Restaurant review: Five Little Pigs, Wallingford

No blethering preamble for you this week, talking about the history of Reading’s food scene and putting things In Context (because there always has to be a Context). Things are much simpler this time around, because by the time you read this I’ll be off on my holidays and I just wanted to eat somewhere really nice the weekend before I went.

There’s something magical about the weekend before you go away, right from the moment you close the work laptop on a Friday afternoon: the knowledge that the weekend you’re about to have won’t be bookended by opening the sodding thing again on Monday morning, knowing that instead you’ll be at the airport, putting your phone and house keys in the plastic tray at security, browsing the duty free fragrance, daydreaming about that first holiday beer or glass of wine.

That’s why I found myself in Wallingford on Saturday afternoon with a reservation for Five Little Pigs that evening. Five Little Pigs received national attention earlier in the year when it got a rave writeup in the Observer. And whatever you think of Jay Rayner, his review of the place talked about deep-fried olives, a burnished toastie with cheese from nearby Nettlebed Creamery and a deep, savoury venison ragu. Reading that was enough of an incentive.

And besides, it’s not as if I had to go there with Rayner. Like most people, I have an infinitely better option: in fact, Five Little Pigs was on the list of restaurants I wasn’t allowed to review with anybody but Zoë (or, as she puts it, “not without me you fucking aren’t”).

Wallingford is a sleepy place, although remarkably easy to reach on the evocatively named River Rapids bus. It’s a very agreeable forty-five minute amble through Oxfordshire, out past Cane End, Gallowstree Common, Stoke Row. I expected Wallingford to be a little like Henley, or Witney, but it’s smaller than either with a couple of main streets, a pretty pub by the green and a really lovely wine shop, the neatly named Grape Minds. There’s also one of those antiques centres which is a succession of rooms full of tat and treasure in indeterminate proportions, and a Scandi interiors shop which mostly sells Farrow & Ball. The craft beer scene there is one bar with a fridge full of Phantom and Arbor Ales. That’s not to say I didn’t like Wallingford, but by the time our table was ready I was very much ready for it.

From the review I’d read I thought Five Little Pigs would be small but actually it was much larger than I expected. The front room, with the full length windows out onto St Mary’s Street, was a chic (if slightly chilly) space which was very tastefully done, an interesting mix of deep blues and golds and pastel shades from the art on the wall. It reminded me of places like Coppa Club, which isn’t necessarily a compliment. Further back was a longer, plainer room with banquetted booths. It’s a surprisingly hard space to photograph (as you can probably tell) but it was packed at seven o’clock on a Saturday night: a good review in the Observer will do that for you.

The menu read well and had plenty on it to appeal. Starters clustered around eight or nine pounds, and only a couple of mains were north of twenty. Plenty of it was local, too, with nearby cheesemakers, growers and butchers all namechecked. “We don’t have the pigs cheeks at the moment” said one of the wait staff, “but they may come in later.” I found that a bit confusing – were they being delivered by drone? – but decided it was best not to ask.

By that point a bottle of red had been opened, a really enjoyable organic Rioja, and I was about to reach that happy place where the food has been ordered and you know you’re safely in somebody else’s hands for the next few hours. Every table was full – with date nights, family gatherings and, in one case, an elderly couple who seemed to spend most of the evening glowering at each other. We were all going to have an enchanting evening. The Observer said so.

I felt a bit basic ordering the Scotch egg, but I can’t remember the last time I had one so it was calling to me from the menu right from the outset. It was one of the nicest things we ate all evening, so proved to be a happy choice : the sausagement was nicely coarse, with black pudding adding a little earthiness. And if I’d have liked the outside a little crisper, or the whole thing slightly less crumbly, the presence of a small pool of superbly tangy rhubarb ketchup mostly made up for that, as did the pickled pink onions.

“You win” said Zoë, tackling her ricotta on toast, which sounded great on paper but in reality was disappointing. “It’s all a bit dry” she said, and this is a woman who’s listened to me talking about my favourite Bob Dylan records, so she knows what she’s talking about. For what it’s worth I agreed – the ricotta was dry and anaemic, the cottage cheese of the Chilterns, and although the roasted cherries were an interesting idea they didn’t add enough of the moisture this dish needed. Literal cherries on top, yes, but sadly not figurative ones. “This could have been really nice with honey” was Zoë’s take.

We’d also ordered a third starter, broad bean fritters, because they sounded so magnificent. And they tasted gorgeous, with huge amounts of freshness from the mint and a dab of deep whipped beetroot on top. But plating it up with pea shoots and plenty of negative space couldn’t really conceal the most obvious thing about this dish, which is that it was minuscule; it was one of those times when I wish I’d popped a twenty pence piece on the plate before I took the photo so you could see just how small they were. We had this as an extra dish, but if this had been my starter I’d have been looking at everybody else’s, feeling profoundly robbed.

Things were well paced at Five Little Pigs, possibly because it was so busy, because our starter and our mains were about half an hour apart, for me close to the optimum interval between the two. I think Zoë chose better with the mains and her lamb rump with yoghurt, more of those roast cherries and what the menu calls “crispy potatoes” was the pick of the two. But even here, it wasn’t perfect. “Again, it’s dry” said Zoë. “The yoghurt is really good, but if anything it needs more of the cherries. They work better here than they did with the starters.” I agreed with that, although I thought the crispy potatoes were a standout, with a lot more texture than met the eye. But for me, the lamb rump was a little overdone. I found it odd, too, that they brought me a steak knife but not Zoë, when her dish needed it every bit as much as mine.

My rump steak was the most expensive dish on the menu, which always adds the potential for it to be the most underwhelming. It was a beautiful piece of beef and the cooking couldn’t be faulted – pretty much medium-rare throughout with beautiful caramelisation outside. But it was underseasoned, and surprisingly bland. The chimichurri underneath it had a pleasing zing, but ran out very quickly indeed. And after that the whole thing became a bit of a slog. There was some kind of puddle of juices at the edge of the plate, but it would be pushing it to call it a jus or a sauce. The best thing on the plate was a solitary mushroom cooked with cheese (again from Nettlebed) until it was salty and crispy, but when the star of the show plays such a brief cameo role, you’ve got problems.

Just to add to the onslaught of dryness, my triple cooked chips had decent texture – and were huge – but, again, they came without anything to add moisture. We’d ordered another portion separately, not knowing that we wouldn’t really need them, and I think in a restaurant with sharper service they might have talked us out of doing that. They came with a very good aioli but, as with the chimichurri or the beetroot ketchup, there was nowhere near enough of it. We asked for some more from a passing member of the wait staff. Five minutes passed and it didn’t materialise. We asked again and some time later, when the chips were nearly at an end, it finally arrived. 

We looked at the dessert menu because our bus wasn’t for another forty-five minutes, or at least that’s what I told myself. By this point the couple at the next table had both ordered the hake – which looked nicer than either of our mains – and there was a certain mesmeric quality to watching them push it round the plate in that way that people who don’t really enjoy food seem to do. 

Anyway, desserts represented a slight recovery. My chocolate delice was a brilliant wodge of deep, gooey chocolate with a sweet, almost-sharp smear of bright strawberry purée to cut through. The biscuit base underneath was so crumbly that it barely stayed in one piece, but I didn’t mind that at all. Zoë’s key lime pie had a similarly short base and I thought it was pleasant, but I’d probably describe it as “subtle”, which really isn’t what you’re looking for in a dessert. 

Zoë had her dessert with a Cotswold cream liqueur (although it turned up on the bill as Bailey’s, so Christ knows which it really was) and I had a dessert wine – from Graves of all places – which went beautifully. And well done if you’ve made it this far, because the truth about Five Little Pigs is that, sadly, by this point I’m even slightly boring myself. Our bill came to a hundred and forty-six pounds, including service, and then we went outside, got the penultimate bus out of Dodge, got home, had a cup of tea and went to bed. The end.

Last week somebody commented on my Facebook page about the review I did of Sauce And Flour. “I wish you’d stop doing reviews of places outside Reading” he said. “I prefer the Reading reviews. And after all, this blog is called Edible Reading”. I always find it interesting when people pipe up to tell me that this entirely free blog is somehow not delivering value for money, and after I politely told him that I’d review wherever I bloody well liked he deleted his comment. But there’s an important point here, believe it or not. I think it’s good to review places outside Reading because it gives you that all-important context (like I said at the start, there’s usually a Context). Otherwise how do you know if a place is good, or just good for Reading? 

And it goes beyond Reading. If I hadn’t been to the likes of Marmo and Caper & Cure maybe I’d have thought about Five Little Pigs very differently. But at the same price point, making similar noises, and even with some similar dishes, the difference is stark. There are better ways to spend a hundred and fifty pounds eating out than to go to Five Little Pigs. One is to go to Marmo, or Caper & Cure. Another, to be honest, is to eat at Tasty Greek Souvlaki four times. Five Little Pigs is probably an absolute boon to Wallingford, and on another night I might well have had a meal there I’d have enjoyed better. But in truth, I can’t see myself going back. 

So there you go: it turns out that restaurant reviewers aren’t always right. But as a regular reader of this blog you knew that already, didn’t you?

Five Little Pigs – 7.1
26 St Mary’s Street, Wallingford, Oxfordshire, OX10 0ET
01491 833999

https://www.fivelittlepigs.co.uk

Restaurant review: Sauce And Flour, Maidenhead

One of my oldest friends lives in Swindon. Someone has to. Whenever he comes to Reading he enjoys our street food, our craft beer and our shopportunities and he complains to me – at length – that it didn’t have to turn out like this. He reckons that there was a time, back in the Nineties when all that money hadn’t decided where to coalesce, when it Could Have Been Swindon. They had a House Of Fraser, well before the Oracle opened, and that designer outlet everyone used to get so excited about. And Reading – Heelas aside, of course – was a bit of a wasteland in the mid-Nineties. Things could have been very different. 

But the retail and hospitality gods smiled on Reading and, like many of us, they sneered at Swindon. We got the big names and the investment and Swindon, over the few decades, withered and died. It’s not all terrible: Darkroom Espresso is a great place to grab a coffee, Los Gatos in the old town is a tapas restaurant Reading would be lucky to have and a few doors down Rays does thoroughly likeable ice cream. But there’s a reason people who live in Swindon go to Bath, Oxford or Cirencester at the weekend, just as people from those places don’t pop over to Swindon of a Saturday.

The reason I’m starting a review of a place in Maidenhead talking about Swindon is that lately I’ve been looking at what’s going on in Maidenhead and starting to wonder if we might find ourselves in the Swindon role at some point in the coming years. Because although it’s early days, the businesses beginning to come to prominence in Maidenhead are the kind that you’d want to see in Reading instead of – hooray – a branch of Popeyes or our twentieth Costa Coffee. 

Take A Hoppy Place, a credible, nicely fitted out craft beer bar a five minute walk from the train station with close to twenty beers and ciders on cask and keg. Last time I went it was doing a roaring trade and making the most of its outside space, and it was a wonderful place to while away a few hours. And although Reading has a brilliant craft beer scene – bolstered by the new addition of the Grumpy Goat’s upstairs bar – there’s nothing on that scale in the town centre. 

And then there’s Seasonality, which recently got a rave review in The Guardian. It started in lockdown as a deli also selling heat at home meals, and has since morphed into a restaurant offering an interesting and inventive menu. It’s tasteful, gorgeous looking and independent: you could count the number of restaurants like that which have opened in Reading in the last couple of years on the fingers of one stump. With the winter we have looming, and the town’s famously charmless landlords, can you imagine one trying their luck here in the next twelve months?

Finally, the subject of this week’s review which might be the most interesting of the lot. Flour and Sauce opened in March as part of Maidenhead’s Waterside Quarter and seems, on paper at least, to be an example of a London trend that hasn’t so far made it this far west, the pasta restaurant. And by that I mean that, from a look at the menu, it seems to be modelled on Borough Market’s famous Padella and the hugely influential Bancone along with more recent imitators.

Those places – offering starters, a selection of pasta and not much else – have been one of my favourite trends of the last few years. They’ve given dishes like silk handkerchiefs with confit egg yolk or bucatini cacio e pepe iconic status and at their best they make for fantastic mid-priced casual restaurants. Throw in a negroni to start and a decent dessert at the end and you have the blueprint for a marvellous lunch or dinner: I’ve eaten at the original Bancone in Covent Garden a few times and never had a meal there that was less than splendid. So was Maidenhead boasting an example of this very London trend by virtue of its place on the Elizabeth Line? I wanted to find out.

It looked gorgeous from the outside, all white columns and full length windows. And it had the feeling of a fully realised concept, with clear branding, although something was niggling and bringing out my inner Mary Portas. Was it the name? Somehow it felt like it should be Flour And Sauce, both in chronological and alphabetical order. And the slogan – Wine Meats Dine – might have worked as a pun, but it didn’t seem to descibe what they actually did.

Going inside and taking my table brought out my inner Michelle Ogundehin. It was a big deep room but everything was somehow disconnected. The furniture didn’t match, but not in a charming way or even a calculated one, more as if they’d run out of stuff. I saw three different types of chair, one of which was the ubiquitous Tollix I associate with far cheaper food and greater discomfort.

Likewise the lampshades didn’t match, but not in a way that made sense – including the ones over the window seats which looked like grass skirts humping a lightbulb. There were some cheap shelving units from Ikea along one wall and a completely incongruous pine Welsh dresser at the back. It all felt thrown together, as if they’d opened in a hurry – and of course it might well have been. The faux marble wallpaper along one wall, already slightly peeling at the joins, might have gone on in a hurry too.

“It’s funny” said Zoë. “You walk in and think ‘this is nice’ but then the longer you look at it the more jarring it gets.”

I don’t think it helps that we got arguably the worst table in the place. The restaurant wasn’t really broken into zones, and we had the last free table – right at the front, near the open door. It was a bit chilly, and with people traipsing past in either direction it felt like eating in a corridor – especially when at one point a large group decided to stand right next to our table and chat to a couple eating up at the window for the best part of ten minutes. The window seats, by the way, are probably the best place to sit if you’re in a pair: the counter is lovely and deep, and you get a great view (and, therefore, superb people watching opportunities).

The menu was a little like the room – superficially attractive, but the closer you looked the more you wondered. At places like Bancone, the array of pasta dishes all involve different types of pasta which gives you a much wider range of choices. By contrast nearly all the pasta dishes at Sauce And Flour revolved around relatively similar shapes, and not too many of them, so you had multiple permutations of pappardelle, tagliatelle, linguine and bucatini which made up all but one of the pasta dishes on offer (the exception was a penne dish: what kind of a monster orders penne from choice?). I was hoping to see some ravioli, something like trofie or orechiette, a little more variety.

And while I’m whinging, the drinks list was irksome too. A reasonable selection of wine, but only one of each colour available by the glass. Come in a group or don’t bother, that seemed to say. And the pricing of the solitary red, white and rosé were absolutely nuts: the menu sold wine in 125ml and 250ml glasses with no option in between. And if you did decide you wanted a small glass of wine they stung you, with most of them costing only two pounds less than the large glass (I mean, you could say the large glasses were a relative bargain, but I suppose I’m a bit more large-glass-half-empty).

The irony wasn’t lost on me: I’ve moaned for years that not enough restaurants sell wine in 125ml glasses, and here I was in a place where it was one of the only options. But it felt badly thought out. There were two beers on offer, those ubiquitous macro lagers Peroni and Moretti. I took another look, thought fuck this and ordered a large bottle of San Pellegrino.

Would the food redeem matters? Some of it came close. We started with some thoroughly decent dishes from the starters menu and for a while I thought my tetchiness would be held in check. The pick of the bunch – of the whole meal, in fact – were the short rib beef croquettes: three beautiful specimens crisp of shell and packed with soft, yielding, slow-cooked beef. They were perched in a little moat of spiced mayonnaise which might have had a kiss of ‘nduja, and each had a slice of pickle draped on top which was more sweet than tart and tied things together nicely.

There were three of these and I let Zoë have the spare because she was so underwhelmed by the next starter, although I didn’t like it much better. Squid – “body and tentacles” according to the menu, which I think is TMI – was meant to come fried with ‘nduja but was actually in a thin, vinegary sauce with capers and no heat or seasoning. All the squid was bouncier than you’d like, and just made me think wistfully of better squid I’ve had in the not too distant past. It came with a long transverse slice of focaccia toast which was so rock hard that trying to cut it with a knife and fork left me worrying that half of it would ping off and hit the next table. A pointless blob of squid ink mayo perched on it, looking like a dirty protest.

Finally, I wasn’t sure what “warm buttermilk garlic bun & parmesan” would turn out to be, and the answer is essentially this: four giant dough balls. They were about as nice as giant dough balls can be, strewn with Parmesan and rosemary, and I squidged a piece into the sauce that came with the squid to verify that yes, it really was that dull.

Mains were better but, and this is rather a theme, not exactly as billed. My linguine puttanesca was solid, I think. The ribbons had just enough pleasing bite and the sauce, a combination of all my favourite things, worked well. It had the note of acidity from the capers, a pleasant hum of chilli in the background and beautiful, plump olives. I felt like it needed more anchovy, but then I feel that way about the world in general so this dish was hardly an isolated incident. I’d paid extra to have some yellowfin tuna in the mix and I think I spotted a couple of forkfuls, but that was it. Not bad at all, and not bad value at fourteen pounds, but in the wider context of the whole meal it was doing a lot of heavy lifting.

Zoë’s dish, slow-cooked duck ragu with tagliatelle, had sounded good on paper and she enjoyed it, but from what I tasted it didn’t quite work. Again, the menu was misleading: this didn’t feel like a ragu at all, and the pieces of duck leg I ate didn’t have that tenderness I associate with slow cooked sauces. This hadn’t been reduced for a long time in red wine and tomatoes, it was a white ragu if anything, but it felt like the duck had been added to the white wine and mascarpone right at the end.

And it tasted pleasant enough, but if I’d ordered it I’d have been disappointed: perhaps the kitchen’s other ragus – one made with beef shin, the other with pork and ‘nduja – showed off their skills better. Zoë couldn’t finish it – you can’t fault the portion size – but by the end the sauce had pretty much solidified which made it a challenge. I will say this for Sauce And Flour, though: both pasta dishes had the welcome crunch of judiciously added pangrattato, and it’s hard to completely take against a restaurant that does that.

We decided to try dessert, to give the place a fair crack of the whip. They too were pretty representative of the whole Sauce And Flour experience. Zoë’s tiramisu was decent, and she loved the mascarpone and the leftfield inclusion of Kahlua, but it was a lot more cream than sponge. It didn’t dampen her ardour for Buon Appetito’s magical pistachio tiramisu, put it that way.

I went for the cheese selection and for one person, for seven pounds, I thought it was generous. They have a big deli counter just along from the open kitchen so you can see the staff cutting and preparing the cheese plate, and maybe if I’d had better eyesight I could have worked out what they were. But with the exception of a gorgeous, crumbly Parmesan with decent age which I left until last, I have no idea what they were because the wait staff just plonked them down and sodded off (the menu doesn’t say, either).

The others were a mix of a soft cheese that might have been Brie but possibly wasn’t, a hard cheese that could have been pecorino but probably wasn’t and a couple of other cheeses which honestly could have been anything. Maybe it was the adrenalin, or maybe I was just high on life and drunk on San Pellegrino but I have absolutely no idea. I do know that they came with crackers which tasted a lot like water biscuits and a little dish of something the menu just calls “jam” which tasted of surprisingly little.

Not telling us what the cheeses were was pretty consistent with service in general: it wasn’t unpleasant or rude, just distinctly brisk and disinterested. Maybe it’s because they were busy, but it lacked warmth – and I’m not just saying that because I was sitting by the open door. For me, that was arguably the biggest drawback about Sauce And Flour because it’s the thing – over and above the quirks of the menu or that sore thumb Welsh dresser – that badly needs to be fixed. Our meal came to just over sixty-seven pounds, and included a ten per cent service charge I’m not entirely sure was warranted.

On the train home, Zoë and I mused about exactly what had been missing from our evening.

“The room wasn’t that bad, and some of the food was very good, but great service would absolutely transform that place” she said. And she’s right. Sauce And Flour is a curious beast. It looks, on paper, like an attempt to recreate those specialist pasta restaurants in the capital, but scratch the surface and I have a horrible feeling that it’s actually just a reasonable Italian restaurant with a more limited menu. Like the faux marble wallpaper, it might look the part from a distance but underneath, it’s already peeling. So we can relax: Reading isn’t missing out, not this time anyway. If you want to leave town to eat superb Italian food, take a train to Mio Fiore.

What it really made me think about was the glory days of Dolce Vita, at the height of its powers. I loved Dolce Vita, but let’s be honest: the room wasn’t the best in Reading, and a fair amount of the food didn’t quite live up to its reputation (mainly, ironically, the pasta and pizza dishes). But because of the service, you never cared about that. You’d go back time and again, and it always felt like having friends cooking for you. And if I’d gone to Dolce Vita and there had only been one wine by the glass, I wouldn’t have given a shit; I don’t think I ever went there without ordering a bottle anyway. Trends or no trends, Reading doesn’t need a Sauce And Flour. But there will always be room for another Dolce Vita.

Sauce And Flour – 7.0
4A High Street, Maidenhead, SL6 1QJ
07516 948421

https://www.sauceandflour.com

Restaurant review: Intoku

At the start of every year, the broadsheets wheel out an article about the food trends of the coming twelve months. And every year, nobody checks the article from the previous January to verify that almost none of the trends became a thing. Peruvian food never took off, beyond a couple of places in London. Neither did corn ribs, hard seltzers, carob, eringi mushrooms. 

But it fills a gap for column inches in January, among all the clean eating/“new year new you” articles they dust off and spruce up at the start of every year. And besides, it’s not like anybody’s keeping score: from this year’s predictions, keep an eye out for potato milk, whatever that is. It has another four months to become famous (they sell it at Waitrose, where reviews run the full gamut from “another unsatisfactory milk alternative” to “very neutral tasting”).

Anyway, Reading food trends aren’t like London food trends, because every year since I started this blog the trend has been pretty much the same: you’ll get more cafés, and some dickheads will complain that we have too many cafés. You’ll get more burger places, and some dickheads will moan that there are too many burger places. And, in recent years, you’ll get more American chains and some dickhead will whinge about the Americanisation of Reading. And yes, that last dickhead is me.

The real trends are the ones that blindside you. Late last year and early this year it was biryani places, with a mini explosion of options – Biryani Mama in town, Biryani Boyzz on the Oxford Road and, just opposite it, the interestingly named Biryanish (“it’s sort of like a biryani…”). And then in the last few months, the trend literally nobody saw coming: three Japanese restaurants opening in the space of two months. Did anybody predict that on New Year’s Day?

I’ve always loved Japanese food, but Reading’s never been incredibly well served for it. In the centre, you had Yo! Sushi and Sushimania, and both have their place: Yo! Sushi in particular democratised sushi and acted as an introduction for many people, me included. And I’ve always enjoyed heading to Sushimania after a day at work with Zoe, grabbing seats on the banquette and looking out on the dining room with a cold bottle of Asahi.

More recently Oishi opened down the Oxford Road: I loved it when I went, but for a while it had an alarming hygiene rating which put me off a return visit. And of course there’s Osaka which I liked but didn’t love, although I visited it during one of the weirdest months the world has ever seen. But for a more special meal I’ve always headed to Windsor, to eat at Misugo (recent discovery Miyazaki is an excellent alternative). Did any of Reading’s newcomers have what it takes to displace Misugo in my affections?

Of the three, Intoku was the obvious choice to try first. The others, You Me Sushi and Iro Sushi, are casual, grab-and-go places, whereas Intoku is more upscale and established, part of a small chain that began at a market stall in Manchester and now has restaurants in Chelsea, Windsor and Reading. The latter is their newest, opening at the end of May in the site on Chain Street which had become synonymous with the Tasting House over the course of seven years.

When the Tasting House closed in April last year it was almost impossible to imagine anything else in that spot, but turning up for dinner on Saturday night I was struck by how completely Intoku has transformed it. As the Tasting House all the action was on the ground floor, with the room upstairs more of an overflow or a space for wine tasting events. By contrast, Intoku has flipped it: there’s a bar and the open kitchen downstairs, along with a handful of booths, but the main dining room is upstairs. And a very polished-looking space it is too, with more little booths along one wall and most of the tables at the far end. They’ve opened up the windows looking out onto Chain Street, which makes it a far nicer space, and the furniture is attractive. 

I particularly liked the anime art feature wall on both floors (if you’ve ever wondered what a manga Mount Rushmore might look like, this will answer all your questions) although the place seemed a little dark and clubby for me. That might just be about associations. I tend to think of Japanese restaurants as a little humbler in terms of decor. But this was a lot more glam, and the music was Saturday night music too, so I decided just to go with it. I took my seat in one of the booths, only slightly thrown by the head height plug and USB sockets: if you’re a tightwad looking to charge your phone, this is the restaurant for you.

The welcome at Intoku was bright and enthusiastic, and when I was handed my menu I was told that things came out as and when they were ready. It was then that we decided to order in waves as we went along. I wonder if that caused some of the subsequent problems we experienced, because one of the many issues with the service was how difficult it was to attract attention to say that actually, we’d love to order more food.

Intoku’s menu is great – it reads well, it has good range and you find yourself wanting to order a lot of it. It’s wide but not deep, so for instance it covers sushi, sashimi, rice and noodle dishes but it doesn’t have too many of each. Prices are on the heftier side, with sashimi starting around nine pounds, much of the sushi costing a tenner or more and mains going up to eighteen pounds. Where the menu falls down – apart from the fact that it’s just not spelled “artisian” – is that it doesn’t explain things. So for instance it lists its fanciest uramaki without giving you the faintest idea what’s in them, a mistake repeated with the cocktail list.

That would work if the wait staff were engaged and enthusiastic about explaining the menu, but that wasn’t quite the case here. The first sign that it might be a challenging evening in that respect was when our beers arrived, a couple of cans of Sapporo, with no glasses. “I haven’t drunk out of a can since the After Dark” said Zoë. We eventually flagged someone down, and they brought over a couple of highballs, but it was weird to have to ask: if the service had been on it, we wouldn’t have needed to. It was a hot old day, but we weren’t offered water either, so thank goodness the upstairs was air conditioned.

Let’s talk instead about the food, because so much of it was fantastic. Our first set of dishes, the sushi and sashimi, were up there with the best Reading has to offer and easily as good as rivals elsewhere in Berkshire. The soft shell crab blossom rolls were a particular triumph – beautifully assembled and generous with the crab, topped with a smattering of tobiko, one of my favourite things. It might be the closest thing to a bargain on the menu, too: ten pounds gets you eight pieces, whereas at Misugo you pay a pound or two less for four.

Salmon and avocado maki, more modestly priced at six pounds, were also very well assembled, although one end piece had almost no salmon in it. But otherwise everything was well put together, not ragged or untidy. And presentation was nicely done: it’s amazing what you can do with a chopping board from IKEA.

I’ve looked back, and every time I eat on duty at a Japanese restaurant I always order salmon sashimi and I always say the same thing: beautifully cut, pure, fresh, buttery texture, blah blah blah. Well, sadly, Intoku’s rather lets the side down in that respect. It might have been something about the cut but it was more taut, more muscular with none of that gorgeous fattiness that makes it such a pleasant dish to eat. At eight pounds sixty for five pieces, it also felt a little sharply priced.

Having finished that little lot, we decided it was time to make another assault on the menu. And this is where our problems continued, because despite the restaurant being far emptier at this point than when we started it was almost impossible to get attention. I’d seen three different members of staff on the way to my table, but now there was just one. And she seemed more interested in re-laying the empty tables – which wouldn’t see a customer again until the following day – than coming back to ours. Eventually, after some time, we managed to get her over.

“Could we order some more food, please?”

“Of course, I’ll go get my notepad.” So she walked off to the other end of the restaurant, grabbed her pad, came back and took our order. And then off she went, without showing any interest in clearing away our empties. And it wasn’t just her, because when our food was ready another member of the wait staff brought it over and plonked it in front of us without taking away the dishes we’d finished with. Which, again, was plain odd: he was there anyway, why make multiple trips?

This is especially frustrating because the food, when it arrived, included some of the best Japanese food I can remember having. I know bao are more Chinese than Japanese, but Intoku sells them by the pair with a variety of fillings and we had ours with karaage chicken. They were absolutely heavenly. Chicken thigh, with a superbly crunchy coating and a hugely savoury note of Marmite, was crammed into pillowy buns topped with pickles and spring onion, and I can honestly say these were up there with bao I’ve had at Bao, next to Borough Market, and streets ahead of any I’d tried in Reading. I treasured each bite, knowing it would come to an end far too soon.

Ten minutes later, the other two small plates we’d ordered turned up. We asked our waiter if he’d mind taking our empties away and he did, with a look that suggested it had never even occurred to him.

Chicken gyoza were steamed rather than fried – odd that they don’t give you a choice, but good if you want to feel virtuous – and although they were probably the most unexceptional thing we ate they were still decent. Intoku seems to think that dipping is infra dig, so they came with a little pool of a thin sauce underneath them. Four meant no arguments about the spare one – I sometimes think Japanese restaurants give you five of the things because they like to provoke a heated debate – and this felt about its money at just over a fiver.

But the real highlight of this course, and indeed the meal, was the crispy fried squid. I often order this, never with any real expectations, and it’s always pleasant. But Intoku’s was just spectacular – hugely soft and fresh with no give, no bounce, no stubbornness at all. The coating was crinkled and crisp, with a little bit of togarashi sprinked on top. It was up there with the best squid I’ve had anywhere: I don’t know where Intoku get their squid from, but they’re not cutting a single corner.

Again, it was served with a thick chilli sauce underneath it – having it in a dipping bowl would have been easier – but it still didn’t matter because the sauce was exemplary too. So often sweet chilli sauce is jam-sweet with only a hint of heat, but this was a different species altogether. This is the dish to order if you visit Intoku, quite possibly multiple times.

By this point, believe it or not, we’d been there nearly an hour and a half. Despite not being enormously busy, it had been a challenge to place orders and the food had come out on the leisurely side. But it got weirder, because at about twenty-five past nine one of the wait staff came over and told us the kitchen was closing in five minutes. Did we want anything else? Nowhere on the menu does it tell you that they knock off so early on arguably the busiest night of the hospitality week.

“Yes, we’d really like to order some more food.”

“I’ll just get my notepad” she said, and off she went again.

“Why doesn’t she just keep her notepad with her?” said Zoë, who was running out of patience. I couldn’t really disagree.

So we placed one last order – with more of that squid, because it was so irresistible – and we waited. And waited.

About twenty-five minutes later, another member of staff came by and asked if we wanted any more drinks. We said no, but we’d ordered some food quite a while back. Was it still coming? This caused a bit of consternation, and he wandered off before coming back and saying that the waitress had taken our ticket to the kitchen but somehow they hadn’t seen it. It would be on its way. And so, about forty-five minutes after we placed our last order, we finally received it – more of that squid, some bonus gyoza – pan fried, this time – by way of apology and our main courses.

I don’t think this is just the fatigue or the frustration talking, but the mains are the weakest past of Intoku’s menu. Zoë’s katsu don with breaded chicken was the pick of the two, but it wasn’t without its problems. It was a rice dish with a thin omelette on top of it, the katsu sauce, fried onions and breaded chicken, and although it was pleasant it was all sweet and no heat. You’d have struggled to call it a curry.

I had high hopes for my dish, chicken leg inasal. This is apparently a Filipino dish where the chicken leg is marinated in sweet vinegar and braised for nine hours. Did that happen here? It’s hard to say. The chicken was beautifully soft, and taking it off the bone was no challenge (although I’d have struggled to do it with chopsticks), but although there was plenty of evidence of braising there was little or no evidence of marination because it tasted of not much. And there it sat, on a pile of naked rice. No sauce, no moisture, nothing. It was heavy going, monotonous and dry: the perfect metaphor for this review, but not much of a dish.

Two and a half hours after we’d sat down for a relatively quick dinner we paid our bill and headed home. No point heading to a bar for a final drink and a debrief, because we’d spent so long waiting at Intoku that everybody was calling last orders. The chap who took our payment – a hundred and eleven pounds, including a 12.5% service charge – was lovely and apologetic, and we were very English and said it was all fine. But the problem, really, is that it wasn’t.

I don’t enjoy having to criticise the service at restaurants, and I know some people take a dim view of it. They think it makes you look entitled, or like you’re punching down, in a way that criticising the kitchen somehow doesn’t. I know that hospitality is really struggling to get people right now, and that these people are undervalued and underpaid, by both restaurants and paying customers. But stuff like bringing you glasses, checking if you want to order more food, clearing away empties – that’s all basic stuff. That’s before we get on to closing the kitchen at half nine or managing to lose your order minutes after you’ve placed it.

If pointing all that out makes you Little Lord Fauntleroy, so be it. I say this with kindness, but Intoku needs to sort it out. I don’t know how else to put it: Intoku’s food is in places brilliant, but if they don’t get on top of their service I wonder how they’ll survive. Not just because people won’t go back – although their food was so good that I probably will, at least once – but because they’re missing out on chances to feed people more food, sell them more drinks, turn tables quicker and generally be more profitable at a time where every pound counts. When I visited they’d been open three months, but it felt like the opening week. I hope they fix this, if nothing else, so everyone gets to see how good that squid is. We now have a reason not to leave Reading for Japanese food. But Intoku still needs to give us more of a reason to go there.

Intoku – 7.2
30a Chain Street, Reading, RG1 2HX
0118 3045263

https://intokurestaurants.com/intoku-reading/

Restaurant review: Caper and Cure, Bristol

I don’t know how many restaurant reviewers you read – apart from yours truly, naturally – but the shocking truth is that I don’t really bother with any of them. I’ve no interest, for instance, in reading Giles Coren wanking on in his Corenesque way about another country pub near his house in the Cotswolds, peppering it with his usual contrarian casual racism. If I want to be bored shitless by an edgelord, I’ll just fire up Twitter.

That’s rich coming from me, I know. The irony isn’t lost on me, and if everybody thought the way I do I’d probably have the grand total of about three readers. But there you go: with some of the big names I have a peek to see where they’ve reviewed, and I might scan through to see if they liked it – if it’s somewhere I might one day go – but beyond that I don’t really pay much attention. 

So for instance I know that Grace Dent from the Guardian had a meal in Maidenhead not too long ago that she really enjoyed. As a result I’ve added the venue to my to do list, but I won’t be poring over her deathless prose line by line before I go. Similarly the subject of this week’s review, Caper and Cure, received rave reviews in the Sunday Times and the Financial Times recently. I didn’t read them (because paywall, Rupert Murdoch etc.), but when I happened to be in Bristol for the weekend I made a beeline there to see what the fuss was about.

And yes, that means another Bristol review, which in turn means that some of you will look away now – or, more likely, didn’t click on the link in the first place. But I make no apologies, because for many years now Bristol has had, for my money, the most interesting food scene in the U.K. Cities and towns like Brighton (back in the day) and Margate always strike me as trying to be London-on-Sea, but what I love about Bristol is that it ploughs its own furrow, with no interest in being anything other than itself. 

Places that want to develop a food culture, like Reading, could learn a lot from that: if we got even a fraction of the kind of restaurants in our town centre that Bristol seems to say hello to every month, we’d be a much richer place for it. Besides, it’s just over an hour away by train. 

So Zoë and I turned up on a Saturday lunchtime to check it out. Caper and Cure is in Stokes Croft, a short stroll from Cabot Circus, the city’s main mall, at the point where Bristol starts to get properly lively and interesting. Beyond Caper and Cure, Stokes Croft becomes the Cheltenham Road and then the Gloucester Road, a fascinating indie-land of bars and restaurants, shops selling every kind of beer or wine and charcuterie (and a special prize surely has to go to the splendidly named Bristanbul, a Turkish bakery).

On the walk to the restaurant I saw the parts of this area that have defeated gentrification: the patch of land called Turbo Island still sports a couple of shabby sofas whose best days were decades ago, and the people sitting on them were already a few cans of lager to the good by early afternoon. The last time I was here I had a fantastic brunch at nearby Jamaica Street Stores: it closed last month after five years, partly because of growing issues with Turbo Island.

But Caper and Cure, a handsome blue and gold fronted restaurant on the corner, still felt relatively genteel; Stokes Croft institution Café Kino is next door, and the gorgeous Elemental Collective sells coffee and pastries the other side of the road. The building Caper and Cure is in used to be a chemist, back in the Twenties, and the room retains exceptional bones – generously proportioned floor to ceiling windows letting in tons of light, and a compact, almost-triangular dining room with about twenty covers. 

A fetching button-backed banquette ran along one side – we were seated at the slightly less attractive tables on the other side of the room, but it didn’t feel like there were any truly duff seating choices. There was a small counter at the back, the open kitchen beyond, and along one wall was a map of Europe showing the provenance of some of the ingredients used in the kitchen: a nice touch. Why was Bristol so good at making excellent dining rooms and kitchens out of such modest spaces, and why had none of that genius ever made it down the M4 to us?

For that matter, why were Bristol restaurants so good at putting a menu together which was simultaneously compact but where you wanted to order everything? Four starters, five mains, three desserts, a cheeseboard and a couple of specials. Starters around a tenner, mains fifteen to twenty quid, desserts maxing out at eight pounds. Absurdly streamlined, really, compared to the overkill of so many restaurants, and yet I could have ordered any combination of dishes (I should mention, too, that this being Stokes Croft vegetarians and vegans also had decent, imaginative choices). There’s a real talent to assembling a menu like this, to hitting all the bases and keeping it lean and appealing, and I for one wish more restaurants had it.

But before we made those agonising yet enjoyable decisions, we tried a couple of things from the snacks section of the menu. Cauliflower cheese croquetas were a real piece of wizardry, with spot on crunch and the smoothest, glossiest core, tangy with cheese and the sweetness of cauli. Each of them sat under a little Johnsonian toupée of Parmesan, each was stupendous. A ridiculous five pounds for these, and it took all my strength not to order more. 

But even better was the sourdough with jamon butter. The words “jamon butter” rather sell short what you got, a quenelle of salty, savoury spreadable jamon with a texture somewhere between whipped butter and rillette. It was one of the most moreish things I’ve eaten in years, and if they’d sold it over the counter I’d have walked out of the restaurant at the end of my meal with a tub of the stuff the size of my head, knowing full well that it wouldn’t survive the rest of the weekend. 

The bread that came with it was decent enough, but its one role was to provide a vehicle for eating the jamon butter that was more civilised than just devouring the stuff with your bare hands. If I’m being ultra-critical, one of the slices of bread was as much air as bread and if I’d been in the kitchen I wouldn’t have served it. But it upped the jamon butter to bread ratio, so it wasn’t all bad.  

A high standard had been set, and the starters just vaulted over that as if it was nothing. I’d chosen the sweetbreads, because I love them and they don’t turn up on menus in this country anywhere near often enough. Caper and Cure’s might well be the best I’ve ever had: pert and tender, in a dish where they played the starring role but with excellent support. That meant fresh, nutty peas, translucent slices of radish and some braised baby gem, but more importantly it meant a chicken butter sauce bringing the whole thing together triumphantly. It supplied another intense umami hit, fortified with little nuggets of pancetta just in case you weren’t having enough fun already. 

As we discovered over this and our other dishes, Caper and Cure specialises in those high-gloss, super-reduced sauces that speak of patience and expertise. Having finished my starter I was frustrated to see far too much sauce still in the high-sided bowl, but without prompting one of the wait staff asked if I needed some more bread. I didn’t think twice, and Caper and Cure’s bread with the remnants of my chicken butter sauce was, on its own, tastier than ninety per cent of the starters I’ve eaten in nine years of writing this blog.

Zoë was equally happy with her decision to order the burrata. It’s an ever-present on menus now, but I doubt many restaurants pair it with tomatoes quite as good as these (from the Isle Of Wight, of course). And more importantly I doubt many restaurants plonk the whole thing on their own exemplary tapenade, with the perfume of deep purple olives. I had a forkful of this, and although I couldn’t have not ordered the sweetbreads it also had much to admire.  

By this point I knew beyond doubt that we were in very good hands, and the only remaining question was just how special the rest of the meal might be. Our main courses answered that question emphatically. Hake, one of the two market fish on the blackboard, was cooked just right and perched on top of an absolutely glorious layer of pickled fennel, just sweet enough and just sharp enough: I’ve never had pickled fennel before, and now I’m just counting the days until the next time. 

A tangle of samphire heaped on top added a little saltiness and if the skin wasn’t as crispy as I’d have chosen, that was probably because the whole thing was swimming in a superbly glacé lobster sauce. It wasn’t all perfect, mind you; I’d personally have liked the orzo, the base of the dish, a little closer to al dente and the lobster sauce was more muted than it could have been. But those would have been minor niggles at the best of times: on such a successful plate of food, coming in at a ludicrous twenty-one pounds, they were just the only things I could find that fell short of flawless. It was still one of the most marvellous dishes I’ve eaten all year.

Zoë had absolutely no reservations about her rump of beef, and the couple of forkfuls I had were easily enough evidence to understand why. It was a beautiful piece of meat, cooked medium-pink but with a nice crust, but again it was all about how that ingredient played nicely with the delightful company it was keeping. In this case that meant another sticky, glossy sauce – peppercorn this time – little puddles of onion purée and banana shallots, also with a little char. And to add a little ballast, a perfect slab of Pommes Anna, as enticing and multi-layered as a great novel. This might have been one of the most marvellous dishes I didn’t eat all year, but at least it went to a truly deserving home

We had some Parmesan and truffle fries with our mains – completely unnecessary but also impossible to resist – and they were themselves a fascinating experience. It’s a dish that crops up on menus a lot lately, from Buon Appetito to the Last Crumb and beyond, but in most places it’s a way to tart up bought-in French fries and flog them for a fiver. Here they were the real deal, and when we’d finished our mains and used the fries to clean up the last of our respective sauces we picked at the rest with slightly oily fingers and glad hearts.  

Dessert was the point at which things stopped being spectacular and settled for merely being rather good: technically there are only really two desserts on the menu along with a couple of cheeses and chocolate sorbet with coffee liqueur which felt like a distant cousin of the affogato. I rather liked my panna cotta, which had a pleasing wobble, tons of crumbled pistachio on top and a moat of strawberries and sweet syrup. But the advertised wild honey was the quietest of whispers, and without it the whole thing felt a little run of the mill.

I thought Zoë chose better than me, but she wasn’t wild about her choice either. A rum brûlée was served denuded of a ramekin – how often does that happen? – with plenty of pineapple and coconut sorbet. I liked it, although again the rum was a little muted, and I thought it all worked well together. Zoë was less convinced, and I think on another day would have had the chocolate sorbet. But we were both being restrained, with a boozy evening ahead and (in my case) a gin sodden one behind me, so we steered clear of booze.

That means I can’t tell you anything about the wine list, which is a matter of some regret for me as it had plenty to appeal – and three special wines available by the glass, including a Georgian orange wine by Tbilvino which sounded well worth trying. But instead I’m afraid we were well behaved – I had a very good alcohol free pale ale by local Bristol Beer Factory and Zoë had soft drinks. Next time I go, which I anticipate will be the next time I visit Bristol, I’ll try it properly.

I haven’t really talked about service, but it was very much of a piece with everything else: smooth, efficient, friendly and good at making everything look easy. Offering me some bread with my starter was a great example, but really the whole thing seemed effortless. Caper and Cure wasn’t as busy as I expected but it had a real mixture of tables and types of diners, with more people coming in for lunch as we were leaving, and the whole thing had a nice flow and rhythm to it. I imagine it would be a truly enchanting place to have a boozy evening meal with friends, and next time I go there that’s exactly what I plan to do.

Our bill came to a hundred and twelve pounds, including a twelve and a half per cent service charge, and when the owner came to take our payment I pointed out that they’d slightly undercharged us. Before we left he asked where we came from, and if he was fazed that people had come all the way from Reading he concealed it well; I looked him up afterwards, and it turns out he’s also a professional actor (“you can just tell” said Zoë as we ambled up the Cheltenham Road in search of caffeination).

This is the second critically acclaimed Bristol restaurant I’ve visited this year, and the contrast with Sonny Stores couldn’t have been more marked. Restaurant critics like to talk about Bristol growing these restaurants – small, unpretentious places with short, magnificent menus and interesting wine lists – as if in a laboratory. And it’s true that the place is a Petri dish for culinary creativity, more than anywhere I know.

But I think it doesn’t do Caper and Cure justice to make it sound like just the latest place to fall off some gastronomic assembly line. There’s something uniquely special about it, and re-reading this review I’m not sure I’ve truly captured it in what I’ve written. It’s worth going to these places, even if they’re an hour and a quarter away by train, to remember what we have to aim for in Reading and that for all the Kungfu Kitchens, the Bakery Houses, the Lyndhursts and the Clay’s we still have some distance to travel.

If a restaurant like Caper & Cure opened in Reading it would be packed to the rafters every night and lauded as far as the eye can see. And yet in all the time I’ve been writing this blog, the best part of a decade, nowhere even slightly like Caper and Cure has opened here. At some point, we might all have to stop and think about why that is. Reading has the money, it has the prosperity and it has a discerning demographic. Why don’t we have the restaurants?

Caper and Cure – 9.2
The Old Chemist, 108a Stokes Croft, Bristol, BS1 3RU
0117 9232858

https://www.caperandcure.co.uk

Restaurant review: Goat On The Roof, Newbury

I was late arriving for my reservation at Goat On The Roof: one thing I haven’t missed in the two and a half years since the pandemic is the panic caused by trying to get somewhere on time when our rail network refuses to play ball. There were no strikes on that bright sunny evening, but I stood by the departures board watching trains being repeatedly pushed back or cancelled. I texted Graeme, who was joining me for dinner, saying it was touch and go. “Let me know if it all goes tits up” he said, a man whose own plans had also been wrecked by the railways one too many times.

In the end I found a seat on seemingly the only train heading west in the foreseeable future and gazed out of the window as Reading turned into West Berkshire, the train trundled past the sixties flats of Southcote and out into the countryside. This was my commute every day for about a year, and although I never missed the job in Newbury I always liked how contemplative the journey could be.

I liked the landmarks, too. The weird Harrods warehouse plonked by the tracks in Thatcham, looking deeply incongruous. The business parks of Theale, far from the cutting edge. Midgham, so bucolic with the lovely Rowbarge just round the corner. And the slightly vulgar view of the racecourse, a sign that your voyage was nearly over. I felt like a modern-day Philip Larkin in The Whitsun Weddings, albeit without the racism, the womanising, the enormous jazz collection.

Alighting at Newbury I remembered how much I liked the place and how enjoyable it had been to knock around town after work. Their main outside space in the Market Place, was occupied by a Bill’s and a Wetherspoons, but it still looked very fetching on a summer’s evening. Besides, what did Reading have in a similar location? An overflow car park for O’Neills, defiling the space where the 3Bs used to be.

Graeme was already at Goat On The Roof when I arrived, hot, flustered and en retard, but he’d grabbed a table and had a gin and tonic on the go, because he’s no fool. Walking over to join him I was struck by what a tasteful room it was: good furniture, plain panelled walls, art dotted here and there. The site used to be Japanese restaurant Arigato, and before that it was a bank – that shows in the proportions of the room, the almost full-length windows bathing the room in light.

I was worried that the lack of soft furnishings would make it a deafening room in which to spend an evening, but actually it wasn’t problematic. And it could easily have been, because the place was pretty much full on a Friday evening: not bad going for a restaurant which opened less than three months ago.

While we peered at our menus, the owner came over and asked whether we’d eaten there before. When we said we hadn’t, he proceeded to “explain the concept”: now, this normally induces some eye-rolling but Goat On The Roof’s concept is an interesting one and goes some way to explaining why this week’s review is from Newbury rather than somewhere closer to home. 

They were a British tapas restaurant, he said, and that meant a reliance on British ingredients, ideally organic, sustainable and as local as possible. And that feels like an intriguing idea: we have some great ingredients in this country, and some magnificent producers, but many restaurants don’t bang that drum as loudly as they could. It’s an apposite idea in the wake of Brexit, too, with many ingredients trickier and costlier to import than ever, so if this turned out to be a well-executed, well-considered stratagem rather than a gimmick it could make for an excellent meal. Besides, I’ve been moaning for years that Reading didn’t have a credible tapas restaurant, and for some outrageous reason nobody had deemed this sufficient incentive to open one.

Anyway, the concept was all well and good but what were we going to eat? The menu did an excellent job of selling practically every dish, and I was pleased to see that it was already different from the one I’d seen online. It was divided into sections for nibbles, vegetable dishes, fish, meat and cheese and prices varied quite widely: most of the meat dishes, for instance, were north of a tenner whereas veg dishes were closer to seven pounds. 

“Do you have any questions about the menu?” asked the owner.

“Yes, what’s the ‘Barbed Dart’?” said Graeme.

“It’s a quail’s egg, red pepper and anchovy threaded onto a skewer. You put it in your mouth and pull the skewer out and eat it all in one go, and it’s an explosion of flavours. Don’t eat the skewer too though” – he said this in a manner which suggested it was well-rehearsed – “That bit’s very important.”

After he’d left us to our deliberations, Graeme leaned forward. 

“I like all of those things, but I’m not sure I can be bothered with it.”  

“I feel the same! So I guess we agree on some dishes for our first wave and hold some back for a second wave. That cabbage with black garlic and pangrattato sounds nice, or perhaps the tomatoes with pesto.”

“I suppose I could be a grown up and eat tomatoes. I hated them as a child, and I’ve only got used to them recently.”

“But these are from the Isle Of Wight” I pontificated. “They’re sort of legendary, they’re some of the only tomatoes we grow in this country that taste of anything.”

“I’m quite comfortable with us not ordering anything from the vegetables section, you know.” 

Again, I remembered why Graeme was one of my favourite dining companions: I must invite him to join me more often. I also remembered that Graeme’s wife was a vegetarian – although apparently a recent holiday in Madeira had turned her into a pescatarian – so he was probably looking forward to an evening going off the rails.

But first, wine. Goat On The Roof’s wine list was a superb, fascinating thing, Everything was European, British wine was well represented and there was a strong selection of orange wines and natural wines (would you have put money on Newbury, of all places, becoming a hotbed for natural wine?). Prices started at twenty-five pounds and climbed sharply after that, although a good proportion were available by the glass. On another day I might have tried the Welsh Pet Nat or an Austrian red, but Graeme had seen something that caught his eye.

“They have a Grüner Veltliner on the list, and I really love a Grüner.”

That was good enough for me, and the fact that it was a natural wine swung it for sheer curiosity. The natural wines I’ve tried have always been on the challenging side, with more funk than I’d personally choose, but this one’s cloudiness belied a wonderfully fresh, balanced wine. Before I’d finished the first glass I’d made a mental note to seek it out, and within a couple of days I’d taken delivery of a couple of bottles. That’s how good it was. (One of the websites where I found it said “you can neck it from a mug if you want, such is the vibrancy of the wine” – no: it’s good, but not so good that you’d abandon your standards.)

Our first wave of dishes was an excellent start. Anchovies, from Cornwall apparently, were marinated boquerones-style rather than salty, but they had a real zippiness to them, lifted with lemon, mint and chilli and completed with custard-yellow oil. It was a deceptively dense portion – although Goat On The Roof’s plates are far from ugly their general principle is to pile things high. Neither of were quibbling though, and the bread we’d ordered – workmanlike, not exceptional – saw more of the oil than the butter which came with it. Hats off, too, that the butter was at room temperature.

Also piled high on a plate rather than painstakingly spread out on a board was the fennel salami. Again this made the portion look smaller than it was, so maybe not the most considered approach, but the salami was perfectly coarse and laced with fennel and I liked it very much. Their charcuterie comes from Trealy Farm, a relatively big name which used to supply to Mitchell & Butler pubs back in the day. Even so, it was gorgeous stuff: I looked them up online when I got home, too. 

I suspect Trealy Farm also provided the lardo which came draped on top of a scallop ceviche, a dish from the specials menu. Graeme was impressed with this dish, but I was more circumspect. The quality of the scallops was top notch, and it had a wonderful cleanness which was almost led astray enough by the lardo. But it needed more of the advertised gremolata to add contrast and colour – without that it was a little too white, a little too pure.

The last of our initial quartet was a classic tapas dish, ham and cheese croquettes. Graeme was drawn to this because they’d used Old Winchester, a fantastic cheese that can rival any manchego, and I thought these were well done – a smooth, glossy béchamel with just enough ham to lend another dimension. I used the last of my bread to scoop up the snowdrift of grated cheese left in the dish.

Our second wave of orders was even more successful than the first, and chanced upon three stone cold classics on the menu. The first of these was Goat On The Roof’s take on patatas bravas (which of course they call “Crispy Potatoes, Spiced Tomato Sauce, Garlic Mayo”, presumably because their concept precludes speaking foreign on the menu wherever possible). 

I’ve had patatas bravas in a lot of places, and Goat On The Roof’s are right up there with the best. Often they’re just not crispy enough, or they used to be but they wilted under the onslaught of a lake of bravas sauce and aioli. These were absolutely spot on – incredible texture, not overdressed and perfectly balanced. At five pounds seventy they’re also arguably the best value on the menu: if you go, insist on having one to yourself.

Also exceptional was the pork belly with rhubarb compote. The pork, fried until crispy, reminded me a lot of chicharrones I’ve had in Malaga, so skilfully cooked that you didn’t mind in the slightest about spearing a cube that was more fat than flesh. I’ve not had pork with rhubarb before but having tried it I wonder why it took me so long – the sharp tartness of the rhubarb being exactly what was needed, harmonising with the pork rather than drowning it out. Again, small plates for sharing are all very well but order one of these, tell your companions they wouldn’t like it and eat it all on your own: whoever you’re at dinner with will get over it.

The last standout dish was the soused mackerel – a gorgeous piece of fish cooked as little as they could get away with, with a quenelle of relatively restrained horseradish cream (and a pointless piece of something like melba toast). This was very much the kind of dish where you took as small a forkful as you could each time and savoured every bite, and the fact that Graeme and I shared one between two is a tribute to our powers of restraint. 

We also had the chorizo (the menu does speak foreign here, presumably because “Deep Red Paprika Sausage” would have looked weird and wrong) cooked in cider. It came with a hen’s egg – they were oddly specific about that – which was soft boiled and rolled in some kind of crumb. I liked this dish, probably because the chorizo was also from Trealy Farm and they’re very good at what they do, but at eleven pounds fifty it felt a little on the sharp side. But again, it was good enough that you didn’t hold a grudge.

The dessert selection was much narrower. I’ve always held that you can share your small plates all you like but dessert is meant to be your own personal kingdom: if people are good, or lucky, they can have a forkful but any more is pushing it. I gave Graeme first choice and after much deliberation he chose what I thought was a gorgeous dessert – local strawberries, shiny and sticky with maceration, a perfect sphere of sorrel sorbet perched on top. The forkful I had was properly beautiful, and I’d ordered it I wouldn’t have complained.

Graeme did, but that’s more because my order, the chocolate mousse, was phenomenal. This seems to be a staple in tapas restaurants and many places – Arbequina in Oxford, or Bar 44 in Bristol – do it extremely well. But often it will be poshed up with salt or olive oil, a thin bit of toast or some torta de aciete. By contrast Goat On The Roof plays it very straight – and if their mousse isn’t going to win any prizes for aesthetics it more than makes up for it with the taste. It was a glorious swirl of milk and white chocolate with a handful of raspberries and I can happily confirm that it’s the perfect way to end a meal.  Not that we did end the meal there, because we had some fudge as a petit four (the vanilla one was okay, the coffee one cracking) but you get the general idea. 

Our meal – a couple of gin and tonics, all those small plates, a stonking bottle of wine, desserts and fudge came to just shy of a hundred and sixty pounds, including an optional twelve and a half per cent service charge. Service, incidentally, was excellent: it’s a very young, very enthusiastic, very positive team and they have the enthusiasm that comes with starting something new and very accomplished which is quite unlike anything Newbury has, or Reading for that matter.

After our meal we repaired to the excellent Catherine Wheel which has lovely outside space and, more importantly, a little outdoor bar selling over fifty kinds of gin. We nabbed the last free table and proceeded to drink really rather a lot of gin while Graeme berated me about my good luck in the dessert sweepstake.

“You did a Jedi mind trick on me, admit it.”

“It was more like Derren Brown. Did you not notice that in the run up to ordering I kept talking about the sorrel sorbet? Sorrel sorbet. Sorrel sorbet.

Graeme grimaced, but I could tell he wasn’t really resentful. Probably. Besides, it was time to try another gin; I told him to surprise me and when he came back with a strawberry and balsamic concoction I couldn’t tell whether it was reward or revenge. A few gins later we weaved our way to the station for the last train home at the end of an evening well spent.

So why isn’t the rating down there higher, you might ask? The honest answer is I’m not entirely sure. Part of it’s the cost. Small plates restaurants do this – the prices of every dish are always clearly advertised, and nobody’s holding a gun to your head. And yet at the end there’s always a moment where the bill arrives and you wonder how you spent quite that much. 

But also, Goat On The Roof was almost too polished. That’s what gives away how British it is. That’s not a bad thing per se, and if Goat On The Roof feels like it’s been there firing on all cylinders for a lot longer than three months that reflects very well on them, but it slightly lacked the exuberance I associate with tapas at its best. I’ll go back, I’m sure, but I’m not desperate to get it in the calendar. Although, on the other hand, pork belly with rhubarb compote.

The next day, I got a text from Graeme.

“I still think you used some kind of Jedi mind trick on me.”

“This is not the dessert you’re looking for”, I replied.

He sent me the applause emoji in response. But I wouldn’t have been surprised if, on the other side of the phone screen, he felt like telling me to fuck off. 

Goat On The Roof – 7.7
1 Bridge Street, Newbury, RG14 5BE
01635 580015

https://goatontheroof.co.uk