Namaste Kitchen

At the end of April 2018 one of Namaste Kitchen’s owners (who ran the front of house) and the chef left the business by mutual consent. The pub has already revised the menu, so some of the items I ordered below are not available. Moreover, there’s been an increase in prices across the board. I’ve left this review up for posterity, but it no longer accurately reflects the experience you’d have at Namaste Kitchen. I’ll consider re-reviewing the restaurant in due course.

I was at a wedding a couple of weeks ago: it’s the season for them, don’t you know. As the evening started to turn sharp and cold I was under a blanket, under a marquee, sipping my amaretto and Coke – don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it – and chatting to my fellow guests when one of them recommended that I try out Namaste Kitchen, the Nepalese restaurant operating out of the Hook and Tackle in Katesgrove. Funny that, I told him, I happen to be having dinner there next week: this visit was already planned by then.

“It’s really good, we went there the other week. What did we like?” he said, asking his partner across the table.

“The momos.” came the reply.

“Is there anything else I should definitely order?”

“All of it.” Helpful, I thought, although it did suggest you couldn’t go far wrong. Swings and roundabouts.

“And is it busy there?”

“It’s always full of Nepalese people but no, there’s usually plenty of room. I think lots of people don’t know it’s there.”

Just my kind of restaurant, the holy grail: somewhere independent, brilliant but unknown. Somewhere, much like Reading, deserving of wider recognition. By the end of the conversation, I was thoroughly looking forward to my visit and pleased with the odd coincidences which seem to abound in Reading. So many coincidences, in fact: I hopped in my taxi having had a chat with a stranger about a mutual acquaintance (“you know Matt? Do you get a word in edgeways?”), received a recommendation to check out local eleven-piece country band The Rumpo Kidz – how can you not like a band named after Sid James’ character in Carry On Cowboy? – and been advised that I really ought to attend the next Sunday Assembly.

I went to Namaste Kitchen with Mike, my oldest friend and one of the only people from school I still speak to. We’ve been friends for over thirty years, since the good old days growing up on the same suburban Woodley street, and nowadays he isn’t in the country often as he spends most of his summers running coach tours across Europe. He jumped at the chance of coming out on duty with me, and I figured if nothing else we could catch up on all the people from school I had seen at the wedding (was it that chap that bullied us or was it his older brother? The mind plays tricks). The timing was perfect: I figured it was in the stars.

The Hook and Tackle is a pub you could easily describe as having a chequered history. My pub expert friend reliably informed me that it opened in December 2015 and then closed in July last year. It reopened a month later, closed again in October and finally reopened this January: basically, it’s more open and shut than the case against Oscar Pistorius. It’s a handsome looking pub from the outside, a fetching shade of something rather Farrow & Ball, looking a tad incongruous at the bottom of Katesgrove, a stone’s throw from the IDR.

Inside, it was rather a game of two halves. On one side (the left as we went in), it looked more like a conventional dining room with high-backed chairs and menus at every table. On the right, it was more like a pub with round tables ringed with low tub chairs. A long bar connected the two. I knew that the dining room would be more conducive to eating but it was largely empty and much darker, so Mike and I grabbed a pint and sat in the window, enjoying the last of the summer sunshine. Besides, I figured my photos would come out better.

I half expected to order at the bar, so I was delighted when someone came to take our order. The menu was a big and slightly confusing one – some things were described as appetisers, some as starters and some were just listed without comment. I figured it was best to just order a whole bunch of small plates and share, so that’s what we did (and what I’d recommend, unless you think you’re intrepid enough to eat a number of small plates on your own, in which case you have my blessing – and a certain degree of admiration). There were a couple of set menu options for people who get especially territorial about food, although in my experience places like Namaste Kitchen aren’t necessarily for them.

Our waiter was lovely and charming from start to finish, and we got a pretty good idea that we’d be well looked after right from the beginning. I asked him if there was anything he’d particularly recommend and he smiled and said “all of it”, but this wasn’t a slack-jawed response of indifference from somebody who knew nothing about the food, more the beatific confidence of a person who absolutely knows that all the dishes are terrific (of course, I didn’t fully realise that until later, so let’s not jump the gun). I got some useful advice from him when we couldn’t decide which of two dishes to order, and he asked what experience I had of Nepalese food.

“I’ve been to Sapana, but I can see dishes on your menu that aren’t at Sapana. Are you quite different?”

“We are better than Sapana.” That smile again.

I didn’t have to wait long to realise that he wasn’t pulling my leg. From this point onwards, the meal was like a fireworks display – little dish after little dish came out, there were culinary explosions, we oohed and aahed and just as the last flickering lights died away, another dish took its place. First up, probably the most basic and complex dishes we were to eat. Aloo jeera looked pretty prosaic – cubes of potato scattered with cumin – but the taste was extraordinary, the potatoes rich with ghee, with all the taste of perfectly fried potatoes but with a softer, subtler texture. We grabbed cocktail sticks and speared and smiled, speared and smiled.

Next to it, the boneless chilli chicken was simply magnificent. Tender chicken came smothered in a hot, sour, complex sauce which, momentarily, rendered both of us speechless. It wasn’t crunchy, but it was coated – difficult to describe but impossible not to enjoy. We both knew better than to eat the chillies in the dish, lurking disguised as narrow green beans, but we fought over the onion, cooked until sweet and soft and just as worth devouring as the chicken. At this stage it crossed my mind that I, and they, might have peaked too soon. It turns out that I was worrying needlessly.

More was to come. Chicken bara was, according to the menu, a shallow fried patty made of ground black lentils stuffed with chicken. What came was almost like a fluffy savoury crepe, or a big flat veggie burger, or a huge round falafel or, most likely, something which completely defeats my powers of description but which I adored. I wasn’t sure it was stuffed with chicken except in the metaphorical sense that there was plenty of it: spiced, salty, minced chicken all over the top of it. It almost had the texture of a tortilla (to further mix culinary metaphors) and it was phenomenal with or without the relatively mild spiced dip served with it. “That was the biggest surprise of the meal for me” Mike said later, and I couldn’t but agree.

Paneer pakora was, by those standards, pretty straightforward – firm, subtle cubes of cheese covered in spiced batter and fried. But even here, when things are simple, the execution was superb. The whole thing was light, not heavy and leaden. The coating stuck to the cheese and the whole thing was beautifully matched with a sharper, spicier dipping sauce. My reference dish for paneer has long been Bhel Puri House’s chilli paneer, and – this is high praise – I almost liked this as much.

We ordered another couple of drinks – Cobra for Mike, Sharp’s Orchard for me (I’ve not had it before, but we can safely add it to the long list of Fizzy Cold Ciders I Like Which Are Not Strongbow) and then the momo arrived. The options here are steamed or fried rather than pan fried (I’ve since discovered that you can have them pan fried – or kothey – and very good they are too – ER), and the fried mutton momo that turned up looked gorgeous – golden, irregular, piping hot. The rough texture on the outside made me wonder if they’d been dusted with something, and cutting one open it was full of tender strands of mutton with a brilliant, deep flavour. I think it came with the same dipping sauce as the paneer, although I couldn’t say for certain. What I do know is that by the end of all this I was dabbing my nose in a distinctly undignified manner.

Every time the waiter took some plates away and asked how the food was, Mike and I overflowed with superlatives. He always asked if we meant it as if surprised and I think that must have been a reflex rather than an affectation, because he knew the food was good. I think maybe he was surprised that we knew it was good, too. Perhaps most of their clientele is from Reading’s Nepalese community: if so, they really are in on quite an impressive secret. After our last plate was cleared, we got to talking about the other dishes on the menu – unsurprisingly, because Mike and I had been planning our respective return visits to Namaste Kitchen since about halfway through our first set of dishes.

“I was very tempted to have the pangra (gizzard)” I said, “But last time I had it at Sapana Home it was really bouncy and not very unpleasant.”

“Ours isn’t like that. I’ll bring you out a small plate, and you can see what I mean.”

I am absolutely convinced that he had no idea we were there to review the place, and that he would have done the same for anyone. I’m also absolutely convinced that Namaste Kitchen doesn’t really know what a small plate is, because we got a hefty portion of gizzards – again, coated in something delicious, savoury and impossible to pinpoint and cooked until they became a chewy delight. And I use the word chewy after some consideration – they weren’t falling-apart tender, and they weren’t bouncily tough, but they had just enough texture and fight without having too much. They were almost like the chicken equivalent of pork scratchings and Mike and I, who thought we had eaten to a standstill, somehow found room for every last one.

“Each one tastes slightly different” said Mike, in raptures. “It’s like every mouthful has a different pocket of flavour.”

Mike can be a man of few words, but Namaste Kitchen brought out the poet in him. Actually, it brought out something even more dangerous: the restaurant reviewer.

The pangra was on the house, but the rest of our meal – five dishes, three and a half pints – came to just under forty pounds, not including tip. The most expensive dish we had, the chilli chicken, was seven pounds. All this took place in a pub many people don’t know about, a three minute walk from Reading’s branch of Wagamama where you can eat far less food for much more money without ever once shaking your head, gasping or feeling a milligram of civic pride.

At the risk of repetition, restaurants like Namaste Kitchen are why I do this. Places that should be full every night, doing something interesting and different, adding something to the cultural fabric of this town. I always hope that the next restaurant I go into will turn out to be the next Papa Gee, the next I Love Paella, the next Perry’s. For the rest of this year, I will be hoping to discover the next Namaste Kitchen, and it will make the comedown after a dispiriting meal even bigger knowing that I could have been sitting in the window of the Hook and Tackle reacquainting myself with that chicken bara.

Put it this way – I’ve been going to Sapana Home for years. I’ve eaten their momo many times. They won my Restaurant Of The Year for 2016, and right now all I can think to say to Sapana Home is: you’re no Namaste Kitchen. So I hope enough of you go there that the Hook And Tackle isn’t under new ownership again this year, because Reading would be a poorer place if you couldn’t eat this food.

I would end it there, but here’s a short postscript, because I did something I never, ever do. Two days later, after a few drinks in the Allied, I summoned my friend Tim and we headed to the edge of the Oracle, under the IDR and crossed the border into Katesgrove. I told myself I wanted to show off my new find to Tim, but I think I knew in the back of my mind that I just wanted to check that my senses hadn’t deceived me. I needed to be sure that it wasn’t a mirage. So we went, we sat in the dining room and we ordered almost everything I’d eaten the first time I went there.

You can all relax: it wasn’t a mirage.

Namaste Kitchen – 8.4
16 Katesgrove Lane, RG1 2ND
0118 9594617

https://www.facebook.com/Namastekitchenhookntacklereading/

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I Love Paella at The Horn

In a surprising move, I Love Paella moved from The Horn to The Fisherman’s Cottage in November 2016. I’ve left the review up for posterity, but something to bear in mind as the location, ambience and service could all be different.

My restaurant of the year last year wasn’t a gorgeous old country pub, or a sleek brasserie or some Michelin starred faff factory. No, it was one man and his paella pan, operating out of the Oxford Road branch of Workhouse Coffee weekends and some nights, offering a small but perfectly formed range of dishes – empanada, tortilla, salads, seafood paella – in a little, informal space. You could take your own bottle, you could sit up at the high central bar gassing with your friends, you could order bits and bobs until you were replete and when you went up to settle the bill it was always a fraction of what you expected to pay. I loved it, and when I gave it my award I said “It’s a proper success story, and I sense that there’s still more to come.”

Well, it wouldn’t be the first time that a rave review from me looked like something of a kiss of death, and so it came to pass that early in the New Year I started getting reports that people tried to go to I Love Paella to find the windows ominously unlit. I myself trekked down the Oxford Road to take a friend there for the first time only to have my worst suspicions confirmed. No sign of life, the shutters down. Soon after, I Love Paella announced that it was leaving Workhouse Coffee with further announcements to follow. I know it’s not all about me, honestly I do, but I couldn’t help thinking The curse of Edible Reading strikes again.

Fast forward to March, and it turned out that my fears were unfounded. In a surprising announcement, I Love Paella confirmed that it would be taking up residence in The Horn, the Castle Street pub which had previously never really featured on my to do list of Reading’s nightspots. Photos appeared on Twitter of a spick and span new kitchen and huge new paella pans, menus began to appear online and a launch date was announced.

I went shortly after it opened but I played it safe, ordering the things I would have ordered in the old premises. I had a lovely meal – although everything came out very slowly – but I knew that it was too soon and that I had to give them time to settle in. So I’ve been watching all the plaudits on Twitter, biding my time and finally, nearly two months on, I made my way there to try the place out properly. I felt a bit nervous, to be honest: would my favourite restaurant be all grown up in its new home, or would it have overextended itself?

I’m a restaurant reviewer, not a pub reviewer, so I’ll leave the detailed descriptions of The Horn to others. Friends who have been have always expressed vague suspicion, but all I can say is that I thought it looked like quite a nice boozer. The room on the left is lighter, with tall tables and stools and windows all along one wall. On the right is a more traditional room with a couple of biggish tables, and up a step is a smaller room with a few little tables. I wouldn’t have had a problem eating at any of them, although the table I initially sat at did have that disconcertingly sticky varnish I always fear could remove multiple layers of skin in one go. I’ve been told before that it’s a pub for sports fans, and there were a couple of screens showing a possibly (though how would I know?) crucial match between some overpaid men in red and overpaid men in blue, but on a Wednesday night it was largely empty.

The menu is much wider than the one ILP used to offer at Workhouse Coffee and I was determined to order lots of the new dishes to see whether they were truly taking advantage of the improved kitchen facilities. This meant passing up the empanadas, although never without regret, and – particularly disappointing, this – the grilled goat’s cheese with tomato jam from the peerless Caversham Jam Lady (her lemon curd rocks my world, since you asked). So the starters I chose had a double burden to bear: they had to be good, and they had to be better than my happy memories of meals from 2015. Could they pull it off?

In a word, yes. Chicken bravas was the most vanilla of them but still thoroughly successful. Beautiful cubes of fried potato came topped with a piquant bravas sauce and a healthy dollop of pungent aioli, the whole thing pimped with crisp shards of chicken thigh (the menu says there’s rosemary in there, but if there was I didn’t taste it). A lovely, starchy, spicy start to the meal – although if I had one criticism I thought it could have done with a little more bravas sauce. There was still a pitched battle over the last few pieces of chicken, though, and nothing was left.

ILPBravas

If the chicken bravas was good, the other two starters were great. Croquetas are exactly the sort of thing I always wanted to see ILP doing and these were as good as any I’ve had in Spain or indeed anywhere else in the UK. Beautifully presented – I know people have a bit of a beef with food on slate but it’s never bothered me – these were two gorgeous crunchy shells full of a perfect béchamel with Roquefort (always very popular in Spain for some reason). Some blue cheese dishes never really get started, others beat you over the head with salt, but this managed to steer the perfect course between those two extremes. I wish I’d ordered a whole portion to myself. I’ve had sidra and cabrales in Madrid, experienced that perfect contrast between crisp fresh apple and stinky, agricultural cheese, and I never thought I’d have an equally joyous experience on a street corner in central Reading with a perfect croqueta and a bottle of Bulmers. Life can be full of wonderful, random surprises.

ILPCroquetas

Last but not least, an innovative starter that combined two of my very favourite things, and a dish so popular that the bar staff had to check after I ordered it that they weren’t sold out. Salt cod churros sounded so fantastic on paper that I simply had to know what a fusion of those two things would look and taste like. The answer is that they look a bit like churros but taste like the best fish fingers in Christendom. I have a huge soft spot for salt cod and again, there was lots in these – no excessive padding out with pointless potato – but also little green spikes of chive in the mix. There was more of the aioli, but somehow it tasted a little different with the churros. Almost like tartare sauce, although I think that was probably a culinary trick of the light.

ILPChurros

You order and pay at the bar, and our dishes were brought out one after another in a way that was very well paced. I’m sure it helps that I think we were the only customers eating in the pub that night, so I can’t guarantee how they will manage in the busier times they deserve, but it does mean I get to say lots of nice things about the service which was a pleasure from start to finish. The bar staff were lovely and friendly, they chatted as they brought things out, they took compliments back to the kitchen (pretty much every time we finished a dish, to be honest) and they seemed almost to glow with pride at the food being served up in their pub. Quite right, too.

I couldn’t very well go to I Love Paella without sampling the eponymous dish, so a pan of chicken paella was the last thing brought out, resting on a wooden board on the table. It’s quite a daunting prospect, even between two people – a sea of rich, dark, glossy rice with chicken thighs poking up from the surface. It looked terrific, and it tasted even better: the stock had reduced perfectly, coating the ever so slightly nutty plump grains of rice, the whole thing lip-smackingly savoury and salty. The chicken, as in the bravas, was crisp where it needed to be and tender everywhere else, and broke easily into strands to mix with the rest.

ILPPaella

But there was more to it than met the eye, because it was also studded with cannellini beans, flat green beans, peppers and onion, making every forkful a fresh epiphany. Towards the end, you could scrape the metal spoon along the base of the paella pan liberating the best bits of all, caramelised, almost crunchy rice. My companion ate less than half. I, being both greedy and in raptures, ate more than half but even so there was a little left. Not quite enough to take with us, although the bar staff went to great pains to remind me that they could package up anything I couldn’t quite eat. Next time I might just go on my own, pig out and still have loads for the next day to make my colleagues green with envy as they make do with our subpar canteen (if that makes me sound like a bad person – and it probably does – all I can say is that you haven’t tried this paella; you can tell me off once you have, if you still want to).

I didn’t have dessert: the only options were brownie and cheesecake, and I was too full for either. Normally that wouldn’t bother me in the slightest (they’re pretty basic offerings) but the menu specifically says they are homemade, so if you do have a sweet tooth I wouldn’t rule them out and I imagine they’d be good. Personally, if I’d had more room I’d have been tempted to have some manchego, but that’s possibly just me. The whole thing, including those two very welcome bottles of Bulmers, came to just over forty-two pounds.

I was so disappointed when I Love Paella closed, and I remember saying so to them on Twitter. They told me not to worry and said that they had big plans. I should have believed them; that will teach me for doubting. I said I was nervous about reviewing I Love Paella, and that’s true. If it had been disappointing or inconsistent I’d have been writing this review constructively but critically, with a very heavy heart.

I’d particularly have been dreading this bit at the end, where I have to tie it all up. So it’s with a mixture of joy and relief that I get to say this: go. Go to the Horn, whenever you can, and eat this food. And if you’re worried about the Horn not being your kind of place, get people to go with you. Let’s make it our kind of place, stage a pitch invasion if you like, because a pub that does food of this quality in this location should be our kind of place (and if it really bothers you, I reckon I Love Paella might be one of the only good reasons to use Deliveroo – if you happen to have the right postcode). Personally I’ll be back at the Horn, pretty soon. In fact, I’ll even sit through Everpool playing London Irish or whoever they are, if that’s what it takes to enjoy dishes like this.

I Love Paella at The Horn – 8.4

2 Castle Street, RG1 2LS
0118 9574794

http://ilovepaella.co.uk/

Sanpa, Wokingham

It’s funny, Wokingham is less than ten minutes away from Reading by train but in all the time I’ve been writing ER I’ve only ever been there twice. My last foray out, to try relative newcomer Jessy’s, wasn’t an unqualified success but there was something about the town that I really liked and I figured it was about time I gave it another shot. Arriving on a beautiful sunny day, with spring in the air (and my step, for that matter) it seemed like things were looking up. There was a market going on in the pretty square with stalls offering fresh bread and, erm, bird seed. A beautiful retro van was selling crepes, and there was some kind of craft fair going on in the town hall. Even the masonic hall was open for the day, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Since I’ve never really been the kind for secret handshakes, I wandered up to Sanpa instead. It’s a tapas place I’ve had recommended by a couple of people and it’s on Peach Street, which sounds attractive but in reality is quite a busy road made up of unappealing Sixties concrete offices and shops. But that said, Sanpa was definitely the nicest thing on the street, with some barrels and stools out front and a crowd of people loitering in the doorway. I was worried that maybe I should have made a reservation, but I was soon shown to a table for two (and so was the crowd, who hadn’t reserved either).

The interior is basically two rooms, one at the front and one at the back separated by a deli section in the middle. The décor is simple and basic, although none the worse for that, and blackboards on the wall give details of some of the new dishes on the menu (and mentioned churros, which automatically gave me a reason to consider coming back). Much of the downstairs was full when I got there, and it was only later on when I wandered up the stairs in search of the bathrooms that I realised they also had a perfectly pleasant third room up there; it was also filling up by the time I left. If Sanpa was a well-kept secret, there were certainly quite a few people in the know.

Although on Friday and Saturday night Sanpa does a set menu, the rest of the time it’s largely tapas. That suited me fine, because I ruddy love tapas. What’s not to like about ordering lots of different things to try, going out on a limb and getting lucky with a dish you maybe wouldn’t risk if you knew you had to commit to a massive plateful? Also, on past experience, there’s often that wonderful moment at the end where your food has largely gone but you get to dip bread in the brick-red oily remains of the dishes – juices and spice and garlic and tomato. Heaven. As it turned out, the menu at Sanpa had a lot of things on it which make me happy and put me in a holiday frame of mind. So naturally I ordered them.

A good example of that was chorizo in cider. Normally it comes as thick discs of chorizo, browned on the heat in a pool of that brick-red sauce, but this was something altogether different: four whole short, stubby sausages, soaked through with the cider (and honey, according to the menu, although I couldn’t taste it), lightly charred on the outside. The texture was a revelation – all crumble, no bounce – and the taste was even better: salty; piquant; juicy and sweet all at once. It was the first dish to arrive but it was so good that I didn’t finish the last of the chorizo until close to the end of the meal. I was saving it in case it turned out to be the best dish I had (it wasn’t).

SanpaChorizo

The cured platter of was a much simpler affair. Some thin slices of chorizo, some cured ham and five manchego wedges, fanned out on top like a “ta-dah!”. The chorizo didn’t look much (to be honest, I wasn’t really sure I fancied it when it arrived) but it tasted so much better than that, rich and smoky with pimento, melting in the mouth because it was so thin. The cured ham was exactly how I like it, with a nicely dry, almost leathery texture, not greasy or shiny and floppy. I ate it the way one should eat good jamon, curled up into a little rosette, and it was spot on – earthy, moreish, with an almost caramel note. The manchego was, for me, the letdown; I prefer mine to be almost crunchy with salt crystals, crumbly and brittle, but this was a touch too smooth and creamy. Still good, don’t get me wrong, but it was more like the sort of manchego I accidentally buy from the airport on the way home than the sort I enjoy when I go to Spain.

SanpaPlatter

The true highlight of my lunch was the gambas al ajillo. The menu talks about peeled prawns and “mildly infused garlic and dry chilli oil” but that pedestrian description doesn’t do the dish justice at all. I know my writing should speak for itself but, just this once, look at that picture. Lots and lots of firm, juicy prawns in a rich, oily sauce, rich with parsley, just enough chilli to taste without being overpowering or mouth-tingling and with sliver after sliver of beautiful, beautiful garlic, shedloads of the stuff, cooked to be soft but not squidgy. It was profoundly good: I love garlic so very much and being able to scoop up several translucent slices of garlic and load them onto my fork before spearing a prawn made every mouthful of this dish a wondrous, wordless delight. Less than seven pounds, and easily one of my dishes of the year so far.

SanpaPrawns

Well, it could only be downhill from there I’m afraid. Next up were the patatas bravas – a staple that, really, I’m not sure we needed. The potatoes were perfectly decent cubes, nicely fried and served with a dollop of spicy tomato sauce. All perfectly decent, but it missed the mark in comparison to the other dishes. It probably never stood a chance in this company, but it wasn’t as rich as the chorizo or as fabulous as the prawns so it felt a little bit sad, and something of an also-ran. I wish I’d tried the tortilla instead.

SanpaPatatas

Finally, the random item picked off the menu at the last minute was tigres (not tigers: that would be illegal). The menu, bafflingly, says “If you have ever been to Spain, you’ve most likely tasted ‘Tigres’”: I have and I’d never heard of them, but maybe that’s just me. They were billed as stuffed and breaded mussels, a description that didn’t really give me any idea what to expect. In the event, they were four mussel shells filled with chopped mussels in a herby, creamy sauce which tasted, to me, like béchamel, all topped with breadcrumbs. To put it another way, it was like a potato croquette with mussel in. Served in a mussel shell. That you scoop out with a teaspoon. If that description appeals to you then you’d enjoy these; I quite liked them, but my companion took one look and decided to leave me to it. The flavour was nicely creamy and I enjoyed the crunch of the crumb, but they were a bit on the rich side and we’d over-ordered, so they didn’t quite get finished.

SanpaTigres

The finale, as I predicted at the start, involved taking chunks of toasted bread, ripping them open to expose the fluffy insides and dunking them in the sauces from the chorizo and the prawns. I chased every last sliver of garlic round the dish until it was loaded onto the bread and greedily eaten. I rolled my eyes in pleasure at those last pieces of bread soaked with the intense sauce from the chorizo. It’s exactly how this kind of meal should end, even if it meant I had no room for churros for dessert. No matter, there’s always next time.

We drank a glass of the house red wine each, a juicy rioja that worked nicely with pretty much everything. It was a struggle not to keep going and see off the rest of a bottle. I was a little sad, though, to see no sherry on the menu: if I had I’d have been tempted to order one at the start as an aperitif. The total bill, excluding service, was just shy of forty quid. Service throughout was lovely, not over the top, just friendly and welcoming. When I was settling the bill at the end, at the counter, the owner (I think) was asking if I’d been before and whether we’d enjoyed our meal, generally being downright charming. I must confess, I was quite taken with the whole place.

Things went downhill after that. I couldn’t find many shops I liked the look of, and the market was very small. The craft fair, in the beautifully over-the-top town hall, was mostly stuff at the twee end of the spectrum. The heavens opened and I was caught, sans umbrella, unsure about what to do. I considered going for a drink but the independent coffee place didn’t grab me (not being a coffee drinker and all), and I certainly wasn’t going to set foot in “The Grape Escape”, an establishment which seems to be applying the sincerest form of flattery to Reading’s Tasting House. Even the lovely Italian delicatessen which used to sell ‘nduja had rebranded as “The Slaughterhouse”, and seemed a bit more butch and a lot less lovely. It was as if Sanpa was all of the sunshine in Wokingham and once we’d walked out the door the clouds gathered and it was time to go. So we trudged in the rain back to the train station and decided we’d seen enough of Wokingham. But we talked about those prawns all the way home, and I figure Sanpa alone might be enough to get me back there before too long.

Sanpa – 8.0
6 Peach Street, Wokingham, RG40 1XG
0118 9893999

https://www.facebook.com/Sanpa.Store/

Brebis, Newbury

Brebis closed in July 2016. The owners are starting a new project, Nomadic Restaurant, and in time the restaurant will be taken over by a new owner, chef and team. I’ve left this review up for posterity.

Let’s cut to the chase: Brebis is really, really good and you should go there.

It’s nice to have that out of the way. On with the review!

Brebis appeared on my radar a little while ago, though I can’t quite remember how. When I checked out the website, it looked like the real deal – a little unfussy French restaurant that just happened to be slap bang in the middle of Newbury. Now, I haven’t been to Newbury before on duty but after last week’s lukewarm review of a town centre bistro I decided to go double or quits and troll out to West Berkshire, an area I’ve previously rather neglected on the blog.

In my defence it’s been a long time since I’ve been to Newbury (years, I’d say) and I didn’t have fond memories of it; I remembered it, unfairly I’m sure, as a lacklustre market town with little to offer that Reading didn’t have. Well, I was plain wrong (and you can take that to the bank). I had a lovely excursion there of a weekend – it has a decent market (I very much enjoyed the fresh bread I bought), an irascible butcher (sausages for my dinner the following night) and a truly magnificent wine and beer shop that had a selection of gin (Japanese? Colombian? Welsh?) that knocked my socks off. I returned with groaning bags. But, more to the point, it also has an outstanding French restaurant that dished up one of the best meals I’ve had this year.

Brebis is in a pedestrianised bit of Newbury – it’s in an old house but, regrettably, with an unlovely view of the side of the Kennet Centre (think Broad Street Mall, not Oracle). Not terribly scenic but no matter, as the inside is a different affair. The walls are white with the occasional blackboard, the floor is stripped back to boards, the lampshades are all industrial without being faddy and the generously sized tables are smart rustic, with comfy chairs and really good quality linen napkins. Even the cutlery was reminiscent of Parisian restaurants I have known and loved (and there have been a few). So far so chic.

The greeting at the door was incredibly welcoming. We got in without a reservation and were shown to a table in the window and given a brief explanation of the menu (all on chalkboards, because Brebis is trialling the restaurant equivalent of the paperless office). This involved a good nosey around and some really tricky choices. During the day Brebis offers a prix fixe menu, offering a choice of two courses for just under twenty pounds or three for twenty-three. Only a couple of options for each course, and nothing I could see for vegetarians, but there was also a much bigger a la carte menu which repeated some of the prix fixe options. Starters on the a la carte were about eight pounds and mains around eighteen, and a suggested wine pairing was listed with every course, something I didn’t fully appreciate until later.

Fortunately for us, all of the dishes we fancied from the a la carte were also on the prix fixe, so I felt especially pleased as we made our choices, sipped our wine and looked out the window at the passers by (enjoying the “I’m inside having a lovely lunch and you’re not” feeling). They even played Edith Piaf on the Bose sound dock by the door. Really, it was almost too perfect. And before we even got to the starters there was an amuse bouche of beetroot crème fraîche on a wafer thin crouton, with a nasturtium petal on top. It was as tasty as it was pretty, the slightly sweet crouton combining beautifully with the crème fraîche. I’m never sure about edible flowers – they make me feel a bit like Ermintrude from The Magic Roundabout – but they definitely didn’t detract.

BrebisAmuse

The first real glimmers of greatness came with the arrival of the starters, because it was around then that I started to think that everything was going to be quite a lot more than all right. Duck liver and foie gras parfait came with a decent wodge of home made baguette and courgette chutney. Goodness, it was marvellous stuff: rich, smooth and earthy, cool enough to keep its shape but easily spread on the gorgeous bread. And the bread! Crusty and chewy but with that spongey middle, a texture that the French take for granted in their Government-regulated ninety-five cent loaves but which you can’t find here for love nor money. The courgette chutney was spiced with a slight hint of curry which made it seem almost mango-flavoured, and although I liked it, it felt a bit unnecessary. But that’s by the by: I order foie gras and chicken liver parfait quite often, and I nearly didn’t order it here because I wondered if it would be a good test of the kitchen, but this was one of my starters of the year. Even the little touches – a few little flakes of salt on top of the parfait – were right on the money.

BrebisParfait

The other starter was also top-notch: a hefty helping of jambon de bayonne with a pile of celeriac remoulade in the middle. Really, the ingredients did all the work: the ham was terrific, every bit as savoury, coarse-textured and intense as its Italian or Spanish cousins. The celeriac remoulade, everyone’s favourite upmarket coleslaw, was an elegant balance of creamy and crunchy. And one final touch – the tiniest dabs of truffle oil, glistening on the ham. I’ve never had this with charcuterie before, and I’d normally be sceptical, but used sparingly it topped the dish off without overpowering it. A simple, perfect classic.

BrebisHam

When the mains arrived I wasn’t sure which of us had picked better. I’m running out of superlatives already, but butter poached hake with purple potatoes and roast lemon purée was flawless. The chunky piece of hake was cooked through but beautifully moist from being poached (I daren’t think what butter poaching entails, although I have a vague idea: fortunately all meals I eat when reviewing are calorie free). Under that was a disc of crushed potatoes, some purple and some white, all very buttery and just the right texture – yielding but not super soft. On the side was a smear of lemon purée, rich and creamy with a hint of sharpness which was simply beautiful with the fish. I can’t remember when I have eaten something so delicate and harmonious this year, let alone on a set menu. Sometimes on a set menu you can get quite prosaic dishes, but this both looked and tasted dazzling, colour and flavour completely in step.

BrebisHake

The other main was definitely more the stuff of a prix fixe. Confit duck is beginning to get a bit done to death (partly, I suspect, because pubs and restaurants appreciate that it’s quite an easy thing to churn out) but by this stage I was more relaxed because I had a feeling Brebis might do a definitive version. And they pretty much did. The duck was just magnificent – lots of tender meat underneath, parted from the bone with no effort at all, but more importantly on top the crispy, salty skin breaking into delicious shards. The pomme purée it was served on was a fantastic mash, firm rather than gloopy, with thyme and little strands of bacon running through it. The jus was tasty, although I’d personally have liked a little more of it. Finally the only misfire possibly of the whole meal – some distinctly odd batons of beetroot which, for me, just didn’t go. Personally, I’d rather have had something hot and cooked rather than cold and crunchy, though of course, I still ate it.

BrebisDuck

The set menu has a fantastic wine offer – a half litre carafe for the bargain price of nine quid – but instead we went for a bottle of Lirac, a soft, fairly light Rhone Valley red that was a bit of a compromise solution given the two main courses. Even so it was cracking, eminently drinkable and decent value at just over thirty pounds. The wine list at Brebis is all French and everything except the very top end is available by the glass (with the cheapest 125ml wine by the glass at around three quid). I didn’t realise that, or that the way glasses are priced means that it’s just as economical to drink glasses as it is to order a bottle. Still, it’s a lesson learned for next time and there are worse things in life than having a gorgeous red with lunch.

After two excellent courses it would have been a crime not to have dessert. But then we couldn’t decide between the cheeseboard (yes, another cheeseboard) and the dessert menu. So in the end we had a cheeseboard to share followed by dessert. Yes, I know: this is bad and wrong and I certainly wouldn’t expect you to behave so terribly, but I rarely get to eat this well on duty so I went for it.

The holy trinity of local cheeses – Wigmore, Spenwood and Barkham Blue – were all present and correct, along with Woolsery (a Dorset hard goat’s cheese) and, because Brebis is French, after all, some Roquefort. Again, simplicity was key – no overcomplicating apple, celery or walnuts, just good cheeses, a pyramid of slices of the beautiful baguette from before, more courgette chutney and some room temperature butter. I scored it, I’m afraid, as France 1, Berkshire 0: Barkham Blue is one of my favourite cheeses but I think on this occasion the Roquefort just had the edge, being riper, softer and saltier. The cheeses were served cool but not chilled and the Wigmore was ripe enough to making a break for it across the plate. It all went terribly well with a glass of Muscat de Rivesaltes – red, unusually, rather than white, lightly chilled, with a beautiful raisiny flavour, a great foil for the saltier cheeses. All that for eight pounds fifty: miles better, and miles better value, than any other cheeseboard I’ve had this year.

BrebisCheese

The desserts are, thankfully, quite small and chilled (I think a sticky toffee pudding or anything with custard would have killed me at this stage). Green apple bavarois (I had to Google it before ordering, to my shame and even then it wasn’t quite what I was expecting) was a lot easier to eat than it was to pronounce: it was a big quenelle of something halfway between a fool and a mousse. The apple was quite a light, refreshing flavour, which saved it from heaviness. Big chunks of honeycomb added some texture and there was a zigzag of blackberry gel underneath (which wasn’t really needed, if I’m honest, but it did look nice). Delicious, simple, clever: bit of a theme emerging, isn’t there?

BrebisBava

Iced nougat parfait was a lovely way to finish. A small slice of the parfait, with a honeyed taste to it, studded through with fruit and nuts – cold, fresh and clean but with just the right sweetness and texture. Again, there was lots of the blackberry gel on this one – and it was beautifully plated, such a simple, pretty dish – but it felt like it was more of a match with than with the bavarois. In truth it meant the two desserts we ordered were pretty similar and, in honesty, the bavarois was probably a better choice. But the worst of the two desserts here was still better than most desserts I’ve eaten this year, and it cost just over five pounds. We managed to squeeze in a glass of sticky, fragrant Cadillac with the dessert; by this point it seemed pointless to deny anything, being slightly squiffy with happiness.

BrebisDessert

Service was a one man job, namely one man doing a brilliant job. He was charming, chatty and enthusiastic throughout, knew his way round the dishes and the wines, brimmed with passion and was delighted to get good feedback. He was just as charming at the other tables and showed a real interest in his customer (some of our fellow diners were celebrating their anniversary: one of them definitely deserves some brownie points for the choice of venue). There was no superfluous topping up of wine glasses – a real bugbear of mine at the high end – everything was laid back and unfussily spectacular.

Our total bill, for three courses each, a cheeseboard to share, a bottle of wine and two glasses of dessert wine each (it sounds even worse when I put it like that) was just short of one hundred and twenty pounds, not including service. You could, in fairness, spend a lot less: if you didn’t get as carried away as I did, came here on the prix fixe and shared the set wine you could have a meal for two for about half that price. But I have no regrets: this has been one of my meals of the year, and it justifies all those times in 2015 when I’ve drizzled away money on mediocre food, underwhelming wine, indifferent service. Also, did I mention the Edith Piaf?

Normally I don’t talk about the ratings in my reviews, but this time I have to make an exception because, as you’ve probably already seen, this one breaks new ground. When I look at all the places I’ve given good ratings to over the last two years, fantastic though they are there’s always been something missing. The furniture’s a little uncomfortable, the wine selection is a bit uninspiring, the service just a tad too rushed. Or there’s one course that drops the baton, leaving me thinking If only… But Brebis literally didn’t put a foot wrong, and that puts it in another class. By the end of the starter I was wondering who I could take next time. By the end of the main course I was wondering how many visits I could feasibly make to Newbury before the end of the year. By the end of dessert I was wondering why this place wasn’t full and how they would feel about being dismantled brick by brick and forcibly relocated to Reading. Until that happens I urge you to jump on a train and go there. Take someone you either really like or really want to impress, or both. I might be at the next table; my next visit is already in the calendar.

Brebis – 9.1
16 Bartholemew Street, Newbury, RG14 5LW
01635 40527

http://www.brebis.co.uk/

The Bell, Waltham St Lawrence

Well, summer’s well and truly over. You can speculate about the exact time of death – when the kids went back to school, when festive toot started appearing in the shops (prosecco flavoured crisps, M&S? Really?), that awful moment when you realised the central heating needed to go on – but those are details. The formal funeral happens tomorrow night when the clocks go back, and that’s that: it’s gone until next year and now we all need to come to terms with wearing extra layers, fishing the gloves out of the chest of drawers, deciding who’s getting what this Christmas and wondering whether this is the year you stop bothering with sending cards.

I’ve found it especially difficult because I’m not long back from holiday. So it seems like only yesterday that I was sitting outside until midnight, eating grilled meats and salad, drinking that first glass of rosé as soon after midday as socially acceptable and reading novels by the pool. To return to a nip in the air felt especially cruel. And it’s not just me – I bumped into a colleague this week who’s just back from a holiday in Dubai, thirty-three degrees every day without fail, and I couldn’t help feeling even her tan looked a tad jaundiced. “It’s not my winter coat I’ve got on” she told me, “it’s my autumn coat” (in denial, I suspect – it looked like a winter coat to me).

So this week I’ve been trying to find the consolations of autumn. I’m not talking about seasonal eating – I should care about that more than I do, but ultimately despite knowing all the reasons I shouldn’t buy Peruvian asparagus I still reckon it’s better than nothing – but the move into autumn does allow you to enjoy food that, a few months ago, would have been unthinkable. Slow-cooked stews and casseroles, steaming bowls of soup, big piles of mash and golden-domed pies. And the drinks, too; I know that Pimm’s is a wonderful thing but the months ahead mean we can glug red wine, or port, or mulled wine (proper stuff, not that shortcut in a bottle).

That’s what led me to Waltham St. Lawrence on a weekday night, because I’d heard good things about The Bell. Someone suggested I review it with a certain trepidation, because they didn’t want the secret to get out – and that’s a good enough incentive for me. So I made the short drive down the A4, turning right just past Hare Hatch, and parking in the village I got out of the car to be greeted by the beautiful aroma of woodsmoke.

It’s a lovely place. The pub is right opposite the church – as it should be in a picture perfect English village, if only to give people two different routes to enlightenment – and it’s beautifully, charmingly ramshackle (much as you would be if you’d been standing for seven hundred years). Inside it’s all beams and dark wood, panelling, horse brasses and open fires. There are a couple of rooms, all very basic and unshowy, although I now see having looked at the website that they also have a snug and what looks like a slightly smarter dining room; I’m glad I didn’t end up sitting in that.

I was a little bit in love before I even sat down, but it developed into a full-on crush when I read the menu. I looked at one pub during the week, deciding whether to add it to my list of places to review, before realising with horror that it offered twenty-three different main courses; The Bell is nothing like that, with a small but perfectly-formed menu of five bar snacks, four starters, five mains and five desserts. I couldn’t see a single thing I didn’t fancy eating – pork pie, rarebit, Brixham mussels, venison, trout with lentils. It was a different menu to the one on their website, and I had no doubt that if I went back in a couple of months it would be a different menu again. But for now, it felt like a menu designed to make you happy to see the back of summer.

Pigeon and pork terrine was, if not perfection, close enough that I couldn’t see anything to fault. The terrine itself was a dense slab of rich, gamey meat, beautifully earthy and coarse, no jelly or bounce to it. But that wasn’t all, because there was also soft pickled beetroot, all sweetness and no sharpness, perfect with the terrine. And the bread was magnificent – thick sliced, toasted and buttered (or quite possibly buttered and then toasted, it had a golden glow and the texture of butter that had melted under a grill), it almost had a spongey, crumpetty texture. Three simple things, superb on their own, equally terrific combined. All that for six pounds fifty, and worth the trip on its own.

BellTerrine

The thick, rich cep and blue oyster mushroom soup was an exercise in simplicity: the mushrooms, a hint of cream and a touch of seasoning was all I could detect in the bowl. There was more of that bread on the side, untoasted this time but also generously buttered. I found it strange that the butter wasn’t on the side, and if I’m being really critical I’d perhaps have liked a few herbs to bring out the flavour of the soup more, but those are both minor details. The portion was generous (how I struggled!) and made me want to go out and forage straight after. Well, straight after a nap, perhaps.

BellSoup

Mains were sensibly paced after that – ironic, as the starters had been so good that, for once, I found myself ever so slightly impatient. It’s almost worth putting the clocks back just so you can eat venison again so I was delighted to see loin of fallow deer on the menu. The meat itself, again, was well-nigh perfect – beautifully seared, still pink inside, five thick discs of autumnal wonder. If the rest of the dish didn’t quite match that, it was perhaps because the bar had been set so high – the kale was well-cooked, steering the right course between the twin perils of mushy and crunchy, but it wasn’t the most exciting thing to serve with the venison.

The real disappointment was the macaroni cheese, an oddly solid cuboid of the stuff which reminded me of the top of a pastitsio. It wasn’t quite cheesy enough, or salty enough, and under a fork it just crumbled into individual macaroni. It was a noble effort, but I think I’d sooner have had something a bit gloopier and more sinful, or even just a potato dauphinoise. Last of all, the thing the dish missed most – the roasting juices had been reduced to almost nothing, like a culinary Black Friday, and the whole thing needed some kind of sauce. If I sound critical it’s just because the dish was very good, when I knew how close it came to being unforgettable.

BellFallow

It’s rare that there’s a scrap to order the vegetarian main course (normally it’s quite the opposite, in fact) but that’s exactly what happened at The Bell. Big pillowy potato gnocchi came with a stunning kale and almond pesto, strewn with extra leaves of kale like the best cabbage in the world (I know kale is bloody everywhere right now, but not kale like this). On top was a decent sized circle of caramelised goats cheese, grilled to just bubbling and perfect for setting off the richness of the potato. You could say this is starch and goats cheese, like unimaginative risottos in pubs across Berkshire, but this was so much more than that: clever, creative and damned delicious, and it really didn’t need any meat. It illustrated deftly that with a bit of effort and an imaginative chef it’s possible to eat delicious vegetarian food; it’s just a shame that this is such a rare accolade. I scraped every last morsel out of the bowl.

BellGnocchi

Sometimes, when a meal is iffy, I order dessert to give the restaurant a chance to rescue matters. On this occasion I ordered dessert because I wanted to see if they were as good as the rest. And again, the menu was note-perfect – crumbles and puddings, hot desserts with ice cream quickly melting on them. But unfortunately, on this occasion, the desserts slightly took the shine off things. I picked the sticky toffee pudding because it came with creme fraiche ice cream, an unusual touch. Sadly it was more like a toffee cake than a steamed sponge pudding – dry and a bit chewy – and there was nowhere near enough toffee sauce to rescue it. The ice cream, to be fair, was truly delicious; thick and creamy with an intriguing slightly sour note – but that, too, wasn’t enough to save it. I left some, and I felt sad that I didn’t feel sad about that.

BellPud (2)

I was in two minds about whether to have the cheeseboard, and when I went up to the bar I asked which cheeses were on offer. “Barkham Blue is one”, said the man behind the bar, “I’ll just check with the kitchen what the other one is.” Off he scuttled, and the man next to me said “Barkham Blue’s all you need anyway.” He was right, of course, and you got a good wedge of it, soft and salty, blue without being overpowering. The other cheese – and I quite admire them for only offering two – was Wigmore, also local, gorgeously mushroomy but still nice and firm.

So far so good, and you could say it’s impossible to muck this kind of thing up, but the kitchen did have a go. The chutney was lovely, and went well with both, but the “house crackers” were a bit surreal. There was a long thin flatbread, a bit like ciappe de liguria, but the texture wasn’t right – it wasn’t crispy or crunchy, and felt stale. Odder still were the other crackers, which were more like biscuits – thin, treacly biscuits, like Hobnobs without the oats. They were sweet: sweet with burnt sugar, and although that sort of went with the Barkham Blue it didn’t go with the Barkham Blue as well as my favourite accompaniment, more Barkham Blue. I finished them in the same way I might finish a duff magazine article.

BellCheese

If I haven’t mentioned service that’s because there wasn’t that much of it. You order at the bar and there’s minimal interaction when they bring the food to your table. That’s honestly no criticism, and everybody was lovely and welcoming and genuinely interested in whether we liked the food, but it does mean there isn’t much to say. There’s more to say about the wine. The Corbieres (less than a fiver a glass) was robust, punchy and went brilliantly with the terrine, the dessert wine was nice if not particularly memorable and not quite cold enough for me. The port I had with the cheese – a rich, complex Krohn LBV – was over far, far too quickly. All in all, dinner came to seventy pounds, not including tip. When I think of the price of some of the things I ate – that stunning terrine for six pounds fifty, the gnocchi for a tenner – it’s hard not to conclude that the people of Waltham St Lawrence are very lucky indeed.

Would I go back? In a heartbeat. And if this review sounds critical, it’s only because the best of this meal was right up there with the best food I’ve eaten this year, and that means you judge everything else a little more harshly. But let’s put this in perspective – if you picked this pub up and dropped it in the centre of Reading (perhaps on top of TGI Friday, or Cosmo: somewhere nobody would miss) it would be difficult to keep me away. So go, even if it means the secret gets out: as it is, perhaps I’ll hibernate there in a seat by the fire, growing fat and sleepy on rarebit and red wine, finding it increasingly hard to remember that I ever used to get excited about sunshine and salad.

The Bell – 8.2
The Street, Waltham St Lawrence, RG10 0JJ
0118 9341788

http://thebellwalthamstlawrence.co.uk/