Takeaway review: The Reading Room at the Roseate Hotel

Normally with my reviews, as most of you know by now, you get a preamble. That’s the bit before I talk about the food – the bit some of you think is too long – that gives some context and explains why, this week of all weeks, I picked this restaurant of all restaurants.

I had a preamble all ready in my mind for this week’s delivery from The Reading Room, the restaurant that’s part of the Roseate Hotel. You know, what used to be Cerise in what used to be in the Forbury Hotel. In it, I was going to talk about how, oddly in 2020, Reading’s high-end dining scene saw more activity than you’d expect in the middle of a global pandemic. The Reading Room launched with a new fine dining offering and then the Corn Stores reopened with a constantly-changing Michelin-chasing tasting menu.

I would have gone on to say that both restaurants have pivoted in different directions in lockdown. The Corn Stores seems to have been offering a fancy, expensive, heat-at-home option, in keeping with other highly regarded restaurants nationwide (although best of luck finding any details on their website). By contrast, the Reading Room has chosen to offer gourmet burgers via the usual delivery apps, a limited menu focusing on quality.

I know, burgers. But then I remembered that it’s three years since I reviewed Honest Burgers, during which time they have established themselves at Reading’s favourite burger, the Coke to 7Bone’s Pepsi. And I wondered whether the Reading Room was a genuine contender to that undisputed primacy, so I decided to place an order and see whether they lived up to the promise.

Unfortunately, that preamble has been derailed somewhat by the Apocalypse Now of delivery experiences, one so horrendous that I can’t imagine myself ordering from the Reading Room again, or using Uber Eats for the foreseeable future. Those of you who enjoy my misfortune, and I know there are a few of you, will enjoy picking through the debris of this one. For my part, I’ll just tell you what happened and maybe you can decide whose fault, if anybody’s, it all was.

The Reading Room delivers through all three main delivery partners, but I fired up Uber Eats on a weekday evening to make my choices. The Reading Room’s options were nicely compact: there are three beef burgers, a chicken burger, a pulled pork burger, a “lean turkey burger” (do you reckon that really appeals to anybody?) and a couple of vegan and vegetarian options. They all come with fries and there are a few optional sides – chicken wings, onion rings, that kind of thing. The limited range was more Honest than 7Bone, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I placed an order at quarter past seven and twenty minutes later the app told me my driver was en route. It said he was making another stop on the way to my house, although the map of his route made it look like he was heading all the way across to the other end of town, but I decided to reserve judgment. And sure enough, he was outside my house ten minutes later, holding out a bag to me. So far so good, except that it had a Tasty Greek Souvlaki sticker on it, and somebody else’s surname scrawled on it in biro, all block caps.

“I’m really sorry, but this isn’t my order.” Funny how we always apologise in these circumstances.

“But this is the right address.”

“It might be, but I didn’t order from this restaurant and that isn’t my surname. We ordered from the Roseate Hotel, the burger place. The app said this was your second stop, are you sure you didn’t deliver our food to them?”

“No, I had to drop something off at the Roseate Hotel.”

This made no sense.

“Hold on a second” he said. A car was trying to pass on our narrow one way street, so he pulled away. I assumed he’d come back to continue the conversation, but no – he had vanished, never to return. Shortly after this, my phone pinged to notify me that the order had been cancelled and I wouldn’t be charged. I have no idea why they didn’t send me my food, but they fixed it quickly and the driver was perfectly pleasant, if a little rabbit in the headlights, so up to this point I had no complaints. Uber Eats even gave me five pounds off my next order, which seemed very nice of them.

I did what I expect most people would do in my situation: I fired up the app and reordered the same dishes. With hindsight, maybe I should have cut my losses: the alarm bells rang when about eight minutes later the app informed me that a driver was on his way with my food.

“That’s far too quick for them to cook it all again from scratch, isn’t it?” said my other half, Zoë. Quite.

Our second driver, who was also perfectly pleasant, pulled up in a black cab and got out holding a paper bag with our order in it. He may have had an insulated bag on the back seat but if so, I didn’t see it.

“I’m concerned that this might be my original order, which was ready over half an hour ago.” I said. “This has arrived far too quickly to be a new order. Can you wait while we just check if it’s hot?”

“Sure” he said. We took it into the kitchen and opened it up. It felt around half an hour from being hot – surely it had to be the original order, given that it had arrived so quickly? If they’d cooked it straight away at speed and the driver had scrambled it to us in five minutes flat, I would have expected it to be piping hot.

“I’m sorry,” I said – sorry again, for some reason which escapes me – “but this isn’t hot.”

“You’ll have to take it up with Uber Eats, I’m just the delivery driver” he said, and like that he sped off into the night. So, it was a lukewarm burger and chips for dinner and my main task was to try and work out whether, if it had been hot, it would have been the worldbeating burger you would hope to get from what used to be the Forbury Hotel. 

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that it’s a no from me. I went for the “Reading Room Prime Steak Burger”, their premium option with mushrooms, Stilton, tomato relish and “sticky bacon” which I opted to add on. According to Uber Eats the meat is “sourced from the Windrush Valley at the food of the Cotswold Hills”. 

Well, bits of it were nice. The Stilton had a good salty kick and I didn’t mind the tomato relish at all. But the bacon was a flaccid rasher of back, more icky than sticky, and the burger was chewy and unseasoned, grey rather than pink in the middle. I can only guess whether it would have been better straight out of the kitchen – possibly, yes, and that half an hour delay would have seen to any remaining juiciness, but the whole thing was dry and tasteless and I suspect that would have been the case one way or the other. The chips weren’t good either: the last time I had half an hour old chips was in a staff canteen, and even they were better than the Reading Room’s “skin on chips”.

Zoë’s pulled pork burger was a little better – “it’s stayed hotter because it has this big rosti on top of it”. The patty was minced pork, the rosti was apparently pretty good and there were some tender pieces of pork belly on top of the whole thing. “I’d probably order this again” was her verdict, although it’s hard to imagine a situation where that will ever happen. I’m not sure that you could ever describe this as a pulled pork burger, though, unless by “pulled” they meant “pulled a fast one”.

I don’t hugely like chicken wings as a rule, but my burger and chips were so dismal – I didn’t finish either – that I decided to try them. One was pleasant enough, the second had a fishy aftertaste which I couldn’t put my finger on. They were pretty much stone cold. Zoë, who does like chicken wings, could only manage one. “They’re overcooked and dry” was her verdict. A meal like this is barely a meal at all. It’s worse than a meal, the absence of a meal, and was worse than any of the things I could have cooked up with the contents of my fridge. 

After what passed for my dinner, I tried to get in touch with Uber Eats to complain about my cold, late food. Their app does everything it can to guarantee that you can’t speak to a human or call a phone number – to Deliveroo’s credit, they are at least contactable – but I went through the options on their help section and was told that somebody from Uber Eats would be in touch about the issues I’d raised. You can’t fault their promptness, because in less than half an hour I received an email. It didn’t give a phone number, an email address or any way to get in touch with them if you found the response inadequate, which is interesting given what it said. Here is a screenshot.

I contacted Uber Eats on Twitter to see if they wanted to talk about this, but I didn’t hold out much hope. Looking at their mentions, it seems they take over 24 hours to respond to unhappy customers, and I’m guessing that’s because there are so many of them.

“My food took 30mins to arrive after leaving. I’m one mile away. Food stone cold and incorrect” said one. In another, Uber Eats said that they couldn’t do anything because the order was placed 48 hours ago, although it probably took them that long to pick up on the complaining Tweet. “You keep sending me an automated message and ignoring the situation” said a third. My 29p credit probably puts me in the top percentile of people whose dinner plans are ruined. The worst thing is that it’s a credit not a refund, so I can’t even go crazy, go out and blow it all on some Space Raiders.

This is the tricky thing about this model with a middle man involved: the driver says you should complain to Uber Eats, whereas Uber Eats’ line is that you should just give the restaurant a poor rating on the app. I did consider contacting the Reading Room to get their feedback, but the website lists no phone number or contact details and the Twitter feed hasn’t uttered a word since summer 2019. It’s almost like they don’t want customers, which is probably for the best under the circumstances: I can’t see them getting any from this review.

I still don’t really know whose fault it was that I had such a dire meal. Was it Uber Eats, for some kind of software snafu that meant I never got my order from Driver A? Was it Driver A for making it to the Roseate and not realising that he was meant to collect some food there? Or was it the restaurant for seeing the second order coming in and thinking “well, we have that sitting here under the pass and we’ll only have to throw it away”? And weirdest of all, I’m giving the restaurant the benefit of the doubt by assuming that they sent out my food that had been sitting under the lights for half an hour – if it was a brand new order that turned up to my house, tepid and underwhelming, that would reflect even worse on them. 

Or, equally plausibly, maybe I am just a moron who should have foreseen that this was exactly what would happen if I tried to order exactly the same dishes all over again. Who knows? Answers on a postcard. In the meantime if you want a burger delivered to your home stick to Honest, and if you can order a takeaway directly from the restaurant instead of using a third party please do.

In any event, if you really do want Reading’s best burger these days, you need to make your way to Blue Collar on a Wednesday lunchtime and grab one from the dubiously-named Meat Juice. It only comes one way – with proper bacon, a slab of mature Cheddar, burger sauce and pickled red onion. The patty is made from minced chuck steak, perfectly seasoned with just a hint of chilli in the mix. There aren’t any fries with it and it will only set you back six pounds fifty. Eaten on a bench just round the corner from Market Place it is pretty damn close to perfection. 

Having said that, if you want a better meal than the one I had at the Reading Room, you could just go out and buy some Space Raiders: they would outperform it in pretty much every respect. I’d give you the money for that myself but I’m afraid it’s resting, Father Ted-style, in my Uber Eats account, unlikely ever to be redeemed.

The Reading Room
The Roseate Hotel, 26 The Forbury, Reading, RG1 3EJ
0118 9527770

https://www.roseatehotels.com/reading/theroseate/
Order via: Deliveroo, JustEat or Uber Eats

Q&A: Nandana Syamala, Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen

Nandana Syamala moved to the U.K. from India on Christmas Day 2004, and after living in London for over ten years she and her husband Sharat relocated to Reading to pursue their dream of opening a restaurant together. Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen opened on London Street in June 2018, and since then has firmly established itself as one of the jewels of Reading’s independent restaurant scene, winning awards and converting the town to now iconic dishes like kodi chips, squid pakora, crab fry, bhuna venison and its trademark clay pot biryanis.

Clay’s has spent some of the time since lockdown began cooking 100 meals a day for the Whitley Community Development Organisation. In the next couple of weeks they will launch a new service selling a brand new, regularly-changing menu of vacuum-packed, chilled meals for delivery, initially in Reading only but with plans to expand nationwide. A hot food delivery service in Reading is due to follow further down the line.

What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown?
Eating out at our favourite restaurants in our free time, and I also dearly miss all the happy hugs I get from our diners. 

What’s your earliest memory of food?
Chicken legs. My mom used to cook pan-fried chicken legs. We were three siblings and we got one each. My dad still tells stories to anyone who will listen (or even just pretend to listen) about how we used to hold our chicken leg, move into a corner of the room and eat it with so much concentration it was almost funny, like a cartoon. We were all under five years old.

How have you changed as a result of running a restaurant for nearly two years?
I don’t know if this makes any sense but Clay’s is a brand new adventure for me and I’m not sure if running it has changed me, or whether I’m discovering parts of myself that were always there but had just never come to the surface. So I had to ask my friends for help with this question, as I couldn’t judge for myself. Some of them said they don’t get to see me enough to detect any changes, one said I have become modest (but he is known for his sarcasm!) The majority have said that I’ve become slightly more pragmatic and a little less idealistic, but there’s still a long way to go before they’re in balance! I’m not sure that’s where I want to end up, though.

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
The way it feels like a big city but also a community town at the same time. The way the people are so warm and helpful most of the time and the way all the independent businesses are so supportive of each other. I also love the fact that there are so many areas of outstanding natural beauty only ten to fifteen minutes’ drive away.

What is the worst job you’ve done?
My first job, back when I was doing my bachelor’s degree. I worked at a pre-school and I was teaching the kids the English alphabet. I was having trouble with one girl and was trying really hard to make her trace a letter and suddenly she grabbed the ruler I had in my hand and hit me with it! I laugh out loud whenever I think of it now, but it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and I hated it so much that I left within a month. I’ll forever have so much respect for people who do it so well. I did get to buy a birthday gift for my best friend and a watch for my younger brother though: it took me more than twenty years to buy something with my own money again for my brother, so I guess that job was also special in spite of it being the worst.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
There are quite a few that have moved me, but I’ve watched The Godfather more times than I can count, and I can always watch it again. Everyone knows that’s brilliant, but every time I watch it I find some new underlying meaning in a scene, something that I’ve previously missed. I love the book, too.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
There’s this place in France called Cap Ferret near Bordeaux . We were there a few years ago and had one of our best and happiest meals ever at one of the oyster shacks there. This was family run by the oyster farmer, his wife and his daughter. We sat there on the beach with basic seating and lots of wine while they kept on bringing the freshest of seafood – from oysters and shrimp to clams and mussels – along with some of the most beautiful bread and butter I’ve ever had. The food wasn’t showy, no modernist techniques, no gimmicks. I wish I could retire and eat that way every day.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I have the most vivid imagination ever and believe me when I say, there hasn’t been a single thing in this world that I haven’t wanted to be at some point while growing up. A cleaner, a butler, an astronaut, an engineer, a superhero, a doctor or a film personality. I even wanted to be a holy woman doing meditation in the Himalayas. I don’t just mean a flash of imagination: I actually spent a few months daydreaming about each of them before moving on to the next. The biggest irony is that even though cooking always came naturally to me I don’t remember ever wanting to be a chef.

When you moved to England, what took the most adjusting to?
I grew up reading Jane Austen, Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse, and it was a bit disappointing at first that England didn’t feel like that. But the biggest thing to adjust to was the lack of street food like in India. I was used to eating street food almost every day as an evening snack, and it’s still the one thing I really find it hard to live without. There are street food markets happening more now in the UK but it’s not even 5% of the variety and abundance you see in India or Thailand.

Where will you go for your first meal out after lockdown?
We’ve been thinking about this a lot, and even have a list of restaurants that we are missing from London, Bristol and Oxford. But I think it will most probably either be Pepe Sale or Côte.

What is your most unappealing habit?
It could be the high-pitched nervous giggle I do when I get overexcited about something.

Who would play you in the film of your life?
It’s extremely unlikely to happen, but someone said Shilpa Shetty (who won Celebrity Big Brother a long time ago) or Frieda Pinto. But knowing the control freak that I am, I might not let anyone else do it.

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
I can only eat sea salt and black pepper Kettle Chips. Please don’t judge.

What have been the highest and lowest points of your time running Clay’s?
The lowest was four days before we were due to open, when our builders left us in the lurch with lots of major things still needing fixing. We’d made the mistake of paying him 95% of his fee by then. He told us that the owner of another house he was working on had given him an ultimatum to finish their house faster, and he jumped ship because the owner was an architect and he expected more work and more money from them. We were a nobody to him.

It was a nightmare: we’d already postponed the opening date once and couldn’t do it again. I’d start crying the moment anyone so much as said hello to me. We went around all the hardware stores and electric stores, managed to find different handymen for different jobs, spent loads of extra money and finally managed to open with just £100 remaining in all our combined accounts. We had nothing left to even buy groceries for the next week. I can’t believe it’s not even two years since we went through all of that!

The highest was when a group of our regulars planned in secret to visit us on the date of our first anniversary to celebrate with us. They booked a big table without us having a clue; the happiness and thrill I got seeing each one walking into the restaurant and then realising they all belonged on the same table is indescribable. I don’t think anything will ever beat that and I am forever grateful to all of them (you know who you are) for giving us that moment.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Hyderabadi biryani and cut mirchi, ever since childhood. My family used to tease me that they would find a husband who cooks those two dishes. They did end up finding me someone who does the best biryani and I managed to master the other one, so it’s a win-win.

If your house was on fire, what’s the one thing you would save from it?
Honestly, nothing, as long as Sharat and I are out and safe. Is it sad that I don’t possess anything I think is worth saving?

Clay’s has one of the best wine lists, beer lists and gin lists in Reading. What’s your drink of choice?
Thank you so much for saying so: we really put so much effort into that. But coming to your question, it mostly depends on the mood, weather and the food but otherwise it would be a good full-bodied red.

Where is your happy place?
Wherever all my family is, with all my nieces and nephews playing around.

Tell us something people might not know about you.
I’m an introvert.

Describe yourself in three words.
Honest. Content. Defective. That last one is Sharat’s word, and I’ve trained my mind to believe that he means it in a cute way!

Q&A: Naomi Lowe, Nibsy’s

Naomi Lowe set up Nibsy’s, Reading’s first dedicated gluten-free café, in Cross Street in 2014, following a career in investment management. In the last five years the café has gone from strength to strength and remains Reading’s only venue specifically catering to this sector of the market. Nibsy’s won the Reading Retail Award for Best Café in 2017. Naomi is currently writing her first book of recipes. She lives with her husband and two children off the Oxford Road.

What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown?
Losing my “rhythm” and not being able to see my mum.

What’s the biggest difference you notice between corporate life and running a café?
Corporate life was easy. Running a coffee shop takes a lot more out of me (but gives back, too). I could go on about the differences and sacrifices I’ve had to make, but the reward and the team, the people and the sense of achievement are worth the effort.

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
The Oxford Road – it feels like home. And I like that Reading is big enough to feel anonymous but small enough to have a sense of community.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
I feel like I should say L’Ortolan as it was the most expensive and memorable meal (it was a birthday present). But the happy memories are of when I used to grab a bag of chips from Smarts fish and chip shop in Henley and sit by the river with my boyfriend, now husband. They were consistently the best chips I’ve ever eaten. I don’t think they are run by the same people anymore.

What was your most embarrassing moment?
I’ve been calling a regular customer Martin for five years. He recently started following our Instagram page and it turns out his name is Tom. I’ll put that right when we re-open.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
Eating digestive biscuits in bed, which my mum would bring me as a late night snack when I was a toddler.

How do you relax?
With a smoke and glass of wine, in the garden.

You opened Nibsy’s six years ago. How much do you think the food scene has changed for the gluten intolerant since then?
Massively changed for the better – it’s rare to go out and not have a few decent options. 

Where will you go for your first meal out after lockdown?
Probably Pho. There’s one dish that I always have –  the vermicelli noodles with mushroom and tofu. I don’t eat out very often, and am a sucker for sticking to what I like. Plus, I am comfortable eating there on my own: as I get older, “me time” is like gold.

What is your favourite word?
Tricky, but the first two words that come to mind are “bobble” and “yes”. Sorry, these are pretty random! But I’ll explain: “bobble” because it sounds like a happy word. And “yes” because it was the first word I ever said, and is generally a positive word.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
I suppose I’d have to say E.T. because it’s the film I’ve watched more than any other. Although my seven year old is watching Ratatouille on repeat at the moment and I love it: the story, the music, and the message “anyone can cook”. That’s nice to hear while I’m writing the recipe book. Series wise, the one I have watched twice is Breaking Bad: nothing else has come close.

Who are your biggest influences in the world of food and drink?
John Richardson, because of the knowledge he shares in his help books for coffee shop and café owners, and Gordon Ramsay because I love Kitchen Nightmares.

Where is your happy place?
At my mum’s little place in north-west London or my dad’s, in the south of France in a sleepy village called Auzas. Nothing happens there, the church bell rings every hour – even through the night – but the calm and fresh air is like nothing else. And he makes a great curry and plays his old vinyl.

Normally I ask people what their favourite crisps are. What’s your favourite gluten-free snack?
No, crisps ARE my go-to snack. My favourite brand is the special large bag of salt and vinegar ones that the Co-op do – I love these because they are so salty and vinegary. Otherwise, a specifically gluten-free snack would be the granola bars that we make and sell at the coffee shop.

What is the worst job you’ve done?
A temp job in my early twenties, in a virtually windowless building just off Oxford Street. I answered calls and filled in job sheets for engineers to fix faulty toilets and equipment. I was mostly on my own, which was the worst part. I only stuck at it a week or two.

What is your most unappealing habit?
I wanted to ask my husband for help on this one. He said “screaming at your husband.”

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Late night scoops of crunchy peanut butter before bed.

Who would play you in the film of your life?
Having racked my brain, there’s only one actress that springs to mind – Julia Stiles.

Tell us something people might not know about you.
I’m distantly related to Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula.

Describe yourself in three words.
Warm, pragmatic, thinker.

Q&A: Glen Dinning, Blue Collar

Glen Dinning has been the mastermind behind Blue Collar Street Food for nearly four years, going from running a street food stall cooking burgers to a weekly food market, adding Cheese Feast and Feastival in Forbury Gardens as major events in Reading’s food calendar. In 2018 he won the Pride Of Reading Award for Entrepreneur Of The Year, and last year he was awarded the contract to provide the match day food at the Madejski Stadium, making Reading’s fans some of the best-fed in the UK. He lives with his girlfriend in West Reading.

What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown?
Street food, pubs, restaurants, football, everything. I’m desperate to get back to work – I’ve volunteered but can see myself being more of a hindrance than help.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
Trying apple crumble for the first time. I still can’t get enough of it – brown sugar instead of white is the key. 

What’s the worst street food pitch you’ve ever heard?
Someone once rang to pitch their entomophagy stall (the practice of eating insects). At the time I had no idea what it meant so just nodded along until I looked it up, horrified, later. I’m all for giving things a go but the conversation with Environmental Health would’ve been a difficult one.

You’ve been running Blue Collar for coming up to four years. What’s the most ridiculous situation you’ve found yourself in?
Early on, a rival organiser tried to sabotage our events by getting their food traders to sign up, but pull out at the last minute leaving empty pitches. On a more positive note, the celebrations for Blue Collar’s first game at Reading FC ended at the bar with Sir John Madejski, Ady Williams and a drunken phone call to one of my heroes, former manager Brian McDermott.

What words or phrases do you most overuse?
“Do you know what I mean?”

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
The independent scene in our town continues to build. You can have breakfast at Yolk, lunch at Vegivores or Shed and dinner at Bakery House, Clays or Geo Café and have an experience unique to Reading. The independent coffee places and pubs were thriving – before Coronavirus hit I genuinely thought in ten years’ time we would have an identity of our own as strong as Bristol or Oxford, but now I’m not so sure: everything is up in the air.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Obama, Gervais, Robin Friday and Don King – he’s a controversial figure but the best salesman there’s ever been.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
The Godfather.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
A meal at José, a tapas restaurant in London by the Spanish chef José Pizarro, had a big impact on me. It’s a tiny space, about four hundred square feet, walk ins only and the menus are chalked up daily depending on what’s available. The food is always brilliant and eaten stood up, with wooden barrels to rest small plates on. It’s a different kind of dining experience but there’s such a buzz to it, it’s so authentic and I’d love to try and open something like that one day. On the finer dining side of things, I really like Dinner by Heston and Manchester House by Aidan Byrne.

What’s your most unappealing habit?
Snoring.

Where will you go for your first meal after lockdown?
Bakery House for the chicken shawarma.

What’s the most important lesson life has taught you?
If you find a job you love, you’ll never work again.

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
The original Hula Hoop.

Where is your happy place?
A long boozy lunch in the sunshine.

What would you be doing in life if you weren’t running Blue Collar?
I had visions of being a comedy agent and promoter for a while and started a little business hiring out pub function rooms, booking comedians and selling tickets. It led to a job selling shows at the Edinburgh Festival and was fun, but I think I’d find it difficult to enjoy something that isn’t food and drink related now. 

How do you relax?
When I started Blue Collar I was still young enough to be able to drink heavily to get through stressful times and not wake up with a monster hangover the next day. More recently, I’ve jumped on every fad going – my girlfriend has tried to get me into yoga during isolation but I’m not sure my body is designed to bend that way.

Who would play you in the film of your life?
If we’re being honest, it would be a low budget project that would go straight to DVD. A former Hollyoaks star would probably be the best I could hope for.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Cheese. The smellier the better.

Tell us something people might not know about you.
My first little food business was selling chocolate bars in the school playground when I was eleven. I used to dabble in a few other things too, like watches and pens, but then Jamie Oliver came along and banned schools from selling sweets in vending machines. It meant my only competition was gone and my sales went through the roof. I owe that man a Wispa.

Describe yourself in three words.
Ambitious, friendly, foodie.

The Hero Of Maida, Maida Vale

Despite the name, over six and a half years I’ve reviewed lots of restaurants which aren’t in Reading. To paraphrase David Brent, my world doesn’t end with these four walls. When I’m finished with Reading, there’s Henley, Windsor, Wokingham. You know. Newbury. Goring. Because I am my own boss.

Bracknell.

But I’ve always steered clear of reviewing London restaurants. I suppose part of that is analysis paralysis: how would you even go about picking which restaurants to visit? There are hundreds of London restaurant bloggers (not to mention influencers) swarming around all the hottest new restaurants, all the must-visit openings, so it’s hard to imagine anybody would be interested in my (provincial) opinion. And how useful would it be to my regular readers? You might be in London from time to time, but how likely would you be to go out of your way to try somewhere on my say-so? That’s why I’ve always stayed in my lane, remaining local with the occasional foray further afield on the train.

So what changed? Well, recently one of the restaurant bloggers I read wrote a review of a little Malaysian restaurant just round the corner from Paddington Station. It did what, in an ideal world, all restaurant reviews would do: it made me feel like checking the place out. After all, I’m in London reasonably often, I nearly always come home via Paddington and having decent food options to explore while I wait for an off peak train would be a very welcome development. I Retweeted the review, plenty of people showed an interest and at that point I decided: there would be no harm in adding the occasional review of venues in and around Paddington, to help out if you are in London and want to try out a good restaurant before coming home.

I picked Maida Vale for my first London review because that area has always been one of my favourite parts of the city. You leave Paddington by the exit that takes you right out onto the Grand Union Canal, turn left and meander past all the boats and the offices of Paddington Basin, the fancy gleaming bars and restaurants that have sprung up to cater for all those workers. Cross one of the pretty bridges you come to and you’re in Little Venice, ten minutes’ walk or a single Tube stop from Paddington but a world away in all important respects.

It’s loveliest in summer, but at any time it’s a house envy-inducing stroll. The Warwick Castle, tucked away on a sidestreet, is a lovely mews pub and not far from there is the equally gorgeous Formosa Street with the Prince Alfred, a cracking public house with little booths where you have to duck under a low door to pass from one to the next. If I didn’t have such a magnificent local already, I might well spend my days wishing it was mine.

The Hero Of Maida is just a little further out, on the border between Little Venice and Maida Vale, and in a previous incarnation it used to be called the Truscott Arms. I had a friend who worked in London and I used to go down after work on a Friday afternoon to meet her for a boozy dinner in that neck of the woods. We’d always stop for one last snifter at the Truscott Arms – it closed later than other establishments – before weaving back to the station and drunkenly going our separate ways, me on the Burger King Express back to Reading and her on a terrifying-sounding night bus to Tooting.

I was sad when the Truscott Arms closed but when I heard it had reopened as the Hero Of Maida under the supervision of Henry Harris (of legendary Knightsbridge restaurant Racine) offering a take on classic French cooking, I made a mental note to visit one day. So on a sunny weekday lunchtime my friend John and I paid it a visit, to finally break my London reviewing duck.

It’s a very handsome, light, airy room that instantly draws you in – tasteful muted tones, an attractive wooden floor, gorgeous tiles and a long, curving zinc bar. There’s a separate restaurant area upstairs (open in the evenings but not at lunchtime) but I didn’t feel I was missing out. Lovely tables, too, with button-backed banquettes looking out. It was quiet when we turned up, with a solitary customer plugged in and tapping away on his computer. We sat at the front by the windows, making the most of the afternoon light, although I did wish after a while that we’d grabbed a banquette. On the plus side it means my photographs are better than usual, but the drawback was that poor John was caught in a direct shaft of sun for some of the meal and had to keep shuffling his chair to one side.

The menu changes regularly and on the day we visited it was compact and appealing – just five starters, four mains and a sharing dish (pie for two, an offer I always find hard to refuse). A blackboard behind the bar offered a few other dishes, and although they were listed as bar food they seemed equally restauranty to me. Crucially, one was the same pie in an individual portion: a great relief, because it meant I didn’t have to implore John to change his mind. On another day I would have gone for another special: crispy lamb breast with salsa verde, six almost unimprovable words. “It’s National Pie Week”, our waiter told me, and in the end that made my decision for me.

There was a good selection of beers and we were slightly early for our booking so we started with a pint. My Notting Helles was pleasant enough, if not the most imaginative choice, but John enthused about his pint of Peckham Rye, a very nice-looking amber ale. Later I wished I’d gone for the coffee stout by Magic Rock, but we’d moved on to wine by then. It was a pretty decent wine list too, with plenty available by the carafe, but we settled on a chardonnay from the Languedoc which came in at just over thirty pounds for a bottle. It sounds odd to praise a wine based on all the things it wasn’t, but at the risk of sounding like Goldilocks it somehow seemed appropriate: not too dry, not too sweet, not too oaky, not too expensive. The list said it was a good alternative to a white Burgundy, and I thought that was spot on.

I’d been sorely tempted by the steak tartare, but with a pie on the way I decided to balance light and shade a bit by choosing a more delicate starter. Ibériko tomatoes with burrata felt more a test of sourcing than cooking, but even so I really enjoyed it.

The tomatoes weren’t as good as ones I’d rhapsodised over in Spain but they were close enough, with plenty of freshness and a judicious spot of salt. The burrata felt more like mozzarella to me – completely firm in the middle without any of the glorious creamy messiness of a good burrata – but that struck me rather than irked me. The salsa verde brought it all together, as did some greenery which wasn’t listed and which I didn’t recognise. It had a slightly vinegary bite but I couldn’t place what it was – not samphire, not salty fingers, not (I think) monk’s beard, but a perfect match in any event. Winning enough to overcome a couple of slight missteps: a dish, in many ways, emblematic of the whole meal.

John had chosen grilled mackerel with ‘nduja which, again, is a combination that sat up and begged to be chosen. I thought it looked fantastic, with a generous whack of the fiery, brick-red good stuff. John liked it, but not without reservations.

“I like the skin to be crispy, and this is a bit, well, flaccid. Flaccid is never a good word, is it?”

“No, it’s like damp. ‘Moist’ can be a good thing, but ‘damp’ never is.”

“There’s always ‘wipe down with a damp cloth’, I suppose” said John, equably. “Something else about this dish isn’t quite right. This stuff.”

That’s how we discovered that John, like me, is not a fan of radicchio – although, as a man who gets a vegetable box weekly, he’s very fortunate to only just be figuring that out. I understood though – again, the radicchio wasn’t mentioned on the menu and it did slightly skew the dish. I didn’t get to taste it, but from the look of the plate, also strewn with wild garlic and capers, I think I would have enjoyed it. John did find a few sizeable bones which had escaped the filleting process, though, another glitch that rankled.

John was properly delighted with his main course, though. Guinea fowl came two ways, with a hefty piece of the breast and a gorgeous-looking thigh complete with crispy skin. It was all on top of some silky celeriac puree, along with a big, coarse wedge of smoked Morteau sausage – we Googled it to make sure it was nothing like andouillette – and, apparently, “tropea onion”.

“This is lovely. I’m usually more of a starters man and main courses can feel like a bit of a let-down, so it’s a real pleasure to get such a good main course. And it’s a really big portion of guinea fowl, I wasn’t expecting that.”

I thought that was a good point – this didn’t feel like a little, cheffy plate assembled with tweezers but a proper, hearty dish put together with the diner firmly in mind. Good value at nineteen pounds, too.

My pie was, as so often, more a casserole wearing a hat and the pastry lacked the indulgence of a good suet crust. But underneath, you hit paydirt: a sticky tangle of slow-cooked lamb shoulder and a rich, savoury sauce, punctuated by coarsely chopped garlic and carrot. The greens that came with it were nice enough taken for a swim in the pie filling, but hardly the feature attraction. The whole thing was delicious but it just didn’t feel as much like a proper pie as I’d hoped; it was best described as high-ceilinged, with plenty of breathing space between the filling and the crust.

Many of these niggles were redeemed by the Hero Of Maida’s chips, which were as good as any I’ve had – huge, ragged-edged things, all crunch and fluff. I was initially dubious because they came skin-on, but even that didn’t detract. They were four pounds a portion, and I was relieved that John and I had the foresight (or greed) to order one each. I used mine to absorb every last molecule of the sauce left in my pie dish.

The dessert menu was also compact – just the four options – but we were on a roll and had no intention of letting that stop us. The list of dessert wines was equally streamlined, but we found a Coteaux de L’Aubance on it which was stunning, the colour of late summer afternoons with a clean, poised sweetness. The first sip was one of those little heavenly moments you want to remember for ages: our food so far had been lovely, the only plans for the rest of the day were a bimble from pub to pub talking about all sorts and, in my mind, I was an honorary resident of Maida Vale already.

Desserts were inconsistent in the same way as the starters, but the kitchen had garnered enough brownie points by then to earn some latitude. So for instance, my lemon posset was all out of kilter: far too big, and too cloying without the sharpness it badly needed to cut through. Instead, it felt like a big bowl of something very close to clotted cream and the crumbled amaretti biscuits all over it didn’t do enough to counteract that. It wasn’t what I ordered, or what I really wanted, but on the other hand there are worse things to do in life than eat a large bowl of clotted cream and, when push came to shove, I found I didn’t mind at all.

John’s rhubarb and custard pavlova sounded terrific on paper but again, wasn’t quite there. The rhubarb, John said, was delicious and he really enjoyed the hazelnut praline which played an equally starring role. “But this meringue”, he said, “I hate to say this but it feels shop-bought.” I saw him struggle to break it up and it seemed to be lacking any of the chewiness which would have made the dish perfect. Even so, I looked at his dessert and thought that I would gladly have ordered it myself.

Service, from one chap who seemed to be doing everything that lunchtime, was friendly without being faux-matey, knowledgeable and happy to talk about the dishes and offer recommendations. Again, it might be that if you came to the Hero Of Maida of an evening or on a busy Sunday lunchtime you might have a different experience, but I thought we were really well looked after. Three courses, a couple of pints, a bottle of white wine and two glasses of dessert wine came to just over a hundred and fifty pounds, including that old chestnut the “optional” twelve and a half per cent service charge. You could eat here for less, but I thought it was decent value.

You’ll have read all of this and you’ll already have an idea about whether the Hero Of Maida is the kind of place for you. You might think it’s ever so slightly too far from Paddington or a little too expensive, but I really enjoyed the place. And to save you the effort of questioning my verdict, I’ve already asked myself: was I being charitable because I was having such a nice afternoon? Was I letting the restaurant off the hook when, closer to home, I might have been harsher?

I don’t know. It’s possible. Maybe I was looking at the world through dessert wine-tinted glasses but if so, all I can say is that I thoroughly recommend doing so. Next time you’re in London and you’re on an off-peak ticket you could do a lot worse than booking the Hero Of Maida, especially when summer comes, and crossing the canal to treat yourself to something different before riding the rails back to Gare du ‘Ding. Make sure you get some chips: you’ll thank me for it.

The Hero Of Maida – 7.5
55 Shirland Road, London, W9 2JD
020 39609109

https://theheromaidavale.co.uk