‘The great challenge of food from the Indian subcontinent’ quoth Jay Rayner in a recently-penned review ‘is to move it beyond different but strangely similar dun-coloured stews’. For an all-too-brief but still good-while-it-lasted moment, I had hopes that it was a challenge neighbourhood Indian restaurant Indigo Indian Cuisine was up for accepting. That moment occurred when I was served my starter.
OK, OK. I’m aware that restaurants’ current infatuation with unorthodox serving solutions (pork medallions in a pretend-urinal anyone?) has spawned a whole affronted sub-genre of Stop-This-Madness-Give-Us-Real-Plates crusades on social media. But you know what? Stuff them. As long as it a) isn’t there just to distract from poor-quality cooking and b) doesn’t complicate the process of eating (as in sauce running off rimless board onto table), I welcome creativity. It shows someone cares and it gives you something to remember. Which is why Indigo Indian Cuisine should be proud of being the first restaurant I’ve visited in Coventry to embrace even that most tentative item of non-standard crockery, the square of slate. They served my Paneer Tikka starter on it. And very good it was, too.
I suppose one possibly legitimate criticism of inventive/poncey (delete according to viewpoint) presentation is that ‘artistry’ may be an excuse for small portion size. And agreed, three pieces of paneer is not an overly-generous helping. But it was a starter, it was £3.55 and it’s obvious that any dish that looks like this is silently screaming ‘I’m about quality, not quantity’.
So I forgive it. The paneer was soft and dry with a hot-but-not-searing chilli crust, while lubrication came not from stew but from a delicately spiced pea purée. And although it added zero excitement in terms of taste, a bouquet of lettuce leaves tied together with delicate threads of carrot and beetroot was skilfully made and looked amazing. After such a good start, I was all agog to see how my ‘Tarka De Daal’ main course would meet the Rayner test.
Unfortunately, it rather spectacularly flunked it. I think there were a number of problems, foremost amongst which was the decision to make it with those mousey maiden aunts of the pulse family muster, moong beans. Their reluctance to absorb flavours and tendency to cook down to something resembling soup mean they’re rarely able to cut it as a main course. This example, which came complete with skin on top (I kid you not), tasted mostly of cumin powder and some smoky slices of garlic that I assume had been added with the tarka.
It came in an unadventurous dish, with an unadventurous other dish of rice beside it, and was so runny that when I poured one over the other in the time-honoured fashion, the table cloth and I both had reason to be thankful that this time I was eating off an actual plate. With a rim. I could hardly believe it came from the same kitchen as the starter.
And I was genuinely sorry because there was a lot about Indigo that proclaimed ambition to stand out from the crowd. It wasn’t just the starter. The popadoms (shout-out for giving me two of them) came with four chutneys instead of the expected three. The new kid on the block, the waiter explained, was a speciality carrot number, blood red in colour and – the sweetness of the carrot tempered by the addition of tamarind and lime amongst other things – complex in flavour. It was great.
The décor too – though not particularly to my taste – was undeniably glamorous. On a perishing November night the metallic-and-monochrome colour scheme and rather harsh lighting were not exactly fireside, but you could make up for it later by working up a sweat on the sparkly-walled dance floor. It even has a glitter ball.
Which is appropriate in a way, because what I saw at Indigo were flashes of inspiration – no more than that, but flashes nonetheless – piercing the dark night of dun-coloured stew. And given that it’s Coventry we’re talking about, that could – just about – be enough to make you get up and boogie.
Indigo Indian Cuisine, 151-153 Warwick Road, Coventry CV3 6AU. Paneer Tikka £3.55; Tarka De Daal £5.75