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/

Advertisements

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/

The Botanist

“I’ve been having a think about a pseudonym for the Botanist review,” said the WhatsApp message. “What are your thoughts on Reggie?”

The Artist Currently Known As Reggie is a relatively new friend who’s been a reader of the blog for some time, and he specifically collared me asking to accompany me when I reviewed the Botanist, mainly because he thought that without his moderating presence it would get an utter shoeing.

“I know what you’re like, you’ll turn up thinking it’s crap and it will get a bad review” he told me over pints in the back room of the Retreat a few months back.

“That’s not true. I’ve always been clear that it’s impossible not to have preconceptions, all you can do is be up front about them and try your best to bear them in mind.”

“You said it was crap” he countered.

I took a sip of my pint of Bumble Bee and thought about it. Perhaps he was on to something. I’d gone there one late Saturday afternoon in November with my mum and my stepfather after a lovely day out in Guildford. Just for a drink – we didn’t order food – but I hadn’t been impressed. All the tables seemed to be reserved, our drinks took forever and cost lots, my Bloody Mary was nothing to write home about and a little wheelbarrow of food turned up at a neighbouring table. A wheelbarrow! There was fake greenery everywhere and what might have been buckets or watering cans hanging from the ceiling. It did rather make my teeth itch.

Worse still, I’d specifically gone on Twitter to moan about it. And it didn’t take long for people to pitch in with similar views. “Food on a spade? So contrived” said one. “It’s a Harvester with a hipster makeover” said another. “I hate it. It looks like Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen came all over it”, memorably, said a third. And in fact, my preconceptions preceded my visit: as long ago as September last year I was saying that I’d had lots of good meals out recently and that “I need to redress the balance by reviewing The Botanist.”

“Hmm. You might have a point.”

“Exactly, and that’s why I’m coming with you.”

He was already there when I arrived, and my first reflection was that everything wasn’t quite as it seemed. The interior was less over the top than I remember – yes, there was fake greenery and there were lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling encased in jam jars or some kind of weird upside-down baskets with handles. And there was someone strumming away on a guitar at the front (the sign outside said “Live Music Every Day”, which I suppose might be an incentive for some people). But despite that, I actually quite liked it. It’s a big space broken up into rooms with corridors and partitions – the bar area on the right, the tables for eating on the left. I even quite liked the zinc-effect topped tables and the sturdy chairs.

And Reggie? He looked the same as usual, but did he look like a Reggie? I thought about this as I took my seat. He didn’t look like Reggie Kray, or Reggie Yates, or Reggie Perrin. What did a Reggie look like anyway? Reggie is considerably younger than me, a proper metrosexual – slim, neatly-trimmed beard, hair properly coiffed, nice checked shirt. Looking at him, I felt like perhaps I should have made more of an effort.

“What are you drinking?”

“A pint of Amstel. Don’t look at me like that, I was rushed at the bar and I couldn’t decide. Christ, you’re not going to put that in the review are you? Don’t tell them I drink Amstel, they’ll think I’m a right chump.”

“You do know how this works, right? We order food and drink and I write down what we had and what we thought about it. I can’t pretend you’re having something else.”

(Later on Reggie lightly ticked me off for threatening to order a cocktail. Maybe he was trying to save my reputation in return.)

The menu managed to have loads of things on it which looked positively edible without ever once especially tempting me. The starters were a greatest hits of things you can order in pubs and restaurants all over the country: houmous, calamari, chicken wings, falafel and so on. There was a barbecue section, and a comfort food section, some pies and – and this is considered so important by the Botanist that it’s trademarked on their menu – “Our Famous Hanging Kebabs”. I found it surprisingly hard to make a decision. The best of menus read like a setlist, the craziest like a jukebox. This, on the other hand, was reminiscent of Heart FM.

“You’re not allowed to have the Scotch egg” said Reggie, “Because if you do all you’ll do is go on about how it’s not as good as the one at the Lyndhurst.”

I smiled. Was it true, or just funny?

“Are you on commission or something?”

Reggie shrugged. “No. I’ve been here a few times, I just happen to like it.”

It took quite some time to finally come off the fence and decide what to order – enough time to order a drink, wonder if it would ever turn up, wonder some more and then eventually take receipt of it. The Botanist has an extensive range of beers from around the world (in a natty menu like a little paperback book) but I have a soft spot for Alhambra and its distinctive green label-free bottle as it always takes me back to my holidays in Granada, so I had to order it. It was as blissful as I remember – Reggie didn’t think much of it, but he hasn’t been to Granada (not yet anyway: I may have spent some of the meal waxing lyrical).

“Oh my god, you’re going to write about how long they took to bring your drink, aren’t you?”

I decided that if I wasn’t before, I definitely was now. I also wondered whether the waitress thought Reggie and I were on the least likely Tinder date of all time.

Reggie and I both wanted the baked Camembert to start. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, as I’ve never been anywhere where it wasn’t done as a sharing starter, but in the Botanist it comes as a helping for one. Reggie very kindly let me have it (such good manners!), and I still wasn’t sure after eating it whether he’d done me a favour. Rather than being studded with garlic, or herbs, or served with chutney, this one came with a “smoked bacon and crispy onion crust” or, to give it a more accurate description, vaguely salty brown dust. It wasn’t bad – you can’t go far wrong serving someone a whole cheese in my experience, unless it’s by Dairylea – but I would have liked it hotter and more gooey and I’d have liked more toast. Also, the Camembert still had paper underneath it, which made eating it more challenging than I’d expected. Half the fun is attacking the last bits right in the corners of the box and piling them onto good bread, but not on this occasion.

“It’s not bad.” I said. Reggie looked a tad relieved.

I think Reggie may have ordered better with a reliable staple, the chicken liver paté. There’s only so much you can say about paté, but it was a good example: earthy and nicely smooth. It allegedly had rum in it – I couldn’t spot it myself, but I liked it all the same. It came in a ramekin topped with a thin layer of “green peppercorn butter”, which seemed to be clarified butter left to solidify and some peppercorns. Probably pointless, but it filled space in the menu description. I didn’t get much fig in the fig chutney, it seemed like a pretty generic fruit chutney but again, it was none the worse for it. I’m not bitter, but Reggie got more toast than I did.

We ordered another beer – a second Alhambra for me, a pint of Sam Adams for him – and the mains turned up in reasonably short order. Reggie had gone for the “famous hanging kebab”, a lamb kofte. I still can’t quite get my head round that description: most people wouldn’t knowingly eat something described as hanging, and the main things famous for hanging are the Gardens Of Babylon and possibly Ruth Ellis. I suspect it’s served this way, on a skewer suspended from some kind of contraption, looming like the kebab of Damocles over some chips, for effect. But it felt like a gimmick to me, even after our waitress poured peri peri sauce over it from the top and we watched it drizzle down. I will say this for it: it did smell pretty spectacular.

I took a few photos, discovering in the process that it was impossible to take a picture of the hanging kebab which didn’t look like a dick pic.

“Here, let me.” said Reggie. His picture was better.

Once he’d taken all the balls – sorry, this isn’t getting any better is it? – off the skewer and all the flim-flam faded, what you were left with was a serviceable, ordinary lamb kofte. The meat was oddly coarse and bouncy – not at the stage of being mechanically recovered but lacking the texture of great kofte at, say, Kings Grill or Bakery House. It was okay, but certainly not worth the epithet of famous (but then, how many famous people these days are worth that either?). The chips – described in the menu as “properly seasoned” – were okay, no better or worse. I wasn’t sure anybody should boast in their menu that dishes were properly seasoned: shouldn’t that be a given?

My dish was the flattened rump steak, marinated in chilli and garlic. You only had the choice of medium or well-done, so obviously I went for medium. I really liked the taste – the time spent marinating showed, and it left a bit of heat on my tongue. There was, in fact, only one problem: it was lukewarm even when it got to the table, and with such a wide surface area most of it was cold by the time I got to it. On another night, I might have sent it back – but that’s always the risk you run with steak. As Reggie pointed out, without a hint of I told you so, you have to trust a kitchen with steak otherwise you always run the risk that you’ll be eating your dish immediately after your companions have had theirs. It came with a tomato, which in fairness was quite tasty and properly cooked, and a truly delicious roasted flat mushroom, when I eventually located it.

“Isn’t there meant to be a mushroom with it?” said Reggie.

“There is,” I said, “It’s hidden under the watercress.” That tells you something about the size of the mushroom: Portobello it wasn’t.

We didn’t fancy dessert so we paid up, when we could eventually attract attention. Our meal for two came to sixty-one pounds, which includes a rather cheeky twelve point five per cent tip. As always, it’s optional but stuck on the bill in such a way that you’d feel like a right shit asking them to leave it out. The service was friendly but slow, and probably worth ten per cent but not worth twelve and a half. Unworthily, it made me especially pleased I hadn’t ordered any cocktails: perhaps I’m too old for this sort of thing.

Afterwards, we went for another couple of drinks and a debrief in the front section of the bar (where, I must say, the service was considerably better – if still slow). It’s an odd part of the Botanist because the tables are those pub tables with integrated benches you expect to see outside in a beer garden. Maybe it was their way of continuing the horticultural theme. Reggie and I compared notes, and I think he was pleasantly surprised that our provisional ratings weren’t as far apart as they could have been.

“It wasn’t that bad, was it? I wouldn’t come here any later in the week than a Wednesday, but it’s pretty decent for what it is. I’d come here for a date or a drink with mates, that sort of thing.”

“No. It’s okay – not amazing, but not terrible. But I wouldn’t object if I was dragged here again. I was just hoping it would be like Ha! Ha! used to be, back when it was down the Kings Road where House Of Flavours is now.”

Reggie nodded as if he knew what I was talking about, and I suddenly felt really old, because when Ha! Ha! closed on the Kings Road and moved to the Oracle – which was the beginning of the end for them – I’m pretty sure that Reggie was still in school. But never mind – I knew what I meant, and some of you with long memories might too. I still miss Ha! Ha!, and I still think Reading badly needs a nice bar where the music is just loud enough, the furniture is just comfy enough and the food is just good enough (in a similar mould, I still miss Sahara, long since morphed into the unlikeable Be At One). The Botanist isn’t that place, but despite that I’m sure it will do reasonably well. So a qualified success as a meal, and I don’t know if I’ll go back. Might ask Reggie to come out on duty again, though. Not sure we’ve heard the last of him.

The Botanist – 6.6
1-5 King St, RG1 2HB
0118 9595749

http://thebotanist.uk.com/locations/reading

Richfields Deli

Normally I end the year with my annual awards. It’s a great opportunity to round up the year in restaurants and tell you my favourite starter of the year, my favourite main course, the whole shebang. Not this time, though, because it hasn’t been that kind of year: I had nearly twelve months away in retirement and finally came back in the summer, two (count them!) house moves and many life changes later. So instead you get one last review from me but, because this time of year is always a reflective one, there’s a bit of navel gazing to get through first. Sorry about that: I’ll try to keep it brief.

This year has been full of wonderful discoveries. The ever-changing menu at the Lyndhurst, for one – a recent visit featured a terrific crab and leek gratin with a parmesan crust, just crying out to be forked from the ramekin onto toast oozing with butter. Pretty much anything at Namaste Kitchen, my restaurant of the year, from firm paneer in a light spiced batter to the best chow mein I think I’ve ever eaten (I went last weekend only to find they were too busy to fit me in – I’ve never been so pleased to be turned away from a restaurant in all my born days). Or, of course, the continuing brilliance of Georgian Feast, whether it’s their beautifully tender lamb and tarragon stew offset by sharp plums, their glorious spiced chicken thighs or the khachapuri, soda bread stuffed with a blend of three different cheeses, one of Reading’s food wonders (and just as good heated up in the oven the next day with a hefty helping of Branston pickle, take it from me).

But the year has also been full of other brilliant experiences, all of which have made me love this town and its community even more. Blue Collar turned Forbury Gardens into the best place in town on countless sunny summer weekends. The Reading Fringe transformed the town into a hotbed of high and low culture: I watched Born To Sum in the Rising Sun Arts Centre with my totally baffled friend Dave, and skulked on the sidelines of All We Ever Wanted Was Everything at Public, desperately hoping not to be forced to participate (“I loved it” said my mother afterwards in the bar, “all those angry young people in smoky rooms, it took me right back to the Sixties”).

And there was more. I spent a Bank Holiday Sunday in the Retreat at their impromptu cheese festival, the table in the back room groaning with cheeses from all over Europe, home made black pudding sausage rolls there too, and I wound up sitting on the bench outside passing round a bottle of Sauternes to friends and strangers alike. I sat in St James’ Church and took in the sweep and ambition of Matilda The Empress, a production which redefines the kind of thing Reading can offer. I finished the year at South Street watching Singalong-A-Muppet Christmas Carol, preceded by the chaotic spectacle of one half of Shit Theatre crossing the stage on the back of makeshift camel John Luther while Frankie’s “The Power Of Love” played in the background. It was one of those times when I wished I’d been on drugs: at least I’d have had an excuse.

Oh, and I sat in my garden in the morning sunshine, drank tea, ate toast and Marmite and read my library book. Such a small thing, maybe, but nonetheless a moment of peace which didn’t always seem on the cards this year. Another thing to be thankful for.

And, of course, I started reviewing again. That’s another area where I need to be thankful to lots of people – to everyone who came back after my hiatus and read, retweeted, commented or said such lovely things on social media. To Pho and Honest Burgers for working on reader competitions with me so I could finally give something back to you all, and for all of you who entered those competitions. Last but not least, I owe a big debt of thanks to everybody who came with me on duty and helped me to review a restaurant: from beer friend Tim to meat fiend Ben; from my wise and occasionally withering mum to girl about town Izzy; from old friend Mike to new friend Claire. I couldn’t have done it without them – and who knows who might get pressganged (or asked nicely) in 2018.

For my final review of the year, I wanted to find somewhere that sums up what I always look for in an establishment – somewhere small, independent and distinctive, somewhere that deserved more exposure and a wider audience. Somewhere good in the less fashionable parts of town, where the rents are lower and where it’s easier for interesting things to evolve and develop (it’s no coincidence that most of Reading’s best independent restaurants grow and prosper away from the town centre).

The place that jumped out of my list, which had been mentioned by a few people on Twitter, was Richfields Deli, a little joint on the Caversham Road just down from the Moderation. As I understand it, it used to just be a café doing sandwiches, but it expanded and reopened early in 2017 and when it did, so did the menu, offering “Breakfast, Brunch and Street Food”. Leaving my reservations to one side about serving street food in a building (let’s be charitable, as it’s Christmas) it looked interesting, so I turned up, shaking the rain from my brolly on a dreary Sunday afternoon. I had my friend Tim in tow – he used to live nearby, and said he had happy memories of the place.

My first impressions were good. It is a surprisingly spacious place, which has been opened out into a front and back room and it’s all very nicely done with wood floors, tasteful blue walls and some very fetching art hung up (I would quite happily have taken some of the more abstract examples home with me). A long bar connected the two rooms, with some attractive-looking cakes on the counter and a blackboard above with an extensive list of drinks, shakes and smoothies. Many of the tables were occupied by friends and families, enjoying brunch. I also noticed from another chalkboard that Richfields sold an impressive range of local beers, although it seemed a bit baffling to do so when the place closes late afternoon.

The menu was so big that it would probably take two or three visits to get a representative impression. I worried that it was too big – a good brunch section, grills, salads, sandwiches and a range of burritos. I was still unconvinced that it constituted street food but it was hard to dispute that the menu was definitely well-travelled: pancakes and maple syrup from the States; brisket and kimchee from Korea; tandoori chicken roti and a full English breakfast. On another day I might have ordered any of those things, but the Gaucho cheesesteak sandwich was calling to me. I love a Philly cheesesteak sandwich, but moreover the menu had just enough hints that the dish might be special – the steak was from Jennings, just across the bridge, and it had been marinated in chimichurri. Tim was also tempted by that dish, in which case I might have had the halloumi and Portobello mushroom burger with lime and chilli dressing, but ultimately he settled on a classic cheeseburger. “I can’t help it,” he said, “I really fancy a burger.”

But first, the drinks. Tim had a large coke, which gratifyingly came in the iconic glass bottle rather than from a can or a siphon. I had a large latte – I approached it with no great enthusiasm, and I’d probably have gone for a mocha if it had been on the menu, but I was very pleasantly surprised. It didn’t taste burnt and was nicely balanced: not one for purists, so not in the same league as places like Tamp or Workhouse, but a really pleasant coffee. Better than Costa, for starters, and streets ahead of the milky grimness I’d endured at Tipsy Bean a few weeks back.

While we waited for our sandwiches I enjoyed relaxing at my table, catching up with Tim who had all sorts of gossip, and checking out my surroundings. There was a twinkling white Christmas tree in the corner and the whole place had an atmosphere I really liked. Not scruffy, not trying too hard, not trying to mechanically extract hard currency from hipsters or students, just calm, pleasant and tasteful. It made me realise how rarely, in the box-checking world of food trends, you come across a place like that.

“The owners aren’t in today,” said Tim, “it’s even better when they are. They’re a lovely couple.”

I also checked out the food at the other tables, because that’s something I struggle not to do, and I found I had more food envy. The breakfasts looked marvellous – big thick rounds of black pudding, nicely cooked sausages, caramelised on the outside, and fried potatoes which looked like they’d been cooked from scratch rather than tipped out of a bag in the freezer.

“The breakfasts are really good.” said Tim.

“Better than Alto Lounge?” I asked. One thing I know about Tim is that back when he lived round here he did love an Alto Lounge breakfast.

“Yes, even better than that. Although Alto Lounge does this fantastic sausagemeat patty, I can’t get enough of those.”

Just as I thought my hunger would completely get the better of me, our food arrived. My sandwich was a thing of real beauty: a generous, nicely baked baguette absolutely crammed with steak, cheese and peppers. The picture might not do it justice, and makes the steak look a tad grey, but it really wasn’t. You got lots of it, and it was tender and delicious. If I was being critical, I’d have liked it to have more chimichurri to lift it, but even so it was really difficult to take exception to it in any way. I ordered extra onion rings and they were little compact things (like you used to get from the supermarket) rather than big greasy battered hoops of onion with the batter falling off. If anything, that made me love them even more.

“These taste like those onion ring snacks you get in the shops” said Tim, spot on as usual. Again, this was really no bad thing.

Tim had gone for the burger with jack cheese (rather than blue cheese) and it looked pretty good from where I was sitting. There was the regulation standard issue brioche bun, burger sauce spread on one half, and the patty seemed decent. There was also gherkin – always a favourite of mine – and Tim had ordered onion rings, although it was a little disappointing that they were served on the side, rather than on top as the bacon or cheese would have been. I think Tim had food envy at my sandwich, but even so he seemed happy enough with the burger. I didn’t get to try any, but it looked good and although not served pink it seemed perfectly cooked in the middle, not dried out or grey.

“Is it as good as, say, the Oakford?” I asked him.

“Oh, it’s better than the Oakford.” he said between mouthfuls. “I just wish it was a bit bigger.”

It was an interesting point. The burger was nine pounds and came with fries, which made it reasonably competitive but possibly on the slightly pricey side given the size of it (that said, there’s a lot to be said for a burger you can actually eat with your hands). My sandwich, which I really enjoyed, was ten pounds and however much I liked it I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t also say that it was a bloody expensive sandwich.

Service was kind and friendly – ever so slightly amateurish, but in a way I found impossible to dislike. It took a while to figure out that you have to order at the counter, so we sat there like lemons for a bit with staff wandering past our table before figuring that out (they were very apologetic when this became apparent). They totally forgot to cook our fries, and the waiter said “sorry, I’ll just put them under”, wandered off and came back with them piping hot about five minutes later. They felt shop-bought – nice enough, but having seen the fried potatoes I’d hoped for better. But when a place builds up goodwill you can get away with slips like that, and I found I really didn’t care about the mistakes. I was comfy and cosy, the rain was battering away on the pavement outside, Christmas was around the corner, I was having lunch with a very good friend and I was eating a truly splendid – if costly – sandwich. Lunch came to just under twenty eight pounds for the two of us, not including tip. It cannot be denied that it was a pricey lunch, and that’s probably one of the only reasons the number at the bottom of this review isn’t higher.

So, Richfields is almost the perfect example of the kind of place I’m looking for when I review restaurants and cafes. It’s independent, it’s small, it deserves more recognition and it’s in an unsung part of town (even more unsung now Papa Gee has upped sticks and moved to Prospect Street). But then Papa Gee kept going for ten years just down the road, so maybe there’s enough local custom to keep Richfields in business. I did find myself worrying about it slightly – the Mod next door does proper sit down lunches, the Gorge is competition for breakfasts and, on Sundays at least, Georgian Feast does a chicken wrap which is probably better and cheaper than anything you can get at Richfields. I have a sneaking feeling there will be fewer independent restaurants in town this time next year, so more than ever we need to spend our money to preserve the kind of town we want to live in. I’ll make an effort to go back there for brunch next year, for exactly that reason. I hope Richfields has a happy and prosperous 2018 – and actually, that goes for all of you too.

Richfields Deli – 7.1
211 Caversham Road, RG1 8BB
0118 9391144

http://richfieldsdeli.com/

Competition: Honest Burgers

Regular readers might remember that back in August I ran my first ever readers’ competition in association with new kid on the block Pho. They contacted me in the run up to opening their Reading restaurant, initially asking if I wanted to go in and review them based on a comped meal. I said no, and instead we ran a competition together judged by Claire, the editor of Explore Reading. It all went swimmingly, and ER reader Aden had by all accounts a very nice meal there with three guests of his choosing. I’ve still not been on duty (I plan to turn up when they least expect it) but the nice thing about Reading is that there’s more access to reviews than ever before, so you can see perspectives on Pho here, here and here: a mixture of comped reviews and those where the writer paid her way, so you can decide which is more to your taste.

Anyway, Honest Burgers contacted me recently with a similar offer, and again I said that I couldn’t take them up on a comped meal. What became clear though, from my correspondence with them, was that they have a commitment to Reading’s independent scene unlike most chains I know of: their Reading branch, only the second outside London, will serve a special burger incorporating Barkham Blue from just down the road and roasted red pepper chutney from Reading’s very own Nomad Bakery. There will also be a special pale ale from nearby Wild Weather Ales which can only be found in the Reading branch and selected local pubs (I get the impression they rather enjoyed the process of researching it, and became quite a fan of the Nag’s Head into the bargain: this lovely piece by Wild Weather gives you some idea). Not only that, but Honest have also shown an interest in Reading’s independent websites, giving this great interview to Explore Reading in the run-up to them opening on Monday 18th December.

Anyway, more importantly they’ve also decided to team up with me to give ten readers the chance to win a pair of the Reading special burgers and a can of the Reading exclusive King St Pale from Wild Weather. Not a bad Christmas present, eh? Now, I like to make people get creative and work a little for competition prizes rather than just do a prize draw, so here’s what you need to do to win:

I want you to send me a haiku about Reading – to ediblereading@gmail.com – by 11.30am on Friday 22nd December.

Haiku are dead simple: they just have to have five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line and five syllables in the third and final line. They don’t have to rhyme or anything, and they just need to capture a moment or something about Reading, whether it’s the grand majesty of the Maiwand Lion, the frustration of being stuck in the traffic on the IDR for the four thousandth time, the buzz and bustle of the Oxford Road or the joy of spotting Reading Elvis in town waving his LP. I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with, and with ten prizes up for grabs your odds have to be pretty good, right? And really, don’t be shy. It’s just a bit of festive fun: nobody is expecting you to channel Basho or capture a sense of perfect Zen stillness in Caversham, I promise.

As usual an excellent competition prize requires an excellent judge and I’m delighted to say that John Luther of South Street has agreed to step in and judge this one. As the man responsible for programming at South Street, bringing the best and most innovative theatre, live music and comedy to Reading, John’s artistic credentials are second to none and I can’t think of anyone better to pick the prizewinning haiku (and, if you win and can’t decide who to take with you, I hear he’s really keen on trying the new burger: just saying).

Only one entry per person, but otherwise the usual terms and conditions apply: the judge’s decision is final, no correspondence will be entered into, the price of your burger can go up as well as down and if you enter after the deadline your entry won’t count but you may still be charged. Other restaurant bloggers are available. Thanks again to Honest for working with me on this. I really hope you give this a go in the run up to Christmas – how long can it take to write seventeen syllables? – and wish you the best of luck.