I’ve been reading a lot of other restaurant bloggers recently, and it’s made me think. These are proper restaurant reviewers in big cities, and they use impressive words like “bosky” and “friable” – both of which, I’m ashamed to say, I had to look up in a dictionary.
The other thing these reviewers do, which I’ve never done, is write in the present tense e.g. I bite into the burger. It has the deep flavour of well-tended cow and so on. This is a very striking way to write about food and it makes you feel like you’re there, in the moment, experiencing that bite with them.
I, on the other hand, tend to write in the past tense e.g. the burger was a bit bland. Recounting an event which has already happened makes it feel like you’re telling someone a story down the pub, but perhaps it lacks that immediacy. Maybe it puts a gap between the writer and the reader.
So does the traditional structure of a restaurant review. Here is why I’m reviewing this place, my reviews tend to begin, followed by this is what the room is like and here’s what I ordered and what it tasted like followed, as night follows day, by here’s what the service was like, here’s how much it cost and, last but not least, this is my verdict. Add the rating, the address and the website, repeat until dead. Job’s a good’un.
One thing those other restaurant reviewers and I agree on is that the best reviews to write are the rave reviews, followed by the hatchet jobs. The ones everybody dreads are the middling, the mediocre, the it was dull enough eating it, but heavens, now I have to write about it ones.
So, I ought to start by explaining that Cozze, the Italian restaurant on the roundabout at the bottom of the Caversham Road, has been on my to do list for literally years, and that whenever I ask people on Facebook where they’d like me to go next someone always pipes up and suggests it.
I should add that it started in Woodley before adding a second branch in central Reading with a third one just opened in Pangbourne. I should then say something like “well, a successful independent chain is a very unusual thing in Reading so I owed it to myself to see what all the fuss was about so I went there one night with my partner Zoë” and there you go, the scene is set.
But really, and maybe this will build some of the immediacy my reviews might sometimes lack, what I really want to tell you is how exceptionally bored I was by having dinner at Cozze.
Take the spaghetti carbonara I had as my starter. A good carbonara should be golden, the sauce should hug the pasta, it should be resplendent with egg, it should be salty and sinful and fun. The pancetta (although ideally it might even be guanciale) should be almost crispy and add its own whack of salt to proceedings. It shouldn’t be like this.
It shouldn’t be a pasty albino of a thing, swimming in cream with scant evidence that it’s ever seen an egg. You shouldn’t be dredging through the lake of liquid once you’ve finished, picking out highlighter-pink cubes of bouncy bacon and wondering why you bothered. It shouldn’t be worse than eating at Carluccio’s, for goodness’ sake. It shouldn’t feel like a dish cooked by people who don’t especially care for food or know how it’s meant to taste.
The sad thing is that the room itself is quite nice – a big airy space with nice furniture and vaguely Kandinsky-esque paintings on the wall. And the staff were lovely – really bright and friendly as they brought middling plate after middling plate to our table. We were the only people there when we arrived, although by the end three other tables were occupied. One big group appeared to be regulars, which makes me wonder if they’ve ever considered trying other restaurants. They might like them.
Zoë thinks I am being a little grumpy, and to be fair she ordered better than I did. But her stuffed mushrooms, laid out as if by a serial killer, might have been pleasant enough but I wasn’t sure they were elevated from anything you could pick up and do yourself in M&S. The ones at Papa Gee, in the heart of Caversham, at least have blue cheese in them to give some salt and tang and flavour: no such luck here. The dip seemed to be mayo. Who dips stuffed mushrooms in mayo? Why not just stick a bottle of salad cream on the table and have done with it?
God, and the desserts. White chocolate covered profiteroles filled with Prosecco and raspberry ice cream sounded like they might at least be interesting, but turned out to be one of the ickiest things I’ve had in a long time. They were filled not with ice cream but with cream that tasted of nothing much. The white chocolate was sickly enough, but the Barbie-pink raspberry gloop on top, and the scoop of raspberry ripple ice cream in which almost no raspberry was evident, completed the spectacle. Again, Zoë’s dessert, a honeycomb cheesecake, was a little better but still every other ingredient was shouted down by sugar.
I’d had my doubts about Cozze before going, which mainly came down to looking at the menu several times over the years. Part of that came from my suspicion that they’d taken a kitchen sink approach – would an Italian restaurant really offer chicken wings, moules frites, baby back ribs and peri-peri chicken? Would they really do four different burgers, accompanied by the wording all our burgers some (sic) with fries and are fully cooked? I mean, I know what they were trying to say, but even so.
But more than that, my real problem with the menu was just how many things on it were also on the menu at Prezzo (ironically Cozze has seen Prezzo off in Woodley: that branch has now closed). If you’re a chain, why set yourself up to be a rival to a place like Prezzo? Should that be the place you set your sights on? Again, it says you’re interested in making money, but not particularly interested in food. But if anything, Prezzo’s menu reflects some recentish food trends – there’s burrata, there’s ‘nduja and so on. Cozze’s menu, with none of that to be seen, feels like an Italian chain menu from about ten years ago.
My main was better, although it still wasn’t anywhere near the best pizza in Reading. It had goats cheese (not enough), leeks, four bits of semi-dried tomatoes and three bits of artichoke. Like most of the other things at Cozze it wasn’t actively unpleasant, just objectionably unexceptional. I drizzled some chilli oil over it to try and make it taste of something. The chilli oil appeared to have very little chilli in it – crap as a condiment, perfect as an analogy.
For completeness’ sake, before you or I drop off, I should also tell you about Zoë’s main course which was pollo prosciutto with pomodoro sauce and baby roast potatoes. Pepe Sale does a beautiful pollo prosciutto – a fillet wrapped in Parma ham and stuffed with cheese which you have with seasonal vegetables. It’s perfect: a few ingredients treated simply and with respect. For some reason, they choose not to drown it in chopped tomatoes and serve it in a bowl hotter than the sun like some kind of glorified ready meal. For some reason, Cozze does choose to do exactly that.
I had a mouthful and wasn’t clamouring for more. My advice, if you ever accidentally order this dish, is to eat it doing your very best to pretend you’re instead eating at Pepe Sale. But if your imagination is that good, you could probably enjoy eating pretty much anything. I used to have a brother in law with nasal polyps so bad he couldn’t taste anything: he’d probably quite like Cozze.
Don’t worry. We’re nearly there and our suffering is almost at an end. It just remains for me to tell you that we shared a five hundred millilitre carafe of Italian Sauvignon blanc which was slightly sweet and perfectly decent and that our meal came to fifty-six pounds, not including tip. That includes a discount because Cozze usually has offers through their website, so if you’re considering eating at Cozze you should definitely make use of them. Although if you’re considering eating at Cozze at this moment, I’ve probably failed as a restaurant reviewer.
You might feel that they caught me on a bad day. You might feel they’re unfortunate to be reviewed the week after I’ve written about eating in Bologna, having truly phenomenal pizza, pasta and gelato. And it’s not that Cozze is bad, to be fair. Nobody died, I wasn’t poisoned, nothing they do is inedible.
It’s just that if Cozze is that answer then “where can we go for dinner that nobody could possibly have any strong opinions about whatsoever?” is the question. The poverty of ambition is the thing I find a terrible shame. Although maybe that’s not fair either: Cozze aspires to mediocrity and, in that respect at least, it has to be considered a towering success. There are worse places to eat, of course. But there will always, easily, be somewhere far, far better.
Bologna is the city where I ran out of superlatives.
I’m used to picking city breaks on food and drink alone, doing plenty of research, booking restaurants and planning exactly where I’ll eat. I love traipsing round a cathedral, I like a gallery and I don’t mind a museum, but the food’s the thing I really make a pilgrimage for. And many of the cities still on my to do list are famous for their gastronomy – Lyon, for example, or San Sebastián. Bologna is in the same league, I think, and is a truly extraordinary place to eat and drink.
It’s beautiful, too. Miles of porticoes run throughout the city – some grand, some tatty but all offering shade when it’s sunny and shelter when it’s raining. The colour palette is like nowhere else I’ve visited – all reds, burnt oranges and dusky pinks. It’s a ridiculously photogenic place, but not picture-perfect and not remotely interested in being so pristine. It has far too much incredible life to it for that.
Bologna has many nicknames – la rossa, the red one, because of its red rooftops and communist history. La dotta, the learned one, because of its university, older even than Oxford. But more importantly, it’s called la grassa, the fat one, because it’s widely thought to be the gastronomic capital of Italy.
It’s in Emilia Romagna, the province of northern Italy responsible for Parma ham, Parmesan and balsamic vinegar. Bologna is also the place for pasta, whether that’s tagliatelle (never spaghetti) with rich ragu or tortellini in broth. And then there’s the local cheese, the mortadella, the wine, the growing craft beer scene; I’ve never been anywhere where food felt quite so front and centre in daily life, or anywhere where it was quite so easy to eat well.
It’s a real challenge to describe it without lurching into hyperbole, but what else can you do when you’ve eaten so many of your desert island dishes on one holiday? The best gelato, the best pasta, the best coffee… you come home feeling a little like you’ve gone from Technicolor to monochrome.
It’s not – at the moment, at least – a huge tourist destination: Rome, Florence and Venice are all far more fêted. But I loved it so much when I went last year that I went again this summer, and I loved it so much when I went this summer that I’m going again before the end of the year. If you’re considering a trip, I hope this list gives you some inspiration. Of course, once I come back from my next visit I might just have to add to it.
Where to eat and drink
1. Drogheria Della Rosa
I visited Drogheria Della Rosa on both my visits to Bologna and loved it both times although, on paper, it’s the kind of restaurant that could give buttoned-up Brits a panic attack. It’s a converted pharmacy, although generally you sit outside in the street enjoying the food, the buzz and the people-watching. The proprietor still stops at your table and asks what you want and – this is the bit which I found unnerving the first time – there’s no printed menu, wine list or prices anywhere to be seen.
Anyway, you soon get past that and everything I had there was terrific, from the ubiquitous tagliatelle al ragu to a veal dish my friend Al and I still rhapsodise over two years later (it wasn’t on offer on my second visit, to my eternal disappointment).
When you ask for a dessert wine they just bring over a bottle of Marsala and some glasses and leave you to it, another experience which is more fun the second time when you have a good idea how much the bill is going to be. But perhaps the best thing about Drogheria Della Rosa was the dessert – one of the simplest and cleanest I’ve ever eaten, a shallow bowl of pure, fresh mascarpone topped with top-quality grated chocolate. I daydream about that from time to time. I was having far too much fun to remember the size of the bill either time, but with a bottle of wine I don’t think it was far north of fifty Euros.
Drogheria Della Rosa, Via Cartoleria 10
2. Osteria Bottega
Osteria Bottega was probably the best of the many old-school restaurants I’ve tried in Bologna. I felt less likely to run into a group of Americans at an adjacent table (and they only had one person on the wait staff who spoke English) but if anything that made the whole thing more of a treat. It’s a nice, tasteful, reasonably basic room but the food is what stayed with me about my visit.
I picked this restaurant after a writeup on Andy Hayler’s blog. He’s an idiosyncratic reviewer – I always feel like he’s auditing rather than reviewing a restaurant – but he indisputably knows his onions and Osteria Bottega didn’t let me down. We started with a plate of aged culatello which could have matched any jamon iberico in Spain, served with slices of apple (a revelation) and plenty of Parmesan, because Parmesan is in plentiful supply in Bologna.
They just leave the bowl at your table, in fact – so unlike the stinginess here in Blighty – which enables you to finally work out the answer to the question how much Parmesan is too much Parmesan? (not that I ever reached a conclusive view on that).
It comes in especially handy with the tagliatelle al ragu, which was the best I had in Bologna – so intensely savoury, so rich, over so soon. Hayler says it’s a mixture of beef and pork leg that’s been cooked over an open fire, and he is the kind of man to check that sort of thing. Either way, I thought it was magnificent. The rest of the meal, for me, was marred by veal envy – my dining companion committed the unpardonable sin of ordering better than I did – but my rabbit porchetta was still a beautiful thing, even if it didn’t quite live up to the promise of the juxtaposition of those two words.
Osteria Bottega, Via Santa Caterina 51
3. La Verace
Another tip from Andy Hayler, La Verace is right on the edge of the city centre, not far from MAMbo, the modern art gallery. The gallery, like so many modern art galleries I’ve experienced on my trips to European cities, puts the f into art and isn’t necessarily worth visiting. La Verace, on the other hand, is well worth a detour.
I came for the pizza and it truly was one of the finest I’ve had, with a perfect crust and a rich, almost fragrant tomato sauce. But actually, all the other dishes were even better – especially shedloads of tender squid served on a deep, earthy chickpea purée. I still occasionally go on – to anybody who will listen – about the oven roasted potatoes, salty and fatty with a slightly medicinal tinge of rosemary: one of the cheapest things I ate in Bologna and easily one of the most memorable.
Next time I’ll keep away from the pizzas and explore the rest of the menu: I suspect there are more works of art in it than you’ll find round the corner.
La Verace, Via Cairoli 10
4. Scacco Matto
It’s very difficult to have a bad meal in Bologna (I never managed it), and the majority of restaurants I ate in were brilliant and accomplished but resolutely unshowy. There’s an awful lot to be said for that, but if you do want to try something more cheffy and ambitious Scacco Matto is the place for you.
I went there after watching Rick Stein, on his Long Weekends programme, eating Scacco Matto’s plin, ravioli filled with sweet onion and Parmesan, glossy with butter and served with thick slices of wild mushroom and hazelnuts. I’ve ordered it on both my visits to Scacco Matto and it’s a death row dream of a dish, a dish with a half-life where you eventually keep eating half of what’s left, hoping you can somehow cheat the laws of the universe and make it last forever.
But other dishes are available, and they’re every bit as good. On my last visit I ate a single squid, scattered with peas and broad beans, resting on a thick slab of pork, in the same breathless rapture. I finished off with two beautifully rare tranches of tuna with ginger and mange tout, a dish with roots a long way from Emilia Romagna but somehow completely at home here.
When my friends and I all ordered the plin the waiter smiled and said “Rick Stein?” and I thought how nice it was to take someone else’s restaurant advice for a change. It’s hard to imagine a visit to Bologna where I didn’t eat at this restaurant – and if you want a pre or post-dinner drink Birra Cerqua, one of Bologna’s preeminent craft beer brewpubs, is two minutes down the road.
Scacco Matto, Via Brocaindosso 63
5. Sette Tavoli
I heard lots of recommendations for Sette Tavoli but, shamefully, the main reason I chose it was that it could be booked online (not all Bologna restaurants have embraced the Internet). It gets its name from only having seven tables inside, although on the day I ate there it was hot as balls (during mini heatwave at the end of June) so we were out on the portico, trying to look unruffled, John Lewis portable fans whirring away like billy-o.
It has an attractive, short a la carte menu or you can pick one of two tasting menus centred around meat or fish. We went for the latter, accompanied with a very cold and crisp local white wine, and it was a properly lovely meal.
I enjoyed the fish encrusted in pistachio, served with a sweet and crunchy fennel salad, a clever bit of cooking on a dish delivered with minimum fuss or fannying about. But my absolute favourite was smoked salmon with ultra-caramelised onions and spuma di patate – the texture of creme fraiche but the distilled taste of spud at its most elemental. Nothing especially Italian about it, but who cares? It was nothing short of a magic trick, and yet another dish (Bologna is packed with them) that we talked about for days.
Sette Tavoli, Via Cartoleria 15/2
One of the best things in Bologna is the Quadrilatero, the grid of streets just off Piazza Maggiore full of stalls selling pasta, cheese, meat, fish, fruit and vegetables. And, for me, one of the best things in the Quadrilatero is Simoni – if you get there early enough at lunchtime you can grab one of the tables outside, order a bottle of Lambrusco (the local wine which is red, chilled and therefore nothing like any Lambrusco you might have experienced at home) and make inroads into a menu full of cheese, charcuterie and bread. It truly is a happy place for me.
On a previous visit my friends and I demolished a selection of charcuterie and cheese – salami, Parma ham, a bunch of delicious cheeses whose names escape me and mortadella, the signature meat of Bologna which you have to try even if, like me, you have a vague suspicion of unreally-pink mystery meat. But on my most recent trip it was all about bread – first, squares of focaccia filled with beautiful scquacquerone, a gooey fresh local cheese a bit like the shapeless heart of burrata.
Even better was the porchetta panino, a beautiful thing stuffed with salty, fatty pork and studded with caperberries adding just enough acidity for contrast. Panini in the U.K. are just the way our awful coffee chains flog you a gooey, unremarkable toasted sandwich: having the real thing in Bologna was a true revelation. Either way, make sure you keep room for the tasting selection of Parmesan so you can try it aged for 18, 24 and 36 months: if nothing else, it will help you decide which kind to buy and cram into your suitcase on the way home.
Simoni, Via Pescherie Vecchie, 3/b
7. Cremeria Cavour
Pretty much any of the gelato you can eat in Bologna will ruin most U.K. ice cream for you for life (although I still have a soft spot for Jude’s salted caramel – available at Fidget & Bob and Nirvana Spa, fact fans). I made it a personal crusade to try as many places as I could: I loved Sorbetti Castiglione, just up the road from my Airbnb which did a fantastic gianduja gelato. I adored Il Gelatauro, where I managed to eat gelato and then follow it up with an affogato which was both enormous and itself 90% gelato – either a career best or a new low, depending on how you feel about gluttony.
But my favourite was the chi-chi Cremeria Cavour (which, confusingly, had changed its name since my first visit last year). Every single flavour I had was beautiful, from pistachio to fior di panna – pure cream, unadultered with vanilla or anything else. On my last visit I developed a serious addiction to their rum and chocolate gelato, one which can only be managed with further visits to Bologna. Sitting on a bench in Piazza Cavour eating gelato would, in most cities, be the standout gastronomic experience of a holiday but in Bologna, it has to settle for being first among equals.
Cremeria Cavour, Piazza Cavour 1D
You’re not going to struggle for good coffee in Bologna, wherever you go. My weakness – which I was introduced to by my friend Al – is caffè al ginseng, which is hot, sweet, milky, comes out of a machine and would probably offend coffee purists everywhere.
Personally I often think the most fun you can have with a purist comes from irritating them. But if you are in the mood to try a more rarified coffee, head to Aroma. The interior is dark and, dare I say it, a tad dated, but the staff are fantastic and friendly, speak brilliant English and serve possibly the best coffee I’ve ever tasted. My friend Al sipped his espresso, gave a sigh which was 50% whispered prayer and 50% happy finish, and immediately ordered a latte so he could check whether it was as good. It was.
Aroma, Via Porta Nova 12/b
9. Camera A Sud
Pubs are wonderful things, but there is something about a properly great bar that is truly transcendental. I’m always on the lookout for them on the continent and some of my favourites – Ghent’s Gitane, Granada’s Potemkin, Porto’s Café Candelabro – are, to my mind, reason enough to visit their parent cities.
A truly great bar is a little scruffy and bohemian but never dirty. It has a hangdog charm that you simply can’t manufacture or fake, and we aficionados can always sniff out a fake (we get lots of practice in Britain, which so rarely gets bars right). It feels like a place you could nurse a coffee in the morning, enjoy lunch, drink before dinner or booze late into the night.
In Bologna, Camera A Sud was that bar. It was perfect for aperitivi, whether that was a perfectly cold beer, a glass of white or countless day-glo Aperol spritzes. The inside was scuzzy but uncalculated but sitting outside, as the shadows lengthened and people wandered past, was the perfect place to be.
Not only that, but the food was brilliant. Not a lot of cooking was involved, but the selection of salumi and mortadella wasn’t a million of miles from the quality at Simoni. The bruschetta – mozzarella and anchovy elevated by the genius addition of orange zest – was the kind of bar snack only a bar in Bologna would think of: I sent a picture to my friend Al and he recreated it at home the very next day.
The area around Camera A Sud is full of street art and intimidatingly fashionable, dishevelled people, beautifully boho and worth a wander, either with a camera or just with your eyes wide open. Just round the corner is another terrific-looking place called Caffè Rubik: I’ve made a note of it and I’ll try it next time, just in case it’s even closer to the Platonic ideal of the perfect bar.
Camera A Sud, Via Valdonica 5
10. Astral Beers
Both times I’ve visited Bologna I have been in the company of craft beer enthusiasts: Bologna is also at the centre of Italy’s burgeoning craft beer scene, and so there are plenty of places to try. More, in truth, than I have the stomach for, so I slightly lost interest in sitting on the pavement outside a place called Beer For Bunnies surrounded by the bearded and tattooed drinking something expensive and agricultural when I’d rather have been enjoying a really good glass of wine.
That said, some places were more my kind of thing. Birra Cerqua, which I mentioned earlier, was very nice indeed and Birra Baladin (which has a bar inside the Mercato Di Mezzo) makes some beautiful and unusual stuff. But my favourite was Astral Beers, not far from the famous towers, which felt a bit more grown up, a little less chin-strokingly post-rock and a lot more interested in being a bar where everybody could find something to enjoy.
The staff at Astral Beers have more than enough enthusiasm for their stuff to bridge any language gap, and I really liked all of the Italian beers I had there, whether they were more conventional Pilsners or some very striking sours. It has some tables outside but the inside feels more grown up than many craft beer places I’ve been to – which, like craft coffee places, can sometimes feel like a temple to chipboard. They also did some lovely, affordable and in some cases biodynamic wines.
I never ate there, but the dishes I watched arriving at other tables looked good enough to give me pre-dinner food envy. Happily, it only ever lasted as long as my walk to the next restaurant.
Astral Beers, Via Castiglione 13/B
11. Osteria Del Sole
Confusingly, Osteria Del Sole isn’t really an osteria and doesn’t do any food. What it is, quite magnificently, is Bologna’s most venerable bar and dangerously close to an Italian take on an old man pub. The wine by the glass is perfectly pleasant – it’s a good place to try Pignoletto, the local sparkling white – and the Menebrea by the bottle is also serviceable, but really the atmosphere is the thing here. There’s also a little courtyard, although it lacks the battered grandeur of the interior.
Every time I’ve been, confusingly, many of the tables have been reserved (something which would never catch on in a British pub), but you can usually find some space. It has to be done, if just the once, and makes for a nice early afternoon pit stop before returning to the bustle, sights and sounds of the Quadrilatero.
Osteria Del Sole, Vicolo Ranocchi 1/D
12. Mercato di Mezzo and Mercato delle Erbe
A bit of a cheat lumping both these markets in the same entry, but both are absolutely worth a visit.
Mercato di Mezzo, in the Quadrilatero, is more like Market Halls Victoria (or what Reading’s own Market House desperately wishes it was), an indoor market with food vendors along both sides and communal tables in the middle. Everything I’ve eaten from there has been brilliant, whether it’s pasta accompanied with a local beer from Baladin, a slice of pizza grabbed on the run to munch on the way through the streets or a caffè al ginseng and a croissant packed with indulgent pistachio cream first thing in the morning. Visit, if only to see how far Reading has to go to even attempt to recapture the buzz of such a place done well.
By contrast, the Mercato delle Erbe – on the splendidly named Via Ugo Bassi – has a conventional market at its heart selling all sorts of wonderful fruit, vegetables fish and what have you (I picked up some fantastic truffle sauce on my first visit) and then, around the edges, there are lots of little restaurants with their own seating. I enjoyed a fantastic range of bruschetta on one visit, on another I went to Polpette E Crescentine, which does exactly what it says on the tin.
There are also some lovely bars where you can sit with a pre-dinner spritz, wondering whether snaffling a square of pizza would ruin your appetite and, just as importantly, whether it would be worth it (on balance, probably not, but you usually work that out the hard way).
Finally, it wouldn’t be a holiday without a souvenir. I always make sure I head to Formaggeria Barbieri in the Mercato delle Erbe, where they are wonderfully helpful and will vacuum-pack you massive pieces of Parmesan for your flight home. I managed to bring back two and a half kilos on my last trip (twenty-four month aged for everyday grating and forty month aged for best) and they even gave me a snazzy red tote bag which I prize far more than I probably should.
Mercato di Mezzo, Via Clavature 12 Mercato delle Erbe, Via Ugo Bassi 25
My mother taught me this brilliant technique for steak, which she says she picked up from watching Heston Blumenthal on TV. It’s simplicity itself: you let the steak come to room temperature, you oil the steak rather than the pan and you season both sides. Then you get the pan good and hot and you cook the steak for four minutes in total, turning it over every thirty seconds. At the end, you let the steak rest for a little while and Bob’s your uncle: perfectly-done medium-rare steak. I imagine my mother and my stepfather (ever the dream team) cooking the steak together, him with a spatula and her with a stopwatch.
It works without fail, and whenever I cook steak at home my other half Zoë will say, at some point during the meal, “this is so much better, and cheaper, than the Corn Stores.” This is true, if hardly praise of my abilities in the kitchen: the Corn Stores has to be one of the most disappointing restaurant openings of recent years. But also, when she says that, I miss CAU. Poor CAU, which shocked everybody by closing around this time last year because the chain went bust. I didn’t go often, but I always enjoyed my meals there in that funny, purpose-built space, hovering out of nothing at the back of the Oracle.
Sometimes you really do want a steak on an evening out, and since CAU closed I’ve been stumped whenever people ask me where I recommend. The Corn Stores is out of contention, which leaves Miller & Carter, another restaurant I’ve never really warmed to. So I’ve taken to recommending Pepe Sale’s tagliata alla rucola, a beautiful piece of fillet with rocket and balsamic vinegar. But then Buenasado announced it was opening in CAU’s old spot, and I found myself hoping we’d get a decent steak restaurant after all. Research showed they had one other branch, in well-to-do Surrey, and the reviews looked good – even if the menu appeared to be a carbon copy of CAU’s.
The restaurant opened its doors in June and the early reports I heard were cautiously optimistic, barring some complaints about iffy frites and a sizeable service charge being added to bills. I went along to check it out on a quiet weekday night, accompanied by Zoë, to see if lightning could strike in the same place twice.
My first impressions were favourable – CAU was nice food served in a stark, almost ugly space, with lots of white and deeply uncomfortable space-age plastic chairs. They had prioritised covers over comfort, and Buenasado has taken the opposite view: big tables along both sides of the long thin room with an attractive button-backed banquette down the right hand side. The handsome black hanging lightshades and glossy white tiled bricks said industrial without trying too hard, and the whole thing felt like a nicely grown-up restaurant.
The menu verged on huge, with a good selection of starters, plenty of salads, burgers, the usual cuts of steak in various weights (although without some of the speciality cuts offered by the likes of CAU and Gaucho) and a raft of options for people who didn’t want the blood of a dead cow on their hands.
We settled on three of the starters – for research purposes – before moving on to decide which mains to have, but first we ordered a bottle of Malbec. Again, as with CAU, this has its own section on the drinks list and I liked the bottle we picked (Norton Lo Tengo) although it was good rather than remarkable, and marked up sharply at nearly thirty-three pounds for a wine that costs eleven in the shops.
Starters came quicker than I would have liked and I was glad we’d ordered three because I think two of them were on the less generous side. I adored the morcilla – soft, sweet and spicy with a crispy skin – and I loved the punchy, vinegary salsa criolla it came with. But the “salad leaves” accompanying it were exactly that – leaves, not a salad. I really don’t get the point of undressed salad leaves: the name must be nominative determinism in action, because I always end up leaving them. And the piece of bread the morcilla was pointlessly plonked on was rock hard – not toasted, more stale, and very difficult to eat. I am a sucker for black pudding, but at five pounds this felt on the scanty side.
Better were the beef empanadas, plenty of dense minced beef packed in so tightly that you almost felt like you were eating a slider en croûte. The spicing was subtle, and I wasn’t sure these quite matched up to the best empanadas I’ve had at, say, I Love Paella, but all the same these were well worth the money.
Our third starter, chorizo al malbec, was also good – slices of decent chorizo with good texture and plenty of depth from the paprika in a brick-red sauce with sweet ribbons of onion. But again, it was a little meagre for the money and it needed good quality bread to soak up the juices, not a rock hard parody of crostini. I really hated the bread that came with these starters – you couldn’t mop up anything with it, you couldn’t top it with anything, you couldn’t eat it with a knife and fork without risking half of it flying across the room: it really was worse than nothing.
A real challenge when you review a steak restaurant is choosing what to order. Obviously one of you has to have a steak to put their raison d’être to the test, but what does the other person go for? Do you try a different cut, or pick something else entirely? Is it helpful to try a different dish, or does that make you the kind of person who goes to Nando’s and orders the Prego steak roll? Fortunately Zoë made this easy – the dish she really missed at CAU was the spatchcock chicken and frites, and as Buenasado had something very similar on their menu she wanted to know whether it would help with the withdrawal symptoms.
It turned out to be a surprisingly good choice, and very skilfully done, with gorgeous crispy salty skin and plenty of meat (very different from the same dish at, say, Côte, where it can feel scrawny by comparison). I wasn’t so sure about the “fries provençal” which felt like bought-in French fries topped with a bit of garlic and herb butter; I can see why people have been slightly sniffy about the fries. Yet more bollock-naked salad leaves, so Zoë was glad she’d ordered a side of creamed spinach. She loved it, I tried enough to be able to confirm that it tasted of creamed spinach and therefore wasn’t my cup of tea.
I had opted for a rump steak – fillet felt too pricey, and I’m never madly fussed about sirloin or rib-eye. It was a lovely piece of meat, but a few slices in I was painfully aware that it was medium rather than the medium-rare I’d asked for, and medium-well at that. The waitress did the right thing by insisting that she would take it away and redo the dish if I wanted, but blotted her copybook by insisting that it was medium-rare: it really, really wasn’t.
As so often in these situations, I was left with the choice of eating something I hadn’t ordered at the same time as my dinner date, or eating the dish I’d ordered a couple of minutes after she had finished. I decided having my steak medium was probably the lesser of two evils: being right and eating alone always leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It really was a beautiful piece of steak but I did keep thinking that it would have been even nicer medium rare.
It’s especially a shame because the other accompaniments for my steak – starkers salad aside – were really pretty decent. Chunky chips were truly lovely, crispy-fluffy things, although I’d have liked the blue cheese sauce I ended up dipping them in to have been a little heavier on the cheese. The garlic portobello mushrooms were nicely pungent and a million miles from their sad, wan opposite numbers at the Corn Stores. So nearly there, but I still wished the restaurant had spent less time artfully arranging pink Himalayan salt on the plate and more time making sure the steak wasn’t overcooked.
Because of the pacing of our meal, we still had a fair bit of Malbec left when our main courses were taken away, so we took our time mulling over the dessert menu before making our choices. It was a nicely buzzy restaurant and the top floor was almost full, even on a Monday night. The dessert menu had lots of tempting choices on it (especially if you liked dulce de leche) but both wait staff looking after us raved about the churros. Were they especially good, or was it the dish with the biggest margin? I wanted to believe the former, Zoë suspected the latter.
You’ll have to tell me, if you go, because we were both drawn to different things on the menu. Zoë loved her chocolate torte, served simply on its own without any compote or coulis, and I could see why: the only forkful I managed to nab was moist and well-balanced, sweet but not too sweet. She complemented our waiter on it and he told us it had been made onsite that morning: that’s rarer these days than it ought to be.
I did less well, I’d say: the dulce de leche cheesecake was nice enough but the biscuit base needed more crunch and the whole thing needed more than the slightly proctological smudge of dulce de leche that accompanied it (I could have done without the compote on this one, too: it didn’t add much). If I lost on the dessert I slightly nudged it on dessert wine – my glass of Torrontes Late Harvest was really lovely, cool and clean without being too gloopily sticky. Zoë’s Norton Tardia Chardonnay was a little sharper and not quite so impressive. Both were around six pounds, though, and generous pours at 100ml – nice to see so many Argentine dessert wines on the menu, too.
Service throughout was very good from both of the wait staff who looked after us – enthusiastic about some of the dishes, talkative but not over the top and, when it came to the overdone steak, more than prepared to make amends. The mistake there was the kitchen’s, not theirs, after all – they, by contrast, didn’t put a foot wrong. Our Romanian waiter was chatting away to the table next to us and I was struck by how nicely personable he was, friendly without being overfamiliar. When he asked what we were up to once we’d finished our meal (a pint and a debrief in the Allied Arms, as it happens) I felt like he genuinely wanted to know, and when he said how much he loved the Allied’s garden I felt like he genuinely meant it, too.
Our bill came to one hundred and twenty-two pounds, including an optional service charge of ten per cent. This may seem a lot, but we had three starters, two mains, a couple of sides, two desserts, a bottle of wine and two glasses of dessert wine. All the desserts cost less than six pounds, and most of the starters come in under the seven pound mark. Even my steak was less than sixteen pounds, considerably less than a similar dish at the Corn Stores. When I went to the Corn Stores on duty, we had less to eat, far less to drink and walked out paying more (and their service charge is twelve and a half per cent, for service nowhere near as good). Buenasado feels like very good value for money, some minor quibbles aside, and I found myself eyeing their lunch deals too: steak frites for ten pounds, anybody?
Looking back, I fear this has sounded quite grumpy about what was really a very good, fairly priced and pretty accomplished meal. Yes, the black pudding was a bit on the small side, yes, the starters came too soon, yes, there might be quite a markup on the wine (show me a restaurant where there isn’t) and yes, they should dress their salads. But really, I had a very enjoyable evening there – it has taken all of the pluses CAU used to have and added a better atmosphere, some very competitive pricing and excellent service.
I left wondering when I’d be able to go back (perhaps for that steak frites lunch and a pint of Alhambra, my favourite beer and the only one they have on draft), Zoë was tempted to take her mum there when they went out for dinner later in the week. It’s a sleek, buzzy space and feels to me like the steak restaurant Reading has been crying out for for nearly a year. Whether you agree with my rating or not, ultimately, will come down to just how much you’d have knocked off for getting my steak wrong. Some of you will think I’ve been too kind, others will think I’ve been too harsh. That’s the joy of reviews, ratings and having readers with minds of their own; I think a lot of you would enjoy a meal at Buenasado. And the rest of the time? Thirty seconds per side for four minutes, honest to God.
Just over two years ago, I wrote a piece called “The Best Of Reading”, detailing the ten places I thought best illustrated Reading’s food culture. It was prompted by a conversation with a Reading doubter – you know the sort, people who slag Reading off without ever trying that hard to discover life outside the bland confines of the Oracle or restaurants beyond the chains. It was my attempt to counter that kind of lazy criticism, and I published it just before I made my comeback after nearly a year on hiatus. The feedback from everyone was truly lovely, I picked up reviewing again and two years later here we are.
The decision to publish this updated version was also prompted by a conversation, albeit a rather different one. I was having dinner one evening last month and my dining companion, who didn’t know Reading all that well, expressed surprise about what an interesting place it was. “At first I thought it was just another big town in the south-east” he said, “but if you scratch the surface there are all sorts of things going on.” I agreed that it punches above its weight, and then started rattling off the reasons why, many of which make it into this piece. The previous version of this feature was a rebuttal, but this one is far more of a celebration – and that feels exactly as it should be.
Of course, plenty has changed between 2017 and 2019. Some of the places which made my top ten last time around have closed: the sad losses of Dolce Vita and I Love Paella, both down to greedy landlords. Some don’t make my list this time because the ever-improving standard means they aren’t quite as good as they used to be: no room for Papa Gee, lovely though it is, or for Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus, which lost its talented front of house and never seems open when I walk past. Reading’s restaurant scene is nowhere near as fast-moving as in other towns, and restaurateurs consistently complain about how hard it is to find decent premises (I can’t help but feel our council should be able to help) but even so things have moved on in the last two years.
Here, then, is my list of the ten restaurants and cafés that most contribute to making Reading’s food scene special and distinctive as of May 2019. Any list is entirely subjective, and I wouldn’t have done my job properly if people didn’t get as aerated about what I left out as they were excited about what I’ve put in. But it is worth mentioning, with regret, that I couldn’t find room for Perry’s, House Of Flavours, Bluegrass or Soju.
The focus on the distinctive also meant excluding chains, which rules out the likes of Honest, Pho and Franco Manca. And although we have excellent coffee and beer in Reading, it’s for someone else to celebrate Tamp, Workhouse, Anonymous, C.U.P. and the magnificent Nag’s Head. Anyway, you can all tell me how wrong I am in the comments, so here goes.
1. Bakery House
What is there left to say about Bakery House? Open for nearly four years now, the proudly independent Lebanese restaurant has got pretty much everything right from the moment it opened, and standards show no signs of dropping. In warm weather you can grab a shawarma wrap from the counter and go eat it in the sunshine, but the true riches come from eating in. The chicken livers are terrific, the falafel light and simultaneously crunchy and fluffy, the boneless baby chicken a thing of wonder. Whatever main course you have comes with rice rich with vegetables and spice and salad perfectly dressed with lemon and mint, complete with tomato and crisp radish.
I held a readers’ lunch there in January and they dished up a whole roast lamb, on a bed of rice full of minced lamb and, it seemed, whole sticks of cinnamon; I daydreamed about it for weeks.
82 London Street, RG1 4SJ.
2. Bhel Puri House
Again, Bhel Puri House is a restaurant I’ve written about many times but it’s so criminally underrated that it deserves another mention here. For a long time it was Reading’s only vegetarian restaurant, and it remains one of the town’s only convincing small plates restaurants. All that and you can eat outside in the sunshine, in a courtyard it shares with the George Hotel and Workhouse Coffee.
There are so many dishes it’s hard to know where to start, but the Punjabi samosas are huge, tasty and crazily good value and the crispy bhajia (spiced, fried slices of potato, their pungency offset with a sweet carrot chutney) are superb. Paneer is irresistable, either dry and caramelised with chilli or served Manchurian style in a sweeter, stickier sauce. And the samosa chaat, pictured above, is a riot of colour, flavour and texture. Who needs a faddish meat-free burger when you can try a vada pav?
Yield Hall Lane, RG1 2HF.
3. Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen
Right, let’s get this disclaimer out of the way first: as I’ve explained elsewhere, I have never reviewed Clay’s because they know who I am and I would describe the owners as friends. You could quite easily argue that this damages my impartiality, so if you’ve never been to Clay’s you may be a little sceptical about their presence on this list, and that is of course your prerogative. I can’t blame you – I would also be pretty dubious, but believe me, if anything Clay’s had to meet an even higher standard to make it on to this list. And I can appreciate the ways in which the restaurant still needs work: the room can be a little murky, loud and poorly lit, the service still lacks a little warmth and authority.
Anyway, by however high a bar you set, Clay’s has to be on a list of this kind, and if you have been there, I suspect you’ll completely understand why I couldn’t omit them. I think Clay’s does some of the best and most exciting food Reading has ever seen, especially the starters which are simply a brilliant range of small but perfectly-formed dishes (I’d love to see Clay’s open a small plates restaurant one day).
From the fish fry to the incredibly dry, smoky chicken livers, from the chicken 65 to the creamy, indulgent paneer majestic there is an almost bewildering plethora of flavours to sample and enjoy (my tip: order one or two starters more than you have diners, and share everything). And that’s before we ever get to the mains – the hot and sour monkfish, the now almost legendary bhuna venison and possibly my personal favourite, the red chicken curry. Anyway, you know what I’m talking about because I suspect you’ve already eaten at Clay’s by now, haven’t you?
45 London Street, RG1 4PS.
4. Fidget & Bob
Possibly the most unusual beast on this list, Fidget & Bob is out in the wilds of Kennet Island and truly is an all-day venue, going effortlessly from a breakfast and brunch cafe during the day to a little restaurant in the evening. It might well have the best front of house in Reading at the moment, it certainly has the best Twitter feed and it announces daily specials which regularly make me want to drop everything, hop on the number 60 bus and make a beeline there for dinner (the char siu, a regular Tuesday offering, is a particular culprit).
I went for brunch recently and you can see the picture above – the most beautifully buttery scrambled eggs (from Beechwood Farm, who supply another venue on this list), properly cooked mushrooms, wonderfully buttered toast and bacon cooked just right. A lot of my Twitter followers have raved about Fidget & Bob’s brunches, but I’m ashamed it took me so long to try them for myself. Many of the beers are local, the wines are top-notch, the coffee is excellent and in summer, the outside space will be lovely and buzzy well into the evening. What more could you possibly want?
The Piazza, Whale Avenue, Kennet Island, RG2 0GX.
5. Geo Café
Another disclaimer: over the past couple of years Keti and Zezva, who run Geo Café in the site which used to be Nomad Bakery, have become friends and so you should take everything I’m about to say with a pinch of (Svaneti) salt. And again, I am more than aware of the areas Geo Café still needs to work on – service can be a bit thin on the ground, and they don’t always cope brilliantly with high volumes of customers. But the food redeems so much that I stand by my recommendation: Georgian food is the great unsung world cuisine (although maybe not for long) and there are many eye-opening dishes at Geo Café that you simply can’t eat anywhere else – not only in Reading but, generally speaking, in England.
The classic dish is the chicken wrap – lots of chicken thigh spiced with ajika, served in a well-assembled wrap packed with salad, baje (a sauce made from walnut), salad and lemon juice. Anybody who has had it at Blue Collar knows just what a good dish this is, and the Geo version comes close to hitting those heights. But there are also aubergine wraps, all sorts of skillets using the café’s excellent sourdough and of course, the wonder that is khachapuri – a flatbread stuffed with a gooey cheese which is a blend of cheddar, mozzarella and feta (made by the café, because they can’t get the Georgian cheese which is normally used).
Anyone who has followed Geo Café (or Georgian Feast, or Caucasian Spice Box, or whether they’ll be called next month) on their journey from the Horn to the Turk’s to the Island via countless food markets will be delighted to hear that they’ve finally found the home they deserve. Oh, and the cakes (from the bakery upstairs) are pretty good too.
10 Prospect Street, RG4 8JG.
6. Kobeda Palace
Kobeda Palace is a scruffy, unpretentious, popular Afghan grill house down the Oxford Road. It is decidedly no-frills, its neighbour Da Village looks swankier and glossier, but I absolutely love it all the same. They make the naan on site – big, stretched, fluffy things with bubbled crusts. The kobeda kebabs are decent, as are the chicken tikka kebabs and the chops. And the karahi chicken, a red, oily, warming, ginger-strewn miracle of a dish, is one of the finest things you can eat in Reading. Order it, take the meat off the bone before you start and eat it with a naan, enjoying the bustle around you. There’s no alcohol licence, but when a restaurant on the Oxford Road has no alcohol licence that’s just the cosmos telling you to stop at the Nag’s Head on your way home.
409-411 Oxford Road, RG30 1HA
7. Pepe Sale
After the demise of Dolce Vita last year, Pepe Sale might be Reading’s longest-running restaurant, and it really is a class act. Eating there is an impressively timeless experience – the service is quite brilliant, even when the place is extremely busy, the room has been gently updated (it still looks a tad dated, but nowhere near as much as it was), the menu still has tons of Sardinian classics but there are always specials to give regular diners numerous reasons to return. The suckling pig, only available on Friday and Saturday nights, has rightly attained almost mythical status but there are so many other things to enjoy, including chicken stuffed with mozzarella and wrapped in pancetta, beautifully tender veal in cream sauce and countless splendid pasta dishes.
Pepe Sale, as I’m often given to saying, was my first ever review on the blog and when I published it, one of my detractors piped up. “Pepe Sale is just an okay neighbourhood Italian restaurant” she said. How wrong can you be?
3 Queens Walk, RG1 7QF
8. Sapana Home
Sapana Home needs little introduction by now – heaven knows I’ve written about it enough times. The little Nepalese restaurant on Queen Victoria Street has been there for what seems like forever, and the clientele is an interesting mixture of Nepalese diners and non-Nepalese customers who are in the know. I’ve heard criticisms that their momo are frozen (and it’s true that the ones at the long-lamented Namaste Kitchen were even better) but really, on a cold day when you have ten pan-fried chicken momo in front of you I find I don’t give a monkey’s. Every time I put a picture of them on Instagram, I get a chorus of likes: it really is almost impossible to look at it and not want to eat them immediately.
There are other attractions. The chilli chicken and the chicken fry are both delicious, on a good day the chow mein is quite lovely and I do have a soft spot for the samosa chaat here, all sweet tamarind, crunchy sev and red onion. The service, too, is more friendly than you might expect, and they still do one of the best mango lassi in town. Judge all you like, but I ate there on Valentine’s Day.
8 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1TG
Shed was a quite shocking omission two years ago: all I can say is that I don’t know what I was thinking. It still does Reading’s mightiest toasted sandwiches – “The Top One”, all cheese chorizo and jalapeño, and “Tuna Turner”, which is tuna mayo, cheese and, err, also jalapeño. But the salads are excellent too, as is “Saucy Friday” when you can have, say, scotch bonnet chilli chicken with rice and peas, coleslaw and macaroni cheese. The service is outstanding, Pete and Lydia are almost annoyingly likeable, the milkshakes are great and they do some of the best loose leaf tea in town.
If I was being picky I sometimes wish the room itself (upstairs, it transforms into cocktail bar Milk in the evenings) was a bit lighter and the furniture was a little more comfortable, but I’m well aware that says more about my age than Shed’s beauty. It remains one of the best places in Reading to have lunch, and we’re lucky to have them.
8 Merchants Place, RG1 1DT
N.B. Tuscany closed in May 2019, sadly. But there’s always Kungfu Kitchen.
Last but not least, the delights of the tiny Tuscany, tucked away on the Oxford Road. A handful of covers and a menu which basically consists of heading up to the counter and choose your toppings by pretending that you’re doing the numbers round on Countdown (“I’ll have two from the top, Carol, and six from anywhere else”). The pizza bases are really good, the pricing is ridiculously keen and the service is quite lovely – and many readers of the blog have told me about wonderful evenings they’ve had there after picking up a couple of cans or a bottle of wine from one of the nearby shops (no alcohol licence, but they don’t charge for corkage).
I’m long overdue a return visit, and this story maybe illustrates how much I found I cared about the place: I went a little while back for dinner with a friend to find the shutters down and the lights off. I went on Twitter to vent my despair, and felt a huge sense of relief when someone kindly pointed out to me that Tuscany was closed on Wednesdays. I’ve rarely been so happy to be wrong.
Writing the only restaurant blog in Reading can feel like a lonely pursuit at times, but if you really want a lonely pursuit it’s this: writing a review where you say that the Corn Stores is a distinctly mediocre restaurant. The only reviews of the Corn Stores I could find online were comped, so they were all breathlessly enthusiastic and gushing. But, that aside, I know quite a few people who have been to the Corn Stores, and they’ve all raved about it. Some of them, and I know they read this blog, have been back more than once since it opened in December. So I was really hoping not to be the lone voice, the sore thumb, but I went there this week and I really didn’t get it at all.
All the blogs and Instagrammers will tell you what an amazing job the Rarebreed Dining Group did of refitting the Corn Stores when they took over the derelict building and turned it into a bar, restaurant and private members’ club. They used local company Quadrant Design, and I agree that they’ve breathed life beautifully into a lovely but unloved space (one I largely remember from lunch breaks with my brother in 1996, when we used to sneak across from our McJobs in Apex Plaza opposite for a rushed pint or two). He wouldn’t recognise it now: the restaurant, on the first floor, is superbly done out, with bare brick walls, leather-banquetted booths and tables with dusky-pink, scallop-backed chairs. I was there with my other half Zoë rather than my brother (mainly because I have also gone up in the world somewhat since 1996).
As we were shown to our table – past the display cabinet full of aged beef – our waitress explained the concept, that they butcher and age their own meat. There was a certain pride about it which I respected, and it made me look forward to dinner: I knew from researching the menu beforehand that the Corn Stores was an expensive restaurant, but I was hoping for a showstopper, the special occasion restaurant Reading has been missing for many years.
Our table was one of the booths, and I was impressed by how spacious it felt for two people: CAU, back in the day, would have tried to seat four people at a booth that size (the other tables for two felt a little more poky: I’m not sure how much I’d have liked one of those). The restaurant was nicely buzzing and pretty full on a weekday night, and it exuded that glow of satisfaction you get when surrounded by people who are happy they’ve made a right – and exclusive – choice (the Nirvana Spa effect, you might say). “My mum would like it here” said Zoë, adding the Corn Stores to her mental list of places to take her mum to.
We ordered a couple of pints of Meantime lager while we decided what to order: it’s kept in tanks onsite so you get it fresh, unfiltered and unpasteurised. I thought it was cold, crisp and clean and I loved it – Zoe less so, because she detected a bitter finish. I’ve already said that the Corn Stores is an expensive restaurant, and I fear this is a point we may return to often throughout the rest of this review: starters are just shy of a tenner and some of the mains are just the right side of twenty pounds, although if you order a steak you’re highly likely to pay far more than that. Oh, and there was a “whole baked sourdough” for six pounds fifty, which has to be the most expensive bread I’ve ever seen on any menu anywhere (you get “your choice of butter”: really, for six pounds fifty you should get to try them all, I reckon).
There was also a specials menu with other options including a Barnsley chop, a pork tomahawk, smoked sirloin on the bone – and a chateaubriand with lobster and some other gubbins which cost the grand total of ninety-five pounds (I know people who have ordered this, and they raved about it, but really: you could eat Michelin-starred food for that money). None of that especially appealed, but also I wanted to judge the place on their standard fare – the meat and potatoes, you could say – so we stuck to the normal menu. At the table next to us, three well-to-do ladies chatted away as their main courses, completely untouched, went cold in front of them: Zoë and I exchanged looks.
We started with the “Rarebreed Board”, a sharing selection of interesting options. It was the most expensive starter on the menu (twenty six pounds, in fact) but I figured it gave us an opportunity to try out lots of different things. It came on a sort of folding trestle table which left us limited room for our side-plates, but you couldn’t deny it looked appealing: five different beef dishes, designed to be shared between two.
Much of the sharing board was sort of a symphony of mince, so you got steak meatballs, miniature burgers and “beef and pepper sausage” – which was more like sausagemeat, on account of there being no casing. They were all quite nice, but much of a muchness – the main variations being in coarseness, but the overall texture was very similar.
We both liked the sausage best, with there not being a huge amount to choose between the burgers and the meatballs. Even at this stage though, the execution was lacking. The burgers came with lettuce and tomato in naked brioche, no cheese, no sauce (the pepper or tomato sauce in a little metal dish made a useful dip). The meatballs were apparently served with red wine gravy, but the thin lake of liquid at the bottom of the dish was largely ineffectual. Perhaps you were meant to dip the accompanying toast in it, but it was pretty hard when it arrived and, by the time we got round to it, it was even worse.
There were three burgers and three meatballs, which was odd and just made sharing trickier – I’d rather those two dishes had been better and smaller, and the price had been nudged down a little. I liked the other two dishes on the board better – the steak tartare (served, somewhat randomly, in a jar) had some real tang and pungency from the Worcester sauce, but Zoë found it too vinegary and couldn’t finish it. Similarly, the salt beef on flatbread worked beautifully for me, but amid the mustard there was also a vinegary tang that put Zoë right off it. Even in this dish there was the oddity of little segments of potato – double carbs, and extra bulk, but totally unnecessary.
By the time we finished our starters the table next to us had eaten half of their main courses, if that. One lady had cut her cod burger very precisely in two and looked like she was considering, possibly before the evening was out, embarking on eating the second half (it never occurs to me that some people go to restaurants for the company, or to see and be seen, but that might be just me). I got a second pint of Meantime and Zoë tried the Curiouser & Curiouser, a beer by Kentish wine producers Chapel Down – it tasted of grapefruit and citrus and I really liked it, although Zoë seemed less convinced.
We’d decided to tackle different ends of the menu, so we went for one of the pricier and one of the more affordable main courses. Zoë’s burger – wagyu beef, with Ogleshield cheddar and bacon – looked lovely, and the bite I had wasn’t half bad. But it cost nineteen pounds, and it didn’t feel, to me, like a nineteen pound burger (I’m not sure what a nineteen pound burger tastes like, but not this).
“It’s really nice” said Zoë.
“Better than Honest?”
“No, not really.”
I agreed with that – even when unadorned, Honest burgers have a lovely crust to them from the grill, and there’s a bit of salt in there. This was almost as good, but it cost nearly twice as much as its equivalent over on King Street.
I had gone for a two hundred gram fillet steak, served rare, with béarnaise sauce. The Corn Stores website boasts about how they baste their meat with aged beef fat and cook it on a Robata grill, getting loads of flavour into even lean cuts like fillet.
This was, it’s safe to say, not my experience: they’d managed the impressive combination of serving a steak where there was almost no char at all while simultaneously overcooking it. It was meant to be rare, but it was probably medium at best: just about pink in the middle, but with no juices oozing out as you made your way through it. I couldn’t face sending it back, because I really wanted to eat dinner at the same time as Zoë and I knew that sending it back guaranteed that wouldn’t happen. Besides, by then the damage was done – if you’re a steak restaurant, and one charging that kind of money, cooking the steak right first time was the entry level requirement.
That wasn’t all, though, because really the steak didn’t taste of very much. I didn’t get any seasoning, I certainly didn’t feel like it had been anointed with glorious, salty beef fat, nothing of the kind. The béarnaise didn’t help matters, being a little on the thin side, heavy on the vinegar (bit of a theme emerging there) and light on the tarragon. It was also a pretty mingy helping of béarnaise, because the Corn Stores seems to have missed the memo that béarnaise sauce should be as much for your chips as your steak. The salad it came with was pleasant enough, but it rankled with me that you got a big pile of salad for free but had to pay for your chips – by contrast, chips came free with the burger.
This brings us on to the chips – beef fat chips, no less. I had high hopes for these, but they were also deeply ordinary. They didn’t have the crunch-fluff ratio of a perfect chip, they were exceptionally salty and some of mine had grey patches which should have failed the most elementary quality checking. Dipped in the béarnaise they were okay, but no more, and they weren’t much better with the mayonnaise we’d asked for (which came in two minuscule pots which looked as if they had housed lip balm in a previous life). I looked round and everybody seemed to be having such a lovely time. What was I missing?
We’d asked our waitress for recommendations for a side dish and she had recommended the baked flat mushrooms, so we went for those. Four pounds got you three rather small flat mushrooms which had a meaty texture but again, didn’t feel like they’d been exposed to much in the way of butter. If I’d had them in a Beefeater I’d probably have been pleased, but here in the Corn Stores it just felt like another way of extracting funds. There was the ghost of a sprig of thyme on top, as if to say Look, we did do something with them.
By this point we were on to our third drink – a serviceable glass of Pinot Noir for me and Chapel Down’s cider (which I really liked) for Zoë, and positively planning our escape. The waitress took our dishes away and half-heartedly asked if it had been good, and we half-heartedly replied that it had been fine. The fact that both of us had half-heartedly half-left our chips didn’t seem to register. That was service in general at the Corn Stores – smiling, efficient, a little robotic. I didn’t get any real warmth or personality.
Dinner for two – a sharing starter, two mains, some chips, a side and three drinks apiece – came to one hundred and thirty pounds, including a not-that-optional 12.5% service charge. I’m almost tempted to leave that sentence to do the work on its own, but really: one hundred and thirty pounds! When I think of all the amazing meals you could buy in Reading for a fraction of that price – or all the exquisite meals you could buy in London for that money – I felt like I’d cheated rather than treated myself.
“I don’t think I would take my mum here, you know” said Zoë, unsurprisingly.
“I know. Normally with places like this I say I’d only go if someone else was paying, but in this case even if someone else was paying I wouldn’t let them take me here.”
That might sum it up, for me. I couldn’t shake the feeling, throughout my meal, that I was paying for the refurbishment, or helping Rarebreed pay off their investor (the interestingly-named Havisham Group), but I didn’t feel like I was paying for a truly luxurious experience in a terrific special occasion Reading restaurant.
The talk about the Corn Stores’ pride in their meat and butchery is all well and good, but the main thing my meal did was make me miss CAU. I think, actually, I had no better or worse a meal at Miller & Carter, where I paid a lot less money. Worst of all, I went to the Southcote (a Beefeater) last year and although it wasn’t as good as the Corn Stores it was a lot closer than the huge disparity in price would have you believe (and their béarnaise, damningly, was probably slightly better).
Anyway, it doesn’t matter what I say: I have no doubt that the Corn Stores will do really well, but I felt like if it had been half as good as it thinks it is it would be twice as good as it actually is. But what do I know? I read some lifestyle bloggers recently, and they tell me the emperor looks fantastic in that outfit.
The Corn Stores – 6.7 10 Forbury Road, RG1 1SB