The Real Greek

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

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

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

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

Minutes passed.

“I’ll go up to the bar” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thames Lido

Here’s something that happens quite a lot: I have friends who read the blog and some have been known to put in a request to accompany me on particular reviews. “Anyone coming with you to Taberu?” one will say, or “Next time I visit you for lunch, shall we go to Comptoir Libanais? You could write it up for your blog.”

Not that I mind: it’s nice that people take an interest, and better to be spoiled for choice with dining companions than to have to ask nicely or, worse still, beg. But some reviewing opportunities are more prized than others, and none more so than Thames Lido. It opened last year, after years of money-no-object, it-takes-as-long-as-it-takes restoration work, extensively catalogued online in a series of beautiful pictures (whatever else you might think of Thames Lido, they get social media right in a way which puts other Reading restaurants to shame).

In the run-up, there were glossy pictures and features in the broadsheets, and after it opened it received a blandly positive review in the Guardian (which described it as “just off the Reading ring road” – thanks for that). This is no surprise – the original Lido in Clifton is well-established and well-reviewed and has impeccable connections – but the overall effect is that Thames Lido is probably Reading’s first ever destination restaurant. Just don’t tell anybody it’s in Reading, is the implication, in case it puts them off.

So who to take? The decision was made for me when Kat told me, in no uncertain terms, that she was accompanying me. I said yes, because I owe Kat a favour, but she was – on paper at least – an unlikely candidate. Kat has an interesting diet which involves eating sweet and sour chicken balls in the bath, and she’s partial to a battered sausage or a Tesco all day breakfast sandwich.

“Are you sure the Lido is for you?”

“Don’t be silly, I’ve eaten at hoity-toity places before.”

The way this was said reminded me of Rizzo The Rat from Muppet Christmas Carol. Oh well, I had my angle: the irresistible force meets the immovable object, Reading’s destination restaurant meets one of Reading’s most unreconstructed diners. What could possibly go wrong?

My misgivings were exacerbated in the run-up to the visit when Kat sent me a message.

“I’ll also be packing a Gregg’s sausage roll, in case the portions are too puny” she said. “I won’t whack it out on the table or anything, don’t worry. Although, practically speaking, a Ginsters chicken and mushroom slice is more appropriate. A sausage roll doesn’t have the necessary structural integrity.”

What have I let myself in for? I thought to myself as I approached the restaurant with Kat, emergency pasty presumably stowed away in her handbag for later.

When I say “approached the restaurant” that makes it sound like an easier process than it was, on foot on a gloomy March evening. It’s a little tricky to find an entrance – down the side road without signposts or the main road without pavement? – and one of the entrances takes you in to the restaurant while the other one, the main one I suppose, takes you in to the Lido proper. Even picking the right entrance, it was a bit confusing finding our way to the restaurant (and that flair for signposting, or lack thereof, extends to the bit partway through the meal where you try to find the loo). A minor thing, I know, which only applies the first time you go, but first impressions and all that.

The restaurant itself was – as so often – a long thin room, a shape that’s mandated by its position running alongside the pool. The view was spectacular, with steam rising from the heated pool, the fetchingly retro changing booths beyond. The occasional intrepid swimmer bobbed past and, like no doubt everybody who has visited Thames Lido, I was very impressed by the quality of the restoration. It carried through into the furniture – sturdy, handsome tables, generous and roomy for two people, and the kind of chairs you could imagine settling into. It’s a high-ceilinged, airy space and thought had even been put into that, with fabric panels hanging from the ceiling to absorb noise.

If you get a table alongside the pool, that’s great. The other tables – like the one we were given – feel far less special and force one of you to forego the view and stare at the bare brick walls. We asked to move as a poolside table came available and they moved us without complaint. The menus didn’t come with us and it took a fair amount of flagging down staff before they reappeared at our table.

We started by hitting the gin menu, which is divided up on the good/better/best principle with some at £7, some at £9 and some at £11.50. Yes, you read all those right, and tonic is extra. Only two tonics are available, so you get Schweppes for £1.50 or Fever Tree for £2. That makes most of the gins more expensive than the Lido’s cocktails, and some of the gins are also very oddly priced. I was surprised, for example, to see Gin Mare, readily available in supermarkets and pubs like the Fisherman’s Cottage, on sale for £11.50. Each of the gins had modish tasting notes made up of three adjectives, although how Gordon’s tastes of “historic” is anybody’s guess.

Do I sound cross? It’s probably because I was, a little. I’ve been to lots of establishments with gin lists, from pubs to Michelin starred places, and they all make great effort to pair the gins with different mixers, different garnishes, serve them in big balloons so you can almost breathe in the botanicals. Not so at the Lido, where both gins turned up in a highball with ice and lime, nothing more. The Jinzu with Fever Tree (total cost thirteen pounds fifty) was pleasant, light, sweet and floral, but the main thing I thought with each mouthful was just how expensive it was. “Hotel prices”, murmured Kat disapprovingly. The Psychopomp Woden with Schweppes was punchier, a brutal mixture of fennel and grapefruit, and a relative snip at ten pounds fifty. You only got 125ml of Schweppes as opposed to 200ml of Fever Tree, another thing the menu neglected to mention.

The gin took a while to arrive, so we grazed on the complementary bread with olive oil. Again, I had heard great things but this was tough going – nicely seasoned but dense and heavy with no light, crispy crust, more murder weapon than appetite whetter. “I was here for the set lunch earlier in the week and the bread was so much nicer” said Kat. “It was warm, soft inside and the crust was brilliant.” I couldn’t help wondering if this was the same loaf, a few days later.

The menu managed that rare feat of being interesting and nice to look at without having anything on it that you absolutely had to order. I was expecting some kind of plea bargaining with Kat (and if they’d still had the slow cooked ox cheek in Pedro Ximenez on the menu that might have happened) but as it was, neither of us had a first choice to go into battle for. We eventually placed our orders with the waiter, a rather disengaged man who spent much of his time serving us looking around, as if hoping to speak to someone more interesting (“he’s like a really rude date” was Kat’s observation).

I was in the mood for a leisurely evening, but even so I was pleased when the starters made their way to our table. They represented the high water mark of the meal. Kat’s wood roasted asparagus with almond sauce and cecina looked like the kind of dish to provoke full-on food envy: a generous sheaf of asparagus, thinnish spears, with the almond sauce and what looked like jamon, and a hoard of toasted almonds, little grenades of flavour, hidden underneath. I assume the asparagus was very early season – although it was odd that the menu didn’t mention this – and it was terrific stuff. Kat waxed lyrical about the almond sauce, saying it was salty but with a sweet edge, in a manner which suggested I might have misjudged her after all. If I was being pedantic, I’d say that cecina is normally beef rather than ham, but that hardly detracted from how delicious the dish was.

Burrata, if not as good, was still thoroughly enjoyable. Serving it with heaps of broad beans and peas, if anything, made it even cleaner and fresher, a little reminder that spring was just round the corner, even if it didn’t quite feel like it yet. A slightly funkier note was introduced with the liberal dusting of dukkah, which added spice and edge and saved the whole lot from being just a little too nice. I didn’t get the promised yuzu, but it didn’t feel like the end of the world.

Our wine arrived almost immediately after I uttered the words “do you know what, I’d really like my wine now” to Kat. The gins were nearly finished (well, you want to take your time on something that expensive), the starters had long since been dispatched and the main courses were about to turn up. It felt truly odd that the wine hadn’t materialised by that point. The waitress who brought them – and served us from that point forward – was considerably more likeable, chatty, knowledgeable and clued up than the chap we’d been talking to before, a clear reminder of the difference between being served and being looked after. We’d gone for a Jeune Musar, a pretty entry level Lebanese red at £33 (although still about a three times markup from retail price) – I liked it, it was nicely balanced and although it started out a little tannic it opened out nicely given a little time. A shame it wasn’t given more time, really.

I’d gone for the lamb leg (Pyrenean, no less) and was generally pleased with my choice. The lamb was cooked beautifully – I could have stood it a little pinker, but it was close enough – with a lovely layer of fat and a beautiful salty char on the outside. The beans, some of which I think were pureed or mashed, added a nice earthiness. The salsa verde was packed with parsley and mint and absolutely made the meal; I could have eaten it with pretty much anything. Only the rainbow chard – pretty but tough going – misfired, it felt like it had been added for betterment rather than enjoyment.

Kat, on the other hand, picked the dud: hake, with mussels, celeriac and saffron broth. The fish was a nice piece but it was underseasoned, with only half the skin crispy. “It’s all a bit bland except the broth”, she said “and that just gets saltier the more you have of it”. I had a taste and couldn’t disagree. Weirder still was the marriage of chickpeas – which you’d absolutely expect in this kind of dish – and lashings of dill, which you just wouldn’t. Dill is a distinctive enough taste that you’d expect it to be mentioned in the menu, but no joy. Kat left some, and Kat – as you can probably tell from the emergency pasty – is not someone to leave food.

The side dish I really fancied – cauliflower with lemon and zata’ar – was sold out so we went for the crispy fried potatoes with rosemary and garlic. The taste was good, but the texture felt neither crispy nor fried. It was almost like someone had just lobbed them in a baking tray for half an hour, and there was certainly no evidence that they’d ever seen hot fat. I couldn’t help thinking how much better Honest’s rosemary fries were. I couldn’t even be sure these were significantly better than Café Yolk’s fried potatoes, and they came out of a packet. Again, we didn’t finish them. “If they’d actually been crispy you’d have had to fight me for them” said Kat.

The reputation of the Lido’s ice creams precedes it – they make up most of the dessert menu, after all – so it felt almost compulsory to order some to round off the meal. It’s six pounds for two scoops, and although many of the flavours were tempting Kat and I fancied the same ones so we decided to just go for it (with hindsight, the tasting flight to share would only have cost a little more and would have made a better option). They came in beautiful little bowls, and bringing each flavour in a separate bowl was a lovely little touch, because this is an area where you really don’t want to cross the streams.

Of the two, the chocolate and beer ice cream was by far the best, a clever thing where the chocolate hit you first and then the malty darkness of the Estrella “Black Coupage” snuck in at the end. The salted butter caramel I found less impressive – it seemed to lack much in the way of salt. Kat liked the caramel shards, I found them a tad unnecessary. Overall I quite liked the ice cream although I wasn’t entirely sure whether I six pounds liked it. The texture, although free of crystals, was gritty rather than smooth and maybe not quite special enough.

“It’s okay” said Kat, “but, like everything else, it feels about a couple of pounds too expensive. Also, and I know this sounds silly, my ice cream is too cold.”

“I know the way to fix that. You just wait.”

The glass of dessert wine we had with it – a Banyuls, like a slightly sweeter take on port – was terrific. Lovely, if a little pricey, and consequently both an excellent and fitting way to bring the meal to a close. Dinner for two, including an optional ten per cent service charge, came to one hundred and sixty-six pounds. It’s possible to eat for less, but even if you skipped the gin and the dessert wine it would still have clocked in at over a hundred pounds.

This has been a tricky review to write, and it’s a particularly difficult review to conclude. It can’t be denied that the Lido is a fantastic restoration project. What they’ve done with the building is amazing, it looks beautiful and it does make you feel a little prouder of Reading just to see it. And I can easily see that it’s an expensive labour of love, and those costs need to be recovered somehow – whether that’s through swimming, or massages, or packages, or through the restaurant.

I’m also aware that practically everything I’ve read about the Lido has been glowing praise, so I stick my head above the parapet with no great enthusiasm to say that, good though it is in places, it’s not quite good enough. The building has a wow factor the food can’t live up to, and everything feels just a little bit too expensive. The service didn’t match the surroundings either. Maybe it would have been different on a night where the dream team of Matt Siadatan (previously of Mya Lacarte) and James Alcock (from London Street Brasserie) were on duty, but as it was everything felt patchy. The restaurant was far from packed, but from the wayward service you’d think they were run ragged.

I might consider going again for the set lunch, and I can see that jumping off the train on a summer afternoon and having tapas at the poolside bar could be hugely enjoyable, but as a standalone restaurant it didn’t leave me in any hurry to return. “It’s a real pity, isn’t it?” said Kat. “I was hoping to find THE place in Reading, and I really thought the Lido could be that, but it isn’t.” Let’s not leave the last word to Kat though, let’s leave it to Kat’s pasty. I have it on good authority that she consumed it for a late breakfast at around half-ten the next morning. As a review of the Lido it’s a lot more succinct than what you’ve just read, but it’s as good a summary of the verdict as the number at the bottom.

Thames Lido – 6.9
Napier Road, RG1 8FR
0118 2070640

http://www.thameslido.com/

Fidget & Bob

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pho

“You never go on a review with two other people, do you?” said Reggie as he, Claire and I took our seats at Pho. I’d been due to go on duty just with Reggie, but Claire and I were having a quick drink after work when Reggie came to join me and we had one of those “let’s put on the show right here” moments. Looking across at my two friends, side by side like an interview panel, I realised that they might well spend much of the evening taking the piss out of me. Oh well, at least I’d get to try more starters.

“Well, not recently. I mean, I have in the past. It’s not like I have a legion of friends to choose from.”

Reggie smiled. “Three people, I like it. It might be a bit quirky.” Reggie is a big fan of Tony Blair and, like Tony Blair, I sometimes think he’s a little too worried about his legacy. Claire did a face I recognise, where she looked like she was rolling her eyes without actually doing so: it’s a neat trick, if you can manage it. I resolved to write a review as lacking in quirks as possible: that’ll teach him, I thought.

The inside of Pho is very nicely done indeed. You wouldn’t ever know it was once one of Reading’s many Burger Kings – inside it’s all dark wood and muted lighting, with big wicker shades hanging from the ceiling. The furniture, despite playing to the usual school chair trope, looks comfy enough to linger in and the bigger oval tables at the back of the restaurant seemed perfect for larger groups (nice, too, to see some tables outside – I can see that on hotter days that could be lovely). We were in one of the booths in the middle section of the restaurant and very pleasant it was too, easily large enough for four rather than the squeeze it can be at, say, CAU.

A waitress came over and asked if we’d been to Pho before, and given our mixed response she kindly explained the menu to us. It didn’t really take much explaining – certainly not enough to need to make a thing of it, anyway. There were starters, salads, rice dishes, noodle dishes and of course the pho (pronounced “fuh” rather than the name of the restaurant, which is pronounced “foe” – got that?), the traditional Vietnamese dish of soup and noodles which takes up much of the menu.

The horse trading began fairly straightforwardly – we agreed to share three starters, and picked two Claire had already tried and one Claire hadn’t (Claire, as she pointed out to us, had been to Pho many times). It became more difficult when we got to the mains.

“I think you of all people ought to try the pho”, said Claire. “It is their signature dish, after all.”

“But should I have the pho too, or should I have a rice dish? I really fancy the rice dish, but is it like having the Prego steak roll in Nando’s?” said Reggie. That legacy thing again.

“I quite liked the look of the rice dish” I said, “so if you want, have a pho and I’ll have the broken rice.”

“No, you should definitely have the pho,” said Reggie. “But maybe I should have the pho as well. No, I should have the rice. Or maybe I should have the pho.”

Normally, I would be saying how great it was that a menu provided you with such tough choices – with any other dining companion, anyway, but I suspect this is just Reggie. He changed his mind another couple of times before our waiter turned up, and even when he did I half expected poor Reggie to toss a coin. Our waiter was friendly and likeable and talked us through the options, congratulated some of us on our choices, recommended beers, the whole shebang. He was really very good.

“I’ve been here a few times” said Claire, not for the first time “and he’s definitely the most engaged of the lot.”

“He sat down next to me to take my order.” I said. “Surely that’s not normal.”

“I could tell you had a problem with that” said Reggie, who does enjoy the fact that I’m nearly twenty years older than him. “You visibly tensed up.” Well, it’s possible. I also had a problem with the fact that our beers – Saigon for me, Ha Noi for Reggie – turned up without glasses, but I felt too old and fuddy-duddy to ask for one. Besides, I was wishing I’d had a coffee martini like Claire’s – sweet with condensed milk, it was more like a White Russian than a martini. More than a sip of hers, and the regret would have been too much.

Our starters arrived quicker than I’d personally have liked, but they all looked nice enough. The goi cuon, summer rolls with chicken, were light, delicate things; rice paper parcels mainly filled with shredded vegetables and vermicelli noodles, a thin strip of chicken along one edge. You dipped them in the nuoc cham, a slightly anonymous sweet dipping sauce with, allegedly, fish sauce and lime in it. Reggie and I used our hands while Claire, just to show us up I suspect, deftly wielded chopsticks. They liked the summer rolls more than I did – I thought they showed how fine the line can be between subtle and bland. “They’re especially good in the summer. Well, obviously” said Claire.

Nem nuong, it turns out, are Vietnamese meatballs rather than that odd looking mouse with jowls from Return Of The Jedi. These were more my sort of thing – six sizeable spheres of coarse meat on skewers. They were pork and lemongrass, although I didn’t get as much of the latter as I’d have wanted. You were encouraged to wrap them in lettuce and dip them in the peanut sauce, but there wasn’t quite enough lettuce to easily do that and although I loved the peanut sauce it did rather obliterate your hopes of tasting much else. I liked this dish more than Reggie and Claire did, which makes me wonder if they, with their more refined palates, should have written this review instead of me.

The last of our starters was muc chien gion, fried baby squid. This came with a bit of self-assembly – a little dish with pepper and chilli which you squeezed half a lime into, mixing it with chopsticks to make a dip. This was a lot of fun, although it didn’t make much dip; perhaps more than half a lime was called for. As for the squid, I thought it didn’t seem like an awful lot for seven pounds. What there was I quite enjoyed, although it was wayward – some of it was very intensely seasoned, some not at all. Baby squid was about right, too – much of it seemed to be shrapnel, which tested our chopstick skills. Well, everybody’s except Claire’s.

Opinion was divided on which starter was the best. Reggie and Claire favoured the squid, I preferred the meatballs. Perhaps most tellingly, the summer roll had come in four bits and there wasn’t a pitched battle for the spare quarter. While we waited for the mains to turn up Reggie and Claire settled on their favourite conversational topic, which seemed to be critiquing previous reviews I’d written and saying that the rating didn’t match the write-up. It was part-meal, part-audit.

Our main courses, again, came relatively quickly. I’d gone for the pho dac biet, a sort of greatest hits with chicken, prawns and garlicky beef. It came with a side plate of optional garnishes – beansprouts, mint and coriander, chilli and lime. I expected pho to be hard work to eat, and it was: you desperately try to fish out the floppy noodles, with chopsticks, using the big flat wooden spoon as a platform to make it easier. Then you use the spoon to sip the broth. Couldn’t be simpler, you might think, but I managed to make it incredibly complicated.

Throughout the whole thing I found myself thinking that if everything was tastier the experience would have been more than worth the faff, but again I found the dish understated almost to the point of being silent. The steak, what there was of it, had genuine flavour and the prawns were big firm things. The chicken seemed to be exactly the same as that in the summer rolls, just pale white featureless protein. But the broth, which I’d anticipated so keenly, didn’t have the kind of warmth, depth or complexity I was so looking forward to. As for the noodles, let’s not go there. I left a fair amount, mainly because I was a bit bored of wearing my dinner by then. It’s rare for me not to finish food, and that perhaps tells its own story.

Claire told me I should pep up my pho with some of the gubbins on the table: well, in the immortal words of GetReading, “there are plenty of condiments on offer”. I slugged in a bit of fish sauce, stopping shy of the sriracha or chilli paste. I might have had some of the garlic vinegar, but Reggie – in an inexplicable fit of clumsiness – had managed to dish it up all over his trousers, practically a whole jar of the stuff. (“Don’t write about that. You’re going to write about that aren’t you?” he said: umm, yes Reggie, I am.) Maybe I didn’t enter into the spirit of things, but I expected it to taste more interesting before I added stuff to it. I’m sure this is a cultural thing: after all, in most Western restaurants they don’t actively encourage you to season your own food.

Claire had ordered better than me, going for the bun bo hue, a spicier soup with slow-cooked brisket and extra chilli paste on the side. It looked the part – brick-red and oily, with lots of strands of beef, and the heat in it was much more interesting. I’m still not sure I would have ordered it, or that I’d have enjoyed a whole bowl of the stuff, but it made an interesting contrast to mine. Actually, it tasted like mine with the contrast dialled up.

“I should have had the pho, shouldn’t I?” said Reggie. His dish – com tam dac biet, or broken rice with chicken – looked good, and the chicken thigh was nicely cooked and tasty, the tiny mouthful I grabbed with chopsticks oversold the dish. I got all the best of it in that mouthful but the chicken ran out fast and there was a lot of bland rice underneath to wade through. No wonder Reggie reached for, and ended up bathing in, the garlic vinegar.

“This room is so lovely that I always like it here, but I always want to like the food more than I do,” said Claire as we finished our drinks. Our bowls had been taken away and I wondered what was on the dessert menu and whether anything would tempt us to stay. I had half a mind to try the Vietnamese coffee having been told by friends that it was the kind of sweet milky delight I enjoy (the main reason I’ll never make a coffee connoisseur).

“It’s very solid, I mean it’s nicely done. The room and everything,” said Reggie, who knows a bit about this sort of thing.

“But where have all the staff gone?” I said.

“This is a bit of a trend I’ve experienced recently around town,” said Claire. “They’re brilliant when they seat you and take your order, but then you never see them again.”

Claire was right, and in the time we sat there left unattended we went from “let’s have another drink and look at the dessert menu” to “let’s have a look at the dessert menu” to “sod this for a game of soldiers, let’s pay up and go to the Alehouse”. It was a week night, and the restaurant wasn’t busy; there were staff, but they just didn’t show any interest in coming to our table. All very odd. The meal for three came to sixty-two pounds, not including tip. The Alehouse had a very pleasing booth waiting for us, my cider was cold and fresh and, if anything, Reggie’s trousers smelled even funkier in a more confined space.

When we compared notes, our provisional ratings were all in the same ball park. Reggie liked it the least, although you might be able to put that down to his whiffy trousers (or, to use the technical term, “jeans Kiev”), and Claire the most, which might come down to her having been to Vietnam and actually being able to use chopsticks. I was in the middle: wanting to like the restaurant, loving the space, being frustrated by the service. But, worst of all, I was underwhelmed by the food. I’ve had Vietnamese food before, at a place in Glasgow called Hanoi Bike Shop, and it blew me away; everything sang and zinged with flavours I’d never experienced and yes, it was all clean but never anodyne. Pho didn’t come close to that. Not for the first time in nearly five years of doing this gig, I wondered what I was missing.

It’s a pity, because there is a lot to like about Pho: the room is great, the menu is excellent for vegetarians, vegans and people who choose to eat gluten free, but none of that matters if the food doesn’t hit the spot. Perhaps if they did banh mi – the other great dish of Vietnam and one sadly not represented on the menu – I would go back one lunchtime to try it. But as it was I just couldn’t see myself picking Pho over one its local rivals, whether that was Royal Tandoori for heat, Namaste Kitchen for noodles or Honest for quick, simple casual dining. So, not a quirky review this week but instead one of quiet disappointment: the gap between inoffensive and offensive is admittedly much bigger than the fine line between subtle and bland, but it doesn’t bode well when inoffensive is the best you can do.

Pho – 6.6
1-1a Kings Walk, RG1 2HG
0118 3914648

https://www.phocafe.co.uk/locations/reading/

Honest Burgers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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