N.B. La Courbe appears to have closed in March 2016. I’ve left the review up for posterity.
First things first, La Courbe is not a great restaurant: there are just too many things wrong, even now almost two months after they finally opened. The room is a simple square with one wall of glass which makes dining there akin to being in one of David Blaine’s failed stunts, a spectacle for everyone who passes through King’s Walk to see (about four tables were occupied the night I was there, but if it had just been me I would have felt terribly self-conscious). And the view through that wall of glass if you’re a diner, apart from any gawping passers-by, is the side of a Burger King, hardly the most beautiful vista Reading has to offer.
Then there’s the decor, a peculiarly retro design of chrome, purple and pistachio that made me half expect Don Johnson to walk in with his linen suit sleeves rolled up. There are no soft furnishings, no art, nothing on the walls to distract the eye from the pistachio panelling. Everything is square – the tables (with, bizarrely, the exception of a single round table which is otherwise no different to the others), the chairs and every single plate or dish brought to our table throughout the meal.
The menu is confusing, with nothing to indicate whether the mezze is a really bad deal (£42 per person for some mezze and a main? Really?) or a really good deal (£42 for some mezze and a main for four people! Bargain!). Add to that the fact that the room is chilly – the door left permanently open – and occasionally murky with smoke from the open kitchen (which is presumably why said door is never shut) and you’d be right in thinking that this isn’t the kind of restaurant in which you want to relax and take in the ambience.
Oh, and did I mention how quick it all was? We were seated at around half eight, and with starters, mains and desserts we were out of the door at about quarter to ten. There seemed to be no understanding at all that an evening meal ought to take a reasonable part of the evening, and normally when I eat somewhere that serves you that fast it’s because they’re worried you might change your mind. It’s never a sign of confidence in the food.
So far, so bad, but then something happened that switched this review around altogether: I ate the food.
We started with two dishes from their hot mezze menu. Maqaneq is a little dish of mini sausages “flambéed in butter and lemon”. What the menu doesn’t tell you is that this is a sophisticated version of the English cocktail sausage. These little sausages are juicy and meaty and lightly spiced so that the sweetness of the meat comes out. We ate them in tiny chunks (smiling smugly all the while) to eke them out and wrapped in slivers of pitta to make tiny sandwiches just so we didn’t finish them too quickly. The falafel were less of a surprise but still delicious – each hot little disc was crispy on the outside and fluffy inside and just herby enough to elevate them out of the ordinary.
We waited for our plates to be cleared but then suddenly the waitress was back with our main course, to be eaten off the same plates with the same chunky cutlery as before – another mark against them. We had gone for the mixed grill (just like the typical Brit on foreign shores). This was described quite plainly as “charcoal grilled selection of lamb, Kafta and chicken with Hommos and Tabouleh” (I swear I find another way to spell houmous every month, maybe it’s like the Eskimos having all those words for snow). It looked terrific, and it tasted even better. The chicken, marinated with ginger and garlic, was just perfect – tender on the inside yet caramelised on the outside, sticky and delicious. The lamb was also spot on, just the tiniest bit of pink in the middle of each piece, and had a hint of cinnamon. The lamb kofte (my spelling) was the least interesting of the meats but third place was no disgrace in this selection. Rather than being the very spicy kofte that I’m more familiar with, this had a subtle, almost buttery flavour and was soft and delicate.
The mixed grill came with two accompaniments. In one corner of the dish was some good (if unexciting) houmous with a pool of olive oil and some finely chopped tomatoes in the middle. In the other corner, just to offset all that meat, was an extremely good tabbouleh, singing with the fresh green flavours of parsley and mint, with plenty of lemon juice. It might even have been my favourite thing I ate that evening, and I don’t say that lightly. All in all, the mixed grill was a thing of wonder, square plates or no.
We didn’t feel quite up to a full bottle of red (which is a pity, because there’s a good selection of Lebanese reds including Chateau Musar, which I’ve loved in the past) so we plumped for a glass each of the Domaine des Tourelles, a Lebanese red which was full and fruity and a good foil to the spicy meats.
I didn’t really fancy dessert after that mammoth undertaking but there’s a sense of duty about doing ER reviews so we gamely went for it. The baklava, rather than being one big baklava oozing with honey, was a selection of the familiar pastries in different shapes with either pistachio or pine nut fillings. I really liked them – they were much less cloying than they can often be, subtler and more interesting. The mouhallabieh was not as successful. The waitress described it as a chilled rice pudding with rosewater and pistachio – which captures it quite well, but neglects to mention that it had either been chilled for some time or it had been set with gelatine which meant that the nice gritty rice texture was replaced by something far less enjoyable. Between us we managed about half of it but after a while a dish that gloopy and big became a bit of a burden so we left it unfinished.
Service throughout was warm and friendly, enthusiastic about the food and more than willing to make recommendations. Even so, the whole set-up seemed a little, well, amateurish. The speed with which the food came was the most obvious problem, but there were others too: we weren’t offered water at any stage (despite there being water glasses on seemingly every table but ours) and the till is down the corridor in the adjoining wine bar, so you have a bit of a wait once you’ve asked for the bill.
Ours, when it eventually arrived, was £57 for two people eating three courses and having a glass of wine each. I felt like this was a pretty good deal given how good the food was (the mixed grill for two is about twenty-four pounds, for instance). Even while I was eating there I was already planning a return visit with friends, albeit probably at lunchtime when a quick meal feels like less of a problem.
Rating this restaurant has been nigh-on impossible, to the extent where I’ve wondered why I give ratings at all. How can I possibly give a single mark out of ten which reflects somewhere that serves such great food in such a problematic venue? I’m not sure my eventual score truly sums up the mixed message that is La Courbe; I wanted to give them higher but I just can’t until they get their crinkles ironed out. But I want them to do well enough to get the time to do that, because I can forgive a lot of things when the food is this good. Maybe this isn’t the venue for a romantic, lingering meal for two or a big night out, but I can see how one day it could be. And if that means I have to eat a few platefuls of their spiced chicken – in the cold, on those square plates, with that appalling view – to give them the chance to work on getting it right, then it’s a cross I’ll just have to bear.
La Courbe – 7.3
9-11 Kings Walk, RG1 2HG