Takeaway review: Tortilla

When it comes to deliveries, all dishes may be equal but some dishes are more equal than others. I got to thinking about this after last week’s disappointing meal at Dhaulagiri Kitchen, when somebody replied on Twitter and said “I guess moving to takeaway has been tough for them”. I thought that was a curious take, because all of the problems with that meal had been in the kitchen, not on the journey from the kitchen to my house: everything was packed just fine, and arrived hot enough, it just didn’t taste that special. 

It is true, though, that some dishes and cuisines lend themselves better to delivery than others. You’re on a hiding to nothing with pizza from the minute it leaves the oven, for example. And the more components you have to dish up separately, the more likely you’ll have a lukewarm plate at the end of it. With dishes where everything comes in one pot, you have a better chance that the whole thing will stay hot. This is why Kokoro is always such a good bet for delivery, and why restaurants like Zizzi and Pizza Express have set up separate brands on Deliveroo selling macaroni cheese or other pasta dishes in a tub. 

It also explains the relative popularity of sandwiches – burgers, wraps and burritos – on delivery apps, and that in turn explains why I decided to give Tortilla a try this week. Burrito restaurant Tortilla is one of those smaller chains where the blurb on the website makes it sound like a small indie business (“we’re not part of a multi-franchise nor some big soulless restaurant group”) but my cursory research suggested a slightly different picture. 

They had nearly forty branches, and had benefited from financial backing from the private equity group that controlled Yo! Sushi and from Santander – because if there’s one thing big business still seems to love, it’s the casual dining sector. Tortilla’s chairman used to run Pizza Express and had a proud track record of joining or founding hospitality businesses and then selling them off for pots of cash – more John Sykes than Jamie Oliver. So Tortilla maybe wasn’t a Taco Bell, but it certainly wasn’t a Mission Burrito either.

Tortilla was first announced as coming to Reading last February, although for obvious reasons it took a fair old while to open, not throwing its doors open until the end of October. It made the news last year, because it had to overcome objections from a neighbouring business, the dentist Reading Smiles, who were concerned about them having an alcohol licence, and about the risk of smells drifting into the dental practice. Tortilla’s response was that there was no risk of that, as almost no cooking actually took place on the premises – their beef and pork are “braised off-site”, which also enables them to open in smaller premises, like the Reading branch, without the need for extraction. 

It’s funny: this sort of thing, cooking dishes in a central kitchen, goes on throughout chain restaurants and I’m sure we’ve all eaten those kinds of meals without necessarily being aware of it. But I had to work hard not to let this prejudice me against Tortilla. After all, I had a fantastic meal when I ordered a kilo of pre-cooked rib meat from The Rib Man and heated it up on my hob at home: potentially, surely this was no different? 

And Tortilla seemed to be doing a tidy trade – every time I’d walked past the restaurant since lockdown relaxed in April the tables outside had people at them, taking part in our new national sport of gamely pretending the weather wasn’t shite. I couldn’t quite make up their mind about them on paper, so it was time to place an order with them and try to make up my mind about them in reality.

Tortilla is on all three delivery apps, although in typical fashion I only realised that once I had placed my order with Deliveroo. The menu is identical across all of them, and it largely revolves around burritos, naked burritos – that’s the contents of a burrito in a bowl, in case you have a thing against tortillas – and a few taco options. They don’t sell quesadillas or nachos for delivery, although they will sell you a DIY kit if you want to make them at home: I can’t imagine these are that popular, but life is full of surprises.

The process for ordering a burrito is remarkably like going down the line in Mission Burrito, so you have various tick boxes to pick which rice, beans, salsa and so on you want. We ordered on a Sunday evening, and they had run out of their coriander and lime rice and their guacamole, which slightly limited the options. Guacamole, incidentally, is one of the only things Tortilla makes on the premises, so it’s a particular shame they had run out. (Is it as bad as a pub running out of chips? Answers on a postcard.)

Tortilla offers the traditional fillings – carnitas, barbacoa beef and grilled chicken – along with grilled vegetables. The latter costs the same as a chicken burrito, which feels cheeky. They also serve a“vegan chilli no carne” – which has tempeh in it, although you have to go to Tortilla’s website to find that out. We ordered a couple of burritos and some tacos to share – I might have tried the tortilla chips too if they’d had any guacamole to go with them – and our meal came to just shy of thirty pounds, not including the rider tip. Tortilla’s burritos come in medium and large, with the large costing about the same as the one size offered by Mission Burrito.

Deliveries from the town centre always seem quicker and more reliable, and often come on a bike rather than in a car. This was no exception, and everything was pretty brisk: we ordered at twenty past seven, the rider was en route twenty minutes later and he took four minutes to reach our front door. When he did, he cheerfully told us that he was carrying two orders from Tortilla and so we’d have to give him our order number – that struck me as a little strange, but it hardly held things up. I wonder, if I’d been his second delivery, if I’d have been quite as happy.

Anyway, everything was hot and it was all present and correct. A number had been scrawled on one of the foil-packed burritos with a Sharpie, nothing on the other. It’s only after the meal, looking at the ticket in the bag, that I realised he had written numbers against each burrito so we could work out which was which. P for pork and B for beef might have been simpler.

This is where I also have to make a sad confession. Partly to work out which burrito was which and partly to make this review more photographically interesting, I cut my burrito in half, artfully arranged it on a plate so you could see the filling, placed it under a spotlight in the kitchen and took a picture of it. Or at least I thought I did, but looking at my camera roll it simply isn’t there. This puts a greater emphasis on my descriptive powers than any of us would like, and makes this review even less visually interesting than normal: I can only apologise. I asked for advice on Twitter, but it ranged from the impractical (courtroom style drawing please) to the sadistic (another thousand words, presumably?). I’ll spare you either option.

On to the burrito then. Mine was pulled beef with black beans, tomato rice and all the trimmings – cheese, sour cream, salsa verde, jalapeños and pickled red onions. Looking at all that, you’d have thought the biggest risk would be the flavours clashing, or being too much, but in reality the struggle was to get it to taste of anything. Really, it was almost symphonically bland. It was well packed – almost as if done by a machine, the meat firmly in the centre, so different to the haphazard arrangement of a Mission burrito – but nothing tasted of very much. 

The beef had the texture but couldn’t back it up with the taste. The red onions were still crunchy and felt like they’d had only a passing acquaintance with vinegar. If there were any jalapeños in it, they’d been picked for their inoffensiveness. The list goes on: the tomato rice had a real feeling of Bachelor’s about it, and if the salsa verde, cheese and sour cream were even in there (and having eaten it, I’m not sure they were) they added even less to proceedings than Dido Harding. Or Dido herself, for that matter. When the best case scenario is that your meal is boring because they got your order wrong, and the worst case scenario is that it’s plain boring, matters are problematic.

The carnitas burrito was a subtly different shade of meh, but meh nonetheless. I actually liked the pork more – it was saltier and just more interesting – but it had its work cut out shining in a sea of mediocrity. When I have a burrito from Mission it’s a glorious mess – it drips, it’s tricky to tackle, it’s always a challenge, but it tastes of something. You get the highs and the lows. This, by contrast, was tidy and dull, a burrito on Prozac, all the edges neatly knocked off until you barely felt anything. Maybe that was the intention, and maybe the aim is to take customers away from Taco Bell: Tortilla is better than Taco Bell, but so’s eating corrugated cardboard topped with spam.

Only the tacos showed a hint of something better. Tortilla’s chicken is grilled rather than pulled, in little pieces – I actually quite enjoyed this, although it wouldn’t be everybody’s cup of tea. But the real winner here was the salsa roja – hot and punchy and adding a dimension of flavour that had been lacking everywhere else. But even the tacos, though they were better than the burritos, weren’t better than their peers. 

The portion size was still a little underwhelming, especially when you compare it to the Lyndhurst’s outstanding chicken tinga tacos: there, you get four tacos for nine pounds, all so piled high with chicken that you can’t physically close them, and there is always plenty of guacamole. At Tortilla you get three barely-filled tacos for seven pounds fifty – I got the odd one, but mostly because Zoë had no interest in fighting me for it.

When I look at Tortilla’s footprint, I can see that it might do well in many of the locations where they’ve opened up. If it didn’t exist, it might be necessary to invent it. But this, I’m very proud to say, is Reading, and we do things differently here. We’re not like some of the identikit malls Tortilla has opened in, or the likes of Guildford; if they’d done their homework, they might have realised that Reading, of all places, doesn’t need a Tortilla. 

And although there were a couple of things at Tortilla I didn’t mind – the grilled chicken, the salsa roja, the fact that it isn’t Taco Bell – the fact remains that it will never be close to the best option for Reading residents. A few weeks ago I went to Blue Collar and tried pork and charred pineapple tacos from their new vendor El Contador, and they were miles better than anything I had from Tortilla. 

Likewise, if tacos are your thing, be they carnitas or jackfruit, you really do need to make a beeline for the Lyndhurst when they reopen. If you’re a burrito fan I think that Mission, in terms of quality, value and integrity, is streets ahead of Tortilla; writing this review has quite made me crave a Mission Burrito to remember how it’s done. And if you’re at home, and you want to order something delicious that will stay hot, cost around a tenner and make its way to your door in next to no time, a little bucket of Kokoro’s sweet chilli chicken hits the spot every time. 

I do feel a little sad for Tortilla: it’s not exactly as if they’ve done anything wrong, but they’re not quite good enough. It’s not them, you see. It’s us.

Tortilla
4-6 Broad Street, Reading, RG1 2BH
https://www.tortilla.co.uk/locations/reading/

Order via: JustEat, Deliveroo or Uber Eats

Takeaway review: The Lyndhurst

It’s been a month since I started publishing takeaway reviews, and the feedback has been fantastic: I really appreciate all the social media posts, comments, Retweets and emails from people who have discovered new places to order from as a result. It’s lovely, too, that so many people have told me that reading a new review every week makes life feel a tiny step closer to normality. I feel that way too, and by my reckoning we have at least another six more reviews to look forward to after this one before lockdown is eased to the extent where we can all eat outside once more, assuming that the weather – and those pesky virus variants – play ball.

I said that I would predominantly focus on restaurants I haven’t previously reviewed, which means that the last month has been one leap into the unknown after another – some very good, some terrific and some best forgotten (I actually had a very nice email from the Forbury Hotel inviting me in for a comped meal when they reopen and asking me to take my review down in return: you can probably guess how that discussion went). 

By contrast, this week’s review is a return to an old favourite, and about as close to a home fixture as you can get on this blog. The Lyndhurst, the gastropub on Watlington Street, is the closest restaurant to my house, and by my reckoning I’ve probably ordered takeaway from them more in the last year than from anywhere else. And that means that I do have to add a caveat before we get under way: the team at the Lyndhurst have hosted one of my readers’ lunches, so I am not anonymous to them. 

Even so, I’ve seen enough of their customer service, and looked enviously at enough photographs of their dishes taken by other people, to be confident that I don’t get special treatment as a paying customer. In fact, the Lyndhurst is so modest about its cooking that I fully expect them to be amazed to see themselves featured in the blog this week. It frustrates me that they never shout as much about their food as I’d like them to, so I’ll just have to do it for them.

So why the Lyndhurst this week? Their delivery has always felt a bit of a well-kept secret. They started it in the summer and they continued to offer it on the side when they reopened as a restaurant in July, although it never felt like something they promoted very strongly. I made regular use of it in the second half of last year, and had emotional reunions with many of my favourite dishes: the phenomenal chilli beef nachos, their superb katsu chicken burger, that Scotch egg. 

But the Lyndhurst never stayed still for long, so new dishes were always cropping up. There was a chicken dish with a stunning morel sauce that blew me away, another with both pork belly and presa Iberica which livened up several wintry Saturday evenings in front of Strictly and a take on poutine featuring confit duck that had instant classic written all over it. But when Reading went into Tier 4, followed swiftly by a third national lockdown, the Lyndhurst decided to take a break. January passed without a peep, and I found myself worrying about what the future held for them.

Worrying unduly, as it turned out: at the start of February the Lyndhurst announced that it was returning for takeaways. The menu looked good, too, with the old favourites still in place – burgers, fish and chips, the legendary nachos – but supplemented with brand new dishes many of which, like chicken tinga tacos, steak arepas and feijoada, showcased a new Latin American direction. 

That in itself might have been enough to prompt me to review them, but the clincher was that gradually over the last few weeks the Lyndhurst have been ramping up their delivery options. Initially the pub only delivered to the surrounding areas, but when they relaunched on the 4th February they specified that they would deliver within a mile of the pub. Last week that delivery radius was extended to two miles, which opens it up as a realistic option to people across Reading. 

I live just down the road, so I’ve been able to try their food all along, but I thought it was time to review it so everybody else could see what they might have been missing out on. Besides, that whole modesty thing (again) means that most people probably don’t know that the Lyndhurst delivers that far afield. The pub has started mentioning it, almost as if in passing, but sometimes on social media talking isn’t enough and you have to do a little more: not the hyperactive look-at-me-look-at-me style of some businesses, but at least raising your voice somewhat.

The Lyndhurst serves food on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and on Sunday lunchtimes. I booked in a delivery for Saturday evening relatively early in the week and spent a few days idly looking at the menu, trying to work out whether to go for the tried and tested or whether, in the spirit of all those leaps into the unknown, I should pick dishes I knew less well. But I didn’t finalise my order until Saturday lunchtime, because the Lyndhurst also supplements their regular menu with a small selection of specials and I wanted to wait to see what they were.

The Lyndhurst uses specials cleverly, as a way of testing dishes that may graduate to the permanent menu. Not only that, but they told me a little while back that apart from the core dishes they were thinking of changing everything on the menu on a regular basis. So technically much of the menu could class as a special, and it’s possible that by the time this review is published some or all of the dishes I ordered may have been replaced.

Even without the specials, the menu is just the right size and, cleverly, it only loosely distinguishes between starters and mains. Prices range from about eight to fourteen pounds, with most dishes hovering around the ten pound mark. You can tell, from the pricing and the dishes, which ones are technically starters, but when you’re ordering takeaway and everything comes at the same time those distinctions are less useful.  

What is helpful, though, is how smartly the menu has been put together: many of the Lyndhurst’s dishes – tacos, nachos, Korean chicken wings – make excellent sharers, which makes it a lot of fun for bigger households. It also helps – and I know this from extensive personal experience – that portions across the board are really generous. By way of illustration, and bear this in mind when you see the pictures further down, I have pretty large dinner plates. Everything the Lyndhurst dishes up, without exception, manages to make them look small.

Tempting though the specials were, I had got it into my mind that this might be one of my last chances to try some of the dishes on the main menu, so I made my selection, paid the Lyndhurst and spent the rest of my Saturday happy in the knowledge that dinner was taken care of. It arrived bang on the dot at the requested time, and the paper bag which came out of the insulated box was perfectly hot and full of goodies. Laying them out on the kitchen worktop I was struck by the effort that the Lyndhurst puts into its packaging – everything was sturdy, well thought out and recyclable, and everything held its heat superbly.

My previous experience of feijoada – a Brazilian stew with beans – was at Katesgrove’s Pau Brasil where I’d found it gelatinous, stingy and bland. Nobody would accuse the Lyndhurst’s version of any of those things – it was a meaty symphony of a dish, deep, rich and absolutely delicious. I had it shortly after they added it to the menu and at that point it felt a little bit like they’d thrown the kitchen sink at it – so many different types and cuts of meat, along with chunks of sausage that felt suspiciously close to frankfurters. But the Lyndhurst is always tweaking, revising and improving, and the version that arrived on Saturday night was an impeccable v2.0, streamlined with all the kinks ironed out.

There were big, tender pieces of meat along with several ribs, all of which shed their bounty with minimal persuasion, and many more slow-cooked, tangled strands. The black beans added bite and texture, and the crowning glory – pretty much literally – was a good slab of pork belly, soft and yielding underneath but with an exemplary salty layer of crackling on top. I think the Lyndhurst understands how to cook pork belly better than any kitchen I can think of, and the whole thing added up to an embarrassment of riches. 

It came with fluffy white rice, deep, verdant shreds of spring greens and – a good flash of colour in a predominantly brown dish – a few slices of orange. I didn’t realise these were a traditional accompaniment to feijoada but it turns out that they are, and having eaten them with the stew I could completely understand why. This dish costs thirteen pounds fifty, and at that price I somehow felt as if I was conning the Lyndhurst, even though they’re the ones who set it. If it even remotely sounds like your sort of thing, I strongly advise you to grab some before it comes off the menu, to be replaced no doubt by something equally splendid.

The other “main”, so to speak, was the steak arepas. An arepa is a Venezuelan dish made from ground maize dough, a little like a bun made of cornbread, and my previous experiences of them had been mixed to put it lightly. I’d had them in Reading a long time ago, when we briefly had a Venezuelan restaurant called Arepas Caffee, and I renewed my acquaintance last year when Pabellon brought their award-winning arepas to the Blue Collar-hosted British Street Food Awards.

I could tell that Pabellon’s were streets ahead of Arepas Caffe’s, but both times I found them hard to love – there was something fluffy, almost woolly, about the texture that I just couldn’t take to. But the Lyndhurst’s version was absolutely a case of third time lucky.

Eating my steak arepas I was struck by how often it’s the sandwich, not the filling, that lets a dish down – I’ve lost count of the amount of brioches I’ve waded through that disintegrate long before the burger is finished, or bread that simply doesn’t have the oomph to live up to what’s stuffed between the slices. No such problem with these arepa – they were robust, burnished things, perfect for holding together and with a beautiful flavour that worked alongside, rather than fought against, the filling.

And there was certainly no problem with the filling either: tons of steak, most of it tender, a couple of bits slightly chewier, with rocket, red onion and a combination of two sauces that elevated the whole shebang. One was a deep, dark spicy sauce a little like mole that gave the dish punch and heft, the other was a bright, tangy chimichurri that deftly nudged the contrast dial (little tubs of both were provided in case you wanted even more: I did).

This is again a good point to talk about the Lyndhurst’s generosity: one arepa would be a fantastic steak sandwich, accompanied by the Lyndhurst’s chips which are, for my money, the best takeaway chips I’ve ever had anywhere, all crunch and rustle and salt. You actually get two arepa for your money, and “money” in this case means the almost comically generous sum of ten pounds fifty. I said it earlier on, but I have big dinner plates: look at this picture, and see if you can see much room left on this one.

Our third dish was the chicken tikka naanza, and this felt like the only misfire of the meal. The chicken tikka itself was beautifully done, but the naan felt heavy rather than fluffy and generous though the topping of cheese was, it felt dangerously close to just being a chicken pizza. I would have liked to see a more unconventional tomato base with fire and spice in it, a lighter, crustier base, a bit less emphasis on the cheese and the chicken being given more of a chance to shine – and perhaps a raita on the side rather than the garlic mayo that came with it. The Lyndhurst’s garlic mayo is incredible, don’t get me wrong (so good you’ll wish you’d saved it for your sandwich the next day), but it felt like a misstep.

That said, it wasn’t a bad dish by any means: even the Lyndhurst’s less outstanding dishes are better than many restaurants’ star players. More to the point I think the fault probably lies with me, because it delivered absolutely what it said on the tin. I just think, with hindsight, that what it said on the tin perhaps wasn’t for me. 

Our three dishes came to just under thirty-two pounds. That doesn’t include a delivery charge – the Lyndhurst doesn’t charge for delivery, but you do have to spend over twenty-five pounds unless you’re ordering for collection. That said, you absolutely can and should tip them – which I always manage to do, usually after a decidedly Mrs Doyle exchange with them where I insist that I will and they insist that I mustn’t. Their food is crazy value, to the extent that I worry about them making a profit, so tipping is the least I can do.

And for those of you considering delivery, it’s really very easy to spend twenty-five pounds with the Lyndhurst: I see they’ve added a black pudding Scotch egg to their specials for this weekend, so just keep adding those until you’ve passed the threshold (and if you find yourself with more black pudding Scotch eggs than you can physically eat, just let me know and I’ll meet you on the street corner of your choice).

I make no bones about being so unreservedly positive about the Lyndhurst. I think we’re incredibly lucky to have such a good, inventive kitchen in town constantly experimenting and innovating, doing brilliant food which is simultaneously very unfussy but involves a huge amount of thought and hard work. They can be apologetic and reserved about their food in a way that reminds me of Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen, Reading’s other great food introverts – perfectionist, always critical of their own efforts and deeply uncomfortable with bigging themselves up. And yet on quality alone, their food – like Clay’s – shouts from the rooftops. 

It will be all I can do not to get in touch with them between finishing writing this and it being published on Friday morning to book another delivery slot for Saturday night – in fact, they single-handedly present one of the biggest obstacles to my ongoing project to keep making those leaps into the unknown, ordering from new restaurants and different kitchens, trying to unearth more gems for you, boldly going where no restaurant reviewer has been before. But that’s my problem. On the other hand, if you live within two miles of Watlington Street and you feel even remotely peckish you suddenly have one fewer problem than you did ten minutes ago: if that’s you, I truly envy you.

The Lyndhurst
88 Queens Road, Reading, RG1 4DG
0118 9503888

http://www.thelyndhurstreading.co.uk/
Order via: Direct through the pub, Thursday to Sunday

Feature: Less than a tenner

Is it me, or did New Year used to be a bit less, well, preachy? Nowadays we’re bombarded with things you ought to do – eat vegan food for a month, or quit drinking, or drink lots of local beer to compensate for everybody who’s quitting drinking. It’s a hard enough month at the best of times – back at work, no longer allowed to eat chocolate whenever you like. Depressed by the scales, depressed by the sales not selling anything you fancy, and it’s so bloody dark all the time. The last thing anybody needs in January, if you ask me, is a sermon.

So I’m not going to do a feature about vegan food in Reading, or where you should go to try beers from our many excellent local breweries, or which tap room is the best. Instead, this piece covers the one truly universal thing about January whoever you are: it’s a long time since the last pay day, a long time until the next and everybody is on a budget. So this feature is about the best food you can get in Reading for not much money, something I hope we can all get behind.

I’ve tried to limit this to genuine stand-alone items. Obviously I could have included plenty of starters, but nobody turns up to a restaurant, orders a starter and leaves. So, ideally, every item on this list could be eaten on its own as the feature attraction, and every one costs less than ten pounds. That does tend to push it more in the direction of lunch than dinner, but there are still at least half a dozen items on this list that you could happily eat for an early evening meal.

Having already decided which dishes I’d include I posed the question on Facebook and got a raft of answers which reminded me just how much good food in Reading didn’t quite make the cut for me. I was sad not to be able to make room for anything from Blue Collar’s Peru Sabor, for anything from Perry’s, Franco Manca, Kings Grill, Bakery House or Sapana Home. That so many good places are excluded, I hope, shows how tricky making this selection was.

Anyway, I hope this comes in handy – all of them have been extensively road-tested by me, and all come highly recommended. Happy budgeting, and good luck if you are forgoing meat, booze or indeed anything else this month. Rather you than me!

1. Chilli beef nachos, the Lyndhurst

Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first: no surprises here, especially after I awarded it Starter Of The Year in my end of year awards. But, as I said then, it’s substantial enough to eat in its own right, or to snack on with drinks. Anyway, I’ve said quite enough about these nachos lately, so instead I’ll quote my esteemed colleague Quaffable Reading. After he had them for the first time last month he said “All I can say is now I realise everyone else is doing chilli wrong. And doing nachos wrong too. Fantastic dish!” And he knows what he’s talking about, because he’s the poor sod who had to endure the unique gastronomic experience of the doner meat nachos at German Doner Kebab. I’ll save you the effort of scrolling down: they don’t feature later on in this list. (88 Queens Road, RG1 4DG)

2. Jerk chicken, rice and peas, Sharian’s Cuisine

I’ve never been a fan of CHOW, the Friday street food market run in conjunction with Reading’s shadowy Business Improvement District. I’ve always thought it was a shame the market isn’t run by the better, more imaginative, more Reading Blue Collar Food who operate on Wednesdays in the same location. But what CHOW does have – which always generates huge queues – is Sharian’s Cuisine, and their jerk chicken, rice and peas is a thing of wonder. The chicken is spiced, charred and smoky, you get tons of it and they tell you, ever so nicely, that you’re being a wuss if you opt for the milder of the two hot sauces on offer. The weather isn’t quite conducive to eating it al fresco right now, but just you wait. (Market Place, RG1 2DE, Friday lunchtimes only)

3. Chilli paneer, Bhel Puri House

One of Reading’s iconic dishes, and one I’ve been raving about for the best part of six years. Caramelised cubes of paneer, crunchy peppers and spring onion and powerful green chillies lurking in there if you feel especially brave. I went through a phase of cheating on the chilli paneer with the saucier, stickier paneer Manchurian, I even went through a particularly depraved phase of ordering both of them at once. I dallied with the vada pav, too, but I always go back to the chilli paneer. It never lets you down. (Yield Hall Lane, RG1 2HF)

4. Ajika chicken wrap, Geo Cafe

There are many contenders for Reading’s finest sandwich: more than a few of them feature in this list. But, for my money, Geo Café’s chicken wrap is arguably the best. Georgian food tastes like nothing else you’ve ever eaten, and Georgian flavours transform this dish completely. The combination of fiery spice from the ajika and the pungency of baje (a Georgian sauce made from walnuts) is both otherworldly and habit-forming.

Chicken features quite heavily in this list, but this – made with free-range corn-fed chicken thighs from Vicar’s – is stupendous stuff. A wrap will set you back six pounds. Many would argue that Geo Café’s khachapuri, flat soda bread stuffed with an ingenious blend of three cheeses, should be in this list too, to which I can only say that making these decisions is harder than you might think. (10 Prospect Street, RG4 8JG, daytime only)

5. Curry night, The Lyndhurst

The Lyndhurst make this list twice because this is simply too good, in terms of quality and value, not to include in its own right. Every Thursday they offer a choice of three different curries, rice and a naan bread and a pint for nine pounds and ninety-nine pence (as you can see, when I went they threw in an onion bhaji in for good measure). The curries are all interesting and miles from kormas and bhunas, with dishes from Mangalore, Goa, Kerala and Sri Lanka, among others. I loved my visit last year, and it won’t be long before I’m back there – so much better than spending a similar Thursday in Wetherspoons making the tills ring and the microwave ping. (88 Queens Road, RG1 4DG, Thursday evenings only)

6. Tuna Turner, Shed

Another entry which will surprise nobody, and another dish which will probably make the cut if Reading Museum ever does an exhibition on iconic Reading food, the Tuna Turner is a truly legendary toasted sandwich and one of the very best things you can eat of a lunchtime. Superior tuna mayo, sweet slivers of red onion, plenty of cheese and jalapeños – very much the secret weapon – all conspire to be so much more than the sum of their parts. I think it’s something about the way the cheese melts, somehow seeps through the gaps in the sourdough and then forms a beautiful, glistening, caramelised crust.

If you’re there on a Friday lunchtime, and Shed is doing the Saucy Friday with scotch bonnet chilli chicken, rice and peas, macaroni cheese and coleslaw that dish, also far less than a tenner, runs the Tuna Turner pretty close. (8 Merchants Place, RG1 1DT, daytime only)

7. Lamb kothey momo, Namaste Momo

Namaste Momo is in a funny little spot on the border between Woodley and Earley, an area not blessed with its restaurants. Only one bus really runs that way from the town centre, and after a certain time it only ventures out once an hour. But, for all that faff, I highly recommend a pilgrimage there because their momo are worth it.

They are made by hand and in all their forms – in a hot, thickened chilli sauce, steamed or deep fried – they justify the journey. For me, it’s when you pan fry momo that you get that bang-on midpoint of taste and texture, the contrast of char and chew and the gorgeous filling inside. Speaking of fillings, the minced, spiced, seasoned lamb is my favourite – if it was served as a slider you could sell out any hipster gaff in the town centre. But we all know better than hipsters, don’t we, and these momo are perfect just the way they are. (392 London Road, RG6 1BA)

8. Scrambled eggs, Fidget & Bob

I’ve had some truly terrible scrambled eggs in my time. I once stayed over with a then-friend in Chichester and she microwaved eggs into grey pellets – I gamely ate the lot, because I didn’t want to seem rude, but really it could have been polystyrene and I might have had a better meal. I’ve tried to learn to make them myself, with guidance from the sainted Delia, and they come out okay but not great. The truth is that Fidget & Bob have ruined me for all other scrambled eggs. For five pounds you get three golden-yolked Beechwood Farm eggs, scrambled with probably more butter than I’m comfortable knowing about (that’s the great thing about eating in restaurants: ignorance is bliss) and certainly with more skill than I can manage.

They come with plenty of buttered seeded toast although extras – hash browns, nicely crispy back bacon, that legendary slab of sausagemeat loaf – are all available. They shouldn’t push the price over a tenner unless you’re really going loco, either due to gluttony or a hangover. Another great way to spend less than ten pounds in Fidget & Bob, every Tuesday night, is to go for their quite wonderful char siu pork. (The Piazza, Whale Avenue, RG2 0GX, Tuesday to Sunday)

9. Sweet chilli chicken, Kokoro

One of my very favourite things to eat for an early solo dinner or a particularly indulgent lunch, Kokoro’s chilli chicken is a crunchy, sticky, fiery, garlic-studded tub of one hundred per cent fun. A regular sized portion is pretty big and a large portion (which costs a princely additional pound) is absolutely gigantic: both come in comfortably below the ten pound mark.

The quality varies – some batches make your eyes water and your nose run, some are milder. Sometimes you get smaller, crunchier bits of chicken, sometimes they are huge, plump things (but always with that wonderful coating). But even on a relatively bad day, Kokoro’s chilli chicken is a miraculous thing. It comes with rice or noodles – I’ve always found the noodles a bit too much like hard work, but your mileage may vary. Writing this has made me seriously consider having it for lunch today, which I suppose is almost as bad as laughing at your own jokes. (29 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1SY)

10. Challoumi wrap, Purée/Leymoun

To do the confusing bit first: for reasons I don’t completely understand, sometimes Sam Adaci runs a street food van called Purée, sometimes it’s called Leymoun. Purée operates out of a distinctive green van, Leymoun is more nondescript. I don’t know the rhyme or reason of why there are two different names and two different vans. He is at Blue Collar in the market square every Wednesday and CHOW in the same place on Fridays, and sometimes you can find the Purée van parked on Broad Street at other times. But if you’re ever near either van at lunchtime, join the queue and order a challoumi wrap. They cost six pounds, they are absolutely crammed with wonderful stuff and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

The chicken is spiced and cooked on the griddle before being finely chopped, and the halloumi is salty but not too squeaky (for a while Sam was having his own Brexit-proof halloumi specially made in London: not sure if he still does). Add the pickles, and the chilli sauce, and the garlic sauce and you have an overstuffed messy marvel of a sandwich where every mouthful gives you something ever so slightly different and you always want there to be another mouthful. “Purée/Leymoun” is also a bit of a mouthful, come to think of it, but it remains a must-eat at lunchtime, even if the van can be a tad elusive. They also do freshly-made falafel which are a beautiful meat free alternative. (Market Place, RG1 2EQ, Wednesday and Friday lunchtimes only. Also on Broad Street: times vary)

11. Com chien, Pho

I quite like Pho, even if I’ve never managed to learn to love the eponymous dish: soup plus noodles just isn’t for me. This means I’ve never developed the fervour for it that other restaurant bloggers seem to manage. But they do have an absolute ace up their sleeve in the form of their com chien, a generous fried rice dish with shreds of chicken, chewy little savoury dried shrimp and many, many flecks of chilli. This dish, sort of a Vietnamese nasi goreng, is wonderful for blowing away cobwebs. You can tell it’s hot because when you order it, the staff invariably ask if you’ve had it before – with the same trepidation barbers used to show when they asked if I really wanted a grade two all over. You can top it with an optional fried egg, but I like it just fine as it is. (1 King’s Road, King Street, RG1 2HG)

12. Samosas, Cake & Cream

I was tipped off by Mansoor, a regular reader, about this place that sold the best samosas in Reading. It is called Cake & Cream, and it’s off the Wokingham Road, just after the row of shops and before the Three Tuns. Their main thing is big, impressive-looking cakes, but they also have a little whiteboard near the front detailing the savoury stuff they sell. Samosas are about 75 pence each, and they also sell pakora, paneer pakora and bhajis by weight, almost like a savoury sweetshop.

The samosas really are everything Mansoor promised they would be: full of a rich and surprisingly spicy potato masala, the pastry spot on and the whole thing piping hot and utterly addictive. They come with a sauce which is tangy, sweet and hot in equal measures, although they’re just as magnificent without it. The service is very friendly and the chap always seems thoroughly surprised to see me – oh, and the pakora are also tremendous. There are tables at Cakes & Cream, and I’m sure some people eat there, but I always take my bag and scarper onto the first 17 bus I can find, counting the minutes until I can tuck in back at home. You get jealous looks from your fellow passengers, although that might just be my imagination. (11-13 St Peters Road, RG6 1NT)

Feature: The 2019 Edible Reading Awards

Can you believe it’s that time of year again? Hopefully by now you’ve bought all your Christmas presents (even if, like me, you’ve not necessarily wrapped them yet). Hopefully you’ve sent and received all your cards – if you still do that sort of thing – and reflected on the new names on the list and the people you’ve finally pruned. You’ve probably had your work do, and been out with your friends. You may even be on roast dinner number four or five by now. We all have our festive traditions and one of mine, for the last five years, has been sitting down and writing this, my end of term report on Reading’s restaurant scene. Was it an “exceeds expectations” or a “must try harder”? Hmm. Let’s find out.

I initially thought it had been a quiet year for restaurants in this town but actually, on reflection, there has been a fair bit of movement. No big-name openings like 2018 – no Lido, no Clay’s, no Corn Stores – but instead a steady succession of new places vying to capture your spend and your affection. So 2019 was the year when we said hello to Argentine steakhouse Buenasado and Greek white elephant Lemoni in the Oracle, the Pantry in the Town Hall, Vegivores and the Last Crumb out in Caversham and countless other new kids on the block.

Some existing restaurateurs moved to new premises: Tutu shifted her Ethiopian Table from the Global Café to Palmer Park, and Kamal (of Namaste Kitchen) finally opened new restaurant Namaste Momo on the edge of Earley. And there’s always a new restaurant just around the corner – the first of 2020 may well be Osaka, the new Japanese restaurant due to set up shop in the old Café Rouge site, but I doubt it will be the last. We’re also allegedly getting a Taco Bell, presumably to compensate us in some Newtonian sense, for the forthcoming closure of bigoted poultry purveyor Chick-Fil-A.

Not that we haven’t had enough restaurants close this year. The saddest, for me, was Tuscany, the fantastic independent pizzeria down the Oxford Road. I was also disappointed that Vibes, the Caribbean restaurant on Queens Walk, closed before I paid it a visit. We also lost two Reading institutions in the form of China Palace and Beijing Noodle House – although, to be euphemistic, both had seen better days.

Town centre Vietnamese restaurant Mum Mum and Alona, serving Lebanese food down the Wokingham Road, also closed their doors for the final time. Neither got to celebrate their first birthday. Nor did Bench Rest, which stopped serving in the Tasting House after less than a year: Reading’s original nomad moved on again, and is apparently leaving the country next year.

In terms of reviewing, it’s been a year of highs and lows. I experienced the worst nachos in the world, activated charcoal-flavoured ick, food that came all at once, John Lewis tablemats, albino carbonara and comically laissez faire service. But I’ve also had astonishing sausage rolls, eye-opening pasta, the warmest of welcomes and seen familiar faces in new places. Every now and then I’d have a run of meals so bad, or so bla, that I started to feel discouraged, but the next superb meal was never too far away. Trips abroad made sure I never fell out of love with eating out, especially one holiday where the food just blew me away.

It’s been a fantastic year in terms of the blog – a record-breaking one, with more visitors than ever before. As always, I’m incredibly grateful to all of you who read, like, comment, Retweet, share or just lurk, whether you do so smiling, laughing, tutting or grimacing. I’m grateful to everybody who’s come out on duty with me this year – friends, readers, my terrific family and of course Zoë, my partner in crime and regular dining companion. And I’m also grateful to everybody who has come to one of the five readers’ events I’ve run this year – all at some of Reading’s finest independent restaurants, each of them offering a special one-off menu. I’m not sure 2019 will be topped, but of course I’ll try my best to next year.

With all that said, it just remains for me to hand out the gongs in this, the 2019 Edible Reading Awards. It’s been harder than ever to reduce the long list to a short list, let alone pick the winners, and any of the honourable mentions this year could easily have taken top spot instead of the eventual winners. We’re lucky to live in a town that makes these decisions so difficult, so if you disagree with any or all of the winners I can hardly blame you: on another day, I might have disagreed too. Anyway, that’s quite enough preamble: let’s announce some winners, and you can tell me what I got wrong in the comments.

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Chilli nachos, The Lyndhurst

It was pretty much love at first sight when I ordered the Lyndhurst’s chilli nachos for the first time, and none of my subsequent encounters have dimmed my ardour. A wonderful chilli made with slow-cooked, shredded beef (a chilli which doesn’t appear elsewhere on the menu in the mains section), robust hand-made tortilla chips, a healthy helping of well-made guacamole and some cream cheese, a lettuce leaf if you want to pretend to be a better person than you actually are. A perfect starter to share, or to snaffle on your own, or a dish to eat with a few pints just for the sake of it, because it’s so perfect. I’m a huge fan, and I live in constant fear that they’ll either take it off the menu or price it slightly less generously (seven pounds twenty-five pence, would you believe it). Superb stuff.

I know that not picking a starter from Clay’s will be controversial here – one Twitter follower suggested I should have a separate award for the best Clay’s starter (and that too would be an incredibly tough one to call). Clay’s does deserve an honourable mention though for their cut mirchi chaat – a sort of stuffed and battered chilli dish that is difficult to describe and even more difficult to resist (yes, I know: but what about the chicken 65, the kodi chips, the squid pakora, the duck spring rolls, and basically all the other starters. Enough already). Another honourable mention goes to Zest for their triple-cooked pork belly with XO sauce, a dish I’ve thought about on pretty much a daily basis since I had it at the start of the month.

CHAIN OF THE YEAR: Honest Burger

Chains are all about consistency, and in my experience Honest has gone from strength to strength this year, becoming the place to go if you want a quick, enjoyable, reliably superb meal. It helps that they’ve swapped out their local special – the indifferent jerk chicken burger has given way to a gorgeous new option with Waterloo cheese and bearnaise butter – but it’s just that they never put a foot wrong. My stepfather is so impressed with their vegan burger that he picks it over a conventional beefburger, some of the specials this year have been absolutely knockout (especially when they involve fried chicken) but really, it’s just that it’s regularly, unspectacularly excellent. Reading still has far too many burger joints, and I wouldn’t shed a tear if the rest closed down. But Honest is another matter altogether.

The two runners-up in this category also deliver the kind of consistency and comfort you want from a visit to a chain restaurant. Pho continues to offer an excellent range of dishes (I don’t think I’ll ever really see the appeal of the eponymous dish itself, but I’m evangelical about their com chien) and Kokoro has done me a turn on many an early evening when I can’t be bothered to cook and on a few hungover Sunday lunchtimes. Their sweet chilli chicken is a particular favourite of mine, although I know the katsu curry also has its fans.

LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Fidget & Bob

Yes, on this occasion lunch probably means brunch and yes, Fidget & Bob is out of town which means that for most people it’s a weekend lunch option. But nevertheless, most of my happiest lunches this year have been at Fidget & Bob and they invariably involve a variant of their phenomenal brunch menu which they serve all day. You can have a breakfast wrap, or the “hangover” (a sausage, bacon and egg sandwich) but I always seem to go for their golden, gorgeous scrambled eggs, served with crispy back bacon and a slice of their sausage loaf. Other dishes – sandwiches, panini and their home-made noodle pots – are available, but the trick is to save room for cake. I am hooked on the kouign amann – hopelessly indulgent Breton pastries made with plenty of salted butter (they missed a trick not calling them “Breton butter pudding”) but the salted caramel brownies are also phenomenal.

Picking a winner in this category wasn’t easy, limiting the runners-up to just two was equally difficult. An honourable mention goes to Caversham’s Geo Café which has spent 2019 completing its transformation from Nomad Bakery and, along with a beautiful array of cakes, still serves one of Reading’s finest sandwiches in the form of the ajika-spiced corn-fed chicken wrap. Also highly commended is Shed – which is every bit as good as ever and continues to serve Reading’s best golden, cheese-laden, comforting toasties.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Lamb with cumin, Kungfu Kitchen

In a year of wonderful main courses – far too many to list here – KFK’s lamb with cumin was the one I kept coming back to. I had it on my second ever visit, and it’s been a struggle not to order it every time since. The lamb – sliced wafer-thin, as it is for the hot pot – is so deep and rich. It tastes properly of lamb – which might sound like a silly thing to say, but somehow lamb is so often a pale copy of how it ought to taste. “This is how kebabs should be” said my other half the first time she tasted this dish, and I can understand what she meant. The whole thing, flecked with sesame seeds and tumbled with onion and coriander, stalks and all, is the kind of intensely savoury dish you daydream about long after you have eked out one final mouthful. KFK does so many excellent dishes but, in the lamb with cumin, it has one unforgettable one.

It is a tribute to how strong a field it is that many of the dishes on my long list could easily have won this award: Fidget & Bob’s char siu pork, for instance, or Namaste Momo’s spellbinding lamb kothey momo. But there’s only room for two runners-up. First, the chinta chiguru from Clay’s – terrific, tender chicken thigh in a striking, sharply elegant tamarind sauce (very much the unsung hero of the Clay’s menu, in my book). And secondly, Bakery House’s boneless baby chicken with vegetable rice and beautifully dressed salad, possibly Reading’s most complete main course.

OUT OF TOWN RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Mio Fiore, Newbury

I so loved my visit to Mio Fiore this year, and I’m long overdue a return trip. There was just something magical about it – so unprepossessing and yet getting everything right, serving dishes that are so often unspecial in chain Italians and reminding you just how superb they can be in the right hands. It came around the same time as I had a brilliant holiday in Bologna and a bloody horrendous meal in Cozze, and the fact that the standard was so much closer to the former than the latter put a huge smile on my face. If you go, the spaghetti puttanesca (pictured above) is pretty damn close to perfection.

Honourable mentions have to go to Goring’s Miller Of Mansfield, a special occasion restaurant which will leave you wanting to invent more special occasions, and Oxford’s Pompette, a truly spectacular French neighbourhood restaurant which I’d dearly love to pick up and drop somewhere in Reading. In fact, since I can’t do that, I’m literally lunching there again today.

SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Fidget & Bob

I stopped giving an award out for Tweeter of the year this year, because Fidget & Bob won it every year. They may as well keep the trophy. But this year, eating there more often, I discovered that how they were on Twitter probably came so naturally to them because it was just an extension of how they were in real life. Their welcome is always warm but perfectly-judged, not faux-matey, never too much. They seem to know literally everybody who eats in their little café – who they are, what they like, how they’ve been, the comings and goings of their lives. I suppose it must be easier to do when you run a small venue and there are only a couple of you, but that doesn’t stop it being extremely impressive – or bloody hard work, however easy Shu and Breege make it look.

An honourable mention has to go to Mio Fiore, who also have that perfect balance spot on in a far bigger venue, and I also have to single out the inimitable Jo at Kungfu Kitchen. Her service is a constant joy to me – the conversation, the recommendations, the gossip, the way she always seems delighted that you’ve come back. There’s no welcome quite like it in Reading, and once you’ve tried it you’ll know exactly what I mean.

DESSERT OF THE YEAR: Chocolate custard with sesame tuille, The Miller Of Mansfield

So beautiful, so elegant and so delicious: the Miller’s chocolate custard is a smooth, glossy thing somewhere between the texture of a ganache and a mousse. It looks almost as beautiful as it tastes, with a salted sesame tuille on top perfect to break into little shards, the whole thing artfully dotted with microherbs and little dabs of vivid orange. It was by far the best dessert I’ve had this year: when I went on duty I shared it with my dining companion, but when I managed to engineer a return visit a few weeks later I made sure I got one all to myself.

Honourable mentions go to Zest’s excellent white chocolate and Bailey’s cheesecake – a big old slab of heaven – and the timeless simplicity of Mio Fiore’s tiramisu.

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: The Lyndhurst

I was very sad when the Lyndhurst closed in June, the landlord went off to pastures new and at least one of the chefs moved on to the Fisherman’s Cottage. And I had my doubts when it reopened the following month – there was a hesitancy about the whole thing, and on the opening night the team seemed more than a little fazed about what they had taken on.

Well, over the months that followed they have, if anything, surpassed their predecessors with an interesting and exciting menu which constantly changes. I tried a beautiful dish of oxtail there, rich shreds of meat wrapped up in the embrace of a cabbage leaf. Weeks later, it had vanished from the menu like a mirage, never to return. The picture above is of a stunning rabbit dish – stuffed with chicken liver, wrapped in prosciutto, a dish which kept popping back into my mind at random moments, normally when I was eating something nowhere near as good. I think they served that dish for less than a week, and I haven’t seen it on the menu since.

One staple, though, is the curry night on Thursdays – a choice of three curries, all miles from the generic stuff, with rice, a bhaji, a pint and a naan, all for a tenner. The ever-present katsu chicken burger is always worth ordering, too, with some of Reading’s best chips – and then there’s the small matter of their chilli nachos, as I’ve already said.

The tables have got busier, the “reserved” signs more frequent, and I for one am delighted to see them doing so well. And the hesitancy hasn’t exactly vanished: it’s more that it’s morphed into a really charming humility. They don’t ever sing their own praises, which is even more reason why it’s my pleasure to do it for them by awarding them my Newcomer Of The Year award.

Some people would have expected Kungfu Kitchen to win this award, but they opened in October last year so aren’t eligible (and, personally, I was delighted to dodge another incredibly hard decision). I do, however, have to mention the two runners-up in this category. Buenasado really surprised me when I visited it on duty – I had low expectations of a small restaurant popping up in the Oracle in the site vacated by CAU, but they did a really creditable job (and their lunchtime steak frites offer is not to be sniffed at, either). An honourable mention also goes to Namaste Momo, the new outpost from Kamal, the man behind Namaste Kitchen. It’s a little out of the way, and the execution of the menu is still slightly uneven, but the hand-made momo are literally worth the price of admission alone: not only that, but Kamal will absolutely charm the socks off you.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: Kungfu Kitchen

This was absolutely the hardest decision of all. Just think, for a second, about how lucky we are to live here. Here are some of the restaurants that didn’t even make my shortlist: Fidget & Bob; Pepe Sale; Geo Café; The Lyndhurst; Namaste Momo.

And then look at my runners-up. Bakery House is a superb, consistent, brilliantly run Reading institution where you can take pretty much anyone you know and guarantee that you’ll have a superb meal. You can go with vegetarians and go crazy with the mezze, or take your carnivorous friends and rejoice in the chicken livers, the little spiced sausages, the shawarma and the chicken fresh from the grill. I can’t remember them ever disappointing me.

And then there’s Clay’s. How could I not give the award to Clay’s, you might quite reasonably ask? If anything, their second year has been stronger than their first: look at all that game on their menu at the start of 2019, the quail, the rabbit and the pheasant. And then, just when you think their food couldn’t get any better, they pivoted again: amazing baby squid, like some hybrid of Hyderabad and Andalusia, a crab fry dish which has left so many diners speechless. They’ve even got me to eat baby corn, something I’d previously thought was impossible. I know full well that not picking them as 2019’s winners will leave many of you questioning my judgment this year (and possibly next).

But this is a decision made with the heart, not the head, and Kungfu Kitchen has been my restaurant of this year. From the very first visit I was wondering when I could go back, and on every visit I’ve faced that agonising tug of war between ordering a dish I know and love or venturing deeper into the menu. It never feels too much like a leap into the unknown, largely because of the magnificent Jo who always acts as a sherpa, taking you just far enough out of your comfort zone without ever leaving you high and dry (with possibly one exception: she once made me order a boiled beef and chilli oil dish which was a challenge, more a dish you survive than finish). She is a force of nature, and a huge part of what makes Kungfu Kitchen so enjoyable and so welcoming.

The food really is marvellous – whether it’s the fried fish in spicy hot pot, the sweet and aromatic wonder of the fish fragrant pork, the piquant kung pao chicken, the glorious pork belly, boiled, sliced super thin and then stir fried with Chinese mushrooms and plenty of heat, the salt and pepper tofu – yes, tofu – or one of my very favourites, the Xinjiang-style shredded chicken which almost literally takes your breath away with the heat before gradually releasing its grip on your larynx. That makes it sound awful but honestly, it’s exhilarating.

The conventional wisdom is to go to a place like Kungfu Kitchen in a big group so you can try more dishes, and that’s partly true. I’ve been at a birthday party there where they effortlessly served about twenty people, they did a bang-up job (complete with karaoke!) at one of my readers’ lunches earlier in the year. But I’ve also been here with smaller groups of friends, on quiet nights with my other half and, on occasion when I’m at a loose end, I’ll walk up the hill on my own and order just the one dish – such a hardship – and a beer and have dinner for one watching the toing and froing, the bustle and the banter. The welcome is never less than perfect, and the food is never less than gorgeous. It truly is a happy place.

It’s been a real joy to watch Kungfu Kitchen spreading its wings on social media, and to see so many ER readers go there and fall in love with the place, as I did. And so it seems appropriate to end 2019 by giving them this award and by wishing them – and all my winners and runners-up, and just as importantly all of you – a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

The Lyndhurst

To read a more recent takeaway review of The Lyndhurst, click here.

I’m always reminded of the cyclical nature of things at this time of year. My Instagram, so recently full of everybody’s envy-inducing holiday photos, has given way to my Facebook news feed, with pictures of everybody’s kids going back to school. The Reading Festival, seen by many as the last event of the summer, is over. The magnolia tree in my garden is beginning to turn, and the leaves will slowly become golden in the weeks ahead. And in town, everybody is in jeans, their shorts packed away for another year, dusting off coats they had almost forgotten they needed.

This time of year is part of cycles for me personally, too. Three years ago, I wrote my final blog post announcing that I was taking a break. And when I came back in 2017, my first review was of the Lyndhurst, a pub I’ve always loved, on the edge of the Village, the conservation area between Eldon Square and Watlington Street. Around this time last year they hosted a lunch for my readers and we packed the place out – over thirty of us, eating a set menu they’d designed for the occasion. It was a lovely afternoon; I made a lot of new friends at that lunch, some of whom have become especially dear to me.

That I’m reviewing it again, in 2019, is a sign of another of those cycles: restaurants open, close and change hands. Kris Dorward left the pub in June, just as the previous landlord had in June 2016. One of the chefs has since moved to the Fisherman’s Cottage (let’s hope the management treat him better than they did the previous team to occupy the kitchen there) and for a little while the pub sat there, empty and sad. One of its regulars even took to sitting at the tables outside in the sunshine, like a dog waiting for its owner to return.

Things looked bleak, but a new team took over at the end of July making all the right noises about continuing to serve excellent food. I was there with friends for a few drinks the night they reopened and although things were a little chaotic, it was brilliant to have the pub back (true to form, Berkshire Live reported the “news” nearly three weeks later).

I didn’t eat there that night, but I was itching to try out the new menu and so, a month after they opened, I turned up with my friend Reggie to give it a whirl. It wasn’t Reggie’s first choice (“the menu looks a bit limited”, he told me) but Caribbean restaurant Vibes was closed on Tuesday nights, so the Lyndhurst it was.

The interior suggested that the new management was aiming for evolution rather than revolution, because apart from being slightly more spartan it looked exactly as it had before. Still a long thin room with the bar down one side, still the same mixture of chairs and pews, still the same warm glow. Reggie said that it reminded him of the pub in Peaky Blinders and I, having never watched it, nodded as if I knew exactly what he was talking about. Reggie, all coiffed hair and Massimo Dutti shirts, might well fit in on the set of Peaky Blinders: I most definitely would not.

The menu offered further encouraging signs, as it had already changed from the original menu online which had underwhelmed Reggie. A bit confusing, though, as the paper menu had starters and mains while the blackboard on the wall also listed nibbles and small plates. Starters and small plates hovered around the seven pound mark, all but a couple of the mains were less than twelve pounds. Most things on the menu still fell into the bracket of pub food but there were interesting cheffy touches here and there: sauce gribiche with the asparagus, a whole spiced chicken to share, black pudding bonbons and chicken katsu burgers.

Reggie and I decided to try a bit of everything, so we made a selection from the snacks and small plates and tried to pick more straightforward and complex main courses to test the range of the kitchen. I let him pick first, as I do with all my dining companions, and he picked everything I wanted to order, as my dining companions inevitably do. “Sorry mate” he said, clearly not sorry at all.

In its previous incarnation, the Lyndhurst’s Scotch egg had been a reference dish, so it seemed like a good test to order it here. It came with less whistles and bells than its predecessor – no wooden board, no tangle of pea shoots sprinkled with salt, no brown sauce accompaniment. Instead it was served simply on a plate with a little salad, some radish and a blob of sweet sauce (the menu said mustard, Reggie thought it was more like chutney). But crucially, it was really very tasty. The yolk could have been a little less solid, ideally, but otherwise it was spot on with a great coarse texture and plenty of seasoning. Not only that, but at just under four pounds, this was almost half the price of the old Scotch egg at the Lyndhurst – genuinely priced to be a beer snack rather than a starter.

My chilli beef nachos, from the small plates section, were neither small nor served on a plate. Not that I was complaining – it was a crazily generous portion of robust tortilla chips topped with plenty of chilli, made with slow-cooked shredded beef rather than mince. I really liked the chilli; Reggie found it a little underseasoned.

The whole thing was a tad unwieldy: it was very hard to eat with your hands, not helped by plonking a gigantic lettuce leaf on top. And the promised guacamole wasn’t really guacamole but just chunks of gorgeously ripe avocado, although there’s a place for that too (there was also a terrific fresh tomato salsa in the mix). But honestly, those minor criticisms aside it was a really lovely, if messy, way to start a meal. I think after eating this I understood better why it wasn’t on the starters menu: you could easily turn up for a few drinks and just get one of these to share with your drinking buddies.

Even after the starters I was happy but well on my way to pleasantly full (Reggie, irritatingly whippet-thin in the way only twentysomethings can be, obviously had plenty in the tank). Despite being a pub the Lyndhurst was offering table service like a restaurant, and the chap looking after us was friendly and polite – if slightly lacking in confidence – and seemed genuinely pleased that we liked our food. We also had a couple of pints on the go – the Lyndhurst’s drinks selection, again, hasn’t changed drastically with the handover so it was Orchard Pig for me and Camden Hells (a favourite of mine on a hot day) for Reggie.

“I’d never come here before I read your last review, and when I did I kind of wished it was my local” he added. That made sense: technically Reggie’s local is the Castle Tap but like practically everyone in West Reading he’d rather pretend it’s the Nag’s Head. Technically, my local is the Retreat but I did feel lucky that the Lyndhurst was such a short walk from my house. Would that enthusiasm survive the main courses, I wondered?

Reggie had picked the fancier of the main courses – pork belly, pig’s cheek and black pudding bonbon, with boulangere potatoes. If that sounds like it had a lot going on it’s because it did, but it really did live up to its promise. The pork belly was beautifully done with no wobbly fat, the cheeks were tender and meaty, free from disturbingly gelatinous bits. And the black pudding bonbon, itself impressively generous, was gorgeous, earthy stuff.

To have all that and boulangere potatoes studded with sweet onion was nice enough, but to add rainbow chars and crispy cavolo nero, reminiscent of seaweed, topped it all off nicely. The only misfires were the apple sauce, which felt a bit like it had wandered in from the Sunday lunch menu, and a slight lack of jus, but the fact remained that for less than fifteen pounds this dish represented formidable value. Reggie was a fan, and from the bit he let me try I was practically an evangelist.

I had to slum it at the more pubby end of the menu, but even there I managed to find something interesting to order. My chicken katsu burger was a very respectable effort – I think it was breadcrumbed, but the coating wasn’t quite strong enough to stand up to the surprisingly punchy curry sauce. Either way, it was a lovely fillet cooked well and the whole thing was elevated by a really well done – please accept my apologies in advance for using this word, I feel every bit as dirty writing it as you do reading it – “slaw”, zingy and piquant and crunchy with carrot.

As so often with burgers these days, it was a sloppy, messy affair – the sort where every bite at one end pushes the contents out of the bun at the other until what’s left is hanging over the edge like the coach in the Italian Job. But it was very enjoyable all the same – as were the chips, which were some of the best I’ve had in a while. The menu says they’re hand-cut and I could well believe it, although if you look closely at my photo you might see one which clearly looked like a refugee from another batch entirely.

Portions were pretty generous (especially my starter), so neither of us had any room for dessert. The Lyndhurst’s dessert menu is possibly not where their strengths lie – just a brûlée, a lemon posset, a brownie and a cheesecake – so I’m not sure I was missing out quite so much. Our dinner – two courses and a pint each – came to forty-six pounds not including tip, which I thought was excellent value.

I’m always lamenting the fact that Reading doesn’t have a pub in the centre that does really good food, and for a long time the previous incarnation of the Lyndhurst filled that gap as well as anyone had. That’s why there was genuine sadness when they closed. I’m delighted to be able to report that, after a slightly shaky start, the new owners are definitely on the right lines. The menu is pretty wide, but they seem to be able to execute all of it. It’s well-judged, with a good range of options for sharing, snacking or eating a full meal. They’ve already started to change the launch menu, which shows that they care about their food and are looking to improve.

I think they’ll only grow in confidence (and the service needs to, ever so slightly) but it will be fascinating to see where the new management takes the place. One thing that really struck me about the previous owners was how little they did on social media to promote the pub and the food: fingers crossed the current team take that more seriously. But for now, let’s just be grateful that the Lyndhurst is back, and trying the right things.

The following day I did a bit of Googling and found that Vibes, the other candidate for this week’s review, closed permanently in August. There’s that cycle for you again: if you don’t use it, don’t complain if further down the line you lose it. One to bear in mind in the months ahead, when places like the Lyndhurst are going to need customers more than ever.

The Lyndhurst – 7.8
88 Queens Road, RG1 4DG
0118 9503888

https://www.thelyndhurstreading.co.uk/