Restaurant review: Bravas, Bristol

Last week I had my first holiday in eighteen months. Zoë hired a car and we headed to Bristol for a week of eating, drinking and relaxing, with a wedding conveniently plonked in the middle of our break. The feeling of being somewhere else, one I’ve previously had to conjure up by reading a novel, watching Call My Agent or eating in a restaurant, was even better experienced, in long last, in real life: I wish you could bottle it. Perching outside Small Street Espresso with a latte, watching a bunch of people who don’t live in my hometown going about their daily business was a little pleasure to savour, as was sitting in Left Handed Giant’s wonderful brewpub drinking glorious beer after glorious beer. 

This wasn’t a staycation, it was a holiday – but what it really was was heavenly. So it was enormous fun to amble round St Nick’s before settling down to a cracking lunch of American barbecue. Schlepping up Park Street, passing Bristol’s outpost of C.U.P. made me feel oddly proud of Reading. Walking down Park Street later, having saved just enough room for a Swoon gelato, was even better. Everywhere we went you could find excellent food, great coffee and brilliant indie shops in abundance. We spent an idyllic afternoon wandering round Bedminster, Zoë’s old hood, buying artisan chocolates and scented candles and looking at all the amazing street art. How I’ve missed buying poncey shit like artisan chocolate and scented candles. 

“It wasn’t like this when I lived here” said Zoë, and the thought crossed my mind that Bristol was far from Shangri-La when I lived there in the Eighties, back in the mists of time. Oxford is a lot better now than it was when I lived there in the early Nineties, come to think of it. Perhaps if I really wanted Reading to become a fantastic place to eat, drink and shop I shouldn’t bother filling out Reading UK’s latest pointless Surveymonkey questionnaire. Maybe I should just move somewhere else: that would fix it.  

Culturally, Bristol felt different too. Mask-wearing was commonplace, with many shops mandating it rather than using carefully chosen words like “expected” or “encouraged”.  As someone with a partner who proudly works in retail, I get especially cross that the great British public seems to think nothing of exposing those people to risk. One independent shop I saw had a sign up in the window: WE LOVE YOUR FACES BUT PLEASE WEAR A MASK, it said. Quite right too. 

But it wasn’t just the shops. The buses going past had signs saying that you had to mask up, a far cry from the fudge of Reading Buses. If Bristol did have mask deniers or anti-lockdown protesters they were where they belonged, namely out of sight.

Finding somewhere to eat on a Monday in Bristol can be quite a challenge, but we had a table booked at Bravas, a tapas restaurant just off the Whiteladies Road, which has always been one of my favourite places to eat in the city. I partly wanted to go back because I wanted to support the places I’ve always loved, to try and do my bit to help them survive. And clearly many of Bravas’ customers felt likewise: there was a chalkboard leaned against the front of the restaurant paying an emotional tribute to all the punters who had kept them afloat in the past eighteen months. I found it surprisingly moving, and I don’t even live there.

The council – more progressive, predictably, than their counterparts in Reading – had pedestrianised the whole of Cotham Hill, which meant that enterprising restaurants like Bravas had put up al fresco seating. This isn’t unique to Bristol, of course: Soho has been pedestrianised too, and I remember seeing pictures of Arbequina, a restaurant on Oxford’s Cowley Road, the pavement outside packed with extra tables. Is it that Reading just didn’t have any restaurants that could have benefited from a similar approach, or was it the usual failure of imagination by the powers that be?

In normal times I would have loved to sit inside at Bravas – the interior is conspiratorial, buzzy and surprisingly like being back in Spain – but all the things that make that room wonderful in normal times made me reluctant to eat there right now. Fortunately, after a short wait they managed to fix us up with a table outside, in a makeshift decked area (it was very pleasant, although you did feel slightly seasick every time climbed aboard, or disembarked).

Bravas’ menu was relatively small and perfectly formed, with a section of nibbles, cheese and charcuterie and then vegetable, seafood and meat tapas dishes – and some specials up on a board (I’m still sad I never managed to find room for the goat stew they were serving the day I visited). The way to approach a menu like this, I’ve always thought, is to work out all the dishes you absolutely to ensure you eat, divide them into groups and order each group one at a time, only ordering more when you’ve finished what’s in front of you.

So we did exactly that, and I made inroads into a fantastic G&T – made with local Psychopomp gin, olive and rosemary, a Bristolian take on Gin Mare – while we waited for our first dishes to turn up. Zoë was on a Negroni, which Bravas sweetens slightly with a dash of Pedro ximènez, because Zoë is more hardcore than I could ever hope to be.

The first thing we had fell slightly flat. Bristol is packed with excellent bakeries, and I expected Bravas’ bread to be more exciting, less dense and pedestrian. But the alioli it came with was pleasant enough, even if the golden colour slightly oversold it. Better were the jamon croquettes – others I’ve had have leaned heavily on the béchamel but these were sturdier and all the better for it. They were two pounds fifty each, or six for twelve pounds. Immediately after eating one I wished we’d ordered half a dozen, but that’s me all over. Manchego with rosemary was excellent too, especially with lozenges of membrillo to perk them up sweetly.

Things really got into gear with the selection of cured meats. I know all this is more about sourcing than cooking, but buying the right stuff is every bit as much a skill all good restaurants need. And this very much was the right stuff. The best of the bunch was a beautiful lomo, marbled with fat, more like coppa than the very lean lomo I’m used to in Andalusia. But the cecina was the equal of any bresaola I’ve tasted, and the salchichón was coarse and gorgeous. Best of all, it came with plump, sharp caperberries and sweet, tangy guindilla chillies to wrap in charcuterie and pop in your mouth. Better still, because of Zoë’s aversion to pickles I got to eat them all.

We’d ordered a tortilla and a dish with chickpeas and tuna belly, but there was obviously some kind of mix up, because instead we were brought two portions of the tortilla. They must have known something we didn’t, because having to share a single portion would only have caused trouble. It was one of the best I’ve had, soft but not gooey, sweet with potatoes and onions: few dishes can transfigure the everyday so completely.

The other vegetable dishes were disappointing by comparison. The eponymous bravas looked the part, and are a dish I’ve loved in the past – rather than cubes of fried potato, Bravas slices a whole potato lengthways and it looks very striking when brought to the table. But the texture was missing in action, the slices a little bit flabby and limp, lacking in the crispness that makes this dish so addictive. The bravas sauce with them was spot on, but the lack of fighting over the final slices of spud told its own sad story.

Worse still was the special, Isle of Wight tomatoes with rocket, capers and anchovies. Now, some of that is my mistake because I guess, in the cold light of day, when you look at that list of ingredients it sounds an awful lot like a salad. And a salad it was – heavy on the rocket, light on the tomatoes, the capers completely AWOL. And it wasn’t so much dressed as mulchy, sitting in a bowl with a little pool of what tasted like vinegar at the bottom. Given that we were in a tapas restaurant, and the tomatoes got top billing, I foolishly thought they would be the star of the show, as they would have been in Spain. More fool me, I suppose.

Things needed to improve, and fortunately they did with our last three dishes. Presa iberico turned up looking like a still life, served blushing in the middle, artfully dressed with charred rosemary and scattered with hefty salt crystals. And it was very good indeed, but it felt a little too little for too much at eight pounds fifty (although, to be fair, the following night we’d have a similar dish at Michelin-starred Paco Tapas that set you back twenty pounds). 

Cod a la plancha was more successful, a terrific piece of fish which flaked easily with a single artichoke on top, served with a gazpacho verde which felt a lot like a salsa verde to me. But half the fun of a piece of fish like this is a nicely crispy skin: our piece was missing half its skin, and what there was wasn’t crispy. Even so it was an enjoyable dish, although I couldn’t help wondering whether I should have ordered that goat stew after all. Finally, possibly the nicest dish of the meal: chicken chicharrones turned out to be nothing of the kind but just a superb plate of rugged, crunchy fried chicken, with a chilli alioli on top. I wish they’d brought us two of these by mistake instead, but that’s life.

Service was really stretched thin, and a little frazzled all afternoon. I felt for them, because it looked like they’d been badly hit by track and trace pings, to the extent where the chefs had to bring quite a few of the dishes to our table, and others. It was a real shame, and clearly not their fault – when you did get someone’s attention they were unfailingly lovely, but it could be difficult to flag someone down. I suspect we’d have drunk more if we’d been able to do that, but as it was we only managed another glass of wine each. The wine list, incidentally, was great, and both the wines we tried by the glass – a beautifully fresh chardonnay and gewurztraminer blend for Zoë, a robust, aromatic Rioja for me – were knockout.

The waiting staff were also particularly good towards the end of our meal when an elderly gentleman, dapper in overcoat and hat, wandered in from the Lebanese restaurant next door, took a seat at the table next to us, opened his polystyrene takeaway container and starting having at his kebab with a plastic fork. One of them came over and explained ever so nicely to him that the seating was reserved for customers of Bravas, and after they had some trouble getting this point across, patiently and politely, the intruder shambled off to munch on his lunch elsewhere: they earned every bit of our tip for that interaction alone. Our meal – all that tapas, a couple of cocktails and a couple of glasses of wine – came to ninety-two pounds fifty, not including service.

It’s tricky when you go to a restaurant you love and, by their high standards, they have an off day. I’ve enjoyed all my other meals at Bravas, objectively speaking, far more than this one. And yet this isn’t a normal time to weigh up restaurants, and Bravas seemed to be struggling with the pingdemic we are in, like so many hospitality businesses at the moment. 

Initially I was inclined to be more critical of the restaurant, but looking back I can’t help but remember the hotel we stayed in on our first night in Bristol. They’d given us a room up in the eaves where the bed was too big for the room it was in, so you could only really get into bed on one side. The other side, right next to the wall, had no bedside table and no lamp. The tiny TV was on a tiny chest of drawers in the corner which looked like it had been ransacked from an office closure. The 2019 version of me would have called reception and asked to see another room. It’s a life hack I learned from my ex-wife, who did it all the time.

But then I thought: I am away from home, on holiday, for the first time in a year and a half. I have a beautiful king-sized bed to spend the night in and a fantastic partner to share it with. There’s a huge claw-footed bath next door – I adore baths, more than I can say – and the sort of wet room and rainfall shower you could easily spend a long time in. I am fit and well, I’m double-jabbed and all things considered life could be an awful lot worse. And I never watch the TV in hotel rooms anyway. Really, who does?

So 2021 me stopped mithering about my hotel room, and in the same spirit 2021 me had a lovely afternoon at Bravas. It could have been even better, but I’ve spent eighteen months a long way from my best, and they had the decency to take me as they found me. The least I could do, under the circumstances, was return the favour. I dare say I’ll pay them a visit again next time I go to Bristol, and that day can’t come soon enough. In the meantime, I’ll work on being more grateful. It might make me a worse restaurant reviewer, but hopefully a marginally better person.

Bravas – 7.5
7 Cotham Hill, Redland, Bristol, BS6 6LD
0117 3296887

https://bravas.co.uk

Revolución de Cuba

Let’s get this out of the way straight away: it’s not a typo, you don’t need to adjust your set and you definitely don’t have to pay Specsavers a visit. This really is a review of Revolución de Cuba, Reading’s Latin American bar slash (chain) restaurant.

You might wonder what possessed me. Here’s what – I’ve been complaining for some time about Reading lacking a good tapas restaurant, a feeling which was compounded by a holiday in Granada at the start of the month. I returned even more bereft that I couldn’t find somewhere good to eat jamon, manchego, croquetas or chorizo in cider (let’s not dwell on the fact that in Granada you get something free with every beer: one step at a time).

On my first day back in Reading I sat in the courtyard outside Workhouse Coffee and ate paneer from Bhel Puri House while enjoying a crisp Estrella from the hotel bar next door, and it made a decent substitute but I still found myself wishing Reading had somewhere more suitable. That’s when the idea of trying the tapas menu at Revolución de Cuba entered my head.

After all, it might have been a chain but it was hardly a big one: less than twenty branches across the UK. And although it was part of the same group as Revolution, I’d been pleasantly surprised when I went to Revolution on duty back in 2015 (that said, I’d never been back, probably assuming that lightning never strikes twice in the same place). So on a Monday night I mooched over to Friar Street with my regular dining companion Zoë, wondering if my expectations would be surpassed.

My first impression was that it’s a striking – and gigantic – space. It used to be the old HMV building (I have plenty of happy memories of those days) and Revolución de Cuba waited a long time to open here, initially applying to take over the site in late 2014 and wrangling with the council before eventually opening two years later. The fit out had been nicely done – the long bar down the left looked especially inviting – and the room went back a very long way indeed, gradually getting darker and more conspiratorial.

Actually, that was probably my second impression. My first impression was that I wasn’t sure if I was in a bar or a restaurant, whether I could just plonk myself at a table or wait to be seated and whether it was bar or table service. We stood waiting near the front like lemons for some time before a solitary waitress told us to sit anywhere, before going on to explain that the two areas nearest to the front were probably more suitable for dining.

That might have been a more useful distinction at weekends when the place was busier, but when I went the place was pretty dead; there was a couple sitting at the tables nearest to the window, but the only thing they seemed to be eating was each other (in broad daylight on a Monday evening: I didn’t know whether to be appalled or impressed). Gladly they put their coats on and left seconds later – headed for the nearest Travelodge, I imagine – so we took the table next to where they’d been sitting. Was it my imagination, or did the banquette reek of sex?

The menu looked nice enough, although I don’t think it was the thing that had got them so frisky. It was divided into tapas and main plates, and was a mixture of Spanish, Tex-Mex and general 2019 box-ticking (halloumi, pulled jackfruit and so on). The tapas tended to come in around the six pound mark with three for fourteen pounds, so we decided to go for that, along with a couple of sides. While we waited for our food to turn up I had a pint of Angry Orchard which was just what I needed and not too dry (albeit oddly named: why so cross? Had it been reading the BBC website?) and Zoë had a bottle of Pacifico Clara, a serviceable crisp lager not that distinguishable from Modelo.

We’d asked for some guacamole and tortilla chips while we made up our mind, so this was the first thing to come out. A sign on the wall said it was freshly made, and although I wasn’t entirely sure it had been made to order it was decent, with just a little heat lurking in there. The previous week I’d been to Wahaca on the South Bank and their guacamole was better (as I had expected it to be) but not by a country mile. The tortilla chips were a little wan and not quite up to the job of dipping but again, for three pounds I was hardly devastated.

The tricky bit is what happened next: all the rest of our food was brought out at once. This wasn’t a problem in itself: god knows I’ve been known to bitch about the likes of Wagamama bringing out dishes as and when they’re ready, but for tapas this style of serving seems much more appropriate. But the real problem was that although the dishes were all brought out at the same time, some of them had clearly been sitting around a while. So much of what should have been piping hot was verging on tepid, and in many cases that made a world of difference.

Take the chorizo in red wine and honey, for instance. Done well, this is a superb dish – I had something very similar in Granada – but Revolución de Cuba’s version was cold. Not fridge-cold, but cooked-some-time-ago-cold. It came in a terra cotta pot without any steam or sizzle, and the pot was cold to the touch. So, pretty much, was the chorizo which made me wonder if it had spent any time in the sauce or just been introduced to it right at the end like some kind of super-awkward culinary blind date. It had been cut into weirdly-shaped segments by somebody who appeared never to have seen or eaten chorizo before.

The patatas bravas – a staple of any tapas menu – were also distinctly underwhelming. They had been placed on the mat in the middle of the table as if they’d be scorching hot, but again they weren’t. There just wasn’t the crispiness I was hoping for, and the helping of spicy sauce and aioli was both disappointing and miserly: there should have been more of it, but I wasn’t especially sad that there wasn’t.

Better were the pork belly skewers, which were well cooked, all fat melted away and a crispy-crackling layer on top. I’m not sure I got the “signature spicy rum sauce” which had apparently been used, but I wasn’t complaining. These reminded me of the pork belly at The Real Greek, which is higher praise than it might sound.

I also enjoyed the jerk fried chicken, although that says more about my love of fried chicken than of Revolución de Cuba’s version. It was nicely seasoned, if a little too crunchy, and it didn’t need the rum mayo I didn’t dip it in. But even here it could have stood with being hotter, and although the texture was a long way from mechanically recovered meat, they didn’t feel like single pieces of coated chicken. Make of that what you will.

The more Latin American dishes we’d ordered were the ones that really fell flat. Chicken quesadillas might have been average if they’d been served hot but they arrived much closer to room temperature, wan anaemic things it was difficult to get excited about. We’d also ordered pulled beef tostadas, but the beef itself was claggy, bland and lukewarm. You didn’t get much of it before the dish gave way to the (cheaper) guacamole underneath and the tortilla shell, which pretty much made it the dish we’d started the meal with. The Cuban term for this beef is ropa vieja, which it turns out doesn’t translate as old rope: a shame, as it would have been apt.

Finally, we also had some crispy fried courgette. Well, two out of three anyway: it was indeed courgette but cut thick enough that getting it crispy was always going to be a challenge. I didn’t mind this, but even as I ate it I was aware of how many places do it better (especially Papa Gee). It was apparently served with Cuban gremolata, although barely enough to be noticeable, and if it had been fried in “Mojito batter” you really wouldn’t have known that either.

“This is a menu that reads much better than the food looks or tastes, isn’t it?” I said to Zoë as we surveyed the plates (mostly empty, although neither of us had shown much interest in the insipid chorizo).

“I’m afraid so. I’d come back for the guacamole, the chicken and the pork belly but that’s it.” I thought about it and tended to agree: three out of eight wasn’t exactly a stellar hit rate. I reflected on the other reviews I’d seen of Revolución de Cuba, so breathless, so enthusiastic, so positive. So comped, come to think of it. We decided to skip the churros (no doubt described somewhere on the internet as “yummy”) and asked for the bill. The whole lot – six tapas dishes, two sides, a pint and two beers – came to just under fifty pounds, not including tip. That’s not an expensive meal by most standards, but even at that price point your money would go much further in a many other places.

So far so meh, but I do have to say a word about the service. Georgina, who looked after us (and, seemingly, everyone else in Revolución de Cuba that night) was lovely – personable, polite and likeable. She came over halfway through – mid-mouthful, as wait staff always do – to check if our food was okay and we both muttered the usual pleasantries. But when she came with the bill she asked more than once, as if she actually wanted to know. So we told her. The food all came out at the same time because that’s how the kitchen did it, she said. We explained that it might be better not to and that some of the food had been cold as a result. She promised to feed that back, and I believe she did (every bit as much as I expect that feedback fell on deaf ears).

In conversation with Zoë, who tends to ask lots of questions, Georgina told us that she was studying for a Masters in criminology (a part-time job which involves looking out on Friar Street on a Friday and Saturday night probably forms part of her dissertation, come to think of it). It can be rare in chain restaurants to feel looked after rather than processed, and Revolución de Cuba would have got a lower mark if it wasn’t for the service. I wanted to tip her extra, just for enduring the canoodling couple from earlier on (“it was definitely heavy petting”, said Zoë later, “you’d get kicked out of a swimming pool for that”).

I never saw Revolución de Cuba as the kind of place I might eat on a Friday or Saturday night – I’m far too old and unfashionable for that – but I did hope it might be a serviceable small plates restaurant for a school night, or a spot of lunch on the weekend. Sadly, I think it doesn’t quite hit that level either. Some of the dishes are decent enough, but you can get them better elsewhere – Mission is better for tacos or burritos, The Real Greek better for small plates and Bhel Puri House better still. Whenever I ask what chain restaurant people would most like to see in Reading the response is overwhelming: people would love a Wahaca to open here. Based on my visit to Revolución de Cuba that gap in the market is still there. My own personal gap in the market also remains empty: if I want to feel like I’m in Andalusia, I’m going to have to get on a plane.

Revolución de Cuba – 6.6
138-141 Friar Street, RG1 1EX
0118 2077016
https://www.revoluciondecuba.com/bar/reading/

Bench Rest

Bench Rest stopped operating out of the Tasting House in September 2019 after less than a year. The Tasting House closed in April 2021. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

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/

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. 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/