Unusually for a Coventry city centre restaurant, The Artisan, even from the outside, looks classy. Located in a fine example of late eighteenth century terraced housing, now renovated, refurbished and Grade II listed, its unshouty mellow brickwork and mullioned windows beckon you with promises of modern, relaxed dining and a sympathetically-restored interior.
In the evenings, the restaurant proper doesn’t open until seven. Arriving too early for that, I’m seated in a tiny dining area of just two tables in a kind of ante-room to the bar. Contrary to my expectations, the clientèle of said bar, from what I can see of it, seems to consist not of sharp-suited thirty-somethings kicking back after a hard day making money, but middle-aged boozers. It could be a bit intimidating for a lone female, and I wonder if I’m going to feel uncomfortable. I needn’t have worried: the gents are all models of courtesy and old-fashioned respect. It’s my fellow-diners who are the problem.
In our little room, there’s not a great deal to look at: plain white walls hung with generic monochromes of 1950s movie stars, the entrance to the ladies’ loo – and each other. And for my greater edification on this occasion, the group occupying the second table has chosen to keep me entertained with a ringside seat at an unsettling and intermittently explosive family argument that rumbles on between them for the whole time I sit there.
In my embarrassment, my only option is to turn back to my food. Which – thankfully – is well-deserving of my attention; in fact, it’s rather good. To describe my starter – ‘Bean Cassoulet with toasted brioche and crumbled Cheshire cheese’ – in a way that’s easily understood, I suppose I could paraphrase Mark Twain and say it’s beans on toast with a college education. I’d be selling it short though: this is going for a Masters.
The presentation, for one thing, is anything but homely. Hurrahs of pesto and balsamic high-kick across the plate like chorus girls, creating, with the cheese, a tangy acidic balance to the creamy – never soggy – pulses. A garnish of fennel micro-herbs adds the merest brush of aniseed, as unexpected as it’s delightful.
It’s the beans that top the bill however – and that’s what I like about this plate. Effort has been made to explore the potential of a normally humble ingredient, give it a strong supporting cast, and make it the star of an harmonious and rather stylish show. Whoever is doing the cooking here is getting me very much on-side.
For main course, I choose the mushroom ravioli with garlic and cream sauce. At first glance it looks like just another of those insipid-but-ubiquitous ‘white dishes’ – white plate, white pasta, white sauce – that lazily appeal to the minimalist vogue as a way of justifying their own dullness. But my word, this one is good. The mushroom stuffing is perhaps a tad under-seasoned, but that’s my only complaint. The pasta is beautifully cooked and the sauce is velvety and has real depth from shallots and white wine. At the end of my fork, the little parcels swerve around like fairground dodgems as I greedily chase every drop.
Over to my right, the family argument lurches through a number of phases. I think it was while I was between courses that it reached its rather shocking dénouement. The word ‘unacceptable’ was bandied about; it’s a word I’ve noticed is used a lot these days to confer an aura of unarguable universality on a position that in reality articulates nothing more than the speaker’s arbitrary personal agenda. So I choose my own words carefully.
I had a lovely meal at Artisan. But being forced – as if I weren’t even there, thanks a bunch – to act as background to a showdown of private griefs means I’ll remember this restaurant less for what I ate and more for being where I witnessed…something unacceptable. And that makes me sad. My apologies to the chef, who clearly cares. Despite the great food, I left there with my mouth full of bitter taste.
The Artisan, 1 Ryley Street, Coventry CV1 4AJ. Bean Cassoulet, £5; Mushroom Ravioli, £8.
Post Script: A few weeks after the visit described above, I returned to the Artisan for Sunday lunch with one of my relatives. We ate in the upstairs restaurant. I thought the food was a shade less good than on my first visit, but the environment was very pleasant.