Feature: Less than a tenner

Is it me, or did New Year used to be a bit less, well, preachy? Nowadays we’re bombarded with things you ought to do – eat vegan food for a month, or quit drinking, or drink lots of local beer to compensate for everybody who’s quitting drinking. It’s a hard enough month at the best of times – back at work, no longer allowed to eat chocolate whenever you like. Depressed by the scales, depressed by the sales not selling anything you fancy, and it’s so bloody dark all the time. The last thing anybody needs in January, if you ask me, is a sermon.

So I’m not going to do a feature about vegan food in Reading, or where you should go to try beers from our many excellent local breweries, or which tap room is the best. Instead, this piece covers the one truly universal thing about January whoever you are: it’s a long time since the last pay day, a long time until the next and everybody is on a budget. So this feature is about the best food you can get in Reading for not much money, something I hope we can all get behind.

I’ve tried to limit this to genuine stand-alone items. Obviously I could have included plenty of starters, but nobody turns up to a restaurant, orders a starter and leaves. So, ideally, every item on this list could be eaten on its own as the feature attraction, and every one costs less than ten pounds. That does tend to push it more in the direction of lunch than dinner, but there are still at least half a dozen items on this list that you could happily eat for an early evening meal.

Having already decided which dishes I’d include I posed the question on Facebook and got a raft of answers which reminded me just how much good food in Reading didn’t quite make the cut for me. I was sad not to be able to make room for anything from Blue Collar’s Peru Sabor, for anything from Perry’s, Franco Manca, Kings Grill, Bakery House or Sapana Home. That so many good places are excluded, I hope, shows how tricky making this selection was.

Anyway, I hope this comes in handy – all of them have been extensively road-tested by me, and all come highly recommended. Happy budgeting, and good luck if you are forgoing meat, booze or indeed anything else this month. Rather you than me!

1. Chilli beef nachos, the Lyndhurst

Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first: no surprises here, especially after I awarded it Starter Of The Year in my end of year awards. But, as I said then, it’s substantial enough to eat in its own right, or to snack on with drinks. Anyway, I’ve said quite enough about these nachos lately, so instead I’ll quote my esteemed colleague Quaffable Reading. After he had them for the first time last month he said “All I can say is now I realise everyone else is doing chilli wrong. And doing nachos wrong too. Fantastic dish!” And he knows what he’s talking about, because he’s the poor sod who had to endure the unique gastronomic experience of the doner meat nachos at German Doner Kebab. I’ll save you the effort of scrolling down: they don’t feature later on in this list. (88 Queens Road, RG1 4DG)

2. Jerk chicken, rice and peas, Sharian’s Cuisine

I’ve never been a fan of CHOW, the Friday street food market run in conjunction with Reading’s shadowy Business Improvement District. I’ve always thought it was a shame the market isn’t run by the better, more imaginative, more Reading Blue Collar Food who operate on Wednesdays in the same location. But what CHOW does have – which always generates huge queues – is Sharian’s Cuisine, and their jerk chicken, rice and peas is a thing of wonder. The chicken is spiced, charred and smoky, you get tons of it and they tell you, ever so nicely, that you’re being a wuss if you opt for the milder of the two hot sauces on offer. The weather isn’t quite conducive to eating it al fresco right now, but just you wait. (Market Place, RG1 2DE, Friday lunchtimes only)

3. Chilli paneer, Bhel Puri House

One of Reading’s iconic dishes, and one I’ve been raving about for the best part of six years. Caramelised cubes of paneer, crunchy peppers and spring onion and powerful green chillies lurking in there if you feel especially brave. I went through a phase of cheating on the chilli paneer with the saucier, stickier paneer Manchurian, I even went through a particularly depraved phase of ordering both of them at once. I dallied with the vada pav, too, but I always go back to the chilli paneer. It never lets you down. (Yield Hall Lane, RG1 2HF)

4. Ajika chicken wrap, Geo Cafe

There are many contenders for Reading’s finest sandwich: more than a few of them feature in this list. But, for my money, Geo Café’s chicken wrap is arguably the best. Georgian food tastes like nothing else you’ve ever eaten, and Georgian flavours transform this dish completely. The combination of fiery spice from the ajika and the pungency of baje (a Georgian sauce made from walnuts) is both otherworldly and habit-forming.

Chicken features quite heavily in this list, but this – made with free-range corn-fed chicken thighs from Vicar’s – is stupendous stuff. A wrap will set you back six pounds. Many would argue that Geo Café’s khachapuri, flat soda bread stuffed with an ingenious blend of three cheeses, should be in this list too, to which I can only say that making these decisions is harder than you might think. (10 Prospect Street, RG4 8JG, daytime only)

5. Curry night, The Lyndhurst

The Lyndhurst make this list twice because this is simply too good, in terms of quality and value, not to include in its own right. Every Thursday they offer a choice of three different curries, rice and a naan bread and a pint for nine pounds and ninety-nine pence (as you can see, when I went they threw in an onion bhaji in for good measure). The curries are all interesting and miles from kormas and bhunas, with dishes from Mangalore, Goa, Kerala and Sri Lanka, among others. I loved my visit last year, and it won’t be long before I’m back there – so much better than spending a similar Thursday in Wetherspoons making the tills ring and the microwave ping. (88 Queens Road, RG1 4DG, Thursday evenings only)

6. Tuna Turner, Shed

Another entry which will surprise nobody, and another dish which will probably make the cut if Reading Museum ever does an exhibition on iconic Reading food, the Tuna Turner is a truly legendary toasted sandwich and one of the very best things you can eat of a lunchtime. Superior tuna mayo, sweet slivers of red onion, plenty of cheese and jalapeños – very much the secret weapon – all conspire to be so much more than the sum of their parts. I think it’s something about the way the cheese melts, somehow seeps through the gaps in the sourdough and then forms a beautiful, glistening, caramelised crust.

If you’re there on a Friday lunchtime, and Shed is doing the Saucy Friday with scotch bonnet chilli chicken, rice and peas, macaroni cheese and coleslaw that dish, also far less than a tenner, runs the Tuna Turner pretty close. (8 Merchants Place, RG1 1DT, daytime only)

7. Lamb kothey momo, Namaste Momo

Namaste Momo is in a funny little spot on the border between Woodley and Earley, an area not blessed with its restaurants. Only one bus really runs that way from the town centre, and after a certain time it only ventures out once an hour. But, for all that faff, I highly recommend a pilgrimage there because their momo are worth it.

They are made by hand and in all their forms – in a hot, thickened chilli sauce, steamed or deep fried – they justify the journey. For me, it’s when you pan fry momo that you get that bang-on midpoint of taste and texture, the contrast of char and chew and the gorgeous filling inside. Speaking of fillings, the minced, spiced, seasoned lamb is my favourite – if it was served as a slider you could sell out any hipster gaff in the town centre. But we all know better than hipsters, don’t we, and these momo are perfect just the way they are. (392 London Road, RG6 1BA)

8. Scrambled eggs, Fidget & Bob

I’ve had some truly terrible scrambled eggs in my time. I once stayed over with a then-friend in Chichester and she microwaved eggs into grey pellets – I gamely ate the lot, because I didn’t want to seem rude, but really it could have been polystyrene and I might have had a better meal. I’ve tried to learn to make them myself, with guidance from the sainted Delia, and they come out okay but not great. The truth is that Fidget & Bob have ruined me for all other scrambled eggs. For five pounds you get three golden-yolked Beechwood Farm eggs, scrambled with probably more butter than I’m comfortable knowing about (that’s the great thing about eating in restaurants: ignorance is bliss) and certainly with more skill than I can manage.

They come with plenty of buttered seeded toast although extras – hash browns, nicely crispy back bacon, that legendary slab of sausagemeat loaf – are all available. They shouldn’t push the price over a tenner unless you’re really going loco, either due to gluttony or a hangover. Another great way to spend less than ten pounds in Fidget & Bob, every Tuesday night, is to go for their quite wonderful char siu pork. (The Piazza, Whale Avenue, RG2 0GX, Tuesday to Sunday)

9. Sweet chilli chicken, Kokoro

One of my very favourite things to eat for an early solo dinner or a particularly indulgent lunch, Kokoro’s chilli chicken is a crunchy, sticky, fiery, garlic-studded tub of one hundred per cent fun. A regular sized portion is pretty big and a large portion (which costs a princely additional pound) is absolutely gigantic: both come in comfortably below the ten pound mark.

The quality varies – some batches make your eyes water and your nose run, some are milder. Sometimes you get smaller, crunchier bits of chicken, sometimes they are huge, plump things (but always with that wonderful coating). But even on a relatively bad day, Kokoro’s chilli chicken is a miraculous thing. It comes with rice or noodles – I’ve always found the noodles a bit too much like hard work, but your mileage may vary. Writing this has made me seriously consider having it for lunch today, which I suppose is almost as bad as laughing at your own jokes. (29 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1SY)

10. Challoumi wrap, Purée/Leymoun

To do the confusing bit first: for reasons I don’t completely understand, sometimes Sam Adaci runs a street food van called Purée, sometimes it’s called Leymoun. Purée operates out of a distinctive green van, Leymoun is more nondescript. I don’t know the rhyme or reason of why there are two different names and two different vans. He is at Blue Collar in the market square every Wednesday and CHOW in the same place on Fridays, and sometimes you can find the Purée van parked on Broad Street at other times. But if you’re ever near either van at lunchtime, join the queue and order a challoumi wrap. They cost six pounds, they are absolutely crammed with wonderful stuff and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

The chicken is spiced and cooked on the griddle before being finely chopped, and the halloumi is salty but not too squeaky (for a while Sam was having his own Brexit-proof halloumi specially made in London: not sure if he still does). Add the pickles, and the chilli sauce, and the garlic sauce and you have an overstuffed messy marvel of a sandwich where every mouthful gives you something ever so slightly different and you always want there to be another mouthful. “Purée/Leymoun” is also a bit of a mouthful, come to think of it, but it remains a must-eat at lunchtime, even if the van can be a tad elusive. They also do freshly-made falafel which are a beautiful meat free alternative. (Market Place, RG1 2EQ, Wednesday and Friday lunchtimes only. Also on Broad Street: times vary)

11. Com chien, Pho

I quite like Pho, even if I’ve never managed to learn to love the eponymous dish: soup plus noodles just isn’t for me. This means I’ve never developed the fervour for it that other restaurant bloggers seem to manage. But they do have an absolute ace up their sleeve in the form of their com chien, a generous fried rice dish with shreds of chicken, chewy little savoury dried shrimp and many, many flecks of chilli. This dish, sort of a Vietnamese nasi goreng, is wonderful for blowing away cobwebs. You can tell it’s hot because when you order it, the staff invariably ask if you’ve had it before – with the same trepidation barbers used to show when they asked if I really wanted a grade two all over. You can top it with an optional fried egg, but I like it just fine as it is. (1 King’s Road, King Street, RG1 2HG)

12. Samosas, Cake & Cream

I was tipped off by Mansoor, a regular reader, about this place that sold the best samosas in Reading. It is called Cake & Cream, and it’s off the Wokingham Road, just after the row of shops and before the Three Tuns. Their main thing is big, impressive-looking cakes, but they also have a little whiteboard near the front detailing the savoury stuff they sell. Samosas are about 75 pence each, and they also sell pakora, paneer pakora and bhajis by weight, almost like a savoury sweetshop.

The samosas really are everything Mansoor promised they would be: full of a rich and surprisingly spicy potato masala, the pastry spot on and the whole thing piping hot and utterly addictive. They come with a sauce which is tangy, sweet and hot in equal measures, although they’re just as magnificent without it. The service is very friendly and the chap always seems thoroughly surprised to see me – oh, and the pakora are also tremendous. There are tables at Cakes & Cream, and I’m sure some people eat there, but I always take my bag and scarper onto the first 17 bus I can find, counting the minutes until I can tuck in back at home. You get jealous looks from your fellow passengers, although that might just be my imagination. (11-13 St Peters Road, RG6 1NT)

Feature: The 2019 Edible Reading Awards

Can you believe it’s that time of year again? Hopefully by now you’ve bought all your Christmas presents (even if, like me, you’ve not necessarily wrapped them yet). Hopefully you’ve sent and received all your cards – if you still do that sort of thing – and reflected on the new names on the list and the people you’ve finally pruned. You’ve probably had your work do, and been out with your friends. You may even be on roast dinner number four or five by now. We all have our festive traditions and one of mine, for the last five years, has been sitting down and writing this, my end of term report on Reading’s restaurant scene. Was it an “exceeds expectations” or a “must try harder”? Hmm. Let’s find out.

I initially thought it had been a quiet year for restaurants in this town but actually, on reflection, there has been a fair bit of movement. No big-name openings like 2018 – no Lido, no Clay’s, no Corn Stores – but instead a steady succession of new places vying to capture your spend and your affection. So 2019 was the year when we said hello to Argentine steakhouse Buenasado and Greek white elephant Lemoni in the Oracle, the Pantry in the Town Hall, Vegivores and the Last Crumb out in Caversham and countless other new kids on the block.

Some existing restaurateurs moved to new premises: Tutu shifted her Ethiopian Table from the Global Café to Palmer Park, and Kamal (of Namaste Kitchen) finally opened new restaurant Namaste Momo on the edge of Earley. And there’s always a new restaurant just around the corner – the first of 2020 may well be Osaka, the new Japanese restaurant due to set up shop in the old Café Rouge site, but I doubt it will be the last. We’re also allegedly getting a Taco Bell, presumably to compensate us in some Newtonian sense, for the forthcoming closure of bigoted poultry purveyor Chick-Fil-A.

Not that we haven’t had enough restaurants close this year. The saddest, for me, was Tuscany, the fantastic independent pizzeria down the Oxford Road. I was also disappointed that Vibes, the Caribbean restaurant on Queens Walk, closed before I paid it a visit. We also lost two Reading institutions in the form of China Palace and Beijing Noodle House – although, to be euphemistic, both had seen better days.

Town centre Vietnamese restaurant Mum Mum and Alona, serving Lebanese food down the Wokingham Road, also closed their doors for the final time. Neither got to celebrate their first birthday. Nor did Bench Rest, which stopped serving in the Tasting House after less than a year: Reading’s original nomad moved on again, and is apparently leaving the country next year.

In terms of reviewing, it’s been a year of highs and lows. I experienced the worst nachos in the world, activated charcoal-flavoured ick, food that came all at once, John Lewis tablemats, albino carbonara and comically laissez faire service. But I’ve also had astonishing sausage rolls, eye-opening pasta, the warmest of welcomes and seen familiar faces in new places. Every now and then I’d have a run of meals so bad, or so bla, that I started to feel discouraged, but the next superb meal was never too far away. Trips abroad made sure I never fell out of love with eating out, especially one holiday where the food just blew me away.

It’s been a fantastic year in terms of the blog – a record-breaking one, with more visitors than ever before. As always, I’m incredibly grateful to all of you who read, like, comment, Retweet, share or just lurk, whether you do so smiling, laughing, tutting or grimacing. I’m grateful to everybody who’s come out on duty with me this year – friends, readers, my terrific family and of course Zoë, my partner in crime and regular dining companion. And I’m also grateful to everybody who has come to one of the five readers’ events I’ve run this year – all at some of Reading’s finest independent restaurants, each of them offering a special one-off menu. I’m not sure 2019 will be topped, but of course I’ll try my best to next year.

With all that said, it just remains for me to hand out the gongs in this, the 2019 Edible Reading Awards. It’s been harder than ever to reduce the long list to a short list, let alone pick the winners, and any of the honourable mentions this year could easily have taken top spot instead of the eventual winners. We’re lucky to live in a town that makes these decisions so difficult, so if you disagree with any or all of the winners I can hardly blame you: on another day, I might have disagreed too. Anyway, that’s quite enough preamble: let’s announce some winners, and you can tell me what I got wrong in the comments.

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Chilli nachos, The Lyndhurst

It was pretty much love at first sight when I ordered the Lyndhurst’s chilli nachos for the first time, and none of my subsequent encounters have dimmed my ardour. A wonderful chilli made with slow-cooked, shredded beef (a chilli which doesn’t appear elsewhere on the menu in the mains section), robust hand-made tortilla chips, a healthy helping of well-made guacamole and some cream cheese, a lettuce leaf if you want to pretend to be a better person than you actually are. A perfect starter to share, or to snaffle on your own, or a dish to eat with a few pints just for the sake of it, because it’s so perfect. I’m a huge fan, and I live in constant fear that they’ll either take it off the menu or price it slightly less generously (seven pounds twenty-five pence, would you believe it). Superb stuff.

I know that not picking a starter from Clay’s will be controversial here – one Twitter follower suggested I should have a separate award for the best Clay’s starter (and that too would be an incredibly tough one to call). Clay’s does deserve an honourable mention though for their cut mirchi chaat – a sort of stuffed and battered chilli dish that is difficult to describe and even more difficult to resist (yes, I know: but what about the chicken 65, the kodi chips, the squid pakora, the duck spring rolls, and basically all the other starters. Enough already). Another honourable mention goes to Zest for their triple-cooked pork belly with XO sauce, a dish I’ve thought about on pretty much a daily basis since I had it at the start of the month.

CHAIN OF THE YEAR: Honest Burger

Chains are all about consistency, and in my experience Honest has gone from strength to strength this year, becoming the place to go if you want a quick, enjoyable, reliably superb meal. It helps that they’ve swapped out their local special – the indifferent jerk chicken burger has given way to a gorgeous new option with Waterloo cheese and bearnaise butter – but it’s just that they never put a foot wrong. My stepfather is so impressed with their vegan burger that he picks it over a conventional beefburger, some of the specials this year have been absolutely knockout (especially when they involve fried chicken) but really, it’s just that it’s regularly, unspectacularly excellent. Reading still has far too many burger joints, and I wouldn’t shed a tear if the rest closed down. But Honest is another matter altogether.

The two runners-up in this category also deliver the kind of consistency and comfort you want from a visit to a chain restaurant. Pho continues to offer an excellent range of dishes (I don’t think I’ll ever really see the appeal of the eponymous dish itself, but I’m evangelical about their com chien) and Kokoro has done me a turn on many an early evening when I can’t be bothered to cook and on a few hungover Sunday lunchtimes. Their sweet chilli chicken is a particular favourite of mine, although I know the katsu curry also has its fans.

LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Fidget & Bob

Yes, on this occasion lunch probably means brunch and yes, Fidget & Bob is out of town which means that for most people it’s a weekend lunch option. But nevertheless, most of my happiest lunches this year have been at Fidget & Bob and they invariably involve a variant of their phenomenal brunch menu which they serve all day. You can have a breakfast wrap, or the “hangover” (a sausage, bacon and egg sandwich) but I always seem to go for their golden, gorgeous scrambled eggs, served with crispy back bacon and a slice of their sausage loaf. Other dishes – sandwiches, panini and their home-made noodle pots – are available, but the trick is to save room for cake. I am hooked on the kouign amann – hopelessly indulgent Breton pastries made with plenty of salted butter (they missed a trick not calling them “Breton butter pudding”) but the salted caramel brownies are also phenomenal.

Picking a winner in this category wasn’t easy, limiting the runners-up to just two was equally difficult. An honourable mention goes to Caversham’s Geo Café which has spent 2019 completing its transformation from Nomad Bakery and, along with a beautiful array of cakes, still serves one of Reading’s finest sandwiches in the form of the ajika-spiced corn-fed chicken wrap. Also highly commended is Shed – which is every bit as good as ever and continues to serve Reading’s best golden, cheese-laden, comforting toasties.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Lamb with cumin, Kungfu Kitchen

In a year of wonderful main courses – far too many to list here – KFK’s lamb with cumin was the one I kept coming back to. I had it on my second ever visit, and it’s been a struggle not to order it every time since. The lamb – sliced wafer-thin, as it is for the hot pot – is so deep and rich. It tastes properly of lamb – which might sound like a silly thing to say, but somehow lamb is so often a pale copy of how it ought to taste. “This is how kebabs should be” said my other half the first time she tasted this dish, and I can understand what she meant. The whole thing, flecked with sesame seeds and tumbled with onion and coriander, stalks and all, is the kind of intensely savoury dish you daydream about long after you have eked out one final mouthful. KFK does so many excellent dishes but, in the lamb with cumin, it has one unforgettable one.

It is a tribute to how strong a field it is that many of the dishes on my long list could easily have won this award: Fidget & Bob’s char siu pork, for instance, or Namaste Momo’s spellbinding lamb kothey momo. But there’s only room for two runners-up. First, the chinta chiguru from Clay’s – terrific, tender chicken thigh in a striking, sharply elegant tamarind sauce (very much the unsung hero of the Clay’s menu, in my book). And secondly, Bakery House’s boneless baby chicken with vegetable rice and beautifully dressed salad, possibly Reading’s most complete main course.

OUT OF TOWN RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Mio Fiore, Newbury

I so loved my visit to Mio Fiore this year, and I’m long overdue a return trip. There was just something magical about it – so unprepossessing and yet getting everything right, serving dishes that are so often unspecial in chain Italians and reminding you just how superb they can be in the right hands. It came around the same time as I had a brilliant holiday in Bologna and a bloody horrendous meal in Cozze, and the fact that the standard was so much closer to the former than the latter put a huge smile on my face. If you go, the spaghetti puttanesca (pictured above) is pretty damn close to perfection.

Honourable mentions have to go to Goring’s Miller Of Mansfield, a special occasion restaurant which will leave you wanting to invent more special occasions, and Oxford’s Pompette, a truly spectacular French neighbourhood restaurant which I’d dearly love to pick up and drop somewhere in Reading. In fact, since I can’t do that, I’m literally lunching there again today.

SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Fidget & Bob

I stopped giving an award out for Tweeter of the year this year, because Fidget & Bob won it every year. They may as well keep the trophy. But this year, eating there more often, I discovered that how they were on Twitter probably came so naturally to them because it was just an extension of how they were in real life. Their welcome is always warm but perfectly-judged, not faux-matey, never too much. They seem to know literally everybody who eats in their little café – who they are, what they like, how they’ve been, the comings and goings of their lives. I suppose it must be easier to do when you run a small venue and there are only a couple of you, but that doesn’t stop it being extremely impressive – or bloody hard work, however easy Shu and Breege make it look.

An honourable mention has to go to Mio Fiore, who also have that perfect balance spot on in a far bigger venue, and I also have to single out the inimitable Jo at Kungfu Kitchen. Her service is a constant joy to me – the conversation, the recommendations, the gossip, the way she always seems delighted that you’ve come back. There’s no welcome quite like it in Reading, and once you’ve tried it you’ll know exactly what I mean.

DESSERT OF THE YEAR: Chocolate custard with sesame tuille, The Miller Of Mansfield

So beautiful, so elegant and so delicious: the Miller’s chocolate custard is a smooth, glossy thing somewhere between the texture of a ganache and a mousse. It looks almost as beautiful as it tastes, with a salted sesame tuille on top perfect to break into little shards, the whole thing artfully dotted with microherbs and little dabs of vivid orange. It was by far the best dessert I’ve had this year: when I went on duty I shared it with my dining companion, but when I managed to engineer a return visit a few weeks later I made sure I got one all to myself.

Honourable mentions go to Zest’s excellent white chocolate and Bailey’s cheesecake – a big old slab of heaven – and the timeless simplicity of Mio Fiore’s tiramisu.

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: The Lyndhurst

I was very sad when the Lyndhurst closed in June, the landlord went off to pastures new and at least one of the chefs moved on to the Fisherman’s Cottage. And I had my doubts when it reopened the following month – there was a hesitancy about the whole thing, and on the opening night the team seemed more than a little fazed about what they had taken on.

Well, over the months that followed they have, if anything, surpassed their predecessors with an interesting and exciting menu which constantly changes. I tried a beautiful dish of oxtail there, rich shreds of meat wrapped up in the embrace of a cabbage leaf. Weeks later, it had vanished from the menu like a mirage, never to return. The picture above is of a stunning rabbit dish – stuffed with chicken liver, wrapped in prosciutto, a dish which kept popping back into my mind at random moments, normally when I was eating something nowhere near as good. I think they served that dish for less than a week, and I haven’t seen it on the menu since.

One staple, though, is the curry night on Thursdays – a choice of three curries, all miles from the generic stuff, with rice, a bhaji, a pint and a naan, all for a tenner. The ever-present katsu chicken burger is always worth ordering, too, with some of Reading’s best chips – and then there’s the small matter of their chilli nachos, as I’ve already said.

The tables have got busier, the “reserved” signs more frequent, and I for one am delighted to see them doing so well. And the hesitancy hasn’t exactly vanished: it’s more that it’s morphed into a really charming humility. They don’t ever sing their own praises, which is even more reason why it’s my pleasure to do it for them by awarding them my Newcomer Of The Year award.

Some people would have expected Kungfu Kitchen to win this award, but they opened in October last year so aren’t eligible (and, personally, I was delighted to dodge another incredibly hard decision). I do, however, have to mention the two runners-up in this category. Buenasado really surprised me when I visited it on duty – I had low expectations of a small restaurant popping up in the Oracle in the site vacated by CAU, but they did a really creditable job (and their lunchtime steak frites offer is not to be sniffed at, either). An honourable mention also goes to Namaste Momo, the new outpost from Kamal, the man behind Namaste Kitchen. It’s a little out of the way, and the execution of the menu is still slightly uneven, but the hand-made momo are literally worth the price of admission alone: not only that, but Kamal will absolutely charm the socks off you.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Kungfu Kitchen

This was absolutely the hardest decision of all. Just think, for a second, about how lucky we are to live here. Here are some of the restaurants that didn’t even make my shortlist: Fidget & Bob; Pepe Sale; Geo Café; The Lyndhurst; Namaste Momo.

And then look at my runners-up. Bakery House is a superb, consistent, brilliantly run Reading institution where you can take pretty much anyone you know and guarantee that you’ll have a superb meal. You can go with vegetarians and go crazy with the mezze, or take your carnivorous friends and rejoice in the chicken livers, the little spiced sausages, the shawarma and the chicken fresh from the grill. I can’t remember them ever disappointing me.

And then there’s Clay’s. How could I not give the award to Clay’s, you might quite reasonably ask? If anything, their second year has been stronger than their first: look at all that game on their menu at the start of 2019, the quail, the rabbit and the pheasant. And then, just when you think their food couldn’t get any better, they pivoted again: amazing baby squid, like some hybrid of Hyderabad and Andalusia, a crab fry dish which has left so many diners speechless. They’ve even got me to eat baby corn, something I’d previously thought was impossible. I know full well that not picking them as 2019’s winners will leave many of you questioning my judgment this year (and possibly next).

But this is a decision made with the heart, not the head, and Kungfu Kitchen has been my restaurant of this year. From the very first visit I was wondering when I could go back, and on every visit I’ve faced that agonising tug of war between ordering a dish I know and love or venturing deeper into the menu. It never feels too much like a leap into the unknown, largely because of the magnificent Jo who always acts as a sherpa, taking you just far enough out of your comfort zone without ever leaving you high and dry (with possibly one exception: she once made me order a boiled beef and chilli oil dish which was a challenge, more a dish you survive than finish). She is a force of nature, and a huge part of what makes Kungfu Kitchen so enjoyable and so welcoming.

The food really is marvellous – whether it’s the fried fish in spicy hot pot, the sweet and aromatic wonder of the fish fragrant pork, the piquant kung pao chicken, the glorious pork belly, boiled, sliced super thin and then stir fried with Chinese mushrooms and plenty of heat, the salt and pepper tofu – yes, tofu – or one of my very favourites, the Xinjiang-style shredded chicken which almost literally takes your breath away with the heat before gradually releasing its grip on your larynx. That makes it sound awful but honestly, it’s exhilarating.

The conventional wisdom is to go to a place like Kungfu Kitchen in a big group so you can try more dishes, and that’s partly true. I’ve been at a birthday party there where they effortlessly served about twenty people, they did a bang-up job (complete with karaoke!) at one of my readers’ lunches earlier in the year. But I’ve also been here with smaller groups of friends, on quiet nights with my other half and, on occasion when I’m at a loose end, I’ll walk up the hill on my own and order just the one dish – such a hardship – and a beer and have dinner for one watching the toing and froing, the bustle and the banter. The welcome is never less than perfect, and the food is never less than gorgeous. It truly is a happy place.

It’s been a real joy to watch Kungfu Kitchen spreading its wings on social media, and to see so many ER readers go there and fall in love with the place, as I did. And so it seems appropriate to end 2019 by giving them this award and by wishing them – and all my winners and runners-up, and just as importantly all of you – a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Feature: Eating at the Reading Fringe

Last week I took part in a live Q&A on Twitter about the Reading Fringe. It’s an amazing Reading institution, now in its fifth year and bigger than ever with 72 shows running across 14 venues over 5 days. I was more than happy to support it by answering questions for an hour; obviously some people wanted answers to the burning questions of the day (my favourite flavour is salt and vinegar, thanks for asking) but the best question I got asked was this – where should I eat before going to take in a show at the Fringe? It’s an excellent question, and I dashed off a few quick responses, but the more I thought about it the more I thought it might make a useful feature for those of you attending a cultural event in Reading for the rest of this week. So here goes!

Shows at the Penta Hotel, Smokin’ Billy’s, Public, The Butler or The Purple Turtle: Pepe Sale, Bhoj or Bluegrass BBQ

Many of these shows start at 7 or 7.30, so you need to find somewhere nearby that serves decent food and can feed you and have you out the door sharpish. Pepe Sale, as a restaurant right next to the Hexagon, has an impeccable pedigree of doing this so is well worth considering. It’s not the most attractive interior in the world but you probably won’t have the time to fully appreciate that, especially if you’re concentrating on the food. If you’re in a rush the pasta dishes are always a good bet (I’m a particular fan of the tagliolini with smoked salmon, saffron and cream).
Failing that, Bluegrass is another excellent option and has the additional benefit that you pay up front so it’s easy to scarper afterwards without having to flag someone down to settle the bill. When I first went it was all about pulled pork and brisket but the menu definitely has other interesting choices including the Southern fried chicken and most notably the slow cooked beef brisket chilli – watermelon slices and all – which has become my go-to dish there. Lastly, Bhoj is in its new home a couple of doors down from Pepe Sale and does some of Reading’s finest Indian food. Karahi lamb is my favourite choice here, although ordering from here prior to a packed performance might not be the most sociable thing you could do.
Oh, and don’t go to Smokin’ Billy’s to eat. You’d be better off grabbing a Pizza Express and eating it in the garden of the Allied Arms.

Pepe Sale, 3 Queen’s Walk, RG1 7QF (review here)
Bluegrass BBQ, RG1 2JR (review here)
Bhoj, 7 Queen’s Walk, RG1 7QF (review here)

Shows at Revolucion de Cuba, Milk, Waterstones or the Dome at Station Hill: Sapana Home, Shed, Kokoro or Nando’s

Sapana Home is still often my choice for a quick town centre meal and it’s a great place for pre-theatre because if you get there bang on six o’clock you’re likely to eat brilliantly and still make your show. I’ve written about the place so many times that I’m in danger of getting repetitive, but really, have any of the pan fried chicken momo, the samosa chaat, the chicken fry and the chow mein and you’ll have an absolutely fantastic meal. Sapana was my restaurant of the year last year and is still a favourite of mine. Surprisingly good for kids, too: my friend’s 10 year old son is a massive fan of the momo and can manage all 10 in a single sitting. Attaboy.
Some of the shows at the Dome are mid-afternoon and for those Shed and Kokoro offer good lunch options. Shed is great for kids, if you’re going to one of the kids’ shows there, and does a great array of sandwiches and salads (and the Top One – chorizo and cheese and jalapeno – remains one of the best sandwiches you can eat in the ‘Ding). Kokoro is newer, an offshoot of a small chain, and goes fantastic tubs of crispy chilli chicken or spicy thigh meat curries with rice or noodles or a range of sushi. Only a few tables, but again perfect for a quick meal where you rush in and out.

You can judge all you like, but I also have a soft spot for the Nando’s on Friar Street. Butterflied chicken breast, medium, with spicy rice and macho peas (or corn on the cob if you absolutely must) and garlic piri-piri on the side. Have a spot of sangria while you’re at it, because I always find it makes me far more artistically receptive: after a whole jug I’ve even been known to enjoy an episode of Sherlock.

Oh, and don’t go to Cosmo. Duck in a Yorkshire pudding is all well and good, but your digestive system will pay a terrible price the next day.

Sapana Home, 8 Queen Victoria St, RG1 1TG (awarded Restaurant Of The Year here)
Shed, 8 Merchants Place, RG1 1DT (review here)
Kokoro, 13 Queen Victoria St, RG1 1SY
Nando’s, 30-31 Friar Street, RG1 1DX

Shows at the Oracle: Franco Manca or Mission Burrito

The Oracle is not my favourite place to eat, and there’s only one show here (live music at 12 and 3 from Lisa Zimmerman who has the tough gig of interesting Oracle shoppers in German opera with a pop twist: good luck with that, Lisa) but even here you can have a decent quick bite to eat. If you’re keeping it old school you could do a lot worse than a burrito from Mission with black beans, shredded slow-cooked beef, salad, guacamole and smoky chipotle sauce. But if you want to try one of the newcomers, Franco Manca does very good sourdough pizzas with splendid crusts that are cooked quickly in the blisteringly hot oven. Try and keep enough time back for the rosemary cake with Greek yoghurt, you won’t regret it.
Franco Manca, The Oracle, RG1 2AT
Mission Burrito, The Oracle, RG1 2AG (review here)

Shows at South Street, The Rising Sun and Olympia Ballrooms: Bakery House or the Lyndhurst

The easiest choices of all, these: round this part of town Bakery House is almost the only show in town. My last meal there was a little disappointing but it’s the only bad meal I’ve ever had there and I still have faith in them to deliver gorgeous Lebanese food quickly in a nice unpretentious setting. If you’re in a hurry for a show you might be better off ordering plenty of small dishes to share in which case the rich glossy houmous topped with pieces of roasted lamb, the amazing falafel, the little succulent maqaneq sausages and the halloumi stuffed pitta bread are all worth a go. And if you have a little bit longer I only have three beautiful words to say to you: boneless baby chicken.

I reviewed the Lyndhurst recently and it’s the perfect spot for a show in that area, especially if you’re watching something at South Street. The menu changes too regularly for me to be able to make too many recommendations but you can’t go far wrong and at the very least you should consider the pink pickled eggs (the distinctive colour coming from beetroot) with a hint of star anise, the Scotch egg or the dead good fish and chips.

Bakery House, 82 London St, RG1 4SJ (review here)
The Lyndhurst, 88-90 Queens Rd, RG1 4DG (review here)

Anyway, I hope this is useful and that you seriously consider taking in a show over the next week or so, whether it’s stand-up, gig theatre, experimental theatre, music, chap-hop or (because Britain’s Got Talent suggests at least some people like this sort of thing) dance. The Fringe’s website is here, and tickets can still be bought in advance for the majority of the shows. Maybe I’ll see you at something: I fancy going to watch All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, and I might go get squiffy at the launch party tomorrow night. I’ll be the one in the Mexican wrestling mask.

Feature: The 2016 Edible Reading Awards

Bowie, Brexit, Trump, Desmond Carrington retiring from Radio 2: whichever way you cut it, it’s been a year to forget in many ways. 2016 has been the year when many brilliant people lost their lives and our country, closely followed by the U.S., lost its senses. By this point, you probably all just want to set your out of office autoreply, plough through some snowballs – and by the way, 11am isn’t too early for a snowball – and hang in for grim death all the way to New Year’s Eve desperately praying that no more terrible things happen (not the Queen, anything but the Queen!).

You might wonder why I’m choosing to publish my awards just before Christmas. After all, you could say that my blog is also a casualty of The Year That Hope Forgot; I downed tools in July and since then Reading’s diners have had to rely on word of mouth, the magnificent Reading Forum, TripAdvisor or – usually a better alternative to TripAdvisor – sticking a pin in a map of Reading with your eyes shut in order to decide where to go for dinner. Honestly, this year.

The thing is though, this is the time when we need most to focus on the good things out there. I know that from personal experience; I won’t wang on about it here, but for every awful thing that has happened there has been a brilliant thing too, for every disappointment an equal and opposite wonderful surprise. It might be Newton’s law for the conservation of sanity, or it might just be my rose-tinted spectacles but I honestly think it’s not all bad. Now more than ever, we need to recognise that: as a friend said to me recently, if you don’t look you’ll never see it.

Reading’s restaurant scene is a good illustration of that. Last year I remember complaining that there were still no town centre pubs doing nice food. And now we have I Love Paella cooking at The Fisherman’s Cottage, Caucasian Spice Box at the Turk’s Head and The Lyndhurst reopened with a new team, a new menu and some interesting offerings. You can now eat German food, or Korean barbecue, or scoot across the river to Caversham and get beautiful bread and some of the most innovative vegetarian food for miles around.

There’s more excellent news. The good cafés – the C.U.Ps and the Tamps – are prospering and flourishing, despite our proliferation of Neros and Costas. There are far more food markets in town than before (and Blue Collar Food, which I visited recently for the first time, is so good that it’s almost cured my scepticism about street food). And longer term, we’re even going to get some half-decent chain restaurants when Busaba, Franco Manca and Byron open on the ground floor of Jackson’s – although I’ve given up hoping that The Stable or Grillstock will ever make good on their promise to expand to Reading.

So with that in mind, let me dust off this microphone, quickly seal these envelopes (Rymans’ finest, don’t you know) and get proceedings under way. Fasten your seatbelts, and scream if you want to go faster!

SANDWICH OF THE YEAR: The Cheesy One, Caffeine & Cocktails

CaffeineSandwichWell, I could have given this award to Shed again and heaven knows it wouldn’t have been undeserved. But the problem with being consistently excellent is that after a while it’s not enough, and apart from a few minor tweaks Shed’s menu has been pretty much unchanged this year. I was tempted to give the award to Sam’s Wraps for their huge (and impressively cheap) jerk chicken wraps, although without the hot sauce they add to them which I’m pretty sure contains depleted uranium. And actually, surprisingly, I was very tempted to break the habit of a lifetime and give some credit to Pret which despite being a chain has regularly given me half decent things to take to work (jambon beurre with a shedload of gherkins, take it from me) or eat during a weekend lunch with family (the falafel and halloumi hot wrap, usually).

But the one I liked best, believe it or not, was the cheese toastie from Caffeine and Cocktails. Ironically the one time I went on duty they managed to muck it up, but every time I went before and after it was really lovely – three different terrific cheeses, on dead good bread with onion chutney and mustard. Nothing more to it than that, but sometimes a sandwich is about making simple things well. Every time I ever go to there for lunch it’s empty, which makes me worry that the food will eventually become seen as an afterthought. So go while you still can, before they decide to prioritise cocktails over caffeine (and sandwiches) for good.

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Jeera chicken, Royal Tandoori

RoyalStartersWhen I went to Royal Tandoori on duty I liked a lot of it but I loved the jeera chicken the best. You have to like cumin, because the cumin is the star of the show, piled high on the glorious, tender chicken, so high that it crunches under your teeth, so fragrant and wonderful. They say it’s a starter, but it’s a huge portion and I sometimes think the only thing that distinguishes it from the curries is that it doesn’t come in a sauce. But when there’s that much going on you just don’t care about that. Since then I’ve found myself in Royal Tandoori an awful lot: it’s one of my family’s favourite restaurants and I’ve come to appreciate the brilliant service and the wide range of interesting flavours (and the cashews in their biryani). But the jeera chicken remains my first love.

Special mentions have to go to the Scotch egg at the Lyndhurst (four pounds and so good it’s easy to justify it as a bar snack even if you aren’t eating) and the brilliant, brilliant salt cod churros at I Love Paella. Any other year, the latter probably would have won – a bit like Hillary Clinton, I suppose.

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Caucasian Spice Box

I really, really like Caucasian Spice Box. I’d heard loads of rave reviews from the food markets but my first exposure was when they did a brief residency at The Horn while Enric – of I Love Paella fame – was inconsiderate enough to leave his customers in the lurch for weeks by going off and getting married (honestly, this year!). I went and I was just wowed by the range and subtlety of the flavours, from bean stew which may have looked like beige paste but was absolutely crammed with savoury wonder, to bread stuffed with gooey, elastic cheese to spiced chicken thighs and bright yellow, shiny pickled baby squashes. Then they moved across town to The Turk’s Head and I’m happy to say the food is as amazing as before. Incredible value, too: the “Special Day Feast” – those fabulous chicken thighs, that cheese stuffed bread, a sharply dressed salad, some aubergine and walnut rolls and a spiced walnut sauce (which makes houmous look stodgy and bland) comes in at just shy of eleven pounds. Go, go, go!

Honourable mentions in this category go to German restaurant Bierhaus, which was far far better than I expected it to be, and Nomad Bakery, which was every bit as good as I expected it to be.

LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Shed

It’s still Shed. If I have a lunch break, and I’m working from home, nine times out of ten I’ll go to Shed. Everything I said last year is still true, and I have nothing to add. Everywhere else needs to up its game, or they might as well keep the trophy.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Chicken paella, I Love Paella

ILPPaellaA lot of the contenders for this award were on the spicy side. The karahi chicken at Kobeeda Palace for instance, a beautiful and undemonstrative curry in a place not known for its curries. The dumpak lamb in Himalaya Momo House, which comes with a little lid like a Nepalese pie (although I was particularly impressed by this, in truth, because I hadn’t known about the lid and so had Ordered Pie By Mistake). And I also had half a mind to include the pan fried chicken momo from Sapana Home, for reasons which will become apparent later on. If they hadn’t gone and taken it off the menu the braised lamb parcel at Henley’s Little Angel – the standout dish from an otherwise indifferent visit – might also have taken the crown. I loved it, even though I had no idea even as I was eating it how I might describe it in a review (it’s kind of a meatball slash faggot slash steamed pudding slash I don’t know it’s just a big dome of meat and, you know, stuff, and it’s really gorgeous).

But for me, I Love Paella’s chicken paella is the one. I always liked the seafood paella they did when they were at Workhouse Coffee, but it wasn’t quite what I was after. When they moved to The Horn and I saw the menu, chicken paella was the one dish I knew I had to order. On that first and many subsequent visits, it’s always knocked my socks off: salted without being salty, rich without being flashy, ambitious without being gluttonous. All those gorgeous chicken thighs would be the best bit if it wasn’t for the glossy, perfectly cooked rice, packed with beans and peppers. And that in turn would be the best bit if it wasn’t for the crunchy, caramelised rice you got to eat right at the end once you’d lifted it off the paella pan by having a good old scrape with the metal spoon. I’ve taken a fair few people to I Love Paella this time, and every time I wasn’t sure whether I was introducing them to the paella or the paella to them. Yes, I love it that much.

SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus

Otherwise known as the Artist Formerly Known As Kyrenia although, unlike Prince, Kyrenia simply changed its name this year rather than ceasing to be. When I found out about the name change, I was worried that the restaurant had lost Ihor, the front of house who has always made Kyrenia such a brilliant place to eat. I was assured that it hadn’t, and in fact when I’d gone there for my birthday it had been Ihor looking after us even though the restaurant had changed its name by then. Many restaurants manage to make service look so difficult with lots of staff (I don’t like to focus on the bad when I’m giving out awards, but I’m talking about the likes of C*ppa Cl*b here), so it’s lovely that Kyrenia – balls to calling it Ketty’s, I’m sorry – does such a stupendous job with no more than two people waiting all of its tables. Every time I’ve been this year I’ve felt cared about, fussed over and spoiled but more impressive than that, they have the rare gift of being able to make everyone at every table feel special. I hope the new management has got the memo that 2017 needs to be an awful lot better, and I hope they don’t mess with that winning formula.

Also worth mentioning are two of Reading’s Nepalese restaurants, namely Himalaya Momo in Caversham Park Village – a real gem with friendly, kind, engaging service – and Dhaulagiri Kitchen on the Basingstoke Road where the people looking after me were an absolute delight.

DESSERT OF THE YEAR – “Snicker”, Royal Oak Paley Street

OakSnickerI’ve never been a big dessert fan. It’s the course I’m most likely to skip, or swap out for cheese. In some restaurants – Thai, Indian, Chinese – I’m never sure it’s worth having. In others – pubs in particular – it can feel like they’re playing it safe or going for things they don’t have to cook on the premises; also, is chocolate brownie really a dessert? It feels unlikely. My test for these things is always: is a dessert really going to bring me more joy than a Tutti Frutti ice cream or even a Toffee Crisp? The answer, very frequently, is no.

So this is a rare victory for the very top end in the ER awards. I think desserts are where really good kitchens, especially Michelin starred ones, come into their own and the Royal Oak at Paley Street’s take on the Snickers bar is a classic example of how to do this right. On Masterchef they like to whaff on about “processes”; I don’t know about that, but look at how much work must be involved in making this. I’ve never adhered to the whole “it’s too pretty to eat” school of thought, but even I can see you would easily have a pang of guilt about just how quickly you can gromph down one of these compared to how long it took to construct. I didn’t order this, so I only had a couple of spoonfuls of my companion’s, and even that was enough to win it this award. I’m not sure I’m in a hurry to go back to the Royal Oak, but if I did I’d probably just order this. Three times.

OUT OF TOWN RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR – Branca, Oxford

I’ve eaten in quite a few splendid places outside Reading this year. I had delicate, stunning stuffed courgette flowers at Opera Tavern in Covent Garden. I had steamed Korean buns from Khao and Bao in Bristol, stuffed with fried chicken and kimchee, eaten by the harbourside with a pint of cider. I ate Japanese food in Oxford’s Taberu, down the Cowley Road in an area where every visit throws up a new piece of gentrification. I probably had my meal of the year in a converted bus station in Lewes at The Hearth, where I rejoiced in the perfect (and I don’t use that word lightly) Napoli pizza with stinging, vinegary capers, salty anchovies and intense, almost shrivelled black olives. The chocolate and salted caramel tart afterwards sent me into raptures.

But for the place I’ve been back to again and again, Branca easily wins this award. It’s buzzy and stylish and it’s full of North Oxford’s beautiful people, whether they’re doting well-behaved families, or affluent, well-dressed older couples enjoying meals away from their empty nest. Also, several times this year, it has played host to me. Everything is impeccable there, from the focaccia to the pizza, from the confit duck to the beautifully cooked tranches of firm white-fleshed fish. The desserts are beautiful, the coffee is good, the wine is served by the carafe and the salted caramel brownie bites are equidistant between ganache, cake mix and paradise. House prices being what they are, I can’t afford it to be my neighbourhood restaurant but it doesn’t matter: a day return to Oxford is just over six pounds with a railcard, and I’m mighty good at pretending.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR – Sapana Home

I was tempted to give this award to Cosmo. Not because of the food (be serious!) but because of what it represents – a whole community of readers and followers clubbing together to raise an awful lot of money for vulnerable people in Reading, albeit by forcing me to endure an almost unending cavalcade of culinary dross in a windowless room. Although I did discover the delights of crispy duck served in a Yorkshire pudding (stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Heston: my friend Ben wipes the floor with your crummy bacon trifle).

But no, it has to be Sapana Home this year. And in the process of giving this award, I also have to offer an apology: when I went to Sapana on duty, a long time ago, I was unimpressed. I loved the momo, I didn’t much like everything else. So I kept going back for the momo, and as I did something magical happened: every time I went I ordered something else from the menu and I discovered that a lot of it was good, whether it was chicken fry, delicious cubes of chicken with hot sauce and rich, green spring onion, matcha fry, spicy little crispy fish somewhere between a sardine and a whitebait or samosa chaat, warm pieces of samosa mixed with chick peas, potato and crunchy sev, all topped with yoghurt and tamarind sauce.

And then, of course, there are the momo. They truly are magnificent, whether you have them pan-fried and slightly caramelised on the outside, deep fried and begging to be dipped in the sauce or – and this was another revelation this year – steamed and bobbing in a beautiful hot tomato soup with chilli and red onion, festooned with fresh coriander.

The next magical thing that happened was this: I found myself eating in Sapana Home more and more. Off the train from work when I couldn’t face going home and cooking, or quickly in town before joining friends down the pub. And I took to introducing friends to Sapana Home – my friends Ben and Tim who both pronounced themselves momo fanatics, my vegetarian friend Clare only last week (Sapana is very good for vegetarians). I took my mother there shortly after her birthday: she loved the place too.

I haven’t even mentioned the beautiful mango lassi, always blended by hand, the warm enthusiastic welcome or how oddly proud of Sapana I was when I turned up at one point this year to find that they’d redecorated, knocked down a wall and opened the front room up with more light and slightly more tables. But there you have it. My restaurant of the year is always the one where I’ve had the most nice evenings and the best times and for 2016, amid all the turmoil and horror in the world outside, Sapana Home has been that place. I don’t know what next year holds: whether Trump and Russia will usher in our downfall, whether a hard Brexit will leave us all mired in negative equity, whether we’ll all finally get over burgers or whether I’ll write some more restaurant reviews. But I do know that, whatever it has in store, you’ll often find me in that unpretentious dining room on Queen Victoria Street, two doors down from Gregg’s The Baker. If you’re looking for New Year’s resolutions, you could do far worse.

Feature: The 2015 Edible Reading Awards

It seems like a lifetime ago now, but at the start of the year I contributed to a piece for Alt Reading, giving my wish list of what I hoped 2015 would hold for Reading’s food scene: a town centre pub doing top notch food; a decent little pizzeria; a tapas bar; a good Chinese restaurant; a cool tea room; a bakery in the town centre.

If that sounds ambitious it’s probably because it is, but looking back I’m surprised by how much of it has come to pass. I Love Paella has set up down the Oxford Road offering a variety of small dishes and its eponymous seafood dish. Papa Gee turns out to have been there all along (for a decade!) doing a variety of pretty marvellous Neapolitan pizzas, among other things. C.U.P. has opened right next to Reading Minster and offers, hands down, the best tea selection you can find in town. We still don’t have a bakery in the centre, but Pop-Up Reading recently starting selling their own bread to those in the know at a variety of independent establishments across town. Call me Nostradamus!

That said, there haven’t been a huge amount of openings this year, and those we have had have been small chains expanding to Reading: CAU in the Oracle, Itsu at the bottom of Queen Victoria Street. That trend looks set to continue next year when The Stable opens on Bridge Street and, if rumours are to be believed, Grillstock comes to Friar Street. We’ve seen a few independents open in the town centre – most notably Manhattan Coffee Club bucking the trend as the Oracle’s only independent café and the owner of the original Chronicles trying to turn around that site under the Valpy Street moniker. It’s felt like a transitional year all round, and that probably reflects in the very low number of closures in 2015: so although it was the year we said goodbye to Tampopo, O Beirao and (without much fanfare) Master Naan, most of our independent restaurants are still hanging in there.

Of course, you can’t look back on the year without doing a bit of navel-gazing, and it’s been a brilliant year here at ER HQ. I’ve travelled much further in search of good meals and been rewarded with some of the very best food I’ve eaten on duty (and some of the worst, but let’s not talk about that now). More people have read the blog than ever before, and I’ve appreciated every bit of brilliant feedback I’ve had, every comment, every Retweet, every suggestion and – particularly – every time someone has told me they enjoyed a restaurant they went to because of one of my reviews.

On a personal level, I was particularly chuffed to be shortlisted for the Alt Reading award for Individual Cultural Contribution, mainly because it felt like recognition that Reading has a food scene to be cherished, celebrated and cultivated. I didn’t win (which is fair enough – Suzanne Stallard IS culture in Reading, after all), but making the final five still was a victory for all our independent restaurants and cafes. I’ve also really enjoyed seeing Roast Dinners Around Reading flourish this year and get more and more readers for his – syndicated, don’t you know – restaurant reviews. Reading finishes 2015 with more choice than ever before of where to eat and drink, and more help with making those choices too.

Anyway, as is now traditional I’m taking my festive break. The weeks ahead will involve mountains of roast potatoes, huge stinky cheeseboards, crisps, peanuts, those big tubs of Twiglets, Mini Cheddars, red wine, mulled wine, dessert wine, port, sherry, bubbly, Snowballs (no, really), and – if I have anything to do with it – diving into a box of Matchmakers without having to share them with anyone else. I love restaurants, as you’ve probably gathered, but the festive season doesn’t show them at their best with all that picking from a special menu, having to preorder and winding up next to a big boisterous work do. I’ll be back on January 15th, by which time the vouchers will all be spent, the bad gifts will have been surreptitiously exchanged, half of the people who have tried to spend the month on the wagon will have leapt off it and, hopefully, you might want to read some restaurant reviews. Until then, settle back and enjoy this year’s award winners. Merry Christmas!

SANDWICH OF THE YEAR: Top Toastie, Shed

ShedTop

Yes, I know they won it last year. And you can’t say there hasn’t been competition this year: I was very taken, for instance, with the halloumi, pesto and red pepper piadina at Siblings Home, a little tricorne taste sensation. And although it might stretch the definition of “sandwich” just a little bit, Bakery House could easily have won either with their kallaj bil jibn or their arayes, being halloumi cheese and finely chopped veal respectively stuffed into their excellent Lebanese bread. But Shed’s Top Toastie has been my sandwich of the year – little intense batons of chorizo, all salt and spice, the vinegary heat of jalapenos and the comforting smother of lots and lots of mozzarella desperately trying to escape from their peerless ciabatta. Really, if you haven’t had one yet it might be the best New Year’s Resolution you could make.

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Chicken pastilla, Al Fassia

FassBastilla

All my favourite starters of the year, with the exception of CAU’s superbly indulgent salt cod and manchego croquettes, came from out of town. West of Reading, I was an enormous fan of Brebis’ duck liver and foie gras parfait, perfectly glossy, smooth and rich. In the other direction, The Bell Inn’s pigeon and pork terrine couldn’t have been more different: coarse and rough and earthy, but equally delicious (and with the best pickled beetroot I’ve ever tried). But actually, you have to travel a little further still for my winner this time: Al Fassia is a lovely little place on a nice little street in Windsor and their chicken pastilla is a painstakingly assembled gem, an utterly delicious mixture of shredded chicken, almond and cinnamon, all wrapped in hand-made filo and baked in the oven. I didn’t taste anything like it all year, and thinking about it now it slightly makes me want to go back to Marrakesh. But it really makes me want to go back to Al Fassia.

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Bakery House

BakeryFalafel

Bakery House’s achievement this year has been phenomenal – from a standing start partway through the year it now feels like it’s always been here. I’ve had countless Tweets from readers telling me that they’re checking it out and they always say two things: that the food is delicious and that the restaurant is packed. I’m yet to have a bad meal here, and I’ve been plenty of times. In a year when Reading got places like CAU (itself very accomplished, in fairness, and easily another candidate for this award) and Itsu and felt more like Zone 7 of London, it’s nice to see a place like Bakery House which is a match for anything you could find down the Edgware Road. Another honourable mention in this category should go to I Love Paella, but more on them later.

LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Shed

This has been a huge growth sector in Reading this year. Some of the newcomers have been good, some indifferent, but the level of choice just seems to get greater and greater – to the extent where many people feel we’ve reached critical mass where coffee shops are concerned. Siblings Home, tucked away in Caversham, was one of my favourites in this category although their recent change of layout makes it less of a pleasant place to sit and while away the hours (it hasn’t stopped me buying all sorts of stuff from their shop though – lovely soap, I can tell you). I was also a big fan of Nibsy’s – it may be gluten free but when I was in there doing a serious assault on their quiche and cake it certainly wasn’t glutton free. None the less, Shed is still the one to beat for me: beautiful sandwiches, delicious milkshakes, excellent service from Pete and Lydia and a great spot upstairs to look out from those lovely big windows. And if you can get there on “Saucy Friday” (particularly for the Scotch bonnet chicken with rice and peas, coleslaw and macaroni cheese), even better.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Parma ham wrapped monkfish, squid ink pasta, mussels and clams, Dolce Vita

I had a lot of fantastic mains this year, and this category was one of the most difficult to judge. All so different, too, from the rich spiced comfort of the Crown at Playhatch’s bobotie to the stunning delicacy of Brebis’ butter poached hake, served on a perfect circle of crushed potatoes with a sweet sharp smear of lemon purée. Also seriously in the running was Beijing Noodle House’s duck fried noodles, an iconic Reading dish which I rediscovered this year, the culinary equivalent of bumping into an old friend and finding them on outstanding form. But my winner is the main course I’ve had more times than I care to name this year – perfectly cooked meaty monkfish, wrapped in parma ham and served with rich, salty squid ink pasta and plenty of shellfish. A proper, grown-up, indulgent dish.

VEGETARIAN MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Gnocchi with goat’s cheese, kale and almond pesto, The Bell Inn

BellGnocchi

I’ve finished the year with a new-found admiration for vegetarians, and a better understanding of the sacrifices they make in pursuit of their principles. Heavens, I’ve had some dreary vegetarian main courses while reviewing food for Edible Reading. The awards are all about celebrating the good so we’d better not dwell on the blue cheese pasta with almost no blue cheese in it, big bland bowls of mushroom risotto or Jamie Oliver’s superfood salad which wasn’t. The redeeming feature was the gnocchi dish at the Bell Inn: absolutely stunning stuff, with little dumplings which were subtle not stodgy, a rich, fragrant kale pesto which blew me away and a nice big slab of caramelised goat’s cheese on top. It makes me cross that in a whole year of looking, I only found one main that could beat any other plate of food on meat-free merit. But what a main it was.

SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Mya Lacarte

Many of you may have noticed that I’ve never reviewed Mya Lacarte. For me, it would be like writing an essay on a novel I’ve adored for years – it wouldn’t be enjoyable for me to boil that down or do it to death, to analyse something it’s much more fun to love uncritically. But what I will say is that I think Matt and Alex at Mya are the perfect double act and either of them runs the front of house better than pretty much anyone else in Reading. That a restaurant has both Matt and Alex looking after customers is the hospitality equivalent of having Messi and Ronaldo playing on the same team; I’ve not had a visit to Mya this year that was anything less than brilliant, or a welcome that made me feel anything less than exactly where I belonged. Honourable mentions should also go to Brebis, where the service was utterly charming when I visited, and also to Dolce Vita (which still does a fantastic job despite losing a couple of its star players to C.U.P.).

DESSERT OF THE YEAR: Sfinci, Bird In Hand

BirdDoughnut

The moment I had the sfinci I knew it would be my dessert of the year: it was love at first mouthful. The lightest, fluffiest doughnuts with the crispiest exterior, little sugared joy-inducing clouds. The pistachio ice cream they came with was rich and nutty, but even without them the sfinci would have won this prize. I’ve had them every time I’ve gone back, and every time they’ve delighted me like it was the first time. So easy to make a good dessert from scratch like this, and yet so many places just can’t do it. But that’s the Bird In Hand all over – it’s run by someone who makes pretty much everything on site. And if it hadn’t won for the sfinci it would probably have won for the malt barley ice cream, which is the best ice cream I’ve had in this country. Also worth a passing mention is the Baskerville’s deep, rich, indulgent chocolate tart. My review of the Baskerville was a bit on the lukewarm side at the time, which is a shame, but they really did pull all the stops out when it came to dessert.

TWEETER OF THE YEAR: Picnic

I’m always surprised that many establishments don’t have Twitter, and those that do have it don’t seem to get it. It shouldn’t be hard: Tweet every day, tell people what you sell, put some nice pictures up and – crucially – give people an idea of the personality behind your brand. But somehow it never seems to work like that, so either you get something prosaic, regular but unengaging or there are flashes of likeable brilliance but it’s all very ramshackle, with updates a bit few and far between. Having blazed the trail in many ways over the years it’s no surprise that Picnic get this spot on – regular bulletins saying what the salad boxes are, showing pictures of the cakes, talking about the specials on Fridays and Sundays, but also showing an interest in Reading and its customers, even telling people to come in out of the cold or putting up pictures of its Christmas decorations. See? It’s easy. Or maybe it’s just that Picnic are very good at making it seem so. Either way, nobody does it better.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: I Love Paella

ILPEmpanada

I could have given this award to Bakery House. I think people would have applauded that: they do great food, they run a tight ship and they add an something extra to Reading’s restaurant scene in terms of top-quality, affordable, informal dining. Equally I toyed with giving it to Papa Gee, in many ways this year’s surprise package; who knew that we had a cracking pizzeria tucked behind the station doing quite nicely for over a decade completely under the radar? Again, I think a lot of people would have agreed – I’ve had lots of feedback from readers saying how delighted they were to discover the place. And, of course, my single best meal of the year on duty was at Brebis, so why isn’t Brebis the winner?

The thing is – and I’ve learned this from reviewing them every week this year and for that matter last year – that restaurants are about more than food, or the service or even the room. They’re about experiences, about the magical alchemy that happens when all those elements come together. Last year, Dolce Vita won because although I’d had better food on occasion in other places, it remained the place where I’d spent my happiest evenings in 2014. This year, that place is I Love Paella.

Watching it evolve over the year has been a real joy – from only opening at the weekend to opening weekday nights, moving from a narrower menu and starting to offer more tapas, more sharing options, more little dishes. The first time I went it was all about the paella and the empanadas. Those are still amazing, but now you get a selection of manchego, or some serrano ham on bread with a little smudge of tomato chutney (still haven’t had the chorizo stew, but there’s always next time). Service is always brilliant, to the extent that you could easily forget that it’s basically a one man band cooking in somebody else’s coffee shop. It’s a proper success story, and I sense that there’s still more to come. I live for the day when I go in to find they’ve found the space for a nice big leg of jamon, but in the meantime I hope they get even more of a feeling of permanence and keep evolving, keep trying things out and keep spoiling those lucky people down the Oxford Road.