Lemoni

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.

“I think it tastes sweet because there’s definitely cinnamon in that tomato sauce.” I said, trying to put a brave face on it. Who was I trying to kid? The dish was a duffer.

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
0118 9585247

https://reading.lemoniuk.com/

The Real Greek

Well, you were meant to get a review of Brewdog this week, but nothing quite went according to plan. I turned up there with Steve, a long time reader of the blog who attended my first readers’ lunch at the start of the year, and right from the off things weren’t promising. We entered the cacophonous main room and found a spare table round to the left which was just about comfortable enough. Just about.

“I wish I’d brought my glasses” said Steve. Steve is wry, wise and silver-haired, knows an awful lot about food, catering and restaurants and he’s had more jobs – and stories about them – than I’ve had hot dinners. “This is the first time I’ve ever been in a restaurant and not been able to read the menu.”

I looked at the menu, all in the sort of distressed font that hints of a typewriter ribbon on its last legs. It was all burgers and dogs and puns (“Cluck Norris”, “Soy Division”) and, I’m afraid, it induced mild to moderate weariness.

“I thought it was table service here. It was when I came here for a drink the weekend it opened, but now I’m not sure.” I said.

Minutes passed.

“I’ll go up to the bar” I said.

As luck would have it, the night I planned to review Brewdog the team from Explore Reading was there to review the drinks and the food. They had a nice booth (not jealous, not at all) and were already a few beers under way. I wondered: did that make Steve and I the Jets or the Sharks? Was Steve nifty on his feet? Should I have brought backup?

At the bar, the Explore delegation told me that there had been a mix-up in the kitchen and they wouldn’t be taking food orders for half an hour. It was already eight o’clock and that, I’m afraid, is where I decided that life was too short. I looked over at the Explore table again. These were Reading’s hip young gunslingers: one of them was in her twenties, for crying out loud. I went back to our table.

“Come on,” I said to Steve, “we’re going.”

That’s how we found ourselves walking back across town as I frantically consulted my list for a Plan B and that’s how we ended up in the Real Greek, on the Oracle Riverside. I turned up, in truth, with no great enthusiasm; I hadn’t heard brilliant reports, unless you include the countless enthusiastic – and comped – blog reviews shortly after it opened last year, back when you couldn’t get in without a reservation.

But going through the doors on a midweek evening I actually found myself thinking how nice it looked – almost like a slightly more upmarket Pizza Express, with biggish tables and handsome chairs along the outside of the room and a section of sort of open booths in the middle. I wouldn’t have fancied one of those, as they seemed to be hard benches with no visible padding. I guess the sort of people who enjoyed an evening in Brewdog might have gone for them, I found myself thinking.

Steve and I persuaded the waiter to give us a round table for three, so as to improve both our views and give us the room to order everything we wanted, and had a look through the menu. It was proper small plates territory, with a range of hot and cold meze and, if you needed some inspiration, a range of suggested set menus down the right.

So far so good, but the menu also meticulously listed the calorie count for every dish on the menu. I really wasn’t a fan of this: it’s bad enough seeing the traffic lights on ready meals in Marks, without it starting to invade restaurants. Surely restaurants were meant to be a haven where you didn’t have to put up with all that? Ironically, it put me off ordering dishes at both ends of the spectrum: I like a bit of taramasalata, but when a portion was just shy of a thousand calories? And I love octopus, but if it’s only 161 calories how much of it do you really get for £7.50?

The menu recommended three to four mezes per person, so naturally – despite my niggles about calories – we ordered nine between us: Steve may run marathons, but I just knew that he was a trencherman beneath that wiry exterior. Our waiter turned up with two cold bottles of Mythos, cracked them open simultaneously and poured them at the same time into our glasses. Like all magic tricks you can’t remember how it’s done, don’t want to and, afterwards, struggle to describe it.

“That’s nicely done, isn’t it?” said Steve, which I rather felt gave me permission to be impressed.

We chatted away about our recent holidays – Porto for Steve, Bologna for me – and the first set of dishes arrived. The other gimmick at The Real Greek is that your sharing plates arrive in a tall stack, like afternoon tea. That might be your bag, it might not: I found it irksome but it was easy to take them off the rack and spread them out on the table as nature intended. If I’d been at a smaller table for two, it might have properly got on my nerves.

We started with some of the cold mezze. Revithia, which looked like a plate of lightly bruised chick peas, were delicious, singing with lemon and mint, a beautifully fresh and bright dish. The dolmades was also very good – light, crumbly and again rich with mint, not remotely claggy or glutinous. Only the Greek flatbread disappointed. It wasn’t piping hot, and it felt like maybe it had been sitting around a little too long before coming to our table. I think if I’d realised just how unlike a dip the revithia was, we wouldn’t necessarily have ordered it, and it seemed a little cheeky to charge an extra three quid for olive oil and dukkah.

Despite that, Steve and I made our way through the whole lot, waiting to be disappointed. By the end, we realised that disappointment had not come and, for the first time, I wondered if this meal was going to outperform my expectations. The waiter brought a bottle of Greek white (Makedonikos, apparently) which was fresh, not sweet and not sharp, and tasted really quite a lot like being on holiday, as some of the best wine does.

“It’s a good atmosphere in here” said Steve, taking in our surroundings. “Everyone seems to be having a nice time.”

It’s a little point, perhaps, but Steve was right. None of the tables seemed to have the grim note of contractual obligation, nobody seemed to be there because they had vouchers or had run out of ideas. Perhaps we’d just stumbled on the place on a really auspicious evening – or perhaps it was euphoria at having escaped from Brewdog – but as I took another sip of my wine I found I was really quite enjoying myself. Steve was telling me about his small granddaughter’s quest to notch up a Michelin star a year (she made one establishment make her a dish completely off menu, which makes her sound far more fearsome than any mere reviewer), and about wife number one and job number sixteen and I thought: how lucky I am that people read the blog and want to come to dinner with me.

The rest of the dishes rather came all at once, which actually was my failing rather than the restaurant’s. It’s weird how when you’re in a chain to some extent you act like you’re in a chain, and you order like you’re in a chain. If The Real Greek had been an independent place, another Namaste Kitchen, I would have ordered some dishes, eaten them, kept the menu and then ordered some more, but because it was a chain and the menu told you how many dishes to order, I ordered them all in one go. With hindsight, that was a mistake, but it didn’t stop everything we ate being good at the very least and often far more than that.

Particular highlights from the hot mezze included the pork belly, cooked so perfectly that you could almost have mistaken it for chicken thigh, all crispy skin and layers of meat, every bit of fat rendered to nothing. Steve and I did a very English equivalent of fighting over it, which involved each of us saying “no, you have the last piece” ad infinitum. We were similarly polite over the halloumi fries, salty and light and pretty close to perfect, especially dipped in the minted yoghurt. The least successful dish was the calamari, which turned up looking so much like octopus that I worried we’d ordered the wrong thing. That wouldn’t have mattered so much, but it wasn’t quite as fresh as promised and that made it harder going than either of us would have liked. When we said “no, you have the last piece”, we actually meant it.

What else? Lamb kefta was more like a single lamb burger than a kebab or meatballs, but it was still delicious and far nicer than it looked. I felt like there was a hint of feta smuggled away in it somewhere, but that could have been a trick of the light, or the white wine slightly skewing matters. Salt cod fritters were also light and delightful, with plenty of fish, not bulked out with spuds. Again, the lemon mayonnaise that came with it was spot on.

Finally, Steve’s favourite, the loukanika: three whacking great slabs of pork and beef sausage with a deep red smoked chilli relish. I had huge reservations about this, mainly because it screamed stealth spam, but it was beautiful – coarse, firm, juicy and with just enough spice. The relish set it off perfectly. Steve liked it so much he sent me a message the next day saying that he was daydreaming about eating it again (and Steve’s one of the only people I know who can send such a message without even the faintest hint of smut).

“This is really good, isn’t it? I can’t find much wrong with it.” I said, giving away I’m afraid that I had fully expected to turn up to an Oracle Riverside chain restaurant and find shitloads of issues, and that I was a tad perplexed that I couldn’t.

“Yes, it is” said Steve. Were we having a shared hallucination? Had they put ayahuasca in our Mythos?

We pressed on with dessert, because we were having too nice an evening to want to bring it to an end. That’s as noble a reason to order dessert as any, but the decision provided probably the meal’s biggest misfire in the shape of my baklava – a big stodgy slab with no real crunch or subtlety, no layers, no sticky sweetness. What you got instead was some faintly damp pastry, and a big claggy layer of crushed nuts, and the whole thing was cold and unimpressive. You got better baklava, back in the day, eating Georgian food at the Turk’s Head and (trade secret alert) I have it on good authority that they bought theirs from Costco. Steve’s chocolate mousse cake was considerably nicer, if not remotely Greek. “Not bad” he said, between mouthfuls, “but they’ve definitely bought this in.”

Service was bright and personable from start to finish. Our waiter was Italian, which led to a long conversation about my recent holiday in Bologna (I took the lead on this), football (obviously Steve took the lead on this) and where a self-respecting Italian eats in Reading (Pepe Sale, unsurprisingly). He was very proud of the food, told us what to order next time and talked with real warmth about The Real Greek, having worked for years in the Windsor branch before transferring to Reading. No smarm, no encouraging us to post reviews on TripAdvisor, just genuine enthusiasm.

Dinner for two, not including service, came to eighty-eight pounds. Not the cheapest meal in the world, and although we probably could have ordered a couple of dishes fewer it was never going to be as cheap as living it up at Brewdog. But I had such an enjoyable meal that I really didn’t mind.

Afterwards, Steve and I compared notes. I rated the meal slightly more highly than he did, and we beetled off to the Allied Arms for a debrief, shivering under the heaters and pretending it was nearly summer. But the next day, he messaged me.

“I think I might have marked it a bit low on reflection. I think you were more on it.”

“It was really decent, wasn’t it? I’m struggling to find fault.”

“The waiter definitely contributed to the whole thing. Lovely to have someone so enthusiastic – I almost thought he was called Sandra.” Steve went on, referring to Zizzi’s legendary waitress, As Seen On TripAdvisor (“the Skripals would never have been poisoned in our branch of Zizzi”, my friend Tim once said to me, “Sandra would never have allowed it.”).

I think that exchange probably sums up the verdict on The Real Greek as well as anything. It wasn’t my first choice, I went there by accident and my expectations were firmly under control. And yet, quietly and unshowily, it did an absolutely cracking job. Irritating gimmicks, iffy bread and so-so desserts aside, we enjoyed a really tasty meal in a lovely, buzzy room. Nearly everything we had was good, much was very good and some was excellent. To my surprise, I would go back again, and I can see the appeal of gathering a group of friends and trying as much of the menu as possible. So I’d encourage you to put your reservations to one side when you read the rating at the bottom, because for a certain kind of evening – with fellow diners who play nicely – The Real Greek is as good an option as anywhere you can find in town. My only tip is to dig your heels in and order little and often: it may be a chain, but that should never stop you being independent-minded.

The Real Greek – 7.7
The Oracle, RG1 2AT
0118 9952270

http://www.therealgreek.com/reading/

Kyrenia

Bit of a weird one, this: Kyrenia changed its name in January 2016 to Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus as it was under new ownership. The new management has changed the menu and the previous service, a big part of Kyrenia’s offering, has now left the business. As a result I’m marking this restaurant as closed and I may go back and review Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus in due course.

I’m sorry, but I’ve got a confession to make. I’m burned out. Running on empty. This whole business of going to a restaurant every week takes its toll, you know (I’m not expecting sympathy, don’t worry). And it’s the end of the year – Christmas party season is fast approaching and I’ve got very little left in the tank. So this week, rather than go somewhere that would be a voyage of discovery for all of us, I went somewhere I know well: I’ve been going to Kyrenia, Caversham’s Greek Cypriot restaurant, for as long as I can remember. I love it – and I’m going to spend this review telling you why, because when I visited it on duty it was as terrific as always.

Besides, it’s been a bit of a bad run recently, hasn’t it? So think of this week’s review as a present to me (because I bet you haven’t got me anything, not even a box of Toffifee).

Kyrenia’s dining room hasn’t really changed in all the time I’ve been going, because it doesn’t need to. It’s perfect, simple but smart – no exposed brickwork and bare bulbs here – with clean white tablecloths, crisp cloth napkins and comfortable unfussy chairs. There are black and white photos on the walls and not much else. The greeting is warm and friendly and Ihor, who runs the front of house, is charm personified (in an endearingly apologetic way, truth be told). Kyrenia has a number of different menu options – they do a la carte, it’s two for one on Tuesdays, there’s a smaller set menu some of the week, but the thing to do here is order the meze, especially if it’s your first visit. I can’t stress this strongly enough: for twenty four pounds a head you get an incredible array of courses and variety (that’s your first tip, right there).

The first thing to arrive were the cold meze, a range of familiar friends and a very easy way to be led astray. Houmous was rich and smoky with a touch of garlic, a world away from the contents of a plastic supermarket tub. Taramasalata – something I avoid anywhere else because it’s often too oily and fishy – was light and delicate. Tzatziki was zingy and fresh, just the right side of tart, the flavour softened with cucumber. All of these came with a basket of warm, griddled, slightly charred pitta bread. That alone would be a feast, that alone would be enough but the other cold dishes were equally delicious. Beetroot, apple and walnut salad was fragrant and sweet rather than sharp and astringent, and potato salad was light and simple, just potato, good oil and parsley.

If I’m being critical (and it’s hard, where Kyrenia’s concerned) the tabouleh wasn’t as vibrant – in colour or flavour – as I’ve had elsewhere, and the olives felt like a space filler, but they were minor issues. This was a wonderful range of dishes, and the nature of it means it works equally well if you’re dining a deux or part of a much bigger group (here’s your second tip: I’ve been in those groups and watched people make the classic mistake – overdoing it on pitta bread and filling up ahead of the other courses. Don’t do this, because the best is yet to come).

Meze1

The hot meze only came out when the staff had checked that we were ready – a lovely touch, I thought – and when they did, as always, it became time to reassess how hungry I really was. Meze is about playing the long game, but the problem was that again, everything was too delicious to leave. Some of the classics – halloumi and calamari – were present and correct. The halloumi was unsurprising (halloumi in restaurants is pretty much always the same, everywhere) but still gorgeous, but the calamari was spot on – no hint of rubber, just light batter and fresh squid. They’re classics for a reason, after all.

Most of the other dishes were every bit as good. Lamb meatballs were possibly the pick of the bunch – juicy, coarse and savoury, studded with herbs and onions and a touch of garlic. Loukanika (Greek sausage) was Peperami’s glamorous continental cousin, warm with cinnamon, almost perfumed rather than one-dimensionally spicy. Dolmades had more of that delicious minced lamb folded into them, though there was probably too much leaf and not enough stuffing. The beans in tomato sauce were the only real disappointment – big, bland and filling, they were soon abandoned. Those six dishes may only merit a sentence or so each, but add that to the seven that came before and it starts to become clear: this is a marathon, not a sprint.

Meze2

Of course, I knew from personal experience to keep something in reserve for what came next: although again, only when the staff knew I was ready. The souvlaki – grilled skewers of pork and beef – were pleasant enough (possibly a tad on the dry side), but they weren’t the main attraction here because that was indisputably the kleftiko. I’ve had this dish countless times in Greece on holiday trying to find anyone who can match Kyrenia’s version, and I’ve given up now because what Kyrenia does to lamb is a work of utter genius: the almost godlike kitchen knows how to slow cook it until mere mortals like me struggle to describe how good it is.

It came on a large piece of bone but the merest whisper of effort soon sorted that out, leaving me with an awful lot of the most tender lamb I’ll probably ever eat. It broke into moist, sticky shreds, almost like confit, perfect for smooshing into the juices on the bottom of the plate before eating in nodding, smiling, euphoric silence. Again, because I feel I ought to be critical, the Greek salad it came with was a little underwhelming – but it’s only salad, isn’t it, and a cubes of feta is the perfect partner for a piece of lamb (that’s your third tip, if you’re counting).

Meze3

I also know from personal experience that if you’ve made the rookie mistake of filling up on pitta and tzatziki, Ihor will bag up all your leftover meat in a little foil parcel for you to take home and enjoy the next day. I also know from personal experience that it’s almost as good cold the next day, but take it from me if you go: pace yourself and eat it on the night.

One of the only other disappointing things about Kyrenia is the wine list. Greek wine can be absolutely fantastic, and is much underrated, but Kyrenia only sells a handful of bottles. None the less, the ones they do are lovely – we had a bottle of Naoussa Grande Reserve which was nicely balanced against both the meat and fish in the meal, far too easy to drink on a school night and not at all unreasonable at £23.50.

The last course at Kyrenia, the fruit salad, is really just a palate cleanser. I would be astonished if anyone could eat a “proper” dessert after all those meze so it seems apt that the meal ends with a plate of orange, melon, grapes and strawberry. It worked, though: fresh, bright, sweet and healthy (like Miley Cyrus before it all went so horribly wrong). It didn’t redeem the sins of all that lamb but it helped me fool myself, and very few desserts achieve that.

I’ve mentioned Ihor a few times, but service in general was perfect. All of the staff are so good at what they do, getting all the little touches right. Asking if you’re ready for the next set of courses, finding time to chat, knowing when to offer you extra pitta (although if you’ve read this far, you’ll know to turn that offer down – trust me on this). Again, to be critical I’d say that you should ask to be seated downstairs: sitting upstairs, in a smaller less buzzy room, far from the bar and the kitchen you can sometimes feel a little overlooked. That’s your fourth and final tip – ask for a table downstairs when you book, because they get busy at weekends. Dinner for two – all those dishes and a bottle of wine – came to £71 excluding service. It’s probably the best £71 meal I’ve had all year.

I recommend Kyrenia all the time – to friends and on Twitter – and it was getting to the point where not having reviewed it was looking like a glaring oversight. I went on duty hoping that they had a good night, but I really needn’t have worried because I’m not sure they know how to be anything but brilliant. There’s loads of stuff on the a la carte that I haven’t tried (I’d love to have a go at their stifado, or their monkfish souvlaki) and I know for a fact that their octopus is out of this world, but all of the best evenings I’ve had here have all involved the meze. Unlike most restaurants in Reading, Kyrenia feels like it’s perfect for everything – small intimate evenings, big raucous evenings and everything in between. It’s only a matter of time before I go back – in fact, on the way out I looked in the front door, still shining with that cosy welcoming light, and saw that they’re offering their standard menu on New Year’s Eve. See you there? I’ll be wearing the white carnation and the gold party hat and drinking the Greek red. Yamas (and Merry Christmas!).

Kyrenia – 8.6
6 Prospect Street, Caversham, RG4 8JG
0118 9476444

http://www.kyreniarestaurant.com/

Dolce Vita

In a surprising move, Dolce Vita closed in June 2018. I have left the review up for posterity.

I don’t know how you approach a restaurant review, as a reader, but before I started this blog the first thing I did was check whether I knew the place being reviewed. If I didn’t, the whole process was a voyage of discovery, reading the review thinking Does it sound like my kind of thing? Could I get there? Would I want to? But when I’d already been to the restaurant in question it was a very different test involving a different set of questions which all boil down to one: Do you agree with me? And, of course, we all judge on that basis. I like people who like the things I like, just like everybody else.

This is especially the case when the reviewer has gone to a place you really like, one of your favourite places. Then you feel protective and read the review thinking I hope the restaurant don’t have an off night, or even The reviewer had better not pick on it. One of the things really successful restaurants do is make customers into loyal customers, and make those loyal customers feel like part of a club. At its best, it’s a tribal thing: look at the incredible loyalty inspired by Mya Lacarte, or Tutti Frutti.

Dolce Vita, I think, is another of those places. I’ve had a lot of people telling me I should go there – enthusing about the food and the service, saying that they return again and again. So, if you’re one of those loyal customers, reading this and preparing to bristle protectively on Dolce Vita’s behalf, you can relax: I really liked it.

Of course, you might approach restaurant reviews by going straight to the end and reading the rating first, in which case you already know that and are waiting for me to get on with it (I understand: I ruin some novels that way too).

Despite knowing Dolce Vita by reputation I’ve rarely gone there. It’s another restaurant that feels like it’s always been there, in Kings Walk, perched on that ledge above the outer reaches of the Oracle looking out over all the changes that have happened over the years (personally, I’ve tried to erase all memory of Brannigan’s, with its chilling boasts of “cavorting”). Yet it’s never really crossed my mind when deciding where to eat, because I just couldn’t remember if it was any good; a strange type of amnesia I don’t get about many places in Reading.

The dining room’s big, a long rectangular airy space with lots of light from the skylight and the patio doors leading out onto the balcony. I can imagine that, if the sun ever comes out for long enough, the balcony would be a lovely place to drink rose and eat summery food but there was no chance of that on this visit: it was wet and windy so we grabbed a table by the window and looked out at the rain-spattered furniture, daydreaming about what might have been. Speaking of furniture, this isn’t something most restaurant reviews talk about (maybe with good reason) but Dolce Vita has some of the most handsome dining furniture in Reading: solid oak chairs and tables that make some of the wobbly painted tables in otherwise good restaurants seem rather cheap.

The menu is huge, and makes no pretence at being anything else. You are handed a sheet of A3 and left to wonder how a kitchen can do all of those dishes well. It also feels like a mismatch – there are pizzas and pasta, unsurprisingly, but also several Thai dishes, a couple of Greek dishes (which may have found a home here after Kyklos, Dolce Vita’s sister restaurant closed down in January) and, randomly, a Scotch egg. This all gave me misgivings but I decided to stick to Italian and hope for the best.

The burrata suggested I’d done the right thing. It always looks like a little bag of treasure to me and so it proved, creamy and fresh, well matched by the grilled peppers and aubergines. The whole thing was brought together with a very nice tomato, chilli and mint sauce and worked very well. I did find myself wishing, though, that the vegetables had been freshly grilled and still warm rather than chilled. It was a nice dish, but didn’t involve much in the way of cooking.

BurrataThe antipasti was a very similar story, a great assortment of salami, pleasingly dry and savoury Parma ham, coppa and mortadella, along with some mozzarella, sundried tomato and two dips, an aioli with a hint of citrus and a very good tzatziki (oh, and some baguette – Did I forget to mention the baguette?) If that makes it sound like a lot of food that’s because it was. In hindsight, for a tenner, it was probably meant to serve two although the menu didn’t make that clear – none the less it was excellent stuff.

AnitpastiThe mains were nicely timed, turning up just at the point when I was ready. The Milan pizza – mozzarella, Italian sausage, wild mushrooms, caramelised onions, fontina and Grana Padano – was recommended by the waitress which made the selection process that bit easier. It makes such a difference going to a restaurant where the staff know what their dishes are and are prepared to state a preference, and that was pretty symptomatic of the excellent service in Dolce Vita in general (I also got great recommendations for wine and, later, for dessert). The pizza base was close to perfect – thin enough to be crisp but with enough thickness to have some flavour of its own and not just feel like transport for cheese and tomato. The Italian sausage was excellent, coarse and herby almost to the point of being fragrant and I loved the caramelised onion with the cheeses. For my taste I thought there were too many mushrooms but that’s probably just me.

PizzaIf the pizza was good, the veal saltimbocca was great. It was a generous portion of veal, three good-sized pieces, wrapped in Parma ham and perfectly done. The sauce promised Marsala but I didn’t get any of that, just lemon, white wine and lashings of sage: perfection. In any case, Marsala would have made the whole thing too sweet. Similarly, the truffled mash turned up without a hint of truffle and again, I didn’t mind. Too many flavours would have made the dish a mess, instead of the simple classic I got. The French beans, however, did turn up buttered as promised: a lovely contrast to many restaurants, even good ones, that dish up bland and naked vegetables. All that was seventeen pounds – not cheap, but I’ve spent that much on many worse dishes in Reading.

Saltimbocca

The wine, also recommended by the waitress, was a bottle of Montepulciano. I’m no oenophile, which is pretty obvious from my reviews, but I like to kid myself that I got plummy red fruit and a touch of black pepper. Even if I’m wrong, it was dangerously drinkable at just under eighteen pounds (and again, hats off to the waitress for recommending one of their cheapest reds: no sneaky upselling here).

Considering I visited on a weeknight, the restaurant was surprisingly full and buzzy with a real mixture of groups – dates and birthday parties and business dinners, all equally at home. I also heard some Italian being spoken at one table which I took to be a good sign. The service was just excellent all evening, which is something I’ve always heard about Dolce Vita; I felt like I got five star treatment but watching other diners and seeing the easy way the serving staff chatted to them all, it was obvious that everyone else was getting it too.

When you’re having an evening that pleasant it’s a shame to leave without having dessert, so we gave the kitchen another chance to impress. The caramel and Baileys bread and butter pudding (again, recommended by the waitress) was divine. Rich and sticky, studded with sultanas and served with a light vanilla custard, it was a trademark example of those upmarket school dinner puddings I’m so partial to. I couldn’t detect the Baileys and the caramel notes, if they were truly there, were subtle to a fault but even so it was a great way to end the meal. Well, that and a small glass of sweet, fresh Sauternes. The other dessert – Dolce Vita’s hazelnut praline tiramisu – might be my favourite tiramisu in Reading, and I’ve tried a lot. A nice firm slab of indulgence, not too big, with a little layer of crunchy praline hidden inside like a bonus feature. Almost unimprovable (although I did have a go by pairing it with a glass of vin santo).

The total bill for two, for three courses, a bottle of wine and a couple of glasses of dessert wine was ninety pounds – not cheap (although we did have a lot of food) but nothing felt like poor value. I think at least some of that is down to the service, which was up there with any town centre restaurant I’ve been to.

Like I said at the start, if you’re a fan of Dolce Vita you can relax – I had a great evening there. I still have misgivings about the frightening size of their menu (there was also a specials menu adding another set of bewildering options – including roast chicken pie – to the mix) and I’d probably stick to what I know they do well, but on the night I went they didn’t put a foot wrong, and they did it without any of the experience ever seeming mechanical. By the end, I found myself thinking that it would be so easy to come here on another evening later in the year, sit on that patio, soak up the last of the sunshine, have a few beers and a pizza and leave having spent less than twenty pounds. And if the summer ever comes, there’s a strong possibility that you’ll find me there one evening, doing exactly that.

Dolce Vita – 7.6
Kings Walk, RG1 2HL
0118 9510530

http://www.dolcevitareading.com/

Kyklos

N.B. Kyklos closed in January 2014. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

One thing I’ve learned so far in my – admittedly limited – experience of reviewing restaurants is that some reviews are easier to write than others. Let’s say, for example, that I have a good meal in a good restaurant (or a restaurant that I think is good, anyway). To some extent that review writes itself, and my main worry is doing it justice so that you’ll think it sounds good and hopefully want to eat there yourself. Going to a bad restaurant and having a bad meal also makes for an easy review – less fun to eat, but more fun to write and often more enjoyable to read. But the tricky one is when you go to a restaurant that, in so many ways, is “good” – the room, the service, the little touches – but the food just isn’t up to scratch. But hold on – isn’t a good restaurant a place that serves you good food and a bad restaurant one that serves you bad food? Is it possible to have a bad meal in a good restaurant?

All very Carrie Bradshaw I know, and perhaps I’m showing my cards too soon, but I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week because of my visit to Kyklos. So many things about it work, it should be a good restaurant on paper, but the food doesn’t quite live up to expectations.

I’ve been to Kyklos a few times since it opened. It’s in that spot that’s a bit of an elephant’s graveyard for restaurants, above Burger King in King’s Walk, having at various times been Topo Gigio, Mari E Monti and the Himalayan Momo House. They’ve done a nice job on refurbishing it; it used to be quite a sterile, unappealing space but looks much better now with smart white walls and very fetching white shutters overlooking the Walk itself. The long, thin room has been broken up (with some lit glass partitions with an olive motif which are, I’ve discovered, surprisingly hard to describe) so it doesn’t have the chilly air that its predecessors had, and the bar area at the front has some welcoming seating for those waiting for a table.

The greeting at the entrance is incredibly warm – I’ve only been a couple of times, and not for a while, but I was welcomed by the waitress as if I was a friend rather than a customer. This was definitely the shape of things to come, too; Kyklos does service very well.

Sitting down we were given three menus; food with a wine list on the back, a set meze menu and a short Greek wine list – three whites, three reds, nothing over twenty-five pounds. This was a bit of a disappointment in itself, actually; Greek wine can be very good and is much underrated, and I was hoping central Reading’s only Greek restaurant might do more to show that off. On a recommendation from the waiter we ordered a bottle of Greek white, a Malagouzia which I’d never heard of, let alone tried. We couldn’t decide who should taste it so the waiter poured a little for each of us, which was a nice gesture. Their range of Greek wines may be a bit narrow, but this was gorgeous – fresh, light, floral, not too dry (very dry whites have never really done it for me) and good value at £23.

Our starters, a selection of meze, were the first indication that we might be about to have a middling meal in a good restaurant. Houmous was very tasty – often they have a strong smoky taste or are pungent with garlic, but this one was rich with tahini and somehow tasted lighter and cleaner. The pitta, though, was stingy – one warmed pitta slices into triangles, drizzled with oil and sprinkled with herbs. Loading all that houmous onto a single pitta was a challenge, although of course we managed it – heaven forbid that anything went to waste.

Salted cod in beer batter with skordalia was equally frustrating and inconsistent. The batter on the three fingers of fish was light and perfectly done, but the flesh underneath was uncomfortably chewy. The skordalia was plain disappointing; it’s meant to be the kind of garlic mashed potato that can make enemies on public transport the following morning, but this was a lumpy school dinner effort and finding garlic in it was completely beyond me.

The best of the bunch was the soutzoukakia – beef and lamb meatballs with aromatic mash and cinnamon oil. These were lovely – coarse without being bouncy, three generous meatballs in rich tomato sauce on a bed of gorgeous, smooth mash. I couldn’t quite believe that the same kitchen could dish up two such different examples of mashed potato, but the one that came with the meatballs was far superior, if a little runny (dishing up was fun, put it that way). The flavours, though, were great – and the hint of cinnamon in a savoury dish, so often a feature of Greek food, worked beautifully.

The mains were further evidence of an inconsistent kitchen that was either terrified of, or had run out of, garlic. We went for the chargrilled whole sea bass with French fries and aioli, mainly because I’d had plenty of grilled fish on holiday in Greece at the start of the year, and wanted to relive happy memories from what felt like a lifetime ago. It arrived whole – which was my choice, although I did have the option for the kitchen to fillet it – and was underwhelming. Grilled fish on holiday is a wonderful thing partly because of the crispy skin; almost burnt but not quite, beautifully salty, dressed with lemon and oil. This however didn’t look like it had gone anywhere near a grill – it looked baked at best, and the skin was soft and slippery. Once I’d filleted it there wasn’t much left – and I’m no slouch at filleting, even if I do say so myself. The starters at Kyklos are quite big so this wasn’t the tragedy it could have been, but the fact remained that this dish cost sixteen pounds and felt like very little fish for the money.

The French fries were also false advertising, being nothing of the kind – they were very respectable chunky chips, the right blend of crunchy and fluffy – but they weren’t what I was expecting. I was hoping to have a sheaf of skinny crispy fries to dip in my rich aioli, and I didn’t get that. And, as you can probably guess by now, I didn’t get aioli either. It didn’t taste remotely of garlic – if anything, what I got was tarragon which wouldn’t have gone with the fish at all.

The other main, the moussaka, was a generous slab of béchamel sauce with a distinctly ungenerous layer of meat, aubergine and potatoes at the bottom. My photo isn’t brilliant, but it gives you a good idea just how much béchamel we’re talking about. For twelve pounds, or indeed for less, I would have liked a smaller slab of béchamel sauce with a more generous layer of meat, aubergine and potatoes at the bottom. It tasted nice enough but my companion said that towards the end he felt as if he was eating it for no reason other than stubbornness, and that’s never good. The “feta mousse” which was meant to accompany it, as promised on the menu, failed to appear; perhaps it too was supposed to contain garlic.

Between us we only had room for one dessert. I asked the waitress to help me pick between the panna cotta with rose water (which I thought might be quite light) and the walnut cake (which I thought would be quite Greek). She instead recommended the vanilla custard in filo pastry with cinnamon and mango ice cream as it’s home made in the restaurant. What this means for the other desserts, I don’t know but I’m easily led so I accepted her suggestion. This was a good plan, as it turned out. The dessert is known as galaktoboureko in Greece, though I’ve never found it outside of Crete, and it’s delicious; layers of filo pastry filled with smooth semolina custard with a light syrup poured over the top (similar to how baklava is served), all warm and inviting. The curl of ice cream on the side, on the other hand, was completely superfluous and didn’t taste of cinnamon at all, just mango.

I think, on reflection, that the dessert I had is representative of Kyklos as a whole. The core elements are really good: an attractive room, excellent, friendly service, some delicious ingredients and some authentic Greek flavours. But some things miss the mark completely: the flaccid fish, the lumpy mash, the lack of garlic in the skordalia or seemingly anywhere else, the pointless ice cream. I kept thinking if only: if only I’d ordered different dishes, the kleftiko perhaps, or the octopus stew with chick peas. But if it’s a good restaurant, it shouldn’t be possible to order badly – right?

So all in all, I’ve found this a difficult review to write. I want Kyklos to do well; a good Greek restaurant in the middle of town would be a wonderful thing. I really wanted to love it and to score it highly, but on the night I went there were too many let-downs and too many mistakes. You might have a different experience, and I wouldn’t entirely want to discourage you from finding out, but I do want to warn you. I suppose the last thing to add is that Kyklos is not a cheap place: our total bill was £75 for three starters, two mains, one bottle of wine and one dessert. I know I could go to Kyrenia in Caversham for the same money and have a considerably better meal. But then that’s a different review.

Kyklos – 6.3
Kings Walk, 19 – 23 Kings Street, RG1 2HG
0118 9500070

http://www.kyklosreading.com/