Feature: The 2014 Edible Reading Awards

Hasn’t 2014 been a weird year for Reading? When it started we were all getting over the shock of Jackson’s closing down, and it’s been another year of greetings and partings. Some of the partings have been surprising to say the least: who’d have thought this time last year that we’d say goodbye to Vicar’s, the iconic butcher on West Street? Who could imagine that the last edition of the Reading Post would appear on newsstands? Who could guess that Reading F.C. would sack another manager? (All right, maybe some of the changes were less surprising than others…).

It makes you wonder what 2015 has in store, and what other time-honoured local institutions may be in jeopardy. Will the After Dark still be open this time next year? Will the doughnut kiosk recorded announcement be heard no more? Will Reading Elvis move to Swindon? I can’t imagine anything worse for the town’s morale (or for Reading Elvis – come on, Swindon’s a bit of a hole, right?).

There’s also been a steady succession of restaurant closures: this is the year we said goodbye to Kyklos, Al Tarboush, The Lobster Room, The Eldon Arms, Cappuccina Café, Arepas Caffe and one of Reading’s two branches of Bella Italia. A real mixed bag, that, including a few places that I still really miss (no, not Bella Italia) – and an apt illustration that doing good food isn’t enough to guarantee a restaurant’s survival. It needs to have a USP, to get the rest of the basics right and to find a way of making sure that people know it’s there. A really tricky business, in more ways than one, and I can understand why it must seem like a thankless one too.

Of course that doesn’t stop new establishments taking their place – sometimes literally – and this year we’ve seen plenty of those: My Kitchen, Casa Roma, Chronicles, Coconut, Rynd, Faith Kitchen and Nibsy’s all opened this year. Just this week Artigiano, an on-trend mixture of coffee shop, lunch spot and wine bar, has opened on Broad Street. We’re due to get CAU early next year and there are perennial rumours that Tamp Culture will eventually give up shivering at their coffee cart and take up a more permanent space in town. The sometimes daunting-looking odds, for now at least, don’t discourage people from having a go.

And it’s not all doom and gloom, because there are other signs of a bit of a renaissance in town. The independent retailers – The Tasting House and The Grumpy Goat – that opened late in 2013 seem to be doing rather nicely. Reading now has three supper clubs and the most entrepreneurial, Pop-Up Reading, has done a variety of collaborations, serving its food in cafés and churches. The hyperlocal scene is better than ever, giving Reading folk a much wider range of sources for news, views, reviews and comment – both Alt Reading and rdgnow started this year and do an excellent job – and it will be interesting to see how things change next year with getreading going digital only.

Anyway, like last year ER is taking Christmas off. For me, Christmas is a time to eat lots of food, completely uncritically, without being plagued by those on duty thoughts that always seem to happen when I eat in restaurants. Besides, you really wouldn’t want to read an ER review of my Christmas dinner (and by about halfway through I wouldn’t be in a fit state to write it anyway). But I couldn’t leave you empty handed – and what better way to round off 2014 than with this, the inaugural Edible Reading Awards! So sit back, grab a canapé (not a euphemism – at least I hope not) and read on while I open a bunch of tatty-looking gold envelopes and announce my big winners of the year. Is this microphone on?

SANDWICH OF THE YEAR: Tuna melt, Shed

A lot of the places that could have won this award have put themselves out of the running by closing: I think at one point Reading had enough top quality sandwiches on offer that you could probably have started a blog just reviewing them. So sadly the magnificent banh mi at Cappuccina Café and the superb pulled pork burger (it’s just a sandwich, really) at the Eldon Arms miss out here. But even if they were still going, I would still have opted for the delights of Shed’s tuna melt. I know I’ve not reviewed them yet, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t visited on a number of occasions and of all their sandwiches the tuna melt is my runaway favourite. Partly it’s because of the bread – big pillowy ciabatta which you really don’t get anywhere in town. Partly it’s because of all the little extras in there that elevate it above the same thing elsewhere – generous oozy cheese, slivers of red onion, the crunchy sharp surprise of scattered capers. And partly it’s just because it’s a lovely spot to eat, run by lovely people.

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Yum gai yang, Art Of Siam

This was such a difficult category. When looking through the contenders I started to wish that all my favourite restaurants could just join forces and set up the ultimate small plates venue: the wavy lines appeared, like they do in TV dream sequences, and I found myself imagining a single place where you could order the momos from Sapana Home (the only thing there I truly enjoyed), the gorgeous crunchy, hot, spicy Gobi 65 from Chennai Dosa and that earthy, decadent truffle ravioli that nearly – but not quite – made Ruchetta worth the money. In the end, though, the winner was the starter that most took me by surprise: I wasn’t expecting to love a salad of warm grilled chicken and vegetables, served in a hot, sweet, sour, sharp dressing that knocked my socks off. I wasn’t expecting to love a salad full stop, in all honesty, but this tasted like nothing else I’ve eaten this year. People have told me since that they went to Art Of Siam specifically to try it. I can’t say I blame them.

LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Bhel Puri House

I’m not always right about things first time. When I went to Bhel Puri the first time I quite liked it, quite liked some of the things I’d eaten, quite fancied going back some time. I was quite wrong. Over the months since then I find I keep going back there: it’s a wonderful Technicolor alternative to what, even when it’s done well, can feel like quite a monochrome selection of coffee shops in Reading doing some sandwiches or bagels, some salads and the odd quiche. I always have the chilli paneer – because if I don’t my lunches would all be tinged with regret – and from there I’ve gone on to explore the outer reaches of the menu. I think the service there has got better and friendlier over the year, and every time I walk past I’m delighted to see that it looks pretty busy. Also: vegetarian! Just saying.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Karahi lamb, Bhoj

Honourable mentions have to go to another beautiful way to cook lamb, Kyrenia’s incredible kleftiko – but I feel I’ve enthused about that quite enough quite recently. I also adored Dolce Vita’s saltimbocca – made with veal back then and with chicken more recently – tender meat pounded thin, wrapped in salty prosciutto and bathed in a light, delicious sauce rich with wine and sage (and truffled mash, which could turn even a Fray Bentos into a world-beater). And, although they continue to serve it in a soulless glass box with all the atmosphere of the deserted space station in Gravity, La Courbe’s mixed grill – with that unbelievable tabouleh – is still one of the finest main courses in Reading. But the dish I kept dreaming of was Bhoj’s karahi lamb: chunks of lamb, soft to the point of surrender, in the most intense, sticky, savoury sauce. I was back there only a couple of weeks ago, trying it again. I’d like to pretend I was giving it one last check to make sure it was worthy of the accolade, but in truth that decision was made some time ago.

SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Dolce Vita

I’m almost sad to have to pick a winner here because every restaurant in Reading that does good service ought to be applauded. But my experience of most places in Reading that get service right is that they’re still very much about star players: Matt and Alex at Mya Lacarte are absolutely flawless, but everyone else doesn’t quite reach that standard. Marco at Pepe Sale could teach everyone how to do this, but again the rest of the staff can feel a little more hit and miss. Ihor at Kyrenia is as kind and welcoming a front of house as you could hope for, but he’s just one man. Dolce Vita win this award because they are a proper team – whichever of them is looking after me I know I’ll feel exactly that: looked after. They also judge how to serve tables so well – there’s no one size fits all here, so they are more friendly, more formal, more raucous depending on whether they know you, what your group is like and what kind of night you want to have. That Dolce Vita is such a friendly, fun, buzzy place to eat is very much down to that.

DESSERT OF THE YEAR: Peach and amaretto ice cream, Tutti Frutti

I don’t think I’ve had much luck with desserts this year. The hot school dinner style desserts I adore have been thin on the ground and instead I feel I’ve gamely struggled through underwhelming cakes and prissy little parfaits, delicate but underwhelming stuff. Part of the problem is that if I’m full, or I really didn’t rate the first two courses I’m more likely to pass on dessert (and fewer desserts means fewer runners and riders). It wasn’t all disastrous, though. I was very impressed by the pot au chocolat at the Three Tuns – that chilli and cardamom in there elevated it to something quite magnificent – but it still felt like it wasn’t special enough to win. I also loved the honey and rose kulfi at Chennai Dosa (a place which nearly won a few of these awards) for its fragrant yet refreshing cleverness.

Instead, I’m giving this award to Tutti Frutti for very good reason: when I’m eating on duty in town, and I don’t much fancy a dessert, I’ve come to realise that the test I use in my head when I read that little menu in front of me is this one: is anything I order going to be half as good as Tutti Frutti’s peach and amaretto ice cream? Will it be able to match that smooth creaminess, that hint of fruit, those soft soaked amaretti biscuits with that slightly boozy sweetness? If I know for a fact that the answer will be no, I just get the bill instead. And half the time, if I’m reviewing somewhere in town, because that idea’s in my head I wander across to the station and visit Tutti Frutti instead. It’s a wonderful, quiet, Edward Hopper-esque place late at night – just me, my thoughts, a few workers from the station in their reflective jackets, and that glorious ice cream. Try it sometime, if you get the chance.

TWEETER OF THE YEAR: Tamp Culture

I am not a massive coffee fan. If you talk about washed Ethiopian whatnots or the size of your roaster I glaze over very quickly. I think it’s great that Reading has so many coffee places, but I still long for some fantastic tea rooms, and places that know the value of a gorgeous smoky lapsang souchong or a floral, elegant Earl Grey.

That said, I love reading Tamp’s updates in my feed – even if I don’t understand all of them. You get a real picture of life outside the Oracle at their little cart – what they sell, what they do, how they work – and it comes across that they really love what they sell, what they do and how they work. The boys at Tamp both remind me a little of Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. They’re what Shaggy would be like if he was less interested in constructing sandwiches the size of Thames Tower and more interested in crema (whatever that is). A lot of restaurants just do not get Twitter at all – to see it used regularly with such infectious enthusiasm is an absolute joy.

I should also mention that I particularly enjoyed Tamp’s massive spat with Workhouse Coffee earlier this year – it was Aeropresses at dawn as they bitched about one another the way only coffee geeks can (“your roaster is too small” “well you bought cakes from Costco and frosted them yourself” etc.). It made me chuckle in the middle of a particularly hectic shopping trip to Regents Street.

An honourable mention has to go to the lovely people at Pop-Up Reading. Stop making me hungry, you two.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Dolce Vita

When I went to Dolce Vita the first time, I thought the service was great, I really enjoyed the food and I thought their menu was too big. They got a good mark from me, but I suspected in the back of my mind that they’d been fortunate and that if I’d picked different dishes they might have been found out.

Well, that shows what I know. Dolce Vita wins this award because I keep going back and they keep not being found out: I really don’t know how they do it. They also win this award because the range of cooking I’ve had there over this year has been quite something. They do pizza, they do pasta, they do very creditable meat and fish dishes. But they also have a regularly changing set menu which – without any fanfare or showing off – is a darned sight more reliable than London Street Brasserie’s just down the way. So I’ve had big rib-sticking comfort dishes – open ravioli packed with rich game, proper lasagne with beef and pork and chicken livers. But I’ve also had much more restrained, yet equally accomplished stuff – cod cheeks with lentils and a beautiful, fresh salsa verde was a stylish, subtle delight. (They also cook squid beautifully, without a hint of batter or breadcrumbs or mayonnaise in sight).

In many ways I think Dolce Vita is the town centre restaurant I’ve spent a long time looking for, and if I want to eat in town but can’t decide where it often gets the nod. I’ve had quick suppers here and long, drawn out dinners, conspiratorial lunches with friends and big loud celebrations with lots of people. The service is brilliant and they even have a bottle of Averna behind the bar for when you want the evening to last just that little bit longer. Of course, it’s not perfect – no restaurant is – but that’s probably for the best, because if I found the perfect restaurant I wouldn’t write a blog anymore and if you did you’d stop reading mine. But for 2014, it’s as close as I’ve got.

Here’s to continuing that search in 2015 – and until then, have a lovely Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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Round-up: April and May

I can’t believe it’s nearly the end of May already. We’ve had the beer festival (did you go? wasn’t the food rubbish!), the second of our two bank holidays is about to begin and summer is just round the corner with the promise of al fresco dinners and – more importantly – barbecues. And Pimm’s! Have you had your first Pimm’s of the year yet? There’s something magical about it, isn’t there – the fresh cucumber, mint, strawberries, the gently fizzing taste of summer in a long tall glass… Anyway, I’m digressing: it’s also a good point to stop and look back at the last few couple of months, both in terms of ER reviews and other restaurant news. Shall we? Excellent. Make yourself comfortable…

The Eldon Arms, 8.0 – A burger: a religious experience, or a sandwich blown out of all proportion by passing food fads from That London? Regardless of the answer, I think The Eldon may well do the best one in Reading. I checked it out here. (Sadly, the Eldon has now stopped serving food – see below.)

Dolce Vita, 7.6 – Dolce Vita is a hugely popular Reading restaurant, one of the longest running in town, and yet I’d rarely been. Was I missing out? The answer’s in the review, here.

The Abbot Cook, 6.0 – Another pub, just down the road from the Eldon, but it couldn’t have been more different. One had a slightly scruffy interior and belting food, the other looks the part but somehow managed to dish up flavourless food. The review is here – it also contains a lost waiter, a lake of cream and something which can only be described as potato-geddon.

Bel And The Dragon, 6.6 – A short walk out of town, with a lovely waterside location, Bel has the potential to be the perfect summer restaurant. So why isn’t it? I reviewed it here, only to find that neither the staff nor the dishes were full of beans.

Bhoj, 8.2 – Forget Mya Lacarte, ignore l’Ortolan: TripAdvisor says that Bhoj is Reading’s best restaurant. But people who go on TripAdvisor aren’t experts like newspaper reviewers and bloggers, so they can’t be right, can they..? Click here to find out.

China Palace, 6.3 – Does Reading have any good Chinese restaurants? Is an authentic restaurant the same thing as a good restaurant? Can dozens of Chinese diners be wrong? Click here for the answers to some (but not all) of those questions.

Cappuccina Café, 7.0 – If I told you Reading had a place that was half-Portuguese, half-Vietnamese, with a view of possibly the town’s ugliest pound shop you might think I was making it up. I’m not. Egg custard tarts, a broken dishwasher, delicious barbecued pork and outstandingly inefficient service: read all about it here.

On to the news. Casa Roma and Coconut Bar And Kitchen, both mentioned in previous round-ups, are now open. I’m getting good reports of both, and I’ll add them to the list, although as always I will give them time to settle in. From the website Casa Roma doesn’t sound any different to any of the other Italians in town (and I’ll take some convincing that that is an attractive dining room, from the photos) but if the food and service are good none of that will be quite so important. Coconut originally sounded like it was going to be a Tampopo clone but the website now makes it look much more interesting, especially the wide selection of yakitori which is something nowhere else in Reading does.

Not exactly a restaurant, but Tamp Culture has also started trading at the junction of Minster Street and Gun Street, by the Holy Brook entrance to the Oracle. It’s a small van serving coffee and a small selection of cakes, and my friends who like coffee tell me it’s very good stuff indeed. They roast their own beans and add to a burgeoning coffee culture in the town following Lincoln opening late last year. No website, but they Tweet here.

We have also – finally – seen the last of the Lobster Room. It closed, it took the menus down, it put a sad little notice in the door saying it would reopen but it was a death rattle, as it never did. In next to no time, it has already reopened as “Chronicles”, another Mediterranean restaurant (no website yet, but the menu on the door suggests a small range of pasta dishes, steak, grilled meat and fish). I don’t have any detail on whether it’s different proprietors to the Lobster Room, although they’ve kept the same phone number. Is it someone new trying to resurrect a classic Reading restaurant brand, or someone familiar trying to detoxify a different one? I guess we’ll find out – watch this space.

The other potential opening, much covered in the papers, is CAU which has applied to develop the area at the Holy Brook entrance to the Oracle (so not far from Tamp). The plans look quite impressive and would change that side of the Oracle completely. It’s not a triumph for independent traders and small businesses, of course, because almost nothing is where the Oracle is concerned: CAU is the more affordable sibling of the Argentian steakhouse chain Gaucho – a smaller chain with less than ten branches, but a chain none the less. They also do Argentinian flatbread pizzas, so if I was Zero Degrees I’d be saying a few prayers that the council doesn’t approve the application.

The saddest recent news is so hot off the press that it didn’t feature in the original edition of this round-up: the Eldon Arms has confirmed that it’s no longer serving food. They only had a small kitchen, and there just wasn’t enough trade to make the numbers stack up. It’s a real shame – pubs like the Eldon that do good food rather than buying it in off the back of a lorry are few and far between, especially those doing it with a small domestic kitchen. There’s a moral in there: if you find somewhere you like make sure you go there, or it might not be around next time you’re deciding on a dinner venue.

Back to the Lobster Room, briefly: Reading Borough Council uploaded its latest food hygiene inspection results this month. Much of the coverage focused on the Lobster Room which got a zero rating, while initially completely missing the fact that it was already closed. Island Bar and Café Madras also got zero ratings in inspections carried out last July and September respectively. Buffalo Grill, next to the Broad Street Mall, got a rating of 1 (meaning, apparently, “Major Improvement Necessary”) in an inspection from this February. Caversham greasy spoon The Gorge, inspected last November, also got a rating of 1 (maybe it is literally a greasy spoon). The Food Standards Agency takes great pains to say that these ratings are for information and don’t constitute a recommendation to eat at or avoid any particular establishment. That’s all very well, but if you’re planning to go to Buffalo Grill, Café Madras or The Gorge then, well, best of luck and rather you than me.

In the last round-up I mentioned the Reading Retail Awards which are your chance to nominate restaurants, coffee shops and lunchtime venues (did you? hmm?). This time, it’s the turn of the Pride Of Reading awards – nominations have just opened. There’s nothing around restaurants (which is a shame – I’m very proud of some of them, even if it’s just me) but there is a category for Cultural Contribution, sponsored by those renowned opera-goers, Grosvenor Casino. Don’t worry – I’m not asking you to nominate me. Absolutely don’t. Not on any account. Although I’m sure I’d have an excellent chance I’m anonymous and have no plans to turn up to an award ceremony in disguise just to listen to Danyl Johnson singing. However, if you do feel in the voting mood I think the team over at Alt Reading have done a brilliant job of making Reading a better place to live in the short time since they started publishing. They’ve already been nominated but it wouldn’t hurt to reinforce that by nominating them yourself.

Last but not least, and this is hardly news any more but it happened just after the last round-up, Edible Reading is now on Facebook. So if you’re into that sort of thing please go “like” it, feel free to share the reviews through Facebook and join in the conversations on the ER Facebook page. I’m told the reviews have even made it to the infamous “Caversham Gossip Girls” (if any of you are reading, hello there!). Thanks to anybody who’s spread the word about one of my reviews over the past couple of months – the site traffic seems to keep going up and it’s great to see more people getting involved.

Speaking of getting involved: last but not least, as always, please don’t forget that the majority of restaurants I review have been requested or recommended by readers. The details, as I’m sure you know by now, are here. See you next Friday, 11.30 (be there or be square) for the next impartial, independent review. Which restaurant will be next?