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