The Lyndhurst

I reckon everyone has their favourite part of Reading. Some people are firm Caversham fans, north of the river and delighted to be near to Nomad and close to a Waitrose (and who can blame them?). Others have a soft spot for the Tilehurst Road, or the Bath Road – I’ve often walked past Florida Court on the latter and wondered what it might be like to live there. Some are on Team Newtown or Team Oxford Road, defiantly proud of the bustle and scruff of those areas; one of my best friends moved up North and still sends me messages telling me how much she misses the Oxford Road and its many characters.

And of course, everyone has a part of Reading they daydream about living in but know they probably never will. Gorgeous roads up by the university like New Road or The Mount, for instance. The impressive sweep of School Terrace down by the canal, for me, is another. Or Eldon Square! Imagine living on Eldon Square, in one of those gorgeous big houses that hasn’t been turned into flats. You could turn a room into a library, have dinner parties around a big table (I’d have to make a lot more friends, but that’s beside the point). There’s one house, near the bottom of Kendrick Road, with a little drive and a tiny roundabout and its own lamp post like something out of Narnia: in another life, I quite fancy settling there.

Of course, this is just based on walking past those areas, seeing the glow in the windows in the evening or snooping on them during artists’ open house events. For all I know those houses are dingy, tiny and draughty, with damp in the basements and condensation on the single glazed windows every morning. I tell myself that to cheer myself up when I realise that isn’t going to be my life: those places are probably rubbish anyway, right? Maybe the people in the Lower Earley Mafia or the Tilehurst Massive have the right idea.

One of my favourite parts has always been the bit informally known as “The Village”, the area around Eldon Square and Watlington Street, bounded by London Road on one end and Queens Road and Kings Road on the other. Lovely redbrick terraced houses and little side streets rub shoulders with splendid boozers like the Retreat – we don’t have time enough to talk about how much I love that place – and the Eldon Arms, although I think that’s currently awaiting new management. There’s the gorgeous Polish Church, and the upholsterer on the corner of St John’s Road which never seems to do any business.

On the edge of the Village is The Lyndhurst, a pub which has always threatened greatness without quite getting there (I’m sure many of us can identify with that). It used to be owned by the same people as the Moderation and was a nice, if amateurish, place to go for dinner: my friends still rave about the rolled pork dish they used to do. Then it was cut adrift for a while before being taken on by a chap called Heath Thomas. He installed a chef from LSB and things looked promising, but a year later the chef had moved on and then Thomas closed the pub, claiming that Enterprise had hiked the prices to the extent that it was no longer viable (a pubco, acting like a pantomime villain? Surely not).

Anyway, the pub reopened late last year and something quite remarkable happened: they started putting pictures of their dishes on Twitter and they looked, well, beautiful. Not just tasty, but genuinely beautiful. I’ve stopped by many times since and although the interior – an unfussy L-shaped room with the same old tables, chairs and pews – was the same, it felt like a sea change was under way. The menu was never the same two times running. There was a cocktail menu, and they started showing films on a Sunday night. The gastropub, ironically, is the one tired London fashion which has never even attempted to take root in Reading: now the idea has jumped the shark have we managed to get one by accident? I wanted to know for sure, and I couldn’t think of a better place for my first review in almost a year.

Here’s a trade secret for you – in my previous spell reviewing restaurants, I invariably had the same dining companion. It helps: you trust somebody’s judgment, you bounce ideas off them, you can scrounge lots of their food if you ask nicely. Following a parting of the ways I found myself looking for new dining companions and I couldn’t think of a better way to kick off ER v2.0 than to take my mum out for dinner. So there was something familiar yet unfamiliar about sitting opposite her as she scanned the pub, sipped her gin and scrutinised the menu (“this chair is a bit low, isn’t it?” she said as she plonked herself on one of the pew-style seats by the window).

It’s a clever menu, I think: a small but tempting range of starters hover around the seven pound mark and very few of the mains are north of fourteen pounds. There were a couple of vegetarian or vegan options in each section, and not a mushroom risotto in sight. The mains in particular offered lots of opportunities to compromise, with more conventional steak, burgers and fish and chips mixed in with cheffier things. A smaller specials menu, under the bulldog clip, had another three options and I wouldn’t have put money on them being there the next day. The slogan said “It’s the little things we do” and I liked that: successful restaurants are about details, not big grand sweeping statements.

The last time I went to the Lyndhurst, under their previous management, I started with “posh mushrooms on toast”, which was some very nice mushrooms on what seemed to be a rectangle of Mighty White. The mushrooms might have been Caversham Heights, but the toast was the Dee Road estate. My mother ordered the equivalent dish as a starter and it couldn’t have looked or tasted more different: lovely chestnut mushrooms, firm not slimy, in a beautifully rich and garlicky cream sauce, the whole thing festooned with pretty micro shoots. I loved it, my mum liked it. I liked the way the sauce soaked into the soda bread, leaving you with soggy, savoury spongey bread at the end. My mum wanted something better able to cope with the juices. I thought it was a little on the small side, my mum thought it was just right. You’ll look at the picture, I imagine, and make up your own mind (it was taken by my mum and is therefore much better than mine – she’s a member of the Royal Photographic Society, don’t you know).

I couldn’t not have the Scotch egg, which was mainly for gluttony but which I kidded myself was for scientific purposes. This has changed a few times since I’ve been going: it started out being a normal sausagemeat Scotch egg (which I loved), and then they pimped it up to be (I think) a duck egg wrapped in duck meat, served with a brown sauce which, as I recall, had a genius hint of hoi sin in there. As long as you could overlook the slightly disturbing connotations of eating two generations of duck in the same dish – the ultimate mother/daughter combo, I suppose – it was a lovely dish. But the menu now is strangely non-specific (it comes “wrapped in a choice of meat”, whatever that is) and what turned out felt a little generic. I liked it, but I didn’t love it as much as any of its previous incarnations. Also, it wasn’t completely cooked through so not all of the white was set: I had to scrape some of it off and it sat there on the board like wobbly snot. The pea shoots, never my favourite salad garnish, weren’t dressed but I was sure they had been on previous visits. It’s the little things, perhaps.

So, not a home run on the starters but the kitchen really hit its stride when the mains turned up. I’d asked at the bar for recommendations and as a result I’d chosen the Cajun pork belly, not something I’d normally pick in a pub. What turned up looked fantastic and tasted even better. The pork, rubbed with spice, was dense and tender without being dry. What was described as “apple mash” was potato mash with clever hints of apple and vanilla, sweet but not cloying. The straw of crackling on top was done just right (the last one I tried in a pub had the texture of a dog chew). There was also a single crisp leaf of what I imagine was deep fried kale. The cleverest thing was a “pit bean croquette”, almost an arancino full of barbecue beans – and of course there was a sticky jus to bring it all together. I hate using wanky words like “processes” (so Masterchef) so let’s just say there was a lot going on, especially for thirteen pounds fifty. I’d have gone back and eaten it again the next day if I could.

My mother went for the main course I’d normally gravitate to – pan roasted chicken breast with gnocchi and pesto. Again the presentation was gorgeous, with the chicken sitting on top of a verdant green heap of gnocchi and strewn with yet more red micro shoots. And again, opinion was divided. My mum had nothing but faint praise for this one – there wasn’t enough pesto, what pesto there was was too much oil and not enough herbs, salt and parmesan. She reached for the salt grinder and seasoned the dish twice (“and I never use salt at home”, she told me – if you think I’m a harsh critic, perhaps this is where it comes from).

Personally, I liked it. I found the doughy gnocchi and the pesto delightful, thought the chicken was nicely done. I thought it was subtle rather than bland, though I appreciate that that can be a fine line. My one criticism (and it might have been because the chicken was roasted rather than fried) was that I would have liked the chicken skin brittle and studded with salt rather than ever so slightly flaccid – when it’s done well, chicken skin can be the very best thing about a dish like this.

We skipped dessert. It’s a compact dessert menu and, although I know the presentation is stunning, having seen the photos I still couldn’t bring myself to get excited about chocolate brownie – I’m afraid I subscribe to the “that’s a cake not a dessert” school of thought – or Eton Mess. Oh, and I should mention the drinks. I had a pint of Camden Hells and my mum had a gin and tonic (Whitley Neill – I had to explain several times that it wasn’t made by a chap called Neil from Whitley, although what a gin that would be: I dread to think what botanicals he’d use). Both were splendid. The whole thing came to forty-seven pounds, not including tip. Before you ask, of course I paid for my mum. What do you take me for?

Service was quite lovely throughout, friendly and enthusiastic (I might have chosen for my dishes to come out slightly more slowly, but that might just be me and it must be tricky getting that balance right in a pub). It must be easier to do service well when you know that, fundamentally, you’re serving up really good food and everyone seemed really proud of what they’re building at the Lyndhurst. That’s been my experience of the place in general, as it happens, whether I’ve gone for dinner or just turned up with a friend for a couple of gins – and they know their gin behind the bar, believe me.

I really like the Lyndhurst; I expect that much is obvious from what you’ve just read. It’s not perfect, but enough of it is extremely good that I want to go back again to see how close to perfect they can get. It’s a pub which does excellent food without falling back on clichés or just churning out dreary dude food like everywhere else in Reading right now. So yes, it has craft beer and yes, it does a burger if you want one, but there’s lots about the place that makes it a much more interesting prospect and not just another dead-eyed exercise in bandwagon jumping. Heaven knows, Reading desperately needs that kind of establishment.

The night I went to the Lyndhurst, one of my friends was eating out in Paris at Le Chateaubriand, a restaurant which regularly makes lists of the 50 best restaurants in the world. I’ve been, and I didn’t like it, but I didn’t tell my friend that because I didn’t want to piss on her chips. But, true to form, her messages suggested that she too had been underwhelmed by the whole thing: iffy service, slow pacing and flavourless food. I sent her pictures of my scotch egg and my pork belly and the reply came back: Holy shit. I want to lick the screen. So there you go – the day I went to the Lyndhurst provoked food envy in somebody eating in one of the best restaurants in the world: Reading 1, Paris 0.

After dinner, I took my mum to the Retreat for a pint and a debrief. We ended up in random conversations with the other locals in the front room, which always happens there and which I always love. Brian the landlord was a resplendent shade of brown – three weeks in Turkey, if you believe it – and as twinkly as ever. He winked at my mother so often that I thought he might have something in his eye (he’s a roister-doister, that one). It was the perfect end to the evening – and, not for the first time lately, I remembered that this really is my favourite part of town.

The Lyndhurst – 7.7
88-90 Queens Road, RG1 4DG
0118 9503888

http://www.thelyndhurstreading.co.uk

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The Catherine Wheel, Goring

This is probably rather a Michael Portillo way to start a restaurant review, but goodness, the train journey from Reading to Goring is rather lovely. From Tilehurst onwards the view gets prettier and prettier, all green fields and lush hills, the Thames on one side and the beauty of Basildon Park on the other. The names on the map have a touch of Watership Down about them: Harley Hill Wood; Harecroft Wood; Shooters Hill. My fellow passengers on the train looked particularly pleased to be commuting home from work, and surrounded by such splendour it was hard to blame them.

I was on my way to Goring because I’d had a tip-off: the Catherine Wheel, I was told, was a magical find in the country. Admittedly, the recommendation came from the pub itself but I decided that was no bad thing: if you can’t blow your own trumpet, why expect anybody else to blow it for you? So I got off the train, wandered over the footbridge and walked down Station Road, past house after house which – although physically close enough to touch – would always be a lottery win or an unexpected inheritance away.

First impressions were good: the Catherine Wheel is a proper old pub with no faux concessions to modernism, no Farrow & Ball facelift, no cynical gentrification. It was all low beams and dark furniture, rowing blades mounted on the wall. Another good sign was that many of the tables were booked when I arrived on a weekday evening – although the staff, friendly and efficient from start to finish, whisked us through the pub and found us somewhere to sit. It was a big, attractive, well lit table, albeit with a disturbingly tacky surface (it’s hard to completely enjoy a pint when you fear your bare elbows are going to stick to the table.)

I like to think I go to enough disappointing pubs these days to know a convincing menu when I see one, and the Catherine Wheel’s looked promising. Less than half a dozen starters, only slightly more mains and a handful of specials. The pub classics (fish and chips, steak, burgers) were all there but also some interesting touches: rabbit loin, crab tart, chimichurri sauce. If anything, I thought the starters were more inventive whereas the mains played it safe but even so, it felt a world away from the standard issue Mitchell & Butler pub menu.

First things first, though: a Scotch egg from the bar bites section of the menu. This took a reassuringly long time to arrive (“I’m sorry”, the waitress said, “but they take a while because they’re made fresh” – an apology nobody should ever have to make in a restaurant, if you ask me) and was worth the wait. It was billed as pork and chilli but seemed chilli-free to me: an irrelevant detail because the whole thing was truly magnificent. The pork was soft and herby, the egg spot on, the yolk still soft but not too runny, and the piccalilli simultaneously sweet and sharp. I ate it so enthusiastically that the gentlemen next to us ordered one as well; I don’t think they were disappointed, either.

Scotch
Starters were more of a mixed bag. Crab and lime tart with coriander was a dainty thing, delicious if a little delicate (I suppose, in its defence, most things would seem delicate after a Scotch egg but there you go). That said, everything about it was well done – the little disc of pastry was crumbly and buttery and the filling was generous with the crab. I thought it needed more lime and coriander to really make it stand out (crab can be rather a subtle ingredient) but it was still an accomplished, if soft-spoken, dish.

CrabThe poached pear, candied walnut and Stilton salad was exactly what it said it would be. The pears were soft enough to yield to the edge of a fork, the walnuts were deliciously sugary sweet and the Stilton was creamy smooth, all on top of a pile of bitter leaves dressed in a sweet (honey?) dressing. I would have liked the Stilton to be more tangy and salty (or just more) to balance out the sweetness in the rest of the salad but provided you could resign yourself to having a very sweet starter this was really tasty and more creative than most restaurants, let alone most pubs.

SaladThe mains were well paced and came just as I was beginning to hope they’d turn up. From the specials board, duck breast came pink and carved into thick slices with roasted new potatoes, carrot pureé, broccoli and gooseberry jam. It was a near miss, if a delicious one in places. The duck was well cooked – nicely pink in the middle – but not well seasoned. Similarly the potatoes felt like a carby but slightly flavourless onslaught; a few less, properly seasoned would have been miles better. The carrot puree was tasty but so much of it on the plate came across as a little bit Cow & Gate, and like the duck it went cold very quickly. The star of the show, without a doubt, was the gooseberry jam. I wasn’t expecting it to be red, but it had the tartness of gooseberry and – this was the masterstroke – a nice spike of chilli. It absolutely saved the plate in front of me (it was the Tim Howard of the food world: it could have saved almost anything). I’d probably have eaten it smeared on a mattress, that’s how good it was.

DuckThe honey and soy marinated salmon was a dish of two halves. The salmon was cracking – still soft and silky in the middle but crispy, salty and blackened on the outside. When it arrived I thought it was burned, but I soon realised it was very cleverly cooked indeed. The honey was a little lost in the salt but that was no bad thing after the sweetness of the starter. The disappointment was what was underneath it – a bland stir fry of noodles, pak choi, bean sprouts and mooli. There was literally nothing to make that interesting, and any mouthful without a piece of that delicious salmon was a sad mouthful indeed. Such a shame, as it was a dish which could so easily have been improved with some soy, garlic, chilli, ginger or ideally all four. I found myself wondering if the chef had accidentally left something out, but didn’t dare ask.

SalmonThe problem with a fully booked restaurant is that you keep seeing dishes arrive at other tables which aren’t yours. So I can confirm that the pulled pork burger (with crackling, apple sauce and crunchy chips) looked so good that the man at the next table caught me staring at it. The fish and chips, which turned up to the delight of the sixtysomething lady across the way, was a piece of haddock so leviathan that she and her companion both oohed when it was plonked in front of her. I had a distinct whiff of the culinary road not travelled, to the extent that I briefly started to wonder whether I really ought to visit twice before writing a review, before snapping out of it.

Service deserves a mention, because the Catherine Wheel didn’t get a thing wrong in this respect. Our waitress was tireless, knowledgeable and enthusiastic and seemed to be working practically the whole pub. Watching her was an object lesson in how to work your socks off and make it look effortless (quite a contrast to the commuters on the train earlier, who I imagine had probably spent the whole day looking flat out busy while doing nothing at all). We were too full for dessert – which is a shame, because I had my eye on the cheeseboard (from the superb Grey’s of Pangbourne, no less). Besides, the train back to Reading might only take fifteen minutes but they start to get less frequent as you get closer to the end of the evening. So we settled up: the bill came to just under sixty pounds, not including service, for two starters, two mains, a small glass of perfectly pleasant Rioja and a couple of pints, not forgetting that terrific Scotch egg.

So is the Catherine Wheel a magical find in the country? I think so. My food wasn’t perfect but it was definitely interesting, and I saw enough of the dishes arriving at other tables to get an idea that the kitchen had a good balance of pub classics and something slightly more creative for people who wanted to wander a bit further off the beaten track. Looking at their Twitter feed made me want to go back on a sunny Sunday afternoon: jazz, barbecues, pizzas in the garden. It would be easy in a village so pretty to just crank out microwaved staples and make money out of your captive audience: it says a lot that the Catherine Wheel is trying to do more than that while still being a good, traditional pub. If I lived there, I’d feel very lucky to have it as a local. Although to be honest, if I lived there I’d probably feel lucky full stop. On the way back to the station, as we passed the village hall, I heard the sweet strains of an orchestra practising: as if Goring wasn’t idyllic enough already.

The Catherine Wheel – 7.2
Station Road, Goring-on-Thames, RG8 9HB
01491 872379

http://www.catherinewheelgoring.co.uk/