The Corn Stores

Writing the only restaurant blog in Reading can feel like a lonely pursuit at times, but if you really want a lonely pursuit it’s this: writing a review where you say that the Corn Stores is a distinctly mediocre restaurant. The only reviews of the Corn Stores I could find online were comped, so they were all breathlessly enthusiastic and gushing. But, that aside, I know quite a few people who have been to the Corn Stores, and they’ve all raved about it. Some of them, and I know they read this blog, have been back more than once since it opened in December. So I was really hoping not to be the lone voice, the sore thumb, but I went there this week and I really didn’t get it at all.

All the blogs and Instagrammers will tell you what an amazing job the Rarebreed Dining Group did of refitting the Corn Stores when they took over the derelict building and turned it into a bar, restaurant and private members’ club. They used local company Quadrant Design, and I agree that they’ve breathed life beautifully into a lovely but unloved space (one I largely remember from lunch breaks with my brother in 1996, when we used to sneak across from our McJobs in Apex Plaza opposite for a rushed pint or two). He wouldn’t recognise it now: the restaurant, on the first floor, is superbly done out, with bare brick walls, leather-banquetted booths and tables with dusky-pink, scallop-backed chairs. I was there with my other half Zoë rather than my brother (mainly because I have also gone up in the world somewhat since 1996).

As we were shown to our table – past the display cabinet full of aged beef – our waitress explained the concept, that they butcher and age their own meat. There was a certain pride about it which I respected, and it made me look forward to dinner: I knew from researching the menu beforehand that the Corn Stores was an expensive restaurant, but I was hoping for a showstopper, the special occasion restaurant Reading has been missing for many years.

Our table was one of the booths, and I was impressed by how spacious it felt for two people: CAU, back in the day, would have tried to seat four people at a booth that size (the other tables for two felt a little more poky: I’m not sure how much I’d have liked one of those). The restaurant was nicely buzzing and pretty full on a weekday night, and it exuded that glow of satisfaction you get when surrounded by people who are happy they’ve made a right – and exclusive – choice (the Nirvana Spa effect, you might say). “My mum would like it here” said Zoë, adding the Corn Stores to her mental list of places to take her mum to.

We ordered a couple of pints of Meantime lager while we decided what to order: it’s kept in tanks onsite so you get it fresh, unfiltered and unpasteurised. I thought it was cold, crisp and clean and I loved it – Zoe less so, because she detected a bitter finish. I’ve already said that the Corn Stores is an expensive restaurant, and I fear this is a point we may return to often throughout the rest of this review: starters are just shy of a tenner and some of the mains are just the right side of twenty pounds, although if you order a steak you’re highly likely to pay far more than that. Oh, and there was a “whole baked sourdough” for six pounds fifty, which has to be the most expensive bread I’ve ever seen on any menu anywhere (you get “your choice of butter”: really, for six pounds fifty you should get to try them all, I reckon).

There was also a specials menu with other options including a Barnsley chop, a pork tomahawk, smoked sirloin on the bone – and a chateaubriand with lobster and some other gubbins which cost the grand total of ninety-five pounds (I know people who have ordered this, and they raved about it, but really: you could eat Michelin-starred food for that money). None of that especially appealed, but also I wanted to judge the place on their standard fare – the meat and potatoes, you could say – so we stuck to the normal menu. At the table next to us, three well-to-do ladies chatted away as their main courses, completely untouched, went cold in front of them: Zoë and I exchanged looks.

We started with the “Rarebreed Board”, a sharing selection of interesting options. It was the most expensive starter on the menu (twenty six pounds, in fact) but I figured it gave us an opportunity to try out lots of different things. It came on a sort of folding trestle table which left us limited room for our side-plates, but you couldn’t deny it looked appealing: five different beef dishes, designed to be shared between two.

Much of the sharing board was sort of a symphony of mince, so you got steak meatballs, miniature burgers and “beef and pepper sausage” – which was more like sausagemeat, on account of there being no casing. They were all quite nice, but much of a muchness – the main variations being in coarseness, but the overall texture was very similar.

We both liked the sausage best, with there not being a huge amount to choose between the burgers and the meatballs. Even at this stage though, the execution was lacking. The burgers came with lettuce and tomato in naked brioche, no cheese, no sauce (the pepper or tomato sauce in a little metal dish made a useful dip). The meatballs were apparently served with red wine gravy, but the thin lake of liquid at the bottom of the dish was largely ineffectual. Perhaps you were meant to dip the accompanying toast in it, but it was pretty hard when it arrived and, by the time we got round to it, it was even worse.

There were three burgers and three meatballs, which was odd and just made sharing trickier – I’d rather those two dishes had been better and smaller, and the price had been nudged down a little. I liked the other two dishes on the board better – the steak tartare (served, somewhat randomly, in a jar) had some real tang and pungency from the Worcester sauce, but Zoë found it too vinegary and couldn’t finish it. Similarly, the salt beef on flatbread worked beautifully for me, but amid the mustard there was also a vinegary tang that put Zoë right off it. Even in this dish there was the oddity of little segments of potato – double carbs, and extra bulk, but totally unnecessary.

By the time we finished our starters the table next to us had eaten half of their main courses, if that. One lady had cut her cod burger very precisely in two and looked like she was considering, possibly before the evening was out, embarking on eating the second half (it never occurs to me that some people go to restaurants for the company, or to see and be seen, but that might be just me). I got a second pint of Meantime and Zoë tried the Curiouser & Curiouser, a beer by Kentish wine producers Chapel Down – it tasted of grapefruit and citrus and I really liked it, although Zoë seemed less convinced.

We’d decided to tackle different ends of the menu, so we went for one of the pricier and one of the more affordable main courses. Zoë’s burger – wagyu beef, with Ogleshield cheddar and bacon – looked lovely, and the bite I had wasn’t half bad. But it cost nineteen pounds, and it didn’t feel, to me, like a nineteen pound burger (I’m not sure what a nineteen pound burger tastes like, but not this).

“It’s really nice” said Zoë.

“Better than Honest?”

“No, not really.”

I agreed with that – even when unadorned, Honest burgers have a lovely crust to them from the grill, and there’s a bit of salt in there. This was almost as good, but it cost nearly twice as much as its equivalent over on King Street.

I had gone for a two hundred gram fillet steak, served rare, with béarnaise sauce. The Corn Stores website boasts about how they baste their meat with aged beef fat and cook it on a Robata grill, getting loads of flavour into even lean cuts like fillet.

This was, it’s safe to say, not my experience: they’d managed the impressive combination of serving a steak where there was almost no char at all while simultaneously overcooking it. It was meant to be rare, but it was probably medium at best: just about pink in the middle, but with no juices oozing out as you made your way through it. I couldn’t face sending it back, because I really wanted to eat dinner at the same time as Zoë and I knew that sending it back guaranteed that wouldn’t happen. Besides, by then the damage was done – if you’re a steak restaurant, and one charging that kind of money, cooking the steak right first time was the entry level requirement.

That wasn’t all, though, because really the steak didn’t taste of very much. I didn’t get any seasoning, I certainly didn’t feel like it had been anointed with glorious, salty beef fat, nothing of the kind. The béarnaise didn’t help matters, being a little on the thin side, heavy on the vinegar (bit of a theme emerging there) and light on the tarragon. It was also a pretty mingy helping of béarnaise, because the Corn Stores seems to have missed the memo that béarnaise sauce should be as much for your chips as your steak. The salad it came with was pleasant enough, but it rankled with me that you got a big pile of salad for free but had to pay for your chips – by contrast, chips came free with the burger.

This brings us on to the chips – beef fat chips, no less. I had high hopes for these, but they were also deeply ordinary. They didn’t have the crunch-fluff ratio of a perfect chip, they were exceptionally salty and some of mine had grey patches which should have failed the most elementary quality checking. Dipped in the béarnaise they were okay, but no more, and they weren’t much better with the mayonnaise we’d asked for (which came in two minuscule pots which looked as if they had housed lip balm in a previous life). I looked round and everybody seemed to be having such a lovely time. What was I missing?

We’d asked our waitress for recommendations for a side dish and she had recommended the baked flat mushrooms, so we went for those. Four pounds got you three rather small flat mushrooms which had a meaty texture but again, didn’t feel like they’d been exposed to much in the way of butter. If I’d had them in a Beefeater I’d probably have been pleased, but here in the Corn Stores it just felt like another way of extracting funds. There was the ghost of a sprig of thyme on top, as if to say Look, we did do something with them.

By this point we were on to our third drink – a serviceable glass of Pinot Noir for me and Chapel Down’s cider (which I really liked) for Zoë, and positively planning our escape. The waitress took our dishes away and half-heartedly asked if it had been good, and we half-heartedly replied that it had been fine. The fact that both of us had half-heartedly half-left our chips didn’t seem to register. That was service in general at the Corn Stores – smiling, efficient, a little robotic. I didn’t get any real warmth or personality.

Dinner for two – a sharing starter, two mains, some chips, a side and three drinks apiece – came to one hundred and thirty pounds, including a not-that-optional 12.5% service charge. I’m almost tempted to leave that sentence to do the work on its own, but really: one hundred and thirty pounds! When I think of all the amazing meals you could buy in Reading for a fraction of that price – or all the exquisite meals you could buy in London for that money – I felt like I’d cheated rather than treated myself.

“I don’t think I would take my mum here, you know” said Zoë, unsurprisingly.

“I know. Normally with places like this I say I’d only go if someone else was paying, but in this case even if someone else was paying I wouldn’t let them take me here.”

That might sum it up, for me. I couldn’t shake the feeling, throughout my meal, that I was paying for the refurbishment, or helping Rarebreed pay off their investor (the interestingly-named Havisham Group), but I didn’t feel like I was paying for a truly luxurious experience in a terrific special occasion Reading restaurant.

The talk about the Corn Stores’ pride in their meat and butchery is all well and good, but the main thing my meal did was make me miss CAU. I think, actually, I had no better or worse a meal at Miller & Carter, where I paid a lot less money. Worst of all, I went to the Southcote (a Beefeater) last year and although it wasn’t as good as the Corn Stores it was a lot closer than the huge disparity in price would have you believe (and their béarnaise, damningly, was probably slightly better).

Anyway, it doesn’t matter what I say: I have no doubt that the Corn Stores will do really well, but I felt like if it had been half as good as it thinks it is it would be twice as good as it actually is. But what do I know? I read some lifestyle bloggers recently, and they tell me the emperor looks fantastic in that outfit.

The Corn Stores – 6.7

10 Forbury Road, RG1 1SB
0118 3246768

https://www.thecornstoresreading.co.uk/

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Feature: Al fresco dining (2019)

The thoroughly unseasonal spell of sunshine we had recently got me thinking about spring, waiting just round the corner. Tea and toast in the garden, the magnolia flowering, having a coffee outside Tamp or in the Workhouse courtyard and watching the world traipse past. That in turn made me remember, further down the line, the harbingers of good times ahead: the beer festival weekend; “just the one pint” after work in the Allied Arms garden morphing into a long, messy evening; Saturday afternoons stretched out in Forbury Gardens with a good book; the glorious golden slide into summer.

It’s nearly four years since I last published a feature on al fresco dining in Reading, believe it or not. But, as with everything else in this town, much has changed in that time. Dolce Vita and the Plowden Arms have closed, robbing us of some of the best food for miles around and one of Reading’s nicest sun-bathed spots. Forbury’s and Picnic – which also made my list four years ago – are not what they were. The market menu at Forbury’s seems to get more expensive and less special with every passing year, and Picnic isn’t even open on Sundays any more.

Finding establishments to replace them has been harder than you might think. Reading has some great outside spaces but generally, the places lucky enough to own them do not serve good food. The roof terrace at the Thirsty Bear, for instance, is a nice spot and a natural sun trap, but the pizza’s iffy. The Hope & Bear, the artist formerly known as the Abbot Cook/Upin Arms/Jack Of Both Sides, has a very pleasant garden – if you can get past the hum of traffic from the London Road – but the food has never been anything to write home about.

Then, of course, you have places that do decent food but where the space isn’t quite up to scratch. Many of these are chains: it would be lovely to eat outside at Carluccio’s, say, but that spot on the edge of Forbury Gardens sadly never catches the sun, so what should be a great opportunity to have an Aperol spritz and some antipasti becomes a chilly affair. Similarly, the space out the front of Franco Manca is okay, but hardly inspiring. I still enjoy eating at the Lyndhurst, but that little terrace looking out on to Watlington Street feels a tad lacking, more for a pint than the full dining experience.

For my money, Reading lost its finest al fresco dining spot last year when the Fisherman’s Cottage decided to dispense with I Love Paella. When that happened we lost the opportunity to eat salt cod churros and empanadas, patatas bravas with chicken thigh and piquant sauce and so many other glorious dishes in the sunshine with a pint of something cold, fizzy and refreshing. The pub now gets one hundred per cent of the food takings – bully for them, but I definitely won’t be back. Even if the dishes didn’t taste bad, eating there would feel in bad taste.

All that preamble is to say that the list you’re about to read might be Reading’s best al fresco dining options (or at least a conversation starter: your mileage may well vary) but I have to add the disclaimer that they are far from Reading’s best dining options. There’s invariably a degree of compromise involved – you can have an almost Meditteranean lunch, you can have fantastic food, but you can’t necessarily have both. But on a hot and sunny day, when everybody is in shorts and you have a glass of something cold in front of you, maybe that doesn’t matter so much.

Oh, and since starting writing this feature the sun has gone in and the heavens have opened. I can’t help but blame myself, but I still hope this will come in handy in the months ahead.

1. Bhel Puri House

Small plates in the sunshine.

The courtyard outside the George Hotel, just off Yield Hall Lane, catches the sun beautifully in the summer. By day most of its clientele are enjoying coffee, cake or quiche from Workhouse, and in the evening you’re more likely to see patrons of the hotel bar sitting outside enjoying a pint and a fag. But the real trick – at lunchtime or dinner – is to pop in to Bhel Puri House and ask them to serve you in the courtyard.

There’s very little that can match sitting on one of those benches, soaking up the sun and enjoying Bhel Puri House’s almost-legendary chilli paneer, spearing a cube of cheese on a caramelised strip of pepper before popping it in your mouth. The Punjabi samosas are still as gorgeous as the day I first tried them and the crispy bhajia – thin slices of crispy potato with an almost-sweet bright orange carrot chutney – are equally beautiful.

Last year, as summer was coming to an end, I stopped at Bhel Puri House on my way home after work on Friday and enjoyed the courtyard one last time before the clocks went back. Normally I have a mango lassi, but on that occasion a pint of Estrella from the hotel bar seemed like the only sensible option. I’ll be there again as soon as spring is well under way.

Bhel Puri House, Yield Hall Lane, RG1 2HF

2. Bluegrass BBQ

Reading’s best al fresco brunch.

Another Reading restaurant with a sunny terrace going to waste is bland uber-chain Bill’s. It has a great location next to Reading Minster, but I really couldn’t recommend anybody eats there, not even for brunch. I know it has its fans, but I infinitely prefer crossing the churchyard and going to Bluegrass on Gun Street, which has a terrace by the Holybrook which catches the sun and which few people seem to know about.

Once you’re installed, they do one of the best brunches in Reading. Many like the pancakes, but I’m always drawn to the Smokehouse breakfast there. I’ve enthused about it before but really, it does everything very well: the bacon is smoked, salty, streaky and crispy, the sausages are terrific quality and the hash browns are an absolutely joy, especially smudged with a bit of barbecue sauce before eating. If you’re there in the evening, the brisket chilli is a revelation and I really like the southern fried chicken (although maybe not with the waffles and maple syrup). I can see that dinner in the sunshine with a really good beer could make for a lovely al fresco evening.

Bluegrass BBQ, 15 Gun Street, RG1 2JR
https://www.bluegrass-bbq.com/

3. Côte

Continental, albeit canalside.

There are plenty of Oracle chains with space outside, and come the summer they are frequently rammed. Franco Manca and the Real Greek both have decent outdoor areas, and that’s before we get to the delights of eating outside at Nando’s (chicken thighs, medium, with rice, peas and extra halloumi, garlic peri peri on the side, since you asked), an experience which always feels a little like being on holiday in the UK. Many of the Oracle’s al fresco options – including Nando’s, sadly – can feel a little purgatorial. I do however have a real soft spot for the tables for two right in front of Côte (not, I should add, the ones at the edge of the waterside) where you can sit side by side, drink rosé, eat from the reasonable a la carte or the crazily reasonable set menu, and gaze out on the world.

Côte’s food is consistently good, and you won’t go far wrong there, but the specials are always worth a look (especially if they have skate wing on there, probably the nicest thing I’ve ever eaten at Côte). The charcuterie board is a lovely choice at any time of year, but in warm weather the tuna nicoise salad remains one of the best ways to feel slightly virtuous while eating out. Sitting with a view of the canal (technically a river, but if it looks like a canal and feels like a canal…) watching a parade of frazzled shoppers-to-be wander past shouldn’t really work, but for some reason it does. On a good day, when you have one of those tables and the sun is beaming down, you can feel like one of the luckiest diners in Reading.

Côte, 9 The Oracle Centre, RG1 2AG
https://www.cote.co.uk/brasserie/reading

4. London Street Brasserie

The original and best.

The only restaurant to make my list both in 2015 and today, London Street Brasserie has a nice outside area looking out on the river (and the often less than salubrious goings-on near the manky car park on the opposite bank). But that aside, it’s actually quite an attractive decked area which catches plenty of sun, and as the evening light starts to fade there are blankets to keep you warm. Many years as Reading’s fanciest restaurant (a title which has only really been challenged in the last year or so) means that in some respects the food is secondary to the whole experience. As with Cote there’s a set and an a la carte menu, but the better option is nearly always the set which offers an impressive range at a reasonable price: eat there at lunchtime or before 7pm to take full advantage.

Over the winter I became very attached to their haggis and duck egg on toast with HP jus – Reading’s ideal breakfast, disguised as a starter – and the fish and chips, also from the set menu, remains one of my favourite main courses at any price point. The a la carte always feels like more of a gamble at prices which are beginning to feel a little on the steep side for what you get, but the salt and pepper squid is a reliable dish and it’s hard to go wrong with venison and (yet more) haggis. The only thing that stops me gushing about LSB, apart from the pricing, is the consistency: it’s definitely a place which has the occasional off day, but at its best it’s still one of Reading’s finest places to have a meal in the open air.

London Street Brasserie, 2-4 London Street, RG1 4PN
http://www.londonstbrasserie.co.uk/

5. Thames Lido

For burning calories vicariously.

I have struggled to love Thames Lido, and I haven’t quite managed it yet: on every one of my three visits there’s been something wrong, either in terms of service, food or value for money. On one visit the gin and tonic was spendy and unspecial, on another the set menu was a little bit mingy for the money and on my last visit, the ox cheek (allegedly a signature dish) was claggy and undercooked. The service has always been consistent only in its inconsistency, although with Alex – who used to charm the socks off everyone at Mya Lacarte – now on board, that might have changed.

I know I sound like I’m moaning, but here’s the point: when I had lunch there last summer it was such a lovely spot that I put my reservations about the food to one side. The sun was shining, the surroundings were Instagram-perfect (there’s a reason it shows up there so often), my Spanish cider was cold and crisp and watching people braver than me doing lengths somehow helped me to work up quite an appetite. It simply is a gorgeous place to eat lunch, provided you relax your standards somewhat, and probably the single best view of any restaurant in Reading. I think it succeeds despite, rather than because of, its food, but I seem to be swimming against the tide in that respect. It’s the only swimming I plan to do, anyway: I’d much rather sit in the warm, order something nice and leave all that to people better qualified than me.

Thames Lido, Kings Meadow Park, RG1 8FR
http://www.thameslido.com/

The Dairy

It was love at first sight when I first laid eyes on The Dairy. I’d been paying a visit to the MERL on Upper Redlands Road earlier in the day and I’d dimly remembered that The Dairy, one of the bars which was part of the University, was just down the road. I’d never been, so in the spirit of adventure I did a bit of research, checking out the sadly departed Matt Farrall’s excellent article on the subject for the Whitley Pump). Later that week, I dropped in for a drink.

When I got there, I was thoroughly charmed. It took a bit of finding – it’s pretty much completely unsignposted, and you access it by going up a ramp only to find an unadorned door with a simple plaque next to it saying “The Dairy” in a plain, municipal-looking font. Once I got there, though, I liked the look of the place: it’s made up of two big rooms with clean, white walls, sizeable tables (high ones in the main room, lower ones in the back room), comfy furniture and a wide array of decent beers on keg, including four different craft lagers and representatives from many of our local breweries: Siren Craft, Wild Weather and Elusive, not to mention other breweries like New Wharf and XT.

It’s a university bar, but it was open to the public and seemed to have a pretty varied clientele. Not only that, but even without a student discount you could get a pint of good, well-kept craft beer for around three pounds fifty. I found myself making a mental note that this could make a great place for board games nights with friends, or for a quiet pint on the evenings when I fancied a change of scenery from my usual haunts (it was sleepy on a week night at the start of term).

Then I spotted the menu. Now, normally I would never have considered The Dairy as a venue for a food review, but there were lots of interesting touches on the menu which made me wonder. Jerk chicken, curry mutton and Jamaican vegetable stew all looked different from the usual fare and even the burgers, complete with a very now charcoal brioche, seemed slightly out of the ordinary. I took a picture of the menu and resolved to come back to see if this could be the kind of hidden find which always lifts my spirits.

Returning on a Saturday evening with my partner in crime Zoë, The Dairy was much more obviously a student bar and was far busier. I felt a tad decrepit grabbing a stool at one of the high tables, and then swapping it for one better equipped to support my child-bearing hips. That feeling wasn’t helped by looking around to see hordes of young people watching the big screens, playing pool, eating all-day breakfasts (not something on the menu I had ever considered ordering, in all honesty, and especially not at eight o’clock at night) and generally not appreciating that they were slap bang in the middle of the best years of their lives.

I wandered into the back room to see if any tables were available there, but was greeted by such a wall of noise that I thought better of it. I did spot one gentleman at another table who was even older than me, and that reassured me enough to grab a menu. Broadly speaking it divided into two sections (unless you count a very small selection of starters and salads and – of course – that all day breakfast): world food and burgers. We quickly decided to try one of each and I went up to the bar to place the order. None of the dishes costs more than a tenner and once you hand over your card (the whole place is cashless) they give you a little gadget which buzzes when your food is ready, signalling for you to go and pick it up from the hatch. Easy peasy.

The first warning bell rang when the gadget buzzed, no more than ten minutes after placing my order; that felt quick enough that I wondered whether a microwave had been involved. I approached the hatch to find the food had been set down in front of me, but with nobody on the other side to greet me. The shelves behind were full of stuff from Brakes, another disconcerting sign. I would have just taken the dishes and gone back to the table but one of them, the mutton curry, was missing the advertised naan bread and mango chutney. Instead there was a small bowl of what appeared to be giant, wan-looking chips, stood upright. I waited, but nobody appeared, so I said “excuse me” as loudly as I dared and a lady wandered in from what I assume was the kitchen.

“I’m sorry, but I’m waiting for a naan bread” I said, doing the English thing of apologising for expecting to receive what I had ordered.

“It’s a mistake with the menu” I was told tersely. “It’s wrong. You don’t get naan bread, because it’s a Caribbean curry. These are yuca fries.”

Never mind, I thought, carrying everything back to the table and picking up some cutlery from the bar. The mutton curry was Zoë’s, but I managed to try enough of it to dispel the rumour that it had been microwaved: surely it would have been hotter if that was the case. The meat was a tad chewy – not undercooked per se, but not enjoyable to eat and the spicing in it was probably best described as subtle. It was definitely luke-warm, though, and for nine pounds the portion felt a little on the mean side. I didn’t try the yuca fries (although I did google them to find out that they were made of cassava) but Zoe ate a few without any real enthusiasm. They looked like the kind of thing you might use to insulate a loft.

“What do you reckon?” I asked.

“It’s just not hot. To be honest, I’d rather go to Clay’s.” She had a point – I would far rather have spent a little more and had an infinitely better curry elsewhere. I had a feeling the list of places doing a better curry than The Dairy – and this in itself was pretty alarming – probably included Wetherspoon’s. Still, I’ll say this for the mutton curry: it wasn’t the chicken burger, which is an early front runner for the single worst thing I’ll eat in 2019 (let’s hope it bags that prize, because I don’t really want to think about what, if anything, could beat it into second place).

The charcoal brioche was weirdly, cloyingly sweet. The bacon – back, cooked to miserable limpness – was indifferent and salty. The burger itself was breaded and I’m not sure whether it was baked or fried but the coating had the texture of an asteroid with no discernible seasoning: the chicken, once you got to it, at least recognisably had started life as a fillet but after that it had been not so much cooked as mistreated. The thin slice of American cheese on top had been completely unmelted by the lukewarm contents of the brioche. I wasn’t sure how the kitchen had managed to overcook something, yet it still wasn’t hot: I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

The “barbecue glaze” underneath it had the sort of gloopy sweetness which gave me bad flashbacks. There was something odd about the taste of the fries: it could have been that they were tepid, it might have been that they were stale, it might have been something else altogether. Running through the possibilities in my mind started to bring on reflux. I left a fair amount of this dish, and most of the fries, and things have to be pretty bad before I do that.

If the food had been good, there would have been more drinks. We would have checked out the dessert section of the menu and ordered the churros (“plain and caramel filled… served with butterscotch sauce”). But the food wasn’t good, and I needed to leave before I was completely put off The Dairy as a watering hole, and for that matter put off churros for life. The meal, along with a ginger beer and a very pleasant pint of Eisbar, a “Vienna style lager” by XT, came to just shy of twenty-two pounds. Service at the hatch had been pretty perfunctory, but the bar staff had been lovely and friendly (and one of them was very apologetic about it being her first shift). The whole thing seemed to reinforce my overall view, namely that The Dairy was a great place for a quiet drink but that nobody should consider eating there.

As we left, I was torn between feeling a little queasy and really wanting to eat some chocolate, or at least something that didn’t taste of the chicken burger. In the end I thought better of it, but that burger sat uneasily with me for the rest of the evening.

“I suppose the obvious comparison is the Oakford” Zoë had said while we were waiting for our food, before anticipation transmuted into disappointment, and I think in many ways she is right. For cheap, cheerful burgers, at least – although having done some research since the burgers at the Oakford are a little more expensive, mainly because fries are extra (though I don’t think anybody in their right mind would pay extra for The Dairy’s fries). But really, I couldn’t think of a good comparison: where else would the food have been quite so underwhelming?

I don’t know whether The Dairy’s dishes do come from a Brakes lorry (from the section of the website marked “for students”, perhaps), and you could say that I should have known better than to expect great food from one of the university bars. All I can say is that I was taken in by the menu, but more to the point I wrongly thought that the pride The Dairy had put into its drinks offering would be matched by the food. So I do have a new favourite watering hole, along with a salutary lesson that even after over five years of doing this I remain more than capable of making the wrong call and picking a duffer. I still recommend going to The Dairy for a nice pint if you’re in the area (and the benches out the front might be lovely on a summer’s day). Just make sure you’ve eaten beforehand.

The Dairy – 4.6
Building L14, London Road Campus, Redlands Road, RG1 5AQ
0118 3782477

https://www.facebook.com/londonroadcampus/

German Doner Kebab

The new year always presents a myriad of opportunities, doesn’t it? A fresh start (unless, like pretty much everyone I know, you’ve been struck down by one of the many virulent bugs doing the rounds). A chance to change your ways, shed unhelpful old habits and bin off toxic former friends. And, of course, it’s a time to embrace every passing fad for self-improvement, whether that’s kicking the booze or going vegan for thirty-one teeth-clenchingly joyless days. Fuck that, I thought, I’m off for a kebab.

Not just any kebab, I should add, but a German one: German Doner Kebab has been plying its trade since last April, at the grim end of Friar Street near the Hope Tap, the latest creepy topless bar and the big Sainsbury’s (Brutalist on the outside, faintly Stalinist on the inside). Now, I’m not snobbish about kebabs: I’ve always thought that, done right, they can be darned delicious and the best ones, cooked well, are more than acceptable eaten sober.

Generally, in fairness, I mean shish kebabs – there’s something about chicken or lamb cooked there and then on a charcoal grill that’s difficult to beat (let’s face it, there’s a reason I’m always singing the praises of King’s Grill). But a chicken or lamb doner, sliced thinly, cooked on the hot plate to add a little crispiness and mixed with ribbons of iceberg and a really good sauce? That’s the stuff of – admittedly slightly guilty – dreams.

More recently that has tended to be the shawarma at Bakery House, or gyros on holiday in Greece, but I still fondly remember the golden age of growing up in Woodley and having a doner from the van parked up by Bulmershe school, or, years later, stopping at the sadly departed “Kebab Kingdom” on Cemetery Junction.

That was twenty years ago, but I can still remember the crunch of the red cabbage and the kick of those pickled chillies like it was yesterday. Come to think of it, I can remember when you could eat in at Ye Babam Ye, in the bit which is now Up The Junction and just to prove that everything comes around again eventually, here I am in 2019 sitting at a table eating a doner kebab, the hot new (old) gastronomic trend. Maybe they’ll rebrand Wimpy next.

My accomplice for this review was the author of pub blog Quaffable Reading, a man who prefers to be referred to as Dr Quaff (honestly, these anonymous bloggers and their pseudonyms: it’ll never catch on). I had accompanied him last year when he went to review The Retreat, my beloved local pub, and this was part of a sort of exchange program where he joined me to review German Doner Kebab and in return we then went on to a pub afterwards so Dr Quaff could review that. You might say that we approached things in the wrong order: I couldn’t possibly comment, although you might have an idea of my view by the end.

Dr Quaff is – and he didn’t offer any financial inducement for me to say this, I promise – superb company with a huge range of stories which managed to be both funny and interesting. But he also has a surprisingly donnish air (that time up at Oxford, perhaps) and made for a very suitable co-pilot on this visit. He was also willing to order all the things I didn’t, which made for a refreshing change as I’m used to having my second choice of everything on the menu.

The interior managed to be a chic take on a traditional fast food restaurant. The overwhelming theme was monochrome – big black and and white photos of Berlin landmarks (the television tower especially caught my eye), a huge image of the Brandenberg Gate along one wall and smart black button-backed banquettes and booths. But there was also a flash of orange bringing the whole thing to life: you really couldn’t fault their branding.

“It looks very much like McDonalds tries to these days” said Dr Quaff, at which point I had to admit that it was a very long time since I had been to one, and even longer since I’d paid attention (still, he has kids). We ordered at the counter and plonked ourselves at a booth in what was, for a school night, a surprisingly busy restaurant.

The menu gave a wide range of options, from quinoa salad to tempura cauliflower, all the way to… no, really, it’s basically just doner meat. Doner meat in a brioche bun, doner meat in a flatbread, doner meat in a wrap. Doner meat in a quesadilla, doner meat on – yes, really – nachos. It was the doner equivalent of that scene in Being John Malkovich where everyone just walks around saying “Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich” all the time: doner, doner, doner.

You can get the doner-based dish of your choice for roughly five pounds, or add fries and a drink for two quid, and for vegetarians there is a veggie kebab containing the suitably vague “mixed veggie pieces”. Even the choice of doner meat (beef, chicken or “mixed”) is more specific than that. Personally, I found it weird that there was beef but no lamb, but I decided to reserve judgment.

The first dish to turn up was the lahmacun (or, in this case I suppose, “beefacun”), a thin flatbread smeared in something which may have been beef or possibly just the memory of beef, folded over and served with three dips (chilli, garlic and burger sauce) along with a rather hopeful wedge of lemon. When I started this I quite liked it, but as it cooled down and started to taste more of itself I found I rather cooled down too. But taste of what? I wasn’t really sure – certainly not of beef, and hardly of spice either. It also went soggy quickly which made dipping it in the sauces largely a waste of time. “It’s sort of like a keema nan” said Dr Quaff, and although I knew what he was driving at it still felt like a disservice to keema nans everywhere.

Dr Quaff had also gone for a side dish, the doner nachos. It was a classic example of the old adage that just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should: I don’t think the combination of tortilla chips, jalapeños, American squeezy cheese and doner meat is one the world was waiting for.

The beef doner meat, and this was a theme funnily enough for the rest of the meal, was plain bad. It didn’t taste like any beef I’ve ever had, and that includes some pretty dreadful beef: even overcooked into shoe leather the way my former mother-in-law used to do it at least vaguely tasted of beef. This, though, had no texture, so was just limp ribbons of the stuff, a disconcerting shade of beige and looking nothing like beef. It could have been shaved off a cow, a sheep, an actuary or E.T.: if you’d told me it was Soylent Green I wouldn’t have been remotely surprised.

Normally when I put photos of a dish on the blog I do a little editing to try and make them look as good as possible: their culinary best selves, you could say. With the doner nachos I just wanted to do my best to make them look exactly as they did in the restaurant. Adding warmth and saturation would be like adding a Snapchat filter to a Tinder profile picture.

“I thought they’d be smaller” said Dr Quaff. I was just glad I only had to have one forkful.

More of the doner meat was to follow in the main attractions. I had a mixed kebab in their signature toasted flatbread, while Dr Quaff had it in a lahmacun wrap. In terms of a vessel for the meat, his was a much better plan – completely contained, easier to eat and much less messy. I also think, overall, Dr Quaff enjoyed the whole thing more than I did: he also pimped his fries so, for fifty pence extra, he got “flaming fries” which were dusted with something which contained paprika but also hints of something like Chinese five spice. “It’s funny”, he said, “because it feels strange to pay fifty pence extra, but it’s definitely worth it”.

By contrast, the toasted bread had a very pleasing waffly texture but was open, which meant that everything would have fallen out if I’d tried to eat it with my hands. This did work to my advantage though, because I managed to remove much of the beef doner meat with a fork (and to think I was always bad at Operation as a child) and focus on the chicken. It was infinitely better: for a start it definitely felt like it might once have been attached to an actual chicken, and along with the salad and red cabbage it began to feel like something I would eat from choice.

I’d paid extra for feta, because friends in the know had told me that was the thing to do, but it didn’t feel like it added an awful lot. The fries were nondescript – in the fast food hierarchy they were better than KFC fries (but so is everything else, including not having fries) but worse than McDonalds or Burger King. I didn’t really have strong opinions about any of the dips – if pushed, I guess I’d say I quite liked the burger sauce because you don’t see it often enough these days, but I’m not sure the fries made it worth going for the meal deal. Nice to have a Coke in the classic glass bottle, though, even if there weren’t any glasses provided to pour it into.

Service was functional and perfectly polite. I had to ask for a fork, I had to ask for a glass, I had to ask for a straw (I’m afraid it was plastic) when they didn’t have a glass, but all of those requests were handled nicely. It’s not the sort of restaurant, really, where you notice service unless it’s terrible, and it wasn’t. Not doner nachos terrible, anyway, but that’s a new level of terrible I wasn’t expecting to encounter in 2019. Let’s hope the year gets better from there. My dinner came to eleven pounds, while Dr Quaff’s, with his fancy chips and freakish side order, came to closer to thirteen.

After our meal, Dr Quaff and I sat there for a bit debating the merits of German Doner Kebab. He was (and is in general, I imagine) much kinder than me – I think he found things to like and could imagine going back, although I’m not sure when or how often. For me, it falls down in far too many places. It’s more expensive than KFC and cheaper than Honest Burgers, but if I wanted fast food in the town centre where I could sit down I would, without exception, pick one or the other over German Doner Kebab. And if it’s that kind of food you’re after – if you really, really need a kebab – German Doner Kebab doesn’t do anything that isn’t executed far better by either Kings Grill or Bakery House.

I could manage a chicken doner wrap there, at a push, but as a quick choice in town a lot of restaurants would have to close before it even made my top 10 (come to think of it, Nando’s is just down the road: judge all you like, but I love a Nando’s). So what – or who – is German Doner Kebab for? I’d love to be able to answer that question for you but, truth be told, I’m stumped. Put it this way: I still maintain that you don’t have to be drunk to eat a good kebab, but even if I’d emerged from a boozer several pints to the good after an evening with the author of Reading’s finest pub blog, wild horses would be unlikely to drag me back to German Doner Kebab.

German Doner Kebab – 5.4
106 Friar Street, RG1 1EP
0118 9589998

http://www.germandonerkebab.com

Feature: The 2018 Edible Reading Awards

2018 has been an interesting year for Reading’s restaurant and café scene. It didn’t have huge, big-name openings like Thames Lido or Honest Burgers, but there have still been plenty of noteworthy changes and shifts over the last twelve months. For one, the Oxford Road has become a more significant place, with Tuscany and Oishi opening this year offering properly lovely pizza and promising Japanese food, filling a gap that has been there since Bhoj moved into town and I Love Paella left Workhouse Coffee.

Another trend has been some of Reading’s street food and pop-up specialists finding new homes, so Laura from Pop-Up Reading now cooks at the Tasting House and Georgian Feast are now operating at what used to be Nomad Bakery, in Caversham, a rare gastronomic high spot north of the river. Not to mention the way street food in Reading exploded this year, with Blue Collar taking over the Forbury and the Abbey Ruins for brilliant events running over several weeks. And then there are the new arrivals among Reading’s cafés, with a second branch of C.U.P. on Blagrave Street and Anonymous Coffee firmly installed both at the Tasting House and, if you work there, Thames Tower.

Of course, the circle of life means that restaurants also fall by the wayside, some of which are more mourned than others. So this is the year that Namaste Kitchen lost its chef and front of house and I Love Paella left the Fisherman’s Cottage. Those things might well make you sad (as they do me), whereas the closure of our branch of Jamie’s Italian might bother you less. But we also said goodbye to the much-loved Dolce Vita, cafés Artigiano and the Biscuit Tin and chains Loch Fyne and CAU. The casual dining sector faces an uncertain future in 2019, so few people would bet against further contraction next year: if you like a restaurant, you need to keep eating there.

This doesn’t deter people from entering the market, so the end of the year saw two further openings – Persia House, on the far side of Caversham Bridge (in a spot many consider cursed) offering Iranian food and the Corn Stores in the iconic building opposite Apex Plaza, where the owners are hoping a very fancy refit will persuade diners to part with quite a lot of money for steak. I will of course be heading along to check both of them out in the New Year.

But before that, on the last Friday of the year, it’s time to look back in my annual awards and celebrate the best of 2018. And before we do that, I have to say a quick thank you. It’s been an incredible year on the blog: the most successful since I began in 2013, with more visitors than ever before. It’s been the year that I put out two of the most popular features on the blog (on the things Reading needs and Reading’s 10 must-try dishes), ran a competition with new kid on the block Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen and ate, and reviewed, all manner of things, from pizza in Newbury to croque monsieur in a hospital, from chip-free fine dining in Binfield Heath to wobbly shawarma down the Wokingham Road.

I’ve had help from an incredible cast of guest dining companions who have helped make every meal an absolute pleasure (even when the food was not). A total of twelve different people have joined me on reviews this year, and every one has added something different. I don’t want to leave anybody out, and listing them would probably be dull for everybody else, but they know who they are and they know that I’m enormously grateful. And actually, I ended up having lunch with a lot more people than that – over fifty people attended one of the four readers’ lunches this year, from the first one at Namaste Kitchen at the start of the year (featuring a superlative greatest hits package of seemingly everything on the menu) to the elegant and accomplished four course set menu at Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen in December. It really has been quite a year.

Right, with all that out of the way let’s concentrate on the task at hand. Ready? Good.

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Dak-gang jeong, Soju

I only got out my legendary 8 paddle twice in 2018, for visits to Soju and Oishi. A big part of my rating for the former came from this dish, phenomenal crispy fried chicken covered in hot and sour sauce and scattered with sesame seeds, a quite magnificent affair which became my yardstick not only for starters and small plates in Reading, but also for fried chicken everywhere. It is reason enough to go to Soju in its own right, and next time I go I might order three.

Honorary mentions go to Bakery House’s chicken livers – meaty, metallic and resplendent with sweet red onion and punchy pomegranate molasses – and Bench Rest’s cauliflower shawarma, a beautifully done dish which could persuade anybody to give vegetarian food a whirl (though not, necessarily, to refer to it as “plant-based dining”).

TWEETER OF THE YEAR: Fidget & Bob

I won’t get on my high horse again to deliver my regular speech about how Reading’s restaurants, cafes and bars almost uniformly fail to get social media, but let’s just say that this was, by far, the easiest award to give out. Fidget & Bob’s Twitter feed has been an absolute delight this year, whether it’s been tweeting their specials (which always sound delicious), supporting other like-minded independent businesses or talking about the comings and goings of life on Kennet Island. I love my part of town, but Fidget & Bob manages the almost impossible: it nearly makes me wish I lived close enough to be a regular.

CHAIN OF THE YEAR: Franco Manca

Contrary to popular belief, I do review chains (provided they offer something a little different). I was in two minds about Franco Manca when I went there on duty, having enjoyed a couple of their London branches prior to their big expansion over the last couple of years, but repeated visits have established it as a real favourite. The pizzas are always good quality, the service is usually brisk but friendly and it’s an excellent, versatile venue – suitable for a quick pre-pub dinner with friends, a solo meal on the way home or a drawn out lunch when you want a little more than a sandwich. It’s often worth loading up a standard margherita with whatever toppings are on the blackboard that day, and if you do stay for dessert both the coffee and ice cream are better than you might expect.

Honorary mentions in this category go to Cote Brasserie, which has been doing its thing for so long that you could be forgiven for forgetting how good it is, and Kokoro, which is also a perfect place to stop for a big lunch or a quick dinner, solo or with a friend.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Charsi karahi chicken, Kobeda Palace

I have waxed lyrical about this dish so often that I may have run out of things to say by now, but Kobeda Palace’s karahi chicken remains a beautiful dish and a hugely surprising one; nothing about Kobeda Palace necessarily gives away that you can get such a gastronomic treat there, but there it is. Chicken, on the bone but neatly jointed, comes in the most glorious spiced sauce, with plenty of coriander and fresh ginger. The trick, if you can manage it, is to strip it all off the bone before you start and scoop it up with the giant, freshly baked naan bread. It really is gorgeous, and I’ve introduced numerous people to it this year.

There were so many contenders for this award that even narrowing down runners-up is almost impossible: you might be surprised, for instance, to discover that Café Yolk’s incredible Breakfast Burger was a fixture on my long list. But it would be wrong not to mention Pepe Sale’s suckling pig, a dish which is never going to be in or out of fashion but remains unbeatably delicious all the same, and the instant classic that is Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen’s bhuna venison (I even remember a Twitter outcry this year when, for a couple of days, Clay’s ran out of venison).

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen

I can’t imagine many of you being surprised by this: I’ve had regular conversations with people where they basically say something to the effect of “Clay’s is a little too good for Reading”. I think it reflects well on both Clay’s and Reading that the owners don’t seem to think so, and nor should we. To go from a standing start to being firmly ensconced as Reading’s (or at least Twitter Reading’s) favourite restaurant is quite an achievement, and barely a week goes by without somebody on social media publicly declaring how delighted they are to be back there for their umpteenth visit. I can’t say I blame them.

Bing Crosby once said that Frank Sinatra was the kind of singer that only comes round once in a lifetime, before adding “why does it have to be my lifetime?”. On a similar note, both Oishi and Tuscany can feel unfortunate not to win this award this year: Oishi was a lovely, low-key, apologetic delight, serving very good sashimi and teriyaki, and Tuscany is a superb, if idiosyncratic, pizza joint which may or may not do loads of other things, if you can ever track them down on a menu – or indeed track down a menu.

OUT OF TOWN RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Arbequina

Oxford’s Arbequina is, simply put, one of the best restaurants I’ve been to anywhere, in ages. A little spot down the Cowley Road, basic tables and chairs, a small menu, a small kitchen and superb staff who can execute all of it perfectly. Once, after a fantastic meal there, the waiter told me that they deliberately make the menu so simple that people can be trained to cook all the dishes in a week. Nothing is complex or fiddly but all of it is truly outstanding, from toast with ‘nduja, honey and thyme to pork belly smothered in verdant, herby mojo verde. Special mention has to go to the tortilla, which will slightly ruin all other tortillas and omelettes in your mind for the rest of your days: only order one if you can cope with that.

None of the out of town venues I visited on duty, sadly, came close to being in contention for this award but honourable mentions definitely go to the Black Rat in Winchester, a Michelin starred pub which could teach many of Berkshire’s and Oxfordshire’s poseur gastropubs a thing or two about keeping it simple, and Chelsea’s Medlar which is as good an excuse as you could hope for to take a Friday off and slope over to London.

DESSERT OF THE YEAR: Double ka meetha, Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen

I often struggle to find a dessert I much like in restaurants and usually, when I do, it involves chocolate. Hats off, then, to Clay’s which has a chocolate-free dessert so fine it’s worth saving room for (itself a challenge, on a visit to Clay’s). It’s bread and butter pudding, but not as we know it – chilled, clean and fresh, sweet without being cloying, a delicate, clever thing packed with pistachio and full of surprises. A lot of the attention focused on Clay’s other dessert, a very striking and unusual rice pudding made with onion, but for me this is straight out the best dessert you can get anywhere in town.

Runners-up in this category are Pepe Sale’s seadas, pastry full of cheese and sweet with citrus (don’t knock it til you’ve tried it) and Honest Burgers’ salted caramel milkshake, because a milkshake is a perfectly respectable dessert option and, as far as I’m concerned, the sooner restaurants get on board with this the better.

LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Bhel Puri House

Some of my nicest lunches this year have been spent sitting outside in the courtyard shared by Workhouse and the George Hotel, enjoying a mango lassi and some of the many excellent dishes cooked up by Bhel Puri House. Everyone talks about the chilli paneer, which is every bit as good as it was when I first reviewed it almost exactly five years ago, but the supporting cast is almost as good, whether you’re having vada pav (a sort of potato cake sandwich which feels like Indian street food which has found it’s way here via Hartlepool), crispy bhajia – perfect thin slices of fried potato with a sweet carrot chutney – or classics like Punjabi samosas. They haven’t changed a thing since they started, as far as I can see, and I’m glad they haven’t messed with a winning formula. It just feels like 2018 was maybe the year that Reading (including me) started to catch up.

I might be a bit jaded with the endless parade of relatively traditional sandwiches available in Reading, good though many of them are, and so my other podium places for this award go to Bakery House (for its small plates and the endless wonder and ludicrous good value of its lamb shawarma in pitta) and Blue Collar, where every Wednesday you can make the acquaintance of Leymoun’s quite extraordinary challoumi wrap.

SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Pepe Sale

It’s not been the best year for the service profession in Reading. Ihor has left the Artist Formerly Known as Kyrenia, Kamal has departed from Namaste Kitchen, and Kostas, Alexandra and the rest of the crew at Dolce Vita must be plying their trade elsewhere. Not only that, but Marco left Pepe Sale to head off into retirement, splitting his time between Kent and Italy. But actually, on many subsequent visits to Pepe Sale I finally got a proper view of what Marco’s presence obscured – that all of the staff there work like Trojans, are incredibly friendly, superbly efficient and do an impeccable job of making a very busy restaurant run like clockwork. So without question, Pepe Sale is a worthy winner of this year’s award for making it all look so effortless. I will miss Marco, glasses round his neck, Larry Grayson-style, telling me all the new places I ought to try for dinner, though.

All is not lost, though, and there are plenty of other places in Reading where the service is still exemplary. The Lyndhurst does a superb job of looking after diners, with a perfect balance between attentive and relaxed, friendly and formal, and definitely merits a mention here, as does the quite marvellous Fidget & Bob.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen

Clay’s reminds me very much of the quote by Robert Graves that “the remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he really is very good, in spite of all the people who say he is very good”. It’s much the same with Clay’s – everyone raves about it, me included, and you could quite reasonably think that it can’t be quite as magnificent as everybody claims.

And yet, when you go, it is. A restaurant which feels more like it’s been transferred in from London, with food reminiscent of high end Indian restaurants like Gymkhana, and yet which simultaneously feels completely in the right place in its spot at the bottom of London Street. The food is like nothing else you can get not only in Reading but probably anywhere in England, the execution is brilliant and the menu has already undergone a few changes despite Clay’s only having been open for six months. It’s already difficult to imagine Reading without it.

Not everything is perfect – service has been erratic since day one, and still needs work. They could badly do with a website, and I’m still not entirely sure whether Clay’s is a high-end restaurant charging middle-end prices or a really good neighbourhood restaurant. But ultimately, this stuff doesn’t matter: what truly matters is that Reading has a restaurant quite unlike any other, where the food is frequently quite astonishing, which gets Twitter and seems genuinely proud to be part of the town and part of its restaurant community. I can’t think of a better winner of this year’s award, even if I can look forward to a chorus of comments giving me the final ER Award of 2018, for Stating The Obvious.