Female reviewing dilemmas, Part 1 (more may follow): what do you do with an independent restaurant that’s spotlessly clean, great value for money, welcomes you with friendly staff and clearly takes a pride in what it puts in front of you – but you just don’t like their food that much? Answer: blame yourself.
When it comes to slagging off chains, I’ve got no compunction – they’re big enough to take it, and, as their marketing machine’s power-point info-graphics will undoubtedly have reassured them, the incoherent mutterings of a grumpy old bat like me are hardly going to influence the behaviour of the affluent in-crowd everyone’s chasing.
Likewise, pretentious places – I don’t frequent them, but if I did, I wouldn’t hesitate to make hay with their hubris in exchange for readers’ smirks; and even independents are fair game if the food’s a joke or the staff, who really should know better, are plainly having a giraffe at my expense. But when a great small restaurant is trying really hard and I still don’t like it…well the problem’s obviously me, right?
Shin Ramen is situated in the lethargic backwater that is ‘Coventry World Food Quarter’. It’s also bang opposite BBC Coventry and Warwickshire, so I half expected a casual encounter with some lunching media types (‘Hel-luurr – I write a blog you know…’), but no – apart from me the clientèle consisted entirely of youthful South-East Asians, presumably students. Their presence was certainly an endorsement of the food’s authenticity, but it did make me wonder whether the concept of ‘World Food’ is a lost cause round these parts. This is the second restaurant I’ve been to in a week that seemed to be talking entirely to itself.
The interior of Shin is clean and bright and unthreateningly eclectic – part industrial, part sanitised rustic (by which I suppose I just mean ‘polished wood’), part shabby chic. On one wall, a colourful mural pays homage to Japan’s national icons; on another, a wallpaper whose design appears to be partly inspired by Klaus Voormann’s artwork for Revolver. Oh, and there’s a wonderfully frothy pretend cherry blossom tree just inside the door.
From a not-enormous range of vegetarian mains, I chose the yasai ramen. Attractively presented in a large steaming bowl (how else would they present it, you berk? It’s a broth! Stop writing like a lifestyle blogger!), everything in there was so fresh it practically sparkled with dew – and it just kept giving.
Trawling the lower depths, I pulled up – along with the noodles – black mushrooms, sea vegetables, spring onions, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, garlic and greens, all cooked with painstaking care. Standout was the soft boiled egg, perfectly balanced on that alchemical cusp where runny turns to solid. It was the broth I didn’t really go for.
And unfortunately, it’s the broth that’s the heart of the ramen; you taste it in every mouthful. Here, the vacuum left by meat seemed to have been filled mainly by the slightly musty taste of toasted sesame oil and a disconcerting fishiness emanating from a large sheet of nori. It didn’t seem wildly salty when I was eating it, but by the time I got home, I was ready to plunge my head in the washing-up water.
I realise that compared with the gutsy meat-based broth dictated by tradition, an example made from vegetables is always going to be a bit wussy – even now I can see people (well, men) shaking their heads and yelling at the screen ‘what do you expect, you stupid cow?’. I don’t know. I don’t blame the chef though.
Perhaps I chose the wrong thing. Perhaps – rather counter-intuitively for something that majors on noodles – ramen just doesn’t translate very well into a vegetarian dish. Or perhaps the problem is my inexpert palate simply doesn’t appreciate good Japanese food, made the proper way. So let me do what women always do: apologise for being myself.
Dear Shin (she wrote), You’re a great little restaurant. I can tell you really care. I’m sorry things didn’t work out for us, but it’s not because I don’t appreciate you. We just want different things. Please don’t blame yourself. It’s not you, it’s me…
Shin Ramen, 2 Priory Place, Fairfax Street, Coventry CV1 5SQ. Yasai Ramen, £7.95