“Restaurant that’s busy, buzzy ‘n’ funky”- Observer
ALMOST a quarter of a century ago I gave up eating meat. The precise reasons for this madness are a hazy memory but it certainly wasn’t out of any moral conviction; probably more of an Eighties fad where in order to fit in with the zeitgeist you needed to have some crusade to champion. It might have been factory farming or force-feeding piglets antibiotics. Whatever.
I have now seen sense and re-embraced meat in all its glorious guises. And just as well because the chargrilled Jack O’Shea fillet steak at Bel and The Dragon is something quite heavenly to behold.
It is worth arriving half an hour before your reservation to have a drink at the bar, which has a lovely metropolitan feel — busy and buzzy and funky without being too loud. You can tell a lot about an establishment by the way they serve a gin and tonic. A stingy little glass or not enough ice and you might as well not bother. At the Bel it came in a chunky tumbler with plenty of ice and a hunk of lemon; the perfect apperitif.
The dining room sits inside a listed building — it was once a storage house for Huntley and Palmer — with original windows and a lofty ceiling hung with globe lights, and dotted around the edge are a number of cosy, romantic booths.
My starter of pumpkin and parmesan soup was silky and rich, the shaved truffle lending an extra hint of luxury, while Mr P’s seared yellowfin tuna was a deep, handsome red, having hardly hit the pan, and came with a nose-clearing dollop of wasabi.
For the main course he chose seared Scottish scallops with smoked pancetta, while I was persuaded by the manager, Stephen Hayes-Macleod, to go for the fillet steak. Hang on, there seemed to be some role reversal going on here. In my meat-free days, I would find Mr P salivating over the array of meat in the local butcher’s window before I dragged him off to the fishmonger and greengrocer to get tea.
The scallops were soft and squashy and cooked to perfection but compared to my steak — at least two inches thick, with a chargrilled crust and oozing bright red blood in the middle — they seemed a little lost on a big man’s plate and he did look a little envious.
Stephen had pooh-poohed my choice of an Italian red to accompany the meat, explaining that the perfect claret for steak is an Argentinian Malbec. “It cuts through the meat,” he said. “That’s why the Argentinians make it, to go with their notoriously good steaks.”
He was right; the Malbec was smooth and rich, and complemented the soft denseness of the steak perfectly.
Half way through my main course I had to admit defeat and allow my carniverous other half to finish it off, complete with half my thrice-cooked chips.
To finish we shared a chocolate fondant pudding — is there any other pud to consider on a night of total indulgence? — crisp on the outside and squidgy on the inside, with a dollop of creamy blackcurrant ice-cream and a swirl of chocolate sauce.
It is rare for me to wax lyrical about a restaurant, as often I am left disappointed and thinking I could have cooked it better myself. But Bel and The Dragon has everything youc could want for a night out — a cool bar, excellent food and wine, and a lovely ambience: in my opinion, one of the best places to eat out in Reading.
Bel and the Dragon also has restaurants in Reading, Cookham, Churt, Godalming, Odiham and Windsor. Visit www.belandthedragon.co.uk for details of menus and to book a table.