Restaurant review: Pepe Sale

“I’m looking forward to the full Edible Reading experience” James said when I met him at the station. He made it sound as if joining me to review a meal was some kind of theme park. The Edible Reading Experience: you have to be this smug to ride.

“It’s nothing special. There are just two rules – don’t mention the blog when we’re in the restaurant and take photos of everything you eat. Zoë’s meeting us there. Do you want to know where we’re going?”

“Don’t tell me, I don’t want to spoil it.”

“I’ve saved a good one for you. And it’s the perfect one to review this week – it’s a revisit of the first place I ever reviewed, and it came under new management last year. And it’s an Italian restaurant, which is topical after last night. Let’s hope they don’t gloat too much.”

“Sounds perfect” said James, and we ambled through town, past the side of the Broad Street Mall. James is unflappable, but he almost did a double take. “Ah, you have a Taco Bell.”

“I’m afraid so. Its popularity is a continuing mystery to me.”

Later James told me that Taco Bell’s beef is only technically 88% beef because it contains so much other gubbins. He’s full of useful information like this – with hindsight I don’t know why I didn’t invite him to come with me on duty before. He likes the finer things in life: this is a man who flew to Korea for a weekend just to learn how to cook Korean barbecue, a man who has converted his garage into a micropub. Just the person to bring along to bolster my “man of the people” credentials. 

He was also the perfect person to take to Pepe Sale, the subject of this week’s review: he’d joined Zoë and me on holiday in Bologna two years ago and we’d rhapsodised together over ragu and porchetta, each meal as superb as the last. Our last holiday before lockdown was with James and his other half Liz in Copenhagen, eating magnificent food, attending a wild beer festival out in the docklands, stumbling out of brewpub after brewpub, enjoying the driverless subway trains and being too smudged to appreciate the Design Museum. We talked about coronavirus on that holiday, but with no real appreciation of what was coming, unaware of the gathering storm.

Although Pepe Sale changed hands last year the buyers kept that news quiet, presumably because they wanted a smooth transition and to retain as many regulars as possible (perhaps wisely: I remember the panic a couple of years ago when Pepe Sale showed up as for sale on a listings website). It became more apparent this year, as previous owner Toni Sale set up his “Pasta Academy”, running classes out of his gorgeous-looking kitchen, and the new owners made a small but significant change by opening on Sundays. Prior to that, Pepe Sale only opened on one Sunday every year, namely Mother’s Day. 

A few people told me last year, after visiting Pepe Sale, that it didn’t feel the same: not necessarily better or worse, but that something had changed. And that made sense, really. Toni was a big presence in the kitchen, his wife Samantha ran front of house superbly: with both of them gone, it was bound to be a different experience. When I looked at all the restaurants I’ve reviewed, trying to gauge which ones needed a repeat visit, Pepe Sale was high on the list. And so, nearly eight years after my previous review, Zoë, James and I went on a Monday lunchtime to see how different it was.

Visually, you’d barely notice the restaurant has changed hands. The decor is unaltered, all high-backed chairs and marble-topped tables. The restaurant is split-level, with the smaller space up top looking out on Queens Walk and the lower level a bigger room that I’ve always found harder to like. The only real difference was that the space by the front door where Toni used to roll fresh pasta every day has been replaced by another table. No specials menu either, that I could see, which was a shame – although it might have been because we were there on a Monday lunchtime.

I might find myself saying “it might just have been that we were there on a Monday lunchtime” many times during this review, so let’s take it as read from now on. The three of us were the only customers that afternoon, and there was a nicely sleepy pace to things with our waiter (the only staff member that I saw) giving us plenty of time to sip our water, read our menus, catch up and eventually get round to making our choices.

“Were you celebrating last night?” James asked him, ever the diplomat.

“I had four Peronis and a bottle of pinot grigio” he said, his eyes smiling, even if you couldn’t see a grin behind his mask. “But I wanted England to win. I’ve lived here for so long, and my kids were born here. My little boy was devastated this morning.”

The menu hasn’t been changed one iota under the new management, so it’s virtually identical to the one I ordered from back in 2013 and probably much the same as it was when they opened. The wine list, though, printed on the other side of the menu, was far smaller than the one I’m used to. Pepe Sale’s wine list was always a selling point – a huge range, across all price points, the majority of it coming from Sardinia. It’s now a one pager, although it’s all still Italian. Perhaps Pepe Sale has a separate, bigger wine list but if so, I wasn’t shown it and I didn’t think to ask; I can well believe, though, that the events of Brexit might have reduced the amount of wines the restaurant can economically import. 

In any event, we had a very nice red from Piedmont called Otto Bucce, which was peppery and smokey and felt like good value at around twenty-seven pounds. We took those first happy sips, we broke off pieces of rosemary-studded pane carasau and we began the serious business of chatting and gossiping. Italian music was playing in the background – another change, I think – and even though James, technically, was the only person who was on holiday, somehow we all felt like we were. I love it when restaurants do that to you.

Before our starters arrived, there was a spanner in the works: our waiter materialised to let us know that they were out of avocados. Would we like to order something different, or wait ten minutes while they nipped out to get some new ones? We opted for the latter, and all I can say is that I’d like to know where they bought them from. It certainly wasn’t a supermarket – I’ve lost count of the number of times a “perfectly ripe” avocado meant “perfectly ripe in a couple of weeks” – so I’m guessing they nipped round the corner and got some from the kerbside cornucopia of the Oxford Road’s magnificent Best Foods. 

Anyway, Zoë’s starter of avocado and mushrooms in a dolcelatte sauce was a marvellous, indulgent thing and easily worth the additional wait. The avocado was ripe and buttery and the sauce, which added just enough salt and funk, was so good that Zoë looked ruefully over at the empty bread basket and wished she’d saved a couple of pieces to mop it up.

James ordered a starter I ate on my visit all those years ago, mozzarella baked in radicchio with anchovies, olives and cherry tomatoes (if you want a pointer that Pepe Sale resolutely resists trends, here it is: burrata is nowhere to be seen on the menu). James enthused about it and although I didn’t try any, it looked as good as I remembered. As a rule I think the worst thing you can do to mozzarella is heat it up, but there’s something about those precious parcels of molten cheese and bitter leaf that’s properly charming, especially teamed with the hit of anchovy and the sweetness of little tomatoes. 

If that description makes you think I was suffering from starter envy, you’re probably right. I had gone for malloreddus, a Sardinian pasta speciality, which are best described as halfway between gnocchi and conchiglie, tightly curled shells, in a spicy tomato sauce with chunks of sausage. Everything worked, on paper – the sauce had a good heat, it clung nicely to the pasta and the sausage tasted decent. But somehow, it started to feel like a chore by the end, a tiny bit one-note compared to the other starters at the table. Perhaps I’d have felt differently if the sausage meat had been crumbled, finer in texture, rather than big slices of the stuff.

There was a nicely civilised pause between courses, and our mains arrived just as we were ready for them – a relief, as kitchens without much to do often rattle off the next set of dishes quicker than you’d like. Zoë picked an absolute banker from the menu, chicken breast, stuffed with mozzarella and sage and wrapped in pancetta. Again I found myself gazing in envy at a pool of molten mozzarella and wishing I’d played it safer: I was allowed a forkful which reminded me what a solid, classic dish it was (it also made me miss the saltimbocca at sadly-departed Dolce Vita, halfway across town and many years ago).

James chose a dish I’ve never ordered, wild boar cutlet in a tomato sauce. It looked the part – a handsome slab of meat cut into three in a deep sauce with plenty of cherry tomatoes (“I’ve picked the two tomato-lovers’ dishes” said James). But he wasn’t wild about the texture – “it’s not a soft meat, put it that way” – and found it tougher and chewier than he’d have liked; a sharp steak knife would have helped matters along.

My dish, sea bream, was also close but not quite there. The fish was beautifully cooked, two lovely fillets with tender flesh and crisp skin, and it’s hard to go wrong with anchovies and olives (and beautifully chopped shallots). But the thing I always loved about Pepe Sale’s fish dishes was the sauce, a rich fish fumet fragrant with wine, and this felt a little thinner than I remembered. It wasn’t a bad dish by any means, but lacking a little oomph. Had it changed, or had I?

All of us went for a selection of vegetables and these were well-judged – nicely crunchy potatoes sauteed with rosemary and perfectly al dente carrots and broccoli; Pepe Sale, more than any place I can think of, taught me the virtues of not overcooking your veg.

The dessert menu is also unchanged, and is a mixture of Italian, generic and Sardinian dishes, all reasonably priced. I was tempted by the basil panna cotta, another old favourite, but James and I both went for the sweet ravioli. They were every bit as delicious as my happy memories of them, fried squares packed with gooey ricotta and orange zest, the whole thing drizzled with sweet syrup and topped with more strips of fried pastry and a little snowdrift of icing sugar. Looking back at my picture of this dish from 2013, and the mozzarella starter for that matter, I’d say this kitchen puts more effort into plating now: the camera loved it as much as I did.

Zoë’s choice was the tiramisu, and again I was allowed just enough of it to wonder if she ever ordered a bad dish. I suppose there are no surprises with tiramisu –  you know it will be boozy and rich, all cream and coffee and chocolate, and this one was no exception. “I liked it a lot, but it did make me cough” she said later. “It’s the dust of the cocoa powder and my dodgy lungs. That’s why I was never allowed Dib Dabs as a kid”. 

Our meal – three courses each, some bread, a bottle of wine and a trio of amaros to help our desserts go down – came to just over a hundred and thirty pounds, not including tip. Pepe Sale is currently running a promotion where you get 20% off your food bill Mondays to Thursdays, and without that it would have been over a hundred and fifty pounds. Looking back at my 2013 visit a similar meal for two came to eighty pounds, so prices have definitely crept up – although that’s only to be expected and our meal still felt like good value.

As we settled up, I asked our waiter how business had been since they reopened in May. He told us that they were busy at weekends, solidly booked in fact, but things were still sluggish during the week – an experience I suspect is shared by many of Reading’s restaurants. He added that having Reading’s ill-advised quarantine hotel at the end of Queens Walk had hardly helped matters, although things were recovering now. 

It did make me think about whether people would feel comfortable eating inside on a busy evening – the tables are reasonably spaced but there are no screens, and although the front of the restaurant has big double doors which could be opened for ventilation they stayed resolutely closed during our visit. It’s a shame they’ve never put any tables outside, as their neighbours ThaiGrr! and Bierhaus have chosen to, but I guess that part of town can be a bit of a wind tunnel at times. 

We carried out a debrief over beers in the garden of the Nag’s Head, and there was less consensus than I expected. Zoë was the most positive about her food, but I think she ordered better than the rest of us (“that starter was great, but you know I love the ‘shrooms”). James was more equivocal, put off slightly by the toughness of that wild boar. I was somewhere in the middle, but in the back of my mind I was thinking that the food was almost exactly as it always was, and I couldn’t decide whether that was a good thing or not. We discussed it a little further, but then we were interrupted by a positively operatic fart from a shaven-headed gentleman at the table behind us which sounded like Brian Blessed molesting a tuba. We dissolved into fits of laughter, and that was that.

I feel a bit for Pepe Sale’s new owners. Talk about a no-win situation: if they make sweeping changes they’ve have messed with an institution, if they don’t they risk preserving it in aspic. And yet the restaurant barely changed in many years, so you can understand them not wanting to muck up a winning formula. I think it misses the specials and that wider wine list, and I sincerely hope they’re still making their pasta on the premises, but all in all it feels like the new owners are worthy custodians of the food: everything I had felt up to the standards of previous visits, and if anything the focus on presentation is stronger now.

And yet there’s so much more to a restaurant than the food. Aside from how Covid-cautious customers would feel eating in Pepe Sale, it’s safe to say that the real test of a restaurant is how it copes on busier evenings, whether the service and the kitchen can step up a gear to deal with the demands of a packed dining room. But not just that: it also depends whether that magical transmutation happens, where instead of just being a room full of people it becomes a wonderful buzzy place, a club where you’re lucky enough – if only for one evening – to be a member. At its best, Pepe Sale always did that. The new owners will face far sterner challenges in the months ahead than our chatty table of three on a Monday lunchtime. My fingers are crossed that they are up to them.

Pepe Sale – 7.8
3 Queens Walk, Reading, RG1 7QF
0118 9597700

http://pepesale.co.uk

Restaurant review: London Street Brasserie

This week’s review marks a new first for the blog, the first time I’ve re-reviewed a restaurant. Well, sort of: I’ve re-reviewed places before, but normally it’s because they’ve changed hands, even though the name has remained the same. This is often the case with pubs – so, for instance, I’ve reviewed the Lyndhurst three times, the Fisherman’s Cottage twice. The room and furniture were identical on all my visits, but the management, the team in the kitchen were completely different. So of course you’d view it as a separate business – just as, at some point, I’ll review the Corn Stores again, because what it offers now is a world away from what I ate when I went there last.

But some restaurants, particularly ones that stand the test of time, go through phases under the same ownership. The menu shifts and changes, the personnel in the kitchen will too, front of house stars will come and go and, over time, a restaurant can become the hospitality equivalent of Trigger’s broom. There are golden ages and doldrums. The best example I can think of is Mya Lacarte – in its prime, with Matt and Alex running the front of house and Remy Joly in the kitchen, it was an unbeatable place, but no incarnation after that managed to match those halcyon days.

When you’ve been at this lark as long as I have, the odds get shorter that places will change so much that a fresh look is overdue. Many places I’ve reviewed have since closed – correlation rather than causation, I promise – but many have made a go of it and flourished. Take Coconut, for example, or Valpy Street: are they really the same restaurant as they were when I first went there, not long after they opened? Is another visit in order?

I can’t think of a better example of this than London Street Brasserie, the subject of the third review I ever wrote. Even by then, the restaurant had been going for more than ten years – now, in 2021, it’s over twenty years old. Many chefs and front of house have passed through its doors since 2000 and some have gone on to open or work in other restaurants, in Reading and beyond. It’s still probably the town’s best-known restaurant and the Reading venue people are most likely to consider a special occasion restaurant. 

It’s also, as I discovered recently, a restaurant about which many people in Reading have an opinion. I went there in May with family, not long after it reopened, and when I posted pictures of my food on social media plenty of people had something to say. “I ate there recently and enjoyed it so much that we went again last week. Have the poached pear next time you go!” said one person. “I’m heading straight for the sticky toffee pudding once we’re double-vaxxed” said another. But it wasn’t unanimous: “I’ve never had a decent plate in all the times I’ve been” was a third opinion. My previous review is nearly eight years old – a lifetime ago, in so many ways – so it felt like the right time to head back, on a weekday lunchtime, with my other half Zoë.

It’s still one of Reading’s most attractive buildings, sitting by the river with a view of the Duke Street bridge, and its ground floor terrace out back, where we sat, is one of Reading’s finest al fresco spots, especially when the sun is out. The terrace has just under twenty covers, and can’t be booked, but the ground floor dining room is also a very pleasing space, although some of the furniture is starting to look tired.

So far, so pretty much the same as ever, but a look at the menu shows how things have changed since 2013. LSB’s set menu was always impressive value at two courses for sixteen pounds, but over the years that has crept up to the point where it’s now twenty-two pounds (you can mix and match the set menu with the à la carte if you want: set menu starters cost eight pounds and mains are seventeen). The prices on the à la carte are higher too – most used to nestle around twenty pounds, the majority are now closer to twenty-five. 

This isn’t at all an issue per se: we need to get used to paying more for food, and restaurants have to cover their costs, now more than ever, but it does mean that LSB isn’t necessarily the value proposition it once was. We ordered a couple of dishes from each menu, to put both to the test, and made inroads into a very enjoyable New Zealand pinot gris – fresh, aromatic and far from dry. It cost forty-two pounds – a hefty markup, as it’s fourteen in Majestic, who I think have supplied the majority of LSB’s wine list for as long as I can remember. The restaurant slowly began to fill up with friends lunching and several tables of men in suits, all making a beeline for the set menu’s fish and chips. Nobody else was sitting outside – it wasn’t the warmest of days, so they must have thought us eccentric.

Starters came quicker than I’d have chosen, but were so enjoyable that it didn’t matter. Zoë’s, from the set menu, was a pretty and inventive thing, a summery salad of vibrant watermelon, candied cashews, shredded sugarcane chicken, the crunch of beansprouts and wonderfully fragrant coriander and mint. With so much going on, all that sweetness and salt to juggle, it was a real triumph to get it right, and the kitchen nailed it – although my favourite bit was the salty, crispy chicken skin in shards on the top. I say my favourite bit: I was allowed one forkful and I was grateful enough for that. You get a similar dish on the à la carte with crispy duck instead of chicken, but I can’t imagine that it’s significantly better, especially at eleven pounds.

By contrast, my starter, from the à la carte, felt like the kind of dish that belonged on the set lunch menu: arancini aren’t hugely expensive things to make, so the margin on this felt wider. You got three of them for a tenner, each with a little molten core of taleggio, and they were competent but unexciting. I didn’t get a lot of truffle, and the best thing about the dish was a terrific verdant pesto which really elevated the dish. But the parmesan crisp that came with it was only halfway there – plenty of parmesan, but no crisp. Instead it was a little tough and leathery, although it still tasted the part.

LSB wasn’t busy on a weekday lunchtime, but I was glad they didn’t rush us and that we got a good break between courses. That was indicative of the service in general – excellent, attentive, very friendly. They clearly gauged that we weren’t on a working lunch where we needed to be in and out in an hour, and after the swift arrival of our starters everything settled down nicely into a gentle rhythm. And really, there are few better places in Reading to sit outside and enjoy a leisurely lunch: only Thames Lido really matches LSB for atmosphere, but the Lido’s food has never wowed me.

My main, from the set menu, was African spiced rump of lamb with “barely (sic) couscous” and harissa. It was a gorgeous-looking plate of food – in the past I’ve thought plating wasn’t LSB’s strong point but these dishes really did look the part – and it was good but not quite there. The lamb had next to no pinkness at all, and I was relieved that it had any tenderness under the circumstances (they brought one of those big wooden-handled knives some restaurants give you for lamb or steak: as so often, it wasn’t actually very sharp). I didn’t see any evidence that the lamb had been spiced, although it went very well with the delicious – if mild – harissa sauce and, incongruously, another dollop of that excellent pesto. The roasted vegetables were superb, but the couscous had been pressed into a puck which made it a bit too dense to enjoy: fluffier would have been better. 

That all sounds a bit grumpy, but it was still a very enjoyable dish. On this set menu, it was decent. Back in the day, if this had been part of a sixteen pound set lunch menu, you’d have been ecstatic. But if it was hard to make up my mind about that dish, Zoë’s was even trickier. Venison, haggis, roasted champagne grapes and shiraz jus: it sounded fantastic, but could it be worth twenty-seven pounds?

It looked stunning, in fairness – the picture below is Zoë’s rather than mine but rarely have I seen a dish that looked so much like a still life (of course, that might just be the grapes). And there was a very generous helping of haggis underneath that venison. I’ve had venison with red fruits before, many times, and even with chocolate on occasion, but serving it with the pop of grapes – less sweet than you might expect – was a very interesting touch. The venison itself was exceptional, far more expertly cooked than my lamb, and every element on the plate was in harmony, bound together by a nicely sticky jus: I’d have liked more of the jus, but then I tend to want more of everything. A really wonderful dish, premium in more ways than one, and yet… was it unreasonable to expect it to come with some carbs at that price?

We’d solved that issue by ordering a side of oxtail macaroni cheese, which proved to be the missing piece of the jigsaw: it provided the carbs missing from Zoë’s dish and went some way to solving the food envy brought about by the gulf between her main and mine. It had a beautifully deep, savoury flavour, with plenty of soft strands of oxtail, an awful lot of cheese and a splendid crunchy top. Not cheap at seven pounds fifty, but worth absolutely every penny – and I’d rather pay more for a side and it be memorable than bung money at bulking out a meal with something unremarkable.

The pricing of LSB’s desserts is a bit random: the desserts on the set menu are all six pounds, and those on the à la carte tend to be around seven. There’s some duplication between the two dessert menus, because four desserts appear on both, enough cross-pollination that I didn’t really understand why LSB doesn’t adopt a single dessert menu with consistent pricing. 

I had acted on the recommendation I’d had previously and ordered the poached pear, and I didn’t regret it for a second. Often when I’ve had poached pear it’s been poached in red wine and is a wintry, comforting dish. LSB’s rendition was more refined and more summery, the fleshy, amber-hued pear was sweet with vanilla and easy to cut into long tranches to eat with a very accomplished vanilla parfait. The chocolate crumb felt a bit there for the sake of it – dust on the plate is always a bit faffy to eat with everything else – and the chocolate sauce, similarly, felt more of a decorative smear than of practical use. But even so, it was an excellent dessert and I was glad I moved away from my comfort zone (the Snickers cheesecake had been calling to me) to give it a try.

Zoë had stayed firmly in her comfort zone with a favourite of hers, the dark chocolate nemesis (on the set menu and the à la carte). It’s essentially a brownie in dessert’s clothing, a wedge of cake which, like a brownie, has a crust on top and a softer, gooier core underneath. It was very good, and the salted caramel ice cream with it was very nice, but it was still, fundamentally, a brownie. If you subscribe to the school of thought that a brownie is an acceptable dessert, this was probably the one for you.

Our meal – three courses each, one side and a bottle of wine – came to just over one hundred and twenty pounds, not including tip. If we’d both stuck to the set menu we probably could have shaved around fifteen pounds off, but LSB is no longer the bargain it once was. That’s fair enough: a lot has changed over the last eight years and, like LSB, I’m probably worse value than I used to be. I certainly, like LSB, look a tiny bit tired – but then, given the last fifteen months, who doesn’t?

I didn’t know what to expect when I turned up to LSB on duty this week. It’s always been a place where I’ve tried my best to suspend my critical faculties and enjoy my meal – you know, the way most people do most of the time. I’ve eaten there numerous times over the years, for big meals with family or smaller soirées with friends or partners. I’ve even, on occasion, eaten off their set menu as an early evening solo diner. But I’ve had so many different experiences there that I honestly couldn’t have predicted whether my meal this week would be delightful or disappointing.

Having a long-running relationship with a restaurant is like having an old friend – you may see them on good days and off-days, but you overlook the latter. After all, you go back a long way. As it turns out, I’m inordinately pleased that I had such a good meal at LSB. It would have made me sadder than I’d like to admit if Reading’s grande dame was resting on its laurels, or had given up trying after a gruelling year of opening, shutting, reopening and re-shutting.

But nothing could be further from the truth: at twenty-one years old LSB is all grown up, and still a very good restaurant for grown-ups. To go there and have such a good meal – not perfect, not unbelievable value for money, but nonetheless interesting, clever and well-executed – made me feel hopeful that when we fully emerge from this and return to something like normality Reading’s other institutions will endure. We’ll still have John Lewis, we’ll still have Shed and we’ll still have London Street Brasserie, Reading’s first and foremost proper, special occasion restaurant, standing proud. I don’t think I care about whether Reading is a town or a city. But I find I very much care about that.

London Street Brasserie – 7.9
2-4 London Street, Reading, RG1 4PN
0118 9505036

https://www.londonstbrasserie.co.uk

Q&A: Nandana Syamala, Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen

Nandana Syamala moved to the U.K. from India on Christmas Day 2004, and after living in London for over ten years she and her husband Sharat relocated to Reading to pursue their dream of opening a restaurant together. Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen opened on London Street in June 2018, and since then has firmly established itself as one of the jewels of Reading’s independent restaurant scene, winning awards and converting the town to now iconic dishes like kodi chips, squid pakora, crab fry, bhuna venison and its trademark clay pot biryanis.

Clay’s has spent some of the time since lockdown began cooking 100 meals a day for the Whitley Community Development Organisation. In the next couple of weeks they will launch a new service selling a brand new, regularly-changing menu of vacuum-packed, chilled meals for delivery, initially in Reading only but with plans to expand nationwide. A hot food delivery service in Reading is due to follow further down the line.

What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown?
Eating out at our favourite restaurants in our free time, and I also dearly miss all the happy hugs I get from our diners. 

What’s your earliest memory of food?
Chicken legs. My mom used to cook pan-fried chicken legs. We were three siblings and we got one each. My dad still tells stories to anyone who will listen (or even just pretend to listen) about how we used to hold our chicken leg, move into a corner of the room and eat it with so much concentration it was almost funny, like a cartoon. We were all under five years old.

How have you changed as a result of running a restaurant for nearly two years?
I don’t know if this makes any sense but Clay’s is a brand new adventure for me and I’m not sure if running it has changed me, or whether I’m discovering parts of myself that were always there but had just never come to the surface. So I had to ask my friends for help with this question, as I couldn’t judge for myself. Some of them said they don’t get to see me enough to detect any changes, one said I have become modest (but he is known for his sarcasm!) The majority have said that I’ve become slightly more pragmatic and a little less idealistic, but there’s still a long way to go before they’re in balance! I’m not sure that’s where I want to end up, though.

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
The way it feels like a big city but also a community town at the same time. The way the people are so warm and helpful most of the time and the way all the independent businesses are so supportive of each other. I also love the fact that there are so many areas of outstanding natural beauty only ten to fifteen minutes’ drive away.

What is the worst job you’ve done?
My first job, back when I was doing my bachelor’s degree. I worked at a pre-school and I was teaching the kids the English alphabet. I was having trouble with one girl and was trying really hard to make her trace a letter and suddenly she grabbed the ruler I had in my hand and hit me with it! I laugh out loud whenever I think of it now, but it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and I hated it so much that I left within a month. I’ll forever have so much respect for people who do it so well. I did get to buy a birthday gift for my best friend and a watch for my younger brother though: it took me more than twenty years to buy something with my own money again for my brother, so I guess that job was also special in spite of it being the worst.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
There are quite a few that have moved me, but I’ve watched The Godfather more times than I can count, and I can always watch it again. Everyone knows that’s brilliant, but every time I watch it I find some new underlying meaning in a scene, something that I’ve previously missed. I love the book, too.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
There’s this place in France called Cap Ferret near Bordeaux . We were there a few years ago and had one of our best and happiest meals ever at one of the oyster shacks there. This was family run by the oyster farmer, his wife and his daughter. We sat there on the beach with basic seating and lots of wine while they kept on bringing the freshest of seafood – from oysters and shrimp to clams and mussels – along with some of the most beautiful bread and butter I’ve ever had. The food wasn’t showy, no modernist techniques, no gimmicks. I wish I could retire and eat that way every day.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I have the most vivid imagination ever and believe me when I say, there hasn’t been a single thing in this world that I haven’t wanted to be at some point while growing up. A cleaner, a butler, an astronaut, an engineer, a superhero, a doctor or a film personality. I even wanted to be a holy woman doing meditation in the Himalayas. I don’t just mean a flash of imagination: I actually spent a few months daydreaming about each of them before moving on to the next. The biggest irony is that even though cooking always came naturally to me I don’t remember ever wanting to be a chef.

When you moved to England, what took the most adjusting to?
I grew up reading Jane Austen, Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse, and it was a bit disappointing at first that England didn’t feel like that. But the biggest thing to adjust to was the lack of street food like in India. I was used to eating street food almost every day as an evening snack, and it’s still the one thing I really find it hard to live without. There are street food markets happening more now in the UK but it’s not even 5% of the variety and abundance you see in India or Thailand.

Where will you go for your first meal out after lockdown?
We’ve been thinking about this a lot, and even have a list of restaurants that we are missing from London, Bristol and Oxford. But I think it will most probably either be Pepe Sale or Côte.

What is your most unappealing habit?
It could be the high-pitched nervous giggle I do when I get overexcited about something.

Who would play you in the film of your life?
It’s extremely unlikely to happen, but someone said Shilpa Shetty (who won Celebrity Big Brother a long time ago) or Frieda Pinto. But knowing the control freak that I am, I might not let anyone else do it.

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
I can only eat sea salt and black pepper Kettle Chips. Please don’t judge.

What have been the highest and lowest points of your time running Clay’s?
The lowest was four days before we were due to open, when our builders left us in the lurch with lots of major things still needing fixing. We’d made the mistake of paying him 95% of his fee by then. He told us that the owner of another house he was working on had given him an ultimatum to finish their house faster, and he jumped ship because the owner was an architect and he expected more work and more money from them. We were a nobody to him.

It was a nightmare: we’d already postponed the opening date once and couldn’t do it again. I’d start crying the moment anyone so much as said hello to me. We went around all the hardware stores and electric stores, managed to find different handymen for different jobs, spent loads of extra money and finally managed to open with just £100 remaining in all our combined accounts. We had nothing left to even buy groceries for the next week. I can’t believe it’s not even two years since we went through all of that!

The highest was when a group of our regulars planned in secret to visit us on the date of our first anniversary to celebrate with us. They booked a big table without us having a clue; the happiness and thrill I got seeing each one walking into the restaurant and then realising they all belonged on the same table is indescribable. I don’t think anything will ever beat that and I am forever grateful to all of them (you know who you are) for giving us that moment.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Hyderabadi biryani and cut mirchi, ever since childhood. My family used to tease me that they would find a husband who cooks those two dishes. They did end up finding me someone who does the best biryani and I managed to master the other one, so it’s a win-win.

If your house was on fire, what’s the one thing you would save from it?
Honestly, nothing, as long as Sharat and I are out and safe. Is it sad that I don’t possess anything I think is worth saving?

Clay’s has one of the best wine lists, beer lists and gin lists in Reading. What’s your drink of choice?
Thank you so much for saying so: we really put so much effort into that. But coming to your question, it mostly depends on the mood, weather and the food but otherwise it would be a good full-bodied red.

Where is your happy place?
Wherever all my family is, with all my nieces and nephews playing around.

Tell us something people might not know about you.
I’m an introvert.

Describe yourself in three words.
Honest. Content. Defective. That last one is Sharat’s word, and I’ve trained my mind to believe that he means it in a cute way!

Zest

How good is your memory for faces? I was in Brighton over the summer, sitting outside a particularly patchouli-scented café in the Lanes, when I thought I recognised the woman walking past my table and nipping inside. It bugged me for about five minutes until I realised where I knew her from: she’d served me in Workhouse Coffee what must have been a couple of years ago. Reading is a small town, and the longer you live there the more chances you get to accumulate memories, or scraps of memories, and to spot people you dimly recognise from your past: that person used to work at the same office as me a few years ago; that person was briefly my housemate in 2001 and never used the shower; there’s a friend I lost in the divorce.

The reason I mention this is that when we turned up at Zest on an icy winter’s evening, the owner recognised me immediately as a former customer of hers. I used to eat at Zest’s town centre sibling restaurant, the sadly-missed LSQ2 (where Handmade Burger is now), but even so it was an impressive feat of recall: I frequented LSQ2 the best part of ten years ago, and I expect she has seen hundreds of diners since then. And yet here we both were – her still trading nicely out at Green Park and me a few pounds heavier, far older and greyer (if not necessarily wiser) but still alive and kicking.

LSQ2 closed in 2012 (the GetReading article announcing the news tried to suggest that every cloud had a silver lining because Cosmo was about to open on Broad Street) but Tony and Sally Cole’s first restaurant, since rebranded as Zest, has been operating at Green Park for fifteen years, offering a combination of classic modern British food and dishes which reflect their time spent in Australia and New Zealand. I still remember a dish of sashimi-grade tuna with a slick of sesame that LSQ2 used to do – I ordered it every time I went there, until they took it off the menu because they felt the tuna wasn’t sustainable.

There are a few reasons why I’d never got round to reviewing Zest before now. It never quite made it to the top of my to do list, and I think that’s because I always got the distinct impression that it was more intended for people working on the business park, and corporate diners, than members of the public. The opening hours, not entirely clear from the website, didn’t help. It’s only generally open Monday to Friday, but you get mixed messages – in one place on the site it says it’s open 5 until late, in another it says their menu is served until 9pm and if you try to book online the latest table it will give you is at 8pm (with a clear instruction that you need to place your order by 8.15, because the kitchen closes).

Arriving at half seven with my other half Zoë didn’t necessarily alter that impression – there were a few tables occupied, one of them a large booking, but all seemed to be coming to the end of their meals: we were the last new customers that evening. Zest is actually quite an attractive space, all dark wood and big windows looking out over water. In the thick fog, with light trying to break through from the nearby offices and car parks, it was all a bit Blade Runner, and if the furniture felt slightly chain hotel it didn’t put me off. The lighting, as you’ll see from the photos, was a little more intimate than I’d like, although it didn’t help that a few bulbs were out.

Zest was running a reduced à la carte menu alongside a Christmas menu when I visited, although the prices weren’t unreasonable for either and you were allowed to mix and match. The only real difference was that mains on the Christmas menu were a few pounds more expensive and came with roasted vegetables and Brussels sprouts, whether they went with the dish or not (but more of that later).

In general starters were seven or eight pounds and, if you visit outside the festive season, most mains will cost you around fifteen. It was a very good menu with more than a few tempting choices, and I’m glad to say that no compromises were made in bringing you this review. There’s definitely an Asian influence to an otherwise modern European menu with Thai and Indonesian dishes sitting alongside more traditional ones – we tried a little from both, in the interests of balance.

My starter was one of the nicest things I’ve eaten this year. Pork belly (triple-cooked according to the menu, although I saw no real evidence of that) came in generous cubes with tender meat and glossy fat, all coated in a gloriously funky, fishy XO sauce, with pak choi, spring onion and big, fragrant coriander leaves. There was a lime aioli advertised, and something that looked like that was definitely drizzled over the pork, but it couldn’t break through the stronger flavours in the dish, not that I cared in the slightest.

The only misfire was the crackling on top, which left me fearing for my fillings. A lighter touch would have been better, and in honesty the dish wouldn’t have missed it: it also ruined the picture below, or at least that’s my excuse. In any case, I was too delighted with everything else to mind. I let Zoë try a couple of pieces, partly because it was the season of goodwill but mainly because food that good deserves to be shared, regardless of whether it’s December or June.

I had a sneaking suspicion that I’d won at starters, but Zoë was very happy with hers. “I want to try the Scotch egg because I’d had a few to compare it to”, she said, and it was a very attractive specimen, served on what was called “curry mayonnaise” but felt to me more like a katsu sauce, more fruity than fiery. It could have done with more of the advertised coriander salsa verde but even so I thought it was a really good example – what felt like panko breadcrumbs, beautiful texture, peppery sausagemeat and yolk at just the right consistency.

“Is it better than the Lyndhurst’s?” I asked Zoë.

“Better than the one they do now, and up there with the one the previous owners did” was the reply.

The wine list at Zest may reflect the fact that most of their diners drive home afterwards, with a compact selection: most of it is available by the glass, and only a couple of bottles north of thirty pounds. We had a very drinkable French pinot noir for twenty-eight pounds which I thoroughly enjoyed – although our waiter intervened to stop me pouring it myself, which felt a little unnecessary. He was the only person looking after us all evening and I couldn’t quite shift the fear that he resented us for making him work late: nice enough, but a little distant and slightly lacking in warmth.

Our main courses, both from the Christmas menu, came out a little quicker than I might have liked, adding to the feeling that we were keeping staff from their loved ones. It’s never easy, I suppose, for a kitchen to sit on their hands when they only have two dishes left to prepare, but I do wish they’d left it a little longer.

However, again, that felt like a minor quibble once I started eating the food. My beef rendang was truly beautiful. My previous experience of this dish had been at Newbury’s now-defunct Wau, and at the time I thought I’d had a very good rendang. This, though, was streets ahead – not sickly-sweet and overreliant on coconut but complex and aromatic, shot through with hints of star anise. Similarly, the beef hadn’t been cooked into mush – it was still in distinct pieces which only fell apart when you tried to load them onto a fork. Again, there was plenty of coriander and the sharp crunch of ribbons of lightly pickled carrot on top was an excellent touch.

This was a marvellous dish, perfect on a Baltic Reading evening, and I am pretty sure it is usually on Zest’s à la carte menu, so try it if you go. As it was on the Christmas menu it was served with a fair few roasted heritage carrots (many of them a pleasingly deep shade of purple), and although they didn’t go in the slightest with an Indonesian curry it didn’t stop them being delicious.

Zoë’s lamb shank was a more conventionally Christmassy affair, and very good it was too – a gigantic piece of meat, cooked into soft surrender. The sauce was deep, with a little sweetness from balsamic vinegar and soft onions and the mash was suitably creamy and smooth. This went much better with the roasted vegetables and with the surprisingly good Brussels sprouts, sliced thinly and served with cream and a little speckle of pancetta. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this dish also features on the menu all year round, and it’s well worth ordering. I would have liked the advertised mint salsa to make an appearance, but the dish managed fine without it.

It took a while for the waiter to ask us if we wanted to look at the dessert menu, and I felt guilty about saying yes: he asked in the same way that I ask Zoë if she wants help hanging the laundry out i.e. hoping against hope that the answer will be no. But if they don’t want people to order dessert, Zest will have to make the menu a lot less tempting – even the usual suspects had twists that made you want to find out how they looked off the page and on the plate. It’s also worth mentioning that Zest’s cheeseboard is a veritable Greatest Hits of local cheeses – Barkham Blue, Waterloo, Wigmore and Spenwood, all for eight pounds fifty.

My dessert was probably the weak link of the meal. Chocolate tart with meringue and Clementine sorbet sounded beautiful, and the flavours were all present, correct and harmonious. But the texture was wrong – the chocolate was not the solid ganache I was expecting, but a molten pool, as if it had escaped from a fondant. It didn’t stop it being enjoyable, a rarified Terry’s chocolate orange encased in light buttery pastry, but it wasn’t quite what I had hoped.

If I’d won out on starters, Zoë drew level with dessert. I feared a white chocolate and Bailey’s cheesecake would be too sickly but actually it was sweet but not excessively so, a big block of indulgence heavy on filling and light on base. The passionfruit curd underneath stopped the whole thing being too one-dimensional, but given that I was only allowed one small forkful it’s hard to comment further, beyond wishing that I’d ordered it myself.

Dinner for two, including a pre-added 10% service charge, came to just over a hundred pounds – and actually, ordering off the á la carte isn’t any more or less expensive than the three-courses-for-thirty-pounds festive menu. To my mind, that makes the latter remarkably generous and I left the restaurant with a full stomach, a spring in my step and a couple of money off vouchers for next month which I may well end up using.

It’s easy to get jaded when you review a restaurant every fortnight, easier still when it’s a Cozze, a Lemoni or a Pantry. So I’m delighted that, even if by accident rather than design, I’ve saved one of the best meals of 2019 until almost the very last. I didn’t come away from Zest convinced that they were necessarily packed on most weekday evenings, and that lack of clarity probably goes some way to explaining why the pacing of the meal was a little rushed and the service sometimes felt a tad diffident.

But – and this is far more important – I did come away from Zest wishing I had visited a long time ago, and convinced that I might have unearthed one of the best local restaurants you’ve never considered going to. It’s easily accessible by bus from the town centre, it’s affordable by taxi on the way home and it serves delicious, interesting food (it’s as if they’ve been doing it, without much fanfare, for the best part of fifteen years). There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Zest that a buzzier room full of more customers wouldn’t solve – and personally, I plan to play my own small role in helping with that in the New Year. I suspect if you went you’d find it memorable: chances are, they’d come to remember you too.

Zest – 8.0
Lime Square, 220 South Oak Way, Green Park, RG2 6UP
0118 9873702

http://www.zestatlimesquare.co.uk/home.html

Cozze

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.

Cozze – 6.3
93-97 Caversham Road, RG1 8AN
0118 9591459

https://www.cozzerestaurants.co.uk/