TGI Fridays

There are plenty of reasons to take against Matt Rodda, my local Member Of Parliament. His faintly gormless look at photo opportunities, for one. His position on Brexit – I’m sorry, I went there – which contains more fudge than Thornton’s and ignores the strongly held views of his constituency. His ineptitude at social media, where he never engages with anyone and sometimes manages to post photographs the wrong way round (he used to be a journalist, apparently: an old media one, I’d guess). And of course there’s the matter of his robotic Twitter style where every description of an event starts with “Good to”: Good to show support for school meals, says one. Good to talk to Katesgrove residents, says another. I dubbed this “Rodda Syndrome” on Twitter and after that he started to mix it up – some Tweets began “Important to”, others began “Interesting to”. It’s a nice try, but I’m not convinced that Rodda’s Twitter feed would pass the Turing Test.

So yes, I have a number of misgivings about my local MP, but the biggest is that he is responsible for the review you’re reading today.

Well, not entirely, because I rather brought it on myself. It happened on the 8th June last year, election day. I headed to the church on Watlington Street to cast my vote (more in hope than expectation) and then I went home, fetched my suitcase and made for the station. I was going to Paris for my first ever solo holiday, my post-divorce present to myself and the opportunity to reclaim one of my favourite cities, to make sure it didn’t become inextricably linked to memories of my marriage. What could possibly go wrong?

Fast forward to about midnight and I was back in my slightly cramped hotel room, several red wines to the good having had a truly repellent meal. They’d plonked me up at the bar on a seat which might as well have borne a plaque saying “exploit the solo tourist”, the plates were small and yet the terrine, which looked like Pedigree Chum, was far too big. I grabbed some chocolate, crisps and a bottle of Orangina from a little Carrefour on my way back to the hotel and when I found the TV in my room had BBC News 24, I realised I’d be able to hear the dulcet tones of David Dimbleby and see the results come in. I’ve stayed up and watched every general election since 1992 and continuing that trend – albeit on the other side of the Channel proving how big, brave and independent I was – made me feel a little less lonesome.

By the small hours, exhausted but undaunted, I and a small number of other Reading Tweeters were staying up for one reason and one reason alone: to see if Rob Wilson would lose his seat. It was very far down the list of Labour targets, but suddenly there was a buzz that we might see Wilson deposed. We don’t have enough time to go into all the reasons why I thought that would be Reading’s Portillo moment (although let’s not forget his nine pence expenses claim for a taxi ride which was physically impossible) but, emboldened by the spirit of revolution – and clearly not rehydrated enough by the Orangina – I took to Twitter. “The exit poll has Reading East falling to Labour. If that happens, I will review TGI Friday”, I said.

Whoops.

I’ve never forgotten my promise, however hard I tried, so on a Monday night towards the end of the year I showed up at TGI’s Oracle branch to finally keep my word. Picking an accomplice for this review proved difficult: originally I had suggested making it a big party to celebrate Wilson’s downfall, but when it came to it that felt needlessly cruel to my readers (and the admin involved in writing up all that food didn’t appeal). Instead I took my friend Sam, a long-standing reader of the blog with extensive experience in hospitality and, more specifically, of working front of house in chain restaurants. Surely, I thought, Sam could help me take a fair and balanced approach to the flagship outpost of one of Reading’s most prominent chains.

“Have you seen Pulp Fiction before?” chuckled Sam as the waitress seated us in a little booth for two, all leatherette banquettes with a good view of the restaurant. Sam is an extremely amiable chap who sounds as posh as you like and, despite only just being in his thirties, can inexplicably get away with calling everybody “kiddo”. He was still sporting a Movember moustache (“it’s on a week’s probation” he told me) and the overall effect was somehow more Battle Of Britain pilot than best-avoided uncle. Actually, despite it being ersatz in the extreme I somehow admired the fit-out of TGI Friday. Everything looked polished and fake without being cheap.

A chorus of “Happy Birthday”, led by the serving staff, erupted at a nearby table. It wouldn’t be the last of the evening.

The menu made decisions surprisingly difficult, but not in a good way. I tried very hard to overcome my preconceptions when looking through it, but it seemed like such a cookie-cutter approach to American food that I found it hard to care. Burgers, ribs, fajitas and tacos were all present and correct, and there were frequent references to TGI’s “Legendary glaze”, which may or may not have been a reference to the expression of the waiter who brought us our first beers. The menu was broken into sections with names like “Rib, Dip, Hooray!” and “Love Me Some Chicken”, which was bad enough but some of the names of the dishes genuinely made me want to get up and leave. Particular offenders included the “Gravy Seal”, a burger which had had the kitchen sink thrown at it and was apparently “a tasty triple trip over sea, air and land” and the “It’s Mine, Nachos!” about which no more need be said.

“I’ve decided” said Sam. “It’s got to be the Warrior Burger.” I knew this was likely: Sam had been talking about this life choice for about two weeks in the run up to our visit. I ummed and aahed and then I saw and heard a spectacle at a neighbouring table closer to the pass which made matters more straightforward; a plate was put down in front of a diner with a sizzle audible from some distance away, and smoke filled the air. Another glance at my menu revealed that this was the “Sizzling Crispy Duck Fajita”, and so my decision was made.

“Good choice, kiddo” said Sam, necking a hefty swig of his Sam Adams. I looked at my Budweiser, one of the only draft beers on offer, and took a sip. It tasted of Budweiser. I made a mental note that more of it might be required.

At this point you are no doubt expecting me to detest every single thing that followed, so allow me to confound both of us by telling you that the first of our two appetisers wasn’t bad. The sesame chicken strips were a hit with both Sam and I: a reasonably generous helping of chicken with a little crunch, some heat from the chilli flakes and some sweetness from that Legendary (I can’t stop capitalising it, because that way it’s more obviously their word and not mine) glaze. The extra dish of dipping sauce, which I think was also glaze, was more than anybody needed, and a mere taste of it confirmed that it was Dignitas for tooth enamel. None the less, I liked this dish: the fried chicken at Soju it wasn’t, but we still polished it off in a state of mild surprise.

The other starter, loaded potato skins, had to be done; I suspect that it’s been on the TGI menu since time immemorial, a 90s time capsule in gastronomic form. The menu said they were “potato skins filled with melted cheese”, and the last time I saw a fib of that magnitude it was on the side of a bus: the skin wasn’t crunchy and moreish and barely featured in the dish. Nor did the melted cheese. Some of the skins had very little: “filled” wasn’t the right description, and “meanly sprinkled” would have been closer to the mark. The predominant feature of the dish was in fact the flesh of the potato, which means they were less potato skins and more just chunks of potato. We’d chosen to have them with bacon, but it was more like highlighter-pink indeterminate mince than lovely, crispy, salty bacon. The whole affair contained more flesh and gammon than the average Question Time audience, and was about as appetising. The sour cream gloop in the middle did nothing to improve matters, and nor did the token spring onions.

“Well, it’s not terrible so far” I said, trying to put a brave face on things as we sat there for what felt like quite some time waiting for them to take our empty dishes away. Terrible was not far away, because split seconds after they were whipped off the table in a monosyllabic fashion our main courses arrived. My duck was set down in front of me completely devoid of any sizzle, smoke or steam, a moment even more lacking in theatre than the renditions of “Happy Birthday” at the other tables (two and counting).

“I’m really sorry” I said, because I felt one of us ought to apologise for what I was looking at, “but this isn’t sizzling.”

“Oh, it definitely is” said the waitress, trying to style it out. There was a pause while I tried to make up my mind whether it was worth explaining what the word sizzling really meant. It probably only lasted ten seconds but in my mind it felt like easily five minutes of awkward silence. It was eventually broken by the waitress.

“I mean, if you touch it you’ll find it’s really hot.”

I looked at Sam, Sam looked at me. Our expressions mirrored one another, and we sat in silence while the waitress brought the rest of our food and left us to it.

“What was that about?” said Sam. “That was like hearing Trump talk about the crowds at his inauguration.”

It was true: there was something post-truth about what had just happened. With hindsight, I actually think that it might have been for the best that my duck arrived without any smoke and mirrors, because it made it easier to get right to the heart of the matter, namely that it was truly awful. It was sinewy, and a struggle to get much meat off the bone apart from the breast, which had a weird, cotton-woolly texture. It was topped with a bizarre salsa which looked a little like finely diced vomit (and, I suspect, more of the Legendary Glaze) and sat on a bed of onions which had no hint of caramelisation, on account of never having sizzled.

This was a dish that really didn’t know whether it was Tex-Mex or Chinese, so decided to fail dismally at both. There were tortillas which were thick and more like cardboard than the thin pancakes which might have worked, and shredded cucumber and spring onion to make the cognitive dissonance even worse. Finally, there was more of the gloopy Legendary Glaze, although this time it had an odd lumpy texture like frogspawn, or a very loose stool. It was sweet to the point of offensiveness, and after I’d assembled a couple of fajitas my fingers were so sticky I wasn’t sure they’d ever be clean again. It could have been worse if I hadn’t had a spoon to dish up the glaze, although admittedly I’d had to ask nicely for one of those (how exactly did they imagine I was going to do it?). By the end I was reduced to scraping all the crud off the duck, eating it on its own with a knife and fork and realising that even that couldn’t rescue matters.

This dish cost seventeen pounds fifty. I thought of all the times I’d had delicious confit duck at Cote, a couple of doors down, for considerably less money. Then I thought of what else seventeen pounds fifty could buy you in this town and I started to feel quite angry, although it could have just been a sugar rush from the Legendary Glaze.

“This is the worst crispy duck fajita I’ve ever had.” I said. “Of course, it’s also the best and, if I have my way, it will be the only crispy duck fajita I ever have. Also, this really isn’t a restaurant for diabetics.”

Sam’s Warrior Burger was no better. It managed to simultaneously be overcooked and lukewarm, which takes some doing but really shouldn’t be considered an achievement. The patties were a tad grey and nothing about the dish looked appetising.

“It’s been cooked with one purpose and one purpose alone” said Sam, “and that’s to eradicate the risk of anybody getting food poisoning.” It didn’t feel like an ambitious mission statement.

“Not a fan then?”

“No. All these whistles and bells like the mozzarella dippers are just there to draw attention away from the poor quality meat.”

“So how much of this do you reckon was previously frozen?” I asked, reckoning that Sam knew a bit about that kind of thing.

“Most of it. Probably the burgers, definitely the mozzarella sticks and probably the bread too. The fries are okay, I suppose, and that dip” – Sam gestured at little dish of what looked like mustard – “isn’t bad. But really, it isn’t good at all.”

The Warrior Burger costs over fifteen pounds. “Maybe lots of people eating here have vouchers” said Sam. Either that or a lobotomy, I thought to myself.

Unable to finish my meal, and eventually bored of the staff’s complete unwillingness to take our empty plates away, I wandered upstairs to wash my hands obsessively like Lady Macbeth until no trace of the glaze remained. The upstairs, almost as big as the downstairs, was completely empty (“there was no upstairs when it was Tampopo” said Sam, sagely, “so god knows where the staff get to change or relax or keep their stuff now”).

Coming out of the bathroom, I discovered a voicemail on my phone from TGI Fridays asking why I hadn’t shown up for my table and whether I planned to. “We’re very busy and we can definitely give the table to somebody else” said the voice huffily. I looked at the deserted tables around me and I wondered whether I’d wandered into some kind of dream sequence. Maybe I hadn’t actually gone to TGI Friday and none of this had ever happened, I thought. Perhaps it wasn’t too late to scrap the review and take Sam to eat somewhere better, like literally anywhere.

Back at our seats our crockery and cutlery was still in front of us. I told Sam about my voicemail.

“That sums this place up” he said. “It’s all so half-arsed. I mean, did you notice the state of the tables and chairs out front on the Riverside when we walked in? If this was my restaurant and the front looked like that, I’d sack myself.”

The waiter took our plates away and asked if we fancied dessert. It was tempting to see if there was anything more sugary than the food I had already had, but morbid curiosity is no justification for throwing good money after bad.

“No thanks mate” said Sam. “I think we’ll just finish our drinks and get round to asking for the bill.”

The waiter wandered off, got the bill and slammed it wordlessly on the table in front of us almost immediately. Finally we had something in common: he was as keen for me to leave the restaurant as I was. But there was one final quirk to the service when the waiter discovered that we planned to pay by card. He came over with the card machine, entered the amount and then wandered off, leaving us to stick our card in and enter the PIN. This struck me as a novel approach and different from literally every waiter and waitress I have ever encountered. Dinner for two came to sixty-seven pounds, not including tip, and it was only Sam’s generosity and good humour that meant that we tipped at all. Personally I would have just paid, departed and then left them a voicemail explaining that I wasn’t going to tip them, but with hindsight I’m glad Sam prevailed.

“The thing is though” said Sam, “the service really was poor. I know some of this is the kitchen’s fault, and some’s the menu’s fault, but the waitress should never have brought a sizzling duck dish that wasn’t sizzling.” And he was right, because even if the food had been middling and indifferent (I should have been so lucky) the service could still have improved matters considerably. It was a meal with no care factor evident anywhere.

There was time for one last sting in the tail, because as we were finishing our drinks Sam examined his pint glass. There – close to the bottom, on the inside – was a grim-looking black smudge of goodness knows what.

“What’s that?” said Sam in horror. We examined it, neither of us wanting to touch it.

“I have no idea, but when the pint was first poured it was probably even bigger. Most of it has probably, err, dissolved.” I realised immediately after I said it that this wasn’t helpful.

“Oh well, I could do with losing some weight. This just wasn’t how I planned to do it.”

Afterwards, commiserating in the pub, I told Sam that I thought that TGI Friday was like the WH Smith of restaurants: I couldn’t understand why it still existed, because you could get everything it did better somewhere else. If you want cocktails you should go to Milk and if you want burgers, you should go to Honest. If you want ribs, you should go to Bluegrass and if you want fajitas you should go to Mission. If you want crispy duck fajitas, you should see your doctor.

But it’s worse than that, because not only do other places do this food better but, without exception, they are cheaper. I could cope with expensive and mediocre, and I could just about cope with cheap and bad, but the combination of costly and diabolical leaves me baffled. Who eats at TGI Fridays these days? And one other thing: this isn’t about snobbishness, it’s about standards. Earlier in the year I went to the Beefeater on the Bath Road, with my family. It wasn’t my choice, and in the run-up I did make a few unworthy jokes about the evening that lay ahead. But actually, the service was lovely, the food was okay and the steak itself was rather nice. I went away feeling a little ashamed of myself, but at TGI Friday I just went away feeling dirty and exploited (and not in a good way, either).

So there you have it, my final review of 2018 is easily the worst meal I’ve had all year and one of the very worst meals I’ve had in over five years of writing this blog. Thank you for reliving it with me (don’t have nightmares) and I only have one last thing to say. It’s this: good to never have to go to TGI Fridays ever again. Important to avoid it for the rest of my days. Thanks a bunch, Matt Rodda.

TGI Fridays – 3.6
Unit 8, The Oracle, RG1 2AG
0344 2646052

https://www.tgifridays.co.uk/locations/get/Reading%20Oracle#/

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The Real Greek

Well, you were meant to get a review of Brewdog this week, but nothing quite went according to plan. I turned up there with Steve, a long time reader of the blog who attended my first readers’ lunch at the start of the year, and right from the off things weren’t promising. We entered the cacophonous main room and found a spare table round to the left which was just about comfortable enough. Just about.

“I wish I’d brought my glasses” said Steve. Steve is wry, wise and silver-haired, knows an awful lot about food, catering and restaurants and he’s had more jobs – and stories about them – than I’ve had hot dinners. “This is the first time I’ve ever been in a restaurant and not been able to read the menu.”

I looked at the menu, all in the sort of distressed font that hints of a typewriter ribbon on its last legs. It was all burgers and dogs and puns (“Cluck Norris”, “Soy Division”) and, I’m afraid, it induced mild to moderate weariness.

“I thought it was table service here. It was when I came here for a drink the weekend it opened, but now I’m not sure.” I said.

Minutes passed.

“I’ll go up to the bar” I said.

As luck would have it, the night I planned to review Brewdog the team from Explore Reading was there to review the drinks and the food. They had a nice booth (not jealous, not at all) and were already a few beers under way. I wondered: did that make Steve and I the Jets or the Sharks? Was Steve nifty on his feet? Should I have brought backup?

At the bar, the Explore delegation told me that there had been a mix-up in the kitchen and they wouldn’t be taking food orders for half an hour. It was already eight o’clock and that, I’m afraid, is where I decided that life was too short. I looked over at the Explore table again. These were Reading’s hip young gunslingers: one of them was in her twenties, for crying out loud. I went back to our table.

“Come on,” I said to Steve, “we’re going.”

That’s how we found ourselves walking back across town as I frantically consulted my list for a Plan B and that’s how we ended up in the Real Greek, on the Oracle Riverside. I turned up, in truth, with no great enthusiasm; I hadn’t heard brilliant reports, unless you include the countless enthusiastic – and comped – blog reviews shortly after it opened last year, back when you couldn’t get in without a reservation.

But going through the doors on a midweek evening I actually found myself thinking how nice it looked – almost like a slightly more upmarket Pizza Express, with biggish tables and handsome chairs along the outside of the room and a section of sort of open booths in the middle. I wouldn’t have fancied one of those, as they seemed to be hard benches with no visible padding. I guess the sort of people who enjoyed an evening in Brewdog might have gone for them, I found myself thinking.

Steve and I persuaded the waiter to give us a round table for three, so as to improve both our views and give us the room to order everything we wanted, and had a look through the menu. It was proper small plates territory, with a range of hot and cold meze and, if you needed some inspiration, a range of suggested set menus down the right.

So far so good, but the menu also meticulously listed the calorie count for every dish on the menu. I really wasn’t a fan of this: it’s bad enough seeing the traffic lights on ready meals in Marks, without it starting to invade restaurants. Surely restaurants were meant to be a haven where you didn’t have to put up with all that? Ironically, it put me off ordering dishes at both ends of the spectrum: I like a bit of taramasalata, but when a portion was just shy of a thousand calories? And I love octopus, but if it’s only 161 calories how much of it do you really get for £7.50?

The menu recommended three to four mezes per person, so naturally – despite my niggles about calories – we ordered nine between us: Steve may run marathons, but I just knew that he was a trencherman beneath that wiry exterior. Our waiter turned up with two cold bottles of Mythos, cracked them open simultaneously and poured them at the same time into our glasses. Like all magic tricks you can’t remember how it’s done, don’t want to and, afterwards, struggle to describe it.

“That’s nicely done, isn’t it?” said Steve, which I rather felt gave me permission to be impressed.

We chatted away about our recent holidays – Porto for Steve, Bologna for me – and the first set of dishes arrived. The other gimmick at The Real Greek is that your sharing plates arrive in a tall stack, like afternoon tea. That might be your bag, it might not: I found it irksome but it was easy to take them off the rack and spread them out on the table as nature intended. If I’d been at a smaller table for two, it might have properly got on my nerves.

We started with some of the cold mezze. Revithia, which looked like a plate of lightly bruised chick peas, were delicious, singing with lemon and mint, a beautifully fresh and bright dish. The dolmades was also very good – light, crumbly and again rich with mint, not remotely claggy or glutinous. Only the Greek flatbread disappointed. It wasn’t piping hot, and it felt like maybe it had been sitting around a little too long before coming to our table. I think if I’d realised just how unlike a dip the revithia was, we wouldn’t necessarily have ordered it, and it seemed a little cheeky to charge an extra three quid for olive oil and dukkah.

Despite that, Steve and I made our way through the whole lot, waiting to be disappointed. By the end, we realised that disappointment had not come and, for the first time, I wondered if this meal was going to outperform my expectations. The waiter brought a bottle of Greek white (Makedonikos, apparently) which was fresh, not sweet and not sharp, and tasted really quite a lot like being on holiday, as some of the best wine does.

“It’s a good atmosphere in here” said Steve, taking in our surroundings. “Everyone seems to be having a nice time.”

It’s a little point, perhaps, but Steve was right. None of the tables seemed to have the grim note of contractual obligation, nobody seemed to be there because they had vouchers or had run out of ideas. Perhaps we’d just stumbled on the place on a really auspicious evening – or perhaps it was euphoria at having escaped from Brewdog – but as I took another sip of my wine I found I was really quite enjoying myself. Steve was telling me about his small granddaughter’s quest to notch up a Michelin star a year (she made one establishment make her a dish completely off menu, which makes her sound far more fearsome than any mere reviewer), and about wife number one and job number sixteen and I thought: how lucky I am that people read the blog and want to come to dinner with me.

The rest of the dishes rather came all at once, which actually was my failing rather than the restaurant’s. It’s weird how when you’re in a chain to some extent you act like you’re in a chain, and you order like you’re in a chain. If The Real Greek had been an independent place, another Namaste Kitchen, I would have ordered some dishes, eaten them, kept the menu and then ordered some more, but because it was a chain and the menu told you how many dishes to order, I ordered them all in one go. With hindsight, that was a mistake, but it didn’t stop everything we ate being good at the very least and often far more than that.

Particular highlights from the hot mezze included the pork belly, cooked so perfectly that you could almost have mistaken it for chicken thigh, all crispy skin and layers of meat, every bit of fat rendered to nothing. Steve and I did a very English equivalent of fighting over it, which involved each of us saying “no, you have the last piece” ad infinitum. We were similarly polite over the halloumi fries, salty and light and pretty close to perfect, especially dipped in the minted yoghurt. The least successful dish was the calamari, which turned up looking so much like octopus that I worried we’d ordered the wrong thing. That wouldn’t have mattered so much, but it wasn’t quite as fresh as promised and that made it harder going than either of us would have liked. When we said “no, you have the last piece”, we actually meant it.

What else? Lamb kefta was more like a single lamb burger than a kebab or meatballs, but it was still delicious and far nicer than it looked. I felt like there was a hint of feta smuggled away in it somewhere, but that could have been a trick of the light, or the white wine slightly skewing matters. Salt cod fritters were also light and delightful, with plenty of fish, not bulked out with spuds. Again, the lemon mayonnaise that came with it was spot on.

Finally, Steve’s favourite, the loukanika: three whacking great slabs of pork and beef sausage with a deep red smoked chilli relish. I had huge reservations about this, mainly because it screamed stealth spam, but it was beautiful – coarse, firm, juicy and with just enough spice. The relish set it off perfectly. Steve liked it so much he sent me a message the next day saying that he was daydreaming about eating it again (and Steve’s one of the only people I know who can send such a message without even the faintest hint of smut).

“This is really good, isn’t it? I can’t find much wrong with it.” I said, giving away I’m afraid that I had fully expected to turn up to an Oracle Riverside chain restaurant and find shitloads of issues, and that I was a tad perplexed that I couldn’t.

“Yes, it is” said Steve. Were we having a shared hallucination? Had they put ayahuasca in our Mythos?

We pressed on with dessert, because we were having too nice an evening to want to bring it to an end. That’s as noble a reason to order dessert as any, but the decision provided probably the meal’s biggest misfire in the shape of my baklava – a big stodgy slab with no real crunch or subtlety, no layers, no sticky sweetness. What you got instead was some faintly damp pastry, and a big claggy layer of crushed nuts, and the whole thing was cold and unimpressive. You got better baklava, back in the day, eating Georgian food at the Turk’s Head and (trade secret alert) I have it on good authority that they bought theirs from Costco. Steve’s chocolate mousse cake was considerably nicer, if not remotely Greek. “Not bad” he said, between mouthfuls, “but they’ve definitely bought this in.”

Service was bright and personable from start to finish. Our waiter was Italian, which led to a long conversation about my recent holiday in Bologna (I took the lead on this), football (obviously Steve took the lead on this) and where a self-respecting Italian eats in Reading (Pepe Sale, unsurprisingly). He was very proud of the food, told us what to order next time and talked with real warmth about The Real Greek, having worked for years in the Windsor branch before transferring to Reading. No smarm, no encouraging us to post reviews on TripAdvisor, just genuine enthusiasm.

Dinner for two, not including service, came to eighty-eight pounds. Not the cheapest meal in the world, and although we probably could have ordered a couple of dishes fewer it was never going to be as cheap as living it up at Brewdog. But I had such an enjoyable meal that I really didn’t mind.

Afterwards, Steve and I compared notes. I rated the meal slightly more highly than he did, and we beetled off to the Allied Arms for a debrief, shivering under the heaters and pretending it was nearly summer. But the next day, he messaged me.

“I think I might have marked it a bit low on reflection. I think you were more on it.”

“It was really decent, wasn’t it? I’m struggling to find fault.”

“The waiter definitely contributed to the whole thing. Lovely to have someone so enthusiastic – I almost thought he was called Sandra.” Steve went on, referring to Zizzi’s legendary waitress, As Seen On TripAdvisor (“the Skripals would never have been poisoned in our branch of Zizzi”, my friend Tim once said to me, “Sandra would never have allowed it.”).

I think that exchange probably sums up the verdict on The Real Greek as well as anything. It wasn’t my first choice, I went there by accident and my expectations were firmly under control. And yet, quietly and unshowily, it did an absolutely cracking job. Irritating gimmicks, iffy bread and so-so desserts aside, we enjoyed a really tasty meal in a lovely, buzzy room. Nearly everything we had was good, much was very good and some was excellent. To my surprise, I would go back again, and I can see the appeal of gathering a group of friends and trying as much of the menu as possible. So I’d encourage you to put your reservations to one side when you read the rating at the bottom, because for a certain kind of evening – with fellow diners who play nicely – The Real Greek is as good an option as anywhere you can find in town. My only tip is to dig your heels in and order little and often: it may be a chain, but that should never stop you being independent-minded.

The Real Greek – 7.7
The Oracle, RG1 2AT
0118 9952270

http://www.therealgreek.com/reading/

Franco Manca

I’ve long enjoyed referring to Reading as “Zone 8”, and one of the most significant developments in Reading’s restaurant scene during my time away was this description becoming less and less of a joke. Reading’s always been a chain magnet, but the latest wave of new and imminent arrivals has a distinct whiff of the capital about it: The Real Greek, The Botanist and Comptoir Libanais are already here; Pho, Honest Burger and Byron are on their way. A big Pret has sprung up just opposite the train station, too: by the time Crossrail gets here, people might alight at Reading and be unaware that they’re not in Kansas (or possibly Camden) anymore.

The one I was most excited about was the arrival of Franco Manca. For years I’ve been complaining that Reading could do with a really good pizzeria to rival the likes of Bosco in Bristol or The Hearth in Lewes. Then I discovered Papa Gee and found that I didn’t feel quite so deprived but even so, Franco Manca (along with the likes of Leon and Le Pain Quotidien) remained one of the chains I most wanted to see make it out west to Reading. I’ve been going to Franco Manca, in Brixton and Battersea, for many years and I’ve always loved their sourdough pizzas, gorgeous burrata and short unfussy wine list.

Initially they were going to open in the basement of Jackson’s, which I thought was a magnificent idea and a terrific way to bring a buzz to one of Reading’s most iconic buildings. But I guess they lost patience or got an offer they couldn’t refuse, because instead they have taken the Oracle’s shekel and opened where the Debenham’s restaurant – never reviewed on the blog, due to what I can only describe as a shocking oversight – used to be. It’s right next to The Real Greek, which extends the riverside and creates a little enclave for shoppers and diners to descend upon (it’s working, too: when I tried to book The Real Greek for a Saturday night to take my family out for dinner I was told it was already solidly booked.)

The space outside is nicely used and if the weather had been better I’d have been sorely tempted to eat in the sunshine, but I visited on an inclement weekday so I found myself waiting for a table to become available (in the spirit of another London trend coming our way, Franco Manca doesn’t take bookings). I managed to nab a table in the corner of the room, nearest the window, which gave me a good look at the room. It’s a big space: all square tables, wooden school-effect chairs and bare lightbulbs, the walls covered in what appeared to be upcycled pallets, no soft furnishings and nothing to absorb sound.

What this means is that, even tucked away in a corner, the experience was a cacophonous one. I’d come to Franco Manca with my friend Tim and the whole evening was marked by both of us constantly having to lean across the table and say “What?” “Pardon?” or “I’m really sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you to repeat that. Again.” The irony: here we were in a room full of young chatty diners and I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more geriatric. It’s the first time I’ve seriously considered taking an ear trumpet to a restaurant (although, depressingly, I doubt it will be the last).

The menu is a short one – a small range of starters (or “Bites”) and seven pizzas, two without a tomato base. The specials board lists some extra starters, two special pizzas – one meat, one vegetarian – and an array of extra toppings. I was a bit confused by the flip side of the menu which talks about all of Franco Manca’s ingredients but doesn’t make it clear whether you can order those as extra toppings or not, but maybe I’m just getting old and finding hidden complications in a very simple menu (an unwelcome theme is emerging here: have you noticed?).

While we waited for our order to arrive, Tim and I enjoyed something from the compact and bijou drinks list. There are a handful of wines, two beers and one cider (described as “No Logo”, presumably a tribute to Naomi Klein’s late 90s anti-consumerist classic). I had the cider, which was pleasant – sparkling and cold but with a slightly agricultural hint. The waiter brought it over without a glass and I had to ask him to come back with one, but not before my request was met with a slightly vacant look. Perhaps all the hip gunslingers drink straight from the bottle (and, for that matter, can understand every word spoken by the person opposite them).

Tim, last seen on this blog enduring the culinary Vietnam of a trip to Cosmo, is a Beer Expert. He has forgotten more about beer than I’ve ever known (although that’s not saying a lot: he probably forgets more about beer in a single day than I’ve learned in a lifetime). So I’m well used to him putting on his Serious Beer Tasting Face, taking a sip, knotting his eyebrows, smacking his lips afterwards and pronouncing it “okay, I suppose”, as he did here.

“Of course, they say it’s no logo but it’s by Shepherd Neame”, he added. “It might go better with the food, to be fair.” I nodded sagely, pretending to understand what he was talking about – a look I’ve perfected over many evenings spent hearing Tim wax lyrical about the Citra hop (whatever that is: I thought it was a dance from the Twenties, but apparently not).

My starter was uncomplicated and delicious, a wooden board with four thick, generous slices of coppa and a ball of mozzarella perched on some salad. I yield to nobody in my love of mozzarella served before it’s been ruined by heat – so cold, clean and fresh-tasting! – and this was a pretty joyous example. I also love coppa, beautifully marbled pork shoulder which I’ve always found more interesting than Parma ham (how I miss the days when you could buy it from the deli counter at Carluccio’s). Again, this one was damned fine. And you could quibble about how this was a triumph of buying or assembly rather than of cooking if you really were so minded, but to me it was a triumph of eating, which is far more important. Decent value at six pounds, too.

“You’re going to describe that as ‘generous to a fault’, aren’t you?” said Tim. “You always say that in your reviews.”

“Well I’m not now.” I said; later I looked back, and it appears that I do indeed always say that.

Tim was faced with something altogether more baffling. The specials board had described it as “Gloucester old spot baked sausage”, which could potentially give you the impression that what turned up might resemble, you know, sausages. But the use of the singular, with hindsight, was a clue. Instead, what Tim got was a slab of sausage meat that had been baked with a tomato sauce and dolloped with what might have been crème fraiche. The sausage meat was lovely – coarse and shot through, I think, with a smidge of fennel. But it was an odd dish and I’m not sure Tim would have ordered it if it had been more accurately described (perhaps as middle class sausage McMuffin only without the muffin, or Millennial meatloaf). Half the fun of sausages is the contrast in texture between outside and inside (I like mine like mummified fingers, personally) and that was missing here. Tim looked enviously at my starter, and I gave him some coppa and mozzarella to apologise for ordering better than him. If anything, I think it made matters worse.

The pizzas took longer to arrive than I expected, which was no bad thing although it was characterised by a bit more ineffectual service. I’d ordered a dip for my crust (or “cornicione” as the Franco Manca menu likes to call it) and there was some general chaos about which one I’d gone for – pesto, since you asked – which even led to the manager having to come over and ask me what I’d ordered. She was quite brilliant, bright and personable – but if anything, that just highlighted that the rest of the service had been a bit… well… I’m struggling to find a more appropriate word than “gormless”, so let’s just leave that there.

If I won the battle of the starters, I think Tim did better on pizza. His was a pretty classic combination – tomato sauce, mozzarella, and (according to the menu) both dry and semi-dry chorizo. And it looked good, although I did have some reservations; maybe I’m just greedy but it felt a little light on chorizo and what chorizo there was was so unevenly distributed that it looked like it had been dropped onto the pizza from a great height by someone with their eyes shut. Again, I wondered if I just wasn’t cut out for this new devil-may-care attitude and perhaps literally nobody else would be bothered by this. What can’t be denied, though, is that it was tasty: the crust was bubbled, blistered and light, the base top notch.

“Can you tell the difference between the two types of chorizo?” I said to Tim as he hoovered up his final mouthful.

“Yes.” he said. “One of them is short and fat and the other one is wide and thin.”

“Helpful stuff, Tim. I’ll make sure I put that in the review.”

My pizza, by contrast, just didn’t work. I went for one without a tomato sauce base and instead it came with yellow tomatoes, buffalo ricotta and spicy lamb sausage. It looked unbalanced to me when they put it down in front of me and it tasted unbalanced too: the tomatoes were sweet, the ricotta was sweet and although the sausage – something a bit like merguez – was genuinely fiery and delicious there just wasn’t enough of it to counteract everything else. Again, everything looked assembled at random and in this case it made for quite an unattractive pizza, with the sausage unpleasantly reminiscent of droppings and the ricotta looking disconcertingly like cuckoo spit (hungry yet?). The pesto dip was an excellent idea but in execution it just lacked enough salt and parmesan to offset the oil.

On a previous trip to Franco Manco just after it opened I had been absolutely enchanted by a lemon and rosemary cake with Greek yoghurt and honey, which has to be one of the nicest things I’ve eaten this year. I tell you this because, in keeping with the rest of the evening, they had taken it off the menu for this visit. So we skipped dessert, cut our losses, paid up and beetled off to the pub. The bill came to just under forty-two pounds for two, without tip. Both pizzas, and this will give you a clue as to Franco Manca’s popularity, clocked in at around eight pounds.

When I go for dinner on duty with a companion, I like to play little game at the end. We text our rating out of 10 to each other simultaneously, like some kind of digital gunfight, and compare notes. Tim’s rating was nothing special: he wasn’t impressed with Franco Manca. He said the food was good but not good enough to overcome the room and the service. He’d sooner go to Papa Gee, he said, and of course I felt a little bit proud of him for that. It quite outweighed his shortcomings when it came to describing chorizo, which after all is a niche skill in anybody’s book.

It might surprise you, based on everything that’s gone before, that I feel a little more kindly disposed to Franco Manco than Tim was. Restaurants are good at different things, and some restaurants can be good despite excelling at something which isn’t necessarily my thing. And there is a lot to be said for Franco Manca if you’re grabbing a quick meal in the centre of town, or you’re on a budget, or if you really like pizza. Or if you’re considerably younger than me (many people are, these days), wear a snapback indoors and don’t mind raising your voice to have even a rudimentary conversation with your mates. Or, now I come to think of it, if you want to eat somewhere good in the Oracle which isn’t Cote. The pizza, as long as you pick the right one, is good enough to overcome a multitude of sins, and next time I go I’ll stick to the tried and tested classic of anchovies, olives, capers and basil. Personally, I can see myself heading there at lunchtime on a sunny day, or having an early dinner there before ambling off to the cinema or Tuesday Music Club at the Global Cafe, full and happy, ear trumpet stowed away in my satchel.

Franco Manca – 6.8
The Oracle, RG1 2AT
0118 9952086

http://www.francomanca.co.uk/restaurants/reading/

Mission Burrito

Sometimes you just don’t want a sit down three course meal (this even happens to me – believe it or not). Sometimes you’re off to the cinema or out down the pub and you just want something quick, easy and tasty. And for years, in central Reading, your only real choice was who made your burger and whether it was chicken or beef – three McDonalds, three Burger Kings and a KFC are testimony to that. That all changed when Mission opened on the Oracle Riverside and gave diners another option which wasn’t griddled or fried and didn’t come with fries: the brave new world of burritos.

Mission is a mini-chain that started in Oxford and has slowly expanded – first to Reading and then further west to Cardiff via Bath and Bristol (someone there must really like the M4). It always makes me proud, as a Reading resident, when places decide to expand to Reading first; back in the days when Bill’s was new it felt exciting and cool that they opened here. But Bill’s is a big chain pretending to be a cuddly independent whereas Mission, for now at least, feels like the real deal, an independent that had a good idea, did well and has grown gradually and organically. But is it any good?

The plot that Mission has in the Oracle isn’t very big – it can be a bit of a squeeze to get a seat and the queue sometimes stretches out the door (a promising sign in itself) but it turns out Sunday afternoons are fairly quiet so I got there and had no trouble getting served or finding a seat. The room is pretty unremarkable – space along one side to queue until you’re up at the counter, and plain dark wood tables with long benches. Get in, get your food, eat your food and go. And that’s fine: I never understood when McDonald’s started introducing what looked like Arne Jacobsen chairs. Who eats a burger in one of those? (Not Arne Jacobsen, that’s for sure.)

Ordering involves all manner of choices. There are three types of dish – burritos, fajitas (which are like burritos but with vegetables instead of rice) or tacos, which are three soft flour tortillas rather than the rigid corn shells so beloved by Old El Paso (and so impossible to eat). There are then three types of filling – beef, chicken or pork. Or if you fancy paying through the nose for a dish with no meat, or are vegetarian and therefore have no choice, there’s vegetables. Then you pick your extras – guacamole or cheese (which cost extra) or pico de gallo and sour cream (which don’t). Finally, just to crank up the number of different types of combinations, you pick from one of three different sauces with varying degrees of heat. The possibilities, as Eddie Izzard used to say on that TV advert about recycling, are endless.

I make it sound really complex but it really isn’t too bad and the staff behind the counter, running a factory line all doing different parts of the process, are very friendly and efficient and in next to no time I was at my table tucking into my choice.

The burritos are big – a twelve inch tortilla liberally stuffed with rice, pinto beans (which had been “cooked in bacon” according to the staff, although I’m not sure what that entails), guacamole and the slow cooked beef. Rolled up and served in foil, it wasn’t possible to eat tidily unless you kept most of the foil in place. It’s not a delicate dainty meal but it wasn’t half bad: I loved the beef, rich and cooked until it had no fight left in it, and the beans, although not really tasting of bacon per se, were smoky and tasty. The guacamole was a little more disappointing – huge chunks of avocado, too coarse if anything, not distributed evenly throughout the burrito. The chipotle sauce didn’t come through at all, leaving me wondering if I’d asked for the wrong one or if the staff just hadn’t glugged on enough. The cheese didn’t register. But I suppose these could be viewed as fussy quibbles about what was basically a big edible pillowcase stuffed with a lot of quite good things (they also do a smaller version, presumably for lunchtime and less ambitious eaters, and a larger version – presumably for Eric Pickles).

The tacos are three thinner six inch discs which are assembled but left open. I had two with chicken and one with pork – just to cover all the bases, you understand – topped with lettuce, sour cream, cheese and a smidge of chipotle salsa. These were also delicious, if almost impossible to eat – you end up trying to roll the edges together but end up with a big sloppy tube, dripping sauce from both ends. (Sounds lovely, doesn’t it: who doesn’t enjoy a big sloppy dripping tube?) The chicken was particularly good, cooked until it was falling apart and perfect with the note of heat from the chipotle sauce it had been roasted in. The cheese, again, was a bit lost in the mix so you could easily leave it out and save yourself the princely sum of thirty pence but the sour cream worked well, offsetting the heat from the salsa. The carnitas was less exciting than the chicken: drier and lacking in flavour with no hint of the thyme or orange zest it had apparently been cooked with.

Mission - tacos

Dotted around the tables were bottles of hot sauce (because some people really like not being able to feel their lips) and big piles of paper napkins (because some people really don’t like to be covered in sauce). I avoided the former, because I’m not that kind of person, and enthusiastically embraced the latter, for similar reasons. That said, I did add a little hot sauce to my last taco and very nice it was too, even if it did require the use of yet another paper napkin. If you are on the fastidious side this might not be for you but if you like getting stuck in and don’t mind reaching the end of a meal looking like you need to be hosed down Mission might be right up your alley.

Drinks options are, unsurprisingly, limited but the Modelo, in a bottle, was exactly as you’d expect. The frozen margarita was I think a better choice – zesty and zingy without the rough edge that tequila can sometimes have, and surprisingly refreshing after the richness of the food.

Dinner for two came to almost exactly twenty pounds and the burritos, fajitas and tacos come in at just under the six pound mark: I was in two minds about whether this was good value (and I still am) although I am pretty sure it represents iffy value for money if you’re a vegetarian. If a vegetarian has to endure a burrito restaurant the very least you can do is give the poor sods free cheese and guacamole, and even that seems a bit stingy.

On reflection, I liked Mission but maybe not as much as I should have done. The food is good, the value isn’t unreasonable, the service is very pleasant and they have a clear proposition. They’re exactly the kind of independent place Reading needs and they do what they do very well. But I was left with the feeling that if a friend said “let’s go to Mission before the cinema” I wouldn’t object, but I’d be unlikely to suggest going there myself. It’s funny how sometimes a place just doesn’t grab you: I guess, like the sauce in my burrito, I felt a little warmth, but not quite enough.

Mission Burrito – 6.7
15A The Riverside Level, The Oracle Centre, RG1 2AG
0118 9511999

http://missionburrito.co.uk/