The Botanist

“I’ve been having a think about a pseudonym for the Botanist review,” said the WhatsApp message. “What are your thoughts on Reggie?”

The Artist Currently Known As Reggie is a relatively new friend who’s been a reader of the blog for some time, and he specifically collared me asking to accompany me when I reviewed the Botanist, mainly because he thought that without his moderating presence it would get an utter shoeing.

“I know what you’re like, you’ll turn up thinking it’s crap and it will get a bad review” he told me over pints in the back room of the Retreat a few months back.

“That’s not true. I’ve always been clear that it’s impossible not to have preconceptions, all you can do is be up front about them and try your best to bear them in mind.”

“You said it was crap” he countered.

I took a sip of my pint of Bumble Bee and thought about it. Perhaps he was on to something. I’d gone there one late Saturday afternoon in November with my mum and my stepfather after a lovely day out in Guildford. Just for a drink – we didn’t order food – but I hadn’t been impressed. All the tables seemed to be reserved, our drinks took forever and cost lots, my Bloody Mary was nothing to write home about and a little wheelbarrow of food turned up at a neighbouring table. A wheelbarrow! There was fake greenery everywhere and what might have been buckets or watering cans hanging from the ceiling. It did rather make my teeth itch.

Worse still, I’d specifically gone on Twitter to moan about it. And it didn’t take long for people to pitch in with similar views. “Food on a spade? So contrived” said one. “It’s a Harvester with a hipster makeover” said another. “I hate it. It looks like Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen came all over it”, memorably, said a third. And in fact, my preconceptions preceded my visit: as long ago as September last year I was saying that I’d had lots of good meals out recently and that “I need to redress the balance by reviewing The Botanist.”

“Hmm. You might have a point.”

“Exactly, and that’s why I’m coming with you.”

He was already there when I arrived, and my first reflection was that everything wasn’t quite as it seemed. The interior was less over the top than I remember – yes, there was fake greenery and there were lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling encased in jam jars or some kind of weird upside-down baskets with handles. And there was someone strumming away on a guitar at the front (the sign outside said “Live Music Every Day”, which I suppose might be an incentive for some people). But despite that, I actually quite liked it. It’s a big space broken up into rooms with corridors and partitions – the bar area on the right, the tables for eating on the left. I even quite liked the zinc-effect topped tables and the sturdy chairs.

And Reggie? He looked the same as usual, but did he look like a Reggie? I thought about this as I took my seat. He didn’t look like Reggie Kray, or Reggie Yates, or Reggie Perrin. What did a Reggie look like anyway? Reggie is considerably younger than me, a proper metrosexual – slim, neatly-trimmed beard, hair properly coiffed, nice checked shirt. Looking at him, I felt like perhaps I should have made more of an effort.

“What are you drinking?”

“A pint of Amstel. Don’t look at me like that, I was rushed at the bar and I couldn’t decide. Christ, you’re not going to put that in the review are you? Don’t tell them I drink Amstel, they’ll think I’m a right chump.”

“You do know how this works, right? We order food and drink and I write down what we had and what we thought about it. I can’t pretend you’re having something else.”

(Later on Reggie lightly ticked me off for threatening to order a cocktail. Maybe he was trying to save my reputation in return.)

The menu managed to have loads of things on it which looked positively edible without ever once especially tempting me. The starters were a greatest hits of things you can order in pubs and restaurants all over the country: houmous, calamari, chicken wings, falafel and so on. There was a barbecue section, and a comfort food section, some pies and – and this is considered so important by the Botanist that it’s trademarked on their menu – “Our Famous Hanging Kebabs”. I found it surprisingly hard to make a decision. The best of menus read like a setlist, the craziest like a jukebox. This, on the other hand, was reminiscent of Heart FM.

“You’re not allowed to have the Scotch egg” said Reggie, “Because if you do all you’ll do is go on about how it’s not as good as the one at the Lyndhurst.”

I smiled. Was it true, or just funny?

“Are you on commission or something?”

Reggie shrugged. “No. I’ve been here a few times, I just happen to like it.”

It took quite some time to finally come off the fence and decide what to order – enough time to order a drink, wonder if it would ever turn up, wonder some more and then eventually take receipt of it. The Botanist has an extensive range of beers from around the world (in a natty menu like a little paperback book) but I have a soft spot for Alhambra and its distinctive green label-free bottle as it always takes me back to my holidays in Granada, so I had to order it. It was as blissful as I remember – Reggie didn’t think much of it, but he hasn’t been to Granada (not yet anyway: I may have spent some of the meal waxing lyrical).

“Oh my god, you’re going to write about how long they took to bring your drink, aren’t you?”

I decided that if I wasn’t before, I definitely was now. I also wondered whether the waitress thought Reggie and I were on the least likely Tinder date of all time.

Reggie and I both wanted the baked Camembert to start. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, as I’ve never been anywhere where it wasn’t done as a sharing starter, but in the Botanist it comes as a helping for one. Reggie very kindly let me have it (such good manners!), and I still wasn’t sure after eating it whether he’d done me a favour. Rather than being studded with garlic, or herbs, or served with chutney, this one came with a “smoked bacon and crispy onion crust” or, to give it a more accurate description, vaguely salty brown dust. It wasn’t bad – you can’t go far wrong serving someone a whole cheese in my experience, unless it’s by Dairylea – but I would have liked it hotter and more gooey and I’d have liked more toast. Also, the Camembert still had paper underneath it, which made eating it more challenging than I’d expected. Half the fun is attacking the last bits right in the corners of the box and piling them onto good bread, but not on this occasion.

“It’s not bad.” I said. Reggie looked a tad relieved.

I think Reggie may have ordered better with a reliable staple, the chicken liver paté. There’s only so much you can say about paté, but it was a good example: earthy and nicely smooth. It allegedly had rum in it – I couldn’t spot it myself, but I liked it all the same. It came in a ramekin topped with a thin layer of “green peppercorn butter”, which seemed to be clarified butter left to solidify and some peppercorns. Probably pointless, but it filled space in the menu description. I didn’t get much fig in the fig chutney, it seemed like a pretty generic fruit chutney but again, it was none the worse for it. I’m not bitter, but Reggie got more toast than I did.

We ordered another beer – a second Alhambra for me, a pint of Sam Adams for him – and the mains turned up in reasonably short order. Reggie had gone for the “famous hanging kebab”, a lamb kofte. I still can’t quite get my head round that description: most people wouldn’t knowingly eat something described as hanging, and the main things famous for hanging are the Gardens Of Babylon and possibly Ruth Ellis. I suspect it’s served this way, on a skewer suspended from some kind of contraption, looming like the kebab of Damocles over some chips, for effect. But it felt like a gimmick to me, even after our waitress poured peri peri sauce over it from the top and we watched it drizzle down. I will say this for it: it did smell pretty spectacular.

I took a few photos, discovering in the process that it was impossible to take a picture of the hanging kebab which didn’t look like a dick pic.

“Here, let me.” said Reggie. His picture was better.

Once he’d taken all the balls – sorry, this isn’t getting any better is it? – off the skewer and all the flim-flam faded, what you were left with was a serviceable, ordinary lamb kofte. The meat was oddly coarse and bouncy – not at the stage of being mechanically recovered but lacking the texture of great kofte at, say, Kings Grill or Bakery House. It was okay, but certainly not worth the epithet of famous (but then, how many famous people these days are worth that either?). The chips – described in the menu as “properly seasoned” – were okay, no better or worse. I wasn’t sure anybody should boast in their menu that dishes were properly seasoned: shouldn’t that be a given?

My dish was the flattened rump steak, marinated in chilli and garlic. You only had the choice of medium or well-done, so obviously I went for medium. I really liked the taste – the time spent marinating showed, and it left a bit of heat on my tongue. There was, in fact, only one problem: it was lukewarm even when it got to the table, and with such a wide surface area most of it was cold by the time I got to it. On another night, I might have sent it back – but that’s always the risk you run with steak. As Reggie pointed out, without a hint of I told you so, you have to trust a kitchen with steak otherwise you always run the risk that you’ll be eating your dish immediately after your companions have had theirs. It came with a tomato, which in fairness was quite tasty and properly cooked, and a truly delicious roasted flat mushroom, when I eventually located it.

“Isn’t there meant to be a mushroom with it?” said Reggie.

“There is,” I said, “It’s hidden under the watercress.” That tells you something about the size of the mushroom: Portobello it wasn’t.

We didn’t fancy dessert so we paid up, when we could eventually attract attention. Our meal for two came to sixty-one pounds, which includes a rather cheeky twelve point five per cent tip. As always, it’s optional but stuck on the bill in such a way that you’d feel like a right shit asking them to leave it out. The service was friendly but slow, and probably worth ten per cent but not worth twelve and a half. Unworthily, it made me especially pleased I hadn’t ordered any cocktails: perhaps I’m too old for this sort of thing.

Afterwards, we went for another couple of drinks and a debrief in the front section of the bar (where, I must say, the service was considerably better – if still slow). It’s an odd part of the Botanist because the tables are those pub tables with integrated benches you expect to see outside in a beer garden. Maybe it was their way of continuing the horticultural theme. Reggie and I compared notes, and I think he was pleasantly surprised that our provisional ratings weren’t as far apart as they could have been.

“It wasn’t that bad, was it? I wouldn’t come here any later in the week than a Wednesday, but it’s pretty decent for what it is. I’d come here for a date or a drink with mates, that sort of thing.”

“No. It’s okay – not amazing, but not terrible. But I wouldn’t object if I was dragged here again. I was just hoping it would be like Ha! Ha! used to be, back when it was down the Kings Road where House Of Flavours is now.”

Reggie nodded as if he knew what I was talking about, and I suddenly felt really old, because when Ha! Ha! closed on the Kings Road and moved to the Oracle – which was the beginning of the end for them – I’m pretty sure that Reggie was still in school. But never mind – I knew what I meant, and some of you with long memories might too. I still miss Ha! Ha!, and I still think Reading badly needs a nice bar where the music is just loud enough, the furniture is just comfy enough and the food is just good enough (in a similar mould, I still miss Sahara, long since morphed into the unlikeable Be At One). The Botanist isn’t that place, but despite that I’m sure it will do reasonably well. So a qualified success as a meal, and I don’t know if I’ll go back. Might ask Reggie to come out on duty again, though. Not sure we’ve heard the last of him.

The Botanist – 6.6
1-5 King St, RG1 2HB
0118 9595749

http://thebotanist.uk.com/locations/reading

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Cosmo

How do I sum up the experience of eating in Cosmo? How can I possibly distil such a complex experience, so many different types of food, into a single review? Well, maybe I should start at the end of the meal. There were four of us round the table (I know: people actually wanted to come with me!), looking at our largely empty plates, feeling a mixture of remorse and queasy fear about how our bodies would cope with what came next. Tim, chosen for this mission because he is one of the biggest gluttons I know, paused for a second and said “I don’t think this place is going to help anybody have a healthy relationship with food.”

There was further silence and the rest of us tried to digest what he had said (trying to digest, it turned out, would be a theme over the next forty-eight hours).

“I don’t really feel like I’ve eaten in a restaurant this evening.” Tim went on. “I just feel like I’ve spent time smashing food into my mouth.”

I looked down at the leftovers on my plate – a solitary Yorkshire pudding stuffed with crispy duck and topped with hoi sin (it was my friend Ben’s idea and it sounded like a brilliant plan at the time) and started to laugh hysterically. It might have been all the sugar in the Chinese food, the sweet white crystals on top of the crispy seaweed, but I felt, in truth, a little delirious.

“Nobody should leave a restaurant feeling this way.” said Ben, possibly the other biggest glutton I’ve ever met and a man who has never, to the best of my knowledge, left a restaurant entirely replete. We all nodded, too full to speak. I can’t remember who got onto this topic, but there was a general consensus that we were all dreading our next visit to the bathroom and then, having said all that and paid up, we waddled out onto Friar Street and into the night.

Alternatively, maybe I should sum up the experience of eating at Cosmo by recounting the conversations on Facebook the next day. I won’t name names, but we had I had to sleep with a hot water bottle on my belly to aid with digestion, along with I still feel ill, not to forget the more evocative my burps taste of MSG and – look away now if you’re easily shocked – I just did something approximating to a poo and it wasn’t pretty. Tim was feeling so grotty that he worked from home, all of us felt icky and found ourselves daydreaming about salad or vegetables – you don’t see many vegetables at Cosmo, you know – and hoping for some time in the future when the meal was a distant memory.

The thing is that if I started to sum up Cosmo that way you might just assume that I went with some greedy pigs, we all ate too much, made ourselves poorly and have nobody but ourselves to blame. So maybe I should start more conventionally at the point where we walked in and were escorted to a Siberian table for four right at the back, close to the emergency exit, far from daylight. You go in past a display of bread and vegetables in little baskets (I can only assume this is a heroic piece of misdirection, or some kind of in-joke) and then you wind up in some kind of windowless all-you-can-eat dungeon.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of Cosmo, may I first express my undying envy before going on to explain: it is indeed a gigantic buffet where you can consume as much food as you like for two hours before your time is up and you are asked to leave. Serving staff constantly circle the room while you are up at the cooking stations, whisking away your old plate so that when you sit down you can almost forget just how much food you have consumed. I bet you’re getting peckish just reading this, right?

All major cuisines are represented, provided your idea of major cuisines is largely Chinese and Indian. There are other things on offer – sushi, pizza (or, as Tim referred to it, “random pizza”, when he stuck a slice of one right next to his crispy duck pancake), a big wodge of unappetising pink gammon you were invited to carve yourself, something described as “beef stew”, I could go on – but the general theme is pan-Asian. The “pan” might be short for “pandemic”.

The experience of eating at Cosmo is very different from a traditional meal where you all sit down at a table, decide what you want and then chat away while someone cooks and brings it to you (it’s very different in the sense that Ryanair, for instance, is very different from British Airways). I would say there were very few moments where all four of us were sitting down at once: instead we were frequently prowling from one cooking station to the other, finding things to stick on our fresh plates, wondering if our choices went with one another, wondering whether it mattered, wondering where Ben got the idea of sticking crispy duck in a Yorkshire pudding like a massive demented vol-au-vent (You haven’t lived until you’ve put sushi, Yorkshire pudding and rogan josh together on the same plate said someone on Twitter – hi Pete! – in the run-up to my visit: all I can say is I still haven’t lived, and I’m fine with that).

When we were talking, most of the conversation revolved around one of three topics, namely “this dish isn’t half as bad as I thought it would be”, “try this, it’s truly atrocious” or, and this one was mainly led by me, “what possessed you to put crispy duck in a Yorkshire pudding?”

When you get to Cosmo you’re a bit like a kid in a sweet shop at first (although who over the age of six wants to have dinner in a sweetshop?). The other way that the experience is different to a normal meal out is that as the evening wears on, the mood gets slightly more deranged. Maybe it’s the cumulative effect of all that sugar, maybe it’s the body’s way of expressing Vitamin C withdrawal symptoms, or maybe it’s my fault because I collated a list of all the things people had recommended and I was insistent that we try them all. It was like an I-Spy book or something, and I directed people with military precision: You, go get some sushi. Tim, check out the prawns with ginger and spring onion. I’ll hit the teppanyaki station. Meet you back here in a couple of minutes. All right, let’s move out! If that doesn’t sound like fun then take it from me, the element of co-ordinated planning and being in it together was probably the most fun thing about the evening (well, that and bonding over our bowel movements the next day).

Finally, let’s talk about the food. Between us we ate so many dishes that it’s difficult to go into forensic detail about everything, but as a general rule I’d say the things I expected to be good were poor and the things I expected to be dreadful weren’t quite as bad as I feared. For instance I had the teppanyaki station recommended to me, so I made sure I had some seared scallops (or, more literally, a scallop cut into thin slices and griddled) and some very thin steak wrapped around enoki mushrooms, also griddled. The scallops were pleasant if basic, the enoki tasted of nothing but oil and the steak, if it tasted of anything, tasted of oily mushrooms. Similarly, I went to the grill station and asked for something off the bone and they recommended the pork. It still had a bone in it and I watched the chef slice it on a board before handing it to me. It was some miraculous cut of pork that was made only of bone, fat and crackling, presumably from a pig which had spent its entire life lying down.

CosmoTeppan

What else? Well, Tim pronounced the samosas and spring rolls as “rubbish” (nothing in them, he said), an adjective he also applied to his lamb rogan josh. I tried a bit of the latter and I tended to agree, the lamb and the sauce felt like they had spent their whole lives apart before being stirred together at the last minute, no depth of flavour in the meat, nothing you couldn’t do yourself with a jar of sauce from Loyd Grossman. The tandoori chicken was apparently dry. The most derision was reserved for the “crab claw”, something made of goodness knows what, a wodge of awful, indeterminate homogenous beige material not dissimilar to a washing up sponge. Tim disliked his so much he insisted that Ben try one and Ben, a man I have never known to turn down food, had a mouthful and abandoned the rest. The sushi was also judged to be pretty grim, claggy and flavourless, soggy seaweed and all.

CosmoBuns

There were some slightly better dishes. The chicken satay was nice enough, although certainly no better than chicken satay I’ve had at dozens of other places in Reading and beyond. The stir fried green beans were thoroughly enjoyable, although that might just have been the novelty value of eating something that was actually green. We all quite liked the char siu and the black pepper chicken, although again not enough to tell people to make a beeline for Cosmo just to eat them. The steamed pork buns divided opinion – some of us liked them, some found them just too sweet. Again, China Palace undoubtedly does them better, and China Palace is itself arguably nothing special. Tim liked the pad Thai, and Ben seemed not to mind the southern fried chicken. The crispy seaweed was lovely, but then I could eat crispy seaweed all day. Also in the Chinese section were some miniature hash browns with spring onion: they were about as out of place as I was.

CosmoPork

Before I went to Cosmo someone very wise on Twitter – hello Dan! – said that he treated the place as an all you can eat duck pancake meal. I think this might be the best way to approach Cosmo: again, it was okay rather than amazing but perhaps the trick is to find a dish that never lets you down and stock up on that. We all started on this dish and a couple of us went back to it later on when the other options ran out of appeal. There was also crispy pork, also for pancakes, and I was a little concerned that the pork and the duck didn’t taste quite as different as they could have done. Still, even if it was a bunch of faintly meaty fluffy strands it hit the spot in a way that most of the other dishes couldn’t.

CosmoDuck

“It’s important not to be snobby about Cosmo.” said Ben towards the end of the meal as he ate his trio of miniature desserts, three little sponge cakes (he was the only person to have any dessert – he wasn’t a big fan of them, though). Maybe he’s right: there’s undoubtedly a place for this kind of restaurant and a market for it, which is why there are queues outside it at the weekend. It’s cheap – all you can eat (which, by the end of my evening, had mutated into “all you can bear”) for fourteen pounds on a week night. I can also see it would be perfect for parents, for big groups, for indecisive people or, and I sometimes forget how many of these there are in every town, not just Reading, people who Just Don’t Like Food That Much.

In my ivory tower, enthusing about the likes of Papa Gee, Perry’s or Pepe Sale it’s easy for me to forget that some people just want to get fuelled up somewhere like Cosmo before going on to one of Reading’s many characterful chain pubs, and I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. And perhaps that’s the point of Cosmo full stop – it doesn’t serve the best of anything, but if quantity and range are the most important things then Cosmo is the place for you. I’m just glad I don’t ever have to participate again, and if that makes me a snob I suppose I’m just going to have to suck it up. Maybe I should get a t-shirt printed or something.

I didn’t mention the service, because it isn’t really that kind of place, but what there was was pleasant and entirely lacking in the kind of existential despair I would experience if I had to spend more than two hours in Cosmo. I’ve saved the cost of the meal until last, for good reason. Dinner for four, including two glasses of unremarkable wine and a couple of bottomless soft drinks, came to seventy pounds. But more importantly, and this is what makes it the most expensive meal I’ve ever reviewed for the blog, it cost ER readers over a thousand pounds. Yes, people made over a grand’s worth of pledges (not including GiftAid) to Launchpad to enable them to continue doing their incredible work for the homeless and vulnerable in Reading, work which has never been more badly needed than it is today. And if you haven’t donated yet, but you enjoyed reading this review, it’s not too late: just click here.

So, veni, vidi, icky: I went to Cosmo, just like I promised I would, and I had a pretty iffy meal, just like you thought I would. No surprises there, and that might well be why you sponsored me in the first place. But now the after-effects have subsided, when I look at how everybody rallied round and chipped in, and most importantly when I think about what all that money will achieve for our brilliant town, it’s hard to imagine I’ll have a less regrettable meal all year.

Launchpad

Cosmo – 5.0
35-38 Friar Street, RG1 1DX
0118 9595588

http://www.cosmo-restaurants.co.uk/locations/reading/

Miller & Carter

I must confess, I’d been in no hurry to visit Miller & Carter. Why? It’s a chain for starters (with nearly 40 branches, though I had never heard of it before it opened in Reading). A Mitchell and Butler chain at that, so part of the big faceless group that owns All Bar Ones and Harvesters across the land, not to mention the likes of the Oakford and the Abbot Cook. Then there’s the basic idea of it: a steakhouse is all very well, but perhaps a bit limited if your idea of dinner extends beyond meat and chips. Last but not least, I was put off by the pricing – I struggled to get my head round the idea of paying over twenty quid for a steak when I could go to London Street Brasserie for their excellent venison with haggis less than a hundred metres away for roughly the same price.

And yet, after all that, this week you’re reading a review of Miller & Carter. Why? Well, I’ve had it recommended to me more than once. Some people on Twitter told me they preferred it to CAU. Some restaurant staff told me it was where they liked to go on their rare nights off. And a friend of mine (who used to work in hospitality and is very particular) told me that on her rare date nights with her husband she often goes there to have the chateaubriand because they do it well and the service meets her exacting standards. Besides, sometimes it’s nice to do a review that doesn’t involve getting in the car or eating curry.

From the outside it looked quite swanky but I couldn’t make up my mind once I got through the door. It was all stripes and velvet and oddly it was carpeted, which struck me as either a very ostentatious or foolish decision (there were a few chips smooshed into the floor which suggested it was the former). The overall look was somewhere between a business hotel and an airport Wetherspoon’s, but either way it didn’t scream upmarket in the way I was expecting. It was huge, too: the sheer number of tables screamed “I’m a chain” in a way which wasn’t hugely appealing. Some tables – with booths and banquettes – were quite nice, others were right next to pillars and slap bang in the flow of traffic. You can probably guess which I ended up at. I might be the only one who was unmoved by the interior, though, because I overheard a member of staff saying that they are fully booked every Thursday, Friday and Saturday in the run up to Christmas.

The starters were slightly souped-up versions of dishes that you’d expect in a pub – chicken skewers glazed with bourbon, dusted calamari and cheesy mushrooms, for example – but a few sounded more interesting. I went for lemongrass and chilli tempura prawns because I hoped they’d be light but tasty and, truth be told, they were pretty good. The prawns did actually taste of lemongrass and the batter was nice and light. I didn’t get much in the way of chilli but there was sweet chilli jam (which tasted like every sweet chilli jam ever) which helped.

MillerPrawns

The prawns came with their tails on, which felt like an odd decision. I removed them with only minor tussles but felt like I lost a prawn’s worth of meat by not doing a decent job. It didn’t feel like it was asking too much to expect the kitchen to do that for me. Last but not least, there were some rocket leaves, wilting wanly, on top. That must have been a marketing decision (“you can’t send that out without some green on it!”) because it really didn’t add anything to the dish. So, nice enough overall but I did think I could just as easily have been in a Beefeater.

The other starter sounded marvellous: ginger glazed pork belly bites with an heirloom tomato salad. Bites suggests tender little cubes of meat, whereas what turned up were three pale strips of pork – a halloumi tribute band, almost – with black char lines on them and a salad at the other end of the long rectangular plate. In fairness, it tasted a lot better than it looked. The pork was tender, the ginger glaze pepped it up and the salad wasn’t bad. So why, when I got to the end, did I have an overwhelming sense of is that it?

MillerPork

It will come as no surprise to you that the main courses do rather dwell on steak, but there are lots of other options if you’re the kind of person who has to accompany a meat fiend to Miller & Carter because it’s their birthday, or because you’re making amends for forgetting your anniversary or suchlike. So they also do chicken, ribs, several fish dishes and – for the especially masochistic – three couscous and quinoa salads, one of which is the only vegetarian main on the menu. I feel duty bound to point all that out, but even so I ordered the steak because, well, it’s a steakhouse. Besides, as I’d had the chateaubriand recommended to me it would have been remiss not to give it a whirl (the fact that it leaves me with only one main course to review rather than two is, I promise, a happy coincidence).

It came on a wooden board with two sauces, two metal beakers full of chips, some tomato which was allegedly “balsamic glazed” but which I’d probably describe as “tepid and raw” and some “onion loaf” which was basically a bhaji which had got into an argument with Chuck Norris. The meat was meant to be the star of the show and it lived up to its billing, cooked medium rare as requested, charred and caramelised at the edges and giving way to tender and bloody as you got closer to the middle (the very core – vegetarians look away now – was almost Turkish Delight in texture). It came unsliced which I appreciated, because in my experience when they slice it it just goes cold quicker (and anyway, I prefer dainty slivers of chateaubriand given half a chance – dozens of them, in fact). It came with two round pats of parsley butter which were quite nice but, oddly, didn’t show any signs of melting on top of the steak. I guess that’s because they’d rested it.

MillerMeat

The chips were adequate skin on fries, nothing amazing, but the onion loaf was beautiful stuff and infinitely preferable to onion rings which always strike me as greasy and faffy. The sauces were at opposite ends of the spectrum. My companion had gone for béarnaise, which was spot on, creamy, full of tarragon, not split at all. Sadly I plumped for the porcini mushroom and black garlic sauce which was sludgy and didn’t really taste of either mushroom or garlic. Never mind – I did distract my guest (“is that John Madejski over there?”) to dunk an occasional forkful in the béarnaise. The best of the sides, though, was the “lettuce wedge”. This was literally a big segment of iceberg lettuce, sat in a bowl with some dressing and a sprinkling of cheese (garlic and parmesan on one, blue cheese dressing and crumbled Stilton on the other). It sounds a bit seventies I know, but in amongst the meat and fat it was very welcome to have something fresh and clean which added a bit of balance to the rest of the plate.

The wine list is quite a user-friendly one – most of the bottles under thirty quid are also available by the glass, although it ramps up after that. That said, I couldn’t help but compare it to the list at CAU, with its splendid range, and feel it was a little flat by comparison. We went for a one of the cheapest reds on the list, a bottle of malbec which was a touch over twenty quid and, in Miller & Carter’s defense, really very nice for an entry level red fruit, juicy and perilously easy to drink. I’m afraid we skipped dessert. I could say it was because we were stuffed from the steak (and it was a reasonably generous portion for two to share) but in truth it’s because the dessert menu, disappointingly, was exactly like a hundred other places. Chocolate brownie, sticky toffee pudding, crème bruleé and cheesecake were all present and correct, even with the smoke and mirrors of references to candyfloss and dark chocolate shards.

Service was really patchy. Some of the staff were likeable and warm, but after sitting down we had to wait a very long time before anyone came to take our order. The irony: we were sat at an unlovely table in an unlovely spot, with a constant flow of black-shirted waiting staff going hither and thither, and yet getting any attention felt increasingly, frustratingly difficult. They were reasonably busy for a weekday night, but they weren’t that busy. The massive pillar right next to our table (the restaurant equivalent of living next to a mobile phone mast) didn’t help. The waiting staff didn’t seem to look after particular areas, so we were served by three different people, all with differing skill levels. That said, our “main” waiter, a charming Italian chap with a goatee was spot on, checking up on us and twinkling at our choices (and looking ever so slightly like Tony Stark, which entertained me no end). Also frustrating was the pacing – we spent ages waiting for our order to be taken, but once it was everything came out just that little bit quicker than I wanted it to. For a relatively pricey meal it really didn’t take that long before it was all done and dusted.

How pricey? The total bill for two courses and a bottle of wine, excluding service, was just shy of eighty quid and this, for me, is where Miller & Carter really falls down. If you’re looking for steak, CAU is significantly cheaper. Not only that, but also the range of starters and non-steak dishes there is far more imaginative. On the other hand, if you’re just looking for an upmarket meal the money you would spend at Miller & Carter could go a lot further in so many other places – London Street Brasserie, Mya Lacarte, Cerise, even somewhere like Malmaison. So for Miller & Carter to compete it would really have to get everything right – textbook starters and beautiful steaks in a fantastic, exclusive dining room with top notch service. And, despite enjoying my chateaubriand a great deal, my evening didn’t come anywhere close to that. I can only think of one explanation for its popularity – it’s a menu firmly pitched slap bang at the middle of the comfort zone in a restaurant slap bang in the middle of the Oracle, never the dining choice of the risk taker. And that’s Miller & Carter in a nutshell: yes, you could do worse, but you could easily do so, so much better.

Miller & Carter – 7.2
Unit 5, The Oracle Shopping Centre, RG1 2AG
0118 9509961
http://www.millerandcarter.co.uk/restaurants/south-east/millerandcarteroracle

Valpy Street

Let’s start with the elephant (well, lobster) in the room: it would somehow be wrong of me to write a review of Valpy Street without at least a passing nod to its most (in)famous previous incarnation. Those hallowed halls were the location where I ate the worst meal I’ve reviewed so far and, I think, an indication of how far the spot had fallen since its earlier success – still discussed fondly by many Reading residents – as Chronicles. Indeed, the new owner is in fact the old owner; fed up of seeing the site go through one sad iteration after another he decided to come back and reinvigorate the handsome basement rooms (the story goes that the last straw was an application to turn the premises into a lapdancing club).

It looks so nice now that I didn’t even suffer any flashbacks. The upstairs – a grotty sandwich bar back when this was Valentino’s – is now a little bar area looking out onto the street. But really, it’s all about the downstairs: there’s something about a cellar restaurant, especially with winter on the way, that feels somehow snug and exclusive and they’ve made a really good job of doing it up (Farrow and Ball paint: check, exposed brickwork: check, tongue and groove panels: check). The furniture is attractive, the tables are a decent size and there are some nice booths along one side which adds to that feeling of cosy seclusion.

I’ve heard good things in the months since Valpy Street opened, so I was surprised to trot down the stairs on a week night to see it pretty empty, with only a few tables occupied. The menu had lots to tempt, with an interesting range of starters hovering around the seven pound mark and more conventional bistro-style main courses (lamb shank, duck breast, two types of steak) generally weighing in around fifteen pounds. Reading it, I realised that this is the kind of restaurant Reading is missing, because we don’t really have any mid-range independent bistros. You either go for much more informal, cheaper dining, you move up a price bracket to LSB or Forbury’s, or you opt for a chain. Please let this be good, I thought to myself.

Would my prayers be answered? The starters gave me my first clues. Pan fried scallops came with peas and onion, crispy chorizo and beurre noisette, a pretty classic combination. Normally they also come with soft herbs (no, I’ve no idea what that means) but I was with my coriander-phobic companion so we missed all the herbs out to ensure there was no meltdown. The scallops – three medium ones – were pretty decent, cooked in the browned butter and nicely textured so they were lightly caramelised on the outside but still yielding within. The peas and onions and chorizo reminded me a bit of petit pois a la francaise, but without the indulgent cream which always makes me feel so guilty about ordering it. They worked quite well, especially the touch of salt and warmth from the chorizo which lifted the dish pleasantly. Not the prettiest dish to look at (it all looked a bit plonked on the plate) but a good start.

ValpyScallops

The other starter was one of the most intriguing things on offer – tempura soft shell crab with an Asian influenced salad of shredded cabbage, carrot and mooli. It was the only time that the menu wandered away from its firmly European sensibilities, but it sounded so good on paper that I had to try it. Broadly speaking, it was a success. The salad was full of crunch and zest with an awful lot going on, especially with a gradually growing heat from the deep green shreds of chilli. I liked the presentation, with the toasted sesame seeds dotted round the edge of the plate.

If anything, the salad upstaged the crab sitting on top of it. I’ve always loved soft shell crab – possibly the only member of the animal kingdom that might have caused Charles Darwin the occasional moment of doubt – and this was pleasant but the batter wasn’t quite tempura, lacking the crisp lightness I was hoping for. It was also dinky almost to the point where you felt like you weren’t so much eating it as bullying it. All good, then, but possibly a touch on the nouvelle side.

ValpyCrab

You couldn’t say that about the gigantic piece of onglet which turned up when the mains arrived. I’d ordered it rare (the waitress suggested rare or medium rare) and rare it came. My mistake, to be honest: onglet can be a tad chewy and it definitely needed a bit longer. To her credit, the waitress came back to check on the food and quickly twigged that I wasn’t happy – so she sent it back for a little more time under the grill which improved matters considerably. The salad it came with was delicious, just dressed rocket and thinly sliced red onion: not something I would normally choose but which really went perfectly with the steak. The chips were thick and wedgelike, but sadly not terribly crispy.

When ordering the waitress asked what sauce I wanted (blue cheese, red wine or peppercorn) and so I also had a little copper saucepan of peppercorn sauce. This was really lovely but I didn’t find out until the bill arrived that I’d been charged nearly three quid for the privilege. Now, I don’t mind paying extra for a sauce but I definitely felt like this was a little sneaky – there was no mention of the sauce on the printed menu (there is on the website, curiously) and the waitress didn’t say that there would be a charge, so I felt a little hoodwinked. Overall it pushed the cost of the dish over the twenty pound mark, and therein lies the real problem: onglet is a cheap cut, and for that money I could have had better meat from CAU – a little less of it, maybe, but better quality and cheaper.

ValpyOnglet

Herb crusted hake was less successful. It was a pleasant – if not massive – piece of fish and the herby breadcrumbs on top of it were lovely, although I was surprised to find skin on the bottom of the fillet. But everything else didn’t quite work. It came with “bacon lardons” (are there any other kind?), little halved new potatoes, cabbage and leek and all of them were decent if inoffensive. But the herb broth, which I was hoping would bring the whole thing together, was largely a flavourless stock. More than anything else I ate that night, or anything I’ve eaten for a while, it felt like home cooking rather than restaurant cooking. If I’d eaten it at a friend’s house I’d have said nice things, but for just shy of fifteen pounds it wasn’t something I’d rave about when eating out.

ValpyHake

I can’t quite remember why we ventured onto desserts after eating so much steak, but venture on we did. Tarte tatin is one of those French classics that’s difficult enough to make at home that I’d never bother (that’s what restaurants are for). Truth be told when it arrived I wondered if the chef had ever seen one before, let alone cooked one. It was the oddest looking tarte tatin I have ever seen; eight or nine thin slivers (not slithers, for the record: why do so many restaurant reviewers get this wrong?) of unpeeled apple on a pastry base with a caramelised coating and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. If anything, my photo makes it look more generous with the apple than was actually the case. To my shame, I still ate it all because – as everyone knows – pastry plus sugar equals tasty. But it was an amateurish kind of tasty.

ValpyTarte

Valpy Street’s website says that the menu is “locally sourced where possible” – that may be true in general, but the fact that nothing local turned up on the cheeseboard made me wonder if those words were there because they thought it was what diners want to read. Having got that whinge out of the way, it was an interesting selection none the less: on paper, at least. In reality, it was perhaps slightly less so. Saint Maure de Touraine was a pretty likeable goat’s cheese, but the tommette de savoie was mild verging on apologetic, a quality it shared with the Fearn Abbey, a Scottish brie-like cheese. What the board was crying out for was some contrast – a salty, crystalline cheddar or Comte that could exfoliate the roof of your mouth – but no such luck.

Last but not least, there was Blue Monday, made by that chap out of Blur with the floppy hair. I’m more of a Graham Coxon fan myself, but to give credit where it’s due the cheese was spectacular – intense, savoury and delicious. I’m glad I ate it last, but even having it last it highlighted how bland all that came before had been. All the cheeses were maybe not as close to room temperature as they should have been (nor, now I come to think of it, was the dining room), but at least they weren’t fridge-cold. The accompaniments smacked slightly of overkill. There were a lot of crackers but no variety, so they were all sweet which didn’t really work with most of the cheeses. You also got a huge ramekin of onion chutney – far more than you could possibly eat – some celery which I suspect is left by almost everybody and some grapes. This was definitely a case where less would have been more, although I would have liked the advertised quince jelly which was nowhere to be seen.

ValpyCheese

This is all sounding rather glum, isn’t it? Perhaps I should lighten the mood by saying that service – the incident with the peppercorn sauce aside – was properly delightful from start to finish. Both waitresses were bright, personable, knowledgeable and full of opinions about the dishes. And if it didn’t always come off that felt more the kitchen’s fault than theirs. As I said, I was also impressed that they swooped in and sorted the problem with my onglet – some serving staff would ignore those vibes (the way you can never get attention when you want to pay up and scarper, for instance) but they could clearly tell I wasn’t happy and managed the situation perfectly.

Another positive: the wine list isn’t bad at all, with nothing over forty quid and plenty of interesting choices available by the glass. We tried a selection, including a really good, heady Malbec and a cracking Pic St Loup, a Languedoc red. Viognier, always a favourite of mine, was also extremely drinkable as was the cheapest white on the menu, a bright Spanish number from Extramadura. I would have had a glass of dessert wine with the tarte tatin, but they’d run out of one and the other was priced pretty aggressively for only 50ml. The LBV we ordered to accompany the cheese was nice but not surprising – maybe it would have tasted better paired with more interesting cheeses. The total bill came to ninety-one pounds, excluding tip, for three courses, two glasses of wine each plus that port. An odd experience: nothing on the menu was particularly expensive, and yet somehow that still felt a little steep.

Reading really needs a restaurant like Valpy Street. An affordable, mid-market independent bistro is very much one of the places that’s always been missing from town. And, frustratingly, they’ve got many things right – the room is lovely, the menu looks brilliant on paper and the service is spot on. The menu has some bright ideas to draw daytime trade in, too, with lunchtime “pots” for six quid and a selection of upmarket sandwiches. But the evening menu – despite some moments of promise – didn’t set my world on fire. But all is not lost, because the management has proved they can do this. The menu has already changed substantially since launch, to the owner’s credit, and he didn’t even officially launch the restaurant until it had already been open for a month (a very soft launch indeed, in fact). It feels like he’s playing the long game, and on that basis I wouldn’t rule out Valpy Street rethinking some of the menu and pricing and fulfilling that obvious promise. It’s a tougher market out there than it’s ever been: Reading’s dining scene has changed significantly since Chronicles closed in 2008 and the competition has got better. I just hope Valpy Street can do likewise.

Valpy Street – 6.8
17-19 Valpy Street, RG1 1AR
0118 3271331

http://www.valpys.co.uk/

CAU

[This week as a special one-off, Roast Dinners Around Reading and I are reviewing the same restaurant and publishing our reviews simultaneously. Find out what he made of CAU’s roast beef here.]

I recently reached the stage where I was tempted to stop reviewing restaurants in the Oracle altogether. It’s never fitted with the ER ethos – full of chains like Bella Italia and Pizza Hut that are ten a penny all across the country. And it’s always felt pointless reviewing places like Wagamama and Yo! Sushi, because even though there’s a time and a place for them you probably already know what they’re like. The final straw was the closure of Tampopo and the announcement that TGI Friday would take its place (that’s when I began to wonder if the Oracle was actually run by Monty Burns). Still I guess they need the money, with plenty of shops consciously uncoupling from Brand Oracle and a fair few vacant lots, especially on the top floor.

So, what changed (I mean, you’ve read the title, you know what this review is about)? Well, CAU’s an interesting kettle of fish for a number of reasons. It’s not a chain just like everywhere else, for one: there are only a dozen across the country. Also, I was fascinated to see how they’d done it, because the restaurant has been created out of thin air, in an empty and unloved space on the side of the Oracle, the fast but shallow Holybrook the only redeeming feature in a rather forgotten spot. But the other reason is that since it opened, CAU has been busy. Really busy. And all the feedback I’ve seen said it was pretty decent. Had the Oracle got it right for once?

It’s an odd experience having dinner in a building which, a year ago, didn’t even exist. It’s a very neat use of a compact space, with two storeys and a modest terrace on the lower floor, prettied up with some landscaping and some kind of light installation on the opposite wall (I can see it would be a nice place to eat on a warm day). I sat on the top floor, in a long thin dining room with white corrugated iron walls and modernist lighting, all chrome spheres and swivel chairs. That compactness does show, though, in the space for diners: everything is just a little smaller than you’d want it to be (I wouldn’t have wanted to be a table for four in the banquette booths in the centre of the room – not with my elbows).

As you probably know, CAU stands for Carne Argentina Unica (I wonder which came first, the name or the convenient acronym?) and is the younger/cheaper sibling of Gaucho, the awfully expensive steak house that is sprinkled over the spendy bits of London. So the menu is mainly Argentine, mainly beef, but not entirely – it does wander up to Mexico, across to Spain and even, for some of the vegetarian options, over to Italy. This presented a bit of a dilemma – I wanted to try a range of dishes, but ordering chicken or fish just to make a point about the diversity of the food felt like a silly act of tokenism. So if you don’t like steak this review might not be terribly enlightening – but anyway, there’s always the starters and the desserts.

The starters were probably the most difficult decision of the evening. It really is an embarrassment of riches and you could easily have been reading about empanadas, Argentinian charcuterie or half a dozen other dishes. I was particularly torn between the swordfish carpaccio and the smoked haddock and manchego croquettes. When I asked the waitress for advice, she recommended the latter without a moment’s hesitation. That alone would have justified a tip: they were generous and delicious, half a dozen big, irregular, crunchy cylinders. Inside, the perfect contrast – a filling so smooth it was almost a béchamel, beautiful shreds of fish and tons of chives. The caper mayonnaise they came with almost felt an afterthought – creamy and bland where a bit of sharpness would have worked wonders – but it was by no means a deal breaker. I would have liked a bit more salt from the manchego but again, that was more twenty-twenty hindsight than anything else.

CAUStarter

They almost made up for the disappointment of the other starter, something that with hindsight I probably should have known better than to order. Quesadillas were a rather sad prospect compared to the crispy loveliness of the croquettes: the tortilla itself was pretty small and, despite the blurb on the menu, was by no means “packed” with vegetables or cheese. A layer of peppers, artichokes and courgette strips with manchego (for flavour, I’d guess) and mozzarella (for texture) was, in fact, even duller than it sounds. The guacamole on the side was pleasantly zesty but not enough to save the whole thing. It was bland and stingy, everything the other starter wasn’t. It’s my fault really – normally I’m good at spotting the duffer on a menu so I’m not sure what went wrong here. There are actually quite a lot of vegetarian options on the starter menu: I hope the rest aren’t as much of an afterthought as this felt. I should have had the charcuterie after all.

The range of steaks on offer at CAU ranges from the mainstream – familiar cuts like rump and rib-eye – to the more high-end. This is where you can end up spending quite a lot of money, as you can at Gaucho: most of the speciality cuts start at the thirty pound mark and you get almost a pound of flesh for your pound of flesh. I struggled with spending that much on account of not being a Russian oligarch, so we went for the more conventional cuts on the left hand side of the menu, and it has to be said that these were a lot more keenly priced: two medallions of fillet was less than fifteen pounds, a sirloin was just shy of eighteen. Unfortunately, I had to wait slightly longer to try the steak than I was expecting. The medallions turned up perfectly medium rare as requested, but the sirloin was medium well with very little pinkness, no glorious blood seeping out onto the plate.

This is, let’s face it, a pretty terrible gaffe from a restaurant which prides itself on brilliant beef cooked brilliantly. But sometimes, first impressions aren’t everything and the way CAU dealt with it was exemplary. I was in two minds about sending it back because, in my experience, that usually means that I have to watch everyone else eating their food (never fun) and then experience everyone else watching me eat mine (possibly even less fun). But the moment I suggested to my waitress that all was not well she sprang into action: both dishes were taken away, completely redone and brought to the table at exactly the same time. I’ve racked my brains and I can’t think of a single restaurant in Reading – even at the high end – that has ever gone that far, let alone without being prompted. Very nicely done indeed, and it totally won me over.

So, once they finally arrived, they truly were perfect. The medallions were beautifully seasoned, perfectly grilled and the yielding texture when sliced was enough to render me speechless. I rarely have steak at home because I can never get it right, but eating it here made me feel like most of the places I order steak at can’t get it right either (and they certainly can’t for only fifteen pounds). The sirloin was just as good – the char and salt on the outside giving way to the softness underneath. At this point any reservations – about the location, about the loudness of the music, about the slightly irksome white swivel chairs – simply melted away. I’d have eaten this beef locked in a broom cupboard listening to the Vengaboys, if that’s what it would have taken to try it.

CAUSteak

The accompaniments were very much second fiddle, although that was only to be expected. Chunky chips, served in a little fryer basket, were coarse and crispy, fluffy inside and perfect dunked in the tiny pots of sauce (which cost extra, I should add). The sauces themselves were a little underwhelming, in truth: “garlic and herb aioli” was all herb and no garlic, all mouth and no trousers. I got parsley and just enough tarragon to make me wish béarnaise was on the menu. Still, I’m going through a phase of really enjoying chips dipped in mayo, so it wasn’t all bad. The chimichurri was better, but possibly had a little too much vinegar and not enough of everything else. I deliberately didn’t order a blue cheese sauce because it felt inauthentic; by the end I wished I hadn’t been so prissy.

Just as CAU is all about beef it’s also all about Malbec – so much so that the wine list actually has four sections – sparkling, white, red and Malbec. I liked this, but what I really loved was that the vast majority of their wines are available in 500ml pots as well as full bottles. I really don’t understand why more restaurants don’t offer this, if only because I’m far more likely to order two carafes than I am to order two bottles. We had a Patagonian Malbec with our steaks and it was terrific – fruity but with a little smoke and not overwhelmed by the beef. Before that, while we made up our minds, we had an elderflower spritz – a very refreshing cocktail which tasted so little of alcohol that it was positively dangerous – and a very good Asturian cider.

On to desserts: I’d seen churros arrive at another table so I’d already decided I had to try them. They arrived in a little Jenga stack, liberally dusted with sugar and cinnamon, with a little pot of dulce de leche (which I have a bit of a soft spot for). Sadly I have to say that they didn’t quite go together – the sauce was a bit too thick to coat the churros and the churros were strong enough to drown out the toffee flavour. I resorted to eating the two dishes on their own (not exactly a hardship), running my finger round the pot to get the last of the dulce de leche out Nigella-style.

The other dessert, the cornflake ice cream sundae, is apparently a signature dish. I wasn’t a huge fan of it, I’m afraid. The cubes of chocolate brownie in it were crumbly delights, and the dulce de leche smeared round the inside of the sundae glass were gorgeous, but the cornflake-flavoured ice cream just felt like ice cream and the ginormous heap of cornflakes on top was impossible to eat without knocking them onto the table. I imagine it would be very popular with kids, but it wasn’t such a hit with me.

CAUDessert

Service made a bad first impression: the greeter at the front door failed to make eye contact, which was odd, but from that point onwards it was all terrific. Our waitress was bright, personable, knowledgeable and almost faultless – recommending dishes, correcting mistakes, talking about the restaurant and making conversation without going through the motions. But more than that, there seemed to be an energy about all the staff, from the chirpy chap who brought out our replacement steaks to the barman dancing along to the eclectic mix of music. I even found their “caugirl” and “cauboy” t-shirts amusing rather than naff – it felt like they were having fun but without any of that fake mateyness which is often so jarring in chain restaurants.

The bill, including an optional 10% service charge, came to ninety-five pounds. That’s for three courses and an aperitif each and that pot of malbec. It’s funny, when the bill turned up the amount was simultaneously more than I was expecting (that fifteen pound steak had me fooled) and not as much as I thought the meal was worth.

That rather sums up how I felt about CAU, in that I didn’t quite know what to make of it. Some of the dishes are really expensive, some are affordable. The affordable ones are terrific value. The food was bloody good, but first time round it wasn’t bloody enough. The staff make it feel like an informal restaurant but the prices at the high end are actually pretty close to what Gaucho would charge. And the clientele reflected that – some of my fellow diners were properly dolled up, to the extent where I felt a bit scruffy, and others were definitely there for a much more casual evening. You could look at all that and say that CAU is a restaurant that doesn’t know what it wants to be, or you could decide that it’s good at being all things to all people. Slightly against my preconceptions – I went expecting to like the food, hate the room and be underwhelmed by the service – I strongly suspect that it’s the latter. But I’ll probably go back soon, with my most carnivorous friends, just to be certain.

CAU – 7.8
The Oracle, Bridge Street, RG1 2AQ
0118 9505559

http://www.caurestaurants.com/book-a-table/reading/