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/

Giggling Squid, Henley

Although most ER reviews are of independent restaurants, I’m not against chains for the sake of it. Not all chains are the same: there are big and small ones, good and bad ones – just as there’s a difference between the silver chain you’d hang a pendant from and the lunking great thing you’d use to secure your bike to the railings.

I was struck by this wandering round Henley on a sunny Bank Holiday Monday, because they have chains just like Reading does, only different ones. So there are shops like Space NK and Joule’s – the next tier up, you could say, places in the same bracket as Jigsaw and LK Bennett. It’s the same with cafés and restaurants, so Henley has a Maison Blanc, a Hotel du Vin, and a CAU. I did briefly consider going to CAU to find out what we had to look forward to when the Reading branch opens this month, but nothing about the décor appealed: the nasty rigid white chairs and sterile banquettes screamed “downmarket Gaucho”.

Besides, I was on my way to a more intriguing phenomenon: Giggling Squid has grown from a single branch in Hove six years ago to a chain of thirteen restaurants (many of them opening in sites which used to belong to other chains – a handful used to be branches of Strada, Henley’s was previously an ill-fated Brasserie Gerard). And there are more on the way – the management wants to make this the first nationwide Thai chain, with plans for somewhere between fifty and eighty sites. It’s funny how, despite the popularity of Thai, Indian and Chinese food they still tend, by and large, to be chain-free zones (unless you count the delights of Ken Hom’s Yellow River Café, one of the Oracle’s first ever tenants way back when). I’ve never understood why that is – was Giggling Squid going to challenge that status quo?

It’s a lovely old building at the bottom of Hart Street and it’s been done up very nicely. On the way there I walked past Henley’s long-serving restaurant, Thai Orchid and it was the picture of an old-fashioned Thai restaurant, all dark wood, ornate panelling and intricate, inlaid, glass-topped dining tables. Giggling Squid couldn’t be more different, with its pale walls, exposed beams and almost Scandinavian bleached bentwood chairs. The front room, where I sat, was more traditional – the big room at the back was much better lit and I’d rather have sat there, but I didn’t have much choice in the matter. Which brings me to the second thing I noticed about it: it was absolutely rammed (I was lucky to get a table at all without a reservation, and quite a few couples who came in after me were turned away).

Giggling Squid bills itself as “Thai Tapas & Thai Restaurant”. The idea of anything other than Spanish food describing itself as tapas makes me feel a little exasperated, but what it essentially means is that at lunchtime, rather than having a traditional a la carte menu the main options are one of six “tapas sets”, each of them a mixture of three different dishes and jasmine rice. You can order lots of tapas separately instead, although I’m not sure why anyone would unless you really disliked the set combinations, or you can have what they describe as “one big dish with rice” or a “two dish meal combi”. This all felt overly complicated for me – did I want one big dish, two middling dishes or four small dishes? was there an option of having eight minuscule dishes? – so we went for a tapas selection each. And some prawn crackers. And some chicken satay (which by my reckoning makes a total of ten small dishes, sort of).

Despite the restaurant being extremely busy everything arrived very quickly indeed. Prawn crackers came in a metal pail and were good but unexceptional. It was a huge portion of crackers and an absurdly tiny ramekin of sweet chilli sauce – I couldn’t help feeling I would have liked less crackers and more dip, but they were pleasant enough and lasted just until the rest of the food turned up.

So, on to the tapas (if I really must call it that) itself: a square plate divided into four with something different on each section. Much as I might have wanted to turn my nose up at the concept I couldn’t fault the food. Shredded duck spring roll was a huge thing, full of dense strands of duck, served on a surprisingly subtle puddle of hoi sin that wasn’t just relentless sweetness. Prawn toasts were much better than I expected, crispy and light with a gorgeous layer of toasted sesame, served with more of the sweet chilli sauce. Salt and pepper squid was not at all chewy and the batter was beautifully light (maybe too light, as it did fall off the squid the moment it was challenged with a fork) served on another puddle of sauce – this time hot chilli with no sweetness. The beef salad was the cousin of the chicken salad I raved about from Art of Siam – soft, tender strips of beef on top of a bowl of salad filled to the brim with hot, sharp, sour sauce. It was agony and ecstasy to eat and would be perfect for anyone with a bit of congestion – the heat would soon clear that up.

WealthySquid

Because of the set combinations we’d gone for (“Two Giggling Squids” and “Wealthy Squid”, I have no idea why they’re called that, so don’t even ask) we had massaman curry two ways. The lamb was gorgeous, slow cooked and reassuringly free of wobble and the chicken was in tender, slender slices. There were nice firm chunks of potato, lots of onion and a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on how you look at it) sprinkling of crispy fried onion on top. The sauce was perhaps a little subtler than I’m used to but still went beautifully with the rest of the rice – and I’ve always thought, and said many times, that the rice and sauce at the end of a Thai main course is the best bit.

2Squids

The chicken satay, ordered as an extra out of curiosity, was probably more food than we needed but again, it was very good: tender, soft chicken, not dried-out fibrous breast meat, easy to slide off the skewers and dunk in a fresh clear dipping sauce or a spiced but fragrant satay sauce that was a lot more than hot Sun-Pat. We finished the lot, although it put paid to any plans I had for dessert – a pity, as I had my eye on the black sesame ice cream. Still, there’s always next time.

The menu, come to think of it, was full of little flashes of personality like that which made it feel a lot less like a chain. That really came across in the wine list in particular which managed that rare trick of getting a slightly irreverent tone without making you want to cringe. Written by the co-owner, it compared the Chardonnay – described as something like “rich and fruity” – to her husband before mentioning the extensive research he had done trying to find some reds that went with spicy food. That sort of thing might make your toes curl, but I found it oddly charming (oh, and we had a couple of glasses of the Chardonnay: if her husband is anything like that she could have done an awful lot worse).

Service was harried but friendly. It felt difficult to get attention right at the start, but given how popular the place was I was impressed by how efficient they were; at the end, when the lunchtime rush was fading out, the waiters were a lot more friendly and interested. We went from sitting down to being out of the door in just over an hour which I think is fair enough on a busy lunchtime, especially when you’re only really having one course. Lunch for two – two tapas sets, prawn crackers, chicken satay and two glasses of wine – came to £40 with a semi-optional 10% service charge on top. The tapas sets were just under £12 each, which I thought was pretty decent value.

The owners of Giggling Squid have talked about Côte as the chain they’d like to emulate and I can see why – it’s a great example of how a chain can get everything right and be consistent without being faceless. And I think Giggling Squid does that too; I liked almost everything I had, it’s a lovely spot, it’s very tastefully done and the service is good. I do wonder, though, whether the reason they haven’t chosen to target Reading is that it already has three well-established Thai restaurants with good reputations – the kind of day-in, day-out consistency that is the brand promise of most chains. I wonder too what Giggling Squid will be like if it hits its targets, has a hundred branches worldwide and takes over all the vacant Stradas, Bella Italias and Café Rouges out there. But that’s all years ahead: in the meantime, it’s worth going so you can say you were there in the early days (or back when it was good, depending on how it all turns out). I might see you there, because the whole experience made me want to go back – partly for that sesame ice cream, but mainly to try the evening menu, which is so packed with tempting-looking fish and seafood dishes that I literally wouldn’t know where to start.

Giggling Squid – 7.7
40 Hart Street, Henley-On-Thames, RG9 2AU
01491 411044

http://www.gigglingsquid.com/branches/henley.html

Alto Lounge

I like to bang on about service in restaurants, but this week it occurred to me that I might be part of the problem. After all, I talk about service, but if you look back at my other reviews it’s usually tucked away near the end. It’s the penultimate paragraph, stuck between the desserts and the summing up, sharing space like uneasy housemates with the bit about How Much It All Cost.

For some reason it’s difficult to write about service in detail unless it’s bad, and when it’s bad I feel guiltier about going into detail than I would about a disappointing dish. Funny how the human face of a restaurant, even though it’s what you see, attracts less comment than all the faceless people toiling away in the kitchen.

So, to redress the balance, even if only for one week: the service at Alto Lounge was some of the best I’ve had in a long time. The two women working the night I went were an absolute joy: friendly, likeable, helpful and interested. They stopped me going up to the bar to order more drinks when my food had just arrived, even though technically Alto Lounge doesn’t do table service. It properly felt like they wanted to make sure I had a good evening, and when I settled up and left the goodbyes were so genuine that it made me want to go back.

I was especially impressed with the service because I wasn’t expecting it to be quite that good. Alto Lounge is a casual dining place: not quite a restaurant, not quite a café, not quite a pub. It sits on the main street in Caversham, along from Waitrose and opposite Costa Coffee (in fact, looking at their other Reading location, in Woodley, you might think their policy for new branches is just find somewhere near a Waitrose).

I’ve had people recommending Alto Lounge’s breakfast to me, but it’s always felt like a bit of a trek out of town for the first meal of the day. However, the rest of the menu felt like it warranted further investigation. For a start, there was a tapas section (Reading really is missing out on tapas) and also, with my New Year’s resolution in mind, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of vegetarian options. Yes, it’s that week of the month.

I liked the interior of Alto Lounge. It’s dark without being gloomy, the walls covered in cool posters and Tretchikoff prints, retro without feeling naff or calculated. The furniture was reminiscent of Bill’s (I wonder if they get their school-style chairs from the same supplier?) but the atmosphere was buzzier and more intimate.

So, great service, great atmosphere and a lovely room. I suppose the Hollywood ending here would be for me to rave about the food, you could all add it to your list of reliable, affordable places to visit in town and we could all go on with our days that little bit happier. I’d love to be able to do that, but reality is never anything like Hollywood and so it proved here. We started with tapas – Tuesday is “Tapas Tuesday” at Alto Lounge and you can get three dishes with a glass of house wine for under a tenner – which might have gone some way to explaining the crowds (they also have “Cheeky Monday”, but I don’t ever want to be the sort of person who has a “cheeky glass of wine”, so I didn’t pay it too much notice).

The tapas at Alto Lounge is a good example of how authenticity isn’t everything. So for instance, the pick of the bunch was shredded pork in sticky sweet five spice with a sprinkling of coriander – about as Spanish as I am, but very tasty all the same. The beetroot and feta tortilla wasn’t bad either – more a frittata than a tortilla, with not much egg and lots and lots of chunks of waxy potato which dominated it somewhat. I liked the feta in it, which added the salt it needed to save it from blandness. I quite enjoyed it, even if it was about as Spanish as someone who went to Barcelona once on a city break. Last but not least, the lamb koftas with grated carrot and tzatziki were gorgeous – the lamb coarse and well-seasoned, the texture just right and the tzatziki respectable and fresh. Gorgeous and, well, Greek. On a normal night these three dishes would cost a little over nine pounds – great nibbles if you were here for a drink but, perversely, not brilliant value as a starter.

Alto_tapas

No, where things really went wrong was with the mains. The falafel burger sounded perfect on paper – sweet potato falafel, halloumi, roasted peppers and tomato chutney, the kind of dish that, well-executed, could stop a diner missing meat for good. In reality it was out of balance in every way. The falafel burger was a big hockey puck of a thing (“it looks a bit Findus” was the dubious feedback from the other side of the table) and, possibly because of the sweet potato, tasted oddly soapy. The texture was smooth not coarse and, because it was so huge, it was too much fluffy middle and not enough crunchy edge. The slice of halloumi, by contrast, was the thinnest I think I’ve ever seen (let’s face it, nobody has ever looked at a dish and said “you know what, that is way too much halloumi”). There was a little smear of chutney and some peppers – and a lot of raw red onion which I could have done without – but overall it was hard, hard work. The coleslaw with it was in an oddly thin and watery dressing, the fries (allegedly skin-on) felt like oven chips. But the burger was the Achilles heel – I could have forgiven everything else if the falafel had been up to scratch.

AltoBurger

The winter vegetable risotto was similarly disappointing. On the bottom was a layer of plain, unflavoured, unseasoned risotto which had been cooked for so long that it lost any bite and was claggy, like wallpaper paste. No shallots or garlic in there, either. Next up was a layer of winter vegetables which, dare I say it, I suspect had been roasted, then chilled, then microwaved. Some were hot and chewy, some were cold and chewy and most of them were – again – flavourless. On top of that was a handful of rocket with a few slivers of hard cheese, which I think was Parmesan, sprinkled with a few seeds.

I ordered this dish thinking it was vegetarian – although it’s hard to tell – the menu doesn’t actually list the vegetarian options (it says there’s a vegan menu, no mention of a vegetarian one). Nor does it mention that this dish contains Parmesan, for that matter. Perhaps I am being too tough and were I a real vegetarian I would know to ask, but it still felt – to me at least – neglectful. Even with the cheese it all tasted largely of nothing and, worst of all, I can (and do) cook a considerably better risotto at home. The best bit of the whole dish were the five crispy leaves of fried sage; a little touch that suggests all is not entirely lost in the kitchen.

Altorisotto

I liked Alto Lounge so much, and I so wanted them to recover from the mains, that I wanted to order dessert. But when push came to shove, I couldn’t do it. The selection is limited to five options you see pretty much everywhere (brownie, treacle tart, apple pie, cheesecake, sticky toffee pudding) and it felt more meh than menu. So we paid up – dinner for two with three tapas, two mains, a couple of glasses of wine and a few ciders came to thirty-five pounds – and said our goodbyes.

Normally first impressions are everything, but actually with Alto Lounge it’s the last impression that has stayed with me. It was sparsely occupied when I turned up, but by the time I left only one table was free, and looking back through the windows from outside it had the warm, welcoming glow of a place you want to visit. Almost a trick of the light, but not quite. How I wish I’d liked the food more. No, that isn’t right: how I wish the food had been better. I actually can see myself coming back, but more in its capacity as a bar. I could quite happily grab a table with some friends, open a bottle of wine or get the ciders in, play cards or a board game and keep ordering tapas until I was full. Maybe that’s what they are aiming for, but as a restaurant it doesn’t quite cut it. I’m sad that I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it – but maybe you should go, even if only once, just to see how much great service makes you want to overlook.

Alto Lounge – 6.5
32 Church Street, RG4 8AU
0118 9473522

http://www.thelounges.co.uk/alto-lounge/

Round-up: September

Well, Edible Reading has been going for over a month and I thought it would be a good point to stop for a moment and say thanks to everyone who has followed on Twitter, commented on a review or passed on a link. I’ve been really wowed by all the support, which is fantastic (in fact I even got my first hater – or are they called trolls now, I can never remember – which is proof that I’ve really made it!) In case you’ve missed anything in the first six weeks, here’s what’s happened on the blog so far…

Pepe Sale, 8.3 – Lovely food, superb service and crab ravioli to die for. Read the full review here.

ZeroDegrees, 5.4 – Reading needs a place that does great pizza and delicious moules but Zero Degrees, with its cut corners and wonky service, isn’t it. Read why not here.

London Street Brasserie, 6.8 – The elder statesman of Reading’s restaurant scene still offers some really good food, but you have to pick carefully and you’re better off staying on the set menu. The full review’s here.

Picasso, 4.1 – When is a tapas restaurant not a tapas restaurant? When the tapas in question is massive, costs almost a tenner and feels like it came from a bad supermarket. The worst rating so far, see why here.

Five Guys, 5.5 – It’s just a burger… or is it? The much-hyped latest addition to Reading’s restaurant scene has attracted lots of attention. I chip in (pardon the pun) with my two pence here.

In terms of restaurant news, apart from Five Guys, the main place to open since Edible Reading opened its doors is Tasting House, on Chain Street, in a rather unlovely location round the side of John Lewis. It does a small selection of charcuterie and cheese boards, a dozen or so wines by the glass and a large range of wines to take home. I’m not generally a fan of reviewing places just after they’ve opened (although in the case of Five Guys the temptation was too great to resist), but maybe a bit further down the line. It’s only open until eight though, so don’t plan on settling in for the evening if you do go.

Also, Thai Nine has closed and reopened as Sushimania, which means it will be part of a small chain with other branches at Golders Green and Edgware. Presumably this is a takeover, like when Sahara closed and reopened as BeAtOne. It’s an interesting move, because every time I’ve been to Thai Nine I thought the Thai food was much more popular than the sushi (and I say that as a sushi lover). I imagine I’ll review Sushi Mania in due course, so watch this space.

Another piece of news is that I like to think we’re having an effect on the Reading Post. They published a review earlier this month which wasn’t one hundred per cent glowing – of Wild Lime Bar & Kitchen, which you can read here (apparently it was “pleasant enough”).

Best of all, I’m also happy to say that another local restaurant blog has started around the same time as Edible Reading (I know, I know! We’re like buses). Stuff In My Face is a lot of fun, a cracking read and I’m looking forward to seeing what he makes of places round here. His very entertaining review of Pierre’s, here, is a great place to start.

Finally, thanks too to everyone who has recommended a restaurant for me to visit. Suggestions so far range from some of the Reading classics like Mya Lacarte and Sweeney & Todd to newish places like The Lobster Room, Bhoj, and House Of Flavours. I’m keeping a list and will try to get to all of them eventually, I promise.

Right, better go – I’ve got some meals to plan.

Picasso

Picasso closed in October 2019. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

One of the editorial decisions I had to make when I started Edible Reading sounds like a minor one, but it prompted much deliberation. Not where to eat, or which font to use, or whether to put captions underneath my terrible pictures, but something more basic: where do you put the mark out of 10? I quite liked the idea, like Pitchfork for example, of putting the mark right at the top so you knew before reading whether I thought the restaurant was any good. In the end, I went with the conventional method of putting it at the bottom. The idea is that people read on to the end, curious about whether I’m going to turn out to be a fan of Pepe Sale, ZeroDegrees, London Street Brasserie etc.

Most of the time this works out fine, but the only exception is when you give a bad review. People love bad reviews, and I’m no exception; there’s a certain pleasure to be had from reading one. So I think I should warn you from the outset that this is a bad review. Picasso is not a good restaurant. I won’t go again, and I’d actively encourage you to follow my example. Got that? Right, on we go then.

I started out reviewing places I’ve been before – not new places, not unknowns – partly because I wanted to find my feet and partly because I wanted to pick places you might have been, so you could get an idea whether we liked the same stuff and you trusted my judgment. But this couldn’t go on forever, so I asked for suggestions about where I should go next. “Try Picasso”, someone said on Twitter, “I’ve heard mixed reviews and I’ve never been able to bring myself to try it.” Good idea, I thought. What’s the worst that can happen?

It turns out the worst that can happen is eating dinner at Picasso.

It’s one of those places, ironically, that ought to fill a gap in the market. Reading has never had a decent tapas restaurant, unless you count La Tasca (and, having eaten there before it closed, I don’t). Picasso has been going a long time, tucked away in a quiet little spot just over Caversham Bridge, so it must be doing something right. So I booked a table for 8 o’clock on a Saturday night and wandered across town, stopping in the Moderation for a pre-prandial gin and tonic. Eating somewhere you’ve never been before always has that feeling of excitement and anticipation, like that point at Christmas when you sit on the sofa, ready to unwrap a present in front of all your relatives.

The inside of Picasso, I would guess, hasn’t changed in over thirty years; basic furniture in a long thin room, pictures on the walls, cloth napkins, tables not too close together. A few tables were in dark corners, and I carefully avoided being led to one of those. Although it was unprepossessing I was determined not to judge the book by its cover: after all, Pepe Sale does great food and is never going to feature in Elle Decoration. The interior Picasso reminded me most of was the recently departed Nino’s, in Market Place, in fact, another old school restaurant where I’ve somehow never managed to have an inspiring meal.

Everything started well: the service in Picasso is very good, authoritative, old-fashioned service. The waiter recommended a Ribero Del Duero which was not on the wine list, was only £22 and was probably the best thing about the whole evening. He also – and this has to be a first – cautioned us against ordering too much food. Two tapas per person was enough for an evening meal, he said, so we should go easy on them.

In hindsight, I should have known at this point that something was amiss. Tapas are not meant to be big. That’s the whole point of them, and their whole appeal because it means you can try dozens of little things without being stuck with a giant portion of anything. After all, if you wanted that you’d go to a restaurant that served starters and main courses, wouldn’t you? A look at the menu proved that either the tapas were far too big or they were far too expensive: most of them were between eight and ten pounds. This is definitely the point where alarm bells began to ring, just as other couples started to take their tables. A lot of them had clearly been here before, though, so I must just have been worrying unduly. Mustn’t I?

When the tapas turned up it became apparent that they were both too big and too expensive, and worse still just not very good. A plato combinado of jamon serrano and chorizo was limp and insipid. The chorizo was barely an evolutionary step up from luncheon meat with a sun tan, bouncy and tasteless. The jamon serrano was even more of an insult, with the shiny dampness of something that had spent the previous few hours in a plastic catering pack of some description, each slice sandwiched between leaves of plastic. I wasn’t expecting them to have a leg of jamon hanging over the bar (hoping maybe, but certainly not expecting) but I did at least want to feel like this was good quality stuff. I could have walked back into town, gone to Marks & Spencer and got more, better, jamon for under three pounds. I finished it out of sheer stubbornness and almost immediately regretted it.

If the jamon was sub-M&S, the mushrooms with garlic butter were sub-Iceland, and even then I am probably being kind. A huge bowl of breadcrumbed mushrooms with a few visible patches of melted garlic butter was plonked in front of us, with a wedge of lemon in case you had pretensions about that kind of thing. Cutting them open they were flabby and damp, and the whole thing had the feel of party food at a party you wished you didn’t have to attend. A funeral, perhaps. We didn’t eat them all.

I looked again at the red wine. It was good, but it wasn’t that good.

Picasso 1

The mains came almost as quickly as the starters had done, and were no better. Cerdo Asturiano was billed as pork fillet cooked in cider and cheese sauce. I was hoping for tenderloin, what I got was two thick slabs of steak with another slab of cheese melted on top of them. The sauce had no evidence that either cider or cheese had been used in it at all, it was the sort of anonymous red sauce that used to be made by Homepride and is now made by Dolmio. For all I know it could well have been. Accompanying it was a gigantic pile of fried cubed potatoes (presumably exactly the same thing you’d get if you ordered patatas bravas), some carrots which either came from a tin or had been cooked to closely resemble those that do, and some broccoli. It was clear that nobody left Picasso hungry, but that it was unlikely they left it satisfied either.

Swordfish in a cream, onion and mushroom sauce was just as disappointing. The swordfish was bland and flavourless and the sauce managed, if anything, to be less than the sum of its parts – thin, watery, with a hint of dill that might well have come out of a Schwartz jar. Swordfish, done well, is a beautiful thing but this was just boil in the bag cod in parsley sauce with delusions of grandeur. It came with the same piles of forgettable vegetables as the pork; in fact, I only took a photograph of one of the main courses but they were virtually identical, the single difference being which inadequate protein and sauce combination you’d been unlucky enough to plump for. The only things worth finishing in the whole restaurant, it seemed, were the wine and the experience.

Picasso 2

It’s worth stressing what bad value Picasso is. Most of the tapas, as I said, were just shy of a tenner. The two mains were eighteen and sixteen pounds respectively. You can eat better for the same money in Reading without having to try very hard, and I’ve already reviewed two places where you can do exactly that. I couldn’t quite believe all the other diners in the restaurant didn’t appreciate this, to the extent where I wanted to stop by their tables on the way out and actively encourage them to go somewhere else next time. As I didn’t do that, I’ll have to console myself by doing it here instead.

I’ll say one thing for Picasso, it was mercifully quick. From sitting down to deciding to pass on the dessert menu took an hour and twenty minutes, on a Saturday night, a peak time for restaurants when people want to sit down and have an enjoyable, leisurely meal. The high point of the weekend when we want to sit in lovely cosy room somewhere, escaping from X-Factor and the contents of our fridge and being spoiled and taken care of by other people. There were lots of things about Picasso that were very very wrong, but the worst of all is how it betrayed that promise that every restaurant implicitly makes, that it will whisk you away from all that. It was like eating in a friend’s house, if your friend wasn’t a very good cook, had gone to about four downmarket supermarkets to get all the ingredients and tried to charge you eighty quid for the privilege. If you had a friend like that, you’d stop seeing them. If you knew a restaurant like that, you’d stop going. Believe me, Picasso is that restaurant.

Picasso – 4.1
6 Bridge Street, Caversham, RG4 8AA
Telephone 0118 9484141

http://www.picasso-tapas.co.uk/