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.

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Shed

I’ve talked about Shed many times since starting this blog. For instance, when I reviewed Artigiano I remember saying “I’d rather go to Shed”, or words to that effect. They won my Sandwich Of The Year award in December for their truly splendid tuna melt (and I’m reliably informed that a number of people stopped by to check out my recommendation). And, returning the favour, proprietor Pete recommended I check out Beijing Noodle House: and I’m delighted that he did, because it turns out that that man knows his mouth watering pork dumplings when he sees them.

And yet I’ve never reviewed Shed. Silly, really. I suppose I’ve always assumed that everyone knows about Shed, that they’re part of Reading’s lunch royalty and require no endorsement from me, but thinking about it this week I realised that was no reason not to go. After all, ER is about celebrating the good places, banging the “use it or lose it” drum. Why should Shed be an exception to that rule?

Besides, Shed are specialists in one of my favourite things of all, and that’s the humble sandwich. I know the world of lunch has diversified, and we’re all supposed to enjoy our bread free salad boxes and our floury tortilla wraps and – please, God no – “quinoa pots”, but I still think there’s a lot to be said for a truly decent sandwich. I was tempted to say that it’s the best thing since sliced bread, but really it’s the logical culmination of sliced bread. A properly excellent sandwich, you could say, is sliced bread v2.0. In my book, a sandwich should be made to order rather than sitting clammy in a fridge waiting to be bought, and not enough places in central Reading offer that nowadays.

That Shed has developed such a devoted following (I still remember seeing the pictures of Pete and Lydia at last year’s Pride Of Reading Awards, with facial expressions which roughly translated as What the hell are we doing here?) is particularly impressive when you consider the location. It’s tucked away behind Friar Street, itself the poor relation of Reading’s retail world, and the uninitiated probably stop at Nando’s before ever walking the extra few steps to discover it.

That’s their loss, because it’s a lovely spot: the building is a barnlike structure that used to be a forge, with a serving and seating area downstairs and a large open space upstairs with beams, mismatched furniture (including the classic Robin Day polyprop chair which takes me right back to secondary school) and a bar for when it turns into Milk in the evenings. The space upstairs is my favourite – it has a certain dishevelled charm to it, and tons of people watching potential if you manage to bag a seat with a good view out of one of the floor to ceiling windows.

The menu offers sandwiches, toasties and salads plus a soup each day and a few specials during the week. It saddens me greatly that I’m very rarely in the centre of Reading on a Friday when Shed does “Saucy Friday”, but it’s well worth trying if you’re more fortunate than I am (and if you are, hold out for the Scotch bonnet chicken with rice and peas, coleslaw and macaroni cheese – a finer hot lunch for six pounds you’ll struggle to find anywhere). Still, visiting on a Saturday is the next best thing – no specials, but the office hordes aren’t around (it gets absolutely packed on weekdays) and the shoppers are elsewhere. In one of our countless Caffe Neros, probably.

Our toasted sandwiches, rationally speaking, didn’t take that long to arrive. It felt like an eternity, but that was probably because I caught the smell of melting cheese wafting up the stairs before they even reached our table (or maybe it was just an olfactory hallucination brought on by the cravings).

First up was “The Top One” – mozzarella, chorizo, jalapenos and sun dried tomatoes. I don’t know whether it got that name because it’s their most popular, their best or just for the prosaic reason that it’s at the top of the menu, but whatever the reason is I really liked it. The jalapenos were generous enough to give some fire but at the same time added a touch of sweetness and the little batons of coarse chorizo were rich and salty. I had it on ciabatta – it costs a little extra but the ciabatta at Shed is a truly wonderful thing, big, deceptively light and so much nicer than the slightly miserly panini you might get in Reading’s chain establishments. The only drawback was that there wasn’t quite enough cheese for my liking (which does raise the question of how much cheese is enough cheese? Based on extensive research, I’d sum my conclusion up as a hell of a lot) which made the sandwich a touch dry in places. I don’t remember seeing Pete or Lydia behind the counter that day, and perhaps that’s why it wasn’t quite as good as usual.

ShedTop

I probably should have ordered something other than the tuna melt to accompany that. Partly for variety’s sake – the menu offers a range of different salads, some with pasta, some with couscous, some just with leaves (it also has a Barkham Blue cheeseboard, with some money from each one sold going to Launchpad) so to pick another sandwich felt a little unimaginative. Partly, too, because I’ve already waxed lyrical about this particular sandwich. But when push came to shove, I couldn’t resist reacquainting myself with it. Was it as good as I remembered?

Well, almost. It looked perfect; just enough tuna, shedloads (pardon the pun) of cheese, the occasional piquant mouthful of thinly sliced raw red onion. The only disappointment was the capers – I’m used to these not being spared at Shed, a carpet of capers scattered throughout the sandwich making every bite a tangy delight, but this time they’d been used sparingly and it just wasn’t the same. Don’t get me wrong: if I’d never had the tuna melt before I’d have been very pleased with it indeed. But I had, and the problem with excellence is that people have a nasty habit of expecting you to keep it up all the time. Again, I wondered if I’d just picked the wrong day to show up.

Both sandwiches came with a little salad – iceberg lettuce, a little lamb’s lettuce and some slices of cucumber and tomato, dressed with a little balsamic vinaigrette. It divided opinion: I finished mine (even though I do think the only place for iceberg lettuce, really, is in a burger) but my companion decided to give it a miss.

On the side we had a cup of tea each, served in a decent sized mug with separate milk, like proper tea should be (I was surprised that my companion didn’t have a coffee, but apparently he doesn’t think it’s one of Shed’s strong points). We were tempted to have a piece of cake, just to give you a comprehensive review, but on this occasion we just weren’t quite tempted enough. Maybe next time I’ll give in and have a bit of the shortbread with lemon curd that nearly tipped me over the edge on this visit (and if there had been some of Shed’s chocolate tiffin the decision would have made itself, but it wasn’t to be).

The whole thing came to just under thirteen pounds, not including service. While I’m on the subject of service, it was friendly and efficient if a little overwhelmed (I think we turned up during a bit of a lunchtime rush). Again, I’m inclined to be forgiving because I know it’s usually absolutely spot on, and it probably only looked a little frayed in comparison to that: I’m sure that the uninitiated, if they’d come here instead of Nando’s, would have found it terrific.

Shed, more than anywhere I can think of, reminds me that there really are two Readings out there. On the one hand, there’s the Reading where Shed is unknown, where at best people say “I’ve always wondered about that place” or “I keep meaning to go there” and, on the other, the Reading where life without Shed is unthinkable. The latter Reading, I think, is the one that I write about and that Alt Reading writes about, the one we all queue up to defend when unimaginative people call it a clone town, usually from the comfort of Costa Coffee or Bill’s (the same people, I find, who complain – equally vociferously – that nothing ever happens here and that Reading is a cultural desert). Well, I’m sad for them – but, more than that, I’m glad I live in this Reading: we don’t need Starbucks, because we have places like Shed and it’s our Costa, our Starbucks, our Caffe Nero and Central Perk all rolled into one. And as long as they keep toasting the ciabattas, melting the cheese, dishing up Saucy Friday and making their milkshakes (can’t believe I nearly forgot to mention the milkshakes!) I’ll keep coming. I have a sneaking feeling I’ll probably see you there, some time.

Shed – 7.9
The Old Forge, 8 Merchants Place, RG1 1DT
0118 9561482

http://www.theshedcafe.co.uk/