The Bird in Hand, Sonning Common

The Bird In Hand closed in August 2019 with the existing management going on to pastures new after five years running the pub. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

I’ve been thinking about going to the Bird In Hand for ages. It’s been sitting there on my list and I was saving it because I always had a sneaking feeling it would either be really special or crashingly disappointing and I half didn’t want to find out which. There seems to be a bit of a recent trend of country pubs round here taking a detour to Italy – like Buratta’s near Twyford (although I’ve always been a bit deterred by the fact that they’ve spelled “burrata” wrong) and the Red Lion at Mortimer Common – but something about the Bird In Hand felt like it might have star quality.

I normally talk far more about food than I do about chefs, but the Bird In Hand’s back story is an interesting one; the landlord, Santino Busciglio, cooked at various Michelin starred restaurants in London and appeared on one of Gordon Ramsay’s TV shows (don’t worry, the one about good restaurants rather than the one about cockroaches in the kitchen and eighteen page menus where all the sauces come out of a packet) before taking over the Bird In Hand, which reopened at the start of the year.

If it wasn’t the back story, maybe it was the website: in the course of my pre-visit research I decided that it was the most appealing menu I’d seen for a long time. The modish typewriter font made my eyes hurt, but looking beyond that it was an embarrassment of riches – a dizzying range of small sharing dishes to start and then a set of mains which divided their time evenly between Sicily and South Oxfordshire. Braised beef brisket pie rubbed shoulders with roasted sea bream, burger buns cohabiting with focaccia. I almost wanted to keep it on my list forever as some halcyon ideal of what a countryside pub could be, but my curiosity got the better of me so, during the hottest week of the year, my car pulled up outside and I prepared myself to deal with triumph or disaster.

The place has been done up recently and it really showed, but it also achieved the rare trick of managing to feel like a pub that serves food rather than a restaurant which pays lip service to local drinkers. The interior was lovely in that kind of studied rustic way that smart pubs are these days, with a decent-sized chic dining room, but it was completely empty because we’re British and know to make the most of whatever summer weather we actually get. So everyone was sitting outside, under the parasols, rejoicing in the beauty of a sultry English evening. We joined them, marvelling at the red kite circling above and I realised as I sipped a crisp cold pint of cider that choosing from the menu was never going to be an easy task.

It’s actually a cleverer menu than you realise at first – although the twenty or so stuzzichini dishes could seem bewilderingly huge, a lot of them contain components which also turn up in the mains, so you have to carefully pick through and decide how best to try as many different things as possible. We limited ourselves to sharing three before moving on the mains; I deeply regretted not ordering the grilled neck of treacle pork, the crab salt cod and ricotta fish cakes or the chick pea fritters, but it’s a good menu that forces you to make hard choices.

My favourite of them was a couscous salad with green garlic, yellowfin tuna and wild mushrooms – a bloody gorgeous bowl of deliciousness. The couscous was Israeli couscous (the bigger stuff that’s easier to eat and doesn’t go absolutely everywhere the moment you try to eat it), there were lots of little wild mushrooms studded through it, along with sweet cherry tomatoes and plenty of pieces of light, fresh-tasting tuna. It was the first thing I ate and it set a trickily high standard for everything that was to follow.

BirdTapas

Caponata was also good: I’ve always been a huge fan and the Bird In Hand’s version was slightly different to ones I’ve had in the past. The aubergine was firm rather than stewed into sticky submission, there was more of a starring role for the celery in the dish and the balance was much more interesting – a more closely-fought battle between the sweet and the sour – than I was used to. Again, it felt like perfect summer food, and I could gladly have eaten a bowl of it on my own.

The least successful of the starters was the trout two ways (line caught Avington rainbow trout, for any provenance buffs out there). Half had been cured in vodka, little beautifully-coloured strips arranged in a whorl. It was pretty but insubstantial. The other half, hot tea smoked, was served on a little smudge of spinach pureé and I liked it but I didn’t love it – it was powerfully smoky but that flavour wasn’t as deep or complex as I’d hoped it would be and, like the cured trout, it was almost over before it began. By serving it two ways, it felt like neither one thing nor the other: I admired the technique a great deal, but it felt a little unrewarding for six pounds (at the risk of sounding like a heathen, I would have liked some bread with it, but there wasn’t enough of it to put on bread anyway).

Plenty of promise in the starters, then, and the mains delivered on it. The menu has so much for vegetarians (plenty of starters and three tempting mains, including a field mushroom and green garlic pie which I would have ordered on a slightly cooler day) that I felt duty bound to try one of them, so I went for the strozzapretti pasta with aubergine caviar, basil, vine tomatoes and salted ricotta cheese. The pasta was al dente and the aubergine caviar (a bit misleading that, as it had collapsed into something approximating to baba ghanoush by the time it was served) was smoky with a touch of citrus and rich enough to make this a very substantial main. There was also some clever chilli in the sauce which built over time and the generous heap of salted ricotta – so nice to see a kitchen advertising a vegetarian dish without blotting their copybook with Parmesan – on top rounded it off nicely. It was still a bowl of pasta, and I think they always run out of steam when eaten as a main course, but it was probably the best vegetarian main course I’ve had this year. I was also impressed to see how much on the menu was gluten free – almost a third of it, and none of it felt like it involved any compromises.

BirdPasta

The other main turned out to be the perfect synthesis of Sicily and South Oxfordshire, the Bird In Hand’s cover version of fish and chips. The hake was in glorious light batter (billed as Parmesan tempura, although I didn’t really detect that). The chips were crunchy thin straws of courgette, beautifully seasoned and fried, all taste and no oil. And the peas – well, it was a fantastic pea puree, as intense and green to taste as it was to look at. I don’t even like mushy peas, but I couldn’t get enough of this. If I did have a criticism, and it’s only one, the presentation of everything on top of the pea puree made it difficult to make the most of the superlative accompaniments – a lovely piquant pimento ketchup and (a lovely touch, this) a ramekin of malt vinegar jelly. Everything I had had been tasty, but this was clever too.

BirdHake

On a lovely, sunny evening it felt like a waste to head home without making some inroads into the dessert menu, and my companion still had quite a lot of a glass of white wine to finish. Impressively, the Bird In Hand has about ten wines by the glass, nearly all Italian, all costing no more than £3.50 for a small glass or £20 for a bottle, another little detail that made me warm to the place. I didn’t try any, being the designated driver, but I’m told that the Cataratto (an organic Sicilian white) was positively medicinal on a hot day.

This is probably the right place to mention the service, which was the closest my evening came to letting the side down. Sitting outside meant that you ordered at the bar – and when I did Santino, who was working behind the bar, was charm personified and clearly a big hit with locals and diners. He could sell any of his dishes to anyone and was brilliant at bringing the details to life: the tuna cooked with orange zest, the burrata which was arriving later in the week, the salami he gets from small producers in Italy (I imagine he has built up quite a good contacts book), the ice cream which was all made there on the premises. He also lamented the end of the English asparagus season, a subject very close to my heart. The table service was a lot more erratic: the young waiter who was doing the fetching and carrying had a lot to do (serving in the garden means a lot of distance back and forth with plates) but wasn’t the canniest of workers, often bringing out food then returning to the kitchen empty handed despite our empty plates having been in front of us for quite some time. It didn’t mar the evening but I did reach the stage where I had half a mind to taken them inside myself, and that isn’t how it should be.

Santino recommended the ice cream, so naturally I had to try it. They’re all priced by the scoop and, interestingly, the prices all differ so, for example, pistachio is more expensive than chocolate which is more expensive than vanilla. I had two scoops of malt barley ice cream, and I think – no offence to the likes of Tutti Frutti – it’s probably the best ice cream I’ve had in this country. The texture almost defied description because somehow “smooth” isn’t enough but, raiding the thesaurus, smooth is all there is. It was so rich and glossy, with almost a burnt toffee note from the malt, that I just didn’t want it to end. Except I also wished I’d only had one scoop so I could try the chocolate as well: what did I say about good menus and hard choices?

BirdIce

Believe it or not, I’ve saved the best for last. Sfinci, Sicilian cinnamon doughnuts, might well be my dessert of the year so far: three rough little clouds of fried batter, crisp on the outside, soft in the middle, dusted with a little icing sugar and cinnamon and served with the richest, creamiest pistachio ice cream. The irony: in Reading we’re used to being bombarded with a message saying “lovely hot doughnuts, nice and fresh” and yet so many people never get to eat anything of the kind. I was told when I ordered them that they would take fifteen minutes and I’m not sure I can think of a better way of spending fifteen minutes than waiting for that dish.

BirdDoughnut

The total bill, for three courses each, two ciders, a wine and an Averna (it looks like Coke, tastes like cough medicine and, with lots of ice and a slice of orange, is one of the best digestifs you could hope for) was seventy six pounds. Considering the number of separate moments in the meal which had a wow factor, I reckon that was money well spent.

Having written this blog for nearly two years, I’ve come to realise is that life is full of mysteries. Why do cafés persist in putting your napkin between the cake and the plate, thereby guaranteeing you can’t use it? Why is Prezzo always full? Why are the plates for Picnic’s salads so small that it’s almost impossible to eat the salad without dumping half of it on the table? Cosmo: why?

But the biggest mystery of all to me is that people just don’t read the reviews of out of town places – I know, thanks to the joys of WordPress, that every time I publish one quite a few readers decide to take a week off. That’s a real shame, because those people won’t get to find out about the Bird In Hand. They won’t get to experience little flashes of wonder of like the ones I had – that first taste of couscous, wild mushroom and tuna, the tang of the salted ricotta, the big silly smile at something with the texture of jelly and the taste of Sarson’s. That ice cream. Those doughnuts. But never mind – because if you’re reading this you’ll know, and maybe you’ll go. That’s good enough for me.

The Bird In Hand – 8.3
Peppard Road, Sonning Common, RG4 9NP
0118 9721857

http://birdinhandsonningcommon.com/

Loch Fyne

Loch Fyne closed in February 2018. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

I’m probably as surprised to be writing a review of Loch Fyne this week as you are to be reading one. But it occurred to me recently that, despite it having been here in Reading for as long as I can remember, I’ve almost never visited. I’ve been to the branch in Henley, on the smart side of the market square, and had a light lunch in their sunlit courtyard (before going to the Rewind Festival, as it happens – nothing quite like the poignancy of hearing Johnny Hates Jazz performing “Turn Back The Clock” now Clark Datchler actually wishes he could). And I’ve been to the one in Oxford, a beautiful, big stylish space, the roof a mixture of beams and gleaming shiny pipes. But I always forget about the Reading branch, down by the canal, the wrong side of the Oracle on the edge of the Holybrook estate.

Like the others, it’s beautiful from the outside – a lovely large redbrick building overlooking the Kennet (it used to be a brewery, apparently) with a terrace out the front which many Reading restaurants must envy. But stepping inside it’s a different story: the tables and chairs are starting to look a little tired and the stairwell that runs through the centre of the building makes some of the tables on the ground floor a little dark and stranded. I know this for a fact because, despite many tables being unoccupied on a weekday evening, the waiter decided to plonk us at one of the dark, stranded ones. My fellow diners got to look out on the remains of the daylight on that terrace, or gaze out across the river, whereas I got a view of the disabled toilet. Lovely.

The options were, as you’d expect, mostly fish based (“from the sea” according to the menu, just in case you didn’t know) but with a few meat dishes (“from the land” – I know, it’s pretty educational stuff). In fairness, Loch Fyne’s meat supplier is Donald Russell, the excellent Scottish butcher, but it seemed only right to stick to the fish dishes as that’s what Loch Fyne is famous for. After all, nobody goes to Nando’s and orders the “Prego Steak Roll” – not anyone I’ve ever met, anyway. So if you really don’t like fish, this review won’t be for you I’m afraid – and now you know how vegetarian ER readers feel three weeks in every four.

The first starter was the special – potted Bradan Rost (Loch Fyne’s own trademarked hot smoked salmon) with watercress and granary toast. Now, I think of a potted dish as being spiced and topped with clarified butter, delicious spread on decent bread. This was, sadly, more like mashed, cooked salmon with dill added, popped in a glass jar and then chilled. It was potted, I suppose, in the sense that they’d put it in a pot (in the same sense, in fact, that my main course could have been described as “plated fish”).

The Bradan Rost itself was tasty – rich and smoky with a firm flesh – and I probably would have liked a fillet of it which hadn’t been mucked around with. But when it was mashed and spread on dry bread it was far less appealing. Some butter for the toasted bread would have rescued the situation somewhat, although of course if it had actually been potted salmon this wouldn’t have been a problem. Oh, and the watercress was the final nail in the coffin – a little pile of green in the middle of the plate that looked a little like it had been run over. Vegetarian roadkill – the perfect finishing touch to any dish.

LochPot

The other starter was described as “haggis with scallops”. This was also misleading to an extent verging on cheeky; I counted the grand total of one scallop, cut thinly into three slices (although that did make the coral, which I don’t usually enjoy, surprisingly tasty). Maybe they expect people to be fooled by this sleight of hand: I wasn’t. The kitchen’s knife skills were equally evidenced by the caramelised pear, although I did feel it wouldn’t have been asking too much for them to peel it first. It was pear all right, but it didn’t feel especially caramelised. You needed a similar ability to cut things into very small pieces to make the starter last very long. It was a tasty, pretty little thing (you never go far wrong with haggis), even if the lemon beurre blanc wasn’t really anywhere to be seen, but the whole thing prompted an overwhelming feeling of Is that it? followed shortly after with another of Is that it for eight pounds? It felt like the kind of starter you could only truly enjoy on an expense account.

LochHag

We had a glass of white wine each with the starters: a nice, if unremarkable picpoul de pinet and a zesty South African chardonnay, both of which were decent but not quite as cold as they should be (there was a certain symmetry to that, as my feelings towards the restaurant weren’t as warm as they should have been). By the end of the starters, which came out pretty quickly, we had got most of the way through the glass and had to decide whether to order another. We guessed that the mains wouldn’t take long to arrive so decided against a second glass. I didn’t get a huge amount of satisfaction out of being proved right, but sometimes the only certainty in a restaurant is that disappointment is lurking around the corner.

Of the mains, the first – poached smoked haddock on colcannon mash with a soft poached egg and a wholegrain mustard sauce – jumped out from the menu because it ticked so many of my boxes. I know it doesn’t sound like summer food (although, so far, it hasn’t much felt like summer) but I fancied something comforting and I couldn’t imagine anything better than poached fish and mash. It was pretty – a huge mound of steaming hot mash, a decent sized piece of smoked haddock (undyed, as you can tell from the photo) and a perfectly poached egg oozing sunshine yellow on to the rest of the dish.

It all sounds promising but, yet again, there wasn’t enough to like about the dish. The sauce round the edge had a skin on it, which suggested it had been sitting on the pass for a while, and it was oddly bland; if it hadn’t had mustard seeds speckled throughout it I’d have struggled to tell you what it was supposed to be. It should have been tasty and hearty, but the smooth texture of the mash (even with a few strands – nowhere near enough – of cabbage running through it), the gloopy nondescript sauce and the egg yolk added up to a big bowl of something like wallpaper paste. I polished off the haddock and left a fair amount of the rest. It seemed throughout the meal that Loch Fyne had really good fish, but little idea what to do with it.

LockHad

The second main was from the fish bar. A nice idea, this: you get a piece of fish of your choosing, grilled steamed or fried, with a sauce of your choice and two sides. My fried cod looked promising but again it was underwhelming – lovely thick flakes but no apparent seasoning and a soft, flaccid skin on top (which is the whole point of ordering it fried in the first place). I would describe it as just hot enough – which made it considerably hotter than the samphire which accompanied it. Hot and well cooked, samphire is one of the most beautiful things you can pair with fish. Lukewarm and clumpy, it isn’t. I left a fair amount. Salsa verde tasted better than it looked – beautifully sharp and clearly made with lots of capers but the sludgy colours and coarse texture made it feel more like Boden mushy peas than the green, fresh sauce it should be.

The best of the lot were the twice cooked chips, which were among the best chips I’ve had in Reading (only Forbury and LSB come close, from recollection). Beautifully crisp, rough outsides, lovely fluffy middles; if they’d just served me a portion of those, some bread and butter and some Heinz red sauce I’d have spent a lot less, left a lot happier and given a much higher score. They came in a metal beaker – because that’s how everyone serves chips these days, unless you get a tiny fryer basket – and at the bottom was a pale, unremarkable looking stowaway French fry. It reinforced the fact that this order was probably the only really good choice I made all evening.

LochCod

Aside from a friendly greeting at the door (by the manager, possibly) service was probably best described as apologetic. That was behaviour which made more sense as the evening went on: certainly by the end, there was a fair amount they could have apologised for. Not that I was ever invited to give any feedback which would have prompted an apology – tellingly, when clearing the plates away we were asked if we were finished but never if we’d enjoyed it. Even when the half full plate of wallpaper paste was collected there was no question or comment. Did they think that was normal behaviour from diners? Did they know the food wasn’t up to scratch? Or did they just not care? It was impossible to tell, but none of those explanations reflect well on anybody.

We didn’t have dessert. I felt like Loch Fyne had had quite enough of my money by this point: the total bill for two courses and one glass of wine each was fifty four pounds, excluding tip. The whole experience took just over an hour, and diners were still turning up as I was leaving. I hope they had more fun than I did, although they could have easily managed that playing Scrabble or eating a packet of Quavers instead.

I can never decide whether Loch Fyne is an upmarket chain or not. I saw a fair few date nights taking place during my visit – a few sparkly tops (and one I might even describe as “ritzy”, with all the connotations that word carries) and smart jackets giving the game away. But I couldn’t help wondering, based on the evening, whether they might have been happier in Henley, Oxford or even Wokingham. Perhaps I was a bit jaded – after all, they’d spent the evening gazing into each other’s eyes and I’d spent it looking at the door of the disabled loo. But I think maybe what Loch Fyne really illustrates is that not only are there good chains and bad chains but that, despite the promise of uniformity implicit in a chain restaurant, there are also good branches and bad branches. And Reading, I’m afraid, is saddled with the latter. You might get a better deal if you turn up for the thirteen pound, three course, not hugely exciting set menu. But really, why would you bother? The one thing I’ve learned from Loch Fyne isn’t where fish come from, it’s that – where restaurants are concerned – there are plenty more of them in the sea.

Loch Fyne – 5.9
The Maltings, Bear Wharf, Fobney Street, RG1 6BT
0118 9185850

http://www.lochfyneseafoodandgrill.co.uk/locations/reading

Bel And The Dragon

I changed my mind about whether to review Bel And The Dragon several times. Initially I was all for going, and then I looked at the website: the menu looked suspiciously similar to the one I’d ordered from the last time I went there, well over a year ago. And that, in fact, was almost identical to the menu when the local paper reviewed it nearly two years ago. Bel’s website boasted a passion for seasonal, local, sustainable food – but the evidence suggested otherwise, so I decided not to bother. But then I was told that I might be being a bit harsh, and that the menu had changed only recently, so I decided to give them a chance.

There’s no attractive way to approach Bel And The Dragon, especially on foot. You can go down the canal next to some rather forbidding-looking blocks of flats, or down Kenavon Drive, past the questionable delights of the Toys R Us. Even the address, Gas Works Road, sounds grim. It’s a pity, because the building itself is handsome (I’m not sure what it used to be: Bel’s own website says it’s an ex biscuit factory which I don’t think is correct) and the inside is gorgeous too, with lots of banquettes and booths round the edges of a big bright high-ceilinged room.

Looking at the menu induced déjà vu because, as feared, the majority of it had indeed remained unchanged for two years, the mention of English asparagus the only concession to seasonality. The drinks we had while making up our mind did nothing to calm the sinking feeling. The “Bloody Caesar” – a Bloody Mary variant featuring clamato juice, lime, horseradish and sherry – was all citrus and no tomato, thinner, sharper and more joyless than Gillian McKeith. The house wine was even odder – the menu claims that they bring a magnum over, you drink as much as you want and are charged by the 125ml. In reality, what happened is that they brought 125ml and charged me, at the end, for 175ml (by which point I was too exhausted even to complain).

Service at Bel is the triumph of quantity over quality. At times the dining room had over half a dozen aproned types wafting around but they spent most of their time talking to one another and trying their hardest to avoid interacting with diners. They seemed to be having a lovely time, but I did wish they’d been more interested in making sure that I was, too. One was either a trainee or on work experience because her sole job seemed to be to stand there deferring to someone else: at one point I made eye contact and smiled (because I wanted to see the wine list) and she smiled back and then went back to staring off into space, seemingly her main skill. Perhaps she just thought that I really enjoyed being ignored: I suppose it’s possible.

So, I’ve bitched about the menu, I’ve bitched about the service, time to bitch about the food, right? If only it were that simple: some of it wasn’t bad, which makes this review harder to write than I was expecting. A starter of scallops, cauliflower puree and sherry caramel, for instance, was very good: four nicely cooked scallops, a generous helping of sweet puree and little crispy miniature florets around the side (and a scattering of micro herbs, because chefs still think we give a toss about micro herbs: I have no idea why). To put this in perspective, it was twelve pounds – as much as some of the mains – so it should have been pretty good but even so it wasn’t disappointing. I was so geared up, by that stage, for disappointment that not being able to be disappointed was almost disappointing in itself. I’m not sure if that’s a win-win or lose-lose situation.

Scallops

The burrata, on the other hand had been treated so badly that I fear the chef had never seen one before. It looked as if had been torn to pieces by an angry mob before being studded with slightly chewy thyme leaves and strewn on a plate with far too much beetroot. Sure, there were four types of beetroot and a few toasted pine nuts, but what should have been the centrepiece of the dish really wasn’t. Where I expect a burrata to be a soft, yielding pouch of rich, creamy delight this was a tough, abused poor relation. I don’t know what had been done to it prior to it reaching my plate but it had grown a thick skin to make up for it.

Burrata

Of the mains, roast suckling pig was a delight and easily the best dish of the visit. A healthy (or rather, unhealthy) portion of pork, cooked just the right side of dryness, came on a board with a little jug of rich, savoury gravy and some spiced apple chutney which added a bit of sweetness and moisture. The crackling – light, salty and sinful – was how I imagine Quavers would taste in heaven. But, inevitably, there were still disappointments. Bel’s menu says that they are very proud of their duck fat and thyme roasted potatoes, but on this evidence I can’t see why; there was no evidence of thyme and none of the gorgeous, rough, crispy exterior you get from a potato well-roasted in duck fat.

Pig

The side dish, ostensibly “cauliflower, smashed garlic and pecorino” was cauliflower cheese. No more, no less. If they’d used pecorino, and I’m not convinced, it was a waste of pecorino. The garlic just didn’t turn up at all (maybe because it was smashed). At eighteen pounds – with an extra three for the cauliflower cheese – it wasn’t quite good enough to justify the price: eating the dish felt a bit like watching the meter running in a taxi heading somewhere you don’t even particularly want to go.

The haddock, chorizo and white bean stew looked appealing when it came and the flavours didn’t disappoint but, after digging around for a moment, I realised that there was an absence of beans. I couldn’t find any. None. I asked one of the flotilla of waitresses about this and she said that perhaps they had been pureed into the sauce but she would check with the kitchen. Then she returned with another explanation… apparently the stew is cooked in a large pot and the beans all sink to the bottom so, on this occasion, when they served it up it just turned out that none made it into my bowl! Not one solitary bean. (No, I didn’t believe it either.) To make up for this the kitchen dished me up a generous side portion of beans, which just happened to be exactly as many as you would find in a tin. These seemed to be in a different sauce to the stew but I didn’t want to ask any more questions and was just grateful they turned up at all.

The stew itself was very pleasant with some decent sized pieces of haddock, quite a few diced bits of chorizo (though this was on the rubbery side, which suggested it was either poor quality or hadn’t been cooked for long enough) and an awful lot of celery. The advertised “smoked tomatoes” were instead three unsmoked cherry tomatoes which had been grilled for just long enough for their skins to split. Overall it was a decent dish, once the beans were in, but I wouldn’t say more than that.

Stew

Pricing at Bel is all over the place. The starters are an expensive bunch – most around the eight or nine pound mark – and the mains vary widely from the reasonable (my stew was twelve pounds, as is the fish pie) to the punitive (the idea that two people would really fork out sixty-six pounds to share a rib of beef on the bone is either hopeless optimism or exploitation, not sure which). But the desserts are all a consistent six pounds. The Valrhona chocolate mousse with honeycomb and popping candy was indifferent stuff. I got a lot of sweetness and no cocoa, which meant this either wasn’t Valrhona or was Valrhona hopelessly maltreated. The honeycomb just added to the relentless sugariness, as did the popping candy, and the three meagre raspberries didn’t have enough sharpness to put up a fight against it.

Chocolate

Eton mess was exactly as you would expect an Eton mess to be – a big dollop of strawberries (in April: so much for seasonal there, too), smashed meringue and cream. The only thing slightly elevating this above the sum of its parts were the tiny pieces of fresh mint that had been mixed in. The gigantic knickerbocker glory glass it came in took my opinion back down a notch, mind – I’d have preferred something more elegant and (I can’t quite believe I am saying this) smaller. Wanting a smaller dessert: hardly glowing praise, is it?

Three courses for two, with a Bloody Mary, a missold glass of house rosé and two glasses of red wine which aren’t interesting enough to merit any mention other than this, came to ninety-eight pounds. This includes an optional ten per cent service charge of the kind which is actually close to compulsory, as you’d have to make a scene and ask them to take it off (I was tempted to, but by the end they had worn me down to the extent where I just wanted to go: it turns out that indifference is contagious).

The best way of summing this up is that if you went to Bel you wouldn’t have a bad meal but you wouldn’t have a great meal either. I didn’t eat anything actively bad, and nothing made my heart sing. But – and this might be the clincher – you’re unlikely to have a cheap meal. I’m afraid, despite some tasty dishes, I still don’t see what Bel’s USP is, or why anybody would choose it for dinner. It’s not seasonal, it’s not particularly imaginative, it’s not good value and the inconvenient location and indifferent service wipe out any of the advantages of that lovely room. Perhaps I’ll go again when they overhaul their menu, in which case they should pencil me in for some time in 2018.

Bel And The Dragon – 6.6
Blakes Lock, Gas Works Road, RG1 3EQ
0118 9515790

http://www.belandthedragon-reading.co.uk/

The Lobster Room

N.B. The Lobster Room closed in March 2014. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

Sometimes, when you’re out in a restaurant, you get a certain kind of sinking feeling when you just know that you’re going to have a bad meal. I expect you know exactly what I’m talking about. Sometimes it happens when you’re greeted and seated, sometimes it’s when you look at the menu, sometimes when the first dish arrives. Whenever it is, though, it’s a terrible feeling because it nearly always comes too late for you to leave; all you can do is sit there, endure it, minimise the damage and chalk it up to experience.

I’ve been wondering at what point in my experience in The Lobster Room I first got that sinking feeling. There are a number of candidates.

It might be when I looked at the website, before I’d even made up my mind definitely to go there. There was something about the menu that flashed warning lights, although I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Perhaps it was the spelling mistakes (calamari was accompanied with sweet chilly sauce, which sounded a little, well, cold). Perhaps it was the slightly bizarre choice of words: Goan prawn curry came in a spicy coastal gravy, crab was served on an aromatic and flavourful hill of tagliatelle.

Or maybe the sinking feeling came in when I entered and went down the stairs to the cellar restaurant. The greeting was marked more with surprise than warmth and the waiter – voluminous white shirt tucked into Status Quo jeans – responded to the request for a table for two with a terse “sure”. You could see why, going in, and perhaps understand his amazement; at prime time on a Saturday night we were only the fourth table in there. The room, back when it was Chronicles, was a lovely subterranean space. There’s a certain illicit appeal about cellar restaurants, or should be, but The Lobster Room was empty and charmless. The furniture didn’t all match and the worn, tired-looking tables looked as if they had been inherited from Valentino’s, the previous restaurant to fail in this spot.

If it wasn’t then, I might have got the sinking feeling when our wine and water turned up. The wine glasses were chunky numbers with no delicacy at all and their contents were nothing to write home about. The sauvignon blanc was featureless, if inoffensive, but the Orvieto was just terrible – so watery and thin that I couldn’t be sure it hadn’t in fact been watered down. Both were almost cold. We asked for water and the same waiter – the only waiter we saw all evening, although he was hardly busy – wandered off out back and returned with two giant Stella Artois goblets full of water. One had ice in it, one didn’t; no explanation for this was offered.

You hear a lot of conversation in restaurants when there’s almost nobody in there. It soon became apparent that, apart from the couple having what seemed to be an extremely tedious date in the alcove opposite us, everyone else in the restaurant seemed to be there because they were friends with someone who appeared to be the owner, a blazered man who wandered randomly round the restaurant from time to time.

I had definitely got the sinking feeling by the time the starters arrived (no bread, despite the attractive picture of fresh-baked bread on the website). What was billed as lobster ravioli with lemon butter and caper cream was in fact ravioli buried under a huge wobbling mound of what looked and tasted like hot mayonnaise with a couple of capers strewn across it. At first I thought it was a generous serving of ravioli underneath a thin coating of sauce, but in fact the primary purpose of this gelatinous Hellman’s substitute was to conceal how few ravioli you got. It was, in fact, only one raviolo away from being lobster raviolo with lemon butter and caper cream, which means that each raviolo cost just over five pounds. By the time I realised there were only two of them I’d given half of one of them away, and even then I can hardly say I was cheated. The pasta was thick and rubbery and the thin smear of meat in the middle could have been Shippam’s Paste for all the difference it would have made, so overpowered was it by the hideous sauce. I seriously considered cancelling the mains and leaving after that; it’s hard to imagine any restaurant in Reading where you could so comprehensively waste ten pounds of your money on a single dish.

Ravioli

The other starter – the aforementioned calamari with “sweet chilly sauce” was, by comparison, stellar stuff, by which I mean that it was still not very good. A little dish of wan looking battered calamari, not unacceptably springy but certainly not tender enough to be fresh, with a ramekin of standard issue supermarket chilli sauce, it was the pick of the bunch mainly by virtue of not being such shocking value. But even then: this might have been excusable in a chain restaurant, but a place called The Lobster Room specialising in seafood? No, it was just nowhere near good enough.

The waiter approached the table with a Fonz-style double thumbs up as he came to take the plates away, but he didn’t actually ask if the food was any good. Maybe he was too smart to do so, or maybe the gesture was to congratulate himself for having shifted the most exorbitant ravioli in Britain; sadly I’ll never know.

Anyway, by this stage it really was a question, like watching the Royal Variety Performance, of how bad things were going to get before the end. This seems as appropriate a time as any to mention the background music, which was truly purgatorial. I’ve now heard lounge jazz cover versions of, among other things, China Girl by David Bowie, Sowing The Seeds Of Love by Tears For Fears, Don’t You Want Me by The Human League and – my personal favourite – Sultans Of Swing by Dire Straits. It was more old hat than nouvelle vague; I’ve left a restaurant for less, and I wish I’d had that much sense on this occasion.

The mains were no better. Fillet of monkfish with wild mushroom and pernod sauce was in fact three small pieces of monkfish tail, as much bone as flesh. Having endured the ravioli I can safely say that I was a lot wilder than the mushrooms accompanying this dish. The sauce tasted of cream and salt and the note of Pernod struggled and failed to break through. In the middle was a little heap (certainly not a “flavourful hill”) of vegetables – a few potatoes, some peppers which were just about cooked and some raw carrots. The closest these carrots had come to being cooked was having sat on a plate with something warm for a couple of minutes before being served up. That dish was sixteen pounds fifty and the best thing I can say is that it wasn’t the biggest rip-off of the evening.

The lobster looked attractive enough, but disappointed at the same speed as everything else. The crustacean, neatly halved, sat on a similar pile of vegetables as those that came with the monkfish. The tail meat was reasonable – if a little tough, which suggested it had been overcooked. The “butter garlic sauce” was almost non-existent, so I never got to work out whether this was meant to be garlic butter, garlic sauce or some novel hybrid of the two. There were a few stray flecks of green which had probably been parsley once upon a time and the meat in the single claw (this is news to me, but I seemed to have been served a lobster amputee) had shrunk back a lot, which also suggested that it may have been overcooked. The lobster crackers were wholly unnecessary as the shell was soft and bendy – I’m no expert on lobster but this struck me as wrong. Perhaps it had been left after cooking for too long or maybe there had been a microwave involved, I dread to think. At eighteen pounds this dish was – and I’m really sorry to put it this way – simply not worth shelling out for. It was very quick to eat, too, and so anaemic that I didn’t even need to roll up my sleeves; no wonder they didn’t bring a finger bowl to the table.

LobsterI’ve missed out so many sinking feelings. In fact, sitting in a basement restaurant having that many sinking feelings it’s a wonder I didn’t reach the Earth’s core. Here’s another one; we arrived at eight-thirty, and ordered. Our starters arrived at eight forty-five. Our mains arrived at nine. It’s almost as if they were in a hurry to serve us quickly so that we didn’t have the opportunity to come to our senses and leave. I’ve had slower meals in Nando’s, and better ones too for that matter. Anyway, it didn’t work because we did come to our senses, albeit too late: as you can probably guess, we didn’t stay for dessert.

All in all two glasses of wine, two starters and two mains came to sixty-two pounds. That amount doesn’t include service (which is appropriate, as neither did my evening). I can’t imagine The Lobster Room surviving in that location, with that service, with that food at those prices for much longer. You can get better lobster at Côte or at Brown’s, you can get better service pretty much anywhere, and if you’re going to spend that kind of money Reading has dozens of better alternatives. By the end of my time in The Lobster Room I began to think that the restaurant might just be a convenient tax deduction, or some kind of gastronomic equivalent of Springtime For Hitler. If that’s the purpose, it’s succeeding admirably, but as a place which serves good food at a fair price to customers it’s a very different story.

The Lobster Room – 3.3
17 – 19 Valpy Street, RG1 1AR
0118 9588108
http://www.thelobsterroom.com/