Feature: Al fresco dining

N.B. A more recent guide to al fresco dining has been published on the blog and can be found here.

No new review this week I’m afraid, because I’m taking my first week off of 2015. Instead, you get a feature: I’ve had a few people express interest in ER features from time to time, so this is the first of its kind.

I’m very lucky that I get to eat out often and write weekly independent restaurant reviews; I genuinely believe that the only way restaurant reviews can be totally impartial is if the person writing the review is also the person paying the bill. But I’m also painfully aware that eating out is a luxury that not everyone can afford. This week, I’m donating the cost of the meal I would have eaten to Launchpad, Reading’s homeless charity which does excellent, tireless work which is needed more now than ever. ER is free to read and it always will be – but if you felt like donating even the smallest amount of money to Launchpad too, I’d really appreciate it and I’m sure they would too. Normal service will be resumed next week – until then, on with the feature.

Summer is around the corner – the Reading Beer Festival always feels to me like the first sign that it’s on the way – and that always makes me think about the delights of eating outdoors. We all daydream about barbecues, we have our tea and coffee at pavement tables people-watching and relaxing and suddenly a whole different criterion comes into the decision-making process when you’re deciding where to eat. After all, it would be a shame to have lunch or dinner cooped up when it’s glorious outside.

It really frustrates me that good al fresco dining spots in Reading are few and far between. The town seems to be full of blind spots where the sun just doesn’t shine, and many of the plum spots are filled by disappointing chains. Bill’s, for instance, has an absolutely gorgeous space outside which is a magnet for UV rays but the food doesn’t live up to the setting. It’s quite nice for breakfast (eggs sunny side up in more ways than one) but otherwise it just doesn’t do it for me. The Riverside gets lots of sun and many of the venues have decent outdoor seating but it’s hard to be excited by them – the little tables outside Cote always look inviting, but All Bar One, Bella Italia, Pizza Hut and Nando’s aren’t quite so alluring.

So – and I might be jinxing the summer of 2015 by even saying this – the days are long, the shadows are too, it’s short-sleeves weather and you’re ravenous. Where to go?

1. Dolce Vita

It did cross my mind to pick the balcony at Jamie’s Italian, looking out over the throng of Oracle shoppers. But, for food and service, Dolce Vita easily has the egde. It’s as close as you can get to the Oracle view without actually being in the Oracle, tucked away from the hubbub. The balcony area extends out on two sides of the restaurant and the menu is equally sunny with Mediterranean food – and some more leftfield choices with traditional British and even Asian influences – and friendly, charming Greek service. The set menu, which is often on song, offers great value and a surprising range of options. When I sit outside at Dolce Vita I can almost convince myself that I’m on holiday, especially if I’m drinking a pint of Peroni or a fresh, fruity glass of rosé.


2. The Plowden Arms

Ideally one would arrive at the Plowden in an open top sports car, passing some of the rolling green hills that the Berkshire/Oxfordshire border has in spades. The generous garden at the Plowden offers a lovely view across the countryside with added waitress service and decent umbrellas, should you be more English rose than suntanned millionaire. The food here ranges from substantial and traditional to delicate and sophisticated (and the kitchen is consistently brilliant at all of it) but everything is fresh, creative and sometimes based on old English recipes, in case you fancy a side order of education. Having your dessert outside by candlelight, the last rays of the sun not long faded, is a pretty magical way to finish an evening.


3. Picnic

Picnic has one of the best spots in the centre of town, having taken over the old Jacobs shop eight years ago. The tables outside catch plenty of sunshine (especially early to mid-afternoon) and, provided the wind isn’t blowing a gale, it’s a great place to enjoy lunch and some of Reading’s best people watching. The salads have always been the draw here – leaves and couscous with a weekly range of toppings – and although I’ve found the interior much harder to love since they moved everything around, it can’t be denied that it has freed up the space for the kitchen to add yet more interesting variations on that theme (that said, I still have a soft spot for their roast chicken and pesto). If you scoff at salad, even in summer, there’s also a lot to be said for their cracking Cornish pasties and sausage rolls, from award winning Green’s of Pangbourne. Oh, and the cakes are magnificent: good old-fashioned Victoria sponge and terrific, moist lemon polenta cake are my favourites. All that and a view of Munchee’s opposite (what more could you want?) – no wonder, whenever I bag a table outside, I feel so reluctant to leave.

4. London Street Brasserie

London Street Brasserie has probably the nicest terrace in town, alongside the Kennet. When it catches the sun it really catches the sun, and in summer the menu – always nicely seasonal – really rises to the occasion. There’s nothing quite like making inroads into a crisp bottle of white and enjoying a half pint of prawns, easing off the head and shell before dipping that firm flesh into their peerless garlic mayonnaise (writing about doesn’t even come close: I’m hungry now). I generally find the set menu more reliable than the a la carte here (the fish and chips is another favourite of mine) which makes it perfect for a boozy weekend lunch, although if it’s not quite sunny enough or the afternoon is waning, they also do a nice line in chequered blankets and patio heaters. LSB is a good example of how the summer can change everything – on a winter evening it probably wouldn’t make any of my top fives, but when the sun is out it’s hard to beat.


5. Forbury’s

Forbury Square is one of the prettier, quieter outdoor areas in town and Forbury’s really makes the most of it (and in some style, too). Unlike the unluckily positioned Carluccio’s – which always feels like it should be sunny but never is – it is nicely lit and, unlike Cerise, the seating is plentiful and comfortable. If you can manage to stick to their set menu (a challenge that many have failed, me included) then a three course meal can set you back as little as twenty pounds per head – and even less if you’re lucky enough to be there on a weekday lunchtime. Make sure you add some bread, though, as their sourdough is heavenly. Oh, and wear your best sunglasses and pretend you’re on the French Riviera. Air kissing optional.


6. The Allied Arms

What is ER on about? you’re probably thinking. The Allied Arms is just a pub and it doesn’t do food. I know, I know, but bear with me. I picked this tip up from friends of mine a couple of years ago and it’s a cracker; although the Allied doesn’t do food, they don’t have a problem with you consuming food from elsewhere on the premises. So, on a summer night when the Summer Lightning or the Thatcher’s Gold is flowing, instead of wandering off to a restaurant just get someone to watch your table, pop next door to Pizza Express and then return with your Pollo Ad Astra or American Hot. It’s worth it for that first bite of pizza. It’s worth it for the crispiness of the pepperoni or the salt bomb of anchovy. But, more than anything, it’s worth it for the looks of envy you get from everybody else in the pub who wishes they’d thought of it. Last time I checked, the Allied even kept a pizza cutter behind the bar, although if word gets out they might start charging people to use it.

If you like this and you’d like to read more of this sort of thing then let me know in the comments, and if there are any particular subjects you’d like to read an ER feature on then do say!

The Plowden Arms, Shiplake

The team at the Plowden Arms left the pub at the start of April 2017, which is such a pity. I’ve left the review up for posterity. The pub reopened late May under new management with a different menu, but not one I am likely to go and review.

This week’s review is the first ever of a restaurant outside the RG1 postcode; scandalous I know, but there’s more to living in this little town than easy access to the Oracle, Friar Street and Broad Street. So rather than try another city centre restaurant I hopped in the car on a chilly weekday evening and made for the Plowden Arms, a proper little old pub on the road from Reading to Henley. I have to say, I love a good pub; it’s one of the things (along with queuing, not to mention sighing and shooting evil looks at queue jumpers) that Britain does better than anywhere else in the world.

The Plowden Arms has everything you expect from a classic English country pub: low beams, an open fire and a freezing loo (the better the pub, the worse the toilet in my experience). The fire was lit when we arrived, and the room was cosy, if a tad empty. There were only three occupied tables, and it was a bit sad to see they weren’t busier. Some pubs are really restaurants in disguise – all posh furniture and pretensions – and some pubs don’t really know what they want to be, like boozers going through a midlife crisis. The Plowden isn’t like that; for better or worse it is a pub that serves food, and the dark furniture and slightly uncomfortable banquettes were testimony to that.

We were greeted warmly and given menus but they only tell half the story at the Plowden. The blackboard up by the bar listed loads of specials – four starters and four mains, almost as many dishes as were on the printed menu. Our waitress – who was nothing short of charming all evening – told us that these change every couple of days. I can’t tell you what a good signal this sends out. It says that the chef is using what’s fresh and seasonal, being inventive, always changing and always improving things. Why don’t more restaurants do this? Even the most high end restaurants in the centre of Reading rarely offer more than one special.

Overall, it was one of those menus where you want to order everything and know you can’t. It’s worth pointing out how reasonable it is too – the starters hover around the £7.50 mark, few mains are over £15. Looking at the flip side of the printed menu made the choice even more difficult – a whole extra section of “Drinking accompaniments and simple dishes”, all of which were just as tempting again.

Whilst agonising over the menu we ordered one of the drinking accompaniments, a salt cod scotch egg, to give us something to snack on as we made up our minds. This was a lovely amuse bouche, if you like, nice runny yolk with a soft layer of fish and a tart, fresh tomato sauce underneath. A good start, although I confess I prefer a sausagemeat scotch egg for juiciness, and the salt cod (ironically) didn’t taste that strongly seasoned.

When the starters arrived there was definitely a bit of food envy and I also fancied stealing the vintage plates. The beetroot and blue cheese pithivier, from the specials menu, was the favourite. I know beetroot and goat’s cheese has become a menu cliché across the country, but pairing beetroot with blue cheese was a masterstroke – the sweet beetroot against the salty tang of the blue cheese was a fantastic combination, and one I wasn’t used to. The pastry was crumbly and buttery, and I simultaneously wished the dish had been twice as big and knew that the flavours were so rich and intense that more would have been overwhelming.

PithivierThe other starter, from the a la carte menu, was billed as “hashed lamb with charred bread” and is apparently based on a dish by Mrs Beeton. It was less successful, although that might be partly because I didn’t quite know what to expect. What I got was a Kilner jar of slow cooked pieces of lamb in a rich dark gravy with what looked like haricot beans. The charred bread was toast, for better or for worse. The lamb was topped by tiny fronds of little salad which didn’t add much. All in all it was more interesting than it was delicious, though I didn’t mind it. I was expecting something a little less sloppy and more spreadable, so maybe the mistake was mine. It was probably the only misfire of the evening.


The mains were also a study in contrasts. The slow cooked ham hock with mashed potatoes and a sherry and mushroom sauce (from the a la carte) was huge. I mean, absolutely enormous. The ham hock was a whole hock, bone and all, the size of a lamb shank – so big that it was almost intimidating when set down in front of me. The meat was perfect – soft, pink, no hint of grim wobbliness – and it fell away from the bone with convenient cleanness. The mash was one of the best I’ve tasted – rich, creamy and smooth, the texture just right. The sauce was equally impressive, somehow both sweet and salty, bringing the whole dish together. It was all very substantial but also the kind of dish you can’t bring yourself to stop eating, even if you’re ready to pop by the end.

HockThe other main, from the set menu, was sea trout with celeriac pureé, samphire, new potatoes and a clam and chive cream sauce. Sounds like a lot of different things going on but it was as delicate and precise as the ham hock was hearty and primitive. Every component was perfect, and every component worked with the rest – the sizeable fillet fresh, subtle and falling into flakes, the little bundle of samphire underneath it with just enough crunch, the sauce again creamy and intense – powerful enough to set off against the trout without drowning what can be quite an understated fish. This is a kitchen that knows how to do sauces so good that you slightly regret the fact that this is a restaurant that doesn’t bring you bread to mop up the rest with. That’s about the only criticism I can come up with about the mains, which tells you a lot.

Sadly driving meant we couldn’t make the most of the wine list. The wines by the glass – between us we had a Chilean merlot and a French pinot noir – were safe and tasty but not wildly exciting. It’s not by any means a big wine list and this did seem a little jarring given the undoubted quality of the food they are serving. Perhaps this is another sign that this is a pub that serves food rather than a restaurant, but I still felt a little disappointed by that.

When the first two courses are that good, dessert is inevitable. As I’ve said previously, I do like a school dinner dessert and that made it impossible to resist the jam roly poly. It was exactly how you would want it to be – a classic example of the genre, only ever so slightly refined. So the slice was lovely and dense, the poly (the roly? where does the name come from anyway? I bet the Plowden Arms probably knows) was beautifully jammy and not overly sweet, but the slice was also just the right size and the custard surrounding it was wonderfully light, almost like a crème anglaise. This was like a school dinner at a school much better than the one I’d gone to.


Again, the other dessert was about as different as you can get. It was described as chocolate mousse and gingerbread biscuit with hazelnut and orange cream but it was so much more than that. The cream was between layers of ginger biscuit, like a dense millefeuille, and gave me the hugely satisfying experience of whacking it with a spoon until the biscuit (not too dense, not too delicate) broke up into bits small enough to eat. The chocolate mousse wasn’t really mousse. Instead it was a dark quenelle of what seemed more like ganache – intense, smooth, glossy. Like the pithivier it was a portion which looked too small before you started it but which you realised was just right once you’d finished it. This is no mean feat in a kitchen, every bit as much of a talent as changing your menu several times a week or making sauces that knock people’s socks off.

I haven’t said enough about the service, which was lovely: friendly and informal but also knowledgeable and polished. Everything about how we were looked after was spot on – from laying and relaying the table to serving from one side without leaning over you (it might sound like a small thing but it’s one of my pet hates). By the end I was sorry to leave and faintly aggrieved that there were so few diners that night.

The bill for three courses for two people (plus that scotch egg), three glasses of wine and numerous soft drinks was £80. I don’t know anywhere in town where I could eat that quality (and quantity!) of food for that amount, though of course it’s tempered a little by the effort of getting out into the sticks. That said, by the end of the meal I was itching to come back and already planning a return visit – it’s the sort of place where I could easily see myself settling in by the open fire with the Sunday papers.

When I think back on it, more than anything, I think the most impressive thing about the Plowden was the sheer range of cooking on display. I felt like we almost sampled two different meals – one hearty, warming and enormous, one clever, dainty and delicate. To find a restaurant that can do one of those things is a wonderful discovery, to find a cosy pub that can manage both is verging on miraculous. So yes, I loved the Plowden Arms. Can you tell? Food this good, this reasonably priced, this clever and this well served should be eaten by a lot more people, and I hope if nothing else my review might help to do something about that.

The Plowden Arms – 8.7
Shiplake Cross, Henley On Thames, RG9 4BX
0118 9402794