Round-up: November and December

Edible Reading is taking Christmas off. Many restaurants aren’t attractive places to visit over the festive season – full of work dos paying inflated amounts for a set menu you have to order weeks in advance. Besides, for many Christmas is all about the pleasures of eating at home – roasts, smoked salmon breakfasts, insanely huge cheeseboards – and I’m no different. So here’s a round-up of what you may have missed over the last couple of months, along with all the local food news I’ve been able to uncover.

The Lobster Room, 3.3 – A good cellar restaurant can feel like a well-kept, exclusive secret. This place, on the other hand, deserves to be more widely known for different reasons. Check out ER’s worst rating so far, and the review, here.

Sushimania, 7.4 – Reading’s replacement for the much-lamented Thai Nine offers all you can eat sushi and a range of Japanese noodle and rice dishes. But is the complicated pricing structure worth navigating? Click here to find out.

Forbury’s, 7.1 – One of the mainstays among Reading’s high-end restaurants, Forbury’s has a new chef who is determined to make waves. I went expecting great things, but was I disappointed? The review is here.

Café Yolk, 5.2 – Everyone loves Café Yolk, from Twitter to TripAdvisor. Is it a masterpiece of marketing or do they really do the best breakfast in Reading? The most controversial review so far can be found here, and don’t forget to check out the comments where the chef defends himself – admittedly under an assumed name, and pretending to be a customer, but I guess it’s something.

The Plowden Arms, 8.7 – Things had to improve after Café Yolk, and fortunately my first trip out of central Reading uncovered a hidden gem on the road to Henley. Sophisticated food, hearty pub classics and gorgeous vintage crockery, all under one roof? I loved the Plowden – go here to see why I was so impressed.

The Moderation, 6.6 – Spirit House has recently opened The Queen’s Head, up on Christchurch Green, but is The Moderation the original and best? I checked out the closest thing central Reading has to a gastropub, and found a decidedly mixed bag, here.

House Of Flavours, 8.3 – It had to happen eventually – Edible Reading reviews an Indian restaurant. But House Of Flavours might be a really good restaurant that happens to do Indian food, rather than a curry house. The review, here, explains why.

The last couple of months have been slow in terms of restaurant news. La Courbe in King’s Walk still shows no signs of opening, although they’ve now added a Twitter feed to their website (it said they were opening in September, then got changed to December 16th, so we can safely assume they’re a bit behind schedule). There are a couple of interesting openings in Reading, but both are cafés rather than full-blown restaurants.

Lincoln Coffee House opened a couple of weeks ago at 60 Kings Road, and looks interesting. The owners buy their coffee from Nude and are clearly influenced by the coffee scene in Hackney and Shoreditch; the interior looks quite handsome, if stark, and they offer coffee, an interesting looking range of tea (very welcome, as tea drinkers get rather a raw deal in Reading) and a variety of bagels and cakes. It will be interesting to see how they settle in – it’s a challenging location, and they’ll need a lot of lunchtime custom from the big offices nearby. The website is still being built (http://www.lincolncoffeehouse.co.uk/) and they don’t Tweet, but a Facebook page is here.

Also new, at 16 West Street, is Cappuccina Café, which is an even more curious beast. A mixture of Vietnamese and Portuguese food means that it will offer both bánh mì (the distinctive pork sandwich so popular in London a few years back) and pastéis de nata (that’s egg custard tarts to me and you). I’ve not been in yet, but a wander past suggests it’s doing a good trade so far and the sign on the door, suggesting their pastéis may be from Portuguese chain Café Nicola, is also a good sign. No website, no Facebook page and no Twitter presence, so you’ll just have to stop by and check them out if that floats your boat.

Neither a restaurant nor a café, but still good news for cheese lovers and ale fans, The Grumpy Goat, in Harris Arcade, opened on 14th December and plans to stock a full range of local cheeses. This is great news, whether you prefer the creamy delights of Waterloo, the hard nutty temptations of Spenwood (named after Spencer’s Wood, don’t you know) or of course Barkham Blue, possibly the best blue cheese in the world. It’s nice that Reading folk will no longer have to trek to Pangbourne, Henley or Wokingham to satisfy their cheese cravings. Again, no website yet but they’re on Facebook here and they also tweet.

Of course, Edible Reading isn’t the only source of local restaurant reviews. The Reading Post recently reviewed Bart’s Grill, here, giving it an impressive four stars out of five. They must really like Bart’s, because they also reviewed it barely four months before that, here. Not to forget the time that they reviewed it in August 2012, also a glowing review, here. That’s three reviews in – count them – fifteen months. Not to be outdone, the Reading Chronicle also reviewed it in November, here – although theirs was an “advertising feature”, so Bart’s paid the paper for the privilege (not sure why they bothered, when they get so much coverage from the Post for free). It must be quite a restaurant – perhaps I’ll check it out in 2014 and see what all the fuss is about.

Last of all, it’s worth pointing out the new pages on Edible Reading. If you want to see a list of all the places I’ve reviewed, in alphabetical order, you can find it here. You’d rather see it in order of ER ratings? No problem, that’s here! And if you want to see the list of restaurants in the pile to review, and even to suggest one yourself, you can find that here. Nearly every restaurant I review comes from a tip-off, suggestion or request from you, so please keep them coming.

Right, that’s all. Have a magnificent Christmas full of turkey, brandy butter, red wine, cheese and port (and devoid of hangovers, Lambrini, coffee creams and acid reflux) and see you on Friday 10th January when I publish the first review of 2014. Not sure where it will be yet, but I hear there’s this great place called Bart’s on the Wokingham Road…

Welcome to Edible Reading!

Reading is a place where it’s easy to get a meal, but not always easy to get a good one.

It’s not that we don’t have restaurants; we have loads. Just head to the Oracle, stand on the arching bridge that connects the shops to the cinema and look – every chain you care to name, on either side of the canal. But that’s the problem, really. We have, it can’t be denied, a lot of chains – from the well-established to the just starting up. We are in the forefront of expansion for chains, too: the first Bill’s outside Brighton was here, the first Five Guys outside London is opening in the Oracle soon.

In some cases we have more chains than anybody could ever need; right now Reading has two branches of Bella Italia (is this really necessary? you might wonder), two branches of Pizza Express. And that’s before we get on to the cafes and fast food joints – two McDonalds, three Burger Kings (there used to be four), four Caffe Neros (there used to be three, before they took over one of the four branches of Burger King), four branches of Costa Coffee (two of them in the Oracle, one a stone’s throw from the Oracle) and four branches of Starbucks.

One reason why people go to the chain restaurants so much is that they’re a known quantity. A Pollo Ad Astra at Pizza Express on the Riverside is going to be much the same as a Pollo Ad Astra on St Mary’s Butts or in Bristol, Bath, Banbury or Birmingham. This is especially true in Reading, because if you’re looking for help or guidance in terms of where to eat, well, there isn’t much.

You can consult the local paper, of course. But the reviews in there are all comped and the editorial policy appears to be not to publish a critical review. What that means in practice is that the same places come up again and again – a high-end freebie here, another trip to a suburban curry house there – and the bland write-ups mean you come away with no idea whether, if you were spending your own money, you would be wasting it.

This doesn’t deter them from their other editorial policy: make sure the cost of every item is clearly listed. I had the burger (what is it about burgers which so fascinates the local paper?) which at £9.95 was juicy and good value. My partner had the mushroom risotto (£8.95), which he thought was slightly underseasoned. It can feel a bit like reading a shopping list, half the time, instead of a review.

So, you can’t trust the local paper, because it likes all the places it reviews, can tell you the price of everything and the value of nothing. Where else can you go, then? TripAdvisor?

TripAdvisor is a curious one, and there’s a big debate in general about how trustworthy it is for restaurants: many bloggers, and restaurant reviewers for that matter, are not fans. Partly this is motivated by distrust about the democratic nature of TripAdvisor – it is the ultimate expression of Web 2.0 in some ways, just like Goodreads and Amazon reviews – and an elitist view that people as a whole don’t know best. That said, there’s some validity to the criticism. Sometimes, a restaurant’s success on TripAdvisor isn’t always about the food, or the service, but about how good they are at mobilising support on TripAdvisor (on a recent meal out, we thanked the waiter and he specifically asked us to leave a good review on TripAdvisor if we enjoyed it).

Is TripAdvisor a good guide for restaurants in Reading? Well, yes and no. A quick look at the site illustrates the problem neatly. At the time of writing, the top three restaurants in Reading are (and have been for a while) Whittington’s Tea Barge, Café Yolk and Tutti Frutti. All of them are establishments with something going for them but are they restaurants? Some of the restaurants in the top ten – Mya Lacarte, Kyklos, the Bladebone – are very good places, but it’s hard to escape the fact that TripAdvisor feels very hit and miss.

So the local paper can’t help you and TripAdvisor is a bit of a lottery, but never mind, because there are always blogs, right? Well, no again. Reading has never had a restaurant blog that I know of – well, not until now, because that’s what I’m here for. Welcome to Edible Reading.

Reading’s isn’t a stagnant restaurant scene by any means. We don’t have the regular turnover of restaurants you’d get in a bigger city, but there is still enough change that there’s something to write about. Kyklos, the new Greek restaurant in King’s Walk, opened earlier this year. So did The Lobster Room on Valpy Street. House Of Flavours, in the old Mangal spot on Kings Road, has been open for a month or so. Five Guys – which may or may not turn out to be terrible, depending on who you read – opens later this year. None of the new places, so far, have been reviewed anywhere. So I reckon there’s a gap in the market for a restaurant blog.

I don’t claim to be an expert – and I’m not sure I’d trust anybody who told you they were – but I eat out fairly often, I love food and, crucially, when I have a bad meal it’s my own money I’m wasting. What you can expect here is weekly, unbiased reviews of all kinds of restaurants in Reading (and possibly the surrounding area) and – if past experience is anything to go on – some very shoddy photographs of food. All comments and debate are encouraged, here or on the Twitter feed (@EdibleReading, of course) and if you have any suggestions for places you recommend, or have always wanted to go to but aren’t sure about, do leave a comment, Tweet at me or send me an email (EdibleReading@gmail.com).

Should be fun, shouldn’t it?