The Flowing Spring, Playhatch

N.B. As of 2nd December The Flowing Spring has reopened and is offering a special “Reasons To Be Tierful” menu of substantial meals which only cost £4.95. Good for them! Check their – deeply idiosyncratic – website for more details.

I’ve noticed The Flowing Spring many times on my travels, but always when I’ve been going somewhere else, usually Henley. It’s on a stretch of road just past Playhatch, in an oddly solitary location as the road slopes up towards Shiplake. I’ve always been struck me by the sign on the side of the pub, underneath the name, saying Fresh, home-made food including gluten-free, dairy-free and vegetarian, a big block of white with an incongruous, regular font as if it’s been cut out of a Word document, enlarged and stuck on to the building with Blu-Tac.

Well, having done my homework this week I took the next right, pulled into the car park and went inside instead. Why? Well, it turns out that The Flowing Spring is an interesting beast; that sign on the side is a pretty modest summary, but The Flowing Spring takes catering to all kinds of diets very seriously indeed. Apart from all sorts of plaudits for the beer – CAMRA awards, Cask Marques, I’m sure this stuff means more to most of you than it does to me – they were also given an award by PETA last year for being one of the top ten vegan-friendly pubs in the whole of the UK (and yes, if you were a cynic you might find yourself wondering how big a field there was). I haven’t forgotten my resolution to try and eat meat-free mains once a month, and I figured I wouldn’t get a better opportunity to put it to the test.

Charmingly ramshackle doesn’t even begin to do the Flowing Spring justice, an experience that begins when you pull into the car park and realise that it’s at a completely different level to the front of the pub on the main road. The split-level feeling of climbing the stairs to go in is continued by the slightly haphazard nature of the interior. Their website proudly boasts that the whole pub is on a slant, and indeed nothing feels quite like a straight line. There’s a main dining room upstairs, then a sort of L-shaped section downstairs which is more like a traditional pub, open fires and all, and then an area called the “Quirky Corner” into which I did not venture except on my way to the loos (I wasn’t sure I’d be quirky enough).

Initially they sat us in the dining room, all big square tables and handsome conventional furniture, the laminated walls full of copies of the pub’s newsletter and a chalkboard section with enthusiastic quotes on it (“better than the London Street Brasserie” said one, which made me smile). The woman behind the bar also warned us that only one table was unbooked and that there would be a cribbage match going on up there. And I would have stayed up there, but it was absolutely Baltic and I soon realised that cribbage geeks, in their amiable, peg-pushing way, can produce just as many decibels as a crowd watching a much less interesting leisure pursuit with balls and goals. So we moved down to the bar room and had a slightly more laid-back evening – still Baltic, mind, although I did notice that one of the open fires hadn’t been lit.

The menu, like the pub, looks like a big old mess at first. It’s only when I stepped back and had a proper look that I appreciated just how much thought had gone into it. Three of the five starters are not only vegetarian but vegan. They offer two different vegetarian burgers, one of which is vegan, and about half of the mains are either vegetarian or vegan – without a sodding risotto in sight, I might add. Huge sections of the menu can be offered gluten-free, and the menu also assiduously lists potential allergens (I never realised, for instance, that Marmite contains a small amount of gluten: I’ve never felt more sympathy for my friends who have a gluten-free existence). All promising, but I’ve lost count of the number of times a good menu got lost in translation from the kitchen to my table, so I sipped a pint of Aspall’s and listened to the hubbub of the cribbage match getting animated as I waited for the starters to arrive.

Smoked mushrooms in cider batter sounded so perfect that I really wanted to try it. And when it arrived it got so close to really good that I was almost prepared to overlook the flaws. The mushrooms were so smoky that I could nearly forget how small they were, the cider batter so crunchy that I only just remembered that they maybe could have done with being served hotter. The sweet chilli sauce was so thick and tangy that it took my mind off the incongruous bowl of dried coconut flakes on the side which didn’t go, or the undressed salad which was mainly iceberg lettuce. For seven pounds I think I expected slightly more, but on the other hand I was in a lovely pub trying smoked mushrooms, and that doesn’t happen very often.

FlowingMushrooms

My indecision wasn’t helped by the Thai fishcake. It was itself an indecisive thing, with a touch of Thailand but also the powerful influence of Captain Birdseye, a single giant breadcrumbed puck cut in half and served with more of the sweet chilli sauce and more undressed salad (this one with capers and roasted spiced corn, itself an incongruous mix). But here’s the surprise – despite all that it was delicious. It was nicely crumbed, full of fish rather than reliant on claggy spud with a lovely texture. I shared it with my companion, who isn’t a fan of the sponginess of most Thai fishcakes, and we agreed between us that The Flowing Spring had pulled off a rather surprising triumph of fusion cuisine. I even liked the little ribbons of crispy seaweed, also very nice dipped in the chilli sauce, even if they felt like they were on the run from another dish (or possibly even another restaurant).

FlowingFishcake

I watched dishes turning up at other tables – veggie burgers with a big heap of orangey sweet potato fries on the side, home-made chilli served in, of all things, a Yorkshire pudding – and I found myself oddly charmed by the whole experience, if still not quite quirky enough to explore the Quirky Corner. Mains had been ordered at the recommendation of the woman behind the bar. “You want me to narrow it down to two?” she had said, smiling but perplexed, as if I had asked her to solve one of the riddles on “3-2-1” (a show, in fairness, she was far too young to remember). In the end she suggested the “famous” Flowing Spring Kebab – the menu’s words, not mine – and a veggie burger and we went for those. Again, I was impressed that a pub so determined to court vegetarian diners was also prepared to offer a dish to potentially appease their meat-eating companions.

I was warned that the kebab would be big and it certainly was. The menu claimed that it was the Flowing Spring’s take on a doner kebab, which if anything undersold it because instead it was more like a gigantic roast lamb sandwich. So you got lots of thick slices of lamb, none of them pink but none of them the worse for that, sitting on top of some salad in a huge pitta. I loved the lamb – again, I possibly could have stood it being a tad hotter, but it was so good that I didn’t mind, another example of The Flowing Spring charming me into relaxing my critical faculties somewhat. I spent much of the dish wondering if the lamb was better dipped into the fresh, minty raita or the chilli sauce, a thick gloopy jammy pool of redness that looked like it would be sweet but then delivered an acrid, sinus-clearing punch. I also couldn’t decide whether to team it with a pickled chilli, a slice of crinkle-cut gherkin, some salad (which also contained little pieces of diced gherkin, creditable attention to detail) or a torn piece of pitta. Deciding how I liked the dish the best took me very nicely from the first mouthful to the last, by which point I had decided that I rather loved it all.

FlowingLamb

Photography isn’t my strong point at the best of times, but my veggie burger was far more interesting than it looked. The patty was butternut squash, goats cheese and beetroot and had a lot going on compared to the usual “bean burger” veggie alternative. Beetroot and goat’s cheese, that earthy combination of sweet and salt, is a well-worn combo but putting it in a burger, with the squash as a sort of base note that held it all together, was a surprisingly inspired move. It was crumbed and oaty on the outside which gave it a bit of texture, and that worked with the floury bap (no faddy brioche here) and a small smattering of salad. For a nice, simple burger it was spot on – nothing out of this world but a good, tasty veggie main. Even the chips were an excellent example of pub chips – regular shaped (which made me assume they were out of the freezer, though I could be wrong) but crispy on the outside, fluffy in the middle and, unlike so often, they actually tasted of potato. They almost made up for the fact that the nice looking sweet potato fries I’d seen at other tables had run out. Almost. The only other slight downside was the price: just under twelve pounds (the same as the kebab) felt a little on the steep side, but perhaps you’re paying a premium to have all that choice.

FlowingBurger

Dinner for two – two courses each, a pint and a half of cider and a couple of soft drinks – came to fifty pounds not including tip. The service was lovely throughout, from the woman behind the bar who took our orders and recommended dishes to the landlord, who brought out our dishes and seemed to genuinely care whether we liked them. And that was the kind of place The Flowing Spring was, because although it was the first time I had ever been I rather felt that everybody else there had been in on the secret for some time.

By the end of the meal we’d moved tables to be nearer to the fire and you could see all sorts of photos up on the walls of events and gigs, be it jazz concerts, outdoor carnivals or classic car events. And I was struck by how remarkable it was that a pub seemingly in the middle of nowhere could have such a community feel. A little piece of folded card on my table went into more detail about where The Flowing Spring gets its ingredients from, and it was another example of the kind of touches that make you trust a place: meat from a family butcher in Devon, eggs (also for sale behind the bar) from just down the road, mushrooms foraged in the autumn. The Flowing Spring really needed to work on its heating, but I still had a warm glow from somewhere. Maybe it was the fire, maybe my slightly jaded heart thawing. Who can say? As we left, having paid up, we talked to one of the cribbage players, an amiable twinkly cardsharp who was at the bar getting another drink.

“We didn’t drive you into the other room, did we?” he said.

“No, not at all. It was just getting a bit hectic up there.”

“You should give it a try some time! We play every fortnight and we’re always looking for new recruits.”

I might have to learn cribbage, you know. Just in case.

The Flowing Spring – 7.3

Henley Road, Playhatch, RG4 9RB
0118 9699878

http://theflowingspringpub.co.uk/

Feature: The 2015 Edible Reading Awards

It seems like a lifetime ago now, but at the start of the year I contributed to a piece for Alt Reading, giving my wish list of what I hoped 2015 would hold for Reading’s food scene: a town centre pub doing top notch food; a decent little pizzeria; a tapas bar; a good Chinese restaurant; a cool tea room; a bakery in the town centre.

If that sounds ambitious it’s probably because it is, but looking back I’m surprised by how much of it has come to pass. I Love Paella has set up down the Oxford Road offering a variety of small dishes and its eponymous seafood dish. Papa Gee turns out to have been there all along (for a decade!) doing a variety of pretty marvellous Neapolitan pizzas, among other things. C.U.P. has opened right next to Reading Minster and offers, hands down, the best tea selection you can find in town. We still don’t have a bakery in the centre, but Pop-Up Reading recently starting selling their own bread to those in the know at a variety of independent establishments across town. Call me Nostradamus!

That said, there haven’t been a huge amount of openings this year, and those we have had have been small chains expanding to Reading: CAU in the Oracle, Itsu at the bottom of Queen Victoria Street. That trend looks set to continue next year when The Stable opens on Bridge Street and, if rumours are to be believed, Grillstock comes to Friar Street. We’ve seen a few independents open in the town centre – most notably Manhattan Coffee Club bucking the trend as the Oracle’s only independent café and the owner of the original Chronicles trying to turn around that site under the Valpy Street moniker. It’s felt like a transitional year all round, and that probably reflects in the very low number of closures in 2015: so although it was the year we said goodbye to Tampopo, O Beirao and (without much fanfare) Master Naan, most of our independent restaurants are still hanging in there.

Of course, you can’t look back on the year without doing a bit of navel-gazing, and it’s been a brilliant year here at ER HQ. I’ve travelled much further in search of good meals and been rewarded with some of the very best food I’ve eaten on duty (and some of the worst, but let’s not talk about that now). More people have read the blog than ever before, and I’ve appreciated every bit of brilliant feedback I’ve had, every comment, every Retweet, every suggestion and – particularly – every time someone has told me they enjoyed a restaurant they went to because of one of my reviews.

On a personal level, I was particularly chuffed to be shortlisted for the Alt Reading award for Individual Cultural Contribution, mainly because it felt like recognition that Reading has a food scene to be cherished, celebrated and cultivated. I didn’t win (which is fair enough – Suzanne Stallard IS culture in Reading, after all), but making the final five still was a victory for all our independent restaurants and cafes. I’ve also really enjoyed seeing Roast Dinners Around Reading flourish this year and get more and more readers for his – syndicated, don’t you know – restaurant reviews. Reading finishes 2015 with more choice than ever before of where to eat and drink, and more help with making those choices too.

Anyway, as is now traditional I’m taking my festive break. The weeks ahead will involve mountains of roast potatoes, huge stinky cheeseboards, crisps, peanuts, those big tubs of Twiglets, Mini Cheddars, red wine, mulled wine, dessert wine, port, sherry, bubbly, Snowballs (no, really), and – if I have anything to do with it – diving into a box of Matchmakers without having to share them with anyone else. I love restaurants, as you’ve probably gathered, but the festive season doesn’t show them at their best with all that picking from a special menu, having to preorder and winding up next to a big boisterous work do. I’ll be back on January 15th, by which time the vouchers will all be spent, the bad gifts will have been surreptitiously exchanged, half of the people who have tried to spend the month on the wagon will have leapt off it and, hopefully, you might want to read some restaurant reviews. Until then, settle back and enjoy this year’s award winners. Merry Christmas!

SANDWICH OF THE YEAR: Top Toastie, Shed

ShedTop

Yes, I know they won it last year. And you can’t say there hasn’t been competition this year: I was very taken, for instance, with the halloumi, pesto and red pepper piadina at Siblings Home, a little tricorne taste sensation. And although it might stretch the definition of “sandwich” just a little bit, Bakery House could easily have won either with their kallaj bil jibn or their arayes, being halloumi cheese and finely chopped veal respectively stuffed into their excellent Lebanese bread. But Shed’s Top Toastie has been my sandwich of the year – little intense batons of chorizo, all salt and spice, the vinegary heat of jalapenos and the comforting smother of lots and lots of mozzarella desperately trying to escape from their peerless ciabatta. Really, if you haven’t had one yet it might be the best New Year’s Resolution you could make.

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Chicken pastilla, Al Fassia

FassBastilla

All my favourite starters of the year, with the exception of CAU’s superbly indulgent salt cod and manchego croquettes, came from out of town. West of Reading, I was an enormous fan of Brebis’ duck liver and foie gras parfait, perfectly glossy, smooth and rich. In the other direction, The Bell Inn’s pigeon and pork terrine couldn’t have been more different: coarse and rough and earthy, but equally delicious (and with the best pickled beetroot I’ve ever tried). But actually, you have to travel a little further still for my winner this time: Al Fassia is a lovely little place on a nice little street in Windsor and their chicken pastilla is a painstakingly assembled gem, an utterly delicious mixture of shredded chicken, almond and cinnamon, all wrapped in hand-made filo and baked in the oven. I didn’t taste anything like it all year, and thinking about it now it slightly makes me want to go back to Marrakesh. But it really makes me want to go back to Al Fassia.

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Bakery House

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Bakery House’s achievement this year has been phenomenal – from a standing start partway through the year it now feels like it’s always been here. I’ve had countless Tweets from readers telling me that they’re checking it out and they always say two things: that the food is delicious and that the restaurant is packed. I’m yet to have a bad meal here, and I’ve been plenty of times. In a year when Reading got places like CAU (itself very accomplished, in fairness, and easily another candidate for this award) and Itsu and felt more like Zone 7 of London, it’s nice to see a place like Bakery House which is a match for anything you could find down the Edgware Road. Another honourable mention in this category should go to I Love Paella, but more on them later.

LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Shed

This has been a huge growth sector in Reading this year. Some of the newcomers have been good, some indifferent, but the level of choice just seems to get greater and greater – to the extent where many people feel we’ve reached critical mass where coffee shops are concerned. Siblings Home, tucked away in Caversham, was one of my favourites in this category although their recent change of layout makes it less of a pleasant place to sit and while away the hours (it hasn’t stopped me buying all sorts of stuff from their shop though – lovely soap, I can tell you). I was also a big fan of Nibsy’s – it may be gluten free but when I was in there doing a serious assault on their quiche and cake it certainly wasn’t glutton free. None the less, Shed is still the one to beat for me: beautiful sandwiches, delicious milkshakes, excellent service from Pete and Lydia and a great spot upstairs to look out from those lovely big windows. And if you can get there on “Saucy Friday” (particularly for the Scotch bonnet chicken with rice and peas, coleslaw and macaroni cheese), even better.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Parma ham wrapped monkfish, squid ink pasta, mussels and clams, Dolce Vita

I had a lot of fantastic mains this year, and this category was one of the most difficult to judge. All so different, too, from the rich spiced comfort of the Crown at Playhatch’s bobotie to the stunning delicacy of Brebis’ butter poached hake, served on a perfect circle of crushed potatoes with a sweet sharp smear of lemon purée. Also seriously in the running was Beijing Noodle House’s duck fried noodles, an iconic Reading dish which I rediscovered this year, the culinary equivalent of bumping into an old friend and finding them on outstanding form. But my winner is the main course I’ve had more times than I care to name this year – perfectly cooked meaty monkfish, wrapped in parma ham and served with rich, salty squid ink pasta and plenty of shellfish. A proper, grown-up, indulgent dish.

VEGETARIAN MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Gnocchi with goat’s cheese, kale and almond pesto, The Bell Inn

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I’ve finished the year with a new-found admiration for vegetarians, and a better understanding of the sacrifices they make in pursuit of their principles. Heavens, I’ve had some dreary vegetarian main courses while reviewing food for Edible Reading. The awards are all about celebrating the good so we’d better not dwell on the blue cheese pasta with almost no blue cheese in it, big bland bowls of mushroom risotto or Jamie Oliver’s superfood salad which wasn’t. The redeeming feature was the gnocchi dish at the Bell Inn: absolutely stunning stuff, with little dumplings which were subtle not stodgy, a rich, fragrant kale pesto which blew me away and a nice big slab of caramelised goat’s cheese on top. It makes me cross that in a whole year of looking, I only found one main that could beat any other plate of food on meat-free merit. But what a main it was.

SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Mya Lacarte

Many of you may have noticed that I’ve never reviewed Mya Lacarte. For me, it would be like writing an essay on a novel I’ve adored for years – it wouldn’t be enjoyable for me to boil that down or do it to death, to analyse something it’s much more fun to love uncritically. But what I will say is that I think Matt and Alex at Mya are the perfect double act and either of them runs the front of house better than pretty much anyone else in Reading. That a restaurant has both Matt and Alex looking after customers is the hospitality equivalent of having Messi and Ronaldo playing on the same team; I’ve not had a visit to Mya this year that was anything less than brilliant, or a welcome that made me feel anything less than exactly where I belonged. Honourable mentions should also go to Brebis, where the service was utterly charming when I visited, and also to Dolce Vita (which still does a fantastic job despite losing a couple of its star players to C.U.P.).

DESSERT OF THE YEAR: Sfinci, Bird In Hand

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The moment I had the sfinci I knew it would be my dessert of the year: it was love at first mouthful. The lightest, fluffiest doughnuts with the crispiest exterior, little sugared joy-inducing clouds. The pistachio ice cream they came with was rich and nutty, but even without them the sfinci would have won this prize. I’ve had them every time I’ve gone back, and every time they’ve delighted me like it was the first time. So easy to make a good dessert from scratch like this, and yet so many places just can’t do it. But that’s the Bird In Hand all over – it’s run by someone who makes pretty much everything on site. And if it hadn’t won for the sfinci it would probably have won for the malt barley ice cream, which is the best ice cream I’ve had in this country. Also worth a passing mention is the Baskerville’s deep, rich, indulgent chocolate tart. My review of the Baskerville was a bit on the lukewarm side at the time, which is a shame, but they really did pull all the stops out when it came to dessert.

TWEETER OF THE YEAR: Picnic

I’m always surprised that many establishments don’t have Twitter, and those that do have it don’t seem to get it. It shouldn’t be hard: Tweet every day, tell people what you sell, put some nice pictures up and – crucially – give people an idea of the personality behind your brand. But somehow it never seems to work like that, so either you get something prosaic, regular but unengaging or there are flashes of likeable brilliance but it’s all very ramshackle, with updates a bit few and far between. Having blazed the trail in many ways over the years it’s no surprise that Picnic get this spot on – regular bulletins saying what the salad boxes are, showing pictures of the cakes, talking about the specials on Fridays and Sundays, but also showing an interest in Reading and its customers, even telling people to come in out of the cold or putting up pictures of its Christmas decorations. See? It’s easy. Or maybe it’s just that Picnic are very good at making it seem so. Either way, nobody does it better.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: I Love Paella

ILPEmpanada

I could have given this award to Bakery House. I think people would have applauded that: they do great food, they run a tight ship and they add an something extra to Reading’s restaurant scene in terms of top-quality, affordable, informal dining. Equally I toyed with giving it to Papa Gee, in many ways this year’s surprise package; who knew that we had a cracking pizzeria tucked behind the station doing quite nicely for over a decade completely under the radar? Again, I think a lot of people would have agreed – I’ve had lots of feedback from readers saying how delighted they were to discover the place. And, of course, my single best meal of the year on duty was at Brebis, so why isn’t Brebis the winner?

The thing is – and I’ve learned this from reviewing them every week this year and for that matter last year – that restaurants are about more than food, or the service or even the room. They’re about experiences, about the magical alchemy that happens when all those elements come together. Last year, Dolce Vita won because although I’d had better food on occasion in other places, it remained the place where I’d spent my happiest evenings in 2014. This year, that place is I Love Paella.

Watching it evolve over the year has been a real joy – from only opening at the weekend to opening weekday nights, moving from a narrower menu and starting to offer more tapas, more sharing options, more little dishes. The first time I went it was all about the paella and the empanadas. Those are still amazing, but now you get a selection of manchego, or some serrano ham on bread with a little smudge of tomato chutney (still haven’t had the chorizo stew, but there’s always next time). Service is always brilliant, to the extent that you could easily forget that it’s basically a one man band cooking in somebody else’s coffee shop. It’s a proper success story, and I sense that there’s still more to come. I live for the day when I go in to find they’ve found the space for a nice big leg of jamon, but in the meantime I hope they get even more of a feeling of permanence and keep evolving, keep trying things out and keep spoiling those lucky people down the Oxford Road.

Picnic

One of my biggest gripes about Reading is that there are limited options if you want a really good breakfast. I’m talking about crispy, smoked streaky, really good quality sausages, excellent toast, perfectly poached eggs and mushrooms by someone who knows how to cook them into sticky, salty perfection. Oh, and HP Sauce (I know some people like ketchup with breakfast, but then some people like Nigel Farage. It takes all sorts, I guess).

Ironically, your best bets tend to be the chains. And they’re not too bad, I suppose – Cote does a pretty good breakfast, especially their French version with a generous helping of crumbly boudin noir. Carluccio’s used to be top of the heap for me with their resolutely Italian take – thin translucent strips of pancetta, gorgeous wild mushrooms and herby, soft scrambled eggs with ciabatta toast – although recently they’ve tried to Anglicise it by slipping in an incongruous banger. And if you like that sort of thing, Bill’s has a lot of fans, although I’ve always found their breakfast a bit underwhelming.

Most of the independent places in the town centre fall down on the quality of their ingredients – bouncy sausages and pink rubbery bacon are the main culprits here – so I decided to act on a tip-off and drive out to a farm shop a short distance outside town. And it was going well until I bounded up to the counter only to be told that they’d stopped serving at 11.30 (brunch clearly wasn’t a word in their dictionary). Then I remembered that Picnic had recently started doing a Sunday brunch menu, so I did an about turn and headed back into town to give it a whirl.

Picnic is the grand dame of Reading’s lunch scene. It was truly trailblazing when it opened way way back in 2007, and since then it’s been pretty much packed every lunchtime, serving sandwiches, their legendary salad boxes (which change every week, so you need to check their excellent Twitter feed for details), pasties and sausage rolls from Green’s of Pangbourne and all manner of cakes to the discerning populace. They had a refurbishment earlier this year which changed the layout and gave them more working space, and I got the sense that this was to enable them to try some new things – including their brunch menu, veggie burgers and a wider range of salads (they’ve even bought a slicer and are serving charcuterie in some of them). So has that gap in the indie breakfast market finally been filled on Market Place?

Let’s start with the curmudgeonly, change-resistant bit: if I’m honest, I preferred the old layout. I miss the benches all along one side and all that space at the windows, looking across to Munchee’s and watching all the passers-by. Then it was cosy in an all-in-it-together way, now it feels a bit cramped and noisy and cluttered. Still, if it gives them a space to offer a top-notch brunch selection (among other things) it has to be a positive development, right?

They don’t offer a full-on English breakfast, so instead I went for a bacon sandwich. Picnic’s menu boasts that this is locally smoked and you can’t complain about the quantities in the sandwich – the sort of thickly-packed stack of dead pig that would give the World Health Organisation conniptions. The bread was toasted granary and there was a decent smudge of brown sauce in it. It should have been perfect, but what let it down was that only the bread was hot; the bacon was warmish, and I got the distinct feeling that it hadn’t been cooked to order. Perhaps this is unreasonable of me, but for me half the fun of a bacon sandwich is that the bacon is sizzling fresh off the grill and stuffed into the bread, juices melting into it, all crispy and piping hot. This sandwich was quite nice, but it wasn’t that – and if I’d known that I might have gone for something else. Oh, and the napkin had been unhelpfully stuck right under the sandwich (always a bugbear of mine).

PicnicBacon

The other dish was avocado, tomato and harissa on toast. The London style of smashed avocado (with all the requisite extras like lime juice, fresh mint or chilli, all on a nice slice of sourdough) totally hits the spot for me so I fancied seeing what the closest alternative is out here in the provinces. The offering at Picnic was much simpler – a single piece of toast (granary, but thinly sliced enough to appear to be from a “normal” loaf, sadly) spread with harissa, with tomato and half an avocado fanned out on top. There was a bit of dressed salad on the side, which felt a bit like it was hiding the fact that there wasn’t much on the plate (and who has salad with brunch, really?).

The avocado was a little on the firm side – I like it closer in texture to butter than potato, personally – and the tomato was just a bog standard round tomato but the harissa added an extra dimension. The chilli heat and the sweetness of the spices brought everything together and made it a bit more interesting (and it’s an idea I will definitely use in anything I ever get round to cooking at home) but still, it was half an avocado to which nothing had been done, some tomato and a one slice of bread, rather than the mashed avocado and sourdough I had ordered in my head. For a fiver it felt like it was bordering on cheeky. Still, at least they didn’t put the napkin under the bread.

PicnicAvocado

Brunch would be nothing without a nice hot beverage. Mocha was pleasant, though more chocolate than coffee, and Earl Grey was decent (but it’s hard to mess up a bag in a cup of water – though lots of baristas will have a bloody good go). Service is minimal because there is no table service, but the young ladies (and it is exclusively young ladies working here, except for the owner. He’s like Reading’s answer to Bosley) are really friendly, extremely helpful and very nice indeed and the tables here are cleared regularly, as you’d expect – but not always get – with a high customer turnover. The total bill came to just under fifteen pounds for brunch and a hot drink each. Not a huge amount of money, but perhaps expensive for what it was.

Realistically, whatever I say about Picnic in this review it won’t make anyone go there who hasn’t, or stop any regulars from going back. Which is as it should be, because it’s a local institution which has done as much as anywhere else in town to shape the way people in Reading eat. And it’s still a favourite of mine for sandwiches, (goat’s cheese, honey and walnuts is one I keep going back to), salads (ditto for the peach, mozzarella and parma ham), soup (pea and blue cheese!) and the occasional shameful Cornish pasty. It’s tough being a trailblazer, because people expect you to keep doing it – and I know how they feel because, like Picnic, I was the future once. Perhaps, instead of being slightly critical about the food I should applaud the ambition, because despite finding the brunch a tad disappointing I can’t help but be impressed that, after nearly a decade, they’re still trying something new.

Picnic – 6.8
5 Market Place, RG1 2DP
0118 9589292

http://www.picnicfoods.co.uk/

The Crown, Playhatch

N.B. By November 2019 the Crown had been acquired by Brakspears and the menu differs considerably from the one I reviewed in 2015. In particular there are no longer any South African dishes on the menu. I’ve left the review up for posterity, but it’s no longer representative of the experience you would have if you ate at the Crown.

This week’s review is sort of me returning a favour. The enigmatic Roast Dinners Around Reading (worth a read if you’re not a regular already: his weekly reviews are probably the highlight of my Mondays – well, that and Only Connect) recently visited one of my top recommendations, The Bull at Sonning, and was a big fan. So it seemed fitting that I try out the Crown, which has occupied his top spot for as long as I can remember. The last time I went there was long before it had a makeover and repositioned itself doing classic pub food with a South African twist, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. And yes, the website talks about freshly prepared, quality ingredients but, well, don’t they all?

First things first, I have to mention the building itself. Pulling up onto the gravel driveway in the dark doesn’t do the outside justice (though there’s lots of smart seating outside which looks like it could be gorgeous in summer – if we ever get one again) so the first impression you really get is when you walk through the door. The welcome – quick and friendly – was nice enough but the interior is stunning; there are lots of big rooms broken up only by lots of beams, some of which could be perilous after a couple of pints if you’re over five feet eight. The dining area is in a rough L shape, with a large barn section at the end literally crowned with, erm, a crown, all wrought iron and grandeur.

As is de rigueur these days, the furniture is shabby chic and mismatched (I lost count of the number of different dining chairs in the barn area – one large table only had a couple which matched at all) and the paint is the very regulation Farrow and Ball. The interior’s been done by the same people who styled Henley’s Bull On Bell Street and it’s every bit as tasteful: I felt like I should have been there in my gilet and Hunter wellies. Having dinner with friends called Pippa and Tarquin, probably.

The menu’s an interesting one which covers lots of bases without feeling overextended. There’s some kind of South African connection (though I’m not clear exactly what) so there are a few South African touches (Boerewors, bobotie, the dubious delights of “monkey gland sauce”) but they’re well integrated. There’s hearty stuff, slightly more sophisticated stuff and a couple of vegetarian dishes (and several salads) – enough range, in fact, to make Brits feel safe without feeling completely staid. It’s a nice balance.

Although the starter menu was full of temptation (more so than the mains, I thought) boneless ribs stood out as something I rarely see and, in truth, an invention I think the world has long been waiting for. I don’t mind ribs, but it’s impossible to eat them with any dignity and there’s always that moment of trepidation when you take the first bite – will it come away neatly and easily, or will you be left gnawing away and embarrassing yourself, your dining companions and, most likely, people at the next table? That’s before we get to the mess – there’s always mess, and there’s always more mess than you think there will be (which reminds me, must buy more wet wipes).

I was delighted when they turned up, because they just looked pretty. Presentation seems to be a strong point at the Crown – it was attractive enough that you wanted to eat it but not so aesthetically precious that you felt like you were ruining it. What I soon realised is that boneless ribs don’t resemble ribs at all – durr, the clue’s in the name – so if anything they were like small slices of belly pork and none the worse for that. I really liked them – tender, tasty, no bounce, artfully drizzled with glaze. On top was a heap of red cabbage which was packed with cloves. I liked it, because I like cloves, but it was only just the right side of the line between really good mulled wine and overpowering Yule-themed Yankee Candle. Oh, and the salad was not only pretty but edible, with little cubes of tomato and some attractive shoots on top. Not only was it edible, but I actually ate it, and you can’t say that very often. Good work all round, I feel.

CrownRibs

The other starter, hot smoked salmon was even better; a great big cylinder of it, all salty and smoky, was served with some sliced bread which had been generously oiled, garlicked (I think I may have just verbed a noun: sorry about that) and chargrilled, a little pile of salad, four little dollops of herbed crème fraîche and best of all, some slices of preserved lemons. It might sound busy in theory but it wasn’t in practice – and it was much prettier than my terrible photo would have you believe.

To be honest, the crème fraîche got rather lost against the salmon – I think it had dill in, but there might have been some parsley – so it needed the tangy, vinegary lemons to lend some zip and oomph to proceedings. Adding a bit of that lemon to a forkful of the salmon was a bit like putting Worcestershire sauce on your baked beans – once you’ve done it once it’s hard to imagine the dish without it. A cracking start: generous, just a little bit cleverer than it needed to be and with so many flavour combinations that it never got boring.

CrownSalmon

For mains it seemed absolutely right to have a South African special. The Bobotie (which I later discovered is pronounced beau booty, although I, mistakenly but enthusiastically, said it as bobot-yeah! instead) didn’t grab me on the menu but I am glad I threw caution to the wind and tried it. Out came a wee cast iron dish filled with minced meat (beef, I think, although it could have been lamb, or both) mixed with spices, sultanas, flaked almonds plus tiny pieces of ref pepper. On top of all that was something which looked like cheese but was in fact a layer of whisked egg which gets baked when the whole thing goes in the oven, sort of like a savoury custard.

It was so good – like nothing I’ve eaten before, intensely flavoured, sweet and rich with lots of complexity and a little heat. Really lovely stuff. Eating it, I found myself wondering if it was close to what mincemeat might have been a couple of hundred years ago (Google says yes, incidentally). It didn’t really need accompaniments – I would have been delighted with this on its own – but it came with some anyway – some very plain (allegedly saffron) rice and a prettily pleated poppadum. Just in case there wasn’t enough flavour there was a small pot of some of the spiciest mango chutney I’ve ever eaten and some fresh tomato salsa that, a bit like the herbed crème fraîche in the salmon starter, didn’t stand up to the rest of the dish.

CrownBobotie

I promised myself at the start of the year that I’d order one vegetarian main course every month, and with the exception of the month where I spent half of it on holiday I’ve kept that promise. This was likely to be my last meat-free main of the year, and I realised it was time to confront the ever-present on menus, the vegetarian main course you really can’t escape. Yes, just as Mario inevitably has to face the end of level baddie, there was no chance of me getting to the end of the year without ordering the mushroom risotto. So I did.

Unfortunately it was probably the only duffer of the evening. Again, it looked good on paper; wild mushrooms, lemon thyme and truffle oil were all namechecked, but what turned up needed to be half as big and twice as interesting. The mushrooms were wild – no trades descriptions issues there – but there was so much rice that they were drowned out. So much cream, too, with no seasoning to bring the flavour out in anything. There was enough truffle oil that you smelled it when it arrived at the table but after that nothing, a bit like those strangely flavourless herbal teas that you get. No lemon thyme either that I could see, just some rocket. Finally – and this didn’t bother me but I imagine it would many bona fide vegetarians – I’m pretty sure there was parmesan on top. In many ways, this was a fitting final vegetarian main course of 2015 because it highlighted how frustrating and difficult it must be: if a place like the Crown, which got so many things right, still couldn’t deliver a good mushroom risotto, what hope was there for everywhere else?

CrownRisotto

There was no chance of dessert after such big main courses and, to be honest, the dessert menu plays it far safer than the other two courses (cheesecake, Eton mess, banoffee pie, you know the drill by now) so I didn’t feel like I was missing out. Drinks were nice enough – a glass of South African red which was pleasant and everyday, but not wildly exciting and a bottle of Fever Tree bitter lemon which was very nice, albeit a little small. Dinner for two – two courses and a drink each – came to just under fifty pounds, not including service.

Speaking of service, it deserves more of a mention: I think at various points in the evening we were looked after by three or four different people and they were uniformly excellent, just informal enough to be engaging but never over-familiar. The young lady who took our money at the end was a particularly good ambassador, enthusing about the restaurant and talking about some of her favourite dishes (including the bobotie – no surprise there – and the steak). It was pretty busy, too – despite being a week night quite a lot of tables were occupied which is pretty good going for a location out of town. I think I heard a couple of South African accents, also a positive sign.

Despite the South African influences The Crown feels archetypally English in a Richard Curtis sort of way; the interior is beautiful, the staff are all lovely and much of the food is really good looking. I half expected it to be more style than substance (like Love Actually – that’s two hours of my life I’ll never have again) so it’s lovely to be able to report that there’s more depth to it than that; the food (with one exception, sadly – probably not one for vegetarians) was both tasty and interesting. Perhaps it reflects the growing competition in the area between Reading and Henley where there are plenty of options, but if anything, The Crown was better than I expected it to be: better food, better presentation, a better dining room and better service. You know what, I think that Roast Dinners bloke might be on to something. Extra gravy, anyone?

The Crown, Playhatch – 7.7

The Crown, Playhatch, RG4 9QN
0118 9472872

http://www.thecrown.co.uk/

The Bell, Waltham St Lawrence

N.B. As of 2 December 2020 The Bell has reopened for eat in customers. It also offers takeaway and heat at home options.

Well, summer’s well and truly over. You can speculate about the exact time of death – when the kids went back to school, when festive toot started appearing in the shops (prosecco flavoured crisps, M&S? Really?), that awful moment when you realised the central heating needed to go on – but those are details. The formal funeral happens tomorrow night when the clocks go back, and that’s that: it’s gone until next year and now we all need to come to terms with wearing extra layers, fishing the gloves out of the chest of drawers, deciding who’s getting what this Christmas and wondering whether this is the year you stop bothering with sending cards.

I’ve found it especially difficult because I’m not long back from holiday. So it seems like only yesterday that I was sitting outside until midnight, eating grilled meats and salad, drinking that first glass of rosé as soon after midday as socially acceptable and reading novels by the pool. To return to a nip in the air felt especially cruel. And it’s not just me – I bumped into a colleague this week who’s just back from a holiday in Dubai, thirty-three degrees every day without fail, and I couldn’t help feeling even her tan looked a tad jaundiced. “It’s not my winter coat I’ve got on” she told me, “it’s my autumn coat” (in denial, I suspect – it looked like a winter coat to me).

So this week I’ve been trying to find the consolations of autumn. I’m not talking about seasonal eating – I should care about that more than I do, but ultimately despite knowing all the reasons I shouldn’t buy Peruvian asparagus I still reckon it’s better than nothing – but the move into autumn does allow you to enjoy food that, a few months ago, would have been unthinkable. Slow-cooked stews and casseroles, steaming bowls of soup, big piles of mash and golden-domed pies. And the drinks, too; I know that Pimm’s is a wonderful thing but the months ahead mean we can glug red wine, or port, or mulled wine (proper stuff, not that shortcut in a bottle).

That’s what led me to Waltham St. Lawrence on a weekday night, because I’d heard good things about The Bell. Someone suggested I review it with a certain trepidation, because they didn’t want the secret to get out – and that’s a good enough incentive for me. So I made the short drive down the A4, turning right just past Hare Hatch, and parking in the village I got out of the car to be greeted by the beautiful aroma of woodsmoke.

It’s a lovely place. The pub is right opposite the church – as it should be in a picture perfect English village, if only to give people two different routes to enlightenment – and it’s beautifully, charmingly ramshackle (much as you would be if you’d been standing for seven hundred years). Inside it’s all beams and dark wood, panelling, horse brasses and open fires. There are a couple of rooms, all very basic and unshowy, although I now see having looked at the website that they also have a snug and what looks like a slightly smarter dining room; I’m glad I didn’t end up sitting in that.

I was a little bit in love before I even sat down, but it developed into a full-on crush when I read the menu. I looked at one pub during the week, deciding whether to add it to my list of places to review, before realising with horror that it offered twenty-three different main courses; The Bell is nothing like that, with a small but perfectly-formed menu of five bar snacks, four starters, five mains and five desserts. I couldn’t see a single thing I didn’t fancy eating – pork pie, rarebit, Brixham mussels, venison, trout with lentils. It was a different menu to the one on their website, and I had no doubt that if I went back in a couple of months it would be a different menu again. But for now, it felt like a menu designed to make you happy to see the back of summer.

Pigeon and pork terrine was, if not perfection, close enough that I couldn’t see anything to fault. The terrine itself was a dense slab of rich, gamey meat, beautifully earthy and coarse, no jelly or bounce to it. But that wasn’t all, because there was also soft pickled beetroot, all sweetness and no sharpness, perfect with the terrine. And the bread was magnificent – thick sliced, toasted and buttered (or quite possibly buttered and then toasted, it had a golden glow and the texture of butter that had melted under a grill), it almost had a spongey, crumpetty texture. Three simple things, superb on their own, equally terrific combined. All that for six pounds fifty, and worth the trip on its own.

BellTerrine

The thick, rich cep and blue oyster mushroom soup was an exercise in simplicity: the mushrooms, a hint of cream and a touch of seasoning was all I could detect in the bowl. There was more of that bread on the side, untoasted this time but also generously buttered. I found it strange that the butter wasn’t on the side, and if I’m being really critical I’d perhaps have liked a few herbs to bring out the flavour of the soup more, but those are both minor details. The portion was generous (how I struggled!) and made me want to go out and forage straight after. Well, straight after a nap, perhaps.

BellSoup

Mains were sensibly paced after that – ironic, as the starters had been so good that, for once, I found myself ever so slightly impatient. It’s almost worth putting the clocks back just so you can eat venison again so I was delighted to see loin of fallow deer on the menu. The meat itself, again, was well-nigh perfect – beautifully seared, still pink inside, five thick discs of autumnal wonder. If the rest of the dish didn’t quite match that, it was perhaps because the bar had been set so high – the kale was well-cooked, steering the right course between the twin perils of mushy and crunchy, but it wasn’t the most exciting thing to serve with the venison.

The real disappointment was the macaroni cheese, an oddly solid cuboid of the stuff which reminded me of the top of a pastitsio. It wasn’t quite cheesy enough, or salty enough, and under a fork it just crumbled into individual macaroni. It was a noble effort, but I think I’d sooner have had something a bit gloopier and more sinful, or even just a potato dauphinoise. Last of all, the thing the dish missed most – the roasting juices had been reduced to almost nothing, like a culinary Black Friday, and the whole thing needed some kind of sauce. If I sound critical it’s just because the dish was very good, when I knew how close it came to being unforgettable.

BellFallow

It’s rare that there’s a scrap to order the vegetarian main course (normally it’s quite the opposite, in fact) but that’s exactly what happened at The Bell. Big pillowy potato gnocchi came with a stunning kale and almond pesto, strewn with extra leaves of kale like the best cabbage in the world (I know kale is bloody everywhere right now, but not kale like this). On top was a decent sized circle of caramelised goats cheese, grilled to just bubbling and perfect for setting off the richness of the potato. You could say this is starch and goats cheese, like unimaginative risottos in pubs across Berkshire, but this was so much more than that: clever, creative and damned delicious, and it really didn’t need any meat. It illustrated deftly that with a bit of effort and an imaginative chef it’s possible to eat delicious vegetarian food; it’s just a shame that this is such a rare accolade. I scraped every last morsel out of the bowl.

BellGnocchi

Sometimes, when a meal is iffy, I order dessert to give the restaurant a chance to rescue matters. On this occasion I ordered dessert because I wanted to see if they were as good as the rest. And again, the menu was note-perfect – crumbles and puddings, hot desserts with ice cream quickly melting on them. But unfortunately, on this occasion, the desserts slightly took the shine off things. I picked the sticky toffee pudding because it came with creme fraiche ice cream, an unusual touch. Sadly it was more like a toffee cake than a steamed sponge pudding – dry and a bit chewy – and there was nowhere near enough toffee sauce to rescue it. The ice cream, to be fair, was truly delicious; thick and creamy with an intriguing slightly sour note – but that, too, wasn’t enough to save it. I left some, and I felt sad that I didn’t feel sad about that.

BellPud (2)

I was in two minds about whether to have the cheeseboard, and when I went up to the bar I asked which cheeses were on offer. “Barkham Blue is one”, said the man behind the bar, “I’ll just check with the kitchen what the other one is.” Off he scuttled, and the man next to me said “Barkham Blue’s all you need anyway.” He was right, of course, and you got a good wedge of it, soft and salty, blue without being overpowering. The other cheese – and I quite admire them for only offering two – was Wigmore, also local, gorgeously mushroomy but still nice and firm.

So far so good, and you could say it’s impossible to muck this kind of thing up, but the kitchen did have a go. The chutney was lovely, and went well with both, but the “house crackers” were a bit surreal. There was a long thin flatbread, a bit like ciappe de liguria, but the texture wasn’t right – it wasn’t crispy or crunchy, and felt stale. Odder still were the other crackers, which were more like biscuits – thin, treacly biscuits, like Hobnobs without the oats. They were sweet: sweet with burnt sugar, and although that sort of went with the Barkham Blue it didn’t go with the Barkham Blue as well as my favourite accompaniment, more Barkham Blue. I finished them in the same way I might finish a duff magazine article.

BellCheese

If I haven’t mentioned service that’s because there wasn’t that much of it. You order at the bar and there’s minimal interaction when they bring the food to your table. That’s honestly no criticism, and everybody was lovely and welcoming and genuinely interested in whether we liked the food, but it does mean there isn’t much to say. There’s more to say about the wine. The Corbieres (less than a fiver a glass) was robust, punchy and went brilliantly with the terrine, the dessert wine was nice if not particularly memorable and not quite cold enough for me. The port I had with the cheese – a rich, complex Krohn LBV – was over far, far too quickly. All in all, dinner came to seventy pounds, not including tip. When I think of the price of some of the things I ate – that stunning terrine for six pounds fifty, the gnocchi for a tenner – it’s hard not to conclude that the people of Waltham St Lawrence are very lucky indeed.

Would I go back? In a heartbeat. And if this review sounds critical, it’s only because the best of this meal was right up there with the best food I’ve eaten this year, and that means you judge everything else a little more harshly. But let’s put this in perspective – if you picked this pub up and dropped it in the centre of Reading (perhaps on top of TGI Friday, or Cosmo: somewhere nobody would miss) it would be difficult to keep me away. So go, even if it means the secret gets out: as it is, perhaps I’ll hibernate there in a seat by the fire, growing fat and sleepy on rarebit and red wine, finding it increasingly hard to remember that I ever used to get excited about sunshine and salad.

The Bell – 8.2
The Street, Waltham St Lawrence, RG10 0JJ
0118 9341788

http://thebellwalthamstlawrence.co.uk/