Feature: The best of Reading (2019)

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

9. Shed


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

10. Tuscany


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.

399 Oxford Road, RG30 1HA

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The Corn Stores

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
0118 3246768

https://www.thecornstoresreading.co.uk/

Pan, Wokingham

I was beginning to think I was cursed and that you’d never get a new review. My first attempt involved a Reading restaurant which, it turns out, is closed on Mondays. That fact came to my attention on the Monday night I was due to review it, seconds after I arrived at the pub across the road and met my dining companion for the evening. I’ve been doing this for nearly six years, and you’d think I’d know better.

Attempt number two was no better: I picked a restaurant out of town to visit with my old friend Al, mainly because every time we’d ever been there it had one amazing dish on the menu which was worth the price of admission alone. A destination dish and a destination restaurant all in one, truly the holy grail of restaurant reviewing. But, of course, on the Friday that we went there for lunch that dish – a glorious, massive pie for two, glossy, deep rich sticky beef lying in wait under a golden bubbling suet crust – was nowhere to be seen. I chalked it up to experience and had the fish, but where on earth was I going to review now?

Salvation came in the unlikely form of my friend Richard. We were due to meet up for a midweek dinner in Reading, and a couple of days before he sent me an apologetic WhatsApp. He could only get a babysitter for part of the evening, it said, and would I mind meeting in Wokingham, halfway between Reading and his place in Sunningdale? I sensed the faint knock of opportunity, and that’s why you’re reading a review of Pan today.

I’ve known Richard for many years, and wanted to bring him along on a review for ages. He’s the campest straight man I’ve ever met, a gleeful drinker, outrageously bitchy and downright good fun. He looks ever so slightly like David Gest might have done if he had (a) avoided all that shocking plastic surgery and, more importantly, (b) not died. He was a huge support to me when I joined Team Divorce a few years back, and I’ve always loved my evenings with him when he can swing a babysitter (his high-powered ex-wife is always away on business, pressing the flesh in Milan).

As for Pan, it looked like the most interesting thing to happen to Wokingham in some time – a pan-Asian restaurant opening in the space vacated by the Teak House (a Thai restaurant) offering a constantly changing monthly menu of small plates from different countries. The pictures on Instagram looked tempting, the word of mouth was promising and the menu online – all octopus, monkfish yakitori, slow braised pork and ramen – made me truly impatient to visit. Richard said it looked perfect, although I wondered if that might be because he has a much smaller appetite than me.

The website, and the pictures I’d seen made me think Pan would be a sleek, black, minimalist space, but going in it looked very much like it was still the Teak House, visually at least. There was a small bar and counter, and a small dining room up a little set of stairs with, surreally, a handrail like a banister separating it off (Richard leaned against it for much of our meal: it looked wobbly). The front room must have accommodated about a dozen diners, although there was a bigger room further into the restaurant: on our visit this had been laid out for a very large group which arrived partway through our meal.

“Have you been here before?” asked the front of house (which, on our visit, was very much a one man show) as he handed over our menus.

“No, this is our first time.”

“We’ve been open for six months, what took you so long?” he said with a smile. I liked that cockiness: it felt quite unlike Wokingham, if nothing else. “Our menu is small plates, like tapas, and two dishes per person should be enough.” I must confess I was sceptical about this, but maybe that’s because I’d been planning to try as many things as I could get away with.

“Do you have a wine list?” said Richard, somewhat betraying his priorities. The chap smiled again.

“I am the wine list.”

Again, a little confident but not jarringly so. In any case, we started with a couple of bottles of Kirin while we looked through the menu. It being March, the menu had changed completely from the one on the website (“this month we’re doing south Indian dishes”, our waiter told us). All the dishes were priced between four and eight pounds, and most of them looked tempting, with the possible exception of “chicory salad” which felt like a fig leaf for killjoys. The really noticeable thing on the menu, though, was the general absence of carbs: I had a feeling four dishes wouldn’t be anywhere near enough.

The first dish was a beautiful start – broccoli with chana dahl houmous, a clever fusion. I’m used to dipping stuff in houmous (after I’ve poured a lake of extra virgin olive oil on top of it, naturally) but having it here as the base for a heap of well-cooked purple sprouting broccoli was a very nice touch. The houmous had brilliant spice and flavour, and as a statement of intent this was hard to beat. But even this dish, with hindsight, was a taste of things to come: I expected the bowl to be slightly deeper and when my fork clanked against the bottom I did have an “is that all there is?” moment. It wasn’t to be the last time.

Shortly afterwards the kitchen sent out our next dish, crab wontons. “Too sweet” was Richard’s verdict, and I was pretty sure he wasn’t talking about me. He was right, though: they weren’t unpleasant but they were hotter than the sun and the crabmeat inside did feel too sweet with nothing to balance it out. Possibly the advertised curry butter might have offset this, but it lurked uselessly at the bottom of the plate and it was too difficult to dredge the wontons through it. Worth six pounds fifty? Probably not, and the glass plate felt like it might also have been inherited from the Teak House rather than bought for Pan, because the presentation felt a little fussy and old-fashioned.

I very much liked what came after that, flatiron steak with “kukurmutta ragu” (I Googled it: it’s mushrooms). The mushrooms lent a beautifully savoury note to the whole thing and any reservations I had about the steak were banished by the pink middle and the perfect texture. I wasn’t convinced it needed all that yoghurt, and serving it with paper underneath was a little odd, but even so it was one of my favourite dishes of the evening. Richard wasn’t so impressed, but by then I’d told him I was going to refer to us in the review as “Pan’s people” and he’d given me the first of many withering stares (“Bitch” was his response).

I found it odd that the dishes had been designed for sharing, but none of them came with spoons for us to dish up onto our plates. I asked and the waiter brought some over, but in a way which suggested that they’d never been asked before. “That was very nice, thank you” I said as he came to take our empty plates away. “You sound surprised” he replied, and again I couldn’t quite decide whether that confidence was charming or grating.

I’d been particularly looking forward to the charred carrot dish, mainly because Pan’s Instagram feed had a stunning image of what I imagined was something similar – a huge vibrant jumble of carrots, blackened on the outside, sesame seeds and coriander. I don’t think I was expecting five pieces of carrot, or for three of them to turn out to be unadvertised sweet potato (one of my least favourite things). Despite that I did enjoy them – the menu said they’d come with pearl barley and parsley, but instead they were accompanied by some kind of thickened yoghurt and tiny slivers of crispy fried chilli. It was an interesting dish, and the textures in particular were lovely, but I couldn’t quite shed the feeling that at five pounds, each piece of carrot or sweet potato had cost a quid all by itself.

Finally our last dish turned up, tandoori chicken legs with bhurani raita. I enjoyed this: the flavours were spot on and the chicken was nicely done, although I didn’t necessarily get much garlic in the pleasingly mint-green raita. Richard was less convinced – “this feels more like a dish you could get in lots of other places” – and either way it was a little difficult to justify two hardly colossal chicken legs at just shy of seven pounds.

“That was lovely” I said as the waiter collected more empty plates.

“I know”, he said. Hmm.

Despite having had more than our regulation two dishes per person, we ordered more. If there had been more carbs on the menu – some noodles or rice or anything that might fill you up – maybe I wouldn’t have needed to but as it was I was still distinctly peckish. We also ordered a couple of glasses of orvieto which was pleasingly crisp but far from bone dry. The waiter wasn’t kidding when he said he was the wine list, so he ran us through the choices – all by the glass, three or four whites if I recall. No prices were given, but I checked at the end and these were six pounds each, which didn’t feel unreasonable. Not having a list and picking after a chat with your waiter felt like the sort of thing I ought to enjoy and endorse in theory, but having done it I found it made me feel somewhat uncomfortable: too English by half, perhaps.

Throughout our meal I saw our waiter coming out of the kitchen with multiple plates of the same dishes, dropping one at our table, one at a neighbouring table and so on, and I realised that even if I was still on the hungry side I could see how this model might work beautifully for Pan. And every table in the front room was full of enthusiastic customers, so maybe it was just me who was beginning to find it a parade of not enough food for a little too much money.

I’d really fancied “cod shashlick with satay crumb” on the menu, but the waiter told us it had run out so we ordered the replacement dish, smoked trout with ginger and lime. For me, this just didn’t work – the tastes that accompanied the fish were sharp, fresh and interesting but pairing it with smoked trout felt like a strange choice. I’m far from convinced that smoked trout features heavily in South Indian cuisine: it clashed with everything else going on and the whole thing felt like a dish made with ingredients that were lying around (all very Ready Steady Cook) rather than something carefully put together. I guess, of course, that the thing with smoked trout is that you don’t have to cook it, so again convenient for the kitchen but not necessarily great for diners.

I did enjoy our final dish, a mixture of butter beans and chickpeas topped with a baked egg. Finally, a hint of the carbs I’d been craving! But even here I could see how all the dishes felt like riffs on a theme – the green squiggles matching those on the broccoli, probably the same yoghurt as we’d had on the steak, definitely the same little slices of fried chilli as had come with the carrots. Although I quite enjoyed it, and I’d have loved it if it had been the first dish I tried, by this stage I did feel like I could see the joins, as if I’d spotted the Wizard Of Oz behind the curtain. Pan passed itself off as being imaginative and varied, but a lot of work had been put into managing the experience.

I insisted on a dessert – partly because I was still hungry, and partly because the waiter told me that the chocolate brownie came with a sesame seed creme Anglaise. Normally, I don’t hold with brownies being dessert – and again, what I got differed from what was described on the menu – but this really was lovely: three dense, warm cubes of brownie with a beautifully light custard and plenty of sesame (although I thought it could have stood more).

We’d asked what we could drink with dessert and the waiter said “I’ve got some really good Filipino rum: let me bring it over”. He returned with a bottle and two little glasses full of ice and left us to it, an experience which felt faintly continental. Richard practically inhaled a glass and topped himself up.

“Hurry up and try some! This is fantastic.”

It was: ever so slightly honeyed and with a beautiful note of oak. Richard took a photo of the label, shortly before surreptitiously refreshing his glass. (“There’s no line on the side or anything” he said, with the expertise of a man who used to raid his mother’s drinks cabinet.) I loved it, although I did feel guilty about having more. How much did it cost anyway? There was simply no way of knowing, not until the bill arrived.

When it did, our whole meal – seven small plates, four beers, two glasses of wine and that rum – cost eighty-seven pounds, not including tip, and the rum was just under eight pounds in total. I made sure we tipped generously, mainly because I suspect Richard was literally drinking their profits. We then sallied forth into the Wokingham night in search of a place that could serve Richard more wine, although when we got to the pub Richard also ordered a packet of peanuts and a bag of pork scratchings: that probably tells its own story.

It’s interesting, as small plates restaurants start to jump the shark in London, that we get a swathe of them round these parts like Pan and Bench Rest, which I reviewed last year. Pan shares some of the problems that Bench Rest has: however nice the service is, the interior feels like it’s designed for a very different type of establishment and however nice the food is, the dishes are either too small or too pricey or both. But with Pan those problems were amplified – everything felt like not a lot of food for quite a lot of cash, and the interior and the plating lacked the sophistication the menu aspired to. But on the other hand I love the concept, I ate some really interesting food and combinations and I can see what they’re aiming for. It felt like a work in progress, but I do wonder if Wokingham is forgiving enough to give Pan the time it needs to become the restaurant it wants to be. I hope so: definitely if Pan was in Reading I would be following its evolution and going back to see how things progress.

And Richard? According to his Instagram he was in the gym the next morning at seven am, living the dream. His verdict was less nuanced than mine: will go back for free rum though, he told me on WhatsApp. The language of Shakespeare: I must find out when his babysitter fancies doing some more overtime.

Pan – 6.7
47-49 Peach Street, Wokingham RG40 1XJ
0118 9788893

https://www.panrestaurant.co.uk/

The Miller Of Mansfield, Goring

I decided that, this week of all weeks, I needed to catch a break. I’d been nearly broken by icky glazed duck, by grotty kebab meat hiding under squeezy cheese, by skanky burgers and lukewarm chips, by (admittedly good) food brought out at breakneck pace. There was no denying it: I was long overdue a good meal. I was after a sure thing, or as close to that as you can get in the world of restaurants. So this week I made for Gare Du Ding and I hopped on a train to Goring. I intended to try out the Miller Of Mansfield, the much-lauded not-quite-restaurant-not-quite-pub which won the Good Food Guide’s Restaurant Of The Year a few years back.

My companion this week deserved a good meal even more than I did: I went to the Miller with John Luther, who runs South Street and was first seen on this blog last September enduring a truly iffy Lebanese meal at Alona. I still occasionally have nightmares about the wobbly shawarma there, and my other half sometimes shows people the picture of it on her phone, the equivalent of the contents of Compo’s matchbox, or Alan Partridge’s top drawer at the Linton Travel Tavern. In fact, I think she may have done so at the last ER readers’ lunch, which poor John attended: talk about insensitive. After that horror, I wasn’t sure John would ever want to be invited back, so when he asked to join me again I decided I’d take him somewhere truly promising to make amends.

Goring is a lovely place, and the train there was full of well-to-do folk who seemed disgusted by John’s and my conversation about – yes, I’m afraid so – Brexit. The Miller is a short walk from the station and even on a dim and drizzly winter evening I was reminded of what a beautiful, prosperous village it is. It’s a big handsome building, warm and welcoming, and on arrival we were given the option of eating in the pub or the restaurant. The pub was cosier, although some of the tables felt more suitable for drinking than eating, but I actually decided to sit in the restaurant because I felt that restaurant prices felt more well-matched to sitting in a restaurant. Funny how the mind works, sometimes.

I did wonder, later on, if I’d made the wrong decision: the dining room was nice enough, if a little nondescript, and a big table was laid for about a dozen people. We were sat near the back – well, almost, as we were sat next to a screen which had been put there to make the room seem smaller (I could make out another two tables beyond it). That meant that John had a view of pretty much the whole room (and all the people-watching opportunities that came with it) and I was sat looking at a screen. It felt a little unspecial, but perhaps Goring was the kind of village so prosperous that the Miller wasn’t seen as a special occasion restaurant, the kind of place where people were happy to sit in the pub and pay twenty-five pounds for a main course.

Looking at the menu, when it eventually arrived (“I just realised these might enhance your dining experience” said the waitress who brought them over ten minutes later, quite winningly actually) made me think that if the food lived up to its promise then I’d also have been perfectly happy to pay twenty-five pounds for a main. All sorts of good stuff jumped off the page – smoked almonds and Comté as a nibble, gravadlax with crispy quail’s egg, soy glazed monkfish with confit pork, the list went on and on. Just as well, as I’d told John he could choose first (atoning for that shawarma again) so I also had to work out my plan B: I didn’t need it for the mains, but I had to rely on it for the starters.

Before that, we had to choose a wine. We both fancied a white, and the list had lots of appealing choices well before silly money. We were torn between a Grüner Veltliner (“my wife’s favourite”, John told me) and an Albarino, but ended up opting for the latter so it wouldn’t feel too much like rubbing it in when John got home and told Mrs Luther all about it. John then started telling me a story about drinking Albarino in Spain – “they pretty much hand it out for free over there” he said, and I pointed out that the wait staff probably wouldn’t fall for that. Goring, after all, is very much not the continent. Anyway, the wine was superb – fresh, lively, almost-sharp – and felt decent value at just under forty pounds.

We were nursing it for a while because, again, it felt like some time before anybody returned to take our order – a shame, as we could gladly have been picking at some nibbles by then. The couple at the table next to us wandered off out front leaving half of their starters still there on the table, and I unworthily wondered to myself if they’d notice a smidge of it going missing. This was well before the boisterous table for twelve turned up, so it wasn’t as if the restaurant was rushed off its feet, but the whole thing felt a little odd.

Anyway, enough quibbles: let’s move on to the food, because it was easily special enough to make you turn a blind eye to any glitches in service or being seated facing a screen. A little loaf of sourdough came to the table with churned butter and whipped bacon butter – all of these were fantastic but the taste of smoked streaky sneaking through in the whipped butter was nothing short of sorcery. The gougeres, a pair of little savoury profiteroles packing a real punch of blue cheese, were an absolute delight.

We’d also ordered a venison sausage roll, which came with home-made brown sauce. It was just under a fiver and really quite generously sized: I can be a very greedy diner, but even I would struggle to describe it as a nibble. “We have a rule in my house that whoever cuts has to choose last” said John, before dividing the sausage roll into two such unequal halves that I almost felt guilty scoffing the bigger one, until I remembered that he was having the oxtail croquette and I wasn’t. It was phenomenal, the venison lean and dense and again with a beautiful whiff of wintry woodsmoke. The brown sauce was heavenly, although the sausage roll really didn’t need it. “It almost has too much sausagemeat” said John; I managed to avoid doing an obvious double take.

The second nibble was less successful. The rabbit rillette itself was delicious, full of rich strands, the whole thing topped with a truly beautiful sweet jelly that felt like it had a touch of something like Sauternes in it. But the “lavroche crackers” were long, thin, impractical and just not worth the bother. We put some of the rillette (not an easy thing to spread on a brittle, narrow rectangle of cracker) on them before giving up and sticking the rest on the sourdough, which is possibly where it should have been all along.

The starters, if anything, were even better. John had the oxtail croquette, which meant that I had a side portion of envy. It was a single, beautiful thing which came on a bed of parsnip puree, served on a dish which looked alarmingly like a section of tree trunk. By this point the lighting in the Miller had reached a level which would defeat all attempts at photography, and my picture of this dish was so bad (disturbingly so) that you’ll have to take my word for it. It was dotted with little blobs of dill and shallots, and the taste I had was properly fantastic, deep in flavour with shreds of magnificent beef. “This is like a really middle class Findus Crispy Pancake”, I said: John nodded, probably humouring me.

I had chosen the cauliflower lasagne, and although it didn’t live up to the croquette it was an intriguing dish. More of an open lasagne, really, but I wish there had been more of the cauliflower and less of the hazelnut, which was billed as a “hazelnut crumble” but felt coarser than that and took over the whole thing more than I’d have liked. It was saved by a truly astounding caper and raisin puree which simultaneously managed to taste of both and neither, a mind-bending sort of agrodolce which transformed the dish into something rather special. I don’t even like raisins, but I could have eaten this until the cows came home.

Somewhere between the last mouthful of the starters and the arrival of our main courses, John and I ran out of wine. So we asked nicely if somebody could bring us the wine list again. It didn’t arrive, and I seem to remember we asked again, but even as our main courses were brought to the table we had to ask again and a very apologetic waitress returned with the list. We ordered straight away – a glass of New Zealand pinot noir for me, some Picpoul de Pinet for John – mainly because I was worried that if we didn’t we might never see wine again (both, incidentally, were cracking).

In fairness, by this time the large table nearby was in full swing and I can see that would take up a lot of time and attention. But even having said that, the service throughout – although never less than lovely – was a little more slapdash than I’d expect from food at this level. When we were served by Mary (who, along with her husband Nick, owns the restaurant and who runs the front of house) everything was brilliant, but when she wasn’t there the rest of the wait staff somehow went missing in action.

But anyway, let’s return to the food (again) – because it redeemed a multitude of sins and because my main course, one of the best things I’ve eaten in a long time, was specifically recommended by Mary. Breast of wild duck came served on a heap of sauerkraut (one of my very favourite things) with thin discs of sweet beetroot sitting under the whole thing. The duck was as tender as any I can remember, and perfect on a wintry night. I could eat sauerkraut until it came out of my ears, and this was joyous, as was the glossy sauce (made with duck heart, according to the menu) that brought it all together.

I might have liked the accompanying croquette to have a little more duck leg and a little less spud (I’d been spoiled by my taste of John’s starter) but that might have been just me. But no matter, because even better was the little pan of “duck crackers” brought to the table – they looked like prawn crackers, they had their texture too but the taste, all duck and smoke, was a little miracle. I let John try some, and tried not to be too smug. Again, I’ve not put my crappy photograph up because, however badly I may have written this, my words are still better.

John’s main course, in any event, was no slouch. His sea bream came with greens, crispy capers (one of the finest things in the world, if you ask me), a very good tartare sauce and something called “salty fingers” which is a sea vegetable a little like samphire. I did a Google image search of salty fingers as part of the research for this review and was relieved that it didn’t throw up anything dodgy (the infamous Leslie Grantham webcam still, for instance): perhaps it was just my dirty mind that led me to fear the worst.

John was a big fan of this dish, and from my forkful I could completely see why. “It has just enough greens,” he said, “although if I’m being fussy I wish the skin had been properly crispy”. We also ordered some chips – because Mary had told us they were good – and she wasn’t wrong, although under the circumstances they were probably excessive. They defeated John anyway, leaving him too full for dessert. But since I saw one on the menu that I just had to try, I ordered it all the same and told the waitress that she could bring two spoons. “We’re not a couple though” I told her, almost certainly unnecessarily.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from “chocolate custard” – I was hoping the emphasis would be more on the chocolate and less on the custard – but what arrived was far more beautiful than I can describe and hundreds of times more appealing than the photo below makes it look. The texture was like crème brulee, or a mousse with no bubbles, not as dense as a ganache but no less rich and intense for that. On top was a sheet of tuile rich with salt and sesame and the whole thing was dotted with little spheres of bright sweet orange.

John is an awfully well-mannered dining companion – he took the smaller half of the sausage roll, he let me finish the rillette, he practically apologised to the wait staff for them not having brought us the wine list yet – but even so I was relieved when he put down his spoon and gave me a clear run on the rest of the dessert. It was properly magnificent.

While we were waiting for our bill to arrive (and finishing off some beautiful, chewy macarons with vanilla custard which had been brought as an extra treat) we compared notes. John told me he was mentally already planning a trip back with his wife, and in truth I had also been trying to work out a good excuse to return. John knows his restaurants – we swapped stories of great meals we’d had, talked about places on our hit list and talked about how we should beetle off to London one weekday when we were both free and have lunch at Medlar, my favourite London spot, right at the unfashionable end of Chelsea.

“That’s always a sign of a really good restaurant”, I said, “that before you’ve finished meal one you’re planning meal two.” And although John and I both ordered well, the menu was littered with roads not taken – not only that, but I knew perfectly well that by the time I visited the Miller again the menu would probably look completely different. Dinner came to one hundred and forty pounds, not including tip, and personally I didn’t resent a single penny of it.

I often complain that Reading is lacking a true special occasion restaurant, and that even the options nearby are either too unspecial, too fussy, too full of themselves or just too difficult to get to. The Bottle & Glass in Binfield Heath, The Royal Oak at Paley Street, The Crown at Burchetts Green even: somehow they all fall short, to the extent where my family often congregate at the Crooked Billet in Stoke Row when they want to celebrate a birthday.

For me, the Miller Of Mansfield comes closest to filling that gap. I know the service was a little haphazard, and I struggled to warm to the room, but it’s so genuine and likeable that none of that seems to matter. More importantly, the food reaches heights that render all of that somewhat of a moot point. I went expecting to like it a great deal but maybe not love it and, based on other reports I’ve had, I wondered if I would leave slightly hungry. Well, none of that came to pass, and instead I have a new place to go for celebrations, blow-outs or even just decadent midweek dinners with a new friend. All that and it’s only thirteen minutes from Reading by train. What more could you ask?

The Miller Of Mansfield – 8.5
High Street, Goring, RG8 9AW
01491 872829

https://millerofmansfield.com/

Bench Rest

One of the interesting phenomena of Reading’s restaurant scene is the number of talented chefs and restaurateurs circling the town trying to find premises to cook in. This year has seen more of this than most: first, right at the beginning of the year, Georgian Feast stopped cooking at The Island (still one of the strangest places I’ve ever eaten dinner by a country mile). I had just got used to wandering over on a Sunday lunchtime to enjoy their gorgeous boat-shaped pizzas for lunch, and then they were gone.

Then, in the spring, the affable Kamal and his talented chef left Namaste Kitchen by mutual consent: very sad news for me, as I’d become hooked on my almost weekly trips to the Hook And Tackle for sukuti and boneless fish fry. More was to follow: in the summer I Love Paella parted company with the Fisherman’s Cottage, shortly after which the pub unveiled a new menu which – how shall I put this? – borrowed heavily from ILP. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but flattery is rarely so tacky; I’ve not been back since.

Then there were the goings-on at Nomad Bakery, the permanent premises taken on by Laura of local supper club Pop-Up Reading. Laura left Nomad in July, and although Nomad’s Twitter feed made it sound like an amicable (if emotional) parting of the ways, an Instagram post by ex-TV presenter, regular Nomad visitor and Caversham resident Simon Thomas suggested shabby treatment and a falling out with Laura’s co-investor. It was later amended to remove those comments: make of that what you will.

Anyway, as we reach the end of 2018 some of that has settled and some is still in flux: Kamal is still looking for somewhere to open a new restaurant, as is Enric of I Love Paella. Georgian Feast started working at Nomad Bakery and recently confirmed a new menu (as Geo Café) offering many of the classic dishes they used to serve at Blue Collar, the Turk’s Head and The Island: it’s still as clear as mud, but it appears that Nomad Bakery may be no more. And finally, probably the move most long-awaited by Reading’s fooderati – in October the Tasting House announced that Laura would be running a new venture there at weekends called Bench Rest: tapas on Friday and Saturday nights, and brunch on Saturday and Sunday daytimes.

The early reports looked interesting, as did the pictures sweeping Twitter and Instagram. The menu was constantly changing and evolving, all built around Mediterranean flavours and the fresh bread which has always been Laura’s biggest passion (her LinkedIn profile says “My life revolves around flour, H2O and a little bit of salt”, which is an appealingly simple mission statement), with an emphasis on vegetarian food – or, as it’s modishly called these days, plant-based dining.

Bench Rest is probably one of Reading’s most keenly anticipated openings for several years, so it only felt right to visit on duty before Christmas. I wasn’t initially sure whether to go for brunch or tapas, but a look at the respective menus made it an easier decision: practically every single brunch option involved eggs, breakfast isn’t a dish I’d personally choose to make plant-based, and I find these days I can take or leave Jam Lady jam. Besides, eating small plates gave me a better chance to try a wider range of the menu, so I turned up on a Friday night with my regular dining companion Zoë to find out what was what.

Now, before I get on to the food it’s sadly necessary to explain some stuff about the set-up, because some of what was less than satisfactory about the evening didn’t have much to do with Bench Rest. The Tasting House, back when I first reviewed it, was an uneasy one-stop shop which served charcuterie boards, wine by the glass to drink in and wine by the bottle to take away, and didn’t really know whether it wanted to be a wine bar or an off licence. Over time the furniture got more comfortable, the place got redecorated and rearranged and now it is effectively three different businesses in a kind of houseshare. The Tasting House serves the wine, does food during the week and runs wine testing events upstairs. Bench Rest takes over the kitchen at weekends. And finally, during the day, Anonymous Coffee sells coffee and cakes from the counter at the front.

With Bench Rest, this all felt pretty seamless – we ordered at the counter, got a prepaid card to use at the Enomatic machine to buy wine by the glass, and paid for the whole lot at the end. But the room makes much more sense as a wine bar than as a restaurant, and the layout is cramped and problematic. There’s one huge table at the far end of the room, nearest to the open kitchen, that can seat around eight to ten people. All the other tables are smallish tables, most of them for two, and the emphasis has been placed on packing in punters rather than making it an enjoyable experience. Our table was nearest to the wine and the Enomatic machine, and it felt like people were constantly walking past us, giving the feeling of being in a corridor rather than a restaurant.

It could have been worse – there are also higher seats but rather than being up at the counter, or at the window where you’d have something to look at, you were seated at a high ledge facing the wall. All the poor unfortunate couples there were sitting with their back to the ledge, on their high stools, forlornly looking out at the tables feeling envious. I guess they really do want to maximise the number of customers, but I didn’t especially want to be that kind of customer.

Much as they might have envied my table for two, another problem was it had definitely been designed with drinking in mind: the moment you ordered almost any food there wasn’t enough room for it. Even with a small plates menu, this was difficult and involved constant balancing and juggling; one serving dish ended up precariously perched on the pot containing cutlery, and the whole experience felt like a cross between Jenga and Tetris. It was all very odd: the space worked perfectly as a bar, or as a café, but seemed incompatible with its third purpose as a restaurant.

Perhaps the food would leave me less bothered by such details, I thought, as I looked at the menu. It was a nicely compact selection – a handful of snacks (olives, nuts and the like), one “glorious gourmet toastie”, a meat and cheese board and a selection of seven small plates, most of which were vegetarian. Seven is a sensible number of dishes but even then the menu felt a little bit fussy, dividing them between “cold mezze”, “hot mezze”, “tapas” and “raciones”, fiddly and needlessly educational. We ruled out the snacks, because they felt more about buying than cooking, and the board (for similar reasons, and because it felt very much like what the Tasting House used to serve before Bench Rest came along) and decided to try a selection of the small plates.

All the small plates came with a selection of sourdough bread, and Laura brought this to the table first, excitedly talking us through it. There was a rye bread, a ciabatta and a spelt sourdough – served with a little extra, a ramekin of black bean houmous. You couldn’t argue with the quantities, but I expected to love them more than I did. The rye bread was simply terrific, but the other two were lacking in crust and felt like they could have done with a little more salt. The texture either suggested that the slices had either been very lightly toasted or left cut and exposed to the air a little too long: either way, I wasn’t won over. Also – and this may well just be me – I really found that I wanted either some good quality salted butter to spread on it or bright grassy olive oil to dip it in. Neither was supplied, and although the black bean houmous was pleasant enough it didn’t bridge that gap.

The first small plate was houmous with chickpeas, tomatoes and whipped feta. It sounded great on paper, but it didn’t quite work in practice; really good houmous, like the stuff from Bakery House, is silky and rich, whereas this was coarser and slightly on the bland side. The flecks of whipped feta set it off nicely, as did the beautiful sweet marinated tomatoes, although there weren’t enough of the latter. And I like gherkins more than the next person most of the time but, nice though Bench Rest’s home made pickles were, they simply didn’t go with houmous. The combination of the houmous being a little too claggy and the bread not having quite enough oomph wasn’t a pleasing one.

The beetroot croquetas, on the other hand, were lovely things. Two biggish croquettes, rich with beetroot, dished up on a smear of fragrant tapenade with some crumbled goat’s cheese and served with grape must mustard (“my new favourite thing!” said Laura as she brought these to the table). This was a proper clear your plate dish, and the bread came in handy for mopping up every last smudge of food. The flavours worked brilliantly: I would have liked a little more goat’s cheese, and two croquettes for seven pounds fifty felt slightly on the steep side, but it was still hard to be critical about a dish that tasted quite unlike anything else in town.

The other two small plates were more substantial affairs. Patatas rotas, puerro y jamon was spicy potatoes (they looked fried but were described as roasted) with sweet leeks, topped with a couple of slices of prosciutto and an egg. This was hearty stuff (it felt more like an escapee from the brunch menu, in some ways) but I liked it and we properly picked over the whole lot. The ham felt a little like an afterthought – again, I’d have liked more and for it to have had more texture and been crispier. The egg was a little overdone, which meant most of the yolk couldn’t spread its sunshine over the plate. Even so, you couldn’t argue with the flavours. This dish was just shy of nine pounds, but again it felt ever so slightly less than its money.

Last of all we had the cauliflower shawarma, a dish I’d wanted to try ever since it was on Laura’s menu at Nomad Bakery. This was a beast of a thing, gently spiced, festooned with seeds and topped with some kind of sweet relish which could have been tomato, could have been red pepper or could have been something else entirely. It was like nothing I’ve ever eaten in Reading, a dish which had more to do with Ottolenghi than the Oxford Road, and I really enjoyed it. I wasn’t sure whether it came with the advertised houmous and lemon tahini – it felt more like yoghurt to my no doubt ignorant mind – but as a combination of tastes and textures it was one of the most interesting things I’ve eaten this year. We couldn’t finish it, and leaving some was a decision made with a heavy heart.

Normally I would go into detail about the drinks, but there seems little point in some ways because the range of wines in the Enomatic changes so regularly that I can’t guarantee any of them would be on sale were you to eat at Bench Rest. I particularly enjoyed the Medoc, which was rich but not too tannic, and I really loved the Australian Riesling which was much more sweet and approachable, as New World Rieslings tend to be. The Enomatic dispenses either 25ml, 75ml or 125ml and most of the wines I had were £5 for 75ml so again, this isn’t a cheap experience by any means.

The wine being self-service also disposes of much of the traditional service in Bench Rest. I would say the service from Laura, who really appeared to be working her socks off all evening, was exemplary – friendly, approachable and passionate about her food (endearingly so, in fact). The service at the counter when ordering, from long-serving Tasting House employee Jack, was also very likeable and efficient, but I did notice that he struggled to get one of the other staff to help out because she was too busy having a good old chat with her mate (I feel for Jack: we all have days at work like this). We settled up just as the acoustic singer-songwriter in the corner was getting into full flow (could have been worse, it could have been Ed Sheeran) and our meal for two – four small plates, five 75ml glasses of wine and one devil-may-care-push-the-boat-out 125ml glass of wine – came to sixty pounds, not including tip. In fairness, we did leave very full: perhaps there’s something to be said for this plant-based diet after all.

It’s a shame that the time-honoured ER ratings go from 0 to 10, because rarely have I so badly wanted to give a rating of “Hmm”. Some of the food in Bench Rest is excellent and much of it is imaginative. It’s probably more plant-based and virtuous than I would personally choose, but I am quite aware that that says more about me than it does about them. But, despite their efforts, the alliance with the Tasting House is an uneasy one which doesn’t show off the food in the best light, or create an environment where it’s particularly enjoyable to eat. The dishes may well involve a great deal of work, and it’s impossible to fault the kitchen’s devotion or imagination, but they still feel ever so slightly on the pricey side and like there’s something – and I can’t quite put my finger on what – missing. I hope it settles down, or that Laura eventually finds a bigger canvas on which to paint, but more than anything else it made me miss I Love Paella. Here’s hoping that 2019 brings further homecomings for some of Reading’s other dispossessed restaurateurs.

Bench Rest – 7.3

30a Chain Street, RG1 2HX
0118 9571531

https://www.bench-rest.com/