Dear readers, I’ve been left in some doubt as to whether I can continue with these blogs. My fear, if I can put it this way, is for the tools of my trade. I’m worried, to be precise, that thousands of them may have been obliterated in a single night. It’s next morning now and my tongue, and its little gustatory organs, are still reeling in shock. Never mind reviewing food; after a meal in Habibi in Far Gosford Street, I don’t know if I’ll even be able to taste food any more.
Having said that, if you live in Coventry you probably ought to visit Habibi at least once, just for the wonder of its interior. Behind a small, unassuming shop front on a (let’s be honest) fume-clogged street, a huge ‘Bedouin tent’ opens out at the back. Between its gently dipping folds, real trees arch their branches and real vines tangle and creep above your head. A dimly-lit sheesha lounge of fabric-covered walls and low, slightly dusky banquettes and cushions beckons away to the right.
Given the choice, I probably wouldn’t have eaten in the sheesha lounge. The smoke from the hookahs quickly dispersed and wasn’t intrusive, but the operative word here is ‘lounge’. That’s the position the sofas are designed for, the hand just occasionally wondering over to the low brass tables to light upon a tiny glass of Arabic tea. For eating a full meal, everything was awkwardly near the ground: I couldn’t decide whether to kick off my shoes and curl up my feet underneath me (which created difficulties in reaching over to the table) or keep my feet on the floor (which left my back unsupported and my knees in the way).
The mixed mezze starters were very good indeed, once I’d decided how best to get at them. The baba ganoujj, as if in tribute to the surrounding atmosphere, was smoky and gutsy and almost made me wish I was a bad girl. The loubia biziet, by contrast, flavoured with rose-water, was dainty and ethereal and white cotton socks. The batata hara was hot and more-ish and had me slyly eyeing it, as politeness did battle with greed, to see who was going to get the last bit.
It was when the main course arrived that things started going downhill. My first thought, on trying my tagine khoudar, described on the menu as ‘traditional Moroccan dish with carrots, courgettes, potatoes and onions, with fresh herbs’ was that it tasted vaguely medicinal. Undaunted, I ploughed on, hoping it was just an isolated morsel. It wasn’t – and it got worse. Much worse. From ‘medicinal’, it rapidly deteriorated to ‘disinfectant’ (I’m thinking Dettol, specifically) and finally hit its nadir in a mucous-membrane stripping burst of intense, screeching lemon. I’d had my teeth scaled earlier that day. I realise now that I needn’t have bothered because this meal would have done the job just as well – although sitting in the dentist’s chair was marginally more enjoyable.
Straight up, this was one of the worst main courses I’ve ever eaten. Given the provenance of the cuisine, I assume the culprit was preserved lemon; in the dim light, what I’d taken for an innocent chunk of courgette was actually a huge piece of pure, eye-popping citric acid. But it wasn’t restricted to a single mouthful – there was so much acidity that it hijacked the entire dish. The potatoes, carrots, herbs and all the rest of it might have been prepared and cooked to the nick of perfection for all I know, but none of it mattered – because all I could taste was this horrible pine-y, lemon-y juggernaut that completely overpowered and tossed aside whatever helpless horticultural produce stood in its way. One of my companions, who’d ordered the same thing, was reduced in desperation to sprinkling it with sugar.
So there you go: interesting environment, pleasant atmosphere, terrible food – another night out ruined. By now, you’d think I’d be used to Coventry restaurants serving up lemons. It’s just that Habibi seemed to serve up more lemons than most.
Habibi, 142 Far Gosford Street, Coventry CV1 5DY. Habibi mezze (mixed mezze starter followed by choice of main) £15 per person.