There's a lot going against this week's restaurant. The name, for one. Mya Lacarte, a contorted riff that really doesn't work, is difficult to say and might be fun if the chef or owner's name were Mya... but it's not. (Well, the owners are Matt and Yasmina Siadatan, perhaps that explains the M and Y... Then again, Yasmina's a previous winner of The Apprentice, so she's no stranger to wilfully wacky business plans.)
Then there's the location, an awkward corner site on a busy road, meaning the natural doorway is boarded up to make way for tables, so one enters through a narrow passage round the side. And what's with the décor? A shelf runs around the room just below ceiling height, with an arrangement of cushions on it. Daft and impractical. Oh well.
All of this would be the theme of the review if Mya Lacarte didn't have one thing going for it: a talented, ambitious chef. Loic Gautier arrived at the three-year-old restaurant in a comfortable suburb of Reading last summer and if his French training might not have included much British produce, it doesn't show.
You have to love a kitchen that turns out a pre-starter snack of pork crackling shards with apple sauce for dipping. The menu is at pains to point out that the restaurant offers "British seasonal produce with a fantastic twist", stating that every ingredient is sourced within our national borders – and in flashes like the crackling, it works. Less successful is a starter of beef terrine. I wonder why you don't see this often on menus, but not enough to order it myself, sending in wingman Mr M. One forkful is enough to confirm the reason for its scarcity: the Hampshire-bred meat is admirable, and the piccalilli offers a polite punch, but it's a grimly brown dish in every way.
Cerney goat's cheese mousse with beetroot carpaccio and purée, gingerbread crisp and raspberry dressing is as much of a mouthful as its title – a curious mingling of gingery tang, creamy cheese and earthy vegetable, but it works and is very pretty indeed on the plate (although where a restaurant that makes so much of its seasonal and local credentials gets fresh raspberries in November is unclear). Our guests have apple and celery soup, and a salad of warm Cornish squid and Wiltshire chorizo, or would have if chorizo wasn't off, replaced by wild-boar salami. Are there wild boar in Wiltshire? I've put in a call to my Devizes-dwelling parents, but as yet, no news. The salad, meanwhile, is deemed a good balance of textures and flavours.
Catch of the day is haddock, served with parsnips, leeks and a Fowey mussel sauce, and is quickly deemed the best of the mains – gleamingly fresh fish, a soft, piquant sauce and lovely winter veggies. Ashampstead venison loin with confit red cabbage, spinach-and-juniper berry sauce is, in contrast, a muddle. The meat is correctly pink but underpowered and not helped by an insipid, not very junipery sauce. The spinach is – bizarrely – uncooked. Unpeeled, still bite-y squash as a side order isn't helping much.
There are lots of crowd-pleasers and the commitment to local and seasonal is to be commended: there's pheasant on the menu just now and who wouldn't want to eat chunky chips and honeyed parsnips? But the delivery is hit and miss. It should be said, though, that the actual delivery to the table by keen and knowledgeable waiters is a definite hit.
A word about the room. When we arrive it is all a bit empty and self-conscious, and as strangers to the local dining scene, we wonder whether the restaurant is one of those forlorn ideas that's just about hanging on. By 8.30pm, every table is full and the waiter turfs us out to make way for the next sitting. Since we had arrived late thanks to the hell of Reading's one-way system, this means we have to miss pudding – very irritating. British puds are great when they're good, even if the chef is French (ahem). Mr M thinks we should sit tight, since the four of us have spent big and come a fair distance.
I'm more forgiving, as places like this rely far more on local regulars than one-off visitors. And that's all my custom is likely to be. I'm pleased places like Mya Lacarte exist to promote and experiment with British produce, but it's not quite alluring enough for a repeat visit. n
Scores 1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets
Mya Lacarte 5 Prospect Street, Caversham, Reading, Berkshire, tel: 0118 9463400. Lunch and dinner, Mon-Sat; lunch, Sun. About £60 for dinner for two, including wine
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