The Queen’s Head

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

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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 Royal Oak, Paley Street

In nearly three years this is only the second time I’ve reviewed an establishment with a Michelin star. Part of that is because they’re all a little way outside Reading, and part of it is that I’ve never been entirely convinced they’re my cup of tea. I’ve eaten in a fair few, here and overseas, and they’re such a mixed bag that I’m not entirely sure what a star means any more. I’ve had beautiful meals in the Cotswolds and truly ordinary meals in London in starred establishments, and I’ve had wonderful evenings in many places bafflingly untroubled by Michelin.

My opinion has also been coloured, I think, by l’Ortolan (which describes itself as “Reading’s Michelin starred restaurant”). It’s a classic example of what you used to have to do to get a star – a beautiful old building in the countryside with a mind-boggling wine list, efficient but soulless service and a fiddly, precise menu of dishes which look better than they taste and where, even if you order well, there’s always a sense that you’re left with a dent in your wallet which doesn’t quite correspond to the amount of fun you’ve had.

My favourite Michelin starred restaurant was a place called Medlar at the unfashionable end of the Kings Road in Chelsea. Three courses during the week was a crazy twenty-five pounds, the service was lovely and friendly, the wine list didn’t feel like it was packed full of booby traps… and the food? Well, the food was plain delicious. When it lost its star (and I have no idea why it did) rather than making me think any less of it it reinforced my feeling that the Michelin inspectors and I were not fated to get along. But I’ve always been on the lookout for somewhere like Medlar closer to home, and that’s why I ended up making the half hour drive to Paley Street, not far from Maidenhead, to give the Royal Oak a try.

One thing I liked about the Royal Oak from the start was that it still looked like a pub. Some pubs with aspirations aren’t really pubs, but there was still a bar and a front room and some cosy seats. I’m not sure how many people would go there just for a drink, but I appreciated the pretence – even if it was just pretence – that you could. I also liked the fact that we were seated in the pub proper, handsome high-backed chairs and a beamed ceiling, rather than in a sterile extension (I’ve been to the Hind’s Head and the Wellington Arms, similar establishments you could say, and had exactly that experience).

The menu was extensive, attractive and reasonable – two courses for twenty-five pounds or three courses for thirty. Slightly cheaper than, say, l’Ortolan, but more importantly the menu was full of good ideas and hard choices. It nodded more to being a pub than you might expect, so there were Scotch eggs and pies alongside the lobster and turbot.

The wine list was attractive, too. I have no doubt that there were plenty of eye-watering options on there but there were also wines by the 125ml glass or by the 500ml carafe, lots of easy ways to drink with your meal without being stung. By contrast, when I went to l’Ortolan I actually ordered a bottle knowing I would leave some of it because it was still a better deal than wine by the glass. At half-one on a Saturday afternoon the place was pretty full, with a varied clientele (one chap, getting ready to leave, ordered a taxi to Sunningdale which gives you a good idea that there’s money sloshing round these parts).

We started off with a couple of things from the pre-starters menu – again, I liked the more honest pricing that you pay for these if you want them rather than being given an amuse bouche and having the cost concealed elsewhere. The selection of bread was gorgeous – the highlight was a glazed brioche packed full of cheese and a flatbread with fennel and salt crystals which was deceptively light and airy (the other two, with rosemary and onion and with caraway seed, were less impressive but still very good). One pound fifty for that little lot, which puts most Reading restaurants I can think of to shame. The Scotch egg was good but not incredible – firm coarse sausagemeat wrapped round a quail’s egg for three pounds fifty. I’m probably a Philistine to say so, but Dolce Vita’s is better.

OakNibbles

One thing these establishments always get right is timing. You’re never turned or rushed, and they have an almost intuitive grasp of when you would like your next course to turn up. When it did, it featured one of the highlights of the meal. Lobster raviolo was a stunning thing. Normally I’d potentially feel cheated by a solitary raviolo, but not here – packed all the way to the perimeter with beautiful lobster meat, the pasta just the right thickness, no padding. The small quenelle of chilli jam on top added just enough kick.

But underneath was arguably the real treasure of the dish – samphire and still slightly squeaky leeks (no fennel I could detect, despite what the menu said) in a bisque which was partway between a sauce and a somewhat knobby foam. It reminded me of that wonderful moment at the end of moules marinière when all that’s left is the sauce and a spoon and I always find myself wondering how much of it I can guzzle before I look very greedy indeed. No such problem here with this super-intense, super-concentrated sauce, so I got all of the ecstasy and none of the shame. There was a two pound supplement for this dish, which is so little that I almost didn’t bother mentioning it.

OakLobster

I make no apologies for ordering something as prosaic as chicken liver parfait as the other starter. I love it, and whilst I know it’s the stuff of set menus everywhere I really enjoy its earthy dirtiness. And so it was with this version – the parfait itself was rich and slightly filthy, sprinkled with the ubiquitous sea salt crystals (at last! A restaurant fashion I actually approve of). It came with a decent amount of toasted brioche – so nice, for a change, to be given enough bread rather than facing those final few mouthfuls where the only way to finish it off is to pile it an inch thick. The pear chutney added a welcome hint of sweetness, although my companion did tell me if she hadn’t been driving she’d have ordered a Sauternes with it. Quite right too.

Waiting long enough for the mains to turn up meant that I saw all the dishes I nearly ordered floating past my table, a little conveyor belt of potential regrets. I had been sorely tempted to go for the rabbit and ham hock pie, but I instead chose the iberico pork chop. It was a beautiful-looking dish, but somehow it didn’t quite work for me. The pork was cooked through – too well for my liking, no pinkness at all – and completely encrusted in herbs, which felt like a needless distraction. It was a bit like it had been mugged by a jar of Schwartz. The soft caramelised apples underneath were lovely but the celeriac puree didn’t feel like it added much and the fennel looked scorched rather than braised, so the sweetness didn’t quite come out. It felt like it was crying out for greenery, and I was relieved to have ordered some chips with it (they, incidentally, were exemplary). A five pound supplement for this dish, which if anything just added to my wish that I’d gone for the pie instead.

OakChop

Turbot on the other hand was a delight. It was described on the menu as “roast turbot with peas and broad beans” and was almost (not quite) as simple as that description makes it sound. A firm piece of turbot, served on a beautiful mix of peas, broad beans, parsley, cabbage and cream. Nothing mucked around with or overdressed, just the right ingredients in the right ratio. It felt like a dish halfway between spring and summer – much like most of the last month, come to think of it. I was glad they brought a spoon so I could polish off the last of the delicious sauce, although it did make me wish I’d saved some bread (a lesson I have never learned, despite eating in restaurants for years).

OakTurbot

The dessert menu was the only place where I didn’t feel spoiled for choice. There was one standout dish, but because I wasn’t driving and had wandered more extensively round the wine list I gave way and found myself desperately looking for a Plan B. When it arrived it looked pretty and tasted pleasant, but it didn’t feel like it lived up to some of what had gone before. Crème fraiche mousse was light and clean, the strawberries were bright and sweet and the little discs of shortbread were pleasant. It was all pleasant, I suppose, but I wanted more than pleasant. I felt like I was eating a cheesecake that had been deconstructed to the point of inoffensiveness, and that wasn’t really what desserts should be about. Only the mint sorbet on top – tasting every bit as green and fresh as it looked – held my interest.

OakMousse

To make matters worse, while I ploughed through this I had to watch my companion eating the “Snicker”. This was not your usual Snickers bar (just look at that photo! Oh my goodness). It wasn’t straightforward working out what each layer was but it seemed to be (concentrate!) toffee sponge, peanut mousse, piped chocolate mousse, toffee sauce, peanuts and peanut ice cream, all topped off with a slightly over the top slice of tempered dark chocolate. Listing all that rather misses the main point which was that it was utterly, utterly delicious. My guest ate it with a mixture of gusto and gloating, although she helpfully allowed me a couple of spoonfuls for quality control purposes (and, quite possibly, to stop me whining). That blend of sweet and salt will stay with me for a long time, possibly even after I can no longer remember anything else about the meal. What I struggled to understand was how a half-eaten one went back from one of the tables. What kind of monster would order that and not be able to finish it?

OakSnicker

We’ve come to the bit where I’d usually talk about the wine. Now, my knowledge of wine is pretty limited and the benefit of having a bottle is that you only have to inadequately describe one wine. Here, regrettably, I’m going to have to do that with – count them – four different wines. So, here goes: the Australian Riesling was just fruity and sweet enough to get me through the wait for my starter, and much less intimidating than its pale colour led me to fear it might be. The Chablis was crisp and clean and played a similar role, although my companion had to nurse it for longer. The New Zealand sauvignon blanc I had with my raviolo was punchier and more metallic, but still very tasty. Finally, the salice salentino I chose to go with the iberico chop was a splendid balance of fruit and smoke and did me very nicely indeed. The first two were around seven pounds for a 125ml glass, the second two closer to a fiver. Like I said, a good wine list to get lost in.

Service was actually quite reminiscent of more obviously starred establishments, to the extent that it was almost incongruous. So everyone was pleasant and efficient but ever so slightly aloof. I didn’t mind that, but it still felt the wrong side of the fine dining divide for my liking. Lunch for two – snacks, a three course meal and four glasses of wine – came to one hundred and thirteen pounds, which includes one of those optional-but-only-if-you-are-prepared-to-make-a-scene 12.5% service charges. I often read reviews saying “yes, it’s Michelin starred but it’s possible to eat cheaply”. Don’t believe those people. It’s just not. Not without going and having a miserable time.

Did I have a miserable time? No. I had a nice time. I had a nice time in a nice pub eating nice food, and maybe as so often with restaurants that do well in the guidebooks the problem is one of preconceptions. I’m reminded of Skye Gyngell, who won a Michelin star at Petersham Nurseries and wished she could give it back because it meant that punters started turning up with Expectations. If I had gone without expectations I might have really liked the Royal Oak. I managed to steer clear of having expectations with a capital E, but I still thought I’d be ever so slightly more impressed. Maybe this is just further evidence that me and Mr Michelin are never going to be bosom buddies. Still, no matter: a beautiful drive in the country, an attractive pub, a thoroughly decent meal at the end of it. If you go you’ll probably enjoy yourself. For myself, I’m just sitting here thinking about the road less travelled. The pie less ordered. So it goes.

The Royal Oak – 7.7
Paley Street, Littlefield Green, Maidenhead, SL6 3JN
01628 620541

http://www.theroyaloakpaleystreet.com/

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/