Zest

How good is your memory for faces? I was in Brighton over the summer, sitting outside a particularly patchouli-scented café in the Lanes, when I thought I recognised the woman walking past my table and nipping inside. It bugged me for about five minutes until I realised where I knew her from: she’d served me in Workhouse Coffee what must have been a couple of years ago. Reading is a small town, and the longer you live there the more chances you get to accumulate memories, or scraps of memories, and to spot people you dimly recognise from your past: that person used to work at the same office as me a few years ago; that person was briefly my housemate in 2001 and never used the shower; there’s a friend I lost in the divorce.

The reason I mention this is that when we turned up at Zest on an icy winter’s evening, the owner recognised me immediately as a former customer of hers. I used to eat at Zest’s town centre sibling restaurant, the sadly-missed LSQ2 (where Handmade Burger is now), but even so it was an impressive feat of recall: I frequented LSQ2 the best part of ten years ago, and I expect she has seen hundreds of diners since then. And yet here we both were – her still trading nicely out at Green Park and me a few pounds heavier, far older and greyer (if not necessarily wiser) but still alive and kicking.

LSQ2 closed in 2012 (the GetReading article announcing the news tried to suggest that every cloud had a silver lining because Cosmo was about to open on Broad Street) but Tony and Sally Cole’s first restaurant, since rebranded as Zest, has been operating at Green Park for fifteen years, offering a combination of classic modern British food and dishes which reflect their time spent in Australia and New Zealand. I still remember a dish of sashimi-grade tuna with a slick of sesame that LSQ2 used to do – I ordered it every time I went there, until they took it off the menu because they felt the tuna wasn’t sustainable.

There are a few reasons why I’d never got round to reviewing Zest before now. It never quite made it to the top of my to do list, and I think that’s because I always got the distinct impression that it was more intended for people working on the business park, and corporate diners, than members of the public. The opening hours, not entirely clear from the website, didn’t help. It’s only generally open Monday to Friday, but you get mixed messages – in one place on the site it says it’s open 5 until late, in another it says their menu is served until 9pm and if you try to book online the latest table it will give you is at 8pm (with a clear instruction that you need to place your order by 8.15, because the kitchen closes).

Arriving at half seven with my other half Zoë didn’t necessarily alter that impression – there were a few tables occupied, one of them a large booking, but all seemed to be coming to the end of their meals: we were the last new customers that evening. Zest is actually quite an attractive space, all dark wood and big windows looking out over water. In the thick fog, with light trying to break through from the nearby offices and car parks, it was all a bit Blade Runner, and if the furniture felt slightly chain hotel it didn’t put me off. The lighting, as you’ll see from the photos, was a little more intimate than I’d like, although it didn’t help that a few bulbs were out.

Zest was running a reduced à la carte menu alongside a Christmas menu when I visited, although the prices weren’t unreasonable for either and you were allowed to mix and match. The only real difference was that mains on the Christmas menu were a few pounds more expensive and came with roasted vegetables and Brussels sprouts, whether they went with the dish or not (but more of that later).

In general starters were seven or eight pounds and, if you visit outside the festive season, most mains will cost you around fifteen. It was a very good menu with more than a few tempting choices, and I’m glad to say that no compromises were made in bringing you this review. There’s definitely an Asian influence to an otherwise modern European menu with Thai and Indonesian dishes sitting alongside more traditional ones – we tried a little from both, in the interests of balance.

My starter was one of the nicest things I’ve eaten this year. Pork belly (triple-cooked according to the menu, although I saw no real evidence of that) came in generous cubes with tender meat and glossy fat, all coated in a gloriously funky, fishy XO sauce, with pak choi, spring onion and big, fragrant coriander leaves. There was a lime aioli advertised, and something that looked like that was definitely drizzled over the pork, but it couldn’t break through the stronger flavours in the dish, not that I cared in the slightest.

The only misfire was the crackling on top, which left me fearing for my fillings. A lighter touch would have been better, and in honesty the dish wouldn’t have missed it: it also ruined the picture below, or at least that’s my excuse. In any case, I was too delighted with everything else to mind. I let Zoë try a couple of pieces, partly because it was the season of goodwill but mainly because food that good deserves to be shared, regardless of whether it’s December or June.

I had a sneaking suspicion that I’d won at starters, but Zoë was very happy with hers. “I want to try the Scotch egg because I’d had a few to compare it to”, she said, and it was a very attractive specimen, served on what was called “curry mayonnaise” but felt to me more like a katsu sauce, more fruity than fiery. It could have done with more of the advertised coriander salsa verde but even so I thought it was a really good example – what felt like panko breadcrumbs, beautiful texture, peppery sausagemeat and yolk at just the right consistency.

“Is it better than the Lyndhurst’s?” I asked Zoë.

“Better than the one they do now, and up there with the one the previous owners did” was the reply.

The wine list at Zest may reflect the fact that most of their diners drive home afterwards, with a compact selection: most of it is available by the glass, and only a couple of bottles north of thirty pounds. We had a very drinkable French pinot noir for twenty-eight pounds which I thoroughly enjoyed – although our waiter intervened to stop me pouring it myself, which felt a little unnecessary. He was the only person looking after us all evening and I couldn’t quite shift the fear that he resented us for making him work late: nice enough, but a little distant and slightly lacking in warmth.

Our main courses, both from the Christmas menu, came out a little quicker than I might have liked, adding to the feeling that we were keeping staff from their loved ones. It’s never easy, I suppose, for a kitchen to sit on their hands when they only have two dishes left to prepare, but I do wish they’d left it a little longer.

However, again, that felt like a minor quibble once I started eating the food. My beef rendang was truly beautiful. My previous experience of this dish had been at Newbury’s now-defunct Wau, and at the time I thought I’d had a very good rendang. This, though, was streets ahead – not sickly-sweet and overreliant on coconut but complex and aromatic, shot through with hints of star anise. Similarly, the beef hadn’t been cooked into mush – it was still in distinct pieces which only fell apart when you tried to load them onto a fork. Again, there was plenty of coriander and the sharp crunch of ribbons of lightly pickled carrot on top was an excellent touch.

This was a marvellous dish, perfect on a Baltic Reading evening, and I am pretty sure it is usually on Zest’s à la carte menu, so try it if you go. As it was on the Christmas menu it was served with a fair few roasted heritage carrots (many of them a pleasingly deep shade of purple), and although they didn’t go in the slightest with an Indonesian curry it didn’t stop them being delicious.

Zoë’s lamb shank was a more conventionally Christmassy affair, and very good it was too – a gigantic piece of meat, cooked into soft surrender. The sauce was deep, with a little sweetness from balsamic vinegar and soft onions and the mash was suitably creamy and smooth. This went much better with the roasted vegetables and with the surprisingly good Brussels sprouts, sliced thinly and served with cream and a little speckle of pancetta. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this dish also features on the menu all year round, and it’s well worth ordering. I would have liked the advertised mint salsa to make an appearance, but the dish managed fine without it.

It took a while for the waiter to ask us if we wanted to look at the dessert menu, and I felt guilty about saying yes: he asked in the same way that I ask Zoë if she wants help hanging the laundry out i.e. hoping against hope that the answer will be no. But if they don’t want people to order dessert, Zest will have to make the menu a lot less tempting – even the usual suspects had twists that made you want to find out how they looked off the page and on the plate. It’s also worth mentioning that Zest’s cheeseboard is a veritable Greatest Hits of local cheeses – Barkham Blue, Waterloo, Wigmore and Spenwood, all for eight pounds fifty.

My dessert was probably the weak link of the meal. Chocolate tart with meringue and Clementine sorbet sounded beautiful, and the flavours were all present, correct and harmonious. But the texture was wrong – the chocolate was not the solid ganache I was expecting, but a molten pool, as if it had escaped from a fondant. It didn’t stop it being enjoyable, a rarified Terry’s chocolate orange encased in light buttery pastry, but it wasn’t quite what I had hoped.

If I’d won out on starters, Zoë drew level with dessert. I feared a white chocolate and Bailey’s cheesecake would be too sickly but actually it was sweet but not excessively so, a big block of indulgence heavy on filling and light on base. The passionfruit curd underneath stopped the whole thing being too one-dimensional, but given that I was only allowed one small forkful it’s hard to comment further, beyond wishing that I’d ordered it myself.

Dinner for two, including a pre-added 10% service charge, came to just over a hundred pounds – and actually, ordering off the á la carte isn’t any more or less expensive than the three-courses-for-thirty-pounds festive menu. To my mind, that makes the latter remarkably generous and I left the restaurant with a full stomach, a spring in my step and a couple of money off vouchers for next month which I may well end up using.

It’s easy to get jaded when you review a restaurant every fortnight, easier still when it’s a Cozze, a Lemoni or a Pantry. So I’m delighted that, even if by accident rather than design, I’ve saved one of the best meals of 2019 until almost the very last. I didn’t come away from Zest convinced that they were necessarily packed on most weekday evenings, and that lack of clarity probably goes some way to explaining why the pacing of the meal was a little rushed and the service sometimes felt a tad diffident.

But – and this is far more important – I did come away from Zest wishing I had visited a long time ago, and convinced that I might have unearthed one of the best local restaurants you’ve never considered going to. It’s easily accessible by bus from the town centre, it’s affordable by taxi on the way home and it serves delicious, interesting food (it’s as if they’ve been doing it, without much fanfare, for the best part of fifteen years). There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Zest that a buzzier room full of more customers wouldn’t solve – and personally, I plan to play my own small role in helping with that in the New Year. I suspect if you went you’d find it memorable: chances are, they’d come to remember you too.

Zest – 8.0
Lime Square, 220 South Oak Way, Green Park, RG2 6UP
0118 9873702

http://www.zestatlimesquare.co.uk/home.html

Namaste Momo Competition: the results!

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

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

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

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

WINNER: Catherine O’Hare

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

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

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

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

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

RUNNER-UP: Sophie Ibbotson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mio Fiore, Newbury

It is a sad but unavoidable fact that the moment I review somewhere Not In Reading, no matter how glowing the review and no matter how easy it is to get there, far fewer people click on the link and read it. So if you’re reading this, I should start by thanking you – and then I should go on to explain why this week it’s the turn of an Italian restaurant in Newbury, a five minute walk from the train station.

It’s a culmination of a few things, really. First of all, restaurants serving pasta have become a bit of a Thing in London in the last few years. It started with Padella, the no-reservation-queues-round-the-block establishment in Borough Market and their legendary cacio e pepe (I’ve never been: I don’t do queues). I did however recently have lunch at Covent Garden’s Bancone, a more recent exponent, and it was truly marvellous stuff, my rabbit and juniper ragu pretty close to anything I’d had in Bologna.

Then Mio Fiore, which has been on my to do list for some time, appeared in a national newspaper. In the course of reviewing a(nother) London pasta restaurant in the Guardian, Grace Dent mentioned in passing that she’d particularly enjoyed Mio Fiore’s spaghetti puttanesca during a Berkshire road trip (“something of which we’ll never tire”, she grandly exclaimed). Well, now: this part of the country never troubles broadsheet restaurant reviewers, so even a brief appearance like this warranted further investigation.

But the thing that clinched it was discovering that Pepe Sale, Reading’s exemplary Sardinian restaurant, was listed as for sale. The report subsequently turned out to be incorrect – apparently proprietor Toni described it as a “prank” – but at the time it threw me (and, I suspect, many other Reading diners) into a bit of an existential tailspin. How many more chances would I get to eat that stunning suckling pig? Where would I get my fix of top notch Italian food once Pepe Sale was gone? That settled it, so before too long my partner Zoë and I were on a train to Newbury to carry out what I had decided was essential research.

The first two things that struck me when I walked through Mio Fiore’s front door were that it was absolutely packed on a Tuesday evening and that there was a strong, glorious whiff of garlic (and I’m not sure they struck me in that order, either). A busy restaurant is the best kind of all, and no restaurant that smells of garlic can ever be a bad thing. It was a high-ceilinged room, almost like a barn, and they’d put in a second floor with a balcony, although I was glad we were seated on the ground floor by the windows, with a good view of the place. Everything was for utility rather than show – not often you see actual bricks in a restaurant rather than tiled bricks or wanky exposed brickwork. The wood-fired oven glowed behind the counter.

Compared to my recent horror show at Cozze, the menu at Mio Fiore exuded a quiet confidence. It felt compact – half a dozen starters, a manageable range of pasta and pizza dishes and only four other main courses. It wasn’t clear from the menu whether you could choose to have a smaller pasta dish as a starter, so we cooked up all sorts of permutations of what we might order before our waiter turned up and explained that we could indeed do that. That would have made things simpler, but for the fact that the specials board we hadn’t previously seen added further temptation and complication in the shape of another half-dozen dishes. We made inroads into a beautiful bottle of Gavi di Gavi and honed our final choices.

I’m no particular fan of Grace Dent, but I am a fan of puttanesca, so I had to try it. There’s a beautiful alchemy that happens when tomatoes, anchovies, capers and garlic combine and this dish had it in spades – sweet, salt and savoury in perfect, tantalising equilibrium, with the faintest hint of chilli to dial up the contrast. The pasta was spot on, too – just the right side of al dente, and the perfect vehicle for the sauce. The nice thing about having pasta as a starter is that it never outstays its welcome, although that was never going to happen with a dish this beautiful; I could have eaten a mountain of the stuff. Once I’d finished the spaghetti I took a spoon to the remaining sauce, not wanting to miss a mouthful.

Zoë had opted for an equally traditional dish, and if the fettuccine with ragu didn’t quite meet the lofty heights of Bologna it came creditably close. The ragu had a lovely depth to it, the pasta again was spot on and the whole thing was liberally covered with Parmesan (although I always say you can’t have too much). We didn’t know how much Mio Fiore would charge us for our starters until the bill arrived, but they’d priced both pasta dishes at six pounds ninety-five, which strikes me as impressive value.

If the meal had finished there, it would have been pretty damned good, but the main courses kept up the standard without a misstep. My chicken with Gorgonzola and wild mushrooms was from the specials menu and was another beautiful dish. Like the pasta dishes, it’s the kind of thing that features on the menus of Italian and faux-Italian restaurants across the country, but you can tell when it’s executed with skill. The sauce was silky, with enough tang from the blue cheese but not so much that it overpowered everything else going on. Crucially, the “wild mushrooms” were in fact wild: they are so often tamed somewhere between the menu and the kitchen. The rosemary roasted potatoes didn’t get a chance to shine, sitting under the chicken and smothered in the sauce, but that was hardly a bad thing.

I had some roasted vegetables with this, because I felt like I ought to at least try to eat some plants. They were served cold and didn’t go at all, but the waiter had warned me about that and I decided to press on anyway. They too were beautiful – sweet red and yellow peppers, long strips of griddled courgette and smoky aubergine with, again, a hit of garlic.

Zoë had a pizza, to make sure we tested the full range of the menu; this too was excellent. I remember eating friarelli at Papa Gee for the first time, never having heard of the stuff, but it’s more of an ever-present on pizza menus these days. None the less – bit of a theme here – it’s rarely used as well as it was by Mio Fiore. The real star of the show, though, was the salsiccia – delicious, coarse nuggets of sausagemeat, generously distributed. The crust and the dough were superb, the tomato sauce sweet and fragrant and the whole thing, really, showed how good the basics could be when you get the basics right. Zoë thought it was better than Franco Manca, better even than Lusso (Newbury’s dedicated pizza restaurant which is itself no slouch) and I was inclined to agree.

I don’t always have dessert on duty but there are two situations where I usually will: when my mind isn’t yet made up about a restaurant or when I know it’s good and I want to see if the final third of the meal can top the rest. No prizes for guessing which of the two it was here, and again the menu was restrained and unfussy: no hideous highlighter-pink profiterole Tower Of Babel to be seen here, just some of the classics – panna cotta, chocolate fondant, cheesecake, tiramisu. Zoë chose the chocolate fondant, which takes fifteen minutes to make – just enough time to watch the restaurant start to calm down, the busy tables settle up and leave, the birthday celebrations on the upper floor began to nudge down the volume. It really is a lovely place, I thought to myself, wishing I’d not waited so long to pay it a visit.

I always judge Italian restaurants on whether they have something decent to drink after dinner, so we were taking our first sips of Averna (bittersweet, on ice with a single wedge of orange) when our desserts arrived. Chocolate fondant, like all hot desserts, isn’t really to my taste but I tasted enough of Zoë’s to verify that it was faultless. The contrast in textures was absolutely as it should be, no over-gooey mess in the middle but not dried out either. It’s not a dish I ever order, but I’m glad Zoë picked it; there are few things quite as enjoyable as watching the person you love eat something they adore.

My choice, tiramisu, could have been equally prosaic. After all, who hasn’t had tiramisu countless times in one Italian restaurant or another? But again, the execution was impossible to fault. It wasn’t pretty, or fancy, but everything about it was right – soaked through with booze and coffee, with a beautiful indulgent depth to it. No corners cut, nothing artificial or superficial, just a textbook example of how things should be: six pounds exceptionally well spent.

Service throughout our meal was emblematic of the whole experience, in that the simple things were done automatically and the difficult things were made to look easy. The restaurant was packed all evening, and the waiting staff were clearly very busy, but although they worked their socks off they still exuded a certain assured serenity. Even the little things were right – letting you know they’d be with you in a second, always being chatty, never making you feel neglected or forgotten.

Maybe that’s the thing about family-run restaurants, because the waiting staff were a tight-knit, efficient bunch who were clearly a very comfortable and effective team. When my main course came, Zoë’s pizza was nowhere to be seen and our waiter, charming and suave the rest of the time, was up at the counter giving the pizza chef a good talking to to ensure we weren’t kept waiting. When he brought it over, barely a minute later, he was all smiles. This was the service all over – completely in control, the perfect link between the kitchen and the customer.

As we were settling up our waiter told us that Mio Fiore had been there for four years: we told him we came from Reading, he knew it and we had a chat about Pepe Sale. It was a good restaurant, he said, if maybe a bit dated, and I found myself unable to disagree. Our bill for two people – three courses, a bottle of wine and a couple of digestifs – came to just over a hundred pounds, not including service. It would be easy to spend less, but either way I thought this was thoroughly decent value.

I worry, reading back over this, that this might be another review of a restaurant outside Reading that many people won’t read, or that it doesn’t have quite enough pizzazz to persuade you to take that train to Newbury (not even if I mention the incredible selection of pre-prandial gins, ciders and Belgian beers at the wonderful Catherine Wheel). If so, the fault is entirely mine.

The problem, you see, is that a restaurant as consistent and unshowy as Mio Fiore does not attract superlatives. The dishes aren’t triumphs of imagination, the presentation involves no visual fireworks. You won’t be wowed by creative combinations of ingredients you’ve never seen before. Mio Fiore has no designs on being that kind of restaurant, and if that’s what you crave it isn’t the place for you. I loved Mio Fiore precisely because it eschews all those things.

I’ve eaten a lot of middling meals on duty, cooked by people who don’t know, or worse still don’t care, how food should taste. I’ve seen so many menus that read infinitely better than the food that turns up at your table, all gastronomic mouth and no trousers. I know the flavourlessness of disappointment better than I ought to, and as a result I really appreciate somewhere like Mio Fiore where everything tastes as it absolutely should – but so very rarely does.

I’d pick a restaurant like this, focusing on the classics, over all the fads and trends any day of the week. That it manages to do all that with such warmth and expertise, in a lovely welcoming room with thoroughly likeable staff, is as worthy of a fanfare as anywhere else I’ve eaten. That it all takes place in a room which happens to smell of garlic is the dusting of Parmesan on top. I recommend going, so you can see just how excellent a restaurant can be without ever showing off.

Mio Fiore – 8.4
5 Inches Yard, Newbury, RG14 5DP
01635 552023

https://www.miofiore.co.uk/

The Lyndhurst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cozze

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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