Restaurant review: Pepe Sale

“I’m looking forward to the full Edible Reading experience” James said when I met him at the station. He made it sound as if joining me to review a meal was some kind of theme park. The Edible Reading Experience: you have to be this smug to ride.

“It’s nothing special. There are just two rules – don’t mention the blog when we’re in the restaurant and take photos of everything you eat. Zoë’s meeting us there. Do you want to know where we’re going?”

“Don’t tell me, I don’t want to spoil it.”

“I’ve saved a good one for you. And it’s the perfect one to review this week – it’s a revisit of the first place I ever reviewed, and it came under new management last year. And it’s an Italian restaurant, which is topical after last night. Let’s hope they don’t gloat too much.”

“Sounds perfect” said James, and we ambled through town, past the side of the Broad Street Mall. James is unflappable, but he almost did a double take. “Ah, you have a Taco Bell.”

“I’m afraid so. Its popularity is a continuing mystery to me.”

Later James told me that Taco Bell’s beef is only technically 88% beef because it contains so much other gubbins. He’s full of useful information like this – with hindsight I don’t know why I didn’t invite him to come with me on duty before. He likes the finer things in life: this is a man who flew to Korea for a weekend just to learn how to cook Korean barbecue, a man who has converted his garage into a micropub. Just the person to bring along to bolster my “man of the people” credentials. 

He was also the perfect person to take to Pepe Sale, the subject of this week’s review: he’d joined Zoë and me on holiday in Bologna two years ago and we’d rhapsodised together over ragu and porchetta, each meal as superb as the last. Our last holiday before lockdown was with James and his other half Liz in Copenhagen, eating magnificent food, attending a wild beer festival out in the docklands, stumbling out of brewpub after brewpub, enjoying the driverless subway trains and being too smudged to appreciate the Design Museum. We talked about coronavirus on that holiday, but with no real appreciation of what was coming, unaware of the gathering storm.

Although Pepe Sale changed hands last year the buyers kept that news quiet, presumably because they wanted a smooth transition and to retain as many regulars as possible (perhaps wisely: I remember the panic a couple of years ago when Pepe Sale showed up as for sale on a listings website). It became more apparent this year, as previous owner Toni Sale set up his “Pasta Academy”, running classes out of his gorgeous-looking kitchen, and the new owners made a small but significant change by opening on Sundays. Prior to that, Pepe Sale only opened on one Sunday every year, namely Mother’s Day. 

A few people told me last year, after visiting Pepe Sale, that it didn’t feel the same: not necessarily better or worse, but that something had changed. And that made sense, really. Toni was a big presence in the kitchen, his wife Samantha ran front of house superbly: with both of them gone, it was bound to be a different experience. When I looked at all the restaurants I’ve reviewed, trying to gauge which ones needed a repeat visit, Pepe Sale was high on the list. And so, nearly eight years after my previous review, Zoë, James and I went on a Monday lunchtime to see how different it was.

Visually, you’d barely notice the restaurant has changed hands. The decor is unaltered, all high-backed chairs and marble-topped tables. The restaurant is split-level, with the smaller space up top looking out on Queens Walk and the lower level a bigger room that I’ve always found harder to like. The only real difference was that the space by the front door where Toni used to roll fresh pasta every day has been replaced by another table. No specials menu either, that I could see, which was a shame – although it might have been because we were there on a Monday lunchtime.

I might find myself saying “it might just have been that we were there on a Monday lunchtime” many times during this review, so let’s take it as read from now on. The three of us were the only customers that afternoon, and there was a nicely sleepy pace to things with our waiter (the only staff member that I saw) giving us plenty of time to sip our water, read our menus, catch up and eventually get round to making our choices.

“Were you celebrating last night?” James asked him, ever the diplomat.

“I had four Peronis and a bottle of pinot grigio” he said, his eyes smiling, even if you couldn’t see a grin behind his mask. “But I wanted England to win. I’ve lived here for so long, and my kids were born here. My little boy was devastated this morning.”

The menu hasn’t been changed one iota under the new management, so it’s virtually identical to the one I ordered from back in 2013 and probably much the same as it was when they opened. The wine list, though, printed on the other side of the menu, was far smaller than the one I’m used to. Pepe Sale’s wine list was always a selling point – a huge range, across all price points, the majority of it coming from Sardinia. It’s now a one pager, although it’s all still Italian. Perhaps Pepe Sale has a separate, bigger wine list but if so, I wasn’t shown it and I didn’t think to ask; I can well believe, though, that the events of Brexit might have reduced the amount of wines the restaurant can economically import. 

In any event, we had a very nice red from Piedmont called Otto Bucce, which was peppery and smokey and felt like good value at around twenty-seven pounds. We took those first happy sips, we broke off pieces of rosemary-studded pane carasau and we began the serious business of chatting and gossiping. Italian music was playing in the background – another change, I think – and even though James, technically, was the only person who was on holiday, somehow we all felt like we were. I love it when restaurants do that to you.

Before our starters arrived, there was a spanner in the works: our waiter materialised to let us know that they were out of avocados. Would we like to order something different, or wait ten minutes while they nipped out to get some new ones? We opted for the latter, and all I can say is that I’d like to know where they bought them from. It certainly wasn’t a supermarket – I’ve lost count of the number of times a “perfectly ripe” avocado meant “perfectly ripe in a couple of weeks” – so I’m guessing they nipped round the corner and got some from the kerbside cornucopia of the Oxford Road’s magnificent Best Foods. 

Anyway, Zoë’s starter of avocado and mushrooms in a dolcelatte sauce was a marvellous, indulgent thing and easily worth the additional wait. The avocado was ripe and buttery and the sauce, which added just enough salt and funk, was so good that Zoë looked ruefully over at the empty bread basket and wished she’d saved a couple of pieces to mop it up.

James ordered a starter I ate on my visit all those years ago, mozzarella baked in radicchio with anchovies, olives and cherry tomatoes (if you want a pointer that Pepe Sale resolutely resists trends, here it is: burrata is nowhere to be seen on the menu). James enthused about it and although I didn’t try any, it looked as good as I remembered. As a rule I think the worst thing you can do to mozzarella is heat it up, but there’s something about those precious parcels of molten cheese and bitter leaf that’s properly charming, especially teamed with the hit of anchovy and the sweetness of little tomatoes. 

If that description makes you think I was suffering from starter envy, you’re probably right. I had gone for malloreddus, a Sardinian pasta speciality, which are best described as halfway between gnocchi and conchiglie, tightly curled shells, in a spicy tomato sauce with chunks of sausage. Everything worked, on paper – the sauce had a good heat, it clung nicely to the pasta and the sausage tasted decent. But somehow, it started to feel like a chore by the end, a tiny bit one-note compared to the other starters at the table. Perhaps I’d have felt differently if the sausage meat had been crumbled, finer in texture, rather than big slices of the stuff.

There was a nicely civilised pause between courses, and our mains arrived just as we were ready for them – a relief, as kitchens without much to do often rattle off the next set of dishes quicker than you’d like. Zoë picked an absolute banker from the menu, chicken breast, stuffed with mozzarella and sage and wrapped in pancetta. Again I found myself gazing in envy at a pool of molten mozzarella and wishing I’d played it safer: I was allowed a forkful which reminded me what a solid, classic dish it was (it also made me miss the saltimbocca at sadly-departed Dolce Vita, halfway across town and many years ago).

James chose a dish I’ve never ordered, wild boar cutlet in a tomato sauce. It looked the part – a handsome slab of meat cut into three in a deep sauce with plenty of cherry tomatoes (“I’ve picked the two tomato-lovers’ dishes” said James). But he wasn’t wild about the texture – “it’s not a soft meat, put it that way” – and found it tougher and chewier than he’d have liked; a sharp steak knife would have helped matters along.

My dish, sea bream, was also close but not quite there. The fish was beautifully cooked, two lovely fillets with tender flesh and crisp skin, and it’s hard to go wrong with anchovies and olives (and beautifully chopped shallots). But the thing I always loved about Pepe Sale’s fish dishes was the sauce, a rich fish fumet fragrant with wine, and this felt a little thinner than I remembered. It wasn’t a bad dish by any means, but lacking a little oomph. Had it changed, or had I?

All of us went for a selection of vegetables and these were well-judged – nicely crunchy potatoes sauteed with rosemary and perfectly al dente carrots and broccoli; Pepe Sale, more than any place I can think of, taught me the virtues of not overcooking your veg.

The dessert menu is also unchanged, and is a mixture of Italian, generic and Sardinian dishes, all reasonably priced. I was tempted by the basil panna cotta, another old favourite, but James and I both went for the sweet ravioli. They were every bit as delicious as my happy memories of them, fried squares packed with gooey ricotta and orange zest, the whole thing drizzled with sweet syrup and topped with more strips of fried pastry and a little snowdrift of icing sugar. Looking back at my picture of this dish from 2013, and the mozzarella starter for that matter, I’d say this kitchen puts more effort into plating now: the camera loved it as much as I did.

Zoë’s choice was the tiramisu, and again I was allowed just enough of it to wonder if she ever ordered a bad dish. I suppose there are no surprises with tiramisu –  you know it will be boozy and rich, all cream and coffee and chocolate, and this one was no exception. “I liked it a lot, but it did make me cough” she said later. “It’s the dust of the cocoa powder and my dodgy lungs. That’s why I was never allowed Dib Dabs as a kid”. 

Our meal – three courses each, some bread, a bottle of wine and a trio of amaros to help our desserts go down – came to just over a hundred and thirty pounds, not including tip. Pepe Sale is currently running a promotion where you get 20% off your food bill Mondays to Thursdays, and without that it would have been over a hundred and fifty pounds. Looking back at my 2013 visit a similar meal for two came to eighty pounds, so prices have definitely crept up – although that’s only to be expected and our meal still felt like good value.

As we settled up, I asked our waiter how business had been since they reopened in May. He told us that they were busy at weekends, solidly booked in fact, but things were still sluggish during the week – an experience I suspect is shared by many of Reading’s restaurants. He added that having Reading’s ill-advised quarantine hotel at the end of Queens Walk had hardly helped matters, although things were recovering now. 

It did make me think about whether people would feel comfortable eating inside on a busy evening – the tables are reasonably spaced but there are no screens, and although the front of the restaurant has big double doors which could be opened for ventilation they stayed resolutely closed during our visit. It’s a shame they’ve never put any tables outside, as their neighbours ThaiGrr! and Bierhaus have chosen to, but I guess that part of town can be a bit of a wind tunnel at times. 

We carried out a debrief over beers in the garden of the Nag’s Head, and there was less consensus than I expected. Zoë was the most positive about her food, but I think she ordered better than the rest of us (“that starter was great, but you know I love the ‘shrooms”). James was more equivocal, put off slightly by the toughness of that wild boar. I was somewhere in the middle, but in the back of my mind I was thinking that the food was almost exactly as it always was, and I couldn’t decide whether that was a good thing or not. We discussed it a little further, but then we were interrupted by a positively operatic fart from a shaven-headed gentleman at the table behind us which sounded like Brian Blessed molesting a tuba. We dissolved into fits of laughter, and that was that.

I feel a bit for Pepe Sale’s new owners. Talk about a no-win situation: if they make sweeping changes they’ve have messed with an institution, if they don’t they risk preserving it in aspic. And yet the restaurant barely changed in many years, so you can understand them not wanting to muck up a winning formula. I think it misses the specials and that wider wine list, and I sincerely hope they’re still making their pasta on the premises, but all in all it feels like the new owners are worthy custodians of the food: everything I had felt up to the standards of previous visits, and if anything the focus on presentation is stronger now.

And yet there’s so much more to a restaurant than the food. Aside from how Covid-cautious customers would feel eating in Pepe Sale, it’s safe to say that the real test of a restaurant is how it copes on busier evenings, whether the service and the kitchen can step up a gear to deal with the demands of a packed dining room. But not just that: it also depends whether that magical transmutation happens, where instead of just being a room full of people it becomes a wonderful buzzy place, a club where you’re lucky enough – if only for one evening – to be a member. At its best, Pepe Sale always did that. The new owners will face far sterner challenges in the months ahead than our chatty table of three on a Monday lunchtime. My fingers are crossed that they are up to them.

Pepe Sale – 7.8
3 Queens Walk, Reading, RG1 7QF
0118 9597700

http://pepesale.co.uk

Restaurant review: London Street Brasserie

This week’s review marks a new first for the blog, the first time I’ve re-reviewed a restaurant. Well, sort of: I’ve re-reviewed places before, but normally it’s because they’ve changed hands, even though the name has remained the same. This is often the case with pubs – so, for instance, I’ve reviewed the Lyndhurst three times, the Fisherman’s Cottage twice. The room and furniture were identical on all my visits, but the management, the team in the kitchen were completely different. So of course you’d view it as a separate business – just as, at some point, I’ll review the Corn Stores again, because what it offers now is a world away from what I ate when I went there last.

But some restaurants, particularly ones that stand the test of time, go through phases under the same ownership. The menu shifts and changes, the personnel in the kitchen will too, front of house stars will come and go and, over time, a restaurant can become the hospitality equivalent of Trigger’s broom. There are golden ages and doldrums. The best example I can think of is Mya Lacarte – in its prime, with Matt and Alex running the front of house and Remy Joly in the kitchen, it was an unbeatable place, but no incarnation after that managed to match those halcyon days.

When you’ve been at this lark as long as I have, the odds get shorter that places will change so much that a fresh look is overdue. Many places I’ve reviewed have since closed – correlation rather than causation, I promise – but many have made a go of it and flourished. Take Coconut, for example, or Valpy Street: are they really the same restaurant as they were when I first went there, not long after they opened? Is another visit in order?

I can’t think of a better example of this than London Street Brasserie, the subject of the third review I ever wrote. Even by then, the restaurant had been going for more than ten years – now, in 2021, it’s over twenty years old. Many chefs and front of house have passed through its doors since 2000 and some have gone on to open or work in other restaurants, in Reading and beyond. It’s still probably the town’s best-known restaurant and the Reading venue people are most likely to consider a special occasion restaurant. 

It’s also, as I discovered recently, a restaurant about which many people in Reading have an opinion. I went there in May with family, not long after it reopened, and when I posted pictures of my food on social media plenty of people had something to say. “I ate there recently and enjoyed it so much that we went again last week. Have the poached pear next time you go!” said one person. “I’m heading straight for the sticky toffee pudding once we’re double-vaxxed” said another. But it wasn’t unanimous: “I’ve never had a decent plate in all the times I’ve been” was a third opinion. My previous review is nearly eight years old – a lifetime ago, in so many ways – so it felt like the right time to head back, on a weekday lunchtime, with my other half Zoë.

It’s still one of Reading’s most attractive buildings, sitting by the river with a view of the Duke Street bridge, and its ground floor terrace out back, where we sat, is one of Reading’s finest al fresco spots, especially when the sun is out. The terrace has just under twenty covers, and can’t be booked, but the ground floor dining room is also a very pleasing space, although some of the furniture is starting to look tired.

So far, so pretty much the same as ever, but a look at the menu shows how things have changed since 2013. LSB’s set menu was always impressive value at two courses for sixteen pounds, but over the years that has crept up to the point where it’s now twenty-two pounds (you can mix and match the set menu with the à la carte if you want: set menu starters cost eight pounds and mains are seventeen). The prices on the à la carte are higher too – most used to nestle around twenty pounds, the majority are now closer to twenty-five. 

This isn’t at all an issue per se: we need to get used to paying more for food, and restaurants have to cover their costs, now more than ever, but it does mean that LSB isn’t necessarily the value proposition it once was. We ordered a couple of dishes from each menu, to put both to the test, and made inroads into a very enjoyable New Zealand pinot gris – fresh, aromatic and far from dry. It cost forty-two pounds – a hefty markup, as it’s fourteen in Majestic, who I think have supplied the majority of LSB’s wine list for as long as I can remember. The restaurant slowly began to fill up with friends lunching and several tables of men in suits, all making a beeline for the set menu’s fish and chips. Nobody else was sitting outside – it wasn’t the warmest of days, so they must have thought us eccentric.

Starters came quicker than I’d have chosen, but were so enjoyable that it didn’t matter. Zoë’s, from the set menu, was a pretty and inventive thing, a summery salad of vibrant watermelon, candied cashews, shredded sugarcane chicken, the crunch of beansprouts and wonderfully fragrant coriander and mint. With so much going on, all that sweetness and salt to juggle, it was a real triumph to get it right, and the kitchen nailed it – although my favourite bit was the salty, crispy chicken skin in shards on the top. I say my favourite bit: I was allowed one forkful and I was grateful enough for that. You get a similar dish on the à la carte with crispy duck instead of chicken, but I can’t imagine that it’s significantly better, especially at eleven pounds.

By contrast, my starter, from the à la carte, felt like the kind of dish that belonged on the set lunch menu: arancini aren’t hugely expensive things to make, so the margin on this felt wider. You got three of them for a tenner, each with a little molten core of taleggio, and they were competent but unexciting. I didn’t get a lot of truffle, and the best thing about the dish was a terrific verdant pesto which really elevated the dish. But the parmesan crisp that came with it was only halfway there – plenty of parmesan, but no crisp. Instead it was a little tough and leathery, although it still tasted the part.

LSB wasn’t busy on a weekday lunchtime, but I was glad they didn’t rush us and that we got a good break between courses. That was indicative of the service in general – excellent, attentive, very friendly. They clearly gauged that we weren’t on a working lunch where we needed to be in and out in an hour, and after the swift arrival of our starters everything settled down nicely into a gentle rhythm. And really, there are few better places in Reading to sit outside and enjoy a leisurely lunch: only Thames Lido really matches LSB for atmosphere, but the Lido’s food has never wowed me.

My main, from the set menu, was African spiced rump of lamb with “barely (sic) couscous” and harissa. It was a gorgeous-looking plate of food – in the past I’ve thought plating wasn’t LSB’s strong point but these dishes really did look the part – and it was good but not quite there. The lamb had next to no pinkness at all, and I was relieved that it had any tenderness under the circumstances (they brought one of those big wooden-handled knives some restaurants give you for lamb or steak: as so often, it wasn’t actually very sharp). I didn’t see any evidence that the lamb had been spiced, although it went very well with the delicious – if mild – harissa sauce and, incongruously, another dollop of that excellent pesto. The roasted vegetables were superb, but the couscous had been pressed into a puck which made it a bit too dense to enjoy: fluffier would have been better. 

That all sounds a bit grumpy, but it was still a very enjoyable dish. On this set menu, it was decent. Back in the day, if this had been part of a sixteen pound set lunch menu, you’d have been ecstatic. But if it was hard to make up my mind about that dish, Zoë’s was even trickier. Venison, haggis, roasted champagne grapes and shiraz jus: it sounded fantastic, but could it be worth twenty-seven pounds?

It looked stunning, in fairness – the picture below is Zoë’s rather than mine but rarely have I seen a dish that looked so much like a still life (of course, that might just be the grapes). And there was a very generous helping of haggis underneath that venison. I’ve had venison with red fruits before, many times, and even with chocolate on occasion, but serving it with the pop of grapes – less sweet than you might expect – was a very interesting touch. The venison itself was exceptional, far more expertly cooked than my lamb, and every element on the plate was in harmony, bound together by a nicely sticky jus: I’d have liked more of the jus, but then I tend to want more of everything. A really wonderful dish, premium in more ways than one, and yet… was it unreasonable to expect it to come with some carbs at that price?

We’d solved that issue by ordering a side of oxtail macaroni cheese, which proved to be the missing piece of the jigsaw: it provided the carbs missing from Zoë’s dish and went some way to solving the food envy brought about by the gulf between her main and mine. It had a beautifully deep, savoury flavour, with plenty of soft strands of oxtail, an awful lot of cheese and a splendid crunchy top. Not cheap at seven pounds fifty, but worth absolutely every penny – and I’d rather pay more for a side and it be memorable than bung money at bulking out a meal with something unremarkable.

The pricing of LSB’s desserts is a bit random: the desserts on the set menu are all six pounds, and those on the à la carte tend to be around seven. There’s some duplication between the two dessert menus, because four desserts appear on both, enough cross-pollination that I didn’t really understand why LSB doesn’t adopt a single dessert menu with consistent pricing. 

I had acted on the recommendation I’d had previously and ordered the poached pear, and I didn’t regret it for a second. Often when I’ve had poached pear it’s been poached in red wine and is a wintry, comforting dish. LSB’s rendition was more refined and more summery, the fleshy, amber-hued pear was sweet with vanilla and easy to cut into long tranches to eat with a very accomplished vanilla parfait. The chocolate crumb felt a bit there for the sake of it – dust on the plate is always a bit faffy to eat with everything else – and the chocolate sauce, similarly, felt more of a decorative smear than of practical use. But even so, it was an excellent dessert and I was glad I moved away from my comfort zone (the Snickers cheesecake had been calling to me) to give it a try.

Zoë had stayed firmly in her comfort zone with a favourite of hers, the dark chocolate nemesis (on the set menu and the à la carte). It’s essentially a brownie in dessert’s clothing, a wedge of cake which, like a brownie, has a crust on top and a softer, gooier core underneath. It was very good, and the salted caramel ice cream with it was very nice, but it was still, fundamentally, a brownie. If you subscribe to the school of thought that a brownie is an acceptable dessert, this was probably the one for you.

Our meal – three courses each, one side and a bottle of wine – came to just over one hundred and twenty pounds, not including tip. If we’d both stuck to the set menu we probably could have shaved around fifteen pounds off, but LSB is no longer the bargain it once was. That’s fair enough: a lot has changed over the last eight years and, like LSB, I’m probably worse value than I used to be. I certainly, like LSB, look a tiny bit tired – but then, given the last fifteen months, who doesn’t?

I didn’t know what to expect when I turned up to LSB on duty this week. It’s always been a place where I’ve tried my best to suspend my critical faculties and enjoy my meal – you know, the way most people do most of the time. I’ve eaten there numerous times over the years, for big meals with family or smaller soirées with friends or partners. I’ve even, on occasion, eaten off their set menu as an early evening solo diner. But I’ve had so many different experiences there that I honestly couldn’t have predicted whether my meal this week would be delightful or disappointing.

Having a long-running relationship with a restaurant is like having an old friend – you may see them on good days and off-days, but you overlook the latter. After all, you go back a long way. As it turns out, I’m inordinately pleased that I had such a good meal at LSB. It would have made me sadder than I’d like to admit if Reading’s grande dame was resting on its laurels, or had given up trying after a gruelling year of opening, shutting, reopening and re-shutting.

But nothing could be further from the truth: at twenty-one years old LSB is all grown up, and still a very good restaurant for grown-ups. To go there and have such a good meal – not perfect, not unbelievable value for money, but nonetheless interesting, clever and well-executed – made me feel hopeful that when we fully emerge from this and return to something like normality Reading’s other institutions will endure. We’ll still have John Lewis, we’ll still have Shed and we’ll still have London Street Brasserie, Reading’s first and foremost proper, special occasion restaurant, standing proud. I don’t think I care about whether Reading is a town or a city. But I find I very much care about that.

London Street Brasserie – 7.9
2-4 London Street, Reading, RG1 4PN
0118 9505036

https://www.londonstbrasserie.co.uk

Restaurant review: The Fisherman’s Cottage

When I looked at my to do list to decide where to review this week, I had a shopping list of requirements. Somewhere relatively new or unknown, for starters. A venue with good outside space – because the weather is clement all of a sudden and I know that many people, like me, still feel more comfortable eating and drinking outside. Finally, I wanted to pick a place with an interesting story – either somewhere I reviewed a long time ago that has survived the pandemic, or somewhere that opened since the pandemic began.

I scanned the list several times, fruitlessly, and then I realised it had been staring me in the face all along: it was time to go back to the Fisherman’s Cottage. It ticks all those boxes. Down by the river, with tables out front and an attractive beer garden (complete with faux beach hut booths) out back, it is one of Reading’s best pubs in terms of outside space, much of which catches the sun. And it manages to be both new and unknown, kind of: it came under new ownership last year when it was taken over by Turkish chef and restaurateur Cigdem Muren Atkins.

To say she’s had a baptism of fire would be an understatement. The Fisherman’s Cottage reopened just in time to be hit by our second lockdown in November. They had a couple of weeks of trading in December before we went into Tier 3, or Tier 4, or whatever they called it back then, and then we had a third national lockdown which only began to lift in April. During that time, the Fisherman’s Cottage did its best to adapt and survive: there was a click and collect menu, and every weekend if you walked along the river you saw tables outside groaning with cakes and cookies, for sale to passers-by.

Their neighbour the Jolly Angler grabbed more headlines with its attempt to turn its back garden into a poolside beach bar, but the Fisherman’s Cottage kept plugging away all the same. And now we’re in a weird situation: the pub has been under its present management for over six months, but has only been able to operate as a pub for the past two. I know of a few people who have gone there for a drink, but nobody who has eaten there – so on a beautifully sunny evening, accompanied by my partner in crime Zoë, I strolled down the river to give it a whirl.

“I’ve been looking forward to this all afternoon” said Zoë. “But I’m a bit apprehensive too.”

“I know what you mean. You really want it to be good, don’t you?”

“Exactly. Nobody wants to be talking about a shit meal at a time like this.”

There are few sights more gladdening than a bustling pub, especially on a sunny day, and I was pleased to see that the Fisherman’s Cottage was busy when we got there, with most of the tables out front occupied. Although I didn’t eat inside I can confirm that it’s still an attractive space, with a conservatory, plenty of light and, of course, that garden out back. We decided to eat out front though, mainly because it just felt more like being part of things, people-watching the friends walking past and the cyclists pulling up for a pint.

Speaking of pints, I should talk briefly about the beer, because I know this will disappoint many of the Fisherman’s Cottage’s former clientele. Under its previous management, the same owners as the Greyfriar, it was more of a craft beer destination. That’s not the case now, so you have a choice of the usual suspects – Camden Hells, Estrella, Corona and so on. I can see from Untappd that they do still do some local stuff, with recent check-ins of beers from Disruption Is Brewing and Wild Weather, but the selection is definitely narrower: hopefully the pub might develop this over time.

The menu felt like an attempt to cover a lot of bases, and it was impossible to tell by looking whether it would be good: sometimes you just know, one way or the other, but this was relatively inscrutable. The starters felt like the weakest section, with some dishes that were more sides than starters (fries, potato wedges and so on) and others, like mozzarella sticks, that felt like something you could pick up from any supermarket. Everything was affordable, though, with the priciest starter costing eight pounds.

The mains were divided into sections and felt a little busy, although many were variations on a theme – salads, pasta (the menu didn’t say which kind of pasta, just pasta) and pizza. There were a few curries, most of them Thai, three burgers and half a dozen other mains which ran the gamut from Morocco to Australia and onwards to the Caribbean. It was refreshing to see a pub that didn’t offer fish and chips, but even so the menu felt unfocused – you always worry that with so much on offer, a kitchen won’t do it all well. Pricing was variable, with dishes ranging from around nine pounds to sixteen for the priciest mains (steak or lamb chops, in this case). 

We ordered three starters and a couple of main courses, along with a couple of pints, and our bill came to fifty-four pounds, not including tip. Normally I put that bit at the end of a review, largely because I get my bill at the end of a meal, but on this occasion they brought the bill out straight after I’d ordered. At first I found that strange, but in hindsight it’s how it generally works in pubs – you wouldn’t bat an eyelid paying up front somewhere like Bluegrass BBQ, so it’s probably just the cognitive dissonance between eating in a pub and having table service.

I had the best of the starters, I think. I wanted something closer to Muren Atkins’ Turkish roots, so I’d gone for the courgette fritters. These were probably the best thing I ate all evening – light, crispy, beautifully fresh and reminiscent of many happy holiday meals. The yoghurt and mint dip they came with had a strangely clumpy texture, but there was no arguing with the taste. This felt like good value at five pounds fifty – “I’d order this next time” said Zoë, and I probably would too.

I rarely order calamari in restaurants – it doesn’t usually bowl me over – but Zoë often does, so she decided to go for it. Calamari is a tricky one, because unless it’s very fresh it always has a little bounce. That was the case here, too, but even having said that it was still a pretty good example and better than most I’ve had in Reading. The coating was nicely crunchy and, crucially, stuck to the calamari, and it’s hard to beat sweet chilli sauce as a dip for this, unless you make an excellent aioli or tartar sauce.

“This is decent” said Zoë, “and miles better than anything you’d get from a Prezzo or a Zizzi”. I enjoyed the couple she let me have, although I still think the courgette fritters were a better bet.

We also ordered a cheesy garlic bread, because there isn’t much to dislike about the epicentre of the bread/garlic/cheese Venn diagram. This was a bought-in ciabatta or panino halved and toasted with cheese and some garlic. It cost five pounds, and felt slightly sharply priced at that, mainly because it was lacking in firepower from the garlic.

“It’s a bit generic” said Zoë. “This is all your fault” she added, “because you’ve gotten me used to all the artisan shit. I would have lapped this up before I met you.”

“Are you complaining?” 

I asked the question because I knew the answer: when Zoë and I got together she was a korma eater with an aversion to tomatoes, but years later she can wax lyrical about fresh heritage tomatoes with burrata, khachapuri, or Clay’s ghee roast chicken with the best of them.

“Not at all.” She had a suspicious look on her face, but that might have been because she’d just caught sight of the ketchup bottle on the table. “But it’s frustrating – it wouldn’t take much to really ramp this dish up.” I tended to agree, although mainly I’d have added industrial quantities of garlic.

As the evening progressed a beautiful crimson sunset materialised on the far side of Blake’s Lock, and you could almost believe that things were normal again, that there were no such things as variants and amber lists, anti-vaxxers and virus deniers, people refusing to wear a mask or get a test. Instead there was just a pub table, my favourite person on the other side of it, a crisp pint of Estrella in front of me, empty plates with more on the way. Nothing but goodness, in fact: what a wonderful world it can still be, if you let it.

My reverie was interrupted by our main courses arriving a little more briskly than I’d have liked. But again, it didn’t feel like a significant issue: I imagine many pubs and restaurants are still finding their rhythm when it comes to serving diners. I had chosen the only main course to specifically reference Turkey, the meatballs, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The meatballs themselves were nicely coarse and well-seasoned, not suspiciously homogeneous and smooth. They were served with slices of fried aubergine. It’s a vegetable I often struggle to like but the Fisherman’s Cottage had cooked it nicely, with a good texture, some crispiness and none of the mulchiness aubergine can sometimes have.

Aubergine is pretty inescapable in Turkish cuisine. One Turkish aubergine dish is called imam bayildi which translates as “the imam fainted” – apparently from pleasure, according to a folk tale. I couldn’t quite match that, but I was definitely pleasantly surprised. The whole thing was rounded off by a beautiful, sweet, thick tomato sauce, a pile of white rice and a little foliage. It was a satisfying, unpretentious plate of food and felt like decent value at eleven pounds fifty.

Zoë had decided to brave the pizza section of the menu – a relatively new addition, according to the Fisherman’s Cottage’s Instagram feed – and had chosen one with chicken, caramelised onion and gorgonzola. She really enjoyed it, and made relatively short work of it, and the pieces I tried were pretty good – the chicken and sweet onion worked nicely together, though I thought it needed more of the gorgonzola to bring it all together.

I think she liked it more than I did, though – the base is rolled by hand and the whole thing is cooked in an oven on a pizza steel, but the dough was lacking any lift or bubbling which left the crust feeling a bit flat. In fairness, in that respect it was no different to the pizzas at sadly-departed Tuscany, down the Oxford Road, but the price of this pizza – fifteen pounds – felt on the steep side.

“I don’t think it’s that bad for pricing” said Zoë. “You’d pay that much for a Romana pizza at Pizza Express.”

“It’s more expensive than Papa Gee, though.”

“Anyway, I think it’s very good. I’d order it again.”

The weird thing about having paid your bill at the start is that there isn’t that moment to bring your meal to a close and add that full stop at the end. Service, incidentally, was friendly, efficient and masked, even though we were outside. I’m used to drinking outside in places with a little buzz – the Nag’s, of course, and my favourite right now, the Castle Tap. But it was a pleasant feeling to enjoy a meal surrounded by other people – sitting in the cold outside La’De Kitchen in Woodley on a chilly April evening or being the only people outside Crispy Dosa just doesn’t impart the same warm glow you get from being part of something bigger than you. As we all emerge from our own personal lockdowns, at varying speeds, I imagine there’s more of this to come.

While we waited for the wait staff to take our plates away we compared notes and, with a sense of relief, both decided that we’d enjoyed what we’d eaten. It does feel a little, to me anyway, that the Fisherman’s Cottage is playing it safe with a menu that tries to cover as many bases as possible. That’s understandable, especially at a time when every paying customer counts, but my favourite things on the menu were the Turkish dishes, and it did make me wish that there was more of that on offer. But then Muren Atkins has run restaurants in Turkey, England and the Caribbean, so maybe she’s more interested in offering something more international.

Even so, I’m really pleased that I can cautiously recommend the Fisherman’s Cottage next time you want to eat outside, or have a cold pint outside and eat something decent to accompany it. The food maybe isn’t the main attraction – a short walk onto the Kings Road will take you to the Lyndhurst, where the menu is at a different level – but it’s easily good enough to merit a visit, with some dishes that point to real potential. And it would be nice if the beer list leaned more towards the local, but that might come in time. But the pub is a lovely building, and it makes such a difference to see it being used and enjoyed, as opposed to last summer when it lay dormant at a time when it could have made the best of its riverside setting. I sense that Muren Atkins will look after it well, provided she gets some help from all of us. On this showing, she deserves it.

The Fisherman’s Cottage – 7.2
Kennet Side, Reading, RG1 3DW
07925 336269

https://www.thefishermanscottagereading.co.uk
Delivery via: No delivery, but click and collect available through the website

Restaurant review: Crispy Dosa

“Are you sure you don’t want to sit inside?” said the waitress, smiling as she handed us the menu. Like all of the service at Crispy Dosa it was friendly, kind and welcoming: the restaurant was filling up with happy families, all Indian as far as I could see, and she probably didn’t understand why Zoë and I had chosen to sit at a table outside on plastic chairs, opposite the Penta Hotel or in the wind tunnel of Thorn Street.

In other circumstances, I might have acquiesced. The inside of Crispy Dosa, from my cursory glance, looked like a nice space. It had plenty of banquetted booths (I’m not sure whether they were leather or leatherette: leatheresque, perhaps?) each one with a little patch sewn into it saying “CRISPY DOSA ❤️ YOU”. And the restaurant was, for a week night, buzzing: I saw a regular flow of people in and out, customers leaving, some carrying bags to take home and, of course, a steady in and out of delivery drivers.

By contrast, Crispy Dosa’s outside space is slightly unfortunate. On one of the hottest days of the year so far none of the tables caught the sun, and they felt a little like a consequence of necessity: they are, after all, how Crispy Dosa managed to trade for the first few weeks they were open, while they waited for indoor hospitality to be allowed again.

But I am not yet at the stage where I’m ready to eat and drink indoors and, with the exception of a post-vaccination celebratory brunch at Fidget & Bob last month, this was the first time I’d had an al fresco meal this year. So to say those plastic tables and chairs were a welcome sight would be quite an understatement; the waitress probably didn’t understand why we were so excited. So we sat outside, at the very beginning of West Reading, where things begin to get a little bit more lively – I’ve forgotten how much I enjoy people-watching – and for the first time in a long time I held a physical menu in my hand and decided what to order.

I picked Crispy Dosa for my first restaurant review in over a year for a few reasons. One is that I knew they had outside space. Another is that I had a feeling dosas wouldn’t travel well if I’d ordered them as a takeaway dish. But most significantly, on the day I visited them they were Reading’s newest restaurant, having opened at the end of April. They have two other branches, in Hounslow and Greenford, and they opened here with relatively little fanfare – mainly because they missed out on all the publicity that comes with opening over forty different sock puppet restaurants on delivery apps. What can I say? I like an underdog.

Reading has had a bit of a love affair with South Indian food over the last twelve years. First Chennai Dosa opened on Whitley Street in 2009, and proved so popular that people were queuing to get in (they didn’t take cash, which at the time was noteworthy: these days you’d steer clear unless a restaurant accepted cards). Then Chennai Dosa moved to the old Casa site, just over from Reading Library, and Cafe Madras took their place on Whitley Street.

There have been more musical chairs in recent times. Chennai Dosa became “Chennai Dosa Artisanz”, a transformation which mostly seemed to mean that they added a couple of quid to every dish on the menu, and then it closed, leaving that site vacant for nearly three years until Madras Flavours opened there this year, also offering southern Indian food. And Cafe Madras closed too, to be replaced by Vel, another southern Indian restaurant. So the market is clearly there, and the question is whether it’s big enough to support a third restaurant (and, I suppose, whether Crispy Dosa is the third restaurant for the job).

Crispy Dosa is entirely vegetarian, and its menu is a mixture of South Indian dishes (specifically dosa and uthappam, its thicker sibling) and Indo-Chinese dishes you’d find on the menu somewhere like Bhel Puri House. There’s also a selection of curries and noodle dishes, if you want something more conventional. But the centre of the menu is definitely the dosa options which span three sections, “Dosa Corner”, “Special Dosa” and “Chef Recommended Dosa”. I’m not sure what adjective to use out of reasonable, affordable and cheap, but nearly all the dishes cost less than nine pounds and many are significantly less expensive. We ordered a few starters to share, and a main course each, and sat back and waited.

But first, I got to reacquaint myself with mango lassi. I love this drink, and I hadn’t had one in a long time; it’s not something you really add to a JustEat basket. Crispy Dosa’s version was lovely, a bright orange slurp of tropical sweetness, and it took a reassuringly long time to arrive. The wait staff apologised for the delay, something they repeatedly did and didn’t need to: they also came out to tell us our starters were on the way, when there wasn’t any rush.

Our starters were taken from different sections of the menu, a hodgepodge designed to sample a wider range of dishes. The first, the Madras crispy masala potato slice, was the most disappointing. I’ve been spoiled by Bhel Puri House’s bhajia, slices of potato in a crispy batter, beautifully spiced and served with a bright carrot chutney. This dish, by contrast, felt like a bare minimum way to live up to the description on the menu.

It really was just sliced potatoes which had indeed been fried (although not all of them were enormously crispy) with some spice powder dusted on top. They were meant to come with sriracha, but instead we got what tasted suspiciously like ketchup. I guess if you’re South Indian both of those sauces are equally inauthentic, but I expected something a little more than sliced potatoes and tomato sauce. It looks quite nice in the picture, mind you.

The gobi 65 was better. You got a fairly generous helping of small florets of cauliflower, cooked but still with a little nutty firmness, in a spiced batter, along with some decorative fanned-out slices of red onion (Zoë thought they really added something, although she’d happily eat raw red onion for fun: I gave them a miss). But these were pretty good, and more interesting than the sliced potato. Again, I was baffled that it came with ketchup – had they given this to us because they thought it was the kind of thing we’d enjoy, or was it standard issue? It might have benefited from something to dip it in – a whole dish of it got a bit dry – but Heinz? Really?

This was even more of a no-no where my dining companion was concerned. She dislikes almost anything with vinegar in it – I always get a black look when I open a jar of pickles – and has a visceral loathing of tomato ketchup which took me some time to fully grasp. Early in our courtship, down the pub with friends, I placed a bottle of ketchup in front of her on the table and watched in shock as instantly, in a single unthinking reflex action, she picked it up and chucked over her shoulder, clean into the river (if it had been any other establishment they might have barred us, but to my shame we were in the Back Of Beyond: I’m sure they’ve seen worse). I’m allowed ketchup with fish and chips, but I have to take the plate through to the kitchen and rinse it the moment I’m finished: she claims she can smell ketchup at great distances.

Fortunately our third starter came with an assortment of chutneys, which were also handy for starters one and two. Medhu vada are doughnut shaped fritters made from urad dal that are often eaten as breakfast or a snack in South India: I’d never had them before, but enjoyed them a great deal. You got a couple for just over three pounds – they looked a little lonesome on that big steel tray – and they had a nice texture, crispy on the outside, doughy without being too heavy. I expected a little more in terms of spicing and curry leaves, but as a vehicle for the chutneys and sambar I thought they worked nicely.

“It’s the chutney I judge these places by” a friend of mine had said to me earlier in the week. “We haven’t found any good ones in the UK so far.” Although I quite enjoyed Crispy Dosa’s chutneys I suspected they might have left her underwhelmed. The coriander chutney was probably the best of the lot but it didn’t quite have the zing I’d have liked. The coconut one was pleasant, and the sambar, although thin, had a pleasing heat to it. But the red chutney felt a little lacking in oomph, and I didn’t make great inroads into that.

Our main courses arrived while we were tackling the tail end of our starters. I’d forgotten just how huge a dosa looks when it’s plonked in front of you – you need the superwide lens on an iPhone to fit it all in – and how attractive a dish it is. I’d gone for the ghee podi masala dosa, and it was burnished on the outside and glossy with ghee inside, sprinkled with a dry powder made from lentils which gave it a savoury kick (the closest thing I can compare it to – let’s insult two cultures at once, shall we? – was the shrapnel at the bottom of a packet of dry roasted peanuts).

It was terrific finger food, and probably worked better with the chutneys and sambar than the medhu vada had. Only the potato masala let the side down – for me it was too creamy and bland with a strange note of something like condensed milk, and didn’t have enough in the way of spice. I finished my meal feeling full, so I didn’t lose too much sleep over leaving some of it, but portions at Crispy Dosa are so generous that I probably could have skipped the masala completely. Maybe I’ll branch out next time.

Another good candidate for next time was Zoë’s choice, from the “Chef Recommended Dosa” section, otherwise known as the “What Other Things On The Menu Could We Stuff Into A Dosa?” section. I suspect this bit of the menu would give purists conniptions – Szechuan noodles in a dosa doesn’t sound anything but weird – but Zoë’s paneer Manchurian dosa was very good indeed and worked well as a dish. It came rolled and cut into segments, much more like a traditional sandwich, and the paneer in it was firm, tangy and pretty tasty stuff. I wasn’t entirely convinced this dish needed the chutneys, as it managed perfectly well in its own right, a thoroughly enjoyable dish.

“It reminds me of a quesadilla, and I fucking love a quesadilla” said Zoë, handily proving that I wasn’t the only person not averse to a spot of cultural appropriation: arguably the restaurant started it by giving us tomato ketchup, anyway.

If we had had a better idea of portion size, and maybe paced ourselves a little better, we might have saved room for dessert. I have a soft spot for kulfi, it was the perfect evening for it and Crispy Dosa does a pistachio kulfi that I imagine I’d have enjoyed. Another one to notch up for next time, I think. We were probably there about an hour in total – ever so slightly on the brisk side, but understandable for the kind of restaurant Crispy Dosa is – during which time the Oxford Road gradually got louder, crazier and more watchable.

“It’s nice to have another spot that’s perfect for a quick meal before heading to the Nag’s” said Zoë. “This place and ThaiGrr! will come in handy for that.”

“Good point. That’s been a gap in the market since Tuscany and the Jolly Fryer closed down.”

“I know” she smiled. “You should mention that in your review.”

Our dinner for two – three starters, two mango lassis and two dosas – came to just over thirty-five pounds, not including tip. That’s not bad value, and you could easily spend less and come away full. Service was excellent throughout, and I did find myself rooting for them despite the occasional misstep. We were the only table outside, but they worked very hard to make us feel like we hadn’t been forgotten. It’s been such a difficult year for restaurants, and Crispy Dosa has hardly opened at an auspicious time, but it felt like there was a decency and integrity to what they did.

Reviewing restaurants again means putting ratings at the bottom, which means the usual hoo-ha about people thinking my reviews are too harsh, or too generous, or that the mark is too low or too high to match the words. I’m not sure I’ve missed that; the current feedback seems to be that I’m too harsh, though no doubt it will swing around before too long. But I liked Crispy Dosa, perhaps more than I enjoyed the sum total of the dishes. Some were good, some were middling but all were reasonably priced enough that you can explore, make mistakes, revisit.

Perhaps my spectacles are a little rose-tinted by just how wonderful it was to sit outside a restaurant again. But I don’t think so: I think Crispy Dosa is a decent, solid restaurant which adds something to Reading, especially if you live on the west side of town, or especially if you’re vegetarian. I’m glad it’s decided to open here, and that paneer Manchurian has my name on it at some point in the not too distant future. It’s no longer the latest restaurant to open in Reading – that honour passed this week to some burger place on Friar Street – so it will just have to settle for being the latest restaurant I’ve reviewed. Small consolation, I know, but them’s the breaks.

Crispy Dosa – 7.0
60 Oxford Road, Reading, RG1 7LT
0118 3273670

https://www.crispydosarestaurant.co.uk
Delivery via: Direct through the restaurant, JustEat, Deliveroo or Uber Eats

Takeaway review: Wingstop

One thing that always strikes me about Reading is that many of the people who proudly call it home weren’t born here. Whether you came here for university and never left, settled here for a job, ended up here because you found love or – like me – wound up in Reading because your parents moved here for one of those reasons back in the Eighties, Reading is full of countless stories about people who made a life here, on purpose or accidentally. Frequently it’s the latter – you always think that one day you’ll go somewhere else, but something about the place gets its hooks into you and somehow, magically, one day you realise that it’s your place. It’s where you belong.

Our independent restaurateurs and entrepreneurs are great examples of that. They all have a story to tell, whether it’s Blue Collar’s Glen Dinning coming here from nearby Didcot, just down the road, Nandana and Sharat of Clay’s settling here after living in India and London or Geo Café’s redoubtable Keti, who moved to the U.K. from Georgia and somehow found herself living, of all places, in Reading. Imagine a Reading in a parallel universe where all those people made different decisions and took their considerable talents elsewhere. Actually, don’t: it doesn’t bear thinking about.

I saw this too, back when I organised readers’ lunches, before the pandemic. ER readers are a fascinating bunch – and I’m not just saying this because they turn up to my lunches – and many of them have moved to Reading, sometimes fairly recently, and are finding their way, looking for their place in things. Reading has so much going on (it did, anyway, before the pandemic, and no doubt will again) and yet it’s not always obvious or easy to find. You have to put the work in. But it rewards the investment: a great and growing food scene, plenty of culture and theatre, history, architecture, wonderful pubs and plenty of breweries. We Reading folk are a lucky bunch.

For me, that mixture of our history and all those who positively choose to live here, roll their sleeves up and make it a better place is what makes Reading so special. It’s something that people who live to run the town down will never comprehend. They sneer about the mosque, or flytipping, or any of a hundred other petty niggles and they don’t see the town for what it really is: a well-educated, pro-Remain, anti-Tory, polyglot, highly skilled place full of possibility. Not perfect – nowhere is – but with plenty of character, and always wanting to be better.

There was a time, a while back, when Reading was especially attractive to a different kind of settler. We were first in the queue for all sorts of interesting businesses, drawn in by our proximity to London and our highly qualified workforce, even before Crossrail was a thing. I still remember Reading getting the first Bill’s outside West Sussex, and how exciting that was. Actually, my memory even goes back as far as our first Pret, and our first Carluccio’s: believe it or not, people were excited about those, too. 

But then we were in line for all sorts of other exciting restaurants – Honest Burgers and Pho chose to have some of their first branches outside the capital in RG1. It looked for a while as if Byron and Busaba would open here, too, and even London’s high-end Peruvian restaurant Ceviche, surreally, was touted for an outpost in Reading. We never got the Wahaca many people so badly wanted (or the branch of Le Pain Quotidien I quite fancied), but we got a Malmaison as a consolation prize. There was a period where Reading went from “it’s all just chains” to “we get the best chains”. With rents pricing many independents out of the town centre, it seemed as much as we could hope for.

I don’t know when this changed – at some point since 2016, when things started their slow dive into the slough of despond – but somewhere along the way we became the first in line for a very different kind of restaurant. We’re no longer a logical extension of London, more the landing ground for American chain restaurants. Five Guys in the Oracle was the harbinger for all that, but in the last few years the rate of change has accelerated. We got a Taco Bell, we got a Chick-Fil-A, we are getting a Wendy’s later this year. And for the latter two, Reading’s is (or was) the very first branch to open in the country. Are we Reading folk really a lucky bunch? Is this going to Make Reading Great Again? 

Anyway, Chick-Fil-A rightly closed in short order after boycotts and protests about their antediluvian approach to LGBT issues, and last month another chicken chain, Wingstop, opened in its place, that weird upstairs location at the front of the Oracle that also played host to vegan junk food restaurant Miami Burger. Wingstop is another huge American chain expanding into the U.K., and – guess what? – Reading’s is the first branch outside London. There have been queues outside since it opened (of customers, rather than protestors) and so I decided to order some on a miserable Monday night, partly out of morbid curiosity and partly because both Zoë and I have a long-standing love of fried chicken in pretty much all its forms.

Wingstop is only on Deliveroo, and their menu is pretty limited. Chicken comes three different ways – wings, “boneless” and tenders. The middle one is the most misleading – “boneless” implies boneless wings, and indeed the Wingstop website refers to them as boneless wings, and I was taken in by that. But the small print on Deliveroo, which I only read after the fact, points out that they are “100% all-white breast meat, 0% bones and 110% flavour”. So that’s nice. 

Effectively they mean that they’re nuggets, which are inherently boneless. But rather than be honest about that, Wingstop has chosen to commit the grammatical crime of converting the word “boneless” from an adjective to a noun. If I hadn’t been fooled I’d have ordered wings, even though they aren’t especially my bag, but there you have it. The real choice, such as it is, is what particular flavour you want one hundred and ten per cent of: Wingstop’s chicken comes in ten different flavours, from their original coating and their signature lemon and pepper all the way through to Mango Habanero or Brazilian Citrus Pepper. 

It wasn’t clear from Deliveroo whether these were a coating or that they were covered in sauce, although the Wingstop website suggests that six of them are “wet” and four of them are “dry”. I can see why they didn’t include this on Deliveroo: “wet and boneless” describes some people I’ve met over the years but hardly summons up images of anything I’d want to order from a restaurant. Anyway, you get two flavours with an order of nuggets or wings and one with chicken tenders, irrespective of how many you order.

We ordered some nuggets, some tenders and some fries and our order came to thirty-three pounds, not including rider tip. If that sounds like a lot, in fairness we did get a lot of nuggets and tenders, and two portions of loaded fries: on the other hand, if we’d given in to the temptation to get some churros for dessert we could have spent even more.

I suspect that many of you have an idea by now of the way this is going, even without a rating of the bottom of this for you to scroll down to. But you know far better than I did when I placed my order: I always try to go in with an open mind, and the prospect of a chain restaurant only doing a limited number of things did rather raise the hope that they might do them well. And, as I said before, I do have a real weakness for fried chicken – and that even includes KFC, or did until last year when I decided I’d rather try and support more independent businesses. 

Everything was quick and unfussy, which always makes this paragraph a short one. We ordered at ten past seven, the rider was on his way twenty-five minutes later and within another five minutes he was at the front door. He had two orders for Wingstop in his insulated bag, so bear in mind that if you live further out of town your rider might well make another stop before getting to you. I don’t know who was getting the other order but whoever they were, as it turned out, they have my sympathy.

Everything was in cardboard packaging which I imagine was recyclable, apart from the dips which were in little plastic tubs, and everything was hot. And now, because I can put it off no longer, let’s talk about how it tasted, and how little it tasted of.

The bonelesses (let’s call them nuggets from now on, or things will just get silly) were dull, dry little pellets of chicken with nothing much going for them. We had a dozen, which very quickly felt like too many, half in their original seasoning and half in “Louisiana rub”, which sounds like a skin condition you might pick up in New Orleans. The latter was meant to be dry, but they were coated in some kind of random hot sauce, for no discernible reason. They tasted mainly of acrid, slightly vinegary heat which did its best to conceal the lack of flavour underneath.

The original seasoning was probably the best of the bunch, but even then it was surprisingly bland: it tasted much the way that Colonel Sanders’ unique blend of herbs and spices would taste after going through the wash half a dozen times. It brought to mind really good fried chicken, but only in the sense that you’d eat it and then think “this is nothing like really good fried chicken”. We dipped the nuggets in a blue cheese dip which had a faint, unwelcome whiff of acetone and a ranch dressing which answered the question “what would mayonnaise without a personality taste like?”

We’d ordered the tenders in lemon and pepper, which is supposedly Wing Stop’s trademark coating (not especially fun fact: the UK master franchise is called Lemon Pepper Holdings). They tasted, to me at least, like something you might buy from a supermarket and crisp up on a baking tray in the oven, on autopilot, daydreaming about eating something better. And that’s the worst thing, because I suspect they were nutritionally far worse for you than that. I really resent wasted empty calories at the best of times, but this just felt like a waste in every sense.

And this really was salty, so salty that you could almost feel your oesophagus starting to wrinkle like a slug under the onslaught of sodium chloride. Everything was so greasy, too. With both the nuggets and the tenders it didn’t feel like the restaurant had properly shaken them off before putting them in the box, to the extent where there was a grim slick of oil on the paper lining the bottom, and the pieces closest to it were actually soggy rather than crispy.

I haven’t mentioned the chips, so to give credit where it’s due: these were outstanding. Only kidding! They were cruddy as well. I’d chosen the “buffalo ranch” fries, which were dusted with a hot red powder which tasted as if it might be made from depleted uranium, more of that screechingly sharp hot sauce and, just for fun, the ranch dressing I’d felt so ambivalent about. Again, they were crudely salty, as if getting them to taste of salt constituted making them taste of something. The cheese fries were allegedly “smothered with aged cheddar cheese”. Looking at the picture, I would say “smothered” is poetic licence and that mature cheddar cheese doesn’t melt like that or take on that weirdly synthetic, plastic sheen.

I didn’t like Wingstop much. Can you tell? Aside from the ten gimmicky flavours, the crimes against grammar and the slightly disingenuous menu, I think the most damning thing about it is that whatever it was aiming to be, it failed. Truly it was neither one thing nor the other. If you decide, one night, that you have a real hankering after lemon and pepper chicken, you’d be better off with Nando’s. If you wanted salty, crinkly-edged pieces of fried chicken, Wingstop is nowhere near as good as even the most ordinary KFC. It almost made me wish I’d tried Chick-Fil-A: they might have been rampantly homophobic but I can’t imagine their food was duller than Wingstop’s.

And that’s just talking about the chains. The joy of Reading is that we don’t have to settle for chain restaurants. Bluegrass BBQ does reasonably good fried chicken, and on the occasions where the Lyndhurst has it on the menu theirs is superb. Even Kungfu Kitchen has dabbled with fried chicken in the past and yes, theirs was also miles better than Wingstop. But I’ve saved the best til last. If you get yourself to Blue Collar on a Friday lunchtime, shortly after this review comes out in fact, you can join the queue for Gurt Wings and get the best fried chicken in Reading. 

They’re here every week and if wings are your thing they absolutely have you covered. They also do beautiful chicken tenders and, at the moment, cups full of soy marinated crispy Japanese popcorn chicken thigh. They make all their own sauces, and their buffalo and blue cheese will make you weep with gratitude (although my personal favourite is the habanero syrup). Four tenders and a shedload of deeply addictive tater tots will set you back nine pounds. For much the same price you can have three iffy tenders from Wingstop and a portion of underwhelming fries.

Gurt Wings are based in Swindon and most of their beat is markets and pubs in Wiltshire and Bristol. But best of all, and bringing us full circle, they always spend Fridays in Reading. And that’s because Glen Dinning, that chap from Didcot I mentioned at the start of this review, decided to set up the best street food market for miles around here in Reading – and that decision, years later, brought us Gurt Wings. See? All is not lost. You just have to remember that for every Wingstop, there’s an equal and opposite Gurt Wings, gravitating towards this town just like all of us. Maybe Reading’s still got it, after all.

Wingstop
24a The Oracle, Reading, RG1 2AH
0118 3212699

https://www.wingstop.co.uk
Order via: Deliveroo only