Restaurant review: Hamlet, Wokingham

Over the last eighteen months, the story of Reading’s restaurants has been more about trying to protect what we have than celebrating the arrival of bright, shiny new things. With a few notable exceptions, the significant restaurants to open recently in town have been chains: Wendy’s, The Coconut Tree, Gordon Ramsay’s Profanity Burger. Further afield, however, it’s a different story. 

Henley, for instance, now has a big posh-looking place called Crocker’s which contains no less than three different restaurants. The front page of their website carries a photograph of people assembling identical small plates with long stainless steel tweezers, which tells you more than enough about the kind of food you can expect. Henley also has a new steak and seafood place called Shellfish Cow (I know), the second link in a little chain which started in Wallingford. Both these venues are fancy, both look like they’ve had dough chucked at them, both are independent.

But there’s even more of a marked transformation in Wokingham, driven by the ongoing regeneration of the town and the completion of Peach Place. The earliest sign of gentrification was back at the end of 2018 when Gail’s opened there, followed by craft beer bar Sit N’ Sip the following spring. And now Wokingham is starting to attract some noteworthy restaurants, so much so that when I looked at everywhere that had opened since I last visited, I wasn’t sure where to go first.

Should I try Indian restaurant Bombay Story, which inexplicably changed its name from Dabbawalla Indian Kitchen at some point over the last year? Or RYND, which used to be a hipster-milking burger joint on Castle Street and is reborn in Wokingham Town Hall offering “Californian inspired tapas-style dining”? Or Chalk, an independent restaurant that opened at the end of last year in the old Prezzo building on Broad Street?

Well, you know I didn’t pick any of those because here you are, reading a review of Hamlet. I decided on Hamlet, which opened back in May, partly because the menu seemed to have a little more about it. But I also chose it because of the pedigree of the owners: Nick Galer, from the Miller Of Mansfield, told me that they were two old colleagues of his from his days working for the Fat Duck Group. “The early reports are good”, he said, “although I’m never sure about all day dining.”

Hamlet is also on Peach Place with a fair amount of outside space, some of it under cover, and a few heaters which I imagine will need to be switched on around a week from now for approximately the next five months. The outside was doing a roaring trade, although it felt a tad soulless. The inside, though, is quite stunning in its way, all Hans Wegner Wishbone Chair lookalikes and bleached wood tables. There are baked goods on display at the counter and a little deli area where you can buy wine, cheese and charcuterie. It’s all very Scandi, very stylish, but again, ever so slightly sterile.

Anyway, we sat outside because it was a warm Saturday afternoon and I’m a risk-averse wuss. It wasn’t initially clear whether it was table service or if you were meant to order at the counter, but that was partly because when we got there the serving staff were a bit all over the place: they settled down as the first wave of the lunchtime rush subsided.

Casting my eye over the menu, I began to see Nick Galer’s point. Hamlet is open daytimes all week and evenings Thursday to Saturday, and its menu tries to cover every single base. The overall effect is something like a cross between Gail’s and an upmarket version of Wokingham’s Sedero Lounge: so there are brunches until 1pm, sandwiches available until 4pm and small and large plates available from midday until 4pm. So if you’re there between noon and one in the afternoon you can choose between four different sections, you lucky so-and-so. Brunches run from six to ten pounds, sandwiches from seven fifty to a tenner, small plates range widely in price between five and twelve pounds and most of the large plates are between ten and fifteen pounds. 

So yes, the menu was even busier than the staff and felt a little confused. I should add that if you go in the evening the small and large plates on offer look a lot more like a conventional restaurant, so it would be easier to treat it as a starters and mains kind of place. Anyway, we ordered a couple of sandwiches to start with a view to moving on to some other dishes afterwards, aiming to cover as many of the sections as we could. I would have loved to try the sausage, egg and Comte muffin, but because we placed our order at quarter past one the brunch section was out of bounds. Rules are rules.

Zoë had chosen Hamlet’s croque monsieur – an excellent choice, and possibly what I would have ordered if I’d had first dibs. It was attractively burnished, covered in that molten, slightly-caramelised topping and with beautiful ham – shredded hock, rather than slices of the stuff – in the middle. The mouthful I got was pretty good, although (and this might be a bit of a trend for the rest of the review) I wasn’t sure it was nine pounds fifty’s worth of pretty good.

“I liked it, but I think it needed mustard” was Zoë’s verdict.

“Didn’t it have mustard in it?”

“If it did, it needed more.”

Zoë picked better than me, and my fish finger sandwich was close but not quite there. You could see all the things they’d got right: the goujons were well done, handsome things with deeply pleasing breadcrumbs. And the tartare sauce, made by Hamlet at a guess, was fantastic with plenty of crunch and acidity from the gherkins. But as a sandwich, it didn’t work – the unremarkable white bread just got soggy from all the tartare and fell apart. Putting it in a bun, or at least toasting the slices of bread, would have helped it hold together a lot better. And the decision to put bitter, chewy radicchio in there felt cheffy for cheffy’s sake – iceberg on its own would have been fine. 

Was this worth nine pounds fifty? The long answer involves telling you all about Hook & Cook, who are at Blue Collar most weeks. The short answer is no.

If we’d stopped there you’d have got a lukewarm review which might have suggested you’d be better off going elsewhere in Wokingham – and even without the choices I mentioned earlier in this review you could have stopped at the busy food market outside the Town Hall and tried something by Krua Koson, another Blue Collar regular. But fortunately we went on to order some dishes from the other sections of the menu and, to some extent, it was like eating in a different restaurant.

Take the beef boulangère we had, from the small plates menu. A nice-looking dish, with strands of slowly-braised beef in a nearly-sweet tomato sauce, reminiscent of a stifado, and topped with layer upon layer of thinly sliced potato, the whole thing dusted with cheese and chives. A terrific dish – and, although technically a small plate, not too difficult to divide up between two people. Yours for five pounds. Five pounds! You could get two of these for the price of either of those sandwiches, and I think it would be the better choice.

But then, also from the small plates menu, we also ordered fried chicken with beurre noisette houmous. Again, this was a fetching dish – four pieces of gorgeous chicken, all gnarly and crunchy, tender under that coating. Pairing them with houmous isn’t something that would have occurred to me, and pairing the houmous with the almost-caramel silkiness of brown butter certainly wouldn’t have: I’m so used to seeing a bright green well of extra virgin olive oil in the middle of a mound of houmous that I’d never have thought of using anything else. 

All those ideas could have come a cropper when combined, but in practice the dish was a revelation. But pricing rears its ugly head again: this lovely dish was twelve pounds. Were you paying for the produce, the idea, the skills involved or the location of the restaurant? And did it matter? I’m not averse to dropping twelve pounds on a small portion of fried chicken from time to time, but will enough people feel likewise?

Last but not least, we’d also nabbed a charcuterie board to share. This is largely about buying rather than cooking, but Hamlet buys its charcuterie from Trealy Farm so they’d bought wisely. Chorizo, a couple of different types of salami (the nicest, for my money, with fennel), some cracking air dried ham and, usually my favourite, a superb coppa. The menu suggested there would also be some lamb carpaccio, but that seemed to have gone missing somewhere. 

Personally I like something acidic with charcuterie – gherkins or caperberries – but Hamlet instead added some wonderfully sweet cherry tomatoes, little slices of soda bread and olive oil infused with rosemary. I’d have liked the bread to be a little more substantial, but it was still a great selection. Fifty pence more expensive than the fried chicken, which did make me think – not for the first time – that Hamlet’s pricing was all over the shop.

I haven’t talked about our drinks, but there was a good, compact wine list covering all sensible price points along with around half a dozen cocktails and a handful of beers and ciders, all bottled. Zoë had a negroni, because that negroni habit is coming along nicely, and I had a small glass of a red burgundy which was the costliest wine on the menu. I liked it a lot, but I liked the fancy glasses even more. 

Our meal – two sandwiches, two small plates, a large plate, a couple of drinks and a bottle of mineral water – came to just under seventy pounds, not including service. You’re probably thinking “ouch” at this point, and ordinarily this is where I would say “but you could spend a lot less”. But unless you’re just coming to Hamlet for a sandwich and a coffee – and possibly even then – I think you’re going to feel a little stung when the bill arrives.

As I said earlier, table service did feel a little haphazard at the beginning of our meal, but as it went on service got stronger and far more personable. And Hamlet was pretty busy – even later on as we wandered back through Peach Place the restaurant was still doing a pretty consistent trade. 

Afterwards we went for a drink at Sit N’ Sip, the craft beer place where, oddly, nobody sitting out front was drinking beer. It wasn’t really my glass of IPA, despite some excellent people watching opportunities. So instead we found our way to the brilliant Outhouse Brewery, which has only been open for three months, and sat outside drinking their very own excellent oatmeal stout. I couldn’t resist trying one of their sausage rolls – made by Blue Orchid Bakery, another Peach Place business – and it was phenomenal, with great pastry and a coarse, dense sausagemeat filling (the fact that I had room for it perhaps isn’t the most glowing endorsement of Hamlet).

I think Nick Galer was right about the challenges of all day dining. Hiding in Hamlet’s menu, a maze of breakfasts, brunches, sandwiches and plates of varying size, there’s a very good restaurant, making itself frustratingly hard to find. I’m sure they’re doing what works for them, and certainly looking on Instagram their lunch menu has been a work in progress since they opened, but for me it felt muddled. Maybe they feel they need to compete with Gail’s during the day and places like Chalk at night. But although the execution might have been uneven, you couldn’t deny that the ideas were there, and along the right lines. 

I’m far more tempted to go back in the evening and treat Hamlet more as a traditional restaurant, and when I do I can easily imagine that I’ll have an excellent meal. But even so, they deserve credit for lots of things – for some of the imagination involved, for the stylish space they have created and, perhaps more than anything, for giving it a go during such an awful, challenging time. So there you have it: a polished-looking, high spec, unashamedly high quality restaurant selling interesting, creative food. And a great town centre taproom just around the corner for when you’re finished, into the bargain. In Wokingham. It’s interesting that, for all our chains and burger places, restaurants like Hamlet don’t choose to open in Reading.

Hamlet – 7.6
10 Peach Place, Wokingham, RG40 1LY
0118 3048433

https://hamletwokingham.co.uk

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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/

Jackson’s, California Country Park

Jackson’s stopped evening opening on 3rd September 2016. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

I’ve never quite worked out what the limits of the ER catchment area are, but Jackson’s has to be right on the edge. It’s only thirty minutes out of town but somehow it feels like a longer, more circuitous drive than that, out through Shinfield and past Arborfield before the countryside gets quite beautiful and the houses start to thin out. Then you go along Nine Mile Ride, turn off into California Country Park and suddenly it’s like being in Canada (or at least Center Parcs), all tall trees and wooden signs, Lycra-clad cyclists and healthy-looking types: types, in fact, unlike me.

The sun still flecked the leaves on a July evening as I made my way to the restaurant but I could completely see what it would be like during the daytime, full of families enjoying the great outdoors and the aforementioned cyclists taking a pit stop before heading on towards somewhere suitably pastoral. Jackson’s – next to the oddly named California Lake – tries to offer something at all times, so they do breakfast (all day, apparently: worth knowing) and sandwiches, burgers and jacket potatoes for lunch before morphing into a restaurant in the evening. And a Proper Restaurant at that, if the menu is to be believed, full of little touches and hints that make you really want to turn up and order everything.

The dining room is a big space full of chunky, solid, simple wooden furniture with white and red tablecloths. I assume the only things that change from day to night are the tablecloths and the mood lighting, little lamps sitting on rough-hewn rustic tables, but I imagine the space must be lovely at any time of day. I caught sight of the wood-burning stove and, for the first time this summer, found myself wishing it was ever so slightly darker and colder. Only two other tables were occupied, which was a tad awkward; they looked delighted that somebody had joined them.

I said the menu was full of little touches. Have a look at how they described our first starter if you don’t believe me: “Nutmeg and Thyme Confit Chicken Thigh, Chicken Broth, Crisp Skin, Wild Mushrooms, Broad Beans, Charred Corn & Spinach Foam”. Sounds good, don’t you think? And generally speaking it was. The thigh meat, soaked in the broth, was like the wonderful bit at the end of a roast dinner when you get to the last shreds of chicken, falling apart, soaked in rich salty gravy. Intensely good. The wild mushrooms were served as little splodges of purée that added creaminess but were otherwise a little lost. The broad beans – very large, very green, beautifully fresh – were top-notch. Only some of the corn was actually charred, but it added a nutty, chewy texture, nonetheless. No crisp skin, either, which is a great shame as they’re always two welcome words on any menu I look at. Last of all, the spinach foam added great colour (thankfully not too reminiscent of frogspawn) but not a lot else.

So, lots going on but did it justify all that complexity? No, not really. I could admire the creativity and all those – what’s the word they use on Masterchef? – processes, but I’d have been just as happy with a big ramekin of chicken, broth and broad beans, especially as the dish was too shallow for me to scoop up the remaining broth at the end.

JacksonsChickBroth

The other starter – “Sweet Pickled Heritage Carrots, Truffle Mayo, Poached Local Hens Egg, Summer Truffle, Parmesan & Honey Dressing” was more successful. A pretty, delicate, deceptively substantial dish it was built around those glorious spirals of sweet, crunchy pickled carrot and a mayo which managed to get those truffle notes just the right side of overpowering (although I do have a very high capacity for truffle). The parmesan shavings added grit and salt and the egg, poached just right, oozed enough golden yolk to bring everything together nicely. There were also pea shoots, which I could have done without (given the kitchen sink approach to the menu I’m surprised these weren’t mentioned) and little blobs of insubstantial dressing, also dotted with tiny pieces of truffle. Pickle, truffle, parmesan, poached egg: these are a few of my favourite things, and I loved this dish.

JacksonsCarrot

After two thumbs up for the starters I felt hopeful for the main event, and I was right. Well, half right: the confit duck leg was lovely. It was salty and rich with the meat falling away from the bone, exactly as it should be. The skin was perfectly crisp (nearly compensating for that chicken skin that went MIA earlier in the meal) with no flabby edges, almost how I think pork scratchings should be but so rarely are.

So far, so simple, but underneath the duck was where things got a lot more interesting; a pile of “young” peas (whatever they are, petits pois presumably) was given freshness and tang with fresh mint and crumbled feta. Some of the peas had also been puréed and served in pretty acid-green dollops which were surprisingly rich when smeared over a piece of the duck leg. The ham hock and potato terrine – a brick of potato with a layer of ham hock pressed as a seam through the middle – wasn’t such a hit. The potatoes were too hard and too lukewarm to be enjoyable and I ended up pulling out the ham hock to eat on its own; far from a punishment but probably not what the kitchen intended.

JacksonsDuck

Luckily, we’d ordered truffle chips on the side and my goodness, they were cracking: thick-cut, fluffy inside, tossed in parmesan and then sprinkled with what I imagine was truffle oil. But there were also dark speckles of truffle throughout the bowl and the whole thing gave off that distinctive earthy, dirty aroma (oh to be a truffle pig!). Five pounds for these, but worth the money and possibly worth the price of admission alone. If I was being critical they could have done with being a little crispier, but at the end there was a little tangle of truffly molten cheese which I scooped up with my fork and at that point, such minor quibbles faded into the background.

If they were the kitchen at its best the other main was the biggest dud of the visit. I wanted to try something more straightforward to test the range of the menu so I went for the chicken breast burger and here’s where things went awry. It was described as coming with parmesan, truffle mayo and double smoked bacon. Well, the bacon may have been smoked twice but it was put on my burger zero times, something I didn’t realise until it was too late to send it back. The chicken itself was lovely, slightly flattened and breaded, almost like a chicken Milanese, but the outside – bit of a theme here – wasn’t crunchy and crispy as it should have been. The Parmesan was a thin layer, almost more like a sauce than a discernible slice of cheese and that was good, although it made things rather soggy. No truffle mayo that I detected either, unless my tastebuds had been numbed to truffle by then. I suppose it’s possible. Nice brioche though, and the usual suspects – tomato, iceberg, right ahead, red onion – were joined by a row of little crunchy cornichons which almost redeemed matters. But really, this burger cost fourteen pounds and it just wasn’t worth that.

I do need to single out the triple cooked chips which came with the burger for two reasons. One is that they came in a Jenga stack. Now, some of you may not remember this but Jenga chips were the “food on slates” of their day. Everyone hated them, everyone railed against them and as a result I thought they had become extinct. I was so surprised to see them on a plate in a restaurant like this that I wanted to check the date on my phone to see if some kind of Quantum Leap oddness had gone on. But that aside, they were a sad and flabby bunch. Maybe it was the time taken painstakingly arranging them in a tower, maybe they just weren’t very good to start with, but they weren’t triple cooked. They were somewhere between once and twice cooked, I decided, before eating a couple which I would describe as barely cooked chips.

The dessert menu was full of interesting things but only one of us fancied one (that chicken burger had somewhat dampened enthusiasm). The first item on there really intrigued me, and when I asked for advice it was also the one recommended by the serving staff and that, in restaurant terms, is kismet, right there. Liquorice panna cotta with rhubarb and stem ginger might have been the dish of the whole meal. Yes, liquorice panna cotta. If you’ve ever tried the basil and balsamic panna cotta at Pepe Sale you’ll know that it’s worth taking a risk sometimes with flavours that don’t obviously go and this was definitely true here, especially after some of the inventive touches in the previous courses.

The panna cotta itself was dreamy – super thick, well set and extremely creamy. It had most delicate liquorice flavour to it, almost metallic in the mouth, nearly an aftertaste, the hint of something. I’m lost in a reverie remembering it, and clearly struggling to adequately describe even if you don’t like liquorice – and I’m not a massive fan – I’d still thoroughly recommend it. It came with an embarrassment of riches: dots of ginger and rhubarb purée; sweet, intense pieces of cooked rhubarb, crumbled stem ginger cookie and a scoop of rhubarb ice which somehow managed to be halfway between a sorbet (fresh and bright) and an ice cream (smooth and creamy). I don’t know how the chef came up with the idea to put those flavours together and I’m not sure I care. It doesn’t really matter: I just loved it.

JacksonsPannaCotta

Sadly I was driving so I only got to try one glass of wine; the carignan was a nice, rich red (good enough for my companion to have it as their second glass). I’m told that the Riesling was nice, fresh and not as good as the carignan. That was after some grumbling about the chicken burger, so I managed to be on the receiving end of both food envy and wine envy. Oh, and I had a diet Coke because after the glass of wine I wasn’t feeling particularly imaginative. Still, it came in a glass bottle rather than out of a syphon, and somehow that always feels like proper Coke to me.

Service was pretty good; the maitre d’ was charming and effusive and the other, younger staff, although not quite so engaging, also did a good job. Everything was nicely timed, too, which could so easily not have been the case on such a quiet weekday night: nothing came too quickly or too slowly, plates were cleared away when they should be and so on. Two starters, two mains and one dessert plus three glasses of wine and a soft drink came to seventy-three pounds, excluding tip. The starters hover around the eight pound mark and most of the mains are under fifteen quid. For food this imaginative, that’s pretty impressive.

What makes this gig, for me, is when I discover a gem. Ideally somewhere in the centre of town, although that gets increasingly difficult, but in any case somewhere wonderful – preferably independent – that you won’t have heard of, offering imaginative, fairly priced food. Jackson’s should be that, and it so nearly is. So why isn’t it? The food, by and large, and the service do indeed say that you’re in a Proper Restaurant. But the elephant in the room is the room itself: the owners have tried to make a step change from day to night but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was having dinner in a café.

I know this shouldn’t matter: I’ve always said that if the food is good none of the rest matters, so I’m troubled that in this case I find it does. Perhaps it’s because of the half hour drive. Perhaps it’s because the room was empty and lacked ambience. Maybe I would have felt differently if it had been full, on a cold winter night with the woodburning stove glowing and the table lamps shining, having dinner with other happy strangers in this little cabin in the woods. So a qualified recommendation from me: if none of that bothers you please go, fill up the restaurant, enjoy some really clever food at simple prices and keep them busy. Personally, I’ll go back when the clocks do.

Jackson’s – 7.3
California Country Park, Nine Mile Ride, Finchampstead, RG40 4HT
http://jacksonscalifornialake.co.uk/

0118 9730776

Sanpa, Wokingham

It’s funny, Wokingham is less than ten minutes away from Reading by train but in all the time I’ve been writing ER I’ve only ever been there twice. My last foray out, to try relative newcomer Jessy’s, wasn’t an unqualified success but there was something about the town that I really liked and I figured it was about time I gave it another shot. Arriving on a beautiful sunny day, with spring in the air (and my step, for that matter) it seemed like things were looking up. There was a market going on in the pretty square with stalls offering fresh bread and, erm, bird seed. A beautiful retro van was selling crepes, and there was some kind of craft fair going on in the town hall. Even the masonic hall was open for the day, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Since I’ve never really been the kind for secret handshakes, I wandered up to Sanpa instead. It’s a tapas place I’ve had recommended by a couple of people and it’s on Peach Street, which sounds attractive but in reality is quite a busy road made up of unappealing Sixties concrete offices and shops. But that said, Sanpa was definitely the nicest thing on the street, with some barrels and stools out front and a crowd of people loitering in the doorway. I was worried that maybe I should have made a reservation, but I was soon shown to a table for two (and so was the crowd, who hadn’t reserved either).

The interior is basically two rooms, one at the front and one at the back separated by a deli section in the middle. The décor is simple and basic, although none the worse for that, and blackboards on the wall give details of some of the new dishes on the menu (and mentioned churros, which automatically gave me a reason to consider coming back). Much of the downstairs was full when I got there, and it was only later on when I wandered up the stairs in search of the bathrooms that I realised they also had a perfectly pleasant third room up there; it was also filling up by the time I left. If Sanpa was a well-kept secret, there were certainly quite a few people in the know.

Although on Friday and Saturday night Sanpa does a set menu, the rest of the time it’s largely tapas. That suited me fine, because I ruddy love tapas. What’s not to like about ordering lots of different things to try, going out on a limb and getting lucky with a dish you maybe wouldn’t risk if you knew you had to commit to a massive plateful? Also, on past experience, there’s often that wonderful moment at the end where your food has largely gone but you get to dip bread in the brick-red oily remains of the dishes – juices and spice and garlic and tomato. Heaven. As it turned out, the menu at Sanpa had a lot of things on it which make me happy and put me in a holiday frame of mind. So naturally I ordered them.

A good example of that was chorizo in cider. Normally it comes as thick discs of chorizo, browned on the heat in a pool of that brick-red sauce, but this was something altogether different: four whole short, stubby sausages, soaked through with the cider (and honey, according to the menu, although I couldn’t taste it), lightly charred on the outside. The texture was a revelation – all crumble, no bounce – and the taste was even better: salty; piquant; juicy and sweet all at once. It was the first dish to arrive but it was so good that I didn’t finish the last of the chorizo until close to the end of the meal. I was saving it in case it turned out to be the best dish I had (it wasn’t).

SanpaChorizo

The cured platter of was a much simpler affair. Some thin slices of chorizo, some cured ham and five manchego wedges, fanned out on top like a “ta-dah!”. The chorizo didn’t look much (to be honest, I wasn’t really sure I fancied it when it arrived) but it tasted so much better than that, rich and smoky with pimento, melting in the mouth because it was so thin. The cured ham was exactly how I like it, with a nicely dry, almost leathery texture, not greasy or shiny and floppy. I ate it the way one should eat good jamon, curled up into a little rosette, and it was spot on – earthy, moreish, with an almost caramel note. The manchego was, for me, the letdown; I prefer mine to be almost crunchy with salt crystals, crumbly and brittle, but this was a touch too smooth and creamy. Still good, don’t get me wrong, but it was more like the sort of manchego I accidentally buy from the airport on the way home than the sort I enjoy when I go to Spain.

SanpaPlatter

The true highlight of my lunch was the gambas al ajillo. The menu talks about peeled prawns and “mildly infused garlic and dry chilli oil” but that pedestrian description doesn’t do the dish justice at all. I know my writing should speak for itself but, just this once, look at that picture. Lots and lots of firm, juicy prawns in a rich, oily sauce, rich with parsley, just enough chilli to taste without being overpowering or mouth-tingling and with sliver after sliver of beautiful, beautiful garlic, shedloads of the stuff, cooked to be soft but not squidgy. It was profoundly good: I love garlic so very much and being able to scoop up several translucent slices of garlic and load them onto my fork before spearing a prawn made every mouthful of this dish a wondrous, wordless delight. Less than seven pounds, and easily one of my dishes of the year so far.

SanpaPrawns

Well, it could only be downhill from there I’m afraid. Next up were the patatas bravas – a staple that, really, I’m not sure we needed. The potatoes were perfectly decent cubes, nicely fried and served with a dollop of spicy tomato sauce. All perfectly decent, but it missed the mark in comparison to the other dishes. It probably never stood a chance in this company, but it wasn’t as rich as the chorizo or as fabulous as the prawns so it felt a little bit sad, and something of an also-ran. I wish I’d tried the tortilla instead.

SanpaPatatas

Finally, the random item picked off the menu at the last minute was tigres (not tigers: that would be illegal). The menu, bafflingly, says “If you have ever been to Spain, you’ve most likely tasted ‘Tigres’”: I have and I’d never heard of them, but maybe that’s just me. They were billed as stuffed and breaded mussels, a description that didn’t really give me any idea what to expect. In the event, they were four mussel shells filled with chopped mussels in a herby, creamy sauce which tasted, to me, like béchamel, all topped with breadcrumbs. To put it another way, it was like a potato croquette with mussel in. Served in a mussel shell. That you scoop out with a teaspoon. If that description appeals to you then you’d enjoy these; I quite liked them, but my companion took one look and decided to leave me to it. The flavour was nicely creamy and I enjoyed the crunch of the crumb, but they were a bit on the rich side and we’d over-ordered, so they didn’t quite get finished.

SanpaTigres

The finale, as I predicted at the start, involved taking chunks of toasted bread, ripping them open to expose the fluffy insides and dunking them in the sauces from the chorizo and the prawns. I chased every last sliver of garlic round the dish until it was loaded onto the bread and greedily eaten. I rolled my eyes in pleasure at those last pieces of bread soaked with the intense sauce from the chorizo. It’s exactly how this kind of meal should end, even if it meant I had no room for churros for dessert. No matter, there’s always next time.

We drank a glass of the house red wine each, a juicy rioja that worked nicely with pretty much everything. It was a struggle not to keep going and see off the rest of a bottle. I was a little sad, though, to see no sherry on the menu: if I had I’d have been tempted to order one at the start as an aperitif. The total bill, excluding service, was just shy of forty quid. Service throughout was lovely, not over the top, just friendly and welcoming. When I was settling the bill at the end, at the counter, the owner (I think) was asking if I’d been before and whether we’d enjoyed our meal, generally being downright charming. I must confess, I was quite taken with the whole place.

Things went downhill after that. I couldn’t find many shops I liked the look of, and the market was very small. The craft fair, in the beautifully over-the-top town hall, was mostly stuff at the twee end of the spectrum. The heavens opened and I was caught, sans umbrella, unsure about what to do. I considered going for a drink but the independent coffee place didn’t grab me (not being a coffee drinker and all), and I certainly wasn’t going to set foot in “The Grape Escape”, an establishment which seems to be applying the sincerest form of flattery to Reading’s Tasting House. Even the lovely Italian delicatessen which used to sell ‘nduja had rebranded as “The Slaughterhouse”, and seemed a bit more butch and a lot less lovely. It was as if Sanpa was all of the sunshine in Wokingham and once we’d walked out the door the clouds gathered and it was time to go. So we trudged in the rain back to the train station and decided we’d seen enough of Wokingham. But we talked about those prawns all the way home, and I figure Sanpa alone might be enough to get me back there before too long.

Sanpa – 8.0
6 Peach Street, Wokingham, RG40 1XG
0118 9893999

https://www.facebook.com/Sanpa.Store/

Jessy’s, Wokingham

Jessy’s closed in August 2016. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

Do you remember back in the day, when Bill’s opened in Reading? Everyone was dead excited, me not least; I remember visiting the one in Brighton back when there were only two of them and I loved it, the laid back style, the old-school chairs, the great food. I said a little prayer that Reading would see something like that one day. Well, you should be careful what you wish for: what we got instead was the version that has now been rolled out to just about every major town and city, a beautiful building with a vague sense of being like the original Bill’s only less authentic, less meaningful, like the copy paper wasn’t pressed quite hard enough.

Jessy’s has popped up in my feed a few times lately – glowing reviews of the brunches, pictures of some of the dishes – and something about it made me remember how much I’d loved that first visit to Bill’s. Not just the name, but the use of a lovely old space, the independence, the locally sourced food and the relaxed friendliness. I planned a visit, hoping to find the kind of restaurant I’d always hoped would open in Reading. But then, a couple of days beforehand, I found myself talking about Jessy’s with a food-loving colleague of mine. She enthused about the room, the real fires and the comfy, cosy space. But she also said that, across a couple visits, the food had never been quite right. Either there were little mistakes, or the portions were too small, or her friend had ordered better. I went hoping to prove her wrong, but slightly worried that I wouldn’t.

Wokingham isn’t somewhere I go very often, truth be told, but getting off the train on a dark and rainy night and walking up the hill into the town centre made me feel like maybe it should be somewhere to visit properly. Some really pretty houses and the smell of woodsmoke made me wonder if this was one of those little places which would trigger fantasies of buying a cottage and opening a little café doing charcuterie, good bread and cheeses by day, pizza and carafes of wine by night, chansons playing on the speakers (it’s a pipe dream, I know) or one of those frou-frou shops that sells lots of distressed furniture painted white and really expensive candles. I was buoyed up by this (well, that and the glass of half decent shiraz I had in a pub while waiting for my companion to arrive) and ready for some good food.

Jessy’s is down one of the slightly quieter streets, a beautiful double cottage with wonky windows and beams. The front room as you go in looks like it’s mainly for daytime coffee, tea and a slice of cake, with a couple of leather sofas and an open fireplace. Beyond that is a big room split into two by an original wall where the window had been taken out to allow the space to feel sort of, but sort of not, joined together. The back section, nearer to the bar and the kitchen, feels bright but somehow less hospitable, but the front section where we sat, with the wood burner glowing in the hearth, is much cosier. The tables – most of which were occupied when I went – almost all seemed to seat four people, although some were laid for two, and the white tablecloths and napkins weren’t ironed (which gave everything a slightly rustic air I hope was intentional).

The dinner menu, which is offered on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, read very well; just enough courses, plenty of variety and the kind of little touches that raise your hopes. For instance, practically every dish on the menu can be done gluten free – a lovely feature, but possibly lovelier still was that the menu didn’t shout about it. And a lot of menus give you the blah about sustainability and sourcing locally, but it was nice to see Jessy’s tell you which butcher they bought from and which farm supplies the butcher. Many restaurants print all this guff without meaning it, some are anal enough to list every supplier at the end of the menu; this felt like a nice compromise.

First up was a starter of goats cheese bonbons, surely three of the loveliest words you can find on a menu. This might sound finicky (it probably does) but I sort of expect a bonbon to be spherical and these weren’t – instead I got half a dozen small triangular wedges of goats cheese, lightly breaded and fried, on a bed of salad with the occasional walnut. There were also some tiny circles of crispy onion that added a nice extra crunch and the chef’s zig zag of beetroot syrup which gave some much-needed sweetness. If I’m listing the ingredients in a plodding, prosaic way I’m afraid it’s because eating it was a bit like that too – it was nice but it wasn’t wow or out of the ordinary, even with the ubiquitous heap of micro-herbs (why are they there? What are they for?) on top. It was a bit on the small side for eight pounds, and I finished it quickly. Looking at the empty plate, I didn’t even find myself wishing it had lasted longer.

JessyGoat

The other starter, braised oxtail with garlic mash, sounded magnificent on paper, but maybe that’s where it should have stayed. For a start, the mash was overwhelmingly the main ingredient: a big pile of it, not very garlicky and in some places more crushed than mashed. Oxtail is a cheap cut and I was expecting it to have been taken off the bone. That might have been unreasonable of me, but if not I’d have expected it to fall off said bone. Oh, and I’d have expected there to be a fair amount of it. Alas, none of this was to be, so I ended up tugging little chunks of beef off a huge cartilaginous throwing star and trying to eke them out among the massive heap of mash. The lighting conditions, which prioritised atmosphere over, you know, being able to see anything, didn’t help. It wasn’t all bad – what little meat I had was tasty, as was the glossy sauce studded with finely diced celery and carrot, but it felt out of whack. The best starters are little marvels that work entirely on their own terms, this felt like a disappointing main course that had been miniaturised.

JessyOxtail

If the theme of the starters was that the menu slightly missold the dishes, it came to fruition when the mains turned up. The first of them, “pan fried whole Cornish plaice” had either been over-mongered (is monger a verb? Here’s hoping) when the head was removed or simply wasn’t a whole fish. I’m used to plaice which fills a plate, but this was such a small specimen that I wondered if I’d just got the tail. I know fish is often a healthy option but there’s something magical about getting a whole plaice smothered in beurre noisette, speckled with capers, all white flesh and zing. Having got that complaint out of the way the meat was easy to separate from the bone and the browned butter, capers and shrimps on top were delicious – savoury, generously buttery, well worth chasing round the plate with the cut side of a roasted new potato. The tenderstem broccoli (not steamed greens, as promised by the menu) underneath was just cooked, so nice and firm with a lovely green sweetness to it. A good main makes you think “I wish I could make this”, or “I’d like to try this at home”. This one made me think “I can do this just as well myself”, not really how it should be.

JessyFish

Slow braised lamb shoulder was recommended by the waitress when I asked her to steer me between that and the halibut (“we’ve had lots of good feedback on the lamb” she said “but I don’t really like lamb or fish”). It was a frustrating near miss; I was expecting a single piece of slow-cooked meat that pulled into strands, so I was surprised to find instead chunks of lamb in among the cassoulet. That made me worry, but actually the lamb was good – no wobbly fat, no suspicious pieces (just as well because the slightly Stygian lighting made it impossible to avoid pitfalls). The cassoulet was pleasant, so were the onions. As before, the whole thing had been festooned with microherbs, possibly to conceal how brown the dish would otherwise have been. But the whole thing was too dry and sticky – the tiniest splash of something which may or may not have been the advertised “lamb sauce”, whatever that was – and just a little too bland. The cassoulet was meant to be spiced, but if it was I didn’t detect anything. Again, it was closer to decent home cooking than restaurant food.

JessyLamb

Better than the mains themselves were the Brixham crab fries we had on the side – I’d heard much about them during my research, so I wanted to try them myself. I’d say from the shape that they were hand cut, and they came shaken in parsley butter and aioli along with more white crab meat than most places put in their risotto. Even these weren’t flawless – overcooked, more David Dickinson than Gisele – but even so they were gorgeous: nutty, decadent, beautifully dressed. They weren’t strictly needed, and they couldn’t save the mains, but they did distract us from them nicely. Worth seven pounds? Probably, oddly enough.

The plaice wasn’t exactly Moby Dick, so I decided I had room for dessert. As with the rest of the menu, the dessert section is nicely small and everything on it sounds like it has been creatively tweaked (the crème bruleé has brandy poached raspberries, the poached pear is with saffron). I gravitated towards the chocolate fondant, as I so often do, with its fancy promises of Cointreau, yoghurt sorbet and figs, but like everything else it was all mouth and no culinary trousers. If there was any orange in that dish I couldn’t taste it. The inside of the fondant wasn’t particularly runny. The fig – which I foolishly hoped would be roasted – was simply halved into decorative wedges and the sorbet was strawberry, not yoghurt. It wasn’t even strawberry yoghurt. I think I’d rather have just had a bloody strawberry yoghurt by that point. There were more cheffy zig zags of chocolate on top but was it “chocolate syrup” or just caterer’s chocolate sauce? Your guess is as good as mine, and I ate it.

JessyChoc

The wine list wasn’t bad, and I enjoyed the Bordeaux I had which managed a good balance between fruit and complexity – completely wrong for the plaice, of course, but I’ve never let that stand in my way in the past and I don’t intend to start now. Only later did I notice that they also do Kung Fu Girl Riesling, one of my favourite whites, at thirty quid a bottle (if I’d known I’d have had Nando’s first and then camped out on the sofa with a couple of bottles of that). There were no dessert wines per se, but we also had a couple of glasses of Moscato from the sparkling section of the list. They were nice and sweet, but about as sparkling as me at 8am on a Monday morning. The very sweet waiter accidentally managed to throw the best part of a glass of the stuff over my companion, which I found a lot funnier than he did.

Apart from that service throughout was charming and friendly, if rather haphazard. There was one waiter who appeared to do nothing at all and when asked for the bill he had to ask someone else – it turned out it was his first day, but it seemed like he didn’t have a clue what waiting entailed (perhaps he was taking the job description a little too literally). When we left, for a moment I honestly thought he was going to stand there and watch us get our own coats. I wanted to like them, heaven knows I wanted to like Jessy’s in general, but charm only gets you so far when the bill comes to just a touch under a hundred pounds, for two and a half courses and a bottle of wine.

It’s funny how people can have double standards about restaurants. We want to be spoiled, and treated like customers, but we also want to feel like friends. We want the experience to feel genuine and casual, but we don’t like overfamiliarity. We want it to feel special, but we don’t want it to be stuffy. The dream restaurant walks that tightrope perfectly – you feel like you are round a friend’s house (because what is cooking, if not an act of love?) but eating something you couldn’t or wouldn’t possibly make at home. The thing about Jessy’s that makes me saddest is that its heart is so obviously in the right place; it’s a lovely, cosy room and more than once I found myself gazing over at the glowing logs in the wood burner and thinking “how I wish this was perfect”. Close but no cigar, I’m afraid, and on the walk back to the station the only consolation I could find was that I’d dodged doing the washing up. I’ll tell my colleague when I’m back in the office: let’s hope she’s not the sort to say I told you so.

Jessy’s – 6.4
37 Denmark Street, Wokingham, RG40 2AY
0118 3484379

http://www.jessys.co.uk/