Restaurant review: Hamlet, Wokingham

Over the last eighteen months, the story of Reading’s restaurants has been more about trying to protect what we have than celebrating the arrival of bright, shiny new things. With a few notable exceptions, the significant restaurants to open recently in town have been chains: Wendy’s, The Coconut Tree, Gordon Ramsay’s Profanity Burger. Further afield, however, it’s a different story. 

Henley, for instance, now has a big posh-looking place called Crocker’s which contains no less than three different restaurants. The front page of their website carries a photograph of people assembling identical small plates with long stainless steel tweezers, which tells you more than enough about the kind of food you can expect. Henley also has a new steak and seafood place called Shellfish Cow (I know), the second link in a little chain which started in Wallingford. Both these venues are fancy, both look like they’ve had dough chucked at them, both are independent.

But there’s even more of a marked transformation in Wokingham, driven by the ongoing regeneration of the town and the completion of Peach Place. The earliest sign of gentrification was back at the end of 2018 when Gail’s opened there, followed by craft beer bar Sit N’ Sip the following spring. And now Wokingham is starting to attract some noteworthy restaurants, so much so that when I looked at everywhere that had opened since I last visited, I wasn’t sure where to go first.

Should I try Indian restaurant Bombay Story, which inexplicably changed its name from Dabbawalla Indian Kitchen at some point over the last year? Or RYND, which used to be a hipster-milking burger joint on Castle Street and is reborn in Wokingham Town Hall offering “Californian inspired tapas-style dining”? Or Chalk, an independent restaurant that opened at the end of last year in the old Prezzo building on Broad Street?

Well, you know I didn’t pick any of those because here you are, reading a review of Hamlet. I decided on Hamlet, which opened back in May, partly because the menu seemed to have a little more about it. But I also chose it because of the pedigree of the owners: Nick Galer, from the Miller Of Mansfield, told me that they were two old colleagues of his from his days working for the Fat Duck Group. “The early reports are good”, he said, “although I’m never sure about all day dining.”

Hamlet is also on Peach Place with a fair amount of outside space, some of it under cover, and a few heaters which I imagine will need to be switched on around a week from now for approximately the next five months. The outside was doing a roaring trade, although it felt a tad soulless. The inside, though, is quite stunning in its way, all Hans Wegner Wishbone Chair lookalikes and bleached wood tables. There are baked goods on display at the counter and a little deli area where you can buy wine, cheese and charcuterie. It’s all very Scandi, very stylish, but again, ever so slightly sterile.

Anyway, we sat outside because it was a warm Saturday afternoon and I’m a risk-averse wuss. It wasn’t initially clear whether it was table service or if you were meant to order at the counter, but that was partly because when we got there the serving staff were a bit all over the place: they settled down as the first wave of the lunchtime rush subsided.

Casting my eye over the menu, I began to see Nick Galer’s point. Hamlet is open daytimes all week and evenings Thursday to Saturday, and its menu tries to cover every single base. The overall effect is something like a cross between Gail’s and an upmarket version of Wokingham’s Sedero Lounge: so there are brunches until 1pm, sandwiches available until 4pm and small and large plates available from midday until 4pm. So if you’re there between noon and one in the afternoon you can choose between four different sections, you lucky so-and-so. Brunches run from six to ten pounds, sandwiches from seven fifty to a tenner, small plates range widely in price between five and twelve pounds and most of the large plates are between ten and fifteen pounds. 

So yes, the menu was even busier than the staff and felt a little confused. I should add that if you go in the evening the small and large plates on offer look a lot more like a conventional restaurant, so it would be easier to treat it as a starters and mains kind of place. Anyway, we ordered a couple of sandwiches to start with a view to moving on to some other dishes afterwards, aiming to cover as many of the sections as we could. I would have loved to try the sausage, egg and Comte muffin, but because we placed our order at quarter past one the brunch section was out of bounds. Rules are rules.

Zoë had chosen Hamlet’s croque monsieur – an excellent choice, and possibly what I would have ordered if I’d had first dibs. It was attractively burnished, covered in that molten, slightly-caramelised topping and with beautiful ham – shredded hock, rather than slices of the stuff – in the middle. The mouthful I got was pretty good, although (and this might be a bit of a trend for the rest of the review) I wasn’t sure it was nine pounds fifty’s worth of pretty good.

“I liked it, but I think it needed mustard” was Zoë’s verdict.

“Didn’t it have mustard in it?”

“If it did, it needed more.”

Zoë picked better than me, and my fish finger sandwich was close but not quite there. You could see all the things they’d got right: the goujons were well done, handsome things with deeply pleasing breadcrumbs. And the tartare sauce, made by Hamlet at a guess, was fantastic with plenty of crunch and acidity from the gherkins. But as a sandwich, it didn’t work – the unremarkable white bread just got soggy from all the tartare and fell apart. Putting it in a bun, or at least toasting the slices of bread, would have helped it hold together a lot better. And the decision to put bitter, chewy radicchio in there felt cheffy for cheffy’s sake – iceberg on its own would have been fine. 

Was this worth nine pounds fifty? The long answer involves telling you all about Hook & Cook, who are at Blue Collar most weeks. The short answer is no.

If we’d stopped there you’d have got a lukewarm review which might have suggested you’d be better off going elsewhere in Wokingham – and even without the choices I mentioned earlier in this review you could have stopped at the busy food market outside the Town Hall and tried something by Krua Koson, another Blue Collar regular. But fortunately we went on to order some dishes from the other sections of the menu and, to some extent, it was like eating in a different restaurant.

Take the beef boulangère we had, from the small plates menu. A nice-looking dish, with strands of slowly-braised beef in a nearly-sweet tomato sauce, reminiscent of a stifado, and topped with layer upon layer of thinly sliced potato, the whole thing dusted with cheese and chives. A terrific dish – and, although technically a small plate, not too difficult to divide up between two people. Yours for five pounds. Five pounds! You could get two of these for the price of either of those sandwiches, and I think it would be the better choice.

But then, also from the small plates menu, we also ordered fried chicken with beurre noisette houmous. Again, this was a fetching dish – four pieces of gorgeous chicken, all gnarly and crunchy, tender under that coating. Pairing them with houmous isn’t something that would have occurred to me, and pairing the houmous with the almost-caramel silkiness of brown butter certainly wouldn’t have: I’m so used to seeing a bright green well of extra virgin olive oil in the middle of a mound of houmous that I’d never have thought of using anything else. 

All those ideas could have come a cropper when combined, but in practice the dish was a revelation. But pricing rears its ugly head again: this lovely dish was twelve pounds. Were you paying for the produce, the idea, the skills involved or the location of the restaurant? And did it matter? I’m not averse to dropping twelve pounds on a small portion of fried chicken from time to time, but will enough people feel likewise?

Last but not least, we’d also nabbed a charcuterie board to share. This is largely about buying rather than cooking, but Hamlet buys its charcuterie from Trealy Farm so they’d bought wisely. Chorizo, a couple of different types of salami (the nicest, for my money, with fennel), some cracking air dried ham and, usually my favourite, a superb coppa. The menu suggested there would also be some lamb carpaccio, but that seemed to have gone missing somewhere. 

Personally I like something acidic with charcuterie – gherkins or caperberries – but Hamlet instead added some wonderfully sweet cherry tomatoes, little slices of soda bread and olive oil infused with rosemary. I’d have liked the bread to be a little more substantial, but it was still a great selection. Fifty pence more expensive than the fried chicken, which did make me think – not for the first time – that Hamlet’s pricing was all over the shop.

I haven’t talked about our drinks, but there was a good, compact wine list covering all sensible price points along with around half a dozen cocktails and a handful of beers and ciders, all bottled. Zoë had a negroni, because that negroni habit is coming along nicely, and I had a small glass of a red burgundy which was the costliest wine on the menu. I liked it a lot, but I liked the fancy glasses even more. 

Our meal – two sandwiches, two small plates, a large plate, a couple of drinks and a bottle of mineral water – came to just under seventy pounds, not including service. You’re probably thinking “ouch” at this point, and ordinarily this is where I would say “but you could spend a lot less”. But unless you’re just coming to Hamlet for a sandwich and a coffee – and possibly even then – I think you’re going to feel a little stung when the bill arrives.

As I said earlier, table service did feel a little haphazard at the beginning of our meal, but as it went on service got stronger and far more personable. And Hamlet was pretty busy – even later on as we wandered back through Peach Place the restaurant was still doing a pretty consistent trade. 

Afterwards we went for a drink at Sit N’ Sip, the craft beer place where, oddly, nobody sitting out front was drinking beer. It wasn’t really my glass of IPA, despite some excellent people watching opportunities. So instead we found our way to the brilliant Outhouse Brewery, which has only been open for three months, and sat outside drinking their very own excellent oatmeal stout. I couldn’t resist trying one of their sausage rolls – made by Blue Orchid Bakery, another Peach Place business – and it was phenomenal, with great pastry and a coarse, dense sausagemeat filling (the fact that I had room for it perhaps isn’t the most glowing endorsement of Hamlet).

I think Nick Galer was right about the challenges of all day dining. Hiding in Hamlet’s menu, a maze of breakfasts, brunches, sandwiches and plates of varying size, there’s a very good restaurant, making itself frustratingly hard to find. I’m sure they’re doing what works for them, and certainly looking on Instagram their lunch menu has been a work in progress since they opened, but for me it felt muddled. Maybe they feel they need to compete with Gail’s during the day and places like Chalk at night. But although the execution might have been uneven, you couldn’t deny that the ideas were there, and along the right lines. 

I’m far more tempted to go back in the evening and treat Hamlet more as a traditional restaurant, and when I do I can easily imagine that I’ll have an excellent meal. But even so, they deserve credit for lots of things – for some of the imagination involved, for the stylish space they have created and, perhaps more than anything, for giving it a go during such an awful, challenging time. So there you have it: a polished-looking, high spec, unashamedly high quality restaurant selling interesting, creative food. And a great town centre taproom just around the corner for when you’re finished, into the bargain. In Wokingham. It’s interesting that, for all our chains and burger places, restaurants like Hamlet don’t choose to open in Reading.

Hamlet – 7.6
10 Peach Place, Wokingham, RG40 1LY
0118 3048433

https://hamletwokingham.co.uk

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Pan, Wokingham

I was beginning to think I was cursed and that you’d never get a new review. My first attempt involved a Reading restaurant which, it turns out, is closed on Mondays. That fact came to my attention on the Monday night I was due to review it, seconds after I arrived at the pub across the road and met my dining companion for the evening. I’ve been doing this for nearly six years, and you’d think I’d know better.

Attempt number two was no better: I picked a restaurant out of town to visit with my old friend Al, mainly because every time we’d ever been there it had one amazing dish on the menu which was worth the price of admission alone. A destination dish and a destination restaurant all in one, truly the holy grail of restaurant reviewing. But, of course, on the Friday that we went there for lunch that dish – a glorious, massive pie for two, glossy, deep rich sticky beef lying in wait under a golden bubbling suet crust – was nowhere to be seen. I chalked it up to experience and had the fish, but where on earth was I going to review now?

Salvation came in the unlikely form of my friend Richard. We were due to meet up for a midweek dinner in Reading, and a couple of days before he sent me an apologetic WhatsApp. He could only get a babysitter for part of the evening, it said, and would I mind meeting in Wokingham, halfway between Reading and his place in Sunningdale? I sensed the faint knock of opportunity, and that’s why you’re reading a review of Pan today.

I’ve known Richard for many years, and wanted to bring him along on a review for ages. He’s the campest straight man I’ve ever met, a gleeful drinker, outrageously bitchy and downright good fun. He looks ever so slightly like David Gest might have done if he had (a) avoided all that shocking plastic surgery and, more importantly, (b) not died. He was a huge support to me when I joined Team Divorce a few years back, and I’ve always loved my evenings with him when he can swing a babysitter (his high-powered ex-wife is always away on business, pressing the flesh in Milan).

As for Pan, it looked like the most interesting thing to happen to Wokingham in some time – a pan-Asian restaurant opening in the space vacated by the Teak House (a Thai restaurant) offering a constantly changing monthly menu of small plates from different countries. The pictures on Instagram looked tempting, the word of mouth was promising and the menu online – all octopus, monkfish yakitori, slow braised pork and ramen – made me truly impatient to visit. Richard said it looked perfect, although I wondered if that might be because he has a much smaller appetite than me.

The website, and the pictures I’d seen made me think Pan would be a sleek, black, minimalist space, but going in it looked very much like it was still the Teak House, visually at least. There was a small bar and counter, and a small dining room up a little set of stairs with, surreally, a handrail like a banister separating it off (Richard leaned against it for much of our meal: it looked wobbly). The front room must have accommodated about a dozen diners, although there was a bigger room further into the restaurant: on our visit this had been laid out for a very large group which arrived partway through our meal.

“Have you been here before?” asked the front of house (which, on our visit, was very much a one man show) as he handed over our menus.

“No, this is our first time.”

“We’ve been open for six months, what took you so long?” he said with a smile. I liked that cockiness: it felt quite unlike Wokingham, if nothing else. “Our menu is small plates, like tapas, and two dishes per person should be enough.” I must confess I was sceptical about this, but maybe that’s because I’d been planning to try as many things as I could get away with.

“Do you have a wine list?” said Richard, somewhat betraying his priorities. The chap smiled again.

“I am the wine list.”

Again, a little confident but not jarringly so. In any case, we started with a couple of bottles of Kirin while we looked through the menu. It being March, the menu had changed completely from the one on the website (“this month we’re doing south Indian dishes”, our waiter told us). All the dishes were priced between four and eight pounds, and most of them looked tempting, with the possible exception of “chicory salad” which felt like a fig leaf for killjoys. The really noticeable thing on the menu, though, was the general absence of carbs: I had a feeling four dishes wouldn’t be anywhere near enough.

The first dish was a beautiful start – broccoli with chana dahl houmous, a clever fusion. I’m used to dipping stuff in houmous (after I’ve poured a lake of extra virgin olive oil on top of it, naturally) but having it here as the base for a heap of well-cooked purple sprouting broccoli was a very nice touch. The houmous had brilliant spice and flavour, and as a statement of intent this was hard to beat. But even this dish, with hindsight, was a taste of things to come: I expected the bowl to be slightly deeper and when my fork clanked against the bottom I did have an “is that all there is?” moment. It wasn’t to be the last time.

Shortly afterwards the kitchen sent out our next dish, crab wontons. “Too sweet” was Richard’s verdict, and I was pretty sure he wasn’t talking about me. He was right, though: they weren’t unpleasant but they were hotter than the sun and the crabmeat inside did feel too sweet with nothing to balance it out. Possibly the advertised curry butter might have offset this, but it lurked uselessly at the bottom of the plate and it was too difficult to dredge the wontons through it. Worth six pounds fifty? Probably not, and the glass plate felt like it might also have been inherited from the Teak House rather than bought for Pan, because the presentation felt a little fussy and old-fashioned.

I very much liked what came after that, flatiron steak with “kukurmutta ragu” (I Googled it: it’s mushrooms). The mushrooms lent a beautifully savoury note to the whole thing and any reservations I had about the steak were banished by the pink middle and the perfect texture. I wasn’t convinced it needed all that yoghurt, and serving it with paper underneath was a little odd, but even so it was one of my favourite dishes of the evening. Richard wasn’t so impressed, but by then I’d told him I was going to refer to us in the review as “Pan’s people” and he’d given me the first of many withering stares (“Bitch” was his response).

I found it odd that the dishes had been designed for sharing, but none of them came with spoons for us to dish up onto our plates. I asked and the waiter brought some over, but in a way which suggested that they’d never been asked before. “That was very nice, thank you” I said as he came to take our empty plates away. “You sound surprised” he replied, and again I couldn’t quite decide whether that confidence was charming or grating.

I’d been particularly looking forward to the charred carrot dish, mainly because Pan’s Instagram feed had a stunning image of what I imagined was something similar – a huge vibrant jumble of carrots, blackened on the outside, sesame seeds and coriander. I don’t think I was expecting five pieces of carrot, or for three of them to turn out to be unadvertised sweet potato (one of my least favourite things). Despite that I did enjoy them – the menu said they’d come with pearl barley and parsley, but instead they were accompanied by some kind of thickened yoghurt and tiny slivers of crispy fried chilli. It was an interesting dish, and the textures in particular were lovely, but I couldn’t quite shed the feeling that at five pounds, each piece of carrot or sweet potato had cost a quid all by itself.

Finally our last dish turned up, tandoori chicken legs with bhurani raita. I enjoyed this: the flavours were spot on and the chicken was nicely done, although I didn’t necessarily get much garlic in the pleasingly mint-green raita. Richard was less convinced – “this feels more like a dish you could get in lots of other places” – and either way it was a little difficult to justify two hardly colossal chicken legs at just shy of seven pounds.

“That was lovely” I said as the waiter collected more empty plates.

“I know”, he said. Hmm.

Despite having had more than our regulation two dishes per person, we ordered more. If there had been more carbs on the menu – some noodles or rice or anything that might fill you up – maybe I wouldn’t have needed to but as it was I was still distinctly peckish. We also ordered a couple of glasses of orvieto which was pleasingly crisp but far from bone dry. The waiter wasn’t kidding when he said he was the wine list, so he ran us through the choices – all by the glass, three or four whites if I recall. No prices were given, but I checked at the end and these were six pounds each, which didn’t feel unreasonable. Not having a list and picking after a chat with your waiter felt like the sort of thing I ought to enjoy and endorse in theory, but having done it I found it made me feel somewhat uncomfortable: too English by half, perhaps.

Throughout our meal I saw our waiter coming out of the kitchen with multiple plates of the same dishes, dropping one at our table, one at a neighbouring table and so on, and I realised that even if I was still on the hungry side I could see how this model might work beautifully for Pan. And every table in the front room was full of enthusiastic customers, so maybe it was just me who was beginning to find it a parade of not enough food for a little too much money.

I’d really fancied “cod shashlick with satay crumb” on the menu, but the waiter told us it had run out so we ordered the replacement dish, smoked trout with ginger and lime. For me, this just didn’t work – the tastes that accompanied the fish were sharp, fresh and interesting but pairing it with smoked trout felt like a strange choice. I’m far from convinced that smoked trout features heavily in South Indian cuisine: it clashed with everything else going on and the whole thing felt like a dish made with ingredients that were lying around (all very Ready Steady Cook) rather than something carefully put together. I guess, of course, that the thing with smoked trout is that you don’t have to cook it, so again convenient for the kitchen but not necessarily great for diners.

I did enjoy our final dish, a mixture of butter beans and chickpeas topped with a baked egg. Finally, a hint of the carbs I’d been craving! But even here I could see how all the dishes felt like riffs on a theme – the green squiggles matching those on the broccoli, probably the same yoghurt as we’d had on the steak, definitely the same little slices of fried chilli as had come with the carrots. Although I quite enjoyed it, and I’d have loved it if it had been the first dish I tried, by this stage I did feel like I could see the joins, as if I’d spotted the Wizard Of Oz behind the curtain. Pan passed itself off as being imaginative and varied, but a lot of work had been put into managing the experience.

I insisted on a dessert – partly because I was still hungry, and partly because the waiter told me that the chocolate brownie came with a sesame seed creme Anglaise. Normally, I don’t hold with brownies being dessert – and again, what I got differed from what was described on the menu – but this really was lovely: three dense, warm cubes of brownie with a beautifully light custard and plenty of sesame (although I thought it could have stood more).

We’d asked what we could drink with dessert and the waiter said “I’ve got some really good Filipino rum: let me bring it over”. He returned with a bottle and two little glasses full of ice and left us to it, an experience which felt faintly continental. Richard practically inhaled a glass and topped himself up.

“Hurry up and try some! This is fantastic.”

It was: ever so slightly honeyed and with a beautiful note of oak. Richard took a photo of the label, shortly before surreptitiously refreshing his glass. (“There’s no line on the side or anything” he said, with the expertise of a man who used to raid his mother’s drinks cabinet.) I loved it, although I did feel guilty about having more. How much did it cost anyway? There was simply no way of knowing, not until the bill arrived.

When it did, our whole meal – seven small plates, four beers, two glasses of wine and that rum – cost eighty-seven pounds, not including tip, and the rum was just under eight pounds in total. I made sure we tipped generously, mainly because I suspect Richard was literally drinking their profits. We then sallied forth into the Wokingham night in search of a place that could serve Richard more wine, although when we got to the pub Richard also ordered a packet of peanuts and a bag of pork scratchings: that probably tells its own story.

It’s interesting, as small plates restaurants start to jump the shark in London, that we get a swathe of them round these parts like Pan and Bench Rest, which I reviewed last year. Pan shares some of the problems that Bench Rest has: however nice the service is, the interior feels like it’s designed for a very different type of establishment and however nice the food is, the dishes are either too small or too pricey or both. But with Pan those problems were amplified – everything felt like not a lot of food for quite a lot of cash, and the interior and the plating lacked the sophistication the menu aspired to. But on the other hand I love the concept, I ate some really interesting food and combinations and I can see what they’re aiming for. It felt like a work in progress, but I do wonder if Wokingham is forgiving enough to give Pan the time it needs to become the restaurant it wants to be. I hope so: definitely if Pan was in Reading I would be following its evolution and going back to see how things progress.

And Richard? According to his Instagram he was in the gym the next morning at seven am, living the dream. His verdict was less nuanced than mine: will go back for free rum though, he told me on WhatsApp. The language of Shakespeare: I must find out when his babysitter fancies doing some more overtime.

Pan – 6.7
47-49 Peach Street, Wokingham RG40 1XJ
0118 9788893

https://www.panrestaurant.co.uk/

Veeno

As I’ve said countless times, I always find it odd when people complain about Reading. Part of that is just innate defensiveness I’m sure, but some of it is based on the fact that, as far as I can see, it keeps getting better. Whether the council or the Business Improvement Quango or our vision for 2050 (whatever that is – I’ve read the document and I’m still none the wiser) have anything to do with that is another matter but, in terms of food and drink at least, you could make a pretty good argument that we keep getting what we want.

Bored with having the same chains as everybody else? Here, have a CAU, an Itsu, a Comptoir Libanais, a Franco Manca, a Pho and a Real Greek, with Honest Burgers, Byron and Busaba on their way. Want a pub that does delicious unmicrowaved food? The Lyndhurst isn’t far out of town, and for that matter a short stroll down the canal brings you to the Fisherman’s Cottage – which also, by the way, fixes the problem Reading used to have with not having a decent tapas joint.

It goes on: I used to complain about the lack of good pizza restaurants in town and now we have more pizza than you can shake a stick at (although in some cases, shaking a stick at it is pretty much all you’d want to do). People also like to complain about how many cafes we have but they forget how few bad ones we have, or at least how few bad independent ones we have. I know things aren’t perfect, and they could always improve, but arguably we’ve never had it so good.

I do wish we had more genuinely independent restaurants in the town centre, and I wish our council had some ideas about how to encourage that rather than just charging small indies to have A-boards on the pavement (the less said about that the better). But for me, there is still one glaring gap: Reading could do with a truly brilliant bar that also does food. I suppose you used to call them wine bars, although that term seems to be lost in the mists of time, somewhere around the era when Del Boy tried to reinvent himself as a yuppie.

A few places come close. Milk has its moments, but it doesn’t do food or make much of its wine selection (it’s all about the rum with those guys). The bar at Cerise is prohibitive and always feels like a best behaviour place, not somewhere you could be scruffy or louche. The Malmaison has similar problems, despite numerous makeovers. The closest is probably The Tasting House, but it still feels more like a shop than a bar. It’s too well lit, too sterile and – most crucially – it closes ridiculously early. A good bar kicks out when the pubs kick out, not at 9pm.

This summer I went to Paris on holiday – on my own, like a grown-up! – and on my first evening I headed to Le Barav, a gorgeous wine bar in the Haut Marais. I sat outside with a glass of red and my book (Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari, since you asked), and watched people more sophisticated than me drinking and smoking and chatting, all chic and impenetrable. And I minded being a shabby tourist even less when they brought the food, a ramekin full of Saint Marcellin and honey, with a spoon I didn’t need and a basket of crusty bread which was the reason why I didn’t need it. And, as so often, I thought: how I wish Reading had this.

And yes, Europe specialises in these bars and Paris especially does, that’s true. But there are ones in the UK if you know where to look, from the fantastic John Gordons in Cheltenham to the Little Bar in Tooting, not to mention Gordon’s on the Embankment, the grande dame of those kinds of places. Last month I was in Bristol spending a Friday visiting a good friend and we spent a couple of very enjoyable hours in Bar Buvette. Wine by the glass, charcuterie, cheese, impeccable bread. You simultaneously could have been in Paris and couldn’t have been anywhere but Bristol, which is probably why I loved it so much. How I wish Reading had this.

All of this brings us to Veeno, which opened in August and looks, on paper at least, like it could fill the gap. It’s a wine bar, or “Italian Wine Café” according to their website, which does a range of Sicilian wines, many of which are from the family’s vineyard (must be nice to have a family with a vineyard: maybe that explains why there are now fourteen branches of Veeno across the country) along with a range of small plates, meats and cheeses. It sounded just the ticket, so on a weekday night I turned up with my mother – very generously taking an evening out from looking after her own vineyard – to check it out.

From the outside, it’s unprepossessing. It’s underneath an office building at the bottom of Valpy Street and like, for example, Forburys that means it has the potential to look quite unlovely. Veeno has decided to tackle this by festooning all the windows with fairy lights: I quite liked this, although I have friends who really aren’t fans. Inside it’s a surprisingly large place broken up into lots of rooms of different sizes. There’s a biggish communal area near the bar, a room out on the left with high stools around barrels, a couple of booths and even a private room out back which I assume is for tasting events. We sat in the more conventional dining area and if it wasn’t for the view out onto Valpy Street (admittedly framed by fairy lights) you could possibly have kidded yourself that you were on the continent. I liked the interior, although I was glad I wasn’t sitting on the banquette which looked to all the world like concrete clad in PVC.

The menu covers most bases, and looks the part – there are a range of meats and cheeses, lots of different bruschetta and a section called “spuntini” which covers “little snacks and appetisers”. The first slight warning bell sounded when I saw that these mostly hover around the eight pound mark, but I put that to the back of my mind. There are also a range of sharing boards, and I sense that they like groups to go down that route, but my mother isn’t the type of person to have her food picked for her, and neither am I. So instead we ordered a little of everything on the menu, sat back, waited for it to arrive and had a good old natter.

The best thing turned up first, and that was the salami. You get two for nine pounds, and we’d gone for finocchiona (salami with fennel) and truffle salami. Both were exemplary. You could smell the truffle salami the moment it was placed in front of us: some people never quite get on with its unique earthiness, just the right side of funk, but I love the stuff. Even better was the fennel salami, although again I know it’s an acquired taste some never pick up. Food like this is really all about buying, rather than cooking, so you do need to buy good stuff and Veeno certainly managed it here.

Was it worth nine pounds? That’s another story: I wasn’t sure. Maybe it would have been if the bread hadn’t been so woeful – four thin slices which felt like they had been left out for some time before being served. “I’m only eating these because I feel like you ought not to eat the meat on its own”, said my mum, and I suspect they only served them for the same reason. Bread should be one of the best things about eating this kind of food in this kind of bar, and this was woeful.

Another wonderful thing to do to bread is bruschetta, and another terrible thing to do to it is Veeno’s bruschetta. Two pieces of the same bread, smeared with nduja, for four pounds. The nduja was pretty good – what there was of it – but the bread was as indifferent as before and the price was difficult to stomach. There should have been more of it, or it should have cost less and all round it should have been better (the addition of a pickled onion cut in half and a caperberry was never going to fool anybody). It made me think fondly of the nduja at Oxford’s superb Arbequina, spread on slightly charred sourdough toast, the whole thing drizzled with honey and topped with thyme. That is made by a kitchen that loves food, but this felt like it was made by someone who loves margins.

Onwards, because we must, to the cheese. We’d chosen gorgonzola and scamorza, with high hopes of salt and smoke. What went wrong? The gorgonzola came in six neat balls, each topped with a walnut, and balls is exactly what they were. I know some blue cheeses are saltier than others, that Roquefort is not Barkham Blue, and I know that this might have been a gorgonzola dolce, but whichever way you cut it, it tasted of not much.

“That’s so disappointing.” said my mum. “I was hoping for something like the gorgonzola your granddad used to eat when I was a kid. It was beautiful stuff.”

By this point I thought my choice of venue had used up whatever brownie points I’d earned from my mum by pronouncing “bruschetta” correctly (“I hate it when people get that wrong”, she told me). But more indifference was to come – the scamorza was almost completely a no smoking zone. There was the slightest hint on the rind but really, it was even blander than the gorgonzola. It was more like a Maxi BabyBel, if such a thing exists, although in honesty I’d rather have had the real thing.

I’m afraid there’s yet more to dislike. The focaccia was dry and spongy and bore no relation to any focaccia I’ve ever had, or indeed to any focaccia at all. “Oh, you had the focaccia” said a friend of mine after I told her about the visit, “I don’t think it’s ever seen any olive oil”. She’s right, and it hadn’t seen any salt either. I couldn’t tell whether it was a little stale, or had been toasted, or had been toasted to conceal the fact that it was a little stale. I asked our waitress for some olive oil so we could at least dip the bread in it. She said yes, but it never turned up: by the time I realised it was never going to come I was profoundly past caring. Oh, and special mention has to go to the breadsticks, which crumbled rather than snapped and seemed to have no light airy middle, just a solid core of crunchy, dry exterior. Again, better breadsticks are available pretty much anywhere.

Last of all, the spuntino we ordered was tomino cheese grilled and wrapped in speck. Well, the cheese might have been grilled I suppose, but it came to the table pretty lukewarm and wrapped in speck which may well have come from the fridge. Maybe that’s what cooled the whole thing down. I was hoping for a glorious parcel of sticky oozing cheese with a casing of salty, crispy ham, but this wasn’t that. If you can make the combination of ham and cheese – wonderful separately and potentially sublime together – this boring, you really need to think again. Eight pounds for that, and again there was some sleight of hand to conceal the poor value. A couple of slices of that indifferent bread squiggled with balsamic glaze? Really, you shouldn’t have.

It’s especially sad to say this because service, by and large, was lovely: friendly, attentive and helpful, with the exception of the olive oil that never came. And the wine was very good too – my mum liked her prosecco (but then, my mum does like her prosecco) and both the red wines I had were excellent. “The Elegant”, a cabernet sauvignon, was exactly that: beautifully structured and fragrant, well-balanced and not too tannic. The other one, a Nero d’Avola Riserva, was truly knockout stuff, although at eight pounds fifty a glass you’d want it to be. The whole lot came to just shy of sixty pounds, not including tip, and I left feeling like I hadn’t really had a meal. “The gorgonzola was the real disappointment for me.” said my mum as she headed to the pub. I knew exactly what she meant but really, when it came to disappointment, where to begin?

I really wanted Veeno to work (and I’m tempted to give them a point for the fairy lights alone) but the truth is that somewhere in Reading does nearly all of these things better. If you want charcuterie and cheese, The Tasting House is a much more appealing prospect. If you want spuntini or focaccia, you’d be better off at Carluccios. So that just leaves the wine – and it’s good but somehow not enough (although the Italian craft cider, which I sampled on a previous visit, is also pretty nice). So I could see myself going back for a drink or two, but I’d definitely eat beforehand. Most of all, it just made me want to go to Waitrose and get amazing Bertinet bread, green grassy olive oil, good meats and fine cheeses and have some friends round. Like I said, this kind of food is about buying rather than cooking, and I have a sneaking feeling most of us could do just as good a job of that as Veeno without having to try that hard.

Oh, and on weekdays it closes at 10pm. What kind of a bar does that?

Veeno – 5.8
Minerva House, Valpy Street, RG1 1AR
0118 9505493

http://www.theveenocompany.com/veeno-reading-wine-bar/