ER On Tour: Ghent

Ghent and I, in truth, didn’t get off to the best of starts. On my first full day there, it rained: not light, manageable drizzle but nasty, hard rain, the sort that pelts and punishes you, angled to ghost in under any brolly, however well you positioned it (not that any brolly lasted long before being turned inside out by the wind). And it was cold: properly cold, four degrees cold. I had packed for the temperatures my phone had predicted, and it turned out that my phone had made a mistake. By mid afternoon I’d decided that I’d also made a mistake coming to this godforsaken place, a point I made repeatedly to my other half as we shivered back in our apartment. I always went on holiday somewhere warm this time of year, I told her – Granada last year, Malaga the year before – so what on earth was I thinking? She did her best to humour me, but mainly I think she was trying to decide whether to wring out her trainers.

Fortunately for all concerned, the rain wore itself out. That evening was clear and crisp, the following morning was bright and sunny and dry and I got to spend the rest of my holiday realising just how wrong I’d been about Ghent (and apologising for my undignified strop the day before). I’d never been to Belgium before, so I had no idea what to expect beyond my dim memories of In Bruges, so I was anticipating chocolate-boxy medieval architecture, cosy snug bars selling eye-wateringly strong beer, chocolate and waffles and frites and church towers.

Ghent had all of those things, but what I really liked was that it also had a proper buzz about it, a real meeting point between the old and the new. So yes, there was all that history and grandeur but also there was verve and vitality, interesting food, design, loads of street art, the whole shebang. I quite fell in love with the city during my time there, and not long after I came home I took full advantage of Eurostar’s festive sale and bought tickets to return nice and early in 2019.

I don’t normally write pieces about my travels, because it’s nice to visit somewhere new and eat uncritically (or as uncritically as I can, anyway) for a change. But I’ve had a few requests over the years and as it happens I quite regretted not writing my gastronomic guide to Granada last year, or Bologna and Porto this year. So, for the first time ever on the blog, this is my pick of the places to eat and drink in Ghent. I hope it makes you slightly want to go to Ghent, or at least want to go on a city break, or at the very least I hope it makes you slightly peckish.

I should also acknowledge in advance that I too benefited from recommendations – from regular reader Steve, who has been to Ghent many times and gave me plenty of tips of where to go for dinner, and from Katie who happened to be visiting Ghent with work not long before I did and road-tested some of Steve’s recommendations. Some of the credit for this piece is rightfully theirs – although of course if it’s rubbish the blame is mine alone.

Where to eat

I only ever really have breakfast on holiday, and even then that usually consists of a full English if I’m away in this country and the closest thing I can find to pain au chocolat if I’m abroad (even the miniature ones they do in hotel breakfast buffets: I’m really not fussy). One of my happiest discoveries of Ghent was Himschoot, the impossibly pretty bakery a stone’s throw from the river. They sell a huge assortment of tempting delights, and I spent several mornings joining the queue and listening to the patter of the man running a cart just outside selling cuberdons, a conical sweet which happens to be a Belgian speciality.

The pain au chocolat at Himschoot, which were so good that they were all I ever bought there, came not only with beautiful dark chocolate inside but with rich chocolate icing on top, like a cronut before cronuts were ever A Thing. Standing outside, greedily scoffing one right out of the bag while planning where to go exploring next was a real daily highlight.

On the one occasion I did actually fancy brunch we wandered slightly further away from the centre, out in the direction of the university (although Ghent is compact enough that nowhere is exactly a schlep – and flat, which makes a pleasant change after many holidays in places like Porto and Granada which could be euphemistically described as a tad steep). We ended up in Pain Perdu, one of those effortlessly cool cafes mainland Europe seems to specialise in, all big windows and tasteful long communal tables where you can sit, chat, gesticulate and pretend you belong. I rather enjoyed the bacon and eggs – served in a bowl, which I found quite novel – although the big draw might well have been the basket of terrific bread. If only Reading had a place like this, I said, as usual.

My best lunch of the trip was, well, dinner at lunchtime. We went to Du Progres, a beautiful old-school brasserie on Korenmarkt, pretty much the tourist epicentre of Ghent and fortunately not named after Britain’s most irritating restaurant critic. Given the location, it ought to have been a way to part fools and their money (and in, say, London it probably would have been) but actually it was a cracking, rather grand place where I had chateaubriand so good I could have wept – all for something ridiculous like fifty Euros for two.

It was a a huge piece of superb beef, cooked as little as they could get away with and carved at the table into thick, luscious slices. The frites were everything I could have dreamed they would be, the mayonnaise game-changing. You got a choice of two different sauces, which basically meant that we had two lots of Bearnaise. There’s no other sauce for me really where steak is concerned: there is something about the combination of frites, Bearnaise and blood which always makes me feel like I could be in heaven. My other half had a big, complex, outrageously strong dark beer and I had a glass of red wine and we ate and grinned and relaxed: in a perfect world, every lunch might be like that. Even the salad was so beautifully dressed that I ate some of it, for crying out loud.

Dinners in Ghent were more of an eclectic bunch, but there still wasn’t a duff meal among them. On our first night we went to Otomat, probably the least typically Belgian venue of the trip. It was very much a hipster-pizza-by-numbers place, all exposed brick and faux school chairs (Franco-Belge Manca, you could say), but even so the food was quite lovely. The pizza dough is made with Belgian beer, a nice touch which I couldn’t remotely taste, and the toppings were interesting, if eccentric.

The menu is divided into “Otomat” – an anagram of tomato, something I didn’t notice straight away – and “Notomat”, or white pizzas. My favourite was a pizza with merguez sausage (called “Rock The Kasbah”, but let’s not hold it against them) which completely exceeded my expectations. When it arrived the big, ruddy cylinders of sausage made me worry that I’d accidentally ordered spam, but it turned out to be perfect: coarse, pungent and genuinely delicious.

That said, the real hit at Otomat was the “Butcher’s Dish”, an embarrassment of riches featuring ham, fennel salami, very mature cheese, houmous (which may have had a hint of cumin in it) and, best of all, stracciatella, the gooey, almost liquid cheese you tend to find at the heart of burrata. This dish was the very first thing I ate in Ghent, along with – just as importantly, if not more so – the first Belgian beer of the trip and it was hard to top as a way of knowing that you really were on holiday.

On our second night we went to Bodo, which felt much more like a restaurant for locals than for tourists (and was none the worse for it). It was another intimate, friendly place with beautiful service where you felt like you were in on the same secret as your fellow diners, but it also had a slightly more international bent and more of an emphasis on small plates. Of course, I may just be describing it that way because the two of us shared three starters. One of them, slow-cooked sweet, tender fennel with little blobs of goat’s curd, scattered with toasted seeds, was one of the most extraordinary things I ate on the entire trip.

Many of the other dishes were almost as good: a huge portion of panko-coated chicken with a rich curried sauce underneath, a deconstructed katsu, or a big slab of pink pork belly served with mustard and piccalilli (again, when it turned up I feared it was spam, but from the first mouthful all those worries evaporated). And then, to finish, a glass of white chocolate mascarpone topped with passion fruit couli, a dessert seemingly made of sunshine. I didn’t realise until much later that Michelin had given the place a Bib Gourmand, but based on the dinner I had I wasn’t at all surprised.

I promised myself I would eat proper Belgian food, because it can’t all be small plates and pizza, and the venue I chose for that was De Rechters, a very handsome restaurant looking out on Saint Bavo’s Cathedral. I never saw the Van Eyck altarpiece inside the Cathedral, but I spent a fair amount of time in the square outside either eating dinner or buying chocolate at the splendidly-named Chocolaterie Luc Van Hoorebeke, which probably tells you all you need to know about my priorities. I expected from the menu that De Rechters would be stuffy and old-school but actually the inside was more contemporary than classic, with slate-grey walls and bentwood chairs (the service was exemplary, too: friendly and properly welcoming).

But the food! I’d already been tipped off to try the appetiser of Comte cheese with local Tierenteyn mustard, and although I’ve never been a huge fan of mustard I can safely say that this completely converted me; a couple of days later I was in the very picturesque Tierenteyn shop picking up a jar to take home (the shop is easily found: it’s right next to Himschoot). Next time, I plan to get a considerably bigger jar of mustard. Or three.

The real lure, though, was the chance to try stoverij, the iconic Belgian stew of beef slow-cooked in dark beer. When it arrived it was yet another heavenly gastronomic experience in a long line of heavenly gastronomic experiences. The table bore all the burn marks of every little cast-iron casserole they’d ever set down in front of a hungry, grateful diner but even so there was something magical about my first time, as if the restaurant had never cooked it for anybody else before.

The sauce was rich and deep, simultaneously savoury and sweet but with the tiniest kick of mustard. The beef was yielding, every bit as perfect as the chateaubriand had been but completely different in terms of texture and give. And, of course, there was a bottomless supply of frites to either dip in more mayo or soak in that sauce. It might have been the hefty kick of the Westmalle Dubbel I was drinking, but this felt like a bucket list dish and a half.

Picking somewhere for my final meal in Ghent was especially tricky – how do you top all of that? – but fortunately, help was at hand. Steve, my man in the know, had told me about a place called Eetkaffee De Lieve in Patershol, the medieval heart of Ghent. He went there every time he was in the city, he said, and checking out the place’s Instagram feed I could see why – bread baked every day, a constantly changing menu and really beautiful (and beautifully photographed) dishes. I went with high expectations, and it surpassed every single one.

All the food I had was simply magnificent: first, a wonderful disc of earthy, sweet black pudding, soft inside and caramelised outside, accompanied by a sweet apple compote. I’ve always loved black pudding, but this was up there with the best I’ve ever had anywhere. Then there was confit chicken with shallots, wild mushrooms and the kind of sticky jus which perfects any plate. And finally, I had a tarte tatin with wondrous, glossy ice cream, dark speckles of vanilla in every spoonful. The service, as in so many restaurants in Ghent, was welcoming, proud and infectiously joyful and – as in so many restaurants in Ghent – I felt like I had found my happy place. I sat on the banquette, looking out on another dark, clean, contemporary dining room full of hip urban types, and I raised a glass to Steve and his excellent advice.

Where to drink

I love a Belgian beer, although my tastes run more to lighter stuff like a kriek or a framboise. So I may not be the best guide for these things: no doubt there are all kinds of dreary beer spods who can steer you much better in Ghent than I could. They would probably direct you to places like Trollkelder and Rock Circus which pride themselves on doing a gazillion different obscure beers in a big laminated pamphlet, and they’d probably try to catch them all like Pokemon, but that really wasn’t for me. I did go to De Dulle Griet, a big old pub with rather eccentric decor which apparently has the biggest selection in all of Ghent, and I thought it was okay but I didn’t find myself drawn to going back. Maybe if they’d done more food than just pate and plastic-wrapped crispbreads I might have found it easier to get on board.

I did absolutely love Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, right next to the river, with its cosy upstairs room and its decor which slightly made me think “90s student party”: it wasn’t a million miles from the old Bar Iguana, to be honest. I very much enjoyed the extensive list of beers (bottled and on draft) and, of course lots of different fruit beers for me to try with almost no shame at all – although they always set them down in front of my other half instead of me, which is both sweet and very misguided. I was sorry only to go there the once during my trip, and almost as disappointed not to visit ‘t Dreupelkot, the jenever bar next door. There’s always next time.

Another regret was waiting until my final night to discover ‘T Einde Der Beschaving (which apparently translates as “The End Of Civilisation”: at last, a Brexit-themed pub!) on a square next to Gravensteen castle. It was a slightly dreich evening – a shame, because the courtyard outside would have been a lovely place to drink in more clement circumstances – but it was a lovely, snug place and the barman was friendly and welcoming and seemed genuinely delighted to have customers. A very nice older lady at the bar sauntered over, asked us many questions about the motherland and, at the end of the evening, offered us her email address for tips if or when (when, as it turns out) we came back to Ghent. It was that kind of place, and it might not have been the fanciest pub in the world but I liked it a great deal.

The main reason so few of those places got the time they might have deserved, though, was Café Gitane. Oh, how I adored that place: in the space of my time in Ghent it easily made it onto my list of my favourite bars in all the world, rubbing shoulders with exalted company like Paris’ Le Barav, Liverpool’s Petit Café Du Coin and Granada’s Taberna La Tana. It was as French as it was Belgian, actually, with cosy, dimly lit tables, blood-red banquettes and a black and white tiled floor. The beer list was big enough to satisfy my other half and had the sweet and drinkable Ter Dolen Kriek on it for me. The music was jazz just modern enough to still be enjoyable and some of the clientele, especially the lady at the bar one night who decided to start singing completely out of nowhere, were brilliantly bonkers. It was a charcuterie plate away from perfection, but every time I went there I was already so well-fed that none of that mattered a jot.

“I wish there was a bar like this in Reading”, said my other half. “A good beer list, table service, good music and no wankers.”

I nodded sagely, deciding that our home town could really do with an excellent Belgian beer café, or more specifically just Gitane. It might well be one of my first stops when I return.

No section on drinks would be complete without also briefly mentioning coffee. I tried a few places in the city but my absolute standout favourite, a stone’s throw from Gitane, was Barista Zuivelbrug, one of two branches in Ghent. I’m normally a latte drinker, but the combination of Barista’s excellent coffee and Belgian chocolate made their mocha an absolute revelation and I enjoyed it so much I didn’t even care how much it would appal the purists. They also did nice-looking pastries and lunches, but of course I was usually a pain au chocolat to the good by then.

What to do

Well, if you’ve made it this far then you’ve probably figured out that my main idea of things to do on holiday fits into the previous two headings. But I will say that Ghent is a wonderful place just to wander and take in, especially if you enjoy architecture, photography, combining the two or just plain people-watching. I did visit the Design Museum – the blurb says that it “makes you aware of the great impact design has on your daily life”, but it mainly made me aware that, as an experience, the Design Museum in London is much better, err, designed (nice building, though). I didn’t go in the cathedral, but like I said I did buy some very appealing chocolate from the shop next door. I know, I know, I’m an appalling tourist. Next time I shall go to the Museum of Contemporary Art (the wonderfully-named S.M.A.K.) and generally try a little harder.

The thing I really, really enjoyed in Ghent, though, was the street art. There’s loads of it, seemingly everywhere. On one of our first days exploring the city we crossed the river and wandered up some side streets, turned a corner and just found this staring right back at us.

Further research revealed that Ghent is in fact famous for its street art, all over the city, and indeed some of its artists. So we downloaded the street art map from the Visit Ghent website and went on a truly enjoyable odyssey round the city, hopping from location to location. Some were small, subtle pieces, and some were jaw-dropping: the whole side of a building transformed into a massive, vivid canvas. The trip took us out into the docklands, another part of Ghent I’d like to see more of, and incredible industrial buildings, glass bricks and converted warehouses, hip-looking cafes on street corners. Every single dot on that map offered something new, many offered something stunning, and I could quite happy have whiled away another afternoon seeking out the whole lot. The picture below of rabbits by Ghent native ROA was probably my favourite find, and if I thought it looked familiar it was probably because I’ve also seen his work in London.

Where to stay

I really lucked out by booking Snooz Ap, an apartment very close to the centre and just round the corner from Graffiti Alley, another street art hotspot in Ghent. It was muted, tasteful, spacious and warm with a huge comfy bed like a cloud and a walk-in wet room to die for. It even had brilliant catering facilities, which I imagine would have come in very handy for a fundamentally very different kind of guest to me, and fridges and cupboards for room snacks (please tell me I’m not the only person who gets room snacks on holiday). I got my room through booking.com, although you can also book direct through their website.

Well, there you go, that’s Ghent in a nutshell. Normal service will be resumed next week with a review of a Reading restaurant, and I’ll try my best not to bore on about how everything is better on the continent (I still remember coming back from my holiday in Bologna earlier in the year and realising, to my horror, that I’d become one of Those People). But in summary I loved the place, far more than I ever expected to, and I can’t wait to go back. I left with a heavy heart and took a train to Rotterdam, a very different city with its amazing, hypermodern architecture, Brutalist buildings, colossal indoor street markets, cutting-edge craft breweries and stunning small plates restaurants. But that’s another story.

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Bierhaus

I felt at a disadvantage going to Bierhaus, the German restaurant on Queens Walk, with Ian, my stepfather. I don’t know a huge amount about beer – as anyone who’s ever read my reviews already knows – whereas he knows his way round a pilsner and a pale ale and used to work for one of the world’s biggest brewers, travelling all over the world and sampling all sorts. More significantly, he had been to Germany and I hadn’t. My knowledge of German stops at being able to ask my way to the town hall, proudly proclaim that I own a guinea pig or explain that my pen is broken (kaput, such a beautiful word). Oh, and I know how to tell people that my favourite pop group is Johnny Hates Jazz – although it never actually was, not even back then.

I’ve had friends tell me how wonderful Germany is, how clean and beautiful, how everyone is handsome and polite and speaks beautiful English. It sounds like somewhere one could quite happily live, let alone visit, and yet Munich, Berlin and Cologne have never quite made it to the top of the city break shortlist (Berlin, in particular, crops up regularly with people I know, usually in the sentence Oh my god, you absolutely must go to Berlin: I don’t much like being told what to do, so I never have).

I’m not sure why I’ve never made it out there. It could be repressed horror from those three years studying “Deutsche Heute” which mainly consisted of my schoolfriends making Franzi the Pig do awful, awful things through the medium of graffiti. But really I think it’s the food, which has never hugely appealed. I’ve never fallen over myself to try it, even to the point where I’ve always steered clear of the bratwurst place that crops up on the Oracle riverside every bloody year. Mystery meat? Nein danke. And the same goes for pork knuckle: who willingly eats a knuckle?

As a result of my ignorance I have no idea, for instance, whether restaurants in Germany look like Bierhaus. My instinctive reaction, though, is that they don’t. The passage it sits on, near the Hexagon and the Penta Hotel, does have a certain under-the-Stasi feel about it, but that might be as far as it goes. There were some tables outside, which felt a tad hopeful in October, but the inside was more difficult to warm to. I didn’t mind the front room – designed more as a bar with its bright orange stools – so much but I found the upstairs dining room odd. It had dark walls, dourly functional tables and chairs and a leopardskin effect pleather banquette which was several kinds of fake for the price of one. Everything was quite poorly lit (possibly with the aim of making sure you didn’t notice the banquette) and strangely there was a tiny stage in one corner: what it was for is anybody’s guess.

More random still were the enamel signs on the wall. Some were about beer, as you might expect, but many weren’t. There were also ones about coffee (All You Need Is Love And A Good Cup Of Coffee – haven’t these people heard of Toblerone?) and wine (Wine A Little You’ll Feel Better). Others were plain generic (Life Is Short Lick The Bowl, a mission statement which fails to stack up in so many ways). You could argue that their branding was confused, that they had strayed from their core concept. But really, it just felt like they’d got a job lot of these from TK Maxx and decided to go hell for leather and put them all up: a cosy wood-panelled room or snug bierkeller it wasn’t.

It was around this point, where I looked at the menu and looked around me, that I realised that Bierhaus was quite a curious beast. I’m used to the phenomenon, out in the shires, of the Restaurant Disguised As A Pub. You know the sort of place – picture-perfect, hell-bent on getting into the Good Food Guide, always banging on about being the perfect local pub but completely unwilling to seat you unless you’re eating there too; Berkshire and Oxfordshire are full of the blighters.

But until Bierhaus I’m not sure I’d ever seen the phenomenon in reverse. Because Bierhaus, make no mistake, is a pub disguised as a restaurant. It offers an extensive range of German beer on draft, nearly all of it at the five pound a pint mark, and it sells food but you order and pay at the bar. So far, so like Brewdog or Bluegrass, but at Bierhaus they genuinely don’t seem fussed whether you eat there or not.

“It’s a really good beer list” said my Ian, who had got cracking on a very nice pint of Erdinger. My Dortmunder Union by contrast was a classic pilsner if a bit nondescript, although I may be saying that with hindsight because everything I drank after that was a bit more interesting. All the draft beers came as halves, pints or – if you really fancied going for it – steins.

“There’s quite a good list of bottled beers from around the world too” I said, looking at the flip side of the drinks menu. “And Doombar, if you’re really lacking in imagination.”

“Your uncle would like that” said Ian with a wry smile. It was true, although in fairness the only beer my uncle has ever really taken against is Kaliber: that aside, they’re pretty much all fair game.

The food menu had a wide selection of starters and mains, and I noted that many of the starters were fried and much of the main courses were essentially meat and carbs (“It’s not a place for gluten-free vegans”, Ian said sagely, inadvertently turning it into a selling point). He also pointed out that the menu had changed since Bierhaus first opened a few years back, now offering the likes of nachos and wings to broaden the appeal. I also spotted a schnitzel salad, possibly the only dish to really offer what a close friend of mine likes to refer to as “garden”.

Our starters were all very much variations on a theme, possibly more so than we’d intended, being three different things breadcrumbed and fried. I wasn’t expecting that – the cheese sticks were meant to be beer battered and frickles are usually battered too – but, for all that, I liked all three starters we ordered. The cheese sticks – no idea what cheese it was – were good fun even if they were Bavaria by way of Iceland, and I was prepared to overlook the three pointless strips of raw pepper they came with (the menu said they were served with peppers: rules are rules, I suppose).

Ian said the frickles were the some of the best he’d had, and the coating on them had a surprising amount of kick. I had been expecting the thin crunch of a really good beer batter, but I found I didn’t mind its absence. And I really liked the sauerkraut balls – a Teutonic reimagining of arancini with a good contrast of sharpness and cheese. Ian was less convinced (“something more robust would have been nice”, he said – quite telling, as robustness was almost a calling card for much of the food).

All three starters were at or below the five pound mark and came with either average tartare sauce, a rather interesting spiced ketchup or, in the case of the cheese, cranberry sauce. Oh, and those three strips of red, yellow and orange pepper – let’s not forget those. But the peppers summed up the slight disconnect here – Bierhaus is a pub and many of the starters were essentially bar snacks, so why the faffy arrangement and the rectangular plates?

The very friendly waitress came and took our dishes away, her face almost ghostly through the application of industrial quantities of makeup.

“What was the name of the daughter in the Addams family?” asked Ian, and for a moment I couldn’t remember whether it was Dienstag or Mittwoch.

Another nice thing about the lack of fuss is that we felt completely unjudged ordering some nibbles, sitting there with our beers and taking our time to go up and order the rest. In the intervening time we both had a pint of Veltins, which I really enjoyed – it’s one of the more widely available beers Bierhaus does on draft but it was more complex and interesting than the Dortmunder Union. From there, Ian had a pint of the splendidly named Krommbacher (a sip tasted very nice indeed) and I moved on to the slightly fruitier and more delicate Früh Kölsch.

Everything came in branded glasses, everything I tried was thoroughly enjoyable and I started to feel like I could well understand the appeal of a laid back evening trying beers, eating carbs and having a good old gas. The only thing I couldn’t quite shake was the feeling that it ought to be happening in a nicer room. Bierhaus felt quiet for a Friday night, and I wondered whether its time might be coming now that winter was round the corner.

Ian had given me fair warning that he was going to order the schweinshaxe – the pork knuckle – but I never quite believed he was going to go through with it until he did. It was an enormous thing, more murder weapon than foodstuff, and he started to get to work on it with strangely appropriate efficiency. “I was psyched up for major surgery”, he told me later, “but it wasn’t necessary”. He was right: the meat fell away beautifully and tasted delicious. The outside was rich and sticky and covered in mustard seeds and herbs and all of it was very nice indeed (“not gelatinous or gristly” said Ian, summing up the two risks that had put me off ordering it).

Would I order it myself on a subsequent visit? Maybe, although the price tag (eighteen pounds) was a little stiff and the accompaniments weren’t anything to write home about. The bratkartoffeln – potatoes with bacon – were better described as potatoes with really not much bacon: it seemed churlish to complain when you were eating so much dead pig but even so they felt oversold. Not only that, but they had the oddly smooth texture of a long life product decanted from a foil packet rather than fresh potatoes fried in oil until everything was crispy and caramelised. There was more sauerkraut, which Ian didn’t like any more than in the starter, and some red cabbage. “Adequate”, he said, which ironically means it wasn’t good enough.

I was tempted to pick the schnitzel or goulash, both of which I remembered enjoying from visits a few years back, but in the end I decided to try the “Bierhaus rouladen”, a pork escalope rolled and stuffed with cheese and gherkin. I thought this might prove to be, by Bierhaus standards, the diet option and I suppose it was: the pork was beaten very thin, and nicely seasoned, but the whole thing felt out of kilter because it felt like there was easily as much gherkin as pork. Now, I absolutely love a gherkin, but even I’m not sure I’d make them the absolute centrepiece of a dish (Bierhaus’ Instagram feed suggests that I may have got an especially mingey version, but even so). It came with a nicely dressed salad and more of those oddly waxy, largely bacon-free potatoes, and I didn’t mind it but I did find myself gazing enviously at the enormous ham shank opposite me more than once: the acceptable face of gammon, I reckon.

We had a side dish of spaetzle: I’m pretty sure I’ve had spaetzle at Bierhaus on previous visits and liked it much more than this, but these noodles were fat, short, flat things with spring onion but little discernible cheese. We found it harder to finish than we did to pronounce, and that’s saying something. I did take a picture, but I’m doing us all a favour by not including it here.

We passed on dessert – it’s a very small selection, and my stepfather is prone to describing beer as “liquid cake”, so I guess you could argue we’d had one already. Dinner for the two of us – starters, mains, the spaetzle and the grand total of six pints and one half – came to just under eighty-two pounds, not including service. Perspective is key here, because that might feel like quite a lot to spend in a restaurant but it doesn’t feel such a terrible amount to spend on sinking a few pints in the pub with a meal vaguely attached. I haven’t said much about service but actually, what there was was lovely and friendly and welcoming, both at the bar when ordering drinks and food and at the table when they brought our dinner over.

When I started this review, I thought the biggest challenge would be avoiding hackneyed jokes about Germany: don’t mention the Fawlty Towers, you could say. But actually, now I come to write my conclusion the biggest challenge turns out to be deciding what I make of Bierhaus. Goodness knows, it doesn’t take long to reel off the minuses – it’s in a difficult and neglected part of town, the room is dark and lacking in atmosphere, the food is slightly lacking in consistency and you do have to really like beer (and possibly stodge). So far, so iffy.

What might surprise you, though, is that I found myself liking it all the same. It really is an excellent selection of German beer, and I liked everything I had. The best of the food is better than you perhaps expect it to be – and, in fairness, I’ve had some nicer food on previous visits than I did on this one. The service is spot on, and I rather admire their pluck and the way they’ve carved out a space in Reading’s restaurant scene in just under two years of trading. They make a decent fist of using Instagram, something many Reading restaurants struggle with. And actually, despite what my stepfather said about the menu, they’ve gone out of their way to provide vegetarian and vegan options which strikes me as awfully progressive for a German restaurant (although that’s not to say that I’d personally order them in a million years).

But actually, I think Ian, in his inimitable way, might have summed it up best. “The ambiance, the signage and the layout aren’t ever going to win it any awards”, he said, “but I’ve never had a bad time there.” And that, to me, says it all – because I’ve never had a bad time there either. It’s easy to get hung up on all the things a restaurant Should Be – an amazing room, flawless food, slick service, worthy piffle about provenance or plant-based dining – but actually restaurants are in the business of making sure we have a good time. And in some strange, almost amateurish, shouldn’t-work-but-somehow-does way which is beyond my powers of description, and against all odds, Bierhaus does precisely that.

Bierhaus – 7.3
8 Queens Walk, RG1 7QF
0118 9587171

http://www.bierhauspub.co.uk/

The Bottle & Glass Inn

Are you sitting comfortably? Do you have a drink: a cuppa, a beer or a gin (whatever your preference is, depending on when you’re reading this) to hand? Well rested and alert? Good, because we have lots to get through this week. Eighteen dishes, four courses, plenty of photos – so much in fact that I’m not sure whether I’m writing a review or organising a school trip (quiet at the back, you two). I’ll try to rein in my tendency to be prolix, and you’ll have to focus. Right, let’s do this.

It’s my fault we’re in this position. I went out to celebrate the fifth birthday of the blog – no, we don’t have time for me to wang on about that either – and I chose somewhere which looked special on paper. The Bottle & Glass Inn, in the pretty village of Binfield Heath, out towards Henley, had been on my wish list for a while. It reopened last year with great credentials, taken over by the former managers of London’s Michelin-starred pub the Harwood Arms. By October it had received a Michelin Plate, usually a sign that the tire-sellers consider a place marked for Great Things. How often do I review somewhere that’s been mentioned in Country Life, very much Edible Reading’s spiritual twin?

The other reason we have much to discuss is that on this occasion I went out on duty in a four. So it was my mother, my stepfather, my close friend Zoë and I (a team of all the talents if ever there was one) who pulled up outside the Bottle & Glass on a Friday night, ready to celebrate and – hopefully – to be wowed.

It’s a gorgeous pub. It’s thatched and beamed (it’s a listed building, unsurprisingly) and the bar looks like the comfiest, cosiest place to nurse a drink. Like many such places, they’ve built a tasteful extension where they actually feed people. I’ve sat in such extensions many times (The Wellington Arms, The Hind’s Head, The Crooked Billet and so on) and however nice they are you always feel a little like you’re missing out. Even so, the dining room in the Bottle & Glass was rather fetching: big capable tables, tastefully painted walls, a rather fetching green tweed banquette. Not perfect, though – the lack of softness and the bifold doors along one side made the room more deafening than buzzy, and the fact that there was another room beyond made this one feel a little like a fine dining corridor.

I liked the look of the menu, but it wasn’t without its complications to navigate. I know my mother well, and she didn’t take to it from the off; she doesn’t like pickles and, in one shape or another, they featured in every starter but one. The other complication was working out who would order what. My stepfather gallantly, insisted that we should all order separate courses (“for the blog”, he said). But that, combined with multiple requests of “can I order last?” turned the whole thing into one of those logic puzzles where X won’t sit on the right of Y, can’t sit opposite his ex-wife Z and is wearing red so can’t sit on the left of A (pretty soon logic puzzles will just involve trying to plan a dinner party for 12 people with a total of 6 different food allergies/intolerances/preferences, or whatever you call them nowadays).

Anyway, we eventually got there. And goodness knows we had plenty of time, because apart from bringing our wine – a very nice, robust Cahors which was just the wrong side of thirty pounds a bottle – we waited a long time, almost half an hour, before anybody came to take our order. It was especially frustrating as the menu had things in the “snacks” section that we fancied, and it would have been lovely to at least have those, and some bread, while solving our logic puzzle.

More disillusionment came when someone finally arrived at our table. They’d just sold their last of the grouse, he told us (maybe if they’d taken our order a bit sooner…). Worse still, they had run out of double cooked chips. Would we like some boiled new potatoes instead?

“That’s not really a very attractive offer, is it?” said my mum. The young waiter smiled blankly at her.

“How does anybody run out of chips?” I said after he had gone, incredulous. “I can understand you only have so many grouse, but chips?”

“Well, we are eating late” said my stepfather dryly (we’d turned up at half seven). “I don’t understand how you can have three side dishes on a menu and run out of one of them this early on a Friday night.”

The bread was the first to turn up: soda bread, still warm, two little loaves between four. It looked decent, but breaking it open none of us was hugely impressed – the taste was disconcertingly reminiscent of pretzels and, like pretzels, these were on the dry and chewy side, lacking in seasoning. “The butter’s too warm” said my mother, and she was right, although we’d been given so little it seemed a moot point. “The bread at the Black Rat is much better” she added, referencing Winchester’s Michelin-starred pub – a reasonable point of comparison – and that reminded me of their amazing squid ink and parmesan rolls. This wasn’t a patch on that, and none of us raced through it.

Our snacks arrived not long after. The scotch egg was a beast of a thing, and easily divisible between four. It looked the part, and the texture was note-perfect but seemingly at the expense of the taste: like the bread it was under-seasoned.

The other snack was beetroot houmous, which was topped with more beetroot and served with sourdough which was verging on cremated. I liked the houmous, and it came with a healthy whack of garlic, but personally I’d have liked more of it and could have done without the extra beetroot. It worried me that the kitchen seemed worse at cooking toast than me (“the taste of carbon might have complimented the garlic” said my stepfather later, “but that feels more like happenstance than grand design”).

What with the burnt toast, the bland Scotch egg, the AWOL chips and the lack of grouse we all felt faintly mutinous by the time our starters arrived, so it was a relief to find that they were an improvement. Zoë’s was the pick of the bunch – a big, delicate-tasting piece of salmon, poached so that it broke into large, handsome flakes. The bubbled, crisped salmon skin on top was delicious and light, and the pickled cucumber was sweet rather than sharp. It was also unquestionably the most generous of the starters: I had a mouthful and was more than slightly envious.

My stepfather’s starter was my second choice on paper – bresaola with smoked bone marrow and summer truffle sounds like all the good things. My forkful suggested that the bresaola, hidden underneath everything else, was the star of the show but the whole thing was too bland when on paper it should have been so much more (it reminded me, in fact, of the unedifying two months I spent on Tinder last year).

I had chosen the terrine, a slim slice of ham hock and foie gras which, neatly, was both clean and indulgent. Everything else on the plate went so well with it – golden, plump, sweet sultanas, pickled girolles and some kind of crumb or dust which tasted of the very best pork scratchings with the texture of the beautiful, salty powder left at the bottom of a packet. There was also some “violet mustard” which tasted, as far as I could tell, of mustard. So many tastes and textures here – sweet, sharp, salty and, of course, foie bloody gras – and so much to mix and match that, for once, I didn’t even feel like I would have liked some bread with it. Well, mostly. Like the bresaola, it had a little bit of frisée on top, as if to say See? It can’t all be delicious, you know.

My mother chose the only pickle-free starter, which contained plenty of unadvertised capers: I’ll let you imagine how happy she felt about that. Billed as a salad of tomatoes with curd, black olive caramel and tomato tea it was a pretty, artfully stacked bunch of tomatoes along with an odd pastry disc which had been added for seemingly no reason. If you like tomatoes this might well have been the dish for you, but my mother was left baffled by it and so, to be honest, was I. It’s the kind of dish I wouldn’t have ordered in a million years, and tasting some didn’t change my mind (interestingly the Bottle & Glass’ Twitter feed has since shown pictures of this dish reworked, so maybe they too weren’t convinced by it).

By this point, I increasingly thought it unlikely that all four of us would leave completely satisfied. My mother might have taken against the place, but I agreed that her main course was a little disappointing. Denied the grouse, she instead had the chicken. Now, I often think chicken can be a surprisingly good choice in a high end restaurant (especially if they can get the skin right), but the Bottle & Glass served up a gigantic chicken breast, no crispy skin, the usual sticky jus and some charred sweetcorn. There was also black garlic, which I really liked but which my mother found too sweet (sweetness in savoury food, and why it’s beyond the pale, is one of the culinary hills my mother is prepared to die on). Honourable mention has to go to the Maris Piper terrine, a gorgeous stack of wonderfully cooked potato, like a miniature pommes boulangère. Why couldn’t they have rustled some of that up for us, if they’d run out of chips? My mother left a fair bit of the chicken: my stepfather polished it off.

My dish was not just venison, but smoked venison – two pieces, seared on the outside but decidedly pink inside (“I think that looks a bit underdone” said my mother, but venison like Turkish delight has always worked for me). I’ve never had it smoked before and it was a revelation: on that basis the Bottle & Glass’ menu could do with a lot more smoking and a little less pickling. It came with the regulation Michelin-chasing sticky reduction, a purée which might have been celeriac, plenty of roasted shallots and rings of onion, sweet and caramelised and – this may have been why I ordered the dish – almost-crunchy nuggets of black pudding. This was more like it, although it did feel like a dish for the depths of winter plonked in the middle of the summer.

My stepfather is wont to order fish on a menu, when it looks interesting, and he chose the plaice with samphire, mussels and fennel. As you can see from the picture it was a delicate thing and, although he liked it, it was a too delicate for me. I tried some, and you couldn’t deny that the plaice was brilliantly cooked and the fennel lovely and sweet, but I did find myself thinking: where are the carbs? And where’s the rest? There was a little blob of white – possibly the advertised sorrel butter, possibly not – but I would have liked a good beurre blanc with this, or even a beurre noisette. “It was a good low carb option”, my stepfather emailed me later when I asked him for his thoughts, “as THERE WERE NO CHIPS”. Quite.

Zoë’s main was the best of the lot. Lamb rump and shoulder (thank heavens they didn’t wankily call it “lamb two ways”) was a very generous helping of pink rump and the highlight, a gorgeous piece of slow-cooked shoulder which simply fell apart. I was allowed to try that, and it was so terrific that I regretted my own menu choice. It made my helping of venison feel a tad stingy, put it that way. It came with artichoke and hasselback potatoes (teeny tiny ones which, again, were never going to redeem the Great Chip Shortage Of 2018), and some manner of green puree – pea, perhaps? – which had been plated up in a manner best described as unnecessarily spaffy.

We ordered some side dishes: neither of them added much but bulk. The new potatoes were nicely cooked and firm and tossed in butter and mint – or, according to the menu, “mint butter” – but the whole thing was oddly sweet. The Binfield Heath courgettes (“are they from an allotment then?” said my mother, slightly scornfully) might have ticked all the provenance boxes but really, the advertised thyme butter was missing in action and however multi-coloured they were, they remained big chunks of watery blandness. The sides were four pounds fifty each, and the main thing they achieved was to make me really want some chips.

By this point we’d run out of Cahors and three of us drank small glasses of Barbera d’Asti – it was pleasant enough, if lacking in the body and complexity of the red wine we’d just finished. That said, it reflects well that the Bottle & Glass offers quite a few wines by the glass and that, generally, you aren’t penalised for having smaller glasses. In preparation for the desserts to follow, we also ordered a couple of dessert wines. The Pedro Ximenez was, as it usually is, a treacly, sugary delight. My Banyuls was less impressive, again feeling slightly thin and lacking in the complex almost-sweetness you get with the best examples. By this stage I really wasn’t sure what I made of the Bottle & Glass: a feeling the desserts, as it turned out, would only compound.

Continuing the trend of the evening, Zoë had chosen the standout, my mother picked the wooden spoon and my stepfather and I were somewhere in the middle. My stepfather’s cheeseboard was a pretty decent offering, I thought – Barkham Blue (it sounds ungrateful to say this, but it feels like Barkham Blue is increasingly ubiquitous on cheeseboards: the victim of its own success, perhaps), a crumbly Lincolnshire Poacher – to my money the equal of any mature cheddar you can lay your hands on – and Bosworth Ash, a very creditable goat’s cheese. I do admire a place confident enough to give you good helpings of a few cheeses – a lot of a little rather, than a little of a lot. Nice crackers and chutney, too.

I had gone, as I so often do, for the chocolate dessert and it wasn’t bad, although not what I was expecting from the description. “Chocolate cream” did form part of it, and it was pleasant enough, and then there was a big slab of something partway between a brownie and a ganache which rather dominated the whole thing. The best bit of it was the mint ice cream, perched on top – the sweetness that hadn’t worked with the potatoes went brilliantly here. Good enough, but not particularly exciting.

Zoë was delighted by her dessert, because you can call it a date and walnut sponge all you like but when it turns up hot with butterscotch sauce and ice cream it’s basically sticky toffee pudding. Having to listen to the raptures, this time, was slightly tempered by knowing that I never really get food envy when dried fruit is concerned.

Having said that, my mother – tackling a pleasant, slightly prissy apple parfait with elderflower ice cream – might have felt differently. It looked pretty and clean, but when you’ve sat through two disappointing courses the last thing you want is a chaste goodbye kiss of a pudding. Even the post-dessert treats they brought over: chocolate coated honeycomb and fudge (which I suspect I enjoyed more than the other three) couldn’t undo all the damage.

I couldn’t help feeling that it was a meal of two halves. For the first half, service was lacklustre and some of the food we wanted just wasn’t available. During the second half of the meal service became almost too solicitous, as if they knew they had some ground to make up. My suspicion was just that they were swamped for the first hour or so, and that suspicion was confirmed when we settled up: they’d had a huge number of orders for fish and chips, they said, and something about not having enough potatoes, and being short of chefs, and at that point I’m sorry to say that, nice though the waiter was, I stopped listening. Perhaps I’m being unfair – quite possibly I am – but at the level the Bottle & Glass aspires to it’s partly about expectations, and they did a decent job of limboing under mine. Dinner for four – three courses each, some pre-dinner snacks, a bottle and a half of red wine and three glasses of dessert wine – came to £285, including a pre-added 12.5% service charge. You could definitely eat for less, though, and for the quality many of the dishes felt like really good value: especially that lamb.

With a meal this extensive, multi-faceted and complex I find it takes more time to digest the experience than the food. And the sheer variety of food we tried meant that we all had subtly different experiences: Zoë loved her meal, and was saying that she’d quite happily take her mother there for dinner. My own mother, on the other hand, won’t ever return: “I’d sooner go to back to the Crooked Billet” she said, as we pulled out of the car park. I can understand both points of view, and heaven knows the Crooked Billet isn’t the only competitor in these parts. You’re also not far from the superb Bird In Hand in Sonning Common and the very serviceable Reformation at Gallowstree Common, not to mention Orwell’s in Shiplake (N.B. Since writing this I’ve been advised that the Reformation has closed).

This is a well-to-do part of the country, and diners looking for good food in a pretty pub have plenty of choices. I’ve changed my mind several times about the Bottle & Glass even in the course of writing this review. I went away feeling a little underwhelmed, and then as I thought over the food I found myself revising my opinion. Some of it really was up there with any dishes I’ve had this year (although, in fairness, not necessarily the stuff I ordered on this visit). But then I think about the confusion of it: you serve dainty, precise food and yet you burn the toast. You proclaim how local your courgettes are at the same time as you run out of chips (can you tell I haven’t got over that?). And that, sadly, is what has stayed with me about the Bottle & Glass. So I didn’t have the perfect meal to celebrate my birthday, not by any means. But as a way of marking five years of eating, analysing and writing? Somehow it’s hard to think of a more appropriate venue.

The Bottle & Glass Inn – 7.4
Bones Lane, Binfield Heath, RG9 4JT
01491 412615

https://www.bottleandglassinn.com/

Brewdog

Regular readers might remember that I first attempted to review Brewdog about three months ago, unsuccessfully as it happens. I came, I saw, I was told they couldn’t even take orders for at least thirty minutes and I sodded off. To the Real Greek instead, in fact, where I had a surprisingly enjoyable meal with my friend Steve. He still messages me occasionally just to talk about sausage (the one at the Real Greek I should say, although I think Steve has a soft spot for most sausages, so to speak).

I decided I would leave Brewdog for another day when my frustration had subsided and I’d forgotten some of the faux wackiness which had slightly got my back up – the almost illegible menu and the zany pun-ridden dish names like “Hail Seitan” and “Clucky This Time”. So I turned up with my old friend Mike on a Monday night to check it out, hoping for better luck this time.

Much was different from my last visit. In May, Brewdog had been open less than two months and there was still a huge buzz about the place. It had been fuller and louder, whereas going back now it was definitely a quieter proposition – although that might also be because I went on a Monday. Another difference was that last time I turned up on spec, whereas this time I had had already booked a table.

The site has a chequered history. It’s been the Litten Tree, a properly purgatorial chain pub known to many Reading residents of a certain vintage as the “Shitten Tree”. It’s been RYND, with beautiful interiors, rock-hard cheap seating and bandwagon-chasing knock-off American barbecue food. And most recently it’s been Public, a venue whose selling point – if you see this as a selling point – was to have board games, fussball tables and pool tables. I imagine the trendsetters went there but wouldn’t have been seen dead in the Sun, on the opposite side of the road, with its thoroughly charming bar billiards table: nowhere near ironic enough.

RYND, for all its faults, did a beautiful job of exposing the brickwork and then Public cocked it all up with cheapo tiles and wood panelling, so it was lovely to see that Brewdog had restored the room to something like its former glory. The large central room does feel like a beer hall, with long tables and – no surprises here – industrial light fittings. I’d asked for a booth, and it would have been nice to have been seated at one of the ones in the main room to feel more like part of things, but instead they put us in the smaller area off to the left, very much the overflow car park of the restaurant.

On my last visit, poor Steve and I waited at our table in bewilderment for easily five minutes before realising that nobody was going to come to ask us what we wanted. At the time, I wrote this off as my mistake, thinking that Brewdog was far more like a pub than a restaurant. But another difference with this visit was that a very friendly, smiley waitress came over and asked us what we’d like to drink. I have no idea whether that’s because it was quieter, or because we’d booked a table or for some other reason, and it slightly bugs me that I can’t tell you which of my two visits was more representative.

The menu was, well, burgers and hot dogs. And two salads. I couldn’t help thinking that Brewdog might have put more effort and imagination – albeit misplaced – into the names of the dishes than the dishes themselves. I had my eye on a burger from my extensive research – the “Jackpot”, with its winning combination of black pudding, chorizo and blue cheese – but I was also determined to let Mike pick first. I’m lucky that people want to come out on duty with me, so I always try to make sure they aren’t eating their second choice of starter or main.

“I quite fancy the ‘Chipotle Chorizo’,” said Mike, which made perfect sense: his mum is Spanish, after all.

“That’s fine” I said through gritted teeth, dying slightly inside as the prospect of sampling the Jackpot receded into the middle distance. “I’ll just have one of the chicken burgers instead. I love southern fried chicken.”

My first choice of chicken burger would have been the “Buffalo Chicken”, but we’d also decided to have some of the buffalo cauliflower, so I ended up going for the “Cluck Norris”: southern fried chicken and avocado. I had a sneaking feeling I had picked the menu’s equivalent of a chicken korma at this point, but the die was cast. Besides, why whinge about it to Mike when I could bide my time and instead complain to literally dozens of readers? Think of the delayed gratification, I told myself as I drank my pint.

I suppose I should at least attempt to talk about the beer, so here goes: there are a whole range of Brewdog beers on tap along with others in bottles and a range of other guest beers. Nearly everything crosses the five pound a pint Rubicon which, in fairness, probably stopped being any kind of meaningful threshold at some point last year; nowadays you just pay whatever they charge you and if you wince when they tell you how much your round is, you’re either in the wrong place or pubs just aren’t for you. The menu helpfully made suggestions about which beers paired well with each burger (Mike followed this advice, because he’s that kind of person and I didn’t, because I’m not).

Mike declared himself very satisfied with the Punk IPA and the Dead Pony, the latter specifically chosen to go with his burger. “They sell Brewdog on the continent”, he told me (Mike spends most of the year swanning around Europe running coach tours: I like to think he’s like a twenty-first century Robin Askwith, although the lack of stories of swordsmanship suggests this might be wishful thinking), “but it’s really expensive over there.” The punchline was left hanging in the air: I couldn’t be bothered to claim it.

My beers, from the outer reaches of the list, were more interesting I thought, although that doesn’t guarantee that my descriptions of them will be. I had a pint of Lighthouse by Windswept which I really liked, a “Kolsch style lager” (it means it’s kind of German, apparently – you know, like the Royal Family) which was crisp, clean and just the right side of the dividing line between bland and delicate. The Windswept website says it’s best enjoyed after abseiling or archery, which strikes me as a shame because it means I’ll never get to enjoy it in optimum conditions: never mind, I’ll live.

I followed it up with a pint of “#MashTag2018” which seems to be a beer that’s part crowdsourced through polls every year. The 2018 version, which presumably was chosen by Russian bots, was infused with hibiscus and yuzu and I liked it a great deal; the sharp citrus added by the yuzu made it smarter than the average beer. Mike had a sip and decided to order a pint of himself after he’d lapped me. He then decided that it was more fun to sip a little of it than to wade through a pint of it, which I figured served him right. Karmic payback for stopping me hitting the Jackpot, perhaps.

The burgers at Brewdog cost between nine and ten pounds and fries (or sweet potato fries) are extra, so in terms of price it’s probably largely on a par with Honest. It’s taken me until this point in the review to mention the H word, but they were very much in my mind as I had my dinner because, for better or worse, 2018 is the year that they’ve become the benchmark for all burgers in this town.

Here’s something you’ll rarely hear me say: the problem with my chicken burger is that it had too much chicken. It’s honestly true – the unremarkable-looking seeded brioche had two large coated chicken breasts in it. That might have been a dream come true if the coating had tasted of anything, but in fact it had almost no flavour at all. A real shame, because it looked the part and the texture was great, but in terms of taste it was like a mirage of KFC. This also meant that the whole thing was unbalanced because the things it really needed – the avocado, the coriander, the Cajun mayo – simply couldn’t put up a fight against all that bland fried chicken. With proper coating, less chicken and more of the rest it could have been world-beating, but as it was I actually left some of it. A knife stuck needlessly out of the top, Excalibur-style, and I couldn’t tell whether it was decoration or punishment.

Mike’s “Chipotle Chorizo” was better, but still unspecial. The burger itself – very much cooked medium-well – was crumbly and dry and left me, again, thinking wistfully of Honest at the other end of town. The chorizo was by far the best thing in it – coarse, juicy and piquant – but the chipotle mayo didn’t add a lot and the padron peppers felt a bit random. There was one in the burger and another impaled on top of the bun – that knife trick again. I felt like Mike had got the better deal, but only in terms of shades of meh. Speaking of meh, the fries were wan and disappointing, and I didn’t have any desire to finish them all. Mike had upgraded to the sweet potato fries – they cost fifty pence extra – and this was money well spent, although probably money better spent would have involved not having fries at all.

The bright spot was the buffalo cauliflower, which we both agreed was quite the nicest thing we ate all evening. Big firm florets in a hot, sour glaze, and easily more interesting than the feature attraction, a scene-stealing bit part. But even this wasn’t perfect – I liked the coating but I’d have liked it to be crunchier and stick to the cauliflower a bit better. And, when it came to it, we paid eight pounds for it, so it really wasn’t much cheaper than the burgers. Perhaps by this point I’d just run out of magnanimity: it’s distinctly possible. There was a vegan dip with it, which tasted like a photocopy of salad cream and might have appealed, if you were a vegan.

This is all getting a bit crotchety, isn’t it? I should perhaps focus on the service because it was properly lovely. Our waitress (or, according to the bill, “server”) was likeable and cheery without ever seeming fake or making us feel like miserable old shits, not that we needed any help in that department. Our bill for two came to just shy of sixty pounds, excluding service (and the menu, randomly, also gives you the option to buy a pint of Punk IPA for the kitchen: I’m not sure that would have improved matters, but it might have been worth giving it a whirl). At the time that didn’t feel like a lot, but looking back it feels like money extracted somewhat by stealth.

It’s probably obvious by now that Brewdog wasn’t my bag at all, but what surprises me is that I honestly expected it to be better. It has a small menu and I thought sticking to a few things might mean they did them well, especially when you think about how considered their brand is and how much attention to detail they’ve put into the building, and the fit out. So it’s disappointing that the food was so drab; if I wanted that kind of meal I’d go to Honest, and if I wanted that range of beer I’d walk slightly further out of town and make for the Nag’s Head.

Of course, it’s possible that Brewdog was aiming for the sweet spot on the Venn diagram where beer drinkers and food fans meet, but somehow I doubt it. It felt like the food was just there to tick a box rather than to properly complement the beer, and I found that a little sad. It felt a lot like a slightly less corporate Oakford Social Club, but when you strip away the beards the experience is much the same. What Brewdog really highlighted, for me, is one of the big gaps in the market left here in Reading. Since I Love Paella left the Fisherman’s Cottage, punters have been left with a pretty stark choice: you can have a fantastic range of well-kept beer or you can have brilliant food, but – for now at least – you can’t have both.

Brewdog – 6.2
11 Castle Street, RG1 7SB
0118 9568755

https://www.brewdog.com/bars/uk/reading

Feature: Table for one

What a difference three years makes: back in 2015, when I last posted a guide to solo dining, I waxed lyrical about it as an experience but, truth be told, I didn’t do it that often. Now and again when my spouse went away on business, mainly, or on the odd occasion when I had a day off to myself, but my experience of it was more limited than my paean of praise made it sound. It probably shows in the piece, because – despite my best intentions – it read more as advice and consolation for those who found themselves unfortunate enough to be eating alone, rather than a celebration of the joys of a table for one.

These days I have a far richer experience of eating on your own, at all points on the spectrum. Separation, divorce, self-discovery, solo holidays, working out that some of your friends aren’t actually friends at all: all that Eat Pray Love bullshit has many effects but one of them, for me, was to give me a far better understanding of the benefits of going to a restaurant accompanied only by a copy of Private Eye (and my phone, for when the cynicism gets too much). Fast forward three years, and I’ve eaten on my own all over the place.

I’ve been jammed in at the bar at a hot – in both senses – packed no-reservation London place on a weekday lunchtime. I’ve spoiled myself by ordering from the a la carte menu at Nirvana Spa, in my fluffy white robe, peering at my paperback between courses. I’ve dined at Pierre Victoire, pretending to pay attention to a magazine while really people watching North Oxford’s finest eating and chatting, imagining all those different lives intersecting, albeit briefly, with mine. And last year I spent the best part of a week in Paris on my own, reinventing old favourites and discovering new ones. A good table, a good view, a good glass of wine and a good book, alone but not lonely; I might not have learned to completely love eating alone, but I certainly came to appreciate it.

Closer to home, there’s a lot to be said for a table for one and lots of occasions where it can be a positive pleasure. The quick solo meal on the way to meet friends in the pub, especially people from the “eating is cheating” brigade (just me, maybe, but I’ve always found that a dreary philosophy to live by). The drawn-out lunch on a Saturday when you have the day to yourself. Or even just the moment – and this might just be me – where I get off the train at Reading station (or Gare Du Ding, as I keep calling it) and I just can’t be arsed to cook. The sun is shining, I have nowhere in particular to be and I think how nice it would be to treat myself before heading home.

Not only has my life changed a lot in the last three years: Reading has too. Two of my choices last time around are not currently trading. I Love Paella has left the Fisherman’s Cottage (in contentious circumstances: less said about that the better) and Dolce Vita has left Kings Walk, forced out by a greedy landlord who wanted to make more money. If Namaste Kitchen was still running its menu from earlier in the year it would have made this list, because I couldn’t imagine anything finer than going there and having a beer, a plate of paneer pakora and a chicken chow mein (one of the joys of eating solo, in a small plates restaurant like Namaste Kitchen, is not having to share food for once).

And of course, I still miss Georgian Feast (the artist formerly known as Caucasian Spice Box) back when they cooked from the Turks Head. It became a regular ritual for me to head over there and eat on my own for the first half of last year: meatballs, spiced chicken thighs, sharply dressed salad and cheese bread – oh, and a pint of Strongbow Cloudy Apple. At the time I was living in a truly awful one bedroom flat, and it felt like having friends cook for you which, after a while, I suppose it sort of was; sometimes you can tell a lot about a restaurant by how it treats solo diners.

The other way that this list has changed since 2015 is that it reflects the rise of what, for want of a better phrase, I would call the Good Chain. Smaller, smarter chains are coming to Reading and they can often provide a little bit of the intimacy of an independent restaurant with some of the polish you associate with a bigger establishment. I make no apology for including so many of them here, because I’m interested in good restaurants – and good restaurants to eat alone in – and it’s not my fault that Reading doesn’t yet have the kind of independents, especially in the town centre, that get this stuff right.

I eat alone less often these days than I used to, nowadays, but a good meal alone is still a wonderful act of self-care, provided you pick the right venue. No quibbles about splitting the bill, nobody judging you for ordering too much, or having the expensive wine. No rush, nobody to please but yourself, and all that people watching. So here are my current recommendations – I hope they come in handy, and if you’ve always considered eating out on your own a step too far I really would encourage you to give it a try.

1. Bakery House

The perfect combination of food and anonymity.

I’ve grown to love an early evening meal alone at Bakery House. I sit facing out into that long, slightly chilly room, sip on an orange Mirinda (it’s basically Tango) and wait for the food to arrive. Some days I’ll munch on maqaneq: little, punchy sausages – you get an awful lot of them. On others I might go for the smooth, rich houmous beiruty, glossy and packed with tahini, beautiful piled on a big bubble of pitta, fresh from the oven.

That done, I can look forward to the main event. I tend to order the lamb shawarma – a big mound of intensely flavoured shreds of lamb, with garlic sauce, chilli sauce and terrific vegetable rice. But then there are also the delights of the boneless baby chicken, all charred skin and tender meat, a holiday on a plate. What could be better than being so transported?

The service at Bakery House can verge on standoffish, grumpy even. In other contexts that might be frustrating, but there’s something oddly comforting about how anonymous you can feel eating there. They don’t care whether you’re in a big group, on a date or alone, they’re simply there to bring you food and to leave you in peace. They’re like the barber that knows better than to talk to you when he’s cutting your hair, and some of my happiest, most meditative meals have taken place at Bakery House.

Bakery House, 82 London Street, RG1 4SJ
http://bakeryhouse.co

2. Cote

Three courses, because you deserve them.

Cote, for me, is for the full solo three course experience. Sitting on the banquette looking out into the room is one of the best, most uplifting ways that you can say “I deserve this”, whether you’re ordering from the set menu or the full a la carte. The latter sometimes has some brilliant specials – confit duck, perhaps, or the rare treat of a skate wing swimming with butter and festooned with capers (there isn’t much in life that rivals flipping a skate wing over halfway through eating it and realising that you have the thick side yet to come).

The set menu really comes into its own on summer days, when you can sit at a little table outside, with a view of the canal. I like to drink a Breton cider, crisp and almost sweet, and watch the world go by while I make my choices. Some of the dishes are good, and some are great, but all are stupidly reasonably priced, and the act of eating before 7pm means that you’re likely to be finished before the light has faded and the best of the evening has gone. I used to think “if I tried hard I could imagine I was in Paris right now”, but these days I think “I’m so lucky to live here.”

Cote, 9 The Oracle Centre, RG1 2AG
https://www.cote.co.uk/brasserie/reading

3. Franco Manca

Comfort food, elevated.

When it comes to comfort, little can top cheese on toast – and if anything can, it might be Franco Manca’s sourdough pizza. I have a real soft spot for their anchovy and caper version (ask for extra anchovies, because although Franco Manca is very reasonably priced you do to some extent get what you pay for). That said, their standard margarita is also worth a go, topped with whatever extras they have on the menu that day (the picture above, coppa and Ogleshield cheddar, was a particular high point). Oh, and have a blue cheese or pesto dip, because it really does transform the whole thing.

Franco Manca is perfect for a quick stop, but it’s actually not hard to make it more of a treat. Some of the starters – especially anything with mozzarella (smoked or otherwise), burrata or fennel salami – well worth lingering over, as long as you can overlook the fact that most of them are stuff you’d put on a pizza taken off a pizza and served cold on a plate instead. I can, anyway. And finally, the chocolate ice cream is pretty decent as is my personal favourite, a crafty affogato.

When I first reviewed Franco Manca I liked the food and was sceptical about the room, mainly because it was impossible to hear your dining companion. It turns out that really isn’t an issue when you go on your own, which means that what could be a wall of noise becomes a strangely comforting hubbub. Sitting outside, on a summer day, is also a lovely thing to do.

Franco Manca, The Oracle, Bridge Street, RG1 2AT
https://www.francomanca.co.uk/restaurants/reading

4. Honest Burgers

Meat and potatoes.

I said the Good Chains had this eating alone business down pat, and you would struggle to find a better example of that than Honest Burgers. Much has been made, quite rightly, of what a beautiful job they did with the interior. And plenty has been written about the virtues of the Reading burger, making the most of our local suppliers. Not to mention the King Street Pale, a truly wonderful beer which even I, more of a lager fan, can neck by the pint.

Well, yes. But for my money, the best thing to do at Honest is forego the Reading special and whatever the flavour of the month is and let Honest do what they do best, which is serve cheeseburgers. I go for their most basic burger, topped with cheddar, and that way you can really taste the quality of the beef, the char of the crust, the hint of salt.

Your mileage may vary, but in any case it really is another fantastic venue to eat well and unfussily, especially if you have somewhere to go shortly afterwards. My stepfather has got into the habit of grabbing an Honest before taking in a movie at Vue, and he is a man who knows what he’s doing.

Honest Burgers, 1-5 King Street, RG1 2HB
https://www.honestburgers.co.uk/locations/reading/

5. Kokoro

Dinner on the run.

Kokoro is an illustration of what I call the “yaki soba effect”. Back when I used to go to Wagamama, I always ordered the yaki soba, a big heap of noodles with chicken and prawns and pickled ginger and plenty of good stuff. It never let me down, and became my takeaway of choice for a while. Then I decided I really ought to branch out, but every time I did my meal was plain disappointing – and, usually, I had to watch someone else eat yaki soba in front of me while I pretended to enjoy chicken katsu curry (a dish which always looks a tad too scatological for my liking).

Kokoro is the same – it’s all about the sweet chilli chicken. I mean, just look at that picture up there. Look at it! Doesn’t it make you peckish? A glossy, fiery deep red sauce (and these days they give you enough to coat the rice or noodles) with clearly visible garlic – the best kind of garlic, if you ask me – and piece after piece of tender, crispy-coated chicken. They serve it in either a medium or a large cardboard tub: the medium is quite big enough for anybody, but the large only costs a pound more. The whole thing comes in at the six or seven quid mark, and it’s one of the very best dinners on the run Reading has to offer. You sit at a basic wooden table, polish it off and watch other people come in and place their orders – usually for the sweet chilli chicken, unsurprisingly.

Last time I went, I decided to try the chicken curry instead. It had lots of tender, chicken thigh cooked into strands. It had an anonymous brown sauce which tasted largely of nothing. It was, in short, not the sweet chilli chicken, and that’s when I realised that I won’t make that mistake again. Kokoro also sells chicken katsu curry, but who on earth orders that? People who don’t like the yaki soba at Wagamama, I suppose.

Kokoro, 13 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1SY
http://kokorouk.com/

6. Sapana Home

Because the best things come in multiples of ten.

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Ten pan-fried chicken momo cost six pounds fifty at Sapana Home. They come on a plate, clustered round a little dish of hot dipping sauce, and when you have them pan fried they have a slightly caramelised exterior which seals the deal. A plate of Sapana Home’s momo, I think, can gladden even the heaviest heart. My favourite momo is the fifth one: before that, they pass too quickly and you eat them almost without savouring them, whereas after that you are maybe a little too aware that your pleasure – as most pleasures do – is inevitably coming to an end.

There are other dishes there I recommend, if you’re feeling greedy. The chicken fry is wonderful – pieces of chicken, spring onion and tomato with that same hot sauce. The chow mein, which is fundamentally the chicken fry plus noodles, is also splendid. And if you feel more adventurous I heartily recommend the samosa chaat, a glorious four-way pile-up involving samosas, yoghurt, crispy noodles and red onion.

Late 2016, when I took a break from reviewing restaurants, was a pretty bleak period in my life. Nothing was going right, and when I finished work and got back into town on the train I really didn’t want to go home any time soon, much of the time. What got me through many difficult days, back then, was a plate of momo at Sapana Home. It’s a little place, and it’s best to sit upstairs if you can, where there is daylight. The service is brusque but not unkind. There was a period when sitting there, eating momo and listening to the oddly comforting (if mindless) strains of Heart FM was truly my happy place.

If any further illustration was needed, it’s this. The photo above was taken last night: writing this made me want to go back, so I did. Things have changed a little since I last went: the music was classic Bollywood rather than commercial radio, and the momo (they now do lamb too, although I didn’t order them) were slightly less packed with filling, lighter and more delicate. It was like seeing an old friend after a while and realising they’ve lost weight. I did, for a moment, consider putting Kings Grill in this sixth spot instead. But I’ve kept Sapana Home on this list – it may be mainly for sentimental reasons, but momos six to ten were still as bittersweet.

Sapana Home, 8 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1TG
http://sapanahome.co.uk/