Restaurant review: Hamlet, Wokingham

Over the last eighteen months, the story of Reading’s restaurants has been more about trying to protect what we have than celebrating the arrival of bright, shiny new things. With a few notable exceptions, the significant restaurants to open recently in town have been chains: Wendy’s, The Coconut Tree, Gordon Ramsay’s Profanity Burger. Further afield, however, it’s a different story. 

Henley, for instance, now has a big posh-looking place called Crocker’s which contains no less than three different restaurants. The front page of their website carries a photograph of people assembling identical small plates with long stainless steel tweezers, which tells you more than enough about the kind of food you can expect. Henley also has a new steak and seafood place called Shellfish Cow (I know), the second link in a little chain which started in Wallingford. Both these venues are fancy, both look like they’ve had dough chucked at them, both are independent.

But there’s even more of a marked transformation in Wokingham, driven by the ongoing regeneration of the town and the completion of Peach Place. The earliest sign of gentrification was back at the end of 2018 when Gail’s opened there, followed by craft beer bar Sit N’ Sip the following spring. And now Wokingham is starting to attract some noteworthy restaurants, so much so that when I looked at everywhere that had opened since I last visited, I wasn’t sure where to go first.

Should I try Indian restaurant Bombay Story, which inexplicably changed its name from Dabbawalla Indian Kitchen at some point over the last year? Or RYND, which used to be a hipster-milking burger joint on Castle Street and is reborn in Wokingham Town Hall offering “Californian inspired tapas-style dining”? Or Chalk, an independent restaurant that opened at the end of last year in the old Prezzo building on Broad Street?

Well, you know I didn’t pick any of those because here you are, reading a review of Hamlet. I decided on Hamlet, which opened back in May, partly because the menu seemed to have a little more about it. But I also chose it because of the pedigree of the owners: Nick Galer, from the Miller Of Mansfield, told me that they were two old colleagues of his from his days working for the Fat Duck Group. “The early reports are good”, he said, “although I’m never sure about all day dining.”

Hamlet is also on Peach Place with a fair amount of outside space, some of it under cover, and a few heaters which I imagine will need to be switched on around a week from now for approximately the next five months. The outside was doing a roaring trade, although it felt a tad soulless. The inside, though, is quite stunning in its way, all Hans Wegner Wishbone Chair lookalikes and bleached wood tables. There are baked goods on display at the counter and a little deli area where you can buy wine, cheese and charcuterie. It’s all very Scandi, very stylish, but again, ever so slightly sterile.

Anyway, we sat outside because it was a warm Saturday afternoon and I’m a risk-averse wuss. It wasn’t initially clear whether it was table service or if you were meant to order at the counter, but that was partly because when we got there the serving staff were a bit all over the place: they settled down as the first wave of the lunchtime rush subsided.

Casting my eye over the menu, I began to see Nick Galer’s point. Hamlet is open daytimes all week and evenings Thursday to Saturday, and its menu tries to cover every single base. The overall effect is something like a cross between Gail’s and an upmarket version of Wokingham’s Sedero Lounge: so there are brunches until 1pm, sandwiches available until 4pm and small and large plates available from midday until 4pm. So if you’re there between noon and one in the afternoon you can choose between four different sections, you lucky so-and-so. Brunches run from six to ten pounds, sandwiches from seven fifty to a tenner, small plates range widely in price between five and twelve pounds and most of the large plates are between ten and fifteen pounds. 

So yes, the menu was even busier than the staff and felt a little confused. I should add that if you go in the evening the small and large plates on offer look a lot more like a conventional restaurant, so it would be easier to treat it as a starters and mains kind of place. Anyway, we ordered a couple of sandwiches to start with a view to moving on to some other dishes afterwards, aiming to cover as many of the sections as we could. I would have loved to try the sausage, egg and Comte muffin, but because we placed our order at quarter past one the brunch section was out of bounds. Rules are rules.

Zoë had chosen Hamlet’s croque monsieur – an excellent choice, and possibly what I would have ordered if I’d had first dibs. It was attractively burnished, covered in that molten, slightly-caramelised topping and with beautiful ham – shredded hock, rather than slices of the stuff – in the middle. The mouthful I got was pretty good, although (and this might be a bit of a trend for the rest of the review) I wasn’t sure it was nine pounds fifty’s worth of pretty good.

“I liked it, but I think it needed mustard” was Zoë’s verdict.

“Didn’t it have mustard in it?”

“If it did, it needed more.”

Zoë picked better than me, and my fish finger sandwich was close but not quite there. You could see all the things they’d got right: the goujons were well done, handsome things with deeply pleasing breadcrumbs. And the tartare sauce, made by Hamlet at a guess, was fantastic with plenty of crunch and acidity from the gherkins. But as a sandwich, it didn’t work – the unremarkable white bread just got soggy from all the tartare and fell apart. Putting it in a bun, or at least toasting the slices of bread, would have helped it hold together a lot better. And the decision to put bitter, chewy radicchio in there felt cheffy for cheffy’s sake – iceberg on its own would have been fine. 

Was this worth nine pounds fifty? The long answer involves telling you all about Hook & Cook, who are at Blue Collar most weeks. The short answer is no.

If we’d stopped there you’d have got a lukewarm review which might have suggested you’d be better off going elsewhere in Wokingham – and even without the choices I mentioned earlier in this review you could have stopped at the busy food market outside the Town Hall and tried something by Krua Koson, another Blue Collar regular. But fortunately we went on to order some dishes from the other sections of the menu and, to some extent, it was like eating in a different restaurant.

Take the beef boulangère we had, from the small plates menu. A nice-looking dish, with strands of slowly-braised beef in a nearly-sweet tomato sauce, reminiscent of a stifado, and topped with layer upon layer of thinly sliced potato, the whole thing dusted with cheese and chives. A terrific dish – and, although technically a small plate, not too difficult to divide up between two people. Yours for five pounds. Five pounds! You could get two of these for the price of either of those sandwiches, and I think it would be the better choice.

But then, also from the small plates menu, we also ordered fried chicken with beurre noisette houmous. Again, this was a fetching dish – four pieces of gorgeous chicken, all gnarly and crunchy, tender under that coating. Pairing them with houmous isn’t something that would have occurred to me, and pairing the houmous with the almost-caramel silkiness of brown butter certainly wouldn’t have: I’m so used to seeing a bright green well of extra virgin olive oil in the middle of a mound of houmous that I’d never have thought of using anything else. 

All those ideas could have come a cropper when combined, but in practice the dish was a revelation. But pricing rears its ugly head again: this lovely dish was twelve pounds. Were you paying for the produce, the idea, the skills involved or the location of the restaurant? And did it matter? I’m not averse to dropping twelve pounds on a small portion of fried chicken from time to time, but will enough people feel likewise?

Last but not least, we’d also nabbed a charcuterie board to share. This is largely about buying rather than cooking, but Hamlet buys its charcuterie from Trealy Farm so they’d bought wisely. Chorizo, a couple of different types of salami (the nicest, for my money, with fennel), some cracking air dried ham and, usually my favourite, a superb coppa. The menu suggested there would also be some lamb carpaccio, but that seemed to have gone missing somewhere. 

Personally I like something acidic with charcuterie – gherkins or caperberries – but Hamlet instead added some wonderfully sweet cherry tomatoes, little slices of soda bread and olive oil infused with rosemary. I’d have liked the bread to be a little more substantial, but it was still a great selection. Fifty pence more expensive than the fried chicken, which did make me think – not for the first time – that Hamlet’s pricing was all over the shop.

I haven’t talked about our drinks, but there was a good, compact wine list covering all sensible price points along with around half a dozen cocktails and a handful of beers and ciders, all bottled. Zoë had a negroni, because that negroni habit is coming along nicely, and I had a small glass of a red burgundy which was the costliest wine on the menu. I liked it a lot, but I liked the fancy glasses even more. 

Our meal – two sandwiches, two small plates, a large plate, a couple of drinks and a bottle of mineral water – came to just under seventy pounds, not including service. You’re probably thinking “ouch” at this point, and ordinarily this is where I would say “but you could spend a lot less”. But unless you’re just coming to Hamlet for a sandwich and a coffee – and possibly even then – I think you’re going to feel a little stung when the bill arrives.

As I said earlier, table service did feel a little haphazard at the beginning of our meal, but as it went on service got stronger and far more personable. And Hamlet was pretty busy – even later on as we wandered back through Peach Place the restaurant was still doing a pretty consistent trade. 

Afterwards we went for a drink at Sit N’ Sip, the craft beer place where, oddly, nobody sitting out front was drinking beer. It wasn’t really my glass of IPA, despite some excellent people watching opportunities. So instead we found our way to the brilliant Outhouse Brewery, which has only been open for three months, and sat outside drinking their very own excellent oatmeal stout. I couldn’t resist trying one of their sausage rolls – made by Blue Orchid Bakery, another Peach Place business – and it was phenomenal, with great pastry and a coarse, dense sausagemeat filling (the fact that I had room for it perhaps isn’t the most glowing endorsement of Hamlet).

I think Nick Galer was right about the challenges of all day dining. Hiding in Hamlet’s menu, a maze of breakfasts, brunches, sandwiches and plates of varying size, there’s a very good restaurant, making itself frustratingly hard to find. I’m sure they’re doing what works for them, and certainly looking on Instagram their lunch menu has been a work in progress since they opened, but for me it felt muddled. Maybe they feel they need to compete with Gail’s during the day and places like Chalk at night. But although the execution might have been uneven, you couldn’t deny that the ideas were there, and along the right lines. 

I’m far more tempted to go back in the evening and treat Hamlet more as a traditional restaurant, and when I do I can easily imagine that I’ll have an excellent meal. But even so, they deserve credit for lots of things – for some of the imagination involved, for the stylish space they have created and, perhaps more than anything, for giving it a go during such an awful, challenging time. So there you have it: a polished-looking, high spec, unashamedly high quality restaurant selling interesting, creative food. And a great town centre taproom just around the corner for when you’re finished, into the bargain. In Wokingham. It’s interesting that, for all our chains and burger places, restaurants like Hamlet don’t choose to open in Reading.

Hamlet – 7.6
10 Peach Place, Wokingham, RG40 1LY
0118 3048433

https://hamletwokingham.co.uk

Restaurant review: The Coconut Tree

Of all of Reading’s new restaurants, The Coconut Tree might be the one most people have asked me to review as soon as possible. Which is in itself interesting, because The Coconut Tree has already had more write-ups online than most of Reading’s new places – but the thing is, they’re all on Instagram. Remember all that talk last year about how hospitality was on its knees and taking free shit was plain immoral? Nature is definitely healing, because The Coconut Tree’s plan for its launch was very much as they used to be in the before times – find some local Instagrammers with over five thousand followers, bung them some PR copy to include in the social media coverage, sit back and watch.

And I don’t know about you, but I learned a lot. Admittedly, nearly all of it I could have learned just from reading their menu, but it’s dead useful to discover that the food is “fresh, tasty and full of flavour” (it would be a brave restaurant that said “you know what? Lots of our stuff is stale and bland”). And to discover, from multiple Instagram posts, that one of the cocktails is set on fire in front of you: the drinks in general, allegedly, are “banging”. Did I mention the “proper good vibes”, or the fact that it’s “cool” and “trendy”? Perhaps the best summary was that “the cuisine is insane”. Sri Lankan food: utter madness! 

Of course, what none of those posts covered in much detail was that their food was all free. Their booze, too. “There wasn’t a cocktail I didn’t like” said another influencer. I bet. “Nothing too specific, we’re quite happy for you to construct the post!” said one writeup, showing that the influencer had copied and pasted all the text from the PR company without reading it first. That one was a “paid partnership”: not only did they get free food but, presumably, they were also paid to do the copying and pasting. I can’t compete with those levels of polish, sadly, so instead you get my impressions of the place after I turned up on a weekday with my friend Jerry, two Sancho Panzas in search of a Don Quixote. 

“The service is wonderful!” Jerry enthused as I met him outside the restaurant. “I went inside to see if you were there already and the lady who greeted me was absolutely lovely.”

I never went to Zizzi, so I don’t know what it used to look like, but the Coconut Tree is pretty bright and lively with an open kitchen straight ahead and the rest of it broken up into zones (along with a bizarre waiting room area at the front which looks, in the nicest sense, like a waste of space). There was a mixture of low tables and high tables with stools – in an ideal world I’d have chosen the former, but the staff led us to the latter where we sat, somewhat incongruously, under a wicker canopy. The place was fuller than I was comfortable with, but we’d deliberately chosen to eat a late lunch, so the place thinned out pretty quickly.

The lady serving us, who was every bit as friendly and engaging as the one who had greeted Jerry, talked us through the concept – because, yes, The Coconut Tree is one of those places with a concept. I imagine that one day we’ll reach the stage where the concept is “you order a starter, a main and a dessert and we bring them to you in that order, spaced at reasonable intervals”, but for the time being “concept” often refers to places like The Coconut Tree where dishes are smaller, tapas-style for sharing and they turn up in whatever order the kitchen feels like sending them.

I know this sounds crotchety – and as an aside I’ve never understood how restaurants think smaller plates are perfect for sharing – but we gladly threw ourselves into it, ordering a selection of dishes and a couple of beers. It’s a pretty big menu with plenty of small plates, a handful of larger ones and of course hoppers, coconut milk pancakes which might be Sri Lanka’s best-known dish. Much of the menu is suitable for vegans, and nearly all of it is gluten free. Most of the small dishes range between four and seven pounds, a couple of the larger ones cost slightly more and they recommend you aim for three per person, so that’s exactly what we did.

Our beer arrived first. I reckon Jerry could have been persuaded to have a cocktail – or as they put it, cocotail (sic) – but I was being well behaved. Lion is a Sri Lankan lager which they’ve apparently been making in Sri Lanka since the 1880s. Despite that, and the fact that the brewery who make it are yet to be absorbed into AB InBev like so many others, it tasted pretty generic, and I thought it was an odd decision by the staff to pour it at the bar rather than bring the can to the table. It wasn’t quite cold enough – maybe the glass hadn’t been long out of a dishwasher.   

From this point onwards, unfortunately, it gets harder to be positive. Some of that, in fairness, was our fault: we arguably could have ordered a wider variety of dishes. Some is just one of those things: the staff got part of our order wrong and brought something we didn’t want. These things happen. But a lot of the problems were down to the kitchen. 

Take the devil pork with pineapple, Jerry’s first choice from the menu. According to the menu it was spicy, sweet, tangy and sour. If only that were true: in reality it was acrid, blasting heat unsuccessfully lightened by huge chunks of pineapple, by far the predominant ingredient. The pork belly, supposedly “juicy”, was a few tough cubes here and there. This dish cost seven pounds, and I couldn’t help but think of the pork belly starter at Clay’s, where you get exponentially more pork belly, fantastically tender, fiery with ginger and sweet with jaggery and tamarind, for eight pounds fifty.

Even though I’ve only eaten Sri Lankan food a couple of times before, other dishes also came up short by comparison with other Reading places. The “Cheesy Colombo” was essentially like a paneer Manchurian, with plenty of sticky, chewy cubes of cheese. But again there wasn’t much subtlety, and an over-reliance on sweet, caramelised onions: for the same money, either one of the paneer dishes at Bhel Puri House is significantly better. The Coconut Tree’s menu describes this as “An off scale FAV!”, but given that it gives its hoppers the label “legendary” it’s maybe not one for self-deprecation: mind you, it also describes its Malay pickle as “a tropical pallet cleanser”, which makes it sound like Cillit Bang.

Speaking of the hopper, it was the one dish we ordered that I didn’t get to try. Jerry wanted one, and it did look pretty decent: relatively thin, with a just-cooked egg in the middle and clusters of sambol and more of that caramelised onion to mix together before you roll the whole thing up and eat it like a crêpe. Jerry enjoyed it: to be fair, I should point out that Jerry enjoyed our meal far more than I did.

The rest was meh. As I said, we ordered two dishes that were dangerously similar – my mistake for not paying attention – namely battered mushrooms and battered cuttlefish. The latter was the better of the two – the cuttlefish was fresh and tender, but the dish still lacked any crisp or crunch from the polenta batter. Instead the contents had steamed away inside the coating, and just for good measure they’d dumped some more caramelised onions on top.

The cuttlefish was meant to be spicy, but instead was more cloying from those ever-present onions. The mushrooms were like that but less interesting, another enamel dish of disappointment, like something you’d get from the ready meal aisle in a supermarket. Or Iceland. Underwhelming as these dishes were, they still deserve a better photo than this fuzzy one I managed to get of them: I can only apologise.

We ordered some yellow rice to go with our dishes, but none were saucy enough to need it. And given the spiel about dishes coming out as and when, it’s odd that everything came practically at once, very soon after we placed our order.

Well, everything apart from one dish. I’d really wanted to try the chicken kotthu because it’s always been one of my favourite South Indian dishes, that comforting mix of meat and carbs. But instead, the staff brought out a different kotthu dish from the one we’d ordered. They were nice as pie about taking it back, but we waited and waited for its replacement to arrive, to no avail. By the time we had finished all of our food and pretty much drained our beer we were ready to leave, so we asked for the bill. “Don’t you want your chicken kotthu?” said the waitress, and we had to say no. God knows what had happened to it – like I said, they were busy when we got there, but they got a lot quieter soon after.

I get no joy from saying all this, because all the staff were lovely, lively, friendly and seemed to be huge fans of the restaurant. At the moment, when hospitality staff are hard to get hold of, I think The Coconut Tree should do its utmost to hang on to the ones they have, but they deserve better food to bring to the table. Our bill came to twenty five pounds, including an optional ten per cent tip – and if that seems on the low side, that’s because The Coconut Tree is offering its own version of Eat Out To Help Out for the rest of this year, with fifty per cent off all food Monday to Wednesday. It seems harsh that The Coconut Tree is effectively halving its staff’s tips on those days, so our tip was based on the full amount: if you go there, you should consider doing that too.

“It’s very busy Monday to Wednesday” said our server. “Although it’s also packed Fridays and Saturdays to be honest, so Thursday’s the only quiet day. At weekends” – she pointed to the bizarre waiting area at the front, low stools and no tables – “we even have customers eating there, because we’re that full.” 

Having eaten at The Coconut Tree, I’m afraid I don’t understand why. I guess it’s a combination of all that money off and the fascination of the new. It would be easy to chalk this up as another example of a chain that jumped the shark shortly before opening in Reading, but I’ve been to the original branch in Cheltenham, a couple of years ago, and although my meal there was better than this one, it didn’t blow me away either. And this isn’t about Sri Lankan cuisine – I’ve eaten at Hoppers in Covent Garden and adored my meal there – which meant that when it came to The Coconut Tree I expected more all round: more inventiveness, more complexity. 

But everything at the Coconut Tree, in terms of flavour, is very much in primary colours – and bright ones at that, because I didn’t get any subtlety or nuance. Maybe that’s what all those influencers meant by “banging” and “insane”. Perhaps it will find its feet, but if you’re hoping this adds an exciting new dimension to Reading’s dining scene I reckon you may need to think again. I’ll probably give it another chance, to see if other dishes have the wow factor I missed – the goat curry’s meant to be the best thing I didn’t try – but I do wonder how it will fare once the novelty, and that fifty per cent discount, wear off.

I ought to point out, as I did earlier, that Jerry enjoyed the meal far more than I did. But what does Jerry know? He likes me, after all.

The Coconut Tree – 6.6
64 Kings Road, Reading, RG1 3BJ
0118 3383921

https://www.thecoconut-tree.com/reading

Restaurant review: Buon Appetito

A couple of Mondays ago I was walking through town around lunchtime, and I noticed that every table outside Bill’s was occupied. The sun was shining, and Bill’s has one of the best al fresco spots in Reading, but even so: every single table? Then I walked past Jollibee on Broad Street, with a queue outside, just like every day since it opened. As I looped back down Friar Street I noticed, through the windows, that Wendy’s was packed.  We can congratulate ourselves on promoting an independent, thriving Reading, through the money we spend and the businesses we amplify on social media, but the fact remains that chain restaurants have a huge hold on our town and its customers. 

The struggle is real, and relentless. Recently a branch of Sri Lankan themed chain The Coconut Tree opened, and influencers surfaced on Instagram raving about how good their (free) food was. It is next door to South Indian restaurant Pappadam’s, which has been there for years. Last week Gordon Ramsay opened a restaurant in the Oracle – one of five new burger restaurants coming to Reading – and gave out a thousand free burgers. Berkshire Live ran a breathless story enthusing about the opening. Of course they did, because it’s easier to Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V some guff from a PR company than it is to write a real story (although in Berkshire Live’s defence they subsequently reviewed the burger, and didn’t rate it).

The uncomfortable reality, even if we wish it wasn’t so, is that chain restaurants in general, and American ones in particular, do well in this town. Last month Deliveroo revealed Reading’s five most frequently-ordered dishes. Who made the list? Taco Bell, Wingstop, Shake Shack and Five Guys. The only thing preventing a clean sweep by American chains was the holder of the top spot, from German Doner Kebab. They wouldn’t make my top hundred dishes in Reading, let alone take the crown. Maybe Reading’s favourite illness is dyspepsia. Or dysentery, you never know.

If you’re reading this you probably have at least a passing interest in Reading’s independent restaurants, so perhaps you’re mystified (or depressed) by the continuing popularity of places like Taco Bell. It’s easy to forget, in an echo chamber that buys local, supports indie businesses and slopes off to the farmer’s market a couple of times a month, that most people in Reading would still rather queue for Wendy’s.

Even if you support independent businesses, there are other ways to be out of step. I’ve never quite “got” some of Reading’s fêted indies. I freely admit that Sweeney and Todd is one of them, Quattro is another. A third, the subject of this week’s review, is Buon Appetito. It’s always been highly rated on TripAdvisor, yet when I went there over five years ago I was bemused by the rave reviews. Years later the wonderful Tuscany opened down the Oxford Road and I had another, better pizza option; I never returned to Buon Appetito.

Yet here we are in 2021, Tuscany closed over two ago, and Buon Appetito is still going strong. It’s still highly rated on Trip Advisor. More to the point, the pictures on its Instagram account look a world away from the greasy, cheese-sodden edible cardboard I waded through back in 2016. Flicking through them made me feel decidedly peckish. So I decided to take another look, accompanied by my friend Nick, fresh from his previous appearance in this blog and not put off by the whole experience of being immortalised in print.

Buon Appetito has made the best of an unlovely spot. Like many canny businesses they’ve done great things with their outside space, with plenty of tables and some little booths with circular pub tables and heaters on the wall. Everything was covered by a corrugated plastic roof, and more corrugated plastic formed a partition closing off much of the view of Chatham Street. It will set them up perfectly for winter, and the overall effect made me feel like I was on holiday. That sensation was only accentuated by the soundtrack, which sounded like hotel lobby jazz covers of popular songs. I started out thinking the music was deeply naff, but by the end it had won me over and I’d used Shazam to work out who the band was (The Cooltrane Quartet, since you asked).

Service was bright, friendly and immediate. Rather than relegate it to the end of the review it deserves to be mentioned early and often, because the woman who looked after us all evening was brilliant. Every restaurant should have a front of house like this: warm, enthusiastic, likeable and with opinions about the dishes you ought to try. She brought us a couple of pints of Peroni (the drinks selection isn’t the widest at Buon Appetito) and we began the process of picking through the menu.

“I’m not a fussy eater, but there are four things I won’t eat” said Nick.

“What are they?” I mentally ran through my own list of no-nos, but apart from the obvious ones, like tripe, I could only come up with sweetcorn and dried fruit.

“Blue cheese, obviously. It’s mouldy. You’re literally eating mould.”

I couldn’t help but feel Nick was missing out, but I didn’t interject.

“And raw coriander. It’s awful, it just tastes soapy. It’s genetic, you know.” Having been closely associated with a coriander hater in the past, I’d been told this fact more times than I cared to recall. Can’t you just tell restaurants you’re allergic? I used to ask: apparently not.

“What are the other two?”

“Olives! They just always taste so bitter to me, it doesn’t matter what colour they are. And the last one’s marzipan.”

I could eat marzipan by the block, cutting it like cheese – I have, in my day – but I let that pass. I looked at the menu and mentally struck a virtual red pen through all the items with olives or blue cheese in them: it was more than a few (I was surprised, given our last meal out, that snails hadn’t made the list).

The menu was mainstream but better and more well put together than the one I remembered from my previous visit. It was compact in the right places – only four pasta mains, for instance – and more expansive where that made sense. It’s okay to have many different pizzas because ultimately many of the core ingredients are frequently the same. Pricing was consistent and reasonable – nearly all the pizzas and pasta dishes ranged between ten and fourteen pounds and starters were around the seven pound mark, or more expensive and big enough to share.

Pizzas were a mixture of recognisably Italian combinations – plenty of ‘nduja on there, and the classic Neopolitan pizza with anchovies, capers and olives – and options from further afield. The Honolulu and the Hawaiian, both of which featured pineapple, constituted the lunatic fringe. “I quite like pineapple on pizza” said Nick, “but I won’t order it: you’ll get hate mail from Italians.” I wondered what Italians would make of a vegetarian pizza called “Garden Of Eatin”, but perhaps they’d made their peace with that.

If all of our meal had been like our starters, the rating you’ve already scrolled down to check would have been lower. Calamari was decent, though: it mightn’t have had the tenderness of ultra-fresh squid, but it wasn’t rubbery either. It came with a gentle aioli: a bigger honk of garlic wouldn’t have gone amiss. Even so, it was better than the same dish at the Fisherman’s Cottage a few months back, by which token it was better than most calamari I’ve had in Reading over the years.

The other dish, king prawns with chorizo, was merely pleasant. They were nice plump prawns, three of them, with plenty of sweet flesh once you’d yanked off the head and opened up the shell. The problem was everything else. I know chorizo isn’t Italian, which made the dish potentially slightly incongruous. But worse, this chorizo was nothing special – thick, coarse and bouncy without heat or the terrific crimson oil that colours everything it touches. The menu said that this was cooked with garlic and extra virgin olive oil, but I got little or no garlic, just an anonymous orange puddle under the prawns that didn’t taste of enough.

I began to worry that history would repeat itself: I haven’t doled out a poor rating this year, and I’m somewhat dreading the first time I have an iffy meal on duty. But then our pizzas arrived and those worries, and indeed any other cares I might have had, dissipated in a cloud of carbs. Based on what I’d seen on social media I fully expected Buon Appetito’s 2021 pizzas to be an improvement on the one I had in 2016, but what I wasn’t prepared for is just how improved they would be. They weren’t just better than the previous one I’d eaten at Buon Appetito, they were better than any I’ve had in Reading and many I’ve had further afield.

Now, I can understand you being sceptical: it was only a few weeks ago that I said I might have discovered Reading’s best sandwich, and here I am saying that Buon Appetito does Reading’s best pizza. I couldn’t blame you for thinking I’m busting out hype for the sake of it. But I try hard to be sparing with the superlatives – not everywhere can be the best ever – and by any standards Buon Appetito’s pizza was extraordinary. The base was night and day compared to what I’d eaten before, with a beautifully bubbled, puffy crust with a little leopard-spotting and a deeply satisfying chewiness. 

The toppings – I’d gone for the Napoli, which has always been my ideal pizza – were superb. A great tomato base, just enough cheese, lots of salty anchovies, a judicious helping of sharp, tangy capers and those black olives Nick was so averse to. I think this particular pizza is the choice of salt and vinegar fans everywhere and when it’s perfectly in balance, as it was here, it’s a full-on, sing-at-the-top-of-your-voice truly joyous thing to eat. Better than Papa Gee’s, better than The Last Crumb’s, better even than Tuscany used to be. I loved it, and knowing I could rock up to Buon Appetito any time and order this pizza again for a mere eleven pounds was both a wonderful and a dangerous discovery. 

Nick’s pizza showcased that great base in a completely different direction. The “Calabrian” manages to appear on the menu twice, once halfway through and once at the end of the list of pizzas. But it was a masterpiece of pared-down simplicity – tomato sauce, mozzarella, clusters of ‘nduja, basil leaves: nothing else. Nick had never had ‘nduja before – in 2021, can you believe it? – and though he ordered it with abandon, he approached it with trepidation. “Yes, it’s hot, but it’s good” he said, just before our waitress came up and asked, part sympathetically, part playfully, whether he needed a glass of milk. “We have chilli oil, if you want to make it hotter” she added. But Nick was happy with his choice: from where I was sitting it looked a smart one.

“That was good, wasn’t it?” Nick said.

“It really was. Hold on, is that a Latin jazz cover version of Never Gonna Give You Up?”

“Certainly sounds like it.”

We asked for the dessert menu, because I’ve always felt it’s rude not to at least look. It was on the right side of too big, with four desserts and some variations on the theme of gelato and sorbetto, along with an espresso martini which had wandered over from the cocktail menu. “The panna cotta and tiramisu are the best ones” our waitress told us. “Although our banoffee pie is very good too. We import it from Italy, along with our Torta Rocher”. I suspect they come in frozen from a company called DiSotto, which also provides Buon Appetito’s ice cream and sorbet.  

We took our waitress’ advice. Nick’s tiramisu was a hefty helping, on the rustic side with huge, boozy savoiardi biscuits (or lady fingers, as you probably should no longer call them) and loads of mascarpone under a blanket of cocoa powder. He liked it, but was too full to make significant inroads into it. I gallantly stepped up purely so I could tell you what it was like, namely serviceable. Only now, looking at the DiSotto website, do I clock that they sell a defrost-it-yourself tiramisu which looks strikingly like this one. I’d love to think Buon Appetito makes its own, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

The panna cotta was a strange one: I’m used to it turned out and quivering on the plate whereas this one had been imprisoned in a little sundae dish. There was an enjoyable pistachio mousse underneath, the beautiful crunch of a candied pistachio crumb on top. All tasty enough, but it felt more like an upside-down, out-of-kilter cheesecake than a panna cotta. I’m not sure the panna cotta element – hemmed in, unable to wobble freely – worked.

“Pretty good” said Nick, “but not as good as Laura’s panna cotta.” I tried his other half’s panna cotta not long ago: he’s right.

The restaurant had a steady flow of customers throughout our meal without ever seeming busy. But it was a Wednesday evening close to payday: perhaps that was a factor. “Inside is very nice too, you should eat there next time” said our waitress as she brought the bill, along with a couple of shot glasses of a Kermit-green pistachio liqueur like next level Bailey’s. Three courses and two and a half pints each came to seventy-eight pounds, not including tip.

As I said, night and day; I still think that the place I went to five years ago left a lot to be desired, but aside from being in the same building and doing Italian cuisine I don’t see many remnants of the Buon Appetito that left me nonplussed. They’ve created a properly lovely space, the service is spot on and if part of the menu were merely not bad or even so-so, the plusses outweighed that in spades. The biggest of those plusses is the pizza, which for my money is one of the best I can remember.  

I wish there were more sunny days ahead, because few pleasures can match pizza and beer on a sunny day, but those little booths will be very inviting when the nights draw in, especially for those of us who aren’t sure how much indoor dining we plan to do in what remains of 2021. With Buon Appetito, Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen and the Nag’s Head, that little piece of West Reading is looking like the best gastronomic micro-climate the town has to offer. Chatham Street, a food hub: who’d have thought it?

Buon Appetito – 8.0
146-148 Chatham Street, Reading, RG1 7HT
0118 3276947

https://www.buonappetitoreading.co.uk
Delivery available: via Just Eat, Deliveroo, UberEats

Restaurant review: Medlar, Chelsea

All restaurants have distinct personalities, just like people. And, just like people, we encounter them in different ways: you might meet them by chance, or be introduced to them by friends. You decide you’d like to see them again, and over time the relationships you have with some restaurants become friendships themselves. You introduce your other friends to these places and you’re delighted when they hit it off, sad when they don’t quite gel.

Restaurants can be many different kinds of friends. There are the ones you see all the time, because they’re your neighbours, or the ones that live further away that you have to make an effort to visit. Ones you go to when you want to be cheered up by a night of dumb fun, and the ones you’re drawn to for a deep and meaningful evening. Ones where you can be yourself and come as you are, and ones where you must dress up and be on your best behaviour, become a marginally improved version of yourself.

Sometimes you don’t go to a restaurant for a long time, and when you return you’re reminded of exactly why you liked them. I saw one of my oldest friends a few weeks ago, the first time since last March, and although we had much to discuss, in all important respects we picked up where we’d left off. Some restaurants are like that. Restaurants see us at our best and our worst and they welcome us all the same, and conversely we forgive their off days, as we overlook them with people we care about. 

And, of course, those friendships sometimes end. We drift apart, our tastes change, we move towns, we lose them in divorces. Sometimes the restaurant simply ceases to be, and we mourn it. But there are always new restaurants to go to, new friends to make. Of course restaurants are like friends: we celebrate with them, we commiserate with them. We spend time with some of them to forget momentarily about our own lives, with others because they have become part of our lives.

That’s the genius of restaurants and the friendships they create. The best restaurants connect us to something bigger than us, they build a community. If you didn’t know that before, surely the last year and a half has written it in big. Look at the outpouring on social media when Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen reopened after sixteen months. It was like a friend coming home after far too long away. Some people felt surprisingly emotional when they went through those doors again, me included.

One of my oldest friendships, as restaurants go, is with Medlar in Chelsea. It’s been open for ten years, in which time it’s been written up by most restaurant critics, gained a Michelin star, lost it for reasons nobody could really fathom and dealt with it by shrugging and carrying on regardless. I must have been going to Medlar for eight years or so, with friends and family, pre and post divorce. I’ve introduced all manner of people to the joy of Medlar. The prices on the prix fixe have gained a few pounds over the years, but so have I. On my last visit, pre-pandemic, I took Zoë there to pop her Medlar cherry. We’d not been together long at that point, and I wondered what she’d make of it, but I needn’t have worried. She was an instant convert. She ordered better than me: I didn’t realise, at the time, that this was the shape of things to come.

When a restaurant has traded for ten years it becomes largely immune to trends, but, far from the hype machine, it risks getting forgotten. I went through a phase of eating at much-hyped London restaurants, the latest big thing each time, and I usually came away thinking “that was okay I guess, but I wouldn’t go back”. But Medlar wasn’t like that: I never had a bad meal, and even the least magnificent was on the money. So when I decided to go to London a few weeks back I asked on Twitter if anybody had any recommendations for al fresco dining. I’m sure the places mentioned in my replies would all have been worthy choices, but in the back of my mind I was always thinking or I could go back to Medlar: I was delighted when none of the suggestions caused me to hesitate, even for a second.

Medlar is in Chelsea, but not the nice part. If you go down the Kings Road it’s all very chi-chi until the Bluebird building (which Zoë tells me features frequently in Made In Chelsea: fucked if I know, I’ve never watched it) and then it starts to get scruffy. The Brutalist World’s End Estate – could a name conjure less hope? – is across the way and although Medlar itself looks genteel from the outside, it looks out on a branch of Mail Boxes Etc, over the road. 

Inside though, all is peaceful and calm. It’s a long thin room broken up into sections – a beautiful one at the back with sunshine flooding through a skylight, a middle one full of booths, all smart mint-green button-backed banquettes, and a plainer room at the front. We initially had booked one of the tables outside but the sun was scorching, so we moved to a table next to the open French doors, mini John Lewis fans on the table, whirring away. There were perspex screens between the tables, and everything felt safe and well spaced. 

Medlar runs a prix fixe menu for lunch and dinner, and lunch has always been a steal: I remember when it was thirty pounds for a three course lunch, outrageous value, but even now at forty pounds it still feels reasonable. There are seven options for each course, and some – crab raviolo with bisque sauce, duck egg tart with duck hearts and lardons – have been on the menu so long I imagine they have protected status. Perhaps that’s why they lost their Michelin star, for not being seasonal enough, but I’ve had both those classics more than once and I’d rather they kept the dishes than kept the star.

We started with a pair of stunning aged Comte gougeres. It was odd to taste Comte without that familiar crystalline grit, but odd in a good way, and the pastry was dense yet airy. By this point we’d been served a choice of bread from a wooden tray (Medlar’s focaccia is another thing of wonder) and we’d been brought water and a glass full of ice cubes, which was regularly taken away and replenished throughout our meal. We’d chosen our wine, and everything was right in my little world. A proper lunch, a leisurely one where you get through a bottle of wine and have nowhere you need to be afterwards, is a holiday in its own right, if you choose the right place.

Speaking of wine, that was the first misstep. We’d ordered a bottle of Riesling by Pegasus Bay, a stellar producer from New Zealand. They brought it, opened it and then explained that it wasn’t cold enough. So they poured a little into our glasses and took it away to try and get it colder quickly. But they didn’t succeed, because it was only reached the right temperature at the end of the meal, by which time we’d drunk most of it. It was still a fantastic wine, but we had it far from its best: given that it cost around sixty pounds I’d have expected them to give us the option to choose another, rather than opening it when it was barely chilled.

But the food was as good as I remembered. As on our previous visit, Zoë picked the best of the starters – thin slices of pork loin served in a sauce almost like a consommé, topped with thin, crisp onion rings, salty splinters of pecorino, girolles, cubes of fondant potato and a grassy, intense salsa verde. It was a dish where you could construct an almost infinite number of different forkfuls, each of them magical, and I looked at it with a level of envy that only intensified when I tried it.

“Pork, onion, potato and cheese – no wonder I love this dish” said Zoë. “It’s the Irish in me” (I look forward to the day when she has the passport to prove it).

I could have, should have gone for one of my favourite starters from the menu, for old time’s sake. But it was a hot day and I wanted to avoid the tried and tested, so I chose the gazpacho. If I wasn’t absolutely bowled over by it, that’s probably because it’s a soft-spoken dish even when done as skilfully and fastidiously as this. The cubes of scallop were super-fresh, pristine and elegant, but if I’d known it was padded out with cucumber – I’ve never been a fan – I would have chosen something else. Superb olive oil had been used but didn’t break through, hesitantly clearing its throat when it should have sung. Cobnuts added texture and a second dimension, but overall it was too mild-mannered for me. I consoled myself with another piece of focaccia.

By this time the restaurant was filling up. They charge reasonable corkage at lunchtime, which explained one chap lugging what appeared to be a jeroboam of claret. Medlar clearly has a reputation and a regular clientele, because many of the diners were well-upholstered: a florid, blazered buffer at the next table was humblebragging away to his friends (“I’m still seven hundred pounds in credit with the Royal Opera House” being one gem). I’ve missed people watching, and watching these people was another level completely from sitting in the Workhouse courtyard, seeing who wanders past.

Zoë’s main is a mainstay of the Medlar menu and if she hadn’t ordered it I would have – glorious, soft rump of beef, served pink and fanned out with blobs of shallot purée, along with a portobello mushroom stuffed with snails in Café De Paris butter. You also got a side salad and a hefty helping of a beautifully made Béarnaise, with an almost medicinal hum of tarragon. Zoë was sceptical about the snails in particular but I talked her into ordering it, reasoning that if she didn’t like them I could swap with her – so of course, when it came to it, she loved the whole lot. Again, no two forkfuls need be the same, but every forkful was marvellous.

My dish – bit of a theme here – was good but not at the same level. Barbary duck came pink, also fanned out (they love a bit of fanning around at Medlar) on mange tout, with a jug of a fantastically sticky jus. But the second half of the dish, the confit duck tart, was problematic. It felt like it had wandered in from a completely different meal, one where you wouldn’t have a sticky jus. But also, it wasn’t a tart: plonking ingredients on a thin disc of pastry as a means of displaying them doesn’t constitute a tart, however much you might want it to. So the stuff on the edible coaster – the confit duck, roasted courgette and tomato, the ribbons of fennel, even the almost-rubbery ricotta gnocchi – were very nice, but they had nothing to do with the rest. I know the weather lately has made us all uncertain whether it’s summer or winter: this dish had a similar identity crisis.

We ordered chips to go with both distinctly carb-free dishes. They come with more of that marvellous Béarnaise, but usually they’re better than they were that day: they didn’t have that brittle crunch they needed, although as a vehicle for tarragon-infused indulgence they did just fine.

The dessert course comes with suggested pairings, and this was the first time the restaurant felt truly pricey: the cheapest dessert wine came in at a tenner but the rest were in the region of fifteen pounds for a glass. I liked my Beerenauslese, which had a note of sharpness alongside the sweetness, and Zoë loved her Australian Riesling. But neither was worth quite that much money.

Never mind: gladly the dessert we’d both chosen properly saved the day. It was a festival of chocolate and cherry, a deep dark delice surrounded by dots of cherry and griottine cherries, crowned with an orb of almond ice cream and a brittle tuille made from cocoa nibs. The almond ice cream – extraordinarily smooth, with hints of marzipan – and the cherry lent the dish a touch of Bakewell, and the whole thing amounted to a proper desert island dessert. We ate it in silence, interrupted only by the duffer at the next table holding forth to his unfortunate friends.

As we waited for our bill, the staff brought over one last treat, velvety chocolate truffles and pieces of marshmallow which tasted of sweet, concentrated passion fruit, a little miracle. Aside from our slightly lukewarm wine, service was perfect – attentive but nicely distant, very efficient indeed, far better than service I’ve had at places which have retained their Michelin star (l’Ortolan springs to mind). Our three course meal, with a bottle of wine and a couple of glasses of dessert wine – and those gougeres right at the start – came to two hundred pounds, which included an optional 12.5% service charge. 

We left nicely full, edges a tad blurred, and strolled down the Kings Road, pausing now and again to stumble into a(nother) ridiculously expensive boutique. Exactly how many branches of Joe & The Juice does one road need? I thought to myself (the answer, as far as the Kings Road is concerned, is two). I tried on crazy glasses in Moscot – it turns out that Woody Allen-style glasses are best left to Allen – we ambled round Peter Jones, we walked to Belgravia and made a pilgrimage to Les Senteurs, one of my favourite shops on the planet. In the sunshine, you could nearly convince yourself that the city was almost normal.

So yes, it wasn’t a perfect meal. And Medlar might not have been completely at the top of its game when I visited them, but even on a relative off day they could teach pretty much any restaurant in Reading a thing or two – about food, about service, and about doing the same thing day in, day out for years, without getting bored, rebranding or chasing fads. It’s an underestimated quality in restaurateurs: the patience to build something up, to stay focused, to not lose interest. And if I picked Medlar up and dropped it, say, in the space Bill’s is currently wasting they would easily be one of the best restaurants the town has ever had. For my part, it was an absolute pleasure to go to London and catch up with an old friend. All things considered, I’d say they’re doing pretty well. I won’t leave it so long next time.

Medlar – 7.9
438 King’s Road, Chelsea, London SW10 0LJ
020 73491900

https://www.medlarrestaurant.co.uk

Restaurant review: Marmo, Bristol

What’s your favourite restaurant? Your absolute favourite, I mean. I ask because a couple of weeks ago I was sitting in my friends James and Liz’s back garden in Bristol, drinking white wine on a sunny afternoon and having exactly that conversation. The wedding we’d been to the day before – on a Wednesday, no less – was that miraculous thing, a wedding where you’re not hung over the morning after, and so the day stretched out in front of us, feeling partly like a Sunday, partly like something else.

James refused to take part: he didn’t believe in picking a single favourite. So we talked instead about possibly allowing everyone to choose three. But if anything, that made it more difficult, because then you had to pick at least one from your home town and then you were forced to choose just the two restaurants from everywhere else you have ever been. 

Liz said that you couldn’t pick somewhere you’d only been the once, but that didn’t help either. Zoë started waxing lyrical about Eetkaffee De Lieve, a little gem in the sidestreets of Ghent, and I daydreamed about sitting outside at Uvedoble in Malaga, demolishing a little brioche stuffed with suckling pig. But which restaurant in Bologna to pick? And how could you leave out Paris? It was just too much of a puzzler.

“I think my favourite restaurant right now is Marmo” said Liz – with a hint of trepidation, because we had a table booked there that evening. And I understood that nervousness better than most, because there’s little as nerve-wracking as telling people that somewhere is good, knowing they’ve gone there because of you and then sitting there waiting to find out whether they’ve lost all faith in your good opinion. I get that all the time.

We went to Marmo with Liz and James’ friends Ed and Ben, a very entertaining couple they’d been telling me about for some time. It was clear straight away, as we took our seats at a Belgian beer bar in the old city, that they liked the finer things in life, which always makes me feel like I’ve found my tribe but also brings out the imposter syndrome.

On our walk to the restaurant Ed and Ben asked me which restaurants I liked in Bristol, and I couldn’t help but feel that this was a test. I didn’t go to Bristol often enough to be on top of the latest developments, but then I mentioned my love of the sadly departed Wallfish, a little neighbourhood restaurant a stone’s throw from Clifton Suspension Bridge, and there was a tacit nod that indicated that I might have just about scraped a pass.

Marmo is a single, buzzy room – all handsome white wood panelling and framed prints on the walls that you daydream about nicking (I also would have loved one of the branded wineglasses, come to think of it). There’s a tiny kitchen at the back, clearly in view, where all the magic happens. Our table was in the heart of things, close to the bar, and I tried to remember what this place had looked like in its previous incarnation as Bar Buvette, a wine bar I’d loved that made you feel like you were somewhere in the eleventh arrondisement.

The menu made you want to order everything, and was compact enough that we nearly did. There were a few snacks and then a 3-4-2 formation of starters, mains and desserts respectively, with one fish dish and one vegetarian dish on offer for each course. The menu looked carb light, but the waiting staff explained that you could have an intermediate pasta course to fix that, as the Italians do, or just have some bread. Starters were around nine pounds, the most expensive main was eighteen pounds fifty. The wine list – of which Marmo seems particularly proud – had a superb selection of red, white and orange wines, with a few producers I’d heard of and many I fancied trying.

In short, it was a menu to get lost in, and we did that while drinking glasses of Muz vermouth, served properly with ice and a wedge of orange. I loved it, and said that the tangy, fruity note in it was strangely reminiscent of brown sauce. There was an awful moment while I waited for someone to tell me I was talking bollocks, and then to my huge relief there was agreement around the table (Zoë didn’t enjoy the rest of the vermouth from that point onwards: “I tried”, she told me later, “but all I could taste was the vinegars”).

Aperitivi deserve accompaniment, so we kicked off with Marmo’s textbook sourdough. It came with butter, which no doubt would have been fantastic, but we were all more keen to dip it in smoked cod roe, perfectly salty and pastel pink, with a pool of olive oil at its centre. Also pastel pink was the mortadella, draped over gnocco fritto, little fried parcels of joy. I’ve never liked mortadella, not even in Bologna, but I loved it here; Marmo, like the best restaurants, can make you enjoy ingredients you wouldn’t normally look at twice.

We’d been torn between a couple of white wines – one from Jura which would have had more funk, and a more conventional Riesling from Staffelter Hof, a producer I recognised because one of their wines crops up on Clay’s fancy new wine list. I tried to palm the casting vote off to Ed, who clearly knew his wine, and he eventually plumped for the Riesling (I’m sure the fact that it was called “Little Bastard” was an unintended bonus). 

But then the staff came over and said that they only had one bottle of Riesling left, so we went for one of each. Those of us who tried the Riesling were delighted by its cleanness, the slight effervescence on the tongue. Those who decided to drink the Jura were pleased to have picked something so unusual, with agricultural notes of scrumpy and sherry knocking about harmoniously in the same glass. We all changed ends at half time, tried the other white wine and in the end decided that they were both terrific.

By this time the starters had turned up, and I got my first sign that I was in for an evening of sustained brilliance. I had gone for smoked eel, beautifully muscular and only lightly smoked, on an oblong of crunchy fried polenta. So far so delicious, but teaming it up with bright cubes of beetroot and blackberries with a balsamic sweetness was a killer blow. I could have eaten this all the live long day, and it left me wanting more – or, to be more specific, another portion. That’s what great starters do.

Although it was the most popular starter, a couple of us tried something else. Liz spoke highly of her marinated peppers, buried under an avalanche of Ticklemore, and I could see that I would have been equally happy with that. Ed had chosen the beef tartare, topped with chives and a slow-cooked egg yolk, flavour soaking into the bread below. How could you have food envy when you’d enjoyed your own starter so much? 

I was sitting between Ed and Ben – the kind of civilised couple who don’t have to sit next to one another all evening – and, being a civilised couple, they passed plates back and forth across me, or behind me, or through me so that neither of them felt left out. But I was having such a good evening that I was more than happy to be the proverbial dumb waiter. 

They were in the holiday mood – Ed’s mother was visiting their cottage in the Chew Valley over the weekend and then they were off to Cornwall for a well-earned break eating and drinking their way around that part of the world. They would spend much of the following week in their own favourite restaurants. I recognised kindred spirits, the kind of people – like me – who plan a holiday entirely around lunches and dinners, who enjoy going to places they know and love, experiencing the comfort, familiarity and total relaxation that comes with a pilgrimage like that. At the tail end of my own holiday, I couldn’t help but feel envious.

Given that Marmo was at least nominally Italian, I felt like we should have at least one Italian wine with our meal, so I chose a Tuscan red called Infraded, a deep, velvety Syrah. Ordering wine had been delegated to me by this point, but I was almost merry enough to be happy with that. Again, I felt like I’d committed a faux pas when the waiter told us this one was best served chilled, but Ed reacted with delight and I decided that on balance, I’d got away with it. It was, as you can probably guess by this point, predictably wonderful, and I made a mental note to see if there was anywhere you could buy some when I got home and Bristol was just a distant, happy memory.

The main courses brought more fireworks. I’ve always heard Mangalitza pork spoken of in hushed tones as the Kobe beef of the pork world, but I’d never tried it before so I was keen to pick it off the menu. It came in glorious marbled slabs, just-pink and tender with the most beautiful melting fat: eating it I could understand why the Italians got so excited about lardo, and the idea of eating fat on its own. It was served simply with a handful of other elements, a wonderful caponata given a fresh edge with the judicious addition of fig, some good oil and a little slick of yoghurt. It was as good a single dish as I’ve eaten this year: I looked over at James, who had ordered the same thing, and saw him lost in a reverent silence.

That silence was eventually broken by Ed telling a story from the time when he used to manage a bookshop in Oxford.

“We had lots of celebrities in while I was there, but the best rider we ever had was from Roger Moore. And Roger Moore only asked for two things.”

“Really?” I tried to imagine exactly what vintage of Château Mouton Rothschild would feature in Sir Roger’s demands. “What were they?”

“A bottle of Jacob’s Creek and a Pret crayfish sandwich. That was all, every time. And by the end of a signing he was always absolutely fucked.”

This couldn’t help but make me warm to the great man. And of course, Ed had a picture on his phone of him with Jacob’s Bond, although it wasn’t clear how much wine had been taken by that point. Ed’s main course was a very attractive-looking pollock dish with mussels, and although he was taken with it, it it didn’t give me any buyer’s remorse about the Mangalitsa pork. Liz had chosen the vegetarian option, a very accomplished spinach and ricotta ravioli dish. Again, although it looked the part, missing out on it didn’t fill me with regret.

There were only two desserts on the menu and we all fancied the same one, the chocolate and hazelnut fritter, so five of us went for that while Ed nursed a grappa. It was an exemplary way to end the meal, a deep, smooth chocolate mousse, sharpened with cream and sandwiched between layers of the lightest of batters. Looking at the picture, it resembles nothing more than a witty dessert take on the ubiquitous burger: would that it was anywhere near as easy to get hold of, but it seems you have to travel to Bristol. We accompanied this with a sweet, fresh and generous glass of Coteaux de Layon (always a better bet than Sauternes, if you ever see it on a menu) – although Zoë had a negroni, because she’s developing a taste for them.

If I haven’t talked much about service it’s because they were so good. Completely unobtrusive but always there when you needed them, really friendly and enthusiastic and very good at what they did. We needed to pay at the same time as ordering our dessert so Ed and Ben could make their taxi on time, and all of that was no trouble and very efficiently sorted. 

Our meal for six, including a discretionary ten per cent service charge, came to just over four hundred and ninety pounds, or something like eighty-two pounds a head. That might sound like a lot, but we really went for it – aperitifs, snacks, a three course meal, plenty of wine and dessert wine. You could spend less and I have no doubt you’d still have a superb meal, and if you find yourself in Bristol at lunchtime they have a set menu which is even more impressive value. But either way I had no regrets – a couple of nights before I’d eaten at Paco Tapas, Bristol’s Michelin starred tapas restaurant, where I spent significantly more, eaten and drunk considerably less and not had quite as much fun. You pay for a meal, but you pay for memories too.

Even as I was eating at Marmo, I knew that the marker had been set down for the rest of this year and probably most of the next: as complete, satisfying and perfect three course meal as I could imagine. I would go to Bristol to eat here again, and I would plan trips to Bristol just so I could. It’s not my favourite restaurant – if only because you can’t give that accolade to somewhere you’ve only eaten at once – but it was my favourite meal for a long time. And if you ever wonder why I don’t give out higher ratings more often, this is why. I save the big guns for the great meals, and this is the kind of standard Reading restaurants need to aspire to, slowly but surely. I still hope we’ll get there. But in the meantime, we’ll just have to hop on a train.

Marmo – 9.4
31 Baldwin Street, Bristol, BS1 1RG
0117 3164987

https://www.marmo.restaurant