Feature: The 2014 Edible Reading Awards

Hasn’t 2014 been a weird year for Reading? When it started we were all getting over the shock of Jackson’s closing down, and it’s been another year of greetings and partings. Some of the partings have been surprising to say the least: who’d have thought this time last year that we’d say goodbye to Vicar’s, the iconic butcher on West Street? Who could imagine that the last edition of the Reading Post would appear on newsstands? Who could guess that Reading F.C. would sack another manager? (All right, maybe some of the changes were less surprising than others…).

It makes you wonder what 2015 has in store, and what other time-honoured local institutions may be in jeopardy. Will the After Dark still be open this time next year? Will the doughnut kiosk recorded announcement be heard no more? Will Reading Elvis move to Swindon? I can’t imagine anything worse for the town’s morale (or for Reading Elvis – come on, Swindon’s a bit of a hole, right?).

There’s also been a steady succession of restaurant closures: this is the year we said goodbye to Kyklos, Al Tarboush, The Lobster Room, The Eldon Arms, Cappuccina Café, Arepas Caffe and one of Reading’s two branches of Bella Italia. A real mixed bag, that, including a few places that I still really miss (no, not Bella Italia) – and an apt illustration that doing good food isn’t enough to guarantee a restaurant’s survival. It needs to have a USP, to get the rest of the basics right and to find a way of making sure that people know it’s there. A really tricky business, in more ways than one, and I can understand why it must seem like a thankless one too.

Of course that doesn’t stop new establishments taking their place – sometimes literally – and this year we’ve seen plenty of those: My Kitchen, Casa Roma, Chronicles, Coconut, Rynd, Faith Kitchen and Nibsy’s all opened this year. Just this week Artigiano, an on-trend mixture of coffee shop, lunch spot and wine bar, has opened on Broad Street. We’re due to get CAU early next year and there are perennial rumours that Tamp Culture will eventually give up shivering at their coffee cart and take up a more permanent space in town. The sometimes daunting-looking odds, for now at least, don’t discourage people from having a go.

And it’s not all doom and gloom, because there are other signs of a bit of a renaissance in town. The independent retailers – The Tasting House and The Grumpy Goat – that opened late in 2013 seem to be doing rather nicely. Reading now has three supper clubs and the most entrepreneurial, Pop-Up Reading, has done a variety of collaborations, serving its food in cafés and churches. The hyperlocal scene is better than ever, giving Reading folk a much wider range of sources for news, views, reviews and comment – both Alt Reading and rdgnow started this year and do an excellent job – and it will be interesting to see how things change next year with getreading going digital only. There’s even some bloke reviewing roast dinners.

Anyway, like last year ER is taking Christmas off. For me, Christmas is a time to eat lots of food, completely uncritically, without being plagued by those on duty thoughts that always seem to happen when I eat in restaurants. Besides, you really wouldn’t want to read an ER review of my Christmas dinner (and by about halfway through I wouldn’t be in a fit state to write it anyway). But I couldn’t leave you empty handed – and what better way to round off 2014 than with this, the inaugural Edible Reading Awards! So sit back, grab a canapé (not a euphemism – at least I hope not) and read on while I open a bunch of tatty-looking gold envelopes and announce my big winners of the year. Is this microphone on?

SANDWICH OF THE YEAR: Tuna melt, Shed

A lot of the places that could have won this award have put themselves out of the running by closing: I think at one point Reading had enough top quality sandwiches on offer that you could probably have started a blog just reviewing them. So sadly the magnificent banh mi at Cappuccina Café and the superb pulled pork burger (it’s just a sandwich, really) at the Eldon Arms miss out here. But even if they were still going, I would still have opted for the delights of Shed’s tuna melt. I know I’ve not reviewed them yet, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t visited on a number of occasions and of all their sandwiches the tuna melt is my runaway favourite. Partly it’s because of the bread – big pillowy ciabatta which you really don’t get anywhere in town. Partly it’s because of all the little extras in there that elevate it above the same thing elsewhere – generous oozy cheese, slivers of red onion, the crunchy sharp surprise of scattered capers. And partly it’s just because it’s a lovely spot to eat, run by lovely people.

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Yum gai yang, Art Of Siam

This was such a difficult category. When looking through the contenders I started to wish that all my favourite restaurants could just join forces and set up the ultimate small plates venue: the wavy lines appeared, like they do in TV dream sequences, and I found myself imagining a single place where you could order the momos from Sapana Home (the only thing there I truly enjoyed), the gorgeous crunchy, hot, spicy Gobi 65 from Chennai Dosa and that earthy, decadent truffle ravioli that nearly – but not quite – made Ruchetta worth the money. In the end, though, the winner was the starter that most took me by surprise: I wasn’t expecting to love a salad of warm grilled chicken and vegetables, served in a hot, sweet, sour, sharp dressing that knocked my socks off. I wasn’t expecting to love a salad full stop, in all honesty, but this tasted like nothing else I’ve eaten this year. People have told me since that they went to Art Of Siam specifically to try it. I can’t say I blame them.

LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Bhel Puri House

I’m not always right about things first time. When I went to Bhel Puri the first time I quite liked it, quite liked some of the things I’d eaten, quite fancied going back some time. I was quite wrong. Over the months since then I find I keep going back there: it’s a wonderful Technicolor alternative to what, even when it’s done well, can feel like quite a monochrome selection of coffee shops in Reading doing some sandwiches or bagels, some salads and the odd quiche. I always have the chilli paneer – because if I don’t my lunches would all be tinged with regret – and from there I’ve gone on to explore the outer reaches of the menu. I think the service there has got better and friendlier over the year, and every time I walk past I’m delighted to see that it looks pretty busy. Also: vegetarian! Just saying.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Karahi lamb, Bhoj

Honourable mentions have to go to another beautiful way to cook lamb, Kyrenia’s incredible kleftiko – but I feel I’ve enthused about that quite enough quite recently. I also adored Dolce Vita’s saltimbocca – made with veal back then and with chicken more recently – tender meat pounded thin, wrapped in salty prosciutto and bathed in a light, delicious sauce rich with wine and sage (and truffled mash, which could turn even a Fray Bentos into a world-beater). And, although they continue to serve it in a soulless glass box with all the atmosphere of the deserted space station in Gravity, La Courbe’s mixed grill – with that unbelievable tabouleh – is still one of the finest main courses in Reading. But the dish I kept dreaming of was Bhoj’s karahi lamb: chunks of lamb, soft to the point of surrender, in the most intense, sticky, savoury sauce. I was back there only a couple of weeks ago, trying it again. I’d like to pretend I was giving it one last check to make sure it was worthy of the accolade, but in truth that decision was made some time ago.

SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Dolce Vita

I’m almost sad to have to pick a winner here because every restaurant in Reading that does good service ought to be applauded. But my experience of most places in Reading that get service right is that they’re still very much about star players: Matt and Alex at Mya Lacarte are absolutely flawless, but everyone else doesn’t quite reach that standard. Marco at Pepe Sale could teach everyone how to do this, but again the rest of the staff can feel a little more hit and miss. Ihor at Kyrenia is as kind and welcoming a front of house as you could hope for, but he’s just one man. Dolce Vita win this award because they are a proper team – whichever of them is looking after me I know I’ll feel exactly that: looked after. They also judge how to serve tables so well – there’s no one size fits all here, so they are more friendly, more formal, more raucous depending on whether they know you, what your group is like and what kind of night you want to have. That Dolce Vita is such a friendly, fun, buzzy place to eat is very much down to that.

DESSERT OF THE YEAR: Peach and amaretto ice cream, Tutti Frutti

I don’t think I’ve had much luck with desserts this year. The hot school dinner style desserts I adore have been thin on the ground and instead I feel I’ve gamely struggled through underwhelming cakes and prissy little parfaits, delicate but underwhelming stuff. Part of the problem is that if I’m full, or I really didn’t rate the first two courses I’m more likely to pass on dessert (and fewer desserts means fewer runners and riders). It wasn’t all disastrous, though. I was very impressed by the pot au chocolat at the Three Tuns – that chilli and cardamom in there elevated it to something quite magnificent – but it still felt like it wasn’t special enough to win. I also loved the honey and rose kulfi at Chennai Dosa (a place which nearly won a few of these awards) for its fragrant yet refreshing cleverness.

Instead, I’m giving this award to Tutti Frutti for very good reason: when I’m eating on duty in town, and I don’t much fancy a dessert, I’ve come to realise that the test I use in my head when I read that little menu in front of me is this one: is anything I order going to be half as good as Tutti Frutti’s peach and amaretto ice cream? Will it be able to match that smooth creaminess, that hint of fruit, those soft soaked amaretti biscuits with that slightly boozy sweetness? If I know for a fact that the answer will be no, I just get the bill instead. And half the time, if I’m reviewing somewhere in town, because that idea’s in my head I wander across to the station and visit Tutti Frutti instead. It’s a wonderful, quiet, Edward Hopper-esque place late at night – just me, my thoughts, a few workers from the station in their reflective jackets, and that glorious ice cream. Try it sometime, if you get the chance.

TWEETER OF THE YEAR: Tamp Culture

I am not a massive coffee fan. If you talk about washed Ethiopian whatnots or the size of your roaster I glaze over very quickly. I think it’s great that Reading has so many coffee places, but I still long for some fantastic tea rooms, and places that know the value of a gorgeous smoky lapsang souchong or a floral, elegant Earl Grey.

That said, I love reading Tamp’s updates in my feed – even if I don’t understand all of them. You get a real picture of life outside the Oracle at their little cart – what they sell, what they do, how they work – and it comes across that they really love what they sell, what they do and how they work. The boys at Tamp both remind me a little of Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. They’re what Shaggy would be like if he was less interested in constructing sandwiches the size of Thames Tower and more interested in crema (whatever that is). A lot of restaurants just do not get Twitter at all – to see it used regularly with such infectious enthusiasm is an absolute joy.

I should also mention that I particularly enjoyed Tamp’s massive spat with Workhouse Coffee earlier this year – it was Aeropresses at dawn as they bitched about one another the way only coffee geeks can (“your roaster is too small” “well you bought cakes from Costco and frosted them yourself” etc.). It made me chuckle in the middle of a particularly hectic shopping trip to Regents Street.

An honourable mention has to go to the lovely people at Pop-Up Reading. Stop making me hungry, you two.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Dolce Vita

When I went to Dolce Vita the first time, I thought the service was great, I really enjoyed the food and I thought their menu was too big. They got a good mark from me, but I suspected in the back of my mind that they’d been fortunate and that if I’d picked different dishes they might have been found out.

Well, that shows what I know. Dolce Vita wins this award because I keep going back and they keep not being found out: I really don’t know how they do it. They also win this award because the range of cooking I’ve had there over this year has been quite something. They do pizza, they do pasta, they do very creditable meat and fish dishes. But they also have a regularly changing set menu which – without any fanfare or showing off – is a darned sight more reliable than London Street Brasserie’s just down the way. So I’ve had big rib-sticking comfort dishes – open ravioli packed with rich game, proper lasagne with beef and pork and chicken livers. But I’ve also had much more restrained, yet equally accomplished stuff – cod cheeks with lentils and a beautiful, fresh salsa verde was a stylish, subtle delight. (They also cook squid beautifully, without a hint of batter or breadcrumbs or mayonnaise in sight).

In many ways I think Dolce Vita is the town centre restaurant I’ve spent a long time looking for, and if I want to eat in town but can’t decide where it often gets the nod. I’ve had quick suppers here and long, drawn out dinners, conspiratorial lunches with friends and big loud celebrations with lots of people. The service is brilliant and they even have a bottle of Averna behind the bar for when you want the evening to last just that little bit longer. Of course, it’s not perfect – no restaurant is – but that’s probably for the best, because if I found the perfect restaurant I wouldn’t write a blog anymore and if you did you’d stop reading mine. But for 2014, it’s as close as I’ve got.

Here’s to continuing that search in 2015 – and until then, have a lovely Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Round-up: November and December

Edible Reading is taking Christmas off. Many restaurants aren’t attractive places to visit over the festive season – full of work dos paying inflated amounts for a set menu you have to order weeks in advance. Besides, for many Christmas is all about the pleasures of eating at home – roasts, smoked salmon breakfasts, insanely huge cheeseboards – and I’m no different. So here’s a round-up of what you may have missed over the last couple of months, along with all the local food news I’ve been able to uncover.

The Lobster Room, 3.3 – A good cellar restaurant can feel like a well-kept, exclusive secret. This place, on the other hand, deserves to be more widely known for different reasons. Check out ER’s worst rating so far, and the review, here.

Sushimania, 7.4 – Reading’s replacement for the much-lamented Thai Nine offers all you can eat sushi and a range of Japanese noodle and rice dishes. But is the complicated pricing structure worth navigating? Click here to find out.

Forbury’s, 7.1 – One of the mainstays among Reading’s high-end restaurants, Forbury’s has a new chef who is determined to make waves. I went expecting great things, but was I disappointed? The review is here.

Café Yolk, 5.2 – Everyone loves Café Yolk, from Twitter to TripAdvisor. Is it a masterpiece of marketing or do they really do the best breakfast in Reading? The most controversial review so far can be found here, and don’t forget to check out the comments where the chef defends himself – admittedly under an assumed name, and pretending to be a customer, but I guess it’s something.

The Plowden Arms, 8.7 – Things had to improve after Café Yolk, and fortunately my first trip out of central Reading uncovered a hidden gem on the road to Henley. Sophisticated food, hearty pub classics and gorgeous vintage crockery, all under one roof? I loved the Plowden – go here to see why I was so impressed.

The Moderation, 6.6 – Spirit House has recently opened The Queen’s Head, up on Christchurch Green, but is The Moderation the original and best? I checked out the closest thing central Reading has to a gastropub, and found a decidedly mixed bag, here.

House Of Flavours, 8.3 – It had to happen eventually – Edible Reading reviews an Indian restaurant. But House Of Flavours might be a really good restaurant that happens to do Indian food, rather than a curry house. The review, here, explains why.

The last couple of months have been slow in terms of restaurant news. La Courbe in King’s Walk still shows no signs of opening, although they’ve now added a Twitter feed to their website (it said they were opening in September, then got changed to December 16th, so we can safely assume they’re a bit behind schedule). There are a couple of interesting openings in Reading, but both are cafés rather than full-blown restaurants.

Lincoln Coffee House opened a couple of weeks ago at 60 Kings Road, and looks interesting. The owners buy their coffee from Nude and are clearly influenced by the coffee scene in Hackney and Shoreditch; the interior looks quite handsome, if stark, and they offer coffee, an interesting looking range of tea (very welcome, as tea drinkers get rather a raw deal in Reading) and a variety of bagels and cakes. It will be interesting to see how they settle in – it’s a challenging location, and they’ll need a lot of lunchtime custom from the big offices nearby. The website is still being built (http://www.lincolncoffeehouse.co.uk/) and they don’t Tweet, but a Facebook page is here.

Also new, at 16 West Street, is Cappuccina Café, which is an even more curious beast. A mixture of Vietnamese and Portuguese food means that it will offer both bánh mì (the distinctive pork sandwich so popular in London a few years back) and pastéis de nata (that’s egg custard tarts to me and you). I’ve not been in yet, but a wander past suggests it’s doing a good trade so far and the sign on the door, suggesting their pastéis may be from Portuguese chain Café Nicola, is also a good sign. No website, no Facebook page and no Twitter presence, so you’ll just have to stop by and check them out if that floats your boat.

Neither a restaurant nor a café, but still good news for cheese lovers and ale fans, The Grumpy Goat, in Harris Arcade, opened on 14th December and plans to stock a full range of local cheeses. This is great news, whether you prefer the creamy delights of Waterloo, the hard nutty temptations of Spenwood (named after Spencer’s Wood, don’t you know) or of course Barkham Blue, possibly the best blue cheese in the world. It’s nice that Reading folk will no longer have to trek to Pangbourne, Henley or Wokingham to satisfy their cheese cravings. Again, no website yet but they’re on Facebook here and they also tweet.

Of course, Edible Reading isn’t the only source of local restaurant reviews. The Reading Post recently reviewed Bart’s Grill, here, giving it an impressive four stars out of five. They must really like Bart’s, because they also reviewed it barely four months before that, here. Not to forget the time that they reviewed it in August 2012, also a glowing review, here. That’s three reviews in – count them – fifteen months. Not to be outdone, the Reading Chronicle also reviewed it in November, here – although theirs was an “advertising feature”, so Bart’s paid the paper for the privilege (not sure why they bothered, when they get so much coverage from the Post for free). It must be quite a restaurant – perhaps I’ll check it out in 2014 and see what all the fuss is about.

Last of all, it’s worth pointing out the new pages on Edible Reading. If you want to see a list of all the places I’ve reviewed, in alphabetical order, you can find it here. You’d rather see it in order of ER ratings? No problem, that’s here! And if you want to see the list of restaurants in the pile to review, and even to suggest one yourself, you can find that here. Nearly every restaurant I review comes from a tip-off, suggestion or request from you, so please keep them coming.

Right, that’s all. Have a magnificent Christmas full of turkey, brandy butter, red wine, cheese and port (and devoid of hangovers, Lambrini, coffee creams and acid reflux) and see you on Friday 10th January when I publish the first review of 2014. Not sure where it will be yet, but I hear there’s this great place called Bart’s on the Wokingham Road…