Restaurant review: The Nag’s Head

I’m not sure there’s any such thing as the perfect pub, but I’m lucky to live near three that each embody different aspects of the platonic ideal of a public house.

The Retreat is arguably Reading’s best “classic” pub, even if its refurb last year made the toilets disconcertingly classy. The story goes that when the landlord of the Alehouse visited and saw the work the Retreat had carried out in lockdown he turned to Brian, the landlord, and said “thanks a bunch – now I really do have the shittest pub toilets in Reading” (apparently the Alehouse has done some work on them since). The Retreat lacks outside space, and the small beer selection is a little too cask-led for my personal taste, but it remains a wonderful place with a welcome like no other.

Then there’s the Lyndhurst, which does Reading’s best pub food, without question. It hosts burger nights on Mondays and curry nights on Thursdays, and boasts a menu full of staples like chilli beef nachos and katsu chicken burgers. And then there’s the icing on the cake: dazzling specials that tend to go on the menu Fridays and Saturdays and match any restaurant food anywhere in Reading. One week it’s skate wing topped with capers and crunchy croutons soaked in a sauce Grenobloise, another it’s lamb rump with an enormous slab of shredded lamb shoulder, breadcrumbed and fried, on the side. 

To round off the holy trinity, the Weather Station boasts a superb selection of beers, the vast majority of which are on keg, has a nice little courtyard out back where you can drink them and has really gone from strength to strength in 2021. It always has at least one sticky, strong, indulgent imperial stout on the list and some of the DIPAs and pales on tap are truly terrific (a special mention to Wild Weather’s Orange Lazarus, which is as refreshing a summer drink as you could hope to find).

Having said all that, over the last twelve months I’ve spent a fair amount of pub time on the edge of West Reading, where the Castle Tap and the Nag’s Head have done an exemplary job of adjusting to Covid and providing great converted spaces for al fresco drinking. When I finally emerged from the cocoon of that first ever lockdown for an al fresco alcoholic drink, it was the Nag’s Head I made a beeline for. But the Nag’s Head always had two drawbacks. 

One is that you couldn’t book a table, whereas at the Castle Tap they’ll gladly reserve you one outside. The other was that they never really had much of a food offering. That needn’t be be a problem. The Castle Tap is more than happy for you to order from Deliveroo and eat it at your table – they’ll even give you the postcode for the beer garden out back to use as a delivery address – but the Nag’s has always taken a dim view of that.

On one hand, it meant that the Nag’s Head didn’t bother trying to adapt to the constantly changing landscape of substantial meals, this tier and that tier. Life was simpler, if less lucrative – although the Nag’s also reopened later than its peers last year, sensibly spending extra time sprucing up their beer garden, so perhaps they could absorb those losses. But it also meant that they were closed for longer than some of Reading’s other pubs with outside space when they could have put together a menu, or invited a street food trader over, and continued to trade.

Anyway, when they reopened in April this year they were sporting a brand new food menu and a new smoker for pork and brisket. The menu was compact – not big enough to necessarily make the Nag’s a food destination in its own right, but aiming to offer enough choice that you wouldn’t have to face the invidious choice between leaving the pub to grab a meal or staying, getting shitfaced on an empty stomach and accidentally falling into Harput Kebab on the way home (and I’m not judging, because I speak from experience). And that kind of menu works: Zoë and I were having an early evening beer in the sunshine during her week off, and neither of us could face going home and cooking, which is why you get this review this week.

Before I talk about the menu, a little about the setup. Last year the Nag’s turned its car park properly into a beer garden, with plenty of well-distanced tables, some out in the open and some under marquees, with astroturf underfoot. It future-proofed them well, with the tables superb in sunshine but still usable in the rain, although having to take down the sides of the marquees to qualify as “outdoors” meant the wind could be mighty fierce. All ordering is at the table, with links to the beer list on Untappd, and payment is taken at the table, too. Although many other pubs abandoned table service as soon as they could the Nag’s is currently sticking with it, which I personally really appreciate.

The menu confines itself to three categories only – toasted sandwiches, sausage rolls and meat from the smoker. The Nag’s always used to offer the latter – pulled pork and beef brisket rolls – but the toasties and sausage rolls, a new move, are supplied by The Croque Shop, a business from Brighton. It’s an interesting decision to use them rather than a local supplier, although the pork and beef are from Vicar’s Game, probably Berkshire’s best-known butcher (it’s not all meat: there are vegetarian and vegan options for both toasties and sausage rolls).

Sausage rolls cost four pounds, the pulled pork and brisket are six pounds fifty and the toasties range from six pounds to nine, the most expensive thing being a Reuben made, slightly randomly, with pork belly instead of beef. You order the food along with your beer, but they take the order separately and you pay separately for your food when it arrives. Service is really very good at the Nag’s at the moment – months of running table service has really honed their skills in this area, and everyone who looked after us was friendly, personable and good at coming over just as we needed to order some more drinks.

Let’s start with the pulled pork sandwich, because it was good. Really good, in fact. You get a generous helping of the stuff stuffed in a brioche bun and topped with their own recipe barbecue sauce, and it’s a wonderful thing. So much pulled pork, to me, is a little bit claggy and gloopy, mixed in with the barbecue sauce and too often on the mulchy side. The Nag’s pulled pork, by contrast, was drier and not completely shredded – you could easily pull it apart, and the texture was spot on, but some of it was still in big, delicious doorstops. The barbecue sauce added more heat than sweetness, and there was just enough of it to compliment without overpowering.

It was so enjoyable, in fact, that I’m beginning to think a trip to the Nag’s without a pulled pork roll might be no kind of trip to the Nag’s at all. I enthused about it so much that Zoë ordered one herself with the next round of drinks and I had to look on enviously while she polished it off (admittedly an experience I’d been happy to inflict on her earlier in the evening). She used some of the accompanying crinkle cut crisps – Seabrook, at a guess – as a vehicle to transport some of the excess pulled pork into her gob, a trick I wish I’d thought of. I’ll try the beef brisket next time I’m at the Nag’s – or at least I’m telling myself that now – but the pulled pork roll is six pounds fifty well spent, and for my money one of the best sandwiches in Reading.

“You know the food at the beer festival? You know the crappy carvery they always have there?” said Zoë.

“I’m afraid so.”

“This is what the pork sandwiches at the beer festival should actually taste like.”

I really couldn’t disagree.

While I’d been gloating over my good choice, Zoë had tucked into a chicken, cheese and chorizo toastie from that section of the menu. Much as I’d love to use the pun “croque of shit” somewhere in this review, this was anything but – well made on good, sturdy sourdough that toasted well and full of decent quality chicken, vintage cheddar and nuggets of chorizo rather than cheap supermarket slices. Zoë was a fan – “this is as good as a Shed toastie”, she said – and we’ll have to take her word for it, because it was so good that I didn’t get a bite. At six pounds fifty it would compete with a Shed toastie on price, although it’s slightly smaller. But I think the pulled pork was probably better value.

In the interests of covering as many bases as possible, I also had a sausage roll. The most intriguing-looking one on the menu was pork, apricot and Stilton, and it looked the part – heated up in an oven rather than microwaved with nicely flaky, rustling pastry and a dense core of sausagemeat. And it came close, but if there was any Stilton in it I couldn’t detect it. I’d have liked it, for contrast against the sweet apricot studded through the sausage roll, but it was still decent even without it. If I’d known it was going to be a blue cheese free zone I might have gone for the pork, cheese and Marmite option – but who’s to say whether it would have turned out to have Marmite in it?

There’s not much point in saying a lot about the beers we had during our meal because the Nag’s (and the breweries it buys from) mix things up so frequently that anything I drank might well not be on when you’re there next. There’s a touch of ADHD about it, because you find something you like and they’re always on to the next thing (Siren Craft, it seems to me, is especially prone to this). But it would be remiss not to mention Woodland Battle Dance Exhibition, the newish DIPA by Double-Barrelled which is my favourite beer from them yet; it’s still on at the Nag’s at the time of writing, but who knows how long that will last?

It’s also worth adding that the Nag’s always has a good complement of beer from local breweries, with Siren, Double-Barrelled and Elusive well represented all of the time along with beers from smaller local breweries like White Waltham’s Stardust. It does make me wonder, a little, why their toasties and sausage rolls come from Sussex – but the toasties and sausage rolls are good, so maybe that’s why.

It was always going to be difficult reviewing somewhere after last week’s review, the best meal I’ve eaten on duty this (or any) year. But the Nag’s is the perfect choice, because despite being as different an experience as I can think of, the Nag’s does share some DNA with really good restaurants. Picking your suppliers carefully, having a compact menu which you execute superbly and matching your food to the atmosphere you want to create aren’t skills exclusive to restaurants: pubs and cafés need to get that right as well.

And I think the Nag’s has thought that out perfectly. It’s not destination food, but it’s just the right food to accompany a trip to the pub, or to try and stave off the inevitable hangover you can see on the horizon during a trip to the pub (I’m at the age now where sometimes I can sense the hangover in the post after a couple of drinks – that’s your forties for you).

The pulled pork sandwich is the pick of the bunch for me, but any of them would grace a drinking session and they offer an excellent change of gear from ordering a packet of pork scratchings and some Bacon Fries and opening them out on the table, pub tapas-style. And writing this, it strikes me that this is just typical of the Nag’s. They took their time deciding what to do about food while others tinkered at the edges or got street food traders in. But trust them, once they did get round to it, to do it properly.

The Nag’s Head – 7.8
5 Russell Street, Reading, RG1 7XD
07765 880137

http://www.thenagsheadreading.co.uk

Restaurant review: Monty’s Café

At the end of our lunch at Monty’s Café, the owner came over to our table with a little plate for my friend Jerry and me. It had a little macaroon and a baklava on it, a neat touch. So I asked him how long they’d been open, and he said that it was just about two years. And, as so often lately, I thought about what a gruelling two years that must have been for him. I thought that the summer of 2019 would have seemed so full of hope, because the beginning of things is always exciting. And the following winter might have been challenging, as winters often are, but then suddenly, as spring was almost around the corner the bombshell dropped that nothing would be normal again for a very long time. 

I was chatting to another friend recently who said “who opens a hospitality business in the middle of a pandemic?”. Well, yes – and yet some people do, even here in Reading. But I feel particular sympathy for businesses like Monty’s Cafe that open just before a pandemic and have to spend some of their first twelve months fighting especially hard to survive when, even in happier times, getting through the first year proves to be beyond many restaurants and cafés.

All that makes me particularly glad, and more than a little relieved, that I can find plenty of nice things to say about Monty’s Café. It’s a little café deep in the heart of Reading’s studenty area, at the other end of Hatherley Road to the considerably bigger – and busier – Café Yolk. For a long time I didn’t give it much thought because it seemed largely to be for takeaways, with limited space inside and out. But at some point over the last year or so they did some real work on their outside space, put a fetching grey fence around it and a covered canopy overhead, and the transformation was marked.

A while back when we had that insanely hot few weeks I remember strolling down Addington Road past Monty’s Café, seeing its terrace bathed in the sun and it looked like the kind of day café you get in Greece or Turkey, rather than just around the corner from the Royal Berks. And checking their menu added to that slight feeling of elsewhere – a mixture of brunches and Lebanese lunch dishes, where a dish was equally likely to come with cheap sliced white or pita bread. It made sense to differentiate themselves from Yolk, their more famous neighbours, and prices were considerably lower than Yolk’s too.

I turned up on a slightly less sunny afternoon with Jerry to find many of the outside tables taken, which gladdened me, by a mixture of friends lunching and solo diners tapping away on laptops over an espresso. It was a charming outside space, with a clear corrugated roof much like the one at Geo Café’s Orangery, and the furniture was tasteful. They also had an entirely contactless QR code-driven ordering process where you can fire up the website, pick everything you want and pay without ever having to go inside – very handy for people like me who have enjoyed table service in cafés and pubs and are in no hurry for it to end. 

The menu was pretty compact – looking at it, it was as if Early Café and Bakery House had had a child together. The small breakfast selection included falafel and halloumi, the sausages were lamb and the bacon was turkey. On the section marked “Sides”, moutabal, nachos and hash browns sat incongruously side by side. There was chicken shawarma and chicken tikka, and a range of sandwiches which involved taking almost everything Monty’s sold, with the exception of the hash browns, and sticking it in a wrap. If the menu had something of an identity crisis, it was nothing if not affordable. Nothing cost more than six pounds (not even the sole pizza on the menu, which had a section to itself).

We ordered a selection aiming to cover as much of the menu as we could, and the first thing to come out – our drinks – set the scene for what was to come. Lattes were huge things, easily some of the biggest I’ve seen in an independent Reading café, in sunshine-yellow mugs. If they weren’t quite at the quality of the Anonymous coffee sold at the end of Hatherley Road they were still pretty serviceable, and gladly free of that acrid note you often get at middling cafés. Fresh juices were similarly huge, and delicious. Mine sang with mango, while Jerry’s mint lemonade was enthusiastically received on the other side of the table; both felt like decent value at four pounds.

The moutabal was also enjoyable, and very keen value at just over three pounds fifty. Sometimes the smokiness can overpower moutabal but it was kept nicely in check, and there was a bit of a whiff from the judicious use of garlic. The whole thing was crowned with pomegranate seeds and a little pool of olive oil – the only thing that let it down was the standard-issue pita bread, which was a little thin and stiff for proper dipping. There wasn’t enough of it but we asked for a little more, Oliver-style, and it was brought over almost immediately, accompanied by a big smile.

Jerry had chosen the brunch and added some turkey bacon as an extra, possibly for the novelty value. The whole thing was nicely put together with the baked beans in a ramekin, a move which suits the OCD tendencies of some people, myself included. Jerry went on to tell me that he wasn’t much of a fan of baked beans, or hash browns for that matter – which did make me wonder why he’d ordered this dish – but it all got gleefully demolished all the same. Again, there were nice little touches everywhere – something which might have been paprika dusted on the hash browns, chives snipped onto the eggs.

You notice these things, and if the yolks weren’t necessarily super-runny on both of the eggs it didn’t seem to matter in the grand scheme of things. I personally would have preferred better toast and butter, but you had to weigh that against the wonder that was Café Monty’s lamb sausages – brick-red, very much like merguez and packing a nice fiery heat. Jerry also let me try the turkey bacon, which was similar enough to real bacon to be a more than adequate substitute. But truly, it was all about the sausages. I could gladly have eaten a whole plate of them – and the menu does give you that option, so bear it in mind if you visit. Merguez for brunch: what’s not to like?

“This will fill me up for the rest of the day!” said Jerry, very happy with his life choices. “Honestly, as you get older you do find you just have less capacity for food.” 

“This is why you’re so much slimmer than me” I replied. Jerry has twenty years on me, and I’m still waiting for anything to affect my capacity for food or my gradually increasing waistline: we’re now reaching the stage where I’m holding out for a tapeworm. “Does that mean you won’t have room for a few pints at the Park House bar later on?”

“I can always find room for that” he beamed.

My falafel and halloumi wrap came beautifully presented, all neat and ready to eat in a little paper sleeve. Again, it was unshowy but quietly delightful, everything in balance. That said, I’d paid extra to add the halloumi, and I think it needed it – the falafel were pleasant enough but I didn’t get the feeling they’d been fried there and then and crammed into the wrap while still hot and crispy, so it needed the halloumi for contrast. But what made it was the crunch of Lebanese pickles, perfect purple strips adding texture and sharpness, the icing on the metaphorical cake. This dish cost me four pounds fifty – good luck getting anything as enjoyable for that price at the other end of Hatherley Road – and was worth every penny.

“This is marvellous” said Jerry, as the sun made a half-hearted attempt to emerge from behind the clouds. “I could see myself coming here with a book and just having a coffee and a read.”

I knew what he meant. There was something about the space, and the uniformly warm and happy welcome we’d got from all three of the staff looking after us, that I rather found gave me the feels. Put it this way: I knew from social media that the café had closed earlier in the week for a short three-day holiday and that this was their first day reopened, but nobody there showed even the slightest sign of having the back to work blues. On the contrary, they seemed overjoyed to have customers, in a way that made me positively warm to the whole shooting match.

Our bill for two came to twenty-nine pounds, not including tip, but it would be very easy to spend an awful lot less. We’d already paid right at the start, so we said a jolly farewell before ambling up the hill in the direction of the Harris Garden, largely so we could pretend to ourselves that we’d in some way earned the pints waiting for us in our not too distant future. “I didn’t bring a bottle of wine with me this week” said Jerry apologetically as we set off, and I did briefly wonder if he’d been replaced with a Jerry impersonator.

Short and sweet this week, then, which is absolutely the right way to sum up somewhere like Monty’s Café. I love a place that doesn’t have tickets on itself, that does things simply and well and somehow, through some sort of alchemy, creates somewhere unobtrusively lovely. No brashness, no showing off, just quiet competence. 

Monty’s Café serves as an excellent reminder, too, that however much you might love food, it’s never all about the food. It’s also about the welcome, and the space, and how a place makes you feel. So yes, I could find establishments in Reading that do better moutabal, or better coffee, or a better breakfast. But the best can be the enemy of the good.  And I don’t think, on the other hand, that I could find somewhere that does all those things, the way Monty’s Café does, in such an agreeable, sleepy little spot. 

It’s somehow more than the sum of its parts, to the point where whatever number I lob at the bottom of this review won’t really capture what I’m trying to say. Hopefully you’ll pay more attention to this paragraph than the rating, and if you’re in the area one lunchtime you’ll go there, see what I saw and leave, as I did, feeling that all was right with the world. Apparently, according to the menu, you can get those sausages in a wrap, with pomegranate molasses and halloumi, and chips on the side. Just imagine.

Monty’s Café – 7.3
41 Addington Road, Reading, RG1 5PZ.
0118 3272526

https://www.emontys.co.uk
Delivery available: via Just Eat, Uber Eats

Takeaway review: Shake Shack

Well hello there! Welcome to this week’s review, where I go back to trying takeaways and search desperately for interesting things to say about Shake Shack.

I know my reviews never start this way. You’ve read enough of them by now, I imagine, to know the structure. I start with a preamble that puts things in context, talks about the place I’m reviewing this week and why I chose it. Is the new joint that’s opened the biggest and best? Why doesn’t anywhere in Reading do good food of this or that cuisine? Is the place I visited a few years ago still any cop? You get the idea.

Then I run you through the menu, and how prices range from bla to bla. If we’re in a restaurant, I’ll tell you what the room (or my table outside) is like, and if it’s a takeaway I tell you what I made of the delivery experience. Then I get out my Big Food Thesaurus, because every restaurant reviewer’s got one, and describe the dishes – spoiler alert, if it’s a takeaway it’s often not quite hot enough – trying to avoid wanky words like “bosky” or ones, like “unctuous”, that people bandy around without understanding what they really mean.

I also throw in some choice remarks from whoever’s eating with me that week. Because the more of somebody in the review who isn’t me the better, am I right? Usually that’s my partner Zoë, who’s much more quotable than I am. But Zoë is joining me for fewer reviews at the moment, because we’re going to a wedding in a couple of weeks and she wants to wear an outfit that, in her own words, “doesn’t come with guy ropes”. So other times a friend of mine comes along, and I might also spend some time describing them; these reviews don’t clock up their massive word count by themselves, you know. 

Anyway, then I tell you what the service was like, how much it costs and whether it was good value, and finally I inelegantly loop back to the preamble and tie it all together with a pretty bow. That’s the formula, and you’ve all flown with me often enough to know that perfectly well. Thanks for choosing my blog today: the emergency exits are here, here and here, and I hope you have a very pleasant onward journey.

My reason for opening the figurative kimono this week is that my takeaway from Shake Shack was so nothingy that it was a challenge to hold all the details in mind, like trying to recall a dream days after you wake up from it. At least with some dreams you actively want to remember them – winning the lottery for instance, being on holiday, or having it off with your favourite film star – but I doubt most people would long to dream about Shake Shack. I think I can understand why some “proper” restaurant reviewers spend the first half of their reviews talking about something that has nothing to do with the restaurant: they’re probably just bored.

Sorry, I should at least tell you something about Shake Shack first. It’s an American chain – yes, another one – that started life twenty years ago as a solitary hot dog stand in New York’s Madison Square Park. Restaurants like to make much of where they’ve come from when their back story is like this, possibly so you won’t pay quite so much attention to where they are now. 

And where Shake Shack is now is a big chain with two hundred and fifty locations worldwide, including ten in the U.K., the majority of them in London. They opened in the U.K. the same week as Five Guys, although Five Guys has spread further and faster, possibly because it’s backed by Charles Dunstone, the billionaire co-founder of Carphone Warehouse. That might explain why Five Guys has been ensconced in Reading for eight years, whereas customers only got to try their rival from late last year, when Shake Shack teamed up with Deliveroo Editions to start selling to the people of Reading from that dark kitchen near Phantom Brewery.

I ordered from them this week out of pure curiosity: just as with Rosa’s Thai, the other London import on Deliveroo Editions, I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. I can be as meh about burgers as the next person, quite possibly more so, but I always got the impression Shake Shack was more highly rated among burger anoraks than Five Guys, the Burger King to Five Guys’ McDonalds (although the burger chain people really want to see come to these shores is the elusive, much-fêted In-N-Out Burger). So I fired up Deliveroo on my phone on Sunday night to see if they offered something that the likes of 7Bone, Honest and Gourmet Burger Kitchen – now available on Deliveroo, surreally, from the kitchen of our local Carluccio’s – didn’t. 

If they did it wasn’t immediately apparent from the menu, which was streamlined and straightforward. You can have a burger, a cheeseburger or a “SmokeShack” burger (with smoked cheese and bacon) either as a single or a double. Their vegetarian option – there’s nothing at all for vegans here – was a fried portobello mushroom stuffed with cheese.  Double burgers come in at around nine pounds and you have to buy fries separately, which pegs the price pretty much at the same level as Five Guys, Honest and 7Bone.

They also did a chicken burger and nuggets, a “flat-top hot dog” (which looked genuinely unpleasant in the photo) and a limited edition selection of Korean-influenced dishes making liberal use of gochujang. Most of the chicken dishes on the menu were described as “chick’n” which did make me wonder if it was in fact, technically, chicken. A bit of research reassured me, but it still seemed like a weird, unnecessary turn of phrase. Anyway, we ordered a couple of burgers, a couple of portions of fries and some nuggets and the whole thing came to forty pounds, not including rider tip.

As is so often the way, everything happened either a little too quickly or not quite quickly enough. Our order was on its way literally twelve minutes after we ordered, and it got to the house in close to ten minutes. It was on the lukewarm side, but I don’t know if that was down to the rider or the packaging. Shake Shack proudly proclaims that all the paper used in their boxes is from sustainable forests: that may be true but it was pretty thin and didn’t look like it offered much in the way of insulation.

Zoë had picked the chicken burger – partly, it turns out, because she was a bit of an expert in this field. It looked pretty decent – a thick fillet with a crunchy coating and meat whiter than American teeth. She’d left the pickles out, owing to her long-standing aversion to vinegar, and replaced them with long crisp slices of raw onion, as a heathen would do. But she seemed to enjoy it, although she thought it needed to be hotter.

“It’s not bad. I’d compare it to the McChicken Sandwich – I used to eat that back in the day, and very good it was too. Then they they replaced it with something called the Chicken Legend in a ‘ciabatta roll’” – she conveyed the inverted commas through the power of disdain alone – “and that was rubbish. It’s dry as fuck, too much roll. It comes with a ‘cool’ mayo and I don’t like the taste of it. Now you have to have a chicken mayo sandwich from the Saver menu.”

“Don’t you have a mini fillet from KFC instead?”

“Not from the one on Broad Street” she said. I wondered if she was referring to the infamous rat incident from a few years back and then I remembered: she knew numerous people who had fallen ill shortly after eating there.

“Do you remember the McChicken Premiere? That one came in fake focaccia bread, and the advert had Dani Behr, dead behind the eyes, desperately pretending to sound excited about a chicken burger.”

“Never heard of it.”

I think Zoë ordered better than I did. I’d chosen the SmokeStack Double, the most expensive burger on their menu, a double patty with cheese, bacon and chopped cherry peppers. The way it had been packaged – part-wrapped but left open – might have been visually appealing, but it meant it was colder than it needed to be, and most of the cherry peppers stayed stuck to the paper when I picked the burger up. The remainder hung around, adding a sweet crunch that jarred with everything else.

Again, if it had been hot it might have been nicer, but I didn’t feel any real difference in quality between this and Burger King, let alone Shake Shack’s more direct competitors. The bacon was nice, the patties were reasonable – cooked well done, even though I hadn’t ticked the box to request that – but I struggled to think of a burger I’d had in Reading that left me as ambivalent as this. 7Bone may be a grease overload, but at least it tastes of something. Honest’s burgers are probably the benchmark. Reading’s street food options, whether it’s Boigers or the sadly-dormant Meat Juice, beat Shake Shack hands down day in, day out. And I couldn’t help but think of plucky little Smash N Grab, out on Cemetery Junction, infinitely more deserving of my money than this, even if their fries need work.

Shake Shack’s fries, by the way, are crinkle cut – that’s their shtick – and they weren’t bad, if a tad lukewarm. They were at least well salted, and I’ve always suspected that crinkle cut chips are just inherently better. Zoe had gone for the gochujang ones, which merely meant that they gave you little plastic pots of bacon and spring onions to sprinkle on top and a tub of gochujang mayo to dip it in. I’m not sure much sustainable paper was involved in all those tubs, and I’m also not sure it was worth the additional one pound fifty. “It’s real bacon though” said Zoë, her expectations low enough by this stage that this came as a pleasant surprise.

Finally, we’d gone for some of the gochujang “chick’n” bites. The menu said that these came with gochujang glaze and another tub of that mayo. I expected from that description that they would indeed be glazed, but actually they were coated and topped with a meagre drizzle of gochujang sauce which only covered three of the ten nuggets. The taste was actually quite pleasant: there’s a wonderful, deep, savoury note to gochujang, with a slight hint of fermentation and funk. But the texture was woeful, the coating soggy and pappy underneath, no crunch to be seen. The whole thing was so woolly and unmemorable that we left a fair few of them, including one weird mutant ubernugget that was as big as three normal ones. Imagine fried chicken you don’t feel like finishing. That used to be a lot more difficult for me to do before I ordered from Shake Shack. 

I found myself thinking of Honest’s recent Thai chicken special, fried chicken thigh honking with fish sauce and a honey sriracha glaze, topped with Thai slaw, ranch dressing and cheese. It’s one of the best things they’ve ever done, and one of the finest burgers I’ve had. I loved it so much I ate it twice – at the start of the month, outside, on Market Square, and again at the end, at home, after trekking into town to click and collect on the final day of the month, because I wanted to eat it one more time before they discontinued it. Compared to that, Shake Shack wasn’t even a parody. It was a travesty.

When I first finished my takeaway from Shake Shack I think I might have been in a salt and additive-induced coma. “It wasn’t that bad” I thought to myself, “except that it wasn’t hot enough. But if you lived north of the river, and they were close to you, it might be worth a delivery.” But now I now think that was the gochujang talking. Because really, Shake Shack feels like a boring, bland way of parting a gastronomic fool and their money. 

So if you live in Caversham, and I know legions of my readers do, don’t order from Shake Shack. Get your burger from the Last Crumb instead. If you’re out east, give Smash N Grab a go. If you’re in town on the right lunchtime, head for Blue Collar. And if you’re near the town centre, go to Bluegrass, or 7Bone, or Honest, or the Lyndhurst, or King’s Grill. Go to Burger King, for that matter. Go literally anywhere else, so that one day Shake Shack’s marketing people and the experts at Deliveroo Editions realise that a town with a vibrant food culture won’t be fobbed off with some mediocre pap just because it has a few restaurants up in London. That kind of bollocks might work in Basingstoke or Bracknell, but it simply won’t wash here.

I’ll leave the last word to Zoë, who summed it up neatly as she ruefully tackled one of those stodgy nuggets. 

“You’d be better off going to Gurt Wings, where you could get three massive strips and a fuckload of tater tots for the same money. That’s the thing, isn’t it? Indies do it better.”

They do. They nearly always do.

Shake Shack

https://deliveroo.co.uk/menu/reading/reading-editions/shake-shack-editions-rea
Order via: Deliveroo only

Restaurant review: O Português

As far as hospitality is concerned, one of the hardest things you can do right now is give somewhere a bad review. For much of last year many reviewers, professional and amateur, thought that you shouldn’t do it at all. If you didn’t like somewhere, they said, you should maintain a dignified silence and write instead about the places you like. I’ve never subscribed to that point of view: it’s somewhat Pollyanna to only talk about the brilliant, and warning people about the iffy is every bit as much of a public service. 

Nonetheless, bad reviews remain the trickiest to carry off. I don’t mean a hatchet job. I know those are fun to read – they can be fun to write – but somewhere has to be really awful to justify one of those. For instance, I went to TGI Friday or Taco Bell with an open mind, but both times it soon became apparent that it was going to be one of those nights, and one of those meals. But opportunities to write that kind of review are vanishingly few and far between: I don’t choose anywhere confident that I’ll have a bad time, rubbing my hands at the prospect. 

The rest of the time, if you don’t like a meal, you’re putting the boot into an independent business. Somebody’s baby, some people’s livelihoods. It can feel like kicking a puppy. So you try and be constructive, get the tone right, find good stuff to offset the bad. Some of my attempts at this have worked better than others, although I’ve definitely softened over the years. And this year, the review I found the most difficult was when I had takeaway from O Português, the new Portuguese restaurant on the Wokingham Road. 

O Português had looked great on paper – I really wanted to like it, but I wanted to like it more than I did. Some dishes showed promise, others were less successful. The one that came in for the most criticism was my other half’s grilled chicken, which she dubbed “a carcass covered in tasty skin” with “more bones than Cemetery Junction” (this is a trick, incidentally, we all use with negative reviews: if you’re quoting someone else, you can at least play the good cop).

I really didn’t enjoy publishing that one, but to their credit the restaurant got in touch with me about it and took my feedback constructively (to my face, anyway: privately they might have called me every name under the sun). They agreed that some of their dishes maybe hadn’t travelled as well as they should, and they hoped I would give them another try once restaurants were allowed to reopen. I told them I would.

I couldn’t help but think of Thames Lido, where I’d eaten in May. I put a few pictures up on Instagram, saying some dishes were good and some could have been better, only to get an unsolicited direct message from the chef there. “May I suggest you don’t go out so much and cook a bit more at home? I’m sure we’d all love to see the photos” The difference in attitude couldn’t have been more stark.

Additionally, one of O Português’ devoted customers got in touch advising me that I should give them another try. She was Portuguese, and was a big fan of their food. She told me that there was nothing better than grabbing a prego steak roll from them and eating it straight away in Palmer Park. Put that way it sounded like a lovely thing to do, so I decided to pay them a midweek visit and try O Português properly, in the flesh. My accomplice this week was my friend Nick, who I met a couple of years ago on Twitter through our mutual admiration for car crash Tory election candidate Craig Morley.

The building that houses O Português used to be Colley’s Supper Rooms, and then Bart’s and a purgatorial-sounding place called Smokey’s House, but it looks somehow right as O Português, on the corner of the Wokingham Road and St Bartholemew’s Road, one of the handsome streets on the perimeter of Palmer Park. They’ve done a good job with their outside space on both sides, and I’ve often walked past over the last few months envying people sitting outside with a cold Super Bock, enjoying dinner with friends. 

We asked for a table out front of the restaurant, to make the most of the remaining rays of sun. The interior looks relatively unchanged from when it was Bart’s, with two dining rooms, a bar and a separate counter with cakes and pastries. I got the impression that O Português was a little bit of everything, somewhere you could go for a galao and a cake, lunch, a full on meal or a few drinks and that aforementioned steak roll. The main difference is that indoors it’s table service, whereas if you’re eating outside you go up to the counter, order and pay. Maybe they’ve some people do a runner, but it felt like a strange distinction.

O Português’ menu isn’t available online (except the bits of it that are on delivery apps) but the hard copy we looked at had plenty to tempt at a wide range of price points. The petiscos start at three pounds and go up to around seven, where they overlap with a separate, smaller, section of starters. Main courses start at nine pounds but go all the way up to twenty. Our waitress told us which dishes they didn’t have that day – it’s always strangely reassuring to know that they sell out of some things, and when they’re gone they’re gone.

I’ve been on duty with plenty of different people by now, and they all have different styles. Some seem oblivious to the experience, like my friend Jerry. Some, like my friend Reggie, get self-conscious and worry about being quoted saying something that casts them in a bad light. But few throw themselves into it with quite as much gay abandon as Nick: I always let my companion pick their food first, but I think he took it as a personal challenge.

“Let’s have the snails and the gizzards” he said, a sentence I’ve never heard before and will probably never hear again.

“Have you ever had snails or gizzards before?”

“No. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?”

I explained that maybe we should try one or the other but not both, and I scuttled up to the counter to order our starters.

“What are your gizzards like?” I said (a sentence, at a guess, that the woman behind the counter had also never heard before). “I’ve had ones in the past which are really firm and meaty, and others that can be a little rubbery.”

“I don’t really like them much, we have other dishes that are better.” Well, you had to credit her honesty. Our drinks came first, so Nick and I nursed a Super Bock each – not on draft the day we went, sadly, but lovely and refreshing all the same.

“This reminds me of the first beer on holiday” I said, thinking fondly of trips to Porto and Lisbon.

“There’s something about that first beer” Nick concurred, and talked about the relative benefits of Efe, Mythos and Estrella (or more precisely, how much we missed holidays where you can drink those beers) before concluding that, however many IPAs and DIPAs we might clock up on Untappd we probably couldn’t tell any of those Eurolagers apart in a blind taste test.

“It’s funny how every country has its own lager – more than one, usually – but Britain doesn’t have one” said Nick.

“I suppose we have Carlsberg – brewed in the U.K. by Danes. That’s as close as it gets.”

Our first starter to come out was that legendary prego steak roll, cut in half to allow sharing. I’m can confirm that my Portuguese correspondent was right on the money about this, and it was a superb place to begin. The roll seemed to be a cut above the slightly wan one I’d had when I ordered takeaway, and the steak in it was gorgeous – thick, tender and liberally studded with garlic. I could easily have eaten one of these to myself, and at four pounds fifty it was hard to imagine a better value lunch in Reading.

We’d also chosen the salt cod salad, a dish which was just as delicious in a completely different way – firm flakes of bacalhau, with almost no bones, a few bits of it slightly blackened, in a fantastic tangle of sweet peppers, the whole thing strewn with parsley and mixed with oil and vinegar in a way that balanced sharpness and fruitiness perfectly. All it needed was some more of that bread to mop up the last of the dressing, although that was our mistake for not ordering some (“I’d have that cod and peppers starter again right now”, Nick texted me this evening as I was in the middle of writing this).

Still, every rose has its thorn, and in this case our metaphorical thorn was a large bowl of very small snails which looked like it had come from a beachcomber rather than a kitchen. The only times I’ve enjoyed snails they’ve been much bigger, drenched in garlic butter and cooked in such a way that the shell is the only real evidence of what you’re eating. These, by contrast, were still poking out of their tiny houses, feelers glaring at you, which was disconcerting. Getting them out of the shell with a bog standard dinner fork was a challenge, although Nick developed quite an aptitude for it. 

“You can’t fault the portion size for three quid” said Nick. “How many do you think are in here?”

“About a hundred? That means each one costs about three pence.” 

He soldiered on for a bit – to my shame, I couldn’t go near them – before giving up after he’d eaten about a dozen. “Still, it’s not like we’ve wasted a lot of money. I’m glad I’ve tried them.”

Sitting there on the edge of the park, at a table bathed in sunshine I got that feeling that restaurants are so good at supplying – and which I need more than ever – of being elsewhere. The other table outside was occupied by some young Portuguese chaps, and when I went in to order our mains I waited while a group of people at the counter had a vocal disagreement with the restaurant staff in Portuguese. Goodness knows what it was about, because I couldn’t understand a word. But it was huge fun to watch  – Portuguese sounds like Spanish spoken by Sean Connery – and it reminded me of that quote about not caring what language an opera is sung in so long as it’s one you don’t understand.

Eventually one of the wait staff took me over to the bar to place my order. “They didn’t like one of their dishes, so they were claiming it wasn’t fresh” she said, rolling her eyes. I ordered our main courses and a couple of glasses of vinho verde and refreshingly, she downsold me (“the most expensive one is too dry, have this one instead”). She was right, too: it was beautifully fresh with a tiny hint of effervescence on the tongue.

Our mains took half an hour after that – a little on the slow side, though we brought it on ourselves by ordering them after we’d finished our starters. Both were knockout. Nick had chosen the espetade de carne, a whopping skewer of beef and pork which came with rice and chips. The chips were lovely, crispy things – probably from a pack but none the worse for it, and much better than the takeaway chips I’d tried earlier in the year. But of course the meat was the feature attraction, and really nicely done. The pork was good, if slightly on the dry side, but the beef was magnificent – very well seasoned and a little pink in the middle. Nick was happy – and, because he couldn’t finish it, it so was I.

I was delighted with my main course. Octopus doesn’t feature often on menus and when the wait staff told me it was fresh, not frozen, I had to order it. I’m used to eating octopus which has been cooked on the grill (after plenty of marination), but O Portugues’ was exceptionally tender – braised, at a guess – swimming in oil and garlic and covered with a layer of soft, sweet onion. At nineteen pounds this is one of the most expensive main courses they do, but it was such a joy to eat. Only the accompaniments let it down – I liked the garlic roasted baby potatoes, but the array of veg felt a little overcooked and unremarkable. Something roasted, more Mediterranean, would have worked better.  

We had one more beer and as I went up to pay I told the staff how much we’d enjoyed our meal. He asked me to put something on Facebook to that effect and I promised I would. Service was excellent all evening, and when I told them that the snails were the only thing we hadn’t loved the waitress who had warned me off the gizzards said “I don’t like snails either”. It was that kind of place: no-nonsense, candid but with plenty to be proud of. Our meal – three starters, two mains and three drinks apiece – came to seventy-six pounds, not including tip, which strikes me as decent value. We dashed to the Weather Station in time for last orders, and found a very strong imperial stout with which to finish a marvellous evening.

I’m so glad I went back to O Português. When I first reviewed their takeaway they’d barely operated as a restaurant, and they were – like many hospitality businesses – just muddling through, getting through one day at a time. I suspected that their food, eaten in, could be markedly different, but even so it really cheered me to see them doing what they do so well. 

They remind me of the best of Portuguese food that I’ve had on my travels – completely unpretentious, slightly unsung but, at its best, up there with anything you can eat in Europe. I love what they’ve done creating a little corner of Iberia on that little corner of the Wokingham Road, and I can well imagine sitting outside one lunchtime before the last of the good weather leaves us, steak roll in one hand and Super Bock in the other. What could be finer than that, except braised octopus or that fresh, sharp salt cod salad? 

Best of all, because every day is a school day, I learned a valuable lesson by going back to O Português. I paid them a visit because they were so grown up about my feedback last time around – no meltdown on social media, no passive aggressive direct messages, just a quiet determination that they would and could do even better. It’s a salutary reminder: good restaurants are always doing their best, growing, learning and evolving. Fingers crossed that restaurant reviewers never stop doing that, too.

O Português – 7.7
21 Wokingham Road, Reading, RG6 1LE
0118 9268949

https://www.facebook.com/OPortuguesInTown
Delivery available: via Just Eat, UberEats

Restaurant review: Café Yolk

When I started to re-review venues this month, I had a couple of criteria in mind when deciding where to go. The older the review the more sense it made to return, to see whether things had changed. But also, the stronger my feelings at the time the more I thought I should try a restaurant again. With the places I liked, like Pepe Sale, I wanted to see whether they had stood the test of time. But even more interesting, I think, were the ones I’d enjoyed less. 

If they’d survived all this time then either they’d fixed whatever the issues were, or – and this is more likely – I was plain wrong about them at the time. And this brings us neatly to Café Yolk, which I first visited in November 2013. At that time I didn’t get the appeal, and I said so, and it generated the first controversy on this blog as a number of people lined up in the comments to tell me how very wrong I was (one of them, it turned out, worked for Café Yolk, a fact he neglected to mention at the time). 

I didn’t do it to be controversial – clickbait was barely a thing in 2013 – but it was my first experience of putting my head above the parapet, and it prepared me well, for example, for saying, a couple of months later, that I reckoned Sweeney & Todd wasn’t much cop. This was before culture war was a thing, back in the mists of time when you could express opinions on the internet without being hit with a tidal wave of bile. They were more innocent days. 

Anyway, nearly eight years has passed, and in that time Yolk has expanded, thrived and embraced social media. It has a dedicated fan base, many of whom would no doubt read my review from 2013 and not recognise the place I described back then. In the intervening years a friend of mine raved about Yolk, so I went there with her and had some far happier meals. And more recently, a number of people have told me on social media that I really ought to give it another go on duty, so I headed there on a sunny weekday for lunch with my other half Zoë in order to check it out.

First things first: I love what they’ve done with the place. In its early days Yolk was a small, cramped room with a handful of tables outside. They’ve spent a lot of money on a very tasteful expansion which has really transformed the corner of Erleigh Road and Hatherley Road – with a conservatory area with seating on both sides and an additional bright yolk-yellow awning covering more tables on the Erleigh Road side. 

Not only is it nicely done, but it vastly increases their seating. The open windows in the conservatory area, where I was seated, meant it was well ventilated, making for a brilliantly light, airy space. Good in summer, good in winter, covered when it rains and very Covid-appropriate: but more importantly, it just looked and felt good. Sitting on a battleship grey banquette, the whole thing almost felt Parisian to me – as close to Parisian pavement culture as you’re going to get in Reading, anyway.

The menu has been sensibly streamlined since 2013. Back then it featured omelettes and burgers and felt slightly all over the place, but now it’s centred firmly on breakfast and brunch, offering a full English, eggs Benedict, pancakes and French toast and a handful of other dishes. Only their biggest breakfast, the “Canadian”, tops the ten pound mark, while everything else hovers between eight pounds and a tenner.

Another change since my first visit: Yolk has done a lot of work, especially this year, teaming up with local suppliers. Coffee is now supplied by Anonymous and bread and pastries come from Rise Bakehouse. This is fantastic to see, although I do think they’re missing a trick by not making something of that on the menu. You order and pay at the counter so I went up to do exactly that, noticing while I was there that Rise’s attractive-looking cruffins were on display on the counter but not covered. That would have put me off ordering one even before Covid came along: such a shame, as this would an easy thing to fix.

The coffee came first, and it was properly lovely. Using Anonymous was an inspired choice and my latte was excellent – beautifully made, silky, without any bitterness. Not only that, but it was a huge coffee and a genuine bargain at two pounds fifty-five; I’m struggling to think of anywhere where you can get a coffee so good for so little. I’ve long thought that East Reading is lacking places where you can get a really good coffee. I’ve always frequented the AMT in the hospital – it has brilliant staff and their Froffee (an espresso milkshake) is a thing of wonder – but it’s nice to know that there’s now a credible alternative.

I had ordered the breakfast burger, which has always been my favourite thing on the Yolk menu. It looked every bit as good as I remembered – a golden brioche stuffed with a sausagemeat patty, well-done back bacon, an omelette and orange-looking American-style cheese. You used to be able to get one of these for the princely sum of six pounds fifty but that conservatory isn’t going to pay for itself, so the price has been upped to nine pounds fifty and they throw in a portion of herby fried potatoes, which I suspect come from a packet. 

That all sounds curmudgeonly, but I enjoyed it every bit as much as I remembered, if not more so. The bacon was superbly salty, the patty splendidly coarse and the cheesy stodge of the omelette added a comforting balance. The whole thing was a bit like an upmarket McMuffin (or Fidget & Bob’s knowing take on it, the O’Muffin), although I’d have preferred the floury firmness of a muffin to the brioche bun, pretty though it was. Even the herby potatoes had plenty of heat and crunch, perfect dipped in a little ramekin of brown sauce. Truly, I had ordered well.

There was only one problem, which was that Zoë had ordered less well. On paper, her dish had sounded fantastic – avocado on sourdough toast with salsa, lime and red chilli, topped with a fried egg and some bacon. And it looked the part: if you were judging on the photos alone, her dish looked far nicer than mine. But – and we’ve all known at least one person like this over the years – it’s not enough to be good-looking if you don’t have any substance to back it up.

“This doesn’t feel like a dish, it’s more like a collection of ingredients. They’re good on their own, but they don’t work together.”

Zoë sounded more like a restaurant blogger than I did, although in fairness it’s hard to sound like a restaurant blogger when your mouth is full of delicious breakfast burger.

“I’ll be honest, I was expecting your avocado to be smashed. And why have they put one of your pieces of toast on top of the other?”

“The menu didn’t say it was smashed, so I wasn’t sure it would be. But with the lime and the chilli, it has the ingredients of smashed avocado, they just haven’t smashed it. Maybe they think smashed avocado is a bit past it.”

“Not in Reading it isn’t.”

“And they haven’t buttered the sourdough toast, so it’s really dry. The only thing giving any moisture at all is the egg yolk.”

“I don’t understand why they bought in good sourdough and didn’t butter it.”

“I know. And nearly all of it’s cold. My toast is cold. I mean, the egg was hot once, but it wasn’t by the time this arrived. Only the bacon’s hot. Maybe they were waiting” – she shot an envious look at my plate – “for your burger to be finished. The salsa’s good though.”

To get over the brunch disappointment, Zoë had a chocolate chip milkshake which redeemed matters. I turned down offers to try it – she hadn’t wanted even a mouthful of my brunch – but I eventually relented and I could see why she liked it so much. 

“This has the coldness that was missing from your milkshake at Smash N Grab a few weeks back. Thank god I’ve had this. I only ordered the avocado on toast because you told me to.”

“I didn’t tell you to order that!”

“No, but you had the breakfast burger.” That envious look again. “And I knew we couldn’t order the same thing.”

The interesting thing was that in the time we sat in the conservatory, I saw five other tables order: at all but two of them at least one person ordered the breakfast burger. Was it a signature dish, a lucky guess, or had they been similarly disappointed by other dishes? I was half tempted to ask them, but thought better of it. Our meal – two brunches, three coffees and a milkshake – came to just over thirty-one pounds, not including tip.

Service, by the way, was good. Yolk has been hit especially hard by pings from the Covid app: I’ve seen posts from them on social media saying they’ve had to reduce their capacity because they didn’t have enough staff, and I imagine that’s because they serve a predominantly student customer base. But although they were rushed off their feet – Yolk never seems to be anything less than busy – they were friendly and efficient throughout.

Unquestionably, the Yolk of 2021 is a very different beast to the smaller café I visited the best part of a decade ago. The fit out is excellent, and they’ve made it a wonderful space to hang out with a tiny touch of Saint Germain des Pres about it (even if Zoë and I were a far cry from Sartre and de Beauvoir). The coffee is superb, and the breakfast burger deserves to be up there on any list of Reading’s iconic dishes.

And yet it did feel a little like Yolk fell a tiny bit short on the things that would take it from good to great. It doesn’t make sense to have wonderful cruffins out on display where people, masked or unmasked, can breathe all over them. It doesn’t make sense to deconstruct smashed avocado and dish up all the components without making it into the brilliant dish it should be. And it really doesn’t make sense to go to all that trouble to seek out good sourdough and then dish it up cold and dry. Yolk strikes me as a place that has bought the best, but doesn’t quite grasp how to get the best out of it. And interestingly, that was also the feeling I vaguely had eight years ago.

None of this will matter, of course. Café Yolk will keep packing them in, because it does what it does pretty well, and I imagine most of its customers won’t notice the things I picked up on, or will notice and don’t care. That’s fair enough, and I fully expect that Café Yolk will be going strong in eight years’ time. If I’m still running this blog in 2029 I’ll pay it another visit, and I’ll probably find this review as inaccurate as the one I wrote all those years ago. And between now and then, I can see them selling me rather a lot of takeaway coffees.

Café Yolk – 7.2
44 Erleigh Road, Reading, RG1 5NA
0118 3271055

http://www.cafeyolk.com