Restaurant review: Wilsons, Bristol

I’m sorry to start proceedings with what looks suspiciously like a humblebrag, but last month I was on holiday in Belfast and as a treat, we booked a table at Ox, one of the city’s Michelin starred restaurants. But it was a hugely disappointing evening, which will please those of you who don’t like humblebrags. Everything was not quite right; nothing was actively terrible, but the whole thing felt far from optimal. We left underwhelmed, slightly peckish and feeling as if our wallets had been mugged in a dark alley, and wandered away from the scene of the crime in search of a pint.

I’ve never understood people who collect Michelin starred restaurants – too humblebraggy even for me – or restaurant bloggers who loftily describe meals they’ve had as “easily one star food”, as if somebody died and promoted them to inspector. Get over yourselves: it’s just one set of opinions, from an organisation so shrouded in secrecy and obscurity that they make the Freemasons look like the Good Law Project. For what it’s worth, I’ve always thought the Bib Gourmand is a better indicator that you’ll have a good and interesting meal.

The subject of this week’s review is Wilsons, a little restaurant in Bristol which doesn’t have a Michelin star, but which served me one of the very best meals I’ve had in the last five years. Not only did it get everything right that Ox got wrong, but it made me think about what excellence in restaurants really means – and how little of it has anything to do with being fancy.

Take the room, for example. At Ox, we walked past the lovely, twinkly, atmospheric downstairs room – which had free tables in it – only to be walked up the stairs to an unlovely mezzanine floor, all hard surfaces and dead air, the overflow car park of hospitality. It was boiling hot, the aircon stayed resolutely switched off and even blowing out the candles didn’t seem to alert the staff to what a stuffy, unpleasant place it was in which to have a meal. Wilsons has just the one dining room. It’s plain, simple, dignified and stylish with nothing on the walls except chalkboards and a lovely stained glass sign hanging in the full-length window. Good restaurants, ideally, have no shit tables. Wilsons has no shit tables.

This extended through to the menus. Ox doesn’t have a menu, so you are surprised on the night. Instead, they hand you a rather pretentious-looking sheet of paper which lists all the elements and ingredients that will feature in your meal, without telling you how or where. The menu is on their website, so even as gimmicks go, it’s pointless. Wilsons also offers a single menu but it’s written on the chalkboard each day for everybody to see. You can have the whole lot for sixty pounds – twenty pounds less than Ox – or a stripped-down version at lunch for twenty five quid (I read a review where someone said “that’s less than you’d spend on a pair of socks”: I’m as fond of conspicuous consumption as the next person, but what a knobber).

A mystery menu wouldn’t be a problem if the service brought the meal to life. Again, Ox was disappointing: everything was mechanical and muted, and much of it was hard to hear in that unforgiving and joyless space. Detail was scant, and there was more warmth in the room than in the welcome. And again, Wilson’s was outstanding. All the staff abandoned zonal marking for the hospitality equivalent of total football, which meant that our dishes were brought by a huge variety of friendly faces.

All of them could talk with huge knowledge and enormous enthusiasm about every single detail of every single dish: a better reviewer than me would have taken notes. On another night in Belfast we went to Edo, an incredible tapas restaurant and our waiter, almost immediately after we took our seats, said “well obviously I know the menu inside out so I can answer any questions you have”: that’s how you do it.

The food at Ox was also muted and bland, but that’s quite enough talking about restaurants other than Wilsons. Let’s talk about their food instead, because everything was stunning, more or less. We went for the full monty, and it started with a beautiful, clever piece of work – a gorgeous feather-light gougère packed with cheddar and leek and topped with a little beret of pickled onion purée. The whole thing imploded in the mouth leaving nothing but joy, an accomplished disappearing act.

Bread was made by the restaurant and came to the table still warm with a puck of butter which the restaurant cultures itself. This was accompanied with a vivid little dish of cod roe, pastel pink with a little iris of bright herb oil. There was powdered something-or-other on top, and if I’d made notes I’d be able to tell you what it was. All of this was lovely, incidentally, although the bread was sliced a tad too thick which made it difficult to use all the butter and cod roe. Zoë ran her finger along the bowl, and I pretended to be shocked.

At the same time, we had one final snack which the wait staff playfully described as a taco – a chicory leaf with chicken liver parfait, preturnaturally smooth, topped with powdered beetroot and the pop of toasted pearl barley. So much effort gone into making something so small, gone in an instant but remembered for days: truly magical stuff.

The next dish was one of the best things I ate that day, which makes it one of the best things I’ve eaten full stop. A savoury custard made with squash was sweet, glossy and perfectly spiced. Again, texture and pop was beautifully added with seeds, toasted in some of the same spice mix. But then the other elements added layer on layer of complexity and cleverness – tiny shimeji mushrooms, pickled in sherry vinegar, and a mushroom consommé poured over at the table, submerging the custard under something phenomenally savoury. Again, if I’d made better notes I could tell you what the leaves were: sorry about that.

By this point we were a couple of glasses into a fantastic bottle of natural Gruner Veltliner (the same one, actually, that I’d had at Goat On The Roof: it’s far more attractively priced at Wilsons) and I was already beginning to realise that this food was like very little I’ve eaten in other restaurants. I couldn’t recall anywhere I’ve eaten where the flavours were so pinpoint, where things had been so refined and perfected to make everything taste of its truest, best self. And as it turned out, I hadn’t seen anything yet.

Next to come was possibly the most disappointing course. Jigged squid – I have no idea what jigging is, and this time it’s not because I didn’t take notes – came in a rich and salty broth with rainbow chard. The squid, cut into ribbons to resemble udon, was among the freshest I’ve had and this dish made me love rainbow chard, something beyond the talents of most kitchens. The broth bringing it together had absolutely everything, and again it was that precise, super-concentrated hit that makes you sit up and pay attention, eat more slowly, take it all in. But this was the first time a portion felt stingy and doubt crept in: four ribbons of squid, and it’s not a good sign that I counted them.

Was it enough to dumbfound your tastebuds if you left a restaurant hungry? And yet my tastebuds were so dumbfounded – not least by a little tuile made from squid ink, as black as night and dotted with herb emulsion (I probably should have mentioned that much of the produce Wilsons use comes from their garden). It was a perfect mouthful, in a meal full of perfect mouthfuls and in a world where the word perfect is much devalued, not least by me. “It’s like the best crisp ever” said Zoë, who usually sums these things up better than I do.

More was to come, and the fish course proper was a proper marvel. A little cylinder of pollock, a notoriously recalcitrant fish, was cooked bang on and topped with another symphony of herbs, alongside a silky parsnip puree, the whole thing bound together with a superb vin jaune sauce which delivered more salt and less funk than I was expecting. I’ve talked about the half-life of dishes before and this had a long one – each forkful carefully calibrated to prolong the enjoyment. But again, the lack of carbs troubled me. What was the point of these beautiful sauces, dips and oils when there wasn’t always the substance to transport them into your gob?

I should have trusted in the process, because the next course made everything right. Crown of pheasant, cooked and then, I think, finished on the barbecue, glazed with some kind of emulsion and dotted with the smallest, punchiest capers I’ve ever eaten was a thing of rapture, as was the pheasant sauce and the wedge of just-cooked cabbage (there was also something called Tokyo turnip, but I thought that was a Steven Seagal film so what do I know?)

But where are the carbs? you might ask. But this is where Wilsons completely won me over by bringing a bowl of the best mash I’ve ever eaten. It was, the waiter told us, fifty per cent potato and fifty per cent butter. He also told us this is the only way to have mash, and I fear he might be right. It’s profoundly ruined me for other mash: I’ve already used the words ‘silky’ and ‘glossy’ in this review, so to save me reaching for the thesaurus let’s just settle for ‘exceptional’ here.

And there was still time for one more extra, one more whistle and bell to show that the kitchen left no stone unturned. We were also brought two pieces of what the waiter called “Kentucky Fried Pheasant”, little nubbins of pheasant thigh coated in the restaurant’s secret blend, deep fried and then drizzled with a ranch dressing including some of the same spices. You might wonder who goes to all that trouble, and I wouldn’t blame you. Wilsons do, that’s who. I may never get to try Eton Fried Swan (once we have a republic I really think this is a franchise that could take off) but until then this will tide me over nicely.

Having had some of the best, most interesting courses of my restaurant-going life, presumably things would dip for dessert, right? They so often do, after all. Well, think again: Wilsons’ dessert was also a desert (or even dessert) island dish. On paper it just sounded weird – celeriac, fermented honey and truffle. And it might not have been to everyone’s taste, but it absolutely knocked my socks off. The celeriac was an ice cream, more a semifreddo really, with a pool of fermented honey lurking in its hollow. All around it were toasted grains adding crunch and sweetness, and then on top were little truffle shavings.

I don’t know who thinks to put all those flavours together, and it’s a highwire act where any of them could have backfired. But none of them did, and this is the dish, more than any other, that I’ve thought about since that meal. I’ve had parsnip ice cream before but never celeriac, and it worked better than I thought it would. But what I loved was the harmony. Truffle isn’t a team player, nor is anything fermented. But the kitchen deftly drew all of that together into something delicious, remarkable and perhaps slightly mad. And yet not a note was out of place.

Now in Michelin-land, if they haven’t given you a minuscule pre-dessert they tend to send you on your way with some petits fours. They’re not big but they are clever, and they’re another way of making you feel like you’ve had something for free even though all of that luxe is very much priced in. So I adored Wilsons for instead bringing over a hulking great canélé de Bordeaux for each of us.

Now, I’ve had these many times because Reading is lucky enough to have Davy of Wolseley Street Bakery fame, and this is one of his specialities which he supplies to various places, most notably Geo Café. I like a canélé. But this was a completely different beast, and I wasn’t in Kansas – or Caversham – any more. This had been elevated with whisky and tonka, and the sweetness and richness was like little I’ve experienced. This level of sensory opulence is something I associate more with fragrance than with food, and I can’t put it more strongly than this: if somebody sold an eau de parfum that smelled how that canélé tasted, I’d buy a bottle. They were so good I can even forgive Wilsons for putting the napkin underneath them, although I still think that’s baffling.

My meal – two aperitifs, a bottle of wine and all those terrific experiences and memories – came to two hundred pounds including service, and I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. If Wilsons did vouchers I’d just ask for some for Christmas, and as it is I’m struggling to imagine going to Bristol without eating there again. More to the point, I’m wondering how quickly I can justify going back. As it was, we left knowing it would take a while to process just how good our meal was, and fell into a beautiful nearby pub called the Good Measure which, as luck would have it, was doing a tap takeover by our very own Siren Craft. It was Friday afternoon, I was full and happy and I’d had a miraculous lunch. Life rarely gets much better.

I’m sorry-not-sorry for putting you through this catwalk show of beautiful dishes and purple prose. Sorry because it’s a lot to rattle through, and also arguably sorry if I’ve made you hungry (although, also, not sorry: this is what restaurant reviews should do). Sorry that I’ve rhapsodised about a restaurant that’s a train and bus trip from Reading. But also not sorry, because this is one of the best restaurants I’ve been to in years of trying, and that deserves to be mentioned. I’m sorry because Reading doesn’t have somewhere to match Wilsons and, in fact, I don’t think it ever has. But I’m also not sorry because when people ask me what Reading needs I might stop talking about tapas restaurants, ice cream cafés and good wine bars and just say: it needs somewhere like Wilsons.

Wilsons – 9.6
24 Chandos Road, Redland, Bristol, BS6 6PF
0117 9734157

https://www.wilsonsbristol.co.uk

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Restaurant review: Seasonality, Maidenhead

I get a fair few requests to recommend somewhere to eat in Reading. And when I do, I can usually come up with something: if you tell me how central it needs to be, your budget, what kind of food you like and how many of your party are vegans, or vegetarians, or coeliacs, I can find you somewhere suitable. It’s very rare that I’m completely stumped. 

But there is an exception to that, which I suppose you could best describe as the Special Occasion Restaurant. It used to be called fine dining, before that phrase became a term of abuse. But special occasion restaurant probably sums it up better – somewhere you want to go to spoil yourself, or treat someone, or celebrate anniversaries, birthdays, engagements or exam results. Yet even describing it that way makes me realise what a niche and endangered species it might be.

The thing is, a lot of restaurants can make an occasion feel special. It’s what they’re meant to do – the good ones, anyway. And isn’t special occasion dining a concept that has outlived its usefulness, as eating out becomes a special occasion, full stop? After all, we’ve staggered through two and a bit years of Bad Times, and summer has come to an end just in time for Even Worse Times to hove into view. I mark a special occasion these days by bunging the central heating on.

That said, it’s too early to say whether the latest coming storm will hit all of hospitality, or whether parts of the sector will fare better than others. Casual dining might be protected, in terms of demand, although it will have less of a buffer against rising costs. Chains may have enough of a war chest to see them through, as they did in the pandemic. But what about the top end? Is this a luxury people will forego, or will people ring-fence those kinds of meals? I imagine many restaurants, both new and well-established, are asking themselves those questions with some anxiety, especially with their peak trading period a month away.

I have to say, though, that even before the pandemic Reading never really boasted that sort of restaurant. In the town centre, the closest we had were places like Forbury’s (which, back when it was good, was very good), Cerise and London Street Brasserie. Only the latter is still going, although it’s not always felt quite special enough, I think. Further out of town we had Mya Lacarte which, in its early years, was terrific but faded away and closed. And I suppose we have Thames Lido. The location is special, if nothing else.

So for that kind of meal, people have always gone further afield – to London, which isn’t far in the scheme of things, or to one of the pretty pubs between here and London that trouble the Michelin and the Good Food Guides. Or out Henley way, for dinner at somewhere like Orwell’s: not Henley itself, mind you, as its upmarket restaurant Crockers closed its doors for the last time last month. “People won’t pay for fine dining but restaurants like Côte Brasserie do really well here” said the owner. “I have never been so badly disrespected as I was in Henley”: someone’s not going to get tapped up by the tourist board any time soon.

So where do I recommend, these days? Well, my go to used to be the Miller Of Mansfield in Goring – very pretty, terrific food and accessible by train if you all want to drink – but then it closed at the start of January (cause of death: greedy landlord, as usual). Since then I’ve struggled a bit, telling people there are better options further afield; the last time someone asked me, I suggested Goat On The Roof.

So that’s the thinking behind this week’s review – could Maidenhead’s Seasonality be a suitable option? The compact family-owned restaurant, run by husband and wife team Wesley and Francesca Smalley, got a rave review in the Guardian back in July and that, combined with the short sample menu on their website, made it look like an intriguing prospect. I never need much persuasion to hop on the Elizabeth Line, stopping only for a pre-prandial pale at A Hoppy Place, so I booked a table for Friday night with some anticipation. Could I finally find somewhere of a standard similar to places like Marmo and Caper & Cure without having to trek over to Bristol?

Seasonality was a short walk from the train station and, at first glance at least, was pretty unassuming. The dining room’s best feature were the big windows that I imagine let plenty of light in, but by nightfall, without that glow, the place was neutral and a little spartan. The only exception to the muted furniture was a weird-looking marble bar area, a little like a kitchen island, where you could perch side by side on bar stools and stare at the wall together: they tried to seat us there but I politely asked if perhaps we could have a conventional table instead.

The evening improved from there, and Seasonality do one thing of which I approve heartily, seating couples at adjacent corners rather than opposite one another so you both get a good view of the space. The place was quiet when we arrived, but by the end of our meal every table was occupied (except that weird kitchen island – another couple was seated there but made a break for a real table the moment one became vacant).

“It’s a bit dark” said Zoë, who is always better at critiquing the decor than I am. “I don’t understand why none of the lights are on over the window seats.”

The menu was a mixed bag – attractive but small. Based on the name (not a huge fan of the name, incidentally) I imagine the menu changes at least four times a year but I hope they tinker with it more frequently than that because otherwise it has decidedly limited replay value. Three starters, three mains, three desserts. A few snacks to start you off and a couple of sides. Starters just under a tenner, most mains twenty-five quid, desserts the same price as the starters. That’s your lot. 

On the plus side, that means that in this review you’ll read about the majority of what was on offer, but the minus is that if you enjoy the delicious agony of narrowing it down, or if you’re a vegetarian or a vegan, or find that the menu happens to contain one of your flat-out no-nos this might not be for you. I gave Zoë the first pick of each course, because manners, and I was delighted that in at least one case she went for the option I fancied least, giving me at least the illusion of choice.

The wine list was small and perfectly formed too – something like four reds and four whites, maxing out at forty quid. Ironically this is an area where I often think less is more, so I was happy with that and our bottle of Morgon, which was about thirty two pounds, had plenty of fruit and just enough about it to bridge the gap between the mains we went for. But before all that we started with a couple of things from the “snacks” section of the menu. The bread was lovely: two quadrants of a little loaf, still warm from a little gentle toasting and spot on with a pat of cultured butter (from Ampersand, who used to supply butter to Geo Café).

Better still was the other snack – sheets of lardo dotted with figs, grapes, sunflower seeds and micro herbs. This was the moment when I realised the evening would be nothing if not interesting. The salty whack of that lardo tempered and toyed with by a whole palette of other flavours and influences – the bright sweetness of fruit, the freshness of little leaves of mint – was a true delight, and unlike anything else I’ve tried this year. Besides, look at it: it’s like an edible Kandinsky. 

More fascination was to follow, not least because Zoë’s starter, which I’d dismissed as very much not my bag, knocked it out of the park. “Tunworth Cheese Soup” hadn’t appealed to me – a soup, made of cheese? – but more fool me: what turned up was a soothing bowl of lactic lusciousness, comforting but not too heavy, scattered with the crunchiest croutons and finished with verdant spots of olive oil. I used to have a friend who said she never ordered soup in a restaurant because every mouthful was exactly the same. Ordinarily I would have agreed with her, but with this masterpiece that was rather the point.

By comparison my starter felt like a good idea not executed right. On paper a potato and Jerusalem artichoke fondant with mushroom ketchup sounded right up my alley, but the flavours and textures of this dish were out of whack. Maybe it was the balance of the potato and the artichoke, but the whole thing had an oddly spongey feel to it without any crunch or crispness. The outside had no upside.

That made it feel a bit like a vegetarian fishcake, and there was nowhere near enough umami punch from the underpowered mushroom ketchup to lift it. Only the fennel, which I thought might be pickled, broke up the beige and reminded me of Bristol’s lovely Caper & Cure where I last had it. The starter we didn’t try was bergamot cured trout with oyster custard: only three options on the menu and I’d picked the wrong one.

Mains reassured me that my starter was a blip. Mine was a beautifully cooked piece of hake topped with tightly curled, muscular brown shrimp and served on top of a ribbolita of coco beans, croutons and cavolo nero – more broth than sauce but still absolutely bewitching stuff. I thought I detected more of that fennel chucked into the mix, which I found a little strange – the dish didn’t need it and with a menu so small it seemed odd to have duplication.

Similarly the “Cookham greens” we ordered as a side – a tranche of cabbage a bit like a hot wedge salad – was drizzled with a dressing or sauce that looked very similar to the one that had adorned my starter. But even with those minor quibbles, the hake was a great dish. Could I think of anywhere in Reading that served food like this? Not really.

Zoë’s main showed more of that imagination and skill and again, had one truly impressive component. Venison was really nicely done, although pairing it with radicchio made it feel, and look, surprisingly insubstantial. But what saved the day was the other element of the dish, a bowl of salty, savoury, spiced venison keema topped with – another genius touch – something called “crispy potato” which, to me, had the feel of puffed rice (unless of course it was meant to be puffed rice, in which case the potato had gone AWOL).

The forkfuls of this I was allowed might have been my absolute high point of the meal, yet even so those two separate parts, the fillet and the keema, didn’t cohere into a single dish so in that sense, enthralling though it was in places, it didn’t entirely work. Seasonality does a set lunch Wednesday to Friday for a ridiculously reasonable £18 and when I last checked it included a roe deer keema pie and hispi cabbage: now that I could eat every week for the rest of my life.

The wine list included a few dessert wines so once we’d finished our mains and our bottle of red we grabbed a Sauternes and a Pedro Ximenez (both impeccable) and ordered dessert. Again, Zoë had first choice and again she chose better – a slab of cake studded with hazelnuts, surrounded by a moat of deep chocolate sauce and crowned with a sphere of smooth, indulgent nut butter ice cream was just a superb plate of food. I wouldn’t necessarily thank you for a sticky toffee pudding but I might well beg you for one of these.

Despite seeing them mangled on Bake Off the other week (they’re a favourite of Brexiteer ghoul Prue Leith) I didn’t really fancy îles flottantes so I opted for the other option – the vicissitudes of a tiny menu again – the crème brûlée. Now, I must say that this is something I almost never order because I can nearly always find something I’d rather eat. 

It’s a blessing that I did, though, because it was the nicest I’ve had in ages. It had perfect texture, a wonderful note of tonka and a little freshness from the fig leaf – so much more to it than plain old vanilla – and a caramelised lid with a perfect snap and a wonderful burnt sweetness. I’d forgotten how enjoyable that first tap of the spoon can be, and everything that comes after. I also liked the palmier unceremoniously dumped on top of it but, again, it didn’t really go and felt like two desserts uneasily merged into one.

I haven’t talked much about service, but it was good and friendly if perhaps slightly lacking in polish. Little things like not taking cutlery away, or not bringing it out, along with just a general feeling that they were very agreeable but slightly on the green side. At one point the chef came out and talked to a few tables, which was wonderful to see, and I got the impression that a fair few of Seasonality’s customers are regulars. I can see why, too. 

Our bill – for four courses, a bottle of wine and a couple of dessert wines – came to a hundred and seventy pounds, which included a twelve and a half per cent service change. Grace Dent’s review in the Guardian said that a meal including drinks and service at Seasonality costs around forty pounds a head: either prices have rocketed in just over three months, or Grace Dent is on mushrooms. I know which my money’s on.

So does Seasonality do enough to become a serious prospect for Reading residents wanting to treat themselves? Yes and no. There are a fair few things in the latter column. The service needs more polish, the room is a little unspecial. The narrowness of the menu is going to be a big problem for some people, and I saw lots of little quirks that need ironing out – dishes that didn’t completely work, or didn’t come together, a certain amount of duplication which felt jarring across such a small menu.

Yet despite that Seasonality has a real charm and real skill that thoroughly won me over and made me want to come back sooner rather than later. There is imagination and talent on display in spades across that menu – in that phenomenal lardo dish, in the depths of that Tunworth soup, in my majestic hake or Zoë’s wonderful hazelnut cake. Those real highs, those fireworks, make me think that it would definitely do you a turn if you wanted to go somewhere different to celebrate – especially if you were getting there by train.

So although it’s not yet the finished article, I think Seasonality has more than enough showstoppers and jawdroppers to merit a visit. I keep thinking about the very best of what we had and trying to imagine anywhere in Reading that can quite match it, and the answer is that I can’t. The high points reminded me far more of places in Bristol than in Reading, and anybody that reads the blog will know how much of a compliment that is. So I will be recommending this a lot in future, because it proves something I’ve long suspected. You don’t need a special occasion to eat at some restaurants. Some restaurants are the special occasion in their own right, all by themselves.

Seasonality – 8.7
26 Queen Street, Maidenhead, SL6 1HZ
07507 714087

https://www.seasonality.co.uk

Restaurant review: Caper and Cure, Bristol

I don’t know how many restaurant reviewers you read – apart from yours truly, naturally – but the shocking truth is that I don’t really bother with any of them. I’ve no interest, for instance, in reading Giles Coren wanking on in his Corenesque way about another country pub near his house in the Cotswolds, peppering it with his usual contrarian casual racism. If I want to be bored shitless by an edgelord, I’ll just fire up Twitter.

That’s rich coming from me, I know. The irony isn’t lost on me, and if everybody thought the way I do I’d probably have the grand total of about three readers. But there you go: with some of the big names I have a peek to see where they’ve reviewed, and I might scan through to see if they liked it – if it’s somewhere I might one day go – but beyond that I don’t really pay much attention. 

So for instance I know that Grace Dent from the Guardian had a meal in Maidenhead not too long ago that she really enjoyed. As a result I’ve added the venue to my to do list, but I won’t be poring over her deathless prose line by line before I go. Similarly the subject of this week’s review, Caper and Cure, received rave reviews in the Sunday Times and the Financial Times recently. I didn’t read them (because paywall, Rupert Murdoch etc.), but when I happened to be in Bristol for the weekend I made a beeline there to see what the fuss was about.

And yes, that means another Bristol review, which in turn means that some of you will look away now – or, more likely, didn’t click on the link in the first place. But I make no apologies, because for many years now Bristol has had, for my money, the most interesting food scene in the U.K. Cities and towns like Brighton (back in the day) and Margate always strike me as trying to be London-on-Sea, but what I love about Bristol is that it ploughs its own furrow, with no interest in being anything other than itself. 

Places that want to develop a food culture, like Reading, could learn a lot from that: if we got even a fraction of the kind of restaurants in our town centre that Bristol seems to say hello to every month, we’d be a much richer place for it. Besides, it’s just over an hour away by train. 

So Zoë and I turned up on a Saturday lunchtime to check it out. Caper and Cure is in Stokes Croft, a short stroll from Cabot Circus, the city’s main mall, at the point where Bristol starts to get properly lively and interesting. Beyond Caper and Cure, Stokes Croft becomes the Cheltenham Road and then the Gloucester Road, a fascinating indie-land of bars and restaurants, shops selling every kind of beer or wine and charcuterie (and a special prize surely has to go to the splendidly named Bristanbul, a Turkish bakery).

On the walk to the restaurant I saw the parts of this area that have defeated gentrification: the patch of land called Turbo Island still sports a couple of shabby sofas whose best days were decades ago, and the people sitting on them were already a few cans of lager to the good by early afternoon. The last time I was here I had a fantastic brunch at nearby Jamaica Street Stores: it closed last month after five years, partly because of growing issues with Turbo Island.

But Caper and Cure, a handsome blue and gold fronted restaurant on the corner, still felt relatively genteel; Stokes Croft institution Café Kino is next door, and the gorgeous Elemental Collective sells coffee and pastries the other side of the road. The building Caper and Cure is in used to be a chemist, back in the Twenties, and the room retains exceptional bones – generously proportioned floor to ceiling windows letting in tons of light, and a compact, almost-triangular dining room with about twenty covers. 

A fetching button-backed banquette ran along one side – we were seated at the slightly less attractive tables on the other side of the room, but it didn’t feel like there were any truly duff seating choices. There was a small counter at the back, the open kitchen beyond, and along one wall was a map of Europe showing the provenance of some of the ingredients used in the kitchen: a nice touch. Why was Bristol so good at making excellent dining rooms and kitchens out of such modest spaces, and why had none of that genius ever made it down the M4 to us?

For that matter, why were Bristol restaurants so good at putting a menu together which was simultaneously compact but where you wanted to order everything? Four starters, five mains, three desserts, a cheeseboard and a couple of specials. Starters around a tenner, mains fifteen to twenty quid, desserts maxing out at eight pounds. Absurdly streamlined, really, compared to the overkill of so many restaurants, and yet I could have ordered any combination of dishes (I should mention, too, that this being Stokes Croft vegetarians and vegans also had decent, imaginative choices). There’s a real talent to assembling a menu like this, to hitting all the bases and keeping it lean and appealing, and I for one wish more restaurants had it.

But before we made those agonising yet enjoyable decisions, we tried a couple of things from the snacks section of the menu. Cauliflower cheese croquetas were a real piece of wizardry, with spot on crunch and the smoothest, glossiest core, tangy with cheese and the sweetness of cauli. Each of them sat under a little Johnsonian toupée of Parmesan, each was stupendous. A ridiculous five pounds for these, and it took all my strength not to order more. 

But even better was the sourdough with jamon butter. The words “jamon butter” rather sell short what you got, a quenelle of salty, savoury spreadable jamon with a texture somewhere between whipped butter and rillette. It was one of the most moreish things I’ve eaten in years, and if they’d sold it over the counter I’d have walked out of the restaurant at the end of my meal with a tub of the stuff the size of my head, knowing full well that it wouldn’t survive the rest of the weekend. 

The bread that came with it was decent enough, but its one role was to provide a vehicle for eating the jamon butter that was more civilised than just devouring the stuff with your bare hands. If I’m being ultra-critical, one of the slices of bread was as much air as bread and if I’d been in the kitchen I wouldn’t have served it. But it upped the jamon butter to bread ratio, so it wasn’t all bad.  

A high standard had been set, and the starters just vaulted over that as if it was nothing. I’d chosen the sweetbreads, because I love them and they don’t turn up on menus in this country anywhere near often enough. Caper and Cure’s might well be the best I’ve ever had: pert and tender, in a dish where they played the starring role but with excellent support. That meant fresh, nutty peas, translucent slices of radish and some braised baby gem, but more importantly it meant a chicken butter sauce bringing the whole thing together triumphantly. It supplied another intense umami hit, fortified with little nuggets of pancetta just in case you weren’t having enough fun already. 

As we discovered over this and our other dishes, Caper and Cure specialises in those high-gloss, super-reduced sauces that speak of patience and expertise. Having finished my starter I was frustrated to see far too much sauce still in the high-sided bowl, but without prompting one of the wait staff asked if I needed some more bread. I didn’t think twice, and Caper and Cure’s bread with the remnants of my chicken butter sauce was, on its own, tastier than ninety per cent of the starters I’ve eaten in nine years of writing this blog.

Zoë was equally happy with her decision to order the burrata. It’s an ever-present on menus now, but I doubt many restaurants pair it with tomatoes quite as good as these (from the Isle Of Wight, of course). And more importantly I doubt many restaurants plonk the whole thing on their own exemplary tapenade, with the perfume of deep purple olives. I had a forkful of this, and although I couldn’t have not ordered the sweetbreads it also had much to admire.  

By this point I knew beyond doubt that we were in very good hands, and the only remaining question was just how special the rest of the meal might be. Our main courses answered that question emphatically. Hake, one of the two market fish on the blackboard, was cooked just right and perched on top of an absolutely glorious layer of pickled fennel, just sweet enough and just sharp enough: I’ve never had pickled fennel before, and now I’m just counting the days until the next time. 

A tangle of samphire heaped on top added a little saltiness and if the skin wasn’t as crispy as I’d have chosen, that was probably because the whole thing was swimming in a superbly glacé lobster sauce. It wasn’t all perfect, mind you; I’d personally have liked the orzo, the base of the dish, a little closer to al dente and the lobster sauce was more muted than it could have been. But those would have been minor niggles at the best of times: on such a successful plate of food, coming in at a ludicrous twenty-one pounds, they were just the only things I could find that fell short of flawless. It was still one of the most marvellous dishes I’ve eaten all year.

Zoë had absolutely no reservations about her rump of beef, and the couple of forkfuls I had were easily enough evidence to understand why. It was a beautiful piece of meat, cooked medium-pink but with a nice crust, but again it was all about how that ingredient played nicely with the delightful company it was keeping. In this case that meant another sticky, glossy sauce – peppercorn this time – little puddles of onion purée and banana shallots, also with a little char. And to add a little ballast, a perfect slab of Pommes Anna, as enticing and multi-layered as a great novel. This might have been one of the most marvellous dishes I didn’t eat all year, but at least it went to a truly deserving home

We had some Parmesan and truffle fries with our mains – completely unnecessary but also impossible to resist – and they were themselves a fascinating experience. It’s a dish that crops up on menus a lot lately, from Buon Appetito to the Last Crumb and beyond, but in most places it’s a way to tart up bought-in French fries and flog them for a fiver. Here they were the real deal, and when we’d finished our mains and used the fries to clean up the last of our respective sauces we picked at the rest with slightly oily fingers and glad hearts.  

Dessert was the point at which things stopped being spectacular and settled for merely being rather good: technically there are only really two desserts on the menu along with a couple of cheeses and chocolate sorbet with coffee liqueur which felt like a distant cousin of the affogato. I rather liked my panna cotta, which had a pleasing wobble, tons of crumbled pistachio on top and a moat of strawberries and sweet syrup. But the advertised wild honey was the quietest of whispers, and without it the whole thing felt a little run of the mill.

I thought Zoë chose better than me, but she wasn’t wild about her choice either. A rum brûlée was served denuded of a ramekin – how often does that happen? – with plenty of pineapple and coconut sorbet. I liked it, although again the rum was a little muted, and I thought it all worked well together. Zoë was less convinced, and I think on another day would have had the chocolate sorbet. But we were both being restrained, with a boozy evening ahead and (in my case) a gin sodden one behind me, so we steered clear of booze.

That means I can’t tell you anything about the wine list, which is a matter of some regret for me as it had plenty to appeal – and three special wines available by the glass, including a Georgian orange wine by Tbilvino which sounded well worth trying. But instead I’m afraid we were well behaved – I had a very good alcohol free pale ale by local Bristol Beer Factory and Zoë had soft drinks. Next time I go, which I anticipate will be the next time I visit Bristol, I’ll try it properly.

I haven’t really talked about service, but it was very much of a piece with everything else: smooth, efficient, friendly and good at making everything look easy. Offering me some bread with my starter was a great example, but really the whole thing seemed effortless. Caper and Cure wasn’t as busy as I expected but it had a real mixture of tables and types of diners, with more people coming in for lunch as we were leaving, and the whole thing had a nice flow and rhythm to it. I imagine it would be a truly enchanting place to have a boozy evening meal with friends, and next time I go there that’s exactly what I plan to do.

Our bill came to a hundred and twelve pounds, including a twelve and a half per cent service charge, and when the owner came to take our payment I pointed out that they’d slightly undercharged us. Before we left he asked where we came from, and if he was fazed that people had come all the way from Reading he concealed it well; I looked him up afterwards, and it turns out he’s also a professional actor (“you can just tell” said Zoë as we ambled up the Cheltenham Road in search of caffeination).

This is the second critically acclaimed Bristol restaurant I’ve visited this year, and the contrast with Sonny Stores couldn’t have been more marked. Restaurant critics like to talk about Bristol growing these restaurants – small, unpretentious places with short, magnificent menus and interesting wine lists – as if in a laboratory. And it’s true that the place is a Petri dish for culinary creativity, more than anywhere I know.

But I think it doesn’t do Caper and Cure justice to make it sound like just the latest place to fall off some gastronomic assembly line. There’s something uniquely special about it, and re-reading this review I’m not sure I’ve truly captured it in what I’ve written. It’s worth going to these places, even if they’re an hour and a quarter away by train, to remember what we have to aim for in Reading and that for all the Kungfu Kitchens, the Bakery Houses, the Lyndhursts and the Clay’s we still have some distance to travel.

If a restaurant like Caper & Cure opened in Reading it would be packed to the rafters every night and lauded as far as the eye can see. And yet in all the time I’ve been writing this blog, the best part of a decade, nowhere even slightly like Caper and Cure has opened here. At some point, we might all have to stop and think about why that is. Reading has the money, it has the prosperity and it has a discerning demographic. Why don’t we have the restaurants?

Caper and Cure – 9.2
The Old Chemist, 108a Stokes Croft, Bristol, BS1 3RU
0117 9232858

https://www.caperandcure.co.uk

Restaurant review: Miyazaki, Maidenhead

We were on the train to Maidenhead, Zoë and I, and both of us realised that neither of us had been to the town in the best part of twenty years. Travelled through it on countless occasions, of course, as everyone has. Changed trains there a couple of times to go to Marlow, too – usually for indifferent meals out, come to think of it. But had either of us ever got off a train there, exited through the barriers and explored the place? I didn’t think so, and nor did Zoë.

We were there to visit Maidenhead’s shiniest, newest hospitality venue – not a restaurant, but the second branch of Windsor’s craft beer bar A Hoppy Place. Zoë wanted to write it up for the magazine she edits and having had her plans to attend the grand opening thwarted by the train strike, she was keen to pay it a visit as soon as humanly possible. 

But where to eat beforehand? Maidenhead looked to be the town that restaurants forgot. A rummage through Tripadvisor – don’t judge, there was virtually nowhere else to look – suggested that most of Maidenhead’s restaurants were actually in the town’s affluent satellite villages. But then I guess if you lived near Bray or Cookham Dean, would you really go into Maidenhead of a night out? The town centre boasted a Kokoro and a Coppa Club, but I couldn’t say I fancied either of those known quantities.

And then I remembered my physio, who lives in Maidenhead, recommending Miyazaki to me. It’s a little restaurant at the unfashionable end of town which has been serving up Japanese food to the people of Maidenhead for something like seven years. No fuss, no drama, just uniformly good reviews on Tripadvisor and Google, all of which gave the vague impression that Miyazaki’s fans were quite comfortable with it remaining a well-kept secret. I phoned up on a Friday evening and was pleasantly surprised to find that they could fit in a booking for the following night.

It wasn’t the loveliest of walks from the station, and I sense that there’s an awful lot of development under way in Maidenhead. Miyazaki was on a little run of shops and restaurants, rubbing shoulders with pizza and kebab takeaways, just past the purgatorial horrors of “The Honey Pot” (remember when Reading had one of those?) and the thumping music of an O’Neill’s already in full swing. “There’s a reason why they always have an O’Neill’s near the train station”, said Zoë sagely. 

Once we reached Miyazaki, though, it stood out like the opposite of a sore thumb. Nestled between joints called Sizzlers and Tennessee Fried Chicken, a building site on the other side of the road, it looked completely out of place. No garish shop front, no big red letters and brightly-lit laminated pictures of the food on display like its neighbours, just a simple space. 

Inside, the neutral, unfussy tables couldn’t have seated more than twenty people at a push, and the long thin room was beautifully lit, the light from the summer evening pouring in through the curved, graceful floor to ceiling window. Tasteful prints and drawings were dotted on the plain white walls. Just two other tables were occupied when we got there at quarter to eight – which saddened me a little. But it was a very hot evening, and the restaurant was doing a roaring trade in takeaways, neatly packaged and on the table by the bar, waiting for delivery drivers to pull up outside and take care of them.

Miyazaki’s menu was the kind that reassured you instantly. Some people, spoiled by the compendious likes of Sushimania or Yo! Sushi, would have found it restrictive but I liked the fact that it did what it did, and didn’t try to offer everything. Just three types of sashimi, a few more nigiri and just over a dozen sushi rolls in two different sizes. There was also a selection of side dishes, along with a very small selection of what you might call mains – three curries, two different noodle dishes and a range of udon soup noodles. 

And even with such a restrained selection I saw dishes I’d never heard of or tried. Yasai kakiage, a sort of vegetable tempura fritter. Sunomono, a crunchy, vinegary cucumber salad. Chicken nanban, a deranged-but-inspired-sounding dish of fried chicken in a tangy coating, served with, of all things, tartar sauce. If I have one regret about this meal, it’s that I can’t tell you what those three taste like: I’ll know after next time.

Instead we stayed on safer ground, but we were richly rewarded all the same. Salmon sashimi was as perfect an example as I can remember – rich, smooth, glossy diamonds of perfect pink, just needing a dab of soy to perfect them. We liked it so much we ordered another portion. Mackerel sashimi was a little less successful: the skin looked like it had been torched, and the slight tinge of vinegar suggested it was cured rather than raw. I liked it more than Zoë did, which might have been a factor in us ordering more salmon.

Sushi rolls kept up a high standard. With a relatively compact menu a lot of these were variations on a theme, but even so I enjoyed everything I had. The small avocado maki were the kind of dish I could gladly eat every day for the rest of my life, and the avocado was splendidly buttery – ripe but not overripe, no hint of those telltale brown edges that always fill me with sadness. 

Larger spicy tuna rolls with a little dab of fiery red sauce inside had a surprising kick, as did the pale ribbons of ginger on the plate – it’s always encouraging to see this more natural colour, rather than the standard-issue hyper-real pink ginger you so often get. And assembly was pretty good: there were a few ragged bits of nori here and there but generally they were put together deftly, and just the right size that you could eat them in one glorious go.

All the larger sushi rolls hovered around the eight pound mark, which struck me as very good value. Another set with both avocado and salmon were probably my favourite, and so much more than the sum of their parts, speckled on the outside with black and white sesame. I’m always reminded, when I eat food like this, how nice it can be to eat something almost-virtuous, so pure-looking. That feeling always dissipates by the time the next portion of fried chicken comes along but it’s nice to experience it all the same, however fleeting. 

It helped, I’m sure, that the setting was so pared-back and ascetic, but also it’s so rare – for me at least – to find really healthy food that I actually like. By this point it was nearly quarter past eight and we were the only customers left in the restaurant, and I would have felt guilty about keeping the staff if it wasn’t for the still-steady stream of takeaway dishes coming out of the kitchen. Their work was far from over, so Zoë drank a second bottle of Sapporo, I had some sweet, fresh plum wine in a glass tinkling with ice and we ordered one last wave of dishes.

Doing so proved, if nothing else, that the period between fried chicken dishes – in my life, at least – is never that long. Karaage chicken is a staple order of mine, in Japanese restaurants and anywhere else I can find it on a menu, but Miyazaki’s was one of the best I’ve had anywhere. Normally it comes plain with some mayo on the side (and I’m absolutely fine with that) but this had been tossed in a tangy red sauce which took it somewhere even better. All soft thigh meat, crunchy coating and gnarled edges with a little spike of heat, it was up there with the nicest things I’ve eaten this year. Chicken gyoza felt a little more boilerplate, but even boilerplate chicken gyoza are still better than the majority of things you can pop into your mouth. 

It’s a shame that I saved the worst til last, but our final two noodle dishes suggested that the kitchen’s strengths lay elsewhere. You can have soba or udon noodles with chicken katsu, fried prawns or vegetable korroke, but either way the underlying dish didn’t quite come together. My soba noodles – a neatly petite portion – were nice enough I suppose, but the sauce they had been lightly stir fried in had a slightly off-putting sweetness when I was hoping for more savoury depth. And my three breaded prawns, tasty though they were, didn’t feel like they really went; I resorted to eating those with my fingers and then ploughing through the noodles, but it didn’t feel like a cohesive dish, or a hugely enjoyable one. 

I think Zoë picked better with the katsu chicken, which was nicely done, but other than the gauge of her noodles her dish was subject to much the same problems. These two dishes are only available at dinner time, but to be honest when I go back I’ll probably just order more sushi, because that felt like where Miyazaki truly excelled. Or I might just leap into the unknown reaches of the menu, and see whether Japanese fried chicken with tartar sauce is as chaotic and magnificent on the plate as it is in my imagination. Either way, I also plan to sample their extensive and impressive selection of sake.

I know it’s a little perverse of me to review a restaurant in Maidenhead this week, because Reading has had two Japanese restaurants open in quick succession: Intoku, where the Tasting House used to be, at the end of May and Iro Sushi, replacing Raayo on Friar Street, at the beginning of July (a third, You Me Sushi, opened a few doors down from Iro yesterday). But I thought Miyazaki was worth exploring, because restaurants that have been doing their stuff for years with no fuss are often overlooked in favour of shiny new places. Or, possibly, bandwagon-jumpers. 

And it was right that I did, because Miyazaki is quietly splendid and well worth celebrating. I’m not inclined to let those final two dishes detract from what was a truly wonderful meal a twelve minute train ride from Reading in surroundings that really couldn’t be more incongruous. Service was flawless, the room has a sort of touching humility which I liked very much and if our meal wasn’t cheap – it came to just over ninety pounds for all that food and a couple of drinks each, not including tip – it was worth every penny. 

And if you need somewhere to go in Maidenhead for a post-dinner drink, I can thoroughly recommend A Hoppy Place which has excellent outside seating and had two phenomenal imperial stouts on keg when I visited, both of which I enjoyed a great deal. You could go to O’Neill’s instead of course, but you don’t need to leave Reading for that, although you would need to take leave of your senses. I will get to the likes of Intoku and Iro in due course, but the standard they have to reach has already been laid down, in a little sanctuary a matter of minutes away on the Elizabeth Line. And if they turn out to be disappointing, I know exactly where I’ll go to get over it.

Miyazaki – 8.1
63 Queen Street, Maidenhead, SL6 1LT
01628 785377

http://www.miyazaki.co.uk

Restaurant review: Bánh Mì QB

I was having a chat with my friend Reggie the other day, and I told him that my upcoming review was of Bánh Mì QB, the new Vietnamese restaurant on the ground floor of what used to be called Kings Walk. I’d been there earlier in the week, I told him, and I just needed to write it up.

“You know what the problem with that place is, don’t you?” he said.

“The landlord, I know.” The whole of that space, Atlantis Village or whatever it’s called this week, is owned by Sykes Capital, the company founded by noted philanthropist John Sykes. I should apologise at this point: if you had an Edible Reading bingo card, or were playing an Edible Reading drinking game – even at half eleven on a Friday morning – you’d fully expect me to name drop Sykes, Reading’s answer to It’s A Wonderful Life’s Henry F Potter, nice and early in the proceedings. I know I’ve probably lived down to your expectations: I’ll try not to mention him again.

“No, the space. How are you going to get any atmosphere there? It’s a funny spot for a restaurant.”

Actually, it was quite nice. I ate at the tables outside, on the ground floor of the mall (or whatever you call a strange little space that’s half full of restaurants and nothing else: an arcade?) because I’m still all about eating outside whenever I can. But the inside was also rather pleasant with plain, unpretentious furniture, tasteful wicker shades and some wood panelling and screens to add character. In other circumstances, I’d have been happy to have had dinner in there.

A long time ago, a certain landlord I’ve promised I won’t mention by name again – even though, or perhaps because, it makes him sound like Voldemort – made some far-fetched claims that he was going to turn Kings Atlantic Village Walk into a “culinary destination”. There was talk of bringing over a head chef from France to run one restaurant, of opening a bakery on site, even some musings that this could be home to Reading’s first Michelin starred restaurant. How exciting!

In reality, the arcade has somewhat proved to be the kiss of death. Lebanese restaurant La Courbe closed down, as did Art Of Siam and Bengal Reef, and then in the summer of 2018 Dolce Vita, one of Reading’s best restaurants, closed at very short notice amid talk of a massive proposed rent hike. Its former site on the first floor, with all that outside space, has been vacant ever since; underneath it, we’re now on our third cocktail bar in the same spot.

Having said all that, the arcade is gradually beginning to look like an interesting place to eat – no bakery and nothing Michelin starred, because that was clearly cobblers, but a growing collection of restaurants with some character none the less. Pho, Soju and Bolan Thai have survived the pandemic, and now we’re starting to see some green shoots of recovery, with more places opening on the ground floor. Ji Chicken, a Taiwanese fried chicken place, opened last November and this year it’s been joined by Bánh Mì QB which opened in April. Only My Warsaw, a little Polish street food kiosk, contradicts the pan-Asian theme.

It feels a brave or supremely confident move to open a Vietnamese restaurant a mere sixty second walk from Reading’s only other Vietnamese restaurant. That alone would have been enough to make me want to check them out, so one evening, fresh off the train, I headed over there with Zoë to give it a try. It wasn’t my first attempt to eat there, though: I’d dropped by several times at the weekend to find the place rammed, so I was hoping it was busy with good reason.

BMQB’s menu was relatively similar to Pho’s and the prices have been benchmarked around those of its chain rival, so most starters are seven or eight pounds and most main courses max out at twelve quid. There are no less than three variants on the noodles in soup theme: pho, naturally, but also a couple of other soup and noodle dishes which differed from pho in ways that weren’t necessarily made clear. Unlike Pho there are no curries on offer here, just a variety of rice and noodle dishes, and also unlike Pho you can try the eponymous bánh mi, the Vietnamese baguette which most clearly shows the influence of the country’s time as a French colony.

We divided up the dishes we fancied, agreed to share the starters, placed our order and sipped on a Hanoi beer while we waited for some food to arrive. BMQB’s menu offers both Hanoi and Saigon lagers but the wait staff, faultlessly polite though they were, couldn’t tell us how they differed from one another (“they’re both named after cities in Vietnam” they said, charmingly). Inside the restaurant was quiet except for one solitary diner, and I thought to myself that six o’clock was probably a deeply unfashionably early time to have dinner here.

Our starters were a mix of the tried and tested and the unfamiliar, and they got off to an excellent start. I always order Pho’s pork spring rolls and they’ve become a bit of a Reading benchmark, but BMQB’s were as good if not slightly better. A decent portion of three rugged, crunchy spring rolls came diagonally cut into six and were just the ticket dipped into a small dish of what I imagine was nuoc cham. 

The texture was spot on but the taste was even better, the filling a hugely pleasing amalgam of chicken, prawns, glass noodles and carrot. The prawn was the element setting the tone here, lending a wonderfully moreish, savoury note with the tiniest hint of funk, although I suppose that could have come from the wood ear mushrooms. The menu says they come with lettuce – why? – but I’m glad to say they sensibly omitted it. By the end I was regretting not ordering one to myself: don’t make my mistake, if you go.

The other starters, although they didn’t completely match that high standard, were by no means a letdown. Salt and pepper squid (you could have salt and pepper tofu instead, if you’re vegan, or sea bass, if you’re fancy) wasn’t half bad, and it was nice to see them using recognisable pieces of tender squid instead of the standard issue rubbery calamari you find in so many places in Reading. You got six pieces, stir fried with some spring onion and red onion, and although it was an enjoyable dish I did finish it wishing there had been more. 

Another thing to say at this point, although it’s probably apparent from these photos and the pictures yet to come, is that BMQB’s food is very easy on the eye – simple and beautiful, all reds and greens, an antidote to beige. I even loved the faux basket crockery, a surprisingly easy and effective way to make even the most straightforward dish oddly photogenic.

So far so mainstream, but I also wanted to try something you wouldn’t find in Pho. Once I’d explained to Zoë that a salted egg dish didn’t involve eating a salted egg, rather that it was prawns fried in a crispy coating using salted egg yolks, she was happy for me to order it. And really, the coating was magnificent – light yet intensely salty, hugging every inch of each plump, curled prawn. Was it worth just over ten pounds? Possibly not, but I’m glad I ordered it and delighted that I can say I’ve tried it.

I think we confused them by ordering a bánh mi as a main course, given that they sit next to the starters on the menu and are possibly often ordered as a stand alone dish at lunchtime. So the staff brought it out and then realised only one of us had gotten our order: I waited until Zoë’s main came out five minutes later before tucking in, which involved more restraint than I knew I possessed.

Having waxed lyrical about how photogenic BMQB’s food is, I know this one looks a dud. It’s harder to take a good picture of a baguette than you might think: like babies, they pretty much all look the same. But take my word for it, inside it had everything I could have wanted. The crunch and astringency of pickled carrot and mooli, the pungency of coriander and the piquancy of chilli were all present and correct, along with a single mandolin-sliced stripe of almost translucent cucumber running the whole length of the baguette. 

But the chicken was fantastic – “grilled chicken” wrote a cheque suggesting that you would get some kind of dry, faintly marinated breast but in reality that cheque was whipped away, Chris Tarrant-style, and replaced with copious tender nuggets of what I’d guess was chicken thigh, positively humming with lemongrass and providing more than enough oomph to stand up to everything else jostling for position in that baguette. 

Truly, it’s one of the world’s great sandwiches and I was verging on overjoyed to be reunited with it in the faintly Hopperesque surroundings of the deserted ground floor of Sykes’ Folly. It did make me think that although hospitality, and the world, are allegedly back to normal I still find myself shying away from crowded, buzzing restaurants and packed pubs, still living outside or grabbing quiet meals on a sleepy lunchtime or the early bird special. 

For a moment, that gave me a little sharp spike of sadness, and I wondered if life will ever be normal again. But it’s hard to be down in the dumps for long when you’re eating one of the world’s great sandwiches. And BMQB’s is probably the best rendition I’ve had – better than MumMum, which didn’t last a year on Market Place, and better even than Cappuccina Café on West Street which lasted even less than that. I truly hope that BMQB, third time lucky, bucks that particular trend. 

Zoë’s main, from the adjacent section of the menu, was a fried rice dish. She opted to have it with pork (“the most dangerous of the meats”, as she likes to call it) and even then the menu gave the option of grilled pork or crispy roasted pork. But really, what kind of monster would read that blurb and go for the former? What turned up was another gorgeous dish, the roasted pork fanned out into a kind of cheery smile around a neat little dome of rice. A salad of pickled vegetables, garnished with vibrant mint and coriander, and a little bowl of a dark, glossy dipping sauce completed the picture.

I think I expected the pork to be hot, whereas it was closer to warm, but having tried a bit I can honestly say that it didn’t matter a jot. Superbly tender with a winning crackling, full of salty depth, this was easily some of the best roast pork I’ve had since Fidget & Bob’s legendary char siu Tuesdays. And the sauce was outstanding – powerfully salty-sweet, something a little like hoi sin and absolutely compelling. It was great with the pork, equally great with the rice, in fact it was hard to imagine a dish it couldn’t have thoroughly transformed. The crunch of the peanuts bobbing on its surface was the icing on a deeply indulgent cake. 

I was allowed a couple of pieces of pork, but when Zoë couldn’t finish her egg fried rice I took to mixing it with the last of that sauce and doing my best to polish it off. I didn’t want to offend the waiting staff, that was how I rationalised my greed to myself. You can also have the crispy roasted pork as a starter – which I might have to do next time, just so I can also try their hopefully equally crispy, equally roasted, equally delicious duck. What can I say? It’s nice to have goals.

I haven’t talked enough about the waiting staff, but they were uniformly friendly, polite and welcoming. I’m not convinced all of them spoke an awful lot of English, but given the state of my Vietnamese I was hardly going to hold that against them. Our bill for three starters, two mains and a couple of beers each came to seventy-two pounds fifty, which includes a 12.5% service charge: they earned every penny of it, if you ask me. We left full and happy, but not before I visited their extremely pleasant bathrooms (I never mention the bathrooms, do I, but these are very agreeable indeed). 

If you’ve made it this far, you know the rating is just in sight, down there. And if you’ve looked at it, you might be wondering if I’m going soft. ER ratings of 8 and over used to be like hen’s teeth and yet here I am, doling out three on the spin to Reading restaurants like they’re silly money. It can’t be a midlife crisis – I’ve already had that, believe me – so what on earth’s going on?

But honestly, in its way BMQB is as deserving as anywhere I’ve been in nearly nine years of writing this blog. Everything was clean, precise, beautiful to look at and interesting to eat. In the past I’ve sometimes found Vietnamese food a little on the bland side but BMQB, more than anywhere, has convinced me of the value of being subtle. It is, in general, a paragon of subtlety – from the simplicity of its menu to the understated warmth of its welcome, all the way through to the clever balance of its flavours. 

In a town where sometimes we celebrate the brash far too hard, where the people that shout loudest get the most likes, there’s still a place for restaurants like BMQB. And there’s a place for me too, namely sitting outside them having a quietly lovely dinner. So hats off to them for having the guts to open a few doors down from one of Reading’s most successful chains, offering a similar menu, in a building owned by the town’s most controversial landlord. They’ve got my vote, if that counts for anything: but then I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdog.

Bánh Mì QB – 8.0
Unit 8, 19-23 Kings Road, Reading, RG1 2HG
0118 9599778

https://www.facebook.com/BanhMi-QB-Reading-102194582456211
Delivery via: Deliveroo, Uber Eats