Oh God, this is the kind of review I hate. Writing it gives me the same feeling you’d get if you went round your nan’s house, let her make a great big fuss of you and slip you a few quid with injunctions not to tell your dad, and then – just because she gave you dull tongue salad for your tea and Wall’s Viennetta for afters – left without helping with the washing-up. You can tell yourself it’s for her good; but you’ve still behaved like a sniggering, ungrateful swine towards someone whose only crime is trying to do their best for you.
Simmer Down Caribbean Restaurant is easily the friendliest place I’ve visited in Coventry so far. On arrival, I was greeted by a motherly lady who seemed to doubling as both waitress and cook, conducted through to the dining area, offered a choice of tables and consulted on my ideal volume for the ambient music. Throughout the meal, she kept popping back to see how I was getting on, and offering apologies for the sub-optimal presentational standards evident on some of the plates.
One of these was the ‘plantain and sweet corn tower’ I had as my starter. The menu described it as ‘layers of seasoned ripe plantain mash and sweetcorn’. When it arrived, it was more like two scoops of mash randomly run through with corn kernels à la tutti frutti ice cream. The problem, my hostess confided, was that the restaurant had recently been re-furbished, and she couldn’t locate the equipment she needed to engineer the advertised stack. But even if she had, I’m not sure it would have solved the multiple other problems.
It wasn’t that the concept was without potential: the slight sourness of the plantain against the sweetness of the corn made for an unusual and more-ish combination that could have been developed in interesting directions. But it was so plain – just two balls of pallid stuff on a completely white serving dish. Where was the crunch of garnish and the whoop of dressing? Where was that Caribbean glamour, that swagger, that starry reflection – however dim – of a certain Mr Usain Bolt that I’d come here to bask in? Not on the plate – and not on the walls either.
Because – and possibly this was another legacy of the re-furb and will be rectified later – they were bare. And I do mean totally bare: not a plant, not a picture, not a flag, no splash of colour – nothing. Just neutral paint from top to toe. I’m not so out-of-touch that I don’t know that minimalism is having a moment, but I can’t help thinking that in a Caribbean restaurant, it’s misplaced. I expected riotous celebration of a vibrant culture. I found vanilla.
My main course, bean jerk with rice and peas, had similar limitations. The jerk consisted of a mixture of haricot and red kidney beans in a soupy sauce with mild allspice flavouring. It was pleasant enough I suppose, but there was zero pizzazz. Perhaps I can best convey its air of safeness by observing that on the menu, it boasted a ‘watch yourself’ three chillies hotness alert. It was marginally hotter than a bowl of cornflakes.
The restaurant’s website states that what it offers is ‘good home-style cuisine’ – one reading of which is: ‘the type of food that might be served in a typical Caribbean home’. As a white British person, I don’t pretend to know much about typical Caribbean homes, but I’m prepared to believe that on these terms, Simmer Down actually succeeds. It’s the terms themselves that are nowhere near ambitious enough.
Unfortunately however, they are typical Coventry. With the possible exception of the South Asian sector, lack of serious competition amongst restaurants here has sanctified the mediocre and obviated experimentation. The town is crying out for excitement and innovation, but there’s none to be had. Eating at Simmer Down was lifted only by the endearingly friendly service. But it – and Coventry as a whole – needs to recognise that without inventive cooking to go with it, that alone is not enough. I know I sound harsh, but believe me – I’m only saying it because I care.
Simmer Down Restaurant and 2 Tone Café, The Courtyard, Rear of 74 Walsgrave Road, Coventry CV2 4ED. Plantain and sweet corn tower, £3.50. Bean Jerk, £7.00