This is my second attempt to review Persia House, the new Iranian restaurant tucked away on the other side of Caversham Bridge, and it differs from my first attempt in one important respect: I turned up when the restaurant was actually open (nearly six years writing this blog, and still so amateurish at times). I’d wanted to go for some time – Iranian food sounded fascinating and exotic, and from my research I hoped to have my head turned by a new favourite cuisine, the way it had been by Georgian or Hyderabadi food. Read an article like this and you’ll see what I mean: tell me it doesn’t make you hungry.
My dining companion for the first, unsuccessful, visit was Dr Quaff, author of Reading’s excellent pub blog Quaffable Reading, and he graciously agreed to overlook my ineptitude and accompany me again second time round (although he did still say “are you sure it’s open today?” as we were nursing a pre-dinner pint in the Crown: bloody cheek).
Going through the front door we were greeted by a very large and almost completely empty restaurant. I’m so used to saying “it’s a long thin room” about restaurants that it’s quite a relief to be able to say something different for a change: Persia House is huge. By the windows looking out on to the road there were some low tables where you sit cross-legged (possibly authentic, definitely for people who’ve done a lot more yoga than me) but the rest of the restaurant was more conventional and there really were an awful lot of tables. The bare wood floor was broken up with the occasional rug, there was art on the bare brick walls and some of the tables at the far end looked out over the river. I quite liked it, but it did feel cavernous.
We took a table by the window – close to the only other pair eating in the restaurant – and flipped through the menu. I’d researched it online, but the Persia House website is so user-unfriendly that trying to work out what I might order filled me with a sudden desire to throw my laptop at a wall with great force. We had no trouble picking a mixture of starters but we were undecided about our main courses: our waiter said that was absolutely fine and took that order, along with a bottle of red.
We’d also enquired about the rather bling oven you see as you enter the restaurant, so our waiter invited us over to see our naan breads being made. It was an incredible contraption, hotter than the sun (and not even running at full whack, as he proudly demonstrated by turning it up: it’s a miracle that Dr Quaff and I still have eyebrows). We watched as he stretched, rolled, and shaped the dough for the naan before effortlessly flipping it on to the roof of the oven for mere seconds before taking it out, cutting it up and putting it in a basket ready for our starters. All very impressive.
He said that he was from Afghanistan, although the owner was Iranian. The restaurant had been running for nearly six months and all was going well, he said, although he added that it was normally busier than tonight (only one other pair of diners arrived while we were there, not long after the other two customers had left).
By the time we returned to our table from that little culinary detour, our starters had arrived. The menu divides the starters into cold and warm appetisers and we’d picked from both sections, although I didn’t discern any noticeable difference in temperature. The best of them was the baba ghanoush, which really did have a smoky taste (you could picture the charred skin being taken off the aubergine before the flesh was combined with everything else). But the dolmades were deeply unspecial – the rice in them was claggy and dense, and they didn’t taste of much. The decision to serve them with a little pot of what looked like balsamic glaze but which I assume was pomegranate molasses might have been to conceal the lack of flavour, but it seemed an odd choice. I would have thought these were shop bought but one of them was so saggy and lacking in filling that I think they probably were made by hand.
“You can have the last one” I said to Dr Quaff, which obviously translates as I don’t like these much.
“No, I insist” he replied, or in other words I don’t like them either.
The last of the dishes was called halim badenjan, a stew of aubergine, tomato and braised lamb. We both quite liked this – although again, not enough to fight over the last few mouthfuls – but it didn’t knock my socks off. The lamb was in soft strands, the aubergine was tasty enough but it didn’t really feel like anything I hadn’t had before (the yoghurt on top, though, added a nice contrast).
By now, you’re hopefully wondering if that naan I saw being baked in front of my very eyes was any good. Well, I’m afraid no, not really. It might just be me, but I found it a bit thin and nothingy – despite being bubbled it had no fluffiness and no real texture. It might as well have been crackers, and by the end the last few pieces were hard enough that they pretty much were.
A mixed bag, then, and as our waiters took the plates away Dr Quaff and I sipped our wine and decided on our next move. We’d ordered a Malbec for twenty-two pounds and although it got better as the evening went along (what booze doesn’t?) it felt a bit thin and weedy to me, with nowhere near the depth or complexity I’d expect from Malbec: with hindsight, it might have been emblematic of the whole meal.
The main courses were split into three sections – kebabs, stews and other Persian specialities. Dr Quaff had decided to test out the grill, and I was torn between a traditional stew or the Persian biryani, a dish called lubia polo. I asked another waiter, and he said the stew was a “good choice” but that he’d had the lubia polo earlier in the evening and that it was very good. He also said that you couldn’t get these dishes anywhere else in Reading (which, come to think of it, may or may not have been a good thing). Like all the people who looked after us that evening he was friendly, smiley and engaging, and so I was won over and took his advice.
The problem with taking advice from people you don’t know, like reading reviews from people you don’t know I suppose, is that you take them on trust. So it’s possible that the Persian biryani is the best meal that waiter has had in a while, but if it is I think he rather needs to eat out more often. It was one of the most disappointing dishes I’ve had in a restaurant for a while – not specifically bad, but so failing to live up to its potential that it might as well have been.
It was rice, tomatoes, lamb and green beans and it tasted of rice, tomatoes, lamb and green beans. No real discernible depths of flavour, no nuance, no wow factor, no heat and no spice (Dr Quaff thought he detected cinnamon in it: I think he’s being charitable). I expected so much more – I wanted it to open my eyes to something new but instead it made me want to roll them or, worse still, close them for some time. Even the texture didn’t work; the lamb was nicely soft but so were the green beans. The latter had the feel of beans which had either come from a tin or been cooked so long that they might as well have done.
Dr Quaff had opted for the mixed grill for one, pretty much, the kebab bakhteari (“it sounds like bacteria” he said to the waiter, a tad ominously). It was a skewer of kofta, a skewer of chicken shish and a skewer of lamb shish, served with some rice with a little yellow hat from the saffron, an underwhelming-looking salad and – completely randomly – an individual portion of butter from a catering pack (what for? we both wondered).
“What do you think?”
“With lamb, you want the lovely caramelised exterior and for it to be pink in the middle” said Dr Quaff. “This is just grey”.
He generously let me try some of each of the kebabs, although once I ate them I realised he wasn’t really being generous, it’s just that he wasn’t fussed. The chicken was the best of them I thought, but all of them were middling at best. This dish cost eighteen pounds, a full five pounds more than the equivalent dish at Bakery House. There you get beautiful yellow rice, a perfectly dressed salad and all the garlic and chilli sauce you want. Here you get cross.
“It’s not as good as Bakery House, is it?” I asked.
“It’s nowhere near as good as Bakery House.”
You probably have the general idea by now. I really didn’t rate Persia House, I think there are dozens of better ways to spend your money in Reading and several better ways to have similar food – at Bakery House, at Kobeeda Palace, even at Clay’s if you want a biryani. And if your response to that is to say “but they’re not Iranian food” then fine, I agree – but based on what I experienced at Persia House I wonder if that’s Iranian food either. It didn’t feel distinctive or authentic to me: apart from the lamb stew with aubergines, we didn’t have anything you couldn’t get elsewhere, and that dish didn’t make me desperate to try the rest of the menu. I hoped for fireworks, I got a sputtering tealight.
What’s a little sad about it, though, is a couple of things. One was the service, which was unfailingly nice and polite – although, to be fair, we made up fifty per cent of the clientele for the duration of the visit. The other was that when we asked for the bill they brought some little sweet pastries and a beautiful black tea, poured into tiny glasses which tasted quite lovely sweetened with a little sugar. Such a nice touch, but too little too late. Dinner for two – three starters, two mains and a bottle of red – came to seventy pounds on the nail, not including service.
I wondered about how to end this review. Originally I was going to say “I hope Persia House does well”, but that too feels inauthentic. No, I hope Persia House does better. God knows, they easily could, but I suspect this is the kind of food they want to serve and the restaurant will either succeed or it won’t. Caversham is not blessed with loads of good restaurants, so perhaps novelty value will keep them afloat for some time yet. But at those prices, for that quality, it’s not a place I could recommend. In any case, what do I know? A few doors down Picasso – one of the most uninspiring meals I’ve ever had writing this blog – continues to ply its inexorable trade, years after many places I’ve adored have closed their doors for the final time.
Persia House – 6.4
2 Bridge Street, RG4 8AA