Food critic Jay Rayner struggled to secure a late evening restaurant booking during a recent visit to Chester but the finger of fate pointed him towards one of the finest Indian eating houses in the city.
Jay had been recording BBC Radio 4’s food programme The Kitchen Cabinet in Portmeirion on the Welsh coast before driving back to Chester, he wrote in his weekly column in The Observer.
First the team tried to get a table at The Brewery Tap in Lower Bridge Street for 9.30pm but last orders had to be taken by 9.15pm highlighting a problem often experienced in the UK’s smaller towns and cities.
Jay wrote: “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.”
“I would have loved to eat any of these dishes,” he continued. “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.”
Jay claimed he was 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.”
But as one door closed, another door opened, leading the team to Koconut Grove in City Road – currently Chester’s number one Indian on Trip Advisor – which specialises in south Indian cuisine.
And the famous food critic, son of the late agony aunt Claire Rayner, acknowledged the late Indian booking had become his fall-back over the past year – and he was ‘grateful to them all’ – yet his praise for their culinary quality was dished out sparingly. This is what makes his glowing review of the Chester restaurant all the more special.
“...sometimes it delivers up a little gem like Chester’s Koconut Grove,” he opined. “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.”
Jay, who found a meal for two, including drinks and service, came to about £45, concluded: “Without Koconut Grove we would have been lost in Chester. With it, our night was complete.”
■ Jay Rayner is the Observer’s restaurant critic and a feature writer. His most recent book is A Greedy Man in a Hungry world. He keeps an archive of all his journalism at jayrayner.co.uk