All of the new openings in Reading lately have felt very fashionable, very on-trend. From the sleek space of CAU to the white walls and industrial chic of Manhattan Coffee Club, from the street food – if you believe a word of it – of Wolf to the forthcoming lunchtime sushi of Itsu, it feels like Reading is starting to get restaurants and cafés which reflect how people like to eat at the moment (well, people in London anyway).
All of these places have got plenty of exposure in the local websites, and there’s been a hubbub of excitement about them (and they keep coming – C.U.P. opens at the end of the month too, in a spot just along from Bill’s). But the place that’s most intrigued me lately isn’t any of the glossy town centre re-fits: it’s Bakery House, a Lebanese restaurant which has opened up the hill on London Street, where Nepalese restaurant Khukuri previously plied its (somewhat unremarkable, I’m afraid) trade for many, many years.
It’s a funny place for a restaurant: all the action seems to be at the bottom of the street, where RISC and Great Expectations make for long-standing neighbours. After that it’s all barbers, language schools and a couple of fried chicken joints, presumably to offer sustenance to people about to enter or leave the Stygian pleasure palace that is the Legendary After Dark Club (another place for which the term use it or lose it feels extremely apt). But I kept getting good reports of Bakery House, and I became increasingly curious – if only to try somewhere new where neither the light bulbs nor the brickwork were exposed.
And yes, there’s none of that palaver going on at Bakery House. The restaurant has the grill at the front and the dining room at the back, clearly with an eye on capturing some takeaway trade late at night (the menu offers a range of shawarmas and other sandwiches, easily portable and far more appealing than the dubious delights of Chicken Base at the bottom of the hill).
The dining room, containing just ten tables, has tasteful battleship grey tiles and lightboxes on the walls with pictures in them which, surreally, appear to have little to do with the Lebanon. One is of a beach with palm trees, seemingly in the Caribbean. Another shows the windmills of Mykonos in the background and, err, a bowl of Greek salad in the foreground. A third is of a veritable explosion of tropical fruit. Despite that, it’s a nice space – and the mirrored wall at the back does a good job of bringing in light and the illusion of depth.
It’s a pleasing menu, too – a good range of hot and cold mezze, Lebanese pizzas, hot dishes straight off the charcoal grill or from the kitchen out the back. I was sceptical about the name Bakery House, but there is clearly baking going on – you can see the big oven, the pittas rising in the wooden racks on the back wall. They brought us some while we made up our minds and they were lovely fluffy circles, just right dipped in the intensely garlicky sauce or its slightly piquant chilli sibling.
The falafel were probably the best I’ve had in this country and a minor miracle in themselves. You got four for three pounds fifty and the texture of them was spectacular – no stodge, just a deceptively light inside and an almost perfect thin, crunchy exterior. They made me angry at all the crimes against falafel committed by every supermarket’s sandwich aisle. Studded with sesame seeds, they were stunning dipped in the tahini sauce they came with, a silky, intense distillation of everything good about houmous with none of the accompanying clag. I also quite liked the salty, sharp pickled vegetables which came with them (purple, no less) but they were definitely a good thing you could have too much of.
I wanted to try something from the bakery section too, and I was tempted by many of the small Lebanese pizzas. I ended up going for kallaj bil jiben and it too was a thing of wonder – a thin, translucent disc of Lebanese bread, the texture almost like a crepe, the inside smeared with spice and stuffed with halloumi, cut into quarters. Beautifully light, salty yet subtle, and stonking value at just over three pounds. When I’d arrived at about seven o’clock on a weekday night, the restaurant was already half full. By the time our mains courses arrived there wasn’t an empty table in there, with a steady stream of people turning up for takeway. I could well understand why, based on what I’d already eaten.
The mains were equally keenly priced, with very few of them costing much more than ten pounds. This is where I’d like to tell you how delicious the farouj massahab, the boneless chargrilled baby chicken is – sadly, I can’t, because they brought me the farrouj meshwi (the same thing, but with bones in) instead. I asked if there had been some mistake and almost immediately they offered to redo it or leave it with me and take it off the bill. No complaints, no grumbling, no making me feel like I was being awkward – just an apology and quick action. Figurative hats off.
In the interests of eating at the same time as my companion, I went for the latter option and it was so delicious that I felt guilty about not paying for the dish. Granted, it was a faff – the plate was nowhere near big enough to strip the chicken off the part-jointed carcass tidily – but the chicken made up for that. Everything was how you’d want it: the skin moreish with crackle and char, the meat underneath tender and tasty. Every turn of a joint found an undiscovered shard of crispy skin or a beautiful seam of unmined chicken, and every turn brought another smile.
The accompaniments I could have taken or left – the rice was an anonymous yellow basmati with what looked like bits of frozen vegetables, the coleslaw could have been from anywhere, those strange purple pickles again – but complaining about that would be like going to see Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and criticising some of the extras in the crowd scenes. The chicken was the star, and I knew it.
The other dish, shish taouk, was simple and effective: cubes of lightly spiced chicken cooked on a skewer with a pile of salad, coleslaw and yet more purple pickles. The outside of the meat was just charred and although the flavours weren’t as good as you’d find at La Courbe, Reading’s other Lebanese restaurant (where the chicken is all soft and fragranced with ginger) it was soon pepped up with the additional of some garlic sauce (so sweet! so dirty!). I’m pretty sure the chips were out of a bag but they were none the worse for that – and, as it happens, perfect dipped in the tahini sauce. The main let-down, really, was the tabbouleh. I had high hopes, especially after the starters, but it didn’t live up to the rest, with just too much pulpy tomato and not enough pizazz.
Bakery House doesn’t have a licence, so the drinks options are a range of soft drinks and fresh juices. I tried the fresh apple juice and I loved it – the sweet, green, concentrated taste of apple without any of that sour sharpness of a supermarket carton. It was terrific, although I was struck by the irony that, at three pounds, it cost almost as much as either of the starters.
Service was friendly and pleasant, although I felt they were still finding their feet and I got that impression from neighbouring tables too. I really liked my waitress’ disarming honesty – I asked her how to pronounce one of the dishes and she said “I don’t know, I’m from Romania” (I’d pick that over a bullshitter, any day). The whole bill for two starters, one main, a tabbouleh and a couple of soft drinks came to just over twenty-five pounds, not including service. When I tried to tip – because I felt bad about having such good chicken for free – the waitress tried to talk me out of it. When I left the owner told me I shouldn’t have tipped and gave me a little box of baklava (which, incidentally, were terrific the next day). How can you not at least slightly love a place like that?
Bakery House is by no means perfect. The layout is a bit odd: most of the tables seat two but have a third chair, like a spare part, at right angles, so I think a table for three or four could feel a bit crowded (there are a couple of tables properly suited to four people though, tucked away in the corners). The service is charming but erratic, although they might just be struggling with being so busy so soon. The dining room was verging on the Baltic, which I think was a combination of some aggressive air conditioning and leaving the front door open to try to be more attractive to passing trade.
Despite all that, it probably won’t surprise you that Bakery House is emphatically my kind of place. Perhaps I’m out of step with the rest of Reading, but I was much more comfortable in that unfussy, unpretentious room enjoying my food (and, I suspect, being in the company of fellow diners with exactly the same priorities) than I’ll ever be sitting at some faux reclaimed steel table eating “artisan produce” that has never been near an artisan because there’s no such thing as a bloody artisan any more. So I’m prepared to overlook the occasional misstep and I think I’ll rejoice in the fact that I, and Bakery House, are as far from cool as it’s possible to be (except for the overpowering air conditioning, of course). That said, I’m not sure whether Bakery House takes reservations and at this rate people will soon be queuing to get in: maybe being untrendy will turn out to be the new food trend after all. You heard it here first.
Bakery House – 7.5
82 London Street, RG1 4SJ