Round-up: February and March

Another bumper couple of months here at Edible Reading, so it seems like a good point to stop, take a breather and review what you may have missed, along with the latest selection of restaurant news. Are you sitting comfortably? Got a nice cup of tea to hand, or coffee if that’s your preference? Maybe a biscuit too, be it a Custard Cream or a Choco Leibniz? Excellent, then I’ll begin (but not without saying that, if it is a Choco Leibniz, you can colour me envious). Let’s start with a summary of the most recent reviews…

Thai Corner, 7.0 – One of Reading’s longest serving restaurants, Thai Corner is still plying a busy trade at the end of town which has never been that fashionable. Is it a timeless staple, or an anachronism running out of steam? I went to find out, and the review is here.

La Courbe, 7.3 – You’re eating from square plates on square glass tables, sitting on square dated furniture in a cold room with no soft furnishings, the door open most of the time and smoke coming from the open kitchen. How on earth did this place get a mark of 7.3? you might wonder. Click here to find out.

Cerise, 7.9 – Everyone knows Cerise is one of Reading’s best, fanciest, most expensive restaurants – and yet nobody seems to know anybody who has ever gone. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to find out if the hype was justified, and my verdict is here.

Côte, 7.8 – Why did I break my general rule and go review a chain restaurant? Are all chains bad, or all independent restaurants good? And where should you be heading for breading in Reading? These, and so many other questions, are inadequately answered here.

The Pack Horse, 5.1 – I suppose my run of good luck had to come to an end eventually and a rare jaunt out of Reading, down the road to Mapledurham, gave me the opportunity to write about bad tables, indifferent service, invisible hearing aids, the fight against wobbliness and meatballs in faggots’ clothing. Can a single review knit all that together? Check the review out here and let me know.

Mission Burrito, 6.7 – Reading’s fast food scene was always a straight out battle between burgers and KFC until Mission came along and offered something slightly different. Independent, small, friendly and offering something you can’t get elsewhere in Reading? Is there anything not to like? The review’s here.

So, on to the restaurant news (and don’t think I haven’t noticed you scoffing another biscuit – nothing escapes me, you know). First of all, Al Tarboush, the Lebanese restaurant opposite TGI Friday, has closed. It’s not clear why, but I heard mixed feedback in the aftermath on whether this was a terrible shame or no bad thing. It was on my list to review, and I’m a bit sad I won’t get the chance now to make up my own mind; another reminder that restaurants close all the time and you shouldn’t put off going to one you’re genuinely curious about. Reading still has a Lebanese restaurant, in the shape of La Courbe, which isn’t perfect but definitely deserves support.

The site is going to become a new Italian restaurant called Casa Roma and refurbs have just completed. Their website is under construction and can be found here. It’s a brave soul that looks at Reading and thinks “what this place really needs is a new Italian place, right at the edge of town, on a site with a history of closed restaurants and no car park” but, you know, best of luck to them.

I had heard rumours that the Lobster Room had also closed, and wandering past they appeared to be true: the menu boards had been taken down and the lights were off. However, a sign has now appeared stating that they reopen on the 4th of April. It’s not clear whether they’ve closed temporarily for repairs, for refurbishments or to improve their recipe for the most expensive ravioli in Reading (regular readers may remember that it held the dubious honour of having the lowest ER rating to date: the review is here).

My Kitchen, mentioned in the last round-up, has now opened. It’s open until 7pm serving coffee, sandwiches, salads and cakes – I’ve not been yet but it would be good to see another independent competing in the market for lunch trade and taking some business away from all of Reading’s Costas, Neros and Starbucks. Their website doesn’t seem to work (always a bit awkward when businesses don’t get that right) but they do Tweet, here.

We have one other restaurant opening in the offing: the old Glo site on St Mary’s Butts is going to reopen as Coconut Bar And Kitchen. They’re currently recruiting for chefs and claim that they will offer an experience based on genuine street food from across the Far East. It sounds an awful lot like Tampopo to me but a lot will depend, as always, on the execution. Again, no website yet and the Twitter feed – here – isn’t really worth looking at yet. The same goes for the Facebook page, so it’s very much a case of watching this space and seeing what happens.

Also worth mentioning: nominations have opened for the Reading Retail Awards. There are categories for best coffee shop, best lunchtime venue and best restaurant and the defending champions are Whittington’s Tea Barge, Tutu’s Ethiopian Table and Côte respectively. If you want to nominate your favourite place, the form is here.

Finally, in the last round-up I mentioned Alt Reading, a new publication covering all aspects of independent life in Reading. They were kind enough to interview me recently for the site and asked me a variety of questions around why I set the blog up, what I look for when I review a restaurant and how I’d like to see Reading’s food scene change. I’m very lucky that they asked me such interesting questions and luckier still that they didn’t ask me anything really difficult, like my favourite cheese (it it Barkham Blue? or a really salty crumbly mature cheddar? a creamy buffalo mozzarella, torn and served with fresh tomatoes? I wish I’d never started this now). Anyway, for those of you who are interested the interview can be found here.

Right, that’s all for another month. See you all again next Friday for another impartial, reliable review of a Reading restaurant – and if you have somewhere you want me to review, you probably know the drill by now.

The Pack Horse, Mapledurham

This week’s review was meant to be of Kei’s, the Chinese restaurant in Lower Earley. I took the bus, past streets called things like Parsley Drive and Clove Close (it must be hard to be inspired when you have to name so many streets; back in the day it was the largest housing development in Europe) and reached the restaurant only to find that we’d been given the only table left. By the door. With the spotlight overhead gone. In pitch blackness.

Were there no other tables, we asked. Apparently not. Could they do anything about it? After some shaking of heads, a waitress returned with an ineffective-looking candle that had seen better days. And I, I’m afraid to say, turned round and left. I’ve been sat at many tables so awful that I’ve asked to move, and some so bad that I’ve accepted them reluctantly and complained all night, but only one so terrible that I refused to sit there at all, and that was the one at Kei’s. It was hardly a table at all, more a badly-lit symbol of their determination to make money out of two extra diners. So never mind, Kei’s. Maybe another time.

Instead, the following night I went to the Pack Horse at Mapledurham and something very similar happened.

This time, it was the opposite problem. The spotlight was working – too well, which meant that the person in one of the seats looked like they were competing on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? (picking a main course is difficult, but never that difficult). We asked if we could be moved. It shouldn’t have been a problem; there were loads of vacant tables for two.

“I’m sorry, those tables are reserved.” said the waitress, casually dressed in what might have been a dress or just a very long t-shirt.

“This table was reserved too. And they’re not here yet anyway. Can’t you just swap them over?”

This was apparently a very difficult question (I didn’t realise at this stage but that was the shape of things to come from the service at the Pack Horse) but after much deliberation she moved us. Our reservation was at 8, the table they swapped was at 7.30. They never turned up. The table next to us was reserved from 7, and they never turned up either. I can only imagine that some people in Mapledurham have invented a time machine, travelled into the future and read this review.

Before that it all looked promising. The Pack Horse is a gorgeous pub on the A4074, about fifteen minutes out of Reading. The main bar is all beautiful wooden beams and brass over the fireplace, snug and cosy. The wine list has a default glass size of 125ml, and everything is attractively priced, encouraging you to drink as many different things as possible. The dining room is handsome, even if the tables are a little bit too small for two. But from the moment we took our seats, nothing else went right.

We started with some rustic bread, butter and rosemary oil, although we needed to order this twice before it actually turned up. It was unremarkable – the butter was unsalted and only just soft enough to spread, the bread heavy and hard work (maybe this is what “rustic” means). Only the oil was worth the trouble – sharp, fresh and green with a good whack of flavour from the rosemary. The bread came on a board big enough that they had to remove our pointless place mats; that’s how small the table was.

Our starters arrived about two minutes after the bread, another warning sign. What was called spiced lamb faggots with chick peas and tomato stew on the menu was a job for Trading Standards. Faggots should be big, coarse, earthy things; these were three tiny meatballs, with no spice in them. The chickpea and tomato stew was all chopped tomato and very little chick pea. I wanted a hearty bowl of food but instead I got a needlessly cheffy oblong plate with three puddles of underwhelming tomato on it, each topped with a minuscule sphere of meat-flavoured indifference. On top of each of those was a piece of deep fried pitta bread, for reasons which escape me. Worst of all, though, the whole thing was lukewarm. By the time I’d finished it, so was I.

Pack Horse - Lamb

Fig and thyme tarte tatin with goats cheese, pickled walnut, radish and pea shoot salad was equally misleading, so much so that I thought I had misread the menu. What I actually got was a goats cheese tart with a couple of big slices of pickled walnut on top. There was no thyme that I could detect, and no fig either. It was all salt and vinegar and no sweetness to offset it all (unless you count the drizzle of generic red jam around the edge of the plate: I don’t). The radish and pea shoot salad was just a nest of pea shoots, no sign of the radish. When I read the menu at the Pack Horse it was so huge that I had reservations about whether they could cook it all. It turns out they couldn’t: perhaps they had run out of some of the ingredients, or maybe the way they cook those dishes has evolved over time. The wording on the menu certainly hasn’t, though, and either way I felt short changed.

In a good restaurant, the starter makes you feel excited: I can’t wait to see what my main is like. At the Pack Horse, it was quite the opposite. I found myself wishing we’d ordered more straightforward mains, dishes a kitchen couldn’t mess up. As they took the starters away I ordered another glass of wine and we took bets on how quickly the mains would turn up; after all, everything so far had been so disappointing that surely this was the logical next step (one of us guessed five minutes, the other ten).

Our mains arrived roughly ten minutes later, both of them slouching towards mediocrity and barely getting there. The braised shoulder of lamb was like a bad cover version of kleftiko where you could make out the words but the melody was all wrong. It wasn’t quite cooked well enough or long enough, so bits of it fell apart but most of it was a struggle against wobbliness, and I do enough of that already. The rosemary jus was thin, watery and flavourless. The dauphinoise potato managed to be sinful without being any fun – all cream and no seasoning, the worst kind of empty calories. The spring vegetables had an air of supermarket stir fry about them. All in all, it was a depressing way to spend sixteen pounds – not inedible by any means, but stirring up bittersweet memories of this kind of thing done far better pretty much anywhere else.

The roasted cod with chorizo, tomato and white bean stew and basil lemon pesto dressing was equally uninspiring. The cod itself was a decent sized chunk, well cooked but also underseasoned. I was expecting the stew to be a hearty bean-filled affair but it seemed to be the twin of the tomato stew from the faggot starter, with a few small chunks of chorizo and beans added in. It had a little hint of chilli but not enough to make it interesting. On top of the cod was yet another nest of pea shoots and a single slice of chorizo, cooked until it resembled a tax disc holder. I tried to eat some, for the record, but gave it up as a bad job. There was a drizzle of pesto round the edge of the plate, cheffy style again, but it didn’t stand a chance against the chilli tomato stew so I can’t tell you if it was lemony or basilly, or if those are even real words. There was also some random fennel, so little that you couldn’t tell if it was deliberate.

Pack Horse - Cod

The final insult was twofold. First of all, they left our plates in front of us for well over ten minutes after we’d finished eating. Having to look at couple of plates with the leftovers of a disappointing meal, for that long, is almost as bad as having to eat it in the first place. We figured out that it took roughly as long to get rid of those plates as it had to bring them to our table. The irony: so quick to take our order, so quick to bring our starters, so quick to bring our mains. And yet the one time you actually want the serving staff to get their skates on they couldn’t be found for love nor money. It was the only slow element of the entire evening: from taking our seats to finishing our main courses took under an hour.

Better still, a waiter then came over with the glass of wine I’d ordered when they took our starters away. (Had you forgotten about that? You’re not alone: so had they.)

“I’m sorry, I ordered this some time ago. I don’t want it now.” I said.

The waiter put the glass of wine on the table. There was no obvious sign of a hearing aid.

“No, I’m sorry, I need to send this back.”

He shambled off with the wine glass, without saying a word. They still billed us for it, mind you, and we had to ask to get it taken off the bill. The bill, for two people, for bread, two starters, two mains and a total of five drinks, came to £63. We didn’t stay for dessert, because I had some chocolate in the fridge at home and a pretty good idea that they weren’t going to manage anything half as tasty as that. Service wasn’t included, and I didn’t tip; I think failing to tip, by and large, is deplorable but on this occasion there was literally nothing to reward. The waiting staff were there when you didn’t want them, nowhere to be seen when you did, knew little about the food and, with the exception of the literal, brought nothing to the table.

You’ll notice that I haven’t talked in detail about the wine, and there’s a reason for that: it wasn’t good enough to justify going to the Pack Horse. It wouldn’t have been even if they were selling magnums of Margaux for a tenner.

What I’ve realised, over the past six months, is that Saturday nights seem to be cursed for me. I went to Picasso on a Saturday night, and the Lobster Room, and in the Pack Horse the curse of Saturday night seems to have struck again. It’s an absolutely beautiful pub, but the menu is all wrong. They should either live up to the promise of those surroundings and cook skilful, imaginative food, or stick to a small menu of tried and tested pub classics. What they’ve done is neither: the food here isn’t actively bad, but it’s possibly even worse than that – a mediocre photocopy of good food, a menu which makes all the right noises ruined by execution which is totally out of tune.

The perfect punchline only came later when I was writing this review: I found out on the Internet that the pub used to be part of the Blubeckers chain, before they were subsumed into something called “Home Counties Pub Restaurants”. I went to a Blubeckers a few times – it was cheap, cheerful and nothing to write home about, a Harvester with ideas above its station. And yet, thinking about the meal I’d had at the Pack Horse it managed something I wouldn’t have thought possible: it made me nostalgic for Blubeckers. Any restaurant that can do that really isn’t much of a restaurant.

The Pack Horse – 5.1
Woodcote Road, Chazey Heath, Mapledurham, RG4 7UG
01189 722140