The Miller Of Mansfield, Goring

I decided that, this week of all weeks, I needed to catch a break. I’d been nearly broken by icky glazed duck, by grotty kebab meat hiding under squeezy cheese, by skanky burgers and lukewarm chips, by (admittedly good) food brought out at breakneck pace. There was no denying it: I was long overdue a good meal. I was after a sure thing, or as close to that as you can get in the world of restaurants. So this week I made for Gare Du Ding and I hopped on a train to Goring. I intended to try out the Miller Of Mansfield, the much-lauded not-quite-restaurant-not-quite-pub which won the Good Food Guide’s Restaurant Of The Year a few years back.

My companion this week deserved a good meal even more than I did: I went to the Miller with John Luther, who runs South Street and was first seen on this blog last September enduring a truly iffy Lebanese meal at Alona. I still occasionally have nightmares about the wobbly shawarma there, and my other half sometimes shows people the picture of it on her phone, the equivalent of the contents of Compo’s matchbox, or Alan Partridge’s top drawer at the Linton Travel Tavern. In fact, I think she may have done so at the last ER readers’ lunch, which poor John attended: talk about insensitive. After that horror, I wasn’t sure John would ever want to be invited back, so when he asked to join me again I decided I’d take him somewhere truly promising to make amends.

Goring is a lovely place, and the train there was full of well-to-do folk who seemed disgusted by John’s and my conversation about – yes, I’m afraid so – Brexit. The Miller is a short walk from the station and even on a dim and drizzly winter evening I was reminded of what a beautiful, prosperous village it is. It’s a big handsome building, warm and welcoming, and on arrival we were given the option of eating in the pub or the restaurant. The pub was cosier, although some of the tables felt more suitable for drinking than eating, but I actually decided to sit in the restaurant because I felt that restaurant prices felt more well-matched to sitting in a restaurant. Funny how the mind works, sometimes.

I did wonder, later on, if I’d made the wrong decision: the dining room was nice enough, if a little nondescript, and a big table was laid for about a dozen people. We were sat near the back – well, almost, as we were sat next to a screen which had been put there to make the room seem smaller (I could make out another two tables beyond it). That meant that John had a view of pretty much the whole room (and all the people-watching opportunities that came with it) and I was sat looking at a screen. It felt a little unspecial, but perhaps Goring was the kind of village so prosperous that the Miller wasn’t seen as a special occasion restaurant, the kind of place where people were happy to sit in the pub and pay twenty-five pounds for a main course.

Looking at the menu, when it eventually arrived (“I just realised these might enhance your dining experience” said the waitress who brought them over ten minutes later, quite winningly actually) made me think that if the food lived up to its promise then I’d also have been perfectly happy to pay twenty-five pounds for a main. All sorts of good stuff jumped off the page – smoked almonds and Comté as a nibble, gravadlax with crispy quail’s egg, soy glazed monkfish with confit pork, the list went on and on. Just as well, as I’d told John he could choose first (atoning for that shawarma again) so I also had to work out my plan B: I didn’t need it for the mains, but I had to rely on it for the starters.

Before that, we had to choose a wine. We both fancied a white, and the list had lots of appealing choices well before silly money. We were torn between a Grüner Veltliner (“my wife’s favourite”, John told me) and an Albarino, but ended up opting for the latter so it wouldn’t feel too much like rubbing it in when John got home and told Mrs Luther all about it. John then started telling me a story about drinking Albarino in Spain – “they pretty much hand it out for free over there” he said, and I pointed out that the wait staff probably wouldn’t fall for that. Goring, after all, is very much not the continent. Anyway, the wine was superb – fresh, lively, almost-sharp – and felt decent value at just under forty pounds.

We were nursing it for a while because, again, it felt like some time before anybody returned to take our order – a shame, as we could gladly have been picking at some nibbles by then. The couple at the table next to us wandered off out front leaving half of their starters still there on the table, and I unworthily wondered to myself if they’d notice a smidge of it going missing. This was well before the boisterous table for twelve turned up, so it wasn’t as if the restaurant was rushed off its feet, but the whole thing felt a little odd.

Anyway, enough quibbles: let’s move on to the food, because it was easily special enough to make you turn a blind eye to any glitches in service or being seated facing a screen. A little loaf of sourdough came to the table with churned butter and whipped bacon butter – all of these were fantastic but the taste of smoked streaky sneaking through in the whipped butter was nothing short of sorcery. The gougeres, a pair of little savoury profiteroles packing a real punch of blue cheese, were an absolute delight.

We’d also ordered a venison sausage roll, which came with home-made brown sauce. It was just under a fiver and really quite generously sized: I can be a very greedy diner, but even I would struggle to describe it as a nibble. “We have a rule in my house that whoever cuts has to choose last” said John, before dividing the sausage roll into two such unequal halves that I almost felt guilty scoffing the bigger one, until I remembered that he was having the oxtail croquette and I wasn’t. It was phenomenal, the venison lean and dense and again with a beautiful whiff of wintry woodsmoke. The brown sauce was heavenly, although the sausage roll really didn’t need it. “It almost has too much sausagemeat” said John; I managed to avoid doing an obvious double take.

The second nibble was less successful. The rabbit rillette itself was delicious, full of rich strands, the whole thing topped with a truly beautiful sweet jelly that felt like it had a touch of something like Sauternes in it. But the “lavroche crackers” were long, thin, impractical and just not worth the bother. We put some of the rillette (not an easy thing to spread on a brittle, narrow rectangle of cracker) on them before giving up and sticking the rest on the sourdough, which is possibly where it should have been all along.

The starters, if anything, were even better. John had the oxtail croquette, which meant that I had a side portion of envy. It was a single, beautiful thing which came on a bed of parsnip puree, served on a dish which looked alarmingly like a section of tree trunk. By this point the lighting in the Miller had reached a level which would defeat all attempts at photography, and my picture of this dish was so bad (disturbingly so) that you’ll have to take my word for it. It was dotted with little blobs of dill and shallots, and the taste I had was properly fantastic, deep in flavour with shreds of magnificent beef. “This is like a really middle class Findus Crispy Pancake”, I said: John nodded, probably humouring me.

I had chosen the cauliflower lasagne, and although it didn’t live up to the croquette it was an intriguing dish. More of an open lasagne, really, but I wish there had been more of the cauliflower and less of the hazelnut, which was billed as a “hazelnut crumble” but felt coarser than that and took over the whole thing more than I’d have liked. It was saved by a truly astounding caper and raisin puree which simultaneously managed to taste of both and neither, a mind-bending sort of agrodolce which transformed the dish into something rather special. I don’t even like raisins, but I could have eaten this until the cows came home.

Somewhere between the last mouthful of the starters and the arrival of our main courses, John and I ran out of wine. So we asked nicely if somebody could bring us the wine list again. It didn’t arrive, and I seem to remember we asked again, but even as our main courses were brought to the table we had to ask again and a very apologetic waitress returned with the list. We ordered straight away – a glass of New Zealand pinot noir for me, some Picpoul de Pinet for John – mainly because I was worried that if we didn’t we might never see wine again (both, incidentally, were cracking).

In fairness, by this time the large table nearby was in full swing and I can see that would take up a lot of time and attention. But even having said that, the service throughout – although never less than lovely – was a little more slapdash than I’d expect from food at this level. When we were served by Mary (who, along with her husband Nick, owns the restaurant and who runs the front of house) everything was brilliant, but when she wasn’t there the rest of the wait staff somehow went missing in action.

But anyway, let’s return to the food (again) – because it redeemed a multitude of sins and because my main course, one of the best things I’ve eaten in a long time, was specifically recommended by Mary. Breast of wild duck came served on a heap of sauerkraut (one of my very favourite things) with thin discs of sweet beetroot sitting under the whole thing. The duck was as tender as any I can remember, and perfect on a wintry night. I could eat sauerkraut until it came out of my ears, and this was joyous, as was the glossy sauce (made with duck heart, according to the menu) that brought it all together.

I might have liked the accompanying croquette to have a little more duck leg and a little less spud (I’d been spoiled by my taste of John’s starter) but that might have been just me. But no matter, because even better was the little pan of “duck crackers” brought to the table – they looked like prawn crackers, they had their texture too but the taste, all duck and smoke, was a little miracle. I let John try some, and tried not to be too smug. Again, I’ve not put my crappy photograph up because, however badly I may have written this, my words are still better.

John’s main course, in any event, was no slouch. His sea bream came with greens, crispy capers (one of the finest things in the world, if you ask me), a very good tartare sauce and something called “salty fingers” which is a sea vegetable a little like samphire. I did a Google image search of salty fingers as part of the research for this review and was relieved that it didn’t throw up anything dodgy (the infamous Leslie Grantham webcam still, for instance): perhaps it was just my dirty mind that led me to fear the worst.

John was a big fan of this dish, and from my forkful I could completely see why. “It has just enough greens,” he said, “although if I’m being fussy I wish the skin had been properly crispy”. We also ordered some chips – because Mary had told us they were good – and she wasn’t wrong, although under the circumstances they were probably excessive. They defeated John anyway, leaving him too full for dessert. But since I saw one on the menu that I just had to try, I ordered it all the same and told the waitress that she could bring two spoons. “We’re not a couple though” I told her, almost certainly unnecessarily.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from “chocolate custard” – I was hoping the emphasis would be more on the chocolate and less on the custard – but what arrived was far more beautiful than I can describe and hundreds of times more appealing than the photo below makes it look. The texture was like crème brulee, or a mousse with no bubbles, not as dense as a ganache but no less rich and intense for that. On top was a sheet of tuile rich with salt and sesame and the whole thing was dotted with little spheres of bright sweet orange.

John is an awfully well-mannered dining companion – he took the smaller half of the sausage roll, he let me finish the rillette, he practically apologised to the wait staff for them not having brought us the wine list yet – but even so I was relieved when he put down his spoon and gave me a clear run on the rest of the dessert. It was properly magnificent.

While we were waiting for our bill to arrive (and finishing off some beautiful, chewy macarons with vanilla custard which had been brought as an extra treat) we compared notes. John told me he was mentally already planning a trip back with his wife, and in truth I had also been trying to work out a good excuse to return. John knows his restaurants – we swapped stories of great meals we’d had, talked about places on our hit list and talked about how we should beetle off to London one weekday when we were both free and have lunch at Medlar, my favourite London spot, right at the unfashionable end of Chelsea.

“That’s always a sign of a really good restaurant”, I said, “that before you’ve finished meal one you’re planning meal two.” And although John and I both ordered well, the menu was littered with roads not taken – not only that, but I knew perfectly well that by the time I visited the Miller again the menu would probably look completely different. Dinner came to one hundred and forty pounds, not including tip, and personally I didn’t resent a single penny of it.

I often complain that Reading is lacking a true special occasion restaurant, and that even the options nearby are either too unspecial, too fussy, too full of themselves or just too difficult to get to. The Bottle & Glass in Binfield Heath, The Royal Oak at Paley Street, The Crown at Burchetts Green even: somehow they all fall short, to the extent where my family often congregate at the Crooked Billet in Stoke Row when they want to celebrate a birthday.

For me, the Miller Of Mansfield comes closest to filling that gap. I know the service was a little haphazard, and I struggled to warm to the room, but it’s so genuine and likeable that none of that seems to matter. More importantly, the food reaches heights that render all of that somewhat of a moot point. I went expecting to like it a great deal but maybe not love it and, based on other reports I’ve had, I wondered if I would leave slightly hungry. Well, none of that came to pass, and instead I have a new place to go for celebrations, blow-outs or even just decadent midweek dinners with a new friend. All that and it’s only thirteen minutes from Reading by train. What more could you ask?

The Miller Of Mansfield – 8.5
High Street, Goring, RG8 9AW
01491 872829

https://millerofmansfield.com/

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Cerise

Cerise has been on my list to review for quite some time – mainly by reputation. And yet, in the run-up to visiting the strangest thing happened: I couldn’t find anyone who had eaten there. Everyone knew about it, of course, and some people had even had cocktails in the opulent basement bar, or a sneaky summertime glass of white in their secret garden. But the restaurant? A total blank. So I did some Googling, only to find the same thing: no reviews, not in blogs, not in guides, not in the papers. Apart from TripAdvisor, there was no evidence that anybody had been at all. I guess it’s always been awkward for them: the restaurant of the Forbury Hotel, right opposite a restaurant called Forbury’s, with the unfortunate consequence that people always think you’re talking about somewhere else. So, a restaurant everyone thinks is good but nobody has been to, the lesser-known member of Reading’s high end club. How could I resist a visit?

Actually, on arrival we spent more time in the opulent basement bar than I was expecting. Despite only two tables being seated in the whole restaurant we were asked to wait in the bar “for around ten minutes”, for reasons which weren’t made clear. We sat on the banquette, flicked through the wine list and ended up going for a Crozes Hermitages for £38. It was good, peppery and not too tannic – although given the dishes we eventually ordered, I rather wish we’d picked something more capable of standing up to them. We ended up staying there while we got the menus, read the menus, plea-bargained and made our choices, only taking our seats when they were close to serving our starters. I enjoyed that – I’m usually so wedded to the idea that you sit at the table, you give the waiter your order and you sit at the high-backed chair sipping your wine until the food arrives. It was nice to loaf, although I was still a bit incredulous that the waiting staff didn’t seat us right away.

The dining room in Cerise is in two halves – a small room along from the bar and a bigger room further through (opening out onto that secret garden I mentioned). On a quiet Monday night, they’d only opened the smaller room which can’t seat more than twenty people. I liked it – tasteful, well-lit, good chairs and nice big tables – although if I’d been at that table on a busy Saturday night I might have felt like I was sitting in a corridor. As it was, it worked well, giving the feeling of being in a smaller, more intimate place. There was bread at the table when we sat down and it was nice if not wildly exciting – two slices of granary, one of something poppy-seeded and (the most interesting) a sweeter onion bread. The butter was at the right temperature to spread, a small thing but something a depressingly large number of restaurants get wrong.

It’s a pet hate of mine when people say something is too beautiful to eat: nothing is too beautiful to eat, and if you really feel that way you should be in the Tate, not a restaurant. Having said that, the braised lamb shank terrine really was pretty – pieces of lamb, cubes of carrot, peas and big pieces of sweet leek, with another strip of leek around the outside. I did feel apprehensive about eating it, though, because I was expecting something coarser and all those chunks (such an unattractive word), bound together with jelly felt like a Damian Hirst starter at best and Pedigree Chum for poshos at worst.

All those fears dissipated with the first mouthful. Really there was very little jelly in it, just tender tasty meat and firm, fresh vegetables. The mint dressing drizzled around the perimeter was sweet and perfect and what I’d mistaken for cucumber were in fact little cubes of green waxy potato. Potato, lamb, vegetables, mint sauce… it was only by the end that I realised that what I was eating was a high end distillation of the kind of Sunday lunch enjoyed across the country every weekend. I won’t say it was deconstructed – because that’s a word nobody should see in a restaurant review – but I will say that it was delicious, which is far more important anyway.

Cerise - terrineThe crab and salmon sausage was equally delicious (although, somehow, I found myself wishing they’d called it a “boudin”, because ‘salmon sausage’ just sounds plain wrong). Whatever you called it, it was delightful once you got your head round something with the texture of a sausage and the taste of fish. It came halved and resting on a little pile of cabbage which in turn was in a pool of dill sauce, peppered with tiny cubes of carrot. The sauce had a deep, salty flavour – so different from the sometimes insipid taste of dill paired with fish. On top was a little nest of salad shoots which didn’t really add anything to the dish (they never do, in my opinion) but looked pretty just the same.

The mains were an altogether more robust affair. What was described as “roasted crown of partridge, Brussels sprout’s and saffron risotto” had a lot more going on than that – so much so, in fact, that it was almost possible to forgive the wayward apostrophe. So there was partridge – gamey, nicely cooked on the outside, if ever so slightly tough – and there was a gorgeous risotto, strands of saffron visible in it, with just enough bite in the rice. But there was also what looked like a potato croquette, and there were smoky lardons, and smudges of pea pureé and a generous and intense jus. I was really impressed by just how many things were on the plate, all done well, without it becoming incoherent or too busy. It was, however, a very rich dish, and I can easily imagine that it would defeat someone less gluttonous than me.

Cerise - partridgeThe duck confit “with mixed bean and wild mushroom cassoulet, orange essence” was also not for the faint-hearted, another big bold dish. The duck itself was exactly as you’d expect duck confit to be (though personally I prefer the skin to be crispier). The cassoulet base was a beautiful jumble of beans, lardons and wild mushrooms in another gloriously savoury, expertly reduced jus, a wonderful wintry stew. As with the duck skin I would have preferred the lardons to be crispy and, as with the partridge, I did find the dish a little overwhelming towards the end. Amongst all those deep flavours the orange essence was lost to me; maybe it was overpowered, although it didn’t feel as if the dish missed it.

The side dishes, with hindsight, were a mistake. Not because they were bad – the chips were good, with the right balance of crispiness and fluffiness and the honey roasted root vegetables were even better; sweet, slightly spiced with that slightly fuzzy stickiness that comes from cooking them properly. But they weren’t needed, and maybe the waitress should have pointed that out (in fairness, we were hungry and insistent and I’m not sure we would have taken no for an answer). Even so, service just wasn’t like that. I was surprised that it didn’t quite match up to the food – the waitress was polite and pleasant but her English didn’t seem brilliant and it didn’t feel like she knew her way round the menu. That side of the experience wasn’t as polished as you might expect, given everything the restaurant had got right.

I was nearly too full for dessert, but in the end the prospect of brown bread parfait, with caramelised pears and peanut brittle was too tempting to resist. Again, that spare description didn’t quite do it justice: the parfait was in a cylinder, the outside studded with tiny nuggets of peanut brittle. The caramelised pear was terrific, served in an espresso cup with a buttery crumble topping. But the thick toffee sauce alongside the parfait was what made it special – rich, decadent, thoroughly wicked (much, I like to think, like most of the people checking into the hotel upstairs).

Pricing at Cerise is remarkably consistent – most of the starters hover around the ten pound mark, most of the mains are twenty pounds and all the desserts are just under a tenner. The bill was £110 for two and a half courses each, two side dishes we really should have gone without and a bottle of very nice wine. I know that’s a lot, but I didn’t leave feeling cheated.

Special occasion prices, then. But was the food special occasion quality? I think, on balance, the answer to that is yes. The room could be a little nicer, the service needs to be a little more impressive but the food makes up for much of that. The word that keeps jumping out of the review is “rich” and I think that does it justice. It’s properly indulgent, over the top, powerful food – not too clever, but just clever enough to feel slightly different – and for that kind of meal, I can’t think of anywhere in Reading that offers anything similar. I can see myself going again – more readily than I can see myself going back to London Street Brasserie or Forbury’s – but I can also see myself not eating much the lunchtime before and rushing home afterwards to undo the top button on my jeans. But everyone needs a meal like that from time to time. Don’t they?

Cerise – 7.9
The Forbury Hotel, 26 The Forbury, RG1 3EJ
0118 9527770

http://www.theforburyhotel.co.uk/dine/cerise