Bench Rest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bench Rest – 7.3

30a Chain Street, RG1 2HX
0118 9571531

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

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Feature: Solo dining

One of my favourite things about this gig is all the times I’m asked to recommend a restaurant. No two requests are exactly the same, so one day it will be What’s the best Indian restaurant in the town centre? and the next it will be Where’s good for a special occasion? Or sometimes the requests are more specific: Does anywhere have a private room that could deal with about fifteen only slightly rowdy diners? Where can I go that’s quite upmarket but I could go with my kids (oh, and preferably gluten free)?

One question I never get asked, though, is Where’s the best place to eat on your own? I guess ER readers are a sociable bunch and never think to eat out alone (I know a few of you are only down in Reading during the week for work, and have used the blog to find places to eat while you’re away from your families: really glad that it’s come in handy!). Or perhaps it’s because of the stigma attached to dining solo; it feels like this is sometimes judged in a way that going to the cinema, for example, just wouldn’t be. Waiting staff in restaurants don’t always help – I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been asked whether someone is joining me followed by the look of confusion or pity when I say actually, no, nobody is.

There’s a lot to be said for eating alone – being able to read a newspaper or a paperback between courses (and being able to put it down to take part in people watching, one of my favourite hobbies). Being able to order whatever you like without being silently judged; it can’t just be me who has friends like this? And, odd though this might sound, I love being in a restaurant on my own with all that bustle going on around me: silence is all very well, but there’s also something about the chatter of a buzzy restaurant which makes for very comforting background noise.

The perfect restaurant for solo dining has to meet slightly different criteria. Obviously the food has to be good – that never changes – but apart from that other considerations are higher up the list. Good tables for one which don’t involve you being stuck in a corner facing the wall in the spot specially designated for Billy No Mates. A decent view, preferably with a steady stream of passers-by. And, last but not least, the kind of warm service that doesn’t make you feel like a charity case who’s been stood up.

My best solo meal this year was in Pierre Victoire in Oxford, one of my favourite restaurants. I had a day off on my own and I went in on the off chance. They found me a lovely table upstairs, facing out into a room full of happy, boisterous, gesticulating diners. I had the two course set menu with a nice big glass of red (because I could) and an Orangina, served in that iconic glass bottle. I ate my food, I managed to finish off my book in between courses, and I just about managed to convince myself that I was in France after all: damn near unimprovable. So anyway, if you haven’t enjoyed the delights of a table for one I reckon you’re missing out. Here are six of my favourite places to do that in Reading, in case you fancy making like Jason Derulo.

I Love Paella

This part-time restaurant is fast becoming one of my new favourites in Reading. The seats at the windows offer a view which is every bit as good as television, onto the Oxford Road in all its chaotic, character-strewn glory. Food is bite-sized and it’s perfectly fine to order a couple of dishes, then a couple more if you haven’t had enough (and then, if you’re me, a choripan montadito for the road). There’s no alcohol license, so you can take along your own alcoholic drinks: personally I like a nice cold beer, or – judge away – gin and tonic in a can. Usually it’s a one man band here, so front of house is also the chef: he’s warm and welcoming and always seems slightly surprised to be busy, even though he deserves to be. Other diners here are especially lovely, with the large table in the middle fit for sharing, should you decide that you want a little conversation with your (amazing) pulled pork empanada.

ILPEmpanada

Côte

Somehow Côte manages to be the acceptable face of chains on the Oracle, with an interior that is perfect for a party of one. The tables round the edge are comfy and cosseting and mean that it’s possible to be tucked away whilst still getting to watch all the human traffic in the rest of the room. If the weather is nice the tiny outside tables facing onto the canal are even better – perfect to watch passers-by passing by, perhaps with a novel, a pair of sunglasses to hide behind and a glass of vin blanc to sip. The tuna nicoise remains one of my favourite dishes in Reading – and if you’re dining alone you can have that basket of bread all to yourself, because you’re worth it *swish swish*. There has been some recent controversy about whether Côte trousers all of the “optional” 12.5% service charge: the Evening Standard says they do, Côte vehemently denies that. Either way, probably best to knock it off the bill and tip cash, if only to reward the consistently excellent service.

Bakery House

A recent discovery, Bakery House is perfect for solo dining. It’s an unfussy room, the service is nice but unobtrusive and it’s always full of other diners enjoying some of the most interesting food in Reading right now. Because it’s emphatically casual dining you won’t be interrupted or turned or moved on, so you can take your time. And the dishes are well worth taking time over: last time I went there on my own I had the ozey lamb, a heap of spiced rice with minced lamb with big slices of lamb shank on top of it. Separate the meat from the fat, shred, mix in with the rice and eat with big dollops of thickened yoghurt. Utter bliss. No alcohol license here either, but people tell me the home made mint lemonade is so good you won’t miss it. Oh, and be warned: many of the dishes make liberal use of garlic so you might also want to remain solo if you go on anywhere after your meal.

BakeryChickSkew

Yo! Sushi

Yes, I know it’s another chain but there’s something about conveyor belt dining that is absolutely perfect for eating alone. You can choose what you like without having to compromise and you can clock up as many brightly coloured bowls as you like without anyone looking down their nose at you. Also, Yo! offers great people-watching potential as you look at other people sitting by the belt and imagine what their stories could be. The other advantage of turning Japanese is that this is one place where the staff only speak when spoken to. So if you’re feeling antisocial – or really engrossed in your book – it’s possible to have the whole meal without being interrupted, unless you want to order something that isn’t on the belt (I’d recommend the spicy pepper squid or the avocado maki). Shopping in House of Fraser beforehand is entirely optional; I do it, but the less said about my Paperchase habit the better.

Dolce Vita

Dolce Vita makes this list because there’s nowhere like it in Reading for service: the staff are all, without exception, warm and friendly and if you’re dining alone they check up on you to make sure you are alone but not lonely. It feels a little like eating round a friend’s house – a trick very few restaurants get right, mainly because so many of them can be a little over-friendly. The set menu remains pretty solid value and usually has some unusual stuff on it (at the time of writing the shakshuka – baked eggs – is especially good) but to be honest you could do a lot worse than a pizza. To top it all off, a seat on the balcony offers a nice view out and, on good days, plenty of sunshine.

Tasting House

I never used to be sure about settling in at the Tasting House – the furniture always seemed to scream stay here if you absolutely must – but since then a subtle refurb has made it somewhere you really want to linger. My absolute favourite spot is at a stool in the window, watching the people of Reading strolling down Chain Street (and in most cases doing a double take, as if they have never seen a wine bar before, let alone one with cheese boards). Food here is on the nibbly side, with cheeses and meats to pick at while enjoying your wine. Particular high points for me are the coppa and the tomato chutney, heaped onto a strong cheddar or a stinky blue. The staff here are the opposite of Yo! – if you’re having trouble choosing they’re as approachable as they are knowledgeable. Oh, and if you don’t have a Tasting House card for the enomatic machines it doesn’t matter – they can give you a staff card to use and bill you at the end. Only one thing stops it being the perfect solo destination – I’ve never managed to get a decent mobile signal there to go on Facebook and tell everybody how much fun I’m having. Oh well – there’s no shame in a restaurant being humblebrag-proof, is there?

TH2

Round-up: June and July

After another busy couple of months it’s time to take stock, recap the last batch of reviews and have a look at what’s going on in Reading’s food scene. Sit back, put your feet up, adjust the cushions and we’ll get started. All comfy now? Excellent…

Ruchetta, 7.5 – Easily the most expensive restaurant I’ve visited and reviewed, Ruchetta is a lovely house in a beautiful street with a menu appealing enough to send any hungry person into raptures. But is it quite worth the money? The $64,000 question (not literally, it’s not that expensive) is answered here.

Tampopo, 7.6 – I’d always dismissed Tampopo as another chain on the Oracle Riverside. Why go there, when you can just as easily and cheaply pop to Wagamama instead? It turns out there are a lot of reasons; go here to find out.

Tasting House, 6.8 – Is it shop? Is it a bar? Is it a restaurant? No, it’s Tasting House. The review, here, tells you whether it’s more Clark Kent or Man Of Steel.

Pappadams, 7.2 – In any other place, Pappadams might be the best Indian restaurant in town. In Reading, despite some lovely food, I think falls just short of that accolade. Read about why here.

My Kitchen, 7.5 – The lunch options in Reading seem to get more varied and interesting all the time. I went to My Kitchen to find out if it was a serious challenge to all those places on the legendary Coffee Corner. Sausage rolls, brownies and halloumi ensued: it’s all here.

Coconut Bar & Kitchen, 6.8 – One of Reading’s newest kids on the block specialises in yakitori skewers – a proper gap in the market. It’s an attractive room and they’ve obviously put work into the refit, but does the food live up to the venue? Here is what I thought.

The Catherine Wheel, 7.2 – In which Edible Reading became Edible Goring, through the magic of train travel. I was tipped off that the Catherine Wheel was a magical find in the country, and as it was less than quarter of an hour from Reading station I felt like I ought to put that to the test. My review – which includes Michael Portillo, Tim Howard, Watership Down and a mattress (sort of) is here.

It’s been a funny few months with very little in the way of openings and closings. Sadly, shortly after I reviewed it Cappuccina Café closed its doors for the last time (it’s a nail bar now, apparently next door to another nail bar). The sign outside said “It was genuinely a pleasure”. A real shame, as the time I ate there was also genuinely a pleasure and I know some of you will really miss their bánh mì.

I was hoping to confirm a comeback for the Eldon Arms: I’d heard – from the landlord, no less – that they were considering bringing back a restricted menu. Sadly, things have changed since I got that snippet of information – I now understand that the current landlords are leaving the pub and Wadworth has re-advertised it as vacant. Just as I thought I might get to try those burgers (or that delicious pulled pork) again, my hopes have been cruelly dashed. Such a pity, as it was a pub I could imagine spending more time in, good food or no.

The first opening that I’ve got wind of (that sounds disgusting, doesn’t it? let’s press on) is “RYND Bar & Kitchen” which is opening on 11 Castle Street, the site that used to be Club Evissa and before that was Dogma. (This “Bar & Kitchen” thing seems to be the new way to describe restaurants, doesn’t it? I can’t wait to book a “seat and cutlery” at one of them some time.) They’ve posted some pictures on their Twitter feed as they complete the fit-out of the interior, and according to their Facebook page they are currently recruiting “amazing, powerful, rhythmic, eccentric people” to join their team – including “Waiting staff who don’t mind getting weird”. Could be interesting: personally, “weird” isn’t high on the list of qualities I look for in waiting staff (and nor’s “rhythmic”, come to think of it), but what do I know? They are looking to open this autumn: their website is here, although there’s nothing to see at this stage.

The second one also sounds worth keeping an eye on: Faith Kitchen, down the Oxford Road, which promises authentic African food. It’s not clear from their Facebook page when they plan to open, and their website is under construction, but the success of Tutu’s Ethiopian Kitchen suggests that there’s certainly room for another African restaurant in Reading. I’m looking forward to paying it a visit.

There’s more to a town’s food scene than its restaurants and the other main event of the last few months has been a veritable explosion of supper clubs. For years, Reading’s only supper club was the excellent Friday Dinner Secrets, but all that has changed recently. Pop-Up Reading hosted its first night in June and is already building quite a buzz on Twitter, mainly by posting absolutely mouth-watering pictures of food (don’t look at their Twitter feed just before lunch. Or just after a disappointing sandwich. Or when there’s nothing in the fridge). They’ve also got lots of good coverage both in AltReading and Excellent News. More recently, I’ve got reports of a third supper club in Caversham; I don’t know much about it, but Secret Supper Club has recently set up on Twitter, so it will be interesting to see what they do. Have you been to any of Reading’s supper clubs? If so, what did you think?

Right, that’s all for this month. I’m off to go look at the Pop-Up Reading Twitter feed, get my M&S egg mayonnaise sandwich out of the fridge and let out an enormous sigh. You’ll probably be able to hear it from where you’re sitting. Don’t forget you can still suggest places for me to review here if there’s somewhere you’ve always wondered about; most of my reviews still come from reader suggestions so please keep them coming. See you here again next Friday at 11:30 for the latest review (I’ll give you a clue: it won’t be of this egg mayonnaise sandwich, which looks like a 5.0 at best…)