N.B. As of November 2020 Zest is closed for the second lockdown.
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