Millsy’s, Coventry

Millsy’s, Earlsdon: a simple enough concept – café/bar downstairs, restaurant upstairs, relaxed ambiance, chuck in some music…I know all the arguments about the stranglehold certain business interests have on the hospitality sector in this part of the world, but the real head-scratcher is why, even after commanding its corner redoubt for fifteen years plus, Millsy’s has spawned so few imitators. While places of this type have become ten-a-penny in other towns, in chippy old Coventry, Millsy’s remains an up-its-arse-Earlsdon one-off.

Even so, given the venue’s general reputation for coolness, the restaurant is less mellow than I was expecting. True, it boasts an on-trend vaulted ceiling with metal bracing, but the usual aim of such features – to create light and space – has here been subverted beneath a layer of oppressive purple paint. In fact, it’s the sheer purpleness of it all that strikes you most forcefully when you walk in – is the proprietor a Prince fan? Greyish-white is in the mix too of course, but what really holds aesthetic sway is the purple reign of leatherette banquettes and chairs. Plumped and pillowed, it also part-clads the wall before yielding to a lengthy mirror. Say hello to post-industrial loft meets heavy-petting suite.

Early evening on a mid-week day, summer lull. It’s quiet when I arrive, but soon begins to fill with mostly older punters, the majority of whom, in this supposed enclave of sophistication, seem to be requesting burgers. In an inversion of the usual order of things when your parents invite their embarrassing friends round the house for drinks, it’s the youngsters who are living it up downstairs, while the mums and dads are relegated to the staid upper story.

The menu, Mediterranean-inspired, is the same in both areas. For my starter, I choose patatas bravas – and very good they are too, the sauce gutsy, thick and tomato-y, with just the right amount of warming paprika. Full marks for that then. Bring on the main.

OK – credit where credit’s due on this one. ‘Creamy mushroom and soured cream gnocchi finished with a Stilton crumb’ is one of the more complex and certainly one of the more ambitious dishes I’ve been served on this journey so far. A shoal of perfect little gnocchi becalmed in a sauce whose satisfying intensity and depth of mushroom flavour betoken no little skill. Less can sometimes be more though, and in a serving of these generous dimensions, especially with a scattering of ‘blue cheese crumb’, it’s almost too rich. And there are other, more pressing concerns: like what exactly is that totally incongruous, completely unasked for, half-heartedly buttered baton of garlic bread doing cosied-up around the side?!

Because I mean please – does anyone even like garlic bread any more? It’s student aspirationalism from the 1980s is what it is (‘shall we have garlic bread with our spag bol, Steve?’), its air of culinary envelope-pushing born of nothing more radical than the dual advantages of cheap ingredients and parental scepticism (‘but doesn’t it make your breath smell, dear…?’). It’s not even nice. It’s either so butter-sodden that you fear that merely rising from the table will trigger a heart attack and a last gasp in the grated Parmesan, or so hard that eating it will carve permanent grooves in the roof of your mouth (this example being the latter).

And to be honest, in these vegan-curious, clean-eating times of ours, some might say the dominion of fatty, cream-and-cheese-laden vegetarian dining has had its day. It’s a shame Millsy’s hasn’t noticed this because Coventry really needs Millsy’s; in fact, what it needs is more Millsy’s – by which I mean more places like Millsy’s. And if they spurred the original to re-examine sections of its menu – result!

I was expecting great things when I made my reservation, but in reality, what happened here was more like the cautionary tale of a town with an insufficiently robust food culture. Even what passes for Hipsville Central turns out to be just another stroll down that quiet backwater, Memory Lane. And yes, I do mean having black pepper ground over your food by a waiter with a novelty two-foot pepper mill.

Millsy’s, 20 Earlsdon Street, Coventry CV5 6EG. Patatas bravas, £3.50. Creamy mushroom and soured cream gnocchi finished with a Stilton crumb, £10.50

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