The Hero Of Maida, Maida Vale

Despite the name, over six and a half years I’ve reviewed lots of restaurants which aren’t in Reading. To paraphrase David Brent, my world doesn’t end with these four walls. When I’m finished with Reading, there’s Henley, Windsor, Wokingham. You know. Newbury. Goring. Because I am my own boss.

Bracknell.

But I’ve always steered clear of reviewing London restaurants. I suppose part of that is analysis paralysis: how would you even go about picking which restaurants to visit? There are hundreds of London restaurant bloggers (not to mention influencers) swarming around all the hottest new restaurants, all the must-visit openings, so it’s hard to imagine anybody would be interested in my (provincial) opinion. And how useful would it be to my regular readers? You might be in London from time to time, but how likely would you be to go out of your way to try somewhere on my say-so? That’s why I’ve always stayed in my lane, remaining local with the occasional foray further afield on the train.

So what changed? Well, recently one of the restaurant bloggers I read wrote a review of a little Malaysian restaurant just round the corner from Paddington Station. It did what, in an ideal world, all restaurant reviews would do: it made me feel like checking the place out. After all, I’m in London reasonably often, I nearly always come home via Paddington and having decent food options to explore while I wait for an off peak train would be a very welcome development. I Retweeted the review, plenty of people showed an interest and at that point I decided: there would be no harm in adding the occasional review of venues in and around Paddington, to help out if you are in London and want to try out a good restaurant before coming home.

I picked Maida Vale for my first London review because that area has always been one of my favourite parts of the city. You leave Paddington by the exit that takes you right out onto the Grand Union Canal, turn left and meander past all the boats and the offices of Paddington Basin, the fancy gleaming bars and restaurants that have sprung up to cater for all those workers. Cross one of the pretty bridges you come to and you’re in Little Venice, ten minutes’ walk or a single Tube stop from Paddington but a world away in all important respects.

It’s loveliest in summer, but at any time it’s a house envy-inducing stroll. The Warwick Castle, tucked away on a sidestreet, is a lovely mews pub and not far from there is the equally gorgeous Formosa Street with the Prince Alfred, a cracking public house with little booths where you have to duck under a low door to pass from one to the next. If I didn’t have such a magnificent local already, I might well spend my days wishing it was mine.

The Hero Of Maida is just a little further out, on the border between Little Venice and Maida Vale, and in a previous incarnation it used to be called the Truscott Arms. I had a friend who worked in London and I used to go down after work on a Friday afternoon to meet her for a boozy dinner in that neck of the woods. We’d always stop for one last snifter at the Truscott Arms – it closed later than other establishments – before weaving back to the station and drunkenly going our separate ways, me on the Burger King Express back to Reading and her on a terrifying-sounding night bus to Tooting.

I was sad when the Truscott Arms closed but when I heard it had reopened as the Hero Of Maida under the supervision of Henry Harris (of legendary Knightsbridge restaurant Racine) offering a take on classic French cooking, I made a mental note to visit one day. So on a sunny weekday lunchtime my friend John and I paid it a visit, to finally break my London reviewing duck.

It’s a very handsome, light, airy room that instantly draws you in – tasteful muted tones, an attractive wooden floor, gorgeous tiles and a long, curving zinc bar. There’s a separate restaurant area upstairs (open in the evenings but not at lunchtime) but I didn’t feel I was missing out. Lovely tables, too, with button-backed banquettes looking out. It was quiet when we turned up, with a solitary customer plugged in and tapping away on his computer. We sat at the front by the windows, making the most of the afternoon light, although I did wish after a while that we’d grabbed a banquette. On the plus side it means my photographs are better than usual, but the drawback was that poor John was caught in a direct shaft of sun for some of the meal and had to keep shuffling his chair to one side.

The menu changes regularly and on the day we visited it was compact and appealing – just five starters, four mains and a sharing dish (pie for two, an offer I always find hard to refuse). A blackboard behind the bar offered a few other dishes, and although they were listed as bar food they seemed equally restauranty to me. Crucially, one was the same pie in an individual portion: a great relief, because it meant I didn’t have to implore John to change his mind. On another day I would have gone for another special: crispy lamb breast with salsa verde, six almost unimprovable words. “It’s National Pie Week”, our waiter told me, and in the end that made my decision for me.

There was a good selection of beers and we were slightly early for our booking so we started with a pint. My Notting Helles was pleasant enough, if not the most imaginative choice, but John enthused about his pint of Peckham Rye, a very nice-looking amber ale. Later I wished I’d gone for the coffee stout by Magic Rock, but we’d moved on to wine by then. It was a pretty decent wine list too, with plenty available by the carafe, but we settled on a chardonnay from the Languedoc which came in at just over thirty pounds for a bottle. It sounds odd to praise a wine based on all the things it wasn’t, but at the risk of sounding like Goldilocks it somehow seemed appropriate: not too dry, not too sweet, not too oaky, not too expensive. The list said it was a good alternative to a white Burgundy, and I thought that was spot on.

I’d been sorely tempted by the steak tartare, but with a pie on the way I decided to balance light and shade a bit by choosing a more delicate starter. Ibériko tomatoes with burrata felt more a test of sourcing than cooking, but even so I really enjoyed it.

The tomatoes weren’t as good as ones I’d rhapsodised over in Spain but they were close enough, with plenty of freshness and a judicious spot of salt. The burrata felt more like mozzarella to me – completely firm in the middle without any of the glorious creamy messiness of a good burrata – but that struck me rather than irked me. The salsa verde brought it all together, as did some greenery which wasn’t listed and which I didn’t recognise. It had a slightly vinegary bite but I couldn’t place what it was – not samphire, not salty fingers, not (I think) monk’s beard, but a perfect match in any event. Winning enough to overcome a couple of slight missteps: a dish, in many ways, emblematic of the whole meal.

John had chosen grilled mackerel with ‘nduja which, again, is a combination that sat up and begged to be chosen. I thought it looked fantastic, with a generous whack of the fiery, brick-red good stuff. John liked it, but not without reservations.

“I like the skin to be crispy, and this is a bit, well, flaccid. Flaccid is never a good word, is it?”

“No, it’s like damp. ‘Moist’ can be a good thing, but ‘damp’ never is.”

“There’s always ‘wipe down with a damp cloth’, I suppose” said John, equably. “Something else about this dish isn’t quite right. This stuff.”

That’s how we discovered that John, like me, is not a fan of radicchio – although, as a man who gets a vegetable box weekly, he’s very fortunate to only just be figuring that out. I understood though – again, the radicchio wasn’t mentioned on the menu and it did slightly skew the dish. I didn’t get to taste it, but from the look of the plate, also strewn with wild garlic and capers, I think I would have enjoyed it. John did find a few sizeable bones which had escaped the filleting process, though, another glitch that rankled.

John was properly delighted with his main course, though. Guinea fowl came two ways, with a hefty piece of the breast and a gorgeous-looking thigh complete with crispy skin. It was all on top of some silky celeriac puree, along with a big, coarse wedge of smoked Morteau sausage – we Googled it to make sure it was nothing like andouillette – and, apparently, “tropea onion”.

“This is lovely. I’m usually more of a starters man and main courses can feel like a bit of a let-down, so it’s a real pleasure to get such a good main course. And it’s a really big portion of guinea fowl, I wasn’t expecting that.”

I thought that was a good point – this didn’t feel like a little, cheffy plate assembled with tweezers but a proper, hearty dish put together with the diner firmly in mind. Good value at nineteen pounds, too.

My pie was, as so often, more a casserole wearing a hat and the pastry lacked the indulgence of a good suet crust. But underneath, you hit paydirt: a sticky tangle of slow-cooked lamb shoulder and a rich, savoury sauce, punctuated by coarsely chopped garlic and carrot. The greens that came with it were nice enough taken for a swim in the pie filling, but hardly the feature attraction. The whole thing was delicious but it just didn’t feel as much like a proper pie as I’d hoped; it was best described as high-ceilinged, with plenty of breathing space between the filling and the crust.

Many of these niggles were redeemed by the Hero Of Maida’s chips, which were as good as any I’ve had – huge, ragged-edged things, all crunch and fluff. I was initially dubious because they came skin-on, but even that didn’t detract. They were four pounds a portion, and I was relieved that John and I had the foresight (or greed) to order one each. I used mine to absorb every last molecule of the sauce left in my pie dish.

The dessert menu was also compact – just the four options – but we were on a roll and had no intention of letting that stop us. The list of dessert wines was equally streamlined, but we found a Coteaux de L’Aubance on it which was stunning, the colour of late summer afternoons with a clean, poised sweetness. The first sip was one of those little heavenly moments you want to remember for ages: our food so far had been lovely, the only plans for the rest of the day were a bimble from pub to pub talking about all sorts and, in my mind, I was an honorary resident of Maida Vale already.

Desserts were inconsistent in the same way as the starters, but the kitchen had garnered enough brownie points by then to earn some latitude. So for instance, my lemon posset was all out of kilter: far too big, and too cloying without the sharpness it badly needed to cut through. Instead, it felt like a big bowl of something very close to clotted cream and the crumbled amaretti biscuits all over it didn’t do enough to counteract that. It wasn’t what I ordered, or what I really wanted, but on the other hand there are worse things to do in life than eat a large bowl of clotted cream and, when push came to shove, I found I didn’t mind at all.

John’s rhubarb and custard pavlova sounded terrific on paper but again, wasn’t quite there. The rhubarb, John said, was delicious and he really enjoyed the hazelnut praline which played an equally starring role. “But this meringue”, he said, “I hate to say this but it feels shop-bought.” I saw him struggle to break it up and it seemed to be lacking any of the chewiness which would have made the dish perfect. Even so, I looked at his dessert and thought that I would gladly have ordered it myself.

Service, from one chap who seemed to be doing everything that lunchtime, was friendly without being faux-matey, knowledgeable and happy to talk about the dishes and offer recommendations. Again, it might be that if you came to the Hero Of Maida of an evening or on a busy Sunday lunchtime you might have a different experience, but I thought we were really well looked after. Three courses, a couple of pints, a bottle of white wine and two glasses of dessert wine came to just over a hundred and fifty pounds, including that old chestnut the “optional” twelve and a half per cent service charge. You could eat here for less, but I thought it was decent value.

You’ll have read all of this and you’ll already have an idea about whether the Hero Of Maida is the kind of place for you. You might think it’s ever so slightly too far from Paddington or a little too expensive, but I really enjoyed the place. And to save you the effort of questioning my verdict, I’ve already asked myself: was I being charitable because I was having such a nice afternoon? Was I letting the restaurant off the hook when, closer to home, I might have been harsher?

I don’t know. It’s possible. Maybe I was looking at the world through dessert wine-tinted glasses but if so, all I can say is that I thoroughly recommend doing so. Next time you’re in London and you’re on an off-peak ticket you could do a lot worse than booking the Hero Of Maida, especially when summer comes, and crossing the canal to treat yourself to something different before riding the rails back to Gare du ‘Ding. Make sure you get some chips: you’ll thank me for it.

The Hero Of Maida – 7.5
55 Shirland Road, London, W9 2JD
020 39609109

https://theheromaidavale.co.uk

The Miller Of Mansfield, Goring

I decided that, this week of all weeks, I needed to catch a break. I’d been nearly broken by icky glazed duck, by grotty kebab meat hiding under squeezy cheese, by skanky burgers and lukewarm chips, by (admittedly good) food brought out at breakneck pace. There was no denying it: I was long overdue a good meal. I was after a sure thing, or as close to that as you can get in the world of restaurants. So this week I made for Gare Du Ding and I hopped on a train to Goring. I intended to try out the Miller Of Mansfield, the much-lauded not-quite-restaurant-not-quite-pub which won the Good Food Guide’s Restaurant Of The Year a few years back.

My companion this week deserved a good meal even more than I did: I went to the Miller with John Luther, who runs South Street and was first seen on this blog last September enduring a truly iffy Lebanese meal at Alona. I still occasionally have nightmares about the wobbly shawarma there, and my other half sometimes shows people the picture of it on her phone, the equivalent of the contents of Compo’s matchbox, or Alan Partridge’s top drawer at the Linton Travel Tavern. In fact, I think she may have done so at the last ER readers’ lunch, which poor John attended: talk about insensitive. After that horror, I wasn’t sure John would ever want to be invited back, so when he asked to join me again I decided I’d take him somewhere truly promising to make amends.

Goring is a lovely place, and the train there was full of well-to-do folk who seemed disgusted by John’s and my conversation about – yes, I’m afraid so – Brexit. The Miller is a short walk from the station and even on a dim and drizzly winter evening I was reminded of what a beautiful, prosperous village it is. It’s a big handsome building, warm and welcoming, and on arrival we were given the option of eating in the pub or the restaurant. The pub was cosier, although some of the tables felt more suitable for drinking than eating, but I actually decided to sit in the restaurant because I felt that restaurant prices felt more well-matched to sitting in a restaurant. Funny how the mind works, sometimes.

I did wonder, later on, if I’d made the wrong decision: the dining room was nice enough, if a little nondescript, and a big table was laid for about a dozen people. We were sat near the back – well, almost, as we were sat next to a screen which had been put there to make the room seem smaller (I could make out another two tables beyond it). That meant that John had a view of pretty much the whole room (and all the people-watching opportunities that came with it) and I was sat looking at a screen. It felt a little unspecial, but perhaps Goring was the kind of village so prosperous that the Miller wasn’t seen as a special occasion restaurant, the kind of place where people were happy to sit in the pub and pay twenty-five pounds for a main course.

Looking at the menu, when it eventually arrived (“I just realised these might enhance your dining experience” said the waitress who brought them over ten minutes later, quite winningly actually) made me think that if the food lived up to its promise then I’d also have been perfectly happy to pay twenty-five pounds for a main. All sorts of good stuff jumped off the page – smoked almonds and Comté as a nibble, gravadlax with crispy quail’s egg, soy glazed monkfish with confit pork, the list went on and on. Just as well, as I’d told John he could choose first (atoning for that shawarma again) so I also had to work out my plan B: I didn’t need it for the mains, but I had to rely on it for the starters.

Before that, we had to choose a wine. We both fancied a white, and the list had lots of appealing choices well before silly money. We were torn between a Grüner Veltliner (“my wife’s favourite”, John told me) and an Albarino, but ended up opting for the latter so it wouldn’t feel too much like rubbing it in when John got home and told Mrs Luther all about it. John then started telling me a story about drinking Albarino in Spain – “they pretty much hand it out for free over there” he said, and I pointed out that the wait staff probably wouldn’t fall for that. Goring, after all, is very much not the continent. Anyway, the wine was superb – fresh, lively, almost-sharp – and felt decent value at just under forty pounds.

We were nursing it for a while because, again, it felt like some time before anybody returned to take our order – a shame, as we could gladly have been picking at some nibbles by then. The couple at the table next to us wandered off out front leaving half of their starters still there on the table, and I unworthily wondered to myself if they’d notice a smidge of it going missing. This was well before the boisterous table for twelve turned up, so it wasn’t as if the restaurant was rushed off its feet, but the whole thing felt a little odd.

Anyway, enough quibbles: let’s move on to the food, because it was easily special enough to make you turn a blind eye to any glitches in service or being seated facing a screen. A little loaf of sourdough came to the table with churned butter and whipped bacon butter – all of these were fantastic but the taste of smoked streaky sneaking through in the whipped butter was nothing short of sorcery. The gougeres, a pair of little savoury profiteroles packing a real punch of blue cheese, were an absolute delight.

We’d also ordered a venison sausage roll, which came with home-made brown sauce. It was just under a fiver and really quite generously sized: I can be a very greedy diner, but even I would struggle to describe it as a nibble. “We have a rule in my house that whoever cuts has to choose last” said John, before dividing the sausage roll into two such unequal halves that I almost felt guilty scoffing the bigger one, until I remembered that he was having the oxtail croquette and I wasn’t. It was phenomenal, the venison lean and dense and again with a beautiful whiff of wintry woodsmoke. The brown sauce was heavenly, although the sausage roll really didn’t need it. “It almost has too much sausagemeat” said John; I managed to avoid doing an obvious double take.

The second nibble was less successful. The rabbit rillette itself was delicious, full of rich strands, the whole thing topped with a truly beautiful sweet jelly that felt like it had a touch of something like Sauternes in it. But the “lavroche crackers” were long, thin, impractical and just not worth the bother. We put some of the rillette (not an easy thing to spread on a brittle, narrow rectangle of cracker) on them before giving up and sticking the rest on the sourdough, which is possibly where it should have been all along.

The starters, if anything, were even better. John had the oxtail croquette, which meant that I had a side portion of envy. It was a single, beautiful thing which came on a bed of parsnip puree, served on a dish which looked alarmingly like a section of tree trunk. By this point the lighting in the Miller had reached a level which would defeat all attempts at photography, and my picture of this dish was so bad (disturbingly so) that you’ll have to take my word for it. It was dotted with little blobs of dill and shallots, and the taste I had was properly fantastic, deep in flavour with shreds of magnificent beef. “This is like a really middle class Findus Crispy Pancake”, I said: John nodded, probably humouring me.

I had chosen the cauliflower lasagne, and although it didn’t live up to the croquette it was an intriguing dish. More of an open lasagne, really, but I wish there had been more of the cauliflower and less of the hazelnut, which was billed as a “hazelnut crumble” but felt coarser than that and took over the whole thing more than I’d have liked. It was saved by a truly astounding caper and raisin puree which simultaneously managed to taste of both and neither, a mind-bending sort of agrodolce which transformed the dish into something rather special. I don’t even like raisins, but I could have eaten this until the cows came home.

Somewhere between the last mouthful of the starters and the arrival of our main courses, John and I ran out of wine. So we asked nicely if somebody could bring us the wine list again. It didn’t arrive, and I seem to remember we asked again, but even as our main courses were brought to the table we had to ask again and a very apologetic waitress returned with the list. We ordered straight away – a glass of New Zealand pinot noir for me, some Picpoul de Pinet for John – mainly because I was worried that if we didn’t we might never see wine again (both, incidentally, were cracking).

In fairness, by this time the large table nearby was in full swing and I can see that would take up a lot of time and attention. But even having said that, the service throughout – although never less than lovely – was a little more slapdash than I’d expect from food at this level. When we were served by Mary (who, along with her husband Nick, owns the restaurant and who runs the front of house) everything was brilliant, but when she wasn’t there the rest of the wait staff somehow went missing in action.

But anyway, let’s return to the food (again) – because it redeemed a multitude of sins and because my main course, one of the best things I’ve eaten in a long time, was specifically recommended by Mary. Breast of wild duck came served on a heap of sauerkraut (one of my very favourite things) with thin discs of sweet beetroot sitting under the whole thing. The duck was as tender as any I can remember, and perfect on a wintry night. I could eat sauerkraut until it came out of my ears, and this was joyous, as was the glossy sauce (made with duck heart, according to the menu) that brought it all together.

I might have liked the accompanying croquette to have a little more duck leg and a little less spud (I’d been spoiled by my taste of John’s starter) but that might have been just me. But no matter, because even better was the little pan of “duck crackers” brought to the table – they looked like prawn crackers, they had their texture too but the taste, all duck and smoke, was a little miracle. I let John try some, and tried not to be too smug. Again, I’ve not put my crappy photograph up because, however badly I may have written this, my words are still better.

John’s main course, in any event, was no slouch. His sea bream came with greens, crispy capers (one of the finest things in the world, if you ask me), a very good tartare sauce and something called “salty fingers” which is a sea vegetable a little like samphire. I did a Google image search of salty fingers as part of the research for this review and was relieved that it didn’t throw up anything dodgy (the infamous Leslie Grantham webcam still, for instance): perhaps it was just my dirty mind that led me to fear the worst.

John was a big fan of this dish, and from my forkful I could completely see why. “It has just enough greens,” he said, “although if I’m being fussy I wish the skin had been properly crispy”. We also ordered some chips – because Mary had told us they were good – and she wasn’t wrong, although under the circumstances they were probably excessive. They defeated John anyway, leaving him too full for dessert. But since I saw one on the menu that I just had to try, I ordered it all the same and told the waitress that she could bring two spoons. “We’re not a couple though” I told her, almost certainly unnecessarily.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from “chocolate custard” – I was hoping the emphasis would be more on the chocolate and less on the custard – but what arrived was far more beautiful than I can describe and hundreds of times more appealing than the photo below makes it look. The texture was like crème brulee, or a mousse with no bubbles, not as dense as a ganache but no less rich and intense for that. On top was a sheet of tuile rich with salt and sesame and the whole thing was dotted with little spheres of bright sweet orange.

John is an awfully well-mannered dining companion – he took the smaller half of the sausage roll, he let me finish the rillette, he practically apologised to the wait staff for them not having brought us the wine list yet – but even so I was relieved when he put down his spoon and gave me a clear run on the rest of the dessert. It was properly magnificent.

While we were waiting for our bill to arrive (and finishing off some beautiful, chewy macarons with vanilla custard which had been brought as an extra treat) we compared notes. John told me he was mentally already planning a trip back with his wife, and in truth I had also been trying to work out a good excuse to return. John knows his restaurants – we swapped stories of great meals we’d had, talked about places on our hit list and talked about how we should beetle off to London one weekday when we were both free and have lunch at Medlar, my favourite London spot, right at the unfashionable end of Chelsea.

“That’s always a sign of a really good restaurant”, I said, “that before you’ve finished meal one you’re planning meal two.” And although John and I both ordered well, the menu was littered with roads not taken – not only that, but I knew perfectly well that by the time I visited the Miller again the menu would probably look completely different. Dinner came to one hundred and forty pounds, not including tip, and personally I didn’t resent a single penny of it.

I often complain that Reading is lacking a true special occasion restaurant, and that even the options nearby are either too unspecial, too fussy, too full of themselves or just too difficult to get to. The Bottle & Glass in Binfield Heath, The Royal Oak at Paley Street, The Crown at Burchetts Green even: somehow they all fall short, to the extent where my family often congregate at the Crooked Billet in Stoke Row when they want to celebrate a birthday.

For me, the Miller Of Mansfield comes closest to filling that gap. I know the service was a little haphazard, and I struggled to warm to the room, but it’s so genuine and likeable that none of that seems to matter. More importantly, the food reaches heights that render all of that somewhat of a moot point. I went expecting to like it a great deal but maybe not love it and, based on other reports I’ve had, I wondered if I would leave slightly hungry. Well, none of that came to pass, and instead I have a new place to go for celebrations, blow-outs or even just decadent midweek dinners with a new friend. All that and it’s only thirteen minutes from Reading by train. What more could you ask?

The Miller Of Mansfield – 8.5
High Street, Goring, RG8 9AW
01491 872829

https://millerofmansfield.com/

Alona

Alona closed around June 2019. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

I used to think the cardinal sin when eating in a restaurant was to take out a calculator when the bill arrived. You might know someone like this, someone who tots up exactly what they had and wants to pay for exactly that and not a penny more (strangely they’re often the same kind of people who neglect to add ten per cent to exactly what they spent – and not a penny more – when it comes to tipping). I don’t know anyone like that, or at least I don’t go to dinner with them. Paying for meals is like paying for rounds in pubs: sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind, but the only real way to be a loser is to keep count.

For years, I thought that was the worst thing you could do when eating out – well, that and being rude to the people serving you – and then an incident took place which changed my mind. I was on a double date at Comptoir Libanais, and we were meeting the other couple there at seven o’clock. There was some kind of mix-up and our dining companions got to the restaurant fifteen minutes early, and my date and I arrived at the appointed hour to find them halfway through eating their starters.

I was aghast. If you arrive early, ordering a drink is practically compulsory. Ordering bread and olives, if you’re peckish, is optional if you really can’t wait fifteen minutes. But starters? And this wasn’t just pitta and dips: the chap was ploughing his way through a portion of chicken wings as we took our seats. It was the first time I’d ever met these people so I could hardly say anything, but I spent the rest of the meal thinking Why is everybody acting like this is normal, acceptable behaviour? My date told me later on that I was being unnecessarily fussy, but I’ve never told another person who wasn’t shocked: if I’m ever elected to high office I might ensure that such conduct attracts a custodial sentence.

Anyway, company aside, the meal at Comptoir Libanais was forgettable. The service was comically bad, the food average at best and indifferent value to boot. My tagine (nothing like a nice authentic Lebanese tagine – as if there’s any such thing) was miserly and lukewarm, the couscous in huge clumps like only faintly edible asteroids. I hadn’t even wanted to go – it wasn’t my choice – and I felt like a traitor eating there when Bakery House was a couple of minutes away. It might not have a snazzy location on the Riverside, there might be no option to have alcohol with your meal (and the experience at Comptoir did rather make me want a drink) but Bakery House is the kind of independent restaurant Reading needs and deserves. I made a mental note to never go back to Comptoir Libanais on duty.

For a long time Reading only had those two Lebanese restaurants, and then I spotted Alona one Sunday afternoon as my taxi trundled up the Wokingham Road on the way to Nirvana. No website, no Facebook, but then I got reports on Twitter that Reading’s newest Lebanese restaurant was decent and might be up there with Bakery House; I needed no further incentive to hop on the 17 bus one evening and go there before word got out.

My companion this week was John Luther, who is responsible for programming at South Street and has done more most to shape Reading’s cultural scene. I’d wanted to take John with me on a visit ever since he judged my Honest Burgers competition last year – not only because I knew I’d be guaranteed stimulating conversation about all things artistic but also because I got a clear picture from John’s Twitter feed that he loves good food and craft beer. He was instrumental in bringing Craft Theory to Reading; he might be Bakery House’s most loyal patron (it’s effectively South Street’s staff canteen by now); he was Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen’s first customer: these things might not feature in John’s CV but they made him an ideal candidate to join me on duty.

It may be because Alona had been open little more than a month when we visited, but it looks pretty stripped-down. You walk in across the incongruous astroturf (they also offer shishas outside, apparently) and the counter on the right looks like standard kebab shop stuff with a brightly illuminated menu overhead. The dining room is on the left and is really very bare – plain tables, attractive tiles and not a lot else except a line of beaded lights at head height while changed colour throughout the meal like a hyperactive day-glo disco dado rail.

I asked whether we ordered at the table or at the counter and the answer was either or both: in the end we sat at the table nearest to the counter and asked nicely from there. The menu was like a pared down version of the Bakery House menu and prices were very similar, so you pay around a fiver for starters and mains hover near the twelve pound mark. Alona also does a range of wraps, presumably to eat off the premises. In fact, I saw more people turn up for takeaway than to eat in during our visit and only two other tables were occupied while we were there; eating under the functional lighting in such a stark place took on an increasingly Edward Hopperesque feel as the evening went on.

John and I valiantly did our best to try as many dishes on the menu as we could, and that meant rolling our sleeves up and tackling four starters. The first few arrived on a blue plastic tray, and we had to ask nicely for plates. The houmous kawrmah – one of two houmous options on the menu involving lamb – was very much a curate’s egg. The houmous itself was rather tasty and was clearly elevated by tons of tahini, if somewhat lacking in garlic.

“The olive oil with this is fantastic” said John. “Really fruity. But the lamb could do with more char.”

He was right: the lamb seemed appealing when it turned up but the look of it wrote a cheque that neither the taste nor the texture could cash. As happens too often on duty, I’d rather have had less and better. The pittas that came with it felt thin and almost stale, and weren’t a lot of help when scooping up houmous.

Grape leaf rolls (stuffed vine leaves, effectively) have long been a favourite of mine – I blame Corfu in the summer of 1987 – but these were unremarkable. The menu said they had meat in them (I was expecting minced lamb) but they were completely meat free. Excitement free too, really: you can get better ones in the chiller cabinet of M&S or the Co-Op, let alone in restaurants. I ate them because they were there, which is no real reason to eat anything.

The falafel on the other hand were decent, if not exciting (by this stage “decent, if not exciting” was starting to feel like a recurring theme). We’d ordered them partly to compare them against the Bakery House version (“a reference dish”, said John sagely) and they didn’t win out in that comparison: a bit too heavy, not enough texture on the outside and certainly no scattering of sesame seeds. But in fairness that’s a high bar, and these were passable falafel (“passable falafel”: a tongue twister up there with “day-glo disco dado rail”). I was more excited about the intense, shrivelled black olives and the sharp, salty pickles, which is probably not how it should be.

Chicken wings began the meal at an impressive £2 a portion, although as we were ordering them the man behind the counter stuck a 3 over the 2 up on the menu overhead. That was a little surreal. I managed to get over the whopping fifty per cent markup, but the chicken wings were also underwhelming – or, to put it another way, decent if not exciting. “There’s no sign that they’ve been marinated” said John, and that would probably have been forgivable if they had the beautiful, blackened char of a close encounter with a charcoal grill. But that hadn’t really happened either. We blamed the quantity of food we’d ordered for leaving some of these, but the truth is that we couldn’t really be arsed.

It was some time before we got round to ordering mains, partly because we were getting full and partly because the service at Alona was so relaxed you sensed it was all the same to them whether you were there or not. But mainly it was because the conversation was just so interesting and wide ranging: from family and friends to Reading’s cultural scene (“yes, we had Mumford And Sons at South Street before they made it big. They were pretty awful”) to the town’s rather interesting approach to awards, as exemplified by the decision to crown the Oracle as Reading’s premium cultural space (although I maintain that the beach bar, on a weekend night, is best viewed as some kind of performance art piece).

John moved to Reading fifteen years ago to work at South Street, and it was obvious talking to him that he loves our town every bit as much as I do. And I wondered for a second, probably fancifully, if we weren’t that different after all: trying to introduce the people of Reading to new stuff, promoting the plucky, the emerging and the up and coming, doing our bit to make the community we love a better place. But the parallels probably aren’t exact: I did have a swipe at the Hexagon at one point and he ever so nicely reminded me that without the Hexagon there could be no South Street, and that a good town needed both. Would I be so magnanimous about the likes of Bill’s or TGI Friday? I wondered. It seemed unlikely.

But then there might be something in it after all: “When people go to a Hexagon show, they know what they’re getting”, John said, “but when they come to South Street I hope they go away having been made to feel, or think, in a different way”. I still like to believe that food culture can be like that, even if you’re comparing Pepe Sale to Zizzi or Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen to Bina Tandoori. But what do I know? I’m just a restaurant reviewer.

Anyway, back to the food: we decided to share a couple of dishes from the grill, so we went for a mixed grill for one and a lamb shawarma. The former was so huge that although we were charged for a single portion I can’t believe they didn’t bring us a mixed grill for two by mistake. The highlight of this was the chicken shish, which got the balance just right, perfectly soft without sacrificing the texture outside, although there was still little evidence of marination. I was more dubious about the lamb kofte, which was a little bouncy for my liking (it was one of those kebabs where you’re wary of looking at the cross-section, put it that way). John raved about – and finished off – the lamb shish but I would have liked it more tender. We were agreed, though, on the lamb chops, which were unnecessarily tough and far from a highlight. Mixed grill? Mixed bag, more like.

All that paled into insignificance, though, compared to the experience of Alona’s lamb shawarma. You know that feeling when a dish is plonked in front of you and you actively don’t want to eat it? The last time I had it was in Paris last year when I was dished up a slice of terrine, jelly and all, which looked exactly like it had been extracted from a tin of Pedigree Chum. This lamb shawarma was a very similar experience – a plate full of wobbly, gelatinous meat which required a scalpel more than a knife and fork.

“I’m not sure that fat has rendered properly” said John, displaying a masterful talent for understatement. I felt like just saying “that looks repulsive” (which might also have been an understatement) but I thought better of it. We both gingerly picked through it, trying to find bits which required minimal dissection. It didn’t taste as bad as it looked – not much would, in honesty – but it was all cloves and no subtlety, a bit like drinking HP sauce from a shot glass and eating chewing gum at the same time.

After a couple of forkfuls I became extremely grateful both that John and I had already eaten a lot of food and that we’d ordered main courses to share. Imagine having ordered a helping of this to yourself and having to eat it in front of friends or loved ones: it didn’t bear thinking about. We left almost all of it, and I had my “oh, but I’m so full!” speech (complete with patting belly) prepared, but fortunately we weren’t asked about it. That’s not to criticise the service, which was actually really friendly and enthusiastic – and they generally did seem to want to know what we thought of everything – but service alone just isn’t enough.

Both mains came with a choice of rice or chips, so for completeness’ sake we had both. For completeness’ sake I’m also telling you that but really, they weren’t anything to write home about. There’s no alcohol licence at Alona either so we went crazy and had a bottle of water each, too. We settled up, paying the princely sum of forty-two pounds without service, and headed to the Hope & Bear for a pint and a debrief. That basically consisted of discussing Michelin starred restaurants we’d both enjoyed: it’s almost as if we were trying to take our minds off the shawarma. We were like Terry Waite and John McCarthy, chained to that culinary radiator.

Finishing by describing one of the worst dishes I’ve eaten this year probably puts an unnecessary downer on this review. To pull things back slightly: you could have a reasonable meal at Alona. If I’d had the houmous beiruty and the chicken shish, I probably would have thought it a pleasant, if unspecial, dinner. But even then I would have been struck by the mediocre pitta, and the standard issue chips, and I would have known deep down that I could have had a better, cheaper meal at Kings Grill. But based on what I had, the consistency just wasn’t there, and the range ran the gamut from “just above average” to “God, no”.

I really hoped not to end the review this way, but I can’t not say this: I can’t see a single reason why you’d go to Alona when Bakery House exists. When I think of the lamb shawarma at Bakery House, crispy, intense, generous and delicious (and I’ve done so many times, trying to wipe memories of Alona’s version from my mind), I realise there’s no comparison at all. They’re both lamb shawarma, but only in the way that Barack Obama and Jim Davidson are both humans. Alona isn’t Jim Davidson, not by any means, but my terrific evening there was down to the company, not the food. I hope Alona picks up and improves: with such an obvious, direct and superior competitor in the centre of town it needs to. Fast.

And, since someone will almost certainly ask: if I had to choose between Alona and Comptoir Libanais? I’d go to Comptoir Libanais – with somebody who waited until I got there before ordering.

Alona – 6.1
133 Wokingham Road, RG6 1LW
0118 9667000

(No website)