Bench Rest

One of the interesting phenomena of Reading’s restaurant scene is the number of talented chefs and restaurateurs circling the town trying to find premises to cook in. This year has seen more of this than most: first, right at the beginning of the year, Georgian Feast stopped cooking at The Island (still one of the strangest places I’ve ever eaten dinner by a country mile). I had just got used to wandering over on a Sunday lunchtime to enjoy their gorgeous boat-shaped pizzas for lunch, and then they were gone.

Then, in the spring, the affable Kamal and his talented chef left Namaste Kitchen by mutual consent: very sad news for me, as I’d become hooked on my almost weekly trips to the Hook And Tackle for sukuti and boneless fish fry. More was to follow: in the summer I Love Paella parted company with the Fisherman’s Cottage, shortly after which the pub unveiled a new menu which – how shall I put this? – borrowed heavily from ILP. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but flattery is rarely so tacky; I’ve not been back since.

Then there were the goings-on at Nomad Bakery, the permanent premises taken on by Laura of local supper club Pop-Up Reading. Laura left Nomad in July, and although Nomad’s Twitter feed made it sound like an amicable (if emotional) parting of the ways, an Instagram post by ex-TV presenter, regular Nomad visitor and Caversham resident Simon Thomas suggested shabby treatment and a falling out with Laura’s co-investor. It was later amended to remove those comments: make of that what you will.

Anyway, as we reach the end of 2018 some of that has settled and some is still in flux: Kamal is still looking for somewhere to open a new restaurant, as is Enric of I Love Paella. Georgian Feast started working at Nomad Bakery and recently confirmed a new menu (as Geo Café) offering many of the classic dishes they used to serve at Blue Collar, the Turk’s Head and The Island: it’s still as clear as mud, but it appears that Nomad Bakery may be no more. And finally, probably the move most long-awaited by Reading’s fooderati – in October the Tasting House announced that Laura would be running a new venture there at weekends called Bench Rest: tapas on Friday and Saturday nights, and brunch on Saturday and Sunday daytimes.

The early reports looked interesting, as did the pictures sweeping Twitter and Instagram. The menu was constantly changing and evolving, all built around Mediterranean flavours and the fresh bread which has always been Laura’s biggest passion (her LinkedIn profile says “My life revolves around flour, H2O and a little bit of salt”, which is an appealingly simple mission statement), with an emphasis on vegetarian food – or, as it’s modishly called these days, plant-based dining.

Bench Rest is probably one of Reading’s most keenly anticipated openings for several years, so it only felt right to visit on duty before Christmas. I wasn’t initially sure whether to go for brunch or tapas, but a look at the respective menus made it an easier decision: practically every single brunch option involved eggs, breakfast isn’t a dish I’d personally choose to make plant-based, and I find these days I can take or leave Jam Lady jam. Besides, eating small plates gave me a better chance to try a wider range of the menu, so I turned up on a Friday night with my regular dining companion Zoë to find out what was what.

Now, before I get on to the food it’s sadly necessary to explain some stuff about the set-up, because some of what was less than satisfactory about the evening didn’t have much to do with Bench Rest. The Tasting House, back when I first reviewed it, was an uneasy one-stop shop which served charcuterie boards, wine by the glass to drink in and wine by the bottle to take away, and didn’t really know whether it wanted to be a wine bar or an off licence. Over time the furniture got more comfortable, the place got redecorated and rearranged and now it is effectively three different businesses in a kind of houseshare. The Tasting House serves the wine, does food during the week and runs wine testing events upstairs. Bench Rest takes over the kitchen at weekends. And finally, during the day, Anonymous Coffee sells coffee and cakes from the counter at the front.

With Bench Rest, this all felt pretty seamless – we ordered at the counter, got a prepaid card to use at the Enomatic machine to buy wine by the glass, and paid for the whole lot at the end. But the room makes much more sense as a wine bar than as a restaurant, and the layout is cramped and problematic. There’s one huge table at the far end of the room, nearest to the open kitchen, that can seat around eight to ten people. All the other tables are smallish tables, most of them for two, and the emphasis has been placed on packing in punters rather than making it an enjoyable experience. Our table was nearest to the wine and the Enomatic machine, and it felt like people were constantly walking past us, giving the feeling of being in a corridor rather than a restaurant.

It could have been worse – there are also higher seats but rather than being up at the counter, or at the window where you’d have something to look at, you were seated at a high ledge facing the wall. All the poor unfortunate couples there were sitting with their back to the ledge, on their high stools, forlornly looking out at the tables feeling envious. I guess they really do want to maximise the number of customers, but I didn’t especially want to be that kind of customer.

Much as they might have envied my table for two, another problem was it had definitely been designed with drinking in mind: the moment you ordered almost any food there wasn’t enough room for it. Even with a small plates menu, this was difficult and involved constant balancing and juggling; one serving dish ended up precariously perched on the pot containing cutlery, and the whole experience felt like a cross between Jenga and Tetris. It was all very odd: the space worked perfectly as a bar, or as a café, but seemed incompatible with its third purpose as a restaurant.

Perhaps the food would leave me less bothered by such details, I thought, as I looked at the menu. It was a nicely compact selection – a handful of snacks (olives, nuts and the like), one “glorious gourmet toastie”, a meat and cheese board and a selection of seven small plates, most of which were vegetarian. Seven is a sensible number of dishes but even then the menu felt a little bit fussy, dividing them between “cold mezze”, “hot mezze”, “tapas” and “raciones”, fiddly and needlessly educational. We ruled out the snacks, because they felt more about buying than cooking, and the board (for similar reasons, and because it felt very much like what the Tasting House used to serve before Bench Rest came along) and decided to try a selection of the small plates.

All the small plates came with a selection of sourdough bread, and Laura brought this to the table first, excitedly talking us through it. There was a rye bread, a ciabatta and a spelt sourdough – served with a little extra, a ramekin of black bean houmous. You couldn’t argue with the quantities, but I expected to love them more than I did. The rye bread was simply terrific, but the other two were lacking in crust and felt like they could have done with a little more salt. The texture either suggested that the slices had either been very lightly toasted or left cut and exposed to the air a little too long: either way, I wasn’t won over. Also – and this may well just be me – I really found that I wanted either some good quality salted butter to spread on it or bright grassy olive oil to dip it in. Neither was supplied, and although the black bean houmous was pleasant enough it didn’t bridge that gap.

The first small plate was houmous with chickpeas, tomatoes and whipped feta. It sounded great on paper, but it didn’t quite work in practice; really good houmous, like the stuff from Bakery House, is silky and rich, whereas this was coarser and slightly on the bland side. The flecks of whipped feta set it off nicely, as did the beautiful sweet marinated tomatoes, although there weren’t enough of the latter. And I like gherkins more than the next person most of the time but, nice though Bench Rest’s home made pickles were, they simply didn’t go with houmous. The combination of the houmous being a little too claggy and the bread not having quite enough oomph wasn’t a pleasing one.

The beetroot croquetas, on the other hand, were lovely things. Two biggish croquettes, rich with beetroot, dished up on a smear of fragrant tapenade with some crumbled goat’s cheese and served with grape must mustard (“my new favourite thing!” said Laura as she brought these to the table). This was a proper clear your plate dish, and the bread came in handy for mopping up every last smudge of food. The flavours worked brilliantly: I would have liked a little more goat’s cheese, and two croquettes for seven pounds fifty felt slightly on the steep side, but it was still hard to be critical about a dish that tasted quite unlike anything else in town.

The other two small plates were more substantial affairs. Patatas rotas, puerro y jamon was spicy potatoes (they looked fried but were described as roasted) with sweet leeks, topped with a couple of slices of prosciutto and an egg. This was hearty stuff (it felt more like an escapee from the brunch menu, in some ways) but I liked it and we properly picked over the whole lot. The ham felt a little like an afterthought – again, I’d have liked more and for it to have had more texture and been crispier. The egg was a little overdone, which meant most of the yolk couldn’t spread its sunshine over the plate. Even so, you couldn’t argue with the flavours. This dish was just shy of nine pounds, but again it felt ever so slightly less than its money.

Last of all we had the cauliflower shawarma, a dish I’d wanted to try ever since it was on Laura’s menu at Nomad Bakery. This was a beast of a thing, gently spiced, festooned with seeds and topped with some kind of sweet relish which could have been tomato, could have been red pepper or could have been something else entirely. It was like nothing I’ve ever eaten in Reading, a dish which had more to do with Ottolenghi than the Oxford Road, and I really enjoyed it. I wasn’t sure whether it came with the advertised houmous and lemon tahini – it felt more like yoghurt to my no doubt ignorant mind – but as a combination of tastes and textures it was one of the most interesting things I’ve eaten this year. We couldn’t finish it, and leaving some was a decision made with a heavy heart.

Normally I would go into detail about the drinks, but there seems little point in some ways because the range of wines in the Enomatic changes so regularly that I can’t guarantee any of them would be on sale were you to eat at Bench Rest. I particularly enjoyed the Medoc, which was rich but not too tannic, and I really loved the Australian Riesling which was much more sweet and approachable, as New World Rieslings tend to be. The Enomatic dispenses either 25ml, 75ml or 125ml and most of the wines I had were £5 for 75ml so again, this isn’t a cheap experience by any means.

The wine being self-service also disposes of much of the traditional service in Bench Rest. I would say the service from Laura, who really appeared to be working her socks off all evening, was exemplary – friendly, approachable and passionate about her food (endearingly so, in fact). The service at the counter when ordering, from long-serving Tasting House employee Jack, was also very likeable and efficient, but I did notice that he struggled to get one of the other staff to help out because she was too busy having a good old chat with her mate (I feel for Jack: we all have days at work like this). We settled up just as the acoustic singer-songwriter in the corner was getting into full flow (could have been worse, it could have been Ed Sheeran) and our meal for two – four small plates, five 75ml glasses of wine and one devil-may-care-push-the-boat-out 125ml glass of wine – came to sixty pounds, not including tip. In fairness, we did leave very full: perhaps there’s something to be said for this plant-based diet after all.

It’s a shame that the time-honoured ER ratings go from 0 to 10, because rarely have I so badly wanted to give a rating of “Hmm”. Some of the food in Bench Rest is excellent and much of it is imaginative. It’s probably more plant-based and virtuous than I would personally choose, but I am quite aware that that says more about me than it does about them. But, despite their efforts, the alliance with the Tasting House is an uneasy one which doesn’t show off the food in the best light, or create an environment where it’s particularly enjoyable to eat. The dishes may well involve a great deal of work, and it’s impossible to fault the kitchen’s devotion or imagination, but they still feel ever so slightly on the pricey side and like there’s something – and I can’t quite put my finger on what – missing. I hope it settles down, or that Laura eventually finds a bigger canvas on which to paint, but more than anything else it made me miss I Love Paella. Here’s hoping that 2019 brings further homecomings for some of Reading’s other dispossessed restaurateurs.

Bench Rest – 7.3

30a Chain Street, RG1 2HX
0118 9571531

https://www.bench-rest.com/

Advertisements

I Love Paella at The Horn

I Love Paella moved from The Horn to The Fisherman’s Cottage in November 2016, and left the Fisherman’s Cottage in July 2018. I’ve left this review up for posterity.

My restaurant of the year last year wasn’t a gorgeous old country pub, or a sleek brasserie or some Michelin starred faff factory. No, it was one man and his paella pan, operating out of the Oxford Road branch of Workhouse Coffee weekends and some nights, offering a small but perfectly formed range of dishes – empanada, tortilla, salads, seafood paella – in a little, informal space. You could take your own bottle, you could sit up at the high central bar gassing with your friends, you could order bits and bobs until you were replete and when you went up to settle the bill it was always a fraction of what you expected to pay. I loved it, and when I gave it my award I said “It’s a proper success story, and I sense that there’s still more to come.”

Well, it wouldn’t be the first time that a rave review from me looked like something of a kiss of death, and so it came to pass that early in the New Year I started getting reports that people tried to go to I Love Paella to find the windows ominously unlit. I myself trekked down the Oxford Road to take a friend there for the first time only to have my worst suspicions confirmed. No sign of life, the shutters down. Soon after, I Love Paella announced that it was leaving Workhouse Coffee with further announcements to follow. I know it’s not all about me, honestly I do, but I couldn’t help thinking The curse of Edible Reading strikes again.

Fast forward to March, and it turned out that my fears were unfounded. In a surprising announcement, I Love Paella confirmed that it would be taking up residence in The Horn, the Castle Street pub which had previously never really featured on my to do list of Reading’s nightspots. Photos appeared on Twitter of a spick and span new kitchen and huge new paella pans, menus began to appear online and a launch date was announced.

I went shortly after it opened but I played it safe, ordering the things I would have ordered in the old premises. I had a lovely meal – although everything came out very slowly – but I knew that it was too soon and that I had to give them time to settle in. So I’ve been watching all the plaudits on Twitter, biding my time and finally, nearly two months on, I made my way there to try the place out properly. I felt a bit nervous, to be honest: would my favourite restaurant be all grown up in its new home, or would it have overextended itself?

I’m a restaurant reviewer, not a pub reviewer, so I’ll leave the detailed descriptions of The Horn to others. Friends who have been have always expressed vague suspicion, but all I can say is that I thought it looked like quite a nice boozer. The room on the left is lighter, with tall tables and stools and windows all along one wall. On the right is a more traditional room with a couple of biggish tables, and up a step is a smaller room with a few little tables. I wouldn’t have had a problem eating at any of them, although the table I initially sat at did have that disconcertingly sticky varnish I always fear could remove multiple layers of skin in one go. I’ve been told before that it’s a pub for sports fans, and there were a couple of screens showing a possibly (though how would I know?) crucial match between some overpaid men in red and overpaid men in blue, but on a Wednesday night it was largely empty.

The menu is much wider than the one ILP used to offer at Workhouse Coffee and I was determined to order lots of the new dishes to see whether they were truly taking advantage of the improved kitchen facilities. This meant passing up the empanadas, although never without regret, and – particularly disappointing, this – the grilled goat’s cheese with tomato jam from the peerless Caversham Jam Lady (her lemon curd rocks my world, since you asked). So the starters I chose had a double burden to bear: they had to be good, and they had to be better than my happy memories of meals from 2015. Could they pull it off?

In a word, yes. Chicken bravas was the most vanilla of them but still thoroughly successful. Beautiful cubes of fried potato came topped with a piquant bravas sauce and a healthy dollop of pungent aioli, the whole thing pimped with crisp shards of chicken thigh (the menu says there’s rosemary in there, but if there was I didn’t taste it). A lovely, starchy, spicy start to the meal – although if I had one criticism I thought it could have done with a little more bravas sauce. There was still a pitched battle over the last few pieces of chicken, though, and nothing was left.

ILPBravas

If the chicken bravas was good, the other two starters were great. Croquetas are exactly the sort of thing I always wanted to see ILP doing and these were as good as any I’ve had in Spain or indeed anywhere else in the UK. Beautifully presented – I know people have a bit of a beef with food on slate but it’s never bothered me – these were two gorgeous crunchy shells full of a perfect béchamel with Roquefort (always very popular in Spain for some reason). Some blue cheese dishes never really get started, others beat you over the head with salt, but this managed to steer the perfect course between those two extremes. I wish I’d ordered a whole portion to myself. I’ve had sidra and cabrales in Madrid, experienced that perfect contrast between crisp fresh apple and stinky, agricultural cheese, and I never thought I’d have an equally joyous experience on a street corner in central Reading with a perfect croqueta and a bottle of Bulmers. Life can be full of wonderful, random surprises.

ILPCroquetas

Last but not least, an innovative starter that combined two of my very favourite things, and a dish so popular that the bar staff had to check after I ordered it that they weren’t sold out. Salt cod churros sounded so fantastic on paper that I simply had to know what a fusion of those two things would look and taste like. The answer is that they look a bit like churros but taste like the best fish fingers in Christendom. I have a huge soft spot for salt cod and again, there was lots in these – no excessive padding out with pointless potato – but also little green spikes of chive in the mix. There was more of the aioli, but somehow it tasted a little different with the churros. Almost like tartare sauce, although I think that was probably a culinary trick of the light.

ILPChurros

You order and pay at the bar, and our dishes were brought out one after another in a way that was very well paced. I’m sure it helps that I think we were the only customers eating in the pub that night, so I can’t guarantee how they will manage in the busier times they deserve, but it does mean I get to say lots of nice things about the service which was a pleasure from start to finish. The bar staff were lovely and friendly, they chatted as they brought things out, they took compliments back to the kitchen (pretty much every time we finished a dish, to be honest) and they seemed almost to glow with pride at the food being served up in their pub. Quite right, too.

I couldn’t very well go to I Love Paella without sampling the eponymous dish, so a pan of chicken paella was the last thing brought out, resting on a wooden board on the table. It’s quite a daunting prospect, even between two people – a sea of rich, dark, glossy rice with chicken thighs poking up from the surface. It looked terrific, and it tasted even better: the stock had reduced perfectly, coating the ever so slightly nutty plump grains of rice, the whole thing lip-smackingly savoury and salty. The chicken, as in the bravas, was crisp where it needed to be and tender everywhere else, and broke easily into strands to mix with the rest.

ILPPaella

But there was more to it than met the eye, because it was also studded with cannellini beans, flat green beans, peppers and onion, making every forkful a fresh epiphany. Towards the end, you could scrape the metal spoon along the base of the paella pan liberating the best bits of all, caramelised, almost crunchy rice. My companion ate less than half. I, being both greedy and in raptures, ate more than half but even so there was a little left. Not quite enough to take with us, although the bar staff went to great pains to remind me that they could package up anything I couldn’t quite eat. Next time I might just go on my own, pig out and still have loads for the next day to make my colleagues green with envy as they make do with our subpar canteen (if that makes me sound like a bad person – and it probably does – all I can say is that you haven’t tried this paella; you can tell me off once you have, if you still want to).

I didn’t have dessert: the only options were brownie and cheesecake, and I was too full for either. Normally that wouldn’t bother me in the slightest (they’re pretty basic offerings) but the menu specifically says they are homemade, so if you do have a sweet tooth I wouldn’t rule them out and I imagine they’d be good. Personally, if I’d had more room I’d have been tempted to have some manchego, but that’s possibly just me. The whole thing, including those two very welcome bottles of Bulmers, came to just over forty-two pounds.

I was so disappointed when I Love Paella closed, and I remember saying so to them on Twitter. They told me not to worry and said that they had big plans. I should have believed them; that will teach me for doubting. I said I was nervous about reviewing I Love Paella, and that’s true. If it had been disappointing or inconsistent I’d have been writing this review constructively but critically, with a very heavy heart.

I’d particularly have been dreading this bit at the end, where I have to tie it all up. So it’s with a mixture of joy and relief that I get to say this: go. Go to the Horn, whenever you can, and eat this food. And if you’re worried about the Horn not being your kind of place, get people to go with you. Let’s make it our kind of place, stage a pitch invasion if you like, because a pub that does food of this quality in this location should be our kind of place (and if it really bothers you, I reckon I Love Paella might be one of the only good reasons to use Deliveroo – if you happen to have the right postcode). Personally I’ll be back at the Horn, pretty soon. In fact, I’ll even sit through Everpool playing London Irish or whoever they are, if that’s what it takes to enjoy dishes like this.

I Love Paella at The Horn – 8.4

2 Castle Street, RG1 2LS
0118 9574794

http://ilovepaella.co.uk/

Sanpa, Wokingham

It’s funny, Wokingham is less than ten minutes away from Reading by train but in all the time I’ve been writing ER I’ve only ever been there twice. My last foray out, to try relative newcomer Jessy’s, wasn’t an unqualified success but there was something about the town that I really liked and I figured it was about time I gave it another shot. Arriving on a beautiful sunny day, with spring in the air (and my step, for that matter) it seemed like things were looking up. There was a market going on in the pretty square with stalls offering fresh bread and, erm, bird seed. A beautiful retro van was selling crepes, and there was some kind of craft fair going on in the town hall. Even the masonic hall was open for the day, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Since I’ve never really been the kind for secret handshakes, I wandered up to Sanpa instead. It’s a tapas place I’ve had recommended by a couple of people and it’s on Peach Street, which sounds attractive but in reality is quite a busy road made up of unappealing Sixties concrete offices and shops. But that said, Sanpa was definitely the nicest thing on the street, with some barrels and stools out front and a crowd of people loitering in the doorway. I was worried that maybe I should have made a reservation, but I was soon shown to a table for two (and so was the crowd, who hadn’t reserved either).

The interior is basically two rooms, one at the front and one at the back separated by a deli section in the middle. The décor is simple and basic, although none the worse for that, and blackboards on the wall give details of some of the new dishes on the menu (and mentioned churros, which automatically gave me a reason to consider coming back). Much of the downstairs was full when I got there, and it was only later on when I wandered up the stairs in search of the bathrooms that I realised they also had a perfectly pleasant third room up there; it was also filling up by the time I left. If Sanpa was a well-kept secret, there were certainly quite a few people in the know.

Although on Friday and Saturday night Sanpa does a set menu, the rest of the time it’s largely tapas. That suited me fine, because I ruddy love tapas. What’s not to like about ordering lots of different things to try, going out on a limb and getting lucky with a dish you maybe wouldn’t risk if you knew you had to commit to a massive plateful? Also, on past experience, there’s often that wonderful moment at the end where your food has largely gone but you get to dip bread in the brick-red oily remains of the dishes – juices and spice and garlic and tomato. Heaven. As it turned out, the menu at Sanpa had a lot of things on it which make me happy and put me in a holiday frame of mind. So naturally I ordered them.

A good example of that was chorizo in cider. Normally it comes as thick discs of chorizo, browned on the heat in a pool of that brick-red sauce, but this was something altogether different: four whole short, stubby sausages, soaked through with the cider (and honey, according to the menu, although I couldn’t taste it), lightly charred on the outside. The texture was a revelation – all crumble, no bounce – and the taste was even better: salty; piquant; juicy and sweet all at once. It was the first dish to arrive but it was so good that I didn’t finish the last of the chorizo until close to the end of the meal. I was saving it in case it turned out to be the best dish I had (it wasn’t).

SanpaChorizo

The cured platter of was a much simpler affair. Some thin slices of chorizo, some cured ham and five manchego wedges, fanned out on top like a “ta-dah!”. The chorizo didn’t look much (to be honest, I wasn’t really sure I fancied it when it arrived) but it tasted so much better than that, rich and smoky with pimento, melting in the mouth because it was so thin. The cured ham was exactly how I like it, with a nicely dry, almost leathery texture, not greasy or shiny and floppy. I ate it the way one should eat good jamon, curled up into a little rosette, and it was spot on – earthy, moreish, with an almost caramel note. The manchego was, for me, the letdown; I prefer mine to be almost crunchy with salt crystals, crumbly and brittle, but this was a touch too smooth and creamy. Still good, don’t get me wrong, but it was more like the sort of manchego I accidentally buy from the airport on the way home than the sort I enjoy when I go to Spain.

SanpaPlatter

The true highlight of my lunch was the gambas al ajillo. The menu talks about peeled prawns and “mildly infused garlic and dry chilli oil” but that pedestrian description doesn’t do the dish justice at all. I know my writing should speak for itself but, just this once, look at that picture. Lots and lots of firm, juicy prawns in a rich, oily sauce, rich with parsley, just enough chilli to taste without being overpowering or mouth-tingling and with sliver after sliver of beautiful, beautiful garlic, shedloads of the stuff, cooked to be soft but not squidgy. It was profoundly good: I love garlic so very much and being able to scoop up several translucent slices of garlic and load them onto my fork before spearing a prawn made every mouthful of this dish a wondrous, wordless delight. Less than seven pounds, and easily one of my dishes of the year so far.

SanpaPrawns

Well, it could only be downhill from there I’m afraid. Next up were the patatas bravas – a staple that, really, I’m not sure we needed. The potatoes were perfectly decent cubes, nicely fried and served with a dollop of spicy tomato sauce. All perfectly decent, but it missed the mark in comparison to the other dishes. It probably never stood a chance in this company, but it wasn’t as rich as the chorizo or as fabulous as the prawns so it felt a little bit sad, and something of an also-ran. I wish I’d tried the tortilla instead.

SanpaPatatas

Finally, the random item picked off the menu at the last minute was tigres (not tigers: that would be illegal). The menu, bafflingly, says “If you have ever been to Spain, you’ve most likely tasted ‘Tigres’”: I have and I’d never heard of them, but maybe that’s just me. They were billed as stuffed and breaded mussels, a description that didn’t really give me any idea what to expect. In the event, they were four mussel shells filled with chopped mussels in a herby, creamy sauce which tasted, to me, like béchamel, all topped with breadcrumbs. To put it another way, it was like a potato croquette with mussel in. Served in a mussel shell. That you scoop out with a teaspoon. If that description appeals to you then you’d enjoy these; I quite liked them, but my companion took one look and decided to leave me to it. The flavour was nicely creamy and I enjoyed the crunch of the crumb, but they were a bit on the rich side and we’d over-ordered, so they didn’t quite get finished.

SanpaTigres

The finale, as I predicted at the start, involved taking chunks of toasted bread, ripping them open to expose the fluffy insides and dunking them in the sauces from the chorizo and the prawns. I chased every last sliver of garlic round the dish until it was loaded onto the bread and greedily eaten. I rolled my eyes in pleasure at those last pieces of bread soaked with the intense sauce from the chorizo. It’s exactly how this kind of meal should end, even if it meant I had no room for churros for dessert. No matter, there’s always next time.

We drank a glass of the house red wine each, a juicy rioja that worked nicely with pretty much everything. It was a struggle not to keep going and see off the rest of a bottle. I was a little sad, though, to see no sherry on the menu: if I had I’d have been tempted to order one at the start as an aperitif. The total bill, excluding service, was just shy of forty quid. Service throughout was lovely, not over the top, just friendly and welcoming. When I was settling the bill at the end, at the counter, the owner (I think) was asking if I’d been before and whether we’d enjoyed our meal, generally being downright charming. I must confess, I was quite taken with the whole place.

Things went downhill after that. I couldn’t find many shops I liked the look of, and the market was very small. The craft fair, in the beautifully over-the-top town hall, was mostly stuff at the twee end of the spectrum. The heavens opened and I was caught, sans umbrella, unsure about what to do. I considered going for a drink but the independent coffee place didn’t grab me (not being a coffee drinker and all), and I certainly wasn’t going to set foot in “The Grape Escape”, an establishment which seems to be applying the sincerest form of flattery to Reading’s Tasting House. Even the lovely Italian delicatessen which used to sell ‘nduja had rebranded as “The Slaughterhouse”, and seemed a bit more butch and a lot less lovely. It was as if Sanpa was all of the sunshine in Wokingham and once we’d walked out the door the clouds gathered and it was time to go. So we trudged in the rain back to the train station and decided we’d seen enough of Wokingham. But we talked about those prawns all the way home, and I figure Sanpa alone might be enough to get me back there before too long.

Sanpa – 8.0
6 Peach Street, Wokingham, RG40 1XG
0118 9893999

https://www.facebook.com/Sanpa.Store/

The Bird in Hand, Sonning Common

I’ve been thinking about going to the Bird In Hand for ages. It’s been sitting there on my list and I was saving it because I always had a sneaking feeling it would either be really special or crashingly disappointing and I half didn’t want to find out which. There seems to be a bit of a recent trend of country pubs round here taking a detour to Italy – like Buratta’s near Twyford (although I’ve always been a bit deterred by the fact that they’ve spelled “burrata” wrong) and the Red Lion at Mortimer Common – but something about the Bird In Hand felt like it might have star quality.

I normally talk far more about food than I do about chefs, but the Bird In Hand’s back story is an interesting one; the landlord, Santino Busciglio, cooked at various Michelin starred restaurants in London and appeared on one of Gordon Ramsay’s TV shows (don’t worry, the one about good restaurants rather than the one about cockroaches in the kitchen and eighteen page menus where all the sauces come out of a packet) before taking over the Bird In Hand, which reopened at the start of the year.

If it wasn’t the back story, maybe it was the website: in the course of my pre-visit research I decided that it was the most appealing menu I’d seen for a long time. The modish typewriter font made my eyes hurt, but looking beyond that it was an embarrassment of riches – a dizzying range of small sharing dishes to start and then a set of mains which divided their time evenly between Sicily and South Oxfordshire. Braised beef brisket pie rubbed shoulders with roasted sea bream, burger buns cohabiting with focaccia. I almost wanted to keep it on my list forever as some halcyon ideal of what a countryside pub could be, but my curiosity got the better of me so, during the hottest week of the year, my car pulled up outside and I prepared myself to deal with triumph or disaster.

The place has been done up recently and it really showed, but it also achieved the rare trick of managing to feel like a pub that serves food rather than a restaurant which pays lip service to local drinkers. The interior was lovely in that kind of studied rustic way that smart pubs are these days, with a decent-sized chic dining room, but it was completely empty because we’re British and know to make the most of whatever summer weather we actually get. So everyone was sitting outside, under the parasols, rejoicing in the beauty of a sultry English evening. We joined them, marvelling at the red kite circling above and I realised as I sipped a crisp cold pint of cider that choosing from the menu was never going to be an easy task.

It’s actually a cleverer menu than you realise at first – although the twenty or so stuzzichini dishes could seem bewilderingly huge, a lot of them contain components which also turn up in the mains, so you have to carefully pick through and decide how best to try as many different things as possible. We limited ourselves to sharing three before moving on the mains; I deeply regretted not ordering the grilled neck of treacle pork, the crab salt cod and ricotta fish cakes or the chick pea fritters, but it’s a good menu that forces you to make hard choices.

My favourite of them was a couscous salad with green garlic, yellowfin tuna and wild mushrooms – a bloody gorgeous bowl of deliciousness. The couscous was Israeli couscous (the bigger stuff that’s easier to eat and doesn’t go absolutely everywhere the moment you try to eat it), there were lots of little wild mushrooms studded through it, along with sweet cherry tomatoes and plenty of pieces of light, fresh-tasting tuna. It was the first thing I ate and it set a trickily high standard for everything that was to follow.

BirdTapas

Caponata was also good: I’ve always been a huge fan and the Bird In Hand’s version was slightly different to ones I’ve had in the past. The aubergine was firm rather than stewed into sticky submission, there was more of a starring role for the celery in the dish and the balance was much more interesting – a more closely-fought battle between the sweet and the sour – than I was used to. Again, it felt like perfect summer food, and I could gladly have eaten a bowl of it on my own.

The least successful of the starters was the trout two ways (line caught Avington rainbow trout, for any provenance buffs out there). Half had been cured in vodka, little beautifully-coloured strips arranged in a whorl. It was pretty but insubstantial. The other half, hot tea smoked, was served on a little smudge of spinach pureé and I liked it but I didn’t love it – it was powerfully smoky but that flavour wasn’t as deep or complex as I’d hoped it would be and, like the cured trout, it was almost over before it began. By serving it two ways, it felt like neither one thing nor the other: I admired the technique a great deal, but it felt a little unrewarding for six pounds (at the risk of sounding like a heathen, I would have liked some bread with it, but there wasn’t enough of it to put on bread anyway).

Plenty of promise in the starters, then, and the mains delivered on it. The menu has so much for vegetarians (plenty of starters and three tempting mains, including a field mushroom and green garlic pie which I would have ordered on a slightly cooler day) that I felt duty bound to try one of them, so I went for the strozzapretti pasta with aubergine caviar, basil, vine tomatoes and salted ricotta cheese. The pasta was al dente and the aubergine caviar (a bit misleading that, as it had collapsed into something approximating to baba ghanoush by the time it was served) was smoky with a touch of citrus and rich enough to make this a very substantial main. There was also some clever chilli in the sauce which built over time and the generous heap of salted ricotta – so nice to see a kitchen advertising a vegetarian dish without blotting their copybook with Parmesan – on top rounded it off nicely. It was still a bowl of pasta, and I think they always run out of steam when eaten as a main course, but it was probably the best vegetarian main course I’ve had this year. I was also impressed to see how much on the menu was gluten free – almost a third of it, and none of it felt like it involved any compromises.

BirdPasta

The other main turned out to be the perfect synthesis of Sicily and South Oxfordshire, the Bird In Hand’s cover version of fish and chips. The hake was in glorious light batter (billed as Parmesan tempura, although I didn’t really detect that). The chips were crunchy thin straws of courgette, beautifully seasoned and fried, all taste and no oil. And the peas – well, it was a fantastic pea puree, as intense and green to taste as it was to look at. I don’t even like mushy peas, but I couldn’t get enough of this. If I did have a criticism, and it’s only one, the presentation of everything on top of the pea puree made it difficult to make the most of the superlative accompaniments – a lovely piquant pimento ketchup and (a lovely touch, this) a ramekin of malt vinegar jelly. Everything I had had been tasty, but this was clever too.

BirdHake

On a lovely, sunny evening it felt like a waste to head home without making some inroads into the dessert menu, and my companion still had quite a lot of a glass of white wine to finish. Impressively, the Bird In Hand has about ten wines by the glass, nearly all Italian, all costing no more than £3.50 for a small glass or £20 for a bottle, another little detail that made me warm to the place. I didn’t try any, being the designated driver, but I’m told that the Cataratto (an organic Sicilian white) was positively medicinal on a hot day.

This is probably the right place to mention the service, which was the closest my evening came to letting the side down. Sitting outside meant that you ordered at the bar – and when I did Santino, who was working behind the bar, was charm personified and clearly a big hit with locals and diners. He could sell any of his dishes to anyone and was brilliant at bringing the details to life: the tuna cooked with orange zest, the burrata which was arriving later in the week, the salami he gets from small producers in Italy (I imagine he has built up quite a good contacts book), the ice cream which was all made there on the premises. He also lamented the end of the English asparagus season, a subject very close to my heart. The table service was a lot more erratic: the young waiter who was doing the fetching and carrying had a lot to do (serving in the garden means a lot of distance back and forth with plates) but wasn’t the canniest of workers, often bringing out food then returning to the kitchen empty handed despite our empty plates having been in front of us for quite some time. It didn’t mar the evening but I did reach the stage where I had half a mind to taken them inside myself, and that isn’t how it should be.

Santino recommended the ice cream, so naturally I had to try it. They’re all priced by the scoop and, interestingly, the prices all differ so, for example, pistachio is more expensive than chocolate which is more expensive than vanilla. I had two scoops of malt barley ice cream, and I think – no offence to the likes of Tutti Frutti – it’s probably the best ice cream I’ve had in this country. The texture almost defied description because somehow “smooth” isn’t enough but, raiding the thesaurus, smooth is all there is. It was so rich and glossy, with almost a burnt toffee note from the malt, that I just didn’t want it to end. Except I also wished I’d only had one scoop so I could try the chocolate as well: what did I say about good menus and hard choices?

BirdIce

Believe it or not, I’ve saved the best for last. Sfinci, Sicilian cinnamon doughnuts, might well be my dessert of the year so far: three rough little clouds of fried batter, crisp on the outside, soft in the middle, dusted with a little icing sugar and cinnamon and served with the richest, creamiest pistachio ice cream. The irony: in Reading we’re used to being bombarded with a message saying “lovely hot doughnuts, nice and fresh” and yet so many people never get to eat anything of the kind. I was told when I ordered them that they would take fifteen minutes and I’m not sure I can think of a better way of spending fifteen minutes than waiting for that dish.

BirdDoughnut

The total bill, for three courses each, two ciders, a wine and an Averna (it looks like Coke, tastes like cough medicine and, with lots of ice and a slice of orange, is one of the best digestifs you could hope for) was seventy six pounds. Considering the number of separate moments in the meal which had a wow factor, I reckon that was money well spent.

Having written this blog for nearly two years, I’ve come to realise is that life is full of mysteries. Why do cafés persist in putting your napkin between the cake and the plate, thereby guaranteeing you can’t use it? Why is Prezzo always full? Why are the plates for Picnic’s salads so small that it’s almost impossible to eat the salad without dumping half of it on the table? Cosmo: why?

But the biggest mystery of all to me is that people just don’t read the reviews of out of town places – I know, thanks to the joys of WordPress, that every time I publish one quite a few readers decide to take a week off. That’s a real shame, because those people won’t get to find out about the Bird In Hand. They won’t get to experience little flashes of wonder of like the ones I had – that first taste of couscous, wild mushroom and tuna, the tang of the salted ricotta, the big silly smile at something with the texture of jelly and the taste of Sarson’s. That ice cream. Those doughnuts. But never mind – because if you’re reading this you’ll know, and maybe you’ll go. That’s good enough for me.

The Bird In Hand – 8.3
Peppard Road, Sonning Common, RG4 9NP
0118 9721857

http://birdinhandsonningcommon.com/

I Love Paella

N.B. I Love Paella stopped operating out of Workhouse Coffee in January 2016. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

There are a number of places in Reading that people have asked me to review that aren’t quite restaurants: a couple of supper clubs, for instance, or the training restaurant at Reading College. I’ve so far not reviewed them because I’m not sure how useful it would be to write about a menu that changes at every single sitting. Who’s to say that one visit would be representative of what’s on offer? With Reading College in particular it also seems a little unfair to review chefs in training – I wouldn’t have wanted to share my GCSE coursework with the outside world, let alone have some snooty blogger bitch about my handwriting, my meandering essays or my poorly drawn graphs.

I Love Paella is that most unusual of things here in Reading: a pop-up restaurant. It operates out of the Oxford Road branch of Workhouse Coffee as part of a laudable project by Workhouse to encourage independent businesses. It’s slightly different from the supper clubs, though, in that it has regular opening hours (from Friday afternoon until Sunday afternoon) and a reasonably stable menu. They’ve not been going long but their enthusiasm on Twitter is infectious, so I thought that if Workhouse can do its bit to support little start-ups, the least I could do is to hop on a trusty number 17 bus one evening and head west to check it out.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must also confess I also had a sneaky side trip to the new improved enormo-Lidl (other supermarkets are available) next to Reading West station, because a friend had recommended their £8 Pouilly Fumé to me. They didn’t have any but I was extremely tempted by some retro biscuits. Have you forgotten how good Gold Bars taste?

The seating inside, as you’d expect, is more suited to coffee drinkers than to people stopping for an evening meal, with mini tables and stools along the windows and a big, high bar area in the middle, but it’s comfortable enough. I Love Paella doesn’t have a license so – having done our homework – we took along our own bottle of wine (not from Lidl, I might add) which the waiter gladly opened for us. I say waiter, but let’s call him the owner – he was the only person we saw working there all evening, and I got the distinct impression that I Love Paella is a one man operation.

The menu is, well, confusing. There’s a blackboard by the counter which lists all the options, except that I suspect they weren’t doing some of them that night, and there were a few specials which weren’t on the blackboard – and we ordered a couple of these because they sounded so good. I got the impression that the owner genuinely decides to cook and try new things on a weekly basis, which is brilliant, but just to be slightly hyper-critical I would have thought the whole point of having a blackboard is that you can easily update it whenever you need to. Being hyper-critical might become a bit of a theme during this review because, as I was to discover, finding anything to criticise at I Love Paella is quite the challenge.

That said, I should also point out that the name, I Love Paella, is a tad misleading. It’s one thing on the menu but the rest of the menu is a mixture of salads, montaditos (small sandwiches) and coques (I felt too awkward asking for one, and good luck Googling one – it turns out they’re a bit like tacos). I pretty much wanted to order everything but showed a little bit of restraint – not much though, as you’ll see when I run through what arrived. The pacing was beautifully done, just as it should be for this kind of dining, so items arrived here and there, just as we’d finished one dish and were ready to move on to the next. I liked being able to watch the rest of the Oxford Road go by, drink my wine and meander through the food on offer – a nice contrast from having tapas in Andalucia where you’re normally rammed at a bar, sherry in one hand, wielding your elbow like a deadly weapon (which, as it happens, mine is).

First up was the goat’s cheese salad, recommended by the owner: a generous plate of frisée, lambs lettuce, radicchio, walnuts and cherry tomatoes with balsamic glaze and a huge slice of pan fried goat’s cheese on top. Not the most complex dish in the world, and very much the sum of its parts but that didn’t make it any less tasty; the combination of the sweet glaze, the walnuts and that creamy, slightly oozy cheese was particularly lovely. A big part of me wanted to see the log of cheese that slice had come from but I was jolted from my reveries about a giant caber made out of cheese by the arrival of the next dish.

ILPSalad

Pulled pork empanada doesn’t do it justice. I’m so bored of pulled pork I can’t even tell you – it’s everywhere. Even at Reading’s street food festival last month everybody was flogging the stuff. I just want to see some unpulled pork (and some unsalted caramel while we’re at it). But the point is that I Love Paella’s pork was a million miles away from the sweet, sticky, saturated America version you can find everywhere. Instead it was fine shredded strands with clever spice and heat, Private Eye to most places’ Take A Break. The pastry was gorgeous too, a corn shell which reminded me of the empanadas I once had at Arepas Caffe – but this was miles better than that, light and golden and slightly sticky underneath. It was absolutely crammed with filling, and even then I bitterly resented having to share it with someone else (when you go – and I hope you do – have one to yourself).

ILPEmpanada

Next up was the legendary paella (which we did order two of – it is the name of the establishment, after all). This may not have matched the heights of the empanada but not much does – it came in a cute miniature paella pan, a decent portion of vividly yellow rice with prawns, lots of pieces of squid and a solitary mussel with a wedge of lemon and the crowning glory, a dollop of extremely good aioli. I’m sure paella experts – and I’m not one – would have an opinion about whether it should have had chicken in it, or chorizo, or peppers. But who really wants to go to dinner with a paella expert? Just imagine. Speaking as a relative novice I loved it. The squid was lovely – firm and yielding, not at all rubbery. The rice still had some nutty bite to it and the flavour was beautiful. But the highlight of the dish had to be spearing one of those prawns, dipping it in the aioli, eating and grinning. I did that quite a lot.

ILPPaella

Next up was the enigmatically named “Cuban sandwich”. This, truth be told, was really just another vehicle for that fabulous pulled pork – a toasted panini with pulled pork and cheese. The panini was nice and crisp, the cheese was melted (something you should be able to take for granted with a panini but isn’t always the case) and the pulled pork was just as spicy, rich and tender as before. If this had been the first dish I ate I’d have fallen a little bit in love, but as it was it just reminded me that I should have ordered another empanada. What’s the Spanish for l’esprit d’escalier?

ILPSandwich

I could have – should have – stopped there, but the problem with ordering all your food right at the start is that restaurants have a nasty habit of bringing it out and expecting you to eat it. So I had to soldier on through the final dish. It didn’t even have a name: I got the impression it was something dreamed up on the day because the owner had some extra chorizo to use and was looking for something tasty to make. Oh my goodness. This was a long piece of puff pastry studded with small pieces of chorizo and cheese and then baked into melty-submission. It was like a particularly suave sausage roll – rich and piquant and very, very decadent. It might have lacked the sophistication of the empanada but, in terms of pure happiness, it was right up there.

ILPRoll

Service throughout was friendly and enthusiastic, with the owner patiently explaining the dishes that weren’t on the menu as well as the ones that were. When the restaurant was busy he was run off of his feet bringing over plates or assembling take away bags but it was still a far warmer welcome than I’ve had from many well-established restaurants and most chains (a lot of them should head over to I Love Paella and pick up some tips – like how to actually look pleased to have customers, for a start). The total bill for one salad, four small dishes and two small paellas was just over twenty-five pounds (it’s worth noting here that they don’t take cards and all the ATMs within 100 yards or so charge for withdrawals, so take cash with you). Admittedly, we brought our own wine and I don’t think we were charged corkage but by any standards you care to name that’s an absolute steal.

So, here’s the hyper-critical bit: I don’t like the name. I just don’t feel like it really sums up what the place is about. I’d like to have seen more variety in the menu. Very little of it felt like true tapas; I’d have loved to see the kitchen serve up some garbanzos con espinacas, or some tortilla, or a selection of really good jamon. And I also wasn’t quite sure if this was a lunch venue or an evening venue – most of the dishes felt more like lunch dishes, so if you want to explore I Love Paella you might be better off doing that on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. It was nowhere near busy the evening I went, with a few tables and a couple of people dropping in to pick up takeaways.

When I talked to the owner he said he had plans to widen the range of food and hopefully expand the opening hours. But to do that he needs customers which, of course, is where we all come in. I really hope he gets them, because – and I’m sure you figured this out some time ago – I absolutely loved I Love Paella. It’s not just that the dishes were so tasty, although they were. It’s not that the service was so good. It’s not even the fact that I felt so at home sitting at my table, drinking my wine and daydreaming of Seville or Barcelona (no mean feat in RG30, let’s be honest). What really struck me about I Love Paella is how consistent it was. Everything was good, it’s a small menu, it changes fairly regularly and I just felt utterly confident that I could have ordered anything on it and had an excellent meal. That’s down to many things, but it doesn’t feel like beginner’s luck to me.

I Love Paella – 8.2
Workhouse Coffee, 335 Oxford Road, RG30 1AY
07707 641694

http://ilovepaella.co.uk/