The Stag and Pheasant, Coventry

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.

Toro’s, Coventry

So let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that when the visionaries of Coventry Cultural Strategy went up the mountain and saw, spread out before them, the Foleshill Road become a golden mile of food, what they were actually seeing was not a simple expansion of the current offering, but diversification and possible gentrification. Key to this thinking is, I suspect, the Coventry Canal.

Because it’s true that compared to cities like Manchester and Birmingham, which have re-imagined their canal heritage as showpiece leisure and entertainment quarters, Coventry’s canal, running behind the Foleshill Road as far up as the old Courtauld’s factory, is a criminally under-utilised asset.

You might argue that one reason for this is because development has already been tried – and hasn’t completely worked out. So yes, the Canal Basin is pleasant enough, and is home to a thriving community of small businesses – plus the fabulous Tin at the Coal Vaults performance venue – but few-and-far-between are the times when you could truthfully describe it as ‘buzzing’.

All that may be about to change, however. The emergence of Bishopsgate student village and plans for improved access to the canal from the city centre – including a not-so-fond farewell to that kamikaze footbridge that spans the Ring Road between Bishop Street and Leicester Row – could, in turn, open the door to further canalside development.

A stroll along the tow path certainly reveals scope for bringing in the bulldozers – although large-scale opening up of the canal frontage from the Foleshill Road would require millions of pounds in investment money and re-location packages for existing businesses, and have a potentially shattering impact on the peace and quiet of surrounding housing estates. In the short-term, maybe it’s more realistic to take a closer look at what we’ve already got. Which brings me to Toro’s.

OK – fess-up time: despite my usual open-mindedness, I did not have high hopes of Toro’s. It’s just not my kind of place. A halal steakhouse chain with an incongruously Spanish name and a casual disregard for the proprieties of the English language (‘Toros ™ is a new concept in itself in the UK’ witters its website ‘however the recipes and heritage go back well over 100 years ago’) is never going to do it for a vegetarian grammar snob like me. But for once, I’m not really here for the food. I’m here to see what they’ve done to the General Wolfe.

The last time I was in this iconic building was a year or two before its demise as a pub, at a wake for a West Indian funeral. Proudly commanding its corner, it was still your classic late-Victorian boozer then, with small, fuggy drinking areas, plush seating and – bizarrely but oh-so memorably – the contents of the great man’s wardrobe in display-cases round the walls. All gone now, of course. Now it’s just a big, featureless dining hall – magnolia walls, wood panelling, enormous chalkboard detailing how to carve up a cow. I’d say it’s echo-y, except it’s not the echoes of the waitress’ clacky heels I’m listening for. It’s echoes of the past.

Because this place has a riotous, high-octane history. In its time, it’s welcomed generations of new arrivals from all over the globe; it’s been a landmark music venue and a Two-Tone engine-room. Anywhere but Coventry, it would be celebrated as a vital, must-visit destination, and making memories still. Instead, it’s this rather sad restaurant, where I ate undercooked chips slimed in day-glo orange piri-piri (Why? Just…why?) and (my only other option) a Mediterranean salad garnished with dried basil. The video for Ghost Town, or so it’s said, was worked out in the bar; now the bar’s a ghost itself.

The irony of a pub in a migrant area, whose name lionises an agent of Britain’s colonial might, is not lost on me. But perhaps it’s that very edginess that encapsulates why the General Wolfe was such a legend. If food is the new rock’n’roll, why can’t it rise again as a restaurant that draws on the energy, creativity and diversity of the old pub – and maybe, just maybe – starts them on a new journey down a golden mile of food?

Toro’s – I wish you well. But you are not that restaurant.

Toro’s Steakhouse Coventry, 551 Foleshill Road, Coventry CV6 5JW. Mediterranean Salad, £4.99; Piri-Piri chips, £3.00

Aachi, Coventry

This week I’m indebted to Martin off Facebook, who said of the Foleshill Road ‘[it] could be a superb city street if it didn’t still look like a bomb site at the bottom end and vanish into the Ring Road in a blaze of cheap warehouses and weird empty spaces’. Nice one, Martin. I couldn’t have put it better myself. As it happens though, alternative visions of the Foleshill Road are available. The recently-published Coventry Cultural Strategy for example, sees it fingered – to the surprise of many – as a potential ‘golden mile of food’.

With a document so short on detail about the future of food in the city, it’s hard to know what this aspiration really means. Does it point to an expansion of Foleshill Road’s existing South Asian offering, much of it unapologetically positioned at the cheap-and-cheerful end of the spectrum? Or does it hint that new business and residential developments – already springing up at Tower Court, Paragon Park and City Wharf – will fuel demand for more sophisticated leisure opportunities?

To be honest, there’s scant evidence that this latter alternative is already happening. Aachi, the homely-looking South Indian/Sri Lankan outfit I’m visiting today is typical of how that bustling, characterful stretch of the Foleshill Road that extends between, roughly, St Paul’s church and the junction with the A444 (beyond Martin’s ‘blaze of cheap warehouses and weird empty spaces’ in other words) has presented itself for decades past.

So, despite its five-star (top) food hygiene rating and friendly welcome, Aachi’s interior is not a sight to gladden the heart. ‘Weary’ is the best descriptor I can find for its enervating, eighties-hangover mauve-and-black colour-scheme. A half potato on a plate, surrounded  by ash and prickled, hedgehog-style, with burnt-down jos sticks, is the probable source of a heavy, perfumed scent that assails my nostrils as I enter. The proprietor, noticing me looking at it askance, sticks a Bollywood channel on the TV and whisks away the offending item once he thinks I’m suitably distracted.

Under the circumstances then, the brilliance of my chilli paneer starter comes as a pleasant surprise. Except that the tameness of ‘pleasant’ as an adjective comes nowhere near doing justice to the rip-roaring, hat-waving, kiss-my-sky-blue-arse-and-do-me-a-Checkatrade-Fandance kind of surprise that roared from this unlikeliest of kitchens like sweet, sweet victory, thirty years in the coming.

Here were succulent, just-seared red and yellow peppers, whole cloves of slippery garlic, nested leaves of caramelised onion, a scattering of coriander, and a complex, fresh-flavoured mixture of hot, sweet and sour. But amidst these many jewels, the paneer still managed to be the Pink Star diamond.

I mean that almost literally. Small soft cubes of the stuff (a triumph in itself, as ‘small’ is too-often synonymous with ‘leathery’) are clumped together with a sort of red and gooey chilli toffee. I’ve never had anything like this before, and I want to have it again – soon.

When I check the bill, I realise that in a reversal of the usual order of things, the starter cost more than the Mysore Masala Dosa main. Unfortunately, this does make sense because after such a banging first course, the dosa was – like winning the Checkatrade Trophy, only to find yourself, just a few short weeks later, relegated to League Two – something of a let-down. I don’t mean it was bad; for the money, it was perfectly reasonable. It just wasn’t as up there as the paneer, that’s all.

Apart from occasional bursts of fenugreek, the masala was under-spiced, I thought. Plus, the vegetables in the accompanying sambar were too soft for me, and it tasted like nothing more adventurous than standard curry-powder had been used in its production. The coconut chutney, meanwhile, was straight-up odd. It tasted quite harsh, and while it looked OK in the pot, once it got inside my mouth, it weirdly split into paste and juice.

The Coventry Cultural Strategy covers ten years from now until 2027. I wouldn’t bet against the this part of the city changing quite substantially in that period. The question is – if the Foleshill Road moves upmarket, will places like Aachi still have a place in it? And do we want them to?

Aachi, 494 Foleshill Road, Coventry CV5 5HP. Chilli Paneer, £4.80; Mysore Masala Dosa, £4.39.