Restaurant review: Lebanese Village

The reason behind this week’s review is simple: I got a tip-off. About chicken livers.

It came off the back of the World Cup Of Reading Restaurants I ran on Twitter just after Christmas – congratulations to Kungfu Kitchen for winning the title, by the way – when I received a message from a reader. She and her partner had been debating the merits of the various competitors, and they’d agreed that in their considered opinion the closest rival to surprise package Tasty Greek Souvlaki was not Bakery House but in fact Lebanese Village on Caversham Bridge. It served some of the best Lebanese food she’d ever eaten, she said, and their chicken livers were second to none.

It was appropriate, too, because I never liked chicken livers before I tried Lebanese food. Actually, it would be closer to the truth to say that I didn’t know I liked them until then. But the first time I had them, at Bakery House, experienced that contrast of caramelisation and silkiness unlike anything else, with sweet, sticky fried onions and a whisper of pomegranate molasses, I was hooked. And that was just the start of it – then I tried the chicken livers at Clay’s, dark and delicious, dusted with an intriguing spice mix including, of all things, dried mango and I became even more of a convert. 

Then there were the happy occasions when the Lyndhurst served them – simply, on sourdough toast with a bright pesto. By then chicken livers were well and truly one of my favourite things, so the idea that somewhere in Reading served a reference version I’d yet to try was an aberration I needed to remedy, as soon as possible. So on what felt like the coldest night of the year so far, Zoë and I schlepped off to Caversham Bridge, stopping only for a fortifying beer at the warm, welcoming, wintry Greyfriar.

I’ve written about Reading’s history with Lebanese restaurants before, so I risk rehashing all that here. But in the early days, back in 2015, we had two and they were about as different as could be. La Courbe was a grown-up restaurant with sharp furniture, square plates, fancy glasses and an extensive list of Lebanese wines (true story, on my second or third visit there the English waitress, when clearing our glasses away, said “it’s not bad is it, the Lesbianese wine?”: bless her). And then came Bakery House, closer to the kind of thing you’d see on the Edgware Road, more informal, more casual, with no alcohol licence. 

Bakery House won the war. It’s still going today, and has proved the more influential blueprint for Lebanese food in Reading: Palmyra and the not-too-sadly departed Alona are very much in that mould. La Courbe lasted a couple of years, though whether that’s because of their business acumen or the fact that they had John Sykes as a landlord we’ll never know. The owner moved on to run a Lebanese night at a café in Pangbourne for a little while, and then disappeared without trace. But I hope history is a kinder to La Courbe, because their food was absolutely terrific. Their skewers of lamb and chicken, their lamb koftas were, in truth, a level above anything that came off the grill at Bakery House, wonderful though Bakery House is. I still remember their taboulleh. 

Looking at the menu at Lebanese Village in the run-up to my visit I wondered which kind of restaurant it would turn out to be. It sold alcohol – two Lebanese beers and a decent selection of Lebanese wine, including a couple I’d tried at La Courbe. The menu was more limited than Bakery House’s and potentially less casual, with no shawarma, no boneless baby chicken, fewer mezze. And I’d heard good things about Lebanese Village from a few people, so was it going to be the spiritual successor to La Courbe?

The last time I set foot in that building was in 2013, when it housed Picasso (another restaurant I still remember, for decidedly different reasons) so I couldn’t honestly tell you how it’s changed. But they’ve made a pleasing, surprisingly cosy space out of what is effectively another long, thin room. Some of the decor is definitely Lebanese – the attractive patterns on the ceiling tiles for instance, and some of the pictures they’ve put up. The plates on the wall depicting pastoral English scenes, bridges and church towers, are more confused. But the background music – relentless, frantic, and slightly too loud – left you in no doubt.

The restaurant has bought rather attractive wood and glass partitions, during the pandemic I expect, and they do an excellent job of breaking the room up into sections. I still think the section nearest the front, by the bar, closest to the window, is the best place to be and that’s where nearly all of Lebanese Village’s diners were the evening I visited. It was a bitterly cold night and every restaurant I walked past on my way – San Sicario, Kamal’s Kitchen, Flavours Of Mauritius – was utterly deserted, so I was heartened to see that they had some paying customers, including a large table of Americans who seemed to be over with work and staying at the Crowne Plaza just the other side of the water.

The icy trek definitely helped us work up an appetite, and we went a bit crazy with the mezze to start with. The best of them was the Lebanese Village arayes, minced lamb and a smidgen of cheese sandwiched between pitta bread. “It’s basically a quesadilla” said Zoë – and although she was dabbling in a spot of cultural appropriation I got her meaning. This is one of my favourite things to eat at Bakery House and although Lebanese Village’s pitta felt bought in rather than made on the premises it stood up well to that standard. It could have done with more cheese, I thought, but then you only pay forty pence extra for cheese so maybe that’s why they don’t give you much. While we’re on the subject, at nearly seven pounds this dish cost almost twice as much as its counterpart in the town centre.

I was interested to try the lamb burak, and it was good but not great. The pastry felt like it might have been bought in too, and the whole thing was a little too thick and stodgy, the ratio out of whack. What lamb there was I liked, but it was only just the right side of the line between “what lamb there was” and “what lamb?” From the plating of this, and the arayes, I realised that the restaurant had a bit of a thing for scalloped smears of their – rather good – garlic sauce. I found that a little weird: a ramekin would have been fine.

They’d done a similar thing with the houmous Beiruti, spreading it thin in a narrow dish which made it trickier than it should have been to scoop it all up. On the menu the only discernible difference between this and the entry level houmous was the addition of some chilli, which did come through nicely. Perhaps this had more garlic in it than the bog-standard stuff – it certainly had a healthy whack of it – but I couldn’t tell you for sure. I liked it all the same, and I loved the pool of grassy, good-quality olive oil in the middle, but it felt solid rather than special. 

Last but not least, those fabled chicken livers. Ready? They were okay, but nothing more than that. They were wan, woolly-textured things that felt stewed rather than fried, in a gravy so thin that it sulked at the bottom of the terracotta pot, and no amount of scooping or dredging could get it to come out to play or adhere to the livers. I fully expected us to fight over every last bit of this dish, but by the end there was a solitary, worryingly huge lump of chicken liver left and both of us ever so politely offered it to the other. The waitress ended up taking it away.

By this point my hopes, it has to be said, weren’t high. The large table at the front had sloped off into the night, no doubt to cane their expenses account at the bar at the Crowne Plaza, and with that a lot of the spark went out of the room. It was just a pair of friends catching up a few tables across and a couple who had inexplicably decided to sit in the unlovelier, windowless space out back. Only a semi-steady stream of Deliveroo drivers broke up the quietude, and as we sipped our Lebanese lagers – 961, which tasted a little like an alcohol free beer, and not in a good way – I wondered if this was going to be that kind of review.

Things were partly redeemed, fortunately, by the arrival of our main course. The absence of many of the dishes I often lazily go to in a Lebanese restaurant forced me to go for the dish I often lazily go to in any grill house, the mixed grill for two. And this was where everything became inverted: I expected the mezze to be great, and it was simply okay. I didn’t expect too much, by contrast, from the mixed grill and I was pleasantly surprised.

Take the lamb skewer – the meat might not have been blushing pink in the middle, and it would have been nice if it had shown a little more evidence of marination, but it was tender. Far more tender, in fact, than similar kebabs I’ve had from both Bakery House and Tasty Greek Souvlaki. The same was true of the chicken shish – still soft, not dried out and truly enjoyable. So were the charred hunks of red and green pepper also threaded onto those skewers. And the lamb kofte was beautiful too – soft, almost crumbling, not disturbingly firm or spongey as bad examples can be. 

Only the lamb ribs divided opinion – Zoë liked them, but she’s always one to pick them up and gnaw whatever’s going, Captain Caveman-style. I thought the work to reward ratio wasn’t quite there and I’d rather they’d been chops instead, like the miraculous ones you can get at Didcot’s Zigana. But none the less, it was all thoroughly respectable – more so, perhaps, because my expectations had been dialled down by what came before, but respectable none the less. A sweet and delicious charred onion, a little hill of rice topped with sultanas and a really tasty, sharply dressed salad completed the picture. That and more smears of the garlic and chilli sauce. Had they run out of ramekins?

There’s not a lot more to say. Our waitress was lovely and friendly and, I suspect, a bit bored; by the end she was standing behind the bar with her headphones in, probably wondering why restaurants bother opening on Tuesdays in January at all. She might well have a point. Our meal – four mezze, that mixed grill and two beers – came to just over sixty-seven pounds, including a ten per cent service charge. There was a space below that on the bill for a tip, which probably grinds the gears of people on TripAdvisor.

On this evidence at least, the word for Lebanese Village is solid. I worry that Lebanese food is a little like Thai food in this respect – it’s unlikely to plumb the depths, but it isn’t going to scale the heights either. So really, it’s not an existential threat to the likes of Bakery House. And I don’t think it is to Tasty Greek Souvlaki either, although I do reckon their mixed grill possibly beats Tasty Greek’s on points. If you lived in Caversham, or well in their delivery radius, I can see you might find space for them in your repertoire (although if I lived in walking distance of Lebanese Village, I’d far more often go to Kamal’s Kitchen or Thai Table). 

And it’s not the natural successor, at the very top end, to La Courbe either. I suspect for that I need to finally get on that bus to Woodley and check out La’De Kitchen. But I’ve done that deplorable thing of talking about all the places Lebanese Village is not, rather than what it is. And what it is is a perfectly pleasant restaurant with something of a talent for grilling meat. It adds to Reading’s rich culinary tapestry, but isn’t necessarily going to rock your world: not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I’ll leave the last word to Zoë this week. “I’d come back here for the mixed grill” she said as we were working our way through it. The unspoken On a much warmer night than this hung in the air, just the way our breath had on the walk over.

Lebanese Village – 7.2
6 Bridge Street, RG4 8AA
0118 9484141

https://lebanesevillagereading.co.uk

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Restaurant review: Antica Osteria Bologna, Clapham Junction

For fuck’s sake, it’s Edible Reading, not Edible Clapham Junction.

I know, I know (Happy New Year to you too, by the way). But I found myself in the vicinity of arguably the United Kingdom’s most minging train station one January weekend – on an unsatisfactory excursion spectacle shopping, since you ask – and I always think it’s well worth structuring an expedition like that around lunch. That way if the shopping’s a bust, as it turned out to be, and the station is a hellscape, which it very much was, there’s still an outside chance of salvaging the day.

Not that I was in Clapham, by the way. I was shopping and mooching in an area that isn’t quite Clapham, isn’t quite Battersea, is a ten minute walk from Clapham Junction and is really rather lovely. Northcote Road is a long, prosperous street in the heart of what is apparently called Nappy Valley, and it’s a great place to amble and bimble. I hadn’t been in many years, although I was an occasional visitor in a former life.

I remember eating in this little place called Franco Manca there, once upon a time when there were only a handful of them, before they contracted the disease called private equity. There used to be a splendid tapas restaurant, too, called Lola Rojo, which did an olive oil ice cream I still think about sometimes: if I could have my time over again, I’d have ordered two portions (laugh all you like, but that might make my top 50 of Things I’d Do Differently). But anyway those were simpler times, over ten years ago, and remembering them it’s as if they happened to somebody else.

Returning in 2023, Northcote Road was still as fancy as I remembered. It’s still lined with swish looking cafés, delis and cheesemongers, bakeries, great shops, a branch of Aesop  – always a sign that you’re somewhere spenny – and tons of opticians. There’s even a branch of upmarket wine merchant Philglass and Swiggott (true story: I used to frequent their Richmond branch and I had to have it explained to me that those weren’t in fact their real surnames). 

Northcote Road also has restaurant after restaurant, and is full of those kinds of chains: Rosa’s Thai, Joe And The Juice, Patty & Bun, Ole & Steen, Meatliquor. The ones where simultaneously we’d rather like one in Reading but we know that if we got one, it would be because they’d jumped the shark. Not that you needed to eat in one if you were peckish – one food van sold beautiful-looking pizza, another was flogging porchetta sandwiches which looked so attractive that I almost cursed my foresight in having made a reservation.

But I had made a reservation, and I’d relied on Eater London for a recommendation. It had a list of the best restaurants in Battersea, although they were sparsely spread out and it would have taken you the best part of an hour to walk from one end of their map to the other (some of them, weirdly, also end up in their list of the best restaurants in Clapham, which tells you what a no man’s land it can be). 

There were small plates wine bars and gastropubs, little BYOB Thai joints and a restaurant offering French-Korean fusion, whatever that is. But I was drawn to Osteria Antica Bologna, slap bang on Northcote Road. It had been going for over thirty years, which meant I had probably walked past it countless times a decade ago. And the clincher was this: I love Bologna and I haven’t been there in far too long. So Zoë and I turned up at lunchtime, our tote bag already full of treats for later from the cheesemonger, to see if it could transport me back, in spirit at least, to one of my favourite cities.

It was old school right from the beginning, with a burgundy and orange awning and a big sign at the front saying “DAL 1990”. And stepping inside I was reminded that it can be a fine line between dated and timeless, and sometimes you make it from the former to the latter merely by staying the course. For what it’s worth, I think Osteria Antica Bologna was the right side of the line, with a simple, rustic-looking dining room, a dusky pink banquette running along one side. On the other, tables were separated by a trellis-like partition that no doubt pre-dated the pandemic.

Beyond the archway in front of the bar, out back, was a more modern-looking dining room with a skylight, an extension I imagine, but I was glad they didn’t seat us there. Even the little things, like a circular table at the front with a big bowl of olives and a large bouquet of flowers, felt like something they had done for a very long time. It was a room with a lovely energy, a place harbouring the unspoken promise that you would eat well, and although only a handful of tables were occupied when we arrived at one o’clock, only a couple were empty when we left.

Another sign that the restaurant was resolutely old school came as I drank my – surprisingly bracing – Aperol Spritz and Zoë attacked her negroni. The menu was antipasti, pasta and main courses. If you wanted pizza, you should have headed to the food truck on the other side of the road, or to Franco Manca. But everything sounded marvellous, including the specials which were explained by our personable, enthusiastic waiter. 

I almost tried some of their pasta but, and this was the only real disappointment on the menu, the difference between a starter and main-sized portion of pasta was just two pounds, which said to me that I was effectively choosing between that and a main. But there’s always next time, when the pumpkin and ricotta ravioli with sage will be calling to me – although not necessarily loud enough to drown out the siren song of the wild boar ragu, or the risotto with salsiccia and Barbera. A truly great menu always comes with regret baked in: that’s the nature of these things.

We’d ordered a trio of antipasti to start and if anything they intensified that regret: given just how good these were, what other treasures had we missed on the menu? Arancini were possibly the best I can remember, and simpler than many I’ve had. No thick crust of breadcrumbs here, just a feather-light seasoned shell. No stodge to wade through with a molten core, instead just a neat sphere of rice, cheese and peas retaining a little bite. And to go with it, an arrabiata sauce worthy of the name, just spiky enough. It reminded me of the difference between pretenders, as with my visit last year to Sauce & Flour, and the real deal – unshowy but superb.

Also as good as I can remember were the zucchini fritti. No, scratch that: they were easily the best I’ve had anywhere. So often, including at a couple of Reading restaurants I actually really like, they can be soggy, limp things and you’re left to redeem them with some kind of dip. Here they were shoestring-thin, almost ethereal yet spot-on crispy, the way this dish always promises to be but somehow never is. And they didn’t need any kind of dip because they were so salty and zippy, so beautifully seasoned and cooked with a real lightness of touch. “The menu should tell you to order these with your drink while you make up your mind” said Zoë who was, as usual, entirely correct.

The other small dish we had, bruschetta with ‘nduja, was the least excellent but really, that just means it was still cracking. Two thin slices of toasted bread were loaded with a terrific ‘nduja – not stingily, either – with more depth and earthiness than I’m used to. So often ‘nduja dishes I’ve had are a one-note symphony relying on the acrid heat it can supply; I’ve lost track of the number of restaurants that make lazy use of the stuff. By contrast, this dish just said isn’t our ‘nduja amazing? and, having tasted it, it was impossible to argue. One thing you could potentially quibble, here, was the cost: eight pounds fifty for that. Sounds expensive, but is it 2023-in-London expensive? Your guess is as good as mine.

We grabbed a couple more drinks while we waited for our mains. My gavi, in an endearingly functional wine glass, had a pleasant zing to it and Zoë, sensibly, decided to move to gin and tonic. By this point the restaurant had a real buzz and all the temptations of elsewhere, the porchetta sandwiches and gelato places, had melted into air. All that mattered was the next course, and the course after that.

“This is very promising, isn’t it?” said Zoë. She was right about that too. 

If I had to pick a main course to start my reviewing this year with, it would be hard to choose better than the dish Osteria Antica Bologna served me. A piece of cod with salty, crispy skin and soft, sumptuous flesh, cooked by someone who really understood how to get both those things right at once, perched on a little heap of chickpeas, tomatoes and spinach.

A single forkful was enough for me to know that I was in a happy place. I even turned to Zoë and told the tired joke I reserve for these occasions, I love it when a chickpea’s in my mouth, and she had the decency not to grimace; imagine what sitting opposite me at dinner dozens of times a year must be like. Only the fact that the promised salsa verde, which would have completed the dish perfectly, had been replaced by a smear of something closer to purée slightly blotted the copy book.

The problem is that if I had to pick a main course with which to start my reviewing year, it would be damn near impossible to choose better than the dish the restaurant served to Zoë. The menu called it pork belly with roasted apple, but that prosaic description comes nowhere near capturing what a marvel it was. A gargantuan slab of pork where, like the fish, everything was exactly how it was meant to be. The flesh was tender, the crackling brittle and intensely savoury. Between the two, arguably the best bit, that sticky, moreish layer of subcutaneous fat, rendered to the point where it was gorgeous but not beyond that to the point where it vanished. I was allowed a forkful, and then because of my expression I was allowed another, and another.

“Would you like to try some of my fish?”

“No, you’re all right.”

Just as sometimes you can only pick out one face in a crowd, it was hard to remember, eating that pork, that there were other things on the plate. But the gravy, shot through with mustard which never overpowered, was a terrific foil and I imagine the griddled apple was superb with it too. We’d ordered some chips with our dishes, which they really didn’t need, and those were predictably wonderful – light and salty and far too easy to pick at long after we’d cleared our mains. If they buy them in, they buy very well.

The dessert menu was also compact and leant heavily on the classics, and having seen the well-upholstered man and his Sloaney Alice-banded daughter at the next table make their choices simplified things nicely for me. My tiramisu was maybe the weakest link in the whole meal – not bad, per se, but a little too loose and liquid when I’d have liked it a tad more substantial. The slug of coffee and booze as you got to the bottom, though? That was still a wonderful moment in a meal full of them. And at the end of it I had an Amaro di Capo, as much medicine as booze, served without airs, graces, ice cubes or orange in a tall shot glass.

Zoë – here we go again – picked better. Her pear and chocolate tart was another home run, with a few pieces of baked pear, a pleasingly short pastry base and a very thick layer of chocolate; I thought it was a relatively airy ganache, Zoë thought it was a sponge, we had a heated debate about it and agreed to disagree. “That filling definitely has flour in it” were her last words on the subject, but I still say she’s dead wrong. I also managed to talk her out of ordering a Bailey’s and into trying a Frangelico instead. It was not a sponge: trust me on this. 

I haven’t talked about service but it was another of the things that was great rather perfect. The staff are clearly a well-oiled unit, bright and happy, friendly and brilliant. But one thing they also were, slightly, was too efficient. Our plates were cleared away mere moments after we’d cleared them, to the point where it became a little bit too much (“there’s something OCD about it” Zoë said, bemusedly, just after they’d also cleared her G&T away when she hadn’t quite finished it).

But really, that was a small quibble about a magnificent place to eat. I could easily see how Osteria Antica Bologna had held its ground amid all that gentrification, all those pop-ups and top tier chains. At one point I saw one of the waiters leave the restaurant with some plates of food and take them out into the street to the people manning a flower stall outside: that, I thought, said it all. Our meal for two – three courses, three drinks each and an optional 12.5% service charge – came to just over a hundred and fifty pounds, and I thought it was worth every penny.

I’ve complained in the past about Reach plc and its pisspoor habit of saying a restaurant is “just like eating” in a foreign country. My problem with that is twofold. First, the poor unfortunate journalist in question has probably never been to the country in question. But more importantly, 99 times out of 100 they haven’t been to the restaurant either – why bother, when there’s TripAdvisor? But for once I’m going to do it myself: I’ve been to Osteria Antica Bologna, and I’ve been to osterias in the city from which it takes its name. And if I’d stepped out the front door to find myself looking at an orange portico dappled with sunlight, rather than being a two minute walk from a Farrow & Ball and a branch of JoJo Maman Bebe, I wouldn’t have been entirely surprised.

As I paid up, our meal at an end and so many around us barely beginning theirs, I thought about what it means to have a restaurant for over thirty years. To outlast fads and phases, to have ‘nduja and burrata on your menu before everybody discovers them, to steer your course without embracing small plates or no reservations, to serve pasta simply because it’s what you do rather than because suddenly pasta restaurants are in vogue. I thought about the fact that Osteria Antica Bologna was here before Northcote Road was all fancy and well-to-do, that they had sent thousands of customers away replete and happy. That they’d started doing that before I even finished my A levels.

And I thought that even though this restaurant was nowhere near my home town (and, let’s be honest, most of you will probably never go there) it was still the perfect place to kick off my reviews this year. Because to celebrate this restaurant, on some level, is to celebrate all great restaurants. Some people have a nasty tendency to use “neighbourhood restaurant” as a way of patting a place on the head. It’s okay I suppose, if you live there they seem to say. But a great neighbourhood restaurant, especially one that makes you wish it was your neighbourhood, is a truly special thing. Osteria Antica Bologna is every bit that special. I’ll find an excuse to be back near Clapham Junction: when I do, I intend to order everything.

Osteria Antica Bologna – 8.6
23 Northcote Road, London, SW11 1NG
020 79784771

https://osteria.co.uk

2022: The Year In Review

Remember when years used to be, you know, normal? Me neither, but the fact remains that 2022 has been a little closer to what we used to consider normality than the couple of years that preceded it. 2020 was the year of the pandemic, of lockdowns and contact tracing, takeaways and tiers. And 2021 was the year of oh-no-it’s-still-the-pandemic, but one where some of us took more risks, got on more trains and planes and ate in more restaurants. The year when most of us got jabbed and double jabbed, showed off our stickers like brave soldiers.

And this year? Well, it’s not like 2019 was but it’s closer to it than we’ve been for a fair old while. In 2020 we watched Matt Hancock stand at a podium and tell us we couldn’t go to restaurants, in 2022 we watched him sit on a stool somewhere in distant Australia and eat genitalia on primetime television. How things change: two years can feel like an eternity, in some circumstances.

And yet there are still echoes of the past; I read in the news this week that Covid is sweeping through China again, with case numbers through the roof. We could be back in winter 2019 in no time, and as someone who started the year with a partner not long ago discharged from the Royal Berks – exhausted, fragile and injecting blood thinners twice a day – I’m desperately keen not to go back to anything even remotely like that.

The other bit of the wider picture this year, of course, is the cost of living. Rampaging inflation and energy prices have squeezed everybody, from gas bills to supermarket shops, and after the damage done to hospitality by Covid – and our botched recovery from it – another crisis was the last thing our cafés, restaurants and pubs needed. Industrial action on public transport, preventing some people from getting into town centres when retail and hospitality hope to earn much of their money for the year, must feel like the final straw.

This is all very gloomy on the brink of Christmas Eve, isn’t it? I’m sorry, let’s rein that in. And actually if there’s one feature that all my annual roundups seem to share it’s being cautiously pleased that the year just gone hasn’t been so bad, accompanied by dire predictions that next year will be awful. So far I’ve been wrong, and I’d very much like to be proved wrong again this time round. So far despite rising rents, falling footfall, rising prices and those Covid loans kicking in Reading has lost far fewer restaurants than you might expect: fingers crossed that’s the shape of things to come.

We did lose a few, though. The Aila, whose opening I talked about back in 2020 in a site I described as cursed, closed recently and a supermarket has opened in its place. Chipstar, which opened almost a year ago to the day, closed before reaching its first birthday: many of us never got to try the place, but they’ve definitely had their chips all the same. And Friar Street’s Raayo, which also opened in late 2020, closed in June. I managed to get there before they did, and I rather liked their pulled pork, but conditions are tough out there. The lunch market is particularly challenging when people aren’t working in town during the week.

Other 2022 closures were almost more symbolic in their significance. Pizza Hut, which had been part of the Oracle since the Oracle first opened its doors, closed in September. And I’m not sure anyone was devastated, but somehow it, like Woolworths and Debenhams, represented something bigger than itself, a sea change in how and where people like to spend their money (is McDonalds now the only remaining survivor from the Oracle’s opening day? Answers on a postcard).

We also said goodbye to Cozze on the Caversham Road roundabout, in another site that can’t seem to hold down a tenant. I’m not exactly devastated about that closure, though it’s always sad when people lose their jobs, but if you want beige carbonara and highlighter pink desserts there’s still a branch in Woodley. I was much sadder to find Zest packing it in over at Green Park, although given their location it was completely understandable that they would call it a day.

And although it’s not in Reading I was also gutted to see Nick and Mary Galer leave the Miller Of Mansfield after their landlord Stonegate tried to up their rent by a whopping ninety per cent. Good old Stonegate: here’s your regular reminder that, apart from John Sykes, pubcos are probably the only people who watch It’s A Wonderful Life and find themselves rooting for Potter.

Speaking of pubs, two pubs parted company with their kitchens this year. The Spread Eagle said goodbye to Banarasi Kitchen and installed a new Indian restaurant called Bagheera in its place. It only officially launched this month, but the furniture looks plush and the menu, possibly, a tad generic; only time will tell whether it squanders the goodwill build up by Banarasi Kitchen. And I thought it was a real shame that Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen decided to leave the Butler this year: they decided to move to Liquid Leisure in Windsor, which then closed for a couple of months in tragic circumstances.

Sorry, it’s all got gloomy again. Let’s focus instead on the positives because there are plenty – and although it would be easy to just talk about the Americanisation of Reading town centre (something I may still do later) the class of 2022 is a far more interesting and varied selection than you might think. 

First and foremost there’s Blue Collar Corner, easily Reading’s most significant opening in four years or so which opened in March having spent much of the previous year lost in Reading Borough Council’s planning bureaucracy. With four permanent street food traders, a well-stocked bar from local favourites Double-Barrelled and plenty of seating, much of it covered, this was one of the most exciting developments in Reading for a long old time.

There were further challenges as summer came to an end: Blue Collar Corner lost Gurt Wings and The Taco Tree, its two anchor tenants, and one of the replacement traders barely lasted two months. But given an impressive winter refurb and a renewed focus on music and events you wouldn’t bet against Blue Collar making it through the winter. Besides, Gurt Wings is still in town every Friday.

Another of Reading’s most keenly-awaited new restaurants was Kamal’s Kitchen, which opened in the spring. This place is owned by Kamal Tamrakar, and I’m delighted that it finally realises the potential shown by his previous restaurant Namaste Kitchen. I haven’t reviewed it, because he knows perfectly well who I am, but all my visits this year have been a joy and he and his family did a magnificent job hosting the first ER readers’ lunch of 2022 in the summer.

I can’t talk about the new restaurants that have opened in Reading this year without mentioning the two big trends that took us all by surprise in 2022. The first was biryani restaurants becoming a thing, with Biryani Mama arriving in town and both Biryani Boyzz and Biryani Lounge opening down the Wokingham Road: all this on top of the handful of biryani places already trading at the very top of the Oxford Road. The other was sushi, with not one but three Japanese restaurants opening in Reading this year. Two on Friar Street – Iro Sushi and You Me Sushi – are virtually neighbours just along from Hickies. The third, in the old Tasting House building, is the accomplished but erratic Intoku.

Most of the other new openings in Reading this year, encouragingly, have been independent. On Market Place we got La’De Express, a fast food offshot of the very popular La’De Kitchen. Despite being right opposite Tasty Greek Souvlaki, and despite a recent scare where their windows appeared to be covered up, they are still trading. (N.B. I clearly spoke too soon, because as of 23rd December they definitely look exceptionally closed down.)

We got a couple of new places on West Street where Beijing Noodle House used to be – Chillim, a Nepalese restaurant I’m yet to visit and Cairo Café, which I loved. And just to give the “not another café” blowhards something to whinge about, we also got some more cafes: Black Sheep in the old Caffe Nero site on Friar Street (with another on the way on Broad Street), Gail’s in the old Patisserie Valerie site and an interesting new cafe/social enterprise called Barista & Beyond just off Chatham Street.

Where else? Well, another couple of brave souls have decided to sign leases with cuddly ol’ John Sykes, so we have The Churros Kitchen and Bánh Mì QB in whatever he is calling Kings Walk this week: the latter, incidentally, provided me with a very enjoyable meal on duty this year.

We also have a branch of Shree Krishna Vada Pav on the Kings Road at the edge of town (a small chain, but I loved my meal there) and possibly our newest restaurant San Carlo where Cozze used to be. Will San Carlo make a go of it where La Fontana, Casa Roma and Cozze – and that’s just the Italian restaurants that have failed in that spot – failed? Only time will tell, but it probably doesn’t bode well that they’re having to change their name to San Sicario after three weeks because of “confusion” with a national chain of the same name (or, perhaps, a cease and desist letter).

Oh, and we have a place called Doner & Gyros (they’re two separate things, don’t you know) that has opened where China Palace used to be: I will no doubt go there at some point next year to give you a cheap laugh and me dyspepsia. You might be looking forward to that more than I am.

The other big story of the year is two Reading institutions that have chosen to expand in very different ways. The Grumpy Goat opened its upstairs bar, which is great news for drinkers of an evening but also gives them a chance to serve their toasted sandwiches to more people and potentially expand their food offering still further. And Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen (although it’s now called Clay’s Kitchen & Bar, so keep up) has left its premises on London Street and has taken on the Baron Cadogan site in Caversham.

This latter is a huge move, and they’ve been transparent both about the need for crowdfunding and some of the challenges of managing the whole project. Their initial opening date in October has moved out, although they have hosted some food and beer pairing events in recent weeks, so we can expect to see them open in earnest early next year. It’s hard to imagine any new opening in Reading next year will generate quite as much buzz, in town or beyond.

No doubt we will be blindsided by other new openings in 2023, but so far the list of forthcoming restaurants in the public domain is less than exciting and is dominated by chains of one kind or another. So although Leon has finally given up on its plans to move to Reading, we will be graced with Zizzi offshoot Coco Di Mama just down from Tortilla. Rosa’s Thai is allegedly going to open on the ground floor of Jackson’s Corner, and where Gap used to be Reading will have a branch of Popeyes, the American fried chicken folks. Let’s hope it’s more Gurt than Wingstop. And we also have Marugame Udon jumping into Pizza Hut’s grave on the Oracle riverside. They do noodles and ramen and may or may not prove to be different from Wagamama. Is it bad that I’m not in a mad hurry to find out?

It’s traditional at this point for restaurant bloggers to waffle on about what 2023 holds for hospitality, but much like some evenings I used to endure down the pub back in the days before the pandemic, it’s impossible to tell at this stage just how painful it’s going to be.

People will have less money and restaurants will have higher bills, and those Covid loans probably still need to be paid back. But it’s anybody’s guess whether spending on eating out will get ringfenced or sacrificed. It’s even harder to tell what kind of treats people will still allow themselves, and whether it will be big ticket meals people cut back on, or casual dining, or just the daily latte. For myself I aim to keep reviewing every week, although I’m more conscious than ever of striking that fine balance between supporting independent businesses and being honest with readers about whether restaurants, in this climate, are worth the money.

I’m aware of what a huge privilege it is to be able to review restaurants every week, especially without having to stoop to accepting free shit, but I can honestly say that writing this blog brings me as much joy now as it did in those more innocent times, nearly a decade ago, when I started. And 2022 has been as happy a year of blogging as I can remember: I reviewed a few restaurants in a brief window at the end of last year, but this year I went back to restaurants in March (at the lovely Flavour Of Mauritius) and I haven’t looked back. Until now, of course, when I’m writing a piece looking back on the year. Obviously.

And I can’t recall a year with such a breadth of different restaurants in it. I visited some of the great places that opened in the pandemic, like Tasty Greek Souvlaki and ThaiGrr!, where I’d only ever tried their takeaway. I sampled newcomers like Banh Mi QB, Intoku and The Switch, trying some fantastic Vietnamese food, Reading’s best crispy squid and an excellent avocado on toast in the process. I finally made it to parts of Reading the blog had only ever talked about in passing: places in Tilehurst and Woodley finally got a review. 

And I also went further afield in Berkshire with trips to Newbury, Wokingham and a hat trick of trips to up and coming Maidenhead. In the process I had delicious mackerel – more than once – a fantastic chocolate mousse and some rather underwhelming pasta. And in Seasonality, not far from Maidenhead station, I discovered one of my finds of the year. Speaking of finds, this was also the year when I wrote a series of reviews from Bristol and gave out my highest ER rating of all time (a visit to Wallingford, following in the footsteps of Jay Rayner, was considerably less successful).

Incidentally, the reviews from Bristol were among the most widely read pieces I published all year, so I can’t thank people enough for giving them the time of day. I’m always mildly entertained when people pop up on Twitter or Facebook to tell me to stop reviewing places without an RG postcode: “your blog’s called Edible Reading” they always say, in a manner which has strong It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve energy. 

Never mind that: the incredible response to the Bristol reviews in particular has convinced me that there will definitely be more of those next year. And I would also sound a note of caution that for whatever reason – recession, price rises, risk aversion or Reading’s infamously charitable landlords – Reading is not the fertile crucible of culinary imagination it was five years ago. Unless something changes, I fear that the future has more chains in it, and more independents giving up or moving somewhere less expensive, which is literally almost anywhere.

It feels like a lot of the progress Reading has made in the last ten years is in jeopardy, which is my cue to say, as I always do this time of year, that our hometown, still the biggest town in the U.K. despite our council’s inept efforts, is what we all make it with our time and our money. So this year, perhaps more than any year, it’s worth thinking hard about how to foster and protect what you love, about buying the more expensive coffee or beer or toasted sandwich so that when I do my annual pontificating this time next year I’m not telling you that your favourite place has closed.

What a shame, I’ve been meaning to go there, you might respond. Go there now instead, while you can.

I would close by talking about all the amazing dishes I’ve had in the last year, but you have the return of the annual ER awards next Friday and I don’t want to spoil their thunder. So instead, a few thank yous. Thank you to my dining companions this year: my diverting friends Graeme, Sophie and Mike, and of course my infinitely patient other half Zoë who has put up with me dragging her to a variety of restaurants – the good, the bad and the iffy – and invariably ordered better than me. Without her, this blog would be a much poorer place (although, arguably, one with fewer expletives).

And finally, of course, I really must thank all of you. This is another thing I seem to say at the end of every year, but it was another record breaking year on the blog with more visitors and page hits than ever before (my favourite stat is that this blog has almost as many readers now, on a good week, as it had in the whole of 2013). And honestly, it wouldn’t be anything without your support – your reading, commenting, sharing, even lurking. Whether you try out restaurants I review, or come along to my regular readers’ lunches or just read it from time to time rolling your eyes and thinking “what a tool”, those page hits all count. 

So I hope all of you, whoever you are, have a fantastic Christmas – whether you celebrate it or not, however you mark the time – and a very happy New Year. As I said, there’s one more 2022 post from me next Friday when I dish out my annual gongs for the best food I’ve eaten this year. See you then?   

Restaurant review: Momo 2 Go

We’re on the home stretch now: Halloween and Bonfire Night are in the past, Christmas is on the horizon. This review is published on Black Friday, a day many of us would prefer not to acknowledge. It all adds up to one thing – we are close to having survived another year of interesting times, of pay cuts and price rises, of soaring expenses and the spectre of Covid, still lurking in the background. The future is uncertain – for our electricity bills, for our weekly shop, for keeping global warming below 1.5C, for our Twitter profiles – but for now, we’re all still here. Group hug, anybody? Actually, scratch that: who else needs a drink?

The New Year is always a time to look ahead and make great plans, but as a perpetual glass half empty type I find this time of year is when I look back and can see all the things I didn’t achieve over the last twelve months – the pounds I didn’t lose, the money I didn’t save, the books I never finished and the exercises from my physio I always found very good reasons not to do. But I never mope for too long – the sweet release of the socialising season, the festive beers waiting to be drunk and all the people to catch up with soon sweep all of that away. Besides, by Christmas Eve ITV4 (yes, it’s a thing) is pretty much wall to wall Carry On films, and you can’t mope watching one of those. I can’t, anyway.

As we approach the end of the year I also find myself looking at my to do list here at the blog. Forget shopping days: there are only a handful of reviewing Fridays left til Christmas and so many places I’ve not made it to yet. So how do I decide what to prioritise for the tail end of the year? Should I go back and try one of the interesting places that have sprung up in Wokingham, or another of Reading’s new sushi joints? Is the Secret Santa present my readers really want a piece where I go to Jollibee and dutifully endure that weird spaghetti dish with chopped frankfurters in it? And how about that new kebab place on the edge of the Broad Street Mall, immortally described by the Reading Chronicle as “Slow-roast Dubai restaurant Donor and Gyros”?

But there’s a particular subsection of my list that I feel deserves particular attention as 2022 shambles to an end. At the start of this year, when the weather was shite and our booster jabs hadn’t kicked in, I was still reviewing takeaways. But I know that what people really want, especially now life is a little more as it was, are restaurant reviews. And there are a handful of places where I had decent takeaways over the past couple of years but have never returned to try out the full eating in experience, blind spots that I ought to rectify.

In some cases there are reasons for that – Banarasi Kitchen has recently left the Spread Eagle pub to be replaced by a new Indian kitchen called Bagheera, for instance. I probably would have gone to Osaka by now, but for the fact that they had a one star hygiene rating for four months over the summer. Palmyra, which did me a very nice takeaway in the spring of 2021, only takes cash which rules it out of contention. Cash only in 2022, after two years that have all but killed cash as a going concern. “Fuck that” grizzled Zoë, as we walked away from it recently.

But I also had a fantastic takeaway from the subject of this week’s review, little Momo 2 Go down the Oxford Road, back in February – so good, in fact, that I’ve ordered from them several times since. Surely it was time to try it in the flesh? So Zoë and I wandered over on a midweek night to pay it a long overdue visit.

It’s a small, simple place on that row of shops just before the Reading West bridge, and the inside was humble and unceremonious – the walls cheery yellow above and dove grey below a haphazardly painted dado rail. The name gave a pretty clear clue that a lot of their trade is takeaway – in total they have a dozen or so covers, and a little bar and counter made up to look like a little hut. A fish tank glowed in one corner, with a few anaemic denizens drifting around in it. But I liked the room – it had a certain warmth, and the condensation on the door made you feel cosy. We were the only customers eating in that night.

The menu fitted on a single laminated sheet of A4, and half of that was the drinks selection. So very compact all told, especially compared to the likes of Kamal’s Kitchen or Sapana Home, although with many of the options you get your choice of pork, chicken, lamb or buffalo. There was nothing even approximating to a curry, and I liked that a lot, that they didn’t compromise. A small selection of specials on a blackboard over the bar added a few more choices, but without making matters difficult. And nothing cost more than a tenner, with the momo in particular looking impressive value at around seven pounds for ten.

Much of the menu is about your starch of choice – momo, chow mein or fried rice – with a final section marked “sides” which includes many things which don’t sound like sides. So the best way to approach this menu, as with Nepalese food in general in my experience, is to treat it as a small plates menu and share as many things as you think you can manage. And that’s exactly what we did.

Trying to make our choices and discuss things with our waiter highlighted that things wouldn’t necessarily be straightforward. Our waiter was absolutely lovely and friendly, but it was quite a struggle to explain and to understand. I wasn’t sure if this was because his English wasn’t the best, or because he was very shy, or because he was helping out for the night. Maybe Momo 2 Go really does do most of its business through delivery apps. Whatever it was, although I really liked him we did have to ask a few things more than once and explain that, for example, asking what was in a dish was not the same as saying we’d like to order it. In the end, I put him out of his misery and just Googled a few of the dishes, because it was easier.

The first dish to come out was one of the vegetarian dishes, aloo nimki. I hadn’t got an awful lot of detail about it from the waiter, except that it was quite spicy, but it was very interesting and unlike anything I’ve tried before. The aloo is potato, of course, small cubes of waxy potato at that, but the nimki – crunchy strips of pastry – were what gave the dish interest and contrast. I worried they’d be soggy under the weight of all that gravy, but they kept their integrity perfectly and made every mouthful interesting. This dish wasn’t a looker, and I wouldn’t say it held my interest to the very end – Zoë gave up long before I did, so she didn’t experience just how spicy it was – but I’m very glad I tried it.

By this point, gladly, a couple of very generous mango lassis had come out of the kitchen, which went a long way towards cooling matters. And I have to say, Momo 2 Go do some of the best mango lassis I’ve had – fruity, substantial and ice cold. Counterintuitive to have them on a cold November night, perhaps, but still an absolute treat. We both had another, and each times you could hear a blender whizzing away in the kitchen out back. No corners were cut.

One of my favourite dishes to takeaway from Momo 2 Go is their sukuti chow mein and I’ve eaten it a fair few times this year to mark the end of the working week. So I entirely expected to love it, and was surprised when it fell a little short. Normally it’s packed with veg, light and impeccably cooked and studded with nuggets of chewy dried meat (I’m guessing it’s lamb, but I might be wrong). So what went wrong this time? A few things, I think. It was a little light on the veg, a little clumpy and stodgy, and a tiny bit burnt. And what was the slight cheesy note in the sukuti? I couldn’t place it, but I checked with Zoë and it wasn’t just me. “Maybe they’ve used a rub” was her guess.

Chicken fried rice, which I’ve always fancied but never had before from Momo 2 Go, was definitely the weakest dish. The veg in this might have been fresh, but the peas and the perfectly diced cubes of carrot didn’t feel it. It also didn’t feel like the rice had really been fried, as there wasn’t much in the way of crispy caramelisation, and what chicken there was was underwhelming. If you added a bit of the hot sauce it came with, it was almost interesting, but almost interesting isn’t saying enough. “It’s all a bit Bachelor’s Savoury Rice” said Zoë, and I had to agree. Mind you, she used to feel the same way about paella.

Fortunately, things improved from there. Momo 2 Go’s fried lamb momo are up there with the best I’ve had in Reading, and are enough of a reason to visit the restaurant in their own right. They were ten large, featherlight balloons of light, crunchy fried dough stuffed with a substantial amount of fragrant, exquisite minced lamb. Cut, dip, eat, sigh, repeat. Just bliss.

It’s an irony that the restaurant is called Momo 2 Go, because having had these many times as a takeaway and having finally eaten them in the restaurant, hot and fresh, straight from the kitchen, the absolute worst thing you could do to these beauties is to have them to go. They deserve to be eaten there and then, not kept waiting for a single minute more than necessary. And even though we were full at the end of our meal, we nearly ordered more. Reading back over these paragraphs, I haven’t even come close to explaining how much I loved them, but maybe a glimpse of the picture below will fill in the gaps left by my inadequate prose.

Last of all, we tried something from the specials board, chicken fry. Now normally when I’ve had chicken fry in, say, Sapana Home, it’s not really fried chicken. It’s chicken which may or may not have been fried served in a sticky sauce with peppers and onions, not a million miles in fact from the chilli chicken I often order in Nepalese restaurants.

So I was surprised to get exactly what I’d ordered but not what I’d expected: there, amid the neatly corrugated slices of carrot and cucumber were beautifully light, superbly crisp nuggets of chicken thigh. What was this doing in a Nepalese restaurant? I have no idea, but I wasn’t complaining – although I was rather nonplussed. But to judge it as fried chicken, it was a good dip and a little more seasoning in the coating away from perfect. Reasonably close, though.

There isn’t a lot more to say about Momo 2 Go. Our waiter had relaxed a bit by the end of our meal and seemed delighted that we’d enjoyed some of the dishes so much, especially the momo and the chicken. I felt a little sad that I hadn’t tried some of my other favourite takeaway dishes from the restaurant – chilli chicken, or their superlative chicken choila – but there’s only so much chicken any one person can order. And although we were the only customers that night there was a regular flow of delivery orders hitting the till and riders turning up with their insulated bags. Our meal – all that food and four mango lassis – came to fifty pounds, not including service.

I wish I’d liked Momo 2 Go even more than I did, but I hope you can tell from this review that even with the missteps and the dishes that didn’t entirely work on the night I found myself very much in their corner. The service may have been shy and diffident, but plenty of good restaurants have the occasional shrinking violet and it doesn’t stop them turning out superb food.

I can’t recommend all of Momo 2 Go’s dishes with qualification, but I can say this – go there for the momo. Go there before a night at the Nag’s, or go there on the way home if you live out that way. I would gladly do so any day of the week, and I’d try some of the other dishes because it’s hardly an expensive gamble. I don’t think Momo 2 Go have put their prices up this year, so I’m not entirely sure how they turn a profit, but they deserve to.

I sometimes get told off for comparing restaurants I review to their competitors, but I can’t think of a better way to put things in context. Kamal’s Kitchen remains, for me, the benchmark for Nepalese food with a range of dishes and interesting choices which can’t be equalled elsewhere in town: just be careful if he gets out his Nepalese moonshine. And for convenience in the centre and for consistency, Sapana Home still commands a great deal of affection.

But judged on the momo alone, I think Momo 2 Go might beat the lot. It would be easy to end this review saying “I loved the momo, I wasn’t sure about everything else”. But with hindsight, that was essentially my conclusion when I visited Sapana Home on duty back in 2014. And what happened after that? I pretty much ate there every month for the next three years.

Momo 2 Go – 7.0
172 Oxford Road, RG1 7PL
0118 9586666

https://momo2go.co.uk

Restaurant review: Seasonality, Maidenhead

I get a fair few requests to recommend somewhere to eat in Reading. And when I do, I can usually come up with something: if you tell me how central it needs to be, your budget, what kind of food you like and how many of your party are vegans, or vegetarians, or coeliacs, I can find you somewhere suitable. It’s very rare that I’m completely stumped. 

But there is an exception to that, which I suppose you could best describe as the Special Occasion Restaurant. It used to be called fine dining, before that phrase became a term of abuse. But special occasion restaurant probably sums it up better – somewhere you want to go to spoil yourself, or treat someone, or celebrate anniversaries, birthdays, engagements or exam results. Yet even describing it that way makes me realise what a niche and endangered species it might be.

The thing is, a lot of restaurants can make an occasion feel special. It’s what they’re meant to do – the good ones, anyway. And isn’t special occasion dining a concept that has outlived its usefulness, as eating out becomes a special occasion, full stop? After all, we’ve staggered through two and a bit years of Bad Times, and summer has come to an end just in time for Even Worse Times to hove into view. I mark a special occasion these days by bunging the central heating on.

That said, it’s too early to say whether the latest coming storm will hit all of hospitality, or whether parts of the sector will fare better than others. Casual dining might be protected, in terms of demand, although it will have less of a buffer against rising costs. Chains may have enough of a war chest to see them through, as they did in the pandemic. But what about the top end? Is this a luxury people will forego, or will people ring-fence those kinds of meals? I imagine many restaurants, both new and well-established, are asking themselves those questions with some anxiety, especially with their peak trading period a month away.

I have to say, though, that even before the pandemic Reading never really boasted that sort of restaurant. In the town centre, the closest we had were places like Forbury’s (which, back when it was good, was very good), Cerise and London Street Brasserie. Only the latter is still going, although it’s not always felt quite special enough, I think. Further out of town we had Mya Lacarte which, in its early years, was terrific but faded away and closed. And I suppose we have Thames Lido. The location is special, if nothing else.

So for that kind of meal, people have always gone further afield – to London, which isn’t far in the scheme of things, or to one of the pretty pubs between here and London that trouble the Michelin and the Good Food Guides. Or out Henley way, for dinner at somewhere like Orwell’s: not Henley itself, mind you, as its upmarket restaurant Crockers closed its doors for the last time last month. “People won’t pay for fine dining but restaurants like Côte Brasserie do really well here” said the owner. “I have never been so badly disrespected as I was in Henley”: someone’s not going to get tapped up by the tourist board any time soon.

So where do I recommend, these days? Well, my go to used to be the Miller Of Mansfield in Goring – very pretty, terrific food and accessible by train if you all want to drink – but then it closed at the start of January (cause of death: greedy landlord, as usual). Since then I’ve struggled a bit, telling people there are better options further afield; the last time someone asked me, I suggested Goat On The Roof.

So that’s the thinking behind this week’s review – could Maidenhead’s Seasonality be a suitable option? The compact family-owned restaurant, run by husband and wife team Wesley and Francesca Smalley, got a rave review in the Guardian back in July and that, combined with the short sample menu on their website, made it look like an intriguing prospect. I never need much persuasion to hop on the Elizabeth Line, stopping only for a pre-prandial pale at A Hoppy Place, so I booked a table for Friday night with some anticipation. Could I finally find somewhere of a standard similar to places like Marmo and Caper & Cure without having to trek over to Bristol?

Seasonality was a short walk from the train station and, at first glance at least, was pretty unassuming. The dining room’s best feature were the big windows that I imagine let plenty of light in, but by nightfall, without that glow, the place was neutral and a little spartan. The only exception to the muted furniture was a weird-looking marble bar area, a little like a kitchen island, where you could perch side by side on bar stools and stare at the wall together: they tried to seat us there but I politely asked if perhaps we could have a conventional table instead.

The evening improved from there, and Seasonality do one thing of which I approve heartily, seating couples at adjacent corners rather than opposite one another so you both get a good view of the space. The place was quiet when we arrived, but by the end of our meal every table was occupied (except that weird kitchen island – another couple was seated there but made a break for a real table the moment one became vacant).

“It’s a bit dark” said Zoë, who is always better at critiquing the decor than I am. “I don’t understand why none of the lights are on over the window seats.”

The menu was a mixed bag – attractive but small. Based on the name (not a huge fan of the name, incidentally) I imagine the menu changes at least four times a year but I hope they tinker with it more frequently than that because otherwise it has decidedly limited replay value. Three starters, three mains, three desserts. A few snacks to start you off and a couple of sides. Starters just under a tenner, most mains twenty-five quid, desserts the same price as the starters. That’s your lot. 

On the plus side, that means that in this review you’ll read about the majority of what was on offer, but the minus is that if you enjoy the delicious agony of narrowing it down, or if you’re a vegetarian or a vegan, or find that the menu happens to contain one of your flat-out no-nos this might not be for you. I gave Zoë the first pick of each course, because manners, and I was delighted that in at least one case she went for the option I fancied least, giving me at least the illusion of choice.

The wine list was small and perfectly formed too – something like four reds and four whites, maxing out at forty quid. Ironically this is an area where I often think less is more, so I was happy with that and our bottle of Morgon, which was about thirty two pounds, had plenty of fruit and just enough about it to bridge the gap between the mains we went for. But before all that we started with a couple of things from the “snacks” section of the menu. The bread was lovely: two quadrants of a little loaf, still warm from a little gentle toasting and spot on with a pat of cultured butter (from Ampersand, who used to supply butter to Geo Café).

Better still was the other snack – sheets of lardo dotted with figs, grapes, sunflower seeds and micro herbs. This was the moment when I realised the evening would be nothing if not interesting. The salty whack of that lardo tempered and toyed with by a whole palette of other flavours and influences – the bright sweetness of fruit, the freshness of little leaves of mint – was a true delight, and unlike anything else I’ve tried this year. Besides, look at it: it’s like an edible Kandinsky. 

More fascination was to follow, not least because Zoë’s starter, which I’d dismissed as very much not my bag, knocked it out of the park. “Tunworth Cheese Soup” hadn’t appealed to me – a soup, made of cheese? – but more fool me: what turned up was a soothing bowl of lactic lusciousness, comforting but not too heavy, scattered with the crunchiest croutons and finished with verdant spots of olive oil. I used to have a friend who said she never ordered soup in a restaurant because every mouthful was exactly the same. Ordinarily I would have agreed with her, but with this masterpiece that was rather the point.

By comparison my starter felt like a good idea not executed right. On paper a potato and Jerusalem artichoke fondant with mushroom ketchup sounded right up my alley, but the flavours and textures of this dish were out of whack. Maybe it was the balance of the potato and the artichoke, but the whole thing had an oddly spongey feel to it without any crunch or crispness. The outside had no upside.

That made it feel a bit like a vegetarian fishcake, and there was nowhere near enough umami punch from the underpowered mushroom ketchup to lift it. Only the fennel, which I thought might be pickled, broke up the beige and reminded me of Bristol’s lovely Caper & Cure where I last had it. The starter we didn’t try was bergamot cured trout with oyster custard: only three options on the menu and I’d picked the wrong one.

Mains reassured me that my starter was a blip. Mine was a beautifully cooked piece of hake topped with tightly curled, muscular brown shrimp and served on top of a ribbolita of coco beans, croutons and cavolo nero – more broth than sauce but still absolutely bewitching stuff. I thought I detected more of that fennel chucked into the mix, which I found a little strange – the dish didn’t need it and with a menu so small it seemed odd to have duplication.

Similarly the “Cookham greens” we ordered as a side – a tranche of cabbage a bit like a hot wedge salad – was drizzled with a dressing or sauce that looked very similar to the one that had adorned my starter. But even with those minor quibbles, the hake was a great dish. Could I think of anywhere in Reading that served food like this? Not really.

Zoë’s main showed more of that imagination and skill and again, had one truly impressive component. Venison was really nicely done, although pairing it with radicchio made it feel, and look, surprisingly insubstantial. But what saved the day was the other element of the dish, a bowl of salty, savoury, spiced venison keema topped with – another genius touch – something called “crispy potato” which, to me, had the feel of puffed rice (unless of course it was meant to be puffed rice, in which case the potato had gone AWOL).

The forkfuls of this I was allowed might have been my absolute high point of the meal, yet even so those two separate parts, the fillet and the keema, didn’t cohere into a single dish so in that sense, enthralling though it was in places, it didn’t entirely work. Seasonality does a set lunch Wednesday to Friday for a ridiculously reasonable £18 and when I last checked it included a roe deer keema pie and hispi cabbage: now that I could eat every week for the rest of my life.

The wine list included a few dessert wines so once we’d finished our mains and our bottle of red we grabbed a Sauternes and a Pedro Ximenez (both impeccable) and ordered dessert. Again, Zoë had first choice and again she chose better – a slab of cake studded with hazelnuts, surrounded by a moat of deep chocolate sauce and crowned with a sphere of smooth, indulgent nut butter ice cream was just a superb plate of food. I wouldn’t necessarily thank you for a sticky toffee pudding but I might well beg you for one of these.

Despite seeing them mangled on Bake Off the other week (they’re a favourite of Brexiteer ghoul Prue Leith) I didn’t really fancy îles flottantes so I opted for the other option – the vicissitudes of a tiny menu again – the crème brûlée. Now, I must say that this is something I almost never order because I can nearly always find something I’d rather eat. 

It’s a blessing that I did, though, because it was the nicest I’ve had in ages. It had perfect texture, a wonderful note of tonka and a little freshness from the fig leaf – so much more to it than plain old vanilla – and a caramelised lid with a perfect snap and a wonderful burnt sweetness. I’d forgotten how enjoyable that first tap of the spoon can be, and everything that comes after. I also liked the palmier unceremoniously dumped on top of it but, again, it didn’t really go and felt like two desserts uneasily merged into one.

I haven’t talked much about service, but it was good and friendly if perhaps slightly lacking in polish. Little things like not taking cutlery away, or not bringing it out, along with just a general feeling that they were very agreeable but slightly on the green side. At one point the chef came out and talked to a few tables, which was wonderful to see, and I got the impression that a fair few of Seasonality’s customers are regulars. I can see why, too. 

Our bill – for four courses, a bottle of wine and a couple of dessert wines – came to a hundred and seventy pounds, which included a twelve and a half per cent service change. Grace Dent’s review in the Guardian said that a meal including drinks and service at Seasonality costs around forty pounds a head: either prices have rocketed in just over three months, or Grace Dent is on mushrooms. I know which my money’s on.

So does Seasonality do enough to become a serious prospect for Reading residents wanting to treat themselves? Yes and no. There are a fair few things in the latter column. The service needs more polish, the room is a little unspecial. The narrowness of the menu is going to be a big problem for some people, and I saw lots of little quirks that need ironing out – dishes that didn’t completely work, or didn’t come together, a certain amount of duplication which felt jarring across such a small menu.

Yet despite that Seasonality has a real charm and real skill that thoroughly won me over and made me want to come back sooner rather than later. There is imagination and talent on display in spades across that menu – in that phenomenal lardo dish, in the depths of that Tunworth soup, in my majestic hake or Zoë’s wonderful hazelnut cake. Those real highs, those fireworks, make me think that it would definitely do you a turn if you wanted to go somewhere different to celebrate – especially if you were getting there by train.

So although it’s not yet the finished article, I think Seasonality has more than enough showstoppers and jawdroppers to merit a visit. I keep thinking about the very best of what we had and trying to imagine anywhere in Reading that can quite match it, and the answer is that I can’t. The high points reminded me far more of places in Bristol than in Reading, and anybody that reads the blog will know how much of a compliment that is. So I will be recommending this a lot in future, because it proves something I’ve long suspected. You don’t need a special occasion to eat at some restaurants. Some restaurants are the special occasion in their own right, all by themselves.

Seasonality – 8.7
26 Queen Street, Maidenhead, SL6 1HZ
07507 714087

https://www.seasonality.co.uk