Restaurant review: Sauce And Flour, Maidenhead

One of my oldest friends lives in Swindon. Someone has to. Whenever he comes to Reading he enjoys our street food, our craft beer and our shopportunities and he complains to me – at length – that it didn’t have to turn out like this. He reckons that there was a time, back in the Nineties when all that money hadn’t decided where to coalesce, when it Could Have Been Swindon. They had a House Of Fraser, well before the Oracle opened, and that designer outlet everyone used to get so excited about. And Reading – Heelas aside, of course – was a bit of a wasteland in the mid-Nineties. Things could have been very different. 

But the retail and hospitality gods smiled on Reading and, like many of us, they sneered at Swindon. We got the big names and the investment and Swindon, over the few decades, withered and died. It’s not all terrible: Darkroom Espresso is a great place to grab a coffee, Los Gatos in the old town is a tapas restaurant Reading would be lucky to have and a few doors down Rays does thoroughly likeable ice cream. But there’s a reason people who live in Swindon go to Bath, Oxford or Cirencester at the weekend, just as people from those places don’t pop over to Swindon of a Saturday.

The reason I’m starting a review of a place in Maidenhead talking about Swindon is that lately I’ve been looking at what’s going on in Maidenhead and starting to wonder if we might find ourselves in the Swindon role at some point in the coming years. Because although it’s early days, the businesses beginning to come to prominence in Maidenhead are the kind that you’d want to see in Reading instead of – hooray – a branch of Popeyes or our twentieth Costa Coffee. 

Take A Hoppy Place, a credible, nicely fitted out craft beer bar a five minute walk from the train station with close to twenty beers and ciders on cask and keg. Last time I went it was doing a roaring trade and making the most of its outside space, and it was a wonderful place to while away a few hours. And although Reading has a brilliant craft beer scene – bolstered by the new addition of the Grumpy Goat’s upstairs bar – there’s nothing on that scale in the town centre. 

And then there’s Seasonality, which recently got a rave review in The Guardian. It started in lockdown as a deli also selling heat at home meals, and has since morphed into a restaurant offering an interesting and inventive menu. It’s tasteful, gorgeous looking and independent: you could count the number of restaurants like that which have opened in Reading in the last couple of years on the fingers of one stump. With the winter we have looming, and the town’s famously charmless landlords, can you imagine one trying their luck here in the next twelve months?

Finally, the subject of this week’s review which might be the most interesting of the lot. Flour and Sauce opened in March as part of Maidenhead’s Waterside Quarter and seems, on paper at least, to be an example of a London trend that hasn’t so far made it this far west, the pasta restaurant. And by that I mean that, from a look at the menu, it seems to be modelled on Borough Market’s famous Padella and the hugely influential Bancone along with more recent imitators.

Those places – offering starters, a selection of pasta and not much else – have been one of my favourite trends of the last few years. They’ve given dishes like silk handkerchiefs with confit egg yolk or bucatini cacio e pepe iconic status and at their best they make for fantastic mid-priced casual restaurants. Throw in a negroni to start and a decent dessert at the end and you have the blueprint for a marvellous lunch or dinner: I’ve eaten at the original Bancone in Covent Garden a few times and never had a meal there that was less than splendid. So was Maidenhead boasting an example of this very London trend by virtue of its place on the Elizabeth Line? I wanted to find out.

It looked gorgeous from the outside, all white columns and full length windows. And it had the feeling of a fully realised concept, with clear branding, although something was niggling and bringing out my inner Mary Portas. Was it the name? Somehow it felt like it should be Flour And Sauce, both in chronological and alphabetical order. And the slogan – Wine Meats Dine – might have worked as a pun, but it didn’t seem to descibe what they actually did.

Going inside and taking my table brought out my inner Michelle Ogundehin. It was a big deep room but everything was somehow disconnected. The furniture didn’t match, but not in a charming way or even a calculated one, more as if they’d run out of stuff. I saw three different types of chair, one of which was the ubiquitous Tollix I associate with far cheaper food and greater discomfort.

Likewise the lampshades didn’t match, but not in a way that made sense – including the ones over the window seats which looked like grass skirts humping a lightbulb. There were some cheap shelving units from Ikea along one wall and a completely incongruous pine Welsh dresser at the back. It all felt thrown together, as if they’d opened in a hurry – and of course it might well have been. The faux marble wallpaper along one wall, already slightly peeling at the joins, might have gone on in a hurry too.

“It’s funny” said Zoë. “You walk in and think ‘this is nice’ but then the longer you look at it the more jarring it gets.”

I don’t think it helps that we got arguably the worst table in the place. The restaurant wasn’t really broken into zones, and we had the last free table – right at the front, near the open door. It was a bit chilly, and with people traipsing past in either direction it felt like eating in a corridor – especially when at one point a large group decided to stand right next to our table and chat to a couple eating up at the window for the best part of ten minutes. The window seats, by the way, are probably the best place to sit if you’re in a pair: the counter is lovely and deep, and you get a great view (and, therefore, superb people watching opportunities).

The menu was a little like the room – superficially attractive, but the closer you looked the more you wondered. At places like Bancone, the array of pasta dishes all involve different types of pasta which gives you a much wider range of choices. By contrast nearly all the pasta dishes at Sauce And Flour revolved around relatively similar shapes, and not too many of them, so you had multiple permutations of pappardelle, tagliatelle, linguine and bucatini which made up all but one of the pasta dishes on offer (the exception was a penne dish: what kind of a monster orders penne from choice?). I was hoping to see some ravioli, something like trofie or orechiette, a little more variety.

And while I’m whinging, the drinks list was irksome too. A reasonable selection of wine, but only one of each colour available by the glass. Come in a group or don’t bother, that seemed to say. And the pricing of the solitary red, white and rosé were absolutely nuts: the menu sold wine in 125ml and 250ml glasses with no option in between. And if you did decide you wanted a small glass of wine they stung you, with most of them costing only two pounds less than the large glass (I mean, you could say the large glasses were a relative bargain, but I suppose I’m a bit more large-glass-half-empty).

The irony wasn’t lost on me: I’ve moaned for years that not enough restaurants sell wine in 125ml glasses, and here I was in a place where it was one of the only options. But it felt badly thought out. There were two beers on offer, those ubiquitous macro lagers Peroni and Moretti. I took another look, thought fuck this and ordered a large bottle of San Pellegrino.

Would the food redeem matters? Some of it came close. We started with some thoroughly decent dishes from the starters menu and for a while I thought my tetchiness would be held in check. The pick of the bunch – of the whole meal, in fact – were the short rib beef croquettes: three beautiful specimens crisp of shell and packed with soft, yielding, slow-cooked beef. They were perched in a little moat of spiced mayonnaise which might have had a kiss of ‘nduja, and each had a slice of pickle draped on top which was more sweet than tart and tied things together nicely.

There were three of these and I let Zoë have the spare because she was so underwhelmed by the next starter, although I didn’t like it much better. Squid – “body and tentacles” according to the menu, which I think is TMI – was meant to come fried with ‘nduja but was actually in a thin, vinegary sauce with capers and no heat or seasoning. All the squid was bouncier than you’d like, and just made me think wistfully of better squid I’ve had in the not too distant past. It came with a long transverse slice of focaccia toast which was so rock hard that trying to cut it with a knife and fork left me worrying that half of it would ping off and hit the next table. A pointless blob of squid ink mayo perched on it, looking like a dirty protest.

Finally, I wasn’t sure what “warm buttermilk garlic bun & parmesan” would turn out to be, and the answer is essentially this: four giant dough balls. They were about as nice as giant dough balls can be, strewn with Parmesan and rosemary, and I squidged a piece into the sauce that came with the squid to verify that yes, it really was that dull.

Mains were better but, and this is rather a theme, not exactly as billed. My linguine puttanesca was solid, I think. The ribbons had just enough pleasing bite and the sauce, a combination of all my favourite things, worked well. It had the note of acidity from the capers, a pleasant hum of chilli in the background and beautiful, plump olives. I felt like it needed more anchovy, but then I feel that way about the world in general so this dish was hardly an isolated incident. I’d paid extra to have some yellowfin tuna in the mix and I think I spotted a couple of forkfuls, but that was it. Not bad at all, and not bad value at fourteen pounds, but in the wider context of the whole meal it was doing a lot of heavy lifting.

Zoë’s dish, slow-cooked duck ragu with tagliatelle, had sounded good on paper and she enjoyed it, but from what I tasted it didn’t quite work. Again, the menu was misleading: this didn’t feel like a ragu at all, and the pieces of duck leg I ate didn’t have that tenderness I associate with slow cooked sauces. This hadn’t been reduced for a long time in red wine and tomatoes, it was a white ragu if anything, but it felt like the duck had been added to the white wine and mascarpone right at the end.

And it tasted pleasant enough, but if I’d ordered it I’d have been disappointed: perhaps the kitchen’s other ragus – one made with beef shin, the other with pork and ‘nduja – showed off their skills better. Zoë couldn’t finish it – you can’t fault the portion size – but by the end the sauce had pretty much solidified which made it a challenge. I will say this for Sauce And Flour, though: both pasta dishes had the welcome crunch of judiciously added pangrattato, and it’s hard to completely take against a restaurant that does that.

We decided to try dessert, to give the place a fair crack of the whip. They too were pretty representative of the whole Sauce And Flour experience. Zoë’s tiramisu was decent, and she loved the mascarpone and the leftfield inclusion of Kahlua, but it was a lot more cream than sponge. It didn’t dampen her ardour for Buon Appetito’s magical pistachio tiramisu, put it that way.

I went for the cheese selection and for one person, for seven pounds, I thought it was generous. They have a big deli counter just along from the open kitchen so you can see the staff cutting and preparing the cheese plate, and maybe if I’d had better eyesight I could have worked out what they were. But with the exception of a gorgeous, crumbly Parmesan with decent age which I left until last, I have no idea what they were because the wait staff just plonked them down and sodded off (the menu doesn’t say, either).

The others were a mix of a soft cheese that might have been Brie but possibly wasn’t, a hard cheese that could have been pecorino but probably wasn’t and a couple of other cheeses which honestly could have been anything. Maybe it was the adrenalin, or maybe I was just high on life and drunk on San Pellegrino but I have absolutely no idea. I do know that they came with crackers which tasted a lot like water biscuits and a little dish of something the menu just calls “jam” which tasted of surprisingly little.

Not telling us what the cheeses were was pretty consistent with service in general: it wasn’t unpleasant or rude, just distinctly brisk and disinterested. Maybe it’s because they were busy, but it lacked warmth – and I’m not just saying that because I was sitting by the open door. For me, that was arguably the biggest drawback about Sauce And Flour because it’s the thing – over and above the quirks of the menu or that sore thumb Welsh dresser – that badly needs to be fixed. Our meal came to just over sixty-seven pounds, and included a ten per cent service charge I’m not entirely sure was warranted.

On the train home, Zoë and I mused about exactly what had been missing from our evening.

“The room wasn’t that bad, and some of the food was very good, but great service would absolutely transform that place” she said. And she’s right. Sauce And Flour is a curious beast. It looks, on paper, like an attempt to recreate those specialist pasta restaurants in the capital, but scratch the surface and I have a horrible feeling that it’s actually just a reasonable Italian restaurant with a more limited menu. Like the faux marble wallpaper, it might look the part from a distance but underneath, it’s already peeling. So we can relax: Reading isn’t missing out, not this time anyway. If you want to leave town to eat superb Italian food, take a train to Mio Fiore.

What it really made me think about was the glory days of Dolce Vita, at the height of its powers. I loved Dolce Vita, but let’s be honest: the room wasn’t the best in Reading, and a fair amount of the food didn’t quite live up to its reputation (mainly, ironically, the pasta and pizza dishes). But because of the service, you never cared about that. You’d go back time and again, and it always felt like having friends cooking for you. And if I’d gone to Dolce Vita and there had only been one wine by the glass, I wouldn’t have given a shit; I don’t think I ever went there without ordering a bottle anyway. Trends or no trends, Reading doesn’t need a Sauce And Flour. But there will always be room for another Dolce Vita.

Sauce And Flour – 7.0
4A High Street, Maidenhead, SL6 1QJ
07516 948421

https://www.sauceandflour.com

Restaurant review: The Magdalen Arms, Oxford

Can you believe that this is the first time I’ve ever reviewed a restaurant in Oxford? Crazy, I know: it’s half an hour away by train and probably the place most readers ask me to consider when it comes to casting my net a bit wider. And yet, for a variety of reasons, I’ve never gone there on duty. For a long time, it’s because there was no gap in the market. Not because Oxford has a thriving local press – they have an iffy Newsquest paper and website, just like we do – but because it had a superb restaurant blogger, In Oxford, Will Eat, and she did such a good job that I had no desire to step on her turf. 

Then she got a job in Brussels, and I considered expanding north, but shortly after that I got divorced and took some time out. And when I came back, about a year later, loads of new Reading restaurants had sprung up during my hibernation – so many, in fact, that I had my hands full catching up with them all. So I got that under control and my thoughts turned to Oxford again, and then bang: along came the pandemic. The works always seemed to have a spanner in them, to the point where I wondered if it just wasn’t meant to be.

But a couple of weeks back I decided that life was about as close to normal as it was likely to be any time soon, and Zoë and I had a Friday off together, and Oxford was calling to me. It’s a funny place, in lots of ways: I lived there for four years in the mid-Nineties and back then the gulf between town and gown was so pronounced that it felt like a bit like my ex-wife and I sharing a flat for five months while the divorce got sorted: a deeply uncomfortable, unsustainable cohabitation between two very different halves. As a student, if you walked into the wrong pub – I did it once on my first week at university, and never repeated the mistake – you could almost feel the threat of violence in the air. Mind you, at nineteen I probably provoked that response often.

Nowadays it’s a city far more at ease with itself, and walking its picturesque streets on a sunny Friday morning it seemed the far bigger problem was tourists, a group locals and students regard with equal levels of animosity. Oxford is an interesting place to compare with Reading, because it has a lot of the things Reading does not – an excellent covered market, nice little enclaves of independent shops, areas like Jericho (which is what Caversham wishes it was) or the Cowley Road (ditto, but for the Oxford Road). 

It has a more upmarket mall, too, in the shape of the Westgate, and better, fancier chains than the ones we get saddled with. Pizza Pilgrims, Shoryu, Mowgli and Le Pain Quotidien all operate there. Our branch of Leon got canned and people are eagerly awaiting the opening of Gail’s where Patisserie Valerie used to be: Oxford has played host to both for years. And last time I checked, Oxford didn’t have a Taco Bell or a Jollibee. How on earth do they cope?

But it’s not as simple as that, because spending time in Oxford makes you realise that despite all its chocolate-boxiness it lacks things that we take for granted here in Reading. Street food, for one – the Covered Market is great but Oxford has nothing like Blue Collar, and the market in Gloucester Green is much more variable. Craft beer is another shortcoming – Oxford specialises in a certain kind of pub, popular with tourists, cask spods and “pubmen” (they’re always men), but it’s a struggle to find anywhere that serves more interesting stuff since The Grapes, the West Berkshire pub on George Street, closed at the end of last year, with the notable exception of Teardop, a nanopub in the Covered Market. It closes at half-five.

And what about restaurants? Well, this is another area where Oxford has never been considered quite as good as it should be. It has some cracking restaurants, and I’ve paid them many visits over the years: modern Italian Branca in Jericho, lovely family-owned Pierre Victoire on fairy light-strewn Little Clarendon Street, bright bustling Arbequina dishing up tapas down the Cowley Road and swanky Pompette out in Summertown. But those seem to be the exception rather than the rule, and beyond that top tier there are a fair few places trading on past reputation and others that just couldn’t make a go of it. 

That last category tells a story all on its own, because I’ve eaten at so many lauded restaurants in Oxford that that didn’t survive. Places like The Oxford Kitchen (it won a Michelin star in 2018: now it’s a delicatessen), or Turl Street Kitchen, the Anchor or even The Rickety Press, before the pub was acquired by Dodo Pubs, the owners of our very own Last Crumb. It makes you think: we get our sackcloth and ashes out because Clay’s is moving to Caversham – well, those of us who don’t live in Caversham do, anyway – but Oxford has a bit of a track record of not being able to support good restaurants. What’s that all about?

(I should add that if by some chance you’re reading this and you live in Oxford and I’ve got the place completely wrong, please go easy on me. Let me know all the great places I’m missing in Oxford, in the comments, and I’ll make sure I add them to my to do list. And do accept my apologies: I too live somewhere where we’re used to being misjudged.)

Anyway, for my inaugural Oxford review – just as with my first ever Reading review all those years ago – I picked a proper happy place. And I couldn’t think of a better establishment to start with: the Magdalen Arms is a gastropub down the Iffley Road with impeccable credentials, part of a group which includes the legendary Anchor & Hope on Waterloo’s The Cut and, for many years, Great Queen Street just off Drury Lane, a sadly departed favourite of mine. It’s a bracing walk over Magdalen Bridge, or you can just hop on a bus outside Queens College and be there in just over five minutes.

The Magdalen Arms has been trading in its current incarnation for nearly thirteen years and has been reviewed glowingly in every broadsheet you care to name, although not for some time. It’s reached the stage, I suspect, where it’s been doing its thing consistently for so long that it’s just become part of the furniture, a position I can identify with. Even as far back as 2010 Matthew Norman in the Guardian said “Being the best restaurant in Oxford may not be a glittering accolade”, proving that smug tossers talking the city down is by no means a new phenomenon.

Anyway, I’ve been coming to the Magdalen Arms for longer than I can remember. Usually for the pie, which serves two and seems mandatory to order in most of the reviews I’ve ever read. Arriving on a clement summer afternoon the pub was every bit as handsome a place as I remembered. It’s a big old place made up of two huge rooms – a gorgeous one at the front with deep red walls and an almost continental feel, and another at the back which I’ve never taken to. Most of the customers on the day we visited were sitting outside, so we got a cracking table next to the window. I was surprised to see the place so quiet – on a Sunday lunchtime it tends to be heaving – and although I wasn’t complaining I was slightly concerned.

The Magdalen Arms’ menu has always been relatively compact, but seemed more narrow than I remembered. You had a choice of five starters and a couple of larger ones to share, and just the three main courses alongside two options for larger groups. It meant deciding was simultaneously easier and harder than usual, an interesting dilemma, and the fact that there was no pie on the menu – anyone would have thought it was the height of summer – forced us to pick a Plan B.

But while we made up our mind they brought us some squares of their exemplary focaccia and a shallow dish of deep green olive oil, all grass and pepper, and from that point onwards all decisions felt slightly de-risked. That feeling was reinforced by the arrival of a bottle of petite syrah, an agreeable chorus of red fruits and spice, and I remembered that there’s little better than a leisurely lunch on a Friday with your favourite person, the sun pouring through the window and the rest of the world at work. Returning to a restaurant you love is one of the nicest reunions there is, and I realised it must have been three years since I’d sat in that room and made those enviable choices. It was all going to be okay.

We started with something I’ve always eyed up but never ordered, a Spanish sharing plate. It came looking like a still life, and the best of it was very good indeed. Pan con tomate, toasted bread rubbed with tomato and herbs, was bright and summery and I could have eaten an awful lot more of it. And the manchego, if slightly fridge-cold, was perfect with a little lozenge of quince paste. Padron peppers were nicely blackened, too, although I personally like to see the blighters studded with salt. By contrast, these were slightly underpowered.

The least effective parts, for me, were two of the mainstays of Spanish food. Croquetas were a pleasing shape and size but the inside was coarse, not a silky bechamel, and had a strangely sweet tang to it. They were pepped up with a dab of romesco (served in those comical cardboard tubs used for hospital meds), but the romesco didn’t have the punch it needed. Similarly the tortilla was okay, but just okay – cooked through, a solid slab of eggs and carbs. I’ve been spoiled by its gooer sibling on the Cowley Road, but it did just fine.

We were on safer ground with cured meats, although again these would have been even better closer to room temperature. The Jamon was coarse and salty, with a beautiful dry texture and the lomo, which looked more like coppa, was equally delicious. And there seemed to be two different kinds of chorizo – both were gorgeous but one had that glorious alchemy of meat, fat and pimenton down pat. The plate was strewn with olives, although I did find myself wishing for something like some caperberries to add the sharpness that was missing.

But it was a thoroughly respectable thing to eat. It certainly could have served more people less greedy than Zoë and me, and felt like reasonable value at thirty-three pounds, just about. It did get me thinking, because this is one of my favourite kinds of dishes to share and many places in Reading try to offer something similar without quite getting it right: only Buon Appetito, with its ridiculously generous antipasto misto, gets close.

Normally I would order a different main to my dining partner, but the menu at the Magdalen Arms was so compact that when we wanted the same thing I decided neither of us should go without. I’m so glad I did, because the Magdalen Arms’ pigeon ragu with pappardelle was one of the nicest lunches I’ve had in a long time. The pasta was just right, with exactly the right amount of bite, a perfectly starchy vehicle for a wonderful ragu with celery and a little nip of what I thought might be fennel. 

The pigeon had largely been slow-cooked into strands, although a handful of more stubborn clumps remained, but it was really no hardship to polish off every mouthful. If you have just one plate at lunchtime, it’s difficult to imagine something nicer than this – that includes the Magdalen Arms’ pie, by the way – and at sixteen pounds it managed the unusual feat of being cheaper than our starter; the more I think about it, the more I think that starter was meant to be shared between more than two people.

Oh, and we also had some chips with aioli: they didn’t go with anything but it’s hard to pass up chips with aioli. The chips were great – I think the food blogger chip cliché is to wank on about “rustle and snap”, whatever the fuck that is – and although the aioli was good it came in another of those mingy paper cups and I had to ask for more. Not that it was any trouble: service was terrific from start to finish, just as it always is at the Magdalen Arms.

You would think, given everything I’ve said, that we passed on dessert. But you’d be misjudging how thorough (or how gluttonous) I am. My ice cream was excellent and again – bit of a theme here – hugely generous, with an enormo-scoop of a deep, bitter chocolate gelato and a pistachio ice cream which felt to me, both in terms of colour and flavour, to have more of a marzipan note to it. I love the stuff, so I was happy if I’d been missold.

Ice cream is another of those things Oxford does well and Reading does not, so the Magdalen Arms’ ice cream isn’t as good as the stuff you can get from Swoon Gelato on the High, but it’s still miles better than anything you can get in Reading. And to reverse the trend, the Magdalen Arms’ Basque cheesecake was nice enough – and the roasted apricots were a nice touch – but I’ve had better at Geo Café from the rather literally named Reading Loves Cheesecakes.

Replete, with the post-lunch fuzziness that comes from a good bottle of wine, I could have happily whiled the afternoon away there, watching afternoon smudge into evening and seeing the pub come to life again on a Friday night, buzzing with happy diners. But I had my eye on a coffee from the brilliant Missing Bean, who have a roastery literally around the corner, and that stroll back into the centre wasn’t going to get any easier.

So we settled up and went on our way. Our bill came to a hundred and twenty-three pounds, including a twelve and a half per cent service charge. Not cheap, but not unreasonable – and the menu does have a set lunch every day including a small glass of wine for twelve pounds: if Reading had an offer like that I would probably use it often. Come to think of it Pierre Victoire also does a killer set lunch, so perhaps this is another one to chalk up as something Oxford does far better.

So, no real surprises here; the nice thing about having a long relationship with a restaurant is that, unlike romantic relationships, there’s something rich and deep about reaching that stage where you move beyond infatuation and into comfortableness. I expected to have a good meal at the Magdalen Arms, and I did. I knew it might be amazing, which in honesty it wasn’t, but I could be absolutely certain it wouldn’t be mediocre. Restaurants and pubs like that are to be celebrated, wherever they are, and I knew for a fact when I left on that Friday afternoon that I would be back, and hopefully before too long. But just to compare Oxford and Reading one final time, would I swap it for the Lyndhurst? Not in a month of Sundays.

The Magdalen Arms – 7.7
243 Iffley Road, Oxford, OX4 1SJ
01865 243159

http://www.magdalenarms.co.uk

Restaurant review: Intoku

At the start of every year, the broadsheets wheel out an article about the food trends of the coming twelve months. And every year, nobody checks the article from the previous January to verify that almost none of the trends became a thing. Peruvian food never took off, beyond a couple of places in London. Neither did corn ribs, hard seltzers, carob, eringi mushrooms. 

But it fills a gap for column inches in January, among all the clean eating/“new year new you” articles they dust off and spruce up at the start of every year. And besides, it’s not like anybody’s keeping score: from this year’s predictions, keep an eye out for potato milk, whatever that is. It has another four months to become famous (they sell it at Waitrose, where reviews run the full gamut from “another unsatisfactory milk alternative” to “very neutral tasting”).

Anyway, Reading food trends aren’t like London food trends, because every year since I started this blog the trend has been pretty much the same: you’ll get more cafés, and some dickheads will complain that we have too many cafés. You’ll get more burger places, and some dickheads will moan that there are too many burger places. And, in recent years, you’ll get more American chains and some dickhead will whinge about the Americanisation of Reading. And yes, that last dickhead is me.

The real trends are the ones that blindside you. Late last year and early this year it was biryani places, with a mini explosion of options – Biryani Mama in town, Biryani Boyzz on the Oxford Road and, just opposite it, the interestingly named Biryanish (“it’s sort of like a biryani…”). And then in the last few months, the trend literally nobody saw coming: three Japanese restaurants opening in the space of two months. Did anybody predict that on New Year’s Day?

I’ve always loved Japanese food, but Reading’s never been incredibly well served for it. In the centre, you had Yo! Sushi and Sushimania, and both have their place: Yo! Sushi in particular democratised sushi and acted as an introduction for many people, me included. And I’ve always enjoyed heading to Sushimania after a day at work with Zoe, grabbing seats on the banquette and looking out on the dining room with a cold bottle of Asahi.

More recently Oishi opened down the Oxford Road: I loved it when I went, but for a while it had an alarming hygiene rating which put me off a return visit. And of course there’s Osaka which I liked but didn’t love, although I visited it during one of the weirdest months the world has ever seen. But for a more special meal I’ve always headed to Windsor, to eat at Misugo (recent discovery Miyazaki is an excellent alternative). Did any of Reading’s newcomers have what it takes to displace Misugo in my affections?

Of the three, Intoku was the obvious choice to try first. The others, You Me Sushi and Iro Sushi, are casual, grab-and-go places, whereas Intoku is more upscale and established, part of a small chain that began at a market stall in Manchester and now has restaurants in Chelsea, Windsor and Reading. The latter is their newest, opening at the end of May in the site on Chain Street which had become synonymous with the Tasting House over the course of seven years.

When the Tasting House closed in April last year it was almost impossible to imagine anything else in that spot, but turning up for dinner on Saturday night I was struck by how completely Intoku has transformed it. As the Tasting House all the action was on the ground floor, with the room upstairs more of an overflow or a space for wine tasting events. By contrast, Intoku has flipped it: there’s a bar and the open kitchen downstairs, along with a handful of booths, but the main dining room is upstairs. And a very polished-looking space it is too, with more little booths along one wall and most of the tables at the far end. They’ve opened up the windows looking out onto Chain Street, which makes it a far nicer space, and the furniture is attractive. 

I particularly liked the anime art feature wall on both floors (if you’ve ever wondered what a manga Mount Rushmore might look like, this will answer all your questions) although the place seemed a little dark and clubby for me. That might just be about associations. I tend to think of Japanese restaurants as a little humbler in terms of decor. But this was a lot more glam, and the music was Saturday night music too, so I decided just to go with it. I took my seat in one of the booths, only slightly thrown by the head height plug and USB sockets: if you’re a tightwad looking to charge your phone, this is the restaurant for you.

The welcome at Intoku was bright and enthusiastic, and when I was handed my menu I was told that things came out as and when they were ready. It was then that we decided to order in waves as we went along. I wonder if that caused some of the subsequent problems we experienced, because one of the many issues with the service was how difficult it was to attract attention to say that actually, we’d love to order more food.

Intoku’s menu is great – it reads well, it has good range and you find yourself wanting to order a lot of it. It’s wide but not deep, so for instance it covers sushi, sashimi, rice and noodle dishes but it doesn’t have too many of each. Prices are on the heftier side, with sashimi starting around nine pounds, much of the sushi costing a tenner or more and mains going up to eighteen pounds. Where the menu falls down – apart from the fact that it’s just not spelled “artisian” – is that it doesn’t explain things. So for instance it lists its fanciest uramaki without giving you the faintest idea what’s in them, a mistake repeated with the cocktail list.

That would work if the wait staff were engaged and enthusiastic about explaining the menu, but that wasn’t quite the case here. The first sign that it might be a challenging evening in that respect was when our beers arrived, a couple of cans of Sapporo, with no glasses. “I haven’t drunk out of a can since the After Dark” said Zoë. We eventually flagged someone down, and they brought over a couple of highballs, but it was weird to have to ask: if the service had been on it, we wouldn’t have needed to. It was a hot old day, but we weren’t offered water either, so thank goodness the upstairs was air conditioned.

Let’s talk instead about the food, because so much of it was fantastic. Our first set of dishes, the sushi and sashimi, were up there with the best Reading has to offer and easily as good as rivals elsewhere in Berkshire. The soft shell crab blossom rolls were a particular triumph – beautifully assembled and generous with the crab, topped with a smattering of tobiko, one of my favourite things. It might be the closest thing to a bargain on the menu, too: ten pounds gets you eight pieces, whereas at Misugo you pay a pound or two less for four.

Salmon and avocado maki, more modestly priced at six pounds, were also very well assembled, although one end piece had almost no salmon in it. But otherwise everything was well put together, not ragged or untidy. And presentation was nicely done: it’s amazing what you can do with a chopping board from IKEA.

I’ve looked back, and every time I eat on duty at a Japanese restaurant I always order salmon sashimi and I always say the same thing: beautifully cut, pure, fresh, buttery texture, blah blah blah. Well, sadly, Intoku’s rather lets the side down in that respect. It might have been something about the cut but it was more taut, more muscular with none of that gorgeous fattiness that makes it such a pleasant dish to eat. At eight pounds sixty for five pieces, it also felt a little sharply priced.

Having finished that little lot, we decided it was time to make another assault on the menu. And this is where our problems continued, because despite the restaurant being far emptier at this point than when we started it was almost impossible to get attention. I’d seen three different members of staff on the way to my table, but now there was just one. And she seemed more interested in re-laying the empty tables – which wouldn’t see a customer again until the following day – than coming back to ours. Eventually, after some time, we managed to get her over.

“Could we order some more food, please?”

“Of course, I’ll go get my notepad.” So she walked off to the other end of the restaurant, grabbed her pad, came back and took our order. And then off she went, without showing any interest in clearing away our empties. And it wasn’t just her, because when our food was ready another member of the wait staff brought it over and plonked it in front of us without taking away the dishes we’d finished with. Which, again, was plain odd: he was there anyway, why make multiple trips?

This is especially frustrating because the food, when it arrived, included some of the best Japanese food I can remember having. I know bao are more Chinese than Japanese, but Intoku sells them by the pair with a variety of fillings and we had ours with karaage chicken. They were absolutely heavenly. Chicken thigh, with a superbly crunchy coating and a hugely savoury note of Marmite, was crammed into pillowy buns topped with pickles and spring onion, and I can honestly say these were up there with bao I’ve had at Bao, next to Borough Market, and streets ahead of any I’d tried in Reading. I treasured each bite, knowing it would come to an end far too soon.

Ten minutes later, the other two small plates we’d ordered turned up. We asked our waiter if he’d mind taking our empties away and he did, with a look that suggested it had never even occurred to him.

Chicken gyoza were steamed rather than fried – odd that they don’t give you a choice, but good if you want to feel virtuous – and although they were probably the most unexceptional thing we ate they were still decent. Intoku seems to think that dipping is infra dig, so they came with a little pool of a thin sauce underneath them. Four meant no arguments about the spare one – I sometimes think Japanese restaurants give you five of the things because they like to provoke a heated debate – and this felt about its money at just over a fiver.

But the real highlight of this course, and indeed the meal, was the crispy fried squid. I often order this, never with any real expectations, and it’s always pleasant. But Intoku’s was just spectacular – hugely soft and fresh with no give, no bounce, no stubbornness at all. The coating was crinkled and crisp, with a little bit of togarashi sprinked on top. It was up there with the best squid I’ve had anywhere: I don’t know where Intoku get their squid from, but they’re not cutting a single corner.

Again, it was served with a thick chilli sauce underneath it – having it in a dipping bowl would have been easier – but it still didn’t matter because the sauce was exemplary too. So often sweet chilli sauce is jam-sweet with only a hint of heat, but this was a different species altogether. This is the dish to order if you visit Intoku, quite possibly multiple times.

By this point, believe it or not, we’d been there nearly an hour and a half. Despite not being enormously busy, it had been a challenge to place orders and the food had come out on the leisurely side. But it got weirder, because at about twenty-five past nine one of the wait staff came over and told us the kitchen was closing in five minutes. Did we want anything else? Nowhere on the menu does it tell you that they knock off so early on arguably the busiest night of the hospitality week.

“Yes, we’d really like to order some more food.”

“I’ll just get my notepad” she said, and off she went again.

“Why doesn’t she just keep her notepad with her?” said Zoë, who was running out of patience. I couldn’t really disagree.

So we placed one last order – with more of that squid, because it was so irresistible – and we waited. And waited.

About twenty-five minutes later, another member of staff came by and asked if we wanted any more drinks. We said no, but we’d ordered some food quite a while back. Was it still coming? This caused a bit of consternation, and he wandered off before coming back and saying that the waitress had taken our ticket to the kitchen but somehow they hadn’t seen it. It would be on its way. And so, about forty-five minutes after we placed our last order, we finally received it – more of that squid, some bonus gyoza – pan fried, this time – by way of apology and our main courses.

I don’t think this is just the fatigue or the frustration talking, but the mains are the weakest past of Intoku’s menu. Zoë’s katsu don with breaded chicken was the pick of the two, but it wasn’t without its problems. It was a rice dish with a thin omelette on top of it, the katsu sauce, fried onions and breaded chicken, and although it was pleasant it was all sweet and no heat. You’d have struggled to call it a curry.

I had high hopes for my dish, chicken leg inasal. This is apparently a Filipino dish where the chicken leg is marinated in sweet vinegar and braised for nine hours. Did that happen here? It’s hard to say. The chicken was beautifully soft, and taking it off the bone was no challenge (although I’d have struggled to do it with chopsticks), but although there was plenty of evidence of braising there was little or no evidence of marination because it tasted of not much. And there it sat, on a pile of naked rice. No sauce, no moisture, nothing. It was heavy going, monotonous and dry: the perfect metaphor for this review, but not much of a dish.

Two and a half hours after we’d sat down for a relatively quick dinner we paid our bill and headed home. No point heading to a bar for a final drink and a debrief, because we’d spent so long waiting at Intoku that everybody was calling last orders. The chap who took our payment – a hundred and eleven pounds, including a 12.5% service charge – was lovely and apologetic, and we were very English and said it was all fine. But the problem, really, is that it wasn’t.

I don’t enjoy having to criticise the service at restaurants, and I know some people take a dim view of it. They think it makes you look entitled, or like you’re punching down, in a way that criticising the kitchen somehow doesn’t. I know that hospitality is really struggling to get people right now, and that these people are undervalued and underpaid, by both restaurants and paying customers. But stuff like bringing you glasses, checking if you want to order more food, clearing away empties – that’s all basic stuff. That’s before we get on to closing the kitchen at half nine or managing to lose your order minutes after you’ve placed it.

If pointing all that out makes you Little Lord Fauntleroy, so be it. I say this with kindness, but Intoku needs to sort it out. I don’t know how else to put it: Intoku’s food is in places brilliant, but if they don’t get on top of their service I wonder how they’ll survive. Not just because people won’t go back – although their food was so good that I probably will, at least once – but because they’re missing out on chances to feed people more food, sell them more drinks, turn tables quicker and generally be more profitable at a time where every pound counts. When I visited they’d been open three months, but it felt like the opening week. I hope they fix this, if nothing else, so everyone gets to see how good that squid is. We now have a reason not to leave Reading for Japanese food. But Intoku still needs to give us more of a reason to go there.

Intoku – 7.2
30a Chain Street, Reading, RG1 2HX
0118 3045263

https://intokurestaurants.com/intoku-reading/

Restaurant review: Caper and Cure, Bristol

I don’t know how many restaurant reviewers you read – apart from yours truly, naturally – but the shocking truth is that I don’t really bother with any of them. I’ve no interest, for instance, in reading Giles Coren wanking on in his Corenesque way about another country pub near his house in the Cotswolds, peppering it with his usual contrarian casual racism. If I want to be bored shitless by an edgelord, I’ll just fire up Twitter.

That’s rich coming from me, I know. The irony isn’t lost on me, and if everybody thought the way I do I’d probably have the grand total of about three readers. But there you go: with some of the big names I have a peek to see where they’ve reviewed, and I might scan through to see if they liked it – if it’s somewhere I might one day go – but beyond that I don’t really pay much attention. 

So for instance I know that Grace Dent from the Guardian had a meal in Maidenhead not too long ago that she really enjoyed. As a result I’ve added the venue to my to do list, but I won’t be poring over her deathless prose line by line before I go. Similarly the subject of this week’s review, Caper and Cure, received rave reviews in the Sunday Times and the Financial Times recently. I didn’t read them (because paywall, Rupert Murdoch etc.), but when I happened to be in Bristol for the weekend I made a beeline there to see what the fuss was about.

And yes, that means another Bristol review, which in turn means that some of you will look away now – or, more likely, didn’t click on the link in the first place. But I make no apologies, because for many years now Bristol has had, for my money, the most interesting food scene in the U.K. Cities and towns like Brighton (back in the day) and Margate always strike me as trying to be London-on-Sea, but what I love about Bristol is that it ploughs its own furrow, with no interest in being anything other than itself. 

Places that want to develop a food culture, like Reading, could learn a lot from that: if we got even a fraction of the kind of restaurants in our town centre that Bristol seems to say hello to every month, we’d be a much richer place for it. Besides, it’s just over an hour away by train. 

So Zoë and I turned up on a Saturday lunchtime to check it out. Caper and Cure is in Stokes Croft, a short stroll from Cabot Circus, the city’s main mall, at the point where Bristol starts to get properly lively and interesting. Beyond Caper and Cure, Stokes Croft becomes the Cheltenham Road and then the Gloucester Road, a fascinating indie-land of bars and restaurants, shops selling every kind of beer or wine and charcuterie (and a special prize surely has to go to the splendidly named Bristanbul, a Turkish bakery).

On the walk to the restaurant I saw the parts of this area that have defeated gentrification: the patch of land called Turbo Island still sports a couple of shabby sofas whose best days were decades ago, and the people sitting on them were already a few cans of lager to the good by early afternoon. The last time I was here I had a fantastic brunch at nearby Jamaica Street Stores: it closed last month after five years, partly because of growing issues with Turbo Island.

But Caper and Cure, a handsome blue and gold fronted restaurant on the corner, still felt relatively genteel; Stokes Croft institution Café Kino is next door, and the gorgeous Elemental Collective sells coffee and pastries the other side of the road. The building Caper and Cure is in used to be a chemist, back in the Twenties, and the room retains exceptional bones – generously proportioned floor to ceiling windows letting in tons of light, and a compact, almost-triangular dining room with about twenty covers. 

A fetching button-backed banquette ran along one side – we were seated at the slightly less attractive tables on the other side of the room, but it didn’t feel like there were any truly duff seating choices. There was a small counter at the back, the open kitchen beyond, and along one wall was a map of Europe showing the provenance of some of the ingredients used in the kitchen: a nice touch. Why was Bristol so good at making excellent dining rooms and kitchens out of such modest spaces, and why had none of that genius ever made it down the M4 to us?

For that matter, why were Bristol restaurants so good at putting a menu together which was simultaneously compact but where you wanted to order everything? Four starters, five mains, three desserts, a cheeseboard and a couple of specials. Starters around a tenner, mains fifteen to twenty quid, desserts maxing out at eight pounds. Absurdly streamlined, really, compared to the overkill of so many restaurants, and yet I could have ordered any combination of dishes (I should mention, too, that this being Stokes Croft vegetarians and vegans also had decent, imaginative choices). There’s a real talent to assembling a menu like this, to hitting all the bases and keeping it lean and appealing, and I for one wish more restaurants had it.

But before we made those agonising yet enjoyable decisions, we tried a couple of things from the snacks section of the menu. Cauliflower cheese croquetas were a real piece of wizardry, with spot on crunch and the smoothest, glossiest core, tangy with cheese and the sweetness of cauli. Each of them sat under a little Johnsonian toupée of Parmesan, each was stupendous. A ridiculous five pounds for these, and it took all my strength not to order more. 

But even better was the sourdough with jamon butter. The words “jamon butter” rather sell short what you got, a quenelle of salty, savoury spreadable jamon with a texture somewhere between whipped butter and rillette. It was one of the most moreish things I’ve eaten in years, and if they’d sold it over the counter I’d have walked out of the restaurant at the end of my meal with a tub of the stuff the size of my head, knowing full well that it wouldn’t survive the rest of the weekend. 

The bread that came with it was decent enough, but its one role was to provide a vehicle for eating the jamon butter that was more civilised than just devouring the stuff with your bare hands. If I’m being ultra-critical, one of the slices of bread was as much air as bread and if I’d been in the kitchen I wouldn’t have served it. But it upped the jamon butter to bread ratio, so it wasn’t all bad.  

A high standard had been set, and the starters just vaulted over that as if it was nothing. I’d chosen the sweetbreads, because I love them and they don’t turn up on menus in this country anywhere near often enough. Caper and Cure’s might well be the best I’ve ever had: pert and tender, in a dish where they played the starring role but with excellent support. That meant fresh, nutty peas, translucent slices of radish and some braised baby gem, but more importantly it meant a chicken butter sauce bringing the whole thing together triumphantly. It supplied another intense umami hit, fortified with little nuggets of pancetta just in case you weren’t having enough fun already. 

As we discovered over this and our other dishes, Caper and Cure specialises in those high-gloss, super-reduced sauces that speak of patience and expertise. Having finished my starter I was frustrated to see far too much sauce still in the high-sided bowl, but without prompting one of the wait staff asked if I needed some more bread. I didn’t think twice, and Caper and Cure’s bread with the remnants of my chicken butter sauce was, on its own, tastier than ninety per cent of the starters I’ve eaten in nine years of writing this blog.

Zoë was equally happy with her decision to order the burrata. It’s an ever-present on menus now, but I doubt many restaurants pair it with tomatoes quite as good as these (from the Isle Of Wight, of course). And more importantly I doubt many restaurants plonk the whole thing on their own exemplary tapenade, with the perfume of deep purple olives. I had a forkful of this, and although I couldn’t have not ordered the sweetbreads it also had much to admire.  

By this point I knew beyond doubt that we were in very good hands, and the only remaining question was just how special the rest of the meal might be. Our main courses answered that question emphatically. Hake, one of the two market fish on the blackboard, was cooked just right and perched on top of an absolutely glorious layer of pickled fennel, just sweet enough and just sharp enough: I’ve never had pickled fennel before, and now I’m just counting the days until the next time. 

A tangle of samphire heaped on top added a little saltiness and if the skin wasn’t as crispy as I’d have chosen, that was probably because the whole thing was swimming in a superbly glacé lobster sauce. It wasn’t all perfect, mind you; I’d personally have liked the orzo, the base of the dish, a little closer to al dente and the lobster sauce was more muted than it could have been. But those would have been minor niggles at the best of times: on such a successful plate of food, coming in at a ludicrous twenty-one pounds, they were just the only things I could find that fell short of flawless. It was still one of the most marvellous dishes I’ve eaten all year.

Zoë had absolutely no reservations about her rump of beef, and the couple of forkfuls I had were easily enough evidence to understand why. It was a beautiful piece of meat, cooked medium-pink but with a nice crust, but again it was all about how that ingredient played nicely with the delightful company it was keeping. In this case that meant another sticky, glossy sauce – peppercorn this time – little puddles of onion purée and banana shallots, also with a little char. And to add a little ballast, a perfect slab of Pommes Anna, as enticing and multi-layered as a great novel. This might have been one of the most marvellous dishes I didn’t eat all year, but at least it went to a truly deserving home

We had some Parmesan and truffle fries with our mains – completely unnecessary but also impossible to resist – and they were themselves a fascinating experience. It’s a dish that crops up on menus a lot lately, from Buon Appetito to the Last Crumb and beyond, but in most places it’s a way to tart up bought-in French fries and flog them for a fiver. Here they were the real deal, and when we’d finished our mains and used the fries to clean up the last of our respective sauces we picked at the rest with slightly oily fingers and glad hearts.  

Dessert was the point at which things stopped being spectacular and settled for merely being rather good: technically there are only really two desserts on the menu along with a couple of cheeses and chocolate sorbet with coffee liqueur which felt like a distant cousin of the affogato. I rather liked my panna cotta, which had a pleasing wobble, tons of crumbled pistachio on top and a moat of strawberries and sweet syrup. But the advertised wild honey was the quietest of whispers, and without it the whole thing felt a little run of the mill.

I thought Zoë chose better than me, but she wasn’t wild about her choice either. A rum brûlée was served denuded of a ramekin – how often does that happen? – with plenty of pineapple and coconut sorbet. I liked it, although again the rum was a little muted, and I thought it all worked well together. Zoë was less convinced, and I think on another day would have had the chocolate sorbet. But we were both being restrained, with a boozy evening ahead and (in my case) a gin sodden one behind me, so we steered clear of booze.

That means I can’t tell you anything about the wine list, which is a matter of some regret for me as it had plenty to appeal – and three special wines available by the glass, including a Georgian orange wine by Tbilvino which sounded well worth trying. But instead I’m afraid we were well behaved – I had a very good alcohol free pale ale by local Bristol Beer Factory and Zoë had soft drinks. Next time I go, which I anticipate will be the next time I visit Bristol, I’ll try it properly.

I haven’t really talked about service, but it was very much of a piece with everything else: smooth, efficient, friendly and good at making everything look easy. Offering me some bread with my starter was a great example, but really the whole thing seemed effortless. Caper and Cure wasn’t as busy as I expected but it had a real mixture of tables and types of diners, with more people coming in for lunch as we were leaving, and the whole thing had a nice flow and rhythm to it. I imagine it would be a truly enchanting place to have a boozy evening meal with friends, and next time I go there that’s exactly what I plan to do.

Our bill came to a hundred and twelve pounds, including a twelve and a half per cent service charge, and when the owner came to take our payment I pointed out that they’d slightly undercharged us. Before we left he asked where we came from, and if he was fazed that people had come all the way from Reading he concealed it well; I looked him up afterwards, and it turns out he’s also a professional actor (“you can just tell” said Zoë as we ambled up the Cheltenham Road in search of caffeination).

This is the second critically acclaimed Bristol restaurant I’ve visited this year, and the contrast with Sonny Stores couldn’t have been more marked. Restaurant critics like to talk about Bristol growing these restaurants – small, unpretentious places with short, magnificent menus and interesting wine lists – as if in a laboratory. And it’s true that the place is a Petri dish for culinary creativity, more than anywhere I know.

But I think it doesn’t do Caper and Cure justice to make it sound like just the latest place to fall off some gastronomic assembly line. There’s something uniquely special about it, and re-reading this review I’m not sure I’ve truly captured it in what I’ve written. It’s worth going to these places, even if they’re an hour and a quarter away by train, to remember what we have to aim for in Reading and that for all the Kungfu Kitchens, the Bakery Houses, the Lyndhursts and the Clay’s we still have some distance to travel.

If a restaurant like Caper & Cure opened in Reading it would be packed to the rafters every night and lauded as far as the eye can see. And yet in all the time I’ve been writing this blog, the best part of a decade, nowhere even slightly like Caper and Cure has opened here. At some point, we might all have to stop and think about why that is. Reading has the money, it has the prosperity and it has a discerning demographic. Why don’t we have the restaurants?

Caper and Cure – 9.2
The Old Chemist, 108a Stokes Croft, Bristol, BS1 3RU
0117 9232858

https://www.caperandcure.co.uk

Pub review: The Dairy

Three months ago I wrote about the quiet revolution taking place at Reading University’s bars. Park House, always one of Reading’s best kept secrets for an al fresco drink, underwent a surprising but convincing transformation this year: out went the cheesy chips and in came a menu that made all the right noises – listing suppliers, talking about provenance and using both local producers and the university’s own beef. 

I went, I tried it and I was pleasantly surprised – so much so, in fact, that when I put together my updated list of Reading’s best spots to eat outdoors Park House bagged a place. Some people missed the cheesy chips, apparently. But there’s no accounting for taste: some people are going to miss Boris Johnson. 

But could lightning strike twice? That was the question Zoë and I asked ourselves after I met her from work and we ambled to the Dairy on a golden midsummer evening. We strolled past the Turks Head (you can tell it’s glorious weather when even sitting outside the Turks looks tempting), past the sedate, leafy thoroughfare of Kendrick Road, and I thought to myself that it was moments like these I should be storing up in my head, so I could turn them over in my mind when the clocks went back and the feeling of sun on my skin was a distant memory.

The Dairy also revamped its menu in 2022 and makes the same claims as Park House when it comes to where they get their ingredients from. Bread from Waring’s, eggs from Beechwood Farm, all the right noises, all that jazz. But I was particularly keen to see if the Dairy had raised its game because, to be honest, it could easily have done so just by buying in some ready meals from M&S. 

Or, for that matter, Asda. My previous visit to the Dairy on duty, back at the start of 2019, had been a grim experience with lukewarm, chewy curry and a chicken burger which, underneath its modish charcoal bun, was as wan and tasteless as Jacob Rees Mogg. So, did lightning strike twice or was it more a case of fool me twice, shame on me? I can honestly say I approached the Dairy with no real hunch as to how this one would play out. 

On another day I would have sat indoors – the Dairy has a lovely room off from the main bar – but as it was so sunny we plonked ourselves outside. I’d hesitate to call it a beer garden, but out the back of the Dairy it has plenty of tables which catch the sun nicely. They’re big tables, with deep benches which can even accommodate a rear as sizeable as mine, so they’re more suited for bigger groups than a tête-à-tête, but we weren’t going to let that stop us.

The Dairy’s dinner menu is relatively compact and in three main sections – stuff from the grill, burgers and hot dogs. But the main thing that jumps about it, from a casual reading, is how cheap it is. The dishes from the grill are about six quid, burgers are nine pounds and hot dogs are seven. Rather confusingly the cheapest dishes come with a couple of sides and a sauce, the more expensive ones with a single side. If there’s logic there I don’t see it, although most of the sides only cost a couple of pounds anyway. I don’t see how it can’t be subsidised, and I’m not sure how they make money on it, but you would struggle to rack up a bill here. 

It’s only later, when I was back home and leafing through the Dairy’s Instagram feed, that I realised this menu has been slimmed down from their launch menu at the start of the year. It’s especially a shame because it’s almost like someone looked through the launch menu, marker pen in hand, and struck a big black line through anything that looked particularly fun: so farewell to the jerk plantain and halloumi skewers, the beef burger topped with smoked pork belly and blue cheese, the brined fried chicken with pickled watermelon and the fish dog with crispy fried goujons, tartare sauce and chilli crushed peas. 

See what I mean? What was left was the menu equivalent of the Golgafrincham B Ark, and I’m hoping at least a few of you will get that reference. But none the less even if dinner turned out to be a mistake it at least wouldn’t be a costly one. And besides, the Dairy still has an amazing range of local beer with options from Wild Weather (the excellent King Street Pale), Siren, Phantom and Academia lager from Double-Barrelled, which is brewed exclusively for the university.

I went up and ordered our food, along with a half of cider for me and a half of Take Nothing For Granted, a Siren collab with Brew By Numbers, for Zoë (she loved it, by the way – if you see it, try it). The whole shebang came to just shy of twenty-two pounds, which is crazy money for dinner and a drink. I did feel though that the chap behind the bar didn’t understand the menu all that well and it was a bit of a struggle to explain what sides we wanted with what dish. 

“Don’t I get to pick a sauce to go with mine as well?” I asked. 

“It comes with barbecue sauce” he said. 

“Should I take cutlery or do you bring it out?” 

“Either is fine.” 

I didn’t have unwavering confidence that what we’d ordered was what would turn up – and it wasn’t, entirely, including that barbecue sauce which was nowhere to be seen.

Anyway, let’s talk about the food. I’d gone for grilled, smoked chicken thigh which comes with a couple of sides – and because I’d had a big lunch that day I decided to eschew the carbs, picking chipotle slaw and Boston beans with bacon to go with it. Now, the first thing I should say is that they brought me chicken breast by mistake, as you can probably tell from the photo underneath this paragraph. But the second is that I promise it wasn’t quite as boring as that photo makes it look.

I mean, I was hoping that it would come with the skin on, all crispy from the grill. While we’re at it, I was hoping that it would taste or feel like it had been grilled at all, which this didn’t really. I was also hoping it would taste as if it had been smoked (over hickory wood chips, according to the menu), and this was resolutely a smoke-free zone. Instead it was a slightly pale, largely naked chicken breast speckled with a few sesame seeds. And yet despite all that it wasn’t unpleasant; if you came at it with low expectations, which I sort of did, you’d probably quite enjoy it, especially at the low price of just over six quid. It really could have done with some barbecue sauce, mind you.

The Boston beans made up for that, and were one of the high points – a mixture of beans, chickpeas and peppers in a sweetly tangy sauce with big slabs of bacon thrown in for good measure. If you eat at the Dairy after reading this review (and you might) these are well worth tacking on to whatever you order. They do a bacon-free version too, and actually though the bacon was nice enough it would have largely been the same dish without it. The chipotle slaw, on the other hand, was not good. I don’t really mind whether coleslaw comes in mayo or vinaigrette, and a chipotle mayo would have been lovely: but raw shredded veg with neither, just shrouded in acrid dust, doesn’t do it for me. If I’d known it would be like that, I’d have risked the fries.

Zoë had gone for the brie and bacon burger, and visually it looked decent – a tall stovepipe of a thing with a thick wodge of fridge-cold brie sandwiched between two patties, the whole shebang resting on a sturdy slice of tomato which Zoë fished out in short order. 

“They don’t tell you it’s going to be two burgers, the menu doesn’t really tell you a lot” she said, with a hint of suspicion, probably because she was mulling over the risk that they’d also smuggled in some unwanted gherkins. “I know what you’ll say about this – you’ll say that the slice of brie is too thick and it hasn’t melted.”

“Not at all – nobody ever complains that a burger has too much cheese on it. What’s it like?”

“It’s not bad. It’s not an Honest or a Smash N Grab, but it’s okay for nine pounds. The texture’s a little strange though, a bit dry and crumbly.”

Again, it wasn’t until later when I was looking through the Dairy’s Instagram that I saw their writeup for this dish. In it, they say this burger is “made with local beef and part mushrooms” and “more sustainable than any burger you will try” – but what did that mean? Was it cut (or, rather, diluted) with mushrooms? It would explain the slightly spongey texture but again, why did the menu omit this detail? Was this about sustainability, or cutting corners? A nine pound burger is all very well, but most people would pay more to have the real deal. It was all very odd. Even the bun looked like a bog standard bap rather than the promised brioche: maybe they’d run out.

Zoë had cannily picked the most expensive side, the smoked macaroni cheese (four pounds on its own, fact fans). And again, it was quite pleasant with a good golden crust. But smoked it wasn’t. Better, I thought, was a nibble of macaroni bites – four hefty breadcrumbed spheres of macaroni cheese which were deeply enjoyable and provided the spritz of fun my dinner badly needed, given the naked chicken and dusty coleslaw (and these, by the way, did come with some barbecue sauce). Not in the same league as the same dish at Bracknell’s Blue’s Smokehouse but, crucially, bigger and a darned sight cheaper. Next time I’m drinking at the Dairy I might order some in preference to a packet of Piper’s.

All this added up to a slightly underwhelming meal, a mixture of inconsistency, inaccuracy, basic errors and wasted opportunities. And it was a completely different experience to eating at Park House in the spring: by contrast it felt like like the Dairy had got the hang of writing a menu that read well, even if the most attractive dishes had gone missing in action, but that they perhaps hadn’t realised that the dishes then had to live up to the promise of the words. 

Very few of them did, but I do have to say in the Dairy’s defence that if something seems to good to be true it almost always is. The Dairy is one of the most aggressively priced restaurants I can think of in Reading, and if you aren’t sure how they’re making their money something has to be going on. Whether that’s adding mushrooms to your burger mix, or making coleslaw without mayo, something is always going to give. 

And if the mark at the bottom of the page isn’t quite as low as you’d expect it to be, that’s precisely because the Dairy is a cheap and cheerful option and I’m partly judging it on that basis. It could arguably be more cheerful, but it couldn’t be much cheaper. And as Zoë said at the time, whatever you thought of the food it did at least feel like a Brakes lorry hadn’t played any role in proceedings.

Never the less, I’m sure I will drink at the Dairy again before the summer’s out, and even if this meal wasn’t stellar I thank my lucky stars that it was nowhere near as harrowing as the one I had at the Dairy back in 2019. But next time I might grab dinner at Kungfu Kitchen first, before meandering down the hill for what remains an excellent selection of local beers in what’s left of the sunshine. In that respect at least, the Dairy is still hard to beat.

The Dairy – 6.7
Building L14, London Road Campus, Redlands Road, RG1 5AQ
0118 3782477

https://www.hospitalityuor.co.uk/bars-and-pubs/the-dairy/