The Moderation

One thing restaurant bloggers often get criticised for is their obsession with the new. You especially see this in London, where new restaurants open all the time. It’s partly because some bloggers get invited to soft openings (a phrase which sounds wrong – wrong on paper, wrong in my head) and partly because it’s too difficult not to in a city where there is always a new trend to embrace or a new cuisine to explore. I can understand how seductive that must be, and here in Reading I can’t help but feel a pang of envy. Reading gets a handful of new restaurants every year. Edible Reading publishes a weekly review, and if I only visited places that had just opened I’d run out of material before you’d finished your leftover turkey and broken your first resolution of 2014.

But also, I don’t believe in it. I like to give places a chance to settle down and bed in, to iron out inconsistencies, for the kitchen and the front of house to gel. I wasn’t always like that – I remember going to Brown’s just after it opened and sitting upstairs, with no natural light while the waiter stumbled over his words and my feet and my forgettable food arrived, was eaten and forgotten. It might be brilliant now, but I’ve never gone back.

On paper, this week’s review should be of the Queen’s Head, the revamped pub on Christchurch Green. It used to be called the Nob, was full of students and was skanky, scruffy and the home to a few of my disgraceful Saturday nights a long time ago. It’s just been done up by Spirit House, who also own the Warwick and the Moderation and have realised that students don’t buy food whereas the people in the gorgeous roads around Christchurch Green (I personally daydream about living on New Road) probably will. I went, and I quite enjoyed my meal, but when push came to shove, I couldn’t review it. So instead, I went to its daddy (or perhaps uncle), the Moderation, this week with a couple of friends.

The Moderation also used to be a grim boozer but you wouldn’t know that now. Refurbished, it’s a handsome building from the outside, slightly incongruous so close to the curry houses, kebab joints, little hotels and undertakers of the Caversham Road (not to mention “Papa Gee”, a strange little Italian restaurant I’ve walked past dozens of times without spotting a single diner). Inside, it was buzzing and all sorts of groups were there, from raucous parties to small gatherings of friends to what looked suspiciously like dates. We were lucky to get a table, which on a school night in a location out of town is no mean feat.

The Moderation’s menu is a funny mix of food. Indonesian, Malaysian and Thai food rubs shoulders with classic pub food, pork belly and black pudding juxtaposed with nasi goreng. I like that range, but it raises a bit of a concern too: could it be equally good at both, or was one what they truly loved and the other something they put on to attract a wider range of punters? I resolved to find out, or get uncomfortably full in the attempt.

We began with the time-honoured sharing platter of mixed starters: I know, so unimaginative. We should have picked three different dishes, and if I went again I would, but the variety was too hard to resist (looking back I’m ashamed to remember that when I reviewed the Warwick, the Moderation’s sister pub, I also went for the mixed starters; I think I’ve let you down.)

It was, in fairness, a good choice and also gave a reasonable idea that the kitchen could handle both east and west. The spring rolls were delicately spiced and eminently dippable, subtly different from those at the Warwick but equally good. The salt and pepper squid, though not quite up to the standard of somewhere like London Street Brasserie, was tasty and avoided the worst fate of all, that of rubberiness (though I’d have liked more crispiness). The prawn crackers were inoffensive and probably not worth the sentence I’ve just given them. The chicken satay was, again, better than the Warwick I thought – a skewer of tender flesh and a gorgeous chunky satay sauce to slather over it.

The most interesting of the starters was the kedgeree arancini – balls of smoked haddock risotto breaded and fried with half a hard-boiled quail’s egg pinned to them, a little dab of curried mayonnaise on top. I loved this; sophisticated party food, and cleverer than all the other staples (no doubt next year Jason Donovan will be wandering past with a tray full of them in the ad breaks on I’m A Celebrity).

Starter

The wine list, though not enormous, had enough to keep us occupied. The sauvignon blanc was decently fresh and easy to drink and the chianti was fruity without being inoffensive and peppery without being brutish. The advantage of having dinner in a pub is that if you go out for a meal with someone who likes beer there’s something for them too; I’m told the Black Sheep was very nice, although my friend had it in a shandy, and even I know that means she probably wasn’t qualified to judge.

Initially I tried to order a 125ml glass of wine, but the waiter turned up with what looked suspiciously like 175ml. I was about to quibble when he said “It’s the same price for 125ml, so I brought you a bigger glass. Leave some if you like”. I liked that; I’ve been to places where they would have brought the smaller glass and trousered the cash, so it was nice to be told. Service was like that in general – a tad brusque (they were busy all night, in their defence) but helpful and prompt. Considering how much they had going on, and the size of some of the other tables, I was impressed to get served at all.

For the mains we decided to give both halves of the Moderation’s menu a chance. In the red corner, representing pub food, was a mutton and onion suet pudding with mashed potato and roast root veg. It was nowhere near perfect, but just close enough to it that I could have wept. The jus that came with it was rich, the soft sticky roasted carrots and parsnips were delicious, and the sauce inside the pudding was a cracking jumble of slightly sweet onion and tangy tomato. But the errors were glaring. The mash had big chunks of what felt like uncooked spud lurking in it. The suet pastry didn’t have the slightly soggy, gooey feel I was looking for and, if anything, was more like a pie in pudding’s clothing.

Most unforgivably, the mutton was undercooked and unappealing – bouncy in places, sinewy in others. None of it fell apart under the fork the way it should have done, and most of it resisted a knife in a way it really shouldn’t have. The moment the first chunk twanged under my molars I knew the rest of the meal would be spent prodding and chopping, when a meal dish this should be about scoffing with carefree, reckless abandon. The gulf between what you think you’re getting and what you end up with has rarely felt so cruel, or so huge.

Mutton

The beef rendang, in the blue corner, suggested that I’d have been better off sticking to the eastern half of the menu. This was a bowl of beef in a rich, spicy coconut sauce with enough of a kick to balance out the creaminess but not so much that your lips tingled. On the side was a dome of white rice and a couple of those decent enough prawn crackers which have now taken up an undeserved sentence and a half of this review. All good, you might think, and it almost was, but for one thing: the beef had the same problem as the mutton. The first few mouthfuls were properly boast-to-your-friends-good, but then followed a piece of beef the consistency of jelly that made me swallow quickly to avoid having to come to terms with the texture. Such a shame that such a great dish can be ruined by only a few chunks of beef, but there you have it: if only the kitchen had been a little pickier about the pieces of meat that went in the dish versus what went in the bin (or cooked it for longer, or both).

Rendang

We skipped dessert and dinner for three people, including three drinks each, came to a fairly reasonable £83.

Another reason to envy bloggers who only go to restaurants just after they’ve opened is that it’s easier to review those places because you have no preconceptions. You can compare them to other, similar restaurants but that’s as far as you can go because ultimately, you’ve only visited that restaurant once. I on the other hand have been to the Moderation many times before and always really enjoyed it. And I so wanted them to have a good night the night I visited on duty, because what they do in Reading isn’t quite like any other independent and it’s admirable that they are expanding, albeit slowly, and rolling out a set of attractive pubs across Reading where you can drink nice wine or (I’m told) good beer and eat interesting, inexpensive food.

I want to rate them well for that, and for being brave enough to try something different, and I’d like people to go there and order the nasi goreng, which I happen to know they do really well. But, on another level, I can only review the meal I had on the night I went and, on that basis, it just wasn’t up to scratch. So it gets the rating it gets, and a suggestion from me to approach with caution. I know that might seem a bit harsh, but that’s the way the meat bounces.

The Moderation – 6.6
213 Caversham Road, Reading, RG1 8BB
0118 3750767

http://www.spirit-house.co.uk/moderation/

The Warwick

N.B. The Warwick reopened as Bali Lounge in Jan/Feb 2015 with a slightly different emphasis and a different, shorter menu. I’ve left the review up for posterity, but I’ve reviewed Bali Lounge here.

First the bad news; as much as I wanted to like The Warwick there were a few hurdles to get over.

The decor is pleasing to the eye, with lots of Buddhas (is that the plural of Buddha? Buddhae?) and Ganeshes (likewise) dotted about the place. The lighting is muted (you’ll be able to see that from the photos) with fairy lights strung around the windows and signage which give it a romantic feel. Sadly, though, the furniture is an odd mish-mash of things; they’re all in keeping but the variation from hard wooden rustic style chairs (which, worryingly, all sway slightly when pushed) to fully upholstered dining chairs means that there are definitely good and bad places to sit, which means good and bad tables.

Actually, I suspect they’re all bad tables, just in different ways: we started at a table where you could see what you were eating, but moved because we were sitting on rock hard yet rickety chairs and I don’t think my bum could have coped with two hours of that. We moved to a different kind of bad table; better chairs, but atmospherically lit at best and, because the table was so low, we struggled to fit our legs under the table. Never mind. We’re British, dagnabbit, so we stayed put. You can ask to move tables once and you get away with it, do it twice and you run the risk of having a foam added to your meal where no foam should be.

Another hurdle: I don’t think wine is really the Warwick’s thing. We ordered a bottle of Albarino. The bottle was coated in a fine layer of condensation and the felt cold to the touch but when poured the wine was just not cold enough. This was tricky to explain to the waiting staff who didn’t quite understand what the problem was – not in itself an encouraging sign. A friend of mine reported a similar experience when she ate there recently – which they tried (and failed) to rectify by chucking ice in the wine cooler. Maybe their fridge just isn’t turned up high enough (or low enough, depending on which way you look at it). A second bottle of Albarino felt no colder, so we turned it down and said we’d order a red instead. They were so baffled at why this wasn’t acceptable that I almost felt guilty, even though they were the ones at fault.

The red was a bottle of Fleurie – it was okay at twenty-four quid but not exceptional, and it didn’t have quite the light fruitiness I associate with Fleurie. Even ordering this was plain weird – they brought the bottle over, showed it to us and then wandered off to remove the cork out of sight. When it came back, the waitress poured some into my glass. I kept waiting, expectantly, for her to stop so I could taste it, but she just filled it right to the top and then proceeded to fill the other glass. Again, I felt like I was the one who looked stupid, even though I knew I wasn’t.

Now comes the good news. The food. We went for the Island Spice starter platter which is your usual fare – the ubiquitous fish cakes, satay chicken (out of sight in this photo), a breaded prawn and a spring roll each. Yes, I know it’s poor. I know I should have opted for a more interesting, more authentic dish rather than this greatest hits package and yet I always seem to do this in a Thai restaurant. It’s like the Quality Street of ordering – you know what you’re getting, there’s some variety, and you can always swap the culinary equivalent of the coffee cream (the Thai fish cake, in my case) with somebody else. Besides, it was only £5.50 a head, the same price as most single dishes on the starter menu.

Processed with VSCOcamActually, as it happened, this selection box had no coffee creams in it and my fish cake remained untraded. Normally I find them a bit floppy and tasteless but this one was very fragrant, lightly spiced and spongy rather than bland and flaccid. The prawns were unrealistically huge (split, I think) with a thick coating of breadcrumbs but they were tasty enough, especially once dipped in some sweet chilli sauce. The satay was proper chicken rather than something which had been “chopped and shaped” or (the horror) “formed” and the spring rolls were fabulous – proper fresh tasting shredded vegetables, including red and white cabbage, in a crispy layer of pastry. These in particular were the biggest hit of the selection – and I say that as someone who will often refuse to order a dish without meat in it. In hindsight, the Quality Street analogy maybe sold it a bit short.

The Warwick does a lot of main courses – stir fries, curries, pad thai dishes and house specialities. There’s even a separate regional section, all of which have a three or four chilli rating – the menu rates all its dishes from “a little spicy” to “ouch! my mouth is on fire” or words to that effect, which I found so endearing that it almost made up for the use of Comic Sans. To compensate for the obvious choice of starters, we decided to steer clear of the usual massaman lamb or green thai curry and try something a bit more interesting.

The ped makarm – crispy duck with sweet herbs and a sweet tamarind sauce – was a revelation. I rarely order duck in restaurants, because I’ve never been a fan of pink pan fried duck with that thick layer of wobbly fat on top. But there aren’t many pairs of words more beautiful than “crispy duck”, so I took the plunge. What’s not to like? This came on a little bed of broccoli (tasteless, but I think it was just there to prop up the duck) in a pool of rich, dark tamarind sauce with a few cashews sprinkled on top. And the gamble paid off, because it was magnificent. So many gambles in restaurants don’t – we all have experiences where you stray from your usual thing and are rewarded by a truly middling meal – but there’s something magical about picking something you wouldn’t normally order and having your socks knocked off.

Processed with VSCOcamThe other main dish was sea bass with stir fried garlic, coriander root and oyster sauce (kra tiem prig thai). Again, it was spot on. Two generous sea bass fillets, fried until crispy, skin and all, served with a rich sauce that honked of garlic (I pity the people at the desks next to us at work the following morning, put it that way). The only drawback, which I guess I should have appreciated, is that although you get a reasonable amount of sauce it’s never going to be quite as saucy as a Thai curry. The delicious bit at the end of a Thai meal, where all you’re left with is coconut rice soaked in rich sauce, was not to be a feature in our evening.

Processed with VSCOcamThe side dishes were good but not amazing, but they really weren’t the feature attraction, so it didn’t matter. Coconut rice was nice but unremarkable. The vegetarian pad thai, with cabbage and (yet more) tamarind sauce was better – fine noodles, tasty sauce and delicious cabbage, but it was a bit pricey at seven pounds. The Warwick doesn’t treat vegetarians all that well, I thought: the vegetarian dishes all hover around the seven pound mark (broccoli in oyster sauce for about seven pounds felt especially stiff). The mains we ordered were both £12.50, though there are plenty of dishes that are considerably cheaper than that.

Processed with VSCOcamI’ve said the ambience is a tad romantic, but really this feels like a place to go with friends. They have a number of different set menus for two or more people giving you the opportunity to try loads of different things, and that’s what this kind of food should be about (they also do daily offers ranging from buy one get one free to a free bottle of house wine with some of their set menus). Even with just the two of us, it was one of those meals where you want your dining companion to taste your food, so they can do that nod and point thing where something you’ve picked is really good.

As it was, there was lots of swapping and sharing, though I did have to put my foot down when I offered my companion an extra piece of duck and his fork hovered towards the super crispy shard of duck that I had been saving for the last mouthful (I’m nice but not that nice). And I was right to save it – so salty and crispy but offset by the sweet tamarind sauce. Yes, I know I’m repeating myself but there’s something about constructing the perfect final mouthful when you go out for dinner, and it was so, so good.

We skipped dessert, partly because we had no room and partly because the dessert menu was pub food not Thai food – chocolate brownies, sticky toffee pudding and the like (although possibly preferable to the frozen delights you often get in Thai restaurants – who can forget the dubious pleasures of the “Funky Pie” at Thai Corner?). Instead we finished up the wine, got the bill – £69 for two courses and a bottle of half decent red – paid up and left. If it looks expensive, it probably is – it’s possible to eat a lot cheaper there, and based on what I had you’d probably eat very well.

All in all, The Warwick is a mixed bag. You do feel like you’re eating somewhere that isn’t quite a pub, isn’t quite a restaurant. The furniture isn’t inviting. The service is a bit unpolished – probably partly because they were doing a brisk trade, even on a Wednesday night – but it did feel like a struggle at times. It’s on the edge of town, in a town that has a fair few other Thai restaurants (though not as many as it did before Thai Nine closed down). And yet, and yet… when I think back to that duck dish, it becomes an awfully hard place not to like. Even before I’d left a part of me was wondering what I’d choose next time, and that tells its own story. So I’d say go with friends, order carefully, don’t expect to be too comfortable (or if you are, don’t expect to get a good look at your food) and you should have a very enjoyable meal indeed.

Oh, and probably best to stick to the beer.

The Warwick – 7.2
77 – 79 Kings Road, RG1 3DD
0118 9566969

http://www.aroythai.co.uk/