Sunday, 21 April 2019

Experimental menu deserves top marks

THIS restaurant stands out from its corner on Prospect Street in Caversham, with soft light emanating from its steamed-up windows

THIS restaurant stands out from its corner on Prospect Street in Caversham, with soft light emanating from its steamed-up windows and the promise of a buzzy, packed house. I had passed this enticing little place several times in the past few months on drives between Henley and Reading, every time making a mental note to check it out some time. My time finally came one evening in the middle of last week, and it was worth the wait.

Greeted by general manager Alex Darke on arrival we settled in at a window seat and looked through the menu — a seasonal à la carte and a monthly-changing set menu — with a glass of champagne and a bowl of handmade vegetable crisps with salsa.

Always keen to try something completely different when reviewing an eatery, and in the spirit of their “thought for the day” chalked up outside the restaurant — “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new” — I ordered beetroot, goat’s cheese and spinach fritters with a balsamic dressing from the set menu and encouraged my sister to go for the intriguing cauliflower panna cotta to start.

Constructed entirely of my favourite ingredients and with the added bonus of being fried (and therefore a little bit naughty) the fritters were always going to be a great success with me. The creamy, fluffy goat’s cheese mingled well with the slightly acidic bite of the sliced beetroot, which also made for an impressive shock of colour on the inside of the fritters.

Sister’s cauliflower panna cotta was another sensual feast — the caramelised cauliflower with delicate pea shoot accompaniment and crumbly topping combined simplicity and passion in equal measures. The size and presentation of our plates left the senses pleasantly tickled without making either of us feel over-gorged, as so many starters can do.

Food like this — food that’s experimental and different — warrants a bit of background. As we tucked in and chattered the evening away, Alex and his waitress Alice went about looking after all their other diners with the same level of attention, advice on what to order, and background details about the origin of the food as well as how it’s made. This restaurant won the Best Employers in Hospitality award in 2012 and it’s easy to see why. The staff love what they do — and they’re not one bit pretentious with it.

Local produce is a big deal here too, and the restaurant even offers local farmers and growers free slap-up meals for two in exchange for bringing in surplus harvest goods for use in the kitchen. Mya Lacarte is also carbon-aware, and they minimise food waste, limit their air miles and switch pretty much everything off in the restaurant for two hours during the working day.

Anyway, back to the food. I had opted for a duo of Gressingham duck — a duck breast, served pink and decorated with tiny slices of radish, pea shoot salad and a large swirl of plum sauce, with duck leg shredded in a bed of stir-fried red cabbage. This was delicately gamey without being too rich or too salty, and gorgeous with the red cabbage and its tasty plum accompaniment.

Sister’s catch of the day — trout caught on the River Test in Berkshire — was seasoned to perfection and accompanied by sauce vièrge, courgette flan tower, a bed of leek and potato salad, aubergine caviar and tiny little shallot tatins. Where to start? This was a stunningly presented smorgasbord of colour and taste and texture.

Pudding was a foregone conclusion once Alex explained that their “traditional” cheesecake was anything but traditional thanks to the creativeness of their head chef. We also ordered parfait after concluding that this was a seriously good pudding menu with something for everyone — even a “Chef’s Favourites” option consisting of five mini puds for those who really can’t decide.

The chocolate and cherry cheesecake was one of the best puddings either of us had ever tried. Encased in a thin chocolate shell, the filling was the stuff of dreams — whipped and fluffy without being too sweet. The parfait was another gorgeous creation — a butterfly arranged on black slate, resplendent with chocolate tuile wings and raspberry coulis.

There’s nothing not to love about this place. From the ingenuity and passion of its team led by creative head chef Justin le Stephany to the versatility of its menu, the friendliness of its team and the sheer quality of its local, seasonal ingredients. Bravo. I’ll be back.

Restaurant: Mya Lacarte, Prospect Street, Caversham

Prices: starters £5.95 — £10.95, mains £14.95 — £23, set menu £14.95 for two courses

Contact: 0118 946 3400, www.myalacarte.co.uk

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