Restricted by the season to restaurants overlooked by the Christmas-do brigade, I this week find myself in the city centre’s run-down City Arcade, where recent-ish addition Pars Taste of Persia looks as frisky as the shop floor the morning after the works night out. Neither is City Arcade itself a place to gladden the heart. A covered lane of small shops, it’s a sort of low-rent post-war take on the more famous Burlington Arcade – with the obvious limitations of being located in a Midlands manufacturing town rather than the rich man’s playground of London’s Mayfair.
Taking care not to skid on the patina of pigeon shit that splotches the paving, I pick my way towards my destination. A few weeks ago, someone took a hammer – or something similar – to the window, leaving the glass unbroken but badly fractured. I don’t know what happened here, but with the afro hairdressers across the way seemingly the only other business to have been targeted, I know what it looks like. For all I’m worth, I’m willing Pars to stick up two fingers to the lot of them and give me food that’s really, really special. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite pan out that way.
Fairly obviously, this is a place that’s been put together on a shoestring. The walls are plain white with touches of regional colour supplied by an unprepossessing selection of scenic views, plus some framed quotations in Arabic that I take to be from the Koran, and (slightly incongruously) a pier adorned with Egyptian hieroglyphics. The table tops, covered in wipe-clean cloths, are enlivened by odd sprigs of artificial flowers. The proprietor seems almost pitifully anxious for my good opinion. He presses me to try some tea, the house speciality.
My Ash Reshte (‘tasty thick soup of mixed herbs, beans, flat noodles and yoghurt sauce’) is heavy for a starter, but unusual and not un-enjoyable. The liquid has mostly been absorbed by the pulses and noodles, leaving everything on the soft side and making me wonder how long ago it was cooked. On the other hand, there are some interesting flavours in there. Mint has been confined to a spoonful of thick topping, ensuring it doesn’t run riot, and there are odd bursts of something incongruously – but intriguingly – sweet. Is it meant to be there? Or has it snuck in by accident?
The Khoresht Badamjoon (‘delicious fried aubergine, onions, garlic and tomatoes slowly cooked in a tomato-based sauce served with steamed saffron rice’) main course arrives as a huge serving. The aubergine is gorgeous: melting, unctuous and smoky. Which makes it all the more frustrating that the sauce simply doesn’t do it justice – it’s watery (it’s eventually found to be sitting in a whole stagnant pool of the stuff, that has percolated downwards until halted by the plate) and tastes of nothing. At £5 (£6 in the evening) it’s terrific value, but I would happily have sacrificed portion size for richer sauce. Pars deserves top marks for determination and tenacity – but overall, the verdict has to be: a bit sub-par.
And its handicap is increased still further by uncertainty over its City Arcade home: in the off-again, on-again saga of the City Centre South regeneration scheme, it’s slated for demolition. I think that’s madness. One of the many, many things Coventry City Centre is crying out for is small, independent shops. There’s a whole street of them here – and the plan is to flatten it, to make it easier to get to IKEA.
Coventry is taking the wrecking-ball to its mid-century buildings at the very moment when their beauty is finally being recognised (demolition of the old Coventry Telegraph offices and their replacement with student flats was waved through this week). It will rue the day. The success of FarGo Village proves that local people do have an appetite for quirky, independent shopping. A revitalised City Arcade could cater for that in a trendy retro environment slap-bang in the city centre. Yes, the architecture is of its time. But then so is Burlington Arcade’s – and no one calls that an eyesore, do they?
Pars Taste of Persia, 19 City Arcade, Coventry CV1 3HW. Ash Reshte, £2.95; Khoresht Badamjoon, £5 (lunchtime menu only; £6 in evening).
Post Script: Good news! It would appear (10/01/17) that the new owner of the old Coventry Telegraph offices is planning to renovate, rather than demolish them, and turn them into a ’boutique hotel’. More details here.