Manhattan Coffee Club has closed its premises on the first floor of the Oracle: for a while it operated in a concession out of Harper & Lewis, on the ground floor but now appears to have shut for good. I’ve left the review up for posterity.
I don’t think it’s possible to rid yourself of preconceptions when reviewing restaurants and cafes. They’re unavoidable, whether it’s because of things you’ve heard from others, or your research, or even just looking at the website. There’s a whole weight of prejudice – good or bad – which builds up before you approach the front door. All you can do is acknowledge your preconceptions and hope that you deal with them fairly, even if that does sound like the standard interview fiddle of describing your greatest weakness in a way that makes you sound brilliant and self-deprecating (you know, all that guff about being too much of a perfectionist).
On that basis, you might well expect me not to like Manhattan Coffee Club (MCC from now on, mainly because I’m lazy) and, in the interests of honesty, I expected not to like it either. It’s co-owned by one of the people behind RYND, a venue I admire for many things (its ability to use social media properly, the programme of events it puts on – live music, comedy, cinema and the like) but whose food I found a tad cynical and bandwagon-jumping. It’s on the top floor of the Oracle, a place I’m increasingly starting to see as the epicentre of All That’s Wrong With Reading. Even the press release before the opening made my toes curl ever so slightly, with its references to a design based on early twentieth century New York “with industrial steel tables and chairs, reclaimed wood counters and an ethos that the sky’s the limit”. Really, must we?
So yes, I approached MCC with all those preconceptions firmly in place and, from the moment I got to the front door, it neatly dismantled most of them. It’s a nice room, well done and it makes the most of a space which has almost no natural light: I expected it to feel a bit fake and joyless, like the top floor of Brown’s or Cote but actually it has a nice buzzy vibe to it. Yes, if you want to trend-spot you can – the industrial look is more Williamsburg by numbers than NYC in the Machine Age and the ubiquitous Tolix chairs are all over the place – but nevertheless, I warmed to it more than I thought I would. I even liked the fake trees at the door and the fake plants on the tables even though I knew they were fake – but then I’ve always found that a little suspension of disbelief makes the Oracle a far more enjoyable place.
The lunchtime options largely consisted of salads, sandwiches for toasting and lots and lots of cakes and pastries. Quite a decent range of sandwiches, too: I spotted baguettes, ciabattas, panini, wraps and focaccia with a good selection of fillings. Of the salads I was tempted by the Japanese chicken and the tuna niçoise, but when push came to shove it wasn’t a salad kind of day. You order at the counter and collect your drinks there, then they bring your sandwiches over. Standing there waiting for my drink I was struck by the staff – all young, all enthusiastic, all really friendly. There also seemed to be a fair amount of them: quite a contrast to many of Reading’s independent cafés.
Focaccia with salami, goat’s cheese and tapenade was really gorgeous. It’s a great selection of ingredients – salty and intense – and when toasted properly, as this was, they combine into something quite wonderful. Rather endearingly, the black-shirted chap bringing it to my table said “I’m sorry, I know it looks burnt but I promise it isn’t” (he was quite right, too). Somewhere between mouthful one and mouthful two my preconceptions properly went away – yes, it was a bit small at four pounds fifty but none the less, I loved eating it. The pulled pork (slow cooked for nine hours, according to their blurb, and eaten by me in about two minutes) wrap with coleslaw was also excellent and a great contrast, sweet where the focaccia had been savoury. I’m not usually a fan of quite sloppy pulled pork but it worked here, especially as it was contained by the toasted tortilla. Again, you could quibble about the price but it was deceptively substantial, with no thick clump of pointless wrap to wade through at the end.
Roughly at this point one of the serving staff decided to do a round of the tables offering people amaretti biscuits from a gigantic jar. It was a lovely, random, cynicism-eroding thing to do: by this stage I was in serious danger of quite enjoying myself.
Ironically for a place with coffee in the title I’m told the coffee was nothing to write home about. My companion’s latte was apparently a little bitter and not in the top flight of coffees in Reading (allegedly this holy trinity consists of Tamp, Workhouse and, rather surprisingly, Tutti Frutti). Earl Grey, on the other hand, was good (although tea is easy to do well), nice and fragrant and no one tried to put the milk in with the bag; I remain convinced that coffee drinkers would never put up with the ineptitude often shown in tea making. I was given a cup rather than offered the choice between a cup and a pot, and only realised that I’d missed out when I went up to order another, but this was a relatively minor error and I was too happy to get especially peeved by it.
The second cup of tea was to accompany cake. I was tempted by the red velvet cake but eventually opted for a blondie and a pain au chocolat. The berry blondie was divine – a heavy slice of cake that was almost like a super dense white chocolate cheesecake, with dollops of jammy berries in the dimples. It was almost like eating fudgy cake mix and I’m not ashamed to say that I made happy noises while doing so. The pain au chocolat, however, was probably the most disappointing part – MCC is apparently a bakery too but this was the kind of dense pastry you could have used to break a shop window. I’d hoped for light, flakey buttery layers but instead it was all compressed and spongy, and one bite revealed the inside to be a huge empty cavern, with two rows of chocolate like railroad tracks. Never mind: I suppose there had to be something I didn’t like.
Lunch for two came to just under nineteen pounds, although I was given a fifty per cent off voucher for the coffee which saved me about a pound. I guess I’d say that everything was just a little on the pricey side, but thinking about the location and the people MCC needs to pay rent to, you can kind of understand it. Still, when you think about your alternatives in the Oracle itself – Costa, Nero (two of them), Starbucks (yes, two of them as well) I think MCC emerges pretty well from that comparison.
It’s interesting: when C.U.P., an independent coffee shop, announced that it was planning to open just along from Bill’s there was a lot of sneering. Not ANOTHER coffee place, people said below the line on a variety of websites. Well, I think that misses the point. If there are too many coffee places in Reading, it’s certainly not places like C.U.P. or MCC. If new independent businesses have a good idea, and they do it well, and they take business away from the countless branches of our countless chains then I say the more of them open in Reading the better.
Does MCC do it well? Yes, I think so. It’s a peculiar place in many respects, an independent that needs to look like an independent (for cred, mainly) but also needs to look as polished and professional as a chain (to fit in to the neighbourhood). In that respect, its closest relation is somewhere like Artigiano, but I liked it far more than Artigiano. The food, which could easily have been an exercise in box-ticking, is good. The service is informal and charming. I know that seeing an independent place like MCC in the Oracle is a bit like finding a Tory with a beard – at first the main thing that strikes you is the novelty value – but somehow it works. So preconceptions be damned: I can think of a dozen reasons why I shouldn’t have liked MCC but, despite all of them, it turns out that I did. Who would have seen that coming?
Manhattan Coffee Club – 7.3
U6 Upper Level, The Oracle, RG1 2AG