Aqua Food and Mood. The nights I’ve lain awake and wondered why they called it that. Why give it a name that immediately transports every straight woman in Britain back to some of the most uncomfortable evenings of her life? Much-anticipated meals out comprehensively ruined by monosyllabic Mr Sulky Britches? Stabbing at his starter and communicating only via the medium of grunts? Girls, we’ve all been there.
To make the flashbacks even more acute, the décor at Aqua Food and Mood consists of something you might have hoped you’d long since seen the back of: flock wallpaper. Most women of my vintage can probably recall a few excruciating scenes played out to their inevitable finale against a horrible backdrop of swirly red fluff.
Partly, I suppose, it’s the fact that England are playing Slovakia later in Euro 2106, but on the warm and sunny early evening when I visit, the only sign of life is two Middle Eastern men in conclave at a table. They look as if they should be playing cards, but actually they’re mostly fiddling with their phones. Perhaps they’re playing with a virtual pack.
The disarmingly frank waitress, glancing wistfully through the windows, says she wouldn’t be indoors if she didn’t have to be. It’s not the most encouraging statement that could reach a punter’s ears, but I think she’s selling it short. True, the plush maroon and sable colour scheme is hardly screaming ‘informal summer dining’, but the windows are big, the bar is mellow in the evening sun and there’s an extensive ‘shisha terrace’. OK, in reality it’s just a glorified deck overlooking the car park and a pile of discarded uPVC window frames – but this is Coventry; you have to make allowances.
For my starter, I choose Batata Hara, described on the menu as ‘sautéed potatoes with onions, peppers, coriander, garlic, lemon & chilli’. It’s fantastic. The potatoes are soft and coated with a warming chilli crust – but the real revelation is the salad that comes with it. Just lettuce, tomato and cucumber, but lifted into something extraordinary by the addition of poppingly fresh parsley, mint and coriander. I feel myself relaxing in anticipation of the main course: sebanikh ma ruz – spinach cooked with onions, spices, coriander and lemon.
Unfortunately, alarm bells start ringing even before it arrives. Out of sight in the kitchen, I hear the waitress exclaiming to the chef in what sounds like disbelief. Except I can’t quite hear her. ‘Is it supposed to be so…buttery?’ it might be. Or maybe ‘batter-y?’. ‘Yeah, yeah’ he confidently replies. Er…sorry? This is my meal they’re talking about? (Well it must be – there’s no one else in here. But why on earth would it be buttery?). It’s only when she brings it to the table a few moments later that all becomes clear. What she must have said, it is now heart-sinkingly obvious, was ‘Is it supposed to be so watery?’
So…you know when your washing machine breaks down mid-cycle and your clothes, when you finally haul them out and dump them in an old washing-up bowl, are lifeless and lumpen and haemorrhaging dirty water like some mortally wounded grey-blooded thing? That. The idea, I think, is that you deploy the accompanying rice to mop up the excess liquid. If only it were that simple.
The waterlogging means that whatever flavours have been added to the spinach are so diluted as to be totally meaningless. There is some sort of spice in there – cumin, possibly – but the taste is so slight I can’t really tell. The only seasoning that’s emerged unscathed is salt. Plus, the heaviness of the fluid overload means it quickly becomes unpleasantly filling. The waitress, ever helpful, offers me a spoon.
Like an eager internet dater, I always arrive at my chosen restaurant full of hope that tonight I’ll find the one. But you can’t fall in love with a plate of food that feels like it’s twenty per cent straight from the tap. Never mind Food and Mood. This must be why they call it Aqua.
Aqua Food and Mood Lebanese Restaurant, 14 Thehas Butts, Coventry CV1 3GR. Batata Harra, £4.20. Sabanikh Ma Ruz, £10.45