The reason behind this week’s review is simple: I got a tip-off. About chicken livers.
It came off the back of the World Cup Of Reading Restaurants I ran on Twitter just after Christmas – congratulations to Kungfu Kitchen for winning the title, by the way – when I received a message from a reader. She and her partner had been debating the merits of the various competitors, and they’d agreed that in their considered opinion the closest rival to surprise package Tasty Greek Souvlaki was not Bakery House but in fact Lebanese Village on Caversham Bridge. It served some of the best Lebanese food she’d ever eaten, she said, and their chicken livers were second to none.
It was appropriate, too, because I never liked chicken livers before I tried Lebanese food. Actually, it would be closer to the truth to say that I didn’t know I liked them until then. But the first time I had them, at Bakery House, experienced that contrast of caramelisation and silkiness unlike anything else, with sweet, sticky fried onions and a whisper of pomegranate molasses, I was hooked. And that was just the start of it – then I tried the chicken livers at Clay’s, dark and delicious, dusted with an intriguing spice mix including, of all things, dried mango and I became even more of a convert.
Then there were the happy occasions when the Lyndhurst served them – simply, on sourdough toast with a bright pesto. By then chicken livers were well and truly one of my favourite things, so the idea that somewhere in Reading served a reference version I’d yet to try was an aberration I needed to remedy, as soon as possible. So on what felt like the coldest night of the year so far, Zoë and I schlepped off to Caversham Bridge, stopping only for a fortifying beer at the warm, welcoming, wintry Greyfriar.
I’ve written about Reading’s history with Lebanese restaurants before, so I risk rehashing all that here. But in the early days, back in 2015, we had two and they were about as different as could be. La Courbe was a grown-up restaurant with sharp furniture, square plates, fancy glasses and an extensive list of Lebanese wines (true story, on my second or third visit there the English waitress, when clearing our glasses away, said “it’s not bad is it, the Lesbianese wine?”: bless her). And then came Bakery House, closer to the kind of thing you’d see on the Edgware Road, more informal, more casual, with no alcohol licence.
Bakery House won the war. It’s still going today, and has proved the more influential blueprint for Lebanese food in Reading: Palmyra and the not-too-sadly departed Alona are very much in that mould. La Courbe lasted a couple of years, though whether that’s because of their business acumen or the fact that they had John Sykes as a landlord we’ll never know. The owner moved on to run a Lebanese night at a café in Pangbourne for a little while, and then disappeared without trace. But I hope history is a kinder to La Courbe, because their food was absolutely terrific. Their skewers of lamb and chicken, their lamb koftas were, in truth, a level above anything that came off the grill at Bakery House, wonderful though Bakery House is. I still remember their taboulleh.
Looking at the menu at Lebanese Village in the run-up to my visit I wondered which kind of restaurant it would turn out to be. It sold alcohol – two Lebanese beers and a decent selection of Lebanese wine, including a couple I’d tried at La Courbe. The menu was more limited than Bakery House’s and potentially less casual, with no shawarma, no boneless baby chicken, fewer mezze. And I’d heard good things about Lebanese Village from a few people, so was it going to be the spiritual successor to La Courbe?
The last time I set foot in that building was in 2013, when it housed Picasso (another restaurant I still remember, for decidedly different reasons) so I couldn’t honestly tell you how it’s changed. But they’ve made a pleasing, surprisingly cosy space out of what is effectively another long, thin room. Some of the decor is definitely Lebanese – the attractive patterns on the ceiling tiles for instance, and some of the pictures they’ve put up. The plates on the wall depicting pastoral English scenes, bridges and church towers, are more confused. But the background music – relentless, frantic, and slightly too loud – left you in no doubt.
The restaurant has bought rather attractive wood and glass partitions, during the pandemic I expect, and they do an excellent job of breaking the room up into sections. I still think the section nearest the front, by the bar, closest to the window, is the best place to be and that’s where nearly all of Lebanese Village’s diners were the evening I visited. It was a bitterly cold night and every restaurant I walked past on my way – San Sicario, Kamal’s Kitchen, Flavours Of Mauritius – was utterly deserted, so I was heartened to see that they had some paying customers, including a large table of Americans who seemed to be over with work and staying at the Crowne Plaza just the other side of the water.
The icy trek definitely helped us work up an appetite, and we went a bit crazy with the mezze to start with. The best of them was the Lebanese Village arayes, minced lamb and a smidgen of cheese sandwiched between pitta bread. “It’s basically a quesadilla” said Zoë – and although she was dabbling in a spot of cultural appropriation I got her meaning. This is one of my favourite things to eat at Bakery House and although Lebanese Village’s pitta felt bought in rather than made on the premises it stood up well to that standard. It could have done with more cheese, I thought, but then you only pay forty pence extra for cheese so maybe that’s why they don’t give you much. While we’re on the subject, at nearly seven pounds this dish cost almost twice as much as its counterpart in the town centre.
I was interested to try the lamb burak, and it was good but not great. The pastry felt like it might have been bought in too, and the whole thing was a little too thick and stodgy, the ratio out of whack. What lamb there was I liked, but it was only just the right side of the line between “what lamb there was” and “what lamb?” From the plating of this, and the arayes, I realised that the restaurant had a bit of a thing for scalloped smears of their – rather good – garlic sauce. I found that a little weird: a ramekin would have been fine.
They’d done a similar thing with the houmous Beiruti, spreading it thin in a narrow dish which made it trickier than it should have been to scoop it all up. On the menu the only discernible difference between this and the entry level houmous was the addition of some chilli, which did come through nicely. Perhaps this had more garlic in it than the bog-standard stuff – it certainly had a healthy whack of it – but I couldn’t tell you for sure. I liked it all the same, and I loved the pool of grassy, good-quality olive oil in the middle, but it felt solid rather than special.
Last but not least, those fabled chicken livers. Ready? They were okay, but nothing more than that. They were wan, woolly-textured things that felt stewed rather than fried, in a gravy so thin that it sulked at the bottom of the terracotta pot, and no amount of scooping or dredging could get it to come out to play or adhere to the livers. I fully expected us to fight over every last bit of this dish, but by the end there was a solitary, worryingly huge lump of chicken liver left and both of us ever so politely offered it to the other. The waitress ended up taking it away.
By this point my hopes, it has to be said, weren’t high. The large table at the front had sloped off into the night, no doubt to cane their expenses account at the bar at the Crowne Plaza, and with that a lot of the spark went out of the room. It was just a pair of friends catching up a few tables across and a couple who had inexplicably decided to sit in the unlovelier, windowless space out back. Only a semi-steady stream of Deliveroo drivers broke up the quietude, and as we sipped our Lebanese lagers – 961, which tasted a little like an alcohol free beer, and not in a good way – I wondered if this was going to be that kind of review.
Things were partly redeemed, fortunately, by the arrival of our main course. The absence of many of the dishes I often lazily go to in a Lebanese restaurant forced me to go for the dish I often lazily go to in any grill house, the mixed grill for two. And this was where everything became inverted: I expected the mezze to be great, and it was simply okay. I didn’t expect too much, by contrast, from the mixed grill and I was pleasantly surprised.
Take the lamb skewer – the meat might not have been blushing pink in the middle, and it would have been nice if it had shown a little more evidence of marination, but it was tender. Far more tender, in fact, than similar kebabs I’ve had from both Bakery House and Tasty Greek Souvlaki. The same was true of the chicken shish – still soft, not dried out and truly enjoyable. So were the charred hunks of red and green pepper also threaded onto those skewers. And the lamb kofte was beautiful too – soft, almost crumbling, not disturbingly firm or spongey as bad examples can be.
Only the lamb ribs divided opinion – Zoë liked them, but she’s always one to pick them up and gnaw whatever’s going, Captain Caveman-style. I thought the work to reward ratio wasn’t quite there and I’d rather they’d been chops instead, like the miraculous ones you can get at Didcot’s Zigana. But none the less, it was all thoroughly respectable – more so, perhaps, because my expectations had been dialled down by what came before, but respectable none the less. A sweet and delicious charred onion, a little hill of rice topped with sultanas and a really tasty, sharply dressed salad completed the picture. That and more smears of the garlic and chilli sauce. Had they run out of ramekins?
There’s not a lot more to say. Our waitress was lovely and friendly and, I suspect, a bit bored; by the end she was standing behind the bar with her headphones in, probably wondering why restaurants bother opening on Tuesdays in January at all. She might well have a point. Our meal – four mezze, that mixed grill and two beers – came to just over sixty-seven pounds, including a ten per cent service charge. There was a space below that on the bill for a tip, which probably grinds the gears of people on TripAdvisor.
On this evidence at least, the word for Lebanese Village is solid. I worry that Lebanese food is a little like Thai food in this respect – it’s unlikely to plumb the depths, but it isn’t going to scale the heights either. So really, it’s not an existential threat to the likes of Bakery House. And I don’t think it is to Tasty Greek Souvlaki either, although I do reckon their mixed grill possibly beats Tasty Greek’s on points. If you lived in Caversham, or well in their delivery radius, I can see you might find space for them in your repertoire (although if I lived in walking distance of Lebanese Village, I’d far more often go to Kamal’s Kitchen or Thai Table).
And it’s not the natural successor, at the very top end, to La Courbe either. I suspect for that I need to finally get on that bus to Woodley and check out La’De Kitchen. But I’ve done that deplorable thing of talking about all the places Lebanese Village is not, rather than what it is. And what it is is a perfectly pleasant restaurant with something of a talent for grilling meat. It adds to Reading’s rich culinary tapestry, but isn’t necessarily going to rock your world: not that there’s anything wrong with that.
I’ll leave the last word to Zoë this week. “I’d come back here for the mixed grill” she said as we were working our way through it. The unspoken On a much warmer night than this hung in the air, just the way our breath had on the walk over.
Lebanese Village – 7.2
6 Bridge Street, RG4 8AA