Takeaway review: Palmyra

One of the defining moments in the evolution of Reading’s restaurant scene happened in summer 2015 when a new place opened halfway up London Street, where a Nepalese restaurant used to be. I lived nearby at the time, and when I heard it was going to be called “Bakery House” I was excited: finally, Reading was going to get a decent bakery in the town centre! I was a bit nonplussed when it turned out instead to be a Lebanese restaurant, but then I saw that they baked all their own pitas and the name made more sense. And then I ate there, on duty for this blog, and I knew I was trying something special.  

It wasn’t Reading’s first Lebanese restaurant: the ill-fated La Courbe, in Kings Walk, had that honour. And La Courbe’s food was very good indeed, but the whole approach was different. La Courbe looked like a grown-up restaurant, albeit a dated one, with square plates and sharp-edged furniture, where you effectively ate in a glass box and tried to ignore the smoke coming from the open kitchen. It had an extensive list of terrific wines from the Lebanon, and was determined to showcase that every bit as much as the food. 

But Bakery House – although from the front it might have resembled a standard kebab joint – was a very different animal. It was more functional, and it had no alcohol licence, but it had infinitely more more heart and soul. It was often busy, with a hugely varied clientele, and remains one of my favourite places to go for a sit down lunch or have dinner with friends. Some of their dishes, like their boneless baby chicken, their lamb shawarma and their chicken livers, have pretty much attained iconic status. 

One of my most enjoyable pre-Corona rituals – one I very much look forward to resuming, one day – was to spend the day in Nirvana Spa and then take a taxi to Bakery House for dinner. It sounds so decadent, over a year down the line. And before I started reviewing takeaways, that restaurant was the only reason I had the Deliveroo app on my phone.

Anyway, poor La Courbe was Betamax to Bakery House’s VHS: it closed less than a year after its rival opened, whereas Bakery House is still going strong (my 2015 review of the place remains one of the most widely read reviews on the blog). And since then, various restaurants have sprung up to try and take advantage of the increasing popularity of Lebanese food, without significant success. We still have Comptoir Libanais on the Oracle Riverside (I ate there once: never again), but Alona down the Wokingham Road barely made it to a year before closing down. Having eaten their shawarma, I can see why.

More recently, two more Lebanese restaurants have opened further from the town centre. Late in 2019 Lebanese Village opened just over Caversham Bridge, in the site that was previously occupied by Spanish non-tapas restaurant Picasso. I never got round to reviewing them before lockdown, although that’s largely because for much of that time their hygiene rating left something to be desired (they’ve fixed that now). And then in February 2020, possibly the worst imaginable time to open a restaurant, Palmyra opened at the top of the Oxford Road, opposite the Broad Street Mall.

The stories I’ve heard about Palmyra since then definitely suggested that it was worth investigating. A reliable source told me when they opened that the chefs were ex-Bakery House employees, and later that year I heard suggestions that the owners of Kobeda Palace might have a financial interest in the restaurant. That alone was enough of a pedigree to pique my interest, and then a reader told me on Twitter that she’d been a regular takeaway customer of Palmyra. “Brilliant customer service, food really tasty, gives Bakery House a run for their money” she said. “I know that’s fighting words” she added. Fighting words indeed, and only one way to find out if they were justified: time to fire up the phone and place an order.

Palmyra is on all the delivery apps (or you can order through their website which goes through Foodhub) but, as so often, the experience is slightly different through each one. I got as far as building a basket on JustEat, which offered 20% off on the night I was ordering, only to find that it wasn’t that specific about some of the dishes. So for instance, you could order shawarma but it wouldn’t let you specify lamb, chicken or mixed. It also wasn’t clear about what everything came with, so when you check out and it asks you whether you need rice, chips et cetera the only honest answer is I really don’t know. So if you like surprises, or getting 20% off is more important to you than knowing what shawarma you’re eating, JustEat is the one for you.

I instead went for Deliveroo where I could specify what I wanted, although I did order some garlic and chilli sauce because I couldn’t tell whether they came as standard (it turns out they did, so I wound up with far more than I needed). That aside, the menu had plenty of old favourites that fans of Lebanese food would recognise: cold mezze, including houmous, moutabal and baba ghanoush; hot mezze such as chicken livers, falafel and kibbeh; dishes from the charcoal grill (shish and the like); shawarma and wraps. There were also a few burgers, which felt slightly incongruous.

Prices were very reasonable, with most starters stopping short of a fiver and main courses costing less than twelve pounds: on a par with Bakery House and slightly cheaper than Lebanese Village. I didn’t spot many dishes that I hadn’t seen before, but I decided to take a two-pronged approach, ordering starters I hadn’t heard of and main courses I knew and loved, trying to do a mixture of discovery and benchmarking against the tried and tested. Two starters and two mains, along with Deliveroo charges, came to thirty-six pounds, not including tip. And Palmyra look after the deliveries themselves, so you tip the restaurant rather than the rider (and you should always tip the rider, if you ask me).

Because Palmyra do the deliveries, Deliveroo tells you that the order has been received and when the rider is on their way, but beyond that you don’t get to track the delivery. I wasn’t even sure if they even confirmed that at first, because the food took a fair old while to leave the restaurant: I ordered at 7.15 and the app said it would be with me in forty minutes, but in reality the driver was on his way about an hour after I placed the order and it took him less than ten minutes to reach me.

He was lovely and friendly and apologised that it had taken a while. “We’ve been snowed under”, he said, and it wasn’t until later that I realised we’d ordered on the first day of Ramadan, about half an hour before the sun was due to set. No wonder they had their hands full. That made me prepared to overlook a lot – similarly our food wasn’t exactly piping hot, but I thought it was well worth making allowances. Everything came in recyclable foil and plastic, and portions looked like they’d be pretty generous.

Palmyra’s starters were probably the weakest part of the meal – not bad per se, but maybe not as exciting as they sounded on paper. Lamb sambusek were meant to be deep fried pastries filled with minced lamb, but they felt as if they had been baked rather than fried, pasties rather than pastries. Not that that’s a bad thing: I enjoyed the slightly doughy pastry, but the meat inside felt bland, especially considering the sheer amount of flavour Lebanese cuisine can usually get out of lamb. Maybe I have nobody to blame but myself; with hindsight, I look at some of the starters I order – these and samosas in particular – and I think I ought to be more versatile. Anyway, Zoë liked them more than I did, and so I didn’t fight her for the fifth one.

Similarly, I’d never seen shanklish on a menu, so I was intrigued. The menu described it as goats cheese topped with thyme and mixed with onion, pepper and tomato. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it was pretty close to a Greek salad in practice, with cubes of cheese, onion, tomato and plenty of lettuce. If I’d known it was a salad, I mightn’t have ordered it. But more to the point,  the cheese – the headliner – didn’t knock my socks off. It didn’t have a strong taste of goat, and the herb coating was very fine and a bit too mouth-coatingly gritty. It felt a lot more like feta, but with the salt mysteriously removed. 

Having now done my research, I suspect that this was pretty authentic (with the exception of the iceberg lettuce), so just not my bag. But the salad itself was also carpet-bombed with herbs, to an extent where I found it offputting. You got salads with your main courses as well and these had the same problem, without the cheese to redeem matters: Bakery House’s salad accompaniment, always so well dressed, is far better.

The mains we ordered – boneless baby chicken and lamb shawarma – were definitely picked to compare with the market leader. Palymyra’s boneless chicken was close in standard, but fell ever so slightly short in a few respects: a little smaller, not quite as moist and without that wonderful smell of the chargrill when you took the lid off. But these are minor quibbles, and if it came second it certainly wasn’t second rate, with good flavour and plenty of evidence of marination. I’m also aware, too, that many people aren’t quite as greedy as I am and on the “enough is as good as a feast” principle Palmyra’s baby chicken is definitely a feast.

You didn’t get a choice of rice or chips with the meat, so comes served with some lovely buttery rice speckled with wild grains, which had a subtle hint of something sweet and comforting, almost like vanilla. The rice was particularly good with the lamb shawarma, which was my favourite dish of the meal. This was a really hefty portion of lamb, in beautiful slices with just the right blend of meat, of fat and of wonderful caramelisation. There was quite a bit of clove on the nose, which brought on unwelcome flashbacks of the wobbly version at Alona, but once you started eating it the flavours all came together harmoniously, and the whole thing was pretty damned wonderful. Even slightly more warm than hot, it was a winner. 

“It’s really good, but imagine eating a whole portion to yourself” said Zoë, unaware that I was imagining exactly that and making a mental note for next time. I also thought briefly that any leftovers would make for a fantastic sandwich filling before ruefully realising that I never have leftovers and that if I did, I might have a less depressing waist measurement. Leaving food, like going camping or overpaying your mortgage, just seemed to be something other people did: I knew from social media that there were people like that out there, in a better, more virtuous tribe than me. 

Never mind, I thought, looking down at my plate, empty except for a little smudge of the (very good) chilli sauce and a few stray grains of rice. I hadn’t eaten much of the salad, but that wasn’t to my credit: I knew that was the bit you were meant to polish off. In fairness, we didn’t finish the pita breads either. They were pleasant enough, although I wouldn’t necessarily have put money on them being made in house. I should probably face the fact that La’De Kitchen’s wonderful balloon bread has ruined me for other pitas. 

The thing I almost feel guilty about, in writing this review, is that I’ve mentioned Bakery House as many times as I’ve mentioned Palmyra. They were the spectre at this particular feast. But that’s what happens when a restaurant becomes the benchmark, the standard for others to reach. That’s the way of things, just as every Italian restaurant in Reading will be compared to Pepe Sale, or every street food venture will be weighed up against Blue Collar. The trailblazers are there to give the newcomers something to aim for, and to want to surpass. 

Success breeds imitators: it’s always been the sincerest form of flattery. It proves you are good, and it tells you to be better. Because that’s the other thing: Bakery House will be looking at this newcomer, the way Bette Davis looks at Anne Baxter in All About Eve, not wanting to be superseded. After all, La Courbe was the future once, and look what happened to them. The tension between the established and the new is what drives everybody forward, stops people from resting on their laurels. Restaurants need that, or they get stale: I like to say that a rising tide lifts all boats, and being shaken from your complacency is no bad thing.

And I think Palmyra has enough about it to generate that tension: if we were playing Top Trumps I’d say that Bakery House won on the starters and edged it on one of the main courses, but Palmyra’s shawarma is a thing of beauty and worth the price of admission alone. But anyway, that binary way of looking at things does nobody any favours. If I lived in West Reading I would be absolutely delighted that Palmyra were at the top of the Oxford Road, and I would take full advantage of them being so well located for my end of town. Besides, you’re bound to avoid my rookie mistake of ordering from them on one of the busiest nights of the year. Even though I fell into that trap I have no complaints, and I imagine they made a lot of households very happy that night. They definitely did mine.

Palmyra
40 Oxford Road, Reading, RG1 7LA
0118 3277546

https://palmyralebanese.co.uk/index.php
Order via: Direct through the website, via Deliveroo, JustEat or Uber Eats

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)

Bakery House

All of the new openings in Reading lately have felt very fashionable, very on-trend. From the sleek space of CAU to the white walls and industrial chic of Manhattan Coffee Club, from the street food – if you believe a word of it – of Wolf to the forthcoming lunchtime sushi of Itsu, it feels like Reading is starting to get restaurants and cafés which reflect how people like to eat at the moment (well, people in London anyway).

All of these places have got plenty of exposure in the local websites, and there’s been a hubbub of excitement about them (and they keep coming – C.U.P. opens at the end of the month too, in a spot just along from Bill’s). But the place that’s most intrigued me lately isn’t any of the glossy town centre re-fits: it’s Bakery House, a Lebanese restaurant which has opened up the hill on London Street, where Nepalese restaurant Khukuri previously plied its (somewhat unremarkable, I’m afraid) trade for many, many years.

It’s a funny place for a restaurant: all the action seems to be at the bottom of the street, where RISC and Great Expectations make for long-standing neighbours. After that it’s all barbers, language schools and a couple of fried chicken joints, presumably to offer sustenance to people about to enter or leave the Stygian pleasure palace that is the Legendary After Dark Club (another place for which the term use it or lose it feels extremely apt). But I kept getting good reports of Bakery House, and I became increasingly curious – if only to try somewhere new where neither the light bulbs nor the brickwork were exposed.

And yes, there’s none of that palaver going on at Bakery House. The restaurant has the grill at the front and the dining room at the back, clearly with an eye on capturing some takeaway trade late at night (the menu offers a range of shawarmas and other sandwiches, easily portable and far more appealing than the dubious delights of Chicken Base at the bottom of the hill).

The dining room, containing just ten tables, has tasteful battleship grey tiles and lightboxes on the walls with pictures in them which, surreally, appear to have little to do with the Lebanon. One is of a beach with palm trees, seemingly in the Caribbean. Another shows the windmills of Mykonos in the background and, err, a bowl of Greek salad in the foreground. A third is of a veritable explosion of tropical fruit. Despite that, it’s a nice space – and the mirrored wall at the back does a good job of bringing in light and the illusion of depth.

It’s a pleasing menu, too – a good range of hot and cold mezze, Lebanese pizzas, hot dishes straight off the charcoal grill or from the kitchen out the back. I was sceptical about the name Bakery House, but there is clearly baking going on – you can see the big oven, the pittas rising in the wooden racks on the back wall. They brought us some while we made up our minds and they were lovely fluffy circles, just right dipped in the intensely garlicky sauce or its slightly piquant chilli sibling.

The falafel were probably the best I’ve had in this country and a minor miracle in themselves. You got four for three pounds fifty and the texture of them was spectacular – no stodge, just a deceptively light inside and an almost perfect thin, crunchy exterior. They made me angry at all the crimes against falafel committed by every supermarket’s sandwich aisle. Studded with sesame seeds, they were stunning dipped in the tahini sauce they came with, a silky, intense distillation of everything good about houmous with none of the accompanying clag. I also quite liked the salty, sharp pickled vegetables which came with them (purple, no less) but they were definitely a good thing you could have too much of.
BakeryFalafel

I wanted to try something from the bakery section too, and I was tempted by many of the small Lebanese pizzas. I ended up going for kallaj bil jiben and it too was a thing of wonder – a thin, translucent disc of Lebanese bread, the texture almost like a crepe, the inside smeared with spice and stuffed with halloumi, cut into quarters. Beautifully light, salty yet subtle, and stonking value at just over three pounds. When I’d arrived at about seven o’clock on a weekday night, the restaurant was already half full. By the time our mains courses arrived there wasn’t an empty table in there, with a steady stream of people turning up for takeway. I could well understand why, based on what I’d already eaten.

BakeryBread

The mains were equally keenly priced, with very few of them costing much more than ten pounds. This is where I’d like to tell you how delicious the farouj massahab, the boneless chargrilled baby chicken is – sadly, I can’t, because they brought me the farrouj meshwi (the same thing, but with bones in) instead. I asked if there had been some mistake and almost immediately they offered to redo it or leave it with me and take it off the bill. No complaints, no grumbling, no making me feel like I was being awkward – just an apology and quick action. Figurative hats off.

In the interests of eating at the same time as my companion, I went for the latter option and it was so delicious that I felt guilty about not paying for the dish. Granted, it was a faff – the plate was nowhere near big enough to strip the chicken off the part-jointed carcass tidily – but the chicken made up for that. Everything was how you’d want it: the skin moreish with crackle and char, the meat underneath tender and tasty. Every turn of a joint found an undiscovered shard of crispy skin or a beautiful seam of unmined chicken, and every turn brought another smile.

BakeryWholeChick

The accompaniments I could have taken or left – the rice was an anonymous yellow basmati with what looked like bits of frozen vegetables, the coleslaw could have been from anywhere, those strange purple pickles again – but complaining about that would be like going to see Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and criticising some of the extras in the crowd scenes. The chicken was the star, and I knew it.

The other dish, shish taouk, was simple and effective: cubes of lightly spiced chicken cooked on a skewer with a pile of salad, coleslaw and yet more purple pickles. The outside of the meat was just charred and although the flavours weren’t as good as you’d find at La Courbe, Reading’s other Lebanese restaurant (where the chicken is all soft and fragranced with ginger) it was soon pepped up with the additional of some garlic sauce (so sweet! so dirty!). I’m pretty sure the chips were out of a bag but they were none the worse for that – and, as it happens, perfect dipped in the tahini sauce. The main let-down, really, was the tabbouleh. I had high hopes, especially after the starters, but it didn’t live up to the rest, with just too much pulpy tomato and not enough pizazz.

BakeryChickSkew

Bakery House doesn’t have a licence, so the drinks options are a range of soft drinks and fresh juices. I tried the fresh apple juice and I loved it – the sweet, green, concentrated taste of apple without any of that sour sharpness of a supermarket carton. It was terrific, although I was struck by the irony that, at three pounds, it cost almost as much as either of the starters.

Service was friendly and pleasant, although I felt they were still finding their feet and I got that impression from neighbouring tables too. I really liked my waitress’ disarming honesty – I asked her how to pronounce one of the dishes and she said “I don’t know, I’m from Romania” (I’d pick that over a bullshitter, any day). The whole bill for two starters, one main, a tabbouleh and a couple of soft drinks came to just over twenty-five pounds, not including service. When I tried to tip – because I felt bad about having such good chicken for free – the waitress tried to talk me out of it. When I left the owner told me I shouldn’t have tipped and gave me a little box of baklava (which, incidentally, were terrific the next day). How can you not at least slightly love a place like that?

Bakery House is by no means perfect. The layout is a bit odd: most of the tables seat two but have a third chair, like a spare part, at right angles, so I think a table for three or four could feel a bit crowded (there are a couple of tables properly suited to four people though, tucked away in the corners). The service is charming but erratic, although they might just be struggling with being so busy so soon. The dining room was verging on the Baltic, which I think was a combination of some aggressive air conditioning and leaving the front door open to try to be more attractive to passing trade.

Despite all that, it probably won’t surprise you that Bakery House is emphatically my kind of place. Perhaps I’m out of step with the rest of Reading, but I was much more comfortable in that unfussy, unpretentious room enjoying my food (and, I suspect, being in the company of fellow diners with exactly the same priorities) than I’ll ever be sitting at some faux reclaimed steel table eating “artisan produce” that has never been near an artisan because there’s no such thing as a bloody artisan any more. So I’m prepared to overlook the occasional misstep and I think I’ll rejoice in the fact that I, and Bakery House, are as far from cool as it’s possible to be (except for the overpowering air conditioning, of course). That said, I’m not sure whether Bakery House takes reservations and at this rate people will soon be queuing to get in: maybe being untrendy will turn out to be the new food trend after all. You heard it here first.

Bakery House – 7.5
82 London Street, RG1 4SJ
0118 3274040

http://bakeryhouse.co/

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.

Courbe4

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.

Courbe2

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