The Real Greek

Well, you were meant to get a review of Brewdog this week, but nothing quite went according to plan. I turned up there with Steve, a long time reader of the blog who attended my first readers’ lunch at the start of the year, and right from the off things weren’t promising. We entered the cacophonous main room and found a spare table round to the left which was just about comfortable enough. Just about.

“I wish I’d brought my glasses” said Steve. Steve is wry, wise and silver-haired, knows an awful lot about food, catering and restaurants and he’s had more jobs – and stories about them – than I’ve had hot dinners. “This is the first time I’ve ever been in a restaurant and not been able to read the menu.”

I looked at the menu, all in the sort of distressed font that hints of a typewriter ribbon on its last legs. It was all burgers and dogs and puns (“Cluck Norris”, “Soy Division”) and, I’m afraid, it induced mild to moderate weariness.

“I thought it was table service here. It was when I came here for a drink the weekend it opened, but now I’m not sure.” I said.

Minutes passed.

“I’ll go up to the bar” I said.

As luck would have it, the night I planned to review Brewdog the team from Explore Reading was there to review the drinks and the food. They had a nice booth (not jealous, not at all) and were already a few beers under way. I wondered: did that make Steve and I the Jets or the Sharks? Was Steve nifty on his feet? Should I have brought backup?

At the bar, the Explore delegation told me that there had been a mix-up in the kitchen and they wouldn’t be taking food orders for half an hour. It was already eight o’clock and that, I’m afraid, is where I decided that life was too short. I looked over at the Explore table again. These were Reading’s hip young gunslingers: one of them was in her twenties, for crying out loud. I went back to our table.

“Come on,” I said to Steve, “we’re going.”

That’s how we found ourselves walking back across town as I frantically consulted my list for a Plan B and that’s how we ended up in the Real Greek, on the Oracle Riverside. I turned up, in truth, with no great enthusiasm; I hadn’t heard brilliant reports, unless you include the countless enthusiastic – and comped – blog reviews shortly after it opened last year, back when you couldn’t get in without a reservation.

But going through the doors on a midweek evening I actually found myself thinking how nice it looked – almost like a slightly more upmarket Pizza Express, with biggish tables and handsome chairs along the outside of the room and a section of sort of open booths in the middle. I wouldn’t have fancied one of those, as they seemed to be hard benches with no visible padding. I guess the sort of people who enjoyed an evening in Brewdog might have gone for them, I found myself thinking.

Steve and I persuaded the waiter to give us a round table for three, so as to improve both our views and give us the room to order everything we wanted, and had a look through the menu. It was proper small plates territory, with a range of hot and cold meze and, if you needed some inspiration, a range of suggested set menus down the right.

So far so good, but the menu also meticulously listed the calorie count for every dish on the menu. I really wasn’t a fan of this: it’s bad enough seeing the traffic lights on ready meals in Marks, without it starting to invade restaurants. Surely restaurants were meant to be a haven where you didn’t have to put up with all that? Ironically, it put me off ordering dishes at both ends of the spectrum: I like a bit of taramasalata, but when a portion was just shy of a thousand calories? And I love octopus, but if it’s only 161 calories how much of it do you really get for £7.50?

The menu recommended three to four mezes per person, so naturally – despite my niggles about calories – we ordered nine between us: Steve may run marathons, but I just knew that he was a trencherman beneath that wiry exterior. Our waiter turned up with two cold bottles of Mythos, cracked them open simultaneously and poured them at the same time into our glasses. Like all magic tricks you can’t remember how it’s done, don’t want to and, afterwards, struggle to describe it.

“That’s nicely done, isn’t it?” said Steve, which I rather felt gave me permission to be impressed.

We chatted away about our recent holidays – Porto for Steve, Bologna for me – and the first set of dishes arrived. The other gimmick at The Real Greek is that your sharing plates arrive in a tall stack, like afternoon tea. That might be your bag, it might not: I found it irksome but it was easy to take them off the rack and spread them out on the table as nature intended. If I’d been at a smaller table for two, it might have properly got on my nerves.

We started with some of the cold mezze. Revithia, which looked like a plate of lightly bruised chick peas, were delicious, singing with lemon and mint, a beautifully fresh and bright dish. The dolmades was also very good – light, crumbly and again rich with mint, not remotely claggy or glutinous. Only the Greek flatbread disappointed. It wasn’t piping hot, and it felt like maybe it had been sitting around a little too long before coming to our table. I think if I’d realised just how unlike a dip the revithia was, we wouldn’t necessarily have ordered it, and it seemed a little cheeky to charge an extra three quid for olive oil and dukkah.

Despite that, Steve and I made our way through the whole lot, waiting to be disappointed. By the end, we realised that disappointment had not come and, for the first time, I wondered if this meal was going to outperform my expectations. The waiter brought a bottle of Greek white (Makedonikos, apparently) which was fresh, not sweet and not sharp, and tasted really quite a lot like being on holiday, as some of the best wine does.

“It’s a good atmosphere in here” said Steve, taking in our surroundings. “Everyone seems to be having a nice time.”

It’s a little point, perhaps, but Steve was right. None of the tables seemed to have the grim note of contractual obligation, nobody seemed to be there because they had vouchers or had run out of ideas. Perhaps we’d just stumbled on the place on a really auspicious evening – or perhaps it was euphoria at having escaped from Brewdog – but as I took another sip of my wine I found I was really quite enjoying myself. Steve was telling me about his small granddaughter’s quest to notch up a Michelin star a year (she made one establishment make her a dish completely off menu, which makes her sound far more fearsome than any mere reviewer), and about wife number one and job number sixteen and I thought: how lucky I am that people read the blog and want to come to dinner with me.

The rest of the dishes rather came all at once, which actually was my failing rather than the restaurant’s. It’s weird how when you’re in a chain to some extent you act like you’re in a chain, and you order like you’re in a chain. If The Real Greek had been an independent place, another Namaste Kitchen, I would have ordered some dishes, eaten them, kept the menu and then ordered some more, but because it was a chain and the menu told you how many dishes to order, I ordered them all in one go. With hindsight, that was a mistake, but it didn’t stop everything we ate being good at the very least and often far more than that.

Particular highlights from the hot mezze included the pork belly, cooked so perfectly that you could almost have mistaken it for chicken thigh, all crispy skin and layers of meat, every bit of fat rendered to nothing. Steve and I did a very English equivalent of fighting over it, which involved each of us saying “no, you have the last piece” ad infinitum. We were similarly polite over the halloumi fries, salty and light and pretty close to perfect, especially dipped in the minted yoghurt. The least successful dish was the calamari, which turned up looking so much like octopus that I worried we’d ordered the wrong thing. That wouldn’t have mattered so much, but it wasn’t quite as fresh as promised and that made it harder going than either of us would have liked. When we said “no, you have the last piece”, we actually meant it.

What else? Lamb kefta was more like a single lamb burger than a kebab or meatballs, but it was still delicious and far nicer than it looked. I felt like there was a hint of feta smuggled away in it somewhere, but that could have been a trick of the light, or the white wine slightly skewing matters. Salt cod fritters were also light and delightful, with plenty of fish, not bulked out with spuds. Again, the lemon mayonnaise that came with it was spot on.

Finally, Steve’s favourite, the loukanika: three whacking great slabs of pork and beef sausage with a deep red smoked chilli relish. I had huge reservations about this, mainly because it screamed stealth spam, but it was beautiful – coarse, firm, juicy and with just enough spice. The relish set it off perfectly. Steve liked it so much he sent me a message the next day saying that he was daydreaming about eating it again (and Steve’s one of the only people I know who can send such a message without even the faintest hint of smut).

“This is really good, isn’t it? I can’t find much wrong with it.” I said, giving away I’m afraid that I had fully expected to turn up to an Oracle Riverside chain restaurant and find shitloads of issues, and that I was a tad perplexed that I couldn’t.

“Yes, it is” said Steve. Were we having a shared hallucination? Had they put ayahuasca in our Mythos?

We pressed on with dessert, because we were having too nice an evening to want to bring it to an end. That’s as noble a reason to order dessert as any, but the decision provided probably the meal’s biggest misfire in the shape of my baklava – a big stodgy slab with no real crunch or subtlety, no layers, no sticky sweetness. What you got instead was some faintly damp pastry, and a big claggy layer of crushed nuts, and the whole thing was cold and unimpressive. You got better baklava, back in the day, eating Georgian food at the Turk’s Head and (trade secret alert) I have it on good authority that they bought theirs from Costco. Steve’s chocolate mousse cake was considerably nicer, if not remotely Greek. “Not bad” he said, between mouthfuls, “but they’ve definitely bought this in.”

Service was bright and personable from start to finish. Our waiter was Italian, which led to a long conversation about my recent holiday in Bologna (I took the lead on this), football (obviously Steve took the lead on this) and where a self-respecting Italian eats in Reading (Pepe Sale, unsurprisingly). He was very proud of the food, told us what to order next time and talked with real warmth about The Real Greek, having worked for years in the Windsor branch before transferring to Reading. No smarm, no encouraging us to post reviews on TripAdvisor, just genuine enthusiasm.

Dinner for two, not including service, came to eighty-eight pounds. Not the cheapest meal in the world, and although we probably could have ordered a couple of dishes fewer it was never going to be as cheap as living it up at Brewdog. But I had such an enjoyable meal that I really didn’t mind.

Afterwards, Steve and I compared notes. I rated the meal slightly more highly than he did, and we beetled off to the Allied Arms for a debrief, shivering under the heaters and pretending it was nearly summer. But the next day, he messaged me.

“I think I might have marked it a bit low on reflection. I think you were more on it.”

“It was really decent, wasn’t it? I’m struggling to find fault.”

“The waiter definitely contributed to the whole thing. Lovely to have someone so enthusiastic – I almost thought he was called Sandra.” Steve went on, referring to Zizzi’s legendary waitress, As Seen On TripAdvisor (“the Skripals would never have been poisoned in our branch of Zizzi”, my friend Tim once said to me, “Sandra would never have allowed it.”).

I think that exchange probably sums up the verdict on The Real Greek as well as anything. It wasn’t my first choice, I went there by accident and my expectations were firmly under control. And yet, quietly and unshowily, it did an absolutely cracking job. Irritating gimmicks, iffy bread and so-so desserts aside, we enjoyed a really tasty meal in a lovely, buzzy room. Nearly everything we had was good, much was very good and some was excellent. To my surprise, I would go back again, and I can see the appeal of gathering a group of friends and trying as much of the menu as possible. So I’d encourage you to put your reservations to one side when you read the rating at the bottom, because for a certain kind of evening – with fellow diners who play nicely – The Real Greek is as good an option as anywhere you can find in town. My only tip is to dig your heels in and order little and often: it may be a chain, but that should never stop you being independent-minded.

The Real Greek – 7.7
The Oracle, RG1 2AT
0118 9952270

http://www.therealgreek.com/reading/

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Fidget & Bob

One of the saddest events of last year was when Tutti Frutti (Reading station’s terrific ice cream café) closed abruptly back in October. I found out while on holiday: on the Monday morning I grabbed my regular latte from Paul before jumping on the RailAir – a holiday ritual I’ve always loved – and the next thing I knew I was drinking in a plaza in Andalucia and hearing troubling reports from Blighty that Tutti Frutti was no more. They were correct; I’d had my last latte there and I hadn’t even known it. By the time I got back to Reading all the kit had been taken out; five months later, the signs still say a new store is “coming soon”.

This is why we can’t have nice things, I ranted on Twitter for what may have been a week but, to many, probably felt like longer. I was cross with Network Rail for not treating Tutti Frutti better. I was cross with our local media for not celebrating the place more (the piece they eventually ran about the closure was an apology of a thing). I was cross with the people of Reading for going to Costa or Starbucks instead, when brilliant coffee and service were a stone’s throw away.

After I’d got over it – and, I suppose, myself – I realised the truth was more complicated. There was another reason why nobody had seemed to know Tutti Frutti was there. Several other reasons, in fact: no website; limited Facebook presence and a Twitter feed which made it look like the place closed a long time ago (the last Tweet dated from June 2015). Could anybody rely solely on word of mouth in this day and age? Was it enough to expect your customers to do your advertising for you?

In my head, I composed a long (and pompous) feature, explaining where all these restaurants were going wrong. I decided it wasn’t hard to run a good Twitter feed without pouring huge amounts of time into it. Just be chatty and engaging. Follow back and reply. Tweet a few times a day at the very least. Put pictures up of your food that made people want to come in and eat it. Use hashtags. Make sure followers got an idea of the personality of your brand. Could it be that difficult?

Perhaps it was, because I struggled to think of Reading restaurants and cafés that pulled it off. Shed and the now-departed Mya Lacarte got the tone right, but couldn’t manage the frequency. Workhouse had the opposite problem. Thames Lido was good at it, but then they did it with the sort of polish that suggested that it was somebody’s Actual Job.

Nowadays it’s much easier: all I have to do is say look at Fidget & Bob’s Twitter feed, because they get this stuff right in a way many bigger establishments could learn from. They started Tweeting even before they began trading, and followers could see the establishment coming together – counters being built, dishes being tried, suppliers being chosen. By the time they opened their doors, you already felt invested in this little café/bar/restaurant out in the wilds of Kennet Island (or I did, anyway) and I wanted them to do well. Over the last couple of months they’ve built on that, to the extent where I can honestly say that without their Twitter feed I might not have hopped in my mum’s car and made the trip out of town on a cold, crisp night, the threat of impending snow hanging in the air.

Truth be told, the last time I’d visited Kennet Island was to have a colonoscopy at the Circle Hospital, so I was looking forward to something going in the right end for a change. That anatomical detail aside, I liked Kennet Island, and the piazza was incongruously nice: not Andalucia nice, perhaps, but still a surprisingly pleasant open space. I could imagine a pleasant summer afternoon sitting outside, taking in the sun. There was free parking on the square and an inviting glow coming from the windows, although the place was almost empty when we walked in.

Essentially, it was a big rectangular space with a number of tables – one large one with benches for communal dining and a number of smaller ones for groups of two or four. The furniture was all mismatched without seeming twee or quirky, and a wall was plastered with kids’ drawings. I liked the long counter and bar at the back of the room, and the industrial-but-not-pretentious light fittings. We grabbed a table by the window, feeling a little spoilt for choice.

Service, from the co-owners, was terrific from start to finish, although I hadn’t really expected anything less. I ordered a latte to warm up and a glass of wine to drink while we looked at the menu. I was told that the coffee was from Clifton Roasters in Bristol – a decision they had obviously taken time over – and it paid off, being smooth and complex. My red wine – nero d’avola – came in an attractive stemless glass and had lovely hints of smoky cherry. Fidget & Bob make no secret of buying their wine in boxes and, on this basis, it seemed like another excellent decision (also, it means they can offer 500ml carafes – how I wish more places would do this).

My mum fancied a gin and tonic and one of the co-owners talked us through the options, which included Toad, from The Oxford Artisan Distillery. She wasn’t persuaded at over five pounds for a single to see if it was as good a gin as it was an acronym, but the Plymouth and tonic went down well. Kudos to Fidget & Bob for only charging eighty pence for Fever Tree tonic, although the overall effect was slightly marred by only adding a solitary ice cube; it wasn’t that cold out there.

The menu was small and perfectly formed, in more ways than one: not only were they all small plates, but the range was on the narrow side. A few nibbles, a cheeseboard, a soup, four different “pizza” (inverted commas theirs) in two sizes and two specials, both bao, steamed buns. I could see a fair few things I fancied trying, but I couldn’t help but feel I’d end up ordering most of the menu – partly to sample a decent range, but mainly because otherwise I’d leave hungry.

I had reckoned without my mother, the woman who orders half sandwiches at Pret and has the discipline to have a couple of squares of chocolate a night (discipline, needless to say, I haven’t inherited).

“You know me, I don’t have that big an appetite.”

I cast my mind back: I was sure I could remember occasions where she’d ordered three courses in a restaurant, but try as I might, I couldn’t bring them to mind. In any case, my mum is not a woman to be trifled with. We settled for one each of the two bao and a pizza to share (small rather than large: my mum insisted, and the co-owner agreed, sagely telling us that a large would be too much). I was tempted to order a cheeseboard, too, but I decided I already knew that Fidget & Bob bought well: the question now was whether they cooked well too.

Much is made of restaurants with a “chef’s table” where you can see everything going on around you. Well, you get that experience at Fidget & Bob without having to brag about it – they go about their business chopping and steaming and topping and cooking and frying just the other side of the counter, seeming to have a lovely and companionable time as they do it. Another couple of tables were occupied by the time our food began to arrive, and I saw chicken wings arrive at another table looking, as they always do, nice enough to make me wish I could be bothered with chicken wings. A little enamel cup full of salted popcorn – a nice touch – helped the time pass until our food arrived and, not for the first time since I arrived at Fidget & Bob, I found myself thinking there really was no rush. My mother and I chatted away: despite her lack of appetite the popcorn inexplicably disappeared in no time.

I had been dubious about Fidget & Bob’s pizzas, having seen pictures on their Twitter feed. The inverted commas were because it was served on a flatbread rather than a traditional base, and somehow that felt like a way you might cheat at home rather than cook in a restaurant. But what won me over and made me order it was another Twitter picture of onions, slow roasting in the oven, realising their sweet, golden potential. I wasn’t disappointed when my onion and mushroom pizza arrived. It may have looked makeshift, but it was very tasty and didn’t stint on mushrooms, onion or nicely bubbled cheese. Well done, too, in that you didn’t take a bite and find the whole topping sliding away as can sometimes happen. The onions had just the right sweetness, the mushrooms added a beautiful roasted nuttiness. A small pizza was dessert-plate sized and cost six pounds fifty – this felt ever so slightly on the pricey side, but that may have been god’s way of telling me I should have ordered a large one. It would have all been eaten, put it that way.

The bao were another matter. Like Fidget & Bob, I felt invested because I’d seen them assembled, gradually, from a distance. I saw the buns gradually rise in the steamer, I saw the pork belly on the pan. And when they turned up, both the pork and tofu bao, I wanted them to be great but they were near misses – good near misses, but near misses all the same. The pork belly was very well cooked with just enough crispy texture and no wobbly fat, and the chopped spring onion, coriander and peanut on top was lovely stuff. But it was too delicate, and it needed a sauce to bring it all together.

The tofu would have been superb if it had had some crispiness, but it was lacking that element which meant the whole thing was too soft and pillowy. The advertised wood ear and shiitake mushrooms were missing, replaced instead with an additional slab of tofu, and although there was oyster sauce on top it needed more. Only the scattering of sesame seeds rescued it from being just too softly spoken. I thought they needed more oomph, while my mum – who talks about having a very indelicate palate almost as it proud of it – found them bland. This is a shame, because it’s a fantastically brave and creative thing for a little café in Kennet Island to do. They were close enough to how I imagined they could be that I still fancied giving them a whirl another time.

I would have had a dessert – the “gooey chocolate croissant pudding” was calling to me – but my mum pronounced herself full (or, more precisely, only having room for a couple of squares of chocolate later) so we settled up. Dinner for two came to £35, not including tip. As we were paying we chatted to one of the owners and again, it was lovely to see her so enthusiastic about what they were building here.

“We have these charging points set up”, she said, pointing to the counter up at the window, “so that people can log in and work from the wi-fi here. We get quite a few people during the day, and you get a little stir crazy working from home.” I could imagine it would be a very nice place to take a break from a solitary day cooped up in the house, and for a moment I wished there was a place like that near me.

I think even the owners of Fidget & Bob would never pretend for a minute that they’re the finished article. In fact, to their credit, I think they probably don’t see the journey they’re on as one that has a defined end anyway. It is a lovely place, with a certain something you can’t fake or make on an assembly line which is all about love and passion. And although not all the food I had was brilliant, and some things on the menu need a bit of tinkering, I really hope they keep up the good work and that they get a loyal clientele which goes with them.

One of the big questions in my mind about Fidget & Bob was: is it good, or just Kennet Island good? I’m still not entirely sure, but put it this way: the next day I was snowed in and working from home and looking at my Twitter I saw a picture from Fidget & Bob of their chalkboard, surrounded by the snowy piazza. On it, it told people to come in and wait out of the cold for the bus into town. “No purchase necessary”, it said. And I thought: You know what? Even just reading that makes me want to come and eat with you again. Sometimes we all forget the social in social media, and eating too, done properly, is a social thing. Fidget & Bob get this so right that, even on a bitter winter’s day, it’s impossible not to warm to them.

Fidget & Bob – 7.0
The Piazza, Kennet Island, RG2 0GX
0118 931 0271​

https://www.fidgetandbob.co.uk/

Honest Burgers

This week, Explore Reading and I are publishing simultaneous reviews of Honest Burgers. You can read Explore’s verdict here.

I’m no expert on Where Reading Is Going. I read our “Vision For 2050″ (which seemed to have precious little to do with Reading) and was none the wiser. I don’t understand what “Reading UK CIC”, “Living Reading” and the “Business Improvement District” actually are, or what they’ve achieved, and what with having an actual job I never get to attend cultural talks at 6pm on campus or the First Friday Club in Brown’s listening to the movers and shakers.

I’ve never been to the Reading Cultural Awards or the Pride Of Reading Awards (Danyl Johnson’s one guaranteed gig every year). I wasn’t on the bus to Tate Modern recently to join a discussion about the arts in Reading, almost exclusively peopled by Reading folk, in London. I have no idea why we keep appointing people from out of town to run our cultural events instead of our excellent home grown talent. Answers on a postcard for all of the above, please, to the usual address.

It does strike me though, in my ill-informed way, that Reading’s at a bit of a crossroads. What kind of town do we want to be? We could try to emulate somewhere like Bristol, with its blossoming cultural scene, superb market, brilliant food scene and countless independent shops. I love Bristol partly because it doesn’t try to be a lesser clone of anywhere. It ploughs its own furrow and – this is something Reading could really learn from – is fiercely proud of its culture, its history, its traditions, even the accent.

Alternatively, we could simply become Zone 8 – added to the Tube network through Crossrail, with all the London chains expanding here and all the trends eventually arriving here too, a few years after they’ve stopped being hot. With the snazzy new Westgate Centre up the road in Oxford, we finally have some local competition. We may have a Franco Manca, but they have a Pizza Pilgrims. Oh, and Oxford has a Leon and a Thali Kitchen, neither of which currently operate here. The big brains of Reading must worry about how to guarantee their supremacy (it all reminds me of the legendary Reading On Thames take on Downfall).

Where does Honest Burgers fit into that narrative? Not another chain, said some people when they announced they were coming to Reading. Not another burger restaurant, said others. But Honest is a more interesting beast than that. For a start, if it is a chain it’s a very small one – predominantly in London apart from a branch here and in Cambridge. The expansion seems slow, careful and considered rather than the result of a huge injection of capital and a relentless business plan (the way that all chains tarnish).

Their story’s an idiosyncratic one, starting in Brixton Market, getting a huge publicity boost from shrinking violet Jay Rayner, and sticking to some resolutely uncommercial decisions from day one, most particularly to make their chips on the premises every day. The other interesting thing about Honest is their commitment to localism – working with producers to offer a special burger at each of their outposts, exclusive to that branch. That extends to Reading, where they’ve worked with Two Hoots Cheese and Nomad to supply Barkham Blue and red pepper chutney for a Reading burger. They also approached Wild Weather Ales, who brewed a special King St Pale for Honest: it’s served at the restaurant and a few other Reading pubs.

In the interests of full disclosure, I had a few dealings with Honest in the run-up to their opening. I recommended local suppliers to them (including Two Hoots and Nomad), told them about our great pub and café culture and pointed them in the direction of other websites like Explore Reading which covered their launch so well. But the only freebies I accepted from them in return were prizes in the competition I ran in December, because I wanted to reserve the right to visit them on a weekday night, my trusty sidekick Tim in attendance, and decide for myself what Honest added to Reading’s culinary scene. Further evidence of Zone 8, or a different kettle of fish altogether?

Honest’s respect for the town extends to the building they’re in. They spoke in interviews about falling in love with the space – half Brutalist, half Victorian – and they’ve done a terrific job of turning it into a restaurant. It’s a building I walked past countless times without noticing it but now it’s hard to imagine it was ever anything else, let alone the branch of Barclays I opened my first account in over twenty-five years ago.

The main dining room is broken up beautifully into sections – booths around the edge for two and four people, all perched at windows looking out on to the street, long tables for solo and communal dining in the middle and more conventional seating (and banquettes) further up. The bar area – up a steep set of stairs at the Market Place end – looked a lovely place to spend time, although it was empty when I visited. The quality of the work is really impressive – striking light fittings rather than tired exposed bulbs, a gorgeous herringbone parquet floor running the length of the room and attractive hexagonal tiles marking out the perimeter where the booths are.

By the time I arrived Tim was already seated at the set of tables nearest to the pass and, above the racing green tiles, I could see burgers ready to be taken to customers. There were only a few chefs on duty, all rush and fuss, but even watching them you got an idea of just how well-oiled a machine Honest’s kitchen is. It helps that the menu is on the border between simple and simplistic – a chicken burger, a vegetarian burger and half a dozen beef burgers, all served with rosemary salted chips. Add a handful of sides, a selection of sauces and that’s your lot.

“Lovely in here, isn’t it?” said Tim who’d been to Honest a few times already and was enthusiastic about accompanying me on this trip. “I like to say it’s hip without being hipster. You can use that in your review.”

I figured I better had: it was about the third time he’d said it in the past few weeks. I also tried a sip of his beer, the King Street Pale.

“Isn’t it great? It’s like alcoholic Lilt.”

“Well, I guess. But it still tastes like beer.” I said, waving someone down and getting a pint of lager: Fullers Frontier, which was perfectly pleasant and just about under a fiver. Tim did the face that meant You’ll never understand beer, and I in return did the face that means I know, and I’m fine with that (we’ve perfected those over many pub and restaurant trips over the years).

Tim initially wanted me to order the Reading burger. I can kind of see why – it had local roots, it sounded very nice and, I suppose, I had a small hand in it. I decided against it for a few reasons. It felt too obvious, for starters. Also, I knew all the other reviewers would try it, and I like being different. But most significantly, all of Honest’s blurb was about the beef, so I wanted to try the burger in a more traditional setting, to taste the ingredients singing with as few backing vocalists as possible. So I went for the Honest, which is their equivalent of a bacon cheeseburger.

Tim, who had already tried a couple of things on the menu, decided to order the special, the “Disco Bistro”. By the time this review goes up, you’ll have about three days to try it before it’s replaced by something else, but I figured it was a good shout because, again, it says good things about Honest that they’re always experimenting (besides, there’s no arguing with Tim once he gets an idea in his head).

This really is fast food; our burgers arrived less than fifteen minutes after we ordered. My first bugbear was that it came on an enamel tray with a knife but no fork, although we requested them and got them very quickly. Without a fork I’d have needed far more napkins than the handful at the table. And although there was a knife I’m not sure it was really needed as my burger was just the right size – and depth – to pick up and eat with your hands, which feels like a rarity nowadays.

The patty was really rather good. Beautifully seasoned, with just a little salt coming through in each bite, perfectly pink on the inside but properly cooked and with plenty of char on the outside. Honest makes much of the fact that their beef is chopped rather than minced and it shows in the texture – coarse without being mealy or crumbly. The decision to use good mature cheddar was also a welcome one: I know bright yellow American cheese is authentic, but it’s always left me cold. The brioche was firm enough to hold together and made eating the burger really easy.

So far so good, but for me the Honest didn’t quite work. I’d have loved onion in it, but instead it (and the basic burger) come with caramelised red onion chutney. The sweetness was cloying and felt like a bum note. Similarly the pickled cucumber could have been brilliant if it had lent a sharp, vinegary tang but instead was sweet and inoffensive. I found myself wishing their classic burger was just a little more classic.

Tim on the other hand had gone for a full whistles-and-bells, kitchen sink burger. The “Disco Bistro” had pineapple and bacon jam, burger sauce, cheddar and pink onions. It sounded like it would either be triumph or disaster: Tim loved it.

“This might be the best burger I’ve had here.”

“It’s not too sloppy with the pineapple jam?”

“No, not at all, and the brioche holds it together beautifully. Those pink onions are amazing, and you get just enough bacon in the jam.”

I also really enjoyed the chips. A lot of reviews I’d read said they were too salty, and I’d had reports to that effect, but on the night I visited they were about right. I’d have liked more rosemary coming through, but you couldn’t argue with the texture or the quality of them and they were especially good dipped in the bacon gravy. Yes, we ordered bacon gravy: a recommendation of Tim’s from a previous visit.

“It’s a lot nicer than last time I came” he said. “It’s thicker and better for dipping.”

Bacon gravy is such a beautiful concept that its existence is almost more important than minor details like what it tastes like. I liked it but I wasn’t completely bowled over – it was still a little thin, if salty and meaty (and I wasn’t sure how much of it was bacon – the menu says it’s bacon gravy, the blackboard says it’s “beef and bacon gravy” and it felt more beef than bacon to me). The other issue with it is that it comes in a shallow enamel dish which means it goes cold fast, something you could probably say about most of the meal. In fairness, Tim and I had a good go at making sure none of it had the chance.

The onion rings were more successful – huge hoops of onion and batter, perfect on their own, let alone dipped in the gravy. A note of something in the batter – possibly fennel seed or cumin – added a little complexity and, impressively, they didn’t feel heavy or greasy in the slightest. We shared a portion of these, and by the end I’d say we were nicely full without being unpleasantly stuffed. If I’d had room I might have gone for a salted caramel milkshake, but I figured there would be other times. Dinner for the two of us came to almost bang on forty pounds, not including tip.

I haven’t mentioned the service, but it was unobtrusively good. The restaurant was very full on a weekday night – buzzy but not deafening – yet the staff never seemed fazed at all and did a good job of looking after a large amount of tables without letting anything slip. Honest have clearly put work into this, and I appreciated the fact that the staff were friendly without being cheesy or overfamiliar, or upselling, or any of those other bugbears that so plague casual dining. Hip without being hipster indeed: perhaps Tim was right.

I’ve never been the biggest fan of burgers or the burger trend (it’s just a sandwich, as I like to say), and I went to Honest curious to see whether they could do enough to overcome that. I’m delighted to say that they did. Honest is a very particular type of restaurant – it’s not one to linger in, and their emphasis probably is on getting you in, feeding you from a relatively limited menu and getting you out again. But to their credit they do that without making you feel like a commodity or making the food into an afterthought: I admire that about them.

Normally in this situation I would say “it’s not for everybody” but actually, Honest has pretty wide appeal. I could see myself eating there pre-theatre, grabbing a quick meal on my way home from work, meeting up with a friend pre-pub or having a big lunch, and that’s before we get on to the very tempting-looking weekend brunch options. I do wonder what it will be like come summer, and how exactly the top bar will end up being used on evenings and weekends, but it definitely adds something to Reading. I’d say it’s far and away the best burger in Reading – miles better than 7Bone, and if I was Handmade Burger Company right now I’d be very nervous indeed – but moreover Honest is somewhere you might actually visit in its own right.

I don’t know what the future holds for Reading – whether we’ll ever strike out and celebrate our identity the way Bristol or Brighton do or whether, under the business-centric influence of our nebulous quangos we’ll just become a creeping extension of London. But I hope Honest heralds the shape of things to come, and if we do get new restaurants they’ll pick up a little of what makes Reading so special. After all, the guys from Honest came here and fell in love with the Nag’s Head – and those are exactly the kind of restaurateurs we want, if you ask me.

Honest Burgers – 7.3
1-5 King Street, RG1 2HB
0118 3593216

https://www.honestburgers.co.uk/locations/reading/#

Gooi Nara

I first went to Gooi Nara in late 2016; I was on what I suppose you could loosely have classed as a date, with somebody I suppose you could loosely have classed as a vegan. I sat there trying to sound enthusiastic about tofu (not a skill I’ve ever mastered, truth be told) and then I ate my disappointing bibimbap while all around me, the other diners were wolfing down Korean barbecue, grilling a plethora of delectable looking meats on the hot plate in the middle of their tables. They all seemed to be really enjoying themselves, and as the weeks passed I came to think of that evening more as a metaphor than as an actual meal.

Naturally I wanted to take a more suitable dining companion when I went back on duty and, on reflection, there was only one suitable candidate – my friend Claire. Not only had she actually been to Korea but, in her review of Korean restaurant Soju for her website Explore Reading, she’d been responsible for teaching me pretty much everything I knew about Korean barbecue (admittedly not much).

Much has happened since Claire last accompanied me on a restaurant review, most significantly that Explore Reading had begun publishing restaurant reviews. A lot of people have asked me if I mind that, and of course I always say I don’t mind in the slightest, Reading benefits from a variety of restaurant reviews and that it’s not right for one site to have a monopoly. That said, it’s a running joke between Claire and I that she’s going to take me down; first she took on Alt Reading, which finally announced that it was quitting – for the time being, anyway – this week, and now she’s coming after me.

I’m mainly joking, of course. Mainly. In the run-up to our trip to Gooi Nara I make some gags about how it will be like the infamous dinner at Granita where Tony Blair and Gordon Brown agreed when the former would stand down in favour of the latter. After doing the joke I realise I’m not entirely comfortable being cast as everybody’s favourite grinning war criminal.

“I’ve always had a soft spot for Gordon Brown,” says Claire, “but then I like an underdog.” It made sense, on reflection: we each spend a lot of time championing Reading, so perhaps we both do. In any case, I strolled up the hill to the restaurant on a quiet Monday night with no plans to announce my retirement.

I’m always struck by how often I start a description of a restaurant by saying “it’s a long thin room”, like it’s the equivalent of “it was a dark and stormy night”. Well, brace yourself, but Gooi Nara is indeed a long thin room, but a surprisingly attractive one. One side was covered in slate-effect tiles, with a couple of wood stores in the wall that would no doubt come in completely useless in fuelling the fake fire showing on the wall-mounted widescreen television. The other side was a vibrant burnt orange, with oblong shelving units populated, in a slightly OCD manner, with little objets. There were dark wooden beams spanning the ceiling, such a pleasant change from the ten-a-penny industrial pipes and bare bulbs which always give a place a slightly unfinished look. I really liked the place.

“It’s funny, I wouldn’t necessarily say this is authentic Korean, but it has that feel about it” said Claire. “It’s sort of homely, but in a good way – even down to the windows.”

The first surprise came when I looked at the menu. Gooi Nara has a sister restaurant in Guildford called Sushi Nara, and as a result I was thrown to see that aside from a Korean menu there was also a whole menu of Japanese dishes – sushi, sashimi and the like. It was tempting to order some, because Reading still needs an excellent Japanese restaurant and Taberu, on the Oxford Road, is still doing delivery only at the time of writing. On reflection, though, I decided to remain steadfast: I had turned up to eat Korean barbecue, and eat Korean barbecue I bloody well would.

Not that you have to do that, of course: the Korean menu alone was massive. There were plenty of starters, although some, like takoyaki (octopus balls) and pumpkin korroke felt like they were on the run from the Japanese section of the menu. There were soup dishes and rice dishes, noodle dishes and hot pots and – as I remembered from my previous trip – plenty of tofu and bibimbap. But the trick with barbecue, Claire told me, was to order your meats of choice, cook them on the hot plate in front of you and dip them in vinegar and sesame oil before placing them on a lettuce leaf, adding kimchee and beansprouts and then wrapping the whole thing up and popping it in your mouth. I’m not the biggest fan of finger food, but put that way it’s hard to imagine a more enjoyable way to eat.

Before that though, we tried one of the starters I had my eye on – the seafood pancake. It turned up cut into squares, on a paper doily on a wicker serving dish, a bit too fiddly and faffy (“We Want Plates need to be told about this” said Claire, waspishly). It was a little fiddly too to pick up with chopsticks and dab into the dish of dipping sauce which, as so often, was too small to be useful. That all said, it really was lovely stuff. Claire told me these were made with wheat flour, but if anything the texture was so starchy that it reminded me of a potato cake – more like a latke than a pancake. Despite that, it wasn’t heavy at all, and the spring onion throughout gave it texture and freshness. I got squid in the pancake, and I may have missed the shrimp – we all make mistakes – but the menu also advertised octopus and I’m pretty sure I’d have noticed that. Still, the pancake was seven pounds fifty, so if it seemed too good to be true, perhaps that’s because it was.

The support act out of the way, it was time for the feature attraction. The waiter came and switched on the hot plate at our table, the meat arrived and, not for the first time, I wondered how anybody ever managed to convince themselves that they enjoyed eating tofu. We’d decided to try all three of the main food groups – pig, cow and chicken, don’t you know – and the first to go on the barbecue was the spicy sam gyup sal, long thin slices of pork belly, deep-red with marinade, a veritable bar code of meat and fat. On the hot plate, the smell was terrific and the transformation beautiful, and Claire and I took it in turns to poke and turn with the tongs until it was impossible to hold back any more (I spent most of that time banging on about the Maillard reaction, and Claire spent most of it nodding and humouring me).

It tasted even better than it looked or smelled, and I loved the ritual of coating it in vinegar and sesame before tenderly resting it in the centre of a lettuce leaf, topping it with brick red kimchee and devouring the whole lot. The kimchee added sourness and crunch without being quite as fiery as some kimchee can be. The spice on the pork, again, built to a crescendo rather than went off like an explosion, and the whole thing was the kind of dish that you can’t help but grin while eating.

It would be a lazy piece of observational comedy to say that you’re basically paying money to cook your own food, but that would be to underrate the service; every time a hot plate got too crusted with meat and residue to use, the waiter would come along, deftly hook it out with a nifty device and pop in a new one. He also gave us advice on what to grill in which order, and regularly kept us topped up with bottles of Asahi (Claire offered to give me a crash course in Soju, but then said it was basically vodka, at which point I found myself really fancying a cold beer).

“Do you know how they clean these?” said Claire, probably well aware that my answer, inevitably, would be no.

“No.”

“They use a lemon. You just scrub the hot plate with a lemon and it all comes off.”

I found myself thinking of those colour supplement adverts that tell you vinegar has magical powers and can clean pretty much everything around the house.

“So, the pork is better than Soju, I think” said Claire, “although here they bring it already cut into strips and at Soju they sort of bring it in a big slab and you cut it up yourself with scissors.”

It would be an even more lazy piece of observational comedy to say you were expected to chop your food as well, so I decided not to mention it. In any case, more meat was on the way. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the ju-mul luk (the beef) when it arrived, because it was in thick cubes and I had been expecting thinner slices. But any doubts I had were caramelised into oblivion as the beef sizzled on the grill, the coating of garlic and sesame searing and producing the most glorious aroma. It was far more tender than its thickness might suggest, with a splendid whiff of garlic which lingered long in the memory (and possibly even longer on my breath).

Last of all, we went for the chicken bulgogi gooi, thighs marinated in soy and sesame. These were probably the most disappointing thing we had – it had been sliced too thinly and broke up into very small pieces on the barbecue. It also had less marinade, so it was the only thing to keep sticking to the hot plate and burning. Still pretty good, but just a bronze medallist in this setting.

“It’s a shame really, because bulgogi is the thing in Korean restaurants” said Claire.

“And it’s the one thing they could have brought out whole” I said. “Just imagine laying a marinated flattened thigh out on that hot plate.”

“The chicken is definitely better at Soju, but the rest is probably better here. And that pork is incredible.”

Claire was right about that. I was also struck by just how good value everything was. Each plate of barbecued meat was a hefty, generous portion and the chicken and pork only cost seven pounds fifty. Even the beef was still less than a tenner. We’d ordered three different plates, but two people could easily get by sharing two – well, two people where one of them wasn’t as greedy as me, anyway.

“You can tell this is good”, I said, “because I’m already trying to work out what I’ll have when I come back.” In my mind, I was already mentally choosing between the feather blade beef and the prawns with lemon and pepper and – predictably – deciding it really wouldn’t be a crime to order both. And possibly a bibimbap. But there were limits even to my hunger, so we stopped there. All that food and six bottles of Asahi came to sixty-eight pounds, including a pre-added ten per cent service charge which I had no problem at all paying.

On the walk down the hill to the Hop Leaf for a post-meal pint and debrief, I asked Claire how she would describe the clientele at Gooi Nara.

“Oh, it was mixed. The table behind us were clearly Chinese – I heard them talking – but the big table nearest the loos were definitely Korean. And this restaurant is near the university, so I expect they get a lot of university students.”

Claire had effortlessly clocked all the other diners, their nationalities and the likely market for Gooi Nara’s food, all while pretending to listen to me talk about the Maillard reaction. She’d had her back to the lot of them. It was like something out of The Bourne Identity, and not for the first time I found myself thinking that if she starts reviewing restaurants regularly it might be the end of my blog. It was a suspicion compounded when we compared notes in the pub about what ratings we’d give Gooi Nara: they were a cigarette paper apart.

I’ve thought a lot about the right word for my visit to Gooi Nara since the meal, and it boils down to a really simple one: it was fun. Fun is an underrated quality in eating out, I think. So much about restaurants is either po-faced or functional at the moment, and when it’s not it’s the type of enforced jollity and zany fun that always reminds me of mandatory corporate away days. But Gooi Nara was properly enjoyable from beginning to end, with an element of playfulness that set it apart from the formula of starters, mains and dessert. I can imagine going back with a big group of people and mucking in, although the one thing I would say is that the barbecue takes up a lot of space on the table, so things could get decidedly cramped in a bigger group. But that aside, Gooi Nara comes highly recommended and I’m really looking forward to going back. Having fun, eating great food and making new friends: I wouldn’t be at all disappointed if this visit, too, becomes as much a metaphor as a meal.

Gooi Nara – 7.9
39 Whitley Street, RG2 0EG
0118 9757889

https://www.facebook.com/GooiNara/

Honest Burgers Competition: the results!

Did everyone have a good Christmas? I hope so, whether you spent it in or out, with your nearest and dearest, with your partner or on your own. If you were out I hope you were lovely to whoever looked after you, if you were in I hope people helped with the washing up and if you were at someone else’s house, well, I hope you helped with the washing up. I hope you’re replete from mince pies, or Christmas pudding, or mint Matchmakers (now we’re talking – can’t be doing with dried fruit myself) or a Terry’s Chocolate Orange, even if they’re far smaller than they used to be.

No restaurant review from me today – it’s difficult to imagine eating out in the foreseeable future, although I’m sure I’ll be back on duty early in the New Year – but fortunately one person who was busy over the festive period was John Luther. Not only was he soaking up the plaudits on Christmas Day, with South Street Arts Centre being named the best thing about Reading by Explore Reading, but on Boxing Day he very kindly sat down to judge the Edible Reading Honest Burgers competition.

I was bowled over by the quality and quantity of responses we got. From entries celebrating Reading F.C. to the Nag’s Head, complaining about the traffic on Cow Lane or celebrating our past and present the range of entries was really impressive. Maybe Two Rivers Press should consider a book of Reading haiku, because from ER readers alone I read entries celebrating the much missed doughnut stand on Broad Street, the 17 bus route and the whiff of ganja outside Reading Minster (which, uncannily, I sniffed earlier this week).

I’m so relieved I didn’t have to judge the competition, but fortunately for me John stepped up and did an absolutely sterling job. He even described the experience for me, appropriately in haiku form:

Judging these haiku
With all their well-seasoned words
Has been such a thrill

Anyway, without any further ado here are the ten winning entries, along with John’s comments.

WINNER 1: Madeleine Adams

Cheeselogs and Elvis
The Turtle and After Dark
Our town (not city)

John says: This one has a nice rhythm and I liked the use of “our” in the final line, bringing writer and reader together.

WINNER 2: Laura Balogh

Summer’s haze long gone,
Oxford Road bleak winter sun,
Nag’s warm lights invite.

John says: This one is unashamedly “Poetic” with a capital P, but has such a great final line. The line seems to exude the warmth it talks of.

WINNER 3: Greg Davies

Delightful Reading
A tall, stylish Elvis sings
about some biscuits

John says: It’s very difficult to be playful in so few words, but this charmingly pulled it off. It connected Reading’s past and present, whilst making me smile.

WINNER 4: Katherine Findlay

Town, not a city
Famous for beer, bulbs, biscuits
Better than you think

John says: This one just had a precision that I liked. Matter-of-fact and concise.

WINNER 5: Sam Houlden

The Nag’s fire burning
Young and old, welcome and warm
This place feels like home

John says: Although seemingly about the Nags Head (again!) it seemed to me that this is about Reading as a whole too, and what can be more important about a town than calling it home?

WINNER 6: James Menhenitt

Murty, Hunt, Harper
Kits, Little, Sidders and Doyle
One hundred and six

John says: For any RFC fan this will bring back great memories. The last line tells the story of a whole season in five syllables.

WINNER 7: James Parkin

Invasion of them,
Music, Mud, Mayhem and Beer,
Reading Rocks each year

John says: We can’t avoid the Reading Festival and this Haiku summed up the madness really well, with great use of alliteration and even a rhyme (the only entry that did).

WINNER 8: Donna Sibley

Are You Listening?
Jelly, giants, Nags, on Thames
Nomad, Lido, friends

John says: Ostensibly a list, but a great list! All very contemporary and unique to Reading (apart from the Thames!). Iconic community organisations, festivals, events and businesses that lead nicely into the final “friends”, including us all.

WINNER 9: Ian Sutherland

Reading on the Thames
computers are the future
3 Bs are the past

John says: This is another one that was amazingly economical with its words, summing up the past and present of Reading’s commerce very effectively.

WINNER 10: Janine Turner

The lion stands still
Surrounded by ruins, sun
Setting, drink in hand

John says: This feels really rich as three time zones play out within the three lines – the ruins (Medieval) surrounding the lion (Victorian) and then the writer (or reader?) surveying the scene (with a drink) in the here and now. Clever.

Congratulations to all the winners! I’ll be in touch with all ten of you about how to claim your prize. And commiserations to anybody who entered and didn’t win – the standard really was incredibly high.

All that remains is for me to wish you all a very Happy New Year. I’ll be back in 2018 with visits to all sorts of interesting places – stay tuned to find out where…