Al Fassia, Windsor

This time last year, I did a reader’s survey (those of you who have been reading a while might remember it). One of the questions I asked was about whether you’d like to read more reviews of restaurants outside Reading, and if I remember there was some enthusiasm but not masses. I asked the question again on Twitter this week and again, the response was mixed. Lots of you said you’d rather read reviews of places in or near the town centre, some of you said you were prepared to travel for good food. But “good” is the operative word, and whenever I head out of town only to eat something mediocre I always wonder, as I’m writing the review, who is really that fussed about reading it. Nobody writes postcards, after all, saying Having an indifferent time, you’re lucky you’re not here (and yes, I know nobody writes postcards full stop, these days).

For what it’s worth, I’m generally with the town centre brigade. When I go out for dinner, especially at the weekend, I like to be able to have more than a solitary glass of wine. And that means that if you can’t get there easily, by bus train or taxi, I’m never entirely sure I can be bothered. So restaurants outside Reading only truly draw me in if they have something about them – a menu full of twists and invention, an ethos that jumps off the screen when you look at the website, or because they do food you simply can’t get anywhere else. And that’s why we’re in Windsor this week, because Al Fassia is a Moroccan restaurant and I’ve been looking for one of those for a very long time.

This isn’t the time to bore you all with my second-rate travel writing (it would be like sitting you down and showing you holiday snaps from some time ago), but I bloody love Marrakech. From the bustle of the medina, dodging bikes and mopeds, to the brightly-lit, hyper-real cacophonous madness of the main square, from the strange dusty faux-French boulevards and grand cafes of the new town to the winding, chaotic lanes of the souk, it has to be seen to be believed. I have lots of happy memories of sitting outside Café des Epices drinking lemonade, playing cards and watching the traders trying to sell some of the ugliest woolly hats I’ve ever seen (honestly, in the height of summer). And the food! That exquisite combination of savoury and sweet, meat and fruit and spice, sampled on roof terraces and in merchant houses, candlelit on those long balmy evenings.

I grant you, probably not easy to recreate in a little Windsor restaurant not far from the arts centre, but on the offchance that Al Fassia could, how could I resist trying? So we arrived one weekend evening to put it to the test.

Our first mistake was turning up so early – foolishly, we’d booked an early table to allow for the train trip home. It meant the place was almost empty. The downstairs room was quite sombre and muted, plain tables and chairs, proper cloth napkins and plates with the restaurant’s palm tree logo, the wooden panelling along one wall the only real concession to Morocco. Upstairs – which wasn’t open the night I went – is very different with shuttered windows, rugs on the walls and those beautiful twinkly pierced metal lights (never let it be said that I lack powers of description). Although we got a good look at everything it wasn’t until much later, when the restaurant was almost full, that you realised what a lovely room it was with the warm light diffusing through those shades and all that chatter.

The menu looks longer than it is, because a lot of the dishes – especially the couscous and tagines – are variations on a theme. It also has a good selection for vegetarians entitled “Vegetarian Corner”, which struck me as slightly unfortunate phrasing (although what the salad de crevette was doing on there I have absolutely no idea).

The service throughout was absolutely flawless, and it began when we were deciding what to order. Our waiter, the only person serving the whole room, perked up when I enthused about Marrakech and then we discussed the wine, the different tagines, his recommendations and some of the other businesses his family had back in Morocco. For starters, there was a pitched battle (well, more like a slight falling out, given that I won) over who got to have the bastilla. If you have never had one before I’d urge you to call shotgun on it before you arrive. It’s essentially the Moroccan version of a pasty: filo pastry filled with layers of chicken (or pigeon, though it was chicken in this case) and almonds, sweetened and flavoured with cinnamon and other spices, folded into an octagon and dusted with – yes, you read this right – icing sugar.

As if to congratulate me on my choice the waiter told me just how much work goes into one. He said that it was the single most difficult and time-consuming dish to make – the filo is hand-made on site, the almonds are cooked and skinned by hand and the chicken is slow cooked and shredded before going into the filo to be baked. Worth all that effort? Without a doubt. It was fantastic – buttery, sweet and savoury with the rich stickiness from the chicken and the sugar, all wrapped in the thin, crisp pastry. You have to be able to get your head around that combination of flavours, but if you can it’s unlike anything else you’ll eat this year. I absolutely adored it – oh, and it’s quite a monster so there’s even enough to give someone some of yours as a consolation prize, if they ask you nicely.

FassBastilla

The other starter, the mergas, couldn’t live up to that and it didn’t. Four very generous lamb sausages, on a layer of needless lettuce with some pitta to wrap round it. The sausages – quite a random quartet, all different sizes – were beautifully coarse, meaty without being bouncy or dry, but the heat I associate with good merguez just wasn’t there. It was almost as if they knew they were in Royal Windsor and had decided to be on their best behaviour, and although it would have been suitably unthreatening for anyone in red trousers I wanted something with a lot more punch.

FassMerg

Ironically when I was in Marrakech I eventually grew tired of tagines (having them every night gets a bit much after day three) but in Windsor not having one would have been unthinkable. We took the waiter’s advice – bang on, as it turned out – and tried two chicken tagines. Both featured half a chicken, jointed, cooked until it fell off the leg with next to no encouragement, the breast moist and easy to pull apart. But beyond that they couldn’t have been more different. Tagine djaj aux poichiche was cooked with onions, spices and chickpeas, a rich and savoury affair with a lot more substance to it because of those slightly floury chickpeas. On the other hand, tagine djaj tfaia dialled up the sweetness to eleven, with plump, intense golden raisins and almost translucent ribbons of sweet, caramelised onion. After a few minutes of taking all the meat off the bones we were ready to stir in the couscous and eat in rapt, happy, nostalgic silence. All that for less than twelve quid.

FassTag

To drink we had a bottle of Moroccan sauvignon blanc. Yes really, Moroccan wine! Actually, I recognised this particular wine from my visit to Marrakech so went out of my way to order it – for all I know that meant it was Morocco’s answer to Blossom Hill but fortunately I’m too ignorant to know better. Besides, it was lovely and fresh with a little hint of apple and a large hint of less than twenty pounds (I have a feeling I’m coming across as quite the Philistine today – and to think they say travel broadens the mind).

Following the mighty bastilla and the hefty mains we weren’t sure we could manage dessert. So we were preparing to finish our wine, enjoy the restaurant in the last of the sunshine and ask for the bill, when something unprecedented happened. A freebie. I can only assume that after chatting to the waiter (who, judging by the website photos, might well be the owner) he took a shine to us. Or maybe he does this for everyone, and I’m just deluding myself. Either way, he patted me on the shoulder and told me he was bringing something special over. I feel I need to declare this now, lest you think I’m swayed by the restaurant’s generosity (although let’s face it, I probably am – who doesn’t like free stuff?).

A few minutes later a plate arrived with a large disc of that home-made filo pastry, sprinkled with finely chopped almonds, honey and cinnamon, finished off with three little spheres of vanilla ice cream. It was a lovely dish – just simple enough, just interesting enough, nicely balanced – and a lovely gesture at the end of a very nice meal. But, in the interests of balance, it looks from the menu like it would have cost eleven pounds were I to have ordered it myself, and I’m not sure it was quite worth that.

FassDessert

No Moroccan meal would be complete without mint tea, served in those pretty little glasses, so we duly obliged and ordered some to finish off. As is traditional the waiter served this on a silver tray, with the tea poured from on high (no, I don’t know why they do this. But I like it). Sweet and minty, this had as much energy in it as a cup of coffee, I’m sure – I’d be reluctant to declare it to my dentist, anyway. It felt like the right way to bring things to a close before reluctantly leaving the premises and coming to terms with the fact that we weren’t in hot, exotic Morocco but rather in slightly cooler, slightly more homely Windsor. Dinner for two came to sixty-one pounds, not including service.

I still wonder when I’ll get to go back to Marrakech. And a more unlikely twin town than Windsor you couldn’t find, despite all the tourists nearly getting mown down by traffic, despite the plethora of tradesmen and women keen to part them from their cash, despite all the historic buildings and shops selling almost identical goods which some of us might class, in the nicest possible sense, as tat. I’ll return to Marrakech one day, I hope. But until then, there’s Al Fassia: worth travelling out of town for, worth catching the train to. There may not be tables out on the terrace, there may not be fans on every seat and you might not find yourself misted with cooling water every few minutes, but even so I really do recommend it. Sometimes, a restaurant is the best travel agent there is.

Al Fassia – 8.2
27 St Leonards Road, Windsor, SL4 3BP
01753 855370

http://www.alfassiarestaurant.com/

Misugo, Windsor

At the start of the year, AltReading asked me to contribute to a piece about what people wanted to see in Reading in 2015. So I talked about some of the big gaps in Reading’s restaurant landscape – that we need a tapas restaurant, a pizzeria, a town centre pub doing simple, tasty, well-executed food and so on. It wasn’t until later that I realised that my list of gaps itself contained a gap: Reading doesn’t have a good Japanese restaurant. There’s Sushimania, which can be okay (when it’s not too busy – and woe betide you if it is, because a person can get very drunk on their house white waiting for the food to turn up. Take my word for it) and there’s Yo! Sushi. That’s it.

That partly explains why this week’s review is of a restaurant in far-flung Windsor, the furthest from Reading to date. The thing is, I suspect the reason I didn’t put a Japanese restaurant in my original wish list is that, for years, when I’ve wanted Japanese food I’ve got on the train and gone to Misugo instead. It’s a modest little place just opposite Windsor’s Firestation Arts Centre, about a ten minute walk from the station (a walk which takes you right past a very good fishmonger, a few doors down from the restaurant – something which might explain a lot). It’s nothing to look at from the outside, and pretty understated on the inside. Every time I’ve been (and I’ve only ever been at lunchtimes) it’s virtually empty: it’s rare to see more than one other occupied table. It also happens to do fantastic sushi.

Arriving on a Saturday lunchtime without a reservation, I was delighted to see that they had a booking for a big table, even if it meant that I didn’t get my usual seat next to the window. It’s a long thin room split across two levels and it really is very basic – plain wooden tables, plain wooden stools and simple, elegant (if atmospheric) lighting. But that simplicity feels like a bit of a hallmark which carries across into everything else – unobtrusive service and simple, brilliant food.

The menu is one of those big, tempting ones that requires several attempts in a single sitting (I envied the big table which turned up a little after I arrived – eleven fellow diners would give you the opportunity to try a lot of the options), divided into sashimi, sushi, small hot dishes, rice dishes and noodle dishes. They also do a small, if tempting, array of bento boxes if you want someone to make your tricky decisions for you: I didn’t, but the woman at the table behind me had one and it looked nearly enviable.

First to arrive was the sashimi, which was beyond reproach. If you’re used to Yo with its little dishes, a few small slices of salmon trundling round under a plastic dome on the belt, the sashimi at Misugo – in terms of the presentation, the range and the sheer quality – is like going from a standard picture to HD. So the salmon here came as four beautiful thick slices, beautifully marbled, fresh and clean, as soft as mousse. I’m no expert on sashimi, but I don’t think that marbling and that texture happens by accident or luck. The tuna was firm, meaty and distinctly unfishy (as odd as that sounds). If sashimi has never appealed to you then tuna from Misugo is the perfect gateway fish. Finally, the biggest revelation: four sections of mackerel, complete with shimmering skin. I always order the mackerel and it always blows me away, somehow strong and subtle all at once in a way few dishes (and few people, come to think of it) ever manage. We gently transported them onto our tiger-striped plates with chopsticks, dabbed them in soy, added ginger and popped them in our mouths, and then we were transported ourselves.

Sashimi

Sushi was every bit as good. Avocado maki were plump things, tightly rolled, each with a big fat core of ripe buttery avocado. But there was more going on: a hint of what tasted a bit like lime, tucked between the rice and the delicious green flesh. Again, this was a world away from anything you might pluck from a conveyor belt. Soft shell crab maki – the crab still warm as it reached our table – were gorgeous to look at, the crab almost looking as if it was making a break for it. All of a sudden I didn’t envy that table of twelve half so much, because it was difficult enough sharing these between two.

Maki

The waitress asked if we wanted another look at the menu and saying no felt like the worst kind of folly, so we rounded up more options and ordered again. Vegetable gyoza were gorgeous – lighter than they looked, like crispy islands floating on the smallest, subtlest pool of vinegary dressing. More maki – this time grilled tuna with mango – were also delicious, the tuna soft and the mango fresh and firm rather than soft and ripe as the avocado had been. A little drizzle of sauce over them added a deep, fruity note.

Last of all, the only misfire of the whole meal. Chicken yakitori looked the part – thigh meat threaded like a sine wave onto skewers, grilled, brushed with sticky sauce and scattered with sesame seeds. But they needed to be more: more well cooked – the slightly charred bits were a delight, the rest a bit of a chore – and with more of the gloriously smoky sauce. They were the only thing we didn’t finish, although by that stage we were too full to ask for dessert anyway. Anywhere else, it would have been a good dish, but Misugo had set the bar too high by then. I was sad that they played their worst song as the encore, but I’d loved the concert too much to hold it against them.

Being on the wagon in a Japanese restaurant, it turns out, is less of a hardship than you might think. I was tempted to try Calpico, a Japanese yoghurt drink (and if I’d known it tasted just like Yakult, which apparently it does, I definitely would have) but in the end I opted for something which was described as an “aloe vera soft drink” and tasted a bit like orange squash on a gap year. I liked it enough to order a second, at which point the waitress told me with a smile that you could buy it in Sainsburys, even going so far as to check which my local branch was.

Service was perfectly judged – polite, distant when you wanted to be left in peace but there when you needed it. Nobody at Misugo is ever going to make your teeth itch with excessive – or indeed any – mateyness, and they probably won’t ask whether you enjoyed your food either (most likely because they’re rightly confident that you will). But it was restrained and tasteful, just like everything else. Lunch for two – a total of three soft drinks and eight small dishes – came to £47 not including tip, which I thought was excellent. Even as I left I was wondering why I’d left it so long and when I could go back, and envying anyone for whom this restaurant was their neighbourhood restaurant.

Actually, that last bit might not be entirely true. It’s very tempting, when you eat somewhere great that isn’t in your home town, to say “I wish I could pick this up and move it to Reading”, but on reflection I’m happy to keep Misugo exactly where it is. I like Windsor. I like feeling excited about going there when I get on the train (even knowing that I have to change at Slough doesn’t put me off). I like strolling down Peascod Street, past the boutique called “Cognito” (that always tickles me: as an anonymous reviewer I feel I ought to go in at some point), seeing the fishmonger on St Leonards Road and knowing I’m nearly there. And, perhaps most of all, I like the fact that it’s close enough to get to, but just far enough away that I’ll never tire of it: a balance almost as fine as their food.

Misugo – 8.5
83 St Leonards Road, Windsor, SL4 3BZ
01753 833899

http://misugo.co.uk/