Feature: The 5 things Reading needs

A couple of weeks ago, I spent the weekend in Bristol (my birthplace, as it happens). I had a brilliant time there, but for much it, in the back of my mind, I was thinking “why doesn’t Reading have anything like this?”

I drank beer at Wapping Wharf, looking out at all the shipping containers full of places to eat and drink, and I thought about Reading’s powers that be turning down a similar idea near St Mary’s Butts. I had terrific tapas at Bravas: blue cheese sticky with orange blossom honey, perfect charcuterie with caperberries and pickled chillies, bread with golden, punchy aioli. I went to the Bank Tavern, what looks like an old man pub in the middle of the old city, and I ate slow-cooked lamb ragu with sturdy gnocchi and a dusting of dukkah. I drank beer at the Small Bar with a group of new friends (including, surreally, a table of Belgians playing Uno).

I had a fantastic weekend but I found myself reflecting on the train home from Temple Meads, simultaneously elated and deflated. In three days I’d visited independent café after café and restaurant after restaurant, and I constantly wondered why this had all taken hold in Bristol when Reading still had so far to go. Was it greedy landlords, or our blinkered council? Reading was a prosperous place, so why didn’t it always feel that way?

That trip inspired this week’s feature, but before I start I do want to say that none of this detracts from how good Reading is and how far it’s come in five years of writing Edible Reading. But loving a place also involves being able to hold up a mirror and be honest about some of its shortcomings. So yes, we have good restaurants opening but far too many of the new openings inside the IDR remain chains – small, prosperous, “good” chains, but chains none the less. The farmer’s market, although it’s starting to show welcome signs of expanding its pool of stallholders, still has much to do. Our council lacks imagination and ideas, and Reading CIC pays lip service to independent businesses at best (coincidentally setting up a poorly-promoted blog and Twitter feed on the subject just around the time that the Business Improvement District comes up for renewal). Oh, and the Hexagon is still crap.

So here’s my list of the five things I still thing Reading desperately needs. Plenty of items almost made the list, and when I mentioned on Twitter that I was writing this piece I got plenty of comments which chimed with the near misses. So yes, I’d love a good independent bakery in the town centre – Warings just isn’t central enough – but the new repurposed Tamp Culture site on Castle Street has just opened selling produce and might fill that gap. I’d dearly love a Japanese restaurant on the same level as the brilliant Misugo in Windsor, and yet I feel like I should investigate relative newcomers Oishi and Sen Sushi because one of them might prove to be exactly that.

Reading is missing a good butcher that could compete with the likes of Machin in Henley or Green’s of Pangbourne, and a delicatessen. Personally I’d like a properly cosy and conspiratorial wine bar like Le Barav in Paris, Gordon’s in London or one of my favourites, John Gordons in Cheltenham. But then again, the Tasting House may not be perfect but it’s moved a long way towards being that kind of space over the last five years, and we’re lucky to have it (especially now it serves such lovely coffee during the day). 

Anyway, I could go on, but better to get to my actual choices: the five additions I’d most like to see to Reading’s food scene. You can tell me what I missed in the comments.

1. A proper cooked breakfast

What’s missing?

Good quality, coarse, herby bangers: none of your weirdly smooth mechanically recovered dross. Bacon, ideally smoked and streaky, cooked until it barely bends and could almost snap: no place for highlighter-pen-pink rubbery back bacon in the perfect breakfast. Slices of sourdough toasted just right and buttered up to the very edge. Crumbly black pudding, mushrooms cooked in butter by somebody who understands how to get them right, smooth rich scrambled egg that hasn’t been overheated into yellow pellets. All the rest – baked beans, tomatoes, fried potato, even hash browns – is just a bonus, provided you get that lot right. And yet nowhere in Reading does.

The lack of a really remarkable breakfast has long felt like one of the biggest gaps in the market in Reading. The chains don’t offer anything remarkable: Cote is by some distance the best of a bad bunch, but beyond that it’s hard to get excited by the likes of Bill’s. Reading has greasy spoons, but I think you can safely say they aren’t getting their stuff from the farmer’s market on Saturday. They have a devoted clientele, but I’ve always thought you can look into Munchees and almost smell the existential despair: maybe the windows of Rafina Coffee Lounge are smoked for a reason (I had an omelette at Rafina last year. Never again).

That leaves the indies, and it’s surprising how few of them even try to serve breakfast. Picnic makes much of its breakfast but last time I went their avocado on toast was almost literally that, cut up and plonked on a solitary slice of toast for a fiver. Shed has a breakfast selection, but it’s very limited. Richfields looks like a better bet, and Café Yolk has its fans (and it was better last time I went than the woeful occasion when I went on duty) but both are a little way out of town. As is the lovely Fidget & Bob, whose scrambled eggs have been recommended to me in the strongest possible terms by people I trust.

Somewhere like?

The Handle Bar Café in Oxford does a brilliant cooked breakfast as does Beany Green, an Australian café a five minute walk from Paddington Station tucked away by the canal. But really, there are so many blueprints for good cooked breakfasts and it beggars belief that Reading has nothing even in the same ballpark. In Belfast I had an amazing breakfast at Harlem Café which was not only delicious – black pudding, potato scones, sausage and bacon all present and correct – but so beautiful that it could have been a still life (you can see the photo further up the page).

One of my favourite breakfasts is served in Wraysbury, where my dad lives, at a place called Keating’s Delicatessen. It looks like you’re eating in somebody’s front room, and to all intents and purposes you are. The proprietor, Pat, is a snow-haired Irish gentleman who has been leading my father gastronomically astray for the best part of twenty years. There’s a limited menu, and he’ll pretty much cook anything you want, but on a standard day you get generous helpings of bacon, proper sausages from the butcher, black pudding sliced thin and done crispy, mushrooms with a whack of curry powder and home made chips that are almost like the scraps at the bottom of the bag. I went once and Pat was cooking sausages – on order – for a customer’s dog. That dog, in Wraysbury, had a better breakfast than you can currently get in the centre of Reading.

The closest thing?

Conceal your surprise, but I think it’s Bluegrass BBQ. I can take or leave much of their food (although the Southern fried chicken isn’t half bad) but the breakfast is quite lovely: properly smoked crispy bacon, good quality sausages, baked beans with strands of pulled pork and quite magnificent hash browns. The baked eggs aren’t everybody’s taste, but as an over easy fan they suit me just fine. Personally I recommend asking for extra bacon, but then I would.

2. A tapas restaurant

What’s missing?

One of the London trends that’s not yet made it to Reading is the small plates restaurant. Generally that’s never bothered me enormously, but I do wish our town had a good tapas restaurant. I Love Paella came closest, but was probably most like that in its first incarnation operating out of Workhouse Coffee; when it moved to the Horn and the Fisherman’s Cottage, it was probably more of a traditional starters and mains kind of a place.

I still think there’s space for a proper tapas restaurant in town – good cheeses, slices of jamon and and a small selection of dishes for sharing, whether that’s an ever so slightly gooey slab of tortilla shot through with soft slices of potato and topped with flakes of salt, an earthy dish of chickpeas and spinach or crimson chorizo, cooked in cider, the juices perfect with bread – if you have any left after you’ve dunked it in the sunflower-yellow aioli, that is. Oh, and there should be sherry – several kinds – and, in the best of all possible worlds, Alhambra on tap.

If you’ve been to anywhere even remotely like this you know what I’m talking about, and if you’ve ever been to Picasso in Caversham you know that it’s emphatically not there. And it’s not Thames Lido, either, where the tapas (like everything else) is just a little too little for much too much.

Somewhere like?

As a regular visitor to Granada, there’s nothing I’d like more than to clone one of its brilliant tapas bars – the likes of Bodegas Castaneda or Taberna La Tana – and drop it in Reading (ideally in the site of the old Nino’s, which is totally wasted on that estate agent). Standing at the bar at one of those two, drinking your fino or your vino tinto, ordering bits and bobs without abandon is truly to spend time in one of my happy places. A recent trip to the superb Bravas, off the Whiteladies Road in Bristol, had my body in the West Country but my mind thoroughly transported to Andalucia: mentally I was already planning my next trip to Spain.

Closer to home, though, you can have an equally brilliant experience down Oxford’s Cowley Road, where Arbequina has been one of my favourite restaurants of the last two years. From pork belly smothered in mojo verde to slow cooked ox cheek in Pedro Ximenez, from sourdough toast topped with ‘nduja, honey and thyme – possibly not that Spanish, but never mind – to the stunning tortilla further up the page (I always mean to order a portion all to myself, and I never do) I haven’t had a bad dish in that restaurant.

On one of my visits, the waiter proudly told me that the kitchen was so simple and the menu so straightforward that they could teach most chefs to cook the whole lot in a week. Nothing to do with faff and fiddle, just about buying really good ingredients and treating them with the respect they deserve. How hard can it be?

The closest thing?

There really, really isn’t one. Much as it pains me to say this, the closest you can get – in spirit only – is The Real Greek. I had a very nice meal when I went there, and it’s the only place I can think of in Reading where eating and sharing small plates is not only actively encouraged but really it’s the only choice you have. So go there if you fancy small plates by all means, but if you want tapas take my advice and get on the train to Oxford one Saturday morning.

3. A gelateria

What’s missing?

Well, Tutti Frutti really: Reading’s never recovered from the closure of its top-notch ice cream parlour in the unfashionable part of Reading station late last year. We have a lovely open space in the shape of Forbury Gardens, we had the grand re-opening of the Abbey Ruins in June after ten years closed, it’s been baking hot for most of the summer and it’s been hugely saddening that I couldn’t get off the train and pick up a little tub of Paul and Jane’s perfect peach and amaretto ice cream to eat while loafing in the sunshine. Of all the closures since I began this blog it’s this one – more than Brebis, more than the Plowden Arms, more than Dolce Vita – that has most disappointed me. And yet many people in Reading probably didn’t even know it was there: we didn’t know what we had, and one day it was gone.

Oh, and don’t tell me that Dreamz or Creamz or Treatz or whatever they’re called fill that gap, and don’t try and convince me of the delights of Sprinkles Gelato (he’s always sounded like a camp mafia boss to me, locked in constant battle with rival don “Mr Cod”). I don’t want a dessert parlour that rips you off with waffles and cheap squirty cream. I want a proper ice cream café.

Somewhere like?

I first fell in love with ice cream on the Ile Saint Louis in Paris, queuing outside Berthillon with all those Japanese tourists for my own little piece of salted caramel heaven. But things went up a notch this year – in April I went on holiday to Bologna where I was a frequent visitor to Cremeria Funivia, an amazing gelateria there. The fior di panna ice cream – unflavoured, unsullied even by a hint of vanilla – was an absolute revelation, as was the idea that ice cream could taste simply of itself. Every time I went I had the fior di panna and a couple of other flavours and left wishing I’d had the courage of my convictions and left the other flavours out.

Closer to home George & Davis in Oxford’s Jericho (and its two siblings elsewhere in the city) prove that such places can flourish in Blighty. There are few pleasures that can top a couple of scoops of G&D on a hot day, and one of the main ones is a G&D milkshake. And without wishing to keep going on about Bristol, Swoon Gelateria at the bottom of the city’s Park Street served me pistachio and salted caramel gelato, both of which made me come over all unnecessary.

The closest thing?

Thames Lido does good ice cream, but at ridiculous prices, and you can hardly just turn up there for a scoop in a cup. I have a soft spot for the chocolate ice cream at Franco Manca, and it’s much more sensibly priced, but again you can’t take a seat and order only that. I used to laze in Forbury Gardens and buy a miniature tub of ice cream from Carluccio’s, and then they stopped selling them. This is a gaping hole, and the sooner someone enterprising starts exploiting global warming the happier we’ll all be. In the meantime, short of getting Doctor Who to tip up in the Tardis and whisk you off to Tutti Frutti, you’re properly on your own with this one: take me with you, if she does.

4. A triple threat café

What’s missing?

This sounds like a funny thing to say about a town with such a thriving coffee culture, but here goes: Reading is lacking a truly great café. I’ve long thought that the three must-haves for a café are great coffee (obviously), a great selection of food and chairs comfy enough that you feel like you can settle in for a proper chinwag. Nowhere in Reading quite manages more than two out of three.

I know that’s controversial, but but hear me out. Yes, some of the food in Picnic is lovely but the coffee is iffy and the chairs, crammed in to that tiny space, are the kind you long to leave. Shed does wonderful sandwiches but the furniture leaves something to be desired, and the coffee’s some way from perfect. So what about places that do really good coffee? Workhouse does some excellent food, but it’s not a comfortable place to linger (and the lattes are served so lukewarm I sometimes wonder if they’re trying to move you along as quickly as possible). C.U.P. isn’t the comfiest, and handsome though the fit-out of their second branch is, it’s still the sort of clinical look that doesn’t make you feel like taking your time. Not only that, but the food’s really hit and miss.

The only cafés that get the comfort factor right, sadly, are the ones you wouldn’t really choose to frequent. So yes, the Costas, Starbucks and Neros (as you’d expect with all that money to invest) do that much better. But really, don’t we want Reading to be better than a bucket of Starbucks coffee with your name on it or a lukewarm Costa panini? I hope so.

Somewhere like?

When I was in Bristol I made a couple of stops at Boston Tea Party, the miniature chain which started out in Bristol but now has branches across the West Country and beyond. There was lovely furniture, a wide-ranging menu covering breakfast lunch and beyond, vegan and vegetarian options at every step of the way, milkshakes, smoothies, local beers, the whole shebang. I sat in the lovely garden, a natural sun trap (Reading could do with more of those, too) both times, and both times I had a note perfect mocha. There are about 25 BTPs: I really wish one of them was in Reading.

The closest thing?

Although Reading doesn’t have anything quite like Boston Tea Party, the closest to that blueprint is probably Anonymous Coffee which has made a big impact since opening in the Tasting House earlier this year. It’s definitely a step up from the reclaimed plywood and punishment chairs so popular in purist coffee shops, the cakes are very good and the toasted sandwiches are creditable, although a tad pricey for what they are.

Oh, and Phil behind the counter is charm personified, but don’t tell him I said.

5. A special occasion restaurant

What’s missing?

One of the requests I get for recommendations more often than most is for somewhere to eat for a special occasion, whether that’s to celebrate a birthday, an anniversary, friends visiting from far away or anything else. Speaking as someone with no kids who loves eating out, I’ve always thought any evening can be a special occasion if you want it to be hard enough, but I do understand that urge to treat yourself, to have a proper blow-out somewhere that’s a cut above. And whenever I’m asked for advice I always struggle with recommending anywhere in town.

This isn’t about Michelin stars or the Good Food Guide, although both of them have traditionally given Reading a wide berth, preferring establishments out in the shires. It’s about having somewhere properly high end that you might only go to once or twice a year but which will always amaze you and never let you down. Reading doesn’t really have anywhere like that, and I’m not sure it has for a very long time.

So Forbury’s used to be quite decent, but it increasingly feels stuffy and dated and the even the market menu is inexplicably costly these days for what you get: I used to eat there relatively often back when I was married and money seemed to mean a lot less, but I wouldn’t go there now. Cerise does some pretty food (or did last time I went) but there’s never anybody in there, and sitting in what’s basically a corridor on your own makes for an eerie dining experience. Thames Lido has managed to build a destination restaurant without quite having the menu or service to match, and don’t even start me on Bel And The Dragon.

Somewhere like?

It would be easy to pick one of the many fancy pubs dotted round Reading – the Hind’s Head, or the Royal Oak at Paley Street, or the Bottle and Glass – but none of them truly hit the spot for me. They’re all a little bit too pleased with themselves, and not quite good enough. Similarly, I know Orwell’s out in Shiplake has a devoted following but my one trip there really didn’t wow me: I suppose I ought to try it again.

I love the Black Rat in Winchester, a lovely old pub on the outskirts of town which happens to be Michelin starred but which, unlike l’Ortolan, doesn’t seem to give two hoots about the fact. The compact, sensibly priced set lunch is a wonderful way to spend a Saturday lunchtime, especially after you’ve been slightly loosened up by the fascinating, extensive gin menu (truly Thames Lido could learn a lot from that place). And that’s before you get on to the black bread, a heady mix of squid ink and parmesan and almost impossibly moreish.

Equally gorgeous in its own way is Medlar on the Kings Road, which does a ludicrously impressive set lunch for not much money. Their crab ravioli with bisque is etched on my memory as one of the great starters of my life, as is the duck egg tart with duck hearts, and few mains come close to their feather blade with café de Paris snails and impeccable chips served with the glossiest, most beautiful Bearnaise sauce. On my last trip, let’s just say I found myself wishing it was a shorter walk home – and I have no plans to relocate to Chelsea.

But this kind of restaurant doesn’t have to be fancy or Michelin-starred. A really lovely neighbourhood restaurant, of the kind Mya Lacarte was in its prime, can also tick those boxes perfectly. One of my happy places is Branca in North Oxford (admittedly a neighbourhood I could quite imagine living in) and some of my nicest evenings – and best places of food – have involved that restaurant. Look at this confit duck with lentils and salsa verde, if you don’t believe me.

The closest thing?

I thought long and hard about this. On many levels, London Street Brasserie remains the one to beat in Reading, which after such a long time trading is simultaneously reassuring and depressing. It still has one of the best spots in town, it still has one of the only natural sun traps for al fresco dining and the set menu is still good value and impressively diverse. But I’ve always had a feeling that it’s not quite as good as it should be and, perhaps crucially, it’s nowhere near as good as the Crooked Billet, its sibling out towards Henley (and, if you’re talking about special occasion restaurants, I’ve celebrated my last two birthdays at the Crooked Billet with my family).

The other restaurant which comes closest is Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen. Not because it aspires to be a special occasion or destination restaurant, because (and I mean this kindly) I’m not sure it knows yet what it wants to be when it grows up. The food is up there with anything you can get for miles around, but the room is unshowy and the prices are bafflingly low. But in terms of dishes with a proper wow factor and – if you’re interested in that kind of thing – a damned good wine list, I still think it’s hard to pick anywhere better in town. All that, and it’s almost inside the IDR. It’s become the place I take visiting friends, or family, and it hasn’t let me down.

It pleases me hugely that the two best places to take people for a celebratory meal in Reading happen to be one of its oldest and one of its very newest restaurants; some things change, some things stay the same, but Reading in general gets better and better. And that feels to me like a nice way to end this piece, because however much I might want new places to open in Reading we still remain very lucky to have so much. Not to mention how good Reading might still become in the years ahead: imagine if I Love Paella finds somewhere to open in town, the team from Namaste Kitchen move to new premises and Glen Dinning manages to open an indoor equivalent of Blue Collar. And new places continue to open all the time including the latest, a Vietnamese place on Market Place called Mum Mum. There’s plenty to be grateful for – not least that we’re not, and will never be, Swindon.

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Alona

I used to think the cardinal sin when eating in a restaurant was to take out a calculator when the bill arrived. You might know someone like this, someone who tots up exactly what they had and wants to pay for exactly that and not a penny more (strangely they’re often the same kind of people who neglect to add ten per cent to exactly what they spent – and not a penny more – when it comes to tipping). I don’t know anyone like that, or at least I don’t go to dinner with them. Paying for meals is like paying for rounds in pubs: sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind, but the only real way to be a loser is to keep count.

For years, I thought that was the worst thing you could do when eating out – well, that and being rude to the people serving you – and then an incident took place which changed my mind. I was on a double date at Comptoir Libanais, and we were meeting the other couple there at seven o’clock. There was some kind of mix-up and our dining companions got to the restaurant fifteen minutes early, and my date and I arrived at the appointed hour to find them halfway through eating their starters.

I was aghast. If you arrive early, ordering a drink is practically compulsory. Ordering bread and olives, if you’re peckish, is optional if you really can’t wait fifteen minutes. But starters? And this wasn’t just pitta and dips: the chap was ploughing his way through a portion of chicken wings as we took our seats. It was the first time I’d ever met these people so I could hardly say anything, but I spent the rest of the meal thinking Why is everybody acting like this is normal, acceptable behaviour? My date told me later on that I was being unnecessarily fussy, but I’ve never told another person who wasn’t shocked: if I’m ever elected to high office I might ensure that such conduct attracts a custodial sentence.

Anyway, company aside, the meal at Comptoir Libanais was forgettable. The service was comically bad, the food average at best and indifferent value to boot. My tagine (nothing like a nice authentic Lebanese tagine – as if there’s any such thing) was miserly and lukewarm, the couscous in huge clumps like only faintly edible asteroids. I hadn’t even wanted to go – it wasn’t my choice – and I felt like a traitor eating there when Bakery House was a couple of minutes away. It might not have a snazzy location on the Riverside, there might be no option to have alcohol with your meal (and the experience at Comptoir did rather make me want a drink) but Bakery House is the kind of independent restaurant Reading needs and deserves. I made a mental note to never go back to Comptoir Libanais on duty.

For a long time Reading only had those two Lebanese restaurants, and then I spotted Alona one Sunday afternoon as my taxi trundled up the Wokingham Road on the way to Nirvana. No website, no Facebook, but then I got reports on Twitter that Reading’s newest Lebanese restaurant was decent and might be up there with Bakery House; I needed no further incentive to hop on the 17 bus one evening and go there before word got out.

My companion this week was John Luther, who is responsible for programming at South Street and has done more most to shape Reading’s cultural scene. I’d wanted to take John with me on a visit ever since he judged my Honest Burgers competition last year – not only because I knew I’d be guaranteed stimulating conversation about all things artistic but also because I got a clear picture from John’s Twitter feed that he loves good food and craft beer. He was instrumental in bringing Craft Theory to Reading; he might be Bakery House’s most loyal patron (it’s effectively South Street’s staff canteen by now); he was Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen’s first customer: these things might not feature in John’s CV but they made him an ideal candidate to join me on duty.

It may be because Alona had been open little more than a month when we visited, but it looks pretty stripped-down. You walk in across the incongruous astroturf (they also offer shishas outside, apparently) and the counter on the right looks like standard kebab shop stuff with a brightly illuminated menu overhead. The dining room is on the left and is really very bare – plain tables, attractive tiles and not a lot else except a line of beaded lights at head height while changed colour throughout the meal like a hyperactive day-glo disco dado rail.

I asked whether we ordered at the table or at the counter and the answer was either or both: in the end we sat at the table nearest to the counter and asked nicely from there. The menu was like a pared down version of the Bakery House menu and prices were very similar, so you pay around a fiver for starters and mains hover near the twelve pound mark. Alona also does a range of wraps, presumably to eat off the premises. In fact, I saw more people turn up for takeaway than to eat in during our visit and only two other tables were occupied while we were there; eating under the functional lighting in such a stark place took on an increasingly Edward Hopperesque feel as the evening went on.

John and I valiantly did our best to try as many dishes on the menu as we could, and that meant rolling our sleeves up and tackling four starters. The first few arrived on a blue plastic tray, and we had to ask nicely for plates. The houmous kawrmah – one of two houmous options on the menu involving lamb – was very much a curate’s egg. The houmous itself was rather tasty and was clearly elevated by tons of tahini, if somewhat lacking in garlic.

“The olive oil with this is fantastic” said John. “Really fruity. But the lamb could do with more char.”

He was right: the lamb seemed appealing when it turned up but the look of it wrote a cheque that neither the taste nor the texture could cash. As happens too often on duty, I’d rather have had less and better. The pittas that came with it felt thin and almost stale, and weren’t a lot of help when scooping up houmous.

Grape leaf rolls (stuffed vine leaves, effectively) have long been a favourite of mine – I blame Corfu in the summer of 1987 – but these were unremarkable. The menu said they had meat in them (I was expecting minced lamb) but they were completely meat free. Excitement free too, really: you can get better ones in the chiller cabinet of M&S or the Co-Op, let alone in restaurants. I ate them because they were there, which is no real reason to eat anything.

The falafel on the other hand were decent, if not exciting (by this stage “decent, if not exciting” was starting to feel like a recurring theme). We’d ordered them partly to compare them against the Bakery House version (“a reference dish”, said John sagely) and they didn’t win out in that comparison: a bit too heavy, not enough texture on the outside and certainly no scattering of sesame seeds. But in fairness that’s a high bar, and these were passable falafel (“passable falafel”: a tongue twister up there with “day-glo disco dado rail”). I was more excited about the intense, shrivelled black olives and the sharp, salty pickles, which is probably not how it should be.

Chicken wings began the meal at an impressive £2 a portion, although as we were ordering them the man behind the counter stuck a 3 over the 2 up on the menu overhead. That was a little surreal. I managed to get over the whopping fifty per cent markup, but the chicken wings were also underwhelming – or, to put it another way, decent if not exciting. “There’s no sign that they’ve been marinated” said John, and that would probably have been forgivable if they had the beautiful, blackened char of a close encounter with a charcoal grill. But that hadn’t really happened either. We blamed the quantity of food we’d ordered for leaving some of these, but the truth is that we couldn’t really be arsed.

It was some time before we got round to ordering mains, partly because we were getting full and partly because the service at Alona was so relaxed you sensed it was all the same to them whether you were there or not. But mainly it was because the conversation was just so interesting and wide ranging: from family and friends to Reading’s cultural scene (“yes, we had Mumford And Sons at South Street before they made it big. They were pretty awful”) to the town’s rather interesting approach to awards, as exemplified by the decision to crown the Oracle as Reading’s premium cultural space (although I maintain that the beach bar, on a weekend night, is best viewed as some kind of performance art piece).

John moved to Reading fifteen years ago to work at South Street, and it was obvious talking to him that he loves our town every bit as much as I do. And I wondered for a second, probably fancifully, if we weren’t that different after all: trying to introduce the people of Reading to new stuff, promoting the plucky, the emerging and the up and coming, doing our bit to make the community we love a better place. But the parallels probably aren’t exact: I did have a swipe at the Hexagon at one point and he ever so nicely reminded me that without the Hexagon there could be no South Street, and that a good town needed both. Would I be so magnanimous about the likes of Bill’s or TGI Friday? I wondered. It seemed unlikely.

But then there might be something in it after all: “When people go to a Hexagon show, they know what they’re getting”, John said, “but when they come to South Street I hope they go away having been made to feel, or think, in a different way”. I still like to believe that food culture can be like that, even if you’re comparing Pepe Sale to Zizzi or Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen to Bina Tandoori. But what do I know? I’m just a restaurant reviewer.

Anyway, back to the food: we decided to share a couple of dishes from the grill, so we went for a mixed grill for one and a lamb shawarma. The former was so huge that although we were charged for a single portion I can’t believe they didn’t bring us a mixed grill for two by mistake. The highlight of this was the chicken shish, which got the balance just right, perfectly soft without sacrificing the texture outside, although there was still little evidence of marination. I was more dubious about the lamb kofte, which was a little bouncy for my liking (it was one of those kebabs where you’re wary of looking at the cross-section, put it that way). John raved about – and finished off – the lamb shish but I would have liked it more tender. We were agreed, though, on the lamb chops, which were unnecessarily tough and far from a highlight. Mixed grill? Mixed bag, more like.

All that paled into insignificance, though, compared to the experience of Alona’s lamb shawarma. You know that feeling when a dish is plonked in front of you and you actively don’t want to eat it? The last time I had it was in Paris last year when I was dished up a slice of terrine, jelly and all, which looked exactly like it had been extracted from a tin of Pedigree Chum. This lamb shawarma was a very similar experience – a plate full of wobbly, gelatinous meat which required a scalpel more than a knife and fork.

“I’m not sure that fat has rendered properly” said John, displaying a masterful talent for understatement. I felt like just saying “that looks repulsive” (which might also have been an understatement) but I thought better of it. We both gingerly picked through it, trying to find bits which required minimal dissection. It didn’t taste as bad as it looked – not much would, in honesty – but it was all cloves and no subtlety, a bit like drinking HP sauce from a shot glass and eating chewing gum at the same time.

After a couple of forkfuls I became extremely grateful both that John and I had already eaten a lot of food and that we’d ordered main courses to share. Imagine having ordered a helping of this to yourself and having to eat it in front of friends or loved ones: it didn’t bear thinking about. We left almost all of it, and I had my “oh, but I’m so full!” speech (complete with patting belly) prepared, but fortunately we weren’t asked about it. That’s not to criticise the service, which was actually really friendly and enthusiastic – and they generally did seem to want to know what we thought of everything – but service alone just isn’t enough.

Both mains came with a choice of rice or chips, so for completeness’ sake we had both. For completeness’ sake I’m also telling you that but really, they weren’t anything to write home about. There’s no alcohol licence at Alona either so we went crazy and had a bottle of water each, too. We settled up, paying the princely sum of forty-two pounds without service, and headed to the Hope & Bear for a pint and a debrief. That basically consisted of discussing Michelin starred restaurants we’d both enjoyed: it’s almost as if we were trying to take our minds off the shawarma. We were like Terry Waite and John McCarthy, chained to that culinary radiator.

Finishing by describing one of the worst dishes I’ve eaten this year probably puts an unnecessary downer on this review. To pull things back slightly: you could have a reasonable meal at Alona. If I’d had the houmous beiruty and the chicken shish, I probably would have thought it a pleasant, if unspecial, dinner. But even then I would have been struck by the mediocre pitta, and the standard issue chips, and I would have known deep down that I could have had a better, cheaper meal at Kings Grill. But based on what I had, the consistency just wasn’t there, and the range ran the gamut from “just above average” to “God, no”.

I really hoped not to end the review this way, but I can’t not say this: I can’t see a single reason why you’d go to Alona when Bakery House exists. When I think of the lamb shawarma at Bakery House, crispy, intense, generous and delicious (and I’ve done so many times, trying to wipe memories of Alona’s version from my mind), I realise there’s no comparison at all. They’re both lamb shawarma, but only in the way that Barack Obama and Jim Davidson are both humans. Alona isn’t Jim Davidson, not by any means, but my terrific evening there was down to the company, not the food. I hope Alona picks up and improves: with such an obvious, direct and superior competitor in the centre of town it needs to. Fast.

And, since someone will almost certainly ask: if I had to choose between Alona and Comptoir Libanais? I’d go to Comptoir Libanais – with somebody who waited until I got there before ordering.

Alona – 6.1
133 Wokingham Road, RG6 1LW
0118 9667000

(No website)