Café review: Raayo

Picture the scene: I found myself in the town centre on Sunday around noon with the afternoon to myself, and I figured it was the perfect time to try one of the many lunchtime options on my to do list. This is, it turns out, something of a growth area. Despite last year being a challenging one for hospitality, there was no shortage of relatively new places for me to explore – Italian café Madoo on Duke Street, Bru at the skanky end of Friar Street, Yaylo where Nibsy’s used to be on Cross Street, Chipstar next to the Alehouse. I used to complain frequently about Reading not having enough places for lunch, but I felt distinctly spoiled for choice.

And actually, wandering round town I discovered new lunch places I’d not even considered or known about. My Warsaw, a Polish street food hole in the wall, has opened on the ground floor of Kings Walk, and Bánh Mì QB, a place selling the Vietnamese sandwich of the gods, looks set to open a few doors down in the not too distant future. 

Meanwhile, over on West Street where Beijing Noodle House used to be, there’s a little Nepalese place called Chillim Kitchen and, right next door, an establishment called Cairo Café that does common or garden panini and wraps but also serves “Egyptian Street Food” and something called the “King Tut Breakfast”. Where had all these places come from? I guess if we had a local media worth speaking of we’d all know about these by now, whereas instead you have to rely on me mooching round at the weekend. Sorry about that.

Anyway, I figured everywhere on my list would be quiet. After all town, or at least my social media echo chamber, was completely swept up in Blue Collar Corner mania: every couple of minutes I saw another Instagram story of someone enjoying our brand new street food Mecca down Hosier Street (“it felt like I was in Ibiza” was Berkshire Live’s verdict. That’s nice). So I just assumed everybody would be there checking out all the bright shiny new things and I would have my pick of the empty cafés. 

It was a great plan, but it didn’t survive its first bruising collision with reality: Madoo was rammed and, out on Broad Street, the handful of stools in Chipstar were all occupied. As so often, Reading’s Twittersphere wasn’t a perfect reflection of town, so back to the drawing board it was. With uncanny timing, the heavens opened and I took shelter outside M&S, half tempted to abort my mission and just review a takeaway this week. And then I remembered Raayo, just down from Hickies and opposite what’s left of the Harris Arcade. 

I’d never been, and in fact I’d been a little waspish about them in my roundup at the end of 2020: at the time they had an underdeveloped website, now I’m not sure they even have a website. But I seemed to remember hearing from Zoë that some people from her work had been there and quite liked it. As I passed, it was as empty as empty could be. That didn’t raise my hopes that I was going to have a fantastic lunch, but it did make me feel for them a bit – I’ve always been drawn to the underdog – so I decided to chance my arm, and my lunch, and in I went.

It’s basically a small, open plan room which makes full use of its floor to ceiling windows looking out on to the pavement. There’s a bar alongside the window, and handsome stools to perch on, but apart from that it’s just a case of going up to the counter and placing your order. From the size I’d imagine much of their business would normally be takeaway, but as there wasn’t a soul in sight it seemed the apposite moment to try it out.

The menu, if I’m honest, looked a tad generic. There was a range of sandwiches and toasties all involving various ingredients kept under the counter, à la Reading institutions Pierre’s and Shed. A couple of sandwiches had interesting-looking components – scamorza in one, pickled fennel in another – but nothing leapt out (and seeing one of my favourite cheeses misspelt on the blackboard as “Parmsean” made my heart go out to them again – that underdog thing, I imagine). But when I asked the owner behind the counter what he recommended he pointed to their special, the pulled pork, and so I went for that.

It took just long enough to arrive, wrapped in foil like a burrito, and I found myself pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Unlike many toasties, especially at chain cafés, it was edible without being hotter than the sun, and the pulled pork was really very good. At its worst, pulled pork is a mulchy, soggy mess and usually the standard-issue barbecue sauce it tends to be paired with makes it a sickly, mulchy, soggy mess. But not so here – the pork wasn’t bone dry (as it is, for instance, at the Nag’s Head) but the balance had been struck nicely. And the barbecue sauce had a properly pleasing heat to it, without masses of sweetness. At four pounds fifty it was very generous and excellent value, and although my photo makes it look like a symphony of beige I hope you’ll take my word for it that it was a find. 

I had misread the menu, which offers plenty of extras you can put in your pulled pork sandwich. I thought they all came as standard, whereas in reality you have to pay for them. If I’d known, I’d be talking right now about the sharpness and crunch of gherkins, and the delightful texture from the crispy shallots. But sadly, I didn’t: although in some respects that might be for the best because this sandwich could stand on its own two feet without the extras. With them, next time, it could be worldbeating. 

But I was quite happy as I was, so I ate my sandwich on my stool, looking out the window at the sights of Friar Street, lost in the moment, pondering some of the great mysteries of life: why are we here? Do I eat so much nice food to distract myself from some gaping spiritual void in my life? And, perhaps most significantly, does anyone actually drink in Wild Lime? There I was, the only living boy in Raayo: behind me I could dimly make out the sound of the owner, AirPods in, chatting to somebody on his phone, vaguely audible above the hum of the fridge. All seemed right with the world, and the rain had even stopped.

I went up to order some coffee and a cookie for afters and I told him how much I’d enjoyed my sandwich. He sounded really proud of it, and he told me his story: he’d opened eighteen months ago, and it had been a really challenging time. People were starting to come back into town at last, and the weekends were surprisingly busy. He told me that he made everything himself, that the pulled pork and the barbecue sauce were both to his recipe and that although it was described as a special it was on the menu every day. I was so glad that my food hadn’t been rubbish, although of course I didn’t put it that way when I was talking to him.

The coffee isn’t great though – if you go, you might find it disappointing. It was below that top tier of Workhouse, C.U.P. and Compound, with a slightly scorched bitter note that needed more sugar to conceal it than I was prepared to put in. But it didn’t matter, because my chocolate and coconut cookie was a chewy treat – part biscuit, part macaroon, all delicious. I was so keen to eat it that I started without taking a picture, which means that the photo below is the only one in nearly nine years of writing this blog of my tiny toothmarks. He had a meal deal going so I got the coffee and a cookie for three pounds thirty – I asked him to charge me full price but he just wouldn’t. In total my sandwich, my cookie, a coffee and a soft drink cost me under a tenner: good luck getting so much stuff at Pret A Manger.

I wish I could give Raayo the kind of score that would send literally a handful of people flocking to it. But this isn’t that kind of review, and Raayo isn’t that kind of place. It’s too shy and unassuming – back to that lack of a social media presence again – and it needs to be slightly bolshier. I worry for it, a little. But then maybe if it was gobbier it would lose some of what made it such a quietly lovely place to have a peaceful, serene lunch when it felt like all the world was somewhere else. But I would recommend you try it if pulled pork is your thing, and I’ll definitely go back to try it again. 

It’s somehow hugely comforting to know that Reading still contains these little surprises, like a small hole in the wall sandwich shop where the owner makes his own pulled pork and it’s thoroughly decent. It’s good to know these places still thrive amid all the Caffe Neros and Costas that so dominate the centre of Reading, like flowers through cracks in the pavement,. And it’s a timely reminder, on an apt weekend, that you should never completely let the next big thing blind you to what’s already here, toiling away, waiting for that lucky break.

Raayo – 7.0
155 Friar Street, Reading, RG1 1HE
0118 3273418

https://www.facebook.com/Raayo155
Delivery via: Deliveroo, Uber Eats

Smokin’ Billy’s

As of May 2021 Smokin’ Billy’s has not reopened and will apparently become a coffee shop. I’ve left this review up for posterity.

It’s not good, on a Wednesday night, to be the only people eating in a restaurant. Immediately alarm bells start to ring: what does everyone else know that I don’t? Is it bad? Is it safe? What am I doing here?

Another good question is what year is it?, because although it’s 2016 everywhere else, in Smokin’ Billy’s it seems to still be 1995: there are nachos and loaded potato skins on the menu and a five foot high fibreglass model of Marilyn Monroe near the bar. All very glory days of TGI Fridays, I guess, and so 90s that I expected to leave the place to see Café Iguana in full swing opposite (how I miss the Rome toasted sandwich with garlic and herb potato wedges), to be able to head to Edwards’ or Bar Oz down by the train station for a final drink.

The Marilyn theme wasn’t confined to the statue: there were pictures and quotes from Marilyn everywhere (along with random electric guitars and Norman Rockwell prints on the walls) a testament to Smokin’ Billy’s previous incarnation as Monroe’s. According to the nice chap at the bar it was renamed nearly two years ago but otherwise very little has actually changed – same menu, same décor, same chef.

Looking at the menu I could quite believe that it was two years old, judging by how sticky it was. Popping to the loos down the badly lit corridor at the back (no signs on the toilet doors, incidentally, which could be tricky after a couple of drinks) it was apparent that the stickiness extended to the floor – so much so, in fact, that I could see my footprints on the laminate. That said, the kitchen looked clean and the Score on the Door was five out of five (I won’t lie: I was crossing my fingers when I came back to order, hoping the rating wasn’t also two years old).

It would have been wrong not to order the potato skins – many things from the Nineties have been rightly consigned to the rubbish bin of history (Noel’s House Party, Mad Dog 20/20, every record ever released by Jimmy Nail) but I think the time is right for loaded potato skins to make a comeback. Sadly, Smokin’ Billy’s is not the right stage for it: we ordered them topped with barbecue chicken and expected a thin crispy potato skin, hollowed out and filled with good stuff. The topping, such as it was, was reasonably good (hard not to enjoy barbecue chicken and cheese), but when the thing your loaded potato skin is loaded with is, well, potato you’ve accidentally ordered jacket potato as a starter. And nobody wants that, surely?

Billy'sPotato

Similarly the garlic mushroom and cheese quesadilla was more Ocean Colour Scene than Oasis. A Mexican toasted sandwich is a great idea in theory but this didn’t work in practice because the mushrooms were just a bit odd: leathery with a weirdly metallic aftertaste. I’m not sure how recently they’d been sautéed or whether that was the problem but something about them really wasn’t right. Hard to detect any other flavour in the quesadilla either, with the mushrooms singing so loudly and so very out of tune. Each starter, served on a massive plate which itself looked deeply 90s, came with a ramekin of sour cream topped with a slice of lime and sprinkled with paprika. Somehow the whole thing felt more Tex-Meh.

Billy'sQuesadilla

Another warning bell followed: the waiter cleared our plates away and offered to bring out our mains pretty much immediately. We managed to agree a five minute wait but I couldn’t help worrying and wondering that all that meant was that our mains were sitting on the pass gradually getting less appealing. After all, how could they be ready to come out straight away if they weren’t already ready? As it was, five minutes wasn’t enough to make me feel anywhere near prepared to eat more food: those jacket potatoes in disguise sat heavy on the stomach.

By this point my expectations were pretty close to the (sticky, laminate) floor, so I’m happy to report that the main courses were – if not exactly amazing – far better than I had feared. Pulled pork was pretty decent: served on the bottom half of a burger bun (a bit random, but never mind) the pork was properly shredded but with enough texture to see what it had been, and just about on the right side of moist and soggy, smoky and sickly-sweet. Only just, but I was expecting far worse.

It came with coleslaw (served in a lettuce leaf for no reason I can think of), sweet potato fries, mini sweetcorn cobs and onion rings. Most of it wasn’t half bad – the sweet potato fries, lovely and crispy, stood out and the onion rings were surprisingly good given that their uniform shape made me suspect they’d come out of a freezer. The corn on the cob though was actively awful: watery, chewy and – if I’m being really honest – strangely fishy-tasting. Not sure how you get that sort of flavour into a corn on the cob, by accident or design, but either way you really need to stop. I’d be surprised if it had been either fresh or freshly cooked. The orange slice on top of the pulled pork, however, was fresh. An baffling choice of garnish, I know, but at least it was easy to discard.

Billy'sPork

Another surprise: the burger wasn’t bad either. I am no burger purist and I’m sure if you were you could find plenty wrong with this one – it was served medium-well according to the menu but I thought it was more cooked through than that. But it was pretty pleasant, with loads of cheese (cheddar, I think, rather than a yellow American slice), some decent bacon, more of the onion rings and a barbecue sauce which, as with the pulled pork and the barbecue chicken in the starter, was nearly too sweet and synthetic but just about on the right side of the line. The bun was allegedly a brioche and managed the feat of looking like one without tasting like anything of the kind, but I didn’t mind it.

Only those diabolical mushrooms from the quesadilla, making an unwelcome return appearance, wrecked proceedings. But also, I really liked the chips, against my better judgment. Again, their regular shape suggested they’d been chipped in a factory, stuck in a bag and bunged in the freezer but they’d been beautifully fried – crunchy-fluffy and perfect for dipping in some barbecue sauce. Was what I experienced enjoyment or relief? Tell the truth, I’m still not sure.

Billy'sBurger

Service, from an idiosyncratically coiffed young man wearing what looked like a cravat, was friendly, chatty and personable. But we were the only customers so some of the lapses were hard to understand: it took a while to order, our mains were seemingly ready the moment our starters were finished yet after we finished our mains our mostly empty plates were in front of us for what felt like an eternity. I think he was chatting to his friend at the bar – which is lovely and all, but his friend wasn’t ordering food or paying a bill (an activity which also took longer than it should have done). And yet I quite liked the charming amateurism: as with everything else, I wanted to like Smokin’ Billy’s a little more than I actually could.

There was no drinks list (when I asked the waiter he said “but I can list all the drinks for you”, which kind of sums the place up) and when I got to the bar the selection of soft drinks was woeful (two flavours of J20, cans of red bull and fizzy drinks from the siphon). So I had tap water, which came in a jug with ice without having to be asked – although no water glasses, so I had to have it in a wine glass: yet more randomness. My companion had a pear cider, from a bottle (he didn’t trust the pumps). Both of us would probably have been a lot happier with a bottle of Hooch. Those were the days. The total bill came to forty pounds.

If I had gone to Smokin’ Billy’s in 1995 I would have thought it was amazing. The world was a more innocent place in the 90s and we were all so much more easily pleased. Ben’s Thai, Utopia, RG1, actual cinemas in town that weren’t grubby multiplexes, Orient Express down by the Antiques Centre, Trader’s Arcade… the list goes on and on. But in 2016 Reading is a more complex and discerning place, and although I was rooting for Smokin’ Billy’s I couldn’t help feeling that places elsewhere do these things a lot better. Bluegrass across the way has pulled pork sewn up. The Oakford does a better burger. Literally everywhere does better drinks. So if a friend or a colleague dragged me back to Smokin’ Billy’s although I might complain, I’d probably enjoy it while I was there, and tell myself I was being post-modern. But really, it made me glad to live in the now – still missing the 3Bs and Café Iguana, mind you, but delighted with how far Reading has come.

Smokin’ Billy’s – 6.5
61 St Mary’s Butts, RG1 2LG
0118 9573500

http://www.smokingbillys.co.uk/

Nirvana Spa, Sindlesham

I’ve never reviewed the French Horn in Sonning, for one specific reason. Not the prices, although when starters hover around the twenty pound mark and main courses edge closer to thirty it does get harder and harder to say “hang the expense”, convincingly at least. It’s not the faffiness of the menu, although the French Horn’s Habit of Capitalising Pretty Much Every Word does lend Proceedings a Weirdly Dickensian Feel. It’s not even the fact that the menu seems to have an asparagus with hollandaise sauce on it all year round at twenty quid (is it flying first class from Peru?).

No, the reason I haven’t gone to the French Horn is that I’m reliably informed it has a dress code, and I just don’t do dress codes. It feels like a throwback, and something about getting into my glad rags just really rankles. I mean, I’m the customer aren’t I? And it’s not like I’d turn up in a crop top or a string vest, hot pants or swimming shorts; I’ve eaten at lots of lovely restaurants just the right side of well turned out and never been turned away, but when somewhere pompously announces they have a Dress Code (those Dickensian capital letters again)? Count me out.

What that means is that Nirvana Spa is probably the only place I will ever review which does have a dress code. And when I say dress code, I mean that you eat your lunch or dinner in a lovely white fluffy robe, your towel nonchalantly draped over the back of your chair and – in my case – your trashy paperback perched on the table. And if you go on a warm day, like I did, you get to do all of this outside, beaming at everybody else, similarly attired. This must be a bit like how it feels to be in a cult, or live in California (or both), I’ve always thought.

Sometimes I review restaurants and I’ve had a bad day first. I love writing reviews, but it’s a bit like a job – admittedly a job I adore – and there are times when you go and your heart isn’t one hundred per cent in it. Things are crap at the office, or the car failed its MOT, or you’re out of sorts with a friend, or Britain has voted to leave the EU and you still have to go out, eat with an open mind, take photos and write hundreds of words about what it was like. Hopefully you can’t tell in the words or the rating, if I’ve done it properly.

Nirvana is the other way round, if anything – it’s hard not to be happy when your most difficult decisions that afternoon are whether to read Hello! or OK!, whether to have the honeycomb tiffin or the salted caramel ice cream in the Roman Room, whether to go to the hydrotherapy pool or snooze on the heated terra cotta loungers. How can you have a bad meal under those circumstances?

On the other hand, I went on a long-booked visit the Sunday after the referendum result, when there was a weird atmosphere across the country. That weekend was like waking up hungover with The Fear, not entirely sure what you’d said or done or to whom. To complete the irony, Nirvana’s owner had sent a controversial mail to members only that week “offering them the opportunity to read” an article he’d written about how Brexit was a very good thing (I half expected to arrive to find bunting everywhere). So, a happy place at a sad time: what would lunch be like?

The menu at Nirvana has two options – either all you can eat from the salad bar (which also features a number of hot options) for fourteen quid or the a la carte menu which has starters, sandwiches, salads and main courses. The salad bar is included if you visit as a day guest rather than a member and really, I ought to have eaten from it to give you a representative view. But I’m afraid I was in need of cheering up so I didn’t, although I can tell you from past experience that it’s not half bad (and especially impressive for vegetarians and vegans where it gives a range of choice you’d struggle to match elsewhere).

Instead I stuck to the menu, deciding to kick things off with a selection of artisan (everyone’s favourite ubiquitous, meaningless word) breads for two. I was denied the opportunity of doing this when they turned up at exactly the same time as the starters, but none the less they weren’t half bad, especially at less than two pounds. All warm, some slightly toasted, a good array with the dark malted one, studded with seeds, my particular favourite. Butter was at room temperature (which always helps) and it was nice to have olive oil and balsamic although, as so often, nowhere near enough.

NirvanaBread

The starters were less impressive. We’d both gone for salads and I wonder whether they had decided to prioritise virtue over taste. Smoked chicken salad was presented in a way almost deliberately calculated to underwhelm – a fan of smoked chicken on one side of the plate, your salad on the other. Not mixed at all, and the salad also appeared to be barely dressed at best. What’s a real shame about this is that it had potential to be a lovely starter if done better – the salad was full of firm peas and crunchy beans and would have been beautiful with a bit more dressing and the smoked chicken, although a tad wan and floppy, did set it all off nicely. I seem to recall that the menu at Nirvana specifically says that you can ask for your salad dressing to be left off completely; it’s a pity it doesn’t also give you the option to ask for it be glugged on with abandon.

NirvanaChicken

Similarly, the baked smoked salmon salad was an exercise in restraint. A handful of salad leaves lightly dressed, topped with a thinly sliced radish (singular, I’m guessing) with a few chunks of salmon dotted round the edge. I was expecting a tangible piece of salmon rather than these chilly fragments and considering it was the most expensive starter on the menu (nine quid, since you ask) it felt miserly. It came with a wedge of lemon, just in case you weren’t feeling bitter enough, and a few de-seeded slices of chilli, mixed in as an afterthought. If I’d made this myself with bits from M&S it would have cost half as much and been twice as big. A shame, because what there was was nice, refreshing and light. I was just glad we ordered the bread.

NirvanaSalmon

After all that the main course was a beautiful, delicious surprise. Fillet steak came with a delicious, nutty pearl barley risotto which I adored. I’ve had pearl barley risotto quite a lot in Prague for some reason but it doesn’t seem to crop up on menus here much, a shame because it has much more about it than conventional risotto often does. There was also a solitary carrot – fair enough, I suppose – and two beautifully sweet, shallots which had been cooked into softness. The fillet itself was rare, exactly as requested (I went back to CAU recently and they, a specialist steak restaurant, still seem unable to get this right: Nirvana 1, CAU 0) and although I would have liked it to have a little more flavour, the texture was terrific. Finally, drawing everything together, what the menu described as “oxtail sauce”, rich strands of oxtail strewn on top of the fillet and all over the pearl barley risotto. Sixteen pounds fifty for that lot, and one of the most interesting ways I’ve had fillet steak for a very long time; if this dish had been on the menu at a restaurant near me I’d already be trying to contrive an excuse to go back.

NirvanaBeef

I also wanted to check out the lighter options on the menu, so we ordered a pulled pork wrap. This was just lovely: the thin flour tortilla was rammed full of really good pulled pork (smoky and sweet without being sugary as it so often is) with fresh, crisp, contrasting coleslaw. I liked the fact that it was served warm, too – so different from a cold claggy sandwich. It cost as much as the salmon starter, but felt like considerably better value. It came with a small leafy salad I didn’t much care for with a squiggle of creamy dressing, but perhaps I was just saladed out by that point, if such a verb exists. It might not have looked much in comparison to the fillet steak, but I thoroughly enjoyed it all the same.

NirvanaPork

Nirvana isn’t the place to order a dessert; you’re there all day after all, and saving some room for an afternoon snack is one of the only ways to break up the delirious monotony of being a modern-day lotus eater. So we finished our drinks (a decent glass of New Zealand sauvignon blanc for me and a rose cava for my companion), charged the meal to a membership card and ambled off in the direction of an outdoor jacuzzi. Two courses, that bread selection and a couple of drinks came to a smidge under fifty-five pounds. That doesn’t include service at Nirvana, but all the service there is smiley and friendly, on the informal side but none the worse for that. If they were elated or devastated about Brexit, they certainly didn’t give it away.

As I sat in the outdoor jacuzzi, wishing they let you drink bubbly in there, I did briefly wonder about whether you could separate Nirvana’s food from the overall experience of being at a spa for the day. I’m not sure. If you picked the restaurant up and plonked it somewhere else, aside from being perturbed that all your fellow diners were in robes, I think you would like but not love the food. Not just that, but some of the pricing seems strangely generous (that fillet steak main), some arbitrarily expensive (the smoked salmon starter). As so often, I wonder about the wisdom of giving a rating; I love being at Nirvana, I love eating there and yet eating there isn’t quite the point. But then I decided I’d thought about it quite long enough – the world outside appeared to be either taking back control or falling to pieces, depending on who you believe – and before long I would have to leave my hermetically sealed bubble and go back to it. I was glad my phone, with access to constant news, was stowed away in a locker.

Later on I did go to the hydrotherapy pool, by the way. Some of the massage jets weren’t working, and many of the handles you use to cling to the side were broken off. It’s been that way since the start of the year: it’s a shame the owner feels like he has better things to do than fix it.

Nirvana Spa – 7.3
Mole Road, Sindlesham, RG41 5DJ
0118 989 7500

https://nirvanaspa.co.uk/

Handmade Burger Co.

As of January 2020 Handmade Burger has closed as the chain went into administration. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

There was a story doing the rounds last month about fifteen restaurant operators eyeing up Reading with a view to opening in the town. Beyond that the specifics were vague – who were they? Where exactly were they hoping to open? – but that didn’t stop it being picked up by one of the local sites (on a slow news day, perhaps) which reported it as “fifteen national food chains” in talks about moving in. As a result, I saw a little bit of discussion and speculation on Twitter, but I couldn’t bring myself to be hugely excited. I’ve never subscribed to the “chains bad, indies good” theory of restaurants – nobody who’s eaten at both Côte and Picasso could buy that for a second – but I do think it’s true that when you look at what Reading really needs, more chains wouldn’t really be at the top of the list.

That’s not to say that some chains aren’t wonderful things, or that Reading wouldn’t benefit from them; I finally went to Wahaca recently, and it’s every bit as good as everyone says. I’d love to see Busaba or Leon set up a branch in Reading, for that matter. But I’d rather see an independent bistro, or a bakery, or a little Vietnamese place, or a sushi restaurant, or any of a dozen types of establishment which just don’t fit the chain mould at all. But maybe, even having said all that, I’m being too harsh to the chain restaurants. After all, there are good chains and bad chains, big chains and small chains. So this week I decided to give one of them a try – and because it’s both ages since I tried a new chain and ages since I had a burger, one option on the Oracle leapt out and simply demanded to be chosen.

Handmade Burger Co. wasn’t the burger company Reading was hoping for when LSQ2 gave up its spot right on the edge of the Oracle; back then, everyone was clamouring, rightly or wrongly, for Gourmet Burger Kitchen (except me, I wanted – and still want – a Byron). But when HBC opened in late 2012 if at least sounded more interesting than GBK: a small, family-owned chain that had, if the website is to be believed, grown out of a single branch in Birmingham. Who doesn’t like a rags to riches underdog story? I didn’t go back in 2012, but since then it has grown to 25 locations across the country and, again if you buy the blurb on the website, makes its burgers from scratch using 48 fresh ingredients delivered 6 days a week. Well, it all sounded worth a shout to me – and after all, restaurant websites are always a really good indicator, aren’t they?

Going in on a weekday evening, the thing that struck me about the room was how many tables they had crammed into quite a cavernous space. It’s very high-ceilinged (all the other pitches in that row are two floors) but the tables are really jammed in together, especially in the middle of the room. The décor was quite nondescript – all very plain tables and chairs, but it didn’t feel like a table for two was quite big enough for two people and to make matters worse, the neighbouring table for two wasn’t especially far away either. The tables with banquettes were better, but we didn’t get shown to one of those and I didn’t have the energy to ask for one. That said, people like the place: I arrived early on a weekday evening and by the time I left the restaurant was largely full. Would I have wanted to arrive when the place was full and try to have a conversation in a big echoey packed room with a very limited amount of soft furnishings? Well, this probably makes me sound about a million years old, but: no, not on your nelly.

The model works in much the same way as Nando’s – you get shown to a table, pick what you want from the menu, order at the bar, collect your drinks and wait for your food to come to the table. The basic burger comes with a dizzying number of topping options, or you can have a chicken burger, or go bunless, or have a gluten free bun, or have it in a pitta, or even (how random is this?) in a Yorkshire pudding. Or you can have a vegan burger. Or a veggie burger. Or something a bit like a burger but on a skewer. The possibilities are, if not endless, a lot less finite than I would personally choose. It really does cater for everyone. Everyone who likes burgers.

HBC’s new menu, and indeed the board outside, proudly boasted that they now do something they touchingly refer to as “dirty burgers”. The website doesn’t define exactly what this means and how or why they are dirty (although surely it’s not a literal sanitary description), nor did the menu. A little pamphlet folded away inside my cutlery tin also talked about the burgers but again, there was no real explanation beyond them being “juicy, messy and full of flavour” (as opposed, presumably, to the dry, tidy, bland offerings elsewhere on the menu). But I am a marketing department’s dream, and they were in a little boxed off section with their own fancy typeface, and so I went for the “D.B. Fried Onion” figuring that it was worth a try.

“Watch out with this, it’s dirty” said the waitress as she put it in front of me (not something you ever want someone to say to you while bringing food to your table, in my experience), although she also didn’t explain exactly what this meant. It was in the Five Guys style of presentation i.e. wrapped in foil and looking for all the world like it had been sat on. When I opened it up, I still wasn’t sure this hadn’t actually happened. It was a pretty bog-standard, fairly uninspiring cheeseburger. The patty was thin, flat and grey – thin enough that you could see why no effort had been made to cook it anything less than well done. The fried onions were tasty enough, although they lacked the true caramelised sweetness of really mouthwatering fried onions. There was lots of gooey orange processed American cheese, my favourite kind on a burger, but it just wasn’t enough to rescue it. I didn’t mind the “fresh buttermilk bun” (why HBC doesn’t call it brioche like every other restaurant I have no idea), but overall it was inoffensive and disappointing. I’ve seen dirtier episodes of Antiques Roadshow, put it that way. Oh, there was also some “jalapeno slaw” and a bit of gherkin but it looked like such an afterthought – as you can maybe tell from the picture – that I just couldn’t be bothered.

HBCDirty

The “dirty burger” section of the menu also offers the horrors of something called “Hipster Chips” and I’m afraid this is where I do have to stop for a little rant. No, no, no, no, no. First of all, “hipster” is something other people call you, not something you call yourself (I tell you what, I’m such a hipster, me, said no one ever). And second of all, it is never, ever a term of endearment. So I didn’t order them, and I can’t tell you what chips with sriracha mayonnaise taste like, because they might as well have been called “Look What A Zany Wanker I Am Chips”. I mean, credit to HBC for calling them chips rather than fries, but it’s not enough. So instead I had some “Denver Chips”, which were topped with pulled pork, barbecue sauce and melted cheese. There was a bit of pulled pork, though not masses, a lake of enamel-strippingly sweet sauce and some curls of cheese (some of which had melted and some of which, worryingly enough, hadn’t) and underneath a poor abused pile of average chips which deserved better. I didn’t eat them all.

HBCChips

From the not-so-dirty menu the peanut butter and bacon burger sounded less obviously dirty but still good. Sadly it simply wasn’t dirty enough. First up the bun looked like a common or garden burger bun – pale and wan with a few sesame seeds on top. It was dry and crumbly and not at all like the sourdough bun I expected, as advertised on the walls of the restaurant (perhaps “sourdough”, like “artisan”, is just something people say to waste space on menus nowadays). But let’s not focus on the bun, let’s focus on the filling because that’s where this really disappointed. The burger was thick – oddly much thicker, it seemed, than the “dirty burger” – resolutely far from juicy, and bland. There were one or two rashers of unremarkable bacon without much salt or smoke. I was hoping for a big dollop of peanut butter on the burger, slowly melting into a savoury, nutty satay, but instead I got a minuscule smidge hidden underneath the lettuce leaf. It’s almost like they didn’t want me to be able to taste it. But never mind, because you did get lots of chilli jam. Too much, a big, sweet liquefied pool of the stuff dripping out of the side. So much of it that it really should have been called a “chilli jam and smoked bacon burger”; except of course, if it had been called that I wouldn’t have ordered it, just as I dearly wish I hadn’t ordered this.

HBCBurger

I also had a side of chips which hadn’t been slathered with pulled pork and barbecue sauce, instead coming with rosemary and salt. This was my chance to find out what the chips were like before they got mucked around with, but again it was far from a success. They were soft and flaccid, a bit like chip shop chips that had been sitting around too long. There was loads of the salt and rosemary on them and the rosemary was lovely, but the salt was in huge rocks that you couldn’t really disperse or even eat with the chips. Much of it was left in the bowl afterwards. But then much of the chips were left, too, because they were just too squidgy and boring. That’s a damning indictment; I never leave chips. Sit me in front of a bowl of chips and I will peck away, even if I’m not hungry, and suddenly they’ll be gone. Not these.

When I saw that the menu had malted milkshakes I knew I had to have one, because I bloody love a malted shake. So I had a malted vanilla milkshake. Really, I wanted a peanut butter one, but I resisted because I am profesh and I thought double peanut butter in a single review would not be profesh (also, my dining companion was one of those oddballs who loathes the stuff). It was huge, served in one of those big tin milkshake blending glasses. There were a few discernible dots of vanilla but otherwise it mostly reminded me of the white ice cream of my youth – ah, the wonders of not-especially-Italian Gino Ginelli – not actually truly vanilla flavoured, but vanilla-esque. There wasn’t nearly enough malt for my liking but the malt was only an extra 30p so at least I didn’t feel hugely ripped off. My guest had an Erdinger weissbeer because he really fancied a beer. He didn’t finish it, because I really fancied cutting my losses and leaving.

Service throughout was actually pretty good, for what is essentially a pretty low-frills restaurant with limited table service. The young lady at the bar enthused over the peanut butter burger – it deserves to be tried, apparently – and was friendly and chatty and the other ladies bringing plates and checking up on us (then removing the clothes peg from our table number, another of those subtle ways of indicating that we had been processed) were also really nice. But, like I said, you order at the bar, you pay in advance and you have to fetch some things like soft drinks yourself, so the service can only be so good. I wonder how many people actually tip on paying, before they’ve had any service, or put money in the jar on the way out. I wonder, too, how enjoyable it must be to work in a restaurant run to this model. Dinner for two – two burgers, two chips, two drinks – came to thirty-four pounds and was done and dusted in about thirty-four minutes.

I’m not really in the target market for burgers: as I’ve said many times, they’re just a sandwich. But I can see there’s a time and a place for them, and I like to think I can tell the difference between a good one and a bad one. I was puzzled, though, because I have a friend who is a huge burger connoisseur – I mean, he travels for burgers the way I travel for sushi, and then some – and last time he went to Handmade Burger Co. I heard he thought it was much improved. Well, I’m not sure how bad it was before or if I was just extremely unlucky but it’s hard to see the appeal; there’s not much in the way of charm or atmosphere, the burgers were disappointing and at that price you could do far better in the Oakford or even Five Guys (and, I’m guessing, CAU for that matter). Fifteen restaurant chains circling Reading? The news still doesn’t thrill me, but it’s hard to imagine they couldn’t do better than this.

Handmade Burger Co. – 5.3
Riverside, The Oracle Shopping Centre, RG1 2AG
0118 9588106

http://handmadeburger.co.uk/our-restaurants/find-a-restaurant/handmade-burger-co-reading/

I Love Paella

N.B. I Love Paella stopped operating out of Workhouse Coffee in January 2016. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

There are a number of places in Reading that people have asked me to review that aren’t quite restaurants: a couple of supper clubs, for instance, or the training restaurant at Reading College. I’ve so far not reviewed them because I’m not sure how useful it would be to write about a menu that changes at every single sitting. Who’s to say that one visit would be representative of what’s on offer? With Reading College in particular it also seems a little unfair to review chefs in training – I wouldn’t have wanted to share my GCSE coursework with the outside world, let alone have some snooty blogger bitch about my handwriting, my meandering essays or my poorly drawn graphs.

I Love Paella is that most unusual of things here in Reading: a pop-up restaurant. It operates out of the Oxford Road branch of Workhouse Coffee as part of a laudable project by Workhouse to encourage independent businesses. It’s slightly different from the supper clubs, though, in that it has regular opening hours (from Friday afternoon until Sunday afternoon) and a reasonably stable menu. They’ve not been going long but their enthusiasm on Twitter is infectious, so I thought that if Workhouse can do its bit to support little start-ups, the least I could do is to hop on a trusty number 17 bus one evening and head west to check it out.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must also confess I also had a sneaky side trip to the new improved enormo-Lidl (other supermarkets are available) next to Reading West station, because a friend had recommended their £8 Pouilly Fumé to me. They didn’t have any but I was extremely tempted by some retro biscuits. Have you forgotten how good Gold Bars taste?

The seating inside, as you’d expect, is more suited to coffee drinkers than to people stopping for an evening meal, with mini tables and stools along the windows and a big, high bar area in the middle, but it’s comfortable enough. I Love Paella doesn’t have a license so – having done our homework – we took along our own bottle of wine (not from Lidl, I might add) which the waiter gladly opened for us. I say waiter, but let’s call him the owner – he was the only person we saw working there all evening, and I got the distinct impression that I Love Paella is a one man operation.

The menu is, well, confusing. There’s a blackboard by the counter which lists all the options, except that I suspect they weren’t doing some of them that night, and there were a few specials which weren’t on the blackboard – and we ordered a couple of these because they sounded so good. I got the impression that the owner genuinely decides to cook and try new things on a weekly basis, which is brilliant, but just to be slightly hyper-critical I would have thought the whole point of having a blackboard is that you can easily update it whenever you need to. Being hyper-critical might become a bit of a theme during this review because, as I was to discover, finding anything to criticise at I Love Paella is quite the challenge.

That said, I should also point out that the name, I Love Paella, is a tad misleading. It’s one thing on the menu but the rest of the menu is a mixture of salads, montaditos (small sandwiches) and coques (I felt too awkward asking for one, and good luck Googling one – it turns out they’re a bit like tacos). I pretty much wanted to order everything but showed a little bit of restraint – not much though, as you’ll see when I run through what arrived. The pacing was beautifully done, just as it should be for this kind of dining, so items arrived here and there, just as we’d finished one dish and were ready to move on to the next. I liked being able to watch the rest of the Oxford Road go by, drink my wine and meander through the food on offer – a nice contrast from having tapas in Andalucia where you’re normally rammed at a bar, sherry in one hand, wielding your elbow like a deadly weapon (which, as it happens, mine is).

First up was the goat’s cheese salad, recommended by the owner: a generous plate of frisée, lambs lettuce, radicchio, walnuts and cherry tomatoes with balsamic glaze and a huge slice of pan fried goat’s cheese on top. Not the most complex dish in the world, and very much the sum of its parts but that didn’t make it any less tasty; the combination of the sweet glaze, the walnuts and that creamy, slightly oozy cheese was particularly lovely. A big part of me wanted to see the log of cheese that slice had come from but I was jolted from my reveries about a giant caber made out of cheese by the arrival of the next dish.

ILPSalad

Pulled pork empanada doesn’t do it justice. I’m so bored of pulled pork I can’t even tell you – it’s everywhere. Even at Reading’s street food festival last month everybody was flogging the stuff. I just want to see some unpulled pork (and some unsalted caramel while we’re at it). But the point is that I Love Paella’s pork was a million miles away from the sweet, sticky, saturated America version you can find everywhere. Instead it was fine shredded strands with clever spice and heat, Private Eye to most places’ Take A Break. The pastry was gorgeous too, a corn shell which reminded me of the empanadas I once had at Arepas Caffe – but this was miles better than that, light and golden and slightly sticky underneath. It was absolutely crammed with filling, and even then I bitterly resented having to share it with someone else (when you go – and I hope you do – have one to yourself).

ILPEmpanada

Next up was the legendary paella (which we did order two of – it is the name of the establishment, after all). This may not have matched the heights of the empanada but not much does – it came in a cute miniature paella pan, a decent portion of vividly yellow rice with prawns, lots of pieces of squid and a solitary mussel with a wedge of lemon and the crowning glory, a dollop of extremely good aioli. I’m sure paella experts – and I’m not one – would have an opinion about whether it should have had chicken in it, or chorizo, or peppers. But who really wants to go to dinner with a paella expert? Just imagine. Speaking as a relative novice I loved it. The squid was lovely – firm and yielding, not at all rubbery. The rice still had some nutty bite to it and the flavour was beautiful. But the highlight of the dish had to be spearing one of those prawns, dipping it in the aioli, eating and grinning. I did that quite a lot.

ILPPaella

Next up was the enigmatically named “Cuban sandwich”. This, truth be told, was really just another vehicle for that fabulous pulled pork – a toasted panini with pulled pork and cheese. The panini was nice and crisp, the cheese was melted (something you should be able to take for granted with a panini but isn’t always the case) and the pulled pork was just as spicy, rich and tender as before. If this had been the first dish I ate I’d have fallen a little bit in love, but as it was it just reminded me that I should have ordered another empanada. What’s the Spanish for l’esprit d’escalier?

ILPSandwich

I could have – should have – stopped there, but the problem with ordering all your food right at the start is that restaurants have a nasty habit of bringing it out and expecting you to eat it. So I had to soldier on through the final dish. It didn’t even have a name: I got the impression it was something dreamed up on the day because the owner had some extra chorizo to use and was looking for something tasty to make. Oh my goodness. This was a long piece of puff pastry studded with small pieces of chorizo and cheese and then baked into melty-submission. It was like a particularly suave sausage roll – rich and piquant and very, very decadent. It might have lacked the sophistication of the empanada but, in terms of pure happiness, it was right up there.

ILPRoll

Service throughout was friendly and enthusiastic, with the owner patiently explaining the dishes that weren’t on the menu as well as the ones that were. When the restaurant was busy he was run off of his feet bringing over plates or assembling take away bags but it was still a far warmer welcome than I’ve had from many well-established restaurants and most chains (a lot of them should head over to I Love Paella and pick up some tips – like how to actually look pleased to have customers, for a start). The total bill for one salad, four small dishes and two small paellas was just over twenty-five pounds (it’s worth noting here that they don’t take cards and all the ATMs within 100 yards or so charge for withdrawals, so take cash with you). Admittedly, we brought our own wine and I don’t think we were charged corkage but by any standards you care to name that’s an absolute steal.

So, here’s the hyper-critical bit: I don’t like the name. I just don’t feel like it really sums up what the place is about. I’d like to have seen more variety in the menu. Very little of it felt like true tapas; I’d have loved to see the kitchen serve up some garbanzos con espinacas, or some tortilla, or a selection of really good jamon. And I also wasn’t quite sure if this was a lunch venue or an evening venue – most of the dishes felt more like lunch dishes, so if you want to explore I Love Paella you might be better off doing that on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. It was nowhere near busy the evening I went, with a few tables and a couple of people dropping in to pick up takeaways.

When I talked to the owner he said he had plans to widen the range of food and hopefully expand the opening hours. But to do that he needs customers which, of course, is where we all come in. I really hope he gets them, because – and I’m sure you figured this out some time ago – I absolutely loved I Love Paella. It’s not just that the dishes were so tasty, although they were. It’s not that the service was so good. It’s not even the fact that I felt so at home sitting at my table, drinking my wine and daydreaming of Seville or Barcelona (no mean feat in RG30, let’s be honest). What really struck me about I Love Paella is how consistent it was. Everything was good, it’s a small menu, it changes fairly regularly and I just felt utterly confident that I could have ordered anything on it and had an excellent meal. That’s down to many things, but it doesn’t feel like beginner’s luck to me.

I Love Paella – 8.2
Workhouse Coffee, 335 Oxford Road, RG30 1AY
07707 641694

http://ilovepaella.co.uk/