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/

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The Lyndhurst

I’m always reminded of the cyclical nature of things at this time of year. My Instagram, so recently full of everybody’s envy-inducing holiday photos, has given way to my Facebook news feed, with pictures of everybody’s kids going back to school. The Reading Festival, seen by many as the last event of the summer, is over. The magnolia tree in my garden is beginning to turn, and the leaves will slowly become golden in the weeks ahead. And in town, everybody is in jeans, their shorts packed away for another year, dusting off coats they had almost forgotten they needed.

This time of year is part of cycles for me personally, too. Three years ago, I wrote my final blog post announcing that I was taking a break. And when I came back in 2017, my first review was of the Lyndhurst, a pub I’ve always loved, on the edge of the Village, the conservation area between Eldon Square and Watlington Street. Around this time last year they hosted a lunch for my readers and we packed the place out – over thirty of us, eating a set menu they’d designed for the occasion. It was a lovely afternoon; I made a lot of new friends at that lunch, some of whom have become especially dear to me.

That I’m reviewing it again, in 2019, is a sign of another of those cycles: restaurants open, close and change hands. Kris Dorward left the pub in June, just as the previous landlord had in June 2016. One of the chefs has since moved to the Fisherman’s Cottage (let’s hope the management treat him better than they did the previous team to occupy the kitchen there) and for a little while the pub sat there, empty and sad. One of its regulars even took to sitting at the tables outside in the sunshine, like a dog waiting for its owner to return.

Things looked bleak, but a new team took over at the end of July making all the right noises about continuing to serve excellent food. I was there with friends for a few drinks the night they reopened and although things were a little chaotic, it was brilliant to have the pub back (true to form, Berkshire Live reported the “news” nearly three weeks later).

I didn’t eat there that night, but I was itching to try out the new menu and so, a month after they opened, I turned up with my friend Reggie to give it a whirl. It wasn’t Reggie’s first choice (“the menu looks a bit limited”, he told me) but Caribbean restaurant Vibes was closed on Tuesday nights, so the Lyndhurst it was.

The interior suggested that the new management was aiming for evolution rather than revolution, because apart from being slightly more spartan it looked exactly as it had before. Still a long thin room with the bar down one side, still the same mixture of chairs and pews, still the same warm glow. Reggie said that it reminded him of the pub in Peaky Blinders and I, having never watched it, nodded as if I knew exactly what he was talking about. Reggie, all coiffed hair and Massimo Dutti shirts, might well fit in on the set of Peaky Blinders: I most definitely would not.

The menu offered further encouraging signs, as it had already changed from the original menu online which had underwhelmed Reggie. A bit confusing, though, as the paper menu had starters and mains while the blackboard on the wall also listed nibbles and small plates. Starters and small plates hovered around the seven pound mark, all but a couple of the mains were less than twelve pounds. Most things on the menu still fell into the bracket of pub food but there were interesting cheffy touches here and there: sauce gribiche with the asparagus, a whole spiced chicken to share, black pudding bonbons and chicken katsu burgers.

Reggie and I decided to try a bit of everything, so we made a selection from the snacks and small plates and tried to pick more straightforward and complex main courses to test the range of the kitchen. I let him pick first, as I do with all my dining companions, and he picked everything I wanted to order, as my dining companions inevitably do. “Sorry mate” he said, clearly not sorry at all.

In its previous incarnation, the Lyndhurst’s Scotch egg had been a reference dish, so it seemed like a good test to order it here. It came with less whistles and bells than its predecessor – no wooden board, no tangle of pea shoots sprinkled with salt, no brown sauce accompaniment. Instead it was served simply on a plate with a little salad, some radish and a blob of sweet sauce (the menu said mustard, Reggie thought it was more like chutney). But crucially, it was really very tasty. The yolk could have been a little less solid, ideally, but otherwise it was spot on with a great coarse texture and plenty of seasoning. Not only that, but at just under four pounds, this was almost half the price of the old Scotch egg at the Lyndhurst – genuinely priced to be a beer snack rather than a starter.

My chilli beef nachos, from the small plates section, were neither small nor served on a plate. Not that I was complaining – it was a crazily generous portion of robust tortilla chips topped with plenty of chilli, made with slow-cooked shredded beef rather than mince. I really liked the chilli; Reggie found it a little underseasoned.

The whole thing was a tad unwieldy: it was very hard to eat with your hands, not helped by plonking a gigantic lettuce leaf on top. And the promised guacamole wasn’t really guacamole but just chunks of gorgeously ripe avocado, although there’s a place for that too (there was also a terrific fresh tomato salsa in the mix). But honestly, those minor criticisms aside it was a really lovely, if messy, way to start a meal. I think after eating this I understood better why it wasn’t on the starters menu: you could easily turn up for a few drinks and just get one of these to share with your drinking buddies.

Even after the starters I was happy but well on my way to pleasantly full (Reggie, irritatingly whippet-thin in the way only twentysomethings can be, obviously had plenty in the tank). Despite being a pub the Lyndhurst was offering table service like a restaurant, and the chap looking after us was friendly and polite – if slightly lacking in confidence – and seemed genuinely pleased that we liked our food. We also had a couple of pints on the go – the Lyndhurst’s drinks selection, again, hasn’t changed drastically with the handover so it was Orchard Pig for me and Camden Hells (a favourite of mine on a hot day) for Reggie.

“I’d never come here before I read your last review, and when I did I kind of wished it was my local” he added. That made sense: technically Reggie’s local is the Castle Tap but like practically everyone in West Reading he’d rather pretend it’s the Nag’s Head. Technically, my local is the Retreat but I did feel lucky that the Lyndhurst was such a short walk from my house. Would that enthusiasm survive the main courses, I wondered?

Reggie had picked the fancier of the main courses – pork belly, pig’s cheek and black pudding bonbon, with boulangere potatoes. If that sounds like it had a lot going on it’s because it did, but it really did live up to its promise. The pork belly was beautifully done with no wobbly fat, the cheeks were tender and meaty, free from disturbingly gelatinous bits. And the black pudding bonbon, itself impressively generous, was gorgeous, earthy stuff.

To have all that and boulangere potatoes studded with sweet onion was nice enough, but to add rainbow chars and crispy cavolo nero, reminiscent of seaweed, topped it all off nicely. The only misfires were the apple sauce, which felt a bit like it had wandered in from the Sunday lunch menu, and a slight lack of jus, but the fact remained that for less than fifteen pounds this dish represented formidable value. Reggie was a fan, and from the bit he let me try I was practically an evangelist.

I had to slum it at the more pubby end of the menu, but even there I managed to find something interesting to order. My chicken katsu burger was a very respectable effort – I think it was breadcrumbed, but the coating wasn’t quite strong enough to stand up to the surprisingly punchy curry sauce. Either way, it was a lovely fillet cooked well and the whole thing was elevated by a really well done – please accept my apologies in advance for using this word, I feel every bit as dirty writing it as you do reading it – “slaw”, zingy and piquant and crunchy with carrot.

As so often with burgers these days, it was a sloppy, messy affair – the sort where every bite at one end pushes the contents out of the bun at the other until what’s left is hanging over the edge like the coach in the Italian Job. But it was very enjoyable all the same – as were the chips, which were some of the best I’ve had in a while. The menu says they’re hand-cut and I could well believe it, although if you look closely at my photo you might see one which clearly looked like a refugee from another batch entirely.

Portions were pretty generous (especially my starter), so neither of us had any room for dessert. The Lyndhurst’s dessert menu is possibly not where their strengths lie – just a brûlée, a lemon posset, a brownie and a cheesecake – so I’m not sure I was missing out quite so much. Our dinner – two courses and a pint each – came to forty-six pounds not including tip, which I thought was excellent value.

I’m always lamenting the fact that Reading doesn’t have a pub in the centre that does really good food, and for a long time the previous incarnation of the Lyndhurst filled that gap as well as anyone had. That’s why there was genuine sadness when they closed. I’m delighted to be able to report that, after a slightly shaky start, the new owners are definitely on the right lines. The menu is pretty wide, but they seem to be able to execute all of it. It’s well-judged, with a good range of options for sharing, snacking or eating a full meal. They’ve already started to change the launch menu, which shows that they care about their food and are looking to improve.

I think they’ll only grow in confidence (and the service needs to, ever so slightly) but it will be fascinating to see where the new management takes the place. One thing that really struck me about the previous owners was how little they did on social media to promote the pub and the food: fingers crossed the current team take that more seriously. But for now, let’s just be grateful that the Lyndhurst is back, and trying the right things.

The following day I did a bit of Googling and found that Vibes, the other candidate for this week’s review, closed permanently in August. There’s that cycle for you again: if you don’t use it, don’t complain if further down the line you lose it. One to bear in mind in the months ahead, when places like the Lyndhurst are going to need customers more than ever.

The Lyndhurst – 7.8
88 Queens Road, RG1 4DG
0118 9503888

https://www.thelyndhurstreading.co.uk/

Cozze

I’ve been reading a lot of other restaurant bloggers recently, and it’s made me think. These are proper restaurant reviewers in big cities, and they use impressive words like “bosky” and “friable” – both of which, I’m ashamed to say, I had to look up in a dictionary.

The other thing these reviewers do, which I’ve never done, is write in the present tense e.g. I bite into the burger. It has the deep flavour of well-tended cow and so on. This is a very striking way to write about food and it makes you feel like you’re there, in the moment, experiencing that bite with them.

I, on the other hand, tend to write in the past tense e.g. the burger was a bit bland. Recounting an event which has already happened makes it feel like you’re telling someone a story down the pub, but perhaps it lacks that immediacy. Maybe it puts a gap between the writer and the reader.

So does the traditional structure of a restaurant review. Here is why I’m reviewing this place, my reviews tend to begin, followed by this is what the room is like and here’s what I ordered and what it tasted like followed, as night follows day, by here’s what the service was like, here’s how much it cost and, last but not least, this is my verdict. Add the rating, the address and the website, repeat until dead. Job’s a good’un.

One thing those other restaurant reviewers and I agree on is that the best reviews to write are the rave reviews, followed by the hatchet jobs. The ones everybody dreads are the middling, the mediocre, the it was dull enough eating it, but heavens, now I have to write about it ones.

So, I ought to start by explaining that Cozze, the Italian restaurant on the roundabout at the bottom of the Caversham Road, has been on my to do list for literally years, and that whenever I ask people on Facebook where they’d like me to go next someone always pipes up and suggests it.

I should add that it started in Woodley before adding a second branch in central Reading with a third one just opened in Pangbourne. I should then say something like “well, a successful independent chain is a very unusual thing in Reading so I owed it to myself to see what all the fuss was about so I went there one night with my partner Zoë” and there you go, the scene is set.

But really, and maybe this will build some of the immediacy my reviews might sometimes lack, what I really want to tell you is how exceptionally bored I was by having dinner at Cozze.

Take the spaghetti carbonara I had as my starter. A good carbonara should be golden, the sauce should hug the pasta, it should be resplendent with egg, it should be salty and sinful and fun. The pancetta (although ideally it might even be guanciale) should be almost crispy and add its own whack of salt to proceedings. It shouldn’t be like this.

It shouldn’t be a pasty albino of a thing, swimming in cream with scant evidence that it’s ever seen an egg. You shouldn’t be dredging through the lake of liquid once you’ve finished, picking out highlighter-pink cubes of bouncy bacon and wondering why you bothered. It shouldn’t be worse than eating at Carluccio’s, for goodness’ sake. It shouldn’t feel like a dish cooked by people who don’t especially care for food or know how it’s meant to taste.

The sad thing is that the room itself is quite nice – a big airy space with nice furniture and vaguely Kandinsky-esque paintings on the wall. And the staff were lovely – really bright and friendly as they brought middling plate after middling plate to our table. We were the only people there when we arrived, although by the end three other tables were occupied. One big group appeared to be regulars, which makes me wonder if they’ve ever considered trying other restaurants. They might like them.

Zoë thinks I am being a little grumpy, and to be fair she ordered better than I did. But her stuffed mushrooms, laid out as if by a serial killer, might have been pleasant enough but I wasn’t sure they were elevated from anything you could pick up and do yourself in M&S. The ones at Papa Gee, in the heart of Caversham, at least have blue cheese in them to give some salt and tang and flavour: no such luck here. The dip seemed to be mayo. Who dips stuffed mushrooms in mayo? Why not just stick a bottle of salad cream on the table and have done with it?

God, and the desserts. White chocolate covered profiteroles filled with Prosecco and raspberry ice cream sounded like they might at least be interesting, but turned out to be one of the ickiest things I’ve had in a long time. They were filled not with ice cream but with cream that tasted of nothing much. The white chocolate was sickly enough, but the Barbie-pink raspberry gloop on top, and the scoop of raspberry ripple ice cream in which almost no raspberry was evident, completed the spectacle. Again, Zoë’s dessert, a honeycomb cheesecake, was a little better but still every other ingredient was shouted down by sugar.

I’d had my doubts about Cozze before going, which mainly came down to looking at the menu several times over the years. Part of that came from my suspicion that they’d taken a kitchen sink approach – would an Italian restaurant really offer chicken wings, moules frites, baby back ribs and peri-peri chicken? Would they really do four different burgers, accompanied by the wording all our burgers some (sic) with fries and are fully cooked? I mean, I know what they were trying to say, but even so.

But more than that, my real problem with the menu was just how many things on it were also on the menu at Prezzo (ironically Cozze has seen Prezzo off in Woodley: that branch has now closed). If you’re a chain, why set yourself up to be a rival to a place like Prezzo? Should that be the place you set your sights on? Again, it says you’re interested in making money, but not particularly interested in food. But if anything, Prezzo’s menu reflects some recentish food trends – there’s burrata, there’s ‘nduja and so on. Cozze’s menu, with none of that to be seen, feels like an Italian chain menu from about ten years ago.

My main was better, although it still wasn’t anywhere near the best pizza in Reading. It had goats cheese (not enough), leeks, four bits of semi-dried tomatoes and three bits of artichoke. Like most of the other things at Cozze it wasn’t actively unpleasant, just objectionably unexceptional. I drizzled some chilli oil over it to try and make it taste of something. The chilli oil appeared to have very little chilli in it – crap as a condiment, perfect as an analogy.

For completeness’ sake, before you or I drop off, I should also tell you about Zoë’s main course which was pollo prosciutto with pomodoro sauce and baby roast potatoes. Pepe Sale does a beautiful pollo prosciutto – a fillet wrapped in Parma ham and stuffed with cheese which you have with seasonal vegetables. It’s perfect: a few ingredients treated simply and with respect. For some reason, they choose not to drown it in chopped tomatoes and serve it in a bowl hotter than the sun like some kind of glorified ready meal. For some reason, Cozze does choose to do exactly that.

I had a mouthful and wasn’t clamouring for more. My advice, if you ever accidentally order this dish, is to eat it doing your very best to pretend you’re instead eating at Pepe Sale. But if your imagination is that good, you could probably enjoy eating pretty much anything. I used to have a brother in law with nasal polyps so bad he couldn’t taste anything: he’d probably quite like Cozze.

Don’t worry. We’re nearly there and our suffering is almost at an end. It just remains for me to tell you that we shared a five hundred millilitre carafe of Italian Sauvignon blanc which was slightly sweet and perfectly decent and that our meal came to fifty-six pounds, not including tip. That includes a discount because Cozze usually has offers through their website, so if you’re considering eating at Cozze you should definitely make use of them. Although if you’re considering eating at Cozze at this moment, I’ve probably failed as a restaurant reviewer.

You might feel that they caught me on a bad day. You might feel they’re unfortunate to be reviewed the week after I’ve written about eating in Bologna, having truly phenomenal pizza, pasta and gelato. And it’s not that Cozze is bad, to be fair. Nobody died, I wasn’t poisoned, nothing they do is inedible.

It’s just that if Cozze is that answer then “where can we go for dinner that nobody could possibly have any strong opinions about whatsoever?” is the question. The poverty of ambition is the thing I find a terrible shame. Although maybe that’s not fair either: Cozze aspires to mediocrity and, in that respect at least, it has to be considered a towering success. There are worse places to eat, of course. But there will always, easily, be somewhere far, far better.

Cozze – 6.3
93-97 Caversham Road, RG1 8AN
0118 9591459

https://www.cozzerestaurants.co.uk/

Buenasado

My mother taught me this brilliant technique for steak, which she says she picked up from watching Heston Blumenthal on TV. It’s simplicity itself: you let the steak come to room temperature, you oil the steak rather than the pan and you season both sides. Then you get the pan good and hot and you cook the steak for four minutes in total, turning it over every thirty seconds. At the end, you let the steak rest for a little while and Bob’s your uncle: perfectly-done medium-rare steak. I imagine my mother and my stepfather (ever the dream team) cooking the steak together, him with a spatula and her with a stopwatch.

It works without fail, and whenever I cook steak at home my other half Zoë will say, at some point during the meal, “this is so much better, and cheaper, than the Corn Stores.” This is true, if hardly praise of my abilities in the kitchen: the Corn Stores has to be one of the most disappointing restaurant openings of recent years. But also, when she says that, I miss CAU. Poor CAU, which shocked everybody by closing around this time last year because the chain went bust. I didn’t go often, but I always enjoyed my meals there in that funny, purpose-built space, hovering out of nothing at the back of the Oracle.

Sometimes you really do want a steak on an evening out, and since CAU closed I’ve been stumped whenever people ask me where I recommend. The Corn Stores is out of contention, which leaves Miller & Carter, another restaurant I’ve never really warmed to. So I’ve taken to recommending Pepe Sale’s tagliata alla rucola, a beautiful piece of fillet with rocket and balsamic vinegar. But then Buenasado announced it was opening in CAU’s old spot, and I found myself hoping we’d get a decent steak restaurant after all. Research showed they had one other branch, in well-to-do Surrey, and the reviews looked good – even if the menu appeared to be a carbon copy of CAU’s.

The restaurant opened its doors in June and the early reports I heard were cautiously optimistic, barring some complaints about iffy frites and a sizeable service charge being added to bills. I went along to check it out on a quiet weekday night, accompanied by Zoë, to see if lightning could strike in the same place twice.

My first impressions were favourable – CAU was nice food served in a stark, almost ugly space, with lots of white and deeply uncomfortable space-age plastic chairs. They had prioritised covers over comfort, and Buenasado has taken the opposite view: big tables along both sides of the long thin room with an attractive button-backed banquette down the right hand side. The handsome black hanging lightshades and glossy white tiled bricks said industrial without trying too hard, and the whole thing felt like a nicely grown-up restaurant.

The menu verged on huge, with a good selection of starters, plenty of salads, burgers, the usual cuts of steak in various weights (although without some of the speciality cuts offered by the likes of CAU and Gaucho) and a raft of options for people who didn’t want the blood of a dead cow on their hands.

We settled on three of the starters – for research purposes – before moving on to decide which mains to have, but first we ordered a bottle of Malbec. Again, as with CAU, this has its own section on the drinks list and I liked the bottle we picked (Norton Lo Tengo) although it was good rather than remarkable, and marked up sharply at nearly thirty-three pounds for a wine that costs eleven in the shops.

Starters came quicker than I would have liked and I was glad we’d ordered three because I think two of them were on the less generous side. I adored the morcilla – soft, sweet and spicy with a crispy skin – and I loved the punchy, vinegary salsa criolla it came with. But the “salad leaves” accompanying it were exactly that – leaves, not a salad. I really don’t get the point of undressed salad leaves: the name must be nominative determinism in action, because I always end up leaving them. And the piece of bread the morcilla was pointlessly plonked on was rock hard – not toasted, more stale, and very difficult to eat. I am a sucker for black pudding, but at five pounds this felt on the scanty side.

Better were the beef empanadas, plenty of dense minced beef packed in so tightly that you almost felt like you were eating a slider en croûte. The spicing was subtle, and I wasn’t sure these quite matched up to the best empanadas I’ve had at, say, I Love Paella, but all the same these were well worth the money.

Our third starter, chorizo al malbec, was also good – slices of decent chorizo with good texture and plenty of depth from the paprika in a brick-red sauce with sweet ribbons of onion. But again, it was a little meagre for the money and it needed good quality bread to soak up the juices, not a rock hard parody of crostini. I really hated the bread that came with these starters – you couldn’t mop up anything with it, you couldn’t top it with anything, you couldn’t eat it with a knife and fork without risking half of it flying across the room: it really was worse than nothing.

A real challenge when you review a steak restaurant is choosing what to order. Obviously one of you has to have a steak to put their raison d’être to the test, but what does the other person go for? Do you try a different cut, or pick something else entirely? Is it helpful to try a different dish, or does that make you the kind of person who goes to Nando’s and orders the Prego steak roll? Fortunately Zoë made this easy – the dish she really missed at CAU was the spatchcock chicken and frites, and as Buenasado had something very similar on their menu she wanted to know whether it would help with the withdrawal symptoms.

It turned out to be a surprisingly good choice, and very skilfully done, with gorgeous crispy salty skin and plenty of meat (very different from the same dish at, say, Côte, where it can feel scrawny by comparison). I wasn’t so sure about the “fries provençal” which felt like bought-in French fries topped with a bit of garlic and herb butter; I can see why people have been slightly sniffy about the fries. Yet more bollock-naked salad leaves, so Zoë was glad she’d ordered a side of creamed spinach. She loved it, I tried enough to be able to confirm that it tasted of creamed spinach and therefore wasn’t my cup of tea.

I had opted for a rump steak – fillet felt too pricey, and I’m never madly fussed about sirloin or rib-eye. It was a lovely piece of meat, but a few slices in I was painfully aware that it was medium rather than the medium-rare I’d asked for, and medium-well at that. The waitress did the right thing by insisting that she would take it away and redo the dish if I wanted, but blotted her copybook by insisting that it was medium-rare: it really, really wasn’t.

As so often in these situations, I was left with the choice of eating something I hadn’t ordered at the same time as my dinner date, or eating the dish I’d ordered a couple of minutes after she had finished. I decided having my steak medium was probably the lesser of two evils: being right and eating alone always leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It really was a beautiful piece of steak but I did keep thinking that it would have been even nicer medium rare.

It’s especially a shame because the other accompaniments for my steak – starkers salad aside – were really pretty decent. Chunky chips were truly lovely, crispy-fluffy things, although I’d have liked the blue cheese sauce I ended up dipping them in to have been a little heavier on the cheese. The garlic portobello mushrooms were nicely pungent and a million miles from their sad, wan opposite numbers at the Corn Stores. So nearly there, but I still wished the restaurant had spent less time artfully arranging pink Himalayan salt on the plate and more time making sure the steak wasn’t overcooked.

Because of the pacing of our meal, we still had a fair bit of Malbec left when our main courses were taken away, so we took our time mulling over the dessert menu before making our choices. It was a nicely buzzy restaurant and the top floor was almost full, even on a Monday night. The dessert menu had lots of tempting choices on it (especially if you liked dulce de leche) but both wait staff looking after us raved about the churros. Were they especially good, or was it the dish with the biggest margin? I wanted to believe the former, Zoë suspected the latter.

You’ll have to tell me, if you go, because we were both drawn to different things on the menu. Zoë loved her chocolate torte, served simply on its own without any compote or coulis, and I could see why: the only forkful I managed to nab was moist and well-balanced, sweet but not too sweet. She complemented our waiter on it and he told us it had been made onsite that morning: that’s rarer these days than it ought to be.

I did less well, I’d say: the dulce de leche cheesecake was nice enough but the biscuit base needed more crunch and the whole thing needed more than the slightly proctological smudge of dulce de leche that accompanied it (I could have done without the compote on this one, too: it didn’t add much). If I lost on the dessert I slightly nudged it on dessert wine – my glass of Torrontes Late Harvest was really lovely, cool and clean without being too gloopily sticky. Zoë’s Norton Tardia Chardonnay was a little sharper and not quite so impressive. Both were around six pounds, though, and generous pours at 100ml – nice to see so many Argentine dessert wines on the menu, too.

Service throughout was very good from both of the wait staff who looked after us – enthusiastic about some of the dishes, talkative but not over the top and, when it came to the overdone steak, more than prepared to make amends. The mistake there was the kitchen’s, not theirs, after all – they, by contrast, didn’t put a foot wrong. Our Romanian waiter was chatting away to the table next to us and I was struck by how nicely personable he was, friendly without being overfamiliar. When he asked what we were up to once we’d finished our meal (a pint and a debrief in the Allied Arms, as it happens) I felt like he genuinely wanted to know, and when he said how much he loved the Allied’s garden I felt like he genuinely meant it, too.

Our bill came to one hundred and twenty-two pounds, including an optional service charge of ten per cent. This may seem a lot, but we had three starters, two mains, a couple of sides, two desserts, a bottle of wine and two glasses of dessert wine. All the desserts cost less than six pounds, and most of the starters come in under the seven pound mark. Even my steak was less than sixteen pounds, considerably less than a similar dish at the Corn Stores. When I went to the Corn Stores on duty, we had less to eat, far less to drink and walked out paying more (and their service charge is twelve and a half per cent, for service nowhere near as good). Buenasado feels like very good value for money, some minor quibbles aside, and I found myself eyeing their lunch deals too: steak frites for ten pounds, anybody?

Looking back, I fear this has sounded quite grumpy about what was really a very good, fairly priced and pretty accomplished meal. Yes, the black pudding was a bit on the small side, yes, the starters came too soon, yes, there might be quite a markup on the wine (show me a restaurant where there isn’t) and yes, they should dress their salads. But really, I had a very enjoyable evening there – it has taken all of the pluses CAU used to have and added a better atmosphere, some very competitive pricing and excellent service.

I left wondering when I’d be able to go back (perhaps for that steak frites lunch and a pint of Alhambra, my favourite beer and the only one they have on draft), Zoë was tempted to take her mum there when they went out for dinner later in the week. It’s a sleek, buzzy space and feels to me like the steak restaurant Reading has been crying out for for nearly a year. Whether you agree with my rating or not, ultimately, will come down to just how much you’d have knocked off for getting my steak wrong. Some of you will think I’ve been too kind, others will think I’ve been too harsh. That’s the joy of reviews, ratings and having readers with minds of their own; I think a lot of you would enjoy a meal at Buenasado. And the rest of the time? Thirty seconds per side for four minutes, honest to God.

Trust me. You can thank me later.

Buenasado – 7.7
The Oracle, Bridge Street, RG1 2AQ
0118 9589550

https://www.buenasado.com/restaurants/reading/

Global Café Kitchen

Reading’s vegetarians and vegans have never been served terribly well. Back in the day there was Café Iguana, which I still miss (my order was usually a Roma toasted sandwich and their delicious, if whiffy, garlic and herb fries). It was scuzzy but lovable, the service was haphazard and the whole thing was distinctly, well, nineties, but I was very sad when it closed. For a long time after that, the only destination for vegetarians was the brilliant and unsung Bhel Puri House, and plenty of people didn’t even know it existed.

It’s only in the last couple of years that things have started to shift. We’ve seen restaurants raise their game: now there are many places with credible meat-free (or plant-based, or whatever you want to call it this month) options. So now we have Pho where most of the menu can be made vegetarian or vegan, Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen which has an excellent vegan selection, and Honest which first introduced an excellent vegetarian fritter and then added a trailblazing vegan burger. I keep meaning to do a round-up of the best places for vegetarians in Reading – another gap in the market – and the main thing that delays it is the growing plethora of options.

In parallel, Reading saw two completely meat-free venues open this year. The first, Miami Burger, offered a vegan take on American fast food and closed its doors last week shortly after announcing a deal to sell its products in Morrisons. A cynic could almost believe that the restaurant was always just a shop window to land that kind of contract (a conspiracy theory hardly helped by Miami Burger rewriting history to describe the Reading restaurant as a “test kitchen”).

Either way I never visited Miami Burger – known to some as “Brexit Burger” because of the political views of its owner, a man who left the Tories for UKIP and once pondered on his blog whether the unemployed should have their votes taken away – and I’m not convinced I’ve missed much. Besides, for five pounds you can get one of Bhel Puri’s amazing vada pav, and that’s more than enough veggie burger for me.

The second meat-free restaurant is a more interesting proposition. Global Café for many years was home to Tutu’s Ethiopian Kitchen, a much-celebrated Reading establishment which left me baffled when I visited it on duty many years ago. Tutu left this year to take over a site in Palmer Park which used to belong to the Chalkboard Café, and as a result Global Café has taken on a new chef and is offering a regularly changing vegetarian and vegan menu under the moniker Global Café Kitchen.

I was having a drink at Global Café with my mother and my stepfather the fateful night we went to review Lemoni, and looking at their menu I was very tempted to change our plans and eat there instead. It was small (four or five main courses and a couple of starters) and reasonably priced (mains were around a tenner). But most crucially, it all looked worth eating: from a tempura mushroom burger to a vegetarian rendang, from Sri Lankan dahl to a halloumi and tabbouleh salad, I could happily have ordered practically anything on the menu. I wasn’t alone, either; my mother in particular would much rather have eaten at Global Café than Lemoni, so much so that we agreed to come back the following week and give it a whirl, with my stepfather in tow.

The Global Café hasn’t changed in many years, and I suspect you either think it’s one of the last great Reading institutions or an anachronism you haven’t felt the need to visit for a very long time. I veer more towards the former – even though it’s a tad on the scruffy side I’ve always had a soft spot for it. The area at the front, near the bar, gets lots of light from the lovely big windows and if all the tables and chairs don’t match and don’t seem to be designed for eating at or drinking at, it doesn’t necessarily matter. Nor does it matter that there’s a sofa randomly plonked there, with a big metal trunk serving as a table. It’s Global Café: that’s just how it is.

My stepfather found the long trip downstairs to the loos genuinely alarming (“it smells of damp down there”) and was a bit baffled by the different-coloured lights in the wicker lightshades (“you’d think they’d be LED bulbs, wouldn’t you?”) but I wouldn’t describe him as the target market for this kind of place. He was more impressed with the selection of local beers, as was I, but because it was a school night the three of us opted for an alcohol-free Erdinger Blue apiece while we decided what to order. It’s my top tip for anyone who likes the taste of beer and wants to cut down on their alcohol intake – and it cost less than £3 a bottle, considerably cheaper than the crazy prices charged at some of Reading’s pubs.

There were only a handful of starters, but all the mains from our previous visit were still on the menu, along with a couple of specials – a spiced potato and cheese “Bombay burger” and what was described as a “Banana Blossom burger”.

“What’s the banana blossom burger?” I asked the dreadlocked chap behind the bar (no table service, so that’s where you place your order).

“It’s not made from banana, it’s another part of the banana tree. It sort of has the same texture as chicken.”

“Sounds interesting.”

“They’re changing the menu all the time. I’m not even a vegetarian, but I really like the food here.”

“How long have you been running the new menu?”

“About three months, we’re still getting used to it really.”

I wasn’t sure whether this exchange inspired confidence or eroded it – but I liked his honesty and I liked the sound of the banana blossom burger, so I changed my mind about what to eat and ordered it instead.

Our starters arrived reasonably quickly, brought I think by the chef. The menu had three, one of which was soup, so we ordered the other two planning to share them. The best of them was the crispy fried aubergine, cooked with a beautifully light touch and free of all the stodge and mulch I associate with aubergine done badly.

This stuff was better than versions I’ve had of the same dish, berenjanas con miel, in Andalusia and the little tweaks to make the dish vegan only added to the appeal: vegan labneh had a very pleasing touch of coconut, and the miel de cana (vegan honey) was hard to distinguish from any other kind of honey. We all ever so politely made sure we had our fair share before nicely bargaining over the final piece. A really good dish, although at six pounds it felt like it should have been a bigger portion. “I could have eaten one of those on my own” said my mother, echoing my feelings. Still, I guess that’s what happens when you share two starters between three: if you go, order your own.

The other starter was a very different kettle of quinoa. Flatbread with marinated tomatoes, olives and dip sounds like just the thing to graze on while you wait for your food to arrive, but this was a lukewarm warm-up act. The tomatoes – cherry tomatoes halved – were pleasant enough, and the olives, small and pitted, were the kind of thing you could get in any supermarket.

The houmous, though, was worse than anything you could get in a supermarket – I’ve no doubt they made it themselves, but it had no lightness, no evidence of olive oil or garlic or tahini. Calling it a dip was optimistic because it didn’t have the texture for dipping: you’d have had more luck using it to cement a wall. We did our best to scoop it on to the heavy, unremarkable flatbread.

This rogue’s gallery came to four pounds – for the same money you could have a much bigger bowl of the best houmous in Reading just up the road at Bakery House, and they’d throw in piping hot, fresh-from-the-oven pitta bread into the bargain. It felt like the restaurant had bought those little, weird-shaped dishes, and then struggled to decide what to serve in them. The answer, I think, is Not this.

The themes of the starters – glimmers of talent, inconsistency and slightly sharp pricing – followed through to the main courses (which arrived pretty quickly), although these were generally far better. My mother’s choice, the parippu – Sri Lankan dahl – was earthy and creamy with a nicely gradual heat. Her verdict was that it was “a bit monotonous” – although I suspect that, texturally at least, that’s always the way with dahl. The toasted coconut on top helped, but it needed something like toasted seeds for texture and what it really needed was plenty of fresh coriander. The rice was somewhat clumpy – brown rice might have been better – and the flatbread wasn’t required: there wasn’t enough of the dish to be able to use it. If that all sounds like faint praise, it shouldn’t entirely – I enjoyed it, but even at eight pounds it felt like it could have been a little bigger and better.

My stepfather had chosen the rendang – in this case a chickpea curry with aubergines and courgettes. I’m used to rendang being made with long-cooked, sticky strands of beef and having an intensely savoury taste. This dish didn’t have any of that, feeling more like a massaman or a Thai curry with as much sweetness as heat, if not more. Again, I liked it, and again I felt that it was a little keenly priced: eleven pounds for this one. My stepfather seemed to enjoy it, too, and polished it off in short order.

This brings us to the appropriately alliterative banana blossom burger, which I’m delighted to say was an eye opener. It didn’t have the texture of chicken, after all that: it reminded me more of artichoke hearts, and you got a couple of pieces rather than a single patty. But the coating around the banana blossom was very good – salty and savoury, reminiscent of shame-free KFC. The bun was strong enough to stand up to everything in it (so unlike, say, Honest’s buns which always seem to go soggy at the bottom) and the ripe avocado and mango mayo in it finished it off nicely.

This was a revelation to me, and I hope Global Café Kitchen moves it off the specials menu so more people can try it. A chap at the table next to me ordered it and when it arrived at his table I butted in to enthuse to him about how much I’d liked it. “It’s a bit like KFC!” I said, to which he mournfully replied “I’ve never had KFC” (I asked him his verdict as we were leaving: he thought it was too salty, so Christ knows what the poor guy would actually make of KFC).

Also, I really liked Global Café Kitchen’s fries – clearly hand-cut and prepared on the premises – and the sweet tomato sauce and (presumably) vegan mayo they came with were both tasty, too. My stepfather had some “dirty fries” although it wasn’t clear what made them so sinful or indulgent: the “beetroot aioli” mainly seemed to be finely diced beetroot and the sesame seeds felt a bit unnecessary. They were still very good, though, because their fries are very good.

There isn’t much more to say about Global Café Kitchen than that – there was no dessert section, and we’d been fed so quickly and efficiently that there was nothing more to do but to head out. Our whole meal – two starters, three mains, those extra fries and three beers – came to almost bang on fifty pounds, not including service.

Service was really friendly and likeable but had a general air that they were still getting the hang of things. We had to ask for side plates, for instance, and the speed with which our mains came out gave the impression that the restaurant didn’t have masses of customers, so was used to just cooking things and getting them out of the door almost straight away. Three months should be long enough to get those teething troubles under control but, much like everything else about Global Café, I was prepared to overlook some of the less polished aspects.

Reviews like this are the hardest to conclude. A hatchet job writes itself, a rave review also builds to a natural, logical crescendo, a rallying cry of sorts. It’s far more difficult to write the sort of nuanced summary that makes half your readers think the mark at the end is far too harsh and the other half believe that you’ve let a restaurant off the hook. All the same, here goes: much of what I ate at Global Café Kitchen wasn’t perfect, and much of what I liked felt too small or too expensive (or ever so slightly beige) but in terms of imagination and range there is still plenty to celebrate.

They offer a genuine vegan menu (nearly all the dishes are vegan, and they say the rest can be made vegan on request) which offers a wide range of dishes, tries different meat substitutes rather than just doling out the same old tofu and – most crucially – offers real and interesting choices. I could have ordered any of the main courses we tried that night, and a couple we didn’t, without feeling like I was missing meat at all. There’s a lot to be said for that – whether you’re vegetarian or vegan, or know somebody who is that you’d actually like to have dinner with once in a while. Or, for that matter, if you’d just like to do your bit to eat more sensibly and help the planet from time to time. That you can do so without donning a hair shirt is quite an achievement, even if in 2019 it shouldn’t feel that way.

I never made it to Miami Burger – deliberately, I’m afraid – but the one thing I heard about it from my vegan followers was how nice it was just to have somewhere where they could order everything on the menu. Those people should make their way to Global Café and support a kitchen that may not be doing everything right quite yet but definitely has the right idea. And the rest of us? We should consider following suit from time to time, and supporting a Reading institution – one which, it seems to me, has picked up the torch from Café Iguana and is doing its best to carry it forward into an uncertain future.

Global Café Kitchen – 6.9
35-39 London Street, RG1 4PS
0118 9583555

https://www.risc.org.uk/global-cafe/global-cafe-kitchen