Restaurant review: Five Little Pigs, Wallingford

No blethering preamble for you this week, talking about the history of Reading’s food scene and putting things In Context (because there always has to be a Context). Things are much simpler this time around, because by the time you read this I’ll be off on my holidays and I just wanted to eat somewhere really nice the weekend before I went.

There’s something magical about the weekend before you go away, right from the moment you close the work laptop on a Friday afternoon: the knowledge that the weekend you’re about to have won’t be bookended by opening the sodding thing again on Monday morning, knowing that instead you’ll be at the airport, putting your phone and house keys in the plastic tray at security, browsing the duty free fragrance, daydreaming about that first holiday beer or glass of wine.

That’s why I found myself in Wallingford on Saturday afternoon with a reservation for Five Little Pigs that evening. Five Little Pigs received national attention earlier in the year when it got a rave writeup in the Observer. And whatever you think of Jay Rayner, his review of the place talked about deep-fried olives, a burnished toastie with cheese from nearby Nettlebed Creamery and a deep, savoury venison ragu. Reading that was enough of an incentive.

And besides, it’s not as if I had to go there with Rayner. Like most people, I have an infinitely better option: in fact, Five Little Pigs was on the list of restaurants I wasn’t allowed to review with anybody but Zoë (or, as she puts it, “not without me you fucking aren’t”).

Wallingford is a sleepy place, although remarkably easy to reach on the evocatively named River Rapids bus. It’s a very agreeable forty-five minute amble through Oxfordshire, out past Cane End, Gallowstree Common, Stoke Row. I expected Wallingford to be a little like Henley, or Witney, but it’s smaller than either with a couple of main streets, a pretty pub by the green and a really lovely wine shop, the neatly named Grape Minds. There’s also one of those antiques centres which is a succession of rooms full of tat and treasure in indeterminate proportions, and a Scandi interiors shop which mostly sells Farrow & Ball. The craft beer scene there is one bar with a fridge full of Phantom and Arbor Ales. That’s not to say I didn’t like Wallingford, but by the time our table was ready I was very much ready for it.

From the review I’d read I thought Five Little Pigs would be small but actually it was much larger than I expected. The front room, with the full length windows out onto St Mary’s Street, was a chic (if slightly chilly) space which was very tastefully done, an interesting mix of deep blues and golds and pastel shades from the art on the wall. It reminded me of places like Coppa Club, which isn’t necessarily a compliment. Further back was a longer, plainer room with banquetted booths. It’s a surprisingly hard space to photograph (as you can probably tell) but it was packed at seven o’clock on a Saturday night: a good review in the Observer will do that for you.

The menu read well and had plenty on it to appeal. Starters clustered around eight or nine pounds, and only a couple of mains were north of twenty. Plenty of it was local, too, with nearby cheesemakers, growers and butchers all namechecked. “We don’t have the pigs cheeks at the moment” said one of the wait staff, “but they may come in later.” I found that a bit confusing – were they being delivered by drone? – but decided it was best not to ask.

By that point a bottle of red had been opened, a really enjoyable organic Rioja, and I was about to reach that happy place where the food has been ordered and you know you’re safely in somebody else’s hands for the next few hours. Every table was full – with date nights, family gatherings and, in one case, an elderly couple who seemed to spend most of the evening glowering at each other. We were all going to have an enchanting evening. The Observer said so.

I felt a bit basic ordering the Scotch egg, but I can’t remember the last time I had one so it was calling to me from the menu right from the outset. It was one of the nicest things we ate all evening, so proved to be a happy choice : the sausagement was nicely coarse, with black pudding adding a little earthiness. And if I’d have liked the outside a little crisper, or the whole thing slightly less crumbly, the presence of a small pool of superbly tangy rhubarb ketchup mostly made up for that, as did the pickled pink onions.

“You win” said Zoë, tackling her ricotta on toast, which sounded great on paper but in reality was disappointing. “It’s all a bit dry” she said, and this is a woman who’s listened to me talking about my favourite Bob Dylan records, so she knows what she’s talking about. For what it’s worth I agreed – the ricotta was dry and anaemic, the cottage cheese of the Chilterns, and although the roasted cherries were an interesting idea they didn’t add enough of the moisture this dish needed. Literal cherries on top, yes, but sadly not figurative ones. “This could have been really nice with honey” was Zoë’s take.

We’d also ordered a third starter, broad bean fritters, because they sounded so magnificent. And they tasted gorgeous, with huge amounts of freshness from the mint and a dab of deep whipped beetroot on top. But plating it up with pea shoots and plenty of negative space couldn’t really conceal the most obvious thing about this dish, which is that it was minuscule; it was one of those times when I wish I’d popped a twenty pence piece on the plate before I took the photo so you could see just how small they were. We had this as an extra dish, but if this had been my starter I’d have been looking at everybody else’s, feeling profoundly robbed.

Things were well paced at Five Little Pigs, possibly because it was so busy, because our starter and our mains were about half an hour apart, for me close to the optimum interval between the two. I think Zoë chose better with the mains and her lamb rump with yoghurt, more of those roast cherries and what the menu calls “crispy potatoes” was the pick of the two. But even here, it wasn’t perfect. “Again, it’s dry” said Zoë. “The yoghurt is really good, but if anything it needs more of the cherries. They work better here than they did with the starters.” I agreed with that, although I thought the crispy potatoes were a standout, with a lot more texture than met the eye. But for me, the lamb rump was a little overdone. I found it odd, too, that they brought me a steak knife but not Zoë, when her dish needed it every bit as much as mine.

My rump steak was the most expensive dish on the menu, which always adds the potential for it to be the most underwhelming. It was a beautiful piece of beef and the cooking couldn’t be faulted – pretty much medium-rare throughout with beautiful caramelisation outside. But it was underseasoned, and surprisingly bland. The chimichurri underneath it had a pleasing zing, but ran out very quickly indeed. And after that the whole thing became a bit of a slog. There was some kind of puddle of juices at the edge of the plate, but it would be pushing it to call it a jus or a sauce. The best thing on the plate was a solitary mushroom cooked with cheese (again from Nettlebed) until it was salty and crispy, but when the star of the show plays such a brief cameo role, you’ve got problems.

Just to add to the onslaught of dryness, my triple cooked chips had decent texture – and were huge – but, again, they came without anything to add moisture. We’d ordered another portion separately, not knowing that we wouldn’t really need them, and I think in a restaurant with sharper service they might have talked us out of doing that. They came with a very good aioli but, as with the chimichurri or the beetroot ketchup, there was nowhere near enough of it. We asked for some more from a passing member of the wait staff. Five minutes passed and it didn’t materialise. We asked again and some time later, when the chips were nearly at an end, it finally arrived. 

We looked at the dessert menu because our bus wasn’t for another forty-five minutes, or at least that’s what I told myself. By this point the couple at the next table had both ordered the hake – which looked nicer than either of our mains – and there was a certain mesmeric quality to watching them push it round the plate in that way that people who don’t really enjoy food seem to do. 

Anyway, desserts represented a slight recovery. My chocolate delice was a brilliant wodge of deep, gooey chocolate with a sweet, almost-sharp smear of bright strawberry purée to cut through. The biscuit base underneath was so crumbly that it barely stayed in one piece, but I didn’t mind that at all. Zoë’s key lime pie had a similarly short base and I thought it was pleasant, but I’d probably describe it as “subtle”, which really isn’t what you’re looking for in a dessert. 

Zoë had her dessert with a Cotswold cream liqueur (although it turned up on the bill as Bailey’s, so Christ knows which it really was) and I had a dessert wine – from Graves of all places – which went beautifully. And well done if you’ve made it this far, because the truth about Five Little Pigs is that, sadly, by this point I’m even slightly boring myself. Our bill came to a hundred and forty-six pounds, including service, and then we went outside, got the penultimate bus out of Dodge, got home, had a cup of tea and went to bed. The end.

Last week somebody commented on my Facebook page about the review I did of Sauce And Flour. “I wish you’d stop doing reviews of places outside Reading” he said. “I prefer the Reading reviews. And after all, this blog is called Edible Reading”. I always find it interesting when people pipe up to tell me that this entirely free blog is somehow not delivering value for money, and after I politely told him that I’d review wherever I bloody well liked he deleted his comment. But there’s an important point here, believe it or not. I think it’s good to review places outside Reading because it gives you that all-important context (like I said at the start, there’s usually a Context). Otherwise how do you know if a place is good, or just good for Reading? 

And it goes beyond Reading. If I hadn’t been to the likes of Marmo and Caper & Cure maybe I’d have thought about Five Little Pigs very differently. But at the same price point, making similar noises, and even with some similar dishes, the difference is stark. There are better ways to spend a hundred and fifty pounds eating out than to go to Five Little Pigs. One is to go to Marmo, or Caper & Cure. Another, to be honest, is to eat at Tasty Greek Souvlaki four times. Five Little Pigs is probably an absolute boon to Wallingford, and on another night I might well have had a meal there I’d have enjoyed better. But in truth, I can’t see myself going back. 

So there you go: it turns out that restaurant reviewers aren’t always right. But as a regular reader of this blog you knew that already, didn’t you?

Five Little Pigs – 7.1
26 St Mary’s Street, Wallingford, Oxfordshire, OX10 0ET
01491 833999

https://www.fivelittlepigs.co.uk

Restaurant review: Sauce And Flour, Maidenhead

One of my oldest friends lives in Swindon. Someone has to. Whenever he comes to Reading he enjoys our street food, our craft beer and our shopportunities and he complains to me – at length – that it didn’t have to turn out like this. He reckons that there was a time, back in the Nineties when all that money hadn’t decided where to coalesce, when it Could Have Been Swindon. They had a House Of Fraser, well before the Oracle opened, and that designer outlet everyone used to get so excited about. And Reading – Heelas aside, of course – was a bit of a wasteland in the mid-Nineties. Things could have been very different. 

But the retail and hospitality gods smiled on Reading and, like many of us, they sneered at Swindon. We got the big names and the investment and Swindon, over the few decades, withered and died. It’s not all terrible: Darkroom Espresso is a great place to grab a coffee, Los Gatos in the old town is a tapas restaurant Reading would be lucky to have and a few doors down Rays does thoroughly likeable ice cream. But there’s a reason people who live in Swindon go to Bath, Oxford or Cirencester at the weekend, just as people from those places don’t pop over to Swindon of a Saturday.

The reason I’m starting a review of a place in Maidenhead talking about Swindon is that lately I’ve been looking at what’s going on in Maidenhead and starting to wonder if we might find ourselves in the Swindon role at some point in the coming years. Because although it’s early days, the businesses beginning to come to prominence in Maidenhead are the kind that you’d want to see in Reading instead of – hooray – a branch of Popeyes or our twentieth Costa Coffee. 

Take A Hoppy Place, a credible, nicely fitted out craft beer bar a five minute walk from the train station with close to twenty beers and ciders on cask and keg. Last time I went it was doing a roaring trade and making the most of its outside space, and it was a wonderful place to while away a few hours. And although Reading has a brilliant craft beer scene – bolstered by the new addition of the Grumpy Goat’s upstairs bar – there’s nothing on that scale in the town centre. 

And then there’s Seasonality, which recently got a rave review in The Guardian. It started in lockdown as a deli also selling heat at home meals, and has since morphed into a restaurant offering an interesting and inventive menu. It’s tasteful, gorgeous looking and independent: you could count the number of restaurants like that which have opened in Reading in the last couple of years on the fingers of one stump. With the winter we have looming, and the town’s famously charmless landlords, can you imagine one trying their luck here in the next twelve months?

Finally, the subject of this week’s review which might be the most interesting of the lot. Flour and Sauce opened in March as part of Maidenhead’s Waterside Quarter and seems, on paper at least, to be an example of a London trend that hasn’t so far made it this far west, the pasta restaurant. And by that I mean that, from a look at the menu, it seems to be modelled on Borough Market’s famous Padella and the hugely influential Bancone along with more recent imitators.

Those places – offering starters, a selection of pasta and not much else – have been one of my favourite trends of the last few years. They’ve given dishes like silk handkerchiefs with confit egg yolk or bucatini cacio e pepe iconic status and at their best they make for fantastic mid-priced casual restaurants. Throw in a negroni to start and a decent dessert at the end and you have the blueprint for a marvellous lunch or dinner: I’ve eaten at the original Bancone in Covent Garden a few times and never had a meal there that was less than splendid. So was Maidenhead boasting an example of this very London trend by virtue of its place on the Elizabeth Line? I wanted to find out.

It looked gorgeous from the outside, all white columns and full length windows. And it had the feeling of a fully realised concept, with clear branding, although something was niggling and bringing out my inner Mary Portas. Was it the name? Somehow it felt like it should be Flour And Sauce, both in chronological and alphabetical order. And the slogan – Wine Meats Dine – might have worked as a pun, but it didn’t seem to descibe what they actually did.

Going inside and taking my table brought out my inner Michelle Ogundehin. It was a big deep room but everything was somehow disconnected. The furniture didn’t match, but not in a charming way or even a calculated one, more as if they’d run out of stuff. I saw three different types of chair, one of which was the ubiquitous Tollix I associate with far cheaper food and greater discomfort.

Likewise the lampshades didn’t match, but not in a way that made sense – including the ones over the window seats which looked like grass skirts humping a lightbulb. There were some cheap shelving units from Ikea along one wall and a completely incongruous pine Welsh dresser at the back. It all felt thrown together, as if they’d opened in a hurry – and of course it might well have been. The faux marble wallpaper along one wall, already slightly peeling at the joins, might have gone on in a hurry too.

“It’s funny” said Zoë. “You walk in and think ‘this is nice’ but then the longer you look at it the more jarring it gets.”

I don’t think it helps that we got arguably the worst table in the place. The restaurant wasn’t really broken into zones, and we had the last free table – right at the front, near the open door. It was a bit chilly, and with people traipsing past in either direction it felt like eating in a corridor – especially when at one point a large group decided to stand right next to our table and chat to a couple eating up at the window for the best part of ten minutes. The window seats, by the way, are probably the best place to sit if you’re in a pair: the counter is lovely and deep, and you get a great view (and, therefore, superb people watching opportunities).

The menu was a little like the room – superficially attractive, but the closer you looked the more you wondered. At places like Bancone, the array of pasta dishes all involve different types of pasta which gives you a much wider range of choices. By contrast nearly all the pasta dishes at Sauce And Flour revolved around relatively similar shapes, and not too many of them, so you had multiple permutations of pappardelle, tagliatelle, linguine and bucatini which made up all but one of the pasta dishes on offer (the exception was a penne dish: what kind of a monster orders penne from choice?). I was hoping to see some ravioli, something like trofie or orechiette, a little more variety.

And while I’m whinging, the drinks list was irksome too. A reasonable selection of wine, but only one of each colour available by the glass. Come in a group or don’t bother, that seemed to say. And the pricing of the solitary red, white and rosé were absolutely nuts: the menu sold wine in 125ml and 250ml glasses with no option in between. And if you did decide you wanted a small glass of wine they stung you, with most of them costing only two pounds less than the large glass (I mean, you could say the large glasses were a relative bargain, but I suppose I’m a bit more large-glass-half-empty).

The irony wasn’t lost on me: I’ve moaned for years that not enough restaurants sell wine in 125ml glasses, and here I was in a place where it was one of the only options. But it felt badly thought out. There were two beers on offer, those ubiquitous macro lagers Peroni and Moretti. I took another look, thought fuck this and ordered a large bottle of San Pellegrino.

Would the food redeem matters? Some of it came close. We started with some thoroughly decent dishes from the starters menu and for a while I thought my tetchiness would be held in check. The pick of the bunch – of the whole meal, in fact – were the short rib beef croquettes: three beautiful specimens crisp of shell and packed with soft, yielding, slow-cooked beef. They were perched in a little moat of spiced mayonnaise which might have had a kiss of ‘nduja, and each had a slice of pickle draped on top which was more sweet than tart and tied things together nicely.

There were three of these and I let Zoë have the spare because she was so underwhelmed by the next starter, although I didn’t like it much better. Squid – “body and tentacles” according to the menu, which I think is TMI – was meant to come fried with ‘nduja but was actually in a thin, vinegary sauce with capers and no heat or seasoning. All the squid was bouncier than you’d like, and just made me think wistfully of better squid I’ve had in the not too distant past. It came with a long transverse slice of focaccia toast which was so rock hard that trying to cut it with a knife and fork left me worrying that half of it would ping off and hit the next table. A pointless blob of squid ink mayo perched on it, looking like a dirty protest.

Finally, I wasn’t sure what “warm buttermilk garlic bun & parmesan” would turn out to be, and the answer is essentially this: four giant dough balls. They were about as nice as giant dough balls can be, strewn with Parmesan and rosemary, and I squidged a piece into the sauce that came with the squid to verify that yes, it really was that dull.

Mains were better but, and this is rather a theme, not exactly as billed. My linguine puttanesca was solid, I think. The ribbons had just enough pleasing bite and the sauce, a combination of all my favourite things, worked well. It had the note of acidity from the capers, a pleasant hum of chilli in the background and beautiful, plump olives. I felt like it needed more anchovy, but then I feel that way about the world in general so this dish was hardly an isolated incident. I’d paid extra to have some yellowfin tuna in the mix and I think I spotted a couple of forkfuls, but that was it. Not bad at all, and not bad value at fourteen pounds, but in the wider context of the whole meal it was doing a lot of heavy lifting.

Zoë’s dish, slow-cooked duck ragu with tagliatelle, had sounded good on paper and she enjoyed it, but from what I tasted it didn’t quite work. Again, the menu was misleading: this didn’t feel like a ragu at all, and the pieces of duck leg I ate didn’t have that tenderness I associate with slow cooked sauces. This hadn’t been reduced for a long time in red wine and tomatoes, it was a white ragu if anything, but it felt like the duck had been added to the white wine and mascarpone right at the end.

And it tasted pleasant enough, but if I’d ordered it I’d have been disappointed: perhaps the kitchen’s other ragus – one made with beef shin, the other with pork and ‘nduja – showed off their skills better. Zoë couldn’t finish it – you can’t fault the portion size – but by the end the sauce had pretty much solidified which made it a challenge. I will say this for Sauce And Flour, though: both pasta dishes had the welcome crunch of judiciously added pangrattato, and it’s hard to completely take against a restaurant that does that.

We decided to try dessert, to give the place a fair crack of the whip. They too were pretty representative of the whole Sauce And Flour experience. Zoë’s tiramisu was decent, and she loved the mascarpone and the leftfield inclusion of Kahlua, but it was a lot more cream than sponge. It didn’t dampen her ardour for Buon Appetito’s magical pistachio tiramisu, put it that way.

I went for the cheese selection and for one person, for seven pounds, I thought it was generous. They have a big deli counter just along from the open kitchen so you can see the staff cutting and preparing the cheese plate, and maybe if I’d had better eyesight I could have worked out what they were. But with the exception of a gorgeous, crumbly Parmesan with decent age which I left until last, I have no idea what they were because the wait staff just plonked them down and sodded off (the menu doesn’t say, either).

The others were a mix of a soft cheese that might have been Brie but possibly wasn’t, a hard cheese that could have been pecorino but probably wasn’t and a couple of other cheeses which honestly could have been anything. Maybe it was the adrenalin, or maybe I was just high on life and drunk on San Pellegrino but I have absolutely no idea. I do know that they came with crackers which tasted a lot like water biscuits and a little dish of something the menu just calls “jam” which tasted of surprisingly little.

Not telling us what the cheeses were was pretty consistent with service in general: it wasn’t unpleasant or rude, just distinctly brisk and disinterested. Maybe it’s because they were busy, but it lacked warmth – and I’m not just saying that because I was sitting by the open door. For me, that was arguably the biggest drawback about Sauce And Flour because it’s the thing – over and above the quirks of the menu or that sore thumb Welsh dresser – that badly needs to be fixed. Our meal came to just over sixty-seven pounds, and included a ten per cent service charge I’m not entirely sure was warranted.

On the train home, Zoë and I mused about exactly what had been missing from our evening.

“The room wasn’t that bad, and some of the food was very good, but great service would absolutely transform that place” she said. And she’s right. Sauce And Flour is a curious beast. It looks, on paper, like an attempt to recreate those specialist pasta restaurants in the capital, but scratch the surface and I have a horrible feeling that it’s actually just a reasonable Italian restaurant with a more limited menu. Like the faux marble wallpaper, it might look the part from a distance but underneath, it’s already peeling. So we can relax: Reading isn’t missing out, not this time anyway. If you want to leave town to eat superb Italian food, take a train to Mio Fiore.

What it really made me think about was the glory days of Dolce Vita, at the height of its powers. I loved Dolce Vita, but let’s be honest: the room wasn’t the best in Reading, and a fair amount of the food didn’t quite live up to its reputation (mainly, ironically, the pasta and pizza dishes). But because of the service, you never cared about that. You’d go back time and again, and it always felt like having friends cooking for you. And if I’d gone to Dolce Vita and there had only been one wine by the glass, I wouldn’t have given a shit; I don’t think I ever went there without ordering a bottle anyway. Trends or no trends, Reading doesn’t need a Sauce And Flour. But there will always be room for another Dolce Vita.

Sauce And Flour – 7.0
4A High Street, Maidenhead, SL6 1QJ
07516 948421

https://www.sauceandflour.com

Restaurant review: The Magdalen Arms, Oxford

Can you believe that this is the first time I’ve ever reviewed a restaurant in Oxford? Crazy, I know: it’s half an hour away by train and probably the place most readers ask me to consider when it comes to casting my net a bit wider. And yet, for a variety of reasons, I’ve never gone there on duty. For a long time, it’s because there was no gap in the market. Not because Oxford has a thriving local press – they have an iffy Newsquest paper and website, just like we do – but because it had a superb restaurant blogger, In Oxford, Will Eat, and she did such a good job that I had no desire to step on her turf. 

Then she got a job in Brussels, and I considered expanding north, but shortly after that I got divorced and took some time out. And when I came back, about a year later, loads of new Reading restaurants had sprung up during my hibernation – so many, in fact, that I had my hands full catching up with them all. So I got that under control and my thoughts turned to Oxford again, and then bang: along came the pandemic. The works always seemed to have a spanner in them, to the point where I wondered if it just wasn’t meant to be.

But a couple of weeks back I decided that life was about as close to normal as it was likely to be any time soon, and Zoë and I had a Friday off together, and Oxford was calling to me. It’s a funny place, in lots of ways: I lived there for four years in the mid-Nineties and back then the gulf between town and gown was so pronounced that it felt like a bit like my ex-wife and I sharing a flat for five months while the divorce got sorted: a deeply uncomfortable, unsustainable cohabitation between two very different halves. As a student, if you walked into the wrong pub – I did it once on my first week at university, and never repeated the mistake – you could almost feel the threat of violence in the air. Mind you, at nineteen I probably provoked that response often.

Nowadays it’s a city far more at ease with itself, and walking its picturesque streets on a sunny Friday morning it seemed the far bigger problem was tourists, a group locals and students regard with equal levels of animosity. Oxford is an interesting place to compare with Reading, because it has a lot of the things Reading does not – an excellent covered market, nice little enclaves of independent shops, areas like Jericho (which is what Caversham wishes it was) or the Cowley Road (ditto, but for the Oxford Road). 

It has a more upmarket mall, too, in the shape of the Westgate, and better, fancier chains than the ones we get saddled with. Pizza Pilgrims, Shoryu, Mowgli and Le Pain Quotidien all operate there. Our branch of Leon got canned and people are eagerly awaiting the opening of Gail’s where Patisserie Valerie used to be: Oxford has played host to both for years. And last time I checked, Oxford didn’t have a Taco Bell or a Jollibee. How on earth do they cope?

But it’s not as simple as that, because spending time in Oxford makes you realise that despite all its chocolate-boxiness it lacks things that we take for granted here in Reading. Street food, for one – the Covered Market is great but Oxford has nothing like Blue Collar, and the market in Gloucester Green is much more variable. Craft beer is another shortcoming – Oxford specialises in a certain kind of pub, popular with tourists, cask spods and “pubmen” (they’re always men), but it’s a struggle to find anywhere that serves more interesting stuff since The Grapes, the West Berkshire pub on George Street, closed at the end of last year, with the notable exception of Teardop, a nanopub in the Covered Market. It closes at half-five.

And what about restaurants? Well, this is another area where Oxford has never been considered quite as good as it should be. It has some cracking restaurants, and I’ve paid them many visits over the years: modern Italian Branca in Jericho, lovely family-owned Pierre Victoire on fairy light-strewn Little Clarendon Street, bright bustling Arbequina dishing up tapas down the Cowley Road and swanky Pompette out in Summertown. But those seem to be the exception rather than the rule, and beyond that top tier there are a fair few places trading on past reputation and others that just couldn’t make a go of it. 

That last category tells a story all on its own, because I’ve eaten at so many lauded restaurants in Oxford that that didn’t survive. Places like The Oxford Kitchen (it won a Michelin star in 2018: now it’s a delicatessen), or Turl Street Kitchen, the Anchor or even The Rickety Press, before the pub was acquired by Dodo Pubs, the owners of our very own Last Crumb. It makes you think: we get our sackcloth and ashes out because Clay’s is moving to Caversham – well, those of us who don’t live in Caversham do, anyway – but Oxford has a bit of a track record of not being able to support good restaurants. What’s that all about?

(I should add that if by some chance you’re reading this and you live in Oxford and I’ve got the place completely wrong, please go easy on me. Let me know all the great places I’m missing in Oxford, in the comments, and I’ll make sure I add them to my to do list. And do accept my apologies: I too live somewhere where we’re used to being misjudged.)

Anyway, for my inaugural Oxford review – just as with my first ever Reading review all those years ago – I picked a proper happy place. And I couldn’t think of a better establishment to start with: the Magdalen Arms is a gastropub down the Iffley Road with impeccable credentials, part of a group which includes the legendary Anchor & Hope on Waterloo’s The Cut and, for many years, Great Queen Street just off Drury Lane, a sadly departed favourite of mine. It’s a bracing walk over Magdalen Bridge, or you can just hop on a bus outside Queens College and be there in just over five minutes.

The Magdalen Arms has been trading in its current incarnation for nearly thirteen years and has been reviewed glowingly in every broadsheet you care to name, although not for some time. It’s reached the stage, I suspect, where it’s been doing its thing consistently for so long that it’s just become part of the furniture, a position I can identify with. Even as far back as 2010 Matthew Norman in the Guardian said “Being the best restaurant in Oxford may not be a glittering accolade”, proving that smug tossers talking the city down is by no means a new phenomenon.

Anyway, I’ve been coming to the Magdalen Arms for longer than I can remember. Usually for the pie, which serves two and seems mandatory to order in most of the reviews I’ve ever read. Arriving on a clement summer afternoon the pub was every bit as handsome a place as I remembered. It’s a big old place made up of two huge rooms – a gorgeous one at the front with deep red walls and an almost continental feel, and another at the back which I’ve never taken to. Most of the customers on the day we visited were sitting outside, so we got a cracking table next to the window. I was surprised to see the place so quiet – on a Sunday lunchtime it tends to be heaving – and although I wasn’t complaining I was slightly concerned.

The Magdalen Arms’ menu has always been relatively compact, but seemed more narrow than I remembered. You had a choice of five starters and a couple of larger ones to share, and just the three main courses alongside two options for larger groups. It meant deciding was simultaneously easier and harder than usual, an interesting dilemma, and the fact that there was no pie on the menu – anyone would have thought it was the height of summer – forced us to pick a Plan B.

But while we made up our mind they brought us some squares of their exemplary focaccia and a shallow dish of deep green olive oil, all grass and pepper, and from that point onwards all decisions felt slightly de-risked. That feeling was reinforced by the arrival of a bottle of petite syrah, an agreeable chorus of red fruits and spice, and I remembered that there’s little better than a leisurely lunch on a Friday with your favourite person, the sun pouring through the window and the rest of the world at work. Returning to a restaurant you love is one of the nicest reunions there is, and I realised it must have been three years since I’d sat in that room and made those enviable choices. It was all going to be okay.

We started with something I’ve always eyed up but never ordered, a Spanish sharing plate. It came looking like a still life, and the best of it was very good indeed. Pan con tomate, toasted bread rubbed with tomato and herbs, was bright and summery and I could have eaten an awful lot more of it. And the manchego, if slightly fridge-cold, was perfect with a little lozenge of quince paste. Padron peppers were nicely blackened, too, although I personally like to see the blighters studded with salt. By contrast, these were slightly underpowered.

The least effective parts, for me, were two of the mainstays of Spanish food. Croquetas were a pleasing shape and size but the inside was coarse, not a silky bechamel, and had a strangely sweet tang to it. They were pepped up with a dab of romesco (served in those comical cardboard tubs used for hospital meds), but the romesco didn’t have the punch it needed. Similarly the tortilla was okay, but just okay – cooked through, a solid slab of eggs and carbs. I’ve been spoiled by its gooer sibling on the Cowley Road, but it did just fine.

We were on safer ground with cured meats, although again these would have been even better closer to room temperature. The Jamon was coarse and salty, with a beautiful dry texture and the lomo, which looked more like coppa, was equally delicious. And there seemed to be two different kinds of chorizo – both were gorgeous but one had that glorious alchemy of meat, fat and pimenton down pat. The plate was strewn with olives, although I did find myself wishing for something like some caperberries to add the sharpness that was missing.

But it was a thoroughly respectable thing to eat. It certainly could have served more people less greedy than Zoë and me, and felt like reasonable value at thirty-three pounds, just about. It did get me thinking, because this is one of my favourite kinds of dishes to share and many places in Reading try to offer something similar without quite getting it right: only Buon Appetito, with its ridiculously generous antipasto misto, gets close.

Normally I would order a different main to my dining partner, but the menu at the Magdalen Arms was so compact that when we wanted the same thing I decided neither of us should go without. I’m so glad I did, because the Magdalen Arms’ pigeon ragu with pappardelle was one of the nicest lunches I’ve had in a long time. The pasta was just right, with exactly the right amount of bite, a perfectly starchy vehicle for a wonderful ragu with celery and a little nip of what I thought might be fennel. 

The pigeon had largely been slow-cooked into strands, although a handful of more stubborn clumps remained, but it was really no hardship to polish off every mouthful. If you have just one plate at lunchtime, it’s difficult to imagine something nicer than this – that includes the Magdalen Arms’ pie, by the way – and at sixteen pounds it managed the unusual feat of being cheaper than our starter; the more I think about it, the more I think that starter was meant to be shared between more than two people.

Oh, and we also had some chips with aioli: they didn’t go with anything but it’s hard to pass up chips with aioli. The chips were great – I think the food blogger chip cliché is to wank on about “rustle and snap”, whatever the fuck that is – and although the aioli was good it came in another of those mingy paper cups and I had to ask for more. Not that it was any trouble: service was terrific from start to finish, just as it always is at the Magdalen Arms.

You would think, given everything I’ve said, that we passed on dessert. But you’d be misjudging how thorough (or how gluttonous) I am. My ice cream was excellent and again – bit of a theme here – hugely generous, with an enormo-scoop of a deep, bitter chocolate gelato and a pistachio ice cream which felt to me, both in terms of colour and flavour, to have more of a marzipan note to it. I love the stuff, so I was happy if I’d been missold.

Ice cream is another of those things Oxford does well and Reading does not, so the Magdalen Arms’ ice cream isn’t as good as the stuff you can get from Swoon Gelato on the High, but it’s still miles better than anything you can get in Reading. And to reverse the trend, the Magdalen Arms’ Basque cheesecake was nice enough – and the roasted apricots were a nice touch – but I’ve had better at Geo Café from the rather literally named Reading Loves Cheesecakes.

Replete, with the post-lunch fuzziness that comes from a good bottle of wine, I could have happily whiled the afternoon away there, watching afternoon smudge into evening and seeing the pub come to life again on a Friday night, buzzing with happy diners. But I had my eye on a coffee from the brilliant Missing Bean, who have a roastery literally around the corner, and that stroll back into the centre wasn’t going to get any easier.

So we settled up and went on our way. Our bill came to a hundred and twenty-three pounds, including a twelve and a half per cent service charge. Not cheap, but not unreasonable – and the menu does have a set lunch every day including a small glass of wine for twelve pounds: if Reading had an offer like that I would probably use it often. Come to think of it Pierre Victoire also does a killer set lunch, so perhaps this is another one to chalk up as something Oxford does far better.

So, no real surprises here; the nice thing about having a long relationship with a restaurant is that, unlike romantic relationships, there’s something rich and deep about reaching that stage where you move beyond infatuation and into comfortableness. I expected to have a good meal at the Magdalen Arms, and I did. I knew it might be amazing, which in honesty it wasn’t, but I could be absolutely certain it wouldn’t be mediocre. Restaurants and pubs like that are to be celebrated, wherever they are, and I knew for a fact when I left on that Friday afternoon that I would be back, and hopefully before too long. But just to compare Oxford and Reading one final time, would I swap it for the Lyndhurst? Not in a month of Sundays.

The Magdalen Arms – 7.7
243 Iffley Road, Oxford, OX4 1SJ
01865 243159

http://www.magdalenarms.co.uk

Restaurant review: Goat On The Roof, Newbury

I was late arriving for my reservation at Goat On The Roof: one thing I haven’t missed in the two and a half years since the pandemic is the panic caused by trying to get somewhere on time when our rail network refuses to play ball. There were no strikes on that bright sunny evening, but I stood by the departures board watching trains being repeatedly pushed back or cancelled. I texted Graeme, who was joining me for dinner, saying it was touch and go. “Let me know if it all goes tits up” he said, a man whose own plans had also been wrecked by the railways one too many times.

In the end I found a seat on seemingly the only train heading west in the foreseeable future and gazed out of the window as Reading turned into West Berkshire, the train trundled past the sixties flats of Southcote and out into the countryside. This was my commute every day for about a year, and although I never missed the job in Newbury I always liked how contemplative the journey could be.

I liked the landmarks, too. The weird Harrods warehouse plonked by the tracks in Thatcham, looking deeply incongruous. The business parks of Theale, far from the cutting edge. Midgham, so bucolic with the lovely Rowbarge just round the corner. And the slightly vulgar view of the racecourse, a sign that your voyage was nearly over. I felt like a modern-day Philip Larkin in The Whitsun Weddings, albeit without the racism, the womanising, the enormous jazz collection.

Alighting at Newbury I remembered how much I liked the place and how enjoyable it had been to knock around town after work. Their main outside space in the Market Place, was occupied by a Bill’s and a Wetherspoons, but it still looked very fetching on a summer’s evening. Besides, what did Reading have in a similar location? An overflow car park for O’Neills, defiling the space where the 3Bs used to be.

Graeme was already at Goat On The Roof when I arrived, hot, flustered and en retard, but he’d grabbed a table and had a gin and tonic on the go, because he’s no fool. Walking over to join him I was struck by what a tasteful room it was: good furniture, plain panelled walls, art dotted here and there. The site used to be Japanese restaurant Arigato, and before that it was a bank – that shows in the proportions of the room, the almost full-length windows bathing the room in light.

I was worried that the lack of soft furnishings would make it a deafening room in which to spend an evening, but actually it wasn’t problematic. And it could easily have been, because the place was pretty much full on a Friday evening: not bad going for a restaurant which opened less than three months ago.

While we peered at our menus, the owner came over and asked whether we’d eaten there before. When we said we hadn’t, he proceeded to “explain the concept”: now, this normally induces some eye-rolling but Goat On The Roof’s concept is an interesting one and goes some way to explaining why this week’s review is from Newbury rather than somewhere closer to home. 

They were a British tapas restaurant, he said, and that meant a reliance on British ingredients, ideally organic, sustainable and as local as possible. And that feels like an intriguing idea: we have some great ingredients in this country, and some magnificent producers, but many restaurants don’t bang that drum as loudly as they could. It’s an apposite idea in the wake of Brexit, too, with many ingredients trickier and costlier to import than ever, so if this turned out to be a well-executed, well-considered stratagem rather than a gimmick it could make for an excellent meal. Besides, I’ve been moaning for years that Reading didn’t have a credible tapas restaurant, and for some outrageous reason nobody had deemed this sufficient incentive to open one.

Anyway, the concept was all well and good but what were we going to eat? The menu did an excellent job of selling practically every dish, and I was pleased to see that it was already different from the one I’d seen online. It was divided into sections for nibbles, vegetable dishes, fish, meat and cheese and prices varied quite widely: most of the meat dishes, for instance, were north of a tenner whereas veg dishes were closer to seven pounds. 

“Do you have any questions about the menu?” asked the owner.

“Yes, what’s the ‘Barbed Dart’?” said Graeme.

“It’s a quail’s egg, red pepper and anchovy threaded onto a skewer. You put it in your mouth and pull the skewer out and eat it all in one go, and it’s an explosion of flavours. Don’t eat the skewer too though” – he said this in a manner which suggested it was well-rehearsed – “That bit’s very important.”

After he’d left us to our deliberations, Graeme leaned forward. 

“I like all of those things, but I’m not sure I can be bothered with it.”  

“I feel the same! So I guess we agree on some dishes for our first wave and hold some back for a second wave. That cabbage with black garlic and pangrattato sounds nice, or perhaps the tomatoes with pesto.”

“I suppose I could be a grown up and eat tomatoes. I hated them as a child, and I’ve only got used to them recently.”

“But these are from the Isle Of Wight” I pontificated. “They’re sort of legendary, they’re some of the only tomatoes we grow in this country that taste of anything.”

“I’m quite comfortable with us not ordering anything from the vegetables section, you know.” 

Again, I remembered why Graeme was one of my favourite dining companions: I must invite him to join me more often. I also remembered that Graeme’s wife was a vegetarian – although apparently a recent holiday in Madeira had turned her into a pescatarian – so he was probably looking forward to an evening going off the rails.

But first, wine. Goat On The Roof’s wine list was a superb, fascinating thing, Everything was European, British wine was well represented and there was a strong selection of orange wines and natural wines (would you have put money on Newbury, of all places, becoming a hotbed for natural wine?). Prices started at twenty-five pounds and climbed sharply after that, although a good proportion were available by the glass. On another day I might have tried the Welsh Pet Nat or an Austrian red, but Graeme had seen something that caught his eye.

“They have a Grüner Veltliner on the list, and I really love a Grüner.”

That was good enough for me, and the fact that it was a natural wine swung it for sheer curiosity. The natural wines I’ve tried have always been on the challenging side, with more funk than I’d personally choose, but this one’s cloudiness belied a wonderfully fresh, balanced wine. Before I’d finished the first glass I’d made a mental note to seek it out, and within a couple of days I’d taken delivery of a couple of bottles. That’s how good it was. (One of the websites where I found it said “you can neck it from a mug if you want, such is the vibrancy of the wine” – no: it’s good, but not so good that you’d abandon your standards.)

Our first wave of dishes was an excellent start. Anchovies, from Cornwall apparently, were marinated boquerones-style rather than salty, but they had a real zippiness to them, lifted with lemon, mint and chilli and completed with custard-yellow oil. It was a deceptively dense portion – although Goat On The Roof’s plates are far from ugly their general principle is to pile things high. Neither of were quibbling though, and the bread we’d ordered – workmanlike, not exceptional – saw more of the oil than the butter which came with it. Hats off, too, that the butter was at room temperature.

Also piled high on a plate rather than painstakingly spread out on a board was the fennel salami. Again this made the portion look smaller than it was, so maybe not the most considered approach, but the salami was perfectly coarse and laced with fennel and I liked it very much. Their charcuterie comes from Trealy Farm, a relatively big name which used to supply to Mitchell & Butler pubs back in the day. Even so, it was gorgeous stuff: I looked them up online when I got home, too. 

I suspect Trealy Farm also provided the lardo which came draped on top of a scallop ceviche, a dish from the specials menu. Graeme was impressed with this dish, but I was more circumspect. The quality of the scallops was top notch, and it had a wonderful cleanness which was almost led astray enough by the lardo. But it needed more of the advertised gremolata to add contrast and colour – without that it was a little too white, a little too pure.

The last of our initial quartet was a classic tapas dish, ham and cheese croquettes. Graeme was drawn to this because they’d used Old Winchester, a fantastic cheese that can rival any manchego, and I thought these were well done – a smooth, glossy béchamel with just enough ham to lend another dimension. I used the last of my bread to scoop up the snowdrift of grated cheese left in the dish.

Our second wave of orders was even more successful than the first, and chanced upon three stone cold classics on the menu. The first of these was Goat On The Roof’s take on patatas bravas (which of course they call “Crispy Potatoes, Spiced Tomato Sauce, Garlic Mayo”, presumably because their concept precludes speaking foreign on the menu wherever possible). 

I’ve had patatas bravas in a lot of places, and Goat On The Roof’s are right up there with the best. Often they’re just not crispy enough, or they used to be but they wilted under the onslaught of a lake of bravas sauce and aioli. These were absolutely spot on – incredible texture, not overdressed and perfectly balanced. At five pounds seventy they’re also arguably the best value on the menu: if you go, insist on having one to yourself.

Also exceptional was the pork belly with rhubarb compote. The pork, fried until crispy, reminded me a lot of chicharrones I’ve had in Malaga, so skilfully cooked that you didn’t mind in the slightest about spearing a cube that was more fat than flesh. I’ve not had pork with rhubarb before but having tried it I wonder why it took me so long – the sharp tartness of the rhubarb being exactly what was needed, harmonising with the pork rather than drowning it out. Again, small plates for sharing are all very well but order one of these, tell your companions they wouldn’t like it and eat it all on your own: whoever you’re at dinner with will get over it.

The last standout dish was the soused mackerel – a gorgeous piece of fish cooked as little as they could get away with, with a quenelle of relatively restrained horseradish cream (and a pointless piece of something like melba toast). This was very much the kind of dish where you took as small a forkful as you could each time and savoured every bite, and the fact that Graeme and I shared one between two is a tribute to our powers of restraint. 

We also had the chorizo (the menu does speak foreign here, presumably because “Deep Red Paprika Sausage” would have looked weird and wrong) cooked in cider. It came with a hen’s egg – they were oddly specific about that – which was soft boiled and rolled in some kind of crumb. I liked this dish, probably because the chorizo was also from Trealy Farm and they’re very good at what they do, but at eleven pounds fifty it felt a little on the sharp side. But again, it was good enough that you didn’t hold a grudge.

The dessert selection was much narrower. I’ve always held that you can share your small plates all you like but dessert is meant to be your own personal kingdom: if people are good, or lucky, they can have a forkful but any more is pushing it. I gave Graeme first choice and after much deliberation he chose what I thought was a gorgeous dessert – local strawberries, shiny and sticky with maceration, a perfect sphere of sorrel sorbet perched on top. The forkful I had was properly beautiful, and I’d ordered it I wouldn’t have complained.

Graeme did, but that’s more because my order, the chocolate mousse, was phenomenal. This seems to be a staple in tapas restaurants and many places – Arbequina in Oxford, or Bar 44 in Bristol – do it extremely well. But often it will be poshed up with salt or olive oil, a thin bit of toast or some torta de aciete. By contrast Goat On The Roof plays it very straight – and if their mousse isn’t going to win any prizes for aesthetics it more than makes up for it with the taste. It was a glorious swirl of milk and white chocolate with a handful of raspberries and I can happily confirm that it’s the perfect way to end a meal.  Not that we did end the meal there, because we had some fudge as a petit four (the vanilla one was okay, the coffee one cracking) but you get the general idea. 

Our meal – a couple of gin and tonics, all those small plates, a stonking bottle of wine, desserts and fudge came to just shy of a hundred and sixty pounds, including an optional twelve and a half per cent service charge. Service, incidentally, was excellent: it’s a very young, very enthusiastic, very positive team and they have the enthusiasm that comes with starting something new and very accomplished which is quite unlike anything Newbury has, or Reading for that matter.

After our meal we repaired to the excellent Catherine Wheel which has lovely outside space and, more importantly, a little outdoor bar selling over fifty kinds of gin. We nabbed the last free table and proceeded to drink really rather a lot of gin while Graeme berated me about my good luck in the dessert sweepstake.

“You did a Jedi mind trick on me, admit it.”

“It was more like Derren Brown. Did you not notice that in the run up to ordering I kept talking about the sorrel sorbet? Sorrel sorbet. Sorrel sorbet.

Graeme grimaced, but I could tell he wasn’t really resentful. Probably. Besides, it was time to try another gin; I told him to surprise me and when he came back with a strawberry and balsamic concoction I couldn’t tell whether it was reward or revenge. A few gins later we weaved our way to the station for the last train home at the end of an evening well spent.

So why isn’t the rating down there higher, you might ask? The honest answer is I’m not entirely sure. Part of it’s the cost. Small plates restaurants do this – the prices of every dish are always clearly advertised, and nobody’s holding a gun to your head. And yet at the end there’s always a moment where the bill arrives and you wonder how you spent quite that much. 

But also, Goat On The Roof was almost too polished. That’s what gives away how British it is. That’s not a bad thing per se, and if Goat On The Roof feels like it’s been there firing on all cylinders for a lot longer than three months that reflects very well on them, but it slightly lacked the exuberance I associate with tapas at its best. I’ll go back, I’m sure, but I’m not desperate to get it in the calendar. Although, on the other hand, pork belly with rhubarb compote.

The next day, I got a text from Graeme.

“I still think you used some kind of Jedi mind trick on me.”

“This is not the dessert you’re looking for”, I replied.

He sent me the applause emoji in response. But I wouldn’t have been surprised if, on the other side of the phone screen, he felt like telling me to fuck off. 

Goat On The Roof – 7.7
1 Bridge Street, Newbury, RG14 5BE
01635 580015

https://goatontheroof.co.uk

Restaurant review: Cotto, Bristol

I know, I know, another Bristol review. I’m sorry. This is meant to be Edible Reading, you might say. Why doesn’t he stay in his lane? Or perhaps you’re one of the If you like Bristol so much why don’t you live there brigade. I do understand, and I know a fair few people take a week off reading the blog when they see the name of the new post and realise it has a place name in the title, the name of Somewhere Outside Reading. I get it.

But the problem is that, when you write about food – or even if you don’t – you want to try the very best stuff. And when eating out is a passion you plan your holidays around it, your weekends around it. I’m away in a couple of weeks and the process is always the same: book the flights, book the hotel and then book the restaurants. And then you have to go through the usual dance: how many meals out is too many? Is two in a day overkill? Maybe your holidays aren’t like that, in which case I simultaneously envy you and think that, on some level at least, you’re missing out. You probably go to more galleries and museums than I do on a city break, to be fair.

And the thing about the very best stuff is that you – by which I mean I – actively want to write about it. Take the violet aubergine caponata I had as part of my lunch at Cotto, a restaurant in Bristol’s old city, a stone’s throw from the food market. I’ve had caponata before, but nothing that matched this. Everything was in high definition – the aubergine sweet, sharp and comforting all at once, the basil perfumed, the olive oil grassy and the pine nuts a joyous surprise in every forkful. Each flavour was somehow separated out and distinct, the gastronomic equivalent of listening to a well produced record on very expensive headphones. You might not give a monkey’s, but how could I not review that?

I’m probably getting ahead of myself by starting there, but given that I’m not usually a Bristol reviewer and you’re most likely not a Bristol reader I can probably skip the preamble with all the namedropping. The bit that talks about Cotto being the latest in a group of Bristol restaurants, the Bianchis Group, and mentions all the others (spoiler alert: I’ve not yet been to any of them). And I could tell you the name of the chef – I know some reviewers really start dribbling at that point – but it didn’t mean anything to me and it probably wouldn’t to you either.

I mean, why should you care? I’d heard good things, so I thought I’d check it out for lunch while I was spending a few days in Bristol and I’m writing it up even though it probably won’t interest many of you. I’m selfless like that.

It was a lovely dining room. From the photos I’ve seen it looks lively in the evenings, with a certain convivial glow. But stopping there on a Friday lunchtime, the room less than half-full, it had a wonderful serenity – all muted terra cotta walls, framed cartoons and Robin Day polyprop chairs (they’ve come up in the world since my generation perched on them in double maths back in the Eighties, that’s for certain). 

It bills itself as a wine bar and kitchen, and you could sit up at the bar looking out on St Stephen’s Street with a glass and a small plate, I suppose, although given how good the menu looked that would feel a bit like having half a wank. It was all tempting, to the extent where the difficult part wasn’t choosing what to eat but what to forego; on another day I’d have wound up telling you all about the coppa and pickles, the vitello tonnato, the fermented courgette with hot honey. 

But in this parallel universe I tried that caponata, and I could hardly complain. It cost six pounds fifty, fifty pence of which went to one of the restaurant’s chosen charities. There were three dishes marked as including that contribution and one of the others was the bread and butter – four slices of decent, robust sourdough which maybe felt slightly steep at just over four pounds. It was however vital for sauce moppage (it’s a word now: I say so) so what can you do?

The bread also came in handy for our third starter, from the specials board. I read somewhere that Cotto cures its own charcuterie and makes its own sausages, and on this showing that involves some real talent. Salsiccia came in earthy, hefty pieces and although I didn’t get masses of the advertised soave and chilli, the gremolata that crowned each diabolically delicious diagonal slice made the whole thing positively sparkle. Again, eight pounds felt slightly steep for a solitary sausage – but that might be the curmudgeon in me so by all means just tune this sentence out.

Our starters finished, we sipped our drinks happy in the knowledge that we were in safe hands. Good starters will do that, building up a bank of credit most restaurants know better than to squander. And our drinks were gorgeous, too: Zoë continued her current negroni phase with a negroni sbagliato, a “broken” negroni made with Prosecco rather than gin, and I had a soft and uncomplicated Italian red about which I remember precious little. But the wine list was excellent – nearly all European, covering a good range of price points with a wide selection available by the glass.

Mains came a little quicker than I’d have chosen – about ten minutes after our empty starter plates were taken away – but were a welcome sight all the same. Gnocchi with rabbit is a combination of two of my favourite things, and what turned up in front of me more than lived up to the promise of those words on the menu. The gnocchi managed to steer clear of stodge and were the perfect vehicle for a sauce of tangled strands of rabbit and firm, almost nutty broad beans, the whole thing lifted with a spike of aniseed, from tarragon I expect. A halo of Parmesan was the icing on the cake, and eating it I got that high-definition thing again, that sense of a kitchen conducting things with aplomb so every flavour had its moment in the spotlight.

Zoë’s chicken involtini was even more a thing of wonder. I have a real soft spot for this kind of dish, but I’ve rarely had a version as good as Cotto’s – chicken wrapped in ham, everything cooked just right, in thick rounds with baby gem, the edges blackened and charred, the whole thing liberally dressed with a vibrant, racing green salsa verde. A spot of balsamic and instant sunshine from more of that olive oil completed a beautiful picture. It was unfussy but superb: as usual, Zoë had picked better than me.

Our waiter – who was absolutely brilliant throughout, incidentally, despite seemingly looking after the whole room on his own – had suggested that the chicken dish needed some carbs. And I’m thoroughly glad that he did, because the Jersey royals we’d ordered for backup were an utter delight. Burnished and bronzed, tossed in oil, garlic and oregano they would have been a knockout on their own, but when paired with a generous puddle of aioli I could have gladly eaten these all the live long day. Have a look at the picture below: if it doesn’t make you peckish you’re beyond my help.

By this point in the meal I was polishing all of my superlatives, so to speak, but my ardour was slightly dampened by the desserts. I would say that they felt like an afterthought, but they were both on the specials board so you couldn’t even say that. We had some Montbrú cheese, which our waiter told us was a goat’s cheese with a texture closer to a Comté or a Gruyère. And that’s true, and a very nice cheese it was too, but three small slices for seven quid felt stingy. This could have done with some carbs: crackers or bread, some or indeed any vehicle for getting the stuff into your gob. That was especially the case because the whole shebang was drizzled with honey which made picking it up a tricky business. And who wants to eat cheese with a knife and fork? You just end up looking like a lemon.

The chocolate truffles were a different kettle of fish. They were excellent – deep and rich and perhaps ever so slightly larger than your average truffle. They were also five pounds fifty. For two. And again, I know this probably sounds a bit like a moan but even so: I know food is getting more expensive, and I didn’t begrudge the price of most of the things we ordered at Cotto. But every now and again the pricing of a dish felt out of whack, and the desserts were where that was more noticeable. Our bill, for three courses and two drinks apiece, came to just over a hundred pounds, which included an optional ten per cent service charge, and all told we were in and out in just over an hour.

Does that matter, in the scheme of things? Well, yes and no – I’ve thought about it a lot since the meal, weighing up the pros and cons. And this is something a lot of restaurant reviewers don’t do – they’ll gush about the dishes but not think about what it was like as a meal, or talk about how much it cost (often because, in their own weasel words, “I didn’t see a bill”). And that’s where Cotto falls down ever so slightly, because despite some truly gorgeous touches and some plates which were up there with anything I’ve eaten this year the whole thing was a little too sharply priced and too briskly paced, especially for lunchtime.

Would I go again? It’s a good question, and one that was thrown into perspective when I realised, walking down St Stephen’s Street, that Cotto was literally two doors down from Marmo, the Bristol restaurant I visited last year that received my highest ever rating. If you picked Cotto up and dropped it in Reading, it would do very well, and I expect from time to time you’d find me there. But as an infrequent visitor to Bristol, it would be difficult to choose it over Marmo: in fact I had dinner at Marmo the night of this visit, and Cotto didn’t quite match it.

That’s how fortunate Bristol is: on one street you can find neighbouring restaurants, either of which would grace a town like Reading with its presence. And it’s not just St Stephen’s Street, you could experience the same phenomenon at Wapping Wharf, on Cotham Hill, in no doubt countless other parts of the city. How do the residents of Bristol not get blasé or complacent, the jammy blighters? But then there’s always someone better off than you, as my friend who lives near Swindon never tires of telling me (usually over Gurt Wings at Blue Collar Corner). Never mind: normal service will be resumed next week with a review back in the ‘Ding, of a place that went a long way towards restoring my faith. Something to look forward to, I hope.

Cotto – 7.9
29-31 St Stephen’s St, Bristol, BS1 1JX
0117 3292560

https://www.cottowinebarandkitchen.co.uk