Godiva’s, Coventry

Interviewed by Midlands What’s On magazine ahead of his upcoming appearance at next month’s Coventry Food and Drink Festival, Michelin-starred chef and restaurateur Jean-Christophe Novelli observed that ‘a good variety of local cuisines will undoubtedly encourage more people to spend more time in the city. Good city-centre restaurants act as great ambassadors for the city and its local producers – they really put it on the map!’.

I wonder if he realises just how little attention our own city centre has paid to this sensible – not to say obvious – advice from someone who knows the industry inside out? Where food is concerned, the council’s biggest enthusiasm has always been for chain restaurants, with their uniformity and ability to assure nervous diners that they’ll know exactly what they’re getting even before they step through the door.

One independent that is bucking the trend – albeit rather feebly – is Godiva’s in St Mary’s Guildhall, which stocks one of the city’s few authentic traditional delicacies, the Coventry God Cake. Positioned somewhere between an apple turnover and a mince pie, the God Cake is thought to have been around in one form or another since the fourteenth century; so it’s entirely appropriate to find it on sale at the Guildhall – which, dating as it does from about 1340, is of approximately the same vintage.

On the day I visited Godiva’s, a selection of tempting pastry triangles was displayed (I’d hesitate to say ‘proudly’) under a cake dome near the entrance. Though prominently labelled ‘Coventry God Cakes’, a bit more flag-waving for their history and provenance would have been nice. (They’re actually made by Nuneaton-based Heritage Cake Company, who have also revived a number of other local sweet-treats including the even less well-known Coventry Corporation Custard.) Why is Coventry practically the patron saint of keeping your head down?

And the same criticism could be applied to the café itself. Located in the vaulted undercroft or basement area immediately beneath of one of England’s finest surviving medieval guildhalls, this is a unique seven-hundred year-old gem of a space with enormous potential. So why is it (God Cakes excepted) dishing up the same dull old fare I could get anywhere?

In a continuation of this spring’s flavourless soup theme, the weary tomato and red pepper offering I had at Godiva’s was was a poor tribute to a vegetable which, when its essential tomato-iness is allowed to condense and intensify, can produce some of the most show-stopping soups of all. The specks of red pepper submerged in its depths were too tidgy to add anything, while the paradoxically enormous croutons jostled for room like icebergs in a pond. Weirdly, they appeared to have been browned on one side only, which also made them disarmingly soft. (Fool that I am, I thought the whole point of them was to contrast with the texture of the soup.)

My fusilli pasta in some ways suffered from the opposite problem: the ‘tomato, mushroom and basil sauce’ was gratifyingly thick and rich, but had gone so heavy on the basil that it was difficult to taste much else. Meanwhile the thick layer of melted cheese topping the oblong serving dish put me in mind of a sardine tin, and almost had me reaching for a key to peel it back; and the sense in which my perennial – and perennially uninspiring – iceberg lettuce and cucumber side-salad was ‘seasonal’ remains a mystery.

Jean-Christophe Novelli’s point is that local farmers, growers, artisan makers and the like should ideally work hand-in-hand with independent restaurants to showcase each other, attracting consumers and other businesses alike and acting as an economic stimulus for the entire region.

None of this can happen, however, when almost all restaurants and cafés are clones that prize predictability (and price) above all else and purchase centrally in order to maintain them. Independents in great locations like Godiva’s need to wake up and seize to the opportunity that this obsession with conformity is gifting them – the opportunity to offer something different and to support other local businesses. But a half-hearted display of pastries is not enough. It’s a whole philosophy and it deserves vociferous, passionate champions who are ready and willing to get excited about it – for God’s Cake!

Godiva’s, Bayley Lane, Coventry CV1 5RN. Home made soup of the day with a warmed crusty roll, 3.65; Fusilli pasta in a tomato, mushroom and basil sauce with garlic bread and seasonal salad, 5.95.

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Trapped in Neverland: the Strange Case of Food in Coventry City Centre

Britain is an ageing society – although living in Coventry, you’d struggle to believe it. The city is a young one. At an estimated 33.1 years (2015 figure), the average age here is almost seven years below that of England as a whole.

One of the reasons for this relatively youthful profile is the phenomenal growth of the university. The city centre population is already heavily student-dominated; and with more accommodation towers climbing skywards all the time, it’s a trend that seems set to become ever more pronounced.

In many ways, it’s a positive development. Young people bring energy, vibrancy and creativity, and if they stay on in Cov after graduating, their skills will boost the local economy and fuel economic growth. In terms of the city’s food offering however, their presence is, perhaps, proving to be a more mixed blessing.

Why? Well, expansion of student numbers might be less problematic if, before these new trends began to gather pace, the city centre already had an established independent food sector robust enough to provide alternatives and balance. But it didn’t. And now a combination of exploding numbers of hungry 18-24 year-olds and a city centre that is, in food terms, practically virgin territory, has created a feeding (in every sense) bonanza. Unfortunately, in the rush to exploit this booming (but comparatively unsophisticated) student market, much of what’s on offer is little better than low-quality garbage; and even at its best, is too-often bland, generic and predictable.

Take the planned new developments at Cathedral Lanes. Originally conceived as a shopping centre, Cathedral Lanes has, since 2015, been busily re-inventing itself as a ‘restaurant quarter’, and now boasts a trio of major-league national chains: Cosy Club, Las Iguanas and Wagamama. But they take up only a part of it. The rest is occupied by the heroically obstinate Wilko’s – which has stubbornly refused to be ousted from its prime location – or is disused (unless you count the pop-up charity shop currently gracing the unit that was formerly Blacks).

According to plans submitted by the site’s owners however, transformation is on the way. A further seven restaurants (plus gym – you might need it) will be added to Cathedral Lanes’ existing portfolio, bringing the total to ten. Seven new restaurants for Cov city centre?! I should be jumping for joy, shouldn’t I?

Yes and no. I’m no fan of Cathedral Lanes’ clunky architecture, but if we grudgingly accept that it’s here to stay and we’re lumbered with it for the foreseeable, there are definite positives to take away from this. Foremost amongst them is the plan to reanimate the conservatory and terrace area round the back, whose current state of semi-dereliction is, considering it overlooks one of the most genuinely picturesque corners in the entire city centre, little short of criminal. But the main reason my feet are staying firmly on the ground, is that – while nothing is known for certain as yet – the signs are that most if not all of these new restaurants will be chains.

Because look at the evidence. You’ve got a past history of filling the place with chains; you’ve got big name restaurants gagging for the a piece of the action and equipped with the financial resources and brand recognition to get up and running quickly; you’ve got the local paper practically wetting itself with happiness at the prospect of more chains; and you’ve got the City Council Cabinet Member for Jobs and Regeneration tantalising us – like an indulgent daddy in the run-up to Christmas – with the prospect of ‘welcoming more well-known names’.

Well I certainly won’t be welcoming them. For someone well into middle age, one the most disorientating aspects of Cov city centre is that, at least as far as food is concerned, it won’t let me be an adult. The relentless focus on the cheap and the formulaic traps all of us, irrespective of our chronological age, in a Neverland of unwanted, inappropriate pre-adulthood that is both patronising and deeply insulting. The Cov Telegraph’s and City Council’s mildly desperate-sounding happy-clappy-aren’t-you-lucky pretence that chains are great – no, really, they are! – simply amplifies this message, and fools no one.

So OK, I’m a middle-aged woman; I’m used to being ignored. But while planners and developers can shrug their shoulders and say that Disgruntled of South Cov will just have to suck it up or shove off to Leamington if she’s that bothered, I doubt they’d take the same attitude towards visitors – many of whom will be older and will find cheap, student-orientated restaurants actively off-putting.

And that, my friends, sums up the challenge facing our city centre: how to create a food economy broad enough to appeal to a much-needed cross-section of diners, when local demographics are irresistibly urging the market to chase the student dollar and nothing else?

I’m not anti-university or anti-student – I would, arguably, be incapable of penning this finely-honed, tightly-argued prose if I had not once been a student myself. I see the current situation as a function of the Law of Unintended Consequences rather than the result anything more sinister. After my State of the Nation post, some commentators told me the city’s restaurant scene was still in its infancy and all I needed to do was sit tight and wait for it to ‘mature’. I just hope they’re right. But slavering over an enormous, inexhaustible supply of under-25s, the market has little incentive to look further afield or, in other words, ‘mature’. Meanwhile, those of us who already are ‘mature’ find ourselves ever more alienated.

Join the Covolution!

Stoke-on-Trent, one of Coventry’s rivals in the race to be crowned UK City of Culture 2021, has attracted a more-than-usually large amount of media attention of late. Unfortunately, much of it was of a type it could probably have done without.

The Daily Mail for instance, while conceding that the city ‘may now be reversing the long decline in its famous ceramics industry’, still maintained that ‘many areas remain neglected, boarded up or burned out’. Mirror Online meanwhile, in a photo baldly captioned ‘Stoke Central’, brought readers apocalyptic scenes of derelict houses with mounds of rubbish piled up outside. Everywhere, the narrative seemed to be one of disengagement, decay and Stoke as sorry symbol of left-behind, Brexit-voting Britain. Coventry will just have to hope that none of its MPs gets so naffed-off with Jezza between now and 2020 that they throw in the sponge and trigger a by-election here.

Because much of what was said about Stoke could also be said about us. We too have have suffered the decline of major industries; we too have the run-down city centre, the litter and the grime; and we too are often overlooked in favour of our bigger, trendier or better-looking neighbours.

But as we who live here also know, there is far more to Coventry than this. For a start, the motor manufacturing industry is already on the up, and if JLR’s ambitious plans for its Whitley site go ahead, the city could become the epicentre of Britain’s manufacturing future, home to hundreds of highly-skilled jobs. On top of that, there is a small but very vibrant arts scene and – the thing that ties the two together – a pair of hugely successful universities, creating a knowledge-based economy set to fuel both business and culture in the local area.

But there are still notable deficiencies. The massive expansion of Coventry University is good for the city as a whole, but has arguably led to an ‘unbalanced’ feel in the city centre. To remedy that, more effort needs to be put into creating a mixed-ecomony destination, one that twenty-first century Coventrians of whatever background will want to head to for leisure and entertainment. And part of that picture has got to be great food.

As I have argued on this blog before, Coventry is miles behind comparable towns and cities in terms of its food offering. There are a number of reasons for this – the proximity of established foodie towns like Leamington for example, and the apparent perception amongst the restaurateur fraternity (exemplified by some tweets that came my way after I published the ‘State of the Nation’ post) that Coventry is ‘too big a risk’. As a result, the city centre has become dominated by chain restaurants.

But despite that (and pace some of the posts on here) Coventry does have some terrific independent food and drink – and I want to give it a helping hand to fight back. So that is why, starting next month, I am launching a new internet-based resource called ‘Food Covolution’. Its aim will be to act as a one-stop-shop promotional platform for independent restaurants, cafés, producers and specialist retail outlets in our great city, putting all the news, events and offers in one place.

I am realistic about this: Michelin-starred dining ain’t coming to Cov any time soon. In fact, it’s  unlikely that anything will change quickly; that’s why my initial aim is simply to raise the profile of independent food in the city and maybe get people talking about it a bit more.

On the other hand, a review from last weekend’s Observer gave me food for thought: the restaurant profiled here shows that if canny Coventrians are holding out for great food at bargain prices – it can be done. But more than that, this place also sounds like a living celebration of that energising cultural mash-up that characterises modern Britain at its best; plus its across-the-board appeal – from thrifty students to beardy hipsters to middle-aged foodies and beyond – reaches out to one and all. Sounds like a perfect fit for Cov.

Coventry Restaurants – State of the Nation

I was a few restaurants in to writing Coventry’s first restaurant review blog when alarm bells started ringing. I ate in a place I had expected to be very, very good; it turned out to be very, very bad. If even a supposedly ‘good’ restaurant couldn’t get it right, what did that mean for everywhere else? What had started life as a blog about vegetarian food suddenly started taking off in an unexpected new direction.

And the more I ate out in Coventry, the clearer it became that the city has a huge – but entirely unacknowledged – problem: there are almost no decent restaurants. Independents? Hardly any. Modern British? In your dreams. Chef who can pull in the punters on the strength of name alone? Now you’re just being silly. The so-called ‘British food revolution’ has passed Coventry by. Realising this made me see what my blog was really about: articulating it.

OK – you might say ‘why does this matter?’. If Coventrians don’t want to pay for fancy food, that’s up to them, and if you don’t like it, you can p*** off to la-di-da Leamington. I think there are a number of reasons why it matters, but the most pressing is in the context of the City of Culture bid. In a nutshell it’s this: you can’t invite people to the city with promises of unique cultural experiences, and then expect them to eat in mid-price chains.

Because these days, people are accustomed to better. They want the Wow Factor: original concept, clever cooking, fresh flavours, artistic presentation, beautiful surroundings, attention to detail, local sourcing. My home town, with a population approximately one fifth of Coventry’s, delivers literally dozens of independent restaurants that tick all these boxes and more; Coventry – virtually none. The world has moved on and our city hasn’t even noticed.

And – crucially – visitors will also be looking for a package. Sure, they could go to Leamington for their gastronomic fix, and they’d find some terrific restaurants; but if they have tickets for an evening event in Cov and want dinner first, will they really put up with going to another town and then rushing back (with all the headache of locating two separate parking spots)? And are Coventry 2021 organisers happy to see their spend leave the city and go to South Warwickshire instead? Coventry is missing an enormous economic trick.

And unfortunately, there is precisely zero acknowledgement of this in the recently-published Coventry Cultural Strategy, a document which – while admirable in many ways – has its head buried deep in the sand where food is concerned. Mentions are fleeting and smack of desperation. Instead of recognising that the chain restaurants in the city centre are having a laugh at our expense, there is a tone of almost pathetic gratitude to them for honouring us with their presence at all.

Elsewhere, the Foleshill Road is potentially a ‘golden mile of food’ apparently – but there are zilch ideas on how to make this a reality. It’s as if, with five minutes left before the thing was due at the printers, some office junior suddenly noticed food was a big nada, asked his boss what to do – and was told ‘Oh, just bung in something about the Foleshill Road. Nobody’ll notice’. Well I noticed. And I have a few questions.

Like what is actually meant by ‘golden mile of food’? Is it a euphemism for ‘lots of Indian restaurants’ (as in Manchester’s ‘Curry Mile’)? If so, that’s fine: as long as we’ve moved on from the 1980s (and I don’t just mean tearing down the flock wallpaper – I mean in terms of food), there is loads to love about quality Indian. But a thriving South Asian sector is only part of the solution – visitors will be looking for more variety than can be offered by one cuisine alone.

At the heart of the problem is the received wisdom that Coventrians aren’t interested in food, and won’t pay for it. This perceived lack of market prevents quality restaurants from setting up; but it also means that when visitors arrive from places with richer food cultures, they swiftly decamp again because there is nowhere here that can meet their expectations. So round in circles we go.

I think this dilemma is a false one, and we need to smash it: a local market does exist – but at the moment it’s invisible because it’s draining away to other towns. What we’re crying out for is someone to take the plunge and set up a really great, independent modern restaurant in Coventry. It’s a city of nearly 350,000 people for God’s sake! The opportunity is immense! And it doesn’t even need to be super expensive. Just as an example, check out this menu, from a restaurant in Liverpool. It’s no more expensive than Las Iguanas, and look at the rave review it gets!

As to where it should go, I would suggest either vibrant Nightlife Central Spon Street, or the area around Fargo Village. Both are easily accessible, and Far Gosford Street in particular is a buzzy, upcoming area that already attracts people with an appetite for independent shopping. I think it’s safe to assume the same people would be up for be sampling independent restaurants too.

And as well as that, let’s stay positive about the biggest story in the city centre. In restaurant terms, the phenomenal expansion of the university could be bad news: a mainly student population is unlikely to support pricey high-end dining. On the other hand, an influx of South East Asian students has led to a growth in the number of restaurants catering to their home cuisine. Encourage these restaurants to develop beyond their original target market, and your local speciality is right there.

Assuming the Foleshill Road can somehow pick up the slack is not just lazy; it’s a measure of how little understanding the writers of the Cultural Strategy have of food culture. They don’t even seem to have grasped just how far behind Coventry is – do they visit other towns? I appreciate that the restaurant sector is private enterprise led and that the council cannot simply command it into existence. But there must be ways of creating the right conditions and taking the initiative. Let’s see some ambition!

Because this is no time for complacency: we must act soon. The situation is urgent, and four years is not a long time for restaurants to set up, establish themselves, build a reputation and act as beacons that attract competitors and raise standards further. Our only hope of achieving it is to start work now. Or do we want to be a laughing stock come 2021?

I will be continuing my reviews in 2017, and in a new series, will be exploring the Foleshill Road restaurant scene in more detail.

Queens Road Restaurant, Coventry

Last week, it was reported that Hull, UK City of Culture 2017, has noticed (rather belatedly you might think) that it may not have enough hotel rooms to accommodate all the visitors it expects to welcome during its special year. I don’t know where Coventry, currently bidding to be UK City of Culture 2021, stands with respect to room quotients, but I am gradually becoming aware that it may have another, slightly different problem: it doesn’t have enough places to eat. Or at least, not enough places of the quality that an influx of high-maintenance fusspot foodie culture-lovers is going to expect.

Like some kerbside bag lady, I have used several of my recent posts to rant from the margins about the laughable poverty of this city’s food culture. I’m happy to say that I have now found a glimmer of hope – and significantly, it’s located in a hotel. Why ‘significantly’? Well, because a hotel must field a larger-than-average number of requests for decent places to eat. At the Ramada, a vertiginous smoked glass and concrete brute of a tower, ugly even by Coventry’s standards, maybe they got so embarrassed about having so few places to recommend, that they decided to take matters into their own hands. They unveiled their ‘modern British’ Queens Road Restaurant late last year.

Inside, the place is done out in standard grey, with carefully placed bright red salt mills providing artful spots of colour on every table. For some reason, they put me in mind of Britney Spears’ Oops! I did it again video – not a vision I greatly want to have. That apart, there’s something unmistakeably hotel-ish about it. I don’t know if it’s the slinky lounge music, the deadening effects of the over-stuffed furnishing, or the distinctly odd decorative flourishes. I mean, where but a hotel would you be confronted with large faux-Rococo portraits in which the expected human head is replaced by the head of a dog?*

Anyway, Monday evening. There’s a reason why I’ve selected tonight for my trip to QRR: it’s their ‘meat free’ day – meaning not that the restaurant doesn’t serve meat at all, but that as well as the vegetarian options on the main menu, the rotating daily special is also guaranteed vegetarian. Tonight it’s (and pedant that I am, I quote exactly) ‘vegatable curry with basmati rice, onion baji and mint and cucumber yogert’. Ewww! Sorry guys, but spelling matters. Mistakes give the impression of inattention to detail. And that, as far as your food goes, would be a wholly false impression.

Because the ‘oyster mushroom and spinach tagliatelle, shallots, Devonshire cream, truffle oil’ that’s placed before me is very good indeed. (It’s not just the prices, the fashionable greyness and the heavy linen napkins that proclaim that this aspires to be a better class of restaurant – it’s also the crap-cutting purge of frivolous prepositions and conjunctions; cooking is serious).

Every element is perfectly judged – from the pasta itself to the just-just-wilted spinach, to the generous scattering of squelchy oyster mushrooms, to the properly velouté sauce. My only teensy complaint would be that although the sauce was lovingly-crafted and a fittingly milky tribute to those Devonshire cows and their dappled meads, it didn’t actually taste of all that much, and certainly not of truffle oil. It needed just a shade more edge, I felt.

At £12 for a single (vegetarian) course, it’s also well above the going rate for tight-wad Cov, and (I was surprised to find) on a par with the Michelin-starred Cross at nearby Kenilworth. Put like that, I suppose it seems a bit over-priced; maybe it reflects that fact that little else of this calibre is available inside the city limits. But it’s exactly what we need more of.

Why? Well, suppose Coventry does succeed in its bid to become City of Culture 2021? (And I’m not saying it doesn’t deserve to; I wouldn’t dis my city like that.) How can it ever hope to leverage maximum economic benefit if everyone just decamps to the happier hunting grounds of Leamington or Kenilworth every time they hear their tummy rumble, and spends their money there?

Queens Road Restaurant, Bar and Grill, Ramada Hotel and Suites, The Butts, Coventry CV1 3GG. Oyster mushroom and spinach tagliatelle, shallots, Devonshire cream, truffle oil, £12

*After reading Giles Coren’s How To Eat Out (not an activity I would greatly recommend to others), I now have an answer to that question. Apparently something very similar adorns the walls of Champneys Health Spa (p259).

Simmer Down, Coventry

Oh God, this is the kind of review I hate. Writing it gives me the same feeling you’d get if you went round your nan’s house, let her make a great big fuss of you and slip you a few quid with injunctions not to tell your dad, and then – just because she gave you dull tongue salad for your tea and Wall’s Viennetta for afters – left without helping with the washing-up. You can tell yourself it’s for her good; but you’ve still behaved like a sniggering, ungrateful swine towards someone whose only crime is trying to do their best for you.

Simmer Down Caribbean Restaurant is easily the friendliest place I’ve visited in Coventry so far. On arrival, I was greeted by a motherly lady who seemed to doubling as both waitress and cook, conducted through to the dining area, offered a choice of tables and consulted on my ideal volume for the ambient music. Throughout the meal, she kept popping back to see how I was getting on, and offering apologies for the sub-optimal presentational standards evident on some of the plates.

One of these was the ‘plantain and sweet corn tower’ I had as my starter. The menu described it as ‘layers of seasoned ripe plantain mash and sweetcorn’. When it arrived, it was more like two scoops of mash randomly run through with corn kernels à la tutti frutti ice cream. The problem, my hostess confided, was that the restaurant had recently been re-furbished, and she couldn’t locate the equipment she needed to engineer the advertised stack. But even if she had, I’m not sure it would have solved the multiple other problems.

It wasn’t that the concept was without potential: the slight sourness of the plantain against the sweetness of the corn made for an unusual and more-ish combination that could have been developed in interesting directions. But it was so plain – just two balls of pallid stuff on a completely white serving dish. Where was the crunch of garnish and the whoop of dressing? Where was that Caribbean glamour, that swagger, that starry reflection – however dim – of a certain Mr Usain Bolt that I’d come here to bask in? Not on the plate – and not on the walls either.

Because – and possibly this was another legacy of the re-furb and will be rectified later – they were bare. And I do mean totally bare: not a plant, not a picture, not a flag, no splash of colour – nothing. Just neutral paint from top to toe. I’m not so out-of-touch that I don’t know that minimalism is having a moment, but I can’t help thinking that in a Caribbean restaurant, it’s misplaced. I expected riotous celebration of a vibrant culture. I found vanilla.

My main course, bean jerk with rice and peas, had similar limitations. The jerk consisted of a mixture of haricot and red kidney beans in a soupy sauce with mild allspice flavouring. It was pleasant enough I suppose, but there was zero pizzazz. Perhaps I can best convey its air of safeness by observing that on the menu, it boasted a ‘watch yourself’ three chillies hotness alert. It was marginally hotter than a bowl of cornflakes.

The restaurant’s website states that what it offers is ‘good home-style cuisine’ – one reading of which is: ‘the type of food that might be served in a typical Caribbean home’. As a white British person, I don’t pretend to know much about typical Caribbean homes, but I’m prepared to believe that on these terms, Simmer Down actually succeeds. It’s the terms themselves that are nowhere near ambitious enough.

Unfortunately however, they are typical Coventry. With the possible exception of the South Asian sector, lack of serious competition amongst restaurants here has sanctified the mediocre and obviated experimentation. The town is crying out for excitement and innovation, but there’s none to be had. Eating at Simmer Down was lifted only by the endearingly friendly service. But it – and Coventry as a whole – needs to recognise that without inventive cooking to go with it, that alone is not enough. I know I sound harsh, but believe me – I’m only saying it because I care.

Simmer Down Restaurant and 2 Tone Café, The Courtyard, Rear of 74 Walsgrave Road, Coventry CV2 4ED. Plantain and sweet corn tower, £3.50. Bean Jerk, £7.00