The Crown, Playhatch

N.B. By November 2019 the Crown had been acquired by Brakspears and the menu differs considerably from the one I reviewed in 2015. In particular there are no longer any South African dishes on the menu. I’ve left the review up for posterity, but it’s no longer representative of the experience you would have if you ate at the Crown.

This week’s review is sort of me returning a favour. The enigmatic Roast Dinners Around Reading (worth a read if you’re not a regular already: his weekly reviews are probably the highlight of my Mondays – well, that and Only Connect) recently visited one of my top recommendations, The Bull at Sonning, and was a big fan. So it seemed fitting that I try out the Crown, which has occupied his top spot for as long as I can remember. The last time I went there was long before it had a makeover and repositioned itself doing classic pub food with a South African twist, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. And yes, the website talks about freshly prepared, quality ingredients but, well, don’t they all?

First things first, I have to mention the building itself. Pulling up onto the gravel driveway in the dark doesn’t do the outside justice (though there’s lots of smart seating outside which looks like it could be gorgeous in summer – if we ever get one again) so the first impression you really get is when you walk through the door. The welcome – quick and friendly – was nice enough but the interior is stunning; there are lots of big rooms broken up only by lots of beams, some of which could be perilous after a couple of pints if you’re over five feet eight. The dining area is in a rough L shape, with a large barn section at the end literally crowned with, erm, a crown, all wrought iron and grandeur.

As is de rigueur these days, the furniture is shabby chic and mismatched (I lost count of the number of different dining chairs in the barn area – one large table only had a couple which matched at all) and the paint is the very regulation Farrow and Ball. The interior’s been done by the same people who styled Henley’s Bull On Bell Street and it’s every bit as tasteful: I felt like I should have been there in my gilet and Hunter wellies. Having dinner with friends called Pippa and Tarquin, probably.

The menu’s an interesting one which covers lots of bases without feeling overextended. There’s some kind of South African connection (though I’m not clear exactly what) so there are a few South African touches (Boerewors, bobotie, the dubious delights of “monkey gland sauce”) but they’re well integrated. There’s hearty stuff, slightly more sophisticated stuff and a couple of vegetarian dishes (and several salads) – enough range, in fact, to make Brits feel safe without feeling completely staid. It’s a nice balance.

Although the starter menu was full of temptation (more so than the mains, I thought) boneless ribs stood out as something I rarely see and, in truth, an invention I think the world has long been waiting for. I don’t mind ribs, but it’s impossible to eat them with any dignity and there’s always that moment of trepidation when you take the first bite – will it come away neatly and easily, or will you be left gnawing away and embarrassing yourself, your dining companions and, most likely, people at the next table? That’s before we get to the mess – there’s always mess, and there’s always more mess than you think there will be (which reminds me, must buy more wet wipes).

I was delighted when they turned up, because they just looked pretty. Presentation seems to be a strong point at the Crown – it was attractive enough that you wanted to eat it but not so aesthetically precious that you felt like you were ruining it. What I soon realised is that boneless ribs don’t resemble ribs at all – durr, the clue’s in the name – so if anything they were like small slices of belly pork and none the worse for that. I really liked them – tender, tasty, no bounce, artfully drizzled with glaze. On top was a heap of red cabbage which was packed with cloves. I liked it, because I like cloves, but it was only just the right side of the line between really good mulled wine and overpowering Yule-themed Yankee Candle. Oh, and the salad was not only pretty but edible, with little cubes of tomato and some attractive shoots on top. Not only was it edible, but I actually ate it, and you can’t say that very often. Good work all round, I feel.

CrownRibs

The other starter, hot smoked salmon was even better; a great big cylinder of it, all salty and smoky, was served with some sliced bread which had been generously oiled, garlicked (I think I may have just verbed a noun: sorry about that) and chargrilled, a little pile of salad, four little dollops of herbed crème fraîche and best of all, some slices of preserved lemons. It might sound busy in theory but it wasn’t in practice – and it was much prettier than my terrible photo would have you believe.

To be honest, the crème fraîche got rather lost against the salmon – I think it had dill in, but there might have been some parsley – so it needed the tangy, vinegary lemons to lend some zip and oomph to proceedings. Adding a bit of that lemon to a forkful of the salmon was a bit like putting Worcestershire sauce on your baked beans – once you’ve done it once it’s hard to imagine the dish without it. A cracking start: generous, just a little bit cleverer than it needed to be and with so many flavour combinations that it never got boring.

CrownSalmon

For mains it seemed absolutely right to have a South African special. The Bobotie (which I later discovered is pronounced beau booty, although I, mistakenly but enthusiastically, said it as bobot-yeah! instead) didn’t grab me on the menu but I am glad I threw caution to the wind and tried it. Out came a wee cast iron dish filled with minced meat (beef, I think, although it could have been lamb, or both) mixed with spices, sultanas, flaked almonds plus tiny pieces of ref pepper. On top of all that was something which looked like cheese but was in fact a layer of whisked egg which gets baked when the whole thing goes in the oven, sort of like a savoury custard.

It was so good – like nothing I’ve eaten before, intensely flavoured, sweet and rich with lots of complexity and a little heat. Really lovely stuff. Eating it, I found myself wondering if it was close to what mincemeat might have been a couple of hundred years ago (Google says yes, incidentally). It didn’t really need accompaniments – I would have been delighted with this on its own – but it came with some anyway – some very plain (allegedly saffron) rice and a prettily pleated poppadum. Just in case there wasn’t enough flavour there was a small pot of some of the spiciest mango chutney I’ve ever eaten and some fresh tomato salsa that, a bit like the herbed crème fraîche in the salmon starter, didn’t stand up to the rest of the dish.

CrownBobotie

I promised myself at the start of the year that I’d order one vegetarian main course every month, and with the exception of the month where I spent half of it on holiday I’ve kept that promise. This was likely to be my last meat-free main of the year, and I realised it was time to confront the ever-present on menus, the vegetarian main course you really can’t escape. Yes, just as Mario inevitably has to face the end of level baddie, there was no chance of me getting to the end of the year without ordering the mushroom risotto. So I did.

Unfortunately it was probably the only duffer of the evening. Again, it looked good on paper; wild mushrooms, lemon thyme and truffle oil were all namechecked, but what turned up needed to be half as big and twice as interesting. The mushrooms were wild – no trades descriptions issues there – but there was so much rice that they were drowned out. So much cream, too, with no seasoning to bring the flavour out in anything. There was enough truffle oil that you smelled it when it arrived at the table but after that nothing, a bit like those strangely flavourless herbal teas that you get. No lemon thyme either that I could see, just some rocket. Finally – and this didn’t bother me but I imagine it would many bona fide vegetarians – I’m pretty sure there was parmesan on top. In many ways, this was a fitting final vegetarian main course of 2015 because it highlighted how frustrating and difficult it must be: if a place like the Crown, which got so many things right, still couldn’t deliver a good mushroom risotto, what hope was there for everywhere else?

CrownRisotto

There was no chance of dessert after such big main courses and, to be honest, the dessert menu plays it far safer than the other two courses (cheesecake, Eton mess, banoffee pie, you know the drill by now) so I didn’t feel like I was missing out. Drinks were nice enough – a glass of South African red which was pleasant and everyday, but not wildly exciting and a bottle of Fever Tree bitter lemon which was very nice, albeit a little small. Dinner for two – two courses and a drink each – came to just under fifty pounds, not including service.

Speaking of service, it deserves more of a mention: I think at various points in the evening we were looked after by three or four different people and they were uniformly excellent, just informal enough to be engaging but never over-familiar. The young lady who took our money at the end was a particularly good ambassador, enthusing about the restaurant and talking about some of her favourite dishes (including the bobotie – no surprise there – and the steak). It was pretty busy, too – despite being a week night quite a lot of tables were occupied which is pretty good going for a location out of town. I think I heard a couple of South African accents, also a positive sign.

Despite the South African influences The Crown feels archetypally English in a Richard Curtis sort of way; the interior is beautiful, the staff are all lovely and much of the food is really good looking. I half expected it to be more style than substance (like Love Actually – that’s two hours of my life I’ll never have again) so it’s lovely to be able to report that there’s more depth to it than that; the food (with one exception, sadly – probably not one for vegetarians) was both tasty and interesting. Perhaps it reflects the growing competition in the area between Reading and Henley where there are plenty of options, but if anything, The Crown was better than I expected it to be: better food, better presentation, a better dining room and better service. You know what, I think that Roast Dinners bloke might be on to something. Extra gravy, anyone?

The Crown, Playhatch – 7.7

The Crown, Playhatch, RG4 9QN
0118 9472872

http://www.thecrown.co.uk/

The Bell, Waltham St Lawrence

Well, summer’s well and truly over. You can speculate about the exact time of death – when the kids went back to school, when festive toot started appearing in the shops (prosecco flavoured crisps, M&S? Really?), that awful moment when you realised the central heating needed to go on – but those are details. The formal funeral happens tomorrow night when the clocks go back, and that’s that: it’s gone until next year and now we all need to come to terms with wearing extra layers, fishing the gloves out of the chest of drawers, deciding who’s getting what this Christmas and wondering whether this is the year you stop bothering with sending cards.

I’ve found it especially difficult because I’m not long back from holiday. So it seems like only yesterday that I was sitting outside until midnight, eating grilled meats and salad, drinking that first glass of rosé as soon after midday as socially acceptable and reading novels by the pool. To return to a nip in the air felt especially cruel. And it’s not just me – I bumped into a colleague this week who’s just back from a holiday in Dubai, thirty-three degrees every day without fail, and I couldn’t help feeling even her tan looked a tad jaundiced. “It’s not my winter coat I’ve got on” she told me, “it’s my autumn coat” (in denial, I suspect – it looked like a winter coat to me).

So this week I’ve been trying to find the consolations of autumn. I’m not talking about seasonal eating – I should care about that more than I do, but ultimately despite knowing all the reasons I shouldn’t buy Peruvian asparagus I still reckon it’s better than nothing – but the move into autumn does allow you to enjoy food that, a few months ago, would have been unthinkable. Slow-cooked stews and casseroles, steaming bowls of soup, big piles of mash and golden-domed pies. And the drinks, too; I know that Pimm’s is a wonderful thing but the months ahead mean we can glug red wine, or port, or mulled wine (proper stuff, not that shortcut in a bottle).

That’s what led me to Waltham St. Lawrence on a weekday night, because I’d heard good things about The Bell. Someone suggested I review it with a certain trepidation, because they didn’t want the secret to get out – and that’s a good enough incentive for me. So I made the short drive down the A4, turning right just past Hare Hatch, and parking in the village I got out of the car to be greeted by the beautiful aroma of woodsmoke.

It’s a lovely place. The pub is right opposite the church – as it should be in a picture perfect English village, if only to give people two different routes to enlightenment – and it’s beautifully, charmingly ramshackle (much as you would be if you’d been standing for seven hundred years). Inside it’s all beams and dark wood, panelling, horse brasses and open fires. There are a couple of rooms, all very basic and unshowy, although I now see having looked at the website that they also have a snug and what looks like a slightly smarter dining room; I’m glad I didn’t end up sitting in that.

I was a little bit in love before I even sat down, but it developed into a full-on crush when I read the menu. I looked at one pub during the week, deciding whether to add it to my list of places to review, before realising with horror that it offered twenty-three different main courses; The Bell is nothing like that, with a small but perfectly-formed menu of five bar snacks, four starters, five mains and five desserts. I couldn’t see a single thing I didn’t fancy eating – pork pie, rarebit, Brixham mussels, venison, trout with lentils. It was a different menu to the one on their website, and I had no doubt that if I went back in a couple of months it would be a different menu again. But for now, it felt like a menu designed to make you happy to see the back of summer.

Pigeon and pork terrine was, if not perfection, close enough that I couldn’t see anything to fault. The terrine itself was a dense slab of rich, gamey meat, beautifully earthy and coarse, no jelly or bounce to it. But that wasn’t all, because there was also soft pickled beetroot, all sweetness and no sharpness, perfect with the terrine. And the bread was magnificent – thick sliced, toasted and buttered (or quite possibly buttered and then toasted, it had a golden glow and the texture of butter that had melted under a grill), it almost had a spongey, crumpetty texture. Three simple things, superb on their own, equally terrific combined. All that for six pounds fifty, and worth the trip on its own.

BellTerrine

The thick, rich cep and blue oyster mushroom soup was an exercise in simplicity: the mushrooms, a hint of cream and a touch of seasoning was all I could detect in the bowl. There was more of that bread on the side, untoasted this time but also generously buttered. I found it strange that the butter wasn’t on the side, and if I’m being really critical I’d perhaps have liked a few herbs to bring out the flavour of the soup more, but those are both minor details. The portion was generous (how I struggled!) and made me want to go out and forage straight after. Well, straight after a nap, perhaps.

BellSoup

Mains were sensibly paced after that – ironic, as the starters had been so good that, for once, I found myself ever so slightly impatient. It’s almost worth putting the clocks back just so you can eat venison again so I was delighted to see loin of fallow deer on the menu. The meat itself, again, was well-nigh perfect – beautifully seared, still pink inside, five thick discs of autumnal wonder. If the rest of the dish didn’t quite match that, it was perhaps because the bar had been set so high – the kale was well-cooked, steering the right course between the twin perils of mushy and crunchy, but it wasn’t the most exciting thing to serve with the venison.

The real disappointment was the macaroni cheese, an oddly solid cuboid of the stuff which reminded me of the top of a pastitsio. It wasn’t quite cheesy enough, or salty enough, and under a fork it just crumbled into individual macaroni. It was a noble effort, but I think I’d sooner have had something a bit gloopier and more sinful, or even just a potato dauphinoise. Last of all, the thing the dish missed most – the roasting juices had been reduced to almost nothing, like a culinary Black Friday, and the whole thing needed some kind of sauce. If I sound critical it’s just because the dish was very good, when I knew how close it came to being unforgettable.

BellFallow

It’s rare that there’s a scrap to order the vegetarian main course (normally it’s quite the opposite, in fact) but that’s exactly what happened at The Bell. Big pillowy potato gnocchi came with a stunning kale and almond pesto, strewn with extra leaves of kale like the best cabbage in the world (I know kale is bloody everywhere right now, but not kale like this). On top was a decent sized circle of caramelised goats cheese, grilled to just bubbling and perfect for setting off the richness of the potato. You could say this is starch and goats cheese, like unimaginative risottos in pubs across Berkshire, but this was so much more than that: clever, creative and damned delicious, and it really didn’t need any meat. It illustrated deftly that with a bit of effort and an imaginative chef it’s possible to eat delicious vegetarian food; it’s just a shame that this is such a rare accolade. I scraped every last morsel out of the bowl.

BellGnocchi

Sometimes, when a meal is iffy, I order dessert to give the restaurant a chance to rescue matters. On this occasion I ordered dessert because I wanted to see if they were as good as the rest. And again, the menu was note-perfect – crumbles and puddings, hot desserts with ice cream quickly melting on them. But unfortunately, on this occasion, the desserts slightly took the shine off things. I picked the sticky toffee pudding because it came with creme fraiche ice cream, an unusual touch. Sadly it was more like a toffee cake than a steamed sponge pudding – dry and a bit chewy – and there was nowhere near enough toffee sauce to rescue it. The ice cream, to be fair, was truly delicious; thick and creamy with an intriguing slightly sour note – but that, too, wasn’t enough to save it. I left some, and I felt sad that I didn’t feel sad about that.

BellPud (2)

I was in two minds about whether to have the cheeseboard, and when I went up to the bar I asked which cheeses were on offer. “Barkham Blue is one”, said the man behind the bar, “I’ll just check with the kitchen what the other one is.” Off he scuttled, and the man next to me said “Barkham Blue’s all you need anyway.” He was right, of course, and you got a good wedge of it, soft and salty, blue without being overpowering. The other cheese – and I quite admire them for only offering two – was Wigmore, also local, gorgeously mushroomy but still nice and firm.

So far so good, and you could say it’s impossible to muck this kind of thing up, but the kitchen did have a go. The chutney was lovely, and went well with both, but the “house crackers” were a bit surreal. There was a long thin flatbread, a bit like ciappe de liguria, but the texture wasn’t right – it wasn’t crispy or crunchy, and felt stale. Odder still were the other crackers, which were more like biscuits – thin, treacly biscuits, like Hobnobs without the oats. They were sweet: sweet with burnt sugar, and although that sort of went with the Barkham Blue it didn’t go with the Barkham Blue as well as my favourite accompaniment, more Barkham Blue. I finished them in the same way I might finish a duff magazine article.

BellCheese

If I haven’t mentioned service that’s because there wasn’t that much of it. You order at the bar and there’s minimal interaction when they bring the food to your table. That’s honestly no criticism, and everybody was lovely and welcoming and genuinely interested in whether we liked the food, but it does mean there isn’t much to say. There’s more to say about the wine. The Corbieres (less than a fiver a glass) was robust, punchy and went brilliantly with the terrine, the dessert wine was nice if not particularly memorable and not quite cold enough for me. The port I had with the cheese – a rich, complex Krohn LBV – was over far, far too quickly. All in all, dinner came to seventy pounds, not including tip. When I think of the price of some of the things I ate – that stunning terrine for six pounds fifty, the gnocchi for a tenner – it’s hard not to conclude that the people of Waltham St Lawrence are very lucky indeed.

Would I go back? In a heartbeat. And if this review sounds critical, it’s only because the best of this meal was right up there with the best food I’ve eaten this year, and that means you judge everything else a little more harshly. But let’s put this in perspective – if you picked this pub up and dropped it in the centre of Reading (perhaps on top of TGI Friday, or Cosmo: somewhere nobody would miss) it would be difficult to keep me away. So go, even if it means the secret gets out: as it is, perhaps I’ll hibernate there in a seat by the fire, growing fat and sleepy on rarebit and red wine, finding it increasingly hard to remember that I ever used to get excited about sunshine and salad.

The Bell – 8.2
The Street, Waltham St Lawrence, RG10 0JJ
0118 9341788

http://thebellwalthamstlawrence.co.uk/

The Fisherman’s Cottage

N.B. The Fisherman’s Cottage closed in May 2016. It has reopened under new management and until summer 2018 I Love Paella operated out of the kitchen. They left in acrimonious circumstances and as of September 2019 the kitchen is run by an ex-chef of the Lyndhurst. I won’t be reviewing the Fisherman’s Cottage under the present management, but I’ve left this review up for posterity.

The Fisherman’s Cottage really is a lovely pub – so much so, in fact, that one of the biggest dangers of reviewing it as a place to eat was the risk that I’d let its obvious charms as a pub cloud my judgment. The family who own it did a splendid job of doing it up prior to opening last December and the building (Grade 2 listed, apparently) really stands out on the canalside. With the beautiful white front, big conservatory and chi-chi beach huts out the back, it feels like it belongs somewhere swanky by the Thames, not a stone’s throw from Orts Road.

I went, believe it or not, because the blurb on their website really struck a chord with me. They have a little kitchen, it said, and they aim to keep things simple and do things well. They don’t want to be a restaurant or a gastropub, they’re happy being a pub that does some popular classics. I think that’s an admirable goal, and I wanted to see whether they achieved it; so many restaurants feel like they’re trying to do everything at once, or they simply don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. And that’s crucial, especially for new restaurants, because if they don’t get that right, some of them don’t get to grow up at all.

Inside, it’s equally tastefully done and nicely broken up into sections. There’s a lovely snug off to the left and the conservatory (tastefully lit with a very “now” array of suspended bulbs) off to the right, a clever mix of high tables with stools and low tables with chairs, some for drinking and some for eating. Nothing quite matches but everything looks very well put together and nicely judged. The area out the back really is attractive – I feel sad for them that they haven’t had a good enough summer to make the most of it – although the recurring whiff of fag smoke from outside every time the conservatory door was open did put a slight crimp in proceedings.

It’s not as small a menu as you might think, but it does stay very much on safe and familiar ground. There are about ten starters, a few sharing platters and a set of mains which revolve around burgers, fish and chips, gammon and scampi. The previous landlord of the Fisherman’s Cottage flirted with doing Thai food and the new owners have continued that tradition, so there’s also a small selection of Thai mains – red curry, green curry and massaman lamb. The menu isn’t available online and, in truth, there’s nothing about it that would make you desperate to try it. But I still had that blurb in the back of my mind: there’s nothing wrong with doing the classics well.

I nearly didn’t have a starter, because the options – breaded garlic mushrooms, breaded mozzarella sticks, plaice goujons and the like – all felt a tad Iceland. But I relented and ordered the garlic bread and, when it came, I was pleasantly surprised. It was nothing fancy or posh, but was clearly home-made – cheese on toasted baguette with the agricultural honk of shedloads of garlic. There was plenty of it for three pounds, too (just as well, because if you didn’t share it with friends they wouldn’t fancy sitting downwind of you for long).

FishermanGarlicBread

I decided to try both halves of the menu for the main courses. Red Thai chicken curry was enormous – a gigantic bowl of the stuff served with prawn crackers and plain boiled rice. You couldn’t quibble the portion size and there was plenty to enjoy: tender, well-cooked chicken, a sauce with the right mix of heat and sweetness, lovely soft shallots, crunchy strips of carrot and big, crude chunks of courgette. Again it felt like home-made food worth paying money for, but what stopped it going from good to great was the aubergine – so much of it, possibly a whole aubergine in fact, big cubes of watery aubergine with a faint taste of cold tea. By the end, looking ruefully at the makeshift cairn of aubergine left in the bowl, I wished they’d given me a slightly smaller, better balanced dish.

FishermanThai

The fish and chips was surprisingly good. The fish was a good size, big but not daunting. Not only that, but the batter was truly excellent; nicely crisp, lots of crunch and super light, among the best pub fish I can recall eating in Reading. The chips were decent if not stellar (crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside but very regularly shaped – everyone knows the best bit of a bag of chips is the crunchy shrapnel at the end) but when dipped in the peas or a squirt of mayonnaise they were exactly what I wanted. The peas were rather runny – not your gastropub “crushed” pea affair – but nicely minty and fresh tasting. More than anything else I had, this fitted with what I’d read on the website – no showing off, just a straightforward dish done properly.

FishermanFishChips

Service was friendly and enthusiastic – the bar staff were full of recommendations about what was good from the menu and clearly proud of the pub and their food. Drinks very much lived up to the ethos that this is a pub, not a restaurant or a gastropub: lots of ale on tap and a very palatable Orchard Pig cider on draft which I liked a lot. The wine wasn’t so successful – the reds were mid-level supermarket stuff (Wolf Blass, Casillero del Diablo and the like). It was nice enough, and so was the New Zealand sauvignon blanc, but none of it had any element of surprise. I know, I know, it’s a pub: and yet the beautiful, high-quality wineglasses felt like they should be filled with something slightly more special. Dinner for two – one starter, two mains (which were each a tenner) and a couple of drinks each came to just under forty pounds.

As I said at the start, the Fisherman’s Cottage is a cracking pub. I can imagine you’d have a very good time if you wandered down the canal from town one sunny evening and stopped there for a few pints and a chat with friends, especially if they have jazz in the conservatory, or if the weather’s nice and you manage to grab one of those beach huts. And if you happened to be there and you happened to order some food I’m pretty sure you’d have a pleasant meal.

I wouldn’t make a pilgrimage to eat there, but perhaps that misses the point. Because it turns out you can’t divorce the place to eat from the pub: it’s all part of what the owners are trying to do. They said it themselves – the Fisherman’s Cottage isn’t a gastropub, it isn’t a restaurant, it’s just a really good pub that does good honest food. I think New Town’s very fortunate to have it (especially when you consider the main alternative, the disappointing Abbot Cook). So no, the Fisherman’s Cottage isn’t trying to be something it’s not, and it knows exactly what it wants to be when it grows up. In its quiet, only-slightly-ambitious way, I think it succeeds.

The Fisherman’s Cottage – 7.0
Canal Way, Newtown, RG1 3HJ
0118 9560432

http://www.thefishermanscottagereading.co.uk/

The Bird in Hand, Sonning Common

The Bird In Hand closed in August 2019 with the existing management going on to pastures new after five years running the pub. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

I’ve been thinking about going to the Bird In Hand for ages. It’s been sitting there on my list and I was saving it because I always had a sneaking feeling it would either be really special or crashingly disappointing and I half didn’t want to find out which. There seems to be a bit of a recent trend of country pubs round here taking a detour to Italy – like Buratta’s near Twyford (although I’ve always been a bit deterred by the fact that they’ve spelled “burrata” wrong) and the Red Lion at Mortimer Common – but something about the Bird In Hand felt like it might have star quality.

I normally talk far more about food than I do about chefs, but the Bird In Hand’s back story is an interesting one; the landlord, Santino Busciglio, cooked at various Michelin starred restaurants in London and appeared on one of Gordon Ramsay’s TV shows (don’t worry, the one about good restaurants rather than the one about cockroaches in the kitchen and eighteen page menus where all the sauces come out of a packet) before taking over the Bird In Hand, which reopened at the start of the year.

If it wasn’t the back story, maybe it was the website: in the course of my pre-visit research I decided that it was the most appealing menu I’d seen for a long time. The modish typewriter font made my eyes hurt, but looking beyond that it was an embarrassment of riches – a dizzying range of small sharing dishes to start and then a set of mains which divided their time evenly between Sicily and South Oxfordshire. Braised beef brisket pie rubbed shoulders with roasted sea bream, burger buns cohabiting with focaccia. I almost wanted to keep it on my list forever as some halcyon ideal of what a countryside pub could be, but my curiosity got the better of me so, during the hottest week of the year, my car pulled up outside and I prepared myself to deal with triumph or disaster.

The place has been done up recently and it really showed, but it also achieved the rare trick of managing to feel like a pub that serves food rather than a restaurant which pays lip service to local drinkers. The interior was lovely in that kind of studied rustic way that smart pubs are these days, with a decent-sized chic dining room, but it was completely empty because we’re British and know to make the most of whatever summer weather we actually get. So everyone was sitting outside, under the parasols, rejoicing in the beauty of a sultry English evening. We joined them, marvelling at the red kite circling above and I realised as I sipped a crisp cold pint of cider that choosing from the menu was never going to be an easy task.

It’s actually a cleverer menu than you realise at first – although the twenty or so stuzzichini dishes could seem bewilderingly huge, a lot of them contain components which also turn up in the mains, so you have to carefully pick through and decide how best to try as many different things as possible. We limited ourselves to sharing three before moving on the mains; I deeply regretted not ordering the grilled neck of treacle pork, the crab salt cod and ricotta fish cakes or the chick pea fritters, but it’s a good menu that forces you to make hard choices.

My favourite of them was a couscous salad with green garlic, yellowfin tuna and wild mushrooms – a bloody gorgeous bowl of deliciousness. The couscous was Israeli couscous (the bigger stuff that’s easier to eat and doesn’t go absolutely everywhere the moment you try to eat it), there were lots of little wild mushrooms studded through it, along with sweet cherry tomatoes and plenty of pieces of light, fresh-tasting tuna. It was the first thing I ate and it set a trickily high standard for everything that was to follow.

BirdTapas

Caponata was also good: I’ve always been a huge fan and the Bird In Hand’s version was slightly different to ones I’ve had in the past. The aubergine was firm rather than stewed into sticky submission, there was more of a starring role for the celery in the dish and the balance was much more interesting – a more closely-fought battle between the sweet and the sour – than I was used to. Again, it felt like perfect summer food, and I could gladly have eaten a bowl of it on my own.

The least successful of the starters was the trout two ways (line caught Avington rainbow trout, for any provenance buffs out there). Half had been cured in vodka, little beautifully-coloured strips arranged in a whorl. It was pretty but insubstantial. The other half, hot tea smoked, was served on a little smudge of spinach pureé and I liked it but I didn’t love it – it was powerfully smoky but that flavour wasn’t as deep or complex as I’d hoped it would be and, like the cured trout, it was almost over before it began. By serving it two ways, it felt like neither one thing nor the other: I admired the technique a great deal, but it felt a little unrewarding for six pounds (at the risk of sounding like a heathen, I would have liked some bread with it, but there wasn’t enough of it to put on bread anyway).

Plenty of promise in the starters, then, and the mains delivered on it. The menu has so much for vegetarians (plenty of starters and three tempting mains, including a field mushroom and green garlic pie which I would have ordered on a slightly cooler day) that I felt duty bound to try one of them, so I went for the strozzapretti pasta with aubergine caviar, basil, vine tomatoes and salted ricotta cheese. The pasta was al dente and the aubergine caviar (a bit misleading that, as it had collapsed into something approximating to baba ghanoush by the time it was served) was smoky with a touch of citrus and rich enough to make this a very substantial main. There was also some clever chilli in the sauce which built over time and the generous heap of salted ricotta – so nice to see a kitchen advertising a vegetarian dish without blotting their copybook with Parmesan – on top rounded it off nicely. It was still a bowl of pasta, and I think they always run out of steam when eaten as a main course, but it was probably the best vegetarian main course I’ve had this year. I was also impressed to see how much on the menu was gluten free – almost a third of it, and none of it felt like it involved any compromises.

BirdPasta

The other main turned out to be the perfect synthesis of Sicily and South Oxfordshire, the Bird In Hand’s cover version of fish and chips. The hake was in glorious light batter (billed as Parmesan tempura, although I didn’t really detect that). The chips were crunchy thin straws of courgette, beautifully seasoned and fried, all taste and no oil. And the peas – well, it was a fantastic pea puree, as intense and green to taste as it was to look at. I don’t even like mushy peas, but I couldn’t get enough of this. If I did have a criticism, and it’s only one, the presentation of everything on top of the pea puree made it difficult to make the most of the superlative accompaniments – a lovely piquant pimento ketchup and (a lovely touch, this) a ramekin of malt vinegar jelly. Everything I had had been tasty, but this was clever too.

BirdHake

On a lovely, sunny evening it felt like a waste to head home without making some inroads into the dessert menu, and my companion still had quite a lot of a glass of white wine to finish. Impressively, the Bird In Hand has about ten wines by the glass, nearly all Italian, all costing no more than £3.50 for a small glass or £20 for a bottle, another little detail that made me warm to the place. I didn’t try any, being the designated driver, but I’m told that the Cataratto (an organic Sicilian white) was positively medicinal on a hot day.

This is probably the right place to mention the service, which was the closest my evening came to letting the side down. Sitting outside meant that you ordered at the bar – and when I did Santino, who was working behind the bar, was charm personified and clearly a big hit with locals and diners. He could sell any of his dishes to anyone and was brilliant at bringing the details to life: the tuna cooked with orange zest, the burrata which was arriving later in the week, the salami he gets from small producers in Italy (I imagine he has built up quite a good contacts book), the ice cream which was all made there on the premises. He also lamented the end of the English asparagus season, a subject very close to my heart. The table service was a lot more erratic: the young waiter who was doing the fetching and carrying had a lot to do (serving in the garden means a lot of distance back and forth with plates) but wasn’t the canniest of workers, often bringing out food then returning to the kitchen empty handed despite our empty plates having been in front of us for quite some time. It didn’t mar the evening but I did reach the stage where I had half a mind to taken them inside myself, and that isn’t how it should be.

Santino recommended the ice cream, so naturally I had to try it. They’re all priced by the scoop and, interestingly, the prices all differ so, for example, pistachio is more expensive than chocolate which is more expensive than vanilla. I had two scoops of malt barley ice cream, and I think – no offence to the likes of Tutti Frutti – it’s probably the best ice cream I’ve had in this country. The texture almost defied description because somehow “smooth” isn’t enough but, raiding the thesaurus, smooth is all there is. It was so rich and glossy, with almost a burnt toffee note from the malt, that I just didn’t want it to end. Except I also wished I’d only had one scoop so I could try the chocolate as well: what did I say about good menus and hard choices?

BirdIce

Believe it or not, I’ve saved the best for last. Sfinci, Sicilian cinnamon doughnuts, might well be my dessert of the year so far: three rough little clouds of fried batter, crisp on the outside, soft in the middle, dusted with a little icing sugar and cinnamon and served with the richest, creamiest pistachio ice cream. The irony: in Reading we’re used to being bombarded with a message saying “lovely hot doughnuts, nice and fresh” and yet so many people never get to eat anything of the kind. I was told when I ordered them that they would take fifteen minutes and I’m not sure I can think of a better way of spending fifteen minutes than waiting for that dish.

BirdDoughnut

The total bill, for three courses each, two ciders, a wine and an Averna (it looks like Coke, tastes like cough medicine and, with lots of ice and a slice of orange, is one of the best digestifs you could hope for) was seventy six pounds. Considering the number of separate moments in the meal which had a wow factor, I reckon that was money well spent.

Having written this blog for nearly two years, I’ve come to realise is that life is full of mysteries. Why do cafés persist in putting your napkin between the cake and the plate, thereby guaranteeing you can’t use it? Why is Prezzo always full? Why are the plates for Picnic’s salads so small that it’s almost impossible to eat the salad without dumping half of it on the table? Cosmo: why?

But the biggest mystery of all to me is that people just don’t read the reviews of out of town places – I know, thanks to the joys of WordPress, that every time I publish one quite a few readers decide to take a week off. That’s a real shame, because those people won’t get to find out about the Bird In Hand. They won’t get to experience little flashes of wonder of like the ones I had – that first taste of couscous, wild mushroom and tuna, the tang of the salted ricotta, the big silly smile at something with the texture of jelly and the taste of Sarson’s. That ice cream. Those doughnuts. But never mind – because if you’re reading this you’ll know, and maybe you’ll go. That’s good enough for me.

The Bird In Hand – 8.3
Peppard Road, Sonning Common, RG4 9NP
0118 9721857

http://birdinhandsonningcommon.com/

The Reformation, Gallowstree Common

The Reformation closed in August 2018, or at least the long term tenants moved on then. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

One of the things that’s always made TripAdvisor a patchy guide to restaurants is that it’s always had a rather loose definition of what a restaurant is. It used to be the case that restaurants and cafés were all lumped together, so the ten best restaurants in Reading included the likes of Tutti Frutti and Tamp Culture. Cafés tend to do better than restaurants on TripAdvisor: the algorithm is a numbers game and cafés, after all, get more customers. On one level, there’s nothing wrong with this – Tutti Frutti and Tamp are both great places – but on another it doesn’t help when deciding where to go for dinner.

TripAdvisor, possibly recognising the problem, made some changes recently to divide establishments into “Restaurants” and “Coffee & Tea”. In principle this should have improved things, but if anything it’s even more confusing because it’s been somewhat randomly applied. So places like Picnic and Workhouse – not restaurants per se, but certainly much more than just hot drinks – are now in the “Coffee & Tea” section, and yet Nibsy’s, Tutti Frutti and My Kitchen are still, apparently, restaurants. Your guess at the rationale behind this is as good as mine; I think they might have used a Magic 8-Ball.

The effect of those changes, random and incomplete though there are, is to clear out some of the noise in the TripAdvisor rankings. It’s also why I went to the Reformation this week, because now that many of the cafés have been taken out it is – with the exception of Quattro – the highest rated restaurant in Reading. Not only that, but people I know whose judgement I trust recommended it. Nothing fancy and nothing pretentious, they said, just pub classics done very well indeed. Sometimes that’s all you want, so I got in the car on a sunny day and went up the A4074 past the sites of triumphs (The Pack Saddle) and disasters (The Pack Horse), taking the next right for the village of Gallowstree Common.

Despite the photo on the website, where the building looks more suited to a horror novel than a restaurant review (the village name would be strangely appropriate, come to think of it), the Reformation is another of those handsome country pubs that I’m always banging on about. There’s a nice garden at the front (on the quiet main road) with pub tables and little shed-ette for smokers (very civilised). Stepping through the door has the opposite effect to the Tardis – I was expecting a massive restaurant but instead got a pretty small pub. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, but so many pubs these days have turfed out the drinkers in favour of diners that seeing space for only twenty covers in the dining room struck me as unusual (in fairness, there’s also a conservatory although it was nowhere near as cosy and inviting). The décor was the usual mix of Farrow and Ball paint tones and mismatched furniture, with witty quotes and the signatures of the Kaiser Chiefs, amongst others, on one wall (it seems they’ve played a gig there). It felt like a pub with the right balance between restaurant and local boozer.

Having checked the menu online before coming out I knew that this week was going to be vegetarian week. Arriving at the pub, however, I was disappointed to see that the menu had changed when the website had not. Of course it’s good for menus to be regularly refreshed but on this occasion is meant that my tantalising veggie main, picked off the menu on the website (lightly spiced bubble and squeak cake, creamed spinach and peas, paneer, soft poached egg – doesn’t that sound good?) had been replaced by what was basically mushrooms on toast. I’m nothing if not committed, though, so I soldiered on. I also knew I would not get another chance this month to live up to my veggie promise.

But all that was to come. I was tempted to go full vegetarian and order the baked Camembert to share, but I couldn’t persuade my companion to go for it and eventually I ruled it out as not being a sufficient test of the kitchen’s skills. Instead, the deep fried whitebait with garlic mayo was a near miss of a consolation prize. The whitebait were crispy and the portion was generous but the mayonnaise didn’t have the courage of its convictions (nowhere near enough garlic) and the fish themselves were incredibly salty. All a little bit out of whack, and then to cap it all the Camembert turned up at another table and I realised I’d made a big mistake (huge): it looked bloody lovely and generous (huge).

RefWhitebait

The potted local rabbit was a lot more like it. A beautiful little ramekin of shredded meat but packed with loads of other things too – ever so finely diced carrot and cornichon, rosemary, juniper berries. Just lovely – fresh and clean with just enough of a vinegary edge to stop it being cloying. There wasn’t enough toast (or, as the menu called it, “chargrilled bread”) – there never is with this kind of thing – but the salad was beautifully dressed and went nicely with the remaining rabbit. After all, you can only pile it so high on a piece of toast before it looks a bit silly.

RefRabbit

The next course meant my appointment with the aforementioned mushrooms on toast. They were cooked with wild garlic and Madeira cream, sprinkled with Stilton crumb and then topped with some salad leaves. It was fine but no more than that; if I’d cooked this at home I’d have been happy with it, but as a main course it left something to be desired. The bread was nothing special, the Stilton crumb wasn’t terribly cheesy and as a texture it just got swamped by the sauce. The salad wasn’t dressed so I ended up mopping the plate with it – serving it on the side would have made more sense, instead of putting it on top as a cheffy gesture. The mushrooms and garlic were tasty enough, but I couldn’t shift the feeling that I’d eaten a supersized starter, and twelve pounds for this felt a bit much. If only that paneer had still been on the menu.

RefShrooms

Ironically the other main, which was far more successful, was in essence a supersized breakfast. A glorious spiral of pork belly, like a Swiss roll for carnivores, came on top of a hash of firm potatoes, sweet leeks, rich crumbly black pudding and punchy, piquant chorizo. If that wasn’t enough (and it would have been) the most gorgeous soft-yolked fried duck egg was perched on top of the whole lot, ready to release liquid gold at the touch of a knife. If you’re not hungry reading all that then this really isn’t the dish for you but if you are believe me, it more than lived up to that billing. It was a symphony of pork products, although you probably didn’t want to think about just how bad for you it was. I finished nearly all of it – a little wobbly section of pork belly was never going to get eaten, but I had no complaints.

RefBelly

The wine list at the Reformation is one of those fantastic ones where many are available by the glass, where you can have 125ml, 175ml or 250ml and where you aren’t penalised for smaller measures. Close to my perfect wine list, in fact – all they had to do was offer 250ml and 500ml carafes and they’d get a gold star for wine alone. We tried three in total: the unoaked chardonnay was smooth and creamy, the Gaillac fresh and sophisticated and the Languedoc red (the cheapest red on the list) was the kind of robust unpretentious wine you could glug all evening. Really impressive stuff, and far better and more interesting than countless wine lists I’ve come across recently.

So, two good dishes and two disappointing ones. In those circumstances, having dessert felt as much like a tie-breaker as a chance to indulge further. I was tempted by the cheeses (a great British selection by the superbly named Pong of Bath including Lincolnshire Poacher, one of my favourites) but the call of the school dinner was as so often too difficult to resist. Besides, little cheers me up quite like sticky toffee pudding. Alas, again it was close but no cigar. It was on the generous side but it was far too sweet (even for me) and there wasn’t enough butterscotch sauce or enough ice cream. I chose ice cream over cream but on reflection cream would have been a better option to try and tone down the onslaught of sugar.

It reminded me strongly of those tinned Heinz steamed sponge puddings that were such a treat in my house back in the 80s. That’s not entirely a criticism – I could go one right now, in fact – but I think I expected better. And that was a problem throughout the mail, in hindsight – however good it was I think I frequently expected better. That might have been my fault for reading TripAdvisor or listening to some of my foodie friends, but whoever’s fault it was it still fell flat. I always finish sticky toffee pudding, but I left some of this; the uncleaned plate had a certain sadness to it.

Honours ended up even though, because the lemon posset was beautiful. It had the lightness and sharpness that had been missing from the STP – a perfect way to refresh the palate after the richness of the belly pork. If I was being fussy I would have liked a bit more of the shortbread crumb on top (although that might have run the risk of turning it into an upside down cheesecake), the physalis was a pointless adornment and the icing sugar was too – but I feel I may have been quite fussy enough already, so let’s just say that I liked it a lot.

RefDessert

My mixed feelings about the food were, if anything, made even sharper by just how brilliant the service was. The waitress was lovely throughout – knowledgeable about the menu, full of ideas and recommendations and genuinely enthusiastic about some of the choices we made. Even though it was just a random visit on a weekday evening she lifted it and made it feel a bit like a special occasion. She was so good, in fact, that I started to doubt myself: maybe it was me, rather than the kitchen who was having an off-day? Could all those positive reviews really be mistaken? It felt like a real puzzler. The meal for two – three courses each along with three glasses of wine and a soft drink – came to sixty-four pounds, not including tip.

You’ve probably gathered by now that I wanted to like The Reformation more than I actually did. And there was stuff to like, don’t get me wrong – that rabbit, the service, the smoker’s shed, the witticisms on the walls – but it felt very much like the cliché of a meal of two halves; had I foregone the vegetarian main, perhaps the number down there would be higher. So, this isn’t the rave recommendation you might expect from TripAdvisor, but a cautious suggestion that the Reformation is worth consideration next time you feel like a drive in the country and a meal in a pub. It’s not completely unqualified, though: if you love meat it’s probably worth the trip and the superb welcome, but if you’re a vegetarian who likes a decent portion (you lot snickering at the back can just cut it out) then you might want to give it a miss. The funny thing is that despite the fact that some of the dishes were disappointing I still left wanting to go back. Like a darts player who keeps hitting fives and ones I feel like I just need another shot and I’d get the treble twenty. So yes, I’ll be making a return visit. And I will order that bloody Camembert, just watch me. Even if I have to have it all to myself. Don’t think I won’t.

The Reformation – 7.2
Horsepond Road, Gallowstree Common, RG4 9BP
0118 9723126

http://www.therefpub.com/