On a blank spring evening pregnant with ennui, I shut the door on all that and set out for Coventry city centre. The time had come to give Las Iguanas another try. I went there last November. God knows what I ate. All I can remember is a stonking hit of pimentón de la vera – that red stuff that belongs in chorizo and nowhere else. Nowhere else! You hear me? Why would anyone want vegetarian food that tastes of Spanish flamin’ sausage?
OK, I’ve calmed down now. I browsed the restaurant’s pleasing ‘Vegetarian and Vegan’ sub-menu online. Onto a comedic rant about pimentón de la vera, maybe I could graft a serious discussion of whether chains like Las Iguanas and Cosy Club are cynically exploiting fads for profit; or, by ‘normalising’ healthy eating, are triumphantly leading a gastronomic revolution.
Until I got there, I was prepared to come down on the side of the latter. Until, that is, I stood in a busy but far-from-rammed dining area being told by a distinctly uncomfortable-looking waitress that no I couldn’t have a table for one ‘because we’re fully booked’. Fully booked my arse! More likely, methinks, they just don’t want sad-sack singletons like me taking up the space where two or three could sit. So it is all about profit. (And incidentally, maybe the restaurant next frontier is here: singles welcome. There are a lot of us about).
Anyway, Coventry is not exactly Gastro Central. I’ve got a to-visit list, it’s not extensive, and now it’s burdened with the additional complication of some places I want not wanting me. How then had my research failed to register Al-Bader Moroccan and Lebanese Restaurant? In my early evening stay-out-go-home indecision, I glimpsed it down an alley. ‘Oh, what the hell’ I thought. They made me very welcome.
It’s an oddly-provisional environment. The building used to be a pub, and the restaurant has simply moved in, hermit-crab style. The shell of the old place – faux beams, narrow passages, woodchip walls, a snug – is not disguised by the Bedouin drapes, brass table tops and carved chairs it now plays host to. Outside, the weedy courtyard is a criminally wasted asset.
I couldn’t recommend Al-Bader to vegetarians – the menu’s too restricted. But the ‘mixed mezze’ – my one and only choice – at £6.50 was a total steal. It arrived rather formally arranged on a rectangular serving dish: felafel, stuffed vine leaf, salad, tabbouleh and a swirl each of hummus, spicy hummus and moutabal. Plus a big stack of flat bread on the side.
Every element was a jewel. Even the pile of potentially-uninspiring iceberg lettuce was topped with sticks of shocking pink pickled turnip. The dips, meanwhile, though identically balanced in terms of olive oil, garlic and lemon, were delightfully different in taste; the aubergine moutabal was richly smoky and the spicy hummus Beiruty had abundant earthy warmth.
The real star though, was the tabbouleh. It’s just parsley – but simultaneously unctuous with olive oil and dancing with lemon and tomatoes, it was joy unalloyed. Who would have thought a shaggy mound of look-like lawn-clippings could be so magical? The flat bread alone disappointed slightly. It cooled to a rubberiness that, try as I might to dismiss them, kept urging thoughts of elasticated underwear, piled up after the wash. Sorry if that’s an image you don’t want to have.
But to be honest, I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone had waltzed in and set up an ironing board – and I mean that as a compliment, because this place is way down-home. Indeed, the whole experience was like eating in the under-utilised back room of a Lebanese house. Surveying my fellow-diners, it seems that the target customers are local Middle Eastern residents. To appeal to them, what’s on offer has to be soul food – the psychic equivalent of mac’n’cheese, forkfuls of mother-love that take you back to a place where none of this matters.
As I left, rough winds still shook the foodie wasteland that is Cov. But just maybe, just maybe, they blew a shade less keen.
Al-Bader Lebanese and Moroccan Restaurant, 31 High Street Coventry CV1 5RE. Regular Mixed Mezze £6.50 (Website relates to the parent restaurant in Birmingham, which seems to have a larger menu).