Restaurant review: Shree Krishna Vada Pav

When it comes to food and drink, Reading is an especially interesting place. You may find this hard to believe at times, but it’s true.

I don’t mean all the stuff that’s obvious to you, especially if you’re a regular reader of this blog. I don’t mean our coffee culture, or our street food scene that’s the envy of towns for miles around. I don’t mean our two local breweries with taprooms, or excellent pubs like the Nag’s and the Castle Tap selling fantastic craft beer and cider. I don’t mean the jewels in our restaurant crown – places like Clay’s, the Lyndhurst, Kungfu Kitchen or Vegivores. I’m not even talking about our network of local producers and the independent shops, like Geo Café and the Grumpy Goat, which sell their stuff. You know all that already, although I suspect a lot of people who live here still don’t. 

No, I mean interesting in terms of the world outside our food-loving, indie-supporting echo chamber. Because a lot of businesses have clocked that Reading – with its university, its prosperous populace and its tech employers, just the right distance from London – is the perfect place for them to open another branch of their restaurant chain and make pots of cash. They have us down, mistakenly I like to think, as something of an Everytown, the perfect testbed for their particular flavour of the hospitality experience.

In fact, two very different types of businesses have Reading in their sights. The first, tapping into that affluent, well-educated demographic, are smaller, more targeted chains. They’ve often seen Reading as their first attempts to expand west (Honest, Pho) or east (The Coconut Tree), or just picked it as one of the first stops on a journey to nationwide ubiquity (Itsu). And this still continues, albeit to a lesser extent: we’re getting a Leon and a Wasabi this year, don’t forget.

But the second type is more interested in Reading as Everytown, and often we are the lucky Petri dish they squirt their pipette into before deciding whether to open branches elsewhere. And this is, I’m afraid, often an American thing. It’s no coincidence that Reading got one of the first Five Guys, got a Chick-Fil-A, albeit briefly, got a Taco Bell and a Wingstop and a Wendy’s and has a Popeyes on the way. Such is life: newly added to the Tube map, but somehow equidistant between London and the good ol’ United States. 

These big American chains with plenty of money are aided and abetted in their mission to slightly worsen Reading by our local media – which posted dozens of stories about Wendy’s, mainly because they were too dumb to think critically for even a split second about whether Reading getting the first Wendy’s in the U.K. was actually a Good Thing. But it also points to just how much is going on in Reading, and how interesting the battle will be between all these factions fighting it out for your money. No wonder Jonathan Nunn, the editor of Vittles, called our town a “fascinating anomaly”.

“Why is this the subject of your interminable preamble this week?”, I hear you say. I thought you’d never ask. The reason I talk about all of this is that the subject of this week’s review is that rare thing, a chain choosing to plonk a branch near the centre of town that people can get genuinely excited about. Because Shree Krishna Vada Pav, a small chain selling vegetarian Maharashtrian street food which started out in Hounslow and only has three branches outside the M25, comes here with an excellent reputation.

Eater London, which tirelessly covers everywhere worth eating outside Zone 1, has enthused about SKVP on numerous occasions. They classed it as one of London’s best Indian restaurants, and one of West London’s best value restaurants. And they said it served one of London’s finest sandwiches, on a list rubbing shoulders with greats like Beigel Bake’s salt beef bagel and Quo Vadis’ legendary smoked eel sandwich. Eater London aptly summed up what SKVP do as “carb-on-carb masterpieces”, and commented elsewhere that their dishes (carbs stuffed into a soft bap) had a “curious affinity with snack culture from the north of England and Scotland”. 

So you might not have heard of Shree Krishna Vada Pav, or you might not have known they were coming to Reading, but one way or the other this is a strangely big deal, despite the grand total of zero coverage in Berkshire Live or the Reading Chronicle. But who needs them anyway when you’ve got me, so this week I headed there on a Monday evening with Zoë to try as much of the menu as I could.

It’s at the edge of town, opposite the Back Of Beyond, and once you get past its Day-Glo orange exterior it’s fundamentally a very long thin room with a view of the kitchen and a corridor heading to the back – and presumably the loos – which seems to go on forever. (“I know” said Zoë. “I used to come here when it was Julia’s Meadow and I thought it was like the fucking TARDIS”). A panel down one wall gave a potted history of the chain which opened its first branch in 2010, although the founders go further back than that, having met at college in Mumbai at the turn of the century. I found all that oddly sweet, which is no doubt the desired effect.

Apart from that the interior was best described as functional – basic furniture, a mixture of tables for two and four and cutlery on the table. It looked very much like a fast food restaurant, albeit one with table service. The music was just the right side of overpowering, although I found I liked that.

“I don’t know how unbiased I can be” said Zoë as we took our seats. “Have we ever had a meal for the blog where I’ve been this fucking starving?”

She had a point. We got there around eight o’clock, having not eaten since a light lunch, and irrespective of how tempting the menu might be there was very much a strong urge to order nearly everything. That said, looking at the menu didn’t make that any easier. It was two things: cheap and huge, not necessarily in that order. It was split into sections, each of which contained an embarrassment of riches: a variety of pav and other bap-based dishes, some Indo-Chinese dishes, some chaat, some sandwiches and wraps, a section of “bites to enjoy” and some signature dishes marked as “SKVP recommends”. And the carb on carb struggle is real: if you want an onion bhajiya sandwich, this is the place for you.

It’s possibly an indicator of how you should eat here that the handful of curries are squirreled away in the furthest corner of the menu, and ordering any of them never occurred to me. But also the pricing positively implores you to order lots of things and share them – the most expensive dishes are around six pounds but most are less than that. I took this as encouragement to take an approach much like the numbers game from Countdown: a couple from the top and the rest from anywhere else. We ordered – please don’t judge – eight dishes in total and our bill came to just under thirty-two pounds. That didn’t include any drinks, because SKVP didn’t have any mango lassi and we didn’t especially fancy anything else: there is, unsurprisingly, no alcohol license.

I do have to say that although the set-up says fast food, ours was far from that. We ordered at ten past eight, and it wasn’t until half an hour later that food started coming to our table. That’s not a problem of itself, but it’s worth mentioning because the restaurant ostensibly closes at nine. And weirder still, the customers kept coming: we were by no means the last table seated or the last people to get their food. I’m pretty sure that SKVP has been busy from the day it opened, and on this showing that’s not going to change any time soon. I should also mention at this point that the staff were quite brilliant, although clearly under the cosh. 

We ordered a lot of food – if you go, you don’t need to order anywhere near as much as we did – and it all came to the table over the space of five minutes. Again, I’m not complaining but it was an odd approach to bring nothing for half an hour and then literally every single thing. I would have preferred a steady stream of dishes, but that might just be me. But don’t be fooled into thinking that low prices mean small portions: you’ll get very full very fast if you make the same mistake we did.

Your challenge, if you go, will be narrowing it down. We had to try the vada pav – it’s in the name, after all – and although I liked it I’m not sure I loved it or preferred it to Bhel Puri House’s version. It really is a carb overload: fried potato served in a cheap white floury bap with a variety of chutneys. I think you kind of have to have it, but I don’t know if I’d have it again – the chutneys were excellent, sharpening and and elevating it, but the potato was a little too much stodge and not enough crunch. Zoë had the version with cheese (plastic hamburger cheese, I think) and she absolutely loved it. That might be the Irish in her.

“Can you believe this only costs two pounds?” I said.

“It’s a bit of old veg though, innit?” came the response, between mouthfuls. Did I mention that we were both ravenous?

More successful (and, frankly, slightly insane) was the “aloo bomb”. I’d wanted the paneer bomb – the sandwich, incidentally, lauded by Eater London as one of the capital’s peerless butties – but it was off the menu that night so they subbed it for the aloo bomb. It’s hard to do justice to this but essentially it’s a spiced potato sandwich that has been battered and fried and it’s every bit as nuts as that description makes it sound: Glaswegians, it turns out, aren’t the only people who will batter anything. 

A portion comes in two triangles so you only need one between two but it’s well worth ordering, if only to tick it off. It struck me as a vegetarian cousin of Gurt Wings’ infamous chicken burger in a glazed donut with candied bacon on top: you’d want to try it once to say you’ve had it, but you mightn’t order it again for at least twelve months.  Who am I kidding? When I go back that paneer bomb has my name on it.

Possibly the best dish was that reliable staple, the chilli paneer. Reading has always been spoilt for this by Bhel Puri House, where the tricky decision is whether to have chilli paneer, paneer Manchurian or – as I have on occasion, again, please don’t judge – both of them. SKVP’s version is beautifully pitched between the two – a little hot, sweet and savoury all at once, staying on that highwire without putting a foot wrong. The paneer was just caramelised enough without being crispy or burnt and this was one dish where, even though we were full to bursting, we made it a personal mission to ensure that not a forkful remained.

“You could come here and have a portion of that to yourself and a vada pav and that would be you sorted” said Zoë. “You could come here for lunch when you’re working from home, you lucky bastard.”

I’d be lying if I pretended the idea hadn’t crossed my mind, although they’ve have to take less than half an hour to bring it.

If the other dishes were less successful, it was still just the difference between rather good and very good. I quite liked the onion bhajiya, I really liked the red onion studded throughout them and I adored the little fried green chillies they were festooned with. But although greaseless they were a tad dried out for my liking: what they really needed was a chutney of some kind. And fried momo were more doughy than their Nepalese cousins, and probably didn’t bring enough to the table. But once you’ve had a spiced potato masala in a deep fried sandwich and a samosa, a third carby vehicle for it is probably overkill by anyone’s standards.

The samosas, by the way, were excellent. My benchmark for these is Cake & Cream up on the Wokingham Road (where they’ve recently gone up in price to a still-ludicrous seventy pence). But I reckon SKVP’s match them nicely, with a filling flecked with chilli that starts out gently hot before going on to clear out every tube you have from the neck up. You can have them on your own – you get four for a ridiculous three pounds fifty – but we had them bundled with a really delicious, deeply savoury and soothing chickpea curry which was one of the milder, less aggressively hot dishes of the evening. Five pounds fifty for this lot, if you can believe it.

I don’t know to be impressed or faintly disgusted with myself that we ate so much of what we’d ordered but eventually we admitted defeat, although not before picking away at the last peppers and spring onions from the chilli paneer. We waddled out into the night, and headed to the back room of the Retreat for a bottle of chocolate stout and a post-meal debrief: I wouldn’t say it was the stuff of Shakespeare, as it mostly consisted of us saying “I’m so full” to one another after a suitably pregnant pause, but it was a debrief nonetheless. The pause probably seemed less pregnant than I did.

It probably won’t surprise you, now that we’ve got to the end, to scroll a little bit further down and see the rating. I loved SKVP. I didn’t care that it took half an hour to turn up, I didn’t care that I missed out on that paneer bomb and, perhaps most significantly, I didn’t care in the slightest that I’d had a meat free evening. It gets an unqualified thumbs up from me, and I imagine a lot of you would enjoy it, even if it’s just for a quickish bite to eat at lunchtime, or before the pub (good luck catching it at a quiet time, though). And I suspect that my selections from this menu were probably pretty mainstream and tame: I look forward to trying more of it.

SKVP’s closest equivalent is Bhel Puri House – which I still love, don’t get me wrong – but it strikes me as offering something very different to Reading’s other vegetarian Indian restaurants, Madras Flavours and Crispy Dosa, both of which focus their menus elsewhere. And SKVP also achieves that underrated thing which not enough restaurants succeed in pulling off: it’s fun. Fun from start to finish, fun looking through the menu, fun picking too much stuff, fun eating somewhere unlike the rest of Reading, fun eating a deep fried potato sandwich. One hundred per cent fun. It was even almost fun lying in bed that night, feeling like a python slowly digesting a mongoose it had swallowed whole. Almost.

So maybe Reading’s story isn’t written yet. And that’s an encouraging thing to realise, that with big U.K. chains to the left and bigger U.S. chains to the right we still have the chance to be stuck in the middle with our independent heroes, our restaurants and pubs, breweries and cafés, producers and shops. And in that happy place, I like to think there’s also still room for someone like SKVP – an occasional epic, incongruous, glorious curveball.

Shree Krishna Vada Pav – 8.1
97 Kings Road, Reading, RG1 3DD
07900 345120

https://skvp.co.uk
Delivery via: Deliveroo

Restaurant review: Buon Appetito

A couple of Mondays ago I was walking through town around lunchtime, and I noticed that every table outside Bill’s was occupied. The sun was shining, and Bill’s has one of the best al fresco spots in Reading, but even so: every single table? Then I walked past Jollibee on Broad Street, with a queue outside, just like every day since it opened. As I looped back down Friar Street I noticed, through the windows, that Wendy’s was packed.  We can congratulate ourselves on promoting an independent, thriving Reading, through the money we spend and the businesses we amplify on social media, but the fact remains that chain restaurants have a huge hold on our town and its customers. 

The struggle is real, and relentless. Recently a branch of Sri Lankan themed chain The Coconut Tree opened, and influencers surfaced on Instagram raving about how good their (free) food was. It is next door to South Indian restaurant Pappadam’s, which has been there for years. Last week Gordon Ramsay opened a restaurant in the Oracle – one of five new burger restaurants coming to Reading – and gave out a thousand free burgers. Berkshire Live ran a breathless story enthusing about the opening. Of course they did, because it’s easier to Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V some guff from a PR company than it is to write a real story (although in Berkshire Live’s defence they subsequently reviewed the burger, and didn’t rate it).

The uncomfortable reality, even if we wish it wasn’t so, is that chain restaurants in general, and American ones in particular, do well in this town. Last month Deliveroo revealed Reading’s five most frequently-ordered dishes. Who made the list? Taco Bell, Wingstop, Shake Shack and Five Guys. The only thing preventing a clean sweep by American chains was the holder of the top spot, from German Doner Kebab. They wouldn’t make my top hundred dishes in Reading, let alone take the crown. Maybe Reading’s favourite illness is dyspepsia. Or dysentery, you never know.

If you’re reading this you probably have at least a passing interest in Reading’s independent restaurants, so perhaps you’re mystified (or depressed) by the continuing popularity of places like Taco Bell. It’s easy to forget, in an echo chamber that buys local, supports indie businesses and slopes off to the farmer’s market a couple of times a month, that most people in Reading would still rather queue for Wendy’s.

Even if you support independent businesses, there are other ways to be out of step. I’ve never quite “got” some of Reading’s fêted indies. I freely admit that Sweeney and Todd is one of them, Quattro is another. A third, the subject of this week’s review, is Buon Appetito. It’s always been highly rated on TripAdvisor, yet when I went there over five years ago I was bemused by the rave reviews. Years later the wonderful Tuscany opened down the Oxford Road and I had another, better pizza option; I never returned to Buon Appetito.

Yet here we are in 2021, Tuscany closed over two ago, and Buon Appetito is still going strong. It’s still highly rated on Trip Advisor. More to the point, the pictures on its Instagram account look a world away from the greasy, cheese-sodden edible cardboard I waded through back in 2016. Flicking through them made me feel decidedly peckish. So I decided to take another look, accompanied by my friend Nick, fresh from his previous appearance in this blog and not put off by the whole experience of being immortalised in print.

Buon Appetito has made the best of an unlovely spot. Like many canny businesses they’ve done great things with their outside space, with plenty of tables and some little booths with circular pub tables and heaters on the wall. Everything was covered by a corrugated plastic roof, and more corrugated plastic formed a partition closing off much of the view of Chatham Street. It will set them up perfectly for winter, and the overall effect made me feel like I was on holiday. That sensation was only accentuated by the soundtrack, which sounded like hotel lobby jazz covers of popular songs. I started out thinking the music was deeply naff, but by the end it had won me over and I’d used Shazam to work out who the band was (The Cooltrane Quartet, since you asked).

Service was bright, friendly and immediate. Rather than relegate it to the end of the review it deserves to be mentioned early and often, because the woman who looked after us all evening was brilliant. Every restaurant should have a front of house like this: warm, enthusiastic, likeable and with opinions about the dishes you ought to try. She brought us a couple of pints of Peroni (the drinks selection isn’t the widest at Buon Appetito) and we began the process of picking through the menu.

“I’m not a fussy eater, but there are four things I won’t eat” said Nick.

“What are they?” I mentally ran through my own list of no-nos, but apart from the obvious ones, like tripe, I could only come up with sweetcorn and dried fruit.

“Blue cheese, obviously. It’s mouldy. You’re literally eating mould.”

I couldn’t help but feel Nick was missing out, but I didn’t interject.

“And raw coriander. It’s awful, it just tastes soapy. It’s genetic, you know.” Having been closely associated with a coriander hater in the past, I’d been told this fact more times than I cared to recall. Can’t you just tell restaurants you’re allergic? I used to ask: apparently not.

“What are the other two?”

“Olives! They just always taste so bitter to me, it doesn’t matter what colour they are. And the last one’s marzipan.”

I could eat marzipan by the block, cutting it like cheese – I have, in my day – but I let that pass. I looked at the menu and mentally struck a virtual red pen through all the items with olives or blue cheese in them: it was more than a few (I was surprised, given our last meal out, that snails hadn’t made the list).

The menu was mainstream but better and more well put together than the one I remembered from my previous visit. It was compact in the right places – only four pasta mains, for instance – and more expansive where that made sense. It’s okay to have many different pizzas because ultimately many of the core ingredients are frequently the same. Pricing was consistent and reasonable – nearly all the pizzas and pasta dishes ranged between ten and fourteen pounds and starters were around the seven pound mark, or more expensive and big enough to share.

Pizzas were a mixture of recognisably Italian combinations – plenty of ‘nduja on there, and the classic Neopolitan pizza with anchovies, capers and olives – and options from further afield. The Honolulu and the Hawaiian, both of which featured pineapple, constituted the lunatic fringe. “I quite like pineapple on pizza” said Nick, “but I won’t order it: you’ll get hate mail from Italians.” I wondered what Italians would make of a vegetarian pizza called “Garden Of Eatin”, but perhaps they’d made their peace with that.

If all of our meal had been like our starters, the rating you’ve already scrolled down to check would have been lower. Calamari was decent, though: it mightn’t have had the tenderness of ultra-fresh squid, but it wasn’t rubbery either. It came with a gentle aioli: a bigger honk of garlic wouldn’t have gone amiss. Even so, it was better than the same dish at the Fisherman’s Cottage a few months back, by which token it was better than most calamari I’ve had in Reading over the years.

The other dish, king prawns with chorizo, was merely pleasant. They were nice plump prawns, three of them, with plenty of sweet flesh once you’d yanked off the head and opened up the shell. The problem was everything else. I know chorizo isn’t Italian, which made the dish potentially slightly incongruous. But worse, this chorizo was nothing special – thick, coarse and bouncy without heat or the terrific crimson oil that colours everything it touches. The menu said that this was cooked with garlic and extra virgin olive oil, but I got little or no garlic, just an anonymous orange puddle under the prawns that didn’t taste of enough.

I began to worry that history would repeat itself: I haven’t doled out a poor rating this year, and I’m somewhat dreading the first time I have an iffy meal on duty. But then our pizzas arrived and those worries, and indeed any other cares I might have had, dissipated in a cloud of carbs. Based on what I’d seen on social media I fully expected Buon Appetito’s 2021 pizzas to be an improvement on the one I had in 2016, but what I wasn’t prepared for is just how improved they would be. They weren’t just better than the previous one I’d eaten at Buon Appetito, they were better than any I’ve had in Reading and many I’ve had further afield.

Now, I can understand you being sceptical: it was only a few weeks ago that I said I might have discovered Reading’s best sandwich, and here I am saying that Buon Appetito does Reading’s best pizza. I couldn’t blame you for thinking I’m busting out hype for the sake of it. But I try hard to be sparing with the superlatives – not everywhere can be the best ever – and by any standards Buon Appetito’s pizza was extraordinary. The base was night and day compared to what I’d eaten before, with a beautifully bubbled, puffy crust with a little leopard-spotting and a deeply satisfying chewiness. 

The toppings – I’d gone for the Napoli, which has always been my ideal pizza – were superb. A great tomato base, just enough cheese, lots of salty anchovies, a judicious helping of sharp, tangy capers and those black olives Nick was so averse to. I think this particular pizza is the choice of salt and vinegar fans everywhere and when it’s perfectly in balance, as it was here, it’s a full-on, sing-at-the-top-of-your-voice truly joyous thing to eat. Better than Papa Gee’s, better than The Last Crumb’s, better even than Tuscany used to be. I loved it, and knowing I could rock up to Buon Appetito any time and order this pizza again for a mere eleven pounds was both a wonderful and a dangerous discovery. 

Nick’s pizza showcased that great base in a completely different direction. The “Calabrian” manages to appear on the menu twice, once halfway through and once at the end of the list of pizzas. But it was a masterpiece of pared-down simplicity – tomato sauce, mozzarella, clusters of ‘nduja, basil leaves: nothing else. Nick had never had ‘nduja before – in 2021, can you believe it? – and though he ordered it with abandon, he approached it with trepidation. “Yes, it’s hot, but it’s good” he said, just before our waitress came up and asked, part sympathetically, part playfully, whether he needed a glass of milk. “We have chilli oil, if you want to make it hotter” she added. But Nick was happy with his choice: from where I was sitting it looked a smart one.

“That was good, wasn’t it?” Nick said.

“It really was. Hold on, is that a Latin jazz cover version of Never Gonna Give You Up?”

“Certainly sounds like it.”

We asked for the dessert menu, because I’ve always felt it’s rude not to at least look. It was on the right side of too big, with four desserts and some variations on the theme of gelato and sorbetto, along with an espresso martini which had wandered over from the cocktail menu. “The panna cotta and tiramisu are the best ones” our waitress told us. “Although our banoffee pie is very good too. We import it from Italy, along with our Torta Rocher”. I suspect they come in frozen from a company called DiSotto, which also provides Buon Appetito’s ice cream and sorbet.  

We took our waitress’ advice. Nick’s tiramisu was a hefty helping, on the rustic side with huge, boozy savoiardi biscuits (or lady fingers, as you probably should no longer call them) and loads of mascarpone under a blanket of cocoa powder. He liked it, but was too full to make significant inroads into it. I gallantly stepped up purely so I could tell you what it was like, namely serviceable. Only now, looking at the DiSotto website, do I clock that they sell a defrost-it-yourself tiramisu which looks strikingly like this one. I’d love to think Buon Appetito makes its own, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

The panna cotta was a strange one: I’m used to it turned out and quivering on the plate whereas this one had been imprisoned in a little sundae dish. There was an enjoyable pistachio mousse underneath, the beautiful crunch of a candied pistachio crumb on top. All tasty enough, but it felt more like an upside-down, out-of-kilter cheesecake than a panna cotta. I’m not sure the panna cotta element – hemmed in, unable to wobble freely – worked.

“Pretty good” said Nick, “but not as good as Laura’s panna cotta.” I tried his other half’s panna cotta not long ago: he’s right.

The restaurant had a steady flow of customers throughout our meal without ever seeming busy. But it was a Wednesday evening close to payday: perhaps that was a factor. “Inside is very nice too, you should eat there next time” said our waitress as she brought the bill, along with a couple of shot glasses of a Kermit-green pistachio liqueur like next level Bailey’s. Three courses and two and a half pints each came to seventy-eight pounds, not including tip.

As I said, night and day; I still think that the place I went to five years ago left a lot to be desired, but aside from being in the same building and doing Italian cuisine I don’t see many remnants of the Buon Appetito that left me nonplussed. They’ve created a properly lovely space, the service is spot on and if part of the menu were merely not bad or even so-so, the plusses outweighed that in spades. The biggest of those plusses is the pizza, which for my money is one of the best I can remember.  

I wish there were more sunny days ahead, because few pleasures can match pizza and beer on a sunny day, but those little booths will be very inviting when the nights draw in, especially for those of us who aren’t sure how much indoor dining we plan to do in what remains of 2021. With Buon Appetito, Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen and the Nag’s Head, that little piece of West Reading is looking like the best gastronomic micro-climate the town has to offer. Chatham Street, a food hub: who’d have thought it?

Buon Appetito – 8.0
146-148 Chatham Street, Reading, RG1 7HT
0118 3276947

https://www.buonappetitoreading.co.uk
Delivery available: via Just Eat, Deliveroo, UberEats

Restaurant review: Marmo, Bristol

What’s your favourite restaurant? Your absolute favourite, I mean. I ask because a couple of weeks ago I was sitting in my friends James and Liz’s back garden in Bristol, drinking white wine on a sunny afternoon and having exactly that conversation. The wedding we’d been to the day before – on a Wednesday, no less – was that miraculous thing, a wedding where you’re not hung over the morning after, and so the day stretched out in front of us, feeling partly like a Sunday, partly like something else.

James refused to take part: he didn’t believe in picking a single favourite. So we talked instead about possibly allowing everyone to choose three. But if anything, that made it more difficult, because then you had to pick at least one from your home town and then you were forced to choose just the two restaurants from everywhere else you have ever been. 

Liz said that you couldn’t pick somewhere you’d only been the once, but that didn’t help either. Zoë started waxing lyrical about Eetkaffee De Lieve, a little gem in the sidestreets of Ghent, and I daydreamed about sitting outside at Uvedoble in Malaga, demolishing a little brioche stuffed with suckling pig. But which restaurant in Bologna to pick? And how could you leave out Paris? It was just too much of a puzzler.

“I think my favourite restaurant right now is Marmo” said Liz – with a hint of trepidation, because we had a table booked there that evening. And I understood that nervousness better than most, because there’s little as nerve-wracking as telling people that somewhere is good, knowing they’ve gone there because of you and then sitting there waiting to find out whether they’ve lost all faith in your good opinion. I get that all the time.

We went to Marmo with Liz and James’ friends Ed and Ben, a very entertaining couple they’d been telling me about for some time. It was clear straight away, as we took our seats at a Belgian beer bar in the old city, that they liked the finer things in life, which always makes me feel like I’ve found my tribe but also brings out the imposter syndrome.

On our walk to the restaurant Ed and Ben asked me which restaurants I liked in Bristol, and I couldn’t help but feel that this was a test. I didn’t go to Bristol often enough to be on top of the latest developments, but then I mentioned my love of the sadly departed Wallfish, a little neighbourhood restaurant a stone’s throw from Clifton Suspension Bridge, and there was a tacit nod that indicated that I might have just about scraped a pass.

Marmo is a single, buzzy room – all handsome white wood panelling and framed prints on the walls that you daydream about nicking (I also would have loved one of the branded wineglasses, come to think of it). There’s a tiny kitchen at the back, clearly in view, where all the magic happens. Our table was in the heart of things, close to the bar, and I tried to remember what this place had looked like in its previous incarnation as Bar Buvette, a wine bar I’d loved that made you feel like you were somewhere in the eleventh arrondisement.

The menu made you want to order everything, and was compact enough that we nearly did. There were a few snacks and then a 3-4-2 formation of starters, mains and desserts respectively, with one fish dish and one vegetarian dish on offer for each course. The menu looked carb light, but the waiting staff explained that you could have an intermediate pasta course to fix that, as the Italians do, or just have some bread. Starters were around nine pounds, the most expensive main was eighteen pounds fifty. The wine list – of which Marmo seems particularly proud – had a superb selection of red, white and orange wines, with a few producers I’d heard of and many I fancied trying.

In short, it was a menu to get lost in, and we did that while drinking glasses of Muz vermouth, served properly with ice and a wedge of orange. I loved it, and said that the tangy, fruity note in it was strangely reminiscent of brown sauce. There was an awful moment while I waited for someone to tell me I was talking bollocks, and then to my huge relief there was agreement around the table (Zoë didn’t enjoy the rest of the vermouth from that point onwards: “I tried”, she told me later, “but all I could taste was the vinegars”).

Aperitivi deserve accompaniment, so we kicked off with Marmo’s textbook sourdough. It came with butter, which no doubt would have been fantastic, but we were all more keen to dip it in smoked cod roe, perfectly salty and pastel pink, with a pool of olive oil at its centre. Also pastel pink was the mortadella, draped over gnocco fritto, little fried parcels of joy. I’ve never liked mortadella, not even in Bologna, but I loved it here; Marmo, like the best restaurants, can make you enjoy ingredients you wouldn’t normally look at twice.

We’d been torn between a couple of white wines – one from Jura which would have had more funk, and a more conventional Riesling from Staffelter Hof, a producer I recognised because one of their wines crops up on Clay’s fancy new wine list. I tried to palm the casting vote off to Ed, who clearly knew his wine, and he eventually plumped for the Riesling (I’m sure the fact that it was called “Little Bastard” was an unintended bonus). 

But then the staff came over and said that they only had one bottle of Riesling left, so we went for one of each. Those of us who tried the Riesling were delighted by its cleanness, the slight effervescence on the tongue. Those who decided to drink the Jura were pleased to have picked something so unusual, with agricultural notes of scrumpy and sherry knocking about harmoniously in the same glass. We all changed ends at half time, tried the other white wine and in the end decided that they were both terrific.

By this time the starters had turned up, and I got my first sign that I was in for an evening of sustained brilliance. I had gone for smoked eel, beautifully muscular and only lightly smoked, on an oblong of crunchy fried polenta. So far so delicious, but teaming it up with bright cubes of beetroot and blackberries with a balsamic sweetness was a killer blow. I could have eaten this all the live long day, and it left me wanting more – or, to be more specific, another portion. That’s what great starters do.

Although it was the most popular starter, a couple of us tried something else. Liz spoke highly of her marinated peppers, buried under an avalanche of Ticklemore, and I could see that I would have been equally happy with that. Ed had chosen the beef tartare, topped with chives and a slow-cooked egg yolk, flavour soaking into the bread below. How could you have food envy when you’d enjoyed your own starter so much? 

I was sitting between Ed and Ben – the kind of civilised couple who don’t have to sit next to one another all evening – and, being a civilised couple, they passed plates back and forth across me, or behind me, or through me so that neither of them felt left out. But I was having such a good evening that I was more than happy to be the proverbial dumb waiter. 

They were in the holiday mood – Ed’s mother was visiting their cottage in the Chew Valley over the weekend and then they were off to Cornwall for a well-earned break eating and drinking their way around that part of the world. They would spend much of the following week in their own favourite restaurants. I recognised kindred spirits, the kind of people – like me – who plan a holiday entirely around lunches and dinners, who enjoy going to places they know and love, experiencing the comfort, familiarity and total relaxation that comes with a pilgrimage like that. At the tail end of my own holiday, I couldn’t help but feel envious.

Given that Marmo was at least nominally Italian, I felt like we should have at least one Italian wine with our meal, so I chose a Tuscan red called Infraded, a deep, velvety Syrah. Ordering wine had been delegated to me by this point, but I was almost merry enough to be happy with that. Again, I felt like I’d committed a faux pas when the waiter told us this one was best served chilled, but Ed reacted with delight and I decided that on balance, I’d got away with it. It was, as you can probably guess by this point, predictably wonderful, and I made a mental note to see if there was anywhere you could buy some when I got home and Bristol was just a distant, happy memory.

The main courses brought more fireworks. I’ve always heard Mangalitza pork spoken of in hushed tones as the Kobe beef of the pork world, but I’d never tried it before so I was keen to pick it off the menu. It came in glorious marbled slabs, just-pink and tender with the most beautiful melting fat: eating it I could understand why the Italians got so excited about lardo, and the idea of eating fat on its own. It was served simply with a handful of other elements, a wonderful caponata given a fresh edge with the judicious addition of fig, some good oil and a little slick of yoghurt. It was as good a single dish as I’ve eaten this year: I looked over at James, who had ordered the same thing, and saw him lost in a reverent silence.

That silence was eventually broken by Ed telling a story from the time when he used to manage a bookshop in Oxford.

“We had lots of celebrities in while I was there, but the best rider we ever had was from Roger Moore. And Roger Moore only asked for two things.”

“Really?” I tried to imagine exactly what vintage of Château Mouton Rothschild would feature in Sir Roger’s demands. “What were they?”

“A bottle of Jacob’s Creek and a Pret crayfish sandwich. That was all, every time. And by the end of a signing he was always absolutely fucked.”

This couldn’t help but make me warm to the great man. And of course, Ed had a picture on his phone of him with Jacob’s Bond, although it wasn’t clear how much wine had been taken by that point. Ed’s main course was a very attractive-looking pollock dish with mussels, and although he was taken with it, it it didn’t give me any buyer’s remorse about the Mangalitsa pork. Liz had chosen the vegetarian option, a very accomplished spinach and ricotta ravioli dish. Again, although it looked the part, missing out on it didn’t fill me with regret.

There were only two desserts on the menu and we all fancied the same one, the chocolate and hazelnut fritter, so five of us went for that while Ed nursed a grappa. It was an exemplary way to end the meal, a deep, smooth chocolate mousse, sharpened with cream and sandwiched between layers of the lightest of batters. Looking at the picture, it resembles nothing more than a witty dessert take on the ubiquitous burger: would that it was anywhere near as easy to get hold of, but it seems you have to travel to Bristol. We accompanied this with a sweet, fresh and generous glass of Coteaux de Layon (always a better bet than Sauternes, if you ever see it on a menu) – although Zoë had a negroni, because she’s developing a taste for them.

If I haven’t talked much about service it’s because they were so good. Completely unobtrusive but always there when you needed them, really friendly and enthusiastic and very good at what they did. We needed to pay at the same time as ordering our dessert so Ed and Ben could make their taxi on time, and all of that was no trouble and very efficiently sorted. 

Our meal for six, including a discretionary ten per cent service charge, came to just over four hundred and ninety pounds, or something like eighty-two pounds a head. That might sound like a lot, but we really went for it – aperitifs, snacks, a three course meal, plenty of wine and dessert wine. You could spend less and I have no doubt you’d still have a superb meal, and if you find yourself in Bristol at lunchtime they have a set menu which is even more impressive value. But either way I had no regrets – a couple of nights before I’d eaten at Paco Tapas, Bristol’s Michelin starred tapas restaurant, where I spent significantly more, eaten and drunk considerably less and not had quite as much fun. You pay for a meal, but you pay for memories too.

Even as I was eating at Marmo, I knew that the marker had been set down for the rest of this year and probably most of the next: as complete, satisfying and perfect three course meal as I could imagine. I would go to Bristol to eat here again, and I would plan trips to Bristol just so I could. It’s not my favourite restaurant – if only because you can’t give that accolade to somewhere you’ve only eaten at once – but it was my favourite meal for a long time. And if you ever wonder why I don’t give out higher ratings more often, this is why. I save the big guns for the great meals, and this is the kind of standard Reading restaurants need to aspire to, slowly but surely. I still hope we’ll get there. But in the meantime, we’ll just have to hop on a train.

Marmo – 9.4
31 Baldwin Street, Bristol, BS1 1RG
0117 3164987

https://www.marmo.restaurant

Pub review: Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen at The Butler

Opening and running a restaurant is hard work. You have to find premises, sort out a lease, decide your concept, pick your staff, choose your suppliers, design your menu, set up your social media, get people through the door, get them to come back, replace your staff when some of them leave. The list goes on. 

That’s at the best of times, but the last year has hardly been that. Now you can add in navigating the complexities of furlough and bounceback loans, applying for grants, retaining your staff, getting your head round the rule of six, track and trace, “hygiene theatre” and having to close or reopen at the drop of the hat based on government fiat and what tier system is in use this week. And you can also bung in asking people nicely to wear masks so they don’t risk infecting your unvaccinated staff and closing because you have been pinged, or because your staff have and you don’t have enough left to be able to trade. It’s hard work. I sometimes wonder why anybody does it.

Most people dip their toe in the water rather than diving in at the deep end, and there are many ways to do that. One of the most common is to start out doing street food. Get a gazebo, go to some markets, build a reputation and one day you might open your own place. Take Vegivores, which has made a roaring success of its site in Caversham. But sometimes street food is the place that exposes the gap between your daydream of feeding adoring crowds and the harsh reality of getting up early in the morning only for everything to go wrong, as this touching post from a recent Blue Collar alumnus shows.

Another route is to use someone else’s premises, the “cuckoo” approach. One of the most successful exponents of this is Anonymous Coffee, who have had coffee machines in the Tasting House, Thames Tower, Curious Lounge and the Grumpy Goat without setting up permanent premises of their own. Many people in hospitality have taken this path, from Bench Rest serving food in the Tasting House to I Love Paella, operating out of a tiny kitchen in the Oxford Road branch of Workhouse Coffee. But the most obvious synergy, if you can ever forgive me for using that word in any context, is between chefs in search of a kitchen and pubs in search of a chef.

When this works, it’s a dream. The pub wants to serve food, but doesn’t want to cook it. The chef wants to cook, but doesn’t want his or her name on a lease quite yet. And so over the years we’ve been treated to I Love Paella cooking out of The Horn before graduating to the Fisherman’s Cottage and Caucasian Spice Box (now, of course, Geo Café) operating from the Turk’s Head and later from The Island, still one of the most surreal Reading establishments I’ve ever visited. I fondly remember I Love Paella’s salt cod churros, or Caucasian Spice Box’s ajika chicken, and I may not have loved The Horn or the Turk’s Head, but the food was so good that it didn’t matter.

I got wind recently that a similar arrangement was in place over on the edge of West Reading at the Butler in Chatham Street, where an outfit called Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen had popped up and was offering a full menu of Caribbean classics. I have fond memories of the Butler: it’s a handsome building which has stood proud for many years surrounded by the architectural chaos of the old Chatham Street car park with its curving Brutalist concrete walkway and the gleaming apartment buildings that have sprung up more recently, much like the house from Up. In this week’s scorching weather I couldn’t think of a better place to try, so I headed over with my friend Graeme, last seen enduring imaginable horrors at Taco Bell.

“Don’t you want to know where we’re going?” I said as we made our way down Broad Street. In the run-up to our visit Graeme had steadfastly told me that he only wanted to find out on the day.

“No, I like a surprise. Anyway, we’re heading in the direction of KFC, so I can still dream.” Graeme has a love of the secret blend of herbs and spices that exceeds even mine: when he was recovering from Covid at the start of the year, the first thing he asked for when he was past the worst was a bucket of the Colonel’s finest.

“I have a good feeling about this place, don’t worry. I hope it will make amends for that quesadilla.”

“Nothing on earth can make up for that.” 

I felt like pointing out that he did volunteer to come to Taco Bell, but I thought better of it. But Graeme’s mood lightened immediately when we rounded the bend of Chatham Street and he saw the board outside the Butler advertising Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen. “This is great! I love Caribbean food.”

I hadn’t realised how much outside space the Butler has, but it turns out there’s quite a lot. There were plenty of tables out front in the unforgiving sun, a happy few of them sporting parasols, and initially I though it might have been fun to eat dinner with the background hum of the Chatham Street traffic. But I found out when I went in to grab a menu that there was a courtyard out back, a lovely little sloping space with a little more shade, and so our decision was made. 

The pub and the kitchen run separately, so you order your drinks at the bar and your food out back, where the kitchen operates out of a different building. The menu immediately presents a couple of problems: one is that you sort of want to eat everything, the other is that because the three most iconic mains can be served in small or large sizes ordering everything is almost a realistic possibility. None of the large mains come in over fourteen pounds, most of them are closer to eleven, and there are both vegetarian and vegan options in the form of macaroni pie and a sweet potato curry respectively.

The “sides and nibbles” section is brilliantly flexible, giving you the option to order starters, have extras with your main course or even, potentially, just go for a sort of Caribbean tapas where you try it all. The majority of them hover around the six pound mark. We sort of went for a mixture of all three of those approaches – although it soon became apparent that Graeme’s appetite was even bigger than mine, which pretty much makes him my ideal dining companion (on the walk over he was complaining about having gone up to a thirty-six inch waist in recent months: if I ever slimmed down to a thirty-six I’d probably go on a week-long bender to celebrate).

“We have to have plantain as one of our starters” he said.

“I’ve always struggled with plantain. I think it’s because I went off bananas in 1999, the year I did the cabbage soup diet so I could fit into my suit for my brother’s wedding.”

Graeme gave me an indulgent look, as if he couldn’t work out which of those two sentences was the most moronic.

“Okay, we can skip the plantain, but we have to have some of the handmade patties.”

“Salt fish?”

“Exactly.”

We narrowed it down to just the four starters and two mains and I wandered over to Stevie and his partner, who were sitting at one of the pub tables waiting for orders. It transpired that they didn’t have any patties, and after a little more to-ing and fro-ing our order was placed. 

“My friend thinks we’re going to still be hungry after this lot” I said, and she laughed.

“He hasn’t seen our portions.”

Our food came to forty-eight pounds, not including tip, and once I’d got that sorted Graeme wandered into the bar and got us a couple of very satisfying pints of Neck Oil. Really, it was perfect. The sun was shining, I had good company, a cold beer was in front of me and food was on the way. I had that feeling that this could be my next favourite place: it doesn’t often happen, maybe once every couple of years, but I could feel that familiar, dangerous sensation of my expectations gradually rising. Only what appeared to be a gathering of Reading’s Socialist Worker Party in the corner was slightly incongruous. What were socialists doing picking a pub whose name was the embodiment of servitude to the ruling classes? I guess the hard left has never been known for its sense of humour.

Our starters were uniformly excellent, even if the salt fish patties had to wait for another time. I’ve always struggled with chicken wings, but these were magnificent stuff – ten of the blighters for seven pounds, all wonderfully crispy, all yielding plenty of meat and all bloody delicious. The menu describes them as “dark rum glazed”, and that wasn’t quite true: instead they came unglazed with the dark rum sauce lurking at the bottom of the foil tray. It might have been a happy accident, but I preferred it that way – less messy, more crunchy and you could still dredge bits of chicken through the sauce and fully appreciate how sweet and boozy it was; I wouldn’t be surprised if that sauce had turned out to be 90% rum.

“Those are magnificent” said Graeme as we made inroads into the big pile of napkins that had also been brought to our table. We’d also gone for the most expensive of the starters, coconut island shrimp. These were coated in panko breadcrumbs and coconut and served with a little tub of scotch bonnet aioli. I really enjoyed these too – the texture was more fluffy than firm, but you got a good helping of plump prawns. They could have done with more of the aioli, which I liked, but our cutlery basket also had a trio of hot sauces with it so we tried them with the Baron sauce which was almost luminous yellow and very hot indeed.

“I could come here and eat these starters tapas-style every day” said Graeme, and I couldn’t have agreed more: I was already beginning to wonder when (it was no longer an if) I’d be back. That decision was vindicated by our third starter, some truly beautiful beef and jerk pork dumplings which skipped the velvet rope and headed straight for my mind palace of happy food memories. The texture of these was spot on – the filling firm and fiery, the dumpling caramelised on one side – and plonking them in the dark soya dip was hugely satisfying. Everything went perfectly with a cold IPA, too: on a hot day like that, I couldn’t think of anywhere I’d rather be.

I felt that our mains continued the momentum nicely, although Graeme wasn’t quite so sure. I’d let him pick first and he’d chosen the curry goat, which arrived in a massive portion, on the bone. Initially I’d wondered whether the plastic cutlery – more hygiene theatre – would be up to the job, but Graeme deftly demonstrated that keeping the meat on the bone would have been more of a challenge.

“I don’t know what I think of it. It’s not quite a chip shop curry sauce, but it’s quite sweet.”

I was allowed to try a bit and for what it was worth, I loved it. There was definitely a fruitiness to it, but also a heat that slowly built, and the meat was stunningly tender. It was great to see some sprigs of thyme in there too, adding a little complexity. That said, I’ve always had a sweet tooth, so maybe this was more my kind of thing than Graeme’s, although he did tell me that in a previous job he came into contact with lots of Caribbean families and was always being given Caribbean home cooking to try, so perhaps he’d been spoilt by that. In any case, any issues with a slight lack of heat were easily rectified with a slug of that highlighter-yellow hot sauce, and all was well.

Personally if I’d ordered the curry goat I would have been delighted. Instead I had to slum it with the jerk chicken, and by slum it I mean lord it. The menu claims that the chicken is marinated for twenty-four hours and drum-cooked with pimento wood, and it really looked the part: that beautiful bronzed colour and all that phenomenal crispy skin. It felt like I had the best part of a whole chicken in front of me, and the taste was superb – smokey, almost leathery, with depth of flavour that can only come from time very well spent. Eating it, there in that courtyard, off a paper plate with a plastic knife and fork I felt transported, in the best possible sense. It reminded me, in some way I couldn’t place, of eating grilled meat at a roadside ocakbasi in Turkey, of being somewhere else.

“It wasn’t bad”, Graeme said later, but I do think it was a tiny bit on the dry side.”

“I didn’t have that problem, most of it was perfectly soft.”

“That’s because you deliberately gave me a dry bit” he said. “And it was a bit without skin.”

He might have been joking, he probably was, but many a true word’s spoken in jest and I didn’t quite know him well enough yet to judge. Was I just a bad sharer?

The accompaniments were also terrific – rice and peas, all present and correct, along with a tangy tangle of pickled escovitch peppers and onions, and sticky slices of plantain which completely converted me to the stuff (“didn’t I tell you?” Graeme said, enjoying it every bit as much as I would have). But the other real beauty was the side of macaroni pie we’d ordered on the side, a glorious claggy, cheesy, comforting dish with a splendid crunchy crust. Before I ate it I questioned just how interesting it would be to have a main course of the stuff: afterwards I could well understand the appeal.

Our meal finished, both of us surprisingly full, we finished our beers and headed off to the Nag’s for the post match analysis. I would have been tempted to stay for the people watching alone – by this point a chap had turned up and greeted virtually everybody in the courtyard with the term “comrade” – but Graeme, a centrist like myself, had seen enough. 

On the way out I stopped to tell Stevie’s partner just how much we’d enjoyed our food. She had done a top notch job of looking after us all evening and she seemed really pleased with the feedback, although she accepted it with the serene confidence of somebody who knows their food is good. They’d been trading for a couple of months, she told me, and things were going well, especially as the Butler was hardly known as a food pub. She said they were going to go on Deliveroo from the following day, and we promised to recommend the food to as many people as we could.

I’m sorry, as usual, to have gone on so long. But for once I feel slightly less guilty, because I wanted to try and capture the excitement of the meal I had. Seeing someone starting out, at the beginning of a journey, not knowing where it will take them or their food is exciting. And it’s exciting to get to try it early on in that process. It takes me back to all my favourite discoveries in all the time I’ve spent writing this blog, and it reminds me that Reading’s food scene never loses its ability to surprise – that there’s always potential for the next thing to be the next big thing. And when that happens, you just know it. That scorching evening on Chatham Street, I knew it.

When I got home and explained how good my meal was to Zoë, she expressed her chagrin that she’d missed out on this one. And then we got our diaries out and tried to work out when we could visit it next. The chances are pretty strong that I’ll have been there again by the time any of you make it to the Butler. Next time I want to try those patties, the roti and the chicken curry (and everything I had on this visit, even though I know that’s impossible). If you get there before me and order any of the things I didn’t try, please tell me how good they were. Make me jealous: you know you want to.

Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen – 8.1
The Butler, 85-91 Chatham Street, Reading, RG1 7DS
07780 829127

https://www.facebook.com/ChefStevieAnderson
Delivery available: via Deliveroo

Zest

How good is your memory for faces? I was in Brighton over the summer, sitting outside a particularly patchouli-scented café in the Lanes, when I thought I recognised the woman walking past my table and nipping inside. It bugged me for about five minutes until I realised where I knew her from: she’d served me in Workhouse Coffee what must have been a couple of years ago. Reading is a small town, and the longer you live there the more chances you get to accumulate memories, or scraps of memories, and to spot people you dimly recognise from your past: that person used to work at the same office as me a few years ago; that person was briefly my housemate in 2001 and never used the shower; there’s a friend I lost in the divorce.

The reason I mention this is that when we turned up at Zest on an icy winter’s evening, the owner recognised me immediately as a former customer of hers. I used to eat at Zest’s town centre sibling restaurant, the sadly-missed LSQ2 (where Handmade Burger is now), but even so it was an impressive feat of recall: I frequented LSQ2 the best part of ten years ago, and I expect she has seen hundreds of diners since then. And yet here we both were – her still trading nicely out at Green Park and me a few pounds heavier, far older and greyer (if not necessarily wiser) but still alive and kicking.

LSQ2 closed in 2012 (the GetReading article announcing the news tried to suggest that every cloud had a silver lining because Cosmo was about to open on Broad Street) but Tony and Sally Cole’s first restaurant, since rebranded as Zest, has been operating at Green Park for fifteen years, offering a combination of classic modern British food and dishes which reflect their time spent in Australia and New Zealand. I still remember a dish of sashimi-grade tuna with a slick of sesame that LSQ2 used to do – I ordered it every time I went there, until they took it off the menu because they felt the tuna wasn’t sustainable.

There are a few reasons why I’d never got round to reviewing Zest before now. It never quite made it to the top of my to do list, and I think that’s because I always got the distinct impression that it was more intended for people working on the business park, and corporate diners, than members of the public. The opening hours, not entirely clear from the website, didn’t help. It’s only generally open Monday to Friday, but you get mixed messages – in one place on the site it says it’s open 5 until late, in another it says their menu is served until 9pm and if you try to book online the latest table it will give you is at 8pm (with a clear instruction that you need to place your order by 8.15, because the kitchen closes).

Arriving at half seven with my other half Zoë didn’t necessarily alter that impression – there were a few tables occupied, one of them a large booking, but all seemed to be coming to the end of their meals: we were the last new customers that evening. Zest is actually quite an attractive space, all dark wood and big windows looking out over water. In the thick fog, with light trying to break through from the nearby offices and car parks, it was all a bit Blade Runner, and if the furniture felt slightly chain hotel it didn’t put me off. The lighting, as you’ll see from the photos, was a little more intimate than I’d like, although it didn’t help that a few bulbs were out.

Zest was running a reduced à la carte menu alongside a Christmas menu when I visited, although the prices weren’t unreasonable for either and you were allowed to mix and match. The only real difference was that mains on the Christmas menu were a few pounds more expensive and came with roasted vegetables and Brussels sprouts, whether they went with the dish or not (but more of that later).

In general starters were seven or eight pounds and, if you visit outside the festive season, most mains will cost you around fifteen. It was a very good menu with more than a few tempting choices, and I’m glad to say that no compromises were made in bringing you this review. There’s definitely an Asian influence to an otherwise modern European menu with Thai and Indonesian dishes sitting alongside more traditional ones – we tried a little from both, in the interests of balance.

My starter was one of the nicest things I’ve eaten this year. Pork belly (triple-cooked according to the menu, although I saw no real evidence of that) came in generous cubes with tender meat and glossy fat, all coated in a gloriously funky, fishy XO sauce, with pak choi, spring onion and big, fragrant coriander leaves. There was a lime aioli advertised, and something that looked like that was definitely drizzled over the pork, but it couldn’t break through the stronger flavours in the dish, not that I cared in the slightest.

The only misfire was the crackling on top, which left me fearing for my fillings. A lighter touch would have been better, and in honesty the dish wouldn’t have missed it: it also ruined the picture below, or at least that’s my excuse. In any case, I was too delighted with everything else to mind. I let Zoë try a couple of pieces, partly because it was the season of goodwill but mainly because food that good deserves to be shared, regardless of whether it’s December or June.

I had a sneaking suspicion that I’d won at starters, but Zoë was very happy with hers. “I want to try the Scotch egg because I’d had a few to compare it to”, she said, and it was a very attractive specimen, served on what was called “curry mayonnaise” but felt to me more like a katsu sauce, more fruity than fiery. It could have done with more of the advertised coriander salsa verde but even so I thought it was a really good example – what felt like panko breadcrumbs, beautiful texture, peppery sausagemeat and yolk at just the right consistency.

“Is it better than the Lyndhurst’s?” I asked Zoë.

“Better than the one they do now, and up there with the one the previous owners did” was the reply.

The wine list at Zest may reflect the fact that most of their diners drive home afterwards, with a compact selection: most of it is available by the glass, and only a couple of bottles north of thirty pounds. We had a very drinkable French pinot noir for twenty-eight pounds which I thoroughly enjoyed – although our waiter intervened to stop me pouring it myself, which felt a little unnecessary. He was the only person looking after us all evening and I couldn’t quite shift the fear that he resented us for making him work late: nice enough, but a little distant and slightly lacking in warmth.

Our main courses, both from the Christmas menu, came out a little quicker than I might have liked, adding to the feeling that we were keeping staff from their loved ones. It’s never easy, I suppose, for a kitchen to sit on their hands when they only have two dishes left to prepare, but I do wish they’d left it a little longer.

However, again, that felt like a minor quibble once I started eating the food. My beef rendang was truly beautiful. My previous experience of this dish had been at Newbury’s now-defunct Wau, and at the time I thought I’d had a very good rendang. This, though, was streets ahead – not sickly-sweet and overreliant on coconut but complex and aromatic, shot through with hints of star anise. Similarly, the beef hadn’t been cooked into mush – it was still in distinct pieces which only fell apart when you tried to load them onto a fork. Again, there was plenty of coriander and the sharp crunch of ribbons of lightly pickled carrot on top was an excellent touch.

This was a marvellous dish, perfect on a Baltic Reading evening, and I am pretty sure it is usually on Zest’s à la carte menu, so try it if you go. As it was on the Christmas menu it was served with a fair few roasted heritage carrots (many of them a pleasingly deep shade of purple), and although they didn’t go in the slightest with an Indonesian curry it didn’t stop them being delicious.

Zoë’s lamb shank was a more conventionally Christmassy affair, and very good it was too – a gigantic piece of meat, cooked into soft surrender. The sauce was deep, with a little sweetness from balsamic vinegar and soft onions and the mash was suitably creamy and smooth. This went much better with the roasted vegetables and with the surprisingly good Brussels sprouts, sliced thinly and served with cream and a little speckle of pancetta. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this dish also features on the menu all year round, and it’s well worth ordering. I would have liked the advertised mint salsa to make an appearance, but the dish managed fine without it.

It took a while for the waiter to ask us if we wanted to look at the dessert menu, and I felt guilty about saying yes: he asked in the same way that I ask Zoë if she wants help hanging the laundry out i.e. hoping against hope that the answer will be no. But if they don’t want people to order dessert, Zest will have to make the menu a lot less tempting – even the usual suspects had twists that made you want to find out how they looked off the page and on the plate. It’s also worth mentioning that Zest’s cheeseboard is a veritable Greatest Hits of local cheeses – Barkham Blue, Waterloo, Wigmore and Spenwood, all for eight pounds fifty.

My dessert was probably the weak link of the meal. Chocolate tart with meringue and Clementine sorbet sounded beautiful, and the flavours were all present, correct and harmonious. But the texture was wrong – the chocolate was not the solid ganache I was expecting, but a molten pool, as if it had escaped from a fondant. It didn’t stop it being enjoyable, a rarified Terry’s chocolate orange encased in light buttery pastry, but it wasn’t quite what I had hoped.

If I’d won out on starters, Zoë drew level with dessert. I feared a white chocolate and Bailey’s cheesecake would be too sickly but actually it was sweet but not excessively so, a big block of indulgence heavy on filling and light on base. The passionfruit curd underneath stopped the whole thing being too one-dimensional, but given that I was only allowed one small forkful it’s hard to comment further, beyond wishing that I’d ordered it myself.

Dinner for two, including a pre-added 10% service charge, came to just over a hundred pounds – and actually, ordering off the á la carte isn’t any more or less expensive than the three-courses-for-thirty-pounds festive menu. To my mind, that makes the latter remarkably generous and I left the restaurant with a full stomach, a spring in my step and a couple of money off vouchers for next month which I may well end up using.

It’s easy to get jaded when you review a restaurant every fortnight, easier still when it’s a Cozze, a Lemoni or a Pantry. So I’m delighted that, even if by accident rather than design, I’ve saved one of the best meals of 2019 until almost the very last. I didn’t come away from Zest convinced that they were necessarily packed on most weekday evenings, and that lack of clarity probably goes some way to explaining why the pacing of the meal was a little rushed and the service sometimes felt a tad diffident.

But – and this is far more important – I did come away from Zest wishing I had visited a long time ago, and convinced that I might have unearthed one of the best local restaurants you’ve never considered going to. It’s easily accessible by bus from the town centre, it’s affordable by taxi on the way home and it serves delicious, interesting food (it’s as if they’ve been doing it, without much fanfare, for the best part of fifteen years). There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Zest that a buzzier room full of more customers wouldn’t solve – and personally, I plan to play my own small role in helping with that in the New Year. I suspect if you went you’d find it memorable: chances are, they’d come to remember you too.

Zest – 8.0
Lime Square, 220 South Oak Way, Green Park, RG2 6UP
0118 9873702

http://www.zestatlimesquare.co.uk/home.html