Photography, as devotees of these posts will no doubt have noted, is not my strong suit. Well-meaning advisers have sometimes suggested the blog could become a whole lot better almost overnight if only I would get myself ‘a proper camera’ so that I could make the food I’m about to consume appear ‘more appetising’. Really? I think they’re missing the point. Which is that if you’re going to eat out round here on a regular basis, you’d better get used to the idea that ‘appetising’ will not necessarily be the first adjective you reach for to describe what you’ve just been served. The photography, in all its crapness, is a commentary on that.
Take Ristorante Etna in the city centre. Erupting onto the Coventry dining scene in 1981, it’s now settled into being one of the city’s most venerable eateries. But with a recent decorative makeover under its belt and a new menu hot off the press, does it still have the old fire in its belly? Er no, not if my recent visit is anything to go by. On the evening I was there, Mount Etna was in decidedly quiescent phase.
The décor, for a start, is actively depressing. The magnolia walls, arched recesses and statuettes put me in mind of a suburban semi that’s trying to be a minor stately home. The painting of a ruined village, meanwhile – victim, I suppose, of the volcano thrusting triumphantly skywards in the background – seemed an ominous metaphor for my bright hopes of getting a decent meal in Cov. Would tonight witness a diversion of the lava flow of fate – streaming, so persistently of late, across the plains of mediocrity? The omens weren’t good.
OK: it was nice to see arancini on the menu – an authentic Sicilian vegetarian treat. And actually, the rice ball itself wasn’t bad. It had a perfect crunchy shell, and its hidden cheesy heart was tangy and goo-ey and properly comforting. The pomodoro sauce was also good, and clever enough to go light on the basil so that what shone through most clearly was the acidity of the tomatoes.
What I didn’t really get was how the two were put together. I mean, if the glory of the dish rests, in part, on its divine crispiness, why would you then go and pour sauce all over it? All I can think is that it was some kind of representational presentation: what you’d see should you be unwise enough to peer into Mount Etna’s crater at the exact moment when a huge head of magma is welling up inside.
Which leaves open the question of what that mucky-looking dish that contained my vegetarian lasagne was meant to represent – aside from the death of all hope, that is. I still can’t believe the kitchen let it go out in that state. What it tasted like is almost academic – for the record, the cheese they’d used in the sauce was way too salty, and the sparsity of filling between the layers of pasta made for a heavy, pudding-y feel.
But all that fades into insignificance when set beside the greater crime of sending it to table looking like it still bore the traces of someone else’s dinner. I don’t suppose it did really – modern dishwasher technology being what it is and all that. But why would you risk giving your customers a reason even to think it? Even for a nanosecond? Why would you do that?
Coventry is an hour from London by train, but in food terms it might as well be on another planet. And although I voted remain in last year’s referendum, in some ways I think of this as a ‘Brexit blog’: a rejection of the fashionably pale, self-consciously perfect world of aspirational food and lifestyle blogging, in favour of articulating the grim reality of eating out in manky, left-behind bits of the West Midlands Conurbation.
But what separates me from the leave voters – many of whom, I suspect, are secretly very comfortable with Britain being a bit shite – is that I want things to be better. Etna served my meal in a dish that looked like it hadn’t been washed. Surely no one voted for that.
Ristorante Etna, 55-57 Hertford Street, Coventry CV1 1LB. Arancini £4.50; Vegetable Lasagne £7.45 (lunchtime), £10.45 (evening).