The Bottle & Glass Inn

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/

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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/

Lusso, Newbury

I could go for weeks, months, years without eating Chinese food (the gloopy Westernised stuff anyway, rather than the eye-opening dishes served up by Memories Of Sichuan). I can take or leave a burger: they’re great when you’re in the mood, but they’d rarely be my first choice. I enjoy Indian food but, with the exception of Namaste Kitchen, I’ll eat it mainly when it’s suggested by somebody else. But one thing I do love – properly love – is a really good pizza.

It does have to be good: none of your deep pan gubbins with Day-Glo pepperoni please, and no ham and pineapple nonsense. I don’t want a stuffed crust, barbecue sauce drizzled over like chocolate sauce, or crispy duck weirdness. I want a light base, a bubbled crust, good tomato, great mozzarella and a simple, classic topping. Ideally anchovies, capers and black olives: I order it as a test the way curry fans might go for a butter chicken or a lamb bhuna, a reference dish.

I’m always on the lookout for the perfect pizza and, equally importantly, the perfect pizza restaurant. In Paris it’s Le Briciole, on the edge of the Haut Marais, dark and dissolute, frequently a tourist-free zone and perfect for a lunchtime carafe, pizza, burrata and a chance to observe Parisians being, well, exactly that. I go every time I visit the city. In Helsinki it’s Linko, in the residential district of Toolo, a tiny place with fewer than twenty seats full of people enjoying unfussy pizza and the relative novelty of grabbing a bottle of wine without having to flog a kidney first.

Closer to home, there’s Bristol’s Bosco, sleek, black and full of delicious charcuterie and cheese before the main attraction arrives. In the edgier part of the same city, there’s Flour And Ash, where you sit at what look like reclaimed pub tables and the base is spread with ox cheek ragu. Or Lewes’ sadly departed The Hearth, in a converted former greasy spoon above the bus depot, all formica tables and old music on the jukebox. Heaven, I sometimes think, would be like a long drawn-out lunch in such a place.

In Reading, for a long time it was Papa Gee or nothing (except the chains and – err – Zero Degrees), and then along came Franco Manca. Franco Manca, although it isn’t perfect, has enough going for it that you don’t much mind. It’s quick and convenient, sometimes quite good, sometimes excellent. If you sit in the right place you can’t see all the way through to Debenhams (the Reading branch of Debenhams was once voted the worst shop in the United Kingdom – by Daily Telegraph readers, no less).

Good though Papa Gee and Franco Manca are, they don’t quite match up to the ideal of that little, bustling place turning out brilliant pizzas, full of conversation and people-watching. That’s where Newbury’s Lusso comes in. It started out serving from a van in town, before graduating to permanent premises offering sourdough pizzas and gelato and not a lot else. I always warm to a restaurant that only wants to be very good at a few things, and I’d had good reports from a number of people. One was my friend Izzy, who ought to know because she works in Newbury, so I met up with her one evening to try it out for myself.

Newbury’s a lovely, quiet market town with much to recommend it. An excellent beer, wine and gin shop. A good sushi joint. A cracking butcher on the bridge, selling splendid sausages. A micro-pub and a number of snug, cosy boozers (the King Charles Tavern is a favourite of mine, especially in winter when the fire’s on).

I can confidently add the gin bar of the Catherine Wheel to that list. Izzy and I stopped there for a pre-prandial drink and discovered a gigantic selection of gins – over a hundred, I seem to recall – all at a single price that would (or should, anyway) make the Thames Lido blush. My black tomato gin was fresh and green with a sprig of thyme, Izzy had a classic bone dry gin from Berry Bros and we started to catch up on everything that had happened since I saw her last. I noticed that the Catherine Wheel did a full range of Pie Minister pies and was tempted to dally, but we headed out to Lusso only a gin to the good: pizza one, pie nil.

Lusso is in the quaintly named “Weavers Walk”, just off the main drag, facing on to a courtyard which will no doubt be lovely in summer. It’s a small, plain room with probably no more than 30 covers – tables for two and four down either edge, and tables and benches along the middle which can be put together for communal dining (a large group sat there not long after we began our meal).

Everything was tasteful – pastel but not twee – although the tiled walls and the lack of any soft furnishings meant the place got very loud. I wouldn’t have guessed that when it was just Izzy, me and a family of four at another table, but by the time we left all but one table was occupied and we’d gone beyond buzz to full-on hubbub. There was an open counter at the back which meant you could see your food being assembled and cooked: at first it was alarming to see nobody there, but before too long the chef wandered through with a tray of pizza dough, ready to be stretched and shaped for the orders that lay ahead.

I took against the menu by virtue of it being in Comic Sans – this can’t just be me – but it made all the right noises. A few nibbles, a handful of starters, a burger and some salads (presumably for those rare individuals who go to a pizza restaurant and say “not pizza again”) and the main attraction, nine pizzas and a range of toppings if you wanted to customise. Pizzas were twelve pounds, so expensive compared to the likes of Franco Manca but not far off Pizza Express. Nonetheless, font notwithstanding, it’s hard not to like a pizza menu which features nduja but doesn’t have pineapple anywhere to be seen.

We started by sharing some nibbles, which gave me my first chance to see what Lusso was good at – and, as it turned out, less good at. A dish of grilled chorizo sausages was exactly that, nothing more and nothing less. It looked like it would be horrendous – three little sausages cut into halves and dished up with a couple of cocktail sticks – and I was relieved when I tried some that the chorizo was good quality, so what looked like it would be bouncy was in fact juicy. But I still had quibbles – they needed longer, and I’d have liked to see the chorizo in smaller slices. There was no caramelisation on the outside, and almost no oil – one of the best dips there is – had escaped into the ramekin. It didn’t feel like quite enough, for a fiver.

The baked Camembert had similar problems – it was on the small side for nine pounds, if nice to share, but it hadn’t been baked long enough to be properly gooey. No thyme, no garlic, no slashes across the top, no attempts at all to gussy it up. A pile of red onion chutney was nice but both literally and figuratively too much, and the salad was too easily knocked off the tiny plank onto the table (which, and I’m not telling tales here, is exactly what Izzy did). The sections of pizza bread it came with were a promising teaser for what was to follow, but it wasn’t the right bread for this kind of dish: you need something you can use to really get into the corners.

Our mains arrived with a speed which made me wonder whether Lusso was hoping to use our table again before the evening was out. It was a shame, because before that point I was starting to really enjoy the experience of eating there. We were having a good old chinwag about the things 2018 had thrown us so far, speculating on our fellow diners (“I bet that lot are from Vodafone” said Izzy, referring to the loud, self-satisfied bunch on the middle table) and enjoying our drinks – a very serviceable, fruity Nero d’Avola for me and a Diet Coke, the curse of the driver, for Izzy.

Between us we’d gone for traditional and off-piste pizzas – the Times New Roman and the Comic Sans, you could say. My pizza Napoletana, the gastronomic dragon I always chase in pizza restaurants, was extremely good. The base was beautifully irregular and blackened at the edges, although maybe not as bubbled as I’d have liked. I might have liked saltier, wrinklier olives, or bigger, fatter capers, but I couldn’t argue with the quantities. The anchovies were simply astounding, little savoury bombs, as deep and salty as Marmite, scattered across the whole pizza: no experience, like at Franco Manco, of picking which three or four mouthfuls to particularly enjoy. The mixture of melted mozzarella and torn pieces of cold, fresh mozzarella was a masterstroke: why don’t more places do this? I was delighted from start to finish, and even though this was Newbury and not Paris, Bristol or Helsinki, a little bit of me was happily transported.

“I normally have the margherita with pesto” said Izzy, “but it can make it a bit oily so I’ve gone for some chicken on there too.” I imagine purists are recoiling in horror at this – chicken on pizza is just below pineapple in Maslow’s hierarchy of crimes against pizza – but I couldn’t bring myself to be shocked. I didn’t try it, but Izzy enjoyed it from start to finish. It had the same great base, the same excellent mix of cooked and fresh mozzarella and the pesto was vivid, verdant stuff. The chicken impressed me less, being big thick uniform slabs that could have come from a catering pack. If I’d thought it had been cooked there, or torn by hand, I’d have been more convinced. But if you did happen to be in the mood for a chicken and pesto pizza – and I suppose some people are, sometimes – you could do far worse.

Dessert was compulsory, given that Lusso started life as a gelateria. I’d made the mistake of looking at the ice cream flavours online beforehand – Cotswold lavender and honey! Sicilian pistachio! – but they only stock ten at any one time in the restaurant and the ones on display smacked of playing it safe – chocolate, vanilla, mint choc chip and so on. Not for the first time, I missed Reading’s Tutti Frutti and Paul’s recurring bonkers project to create Barkham Blue ice cream (he never quite got it right).

The menu doesn’t actually include the option to just have ice cream, which is a bit confusing, so when we ordered a couple of scoops each they dished it up into a cardboard tub which we took back to our tables, an odd way to conclude a meal in a sit-down restaurant. The salted caramel, as often happens, tasted more like butterscotch, without even a hint of salt: not bad, but not what I’d ordered. I couldn’t help comparing it with my recent visit to the Lido: better on price (£4.20 for two very generous scoops), better for texture, being far smoother and less gritty, but falling down on flavour. Fortunately, the chocolate was much better – pretty textbook, much closer to milk than plain. But ultimately, however good it was, it was still only chocolate ice cream. Izzy tells me her honeycomb ice cream was lovely: I didn’t get any.

Service was pleasant and friendly, if stretched towards the end, and any issues with timing in the kitchen really weren’t the fault of the solitary waitress working that night. Dinner for two came to fifty-four pounds, not including tip, and we were done in just over an hour.

“That pizza was lovely” I said as I walked Izzy to her car.

“I’m so glad you liked it, it would have been awful if you hadn’t. But, to be honest, I wouldn’t have gone with you if I wasn’t confident about it. And it’s great for kids – pizza and ice cream is perfect for them. You should mention that, you never talk about kids in your reviews.” (She’s right, to be fair, and the kids’ menu did look pretty good.)

When a restaurant is out of town, it’s hard to divorce it from its surroundings. Of course you might go there all the time if you lived there, but what if you didn’t? Lusso isn’t quite on a level with all those places I mentioned at the start of this review but, perhaps crucially, it is slightly better than pizza restaurants in Reading. So whether you go probably depends on how much you fancy a trip to Newbury – and, of course, how much you like pizza. That renders the rating almost irrelevant, but for what it’s worth I liked Lusso. I can see myself going back, probably at the weekend for a nice amble round the food markets, more bubbled crust, mozzarella and salty anchovy, a bottle of gin from Inn At Home to add to my collection and a pint or two in the King Charles Tavern before taking the train home. It doesn’t sound like a bad Saturday, does it?

Lusso – 7.5
11 Weavers Walk, Newbury, RG14 1AL
01635 32128

https://www.gelartoicecream.co.uk/lusso

Thames Lido

Here’s something that happens quite a lot: I have friends who read the blog and some have been known to put in a request to accompany me on particular reviews. “Anyone coming with you to Taberu?” one will say, or “Next time I visit you for lunch, shall we go to Comptoir Libanais? You could write it up for your blog.”

Not that I mind: it’s nice that people take an interest, and better to be spoiled for choice with dining companions than to have to ask nicely or, worse still, beg. But some reviewing opportunities are more prized than others, and none more so than Thames Lido. It opened last year, after years of money-no-object, it-takes-as-long-as-it-takes restoration work, extensively catalogued online in a series of beautiful pictures (whatever else you might think of Thames Lido, they get social media right in a way which puts other Reading restaurants to shame).

In the run-up, there were glossy pictures and features in the broadsheets, and after it opened it received a blandly positive review in the Guardian (which described it as “just off the Reading ring road” – thanks for that). This is no surprise – the original Lido in Clifton is well-established and well-reviewed and has impeccable connections – but the overall effect is that Thames Lido is probably Reading’s first ever destination restaurant. Just don’t tell anybody it’s in Reading, is the implication, in case it puts them off.

So who to take? The decision was made for me when Kat told me, in no uncertain terms, that she was accompanying me. I said yes, because I owe Kat a favour, but she was – on paper at least – an unlikely candidate. Kat has an interesting diet which involves eating sweet and sour chicken balls in the bath, and she’s partial to a battered sausage or a Tesco all day breakfast sandwich.

“Are you sure the Lido is for you?”

“Don’t be silly, I’ve eaten at hoity-toity places before.”

The way this was said reminded me of Rizzo The Rat from Muppet Christmas Carol. Oh well, I had my angle: the irresistible force meets the immovable object, Reading’s destination restaurant meets one of Reading’s most unreconstructed diners. What could possibly go wrong?

My misgivings were exacerbated in the run-up to the visit when Kat sent me a message.

“I’ll also be packing a Gregg’s sausage roll, in case the portions are too puny” she said. “I won’t whack it out on the table or anything, don’t worry. Although, practically speaking, a Ginsters chicken and mushroom slice is more appropriate. A sausage roll doesn’t have the necessary structural integrity.”

What have I let myself in for? I thought to myself as I approached the restaurant with Kat, emergency pasty presumably stowed away in her handbag for later.

When I say “approached the restaurant” that makes it sound like an easier process than it was, on foot on a gloomy March evening. It’s a little tricky to find an entrance – down the side road without signposts or the main road without pavement? – and one of the entrances takes you in to the restaurant while the other one, the main one I suppose, takes you in to the Lido proper. Even picking the right entrance, it was a bit confusing finding our way to the restaurant (and that flair for signposting, or lack thereof, extends to the bit partway through the meal where you try to find the loo). A minor thing, I know, which only applies the first time you go, but first impressions and all that.

The restaurant itself was – as so often – a long thin room, a shape that’s mandated by its position running alongside the pool. The view was spectacular, with steam rising from the heated pool, the fetchingly retro changing booths beyond. The occasional intrepid swimmer bobbed past and, like no doubt everybody who has visited Thames Lido, I was very impressed by the quality of the restoration. It carried through into the furniture – sturdy, handsome tables, generous and roomy for two people, and the kind of chairs you could imagine settling into. It’s a high-ceilinged, airy space and thought had even been put into that, with fabric panels hanging from the ceiling to absorb noise.

If you get a table alongside the pool, that’s great. The other tables – like the one we were given – feel far less special and force one of you to forego the view and stare at the bare brick walls. We asked to move as a poolside table came available and they moved us without complaint. The menus didn’t come with us and it took a fair amount of flagging down staff before they reappeared at our table.

We started by hitting the gin menu, which is divided up on the good/better/best principle with some at £7, some at £9 and some at £11.50. Yes, you read all those right, and tonic is extra. Only two tonics are available, so you get Schweppes for £1.50 or Fever Tree for £2. That makes most of the gins more expensive than the Lido’s cocktails, and some of the gins are also very oddly priced. I was surprised, for example, to see Gin Mare, readily available in supermarkets and pubs like the Fisherman’s Cottage, on sale for £11.50. Each of the gins had modish tasting notes made up of three adjectives, although how Gordon’s tastes of “historic” is anybody’s guess.

Do I sound cross? It’s probably because I was, a little. I’ve been to lots of establishments with gin lists, from pubs to Michelin starred places, and they all make great effort to pair the gins with different mixers, different garnishes, serve them in big balloons so you can almost breathe in the botanicals. Not so at the Lido, where both gins turned up in a highball with ice and lime, nothing more. The Jinzu with Fever Tree (total cost thirteen pounds fifty) was pleasant, light, sweet and floral, but the main thing I thought with each mouthful was just how expensive it was. “Hotel prices”, murmured Kat disapprovingly. The Psychopomp Woden with Schweppes was punchier, a brutal mixture of fennel and grapefruit, and a relative snip at ten pounds fifty. You only got 125ml of Schweppes as opposed to 200ml of Fever Tree, another thing the menu neglected to mention.

The gin took a while to arrive, so we grazed on the complementary bread with olive oil. Again, I had heard great things but this was tough going – nicely seasoned but dense and heavy with no light, crispy crust, more murder weapon than appetite whetter. “I was here for the set lunch earlier in the week and the bread was so much nicer” said Kat. “It was warm, soft inside and the crust was brilliant.” I couldn’t help wondering if this was the same loaf, a few days later.

The menu managed that rare feat of being interesting and nice to look at without having anything on it that you absolutely had to order. I was expecting some kind of plea bargaining with Kat (and if they’d still had the slow cooked ox cheek in Pedro Ximenez on the menu that might have happened) but as it was, neither of us had a first choice to go into battle for. We eventually placed our orders with the waiter, a rather disengaged man who spent much of his time serving us looking around, as if hoping to speak to someone more interesting (“he’s like a really rude date” was Kat’s observation).

I was in the mood for a leisurely evening, but even so I was pleased when the starters made their way to our table. They represented the high water mark of the meal. Kat’s wood roasted asparagus with almond sauce and cecina looked like the kind of dish to provoke full-on food envy: a generous sheaf of asparagus, thinnish spears, with the almond sauce and what looked like jamon, and a hoard of toasted almonds, little grenades of flavour, hidden underneath. I assume the asparagus was very early season – although it was odd that the menu didn’t mention this – and it was terrific stuff. Kat waxed lyrical about the almond sauce, saying it was salty but with a sweet edge, in a manner which suggested I might have misjudged her after all. If I was being pedantic, I’d say that cecina is normally beef rather than ham, but that hardly detracted from how delicious the dish was.

Burrata, if not as good, was still thoroughly enjoyable. Serving it with heaps of broad beans and peas, if anything, made it even cleaner and fresher, a little reminder that spring was just round the corner, even if it didn’t quite feel like it yet. A slightly funkier note was introduced with the liberal dusting of dukkah, which added spice and edge and saved the whole lot from being just a little too nice. I didn’t get the promised yuzu, but it didn’t feel like the end of the world.

Our wine arrived almost immediately after I uttered the words “do you know what, I’d really like my wine now” to Kat. The gins were nearly finished (well, you want to take your time on something that expensive), the starters had long since been dispatched and the main courses were about to turn up. It felt truly odd that the wine hadn’t materialised by that point. The waitress who brought them – and served us from that point forward – was considerably more likeable, chatty, knowledgeable and clued up than the chap we’d been talking to before, a clear reminder of the difference between being served and being looked after. We’d gone for a Jeune Musar, a pretty entry level Lebanese red at £33 (although still about a three times markup from retail price) – I liked it, it was nicely balanced and although it started out a little tannic it opened out nicely given a little time. A shame it wasn’t given more time, really.

I’d gone for the lamb leg (Pyrenean, no less) and was generally pleased with my choice. The lamb was cooked beautifully – I could have stood it a little pinker, but it was close enough – with a lovely layer of fat and a beautiful salty char on the outside. The beans, some of which I think were pureed or mashed, added a nice earthiness. The salsa verde was packed with parsley and mint and absolutely made the meal; I could have eaten it with pretty much anything. Only the rainbow chard – pretty but tough going – misfired, it felt like it had been added for betterment rather than enjoyment.

Kat, on the other hand, picked the dud: hake, with mussels, celeriac and saffron broth. The fish was a nice piece but it was underseasoned, with only half the skin crispy. “It’s all a bit bland except the broth”, she said “and that just gets saltier the more you have of it”. I had a taste and couldn’t disagree. Weirder still was the marriage of chickpeas – which you’d absolutely expect in this kind of dish – and lashings of dill, which you just wouldn’t. Dill is a distinctive enough taste that you’d expect it to be mentioned in the menu, but no joy. Kat left some, and Kat – as you can probably tell from the emergency pasty – is not someone to leave food.

The side dish I really fancied – cauliflower with lemon and zata’ar – was sold out so we went for the crispy fried potatoes with rosemary and garlic. The taste was good, but the texture felt neither crispy nor fried. It was almost like someone had just lobbed them in a baking tray for half an hour, and there was certainly no evidence that they’d ever seen hot fat. I couldn’t help thinking how much better Honest’s rosemary fries were. I couldn’t even be sure these were significantly better than Café Yolk’s fried potatoes, and they came out of a packet. Again, we didn’t finish them. “If they’d actually been crispy you’d have had to fight me for them” said Kat.

The reputation of the Lido’s ice creams precedes it – they make up most of the dessert menu, after all – so it felt almost compulsory to order some to round off the meal. It’s six pounds for two scoops, and although many of the flavours were tempting Kat and I fancied the same ones so we decided to just go for it (with hindsight, the tasting flight to share would only have cost a little more and would have made a better option). They came in beautiful little bowls, and bringing each flavour in a separate bowl was a lovely little touch, because this is an area where you really don’t want to cross the streams.

Of the two, the chocolate and beer ice cream was by far the best, a clever thing where the chocolate hit you first and then the malty darkness of the Estrella “Black Coupage” snuck in at the end. The salted butter caramel I found less impressive – it seemed to lack much in the way of salt. Kat liked the caramel shards, I found them a tad unnecessary. Overall I quite liked the ice cream although I wasn’t entirely sure whether I six pounds liked it. The texture, although free of crystals, was gritty rather than smooth and maybe not quite special enough.

“It’s okay” said Kat, “but, like everything else, it feels about a couple of pounds too expensive. Also, and I know this sounds silly, my ice cream is too cold.”

“I know the way to fix that. You just wait.”

The glass of dessert wine we had with it – a Banyuls, like a slightly sweeter take on port – was terrific. Lovely, if a little pricey, and consequently both an excellent and fitting way to bring the meal to a close. Dinner for two, including an optional ten per cent service charge, came to one hundred and sixty-six pounds. It’s possible to eat for less, but even if you skipped the gin and the dessert wine it would still have clocked in at over a hundred pounds.

This has been a tricky review to write, and it’s a particularly difficult review to conclude. It can’t be denied that the Lido is a fantastic restoration project. What they’ve done with the building is amazing, it looks beautiful and it does make you feel a little prouder of Reading just to see it. And I can easily see that it’s an expensive labour of love, and those costs need to be recovered somehow – whether that’s through swimming, or massages, or packages, or through the restaurant.

I’m also aware that practically everything I’ve read about the Lido has been glowing praise, so I stick my head above the parapet with no great enthusiasm to say that, good though it is in places, it’s not quite good enough. The building has a wow factor the food can’t live up to, and everything feels just a little bit too expensive. The service didn’t match the surroundings either. Maybe it would have been different on a night where the dream team of Matt Siadatan (previously of Mya Lacarte) and James Alcock (from London Street Brasserie) were on duty, but as it was everything felt patchy. The restaurant was far from packed, but from the wayward service you’d think they were run ragged.

I might consider going again for the set lunch, and I can see that jumping off the train on a summer afternoon and having tapas at the poolside bar could be hugely enjoyable, but as a standalone restaurant it didn’t leave me in any hurry to return. “It’s a real pity, isn’t it?” said Kat. “I was hoping to find THE place in Reading, and I really thought the Lido could be that, but it isn’t.” Let’s not leave the last word to Kat though, let’s leave it to Kat’s pasty. I have it on good authority that she consumed it for a late breakfast at around half-ten the next morning. As a review of the Lido it’s a lot more succinct than what you’ve just read, but it’s as good a summary of the verdict as the number at the bottom.

Thames Lido – 6.9
Napier Road, RG1 8FR
0118 2070640

http://www.thameslido.com/

Fidget & Bob

One of the saddest events of last year was when Tutti Frutti (Reading station’s terrific ice cream café) closed abruptly back in October. I found out while on holiday: on the Monday morning I grabbed my regular latte from Paul before jumping on the RailAir – a holiday ritual I’ve always loved – and the next thing I knew I was drinking in a plaza in Andalucia and hearing troubling reports from Blighty that Tutti Frutti was no more. They were correct; I’d had my last latte there and I hadn’t even known it. By the time I got back to Reading all the kit had been taken out; five months later, the signs still say a new store is “coming soon”.

This is why we can’t have nice things, I ranted on Twitter for what may have been a week but, to many, probably felt like longer. I was cross with Network Rail for not treating Tutti Frutti better. I was cross with our local media for not celebrating the place more (the piece they eventually ran about the closure was an apology of a thing). I was cross with the people of Reading for going to Costa or Starbucks instead, when brilliant coffee and service were a stone’s throw away.

After I’d got over it – and, I suppose, myself – I realised the truth was more complicated. There was another reason why nobody had seemed to know Tutti Frutti was there. Several other reasons, in fact: no website; limited Facebook presence and a Twitter feed which made it look like the place closed a long time ago (the last Tweet dated from June 2015). Could anybody rely solely on word of mouth in this day and age? Was it enough to expect your customers to do your advertising for you?

In my head, I composed a long (and pompous) feature, explaining where all these restaurants were going wrong. I decided it wasn’t hard to run a good Twitter feed without pouring huge amounts of time into it. Just be chatty and engaging. Follow back and reply. Tweet a few times a day at the very least. Put pictures up of your food that made people want to come in and eat it. Use hashtags. Make sure followers got an idea of the personality of your brand. Could it be that difficult?

Perhaps it was, because I struggled to think of Reading restaurants and cafés that pulled it off. Shed and the now-departed Mya Lacarte got the tone right, but couldn’t manage the frequency. Workhouse had the opposite problem. Thames Lido was good at it, but then they did it with the sort of polish that suggested that it was somebody’s Actual Job.

Nowadays it’s much easier: all I have to do is say look at Fidget & Bob’s Twitter feed, because they get this stuff right in a way many bigger establishments could learn from. They started Tweeting even before they began trading, and followers could see the establishment coming together – counters being built, dishes being tried, suppliers being chosen. By the time they opened their doors, you already felt invested in this little café/bar/restaurant out in the wilds of Kennet Island (or I did, anyway) and I wanted them to do well. Over the last couple of months they’ve built on that, to the extent where I can honestly say that without their Twitter feed I might not have hopped in my mum’s car and made the trip out of town on a cold, crisp night, the threat of impending snow hanging in the air.

Truth be told, the last time I’d visited Kennet Island was to have a colonoscopy at the Circle Hospital, so I was looking forward to something going in the right end for a change. That anatomical detail aside, I liked Kennet Island, and the piazza was incongruously nice: not Andalucia nice, perhaps, but still a surprisingly pleasant open space. I could imagine a pleasant summer afternoon sitting outside, taking in the sun. There was free parking on the square and an inviting glow coming from the windows, although the place was almost empty when we walked in.

Essentially, it was a big rectangular space with a number of tables – one large one with benches for communal dining and a number of smaller ones for groups of two or four. The furniture was all mismatched without seeming twee or quirky, and a wall was plastered with kids’ drawings. I liked the long counter and bar at the back of the room, and the industrial-but-not-pretentious light fittings. We grabbed a table by the window, feeling a little spoilt for choice.

Service, from the co-owners, was terrific from start to finish, although I hadn’t really expected anything less. I ordered a latte to warm up and a glass of wine to drink while we looked at the menu. I was told that the coffee was from Clifton Roasters in Bristol – a decision they had obviously taken time over – and it paid off, being smooth and complex. My red wine – nero d’avola – came in an attractive stemless glass and had lovely hints of smoky cherry. Fidget & Bob make no secret of buying their wine in boxes and, on this basis, it seemed like another excellent decision (also, it means they can offer 500ml carafes – how I wish more places would do this).

My mum fancied a gin and tonic and one of the co-owners talked us through the options, which included Toad, from The Oxford Artisan Distillery. She wasn’t persuaded at over five pounds for a single to see if it was as good a gin as it was an acronym, but the Plymouth and tonic went down well. Kudos to Fidget & Bob for only charging eighty pence for Fever Tree tonic, although the overall effect was slightly marred by only adding a solitary ice cube; it wasn’t that cold out there.

The menu was small and perfectly formed, in more ways than one: not only were they all small plates, but the range was on the narrow side. A few nibbles, a cheeseboard, a soup, four different “pizza” (inverted commas theirs) in two sizes and two specials, both bao, steamed buns. I could see a fair few things I fancied trying, but I couldn’t help but feel I’d end up ordering most of the menu – partly to sample a decent range, but mainly because otherwise I’d leave hungry.

I had reckoned without my mother, the woman who orders half sandwiches at Pret and has the discipline to have a couple of squares of chocolate a night (discipline, needless to say, I haven’t inherited).

“You know me, I don’t have that big an appetite.”

I cast my mind back: I was sure I could remember occasions where she’d ordered three courses in a restaurant, but try as I might, I couldn’t bring them to mind. In any case, my mum is not a woman to be trifled with. We settled for one each of the two bao and a pizza to share (small rather than large: my mum insisted, and the co-owner agreed, sagely telling us that a large would be too much). I was tempted to order a cheeseboard, too, but I decided I already knew that Fidget & Bob bought well: the question now was whether they cooked well too.

Much is made of restaurants with a “chef’s table” where you can see everything going on around you. Well, you get that experience at Fidget & Bob without having to brag about it – they go about their business chopping and steaming and topping and cooking and frying just the other side of the counter, seeming to have a lovely and companionable time as they do it. Another couple of tables were occupied by the time our food began to arrive, and I saw chicken wings arrive at another table looking, as they always do, nice enough to make me wish I could be bothered with chicken wings. A little enamel cup full of salted popcorn – a nice touch – helped the time pass until our food arrived and, not for the first time since I arrived at Fidget & Bob, I found myself thinking there really was no rush. My mother and I chatted away: despite her lack of appetite the popcorn inexplicably disappeared in no time.

I had been dubious about Fidget & Bob’s pizzas, having seen pictures on their Twitter feed. The inverted commas were because it was served on a flatbread rather than a traditional base, and somehow that felt like a way you might cheat at home rather than cook in a restaurant. But what won me over and made me order it was another Twitter picture of onions, slow roasting in the oven, realising their sweet, golden potential. I wasn’t disappointed when my onion and mushroom pizza arrived. It may have looked makeshift, but it was very tasty and didn’t stint on mushrooms, onion or nicely bubbled cheese. Well done, too, in that you didn’t take a bite and find the whole topping sliding away as can sometimes happen. The onions had just the right sweetness, the mushrooms added a beautiful roasted nuttiness. A small pizza was dessert-plate sized and cost six pounds fifty – this felt ever so slightly on the pricey side, but that may have been god’s way of telling me I should have ordered a large one. It would have all been eaten, put it that way.

The bao were another matter. Like Fidget & Bob, I felt invested because I’d seen them assembled, gradually, from a distance. I saw the buns gradually rise in the steamer, I saw the pork belly on the pan. And when they turned up, both the pork and tofu bao, I wanted them to be great but they were near misses – good near misses, but near misses all the same. The pork belly was very well cooked with just enough crispy texture and no wobbly fat, and the chopped spring onion, coriander and peanut on top was lovely stuff. But it was too delicate, and it needed a sauce to bring it all together.

The tofu would have been superb if it had had some crispiness, but it was lacking that element which meant the whole thing was too soft and pillowy. The advertised wood ear and shiitake mushrooms were missing, replaced instead with an additional slab of tofu, and although there was oyster sauce on top it needed more. Only the scattering of sesame seeds rescued it from being just too softly spoken. I thought they needed more oomph, while my mum – who talks about having a very indelicate palate almost as it proud of it – found them bland. This is a shame, because it’s a fantastically brave and creative thing for a little café in Kennet Island to do. They were close enough to how I imagined they could be that I still fancied giving them a whirl another time.

I would have had a dessert – the “gooey chocolate croissant pudding” was calling to me – but my mum pronounced herself full (or, more precisely, only having room for a couple of squares of chocolate later) so we settled up. Dinner for two came to £35, not including tip. As we were paying we chatted to one of the owners and again, it was lovely to see her so enthusiastic about what they were building here.

“We have these charging points set up”, she said, pointing to the counter up at the window, “so that people can log in and work from the wi-fi here. We get quite a few people during the day, and you get a little stir crazy working from home.” I could imagine it would be a very nice place to take a break from a solitary day cooped up in the house, and for a moment I wished there was a place like that near me.

I think even the owners of Fidget & Bob would never pretend for a minute that they’re the finished article. In fact, to their credit, I think they probably don’t see the journey they’re on as one that has a defined end anyway. It is a lovely place, with a certain something you can’t fake or make on an assembly line which is all about love and passion. And although not all the food I had was brilliant, and some things on the menu need a bit of tinkering, I really hope they keep up the good work and that they get a loyal clientele which goes with them.

One of the big questions in my mind about Fidget & Bob was: is it good, or just Kennet Island good? I’m still not entirely sure, but put it this way: the next day I was snowed in and working from home and looking at my Twitter I saw a picture from Fidget & Bob of their chalkboard, surrounded by the snowy piazza. On it, it told people to come in and wait out of the cold for the bus into town. “No purchase necessary”, it said. And I thought: You know what? Even just reading that makes me want to come and eat with you again. Sometimes we all forget the social in social media, and eating too, done properly, is a social thing. Fidget & Bob get this so right that, even on a bitter winter’s day, it’s impossible not to warm to them.

Fidget & Bob – 7.0
The Piazza, Kennet Island, RG2 0GX
0118 931 0271​

https://www.fidgetandbob.co.uk/