Manhattan Coffee Club

Manhattan Coffee Club has closed its premises on the first floor of the Oracle: for a while it operated in a concession out of Harper & Lewis, on the ground floor but now appears to have shut for good. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

I don’t think it’s possible to rid yourself of preconceptions when reviewing restaurants and cafes. They’re unavoidable, whether it’s because of things you’ve heard from others, or your research, or even just looking at the website. There’s a whole weight of prejudice – good or bad – which builds up before you approach the front door. All you can do is acknowledge your preconceptions and hope that you deal with them fairly, even if that does sound like the standard interview fiddle of describing your greatest weakness in a way that makes you sound brilliant and self-deprecating (you know, all that guff about being too much of a perfectionist).

On that basis, you might well expect me not to like Manhattan Coffee Club (MCC from now on, mainly because I’m lazy) and, in the interests of honesty, I expected not to like it either. It’s co-owned by one of the people behind RYND, a venue I admire for many things (its ability to use social media properly, the programme of events it puts on – live music, comedy, cinema and the like) but whose food I found a tad cynical and bandwagon-jumping. It’s on the top floor of the Oracle, a place I’m increasingly starting to see as the epicentre of All That’s Wrong With Reading. Even the press release before the opening made my toes curl ever so slightly, with its references to a design based on early twentieth century New York “with industrial steel tables and chairs, reclaimed wood counters and an ethos that the sky’s the limit”. Really, must we?

So yes, I approached MCC with all those preconceptions firmly in place and, from the moment I got to the front door, it neatly dismantled most of them. It’s a nice room, well done and it makes the most of a space which has almost no natural light: I expected it to feel a bit fake and joyless, like the top floor of Brown’s or Cote but actually it has a nice buzzy vibe to it. Yes, if you want to trend-spot you can – the industrial look is more Williamsburg by numbers than NYC in the Machine Age and the ubiquitous Tolix chairs are all over the place – but nevertheless, I warmed to it more than I thought I would. I even liked the fake trees at the door and the fake plants on the tables even though I knew they were fake – but then I’ve always found that a little suspension of disbelief makes the Oracle a far more enjoyable place.

The lunchtime options largely consisted of salads, sandwiches for toasting and lots and lots of cakes and pastries. Quite a decent range of sandwiches, too: I spotted baguettes, ciabattas, panini, wraps and focaccia with a good selection of fillings. Of the salads I was tempted by the Japanese chicken and the tuna niçoise, but when push came to shove it wasn’t a salad kind of day. You order at the counter and collect your drinks there, then they bring your sandwiches over. Standing there waiting for my drink I was struck by the staff – all young, all enthusiastic, all really friendly. There also seemed to be a fair amount of them: quite a contrast to many of Reading’s independent cafés.

Focaccia with salami, goat’s cheese and tapenade was really gorgeous. It’s a great selection of ingredients – salty and intense – and when toasted properly, as this was, they combine into something quite wonderful. Rather endearingly, the black-shirted chap bringing it to my table said “I’m sorry, I know it looks burnt but I promise it isn’t” (he was quite right, too). Somewhere between mouthful one and mouthful two my preconceptions properly went away – yes, it was a bit small at four pounds fifty but none the less, I loved eating it. The pulled pork (slow cooked for nine hours, according to their blurb, and eaten by me in about two minutes) wrap with coleslaw was also excellent and a great contrast, sweet where the focaccia had been savoury. I’m not usually a fan of quite sloppy pulled pork but it worked here, especially as it was contained by the toasted tortilla. Again, you could quibble about the price but it was deceptively substantial, with no thick clump of pointless wrap to wade through at the end.

MCCFocacciaRoughly at this point one of the serving staff decided to do a round of the tables offering people amaretti biscuits from a gigantic jar. It was a lovely, random, cynicism-eroding thing to do: by this stage I was in serious danger of quite enjoying myself.

Ironically for a place with coffee in the title I’m told the coffee was nothing to write home about. My companion’s latte was apparently a little bitter and not in the top flight of coffees in Reading (allegedly this holy trinity consists of Tamp, Workhouse and, rather surprisingly, Tutti Frutti). Earl Grey, on the other hand, was good (although tea is easy to do well), nice and fragrant and no one tried to put the milk in with the bag; I remain convinced that coffee drinkers would never put up with the ineptitude often shown in tea making. I was given a cup rather than offered the choice between a cup and a pot, and only realised that I’d missed out when I went up to order another, but this was a relatively minor error and I was too happy to get especially peeved by it.

The second cup of tea was to accompany cake. I was tempted by the red velvet cake but eventually opted for a blondie and a pain au chocolat. The berry blondie was divine – a heavy slice of cake that was almost like a super dense white chocolate cheesecake, with dollops of jammy berries in the dimples. It was almost like eating fudgy cake mix and I’m not ashamed to say that I made happy noises while doing so. The pain au chocolat, however, was probably the most disappointing part – MCC is apparently a bakery too but this was the kind of dense pastry you could have used to break a shop window. I’d hoped for light, flakey buttery layers but instead it was all compressed and spongy, and one bite revealed the inside to be a huge empty cavern, with two rows of chocolate like railroad tracks. Never mind: I suppose there had to be something I didn’t like.

MCCCakesLunch for two came to just under nineteen pounds, although I was given a fifty per cent off voucher for the coffee which saved me about a pound. I guess I’d say that everything was just a little on the pricey side, but thinking about the location and the people MCC needs to pay rent to, you can kind of understand it. Still, when you think about your alternatives in the Oracle itself – Costa, Nero (two of them), Starbucks (yes, two of them as well) I think MCC emerges pretty well from that comparison.

It’s interesting: when C.U.P., an independent coffee shop, announced that it was planning to open just along from Bill’s there was a lot of sneering. Not ANOTHER coffee place, people said below the line on a variety of websites. Well, I think that misses the point. If there are too many coffee places in Reading, it’s certainly not places like C.U.P. or MCC. If new independent businesses have a good idea, and they do it well, and they take business away from the countless branches of our countless chains then I say the more of them open in Reading the better.

Does MCC do it well? Yes, I think so. It’s a peculiar place in many respects, an independent that needs to look like an independent (for cred, mainly) but also needs to look as polished and professional as a chain (to fit in to the neighbourhood). In that respect, its closest relation is somewhere like Artigiano, but I liked it far more than Artigiano. The food, which could easily have been an exercise in box-ticking, is good. The service is informal and charming. I know that seeing an independent place like MCC in the Oracle is a bit like finding a Tory with a beard – at first the main thing that strikes you is the novelty value – but somehow it works. So preconceptions be damned: I can think of a dozen reasons why I shouldn’t have liked MCC but, despite all of them, it turns out that I did. Who would have seen that coming?

Manhattan Coffee Club – 7.3
U6 Upper Level, The Oracle, RG1 2AG
07817 938887

www.facebook.com/manhattancoffeeclub

Nibsy’s

N.B. As of August 2020 Nibsy’s has reopened. 

You can’t talk about Nibsy’s, I don’t think, without using the G word: I considered writing this whole review and only mentioning gluten – or the lack of it, I should say – at the end, but I decided that it just wasn’t possible. Besides, it’s a big part of how Nibsy’s markets itself (their slogan is “for the love of coffee and all things gluten-free”). Personally, I’ve never had a problem with gluten but I know many people do, and I’m sure a lot of them thought it was an absolute godsend when Nibsy’s opened last summer.

You can however, I hope, write about Nibsy’s without being patronising about gluten free food. Whatever you think about the rights and wrongs of an increasing number of people adopting a gluten free diet, I reckon the food at Nibsy’s deserves to be judged on its merits and not patted on the head as “not bad, considering”. Besides, if anything I’ve generally found that menus that specifically exclude something tend to be more imaginative to make up for it – take Bhel Puri House for example, where you could easily eat all manner of delicious food without realising that everything is vegetarian – so I turned up with an empty stomach and an open mind for a long overdue lunchtime visit.

The first thing to mention is that Nibsy’s looks very different from most of the other independents in town. There’s nothing shabby chic about it: in fact, it could teach most chains a thing or two about presentation. Everything is smart and professional looking and the branding is beautiful, from the writing on the windows, to the mugs, to the packaging for the sandwiches and salad. Although I sat outside, soaking up the sun, the interior is lovely and gets everything right: the furniture is mismatched without being scruffy, it’s cosy without being dishevelled and immaculately clean without being clinical. You only realise how difficult this balance is when you see somewhere like Nibsy’s do it so well.

I get the impression from Nibsy’s Facebook feed that the menu changes on a regular basis. It’s pretty wide – a range of sandwiches, toasted and untoasted, and a couple of salads in the fridges and a quiche behind the counter. We ordered a toasted sandwich and a slice of quiche and were told that the sandwich would come out quicker. This struck me as odd – if you know the quiche takes longer to heat up and you’re serving two hot dishes why not synchronise them and start the sandwich later? Inevitably this meant that we got to try our dishes after the other, instead of having the companionable lunch we were expecting. I thought that was a pity: I might have been “on duty” but it’s not all business, you know.

The toasted sandwich contained a generously gooey helping of mozzarella, some lovely salty black olives and good quality sundried tomatoes. Nothing complicated there, you might think, but with toasties it’s all about the balance and the execution and both were impeccable – I’ve had far too many toasted sandwiches in Reading where the inside is lukewarm or the outside is charred and Nibsy’s didn’t make either mistake. Apart from being slightly denser than usual, I didn’t really notice anything different about the bread – it helped that it was perfectly golden and crisp (I think some butter had been spread on the outside before grilling, which – in my book at least – is how you make a perfect toastie). I loved it from start to finish: if anything my only reservation was that, because it wasn’t the biggest sandwich in the world, start and finish were a bit closer together than I might personally have chosen.

NibsyToastie

The feta and spring onion quiche arrived a mere moment after the sandwich was done. C’est la vie. It was well worth waiting for, though. The pastry was crisp and crumbly (you would never have known it was gluten free, in my opinion) and the filling was fabulous – incredibly cheesy, chock full of spring onions and also with some red pepper and (I think) rocket. Honestly, it was terrific and (I’m happy to say, given the size of the toastie) extremely generous. I wasn’t so convinced by the salad that came with it, however – a big pile of iceberg lettuce. Personally I think of iceberg as the triumph of texture over taste, so I was surprised to see it used here, especially with nothing else in the salad to liven it up. It was dressed, at least, but even then it wasn’t terribly exciting, so I left most of it.

NibsyQuiche

Having heard many rave reviews of Nibsy’s cakes I felt I’d be letting the side down if I didn’t order a few to try the full range of options (although, in the interests of full disclosure, I ought also to declare that I am an enormous – in both senses – fan of cake). The range is impressive: a plethora of sponge cakes, shortbreads and brownies to equal anything you’d find over in Picnic or Workhouse. It was extremely difficult to narrow it down, and a bit of me is still wondering now when I can try the coconut praline cake, or the orange and almond cake, topped with shiny, sticky slices of bright fruit.

Instead, I tried the lemon drizzle cake, possibly the biggest misfire of my meal. Unlike most lemon drizzle cakes I’ve had this wasn’t a loaf, rather it was a layered sponge with lemon curd in the middle. I think maybe lemon drizzle was a misnomer as I didn’t detect any drizzling, no glorious layer of crackling sugar on top, and apart from the lemon curd it lacked the tart zinginess I was expecting. If anything, it was more like a slightly dry Madeira cake – not bad in itself, certainly not bad enough to complain about but not what I was expecting. Not good enough to finish eating, either, and that’s a sad thing to say about any cake.

NibsyLemon

Redemption arrived in the form of the chocolate brownie. “Quite a lot of people don’t finish this” I was told as it was brought to the table, a big slab of cocoa-rich badness. Well, all I can say is that those people have a level of restraint I will never master, and they probably find it easier to buy clothes than I do. It was truly superb – rich and dark without being too bitter or too sweet. I was lucky to get a corner piece so I could properly appreciate the contrast between the crumbly, chewy edges and the soft middle, almost like a ganache. No nuts, no chocolate chips in there – nothing that would distract you from something so perfect. I ate it with a lot of joy and a little too much haste, and by the end I had no regrets about possibly missing out on anything else.

NibsyBrownie

On the side we had Earl Grey and a latte. The Earl Grey – unbranded, so I don’t know who it was by – was served in a small teapot, bagged rather than loose, and was good enough for me to have a second pot (and that was even before I knew the lemon cake would be on the dry side). I’m told the latte was very good – not quite as good as Tamp or Workhouse, better than Picnic or My Kitchen, pretty much up there with Tutti Frutti. There’s not a huge amount of interaction in a café but the service was friendly, smiley and efficient, the glitch around timings aside. The total bill for two lunches, two pieces of cake and three hot drinks was twenty-one pounds. I think that’s pretty much fair enough: if anything was slightly on the pricey side the quality easily made up for it.

If it’s hard to review Nibsy’s without mentioning the G word, it’s even harder to sum up a review without using it. But let’s put to one side for one minute the fact that, for some people in Reading, this is the only place they can realistically go and have lunch without worrying, and judge Nibsy’s on its merits. Good coffee. Good tea. Tasty toasties and a quiche I’m already fantasising about eating again. A brownie that can match any other brownie in town. A huge range of other cakes, tantalisingly in view just down the culinary road less travelled. The only G word we should be using here is great. So yes, on its merits Nibsy’s is an excellent addition to Reading’s food scene and, whatever your dietary requirements, you should consider going there next time you either want lunch or afternoon tea. They may have taken one ingredient out, but to me there isn’t anything missing.

Nibsy’s – 7.7
26 Cross Street, RG1 1SN
0118 9597809

http://www.nibsys.com/