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/

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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/

The Bottle & Glass Inn, Binfield Heath

Are you sitting comfortably? Do you have a drink: a cuppa, a beer or a gin (whatever your preference is, depending on when you’re reading this) to hand? Well rested and alert? Good, because we have lots to get through this week. Eighteen dishes, four courses, plenty of photos – so much in fact that I’m not sure whether I’m writing a review or organising a school trip (quiet at the back, you two). I’ll try to rein in my tendency to be prolix, and you’ll have to focus. Right, let’s do this.

It’s my fault we’re in this position. I went out to celebrate the fifth birthday of the blog – no, we don’t have time for me to wang on about that either – and I chose somewhere which looked special on paper. The Bottle & Glass Inn, in the pretty village of Binfield Heath, out towards Henley, had been on my wish list for a while. It reopened last year with great credentials, taken over by the former managers of London’s Michelin-starred pub the Harwood Arms. By October it had received a Michelin Plate, usually a sign that the tire-sellers consider a place marked for Great Things. How often do I review somewhere that’s been mentioned in Country Life, very much Edible Reading’s spiritual twin?

The other reason we have much to discuss is that on this occasion I went out on duty in a four. So it was my mother, my stepfather, my close friend Zoë and I (a team of all the talents if ever there was one) who pulled up outside the Bottle & Glass on a Friday night, ready to celebrate and – hopefully – to be wowed.

It’s a gorgeous pub. It’s thatched and beamed (it’s a listed building, unsurprisingly) and the bar looks like the comfiest, cosiest place to nurse a drink. Like many such places, they’ve built a tasteful extension where they actually feed people. I’ve sat in such extensions many times (The Wellington Arms, The Hind’s Head, The Crooked Billet and so on) and however nice they are you always feel a little like you’re missing out. Even so, the dining room in the Bottle & Glass was rather fetching: big capable tables, tastefully painted walls, a rather fetching green tweed banquette. Not perfect, though – the lack of softness and the bifold doors along one side made the room more deafening than buzzy, and the fact that there was another room beyond made this one feel a little like a fine dining corridor.

I liked the look of the menu, but it wasn’t without its complications to navigate. I know my mother well, and she didn’t take to it from the off; she doesn’t like pickles and, in one shape or another, they featured in every starter but one. The other complication was working out who would order what. My stepfather gallantly, insisted that we should all order separate courses (“for the blog”, he said). But that, combined with multiple requests of “can I order last?” turned the whole thing into one of those logic puzzles where X won’t sit on the right of Y, can’t sit opposite his ex-wife Z and is wearing red so can’t sit on the left of A (pretty soon logic puzzles will just involve trying to plan a dinner party for 12 people with a total of 6 different food allergies/intolerances/preferences, or whatever you call them nowadays).

Anyway, we eventually got there. And goodness knows we had plenty of time, because apart from bringing our wine – a very nice, robust Cahors which was just the wrong side of thirty pounds a bottle – we waited a long time, almost half an hour, before anybody came to take our order. It was especially frustrating as the menu had things in the “snacks” section that we fancied, and it would have been lovely to at least have those, and some bread, while solving our logic puzzle.

More disillusionment came when someone finally arrived at our table. They’d just sold their last of the grouse, he told us (maybe if they’d taken our order a bit sooner…). Worse still, they had run out of double cooked chips. Would we like some boiled new potatoes instead?

“That’s not really a very attractive offer, is it?” said my mum. The young waiter smiled blankly at her.

“How does anybody run out of chips?” I said after he had gone, incredulous. “I can understand you only have so many grouse, but chips?”

“Well, we are eating late” said my stepfather dryly (we’d turned up at half seven). “I don’t understand how you can have three side dishes on a menu and run out of one of them this early on a Friday night.”

The bread was the first to turn up: soda bread, still warm, two little loaves between four. It looked decent, but breaking it open none of us was hugely impressed – the taste was disconcertingly reminiscent of pretzels and, like pretzels, these were on the dry and chewy side, lacking in seasoning. “The butter’s too warm” said my mother, and she was right, although we’d been given so little it seemed a moot point. “The bread at the Black Rat is much better” she added, referencing Winchester’s Michelin-starred pub – a reasonable point of comparison – and that reminded me of their amazing squid ink and parmesan rolls. This wasn’t a patch on that, and none of us raced through it.

Our snacks arrived not long after. The scotch egg was a beast of a thing, and easily divisible between four. It looked the part, and the texture was note-perfect but seemingly at the expense of the taste: like the bread it was under-seasoned.

The other snack was beetroot houmous, which was topped with more beetroot and served with sourdough which was verging on cremated. I liked the houmous, and it came with a healthy whack of garlic, but personally I’d have liked more of it and could have done without the extra beetroot. It worried me that the kitchen seemed worse at cooking toast than me (“the taste of carbon might have complimented the garlic” said my stepfather later, “but that feels more like happenstance than grand design”).

What with the burnt toast, the bland Scotch egg, the AWOL chips and the lack of grouse we all felt faintly mutinous by the time our starters arrived, so it was a relief to find that they were an improvement. Zoë’s was the pick of the bunch – a big, delicate-tasting piece of salmon, poached so that it broke into large, handsome flakes. The bubbled, crisped salmon skin on top was delicious and light, and the pickled cucumber was sweet rather than sharp. It was also unquestionably the most generous of the starters: I had a mouthful and was more than slightly envious.

My stepfather’s starter was my second choice on paper – bresaola with smoked bone marrow and summer truffle sounds like all the good things. My forkful suggested that the bresaola, hidden underneath everything else, was the star of the show but the whole thing was too bland when on paper it should have been so much more (it reminded me, in fact, of the unedifying two months I spent on Tinder last year).

I had chosen the terrine, a slim slice of ham hock and foie gras which, neatly, was both clean and indulgent. Everything else on the plate went so well with it – golden, plump, sweet sultanas, pickled girolles and some kind of crumb or dust which tasted of the very best pork scratchings with the texture of the beautiful, salty powder left at the bottom of a packet. There was also some “violet mustard” which tasted, as far as I could tell, of mustard. So many tastes and textures here – sweet, sharp, salty and, of course, foie bloody gras – and so much to mix and match that, for once, I didn’t even feel like I would have liked some bread with it. Well, mostly. Like the bresaola, it had a little bit of frisée on top, as if to say See? It can’t all be delicious, you know.

My mother chose the only pickle-free starter, which contained plenty of unadvertised capers: I’ll let you imagine how happy she felt about that. Billed as a salad of tomatoes with curd, black olive caramel and tomato tea it was a pretty, artfully stacked bunch of tomatoes along with an odd pastry disc which had been added for seemingly no reason. If you like tomatoes this might well have been the dish for you, but my mother was left baffled by it and so, to be honest, was I. It’s the kind of dish I wouldn’t have ordered in a million years, and tasting some didn’t change my mind (interestingly the Bottle & Glass’ Twitter feed has since shown pictures of this dish reworked, so maybe they too weren’t convinced by it).

By this point, I increasingly thought it unlikely that all four of us would leave completely satisfied. My mother might have taken against the place, but I agreed that her main course was a little disappointing. Denied the grouse, she instead had the chicken. Now, I often think chicken can be a surprisingly good choice in a high end restaurant (especially if they can get the skin right), but the Bottle & Glass served up a gigantic chicken breast, no crispy skin, the usual sticky jus and some charred sweetcorn. There was also black garlic, which I really liked but which my mother found too sweet (sweetness in savoury food, and why it’s beyond the pale, is one of the culinary hills my mother is prepared to die on). Honourable mention has to go to the Maris Piper terrine, a gorgeous stack of wonderfully cooked potato, like a miniature pommes boulangère. Why couldn’t they have rustled some of that up for us, if they’d run out of chips? My mother left a fair bit of the chicken: my stepfather polished it off.

My dish was not just venison, but smoked venison – two pieces, seared on the outside but decidedly pink inside (“I think that looks a bit underdone” said my mother, but venison like Turkish delight has always worked for me). I’ve never had it smoked before and it was a revelation: on that basis the Bottle & Glass’ menu could do with a lot more smoking and a little less pickling. It came with the regulation Michelin-chasing sticky reduction, a purée which might have been celeriac, plenty of roasted shallots and rings of onion, sweet and caramelised and – this may have been why I ordered the dish – almost-crunchy nuggets of black pudding. This was more like it, although it did feel like a dish for the depths of winter plonked in the middle of the summer.

My stepfather is wont to order fish on a menu, when it looks interesting, and he chose the plaice with samphire, mussels and fennel. As you can see from the picture it was a delicate thing and, although he liked it, it was a too delicate for me. I tried some, and you couldn’t deny that the plaice was brilliantly cooked and the fennel lovely and sweet, but I did find myself thinking: where are the carbs? And where’s the rest? There was a little blob of white – possibly the advertised sorrel butter, possibly not – but I would have liked a good beurre blanc with this, or even a beurre noisette. “It was a good low carb option”, my stepfather emailed me later when I asked him for his thoughts, “as THERE WERE NO CHIPS”. Quite.

Zoë’s main was the best of the lot. Lamb rump and shoulder (thank heavens they didn’t wankily call it “lamb two ways”) was a very generous helping of pink rump and the highlight, a gorgeous piece of slow-cooked shoulder which simply fell apart. I was allowed to try that, and it was so terrific that I regretted my own menu choice. It made my helping of venison feel a tad stingy, put it that way. It came with artichoke and hasselback potatoes (teeny tiny ones which, again, were never going to redeem the Great Chip Shortage Of 2018), and some manner of green puree – pea, perhaps? – which had been plated up in a manner best described as unnecessarily spaffy.

We ordered some side dishes: neither of them added much but bulk. The new potatoes were nicely cooked and firm and tossed in butter and mint – or, according to the menu, “mint butter” – but the whole thing was oddly sweet. The Binfield Heath courgettes (“are they from an allotment then?” said my mother, slightly scornfully) might have ticked all the provenance boxes but really, the advertised thyme butter was missing in action and however multi-coloured they were, they remained big chunks of watery blandness. The sides were four pounds fifty each, and the main thing they achieved was to make me really want some chips.

By this point we’d run out of Cahors and three of us drank small glasses of Barbera d’Asti – it was pleasant enough, if lacking in the body and complexity of the red wine we’d just finished. That said, it reflects well that the Bottle & Glass offers quite a few wines by the glass and that, generally, you aren’t penalised for having smaller glasses. In preparation for the desserts to follow, we also ordered a couple of dessert wines. The Pedro Ximenez was, as it usually is, a treacly, sugary delight. My Banyuls was less impressive, again feeling slightly thin and lacking in the complex almost-sweetness you get with the best examples. By this stage I really wasn’t sure what I made of the Bottle & Glass: a feeling the desserts, as it turned out, would only compound.

Continuing the trend of the evening, Zoë had chosen the standout, my mother picked the wooden spoon and my stepfather and I were somewhere in the middle. My stepfather’s cheeseboard was a pretty decent offering, I thought – Barkham Blue (it sounds ungrateful to say this, but it feels like Barkham Blue is increasingly ubiquitous on cheeseboards: the victim of its own success, perhaps), a crumbly Lincolnshire Poacher – to my money the equal of any mature cheddar you can lay your hands on – and Bosworth Ash, a very creditable goat’s cheese. I do admire a place confident enough to give you good helpings of a few cheeses – a lot of a little rather, than a little of a lot. Nice crackers and chutney, too.

I had gone, as I so often do, for the chocolate dessert and it wasn’t bad, although not what I was expecting from the description. “Chocolate cream” did form part of it, and it was pleasant enough, and then there was a big slab of something partway between a brownie and a ganache which rather dominated the whole thing. The best bit of it was the mint ice cream, perched on top – the sweetness that hadn’t worked with the potatoes went brilliantly here. Good enough, but not particularly exciting.

Zoë was delighted by her dessert, because you can call it a date and walnut sponge all you like but when it turns up hot with butterscotch sauce and ice cream it’s basically sticky toffee pudding. Having to listen to the raptures, this time, was slightly tempered by knowing that I never really get food envy when dried fruit is concerned.

Having said that, my mother – tackling a pleasant, slightly prissy apple parfait with elderflower ice cream – might have felt differently. It looked pretty and clean, but when you’ve sat through two disappointing courses the last thing you want is a chaste goodbye kiss of a pudding. Even the post-dessert treats they brought over: chocolate coated honeycomb and fudge (which I suspect I enjoyed more than the other three) couldn’t undo all the damage.

I couldn’t help feeling that it was a meal of two halves. For the first half, service was lacklustre and some of the food we wanted just wasn’t available. During the second half of the meal service became almost too solicitous, as if they knew they had some ground to make up. My suspicion was just that they were swamped for the first hour or so, and that suspicion was confirmed when we settled up: they’d had a huge number of orders for fish and chips, they said, and something about not having enough potatoes, and being short of chefs, and at that point I’m sorry to say that, nice though the waiter was, I stopped listening. Perhaps I’m being unfair – quite possibly I am – but at the level the Bottle & Glass aspires to it’s partly about expectations, and they did a decent job of limboing under mine. Dinner for four – three courses each, some pre-dinner snacks, a bottle and a half of red wine and three glasses of dessert wine – came to £285, including a pre-added 12.5% service charge. You could definitely eat for less, though, and for the quality many of the dishes felt like really good value: especially that lamb.

With a meal this extensive, multi-faceted and complex I find it takes more time to digest the experience than the food. And the sheer variety of food we tried meant that we all had subtly different experiences: Zoë loved her meal, and was saying that she’d quite happily take her mother there for dinner. My own mother, on the other hand, won’t ever return: “I’d sooner go to back to the Crooked Billet” she said, as we pulled out of the car park. I can understand both points of view, and heaven knows the Crooked Billet isn’t the only competitor in these parts. You’re also not far from the superb Bird In Hand in Sonning Common and the very serviceable Reformation at Gallowstree Common, not to mention Orwell’s in Shiplake (N.B. Since writing this I’ve been advised that the Reformation has closed).

This is a well-to-do part of the country, and diners looking for good food in a pretty pub have plenty of choices. I’ve changed my mind several times about the Bottle & Glass even in the course of writing this review. I went away feeling a little underwhelmed, and then as I thought over the food I found myself revising my opinion. Some of it really was up there with any dishes I’ve had this year (although, in fairness, not necessarily the stuff I ordered on this visit). But then I think about the confusion of it: you serve dainty, precise food and yet you burn the toast. You proclaim how local your courgettes are at the same time as you run out of chips (can you tell I haven’t got over that?). And that, sadly, is what has stayed with me about the Bottle & Glass. So I didn’t have the perfect meal to celebrate my birthday, not by any means. But as a way of marking five years of eating, analysing and writing? Somehow it’s hard to think of a more appropriate venue.

The Bottle & Glass Inn – 7.4
Bones Lane, Binfield Heath, RG9 4JT
01491 412615

https://www.bottleandglassinn.com/

The Real Greek

Well, you were meant to get a review of Brewdog this week, but nothing quite went according to plan. I turned up there with Steve, a long time reader of the blog who attended my first readers’ lunch at the start of the year, and right from the off things weren’t promising. We entered the cacophonous main room and found a spare table round to the left which was just about comfortable enough. Just about.

“I wish I’d brought my glasses” said Steve. Steve is wry, wise and silver-haired, knows an awful lot about food, catering and restaurants and he’s had more jobs – and stories about them – than I’ve had hot dinners. “This is the first time I’ve ever been in a restaurant and not been able to read the menu.”

I looked at the menu, all in the sort of distressed font that hints of a typewriter ribbon on its last legs. It was all burgers and dogs and puns (“Cluck Norris”, “Soy Division”) and, I’m afraid, it induced mild to moderate weariness.

“I thought it was table service here. It was when I came here for a drink the weekend it opened, but now I’m not sure.” I said.

Minutes passed.

“I’ll go up to the bar” I said.

As luck would have it, the night I planned to review Brewdog the team from Explore Reading was there to review the drinks and the food. They had a nice booth (not jealous, not at all) and were already a few beers under way. I wondered: did that make Steve and I the Jets or the Sharks? Was Steve nifty on his feet? Should I have brought backup?

At the bar, the Explore delegation told me that there had been a mix-up in the kitchen and they wouldn’t be taking food orders for half an hour. It was already eight o’clock and that, I’m afraid, is where I decided that life was too short. I looked over at the Explore table again. These were Reading’s hip young gunslingers: one of them was in her twenties, for crying out loud. I went back to our table.

“Come on,” I said to Steve, “we’re going.”

That’s how we found ourselves walking back across town as I frantically consulted my list for a Plan B and that’s how we ended up in the Real Greek, on the Oracle Riverside. I turned up, in truth, with no great enthusiasm; I hadn’t heard brilliant reports, unless you include the countless enthusiastic – and comped – blog reviews shortly after it opened last year, back when you couldn’t get in without a reservation.

But going through the doors on a midweek evening I actually found myself thinking how nice it looked – almost like a slightly more upmarket Pizza Express, with biggish tables and handsome chairs along the outside of the room and a section of sort of open booths in the middle. I wouldn’t have fancied one of those, as they seemed to be hard benches with no visible padding. I guess the sort of people who enjoyed an evening in Brewdog might have gone for them, I found myself thinking.

Steve and I persuaded the waiter to give us a round table for three, so as to improve both our views and give us the room to order everything we wanted, and had a look through the menu. It was proper small plates territory, with a range of hot and cold meze and, if you needed some inspiration, a range of suggested set menus down the right.

So far so good, but the menu also meticulously listed the calorie count for every dish on the menu. I really wasn’t a fan of this: it’s bad enough seeing the traffic lights on ready meals in Marks, without it starting to invade restaurants. Surely restaurants were meant to be a haven where you didn’t have to put up with all that? Ironically, it put me off ordering dishes at both ends of the spectrum: I like a bit of taramasalata, but when a portion was just shy of a thousand calories? And I love octopus, but if it’s only 161 calories how much of it do you really get for £7.50?

The menu recommended three to four mezes per person, so naturally – despite my niggles about calories – we ordered nine between us: Steve may run marathons, but I just knew that he was a trencherman beneath that wiry exterior. Our waiter turned up with two cold bottles of Mythos, cracked them open simultaneously and poured them at the same time into our glasses. Like all magic tricks you can’t remember how it’s done, don’t want to and, afterwards, struggle to describe it.

“That’s nicely done, isn’t it?” said Steve, which I rather felt gave me permission to be impressed.

We chatted away about our recent holidays – Porto for Steve, Bologna for me – and the first set of dishes arrived. The other gimmick at The Real Greek is that your sharing plates arrive in a tall stack, like afternoon tea. That might be your bag, it might not: I found it irksome but it was easy to take them off the rack and spread them out on the table as nature intended. If I’d been at a smaller table for two, it might have properly got on my nerves.

We started with some of the cold mezze. Revithia, which looked like a plate of lightly bruised chick peas, were delicious, singing with lemon and mint, a beautifully fresh and bright dish. The dolmades was also very good – light, crumbly and again rich with mint, not remotely claggy or glutinous. Only the Greek flatbread disappointed. It wasn’t piping hot, and it felt like maybe it had been sitting around a little too long before coming to our table. I think if I’d realised just how unlike a dip the revithia was, we wouldn’t necessarily have ordered it, and it seemed a little cheeky to charge an extra three quid for olive oil and dukkah.

Despite that, Steve and I made our way through the whole lot, waiting to be disappointed. By the end, we realised that disappointment had not come and, for the first time, I wondered if this meal was going to outperform my expectations. The waiter brought a bottle of Greek white (Makedonikos, apparently) which was fresh, not sweet and not sharp, and tasted really quite a lot like being on holiday, as some of the best wine does.

“It’s a good atmosphere in here” said Steve, taking in our surroundings. “Everyone seems to be having a nice time.”

It’s a little point, perhaps, but Steve was right. None of the tables seemed to have the grim note of contractual obligation, nobody seemed to be there because they had vouchers or had run out of ideas. Perhaps we’d just stumbled on the place on a really auspicious evening – or perhaps it was euphoria at having escaped from Brewdog – but as I took another sip of my wine I found I was really quite enjoying myself. Steve was telling me about his small granddaughter’s quest to notch up a Michelin star a year (she made one establishment make her a dish completely off menu, which makes her sound far more fearsome than any mere reviewer), and about wife number one and job number sixteen and I thought: how lucky I am that people read the blog and want to come to dinner with me.

The rest of the dishes rather came all at once, which actually was my failing rather than the restaurant’s. It’s weird how when you’re in a chain to some extent you act like you’re in a chain, and you order like you’re in a chain. If The Real Greek had been an independent place, another Namaste Kitchen, I would have ordered some dishes, eaten them, kept the menu and then ordered some more, but because it was a chain and the menu told you how many dishes to order, I ordered them all in one go. With hindsight, that was a mistake, but it didn’t stop everything we ate being good at the very least and often far more than that.

Particular highlights from the hot mezze included the pork belly, cooked so perfectly that you could almost have mistaken it for chicken thigh, all crispy skin and layers of meat, every bit of fat rendered to nothing. Steve and I did a very English equivalent of fighting over it, which involved each of us saying “no, you have the last piece” ad infinitum. We were similarly polite over the halloumi fries, salty and light and pretty close to perfect, especially dipped in the minted yoghurt. The least successful dish was the calamari, which turned up looking so much like octopus that I worried we’d ordered the wrong thing. That wouldn’t have mattered so much, but it wasn’t quite as fresh as promised and that made it harder going than either of us would have liked. When we said “no, you have the last piece”, we actually meant it.

What else? Lamb kefta was more like a single lamb burger than a kebab or meatballs, but it was still delicious and far nicer than it looked. I felt like there was a hint of feta smuggled away in it somewhere, but that could have been a trick of the light, or the white wine slightly skewing matters. Salt cod fritters were also light and delightful, with plenty of fish, not bulked out with spuds. Again, the lemon mayonnaise that came with it was spot on.

Finally, Steve’s favourite, the loukanika: three whacking great slabs of pork and beef sausage with a deep red smoked chilli relish. I had huge reservations about this, mainly because it screamed stealth spam, but it was beautiful – coarse, firm, juicy and with just enough spice. The relish set it off perfectly. Steve liked it so much he sent me a message the next day saying that he was daydreaming about eating it again (and Steve’s one of the only people I know who can send such a message without even the faintest hint of smut).

“This is really good, isn’t it? I can’t find much wrong with it.” I said, giving away I’m afraid that I had fully expected to turn up to an Oracle Riverside chain restaurant and find shitloads of issues, and that I was a tad perplexed that I couldn’t.

“Yes, it is” said Steve. Were we having a shared hallucination? Had they put ayahuasca in our Mythos?

We pressed on with dessert, because we were having too nice an evening to want to bring it to an end. That’s as noble a reason to order dessert as any, but the decision provided probably the meal’s biggest misfire in the shape of my baklava – a big stodgy slab with no real crunch or subtlety, no layers, no sticky sweetness. What you got instead was some faintly damp pastry, and a big claggy layer of crushed nuts, and the whole thing was cold and unimpressive. You got better baklava, back in the day, eating Georgian food at the Turk’s Head and (trade secret alert) I have it on good authority that they bought theirs from Costco. Steve’s chocolate mousse cake was considerably nicer, if not remotely Greek. “Not bad” he said, between mouthfuls, “but they’ve definitely bought this in.”

Service was bright and personable from start to finish. Our waiter was Italian, which led to a long conversation about my recent holiday in Bologna (I took the lead on this), football (obviously Steve took the lead on this) and where a self-respecting Italian eats in Reading (Pepe Sale, unsurprisingly). He was very proud of the food, told us what to order next time and talked with real warmth about The Real Greek, having worked for years in the Windsor branch before transferring to Reading. No smarm, no encouraging us to post reviews on TripAdvisor, just genuine enthusiasm.

Dinner for two, not including service, came to eighty-eight pounds. Not the cheapest meal in the world, and although we probably could have ordered a couple of dishes fewer it was never going to be as cheap as living it up at Brewdog. But I had such an enjoyable meal that I really didn’t mind.

Afterwards, Steve and I compared notes. I rated the meal slightly more highly than he did, and we beetled off to the Allied Arms for a debrief, shivering under the heaters and pretending it was nearly summer. But the next day, he messaged me.

“I think I might have marked it a bit low on reflection. I think you were more on it.”

“It was really decent, wasn’t it? I’m struggling to find fault.”

“The waiter definitely contributed to the whole thing. Lovely to have someone so enthusiastic – I almost thought he was called Sandra.” Steve went on, referring to Zizzi’s legendary waitress, As Seen On TripAdvisor (“the Skripals would never have been poisoned in our branch of Zizzi”, my friend Tim once said to me, “Sandra would never have allowed it.”).

I think that exchange probably sums up the verdict on The Real Greek as well as anything. It wasn’t my first choice, I went there by accident and my expectations were firmly under control. And yet, quietly and unshowily, it did an absolutely cracking job. Irritating gimmicks, iffy bread and so-so desserts aside, we enjoyed a really tasty meal in a lovely, buzzy room. Nearly everything we had was good, much was very good and some was excellent. To my surprise, I would go back again, and I can see the appeal of gathering a group of friends and trying as much of the menu as possible. So I’d encourage you to put your reservations to one side when you read the rating at the bottom, because for a certain kind of evening – with fellow diners who play nicely – The Real Greek is as good an option as anywhere you can find in town. My only tip is to dig your heels in and order little and often: it may be a chain, but that should never stop you being independent-minded.

The Real Greek – 7.7
The Oracle, RG1 2AT
0118 9952270

http://www.therealgreek.com/reading/