Pork Belly @ Browns, Reading 15/11/2015

Everyone is different. Wouldn’t it be a dull world if we all thought the same. Some people think I am a marvellous writer. Others cannot believe that Get Reading publish this rubbish. Personally, I cannot believe that I do not yet have TV companies banging on my door offering me 6-figure sums to do Roast Dinners Around The UK.

Think of me as the northern Michael Portillo, where I travel around the country, sampling the delights of roast dinners at the end of obscure branch lines that you thought Dr Beeching had closed down in the 60’s. And then, of course, there would be a follow-up show – Continental Roast Dinners, where I sample the finest exotic roast dinners in cosmopolitan centres of cuisine, like Istanbul, Paris, and Benidorm.

Until such a day, I will be yours truly, and I hope I do annoy some of you on occasion. In my view, I can only be a good writer if some of you think what I write is a load of shit. The only opinions I fear are no opinions.

As the Christmas lights had been switched on in Reading town, I thought I should venture into the beautiful, cultured heights and lights of cheeselog-central (you do know what a cheeselog is, don’t you?) and ended up at Browns on the Oracle riverside. Actually, my best friend chose Browns because she fancied the nut roast. Not so interesting. Although I do want to give it an apostrophe.

The menu was temptingly written, with beef, chicken, pork belly, lamb and nut roast all available. I did have a suspicion that it would be more style than substance. After all, Brown’s isn’t really my kind of place.

I love a country pub, like The Bull in Sonning which was delightful. I like a more standard boozer with home-cooked food like the Fox & Hounds. I don’t like chains – I believe there are around 25 Brown’s in the country and I certainly am not keen on places that I view as poncey, admittedly coming from Hull, I used to view the Back Of Beyond as poncey.

Arriving to find someone playing the piano (from a sheet of music on his ipod) was a little eye-rolling for the boy from Hull.

I just want beer, meat and gravy.

We were seated downstairs, ordered our food from the convivial waiter, who had semi-recommended the chicken and I did fancy the chicken. So I chose the pork belly – pretty much on the basis that I love pork belly. Forgetting that it is very easy to get it wrong.

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Well, I think you’ll agree there is style. But what about the substance?

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Firstly the red cabbage which came in one of the sharing pots. I’ve never been a fan – even when it is done brilliantly I find it a bit gruesome. And this didn’t help the red cabbage reputation, having lost much of its colour and a fair portion of its taste through cooking.

At least this week I didn’t need the writing skills of E.L. James to describe the carrots. They were honey-roasted and guess what? I’m not keen on honey. I probably could get over that but they had a consistency which suggested they had been bathed in honey rather than roasted, for they were so soft and flimsy. My friends loved them. I didn’t.

I assume the parsnips had been roasted together with the carrots. Coming in the same pot kind of gave it away, and although not anywhere near as soft the carrots, they were certainly edible for those without teeth. I still have most of mine despite being brought up on a diet of sweets, gravy and crystal meth. Parsnips are great, and tend to be a rare treat on a roast dinner and these were certainly tasty and enjoyable, if not a tad on the soft side.

The green beans were as close to perfection that you can do ordinary simple green beans I did once cook them with parmesan and what was wow – but for ordinary green beans with nothing at all special about them, these were very good – the only real characteristic to judge them on was how soft/crunchy they were and they just had enough crunch to make them perfect.

Less perfect were the roast potatoes. They came in a pile on the shared serving tray, which was an odd way to do it. That certainly would not happen in Bridlington. They were half-way there to being good roasties. All the preparation had been done, they look like they had been chuffed up around the edges and had they been roasted another 10 to 15 minutes, they could have been excellent.

As they were they were too soft on the outside, and a tad under-cooked on the inside. They were not bad – I’ve had far worse. But very middling.

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My photography really is getting worse.  Either that or my phone.  It doesn’t help that WordPress distorts the photographs when they are larger than a thumbnail either.

Sadly I enjoyed the pork belly even less. The meat itself was quite dry, stringy and almost slightly coarse on taste, not that there was much taste. And the fat on top, which should have been the highlight of the whole meal, was just pointless. As I said earlier, it is easy to get pork belly wrong and I regret choosing it. Worse was to come but I’ll save that for later.

My friend that ordered the chicken really enjoyed his chicken so for the second week in a row, it seems that I chose the wrong roast. And further to that, my best friend who had the vegetarian option – the nut roast – gave her dinner a 9 out of 10. Apparently one of the best roasts she had ever had. In case you haven’t worked it out already, it isn’t going to get a 9 out of 10 from me.

Only the beef option came with a Yorkshire pudding, but I asked the waiter if I could have one anyway. Of course, I could. Although this apparently meant that I could have 4 for £1.50. Of course. Apart from this slight confusion, I do have to say that the service from both the bar tenders, and our waiter was very good throughout. Always friendly, talkative – politely waiting on occasion to ask how our food was, or if there anything else he could get us, did we need any more drinks, etc. Although when he asked what we thought of the food and I said “terrible”, he did reply with “perfect”. I was, at that point, being facetious.

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So back onto subject and the Yorkshire puddings. I managed two of them, although they did taste a little too much of the oil that they were cooked in, and were too crunchy on the outside. Not bad efforts.

The stick of crackling seemed to be there more for decorative effect, but it was more than welcome – it was quite gorgeous and salty – yet crunchy though not too much for my crystal meth teeth.

The waldorf stuffing ball was the smallest stuffing ball that I’ve ever seen, with only two bites it was difficult to ascertain a taste, though there was definitely nut (walnut I assume) and parsley. It was a little burnt on the edges but I appreciated something different.

Oh and don’t forget the….erm…green thing near it. Maybe it was watercress but seriously what was that doing on my roast dinner? It was as pointless as the side salad you get at Sweeney & Todd.

Last, and least was the gravy. Or red wine jus. Before I tell you about mine, let me tell you about the vegetarian gravy. It was an onion gravy, thick and lumpy. I’m not so keen on onion gravy but it was good. Us carnivores had red wine jus. You know my thoughts on jus, although consistency-wise it was closer to a gravy – taste-wise it was horrid. It had that burnt kind of taste – it reminded me of the jus at The Cunning Man I had many, many months ago. Yuck.

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And bad gravy can ruin the best roast dinner. Fair play to the waiter who did understand my advance request for extra gravy and brought 3 small gravy boats over. I didn’t use all 3 small extra boats.

It seems as though it may have been a bit horses for courses – both my friends were either happy or very happy with theirs. I didn’t enjoy mine and the £14.75 price tag didn’t help either.

I want to give it a low score, but there were some redeeming features so it gets a 5.4 out of 10.

The highlight was the green beans – the lowlight was definitely the awful red wine jus. And on the Yorkshire-Surrey scale it rates a Guildford.

For next weekend the random number generator has picked somewhere south of Reading. I doubt many of you will have heard of it, and I do not have high expectations. However it is quite a mission to get to, and if it snows or I have a large hangover, both are possible, then I might just go somewhere within walking distance or one or two train stops and make it easy on myself.

By the way, I wasn’t actually brought up on crystal meth.

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