Feature: 20 things I love about Reading (2019)

Back in April 2016, I wrote a piece on the 20 things I loved about Reading. Remember 2016? The good old days – before the constant merry-go-round of elections and referenda, back when the world felt a little sunnier and Twitter felt a lot happier. I could go on, but it will probably make us all sad.

Looking back at my list from 2016, much has changed and an updated version is long overdue. Some of the places which made my list last time have closed: Dolce Vita, for instance, which stopped trading in June last year to the disappointment of many. Even sadder was the closure of Tutti Frutti in late 2017, my favourite Reading café which sold the best ice cream for miles around.

Some things have changed to the extent where they no longer make my top 20 – I’m sure the After Dark, under its new management, is a wonderful venue but it is no longer the place of my many happy memories. Similarly Kyrenia has been Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus for several years now, and its phenomenal front of house Ihor has moved on. The Reading Forum has degenerated into a seemingly never-ending conversation about Reading’s crime rate, Wetherspoons and the inevitable B word.

More to the point, town has changed a lot since 2016. As restaurants have closed, more have opened to take their place: the good (Kungfu Kitchen), the bad (Lemoni) and the ugly (Chick-Fil-A). Smaller, more interesting chains have moved to Reading. Our coffee culture here has – figuratively – exploded, as has a street food culture that has led to residencies in pubs, cafes and restaurants and in some cases (like Geo Café and Vegivores) a permanent home. For each thing we lose in town, there is always an equal and opposite reason to celebrate.

And so, without further ado and in alphabetical order, here’s my list of twenty things I love about Reading. It’s by no means exhaustive, and half the fun is chipping in with everything I’ve missed, whether it’s the farmers’ market, Christmas carols at Reading Minster, the Beer Festival, having a mocha at C.U.P., Reading Library, the number 17 bus or any of the dozens of other things I couldn’t quite find room for. Leave your favourite in the comments!

1. The Allied Arms beer garden

Some things about Reading never change, and for as long as I can remember the Allied has been the place you go to after work on a sunny Friday to start your weekend. You grab a table, your friends join you and the rest of the evening is pint after pint, packet of snacks after packet of snacks and song after song on its splendid, idiosyncratic jukebox (Camouflage by Stan Ridgway or Rock Me Amadeus, anybody?). I know the Allied has its fans all year round, but for me summer is when it really comes into its own.

2. The architecture

Reading really is prettier than you think, and I don’t just mean the obvious examples like the Town Hall and – well, I like it anyway – the Blade. Everywhere you look there are beautiful buildings, streets and enclaves – Foxhill House on campus, or the gorgeous houses of New Road up by the university and School Terrace in the heart of New Town. Stunning streets like Eldon Road with the grandest semi-detached houses you’ll ever see in your life, or redbrick Queen Victoria Street running from the station to John Lewis, itself a fantastic building. I could go on: Reading Minster is impressive, the Royal Berks grand, Great Expectations faintly ludicrous. So much to look at – no wonder the occasional Reading Instameets set up for photographic excursions around town are never short of things to photograph (I still miss Kings Point and the Metal Box Building, though).

3. Bakery House

Now over four years old, Bakery House is one of Reading’s best and most reliable restaurants but, more than that, it is a genuine institution. Perfect for solo dining, dinner for two or sharing masses of mezze with friends, they’ve kept up an impressive standard since day one. At lunchtimes their shawarma wrap is an absolute steal costing less than most other sandwiches in town, and in the evenings their boneless baby chicken, fresh from the charcoal grill with chilli sauce, rice and a sharply dressed salad, is one of the best single plates of food you can eat in town.

4. Blue Collar Food

I was sniffy about street food last time I compiled this list: Blue Collar has changed that. Popping up in the Market Square every Wednesday, this collective of traders, marshalled by the tireless Glen Dinning, has had a lasting effect on Reading’s food scene. Some of his star players still turn up every week – I’m a big fan of Purée’s challoumi wrap, the chilli chicken from the Massita and Peru Sabor’s excellent food – but he’s also done invaluable work giving street food traders a springboard to move into permanent premises. Not only that, but over the summer Feastival (and its spin-off Cheese Feast) transform the Forbury into the gastronomic epicentre of town. Blue Collar is now also running the matchday food at the Madejski, but I still hold out hope that we might see them in more permanent premises in the New Year.

5. Breakfast at Fidget & Bob

Sunday morning brunch at Fidget & Bob really is one of my favourite things about living in Reading. I’ve never known anybody scramble golden buttery eggs with as much skill as they do, their bacon is superb and their sausage – a square loaf of sausagement baked in the oven and served in delectable slices – is worth the price of admission alone. It boasts one of the warmest welcomes in Reading and if you go on Sunday there’s the added bonus of kouign amann, Breton pastries by Barebaked Bread which are sweet-salty layers of pure joy. The coffee’s excellent, too.

6. Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen

It’s very strange to think that Clay’s has been around for less than eighteen months because, more than most Reading restaurants, it feels like it’s always been there. It’s difficult to cast your mind back and remember that Chicken Base used to be in that site or, even before that, the lovely Bodrum Kebab. It feels like Clay’s is probably Reading’s favourite restaurant, and I think that’s down to a combination of many things. The food is fantastic, and superb value, and involves a quality of ingredients and spicing that they don’t shout about enough. The menu is innovative – where else in Reading could you, across a whole year, eat quail, rabbit, pheasant, squid and crab? But also, I think it’s about the modesty and humility of the whole exercise: you sense that maybe they don’t quite realise how good they are.

7. Forbury Gardens

I wouldn’t trust any list of this kind that didn’t have the Forbury in it. In summer it’s everybody’s second garden (unless you live in a flat, in which case it’s your first garden). There’s nowhere quite like it for relaxing in the sun, reading a book, having a picnic, celebrating Bastille Day, taking part in WaterFest – even though it always seems to rain for Waterfest – drinking a Froffee from the AMT in the train station (that one might just be me), eating street food from Blue Collar or just gazing up at the blue sky and the trees overhead. It’s even nicer now the Abbey Ruins is open again – it just feels like everything is as it should be.

8. Harris Arcade

We have lots of independent cafés in the town centre, and some independent restaurants, but nowhere near enough independent shops. With the notable exception of But Is It Art, the Harris Arcade is where you find most of the good ones. I’ve lived in Reading long enough to remember when there was the Traders Arcade, with Enchanted where you could buy your incense and crystals and a café on the first floor, but Harris Arcade still captures some of that spirit – whether you want to buy comics from Crunch, records from Sound Machine, hats from Adrienne Henry, cigars from Shave and Coster, cheese and beer from the Grumpy Goat or ephemera from JIM. If only more of Reading’s retail scene was like the Harris Arcade – and while we’re at it I’d love an independent bookshop, a beer café and a few more boutiques.

9. John Lewis

I know this might seem like a prosaic choice to some, but I stand by what I said last time round: our branch of John Lewis is the closest thing this town has to a cathedral (especially the lower ground floor which does seem to sell pretty much everything you could need). It has a sense of calm and class so lacking from the Oracle or the Broad Street Mall, and I don’t think you really appreciate how lovely it is until you visit a town unfortunate enough not to have one. Most shops seem to start celebrating Christmas the moment September is over, but when the Yuletide paraphernalia appears in the ground floor of John Lewis, you know the festive season really is on the way.

10. Launchpad

Other charities are available, but there was no way Launchpad wouldn’t make my list. The amount of homelessness and begging in Reading was upsetting enough back in 2016 but over the last three years it seems to have got even worse. Launchpad offers legal advice, drop-in services, training support and so much more for those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. But there’s more: back in January, Launchpad announced that it had built five brand new flats for people in need of long term accommodation, their first building project. Reading about it I felt incredibly proud, both of them and of our town.

11. The Nag’s Head

The Nag’s Head is widely held to be Reading’s best pub, and it’s not hard to see why. A wide, constantly changing range of cask and keg beers, ciders if that’s your bag, regular tap takeovers, food events in the garden (yes, yes, it’s a car park) in the summer and a friendly crowd pretty much every night of the week. A few pubs do a few things better, but nobody gets it quite as right across the board.

12. Pepe Sale

Rumours over the summer that Pepe Sale was up for sale threw much of Reading into a panic. Shortly after, it transpired that there was no substance to them but it at least gave Pepe Sale the rare opportunity to experience a mass outpouring of grief while it was still very much alive and kicking. It’s a class act – consistent, consistently full and always doing the classics well while keeping up an always interesting specials menu into the bargain. We will miss it when it’s gone, one day, but in the meantime the suckling pig and crab ravioli are still there, waiting for you to renew your acquaintance. Every town has an Italian restaurant or four, but how many have a Sardinian one?

13. Progress Theatre

Progress Theatre is best known for its summer Shakespeare productions, finally restored to their rightful home in the Abbey Ruins (I went this year and thoroughly enjoyed King Lear, although I’m still recovering from the spectacle of my friend Jerry, playing Gloucester, having his eyes plucked out). But the theatre up on the Mount is still a lovely, intimate and inventive place to watch interesting amateur productions. I loved their rendition of Top Girls earlier in the year and am very much looking forward to Hangmen next week. And now that Kungfu Kitchen is just down the road, your pre or post-theatre dining problem is solved too.

14. Reading Museum

Reading Museum remains a fantastic way to while away an hour in town, and the recent refurb (and new exhibition on some of Reading’s defining objects) has been very nicely done. It’s fantastic for kids and grownups – my 80 year old Canadian uncle thoroughly enjoyed dressing up there when he visited in the spring, although I’m not sure which of those categories he falls into. The replica of the Bayeux Tapestry gets all the attention, but I have an enormous soft spot for the display cabinet showing off Huntley & Palmer biscuit tins from across the decades.

15. Reading Old Cemetery

My list in 2016 didn’t have much in the way of open spaces. I must have changed in the last three years because I’m much more fond of Reading’s outdoors and Reading Old Cemetery is one of my favourite places for a meditative amble, even if I’ve never bumped into one of its legendary muntjac deer. It’s golden and peaceful in summer, and starkly beautiful in winter. There are lots of very touching gravestones and memorials, but the picture above shows probably my favourite, that of Bernard Laurence Hieatt. He has his own Wikipedia page, which is worth a look – it’s safe to say that he achieved a lot more in twenty-one years than most of us have in far more than that.

16. The Retreat

If the Nag’s Head is Reading’s best beer pub, I think the Retreat is probably Reading’s best classic pub. Saved this year by a consortium of locals, it remains a true one-off on a little backstreet not far from the Kings Road. The back room is where you sit if you just want to talk to your friends, or read on your own. The front room, though, is my favourite – there, regulars and newcomers engage in random conversations about all sorts, presided over by Brian, the now legendary landlord who if anything is even more charming now than he was three years ago (woe betide you if you swear in front of him, mind). There’s regular music, there’s jazz on Sundays and once a year in the summer the Morris dancers cavort away outside before making themselves comfortable in the back room and singing some very bawdy songs indeed.

17. The Salvation Army brass band at Christmas time

There are still few sights in Reading as heartwarming as the Salvation Army brass band, assembled outside Marks & Spencer, playing Christmas carols in November and December. Always unfailingly polite and impeccably turned out, they make Reading feel properly festive and it’s well worth watching, breath turning to fluffy clouds in the cold air. More Salvation Army brass bands and fewer god-botherers miked up and standing on a box, that’s what I say.

18. South Street

This is hardly a controversial choice – South Street enjoys a special place in Reading’s affections after it was rescued from the threat of closure following a huge outcry of public support (very much the town’s answer to 6 Music, and probably with a very similar fan base). It really does offer a terrific range of music, theatre, art and comedy and has widened its range still further over the last couple of years with its regular Beer Fridays (in collaboration with the Grumpy Goat) and its excellent annual Craft Theory Festival which brings together beer, street food and music in one unmissable package.

19. View Island

I’d never been to View Island until I was introduced to it through the writing of the irreplaceable, much-missed Matthew Farrall. Just past Caversham Lock, it’s an astonishing place, simultaneously wild and peaceful. You feel like you could be miles from anywhere, and yet you’re ten minutes from town. It’s been left to get almost completely overgrown and yet you can still sit on one of its blue benches, lost in your thoughts, watching the river flow.

20. The Workhouse courtyard

Long before Market House opened its doors, promising you booze, food and coffee at any time of the day, those in the know spent summer days going to the courtyard outside Workhouse Coffee. One of town’s most successful natural suntraps, you can sit there with coffee and cake from Workhouse or order Bhel Puri’s fantastic vegetarian street food and eat that al fresco instead (I recommend the chilli paneer, crispy bhajia, Punjabi samosas and a vada pav chaser). And if you want a beer in the sunshine? The bar at the George Hotel can rustle up a crisp pint of Estella. Who needs the Market House anyway?

The Pantry

Once upon a time, in the town of Reading, there was a bar called the 3Bs. It was named after the three famous alliterative cornerstones of Reading – beer, biscuits and bulbs – and, for those of us who remember it, it was one of the best bars there was. It was part of the Town Hall, and long before the Oakford ever opened it was the place you congregated in after work – unless your friends wanted to drink in O’Neills, in which case you made new friends. When the tables appeared outside, near the statue of Queen Victoria, you knew that summer was on the way.

It even featured, albeit briefly, in the opening episode of 1997 police show Crime Traveller, around the 3:45 mark in this video, as maverick cop (aren’t they always) Jeff Slade, played by ex-EastEnders bad boy Michael French, zooms through the Town Hall Square on a motorbike, scattering people and tables as he pursues a generic baddie in a boxy car all the way to the Queens Road car park. Around that time I was temping in Apex Plaza (which also features in the chase sequence) and it was all very exciting. As I recall, my brother bought a sandstone-coloured blouson, trying to emulate Jeff Slade, but it was all a little too Sergio Georgini. Ah, the Nineties.

My favourite memories of the 3Bs, in as far as I can remember anything, were of Bohemian Night, its weekly live music evening. A friend and I would always turn up early, sit near the front and drink almost enough to make the music sound good. Compered by AF Harrold (now a published author, then a jobbing performance poet working in Blackwells – remember when we used to have a Blackwells?) it was the Reading’s Got Talent of its day.

This involved various earnest acoustic solo acts and duets, a little spoken word, a shouty man who called himself “Preacher John” and another chap called “Reverend John H” who did an extremely offensive song about the sadly departed Princess Of Wales. There was also a bewildered pensioner called “Mr David” who would shamble on stage and perform roughly half a joke without getting to the punchline and then start singing snatches of My Way. It looked like he may have slept in a bin.

Only at Bohemian Night could a young chap wearing a fuzzy wig bound up to the mike, all puppyish enthusiasm, and announce “I’m Dunstan McFunkstan, and I’ve got a bag of comedy!” (if he honestly did, it was empty). And that’s before we get to the performance poetry, which was usually my cue to go up to the bar. Every now and again someone with genuine talent would show up at Bohemian Night and I’d enjoy their act, safe in the knowledge that I would never see them again. I loved it: I went every week without fail.

All good things must come to an end, and the 3Bs closed in 2011. Then, last July, the council announced that it would be reopening in the autumn. Signs were up by October 2018 declaring that it would be called Lains. Well, the council is as good at opening restaurants on time as it is at filing accounts, because it wasn’t until September this year that it finally opened, having changed its name in the meantime to The Pantry. The council’s announcement was full of the usual buzzwords about how the “Executive Chef” (why a café needs an executive chef is anybody’s guess) would use local produce to create a “scrumptious and inventive menu”. That was all the incentive I needed to take a trip down memory lane one weekday lunchtime with my other half Zoë, herself a fan of the 3Bs from back in the day.

It may have opened a year late, but the fit out really is lovely. At the front, where the bands used to play, there’s an attractive banquette and all the chairs are tasteful and muted, as is the paintwork. It was weird to look at it so transformed, but simultaneously quite heartwarming to see it back in use. There was still an icy blast every time the door opened and closed though: some things never change.

Menus are on the table but you go up to the counter to order. There’s a brunch menu, most of which is available all day, pizzas (which are “baked in our stone based oven”, whatever that means), three salads which you can pair with quiche, a sausage roll or a Scotch egg and a “sandwich of the day” (fish finger, on my visit) and “international dish of the day” (goulash).

The selection of cakes looked quite appealing, but the whole thing reminded me of something: I used to work somewhere where the staff canteen was run by facilities company Gather & Gather, and the menu here felt very similar, only more expensive. I wanted a pizza, but the gentleman behind the counter told me that they were out of pepperoni – I concealed my incredulity – so we ordered two things from the brunch menu, to find out whether the Pantry might be the brunch spot central Reading has long needed.

While I waited for brunch to arrive, I sipped my latte – a truly dire coffee, burnt and bitter and well below the standard of a Pret, Nero or Costa, let alone Tamp or Anonymous. Quite a few members of staff, all in their branded aprons, milled listlessly around the café, dusting unoccupied tables, making the smallest of adjustments to the position of the menu on the table, all kinds of random things to keep themselves busy because the truth was that the place was hardly rammed.

What customers there were were either parents with kids (half-term, of course) or people considerably older than me: no hip young gunslingers to be seen. It reminded me, more than anything, of the John Lewis Café, with the general complacence of not wanting to be any more than Only Just Good Enough. Perhaps the food would change that, I thought.

When it arrived and was set down in front of us by one of the serving staff, one obvious thing was missing: cutlery.

“We’ll need some cutlery for that” I said.

“It’s up at the front by the counter” she replied, without making eye contact. I waited for the second half of the sentence until, after what felt like quite some time, I realised that there wasn’t going to be one.

“Right. I’ll go all the way up there and get it then” I said, leaving aside the second half of my sentence, namely while you carry on dusting tables and being spell-bindingly bad at customer service. It was one of those moments when, like Tim from The Office, you just wanted to look sidelong at a camera in complete bafflement.

I had gone for “pulled pork waffle with spicy beans” and it truly was a miserable specimen. The waffle was lukewarm, doughy and stodgy. The majority of it wasn’t covered with anything – sauce or melted butter – and in the middle was a damp clump of what you could loosely call pulled pork. It was a pretty miserly helping, wet and claggy with big white globs of fat in it (I took them all out and put them to one side: my plate was collected later on without comment). Some crudely torn salad leaves were plonked on top, possibly as a garnish and possibly as concealment. I’m currently thinking about writing features on the best brunch in Reading and the ten best things you can buy for under a tenner: you can safely say this dish won’t feature in either.

“The waffle feels like a gimmick” said Zoë, attacking her dish. Her waffle came with smoked salmon, cream cheese, avocado and lemon zest. There was plenty of salmon, but it was extremely bland with no real hint of smoke. The avocado was as cold, hard and joyless as senior management. The lemon zest was a lovely idea but it wasn’t clear it had ever really made it on to the plate. More of that bloody foliage had, mind you.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“Meh. I wouldn’t have it again. And it’s definitely not worth eleven pounds twenty.”

She was right (and charging that extra twenty pence was downright odd). You could get an infinitely better brunch at Fidget & Bob for far less money, miles better pulled pork at Bluegrass and for that matter the Lyndhurst’s chilli beef nachos are streets ahead of either dish and they cost less than seven pounds. As it was we both finished our meals, with no real enthusiasm, and a sense that I’d just wasted money, time and calories.

“It’s a shame your coffee was so crappy” said Zoë. “I can see this might be a nice place to come for a cup of tea and a piece of cake.”

“Those are literally the only two things they can’t fuck up.” I said, as we watched a mother at a neighbouring table treating each of her kids to a bowl of what looked like oven chips – hardly “scrumptious and inventive” but at least, at two pounds a pop, better value than anything we’d eaten. The whole thing – two brunch dishes, a latte and a cup of green tea – came to twenty-five pounds, not including service. I’m depressed to say that by the time we left, the place seemed to be filling up.

If I had to sum up the Pantry, I suppose the easy way to do it is to say that it’s exactly what you would expect a café designed by any local authority, let alone this local authority, to be like. It’s bland, inoffensive and unimaginative. How an “executive chef” came up with something so nothingy I will never know; it’s a step up from jacket spuds with cheese and beans, I suppose, but only just. The brunch menu is one smashed-avocado cliché after another, the pizzas are a vanilla bunch (all of them more expensive than Franco Manca). Across the whole menu I didn’t see a single shred of evidence of creativity, or seasonality – unless it was goulash season and nobody told me – or anything other than tepid box-ticking. And let’s not even get on to the Pantry’s website’s absurd claims that the dishes are “prepared using artisan methods” – even if they do seem to have recruited artisanal table-dusters.

What really frustrates me is what a wasted opportunity the Pantry is. The council could have opened something which actually celebrates and adds to Reading’s food culture, rather than paying lip service to it with a clunking name. Just imagine what Glen Dinning could have done with that space if they’d let Blue Collar run the café, rotating street food traders with a licensed bar in the evenings: at a stroke, they would have had one of the most exciting venues in town. But no, instead you can enjoy pepperoni-free pizzas, burnt coffee and even more uninspiring waffle than you get in the council chamber. So it goes.

I’ll leave the last word to Zoë: “Maybe it’s called the Pantry because it’s pants”, she said.

The Pantry – 4.9
The Town Hall, Blagrave Street, RG1 1HZ

https://thepantrytownhall.co.uk/

Namaste Momo Competition: the results!

One of these days I’ll learn to do competitions the way most bloggers and influencers do. Like and follow this page to be in with a chance of winning, or All you have to do is tag yourself and a friend who would love to eat Namaste Momo’s delicious momo and all that guff. Everyone loves a bit of something for nothing, don’t they? Unfortunately I’m too old fashioned and not cool enough for that, so people had to work for this one by writing 250 words on the restaurant they’d love to pick up and drop in Reading.

Despite that I had plenty of excellent entries and, as usual, was delighted to have such enthusiastic and talented readers. Reading the entries made me very hungry indeed, whether they were describing bruschetta eaten in a fairy light-strewn square on a warm Pisa evening, a cornucopia of meat, fresh off the grill somewhere in Northern Cyprus or Chinese noodles “as wide as belts”, wolfed down in New York (New York featured in several competition entries: I really must go there).

It’s always a huge relief, reading the competition entries, to know that I don’t have to judge them myself. That arduous task fell to John Luther who has done a brilliant job. John and I went to Namaste Momo last week just to put the menu through its paces and I’m happy to say that we both agree that this is definitely a prize worth winning – the chicken chilli momo and the pan fried lamb momo were both terrific and the Golden Everest lager accompanies them superbly. Just stay away from Kamal’s post-prandial brandies and I’m sure you’ll be absolutely fine.

Anyway, enough faff and preamble: it’s time to announce the winner and runner-up, along with John’s comments. Let’s open some metaphorical envelopes!

WINNER: Catherine O’Hare

Just like the tiny Chinese backstreet it’s tucked away on, this restaurant has no name. There’s no signage, no fancy furniture or smartly dressed maître d’ taking reservations and pushing the specials. In fact, you’d barely know it was a restaurant at all. It’s more like someone’s kitchen they’ve hastily decked out with mismatched tables and chairs. And lots of shouting.

“Rè nao” is how the Chinese describe a good restaurant. “Hot and noisy”. Mama Yung’s ‘kitchen’ restaurant is certainly that. It was just round the corner from my apartment when I was living in Lianyungang, but I would never have known of its existence had my local friend not brought me there for dinner one evening. My first of many visits. It’s probably fair to say that Mama Yung was largely responsible for keeping me alive during my year in China. She would often sit at my table if I was alone, nattering away to me as if I could understand her fast local dialect and I would feel obliged to nod sagely as I chomped my way through Sichuan spiced beef, stir-fried eggs with tomato and big, fluffy bowls of rice.

Every evening, the farmers would come to the street outside and lay their fresh produce out on sheets and every evening on my way home I would see Mama Yung arguing ferociously with them to get the best price.

“Hot and noisy” from produce to plate, Mama Yung’s is very, very special.

John says: This story of year fed well far away from home in a small restaurant in China made me smile. The little details of the food we’re tantalising but the star of the piece was the fierce matriarch running the show, brought to life beautifully. Bring her to Reading!

RUNNER-UP: Sophie Ibbotson

I’m in a battle of wills with a seagull. If I look away, even for a moment, there’s a good chance that not only will I lose a lovingly chosen giant prawn, but that an entire plate of seafood will be stolen from in front of me in a cacophony of screeching and violent flapping. And so I sit, glaring, and unusually possessive of my lunch.

Sydney Fish Market — the self proclaimed home of Australia’s seafood — is the biggest structure on Blackwattle Bay. In between the boats and vans transporting fresh fish across New South Wales are crowds of diners (plenty of them feathered), jostling for space at the outdoor picnic tables.

I spent nearly an hour inside the fish market making my selection. It wasn’t that service was slow, but rather there was too much choice. Would a trio of sushi donuts be more rewarding than a pint of prawns? Could I manage the marinated swordfish skewer as well as a plate of lightly battered scallops, calamari, and mussels?

The solution, as I knew deep down it would be from the very start, was to buy as much as I could carry. I wove precariously with my pile of takeaway boxes and paper plates between the lines of queuing shoppers, out the doors, and down the stairs. I squeezed onto the end of a patio table and unwrapped my mouthwatering fishy treasures, sprinkling them with a squeeze of lemon. That’s when the seagull arrived.

John says: Another little gem of a story featuring pesky seagulls. I’m a sucker for seafood, so was on side from the start, but was seduced by the description of this bustling fish market and al fresco dining.

Huge congratulations to Catherine and Sophie. Catherine wins a meal for four at Namaste Momo (where, in Kamal, she will encounter a proprietor almost as idiosyncratic as Mama Yung: although I can’t help but feel Catherine’s Mama Yung withdrawal symptoms could be solved with a trip to Kungfu Kitchen). Sophie wins a meal for two, and will only have to stop her dining companion scavenging her food. Thanks too to everybody else who entered: the standard was very high indeed.

Finally, to play us out, here’s my 250 words on the restaurant I’d like to drop in Reading. Tune in next week when I’ll have a new review for you – let’s hope it doesn’t turn out to be a place I’d like to drop as far away from Reading as possible.

I’m sure there are many restaurants in Paris better than Le Petit Marché where you can get fancier food and slicker service. Of course you can, it’s Paris. Yet I’ve been coming to this little restaurant, tucked behind the Place Des Vosges, for over a decade.

The tables are cramped; you always end up knocking elbows with your neighbours. Sometimes you wind up in conversation with them – the French have an uncanny habit of seating any native English speakers in a little enclave, as far from the locals as possible. They have to pull the table out to let you escape if you need the loo. But all that, coupled with the soft, atmospheric lighting, lends a cosy, conspiratorial feel.

The food’s beautiful: no showing off or theatrics. Tuna is served almost like sashimi, studded with sesame, seared on the outside, ready to be dunked in dipping sauce. Pink-middled discs of lamb come with a creamy sauce fragrant with basil. The mashed potato is the best I’ve ever tasted, and that’s not just me looking at it through rosé tinted glasses. The wine is available in carafes, as it will be in all restaurants if I ever come to power.

Two years ago, after my divorce, I went to Paris on my own to reclaim the place.  My one regret is that I didn’t visit Le Petit Marché. I’m back there next month, and I know exactly where I’ll be on my first evening in the city.

The Lyndhurst

I’m always reminded of the cyclical nature of things at this time of year. My Instagram, so recently full of everybody’s envy-inducing holiday photos, has given way to my Facebook news feed, with pictures of everybody’s kids going back to school. The Reading Festival, seen by many as the last event of the summer, is over. The magnolia tree in my garden is beginning to turn, and the leaves will slowly become golden in the weeks ahead. And in town, everybody is in jeans, their shorts packed away for another year, dusting off coats they had almost forgotten they needed.

This time of year is part of cycles for me personally, too. Three years ago, I wrote my final blog post announcing that I was taking a break. And when I came back in 2017, my first review was of the Lyndhurst, a pub I’ve always loved, on the edge of the Village, the conservation area between Eldon Square and Watlington Street. Around this time last year they hosted a lunch for my readers and we packed the place out – over thirty of us, eating a set menu they’d designed for the occasion. It was a lovely afternoon; I made a lot of new friends at that lunch, some of whom have become especially dear to me.

That I’m reviewing it again, in 2019, is a sign of another of those cycles: restaurants open, close and change hands. Kris Dorward left the pub in June, just as the previous landlord had in June 2016. One of the chefs has since moved to the Fisherman’s Cottage (let’s hope the management treat him better than they did the previous team to occupy the kitchen there) and for a little while the pub sat there, empty and sad. One of its regulars even took to sitting at the tables outside in the sunshine, like a dog waiting for its owner to return.

Things looked bleak, but a new team took over at the end of July making all the right noises about continuing to serve excellent food. I was there with friends for a few drinks the night they reopened and although things were a little chaotic, it was brilliant to have the pub back (true to form, Berkshire Live reported the “news” nearly three weeks later).

I didn’t eat there that night, but I was itching to try out the new menu and so, a month after they opened, I turned up with my friend Reggie to give it a whirl. It wasn’t Reggie’s first choice (“the menu looks a bit limited”, he told me) but Caribbean restaurant Vibes was closed on Tuesday nights, so the Lyndhurst it was.

The interior suggested that the new management was aiming for evolution rather than revolution, because apart from being slightly more spartan it looked exactly as it had before. Still a long thin room with the bar down one side, still the same mixture of chairs and pews, still the same warm glow. Reggie said that it reminded him of the pub in Peaky Blinders and I, having never watched it, nodded as if I knew exactly what he was talking about. Reggie, all coiffed hair and Massimo Dutti shirts, might well fit in on the set of Peaky Blinders: I most definitely would not.

The menu offered further encouraging signs, as it had already changed from the original menu online which had underwhelmed Reggie. A bit confusing, though, as the paper menu had starters and mains while the blackboard on the wall also listed nibbles and small plates. Starters and small plates hovered around the seven pound mark, all but a couple of the mains were less than twelve pounds. Most things on the menu still fell into the bracket of pub food but there were interesting cheffy touches here and there: sauce gribiche with the asparagus, a whole spiced chicken to share, black pudding bonbons and chicken katsu burgers.

Reggie and I decided to try a bit of everything, so we made a selection from the snacks and small plates and tried to pick more straightforward and complex main courses to test the range of the kitchen. I let him pick first, as I do with all my dining companions, and he picked everything I wanted to order, as my dining companions inevitably do. “Sorry mate” he said, clearly not sorry at all.

In its previous incarnation, the Lyndhurst’s Scotch egg had been a reference dish, so it seemed like a good test to order it here. It came with less whistles and bells than its predecessor – no wooden board, no tangle of pea shoots sprinkled with salt, no brown sauce accompaniment. Instead it was served simply on a plate with a little salad, some radish and a blob of sweet sauce (the menu said mustard, Reggie thought it was more like chutney). But crucially, it was really very tasty. The yolk could have been a little less solid, ideally, but otherwise it was spot on with a great coarse texture and plenty of seasoning. Not only that, but at just under four pounds, this was almost half the price of the old Scotch egg at the Lyndhurst – genuinely priced to be a beer snack rather than a starter.

My chilli beef nachos, from the small plates section, were neither small nor served on a plate. Not that I was complaining – it was a crazily generous portion of robust tortilla chips topped with plenty of chilli, made with slow-cooked shredded beef rather than mince. I really liked the chilli; Reggie found it a little underseasoned.

The whole thing was a tad unwieldy: it was very hard to eat with your hands, not helped by plonking a gigantic lettuce leaf on top. And the promised guacamole wasn’t really guacamole but just chunks of gorgeously ripe avocado, although there’s a place for that too (there was also a terrific fresh tomato salsa in the mix). But honestly, those minor criticisms aside it was a really lovely, if messy, way to start a meal. I think after eating this I understood better why it wasn’t on the starters menu: you could easily turn up for a few drinks and just get one of these to share with your drinking buddies.

Even after the starters I was happy but well on my way to pleasantly full (Reggie, irritatingly whippet-thin in the way only twentysomethings can be, obviously had plenty in the tank). Despite being a pub the Lyndhurst was offering table service like a restaurant, and the chap looking after us was friendly and polite – if slightly lacking in confidence – and seemed genuinely pleased that we liked our food. We also had a couple of pints on the go – the Lyndhurst’s drinks selection, again, hasn’t changed drastically with the handover so it was Orchard Pig for me and Camden Hells (a favourite of mine on a hot day) for Reggie.

“I’d never come here before I read your last review, and when I did I kind of wished it was my local” he added. That made sense: technically Reggie’s local is the Castle Tap but like practically everyone in West Reading he’d rather pretend it’s the Nag’s Head. Technically, my local is the Retreat but I did feel lucky that the Lyndhurst was such a short walk from my house. Would that enthusiasm survive the main courses, I wondered?

Reggie had picked the fancier of the main courses – pork belly, pig’s cheek and black pudding bonbon, with boulangere potatoes. If that sounds like it had a lot going on it’s because it did, but it really did live up to its promise. The pork belly was beautifully done with no wobbly fat, the cheeks were tender and meaty, free from disturbingly gelatinous bits. And the black pudding bonbon, itself impressively generous, was gorgeous, earthy stuff.

To have all that and boulangere potatoes studded with sweet onion was nice enough, but to add rainbow chars and crispy cavolo nero, reminiscent of seaweed, topped it all off nicely. The only misfires were the apple sauce, which felt a bit like it had wandered in from the Sunday lunch menu, and a slight lack of jus, but the fact remained that for less than fifteen pounds this dish represented formidable value. Reggie was a fan, and from the bit he let me try I was practically an evangelist.

I had to slum it at the more pubby end of the menu, but even there I managed to find something interesting to order. My chicken katsu burger was a very respectable effort – I think it was breadcrumbed, but the coating wasn’t quite strong enough to stand up to the surprisingly punchy curry sauce. Either way, it was a lovely fillet cooked well and the whole thing was elevated by a really well done – please accept my apologies in advance for using this word, I feel every bit as dirty writing it as you do reading it – “slaw”, zingy and piquant and crunchy with carrot.

As so often with burgers these days, it was a sloppy, messy affair – the sort where every bite at one end pushes the contents out of the bun at the other until what’s left is hanging over the edge like the coach in the Italian Job. But it was very enjoyable all the same – as were the chips, which were some of the best I’ve had in a while. The menu says they’re hand-cut and I could well believe it, although if you look closely at my photo you might see one which clearly looked like a refugee from another batch entirely.

Portions were pretty generous (especially my starter), so neither of us had any room for dessert. The Lyndhurst’s dessert menu is possibly not where their strengths lie – just a brûlée, a lemon posset, a brownie and a cheesecake – so I’m not sure I was missing out quite so much. Our dinner – two courses and a pint each – came to forty-six pounds not including tip, which I thought was excellent value.

I’m always lamenting the fact that Reading doesn’t have a pub in the centre that does really good food, and for a long time the previous incarnation of the Lyndhurst filled that gap as well as anyone had. That’s why there was genuine sadness when they closed. I’m delighted to be able to report that, after a slightly shaky start, the new owners are definitely on the right lines. The menu is pretty wide, but they seem to be able to execute all of it. It’s well-judged, with a good range of options for sharing, snacking or eating a full meal. They’ve already started to change the launch menu, which shows that they care about their food and are looking to improve.

I think they’ll only grow in confidence (and the service needs to, ever so slightly) but it will be fascinating to see where the new management takes the place. One thing that really struck me about the previous owners was how little they did on social media to promote the pub and the food: fingers crossed the current team take that more seriously. But for now, let’s just be grateful that the Lyndhurst is back, and trying the right things.

The following day I did a bit of Googling and found that Vibes, the other candidate for this week’s review, closed permanently in August. There’s that cycle for you again: if you don’t use it, don’t complain if further down the line you lose it. One to bear in mind in the months ahead, when places like the Lyndhurst are going to need customers more than ever.

The Lyndhurst – 7.8
88 Queens Road, RG1 4DG
0118 9503888

https://www.thelyndhurstreading.co.uk/

Cozze

I’ve been reading a lot of other restaurant bloggers recently, and it’s made me think. These are proper restaurant reviewers in big cities, and they use impressive words like “bosky” and “friable” – both of which, I’m ashamed to say, I had to look up in a dictionary.

The other thing these reviewers do, which I’ve never done, is write in the present tense e.g. I bite into the burger. It has the deep flavour of well-tended cow and so on. This is a very striking way to write about food and it makes you feel like you’re there, in the moment, experiencing that bite with them.

I, on the other hand, tend to write in the past tense e.g. the burger was a bit bland. Recounting an event which has already happened makes it feel like you’re telling someone a story down the pub, but perhaps it lacks that immediacy. Maybe it puts a gap between the writer and the reader.

So does the traditional structure of a restaurant review. Here is why I’m reviewing this place, my reviews tend to begin, followed by this is what the room is like and here’s what I ordered and what it tasted like followed, as night follows day, by here’s what the service was like, here’s how much it cost and, last but not least, this is my verdict. Add the rating, the address and the website, repeat until dead. Job’s a good’un.

One thing those other restaurant reviewers and I agree on is that the best reviews to write are the rave reviews, followed by the hatchet jobs. The ones everybody dreads are the middling, the mediocre, the it was dull enough eating it, but heavens, now I have to write about it ones.

So, I ought to start by explaining that Cozze, the Italian restaurant on the roundabout at the bottom of the Caversham Road, has been on my to do list for literally years, and that whenever I ask people on Facebook where they’d like me to go next someone always pipes up and suggests it.

I should add that it started in Woodley before adding a second branch in central Reading with a third one just opened in Pangbourne. I should then say something like “well, a successful independent chain is a very unusual thing in Reading so I owed it to myself to see what all the fuss was about so I went there one night with my partner Zoë” and there you go, the scene is set.

But really, and maybe this will build some of the immediacy my reviews might sometimes lack, what I really want to tell you is how exceptionally bored I was by having dinner at Cozze.

Take the spaghetti carbonara I had as my starter. A good carbonara should be golden, the sauce should hug the pasta, it should be resplendent with egg, it should be salty and sinful and fun. The pancetta (although ideally it might even be guanciale) should be almost crispy and add its own whack of salt to proceedings. It shouldn’t be like this.

It shouldn’t be a pasty albino of a thing, swimming in cream with scant evidence that it’s ever seen an egg. You shouldn’t be dredging through the lake of liquid once you’ve finished, picking out highlighter-pink cubes of bouncy bacon and wondering why you bothered. It shouldn’t be worse than eating at Carluccio’s, for goodness’ sake. It shouldn’t feel like a dish cooked by people who don’t especially care for food or know how it’s meant to taste.

The sad thing is that the room itself is quite nice – a big airy space with nice furniture and vaguely Kandinsky-esque paintings on the wall. And the staff were lovely – really bright and friendly as they brought middling plate after middling plate to our table. We were the only people there when we arrived, although by the end three other tables were occupied. One big group appeared to be regulars, which makes me wonder if they’ve ever considered trying other restaurants. They might like them.

Zoë thinks I am being a little grumpy, and to be fair she ordered better than I did. But her stuffed mushrooms, laid out as if by a serial killer, might have been pleasant enough but I wasn’t sure they were elevated from anything you could pick up and do yourself in M&S. The ones at Papa Gee, in the heart of Caversham, at least have blue cheese in them to give some salt and tang and flavour: no such luck here. The dip seemed to be mayo. Who dips stuffed mushrooms in mayo? Why not just stick a bottle of salad cream on the table and have done with it?

God, and the desserts. White chocolate covered profiteroles filled with Prosecco and raspberry ice cream sounded like they might at least be interesting, but turned out to be one of the ickiest things I’ve had in a long time. They were filled not with ice cream but with cream that tasted of nothing much. The white chocolate was sickly enough, but the Barbie-pink raspberry gloop on top, and the scoop of raspberry ripple ice cream in which almost no raspberry was evident, completed the spectacle. Again, Zoë’s dessert, a honeycomb cheesecake, was a little better but still every other ingredient was shouted down by sugar.

I’d had my doubts about Cozze before going, which mainly came down to looking at the menu several times over the years. Part of that came from my suspicion that they’d taken a kitchen sink approach – would an Italian restaurant really offer chicken wings, moules frites, baby back ribs and peri-peri chicken? Would they really do four different burgers, accompanied by the wording all our burgers some (sic) with fries and are fully cooked? I mean, I know what they were trying to say, but even so.

But more than that, my real problem with the menu was just how many things on it were also on the menu at Prezzo (ironically Cozze has seen Prezzo off in Woodley: that branch has now closed). If you’re a chain, why set yourself up to be a rival to a place like Prezzo? Should that be the place you set your sights on? Again, it says you’re interested in making money, but not particularly interested in food. But if anything, Prezzo’s menu reflects some recentish food trends – there’s burrata, there’s ‘nduja and so on. Cozze’s menu, with none of that to be seen, feels like an Italian chain menu from about ten years ago.

My main was better, although it still wasn’t anywhere near the best pizza in Reading. It had goats cheese (not enough), leeks, four bits of semi-dried tomatoes and three bits of artichoke. Like most of the other things at Cozze it wasn’t actively unpleasant, just objectionably unexceptional. I drizzled some chilli oil over it to try and make it taste of something. The chilli oil appeared to have very little chilli in it – crap as a condiment, perfect as an analogy.

For completeness’ sake, before you or I drop off, I should also tell you about Zoë’s main course which was pollo prosciutto with pomodoro sauce and baby roast potatoes. Pepe Sale does a beautiful pollo prosciutto – a fillet wrapped in Parma ham and stuffed with cheese which you have with seasonal vegetables. It’s perfect: a few ingredients treated simply and with respect. For some reason, they choose not to drown it in chopped tomatoes and serve it in a bowl hotter than the sun like some kind of glorified ready meal. For some reason, Cozze does choose to do exactly that.

I had a mouthful and wasn’t clamouring for more. My advice, if you ever accidentally order this dish, is to eat it doing your very best to pretend you’re instead eating at Pepe Sale. But if your imagination is that good, you could probably enjoy eating pretty much anything. I used to have a brother in law with nasal polyps so bad he couldn’t taste anything: he’d probably quite like Cozze.

Don’t worry. We’re nearly there and our suffering is almost at an end. It just remains for me to tell you that we shared a five hundred millilitre carafe of Italian Sauvignon blanc which was slightly sweet and perfectly decent and that our meal came to fifty-six pounds, not including tip. That includes a discount because Cozze usually has offers through their website, so if you’re considering eating at Cozze you should definitely make use of them. Although if you’re considering eating at Cozze at this moment, I’ve probably failed as a restaurant reviewer.

You might feel that they caught me on a bad day. You might feel they’re unfortunate to be reviewed the week after I’ve written about eating in Bologna, having truly phenomenal pizza, pasta and gelato. And it’s not that Cozze is bad, to be fair. Nobody died, I wasn’t poisoned, nothing they do is inedible.

It’s just that if Cozze is that answer then “where can we go for dinner that nobody could possibly have any strong opinions about whatsoever?” is the question. The poverty of ambition is the thing I find a terrible shame. Although maybe that’s not fair either: Cozze aspires to mediocrity and, in that respect at least, it has to be considered a towering success. There are worse places to eat, of course. But there will always, easily, be somewhere far, far better.

Cozze – 6.3
93-97 Caversham Road, RG1 8AN
0118 9591459

https://www.cozzerestaurants.co.uk/