, I started with “posh mushrooms on toast”, which was some very nice mushrooms on what seemed to be a rectangle of Mighty White. The mushrooms might have been Caversham Heights, but the toast was the Dee Road estate. My mother ordered the equivalent dish as a starter and it couldn’t have looked or tasted more different: lovely chestnut mushrooms, firm not slimy, in a beautifully rich and garlicky cream sauce, the whole thing festooned with pretty micro shoots. I loved it, my mum liked it. I liked the way the sauce soaked into the soda bread, leaving you with soggy, savoury spongey bread at the end. My mum wanted something better able to cope with the juices. I thought it was a little on the small side, my mum thought it was just right. You’ll look at the picture, I imagine, and make up your own mind (it was taken by my mum and is therefore much better than mine – she’s a member of the Royal Photographic Society, don’t you know).

I couldn’t not have the Scotch egg, which was mainly for gluttony but which I kidded myself was for scientific purposes. This has changed a few times since I’ve been going: it started out being a normal sausagemeat Scotch egg (which I loved), and then they pimped it up to be (I think) a duck egg wrapped in duck meat, served with a brown sauce which, as I recall, had a genius hint of hoi sin in there. As long as you could overlook the slightly disturbing connotations of eating two generations of duck in the same dish – the ultimate mother/daughter combo, I suppose – it was a lovely dish. But the menu now is strangely non-specific (it comes “wrapped in a choice of meat”, whatever that is) and what turned out felt a little generic. I liked it, but I didn’t love it as much as any of its previous incarnations. Also, it wasn’t completely cooked through so not all of the white was set: I had to scrape some of it off and it sat there on the board like wobbly snot. The pea shoots, never my favourite salad garnish, weren’t dressed but I was sure they had been on previous visits. It’s the little things, perhaps.

So, not a home run on the starters but the kitchen really hit its stride when the mains turned up. I’d asked at the bar for recommendations and as a result I’d chosen the Cajun pork belly, not something I’d normally pick in a pub. What turned up looked fantastic and tasted even better. The pork, rubbed with spice, was dense and tender without being dry. What was described as “apple mash” was potato mash with clever hints of apple and vanilla, sweet but not cloying. The straw of crackling on top was done just right (the last one I tried in a pub had the texture of a dog chew). There was also a single crisp leaf of what I imagine was deep fried kale. The cleverest thing was a “pit bean croquette”, almost an arancino full of barbecue beans – and of course there was a sticky jus to bring it all together. I hate using wanky words like “processes” (so Masterchef) so let’s just say there was a lot going on, especially for thirteen pounds fifty. I’d have gone back and eaten it again the next day if I could.

My mother went for the main course I’d normally gravitate to – pan roasted chicken breast with gnocchi and pesto. Again the presentation was gorgeous, with the chicken sitting on top of a verdant green heap of gnocchi and strewn with yet more red micro shoots. And again, opinion was divided. My mum had nothing but faint praise for this one – there wasn’t enough pesto, what pesto there was was too much oil and not enough herbs, salt and parmesan. She reached for the salt grinder and seasoned the dish twice (“and I never use salt at home”, she told me – if you think I’m a harsh critic, perhaps this is where it comes from).

Personally, I liked it. I found the doughy gnocchi and the pesto delightful, thought the chicken was nicely done. I thought it was subtle rather than bland, though I appreciate that that can be a fine line. My one criticism (and it might have been because the chicken was roasted rather than fried) was that I would have liked the chicken skin brittle and studded with salt rather than ever so slightly flaccid – when it’s done well, chicken skin can be the very best thing about a dish like this.

We skipped dessert. It’s a compact dessert menu and, although I know the presentation is stunning, having seen the photos I still couldn’t bring myself to get excited about chocolate brownie – I’m afraid I subscribe to the “that’s a cake not a dessert” school of thought – or Eton Mess. Oh, and I should mention the drinks. I had a pint of Camden Hells and my mum had a gin and tonic (Whitley Neill – I had to explain several times that it wasn’t made by a chap called Neil from Whitley, although what a gin that would be: I dread to think what botanicals he’d use). Both were splendid. The whole thing came to forty-seven pounds, not including tip. Before you ask, of course I paid for my mum. What do you take me for?

Service was quite lovely throughout, friendly and enthusiastic (I might have chosen for my dishes to come out slightly more slowly, but that might just be me and it must be tricky getting that balance right in a pub). It must be easier to do service well when you know that, fundamentally, you’re serving up really good food and everyone seemed really proud of what they’re building at the Lyndhurst. That’s been my experience of the place in general, as it happens, whether I’ve gone for dinner or just turned up with a friend for a couple of gins – and they know their gin behind the bar, believe me.

I really like the Lyndhurst; I expect that much is obvious from what you’ve just read. It’s not perfect, but enough of it is extremely good that I want to go back again to see how close to perfect they can get. It’s a pub which does excellent food without falling back on clichés or just churning out dreary dude food like everywhere else in Reading right now. So yes, it has craft beer and yes, it does a burger if you want one, but there’s lots about the place that makes it a much more interesting prospect and not just another dead-eyed exercise in bandwagon jumping. Heaven knows, Reading desperately needs that kind of establishment.

The night I went to the Lyndhurst, one of my friends was eating out in Paris at Le Chateaubriand, a restaurant which regularly makes lists of the 50 best restaurants in the world. I’ve been, and I didn’t like it, but I didn’t tell my friend that because I didn’t want to piss on her chips. But, true to form, her messages suggested that she too had been underwhelmed by the whole thing: iffy service, slow pacing and flavourless food. I sent her pictures of my scotch egg and my pork belly and the reply came back: Holy shit. I want to lick the screen. So there you go – the day I went to the Lyndhurst provoked food envy in somebody eating in one of the best restaurants in the world: Reading 1, Paris 0.

After dinner, I took my mum to the Retreat for a pint and a debrief. We ended up in random conversations with the other locals in the front room, which always happens there and which I always love. Brian the landlord was a resplendent shade of brown – three weeks in Turkey, if you believe it – and as twinkly as ever. He winked at my mother so often that I thought he might have something in his eye (he’s a roister-doister, that one). It was the perfect end to the evening – and, not for the first time lately, I remembered that this really is my favourite part of town.

The Lyndhurst – 7.7
88-90 Queens Road, RG1 4DG
0118 9503888

http://www.thelyndhurstreading.co.uk

The Little Angel, Henley

I was really sad when I heard the news a few weeks back that the Lyndhurst had closed down, another casualty in the ongoing battle between landlords and pubcos. One thing Reading still lacks is a decent range of town centre pubs that do good food. It’s not all terrible: we have the Moderation (although it’s hit and miss, and a bit out of town); the Nag’s Head (just for the pulled pork rolls really, but they’re dead good); and of course I Love Paella at The Horn, but I had high hopes that the Lyndhurst might be that place. Well, it turns it out it wasn’t. Even before it closed it never quite got there, it lost its chef and despite its shiny refurbishment the last couple of times I went I felt like it had stopped trying.

I daydream that one day Reading could get an establishment like Bristol’s brilliant Bank Tavern, a place that still looks like a well-worn boozer but does a small range of beautiful dishes. But days like today that seems a long way off, so this week I headed to Henley, home of the wonderful Three Tuns, to see if lightning really could strike twice in the same place.

The Little Angel is not to be confused with the more well-known Angel on the Bridge in the centre of town (the one with the tourists, plastic cups and a nerve shredding seating area suspended over the river). The Little Angel is just the other side of that bridge, where the road forks between Wargrave and Remenham, yards from the boat clubs and the areas where most of the Henley Regatta excitement happens (if you class that sort of thing as exciting).

The pub itself is an attractive white building with a large conservatory painted in a muted olive green. We originally decided to sit in the conservatory – it was a hot day, and the open doors were very welcome – but eventually decided to move because it was such an ugly room. Maybe at night, filled with people and with the Moroccan lanterns hanging from the ceiling it might have been a lovely place, but daylight didn’t improve it. Instead you saw the mismatched tables and chairs, the scruffy unattractive tablecloths and got a slight sense of decline. It wasn’t inviting.

Back in the main pub itself things were much nicer, although still rather empty, and we got to have a good look at the menu. It had just enough flashes of variation – turmeric, cardamom and cinnamon spiced rice, aromatic duck broth, harissa marinated chicken – to lift it from the usual pub fare of pork belly, burgers, sausage and mash. Annoyingly, in the couple of weeks since I visited the menu has now changed completely: frustrating to experience as a reviewer, but good to see as a diner (although really, you ought to change your menu more than once every five months if your website is going to talk about your love of seasonal food). There were, in the pub’s defence, a couple of specials up on the board.

Originally we were tempted to start with a sharing platter but neither of them quite grabbed us enough, because they seemed to be one or two nice things from the starters section with a lot of padding (houmous, baby chipolatas, the kind of stuff you find in the “picnic” section of Marks & Sparks).

Instead I went for one of the more interesting-sounding starters on the menu. Spiced squash and goat’s cheese samosa was nice if not wildly exciting: two small samosas which tasted mainly of goat’s cheese, possibly because squash is too delicate a flavour to compete with all that salt. The pastry was thin and crisp with the sort of fluffy cheesiness inside that you’d expect from hot goat’s cheese. I was really expecting this to be lifted by the accompanying curried cauliflower purée, served as an arty smear on the side. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Unfortunately it didn’t bring enough punch to be worth adding – not enough spice, not enough flavour, lacking the courage of its convictions. Toasted almond flakes, always a welcome addition, brought a bit of much needed texture but even so it was hard to feel enthusiastic about the whole thing.

LAParcels

The chicken and guinea fowl terrine was also a dish beset with problems. There’s a fine line between subtle and clean-tasting on the one hand and bland on the other. I’m still not entirely sure which side of it the terrine fell on – there was a bit of tarragon, which I loved, but overall it was still a bit dry and softly-spoken for me. Drier still because the advertised focaccia really wasn’t focaccia. None of that moist, cakelike feel, no drizzled oil, no lovely oozy toasted texture. It was just bread. The last possible salvation, the balsamic fruit chutney, wasn’t really chutney. It was a small ramekin almost exclusively full of raisins (which I personally don’t like).

Also, I don’t normally complain about how dishes are served – slates, boards, they’re all fine with me – but I do like to have enough space to actually eat the blasted thing. No such joy here – all of it was crammed on to a small board as if it had been forced to walk the plank, and it was difficult to press your dry terrine on to your dry toast before sprinkling it with dry raisins without getting some overboard. If that doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, it’s because it wasn’t.

LATerrine

I’ve been to many restaurants where the starters were amazing, my hopes got raised and then a mediocre main turned up. That’s the nature of starters, it’s easier for them to leave you wanting more. But I’ve rarely experienced it the other way round, where an iffy starter gives way to an outstanding main, so by this stage it felt like our hopes had been way too high. We got as far as checking the train timetable to make sure we wouldn’t be caught in Henley for too long and planned a quick exit ready to be back in Reading for a digestif (well, pint) in the Allied before last orders. It felt like the Little Angel was going to be another lacklustre out of town pub no one would bother to go to, a review no one would want to read.

Then something remarkable happened: our mains arrived.

Harissa chicken was an interesting alternative to piri piri chicken, a supreme of chicken, juicy and yielding, the skin crisp but not overly so and the coating tasty but not fiery. A deceptively simple, nice thing. It came with chorizo dauphinoise, a new one on me and a salutary lesson in how to do something useful and tasty with the thin slices of catering chorizo that can so often feel like a let down. Here, discs of it were slipped between the layers of the dauphinoise, releasing their brick-red juices and adding an extra dimension. The potatoes were still a little dry (maybe the whole thing needed a tad more cream) but I liked it. Shredded mange tout, sitting underneath the whole affair, were really lovely – barely cooked, lots of crunch and sweetness and coated in something like chilli oil to add some heat (a side dish, of more mange tout with beans, shallot and chilli, was very similar). Not a hugely sophisticated dish, and possibly something you could recreate easily at home, but well thought out and well balanced.

LAChicken

The other dish was the find of the whole meal, and nothing like what I expected from the menu. “Braised, shredded lamb and rosemary parcel” was the description, and if that wasn’t entirely accurate I have some sympathy because I too find this dish incredibly hard to describe. Parcel suggests it’s wrapped in something (generally pastry, I suppose), but what I got instead was a big dome of shredded lamb (shoulder, I’d guess), rosemary, potatoes and vegetables, bounded by itself. What was it? I still don’t know. Not quite a faggot, not quite a steamed pudding, not quite a meatball, not quite like anything I’ve ever eaten. What it was, though, was delicious. Huge, hearty, tasty and utterly bewildering. It came with a lovely, rich, sticky jus, a sweet smudge of puréed carrot and plenty of heritage carrots – thick, perfectly cooked, a riot of orange and purple to stop the dish being relentlessly brown. I’m sometimes critical of websites like Alt Reading for reviewing plays you can no longer see, so I feel a bit bad about enthusing about this dish: again I find myself cursing the Little Angel for changing their menu so recently, because I wish some of you could have tried this.

LALamb

So, iffy starters, terrific mains… and the desserts? Well, I’m afraid we’ll never know: I chickened out. I almost wanted to retain that element of suspense, and I couldn’t quite bear the idea that the lamb parcel might turn out to have been a gorgeous fluke. A shame in some ways, as again the desserts looked more interesting than run of the mill; I was especially pleased to see no chocolate brownie on there, always such a lazy choice for kitchens (although guess what? They’ve since added one on the new menu). So we settled up – dinner for two, two courses and a glass of wine each was fifty-three pounds, excluding tip. The wines in question were a Chilean chardonnay – perfect for the sunny evening; cold, crisp and easy to drink – and a cherry-packed Malbec. Service was respectable, with a very chatty, friendly bar manager and a slightly shy waitress actually doing the fetching and carrying.

If the Little Angel was in Reading, it would be a lovely place to go on a weekday evening or a Friday night. Reasonably priced (starters around the seven pound mark, mains for thirteen), comfy, a menu showing signs of imagination. Forming a relationship with a regular restaurant is like a friendship – the first impression is good, you enjoy that first meeting, you want to know more and then eventually you’re prepared to overlook an off night. And I can see that if the Little Angel was nearby that could definitely happen: yes, the starters were a little disappointing, but inconsistency isn’t the worst thing to level at a kitchen when it’s also capable of moments of magic like that lamb parcel. Even out of town, I can see that it would be worth a trip if you’re out that way (and you like the look of their new menu, of course). Most of all, this makes me sad that Reading doesn’t have that kind of place quite yet: casual dining is still too much a market cornered by the chains. So next time I have a weekday evening free, off duty, and I want to eat out you’ll probably find me at The Horn. Eating paella. Doing my bit.

The Little Angel – 7.0
Remenham Lane, Henley-on-Thames, RG9 2LS
01491 411008

http://www.thelittleangel.co.uk/

The Flowing Spring, Playhatch

I’ve noticed The Flowing Spring many times on my travels, but always when I’ve been going somewhere else, usually Henley. It’s on a stretch of road just past Playhatch, in an oddly solitary location as the road slopes up towards Shiplake. I’ve always been struck me by the sign on the side of the pub, underneath the name, saying Fresh, home-made food including gluten-free, dairy-free and vegetarian, a big block of white with an incongruous, regular font as if it’s been cut out of a Word document, enlarged and stuck on to the building with Blu-Tac.

Well, having done my homework this week I took the next right, pulled into the car park and went inside instead. Why? Well, it turns out that The Flowing Spring is an interesting beast; that sign on the side is a pretty modest summary, but The Flowing Spring takes catering to all kinds of diets very seriously indeed. Apart from all sorts of plaudits for the beer – CAMRA awards, Cask Marques, I’m sure this stuff means more to most of you than it does to me – they were also given an award by PETA last year for being one of the top ten vegan-friendly pubs in the whole of the UK (and yes, if you were a cynic you might find yourself wondering how big a field there was). I haven’t forgotten my resolution to try and eat meat-free mains once a month, and I figured I wouldn’t get a better opportunity to put it to the test.

Charmingly ramshackle doesn’t even begin to do the Flowing Spring justice, an experience that begins when you pull into the car park and realise that it’s at a completely different level to the front of the pub on the main road. The split-level feeling of climbing the stairs to go in is continued by the slightly haphazard nature of the interior. Their website proudly boasts that the whole pub is on a slant, and indeed nothing feels quite like a straight line. There’s a main dining room upstairs, then a sort of L-shaped section downstairs which is more like a traditional pub, open fires and all, and then an area called the “Quirky Corner” into which I did not venture except on my way to the loos (I wasn’t sure I’d be quirky enough).

Initially they sat us in the dining room, all big square tables and handsome conventional furniture, the laminated walls full of copies of the pub’s newsletter and a chalkboard section with enthusiastic quotes on it (“better than the London Street Brasserie” said one, which made me smile). The woman behind the bar also warned us that only one table was unbooked and that there would be a cribbage match going on up there. And I would have stayed up there, but it was absolutely Baltic and I soon realised that cribbage geeks, in their amiable, peg-pushing way, can produce just as many decibels as a crowd watching a much less interesting leisure pursuit with balls and goals. So we moved down to the bar room and had a slightly more laid-back evening – still Baltic, mind, although I did notice that one of the open fires hadn’t been lit.

The menu, like the pub, looks like a big old mess at first. It’s only when I stepped back and had a proper look that I appreciated just how much thought had gone into it. Three of the five starters are not only vegetarian but vegan. They offer two different vegetarian burgers, one of which is vegan, and about half of the mains are either vegetarian or vegan – without a sodding risotto in sight, I might add. Huge sections of the menu can be offered gluten-free, and the menu also assiduously lists potential allergens (I never realised, for instance, that Marmite contains a small amount of gluten: I’ve never felt more sympathy for my friends who have a gluten-free existence). All promising, but I’ve lost count of the number of times a good menu got lost in translation from the kitchen to my table, so I sipped a pint of Aspall’s and listened to the hubbub of the cribbage match getting animated as I waited for the starters to arrive.

Smoked mushrooms in cider batter sounded so perfect that I really wanted to try it. And when it arrived it got so close to really good that I was almost prepared to overlook the flaws. The mushrooms were so smoky that I could nearly forget how small they were, the cider batter so crunchy that I only just remembered that they maybe could have done with being served hotter. The sweet chilli sauce was so thick and tangy that it took my mind off the incongruous bowl of dried coconut flakes on the side which didn’t go, or the undressed salad which was mainly iceberg lettuce. For seven pounds I think I expected slightly more, but on the other hand I was in a lovely pub trying smoked mushrooms, and that doesn’t happen very often.

FlowingMushrooms

My indecision wasn’t helped by the Thai fishcake. It was itself an indecisive thing, with a touch of Thailand but also the powerful influence of Captain Birdseye, a single giant breadcrumbed puck cut in half and served with more of the sweet chilli sauce and more undressed salad (this one with capers and roasted spiced corn, itself an incongruous mix). But here’s the surprise – despite all that it was delicious. It was nicely crumbed, full of fish rather than reliant on claggy spud with a lovely texture. I shared it with my companion, who isn’t a fan of the sponginess of most Thai fishcakes, and we agreed between us that The Flowing Spring had pulled off a rather surprising triumph of fusion cuisine. I even liked the little ribbons of crispy seaweed, also very nice dipped in the chilli sauce, even if they felt like they were on the run from another dish (or possibly even another restaurant).

FlowingFishcake

I watched dishes turning up at other tables – veggie burgers with a big heap of orangey sweet potato fries on the side, home-made chilli served in, of all things, a Yorkshire pudding – and I found myself oddly charmed by the whole experience, if still not quite quirky enough to explore the Quirky Corner. Mains had been ordered at the recommendation of the woman behind the bar. “You want me to narrow it down to two?” she had said, smiling but perplexed, as if I had asked her to solve one of the riddles on “3-2-1” (a show, in fairness, she was far too young to remember). In the end she suggested the “famous” Flowing Spring Kebab – the menu’s words, not mine – and a veggie burger and we went for those. Again, I was impressed that a pub so determined to court vegetarian diners was also prepared to offer a dish to potentially appease their meat-eating companions.

I was warned that the kebab would be big and it certainly was. The menu claimed that it was the Flowing Spring’s take on a doner kebab, which if anything undersold it because instead it was more like a gigantic roast lamb sandwich. So you got lots of thick slices of lamb, none of them pink but none of them the worse for that, sitting on top of some salad in a huge pitta. I loved the lamb – again, I possibly could have stood it being a tad hotter, but it was so good that I didn’t mind, another example of The Flowing Spring charming me into relaxing my critical faculties somewhat. I spent much of the dish wondering if the lamb was better dipped into the fresh, minty raita or the chilli sauce, a thick gloopy jammy pool of redness that looked like it would be sweet but then delivered an acrid, sinus-clearing punch. I also couldn’t decide whether to team it with a pickled chilli, a slice of crinkle-cut gherkin, some salad (which also contained little pieces of diced gherkin, creditable attention to detail) or a torn piece of pitta. Deciding how I liked the dish the best took me very nicely from the first mouthful to the last, by which point I had decided that I rather loved it all.

FlowingLamb

Photography isn’t my strong point at the best of times, but my veggie burger was far more interesting than it looked. The patty was butternut squash, goats cheese and beetroot and had a lot going on compared to the usual “bean burger” veggie alternative. Beetroot and goat’s cheese, that earthy combination of sweet and salt, is a well-worn combo but putting it in a burger, with the squash as a sort of base note that held it all together, was a surprisingly inspired move. It was crumbed and oaty on the outside which gave it a bit of texture, and that worked with the floury bap (no faddy brioche here) and a small smattering of salad. For a nice, simple burger it was spot on – nothing out of this world but a good, tasty veggie main. Even the chips were an excellent example of pub chips – regular shaped (which made me assume they were out of the freezer, though I could be wrong) but crispy on the outside, fluffy in the middle and, unlike so often, they actually tasted of potato. They almost made up for the fact that the nice looking sweet potato fries I’d seen at other tables had run out. Almost. The only other slight downside was the price: just under twelve pounds (the same as the kebab) felt a little on the steep side, but perhaps you’re paying a premium to have all that choice.

FlowingBurger

Dinner for two – two courses each, a pint and a half of cider and a couple of soft drinks – came to fifty pounds not including tip. The service was lovely throughout, from the woman behind the bar who took our orders and recommended dishes to the landlord, who brought out our dishes and seemed to genuinely care whether we liked them. And that was the kind of place The Flowing Spring was, because although it was the first time I had ever been I rather felt that everybody else there had been in on the secret for some time.

By the end of the meal we’d moved tables to be nearer to the fire and you could see all sorts of photos up on the walls of events and gigs, be it jazz concerts, outdoor carnivals or classic car events. And I was struck by how remarkable it was that a pub seemingly in the middle of nowhere could have such a community feel. A little piece of folded card on my table went into more detail about where The Flowing Spring gets its ingredients from, and it was another example of the kind of touches that make you trust a place: meat from a family butcher in Devon, eggs (also for sale behind the bar) from just down the road, mushrooms foraged in the autumn. The Flowing Spring really needed to work on its heating, but I still had a warm glow from somewhere. Maybe it was the fire, maybe my slightly jaded heart thawing. Who can say? As we left, having paid up, we talked to one of the cribbage players, an amiable twinkly cardsharp who was at the bar getting another drink.

“We didn’t drive you into the other room, did we?” he said.

“No, not at all. It was just getting a bit hectic up there.”

“You should give it a try some time! We play every fortnight and we’re always looking for new recruits.”

I might have to learn cribbage, you know. Just in case.

The Flowing Spring – 7.3

Henley Road, Playhatch, RG4 9RB
0118 9699878

http://theflowingspringpub.co.uk/

Piwnica Pub

I’d put off visiting Piwnica Pub for something like six months and there were two reasons for this; the one I told myself and the real reason. In my mind, I’d decided that it was a winter restaurant. A cellar restaurant serving rib-sticking Polish cuisine, tucked away just off the London Road, felt like somewhere for the colder months when you can see your breath in the air and you want big platefuls of hot comfort food, dumplings and stews and all that jazz.

That was how I justified the delay, but perhaps more significantly I struggled to persuade anybody to go with me. Polish food, it turns out, doesn’t have a great reputation outside the Polish community, despite the amazing delicatessen on St Mary’s Butts full of interesting bread which also sells about five different kinds of herring (and, to me at least, that’s a good thing: I bloody love herring). One friend, who occasionally accompanies me on reviews, told me that he’d been to Piwnica already. He emphatically wasn’t a fan. “I ordered a starter, some kind of pork spread, and when it turned up it was literally just lard.” he told me.

“What did it taste like?”

He gave me the Charles died years ago look from “Four Weddings And A Funeral” and I realised, too late, what a stupid question I’d just asked.

“How would I know?”

So I had mixed feelings as I turned off the road and found my way down the stairs. But in the back of my mind I was still thinking that this had the potential to be another of those breakout finds Reading has scattered around, doing a roaring trade under the radar. Besides, the TripAdvisor reviews were glowing – and none of them mentioned lard, either.

First impressions were positive yet bemused. I have a soft spot for all subterranean restaurants, I have a soft spot for the lovably scruffy and Piwnica ticked both boxes simultaneously. The décor was endearingly amateurish – brown paint on the walls was intended to replicate the appearance of beams, grey paint tried to conjure up stonework – and although it looked unconvincing I rather liked it anyway. The tables had little doilies in the middle. There was a piano in one corner and some kind of exposed filament lamps on the side tables. It was cosy and snug. Only one table was occupied when I got there at half seven, although the restaurant was doing pretty well on a midweek night by the time I left.

The menu is big (and frustratingly their website has been taken down for construction, so I wish I’d taken some pictures). Starters tend to be around the six pound mark and mains around ten to twelve, and as you’d expect there’s a general emphasis on meat in general and pork in particular. The first language on there is Polish with an English translation, the first (but not the last) indication that I wasn’t entirely in the target market. Ordering was made simpler, if more frustrating, by the fact that on the day I visited they had a fault with the oven which meant several things I would have chosen just weren’t options. So you won’t be reading about the stuffed mushrooms or the baked trout – and although it’s possible that I’d have enjoyed my meal more if they’d been available, somehow I doubt it.

So what did we have instead? Well, for starters pierogi and Polish sausage. I wanted to try the pierogi because I’d heard good things and they felt like distant relatives of things I’ve always liked, like tortellini, momo and gyoza. I couldn’t decide between pierogi filled with cheese and potato or with pork, so the waitress kindly let me try some of both. The first thing to say – and this was a theme throughout the meal – is that the portion was huge: ten gigantic dumplings, arranged around a pile of coleslaw, slathered in butter and topped with little cubes of something which could have been ham or might have been diced sausage.

It’s never a good sign when the coleslaw is your favourite thing about any dish, and I’m afraid that was the case here. The dumplings themselves were heavy – thick dough like stodgy pasta – and the fillings were unsettlingly featureless. I didn’t mind the potato and cheese, although it was more culinary beigeness than recognisably either, but the pork had been shredded to the point where it was almost smooth and had a slight taste of offal. Partway through I was already weighing up how much of it I could leave without giving offence, which is a calculation nobody should have to make in a restaurant. I mean, it’s bad enough doing it when you’re round a friend’s house.

PiwnicaPierogi

The sausage starter had been recommended by the waitress when the stuffed mushrooms had turned out to be unavailable (it’s difficult to imagine how this approximates to the next best thing). When the board arrived I realised that Polish sausage is very similar to the sales people in my office – incredibly smooth, very pink and unappealingly homogenous. The sausages had at least been diagonally scored before being shown a pan, then served with some fried onions, but still it was much like eating a couple of massive slightly rubbery frankfurters i.e. not something I would choose to do. The ten year old me would have loved this – but then the ten year old me loved He-Man and I doubt I’d get such a rush out of watching it now. I gamely stuck them in the sliced bread and made mini hot dogs but, as with the pierogi, I only ate as much as I had to.

PiwnicaSausage

The waitress saw that we’d both left roughly half and asked if we wanted to take our leftovers home. We both feigned slight fullness and said we were saving ourselves for our main courses, and in truth I felt like a bit of a fraud. Worse still, we were fully prepared to use the same excuse later in the evening, saying that we’d left lots of the main courses because we’d filled up on the starters. I think when you eat food you’re not familiar with, you’re far more likely to adopt the “it’s not you, it’s me” position and so it proved here. The table next to us was experiencing no such problem, enthusing about the dishes and raising a hue and cry when they hadn’t received a little jug of mushroom sauce to serve with their main course (actually their mains looked pretty nice, although when ours arrived I decided that they must have been a mirage).

I didn’t have to wait long for the mains because they came to the table split seconds after our starters were taken away. And no, I didn’t like them any more than the starters. Pork goulash with Polish gnocchi felt more like a struggle than a treat: the cubes of pork were decent enough, although the sauce – glossy tomato with little slices of mushroom – didn’t taste like any goulash I’ve ever eaten and had more than an air of Chicken Tonight about it. The gnocchi were gigantic, and resembled nothing so much as huge, undercooked oven chips. I think I’d have preferred undercooked oven chips, though again this might be my fault for expecting smaller, subtler pillows of potato based on my experience of more Western European establishments. There was also some finely grated carrot, some beetroot which appeared to have been minced, and some sauerkraut. I actually very much enjoyed the sauerkraut, but as with the coleslaw it really shouldn’t have been the star of the show. Again, the dish was – to use a technical term – mahoosive, and again I left as much of it as I thought I could.

PiwnicaGnocchi

When I couldn’t order the trout the waitress recommended chicken Kiev and, faced with the prospect of ribs and knuckles I quite liked the idea of taking the easy option and going for something made with chicken fillets (again, something that the ten year old me would have considered haute cuisine). Despite being, basically, a chicken breast filled with garlicky cheese and coated in breadcrumbs it was hard to enjoy this. It came with the same accompaniments as the goulash, but also with sub-school dinner mashed potato – lumpy and dry, lacking in seasoning or even a knob of butter (the saviour of many a forlorn vegetable). The Kievs – and actually there were two, in keeping with the monumental portions elsewhere – could have been rather nice but they were spoiled somewhat by being served in a puddle of mushroom sauce which took away any of the crispy fun of the breadcrumbs. This was the sauce they specifically asked for at the next table, but I’m not sure why – it had a peculiar vinegary taste for reasons I tried not to get to the bottom of. I left almost a whole Kiev (the logic being that if I ate at least some of the second one it couldn’t be wrapped up to take home) and pushed the veg around to make it look like I’d eaten more than I did. It felt like a sad tactic for a grown-up paying customer to resort to.

PiwnicaKiev

The drinks weren’t bad. We had a Polish beer (poured from a bottle at the bar and brought to the table, so I don’t know what it was but I’d guess it’s Zywiec) and a rather large glass of white wine which was fine for the cheap end of the wine scale (Google says it’s five pounds a bottle in Tesco). If I’d stayed longer I might have had a bison grass vodka with apple juice (a snip at three pounds) but that would have involved eating more food and I’m afraid no power on earth was going to get me to do that. And as if I don’t feel enough like I’m happy slapping a meerkat, the waitress was lovely, friendly, enthusiastic and anything but dour. It wasn’t her, you see, it was me. Dinner, with a ten percent tip included, came to forty-six pounds fifty. At the table next to me, as we left, they’d moved on to the desserts with a shot of Krupnik. They were having a significantly better evening than me and, pulling my winter coat on, I found myself envying both their evening and the fact that they saw something in the food which I simply couldn’t.

More than anywhere I’ve ever reviewed, I left Piwnica Pub with a clear feeling that it just wasn’t for me. In more ways than one – partly that it wasn’t my cup of tea (such a quintessentially English way to describe a Polish restaurant) but also that I just wasn’t in the target market. This has been an an especially difficult review to write, because I’m quite happy to come across as ignorant (I cheerfully admit that I am, never having eaten Polish food before this visit) but I really don’t want to sound patronising. So I hope it’s acceptable to put it this way: I really wanted to like Piwnica Pub, and I left thoroughly sad that I didn’t. In lots of ways I think it’s admirable, and I’m glad that Reading has a place like it. But now I know that it exists and I know what it’s like, I think I’ll leave it to others to actually go there.

Piwnica Pub – 4.7
81 London Road, RG1 5BY
0118 9011055

http://www.piwnicapub.co.uk/