Leave it to Esmie, Coventry

All right, let’s get this over with. Leave it to Esmie, FarGo Village’s new-kid-on-the-block Caribbean restaurant, was experiencing some fairly major teething troubles when I visited with my Authenticity Consultant the other night. Dishes were unavailable, they gave me tonic water when I asked for soda water (Yup! I know how to live!) and the omnivore AC was not asked how well-done he wanted his chops. Random music emanating from a perky radio station may have had less to do with creating a Caribbean vibe amongst the diners than it had with galvanising the staff in the kitchen. Circumstances being what they were, I shouldn’t really have objected.

Because the biggest problem by far was how long we waited for our food. For our starters alone, we waited…well, let’s just say we were spinning out our drinks for a lot longer than I would normally consider reasonable. It wasn’t idleness: the lone waitress and two chefs were all working flat-out. The difficulties seemed to stem from a combination of larger-than-expected numbers through the door, insufficient staff to cope with them and the motorway pile-up that inevitably ensued. But you know what? I’m going to cut them some slack – at least for now.

Because once the splutterings of this new machine have been settled by the oil of routine – and settled they will be, trust me – LITE has the makings of a very tidy addition to the Coventry food scene. OK – it grew out of an events catering business and its street food roots are clearly visible: it’s not luxurious, it’s not fine dining and at the moment it’s not even very atmospheric. But (and this is where Coventry should sit up and take notice), it boasts an imaginative menu with real ambition and enough nous to include an extensive vegan section. And most importantly of all, it’s operated by people who care a lot about the plates they turn out.

Having said that, I’m guessing that my starter of herbed/spiced polenta batons with chargrilled vegetables and dipping sauces had to some extent fallen victim to the pressure to actually put food in front of us. It was a pretty plate, and the vegetables were sweet and juicy; but the polenta certainly wasn’t ‘fried crispy on the outside’ as promised by the menu, and neither did I detect much evidence of encounters with herbs and spices. Instead, I got hints of coconut, the oil I assume it had been fried in.

As for the dipping sauces, the mango was delightfully light and fresh, but the Scotch bonnet was too thuggish for me: I’m not a fan of condiments that treat their delicately-flavoured brethren as sport, only there to be obliterated by shots of searing heat.

For main I had callaloo bake, a sort of Caribbean vegan shepherd’s pie of greens topped with mashed sweet potato. Served in a (possibly slightly too) large clay pot, this was comfort rather than elegance – but I was in need of comfort by that stage, so I got stuck in. And it was good; the callaloo was not over-cooked, the Caribbean spicing was perfectly pitched, and the balance of layers was just right.

Elsewhere, the side of mac’n’cheese that I shared with the AC was disappointingly anodyne – but the fried plantain was an absolute stunner. Caramelised to the texture of dough-y pancake glazed with lashings of sugar and lemon, this was wonder on a plate. Even the AC, in a huff because his chops were too rare for his liking, emerged from his sulk for long enough to concede that it at least was ‘done right’.

With its Caribbean beach shack theme, LITE is potentially one of the funkiest destinations in Coventry. But the operative word in that sentence is ‘potentially’; currently it lacks pizazz and is in dire need of slicker organisation. Staff are aware of these problems and are addressing them. But we, the foodies of Cov, also have a role to play. So my message is simple: if you’re a local foodie reading this, clear a couple of hours, get yourself down to FarGo Village and help nurse LITE through its vulnerable early weeks. It’s much too valuable to go under.

UPDATE FEB 2017: I went back to LITE for an evening meal with friends and I’m pleased to report that it had improved a lot. The kitchen looked professional, service had speeded up and it had that relaxed, neighbourhood-type feel of friends swinging by for a bite to eat. Expect it to come into its own even more when the lighter evenings and warmer weather arrive.

Leave it to Esmie, FarGo Village, Far Gosford Street, Coventry CV1 5ED. Caribbean Polenta Batons, £4.00; Callaloo Bake, £6.99.

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