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.


Blue Orchid, Coventry

I wish I’d come here in deepest winter. And the heating failed. I had a gag lined up that started with the colour blue (used meteorologically), progressed to the etymology of ‘orchid’ as a word, and ended in a punchline about freezing my balls off. Whether I used it or not would depend on how much else Thai-Indian mash-up Blue Orchid gave me to smile about. And the outcome is *drumroll*: I’m not using it (except that it was too good to let go, so I’m using it anyway).

Like Ivy House – lately otp – Blue Orchid viewed from the outside is another of those places with an oddly-provisional feel to it. Positioned behind Aqua Food and Mood and accessible only via a surface car park, it’s basically a flat-roofed, single storey, white-rendered oblong, with a clunky brick portico-type-thing stuck incongruously onto the front of it. The accompanying rash of twee uPVC bow windows meanwhile, could have been discarded from someone’s house, just after they’d realised that high-1980s frilliness no longer represents a current look.

And then – there’s the hulking great Ramada Hotel tower and adjacent multi-storey, from whose side Blue Orchid appears to have slid out like a oversized underwear drawer. In their shadow, the unexpected overall effect is weirdly Alpine. If you imagined the surrounding buildings as a mountain range, the dwarfed Blue Orchid could pass for the base camp watering hole.

Step inside though, and you’re whisked direct to the tropics. Although the restaurant boasts both a Thai and an Indian menu, the accent is very definitely on Thai. Thai artefacts and pictures of Thai buddhas adorn the walls of the long and narrow single-room dining area.

The provisional feel shows its hand again in here. Joss sticks and soft lighting attempt to compensate for the limitations imposed by the room’s shape: intimacy always risks being the casualty when seating along one wall is a single long banquette. Above your head meanwhile, in deference, perhaps, to after-work diners seeking escape from the grind, a tiled, office-y ceiling is rather awkwardly disguised behind billows of low-hanging drapes.

Even without the fairly hefty shove I was getting in that direction, I had already decided I would eat from the Thai menu when I visited Blue Orchid – mostly because Coventry has loads of Indian restaurants but (that I know of) only one other place that does Thai. And I think it was the right decision: my ‘tod man khao pod’ starter (deep fried sweet corn cake served with sweet chilli sauce) was very enjoyable.

Four good-sized cakes was a generous serving, and although I thought they were very slightly over-cooked, they still preserved a nice texture, fluffy and just moist enough. Sweetness from the corn was balanced by a little bit of heat but mainly by a background tang of something citrus-y, presumably lemon grass. The only disappointing element was was the sweet chilli sauce, which was turned out to be the usual over-sweetened gloop that never really adds anything.

For main course I had the ‘hed gratiem’ (stir fried seasonal mushrooms with garlic and pepper) with Thai egg fried rice. In early spring, I suppose I shouldn’t complain that only common-or-garden button mushrooms seemed to be in season at the moment, but I still felt a slight pang of disappointment that nothing more interesting was included.

It was a pleasingly fresh-looking dish though, with soy used more as a condiment than a sauce, allowing the vegetables’ flavours to shine through unmolested. Firm quarters of mushroom worked well against fat, slightly charred strips of red pepper and snaps of coriander. The only jarring note was the garlic, some of which was burnt and bitter. The Thai egg fired rice was properly sticky. I’d finished it before I even noticed.

Service was polite and attentive without being overbearing, and was well-deserving of a decent tip, but – a word to the wise – it’s worth being aware that the bill comes with a ‘discretionary’ ten-per-cent service charge already included.

I walk home through the streets – always strangely empty – of this rather overlooked corner of the city. Despite my earlier misgivings, a visit to a Coventry restaurant has, for once, left me with quite a warm feeling.

Blue Orchid, 14 The Butts, Coventry CV1 3GR. Tod Man Khao Pod, £4.50; Hed Gratiem (as a main), £6.50; Thai Egg Fried Rice, £2.75

Coventry Hummus House/Millie’s Kitchen, Coventry

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.

Coventry Hummus House, Hummus and Felafel Wrap, £3; Millie’s Kitchen, Zatar Pizza (Medium) £3.90. Both Market Way, Coventry CV1 1DY.

IKEA, Coventry

Ah, so this is where everyone’s hiding! City-wide, restaurants lie empty and wasted; but here, even at 2pm on a soft spring afternoon when ancient nature beckons staid humanity to far more joyful japes than traipsing round an outsize warehouse stacked with stuff it doesn’t need, this vast canteen on Floor 6 is doing steady business.

I use the word ‘steady’ advisedly. If I said the place was ‘busy’ or ‘bustling’, I might convey an excitement – a thrill, even – that simply doesn’t exist. Despite the huge dimensions and buzz of people, there’s a curiously muffled quality to the ambiance. The combination of enormous space, big windows, uncluttered white simplicity and dabs of sunny yellow playfulness is so non-threatening it almost lulls you back to nursery days. Is that IKEA’s secret?

A real-ale enthusiast of my ken used to go all misty-eyed about pubs frequented by that Holy Grail he called ‘a good social mix’. He should try coming here. It’s full of all sorts of people, from mums with toddlers, to retired couples, to a high number of lone women (depressing for me, as an habitual lone female diner, that it’s only in places like this that others of my ilk feel comfortable to eat alone), to the pair of charm-merchants at the next table, guffawing over an internet dating site.

‘Man – there’s mature…and then there’s old’ reasons one of them, ogling the profile of some unfortunate woman who’s probably about thirty. I wonder how they’d classify me? ‘Relic’? They needn’t worry though: I couldn’t fancy either of them if I tried. Others have come here specifically for the gastronomic experience. I know this because they ascended with me in the lift and followed me to the restaurant. Unlike me, I assume they don’t have the excuse that they’re conducting research. Because – based on the food I was served – I’ve no idea why you’d eat here if you didn’t have to.

‘Toughness’ is a quality more usually associated with meat than with vegetables. Badly-cooked veg – like the three bears’ beds – can be too soft or can be too hard; but until I sampled the eponymous veggie balls of IKEA’s ‘veggie balls served with wheat pilaf and grilled vegetables’ offering, toughness was a problem I’d encountered but rarely.

I suppose it was because they were so small. They were all crust and little filling. The cosh of whatever cooking process they’d endured had cowed the chick-pea mass at their hearts into a shuttered, defensive shadow, sullenly yielding nothing but a sort of dogged, off-the-shelf savouriness.

Surprisingly perhaps, given how dry and salty the veggie balls were, the dish was served without sauce. I don’t know if it was chef-y calculation or just luck that the accompanying wheat pilaf and grilled veg (it came as an integrated whole) was on hand to ride to the rescue. In other circumstances, I might have derided it as ‘soggy’ and ‘waterlogged’; here, it was a saviour in an hour of need.

I look round. The budding Romeos have been replaced by a woman grabbing mouthfuls of salad between keeping up her end of a phone conversation. If you really push me, I suppose I can see the allure of IKEA: it’s a blank canvas. Anonymous and forgiving (though so architecturally non-standard that I can never enter it without noting in my stomach a small but molten pit of trepidation that I will never re-emerge from it), it can be whatever you want it to be. For some, I suppose that’s comforting; but my problem is – it doesn’t work for food. Anonymous food tends to be uninteresting food.

There’s one thing that may yet draw me back though. My reward for bagging a seat near the window is a panoramic view, looking eastwards over a city centre whose eyes have been drawn elsewhere. Like a mass rally at at ‘70s car plant, concentric rings of redevelopment – the strutting, the shuffling, the sprawling – cluster raggedly around the precinct citadel, awaiting its signal. I follow their gaze. On the ground, so much feels like random jumble: piecemeal, mundane, clueless. Up here, it makes a kind of sense. Cov city centre: the wonderful everyday.

IKEA, 2 Croft Road, Coventry CV1 3AZ. 10 veggie balls with rice pilaf and grilled vegetables, £3.50. Scoop peas, 50p.

Tang, Coventry

Far Gosford Street, on a March evening of unseasonable mildness. Even to this ancient thoroughfare, which has felt the to-and-fro of city feet along its route for going on a thousand years, the soft, sweet air of spring has made it through.

The gentleness of the evening is deceptive though; over the past few years, the pace of redevelopment along this street has been fast, furious – and uneven. So while the street is bookended by FarGo Village Creative Quarter at one end and the new, fashionably orange-clad student accommodation at the other, and sprinkled between the two with stripped-back bare-beamed restoration projects – a raucous cacophony still predominates, of scuzzy fast food joints and bargain booze.

It’s the place to be though – no question about that. At 6pm, while streets inside the ring road’s grip die down and thin out, FGS is buzzing. Surging towards me come laughing sisterhoods of young women. Young men, meanwhile, climbing out of hastily-stopped cars, clasp their mates and say ‘hey bro’. I weave between them to reach my goal.

Tang, the recently-opened Chinese place that will be feeding me this evening, is itself another symptom of these changing times. It used to be a rather staid Italian establishment, presumably aimed at white British people who thought linguine was a type of seafood and dining out was something you did in a lounge suit. Now it’s yet another fairly basic restaurant in open pursuit of the south-east Asian student spend.

Having said that, the environment here is considerably more congenial than at some other restaurants of similar type that I’ve visited as I fulfil the public service that is writing these reviews. The splotchy whole-wall mural of the Great Wall of China (in fog) makes my heart sink a bit, I admit; but on the whole it’s bright, it’s spacious and it’s been designed in accordance with a unifying theme of traditional Chinese décor. There’s an awful lot of wood (or wood-effect) – tables, chairs, walls, floor – and it’s all rather heavy and creaky-looking for modern western tastes, but at least it’s evidence they’ve thought it through.

At restaurants like Tang, innovation is not really the name of the game. Understandably, it’s all about providing students with familiar tastes of home – quite literally, in the case of my ‘home style tofu’. Which – for what it is – isn’t bad. The tofu comes in generous, wobbly slices, a few of which are agreeably charred around the edges; the onions and green peppers are brisk and crunchy; and the sauce, while generic, is hot and thick and ginger-y, and revelatory of tingly specks of Sichuan pepper tucked away in its depths.

So saying this is one of the better Chinese restaurants I’ve visited might sound encouraging – but don’t hang the flags out just yet. The food is nicely-cooked and good value, but it’s still mucho same-old-same-old. It’s just made a bit more effort than some others, that’s all.

Outside, things remain busy – but the traffic is mostly of the two-legged, rather than four-wheeled, variety. Few people need to drive along FGS any more; through traffic has the adjacent Sky Blue Way, and cross streets can be accessed from the less frenetic Gulson Road. On the city’s anatomical map, FGS has become a vermiform appendix, a benign relic whose original function has been overtaken by continuing urban evolution. To my mind, it’s an obvious candidate for pedestrianisation from Vecqueray Street to the FarGo car park (although re-instatement of two-way traffic at the Binley Road end would be required to preserve car park access/egress).

Pedestrianisation could unlock FGS, giving it space to develop a café culture with terrace seating, and street events spilling the FarGo vibe right right down the hill. The question then becomes one of whether the arrival of artisan coffee shops is the right way forward for a street with a working class hinterland whose inhabitants may not view proximity to boho baristas as their top priority. And anyway, we already have, just a stone’s throw away, a beautiful, cool, unique, pedestrianised city centre that somehow seems to have lost its way. If it’s café culture we’re after, shouldn’t that have first dibs?

Tang, 114 Far Gosford Street, Coventry CV1 5EA (no website). Home style tofu £7.20; Rice £1.80.

Ivy House, Coventry

An oft-made observation about Coventry is that even its own citizens take a perverse delight in talking it down. Take a look around the city centre’s food offering, and you can see why. When you’re constantly bombarded by the message that cheap (and not necessarily cheerful) is good enough for you, it’s not going make you feel great about yourself or your city.

Typical is this week’s subject, Ivy House on Jordan Well. As soon as I approach the bar to order some lunch, the barman starts pointing me in the direction of my cheapest option: the ‘gourmet burger and drink’ for £6. I feel mildly irritated.

The thing is, I like a bargain as much as the next person. As a habitual tightwad who rarely buys clothes from anywhere except the charity shop, I can hardly claim anything different. But I do get tired of this default assumption round Coventry that cheapness (rather than value for money, which is not the same thing, but is exactly what the discerning shopper finds in the charity shop) must be the sole criterion of anyone who eats out. It’s not just because this is a student bar; it’s all-pervasive. And it’s demeaning, and it drags the city down.

As for Ivy House itself, well, over the years it’s endured so many name-changes that I’ve stopped trying to keep up. But through it all, one thing has remained constant: viewed from the outside, it has always worn the slightly provisional air of a saloon bar of the Old West. Partly it’s because it’s not brick-built; amongst the older buildings that surround it, its simple box design, flat roof and cladding (current colourway: grey, with a dash of astroturf) suggest a contingent, possibly temporary structure, of a piece with the wild frontier. Mostly though, it’s that deck that fronts directly onto the street. Surrounded by wooden picket, it’s the perfect spot for a passing cowboy to hitch up his horse.

Sadly, the tentative Wild West connection evaporates once you get inside, in favour of a clean-lined but disappointingly anodyne grey, white and bare wood look. Unlike The Phoenix down the road, which bases its student appeal on a general but arguably outdated grunginess, this place, chasing much the same market, is bright and modern and restricts its solidarity with youthful rebellion to a display of conventionally anti-establishment screen prints on the walls, and a tie-up with a nightclub.

My ‘gourmet’ falafel and spinach burger, resting on a bed of hummus and topped with salad, arrives in a ‘brioche bun’ accompanied by a dab of coleslaw, some onion jam and a pot of decidedly limp fries. Ivy League? Not quite.

Felafel, believe it or not, work best as…felafel – they don’t respond well to burger-isation. Thinness and shallow frying distort the crispy-outer-fluffy-inner ratio. And while specks of chopped spinach might provide a carb-heavy student diet with welcome prods towards its ten-a-day, in taste terms their contribution is zero. Onion jam, meanwhile, exemplifies another modern fad I don’t really understand: that of making vegetables taste sugary.

The fact is I’d stop reviewing places like this if alternatives existed. The food is always the same and despite what it says on the menu, you’re never going to get anything remotely ‘gourmet’ because the target market is students. I’ve no problem with restaurants knowing their market – and I’ve no objection to students, whom the city needs for its future. My question is more: why am I, as a non-student, not considered to be a market as well?

Walking around the city centre, past the chains and the cut-price offers, I feel like I’m being forced back into a sort of pre-adulthood that I actually left behind over thirty years ago. Denying me the right, through lack of choice, to decide for myself what I value most when I eat out is profundly infantilising. But it’s also worse than that. The message I’m getting is that I’m not worth anything better – or even that I don’t exist at all. I’m a grown-up, for God’s sake! Why should I have to put up with this? No wonder Leamington’s thriving.

Ivy House, Jordan Well, Coventry CV2 5RW. Gourmet burger £6.