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

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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/

Ruchetta, Wokingham

There are two kinds of expensive meal. There are the ones where you know in advance that they’re going to be expensive, where you look at the menu beforehand, brace yourself, tell yourself it’s a special occasion. Then there are ones where you’re taken by surprise; maybe you order the really pricey main course you weren’t expecting to, or pick a really fancy bottle of wine, or throw caution to the wind and get a second bottle of the less fancy wine. However it happens, there are some meals where you get carried away, it all adds up and you get a little shock when you take that first look at the bill.

Why am I saying this? Because, to begin at the end for once, Ruchetta is the most expensive meal I’ve reviewed so far – and I knew it was going to be costly before I even stepped through the door. And why’s that important? Because when you know a meal’s going to be expensive, lots of things happen. The anticipation is completely different – I get excited about reading the menu, start looking forward to it (something that doesn’t always happen, believe me). But also, price inevitably becomes another dimension, and each dish is assessed not only on whether it’s good, but also on whether it’s worth the money. It’s only natural that the bar is set higher: after all, you can be pleasantly surprised by a ten pound lunch in the middle of nowhere, but it’s harder to be pleasantly surprised by an expensive meal in a beautiful little house in the prosperous market town of Wokingham.

It really is a beautiful house, too. I don’t know Wokingham well but Ruchetta looks very much like the kind of restaurant it ought to have, really standing out (if you think Reading has a lot of chains, you ought to walk round Wokingham some time). It’s slightly off the main drag in a tiny, nicely jumbled building with a mosaic of little rooms. I sat in the conservatory – partly to get better light for photos – and regretted that more and more as the evening went on, feeling rueful that I hadn’t chosen one of the more snug, atmospheric sections at the front of the house. That said it was a pleasant room with crisp white linen and smart white plates, although the tables do feel a little close together; I was glad the one next to us was empty, or else I would have felt very overlooked.

The menu’s one of the most difficult I’ve had to choose from. There is something magical about good Italian food at the best of times, but the menu at Ruchetta really is the kind where you’re aggrieved that you can’t have everything. We tucked into the bread basket (white and a brown which resembled sourdough, with good salted butter) and sipped our Prosecco in the early evening sunlight, haggling and agonising until the decision could be postponed no longer. If the waiter had arrived two minutes earlier, or two minutes later, you’d probably be reading a review of four completely different dishes.

I adore truffles, and I nearly always order them when I get the chance. The distinctive aroma was noticeable the moment I entered the restaurant and I reckon it subliminally influenced both choices of starter. The first was one of the simplest things you could have, truffle ravioli in butter and sage, and it was a delight. The pasta was al dente and richly flavoured with the earthy, dirty truffles. The dish was topped with thin slivers of parmesan and a handful of young sage leaves. But most importantly a whole pencil sharpener tub of those heavenly truffle shavings had been sprinkled on the top of the dish making the flavour even more intense. Eating it was close to an ecstatic experience, the forkfuls close to the end simultaneously magnificent and agonising.

Truffle pastaThe other starter called to me because it was just so unusual that I had to try it: baked white onion in sea salt, filled with truffle fondue with pan-fried foie gras and caramel. The foie gras was just delicious – a generous piece, soft and yielding, perfect with or without the smidge of sweet caramel. The truffle fondue was less successful – it was salty and tasty and rich with truffle, but very liquid and I really had no idea how I was meant to eat it. They didn’t bring a spoon, but I ended up finding one from a neighbouring place setting and improvising. I thought the point of fondue was to dip something in it, and without that something it was more like a very cheesy soup (I briefly pondered whether I was meant to use the foie but surely not: far too expensive to use as a glorified soldier). The quail egg didn’t really add anything and the white onion had been baked just enough that it made an excellent bowl but not enough that it made a sweet and tasty way to mop up the rest of your fondue. I’m glad I can say I’d ordered it, but it felt like was two starters, neither of which quite worked, joined at the hip.

Fondue

Nearly all the mains at Ruchetta are around the twenty-five pound mark, so it didn’t seem too much of a stretch to order the half lobster thermidor (twenty-eight pounds, and not even the most expensive dish on the menu). It was just lovely. The meat had been removed, cooked in the sauce, returned to the shell and topped with cheese. I loved the note of tarragon in it, which surprised me as I’m usually not a fan and didn’t realise it would be in there (like most people outside the Royal Family, I don’t eat lobster thermidor very often). It came with sauté potatoes, in thick slices rather than cubes, which were cooked well and left plain to keep the lobster as the main event. The side salad seemed lost in all of this: the tomatoes were a mixture of green and red but were pithy and lacking in flavour and was either undressed or underdressed, I’m not quite sure which.

Lobster

The other main, roasted saddle of lamb stuffed with spinach and garlic with lamb sauce and vignole (peas, artichokes, broad beans in mint and pancetta – no, I didn’t know either) was the most disappointing dish of the night. This is going to sound like a stupid thing to say, but the lamb was, well, too lamby. The taste of it was almost overripe, verging on agricultural, and drowned out the lighter flavours of the rest of the dish. It appeared to be stuffed just with spinach, which made for a soggy slog, and if there was any garlic in there I didn’t get it. The peas, artichokes and broad beans, potentially a symphony of spring flavours, were pleasant but bland because there wasn’t enough mint to lift them. Most damningly, it wasn’t particularly hot: the lamb, in particular, felt a bit lukewarm. Also, I know this was a light dish but it felt like it needed carbs of some kind. Not everybody who orders it is going to be lucky enough to be able to pinch some sauté potatoes from another plate, as I was.

Ruchetta is one of very few restaurants that offers wine in carafes; a terrific idea for when it’s hard to decide what wine to pick or if you don’t fancy a whole bottle of something. There are a few affordable wines on the list but nothing under the twenty pound mark, so the carafes aren’t as tempting as they normally would be (they’re also 425ml rather than the regulation 500ml, which somehow seems a little stingy). Because of this we ordered a bottle of Italian viognier (much crisper with more citrus than the French ones I have experienced) and a carafe of Barbera d’Alba which was red, robust and unremarkable. I knew we’d struggle to drink both but a carafe of the Gavi I had my eye on was the same price as the bottle of viognier which made me object to buying it (just because you know the restaurant is going to be expensive doesn’t mean you lose all concept of value, after all).

In the end we finished the red and with only half the white drunk the staff offered to cork it so we could take it home – a nice gesture, I thought. That was fairly typical, as service was excellent throughout. All the waiting staff had that charm which just stays on the right side of over-familiarity, something I associate with good Italian restaurants (and I think all of them were actually Italian, though I may be wrong) and they made sure we never felt hurried. In that respect, it definitely felt like a special occasion – nobody wants to be turned when they’re spending this kind of money.

Desserts, like the mains, were at opposite ends of the spectrum. Lemon posset was a glorious thing, wobbly and zingy, topped with cooked rhubarb and dangerously easy to devour. Everything in it should have been tart and sharp and yet it wasn’t (the grilled figs and little pearls of what looked like fruit caviar on the top did their bit to balance it out). The moist orange cake with citrus mascarpone was more prosaic. It was tasty enough and I was happy to eat it all but compared to the complexity of the lemon posset it seemed a bit basic. All the desserts cost seven pounds – an amount I was happy to pay for the posset but much more grudging to part with for the cake. Funny the calculations you make in your head when you know a restaurant is expensive. We also had a couple of dessert wines with these – a Labrandi and a moscato – and both were beautiful choices.

PossetI said at the start that there were two types of expensive meal. Well, as it turns out Ruchetta is both: the total bill for two people – three courses each, two glasses of prosecco, one bottle of white, a carafe of red, two glasses of dessert wine – was £160. This is the bit where I usually say “but it’s possible to eat far more cheaply”, but I’m not sure it’s entirely true of Ruchetta. Their set lunch during the week is a cheaper, but it’s still £19 for two courses. Sunday lunch is £32.50 for two courses. You could spend less, but I still think it’s the kind of restaurant where the size of your bill is always going to take you somewhat by surprise.

I also said at the start that when a restaurant is expensive the bar is set higher, and that’s why I can’t wholeheartedly recommend Ruchetta. There’s a lot to like: the service is terrific, produce and seasonality is clearly important to them (when I went there were lot of asparagus specials on offer. A lot) and the menu is a tempting, readable mix of classic Italian cooking and more creative, inventive dishes. But I’m not sure which restaurant Ruchetta is meant to be: the unpretentious neighbourhood Italian or the high-end destination restaurant. The pricing suggests the latter, but the execution of some of the dishes (the fondue dish, the lamb) and the way the tables are squeezed together feel more like the former. I was left wondering if someone had got carried away with the calculator when pricing the menu. I went expecting something really special and whilst I really enjoyed it wasn’t quite special enough. If these dishes were priced at the twenty pound mark and there was good wine for, say, eighteen pounds a bottle, I would be making my way to Wokingham again and again. As it is, it will have to wait for the next special occasion and hope that, in the meantime, I don’t find somewhere a little more consistent.

Ruchetta – 7.5
6 Rose Street, Wokingham, RG40 1XU
0118 9788025

http://www.ruchetta.com/