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

CAU closed in July 2018 because its owners Gaucho Group went into administration. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

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/

Bill’s

If you’re surprised that I’ve written a review of Bill’s the main thing I can say is this – me too. I had written it off: it’s always struck me as a chain trying its damnedest to convince people that it isn’t one, the rustic reclaimed school chairs and blackboards full of homespun quotes a sleight of hand concealing a respectable-sized chain (over fifty restaurants and growing), backed by Richard Caring, who also owns or has owned parts of Strada, Carluccio’s and Cote. So I was surprised when someone suggested I review the place, but he made some interesting points; it wasn’t a chain when it came to Reading, he said, and it offers something different to other Reading restaurants.

My first instinct was to say thanks but no thanks, but then I thought about it a bit more. I’ve always said that not all independents are good and not all chains are bad, and one of the plusses of writing Edible Reading has been eating at restaurants I’d otherwise never have considered. Why shouldn’t that apply to Bill’s, too? So I found myself sitting in Bill’s on a weekday night, at one of those reclaimed chairs (are they reclaimed, I wonder, or do they have a supplier who makes all these distressed-looking chairs, tables and defeated-looking leather armchairs for them?) reading the menu, not entirely sure what I was doing there.

It is, it has to be said, an attractive space. Bill’s has taken over one of Reading’s loveliest buildings, at the bottom of Chain Street, looking out over the churchyard of Reading Minster. It’s grand and imposing from the outside, but warm and cosy inside (and the outside space, usually packed with people enjoying breakfast and lunch in the summertime, is one of town’s better al fresco spots). It seems a bit churlish to point out that it looks and feels identical to the site in Brighton that I went to long before the expansion, when there were only two branches and they were owned by the titular Bill – after all, most people wouldn’t realise they were eating in a clone. But I did, and it was a little unnerving.

The menu was uninspiring. It felt like a beige selection of dishes with little or no signs of seasonality (starters were mainly salads, which I don’t mind per se but didn’t feel especially autumnal). The mains – drawn up by a focus group, perhaps – were almost calculated to be inoffensive, so there were some burgers for people who like burgers, steak for people who like steak, a couple more salads, a curry for people who like curry, a risotto for people who are plain out of ideas and a duck pie and fish pie for people who like to help restaurants make healthy profits on mashed potato.

Starters were not promising at all. The nicest thing I can say about the calamari is that they were reasonably fresh and you got quite a lot of them (comments that could equally apply to, for example, a bag of apples from M&S). But they didn’t taste of much. It was just a pile of panko coated nothingness, served in the kind of irritating bowl that made it impossible to take them out or cut them with a knife and fork. There was also a big bland lake of something which professed to be garlic and lemon mayonnaise and tasted of neither (in fact, until I read the menu I assumed it was an underachieving tartare sauce, I still think it might be).

Squid

The halloumi, chickpea and couscous salad was, well, OK. It was three slices of nicely grilled halloumi on top of a saucer of couscous which had a few but not quite enough interesting things mixed in; pomegranate seeds, tiny bits of fresh mint and some yoghurt. I wish I’d counted the chickpeas as I am pretty sure they didn’t scrape into double figures and the tomato was easy to count because, despite being mentioned on the menu, that was a big fat (or rather a tiny skinny) zero. It was fine purely because of the salty, squeaky grilled halloumi on top: the rest was just background noise. But how much skill does it really take to grill some halloumi?

By this stage I fully expected the mains to be terrible, but bafflingly they weren’t. Hake with rosti and salsa looked the most potentially interesting thing on the menu and was a genuine delight – a firm square of well-seasoned, well cooked fish with a salty, crispy skin and lovely big flakes, on top of something that wasn’t really crispy enough to be a rosti but was pleasant all the same, a potato cake shot through with parsley and spring onions. The coarse salsa it was served with – sweet halved cherry tomatoes, cubes of avocado, a smattering of capers – added the freshness the dish needed, although it was fridge-cold which jarred with the other components. Really though, it was lovely, and at just under twelve pounds it felt like a decent, sensibly-priced dish (although maybe not a popular one: looking at most of the tables around me all I could make out was brioche bun after brioche bun).

Fish

The menu was so lacking in other choices I fancied that I went for fillet steak, from the specials menu (although I’m not sure what’s so special about a fillet steak when the rest of the year Bill’s does rump, sirloin etc.). That quibble aside, it was spot on: a nice hefty steak, cooked exactly as requested (rare, in this case) – something you should be able to take for granted but so often can’t. And some attention to detail had gone into the accompaniments. The watercress was properly dressed and delicious rather than just token greenery, and the potato gratin – a generous portion in a little cast iron pan – made a pleasant change from frites. Still, a twenty quid dish (or twenty-one if you add garlic butter as I did; I figured in for a penny in for another pound), and as much as I enjoyed it I did find myself thinking about all the other dishes you could buy with that money in Reading.

Steak

The dessert menu also left me cold. It felt like there was very little there I hadn’t seen dozens of times before: crumble, cheesecake, eton mess and brownies (brownies never really feel like dessert in a restaurant to me, just a lazy way to flog you cake instead). Again, I could almost visualise the focus group, round a boardroom table, deciding whether pecan pie was a good choice or just a little too “out there”. So we shared the only dessert on the menu that remotely made me want to order it, mini cinnamon doughnuts with fresh strawberries and chocolate dipping sauce. (Strawberries was only just plural – two, cut into halves.) The chocolate sauce was pleasant enough, smooth and dark, more of it than you could possibly need. But the doughnuts were disappointing. Good fresh doughnuts should be big, warm, fluffy, irregular cloudlike things with a gorgeous sugary shell, but these were heavy and stodgy with an afterthought of icing sugar; they didn’t deliver an ounce of that promise.

Doughnuts

Many of my friends have criticised the service in Bill’s in the past, which meant that I maybe wasn’t quite as disappointed by it as I could have been. My waitress was friendly and pleasant, but the constant calculated upselling (almost as if from a script) got wearing very quickly. No, I didn’t want “nibbles” (and, in fact, I have a real problem with food for adults being called “nibbles” at all). No, I didn’t want any extra sides with my main courses. No, I didn’t want an extra glass of wine. No, I didn’t want coffee and/or tea. At the start it just about felt like she was drawing my attention to things on the menu that I might have missed, by the end I felt like politely explaining that, however it might appear, I did actually know my own mind.

Actually, the wine was quite good: the white was an unusual Brazilian pinot grigio/riesling blend which was off-dry, round and fruity and went well with the fish dishes (even if the first glass was nowhere near cold enough) and the red was rich and juicy although, ironically, a little on the chilled side. Reasonably priced, too – I’ve had the same white at Malmaison where it costs a pound a glass more. The bill for two starters, two mains, a dessert and four glasses of wine came to £75 (which includes a 10% “optional” service charge, about the only thing the waitress didn’t ask me if I wanted). That probably makes the place look more expensive than it was – the starters were around the five pound mark, so it’s the fillet steak’s fault.

It would be easy to turn round and hammer Bill’s for being a faceless, cynical chain. But, as always, the truth is a bit more nuanced and complex. So no, it doesn’t offer something you can’t get anywhere else in Reading. Quite the contrary, in fact: I can think of other places I would sooner go if I wanted green Thai curry, or calamari (although nowhere in Reading does really good calamari, more’s the pity) or burgers, or steak – many of them independent places.

But perhaps that’s missing the point about Bill’s. Its popularity, like it or not (and it is popular – it was packed on a Monday night) is down to the fact that it offers something for everybody, an upmarket version of all you can eat überbuffet Cosmo, if you like. So I can see you might go there with a group of people who don’t have strong opinions about food, or who have very different opinions about food, or people who plain can’t decide what to eat. The food is decent enough, some of it is pretty good value and eating there is never going to class as a gamble. So did my visit change my mind about Bill’s? Kind of, I suppose: before I would have actively refused to go there whereas now, if I was going out with friends and they insisted on eating at Bill’s, I’d tag along. But in the back of my mind, I’d be thinking that it’s on Chain Street for a reason.

Bill’s – 6.4
St Mary’s Church House, Chain Street, RG1 2HX
0118 9391365

http://bills-website.co.uk/restaurants/reading/

Bart’s

Bart’s closed in February 2018. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

I have a lot of sympathy for Bart’s: I visited them in the first week of 2014, one of the deadest times of the year for restaurants. If you’re a restaurant, all your potential customers are either enduring their first few days back in the office or making the most of the last precious time before work can no longer be avoided, still working through leftovers, groaning cupboards and packed fridges. And, of course, lots of your potential customers have resolutions in mind – spend less, eat less, exercise more – and none of those are exactly compatible with eating out.

It must be difficult working in a restaurant in early January. Bart’s only had two tables occupied for all the time I was there that evening, and I was at one of them. I bet they were wondering why they’d bothered opening at all. Was eating there similarly difficult? Well, yes and no.

Bart’s is a funny place, on the Wokingham Road between Cemetery Junction and Palmer Park. It’s a big restaurant, with a total of three dining rooms, one of which is used for private dining. On the night I visited, the main dining room was almost the only room that was lit, which led to an eerie feeling that you were eating in a restaurant which was only half-open. But the welcome was warm, the other diners (regulars, I think) looked happy and the room itself was comfy and not unattractive. The twinkling fairy lights behind my table lent everything a festive – if hyperactive – glow.

The service was lovely throughout: if my waiter was unhappy to be back at work so soon after New Year you would never have known, and he made conversation without sounding phony before leaving us to pick our way through the menu. It wasn’t a menu which filled me with excitement. I showed it to a friend before the visit and she said “that’s the kind of stuff you’d find in a Harvester” and that’s bang on: prawn cocktail, breaded mushrooms, steaks, lamb shanks, burgers, cheesecake and brownies, all present and correct. But that didn’t necessarily mean it would be bad, of course – those dishes are on menus for a reason, and well executed they can be delicious.

The wine list is short – a handful of wines by the glass – but all the ones we tried were delicious, and none of them cost more than a fiver. The Corbières was soft, fruity and unchallenging and the Graves was a little more peppery. I had a Chenin Blanc with my main course and that too was very serviceable. Another pleasant surprise came when the waiter brought over a couple of amuse bouches. They were an excellent start: guacamole topped with chives tasted fresher than I expected, and little cubes of chicken liver pate on slivers of Melba toast, along with some caramelised red onion, were also promising.

It was the last faultless course I saw from the kitchen, and therein lies the problem with Bart’s. If I was going to describe what they do, I’d say they make some really good food, they make some ordinary food, but the main thing they make are mistakes: too many mistakes, in fact.

The starters included the best dish of the night. The ribs were delicious: a reasonable portion, slathered in a sticky barbecue sauce and putting up no resistance to a fork, falling from the bone in meek surrender. I didn’t get much of the advertised paprika in the sauce but it was so delicious that I didn’t care. Even the salad was tasty – properly dressed (with a hint of rapeseed oil, I think) rather than just a pointless adornment.

Barts - ribs

The other starter was a let down – Bart’s describes its calamari as “overnight marinated, dusted in Chef’s special recipe flour and crispy fried”. It didn’t taste as if it had been marinated at all and the coating was nothing special, special recipe flour or no. There are better calamari to be had in many Reading restaurants – London Street Brasserie, Carluccio’s, Jamie’s Italian, even Bill’s – and cheaper calamari to be had almost anywhere. At that price – £8.50 for seven measly rings of squid – I did wonder what was in the marinade. Unicorn tears, perhaps.

IMAG0130

The mains were also strewn with errors. The sea bream didn’t live up to the promise of the menu because, although the flesh on both generous portions of bream was cooked well, the skin was flaccid, not crispy as advertised. This was off-putting – not just because I love crispy fish skin, but also because it left me wondering exactly how this had been cooked. The mashed potato was meant to contain lemon, but I didn’t get any in what was a giant unfinishable mound of mash. I would have liked more haste, less speed, more lemon, less potato.

You can’t go to a grill house and not order a steak, so naturally I did. The twelve ounce sirloin was a gorgeous piece of meat, with very little fat or waste, well marbled and nicely seasoned. But – and this is an enormous but, in a steak restaurant – it was medium well rather than the medium rare I’d ordered. There’s no excuse for that – especially when the dish is your speciality and the one thing customers should be entitled to expect you to get right time after time. It’s not as if the kitchen was rushed off its feet, either.

What I hate most about getting a steak cooked wrong is that it gives you the most unpalatable choice of all: which is more important to you, eating at the same time as your friends or getting the dish you had ordered? To my shame, on this occasion I didn’t send it back, or complain. Maybe I was being charitable because I too had just worked on a day when I’d really rather not and I hadn’t exactly put in my most productive shift either.

Barts - steak

The side dishes were a collection of mistakes expressed through the medium of vegetables. Sautéed potatoes weren’t anything of the kind, just baby new potatoes boiled and then flashed in the pan to have colour but no texture. Steamed broccoli with almond flakes were exactly that and nothing more. If the flakes had been toasted and the broccoli had been tossed in a little butter it might have been interesting, but as it was it was just florets, nuts and a strong sense of being underwhelmed.

If we’d left then, and we nearly did, this would have been a different review. But, against all odds, Bart’s redeemed itself through its desserts, which were extraordinary. Warm caramelised rice pudding with sautéed mixed berries was divine – a deep pot of creamy rice pudding with a middle later of something like a berry jam. On the top was a nicely bruleéd layer of sugar which gave a fabulous toffee taste to the rice pudding.

IMAG0134

The other dish was recommended by the waiter. Poached pear in almond soup sounded interesting on paper, and more adventurous than most of the dishes on the menu. When it turned up it was glorious. The pear – although not huge – was soft, dark and delicious with the red wine and port it had been poached in. The “almond soup” was probably better described as liquid marzipan, creamy, grainy and sweet. I complimented the waiter on it and he told me that the soup was the chef’s own creation – and he looked proud on his behalf. One last mistake though, because it was too asking too much to expect Bart’s not to make one: the supposedly cinnamon ice cream, which would have been perfect, was plain old vanilla.

Barts - pear

At the end of the meal the manager came over and asked us if we’d liked the meal. Slightly won over by the desserts and the superb service we said yes, at which point he brought over a couple of complimentary nightcaps and a form for us to fill out to get a loyalty card. I was a bit fuzzy on the details by then but it seems like you can become a member to enjoy various undisclosed benefits (I didn’t sign up, so I’m afraid I’ll never find out what they are), as well as twenty per cent off your next bill. Our bill was a hundred pounds, including service, for two people, three courses each and five glasses of wine, and I thought that was okay but not amazing.

I’ve thought about the meal at Bart’s a lot and I still can’t quite make up my mind about it. You can probably tell. Some of the food was really good, the wine was great, it was a nice cosy room and the service was excellent. But there were so many mistakes, all over the place, from the minor to the major to the fundamental. A steak house that can’t cook steaks as ordered is getting the basics wrong, and no personable greeting when you arrive is ever going to make up for that.

I wasn’t expecting great things from Bart’s – I walked down the King’s Road with a growing sense of dread – but in the end, even though it wasn’t a brilliant meal, there were plenty of surprises. I wasn’t expecting the best of their food to be as good as it was, or for the service to be so good. What I really wasn’t expecting, though, was to come away from it disappointed that I couldn’t rate them more than I do. Maybe they were just having a bad day at the office and suffering from New Year blues, just like I was, and I can’t rule out going back later in the year to see if they can do better. But going three times in fifteen months, like the local paper did? No. Not unless you paid me.

Bart’s – 6.2
21 Wokingham Road, RG6 1LE
0118 9662268

http://www.bartsgrill.com/