The Pantry

Once upon a time, in the town of Reading, there was a bar called the 3Bs. It was named after the three famous alliterative cornerstones of Reading – beer, biscuits and bulbs – and, for those of us who remember it, it was one of the best bars there was. It was part of the Town Hall, and long before the Oakford ever opened it was the place you congregated in after work – unless your friends wanted to drink in O’Neills, in which case you made new friends. When the tables appeared outside, near the statue of Queen Victoria, you knew that summer was on the way.

It even featured, albeit briefly, in the opening episode of 1997 police show Crime Traveller, around the 3:45 mark in this video, as maverick cop (aren’t they always) Jeff Slade, played by ex-EastEnders bad boy Michael French, zooms through the Town Hall Square on a motorbike, scattering people and tables as he pursues a generic baddie in a boxy car all the way to the Queens Road car park. Around that time I was temping in Apex Plaza (which also features in the chase sequence) and it was all very exciting. As I recall, my brother bought a sandstone-coloured blouson, trying to emulate Jeff Slade, but it was all a little too Sergio Georgini. Ah, the Nineties.

My favourite memories of the 3Bs, in as far as I can remember anything, were of Bohemian Night, its weekly live music evening. A friend and I would always turn up early, sit near the front and drink almost enough to make the music sound good. Compered by AF Harrold (now a published author, then a jobbing performance poet working in Blackwells – remember when we used to have a Blackwells?) it was the Reading’s Got Talent of its day.

This involved various earnest acoustic solo acts and duets, a little spoken word, a shouty man who called himself “Preacher John” and another chap called “Reverend John H” who did an extremely offensive song about the sadly departed Princess Of Wales. There was also a bewildered pensioner called “Mr David” who would shamble on stage and perform roughly half a joke without getting to the punchline and then start singing snatches of My Way. It looked like he may have slept in a bin.

Only at Bohemian Night could a young chap wearing a fuzzy wig bound up to the mike, all puppyish enthusiasm, and announce “I’m Dunstan McFunkstan, and I’ve got a bag of comedy!” (if he honestly did, it was empty). And that’s before we get to the performance poetry, which was usually my cue to go up to the bar. Every now and again someone with genuine talent would show up at Bohemian Night and I’d enjoy their act, safe in the knowledge that I would never see them again. I loved it: I went every week without fail.

All good things must come to an end, and the 3Bs closed in 2011. Then, last July, the council announced that it would be reopening in the autumn. Signs were up by October 2018 declaring that it would be called Lains. Well, the council is as good at opening restaurants on time as it is at filing accounts, because it wasn’t until September this year that it finally opened, having changed its name in the meantime to The Pantry. The council’s announcement was full of the usual buzzwords about how the “Executive Chef” (why a café needs an executive chef is anybody’s guess) would use local produce to create a “scrumptious and inventive menu”. That was all the incentive I needed to take a trip down memory lane one weekday lunchtime with my other half Zoë, herself a fan of the 3Bs from back in the day.

It may have opened a year late, but the fit out really is lovely. At the front, where the bands used to play, there’s an attractive banquette and all the chairs are tasteful and muted, as is the paintwork. It was weird to look at it so transformed, but simultaneously quite heartwarming to see it back in use. There was still an icy blast every time the door opened and closed though: some things never change.

Menus are on the table but you go up to the counter to order. There’s a brunch menu, most of which is available all day, pizzas (which are “baked in our stone based oven”, whatever that means), three salads which you can pair with quiche, a sausage roll or a Scotch egg and a “sandwich of the day” (fish finger, on my visit) and “international dish of the day” (goulash).

The selection of cakes looked quite appealing, but the whole thing reminded me of something: I used to work somewhere where the staff canteen was run by facilities company Gather & Gather, and the menu here felt very similar, only more expensive. I wanted a pizza, but the gentleman behind the counter told me that they were out of pepperoni – I concealed my incredulity – so we ordered two things from the brunch menu, to find out whether the Pantry might be the brunch spot central Reading has long needed.

While I waited for brunch to arrive, I sipped my latte – a truly dire coffee, burnt and bitter and well below the standard of a Pret, Nero or Costa, let alone Tamp or Anonymous. Quite a few members of staff, all in their branded aprons, milled listlessly around the café, dusting unoccupied tables, making the smallest of adjustments to the position of the menu on the table, all kinds of random things to keep themselves busy because the truth was that the place was hardly rammed.

What customers there were were either parents with kids (half-term, of course) or people considerably older than me: no hip young gunslingers to be seen. It reminded me, more than anything, of the John Lewis Café, with the general complacence of not wanting to be any more than Only Just Good Enough. Perhaps the food would change that, I thought.

When it arrived and was set down in front of us by one of the serving staff, one obvious thing was missing: cutlery.

“We’ll need some cutlery for that” I said.

“It’s up at the front by the counter” she replied, without making eye contact. I waited for the second half of the sentence until, after what felt like quite some time, I realised that there wasn’t going to be one.

“Right. I’ll go all the way up there and get it then” I said, leaving aside the second half of my sentence, namely while you carry on dusting tables and being spell-bindingly bad at customer service. It was one of those moments when, like Tim from The Office, you just wanted to look sidelong at a camera in complete bafflement.

I had gone for “pulled pork waffle with spicy beans” and it truly was a miserable specimen. The waffle was lukewarm, doughy and stodgy. The majority of it wasn’t covered with anything – sauce or melted butter – and in the middle was a damp clump of what you could loosely call pulled pork. It was a pretty miserly helping, wet and claggy with big white globs of fat in it (I took them all out and put them to one side: my plate was collected later on without comment). Some crudely torn salad leaves were plonked on top, possibly as a garnish and possibly as concealment. I’m currently thinking about writing features on the best brunch in Reading and the ten best things you can buy for under a tenner: you can safely say this dish won’t feature in either.

“The waffle feels like a gimmick” said Zoë, attacking her dish. Her waffle came with smoked salmon, cream cheese, avocado and lemon zest. There was plenty of salmon, but it was extremely bland with no real hint of smoke. The avocado was as cold, hard and joyless as senior management. The lemon zest was a lovely idea but it wasn’t clear it had ever really made it on to the plate. More of that bloody foliage had, mind you.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“Meh. I wouldn’t have it again. And it’s definitely not worth eleven pounds twenty.”

She was right (and charging that extra twenty pence was downright odd). You could get an infinitely better brunch at Fidget & Bob for far less money, miles better pulled pork at Bluegrass and for that matter the Lyndhurst’s chilli beef nachos are streets ahead of either dish and they cost less than seven pounds. As it was we both finished our meals, with no real enthusiasm, and a sense that I’d just wasted money, time and calories.

“It’s a shame your coffee was so crappy” said Zoë. “I can see this might be a nice place to come for a cup of tea and a piece of cake.”

“Those are literally the only two things they can’t fuck up.” I said, as we watched a mother at a neighbouring table treating each of her kids to a bowl of what looked like oven chips – hardly “scrumptious and inventive” but at least, at two pounds a pop, better value than anything we’d eaten. The whole thing – two brunch dishes, a latte and a cup of green tea – came to twenty-five pounds, not including service. I’m depressed to say that by the time we left, the place seemed to be filling up.

If I had to sum up the Pantry, I suppose the easy way to do it is to say that it’s exactly what you would expect a café designed by any local authority, let alone this local authority, to be like. It’s bland, inoffensive and unimaginative. How an “executive chef” came up with something so nothingy I will never know; it’s a step up from jacket spuds with cheese and beans, I suppose, but only just. The brunch menu is one smashed-avocado cliché after another, the pizzas are a vanilla bunch (all of them more expensive than Franco Manca). Across the whole menu I didn’t see a single shred of evidence of creativity, or seasonality – unless it was goulash season and nobody told me – or anything other than tepid box-ticking. And let’s not even get on to the Pantry’s website’s absurd claims that the dishes are “prepared using artisan methods” – even if they do seem to have recruited artisanal table-dusters.

What really frustrates me is what a wasted opportunity the Pantry is. The council could have opened something which actually celebrates and adds to Reading’s food culture, rather than paying lip service to it with a clunking name. Just imagine what Glen Dinning could have done with that space if they’d let Blue Collar run the café, rotating street food traders with a licensed bar in the evenings: at a stroke, they would have had one of the most exciting venues in town. But no, instead you can enjoy pepperoni-free pizzas, burnt coffee and even more uninspiring waffle than you get in the council chamber. So it goes.

I’ll leave the last word to Zoë: “Maybe it’s called the Pantry because it’s pants”, she said.

The Pantry – 4.9
The Town Hall, Blagrave Street, RG1 1HZ

https://thepantrytownhall.co.uk/

Tutu’s Ethiopian Table

In the normal course of events, I never re-review restaurants. It’s a shame, really – restaurants can go through bad or purple patches just like the rest of us – but I’ve always treated my visit as a single snapshot, taken at that moment in time, a faithful record of what it was like to eat there that night and order those things. The further into the future you go, inevitably, the more an element of doubt creeps in that the review is an accurate guide to what your lunch or dinner there might be like.

That said, I’ve reviewed many restaurants which occupy the site of restaurants past: some locations in Reading may not exactly be cursed, but they’re definitely on some rather unfortunate ley lines. So for instance I reviewed the Warwick, at the bottom of the Kings Road and then it became Bali Lounge. Then it turned into the Biscuit & Barrel – I skipped that one – then new Indian restaurant Cardamom. I was all poised to review that one when it closed again, and at some point it plans to reopen as King’s Kitchen. Maybe this time it will trade long enough for me to pay it a visit.

The ultimate problematic location might well be the spot at the bottom of the Caversham Road occupied – at the time of writing, anyway – by Cozze, which I reviewed recently. It used to be a splendid Chinese restaurant called Chi’s Oriental Brasserie, then Chi closed and it was replaced by a Mediterranean place called La Fontana. They moved out into the shires – Twyford or Pangbourne, I forget – and then we got El Tarboush, Reading’s first Lebanese place. When it closed it became Casa Roma (I never reviewed that either) and then they got bored slash desperate and decided to morph into a Mexican restaurant called Las Maracas: same owners, but now with added sombreros! I never went – something about a menu which advertised “jalapeno chilli poopers” didn’t appeal – and I wasn’t surprised when it closed and reopened as Cozze.

Pubs present more of a challenge. They come under new ownership, their menu and their attitude to food can change, but the name often remains the same (or until recently, when the Eldon Arms became the Weather Station and Caversham’s Prince Of Wales rebranded as the Last Crumb). I’ve reviewed the Lyndhurst three times in four years, and I could as easily have done the same with the Fisherman’s Cottage. It’s easier to stay on top of this in town, where I’m more likely to get wind of any changes, but out in Berkshire and Oxfordshire? Your guess is probably better than mine.

Judging an establishment on a single visit is always a gamble. It’s lovely when people contact me on Twitter and say “I went there and it was just as you said it would be”, but I’m not naive enough to think that happens all the time. I’ve had a few visits where I wasn’t too impressed only to find, over the subsequent months and years, that my initial opinion was a little harsh: Sapana Home, for example, or Kokoro. Restaurants have an identity of their own, just like people, and – also just like people – sometimes they make an unfortunate first impression and then grow on you. And, of course, sometimes you just get it wrong.

This week’s review is about as close to a re-review as you can get: Tutu Melaku operated her Ethiopian restaurant at the Global Café for over ten years, being mentioned in the Guardian, winning awards and being widely fêted: it was very much a trailblazer, back when distinctive restaurants in Reading were few and far between. Then, early this year, there was a parting of the ways. Tutu’s Ethiopian Table moved to Palmer Park, to operate out of Palmer Park Lodge, the building which used to be the Chalkboard Café, and the Global Café took on a new chef and started offering a vegetarian and vegan menu.

I reviewed Tutu’s at the Global Café nearly five years ago, and it’s safe to say I was baffled by it. I wasn’t sure where its reputation had come from, or whether it was trading on past glories. But the move looked like an interesting one, and the Instagram feed painted a picture of a happy, vibrant community café, so it felt like time to give it a try in its new home. My other half Zoë and I paid it a visit on a weekday night, leaving the comforting hum of the Wokingham Road traffic behind us as we turned off into Palmer Park. The fairy lights in the window gave the building a welcoming glow, and just beyond it I could see more active people than me playing tennis, making the most of the last of the autumn daylight.

Inside, the place was quite lovely. It’s made up of two biggish rooms, with a beautiful tiled floor, big windows and boldly-coloured walls, all deep blues and burnt oranges. There was plenty of art and a piano in the corner (a sign said not to play it or use it as a table: they have music nights, so I’m sure it sees action then). Picture frames on top of the piano showed off all of Tutu’s awards, including a picture of her with Chris Tarrant – an occupational hazard, I imagine, of attending the Pride Of Reading Awards. A piece of art on the wall gave the history: parts of the building dated from 1891, and the original fireplaces were still present and correct. We sat in the bigger of the two rooms, conscious of being the only customers in it, and listening to the hubbub from the other room.

You order at the counter, and the Ethiopian menu is far more compact than it used to be at the Global Café. You pick three from four of the dishes on offer – one meat, three vegetarian – and pair them with rice or injera, a slightly-sour Ethiopian pancake. It’s ten pounds if you go for all the vegetarian options, and eleven if you have meat. We were greeted by Tutu, who was friendly and welcoming and talked us through everything. She also showed me both Ethiopian beers they do – I went for the superbly named Cold Gold by Habesha, which was very nice indeed.

The food all comes at once, and between us we tried all of the options on offer. You get little steel dishes filled with each of the things you’ve chosen, and although they looked a little small it all added up to a nicely filling meal. The chicken – doro wot, I think it’s called – was very tasty, with a deep, savoury sauce with a spice which gradually made its presence felt. At Tutu’s previous restaurant, you got a single piece of chicken on the bone. Here it was boneless and tender – I would have liked a little more of it, but I was very happy with what there was. The lentils (misr wot) were also really good, a beautifully earthy dish with its own subtly building heat. This felt like the perfect food for the months ahead.

I felt a little dubious about Tutu’s vegetable dishes when I visited her last restaurant. These, although still not perfect, felt a lot better. The cabbage had a good, almost vinegary tang to it and I detected, possibly wrongly, a hint of mustard in it. The carrots and green beans still weren’t to my taste, with a softness that felt more like tinned than fresh veg, but again they went nicely enough with the sauce from the other dishes. Another dish which had improved significantly compared to my last visit was the rice – at the Global Café it was claggy and felt like it had tinned vegetables in it, but this was a pleasing yellow rice which worked perfectly with both the chicken and the lentils. There wasn’t quite enough rice, but we asked for more and Tutu was more than happy to oblige.

At the risk of (a) adding insult to injera and (b) using one of the worst puns this blog has ever seen, the Ethiopian pancake was not for me. It looked and felt like a very wide, flat crumpet, and the vinegary note in it wasn’t unpleasant, but it was cold when I expected it to be hot and it was so floppy that it didn’t really work as a vehicle for sauce or for eating with your hands the way I expected it to. I imagine it has its fans, but I struggled to number myself among them. I bet Chris Tarrant thinks it’s magnificent, mind you (he probably would have loved the Ethiopian lager too, come to think of it). Anyway, there’s always the rice. Tutu’s Ethiopian Kitchen doesn’t really offer starters or desserts, and we paid at the counter: dinner for two, with a beer and a can of soft drink came to twenty-seven pounds forty.

I’m not sure there’s much more to say about Tutu’s Ethiopian Kitchen, but I need to try and capture the thing about it which led to the rating you’ll see when you scroll down. Some restaurants are more than the sum of their parts – they just have something indefinable that makes you root for them. And Tutu’s Ethiopian Kitchen has that – it has warmth, it’s genuine, and it wins you over straight away. I’ve eaten better food, but the night I visited it was exactly what I wanted, exactly how I wanted it. The welcome was lovely, it’s a beautiful room and something about it just worked. Sitting at our table, seeing that bustle in the open kitchen (it was just Tutu and another member of staff in there) I felt like all was well with the world.

Maybe I was wrong five years ago, or perhaps I caught Tutu’s Ethiopian Kitchen on an off night back then. They might have changed how they do things, to adjust to a different kitchen. At the end of the day, I’m not sure it really matters. But one way or another it’s lovely to be reminded, when you feel like you have everything figured out, that the world never quite loses its ability to surprise.

Tutu’s Ethiopian Table – 7.3
Palmer Park Lodge, Palmer Park Avenue, RG6 1LF
0118 9663938

https://www.facebook.com/tutusethiopiantablepalmerpark/

Mio Fiore, Newbury

It is a sad but unavoidable fact that the moment I review somewhere Not In Reading, no matter how glowing the review and no matter how easy it is to get there, far fewer people click on the link and read it. So if you’re reading this, I should start by thanking you – and then I should go on to explain why this week it’s the turn of an Italian restaurant in Newbury, a five minute walk from the train station.

It’s a culmination of a few things, really. First of all, restaurants serving pasta have become a bit of a Thing in London in the last few years. It started with Padella, the no-reservation-queues-round-the-block establishment in Borough Market and their legendary cacio e pepe (I’ve never been: I don’t do queues). I did however recently have lunch at Covent Garden’s Bancone, a more recent exponent, and it was truly marvellous stuff, my rabbit and juniper ragu pretty close to anything I’d had in Bologna.

Then Mio Fiore, which has been on my to do list for some time, appeared in a national newspaper. In the course of reviewing a(nother) London pasta restaurant in the Guardian, Grace Dent mentioned in passing that she’d particularly enjoyed Mio Fiore’s spaghetti puttanesca during a Berkshire road trip (“something of which we’ll never tire”, she grandly exclaimed). Well, now: this part of the country never troubles broadsheet restaurant reviewers, so even a brief appearance like this warranted further investigation.

But the thing that clinched it was discovering that Pepe Sale, Reading’s exemplary Sardinian restaurant, was listed as for sale. The report subsequently turned out to be incorrect – apparently proprietor Toni described it as a “prank” – but at the time it threw me (and, I suspect, many other Reading diners) into a bit of an existential tailspin. How many more chances would I get to eat that stunning suckling pig? Where would I get my fix of top notch Italian food once Pepe Sale was gone? That settled it, so before too long my partner Zoë and I were on a train to Newbury to carry out what I had decided was essential research.

The first two things that struck me when I walked through Mio Fiore’s front door were that it was absolutely packed on a Tuesday evening and that there was a strong, glorious whiff of garlic (and I’m not sure they struck me in that order, either). A busy restaurant is the best kind of all, and no restaurant that smells of garlic can ever be a bad thing. It was a high-ceilinged room, almost like a barn, and they’d put in a second floor with a balcony, although I was glad we were seated on the ground floor by the windows, with a good view of the place. Everything was for utility rather than show – not often you see actual bricks in a restaurant rather than tiled bricks or wanky exposed brickwork. The wood-fired oven glowed behind the counter.

Compared to my recent horror show at Cozze, the menu at Mio Fiore exuded a quiet confidence. It felt compact – half a dozen starters, a manageable range of pasta and pizza dishes and only four other main courses. It wasn’t clear from the menu whether you could choose to have a smaller pasta dish as a starter, so we cooked up all sorts of permutations of what we might order before our waiter turned up and explained that we could indeed do that. That would have made things simpler, but for the fact that the specials board we hadn’t previously seen added further temptation and complication in the shape of another half-dozen dishes. We made inroads into a beautiful bottle of Gavi di Gavi and honed our final choices.

I’m no particular fan of Grace Dent, but I am a fan of puttanesca, so I had to try it. There’s a beautiful alchemy that happens when tomatoes, anchovies, capers and garlic combine and this dish had it in spades – sweet, salt and savoury in perfect, tantalising equilibrium, with the faintest hint of chilli to dial up the contrast. The pasta was spot on, too – just the right side of al dente, and the perfect vehicle for the sauce. The nice thing about having pasta as a starter is that it never outstays its welcome, although that was never going to happen with a dish this beautiful; I could have eaten a mountain of the stuff. Once I’d finished the spaghetti I took a spoon to the remaining sauce, not wanting to miss a mouthful.

Zoë had opted for an equally traditional dish, and if the fettuccine with ragu didn’t quite meet the lofty heights of Bologna it came creditably close. The ragu had a lovely depth to it, the pasta again was spot on and the whole thing was liberally covered with Parmesan (although I always say you can’t have too much). We didn’t know how much Mio Fiore would charge us for our starters until the bill arrived, but they’d priced both pasta dishes at six pounds ninety-five, which strikes me as impressive value.

If the meal had finished there, it would have been pretty damned good, but the main courses kept up the standard without a misstep. My chicken with Gorgonzola and wild mushrooms was from the specials menu and was another beautiful dish. Like the pasta dishes, it’s the kind of thing that features on the menus of Italian and faux-Italian restaurants across the country, but you can tell when it’s executed with skill. The sauce was silky, with enough tang from the blue cheese but not so much that it overpowered everything else going on. Crucially, the “wild mushrooms” were in fact wild: they are so often tamed somewhere between the menu and the kitchen. The rosemary roasted potatoes didn’t get a chance to shine, sitting under the chicken and smothered in the sauce, but that was hardly a bad thing.

I had some roasted vegetables with this, because I felt like I ought to at least try to eat some plants. They were served cold and didn’t go at all, but the waiter had warned me about that and I decided to press on anyway. They too were beautiful – sweet red and yellow peppers, long strips of griddled courgette and smoky aubergine with, again, a hit of garlic.

Zoë had a pizza, to make sure we tested the full range of the menu; this too was excellent. I remember eating friarelli at Papa Gee for the first time, never having heard of the stuff, but it’s more of an ever-present on pizza menus these days. None the less – bit of a theme here – it’s rarely used as well as it was by Mio Fiore. The real star of the show, though, was the salsiccia – delicious, coarse nuggets of sausagemeat, generously distributed. The crust and the dough were superb, the tomato sauce sweet and fragrant and the whole thing, really, showed how good the basics could be when you get the basics right. Zoë thought it was better than Franco Manca, better even than Lusso (Newbury’s dedicated pizza restaurant which is itself no slouch) and I was inclined to agree.

I don’t always have dessert on duty but there are two situations where I usually will: when my mind isn’t yet made up about a restaurant or when I know it’s good and I want to see if the final third of the meal can top the rest. No prizes for guessing which of the two it was here, and again the menu was restrained and unfussy: no hideous highlighter-pink profiterole Tower Of Babel to be seen here, just some of the classics – panna cotta, chocolate fondant, cheesecake, tiramisu. Zoë chose the chocolate fondant, which takes fifteen minutes to make – just enough time to watch the restaurant start to calm down, the busy tables settle up and leave, the birthday celebrations on the upper floor began to nudge down the volume. It really is a lovely place, I thought to myself, wishing I’d not waited so long to pay it a visit.

I always judge Italian restaurants on whether they have something decent to drink after dinner, so we were taking our first sips of Averna (bittersweet, on ice with a single wedge of orange) when our desserts arrived. Chocolate fondant, like all hot desserts, isn’t really to my taste but I tasted enough of Zoë’s to verify that it was faultless. The contrast in textures was absolutely as it should be, no over-gooey mess in the middle but not dried out either. It’s not a dish I ever order, but I’m glad Zoë picked it; there are few things quite as enjoyable as watching the person you love eat something they adore.

My choice, tiramisu, could have been equally prosaic. After all, who hasn’t had tiramisu countless times in one Italian restaurant or another? But again, the execution was impossible to fault. It wasn’t pretty, or fancy, but everything about it was right – soaked through with booze and coffee, with a beautiful indulgent depth to it. No corners cut, nothing artificial or superficial, just a textbook example of how things should be: six pounds exceptionally well spent.

Service throughout our meal was emblematic of the whole experience, in that the simple things were done automatically and the difficult things were made to look easy. The restaurant was packed all evening, and the waiting staff were clearly very busy, but although they worked their socks off they still exuded a certain assured serenity. Even the little things were right – letting you know they’d be with you in a second, always being chatty, never making you feel neglected or forgotten.

Maybe that’s the thing about family-run restaurants, because the waiting staff were a tight-knit, efficient bunch who were clearly a very comfortable and effective team. When my main course came, Zoë’s pizza was nowhere to be seen and our waiter, charming and suave the rest of the time, was up at the counter giving the pizza chef a good talking to to ensure we weren’t kept waiting. When he brought it over, barely a minute later, he was all smiles. This was the service all over – completely in control, the perfect link between the kitchen and the customer.

As we were settling up our waiter told us that Mio Fiore had been there for four years: we told him we came from Reading, he knew it and we had a chat about Pepe Sale. It was a good restaurant, he said, if maybe a bit dated, and I found myself unable to disagree. Our bill for two people – three courses, a bottle of wine and a couple of digestifs – came to just over a hundred pounds, not including service. It would be easy to spend less, but either way I thought this was thoroughly decent value.

I worry, reading back over this, that this might be another review of a restaurant outside Reading that many people won’t read, or that it doesn’t have quite enough pizzazz to persuade you to take that train to Newbury (not even if I mention the incredible selection of pre-prandial gins, ciders and Belgian beers at the wonderful Catherine Wheel). If so, the fault is entirely mine.

The problem, you see, is that a restaurant as consistent and unshowy as Mio Fiore does not attract superlatives. The dishes aren’t triumphs of imagination, the presentation involves no visual fireworks. You won’t be wowed by creative combinations of ingredients you’ve never seen before. Mio Fiore has no designs on being that kind of restaurant, and if that’s what you crave it isn’t the place for you. I loved Mio Fiore precisely because it eschews all those things.

I’ve eaten a lot of middling meals on duty, cooked by people who don’t know, or worse still don’t care, how food should taste. I’ve seen so many menus that read infinitely better than the food that turns up at your table, all gastronomic mouth and no trousers. I know the flavourlessness of disappointment better than I ought to, and as a result I really appreciate somewhere like Mio Fiore where everything tastes as it absolutely should – but so very rarely does.

I’d pick a restaurant like this, focusing on the classics, over all the fads and trends any day of the week. That it manages to do all that with such warmth and expertise, in a lovely welcoming room with thoroughly likeable staff, is as worthy of a fanfare as anywhere else I’ve eaten. That it all takes place in a room which happens to smell of garlic is the dusting of Parmesan on top. I recommend going, so you can see just how excellent a restaurant can be without ever showing off.

Mio Fiore – 8.4
5 Inches Yard, Newbury, RG14 5DP
01635 552023

https://www.miofiore.co.uk/

Cozze

I’ve been reading a lot of other restaurant bloggers recently, and it’s made me think. These are proper restaurant reviewers in big cities, and they use impressive words like “bosky” and “friable” – both of which, I’m ashamed to say, I had to look up in a dictionary.

The other thing these reviewers do, which I’ve never done, is write in the present tense e.g. I bite into the burger. It has the deep flavour of well-tended cow and so on. This is a very striking way to write about food and it makes you feel like you’re there, in the moment, experiencing that bite with them.

I, on the other hand, tend to write in the past tense e.g. the burger was a bit bland. Recounting an event which has already happened makes it feel like you’re telling someone a story down the pub, but perhaps it lacks that immediacy. Maybe it puts a gap between the writer and the reader.

So does the traditional structure of a restaurant review. Here is why I’m reviewing this place, my reviews tend to begin, followed by this is what the room is like and here’s what I ordered and what it tasted like followed, as night follows day, by here’s what the service was like, here’s how much it cost and, last but not least, this is my verdict. Add the rating, the address and the website, repeat until dead. Job’s a good’un.

One thing those other restaurant reviewers and I agree on is that the best reviews to write are the rave reviews, followed by the hatchet jobs. The ones everybody dreads are the middling, the mediocre, the it was dull enough eating it, but heavens, now I have to write about it ones.

So, I ought to start by explaining that Cozze, the Italian restaurant on the roundabout at the bottom of the Caversham Road, has been on my to do list for literally years, and that whenever I ask people on Facebook where they’d like me to go next someone always pipes up and suggests it.

I should add that it started in Woodley before adding a second branch in central Reading with a third one just opened in Pangbourne. I should then say something like “well, a successful independent chain is a very unusual thing in Reading so I owed it to myself to see what all the fuss was about so I went there one night with my partner Zoë” and there you go, the scene is set.

But really, and maybe this will build some of the immediacy my reviews might sometimes lack, what I really want to tell you is how exceptionally bored I was by having dinner at Cozze.

Take the spaghetti carbonara I had as my starter. A good carbonara should be golden, the sauce should hug the pasta, it should be resplendent with egg, it should be salty and sinful and fun. The pancetta (although ideally it might even be guanciale) should be almost crispy and add its own whack of salt to proceedings. It shouldn’t be like this.

It shouldn’t be a pasty albino of a thing, swimming in cream with scant evidence that it’s ever seen an egg. You shouldn’t be dredging through the lake of liquid once you’ve finished, picking out highlighter-pink cubes of bouncy bacon and wondering why you bothered. It shouldn’t be worse than eating at Carluccio’s, for goodness’ sake. It shouldn’t feel like a dish cooked by people who don’t especially care for food or know how it’s meant to taste.

The sad thing is that the room itself is quite nice – a big airy space with nice furniture and vaguely Kandinsky-esque paintings on the wall. And the staff were lovely – really bright and friendly as they brought middling plate after middling plate to our table. We were the only people there when we arrived, although by the end three other tables were occupied. One big group appeared to be regulars, which makes me wonder if they’ve ever considered trying other restaurants. They might like them.

Zoë thinks I am being a little grumpy, and to be fair she ordered better than I did. But her stuffed mushrooms, laid out as if by a serial killer, might have been pleasant enough but I wasn’t sure they were elevated from anything you could pick up and do yourself in M&S. The ones at Papa Gee, in the heart of Caversham, at least have blue cheese in them to give some salt and tang and flavour: no such luck here. The dip seemed to be mayo. Who dips stuffed mushrooms in mayo? Why not just stick a bottle of salad cream on the table and have done with it?

God, and the desserts. White chocolate covered profiteroles filled with Prosecco and raspberry ice cream sounded like they might at least be interesting, but turned out to be one of the ickiest things I’ve had in a long time. They were filled not with ice cream but with cream that tasted of nothing much. The white chocolate was sickly enough, but the Barbie-pink raspberry gloop on top, and the scoop of raspberry ripple ice cream in which almost no raspberry was evident, completed the spectacle. Again, Zoë’s dessert, a honeycomb cheesecake, was a little better but still every other ingredient was shouted down by sugar.

I’d had my doubts about Cozze before going, which mainly came down to looking at the menu several times over the years. Part of that came from my suspicion that they’d taken a kitchen sink approach – would an Italian restaurant really offer chicken wings, moules frites, baby back ribs and peri-peri chicken? Would they really do four different burgers, accompanied by the wording all our burgers some (sic) with fries and are fully cooked? I mean, I know what they were trying to say, but even so.

But more than that, my real problem with the menu was just how many things on it were also on the menu at Prezzo (ironically Cozze has seen Prezzo off in Woodley: that branch has now closed). If you’re a chain, why set yourself up to be a rival to a place like Prezzo? Should that be the place you set your sights on? Again, it says you’re interested in making money, but not particularly interested in food. But if anything, Prezzo’s menu reflects some recentish food trends – there’s burrata, there’s ‘nduja and so on. Cozze’s menu, with none of that to be seen, feels like an Italian chain menu from about ten years ago.

My main was better, although it still wasn’t anywhere near the best pizza in Reading. It had goats cheese (not enough), leeks, four bits of semi-dried tomatoes and three bits of artichoke. Like most of the other things at Cozze it wasn’t actively unpleasant, just objectionably unexceptional. I drizzled some chilli oil over it to try and make it taste of something. The chilli oil appeared to have very little chilli in it – crap as a condiment, perfect as an analogy.

For completeness’ sake, before you or I drop off, I should also tell you about Zoë’s main course which was pollo prosciutto with pomodoro sauce and baby roast potatoes. Pepe Sale does a beautiful pollo prosciutto – a fillet wrapped in Parma ham and stuffed with cheese which you have with seasonal vegetables. It’s perfect: a few ingredients treated simply and with respect. For some reason, they choose not to drown it in chopped tomatoes and serve it in a bowl hotter than the sun like some kind of glorified ready meal. For some reason, Cozze does choose to do exactly that.

I had a mouthful and wasn’t clamouring for more. My advice, if you ever accidentally order this dish, is to eat it doing your very best to pretend you’re instead eating at Pepe Sale. But if your imagination is that good, you could probably enjoy eating pretty much anything. I used to have a brother in law with nasal polyps so bad he couldn’t taste anything: he’d probably quite like Cozze.

Don’t worry. We’re nearly there and our suffering is almost at an end. It just remains for me to tell you that we shared a five hundred millilitre carafe of Italian Sauvignon blanc which was slightly sweet and perfectly decent and that our meal came to fifty-six pounds, not including tip. That includes a discount because Cozze usually has offers through their website, so if you’re considering eating at Cozze you should definitely make use of them. Although if you’re considering eating at Cozze at this moment, I’ve probably failed as a restaurant reviewer.

You might feel that they caught me on a bad day. You might feel they’re unfortunate to be reviewed the week after I’ve written about eating in Bologna, having truly phenomenal pizza, pasta and gelato. And it’s not that Cozze is bad, to be fair. Nobody died, I wasn’t poisoned, nothing they do is inedible.

It’s just that if Cozze is that answer then “where can we go for dinner that nobody could possibly have any strong opinions about whatsoever?” is the question. The poverty of ambition is the thing I find a terrible shame. Although maybe that’s not fair either: Cozze aspires to mediocrity and, in that respect at least, it has to be considered a towering success. There are worse places to eat, of course. But there will always, easily, be somewhere far, far better.

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

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

Buenasado

My mother taught me this brilliant technique for steak, which she says she picked up from watching Heston Blumenthal on TV. It’s simplicity itself: you let the steak come to room temperature, you oil the steak rather than the pan and you season both sides. Then you get the pan good and hot and you cook the steak for four minutes in total, turning it over every thirty seconds. At the end, you let the steak rest for a little while and Bob’s your uncle: perfectly-done medium-rare steak. I imagine my mother and my stepfather (ever the dream team) cooking the steak together, him with a spatula and her with a stopwatch.

It works without fail, and whenever I cook steak at home my other half Zoë will say, at some point during the meal, “this is so much better, and cheaper, than the Corn Stores.” This is true, if hardly praise of my abilities in the kitchen: the Corn Stores has to be one of the most disappointing restaurant openings of recent years. But also, when she says that, I miss CAU. Poor CAU, which shocked everybody by closing around this time last year because the chain went bust. I didn’t go often, but I always enjoyed my meals there in that funny, purpose-built space, hovering out of nothing at the back of the Oracle.

Sometimes you really do want a steak on an evening out, and since CAU closed I’ve been stumped whenever people ask me where I recommend. The Corn Stores is out of contention, which leaves Miller & Carter, another restaurant I’ve never really warmed to. So I’ve taken to recommending Pepe Sale’s tagliata alla rucola, a beautiful piece of fillet with rocket and balsamic vinegar. But then Buenasado announced it was opening in CAU’s old spot, and I found myself hoping we’d get a decent steak restaurant after all. Research showed they had one other branch, in well-to-do Surrey, and the reviews looked good – even if the menu appeared to be a carbon copy of CAU’s.

The restaurant opened its doors in June and the early reports I heard were cautiously optimistic, barring some complaints about iffy frites and a sizeable service charge being added to bills. I went along to check it out on a quiet weekday night, accompanied by Zoë, to see if lightning could strike in the same place twice.

My first impressions were favourable – CAU was nice food served in a stark, almost ugly space, with lots of white and deeply uncomfortable space-age plastic chairs. They had prioritised covers over comfort, and Buenasado has taken the opposite view: big tables along both sides of the long thin room with an attractive button-backed banquette down the right hand side. The handsome black hanging lightshades and glossy white tiled bricks said industrial without trying too hard, and the whole thing felt like a nicely grown-up restaurant.

The menu verged on huge, with a good selection of starters, plenty of salads, burgers, the usual cuts of steak in various weights (although without some of the speciality cuts offered by the likes of CAU and Gaucho) and a raft of options for people who didn’t want the blood of a dead cow on their hands.

We settled on three of the starters – for research purposes – before moving on to decide which mains to have, but first we ordered a bottle of Malbec. Again, as with CAU, this has its own section on the drinks list and I liked the bottle we picked (Norton Lo Tengo) although it was good rather than remarkable, and marked up sharply at nearly thirty-three pounds for a wine that costs eleven in the shops.

Starters came quicker than I would have liked and I was glad we’d ordered three because I think two of them were on the less generous side. I adored the morcilla – soft, sweet and spicy with a crispy skin – and I loved the punchy, vinegary salsa criolla it came with. But the “salad leaves” accompanying it were exactly that – leaves, not a salad. I really don’t get the point of undressed salad leaves: the name must be nominative determinism in action, because I always end up leaving them. And the piece of bread the morcilla was pointlessly plonked on was rock hard – not toasted, more stale, and very difficult to eat. I am a sucker for black pudding, but at five pounds this felt on the scanty side.

Better were the beef empanadas, plenty of dense minced beef packed in so tightly that you almost felt like you were eating a slider en croûte. The spicing was subtle, and I wasn’t sure these quite matched up to the best empanadas I’ve had at, say, I Love Paella, but all the same these were well worth the money.

Our third starter, chorizo al malbec, was also good – slices of decent chorizo with good texture and plenty of depth from the paprika in a brick-red sauce with sweet ribbons of onion. But again, it was a little meagre for the money and it needed good quality bread to soak up the juices, not a rock hard parody of crostini. I really hated the bread that came with these starters – you couldn’t mop up anything with it, you couldn’t top it with anything, you couldn’t eat it with a knife and fork without risking half of it flying across the room: it really was worse than nothing.

A real challenge when you review a steak restaurant is choosing what to order. Obviously one of you has to have a steak to put their raison d’être to the test, but what does the other person go for? Do you try a different cut, or pick something else entirely? Is it helpful to try a different dish, or does that make you the kind of person who goes to Nando’s and orders the Prego steak roll? Fortunately Zoë made this easy – the dish she really missed at CAU was the spatchcock chicken and frites, and as Buenasado had something very similar on their menu she wanted to know whether it would help with the withdrawal symptoms.

It turned out to be a surprisingly good choice, and very skilfully done, with gorgeous crispy salty skin and plenty of meat (very different from the same dish at, say, Côte, where it can feel scrawny by comparison). I wasn’t so sure about the “fries provençal” which felt like bought-in French fries topped with a bit of garlic and herb butter; I can see why people have been slightly sniffy about the fries. Yet more bollock-naked salad leaves, so Zoë was glad she’d ordered a side of creamed spinach. She loved it, I tried enough to be able to confirm that it tasted of creamed spinach and therefore wasn’t my cup of tea.

I had opted for a rump steak – fillet felt too pricey, and I’m never madly fussed about sirloin or rib-eye. It was a lovely piece of meat, but a few slices in I was painfully aware that it was medium rather than the medium-rare I’d asked for, and medium-well at that. The waitress did the right thing by insisting that she would take it away and redo the dish if I wanted, but blotted her copybook by insisting that it was medium-rare: it really, really wasn’t.

As so often in these situations, I was left with the choice of eating something I hadn’t ordered at the same time as my dinner date, or eating the dish I’d ordered a couple of minutes after she had finished. I decided having my steak medium was probably the lesser of two evils: being right and eating alone always leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It really was a beautiful piece of steak but I did keep thinking that it would have been even nicer medium rare.

It’s especially a shame because the other accompaniments for my steak – starkers salad aside – were really pretty decent. Chunky chips were truly lovely, crispy-fluffy things, although I’d have liked the blue cheese sauce I ended up dipping them in to have been a little heavier on the cheese. The garlic portobello mushrooms were nicely pungent and a million miles from their sad, wan opposite numbers at the Corn Stores. So nearly there, but I still wished the restaurant had spent less time artfully arranging pink Himalayan salt on the plate and more time making sure the steak wasn’t overcooked.

Because of the pacing of our meal, we still had a fair bit of Malbec left when our main courses were taken away, so we took our time mulling over the dessert menu before making our choices. It was a nicely buzzy restaurant and the top floor was almost full, even on a Monday night. The dessert menu had lots of tempting choices on it (especially if you liked dulce de leche) but both wait staff looking after us raved about the churros. Were they especially good, or was it the dish with the biggest margin? I wanted to believe the former, Zoë suspected the latter.

You’ll have to tell me, if you go, because we were both drawn to different things on the menu. Zoë loved her chocolate torte, served simply on its own without any compote or coulis, and I could see why: the only forkful I managed to nab was moist and well-balanced, sweet but not too sweet. She complemented our waiter on it and he told us it had been made onsite that morning: that’s rarer these days than it ought to be.

I did less well, I’d say: the dulce de leche cheesecake was nice enough but the biscuit base needed more crunch and the whole thing needed more than the slightly proctological smudge of dulce de leche that accompanied it (I could have done without the compote on this one, too: it didn’t add much). If I lost on the dessert I slightly nudged it on dessert wine – my glass of Torrontes Late Harvest was really lovely, cool and clean without being too gloopily sticky. Zoë’s Norton Tardia Chardonnay was a little sharper and not quite so impressive. Both were around six pounds, though, and generous pours at 100ml – nice to see so many Argentine dessert wines on the menu, too.

Service throughout was very good from both of the wait staff who looked after us – enthusiastic about some of the dishes, talkative but not over the top and, when it came to the overdone steak, more than prepared to make amends. The mistake there was the kitchen’s, not theirs, after all – they, by contrast, didn’t put a foot wrong. Our Romanian waiter was chatting away to the table next to us and I was struck by how nicely personable he was, friendly without being overfamiliar. When he asked what we were up to once we’d finished our meal (a pint and a debrief in the Allied Arms, as it happens) I felt like he genuinely wanted to know, and when he said how much he loved the Allied’s garden I felt like he genuinely meant it, too.

Our bill came to one hundred and twenty-two pounds, including an optional service charge of ten per cent. This may seem a lot, but we had three starters, two mains, a couple of sides, two desserts, a bottle of wine and two glasses of dessert wine. All the desserts cost less than six pounds, and most of the starters come in under the seven pound mark. Even my steak was less than sixteen pounds, considerably less than a similar dish at the Corn Stores. When I went to the Corn Stores on duty, we had less to eat, far less to drink and walked out paying more (and their service charge is twelve and a half per cent, for service nowhere near as good). Buenasado feels like very good value for money, some minor quibbles aside, and I found myself eyeing their lunch deals too: steak frites for ten pounds, anybody?

Looking back, I fear this has sounded quite grumpy about what was really a very good, fairly priced and pretty accomplished meal. Yes, the black pudding was a bit on the small side, yes, the starters came too soon, yes, there might be quite a markup on the wine (show me a restaurant where there isn’t) and yes, they should dress their salads. But really, I had a very enjoyable evening there – it has taken all of the pluses CAU used to have and added a better atmosphere, some very competitive pricing and excellent service.

I left wondering when I’d be able to go back (perhaps for that steak frites lunch and a pint of Alhambra, my favourite beer and the only one they have on draft), Zoë was tempted to take her mum there when they went out for dinner later in the week. It’s a sleek, buzzy space and feels to me like the steak restaurant Reading has been crying out for for nearly a year. Whether you agree with my rating or not, ultimately, will come down to just how much you’d have knocked off for getting my steak wrong. Some of you will think I’ve been too kind, others will think I’ve been too harsh. That’s the joy of reviews, ratings and having readers with minds of their own; I think a lot of you would enjoy a meal at Buenasado. And the rest of the time? Thirty seconds per side for four minutes, honest to God.

Trust me. You can thank me later.

Buenasado – 7.7
The Oracle, Bridge Street, RG1 2AQ
0118 9589550

https://www.buenasado.com/restaurants/reading/