It is, I think, a universal reaction when we taste something funny, or not quite right, or even plain bad, to seek a second opinion. Whether that’s saying “do you think this milk is still good?” when it’s a day past the use by date or asking “does this taste weird to you?” in a restaurant, we all do it. We like to share delicious food, providing we have enough of it to spare, but it’s when something’s awful that we really feel the need to share the pain.
I say this because I’ve had several people in the last three months ask me if I’ve been to Lemoni, the new Greek restaurant in the Oracle, or when I’m going – and not because they say the food is stellar. One message on Twitter said “OMFG, it was awful. Service took ages every time, when they arrived the flicking of long hair over food was… ugh”. Another, on Instagram, said it was so bad that they refused a discount because they wanted to leave as quickly as possible. “I never thought I’d say this” she added, “but I really miss Jamie’s Italian”. Someone else on Twitter said “I went there last weekend and I’m interested to hear your opinion”: sometimes what isn’t said shouts as loudly as what is.
As a result, despite my best efforts to stay positive, I approached my visit to Lemoni with a gradual mounting dread. On the one hand, people definitely wanted an impartial review. But on the other, looking at their website I had a real feeling of “must I?”. Part of that came from looking at the menu online, because the dishes at Lemoni were undeniably pricey. Sixteen pounds fifty for a moussaka, or for a chicken shish kebab? They’d have to be absolutely faultless to charge that much.
Matters weren’t helped by my other half sending me a picture which had been doing the rounds at her work, taken from Tripadvisor, of the lamb kebabs. They look as if they had been formed not by hand but by the combination of a colon and a sphincter, nature’s piping bag. As if to reinforce the point, one of her colleagues had effortlessly Photoshopped a single kebab into an image of a toilet bowl: it wasn’t even slightly incongruous, bobbing there.
Tripadvisor didn’t help in general, as it seemed polarised between glowing reviews (often from Greek users with very few other TA reviews) and mutinous rumblings from everybody else about poor value, indifferent food, terrible service. Who to believe?
And then there was the wider mystery – who were Lemoni anyway? Hard to tell from social media, that’s for sure: there was a glut of very polished Instagram activity when the restaurant was about to open, but since then the silence has been deafening. Trying to get any background was challenging – the suggestion had been that this was their second restaurant but from what I could glean from Companies House the first restaurant, in Southampton, had gone into liquidation before the Reading branch opened.
How did an independent business with no real footprint come out of nowhere to take on the Oracle’s biggest restaurant site, quite possibly paying an annual rent in the high six figures? How was it going to survive in such a competitive site, even (or especially) charging those prices? There was only one way to get to the bottom of it: I was going to have to go there myself.
I felt bad about asking anybody to accompany me, but in the end my mother and my stepfather gamely agreed to come along: sometimes you really do need the unconditional commitment only family can truly provide. So, despite my stepfather’s wistful looks askance at the entrance to Royal Tandoori, we walked up to Lemoni on a warm summer’s evening to take our chances.
The welcome at the door was bright and friendly, and we walked up through the stairs and through the restaurant to take a table out on the upstairs balcony, one of Reading’s better al fresco spaces. The transformation from when the restaurant was Jamie’s Italian was marked, and very nicely done: the upstairs and downstairs are both very tasteful, airy spaces with plenty of natural light, grown-up looking marble-topped tables and grey tweedy banquettes. I didn’t eat inside, but I liked the look of it – I did wonder though just how much sound would be absorbed on a busy Friday or Saturday night and whether the restaurant would feel quite as welcoming on a darker winter’s evening.
The first big surprise came when the menus arrived, because the prices have been reduced significantly since April (although Lemoni has neglected to change its website to reflect this). Mains in particular had come down by between three and five pounds per dish – badly needed, because many of the dishes skirted around the twenty pound mark which felt very expensive for this kind of food. This means that Lemoni must be the first restaurant I’ve encountered to do a soft opening in reverse: still, at least it showed they were learning from their mistakes.
We ordered a few drinks, namely a Mythos for my stepfather, a Menebrea – the Italian beer which is becoming Peroni for people who think they’re too good for Peroni – for my mother and some sparkling mineral water (don’t judge) for me. Nearly all the waiting staff, all dressed all in black, seemed to be Greek and they certainly looked efficient, darting from table to table; maybe they’d also learned from some of that early criticism.
We decided to share some of the starters to begin with – these all vary between about five and eight pounds, although they charge extra for pitta which felt cheeky to me. How else did they expect you to eat houmous or taramasalata, exactly? The taramasalata, incidentally, was one of the best starters we had – brighter pink than I’m led to believe it should be but punchy all the same. I especially liked the addition of some salted capers on top, but I suspect they were more popular with me than with my mother. “It doesn’t taste that fishy” was her feedback – my stepfather and I disagreed, but she had taken against the dish and that was that.
The spanakopita was a hit with all of us – light filo pastry with just enough crunch housing a beautifully molten mixture of feta, spinach and mint. The other two starters, though, were the relative duds. Saganaki is one of my favourite Greek starters and done well it’s a glorious, indulgent thing. The menu chose not to specify which cheese it was (which perhaps should have been a warning bell) but it’s usually feta and this didn’t feel like feta at all. Whatever it was, it was a lukewarm block of cheese with a leathery texture which had no give whatsoever. The “homemade tomato jam” might just have been able to paper over the cracks of this dish, but there was nowhere near enough of it.
The last starter arrived after the other three, and before the side plates we’d had to ask for twice. Mashed fava beans topped with calamari were a pleasing shade of yellow and had a earthy, if subtle, taste. But I couldn’t help wishing it was hot rather than lukewarm and it also needed some pita to do it justice. Our first helping of pita – tasty, topped with something like cayenne pepper or paprika along with dried oregano but far too little of it – had already vanished by then and it took multiple attempts to flag someone down to ask for more. By the time it arrived we still just about needed it, but the moment had passed.
“That dish is bland” said my mother, pointing accusingly at the fava beans.
“It’s okay – it could do with a bit more seasoning” I said.
“Well, it’s not unpleasant” she added, the implication clearly being that not unpleasant was not good enough. I could see what she meant, but I was more disappointed that paying two pounds extra got your fava bean purée topped with precisely four tiny bits of squid. Maybe I’ve inherited her critical faculties.
Having struggled to get our side plates and struggled to get extra pita bread, we then found we were left alone with our leftovers in front of us for some time. This gave my mother enough time to do some detective work.
“Our placemats are by John Lewis” she said. “They have the tag on them.”
I inspected them. This was indeed the case.
“And the labels are still on the underside of our side plates.”
I wasn’t sure how my mother had clocked this – nothing gets past her – but lifting up my snazzy rippled white plate it was true. Sophie Conran for Portmeiron, no less, and that stuff isn’t cheap; these aren’t plates you’d want to smash at a wedding.
“It’s weird, isn’t it? It’s like they’ve picked this stuff up at a department store because money’s no object.” And again, I found myself wondering where the money came from to open this massive restaurant out of nowhere and kit it out with a lovely new refit, John Lewis placemats and Sophie Conran crockery. At this point my stepfather outlined his theory on the matter: sadly, I’ve had to omit it from the review but I’m sure you could come up with your own ideas.
I was jogged out of this reverie by the fact that as our plates were taken away the main courses were plonked in front of us, supervised by an older man who looked as if he might be the owner. The overall effect was a little menacing, especially as my stepfather had ordered the “chicken skewer” which comes to the table on a long and potentially dangerous skewer fresh from the grill. The skewer was served on a bed of undressed, pointless rocket with some soft-looking roasted potatoes, a cold couscous salad and some kind of dip. I tried some of the chicken and it wasn’t unpleasant but there was no real sign that it had been marinated. At fourteen pounds it was still more expensive than the same dish at Bakery House, with nowhere near the same whistles and bells.
“That dip is salad cream” said my mother, looking none too impressed.
“I think it’s more like burger sauce” I said. “The menu says it’s ‘Lemoni mayonnaise sauce’, apparently.”
“Well it tastes like salad cream to me.”
“It’s not going to be a glass half full evening, is it?” said my stepfather philosophically as he attacked the rest of his main, undeterred by any resemblance to Heinz’s finest. I had ordered the classic kebab, and I was delighted to discover that they no longer looked like the Photoshopped horror I’d been sent via Whatsapp. If anything, these were uncannily regular cylinders of meat – a mixture of beef and lamb, apparently – and I wasn’t sure whether I enjoyed them or if I was just relieved that they weren’t worse. They were nicely seasoned and although they were a little on the smooth and homogeneous side for my liking they weren’t unpleasant. They came with a yoghurt thicker and more pointless than Dominic Raab, and a tomato sauce which lacked any spice or heat at all. Nice chips, to be fair, but apart from that this was another dish that Bakery House does miles better for less.
Even if the glass had been half full up to that point, it pretty much emptied when my mum started eating her pastichio, a sort of Greek lasagne which serves as an alternative to moussaka.
“This is sweet. It’s as sweet as a dessert. And there’s nowhere near enough mince. It’s just a sweet tomato sauce and some pasta. And the cheese! Well, it doesn’t taste cheesy.”
I tried some. You couldn’t knock her brevity: it would take me a whole paragraph to say a lot less.
It didn’t help that the accompanying Greek salad also didn’t pass muster. “It’s a nice olive” my mother said, “but it needs company.” A pity, because the feta was lovely and, again, I thought adding capers was a nice touch. But it’s difficult to argue with somebody saying that a Greek salad needs to contain more than one solitary olive.
We stayed for dessert, because I desperately wanted to give Lemoni one more chance. The big thing here is loukoumades, Greek doughnuts, so I ordered them with Greek honey and crushed walnuts. They were nicely irregularly-shaped, so obviously made by hand, but that’s as far as the plusses went. They were heavy, stodgy things, the shell not crisp and the inside a million miles from a fluffy cloud of joy. The honey was in a lake at the bottom rather than drizzled over the doughnuts, and the whole thing was heavy going. We didn’t finish them.
“Doughnuts ought to be a delight” said my mother, who by this point was turning into a one-woman Greek chorus of disapproval. “You should want to race through them.”
My stepfather’s bougatsa, custard in filo pastry, was better but still not right. I liked the custard very much, but this pastry didn’t have the same lightness of touch as our starters had had. Sawing through it with a knife felt like a slog. “It’s a bit tough” said – well, I’m sure you can guess who said that.
It won’t surprise you to hear that we also had to ask for the bill twice. Lemoni was busier than I expected on a Wednesday evening – the sun was still shining, the big screen on the Riverside was showing Wimbledon, people were sitting in the deckchairs on the opposite bank watching it and the beach bar was full of the kind of people who like the beach bar. It was a glorious evening, and if our meal had been better maybe we’d have been happy to sit there and digest and chat away with all the time in the world. All the best Greek food I’ve had – usually on holiday, but also in restaurants like Maida Vale’s scruffy Tsiakkos & Charcoal, or Notting Hill’s upmarket Mazi – is best eaten in a leisurely fashion, while you daydream of being somewhere in the Cyclades. But in this case, we just wanted to settle up and sod off.
Eventually, we flagged someone down and our bill – four starters, three mains, two desserts, two beers and some mineral water – came to ninety pounds, not including tip. Not hugely expensive, in the scheme of things, but when you consider that we barely drank it’s still a fair amount to spend on something so middling.
“You could come here and have quite a good meal” said my stepfather, “if you happen to order just the right things. Or if you ordered badly it would be terrible.” I nodded in agreement: I’d seen huge plates of what looked like home-made crisps turn up at other tables and I was thinking that if I’d just ordered those and some houmous I probably would have had a better, cheaper time.
So, there you have it: Lemoni isn’t the horror show I half expected, which just goes to show that anybody who reviews a new restaurant in the first month is making an error of judgment. But, even after three months of working on the pricing, the menu and the service it’s still deeply unspecial. Not better than Bakery House, not better than The Real Greek, not better than Kyrenia in its heyday. I don’t say that with any joy or any axe to grind – it would be a wonderful thing for the prime pitch in the heart of the Oracle to be occupied by a brilliant, distinctive, smartly-priced and well-run independent restaurant. But Lemoni is not that restaurant.
My closing thought about Lemoni was the saddest of all, because what my visit really did was make me think about Dolce Vita. Dolce Vita paid less rent than Lemoni, it charged more than Lemoni, it was busier than Lemoni, it did better food, it had better service and it closed for good last year. If Dolce Vita couldn’t make a go of it with so much in its favour, who would bet on Lemoni seeing out the year? More to the point: just imagine how wonderful Reading would be if a restaurant like Dolce Vita had occupied a spot like the one Lemoni has. How I wish we lived in a town like that.
Lemoni – 6.2
Unit 1, The Riverside, The Oracle, RG1 2AG