As an unaccompanied female from cosseted south Cov, I admit that entering an unfamiliar pub just off the Foleshill Road takes me slightly out of my comfort zone. But as I nervously round the corner into Lockhurst Lane, the only thing to accost me is a warm hug of spicy aromas that envelops me and guides me, gently but quite irresistibly, towards the Stag and Pheasant. I’m no longer in control here. And once I reach my goal and step inside, I’m happy to report that all my worries are promptly knocked into a cocked karahi. Because this place is brilliant.
OK – it’s a rub-a-dub: the décor is functional (and sagely red and white), it’s noisy from various big screen TVs that are perma-tuned to the full house of sports channels*, and blokes are wandering around with pint pots in their hands. If you’re looking for a romantic meal à deux with your nearest-and-dearest, you might decide the Stag and Pheasant isn’t quite ticking all the boxes. But for fabulous, value-for-money grub in a relaxed and unpretentious setting, Coventry has yet to show me anything finer.
I hesitate to call it a ‘desi pub’ only because this doesn’t seem to be what it calls itself (it calls itself a ‘bar and restaurant’), and I’d hate to cause offence by describing it in terms it eschews. But clearly it is, at the very least, quite similar to a desi pub. It’s recognisably a pub – it has a bar, it has a darts board, it serves beer: what more d’you want? – but instead of tired old steak-and-chips and predictable veg lasagne, it has this banging Punjabi menu.
Or perhaps that should be ‘British-influenced Punjabi menu’. Because the inspiration for the ‘famous chilli cheese naan’ that I uncharacteristically plump for instead of rice (well it’s gotta be famous for a reason, hasn’t it?) to accompany my vegetable dhansak seems to be none other than the cheese toastie. In this incarnation however, bland British comfort food is given a glorious boot up the backside by feisty chilli, then brought round with dazzles of chopped coriander. I briefly wonder if the concept could be pushed a bit further (full English chilli naan?) but dismiss all other thoughts as I dive into my dhansak**.
Which – intentionally or not – continues the fusion theme. Billed by the menu as a ‘sweet and sour dish cooked with lentils’, the ‘sweet’ element seems to come mainly from a surprise addition of pineapple chunks, reminding me vaguely of my mother’s anxious attempts at culinary sophistication back in the 1970s. Anywhere else, it might trigger a few gifs’ worth of raised eyebrows and tutting; but at the Stag and Pheasant, I don’t care.
No, really – I don’t. And not just because this is terrific curry (although flavoured as it is with a complex, singing spice mixture of cumin seeds and coriander, it’s certainly that), but also because the pub has such a great atmosphere. Everyone in here – from the friendly, welcoming bar staff, to my fellow-diners in the restaurant, to the regulars knocking it back in the tap room – seems to be having a good time. You’d have to be much more committed to the miseryguts cause even than I am, not to just go with the flow and enjoy every minute of it.
A few years ago, the Stag and Pheasant was threatened with closure. Thanks to a bit of imagination and foresight by a British Indian drinker who couldn’t bear to see his local go to the wall, it’s now a thriving community hub that, in bringing together and celebrating what’s good about two distinct cultures, has magically created something everyone can love.
In the Black Country, where desi pubs originated, the phenomenon was recently the subject of a successful arts and history project. For the mooted ‘golden mile of food’ meanwhile, this savvy, grass-roots, something-for-everyone model might, with luck, be pointing the way forwards. Well, a girl can dream can’t she?
*Non-sports fans, might want to give this place the swerve when major sporting events are on TV.
**The kitchen will happily tailor the heat of its curries to personal taste, but be warned that what they call ‘medium’ would still be regarded by some as pretty hot. Not a complaint; just a heads-up.
The Stag and Pheasant, 13 Lockhurst Lane, Coventry CV6 5PD. Vegetable Dhansak, £5.95; Famous Chilli Cheese Naan (unless you’re very hungry, this is well big enough for two), £2.75.