Bench Rest is the new foodie project from energetic Argentinian baker Laura Mariel Gonzalez. Laura is the founder of Pop Up Reading – who did supper clubs and pop up dinner parties – and Caversham cafe Nomad Bakery, which had developed a big fan following.
Back in July, there was a minor Twitter-storm when it emerged Laura was leaving Nomad, where she was the driving force, feeling it was time to step aside. Talking to Laura last month over a cup of Anonymous Coffee, she said: “Leaving Nomad was really hard, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But I realised I needed to do it because I was giving up too much of my life. Nomad was full on seven days a week.”
“Creatively I know I made things hard for myself, doing everything was too much. If you have a business seven days a week, it’s really difficult to try new things, experiment, try out new flavours or recipes, even just spend time with your family. I got to the point where, creatively and physically, I was at my limit.”
To recuperate Laura took the summer off, spent on a foodie-finding trip to Australia, where she cooked a supper club with her original Pop Up Reading co-founder Anu. Here she rediscovered her love of preparing simple dishes with a mix of international flavours and focus on fresh vegetables.
“At our supper club in Sydney people were so interested in the food, in the tapas dishes and the ingredients and I realised this what I want to cook for my next business,” Laura said.
So now she’s back in the kitchen with her new concept, Bench Rest, and has partnered with Tasting House, the Chain Street wine bar to offer her new, experimental menu of tapas and brunch inspired by a variety of world cuisines as a pop up weekend menu.
“Bench Rest is my new adventure,” said Laura, “I know this is going to be a lot of work, but I’m researching dishes and techniques and learning a lot. I feel like I’m back to that creative feeling. Starting again, I know it’s going to be hard, but I just want to go for it. I need to cook and feed people and with Bench Rest, I’m smiling again.
What’s the deal with the name Bench Rest? Is it a fitness thing?
No. Although I first read the name as bench press (which is probably my brain’s way of telling to spend more time in the gym), Bench Rest is a baking term, describing the process of letting your dough chill out for a bit before you start to shape your loaf.
Laura also likes to think of it as describing her own time stepping away from the kitchen: “Bench Rest is about taking time to rest, the importance of having a moment to relish things that make life great,” she said.
So how does it work?
Every weekend, from Friday evening at 5pm until Sunday night, Laura will be manning the tiny kitchen at Tasting House – which is really a counter with a sandwich press, a counter grill and a stand-alone hob. Bread and any of the bigger ingredient prep is prepared at home, but otherwise everything is cooked from scratch.
You order up at the till from the Tasting House and then Laura will bring your food over when it’s ready. As the kitchen is so small, that means dishes may come out at slightly different times. But on my visit, there was only a 5 minute wait between my dining companion’s dish arriving and my own.
In the day time, there’s a simple breakfast of three items including toast: “For breakfast I’m keeping it simple: good bread, good butter, good jam,” says Laura, “I’m also excited to be working with the Jam Lady again, so she’ll be making seasonal jams for me.”
After 11am there’s an all day brunch – something that Reading has been missing really. There’s a choice of six or so options which span the globe of breakfast dishes, such as Tex-Mex tortilla with scrambled eggs, a rye bread and herring with ricotta mix from Sweden and Catalan eggs.
In the evenings, there’s a range of tapas with a broad mix of European influences and creative takes on flavours. Look out for beetroot croquetas, butter beans with chorizo in sherry and a vegetable mezze of hummus, garbanzo beans and tomatoes with whipped feta.
“Bench Rest is all about keeping the spirit of seasonality. The menu will change every two weeks and use fresh, seasonal ingredients,” said Laura, “I really want this menu to be full of food that speaks about me. I keep it simple, there’s nothing fancy: no foams, just good, seasonal, fresh food. That means so much to me.”
What’s the food like?
Flavours are generally fresh and wholesome with lots of vegetables, herbs and simple ingredients done well. Nothing is overly elaborate, and it feels like home cooking, with a touch of creativity. It feels playful and experimental.
On my brunch visit, the Scandi Morgen (above) was a thin, pleasingly-dense rye bread topped with ricotta and herring and a double fried duck egg. As ever, bread was well baked and the herring was smoked and soft. It was a huge plate of food which kept me filled for most of the day, although, for me, the egg yolk dominated the flavours of the gentle herring.
The tomato, Parmesan and halloumi galette (main image) was better- topped with a grilled egg, it’s the pastry take on the dish rather than the buckwheat crepe variety. The pastry was buttery, flaky and it’s a well-presented and ambitious dish given the size of the kitchen Laura’s working with. The filling was full of fresh, zesty tomatoes and Italian herbs, but it was on the small side when compared with the larger Scandi Morgen and didn’t quite fill me up.
For the moment at least, almost every brunch dish on the menu is egg-based, which meant my dining companion, who doesn’t really like eggs, didn’t have very much choice. She plumped for the pickled aubergine and sun-dried tomato toastie on sourdough (below) and declared it: ‘an interesting balance of sour and sweet; flavourful, but not quite cheesy enough.’
There’s a vegan-friendly vibe at Bench Rest, so you can request everything to be made without the egg, although that does feel a bit like you’re missing a key ingredient. Given the focus on seasonality, the menu changes every two weeks and I hope to see a few more non-egg based brunch dishes to choose from in the future.
How about the vibe?
Since a makeover this summer, Tasting House is now a comfortable, relaxed and stylish place to hang out. The addition of this pop up kitchen to their wine and coffee options means the room has been packed and buzzing on both my Saturday brunch visits, with a mix of friends, couples and individuals with books, all looking for different things.
Wine is still served as normal in the afternoons and evenings so you can enjoy a glass or two from Tasting House’s enomatic wine vending machine and the team will also be on hand to pair wine with your dishes if you’d like. During Saturday and Sunday day times, coffee’s served by Anonymous Coffee Co.
What else do they do?
As well as the Tasting House residency, Laura still plans to host sourdough baking classes, under the Bench Rest name, although this time they’ll take place in her home kitchen, which means class sizes will be smaller. Find out more about her baking classes.
She also has plans to come back with more pop up dinners in the future, and this month she’s hosting a Vegan Christmas Dinner at Ribizli Modern Cafe, in Wallingford on Monday 17 December. Book your place.
How do I find it?
Bench Rest are at Tasting House from 5pm-10pm for tapas on Friday and Saturday evenings. Breakfast and brunch are served 8am-4pm.
Tasting House, 30a Chain Street, Reading, RG1 2HX. Book a table.
Hello! I'm Claire, the founding editor of Explore Reading. I'm a Reading native and former digital director of Time Out Shanghai. I founded Explore Reading so no one can say, ‘there’s nothing to do in Reading’, again. When not editing Explore Reading, I'm probably drinking a Manhattan.