The Corn Stores

Writing the only restaurant blog in Reading can feel like a lonely pursuit at times, but if you really want a lonely pursuit it’s this: writing a review where you say that the Corn Stores is a distinctly mediocre restaurant. The only reviews of the Corn Stores I could find online were comped, so they were all breathlessly enthusiastic and gushing. But, that aside, I know quite a few people who have been to the Corn Stores, and they’ve all raved about it. Some of them, and I know they read this blog, have been back more than once since it opened in December. So I was really hoping not to be the lone voice, the sore thumb, but I went there this week and I really didn’t get it at all.

All the blogs and Instagrammers will tell you what an amazing job the Rarebreed Dining Group did of refitting the Corn Stores when they took over the derelict building and turned it into a bar, restaurant and private members’ club. They used local company Quadrant Design, and I agree that they’ve breathed life beautifully into a lovely but unloved space (one I largely remember from lunch breaks with my brother in 1996, when we used to sneak across from our McJobs in Apex Plaza opposite for a rushed pint or two). He wouldn’t recognise it now: the restaurant, on the first floor, is superbly done out, with bare brick walls, leather-banquetted booths and tables with dusky-pink, scallop-backed chairs. I was there with my other half Zoë rather than my brother (mainly because I have also gone up in the world somewhat since 1996).

As we were shown to our table – past the display cabinet full of aged beef – our waitress explained the concept, that they butcher and age their own meat. There was a certain pride about it which I respected, and it made me look forward to dinner: I knew from researching the menu beforehand that the Corn Stores was an expensive restaurant, but I was hoping for a showstopper, the special occasion restaurant Reading has been missing for many years.

Our table was one of the booths, and I was impressed by how spacious it felt for two people: CAU, back in the day, would have tried to seat four people at a booth that size (the other tables for two felt a little more poky: I’m not sure how much I’d have liked one of those). The restaurant was nicely buzzing and pretty full on a weekday night, and it exuded that glow of satisfaction you get when surrounded by people who are happy they’ve made a right – and exclusive – choice (the Nirvana Spa effect, you might say). “My mum would like it here” said Zoë, adding the Corn Stores to her mental list of places to take her mum to.

We ordered a couple of pints of Meantime lager while we decided what to order: it’s kept in tanks onsite so you get it fresh, unfiltered and unpasteurised. I thought it was cold, crisp and clean and I loved it – Zoe less so, because she detected a bitter finish. I’ve already said that the Corn Stores is an expensive restaurant, and I fear this is a point we may return to often throughout the rest of this review: starters are just shy of a tenner and some of the mains are just the right side of twenty pounds, although if you order a steak you’re highly likely to pay far more than that. Oh, and there was a “whole baked sourdough” for six pounds fifty, which has to be the most expensive bread I’ve ever seen on any menu anywhere (you get “your choice of butter”: really, for six pounds fifty you should get to try them all, I reckon).

There was also a specials menu with other options including a Barnsley chop, a pork tomahawk, smoked sirloin on the bone – and a chateaubriand with lobster and some other gubbins which cost the grand total of ninety-five pounds (I know people who have ordered this, and they raved about it, but really: you could eat Michelin-starred food for that money). None of that especially appealed, but also I wanted to judge the place on their standard fare – the meat and potatoes, you could say – so we stuck to the normal menu. At the table next to us, three well-to-do ladies chatted away as their main courses, completely untouched, went cold in front of them: Zoë and I exchanged looks.

We started with the “Rarebreed Board”, a sharing selection of interesting options. It was the most expensive starter on the menu (twenty six pounds, in fact) but I figured it gave us an opportunity to try out lots of different things. It came on a sort of folding trestle table which left us limited room for our side-plates, but you couldn’t deny it looked appealing: five different beef dishes, designed to be shared between two.

Much of the sharing board was sort of a symphony of mince, so you got steak meatballs, miniature burgers and “beef and pepper sausage” – which was more like sausagemeat, on account of there being no casing. They were all quite nice, but much of a muchness – the main variations being in coarseness, but the overall texture was very similar.

We both liked the sausage best, with there not being a huge amount to choose between the burgers and the meatballs. Even at this stage though, the execution was lacking. The burgers came with lettuce and tomato in naked brioche, no cheese, no sauce (the pepper or tomato sauce in a little metal dish made a useful dip). The meatballs were apparently served with red wine gravy, but the thin lake of liquid at the bottom of the dish was largely ineffectual. Perhaps you were meant to dip the accompanying toast in it, but it was pretty hard when it arrived and, by the time we got round to it, it was even worse.

There were three burgers and three meatballs, which was odd and just made sharing trickier – I’d rather those two dishes had been better and smaller, and the price had been nudged down a little. I liked the other two dishes on the board better – the steak tartare (served, somewhat randomly, in a jar) had some real tang and pungency from the Worcester sauce, but Zoë found it too vinegary and couldn’t finish it. Similarly, the salt beef on flatbread worked beautifully for me, but amid the mustard there was also a vinegary tang that put Zoë right off it. Even in this dish there was the oddity of little segments of potato – double carbs, and extra bulk, but totally unnecessary.

By the time we finished our starters the table next to us had eaten half of their main courses, if that. One lady had cut her cod burger very precisely in two and looked like she was considering, possibly before the evening was out, embarking on eating the second half (it never occurs to me that some people go to restaurants for the company, or to see and be seen, but that might be just me). I got a second pint of Meantime and Zoë tried the Curiouser & Curiouser, a beer by Kentish wine producers Chapel Down – it tasted of grapefruit and citrus and I really liked it, although Zoë seemed less convinced.

We’d decided to tackle different ends of the menu, so we went for one of the pricier and one of the more affordable main courses. Zoë’s burger – wagyu beef, with Ogleshield cheddar and bacon – looked lovely, and the bite I had wasn’t half bad. But it cost nineteen pounds, and it didn’t feel, to me, like a nineteen pound burger (I’m not sure what a nineteen pound burger tastes like, but not this).

“It’s really nice” said Zoë.

“Better than Honest?”

“No, not really.”

I agreed with that – even when unadorned, Honest burgers have a lovely crust to them from the grill, and there’s a bit of salt in there. This was almost as good, but it cost nearly twice as much as its equivalent over on King Street.

I had gone for a two hundred gram fillet steak, served rare, with béarnaise sauce. The Corn Stores website boasts about how they baste their meat with aged beef fat and cook it on a Robata grill, getting loads of flavour into even lean cuts like fillet.

This was, it’s safe to say, not my experience: they’d managed the impressive combination of serving a steak where there was almost no char at all while simultaneously overcooking it. It was meant to be rare, but it was probably medium at best: just about pink in the middle, but with no juices oozing out as you made your way through it. I couldn’t face sending it back, because I really wanted to eat dinner at the same time as Zoë and I knew that sending it back guaranteed that wouldn’t happen. Besides, by then the damage was done – if you’re a steak restaurant, and one charging that kind of money, cooking the steak right first time was the entry level requirement.

That wasn’t all, though, because really the steak didn’t taste of very much. I didn’t get any seasoning, I certainly didn’t feel like it had been anointed with glorious, salty beef fat, nothing of the kind. The béarnaise didn’t help matters, being a little on the thin side, heavy on the vinegar (bit of a theme emerging there) and light on the tarragon. It was also a pretty mingy helping of béarnaise, because the Corn Stores seems to have missed the memo that béarnaise sauce should be as much for your chips as your steak. The salad it came with was pleasant enough, but it rankled with me that you got a big pile of salad for free but had to pay for your chips – by contrast, chips came free with the burger.

This brings us on to the chips – beef fat chips, no less. I had high hopes for these, but they were also deeply ordinary. They didn’t have the crunch-fluff ratio of a perfect chip, they were exceptionally salty and some of mine had grey patches which should have failed the most elementary quality checking. Dipped in the béarnaise they were okay, but no more, and they weren’t much better with the mayonnaise we’d asked for (which came in two minuscule pots which looked as if they had housed lip balm in a previous life). I looked round and everybody seemed to be having such a lovely time. What was I missing?

We’d asked our waitress for recommendations for a side dish and she had recommended the baked flat mushrooms, so we went for those. Four pounds got you three rather small flat mushrooms which had a meaty texture but again, didn’t feel like they’d been exposed to much in the way of butter. If I’d had them in a Beefeater I’d probably have been pleased, but here in the Corn Stores it just felt like another way of extracting funds. There was the ghost of a sprig of thyme on top, as if to say Look, we did do something with them.

By this point we were on to our third drink – a serviceable glass of Pinot Noir for me and Chapel Down’s cider (which I really liked) for Zoë, and positively planning our escape. The waitress took our dishes away and half-heartedly asked if it had been good, and we half-heartedly replied that it had been fine. The fact that both of us had half-heartedly half-left our chips didn’t seem to register. That was service in general at the Corn Stores – smiling, efficient, a little robotic. I didn’t get any real warmth or personality.

Dinner for two – a sharing starter, two mains, some chips, a side and three drinks apiece – came to one hundred and thirty pounds, including a not-that-optional 12.5% service charge. I’m almost tempted to leave that sentence to do the work on its own, but really: one hundred and thirty pounds! When I think of all the amazing meals you could buy in Reading for a fraction of that price – or all the exquisite meals you could buy in London for that money – I felt like I’d cheated rather than treated myself.

“I don’t think I would take my mum here, you know” said Zoë, unsurprisingly.

“I know. Normally with places like this I say I’d only go if someone else was paying, but in this case even if someone else was paying I wouldn’t let them take me here.”

That might sum it up, for me. I couldn’t shake the feeling, throughout my meal, that I was paying for the refurbishment, or helping Rarebreed pay off their investor (the interestingly-named Havisham Group), but I didn’t feel like I was paying for a truly luxurious experience in a terrific special occasion Reading restaurant.

The talk about the Corn Stores’ pride in their meat and butchery is all well and good, but the main thing my meal did was make me miss CAU. I think, actually, I had no better or worse a meal at Miller & Carter, where I paid a lot less money. Worst of all, I went to the Southcote (a Beefeater) last year and although it wasn’t as good as the Corn Stores it was a lot closer than the huge disparity in price would have you believe (and their béarnaise, damningly, was probably slightly better).

Anyway, it doesn’t matter what I say: I have no doubt that the Corn Stores will do really well, but I felt like if it had been half as good as it thinks it is it would be twice as good as it actually is. But what do I know? I read some lifestyle bloggers recently, and they tell me the emperor looks fantastic in that outfit.

The Corn Stores – 6.7

10 Forbury Road, RG1 1SB
0118 3246768

https://www.thecornstoresreading.co.uk/

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Wau, Newbury

One thing I’ve often pondered, writing this blog, is the holy trinity you always have to bear in mind when eating in – and assessing – a restaurant: the food, the service and the room. They all have the power to transform your experience. Take Dolce Vita, for example, which closed last year: some of the food was great, some of it (the pizzas and pasta, in particular) could be distinctly middling. But the service was so brilliant that I found I never really minded – a night there could feel like having friends cook for you, in a home from home, in the same way that some pubs (The Retreat, in my case) feel like having a second living room.

I’ve also thought for a long time that if the food is good enough, you can overlook blips in service. I’ve made no secret of my love of the food at Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen, but it can’t be denied that the service has never attained the same heights, with some churn in staff and some elementary mistakes here and there (no, I haven’t quite finished that mango beer, for example, so please stop trying to take it away). When they first opened, it was easy to pass it off as teething troubles or growing pains, but once a restaurant has been trading longer you expect a little more.

The room I’m not so fussed about – I agree with Marco Marchetti, the dapper and wise waiter at Pepe Sale (who’s now hung up his Larry Grayson-style spectacles and moved to Kent, I’m sorry to say) who once told me “we Italians don’t care about the room”. It’s nice to eat in a beautiful room. It’s nice to look at, say, Coppa Club and think “haven’t they done a great job fitting this out?” but when the service is comically bad and the food is indifferent (as it is at, say, Coppa Club) it really doesn’t redeem things. That might be my age, or the fact that I’m not in London: I’m sure some people are dazzled enough by eating somewhere Instagrammable like Sketch or Bob Bob Ricard, but it’s not for me.

But first and foremost, I’ve always believed that food is what matters. If the food is good enough, everything else is secondary. It stands to reason, doesn’t it? Except that this week the review is of Wau, the Malaysian street food restaurant a stone’s throw from Newbury station, and following my visit there I’m no longer so sure.

I found myself in Newbury one weekday evening with my regular dining companion (and close personal friend) Zoë, and after a couple of drinks in the Catherine Wheel I reckoned Wau was the obvious candidate for an evening meal. I’d been once last year and had a terrific meal, and when I put pictures on Instagram loads of people came out of the woodwork to tell me how great Wau was. You don’t see Malaysian food in many places round Reading (although the Moderation often does a few dishes, including nasi goreng), and it was less than five minutes from the station, and I happened to be in Newbury after all, so I decided to go back on duty and try it out again.

Speaking of the room, Wau’s is pretty unprepossessing. At the front are high tables with high stools, and further back are lower tables with still-ubiquitous Tollix chairs. The bar runs along one side of the room, with the kitchen at the back: not an open kitchen per se, but from some tables you get a pretty good view of what’s going on through the glass door. I think there are more tables round the corner, past the bar, although I wasn’t seated there.

The first problem happened when we arrived and the waiter tried to seat us at one of the precarious-looking high tables nearest the door, for two people. They didn’t feel at all like a relaxing place to eat. Could we sit at one of the bigger, lower tables further back, I asked? He looked at me like I’d asked for his date of birth and his mother’s maiden name, or enquired about whether he’d ever considered letting the love of Jesus into his life. It was a Tuesday evening at 8pm, and only one other table was occupied: they burnt a fair bit of goodwill umming and aahing before reluctantly letting us sit at a table for four.

The menu at Wau looks good, and has been recently updated. It’s divided into “Steamed and Grilled”, small plates costing between four and eight pounds, “Rice and Noodles” and “Curry”, which are larger plates costing between ten and thirteen pounds. I took this to be the dividing line between starters and mains – and the menu definitely encourages you to think that way but, as I was to find out, the reality is a bit more haphazard. But all that was yet to come at the point when we ordered three starters (a combination of greed and hunger), two mains and a couple of side dishes.

“The dishes will all come out when they come out, is that okay?” said the waiter.

It wasn’t, really, and I should have made more of this because it’s a real bugbear of mine and I’ve disliked it ever since Wagamama decided to make it a selling point. That approach feels like it’s geared entirely towards the convenience of the kitchen rather than the experience of customers. How presumptuous, I’ve always thought: we’ll make your food in the order we feel like it, and you’ll take what you’re given. Who’s paying who in this scenario? I often wonder.

“What does that mean exactly?”

“Oh. In this case you’ll probably get the squid first, then the pork belly, then the satay, then the beef rendang and nasi goreng and the other bits” he said. This didn’t really inspire confidence, because it was exactly the sequence in which we’d ordered everything, but never mind. What’s the worst that can happen? I reckoned.

Well, here’s what happened – and I’m sorry if this makes for a dull paragraph, but it’s taken from the time stamps of actual photos taken on my and Zoë’s phones: we sat down just after 8 o’clock. At 8.10 we poured our bottles of Tiger beer and placed our order. At 8.19 the salt and pepper squid (a starter) arrived, followed at 8.20 by my nasi goreng (a main). At 8.21 the pork belly starter and the sambal beans (a side dish) were brought to the table. At 8.24 Zoë’s beef rendang turned up, and at 8.25 our final starter, the satay lamb skewers, materialised. So within fifteen minutes of ordering they had brought almost everything we had ordered, all in the space of five minutes. Quite how it would have all fitted on the table for two they originally tried to fob us off with I have no idea, but it turns out that “the dishes will come out when they come out” actually means “they will all come out at once”.

I got that it was a slow night, but that didn’t seem like much of an excuse for the kitchen staff throwing the kitchen sink at trying to get us out quickly. And that’s when I realised – you can say it’s all about the food, but eating out isn’t about eating food, it’s about having a meal. A nicely paced meal, where you can take your time over what you eat and look forward to what you’ve ordered next without worrying about everything going cold before you get to enjoy it. It was utterly ridiculous, and all I could think was: why aren’t the serving staff a little embarrassed by all this?

I say that we had nearly everything we’d ordered. Zoe ordered roti canai to use to scoop up the rendang. That never arrived, so we asked for it again. It still didn’t arrive, so we asked for it again, again. It reached us ten minutes after the rest, too quick for your main courses to follow your starter but not quick enough for your side dish to follow literally everything else you had ordered. I’ve never known, and I’m choosing my words carefully, a clusterfuck like it.

The saddest thing of all is that the food was, almost without exception, gorgeous. The salt and pepper squid had so much freshness and texture, and was dusted with tons of good stuff. The pork belly – a really generous portion, precisely balanced between the crispy crunch of roasting and the tenderness of the meat under the skin – was a beautiful dish, perfected by dipping it in the sticky, savoury soy sauce. The satay lamb was my least favourite of the three, but even that was cooked beautifully and the satay sauce was as deep and rich as any I could remember. Would that I had got to enjoy those three dishes as a trio, without worrying about my nasi goreng going cold, but it was not to be.

Actually, the nasi goreng was my least favourite dish of the evening and, sorry to say, I don’t think it was anywhere near as good as the one served at the Moderation and the Queen’s Head. At those places you get chicken and prawn, but at Wau you have to choose and my choice, the chicken, was oddly bouncy in texture. Weird plating, too – the sunny side up egg should be on top so it can ooze its yolk into the rice but this – probably a little overcooked – was stuck on the side like an afterthought. I left some of this dish, although that was probably more because it didn’t stay hot enough for long enough, not with so many other things to try. I left the prawn crackers, although I’m told they were a reasonable substitute for the roti which nearly never came.

One of the nicest things we ate was the side dish I’d ordered to come with the nasi goreng (although, in reality, everything came with the nasi goreng). Sambal green beans had a beautiful amount of crunch, having been no more than blanched, and coated in Malaysian shrimp paste, perfectly brick-red and savoury, with just enough heat and lots of complexity: I could easily have eaten more than one plate of these.

I was familiar with the beef rendang, Zoë’s choice, from a previous visit but really it was every bit as delicious as I remembered – so much so that I regretted my nasi goreng from the first forkful to the last. The sauce was glossy and sweet with coconut, but with more than enough edge to save it from being even remotely saccharine, but more importantly the beef had been properly slow-cooked so every piece surrendered into strands. It would almost be worth going to Wau and just ordering this dish, which come to think of it might also be the only way to ensure that you get to eat it at a time of your choosing.

I also really liked the roti, when it eventually came out – lovely and buttery, and just right to wrap around that beef, even if it made for a slightly messy experience. It came with a little dish of dipping sauce which was pleasant enough, but not really needed under the circumstances.

I’ve already talked about the service, but of course the real test of service is how they handle it when matters are less than perfect. So when we were asked how our food had been, we said that it was very nice but that really, we hadn’t wanted it to all come out at once and that if we’d known we would have insisted that it didn’t, or perhaps ordered our starters first and then our mains. It’s fair to say that this rather fell on stony ground. That’s just how people eat in Malaysia, the chap told us – all the food comes at once and everyone pitches in, sharing everything.

It’s fair to say that I wasn’t entirely convinced by this argument, and I said so: I could possibly understand it with a big group of people, but there were two of us. Why did they divide their menu into starters and mains, I asked? He pointed out, again in a manner best described as unapologetic, that they weren’t called starters and mains (which, having looked at the menu, is true: but if you have the small dishes at the start and the bigger items partway through you definitely give that impression). Then, finally, came the non-apology so popular in the post-truth times we live in.

“I’m sorry if you feel that way”, he said. Well, that makes everything better then.

After that a lady came over who I think was the owner or manager, and we had exactly the same conversation, only more pleasantly. She promised that they weren’t trying to rush us or move us along or turn the table. That’s all very well, we said, but if so why bring all the food in the space of five minutes? We were then told again about how people all share food in Malaysia, which was doubtless true but, in Newbury, wouldn’t it make sense to put something on the menu explaining the concept or at least get the waiting staff to clearly explain how it worked? Normally they did, she said, which didn’t explain why the chap who took our order – the same man who had served me on a previous visit – had failed to do so either time (on a previous visit we got our starters, then we had our mains, and everything went as you might expect).

The thing we were at pains to point out, again and again, was that the food had been so good, but the way it had been brought out robbed us of the opportunity to properly enjoy it, and ourselves for that matter. But by this point I was beginning to feel like one of those TripAdvisor reviews in human form, and found myself eagerly wanting the conversation, and the experience, to end. The manageress was also sorry we felt that way, and agreed to take something off the bill. That turned out to be ten per cent, which to me didn’t quite feel like enough, and our meal – with that discount – came to fifty-four pounds, not including tip. That was for three small dishes, two big dishes, two sides and two beers – and we still tipped ten per cent, though with hindsight I don’t really know why.

You could indisputably eat well at Wau – if you happened to be in Newbury, close to the station, and preferably in a hurry. Even then, I would advise you to be unambiguous about what you want to eat and the order in which you want to eat it. But those are a lot of caveats, a lot of hoops to jump through, and I could hardly blame you if you read all this and thought thanks but no thanks.

The real shame of it is that so much of the food was terrific, but the overall experience left a nasty taste that no amount of skill in the kitchen can cancel out; food might be the most important element of any visit to a restaurant, but it turns out that it’s service that transforms it from mere food into a meal. All that makes this almost impossible to rate but, to give you an idea, I reckon the experience at Wau must have easily cost it a mark. I hope they iron those problems out, but I doubt I’ll be back to find out. If you decide it sounds like your sort of thing, you’ll have to let me know.

Wau – 6.8
49 Cheap Street, Newbury, RG14 5BX
01635 528877

http://www.waumalaysian.co.uk/

The Dairy

It was love at first sight when I first laid eyes on The Dairy. I’d been paying a visit to the MERL on Upper Redlands Road earlier in the day and I’d dimly remembered that The Dairy, one of the bars which was part of the University, was just down the road. I’d never been, so in the spirit of adventure I did a bit of research, checking out the sadly departed Matt Farrall’s excellent article on the subject for the Whitley Pump). Later that week, I dropped in for a drink.

When I got there, I was thoroughly charmed. It took a bit of finding – it’s pretty much completely unsignposted, and you access it by going up a ramp only to find an unadorned door with a simple plaque next to it saying “The Dairy” in a plain, municipal-looking font. Once I got there, though, I liked the look of the place: it’s made up of two big rooms with clean, white walls, sizeable tables (high ones in the main room, lower ones in the back room), comfy furniture and a wide array of decent beers on keg, including four different craft lagers and representatives from many of our local breweries: Siren Craft, Wild Weather and Elusive, not to mention other breweries like New Wharf and XT.

It’s a university bar, but it was open to the public and seemed to have a pretty varied clientele. Not only that, but even without a student discount you could get a pint of good, well-kept craft beer for around three pounds fifty. I found myself making a mental note that this could make a great place for board games nights with friends, or for a quiet pint on the evenings when I fancied a change of scenery from my usual haunts (it was sleepy on a week night at the start of term).

Then I spotted the menu. Now, normally I would never have considered The Dairy as a venue for a food review, but there were lots of interesting touches on the menu which made me wonder. Jerk chicken, curry mutton and Jamaican vegetable stew all looked different from the usual fare and even the burgers, complete with a very now charcoal brioche, seemed slightly out of the ordinary. I took a picture of the menu and resolved to come back to see if this could be the kind of hidden find which always lifts my spirits.

Returning on a Saturday evening with my partner in crime Zoë, The Dairy was much more obviously a student bar and was far busier. I felt a tad decrepit grabbing a stool at one of the high tables, and then swapping it for one better equipped to support my child-bearing hips. That feeling wasn’t helped by looking around to see hordes of young people watching the big screens, playing pool, eating all-day breakfasts (not something on the menu I had ever considered ordering, in all honesty, and especially not at eight o’clock at night) and generally not appreciating that they were slap bang in the middle of the best years of their lives.

I wandered into the back room to see if any tables were available there, but was greeted by such a wall of noise that I thought better of it. I did spot one gentleman at another table who was even older than me, and that reassured me enough to grab a menu. Broadly speaking it divided into two sections (unless you count a very small selection of starters and salads and – of course – that all day breakfast): world food and burgers. We quickly decided to try one of each and I went up to the bar to place the order. None of the dishes costs more than a tenner and once you hand over your card (the whole place is cashless) they give you a little gadget which buzzes when your food is ready, signalling for you to go and pick it up from the hatch. Easy peasy.

The first warning bell rang when the gadget buzzed, no more than ten minutes after placing my order; that felt quick enough that I wondered whether a microwave had been involved. I approached the hatch to find the food had been set down in front of me, but with nobody on the other side to greet me. The shelves behind were full of stuff from Brakes, another disconcerting sign. I would have just taken the dishes and gone back to the table but one of them, the mutton curry, was missing the advertised naan bread and mango chutney. Instead there was a small bowl of what appeared to be giant, wan-looking chips, stood upright. I waited, but nobody appeared, so I said “excuse me” as loudly as I dared and a lady wandered in from what I assume was the kitchen.

“I’m sorry, but I’m waiting for a naan bread” I said, doing the English thing of apologising for expecting to receive what I had ordered.

“It’s a mistake with the menu” I was told tersely. “It’s wrong. You don’t get naan bread, because it’s a Caribbean curry. These are yuca fries.”

Never mind, I thought, carrying everything back to the table and picking up some cutlery from the bar. The mutton curry was Zoë’s, but I managed to try enough of it to dispel the rumour that it had been microwaved: surely it would have been hotter if that was the case. The meat was a tad chewy – not undercooked per se, but not enjoyable to eat and the spicing in it was probably best described as subtle. It was definitely luke-warm, though, and for nine pounds the portion felt a little on the mean side. I didn’t try the yuca fries (although I did google them to find out that they were made of cassava) but Zoe ate a few without any real enthusiasm. They looked like the kind of thing you might use to insulate a loft.

“What do you reckon?” I asked.

“It’s just not hot. To be honest, I’d rather go to Clay’s.” She had a point – I would far rather have spent a little more and had an infinitely better curry elsewhere. I had a feeling the list of places doing a better curry than The Dairy – and this in itself was pretty alarming – probably included Wetherspoon’s. Still, I’ll say this for the mutton curry: it wasn’t the chicken burger, which is an early front runner for the single worst thing I’ll eat in 2019 (let’s hope it bags that prize, because I don’t really want to think about what, if anything, could beat it into second place).

The charcoal brioche was weirdly, cloyingly sweet. The bacon – back, cooked to miserable limpness – was indifferent and salty. The burger itself was breaded and I’m not sure whether it was baked or fried but the coating had the texture of an asteroid with no discernible seasoning: the chicken, once you got to it, at least recognisably had started life as a fillet but after that it had been not so much cooked as mistreated. The thin slice of American cheese on top had been completely unmelted by the lukewarm contents of the brioche. I wasn’t sure how the kitchen had managed to overcook something, yet it still wasn’t hot: I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

The “barbecue glaze” underneath it had the sort of gloopy sweetness which gave me bad flashbacks. There was something odd about the taste of the fries: it could have been that they were tepid, it might have been that they were stale, it might have been something else altogether. Running through the possibilities in my mind started to bring on reflux. I left a fair amount of this dish, and most of the fries, and things have to be pretty bad before I do that.

If the food had been good, there would have been more drinks. We would have checked out the dessert section of the menu and ordered the churros (“plain and caramel filled… served with butterscotch sauce”). But the food wasn’t good, and I needed to leave before I was completely put off The Dairy as a watering hole, and for that matter put off churros for life. The meal, along with a ginger beer and a very pleasant pint of Eisbar, a “Vienna style lager” by XT, came to just shy of twenty-two pounds. Service at the hatch had been pretty perfunctory, but the bar staff had been lovely and friendly (and one of them was very apologetic about it being her first shift). The whole thing seemed to reinforce my overall view, namely that The Dairy was a great place for a quiet drink but that nobody should consider eating there.

As we left, I was torn between feeling a little queasy and really wanting to eat some chocolate, or at least something that didn’t taste of the chicken burger. In the end I thought better of it, but that burger sat uneasily with me for the rest of the evening.

“I suppose the obvious comparison is the Oakford” Zoë had said while we were waiting for our food, before anticipation transmuted into disappointment, and I think in many ways she is right. For cheap, cheerful burgers, at least – although having done some research since the burgers at the Oakford are a little more expensive, mainly because fries are extra (though I don’t think anybody in their right mind would pay extra for The Dairy’s fries). But really, I couldn’t think of a good comparison: where else would the food have been quite so underwhelming?

I don’t know whether The Dairy’s dishes do come from a Brakes lorry (from the section of the website marked “for students”, perhaps), and you could say that I should have known better than to expect great food from one of the university bars. All I can say is that I was taken in by the menu, but more to the point I wrongly thought that the pride The Dairy had put into its drinks offering would be matched by the food. So I do have a new favourite watering hole, along with a salutary lesson that even after over five years of doing this I remain more than capable of making the wrong call and picking a duffer. I still recommend going to The Dairy for a nice pint if you’re in the area (and the benches out the front might be lovely on a summer’s day). Just make sure you’ve eaten beforehand.

The Dairy – 4.6
Building L14, London Road Campus, Redlands Road, RG1 5AQ
0118 3782477

https://www.facebook.com/londonroadcampus/

Bench Rest

One of the interesting phenomena of Reading’s restaurant scene is the number of talented chefs and restaurateurs circling the town trying to find premises to cook in. This year has seen more of this than most: first, right at the beginning of the year, Georgian Feast stopped cooking at The Island (still one of the strangest places I’ve ever eaten dinner by a country mile). I had just got used to wandering over on a Sunday lunchtime to enjoy their gorgeous boat-shaped pizzas for lunch, and then they were gone.

Then, in the spring, the affable Kamal and his talented chef left Namaste Kitchen by mutual consent: very sad news for me, as I’d become hooked on my almost weekly trips to the Hook And Tackle for sukuti and boneless fish fry. More was to follow: in the summer I Love Paella parted company with the Fisherman’s Cottage, shortly after which the pub unveiled a new menu which – how shall I put this? – borrowed heavily from ILP. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but flattery is rarely so tacky; I’ve not been back since.

Then there were the goings-on at Nomad Bakery, the permanent premises taken on by Laura of local supper club Pop-Up Reading. Laura left Nomad in July, and although Nomad’s Twitter feed made it sound like an amicable (if emotional) parting of the ways, an Instagram post by ex-TV presenter, regular Nomad visitor and Caversham resident Simon Thomas suggested shabby treatment and a falling out with Laura’s co-investor. It was later amended to remove those comments: make of that what you will.

Anyway, as we reach the end of 2018 some of that has settled and some is still in flux: Kamal is still looking for somewhere to open a new restaurant, as is Enric of I Love Paella. Georgian Feast started working at Nomad Bakery and recently confirmed a new menu (as Geo Café) offering many of the classic dishes they used to serve at Blue Collar, the Turk’s Head and The Island: it’s still as clear as mud, but it appears that Nomad Bakery may be no more. And finally, probably the move most long-awaited by Reading’s fooderati – in October the Tasting House announced that Laura would be running a new venture there at weekends called Bench Rest: tapas on Friday and Saturday nights, and brunch on Saturday and Sunday daytimes.

The early reports looked interesting, as did the pictures sweeping Twitter and Instagram. The menu was constantly changing and evolving, all built around Mediterranean flavours and the fresh bread which has always been Laura’s biggest passion (her LinkedIn profile says “My life revolves around flour, H2O and a little bit of salt”, which is an appealingly simple mission statement), with an emphasis on vegetarian food – or, as it’s modishly called these days, plant-based dining.

Bench Rest is probably one of Reading’s most keenly anticipated openings for several years, so it only felt right to visit on duty before Christmas. I wasn’t initially sure whether to go for brunch or tapas, but a look at the respective menus made it an easier decision: practically every single brunch option involved eggs, breakfast isn’t a dish I’d personally choose to make plant-based, and I find these days I can take or leave Jam Lady jam. Besides, eating small plates gave me a better chance to try a wider range of the menu, so I turned up on a Friday night with my regular dining companion Zoë to find out what was what.

Now, before I get on to the food it’s sadly necessary to explain some stuff about the set-up, because some of what was less than satisfactory about the evening didn’t have much to do with Bench Rest. The Tasting House, back when I first reviewed it, was an uneasy one-stop shop which served charcuterie boards, wine by the glass to drink in and wine by the bottle to take away, and didn’t really know whether it wanted to be a wine bar or an off licence. Over time the furniture got more comfortable, the place got redecorated and rearranged and now it is effectively three different businesses in a kind of houseshare. The Tasting House serves the wine, does food during the week and runs wine testing events upstairs. Bench Rest takes over the kitchen at weekends. And finally, during the day, Anonymous Coffee sells coffee and cakes from the counter at the front.

With Bench Rest, this all felt pretty seamless – we ordered at the counter, got a prepaid card to use at the Enomatic machine to buy wine by the glass, and paid for the whole lot at the end. But the room makes much more sense as a wine bar than as a restaurant, and the layout is cramped and problematic. There’s one huge table at the far end of the room, nearest to the open kitchen, that can seat around eight to ten people. All the other tables are smallish tables, most of them for two, and the emphasis has been placed on packing in punters rather than making it an enjoyable experience. Our table was nearest to the wine and the Enomatic machine, and it felt like people were constantly walking past us, giving the feeling of being in a corridor rather than a restaurant.

It could have been worse – there are also higher seats but rather than being up at the counter, or at the window where you’d have something to look at, you were seated at a high ledge facing the wall. All the poor unfortunate couples there were sitting with their back to the ledge, on their high stools, forlornly looking out at the tables feeling envious. I guess they really do want to maximise the number of customers, but I didn’t especially want to be that kind of customer.

Much as they might have envied my table for two, another problem was it had definitely been designed with drinking in mind: the moment you ordered almost any food there wasn’t enough room for it. Even with a small plates menu, this was difficult and involved constant balancing and juggling; one serving dish ended up precariously perched on the pot containing cutlery, and the whole experience felt like a cross between Jenga and Tetris. It was all very odd: the space worked perfectly as a bar, or as a café, but seemed incompatible with its third purpose as a restaurant.

Perhaps the food would leave me less bothered by such details, I thought, as I looked at the menu. It was a nicely compact selection – a handful of snacks (olives, nuts and the like), one “glorious gourmet toastie”, a meat and cheese board and a selection of seven small plates, most of which were vegetarian. Seven is a sensible number of dishes but even then the menu felt a little bit fussy, dividing them between “cold mezze”, “hot mezze”, “tapas” and “raciones”, fiddly and needlessly educational. We ruled out the snacks, because they felt more about buying than cooking, and the board (for similar reasons, and because it felt very much like what the Tasting House used to serve before Bench Rest came along) and decided to try a selection of the small plates.

All the small plates came with a selection of sourdough bread, and Laura brought this to the table first, excitedly talking us through it. There was a rye bread, a ciabatta and a spelt sourdough – served with a little extra, a ramekin of black bean houmous. You couldn’t argue with the quantities, but I expected to love them more than I did. The rye bread was simply terrific, but the other two were lacking in crust and felt like they could have done with a little more salt. The texture either suggested that the slices had either been very lightly toasted or left cut and exposed to the air a little too long: either way, I wasn’t won over. Also – and this may well just be me – I really found that I wanted either some good quality salted butter to spread on it or bright grassy olive oil to dip it in. Neither was supplied, and although the black bean houmous was pleasant enough it didn’t bridge that gap.

The first small plate was houmous with chickpeas, tomatoes and whipped feta. It sounded great on paper, but it didn’t quite work in practice; really good houmous, like the stuff from Bakery House, is silky and rich, whereas this was coarser and slightly on the bland side. The flecks of whipped feta set it off nicely, as did the beautiful sweet marinated tomatoes, although there weren’t enough of the latter. And I like gherkins more than the next person most of the time but, nice though Bench Rest’s home made pickles were, they simply didn’t go with houmous. The combination of the houmous being a little too claggy and the bread not having quite enough oomph wasn’t a pleasing one.

The beetroot croquetas, on the other hand, were lovely things. Two biggish croquettes, rich with beetroot, dished up on a smear of fragrant tapenade with some crumbled goat’s cheese and served with grape must mustard (“my new favourite thing!” said Laura as she brought these to the table). This was a proper clear your plate dish, and the bread came in handy for mopping up every last smudge of food. The flavours worked brilliantly: I would have liked a little more goat’s cheese, and two croquettes for seven pounds fifty felt slightly on the steep side, but it was still hard to be critical about a dish that tasted quite unlike anything else in town.

The other two small plates were more substantial affairs. Patatas rotas, puerro y jamon was spicy potatoes (they looked fried but were described as roasted) with sweet leeks, topped with a couple of slices of prosciutto and an egg. This was hearty stuff (it felt more like an escapee from the brunch menu, in some ways) but I liked it and we properly picked over the whole lot. The ham felt a little like an afterthought – again, I’d have liked more and for it to have had more texture and been crispier. The egg was a little overdone, which meant most of the yolk couldn’t spread its sunshine over the plate. Even so, you couldn’t argue with the flavours. This dish was just shy of nine pounds, but again it felt ever so slightly less than its money.

Last of all we had the cauliflower shawarma, a dish I’d wanted to try ever since it was on Laura’s menu at Nomad Bakery. This was a beast of a thing, gently spiced, festooned with seeds and topped with some kind of sweet relish which could have been tomato, could have been red pepper or could have been something else entirely. It was like nothing I’ve ever eaten in Reading, a dish which had more to do with Ottolenghi than the Oxford Road, and I really enjoyed it. I wasn’t sure whether it came with the advertised houmous and lemon tahini – it felt more like yoghurt to my no doubt ignorant mind – but as a combination of tastes and textures it was one of the most interesting things I’ve eaten this year. We couldn’t finish it, and leaving some was a decision made with a heavy heart.

Normally I would go into detail about the drinks, but there seems little point in some ways because the range of wines in the Enomatic changes so regularly that I can’t guarantee any of them would be on sale were you to eat at Bench Rest. I particularly enjoyed the Medoc, which was rich but not too tannic, and I really loved the Australian Riesling which was much more sweet and approachable, as New World Rieslings tend to be. The Enomatic dispenses either 25ml, 75ml or 125ml and most of the wines I had were £5 for 75ml so again, this isn’t a cheap experience by any means.

The wine being self-service also disposes of much of the traditional service in Bench Rest. I would say the service from Laura, who really appeared to be working her socks off all evening, was exemplary – friendly, approachable and passionate about her food (endearingly so, in fact). The service at the counter when ordering, from long-serving Tasting House employee Jack, was also very likeable and efficient, but I did notice that he struggled to get one of the other staff to help out because she was too busy having a good old chat with her mate (I feel for Jack: we all have days at work like this). We settled up just as the acoustic singer-songwriter in the corner was getting into full flow (could have been worse, it could have been Ed Sheeran) and our meal for two – four small plates, five 75ml glasses of wine and one devil-may-care-push-the-boat-out 125ml glass of wine – came to sixty pounds, not including tip. In fairness, we did leave very full: perhaps there’s something to be said for this plant-based diet after all.

It’s a shame that the time-honoured ER ratings go from 0 to 10, because rarely have I so badly wanted to give a rating of “Hmm”. Some of the food in Bench Rest is excellent and much of it is imaginative. It’s probably more plant-based and virtuous than I would personally choose, but I am quite aware that that says more about me than it does about them. But, despite their efforts, the alliance with the Tasting House is an uneasy one which doesn’t show off the food in the best light, or create an environment where it’s particularly enjoyable to eat. The dishes may well involve a great deal of work, and it’s impossible to fault the kitchen’s devotion or imagination, but they still feel ever so slightly on the pricey side and like there’s something – and I can’t quite put my finger on what – missing. I hope it settles down, or that Laura eventually finds a bigger canvas on which to paint, but more than anything else it made me miss I Love Paella. Here’s hoping that 2019 brings further homecomings for some of Reading’s other dispossessed restaurateurs.

Bench Rest – 7.3

30a Chain Street, RG1 2HX
0118 9571531

https://www.bench-rest.com/

MumMum

One of my biggest regrets in Reading’s restaurant scene is a little place you probably never visited called Cappuccina Cafe. It was on West Street, looking out over an especially grotty 99p shop, it was a fusion of Vietnamese and Portuguese food, and it did the most wonderful bánh mì (the Vietnamese sandwich, served in a baguette, which bears the hallmarks of Vietnam’s French colonial past: an early example of fusion food, you could say). I reviewed it in May 2014 and – and this may be a record – it closed a month later. I never got to go back, but one of my friends loved the bánh mì so much she developed a several times a week habit before it turned into yet another nail bar.

It was part of a general saga of decline on West Street. First Fopp shut – I still miss that place – then Cappuccina Cafe, then Vicar’s closed after over 100 years of purveying meat to the people of Reading and finally Primark decamped to the old BHS store. It’s part of a general trend which leaves that end of Broad Street looking increasingly grotty, and possibly also explains why Artigiano decided to divest themselves of their branch, deep in the heart of no man’s land: it’s Broad Street Bar & Kitchen (for) now. That area desperately needs some love and imagination, two qualities our council seemingly lacks the ability to provide, foster or inspire.

Fast forward four and a half years, and finally another restaurant has appeared in Reading looking to fill that bánh mì shaped gap in the market. Literally in the market, as it turns out, because MumMum opened on Market Place in October, where the ill-fated Happy Pretzel used to be, just down from the post office. I was tipped off about it not long after it opened and I’d been watching with some interest, waiting for a month to pass so I could check it out on duty. It’s actually a surprisingly tricky place to visit for lunch, because it isn’t open at weekends, but I had a Monday off after coming back from holiday so I stopped in to check it out with Zoë, my partner in crime and regular dining companion.

From the outside, MumMum was all windows (with a laminated menu – but no opening hours – blu-tacked to them) but going in I was surprised by what a nice space it was. It was clean and neutral without looking basic: pleasant, plain low tables and higher tables with stools where you could perch and look out of the window. Far more seating, in fact, than I expected and without ever feeling cramped. You could look through into the kitchen, although some of the preparation took place at the counter: while we were there I saw one of the staff carefully, skilfully assembling summer rolls with tofu.

MumMum only really does three things – bánh mì, pho (the Vietnamese equivalent of ramen – meat and noodles in a rich broth), and summer rolls, which are like spring rolls but served cold and wrapped in rice paper rather than pastry. You are carefully walked through the process of ordering. There’s a cabinet on the left where you pick up your tub of pho (small or large, chicken or beef) and/or your summer rolls (pork, prawn or tofu). You pay at the counter, which is also where your bánh mì are prepared and where they add the broth and herbs to your pho, sort of like an uptown Pot Noodle. The signs and barriers turn this into a neat little queuing system, although they then brought everything to our table which felt more like a traditional restaurant experience.

The pricing is a bit more confusing, mainly because there are a range of meal deals and, if I recall, the prices on the menu behind the counter didn’t quite match the ones on the menu in the window. With a meal deal you get either a bánh mì or a small pho with a drink (although not apple juice, apparently) and a single summer roll (they usually come as pair). This does save you a little money, although the bánh mì meal deal is more expensive than the pho meal deal. The former is six pounds, the latter six pounds fifty (or six pounds eighty, according to the menu outside).

In reality they charged me twelve pounds for two meals, and they then knocked a quid off because I agreed to take a loyalty card, which was slightly random because I didn’t need to give any personal details and how the card worked wasn’t at all clear. By the time you go, if you do, the prices may well be different again, so good luck working out how much everything is meant to cost. In the meantime, allow me to apologise for possibly two of the most tedious paragraphs ever to feature in an ER review, and let’s get on to talking about the food.

Zoë took one for the team and ordered the pho – I hadn’t been wowed by my previous encounter with this dish, so I was happy to leave her to it. It did look very clean and virtuous, and everything was done well, so little shreds of chicken, noodles, vegetables and plenty of coriander were all present and correct. In pho much is often made of the quality of the broth, just how long they’ve laboured over it and the depth of flavour they manage to get in to it. I tried enough of Zoë’s pho to think that either they’d fallen short or pho just wasn’t for me (most likely the latter).

“I love the coriander”, Zoë said at the end, “but it didn’t have quite enough flavour.”

I did point out the unused bottles of sriracha, fish sauce and indeed MumMum’s very own home-made garlic and chilli vinegar at this point, only to receive a nonchalant shrug. But I could hardly make much of it, because when I’d had a similar dish at Pho earlier in the year I had done exactly the same thing. Unlike Pho, MumMum didn’t give you extra mint and coriander and goodies to stick in there to taste. I understand why: MumMum is very much more no-frills, and the packaging is more geared to the takeaway crowd, but the overall effect was just a little too understated.

The bánh mì was more like it, although still not quite there. There was chicken, plenty of it in fact, and although it wasn’t fresh off the grill and straight into the baguette it was still piping hot and reasonably tasty. There was plenty of what I think was shredded pickled carrot and daikon, which lent cleanness, bite and crunch. The excessively thick discs of cucumber all down one side I could have done without, but that might be more to do with me and my feelings about cucumber. And there was a little coriander and mint, although really just enough to make me wish there was more. It needed more full stop, and I could see plenty of ways that could have been done, whether by adding more zing and lime, a lot more coriander and mint, some peanuts or – the traditional element of a bánh mì, this – some pâté. It was a few steps above an entry-level hot chicken sandwich, but that was all. I wasn’t sure whether this was marketed at normal lunchtime shoppers or fans of Vietnamese food, but whoever it was aimed it wasn’t quite on the money.

What it really needed, I decided, was the satay sauce which came with the summer rolls. These were quite remarkable and easily the highlight of the visit; I’ve had summer rolls before and never quite got it, but these were properly delicious. It’s very hard not to keep trotting out the same adjectives to describe Vietnamese food: fresh, clean, delicate, blah blah blah. Believe me, I know that. But they seem so appropriate in this case, and in any event I’d rather not embarrass us all by dashing off to the thesaurus.

In some ways, the summer rolls should have been no more successful than the bánh mì or the pho, but that combination of crunch and subtlety worked here when it didn’t quite elsewhere. The prawn summer roll, Zoë’s choice had three prawns along one edge, my pork summer roll had a slice of roast pork rolled along the outside. In both cases it was a weird experience to take off the clingfilm and then see an equally transparent layer you could actually eat in the form of the rice paper. But the real winner was the satay – properly deep and rich with a beautifully simmering heat. A small quibble is that the little plastic tub it came in was far too small to allow proper dipping. A bigger quibble is that I just would have liked more satay sauce in general. And of course, the main quibble was that my bánh mì hadn’t come slathered in the stuff. Oh well, maybe next time I’ll just ask for a couple of tubs on the side.

“That’s the hit of the whole fruit” said Zoë, devouring hers, and I couldn’t disagree. They’re four pounds for two, and I could well imagine foregoing the bánh mì next time and just having a couple of the summer rolls instead. But, on the other hand, there was a fried egg bánh mì which also sounded intriguing. And that, in a way, is rather a telling thing about my visit to MumMum – you could argue that it was only a partial success, you could say it was still more unrealised potential than actual accomplishment, but I had still already mapped out what I’d eat on my next two visits.

Service was good, prompt and kind although it had a strangely downcast quality to it. We were handed a slip with a code we could use to enter a TripAdvisor review (and details of their website which, the last time I tried it, didn’t work). The chap who brought our food over was lovely and friendly. But, as we were leaving, I asked the other lady serving how things had gone in their first month.

“It’s not that good” she said.

There was just enough of a pause for me to worry, and then she went on.

“But it’s not that bad either.”

My heart went out to her for being so honest, and I left the restaurant in crusading mode all fired up to write a glowing review which would get people flocking (who am I trying to kid? Trickling) to MumMum. But after a period of reflection, I think it’s right to strike a different tone. MumMum is a refreshing option for the town centre; they have a lovely, well laid-out space in a decent location and they offer something you can’t get elsewhere in town. They are starting to do a superb job of drawing attention to themselves on Instagram (I was recently mesmerised by an Instagram story showing exactly how they make a summer roll – well worth two for four quid, I reckon).

All that is to their credit, but the realities of their situation are still challenging. Good as a location on Market Square is, it also means that two days of every week diners have to walk right past a thriving food market to eat there. On most Wednesdays, unless the weather was truly dismal, I’d struggle to pass up the plethora of options at Blue Collar – especially the challoumi wrap from Leymoun – to eat at MumMum. Closing on Saturdays and Sundays makes it difficult to try their wares unless you work in town. Their prices are slightly confusing and not always as competitive as they could be. But most of all, I really think MumMum needs to be bolder and braver with flavour, or I worry that they’ll never get the audience they need to survive. Their food needs to sing rather than stammer, and I sense – to twist the metaphor out of shape – that they’re still clearing their throat. I really hope they make it: I’d rather not mourn the passing of a second Vietnamese cafe in Reading.

MumMum – 6.9
20 Market Place, RG1 2EG
0118 3274185

https://www.facebook.com/Simply.Vietnamese.Taste/