It feels like eons ago, but back in December Reading was transformed into a winter wonderland. There was an ice rink and a festive funfair in Forbury Gardens. The area down by the Oracle Riverside, occupied by the prehistoric crazy golf course in the summer, became a German-themed bar selling Glühwein and Bavarian beer. The square outside the Town Hall became a festive market, with loads of cute little cabins offering a variety of food, drink, crafts and other goodies.
Sounds marvellous, doesn’t it? There was only one catch, which was that nobody was terribly impressed. Most reports of Forbury Gardens (it was opened by camera-shy shrinking violet and brainbox Joey Essex, which with hindsight might have been a sign) were that it wasn’t great: people said that ice rink was decent enough, but that the funfair around it was a grotty way to be parted from a lot of money very quickly, the main concession to the festive season being some makeshift tinsel antlers hastily attached to the horses’ heads. I’m informed that the Glühwein at the “Wundrmarkt” was synthetic tasting, and there wasn’t any outside heating: I always felt a bit cold wandering along the riverside and looking at people huddled at tables trying to have fun.
As for the festive market, well, I wandered round it several times with a growing sense of despair mixed with indignation. Many of the food stalls were selling almost exactly the same things – a few did hog roast, a few did mulled wine, the rest were an anonymous smudge of winter kitsch. Worst of all was the horror of “Quidsticks”, a stall offering a variety of meats on a skewer for a pound (including sausages, that food so frequently found on a skewer). If you were visiting the town by train it would have been one of the first stalls you’d clap eyes on: it just looked tacky. The decent stalls – the ones that reflected what Reading was really about, that had a genuine connection with the town – stuck out like a sore thumb. I felt for the Grumpy Goat, on the edge of the market, and for Reading’s brilliant milliner Adrienne Henry. By the end she had stopped bothered opening, and many of the retailers complained to the organiser.
Apologies for starting this review with a rant, but the thing that saddens me most about all of it is the idea – prevalent among many people who don’t love Reading the way I do – that we should be grateful for anything we get. I think a lot of people think we should be happy to have a Christmas market at all, even if it looks like Lapland’s answer to Moss Side. They think an ice rink is a great thing, even if it leaves our beautiful Victorian park looking like a war zone afterwards. They don’t go to Bath, or Winchester, and think “why can’t we have a beautiful event like that?”, they think “they deserve that stuff and we don’t”. And if there’s one thing that annoys me it’s that underlying attitude that average is good enough for Reading. We have some great stuff here, we deserve better and we should aim higher. After all, surely nobody looks at the Broad Street Mall and actually says “yes, that really is Reading’s favourite mall”?
I’m afraid this train of thought was very much set off by visiting Mangal this week, because it’s another good example of this phenomenon. Some people might think “isn’t it great that Reading has a Turkish restaurant?”, whereas I want to be able to say “Reading even has a Turkish restaurant, and it’s brilliant.” But I can’t, I’m afraid, because Mangal isn’t it.
It’s not a bad space, on St Mary’s Butts just down from Monroe’s and Coconut. It’s mainly one big room packed with tables and a raised area with smaller tables (which is where they sat me). I can’t help remembering its previous location, where House Of Flavours is now, and thinking that was a much better spot for them – partly because their charcoal grill was out where you could see it, filling the air with those tantalising smells and giving you an idea of what was going to arrive on your plate. Without that the restaurant felt a bit boxy and lifeless (although perhaps the belly dancing – on Friday and Saturday nights – changes all that).
The menu is a range of hot and cold meze – no real surprises there – along with mainly grilled meats as main courses. The meze which turned up first were solid and unexceptional: sigara boreki, tubes of filo pastry filled with feta, herbs and egg, was the best of them although still very much the sum of its parts. It conjured up memories of cheese pies on holiday in Greece, which was great, but divorced of those happy thoughts it was nice but unspecial. It did fare better than the houmous though – a fridge-chilly bowl of something which was virtually indistinguishable from a two pound tub of houmous from Sainsburys. I didn’t get any garlic, any smoke or any tahini, and a few little dabs of olive oil and a dusting of paprika were never going to transform it from duckling to swan. Another disappointment: Turkish pitta is a wonderful thing, dimpled, thickier and fluffier than its Greek sibling, but this was over-flattened, crispy and brittle.
For mains I quite fancied trying pide, the distinctive boat-shaped Turkish take on pizza, but confusingly although it features on the website menu it was nowhere to be seen on the printed version. Instead I went for the grilled meats, reasoning that this was where Turkish food really excels, but that too was no more than okay. Karisik izgara was a selection of barbecued lamb and chicken, and when it turned up it looked like an embarrassment of riches. But, like the Christmas market or the ice rink, it was mainly veneer. The best thing, the lamb kofta, was quite delicious – beautifully spiced, lovely, soft and tender. But the lamb chop was oddly bland – an awful lot of work to take off the bone, not at all pink and somewhat short on flavour.
Most of the chicken was also on the bone – a couple of wings and a couple of what looked like minuscule drumsticks – and I’m not sure it was worth the effort to get it off. The first mouthful of these triggered happy thoughts – that glorious mixture of tender meat, charred skin and the hint of smoke – but the first mouthful was pretty much all there was. Last of all, there were a few chunks of chicken breast; firm rather than tender, with no evidence of any seasoning or marinade. By the time I’d finished this, the pile of bones on the edge of my plate seemed almost as big as the pile of meat that had arrived. The accompaniments – some pleasant enough rice, a puddle of yoghurt and mint with an oddly artificial taste, a rock hard tomato which had apparently once had a skewer through it – added little.
The moussaka was similarly disappointing. I like a firm moussaka made up of discernible layers, tall rather than wide, with different textures for each of the layers. Instead this was a large, flat ramekin which definitely had potato, aubergine, meat and sauce in but was so (and I can’t find a more charitable word for this) runny that it wasn’t massively appealing. The top was nicely browned and I even quite liked the little bit of pointless salad (mostly rocket, dressed with something that seemed to be a mixture of balsamic vinegar and sugar; sweet yet astringent) but the moussaka itself? It was fine. Hot as the sun and sloppy as a Jackson Pollock but taste-wise it was vegetables in a tomato sauce with a bit of minced lamb in. Here’s the most damning thing of all: unlike the hummus, I think a supermarket moussaka would have been better. It also came with rice, for reasons which I can only assume somebody understands.
It would be unkind not to mention the service, because it was efficient, smiley and friendly; we were there early on a Friday night – before the belly dancing started – but I got the impression that they wouldn’t have been fazed by a much busier restaurant. And it could be that, or the atmosphere (or the belly dancing) that attracts people, because the restaurant had a reasonable amount of tables occupied already. But good service can’t redeem average food, and sadly that was all I had during my visit. I couldn’t help thinking that there were better places to have all these things: the mixed grill at La Courbe wipes the floor with Mangal’s version, and if all you want is lamb kofte you may as well head to Kings Grill and spend the change on a pint afterwards. Dinner for two – two starters, two mains and a couple of soft drinks – was almost exactly forty pounds.
I feel sad that I can’t say more good things about Mangal. It’s independent, it has great service, it’s already made enough of a go of its business to move into a better location, and it’s doing something no other restaurant in town offers. But if I recommended it on that basis, I’d be making the same mistake as people who are glad Reading got an ice rink, or a Glühwein bar, or a row of shacks selling hog roast underneath Queen Victoria’s unamused silhouette. Because it’s not enough, and we shouldn’t pretend that it is: whatever you do, however simple your food, whether it’s independent or not, irrespective of whether you have competition, ought to be amazing. Otherwise we’re effectively patting people on the head for having a go and saying that’s all Reading should expect, and I just don’t believe that. It’s all very well to say that the best is the enemy of the good, but I reckon – when it comes to Reading, at least – that the average is a much more dangerous adversary.
Mangal – 6.3
60 St Mary’s Butts, RG1 2LG