The premise behind Hidden Restaurants, Michel Roux Jr’s latest foodporn orgy currently airing on Channel 4, is that some of the most innovative and exciting restaurant cooking in Britain is emanating from kitchens (many of them run by self-taught ‘food mavericks’) in inaccessible, unorthodox or otherwise highly-unpromising locations up and down the land. Presumably this flight from the high street is driven in part by sky-high city centre business rates. But its – possibly unintended – consequence is a riot of inventiveness. So far, Roux and sidekick Freddy Bird have visited eateries located in, amongst other places, an industrial estate, a back garden and a converted bus.
In light of Roux’s theory, I suppose I shouldn’t expect too much from the street food stalls along Coventry’s all-too-visible Market Way. But as it happens, street food is one of the growth-areas that he’s exploring in his series. Freed from the rigour of Le Gavroche, his two-Michelin-starred haute cuisine gaff in London’s Mayfair, he pings around the more relaxed ‘hidden’ restaurants like a kid in a sweetshop. ‘The thing with street food’ he grins ‘is that every bite has got to count…It’s got to be full of flavour’.
Ignoring the mildly concerning inference that a top chef possibly thinks there are occasions when food doesn’t need to be full of flavour, I kind of understand what he’s getting at. Stripped of the ambient diversion of interior design, street food (ironically, given the series’ title) has nowhere to hide. Or to put it another way, not having to worry about the wallpaper means it can give its full attention to what it’s serving up.
The relationship between Coventry Hummus House, generally considered to be the pick of the Market Way bunch, and its ‘proper restaurant’ rivals exemplifies this. It must irritate the hell out of Turmeric Gold – easily Coventry’s most opulent restaurant with its boudoir-ish east-meets-west schtick – that the local TripAdvisor Top Ten has it locked in a permanent mid-table tussle with this tiny stall, whose only seating is a huddle of aluminium chairs and tables sited literally on the street.
So what is CHH doing right? A number of things, I think. Firstly, it offers a limited repertoire of food it knows inside out, mostly based around its felafel speciality. Secondly, everything is freshly-prepared in-house, from the felafel themselves – shaped and deep-fried in front of you – to the chermoula, hummus, hot sauce and tahini sauce. And thirdly – it’s service with a smile. I was even handed an extra felafel, gratis, to keep me happy while I waited.
And these are great felafel. Thanks to shaping on a traditional holder that looks like a miniature ice-cream scoop, they’re exactly the right size. Their green interior meanwhile, suggests they’re made of fava beans rather than chickpeas, and their gritty, almost squeaky texture is a fantastic contrast to their perfect crunchy shell. Served in a wrap, I might have preferred the accompanying paraphernalia to include a touch more hot sauce and chermoula for a heartier flavour kick, but it’s all part of the learning curve: next time I’ll ask for extra. I’m sure it won’t be a problem.
Equally welcoming is Millie’s Kitchen, an Italian and Middle Eastern stall across the way. In search of something different, I chose the zatar pizza which, as at CHH, was prepared and cooked in front of me – first rolled out, then topped with zatar fresh-in from the Lebanon, then flash-baked in very hot oven. The result was a lovely, crispy, airy thin-crust pizza, possibly slightly larger than I really wanted.
Neither of these places is doing anything ground-breaking; it’s traditional street food, freshly prepared and terrific value. But while that’s fantastic for anyone in Cov city centre needing food on the go, Roux seems to be saying it’s not sufficient for the real foodies. To interest them, you need to pander to their vanity by offering them something apparently available only to those clever enough to be ‘in the know’. The very public Market Way can’t do that. Although on second thoughts, maybe Cov city centre is actually the ideal location for a hidden restaurant. It’s the last place anyone would think of looking for a decent meal.