Reviewing crap restaurants is easy. If the décor reminds you of a bad acid trip, the waiter has the winning charm of Kim Jong-un and your soup smells like it’s been made out of sump oil – all you have to do is say so, and readers will love you for it.
Conveying excellence is much harder. For one thing, excellence isn’t funny. Pretentious is funny; naff is funny – but if something is simply good, well, there’s not much left to do except salute it. The question then becomes, how to do that in words?
Reaching for superlatives won’t help: they’re mundane, they’re lazy they just make you look smug. Trying to be clever meanwhile (‘the Freudian underpinning of this menu was exemplified by a dessert whose tangled, chiaroscuro interior could almost stand as metaphor for the conflicted human psyche’) is clearly the recourse of the twat. No. Talking about excellence merely detracts from it. The problem is that true excellence is its own commentary.
For someone living in Coventry (aka Rubbish Restaurant Central), it’s a problem that has, until now, been purely theoretical. But after signing up for Dali Tapas and Vino’s inaugural ‘Spanish Tapas Five Course plus Dessert Night’, I realise I need to come up with a new strategy. That’s how good it was.
OK – in cash terms, the price for the nearest that Cov is going to get you to feasting like a god is £25 a pop (drinks extra). And I’m aware that for some people, the fact that I even contemplated paying that much for my dinner puts me as firmly in the fruitcake zone as a bloke who’s promised not to change his pants until the City win the Premiership because God told him to. I could point out that it still averages less than five quid a course but to be honest, why bother? You either get it or you don’t.
And what I got, for kissing goodbye to my twenty-five smackeroonies, was a welcome from smiling, friendly staff, who appeared to be anticipating my arrival with genuine eagerness. Sadly, the interior of Dali’s hasn’t changed much since it was Urban Coffee Company. Intimate it ain’t – it’s still a big echo-y barn of a place, which the new occupants have done their best to soften with candles, Edison lights and flamenco music. And then I got fantastic food, some of it served by chef himself!
The first course, a scene-setter Spanish platter of tortilla, Manchego cheese and olives with a wand of paprika waved over it, had me intrigued: frankly, I was surprised to see tortilla, Spain’s best-known gift to ovo-lacto vegetarianism, dealt with so early. I’d underestimated how ambitious this menu would be.
It didn’t take long find out though. Plate two was where things really got going, with a sensational sweet potato, butternut squash and thyme soup. I’ve no idea how they got it so smooth, like savoury custard, with each of its three elements in perfect, harmonious balance: I’ve used rougher stuff than this as face cream. It was possibly (superlative alert) the best single course I’ve ever eaten in Cov.
Running it a close second was the romesco sauce that accompanied half a dozen fine tempura asparagus, with its thrilling walk on those knife-edge cusps between charred and burnt and sweet-but-not-quite.
And then there were the blindsiding flavour combinations. Who would have thought that aubergine, thinly sliced, tempura’d, then reconstructed (in a a bravura slap in the face to the poncey vogue for de-construction) with a skewer and unexpectedly served with a lozenge of frozen honey, could acquire an edge of almost-salt? Or that smoky arroz al horno (oven-cooked paella) could be the perfect foil to zingy, lemony artichoke hearts?
If I had criticisms, they would be that the maybe the menu was a little lacking in seasonality (a big ask I know for Mediterranean food in wintry Britain). The tomatoes and asparagus were beautifully prepared and probably as good as you can get in January; but that’s still out of season and in places it showed. Plus, portion sizes were much bigger than the expected tapas, which left me feeling confused as well as uncomfortably full.
Having said that, if you weren’t there on Friday – and I happen to know you weren’t – man, did you ever miss out. And as my half-arsed attempts to describe Dali’s gourmet night in words can never do it justice, all I can really say is: book early for the next one.
Update February 2017 – The restaurant is now permanently closed.
Dali Tapas and Vinos, FarGo Village, Far Gosford Street, Coventry CV1 5ED. Gourmet Night every Friday 6pm-9pm (bookings preferred) £25 per person for five plates (larger than tapas size) plus dessert.