Feature: Reading’s best…

There’s a new trend in Berkshire Live which drives me absolutely crackers. Having moved on from a steady emetic trickle of “X’s quiet life in [insert name of Berkshire village here]” articles (translation: here’s somebody who used to live in Berkshire and that’s literally all we know about them) their latest form of copy and paste gonzo journalism is one where they knock up madlibs-style reviews of restaurants which – and you could bet your life savings on this – the “journalist” has never visited.

The new trend – or do I mean new low? – is to churn out articles that say “the X restaurant so good you’ll think you’re in [the most famous city in country X]”. It’s so witless it could almost be amusing. So if you eat in l’Ortolan, for instance, you could imagine you’re in Paris (I’ve been to Paris: l’Ortolan is nothing like it). If you have tapas in Wokingham’s Sanpa you could believe you’re in Madrid, allegedly, and never mind the pesky detail that tapas is from Andalusia, miles away to the south. 

Oh, and if you eat American barbecue in Blue’s Smokehouse – and it’s great, so maybe you should – guess what? Close your eyes and you could be in the Big Apple. Again, it’s not noted for its barbecue but details are for pedants, apparently. It goes on: Quattro is just like Rome, some Chinese restaurant in Cookham is the spitting image of downtown Beijing, Sapana Home is like dining in the Himalayas (they call out the “momo dumplings” at Sapana, which is like saying I very much enjoyed the chips potatoes). I thought they couldn’t get more laughable but the latest says that afternoon tea at the Forbury Hotel “will make you feel like you’re dining with the King”. Stay classy, Berkshire Live.

But that isn’t enough, so to pad out the article – and to further pull the wool over your eyes – they like to add a bit of bumf from the restaurant’s website and those all important customer opinions. After all, in Berkshire Live’s own immortal words, “Recent years has brought more people online as it gives them an easy way to choose somewhere to eat. One place most of us look is the reviews – what do people really think about where we want to eat? We decided to list the last three reviews all less than a month ago to see what people have said.” 

Maybe people are looking online because local papers have died and been replaced by moronic clickbait? Just a thought. But yes, the rest of their extensive research consists of firing up Tripadvisor and copying and pasting the three most recent reviews. But Berkshire Live doesn’t care about that. In their mind, everybody wins: they hit their targets for pumping out meaningless content to sell ad space and you get a “review” which tells you nothing about the restaurant, Ctrl-C and Ctrl-Vd by somebody who has never been there and, for all we know, has never even left their home office (are Reach plc staff affected by the train strikes? It seems unlikely). Bob’s your uncle, Fanny’s your aunt and keema, as they say, is your nan.

So this is what passes for journalism these days and the most insulting thing is that they’re so cretinous they think nobody will notice. How times have changed. In the old days, local newspapers used to sneak ads into the paper and not tell readers that money had changed hands and many people, myself included, were outraged about that. Nowadays they’re so desperate for content that they publish what are effectively full length ads without even being paid for the privilege. It makes you wonder who pumps out more sewage: the water companies or Reach plc?

Anyway, by contrast this week’s feature – no review, because I’m away this week – is one of those lists everyone likes with one crucial difference: they’re my opinions, born of going out there and trying as much of Reading’s food and drink as I can. So this article might come in handy if you can’t be arsed to schlep through any of my lists, or to comb through the blog but just want to know, in my entirely subjective opinion, where to get the best coffee, pizza, sandwich and so much more in Reading. Read, enjoy, share, comment and – of course – disagree, because if you don’t disagree with a single thing on this list I’ll be very surprised indeed.

Apart from my (entirely subjective, don’t forget) guarantee of quality I can promise you one other thing. None of these places will make you feel like you’re in Naples, New York or Nagoya. Because, as we’ve established, that is utter, utter bollocks. Besides, they’ll go one better than that: they’ll make you glad you’re in the Ding.

Reading’s best breakfast – Dee Caf

Dee Caf’s breakfast isn’t a looker, and nothing about it is built for Instagram. But in terms of midmorning indulgence on a plate it is probably unparalleled in Reading and well worth a meander out in the direction of Tilehurst. Bacon and sausages AND black pudding, all from a local butcher? Hash browns and properly buttered toast too, on an enamel plate which is only just big enough to contain all that bounty? Count me in. When I went the only drawback was the coffee – they’ve now switched to Anonymous, which is a very smart move. (Montague House, 12 Spey Road, RG30 4DG)

Honourable mention: The Switch

What is it with West Reading and good breakfasts? The smashed avo with bacon at The Switch is unashamedly high-end, and priced accordingly, but shows what a good dish it can be in the right hands. (19 The Triangle, RG30 4RN)

Reading’s best burger – Smash N Grab

Smash N Grab is quietly doing great things down on Cemetery Junction and their inimitable take on smashed burgers easily justifies a trip out of the centre. These are indulgent, overloaded burgers – messy, stuffed, deeply sinful things, and you will feel replete, satisfied and a little ashamed of yourself at the end of one. The chips still need work, and the cake shakes are a little artery-hardening for me, but the burgers are still unbeatable. If it’s on the menu, the MacBook Pro (topped with a slab of breaded, deep-fried macaroni cheese) is every bit as so-wrong-it’s-right as it sounds. (124 London Road, RG1 5AY)

Honourable mention: Honest Burgers

Reading’s branch of the small chain is the best town centre option and very rarely has a bad day at the office. The burger, served pink, is reliably terrific and the monthly specials mix things up nicely. They’ve just added a buffalo fried chicken burger to their menu, if beef isn’t your bag. (1-5 King Street, RG1 2HB)

Reading’s best coffee – C.U.P.

C.U.P. just edges it for me, and both its Blagrave Street and Reading Minster outposts have a lot going for them. Blagrave Street is great for people watching passers-by, and the seats outside Reading Minster are great for people watching your fellow customers. Either way, although the latte is superb the signature here is the mocha, made with an awful lot of real chocolate – a dessert, a pick me up, a treat and a necessity all crammed into a single takeaway cup. (7 Blagrave Street, RG1 1PJ/53 St Mary’s Butts, RG1 2LG)

Honourable mention: Workhouse Coffee

The eminence grise of Reading’s coffee culture, Workhouse is superb and reliable for latte and my espresso-drinking friends swear by their espresso. It’s a shame the greed and neglect of the Mercure Hotel has robbed them of what was one of town’s best and sunniest al fresco spaces, and the interior feels like it needs a bit of love. But the staff are great and the coffee remains top notch. (10-12 King Street, RG1 2HF, also 335 Oxford Road, RG30 1AY)

Reading’s best fish and chips – Finn’s

I know nobody will agree with this unless they live near Finn’s, and I can’t remember the last time I had fish and chips at Wing’s, or Deep Blue, or that other place you like. But I maintain that Finn’s, the pride of east Reading, does wonderful fish and chips with a light, crispy batter and chips that have the perfect balance of floury stodge and crunchy shrapnel. I must work up the courage to try their masala cod one cold winter’s evening. (42b Erleigh Road, RG1 5NA)

Runner-up: The Lyndhurst

The Lyndhurst serves up the epitome of pub fish and chips, an excellent portion of battered leviathan and some of Reading’s very best chips. Those of you who like mushy peas will enjoy these, and those of you who tend to leave them have something in common with me. Spoiler alert: this is not the Lyndhurst’s only appearance on this list, you may not be surprised to hear. (88 Queens Road, RG1 4DG)

Reading’s best fried chicken – The Lyndhurst

See? Told you. The Lyndhurst’s chicken karaage has been tweaked and tinkered with steadily since it first appeared on their menu last year. They took it off the menu just as I was developing a serious karaage habit (forget ketamine: this is the real K hole) and then this year I was overjoyed when they brought it back. The texture is unbelievably crunchy and gnarly, the portion size is so generous that you won’t mind offering your companions a piece and making them jealous and the little shards of fried kale add an extra savoury note. What was a kewpie mayo has now been swapped – another tweak – for a wasabi mayo which adds just enough sinus-clearing power. (88 Queens Road, RG1 4DG)

Runner-up: ThaiGrr!

You could hold a piece of fried kale between this and the Lyndhurst’s karaage, that’s how little separates them in terms of quality. ThaiGrr’s chicken is a ridiculously generous six jointed pieces on the bone with shatteringly crisp skin, tender meat and little slivers of garlic sprinkled on top. It comes with some very pleasant sweet chilli sauce, and you can spend all six pieces wondering if it needs the dip without ever reaching a conclusion. (1d Queens Walk, RG1 7QF)

Reading’s best pizza – Buon Appetito

One of my favourite discoveries of the last year has been the revitalised Buon Appetito at the end of Chatham Street which, for my money, knocks out the very best pizza in town. The base, a puffy-crusted, leopard-spotted delight, is next level good and the range of toppings is just wide enough without getting ridiculous. I am a huge fan of their Napoli which comes strewn with anchovies, olives and crispy fried capers, but there’s also a lot to be said for the Blue Parma, with twenty-four month aged Parma ham and a fair old whack of gorgonzola. It helps that Buon Appetito is one of Reading’s very best al fresco spots: they mix a mean Aperol spritz or negroni, too. (146 Chatham Street, RG1 7HT)

Honourable mention: Papa Gee

The other side of the river on Prospect Street, Papa Gee has nearly twenty years of experience of dough-slinging and it really shows. My latest visit was extremely recent, so I’m delighted to have extremely fresh memories of how good they are. The base maybe doesn’t quite have the quality of Buon Appetito’s, but you can expect pizzas topped by a man who doesn’t enjoy saying “when”. The iconic dish here, the pizza Sofia Loren, comes with pepperoni, beautiful coarse nuggets of sausage, red onions, chilli and my unqualified endorsement. (5 Prospect Street, RG4 8JB)

Reading’s best sandwich: Madoo

This is an incredibly difficult category, and I think I’ve only been able to narrow it down to two with a little cheating – wraps get their own category, and technically a burger is a sandwich too. But, to get off the fence, at the moment I’m not sure anyone can top the toasties at Madoo. Made with a variety of focaccia and pretty much customisable however you like, they are a carby, cheesy miracle on Duke Street. On my most recent visit, on the day of the big funeral, I had pancetta and scamorza in a focaccia topped with onion and thin slices of potato: try being sad after scoffing one of those. (10-14 Duke Street, RG1 4RU)

Honourable mention: Shed

Shed is still the godfather of Reading’s sandwich scene. Its lunch scene in general, to be honest. Their Tuna Turner – all tuna mayo and oozing cheese, studded with jalapenos, the bread bronzed and burnished – should earn them a blue plaque one day (other sandwiches are, of course, available). (8 Merchants Place, RG1 1DT)

Reading’s best street food: Gurt Wings

Gurt Wings is a street food player with a national profile and, luckily for us, a soft spot for Reading. From their regular presence at Blue Collar’s Friday markets they took on a permanent pitch at Blue Collar Corner in March, and if the recent announcement that they’re leaving Blue Collar Corner has caused gloom and withdrawal symptoms across the land, the pill has been slightly sweetened by the news that they’re returning to the Friday markets again.

Everything they do is magnificent but the tenders, smothered in hot and sour buffalo and sharpened with a little blue cheese sauce, are truly fantastic. I also absolutely love their JFC – popcorn chicken with a hyper-punchy gochujang sauce and a smidge of sriracha mayo. About once a year they do a chicken burger in an iced doughnut topped with candied bacon – it has to be tried to be believed, but once is probably enough. (Market Place, RG1 2DE, Fridays only)

Honourable mention: Purée

Although Blue Collar is synonymous with street food in Reading, one of Reading’s finest street food options is Purée, the distinctive green van on Broad Street near our smaller, less attractive branch of Boots. Sam Adaci’s van took a sabbatical during Covid and a lot of us were very worried that it might not return, but gladly he is there most lunchtimes dishing up some of the best – and best value – lunches in town. The real winner here is the challoumi wrap – jammed full of glorious chicken and halloumi with hot sauce, garlic sauce, pickles, the works. (Broad Street, RG1 2AA)

Reading’s best sushi – Intoku

I had a rather hit and miss visit to Intoku earlier this year: the service was slapdash in all kinds of ways, but I also saw enough to convince myself that in terms of quality we finally have a restaurant in Reading that can approach the likes of Miyazaki in Maidenhead or my all-time favourite, Windsor’s Misugo. The soft shell crab rolls are an absolute dream, the maki are precise and nicely done and although the sashimi isn’t Reading’s best, it’s good enough. The fact that they also do gorgeous bao and possibly the best crispy squid I’ve had in town is just a bonus. (30a Chain Street, RG1 2HX)

Honourable mention – Sushimania

I know Osaka and Oishi have their fans, but I have a real soft spot for Sushimania, on that slightly grim brutalist corner overlooking the Hexagon. It’s all you can eat but made to order, and you can get most of the core menu that way, an inexpensive treat on a week night with a bottle of Asahi. They ration you on the salmon sashimi and the eel nigiri – make sure you get your full quota of both, because they’re bloody great. (9 Queens Walk, RG1 7QF)

Reading’s best wrap: Cairo Cafe

Go to Cairo Cafe and order the chicken shawarma wrap. Marvel at what comes out, hotter than the sun, perfectly assembled, crisped on the outside, gooey with cheese, the meat singing with spices and mint. Eat it in that peaceful place, looking out the window at the comings and goings of the grittier end of town, and tell me there’s a better wrap in Reading. And no, you don’t feel just like you’re in Cairo: you feel like you’re on West Street, because you are.

There’s a lot of chicken in this list, isn’t there? Reading really needs another restaurant reviewer who likes chicken a little less than I do. (13 West Street, RG1 1TT)

Honourable mention: Geo Café

Time for the disclaimer I put up every time I talk about Geo Café – unlike most restaurant owners in Reading, I would class Keti and Zezva as friends, and so you are absolutely free to disregard this, or take it with a pinch of salt, or say I should have picked someone like Mission Burrito instead. But you would be missing out if you hadn’t tried Geo Café’s wraps – either the chicken, pungent with almost acrid ajika and walnut sauce, like nothing you’ve ever tasted, or filled with aubergine, sliced thin, fried and rolled around more of that walnut sauce. Everyone I know who’s tried Georgian food comes away saying Why don’t more people know how good this is? and I couldn’t agree more: it may be the best cuisine you’ve never tried.

So yes, by all means ignore this tip but believe me – if it wasn’t for the fact that they’re my friends, Geo Café might well have topped this category. (10 Prospect Street, RG4 8JG)

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Tipsy Bean

Tipsy Bean closed in July 2020. I’ve kept this review up for posterity.

Why isn’t Caversham, you know, nicer? It’s supposedly the most prosperous, chi-chi part of town and yet wandering round there on a drizzly Saturday I couldn’t help but see it as a handful of streets largely lined with missed opportunities. It’s almost as if the presence of a Waitrose writes a cheque the rest of the place can’t cash. Yes, there’s a good pub (the Fox And Hounds, of course). Yes, there’s a decent butcher and a baker: no candlestick maker that I could see, although there is a terrific old-school hardware shop. And, as is well documented, it has a handful of decent restaurants – Kyrenia and the newly-installed Papa Gee, mostly.

But beyond that, it all felt a little flat. The precinct has been tidied up, but still has the same shops as before. Siblings Home – a perennial favourite of mine which felt like the kind of establishment Caversham ought to have – has closed down, now just a sad empty shell at the bottom of Hemdean Road. There is a large purgatorial Costa, if you want coffee. The independent bookshop has closed down too. There’s a delicatessen, yes, but it seems to be in a perpetual state of closing and reopening; I don’t remember ever having walked past when it was actually trading.

And what else? Up Prospect Street, past Bina’s dated façade, it was nail bar after nail bar and the delights of “BBs Hair Salon” (is it as good as “Just John” on Grovelands Road, that’s the question). This should be Reading’s Hampstead, or Reading’s Crouch End. So why isn’t it?

The two establishments trying to buck this trend both opened last year, within two months of one another and only a few doors apart. In the blue corner, there’s Nomad Bakery, offering sourdough bread and an innovative, constantly changing lunch menu with many vegetarian and vegan-friendly options. A year on, its windows are still steamed up, it’s still full of happy families enjoying thoroughly virtuous lunches and Laura, the proprietor, continues to pop up at a variety of interesting venues offering tasting menus.

That would be the obvious choice, so instead this week I opted for its lesser-sung neighbour Tipsy Bean. Tipsy Bean opened last August with backing from ex-Apprentice winner, and former co-owner of sadly-missed Caversham restaurant Mya Lacarte, Yasmina Siadatan (although the exact nature of her association with the project was never entirely clear – and I’m none the wiser having Googled it). It aims to capture an all-day market by offering coffee and lunch before morphing into a wine bar and cocktail joint in the evening, and has decided to sum this up with a name which is possibly the only thing I’ve ever seen which manages to be simultaneously smutty and twee. I turned up with my trusty sidekick Tim (who is neither smutty nor twee) in tow to check it out.

The décor was bizarre and baffling. The front section near the big windows, with exposed brickwork and plenty of natural light, was nice enough but beyond that things got a little strange. The back room (and you can literally see the join) was another matter: the floor looked like unfinished chipboard, the ceiling seemingly made of disused pallets. Not in a calculated, knowing way, more in a manner that suggested they’d run out of money halfway through doing the place up.

Run out of ideas, too: the wall opposite the long bar (behind a handsome button-backed red banquette running the length of the wall) was just covered in mirrors. This can be a good way of letting light into a dark space, as anybody who’s read ELLE Decoration can tell you, but the overall effect is ruined when you scrawl slogans on them in childlike writing with bright pink pen. YOU LOOK GREAT! said one. SOUP OF THE DAY – WINE said another. Mirror Mirror on the wall, Who’s the TIPSYest of them all? said a third. Who has the biggest migraine, more like.

I’m afraid there’s more. Here’s a question for you: what do Marlon Brando, Cirque Du Soleil, The Beano and Banksy have in common? They all feature on the walls of Tipsy Bean, as part of a selection of pictures chosen seemingly at random. There were also the words “Margarita”, “Mojito” and “Tequila” on the walls in what looked like a mosaic made from dead mirrorballs. To top it all, an armchair was plonked in the far corner, completely on its own, with no tables or other chairs around it.

“It’s not shabby-chic, it’s not industrial chic.” I said. “What is it?”

“I don’t know. I wish I understood this place.” said Tim in reply, as if already hung over.

Still, it was doing a good trade with couples and families pretty much filling the front room and a few tables near the bar occupied, so we took our interior design hats off and had a look at the menu. It’s broken up into sections – Tipsy Sandwiches, Tipsy Boards, Tipsy Salads and so on – and although the tipsy motif made my toes curl, it was really good to see Tipsy Bean crediting and listing its suppliers, the majority of which were local. Meat is from Jennings, bread from Warings and cheese from the splendid Pangbourne Cheese Shop down the road. I was tempted by “Tipsy Pizza Bread” until I saw that it was nothing of the kind, instead being a variety of stuff on toast, so Tim and I both went for a toasted sandwich and a coffee.

“Shall we have some ‘Tipsy Sides’ as well?” I asked.

“Not sure I see the point. They’re just the component ingredients for everything else.”

As so often, Tim was right. We could have had some more bread and butter, or some more superfood crisps, or some grilled halloumi (there is a lot of halloumi on the Tipsy Bean menu), but they all felt a bit unnecessary.

The coffees arrived first – a latte for me, a black Americano for Tim, with a little heap of amaretto biscuits on the side.

“You should try one of these, they’re a nice touch.” I said.

“They’ve probably given us these to counteract the taste of the coffee.” Tim said. “It’s burnt.”

He was right. The coffee was properly bad – acrid, nasty, transport-caff stuff. Nowhere near as good as their neighbours in Nomad, but in all honesty nowhere near as good as Costa either. Given that coffee even features in the name of the place I was surprised that it was done this poorly – if they took the same approach to the “Tipsy” element as they do to the “Bean” all they’d sell would be Mateus Rosé and White Lightning.

Based on all this you’d expect the sandwiches to be woeful, and the signs weren’t good when they turned up on miniature breadboards. They came with “Luke’s superfood chips”, which turned out to be perfectly acceptable tortilla chips, free of gluten so that coeliacs and fad dieters also got the opportunity to feel ambivalent about them. There was also “Dudman’s salad”. Normally, I don’t make reference to my photos in the review but in this case I’d draw your attention to the picture below and say that, if anything, there was even less salad than the photograph would suggest. A shame actually, because it was nicely dressed and really quite enjoyable: this may be the first time I’ve ever said “I liked it, but I do wish there had been more salad”.

So, time for the surprise – the sandwiches were lovely. Simple, well-done and effective. The sourdough was golden on the outside, slightly oozy with butter and cheese. The prosciutto in it was good quality – dry, not floppy and plastic. And the cheese, although there wasn’t masses of it, was delicious. Also, it was a big old sandwich – using sourdough meant a sizeable cross-section, which in turn meant that it wasn’t gone in two bites as some toasties (at Nibsy’s, for instance, or Pret) can be.

Opposite me Tim waxed lyrical about his toasted Ploughman’s, with ham cheese and pickle. I wasn’t sure about the wisdom of heating up pickle, but Tim was very happy with the result. “It’s lovely”, he said, “ever so slightly caramelised. And it’s great ham and cheese.” I’m still not entirely sure whether our delight at the sandwiches was partly baffled euphoria because we expected them to be as half-arsed as everything else, or whether it’s because they were genuinely excellent. Maybe it was a bit of both. But to give credit where it’s due, my conversation with Tim for the next couple of minutes went a bit like this.

“That’s a good sandwich.”

Silence.

“It is, isn’t it. It’s a really good sandwich.”

More silence.

“Man, that’s a cracking sandwich.”

And so on. All well and good, but the sticking point was the price. My sandwich was six pounds, and six pounds for sandwich with a solitary layer of prosciutto and some cheese is very steep indeed, whatever the provenance of your produce. A little handful of salad and some gluten-free tortillas is insufficient smoke and mirrors to conceal that, especially if the mirrors have slogans scrawled on them in bright pink ink. Tim’s, presumably because it had the impudence to contain three ingredients, cost even more at six pounds fifty. To put this in perspective, those sandwiches are more expensive than Shed, than Pret, than Costa, than almost anywhere I can think of (maybe the ones at Nomad are even costlier: it’s a possibility, although hard to be sure as they don’t publish their menu online). Lunch for two – two coffees and two sandwiches – came to just under seventeen pounds, not including service. It’s hard to see that as good value, let alone a bargain.

Speaking of service, I should say a word or two about that. Everyone behind the counter was very young, perfectly pleasant and highly skilled at not being there when you needed them. It was impossible to attract attention to pay because they were all too busy standing behind the bar chatting away to each other, possibly because the lunch rush had thinned out by then. A couple of young women came in and went up to the counter to ask if Tipsy Bean was recruiting, and the staff were also too busy chatting away to each other to field that enquiry: I was tempted to ask one of them if they wanted to audition by getting my bill.

I wonder whether Tipsy Bean benefits from Caversham having so few nice places for lunch and coffee. If you picked it up and dropped it in town, I don’t think many would go there for lunch. Maybe it works better as a wine bar in the evening, but I really didn’t get it as a lunch spot. If anything, it made me feel a little sad for Caversham: I complain all the time about mediocre places being considered “good enough” for the town centre when we shouldn’t settle for second best, but until I ate at Tipsy Bean it never occurred to me that Caversham might have the same problem.

If only it had been better. That’s the price businesses pay for not being good enough: if Tipsy Bean had been better maybe we’d have had another coffee, or some cake, or settled in with a glass of wine and carried on chatting away. But if Tipsy Bean had been better, I wouldn’t be writing this. Instead we went for a stroll up to Balmore Park and took in the gorgeous view across town because, although Caversham might not be Hampstead, Balmore Park is definitely our Parliament Hill. And then we beetled off to the Fox And Hounds where, in true Fox And Hounds fashion they were playing wall-to-wall Bowie. Tim had a magnificent stout that tasted of chocolate and salted caramel, I had a fizzy cider like the heathen I am and we both wondered why the rest of Caversham couldn’t be more like The Fox And Hounds. Or Waitrose. Preferably both.

Tipsy Bean – 6.5
18 Prospect Street, Caversham, RG4 8JG
0118 9471300

http://tipsybean.co.uk/

Caffeine & Cocktails

N.B. Caffeine & Cocktails closed in July 2021. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

One thing I often complain about is big, bloated menus; huge things with a bewildering array of dishes leaving you to wonder how you can possibly avoid a dud. Indian restaurants and Chinese restaurants are especially prone to this, but actually it’s an issue in many restaurants. Like a CV, a menu should be short and to the point, it should advertise what you do well and it should never outstay its welcome. Just as nobody needs to hear about your Duke Of Edinburgh Award from umpteen years ago, I don’t think diners want a plethora of options knowing full well that the only way that kitchens can do them all is through the ping of the microwave or the sinister hum of the engine of the Brakes Brothers lorry. It’s no coincidence that the first thing Gordon Ramsay used to do in Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares was slash the size of the menu (well, that and criticise people’s omelettes).

I mainly tell you this because, if it gets nothing else right, Caffeine & Cocktails succeeds admirably in this department. Six options for breakfast, three options for lunch, two for dinner. Breakfast until 11, lunch until 3, meat and cheese boards from 3 until 6. Over half of the choices are meat free. There’s an elegant simplicity to this that I wish other establishments would learn from (although paradoxically Dolce Vita, right above Caffeine & Cocktails, has a colossal menu and I’m still yet to have a bad meal there). I turned up right on the cusp of eleven am with a companion, ready to sample both the breakfast and lunch sections to give as full a picture as I could.

Caffeine & Cocktails used to be Mix bar, a place I never much liked with horrible garden furniture (nobody should have to sip a cocktail sitting on a huge faux marble bench) and a ludicrous “private area” behind an unnecessary velvet rope. Every time I used to walk past after last orders I could see the clientele standing outside, clanging away on cigarettes, a relentless doof-doof-doof noise coming from the Stygian depths within and it made me long for my bed with a nice cup of tea, a hot water bottle and Just A Minute on the iPlayer. In short, it made me feel ancient.

The transformation is sleek and striking. It’s a long thin room with attractive parquet-effect tables, clubbable Chesterfields, a dark concrete floor, indoor trees, gorgeous herringbone tiled walls and industrial light fittings. It really is quite lovely without trying too hard (unlike, say, RYND) and a surprisingly pleasant place to while away time. Only one thing lets it down, and that’s the dreary sexism of the graffiti in the toilets. Marriage is a workshop… where husband works and wife shops”, said one quote in the gents’. Why did the Mexican push his wife down the stairs? Tequila said another. It feels a bit like they invited Donald Trump to the loos with some chalk and told him to go crazy, and that crassness really lets the side down. The irony – they have the most beautiful Aesop handwash at the sink, but you still leave the bathroom feeling unclean. The ladies’ toilets, if less positively offensive, are equally lazily stereotypical with references to diets, cocktails and Taylor Swift.

Anyway, let’s talk about the food. Caffeine & Cocktails only does three sandwiches and I went for “The Cheesy One”, a mixture of cheddar, Comté and Emmental with onion chutney and mustard, mainly because I’d been a couple of times shortly after opening, ordered that sandwich and always been impressed. Something about that mixture of cheeses, when toasted, really works – the gooey elasticity of the Emmental, the punch of the mature cheddar and the grit of the Comté is a holy trinity, perfected by the sweet chutney and the tangy mustard. So I was saddened to find that when my sandwich turned up it completely failed to live up to my happy memories – it was barely hot at all, the cheeses were still cold at the centre of the sandwich, the flavours failing to come alive.

It was definitely meant to be toasted, I could tell that by touching the bread, but clearly a half-arsed job had been done. It wasn’t that it had been cooked and left lying around, it had just never been cooked properly in the first place. And although there were quite a few tables occupied on a weekend morning, it’s not like they were rushed off their feet. Such a sad waste of potential: without the transformative power of the grill the sourdough, which should have been slightly charred, oiled outside and oozing within, was just a chewy, anticlimactic wedge. If I’d never had it before, I would have been disappointed. As it was, I spent the rest of my lunch wondering whether I was more or less disappointed because I knew how good it could be.

CaffeineSandwich

The toasted sourdough also made an appearance in the other dish I ordered, from the breakfast menu. This time it was topped with “smashed” avocado (how very Shoreditch, 2014) with feta and tomatoes. Studded through the avocado were a few pieces of chopped red chilli but even with this the dish was lacking in oomph and needed something – a touch of lime, some salt, mint, or a lot more chilli – to elevate it from quick make at home breakfast to something with more flair. That’s maybe a little harsh – the topping was nice, not ungenerous and the cherry tomatoes added beautiful sweetness. But the bigger problem was the bread – toasted sourdough really wasn’t (unless it had been wearing factor 50 at the time) so what should have been light and crispy was instead soft, tough and somehow dried out. Another attempt to find a great breakfast in Reading ended unsuccessfully, I’m sorry to say.

CaffeineSmashed

The drinks were a mixed bag. Loose tea is apparently from Good & Proper (Caffeine & Cocktails, Good & Proper… what is it with all these ampersands, I wonder?) and I’m sure it’s both those things but if you order Earl Grey you get a stump teapot full of hot water and a solitary bag of Twinings on the side. Basic verging on just not good enough, I’d say. Coffee is from Monmouth, and I’m reliably informed that the latte, while oddly thin and watery, tasted very nice. It was however, in keeping with all of the food, just not hot enough. The weird sugar, a mixture of white and brown cubes and lumps, also didn’t fill me with confidence. Lunch for two – a sandwich, a breakfast, a tea and two lattes – came to seventeen pounds. Service was nice and friendly, and maybe I should have given them the opportunity to prove how good it was by sending my food back, but I just couldn’t face it. I guess you’re more forgiving when it’s just a sandwich, or maybe the hassle just doesn’t feel worth it.

I’m inclined to be forgiving with Caffeine & Cocktails. I didn’t have the best of visits, but I’ve been enough times to know that they had an off-day when I turned up on duty. And there are definitely positives: it’s independent; it’s stylish without sacrificing comfort; it has that clever, sensibly compact menu. On the other hand, if you only do a few things you have to do them well. There just aren’t any excuses. I really wish they’d been on song because that toasted sandwich, at four pounds, is far better than anything you could get at Pret or Picnic for the same money (especially if you dip the corner of it in a little pool of their very tasty, beetroot-purple, sugar-free ketchup). It clearly adds something to Reading’s food and drink culture, to the extent where I even found myself wondering whether its cocktails could finally replace the sadly departed Sahara. So despite the misfire I’ll be back to give them another chance. I’ll pass on using the bathroom, though.

Caffeine & Cocktails – 7.0
Unit 5, The Walk, RG1 2HG
0118 3485103

http://www.caffeineandcocktails.co.uk/

Manhattan Coffee Club

Manhattan Coffee Club closed in 2017. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

I don’t think it’s possible to rid yourself of preconceptions when reviewing restaurants and cafes. They’re unavoidable, whether it’s because of things you’ve heard from others, or your research, or even just looking at the website. There’s a whole weight of prejudice – good or bad – which builds up before you approach the front door. All you can do is acknowledge your preconceptions and hope that you deal with them fairly, even if that does sound like the standard interview fiddle of describing your greatest weakness in a way that makes you sound brilliant and self-deprecating (you know, all that guff about being too much of a perfectionist).

On that basis, you might well expect me not to like Manhattan Coffee Club (MCC from now on, mainly because I’m lazy) and, in the interests of honesty, I expected not to like it either. It’s co-owned by one of the people behind RYND, a venue I admire for many things (its ability to use social media properly, the programme of events it puts on – live music, comedy, cinema and the like) but whose food I found a tad cynical and bandwagon-jumping. It’s on the top floor of the Oracle, a place I’m increasingly starting to see as the epicentre of All That’s Wrong With Reading. Even the press release before the opening made my toes curl ever so slightly, with its references to a design based on early twentieth century New York “with industrial steel tables and chairs, reclaimed wood counters and an ethos that the sky’s the limit”. Really, must we?

So yes, I approached MCC with all those preconceptions firmly in place and, from the moment I got to the front door, it neatly dismantled most of them. It’s a nice room, well done and it makes the most of a space which has almost no natural light: I expected it to feel a bit fake and joyless, like the top floor of Brown’s or Cote but actually it has a nice buzzy vibe to it. Yes, if you want to trend-spot you can – the industrial look is more Williamsburg by numbers than NYC in the Machine Age and the ubiquitous Tolix chairs are all over the place – but nevertheless, I warmed to it more than I thought I would. I even liked the fake trees at the door and the fake plants on the tables even though I knew they were fake – but then I’ve always found that a little suspension of disbelief makes the Oracle a far more enjoyable place.

The lunchtime options largely consisted of salads, sandwiches for toasting and lots and lots of cakes and pastries. Quite a decent range of sandwiches, too: I spotted baguettes, ciabattas, panini, wraps and focaccia with a good selection of fillings. Of the salads I was tempted by the Japanese chicken and the tuna niçoise, but when push came to shove it wasn’t a salad kind of day. You order at the counter and collect your drinks there, then they bring your sandwiches over. Standing there waiting for my drink I was struck by the staff – all young, all enthusiastic, all really friendly. There also seemed to be a fair amount of them: quite a contrast to many of Reading’s independent cafés.

Focaccia with salami, goat’s cheese and tapenade was really gorgeous. It’s a great selection of ingredients – salty and intense – and when toasted properly, as this was, they combine into something quite wonderful. Rather endearingly, the black-shirted chap bringing it to my table said “I’m sorry, I know it looks burnt but I promise it isn’t” (he was quite right, too). Somewhere between mouthful one and mouthful two my preconceptions properly went away – yes, it was a bit small at four pounds fifty but none the less, I loved eating it. The pulled pork (slow cooked for nine hours, according to their blurb, and eaten by me in about two minutes) wrap with coleslaw was also excellent and a great contrast, sweet where the focaccia had been savoury. I’m not usually a fan of quite sloppy pulled pork but it worked here, especially as it was contained by the toasted tortilla. Again, you could quibble about the price but it was deceptively substantial, with no thick clump of pointless wrap to wade through at the end.

MCCFocacciaRoughly at this point one of the serving staff decided to do a round of the tables offering people amaretti biscuits from a gigantic jar. It was a lovely, random, cynicism-eroding thing to do: by this stage I was in serious danger of quite enjoying myself.

Ironically for a place with coffee in the title I’m told the coffee was nothing to write home about. My companion’s latte was apparently a little bitter and not in the top flight of coffees in Reading (allegedly this holy trinity consists of Tamp, Workhouse and, rather surprisingly, Tutti Frutti). Earl Grey, on the other hand, was good (although tea is easy to do well), nice and fragrant and no one tried to put the milk in with the bag; I remain convinced that coffee drinkers would never put up with the ineptitude often shown in tea making. I was given a cup rather than offered the choice between a cup and a pot, and only realised that I’d missed out when I went up to order another, but this was a relatively minor error and I was too happy to get especially peeved by it.

The second cup of tea was to accompany cake. I was tempted by the red velvet cake but eventually opted for a blondie and a pain au chocolat. The berry blondie was divine – a heavy slice of cake that was almost like a super dense white chocolate cheesecake, with dollops of jammy berries in the dimples. It was almost like eating fudgy cake mix and I’m not ashamed to say that I made happy noises while doing so. The pain au chocolat, however, was probably the most disappointing part – MCC is apparently a bakery too but this was the kind of dense pastry you could have used to break a shop window. I’d hoped for light, flakey buttery layers but instead it was all compressed and spongy, and one bite revealed the inside to be a huge empty cavern, with two rows of chocolate like railroad tracks. Never mind: I suppose there had to be something I didn’t like.

MCCCakesLunch for two came to just under nineteen pounds, although I was given a fifty per cent off voucher for the coffee which saved me about a pound. I guess I’d say that everything was just a little on the pricey side, but thinking about the location and the people MCC needs to pay rent to, you can kind of understand it. Still, when you think about your alternatives in the Oracle itself – Costa, Nero (two of them), Starbucks (yes, two of them as well) I think MCC emerges pretty well from that comparison.

It’s interesting: when C.U.P., an independent coffee shop, announced that it was planning to open just along from Bill’s there was a lot of sneering. Not ANOTHER coffee place, people said below the line on a variety of websites. Well, I think that misses the point. If there are too many coffee places in Reading, it’s certainly not places like C.U.P. or MCC. If new independent businesses have a good idea, and they do it well, and they take business away from the countless branches of our countless chains then I say the more of them open in Reading the better.

Does MCC do it well? Yes, I think so. It’s a peculiar place in many respects, an independent that needs to look like an independent (for cred, mainly) but also needs to look as polished and professional as a chain (to fit in to the neighbourhood). In that respect, its closest relation is somewhere like Artigiano, but I liked it far more than Artigiano. The food, which could easily have been an exercise in box-ticking, is good. The service is informal and charming. I know that seeing an independent place like MCC in the Oracle is a bit like finding a Tory with a beard – at first the main thing that strikes you is the novelty value – but somehow it works. So preconceptions be damned: I can think of a dozen reasons why I shouldn’t have liked MCC but, despite all of them, it turns out that I did. Who would have seen that coming?

Manhattan Coffee Club – 7.3
U6 Upper Level, The Oracle, RG1 2AG
07817 938887

www.facebook.com/manhattancoffeeclub

Shed

I’ve talked about Shed many times since starting this blog. For instance, when I reviewed Artigiano I remember saying “I’d rather go to Shed”, or words to that effect. They won my Sandwich Of The Year award in December for their truly splendid tuna melt (and I’m reliably informed that a number of people stopped by to check out my recommendation). And, returning the favour, proprietor Pete recommended I check out Beijing Noodle House: and I’m delighted that he did, because it turns out that that man knows his mouth watering pork dumplings when he sees them.

And yet I’ve never reviewed Shed. Silly, really. I suppose I’ve always assumed that everyone knows about Shed, that they’re part of Reading’s lunch royalty and require no endorsement from me, but thinking about it this week I realised that was no reason not to go. After all, ER is about celebrating the good places, banging the “use it or lose it” drum. Why should Shed be an exception to that rule?

Besides, Shed are specialists in one of my favourite things of all, and that’s the humble sandwich. I know the world of lunch has diversified, and we’re all supposed to enjoy our bread free salad boxes and our floury tortilla wraps and – please, God no – “quinoa pots”, but I still think there’s a lot to be said for a truly decent sandwich. I was tempted to say that it’s the best thing since sliced bread, but really it’s the logical culmination of sliced bread. A properly excellent sandwich, you could say, is sliced bread v2.0. In my book, a sandwich should be made to order rather than sitting clammy in a fridge waiting to be bought, and not enough places in central Reading offer that nowadays.

That Shed has developed such a devoted following (I still remember seeing the pictures of Pete and Lydia at last year’s Pride Of Reading Awards, with facial expressions which roughly translated as What the hell are we doing here?) is particularly impressive when you consider the location. It’s tucked away behind Friar Street, itself the poor relation of Reading’s retail world, and the uninitiated probably stop at Nando’s before ever walking the extra few steps to discover it.

That’s their loss, because it’s a lovely spot: the building is a barnlike structure that used to be a forge, with a serving and seating area downstairs and a large open space upstairs with beams, mismatched furniture (including the classic Robin Day polyprop chair which takes me right back to secondary school) and a bar for when it turns into Milk in the evenings. The space upstairs is my favourite – it has a certain dishevelled charm to it, and tons of people watching potential if you manage to bag a seat with a good view out of one of the floor to ceiling windows.

The menu offers sandwiches, toasties and salads plus a soup each day and a few specials during the week. It saddens me greatly that I’m very rarely in the centre of Reading on a Friday when Shed does “Saucy Friday”, but it’s well worth trying if you’re more fortunate than I am (and if you are, hold out for the Scotch bonnet chicken with rice and peas, coleslaw and macaroni cheese – a finer hot lunch for six pounds you’ll struggle to find anywhere). Still, visiting on a Saturday is the next best thing – no specials, but the office hordes aren’t around (it gets absolutely packed on weekdays) and the shoppers are elsewhere. In one of our countless Caffe Neros, probably.

Our toasted sandwiches, rationally speaking, didn’t take that long to arrive. It felt like an eternity, but that was probably because I caught the smell of melting cheese wafting up the stairs before they even reached our table (or maybe it was just an olfactory hallucination brought on by the cravings).

First up was “The Top One” – mozzarella, chorizo, jalapenos and sun dried tomatoes. I don’t know whether it got that name because it’s their most popular, their best or just for the prosaic reason that it’s at the top of the menu, but whatever the reason is I really liked it. The jalapenos were generous enough to give some fire but at the same time added a touch of sweetness and the little batons of coarse chorizo were rich and salty. I had it on ciabatta – it costs a little extra but the ciabatta at Shed is a truly wonderful thing, big, deceptively light and so much nicer than the slightly miserly panini you might get in Reading’s chain establishments. The only drawback was that there wasn’t quite enough cheese for my liking (which does raise the question of how much cheese is enough cheese? Based on extensive research, I’d sum my conclusion up as a hell of a lot) which made the sandwich a touch dry in places. I don’t remember seeing Pete or Lydia behind the counter that day, and perhaps that’s why it wasn’t quite as good as usual.

ShedTop

I probably should have ordered something other than the tuna melt to accompany that. Partly for variety’s sake – the menu offers a range of different salads, some with pasta, some with couscous, some just with leaves (it also has a Barkham Blue cheeseboard, with some money from each one sold going to Launchpad) so to pick another sandwich felt a little unimaginative. Partly, too, because I’ve already waxed lyrical about this particular sandwich. But when push came to shove, I couldn’t resist reacquainting myself with it. Was it as good as I remembered?

Well, almost. It looked perfect; just enough tuna, shedloads (pardon the pun) of cheese, the occasional piquant mouthful of thinly sliced raw red onion. The only disappointment was the capers – I’m used to these not being spared at Shed, a carpet of capers scattered throughout the sandwich making every bite a tangy delight, but this time they’d been used sparingly and it just wasn’t the same. Don’t get me wrong: if I’d never had the tuna melt before I’d have been very pleased with it indeed. But I had, and the problem with excellence is that people have a nasty habit of expecting you to keep it up all the time. Again, I wondered if I’d just picked the wrong day to show up.

Both sandwiches came with a little salad – iceberg lettuce, a little lamb’s lettuce and some slices of cucumber and tomato, dressed with a little balsamic vinaigrette. It divided opinion: I finished mine (even though I do think the only place for iceberg lettuce, really, is in a burger) but my companion decided to give it a miss.

On the side we had a cup of tea each, served in a decent sized mug with separate milk, like proper tea should be (I was surprised that my companion didn’t have a coffee, but apparently he doesn’t think it’s one of Shed’s strong points). We were tempted to have a piece of cake, just to give you a comprehensive review, but on this occasion we just weren’t quite tempted enough. Maybe next time I’ll give in and have a bit of the shortbread with lemon curd that nearly tipped me over the edge on this visit (and if there had been some of Shed’s chocolate tiffin the decision would have made itself, but it wasn’t to be).

The whole thing came to just under thirteen pounds, not including service. While I’m on the subject of service, it was friendly and efficient if a little overwhelmed (I think we turned up during a bit of a lunchtime rush). Again, I’m inclined to be forgiving because I know it’s usually absolutely spot on, and it probably only looked a little frayed in comparison to that: I’m sure that the uninitiated, if they’d come here instead of Nando’s, would have found it terrific.

Shed, more than anywhere I can think of, reminds me that there really are two Readings out there. On the one hand, there’s the Reading where Shed is unknown, where at best people say “I’ve always wondered about that place” or “I keep meaning to go there” and, on the other, the Reading where life without Shed is unthinkable. The latter Reading, I think, is the one that I write about and that Alt Reading writes about, the one we all queue up to defend when unimaginative people call it a clone town, usually from the comfort of Costa Coffee or Bill’s (the same people, I find, who complain – equally vociferously – that nothing ever happens here and that Reading is a cultural desert). Well, I’m sad for them – but, more than that, I’m glad I live in this Reading: we don’t need Starbucks, because we have places like Shed and it’s our Costa, our Starbucks, our Caffe Nero and Central Perk all rolled into one. And as long as they keep toasting the ciabattas, melting the cheese, dishing up Saucy Friday and making their milkshakes (can’t believe I nearly forgot to mention the milkshakes!) I’ll keep coming. I have a sneaking feeling I’ll probably see you there, some time.

Shed – 7.9
The Old Forge, 8 Merchants Place, RG1 1DT
0118 9561482

http://www.theshedcafe.co.uk/