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