The Brewery Tap in Chester has a menu listing things which make me dribble unattractively. They serve their own brawn with warm new potatoes. There’s devilled kidneys on toast, ox tongue with walnuts, grilled mackerel with a caper and parsley butter and roast ham and stout mustard sandwiches. These sound like robust, big-boned dishes for dark nights and winters that don’t quite know when they’ve outstayed their welcome. Starters are all less than a fiver and only one of the mains – a braised beef and ale pie with red cabbage – is more than £10 and, even then, not by much.
I would have loved to eat any of these dishes. I’d have liked to write about them, too. Sadly, I didn’t get the opportunity to do either, because they couldn’t take our booking. Sometimes, when we have finished recording an episode of the greatest food radio programme ever devised, or The Kitchen Cabinet as it’s known, and we’re too far from home to get back that night, the team books into a restaurant afterwards. This can be at what would be a reasonable time for dinner in any major city and what anywhere else would be classed as “having a laugh”. In this case we’d recorded in Portmeirion on the Welsh coast then driven back to Chester. We tried to get a table at the Brewery Tap for 9.30pm. They refused. Last orders had to be taken by 9.15pm.
I am not criticising, or at least not with much enthusiasm. Presumably experience has taught them that it’s simply not worth taking orders any later than this, because demand isn’t there. Fair play. But for people like me who travel the country a lot, who finish work late and still need to eat, this can present major problems. I therefore want to take this opportunity to express huge and genuine thanks to the restaurateurs, chefs and waiters running restaurants in Britain offering the food of the Indian sub continent. Because if you want to eat in a British restaurant after about 9.15pm outside of most major conurbations, you are utterly dependent on them. A bald, blanket statement: as a group they are the hardest working people in the British catering business and I for one would be lost without them. Just in the past year the local Indian late booking has been my fallback in Abergavenny, Norwich, Dumfries, Newcastle and Douglas on the Isle of Man. I am grateful to them all.
I’m not pretending that every single one is an utter delight or swoon worthy. None warranted inclusion in this column (although I did love the spiced rib eye at Kurries and Steaks in Douglas – flashed through the tandoor until it was charred outside and a velvet pink within). For the most part it was just something diverting to eat at the end of a long day, executed to the moderately agreeable standard we have come to know and expect. It was dinner. Shocking as it may sound, sometimes, that’s what I need.
And sometimes it delivers up a little gem like Chester’s Koconut Grove, a clean-lined white box of a space, which makes up for the slightly clinical air, through its boisterous food. Presumably the Koconut of the title is styled with a K because they specialise in the cooking of Kerala in India’s south. This, the menu makes clear, is not always easy. They have to include English options. Just thinking about the sort of person who would come here and order the haddock and chips makes my palms sweaty and my left eye twitch. (My right eye has always been more tolerant.)
To not try the dosas, their vast friable, lacy pancakes cooked from a batter made with fermented rice and lentils, is a crime punishable by other people pointing and laughing at you until you agree to have a long, hard look at yourself. The ones served here are more than 2ft across and rolled in on themselves so they hang off the plate. A couple of these would double for an eiderdown on a chilly Chester evening. The masala dosa comes stuffed with soft, spiced potatoes and fried onions. You tear off pieces and get that cheery mix of crunch and soothing squish. On the side are a trio of condiments: at one end of the plate is a dish of a deep, strident masala sauce, served hot for dipping, at the other is a chilli and tomato chutney – in the middle is a cooling coconut relish. It’s an awful lot of action for £6.95. Add £1 and they’ll stuff it full of lamb or beef or, as in our case, spiced king prawns, that bounce pleasingly between the crispness of the dosa.
For main courses you could choose from the list of “Indian all time favourites”, but I’d talk about you behind your back and roll my eyes. Try instead the exuberantly pungent fennel lamb curry, which is dark and intense with a lofty hit of anise hovering over the fire and spice. More intriguing still is the gobi Manchurian. Cauliflower florets are first lightly battered and deep fried before being liberally drenched in a powerful chilli and tomato sauce. There’s a cheery Keralan fish curry made with coconut milk which is soft and curiously fruity, and an outrageously rich makhani dal.
These dishes and a couple more besides sit on the usual colour chart – the whole vivid rainbow from, ooh, burnt umber to mud brown – that makes visually distinguishing one from the other tricky. It comes with the territory. As per the dosas, breads are particularly good, especially the battura, a flat wheat flour bread that puffs up to golden in the deep-fat fryer. You could order the onion rings if you like, but you’ll only hate yourself.
Curiously a banana dosa for dessert is a let-down. Instead of one more of the lacy numbers, the sweet dosa is, like various members of the Tory front bench, thick, dense and unyielding. Much better is the semiya payasam, a Keralan mix of hyper-sweetened milk thickened with vermicelli noodles, then pelted with cashews and raisins, which at the end of a long and late night, will gently ease you into a welcome coma. Accompany this with a bottle of cheap and cheerful indeterminate white for £15, or better still a pint of Cobra, and the job is done. Service is swift enough so that, despite arriving a little after 9.30pm we are out before 11pm. Without Koconut Grove we would have been lost in Chester. With it, our night was complete.
Jay’s news bites
Jaya, located in an imposing stucco villa in Llandudno, describes itself is the ‘only truly authentic’ north Indian restaurant in north Wales. Let’s not argue. On my visit I enjoyed lamb chops smeared in a hefty layer of lime pickle then roasted in the tandoor, black pepper fried squid, and pili pili boga, a mix of vegetables tossed in masala and cornflour then deep fried to become a kind of Indian tempura. All this and late opening, too (jayarestaurant.co.uk).
More numbers on the cold winds in the restaurants industry. Research from accountancy firm UHY Hacker Young has found that the combined profits of the UK’s top 100 restaurant groups have fallen by over 60% in the past 12 months from £345m to £125m. Earlier research by the same company found that a third of those top 100 companies are now loss making.
The Clink Charity, which runs restaurants inside prisons staffed by inmates, is to open its sixth venture at HMP Downview for women in Surrey. It will be a production kitchen for their outside events.