Zest

How good is your memory for faces? I was in Brighton over the summer, sitting outside a particularly patchouli-scented café in the Lanes, when I thought I recognised the woman walking past my table and nipping inside. It bugged me for about five minutes until I realised where I knew her from: she’d served me in Workhouse Coffee what must have been a couple of years ago. Reading is a small town, and the longer you live there the more chances you get to accumulate memories, or scraps of memories, and to spot people you dimly recognise from your past: that person used to work at the same office as me a few years ago; that person was briefly my housemate in 2001 and never used the shower; there’s a friend I lost in the divorce.

The reason I mention this is that when we turned up at Zest on an icy winter’s evening, the owner recognised me immediately as a former customer of hers. I used to eat at Zest’s town centre sibling restaurant, the sadly-missed LSQ2 (where Handmade Burger is now), but even so it was an impressive feat of recall: I frequented LSQ2 the best part of ten years ago, and I expect she has seen hundreds of diners since then. And yet here we both were – her still trading nicely out at Green Park and me a few pounds heavier, far older and greyer (if not necessarily wiser) but still alive and kicking.

LSQ2 closed in 2012 (the GetReading article announcing the news tried to suggest that every cloud had a silver lining because Cosmo was about to open on Broad Street) but Tony and Sally Cole’s first restaurant, since rebranded as Zest, has been operating at Green Park for fifteen years, offering a combination of classic modern British food and dishes which reflect their time spent in Australia and New Zealand. I still remember a dish of sashimi-grade tuna with a slick of sesame that LSQ2 used to do – I ordered it every time I went there, until they took it off the menu because they felt the tuna wasn’t sustainable.

There are a few reasons why I’d never got round to reviewing Zest before now. It never quite made it to the top of my to do list, and I think that’s because I always got the distinct impression that it was more intended for people working on the business park, and corporate diners, than members of the public. The opening hours, not entirely clear from the website, didn’t help. It’s only generally open Monday to Friday, but you get mixed messages – in one place on the site it says it’s open 5 until late, in another it says their menu is served until 9pm and if you try to book online the latest table it will give you is at 8pm (with a clear instruction that you need to place your order by 8.15, because the kitchen closes).

Arriving at half seven with my other half Zoë didn’t necessarily alter that impression – there were a few tables occupied, one of them a large booking, but all seemed to be coming to the end of their meals: we were the last new customers that evening. Zest is actually quite an attractive space, all dark wood and big windows looking out over water. In the thick fog, with light trying to break through from the nearby offices and car parks, it was all a bit Blade Runner, and if the furniture felt slightly chain hotel it didn’t put me off. The lighting, as you’ll see from the photos, was a little more intimate than I’d like, although it didn’t help that a few bulbs were out.

Zest was running a reduced à la carte menu alongside a Christmas menu when I visited, although the prices weren’t unreasonable for either and you were allowed to mix and match. The only real difference was that mains on the Christmas menu were a few pounds more expensive and came with roasted vegetables and Brussels sprouts, whether they went with the dish or not (but more of that later).

In general starters were seven or eight pounds and, if you visit outside the festive season, most mains will cost you around fifteen. It was a very good menu with more than a few tempting choices, and I’m glad to say that no compromises were made in bringing you this review. There’s definitely an Asian influence to an otherwise modern European menu with Thai and Indonesian dishes sitting alongside more traditional ones – we tried a little from both, in the interests of balance.

My starter was one of the nicest things I’ve eaten this year. Pork belly (triple-cooked according to the menu, although I saw no real evidence of that) came in generous cubes with tender meat and glossy fat, all coated in a gloriously funky, fishy XO sauce, with pak choi, spring onion and big, fragrant coriander leaves. There was a lime aioli advertised, and something that looked like that was definitely drizzled over the pork, but it couldn’t break through the stronger flavours in the dish, not that I cared in the slightest.

The only misfire was the crackling on top, which left me fearing for my fillings. A lighter touch would have been better, and in honesty the dish wouldn’t have missed it: it also ruined the picture below, or at least that’s my excuse. In any case, I was too delighted with everything else to mind. I let Zoë try a couple of pieces, partly because it was the season of goodwill but mainly because food that good deserves to be shared, regardless of whether it’s December or June.

I had a sneaking suspicion that I’d won at starters, but Zoë was very happy with hers. “I want to try the Scotch egg because I’d had a few to compare it to”, she said, and it was a very attractive specimen, served on what was called “curry mayonnaise” but felt to me more like a katsu sauce, more fruity than fiery. It could have done with more of the advertised coriander salsa verde but even so I thought it was a really good example – what felt like panko breadcrumbs, beautiful texture, peppery sausagemeat and yolk at just the right consistency.

“Is it better than the Lyndhurst’s?” I asked Zoë.

“Better than the one they do now, and up there with the one the previous owners did” was the reply.

The wine list at Zest may reflect the fact that most of their diners drive home afterwards, with a compact selection: most of it is available by the glass, and only a couple of bottles north of thirty pounds. We had a very drinkable French pinot noir for twenty-eight pounds which I thoroughly enjoyed – although our waiter intervened to stop me pouring it myself, which felt a little unnecessary. He was the only person looking after us all evening and I couldn’t quite shift the fear that he resented us for making him work late: nice enough, but a little distant and slightly lacking in warmth.

Our main courses, both from the Christmas menu, came out a little quicker than I might have liked, adding to the feeling that we were keeping staff from their loved ones. It’s never easy, I suppose, for a kitchen to sit on their hands when they only have two dishes left to prepare, but I do wish they’d left it a little longer.

However, again, that felt like a minor quibble once I started eating the food. My beef rendang was truly beautiful. My previous experience of this dish had been at Newbury’s now-defunct Wau, and at the time I thought I’d had a very good rendang. This, though, was streets ahead – not sickly-sweet and overreliant on coconut but complex and aromatic, shot through with hints of star anise. Similarly, the beef hadn’t been cooked into mush – it was still in distinct pieces which only fell apart when you tried to load them onto a fork. Again, there was plenty of coriander and the sharp crunch of ribbons of lightly pickled carrot on top was an excellent touch.

This was a marvellous dish, perfect on a Baltic Reading evening, and I am pretty sure it is usually on Zest’s à la carte menu, so try it if you go. As it was on the Christmas menu it was served with a fair few roasted heritage carrots (many of them a pleasingly deep shade of purple), and although they didn’t go in the slightest with an Indonesian curry it didn’t stop them being delicious.

Zoë’s lamb shank was a more conventionally Christmassy affair, and very good it was too – a gigantic piece of meat, cooked into soft surrender. The sauce was deep, with a little sweetness from balsamic vinegar and soft onions and the mash was suitably creamy and smooth. This went much better with the roasted vegetables and with the surprisingly good Brussels sprouts, sliced thinly and served with cream and a little speckle of pancetta. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this dish also features on the menu all year round, and it’s well worth ordering. I would have liked the advertised mint salsa to make an appearance, but the dish managed fine without it.

It took a while for the waiter to ask us if we wanted to look at the dessert menu, and I felt guilty about saying yes: he asked in the same way that I ask Zoë if she wants help hanging the laundry out i.e. hoping against hope that the answer will be no. But if they don’t want people to order dessert, Zest will have to make the menu a lot less tempting – even the usual suspects had twists that made you want to find out how they looked off the page and on the plate. It’s also worth mentioning that Zest’s cheeseboard is a veritable Greatest Hits of local cheeses – Barkham Blue, Waterloo, Wigmore and Spenwood, all for eight pounds fifty.

My dessert was probably the weak link of the meal. Chocolate tart with meringue and Clementine sorbet sounded beautiful, and the flavours were all present, correct and harmonious. But the texture was wrong – the chocolate was not the solid ganache I was expecting, but a molten pool, as if it had escaped from a fondant. It didn’t stop it being enjoyable, a rarified Terry’s chocolate orange encased in light buttery pastry, but it wasn’t quite what I had hoped.

If I’d won out on starters, Zoë drew level with dessert. I feared a white chocolate and Bailey’s cheesecake would be too sickly but actually it was sweet but not excessively so, a big block of indulgence heavy on filling and light on base. The passionfruit curd underneath stopped the whole thing being too one-dimensional, but given that I was only allowed one small forkful it’s hard to comment further, beyond wishing that I’d ordered it myself.

Dinner for two, including a pre-added 10% service charge, came to just over a hundred pounds – and actually, ordering off the á la carte isn’t any more or less expensive than the three-courses-for-thirty-pounds festive menu. To my mind, that makes the latter remarkably generous and I left the restaurant with a full stomach, a spring in my step and a couple of money off vouchers for next month which I may well end up using.

It’s easy to get jaded when you review a restaurant every fortnight, easier still when it’s a Cozze, a Lemoni or a Pantry. So I’m delighted that, even if by accident rather than design, I’ve saved one of the best meals of 2019 until almost the very last. I didn’t come away from Zest convinced that they were necessarily packed on most weekday evenings, and that lack of clarity probably goes some way to explaining why the pacing of the meal was a little rushed and the service sometimes felt a tad diffident.

But – and this is far more important – I did come away from Zest wishing I had visited a long time ago, and convinced that I might have unearthed one of the best local restaurants you’ve never considered going to. It’s easily accessible by bus from the town centre, it’s affordable by taxi on the way home and it serves delicious, interesting food (it’s as if they’ve been doing it, without much fanfare, for the best part of fifteen years). There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Zest that a buzzier room full of more customers wouldn’t solve – and personally, I plan to play my own small role in helping with that in the New Year. I suspect if you went you’d find it memorable: chances are, they’d come to remember you too.

Zest – 8.0
Lime Square, 220 South Oak Way, Green Park, RG2 6UP
0118 9873702

http://www.zestatlimesquare.co.uk/home.html

The Last Crumb

Reading’s pub scene has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in the second half of 2019, despite pubs closing day in day out all over the country. The Lyndhurst reopened under new management and is now dishing up some really impressive food: last week I went there and had saddle of rabbit, stuffed with chicken liver and wrapped in Parma ham, up there with any rabbit dish I’ve had in Bologna. Then the Retreat was saved from an uncertain fate by a buy-out and is going from strength to strength with a new wine list, a far bigger presence online and, thankfully, the magnificent Brian still behind the bar.

That’s all well and good, but when the pub in question undergoes a more dramatic makeover people can be a little sniffier. The Eldon Arms closed and reopened in September as the Weather Station, with a few locals lamenting the loss of the name. I’ve been a few times since the reincarnation and it does some interesting beers, although sitting on a hard stool and using a barrel for a table is maybe designed for customers far younger and cooler than me: I soon found myself longing for a proper seat, which is around the point where I sloped off to the Retreat.

Finally, Caversham’s Prince Of Wales, at the top of Prospect Street, was acquired by Dodo Pubs who have spent a fair bit of time and money rebranding it as the Last Crumb. This provoked more complaints about losing the name, which I found harder to understand: surely there are quite enough pubs around the country called the Prince Of Wales? (I bet nobody would have objected it had been called the Duke Of York). Anyway, it’s not as if the people up in arms had frequented the pub back when it was the Prince Of Wales – everything I’d ever heard about the place suggested you wouldn’t go in unless you were up to date on your tetanus jabs.

I was delighted by the news that Dodo Pubs had taken on the Prince Of Wales, because I’ve always been a fan of the Rickety Press, their outpost in north Oxford’s Jericho – a lovely pub that does a good range of beers and ciders and very credible pizzas and burgers. When my Canadian family came to visit the U.K. earlier in the year and we went for a day trip to Oxford, I booked us in to the Rickety Press knowing it would suit everyone – craft enough for my twentysomething cousin and unpretentious enough for my 80 year old uncle. We had a lovely meal there, and I found myself wishing there was somewhere similar in Reading. Well, my wish was granted so my other half Zoë and I headed over on a weekday night to see whether the Last Crumb lived up to the promise of its sibling.

The inside is rather “2019 pub by numbers”, but not so terrible for all that. Yes, the walls are all a modish blue-grey and there are pointless bookshelves and objets everyway, but the flooring is lovely, the bare brick behind the bar equally so and at least it isn’t architectural carnage like, say, the interior of the Market House.

It’s divided up into rooms and those closest to the front of the pub are more conventional – banquette seating along one side, decent-sized tables and booths (I didn’t sit in that bit, mainly on account of it being colder than Priti Patel). The room nearest to the kitchen, incongruously, had round chrome-trimmed tables which were more reminiscent of a Fifties diner. And then there was the bigger room nearer to the bar, where you had a choice of perching on high chair at a high table or sitting on a minuscule chair at a long, low table probably intended to be communal. A bit like the Weather Station in that I took my seat thinking, deep down, that I was just a little too old for that kind of thing.

I’m not going to go into detail about the booze – you’ll have to wait for the excellent Quaffable Reading to review that side of things – but the selection looked decent to me. Dodo has its own lager and stout, and also serves Cotswold lager, Stowford Press and a small but reasonable range of craft. Of the fourteen beers and ciders on offer, only three crossed the five pound a pint Rubicon. I had a pint of Stowford Press, although I regretted not spotting the Cotswold Cider Company’s Yellow Hammer up on the board: next time, perhaps. Zoë, uncharacteristically, had a virgin mojito which was very nice, if more expensive than the cider.

Anyway, back to the food. The menu – sensibly I think – is quite limited, so you had a choice largely of pizzas or burgers, with a few salads tacked on the end and a handful of sides (there’s also a brunch menu, if you’re there that time of day). They’ve taken care to have a vegetarian and a vegan option on both sides of the menu, too, although I wasn’t sure how the “Leaf Not Beef” was truly vegan with smoked cheese on it. Some of the names should never have got out of the committee stage, either: I’m thinking especially of Coldplay tribute “Viva La Vegan” and the truly painful “Salami Get This Straight”. Not the worst I’ve ever heard – I used to frequent a sandwich shop in Oxford’s Covered Market which served something called “Yes Sir, Cheese My Baby” – but close enough.

Our order came out quicker than I would have liked, and with no starters or desserts on the menu we tried our best to cover a full range of the menu. The most successful thing was Zoë’s burger – the Moo & Blue special (Pie Minister should sue them for breach of copyright). It was good enough that I was only allowed a bite, but that bite was quite enough to make me wish I’d ordered one.

The patty was lovely, dense but not too dense with no mealiness or crumbliness (the menu says you can choose between well-done and pink: this was probably somewhere between the two). It was sensibly sized, i.e. you could pick it up and eat it without unhooking your jaw. But what really made it was the punch of Gorgonzola, a brilliant cheese to pair with this bringing plenty of salt and tang. The bun – a brioche, of course – was toasted and had enough structure to hold the whole thing together. One of the best burgers I’ve had in Reading outside Honest Burgers but also, at ten pounds fifty for the burger alone, more expensive.

You pay extra for the fries, so we shared a portion of cheese and truffle fries for four pounds seventy-five (sorry, I must stop listing the price of every dish, it’s a very Get Reading thing to do). They were served, as is the fashion, in a receptacle not quite big enough and I think Zoë liked them more than I did. Truffle oil is always a cheap way to add to the price of the dish and although I liked the cheese (allegedly fontina) it needed more of it.

We also tried the Dodo fried chicken, partly because of the absence of starters and desserts on the menu but mainly because I struggle to resist it when I see it on a menu. I’d had it before at the Rickety Press, where I enjoyed it very much, but this wasn’t pulled off with quite the same skill. The coating was tough and hard on the teeth, nice though the spicing was, and the meat – thigh rather than breast – had a little more give than I’d have liked. I wouldn’t say they were hipster Turkey Twizzlers, but I would say they were closer to that than I’d have liked. Again, Zoë liked them more than I did, so perhaps I was being especially fussy that evening.

My pizza managed simultaneously to be delightful and disappointing. I’d chosen the “chorizo piccante”, looking to compare it to Franco Manca’s very successful chorizo pizza. And it won out on so many levels – the shape was pleasingly irregular, there was a little leopard-spotting on the crust. The meat was good quality too – thin slices of chorizo and little blobs of something the menu just calls “soft spicy Brindisa” (there’s a word missing, but at a guess it was sobrasada). But what really picked it up was the bite added by a generous helping of pickled red chillies, lending the sharpness and fire it needed. So why disappointing? The decision to serve it on a thin steel plate meant that the whole thing was pretty much stone cold by the time I reached the halfway mark. Papa Gee, you can safely say, wouldn’t make a mistake like that.

Service, as so often the case when you order at the bar, was perfectly friendly but limited. I did notice staff loitering near the front door and greeting customers as they came in, which worked nicely, but there’s only so much you can say about service in a place like the Last Crumb. Our meal – a pizza, a burger, fries, fried chicken and a couple of drinks – came to forty-two pounds, not including tip. Not bad, all told, and not too expensive.

Despite the slight tone of grumpiness I detect reading back over those paragraphs, I did rather like the Last Crumb. It’s sensibly chosen to only do a few things and do them well, and on that basis it largely succeeds. But, and it’s a reasonably big but, it doesn’t do them so superbly that it becomes a destination of itself. If it was round the corner from me, I would be there pretty often, but on that side of the river (and right at the edge of the centre of Caversham at that) it feels just a little too far to go for such a quick and limited meal. That might change in the summer, when they make the most of their fabulous outside space and you could happily have a long weekend session there, but in the meantime it feels like a place largely for locals. That said, they’re lucky to have it and it fills a gap nicely – and with its five pound cheeseburgers on Monday and happy hours during the week Caversham residents will find plenty to enjoy.

That said, I kept my eyes peeled at the end of the evening as our taxi headed home down Prospect Street and Gosbrook Road. With the notable exception of Quattro, every pub and restaurant looked to be having an eerily quiet Wednesday night; every window was a little vignette, Caversham as reimagined by Edward Hopper. By contrast, the Last Crumb had been pretty much jumping throughout my visit. It might be a Dodo pub, but I suspect it’s not in any danger of extinction any time soon.

The Last Crumb – 7.4
76 Prospect Street, RG4 8JN
0118 9470749

https://dodopubs.com/locations/the-last-crumb/

The Pantry

Once upon a time, in the town of Reading, there was a bar called the 3Bs. It was named after the three famous alliterative cornerstones of Reading – beer, biscuits and bulbs – and, for those of us who remember it, it was one of the best bars there was. It was part of the Town Hall, and long before the Oakford ever opened it was the place you congregated in after work – unless your friends wanted to drink in O’Neills, in which case you made new friends. When the tables appeared outside, near the statue of Queen Victoria, you knew that summer was on the way.

It even featured, albeit briefly, in the opening episode of 1997 police show Crime Traveller, around the 3:45 mark in this video, as maverick cop (aren’t they always) Jeff Slade, played by ex-EastEnders bad boy Michael French, zooms through the Town Hall Square on a motorbike, scattering people and tables as he pursues a generic baddie in a boxy car all the way to the Queens Road car park. Around that time I was temping in Apex Plaza (which also features in the chase sequence) and it was all very exciting. As I recall, my brother bought a sandstone-coloured blouson, trying to emulate Jeff Slade, but it was all a little too Sergio Georgini. Ah, the Nineties.

My favourite memories of the 3Bs, in as far as I can remember anything, were of Bohemian Night, its weekly live music evening. A friend and I would always turn up early, sit near the front and drink almost enough to make the music sound good. Compered by AF Harrold (now a published author, then a jobbing performance poet working in Blackwells – remember when we used to have a Blackwells?) it was the Reading’s Got Talent of its day.

This involved various earnest acoustic solo acts and duets, a little spoken word, a shouty man who called himself “Preacher John” and another chap called “Reverend John H” who did an extremely offensive song about the sadly departed Princess Of Wales. There was also a bewildered pensioner called “Mr David” who would shamble on stage and perform roughly half a joke without getting to the punchline and then start singing snatches of My Way. It looked like he may have slept in a bin.

Only at Bohemian Night could a young chap wearing a fuzzy wig bound up to the mike, all puppyish enthusiasm, and announce “I’m Dunstan McFunkstan, and I’ve got a bag of comedy!” (if he honestly did, it was empty). And that’s before we get to the performance poetry, which was usually my cue to go up to the bar. Every now and again someone with genuine talent would show up at Bohemian Night and I’d enjoy their act, safe in the knowledge that I would never see them again. I loved it: I went every week without fail.

All good things must come to an end, and the 3Bs closed in 2011. Then, last July, the council announced that it would be reopening in the autumn. Signs were up by October 2018 declaring that it would be called Lains. Well, the council is as good at opening restaurants on time as it is at filing accounts, because it wasn’t until September this year that it finally opened, having changed its name in the meantime to The Pantry. The council’s announcement was full of the usual buzzwords about how the “Executive Chef” (why a café needs an executive chef is anybody’s guess) would use local produce to create a “scrumptious and inventive menu”. That was all the incentive I needed to take a trip down memory lane one weekday lunchtime with my other half Zoë, herself a fan of the 3Bs from back in the day.

It may have opened a year late, but the fit out really is lovely. At the front, where the bands used to play, there’s an attractive banquette and all the chairs are tasteful and muted, as is the paintwork. It was weird to look at it so transformed, but simultaneously quite heartwarming to see it back in use. There was still an icy blast every time the door opened and closed though: some things never change.

Menus are on the table but you go up to the counter to order. There’s a brunch menu, most of which is available all day, pizzas (which are “baked in our stone based oven”, whatever that means), three salads which you can pair with quiche, a sausage roll or a Scotch egg and a “sandwich of the day” (fish finger, on my visit) and “international dish of the day” (goulash).

The selection of cakes looked quite appealing, but the whole thing reminded me of something: I used to work somewhere where the staff canteen was run by facilities company Gather & Gather, and the menu here felt very similar, only more expensive. I wanted a pizza, but the gentleman behind the counter told me that they were out of pepperoni – I concealed my incredulity – so we ordered two things from the brunch menu, to find out whether the Pantry might be the brunch spot central Reading has long needed.

While I waited for brunch to arrive, I sipped my latte – a truly dire coffee, burnt and bitter and well below the standard of a Pret, Nero or Costa, let alone Tamp or Anonymous. Quite a few members of staff, all in their branded aprons, milled listlessly around the café, dusting unoccupied tables, making the smallest of adjustments to the position of the menu on the table, all kinds of random things to keep themselves busy because the truth was that the place was hardly rammed.

What customers there were were either parents with kids (half-term, of course) or people considerably older than me: no hip young gunslingers to be seen. It reminded me, more than anything, of the John Lewis Café, with the general complacence of not wanting to be any more than Only Just Good Enough. Perhaps the food would change that, I thought.

When it arrived and was set down in front of us by one of the serving staff, one obvious thing was missing: cutlery.

“We’ll need some cutlery for that” I said.

“It’s up at the front by the counter” she replied, without making eye contact. I waited for the second half of the sentence until, after what felt like quite some time, I realised that there wasn’t going to be one.

“Right. I’ll go all the way up there and get it then” I said, leaving aside the second half of my sentence, namely while you carry on dusting tables and being spell-bindingly bad at customer service. It was one of those moments when, like Tim from The Office, you just wanted to look sidelong at a camera in complete bafflement.

I had gone for “pulled pork waffle with spicy beans” and it truly was a miserable specimen. The waffle was lukewarm, doughy and stodgy. The majority of it wasn’t covered with anything – sauce or melted butter – and in the middle was a damp clump of what you could loosely call pulled pork. It was a pretty miserly helping, wet and claggy with big white globs of fat in it (I took them all out and put them to one side: my plate was collected later on without comment). Some crudely torn salad leaves were plonked on top, possibly as a garnish and possibly as concealment. I’m currently thinking about writing features on the best brunch in Reading and the ten best things you can buy for under a tenner: you can safely say this dish won’t feature in either.

“The waffle feels like a gimmick” said Zoë, attacking her dish. Her waffle came with smoked salmon, cream cheese, avocado and lemon zest. There was plenty of salmon, but it was extremely bland with no real hint of smoke. The avocado was as cold, hard and joyless as senior management. The lemon zest was a lovely idea but it wasn’t clear it had ever really made it on to the plate. More of that bloody foliage had, mind you.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“Meh. I wouldn’t have it again. And it’s definitely not worth eleven pounds twenty.”

She was right (and charging that extra twenty pence was downright odd). You could get an infinitely better brunch at Fidget & Bob for far less money, miles better pulled pork at Bluegrass and for that matter the Lyndhurst’s chilli beef nachos are streets ahead of either dish and they cost less than seven pounds. As it was we both finished our meals, with no real enthusiasm, and a sense that I’d just wasted money, time and calories.

“It’s a shame your coffee was so crappy” said Zoë. “I can see this might be a nice place to come for a cup of tea and a piece of cake.”

“Those are literally the only two things they can’t fuck up.” I said, as we watched a mother at a neighbouring table treating each of her kids to a bowl of what looked like oven chips – hardly “scrumptious and inventive” but at least, at two pounds a pop, better value than anything we’d eaten. The whole thing – two brunch dishes, a latte and a cup of green tea – came to twenty-five pounds, not including service. I’m depressed to say that by the time we left, the place seemed to be filling up.

If I had to sum up the Pantry, I suppose the easy way to do it is to say that it’s exactly what you would expect a café designed by any local authority, let alone this local authority, to be like. It’s bland, inoffensive and unimaginative. How an “executive chef” came up with something so nothingy I will never know; it’s a step up from jacket spuds with cheese and beans, I suppose, but only just. The brunch menu is one smashed-avocado cliché after another, the pizzas are a vanilla bunch (all of them more expensive than Franco Manca). Across the whole menu I didn’t see a single shred of evidence of creativity, or seasonality – unless it was goulash season and nobody told me – or anything other than tepid box-ticking. And let’s not even get on to the Pantry’s website’s absurd claims that the dishes are “prepared using artisan methods” – even if they do seem to have recruited artisanal table-dusters.

What really frustrates me is what a wasted opportunity the Pantry is. The council could have opened something which actually celebrates and adds to Reading’s food culture, rather than paying lip service to it with a clunking name. Just imagine what Glen Dinning could have done with that space if they’d let Blue Collar run the café, rotating street food traders with a licensed bar in the evenings: at a stroke, they would have had one of the most exciting venues in town. But no, instead you can enjoy pepperoni-free pizzas, burnt coffee and even more uninspiring waffle than you get in the council chamber. So it goes.

I’ll leave the last word to Zoë: “Maybe it’s called the Pantry because it’s pants”, she said.

The Pantry – 4.9
The Town Hall, Blagrave Street, RG1 1HZ

https://thepantrytownhall.co.uk/

Tutu’s Ethiopian Table

In the normal course of events, I never re-review restaurants. It’s a shame, really – restaurants can go through bad or purple patches just like the rest of us – but I’ve always treated my visit as a single snapshot, taken at that moment in time, a faithful record of what it was like to eat there that night and order those things. The further into the future you go, inevitably, the more an element of doubt creeps in that the review is an accurate guide to what your lunch or dinner there might be like.

That said, I’ve reviewed many restaurants which occupy the site of restaurants past: some locations in Reading may not exactly be cursed, but they’re definitely on some rather unfortunate ley lines. So for instance I reviewed the Warwick, at the bottom of the Kings Road and then it became Bali Lounge. Then it turned into the Biscuit & Barrel – I skipped that one – then new Indian restaurant Cardamom. I was all poised to review that one when it closed again, and at some point it plans to reopen as King’s Kitchen. Maybe this time it will trade long enough for me to pay it a visit.

The ultimate problematic location might well be the spot at the bottom of the Caversham Road occupied – at the time of writing, anyway – by Cozze, which I reviewed recently. It used to be a splendid Chinese restaurant called Chi’s Oriental Brasserie, then Chi closed and it was replaced by a Mediterranean place called La Fontana. They moved out into the shires – Twyford or Pangbourne, I forget – and then we got El Tarboush, Reading’s first Lebanese place. When it closed it became Casa Roma (I never reviewed that either) and then they got bored slash desperate and decided to morph into a Mexican restaurant called Las Maracas: same owners, but now with added sombreros! I never went – something about a menu which advertised “jalapeno chilli poopers” didn’t appeal – and I wasn’t surprised when it closed and reopened as Cozze.

Pubs present more of a challenge. They come under new ownership, their menu and their attitude to food can change, but the name often remains the same (or until recently, when the Eldon Arms became the Weather Station and Caversham’s Prince Of Wales rebranded as the Last Crumb). I’ve reviewed the Lyndhurst three times in four years, and I could as easily have done the same with the Fisherman’s Cottage. It’s easier to stay on top of this in town, where I’m more likely to get wind of any changes, but out in Berkshire and Oxfordshire? Your guess is probably better than mine.

Judging an establishment on a single visit is always a gamble. It’s lovely when people contact me on Twitter and say “I went there and it was just as you said it would be”, but I’m not naive enough to think that happens all the time. I’ve had a few visits where I wasn’t too impressed only to find, over the subsequent months and years, that my initial opinion was a little harsh: Sapana Home, for example, or Kokoro. Restaurants have an identity of their own, just like people, and – also just like people – sometimes they make an unfortunate first impression and then grow on you. And, of course, sometimes you just get it wrong.

This week’s review is about as close to a re-review as you can get: Tutu Melaku operated her Ethiopian restaurant at the Global Café for over ten years, being mentioned in the Guardian, winning awards and being widely fêted: it was very much a trailblazer, back when distinctive restaurants in Reading were few and far between. Then, early this year, there was a parting of the ways. Tutu’s Ethiopian Table moved to Palmer Park, to operate out of Palmer Park Lodge, the building which used to be the Chalkboard Café, and the Global Café took on a new chef and started offering a vegetarian and vegan menu.

I reviewed Tutu’s at the Global Café nearly five years ago, and it’s safe to say I was baffled by it. I wasn’t sure where its reputation had come from, or whether it was trading on past glories. But the move looked like an interesting one, and the Instagram feed painted a picture of a happy, vibrant community café, so it felt like time to give it a try in its new home. My other half Zoë and I paid it a visit on a weekday night, leaving the comforting hum of the Wokingham Road traffic behind us as we turned off into Palmer Park. The fairy lights in the window gave the building a welcoming glow, and just beyond it I could see more active people than me playing tennis, making the most of the last of the autumn daylight.

Inside, the place was quite lovely. It’s made up of two biggish rooms, with a beautiful tiled floor, big windows and boldly-coloured walls, all deep blues and burnt oranges. There was plenty of art and a piano in the corner (a sign said not to play it or use it as a table: they have music nights, so I’m sure it sees action then). Picture frames on top of the piano showed off all of Tutu’s awards, including a picture of her with Chris Tarrant – an occupational hazard, I imagine, of attending the Pride Of Reading Awards. A piece of art on the wall gave the history: parts of the building dated from 1891, and the original fireplaces were still present and correct. We sat in the bigger of the two rooms, conscious of being the only customers in it, and listening to the hubbub from the other room.

You order at the counter, and the Ethiopian menu is far more compact than it used to be at the Global Café. You pick three from four of the dishes on offer – one meat, three vegetarian – and pair them with rice or injera, a slightly-sour Ethiopian pancake. It’s ten pounds if you go for all the vegetarian options, and eleven if you have meat. We were greeted by Tutu, who was friendly and welcoming and talked us through everything. She also showed me both Ethiopian beers they do – I went for the superbly named Cold Gold by Habesha, which was very nice indeed.

The food all comes at once, and between us we tried all of the options on offer. You get little steel dishes filled with each of the things you’ve chosen, and although they looked a little small it all added up to a nicely filling meal. The chicken – doro wot, I think it’s called – was very tasty, with a deep, savoury sauce with a spice which gradually made its presence felt. At Tutu’s previous restaurant, you got a single piece of chicken on the bone. Here it was boneless and tender – I would have liked a little more of it, but I was very happy with what there was. The lentils (misr wot) were also really good, a beautifully earthy dish with its own subtly building heat. This felt like the perfect food for the months ahead.

I felt a little dubious about Tutu’s vegetable dishes when I visited her last restaurant. These, although still not perfect, felt a lot better. The cabbage had a good, almost vinegary tang to it and I detected, possibly wrongly, a hint of mustard in it. The carrots and green beans still weren’t to my taste, with a softness that felt more like tinned than fresh veg, but again they went nicely enough with the sauce from the other dishes. Another dish which had improved significantly compared to my last visit was the rice – at the Global Café it was claggy and felt like it had tinned vegetables in it, but this was a pleasing yellow rice which worked perfectly with both the chicken and the lentils. There wasn’t quite enough rice, but we asked for more and Tutu was more than happy to oblige.

At the risk of (a) adding insult to injera and (b) using one of the worst puns this blog has ever seen, the Ethiopian pancake was not for me. It looked and felt like a very wide, flat crumpet, and the vinegary note in it wasn’t unpleasant, but it was cold when I expected it to be hot and it was so floppy that it didn’t really work as a vehicle for sauce or for eating with your hands the way I expected it to. I imagine it has its fans, but I struggled to number myself among them. I bet Chris Tarrant thinks it’s magnificent, mind you (he probably would have loved the Ethiopian lager too, come to think of it). Anyway, there’s always the rice. Tutu’s Ethiopian Kitchen doesn’t really offer starters or desserts, and we paid at the counter: dinner for two, with a beer and a can of soft drink came to twenty-seven pounds forty.

I’m not sure there’s much more to say about Tutu’s Ethiopian Kitchen, but I need to try and capture the thing about it which led to the rating you’ll see when you scroll down. Some restaurants are more than the sum of their parts – they just have something indefinable that makes you root for them. And Tutu’s Ethiopian Kitchen has that – it has warmth, it’s genuine, and it wins you over straight away. I’ve eaten better food, but the night I visited it was exactly what I wanted, exactly how I wanted it. The welcome was lovely, it’s a beautiful room and something about it just worked. Sitting at our table, seeing that bustle in the open kitchen (it was just Tutu and another member of staff in there) I felt like all was well with the world.

Maybe I was wrong five years ago, or perhaps I caught Tutu’s Ethiopian Kitchen on an off night back then. They might have changed how they do things, to adjust to a different kitchen. At the end of the day, I’m not sure it really matters. But one way or another it’s lovely to be reminded, when you feel like you have everything figured out, that the world never quite loses its ability to surprise.

Tutu’s Ethiopian Table – 7.3
Palmer Park Lodge, Palmer Park Avenue, RG6 1LF
0118 9663938

https://www.facebook.com/tutusethiopiantablepalmerpark/

Mio Fiore, Newbury

It is a sad but unavoidable fact that the moment I review somewhere Not In Reading, no matter how glowing the review and no matter how easy it is to get there, far fewer people click on the link and read it. So if you’re reading this, I should start by thanking you – and then I should go on to explain why this week it’s the turn of an Italian restaurant in Newbury, a five minute walk from the train station.

It’s a culmination of a few things, really. First of all, restaurants serving pasta have become a bit of a Thing in London in the last few years. It started with Padella, the no-reservation-queues-round-the-block establishment in Borough Market and their legendary cacio e pepe (I’ve never been: I don’t do queues). I did however recently have lunch at Covent Garden’s Bancone, a more recent exponent, and it was truly marvellous stuff, my rabbit and juniper ragu pretty close to anything I’d had in Bologna.

Then Mio Fiore, which has been on my to do list for some time, appeared in a national newspaper. In the course of reviewing a(nother) London pasta restaurant in the Guardian, Grace Dent mentioned in passing that she’d particularly enjoyed Mio Fiore’s spaghetti puttanesca during a Berkshire road trip (“something of which we’ll never tire”, she grandly exclaimed). Well, now: this part of the country never troubles broadsheet restaurant reviewers, so even a brief appearance like this warranted further investigation.

But the thing that clinched it was discovering that Pepe Sale, Reading’s exemplary Sardinian restaurant, was listed as for sale. The report subsequently turned out to be incorrect – apparently proprietor Toni described it as a “prank” – but at the time it threw me (and, I suspect, many other Reading diners) into a bit of an existential tailspin. How many more chances would I get to eat that stunning suckling pig? Where would I get my fix of top notch Italian food once Pepe Sale was gone? That settled it, so before too long my partner Zoë and I were on a train to Newbury to carry out what I had decided was essential research.

The first two things that struck me when I walked through Mio Fiore’s front door were that it was absolutely packed on a Tuesday evening and that there was a strong, glorious whiff of garlic (and I’m not sure they struck me in that order, either). A busy restaurant is the best kind of all, and no restaurant that smells of garlic can ever be a bad thing. It was a high-ceilinged room, almost like a barn, and they’d put in a second floor with a balcony, although I was glad we were seated on the ground floor by the windows, with a good view of the place. Everything was for utility rather than show – not often you see actual bricks in a restaurant rather than tiled bricks or wanky exposed brickwork. The wood-fired oven glowed behind the counter.

Compared to my recent horror show at Cozze, the menu at Mio Fiore exuded a quiet confidence. It felt compact – half a dozen starters, a manageable range of pasta and pizza dishes and only four other main courses. It wasn’t clear from the menu whether you could choose to have a smaller pasta dish as a starter, so we cooked up all sorts of permutations of what we might order before our waiter turned up and explained that we could indeed do that. That would have made things simpler, but for the fact that the specials board we hadn’t previously seen added further temptation and complication in the shape of another half-dozen dishes. We made inroads into a beautiful bottle of Gavi di Gavi and honed our final choices.

I’m no particular fan of Grace Dent, but I am a fan of puttanesca, so I had to try it. There’s a beautiful alchemy that happens when tomatoes, anchovies, capers and garlic combine and this dish had it in spades – sweet, salt and savoury in perfect, tantalising equilibrium, with the faintest hint of chilli to dial up the contrast. The pasta was spot on, too – just the right side of al dente, and the perfect vehicle for the sauce. The nice thing about having pasta as a starter is that it never outstays its welcome, although that was never going to happen with a dish this beautiful; I could have eaten a mountain of the stuff. Once I’d finished the spaghetti I took a spoon to the remaining sauce, not wanting to miss a mouthful.

Zoë had opted for an equally traditional dish, and if the fettuccine with ragu didn’t quite meet the lofty heights of Bologna it came creditably close. The ragu had a lovely depth to it, the pasta again was spot on and the whole thing was liberally covered with Parmesan (although I always say you can’t have too much). We didn’t know how much Mio Fiore would charge us for our starters until the bill arrived, but they’d priced both pasta dishes at six pounds ninety-five, which strikes me as impressive value.

If the meal had finished there, it would have been pretty damned good, but the main courses kept up the standard without a misstep. My chicken with Gorgonzola and wild mushrooms was from the specials menu and was another beautiful dish. Like the pasta dishes, it’s the kind of thing that features on the menus of Italian and faux-Italian restaurants across the country, but you can tell when it’s executed with skill. The sauce was silky, with enough tang from the blue cheese but not so much that it overpowered everything else going on. Crucially, the “wild mushrooms” were in fact wild: they are so often tamed somewhere between the menu and the kitchen. The rosemary roasted potatoes didn’t get a chance to shine, sitting under the chicken and smothered in the sauce, but that was hardly a bad thing.

I had some roasted vegetables with this, because I felt like I ought to at least try to eat some plants. They were served cold and didn’t go at all, but the waiter had warned me about that and I decided to press on anyway. They too were beautiful – sweet red and yellow peppers, long strips of griddled courgette and smoky aubergine with, again, a hit of garlic.

Zoë had a pizza, to make sure we tested the full range of the menu; this too was excellent. I remember eating friarelli at Papa Gee for the first time, never having heard of the stuff, but it’s more of an ever-present on pizza menus these days. None the less – bit of a theme here – it’s rarely used as well as it was by Mio Fiore. The real star of the show, though, was the salsiccia – delicious, coarse nuggets of sausagemeat, generously distributed. The crust and the dough were superb, the tomato sauce sweet and fragrant and the whole thing, really, showed how good the basics could be when you get the basics right. Zoë thought it was better than Franco Manca, better even than Lusso (Newbury’s dedicated pizza restaurant which is itself no slouch) and I was inclined to agree.

I don’t always have dessert on duty but there are two situations where I usually will: when my mind isn’t yet made up about a restaurant or when I know it’s good and I want to see if the final third of the meal can top the rest. No prizes for guessing which of the two it was here, and again the menu was restrained and unfussy: no hideous highlighter-pink profiterole Tower Of Babel to be seen here, just some of the classics – panna cotta, chocolate fondant, cheesecake, tiramisu. Zoë chose the chocolate fondant, which takes fifteen minutes to make – just enough time to watch the restaurant start to calm down, the busy tables settle up and leave, the birthday celebrations on the upper floor began to nudge down the volume. It really is a lovely place, I thought to myself, wishing I’d not waited so long to pay it a visit.

I always judge Italian restaurants on whether they have something decent to drink after dinner, so we were taking our first sips of Averna (bittersweet, on ice with a single wedge of orange) when our desserts arrived. Chocolate fondant, like all hot desserts, isn’t really to my taste but I tasted enough of Zoë’s to verify that it was faultless. The contrast in textures was absolutely as it should be, no over-gooey mess in the middle but not dried out either. It’s not a dish I ever order, but I’m glad Zoë picked it; there are few things quite as enjoyable as watching the person you love eat something they adore.

My choice, tiramisu, could have been equally prosaic. After all, who hasn’t had tiramisu countless times in one Italian restaurant or another? But again, the execution was impossible to fault. It wasn’t pretty, or fancy, but everything about it was right – soaked through with booze and coffee, with a beautiful indulgent depth to it. No corners cut, nothing artificial or superficial, just a textbook example of how things should be: six pounds exceptionally well spent.

Service throughout our meal was emblematic of the whole experience, in that the simple things were done automatically and the difficult things were made to look easy. The restaurant was packed all evening, and the waiting staff were clearly very busy, but although they worked their socks off they still exuded a certain assured serenity. Even the little things were right – letting you know they’d be with you in a second, always being chatty, never making you feel neglected or forgotten.

Maybe that’s the thing about family-run restaurants, because the waiting staff were a tight-knit, efficient bunch who were clearly a very comfortable and effective team. When my main course came, Zoë’s pizza was nowhere to be seen and our waiter, charming and suave the rest of the time, was up at the counter giving the pizza chef a good talking to to ensure we weren’t kept waiting. When he brought it over, barely a minute later, he was all smiles. This was the service all over – completely in control, the perfect link between the kitchen and the customer.

As we were settling up our waiter told us that Mio Fiore had been there for four years: we told him we came from Reading, he knew it and we had a chat about Pepe Sale. It was a good restaurant, he said, if maybe a bit dated, and I found myself unable to disagree. Our bill for two people – three courses, a bottle of wine and a couple of digestifs – came to just over a hundred pounds, not including service. It would be easy to spend less, but either way I thought this was thoroughly decent value.

I worry, reading back over this, that this might be another review of a restaurant outside Reading that many people won’t read, or that it doesn’t have quite enough pizzazz to persuade you to take that train to Newbury (not even if I mention the incredible selection of pre-prandial gins, ciders and Belgian beers at the wonderful Catherine Wheel). If so, the fault is entirely mine.

The problem, you see, is that a restaurant as consistent and unshowy as Mio Fiore does not attract superlatives. The dishes aren’t triumphs of imagination, the presentation involves no visual fireworks. You won’t be wowed by creative combinations of ingredients you’ve never seen before. Mio Fiore has no designs on being that kind of restaurant, and if that’s what you crave it isn’t the place for you. I loved Mio Fiore precisely because it eschews all those things.

I’ve eaten a lot of middling meals on duty, cooked by people who don’t know, or worse still don’t care, how food should taste. I’ve seen so many menus that read infinitely better than the food that turns up at your table, all gastronomic mouth and no trousers. I know the flavourlessness of disappointment better than I ought to, and as a result I really appreciate somewhere like Mio Fiore where everything tastes as it absolutely should – but so very rarely does.

I’d pick a restaurant like this, focusing on the classics, over all the fads and trends any day of the week. That it manages to do all that with such warmth and expertise, in a lovely welcoming room with thoroughly likeable staff, is as worthy of a fanfare as anywhere else I’ve eaten. That it all takes place in a room which happens to smell of garlic is the dusting of Parmesan on top. I recommend going, so you can see just how excellent a restaurant can be without ever showing off.

Mio Fiore – 8.4
5 Inches Yard, Newbury, RG14 5DP
01635 552023

https://www.miofiore.co.uk/