The Pantry

Once upon a time, in the town of Reading, there was a bar called the 3Bs. It was named after the three famous alliterative cornerstones of Reading – beer, biscuits and bulbs – and, for those of us who remember it, it was one of the best bars there was. It was part of the Town Hall, and long before the Oakford ever opened it was the place you congregated in after work – unless your friends wanted to drink in O’Neills, in which case you made new friends. When the tables appeared outside, near the statue of Queen Victoria, you knew that summer was on the way.

It even featured, albeit briefly, in the opening episode of 1997 police show Crime Traveller, around the 3:45 mark in this video, as maverick cop (aren’t they always) Jeff Slade, played by ex-EastEnders bad boy Michael French, zooms through the Town Hall Square on a motorbike, scattering people and tables as he pursues a generic baddie in a boxy car all the way to the Queens Road car park. Around that time I was temping in Apex Plaza (which also features in the chase sequence) and it was all very exciting. As I recall, my brother bought a sandstone-coloured blouson, trying to emulate Jeff Slade, but it was all a little too Sergio Georgini. Ah, the Nineties.

My favourite memories of the 3Bs, in as far as I can remember anything, were of Bohemian Night, its weekly live music evening. A friend and I would always turn up early, sit near the front and drink almost enough to make the music sound good. Compered by AF Harrold (now a published author, then a jobbing performance poet working in Blackwells – remember when we used to have a Blackwells?) it was the Reading’s Got Talent of its day.

This involved various earnest acoustic solo acts and duets, a little spoken word, a shouty man who called himself “Preacher John” and another chap called “Reverend John H” who did an extremely offensive song about the sadly departed Princess Of Wales. There was also a bewildered pensioner called “Mr David” who would shamble on stage and perform roughly half a joke without getting to the punchline and then start singing snatches of My Way. It looked like he may have slept in a bin.

Only at Bohemian Night could a young chap wearing a fuzzy wig bound up to the mike, all puppyish enthusiasm, and announce “I’m Dunstan McFunkstan, and I’ve got a bag of comedy!” (if he honestly did, it was empty). And that’s before we get to the performance poetry, which was usually my cue to go up to the bar. Every now and again someone with genuine talent would show up at Bohemian Night and I’d enjoy their act, safe in the knowledge that I would never see them again. I loved it: I went every week without fail.

All good things must come to an end, and the 3Bs closed in 2011. Then, last July, the council announced that it would be reopening in the autumn. Signs were up by October 2018 declaring that it would be called Lains. Well, the council is as good at opening restaurants on time as it is at filing accounts, because it wasn’t until September this year that it finally opened, having changed its name in the meantime to The Pantry. The council’s announcement was full of the usual buzzwords about how the “Executive Chef” (why a café needs an executive chef is anybody’s guess) would use local produce to create a “scrumptious and inventive menu”. That was all the incentive I needed to take a trip down memory lane one weekday lunchtime with my other half Zoë, herself a fan of the 3Bs from back in the day.

It may have opened a year late, but the fit out really is lovely. At the front, where the bands used to play, there’s an attractive banquette and all the chairs are tasteful and muted, as is the paintwork. It was weird to look at it so transformed, but simultaneously quite heartwarming to see it back in use. There was still an icy blast every time the door opened and closed though: some things never change.

Menus are on the table but you go up to the counter to order. There’s a brunch menu, most of which is available all day, pizzas (which are “baked in our stone based oven”, whatever that means), three salads which you can pair with quiche, a sausage roll or a Scotch egg and a “sandwich of the day” (fish finger, on my visit) and “international dish of the day” (goulash).

The selection of cakes looked quite appealing, but the whole thing reminded me of something: I used to work somewhere where the staff canteen was run by facilities company Gather & Gather, and the menu here felt very similar, only more expensive. I wanted a pizza, but the gentleman behind the counter told me that they were out of pepperoni – I concealed my incredulity – so we ordered two things from the brunch menu, to find out whether the Pantry might be the brunch spot central Reading has long needed.

While I waited for brunch to arrive, I sipped my latte – a truly dire coffee, burnt and bitter and well below the standard of a Pret, Nero or Costa, let alone Tamp or Anonymous. Quite a few members of staff, all in their branded aprons, milled listlessly around the café, dusting unoccupied tables, making the smallest of adjustments to the position of the menu on the table, all kinds of random things to keep themselves busy because the truth was that the place was hardly rammed.

What customers there were were either parents with kids (half-term, of course) or people considerably older than me: no hip young gunslingers to be seen. It reminded me, more than anything, of the John Lewis Café, with the general complacence of not wanting to be any more than Only Just Good Enough. Perhaps the food would change that, I thought.

When it arrived and was set down in front of us by one of the serving staff, one obvious thing was missing: cutlery.

“We’ll need some cutlery for that” I said.

“It’s up at the front by the counter” she replied, without making eye contact. I waited for the second half of the sentence until, after what felt like quite some time, I realised that there wasn’t going to be one.

“Right. I’ll go all the way up there and get it then” I said, leaving aside the second half of my sentence, namely while you carry on dusting tables and being spell-bindingly bad at customer service. It was one of those moments when, like Tim from The Office, you just wanted to look sidelong at a camera in complete bafflement.

I had gone for “pulled pork waffle with spicy beans” and it truly was a miserable specimen. The waffle was lukewarm, doughy and stodgy. The majority of it wasn’t covered with anything – sauce or melted butter – and in the middle was a damp clump of what you could loosely call pulled pork. It was a pretty miserly helping, wet and claggy with big white globs of fat in it (I took them all out and put them to one side: my plate was collected later on without comment). Some crudely torn salad leaves were plonked on top, possibly as a garnish and possibly as concealment. I’m currently thinking about writing features on the best brunch in Reading and the ten best things you can buy for under a tenner: you can safely say this dish won’t feature in either.

“The waffle feels like a gimmick” said Zoë, attacking her dish. Her waffle came with smoked salmon, cream cheese, avocado and lemon zest. There was plenty of salmon, but it was extremely bland with no real hint of smoke. The avocado was as cold, hard and joyless as senior management. The lemon zest was a lovely idea but it wasn’t clear it had ever really made it on to the plate. More of that bloody foliage had, mind you.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“Meh. I wouldn’t have it again. And it’s definitely not worth eleven pounds twenty.”

She was right (and charging that extra twenty pence was downright odd). You could get an infinitely better brunch at Fidget & Bob for far less money, miles better pulled pork at Bluegrass and for that matter the Lyndhurst’s chilli beef nachos are streets ahead of either dish and they cost less than seven pounds. As it was we both finished our meals, with no real enthusiasm, and a sense that I’d just wasted money, time and calories.

“It’s a shame your coffee was so crappy” said Zoë. “I can see this might be a nice place to come for a cup of tea and a piece of cake.”

“Those are literally the only two things they can’t fuck up.” I said, as we watched a mother at a neighbouring table treating each of her kids to a bowl of what looked like oven chips – hardly “scrumptious and inventive” but at least, at two pounds a pop, better value than anything we’d eaten. The whole thing – two brunch dishes, a latte and a cup of green tea – came to twenty-five pounds, not including service. I’m depressed to say that by the time we left, the place seemed to be filling up.

If I had to sum up the Pantry, I suppose the easy way to do it is to say that it’s exactly what you would expect a café designed by any local authority, let alone this local authority, to be like. It’s bland, inoffensive and unimaginative. How an “executive chef” came up with something so nothingy I will never know; it’s a step up from jacket spuds with cheese and beans, I suppose, but only just. The brunch menu is one smashed-avocado cliché after another, the pizzas are a vanilla bunch (all of them more expensive than Franco Manca). Across the whole menu I didn’t see a single shred of evidence of creativity, or seasonality – unless it was goulash season and nobody told me – or anything other than tepid box-ticking. And let’s not even get on to the Pantry’s website’s absurd claims that the dishes are “prepared using artisan methods” – even if they do seem to have recruited artisanal table-dusters.

What really frustrates me is what a wasted opportunity the Pantry is. The council could have opened something which actually celebrates and adds to Reading’s food culture, rather than paying lip service to it with a clunking name. Just imagine what Glen Dinning could have done with that space if they’d let Blue Collar run the café, rotating street food traders with a licensed bar in the evenings: at a stroke, they would have had one of the most exciting venues in town. But no, instead you can enjoy pepperoni-free pizzas, burnt coffee and even more uninspiring waffle than you get in the council chamber. So it goes.

I’ll leave the last word to Zoë: “Maybe it’s called the Pantry because it’s pants”, she said.

The Pantry – 4.9
The Town Hall, Blagrave Street, RG1 1HZ

https://thepantrytownhall.co.uk/

Lemoni

It is, I think, a universal reaction when we taste something funny, or not quite right, or even plain bad, to seek a second opinion. Whether that’s saying “do you think this milk is still good?” when it’s a day past the use by date or asking “does this taste weird to you?” in a restaurant, we all do it. We like to share delicious food, providing we have enough of it to spare, but it’s when something’s awful that we really feel the need to share the pain.

I say this because I’ve had several people in the last three months ask me if I’ve been to Lemoni, the new Greek restaurant in the Oracle, or when I’m going – and not because they say the food is stellar. One message on Twitter said “OMFG, it was awful. Service took ages every time, when they arrived the flicking of long hair over food was… ugh”. Another, on Instagram, said it was so bad that they refused a discount because they wanted to leave as quickly as possible. “I never thought I’d say this” she added, “but I really miss Jamie’s Italian”. Someone else on Twitter said “I went there last weekend and I’m interested to hear your opinion”: sometimes what isn’t said shouts as loudly as what is.

As a result, despite my best efforts to stay positive, I approached my visit to Lemoni with a gradual mounting dread. On the one hand, people definitely wanted an impartial review. But on the other, looking at their website I had a real feeling of “must I?”. Part of that came from looking at the menu online, because the dishes at Lemoni were undeniably pricey. Sixteen pounds fifty for a moussaka, or for a chicken shish kebab? They’d have to be absolutely faultless to charge that much.

Matters weren’t helped by my other half sending me a picture which had been doing the rounds at her work, taken from Tripadvisor, of the lamb kebabs. They look as if they had been formed not by hand but by the combination of a colon and a sphincter, nature’s piping bag. As if to reinforce the point, one of her colleagues had effortlessly Photoshopped a single kebab into an image of a toilet bowl: it wasn’t even slightly incongruous, bobbing there.

Tripadvisor didn’t help in general, as it seemed polarised between glowing reviews (often from Greek users with very few other TA reviews) and mutinous rumblings from everybody else about poor value, indifferent food, terrible service. Who to believe?

And then there was the wider mystery – who were Lemoni anyway? Hard to tell from social media, that’s for sure: there was a glut of very polished Instagram activity when the restaurant was about to open, but since then the silence has been deafening. Trying to get any background was challenging – the suggestion had been that this was their second restaurant but from what I could glean from Companies House the first restaurant, in Southampton, had gone into liquidation before the Reading branch opened.

How did an independent business with no real footprint come out of nowhere to take on the Oracle’s biggest restaurant site, quite possibly paying an annual rent in the high six figures? How was it going to survive in such a competitive site, even (or especially) charging those prices? There was only one way to get to the bottom of it: I was going to have to go there myself.

I felt bad about asking anybody to accompany me, but in the end my mother and my stepfather gamely agreed to come along: sometimes you really do need the unconditional commitment only family can truly provide. So, despite my stepfather’s wistful looks askance at the entrance to Royal Tandoori, we walked up to Lemoni on a warm summer’s evening to take our chances.

The welcome at the door was bright and friendly, and we walked up through the stairs and through the restaurant to take a table out on the upstairs balcony, one of Reading’s better al fresco spaces. The transformation from when the restaurant was Jamie’s Italian was marked, and very nicely done: the upstairs and downstairs are both very tasteful, airy spaces with plenty of natural light, grown-up looking marble-topped tables and grey tweedy banquettes. I didn’t eat inside, but I liked the look of it – I did wonder though just how much sound would be absorbed on a busy Friday or Saturday night and whether the restaurant would feel quite as welcoming on a darker winter’s evening.

The first big surprise came when the menus arrived, because the prices have been reduced significantly since April (although Lemoni has neglected to change its website to reflect this). Mains in particular had come down by between three and five pounds per dish – badly needed, because many of the dishes skirted around the twenty pound mark which felt very expensive for this kind of food. This means that Lemoni must be the first restaurant I’ve encountered to do a soft opening in reverse: still, at least it showed they were learning from their mistakes.

We ordered a few drinks, namely a Mythos for my stepfather, a Menebrea – the Italian beer which is becoming Peroni for people who think they’re too good for Peroni – for my mother and some sparkling mineral water (don’t judge) for me. Nearly all the waiting staff, all dressed all in black, seemed to be Greek and they certainly looked efficient, darting from table to table; maybe they’d also learned from some of that early criticism.

We decided to share some of the starters to begin with – these all vary between about five and eight pounds, although they charge extra for pitta which felt cheeky to me. How else did they expect you to eat houmous or taramasalata, exactly? The taramasalata, incidentally, was one of the best starters we had – brighter pink than I’m led to believe it should be but punchy all the same. I especially liked the addition of some salted capers on top, but I suspect they were more popular with me than with my mother. “It doesn’t taste that fishy” was her feedback – my stepfather and I disagreed, but she had taken against the dish and that was that.

The spanakopita was a hit with all of us – light filo pastry with just enough crunch housing a beautifully molten mixture of feta, spinach and mint. The other two starters, though, were the relative duds. Saganaki is one of my favourite Greek starters and done well it’s a glorious, indulgent thing. The menu chose not to specify which cheese it was (which perhaps should have been a warning bell) but it’s usually feta and this didn’t feel like feta at all. Whatever it was, it was a lukewarm block of cheese with a leathery texture which had no give whatsoever. The “homemade tomato jam” might just have been able to paper over the cracks of this dish, but there was nowhere near enough of it.

The last starter arrived after the other three, and before the side plates we’d had to ask for twice. Mashed fava beans topped with calamari were a pleasing shade of yellow and had a earthy, if subtle, taste. But I couldn’t help wishing it was hot rather than lukewarm and it also needed some pita to do it justice. Our first helping of pita – tasty, topped with something like cayenne pepper or paprika along with dried oregano but far too little of it – had already vanished by then and it took multiple attempts to flag someone down to ask for more. By the time it arrived we still just about needed it, but the moment had passed.

“That dish is bland” said my mother, pointing accusingly at the fava beans.

“It’s okay – it could do with a bit more seasoning” I said.

“Well, it’s not unpleasant” she added, the implication clearly being that not unpleasant was not good enough. I could see what she meant, but I was more disappointed that paying two pounds extra got your fava bean purée topped with precisely four tiny bits of squid. Maybe I’ve inherited her critical faculties.

Having struggled to get our side plates and struggled to get extra pita bread, we then found we were left alone with our leftovers in front of us for some time. This gave my mother enough time to do some detective work.

“Our placemats are by John Lewis” she said. “They have the tag on them.”

I inspected them. This was indeed the case.

“And the labels are still on the underside of our side plates.”

I wasn’t sure how my mother had clocked this – nothing gets past her – but lifting up my snazzy rippled white plate it was true. Sophie Conran for Portmeiron, no less, and that stuff isn’t cheap; these aren’t plates you’d want to smash at a wedding.

“It’s weird, isn’t it? It’s like they’ve picked this stuff up at a department store because money’s no object.” And again, I found myself wondering where the money came from to open this massive restaurant out of nowhere and kit it out with a lovely new refit, John Lewis placemats and Sophie Conran crockery. At this point my stepfather outlined his theory on the matter: sadly, I’ve had to omit it from the review but I’m sure you could come up with your own ideas.

I was jogged out of this reverie by the fact that as our plates were taken away the main courses were plonked in front of us, supervised by an older man who looked as if he might be the owner. The overall effect was a little menacing, especially as my stepfather had ordered the “chicken skewer” which comes to the table on a long and potentially dangerous skewer fresh from the grill. The skewer was served on a bed of undressed, pointless rocket with some soft-looking roasted potatoes, a cold couscous salad and some kind of dip. I tried some of the chicken and it wasn’t unpleasant but there was no real sign that it had been marinated. At fourteen pounds it was still more expensive than the same dish at Bakery House, with nowhere near the same whistles and bells.

“That dip is salad cream” said my mother, looking none too impressed.

“I think it’s more like burger sauce” I said. “The menu says it’s ‘Lemoni mayonnaise sauce’, apparently.”

“Well it tastes like salad cream to me.”

“It’s not going to be a glass half full evening, is it?” said my stepfather philosophically as he attacked the rest of his main, undeterred by any resemblance to Heinz’s finest. I had ordered the classic kebab, and I was delighted to discover that they no longer looked like the Photoshopped horror I’d been sent via Whatsapp. If anything, these were uncannily regular cylinders of meat – a mixture of beef and lamb, apparently – and I wasn’t sure whether I enjoyed them or if I was just relieved that they weren’t worse. They were nicely seasoned and although they were a little on the smooth and homogeneous side for my liking they weren’t unpleasant. They came with a yoghurt thicker and more pointless than Dominic Raab, and a tomato sauce which lacked any spice or heat at all. Nice chips, to be fair, but apart from that this was another dish that Bakery House does miles better for less.

Even if the glass had been half full up to that point, it pretty much emptied when my mum started eating her pastichio, a sort of Greek lasagne which serves as an alternative to moussaka.

“This is sweet. It’s as sweet as a dessert. And there’s nowhere near enough mince. It’s just a sweet tomato sauce and some pasta. And the cheese! Well, it doesn’t taste cheesy.”

I tried some. You couldn’t knock her brevity: it would take me a whole paragraph to say a lot less.

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

It didn’t help that the accompanying Greek salad also didn’t pass muster. “It’s a nice olive” my mother said, “but it needs company.” A pity, because the feta was lovely and, again, I thought adding capers was a nice touch. But it’s difficult to argue with somebody saying that a Greek salad needs to contain more than one solitary olive.

We stayed for dessert, because I desperately wanted to give Lemoni one more chance. The big thing here is loukoumades, Greek doughnuts, so I ordered them with Greek honey and crushed walnuts. They were nicely irregularly-shaped, so obviously made by hand, but that’s as far as the plusses went. They were heavy, stodgy things, the shell not crisp and the inside a million miles from a fluffy cloud of joy. The honey was in a lake at the bottom rather than drizzled over the doughnuts, and the whole thing was heavy going. We didn’t finish them.

“Doughnuts ought to be a delight” said my mother, who by this point was turning into a one-woman Greek chorus of disapproval. “You should want to race through them.”

My stepfather’s bougatsa, custard in filo pastry, was better but still not right. I liked the custard very much, but this pastry didn’t have the same lightness of touch as our starters had had. Sawing through it with a knife felt like a slog. “It’s a bit tough” said – well, I’m sure you can guess who said that.

It won’t surprise you to hear that we also had to ask for the bill twice. Lemoni was busier than I expected on a Wednesday evening – the sun was still shining, the big screen on the Riverside was showing Wimbledon, people were sitting in the deckchairs on the opposite bank watching it and the beach bar was full of the kind of people who like the beach bar. It was a glorious evening, and if our meal had been better maybe we’d have been happy to sit there and digest and chat away with all the time in the world. All the best Greek food I’ve had – usually on holiday, but also in restaurants like Maida Vale’s scruffy Tsiakkos & Charcoal, or Notting Hill’s upmarket Mazi – is best eaten in a leisurely fashion, while you daydream of being somewhere in the Cyclades. But in this case, we just wanted to settle up and sod off.

Eventually, we flagged someone down and our bill – four starters, three mains, two desserts, two beers and some mineral water – came to ninety pounds, not including tip. Not hugely expensive, in the scheme of things, but when you consider that we barely drank it’s still a fair amount to spend on something so middling.

“You could come here and have quite a good meal” said my stepfather, “if you happen to order just the right things. Or if you ordered badly it would be terrible.” I nodded in agreement: I’d seen huge plates of what looked like home-made crisps turn up at other tables and I was thinking that if I’d just ordered those and some houmous I probably would have had a better, cheaper time.

So, there you have it: Lemoni isn’t the horror show I half expected, which just goes to show that anybody who reviews a new restaurant in the first month is making an error of judgment. But, even after three months of working on the pricing, the menu and the service it’s still deeply unspecial. Not better than Bakery House, not better than The Real Greek, not better than Kyrenia in its heyday. I don’t say that with any joy or any axe to grind – it would be a wonderful thing for the prime pitch in the heart of the Oracle to be occupied by a brilliant, distinctive, smartly-priced and well-run independent restaurant. But Lemoni is not that restaurant.

My closing thought about Lemoni was the saddest of all, because what my visit really did was make me think about Dolce Vita. Dolce Vita paid less rent than Lemoni, it charged more than Lemoni, it was busier than Lemoni, it did better food, it had better service and it closed for good last year. If Dolce Vita couldn’t make a go of it with so much in its favour, who would bet on Lemoni seeing out the year? More to the point: just imagine how wonderful Reading would be if a restaurant like Dolce Vita had occupied a spot like the one Lemoni has. How I wish we lived in a town like that.

Lemoni – 6.2
Unit 1, The Riverside, The Oracle, RG1 2AG
0118 9585247

https://reading.lemoniuk.com/

Persia House

This is my second attempt to review Persia House, the new Iranian restaurant tucked away on the other side of Caversham Bridge, and it differs from my first attempt in one important respect: I turned up when the restaurant was actually open (nearly six years writing this blog, and still so amateurish at times). I’d wanted to go for some time – Iranian food sounded fascinating and exotic, and from my research I hoped to have my head turned by a new favourite cuisine, the way it had been by Georgian or Hyderabadi food. Read an article like this and you’ll see what I mean: tell me it doesn’t make you hungry.

My dining companion for the first, unsuccessful, visit was Dr Quaff, author of Reading’s excellent pub blog Quaffable Reading, and he graciously agreed to overlook my ineptitude and accompany me again second time round (although he did still say “are you sure it’s open today?” as we were nursing a pre-dinner pint in the Crown: bloody cheek).

Going through the front door we were greeted by a very large and almost completely empty restaurant. I’m so used to saying “it’s a long thin room” about restaurants that it’s quite a relief to be able to say something different for a change: Persia House is huge. By the windows looking out on to the road there were some low tables where you sit cross-legged (possibly authentic, definitely for people who’ve done a lot more yoga than me) but the rest of the restaurant was more conventional and there really were an awful lot of tables. The bare wood floor was broken up with the occasional rug, there was art on the bare brick walls and some of the tables at the far end looked out over the river. I quite liked it, but it did feel cavernous.

We took a table by the window – close to the only other pair eating in the restaurant – and flipped through the menu. I’d researched it online, but the Persia House website is so user-unfriendly that trying to work out what I might order filled me with a sudden desire to throw my laptop at a wall with great force. We had no trouble picking a mixture of starters but we were undecided about our main courses: our waiter said that was absolutely fine and took that order, along with a bottle of red.

We’d also enquired about the rather bling oven you see as you enter the restaurant, so our waiter invited us over to see our naan breads being made. It was an incredible contraption, hotter than the sun (and not even running at full whack, as he proudly demonstrated by turning it up: it’s a miracle that Dr Quaff and I still have eyebrows). We watched as he stretched, rolled, and shaped the dough for the naan before effortlessly flipping it on to the roof of the oven for mere seconds before taking it out, cutting it up and putting it in a basket ready for our starters. All very impressive.

He said that he was from Afghanistan, although the owner was Iranian. The restaurant had been running for nearly six months and all was going well, he said, although he added that it was normally busier than tonight (only one other pair of diners arrived while we were there, not long after the other two customers had left).

By the time we returned to our table from that little culinary detour, our starters had arrived. The menu divides the starters into cold and warm appetisers and we’d picked from both sections, although I didn’t discern any noticeable difference in temperature. The best of them was the baba ghanoush, which really did have a smoky taste (you could picture the charred skin being taken off the aubergine before the flesh was combined with everything else). But the dolmades were deeply unspecial – the rice in them was claggy and dense, and they didn’t taste of much. The decision to serve them with a little pot of what looked like balsamic glaze but which I assume was pomegranate molasses might have been to conceal the lack of flavour, but it seemed an odd choice. I would have thought these were shop bought but one of them was so saggy and lacking in filling that I think they probably were made by hand.

“You can have the last one” I said to Dr Quaff, which obviously translates as I don’t like these much.

“No, I insist” he replied, or in other words I don’t like them either.

The last of the dishes was called halim badenjan, a stew of aubergine, tomato and braised lamb. We both quite liked this – although again, not enough to fight over the last few mouthfuls – but it didn’t knock my socks off. The lamb was in soft strands, the aubergine was tasty enough but it didn’t really feel like anything I hadn’t had before (the yoghurt on top, though, added a nice contrast).

By now, you’re hopefully wondering if that naan I saw being baked in front of my very eyes was any good. Well, I’m afraid no, not really. It might just be me, but I found it a bit thin and nothingy – despite being bubbled it had no fluffiness and no real texture. It might as well have been crackers, and by the end the last few pieces were hard enough that they pretty much were.

A mixed bag, then, and as our waiters took the plates away Dr Quaff and I sipped our wine and decided on our next move. We’d ordered a Malbec for twenty-two pounds and although it got better as the evening went along (what booze doesn’t?) it felt a bit thin and weedy to me, with nowhere near the depth or complexity I’d expect from Malbec: with hindsight, it might have been emblematic of the whole meal.

The main courses were split into three sections – kebabs, stews and other Persian specialities. Dr Quaff had decided to test out the grill, and I was torn between a traditional stew or the Persian biryani, a dish called lubia polo. I asked another waiter, and he said the stew was a “good choice” but that he’d had the lubia polo earlier in the evening and that it was very good. He also said that you couldn’t get these dishes anywhere else in Reading (which, come to think of it, may or may not have been a good thing). Like all the people who looked after us that evening he was friendly, smiley and engaging, and so I was won over and took his advice.

The problem with taking advice from people you don’t know, like reading reviews from people you don’t know I suppose, is that you take them on trust. So it’s possible that the Persian biryani is the best meal that waiter has had in a while, but if it is I think he rather needs to eat out more often. It was one of the most disappointing dishes I’ve had in a restaurant for a while – not specifically bad, but so failing to live up to its potential that it might as well have been.

It was rice, tomatoes, lamb and green beans and it tasted of rice, tomatoes, lamb and green beans. No real discernible depths of flavour, no nuance, no wow factor, no heat and no spice (Dr Quaff thought he detected cinnamon in it: I think he’s being charitable). I expected so much more – I wanted it to open my eyes to something new but instead it made me want to roll them or, worse still, close them for some time. Even the texture didn’t work; the lamb was nicely soft but so were the green beans. The latter had the feel of beans which had either come from a tin or been cooked so long that they might as well have done.

Dr Quaff had opted for the mixed grill for one, pretty much, the kebab bakhteari (“it sounds like bacteria” he said to the waiter, a tad ominously). It was a skewer of kofta, a skewer of chicken shish and a skewer of lamb shish, served with some rice with a little yellow hat from the saffron, an underwhelming-looking salad and – completely randomly – an individual portion of butter from a catering pack (what for? we both wondered).

“What do you think?”

“With lamb, you want the lovely caramelised exterior and for it to be pink in the middle” said Dr Quaff. “This is just grey”.

He generously let me try some of each of the kebabs, although once I ate them I realised he wasn’t really being generous, it’s just that he wasn’t fussed. The chicken was the best of them I thought, but all of them were middling at best. This dish cost eighteen pounds, a full five pounds more than the equivalent dish at Bakery House. There you get beautiful yellow rice, a perfectly dressed salad and all the garlic and chilli sauce you want. Here you get cross.

“It’s not as good as Bakery House, is it?” I asked.

“It’s nowhere near as good as Bakery House.”

You probably have the general idea by now. I really didn’t rate Persia House, I think there are dozens of better ways to spend your money in Reading and several better ways to have similar food – at Bakery House, at Kobeeda Palace, even at Clay’s if you want a biryani. And if your response to that is to say “but they’re not Iranian food” then fine, I agree – but based on what I experienced at Persia House I wonder if that’s Iranian food either. It didn’t feel distinctive or authentic to me: apart from the lamb stew with aubergines, we didn’t have anything you couldn’t get elsewhere, and that dish didn’t make me desperate to try the rest of the menu. I hoped for fireworks, I got a sputtering tealight.

What’s a little sad about it, though, is a couple of things. One was the service, which was unfailingly nice and polite – although, to be fair, we made up fifty per cent of the clientele for the duration of the visit. The other was that when we asked for the bill they brought some little sweet pastries and a beautiful black tea, poured into tiny glasses which tasted quite lovely sweetened with a little sugar. Such a nice touch, but too little too late. Dinner for two – three starters, two mains and a bottle of red – came to seventy pounds on the nail, not including service.

I wondered about how to end this review. Originally I was going to say “I hope Persia House does well”, but that too feels inauthentic. No, I hope Persia House does better. God knows, they easily could, but I suspect this is the kind of food they want to serve and the restaurant will either succeed or it won’t. Caversham is not blessed with loads of good restaurants, so perhaps novelty value will keep them afloat for some time yet. But at those prices, for that quality, it’s not a place I could recommend. In any case, what do I know? A few doors down Picasso – one of the most uninspiring meals I’ve ever had writing this blog – continues to ply its inexorable trade, years after many places I’ve adored have closed their doors for the final time.

Persia House – 6.4
2 Bridge Street, RG4 8AA
0118 9470222

https://www.persiahouse.co.uk/

Bench Rest

Bench Rest stopped operating out of the Tasting House in September 2019 after less than a year. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

One of the interesting phenomena of Reading’s restaurant scene is the number of talented chefs and restaurateurs circling the town trying to find premises to cook in. This year has seen more of this than most: first, right at the beginning of the year, Georgian Feast stopped cooking at The Island (still one of the strangest places I’ve ever eaten dinner by a country mile). I had just got used to wandering over on a Sunday lunchtime to enjoy their gorgeous boat-shaped pizzas for lunch, and then they were gone.

Then, in the spring, the affable Kamal and his talented chef left Namaste Kitchen by mutual consent: very sad news for me, as I’d become hooked on my almost weekly trips to the Hook And Tackle for sukuti and boneless fish fry. More was to follow: in the summer I Love Paella parted company with the Fisherman’s Cottage, shortly after which the pub unveiled a new menu which – how shall I put this? – borrowed heavily from ILP. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but flattery is rarely so tacky; I’ve not been back since.

Then there were the goings-on at Nomad Bakery, the permanent premises taken on by Laura of local supper club Pop-Up Reading. Laura left Nomad in July, and although Nomad’s Twitter feed made it sound like an amicable (if emotional) parting of the ways, an Instagram post by ex-TV presenter, regular Nomad visitor and Caversham resident Simon Thomas suggested shabby treatment and a falling out with Laura’s co-investor. It was later amended to remove those comments: make of that what you will.

Anyway, as we reach the end of 2018 some of that has settled and some is still in flux: Kamal is still looking for somewhere to open a new restaurant, as is Enric of I Love Paella. Georgian Feast started working at Nomad Bakery and recently confirmed a new menu (as Geo Café) offering many of the classic dishes they used to serve at Blue Collar, the Turk’s Head and The Island: it’s still as clear as mud, but it appears that Nomad Bakery may be no more. And finally, probably the move most long-awaited by Reading’s fooderati – in October the Tasting House announced that Laura would be running a new venture there at weekends called Bench Rest: tapas on Friday and Saturday nights, and brunch on Saturday and Sunday daytimes.

The early reports looked interesting, as did the pictures sweeping Twitter and Instagram. The menu was constantly changing and evolving, all built around Mediterranean flavours and the fresh bread which has always been Laura’s biggest passion (her LinkedIn profile says “My life revolves around flour, H2O and a little bit of salt”, which is an appealingly simple mission statement), with an emphasis on vegetarian food – or, as it’s modishly called these days, plant-based dining.

Bench Rest is probably one of Reading’s most keenly anticipated openings for several years, so it only felt right to visit on duty before Christmas. I wasn’t initially sure whether to go for brunch or tapas, but a look at the respective menus made it an easier decision: practically every single brunch option involved eggs, breakfast isn’t a dish I’d personally choose to make plant-based, and I find these days I can take or leave Jam Lady jam. Besides, eating small plates gave me a better chance to try a wider range of the menu, so I turned up on a Friday night with my regular dining companion Zoë to find out what was what.

Now, before I get on to the food it’s sadly necessary to explain some stuff about the set-up, because some of what was less than satisfactory about the evening didn’t have much to do with Bench Rest. The Tasting House, back when I first reviewed it, was an uneasy one-stop shop which served charcuterie boards, wine by the glass to drink in and wine by the bottle to take away, and didn’t really know whether it wanted to be a wine bar or an off licence. Over time the furniture got more comfortable, the place got redecorated and rearranged and now it is effectively three different businesses in a kind of houseshare. The Tasting House serves the wine, does food during the week and runs wine testing events upstairs. Bench Rest takes over the kitchen at weekends. And finally, during the day, Anonymous Coffee sells coffee and cakes from the counter at the front.

With Bench Rest, this all felt pretty seamless – we ordered at the counter, got a prepaid card to use at the Enomatic machine to buy wine by the glass, and paid for the whole lot at the end. But the room makes much more sense as a wine bar than as a restaurant, and the layout is cramped and problematic. There’s one huge table at the far end of the room, nearest to the open kitchen, that can seat around eight to ten people. All the other tables are smallish tables, most of them for two, and the emphasis has been placed on packing in punters rather than making it an enjoyable experience. Our table was nearest to the wine and the Enomatic machine, and it felt like people were constantly walking past us, giving the feeling of being in a corridor rather than a restaurant.

It could have been worse – there are also higher seats but rather than being up at the counter, or at the window where you’d have something to look at, you were seated at a high ledge facing the wall. All the poor unfortunate couples there were sitting with their back to the ledge, on their high stools, forlornly looking out at the tables feeling envious. I guess they really do want to maximise the number of customers, but I didn’t especially want to be that kind of customer.

Much as they might have envied my table for two, another problem was it had definitely been designed with drinking in mind: the moment you ordered almost any food there wasn’t enough room for it. Even with a small plates menu, this was difficult and involved constant balancing and juggling; one serving dish ended up precariously perched on the pot containing cutlery, and the whole experience felt like a cross between Jenga and Tetris. It was all very odd: the space worked perfectly as a bar, or as a café, but seemed incompatible with its third purpose as a restaurant.

Perhaps the food would leave me less bothered by such details, I thought, as I looked at the menu. It was a nicely compact selection – a handful of snacks (olives, nuts and the like), one “glorious gourmet toastie”, a meat and cheese board and a selection of seven small plates, most of which were vegetarian. Seven is a sensible number of dishes but even then the menu felt a little bit fussy, dividing them between “cold mezze”, “hot mezze”, “tapas” and “raciones”, fiddly and needlessly educational. We ruled out the snacks, because they felt more about buying than cooking, and the board (for similar reasons, and because it felt very much like what the Tasting House used to serve before Bench Rest came along) and decided to try a selection of the small plates.

All the small plates came with a selection of sourdough bread, and Laura brought this to the table first, excitedly talking us through it. There was a rye bread, a ciabatta and a spelt sourdough – served with a little extra, a ramekin of black bean houmous. You couldn’t argue with the quantities, but I expected to love them more than I did. The rye bread was simply terrific, but the other two were lacking in crust and felt like they could have done with a little more salt. The texture either suggested that the slices had either been very lightly toasted or left cut and exposed to the air a little too long: either way, I wasn’t won over. Also – and this may well just be me – I really found that I wanted either some good quality salted butter to spread on it or bright grassy olive oil to dip it in. Neither was supplied, and although the black bean houmous was pleasant enough it didn’t bridge that gap.

The first small plate was houmous with chickpeas, tomatoes and whipped feta. It sounded great on paper, but it didn’t quite work in practice; really good houmous, like the stuff from Bakery House, is silky and rich, whereas this was coarser and slightly on the bland side. The flecks of whipped feta set it off nicely, as did the beautiful sweet marinated tomatoes, although there weren’t enough of the latter. And I like gherkins more than the next person most of the time but, nice though Bench Rest’s home made pickles were, they simply didn’t go with houmous. The combination of the houmous being a little too claggy and the bread not having quite enough oomph wasn’t a pleasing one.

The beetroot croquetas, on the other hand, were lovely things. Two biggish croquettes, rich with beetroot, dished up on a smear of fragrant tapenade with some crumbled goat’s cheese and served with grape must mustard (“my new favourite thing!” said Laura as she brought these to the table). This was a proper clear your plate dish, and the bread came in handy for mopping up every last smudge of food. The flavours worked brilliantly: I would have liked a little more goat’s cheese, and two croquettes for seven pounds fifty felt slightly on the steep side, but it was still hard to be critical about a dish that tasted quite unlike anything else in town.

The other two small plates were more substantial affairs. Patatas rotas, puerro y jamon was spicy potatoes (they looked fried but were described as roasted) with sweet leeks, topped with a couple of slices of prosciutto and an egg. This was hearty stuff (it felt more like an escapee from the brunch menu, in some ways) but I liked it and we properly picked over the whole lot. The ham felt a little like an afterthought – again, I’d have liked more and for it to have had more texture and been crispier. The egg was a little overdone, which meant most of the yolk couldn’t spread its sunshine over the plate. Even so, you couldn’t argue with the flavours. This dish was just shy of nine pounds, but again it felt ever so slightly less than its money.

Last of all we had the cauliflower shawarma, a dish I’d wanted to try ever since it was on Laura’s menu at Nomad Bakery. This was a beast of a thing, gently spiced, festooned with seeds and topped with some kind of sweet relish which could have been tomato, could have been red pepper or could have been something else entirely. It was like nothing I’ve ever eaten in Reading, a dish which had more to do with Ottolenghi than the Oxford Road, and I really enjoyed it. I wasn’t sure whether it came with the advertised houmous and lemon tahini – it felt more like yoghurt to my no doubt ignorant mind – but as a combination of tastes and textures it was one of the most interesting things I’ve eaten this year. We couldn’t finish it, and leaving some was a decision made with a heavy heart.

Normally I would go into detail about the drinks, but there seems little point in some ways because the range of wines in the Enomatic changes so regularly that I can’t guarantee any of them would be on sale were you to eat at Bench Rest. I particularly enjoyed the Medoc, which was rich but not too tannic, and I really loved the Australian Riesling which was much more sweet and approachable, as New World Rieslings tend to be. The Enomatic dispenses either 25ml, 75ml or 125ml and most of the wines I had were £5 for 75ml so again, this isn’t a cheap experience by any means.

The wine being self-service also disposes of much of the traditional service in Bench Rest. I would say the service from Laura, who really appeared to be working her socks off all evening, was exemplary – friendly, approachable and passionate about her food (endearingly so, in fact). The service at the counter when ordering, from long-serving Tasting House employee Jack, was also very likeable and efficient, but I did notice that he struggled to get one of the other staff to help out because she was too busy having a good old chat with her mate (I feel for Jack: we all have days at work like this). We settled up just as the acoustic singer-songwriter in the corner was getting into full flow (could have been worse, it could have been Ed Sheeran) and our meal for two – four small plates, five 75ml glasses of wine and one devil-may-care-push-the-boat-out 125ml glass of wine – came to sixty pounds, not including tip. In fairness, we did leave very full: perhaps there’s something to be said for this plant-based diet after all.

It’s a shame that the time-honoured ER ratings go from 0 to 10, because rarely have I so badly wanted to give a rating of “Hmm”. Some of the food in Bench Rest is excellent and much of it is imaginative. It’s probably more plant-based and virtuous than I would personally choose, but I am quite aware that that says more about me than it does about them. But, despite their efforts, the alliance with the Tasting House is an uneasy one which doesn’t show off the food in the best light, or create an environment where it’s particularly enjoyable to eat. The dishes may well involve a great deal of work, and it’s impossible to fault the kitchen’s devotion or imagination, but they still feel ever so slightly on the pricey side and like there’s something – and I can’t quite put my finger on what – missing. I hope it settles down, or that Laura eventually finds a bigger canvas on which to paint, but more than anything else it made me miss I Love Paella. Here’s hoping that 2019 brings further homecomings for some of Reading’s other dispossessed restaurateurs.

Bench Rest – 7.3

30a Chain Street, RG1 2HX
0118 9571531

https://www.bench-rest.com/

MumMum

MumMum closed in June 2019 “until further notice” and the closure appears to be permanent. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

One of my biggest regrets in Reading’s restaurant scene is a little place you probably never visited called Cappuccina Cafe. It was on West Street, looking out over an especially grotty 99p shop, it was a fusion of Vietnamese and Portuguese food, and it did the most wonderful bánh mì (the Vietnamese sandwich, served in a baguette, which bears the hallmarks of Vietnam’s French colonial past: an early example of fusion food, you could say). I reviewed it in May 2014 and – and this may be a record – it closed a month later. I never got to go back, but one of my friends loved the bánh mì so much she developed a several times a week habit before it turned into yet another nail bar.

It was part of a general saga of decline on West Street. First Fopp shut – I still miss that place – then Cappuccina Cafe, then Vicar’s closed after over 100 years of purveying meat to the people of Reading and finally Primark decamped to the old BHS store. It’s part of a general trend which leaves that end of Broad Street looking increasingly grotty, and possibly also explains why Artigiano decided to divest themselves of their branch, deep in the heart of no man’s land: it’s Broad Street Bar & Kitchen (for) now. That area desperately needs some love and imagination, two qualities our council seemingly lacks the ability to provide, foster or inspire.

Fast forward four and a half years, and finally another restaurant has appeared in Reading looking to fill that bánh mì shaped gap in the market. Literally in the market, as it turns out, because MumMum opened on Market Place in October, where the ill-fated Happy Pretzel used to be, just down from the post office. I was tipped off about it not long after it opened and I’d been watching with some interest, waiting for a month to pass so I could check it out on duty. It’s actually a surprisingly tricky place to visit for lunch, because it isn’t open at weekends, but I had a Monday off after coming back from holiday so I stopped in to check it out with Zoë, my partner in crime and regular dining companion.

From the outside, MumMum was all windows (with a laminated menu – but no opening hours – blu-tacked to them) but going in I was surprised by what a nice space it was. It was clean and neutral without looking basic: pleasant, plain low tables and higher tables with stools where you could perch and look out of the window. Far more seating, in fact, than I expected and without ever feeling cramped. You could look through into the kitchen, although some of the preparation took place at the counter: while we were there I saw one of the staff carefully, skilfully assembling summer rolls with tofu.

MumMum only really does three things – bánh mì, pho (the Vietnamese equivalent of ramen – meat and noodles in a rich broth), and summer rolls, which are like spring rolls but served cold and wrapped in rice paper rather than pastry. You are carefully walked through the process of ordering. There’s a cabinet on the left where you pick up your tub of pho (small or large, chicken or beef) and/or your summer rolls (pork, prawn or tofu). You pay at the counter, which is also where your bánh mì are prepared and where they add the broth and herbs to your pho, sort of like an uptown Pot Noodle. The signs and barriers turn this into a neat little queuing system, although they then brought everything to our table which felt more like a traditional restaurant experience.

The pricing is a bit more confusing, mainly because there are a range of meal deals and, if I recall, the prices on the menu behind the counter didn’t quite match the ones on the menu in the window. With a meal deal you get either a bánh mì or a small pho with a drink (although not apple juice, apparently) and a single summer roll (they usually come as pair). This does save you a little money, although the bánh mì meal deal is more expensive than the pho meal deal. The former is six pounds, the latter six pounds fifty (or six pounds eighty, according to the menu outside).

In reality they charged me twelve pounds for two meals, and they then knocked a quid off because I agreed to take a loyalty card, which was slightly random because I didn’t need to give any personal details and how the card worked wasn’t at all clear. By the time you go, if you do, the prices may well be different again, so good luck working out how much everything is meant to cost. In the meantime, allow me to apologise for possibly two of the most tedious paragraphs ever to feature in an ER review, and let’s get on to talking about the food.

Zoë took one for the team and ordered the pho – I hadn’t been wowed by my previous encounter with this dish, so I was happy to leave her to it. It did look very clean and virtuous, and everything was done well, so little shreds of chicken, noodles, vegetables and plenty of coriander were all present and correct. In pho much is often made of the quality of the broth, just how long they’ve laboured over it and the depth of flavour they manage to get in to it. I tried enough of Zoë’s pho to think that either they’d fallen short or pho just wasn’t for me (most likely the latter).

“I love the coriander”, Zoë said at the end, “but it didn’t have quite enough flavour.”

I did point out the unused bottles of sriracha, fish sauce and indeed MumMum’s very own home-made garlic and chilli vinegar at this point, only to receive a nonchalant shrug. But I could hardly make much of it, because when I’d had a similar dish at Pho earlier in the year I had done exactly the same thing. Unlike Pho, MumMum didn’t give you extra mint and coriander and goodies to stick in there to taste. I understand why: MumMum is very much more no-frills, and the packaging is more geared to the takeaway crowd, but the overall effect was just a little too understated.

The bánh mì was more like it, although still not quite there. There was chicken, plenty of it in fact, and although it wasn’t fresh off the grill and straight into the baguette it was still piping hot and reasonably tasty. There was plenty of what I think was shredded pickled carrot and daikon, which lent cleanness, bite and crunch. The excessively thick discs of cucumber all down one side I could have done without, but that might be more to do with me and my feelings about cucumber. And there was a little coriander and mint, although really just enough to make me wish there was more. It needed more full stop, and I could see plenty of ways that could have been done, whether by adding more zing and lime, a lot more coriander and mint, some peanuts or – the traditional element of a bánh mì, this – some pâté. It was a few steps above an entry-level hot chicken sandwich, but that was all. I wasn’t sure whether this was marketed at normal lunchtime shoppers or fans of Vietnamese food, but whoever it was aimed it wasn’t quite on the money.

What it really needed, I decided, was the satay sauce which came with the summer rolls. These were quite remarkable and easily the highlight of the visit; I’ve had summer rolls before and never quite got it, but these were properly delicious. It’s very hard not to keep trotting out the same adjectives to describe Vietnamese food: fresh, clean, delicate, blah blah blah. Believe me, I know that. But they seem so appropriate in this case, and in any event I’d rather not embarrass us all by dashing off to the thesaurus.

In some ways, the summer rolls should have been no more successful than the bánh mì or the pho, but that combination of crunch and subtlety worked here when it didn’t quite elsewhere. The prawn summer roll, Zoë’s choice had three prawns along one edge, my pork summer roll had a slice of roast pork rolled along the outside. In both cases it was a weird experience to take off the clingfilm and then see an equally transparent layer you could actually eat in the form of the rice paper. But the real winner was the satay – properly deep and rich with a beautifully simmering heat. A small quibble is that the little plastic tub it came in was far too small to allow proper dipping. A bigger quibble is that I just would have liked more satay sauce in general. And of course, the main quibble was that my bánh mì hadn’t come slathered in the stuff. Oh well, maybe next time I’ll just ask for a couple of tubs on the side.

“That’s the hit of the whole fruit” said Zoë, devouring hers, and I couldn’t disagree. They’re four pounds for two, and I could well imagine foregoing the bánh mì next time and just having a couple of the summer rolls instead. But, on the other hand, there was a fried egg bánh mì which also sounded intriguing. And that, in a way, is rather a telling thing about my visit to MumMum – you could argue that it was only a partial success, you could say it was still more unrealised potential than actual accomplishment, but I had still already mapped out what I’d eat on my next two visits.

Service was good, prompt and kind although it had a strangely downcast quality to it. We were handed a slip with a code we could use to enter a TripAdvisor review (and details of their website which, the last time I tried it, didn’t work). The chap who brought our food over was lovely and friendly. But, as we were leaving, I asked the other lady serving how things had gone in their first month.

“It’s not that good” she said.

There was just enough of a pause for me to worry, and then she went on.

“But it’s not that bad either.”

My heart went out to her for being so honest, and I left the restaurant in crusading mode all fired up to write a glowing review which would get people flocking (who am I trying to kid? Trickling) to MumMum. But after a period of reflection, I think it’s right to strike a different tone. MumMum is a refreshing option for the town centre; they have a lovely, well laid-out space in a decent location and they offer something you can’t get elsewhere in town. They are starting to do a superb job of drawing attention to themselves on Instagram (I was recently mesmerised by an Instagram story showing exactly how they make a summer roll – well worth two for four quid, I reckon).

All that is to their credit, but the realities of their situation are still challenging. Good as a location on Market Square is, it also means that two days of every week diners have to walk right past a thriving food market to eat there. On most Wednesdays, unless the weather was truly dismal, I’d struggle to pass up the plethora of options at Blue Collar – especially the challoumi wrap from Leymoun – to eat at MumMum. Closing on Saturdays and Sundays makes it difficult to try their wares unless you work in town. Their prices are slightly confusing and not always as competitive as they could be. But most of all, I really think MumMum needs to be bolder and braver with flavour, or I worry that they’ll never get the audience they need to survive. Their food needs to sing rather than stammer, and I sense – to twist the metaphor out of shape – that they’re still clearing their throat. I really hope they make it: I’d rather not mourn the passing of a second Vietnamese cafe in Reading.

MumMum – 6.9
20 Market Place, RG1 2EG
0118 3274185

https://www.facebook.com/Simply.Vietnamese.Taste/