Feature: Less than a tenner

Is it me, or did New Year used to be a bit less, well, preachy? Nowadays we’re bombarded with things you ought to do – eat vegan food for a month, or quit drinking, or drink lots of local beer to compensate for everybody who’s quitting drinking. It’s a hard enough month at the best of times – back at work, no longer allowed to eat chocolate whenever you like. Depressed by the scales, depressed by the sales not selling anything you fancy, and it’s so bloody dark all the time. The last thing anybody needs in January, if you ask me, is a sermon.

So I’m not going to do a feature about vegan food in Reading, or where you should go to try beers from our many excellent local breweries, or which tap room is the best. Instead, this piece covers the one truly universal thing about January whoever you are: it’s a long time since the last pay day, a long time until the next and everybody is on a budget. So this feature is about the best food you can get in Reading for not much money, something I hope we can all get behind.

I’ve tried to limit this to genuine stand-alone items. Obviously I could have included plenty of starters, but nobody turns up to a restaurant, orders a starter and leaves. So, ideally, every item on this list could be eaten on its own as the feature attraction, and every one costs less than ten pounds. That does tend to push it more in the direction of lunch than dinner, but there are still at least half a dozen items on this list that you could happily eat for an early evening meal.

Having already decided which dishes I’d include I posed the question on Facebook and got a raft of answers which reminded me just how much good food in Reading didn’t quite make the cut for me. I was sad not to be able to make room for anything from Blue Collar’s Peru Sabor, for anything from Perry’s, Franco Manca, Kings Grill, Bakery House or Sapana Home. That so many good places are excluded, I hope, shows how tricky making this selection was.

Anyway, I hope this comes in handy – all of them have been extensively road-tested by me, and all come highly recommended. Happy budgeting, and good luck if you are forgoing meat, booze or indeed anything else this month. Rather you than me!

1. Chilli beef nachos, the Lyndhurst

Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first: no surprises here, especially after I awarded it Starter Of The Year in my end of year awards. But, as I said then, it’s substantial enough to eat in its own right, or to snack on with drinks. Anyway, I’ve said quite enough about these nachos lately, so instead I’ll quote my esteemed colleague Quaffable Reading. After he had them for the first time last month he said “All I can say is now I realise everyone else is doing chilli wrong. And doing nachos wrong too. Fantastic dish!” And he knows what he’s talking about, because he’s the poor sod who had to endure the unique gastronomic experience of the doner meat nachos at German Doner Kebab. I’ll save you the effort of scrolling down: they don’t feature later on in this list. (88 Queens Road, RG1 4DG)

2. Jerk chicken, rice and peas, Sharian’s Cuisine

I’ve never been a fan of CHOW, the Friday street food market run in conjunction with Reading’s shadowy Business Improvement District. I’ve always thought it was a shame the market isn’t run by the better, more imaginative, more Reading Blue Collar Food who operate on Wednesdays in the same location. But what CHOW does have – which always generates huge queues – is Sharian’s Cuisine, and their jerk chicken, rice and peas is a thing of wonder. The chicken is spiced, charred and smoky, you get tons of it and they tell you, ever so nicely, that you’re being a wuss if you opt for the milder of the two hot sauces on offer. The weather isn’t quite conducive to eating it al fresco right now, but just you wait. (Market Place, RG1 2DE, Friday lunchtimes only)

3. Chilli paneer, Bhel Puri House

One of Reading’s iconic dishes, and one I’ve been raving about for the best part of six years. Caramelised cubes of paneer, crunchy peppers and spring onion and powerful green chillies lurking in there if you feel especially brave. I went through a phase of cheating on the chilli paneer with the saucier, stickier paneer Manchurian, I even went through a particularly depraved phase of ordering both of them at once. I dallied with the vada pav, too, but I always go back to the chilli paneer. It never lets you down. (Yield Hall Lane, RG1 2HF)

4. Ajika chicken wrap, Geo Cafe

There are many contenders for Reading’s finest sandwich: more than a few of them feature in this list. But, for my money, Geo Café’s chicken wrap is arguably the best. Georgian food tastes like nothing else you’ve ever eaten, and Georgian flavours transform this dish completely. The combination of fiery spice from the ajika and the pungency of baje (a Georgian sauce made from walnuts) is both otherworldly and habit-forming.

Chicken features quite heavily in this list, but this – made with free-range corn-fed chicken thighs from Vicar’s – is stupendous stuff. A wrap will set you back six pounds. Many would argue that Geo Café’s khachapuri, flat soda bread stuffed with an ingenious blend of three cheeses, should be in this list too, to which I can only say that making these decisions is harder than you might think. (10 Prospect Street, RG4 8JG, daytime only)

5. Curry night, The Lyndhurst

The Lyndhurst make this list twice because this is simply too good, in terms of quality and value, not to include in its own right. Every Thursday they offer a choice of three different curries, rice and a naan bread and a pint for nine pounds and ninety-nine pence (as you can see, when I went they threw in an onion bhaji in for good measure). The curries are all interesting and miles from kormas and bhunas, with dishes from Mangalore, Goa, Kerala and Sri Lanka, among others. I loved my visit last year, and it won’t be long before I’m back there – so much better than spending a similar Thursday in Wetherspoons making the tills ring and the microwave ping. (88 Queens Road, RG1 4DG, Thursday evenings only)

6. Tuna Turner, Shed

Another entry which will surprise nobody, and another dish which will probably make the cut if Reading Museum ever does an exhibition on iconic Reading food, the Tuna Turner is a truly legendary toasted sandwich and one of the very best things you can eat of a lunchtime. Superior tuna mayo, sweet slivers of red onion, plenty of cheese and jalapeños – very much the secret weapon – all conspire to be so much more than the sum of their parts. I think it’s something about the way the cheese melts, somehow seeps through the gaps in the sourdough and then forms a beautiful, glistening, caramelised crust.

If you’re there on a Friday lunchtime, and Shed is doing the Saucy Friday with scotch bonnet chilli chicken, rice and peas, macaroni cheese and coleslaw that dish, also far less than a tenner, runs the Tuna Turner pretty close. (8 Merchants Place, RG1 1DT, daytime only)

7. Lamb kothey momo, Namaste Momo

Namaste Momo is in a funny little spot on the border between Woodley and Earley, an area not blessed with its restaurants. Only one bus really runs that way from the town centre, and after a certain time it only ventures out once an hour. But, for all that faff, I highly recommend a pilgrimage there because their momo are worth it.

They are made by hand and in all their forms – in a hot, thickened chilli sauce, steamed or deep fried – they justify the journey. For me, it’s when you pan fry momo that you get that bang-on midpoint of taste and texture, the contrast of char and chew and the gorgeous filling inside. Speaking of fillings, the minced, spiced, seasoned lamb is my favourite – if it was served as a slider you could sell out any hipster gaff in the town centre. But we all know better than hipsters, don’t we, and these momo are perfect just the way they are. (392 London Road, RG6 1BA)

8. Scrambled eggs, Fidget & Bob

I’ve had some truly terrible scrambled eggs in my time. I once stayed over with a then-friend in Chichester and she microwaved eggs into grey pellets – I gamely ate the lot, because I didn’t want to seem rude, but really it could have been polystyrene and I might have had a better meal. I’ve tried to learn to make them myself, with guidance from the sainted Delia, and they come out okay but not great. The truth is that Fidget & Bob have ruined me for all other scrambled eggs. For five pounds you get three golden-yolked Beechwood Farm eggs, scrambled with probably more butter than I’m comfortable knowing about (that’s the great thing about eating in restaurants: ignorance is bliss) and certainly with more skill than I can manage.

They come with plenty of buttered seeded toast although extras – hash browns, nicely crispy back bacon, that legendary slab of sausagemeat loaf – are all available. They shouldn’t push the price over a tenner unless you’re really going loco, either due to gluttony or a hangover. Another great way to spend less than ten pounds in Fidget & Bob, every Tuesday night, is to go for their quite wonderful char siu pork. (The Piazza, Whale Avenue, RG2 0GX, Tuesday to Sunday)

9. Sweet chilli chicken, Kokoro

One of my very favourite things to eat for an early solo dinner or a particularly indulgent lunch, Kokoro’s chilli chicken is a crunchy, sticky, fiery, garlic-studded tub of one hundred per cent fun. A regular sized portion is pretty big and a large portion (which costs a princely additional pound) is absolutely gigantic: both come in comfortably below the ten pound mark.

The quality varies – some batches make your eyes water and your nose run, some are milder. Sometimes you get smaller, crunchier bits of chicken, sometimes they are huge, plump things (but always with that wonderful coating). But even on a relatively bad day, Kokoro’s chilli chicken is a miraculous thing. It comes with rice or noodles – I’ve always found the noodles a bit too much like hard work, but your mileage may vary. Writing this has made me seriously consider having it for lunch today, which I suppose is almost as bad as laughing at your own jokes. (29 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1SY)

10. Challoumi wrap, Purée/Leymoun

To do the confusing bit first: for reasons I don’t completely understand, sometimes Sam Adaci runs a street food van called Purée, sometimes it’s called Leymoun. Purée operates out of a distinctive green van, Leymoun is more nondescript. I don’t know the rhyme or reason of why there are two different names and two different vans. He is at Blue Collar in the market square every Wednesday and CHOW in the same place on Fridays, and sometimes you can find the Purée van parked on Broad Street at other times. But if you’re ever near either van at lunchtime, join the queue and order a challoumi wrap. They cost six pounds, they are absolutely crammed with wonderful stuff and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

The chicken is spiced and cooked on the griddle before being finely chopped, and the halloumi is salty but not too squeaky (for a while Sam was having his own Brexit-proof halloumi specially made in London: not sure if he still does). Add the pickles, and the chilli sauce, and the garlic sauce and you have an overstuffed messy marvel of a sandwich where every mouthful gives you something ever so slightly different and you always want there to be another mouthful. “Purée/Leymoun” is also a bit of a mouthful, come to think of it, but it remains a must-eat at lunchtime, even if the van can be a tad elusive. They also do freshly-made falafel which are a beautiful meat free alternative. (Market Place, RG1 2EQ, Wednesday and Friday lunchtimes only. Also on Broad Street: times vary)

11. Com chien, Pho

I quite like Pho, even if I’ve never managed to learn to love the eponymous dish: soup plus noodles just isn’t for me. This means I’ve never developed the fervour for it that other restaurant bloggers seem to manage. But they do have an absolute ace up their sleeve in the form of their com chien, a generous fried rice dish with shreds of chicken, chewy little savoury dried shrimp and many, many flecks of chilli. This dish, sort of a Vietnamese nasi goreng, is wonderful for blowing away cobwebs. You can tell it’s hot because when you order it, the staff invariably ask if you’ve had it before – with the same trepidation barbers used to show when they asked if I really wanted a grade two all over. You can top it with an optional fried egg, but I like it just fine as it is. (1 King’s Road, King Street, RG1 2HG)

12. Samosas, Cake & Cream

I was tipped off by Mansoor, a regular reader, about this place that sold the best samosas in Reading. It is called Cake & Cream, and it’s off the Wokingham Road, just after the row of shops and before the Three Tuns. Their main thing is big, impressive-looking cakes, but they also have a little whiteboard near the front detailing the savoury stuff they sell. Samosas are about 75 pence each, and they also sell pakora, paneer pakora and bhajis by weight, almost like a savoury sweetshop.

The samosas really are everything Mansoor promised they would be: full of a rich and surprisingly spicy potato masala, the pastry spot on and the whole thing piping hot and utterly addictive. They come with a sauce which is tangy, sweet and hot in equal measures, although they’re just as magnificent without it. The service is very friendly and the chap always seems thoroughly surprised to see me – oh, and the pakora are also tremendous. There are tables at Cakes & Cream, and I’m sure some people eat there, but I always take my bag and scarper onto the first 17 bus I can find, counting the minutes until I can tuck in back at home. You get jealous looks from your fellow passengers, although that might just be my imagination. (11-13 St Peters Road, RG6 1NT)

Feature: The 2019 Edible Reading Awards

Can you believe it’s that time of year again? Hopefully by now you’ve bought all your Christmas presents (even if, like me, you’ve not necessarily wrapped them yet). Hopefully you’ve sent and received all your cards – if you still do that sort of thing – and reflected on the new names on the list and the people you’ve finally pruned. You’ve probably had your work do, and been out with your friends. You may even be on roast dinner number four or five by now. We all have our festive traditions and one of mine, for the last five years, has been sitting down and writing this, my end of term report on Reading’s restaurant scene. Was it an “exceeds expectations” or a “must try harder”? Hmm. Let’s find out.

I initially thought it had been a quiet year for restaurants in this town but actually, on reflection, there has been a fair bit of movement. No big-name openings like 2018 – no Lido, no Clay’s, no Corn Stores – but instead a steady succession of new places vying to capture your spend and your affection. So 2019 was the year when we said hello to Argentine steakhouse Buenasado and Greek white elephant Lemoni in the Oracle, the Pantry in the Town Hall, Vegivores and the Last Crumb out in Caversham and countless other new kids on the block.

Some existing restaurateurs moved to new premises: Tutu shifted her Ethiopian Table from the Global Café to Palmer Park, and Kamal (of Namaste Kitchen) finally opened new restaurant Namaste Momo on the edge of Earley. And there’s always a new restaurant just around the corner – the first of 2020 may well be Osaka, the new Japanese restaurant due to set up shop in the old Café Rouge site, but I doubt it will be the last. We’re also allegedly getting a Taco Bell, presumably to compensate us in some Newtonian sense, for the forthcoming closure of bigoted poultry purveyor Chick-Fil-A.

Not that we haven’t had enough restaurants close this year. The saddest, for me, was Tuscany, the fantastic independent pizzeria down the Oxford Road. I was also disappointed that Vibes, the Caribbean restaurant on Queens Walk, closed before I paid it a visit. We also lost two Reading institutions in the form of China Palace and Beijing Noodle House – although, to be euphemistic, both had seen better days.

Town centre Vietnamese restaurant Mum Mum and Alona, serving Lebanese food down the Wokingham Road, also closed their doors for the final time. Neither got to celebrate their first birthday. Nor did Bench Rest, which stopped serving in the Tasting House after less than a year: Reading’s original nomad moved on again, and is apparently leaving the country next year.

In terms of reviewing, it’s been a year of highs and lows. I experienced the worst nachos in the world, activated charcoal-flavoured ick, food that came all at once, John Lewis tablemats, albino carbonara and comically laissez faire service. But I’ve also had astonishing sausage rolls, eye-opening pasta, the warmest of welcomes and seen familiar faces in new places. Every now and then I’d have a run of meals so bad, or so bla, that I started to feel discouraged, but the next superb meal was never too far away. Trips abroad made sure I never fell out of love with eating out, especially one holiday where the food just blew me away.

It’s been a fantastic year in terms of the blog – a record-breaking one, with more visitors than ever before. As always, I’m incredibly grateful to all of you who read, like, comment, Retweet, share or just lurk, whether you do so smiling, laughing, tutting or grimacing. I’m grateful to everybody who’s come out on duty with me this year – friends, readers, my terrific family and of course Zoë, my partner in crime and regular dining companion. And I’m also grateful to everybody who has come to one of the five readers’ events I’ve run this year – all at some of Reading’s finest independent restaurants, each of them offering a special one-off menu. I’m not sure 2019 will be topped, but of course I’ll try my best to next year.

With all that said, it just remains for me to hand out the gongs in this, the 2019 Edible Reading Awards. It’s been harder than ever to reduce the long list to a short list, let alone pick the winners, and any of the honourable mentions this year could easily have taken top spot instead of the eventual winners. We’re lucky to live in a town that makes these decisions so difficult, so if you disagree with any or all of the winners I can hardly blame you: on another day, I might have disagreed too. Anyway, that’s quite enough preamble: let’s announce some winners, and you can tell me what I got wrong in the comments.

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Chilli nachos, The Lyndhurst

It was pretty much love at first sight when I ordered the Lyndhurst’s chilli nachos for the first time, and none of my subsequent encounters have dimmed my ardour. A wonderful chilli made with slow-cooked, shredded beef (a chilli which doesn’t appear elsewhere on the menu in the mains section), robust hand-made tortilla chips, a healthy helping of well-made guacamole and some cream cheese, a lettuce leaf if you want to pretend to be a better person than you actually are. A perfect starter to share, or to snaffle on your own, or a dish to eat with a few pints just for the sake of it, because it’s so perfect. I’m a huge fan, and I live in constant fear that they’ll either take it off the menu or price it slightly less generously (seven pounds twenty-five pence, would you believe it). Superb stuff.

I know that not picking a starter from Clay’s will be controversial here – one Twitter follower suggested I should have a separate award for the best Clay’s starter (and that too would be an incredibly tough one to call). Clay’s does deserve an honourable mention though for their cut mirchi chaat – a sort of stuffed and battered chilli dish that is difficult to describe and even more difficult to resist (yes, I know: but what about the chicken 65, the kodi chips, the squid pakora, the duck spring rolls, and basically all the other starters. Enough already). Another honourable mention goes to Zest for their triple-cooked pork belly with XO sauce, a dish I’ve thought about on pretty much a daily basis since I had it at the start of the month.

CHAIN OF THE YEAR: Honest Burger

Chains are all about consistency, and in my experience Honest has gone from strength to strength this year, becoming the place to go if you want a quick, enjoyable, reliably superb meal. It helps that they’ve swapped out their local special – the indifferent jerk chicken burger has given way to a gorgeous new option with Waterloo cheese and bearnaise butter – but it’s just that they never put a foot wrong. My stepfather is so impressed with their vegan burger that he picks it over a conventional beefburger, some of the specials this year have been absolutely knockout (especially when they involve fried chicken) but really, it’s just that it’s regularly, unspectacularly excellent. Reading still has far too many burger joints, and I wouldn’t shed a tear if the rest closed down. But Honest is another matter altogether.

The two runners-up in this category also deliver the kind of consistency and comfort you want from a visit to a chain restaurant. Pho continues to offer an excellent range of dishes (I don’t think I’ll ever really see the appeal of the eponymous dish itself, but I’m evangelical about their com chien) and Kokoro has done me a turn on many an early evening when I can’t be bothered to cook and on a few hungover Sunday lunchtimes. Their sweet chilli chicken is a particular favourite of mine, although I know the katsu curry also has its fans.

LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Fidget & Bob

Yes, on this occasion lunch probably means brunch and yes, Fidget & Bob is out of town which means that for most people it’s a weekend lunch option. But nevertheless, most of my happiest lunches this year have been at Fidget & Bob and they invariably involve a variant of their phenomenal brunch menu which they serve all day. You can have a breakfast wrap, or the “hangover” (a sausage, bacon and egg sandwich) but I always seem to go for their golden, gorgeous scrambled eggs, served with crispy back bacon and a slice of their sausage loaf. Other dishes – sandwiches, panini and their home-made noodle pots – are available, but the trick is to save room for cake. I am hooked on the kouign amann – hopelessly indulgent Breton pastries made with plenty of salted butter (they missed a trick not calling them “Breton butter pudding”) but the salted caramel brownies are also phenomenal.

Picking a winner in this category wasn’t easy, limiting the runners-up to just two was equally difficult. An honourable mention goes to Caversham’s Geo Café which has spent 2019 completing its transformation from Nomad Bakery and, along with a beautiful array of cakes, still serves one of Reading’s finest sandwiches in the form of the ajika-spiced corn-fed chicken wrap. Also highly commended is Shed – which is every bit as good as ever and continues to serve Reading’s best golden, cheese-laden, comforting toasties.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Lamb with cumin, Kungfu Kitchen

In a year of wonderful main courses – far too many to list here – KFK’s lamb with cumin was the one I kept coming back to. I had it on my second ever visit, and it’s been a struggle not to order it every time since. The lamb – sliced wafer-thin, as it is for the hot pot – is so deep and rich. It tastes properly of lamb – which might sound like a silly thing to say, but somehow lamb is so often a pale copy of how it ought to taste. “This is how kebabs should be” said my other half the first time she tasted this dish, and I can understand what she meant. The whole thing, flecked with sesame seeds and tumbled with onion and coriander, stalks and all, is the kind of intensely savoury dish you daydream about long after you have eked out one final mouthful. KFK does so many excellent dishes but, in the lamb with cumin, it has one unforgettable one.

It is a tribute to how strong a field it is that many of the dishes on my long list could easily have won this award: Fidget & Bob’s char siu pork, for instance, or Namaste Momo’s spellbinding lamb kothey momo. But there’s only room for two runners-up. First, the chinta chiguru from Clay’s – terrific, tender chicken thigh in a striking, sharply elegant tamarind sauce (very much the unsung hero of the Clay’s menu, in my book). And secondly, Bakery House’s boneless baby chicken with vegetable rice and beautifully dressed salad, possibly Reading’s most complete main course.

OUT OF TOWN RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Mio Fiore, Newbury

I so loved my visit to Mio Fiore this year, and I’m long overdue a return trip. There was just something magical about it – so unprepossessing and yet getting everything right, serving dishes that are so often unspecial in chain Italians and reminding you just how superb they can be in the right hands. It came around the same time as I had a brilliant holiday in Bologna and a bloody horrendous meal in Cozze, and the fact that the standard was so much closer to the former than the latter put a huge smile on my face. If you go, the spaghetti puttanesca (pictured above) is pretty damn close to perfection.

Honourable mentions have to go to Goring’s Miller Of Mansfield, a special occasion restaurant which will leave you wanting to invent more special occasions, and Oxford’s Pompette, a truly spectacular French neighbourhood restaurant which I’d dearly love to pick up and drop somewhere in Reading. In fact, since I can’t do that, I’m literally lunching there again today.

SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Fidget & Bob

I stopped giving an award out for Tweeter of the year this year, because Fidget & Bob won it every year. They may as well keep the trophy. But this year, eating there more often, I discovered that how they were on Twitter probably came so naturally to them because it was just an extension of how they were in real life. Their welcome is always warm but perfectly-judged, not faux-matey, never too much. They seem to know literally everybody who eats in their little café – who they are, what they like, how they’ve been, the comings and goings of their lives. I suppose it must be easier to do when you run a small venue and there are only a couple of you, but that doesn’t stop it being extremely impressive – or bloody hard work, however easy Shu and Breege make it look.

An honourable mention has to go to Mio Fiore, who also have that perfect balance spot on in a far bigger venue, and I also have to single out the inimitable Jo at Kungfu Kitchen. Her service is a constant joy to me – the conversation, the recommendations, the gossip, the way she always seems delighted that you’ve come back. There’s no welcome quite like it in Reading, and once you’ve tried it you’ll know exactly what I mean.

DESSERT OF THE YEAR: Chocolate custard with sesame tuille, The Miller Of Mansfield

So beautiful, so elegant and so delicious: the Miller’s chocolate custard is a smooth, glossy thing somewhere between the texture of a ganache and a mousse. It looks almost as beautiful as it tastes, with a salted sesame tuille on top perfect to break into little shards, the whole thing artfully dotted with microherbs and little dabs of vivid orange. It was by far the best dessert I’ve had this year: when I went on duty I shared it with my dining companion, but when I managed to engineer a return visit a few weeks later I made sure I got one all to myself.

Honourable mentions go to Zest’s excellent white chocolate and Bailey’s cheesecake – a big old slab of heaven – and the timeless simplicity of Mio Fiore’s tiramisu.

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: The Lyndhurst

I was very sad when the Lyndhurst closed in June, the landlord went off to pastures new and at least one of the chefs moved on to the Fisherman’s Cottage. And I had my doubts when it reopened the following month – there was a hesitancy about the whole thing, and on the opening night the team seemed more than a little fazed about what they had taken on.

Well, over the months that followed they have, if anything, surpassed their predecessors with an interesting and exciting menu which constantly changes. I tried a beautiful dish of oxtail there, rich shreds of meat wrapped up in the embrace of a cabbage leaf. Weeks later, it had vanished from the menu like a mirage, never to return. The picture above is of a stunning rabbit dish – stuffed with chicken liver, wrapped in prosciutto, a dish which kept popping back into my mind at random moments, normally when I was eating something nowhere near as good. I think they served that dish for less than a week, and I haven’t seen it on the menu since.

One staple, though, is the curry night on Thursdays – a choice of three curries, all miles from the generic stuff, with rice, a bhaji, a pint and a naan, all for a tenner. The ever-present katsu chicken burger is always worth ordering, too, with some of Reading’s best chips – and then there’s the small matter of their chilli nachos, as I’ve already said.

The tables have got busier, the “reserved” signs more frequent, and I for one am delighted to see them doing so well. And the hesitancy hasn’t exactly vanished: it’s more that it’s morphed into a really charming humility. They don’t ever sing their own praises, which is even more reason why it’s my pleasure to do it for them by awarding them my Newcomer Of The Year award.

Some people would have expected Kungfu Kitchen to win this award, but they opened in October last year so aren’t eligible (and, personally, I was delighted to dodge another incredibly hard decision). I do, however, have to mention the two runners-up in this category. Buenasado really surprised me when I visited it on duty – I had low expectations of a small restaurant popping up in the Oracle in the site vacated by CAU, but they did a really creditable job (and their lunchtime steak frites offer is not to be sniffed at, either). An honourable mention also goes to Namaste Momo, the new outpost from Kamal, the man behind Namaste Kitchen. It’s a little out of the way, and the execution of the menu is still slightly uneven, but the hand-made momo are literally worth the price of admission alone: not only that, but Kamal will absolutely charm the socks off you.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Kungfu Kitchen

This was absolutely the hardest decision of all. Just think, for a second, about how lucky we are to live here. Here are some of the restaurants that didn’t even make my shortlist: Fidget & Bob; Pepe Sale; Geo Café; The Lyndhurst; Namaste Momo.

And then look at my runners-up. Bakery House is a superb, consistent, brilliantly run Reading institution where you can take pretty much anyone you know and guarantee that you’ll have a superb meal. You can go with vegetarians and go crazy with the mezze, or take your carnivorous friends and rejoice in the chicken livers, the little spiced sausages, the shawarma and the chicken fresh from the grill. I can’t remember them ever disappointing me.

And then there’s Clay’s. How could I not give the award to Clay’s, you might quite reasonably ask? If anything, their second year has been stronger than their first: look at all that game on their menu at the start of 2019, the quail, the rabbit and the pheasant. And then, just when you think their food couldn’t get any better, they pivoted again: amazing baby squid, like some hybrid of Hyderabad and Andalusia, a crab fry dish which has left so many diners speechless. They’ve even got me to eat baby corn, something I’d previously thought was impossible. I know full well that not picking them as 2019’s winners will leave many of you questioning my judgment this year (and possibly next).

But this is a decision made with the heart, not the head, and Kungfu Kitchen has been my restaurant of this year. From the very first visit I was wondering when I could go back, and on every visit I’ve faced that agonising tug of war between ordering a dish I know and love or venturing deeper into the menu. It never feels too much like a leap into the unknown, largely because of the magnificent Jo who always acts as a sherpa, taking you just far enough out of your comfort zone without ever leaving you high and dry (with possibly one exception: she once made me order a boiled beef and chilli oil dish which was a challenge, more a dish you survive than finish). She is a force of nature, and a huge part of what makes Kungfu Kitchen so enjoyable and so welcoming.

The food really is marvellous – whether it’s the fried fish in spicy hot pot, the sweet and aromatic wonder of the fish fragrant pork, the piquant kung pao chicken, the glorious pork belly, boiled, sliced super thin and then stir fried with Chinese mushrooms and plenty of heat, the salt and pepper tofu – yes, tofu – or one of my very favourites, the Xinjiang-style shredded chicken which almost literally takes your breath away with the heat before gradually releasing its grip on your larynx. That makes it sound awful but honestly, it’s exhilarating.

The conventional wisdom is to go to a place like Kungfu Kitchen in a big group so you can try more dishes, and that’s partly true. I’ve been at a birthday party there where they effortlessly served about twenty people, they did a bang-up job (complete with karaoke!) at one of my readers’ lunches earlier in the year. But I’ve also been here with smaller groups of friends, on quiet nights with my other half and, on occasion when I’m at a loose end, I’ll walk up the hill on my own and order just the one dish – such a hardship – and a beer and have dinner for one watching the toing and froing, the bustle and the banter. The welcome is never less than perfect, and the food is never less than gorgeous. It truly is a happy place.

It’s been a real joy to watch Kungfu Kitchen spreading its wings on social media, and to see so many ER readers go there and fall in love with the place, as I did. And so it seems appropriate to end 2019 by giving them this award and by wishing them – and all my winners and runners-up, and just as importantly all of you – a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

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/