One of the defining moments in the evolution of Reading’s restaurant scene happened in summer 2015 when a new place opened halfway up London Street, where a Nepalese restaurant used to be. I lived nearby at the time, and when I heard it was going to be called “Bakery House” I was excited: finally, Reading was going to get a decent bakery in the town centre! I was a bit nonplussed when it turned out instead to be a Lebanese restaurant, but then I saw that they baked all their own pitas and the name made more sense. And then I ate there, on duty for this blog, and I knew I was trying something special.
It wasn’t Reading’s first Lebanese restaurant: the ill-fated La Courbe, in Kings Walk, had that honour. And La Courbe’s food was very good indeed, but the whole approach was different. La Courbe looked like a grown-up restaurant, albeit a dated one, with square plates and sharp-edged furniture, where you effectively ate in a glass box and tried to ignore the smoke coming from the open kitchen. It had an extensive list of terrific wines from the Lebanon, and was determined to showcase that every bit as much as the food.
But Bakery House – although from the front it might have resembled a standard kebab joint – was a very different animal. It was more functional, and it had no alcohol licence, but it had infinitely more more heart and soul. It was often busy, with a hugely varied clientele, and remains one of my favourite places to go for a sit down lunch or have dinner with friends. Some of their dishes, like their boneless baby chicken, their lamb shawarma and their chicken livers, have pretty much attained iconic status.
One of my most enjoyable pre-Corona rituals – one I very much look forward to resuming, one day – was to spend the day in Nirvana Spa and then take a taxi to Bakery House for dinner. It sounds so decadent, over a year down the line. And before I started reviewing takeaways, that restaurant was the only reason I had the Deliveroo app on my phone.
Anyway, poor La Courbe was Betamax to Bakery House’s VHS: it closed less than a year after its rival opened, whereas Bakery House is still going strong (my 2015 review of the place remains one of the most widely read reviews on the blog). And since then, various restaurants have sprung up to try and take advantage of the increasing popularity of Lebanese food, without significant success. We still have Comptoir Libanais on the Oracle Riverside (I ate there once: never again), but Alona down the Wokingham Road barely made it to a year before closing down. Having eaten their shawarma, I can see why.
More recently, two more Lebanese restaurants have opened further from the town centre. Late in 2019 Lebanese Village opened just over Caversham Bridge, in the site that was previously occupied by Spanish non-tapas restaurant Picasso. I never got round to reviewing them before lockdown, although that’s largely because for much of that time their hygiene rating left something to be desired (they’ve fixed that now). And then in February 2020, possibly the worst imaginable time to open a restaurant, Palmyra opened at the top of the Oxford Road, opposite the Broad Street Mall.
The stories I’ve heard about Palmyra since then definitely suggested that it was worth investigating. A reliable source told me when they opened that the chefs were ex-Bakery House employees, and later that year I heard suggestions that the owners of Kobeda Palace might have a financial interest in the restaurant. That alone was enough of a pedigree to pique my interest, and then a reader told me on Twitter that she’d been a regular takeaway customer of Palmyra. “Brilliant customer service, food really tasty, gives Bakery House a run for their money” she said. “I know that’s fighting words” she added. Fighting words indeed, and only one way to find out if they were justified: time to fire up the phone and place an order.
Palmyra is on all the delivery apps (or you can order through their website which goes through Foodhub) but, as so often, the experience is slightly different through each one. I got as far as building a basket on JustEat, which offered 20% off on the night I was ordering, only to find that it wasn’t that specific about some of the dishes. So for instance, you could order shawarma but it wouldn’t let you specify lamb, chicken or mixed. It also wasn’t clear about what everything came with, so when you check out and it asks you whether you need rice, chips et cetera the only honest answer is I really don’t know. So if you like surprises, or getting 20% off is more important to you than knowing what shawarma you’re eating, JustEat is the one for you.
I instead went for Deliveroo where I could specify what I wanted, although I did order some garlic and chilli sauce because I couldn’t tell whether they came as standard (it turns out they did, so I wound up with far more than I needed). That aside, the menu had plenty of old favourites that fans of Lebanese food would recognise: cold mezze, including houmous, moutabal and baba ghanoush; hot mezze such as chicken livers, falafel and kibbeh; dishes from the charcoal grill (shish and the like); shawarma and wraps. There were also a few burgers, which felt slightly incongruous.
Prices were very reasonable, with most starters stopping short of a fiver and main courses costing less than twelve pounds: on a par with Bakery House and slightly cheaper than Lebanese Village. I didn’t spot many dishes that I hadn’t seen before, but I decided to take a two-pronged approach, ordering starters I hadn’t heard of and main courses I knew and loved, trying to do a mixture of discovery and benchmarking against the tried and tested. Two starters and two mains, along with Deliveroo charges, came to thirty-six pounds, not including tip. And Palmyra look after the deliveries themselves, so you tip the restaurant rather than the rider (and you should always tip the rider, if you ask me).
Because Palmyra do the deliveries, Deliveroo tells you that the order has been received and when the rider is on their way, but beyond that you don’t get to track the delivery. I wasn’t even sure if they even confirmed that at first, because the food took a fair old while to leave the restaurant: I ordered at 7.15 and the app said it would be with me in forty minutes, but in reality the driver was on his way about an hour after I placed the order and it took him less than ten minutes to reach me.
He was lovely and friendly and apologised that it had taken a while. “We’ve been snowed under”, he said, and it wasn’t until later that I realised we’d ordered on the first day of Ramadan, about half an hour before the sun was due to set. No wonder they had their hands full. That made me prepared to overlook a lot – similarly our food wasn’t exactly piping hot, but I thought it was well worth making allowances. Everything came in recyclable foil and plastic, and portions looked like they’d be pretty generous.
Palmyra’s starters were probably the weakest part of the meal – not bad per se, but maybe not as exciting as they sounded on paper. Lamb sambusek were meant to be deep fried pastries filled with minced lamb, but they felt as if they had been baked rather than fried, pasties rather than pastries. Not that that’s a bad thing: I enjoyed the slightly doughy pastry, but the meat inside felt bland, especially considering the sheer amount of flavour Lebanese cuisine can usually get out of lamb. Maybe I have nobody to blame but myself; with hindsight, I look at some of the starters I order – these and samosas in particular – and I think I ought to be more versatile. Anyway, Zoë liked them more than I did, and so I didn’t fight her for the fifth one.
Similarly, I’d never seen shanklish on a menu, so I was intrigued. The menu described it as goats cheese topped with thyme and mixed with onion, pepper and tomato. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it was pretty close to a Greek salad in practice, with cubes of cheese, onion, tomato and plenty of lettuce. If I’d known it was a salad, I mightn’t have ordered it. But more to the point, the cheese – the headliner – didn’t knock my socks off. It didn’t have a strong taste of goat, and the herb coating was very fine and a bit too mouth-coatingly gritty. It felt a lot more like feta, but with the salt mysteriously removed.
Having now done my research, I suspect that this was pretty authentic (with the exception of the iceberg lettuce), so just not my bag. But the salad itself was also carpet-bombed with herbs, to an extent where I found it offputting. You got salads with your main courses as well and these had the same problem, without the cheese to redeem matters: Bakery House’s salad accompaniment, always so well dressed, is far better.
The mains we ordered – boneless baby chicken and lamb shawarma – were definitely picked to compare with the market leader. Palymyra’s boneless chicken was close in standard, but fell ever so slightly short in a few respects: a little smaller, not quite as moist and without that wonderful smell of the chargrill when you took the lid off. But these are minor quibbles, and if it came second it certainly wasn’t second rate, with good flavour and plenty of evidence of marination. I’m also aware, too, that many people aren’t quite as greedy as I am and on the “enough is as good as a feast” principle Palmyra’s baby chicken is definitely a feast.
You didn’t get a choice of rice or chips with the meat, so comes served with some lovely buttery rice speckled with wild grains, which had a subtle hint of something sweet and comforting, almost like vanilla. The rice was particularly good with the lamb shawarma, which was my favourite dish of the meal. This was a really hefty portion of lamb, in beautiful slices with just the right blend of meat, of fat and of wonderful caramelisation. There was quite a bit of clove on the nose, which brought on unwelcome flashbacks of the wobbly version at Alona, but once you started eating it the flavours all came together harmoniously, and the whole thing was pretty damned wonderful. Even slightly more warm than hot, it was a winner.
“It’s really good, but imagine eating a whole portion to yourself” said Zoë, unaware that I was imagining exactly that and making a mental note for next time. I also thought briefly that any leftovers would make for a fantastic sandwich filling before ruefully realising that I never have leftovers and that if I did, I might have a less depressing waist measurement. Leaving food, like going camping or overpaying your mortgage, just seemed to be something other people did: I knew from social media that there were people like that out there, in a better, more virtuous tribe than me.
Never mind, I thought, looking down at my plate, empty except for a little smudge of the (very good) chilli sauce and a few stray grains of rice. I hadn’t eaten much of the salad, but that wasn’t to my credit: I knew that was the bit you were meant to polish off. In fairness, we didn’t finish the pita breads either. They were pleasant enough, although I wouldn’t necessarily have put money on them being made in house. I should probably face the fact that La’De Kitchen’s wonderful balloon bread has ruined me for other pitas.
The thing I almost feel guilty about, in writing this review, is that I’ve mentioned Bakery House as many times as I’ve mentioned Palmyra. They were the spectre at this particular feast. But that’s what happens when a restaurant becomes the benchmark, the standard for others to reach. That’s the way of things, just as every Italian restaurant in Reading will be compared to Pepe Sale, or every street food venture will be weighed up against Blue Collar. The trailblazers are there to give the newcomers something to aim for, and to want to surpass.
Success breeds imitators: it’s always been the sincerest form of flattery. It proves you are good, and it tells you to be better. Because that’s the other thing: Bakery House will be looking at this newcomer, the way Bette Davis looks at Anne Baxter in All About Eve, not wanting to be superseded. After all, La Courbe was the future once, and look what happened to them. The tension between the established and the new is what drives everybody forward, stops people from resting on their laurels. Restaurants need that, or they get stale: I like to say that a rising tide lifts all boats, and being shaken from your complacency is no bad thing.
And I think Palmyra has enough about it to generate that tension: if we were playing Top Trumps I’d say that Bakery House won on the starters and edged it on one of the main courses, but Palmyra’s shawarma is a thing of beauty and worth the price of admission alone. But anyway, that binary way of looking at things does nobody any favours. If I lived in West Reading I would be absolutely delighted that Palmyra were at the top of the Oxford Road, and I would take full advantage of them being so well located for my end of town. Besides, you’re bound to avoid my rookie mistake of ordering from them on one of the busiest nights of the year. Even though I fell into that trap I have no complaints, and I imagine they made a lot of households very happy that night. They definitely did mine.
40 Oxford Road, Reading, RG1 7LA
Order via: Direct through the website, via Deliveroo, JustEat or Uber Eats