Revolution

This is probably quite hard to believe, but every now and again I get offered a freebie; I receive an email talking about a restaurant that’s just about to open and I’m asked if I’d like to go along, on the house, and review it. They’re usually attractive offers, and they’re often places I’m interested in going to, but after some deliberation I’ve always said no.

I did ask the question once on Twitter: could a review ever be truly reliable if you know the person writing it hasn’t paid for the meal? The replies I got were interesting, but nearly everyone was dubious – a few people said I’d trust you to be impartial, but I wouldn’t generally trust paid reviews, which is lovely, but most people remained unconvinced. How would you know you weren’t having a different experience to a paying customer because the staff knew they had to be on their best behaviour, they said? And even if you went anonymously, however hard you tried wouldn’t you slightly be pulling your punches because you’d got your food for free?

All fair comments. A lot of people think that food bloggers set up their blogs mainly to get free food, especially in London where PRs are keen to generate as much buzz for their newly opened (or opened some time ago and dangerously close to falling off the radar) restaurants. This issue has reared its ugly head again recently after an incident where a London blogger, invited to review a bakery, was unimpressed with the level of freebies offered in return. She insisted on more macarons, the bakery told her to take a hike and then she spent her own money and threatened to give them a bad review (via Instagram, which is apparently where it’s all going on).

Both sides took to the internet to fight their respective corners and Twitter went into spasm for about six hours, which is an eon in Twitter terms. Everybody weighed in, from bloggers (saying “that blogger has let the side down”) to restaurateurs (saying “bloody bloggers”). Even the Observer’s seasoned restaurant reviewer Jay Rayner weighed in, saying that it’s not enough to be impartial but you also need to be seen to be impartial. Well, I think he might be right.

Anyway, this week’s review – and ER’s first sponsored post – is… Revolution! Only kidding. But Revolution did approach me several months ago inviting me to review them. Despite their reputation for droves of students downing vodka shots of an evening, they said they’d been growing their food offering for the last couple of years and they were keen to have a second opinion on it. I said no, nicely, but I made a mental note that I should head over there at some point. I also noticed that their menu had a surprising number of vegetarian options, another point in their favour.

It’s a very long time since I went to Revolution, and I was surprised by how, well, tasteful the interior was. It’s been given the full retro-meets-shabby-chic-meets-industrial makeover and the dining room at the front is really quite pleasant – a big wide open space, all sturdy tables and copper lampshades with a banquette down one side and mismatched Chesterfields along the other. Going on a Monday, when it was largely empty, it was hard to imagine the nocturnal horrors that Revolution probably sees every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. I’d persuaded two people to come with me for once (I know! Gluttons for punishment!) so we grabbed an attractively tiled table for three and started flicking through the menu, dished up on a very à la mode clipboard.

The menu was interesting – it had far more stuff on it than you would expect Revolution to be able to execute, but there were also touches which made you think “but what if they could..?” Little things here and there, from goats cheese bonbons to n’duja balls, from chorizo ketchup to chilli and fennel pork. It still revolved around the ever-present small plates and the ubiquitous burger, but there was also pizza, burritos and – randomly – a chicken katsu curry. Revolution’s website has pictures of all of them and more (I only saw them later in the course of writing this up, but that might be just as well: some of them verge on the pornographic).

I was determined to order both a vegetarian starter and main at Revolution (just this once, not making any promises for the future) so the first thing I tried was oaky smoky houmous, which I imagine is a dish invented by Billy Ray Cyrus. It was nicely coarse, topped with sliced spring onion and a solitary sun dried tomato; I got more nuttiness than oaky smokiness, truth be told. It came with crudités and dough sticks. Carrot and green pepper were crisp, fresh and eminently suitable, the red pepper was a bit on the flaccid side. None of them came close to the dough sticks – little white fingers like the tiniest baguettes in the world. Of course they were the best bit: there was no vitamin C in them whatsoever. Overall it reminded me of my friend Jane: really lovely, means well, ever so slightly dull (don’t worry, it’s not her real name and she doesn’t read this anyway).

RevoHoumous

The other starter, shared between two, was the “street food crate”, a wooden, well, crate, filled with pots and tins of food, as is the fashion pretty much everywhere in Christendom right now. Having done that regulation piece of anti-hipster sneering (and rolled my eyes at the mention of street food somewhere that isn’t on the street) it’s only fair to go on and say that most of it was really quite nice. Pulled beef (another sneer) sliders (yet another sneer) were very tasty and well done with a little heat. The doughdogs – bockwurst snugly wrapped in a little pocket of something like pizza dough – were maybe a little closer to mystery meat than I generally like to get but they had a nice hint of smoke and I didn’t leave any.

Buttermilk fried chicken had a thin coating and was a tad bland (and all four strips came fused together, which was a pity) but again it was enjoyable enough. “Viper dusted fat chips” were very good thick chips, irregular, crunchy and quite delicious. You also got “BBQ crackling puffs” which were little hot fragments of pork rind – pleasant but ever so slightly pointless, and two rather than the three advertised dips. One was the “big easy mayo”, which one liked and the other was a hot spicy number with a whiff of bourbon in it, which the other liked (a sort of Jack and Mrs Sprat of sauces). This all came to thirteen pounds and there were no complaints with that.

RevoCrate

Any feelings of deprivation suffered through eating vegetarian at Revolution vanished when my main course arrived. Margherita Napoli pizza, from Revolution’s summer specials menu, is billed as “a margherita pizza like you’ve never eaten before” and it actually lives up to that billing – in a good way. The pizza base was probably the best I’ve had in central Reading – crusty, chewy, reassuringly irregular and glistening with extra virgin olive oil. The tomatoes tasted fresh, not like the intense pureéd flavour of standard pizza toppings, and there was a generous amount of garlic in the sauce too. A dusting of coarsely ground black pepper made the whole thing sing. This is how good it was: not only could I have lived without the faffy micro basil shoots, I could even have foregone the mozzarella. Can you believe that? It made me feel that all the other stuff you can stick on a pizza is just window dressing, and as a devout non-vegetarian I’m rather surprised to be saying that. I just hope Revolution’s management doesn’t look outside the window and realise that summer is already over.

RevoPizza

Having fulfilled the vegetarian obligation, the other two orders were for burgers, and they were pleasant but didn’t match the starters or the pizza. The “Brooklyn chicken” came with more of that buttermilk fried chicken (and if I’d thought it through I would have ordered something different), a few pieces of it rather than the single breast I’d been expecting. The good quality streaky bacon was perfectly cooked at one end and a bit limp at the other. The smoked cheddar and fried pickles (the latter cooked in something like panko breadcrumbs I think) were lovely but the chipotle sauce had gone awol and the whole thing just didn’t quite work.

RevoCBurger

The “Smokin’ Bacon” had the same problem, bacon going from floppy to perfect like some kind of gastronomic colour chart of how a rasher should be cooked. The burger was cooked through rather than pink, but despite that it was well seasoned and nicely tender and the smoked cheese worked much better in this burger than the Brooklyn chicken. There was apparently some of the previously mentioned chorizo ketchup (I still think it sounds like an absolutely magnificent idea) but the jury’s out on whether it was really noticeable or noteworthy. There were also some Wotsits in there – “I think it’s just for novelty value”, my companion said. Both burgers came with some skin-on chips, whose main purpose was to be Ed Miliband to the David of the fat chips that came with the starters, and some forgettable coleslaw (they probably referred to it as slaw but I point blank refuse to follow suit, and don’t start me on this “mac n’ cheese” nonsense).

Service throughout was absolutely superb, especially considering that there was only one visible member of staff and he seemed to be working the whole room. Despite that he was impossible to fault – personable, friendly, with opinions on the food (a particular fan of the Brooklyn Chicken burger, as it happens) and genuinely apologetic about some of the delays, even though we were in no hurry – perhaps most diners at Revolution are. In fact he was so apologetic that we did get a freebie after all; to make up for us having to wait for our mains he brought over a selection of six vodka shots. I think that would normally cost twelve pounds, and I can particularly recommend the fruit salad and peach flavoured ones (well, I wasn’t going to turn them away).

Apart from the impromptu vodka we drank a mixture of beers (Vedette in bottles, Staropramen on draft) and a couple of glasses of a good, fruity Malbec. It seems odd to say so little about Revolution’s booze offering and to focus on the food: I wonder how many of their visitors do that? One thing I did have in common with most visitors to Revolution is that I passed on dessert – the delights of the “fluffwich” (I’ve read the menu and I still have no idea what it is) will have to wait. The total bill for three people, with two drinks each, came to fifty seven pounds not including tip. We went on a Monday when there are half-price offers on a lot of the main courses: without that it would have been seventy-two pounds.

Revolution has been around such a long time that people probably don’t expect to eat there. I never thought I’d end up writing a review of it. But actually, if you judge it compared to its direct competitors, RYND and Oakford Social Club, I think it emerges from that pretty well. There’s a little more to the menu than the relentless tide of pulled pork and burgers. The room is much more welcoming. The service was far more impressive than I could have predicted (especially compared to the Oakford, where I always think they hire people for their ability to talk to each other and ignore customers). And the food? Well, some was really good – that pizza, again – and some was just decent. But for this kind of dining, at this price point, in this location that isn’t bad going at all.

So I’m not going to rave about Revolution, because it isn’t that sort of place. I’m not going to urge you to go there at all costs. It’s not the hot new thing (and nor, for that matter, am I). But what I will say is that I liked my meal there, and I’d go again; I fancy trying their brunch menu, or having that pizza again for a weekend lunch. And now, you tell me – if you’d read this positive, constructive review and then, at the bottom, you’d seen that bit in italics saying I dined courtesy of Revolution, but all opinions expressed are my own: would you have believed me?

Revolution – 7.1
12 – 16 Station Road, RG1 1JX
0118 958 7397

www.revolution-bars.co.uk/bar/reading/

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Mangal

N.B. Mangal closed in December 2015. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

It feels like eons ago, but back in December Reading was transformed into a winter wonderland. There was an ice rink and a festive funfair in Forbury Gardens. The area down by the Oracle Riverside, occupied by the prehistoric crazy golf course in the summer, became a German-themed bar selling Glühwein and Bavarian beer. The square outside the Town Hall became a festive market, with loads of cute little cabins offering a variety of food, drink, crafts and other goodies.

Sounds marvellous, doesn’t it? There was only one catch, which was that nobody was terribly impressed. Most reports of Forbury Gardens (it was opened by camera-shy shrinking violet and brainbox Joey Essex, which with hindsight might have been a sign) were that it wasn’t great: people said that ice rink was decent enough, but that the funfair around it was a grotty way to be parted from a lot of money very quickly, the main concession to the festive season being some makeshift tinsel antlers hastily attached to the horses’ heads. I’m informed that the Glühwein at the “Wundrmarkt” was synthetic tasting, and there wasn’t any outside heating: I always felt a bit cold wandering along the riverside and looking at people huddled at tables trying to have fun.

As for the festive market, well, I wandered round it several times with a growing sense of despair mixed with indignation. Many of the food stalls were selling almost exactly the same things – a few did hog roast, a few did mulled wine, the rest were an anonymous smudge of winter kitsch. Worst of all was the horror of “Quidsticks”, a stall offering a variety of meats on a skewer for a pound (including sausages, that food so frequently found on a skewer). If you were visiting the town by train it would have been one of the first stalls you’d clap eyes on: it just looked tacky. The decent stalls – the ones that reflected what Reading was really about, that had a genuine connection with the town – stuck out like a sore thumb. I felt for the Grumpy Goat, on the edge of the market, and for Reading’s brilliant milliner Adrienne Henry. By the end she had stopped bothered opening, and many of the retailers complained to the organiser.

Apologies for starting this review with a rant, but the thing that saddens me most about all of it is the idea – prevalent among many people who don’t love Reading the way I do – that we should be grateful for anything we get. I think a lot of people think we should be happy to have a Christmas market at all, even if it looks like Lapland’s answer to Moss Side. They think an ice rink is a great thing, even if it leaves our beautiful Victorian park looking like a war zone afterwards. They don’t go to Bath, or Winchester, and think “why can’t we have a beautiful event like that?”, they think “they deserve that stuff and we don’t”. And if there’s one thing that annoys me it’s that underlying attitude that average is good enough for Reading. We have some great stuff here, we deserve better and we should aim higher. After all, surely nobody looks at the Broad Street Mall and actually says “yes, that really is Reading’s favourite mall”?

I’m afraid this train of thought was very much set off by visiting Mangal this week, because it’s another good example of this phenomenon. Some people might think “isn’t it great that Reading has a Turkish restaurant?”, whereas I want to be able to say “Reading even has a Turkish restaurant, and it’s brilliant.” But I can’t, I’m afraid, because Mangal isn’t it.

It’s not a bad space, on St Mary’s Butts just down from Monroe’s and Coconut. It’s mainly one big room packed with tables and a raised area with smaller tables (which is where they sat me). I can’t help remembering its previous location, where House Of Flavours is now, and thinking that was a much better spot for them – partly because their charcoal grill was out where you could see it, filling the air with those tantalising smells and giving you an idea of what was going to arrive on your plate. Without that the restaurant felt a bit boxy and lifeless (although perhaps the belly dancing – on Friday and Saturday nights – changes all that).

The menu is a range of hot and cold meze – no real surprises there – along with mainly grilled meats as main courses. The meze which turned up first were solid and unexceptional: sigara boreki, tubes of filo pastry filled with feta, herbs and egg, was the best of them although still very much the sum of its parts. It conjured up memories of cheese pies on holiday in Greece, which was great, but divorced of those happy thoughts it was nice but unspecial. It did fare better than the houmous though – a fridge-chilly bowl of something which was virtually indistinguishable from a two pound tub of houmous from Sainsburys. I didn’t get any garlic, any smoke or any tahini, and a few little dabs of olive oil and a dusting of paprika were never going to transform it from duckling to swan. Another disappointment: Turkish pitta is a wonderful thing, dimpled, thickier and fluffier than its Greek sibling, but this was over-flattened, crispy and brittle.

Mangalstarter

For mains I quite fancied trying pide, the distinctive boat-shaped Turkish take on pizza, but confusingly although it features on the website menu it was nowhere to be seen on the printed version. Instead I went for the grilled meats, reasoning that this was where Turkish food really excels, but that too was no more than okay. Karisik izgara was a selection of barbecued lamb and chicken, and when it turned up it looked like an embarrassment of riches. But, like the Christmas market or the ice rink, it was mainly veneer. The best thing, the lamb kofta, was quite delicious – beautifully spiced, lovely, soft and tender. But the lamb chop was oddly bland – an awful lot of work to take off the bone, not at all pink and somewhat short on flavour.

Most of the chicken was also on the bone – a couple of wings and a couple of what looked like minuscule drumsticks – and I’m not sure it was worth the effort to get it off. The first mouthful of these triggered happy thoughts – that glorious mixture of tender meat, charred skin and the hint of smoke – but the first mouthful was pretty much all there was. Last of all, there were a few chunks of chicken breast; firm rather than tender, with no evidence of any seasoning or marinade. By the time I’d finished this, the pile of bones on the edge of my plate seemed almost as big as the pile of meat that had arrived. The accompaniments – some pleasant enough rice, a puddle of yoghurt and mint with an oddly artificial taste, a rock hard tomato which had apparently once had a skewer through it – added little.

MangalMeat

The moussaka was similarly disappointing. I like a firm moussaka made up of discernible layers, tall rather than wide, with different textures for each of the layers. Instead this was a large, flat ramekin which definitely had potato, aubergine, meat and sauce in but was so (and I can’t find a more charitable word for this) runny that it wasn’t massively appealing. The top was nicely browned and I even quite liked the little bit of pointless salad (mostly rocket, dressed with something that seemed to be a mixture of balsamic vinegar and sugar; sweet yet astringent) but the moussaka itself? It was fine. Hot as the sun and sloppy as a Jackson Pollock but taste-wise it was vegetables in a tomato sauce with a bit of minced lamb in. Here’s the most damning thing of all: unlike the hummus, I think a supermarket moussaka would have been better. It also came with rice, for reasons which I can only assume somebody understands.

MangalMoussaka

It would be unkind not to mention the service, because it was efficient, smiley and friendly; we were there early on a Friday night – before the belly dancing started – but I got the impression that they wouldn’t have been fazed by a much busier restaurant. And it could be that, or the atmosphere (or the belly dancing) that attracts people, because the restaurant had a reasonable amount of tables occupied already. But good service can’t redeem average food, and sadly that was all I had during my visit. I couldn’t help thinking that there were better places to have all these things: the mixed grill at La Courbe wipes the floor with Mangal’s version, and if all you want is lamb kofte you may as well head to Kings Grill and spend the change on a pint afterwards. Dinner for two – two starters, two mains and a couple of soft drinks – was almost exactly forty pounds.

I feel sad that I can’t say more good things about Mangal. It’s independent, it has great service, it’s already made enough of a go of its business to move into a better location, and it’s doing something no other restaurant in town offers. But if I recommended it on that basis, I’d be making the same mistake as people who are glad Reading got an ice rink, or a Glühwein bar, or a row of shacks selling hog roast underneath Queen Victoria’s unamused silhouette. Because it’s not enough, and we shouldn’t pretend that it is: whatever you do, however simple your food, whether it’s independent or not, irrespective of whether you have competition, ought to be amazing. Otherwise we’re effectively patting people on the head for having a go and saying that’s all Reading should expect, and I just don’t believe that. It’s all very well to say that the best is the enemy of the good, but I reckon – when it comes to Reading, at least – that the average is a much more dangerous adversary.

Mangal – 6.3
60 St Mary’s Butts, RG1 2LG
0118 9504039

http://www.mangalreading.com/

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/

La Courbe

N.B. La Courbe appears to have closed in March 2016. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

First things first, La Courbe is not a great restaurant: there are just too many things wrong, even now almost two months after they finally opened. The room is a simple square with one wall of glass which makes dining there akin to being in one of David Blaine’s failed stunts, a spectacle for everyone who passes through King’s Walk to see (about four tables were occupied the night I was there, but if it had just been me I would have felt terribly self-conscious). And the view through that wall of glass if you’re a diner, apart from any gawping passers-by, is the side of a Burger King, hardly the most beautiful vista Reading has to offer.

Then there’s the decor, a peculiarly retro design of chrome, purple and pistachio that made me half expect Don Johnson to walk in with his linen suit sleeves rolled up. There are no soft furnishings, no art, nothing on the walls to distract the eye from the pistachio panelling. Everything is square – the tables (with, bizarrely, the exception of a single round table which is otherwise no different to the others), the chairs and every single plate or dish brought to our table throughout the meal.

The menu is confusing, with nothing to indicate whether the mezze is a really bad deal (£42 per person for some mezze and a main? Really?) or a really good deal (£42 for some mezze and a main for four people! Bargain!). Add to that the fact that the room is chilly – the door left permanently open – and occasionally murky with smoke from the open kitchen (which is presumably why said door is never shut) and you’d be right in thinking that this isn’t the kind of restaurant in which you want to relax and take in the ambience.

Oh, and did I mention how quick it all was? We were seated at around half eight, and with starters, mains and desserts we were out of the door at about quarter to ten. There seemed to be no understanding at all that an evening meal ought to take a reasonable part of the evening, and normally when I eat somewhere that serves you that fast it’s because they’re worried you might change your mind. It’s never a sign of confidence in the food.

So far, so bad, but then something happened that switched this review around altogether: I ate the food.

We started with two dishes from their hot mezze menu. Maqaneq is a little dish of mini sausages “flambéed in butter and lemon”. What the menu doesn’t tell you is that this is a sophisticated version of the English cocktail sausage. These little sausages are juicy and meaty and lightly spiced so that the sweetness of the meat comes out. We ate them in tiny chunks (smiling smugly all the while) to eke them out and wrapped in slivers of pitta to make tiny sandwiches just so we didn’t finish them too quickly. The falafel were less of a surprise but still delicious – each hot little disc was crispy on the outside and fluffy inside and just herby enough to elevate them out of the ordinary.

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We waited for our plates to be cleared but then suddenly the waitress was back with our main course, to be eaten off the same plates with the same chunky cutlery as before – another mark against them. We had gone for the mixed grill (just like the typical Brit on foreign shores). This was described quite plainly as “charcoal grilled selection of lamb, Kafta and chicken with Hommos and Tabouleh” (I swear I find another way to spell houmous every month, maybe it’s like the Eskimos having all those words for snow). It looked terrific, and it tasted even better. The chicken, marinated with ginger and garlic, was just perfect – tender on the inside yet caramelised on the outside, sticky and delicious. The lamb was also spot on, just the tiniest bit of pink in the middle of each piece, and had a hint of cinnamon. The lamb kofte (my spelling) was the least interesting of the meats but third place was no disgrace in this selection. Rather than being the very spicy kofte that I’m more familiar with, this had a subtle, almost buttery flavour and was soft and delicate.

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The mixed grill came with two accompaniments. In one corner of the dish was some good (if unexciting) houmous with a pool of olive oil and some finely chopped tomatoes in the middle. In the other corner, just to offset all that meat, was an extremely good tabbouleh, singing with the fresh green flavours of parsley and mint, with plenty of lemon juice. It might even have been my favourite thing I ate that evening, and I don’t say that lightly. All in all, the mixed grill was a thing of wonder, square plates or no.

We didn’t feel quite up to a full bottle of red (which is a pity, because there’s a good selection of Lebanese reds including Chateau Musar, which I’ve loved in the past) so we plumped for a glass each of the Domaine des Tourelles, a Lebanese red which was full and fruity and a good foil to the spicy meats.

I didn’t really fancy dessert after that mammoth undertaking but there’s a sense of duty about doing ER reviews so we gamely went for it. The baklava, rather than being one big baklava oozing with honey, was a selection of the familiar pastries in different shapes with either pistachio or pine nut fillings. I really liked them – they were much less cloying than they can often be, subtler and more interesting. The mouhallabieh was not as successful. The waitress described it as a chilled rice pudding with rosewater and pistachio – which captures it quite well, but neglects to mention that it had either been chilled for some time or it had been set with gelatine which meant that the nice gritty rice texture was replaced by something far less enjoyable. Between us we managed about half of it but after a while a dish that gloopy and big became a bit of a burden so we left it unfinished.

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Service throughout was warm and friendly, enthusiastic about the food and more than willing to make recommendations. Even so, the whole set-up seemed a little, well, amateurish. The speed with which the food came was the most obvious problem, but there were others too: we weren’t offered water at any stage (despite there being water glasses on seemingly every table but ours) and the till is down the corridor in the adjoining wine bar, so you have a bit of a wait once you’ve asked for the bill.

Ours, when it eventually arrived, was £57 for two people eating three courses and having a glass of wine each. I felt like this was a pretty good deal given how good the food was (the mixed grill for two is about twenty-four pounds, for instance). Even while I was eating there I was already planning a return visit with friends, albeit probably at lunchtime when a quick meal feels like less of a problem.

Rating this restaurant has been nigh-on impossible, to the extent where I’ve wondered why I give ratings at all. How can I possibly give a single mark out of ten which reflects somewhere that serves such great food in such a problematic venue? I’m not sure my eventual score truly sums up the mixed message that is La Courbe; I wanted to give them higher but I just can’t until they get their crinkles ironed out. But I want them to do well enough to get the time to do that, because I can forgive a lot of things when the food is this good. Maybe this isn’t the venue for a romantic, lingering meal for two or a big night out, but I can see how one day it could be. And if that means I have to eat a few platefuls of their spiced chicken – in the cold, on those square plates, with that appalling view – to give them the chance to work on getting it right, then it’s a cross I’ll just have to bear.

La Courbe – 7.3
9-11 Kings Walk, RG1 2HG
0118 9581585

www.lacourbe.co.uk